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Recoupling: A Chance to Answer ‘I Do Again’

It was a publicist’s dream, a Hollywood romance with more drama and glamour than anyone could have asked for.

He, Miami’s main man, and she, the silver screen’s newest darling, about to tie the knot--and for the second time, no less. After a brief marriage in 1976, now Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith were back together again, with a baby on the way. Not since the remarriage of Liz and Dick or R.J. and Natalie had the public awareness of star-crossed lovers been so high.

After all, the ensuing magazine articles mused, wasn’t their reunion after so many years apart a clear sign of fate, proof of the existence of Great Romance, indisputable evidence of True Love?

If the answer is yes, then true love, it seems, is in far greater supply these days than most people believe. Mental-health professionals say they now regularly encounter couples who have divorced, gone their separate ways and then want to reconcile.

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“They separate because the marriage wasn’t working,” said Carlfred Broderick, director of the marriage and family therapy training program at USC. “Then they remarry when they discover that the divorce wasn’t working.”

Dr. Mark Goulston, a West Los Angeles psychiatrist who, during the last five years, has helped 12 couples walk down the aisle together a second time, believes the trend he calls “recoupling” is increasing.

“A lot of people think about getting back together with their exes. But now, more and more people are actually doing it,” Goulston said. “So often, couples divorce because of the ‘grass-is-greener’ syndrome: They think they’ll find someone more exciting, more intelligent, more whatever. Then they get out there and discover they were wrong, and that all the things they heard about the dating jungle are true.”

The External Factors

Although what prompts a person to reconsider an ex-spouse varies, Goulston said it often is an external factor--the engagement of a former spouse, a personal crisis such as the death of a parent, or a failed relationship that had appeared promising.

“Their kids start having a hard time, the realities of forming a step-family sets in, or something happens to make them realize how alone they are. And all of a sudden,” he said, “the old home and hearth start to look pretty good.”

Part of the recoupling phenomenon, Broderick says, may be due in large part to the sheer number of divorces across the country. Of the 2 million marriages each year, he said, half now end in divorce. Of those, he added, “tens of thousands of couples end up remarrying each other every year. So the number may have increased in recent years, even though the percentage rate of 5 to 10% hasn’t.”

But couples who have gotten back together believe that a lot more has been at work in their lives than just statistical odds. Some call it fate, while others cite such things as remorse, humility or acceptance--three emotions not normally found in the Divorced Couples Handbook.

The Pain of Loss

Take Kathy Clark and Max Dragovich, for example, who married in 1982. During the next three years, Kathy said, the couple experienced several major losses, including the death of Kathy’s mother and Max’s father. Both stopped communicating and withdrew. Despite Kathy’s belief they could work out their problems, Max filed for divorce in 1986 and began seeing other women.

“I was wrecked,” Kathy, a business development manager, said flatly of the emotional aftermath.

Not long afterward, she moved to Corona Del Mar from La Crescenta, went back to school and eventually put the failed marriage behind her, until Max called a year later. “He didn’t say he was sorry or acknowledge anything that had happened,” she said. “He just called to invite me to dinner. But I was happy to hear his voice so I said yes.”

Max maintains that he had no intention of getting back together with Kathy. He was aware she was dating other men but said he wasn’t bothered by it. When he called her, it was because “I was concerned as a friend.”

Kathy thinks there was slightly more to it than that. “He was dating other women, but I know he never took them around his family or our friends,” she said. “Knowing Max the way I do, I think it was his ego that he couldn’t admit he had make a mistake (to file for divorce).”

Detached Position

When they did begin dating again, Kathy, gun-shy and more than a little bit suspicious of his intentions, maintained an emotional posture of detached curiosity. Although she began seeing him more often, she said she occasionally acted “testy and sometimes bitchy” with him. She also continued to date other men.

“She said she didn’t trust me,” said Max.

Trust, though, took time. Even today, with their second marriage only a month away, Kathy said she still experiences the occasional thought, “If he left me once, what’s to stop him from doing it again?” But from the experience, she said, she also gained a greater acceptance of who Max really is, instead of who she wanted him to be.

“I accept now he doesn’t talk much about his feelings, whereas before I always thought it meant he didn’t love me,” she said.

Amicable Parting

Cindy and Foster Taylor of Houston also learned a few things the second time around. First married in 1980, they divorced in 1983 with a 1-year-old son.

“I’m in the nightclub business, and I always came home late. She thought that environment was kind of fun when we were dating, but not when we were trying to raise a family,” recalled Foster, now 44. “I didn’t want to change my life style, and so when she threatened to leave, I just said, ‘Fine.’ We ended up holding hands while the lawyer drew up the papers.”

Because of their child, the couple saw each other frequently. But it wasn’t until the following New Year’s Eve, when they dated each other again for the first time since the divorce, that both realized they had made a mistake.

