I’M LISTENING, STOP LOOKING AT ME: The Grumpy Introvert’s Advice on Finding Love After Loss

My dearest Ms. Grumpy,

I’m 49, a mostly introverted widower and father of four semi-wonderful kids. I was in a very long-term relationship with my spouse. Things were awesome. Other than the day-to-day stresses, we didn’t have a care in the world. Then, quite suddenly two years ago, the love of my life died.

Honestly, I’m lonely for a companion in my life, but I also feel like I’m somehow cheating on the love of my life. There are other considerations to think about as well: four kids, the in-laws, my parents, retirement, money that has been set aside for my children, etc. My problem is I want to do the right thing for everyone, and I’m not quite sure if I’m ready for a “compromise situation.” I’ve been on a couple of dates, but so far I’m not feeling it.

So here’s my problem: How do I say “it’s not you, it’s me,” when it really is me, and not just a line? I really do not want to hurt someone’s feelings because of how I feel about our future compatibility. How do I break it to her gently?

Your opinion really matters,

Wondering Widower

Dear WW,

I am deeply sorry about your profound loss. No one recovers easily from that kind of overwhelming grief. I think introverts have a particularly painful time after the loss of a beloved life partner. That’s not the kind of relationship one can re-create overnight (or would want to) with a few swipe-rights on Tinder; it’s just harder for us to open ourselves up to that kind of vulnerability. No wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of seeking out a new companion.

Know this, my friend: Two years is not a very long time at all when it comes to processing the sudden death of your best friend, spouse, lover, co-parent, and all-around go-to person. In fact, you’re perhaps at even more of a disadvantage because you had something so very wonderful and rare: “love of my life” is an extraordinary turn of phrase that few on this planet ever have occasion to use.

So let’s get a few things straight, WW: You might not be ready for this dating thing yet. Yes, I heard you. You’re lonely. To that, I say: OF COURSE, YOU ARE. This might not be the answer you want to hear, but your valiant mind might just be protecting your wounded heart right now by coming up with all sorts of busy thoughts (am I cheating on the love of my life? will a new love move in on my retirement savings? will my in-laws be devastated if I move on? how will the kids fare? am I settling? will I break someone’s heart?)—all to keep you from sailing into the dangerous currents of dating too far too soon.

For starters: It’s completely valid to tell a date you’re just not feeling a love connection. It’s okay to say, “I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I’m sorry.” Will she be happy to hear it? Likely not, because you sound like a great guy. But that’s just the nature of dating, even without the spectre of heartache and grief that you must contend with. Mutual connection and real chemistry don’t come along often, and you’re not to blame just because your truth is not what someone else is hoping to hear. I can sense from your words that you are a good soul, conscientious and kind. I’m guessing, you’re already a pro at saying difficult things in the most tactful way possible, so don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t chastise yourself for any (thus far) false starts in romance. It’s all part of the process. And if friends and family are nudging you to date again, tell those well-meaning folks that it’s going to take time. End of story.

Your question was presumably about how to let someone down gently. But I think the unspoken question is, perhaps, Will I ever be ready for this love crap again? And here’s what I think about that: Yes. I think you will, WW, because you sound to me like a soul who knows how to love, knows how to be present for numerous loved ones, knows how to be responsible and caring and committed and kind. Are you ready right now? I think if you were, you’d be less concerned about everyone else’s feelings and all the circumstantial details (it’s unlikely a new flame will bust into your retirement fund or pillage your children’s inheritances, for the record). I think when you are ready, the eagerness for and excitement about a potential new companion will outweigh your all-around misgivings. Most importantly, your sense of “cheating” on your beloved lost soulmate will ease. The feeling may never completely leave you—this nagging guilt—but in time, it may cease to tug at your still-battered heart in the same way.

You’re not free of the past yet, and who would want to be? What a gorgeous, rich relationship you had, WW. It’s okay to sit with this profound loneliness a little longer. It doesn’t feel good, I know that, but it may be serving an important purpose in your life that you can’t see yet. Trust the discomfort for now. Trust that all that noise in your brain over the prospect of dating-and-not-connecting is healthy noise, there to protect you from rushing in before you realize you’re not ready.

And when you are ready? The noise in your head will drop from jet-engine levels to cocktail-party hum—quiet enough for you to hear your heart finally, finally saying yes, maybe now, maybe this person, maybe again.