Getting on the dating scene and having sex with a new partner can feel daunting at the best of times. Doing it after your partner or spouse has died brings with it a whole new host of challenges. Not least the fact that sex and dating in widowhood is largely taboo in society.
A new survey however has found that 63% of people experience ‘Widow’s Fire’ a phenomenon that describes a strong desire for sex following a partner or spouse’s death.
The taboo of sex in widowhood
The survey, carried out on 500 people who had lost their life partners and who were sexually active in new relationships, was conducted by Chapter 2 – a dating app for widows and widowers to see what “sex, orgasms and pleasure looked like for them.”
Nicky Wake, relationship expert and founder of the app says: “Widows and widowers having sex seems to be a major taboo in our society – sexual bereavement is the grief nobody no one wants to talk about it, even though it happens – often.”
“At Chapter 2, we’re proud to support widows and widowers by openly discussing these issues. I hope we acknowledge how lonely life can feel after bereavement and show that it’s perfectly normal to crave physical comfort and attention after losing a partner. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
In fact, next month, Wake isHadMorHad19% launching a sister-app called WidowsFire which is ‘all about the physical’ with other widows and widowers and aims to offer a 'fun, flirty place to explore your natural urges'.
How long do people wait after the death of a partner?
The survey – itself called Widow’s Fire – found that the average widow or widower waited one year, three months and two weeks to have sex with a new partner. Over half (57%) said they have a higher sex drive than before they lost their partner, and nearly two-thirds (64%) felt they were more experimental in bed.
Jill Le Jeune, a psychosexual therapist with TherapyFinders explains why this might be: “Bereavement often follows a long period of anxiety, restriction and abstinence from sex."
The mixed feelings which accompany loss can include relief, freedom and liberation, combined with a significant amount of guilt, both personal and also reflected by family and friends.
“A strong desire for sex is not an uncommon response," continues Le Jeune, "and recognising that we are looking for a physical intimacy when we are not ready for an emotional commitment is healthy.
“Being able to fully submerge yourself in pleasurable physical sensation can be very grounding and is great mindful practice. It also sidesteps the judgment we fear from others as we start to move forward with our life.”
A new sense of sexual adventure
For many of the survey’s respondents, widowhood had brought with it not just a desire for sex, but a new adventurous mindset. Nearly half (52%) said they either had, or had considered experimenting with a gender different to their deceased spouse; over half (52%) said they had found a new 'kink' or 'fetish' and 53% said they were more open to exploring sexual relationships with younger or older partners.
“I am not at all surprised by the statistics,” says Le Jeune. “It’s very common for sex to become routine and dull with long-standing relationships, even if we love someone deeply. With new partners comes the opportunity to try different things and to be accepted. Just as our taste in food or music can change thorough life, so should our sexual repertoire.”
With regards to experimenting specifically with different genders of partner, she adds. “I think this reflects changing societal norms rather than anything specific to loss and grief. But sexual curiosity is always healthy and this [widowhood] is a place and new stage when we can experiment.”
A change in orgasm potential
Participants of the Widow’s Fire survey were asked about their experience of orgasm after bereavement. One in five people (19%) said they had more frequent orgasms with their new partners with a much higher percentage of men (26% as opposed to 12% of women) saying they now have better orgasms.
This is not surprising when you consider that “heterosexual women in any long-term relationships (not just widows) are the least likely to achieve orgasm,” says Le Jeune.
“Also, it’s important to add that bereavement affects people very differently. For some the experience will result in higher levels of empathy leading to greater connection (including sexual connection and therefore orgasm.) For others it results in a complete loss of libido, particularly if they are prescribed anti-depressants.”
Challenges of sex and dating after loss
Indeed, whilst the results of the survey on the whole reflected a positive experience of sex and dating after widowhood, it also looked at some of the difficulties with over one in five (22%) saying they found it difficult to relax with a new sexual partner and over one in six (17%) saying they felt like their new partner(s) didn't know how to please them.
"This is totally normal and understandable," explains Le Jeune: “Bereavement (and anxiety generally) can have a negative effect on libido, as can the loss of confidence around body issues: ageing, weight etc.”
“Plus, when we lose our partner we also lost our champion, the person who provided a lot of our affirmation about ourselves as a sexual partner.”
She adds that for men in particular, there might be anxiety around performance, “especially after a prolonged period of solo sex (masturbation) and if they have become used to using certain stimuli, e.g porn.”
“This is very common,” she adds.
The comfort of sex with an ex
Perhaps one of the most surprising things to come out of the survey was the fact that three out of five people had either already gone back to, or considered going back to an ex for sex after experiencing the death of their long-term partner.
Le Jeune explains how the ‘comfort’ or ‘tried and tested’ element of an ex might be the reason for this. Often, after bereavement, people crave a meaningful connection.
“But also a place where they can feel liberated and themselves” she says. “Where they’re not on display.” This is what an old flame could offer.
“Sex can be wonderful if it’s new and exciting. But sometimes that’s not what we are looking for. A bit like when our brain says 70% cocoa solids for the hit, but our heart says Dairy Milk.”
Family reactions can be tricky
Le Jeune goes on to acknowledge how it can often be difficult for family and friends to accept a new relationship: “Especially the children (no matter their age) because a parent is irreplaceable,” she says.
“Diplomacy is a valuable skill as new roles are carefully crafted. The speed (perceived or otherwise) is also a factor as loved ones are concerned for the welfare of the partner left behind.”
“For widows who have endured lengthy periods of illness (cancer etc) the period of loss and abstinence is likely to have started sometime during treatment i.e before death,” she adds.
“This can result in feeling ready for a sexual relationship earlier than family consider timely. Widows will find that some people are more accepting of their situation than others which can be a reflection of issues around the other person, so not always a bad thing.”
Coping with loss
Her advice for people embarking on new intimate relationships after bereavement?
“Self-awareness is most important, it takes time to process loss and embrace change. Be honest with yourself when thinking about what you are looking for right now, as it may change as our feelings become more settled.”