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Married to Two People: The Romantic Life of Widows

Widows fall in love, but the relationship is typically a complex relationship.

Key points

  • Most widows maintained continuing bonds with their deceased husbands, whereas few of them severed these bonds.
  • Emotional loneliness, rather than social loneliness, is the most common change after spousal bereavement.
  • Widows must manage a unique romantic breakup, which involves a final physical, but not a psychological bond.

“As a widow, I highly recommend people date me too!” —A widow

Widows can fall in love, but the relationship is often a complex ‘three hearts relationship’, where one partner is physically absent, but psychologically present.

Can a Widow Love Two People at Once?

The hardest thing to understand was how the widow I’m dating could still love him and start to love me. I felt like I was always being compared to him.” —A man

Is the human heart large enough to fall in love with more than one person? It is indeed: we can love one person, then shortly after fall in love with another, as well as having two lovers at the same time. A widow’s love, however, is more complex, given the continuing impact of bereavement, even years after death occurs. This is due both to our tendency to idealize the past and an unwillingness to speak ill of the dead. Because of this, love toward the deceased spouse can in fact increase, challenging the strength of love toward the current partner. Nevertheless, we are blessed with a large and flexible loving heart that can accommodate several people at once.

In the popular movie, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Vadinho, Dona’s husband, drops dead while dancing at a street carnival party. Vadinho was a great lover but a terrible husband, who stole Dona’s savings. Dona meets the respectable but dull pharmacist Teodoro. On the anniversary of Vadinho's death, Vadinho reappears to Dona in the nude, claiming that she has called him to "share her bed" with him. Only Dona can see and hear the nude spirit of Vadinho. Dona at first protests, but after Vadinho laughs at Teodoro’s poor performance in bed, she gives in and lives happily with both husbands.

Living With the Loss of a Spouse

Second love is different, but it’s very good. I will always love and miss my late husband. It’s really hard to understand how I can go from tears for my late husband into smiling and thinking about my new guy. I love both of them, the one here and the one gone.”—A widow

Widows can fall in love in a profound way, but their romantic relationships might be multifaceted since their hearts belong to two lovers. A study of remarried military widows over three decades following their first husbands’ deaths, by Rachel Dekel and colleagues (2022), revealed that most of the women maintained continuing bonds with their deceased husbands, whereas few of them severed these bonds. The second husband played a major role, resulting in varying boundaries drawn, from strict to blurred, between the first and the second marriages. The remarried widows who succeeded in maintaining continuing bonds with the deceased spouse reported feeling a good sense of well-being and positive marital relationships. Here, grief is a complex process with dynamic boundaries between relationships. Dekel and colleagues discern three major groups regarding the attitudes of current partners toward their bonds with the deceased husband: Mutual agreement to maintain the continuing bonds; mutual agreement to sever these bonds; and disagreement regarding continuing bonds. The first attitude is the most common. Here are several notable examples of attitudes expressed by widows in their study:

  • "I am part of my late husband’s family and I am not going to leave them."
  • My first husband always exists in my heart and is always in the background. But he is not an obstacle between us.
  • “I felt that in order to get over the loss, I had to distance myself from the memory of my first husband.”
  • My current husband is not willing to live in the shadow of my first husband and he doesn’t want my first husband to play a role in our lives. And although it disturbs me, I respect his request.” (Dekel et al., 2022).

Another study compares the issues facing bereaved and nonbereaved women when they enter new relationships after a long-term one has ended. The bereaved experienced themselves as having changed more, but the nonbereaved reported the changes they experienced as more positive. The growth experienced by the nonbereaved is likely to be less conflicted, and while the bereaved experience such growth, it lags behind that of their counterparts (Bar-Nadav & Rubin, 2016).

Various studies indicate that remarriage is usually beneficial for widows. Thus, one study suggests that widows who had remarried had higher household incomes and worried less about finances than widows who did not remarry (Moorman et al., 2006). Remaining active and engaged in activities that provide a purpose is helpful in managing grief. Dating a new person may help people reaffirm their self-esteem and provide validation that they are attractive and worthy of love. Indeed, another study indicates that an increase in emotional loneliness, rather than social loneliness and depression, is the most commonly observed change after spousal bereavement. Emotional loneliness refers to the absence of intimate relationships, whereas social loneliness is the absence of an engaging social network (Szabó et al., 2020)

How Soon Should Widows Fall in Love Again?

Well-meaning people would say things like, "Well, you don't look like a widow. It was as if people thought widowhood would transform me into an old hag.” —Amy Morin

Even if the obstacles to being with a new lover are resolved, widows still face a tangled set of dilemmas to navigate. These include the proper period for grieving, whether and when to take off their wedding ring, when to begin dating, when to give away their late partner’s belongings, how to dress for various occasions, how often to talk about the past and what loving gestures toward their new lover can be shown in public. As widows tend to be judged critically, sensitivity, careful pacing, and moderation are in order. A widow dating a married man will unfairly be subject to greater criticism than a divorced or single woman; after all, she "should know better" what it means to lose a spouse. Like Julius Caesar’s wife, widows are expected to be “above suspicion” (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019, and here).

A major difference between the divorced and widowed is the starting point. While many divorced describe their divorce as the best thing that has happened to them, widows consider the partner’s death as a most painful event. Divorce can open new horizons for divorcees whereas a spouse’s death closes a most meaningful horizon for widows. Nevertheless, widows do fall in love, though far more slowly than divorced women. Searching for a new partner might not begin for months or years after the death of a spouse, whereas some individuals who get divorced begin searching for new partners prior to separation, without waiting for divorce. Those who are widowed remarry slower than those who are divorced at about a 50% reduced rate and have a reduced likelihood of remarrying (Watkins & Waldron, 2017).

Widows often fall in love with their late partner’s best friend within a short time after the partner’s death. Speaking from personal experience, my brother married the widow (with two children) of my late older brother. This is a reasonable response to intense loss, when a supportive friend is the most natural person in the world to be with and share our grief.

Concluding remarks

Death ends a life, not a relationship.” —Mitch Albom

Widows manage a unique romantic breakup, which involves a final physical, but not psychological bond. The breakup is unwelcome and irreversible and the surviving partner might still be in love with her late spouse. Different people do various things under such circumstances. Although it is often better to find a new lover than give up on the search for a new love, this option is not always possible. Widows may fall in love again, but the deceased partner will always be in the background. For widows and widowers, there will always be room for two loves.

References

Bar-Nadav, O., and S. S. Rubin. 2016. Love and bereavement. OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 74:62–79.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love. How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Dekel, R., Shorer, S., & Nuttman‐Shwartz, O. (2022). Living with spousal loss: Continuing bonds and boundaries in remarried widows’ marital relationships. Family process, 61, 674-688.

Moorman, S. M., Booth, A., & Fingerman, K. L. (2006). Women’s romantic relationships after widowhood. Journal of Family Issues, 27, 1281-1304.‏

Szabó, Á., Kok, A. A., Beekman, A. T., & Huisman, M. (2020). Longitudinal examination of emotional functioning in older adults after spousal bereavement. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 75, 1668-1678.

Watkins, N. K., & Waldron, M. (2017). Timing of remarriage among divorced and widowed parents. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 58, 244-262.

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