Although my book “PAST: Perfect! PRESENT: Tense! Insights From One Woman’s Journey As The Wife Of A Widower” primarily addresses women married to widowers, I do occasionally receive e-mails from women who are in serious committed premarital relationships with widowers as well. These brave souls seem to share one issue in common: struggling to overcome the “fits and starts” initiated by their previously widowed boyfriends who emotionally withdraw from the relationship when grief is triggered.
The following is an example of “fits and starts” from a recent letter I received:
“I have been dating a widower for the past two years. His wife died five years ago. He says they were very happy and everyone I meet tells me how wonderful she was. Initially, he dove right into the relationship and we seemed to be the perfect match. After six months of dating, he withdrew and said he had to work out in his mind issues that were about him and his wife, and he wasn't ready to discuss them with me. He is very close to his late wife’s family and they celebrate her birthday and death every year. It was during the time of this anniversary that he retreated. We got back together a few months later for another eight months, but now the same thing has happened at the same time of the year.”
“Do you think these are issues about his wife and that even after such a long time he is still not ready to move on or perhaps his problems stem from other issues? He is a lovely man...kind, generous, thoughtful, and I love him dearly. How can I gently communicate more with him about this? I did have a fear of bringing “her” up initially, but tried to do it once in awhile. I have not visited her grave with him but really do want to. Is there hope?”
Typically, a widower who has re-entered the dating scene does so with much trepidation. This is “virgin territory” to him, yet he chooses to take each step one at a time and deal with the issues as they arise. One of the issues he may face is “guilt by betrayal”. If I had to venture a guess based on what I have researched about widowers (since I don’t know each one personally), I would say that this writer’s widower is exhibiting classic "guilt by betrayal" issues since he typically backs away from her during his late wife's death anniversary.
This pattern usually affects widowed men who were faithful and happy in their marriages, shared a child with their late spouse, and/or were married for a decade or longer. At this time, he feels guilty for a variety of reasons, such as the simple acts of:
1.) Living ("Why do *I* deserve to live when “she” (late spouse/girlfriend/fiancée) didn't? There's something WRONG with that!")
2.) Being happy ("How can I be - or how do I deserve to be - happy when "she" is gone? It feels so WRONG!")
3.) Moving on ("Shouldn't life just STOP because “she” is gone? Wouldn't it be more of a memorial in her honor for me to remain celibate/single/miserable? What's WRONG with me?")
Widowers such as this typically:
1.) Have no one to talk to about their confusing feelings, so they stuff these emotions deep inside until an event (such as another funeral he attends, or the death/wedding/birthday anniversary of his late significant other) brings these feelings to the surface).
2.) Have no idea how or where to find someone to validate their feelings and discover that they are a perfectly normal (but temporary) part of the emotional grief cycle.
3.) Have family/friends holding them back and prodding their guilt.
I truly believe that it is NOT healthy for a widower to be commemorating his late wife's birthday/anniversary with his late wife’s parents each year. They may be the sweetest people on earth and have no intentions of making the widower feel guilty, but they are!
The former in-laws are a sore subject among WOWs/GOWs. Some are very accepting and kind, some are not. Those who are not have a hard time accepting that their daughter's beloved husband has chosen to move on with his life. Their rationale is:
1.) Sadness: ("I guess he didn't love her as much as he says he did since he has now chosen to betray her by loving again and moving on.")
2.) Confusion: ("How could he "replace" our perfect daughter with a cheap imitation?")
3.) Anger: ("How DARE he dance in her ashes and dishonor her memory like that?!")
In-laws like these often subconsciously PULL the widower into their own grief cycles to "wise him up" and try to make him realize that his behavior is wrong (even though it's NOT!). They do this by bringing him along to the cemetery or making him the guest of honor at their late daughter's birthday parties. Their motivation is FEAR. They are afraid that their beloved child will be forgotten if they stop celebrating her life, and they feel that the widower's steps beyond bereavement are a sure sign that he, too, has negated the late wife's existence. They use guilt tactics by preying on the widower's obligatory feelings.
Some in-laws feel that by including the widower in their celebrations, they are doing "the right thing": helping him with his grief - "We don't want Bill to be alone today. He needs us. We need him. We should all be together." What they don't realize is that everyone who has lost a loved one (including "Bill") deals with grief in their own way and needs to be able to work it out WITHOUT outside interference. It should be "Bill's" choice about how to handle those special grief occasions when they occur, not theirs.
In-laws such as these may also be motivated by their concern for their grandchild(ren). They are afraid that the widower, in his loneliness, will latch onto anyone in a skirt and forget about his child(ren)'s feelings, thereby putting the child(ren) at risk for yet another roller coaster of emotional upheaval. They may also fear that the new woman in the widower's life has ulterior motives: "She wants to make our grandchild (or the widower) forget our daughter!" or "She's USING him as a paycheck or to support her own child(ren)! They are typically - and NORMALLY - skeptical about her.
If you are a GOW who struggles with the issue of “fits and starts” with your widowed boyfriend, there are some things you can do to alleviate this cycle of guilt and grief (but be forewarned - these tidbits of advice first require you to be a tower of strength and push your insecurities aside):
1.) TALK, TALK, TALK! TALK to him about his late wife! Urge him to tell you about her. Doing so makes her REAL and not the saint he would rather put on some unattainable (by YOU!) pedestal.
2.) TALK, TALK, TALK,! TALK about your issues, how they make you feel, and how the two of you can work on them together as a team. You are a part of his life and, by default, of his grief. As such, you deserve to be heard.
3.) HONOR his late wife by allowing his children their feelings. Let them discuss their mother openly. DO NOT talk negatively about their mother in their presence.
4.) DO NOT question your boyfriend’s love for you or compare it to his love for his late wife. You can "own" your insecurities without allowing them to become a wedge between you.
5.) TALK TO your boyfriend's former in-laws. Ignoring them just fuels their fire and validates their negative feelings about you. Don't be afraid to discuss their daughter with them, since avoidance of the subject only perpetuates the saintly icon they have formulated in their minds. Discussing her shows that you are willing to accept the role she played in your boyfriend’s heart and in defining his character.
6.) Speak lovingly, without judgement and with great empathy, to everyone who knew the late wife and/or loved her. This shows great understanding and strength of character on your part.
When your widower boyfriend starts to withdraw into “fits and starts” mode, gently redirect him with your understanding. If he typically withdraws on “anniversaries” associated with his late wife, be bold and offer a shoulder for him to lean on. Encourage him to discuss his feelings with you while reminding him that although you may never understand the complexity and depth of his grief emotions, you care enough about him to listen with an open mind and an open heart. Be patient and understanding, and you will be rewarded with new hope. Time, the great healer, is on your side.
(Copyright 2003-2009 Julie Donner Andersen. All rights reserved. Reprints only by written permission of author.)