Dating While Widowed: The Love of My Life

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, by Dante Gabrie...

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: medieval romance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I stumbled upon a post at HuffPo today. Written by a woman who is married to a widower, it touched upon the taboo subject of being “the love his life”. Clearly, for many widowed and those who date or marry them, this is a sticky issue fraught with multi-leveled angsty-ness and worlds of guilt.

One of the conversations that comes up often in the widow forums and blogs is the idea that dead spouses can’t be replaced and that similarities between the departed and new loves smack of replacement ick factor. It may even be a sign that one isn’t ready to date.

As my husband Rob is fond of pointing out, “We replace people all the time and falling in love and marrying again is part of that.”

And he is correct.

Life is a series of stages. We travel through them picking up and discarding friends, lovers, spouses and co-workers along the way. We even replace family with people we’d rather have been genetically tied to in some cases. So, although it’s a noble idea – this theory that late husbands and wives can’t be replaced – the fact is that some of us do replace them because when holes open up in our emotional safety nets, most of us feel compelled to repair the net. It’s a human being thing. It’s not a failing or flaw to want to experience love and connectedness again.

We also, being human, have preferences in terms of type and so it’s little wonder that new loves have some or many qualities of old loves. Unless cloning is involved or we go to some Hitchcock inspired Vertigo extreme – it’s nothing to get all twisted up about.

But, where emotions are concerned, nothing is simple. Women especially are socially programmed to need to be number one and only in the eye, heart and mind of the man they love. Even the most self-actualized woman is going to question and compare herself with the late wife and her relationship with him and with his relationship with her.

Though one may get past the need to be prettier, smarter, better in bed*, nicer, and the fact that one didn’t get here first, most still harbor a secret – usually never spoken – need to be THE love. The one that can’t be topped or surpassed by anyone EVER.

So I cornered him the bedroom one day while he was putting away his socks. His back was to me as I casually asked him, “Isn’t it odd that if we end up staying together that you’ll go down in history as the love of my life?” He stopped putting his socks away and turned around and stared at me with what looked like sadness in his eyes and said “Awwww. That’s so nice”. He had said it to me like he pitied me. Like he’d turned around and found a little baby bird with hearing aids lying on his bed. At that moment I realized that he couldn’t say it back to me and I was devastated. It took me months to stop telling every friend and taxi driver how I was with a man who would never be able to tell me that I’m the love of his life.

That was over five years ago and now I can see how complicated and unfair that question was. I don’t want or need to be NUMBER ONE wife. Unless I’m in a polygamous marriage, and even then the whole ranking thing would stress me.

How did I end up marrying a man that I knew would never be able to tell me that I’m the love of his life?

The thing is that even if Ms. Weedman, who wrote this for the HuffPo, was the love of her husband’s life, it’s pretty doubtful that he will feel okay sharing this with her. The guilt factor is high. After all we swear a “forever-ish” kind of vow to those whom we love enough to commit marriage with. And even if those vows don’t say “til death do we part”,  and even if they do, the forever is implied by simply marrying in the first place. At least in our society as it stands today.

Couple that with children, extended family and mutual friends who, while they may not get all judgey about it, will probably only pretend politely to understand how a widowed’s allegiance can be shifted by the lightning strike luck of being able to love and marry again.

In a world where people shun marriage for the perpetual uncertainty of living together or engage in a string of serial marriages, marriage that ends with someone dying is seen as something of a Holy Grail and those who are left behind are saddled with an expectation of faithfulness that no one expects of anyone else  – or so it seems.

Has Rob ever told me I am the love of his life?


And I have never asked. Not a day goes by without him telling me that he loves me. Often more than once. We are not neglectful of each other’s emotional needs. Even coming up quickly to our fifth anniversary, we regularly sicken people with our displays of mutual admiration and affection. My brother-in-law has been known to roll his eyes and demand of my sister to “Make them stop.”

I admit that in the beginning it was hard to live in their house and not compare myself with her. I am a woman and I was raised to be critical of myself and view love as a competition. In that I am no different from my peers. But it was largely my problem to deal with and I did. Rob never gave me any reason to feel that I was living in a shadow, a replacement for someone he loved more but simply couldn’t be with – because of that being dead thing.

Do I feel that Rob is the love of my life? Yes. And this, in my mind, doesn’t downgrade my love for my late husband or our marriage. But a large part of this is due to retrospect because I have come to believe that my marriage to Will wasn’t meant to be a lifetime. We intersected at a point that was crucial for us both and were destined only to travel along that line for a finite time. The best of my life was still ahead of me. I vaguely knew that then and I am convinced of it now.

I have told Rob that he is the love of my life, and I did it without expectations. His life is his. I am fortunate enough to share this leg of his journey. The fact that I was not first and may not be the love of his life isn’t the point. Now is the point. The past can’t be undone and the future hasn’t happened.

