Tips for remarriage after widowhood

Opening your heart to new love entails new challenges

Remarriage after widowhood (photo credit: TNS)
Remarriage after widowhood
(photo credit: TNS)
During my many years of clinical practice, I have treated widows and widowers (men) who have suffered the pain of losing a spouse and struggled to rebuild their lives. My clients have been people of varying ages. During the course of our work together, some of my clients have expressed a desire to date, with the goal of sharing their life with someone new. They do not want to spend their lives alone. Others choose not to remarry. Clearly, this is an existentialistic choice for each widow/widower to make. There is no right or wrong choice.
Becky is a 46-year-old widow, mother of two teenage boys. Three years ago, her husband Sam died suddenly from a heart attack while he was away on a business trip. After a long and painful period of mourning, Becky was starting to get her life together. She started a new job and was happy about her family’s involvement with her sons and the support they were giving her to help go on with her life. Recently, her friends had encouraged Becky to date and she decided to follow their advice. She was feeling very lonely and felt that she wanted to share her life with someone. Becky had met a man, also a widower. She became very fond of him and eventually he proposed marriage to her. Becky was confused and shortly after the proposal, she experienced a powerful anxiety attack. She recalls feeling her heart speed up and her breathing became very heavy. She thought the room was spinning and felt she was going to die. It was at this point that Becky came into therapy.
Like other widows or widowers, starting over again is no easy decision to make. Becky was clear that she did not want to spend her life alone. She had the full support of her teenage boys to date, but she felt stuck and frightened.
Below, drawing on the social science literature on bereavement reactions of widowhood, I have highlighted some important points that people, like Becky, should consider when deciding to start a new relationship.
•     Timing: One sensitive issue is how long the widow/widower should wait before dating. There is no acceptable rule in this regard. In some traditions, a year is the norm; in others, it may be longer or shorter. This is in fact a very personal decision, but generally, the research shows that men tend to remarry quicker than women do. Why this is so, it is not completely clear. Some speculate that women spend more time in the mourning process while men are looking for a replacement experience sooner.
•     Hidden expectations: There is a lot of confusion for a widow or widower when they fall in love a second time while at the same time they still miss and love their departed spouse. In addition, the emotions the widow/widower felt towards his/her spouse when he/she was young may never be the same as what one feels 20-30 years later toward the new potential mate. Memories of the first time around may be the primary reference point for a widow/widower contemplating getting married again and create confusion. After all, the new person is not the same person as the deceased spouse. They may be different in their temperament, the way they do chores; the way they touch, kiss, and make love. Often, a widow/widower may not remember the mediocrity or even bad parts of his/ her first marriage, but instead tends to idealize the memories. This may result in transferring onto the new person unrealistic expectations. Looking for the same love with another partner can be overwhelming, as no two people are identical. It is not wrong that your new love is different from the previous one.
•     You can love and treasure your past: You can treasure your past without living in your past. You can always love your late spouse without sacrificing your love for your new partner. Your past relationship may be filled with abundant memories of the things you did together, places you visited, and the children that you raised together. In the case of bereavement, the human heart can love two people at the same time. A widow/widower needs to be aware of the impact that his/her memories and stories may have on the new person in their life while at the same time feel free to share and treasure those good memories.
•     Adapting to a new partner: Every widow/widower who remarries has a lot of adjusting to do. Reactions by children, family, friends and colleagues may vary. Some of these challenges may be more difficult to overcome, others less so. It is critical for the health of the new relationship that the couple talk openly about whatever feelings arise.
Getting started again after the loss of a partner is no easy task. However, the good news is that for those who choose to try again, many people succeed at building a new love and partnership.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. ; [email protected]