Dating While Widowed: Pulling the Widow Card


Image by jeff_golden via Flickr

And you know what I am talking about widowed people. That handy-dandy “get me out of anything” excuse that your late spouse bequeathed you by merely dying young. It’s a temptation that is almost too much for any widowed person to resist, using the aftermath of their spouse’s death to guilt people into … anything really. The widow card has few equals, and even fewer betters, when it comes to manipulating others.

Did I say that? Out loud?

Yes, I did. Pulling the widow card is a blatant form of emotional manipulation*. One that we all have used but is frankly always wrong. Sorry, to rain on you with reality, but no matter what the situation was – applying guilt liberally as a remedy isn’t going to earn you gold stars in any version of the afterlife. People who’ve been played by a widow know full well they are being strong-armed, and even when they go along with it out of misguided sympathy, it probably didn’t keep them from resenting you for it.

But what I really want to discuss are not the times you pulled the card to wiggle out from under a late fee on the Visa or sneak away from work a little early. I want to discuss the completely inexcusable practice of using widowhood to gain the upper hand in an intimate/dating relationship.

We’ve discussed (oh, okay, I’ve discussed at you) the concept of being ready to date again. When? Why? How? And I touched on the real need to be ready to engage with another person equally and honestly about where you are emotionally and what you are really looking for and expect. It does no one any good to go into a dating situation when you are still inclined to use your widowhood as a means to distance yourself emotionally or “hog the remote” where the pace and direction are concerned.

One of the biggest widow card offenses I’ve noticed in my travels here and there in the webosphere of widowed and those who date them is the “I need time”. Or space or a Tardis perhaps. Because intimacy with a new person after you’ve lost the old one to death can stir up some (or a lot) of conflicting emotions.

Know this – if you are really sure that the new person is “the one” and love them for them, conflicts become details to be tackled one at a time and without the need for space. Indeed, taking a “break” is very anti-relationship. You can’t work on a relationship with another person with just yourself. The other person’s input and presence is requirement. Relationships can’t grow if one of you is constantly heading out into the woods for a retreat or to commune with (and by commune, I mean wallow) in grief.

Men, and women, who pull the widow card version of “give me time” and tell you that they will “be in touch” are screwing with you.

And I can hear their screams even as I type this:

NO, we are not using the unfair advantage our grief gives us in the sympathy department to make sure that we have the most say in this relationship because our feelings are the more delicate … and important … and that we feel we should be the only voting members at the table.

But they are.

Society, grief culture and the ever-growing battalion of widowed aids via message boards, websites and organization (not to mention the support groups for people – mostly women – who date widowed – encourage widowed ( and their new partners) to look at their situation as a “condition” that needs to operate outside the standard boundaries of how “normal” people are expected to behave when dating.

If a divorced or single man says, “I need space.” Nine times out of ten he is dumping you. Disingenusously to be sure, but weaseling out nonetheless. Widowers are men. They know the manly ways out of relationships that are past their freshness dates or simply aren’t good fits. And though the nine out of ten may actually be eight out of ten for them, “I need space” that lasts for longer than a week is still “I’m not into you anymore”. Grief might be the excuse he is giving himself to make him feel better about having lead you on, but it’s still a widow card. And it is still manipulative of him to use his dead wife to avoid telling you that things are now “off”.

Widows also use the widow card to keep their dates in line. To train them to expect overbearing and callous behavior of their late wife’s family and friends or not be impatient about the non-parenting they are doing which has led to unmanageable and manipulative children (of all ages). Widowed who like being the only one in the driver’s seat will “card” their significant others into putting up with always being second or third on the VIP list, being okay with shrines to the late spouse, tolerating occasional, or regular, “grief retreats” that require radio silence that can last days or weeks or months. After which the widow card is good for  “get back into your graces as though I haven’t been a complete asshole” use.

I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it. Grief is no excuse. Despite its handiness and usefulness, it’s wrong to blackmail others emotionally, and the farther out a widowed person is from their spouse’s death – the less okay it becomes**.

