It is likely that no man ever stared lovingly into his girlfriend's eyes and asked, "Will you do me the honor of being my first wife?" Perhaps, given the current state of marriage and remarriage, that would be an appropriate proposal.
In the United States, almost 50 percent of first marriages and more than 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce. Official statistics on subsequent marriages are more difficult to come by, but there is ample anecdotal evidence that a significant number of people are pledging fidelity "until death us do part" for a third and fourth time. As the famously self-indulgent baby boomers edge toward 60, many of them have experienced more than three decades of adulthood -- long enough to marry, divorce, marry, divorce and marry again.
"I always had clients who were on their second or third divorces," says Valerie Colb, author of The Smart Divorce (Golden Books, 1999), who has practiced family law for 25 years in the Los Angeles area. "But the volume of divorces that aren't a first one has gradually increased over the years."
Are third marriages becoming as common as second marriages once were? Is three the new two? And just how far has society come in its acceptance of people who say "I do," "I do," and then "I do" once more?
Fifty years ago, when Adlai Stevenson made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency, the fact that he was divorced was considered a contributing factor in his defeats. Voters wondered if there was "something wrong" with a man whose marriage had failed. By the time Ronald Reagan and his second wife, Nancy, moved into the White House in 1981, the stigma of divorce, at least in political life, had greatly diminished.
Men or women who appear to be "marrying up," or practicing licensed social climbing, have always been grist for nasty gossip. And a third marriage before a 35th birthday still inspires finger-wagging and invites ridicule: When Jennifer Lopez, who is 32 and has been divorced twice, announced her engagement to Ben Affleck, Jay Leno quipped: "Jennifer Lopez getting engaged! Now that's something that doesn't happen every day."
Best-selling author Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker), now 42, lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his third wife, former MTV VJ Tabitha Soren. "Never would it have occurred to me, or anyone who knows me, that I would have been in the position of being twice divorced at the age of 34," he says. "I'd never been in a situation where the casual, off-the-cuff joke at the dinner party was going to be me. ... 'Oh, he's the guy who's been married three times.' It was shorthand for some larger set of negative traits that weren't mine, really."
Social scientists believe increasing life expectancy has had a negative effect on the life cycle of some marriages. Staying with one mate was easier when adults died at 45 or 50. People live longer today, and thanks to medical breakthroughs, better nutrition and cosmetic surgery, they feel vital and look younger at more advanced ages. A woman widowed at 55 used to devote herself to grandchildren. Today, she might get a face-lift, step up her exercise program, look around and ask, "Who's next?"
It's the turnaround time
Toni Grant is a clinical psychologist, author and radio talk-show host who lives in Dallas. "It isn't uncommon for people to live into their 90s now," she says, "so if they marry in their 20s and after 10 or 15 years feel the marriage was a mistake, it doesn't make sense to stick with it for the next 60 years. I don't think someone is judged very harshly if they're 60 and on their third marriage. But if they're 35 and their third marriage isn't working, then that's someone who isn't getting it."
Grant and Lewis are typical of many social observers interviewed who conclude that one divorce isn't taboo and two is no longer shocking. But it's still possible to do something smirk-worthy: Thirty-four-year-old Lisa Marie Presley's third marriage, to Nicolas Cage, ended recently after four months, so fast that there wasn't time to pull a dreamy photograph of the couple from Vogue's February "Couples Issue."
"A third marriage makes a lot of people nervous, and definitely a fourth does," says Nancy Etcoff, who teaches psychology at Harvard Medical School and is in private practice in Boston. "What raises eyebrows is the turnaround time, someone who very quickly cycles in and out of marriages."
Whether a marriage produces children affects how much disapproval its failure engenders. "Trading in wives can be a very expensive habit for men," says Olivia Goldsmith, author of the novel The First Wives Club. "I'm not opposed to divorce. I'm opposed to deception and the victimization of children."
For those who marry repeatedly, hope springs eternal. "People have a powerful need to be with other people, to be loved and attached. On the other hand, they often find it very difficult to stay together," Harvard's Etcoff says. "No one would ever get married assuming divorce. These people are supremely optimistic. They value love and romance and they want to get it right. Every time they marry, they want it to last forever."
Mimi Avins is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.