“I wouldn’t say that I had a religious experience, but I had a sudden reevaluation of my life,” Foster said. “I realized it wasn’t nearly so much her fault as I had thought, and that I would rather admit I was wrong.”

The Element of Time

Time can also play a role. “Often, the chance of success depends on how much time has elapsed,” said Constance Ahrons, a professor of sociology at USC who has counseled several divorced couples and is the author of “Divorced Families,” a recently published book that examines what happens to family members after the breakup. “Couples need enough distance to be able to look at the reasons for the divorce, see how they have changed, and recognize how they really feel about each other now.”

Robert and Penelope Lohr of Columbus, Ohio, didn’t see or hear from each for 14 years after their divorce. He remarried and moved to England. Penelope remarried, divorced again and then moved to New York City for 10 years. Then one day “out of the blue,” Robert telephoned her Manhattan apartment and told her he was divorced too. “When I went to pick him up at the airport, we just hugged each other and sobbed,” she recalled. “We both knew.” They were remarried in 1983.

But merely possessing a desire to reconcile doesn’t necessarily guarantee that couples will end up hearing themselves say, “I do again.” Goulston, who estimated that the success rate among divorced couples is about 25%, has seen eight couples try to retie the knot and get tangled in the process.

Problems Revisited

One 41 year-old woman, who asked not to be identified, divorced her husband when he refused to seek help with his alcoholism. After they had been apart for nearly a year, the man entered a chemical-dependency program and the couple began dating shortly thereafter. Although the woman began to fall in love again, all hopes of reconciliation were lost when he began drinking a few months later. “I had been through hell with him once,” she said, “I knew too much by then to go back to it.”

One reason for the high failure rate among ex-spouses seeking reconciliation, some therapists say, is that not all couples are motivated by pure love. In some cases, finances may be a driving force, while children may be a consideration for other couples. Other times, couples may be involved in a “breakup-makeup” pattern of behavior that is based on an inability to let go emotionally.

Overcome the Fears

Often, counselors say, problems such as resentment, anger, wounded pride and a fear of being hurt again must be overcome for a successful reconciliation. Goulston said most couples must first deal with what he calls the “three R’s”: remorse, restitution and rehabilitation.

“Remorse is a genuine request for forgiveness by the person most responsible for the breakup,” he said. Restitution, he said, involves the willingness of that person to understand how the other partner was affected by the breakup. “You’re acknowledging that you were out there having fun while the other person was having a silent breakdown.”

And rehabilitation, he said, is the ability to show new skills for dealing with conflict. “Both people have to know that things will be different,” he said.

It took David and Gigi Mueller several years to work through the “three R’s.” After 13 years of marriage, Gigi Mueller divorced her minister husband and left the three children with him. When she moved back to Wilmington, Del., to try to reconcile their relationship three years later, her husband David still had a lot of anger. “He had written me off,” said Gigi. “He wasn’t certain it wasn’t going to be a bigger mistake trying to make it work again.”

Rough Times Ahead

One of the things that brought the couple together, she believes, is that both were willing to look at the way their past behavioral patterns had contributed to the breakup. “We don’t hold things back any more.”

When they decided to remarry, she said, they melted down their original wedding rings and made them into a cross she now wears around her neck.

Although children are no more likely to hold the marriage together the second time than they were the first, some therapist believe that kids who are having post-divorce difficulties are often a compelling reason for couples to give their relationship a second try.

Opening the Wounds

Regardless of the impetus, counselors warn that children who are struggling in the aftermath of divorce may be hurt even more if they see their parents go out together again or wake up to see daddy in the kitchen making breakfast--only to watch their parents break up one more time.

West Los Angeles psychiatrist Mark Goulston recommends couples conceal their dating from children until they are “90% certain” they will stay together.

Another obstacle for couples trying to reconcile can be friends and relatives--especially after they learn that the person they heard dragged through the mud is now coming back again.

“I said terrible things about him,” Mueller said. “The first thing my mother said was, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

‘Hurt and Vindictive’

Kathy Clark and Max Dragovich said they have experienced similar responses. “I’m my father’s only daughter, and he’s still pretty protective of me,” Kathy said. “He still says, ‘He hurt you once, he can hurt you again.’ ”

Recommends Goulston: “With parents and others, what you have to tell them is, ‘I was no angel either. You heard things from me when I was hurt and vindictive.’ ”

Although the road back to the altar isn’t always easy, those who have traveled it say they know things now that they couldn’t have learned in any other way. And as a result, they say their marriages are stronger than before.

“We both had to grow in a way that couldn’t have taken place if we had stayed together,” said Abby Dalton, actress on the television show, “Falcon Crest,” who divorced her husband of nine years in 1969. After three years, during which time she said they “both searched diligently for someone else,” the couple reconciled and remarried in 1973.

“We tried it without each other, and the conclusion we reached is that we just truly love each other. Now,” she said, pausing for a moment, “there is no more doubt in our minds.”


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