Widow Dating Questions: Am I Ready To Date?
By Eleanor Haley, M.S.
Over the years we have struggled to write about dating as a widow here at WYG, because there are sooo many factors. Like almost everything in grief, there are no universals. Your grief is as unique as you and your relationship with the person who died.
Dating within that grief will be just as unique. But we do get some common questions about dating when you are widowed, this is the first post in our “widow dating” series, where we will tackle some of these FAQs.
We will kick it off with a big question (or cluster of questions): Am I ready to start dating? We get this question in a million forms personal – how long is a widow ‘supposed’ to wait before they date? Is it too soon to date after my spouse’s death? I met someone who I like, but I feel guilty about dating, Does that mean I’m not ready? I haven’t started dating and it has been years since my spouse died – is something wrong with me? People keep telling me I should be interested in dating and I am not – is something wrong with me? And about a zillion more variations. So, let’s dig in.
Am I ready?
In addition to your own thoughts, you have probably been getting messages from other people (whether you wanted them or not). From “you need to start dating it – will help you move on” to “it is too soon to date, you need to wait at least [insert random period of time this person arbitrarily made up]”, often these comments are not helpful. Heck, I just read a comment on social media just today in which a young widow’s grandfather told her it was time to dye her hair and get back out there. Thanks, Grandpa.
I wish we could muddle through the mess and answer that question easily for you. So, here is the bad news first: there is no set time; there are no easy ways to know that you are ready. Heck, the idea of “readiness” itself is deceptive. It sounds simple, but you are not suddenly going to wake up “ready” one morning. In grief, you’ll always have good days mixed in and between bad days, with good days eventually (and hopefully) starting to outnumber the bad. ‘Readiness’ isn’t all that different. You’ll have days when you feel totally ready to start dating mixed in with days you’re convinced that you’ll never, ever be ready to date. And those are often mixed with days of, “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready, but I also don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone”. Oh, and you might be feeling ready to date, but you might not be ready for a relationship. Those are two very different things. Don’t worry, feeling that whole, complicated mess is normal!
Okay, sure. But on average, when are widows ready to start dating?
Sorry, friends. There are no averages here. There are people who imagined they would never date again, or would wait years, who suddenly find themselves wanting to date after a couple of months. Others, who imagined they would be ready to date quickly, find that many years later they just aren’t interested or ready. Some people decide never to date again. There is no predicting and there is no normal. When it comes to grieving, your emotions can be all over the map. So when you consider if you are “ready” to date after a death, try to toss out any preconceived ideas you had about what it would or ‘should’ look like (whether your own ideas or those friends keep pushing on you) and take stock of how you are doing and feeling in the present moment.
You might get it wrong and that’s okay.
If you are reading this article, you are clearly being thoughtful and doing some real self-reflection about dating after your spouse’s death. But even with all the thought and care in the world, we still misjudge our own physical and emotional readiness. You might be careful and cautious, start dating thinking your ready, and then suddenly realize you weren’t ready at all . You wouldn’t be the first dating widow to wake up after dating thinking, “crap, I wasn’t ready to start dating at all! What was I thinking?!?”. You won’t be the last.
Don’t panic. Just because you start dating doesn’t mean you can’t just take a break. You might wait and wait and wait and wait and wait, finally start dating, and realize that you probably were ready sooner than you thought. That’s okay too. There is no guidebook for this stuff. We’re all just doing the best we can with what we have in the moment.
Should we talk about avoidance?
Yes, of course we should! It is human nature to avoid pain – physical and emotional. If we can find ways to escape pain, we often will. And what is one easy way to avoid pain? To avoid it, of course! When the pain of grief is brand new and unimaginably overwhelming, dating can be an appealing way to avoid feeling lonely, isolated, sad, scared, and on and one. And it isn’t just a distraction. Meeting a new person, flirting, touching, sex – these all release a big surge of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is a euphoria neurotransmitter (the same one we release when we drink and take drugs). The allure of that big boost of feel-good chemicals, coupled with some distraction, can feel very appealing. When everyone is giving you tilted-head pity-looks and asking if you’re okay, an online date with a stranger who doesn’t know anything about you can seem like a real reprieve! So if you are feeling ‘ready’, but it also feels confusingly early to feel ready, consider whether avoidance is a factor.
