‘My new boyfriend has photos of his dead ex everywhere’

Welcome to Relationship Rehab, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all your romantic problems, no holds barred.

This week, our resident sexologist Isiah McKimmie helps a woman who’s fallen in love with a widow.

QUESTION: I’ve been with a man for four months and I’m head over heels in love. The only issue is that he’s a widower and I feel conflicted about how to deal with it. He’s in his early 30s and was engaged to be married when his fiancee was diagnosed with aggressive cancer. She was the love of his life and it took him years to even think about dating again. When I go to his house there are photos of her everywhere and her clothes are still in his wardrobe. We’ve talked about moving in together but I’m worried about her ghost still being there. He says he’s ready to move on and that he loves me but his actions say otherwise. How can I know he’s ready to be with me?

ANSWER: Dating a widow or widower can be a wonderful opportunity to create a meaningful, loving relationship. Widows and widowers can form happy, successful relationships and love again. But it will come with unique issues to navigate together.

This is going to be different to forming a relationship with someone who is divorced or never married. From the couples that I’ve supported in similar situations to yours, I can tell you that this won’t be a straightforward path.

Understand his perspective

Beginning to form a new relationship is likely to raise conflicting emotions for the man that you’re dating. Despite (or even because of) his feelings for you, he may be feeling guilty, sad, confused or like he’s betraying his deceased fiancee.

It’s not unusual for a widower or widow to experience a whole range of emotions as they begin dating again – and indeed throughout the relationship.

These conflicting emotions can be more challenging for widowers, as men can so often struggle to process big emotions and find support when dealing with their grief.

All of this is to say that despite caring for you and wanting to see where this goes, it likely isn’t simple for him.

Take this slowly and gently

I can hear that you’ve developed really strong feelings for this man and it sounds like you have a really special connection. However, four months isn’t really a long time. It takes time for relationships to deepen and progress, especially given the circumstances you’re in.

This may move slower than you would like it to.

Different stages of you moving forward together will require different stages of processing and letting go for him. He is likely to have a different timeline to you on how he would like to move forward.

There won’t be a point where he’s ‘over her’ and ready to move on. This will be a slow process. Take things slowly and gently.

Know that his late spouse will always be an important part of his life

You are going to have to find a way to live with his late fiancee, or ‘her ghost’, as you put it to a certain extent.

She will always be important to him. He will always carry grief about his loss. He will want to talk about her. There will be ways that he wants to remember and honour her. And there will be days that are hard for him because of how they represent her.

None of this means that he isn’t ready to move on or doesn’t care for you. It’s just going to be something to deal with.

Your needs are still valid

As in any relationship, you still have your own needs – as will the person you’re dating. Part of discovering whether you can build a successful relationship together is working out whether those needs can be compatible.

It’s understandable for example, that at some point, you’ll need to feel like you’re a priority, you’ll want to be introduced to his family and friends and, eventually build a home together.

You’ll need to work out whether your timelines for these things can align enough to honour his feelings, while also providing safety for you.

If it feels too challenging or unsettling to you, that’s understandable.

You’ll need really good communication

Any healthy relationship, particularly one with unique challenges, will require great communication to move forward smoothly. You’ll need to be able to talk about your emotions, the different needs you both have and navigate moving forward in ways that feel okay for both of you.

Isiah McKimmie is a Couples Therapist, Sexologist, Sex Therapist and Lecturer. To book a session with her, visit her website or follow her on Instagram for more advice on relationships, sex and intimacy.