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Sunday, January 27, 2013

A New Relationship: Understanding the Loyalty Dilemma for Someone Whose Spouse Died

In today's Sunday New York Times Modern Love section, there's an article by Eve Pell about her relationship with her husband (see link below).  According to Ms. Pell, they began when she was in her 70s and he was in his 80s.  One of the things that she mentions is that when they were dating, her then-boyfriend was hesitant about making a commitment to their relationship because he still felt loyal to his deceased wife, who had died several years before.

Understanding the Emotional Dilemma For Someone Whose Spouse Died
Reading this article brought to mind how common this experience is.  Rather than getting competitive with a deceased spouse, Ms. Pell, who sounds like a wise woman, understood her boyfriend's emotional dilemma and let him know.

Instead of feeling like his love for his deceased spouse meant more to him than his love for her, she spoke to him about it with a lot of empathy.  She acknowledged that she understood, respected his feelings for his former spouse, and reframed the issue as there being enough room in his heart for both of them.  According to Ms. Pell, her boyfriend appreciated this and, eventually, they got married.

Your Boyfriend Might Feel Disloyal to a Deceased Spouse By Making a Commitment to You
Working Through the Loss of a Deceased Spouse
There are times when people haven't worked through the loss of a deceased spouse and it keeps them stuck.  Each situation is different.  But reading Ms. Pell's article reminded me of how conflicted a person can feel with a new love, especially when the former relationship ended because of a death.

People, who are widowed, who are still in love with their deceased spouse, often feel that it's an act of disloyalty to begin a relationship with someone new.  Their spouse might be gone, but their feelings are still very much alive.  They might feel confused and not know how to reconcile the fact that they can fall in love with someone new while still loving their former spouse.  If the new love gets jealous and makes emotional demands too soon, it can create an even bigger conflict and ruin an otherwise good new relationship.

Reframing the Love and Loyalty Dilemma
Like Ms. Pell, it's often better to take an empathetic step back, try to understand your romantic partner's emotional dilemma and talk to him about it.  When the dilemma is reframed as there being room for both the deceased spouse and the new partner, it can reduce a lot of tension and offer options that your partner might not have seen before.  Your partner doesn't need to completely bury his feelings for his deceased spouse, which wouldn't be possible anyway.  It's really not an either/or question.  He can still honor the feelings he feels for her and make room for you.

For simplicity's sake and not wanting to continually say "he or she," I'm writing about this as the man having the deceased wife and the woman being the new love in his life.  But, naturally, it could be the other way around too--with the woman who has a deceased husband and a new boyfriend.

Whether you're the person who is struggling with the loyalty dilemma or you're the new love, there are no rules as to how long the process takes.  Every situation is different.

Some people, who have lost a spouse, never get over it, and they're unable to make a commitment to a new relationship.  For other people, this issue works itself out with understanding on both sides.  Sometimes, the person who is widowed needs help in individual therapy to work it out.  Other times, it helps for both people to come into couples counseling to negotiate this problem.

Either way, I found Ms. Pell's approach to this common dilemma to be a mature and refreshing approach.  Thank you, Ms. Pell, for a heart warming article.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

To find out  more about me, visit my web site:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.


The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap--Modern Love, NY Times by Eve Pell (1/27/13)

photo credit: tommie m via photopin cc

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