Widowhood

 

Marriages that do not end in divorce eventually dissolve through the death of a spouse. The stress of bereavement derives largely from the disorganization caused by the loss of the deceased from the social support system of the survivor. The death of a marital partner requires the development of alternative patterns of behavior so that the survivor can maintain satisfactory relations with the family, the kin group, and the community and sustain his or her personal equilibrium. Families exhibit considerable diversity in their attempts to accomplish these transitions. The difficult and sometimes devastating transition to widowhood or widower hood necessitates a reintegration of roles suitable to a new status. If children are present, parental death precipitates a reorganization of the family as a social system. Roles and status positions must be shifted, values reoriented, and personal and family time restructured. The potential for role strains and interpersonal conflicts become evident as relationships are lost, added, or redefined (Pitcher and Larson 1989). Loneliness becomes a major problem. In many modern societies, this adaptive process proceeds with few or no guidelines because the widowed person tends to be ‘‘role less,’’ lacking clear norms or prescriptions for behavior (Hiltz 1979).

Widowhood across Cultures

Human behaviors generally are guided by the dominant prescriptions and proscriptions embedded in particular societies, and this is reflected in wide cross-cultural variations among those who have lost a spouse through death (Lopata 1996). For example, the situation of Hindu widows in India has undergone numerous changes, ranging from extremely harsh treatment in the past to slow but steady improvement in the modern era. The custom of suttee—the wife’s self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre—has long been outlawed but periodically reappears, especially in rural areas. Even today, widows in that highly patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal society experience isolation and a loss of status. Their remarriage rate is very low. Widows often face a difficult life that is influenced by vestiges of patriarchal and religious dogma and exacerbated by economic problems that force them to become dependent on sons, in-laws, and others. Widowers, by contrast, are encouraged to remarry soon and add progeny to the patriarchal line. Israel is another place where the society and religion are strongly patriarchal and women lose status in widowhood. Jewish mourning rituals ‘‘tend to isolate the widow and tie her to the past rather than providing means of creating a new life’’ (Lopata 1996). Moreover, women who lose husbands through civilian causes of death encounter greater difficulties than do those whose husbands are killed in the military. War widows and their families receive preferential treatment through government policies that give them special recognition, numerous benefits, and many more alternatives for improving their status and prestige than is possible in more traditional societies. Remarriage, for example, is is a much more acceptable alternative for women in Israel than it is in India.

All societies are undergoing various degrees of transition. Korea is a society whose transitional problems are dramatically reflected in the situation of widows. Earlier in Korean history, widowhood resulted in a loss of status and remarriage generally was prohibited. Husbands tended to be much older than their wives and to have a higher mortality rate, and a large number were killed in wars. Moreover, widowers remarried, whereas most widows remained single. All these factors contributed to a widening ratio of widows to widowers over the years. Under the impact of modernization, including increased urbanization and industrialization, Korean society is being transformed, and with it the conditions surrounding the status of widowhood. This transformation includes a shift from authoritarian societal and familial system in a primarily rural environment toward systems based on more equalitarian norms. Widows began to move to the cities, and this had advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, they could accompany their sons and take advantage of urban services and the possibility of new friendships. On the other hand, the move removed them from their extended families and neighborhood friends and the communal supports in their rural villages. Living with a son in the city often strained the daughter-in-law relationship. In addition, being distanced from the relatively stable and integrated life of their villages and lacking friendship networks in their new environment often left them vulnerable to loneliness, especially in the case of the elderly widowed. Presumably, succeeding generations with greater personal resources will encounter fewer adaptational requirements.

While survivors face certain common problems and role strains both within and outside the immediate family, it is difficult to specify a normative course of adjustment. This is the case because the widowed are a heterogeneous group characterized by wide differences in social and psychological characteristics. It also is due to the fact that spousal loss evokes a panorama of emotional and behavioral responses from the survivors, depending on factors such as the timing and circumstances of the spouse’s death. For example, a wife whose husband was killed in a military battle will respond differently than she would if he had committed suicide or suffered a long terminal illness. Many other antecedent conditions, such as the quality of the marital relationship, affect the bereavement reactions and coping strategies of survivors.

