Expanding Your Horizons – Widowhood and the Next Steps
The following is adapted from a speech given by Eileen Doherty, M.S. on August 27, 1998.

Becoming a widow is often a difficult and disorienting experience. Coping with the changes in socializing, finances and in general living life can be one of the most difficult times in an older person’s life. Much of what widowhood is about is redefining an individual’s identity. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be used to understand what many of the difficulties of widowhood mean to individuals.

Among psychologists and other experts, there seems to be agreement that the need for autonomy, the need for competence, and the need for relatedness all exist and must be met to maintain a stable psychological state.

So what does this have to do with widowhood? Many deficiency needs, namely esteem, belonging and love, and possibly our safety needs are challenged by becoming a widow. In Maslow’s system, we have must fulfill one level of need before moving to another. Therefore, a person who might be at the self-actualized level in their marriage suddenly finds themselves only partially satisfied at the belonging and self-esteem level. They find themselves having to meet these deficiency needs, again. Support groups can help to do this.

Support groups help us to belong and fulfill a need to connection and relation to others. They also help to re-establish self-esteem. Other people have similar experiences to ours. Support groups create the format “for developing a sense of belonging”.

To get beyond this level, widows and widowers need to substantially alleviate the pain they are feeling and to get comfortable with their new single status. Once they are comfortable, they can develop or reconnect with a circle of friends and a new social life. They can become active again and are ready to develop social relationships again.

In a social relationship, we begin to again satisfy the belonging needs. As we make more intimate friends, the process of satisfying our self-esteem needs occurs. What enables us to re-develop self-esteem and begin to become self-actualize again is the opportunity to meet people, to get to know each other, discover common interests. We move even closer when we take the important step of going as a couple or a group of two, rather than as a group.

Intimacy is an important relationship that changes in widowhood. In a marital relationship, we allow another individual to enter our personal space. Personal space is defined differently for each of us. Culturally, we all come from very different backgrounds. Some of us will only allow others to “shake our hand” and maybe give us a “pat on the back”. Other people will allow you to hug and kiss them briefly; while still others will engage in long embraces and numerous other acts of endearment. Allowing others to enter our personal space is not something, we as Americans do very well.

In a marital relationship, we not only share personal space, we also share “common space”, such as the house, a bedroom, closets. Furthermore, through mutual love and respect for each other, we gain meaning, as well as an identity. In widowhood, we lose this daily intimacy and we have to look for other ways to create a new identity. For some of us this happens as we become known as “so and so’s widow”. For example, Jackie Kennedy, even thirty years later was often referred to as “the late widow of John F Kennedy”.

For others of us, intimacy provides us a self-identity – we are John’s wife, the mother of John’s children, the wife of an attorney or a businessman or the husband of Jane, the mother of our children. In a marital relationship, we get re-affirmation of who we are and how we relate. Even if the person is sick, in a nursing home or unable to communicate, we still have the presence of that person to confirm our identity. Sometimes people tell me even if they don’t communicate (or they can’t communicate) with their spouse very much, their mere presence is confirmation of an intimate relationship. There is always that feeling of “someone being there for me”.

Another problem is how people view widowhood. In widowhood, we are still the same person, but the daily affirmation of who we are is now missing. It creates a void for us. And we are now faced with replacing that intimate relationship. Relationships take work and they are hard to develop. I once had an older professor tell me “she had very few new relationships”. Now, this was a well individual who did not have any major health problems, was secure in her marriage, and was an accomplished professor at her University and well respected in the community. She was a person who I would say on Maslow’s hierarchy was probably self-actualized, if not transcendent. And yet, she was saying, “I don’t develop new relationships because they take too much work.

So in widowhood, we take an individual who may have been self-actualized or transcendent and now experiences some deficiency needs and we are telling them to “develop new relationships”. Relationships are scary and they take many risks on our part. After, we thought we had a secure relationship, we have to “again” expose some of our inner feelings. We have to risk insecurity. And we have to be willing to share space and intimacy with someone “new”.

