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When it comes to marriage, the third time’s not often the charm

If, as Oscar Wilde said, a first marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence and a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience, then – as we sift through the ashes of Brangelina – what’s going on with the third?

We still know precious little about what led Angelina Jolie to detonate her third marriage to Brad Pitt and seek sole physical custody of their six children, this amid reports of an incident on a private plane and Minnesota airport tarmac allegedly involving Pitt, booze and a rogue fuel truck.

What we do know is that a remarkable 74 per cent of third marriages end in divorce. That’s up from a 67 per cent divorce rate for second marriages, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada data, 41 per cent of first marriages end in divorce before the 30th anniversary.

In the face of such statistically diminishing returns – and societal derision – what drives some people to do it again and again?

We are well out of the era of Elizabeth Taylor, who married a total of eight times (twice vowing lifelong love to Richard Burton). No longer is serial marriage a marker of the heady and indulgent A-list celebrity, the way it was when Mickey Rooney, Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra married eight, five and four times each, respectively. Nor does the Hollywood studio machinery force its actors to marry or risk facing audience censure for having extramarital sex.

So what is the personality trait shared by regular folk playing Liz and Dick today? Are they idealists, romantics, or actually traditionalists keen on enshrining their commitments on paper, however many times it takes?

“People are optimistic. They love to be in love,” says Marni Sky, a co-founder of Divorce Angels, a Toronto-based service that connects those divorcing or contemplating separation with therapists, coaches and mediation lawyers.

“Today, a lot of people say divorce doesn’t mean their life is over,” said Sky. “They’re going to get back up on that horse again.”

While she believes that three marriages is “kind of where the buck stops” in 2016, Sky said that those embarking on their third have often already undertaken the introspection and therapy that multiple divorces entail. They tend to be looking for someone who motivates them to have a better life, for what’s left of it.

Clarice Schoen, a Fort McMurray equipment maintenance planner, is on marriage No. 3, which surprises even her. “I said I wasn’t going to get married again – No. 2 and No. 3 – but they asked so I said ‘yes,’” said Schoen, 52. “I’ve been called relentlessly positive, as if it were a bad thing.”

Schoen sums up her first marriage in 1989 as “young and dumb.” She says the second, a decade later, was marred by substance abuse. She wed her third husband in 2008, with a total of nine guests in attendance (third weddings are often drastically pared down). “Your third marriage, you get smarter. Hopefully,” said Schoen.

A person's third wedding is typically dramatically pared down. (iStockphoto)

While we celebrate first marriages and treat second marriages like a sober second thought, third nuptials often bring judgment. For traditionalists who stick it out for life, collecting husbands like shoes feels like hubris. For others, it just feels outdated: In 2011, married couples accounted for 67 per cent of all families, down from 92 per cent four decades earlier, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, which also notes that common-law couples have quadrupled since 1981. Why do it once, let alone thrice?

Schoen, who has no children, believes spouses often evolve at different rates, sometimes in opposite directions. Despite the vows, she hazards that “confident humans aren’t meant to be tied down to one person forever.”

Schoen circumvents judgment with humour: “I say my first husband and my ex-husband aren’t the same person. I own it.”

Fiona is a 24-year-old recent child development studies graduate in Ottawa whose mother, father and stepfather have all been married three times. She said they’ve routinely felt the sting of ridicule. “I don’t see why we choose to stigmatize those who choose to remarry,” said Fiona, who is withholding her last name to protect her family’s privacy.

“The choice to continue searching for love, for commitment and companionship after failing is one that requires great strength of character,” she says.“Optimism in the face of loss or failure is something that I think should be celebrated, not laughed at.”

Though the divorces and subsequent marriages of parents are hard on children, for Fiona the experience also offered a bright spot: extended family. “My family is a large web of incredible people, including four siblings who I love more than anything, none of which are my full siblings by blood,” she said.

Despite the unexpected perks, three marriages is enough for some. Robert Billard, an architect in New Westminster, B.C., is on his third divorce and said that he’s learning: “I’ve given up [on] impulse.”

Like many others in the trio club, Billard’s first wedding came too early, at 19. The second one fizzled out because of incompatibility; in the third, they simply grew apart. Why did he keep proposing? “I have no idea. I won’t do it ever again,” he replied.

Billard, 46, is currently in a relationship but not looking for the spotlight of a fourth wedding, or possible dissolution. “If you’re in a boyfriend-girlfriend situation for three or four years and you break up, people go, ‘oh well, that happens.’ But if you’re married and break up, suddenly the world is going to end,” he said.

“It took me way too long to realize that the piece of paper and the ceremony are really of little consequence to actually having a good relationship.”

Little is known about what led Angelina Jolie to end her third marriage to Brad Pitt, both of whom are see in their recent film together, By the Sea, but statistics show that a remarkable 74 per cent of third marriages end in divorce.

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On the third time around, wed carefully

Why do so few third marriages survive?

These spouses often have less tying them down: Their children are grown and out of the nest, and many have built their own independent wealth.

But for those attempting a third go-around, experts offer their rules of three.

Prenup it up

Before Brangelina’s seemingly sudden implosion this month, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had reportedly signed a prenup to divide their wealth, estimated at $400-million (U.S.).

While it didn’t spare them a custody battle, it was a wise move, said Stephen Durbin, a Toronto divorce lawyer who’s been through two separations himself. Durbin argues that prenuptial agreements are especially important for those going into a third marriage – typically older people who have accumulated assets.

“If you’re getting into a third marriage not having a prenup, it’s sort of like going to the zoo and opening all the cages and letting the animals loose,” he said.

Make it modest

Be mindful that a third wedding ceremony can be a tough sell to family and friends, says Toronto wedding planner Karina Lemke.

She has found that with each new marriage – the second, third, fourth and beyond – the guest count drops; expecting hundreds of guests to shell out again is “gauche.”

By the third, the party often consists of children from previous marriages. (Brangelina’s wedding at Château Miraval in France was an intimate one, done largely for the sake of their children, who helped pen the vows and design their mom’s gown.)

Women: Think twice

Lemke argued that even a third time around, the traditional framework of marriage works well for men, who tend to live longer and healthier lives when they are married than when they fly solo.

Women? Not so much. The health gains just aren’t there: Women who don’t remarry do just as well as those who remain married, according to a 2011 study from the University of California-Riverside.

“My female friends who’ve been married, divorced and are now all in relationships again are not doing the wedding thing again,” Lemke said.

“But they’re very happy,” she added.

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