Thursday, December 10, 2009

The First Wife Syndrome

As I look about me at one of the more tragic realities of modern Christianity, I feel I have found a solution that could alter that reality and it is so simple in concept that it evades our observation. The tragedy is that of failed marriages and the many, many women who wish to be happily married again or for the first time. The cause of this tragedy is the dearth of men that make good husbands. Statistics are readily available to demonstrate there exists a much higher proportion of marriageable women in our churches than there are of single marriageable men. The simple answer, amply demonstrated in the Bible, is that good men, who are already good husbands, should be husband to more than one wife, simultaneously. This is a practice we call polygamy, but in the Bible, it is simply called marriage. There is no specific designation between husbands with one or two or more wives. His relationship with each wife is that of the two becoming one flesh through physical union. The plural relationship is a man with plural wives, or we may say, one man with three marriages. The women are not married to each other; their relationship may be like that of sisters or good friends. I recognize there are many Christians that find this concept immoral or unworkable, to them I say, look at the Bible. There are many such marriages displayed and many, many more adequately implied, all without any condemnation from God and working, as well as or better than, the average monogamous marriage. Where then is the hindrance that keeps so many good women, who wish for husband and family, from being happily and properly, married? This question is the purpose of this article.

I have chosen the title, “FIRST WIFE SYNDROME” very carefully. For the purpose of this article I will assume that we will privately investigate what the Bible actually teaches in regard to plural marriage and not try to cover that information here. What I have discovered in my reading and questioning of many men and women about plural marriage is that the objections are not usually based on Biblical or moral reasons. Legalities are not even significant to keep an honest person from entering into the blessed and righteous bonds of plural marriage. The “FWS” is predicated upon the beliefs and practices of the first wife as well as the beliefs and actions of the husband as he relates to his first wife. These beliefs and practices are almost entirely emotional in nature.


The first objection that I hear from opponents of plural marriage is very basic. “It’s just not right” is the claim and when asked “according to who?” there is no foundation of righteousness for the claim. The first symptom of this syndrome is ignorance. As in most human experiences the fear of the unknown is more devastating than what is known or experienced. Ignorance then, causes more negative reaction to new ideas or practices than anything else. When I suggest the concept of plural marriage, since it is virtually unknown among us as practiced in the Bible history, most wives shrink back from such a possibility because of ignorance, not because of any reality. The dear ladies, justifiably so, begin to ask a series of questions that revolve around the thought “but what if”?

The second symptom of the “FWS” is the awful sense of losing her place in life. Any woman that has agreed to marry a man as a first wife has also, in all likelihood, assumed that she would be the only wife in her husbands’ life. She has entrusted to him certain things of great value, including her trust, her future, and her affection. She has confidence in him that he will always be there for her. In most good marriages, he is the center of her world. The good wife has established her identity with her husband. When she hears or suspects that her beloved husband is considering marrying an additional wife, she fears she will lose all that she has invested in her husband. She may even feel the ground beneath her feet give way and leave her with only loss and isolation. She doesn’t want to lose her husband to another woman and lose her world at the same time. The emotional sense of impending loss is closely akin to losing a dear one to death.

The third symptom is that of feeling unloved or unwanted. Closely coupled with that is the sense that she has failed to be a good wife and is being discarded for a newer model. She may fear the newer model will be younger and more attractive; that after devoting her youth and energies to her husband she is being cast aside as useless and worn out. It must seem to her that, in his eyes she lacks value and virtue, the very things she felt she was contributing to the marriage relationship. Such a wife will usually respond in one of two probable ways.

1. Desolation; hopelessness; broken spirited.

2. Rebellion; resisting any attempt of plural marriage, even to the extent of destroying her relationship with her husband.

Such feelings and responses are not abnormal, even among wonderful, God fearing and honoring wives.

