On occasions when he makes no mention of his late wife, you and your widower have a great time together. He loves the attention you lavish on him and he tries to reciprocate. He takes you to trendy restaurants and shows you off to his friends. You're hoping his friendship will turn to passion.
A grieving man is fragile. He needs kindness and a listening ear. But empathy has its limits. After months of listening to him endlessly extol someone who is not you, it's tough to sustain the nurturing spirit that's said to be part of a woman's DNA.
Grief is persistent. It can overwhelm a man who takes on a new relationship when he mistakenly believes he is emotionally ready. Men who haven't quite reached the ready-to-date stage nevertheless manage to draw companions into their trajectory while they figure things out. Some women spend years orbiting a world of grief that is not their own.
Pure grief is not the only reason a widower won't commit. Sometimes it's guilt -- a feeling of being unfaithful to a lost partner. Sometimes families oppose new ties -- adult children fearing that a new woman will undermine the sanctity of their parents' long marriage. A widower may have to choose between his new romantic interest and offspring who can't get past idealizing their mother.
It's not uncommon for widowers to measure a potential partner against a romanticized version of the woman they've lost. Psychoanalyst Darian Leader calls this the Rebecca Syndrome, a reference to the Daphne du Maurier novel in which the heroine is terribly haunted by the ghost of her husband's late wife. According to Dr. Leader, the power of what has gone before will infuse even the most contented new partnerships. "The ghost is always there," he maintains.
Social scientists have found that men look to reconnect because they want what they had before, what they're used to. New York Times writer Elizabeth Olson notes just one man's unapologetic reason to want a new wife -- he's overwhelmed by household chores, and he can't find things around the house.
As the companion of a widower, you may suspect that you're valued mostly for your listening abilities and household organization skills. It's true that a widower's grateful response to your sympathy doesn't always mean he's eager to make you his full partner in love. But the man who is ready to move on will signal when he wants a relationship that goes beyond appreciation of a tidy house and a listening ear. That signal comes only in the presence of patience, warmth, sympathy, physical responsiveness, and a disinclination to point out how damn long you've been waiting.
You and your widower will never be the couple that exchanges memory-laden glances at a son's graduation. The two of you will never experience the mutuality of joy felt by parents at the wedding of their daughter. You will admire his grandchildren, as he will yours, but you won't adore them. You won't celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary. You won't be buried side-by-side.
Still, "there is no reason to assume that one's heart is not big enough to include several genuine loves in one's life," writes psychologist Aaron Ben-Zeév. If you are lucky enough to find a widower who is attentive, generous, and affectionate, and if you have the grace to help him recapture the happy state of companionship, he will dearly love - very nearly with his whole heart -- his new partner.
Sienna Jae Fein blogs at www.datingseniormen.com