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.


  1. This is so helpful! I'm going to buy the book right now!!

  2. Love the insights on this blog. So I would love to hear what others think about my situation. I've been dating a widower for four months. He's 43 and I'm 37. Everything was great, until he went back home a couple of week ago. During his time there, he visited his deceased wife's grave ...he also went to a family friend's funeral. He came back with a lot of feelings of sadness, loss and grief. We are also approaching the season when his wife died two years ago. We love each and are in an exclusive relationship, but he asked me for "romantic space" while he figures out these feelings he's experiencing after his trip. I'm still trying to process the request. Is it normal/fair/selfish? By romantic space he wants us to still see each other, continue to build our relationship, but without being intimate. He says even holding hands feels a little weird at this moment. He asked me to walk with him during this bump on the road. So I'm not sure what to make of it. I'm confused.