The Demographics of Widowhood

Census data for the United States show that at the end of the 1990s there were more than 13.5 million widowed persons, 85 percent of whom were women. However, people in the widowed category may leave it through remarriage. Hence, the number of people who have ever experienced spousal loss is much greater than is indicated by these data.

For some decades, the widowed female has outnumbered her male counterpart by an ever widening margin. Three factors account for this: (1) Mortality among females is lower than it is among males, and therefore, greater numbers of women survive to advanced years, (2) wives are typically younger than their husbands and consequently have a greater probability of outliving them, and (3) among the widowed, remarriage rates are significantly lower for women than for men. Other factors that contribute to the preponderance of widows include war, depressions, and disease pandemics.

For several reasons, widowhood has become largely a problem of aged women. Each year in the United States, deaths of spouses create nearly a million new widows and widowers. Among people 65 years of age or over, roughly half the women compared with about 14 percent of the men are widowed. (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1997). Advances in medical technology and the pervasiveness health programs have extended life expectancy. The probability of mortality before middle age has decreased, and for the most part widowhood has been postponed to the later stages of the life cycle. Gains in longevity have been more rapid for women than for men. Thus, the growing proportion of elderly females accents their higher rates of widowhood. About one-fourth of all married women will become widows by age 65, and one-half of the remaining women will be widowed by age 75. During that age span, only one-fifth of men will lose their wives. It is projected that the ratio of widows to widowers will increase dramatically from nearly six to one currently to ten to one over the next quarter century.

Because the large majority of the widowed are women, most studies have concentrated on them, while the social consequences for men who lose their spouses has remained a comparatively unexplored area since Berardo (1970) called attention to this gap three decades ago. Widowers, although fewer in number, face many of the same adjustments that confront their female counterparts. At the same time, there is ambiguous evidence that suggests that widowers have greater vulnerability compared to their female counterparts, while other studies present the situation of widows as more problematic. This disagreement in findings results in part from the failure of many studies to control for the confounding influences of factors such as age, social class, income, health, and retirement.

Research Findings on Widowhood

In making the transition from marriage to widowedhood, the bereaved often are confronted with a variety of personal and familial problems and are not always successful in adapting to those circumstances. This is reflected in the findings that compared with married persons, the widowed consistently have higher rates of mortality, mental disorders, and suicide (Balkwell 1981; Smith et al. 1988). While there is a consensus that bereavement is stressful, research on its effects on physical health has yielded inconsistent results. The evidence shows that the widowed experience poorer health than do the married, but the reasons for this difference are unclear.

Because widowhood is most likely to occur in the elderly, research has focused on that population. However, there is some evidence that the transition to widowhood varies by developmental stage. Older widows adapt more readily because losing a spouse at an advanced age is more the norm, making acceptance of the loss easier than it is for those who are young when widowed. Grieving over the death of a husband or wife at older ages can be exacerbated if additional significant others also die, requiring multiple grieving. This can cause bereavement overload, which makes it difficult for the survivor to complete the grief work and bring closure to the bereavement process (Berardo 1988). There is a consensus that the distress associated with conjugal bereavement diminishes over time. Grief becomes less intense as the years pass, but this is not a simple, linear process. The emotional and psychological traumas of grief and mourning may recur sporadically long after a spouse has died.

Gender differences in adaptation to widowhood have been widely debated. The evidence suggests a somewhat greater vulnerability for widowers (Stroebe and Stroebe 1983). Men are less likely to have same-sex widowed friends, are more likely to be older and less healthy, have fewer family and social ties, and experience greater difficulty in becoming proficient in domestic roles (Berardo 1968, 1970). Higher mortality and suicide rates also suggest greater distress among widowers.

