From Mistress to Wife: Now What?
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From Mistress to Wife: Now What?

You were the other woman, and you snared the man of your dreams. Can your marriage withstand these stumbling blocks?

Will He Cheat Again?

While there are no statistics on how many men who marry their mistresses go on to cheat again, the chances are that yes, he will. "Beware!" says psychologist Jill Curtis, author of How to Get Married...Again (Hodder and Stoughton, 2003). "Keep in mind that the number of second marriages that end in divorce is even higher than the 50 percent of first marriages that fail."

But even without concrete evidence, stories of a man who cheats again and again are legion. Ask some wives.

Katherine, whose 14-year marriage began after both she and her lover divorced, finds infidelity normal, almost predictable. "Did I think he would cheat on me, too? Of course! Most men do, eventually; some do all the time. I knew he would try, but I also knew with all my heart that he would never be able to get by with it, his heart wouldn't let him, he would feel guilty...and he did. He ended up having to tell on himself, and it made life crazy, but I learned a whole lot, and we survived."

Cynthia, who was married 20 years and finished raising her children before marrying her long-term lover, admits that "Yes, sometimes I do worry that 'once a cheat always a cheat,' but I know that also applies to me. I cheated too, I'm just as guilty, and just as suspect."

Sally, who has been married for 14 years to the man who cheated with her, discovered four months ago that he's been cheating on her for two years. She is resisting the divorce he wants. "I never thought he would cheat on me. Surprise. This is the second marriage for me that has ended, or been in danger of ending, because of a cheating husband. I really never thought I would be going through this again at 48. What is wrong with men, anyway?"

Perhaps, the better question is why women expect fidelity from men who've had a history of cheating. There is no way to predict if a man -- or a woman -- will remain faithful. Even a man with a "good" previous record can fall prey at midlife, or as a seemingly justifiable excuse to exit a bad marriage. All relationships are gambles, but there are some men who are worse gambles than others. It's wise to look at a man's past performance before marrying him.

"Every mistress who becomes a wife believes that she is his true love, " says Dr. Curtis, and that may, at times, be true, she adds. "But there are men who do not seem to be able to stay faithful to one partner. Some men relish the reputation of being a ladies' man and are loathe to change their behavior. So watch out -- some men can become addicted to the thrill of a secret affair."

Coping With His First Wife

In the throes of romantic passion, it's easy to imagine running away with a man and living blissfully, alone together, forever after. Unfortunately, a man with an ex-wife is a man with baggage that isn't going away. For one thing, if she feels you've "stolen" him, she will be an angry bit of baggage.

Both ex-wives and society at large feel the mistress has stolen the husband "almost all the time," says Dr. Curtis. "So the finger of blame points at the mistress, hardly ever at the (male) lover." Such perceptions are hard to break, but not impossible. If you can't move away -- job, family, children or other commitments keep you close -- it is helpful to rise above whispering and behave like a woman who has done the right thing. Marriage is the high road. It's better than cheating -- for you, your husband, and even for his ex-wife.

If your husband and his ex-wife have children together, their relationship as parents, though altered, is permanent. You may have to see his former wife, take phone calls from her, and get feedback from him about your stepparenting skills. This could make you angry. If he is paying alimony, too, that's another connection that can breed resentment. Second wives often feel that alimony is a drain on the finances of the new family, or they may be jealous that he's spending money that could better be spent on you, the new wife.

If there are children, you'll be bumping into his ex-wife at graduations, school athletic events, showers, engagement parties, and weddings for years to come, and eventually you will be sharing grandchildren. You probably don't want these events to be marred by bitterness and rage. The only kind of competition you want to get into is this: Which of you can be classier about the whole thing?

The starting point, says Dr. Curtis, is to get out of your own head and try to understand what the ex-wife is going through. "First wives may actually need to ask for more financial support, help with the kids, and make various demands on the ex-husband," says Dr. Curtis. All of that can be done in a civil manner if the ex-wife is at peace with the divorce. (Some are actually relieved.)

But it could get nasty if "the disappointed wife wants to get back at the new couple, out of fury and pain about being left for another woman." Or, if you harbor jealousy that your new husband still has ties, you may be the one with intense antipathy towards the situation.

While you cannot change the ex's behavior, you can refuse to fight. Lucy, engaged to marry a man who left his wife for her, had to contend with an ex-wife who phoned periodically to brag that she was still jumping into bed with George when he stopped by to visit their children. Lucy adopted a stiff upper lip. "I let her know that nothing she said about him would bother me," Lucy says. "After I told her that once, she didn't repeat the message again. Now, we are decent friends because we all put the kids first."

