Dating as a 47-Year-Old Widower
I’m a writer. I’ve spent more than a quarter of a century working on my craft. I have a master’s degree in English. I sit at my computer today with my vast linguistic palette and search for the precise combination of words to capture and convey both the experience and emotion of taking those tentative steps back into the world of dating:
It’s weird, yo.
I never did much dating when I was younger. My relationships tended to develop from friendships, or else through spending time with people in college or elsewhere. Then there’s the fact that I was married from 2003, and it’s been more than twenty years since I’ve tried to start a new romantic relationship.
Then there’s the grief of losing a spouse in 2019, and all the guilt and confusion and uncertainty to work through as a result.
Yet, as folks at ConFusion may have noticed, I seem to be dating again. It’s even progressed to a (gasp!) relationship!
There’s been a lot to think about and work through to reach this point. Starting with…
“You’re a horrible person who obviously never truly loved his wife and should feel nothing but guilt and shame and more guilt!”
Nobody has said this to me directly yet, I’m happy to say. But the unspoken message is out there. People talk about friends/family who lost a spouse and remarry. They also talk about people who lost a spouse and chose never to get married again. Those stories come with a strong current of romance and true love. They were so in love they could never replace their spouse, and they chose to wait until they were (depending on their beliefs) reunited with their one and only soulmate.
To be clear, I’m not judging either choice. Everyone has to figure out what works for them, and how they can best try to find some peace and happiness.
But I’ve felt pressured sometimes that if I really loved Amy, I’d pull a Princess Buttercup: “I will never love again.”
I don’t think Amy would have wanted me to be alone forever. Obviously, she didn’t want to get cancer, either. The goal was for both of us to live happily ever after. But since that’s no longer an option (fuck cancer!), I think she’d want me to eventually love again. Those who knew her best have said the same thing.
None of this magically makes the guilt completely disappear. But it’s not overwhelming, and it’s gone down to a point where it doesn’t seem to interfere with my new relationship. (Yay for therapy and support groups!)
That brings us to the next question.
How the frell do people date in 2021?
Having decided I was open to a new relationship, what next? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I’m working from home. But I’m told that the kids these days do a lot of their dating through the tubes of the internet. So I slowly set up a couple of profiles on different sites.
At first, I kept my own profile hidden. I was dipping the toes in the water, but I wasn’t ready to cannonball into this quite yet. I found a few people who looked interesting, a few that got instantly blocked, and a whole range in between. I learned a bit about what I wanted to include on my profile, what not to say, what kind of photos to use…
Eventually, I gritted my teeth and made my profile visible.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
Those dating sites have this stuff down to a science. All the different psychological tricks and temptations they use to get you to subscribe.
Well, they work. I ended up subscribing for a while so I could see who was interested and respond to some of them. I chatted with some people and eventually set up a first date with a woman in Ann Arbor.
Cue the panic. Where should we go? Do I drive to Ann Arbor, or should we meet in the middle somewhere? What do I wear? How do I introduce myself? Should I bring a gift? Flirting or no flirting? Do I even remember how to flirt? Does hugging happen at the end? What if there’s kissing? Am I ready for kissing?
One of the many things I liked about being married was not having to go on first dates!
Happily, it went very well. I did bring a gift — a little dog toy for her new dog that she’d talked about. We chatted for a few hours at a coffee shop. We hugged at the end, and talked about a second date. Go, me!
The second date was fun, but as we talked more, it didn’t really feel like there were sparks. At least for her. Me, I wasn’t even sure I remembered what new-relationship sparks felt like.
In search of sparks…
Over the next months, I dated three other people. The first one felt more like a crash and burn. The second was someone I really enjoyed talking with, but after two dates with her, I realized I was spark-free.
Then there was the third person. We went out to dinner and ended up talking until the restaurant closed. There were very nice hugs. And as I left that night, I realized this had been very different than those other dates. This felt like it had potential.
