For most people, the prospect of dating - of seeking a life partner - is one filled with anticipation, excitement and promise. However, dating following the loss of a partner can prove far more complex. This blog will address some of the most commonly asked questions on this topic and suggest that although re-entering the dating world can be fraught with challenges, if you are prepared to navigate these challenges consciously and honestly, you’ll open yourself up to a world of exciting new possibilities.
One of the questions I’m often asked is, ‘when is the right time to start dating again?’ And my answer: I don’t believe there is one. I have met some people who have been out and met someone within weeks or months of their person dying. Others can take years to grow comfortable with the idea of dating someone else and then there are some who vow never to meet anyone again. It’s all very individual. What is right for one person won’t be right for another.
Some widows I have met have explained how their loneliness and grief led them to experience something called widow’s fire – an unquenchable, burning desire for sexual intimacy following the death of their loved one. Although this can feel taboo, I believe there is real strength in identifying this as a need, of being aware that this is something you are consciously seeking, instead of pretending that you want to be in a long-term, meaningful relationship. Knowing that all you want for now is a ‘no strings’ relationship, will help you to meet someone who is seeking exactly the same thing. You’ll avoid the pain of emotional entanglement, whilst satisfying your need at the same time. And as long as you are both on the same page and open about what it is you want; I don’t believe there’s anything wrong in that.
Then there are others who suggest that before you embark on dating again, you should make sure you’re ‘cured’ of your grief or at least have worked through it until you are free of pain. I personally don’t think we ever get to a place where we’re ‘over’ our loss. Grief isn’t finite. It doesn’t have an end point. It’s a lifelong companion. However, whilst I don’t believe we are ever cured of it, I do believe grief can evolve and become less heavy and painful. And for some, this may mark the point at which they feel ready to engage with the world again. It may be that as the rawness of grief subsides, they’ll find the strength and desire to take those first, tentative steps into the world of dating and look for someone they want to connect with.
So, I don’t think it’s actually a question of ‘when,’ I think it’s more about consciously figuring out why you want to start dating and what you want to gain from it. Are you trying to fill the void your loved one has left? Are you desperate to escape your grief? Do you want to inject some fun into your life and feel moments of joy again? Perhaps you want to stop feeling defined by your grief and wish to be treated more like a woman than a widow. Or maybe, you’re ready to build a deep connection with someone.
Understanding your motivation for dating, will help you to connect with someone who meets your needs and communicating that motivation to the person you are dating will help to avoid the pain that comes with unspoken or miscommunicated feelings.
Once you’ve decided that you’re ready to start dating, you may find yourself wondering who you should date – a widow, or a non-widow. There are some who suggest it’s better to date a widow because of their shared understanding around grief and loss and an acceptance of the behaviours that may manifest during grief. When you bring up anecdotes around your loved one, they’ll understand, when you talk vulnerably about your grief, they’ll empathise and when you’re seemingly fine one minute and then sink into deep despair the next, they’ll just get it.
However, some people, like myself, find dating another widow quite hard, because of the need to make space for two people’s grief. Supporting and nurturing both yourself and your partner can be exhausting. It requires a great deal of energy, energy which may be needed for your own healing. Whilst you may both be seeking someone who has lived experience of grief and who can understand your loss, the danger is that you anchor each other to this mutual pain and prevent one another from moving forward.
Regardless of whether your new partner is a widow or a non-widow, what is more important is that they respect the life you shared with your loved one, are willing to accommodate and honour your loss and are prepared to give you the space you need to love and grieve.
Change is scary. Adapting to a new way of thinking and bringing new people into our lives is very difficult. When our loved one dies, the despair and heartbreak we experience, often skews our self-perception and fuels our irrational brain. We start to fear that we hold too much emotional baggage. We convince ourselves that we bring very little to the table and that nobody will want to be with us. And sometimes these fears lead us to believe we have to settle, that we should be grateful for anyone who comes along and offers us some attention.
But this is not the case! We have to learn to flip this damaging narrative. If somebody is brilliant enough to capture our attention, then they are the lucky ones, because quite frankly, with everything we’ve shouldered, everything we’ve been through, the fact that we’re brave enough to put ourselves out there and look for love again makes us amazing. That we’re prepared to open up our hearts to more love, after they’ve been shattered into a million pieces clearly demonstrates what courageous and incredible people we are.
We have to learn to sit with our fears, to probe and question their truth. And as we do, we’ll start to realise that they are simply a form of misguided self-protection – a way of us keeping our guard up, of safeguarding our hearts from any further pain.
Once we realise our worth, we will start to pursue what we deserve and reap the benefits of our bravery.
When it comes to dating someone new, it’s natural to feel guilty, to feel as we’re being disloyal. In our heads we are still in a loving, committed relationship with our person. Even though they have passed away, our love for them still remains and so we can feel hugely conflicted when venturing into a new relationship. We often interpret our longing for intimacy with someone else as a betrayal of our loved one, their memory and the life we shared with them. We’re quick to judge and berate ourselves and question whether we ever really loved our person. However, I believe that moving on and making room for someone else in our lives doesn’t mean that we have to close the door to our past or bid farewell to the love we shared with our person. On the contrary, it’s perfectly possible to love two people at once.
But how do we actually make that leap in understanding? How do we shed the guilt and make our peace with the fact we are no longer in a relationship with somebody and that we are free and entitled to date again? I believe our thinking can begin to change as we gradually get comfortable with a new way of being. If we are brave enough to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone and try the things we are most cautious and uncertain about – such as going on that first date -we’ll discover we’re not being disloyal nor are we betraying our loved one. We’ll realise that just because we experience moments of happiness and fulfilment with someone else, that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped loving and missing our person. If we can give ourselves permission to get curious about building another relationship and becoming intimate with a new partner, we’ll create a new opportunity for love, security and fulfilment.
