Widower Wednesday: Erasing a Widower’s Past

A widower writes to Dear Prudence with the following question:

I was married for 25 years to an amazing woman who came to a sudden and untimely end. I am now dating another amazing woman. After dating for a year, we moved in together six months ago and love each other like crazy. We have our differences, but nothing that I wouldn't expect for any two people trying to make their separate lives into one. Except one thing: I want to keep my late wife as a part of my life in the form of a few pictures, a couple of specific mementos, and the occasional topic of conversation. Sometimes my girlfriend is supportive of this but sometimes she is not and it causes her pain. I've read how you dealt with your husband's first wife and was hoping you could help me learn what topics are more likely to hurt my girlfriend so I can handle them more adroitly, or alternately give me some words I can use to explain better to my girl that I love her completely too. I've tried but sometimes she ends up feeling second best, like some kind of leftover, but she is not second best she is amazing. I don't think this is a long-term deal-breaker, I just want to make things easier for my girl.

To which Prudence answers:

It sounds as if you've done plenty to explain to your new partner that you love her completely. It also sounds as if the place of your late wife in your conversation and home is appropriate and not intrusive. Perhaps your girlfriend is trying to express to you that any reminders of your first wife are painful to her and that at best she indulges this, but editing your first wife out completely would be preferred. So it's up to you to explain that at this point in your lives you each have complicated histories that are part of who you are, and you are not comfortable if you have to catch yourself before you say things such as, "I love Florence. Rachel and I went there for our 10th anniversary." You two should have sorted this out better before moving in. But maybe a counselor will help you each understand the other's perspective.

Regular readers of this column know that I generally don’t agree with the advice Prudie gives widowers or those who are dating them. However,  I strongly agree with her that this is something the couple should have worked out before moving in together. But what really grated me was the following sentence that echoes a common refrain when the subject of taking down photographs of the late wife or putting away the late wife's personal items arrises.

Perhaps your girlfriend is trying to express to you that any reminders of your first wife are painful to her and that at best she indulges this, but editing your first wife out completely would be preferred.

For the billionth time: When a girlfriend of a widower (GOW) or a wife of a widower (WOW) objects to pictures, trinkets, or other objects around the house that remind the widower of his first marriage, it generally has nothing to do with wanting to edit or erase the first wife out of the widower’s life. Rather, it has to do with the home they share feeling like theirs instead of hers. It’s hard to move forward and concentrate on the now or even think about the future with someone when reminders of his past life are scattered around the house.

GOWs and WOWs understand that the woman he married helped make him the man he is today. They’re fine with the late wife coming up in conversation. Really, they are. They don’t expect widowers to not to talk about her. Unless she’s a constant topic of conversation, they’re not threatened by a story of his past. All they want is to feel like they’re the number one in a widower’s heart and don’t have to compete with a ghost for a widower’s love, affection, and attention. Asking for what anyone else expects in any other relationship isn't some extreme position taken by those who are insecure. It’s all about feeling like the center of the other person’s universe instead of feeling like they’re part of a threesome.

GOWs and WOWs who want the widower to edit the late wife completely out of his life are the exception—not the rule. In the 10 years that I've taken emails from women in relationships with widowers, I can count on one hand the number of times a GOW wanted to pretend that the widower was never married or never in love before she came into his life. And my advice to them has always been that they shouldn't be in a relationship with a widower if they feel that way.

Yes, we all come with a “complicated history” but that doesn't mean we should put our past out there for everyone to see. We don’t expect people to put photos of their past boyfriend and girlfriends, or ex-spouses up when they start a new relationship. Widowers shouldn't be given a pass simply because of the way their relationship ended in death instead of a mutual breakup or nasty divorce. They want the same fresh start anyone else would get.

If both parties are okay with some mementos or photographs around the house, there’s nothing wrong with that. If they don’t bother a GOW or WOW, more power to them. But can we please stop pretending that women who aren't comfortable with photos of the late wife around the house are insecure or trying to delete or edit her out of the widower’s past. It’s simply not true. All they want is to feel like is the widower is ready to give his heart to them and treat them with the same love, affection, and respect that the widower gave the late wife.

What, exactly, is wrong with that?