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A second chance at first love: meet the couples who marry, divorce – then remarry

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/08/2019 Sirin Kale

© Getty Damian Robinson knew it was a cliche to propose to his partner, Amanda, on Christmas Day 2015, but he did it anyway. “I just sat down next to her on the couch, and handed her the ring,” the 49-year-old construction worker from Warrington remembers.

They wed at a registry office in Prescot, near Liverpool, in August 2017. The ceremony was small – close family and friends – and Damian read a Pablo Neruda poem. It was especially nice having Damian’s nephew Sam there, as a reminder of their unique love story. Because Sam had been there the first time Amanda and Damian got married, in July 1994. Back then, Sam was a scamp of a boy, dressed in a sailor suit. This time around, he was their best man.

Marrying the same person twice isn’t the sort of thing you associate with Prescot register offices – it is a celebrity business. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton are the most famous example, but in 2013 the tech billionaire Elon Musk and the British actor Talulah Riley did the same. Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Rosemary Clooney all remarried former partners. In 2015, Felicity Kendal divulged that she was back with her second husband, the director Michael Rudman, before ruling out marrying him again.

Despite these high-profile cases, the phenomenon of couples divorcing and remarrying is so rare that data does not exist on its prevalence. “When you talk about divorces, some people don’t even want to talk to each other afterwards!” says Dr Nancy Kalish of California State University. An expert on rekindled romances, Kalish tells me that reconnecting with a lost love – but not someone you were not married to – is more common, particularly as social media makes it easier to get in touch with old flames. “There’s always someone who knows someone who has done it,” says Kalish, estimating that one person in 100 will give a lover from long ago a second shot.

“Never in a million years did I think we would end up back together,” says 45-year-old Jen Brimacombe, from Plymouth. She is in high spirits, having just returned from a delayed honeymoon with husband Davide to Fuerteventura. They remarried in 2017, on what would have been the 25th anniversary of their first wedding.

Holding Hands with engagement rings, close-up © Getty Holding Hands with engagement rings, close-up Jen and Davide met through friends shortly before Jen’s 16th birthday. “We were in a park and he put on his friend’s hat. I said: ‘Oooh, you look like Jason Donovan!’” Jen quickly became pregnant with sons Matthew and Luke. Over the next few years, they clashed about the predictable things you would expect the broke young parents of toddlers to argue about: money, childcare and chores. “He’d go out with his friends, and I’d be left at home with the kids.”

Determined to make a go of things, they married in 1992, but separated in 1995, three weeks before Jen gave birth to their daughter Coral. It was a drawn-out breakup: although they divorced in 1997, it wasn’t until 2000 that Jen finally cut contact. “We had a row over something really stupid, and I just thought: I’m not doing this any more. I’ve had enough.”

In 2009, Davide drove Jen and Coral to a parents’ evening. In the backseat, Coral must have wondered why her parents were getting on so well – they didn’t stop talking, not even after Jen invited Davide in for a cuppa and a three-hour long chat. A few days later, they went for a drive on the Moors. Davide confided that his second marriage was over, and he still had feelings for Jen. “I was like, oh my God, something can finally happen. There is a chance. Something can happen now,” Jen remembers.

Health and money issues devastated Damian and Amanda’s first marriage. After meeting at the supermarket where they worked in St Helens, they married at the age of 25 and 22 respectively, and had two daughters. But Amanda became frustrated that Damian wasted money on frivolous purchases – once he bought a collection of 20 DVDs – and Damian was exhausted from taking on the bulk of the housework and childcare, as Amanda had back problems.

Mutual resentment built up. They divorced in 2006, and fought each other in the family courts. “The bitterness was mainly from me,” Damian admits. Amanda had a son before separating from her new partner. In 2011, Amanda’s two-year-old son was hospitalised, and Damian went to visit them in Warrington Hospital. In the fluorescent chill of a hospital corridor, their love spluttered and sparked back into life. “She was upset and worried about her son,” Damian remembers. “I just held her hand.” When Amanda squeezed it back, Damian “felt indescribably happy”. From that one hand-hold, they reconciled.

Damian and Amanda match the profile of the couples Kalish has studied who reunite after years apart. “They separate for situational reasons, and when they get back together those reasons aren’t there any more,” Kalish summarises. Children are grown up; money is not so tight. The slings and arrows of everyday life no longer rain down on them in the same way. “Every day turned into a bit of a grind,” Damian recalls. “You get worn down, and it starts spilling out into frustration with each other. You forget why you were together in the first place. Everything is a chore.”

