Stages - The Evolution of Being a WOW
by Tammy Fletcher, M.A.
As a WOW (or those of us in a committed, day to day life with a former widower), we sometimes see patterns in what we go through, react to, or work to heal from. Here are a few stages described by women in relationships with formerly widowed men. By no means do these appy to each of us – we are each as individual as our partners. But you may find a common thread or two.
Ignorant bliss – “I’m in love! Everything is great! Issues? What issues…? ” It is the rare WOW who knows what to expect when she falls in love with a widower. We may not expect any unique issues at all. We may have seen “Sleepless in Seattle” and cried along with the rest of the viewers as Meg Ryan nobly steps up to fill in for Tom Hanks’ deceased soulmate. Whatever may come, how bad can it be? The first weeks of new love can give new meaning to the old phrase “Love is blind.”
Grief Counselor – “I love this man and he seems to be in pain. I want to help. Maybe if I just let him talk it out a little more….” Most people feel compassion for others. When someone we love is hurting, we especially want to do what we can to help. We may find that our new love responds to our caring by opening up some of his deepest feelings. These may seem to revolve around his former spouse. We listen. We empathize. We want to share both the happiness and the pain of our new partner. But can we, really? If his late wife starts to dominate your heart-to-heart discussions with your husband or significant other, you may find yourself feeling more like a grief counselor than a girlfriend. That can be a red flag that it is time to detach a bit from talks that focus on the past and another love. It is difficult to know where to draw the line between encouraging openness and compassion and beginning to feel invisible or used.
Fatigue – ” I am getting tired of this. How many sad anniversaries are there in a year, anyway? How many more stories? And, um, would it be okay yet if I moved her shampoo over so I have room for my toothbrush? ” Imagine spending your first night with your new love and waking up to a picture on the nightstand. A smiling couple on their wedding day…but you are not the bride. Your first toast together, in a lovely restaurant. Your significant other raises his glass to you, and the candlelight glints off his wedding ring, which he still wears on his left hand. It may be hard to feel romantic when you feel like “the other woman.” Even the most understanding woman can start to run out of tolerance when she feels she is sharing her man with another woman – even if she is not physically there. This stage is where the power of memories can begin to take their toll. The more her presence is evident in your every day life, the more crowded it feels. Your partner may not know how you are feeling. It may even take you by surprise to start to feel weary.
Hurt – “Why did they say that? Why wasn’t I included? What about my family?” As you become more of a couple, people in both of your lives naturally react to your new relationship. On your side, friends and family may be curious, happy for you, and welcome your new partner into your circle of family and friends. You may experience the same from those on your love’s side. You may also, however, be rejected by those who have feelings of betrayal, jealousy, confusion, or even resentment. The change in his status, from grieving widower to a new woman’s boyfriend or husband, can open old wounds for those who knew him and his former wife as a couple. Some people adapt and even welcome you. Some may make inappropriate comments – “They were so happy.” “She was the love of his life, you know.” “She is watching over you both from heaven.” “I hope you can make him as happy as she did” (the latter I heard at our wedding!) What about families? Perhaps your man has been close with the family of his late wife. It may be difficult for him to introduce you to them, and they may be hurt by his new relationship. Maybe he still calls them his “in-laws.” If things are getting serious, what will that make your family if you marry?
Insecurity and doubt - “Why did he tell me all those stories? Was it really that perfect? How do I live up? He is quiet, is he feeling sad? Where did my self esteem go???” Even the most confident woman can begin to doubt herself after months of “Hallmark moment” stories starring your love and another woman. We tend to not speak ill of the dead, and the late wife can take on the qualities of a saint. Day after day, week after week, our self esteem can start to crumble. We aren’t saints. We don’t have as many memories as they did to share. We beat ourselves up for feeling insecure at times. It’s time to reach out for support and help.
