I recently reconnected with an old friend with whom I had not spoken in over 20 years.
They texted me this question, and it stopped me in my tracks: “When will I be allowed to date again?”
It simultaneously broke my heart and infuriated me that they felt like they needed permission. Yet, I completely understood how they felt, because I once felt the need to ask the same question.
My friend’s spouse had recently passed away. This friend reached out to me because my husband passed away a few years ago, and I am now in a new relationship. They hoped that I could give them some insight into navigating the touchy world of dating after losing a spouse.
That I can, my friend.
You might think my first question should be, “How long ago did you lose your spouse?” I have had many people ask me that same question over the years. I feel the need to tell you that information is irrelevant. There is an implicit judgment in the question. Why does it matter? Marriage vows state “to death do us part.” They met their marriage vows and are no longer married. However, society has these unwritten and unclear rules about the concept of love after the death of a spouse.
How is a widow supposed to know what is acceptable to others in our current culture? If a person were to break up with their partner, even if they were in a long-term relationship, there would be no judgment if they went out that night and met someone new. If a person goes through a divorce, it is quite common and acceptable to jump on dating sites and start looking right away. There are little to no comments from friends and family about it being disrespectful. In fact, there is usually encouragement to move on and find someone new or better.
After my spouse died, I endured a lot of judgment guised as well-meaning advice.
Some of the things that were said to me and other widowed friends are:
“Wow, you’re dating already?”
“You should wait a year to date.”
“How was your marriage?”
“How long were you together?”
“Are you sure you’re ready to date again?”
“It makes me uncomfortable to think about you dating.”
“I can’t picture you with someone new.”
“What will your in-laws think?”
“What will your kids think?”
My main question to people who feel bothered when a widow/widower starts dating is, “Why does it matter to you if a widow chooses to try to find love again?”
I have seen so many people get upset over this topic. They will make comments like above, then go home and complain about it to their spouse as they crawl into bed together. They’ll say things like, “I would never do that,” “I’ll never love again if you die,” or “It’s so disrespectful to so-and-so to date again so soon.”
But why? Why is it disrespectful? There is no cheating—their spouse is no longer alive. Why do people associate the amount of love one has for their partner with how soon they choose to find a bit of happiness?
When your spouse dies, it is the most stressful thing that could happen to you. There is so much loneliness. Crawling into an empty marriage bed is so incredibly painful. Widows feel so much self-doubt about themselves in general, let alone feeling like they’ll ever find and feel love again. Skin hunger is real. Studies have shown for most people an increase in sexual libido while in the stages grief. Widows feel guilt over just about everything—even just the ability to laugh and have a “good day,” let alone the confusing guilt about loving someone new even though they are no longer in that previous relationship.
My opinion of people who voice an opinion on widows who date is that they are most likely insecure in their own relationships. The thought of their partner ever being in love again if they were to die is too much to bear. People who make judgmental comments toward a widow have yet to process their personal grief over the death of the widow’s spouse, so they pass the responsibility of keeping them emotionally comfortable onto the widow—as if a widow handling their own grief and the grief of their children isn’t enough. In this situation, widows are expected to put the grief needs of others above their own.
My advice to my friend and any other widows/widowers about dating:
If you are able to ask the question, “When can I date again?” or something similar, then just do it. The five stages of grief are not realistic. You will always feel a bit of guilt, which is exacerbated by society’s unrealistic expectations on how grief works. You are not cheating on your spouse. Your spouse will not haunt you and condemn you for seeking affection and connection from another person. You will never “get over” your spouse. You will think of your spouse on a daily basis.
The right partner will understand and not feel threatened by your past relationships. Try not to focus on how others will perceive you (which I fully know is much easier said than done). It doesn’t matter exactly when you start dating again—some people will always have an unwanted opinion on what is “acceptable” in their eyes. You are the one who goes home to an empty house and bed—not them.
Dating after the death of your spouse or significant other, although stressful, can be so wonderful and therapeutic even if the relationship doesn’t work out. Dating shows you that there are other people in the world in a similar situation—looking for a connection with another person. Dating proves to you that you are wanted and attractive in some way (if you weren’t, this person wouldn’t have agreed to go out with you in the first place!).
Your feelings of loneliness, wondering if you could ever find love again, and the weight of bringing so much baggage can be replaced with excitement, happiness, and comfort, even if they might be short-term.
It’s worth the risk to feel something other than your grief. And who knows? This person could be your “Chapter 2” (a phrase for your next “forever” person, which is used in the widowed community) if you are open to it.
My advice for a person who knows a widow/widower and has an opinion on them trying to find love again:
Look at yourself and try to understand why someone else’s love life has any impact on you. Would you think it’s appropriate for someone to have an opinion on the intimate details of your current relationship? If not, then you don’t need to have any kind of opinion on someone else’s—especially not someone who is so deeply wounded and just wants to feel love again.
If a widowed person ever says to you “I’m thinking about dating again,” or “I met someone,” a respectable response is, “That’s great! Do you want to tell me about it?”
Create a judgment-free zone and help them on their grief journey. Don’t add to their pain with your opinion on their intimate life, even if it is well-intentioned.