Rebecca syndrome

Or why increasing numbers of divorced and bereaved men are remarrying the 'ghosts' of their former wives

Lee Glendinning
Sunday 10 September 2006 00:00 BST

Women who marry widowed or divorced men are increasingly falling foul of what is being called Rebecca syndrome - a situation where they find they cannot match up to the image of the first wife.

In the Daphne du Maurier novel, when Mrs de Winter moves to Manderley with her new husband she is haunted by the ghost of his late wife Rebecca - convinced he is still deeply in love with this seemingly perfect woman.

So acute is the problem that an organisation called the British Second Wives Club has been set up. A survey of its members who married widowers showed that 78 per cent felt as if they were living in the shadow of their husband's late wife. And 63 per cent said that their husband's family and friends refused to accept them as a new partner.

When Russ Lindsay, the husband of former Blue Peter presenter Caron Keating, married television presenter Sally Meen two years after his wife died of breast cancer - commentators were quick to point out the similarities between the two women.

Linda Robertson, the founder of the British Second Wives Club, which now has more than 400 members, says many women feel they simply can't live up to the first wife. "Family and friends can keep repeating how she [the late wife] was a fantastic mother, a wonderful homemaker, a great career woman," she says. "They still feel they have this right to say how great the first wife was, and this can result in the second wife feeling trampled."

It is well understood that widowers who yearn for the feeling provided by their late wife attempt to replicate this by marrying someone remarkably similar. It goes with the theory that while women mourn their husbands, men set about replacing their wives.

The most prominent example in recent times is Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. Sir Paul met her 14 months after Linda, his wife of 29 years, died from breast cancer.

"Everybody tagged that marriage as being doomed right from the start," says Ms Robertson. "It almost seemed like a forced fit. She looks like Linda, the blond hair, the driven spirit."

Dr Darian Leader, a psychoanalyst and founding member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research in London, came up with the idea of Rebecca syndrome. He says that sometimes, even within the warm cocoon of a happy relationship, the power of what has gone before can be overwhelming.

"It is a genuine question of feminine identity," he explains. "It's as if the woman who came before holds the key, and examining her provides a certain satisfaction to the other woman. This is also why many people are drawn to a man who seems to have loved a woman."

Sociologists who have studied remarriage say that while women look for romance, and recover slowly, men seek out someone to help to organise their lives once more. "Most of the time it's a bit shocking how quickly men remarry," says Dr Leader. "For some people, Rebecca syndrome is torturous. A relationship between two people might unconsciously be between three people. The ghost is always there."

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