Ethics Quiz: Terms Of Affection And The Second Wife

Ever since I dropped my subscription to the Washington Post in disgust (yes, the Times is better), I have been neglecting Carolyn Hax, the most consistently ethical advice columnist in captivity. I stumbled upon her latest column today, and my wife vociferously disagreed with my reaction to a question posed to her. I decided to make it an Ethics Quiz.

“Resentful” wrote that her father was widowed five years ago and remarried. She’s resentful that he keeps calling his second wife “Love of my life” in front of his adult children and his grandchildren. The daughter has “minimized contact with him as a result.” He’s hurt, and she wants to know what to tell him. “Quit [dumping] on the memory of my mother in my presence and you’ll see us more than twice a year” is what I WANT to say.”

The Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is the daughter being fair to her father?

Hax, as usual, tries to talk the inquirer through the problem. Tell him, she says. “Even an unwelcome message is kinder than vanishing on him without explanation.” Then she tries to explain what might be going on from her father’s perspective. ‘You’re the one, not your dad, making the connection between his love-of-his-life swooning and “[dumping] on the memory of my mother,” she writes. “You had your own relationship with your mother and it is yours to treasure and grieve. Nothing your dad says or does now puts a dent in that.”

My reaction was a bit different: “Oh, grow up.” The woman’s father has a new relationship to work on. Maybe she’s insecure about being Wife #2. Maybe she needs reassurances and affirmation, as well as terms of endearment and unconditional love. She IS the love of his life right now; his previous wife is dead. Her feelings won’t be hurt. The daughter needs to be reasonable, and its up to her to explain granddad’s exuberance to her kids.

My wife said that if she dies and I remarry, and I call my new wife “Love of my life,” she’ll come back from the grave and kill me.

26 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Terms Of Affection And The Second Wife

  1. “She IS the love of his life right now; his previous wife is dead.”

    I mean, I hope that’s how he means it. Traditionally, though, “the love of one’s life” means one’s entire life. I can’t fault Resentful for hearing “love of my life” as “what I had with your mother wasn’t as special or meaningful to me.” For all we know that might be what he actually feels. That’s not necessarily his fault, but by the same token it’s not necessarily Resentful’s fault that she resents him for that. It’s her choice how to respond, but I agree with Hax that they need to talk it out, establish what he felt, how she feels about how he felt, and how they want to deal with it going forward.

    Then again, there’s no rule that says that only one soul mate exists per person. Just ask Tim Minchin; he’s got a hilarious offbeat, yet reassuring song called “If I Didn’t Have You.” (It’s almost as comforting as his “Not Perfect.”)

  2. I think she’s making a mountain out of a molehill. She’s old enough to apologize to her father and tell him she took affirming words as disrespect to her mother and made it personal.

    When I die, I will be in a position and place where what happens on Earth will be of no consideration to me. I’ve already told my husband that he is free to remarry if I pre-decease him and the only stipulation I place on that is that he be willing to allow my blood relatives to claim family heirlooms in my possession that mean nothing to him. We have so few years to live that making a grieving spouse or parent restrict expressions of love to what makes us happy instead of them is petty.

  3. The promise in marriage is pretty clear: “To love, honor, and cherish, from this day forward, til death do us part.” After death the contract is no longer valid. Assuming the father fulfilled his vow to the first wife while she was alive, the daughter has no cause for quarrel with the father.

    The father now has a vow to love, honor, and cherish his new wife. The daughter needs to respect the father’s new vow, and respect his efforts to honor it. In fact, a loving act by the daughter would be to help him honor his vow in any way she can. She should get some counseling to help her work through her feelings. Then she should explain to her father what happened and apologize to him and his new wife for her behavior.

  4. Generally speaking, I agree with “Oh, grow up”; however, that does not address the real problem at hand and that is the perception of respect.