What makes relationships so hard? There are a number of things. One thing is that relationships can be defined as “cold” and “warm”. The cold relationships are associated with severe authority, competing material interests, differences in class or socio-economic status and so forth. More co-equal relationships, love and nurturing and acceptance of who the “person” is, rather than what they represent characterize a “warm” relationship. (Theodore Caplow – Two Against One, 1968, p 101)

We all desire “warm” relationships, but sometimes we are in family or work, or social situations and based upon the other individual’s personality, as well as our own, we now enter a triad relationship. Triads are especially troublesome in widowhood.

Triads almost always are successful if there are two people in the relationship who have a “warm” relationship. A “warm” relationship provides for an easy friendship. Rarely do we find successful triads with people who have “cold” relationships because of the nature of authority and competition. What happens even more frequently is that “cold relationships” tend to dominate our relationships with others. Sometimes, when we reflect on our relationships with others, we see them as “not good experiences”.

But people in triads always seem to have trouble. Three things can happen in a triad. First, the stronger member will control the weaker member. Second, everyone in the triad tries to control the other two – we, as individuals are always looking for ways to “get our way” or influence the outcome of the group. Last, by the very nature of a triad there is the opportunity for two people to join together and try to force the third person to assume their goals. We often say, “majority wins”. So when we are trying to decide to even go to a movie and there is disagreement — what do we do – we vote “ to see who wins”.

In widowhood, people often act as if you have a “disease” and that it is somehow “catchy”. Our behavior patterns are often characterized by avoidance or marked restraint. Often, we have a relationship with someone, but it tends to be reserved or at best one of respect. Even more frequently, we experience a lack of an intimate relationship with someone. Even worse for many people, relationships are only a “joking” relationship — they usually leave us very empty and not very satisfied.

In my opinion, developing a sense of intimacy and belonging is probably one of the most difficult aspects of widowhood, we not only have difficulty meeting the need on Maslow’s hierarchy for intimacy and belonging, but we also are unable to develop meaningful relationships for a wide variety of reasons.

There is a major difference in how men and women develop relationships. Men, it seems are often more able to develop meaningful relationships than women. That is usually ascribed to the fact that men “look for different things” in a relationship than women. In there search for identity in a relationship, men more often seek companionship, someone to do things “with” and someone with whom to partner.

Women, as more nurturing human beings, on the other hand want someone to take “care” of them. Women tend want a “wholeness” in their relationships. Women are also more selective about whom they want to develop a relationship.

Another factor in widowhood that can promote relationships is how close physically we are to someone (ie neighbors, live in the same city, etc). There is research to suggest that the closer we live to someone, the more likely we are to discover things about each other such as feelings, interests, and abilities. Individuals who live, work, or socialize together tend to have more interpersonal relationships. The closer together people are, the more they tend to “like each other”. People who like each other tend to share the same values in such areas as politics, money, and community.

So where are we going? And what makes widowhood an especially interesting opportunity to expand our horizons?

Even though Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that our deficiency needs are building blocks and that one builds upon the other, a self-actualized or transcendent individual does not lose that wisdom and ability of realizing one’s potential simply through widowhood. Widowhood may force us to re-evaluate certain needs and to find new ways to meet those needs.

As we re-define who we are in widowhood, we go through a process of learning to see ourselves as others see us. Our self-concept is derived from interactions with other human beings. Years ago there was a book written called “I’m OK, You’re OK”. The conclusion of the book is that we all think and respond to others based upon our perception of how other people perceive us. We measure ourselves and how we are doing in life using a set of goals and values that we have assimilated from those around us. The ultimate motivator for human adults is often seen as the need to maintain and develop one’s self-concept and one’s self-esteem. We do things which are consistent with how we see ourselves. We avoid things which are inconsistent with how we see ourselves. We strive to feel good about ourselves. And we avoid situations which must us feel bad about ourselves.

The process of searching for ourselves is life-long. As we have new experiences, feelings and impulses, we continually change our self-concept. In widowhood, we experience new challenges and feelings as well take on new relationships, new roles, new communities and new experiences. These experiences can be constructive and growth producing or they can be constrictive and limiting. We are all human beings trying to make sense of who we are and where we are in our environment.

Another thing to review in widowhood is our relationships, our needs and our goals. As we figure these out, we can then determine what types of groups we want to affiliate with in our new role as a widow.

