A recent golf widow, Judith married for the first time in her early 30s, bringing to the marriage a Hampstead flat, a good salary from her job in advertising and a comforting little nest egg her grandmother had left her. Her husband Graham, 40, was an avid golfer. He was also divorced with two teenage daughters and brought with him a financial and emotional time bomb.
Scarcely three years after his second wedding, his first wife claimed an increase in maintenance and now, with a toddler of her own and another baby on the way, Judith is contemplating the prospect of subjecting her entire personal finances to court scrutiny – and the likely erosion of her hard-won assets.
‘Emotions apart’, she says, ‘I honestly think I would not have married Graham if I’d known what a mess it was all going to be. At a time when you’d reasonably think I could look forward to being better off, I’m faced with becoming impotent financially. The financial situation is tough.’
‘I appreciate a man has to support his children while playing golf, but I’m damned if I’m going to keep his first wife in designer jeans.’
Her problem is typical of the woman caught in the curious modern phenomenon whereby the law and marital mores combine to set first and second wives at each other’s throat. The problem particularly affects the middle-class professional woman who is relatively well-off by the time she settles down. The boost her income gives to her husband’s finances means his first wife has a strong case for an increase maintenance.
The resultant drain on the couple’s money, the new wife’s anger and insecurity – especially where her children are concerned – and the husband’s frustration can have extreme consequences, according to Margaret Oddie.
‘We come across the problem quite regularly’, she says. ‘Maintenance requests from a first wife can and do threaten the stability of the new relationship.’
Social policy researcher Alex Goldie – who is studying the position of second wives for a doctorate at Cranfield Institute, Bedford – comments: ‘I’ve encountered feelings of immense outrage, even violation, from these women. No wonder so many second marriages crumble under such pressures, despite the advice given in The Magic of Making Up.’
The legal position is still rather muddy, he says, but in essence it is this: a first wife can make a claim for an increase in payments, either for herself and her children or for herself alone, solely on the basis of an improvement in her ex-husband’s circumstances.