When we think of the things that drive lovers apart, it is often the grand betrayals: adultery, addiction, abuse. But more typically, it is the vicissitudes of daily life. Jobs lost unexpectedly; unplanned pregnancies. Or the smaller things: cross words over undone dishes. A DVD collection you can’t afford.

© Getty Not all relationships founder in the rock-filled waters of money woes and childrearing. Extramarital affairs are a common unforced error. When Chris Craik, 65, from Newcastle upon Tyne, met Dee in 1970, it was love at first sight. They married in 1972 and had two children. But Chris worked long hours as an RAF technician, and Dee was preoccupied with the kids. “We were moving in opposite directions. She was maternal; I worked long hours. I would get home, and she would be tired from the children.” He had an affair, and was caught climbing a fence in married quarters. In 1979, Dee moved back to Newcastle with the children.

Almost immediately, Chris realised he had made a catastrophic mistake. He begged Dee for another chance. She agreed, but only if he could move to Newcastle to be with his family. Chris asked his commanding officer for a transfer, but it was denied. Life ebbed and eddied away. Both remarried; Chris returned to his native Australia in 1983.

A common theme in these stories of love lost and regained is the presence of children binding former partners together. When a calamity should befall them – a toddler sick in the hospital, or the grief of losing a son – the parents lurch back into each other’s arms. In 2009, Chris and Dee’s son died unexpectedly following a stroke. In their grief, they began talking again. Chris relocated to the UK to be closer to his daughter, divorcing his second wife in the process. Spending more time with Dee confirmed what Chris had suspected: divorcing her had been the greatest mistake of his life. “We were both so young when we went through the divorce. I was very headstrong. I thought: it’s easier to get a divorce.”

As Dee had remarried, Chris kept his distance. But in 2011, his daughter told him some momentous news: Dee and her second husband were separating. “She said: ‘Don’t go there!’ I said: ‘What do you mean?’ She said: ‘I can see. You look at Mum, and I can see. Don’t you go anywhere near her until it’s all done and dusted,’” Chris chuckles. They reunited later that year.

If you believe our personalities are immutable, it is hard to explain why some couples get a do-over. Surely the issues that tanked your relationship the first time around will scupper it again? But the passage of time causes people to mellow. Tempers don’t flare up like before.

© Getty Damian says: “The five years we’d spent apart, I’d learned to become a better person. With maturity comes patience and tolerance. We probably understand and appreciate each other’s needs a lot more now.” Chris is also self-critical. “I wasn’t really a nice person, the first time around. And back then, Dee was very quiet and passive. The second time around, I’d grown up and got a bit softer, and Dee had got more assertive, and confident with dealing with me. We just blended straight away.”

Those who have been given a second chance at lost love know not to take anything for granted. You have to work at relationships; a little bit every day. Damian does Amanda’s ironing and brings her cups of tea in the morning without grumbling. “I’m far more appreciative of her now and will do things for her without even thinking.”

But not all second chances have picture-postcard happy endings. The ragged, impersonal contours of fate may throw your love back into your life for a while, before wrenching them away. After reconciling, Chris and Dee spent five happy years together. They holidayed abroad, and had date nights looking after their grandchildren.

In January 2016, Chris decided to surprise Dee by proposing to her the following month, on her birthday. He commissioned a replica of her wedding band from a local jeweller. (She had sold the original, when times were hard.) The ring was still being made when Dee began complaining of a headache one Sunday evening in bed. She went to the bathroom to be sick. Chris heard her slump to the floor. “She looked up at me, and the light just went out of her eyes.” Dee died the following morning from a stroke.

It was a body blow. “I got so close to having it all again, and it was all snatched away,” says Chris. “I was a very angry man for about six months.” In time, Chris felt grateful that he had known Dee again, even briefly. “I got a second chance. How many guys get that, a second chance with their first love? And it was absolute, pure delight. The whole five years we spent together was perfect.”

These real-life stories of love lost and found again can teach us lessons about change, romance and the ways in which the grind of daily life can whittle once-muscular relationships down into nubs of bone. They are also, in their own way, enormously uplifting. Because who doesn’t want to believe that – after years spent apart and crossed words and blazing rows – love might find a way?

At Dee’s funeral, Chris handed out her favourite Corinthians verse. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not grumbling about the housework, or DVD collections, or climbing fences in married quarters. Chris’s advice for couples contemplating reuniting is simple. “Have a crack at it. But you’ve got to change. You have to consider the other person’s point of view, every time. That’s what love is about. It’s about listening.”

Chris ended up having Dee’s ring made anyway, as a family heirloom. It is a reminder of love lost, and found, and lost again, and how all things are possible – if you are willing to change.

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