In Second Wife, Second Best? Author Glynnis Walker Explores the Pitfalls of Being Spouse No. 2
updated 07/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Walker, a former Toronto Star columnist with a psychology degree and an M.B.A., decided to investigate the issue. More than 1,000 interviews later she sat down and wrote the just-published Second Wife, Second Best? (Doubleday, $15.95), a pragmatic look at marriage the second time around. While researching the book, she also formed the Second Wives Association of North America, an informational and support group. "Forewarned is forearmed, "says Walker, who lives quite happily with Anderson and four Maltese terriers in an elegant three-story Toronto town house. "When a man marries for the first time, everybody congratulates him. When he marries the second time, friends and family ask the new couple, 'What in the world are you doing that for?' " Walker talked with correspondent Julie Greenwalt.
Second wives have been around a long time. Why the current interest?
Because they haven't been around in such large numbers. Divorce has become very prevalent in the last 15 years, and every year three-quarters of a million women will join the ranks of second wives.
How is being a second wife different from being the first?
As a second wife, it's not just you and your husband in the marriage. It's you and your husband and his ex-wife, his children and a second layer of in-laws. There are a lot of extra people around who often aren't very supportive of the marriage. You have to get used to the idea that you're sharing him with these people emotionally, financially and just timewise.
Are there stereotypes of second wives?
There are several. At the very least, "second wife" is not a positive term. She's the "other woman," the wicked stepmother. Everybody thinks the second wife is some 21-year-old bimbo who marries the doddering old man with quadruple-bypass surgery and $5 million in his briefcase. That's just ridiculous. You're talking about people, with an average age of 34 for women and 38 for men, who generally have the same basic economic background and education.
What are the major problems of being wife No. 2?
There are three: stepchildren, ex-wives and finances, in that order. Most second wives have stepchildren, and most of us don't have the slightest idea of how to deal with that situation. In a lot of cases, the children will play off one mother or set of parents against the other. One woman I talked to had money of her own before the marriage. Her husband's kids knew that, so they would lay guilt trips on her like, "If it hadn't been for you, Daddy would still be with Mommy, and how about a new bicycle?" These are kids of 12 or 14. She's a smart woman, and she said, "No, I'm not going to fall for that."
What about ex-wives?
One problem is the ex-wife who won't let go. This is the woman who phones at 3 a.m. and says, "My God, there's a burglar. Could you rush over right away?" Often he does, leaving the second wife to wonder what's going on here. Ex-wives like that are usually older and never had an identity outside their marriage. They're Mrs. John Smith, and one way or another they're going to stay that way. Then you get the ex-wife with the negligee and champagne answering the door when he comes to pick up the kids.
Do some men continue to have sex with their exes?
That's more frequent than most people would think. Some men like the idea of having two women dependent on them. It's really good for the ego. And a lot of men say, "I'm paying my ex-wife, I might as well get what I'm paying for," that is, sex every other Friday night or whatever. They make no bones about it. They'll tell you, "She was my wife. She will always be my property. Even though I have another wife now, it doesn't matter."
What about financial problems?
A second wife can pretty well expect a lower standard of living than the first wife had. And within the legal system, it's a case of first come, best protected. For instance, the courts will take into consideration how much the second wife earns when determining additional support the husband should give to his first wife and the childen of that marriage. The first wife often gets a share of the pension, the life insurance and the health insurance, and she probably gets a good portion of the assets, including the house, so the second wife is married to a man who has a large financial responsibility elsewhere. Most women don't realize how long that can go on. If his children are minors, you're talking about a 20-year financial commitment, right through the university.
Are there advantages for wife No. 2?
There can be. The relationship is often more realistic. Frequently the couple has known each other a long time. Second wives tend to meet their husbands through friends or work, not singles bars, so you have that common interest. Eighty-six percent of second wives say they have satisfactory sex lives, compared with 46 percent of women in general.
You mean sex is better the second time around?
She's had more experience. She's a mature woman who knows what she wants. He also has more experience and he tries harder. He may have been interested only in personal gratification as a young man. By the time he's 38 or 40, he realizes that in order to keep a woman happy, you have to give, so sex is no one-sided thing. Infidelity is also lower because both sides are more likely to have gotten it out of their systems, particularly him. He's probably had several affairs, and the novelty of a new sex partner doesn't hold the same thrill as it once did.
Why do men marry a second time?
Thirty percent say they marry for love, which I think is realistic. A lot of them say quite honestly that they marry for companionship. It's convenient and it's comfortable. There are all kinds of reasons. If they have small children, they will look for somebody to look after those children. Some say, "All my friends are married" or "I'm a businessman and I need a wife," or even "It looks better on the résumé."
How does this same man change from the first wife to the second?
He mellows. His expectations are a little less the second time around. He really needs this marriage to work both emotionally and financially because his male pride and his wallet couldn't stand another failed marriage. So he's a little more careful this time, a bit more caring. I found that with Stanley. He's much nicer to me than he was to his first wife, and he'll be the first to admit it.
But aren't the divorce rates for second marriages even higher than for first marriages?
Yes, the divorce rate for second marriages is 57 percent, compared with 50 percent for first marriages. But of the women I interviewed, many of the 40 percent or so who had considered or were considering divorce said that a lot of their marital problems related directly to their status as second wives. As one put it, "Sometimes I think about divorcing him because even though we are married there is still a sense in our relationship that I am his mistress and she is his wife. We cannot shake it."
How can a woman prepare to be a second wife?
Ask a lot of questions. Find out all you can about his financial situation and how he really feels. Make sure he's gotten over his first wife. You can tell. If he talks about her constantly, visits her frequently or shows an inordinate amount of concern for her welfare, he's not over her. Don't get married until he is.
Is there anything that first-timers can learn from second-timers?
That it's often better if you marry later, when you know more about who you are and what you want in life. If he's 19 and she's 19, and he goes through a university and she doesn't, well, they've already got one foot in the divorce court. I think 30 is a good age. That's not to say you shouldn't have relationships beforehand, but marriage is more than just a relationship. It would be wonderful if we could wipe divorce off the map.