The second wives' club

Wife No 2 may get the man, but wife No 1 gets the money - and sisterhood can go to hell. Hettie Judah reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
LOUD AS WE may preach sorority from the rooftops, there seem to be some female relationships that are doomed from the start. Step-mothers are inevitably wicked, mother-in-laws possessive, and the Zeppelinesque charms of Lara Croft have driven many a Playstation widow to despair. But as Claudia Fitzherbert pointed out in the Telegraph this week, the relationship between the first and second wife seems to have a baroque nastiness all of its own. Animosity is understandable when the demise of marriage number one is implemented by the foreplay of marriage number two. Yet even when the two events occur years apart, and the only flame that exists between husband and wife number one is the cinder of their marriage certificate, Mrs Before and Mrs After can almost never be friends. The problem is not necessarily sexual jealousy, territorial instincts or even rank possessiveness. The problem, in truth, has very little to do with d-i-v-o-r-c-e and a great deal to do with a-l-i-m-o-n-y.

If there are offspring from the first marriage (or not necessarily even marriage; teenage flings, youthful follies and right-on relationships all have their place) the newly-married couple are working to support a child who does not even live with them. The new wife is essentially pledging herself into an existing family with all the concomitant financial burdens, on top of the family she is planning for herself. In extreme case scenarios this means that the first wife or babymother is being supported by the husband without having to work, while the new couple are both having to work to maintain themselves in diminished circumstances.

"When I married Daniel I knew that he had had a son, Stuart, when he was still at college; I had met him and we got on fine," says Camilla. "Daniel was supporting Stuart and his mother, and at the time it didn't seem to be a problem; we both had good jobs. But Daniel and I now have two children of our own, and we still support this other family as well. Daniel is self-employed so his cash flow is erratic. I have had to stay in work to keep everything chugging along - essentially I am the major bread winner. Our lifestyle is not bad, but the last thing we need is this extra burden; I have found more and more in the past few years that I have had to borrow money from my parents. Sometimes I can't help thinking that Stuart's mother is just irresponsible; her son is eleven now, and there is no real reason why she couldn't work, but because she has this guaranteed income she doesn't even bother to try. At times it just feels really unfair."

The suspicion that wife number one has taken Ivana Trump's "Don't get mad; get everything"dictum to heart always seems to linger near the surface. It is hard, as wife number two, to believe that wife number one is being reasonable in her financial requests. Carol and Andrew used to have Andrew's son Neil to stay at weekends. "Whenever Wendy came to drop Neil off, she would always use it as an opportunity to twist the knife a bit more," says Carol. "There was always some passing comment about something she couldn't buy for Neil, or couldn't let Neil do because she didn't have enough money. It seemed like she had primed Neil as well; even as a quite young child he seemed unnaturally interested in financial goings-on. Much later on he actually admitted to me that Wendy used to dress him in bad clothes when he stayed with us so that we would think that they were really badly off."

This bitterness over money matters puts extra strain on the second marriage; along with the normal financial arguments there are the alimony arguments, the suspicions, the financial jealousy and the basic feeling of unfairness. Wife number two, after all, had no part in the creation of the earlier family, yet she still has to work to maintain it. "I could see myself changing into a nippy cow," remembers Polly. "I didn't mean to but it became kind of compulsive. We'd get Sonia's kids over for the weekend and through them we'd pick up bits of information about her life - they were very indiscreet. So I'd hear about some new development and I'd end up saying 'Sonia's got a new living room suite; we could have had that' or 'Sonia just took the kids on holiday, be nice if we could go on holiday for a change.' It never stopped. One day we found out that she'd had a boyfriend for ages and he was living in the family home with her, basically living off her; in other words, living off us. Of course they were never going to get married - the payments would stop. I ended up taking the whole thing out on my husband, accusing him of being weak and easily manipulated because we both had to work to support Sonia and her fancy man, and he wouldn't do anything to stop it."

When, in classic style, a husband trades in his wife for a younger model, it is assumed that the new couple will traipse off to live the high life leaving poor old wife number one to pick up the pieces. In reality, the trappings of the successful older man which may have attracted the younger women - financial security, large family home, lavish lifestyle and so on - actually end up getting left behind with the first wife. "In my experience, husbands are so guilt-ridden about their first wives, particularly if they have children, that they throw money at them to salve their guilt," says "younger model" Trudi. "It presents the second wife with a dilemma; if she says, 'Excuse me, but we need some money too,' then she comes across as a gold-digging little hussy, but if she keeps quiet, she has to work herself into the ground to provide the life that she wants. You have to bite your tongue and get on with it because there is enormous pressure on the second wife to be more perfect than the first. Sometimes you have to ask yourself, is the man worth the hassle of dealing with the first wife and all the financial problems?"