Friday, May 15, 2009

Are You A "Grief Enabler"?

Recently, I received an e-mail from a GOW (Girlfriend Of a Widower) who wondered if being “the patient grief therapist” was only enabling her widowed boyfriend’s grief or perhaps retarding his bereavement recovery in some way. “Am I an unwitting enabler?” she asked.

Many medical dictionaries define an enabler as follows:

“Family member or significant person in an alcoholic's or drug addict's life that contributes to the afflicted person's continued use and abuse of the substance. Examples of enabling include making excuses for the afflicted person and/or supplying the person with the alcohol or drug.”

With a few word substitutions, the aforementioned quotes could be describing a GOW or a WOW (Wife Of a Widower) who is either actively or passively, out of the goodness of her heart and with good intentions, enabling her widower’s grief by being compassionate, patient, or simply unquestioning about his bereavement journey:

“Family member or significant person in a widower’s life that contributes to the widower’s continued grief. Examples of enabling include making excuses for the widower and/or supplying the person with so much understanding and patience that he develops more reasons to grieve.”

Famous drug and alcohol rehabilitation therapist, psychotherapist, clinical hypnotherapist, group therapy facilitator, and life, business & spiritual coach Dr. Jannette Robert Murray of Spokane, Washington concludes:

“Any time you assist/allow another person to continue in their unproductive/unhealthy/addictive behavior, whether actively or passively, you are enabling! So even when you say nothing (such as ‘minding your own business’), you are enabling the behavior to continue. Sometimes you say nothing out of fear — fear of reprisal, fear of the other person hating/hurting/not liking you; or fear of butting in where you don’t think you belong.”

In a love relationship with a widower, YOU are an integral part of the coupling. His feelings are important, and as such, become your business as well. Alas, fear of his negative reaction to their questions is the major reason why some GOWs/WOWs have shied away from discussing their widowers’ grief with their men.

The therapist continues: “Sometimes enabling takes the form of doing something for another that they should do for themselves. Rather than recognizing there is a problem, the addict assumes a fighting mode – a “fight or flight” reaction - rather than taking responsibility for correcting the situation in a healthy way.”

This is true of a widower who, after initially proclaiming his feelings for his new love, inexplicably backs out of the relationship.

Most if not all WOWs/GOWs want to assist their widowed men in their bereavement recovery. It is a natural, human reaction to want to aid the hurting person you love. But where does a GOW/WOW draw the line between being a healthy helpmate and a grief enabler? And how does one distinguish between the two?

To gauge whether or not you are a grief enabler, you must first answer the following questions:

~Are you afraid to discuss your widower’s grief with him?
~Has your widower ever angrily dismissed your questions about his grief feelings and refused to discuss them with you?
~Are you an insecure person whose recent relationship with a widower has lowered your sense of self-esteem even further?
~Do you feel secure in this relationship, or does his grief threaten your sense of relationship security?
~Do you resent having allowed your widower to discuss his late wife/previous marriage/grief feelings to the extent that you have concluded he may never have a healthy relationship with you?
~Do you feel that you have been too understanding; that your compassionate response to his grief may be hindering his recovery?
~ Have you made excuses to others – or yourself - about your widower’s grief?
~Do you get satisfaction from being the compassionate martyr in this relationship?
~ Can you imagine a relationship with your widower that does not include grief?
~Do you have a need for power/control in your relationship that you feel will give you power/control over your fear?

As you will see, some of these questions address the GOW’s or WOW’s sense of self-esteem prior to the relationship with the widower. The reason for this is because most enablers react out of their own low self-esteem. Their past life experiences have not gained for them the ability to say no, draw boundary lines, or assert themselves without fear of losing the love or caring of that other person. People who learn ‘tough love’ have to learn that their former behaviors have been enabling, and that to continue in them would constitute allowing the other person’s pattern of behavior to continue... and to worsen! Thus, recognising your own issues regarding self-esteem is the first step toward recognising, and thus healing, your enabling issues.

Dr. Murray continues:

“Enabling comes from codependency. The term codependency refers to a relationship where one or both parties enable the other to act in certain maladaptive ways. Codependent personalities evolve from attempts to keep some type of order in a hurtful relationship. Many times, the act of enabling satisfies a need for the codependent person because his or her actions foster a dependency from the other person or persons in the relationship.”

