The following excerpt is an excerpt from Life with a Widower: Overcoming Unique Challenges and Creating a Fulfilling Relationship.
Chapter 1: What You Permit, You Promote
When I started dating Julianna, one of the things I learned by our third date was that she wasn't going to tolerate any bad behavior from me just because I lost my wife. She let me know in no uncertain terms that if I was really ready to date again, to open my heart to someone other than my late wife, I needed to treat her like the center of my universe. She would not be made to feel like she was second place. If she felt like I wasn't ready to move on, or that I was simply using her as a placeholder, the relationship would be over.
Julianna’s high standards took me by complete surprise. I had recently ended my first serious relationship with a woman I’ll call Jennifer. When we started dating, Jennifer didn't set any expectations about how she wanted to be treated or wanted me to behave. If anything, I was allowed to get away with behavior Jennifer probably wouldn't have tolerated from other men simply because I was a recent widower.
For example, after we started dating exclusively, I kept my relationship with Jennifer a secret from my immediate family and close friends. Jennifer knew I hadn't told anyone about her, and though she asked me a couple times when I was going to spread the word, I told her that my friends and family were still grieving and would probably have a hard time seeing me with someone else. I kept the relationship a secret as long as I could and only broke the news a few days before she was scheduled to fly in to visit. Since I lived just down the street from my parents’ home at the time, I knew there was no way I could keep her visit from them. I only told them about us because I was forced to—not because it was something I wanted to do. Had she not flown in to see me, or if I had lived far away from the prying eyes of family and friends, I don’t know when, if ever, I would have told anyone about our relationship.
What I didn't realize all those years ago—but Julianna understood very well—was that when you allow a widower to get away with bad or unacceptable behavior through silence or by making excuses for him, you’re sanctioning it. Julianna already had plenty of concerns about dating a recent widower. The last thing she wanted was to waste her time in a relationship where she had to compete with a ghost or feel like a replacement. She was only going to seriously date someone who would treat her like a queen, and she wasn't going to make exceptions for me. After setting her expectations, she waited to see if I loved her enough to treat her the way she wanted. Not once did she lower those expectations or allow me to get away with things because of my loss. We've been married for ten years, and her expectations are the same now as they were the day I met her.
Julianna’s boundaries forced me to decide how much I valued her and whether or not she was worth pursuing. Had I simply been looking to fill the hole in my heart, the relationship wouldn't have lasted very long, and I would have moved on to someone who would make excuses for me.
On the other hand, Jennifer’s permissive attitude taught me that it was perfectly acceptable if I treated her like some dirty little secret. I could play the grief card whenever I said or did something out of line. It was the ultimate “Get out of Jail Free” card, and I’m ashamed to say that I used it every time the opportunity presented itself. Instead of having to explain why I was acting a certain way or hadn't kept my promises or commitments, I could just say I was going through a tough time, and that would be that. End of story.
If Jennifer had put her foot down early on about the secret nature of our relationship, I would have been forced to think about how much being with her really meant to me. Looking back, I believe I would have valued the opinions of my family and close friends over hers, and the relationship never would have become as serious as it did. In the long run, that would have been a good thing because Jennifer deserved someone who wanted what she did: a serious, committed relationship.
If you don’t set expectations and boundaries or confront the widower when he steps out of line, you’re going to get used and abused. On the other hand, by permitting certain behavior early in the relationship, it’s going to be much easier for him to continue to come up with excuses for not changing when things finally reach a breaking point.
One common example of this is when a widower takes his girlfriend into the bedroom he and the late wife shared. Upon entering the room, the girlfriend discovers that there’s at least one picture of the late wife hanging on the wall or sitting on the nightstand, and/or the late wife’s clothes, toiletries, and other personal items are still where she left them. Instead of feeling like a quiet, private place where they can enjoy an intimate moment together, it feels like they’re going to have sex while the late wife watches.
At this point, the girlfriend has a choice to make: She can proceed like everything’s okay, even though she feels uncomfortable with all the late wife’s things in the room, or she can stop the kissing and the foreplay and tell the widower how uncomfortable she feels. Either way, boundaries and expectations will be set.
By proceeding, she’s telling the widower that having photos of the late wife staring at them while they share a passionate moment is okay, even though she probably wouldn't tolerate the photo of an ex-wife or past girlfriend “watching” them if the man was single or divorced. Maybe she’s worried that saying no will make the widower think she doesn't love him or it will create an awkward situation. While consenting may avoid an uncomfortable conversation now, she’s telling the widower that there are no late-wife boundaries when it comes to the bedroom. It also makes it harder for the widower to take down the photos later when she finally voices her concern about them. She slept with him before without saying a word, so he won’t see what an important issue it really is. It gives him a good excuse to drag his feet or see how serious she really is by trying to get her back in the bedroom.
On the other hand, if she says that doing it with the late wife’s things everywhere is too uncomfortable or doesn’t put her in the mood, she’s drawing a line in the sand.
It may be embarrassing to tell the widower you’re not sleeping with him while the late wife watches, but life is full of awkward situations where we have to stand up for our values and beliefs. Besides, when you’re dating a widower, there are going to be plenty of similar situations down the road. The sooner you can stand up for yourself, the better it will be for your physical, mental, and emotional health.
These uncomfortable moments are a good way to see whether or not the widower is going to respect you. If he does, he’ll find a way to put your wants and needs first. He may take the photos down, suggest another room, or say that you should both wait until he’s more ready to take this step. A widower who doesn't care about your thoughts and feelings will do everything he can to wear down your resistance. He may say the photos aren't a big deal and that you’re overreacting. Or maybe he’ll say that if they bother you that much, you should leave. Either way, you’ll get a good glimpse of the real man you’re dating.
Figure out early what you will and won’t tolerate and then set clear boundaries. Widowers who want to move on will try their best to meet your expectations. They may screw up several times along the way, but they’ll keep trying to reach the bar you set for them without making excuses as to why they’re falling short.
I wasn't always perfect when it came to the expectations Julianna set for me, but at least she could tell I was trying my best. And please note that I never intentionally tried to cross any lines. As things moved forward, she was able to see that I really was the man she thought I was—someone I might not have become had she relaxed her standards.
Even if you've allowed certain behavior to go on for a period of time, it’s never too late to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the widower to let him know what’s expected of him. You just need to explain in a very loving manner why you've permitted the behavior and why you’re setting new boundaries. The key to making this work is to be strong and firm in your resolution and to not be afraid of ending things if he tries to lower the bar. There’s not a man on earth—widower, single, or divorced—that’s worth settling for.