Marriage Missions International

Moving In: A Difficult Transition For a Second Spouse

The sun was setting over Grand Rapids, Mich., when Christy Borgeld and her new husband, in a cathartic gesture, heaved a bed into a trash bin.It was the bed Borgeld shared with her first husband before their divorce. Now her second husband was moving in with her and her four children. Though other reminders of Husband No. 1 would be tougher to excise from the house, tossing the bed was “a symbol of moving on,” says Borgeld. “For me, it was goodbye, good riddance. My new husband felt better, too.”

Of course, that was just a start. How do new spouses move smoothly into the closets, kitchen and bedroom of their predecessors? Whether they’re marrying a young divorcee or an octogenarian widower, emotional landmines are everywhere.

More and more Americans now face this challenge. Older empty-nesters often don’t realize how tricky it is to build a new relationship while staying put in a homestead jammed with reminders of the old one. And in the wake of a divorce, younger parents assume kids from earlier marriages will be more stable if they’re not uprooted. But children often resent the newcomer as an intruder — and a previous spouse can haunt a home forever.

Joy Baxter of Walnut, Calif., says it took seven years and three remodelings for her to feel psychologically comfortable after moving into a home her husband had shared with his first wife. The ex-wife often returned to the house and headed for her two daughters’ bedrooms, as if it were still her home. “I’d stand at the front door, frozen,” says Baxter. “I felt very threatened.”

Many women never feel the house is theirs, says Perdita Norwood, who runs a support group for step moms in Branford, Conn. She tells of one woman who tried to rearrange the family kitchen. “She was shorter than the first wife, so she put things on lower shelves where she could reach them,” says Norwood. “She’d be looking for a salt shaker and find it had been put back on a higher shelf. She couldn’t tell if the children were being difficult or just doing it out of habit.”

Divorce mediators, marriage therapists and family advocates often advise couples to start fresh in a new house if they’re financially able. Otherwise, prepare for resistance. “A child might say, ‘Don’t dare move that ashtray! That’s where my mom kept it!'” warns Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America.

Second wives and stepchildren aren’t the only ones who struggle with this transition. When second husbands move in with new wives, they’re often uncomfortable living in a place that was paid for by another man.

Men whose new wives move in with them also have to navigate between memories they want to preserve and the new spouse’s desire to leave her imprint on the home. One man told me his new wife is upset because many of the touches in his home — paintings, dishes, and furniture — were his first wife’s. “Some of these things are important to me,” he says. “I did have a past life with a spouse, but it was my life, too.”

A new spouse can certainly change the decor in the master bedroom, but changes elsewhere, especially in kids’ rooms, “should occur so gradually, they’re imperceptible,” advises Barbara LeBey, a former family-court judge in Atlanta who has written a new book, “Remarried with Children.”

She also says children shouldn’t be discouraged from displaying photos of a parent who is no longer in the home.

People whose spouses have died after long marriages can leave some reminders of them but should trim down the displays before a new spouse moves in. Mementos such as your giant 25th anniversary portrait should be put in storage or given to your adult children, says Sam Margulies, a couple’s mediator in Greensboro, N.C.

New spouses who move into a home where a first spouse has died must accept that “dead people become more perfect every day, and their memory is always sitting at the table,” says Engel. She says a late spouse should be considered a continuing member of the household. Her advice: Look in a late wife’s cookbook for the most stained pages, then ask the kids to help fix their mom’s specialties.

Diane Safran, a therapist in Westport, Conn., worked with a girl whose terminally ill mother had a long talk with her, giving her permission to love the next woman in her father’s life. Though the house was sold after the mother’s death, the father remarried and recreated the daughter’s bedroom in his apartment.

Not all parents are so accommodating, however. New York attorney Harold Mayerson was involved in a case where a second wife moved into her new husband’s loft and hired a consultant to create harmonious energy in the home. After the consultant suggested turning a bedroom into an office, the man’s 17-year-old daughter’s bedroom was taken away from her. “It was a shock,” says the daughter, now a college student. “That had been my room forever.” She doubts the loft will ever have good energy.

Still, some couples can thrive in an old homestead. Baxter says she now has a loving bond with her step kids and is friendly with her husband’s ex. A turning point came 7 years after she moved into the house. The ex was over for her daughter’s birthday party and asked to use the bathroom. “Sure,” said Baxter, “it’s down that hall.” Then she caught herself, and both women laughed. “That’s when I realized it really wasn’t her house anymore.


The above article, originally titled, “Moving In Can Be a Difficult Transition for a Second Spouse” was written by Jeffrey Zaslow. It appeared in the Wall Street Journal Oct. 20, 2004. Even though it’s not written from a Christ-follower’s perspective we still thought it could help those of you who are considering remarriage. It brings up some good points that could become very helpful when you read it together and then discuss the different points that may be relevant to your situation—hopefully before marrying if possible.

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One Response to “Moving In: A Difficult Transition For a Second Spouse”
  1. Tessa says:

    (UNITED STATES)  After much paint on the walls and new carpets on the floor and anything else we could think to do, finally moving from the house that my husband lived with his family in, was the only true way to move forward for everyone.

    Even with adult children who come to ‘visit’, it is uncomfortable as their old rooms have been drastically changed. As they are no longer living there and the rooms were needed, their ‘rooms’ were lost to them and changed in a way that is never satisfactory to even those who live there. Ex-spouses, adult children and younger children who live in the house and both husband and wife, may find remaining in the house to be a bad idea all the way around. I have found that no one feels comfortable. Someone is trying to rid the house of ‘ghosts’ and others are trying to revive them.

    My advice, from someone who knows all to well – find a new place as soon as you can and do not think remodeling is going to change anything. Save your money for the next house that you can truly call yours – even if it is a rental.

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