THE DEFECTIVE WIFE SYNDROME
By Judith Patz, M.S.*
STEPFAMILIES, Summer 1994
Over the years, I have worked with many remarried couples. With the high divorce rate and the rise of the men's movement, therapists working with this population often see couples in which the husband/father has either sole or shared physical custody of his children from a previous marriage. Frequently, one encounters a phenomenon which I call the "defective wife syndrome" (referring to the ex-wife).
In these cases, the ex-wife is viewed as defective in some allegedly unquestionable way. The nature of the "defect" may range from not fitting cultural stereotypes for a woman or mother to engaging in criminal activities. She may be a drug or alcohol abuser, she may be viewed as having "loose morals" on account of real or imagined infidelity, or she may have a history of psychiatric hospitalization. From a systemic perspective, the specific content as well as the objective accuracy of the account is irrelevant. The important feature is the role which this view of the ex-wife comes to play. In order to address this, a few words are necessary concerning the mourning process as it occurs in divorce and remarriage.
It is a rule of thumb that the success of a new marriage depends to a great extent on the completion of mourning in relation to the loss of the prior marriage. Mourning is an emotional process through which an individual accepts and comes to terms with a loss. It permits the individual to return to and continue with his/her life. Applied to a failed marriage, mourning functions just as it does in bereavement. Successfully completing a mourning process allows the new marriage to proceed without excessive "baggage" from the prior one. Mistakes made in the earlier marriage need not be repeated. Mourning a failed marriage involves more than experiencing one's loss and pain. It is also essential to take responsibility for one's contribution to its demise. When this does not occur, the problems of the previous marriage tend to be repeated in the new one. All too often, the result is a cycle of divorces and remarriages.
The "defective wife syndrome" is a particular configuration of unresolved mourning in the marriage/divorce/remarriage cycle. Although marriages of men who present this syndrome may have ended for a variety of reasons, the men rigidly insist that the ex-wife was entirely responsible for its failure. Her alleged defect is presented as self-evident proof for this view, which permits him to disavow all responsibility for the marital failure. No matter how factual the portrayal may seem, it always signals that the mourning process is incomplete, perhaps barely initiated. The new marriage is, therefore, already at risk and probably manifesting a repetition of problematic patterns.
Intrapsychically, portrayal of the ex-wife as defective permits a man to deny the pain of his loss as well as to avoid taking responsibility for it. Systemically it also has a profound impact. The incomplete mourning process means that the new wife is confronted with expectations that she be the antithesis of the previous wife. A dichotomy is established in which the ex-wife is the epitome of all that is bad while the current wife must be the opposite: the "ideal woman!" Needless to say, this puts excessive pressure on the new wife. She must embody that ideal not only to sustain her husband's love, but also to compensate for his loss and to collude with his denial of the pain and responsibility which he bears.
Thus far, my primary emphasis has been on the husband's perspective. However, the wife has her own set of issues and agendas as well. She typically buys into the idealized expectations of her husband because of her own inordinate need to be the "good wife." That men set standards and project a certain view of the ideal (i.e., "normal") woman, and that many women try to embody that view, is not new information. However, the new wives in these marriages seem to be particularly invested in their effort to be a "good wife." This is important in their own eyes as well as their husbands'. Since the role is impossible, after varying periods of time problems often arise. To prevent these complications it is helpful if both parties examine their hopes and expectations for the new marriage.
* Judith Patz, a psychotherapist in private practice, resides in Pittsburgh, PA. She is also on the Editorial Staff of the Family Therapy Institute Newsletter, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh in which this article first appeared (Spring ‘93).