Dating and Mate Selection — 06 June 2008
The challenge of being in a relationship with some widowed individuals

Partners of widows/widowers experience different emotional challenges than do those who are remarried after a divorce. How the widowed person deals with his /her loss and how the new partner processes the reactions of the widowed individual, determines the success of the new relationship.

Losing a partner to death is a devastating experience. According to Holmes and Rahe’s Social Readjustment Scale, widowhood is the most stressful life-altering event for older adults. Debra Carr and Rebecca Utz of Rutgers University, detailed their research of spousal bereavement in their “Changing Lives of Older Couples (CLOG) study. They identified the components that contributed to widowhood grief as: anxiety, despair, shock, anger, yearnings and intrusive thoughts.

Most widowed individuals go through a period of adjustment to the loss of their spouse. Carr and Utz state: “how, where, and when one’s spouse dies may have profound implications for how the elderly bereaved adjusts to the loss.” Also, “how rewarding or conflicted the marital relationship was prior to the loss,” as well as personality attributes, and practical life readjustments, were contributory factors in managing the loss of a mate.

Though no standards are imposed on any grieving individual, some grieve longer and harder. Yale University psychologist Holly Prigerson, PhD, states: ”Roughly 15 percent of people who’ve lost a loved one might be susceptible to “complicated grief,” a condition more severe than the average loss-related life transition, depression and anxiety. It is marked by broad changes to all personal relationships, a sense of meaninglessness, a prolonged yearning or searching for the deceased and a sense of rupture in personal beliefs.”

Some who date and marry older widowed individuals report having a difficult time with the presence of the deceased in their new partner’s life. If the widowed individual has elevated the deceased former mate to a status of a saint, it makes it impossible for them to attain a comparable status. They may also object to physical items of the departed still prominently displayed such as: wall portraits, objects and even clothing still present several years after the death of the mate.

Jealousy and competition with the memory of a deceased partner are a painful and conflicted emotions. Talking with the partner about removing the objects pertaining to the deceased spouse may feel harsh, insensitive and uncomfortable. Not discussing the presence of these remembrances of a past life may feel like a major discount to one’s primacy in the partner’s life.

Every individual in a committed relationship seeks to receive ongoing validation for his/her value and importance to the mate. All partners tend to deal with the presence of reminders of a past relationship with great care. Some widowed people are less aware of the impact their loving memories may have on their new spouse.

If you have been widowed and are in a new committed relationship:

• Make sure that you have completed your grieving process and are ready for a new life partner. If enough time has lapsed and you are still grieving, angry and unhappy, please seek professional help to facilitate your emotional comfort and optimize your level of functioning.
• Be aware that your new mate wants to feel as precious to you as your former spouse had been.
• Your current spouse is unable to live up to the status of perfection ascribed to your deceased spouse. Talk of your former mate with love and depict him/her in realistic, not idealized terms.
• Minimize the prominence of items of your former partner to embrace your new mate. It is not a sign of forgetting the deceased individual – it is a way to embrace life.
• Ask your new partner about his/her level of comfort with your environment, recollection and depiction of your current and former life. Make any necessary adjustments.

If you are in a relationship with a widowed individual:

• Make sure that your partner has completed his/her grieving.
• If the sorrow and angst persists, encourage your partner to check out the possibility of a complicated grief reaction.
• Understand that idealizing the deceased is a form of honoring one’s past relationship, not discounting the present one with you.
• Kindly ask for changes that will make you feel better, while appreciating your spouse for his/her devotion to the departed mate.
• Remember that a person who had a good relationship with a former spouse is likely to also have a healthy, loving and admiring relationship with you.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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