As I researched my book Stepmonster over the last several years, I was struck by just how large ex-wives loomed in the lives of women married to men with kids--and vice versa. I didn't conduct a single interview where it didn't come up, and usually the topic was not a happy one for the women I spoke to. Indeed, they found these relationships with their husband's exes uniquely aggravating--and often all-consuming. "She's awful"; "She lives for conflict"; "She's a drama queen and a rotten mother" were common refrains.
As I reviewed the anthropological literature on stepmothering, I realized there wasn't much of it--but that studies of certain polygynous societies had plenty of lessons to impart. Whether among the Dogon of Mali, the Kako people of Cameroon, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, or the Yanomano of the Amazon, cultures where men take more than one wife are characterized by co-wife conflict that simmers, rages, even boils over into homicide.
Wait right there, you're thinking. Men in the contemporary U.S. and Western Europe aren't exactly polygynous. It's not like they have several wives. They divorce and remarry. Or they have wives-and girlfriends on the side. That's not polygyny. Is it?
Yes, it is, according to anthropologists like Steven Josephson, who studied co-wife conflict among a cohort of Mormons, but also takes an interest in more mainstream goings-on. He suggests that our widely-accepted practice of "serial monogamy"--marriage, childbearing, divorce and remarriage or repartnership, and subsequent childbearing--"is really just slow-motion polygyny."
Certainly we don't all live together, but there is increasing pressure for the adults, particularly ex-wives and wives, to "get along," to form cooperative parenting coalitions, and to help step-siblings and half-siblings feel like "true brothers and sisters" in recent years. In such a family form, men do in fact have "two families"--it's just that they're divorced from one wife and married to another.
This is all separate from what Josephson calls "polygyny in all but name," in which men in the contemporary Western world--where we explicitly condemn polygyny but pass no laws against men cheating--secretly have two families or two long-term partners. Francois Mitterand, U.S. congressman Vito Fossella, and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, like high-ranking males in many cultures and tribes world-wide, are particularly prone to this type of polygyny.
And what about the women? Why do they put up with it? Either because they have to, human behavioral ecologists and anthropologists like Josephson and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy tell us, or because it might benefit them in some way. In traditional hunter-gatherer cultures like the !Kung for example, where women bring in most of the calories, they have sufficient clout to tell their husband's they'd better not take another wife--and make their lives hell if they do. In other societies, a man might marry his wife's cousin or sister when she is widowed. This arrangement--called "sororal polygyny"--benefits the woman, who can get household help from a kin member with whom she can likely form a coalition, retaining significant power in her own household.
But pity the women of the Dogon Country of Mali, where men live among their kin and pass land down to their eldest sons, and polygyny is a strategy for keeping women oppressed. Men are prohibited from marrying even distantly related women, which in effect divides and conquers co-wives, who turn on each other with creative malice. Newspapers and court records are full of accounts of co-wives actually attempting to poison each other's children--particularly the eldest boys--in the hope that their own sons will inherit the onion and millet fields of their shared fathers.
Whether women are in polygynous relationships because they have no choice, or because they might benefit from it in some way, Josephson says, "when it comes to polygyny and our evolutionary history, the software is still in there."
And so is the impulse to resist it if it undercuts our own access to resources like a partner's (or ex-partner's) investment--be it money, time or both. And that brings me back to conflict between wives and ex-wives. These rivalries, many anthropologists tell us, are ancient, fundamental, and very real. So whenever a woman is confronting the relatively new pressure to "get along really well" with her husband's ex or "do the holidays together for the sake of the kids," I am always quick to remind her that this is an option, not an obligation, and that it is not easy to pull of, or even necessarily worth the effort. Civility and friendliness are enough--friendship may be elusive.
Check out Dr. Phil on Tuesday December 1st if you want to see a wife and ex-wife discuss their own personal journey from rivals to friends. Jennifer Newcomb Marine and Carol Marine co-authored No One's the Bitch: A Ten-Step Plan for the Mother and Stepmother Relationship, which documents their successful struggle to form a parenting coalition of sorts. It might not be for many or even most of us, but it is interesting and important reading. If the right factors are in place, these cooperative, friendly-enough coalitions can make all the difference for everyone in the step/family system.