Building a new relationship. (Assembly required.)
She and I have been dating for about four months now, and it’s pretty darn great. She’s very different from Amy in a lot of ways, which means I haven’t felt like I was somehow trying to “replace” my wife. For one thing, she’s an extrovert, which has been interesting. She pushes me out of my comfort zone sometimes, but in a way that feels healthy as opposed to just uncomfortable.
One of the many things I appreciate is that she’s never been awkward or uncomfortable about Amy. We talked a little about my wife and what happened on the very first date, and we’ve continued to have those conversations. She knows I have some deep trauma there, but also trusts that I’ve been working to heal, and that I’m in a place where I’m able to and want to have a new relationship. She knows I’ll always love Amy, but doesn’t feel threatened by that. (At one point, I described it as a strange sort of polyamory, except one of the people in my triad has died.)
It’s not perfect. Nothing ever is. For one thing, she lives about 80 minutes away, so this has been mostly a weekend-based relationship. And we’re distracting each other from our productivity.
But so far, we seem to fit together really well.
Some interesting pitfalls
Grief and loss leaves a hole. I’ve tried to be very conscious about not trying to fit this new person into the space where Amy used to be. That would be unfair to her, unhealthy for me, and utterly ineffective. But after 15+ years of marriage, I have a lot of relationship habits, so I’ve had to pay attention and make sure I’m not doing things or acting out of those habits. Even little things like nicknames, what I say when we see each other or are getting ready to leave…
Then there was the realization that I was happy, and the fallout from that. This was relatively early on, and it came as a shock. Amy got sick in 2018, so it had been years since I’d felt this kind of happiness. Even if this new relationship doesn’t work out, I’m so grateful that it showed me there’s still the possibility for happiness. At the same time, it triggered another wave of guilt. My wife died. How is it okay for me to be happy? Even knowing it’s what she’d want for me. And it’s what I want for me, dammit.
And of course, there’s been the process of telling the kids and other friends and family that I’m dating now. That’s been awkward, but mostly positive. The response from Amy’s parents was so understanding and loving it almost made me cry. I think the kids find it weird, but they’re also happy for me. It’s a little harder for my younger daughter, since she’s still living at home, whereas her sister is away at college. I’ve tried to make it clear I’m not looking to replace mama, and whatever happens with me and this woman, she’s not going to be a new mother or anything like that. My youngest has met her a number of times, and seems to be getting a little more comfortable. (It’s still weird that her dad is dating, though!)
Any closing advice?
Maybe a little. Like I said, what’s right for one person might not be right for the next. This advice is as much a reminder to myself as it is for anyone else.
- Be patient and give yourself time.
- Know that the love for your former partner doesn’t end. (Talk about that with your new partner, too.)
- Know that guilt and confusion and sadness are all normal, and don’t necessarily mean you’re not ready.
- Therapy and/or support group: highly recommended. (As long as you’ve got a good therapist/group.)
- Let yourself be happy.
- Embrace the fear and excitement of the new and the different.
- Recognize that your ideal relationship now isn’t the same as the relationship you were wanting, say, fifteen years ago.
- Be gentle with yourself.
January 26, 2022 @ 3:25 pm
I am dating a man who lost his wife last year. And so much of what you are writing here is what we are going through. Someone described it as a relationship with three hearts. We just keep taking little steps forward and keep holding on to the good parts and working on the difficult parts. Like every relationship it’s a journey.
January 26, 2022 @ 3:47 pm
I know that losing a spouse to divorce and losing a spouse are VERY different, but damned if that bulleted list isn’t spot on. The biggest hurdles for me were a) letting myself be happy and b) realizing that I had changed a lot in the sixteen years I was with the first wife and wanted a different relationship than the one I had before. My history and experience with dating is/was very similar to yours, and I think as writer you summed it up nicely–even for a divorced guy with four kids, it was weird, yo.
