Family and Social Relationships

Interactions between recently widowed persons and their extended families tend to increase for a while, but they usually decline as time passes.

White Female

Black Male'

Black Female s

Hispanic Male-

10 8 6 4 2 0 2 4 68 10 12 Number in Millions Percent of Race/Sex Group

Figure 13-7 Number and percent of widowed persons in the United States aged 15 years and over, March 1995, by sex and race/ethnicity. (Based on data from Saluter, 1996.)

Young widows, who may experience great hardship when no close relatives are nearby, are likely to look to their parents for support. Unlike the awkward social status of young widows, widowhood in older women is considered more normal and socially acceptable. Social support from family members and community is usually greater for older widows, making the transition from wife to widow easier for them than for younger widows.

Social support for a widow of any age is more likely to come from her own family than from her husband's, even when she has had congenial relations with her in-laws. A young widow with children can take solace in them but may find that the physical and psychological effort required to rear children on her own can be insurmountable. Older widows and widowers with grown children tend to grow closer to them and may even move in with them. However, the potential for intergenerational conflict, particularly when the daughter or son has a family of her or his own, usually makes this solution to the problem of what to do with a widowed mom or dad undesirable. A widow who lives with her son's or daughter's family is expected to help around the house and take care of the grandchildren—chores that she may not relish. Rather than resigning herself to a subordinate position in another woman's home and becoming involved in the management and conflict of another household, most widows opt for "intimacy at a distance" (Lopata, 1973).

Widows who relied on their husbands' business and social contacts may find that their social activities are reduced for a time, but most are able to make new connections and establish new social relationships if they make an effort to do so. Because there are many individuals in like circumstances to choose from, finding companionship outside the home is rarely difficult for older widows. Churches, adult and senior centers, and volunteer organizations of various kinds provide ample opportunities to make new social contacts and friends.

Because of her changed status, a widow may find that her married friends treat her differently than before. Consequently, she may feel awkward and even perceive herself as something of a sexual threat to them (Field & Minkler, 1988). Not wanting to intrude, she may decline invitations and stay at home and be lonely. She may feel that she is not supposed to be interested in other men but is expected to devote herself to keeping the family together and preserving the memory of her late husband. This is particularly likely when her identity is principally that of wife and mother whose activities are limited to her immediate family. Now she finds that she has no cultivated interests or abilities, no knowledge of how to acquire them, and no motivation to do so.

Husbands and wives are frequently so interdependent that when one dies, the other feels lost and cannot function effectively. Loneliness and the need for companionship may be even more problematic for a widower whose only close friend was his wife, and who depended on her for social relationships outside the family. Widows usually have little difficulty obtaining sympathy and support from other widows, but widowers are usually not as close to other people and find it harder to make friends with other widowers

(Connidis, 1989; Connidis & Davies, 1990). In addition to being emotionally unprepared to live out their lives alone, widowers often find that they lack the information and skills needed to handle routine domestic chores such as cooking, shopping, and cleaning (Marshall, 1980). Loneliness and homemak-ing duties are two reasons why widowers become receptive to the overtures of widows who vie for their attentions. Having discovered that they cannot forego the companionship, sex, and support provided by a wife, many widowers remarry within a year or two after their wife's death. They usually marry women who are a few years younger than they and whom they have known for years (Bengtson et al., 1990). Remarriage is less of an option for older widows, who must compete with large numbers of women in similar circumstances. Although the opportunity to remarry is not as great for older women as it is for older men, research indicates that it is not as difficult as most older women think (Jacobs & Vinick, 1979).

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