Blurred night cityscape for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
Ask A Widow,  Dating

Ask a Widow: When Sex Can Be Good…and When Sex Can Be Tricky

I know a lot of widows who think a lot about sex.

I’m not talking about any specific group of widows. I hear from people of all ages and backgrounds and life experiences on this blog, and one of the most common things people write to me about is sex. Is it okay to want to have sex after (fill-in-the-blank-amount-of-time) has passed since your partner died? Is it strange to desire people who you would have never desired before widowhood? Is it totally off-base to date a friend or a neighbor?

Some questions are easy to answer. Anything about feelings (i.e. “is it okay to feel this way”) is easy. Yes, it’s always okay to feel any way.

But when it comes to sex and widowhood, and to what widows actually decide to do, some questions can be harder to answer. My answer is often, “it depends”.

For example, the other day I got a public question on my blog that I’ll summarize here. The woman who wrote me had been recently widowed after a few decades of marriage. She was in the unenviable place where she was intensely grieving but also – quite suddenly – found that she had a really high sex drive.

Let me pause here and say that this is not uncommon. There are many names for it, but lots of widows feel this “widow fire” in the early days after loss. I don’t know why it occurs, as it seems like a particularly cruel part of grief. Not everyone feels this way (I felt mostly dead inside) but many people do.

And some people act on it.

Which is exactly what this woman was thinking about doing. Her message to me continued with a loving description of her husband, and then she told me that she found herself attracted to her late husband’s brother. In fact, it wasn’t just simple attraction – she and her brother-in-law had also been texting, and then sexting. Was it okay to act on this?

I paused, reading her note. This situation felt very tricky.

At the end, she noted that she didn’t want a new relationship with her brother-in-law to turn into an emotional relationship. Rather, she was hoping for something that was more like “friends with benefits”.

I honestly didn’t know how to respond, as the message had so many layers. But I think I’ll try to do it in parts.

First, and this is important, some people process their grief with sex. I know, it can seem strange if that wasn’t (or isn’t) the way you have dealt with grief yourself. But plenty of people find that sex can make them more fully cope with their grief or get in touch with difficult emotions. There are a lot of caveats that anyone could say about having sex in early grief (it can be hard to navigate emotional minefields with a partner you don’t know well, you need to protect yourself with new partners, you might find yourself sobbing in a random person’s bathroom, etc.) but I think we are all adults here, and I’m not going to judge if your way of dealing with grief is via sex. I know people who’ve called sex “critical” to their emotional wellness in early widowhood.

Second, sex in early widowhood can be tricky. I’m not just talking about whether you’re making good decisions. I made a lot of bad decisions when it came to all sorts of things in my first year of widowhood, including with men. I think it’s all part of the process of figuring out who you are after an intense loss. But there are bad decisions and then there are bad decisions. The former are the choices you make that might be poo-pooed by the larger society, like dating “too soon” after loss. What’s “too soon” anyway? I hate that. Or deciding to make a major change to help your mental, emotional or financial state, like selling your house or changing jobs. Widows are not idiots, just because we are going through trauma.

And yet. I do think that the early days of grief can make people very vulnerable. (Note here, again, that I am not calling widows “stupid” but rather noting that this emotional time period is fucking hard.) And being in a very vulnerable state can make it much more likely that tricky situations will go awry.

This message I got, about the widow sexting her brother-in-law? This seems to be the very definition of tricky. Especially that part she wrote about not wanting an emotional relationship.

I’m not saying it can’t work. I’m not judging anyone for who they date or why or when. That’s your business. But since she wrote me, here’s what I have to say about that:

Maybe it’s time to pause.

I know it’s hard to do. Once I felt desire towards men again, I really felt it. For the author of this message, I’m sure there is safety and love and shared grief that she has with her brother-in-law.

But when things are tricky, and you are vulnerable, that’s when things can really go awry.

And this might be the perfect time to pause/slow down/breathe/take a beat. Yes, she might think it’s possible to have a “friends with benefits” situation, but that’s something I think would be very hard with someone who she already had an emotional relationship with. And that’s just the start of what else might be tricky for both of them.

I’m not saying that such a situation could never work out. I think it’s common that widows fall for someone close to them, and it can often be great. I’m also not saying that sex in early widowhood is unadvisable. If it’s something you feel is best for you, that’s great. I’m just saying that early widowhood + sex with your late husband’s brother + no desire for an emotional relationship….well, that feels like the very definition of a tricky situation.

And when I’m dealing with tricky situations, I always try to pause. Especially when I really don’t want to.

So much of widowhood is hard, and everything about dating can seem really hard, too. I feel for anyone who’s in that place.

I also know there is value in pausing for a bit, and taking a breath, and seeing what it feels like to do that alone.

**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.