Sometimes, even after deciding that we’re ready to move on with someone else, we find ourselves preoccupied by what other people think and worrying about being judged. Will they think that I am ‘over’ my person? Will they think it’s too soon? Will they think I have left it too late?
One thing that I have learnt in life, is that human beings are always going to judge. It’s a natural predisposition. It’s just what we do. Whether you meet someone after six months and those around you declare it’s too soon, or whether it’s six years down the line and they believe it’s been too long and that you’ve spent too much time pining for your partner – people will always form and often voice their opinions about you dating again. And they are entitled to. But really, whether you date again, who you choose to date and when you decide to date, is none of their business.
Just as it’s none of our business what they think of us. We can’t change other people’s perceptions and expectations of our behaviour, nor should we expend time and effort trying to. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, ‘Care about people’s approval and you will always be their prisoner.’
We have to become better at liberating ourselves from other people’s judgement as well as our own distorted narratives. We have to learn to become better self-advocates, to live our lives for ourselves, to place value in our own thoughts and judgements and trust our own instincts. We have all the information we need to decide whether, when or who we date. We are best positioned to answer these questions and navigate our way through this. We just need to become comfortable in trusting ourselves.
Only by reaching out and connecting to other people, will you start to understand what it is you may want or not want in a new relationship and at the same time, discover how your loss has changed you.
When you have children, dating someone new can be a potential minefield. Often when your loved one passes away, you create an even stronger bond with your children. I did when my husband died. My girls and I became a really tight unit. They became my focus and we did amazing things together. And then Andy came along at a time when I wasn’t looking and actually wasn’t even sure I wanted anyone in my life. However, he was such a lovely, kind man, I knew I wanted to continue spending time with him. This did unsettle my girls, because from their point of view, we had a good thing going. It was the three of us against the world. And that felt good. They were concerned that Andy may not only try to replace their dad, but also take me away from them.
However, I took the time to reassure them, reminding them that I would always love their dad, that he was always going to be a part of our lives, that we would always talk about him, remember him and miss him. I spent time explaining that just because Andy had come along, it didn’t take anything away from the love I held for their dad. It didn’t minimise the life we had with him. I wanted them to know that actually having Andy in our lives would add value, that it would be a good thing – different, yes – but good nonetheless.
I also wanted to reassure them that I was always going to have time for them and that we would continue to spend time together, that Andy would not come between us, In fact, I remember saying to my girls, that if I ever I was to meet anyone who became special to me, but that they didn’t like and weren’t comfortable with, then they would come first and I wouldn’t pursue the relationship. I know children can sometimes be quite challenging around accepting someone new in their lives, but if they were genuinely unhappy, I wanted them to know that they would be my priority.
The same approach can be taken to allaying the concerns of in-laws, who may feel side lined or no longer part of your life, following the loss of their child. Openly reassuring them that you will always remember and cherish the life you shared with their child and that there will always be a place for them in your life, is really important.
When you embark on a new relationship following loss, it’s really important to ensure your new partner feels at ease and comfortable with your grief, your past life and your loved one. Whilst they need to be open to respecting your loss and honouring your person and the life you once lived with them, there are actions you can take to help them become more comfortable and indeed actions you can avoid.
The most important thing to avoid doing in a new relationship is openly comparing your new partner to your loved one. I’m not saying all comparison is bad. In fact, it’s really impossible to avoid. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking time to reflect on the life you had with your person and the love that you shared. There’s equally nothing wrong with thinking about what your loved one brought to your life that perhaps your new partner doesn’t. However, it’s so important to remember to be grateful for your new partner, for all the wonderful things he does and for all the ways he enriches and fulfils your life.
And when you discuss your loved one with your new partner, when you open up and share stories of your life together, try not to idolise them or romanticise your relationship, as it can begin to make your new partner feel inadequate. When communicating with your new partner about the life you lived and the love you shared with your person, learn to do so honestly. Present the whole picture. Whilst discussing your person’s strengths and the things you loved about them, take time to touch upon the things that used to annoy you about them, or the bad habits they had. Keep them real and this will help to prevent your new partner from feeling resentful or inadequate. Dating following loss is challenging enough without layering on feelings of bitterness and envy.
Remember, our loss changes us and leaves us different people. We have different wants and needs and we’ll be at a different stage in our life. Consequently, we may end up wanting someone very different to our loved one. So, avoid comparing. It doesn’t serve anyone and it may jeopardise your new relationship. However, if despite your best intentions, you find yourself making comparisons, try and acknowledge what you’re doing, and consider how both your loved one and your new partner have shaped you, enriched your life and added value.
Falling in love and building a meaningful relationship with someone else following the loss of your loved one is entirely possible. It might feel messy, complicated and unfamiliar, but it can happen.
When considering the idea of dating someone new, be conscious of the outcomes you want to achieve. And be prepared to put in the work. Navigating other people’s judgements and admitting what you want out of a relationship takes courage. Tackling your own guilt and fear requires honest and often uncomfortable introspection. And allaying other people’s worries and insecurities requires your compassion, patience and honesty.
Learning to realise your worth, can also take time, but it’s important. Don’t be prepared to settle for someone just because they fill a void or because you’re lonely. If you can work on yourself and figure out what you want from life, this will help you to choose someone who meets your needs and makes you feel loved, safe and cherished.
Trust your own judgement, be brave and follow your instincts. It will place you firmly in the driving seat and ready to live life, love fully and embrace what could be. And you deserve nothing less.