    In the viewpoint of the children it’s not so hard to perceive that the father is knowingly or unknowingly disrespecting their mothers memory in their presence and that’s really not acceptable without a reasonable explanation. A lot of humans have a tendency to go a bit overboard when they fall in love and that might be what this is. New love can be a bit overwhelming but when there are children from a previous wife that bubbling over needs to be toned down a bit in their presence. When parents get divorced, very similar things can happen; I know, I’ve been both the side of the children (my parents divorced in my mid teens) and been on the divorcing parents side (my first marriage failed and we had a son). The daughter should be an adult and have an honest father-daughter discussion and respectfully telling the father that she “has no problem with his father falling in love again” and ask the father something like since he has been calling his new wife the “love of his life”, which seems disrespectful to her mother’s memory, can he explain his relationship with her mother so she can better understand his perspective. I’m relatively sure that a simple honest unemotional discussion about this would go a long way to clear the fog away, even if they disagree on some points in the end, at least they can understand each others perspective and that kind of unemotional honesty would be a pretty good place to start.

  5. Dad is walking a tightrope between his devotion to his new wife and his children’s devotion to their mother. That would be difficult enough as is. However, some important details are missing here. Does she dislike his children? Do his children dislike her? Are there valid reasons for either? Is there a question of what will happen with an inheritance? These are all potential problems with a second marriage and adult children. Hopefully they can have a mature discussion about all these things, but it might need to wait until the (annoying) romantic period is over.

  6. I lost my first wife at a young age. She was 30, I was 26, we had been married a little over two years. I’ve since remarried, and have been so for nearly 13 years.

    Widowhood seriously messes with people’s heads when it comes to timeless ideas of true love and fidelity. Divorce they can cope with – clearly that person wasn’t “the one”. It “wasn’t meant to be.” The pledge you made to love them for the rest of your life has been ruptured, no more need be said about it. But widowhood, particularly in the young who remarry, screws it all up because they feel they must choose one spouse to be “the one”, the “real” spouse, the “love of one’s life”, and the other one denigrated to understudy status.

    But it is not so. The ancients of most religions who decreed that a marriage endures only as long as both spouses survive knew what they were about. I never stopped loving my first wife, and my current wife knows it. I’ll never forget her, never minimize what we had together. But it’s over. She can no longer be my wife, I can no longer be a husband to her. She was the love of my life then, but that life came crashing down. My second wife is the love of my new life. That might not comport with the traditional understanding of the term “love of my life”, but then again most people holding or forming that understanding do so without having experienced widowhood and remarriage. Like battle plans that don’t survive first contact with the enemy, popular notions about lifelong love don’t survive the actual loss of a spouse.

    So yes, the daughter is wrong to believe her father is slighting her mother. But she should be treated gently, because I wouldn’t expect her to understand. For most people that understanding is dearly bought, and I wouldn’t wish the knowledge on her.

  7. My wife said that if she dies and I remarry, and I call my new wife “Love of my life,” she’ll come back from the grave and kill me.

    I hope you responded “At least then we’d be together.”

  8. Jack wrote, “My wife said that if she dies and I remarry, and I call my new wife “Love of my life,” she’ll come back from the grave and kill me.”

    Option #1: “Don’t worry my love, I don’t have the stamina to go through all that wife training process again.”

    That’s when the fight begins and you sleep on the couch. 😉

    Option #2: “Don’t worry my love, you won’t have that problem because I can’t live without you.”

    That’s when she says “you’re full of shit” and the fight begins and you sleep on the couch. 😉

    Option #3: “Not if I have your cremated remains spread in the Potomac River Great Falls at Olmsted Island Overlook.”

    That’s when you volunteer to sleep on the couch.

    Option #4: “Yup, whatever, so where do you want to go for dinner tonight?”

    • Of the 4 options, No. 4 is the deadliest of them all. No woman wants to hear, “yep, whatever . . .” when it comes to affairs of the heart. Sleeping on the couch is a luxury – moving to Albania under an assumed name is better but you’d have to keep one eye on the horizon and one looking behind you. Yeah, you respond that way and you are toast, with no friends coming to your aid.


      • This was going to be my “That’s when…” after #4…

        That’s when you hear BANG!, and now you’re wife is saying to her new husband “you’re the love of my life”.

        …but I thought I’d leave it blank and let everyone else get creative.