January 26, 2022 @ 4:12 pm
What bothered me was the mental word count of “how many times did I mention John today” in moving on. They are a part of how we got to today, sometimes we have to talk about them. And we’re told constantly that’s either wallowing or not letting go or..
No. Sometimes new things come up and their name, they themselves, come up again. And we can’t just “ok, I don’t want to mention them again but”. No. I WANT to talk about them. I just don’t want to have to choose who gets to be in my life, them or the new person. I want both and I want people to know that it’s ok that it’s awkward. We’ve been given very shitty advice on how this works, culturally, that isn’t in fact useful.
We do have moments, years later, when “oh, I never had to do with with X” comes up. And it takes a bit to get through it.
It’s not all or nothing, basically. There’s room for what was, what is and what is coming. And the players from each act are allowed to share the stage as we move along.
Being mindful, basically. Mindful and gentle with everyone, including yourself. As you say.
January 26, 2022 @ 4:27 pm
Recently ended a long relationship — not due to death, but it’s been very final, in its way. I’m a very different person than who I was in high school, and this post actually gives me hope I can move forward at some point.
January 26, 2022 @ 4:43 pm
You know I love you, and I know this is hard. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is like others who knew Amy, she would want you to move on. She would want you to be happy, and she would want you to love and be loved again. I have watched my Mom go through 2 spouses passing away. She will always have my Dad in her heart, as will she have my Pops (step dad) in her heart. He passed in August of 2020, she has recently said that if she was asked, she is at a point that she would go out, but she is not actively pursuing. She said she will never marry again, but it would be nice to have someone to go out with. I’m always here if you need or want to talk.
January 26, 2022 @ 5:17 pm
My husband and best friend for the last 14 years passed from cancer last year. He was 42 years old. He was the biggest supporter of my writing and pursuing that career, but I had to put it on hold for 3 years of cancer bullshit. I’ve found a lot of solace in journaling, but can’t get back into writing fiction yet.
I feel all the feels you’ve wrote here. It’s really weird, yo. And no matte what I do, my husband will always be a part of my life, so definitely getting polyamory vibes. I’ll never stop loving him, but finding the new spot where someone else fits is… Weird. Not bad, not good, just weird.
Anyway, TLDR, writing good, dating weird, fuck cancer.
January 26, 2022 @ 5:37 pm
I am delighted you have found someone. Hope it continues to go smoothly.
My sister died some years ago and my brother-in-law did eventually remarry. It felt a little funny at first, but at the same time I was happy for him.
January 26, 2022 @ 6:03 pm
Like you, I don’t really have any experience with dating. All my relationships came about naturally from friendships. I’m petrified of trying dating sites, especially as someone older, but my fantasies of having someone just fall into my lap refuse to materialize (drat!). Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and I’m so glad you’re finding some happiness.
January 26, 2022 @ 7:58 pm
I think it was Patton Oswalt who said something along the lines of “if you haven’t been widowed, you do not get to express an opinion about how or how fast a widow(er) moves on”.
Warm regards to you.
Jim C. Hines
January 26, 2022 @ 10:39 pm
Stephanie – I am so sorry. My writing stopped completely when Amy was sick, too. And when I finally started writing again, it was different. I added an entirely new plotline to Terminal Peace that has a lot to do with me processing everything I’d gone through. Therapy through fiction, I guess. Be gentle and patient with yourself. And yeah…so damn weird!
Jim C. Hines
January 26, 2022 @ 10:40 pm
Will try to respond to more tomorrow. For now, it’s past my bedtime. But thank you all so much for your kindness and empathy.
January 26, 2022 @ 10:43 pm
This is absolutely wonderful news and I am so happy you have found space and time to do this for yourself.
Beth Hudson Wheeler
January 26, 2022 @ 11:35 pm
I’m very glad for you! I’ve watched my best friend get into another long-term relationship after her husband died, and it really is forming a new connection. Just as no two friendships are alike, neither are two romantic relationships. It’s good to be happy.