The fourth and last of our list of symptoms of the “FWS” is closely aligned with the other three. However, insecurity deserves to be considered as a single issue. One of the key issues in a successful marriage is the trust and security that a wife has in her husband. When any or all of the above issues have begun to emerge, she feels the safety of her whole being is undermined. She will have no safe refuge. She will begin to question his integrity, his reliability and his love. She will likely feel she has to evaluate every thing he says and wonder what he is doing when he is not in her direct presence. Her insecurity will cause her to pull away from her husband and perhaps seek the counsel and security of friends and relatives. The friends and family will most certainly not understand what is happening, therefore furthering the polarization of the family.

I would like to describe the “First Wife Syndrome” as “The accumulation of the fears of the unknown, uncertainty of love, fear of losing everything dear and the insecurity that change brings”.

Should the wife be blamed for these feelings?
I think not, should she be faulted for these feelings, again, no. These feelings are very natural and normal for the Godliest women. Her heart is designed by God to value the very things that are being threatened by the thought of plural marriage. What is the best way to deal with this syndrome and allow for the benefit of marriage to a larger group of godly women?

Enter the Husband, the key person in considering the “FWS”. He is the one that is interacting with each wife, he is the one suspected of acting out of uncontrolled lust and unfaithfulness. How the husband functions in his role of husband to his first wife will set the stage for her understanding and security. He has the ability to assuage her fears and comfort her trembling heart. Any man, who can’t or won’t love his first wife well, will not be a good candidate as husband to a second or third wife. He should never take on the responsibility of loving and caring for additional wives, if he is not already being an admirable husband to his first wife, “the wife of his youth”. The standard for this issue is the Word of God. In this case it is Malachi 2:13-16.

“And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand. Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.”

The women of Judah and their children were covering the altar of God with their tears because their husbands and fathers were treating them with disregard, casting them aside to take a new wife. God takes sides in this issue, calling the actions of the men, “treachery”. The practice of divorcing a wife for any reason, but that authorized by God, is the cause of much heartache and pain. Lives are ruined by such careless selfishness. God says that he hates it. God tells us through Malachi, that a first wife is a special blessing. He calls her “the wife of his youth” and “the wife of thy covenant”. She holds a very special place in her husband’s heart that should never be diminished by any act on the husbands’ part. They have history, they have invested years in learning each other’s ways, growing together, possibly building a family. They have invested their lives in each other. God is grieved when a man casts aside this relationship to marry another woman. It is possible for a man to cast aside his wife without divorcing her. All he has to do, to bring about the same results that grieve God, is to be insensitive to his first wife’s need and emotional state when he considers plural marriage. God is not opposed to a man marrying additional wives as long as he will and is able to maintain the relationship with his first wife. God has entrusted her to her husband’s care and protection and considers the husbands care of his wife as his greatest act of faithfulness.

When I was first exposed to the concept of Biblical Polygyny, I followed the normal course of action as most Christians do. I attempted to disprove the idea as cultic or carnal at the least and highly immoral and lustful adultery at the worst. Asking a friend, “why would a Christian man want to marry a second wife?” I received the following, simple reply. “Why would he want a first wife?” Thank you, Don Milton for such a simple, but pointed clarity. I maintain that any man worthy of a good wife, will be motivated by the following reasons, regardless if it is a first marriage or plural.

1. The most important motive is love. He has come to love the lady and desires to be her husband.

2. The second motive is compassion. He sees her need of a husband and desires to husband her and love her. This would include the levirate marriage, the kinsman/redeemer.

Any other motive, in my opinion, is suspect and should be carefully examined for sincerity and genuineness. By God’s design, marriage is a lifetime commitment and should never be entered into lightly.