Some people have a different take, but some people enjoy (thrive even) in drama and the stew of high school tinged drama. All you have to do is watch reality tv to know the truth of that.

So widowed folk, if you are ready to date – or are dating – it’s time to put away your stash of widow cards, man up and do your date or new SO the same favor you did for your late spouse – play fair. Be emotionally and physically available for participation in this relationship you are creating. It’s foundation will only be as strong as you choose to make it.

To those dating/intimately involved with a widowed guy or gal, hold them to the same standards you would if they didn’t have this tragedy in their past. Their feelings are not existing on some higher plane than your own. If they need time and you are inclined to wait on them, don’t be conned into something open-ended that leaves you hanging. Set some rules. Ask and expect for your feelings to be taken into account. Don’t be a doormat.

*And I did this. Used my widowness to weasel and manipulate. Especially in that first year and I did it because it works. I did not use it while dating – much – but beware that all widowed people know the power of a dead spouse. All.

** And I don’t want to hear about the total bullshit “latent grief” thing. It doesn’t exist. Some people will use old tragedy to avoid dealing with new hurts but that doesn’t give standing to the idea that grief can be buried and resurface like some zombie in B movie.

21 thoughts on “Dating While Widowed: Pulling the Widow Card

  1. I am stumbling upon this post really late, but I am so thankful to read something like this. I have a good friend that’s been using the widow card and emotional manipulation a lot and recently she’s become pretty mean. I just had a conversation with her about it because I don’t believe anyones pain makes it okay to harm others. On the other hand I am filled with guilt because I may not understand how it feels to loose my husband but I understand depression and it’s a very tricky, shameful circle to find yourself in.

    Since I’ve talked to her I’ve gone through a lot of emotions and realize I let this manipulation get too far and I needed to say something. I am not comfortable with confrontation and I didn’t feel better after I said something so I started surfing the web to see if it was “okay” to placate my own insecurity. It’s amazing how many posts I come across that sometimes subtly or blatantly express that widows should be allowed this grace to behave badly to the people that love and support them. I still love my friend but I realize it isn’t doing either of us any favors to allow myself to be manipulated in this way. I appreciate your bravery in writing this post because it is a very powerful piece of grief that isn’t addressed nearly enough. Thank you!

    1. You are welcome. Glad I was able to help.

      Whether your friend ever appreciates what you did in speaking up or not, you did the right thing. As long as it comes from a place of concern and support, I think it’s perfectly okay to let someone know when they have crossed the line from grief to just being mean or taking advantage because they can get away with it.

  2. I just started searching articles about dating a widower after a particularly confusing breakup. We clicked right away, we have a great time every time we’re together but the relationship has stalled to a halt.

    He definitely played the widow card. He’s not over her death and his grown children are definitely not ready to see him with someone new. We started seeing each other less than a year after her death and dated for nine months. He told me he was still grieving and I thought I could help by being a friendly ear. Now I realize that nothing I do is going to make a difference.

    I excused his behavior because I couldn’t understand what he was going through. Often late or not showing up at all, attentive one day, distant the next. Always using the same excuse ‘I’m not ready’. He was certainly ready when it served his purpose. Now I feel like I was being played.

    I wish I had done some homework in the beginning. I would have saved myself from a broken heart if I had. Your article is one of the most honest and eye-opening that I have come across yet.

    1. I don’t think that widowed ppl play others necessarily though some men (and women) are the kind who will use any handy card to keep the upper hand and direct the pace and purpose of a relationship. I think that widowed often go unprepared back into dating, get a lot of bad or misleading advice from the various grief outlets they turn to and simply believe that being hot/cold and generally confused about the rules of engagement where dating and intimacy are concerned are “okay” b/c they have been through a trauma.

      It’s a perfect storm that catches up the non-widowed dating partners.

