- Psychological Issues
Dealing with Interpersonal relationships as a W.O.W. (Wife of a Widower) is an excerpt from the blockbuster book, “PAST: Perfect! PRESENT: Tense! Insights From One Woman’s Journey As The Wife Of A Widower”
WOWs often feel isolated and alone in their situations. It is hard to “whine and kvetch” about insecure feelings relating to a ghost who should pose no real threat without sounding like a selfish, self-centered, insecure femme fatale who has no respect for the dead or for her husband’s grief. So the WOW often buries her confusing feelings deep inside for fear of being misunderstood and judged harshly. She feels that neither society nor her own husband will ever come to understand her, so she has no one with whom to discuss, and thereby work out, her WOW issues.
Most second wives of divorced men have the luxury of feeling their husbands are “on their side”, and are more willing to listen to their wives’ frustrations about the ex-wives, usually because they stand united in their mutual negative feelings about her. Husbands of WOWs often will not listen to his new wife’s lamentations because he views her feelings as a betrayal to his precious memories or an insult to the late woman herself. Therefore, he often cannot find it in his heart to comfort his new wife, since doing so would constitute validation of her feelings, putting him in the position of the betrayer.
It is a fact that society, as a whole, is uncomfortable with death and death-related issues. I know this is true, because I am often faced with funerals at which I stammer over the right thing to say, or not to say, to the grief-stricken survivors. I want to show my deepest and most sincerely felt sympathy, but do so in a way that does not cause the survivor any more grief than he or she is already experiencing. Saying something like “I know how you feel” is not only stupid but untrue, since I have never lost a loved one to death, nor have I lost that particular loved one whose funeral I am attending.
And even if I were a survivor myself, it would still be impossible to understand another person’s depth of grief.
Death, like everything else, is a part of life. I think death is also a reality check. It reminds us that we cannot live forever. Death is only taboo because we can’t really control it. It just happens – to everyone at some point. And when it does happen to someone we love, our grief is uniquely separate from anyone else’s loss experience.
I suppose all this makes survivors appear to be “unapproachable” because we who are on the outside of their grief fear making matters worse, but also because we do feel uncomfortable discussing death. Human beings crave understanding and true empathy when we go through difficult times, and if the people around us can’t provide it, we become “unapproachable”. So I wonder… are we WOWs also unapproachable because death has touched us indirectly? We all deal with a certain loneliness – the loneliness of not really fitting in neatly into society. And for WOWs, this pain of isolation is all too common.
For me, it’s been difficult in that area of my life. At a time when I was going through the major upheavals of moving to a foreign country, having a relationship with a widower, dealing with children of divorce, while at the same time planning my wedding, I discovered that I had no one around me who was on MY side. I moved into “their” social circle, to friends and family who had been there intimately for my husband when his wife died, and I felt like a complete and utter outsider. Even to this day, I don’t feel really close to the friends who knew the late wife even though they have been very nice. There’s some kind of barrier between us that won’t budge.
Since moving to my husband’s home town, I have eventually met a few new people who did not know the late wife. Many are mothers, so a lot of our conversation revolves around our children, but I still feel that people define me by my WOW situation when they eventually learn of it.
Even though they didn’t know the late wife, they are fascinated by the position I’m in, and conversation STILL inevitably revolves back to the late wife. I dream of a circle of wise friends who would be able to empathize with the peculiarities of my life without invoking “her” presence.
When I mention my husband’s past marriage, his late wife, or my issues surrounding both to the people I meet, they all assure me that they DO understand, but it’s simply not true. They WANT to understand, but they haven’t got a clue.
Because of the fear that surrounds death, people will innocently and naively say some really dumb things. Even the false pleasantries and misplaced sympathies can leave you feeling lonelier than ever because they demonstrate just how misunderstood your situation really is. Well-meaning folks can even simply offer me a genuine “I’m so sorry”, but then I can see the millions of questions rolling around in their heads. It’s like nobody knows how to “handle” me. I find myself keeping things to myself more and more and sticking to “safe” topics.