The husband’s love and care for his wife, whether there are one or three, is the picture that God gave us of the relationship between Christ and His church. We read Ephesians 5, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.” The context, verses 22-33 give us the most concise description in the Bible of the marriage relationship. Other passages have complimentary information or examples of how it works, but this describes the responsibility of each party in the marriage. The husband’s responsibility (or opportunity) is to play the part of Christ in the marriage. This is an honorable role that not every man is willing to play. Each man is capable, but not qualified to take the responsibility of a family. It is difficult, because to do it right, selflessness must be employed. Genuine love must be the true motive and reward for his part. As Jesus loved the church and gave himself for it, so ought the husband make each wife the object of his affection as well as the recipient of his loyalty and protection. He will demonstrate Christ by:

1. Being a lover, by loving God first, that he may love his family well, as Jesus loved the Father first.

2. Loving unselfishly, giving preference to the wife as the object of his love, not to things; wealth, possessions or experiences, as Jesus loves people above all the rest of His creation.

3. Loving faithfully, all his life, as Jesus said, “I will never leave you or forsake you”. The husband will love interminably as Jesus does eternally. The wife should have no fear of being forsaken by her husband.

4. Loving freely, without limitation as Jesus loves and accepts all that come to Him. The husband will have the potential of loving, without limitation every wife that God brings under his care and affection.

Playing the role of Jesus in the marriage relationship enables the husband to aid the first wife in overcoming the First Wife Syndrome, which burdens her with fear and uncertainty. She will know that she is loved as much or more than ever, is not losing anything, but may be gaining a best friend and a greater security. This knowledge and assurance enables her to have a different mindset, freeing her to trust, honor, respect and support her husband, as the people of God are to respond to Christ. She will understand that, by supporting her husband in his effort to extend the love that God has placed in his heart to other godly ladies, she is expanding her own loving embrace to encompass a sister in Christ. This loving experience enriches the life and love of each lady as they each submit themselves to the loving, faithful leadership of the husband. This completes the casting of characters in the “Marriage Performance” with the wife playing the role of the church in relationship with Christ.

Perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with the “FWS” is stepping out into unfamiliar territory to embrace this truth. Accepting the truth of God’s teaching about marriage, acknowledging this newly understood reality is probably the most difficult step a man or woman of God will ever take. This must be a step of faith in God and His Word and a step of submission to His Lordship in our lives.

Much grief may be experienced if both the husband and wife are not onboard with the truth. The husband must be patient and loving. The wife must be gentle, trusting and following her husband’s leadership. Both parties must love God with all their heart, soul, might and mind. If “George” charges forward, seeking, courting and planning for an additional wife, without consideration for “Sadie” and her probable “FWS”, he is not loving her as Christ loves the church. If “Sadie” is unwilling to follow her husbands leadership, seek God in His Word, search the scriptures, seek her husbands understanding or see and honor his loving commitment to her and God and resists revealed truth, she is not responding to God or her husband as the church responds to Christ.

When “Sadie” is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with the “FWS”, what is “George” to do? His marriage may easily end in disaster if he does not act properly. His first effort should be self-examination, to determine if his own behavior is loving and Christ-like as well as being certain that he is moving in the will of God and not his own excitement. He should then ascertain whether “Sadie” is not clear on the truth or if she is being stubborn and self-willed against God. If he is sure of his motive and faithfulness, he will seek “Sadie’s” prayers and aid in following God’s plan, showing by precept and practice that he is endeavoring to follow Him. When “Sadie” is involved she will love and follow “George”, even to loving and embracing those her husband loves, enabling a larger, loving family.  If “Sadie” is being self-willed and selfish, then “George” must count the cost of following his heart and the Lord. He may well find himself in the same position as Peter and John, appearing before the Sanhedrin. “But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:19-20. Difficult decisions demand earnest prayer, searching the Word and the soul.

The First Wife Syndrome is real. Any woman struggling with it deserves the love and compassion of her husband. She has position and history that must be considered. On another facet of the issue, a second wife must also recognize the reality of the first wife’s history. There will always be a part of her husbands’ heart that must belong to her alone, for she is the wife of his youth and of his covenant. This need not be a source of contention as long as there is understanding and love for all the family.

“George” and “Sadie” are the names of my maternal great grandparents. Their names were borrowed without their permission for the sake of clarity in the text.

This is posted first on, and is available for reproduction as long as the authorship is credited and the source is given.

John Whitten December 10, 2009