People love to write me about dating – how to start doing it, how to talk to someone you’re interested in, how to handle the dramas of dating (there are so many). One of the things I see repetitively on my blog are questions or comments about the specific issues pertinent to dating as a widow. There are a number of these, but one in particular stands out. I’ll paraphrase, but it usually goes something like this:
I’m trying to date again because I don’t want to be alone. I am going out on dates, but nothing feels quite right. At the end of each date I think, “that person was nice and fun. But he/she is not even close to as great as (my dead spouse).” How am I supposed to face dating when I’m constantly comparing my dates to my late husband (or wife)?
Let me first say this: I get it. I do. I’ve talked to dozens of widows about this issue, and almost everyone says that there is some level of comparison that goes on, especially in the early days of dating. That was true for me. About eight months after Shawn died, I went out on my first official date with a man who knew a friend of mine. Let’s call him Paul. It was a completely blind date, and I was pleased when I met him and he was attractive. He was also kind and clearly intelligent, and we had a long dinner that was really great. We texted frequently and went out again after that and I thought, “well, Paul is wonderful.”
But I also thought this: “he is not Shawn.”
You know, Paul was a nice guy (though not really a good guy, but I’ll get to that) and he had a great smile. But I just kept thinking that he wasn’t fun like Shawn. You know why? Because he wasn’t fun like Shawn.
I tried to push these feelings away. I couldn’t be expected to find someone like Shawn again, I figured, so I needed to look for the good qualities that I could find in someone new. Paul was a pretty introspective guy, it seemed, and I thought that maybe he could teach me more about self-reflection and vulnerability. I thought maybe we could connect on a different level than I’d connected with Shawn.
(It was not to be. I think he could sense my insecurity, and ultimately, Paul pulled away. Do you want to know how? He ghosted me. Oh yes he did! Just straight-up stopped returning my texts, as though he’d dropped off the face of the planet. He ghosted a widow! I mean….the irony. But I digress because that’s not the point of this blog post.)
Even after a few weeks of dating Paul, I never truly connected with him. We had a few mildly amusing dates and I got to kiss someone new. I felt sad when he pulled away so suddenly (and so rudely.) But I rationalized my feelings. Maybe, this was how it was going to be. Maybe I needed to get used to the idea that I’d meet lots of great people, but no one who had all the qualities that Shawn had. Maybe every man was going to be just a little bit lacking.
It kept happening as I kept dating. One man didn’t really listen to me, and another was rude to the waiter. One chewed with his mouth open. One was an hour late. “Shawn would never do that,” I kept saying in my head.
But it was terrible because even with the good guys – the ones who had basic manners and conversation skills – I kept finding points that were lacking about them. No one was ever as smart as Shawn and no one could ever be as fun as him either.
I realize if you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking, “Marjorie, this post is not helping me! I need to know how I’m supposed to stop comparing my dates to my late spouse! Were you ever able to do it?”
Yes, I was.
First, I was able to do this by starting to date men who were a bit different from Shawn. Yes, they all had to have basic and important qualities that he also had – kindness, intelligence and general good humor – but they weren’t so similar otherwise. They had different interests, different life trajectories, and different ways of relating to me.
It was strange, of course, to try out new people. Sometimes it was a total failure (I have a hilarious story about this guy who made me tea with a camping stove in the middle of a crowded downtown traffic circle while telling me about the benefits of psychotropic mushrooms) but other times it was actually pretty interesting to go out with men who were so different from the man I was married to for 13 years.
But this wasn’t the only reason I was able to stop comparing the men I dated to Shawn. I stopped really doing it when I finally started meeting men that I truly liked. Before, when I met men who I didn’t like that much, I’d be constantly comparing them to Shawn. What I needed was someone different, yes, but also someone who really held my attention.
And then one day, it happened. I went out with a man who was not like Shawn. We went on a long and winding walk in the bright sunshine and talked for hours. I laughed, a lot, and I thought, “I really, really like this guy.”
And not once in those few hours did I compare him to Shawn.
I actually thought about it afterwards. Why wasn’t I doing what I’d always been doing? Why wasn’t I creating a checklist of all of the ways that this man was so different from my husband?
I wasn’t doing that comparison because I’d actually met someone who was really great. Turns out, it’s not too hard to stop comparing your dead husband to your new crush if your new crush is someone that you really, really like.
Listen, I don’t know how dating will go for me as I continue on this path forward. But I do know that the way for me to stop comparing Shawn to everyone I meet is to try and meet new types of people, and to hope that one of them truly catches my eye. And then, I think…it just happens. You have an afternoon that feels perfect and you think, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t compare him to Shawn.”
I don’t have all the answers but I don’t think this can be something that’s forced. I think that if you’re dating and still comparing everyone to your late spouse, that’s okay! I dated like that for probably a year before I was able to even begin the process of seeing men for who they were, rather than for what they lacked. But also, I think some of this is about meeting the right person(s), and having that moment when you don’t think, “you are not Shawn,” but instead think, “I like you. A whole lot.”
**This column is merely my point of view and is for informational purposes only. I am not a therapist or medical professional, and thus my thoughts should not be a substitute for advice from these professionals. Please get immediate help if you feel like harming yourself. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.