January 27, 2022 @ 1:22 am
I’m dating a widower. In fact I specifically asked “The Universe” for a widower who loved his wife and loved being married. I appreciate hearing about his wife and his life with/love for her; I find it reassuring. I couldn’t love a married man who didn’t love this wife.
Which is not to say it isn’t a little weird sometimes. I pause at her pictures, and if I am honest- at her side of the bed- and acknowledge that I am a guest in her house. Sometimes I feel guilty that I am here, healthy, enjoying life with her remarkable husband when she cannot. I assure her my intentions are sincere, and I thank her for having those hard conversations with him before she died, the ones that help her husband feel like he’s allowed to be happy.
January 27, 2022 @ 2:17 am
Jim, thank you for sharing this.
January 27, 2022 @ 9:20 am
Good for you! I’m so glad to hear that is working for you!
My wife passed away when I was 35 (after 12 years of marriage), and I went through a few phases after:
1- not ready to date and still wearing a ring to show it (1 year)
2- not ready to date but no longer wearing the ring (1 year)
3- not ready to date but thinking I was and starting to do things to meet new people (1 year)
4- actually ready to date
About a year or so into phase 4, I went on my first date, and much to both of our surprise because neither of us had dated for a while, everything worked out and we have now been married for 5 years.
But I still remember being really stressed out after the first date about how to talk about my late wife. On the second date, I needed to have the conversation about it so it wouldn’t be hanging over everything, and then after that I actively avoided telling her more about my late wife for a while so that she wouldn’t feel like she was being compared to an ex (and especially an ex who I had had a great relationship with and who could no longer do anything wrong, unlike a living ex). When the time was right, we had a long talk about my late wife, and since then, she sometimes comes up in conversation, particularly in reference to something she would have especially liked or disliked.
Angela E. Taylor
January 27, 2022 @ 3:15 pm
“It’s hard to be company to no one”. lyric by Michelle Malone
In 2017, my spouse died three days after my birthday. Earlier in that day, had conversed with doctors about removing their sedation & their eventually waking up. But a shift and a different path was set. So touched by our YA son who that day stayed by my side & whom did not want her to suffer. Meanwhile my spouse’s two older brother were lulled by the calmness of my relaying dire news & managed to miss the reality that the end was coming.
Now after four years of mostly weekly therapy, I’m in the world to live despite the uncertainty. They were the bread winner. They were why our child & I had quality health insurance. In eleven years of living in their family home, I made a single friend as we each dealt with life as best we could. That friend moved away. My support system are friends who live everywhere but near.
Happy that companionship & love can return. Delighted for all so lucky. And equally content for the corner, I turned. Every day is a new day.
Eleanor C Ray
January 28, 2022 @ 11:31 am
Jim–I was soooo nervous when I took a man on a date the first time after my husband died (10 yrs later, because I *need* to have a romantic partner as a friend first–it’s how I am built)! He was so sweet. By fine luck, we were really good for each other.
I took off my wedding band when I started to date Ken, out of respect to Brandon. I wrote a “letter to Brandon” in my journal, laying out my missing him, and asking him to understand. Mind you, we had agreed well before he died that we should not hesitate to date or marry again if something happened to the other. Still, I felt better making sure he was okay with Ken (or making sure my feelings for Brandon were congruent with continuing with Ken, I guess).
And one of the most important mentors I ever had told me that no two people grieve the same, or need the same things to help with that grief. There is no “aren’t you over that by now?” or “are you really *dating* already?” That is bullshit, and always has been.
A note: based on personal experience, I urge anyone in a spousal relationship to discuss with their loved one what they want when they die–what they want done, and what they will want the other to do in this situation. Almost anyone will want their spouse to be happy, but *knowing* that really does help!
January 28, 2022 @ 3:44 pm
I’m so happy for you.