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This is one of a series of lesson-4 articles on how to
optimize your relationships. These articles augment, vs.
qualified professional help. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce
notes that it may be one mate's first union.
This article is for people whose mate has not fully
mourned the loss of a prior partner. The article assumes you're
This brief YouTube video proposes key requisites for
Todd(not his real name) was aslender, previously
unmarried man who had just wedded an appealing widow with four
pre-teen kids. His described arriving home from work one recent night to find that
his thirty-something wife Louise had put up an array of pictures of her and
her dead first husband on the landing leading to the upstairs bedrooms. She hadn’t
told him she wanted to do this or asked how he would feel about it.
Todd described struggling with shock, hurt,
anger, guilt, and ambivalence. He said
wasn’t crazy about being reminded every time I used the stairs that I wasn’t
her first love, and knowing that her kids would be reminded of their Dad
every single day.
They’re already ignoring me pretty much, and Louise says I’m ‘too sensitive'
if I say that bothers me." Like most co-parents, neither of these good people knew much about
stepfamilies when they exchanged vows.
Rather than say how he felt
and what he needed,
Todd asked his wife why she put up these pictures. She said “I
want my kids to remember that their parents had some happy times.”Her former husband had spent much of their kids’ lives
in jail. Louise had little empathy for how the pictures and
her motive would affect Todd.
"awareness bubble" included only her and her kids, as it had for the
several years after her husband’s death.
Todd tried to balance his and Louise’s needs
by suggesting that she put the pictures in his stepkids’ rooms. “I can’t,”
she replied flatly. “Their walls are already jammed with rock stars and
school stuff.” The painful meanings he drew from this were
values her kids' needs more than mine,” and “If I want to be here, I
have to endure daily reminders of being number two, and
maybe never gaining the acceptance of my stepkids.”
Louise said (defensively) that all four
of her sisters agreed that what she did was “reasonable.”
That implied that Todd’s discomfort was “unreasonable.” Louise “saw no
point” to joint counseling, and encouraged her husband to go to fix his
problem. This attitude was a classic early-warning sign of major
re/marital problems ahead...
follow the death of one partner's former mate.
Psychologists estimate that a mate’s death can cause
one of the greatest traumas that adults can experience. The
natural response is grief, which
- if unimpeded - eventually allows the
widow/er to accept their losses, resume normal life,
and start to form new bonds.
like Todd and Louise ignore or trivialize the
vital process of mourning, and don't know how to
spot incomplete grief. They aren't aware that
grieve well, and so they suffer
a range of significant personal, family, and social
Lesson 3 in this Web site exists.
A more common version of this problem is someone re/marrying
before s/he and/or any kids have fully mourned the major
losses (broken bonds) from a divorce.
Symptoms of Incomplete Grief
Your beloved mate does things like these too
Repeatedly calling you by the dead
person’s name and saying "You're too sensitive," joking about it, or saying “I can’t help it.”
Insisting on keeping
emotionally-loaded mementos in your home (like Louise’s family pictures),
despite your discomfort.
Continually reminiscing alone or with
kids and kin about good first-marriage times, despite your discomfort.
Getting “depressed”at holidays,
birthdays, and anniversaries, (or other times) and refusing to do anything
about it, even though it stresses you.
Procrastinating or refusing
the first-marriage home or other property, and/or balking at redecorating and
refurnishing with new “ours” choices.
Your mate keepsher married last name
(“for the kids’ sake”)despite your requests to take yours.
S/He consistentlyavoids discussing her prior mate's death and its
effects, or does so with-out any emotions;
S/He ignores your requests to “say
something” to kids and relatives who constantly bring up the dead person and
former “good (or bad) times.”
S/He resistsstarting new family traditions, despite your requests.
S/He develops chronic illness which doctors can “find no reason for,” and may not respond to
empathize with your feelings and needs,
blames you for being childish,
and/or self-centered (relative to dead-mate issues);and...
denies or justifies (defends) this.
