Coming into my role as a second wife to the love of my life was no easy feat.
It’s as if everywhere I turned there was another reminder of his former life, of the woman he loved before me. It was inescapable, perpetual torture.
I wanted to surprise his mom at work with a bouquet of flowers, but I was faced with a canvas print of the entire family, including his daughter and ex-wife, with his grandfather, my husband’s favorite person in the world, a man that heartbreakingly passed away before I would ever get to meet him.
When I volunteered to help him unpack his house when he moved, I chose an innocent looking box labeled movies (in her handwriting, which should have been enough to break me down) and started unloading and organizing. I stopped dead in my tracks when I stumbled across… their wedding video.
He often wanted to share stories about his time living in Washington and Pennsylvania, but all I heard was “those places my ex-wife wanted to live” or “that place my family and I lived together.”
At family gatherings, I was the new girlfriend and just knew they were all comparing me to the photos of his ex-wife still hanging framed on the wall, a year post-divorce. It was as if she was more part of the family than I could ever be because of their history and their daughter together. The family tensed any time he held my hand or my now-stepdaughter addressed me.
The second wife made everyone uncomfortable.
But what they didn’t know is that I was far more uncomfortable than they could even imagine. I felt like I was a faulty second model, trying to live someone else’s life. I loved my boyfriend and his daughter, but they couldn’t reciprocate as easily. He had built strong, Great Wall-worthy defenses around his heart, and K still couldn’t understand why Mommy and Daddy couldn’t be together.
I had so many reasons to stay. This was a wonderful man: smart, driven, handsome. His daughter brought me so much joy.
But I questioned if I could stay.
Could I really accept that I would be someone’s second choice, second best for the rest of my life? Didn’t I deserve to be #1? I often wondered if he loved her more than he could ever love me.
I made things so much harder on myself.
It was her choice to leave, her choice to end the marriage. I knew he had been left heartbroken and confused. And this is what got me every single time: If he had it his way, he’d still be with her instead of me. That thought haunted me. It nearly broke me. He didn’t want to know what else was out there – that I was out there – he just wanted to be married once and never divorce.
I worked myself past the point of exhaustion daily to be the best homemaker. I made things infinitely harder on myself by always asking “WWAD?”. What Would Amanda Do? She’d prepare beautiful healthy meals from scratch, pack the best lunches, and keep a clean home.
I was my own worst enemy.
Because comparison is the killer of joy.
I didn’t give myself a chance to be what he needed now because I was so caught up in what he had before me. I was. Not him. Not her. Me. I thought about their marriage and subsequent divorce far more than either one of them did. By comparing myself to her, I killed any chance I had of being truly happy.
I hated being second.
He had already experienced his firsts: first wedding, first child, first family. Everything we experience together is second. I realize now that doesn’t mean second rate. It sometimes still stings. Whenever we’ve discussed having children, he already knows the answers to any of my questions. Why? Because he had a family before me. She got to research all of those questions with him. She got to give him his first child, to give his parents their first grandchild.
Because I was the second wife, I was robbed of all of the exciting firsts.
Was it possible he’d be just as excited about his first time experiencing things with me as he was about experiencing them for the first time? If my wedding was any indication, yes, yes it is entirely possible.
Lessons Learned in Embracing my Role as Second Wife
Today, I am happy, blissfully married, and confident in my place as second wife. It was a long road to get here, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I learned ten extraordinary lessons on my path to accepting and embracing my role as second wife.
1. You’re the only one comparing yourself. And doing so only hurts you.
You are not her. She may have a different hair color, favorite hobby, or educational attainment. You are two different people, and that’s a good thing. If it didn’t work out the first time, why would it work out the second time with someone exactly the same?
2. You have a unique role as second wife.
He’s learned a lot from his first wife and his divorce. He’s a changed man; you’re marrying someone different than she did. He went through Heartbreak Hell and still thought you were worth taking the risk of it happening again.
