Marriage comes with its own challenges the first time around, but being a second wife comes with unique issues to confront and be prepared for. As a second wife, you need to face marriage with both a stiff upper lip and a wry sense of humor. In all likelihood, there will be an ex-spouse to deal with, stepchildren to win over and the entire spectrum of second-wife syndrome to navigate.
According to a study, of all divorced people aged 25 and over, 55% of men and 44% of women have remarried. While there are some benefits of being a second wife (hopefully your spouse got most of his hijinks out of his system by now!), it’s not going to be your run-of-the-mill marriage.
Kranti Sihotra Momin, an experienced CBT practitioner with a Master’s degree in psychology and specialization in clinical psychology tells us some hard truths about being a second wife and what you should be prepared for.
9 Challenges You Should Be Prepared For Being A Second Wife
Along with the ever-present comparisons of first wife vs second wife, there is also the question of the second wife and family issues, the second wife and property rights and so on. Despite all the fairy tales about evil second wives and wicked stepmothers, being a second wife isn’t quite that black and white. We rounded up challenges you could look out for in your role as a second wife, so you’re equipped for anything that might come your way.
1. The stigma, the stares, the questions
When Marcus and Chantal got married, it was the second marriage for both of them. They had been dating for a few years, and both were in their late 30s by the time they got married. “I wasn’t exactly young and naïve, but I really wasn’t prepared for the judgment and constant, curious questions we got,” Chantal says.
“I’d known Marcus during his first marriage and people assumed I’d been the other woman, that we’d been secretly seeing each other behind his first wife’s back. Also, his first wife, Diane, is still much loved by the neighbors and general community so I could feel that they thought I didn’t quite measure up, that I was different,” she adds.
Divorce and remarriage are hardly unheard of, but because they shatter the myth of that one perfect marriage and one soulmate, there is still a certain amount of stigma attached. This means you’ll feel the heat of curious stares and annoying, mosquito-like questions at least for the first year or so.
This wouldn’t count as one of the advantages of being a second wife, but if nothing else, it will help you stand your ground and tackle uncomfortable situations that are bound to arise.
“Relationship conflict is a natural occurrence and can happen with even the happiest of couples,” says Kranti. “But in a second marriage, it will almost inevitably flare up. You’ll be butting heads with society in general and there will be times when it feels like the whole world is against you. But resolving conflict is key to being a second wife, so be smart and pick your battles.”
2. Second-wife syndrome
Yes, that’s a real thing. Second-wife syndrome is when you feel like you’ve stepped into an alternate reality created by your spouse’s first wife and family, and you’re constantly feeling inadequate. You’ll constantly feel that your spouse gives more importance to his first wife and kids than he does to you. You’ll wonder if they control his schedule and decisions more than you do. You’ll compare yourself to them constantly and always think you’re falling short.
It can get rather overwhelming, but remember, if you insist on being stuck in the vicious first wife vs second wife competition going on in your head, you’re not going to get very far in your marriage. If you feel that as a second wife, your husband is not spending time with you, talk it out with your spouse instead of sulking or throwing hissy fits every time he talks to his first wife or has to pick up the kids.
Chances are you’ve walked into a readymade family, even if it’s fractured, and a second wife and family issues aren’t uncommon. If your spouse is a widower and lost his first wife, be even more prepared that he will be honoring her memory and also paying a lot of attention to his children, if he has them.
Kranti says, “As a first wife, you would maybe marry your partner and their family. As a second wife, you go a step further and marry a partner, their family, their kids, and in some ways, even their ex. It’s not just a family, it’s a whole extended family and it’s possible you end up feeling like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. But as a second wife, it is key to be able to navigate your way through awkward or uncomfortable situations.”
3. Ready to be a stepmom?
Speaking of children, how ready are you to become a stepmother? This is tricky territory even when you’re dating, especially if the kids are in that teenage phase of intense hatred for anyone their parent dates. You might want to start laying the groundwork while you’re dating and before marriage, so you don’t walk into a household of extreme hostility.
Myra and Leah married after 2 years of dating, but Leah’s daughter from her first marriage barely acknowledged Myra at all. “Leah’s first wife passed away, and their daughter, Rose, was still processing her grief when Leah and I started dating,” Myra says.
To Rose, her mother dating anyone else was sacrilege and she could not accept Myra even after two years. “It took many years of work on both our parts We went to therapy as a family, I tried my best to talk to her and convince her that I was as much as a friend as a parent, and that she could trust me. It was hard. But, she’s in college now, and I think we’ve made real progress. We might not be mother-daughter bffs, but we have a healthy respect and affection for each other,” Myra adds.
4. Money matters
Your spouse probably had a financial plan mapped out with their first wife. Maybe there’s alimony being paid now and a college fund for the kids. As a second wife, you don’t really have a say in any of this, because all of it was done before you came into the picture at all. But you’re not happy with the situation.
For Sally, it was a perpetual thorn in her side that the house she shared with her husband Bill, had his first wife’s name on the lease along with his. They couldn’t move out because Bill didn’t want to displace the kids and Sally couldn’t say much about it, but it niggled her all the time. It annoyed her excessively that the financial planning didn’t seem to include her or her comfort.
Along with finances, the whole second wife and property rights issue is bound to flare up at some point. Again, the best way to get your feelings out there without burning your marriage down, is to have an honest conversation with your partner. If finances and circumstances permit, move out to your own place – living in the same house as the first wife is rarely a good idea, as anyone who’s read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca will tell you.
