There has been a slow but discernible increase in sociological interest in the experience of widowhood in later life in the last three decades of the twentieth century, which has come about as a result of two major western world trends: demography and feminism. People are living longer, and as a result of a decrease in birth rates, the proportion of older people in the population is steadily increasing. For example, in the UK, the 2001 census data revealed that 48 percent of women compared to 17 percent of men over the age of 65 were widowed. Second wave feminism’s imperative has been to examine women’s experiences and circumstances, and to reflect on what societal norms and values inform meaning and self-conceptualization in relation to being female. Gradually now, feminism is addressing the issue of aging. The con junction of these two trends has seen the steady emergence, particularly in North America, of sociological study of widowhood as experienced by women (Lopata 1996).
However, minimal sociological attention has been paid to the lives of widowed men, primarily because of their relative invisibility, both numerically and in welfare distribution statistics. The research there has been on widowers has principally focused on the health outcomes and psychological disorientation caused by an unanticipated disjunction: a husband does not expect to predecease his wife. Nevertheless, the issue of ‘‘who suffers more,’’ widowers or widows, is shown to be contentious. Parkes and Weiss in their Recovery from Bereavement (1983), which looked at widows and widowers across all ages, revealed that both widowed men and women were found to have lower psychological well-being than their married counterparts. Health status and social networks were major predictors of psychological well-being. Among women, close female friends contributed more to psychological well-being than family contact, while among men, family contact was more important.
In the Netherlands, Stevens (1995) examined the well-being and living conditions of older widows and widowers in order to establish gender differences in adaptation to conjugal loss. Her results indicated that there were remarkable similarities in the reported well-being of the respondents. Availability of resources such as income, education, and freedom from limiting disability advantaged the widowers, but widows benefited from the support of close female friends and neighbors as well as adult children. Few significant differences were found in the reported personal relationship needs, although the relational patterns were different: the women tended to have more ‘‘emotionally intimate’’ female friends. The men were content with male friends for ‘‘sociability,’’ but also wished for a cross gender romantic relationship. The men, Stevens discovered, derived satisfaction from the presence of new partners or partner like relationships and tended to depend more on adult children than did the widows. She found that while widowed women were disadvantaged regarding income, education, and health resources, they reported similar life satisfaction to the widowed men. She concluded that this was because women had been socialized into greater flexibility and adaptability over the life course. This helped them with the major change brought about by widowhood and mediated the instrumental disadvantages.
Early research on spousal bereavement (almost exclusively for women) conceptualized widowhood as ‘‘role loss’’ and ‘‘role exit.’’ Bereavement was analyzed in terms of role change from wife to widow, which in turn considered a widow to be a ‘‘roleless wife,’’ who lacked any duties towards others in the social system. Widowhood was viewed as involuntary disengagement and as such the individual was thought to be rendered powerless. These disengagement theories have contributed to the literature which views widowhood as a totally negative state. The literature does not highlight whether this process is the same or different for widowers since the male identity is differently socially structured. The primary social role of a man is not husband and father, his sense of self identity is derived from his occupational status rather than his marital status.
The death of a spouse is a devastating experience for the vast majority of people, but the consequential adaptation from ‘‘we’’ to ‘‘I’’ is substantially different for men and women. Later sociological theory such as that explored by Anthony Giddens in Modernity and Self Identity (1994) permits us to reconceptualize loss in terms of ontological security, which takes into consideration adaptation as a process mediated by age, gender, culture, and social capital. In doing so, we can contextualize these older people’s experience within a life course perspective, the outcome of which is not always unrelentingly depressing. Indeed, some widows express a sense of liberation and personal development after the loss of their husband. The few studies carried out on widowers indicate that it is the loss of the person whose care allowed them independence, and the need to take on the role as self-carer, that requires psychological and social adjustment (Bennett et al. 2003). Men therefore rarely view widowhood as a time of freedom. Depending upon age, health, and financial status – that is, the younger, fitter, and richer they are – the more likely they are to seek cross gender companionship, with (preferably) or without sexual relations. Contrary to received wisdom, older widowers’ main motive for seeking a new partnership is not to have instrumental help from a housekeeper, but to assuage the loneliness they feel at the death of the most central person in their life. It is ironic that the men, socialized into independence and autonomy, seem to be less psychologically prepared to cope with aloneness.
- Bennett, K., Hughes, G., & Smith, P. (2003) ‘‘I think a woman can take it’’: Widowed Men’s Views and Experiences of Gender Differences in Bereavement. Ageing International 28: 408-24.
- Lopata, H. Z. (1996) Current Widowhood: Myths and Realities. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Stevens, N. (1995) Gender and Adaptation to Widowhood in Later Life. Ageing and Society 15: 37-58.