Losing someone we love is one of the hardest things we have to face in life. But eventually, once we’re ready, it’s highly likely we’ll consider the possibility of finding love again. And this can happen at any age.
In our own practice we have known men and women form new relationships well into their eighties.
A ‘new relationship’ doesn’t necessarily mean marriage, since quite a lot of widowed people now opt for ‘living together’, or just sleeping together, or even just dating.
Grief and romance
Although it can be exciting to find love again, thoughts of the dead partner can cast a shadow over any new romance.
Sometimes people feel guilty about wanting company and physical love.
Often they have all sorts of other unresolved emotions about the death of the partner, and the more they try to ignore them, the more they tend to surface.
Such emotions are often about loss. But they might be about anger that the person has gone, or about resentment that other people are still a couple and can look forward to an old age together.
Sometimes feelings revolve round sad or even horrible images of the last days or weeks of a partner’s life. And the surviving spouse may well feel that he or she was not always patient or very loving when the other person was dying.
All of these emotions are quite normal to have, but that does not make them easy to deal with.
Stages of grief
There are generally reckoned to be about seven stages of grief:
- shock, disbelief, numbness
Most grieving people experience at least some of these stages, but there is no set order or time limit for these feelings.
It’s not unusual to feel as if you’ve experienced several elements of these stages on one day alone. For this reason, do use these stages as a rough guide to help you to understand sudden difficult emotions such as anger.
For this reason, do use these stages as a rough guide to help you to understand sudden difficult emotions such as anger.
Recognise too that these emotions are part of a process, and that most other people also feel them.
When should you be ready to start a new relationship?
You may find your grieving process doesn’t coincide with other people’s ideas of how it should be.
Sometimes friends or family will get impatient if you’re not ‘over it’ after six months.
At other times, you can get a strong sense that some individuals think you are hard-hearted because you appear to have got over the death quickly.
We all find our own way of dealing with death. None of us should judge anyone else about how they are coping.
But when it comes to new relationships, people are often quick to disapprove if a new romance blossoms ‘too soon’.
Recent research among the over-65s has shown that 18 months after the death of a spouse, 15 per cent of widows and 37 per cent of widowers have become interested in dating.
When is too soon?
If your partner was dying for a long time, the chances are that you did loads of grieving before he or she actually stopped breathing.
You are then more likely to feel ready for a new life than someone whose spouse died suddenly would be.
In cases of lengthy terminal illness, it’s not unusual for a new relationship to blossom even before the partner dies. And although this new relationship can be a great comfort, it can also be the source of deep guilt.
But there are no absolutes when it comes to people’s feelings. And no two individuals are the same.
In general, society still doesn’t tend to condone new relationships that ‘go public’ before an interval of around one year. But there are exceptions to this rule – particularly in cases where it was widely known that the marriage wasn’t very happy.
Certainly, new romances won’t go well if a grieving person is avoiding the pain of bereavement by immediately replacing one partner with another. Recovering from a loved-one’s death is just not that easy.
Coping with other people’s reactions
You have to remember that no-one knows exactly what you’re suffering. And no one knows for sure what went on in your relationship with your dead partner.
So, in an ideal world, other people should resist commenting on any new romance you have. However, in reality, most friends and family will have a view on it.
Hopefully, many will be pleased that you have found happiness again. But there may be jealousy from other friends who have been on their own for longer.
Unfortunately, you may find your dead partner’s family cannot come to terms with a new relationship even if years have gone by. This is because they feel their relative is being forgotten.
If that happens, try to discuss with them just how much your late partner will always be in your mind. You might also gently suggest that he or she would not want you to grieve forever.
In time, they may come round to the idea, but it is a situation that requires kindness and tact on both sides.
And while it’s easy to see any criticism by your in-laws as an unnecessary obstacle to your new life, try to remember that they too have had to deal with the loss of your partner.
And, hard though it is, never forget that your in-laws are your children’s grandparents or aunts and uncles. As such, it will be painful all round if you fall out with them in a big way.
Sons and daughters
You may also have serious difficulties with your own sons and daughters.
If your children are still living at home, they will be affected by any new relationship. And they may be quite hostile because they think that Mum or Dad is being airbrushed out of history.
It can be very difficult to deal with this kind of upset because your children may still be deeply upset by their loss.
In such a situation, it’s wise not to be blatant about your new love until your children are more ready to accept the idea. So don’t allow your lover to stay overnight before your children have come to terms with your new romantic happiness.
If your children have left home, you won’t have quite the same problems.
But even if their father or mother died several years ago, your adult offspring may react negatively when you tell them you’ve found love again.
And if you usually stay over when you visit, be sensitive to the fact they might feel awkward if you want your new partner to accompany you – especially if you’re asking to share a bed.
This is a highly inflammatory situation for families to deal with, and the best advice anyone can give you is: take your time.
Sex in your new relationship
After a bereavement, many people decide they will never have a sexual relationship again. This is particularly likely when the death happens late in life.
But a lot of men and women find their sexual urges return after a while.
Unfortunately, this can lead to intense feelings of guilt, mainly caused by a feeling that they are being unfaithful to the dead partner.
Post-bereavement sexual guilt manifests itself in three main ways.
- Worries about masturbation. After a few months on their own, quite a lot of older men and women experience sexual feelings, often accompanied by a desire to masturbate. This need for relief is largely physiological: it is caused by the normal workings of the body and its hormones. It isn’t something anyone should be ashamed about.
- Difficulties with erection. Many widowed men experience erectile dysfunction (impotence) when they try to have sex with someone else. Counselling of the couple is usually effective. Sometimes it’s useful to give the man a short course of erection medicines, such as Viagra or Levitra, to build confidence.
- Vaginal dryness. When a woman decides to resume sex, she often finds she can’t relax. As a result, her natural lubricant doesn’t flow, making sex uncomfortable. Counselling by an experienced family planning doctor or a gynaecologist will often put matters right. Also, the use of a good vaginal lubricant will help. A course of vaginal hormone cream or pessaries may benefit post-menopausal women.
What happens if your new relationship fails?
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a new relationship to fail because of guilt or because you are not emotionally ready to move on.
Sometimes your new partner may walk away because he or she considers you too needy or too emotionally involved with your dead partner.
Whatever the reason for the break-up, it will probably hit you hard – and may resurrect all sorts of pain related to the death of your spouse.
If this happens, try to realise that this particular romance was not your only chance of happiness. It’s likely you weren’t really ready for a new relationship and you may need to spend more time grieving for your dead partner and building up your own strength and happiness.
It’s likely you weren’t really ready for a new relationship and you may need to spend time grieving for your dead partner and building up your own strength and happiness.
Spend time being single again, catch up with friends and maybe get some help for your sadness.
You will probably find that after a period of several months – or even a year or two – you are more ready for a social life, including romance.