Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quiz: Terms Of Affection And The Second Wife”

I guess I should apologize for using that clip to introduce DaveL’s sensitive and wise Comment of the Day, but I couldn’t resist: just leaped into my head. Otherwise, his superb observations need no introduction.

This is DaveL’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Ethics Quiz: Terms Of Affection And The Second Wife.”


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.

6 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quiz: Terms Of Affection And The Second Wife”

  1. Respectfully, you’ve illustrated the spouse’s perspective brilliantly, but I think you’ve missed a critical point:

    Regardless of her father’s feelings, the reality of the situation, or who he decides to spend his time with… from her perspective her father has moved on from her mother, and all those memories that she has of her parents together will on a daily basis grind up against reality, and unlike her father who can move on and remarry, Resentful will never have another mother. This is an element of loss that is unique to the position of children. And reality asserts itself, I’m not saying that widows should wear black and be single for life, but pet names, and particularly THAT pet name, does seem almost designed to add as much insult to injury as possible.

    I have a thought exercise I use when post mortems on projects: Make it worse. Making it better is easy, improvements are usually obvious. Identifying places where there were close calls or things that went OK despite the process is usually good for identifying risk that we might want to mitigate going forward. And if you’re looking at something, and you can’t come up with a way to make it worse without being absurd, them maybe you’re on the cusp of a problem.

    Make this worse. Try to think of something the father could do that would give more offense without being overtly offensive. I think it’s hard without getting physical.

    Offense is taken, not given. It doesn’t matter how offensive you mean to be if your target doesn’t care, and it doesn’t matter how benign you mean to be if someone takes offense.

    Some people put more weight on the intent aspect of offense. For reasons that I have opinions on, but are ultimately irrelevant, it seems like now more than ever being on the wrong side of an offense brigade can have massive personal consequences, and if you’re going to suffer massive personal consequences, then you should probably be able to have some conception of what’s happening before it happens. The principle in play here is fairness.

    On the other side, some people put more weight on outcome. This side tends to focus around supporting the offended on the auspices that regardless of whether offense was meant, it existed, and should have consequences. The principle in play here is respect.

    Reality is probably somewhere in the middle. Just like losing control of your vehicle and striking a pedestrian is fundamentally different than purposefully driving your car through a parade, even if you didn’t mean to offend, there’s still probably some reasonable amount of fallout to be expected. This situation hasn’t moved much beyond the principle parties.

  2. DaveL and Humble Talent together sum up my feelings on this one.

    According to DaveL the 2nd wife is the love of his NEW life. This makes sense because once a spouse dies, your life is forever changed and one must recognize and adjust to their new reality.

    DaveL’s loss however, is quite different from a dad who had been married for 30 years. Everything is much more entrenched, especially, when children are fully raised by both parents. The daughter in this case is still mourning deeply, obviously. I’m not sure DaveL can truly appreciate that since his time with his wife was considerably shorter.

    DaveL shows his compassion for the daughter by saying she should be treated gently and acknowledged it may be hard her to understand.

    Which is Humble Talent’s point. He understands this as the son of parents married 30 years who lost his dad, as mentioned in his comment on the original post.

    He concedes that the daughter isn’t being fair by withholding communication and may miss out on future blessings of this new family dynamic. His larger point, that she deserves sympathy, and therefore shouldn’t be dismissed as some petulant adult-child, makes a great deal of sense from his view.

    My beloved aunt died when I was a freshman in high school. She was my favorite aunt at the time and died very quickly from breast cancer, leaving three sons still in school, behind. A little over a year later my uncle started dating.

    He quickly found his new love soon thereafter. Yet I didn’t accept the situation. When my new aunt was around I’d avoid her and gave my uncle the cold shoulder. Then one day my new aunt revealed she had the same birthday as me. That opened the door of my heart to her.

    Soon enough she became my new favorite aunt. She was great for my uncle and his kids and she was a blessing to our family. My sadness at the loss of my first favorite aunt was still there but I realized I was going to miss out on some really good times if I stayed glued to her memory and my own resentment.

    The one thing that really helped the transition for all of us was the respect my uncle showed to the family, his new wife, and the memory of his deceased wife. He always has a photo of his first wife in the living room and never said things about his new wife like, “this is the love of my life.” He strove to consider all involved. One nice thing he did was have the house remodeled so he and his new wife could have their own new bedroom.

    It was his actions…not his words that demonstrated his caring and consideration for all. His new wife was indeed his priority but his first wife was never forgotten, and his love for her was never denied. And thorough that framework, his kids were able to thrive, in spite of their painful loss.

    HT and DaveL highlight in their comments the challenges faced by parents and their kids when the death of a spouse occurs. And both are quite right. The daughter needs to find a way to get reconnected to the family. And her father in a way needs to do the same because his words show a lack of understanding.

    Perhaps dad and daughter could sit together and establish some boundaries. It’s not that hard to leave the, “love of my life,” commentary on the back burner when others are around. And it’s not that hard for him to instead show his feelings for his wife with others around by touching her lovingly or helping her make food or clean up when family gatherings happen. And the new step-mom can do her part by gently trying to befriend his daughter.

    The daughter can seek to forgive her dad, because he has never had a wife pass before and is stumbling. She can be clear about what makes her uncomfortable but she has to realize she can’t make him change, especially when she’s ignoring him. Yes, she needs to grow up. And so does the dad.

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