Dear Neil: I am a 6-year widow dating a 4-year widower. We both had long-term marriages. We have been dating for 18 months and have been talking about moving into a rental together. But his house is like a museum to his deceased wife; every corner and shelf is filled with her knickknacks and collections. I had to ask him to remove large pictures of them, and even pillows and blankets with their pictures on them. Her clothes and personal items are in the house, although his daughter moved them out of the main closet.
He says none of the mementos mean he is carrying a torch for her, and has recently been saying that he will ask his 5 adult kids if they want any of her things. I fear his kids will resent me if they see me as the reason he donates her things to a charity. I told him that I won’t move in with him until he has gone through and dispersed his ex-wife’s personal things, and I am not talking furniture. I am 67 years old, and do not want to make the wrong decision here.
Unsure of What To Do in Modesto, California
Dear Unsure: It does sound like he has not let go of his deceased wife, but he may not have had an incentive for doing so until he got involved with you. And I agree that walking into a house filled with his ex-wife’s mementos would normally be a red-flag warning that maybe this guy isn’t ready for another relationship. But since he is now taking initiative to let go of his ex-wife’s things, perhaps he is coming to realize a different perspective: that he doesn’t have to lose the memory of his ex-wife, but he can still have a full-fledged intimate relationship with someone new.
Encourage him to give to his adult kids all of the mementos they want from their mother. If he told them that whatever they don’t take he is going to give to charity, it would be unlikely that they would hold a grudge against you if their father doesn’t keep the things they don’t want themselves. After that, a 6 or 12 month rental lease should indeed allow you to check out whether you think this man is emotionally ready and able to be in a new relationship—and whether the two of you still click after being around each other a lot.
There is a place for important people who are no longer alive. They may be dear souls, pivotal memories, and maybe they had a lasting, indelible influence on us. We might forever be indebted to them for many of our life experiences and lessons, and no doubt they were instrumental in our growth and maturity. But in the end, attempting to keep someone alive by surrounding ourselves with physical reminders risks us living in the past—instead of in the present and/or for the future. You can honor an ex’s importance to you and still be open to potentially falling in love with someone new.