Remarriage after bereavement. Maybe I get a little selfish and hope that I’ll never have to face the loss of a spouse. When I’m feeling more noble and altruistic, I hope my spouse will never have to face it. But regardless, nearly 100% of couples face the loss of their significant other during their lifetime. And so if this reality is so common, it’s worth talking about.
Losing your spouse is one of the hardest things any person can go through. Amidst the grief and sadness you have the question of remarriage: when is it ok to remarry? How will my new marriage compare to my old one? Should I even be comparing them? Today we’re going to be looking at this topic and hopefully offering some hope to those of you in this situation.
Background Info about Remarriage
We’re just talking about remarriage after bereavement today. Not remarriage after divorce- that’s a rather separate issue. But for both of us here at OYF: this is our first marriage. We don’t actually have any close connections in our peer group who have remarried after bereavement. And both sets of our parents are still living. So we’re definitely abstracted from this in terms of experience.
But we do have some research to help frame the issue of remarriage. Here are some stats to get us started:
- Men are more likely to remarry across all age groups.
- Remarriage rates decline with age for both men and women. Women’s likelihood of remarrying declines more sharply with age than it does for men[i]. As they get older they become less likely to remarry.
- These patterns are true across cultures.
Remarriage rates decline with age for both genders. This could be due to a lack of availability of potential partners, or may also reflect a reduced interest in remarrying.
Older widows often cite freedom from having to care for their spouse as a reason not to remarry in later life[ii]. Which makes sense — if you see someone caring for a spouse with a long, protracted terminal illness: they are not only learning to become more independent as the illness progresses, but they are also carrying a huge burden of care. And I could definitely see someone coming through that being more reluctant to remarry.
When do people tend to remarry? Rates of remarriage drop just after bereavement, and then rise. This is different from the remarriage rates for divorce, where people often remarry quickly.
Clearly a time of mourning is needed before remarriage after the death of your spouse, but perhaps this finding is also hinting at a social norm or taboo stating that it is inappropriate to remarry too quickly after being widowed[iii].
12 months is sometimes considered the acceptable time to wait before re-marriage, and there is actually a large increase in marriages among bereaved men and women in the 13th month after the bereavement[iv]. This suggests that a good percentage of the bereaved consider a year an appropriate time to wait before moving on with a new partner.
I think if you’re recently bereaved then that alone should offer some hope: right now you may feel like you’ll never recover, but perhaps it’s comforting to know that for some people the healing process moves along to a point they feel ok remarrying after just a year.
Of course, it doesn’t always go that way, and every circumstance is different. Overall rates of remarriage are much lower after bereavement than divorce: 5% of women and 12% of bereaved men remarry, compared to 69% and 78% of divorced women and men, respectively[v].
Interestingly, widowed people often marry other widows, with 45% or bereaved men and 42% of bereaved women doing so[vi]. Perhaps the shared experience of having gone through such a terrible loss makes them uniquely able to comfort and support each other.
Issues Affecting Remarriage
We’re going to cover some interesting factoids here, talking about the influences that come into play.
In a general sense: either post-divorce or post-bereavement, it’s my understanding that the divorce rates for second marriages are higher than the divorce rates for first marriages. I think the takeaway from this is to note that it is probably harder to make that second marriage work well and we’re going to see how many different factors play into this.
I’m not mentioning this because I have an agenda to discourage second marriages, but rather to make sure that folks listening to this are better prepared and better educated so that they can come to their second marriage more informed and prepared. And, consequently, have a greater likelihood of real enjoyment of that second marriage.
Availability of Partners: Availability of potential partners is lower the older you get, especially for women since older unmarried women greatly outnumber older unmarried men. This is mostly down to the simple fact that women live longer than men on average.
Widows/widowers living in big urban areas have lower rates of remarriage than those living in less urban areas, possibly due to having less of an established social circle[vii].
Social Support: Levels of social support can affect the availability of partners but also the desire to remarry. Bereaved men who had higher levels of social support from friends and family reported less desire for future romantic relationships at 6 and 18 months after the bereavement[viii]. Having a supportive network around you may help ease the loneliness and make remarrying less of a priority.
