By Esther Mann, LCSW
I recently got remarried, to a wonderful man I’ll call Mark. I’m so grateful to have met him. Particularly after being divorced for eight long years, I felt very lucky to finally meet someone who I believed was solid and loving. Especially after experiencing a rotten marriage for so many years, I of all people know the difference between a good man and an awful one. But I am struggling with a problem.
Mark lost his wife, and so from the beginning we were coming from difference experiences. Whereas I really had no positive feelings toward my ex, Mark came from a great marriage. And something tells me that after watching his wife suffer for several years, he’s elevated his wife’s memory to that of sainthood. Frankly, I have heard some very nice things about his first wife, so I’m sure she was wonderful. But at this point, Mark has only memories of her being perfect. For now, everything she used to do or say was the absolute best. It’s hard to fill those shoes and I really don’t even intend to try. I’ll do the best that I can as a wife and hope that I too can be appreciated for my unique ways.
Before we married, some people I knew who were in second marriages warned me about the perils of trying to blend two families. Even though neither of us had youngsters at home, I was prepared for challenges and was told to expect resentments and attitude. But no one warned me about the particular problem I’m dealing with. It seems Mark is very close to his former mother-in-law. At first I thought it was very impressive how he managed to keep up with her and stay close. I thought it showed some very good character traits on his part. But I was very surprised when, after we were married, he began asking me to invite her for yomim tovim.
If she had no other children and no place to go for a holiday, I would understand. But she has two married daughters and a married son, all of whom live within the tri-state area. Yet it seems she and Mark have a particularly close relationship—even closer than I had imagined. Again, if my own mother wasn’t alive and well and also available for holidays, I think maybe it wouldn’t make me as uncomfortable. I feel that he needs to make room in his life for forming a close relationship with my mother, but I don’t see that happening under the circumstances.
Here’s the real problem. When Mark’s former mother-in-law (Eva) comes (and by the way, he still refers to her as his mother-in-law—can a person have two?), they tend to bring up his former wife, Eva’s daughter, right in front of me, without any sensitivity to how it makes me feel. And it doesn’t make me feel good at all.
This past Rosh Hashanah, Eva stayed with us. When we sat down to the table for dinner the first night, she commented to Mark about how beautifully Sara (his first wife) always set a yom tov table, with such style and grace. When I served the apple kugel, she compared it to Sara’s kugel and remarked that Sara must have used some special secret ingredient, because her apple kugel always tasted so amazing.
I can’t honestly say that Eva treats me poorly. She’s always respectful and even complimentary. But she and Mark both lack sensitivity to how it makes me feel when Sara’s name comes up. Also, sometimes I feel that it would only be natural for Eva to resent me. After all, I can’t imagine how painful it was and is for her to have lost her daughter. And my heart does go out to her. But I am trying to build a life with Mark, and it almost feels as though there are four of us sitting around the table together—Mark, me, Eva, and Sara, since they are so busy keeping her memory alive and well.
How do I deal with this? Should I tell Mark that his mother-in-law is no longer welcome in our home and that he should resume his relationship with her out of the home? Maybe meet for dinner occasionally, or he could visit her at her place? Do I have the right to say that I don’t want to hear Sara’s name mentioned? Can Mark even understand how painful it is for me to constantly be reminded of his wonderful marriage to Sara, or am I being selfish to expect him to understand how it feels to be the “substitute wife”?
When is life ever perfect? So, lucky you; unlike so many single or divorced women, you managed to marry a wonderful man. As you’ve mentioned, particularly after going through a painful first marriage, you of all people can appreciate a good man. So, first of all, mazal tov on your good fortune.
Creating a successful first marriage takes a great deal of work and mazal. Without constant awareness and sensitivity, it’s hard to keep it moving in a happy direction. But, however vigilant a couple needs to be when it comes to a first marriage, a second marriage requires additional ramping up in terms of the care and maintenance, since there are so many additional moving parts added to an already complex dynamic.
As you pointed out, the blending of two families can be beyond challenging. It sounds as though this hasn’t created undue stress for you in general, and that’s a good thing. But the mother-in-law piece of this equation is where you are feeling most challenged and confused.
There are no steadfast rules in this regard and no absolute rights and wrongs. A lot will have to do with your tolerance level and Mark’s ability to hear you without feeling threatened. Again, as you’ve pointed out, you and Mark are coming from such different first-marriage backgrounds. Yours was all bad, so Mark doesn’t have to do very much to be considered a hero. He has no ghosts to compete with. You, on the other hand, are competing with a first wife who has now possibly taken on legendary qualities. (Death will do that sometimes.) And it’s not helping that his former mother-in-law is a constant presence in your home to remind you of your stiff competition.
If you want this marriage to work, there will be certain areas where you will have to learn to swallow hard and look away. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for certain considerations to be respected.
I think your desire to request that Eva stay out of your house could backfire terribly on you. By banning Eva, in a sense you are banning Sara’s memory from living on. That would feel like a betrayal for Mark, and I doubt that he would ever go there. You don’t even want to put him in a position of having to choose between the two of you, which is what it might feel like to him.
However, it is legitimate for you to discuss with Mark the following two issues. Firstly, that if he and Eva feel the need to bring Sara’s name up between themselves, he should explain to Eva that it’s not something that should be done in front of you. And secondly, as you make your yom tov company plans, you would like to be able to first explore if your mother is interested in joining you before he considers inviting Eva over. In other words, it is important to establish a certain pecking order regarding which “mother-in-law” takes precedence. You can’t ask Mark to abandon Eva, but you can explain that it’s important to you and your mother to feel that, at this point, they are the primary family in his life.
I think this is probably as far as you can take this story. Mark sounds like a very loving and devoted husband. And these qualities will, G‑d willing, serve you very well. But if you expect to purge Sara’s memory from his essence, I suspect you will be sadly disappointed. However, a certain degree of empathy toward you is necessary within your marriage. If Mark is unable to understand how some of your basic needs are being ignored, it might not be a bad idea to check in with a couples therapist for a session or two, just to give him a reality check.
Otherwise, it sounds like you’ve found a really good man. Are things perfect? No. But by now most of us have figured out that “perfect” is for fairy tales.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.