Reaching out - “YOU TOO???” I remember the first time I met another woman married to a former widower. It changed my life. I thought I was alone, felt guilty for struggling, and learning that my issues were nearly universal freed me from a downward spiral that even an excellent counselor couldn’t help me with. She felt as helpless as I did. Reaching out to other women in my situation turned my life and my marriage around. They “got it.” They didn’t condemn me for feeling second best or frustrated sometimes. They offered their own insight and ideas for improvement. But most of all, they just let me share my experiences and in that, I began to find myself again.
Setting boundaries - “That picture on the nightstand makes me uncomfortable. Can we move it please?” No one wants to be unkind or selfish. Many of us have lost a loved one, gone through the pain of a relationship that has ended and the grieving over the loss of a dream, and we feel empathy for the men we love. Some WOWs are widows themselves and have a unique perspective on both sides of the situation. If WOW issues begin to eat away at our relationships, it is time to talk and find areas in which we can compromise. We can respect the past but gently put it in the past, while we make room to focus on the present and future. If you are feeling physically ill every time you enter a room that is full of another woman’s memories, speak up. If spending holidays with your family, his, and his late wife’s is creating chaos and frustration all the way around, tell him and ask if there is a compromise that can be reached. If a friend of the late wife’s is compelled to take a walk down memory lane at every opportunity, detach. Find a calm moment and tell your partner how you feel, without anger or blame. Work toward solutions for both of you. He may not have any idea how you are feeling. He can help you understand his feelings as well. Give him a chance. Give your relationship a chance.
Rebuilding - “Who was I before this? How do I get my confidence and identity back? Maybe it’s time for us BOTH to compromise….” I promise you, his former wife was a normal person, with strengths and weaknesses, just like you and I – even though you may have heard otherwise a hundred times by now. It’s time to focus on yourself and your marriage. Who are you? What do you love to do? Find that woman again. Work out, take a class, get together with friends, take your husband off for a weekend to someplace new, find ways to take care of yourself. When you stumble, reach out to someone who understands and then pick yourself back up. Being alive doesn’t make you a lesser person! You did not take someone else’s place. You took your place, next to the man in your life.
Anger - Anger can be a normal feeling. “Thank you, but I personally don’t give much thought as to whether she would approve of me or not.” or “Honestly, the past is the past. I don’t have much interest in their marriage. It’s interesting that you do, though.” I got to this point the hard way. I spent a three-hour appointment with a hairdresser who was a friend of my husband’s family, who considered herself an expert on his former wife and their marriage. Even though she had never met his late wife, she “spoke to her from the spirit world” – it was something straight out of The Twilight Zone. She felt compelled to talk about my husband’s late wife for the entire three hours – their marriage was perfect, my mother-in-law had worshipped the ground she walked on, and that my husband would never recover. I said, “You know, I don’t think that’s how it is. I don’t need to hear any more.” I got angry – not as angry as my husband did when he found out, but that’s another article! It was a turning point. For the next few months, together, we made our home our own, made plans for the future, he spoke frankly with those who were focusing on his past life exclusively, and we made some hard choices to let those who were stuck in the past stay there – by themselves. I didn’t feel guilty. I felt better. We both did. And we found a new hairdresser – one who just cuts hair without the bogus seance included!
Reaching out, Part 2 - Helping others – “I have been there. I have felt like you feel. Don’t beat yourself up. Hold my hand till you get out of this tunnel. ” It is amazing the healing that comes from reaching out to others in our situation. Just listening empowers us and them to move on, rebuild, and feel good again. A relationship with a person whose previous relationship ended in death can be different than one that has ended in divorce. Your partner had no choice in the turn of events that turned his life upside down. He has gone through a lot and that has made him who he is today. That doesn’t mean either of you has to stay stuck in any of the stages above. Most of us still find ourselves visiting one or more of them as issues arise. But if we can identify these feelings they become more transitory, not a permanent state of mind. Even baby steps forward can be considered progress to be celebrated, and you will find yourself living more and more in the present with respect for the past but an eye toward your future together.
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