Book Reviews

Second Wives: The Pitfalls and Rewards of Marrying Widowers and Divorced Men

by Susan Shapiro Barash
reviewed by Patricia Schiff Estess

If there is anything wrong with this book, its the title. First wives, second wives, women marrying for the first time to men who are either widowed or divorced, and the men themselves would benefit from the insights and wise counsel from Second Wives, by Susan Shapiro Barash.

Certainly Barash, a critical thinking/gender professor at Marymount Manhattan College, has a point of view that is most empathetic to second wives. Probably because she is one--twice. She reports that psychologists and sociologists confirm that second wives, whether they know it or not, are in pain to varying degrees. A second wife often feels threatened by an ex-wife, especially if that woman is the mother of her husband's children, or someone she finds herself "sharing" her husband's time, money or energy with. She might be jealous that she was not the "first" to experience something with this man, or find herself making mental comparisons between herself and the "first" woman. Some women even equate their second wife status to being number two.

The strains on this marriage - a vocal ex-wife, children, and finances - are often too much for the new union to handle, hence the 60 percent failure rate for remarriages. So far, all of this sounds familiar, and if Barash stopped here, we wouldn't be reviewing the book. Fortunately she doesn't.

She points out that the responsibility for a successful remarriage doesn't lie solely in how the new wife handles her new role. It is equally dependent on her husband. What has he learned from the mistakes of his first marriage? How clearly has he defined the boundaries of his ex-wife's involvement with him? How guilty does he feel about breaking up the first marriage? How committed is he to putting the new marriage first?

Even if all these questions can't be answered in a way that puts the second wife at ease, that does not signal the end of the marriage. Good communication, time, a second wife with a keen sense of what her husband needs to achieve the balance between the old and new - all improve the marriage's chances of success. As Barash says, the relationship of the husband and his first wife will not necessarily be mirrored in his second marriage. "In an equal partnership, the dynamic is specific to the two individuals."

And what about the second wife? What's her role in making the marriage successful?

Some of what troubles a second marriage she has no direct control of. And, I think that's important for second wives to hear and understand. Vengeful and vindictive ex-wives who cannot put the past to rest and who are unable to get on with their own lives can be terribly threatening. A vengeful first who influences the children against their father and stepmother and exerts continuing money pressures can strain the new couple's relationship to the breaking point. But certain positive occurrences can make a difference, like when the first finds a romantic attachment or remarries, has a baby with her new partner, moves out of town, or recognizes her waning power.

And it's in this "waning power" that a second wife has the most control. Barash elaborates on many ways second wives can establish a better sense of place and self. Among them are how to better communicate your dissatisfaction to your husband, how not to get caught up in a tug of war between you and his children, how to accept the realization that he had a life before you, how to protect your turf yet still ease the tension among the families, and how to create a life with your husband that is unique to the two of you.

Two chapters in the book deserve special mention because they deal with frequently overlooked issues."The Rebecca Syndrome: Widowers"Second Wives" addresses second wives who are haunted by the memory of an idealized deceased first wife. It has important suggestions of ways to deal with that. And "Reuniting Long Lost Loves" explains why marriages to boyfriends of one's youth are so powerful...and can be so successful. With all the problems and the inherited baggage that a woman faces when marrying a widower or divorced man, Barash says second wives are at advantage. They enter a marriage to a man who, hopefully, has attained a certain maturity. Hopefully too, he now knows what he wants and what type of person he partners best with. He probably has already established himself financially and in his career. And he is likely to appreciate his new wife's qualities more fully and be more committed to making the marriage work.

Remarriage is a commitment to the future. It obviously needs constant work. But it also needs celebration -- the ultimate theme of this book. "If the second wife discovers a true soul mate in the second marriage, the second marriage exists as the only marriage," Barash concludes.

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