5. Dealing with your partner’s baggage
Since this is nobody’s tremulous, maiden love affair, get ready to handle some emotional baggage as a second wife. Your spouse has lost their first wife either to divorce or death, both of which bring immense, albeit very different, pain and coping mechanisms. Hopefully they healed to some extent before getting involved with you, but loss of this kind runs deep. It’s possible this is your second marriage, too, in which case you’ll be able to empathize.
In case of an acrimonious divorce, your spouse could have trust issues and intimacy issues, making it difficult for them to open up to you completely. If they lost their first wife to illness, they will be battling some amount of grief all their lives.
A friend of mine married a man who would lay flowers at his late wife’s grave every Sunday. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it at first, but he was grateful that she allowed him that space and time and it ultimately strengthened their bond.
One of the advantages of being a second wife is that you bring fresh perspective to this baggage, and you become a partner who stands by their side as they work through it. Ensure they don’t lose themselves in the past; remind them that they have a whole new future with you to look forward to even if they choose to honor the memory of their first wife in their own ways.
Related Reading: 11 Tips To Have A Successful Second Marriage
6. Handling the ex-spouse
If your partner’s former spouse is still in the picture – they could be co-parenting or business partners or just meeting occasionally – you’ll need to learn how to deal with them. There is a very fine balance to maintain here. You’ll need to be understanding of the fact that the first wife will keep showing up in your spouse’s life, that she has her place, and you have yours. It’s possible there are needs in the family’s life that only she fulfils, for instance if she’s taking care of the kids. She could also have a good rapport with the in-laws, and could still be seeing them.
On the other hand, you could be feeling that she’s there a little too much and treading on your toes. It’s easy for resentment to build up here and the first wife vs second wife battles to flare up. In an ideal situation, you could co-exist, acknowledging that you each have a unique space in the family. Unfortunately, we’re human and insecurity is bound to creep in at some point. The first wife could also feel that you’re replacing her completely and start jealously guarding her space.
“Comparison with the ex is toxic all round,” Kranti says. “Even if the comparison tips the scales in your favor, it comes from a place of lack, it is stemming from your own sense of unease and insecurity. Comparison only feeds these feelings, and there’s absolutely no upside to holding yourself up against your spouse’s ex.”
There’s no easy way to handle this, except to give it time and patience. Don’t let your second-wife syndrome overwhelm everything else.
7. Being the bigger person
There’s no patron saint for second wives, and you needn’t start pitching for the role. But, there will be a lot of times where you’ll need to give in with grace for the sake of everyone’s peace of mind, including your own.
“Being a second wife meant I was ushered in to a family set-up that already existed,” says Phoebe, who married her husband Jack three years ago. “There were routines and rituals in place that just went along, sometimes ignoring what I wanted. Initially, I tried to fight it, but it ended up becoming an exhausting battle every time. I finally realized I needed to choose my battles, and that meant grinning and bearing it sometimes.”
Related Reading: 7 Strategies To Stop Fighting In A Relationship
A good way to go about this is to outline clearly what is absolutely non-negotiable to you, and where you can compromise. Establishing clear boundaries is essential for any relationship and all the more so for a second wife. Remember, you’re allowed to have your limits and put your foot down as well; just make sure you don’t embark on a battle royal every time you don’t get your own way because that’s not helping you or anyone else.
“It’s really all about valuing your second marriage,” Kranti says. “Unlike a first marriage, there will be little idealization of the spouse here. Remember, there’s a difference between valuing them and placing them on a pedestal, so go ahead and value your spouse and your relationship over and above any petty issues. That really when you become the bigger person.”
8. Accepting a non-traditional relationship
Again, a second marriage by definition means most of the ‘firsts’ have been done and then some. You’ve both been around the relationship block, possible weathered a few scars from past love affairs and/or marriages. Accept that this relationship will have a few quirks.
You’ll have to make room for kids and their schedules, date nights interrupted by babysitters who aren’t available at the last minute, in-laws who already had their own expectations long before you came along, etc.
“I had to get used to being introduced as Max’s wife and seeing the surprise on people’s faces sometimes,” says 35-year-old Dani. “We had a small wedding, so not a lot of people were aware that he had divorced his first wife, let alone remarried. So, there was surprise and curiosity and just a hint of gossip in the air when we went out. It took some getting used to, but then I accepted that this just wasn’t your traditional marriage.”
Non-traditional isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that you’ll probably have more questions thrown at you and get used to being seen as ‘not the original wife’. You owe no one any explanations, so chin up and go about your business.
9. The numbers go against you
Not to put a dampener in your marriage, but there are studies that suggest that 60% of second marriages end in divorce. And in some circles, people won’t hesitate to throw these numbers out casually in conversation.
If you’re going into a second marriage, and these statistics are causing sleepless nights, remember that going into this with wide-open eyes and a firm belief in your own boundaries will go a long way to making a happy marriage. There’s risk involved in any relationship, and honestly, there’s no guarantee any of us will be together forever. But that doesn’t mean we don’t approach every love affair and marriage with hope and all the emotional intelligence we can muster.
If you’re really worried, consider premarital counseling with your spouse-to-be and get your concerns aired out. It’s always better to go into a major life decision well prepared.
Being a second wife takes a special kind of grit, humor and possibly a lot of deep breathing. It’s a lot to take on and the fact that you’ve chosen to do so says a lot about you. Remember, you’re not just taking on a spouse, but their baggage, their ex-es, their kids and a whole host of readymade problems for you to tackle.
There’s no one way to do this since every marriage is unique. But if you’re aware of the realities and prepared for a few surprises, there’s no reason why you won’t be an amazing wife. Second wife doesn’t mean second place – keep that in mind.