3. You are his choice now.
Whether the divorce was his idea or not, you were so great he couldn’t stand the thought of you getting away. After the pain he went through the first time, he wouldn’t decide to try again unless you are really worth it.
4. It’s a lot easier to accept your new role when the memorabilia and photos are put away.
If he still lives in the house he shared with his ex-wife, have fun and go house-hunting together. Further, please get a new bed; you’ll thank yourself. Go ahead and ask your Mother-in-Law to take down the old pictures – you don’t need to be reminded of her every time you try to bond with your new family. Decorate your home together and don’t just recycle her decor. And for the love of whatever you find holy, get rid of the wedding video (note: if you have stepchildren, it might be best to just move the video to the attic for a later date to give to them).
5. You both need to share your triggers.
He doesn’t know what you don’t tell him. Be open about your feelings, but be cautious not to blame him. He’s been married before, and you knew that when you entered into this relationship. It’s perfectly acceptable to share your feelings and guide him on how to avoid triggers (things he does or says that instantly form a pit in your stomach). For example, a couple of times after we moved in together, Kevin and his ex-wife swapped stories or photos about when their daughter was younger. Though the reminiscing didn’t make either one of them want to get back together, it made me wildly uncomfortable before I had accepted my role as second wife. I shared my trigger with him and he was much more understanding and aware as a result.
He also shared with me things that upset him in his prior marriage so I could avoid any of his triggers. For example, he said he felt abandoned when he only received one letter from his ex-wife when he was in boot camp. So when he left for TDY for 2 weeks in Europe, I wrote him an email everyday.
6. It is imperative to create new traditions.
Did they always do heart shatteringly adorable family costumes and trick or treat together? Maybe you find a community party or trunk-or-treat to attend together as a couple instead. Start a tradition of roasting marshmallows and making s’mores on Friday nights, catching a matinee every Saturday, or finding a new church home together. Rewrite the rules of what family looks like to him. Make it your own.
7. Making yourself a list of your merits as his second wife accelerates acceptance.
I wouldn’t recommend sharing this list with anyone because it might sound self-serving or conceited. Make a list of all the reasons you’re right for the job (and if necessary, why she’s not right). Self-affirmation is a perfectly acceptable coping method and the quickest way to peace of mind.
8. Clarifying expectations with your partner is critical.
Even more so than with a first marriage, clarifying partner expectations in a second marriage is critical. He might subconsciously expect you to make dinner each night, do the laundry, and make the bed. Not because he’s sexist, but because that’s what the only other woman he’s ever lived with did. He doesn’t know anything different, so you have to talk about it. You don’t need to be a perpetuation of his first wife, so make sure he’s not latently thinking there are duties you must perform as second wife.
9. She’s not the enemy or the competition.
Stop thinking she’s the enemy. A mature ex-wife will want him to be happy with someone that’s capable of doing that for him. Try to reach out and be friendly to her. If there are children involved, you’re going to see her often enough at the hand-off anyway, so make it as easy and pleasurable as possible. If he doesn’t have kids, there’s a chance you’ll run into someone from his past, even if it’s not her but one of her friends or relatives, and you’ll be much more at ease when you meet them if you haven’t framed her as the enemy in your mind.
10. It takes time.
Honestly, it took me nearly two full years to have a great relationship with his ex-wife. A relationship where I’m not intimidated that she was his first love. Where I’m not resentful. A relationship where I’ve finally freed myself from constant comparison and have full acceptance of my place as second wife. Give it time.
I knew being a stepmom would be a challenge, but I had no idea being a second wife would be exponentially more difficult.
It makes even the most confident women insecure, the strongest women vulnerable, the most committed women question. But if you can overcome all of that and stick around, you’ll find peace with your irreplaceable role as second wife. You’ll understand that she couldn’t fill the role for the man he is now; despite their happiness before, he’s changed now, and he’s choosing you. He wouldn’t take the risk of heartbreak (and if he has children, the risk of bringing a new woman into their lives) on a whim or halfheartedly. You are the grand prize, and he’s excited to start a second chapter of his life with you.