Ask a Widow: What If He’s Not Shawn?

Stock image of couple kissing in park for DC widow blog by Marjorie Brimley

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.

14 Replies to “Ask a Widow: What If He’s Not Shawn?”

  1. I love hearing your story! I waited 6 years to begin dating again after my husband died. Part of it was being sensitive to my kids and my in-laws.–who I love dearly. ( I was 13 years old when my dad died–so I had the “kid perspective” on losing a parent. And it sucks.) I knew I would be most comfortable dating after my kids left for college. I also felt much more emotionally strong, in a happy place in my life, and ready to date.

    After 6 months of online dating and stories that were hilarious and made me the hit of the story-telling circuit, I met a good guy . He is divorced and truly understanding of me being a widow. He is quite different than my late husband. And that is okay. After all, I am a different person now ,too.

    Actually, I dated a man who, on-line, was very much like my late husband. Same physical type, background, same religious beliefs, etc. He even went to the same college!!! I really thought it was some kind of divine intervention!!! It was eerie, the similarities. We had a few dates and pfffft. Nothing. No spark. That is when I really knew–dating someone different than my late husband was perfectly ok.

    My new man has the qualities that I have always valued in a partner/person. He is kind and compassionate, fun to be around, (and he is crazy about me!) We have been together for 2 years and we are both happy. Early on, we were having a conversation about our marriages and he told me that he isn’t planning on getting married again. I was so relieved because I am not interested in being married again either. Being in this new chapter is different and different can be very good.

    Thank you for letting me share my story. I guess I felt a need to get it out there! 🙂 After so much sadness and heartache and ultimately, healing, love can happen again!!!

    1. Oh, I love this SO MUCH. What a wonderful story that’s so beautiful and real. I’m so pleased that you shared it here, and so happy for your happiness!

  2. After 40 years together with my husband- and we had a fun life filled with adventure- how do I talk about myself, without talking about my dead husband? It’s kind of impossible. Maybe I need to wait 10 years to have my own stories- but I doubt I’ll care then.

    1. I think it’s really hard. And not necessarily for everyone. But I will say this – I haven’t stopped talking (or writing) about Shawn. I’ve just stopped comparing Shawn to everyone I date.

    2. Candice,
      I totally understand how you feel. My boyfriend and I had a decade long relationship and I feel like talking about him still and I feel as if I need my own stories also. He passed away 2 years and 7 months ago. When my friends ask about dating, I know I am not ready at all, exactly because of this. I feel as if I need to live a bit on my own, not being in a relationship. I am different now, and I need to get to know myself some more. My grief counselor also told me that it is ok to want to take my time and if someone else does not feel the need to take that much time it is ok also. But for me she told me don’t feel rushed and only start dating when I feel comfortable. There is nothing wrong with feeling this way.
      All the best and thank you for sharing.
      Kimlan

      1. Exactly. You absolutely have to do it on your own timeline!

  3. Well thank you for this. My boyfriend passed 2 years and 7 months ago and I have wondered how I would meet anyone else and not compare them to my Gill. I have a few friends who have had the partners pass away also (they were in their late 30’s and I was 40 when it happened) and we have discussed this also. I have not been dating yet, and I don’t feel I will be ready to for at least another 2 years. I had some medical issues to deal with and now with this COVID19 crisis, I feel there will be other things to focus on. But this article and the comments give me some hope for the future.
    Thanks much & all the best.
    Kim

    1. I’m glad it could give you a little hope. I don’t think there’s any sort of timeline that anyone should be on – you have to do what works for you. Let me tell you, I had a LOT of false starts! For now, I hope you stay safe through this crisis, and at least see a little light ahead.

  4. Dating someone who has been recently widowed is an approach that I haven’t seen discussed. (The status is in most on-line profiles.) It eases the awkwardness of breaking into the dating pool when your date is in the same somewhat hesitant situation. There is a built-in connection and solid basis for empathy. It is a lot easier for both of you to open up, and that tendency to make comparisons with your former spouse is muted when you can both can talk freely about them. I think you learn a lot about each other when neither of you is past the grieving process, and there are opportunities to exchange kindnesses. This can make a comfortable foundation to build on.

    1. Oh, this is a great idea! But…in my age bracket, it’s incredibly rare. I do know a lot of great stories about widows and widowers finding love with each other again!

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I lost my wife of 40 years a year and a half ago. I’m having a hard time dealing with the idea of dating at the age of 69! I’m learning what life is like without a partner. I’m open to meeting someone, but at this point I don’t want to actively search. I’ll certainly incorporate your experience into my dating if I ever do it. It sounds like you are handling things well and I wish you every success!

    1. It’s such an individual experience to figure out when/if/how we want to date after being widowed, that sometimes I hesitate to offer too much advice. But I know at least for some widows/widowers it’s something that they want to do, but the logistics and emotions behind it are tough. I think you just have to go at your own pace, and figure out what works for you. Best wishes!

  6. I asking advice having just finished dating a widow. She never wanted me to meet her kids, or friends for that matter. She felt guilty many times together and shared she was thinking about her late husband during our intimate times. She recently has sought out a long distance relationship with someone of the same occupation, resembles her late husband etc. I’m thinking she isn’t ready for a serious relationship. Your thoughts ? Thanks

    1. You’ll see I responded to another one of your comments. But I’ll reiterate that I think it depends on the person, so offering advice about someone I don’t know is really tough.

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