Alma still feels the loss of her husband, Chuck. “There are lots of times when I feel him around. We were together for so long that you take it for granted that your husband is just there. And there are times when I just don’t want to go on without him. But I suppose I’ll get through it"

Traditional marriage vows proclaim that the union will last “’til death do us part." Like Alma and Chuck, virtually all older married couples will see their marriages end because one partner dies. For most people, the death of a partner follows a period of caregiving (Martin-Matthews, 1999) and is one of the most traumatic events they will ever
experience (Miller, Smerglia, & Bouchet, 2004). Although widowhood may occur at any age, it is much more likely to occur in old age—and to women (Martin-Matthews, 1999). More than half of all women over age 65 are widows, but only 15% of men the same age are widowers. The reasons for this discrepancy are related to biological and social forces. As we will see in Chapter 4, women have longer life expectancies. Also, women typically marry men older than themselves. Consequently, the average married woman can expect to live 10 to 12 years as a widow.

The impact of widowhood goes well beyond the ending of a long-term partnership (Martin – Matthews, 1999; Miller et al., 2004). Widowed peo­ple may be left alone by family and friends who do not know how to deal with a bereaved person. As a result, widows and widowers may lose not only a partner but also those friends and family who feel uncomfortable including a single person rather than a couple in social functions (Felber, 2000). Because women tend to have more friends than men and keep stronger family ties, widows typically get more help than widowers from siblings and friends (Barrett & Lynch, 1999; Martin-Matthews, 2000). But feelings of loss do not dissipate quickly, as the case of Alma shows clearly. As we will see in Chapter 16, feeling sad on important dates is a common experience, even many years after a loved one has died.

Men and women react differently to widowhood. In general, those who were most dependent on their partners during the marriage report the highest increase in self-esteem in widowhood because they have learned to do the tasks formerly done by their partners (Carr, 2004). Widowers are at higher risk of dying themselves soon after their partner, either by suicide or natural causes (Osgood, 1992), and are at higher risk for depression (Lee et al., 2001). Some people believe that the loss of a wife presents a more serious problem for a man than the loss of a husband for a woman. Perhaps this is because a wife is often a man’s only close friend and confidant, or because men are usually unprepared to live out their lives alone (Martin-Matthews, 1999). Older men are often ill equipped to handle such routine and necessary tasks as cooking, shopping, and keeping
house, and they become emotionally isolated from family members.

Although both widows and widowers suffer financial loss, widows often suffer more because survivor’s benefits are usually only half of their hus­band’s pensions (Felber, 2000; Martin-Matthews,

1999) . For many women, widowhood results in dif­ficult financial circumstances, particularly regard­ing medical expenses (McGarry & Schoeni, 2005).

An important factor to keep in mind about gen­der differences in widowhood is that men are usu­ally older than women when they are widowed. To some extent, the difficulties reported by widowers may be partly due to this age difference. Regardless of age, men have a clear advantage over women in the opportunity to form new heterosexual relation­ships, as there are fewer social restrictions on rela­tionships between older men and younger women (Matthews, 1996). However, older widowers are actually less likely to form new, close friendships than are widows. Perhaps this is simply a continu­ation of men’s lifelong tendency to have few close friendships.

For many reasons, including the need for com­panionship and financial security, some widowed people cohabit or remarry (de Jong Gierveld, 2004). Widowers are about five times more likely than widows to remarry (Lee, Willetts, & Seccombe,

1998) . However, remarriage after being widowed is still less likely than after divorce (Connidis, 2001). This is probably because there are objective limita­tions (decreased mobility, poorer health, poorer finances), absence of incentives common to younger ages (desire for children), and social pressures to protect one’s estate (Talbott, 1998).

Concept Checks

1. What are the two most difficult issues for single people?

2. What are the major reasons that people cohabit?

3. What characterizes gay and lesbian couples?

4. How does marital satisfaction change across the length of the marriage?

5. What are the main reasons people get divorced and remarried?

6. What do widows and widowers experience?