Dating While Widowed: Erasing Your Past

Miniature of Catherine de' Medici, "a rar...

Miniature of Catherine de’ Medici, “a rare portrait of Catherine before she was widowed in 1559, when she adopted the veil and severely plain dress of a widow.” (Hearn, Karen, ed. Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630. New York: Rizzoli, 1995. ISBN 0-8478-1940-X.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not much induces the widowed to pick up pitchforks and growl in unison like the idea that they should have to tear down their shrines in order to be decent candidates for others to consider dating.

“Anyone I date or remarry is just going to have to fine with being a member of a threesome.”

Or something to that sadly creepy refrain is what is generally trotted out and translates thusly,

“Love me. Love my dead spouse. And if you don’t, well than you are just too immature and/or insecure and/or possibly jealous to be a good fit for me, and we are NOT amused!”

This is often followed by truly Hallmark heart-warming anecdotes about someone’s auntie who was tragically widowed but went on to remarry this awesome guy was totally okay with the pictures, the shared headstone and being a hankie on anniversaries. There are, apparently, a Chicken Soup for the Soul’s worth of these selfless men, and women, who don’t mind building holidays around the widowed person’s in-laws, whole walls decorated with the awesomeness of love lost and don’t mind being “just the second wife/husband”.

Even more militant are the widowed parents determined to anchor their children to perpetual mourning by making sure that the “real mom/dad” is never forgotten. As if children are in danger of forgetting that their mother or father died young and need to have it in their face daily lest they develop a healthy parent/child relationship with their step-parent.

First, can we lay the “immature/insecure/jealous” thing to rest already? Drive a stake through this trope once and for all?

When your new partner intimates in some way that he/she isn’t feeling the love, whether the cause is pictures, in-laws or daily recounting of good times past, this is not about anything other than the perfectly normal desire we all have to be number one in the heart of the person we love. Whether you feel the feelings are justified or not is secondary to the actual issue, which is, your lover isn’t feeling loved.

They are, in fact, feeling second best at best and merely a warm body stand-in at worst. Making this be about you and your need to “grieve it all out” is probably a sign that your partner is right. You are not really as ready to date or remarry as you thought.

Look no one expects a widowed person to hide all aspects of their past. No one.

That is a myth.

What you are expected to do, however, when you decide to date, have a serious relationship or remarry is live in the present tense and put your primary focus on your new partner.

Would you be okay knowing that your new love spent most of his/her time being sorry that he/she wasn’t still with their last partner? Would a shrine to this on the mantle be okay? Arranging all your holidays around the last partner’s family would be acceptable? Would you like to hear daily how SoNSo was the best (fill in the blank) ever and wonder what that made you?

And yes, I concede that a few prospective partners might on the surface appear to be okay with a new husband or wife who primarily identified as a widowed person first and foremost, but I am going to say these saint like martyrs have a lot in common with unicorns, lusted after but still mythical. Even the most understanding partner has moments of “Oh, come on. Really?”

Do you have to purge your home of all traces of your late spouse when you begin to date?

I would say no. Dating is just getting to know you, having fun, assessing possibilities. I don’t know many adults who make it a habit of bringing home “just dates” to meet the children and check out the new foam mattress you got at Costco. But if a “date” progresses to “someone I am seeing regularly, seriously considering and/or shagging”, you should probably reassess your physical surroundings and ask yourself,

“If I were X, how would I feel about pictures, urns, closets waiting for a dead guy/gal to come home?”

And think about it from the perspective of the non-widowed person you used to be because the odds of dating a fellow widowed person aren’t that great (even if you do hang around the widowed internet chat rooms, message boards and websites). Your live person dating pool is more likely to be inhabited by the never-married, the serial monagamists and the divorced, who have no valid reason to expect that as a widowed person, you should enjoy some super-special pass on doing the heavy lifting of moving on anymore than they did because they have pasts too.

Are some mementos okay?

Of course! Whoever said they weren’t?

When you hear “it’s a good idea to clean out closets and tone down the presence of your late spouse in your living space” and you translate it to “shred everything!” perhaps reassessing your relationship readiness, or asking yourself just why it’s critical to your children’s well-being that an entire wall of the family room be dedicated/dominated to your late spouse, is in order.

It’s perfectly normal to have a few things out and about if you like, but it’s not so much to keep a photo on the nightstand if you are knocking the headboard with someone else or to insist that toothbrushes or robes be left in place like they were evidence at a crime scene. At some point, a late spouse’s personal items have to be cleared out and put away and that time – if you are a decent person who values the feelings of those you might get intimately involved with – is before you get intimately involved.


Because not doing so is a way of controlling your new relationship and new love by putting him/her in a Catch-22 that can only end with your dismissing him/her as “immature, insecure and jealous”.  You get the “poor widow me” high road and he/she gets the a scornful boot toe up the bum-hole.