Women tend to have larger social networks and trusted confidants than men, and also typically receive more support from their children after bereavement. So men’s generally higher desire to remarry may be partially due to a lack of alternative social support. In fact when bereaved men report having high levels of social support their desire to remarry is no higher than that of women[ix].
Economic factors: Remarrying is often seen as economically advantageous over staying single. Especially for women, who typically tend to have lower incomes or work less hours[x].
This effect gets less pronounced in later adulthood as traditional gender roles become less important: couples are no longer looking after children, are potentially not in employment anymore and so on. So the advantage of remarrying may be less in later life. But for many bereaved individuals it makes sense to remarry on a practical, economic level as well as an emotional one.
Social norms: as we noted above, there may be a perception that remarrying quickly after bereavement is inappropriate and that there is an acceptable way to grieve. Time clearly plays a factor in this. In one study bereaved men and women both report desire to “remarry someday” at 6 months from the bereavement and a desire to “start dating now” at 18 months[xi].
Quality of the marriage: couples who had high levels of conflict were more likely to want to start dating again more quickly[xii]. I guess it’s important to remember that no marriage is perfect and just because a spouse passed away that unfortunately doesn’t always mean that the marriage was free from problems. And that’s bound to have an impact on the surviving spouse.
So these are some of the factors that come into play. Now we’re going to take a look at some of the benefits of remarriage but I also want to mention that we have created a bonus guide for our much appreciated patrons.
Remarriage After Bereavement
This guide will help you think through the mixed emotions that come with facing the prospect of a second marriage. It talks about how the bond will change, the challenges of combining families, creating new traditions, the struggle of comparisons and more. Thinking about these issues will help you process all the different emotions that come from bereavement and hopefully help you move forward positively. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Benefits of Remarrying
The research shows that remarriage is almost universally a good thing when undertaken in the right way.
First, remarried men and women have lower symptoms of depression. Research suggests that remarriage then is not a reaction to loneliness and lack of coping, but in fact signals coming to terms with the loss and moving on[xiii]. I take it from this that the remarriage can act as a catalyst for grieving through all the stages, finding closure, and looking for creating the next part of your story.
Perhaps there’s also a cautionary note here: are you ready to move on, or are you looking for someone to help you through the grieving process? The former is a great reason to remarry; the latter is not a foundation for a fulfilling marriage.
The next research observation is more just a correlation, not necessarily a causation. But widows who remarried had higher household incomes and worried less about finances than those who did not remarry[xiv]. Obviously nobody thinks it’s a worthwhile idea to remarry just for money, but financial considerations are real.
Another research study noted that widows/widowers dating or being remarried 25 months after the bereavement was highly correlated with greater overall psychological wellbeing[xv] . Again, yet another study noted that over time, remarried individuals showed improvements over non-remarried individuals in life satisfaction, resolution of grief, self-perceived coping, stress levels, self esteem, physical health and levels of social support[xvi].
If you’re bereaved today and considering remarriage I hope that this can give you some factors to consider, and that these findings are also an encouragement to you as well.
And now we come back to attachment. This is a concept we’ve addressed in previous episodes, such as our examination of the neuroscience of love and dating. Attachment refers to the love bond that exists between a couple. Now when you form that over 10, 25 or 40+ years and then one spouse passes away, this is a huge disruption in that bond. But you’re still left with your part of the bond.
Remarrying allows you the opportunity to form a new attachment bond, not plug the old one into someone else. That old bond still lingers and will continue to affect you as the bereaved spouse. To quote one researcher, “Human attachment bonds are established and maintained at emotional levels so deep that that the mere fact of the physical death cannot disrupt these bonds.[xvii]” So then remarrying becomes a process of both letting go and holding on.
