Three Strikes, You're Out: Women Are Losers in Multiple Marriages

Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived. Thus were the fates of the wives of Henry VIII, the brutish philanderer whose divorces caused a seismic split with the Catholic Church centuries ago.

Today, women don't face a death sentence in marriage, but often, their reputations do if they've had more than one husband. Though kings and celebrities often count brides as conquests, women are more likely to be stigmatized after several trips to the altar.

When Judy Nathan and Rudy Giuliani revealed six marriages between them, it was the presidential hopeful's wife who took the fall. Adlai Stevenson's divorce may have been a liability when he ran for the White House in 1952 and '56, but today it doesn't seem to be a problem for Giuliani, Republican Sen. John McCain or 2004 Democratic presidential contender John Kerry.

Serial monogamy is not the norm. U.S. Census surveys show that only 3 percent of men and women marry three times or more, compared with 13 percent of men and 14 percent of women who marry twice.

In a 2005 "State of Our Unions" report, The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University concluded that divorce was no longer a taboo. But, relationship experts say, the age-old double standard still applies when it comes to the sexes.

"The stigma is dropping, but there is a limit as we see in New York (with Guiliani and Nathan)," said David Popenoe, professor and former social and behavioral sciences at Rutgers. "How many marriages can you have and come out whole?"

Television viewers may wink about Larry King's sexual prowess with six wives, but Elizabeth Taylor -- with seven husbands -- is branded as "unstable, promiscuous and a laughing stock," said William Doherty, professor of family and social science at the University of Minnesota.

"In marriage and family matters, we still expect women to be the ones to keep the family together, and so it looks like she's failed in her core mandate," he said. "Unfortunately, we expect more of women than of men."

The National Council of Family Relations reports that about 50 percent of all American marriages end in divorce. After that, about two-thirds of all women and three-quarters of all men will remarry at least once. In second and subsequent marriages, the divorce rate rises to more than 50 percent.

"The fact that 'higher order' marriages dissolve at a higher rate seems counterintuitive," said Nancy Gonzalez, a National Council of Family Relations family life educator. "One might assume that given one's experience with divorce, there would be a strong motivation to avoid this event again."

Women who have been married several times are often hesitant to mention previous relationships for fear that they will be judged as incapable of keeping relationships or as lacking in values.

For one woman who is married to husband number three, it was love at first sight when she struck up an intense conversation with her future husband on a plane flight seven years ago. But the former college professor and editor had a lot of convincing to do before the relationship progressed: She had been married twice before.

"I told him at the end of the first date," said Ann Owens, who did not want to use her real name. Now 44, she is happily married in New Jersey, "I was still emotionally reeling from divorce and he was mainly sympathetic. But on another level, he was nervous that I would take the marriage lightly. If I had already been through two divorces, he was questioning my loyalty to the marriage because of my past history."

Owens was 26 when she married her first husband -- a promising doctor -- after graduating from college in 1986. She was drawn to the stability of his career and his big Italian family. "I admired him for his talent," she said. "He was very capable and responsible, and it kind of fit the bill of what a good husband should be."

The couple had the big white wedding in a church. But after a year, they were divorced.

"I was in love with him, but I didn't know any other options besides expressing it through marriage. I was young, and at some level I felt trapped," she said.

By the time she was 33, Owens met husband No. 2. He was a professor in her field -- comparative literature -- and it seemed they were a perfect match. But the relationship was emotional and stormy, and after two years, it ended in divorce. Disappointed in herself, afraid she would never have a family, she slipped into depression.

"I was at a party shortly after the second divorce," Owens said. "Someone I hardly knew started asking me what had happened and, from the questions he asked, I could tell he had already gotten personal info about me through the grapevine. I felt like my personal life was being exposed. Everyone loves a scandal and I was very aware that people would probably gossip about it."

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the probability of remarriage among divorced women is 54 percent in five years. However, there is also a strong probability that second marriages will end in separation or divorce (23 percent after five years and 39 percent after 10 years).

Social scientists at the Minnesota-based National Council of Family Relations speculate that those who are more accepting of divorce are more apt to do it again. But in some cases, there are problems with substance abuse, mental health problems, poverty or family violence that predispose them to more unstable lives, no matter which marriage they were in.

Gaetano Ferro, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, believes public attitudes toward women have changed.

"When I started as a lawyer 30 years ago, women who had been married several times were devalued. There was a sense the second or third marriage was worth less than [their] first marriage. You don't hear that so much [now]. Each marriage takes its own terms."

Ferro blames human nature for failed marriages. "People make the same mistakes and sometimes marry the same kind of person again," he said.

That was not the case with Owens, who today has a strong marriage with husband No. 3 -- another professor five years her junior. But, she says she is still self-conscious about her prior marriages.

Women have made a lot of progress in the workplace, but less in the bedroom, according to Owens, whose current husband had never been married before. "Men are very conscious of their roles as providers and if the woman is more experienced and has the upper hand, they are weakened by that."

"It has more to do with the imbalance of power in the relationship," she said. "That's where the stigma is gender-based. Men are allowed to have more experience than women."

Even though Owens feels unapologetic about her marriage mistakes, she won't show this article to her husband or in-laws, and realizes the eventual conversation she will have with her children -- now only 3 and 5 -- is "emotionally tricky."

"That's the real question in my mind, because I believe in an open, honest relationship with kids and they will eventually find out and feel betrayed if I tell them too late in life," she said. "And I worry that my husband will feel bad because it was a part of my life that has nothing to do with them."