What about avoidance even after lots of time has passed?
Later on, when years have passed, sometimes the decision not to date can be its own form of avoidance. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but even without grief dating is complicated. Add the emotional weight and complications of grief to that mix and it can be easy to say, “forget it”. If a lot of time has passed and you know you would like to meet someone, but you are overwhelmed by the logistics, this could be avoidance too. Maybe you don’t want to face tell (or upsetting) children or in-laws. Maybe the thought of dating brings up guilt that you just don’t want to deal with. Yep, you guessed it. It might be avoidance. Because even though dating can be wonderful, it can be a lot of emotional work to get there. Sometimes we would rather avoid all that.
Remember, avoidance isn’t all bad
Even if there is some avoidance in there, that isn’t always a problem. A little healthy distraction isn’t a problem. Just be aware that casual ‘distraction’ dates can suddenly turn into a relationship you weren’t ready for. If you know you are dating primarily for a bit of distraction, be honest with yourself and those you date. Set clear boundaries and check-in with yourself regularly. If it is much sooner or much later than the expectations of your family and social group, you might face some judgment and tough conversations (don’t worry, we’ll be writing a follow-up post on that).
If a lot of time has passed and you’re otherwise feeling ready, but those logistics and guilt are getting in the way, avoidance is probably the culprit. As Brene Brown has famously reminded us: we can avoid hard feelings that come with being vulnerable, but in doing so we often avoid the chance for new positive feelings and experiences. If you know avoidance is holding you back, that’s okay. But keep checking in. Be open to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone eventually.
Guilt about dating as a widow
One of the biggest uncertainties around “readiness” is guilt. It may be guilt around the feeling of betraying a partner who died, guilt that it means they are ‘moving on’ or forgetting, or guilt that it will upset their children or other family. This is a place where we want to make a few things very clear:
Being ready to date is NOT about moving on or letting go. Let me say that again. Being ready to date is NOT about moving on or letting go. If you haven’t read our post about grief and the fear of letting go, please check it out. Seriously. Right now. Grief is not about leaving someone behind us. It is about learning to bring them with us as we create space for new people and things. The amazing thing about love is that we have plenty of it to go around. We can still love a person we’ve lost, remember them, keep them in our lives AND have space for someone new. Not convinced? When a mom has a second child, no one says “oh, isn’t that a shame. She is going to have to take her love away from the first child to give it to the second child”. That isn’t how love works. We have an expansive capacity, one that can span our past, present, and future.
Right, got it got it got it. But my new partner/kids/in-laws/friends/mail carrier/guy who works at the bodega don’t get it
Yeah . . . so there is more bad news. This isn’t always easy or intuitive for everyone around you. They are having their own feelings. You might have to do some extra talking and educating and hugging with family. Sometimes you need to turn down the volume from the folks who don’t matter. You’ll definitely, absolutely, positively need to find the right partner. Not all partners are cut out for dating a widow. Plenty are, they just need a little . . . coaching. Don’t worry, we have a FAQs for people dating widows here. And the next articles in this series will tackle some of those tough conversations.
And if you’re worried about the many other issues that come up as a widow dating, fear not. This is the first in a series. We’ll be tackling more topics, including talking to kids about dating, talking with in-laws about dating, communicating with the person (or people) you’re dating, and any other questions you think would be helpful! So leave a comment with your feedback, suggestions, and ideas for other topics that fall within the wild, wonderful, bewildering, and complicated world of dating as a widow.
By Eleanor Haley, M.S. Eleanor is a Program Director and Co-Founder of What's Your Grief? WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals. Eleanor lives in Maryland and received her Masters in Counseling Psychology from Loyola College in Maryland.
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