Thursday 27 November 2014

Second-wife syndrome

Marrying a divorced man means accepting certain baggage -- including his first wife, says Sue Leonard

Sue Leonard

Published 19/03/2011 | 05:00

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin as a divorced couple in ‘It’s Complicated’

Watching the DVD of 'It's Complicated' got me thinking about the fate of the second wife. So often portrayed as the wicked stepmother, the bitch from hell, she's assumed to have it all her own way.

She's got her man. She's secured his love. But could taking on someone else's cast-off have a rather more melancholy side? Could her new husband end up yearning for what he once had, leaving the second wife more vulnerable than the abandoned wife left picking up the pieces?

Could the lack of money, the wrangling over property and children make a mockery of a second marriage? It's possible, judging from the numbers of second wives who are seeking support. Astonishingly, there are more than 3,500 Irish members of the British Second Wives club.

Why should that be? According to Linda Mellor, who set up the British Second Wives Club in 2005, second wives feel marginalised. They often have to compete with a vindictive, controlling first wife; a woman who manipulates the money, as well as access to the children.

"When you're in a new relationship, you don't expect an ex-girlfriend to still be on the scene," she says. "First wives can be extremely controlling. And when there are children, she dictates what happens and where. Second wives are trapped in this triangle, and, yes, they do need a lot of help and support."

When Mellor became a second wife herself, she was appalled to encounter all the bitterness. "You meet a man, you fall in love and suddenly you're dragged into the middle of stressful and acrimonious exchanges when one of the parties is demanding to know everything about your life, your finances and even the value of the car you drive," she says. "It was a shock.

"And it's even harder to take when it was the first wife who was responsible for the marriage break-up in the first place.

"You find yourself thinking, 'She wanted a divorce, she has a new lover, so why does she have a problem with him getting on with his life? Why can't she accept the marriage is over when she was the one who ended it by having an affair?'" she adds.

Mellor set up the club because she couldn't find the support she needed elsewhere. And, with divorce so recent in Ireland, it is surely even tougher for Irish second wives to cope with the problems.

It's well known that a marriage bust-up can lead to depression; it's less expected that a second wife should suffer depression too. But according to Gerry Hickey, a Dublin-based psychotherapist and counsellor, who often sees second wives, it can happen all too easily. And it's often because of the husband's lack of sensitivity.

"Second wives are trying to carve a place for themselves within this new relationship, and they're constantly halted by the past," he says. "The husband will frequently mention his first wife in conversation. It's not deliberate, but it hurts this new person. It hurts so much, and that's when they get reactive depression."

Children make it tougher. One young second wife was trying hard to get on well with the children. "But it wasn't easy. I was suddenly a mum in my 20s, and I'd never dealt with children. It was a nightmare. I sometimes wondered, 'What am I doing?'"

The first wife was far from helpful. "She was very controlling. Everything was down to money. She got a large amount of maintenance, but she was always asking for more. She used the kids as a bait. He'd go to the house on a Friday, and the kids would not be there as arranged. Or we'd arrange to go away for a romantic weekend, and the first wife would suddenly disappear. We'd end up taking the kids with us."

Jenny Grainger has had a rather better experience. But she's had practice, having been a second wife no fewer than three times. Now 41 and married to Eoin Scolard, the couple run the Irish School of Life. And she's learned that, to have a happy relationship, you have to put the children first.

"Eoin and I have five children between us," she says. "When we realised we could make each other happy, we sat down and explained the relationship to them. We made sure that they were happy with it. We wouldn't have moved in together if they had been totally against it."

Jenny's first husband had no children from his first marriage, but her second husband had a little boy.

"I was fond of him, but it meant that my husband had a lot of contact with his first wife. I learned, early, that my husband's relationship with her had nothing to do with me. I learned to keep my nose firmly out of it."

According to Hickey, it's tough if the husband gets on well with his ex in-laws.

"If he plays golf, say, with his ex-brother-in-law, it causes mayhem. The second wife is thinking, maybe the ex-wife will turn up at the bar afterwards. It makes her feel insecure."

Niamh doesn't have to deal with a first wife. Her husband's wife had died before they fell in love. She's happy. She gets on brilliantly with his teenagers. She says had they not approved, she would not have continued with the relationship.

His mother is fond of her too. She's grateful that her son has found someone else to love. But she doesn't avoid tension altogether. His dead wife's family have never accepted Niamh.

"They continue to give me the cold shoulder," she says. "I was at a family birthday recently and I was ignored all day. It was clear the family wanted their sister there, and that they didn't want me. Then one sister, after a lot of drink, had her say. It was, 'What are you doing, living in our sister's house? Why don't you live in your own?'

"I'm not trying to replace his children's mother. I tread carefully. I don't do the hard discipline. I go to my husband and talk things through with him. It's his job to guide the children to adulthood."

If a man is going through a divorce, there will be added stress and strain. In England, a wife's standard entitlement is 50pc of the joint property, unless it is argued otherwise. In Ireland, the wife's entitlement is a third. But many first wives will go to court to argue she should have more, especially if she has been in the marriage long-term, has contributed financially and has children to support.

All this can be a ferocious strain on the second wife.

To add to her problems, a second wife may be asked to sign a pre-nuptial agreement. They have never been tested in an Irish court, but Anne O'Neill, a family law specialist from Clonakilty, Co Cork, has drawn up a large number, mainly for second marriages.

"There may be property from the first marriage that has already been fought over and settled," says Anne. "That person would, naturally, be reluctant to take a risk for the second time.

"And in a case like that, I believe the pre-nup would be upheld. In the case of a 'blanket pre-nup', where someone said, 'any property I have now or acquire in the future will be mine, and mine only', would not, I think, be upheld in the Irish climate."

According to Hickey, there is no such thing as a clean break.

"Some friends from before are bound to bring the ex into conversation," he says. "Second wives have to deal with that. The secret is learning to -- and expecting the past to impinge."

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