        It was all just for fun anyway. 😉

  9. My parents were married more than 30 years when my father died. Mom was just over 50, so when she started dating, I had mixed feelings… At some point, she’d have to move on, widowing shouldn’t make someone a hermit, but it had only been a little over a year since his death, and there was a part of me that found that… I don’t know. Tacky, maybe? It’s not a rational emotion…. It’s not really my business who my mother spends time with. And it’s an impossible calculation…. How many expected years of life to the power of how many years of marriage divided by pi is the right amount of time? But there are emotions involved, and there is a metric, even if you can’t write the math down.

    As with all of these letters, take them with grain of salt because we’re only hearing half the perspective, at best. But taking the case as described; “Resentful” should obviously be an adult and use her words… It’s not fair to anyone to just stop talking to people based on something they obviously don’t understand. Her father obviously misses her, her kids probably miss their grandfather, and whether she wants to admit it or not, she’s missing out too. If all of that is based on what is ultimately a misunderstanding, that seems like a her problem.

    I do have a whole lot of sympathy for her ultimate position though. At the end of the day, if she told her father that she feels the way she does, and equipped with that knowledge he continues to call wife #2 pet names in her presence, that’s a choice. It feels disrespectful. I’m honestly having a hard time processing the idea that her father doesn’t understand that, but I suppose that it’s possible.

    I think the difference between our positions is the idea that there’s a right answer here, or that you should be able to have your cake and eat it too…. Should you be able to remarry and call your new wife whatever you both want? Sure. But could outsiders to that relationship, particularly the children of your dead spouse, see that as offensive and not want anything to do with it? Oh yes. Is anyone objectively wrong here? Not really. And even if you disagree with that, and you think Resentful is wrong, what are you going to do about it? Her feelings are her feelings, and you probably aren’t going to talk her out of them.

    This is two-sided. From Resentful, the question becomes what is more important to her; the relationship with her father, or the memory of her mother.

    From Resentful’s father, the question will become what is more important to him; the relationship with his children, or calling his new wife pet names.

    If either says yes, the relationship continues, if both say no, it doesn’t.

    This seems like a slam dunk: The relationship obviously seems more important. Reasonable people would compromise. And yet, even if the conversation happens, I think it’s a coin toss. Resentful has already signaled that the behavior is a deal-breaker for her, all it would take is for her father to have a similar reaction and all of a sudden they both agree.

  10. Wow… so many things to say on this one as I have seen it play out both ways.

    Her Dad saying “love of my life” to a new woman is NOT wrong, or disrespectful and if my husband remarried if I should die before him, i would WANT him to find someone he could call the love of his life!!!

    He’s got ONE life to live!!!

    I would want him to fall madly and deeply in love with whoever it is that has to put up with his crap ( hahaha joking lol sorta :P) and I would hope he would be happy with her, and that would in NO WAY be a reflection on his love for me. I know he’d still love me, and I just told him all this now as I type this comment and he sits next to me having coffee. And, he almost spit his coffee out. 🙂

    I think the daughter is being unfair and her dad’s new wife is probably bringing up so many things in her…. missing her mom, maybe even thinking why didn’t he treat mom this good? who knows… but the fact she can’t talk to him says a LOT.

    I know most women would not agree with me. I have friends who have husbands who lie to them because they can’t handle the fact that their hubbies may remarry after they die!

    they also can’t handle the fact their husbands find other women attractive! LOL!! My husband is very honest with me about the plight of men… and honestly i feel sorry for them sometimes in our culture. I mean… men ARE mammals and we can see how the male of other species naturally act.

    I think we as a culture have often been unrealistic in what we expect of men. Not that we want them humping everything that walks by… no… but that we make them feel shame for WANTING being attracted to many different women, and that is just biology.

    That’s an entirely different subject BUT it’s partially related because of how we expect “good men” to be and that includes having eyes for NO ONE but the one to whom they are married.

    But it’s amazing to know your husband loves YOU, and only wants YOU, and still be able to ask him if he thinks your friends are cute and who he’d want to have sex with. LOL. And it surprisingly wasn’t all of them! hahahhaha.

    Hope I wasn’t too honest here LOL. 🙂

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