S/He insists on inviting her
former in-laws to family celebrations or other occasions, and/or s/he
awards them higher status than your own relatives - and denies or defends
Behaviors like these suggest a
re/married widow/er like Louise isn't finished grieving a dead partner and their lost
relationship, rituals, pleasures, dreams, and family. Any of these can cause
a new mate pain – and
none of them is the real problem.
you respond to
symptoms ;like these can add to the problem - e.g. you...
discount, minimize, or deny
your frustration (needs);
whine, complain, blame, or
snipe, instead of asserting your needs and
avoid confronting your
partner; and/or you...
view this as my
problem or your problem, rather than our
If you feel you’re in
a re/marital contest with your partner’s dead former mate, I
propose that the real problems to reduce are unawareness of…
in one or both of you, and how to
them; (Lesson 1 here); and...
feel you're competing with a ghost, what can you do?
The best thing widow/ers and potential new partners
can do is study this
course and heed these
danger signs during courtship. Because of our
culture's ignorance and denial of the toxic
[wounds + unawareness]
cycle, few people do this.
If you commit and then discover that your mate hasn't
finished grieving any major
have many choices:
about and discuss the toxic [wounds + unawareness]
accept that it may be stressing you mates and your
yourself and your partner for psychological wounds, and
commit to reducing any you find via
or equivalent. Reluctance to do this is a sign of
false-self dominance. Try out the idea that one or more
of your mate's
(probably an Inner Child) isn't ready to grieve, rather
than the whole person.
__ If you believe your
mate has significant psychological wounds, see these
Discuss how to resolve
loyalty (priority) conflicts
with your mate. This is relevant if you feel "second
best" too often to your partner's former mate.
Note that if you
(wounded), your low self esteem and insecurity may cause
or amplify your "ghost problem."
Lesson 2 here, and learn how respectful
differ from lose-lose arguing, fighting, avoiding, complaining,
whining, hinting, lecturing, moralizing, and blaming.
partner honestly how his/her behaviors (e.g. the
examples above) affect you,
and assert what changes you need. When Todd did this,
Louise discounted his needs and labeled them "your
problem" (vs. "our problem)." Classic false-self
__ Invite your
mate to study and discuss Lesson 3 with you
(bonding, loss, and grief basics). If s/he will, then
apply these ideas
about completing grief as appropriate, and work together
to establish a
home and family. If s/he balks or
suspect a protective false self is in charge. Demanding,
manipulating, or pleading with your partner to grieve will surely increase your
__ Put a copy of these wise
guidelines where you can see them, and use them to help you
partners decide and accept what you can and cannot change.
copies of this and related articles to your key supporters, including
older kids, clergy and counselors. If you're in a
support group, consider using the theme of this article
hazards and incomplete grief) as a group
__ Consider how
your mate's unfinished grief may be affecting each minor and grown
child in your lives. Are any kids
blocked in mourning that death? What
do they need? Is your mate's unfinished grief protecting a child
(or someone) from expected agony? ("I can't show my feelings because
it would upset Alex too much.")
__ If these
options don't fill your needs well enough, considerusing a professional
marriage and family
counselor to help you.
If you do, choose one who is trained and experienced at
facilitating healthy mourning.
Keep in mind that unfinished grief is usually one of a
cluster of marital and family problems after a
family-member's death or parental divorce. Also stay aware
that there are many other important losses besides someone's
death. Work with your family adults to identify each current
relationship problem, rank-order them in importance, and
help each other stay focused and resolve one or two problems
at a time.
Some marriages end when one mate dies. If the widow/er
commits to a new relationship before s/he and any kids grieve the death (or other losses) well enough, the
new partner may feel increasingly frustrated at having to compete for
primacy with a "ghost." My
as a family therapist suggest that incomplete grief is one of
five widespread causes of marital
and family stress.
This article illustrates incomplete mourning in a mate, outlines typical surface ex-mate “ghost”
problems (symptoms), and suggests four probable underlying
causes. One of these is the sobering possibility that one or
both mates made up to three
wrong re/marrital choices.
proposes specific options if your mate hasn't finished
grieving an important loss like the death of a former
spouse. Though you can't make your mate grieve,
there is much you can do!
For more on healthy grieving, see self-improvement Lesson 3.