Anyone who gets involved with a widowed person has empathy for the situation, wants to be helpful and understanding and usually goes above and beyond in the pursuit, but every one of these folks is hoping that at some point you will come to value them as more than “the person I am with because the person I would rather be with is dead”.

That’s what constant reminders of your late spouse – in any form – is saying to those you date and re-mate.

Even when you think you are being selfless by not spending every single holiday with the in-laws or by keeping at least the bedroom dead spouse picture free, there is a fine line between occasional reminders as you move on and build a new life and set of memories/memorabilia with someone else and being that guy or gal who is still so focused on their late spouse that people silently wonder why your new spouse is still with you because they can’t believe how appallingly selfish you are.

How do I know if I am over the line?

You could ask. Really. Ask. And not in a way that is designed to catch out your new partner so you can proclaim “I would never ask you to erase your dead spouse (if you had one) from your life!” Followed by you bursting into tears and him/her feeling like an asshole.

Or you could just be honest with yourself and assess your living space as though you weren’t widowed. Think about how often you interject conversations with “we” memories when the “we” is you and the late spouse and not you and the one you are currently with.

You’ll know. You probably already do.

What if my new love is fine with everything?

They are lying to you because they love you. Didn’t you ever put up with crap from someone just because you loved them so very much in the hopes that one day he/she would just see how awesomely understanding you were and change their ways?

No one is fine living in the perpetual shade of a dead love. No one is okay with being number two (or three or four because some of you even downgrade your new partner to a status below that of your children) in someones’ heart.

Few people are all that enamoured of their own in-laws let alone a second set (or third if they happen to be divorced or widowed themselves), who take precedence or are allowed to interfere or dictate or are happy living in a house that clearly isn’t theirs because their pictures, taste in decor or perhaps even their personal stuff hasn’t any room to compete with the pictures, favorite chair and flotsam of the dead person who was there before them.

Everyone wants to be cherished and feel as though he/she matters most to the person who matters most in his/her heart.

Even if you are dating a fellow widowed person. Even then. There is a line that when it is crossed, hearts will be broken and it’s not insecurity or immaturity. It’s you who will have done that by not having a clear understanding that moving on means doing just that in deed as well as words.

There is no way to erase your past and reasonable people know this. There is a point when you are wanting to have your yummy chocolate cake past and eat it while your new love wonders how long you are going to sit there and stuff your face in front of him/her.

Choosing to date again (and it’s a choice because accidental dating just doesn’t happen) is being ready to live in the now and give yourself fully and be more concerned with the feelings and well-being of your lover than you are with the past and hanging on to it.

13 thoughts on “Dating While Widowed: Erasing Your Past

  1. Oh yes ! All that you’ve written has / is playing out. The words “I can’t do it anymore “. The adult sons emotional black mail have ruined our relationship. I’m hopeful she will realise what we had/have was so special.

  2. I lost my husband of 3 1/2 days in 2011. Yes, you read correctly. We were on our honeymoon when he passed unexpectedly from a sudden cardiac arrest. I am now dating a wonderful man. He is kind, considerate, loving, caring, amazing and giving. He has been so wonderful about everything. He even accompanied me on a memorial bicycle ride, raising funds for the American Heart Association. I recently found myself behaving much like you described, and I felt I had every right to my reactions and emotions when he mentioned my pictures. I am now seeing things in an entirely different light. Am I really purposely trying to hold our relationship back? I didn’t think so but perhaps I am. The thought of removing the pictures and storing them away in a closet somewhere was completely repulsive to me, as though I would be discarding my late-husband’s importance in my life. I am coming to realize, however, that the pictures are NOT what is important. It is more important for me to have dealt with the grief, accept what has happened and make the conscious decision to move on. I thought I had, but it appears not. I am grateful for your post here. It has helped open my eyes and truly made me think. Thank you.

    1. You are welcome. Normally widowed folk get a little annoyed with me. And I don’t think people are consciously trying to hold back new relationships though that is what sometimes happens, I think that we buy into the common cultural idea that somehow we should maintain a relationship with our late spouses even when we’ve moved into relationships with others. As things progress and new relationships get more intimate and serious, this simply isn’t workable.

      We tend to invest objects and pictures of our lost spouses with the feelings we can no longer convey to them, which might be why we feel as distraught as we do when new partners finally find the courage to express their feelings about pictures we don’t replace or closets still full of late spouse possessions. It’s really personal to us. However, it’s really personal to our new partners too.

      For the sake of a new love, there are choices that will sometimes need to be made and they might feel like betrayal, but they are not. It’s just another acknowledgement that things have changed, and at some point when we weren’t really paying attention – we moved on. I think that can really catch us by surprise b/c during the early days of grief, we can’t even imagine that and then suddenly it’s happened, a new love is asking for full attention – like we gave to our late spouses, and it can cause a bit or more of emotional turmoil. It’s not that you haven’t dealt with your grief. You did. But it’s such a slow subtle process, it’s not unusual for us to just one day find ourselves on the other side and not be sure of what got us there.

