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My Fiancee Can't Get Over His Late Wife

Question:

I have been in a relationship for a year with a widower. We are now engaged. His 24 year marriage to his late wife was a happy one. She died unexpectedly. He was devastated. I have come into his life trying to make my place. We live together in the house he shared with her. I have been able to make my place but it is still hard as it is the house they lived in together. In 4 years he will retire and we will buy a home together. In the meantime there is a painting on the wall of the living room which he refuse to take down. It is of a place that he and his late wife visited together and where they picked out the painting. I have no problem with the painting being where it is now but he would also like to hang it in the house WE will buy and share together. That bothers me. Am I right to feel this way?…………..

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Answer:

You’ve entered into a very complex situation by getting involved with this grieving man. Devastated by grief as he is, he is not ready to be with you and solely with you. He is not ready to be present and future focused, but instead is drawn backwards towards the past and the good memories that are present there. Though his late wife is dead, and he is with you now, there is a real sense in which he is still with her and loyal to her. So, there are three of you in the relationship; not just the two of you.

I think it is very understandable that you would be upset and bothered by the situation. In effect, you are having to share your fiancée with the memory of his late wife. You are having to compete for his attention and affection, and the fight is not a fair one (for how can you compare to the object of his grief and loss). You may be a wonderful woman in your own right, but you cannot easily compete with 24 years of happy history from which your fiancée was forcibly separated. I’m sure you are feeling somewhat like the also-ran, and angry that you are not the true center of your fiancée’s emotional life. These feelings are reasonable.

Your fiancée is grieving. He is not over his late wife and there may be ways that he will never be over her. In fact, I think that it is likely that in important ways, he may never recover. What happened to him may be a normal part of living to an older age, but it is still a tragedy and hopefully, you can feel compassion for his pain, for surely that is the primary feeling he is responding to. He loved this woman and he lost her and he will never be the same. At the same time, he has entered into a new relationship with you here in the present, and this means that he is agreeing to be with you here in the present. You do have a right to expect that he will orient to your new mutual life.

I don’t think it will serve your situation for you to focus solely on what you are entitled to within your relationship. If you go with the feeling of entitlement, you will end up feeling angry at your fiancée. If you are angry with your fiancée, he will become defensive and there will be conflict within the relationship. Instead, try to see the larger perspective and to nurture feelings of compassion for all the parties who have been damaged. If you can approach the situation with great compassion I think you will have an easier time asking for what you want and need in a way that is not threatening or off-putting.

For example, “I know you loved your wife very much and that it continues to be painful for you to live in the world without her. At the same time, I am also hurting. Just as you miss being able to be with your wife, I miss being with you now; being able to be close with you now, in a way that is not possible when you become very focused on her memory and the life you shared. Can we work to find a compromise position so that I don’t step on your grief too much, but also you don’t go away from me too much?”

With regard to the painting, there are many ways to find such a compromise. You might agree to let it be hung in the new house, but in his space (e.g., his office or work area) rather than your shared space.

Grief takes time, sometimes years, to resolve. This tension between you and he will be a feature of your lives for some time. Do not underestimate the power of time to make the feelings of grief more bearable, however. Four years from now when you retire, the power this painting has over your fiancée’s memory may be less intense and he may not need to hold on to it so tightly.

Mental health experts in the west suggest that a complicated grief process (e.g., one that requires professional attention) is occurring when grief remains paralyzing and interferes with activities of daily life (e.g., relationships, occupational functioning) though several years have passed since the grieved event. Counseling can be very helpful in such cases. You might suggest counseling to your fiancée if you think he might be amenable to it, but if you do so, do so out of compassion for the pain he is in and not out of irritation that he is not available to you the way you’d like.

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