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 No relationship is more maligned in our culture than that of first wives and second wives. While we make fun of mother-in-laws, many admit to having wonderful fulfilling relationships with their M-I-L. Not so with the “Ex” and the “Next”. Judged as guilty before even tried, these women are pitted against each other by circumstance. Stereotypes abound; the first wife was a “crazy nagging bitch” and the second one “a cheap slut”!

Unfortunately, these stereo types often eclipse the potential for a positive relationship; these women are preprogrammed not to like each other by societal misconceptions. In truth, had these women met under different circumstances they might have been friends. Yes, I know there are situations when “friendship” is impossible: for example, when the second wife was once your “best friend” and slept with your then-husband or the first wife is out of control with rage and is stalking you. We have all heard many horror stories. Movies and sitcoms and, sadly, daily news reports are filled of the misdeeds of both women.  But  must we assume that a healthy caring relationship between these two is not possible? How about, at the very least, mutual respect?  If there are children from the first marriage, these women are, whether they like it or not, part of the same extended family!

Back in the 80’s I remember Alexa who, with her third husband, went to Florida to look for retirement property. They stayed at the house of his first wife, Sally and her new husband.  This was easy for Alexa. She said, “Why not? She is probably the woman least likely to threaten my marriage. They tried it already and it didn’t work.” Sally remarked,   “I have nothing against Alexa. The reason we split up had nothing to do with her.” The families celebrated holidays together which their adult children and grandchildren greatly appreciated. Without the cooperation and mutual respect of these two women, that warm family relationship and connection would not be possible. 

Twenty years ago, I facilitated a discussion group for women who were first wives and second wives (not to the same men). They agreed to allow a reporter from the New York Times to sit in on our discussion.(click here to read the article). What I learned from that lively and informative conversation was that there are three potential areas of conflict, hurt and resentment for both women. And while remarriage is more common today, these three powerful “hot buttons” are still as charged as ever.

Mothering

For the first wives it was threatening to see the second wife interact with the children. For example, Beth admitted she watched her kid’s stepmom, Lisa, like a hawk. If Lisa was too involved Beth became insecure that Lisa was “trying to be their mother” and when Lisa was cool and less involved,  Beth saw her as neglectful and uncaring. For Lisa, taking care of someone else’s kids was nothing like the Brady Bunch. It was a thankless job and she always felt under scrutiny from everyone- especially from Beth. It was hard work and she walked that fragile line between too involved (“You are not my mother”) or not involved enough (“She hates me”). Lisa frequently felt like she had all the responsibility of taking care of the kids when they were visiting their dad and none of the respect. They criticized her cooking, left their laundry everywhere and when she asked them for help, they cried to Beth that Lisa was mean. Beth would call her children’s father and he in turn would ask Beth to “go easy on the kids” who were still “adjusting”. Lisa felt judged as the quintessential wicked step mother.

Beth needs reassurance and Lisa needs to be appreciated.

Memories

 Jane, a stepmother of two adolescents, recalled a painful moment when the kids were reminiscing with their dad about a Valentine’s Day gift he bought their mother when she was his first wife. Jane felt excluded from this shared experience and personal memory. The feeling of being a “second” is everywhere- as kids recall vacations and special moments, holidays or even daily life. Family albums and in-laws add to the stress and feelings of exclusion. It hurt Jane whenever she went to her in-laws house and saw the wedding photo of her husband and his first wife on the mantle. The second wife struggles with feelings of insecurity and isolation. In truth, the children and their father share years of memories that she is not a part of. This is a constant reminder of her “second” status.

Lucy, a first wife, sobs as she talks about her ex-husband and his new wife having a child. Lucy’s only daughter always wanted a sibling and now she has it, but Lucy is not a part of that experience. Lucy’s daughter goes on in her new family with her dad creating memories and experiences that Lucy will never be part of.

While Jane feels left out of the past, Lucy feels left out of the future.

Money

Karen was filled with despair and jealousy when she heard that her ex-husband and his new wife were planning a two week vacation in Tuscany. Ralph always promised her that when he was promoted, they would take the trip she had always dreamed of. It was difficult for her to deal with Ralph finding the money to take Arianna on “her dream vacation.” She felt like Arianna was reaping the reward for all the lean financial years she had experienced.

Two years later, when Arianna and Ralph had their first child, it became apparent that the couple could not live on Ralph’s income alone. His child support and alimony to Karen made it impossible for Arianna to stop working and stay home with their child. Arianna resented the monies going to support Karen and Ralph’s children from his first marriage. Arianna was furious that she had to put her child day care while Karen got to stay home with her children.

Karen felt that Arianna was reaping the financial reward of Ralph’s success while Arianna felt that it was Karen who was reaping the rewards!

 Of course, these are only a few examples of how these issues manifest for the “Step-Wives”. When a divorce occurs in a family, some relationships are lost or changed forever. As each partner moves forward in their single life, new connections are made. Many divorced people remarry. It is important to recognize much of what feels adversarial here is based on complicated circumstances not personalities.  The issues are defined by the relationship structure- One woman is an EX and one is the NEXT.  Because they have different roles in the family, their perspective will naturally differ as well. How they choose to deal with those different perspectives is what separates a healthy blended family unit from one that crumbles.

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One Comment

  1. CJ Golden on the 07. Aug, 2011 remarked #

    I’m one of those who are both “first” and “second” wife with birth and step-children.
    And I’m one of the fortunate few who have found respect both for and from my “counterparts”.
    It’s not easy – we’ve worked on it – but certainly better than a lifetime of disagreement and discomfort.

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