Loving Again After the Loss of an Intimate Partner
Author: Carla Stumpf Patton
Love and intimacy are sensitive and very personal topics. Finding love again after the death of an intimate partner can be a joyous experience for those who are ready. However, this type of life transition can raise issues around trust, intimacy, and communication. It can also present unique challenges for those with children or when considering blending families.
Photo courtesy of Jakob Owens and Becca Tapert on Unsplash
Discussing issues after the death of an intimate partner can be complex, confusing, and emotionally charged for many reasons.
Questions may arise for bereaved partners, such as:
- Will I ever want another relationship?
- How will I know if or when I am ready for this?
- Does this mean I am forgetting my former partner?
- Can I ever love again?
- Can I have a new relationship and still love my partner who died?
- How do I integrate this into my life as I move forward in my grief?
- How will this impact my children?
You are not alone in wondering these things, but answers are unique to each individual.
A Personal Decision
It is OK to talk or think about this, even if you have no desire for another relationship. Perhaps you just want to hear about the experiences of others. Maybe you are ready to explore dating, are already dating, may be in a committed relationship, or have remarried.
Others will often have advice, but you have to do what is right for you. If you are wondering how long to wait to date, there are no absolute timelines. If you wait “too long”, people will make comments about you “not getting over it” sooner. If you decide to date “too soon,” people may say you are moving too fast or you may worry that people will think we did not love our partner enough. Moving forward does not mean you are forgetting, nor does it mean you loved them any less. It means you are giving yourself permission to experience love, joy, and a fulfilled life.
Be realistic and know that there is no perfect scenario and that no person can ever replace your loved one or the love you hold for them in your heart. This is a process that will take time, patience, and understanding from yourself and the person with whom you begin a relationship. There are no rules other than upholding the overarching sense of safety and well-being for yourself and/or children. If you do not fully trust your own instincts or have questions and concerns, it can be helpful to discuss this with someone you trust and who genuinely has your best interest at heart.
Are You Ready
When considering if you are ready for a new relationship, you might assess if you have stabilized the major issues surrounding the death of your loved one. Some concerns require special attention and overlooking these issues can contribute to feeling stuck in our grief.
Give yourself time and space to authentically mourn as you work through the grieving process, particularly in the days, weeks, months, and early years after the death. If you skip over, or fast forward past this grief work, you might later find yourself revisiting emotions that impede healing.
For future healthy relationships, it is important to process any unresolved issues from the former relationship. This might be the case if there had been challenges, such as issues around communication or trust, particularly around infidelity, addiction, or violence.
Consider the phase of grief in which you find yourself. The TAPS Postvention Model (originally developed for suicide loss survivors and applicable with other causes of death) addresses grief phases. In the third phase, Posttraumatic Growth, there is a noted shift in grief where the survivor is able to focus on the greater life story of their loved one, rather than just the details of the death. In this phase, you might ask yourself: “Am I at a point in my grief journey where I have found healing and growth, and/or perhaps considering a new, hopeful future for myself?”
"When my husband passed away, I lost my trust in everything around me. What I thought was safe and secure (my marriage and our life together) could no longer be counted on. When I was open to dating again, it was like starting from the ground up. I had to learn to trust myself, trust my feelings and trust the person that I was dating.
It helped knowing that my new husband was accepting of me honoring my late husband. That support with our open communication has made it possible for me to continue to hold that space of honor for my late husband and still move forward in my life."
Conflicting Emotions Are Common
Wherever you may be in your grief, the thought of intimacy or a new relationship can bring up complex and conflicting emotions. You may have a sense of loneliness and need for companionship. You may fear the unknown and desire stability and emotional security. You may be conflicted between feelings of judgment and acceptance (imposed by yourself and/or others), as well as moments of confusion or doubt and moments of confidence or clarity. You may feel guilty by allowing yourself to feel excitement about a hopeful future.
If you are struggling with a sense of hesitation, it helps to focus on ways you can feel more empowered about your choices. It is important to know these are common struggles and while there is no correct response, it is often helpful to find a healthy balance between the issues you are struggling with while you continue to grow and heal.
Give yourself permission to feel whatever you need and do what is right for you. It can be helpful to communicate what you are experiencing. In cases where you may be considering remarriage and depending on your circumstances (such as those receiving benefits), you should be an informed consumer to understand implications related to legal, financial, and benefits issues.
Helping New Partner, Children, and Yourself
It is important to consider the perspective and feelings of the new partner, especially so they do not feel they are living in the shadow of the person who has died. Develop and maintain open and honest communication. Some of the common issues that should be addressed include feeling secure and loved in the current relationship, adapting to the grieving family system, understanding the impact of trauma associated with the death, setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, willingness to be involved in support systems, balancing past memories with future possibilities, being treated fairly and respectfully by others.
As a parent, you will need to discuss new friendships, relationships, and dating. You will also need to consider how and when to introduce a new partner, how this will change the family system, and why it will be critical to respect individual needs of each person in the family.
Other issues to explore will be the new or changing roles and boundaries within the family system (such as parenting styles), implications when blending families, and the possibility that family counseling can help with these transitions.
All of this can be overwhelming. Remember to seek help from those in your support network, such as family, friends, online communities for bereaved spouses or partners, bereavement support groups, clergy and faith community, individual, couples, and family therapy, and organizations such as TAPS.
Carla Stumpf-Patton, EdD, LMHC, NCC, FT, CCTP, is the Senior Director, TAPS Suicide Postvention and the surviving spouse of Sergeant Richard E. Stumpf, Jr.