While I’m not a second wife, I have been in contact with many of them and I can assure you that second wives encounter their own share of adjustment issues, and indeed are sometimes completely blindsided by them.
Many people assume that since most second wives entered their marriages knowing it would be a polygynous situation, they are not entitled to their share of adjustment issues. This is not only unfair, it’s downright stupid.
Every marriage, polygynous or monogamous, involves an adjustment period and goes through different stages – some harmonious, some discordant. So second marriages should be allowed that room to struggle just like first marriages. The thing is, with second marriages this is happening in the “shadow” of the husband’s experiences with his first wife. So if his first wife was more acquiescent or more domestic or more strong-willed (whatever the case), the second wife will feel she’s being compared to that. And some unwise husbands even harp on such things to their wives (“The other one doesn’t talk back,” “The other one dresses up more,” “The other one [fill-in-the-blank]”). So there may be a sense for a second wife that she has to “live up to” or “excel” her co-wife.
A second wife is also often going through the ups and downs of early marriage at a time when her co-wife is far past all that. Early marriage involves power struggles, boundary setting, cooperation style finding, etc. These things don’t usually happen in complete bliss. They are struggles. They involve conflict and emotion. Can you imagine going through all that feeling that your co-wife has already ironed it all out and is more stable in her relationship with your husband? And what if your style is completely different from that of your co-wife? Some husbands deal better with such a situation than others. Some husbands expect to behave with their second wife exactly the same way they deal with their first, and this does not always work. So sometimes second wives have a double-hard time of it because they have to find their own way and disabuse their husbands of the idea that they are a clone at the same time!
In my opinion one of the worst things second wives have to deal with is the wagging tongues of others. People who are normally kind and generous and forgiving can grow forked tongues and horns when the subject is a second wife. Not only is she accused of being a home-wrecker, but any problems she has are considered deserved, so she suffers twice. This can make for a very lonely road.
So being a second wife can be as much of a struggle as being a first wife. Of course the methods of coming out healthy and victorious are the same: du’a, sabr, and leaning on Allah. If a polygynous family can agree to meet all their challenges with humility and trust in Allah it can be the most rewarding kind of family, because it offers so much room for spiritual growth, maturity, and the gaining of wisdom.
(Disclaimer: I am speaking in this post primarily about women who entered polygyny knowingly.)
No matter what you feel as a co-wife at any given moment, almost everyone wonders, “Is this normal? Am I crazy to feel this way? Am I a bad Muslim if I feel this way?” Some people will make you feel as if weak iman is what causes various emotions. But be assured that emotions are just that – feelings – and no emotion can make you a bad Muslim. In fact, if we didn’t have those emotions, we’d already be perfect and not human, and there would be no point to this dunya! Also be assured that most co-wives’ emotions run the entire gammut at one time or another!
Most importantly, it is completely normal for your emotions to fluctuate and bounce all over the spectrum from one second to the next (this is true about second wives as well, of course. I’ll talk about second wives’ emotions in another post). The adjustment to being a co-wife is somewhat like loss, because you’re changing your previous identity and role. So you may feel horrified, grieved, betrayed, sad, excited, angry, hopeful, afraid, indignant, relieved, impatient, all in one day! Often your “state of acceptance” is very black and white: either your’re completely fine with it (one minute or one day), or you’re completely falling apart (the next minute or the next day!). Another pendulum swing is from wanting to rise to the occassion, greet your co-wife with graciousness and take polygyny head-on in a positive manner, to wanting to crawl into bed and cover your head, never greet your co-wife at all, and jump off a cliff rather than face life in polygyny.
Most first wives experience a lot of self doubt. “Why am I not enough for him?” A close relative of this emotion is its polar opposite, “What’s wrong with him that he can’t be satisied with one good woman??” Seek refuge with Allah from shaitan whenever you feel these emotions, because, while normal, if you dwell on it it can cause a lot of misery. Remember, “IF” is a door for shaitan.
The rockiest time as far as pure adjustment goes usually lasts about a month or so, and that is a healthy amount of time. One sister, Zainab, reported with a chuckle, “I cried for three weeks straight. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I did nothing but lay on the bed and cry. Then, after three weeks, my husband said, ‘OK, girl, that’s enough crying. Come on,’ and I stood up, dried my eyes, and didn’t return to that state. Things just seemed manageable.”
Incidentally, these emotions are normal even for women who were completely OK with the polygyny concept, and who may have even encouraged their husbands to marry another wife. When the reality comes closer, fear and doubt sometimes set in, and the emotions do tend to runneth over! But this is most usually a temporary state. After the knot is tied, the drama is past, and things have a chance to settle down into a routine, the adjustment is easier. One sister said, “All kinds of people told me I was crazy and that after the deed was done I’d regret it. They said, ‘Thinking about polygyny is one thing – the reality is another completley.'” I kept saying, “If they would just hurry up and get married, I’ll be fine. And once they did, I was.” So don’t let other people make you doubt yourself by pushing their own emotions onto you.
As time goes on, the adjustment to polygyny progresses and your issues and emotions change. You may have issues with friends who either stubbornly invite one wife and not the other to parties, or who treat you as connected at the hip, always assuming that one wife will tell the other about the party and that they’ll both feel equally invited that way, which is not the case. You’ll turn your attention to dealing with your families’ reactions to your polygynous marriage, and the affect their reactions have on the respective marriages. There will always be challenges, but many sisters report that they are worth it. Sister Zainab now says, “Polygyny is difficult, but I like the independence it has given me now. If something happened and I had to go back to monogamy, I wouldn’t want to.”