Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships


Options If Your Mate Hasn't Mourned
 a Prior Partner

Competing with a Ghost

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/relate/mates/deadx.htm

Updated  02-05-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-4 articles on how to optimize your relationships. These articles augment, vs. replace, other 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 familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site, and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4 (and 7, if you're in a stepfamily)

  • ways to promote healthy grief, and...

  •  premises about resolving relationship problems;

      This brief YouTube video proposes key requisites for healthy grief:

      My client Todd (not his real name) was a slender, 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 “I 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. Her "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 My wife 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...

colorbar.gif Perspective

      Some re/marriages 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.

      Many couples 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 many psychologically-wounded people don't grieve well, and so they suffer a range of significant personal, family, and social problems. That's why 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.

colorbar.gif Symptoms of Incomplete Grief

      Your beloved mate does things like these too often:

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 to sell the first-marriage home or other property, and/or balking at redecorating and refurnishing with new “ours” choices.

Your mate keeps her married last name (“for the kids’ sake”) despite your requests to take yours.

S/He consistently avoids 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 resists starting new family traditions, despite your requests.

S/He develops chronic illness which doctors can “find no reason for,” and may not respond  to treatment.

Your partner...

  • doesn’t really empathize with your feelings and needs,

  • blames you for being childish, immature, unreasonable, 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 this.

      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.

      How 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 problem-solving;

  • avoid confronting your partner; and/or you...

  • view this as my problem or your problem, rather than our problem.

colorbar.gif Primary Problems

      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

Psychological wounds in one or both of you, and how to reduce them; (Lesson 1 here); and...

Effective communication and problem-solving (Lesson 2); and probably...

Healthy-grief concepts, and how to spot and finish incomplete grief (Lesson 3)

These can contribute to up to nine concurrent relationship stressors. If you're in a stepfamily like Todd and Louise, another common primary problem is unawareness of...

Stepfamily basics, norms, and realities (Lesson 7).

      If you feel you're competing with a ghost, what can you do?

colorbar.gif Options

      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 loss, you have many choices:

__  Read about and discuss the toxic [wounds + unawareness] cycle, and accept that it may be stressing you mates and your descendents.

__  Assess yourself and your partner for psychological wounds, and commit to reducing any you find via Lesson 1 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 personality subselves (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 suggestions.

__  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 are shame-based (wounded), your low self esteem and insecurity may cause or amplify your "ghost problem."

__  Study Lesson 2 here, and learn how respectful assertion and win-win problem-solving differ from lose-lose arguing, fighting, avoiding, complaining, whining, hinting, lecturing, moralizing, and blaming. 

__  Tell your 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 behavior (denial).

      More options...

__  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 pro-grief home and family. If s/he balks or procrastinates, suspect a protective false self is in charge. Demanding, manipulating, or pleading with your partner to grieve will surely increase your relationship stresses.

__  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.

__  Give 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 (these marital hazards and incomplete grief) as a group discussion topic.

__  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, consider using 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. 

colorbar.gif Recap

      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 36 years 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.

      The article 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.

      Pause and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need now? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self or ''someone else''?  /

Also see this worksheet on traits of an unfinished divorce.

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