      Your guy sounds like someone who is really making the above and beyond effort. He sounds like a keeper. I hope that you and he will be able to process this and come to a mutually workable agreement. And don’t be hard on yourself or him. Laying the foundations of relationships take time and give/take.

  3. I perfectly realize that I will be the one to make the most important decisions. My partner just decided to make love with me for the first time ad declared that he wished to spend the rest of his life with me. He repeats this declaration up to now. These were words. The rest seems to be my initiative. I was the one who organized our moving from their house full of the late wife’s stuff, pictures, etc I found another perfect place for us. Now I am being asked about the expected moment of proposal. Simultaneously, I could hear that he is not sure if he ever would do so. Exactly, I am be the only person to decide what would be next. Little bit annoying, isn’t it?
    It is little bit difficult for me to make a final decision right now. The first few months of living together have been tough time in our relationship. We argued a lot. Discussed ending our relationship and get back together again. This happened twice. We are both decided to make effort to give it a chance. We already have some nice memories and still have a lot of hope. My partner says he loves me but is not sure about getting married. Confusing. I need some time to come to terms with all the feelings.

    1. Take the time you need. Really weigh the situation. Are you good with likely being being the one to make big decisions? Organize? Make sure life moves forward?

      Arguing/discussing are not necessarily bad things as long as both people are participating and progress is being made.

      Good luck.

  4. I lived for over a year with the wedding and other photos hanging on the walls of bedroom where we made love almost each evening. What’s also important we started our serious relationship just several weeks after her sudden death in an accident. Few days after her death anniversary I dared to object the photos hanging on the walls and politely ask to remove to the other room. His reaction was violent and I was reproached with being selfish, immature, lacking self confidence and demanding erasing his past which he would never do because of his son. I’s very difficult to get to someone when does not want to have insight to their own feelings and to confront the reality.

    1. I am not completely convinced that people don’t realize that this kind of thing is selfish or that they aren’t hurting their new partners, fostering a sense of insecurity and guilt. My personal opinion that keeping up pictures and/or shrines is a way to control the new relationship and the new love interest. Keep things from progressing. The “you expect me to erase him/her” is a card to be played in the control game.

      The reason I believe this is that a widowed person is acutely aware of the reality at all times. How he/she chooses to react to it is a big insight for the new person into what lies ahead. And, i think the mistake lies in cutting too much slack in the beginning so that when one finally does speak up, she/he has left themselves wide open for accusations of insecurity and such.

      It’s best to simply be honest in the beginning. Not confrontational. Just honest. If something makes you uncomfortable or feeling doubtful of the widowed person’s sincerity or love, say so. Communication. It’s the only.

      1. Thanks Ann. I totally agree with your statement concerning keeping control over the relationship. You probably remember my comments to the other post expressing my doubts if he loves me. Not so long ago I was to first to express my love after over a year of our relationship. He replied instantly that he felt the same. I was astonished. It was at the moment which I could describe as a turning point in the relationship. We discussed break-up and I decided to proclaim my commitment before split-up. After we verbalized our feelings a lot of bad has happened. We opened up with things that made us uncomfortable before. My boyfirend said that being hones about your love towards smeone destroys everything.
        Yesterday I was asked: When do you expect me to propose? When shall we get married? In my view it’s up to him. But when i tried to set up the date of our wedding my boyfirend qualified that we just asked me but did not declare anything precisely. Whatsmore he said that still did not make that decision whther to marry me or not.

        1. Honesty destroys everything?

          If by honesty he means letting out every thought without consideration to the other person’s feelings – then maybe. There is such a thing as tact.

          But if you want to marry and he is still playing word games or trying to hang on without making any concessions to your wishes and needs, it is probably you who will have to decide whether this can continue as is or not.

          You are the only one who can decide whether this relationship – as is – is something you can live with. If nothing ever changes in terms of the status of the relationship, say you never get married, is that okay with you? Or will you look back and feel you’ve wasted your time or should have done something differently?

          Ten months from now will you be okay with things as they are right now? Ten years from now? Only you can answer.

    1. Thanks.

      I know there are widowed who will object because it is vogue on the help sites and blogs these days to teach them that active/visible grief is a life sentence and that people who tire of it are just bad, mean people, but it’s not true. I get tired of widowed mistaking normal feelings of sadness and missing that do come up with the active grief phase. They are not the same. And this confusion is what leads so many of them to cause inadvertent heartache and confusion in the people they get involved with.

      I also blame North American culture which paints relationships/dating as a “self-fulfillment” thing. Dating (like parenting) is completely the opposite of a Me-thing. They are a “other person first” thing. If you can’t put the other’s happiness and needs before your own (and both people have to do this) then it simply won’t work.

      You are ready to date, really, when you are ready to “suck it up” and “take a few for the team”.

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