I suppose the only way to not be placed in a category, and therefore defined by it, is to not let anyone be privy to my unique situation. But that is nearly impossible because society loves its labels, and tries to place people in some kind of category so that they can relate.
I doubt that I am defensive around people – I just think I’m afraid of all the nonsense replies I might get (i.e., the platitudes or the “foot-in-mouth” remarks) and all of those things people say when they’re trying to get it. It’s more a feeling that no matter how hard I try to explain how I feel, preconceived notions are always just that bit stronger, putting me more into a defensive position – one that I loathe.
I don’t feel that non-WOW behavior is necessarily right or wrong, though. Neither is my loneliness or unapproachability all their fault, either. I think many times human beings just need to vent and want someone just to listen, but the kind-hearted listeners who simply cannot relate will care enough to give advice and generally want to FIX the problem. They feel that if they keep silent, the person sharing with them will think they don’t care. In other words, better to say something stupid than nothing at all.
In a friendship, you need to be able to take some information for granted, and that’s very difficult to do when your experiences are so very different from those around you. Explaining EVERY little WOW nuance is almost impossible and misunderstandings abound. I’m not giving up, mind you, but I’ve become a lot more aware of the challenges of creating a social circle in a second marriage when there’s been an untimely and tragic death. When you open up to someone and show your soft underbelly, you need expert handling. You need someone who can “look inside you” without judgment or taking control, and those people are hard to come by when you’re a WOW.
My husband’s circle of friends is sometimes an uncomfortable reminder to me that he was married before and I am the second wife. His friends, in turn, sometimes cannot get past that uncomfortable feeling of wishing I were “her” and that they were still having all that “fun” together that they used to have, along with all those great memories of my husband and his late wife. They like me and try to be friends, but “she” will always come up somewhere in the conversation pertaining to something they did together or something they miss about “her”. It hurts just listening to them walk down memory lane, but I also fear that I may never be able to trust them to really know ME!
We WOWs are also a constant reminder that a husband can go on to be very happy after the death of a wife. We also shatter the image of every couple getting the chance to grow old together. I think that makes a lot of people really uncomfortable, because we break the illusion of one man for each woman for all eternity.
Friends from “their” past may fear that their relationship with the widower will never be the same again, or as good as it was when the late wife was still a part of their lives. They may fear being left out, thinking that perhaps the WOW will want no part of them because of their ties to the past. They may feel uncomfortable around the WOW because it is hard for them to picture the widower with anyone else but their dearly departed friend. They may judge the WOW harshly, feeling that she pales in comparison to their wonderful friend. Sadly, they may never give the WOW the chance she deserves to mend the broken circle.
Friends may fear that the WOW’s presence in the widower’s life will erase the late wife’s memory completely from his heart, and that the WOW will somehow facilitate this and use it to her own advantage, perhaps by breaking ties with them. They may hold the WOW in contempt for “replacing” their late friend, or dislike her just because she is a totally unique and different woman than the late wife was. And they may feel bereavement all over again as they stand by, helplessly watching the late wife’s husband make dramatic changes in his life by remarrying someone else.
My mother used to tell me, “People will sometimes try to cut you down to size to make themselves look bigger, so if you start out small, they will only make you smaller.” What I believe this translates to is that as WOWs, we have to appear to be larger than life. We have to believe in our marriages, our choices, ourselves, and our “present wife” roles more than ever. We must present ourselves to the world as capable women with strong, confident exteriors in order to survive in these situations of ours, even if doing so goes against some of our truly negative WOW feelings, copping a sort of “fake it ’til you make it” kind of attitude.
Either that, or we must find a way to make people understand, to educate them as to the “right” and “wrong” ways to have a close relationship with a WOW, in order that they can better understand us and therefore, empathize. But finding a way to do this takes time and practice, and people on both sides of the issues that are willing to participate in reaching a better understanding.
To that end, I have compiled a list of helpful tips for the non-WOW that will help with understanding and befriending a WOW:
Copyright © 2002 Julie Andersen.
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Reprinted with permission.