      The best way to approach any potential partner (newly widowed, divorced or freshly back to singlehood for other reasons) is to know what you want, be honest about it, be yourself and don’t accept being treated disrespectfully b/c the other person has “issues” or has “emotional hurts”. And this will mean walking away from people, who might be great catches but aren’t if they can’t suck it up for the common good a relationship building.

      Women have bought into this notion that a fixer up guy is just as good a bet as a guy who has his shit together already. NOT TRUE.

      I am sorry you had a bad experience with this widowed man. They are not all card players and many widowers sincerely want new relationships and are willing to work just as hard as prospective partners at building them. Widowhood doesn’t make any selfish or a jerk or a drama mama. They were that way to begin with and widowhood just made it easier for them to get away with such behavior.

  3. I must admit shamefully I have used the widow card. My wife died last year. It has been 9 months. I have used the widow card to keep my new significant other. I know it is shameful. Instead of manning up to the fact I was involved with someone who was only seperated from her husband. I used that card to keep her from leaving me and going back to him. It was a last ditch effort. I must admit it DID work! I DO treat her better than he did. That is a fact. I have known her longer than her husband has known her. Another fact. I have never discounted her feelings for him. But, I was unwilling to lose her back to him. So I shamelessly played the widow card to keep her. I try not to okay the widow card. Some people have said rather rude and vengeful things because I do not run around wailing and carrying on because of my widowhood. I only am leaving this comment as an example that the widow card is not just used for creating space. But is used for ending what space may exist. The author of this article is right. There is no better card than the “widow card”

    1. I think everyone has pulled out the big emotional guns in situations of the heart. Right or wrong motivations though it doesn’t make it any less manipulative, and manipulations backfire or come back to haunt us just as often as they don’t.

      I hope you and your lady are well, happy and continue to be so.

  4. I must say I was widowed at 31 and I only use the widow card if I am in the process of getting a ticket!! lol I dealt with 13yrs of pure hell from my husband and 8 years of watching him die. I made sure that before I began on this dating journey I was READY. I start slow and keep it at a pace I can handle and I am quite open about that. I would never hurt someone intentionally or pull the widow card for my own poor behavior. Becoming a widow is part of my life, it is NOT MY LIFE just a part of my past like a chapter that I had to close.

    1. Exactly, start where you are at, move at your pace and be honest about your intentions/needs – that’s all it takes – but you would be surprised how many people (widowed and not) are not as self-aware or respectful of those they encounter.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story.

  5. This post has made me extremely thankful that DH was not the type to throw down the W card much. He may have done it more in the first year after her passing, before we met – in fact I know he did – but he has not used it as an excuse for poor behavior toward me. Thank you for reminding me that I am one lucky woman … I need to keep it in mind.

  6. this is pretty damn good advice for any relationship… when beginning a dating relationship with a new gent, i tend to pull the plug early if i know it’s not going to turn into something i’m willing to put some level of effort into. and i’m pretty direct about it… “Ya know, i don’t think we’re a good fit – not likely to get what i need if we pursue this further…” In general, the gents i’ve ‘dismissed’ this way seemed to have appreciated my more direct approach (rather than just ignoring calls/texts/e-mails).

    then again, i’m probably not a good one to provide anyone else relationship advice!

    i was given a different card. not the ‘widow card’, but the ‘cancer card’. and i used it occasionally. the worst one? allowing a local reporter to do a write up (during breast cancer awareness month) on my discovery/treatment – while performing in a local theatrical production. i played it to get publicity for our show… and even told the reporter that i’d only do the interview if she played up the dates for the show! Such drama! (i felt a bit dirty for that… but we sold out 2 weekends!)

    1. Widow cards fall under the umbrella of tragedy in general and there are few among us who don’t succumb to their ease of use and handy, flexible nature.

      I think you probably could give great relationship advice b/c you are one of the few women I know who understands that honesty and directness are more likely to see you happy at the end of the day then all the tedious, endless bs we are taught to engage in when we were younger.

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