Even so, the “love of my life” thing is subjective and in its own way, make-believe. Born out of romance novels and Disney princess movies. If life and love were meant to be a romantic comedy, more of us would have a sense of humour. And we’d take better still photos. And we wouldn’t need Oprah’s Lifeclasses. Because it would all be scripted and blocked.

Every single one of us has replaced someone at some point in our lives and every single one of us has or will be replaced someday. In my mind, there isn’t really time enough to waste in situations where we don’t feel loved and there is less time to second-guess ourselves out of situations where we are loved simply because it doesn’t fit our teenage notions of romance.

*This one I have to admit I don’t get nor do I understand women – or men – who needle partners about their sex lives with dead spouses. The ick factor is through the roof on this one for me. Needing intimate details so you can “out porn” a dead person speaks to a deep insecurity that even I (and I have known insecurity) don’t fathom. It’s only slightly more distasteful than second wives who take gleeful delight in “out house-wifing” the dead wife. I told Rob, “If I die and you decide to date again, run away from anyone who cackles over the fact that she loves to iron and I never willingly touched an iron in my life. There is something very wrong with a woman like that.”

5 thoughts on “Dating While Widowed: The Love of My Life

  1. Ann, again and again I am learning so much from you. I value your perspective greatly, and though I am not quite ready to have another loving, committed relationship, I can assure you that when I am ready, and if Fate is so inclined to intercede on both our behalfs, I will happily come back to read your words and re-glean the wisdom, the fair and the thoughtful, the generosity that love calls us to, in order to be able to see and understand both sides, and all the ramifications you speak of.

    I must commend you for your compassion and for pointing out to janesinfinitewisdom that, indeed, she is a widow. and Jane, I, too am so sorry for the death of your finace .

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. Sometimes it is easy for me to get stuck in a rut. I was married for 11 years and got divorced. 3 years later I fell in love.. probably for the first time in my life. My first marriage was a shotgun marriage and it wasn’t based on love and unfortunately in the end neither of us could figure out why we married in the first place. (We are still friends). Anyway back to the main reason for my reply.

    The man I fell in love with was amazing. We clicked , so well in fact that 2 years later we were still as thick as thieves. Then suddenly a tragedy happened and he was taken from this life and ripped from mine. I have grieved everyday since.

    For a year I barely functioned. The second year I focused on finding myself again. And the third year I met a man, who a year and a half later I am engaged to.

    I feel guilty and have almost as you said “talked myself out of being loved” on several occasions. I DO love the man I am engaged to, and I know it is wrong to compare. But I too want company on this journey called life and while things are different , I know that my fiance considers me the “love of HIS life”.

    I am still in the healing phase , and still trying to negotiate my feelings. I will work through it and I know that I was blessed to two great loves of my life.. each different , but each amazing.

    Obviously I am still struggling as I found your blog by searching for answers to my questions…salve for my heart. So thank you for posting this post, this was more help to me than you know. 🙂

    1. I can relate. The conflict of emotions is hard to understand unless you’ve been through it. I think though that allowing ourselves to simply accept that there is a surreal disconnect as we reorganize and that it’s not a sign of anything other than reorganizing goes a long way toward putting things in order. If that makes sense.

      You will have days when the emotions clash. You will look back – though less and less as time goes on. And there is guilt. Normal.

      Important thing, in my opinion, is knowing what you what, knowing when to communicate and knowing when to keep things to yourself (grief isn’t a couples activity) and just letting yourself be happy and move towards your future.

      I’m glad that whatever I’ve written/shared has been helpful. I am just one set of experiences, but if anything I’ve shared overlaps and helps you out – to me – that makes it worthwhile.

      Good luck to you.

  3. You are so very wise. I don’t know how it is you came to be so wise…clearly it wasn’t just through the death of your first husband or through meeting Rob. It’s deeper than that. Whenever you talk about widow/widower issues you seem to be able to balance emotion with rationality in a way that many people cannot and will not approach. I admire you for your abilities and for your courage to put your thoughts out here so freely – without restraint or fear of repercussion.

    PS While I am not a widow, my first love and only fiance died 2 1/2 years ago. On some levels, I relate to these posts very much.

    1. I get that “wise” thing a lot. I am not really sure why, but thank you. Rob has probably done more to “steady” me and temper my outlook than he gets credit for but I was raised by very practical ppl. Most of my earliest influences (extended family and my parents friends) were Depression Era/WWII or older. Their world view is very different than the Boomers on down. Perhaps that is the well I dip in most. But really, I have just reached a place in life that I don’t think a lot of us get to at such a young age (or ever in some cases) b/c I am not having to focus so much of my time, thought and emotion of day to day survival. It is freeing in ways I am still learning about.

      And in my book, you are indeed a widow. I am sorry for your loss.

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