This holding on part surprised me, to be honest. But these same researchers noted that holding on to the previous bond can help strengthen the bereaved spouse and add to their mental “resources” and sense of purpose. This is done through:
- Caring about the deceased after their death, eg “I’m glad he didn’t have to see X”, or “I’m glad she’s at peace now”
- Maintaining intimacy, for example by thinking about how the deceased spouse would’ve reacted or acting in a way that they would’ve liked
- Staying in touch with the deceased spouse’s family and still seeing yourself as a part of that group. “The original sense of family in which the deceased was a central figure persists with an elasticity that allows it to be restored again and again.[xviii]“
- Reaffirming the significant part the deceased spouse played in shaping your “self”. Your spouse was instrumental in forming who you are as a person, so continuing to act in accordance with this helps keep your sense of self intact and can have a positive impact on your self esteem.
So forming a new bond and sense of self is possible by building on the old one. Commitment to the new spouse does not necessarily replace commitment to the old.
Of course you have to watch the comparisons. Comparisons to the old spouse are inevitable, but can be harmful if made explicit or brought up in a negative way. Bereaved and remarried couples may want to make an implicit agreement not to talk about the old spouse, or the bereaved spouse may wish to talk about their lost spouse but only with people other than the new spouse.
So the processing and thoughts are going to happen but the question becomes, how can you find a thoughtful and respectful way of allowing that processing to occur without it being a threat to the formation of your new marriage bond?
Another hiccup to watch for is: what if your second marriage is better? Remarried couples may also experience a level of guilt if the new marriage goes well or if certain aspects of it are “better” than the original marriage. You may feel like you’re betraying your deceased spouse.
But back on the positive side — and I think this is pretty cool — your sense of self can expand in the new marriage. No two marriages are the same and the bereaved spouse can learn more about them self by how they relate to their new spouse[xix]. Your marriage to your deceased spouse helped shape who you are and enabled you to grow, and the same can be true of your new marriage.
This process of self-expansion increases the intimacy you feel with the new spouse, as we saw in our recent episode on increasing your romantic passion and learning to date your spouse again. In this sense the new marriage does not replace the old one but “goes beyond” it. “There’s no subtraction, only addition[xx]“.
I think I saw this in a couple we met on our trip — his first wife passed away. Before she did, she told him that he must remarry and he should know that she was going to be insanely jealous but he had to do it anyways.
He told me this through tears — she was an incredible lady in her own rights and he still misses her. Now, a third party told me that his second wife is nothing like his first wife. We only knew his second wife, who is a dynamic, outspoken, entrepreneurial, creative lady. If you’re in the room with her, you know she’s there. And I can totally see how being in this second marriage is absolutely expanding his sense of self and going beyond what he came to learn of himself in his first marriage.
So there is this expansion of personhood that is likely to come with a second marriage as well. I think that can be a positive to help offset some of the ongoing sense of loss from the ending of that first attachment bond.
So I hope this has been encouraging for those of you who have been bereaved and are considering remarriage. And also for those who are remarried to normalize some of your experience and possibly open up possibilities for how you can continue to grow and expand as a person as well.
[i] Smith, Zick, and Duncan, “Remarriage Patterns Among Recent Widows and Widowers.”
[ii] Sweeney, “Remarriage and Stepfamilies.”
[iii] Smith, Zick, and Duncan, “Remarriage Patterns Among Recent Widows and Widowers.”
[iv] Klass, Silverman, and Nickman, Continuing Bonds.
[v] Sweeney, “Remarriage and Stepfamilies.”
[vi] Klass, Silverman, and Nickman, Continuing Bonds.
[vii] Smith, Zick, and Duncan, “Remarriage Patterns Among Recent Widows and Widowers.”
[viii] Carr, “The Desire to Date and Remarry among Older Widows and Widowers.”
[xiv] Moorman, Booth, and Fingerman, “Women’s Romantic Relationships After Widowhood.”
[xv] Schneider et al., “Dating and Remarriage over the First Two Years of Widowhood.”
[xvi] Burks et al., “Bereavement and Remarriage for Older Adults.”
[xvii] Klass, Silverman, and Nickman, Continuing Bonds.