Are you attempting to keep order in your relationship with your widower by enabling his grief? In some unhealthy GOW/WOW/widower relationships, the widower continues to NEED to grieve because he cannot imagine NOT grieving. To him, moving beyond bereavement is akin to a betrayal in forgetting his late wife/past marriage, something that is unfathomable to him because he equates forgetting with forever ceasing to love his late wife.

The WOW/GOW in this kind of relationship continues to NEED to be needed for her sympathy, kindness, and patience while loving him. She gets some kind of thrill from playing the martyr, bypassing her own needs and issues in order to “rescue” her widower from his grief pain. The two people feed off of each other’s neediness and, while doing so, unwittingly stall their own love relationship from progressing in a healthy way. In return, they each resent – and start to lose respect for – the other.

Dr. Murray claims: "Codependency is reinforced by a person's need to be needed. The grief enabler thinks irrationally, believing she can maintain a healthy relationship with her widower through manipulation and control. She believes she can do this by avoiding conflict and fostering dependency."

"Another way a codependent person can continue to foster this dependency from her widower is by controlling situations and people around her.
As a child, you may have been reinforced to comply with actions and decisions of a parent instead of being afforded opportunities to challenge those actions that you found to be wrong. Can you see how these types of messages could foster the development of irrational thinking? The ongoing themes in a codependent home are to avoid conflicts and problems and to make excuses for destructive or hurtful behavior."

"You may ask: What is the harm with trying to keep the peace? The power afforded to the codependent person in a relationship reinforces her need for control even if she uses inappropriate means to fulfill her need to be in control."

In a relationship with a widower, for example, instead of allowing her man to lead the way through grief-related situations such as his late wife’s death anniversary, the grief enabler controls the day. She announces that she will accompany her widower to the cemetery. She invites family and friends, both past and present, to a memorial in the late wife’s honour. And by doing so, she feeds her need to be viewed as the wonderfully understanding partner by her widowers and others, which in turn satisfies her sense of self-esteem and powerlessness. Sadly, by doing so, her widower now has another reason to stall his grief recovery in that by allowing the GOW/WOW to control the day, he can avoid the necessary walk through “anniversary grief” required in order to grow and heal from it.

Another example of controlling the WOW/GOW/widower relationship though the widower’s grief feelings would be how many GOWs/WOWs are afraid of discussing their widower’s grief with him. They are afraid of any mention of the late wife. These women are too competitive with her memory, and as such, fear that allowing the widower to discuss her equates allowing him to “hang onto” her memory. The WOW/GOW feels that by hanging onto his memory of his late wife, the widower’s grief will never end. In the WOW/GOW’s irrational mind, allowing the widower to hang onto his memories and love for his late wife means she herself will forever be “second best” and may never “measure up to” the late wife in his eyes. Without concrete knowledge of grief recovery and how discussing grief feelings is important to a widower’s healing, the WOW/GOW will continue to be the silent enabler.

Finally, an important but often overlooked aspect of enabling centers on the inconsistent messages and unclear expectations presented by someone who is codependent. Dr. Murray says, “These characteristics contribute to a relationship filled with irrational thoughts and behavior. This kind of relationship has no clear rules to right and wrong behavior.”

For example, some GOWs/WOWs refuse to draw boundary lines within their relationships with their widowers. These women expect respect and sensitivity, but without first expressing their GOW/WOW-related issues coherently, they often find themselves in heated arguments with their confused men.

To illustrate, imagine a GOW who silently hurts whenever she views pictures of the late wife in her widowed boyfriend’s home. She fears mentioning her issue for fear that her widower will find her petty, competitive, and insecure. By staying silent, she begins to harbour resentment for her widower, which may manifest in angry, derogatory comments about the late wife in conversations with him or others. The widower, who is clueless as to the origin of the GOW’s pain, finds her behaviour confusing if not insensitive, and begins to question the stability of the relationship. The GOW feels him pulling away, but irrationally excuses his actions by concluding that he loves his late wife MORE than he will ever love her. When the relationship finally ends, the GOW finds comfort in her belief that it was his fault, not hers.

Noted television psychiatrist Dr. Phil McGraw claims, “We teach others how to treat us.” Exactly right! We cannot expect anyone, much less our widowers, to treat us how we want to be treated unless or until we define for them our issues, fears, and boundaries. Doing so illuminates “right and wrong” within the relationship, and gives our significant others clear insight into our expectations of treatment.

