Dating After the Death of a Partner

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In March of 2017, The New York Times printed an essay that gave new meaning to the adage that true love transcends all else. The author, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, was a woman in the final days of a terminal illness, and the piece that she wrote was a love letter—albeit an unconventional one. In “You May Want To Marry My Husband,” Krouse Rosenthal (who died of ovarian cancer 10 days after the essay was published) trumpets her husband’s wonderful qualities so that he can meet someone special after she is gone. “I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day,” she wrote, “and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.”

It can seem almost inconceivable to let another love story begin after the loss of the person you shared a bed and life with. How do you move forward? Is it fair to their memory? Will you ever be able to love again? But in time, the desire to find love again can be a reflection of how happy you were in your relationship, says Virginia-based psychotherapist Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMC. You aren’t replacing your partner, she stresses, but honoring the comfort and support of a close, caring union. When the time is right for you, consider these guidelines on how to date after the death of your spouse or partner. (Related: 7 Comforting Books About Loss and Life.)

Find your own timetable

“Survivor’s guilt is very real,” says Coleman. “When you lose someone who you made a promise to, the idea that you’re going to see other people can feel impossible at first.” Take small steps, and back off if you feel that you’re not ready. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or the person you’re seeing either. Starting with coffee is a good way to test the waters, says Coleman, as is being patient with yourself and really listening to your heart. 

Don’t worry if you compare and contrast

Comparing new prospects to your deceased loved one is just going to happen, says Coleman—because how could it not? You know that you’ll never forget your partner’s amazing qualities or the memories you shared together. And forgetting is not the goal of moving forward, anyway. But keep in mind that it’s not productive to hold a new romantic interest to the expectations you had for someone else. “Keep an open mind,” says Coleman. “Try and evaluate the situation for what it is, and to really see if you and this person have chemistry—intellectual chemistry, friendship chemistry, and physical chemistry.”

Don’t feel obligated to give it a second date

If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. It’s also fair to the other to not get involved before you are ready. “Remember, there is another person’s emotions involved,” Coleman says. Go slow. Check in with yourself. And always be honest. It will be better for everyone involved.

Introduce family when the time is right

If you’re a parent, you’ll want to introduce someone you are regularly dating to your children. Be honest with your kids without revealing too many intimate details. Ask them how they feel about you dating and listen to how they feel, Coleman counsels.

It’s worth waiting to introduce the rest of the clan until you know what part you want this person to play in your life. If you start seeing someone very soon after the loss of your partner, try to be sensitive to how that might make your family feel. For instance, you may not want to take them to a big family wedding.

Take the step to re-marriage with care

After losing a partner, it might feel like time is especially precious and life is short—so it’s easy to wonder why you should wait to make things official when you’ve found love again. Or maybe there are health issues, and you two want to gain what marriage gives you access to in terms of power of attorney and other legal privileges.

Your timetable is your timetable; nobody can tell you it’s too soon or you haven’t known each other long enough. When you are sure that marriage is absolutely the right next step, consider seeing a lawyer to discuss legal considerations, including a possible prenuptial agreement, says Coleman.

Find a way to mark the memories

Whether you wind up in a long-term committed partnership again or go the more casual dating route, finding ways to commemorate major occasions you shared with your deceased partner is a way of keeping their memory alive and making you feel good about the past and the future. Create traditions that celebrate their life and incorporate your new partner, Coleman advises. (Related: Six Grieving Rituals That Can Help You Heal.)

For instance, if you mark a birthday with a toast using their favorite drink and share something you’re grateful for about them, you might encourage your new partner to participate as an observer; with time, your new significant other might even be able to add their own entry of gratitude to the person who loved and cared for you before you two met. Moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting, and the right partner will realize that your past plays an important role in the person you are right now.

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