…and things are very confusing.
That was the start of an email I got a few weeks ago. It’s certainly not the first email I’ve received on this topic. Maybe it’s because if you put “date + widow” into Google, one of the few non-AARP articles that comes up on the first page is the one I wrote for Vox on dating as a young widow.
The person who wrote to me (let’s call him Matt) wanted to know how to approach dating a widow who had a somewhat similar story to mine. Matt told me that his new love interest is a widow with kids who lost her spouse about five months ago. His email described the start of their relationship at bit:
Her husband died in December, but I’d known him for 5 years. We worked together, and he had cancer the entire time I knew him. I wanted to be supportive to her and her kids after he died and I didn’t know how to, so I offered to buy some of his personal effects that she was selling. And about 2 months ago I started up a friendship that has led to something…
He felt for her situation, as he continued to describe in the letter.
When her husband died I was devastated. While it didn’t always feel like he was the greatest guy, he was still my friend. He was one of the first people I knew that’s died and we shared something special in our working relationship. My mind went right to her and her kids. The empathy in me just crushes me when I put myself in her shoes. I’m amazed at how strong she is.
So why is it complicated, Matt? Well, he goes on…
The first time we had sex she said she felt like she’d cheated on her husband. While I get her point of view, it hurt to hear. She still loves him deeply…but she wants to have sex with me. I’m trying to reconcile these feelings I’ve got between her, me and her late husband.
Ooh, tricky, I thought. But then I read the ending, which was the trickiest part of all:
I am worried about my future with this new woman. I already feel like she’s my girlfriend. We talk a lot. We laugh. We cry. She says all the typical things you’d expect her to say being a widow. Her relationship didn’t end by choice and she still loves her husband. She also says that she likes me a lot, but this is how it is right now.
How am I supposed to compete with a ghost?
Honestly, I don’t always know how to answer these sorts of emails. So decided to ask Chris. What did he think? I read him part of the email, and a few hours later, Chris wrote me and Matt a response. I didn’t expect Chris to do such a thing, but when I read over the email, I realized how important it was. Not just for Matt (though he really appreciated it) but maybe, also, for others. Matt and Chris both agreed that I could publish an abbreviated (and edited for privacy) version of this exchange.
Here’s what Chris wrote back:
Wow, you’re in a really intense spot, and I salute you for being so open and forthcoming about your tough feelings, particularly with yourself. Therapy is a great tool – keep on it. It has been a real leg up for me in my life. With regard to your situation as “guy dating widow” I do have two thoughts.
Point 1. You’re in way early days, my man. Less than 6 months out from the death of a partner is shaky ground to be on. Marjorie often says that we could have never healthily dated until at least a year out and I think she’s probably right. I am not suggesting that your connection with this woman isn’t real, or that she’s being disingenuous with her feelings toward you, but she’s still super raw. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of great reasons why this person would want to be in a relationship with you – you’re empathetic, you’re kind, you’re affectionate, communicative, it sounds like you’re a great dad. Let those the the reasons that pull her toward you – not her grief over a lost partner. If you can afford to give her some time to breathe, I think you’ll find that y’all will be able to engage in a way that feels more real – on its merits – and less in response to grief, or in comparison to a past partner.
Point 2. I know it’s super hard, but you have to do whatever work you can to completely detach yourself from her late partner. I don’t mean you need to erase him from your memory, but really try to seek detachment from the part of you that compares yourself to him. That’s not a battle you’re going to win, and frankly it doesn’t really matter. His widow is choosing to be with you. The biggest favor you can do yourself is to trust that. If you don’t, it will eat you alive and likely lead to the implosion of your relationship.
What you can do is be a good partner. Sometimes this will mean giving space, and time for her to do some work on her own. It’s a real balance – finding the best way to stay close and be present – but also knowing when to step back and let things breathe. There’s no rush. The excitement of a new love interest is an amazing thing to feel, but this is more complex than that. She’s lucky to have a guy that understands that.
Good luck, friend.