From Mistress to Wife: Now What?
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."