Is it difficult to stop enabling? Dr. Murray says yes, but there is hope! "It’s difficult if you’re trying to do it with will power. And it’s not easy until you know you deserve to stop; till you know that you are lovable regardless of what the person you’ve enabled says to the contrary…until you raise your own self-esteem enough to be that strong. Interestingly, you may think it’s the other person who needs all the help. In truth, you both do! It becomes easier and easier to release the bonds of codependency as you, yourself, become stronger, healthier, and more whole."

Loving yourself, raising your self-esteem, learning all about the patterns of codependence/enabling/over-giving and how to be more assertive in saying what you mean are all VITAL steps to take in order to be a healthy helpmate in a relationship with a widower.

When you become your own highest priority, regardless of the widower’s priorities, you will learn to make it happen. Remember, no one will ever care as much about you as much as you should care about yourself, including your widower.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Valley Of The Shadow of Hope

As the wife of a former widower, many people assume that it is my job to help my husband forget his late wife, to erase her memory from his mind, and to eliminate the love he has had for her from his heart. After all, how could he possibly move beyond bereavement with hope for his future if he still clung to the past? How could he love two women at the same time? Worst yet, how could I, as his new wife, ever feel hopeful about a marriage of two souls while a part of this unique triangle of three?

My best explanation would be this: I have learned to embrace my husband’s late wife. She, like all wives, has played a very large part in creating the wonderful man I married. While he is probably much different than the man she knew, my husband’s late wife has left her legacy of love to me within him. I have much for which to be grateful to her. Why would I ever wish her memory to be dishonoured if I stand to gain so much more by embracing this unusual triangle: my husband, myself, and the late wife?

Being rapturously in love with my husband, I was recently reminded of our own beautiful wedding when we were in attendance together at another.
But while dabbing my tears as I sat in the church pew, something suddenly struck me as strange. If I promise to love, honor, and cherish my husband until death parts us, then is it my duty – my solemn vow before God – to stop loving, honoring, and cherishing him when he does die? Certainly God never intended for us to put the brakes on our deepest emotions just because our partner in life has been taken from us physically…or does He?

Newlyweds don’t think twice about repeating these sacred vows. They are certain that their love with stand the test of time and that their loving feelings will overcome all future obstacles. It is this hope – not the fragrant flowers or pretty bridesmaids - that makes weddings intimately grand. Hope is the reason wedding guests bring tissues and handkerchiefs. Hope is a beautiful thing.

But when a spouse loses his or her life partner to death, hope may be doomed to the wayside temporarily. It is difficult to be hopeful when your soul mate has been ripped from your life, leaving you alone, afraid, and sad beyond words. But love does not cease to exist, and neither does the desire to honor and cherish your mate simply because he or she is now just a memory – an honoured, cherished memory.

When the worst happens, hope is suspended in limbo. When we grieve, we forget that hope is an option. Insightful people know intrinsically that without hope, a widow or widower will not survive emotionally for very long. This is why their friends and family become protective and concerned, flocking to the bereaved’s side to remind their loved one that hope is still in sight and will be a beacon through the darkest of days ahead.

But where does one so deep in grief tap into this source of hope when life now feels like a barren wasteland of useless energy?

The answer is love.

With love, all things are possible. And from that realm of possibility, hope springs eternal. To love is to keep hope alive, and to hope is to keep love alive. It takes courage to love, lose a loved one, and love again. It takes hope to make it happen.

God never meant for us to stop loving our spouses when they die. Rather, He created love to be unconditional, eternal, and renewable. He knew that through love, we could find the hope that He so generously gifts us – love that stands the tests of time, even through the valley of the shadow of death. And in His wisdom, He created love and hope to be inseparable parts of the human spirit.

I believe that churches worldwide should change the marriage vows to reflect the two universal truths that all widows and widowers have come to know: Love never dies - even after loss, and the desire to honor and cherish the memory of a lost love is not buried along with the deceased, either.

My husband’s undying love for his late wife, and the hope that it inspired in him, have benefited me as his new wife in many ways. But the most important is being enveloped in a circle of love that will never end and a hope that will never die. To erase or eliminate that from my husband’s heart would be marital suicide. But to embrace his love for his late wife only perpetuates the wondrous cycle of endless love and strengthens our own union forever.