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”
Who Will Be My Friend?
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.
Death Factors In
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.
Human Nature Interferes
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.
What Can We Do?
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:
Please, Do NOT:
- …say anything about the late wife unless I initiate it.
(If I do start a discussion about the late wife, please follow my lead and refrain from referring to her as “his first wife” or “his wife”.)
- …ask questions about my husband’s grief.
(I can barely grasp it myself.)
- …go into detail about the losses that YOU have experienced and how you dealt with them.
(We are two different people dealing with entirely different issues.)
- …trivialize my husband’s grief by saying, “God has a plan for everything”, or , “God needed her more up in Heaven than your husband did here on earth”, or, “God never gives us more than we can bear”, and do NOT ask me if the late wife “Made her peace with God” before she died.
(I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. I love the Lord, but I’m not a minister, and neither are you, so how can you speak for God?)
- …try to amuse me with unasked-for stories about the late wife, if you knew her.
(I am not amused.)
- …ask me where she is buried, or if my husband has an adjoining plot for his future use.
(I am hoping I never have to see him use it, and if and when I do, I want him next to his wife – me!)
- …ask me if I or my husband still feel(s) her presence.
(If I wanted ghosts, I would’ve married either a psychic or an exorcist.)
- …tell me what you would do or how you would feel if you were in my shoes.
(You have no idea until or unless you marry a widower, so you cannot properly advise me.)
- …analyze me by telling me “It’s all in your (my) head”.
(I am not crazy. I am human.)
Please Don’t Say Something Stupid, Like:
- “I knew the late wife, and you’re nothing like her.”
(Great! I gotta be me! But you’re probably wondering how my husband could’ve married someone so different? Please, don’t compare me, even if your statement was meant as a compliment.)
- “I knew the late wife, and you’re so much like her!”
(But I’m NOT her!… and thank God my husband recognizes the difference.)
- “Well, now he can forget her (the late wife) since he married you.”
(He’ll never “forget” her, and I wouldn’t wish that for him, anyway.)
- “He may never feel for you like he did her, but at least you can make him as happy as he CAN be for now.”
(I wouldn’t have married him if I knew that he couldn’t possibly love me the way he loved her… or better. Besides that, she and I are two different people, and you cannot love two separate people the same way.)
- “I know how you feel” or “I understand your pain” or “I can relate”.
(You don’t, and you can’t.)
- “You’re lucky! I wish MY ex was dead!”
(She’s NOT a “ex”… she’s a “why?”)
- “I married a divorced man, so I can relate!”
(No, you can’t… it’s two completely different sets of issues.)
- “I’m so happy that he now has a mother for his children”.
(That’s not why he married me, and I am not replacing the children’s real mother.)
- “Oh, so you like camping (or whatever)? Oh, she did, too!”
(Oh, what a coincidence! Must be why he married me – to clone her.)
- “It’s been two weeks/six months/three years! How long are you going to let this control your life?”, or, “She’s gone – just get over it” or “Life is for the living! Don’t worry your life away over a dead woman. It’s time you moved on”.
(If it were that easy, I’d have “been there or done that” by now.)
- “Why don’t you do something positive with your life that will distract you?”.
(Nothing and no one will ever make me forget. I have too many reminders in my daily life and marriage, thank you.)
- “I haven’t come over, because as long as I don’t, I can pretend that she’s still there.”
(Then you won’t mind if I pretend that you’re not saying something that stupid?)
- “You seem to be taking this well.”
(You wouldn’t want to see me when I am upset.)
- “You should be settled in by now.”
(Adjusting to my role as a WOW is not something one “settles” into… it’s one I grow from.)
- “So, how do your husband’s family (or former in-laws) feel about his remarrying?”
(If you really want to know, ask them.)
- “I really miss her (the late wife)”.
(My husband does, too, and that’s why I need some sympathy.)
- “I’m sure she (the late wife) would approve of you.”
(I don’t need her approval, and neither did/does my husband.)
- “She’s probably watching over your husband from heaven right now.”
(Egads, that’s ALL I need! Besides, how do YOU know she’s looking down instead of up?)
- “What’s it like raising another woman’s child(ren)?”
(He/She/They is/are mine now, or at least that’s how it feels.)
- “How nice that you gave him the child she couldn’t.”
(My husband and I created OUR child. I was not the late wife’s surrogate.)
- “Well, at least he’s not alone anymore.”
(He didn’t marry me because he was lonely. He married me because he loved me.)
- “I’m sure you must understand why her family can’t accept you.”
(No, I can’t. And if you can’t explain it to me, don’t opine about it!)
- “She was a wonderful person… but I’m sure you are, too.”
(You don’t know me, so you can’t compare us.)
- Well, at least she’s not around to make your life miserable like an ex would.”
(She’s still around, in her own way…and that’s why I need a hug.)
- …start any questions with, “How does it feel… ?” or “How do you feel… ?”.
(It’s nice to know you care about my feelings, opinions, and perspective.)
- …feel free to tell me how you think I am a good wife for my husband.
(But only if it has nothing to do with “rescuing” him from his grief or his prior widower status.)
- …treat me like you would anyone else.
(Because I am!)
- …acknowledge my feelings without judgment.
(If you can’t relate, you can’t be judgmental.)
- …tell me I am doing all the right things to make my husband happy.
(It’s why I wanted to be his wife.)
- …congratulate me and my husband, and wish us well in our future together.
(We’re trying as hard as we can to live for the present.)
- …get angry with me when I rage about the unfairness of non-acceptance.
(Misery loves company!)
- …tell me about the late wife ONLY when I ask.
(But please, don’t make her sound saintly, and only answer the question I ask. Don’t go on and on about her.)
Please DO say something wonderful, like:
- …”I can see why your husband loves you.”
(You, my dear, will get a Valentine’s Day card from me!)
- …”I’m so glad you’re going to be part of our circle of friends.”
(I want to belong, as long as you accept me for me, and not because I am “filling in for” the late wife in the group.)
- …”It MUST be hard for you, I can’t even imagine!”.
(You can’t, but I appreciate your eagerness to learn about me and your willingness to validate that my feelings are real to me.)
- …”You don’t have to talk about her if you don’t want to, but if you do, I’ll listen.”
(I appreciate that more than you know.)
- …”You’re his wife now, and that’s what counts.”
(Because that’s so true!)
- …”I didn’t know her, but I’d like to get to know you.”
(Thank you for putting the past where it belongs.)
- …”Hey, you wanna go get a cup of coffee with me and chat?”
(You like me! You really LIKE me!)
- …”I can’t relate, but I feel badly that you feel badly.”
(You’re my new best friend!)
Copyright © 2002 Julie Andersen.
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Reprinted with permission.