Generally, we join groups that have clear objectives that are similar to our own. Our success with the group is usually determined by how well our goals complement those of the group.

Let’s take a look at some of our needs.

  1. Companionship – With a goal of friendship, the type of group we would select would be a friendship group. This may be neighbors, friends, dinner clubs, and social groups at church. These are people with whom we identify, whom we want to be close to and who we want to have fun being with when we are together. What happens here is we are meeting our need for belonging and love on Maslow’s hierarchy.
  2. Love and affection. Our goal here is sexual and emotional support. We are looking for a group that will provide us with the opportunity for marriage or family relationships. Our goal here may be to change from our status of widowhood back to married. We are also looking for someone with whom we can share our intimate feelings, our fears and our joys. We are willing to allow this person (or persons) to be very close to us. We are willing to take lots of risks. In this need, we are trying to meet the needs of belong and love on Maslow’s hierarchy.
  3. Achievement. Our goal here is recognition and promotion. We are looking for opportunities where we can be recognized for our knowledge and expertise. This recognition can come from our peers either though a work situation or through a leadership position in a volunteer organization. Rather than risk sharing our feelings, we are looking to use our skills. In this goal, we are looking a meeting the needs of belonging, as well as meeting some of our esteem needs on Maslow’s hierarchy.
  4. Knowledge. Our goal here is a diploma, a degree or an honor for work that has been done. The means to accomplish this goal is relatively simple. We join educational groups. These can be a local institutions of higher learning; church study groups; community education programs at senior centers,, hospitals or other institutions offering learning opportunities; the internet or discussion groups. Here we are simply looking to give meaning to an internal need. On Maslow’s hierarchy we are working on the cognitive and/or our esteem needs to be competent.
  5. Public Recognition. Our goal here is to be in an elected or appointed office. The easiest way to accomplish this goal is to affiliate with political groups. But we can accomplish this need in many ways in addition to politics. Many local churches, non-profit organizations, schools, and volunteer groups can provide us with the opportunity to be publicly recognized. We are looking to not only belong, but we are also looking to have our esteem needs met on Maslow’s hierarchy.
  6. Competition. Our goal here is to win. One of the best groups to join to meet this need is an athletic team. Athletes tend to have various types of competition be it skiing, bike riding, swimming, and more. Other types of competition that people enter are things like the Ms. Senior Colorado Pageant, piano recitals, and others. The need to achieve and be competent meets Maslow’s hierarchy need of esteem.
  7. Aggression. Our goal here is to defeat the enemy and to dominate the group. Probably the best group to join here is the military. For most of us in this group, this is probably not a very realistic option. However, there might be other groups that we could consider. For example, if we seriously were concerned about the environment, peace and justice, the death penalty, terrorism, abortion, and other types of social “goods”, we might join groups that were aggressively engaged in winning the majority to their “moral persuasion”. For example, I saw a number of older persons involved in the protest against terrorism on the steps of the State Capitol recently. When we join this type of group, we are looking to satisfy possibly a safety/security on Maslow’s hierarchy, as well as possibly, some esteem needs to gain approval and recognition.
  8. Altruism. Our goal here is the well being of others and helping the under-privileged. The types of groups we should join are social service groups and volunteer groups that work with a wide variety of issues such as kids, single women, elderly, and more. The opportunities to get involved in these types of groups are abundant. We are most likely trying to meet our needs of belonging and love on Maslow’s hierarchy when we join this type of group.

In widowhood, joining groups is one way to get our deficiency needs on Maslow’s hierarchy.

Maslow believes the only reason people cannot be self-actualized or move on to the top four levels is because of barriers placed upon them by society. He suggests that teaching and respect promotes personal growth. He believes that we can teach the following:

  • People can be taught to be aware of their inner-feeling voices
  • People can become world citizens and get beyond their own cultural upbringing
  • People can discover their vocation in life, their calling, their fate or their destiny. He believes this is especially true in finding the right career or right mate. I would also suggest this true in finding the right role in widowhood.
  • People can learn that life is precious, that joy is to be experienced in life. He believes that if people see joy and good in life, they will see life as worth living.
  • Individuals must learn to accept themselves and to learn there inner nature – listen and feel what is in your gut – Using a person’s skills and limitations, we can build upon an individual’s potentials.
  • The individual’s basic needs of safety, security, belonging and esteem are met.
  • People can be taught to appreciate beauty and other good things in nature and in living.
  • People need to understand that controls are good. It takes control to improve quality of life.
  • People need to learn to separate out the “things that are not important” from the “things that are serious problems in life”. They need to concentrate on the serious problems in life.
  • People can learn to make good choices. Often it takes practice. What this leads to is choosing between one god and another. Maslow goes on to suggest there is a link between the individual and religion or spirituality.

