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A reader writes:
I’d like your take on a relationship that ended. I was dating a widower. Our lovemaking was exquisitely erotic and pleasurable. That he was a widower didn’t bother me at first. But several years into the relationship, he still hadn’t taken down photos of his wife that were hanging in his bedroom. In one, she was semi-nude. I eventually told him that I was bothered by these pictures, but he wouldn’t take them down. For this and other reasons, the relationship couldn’t go on, and I ended it. I’m filled with misgivings.
They were happily married for more than 40 years, sexually active throughout. She died almost a decade before we met. For a long time, I didn’t say anything about the photos. We talked about his wife and his marriage a lot, and I was empathetic. When I finally asked if he would remove the photos from the bedroom—not destroy them, just not have her looking down at us in bed! —he was defensive. He didn’t seem to understand why I was bothered.
“But several years into the relationship, he still hadn’t taken down photos of his wife that were hanging in his bedroom.”
Finally, I told him to please take down the pictures when I was there overnight. He got angry. He felt that I resented his deceased wife, and he couldn’t be honest about her around me (even though I’d listened and empathized for years).
This felt like a sign that he did not want to let go of her, even though he reassured me that I was here with him, and she was dead. To me, she was very much alive within him, and while I knew that I meant a lot to him, she was, essentially, irreplaceable.
I was very much in love with him, but those feelings have been lost. I felt there wasn’t room in his heart for me the way there was for her.
Should I have accepted the photos and seen my reaction as my problem, not his? Or should he have respected my feelings enough to take them down when I was there? And how should I deal with something similar if I date another widower?
- Bothered by Troublesome Photos
I can understand your discomfort at seeing an almost-nude photo of your lover’s wife staring at you in his bedroom. But speaking as a widow myself, I do think this issue was more your problem than his. It was perfectly okay to say, “I’d be more comfortable making love with you if you took down these photos when I stay overnight,” but in my view, it was not okay to make that an ultimatum.
“…that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for you, too.”
You say, “I felt there wasn’t room in his heart for me the way there was for her.” Here’s what I think you misunderstood: A widowed person’s new relationship is not in competition with the deceased partner. You can’t—and shouldn’t want to—“replace” your lover’s wife. When you say, “while I knew that I meant a lot to him, she was, essentially, irreplaceable,” you’re right—but that in no way diminishes his feelings for you. If his marriage was loving and nurturing, his wife will always be in his heart, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for you, too.
Speaking personally in my book, Sex after Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality after Losing Your Beloved:
“[My husband] was an extraordinary artist, and 36 of his paintings hang in my house. Seven are in my bedroom. Photos are here and there through the house—no longer in the bedroom, but you can’t walk through any other room without seeing him dancing or painting or holding me. These photos and paintings do not make me sad—they’re part of my life. I wouldn’t want to date someone who thought I should put them away.”
Nine years after my beloved husband died, I started dating a widower who was grieving his wife’s recent death. We’re still together nearly four years later. One of the great joys of our relationship is hearing each other’s stories about our spouses. There’s no jealousy—the opposite, in fact. It’s a joyful part of our history that we’re able to share fully.
It’s a challenge…and worth it
For your lover, keeping his wife’s photos on the wall was a way to keep her with him. He might say he barely notices them anymore, but he would notice if they were gone. If you pit yourself against his memories and force him to choose, you lose. Instead, tell yourself, “His love for his wife is a part of him, and that capacity for enduring love makes him more—not less!—able to love me, too.”
I know you felt you were empathetic and generous already, and here I’m telling you to accept even more, but dating a person who has lost a life partner is challenging. It’s too late for this relationship, but I hope looking at it this way will help if you date a widower in the future. As I explain in Sex after Grief:
- Do: Understand that there can be room for you and the deceased in your griever’s heart.
- Don’t: Feel you’re competing with the deceased for the griever’s attention, or love.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Take our poll and let us know your take on this situation.
Send Joan your questions by emailing email@example.com. All information is confidential. Joan can only answer questions that are chosen for publication from readers age 60+
Joan Price is the author of several self-help books about senior sex including her newest, “Sex after Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality after Losing Your Beloved,” and the award-winning “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex.” Visit Joan’s website and blog and her Facebook page. For senior sex news and tips, subscribe to Joan’s free newsletter.
What if the letter writer had given her lover a couple of semi-nude photos of herself to display in his bedroom alongside those of his deceased wife? Would that have been a way for him to express and honor his loving relationship with both women, and a way for the letter writer to feel she was loved and cherished in the here and now as well?
It seems that relationship is over, but it might be a useful strategy if she runs into that issue again in the future.
I am a widow for 10+ years. I have pictures of my family, my deceased husband, even my ex-husband, as well as my friends on several walls in my home. I dated a man who said, “I can’t compete with a dead man”. What competition did he think was going on? I was insulted, hurt, flabergasted at his insistence for me to take down his pictures. Well, that man is history.
I think the letter writer is right. I absolutely agree that if you are dating someone whose spouse has died you need to respect that memory and not try to eliminate it from their life. However, semi-naked photos staring down at you in the bedroom is another matter! I agree that the man’s refusal to understand his new partner’s position and take them down (or even just put them in another room, that could have been a compromise) is evidence that he is not very committed to her or very sensitive to her feelings. Whether that meant she should end the relationship depends on what she wants from it I suppose.
I don’t think that you have to love your deceased spouse any less or forget that they existed in your life, just because you are in a new relationship. I am glad that people want to move on after losing a spouse, and those are your memories to keep forever; nothing and no one can change that. However, I think that to show and have respect to that new person in your life, some pictures — especially a semi-nude picture in the bedroom– are unacceptable and should not be in sight. If the shoe was on the other foot and this was in the woman’s bedroom, the new man would not be okay with it.
“He should have taken down at least some of the bedroom photos if they bothered his lover.” I agree and voted for this suggested outcome. I am empathetic to those who have lost cherished loved ones, however, starting a new and healthy relationship is definitely built on compromise, not being self-centered or selfish, and showing consideration for (others) individual feelings.
Compromising shows that you care about your new partner.
Looking at it as a guy, I’ve kept (and will continue to keep) letters from my fiance when I was in Nam. Even if she’s no longer alive, it’s neither here nor there. She got me through it and that’s all that counts. I can’t read them but I’ll never throw them away.
I agree with Joan Price’s assessment of this situation. The questioner seems to not understand that we can love more than one person, and that healthy relationships need not be based on exclusivity. Polyamory and open marriages provide examples of this. In the case at hand, the widower could (and apparently did) love BOTH his deceased wife AND his new lover. It saddens me that the questioner’s evident need to possess ALL of her lover’s affection led to their breakup.
After my husband died, my house looked like a total memorial to him. Every wall & surface was filled with pictures of him and us together. When I began my first relationship, I took some of them down rather than overwhelming him, especially in the bedroom. He never mentioned the ones that were left; perhaps he never even noticed. But he definitely didn’t want to talk about my late husband. The relationship didn’t last long. He was my “Pilot Light Lover”.
I am now seeing another man and we can have heartfelt conversations about my late husband. I tell him stories about our life together and he totally understands that I will always have him in my heart and is happy for me that I had such a wonderful relationship. This man is definitely worth holding on to.
I loved your book Sex After Grief and just purchased Naked at Our Age. Thank you so much; you have made me realize that having a full life and not stay a sad, lonely widow is totally acceptable!
Nan, it warms my heart that my book Sex After Grief helped you so much. Thank you for sharing your story. My best to you in this glorious new relationship with a man who understands you.