If you cannot simply ignore an ex-wife's poor behavior, being honest and calm in the delivery of your message -- talking to him is the preferred method -- usually works. It's helpful to empathize with what your man is going through, as well. Dr. Curtis notes that, in spite of good intentions, there's no training for this situation. "Often a husband just does not know how to handle a first wife, and a second wife getting angry will only make matters worse," she says.

"Don't get drawn into a fight with the ex-wife no matter how provoked you feel," Curtis advises. "Rise above it and let the husband deal with it. Don't step in. You will not win."

Coping With His Kids

A new husband who comes with children can present a particular challenge. It can be hard to love other people's children, especially when they are angry, sulking, adolescents, or noisy rugrats. Some stepmothers are barely older than their husband's oldest daughter, which can set up mutual competition. It's easy to resent the passel of progeny that comes along with a man, especially if the man was all you wanted.

Here, too, it helps to be civilized and see it from your new husband's point of view -- and from the vantage point of his children. Often when parents split up, younger kids blame themselves. Even older kids who understand the reasons and get the picture can feel that the family life they knew has been stolen away. If they know you're a former mistress, they may decide to blame you, even if they don't voice their anger directly.

What to do: "Take time to get to know the kids individually," says Dr. Curtis. "Don't see the kids as the enemy, or as instant best friends. They are neither." They are, in fact, close relatives of the man you love, little people he cares about deeply. By treating them as people you know to be somehow lovable, they will respond in kind.

Children who get along well with their real mothers may fear that you are a "new mother" who needs to be embraced totally, whether the child wants to or not. A child's relationship with his mother is so profound that the child may feel he is expected to do that all over again, which may create tremendous pressure. Don't expect that kind of commitment, and you won't be disappointed. Be good to them, and wait for them to come to you.

And there is the issue of discipline. Often, fathers who feel guilty are a tad too lenient with the kids, and that leaves you either playing the heavy or the victim. "Children of any age have a great deal to cope with when parents split up," says Dr. Curtis. Unless they are setting the house on fire this very minute while dad's at work, Dr. Curtis also advises against disciplining the children because they are, after all, his children. Instead, use reasoning, use suggestions, use understanding. Treat his children as you would his mother.

If the kids' father seems overly strict or very lax about discipline, see if you can find out why. "Dads often fear they will lose contact with their kids if they become too strict," says Dr. Curtis. They also feel the children might become sloppy, mannerless and disorderly because they're suddenly from a broken family.

"Try to understand these very real fears," she says. But his parenting might cause you problems when he's not around. If he is too strict, they may test your leniency. If he is permissive, they will expect the same of you. Even if they're not your kids, they are part of the package. "Talk to your new spouse and let him know how you are feeling," says Dr. Curtis. After that, though, let him handle it his way.

Does the Sizzle Fizzle?

Frankly, so much of the excitement of an affair is the secrecy, the drama, the yearning. Once you're sitting across the breakfast table from one another every day, can true love survive?

Psychologists disagree. "Our studies have shown that the more passionate and romantic the courtship, the less likely it is to last," says Ted Huston, PhD, a Houston, Texas-based psychologist who examines the predictability of lasting marriages. "It loses firepower after awhile."

Dr. Curtis, meanwhile, calls the odds 50/50. "If the romance has been about a secret and a thrill, then the letdown after marriage may feel as if something has gone very wrong. After the passion of a secret affair, and then the wonder of whether he'll choose you, it can be hard to be with the man of your dreams all the time."

Sometimes, she says, "guilt may creep in about what has happened." She advises not to let the guilt turn into blame. "Try to understand the pressures on you both. Remember what attracted you in the first place to your now-husband, and try to be as understanding and loving as you were when you were his mistress."

Some of the chill-down is just the normal quieting of any relationship, and would happen whether the marriage grew from an affair or not. "A marriage will, of course, bring about a change in the relationship, but keep in mind this is real life and it takes time to build a lifetime together as a couple," says Dr. Curtis.

Cynthia, a former long-term mistress who married her lover after both her kids and her boyfriend's kids had left home, says sexual intimacy is different now. The sizzle has morphed into something deeper. Instead of stealing moments, "We are now able to hold each other until we go to sleep. Our marriage has grown into a comfortable loving partnership that neither of us had with our first spouse."

She adds: "Affairs are not always just about hot sex. Yes, that may be fun for a little while, but it's not what you would want to build your life around."