National Post

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Tuesday, July 06, 1999

Why it's not always better the second time around

Jeannie Marshall
National Post

Peter Redman, National Post
Counsellor Lillian Messinger is an authority on second marriages.

Lillian Messinger perches on the edge of a stuffed chair in the family/consulting room of her elegant condominium in Toronto. The room is lined with shelves of books on sociology, and her walls are covered in photos of her family -- her husband, her three children and six grandchildren. She pours tea from a silver pot into fine china cups, passes out cookies with folded napkins and then settles in to share her observations on marriage and families.

For more than 50 years, Messinger has been counselling couples with marital problems and their children. In the last 20 years she has focused almost exclusively on the peculiar problems that arise from second marriages. In her pragmatic way, Messinger believes a certain level of divorce is unavoidable, that remarriages and the resulting complex families are inevitable, and that serious counselling and soul-searching are the only way to make remarriage work. Such counselling, in her view, should be mandatory.

"With the changes that are happening in life, we are very ready for a change in the divorce act," says Messinger. "I believe there should be built-in education for people getting a divorce. What the heck went wrong with the marriage? Don't duplicate it. If you have a new partner, come in and let's have a look at what's attracting you."

Far too often, says Messinger, she has seen couples jump from one marriage into another without taking time to get over the first one. Usually a remarriage involves children who will complicate the new relationship to a level far beyond what those involved seem to realize.

There are many combinations, ranging from the relatively simple -- in which only one partner has children from a previous marriage -- to the extremely complicated, where there are children from both marriages who live part time in one home and part time with the other biological parent and step-siblings. Then there are men in a second marriage who are paying child support to their first wives, while the children they actually live with are being supported (or not supported) by their wives' former husbands.

There are so many messy stories and Messinger has seen most of them during her career. "One of my clients had an adult male child who looked at his father's choice of wife and thought she was an attractive young woman and would be quite nice for him. That was quite a problem," she says.

"I had one man who didn't have kids, [but] she had teenaged daughters. He started having sexual feelings for them. Then there are some teenaged girls who get coquettish. These are all tremendously difficult things to overcome in a second marriage."

In the 1930s, when she was still Lillian Gold, Messinger attended the University of Toronto to study social work. She earned a master's degree and met Arthur Messinger, who was studying business administration. The two formed a close friendship and were married for 50 years. It was the kind of marriage that could put her out of business if it were too common.

"We started out as wonderful friends. We shared intense political views. When he died, he left a very big hole in my life that can never be filled," says Messinger.

She began her career with the Jewish Family and Child Services agency, counselling mostly children. She found that the relationship between the parents was usually the source of behavioural problems in children, so she started working with whole families.

In the 1950s, she was invited to work at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto. She continued to work there, counselling couples and families until nearly five years ago when she slowed down her practice and began seeing people in her home.

In the 1980s, she noticed that more of the people who came to her for help were having difficulties in their second marriage, so she decided to specialize in that area. "My clientele began to change. It was no longer the intact family, but what I call the disorganized family," says Messinger, who shuns the term "broken family" to describe a failed first marriage with children.

She wrote a book in 1984 called Remarriage: A Family Affair and edited another, Therapy with Remarried Families, which was meant to be an aid to marriage counsellors. She has also been published in academic journals and has lectured in the United States and Canada.

"When you go to a wedding today, you find that one in four couples has been in a previous marriage," she says. "We have always considered the normal family to be the couple and their biological kids. We have looked at remarriages as the deviant family.

"We have to accept the fact that there are so many different kinds of families today, whether they are second marriages, whether they are common-law or whether they are gay or lesbian. The intact family is no longer the norm."

The latest Statistics Canada figures, from 1994, seem to support Messinger's thesis: Slightly more than 20% of all brides in that year had been married before; the same was true for a little more than 24% of grooms. That year, 159,959 couples were married in Canada; almost half as many divorces -- 78,800 -- were granted.

"Particularly in the 1980s, some sociologists were saying marriage was finished. But it isn't finished. Because these people who are divorced are going into second relationships, and they are going into them quite unaware of what it means for their kids," says Messinger.

At 85, Messinger says she has no plans to retire. She would miss the opportunity to observe first-hand the changing structure of the family -- the greater role that fathers have in the lives of their children, for instance. And she approves of the way that fathers are pushing for shared custody in divorce court. In fact, she is quite pleased with the way that men take responsibility for the success of their new marriages.

"It used to be only the wives who would look for help. There was a time when a man wouldn't come to see a woman about his personal life. Now they just forget I am a woman."

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