Widower Wednesday: Women, Widowers, and Insecurity

For those who may have missed my Monday announcement, I’m looking for stories from girlfriends and wives of for my final widower relationship book. I hope to release it by the end of the year. You can find more details here.

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Last Thursday, Slate magazine’s advice columnist, Dear Prudence, answered the following question from a widower:

About five years ago, I lost my wife after a lengthy illness. The first year was hard, but I got through it thanks to my in-laws, who never stopped letting me know that I would always be part of their family. (My parents are no longer with us.) Six months ago, I met a wonderful woman I love and want to marry. My problem is that she is very twitchy about my relationship with my in-laws. We call each other frequently and I visit them, and their extended family, a few times a year, including holidays. But any time I mention them or my former wife—such as saying something she enjoyed doing—my girlfriend gets angry or very upset. She accuses me of still being in love with my late wife and not letting go of the past. I've tried to reassure her, but I feel that I have to constantly censor myself to avoid setting her off. I don't want to cut my late wife's family out of my life, and they are very happy I've found someone, but I fear an ultimatum is coming. What should I do?

—Found Love Again

Prudence (real name Emily Yoffe) is married to a widower so I thought of all the advice columnists out there, she’d have an insightful perspective on the problem. Instead she starts her answer as follows:

You've been alone a long time, and I’m sure your girlfriend has many wonderful qualities. But the portrait you paint is of someone who is jealous, insecure, and mean. You say nothing to indicate that your emotional life revolves around your late wife or that your home is a shrine to her. Nor are you trying to remake your girlfriend, Vertigo-like, into your lost love. But she can’t stand it when you mention your late wife in the most natural way. And you feel you have to hide your relationship with your former in-laws; how ironic that they are thrilled you have found someone.

You can read the rest of her answer here.

For those who don’t click over, I’d summarize her advice as follows:

  • Your girlfriend doesn't get that you can love her, the late wife, and the in-laws without feeling like a third wheel.
  • We all have pasts and she shouldn't be threatened by your past just like you’re not threatened by hers. Let her talk about her ex and all the fun they had when something relevant comes up. What harm could that do?
  • Did I mention that your girlfriend is insecure?
  • Your in-laws will be part of your life and you can tell your insecure girlfriend to shove it if she doesn't like that.
  • Give your insecure girlfriend a chance to re-examine her attitude. If she doesn't shape up, dump her and find a woman who’s not insecure and can tolerate your undying love and devotion to a woman who’s six feet under.

Before I dive in deeper, it’s important to note that we’re only getting the widower’s point of view. His emotional life may very well revolve around his late wife or his home may be shrine to her or he may not be in a compromising mood when it comes to spending the holidays somewhere other than the in-laws. We have no way of knowing whether or not his girlfriend has a valid reason to feel this way. One would think that given Prudence’s background, she’d want to hear the other side of just assuming that the widower isn't overdoing it.

What really bothers me about the widower’s question and Prudence’s answer is the assumption that girlfriend can’t stand hearing about his late wife or visiting the in-laws because she’s insecure. It’s an assumption that comes into my email box all the time from widows and widower who disagree with me. Their tone usually goes something like this: “I’m never taking photos of the late spouse down. If the person I’m dating can’t deal with that, then I’ll find someone who’s secure enough to live with that.” The new person in their life that has the problem—not the widow or widower.

Yes, it takes some deal of self worth to date someone who will always love the late spouse. And if you’re fine with photos of the late spouse up on the wall, giant memorial tattoos, or spending every holiday with the former in-laws, that’s fine. More power to you. Most of the women who email me have already done a gut check and are okay with the widower’s past and that the late wife will always have a special place in his heart. They’re also fine if the late wife comes up in conversation or if the in-laws are part of their life. They accept that the widower has a past and are willing to move forward and start a new life together.

But the problems (and ultimatums) usually arise when the widower doesn't want to move forward and start a new life. Problems arise when the late wife is talked about to such an extent that the girlfriend feels like number two on the totem pole or thinks the widower wishes the late wife was still alive. Problems happen when former in-laws take up such a big part of his life that she feels like her family or her wants and needs are brushed to the side. Feeling like a third wheel in a relationship has nothing to do with being insecure and everything to do with wanting to be treated like the center of someone’s universe. There’s nothing wrong or insecure with wanting to be treated like number one from the person who should love you more than anyone. People expect that in any romantic relationship and are settling if they feel like the widow or widower’s heart is still with someone who’s six feet under.

Dating a widow or widower isn't for everyone. And, yes, there are those out there who don’t want a widower to mention the late wife or any part of his past. But I've always counseled those women that feel that way they shouldn't be dating a widower in the first place.

The problem, usually, isn't insecurity on behalf of the girlfriend but the fact that the widower isn't ready to fully open his heart to someone else. It’s disappointing that Prudence, of all people, doesn't at least try to recognize this.

It would be great to hear how the girlfriend in this relationship views as the problem. (If you’re the girlfriend and want to share your side of the story, email me here.) Maybe she’ll email Prudence. Or me. My gut says there’s more to this story than we’re getting. It would be nice to know what’s missing.