Achieving Maslow’s growth needs of the need to know and understand; aesthetics, self-actualization, and transcendence is a challenge for most of us. As human beings, we are constantly challenged by the power to experience meaning. The ability to experience “meaning” is interwoven by values, purposes, and understandings. Meaningful experience is of many kinds. There is no single quality that may be designated as the one essence of meaning. Meaning occurs at many different levels with many difference experiences for every individual.

This next section addresses six fundamental patterns of meaning based on human understanding. I frequently hear from people – life doesn’t have any meaning – life has lost all meaning — life is not worth living. In the last three weeks, I have had three people who have either threatened or attempted suicide. They experience an emptiness in their life – Emile Durkheim called it anomie. He suggested that without meaning, people had no purpose to live.

I think sometimes widowhood brings on some of these types of feelings for individuals. Individuals experience feels of emptiness, of loss of purpose, and worthlessness. In this next section, I would like to explore the many types of meaning that exist and help you to understand that “meaning” is what enables us to meet growth needs described by Maslow. Furthermore, as Maslow stated above, we can teach people personal growth.

The first pattern of meaning is symbols. Individuals experience meaning through language, mathematics and other symbols primarily experience this. Meaning is also experienced through gestures, rituals, rhythmic patterns such as dances and the lie. We have socially accepted rules and ways to express and communicate meaning. To a larger or smaller extent, everyone engages in this level of meaning to express ideas and communicate with other people and about other things. We all talk to each either verbally or though our body language. This meets Maslow’s fifth level of our need to know and understand.

The second pattern of meaning is empirical. Using science, we explore the physical world around us, other living things and man. We gather facts, theories, and generalizations. We try to explain our world of matter, life, mind and society. Using various rules of evidence and verification, we explain the world around us. We answer such questions as “why it rains, landing on the moon, linking the world with computers and many others”. This level also meets our need to know and understand on Maslow’s hierarchy.

The third pattern of meaning is esthetics. We express ourselves through art, music, dance and literature. We contemplate the significant ideas, themes, visions and other things in our environment. We either create these ourselves or we study and appreciate the work of others. We try to create order and to enjoy beauty using esthetics. This meets Maslow’s sixth level of need.

The fourth pattern of meaning is personal knowledge. The individual has a “direct awareness” or a “relational insight” . We often refer to this as “being able to see the big picture”. The person “gets it” in relation to themselves, to others and to things. This begins to meet Maslow’s seventh level of self-actualization. The individual is reaching a level of self-fulfillment and to realize one’s potential.

The fifth pattern of meaning is ethics. The individual has a moral obligation to do certain things. The individual subjectively understands. The individual makes a free, responsible, and deliberate decision to behave in a certain way. These levels of awareness of an individual begin to approximate Maslow’s description of self-actualization.

The last pattern of meaning is integration. The individual is able to combine history, religion, and philosophy in a meaningful way. The individual uses facts, the arts, and personal knowledge to create meaning. Religion provides the ultimate meaning and philosophy provides the basis for analysis, evaluation and synthesis to interpret all different types of meanings and their relationships. This last level which is achieved by very few of us is Maslow’s last level or transcendence.

In summary, the goal of life is to live each moment with freedom, honesty, and responsibility. By doing this we experience the joy and gratification of the task.

In widowhood we reach a level of wisdom — we learn that the uncertainty of time teaches us the most important lesson of all – that the ultimate criteria are the honesty, integrity, courage and love of a given moment of relatedness is the most important thing. The qualities of freedom, responsibility, courage, love and inner integrity are ideal qualities, never perfectly realized by anyone. They are only goals that we live by to bring order and meaning to our humanness.