When i exchanged wedding vows in a Surrey country house in 2011, among many emotions – excitement, love, contentment – was the platinum-clad knowledge that I would never have to date again.
Before I met my husband Rob, I had found dating mostly hard and unkind, and each encounter served to batter my notion of what love and romance should be. Rob contradicted all of my expectations: he was clever, funny, kind and thoughtful. He bought flowers ‘just because’ and made me soup when I was ill. I learned that a large part of love was kindness, but seeing the way he loved me also helped me love and believe in myself.
But nothing could have prepared me for what happened four years after we got married – Rob took his own life after a battle with depression and a secret heroin addiction. In the first few months of grief I could barely get from my flat to the office, let alone think about dating. I couldn’t fathom that we wouldn’t ever cook together again or talk about our day.
Seven months on, the grief loosened its hold on me slightly, meaning that I started to think about my future. Some people are so traumatised that they never date again, but I knew that’s not what Rob would have wanted for me. He would have wanted me to be happy, and as someone who had always believed in love, despite everything that had happened, I hadn’t given up on it. There was also a part of me that was secretly worried that I had been broken by his death. If I could get through a date with someone, maybe it meant that I could have a chance at a normal life.
But eight years after I had last been single, dating was a different landscape – and at 37 I was a different person. When your partner dies, it sometimes feels as if you’re operating from a pile of rubble. Everything is a mess, and you don’t know how to do it any more. ‘Do you think I should download Tinder?’ I asked my flatmate, who’d moved in with me shortly after Rob died. ‘Absolutely,’ she replied.
That small step felt like a big deal. To psyche myself up, I drank a lot of wine before pressing ‘download’. Within a few minutes I had matched with someone but instead of feeling excited I screamed, deleted the app and threw my phone across the room. ‘You know they can’t see you, right?’ observed my flatmate dryly. It was clear that while I might have been ready to think about dating, I wasn’t necessarily ready to actually date.
I knew I could hold it together at work, but I also knew the most random things could set me off, from meatballs in Leon – Rob used to make a version of them – to the dog food aisle in Sainsbury’s (because it reminded me of our dog, Daisy, who I’d put up for adoption after his death). I felt so out of control about my feelings, and the last thing I wanted was to spontaneously weep on a date.
I left it for a few months, but finally I felt brave enough to re-install the apps and arranged a date. I then discovered that crying was the least of my problems. As I sat opposite Jack*, a funny personal trainer who was, however, about 10 inches shorter than his profile picture, I casually mentioned that I’d been married and then stopped. I realised I had no idea how to explain my backstory. He assumed I was divorced; I let him.
I pretended I needed to get home after two drinks – and didn’t go on another date for six months. In part, it was because I didn’t have any resilience to deal with the complexity of dating, but also because I was still going through a heavy period of grieving and didn’t have the energy to deal with anything else beyond going through the basics of work, eat and sleep.
However, the date with Jack had taught me one thing: I didn’t feel a shred of guilt, or as if I was betraying Rob when I went on the date. But I knew that my body was in no way ready to get involved or do anything with another guy. I actually felt it almost stiffen and shut down as I sat opposite Jack. Although I desperately wanted to date because it would be a sign that I was healing, I also realised that it needed to happen in its own time.
Another six months down the line, it was summer. And I remember thinking a quiet and simple thought: I’m ready. I didn’t overthink it, I simply installed the app (again). Mainly because – TMI alert, folks – I really needed to have sex with someone.
I only told a couple of friends this because there’s a weird sexism about widows. It seems fine for a widower to move on sexually, but a widow somehow has to preserve herself in mourning or move on to a long-term relationship because it’s more dignified. I’d have male friends say to me, ‘When do you think you’ll next be in a long-term relationship,’ and I always wondered if they would’ve said the same thing to a guy.
The one good thing about my grief clearing was that I now knew exactly what I wanted and didn’t want from dating. I realised that although I wasn’t looking to replace Rob (no one could), he had left me with the biggest gift. The way he loved me restored my sense of self-esteem and set a baseline of decency I required in any given scenario, whether it was a casual a air or a relationship. at clarity gave me an enormous sense of empowerment.
I knew that I didn’t want a serious relationship, but I also knew I wanted guys who would get to the point. I didn’t mind dating men younger than me as I wasn’t looking for anything long-term (which shocked a couple of people but I quickly shut that down on the grounds that no one would ever say that to a man dating a younger woman). Dating apps were actually a good thing because it meant I could dip in and out as I wanted, and I didn’t have to go on some desperate bar crawl.
I didn’t care what job they had, although I did mainly date tall guys with broad shoulders, as that was my preference even before Rob – but I did care how they made me feel. And that ranged from something as simple as texting back to feeling like I could be myself while on the date.
My next date was with Tom*, who worked as an engineer, and I was attracted by the fact that he arranged a date, time and place pretty quickly. Although we had nothing in common, he was good- looking, and we had a great rapport and chatted for about six hours.
The next was with a man named Greg* in my local pub; he was 10 years younger than me and really funny. In each case, I worried about how to tell them about Rob, and my friends told me not to say anything unless it came up. But I found it more stressful to conceal it. In the end, the conversation with Greg happened at the end of the date. In the taxi on the way back to mine, I realised I’d have to explain Rob’s photo on the wall. So I told him as briefly as possible. ‘But honestly, it’s FINE and I’M FINE,’ I said. ‘Hang on,’ he replied dryly, ‘there isn’t some kind of shrine in there, is there?’ It made me laugh so much, it broke the tension.
Yes, dating is harder for me in a way because I’m juggling the love of a lost spouse and have to explain to people that I’m widowed – and risk freaking them out. But I’ve also realised that dating can be a huge source of fun and light relief – something it never was in my twenties. In the midst of all the darkness of losing Rob, regaining some of that lightness has been immense.
Although life looks a lot different than it did in my twenties, I no longer feel shackled to the idea of finding ‘the one’ that makes dating so desperate and intense. I’ve also been through way too much sadness to tolerate anyone behaving badly on a date, and the clarity that brings to any encounter – whether it’s a brief encounter or someone who I can see a future with – has been life-changing. I’m happy to casually date, but the door to the inner chamber of my heart has also opened a tiny crack to allow for the possibility of someone special to come through.