Continuous widowhood has been associated with a loss of income and an increased risk of poverty. Two-fifths of widows fall into poverty at some time during the five years after the death of their husbands. Female survivors, for example, have dramatically higher proportions in poverty than do their divorced counterparts, although both groups experience economic risk resulting from the ending of their marriages that may impede their and their families’ adjustment to a new lifestyle (Morgan 1989). There is some evidence that widowers also suffer a decline in economic wellbeing, although to a lesser degree than do their female counterparts (Zick and Smith 1988). Poor adjustment to widowhood thus may be related to a lack of finances. Elderly individuals often have below-average incomes before the death of a spouse. They may be unwilling or unable to seek employment and are likely to face discrimination in the labor market (Morgan 1989). The younger widowed are more likely to have lost a spouse suddenly and therefore may be unprepared to cope with a lower financial status.

Life insurance has become a principal defense against the insecurity and risk of widowhood in urban industrial society with its nuclear family system. It is a concrete form of security that may help a bereaved family avoid an embarrassing dependence on relatives and the state in the case of an untimely death. However, the amount of insurance obtained is often insufficient to meet the needs of the survivors. Even in instances in which adequate assets have been accumulated, many surviving wives are not prepared to handle the economic responsibilities brought about by a husband’s death (Nye and Berardo 1973). Presumably, in the future, a better educated and occupationally experienced population of widows, especially those who were involved in a more equalitarian marital relationship of shared responsibilities, will be better able to cope with their new single status.

Widowhood often leads to changes in living arrangements. Reduced income may force surviving spouses to seek more affordable housing. They also may choose to relocate for other reasons, such as future financial and health concerns, a desire to divest themselves of possessions, and a desire to be near relatives or friends (Hartwigsen 1987). Most often, survivors living alone are women, usually elderly widows. Isolation and lack of social support can lead to deterioration in their physical and mental well-being. Compared with elderly couples, they are much more likely to live in poverty and less likely to receive medical care when it is needed (Kasper 1988).

Widowhood and Divorce

Similarities and Differences

Early epidemiological analyses suggested that more deleterious effects were associated with separation and divorce than with widowhood. However, later surveys found higher levels of physical and psychological distress among the widowed than among the divorced. (Kitson et al. 1989). These contradictory findings have not been reconciled. However, for many decades, researchers also have perceived a number of similarities in adjustment between the two groups. For both, there are accompanying disruptions in lifestyle related to changes in income, social interactions, definitions of self, lost emotional attachment, and general psychological wellbeing. For example, similarities in adjustment have been noted with respect to mode of death or cause of divorce, including the amount of prior warning or preparation a person has before either event, the degree of responsibility felt, and the cause of the event. The more unexpected the loss is, the more responsibility one feels for the loss and wonders whether he or she could have prevented it or helped the spouse and the more difficult the adjustment is.

Another similarity is that whether a spouse is lost through divorce or widowhood, the length of time for adjustment shows considerable variability. The degree of emotional attachment affects the degree of anxiety and depression associated with the loss of a partner, and in both cases the attachment declines as time passes. Emotional attachment is a normal outcome of the tendency for people to form strong affectional bonds to significant others and is not pathological. However, the accumulative changes that occur with the loss of a partner make those who are divorced or widowed more vulnerable to psychological and physical illness, suicide, accidents, and death. While most partners return to their former level of functioning within a couple of years after the loss of a spouse, some never recover and continue to have poor levels of functioning.

There are also specific factors that make adjustment in widowhood or divorce more difficult, including age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Adjustment to the loss of a spouse in either case appears to be more difficult for younger women. Some analysts argue that age is a confounding factor because younger women are more studied as divorcees and older women more studied as widows and because divorce is more common among the young and widowhood more common among the old. The latter factor means that one’s adjustment is somewhat dependent on those who have gone before and can help socialize a person to the new role. However, more recent research suggests that younger women still face more adjustment problems (Kitson et al. 1989; Gove and Shin 1989). Analyses suggest that the young and the old bereaved differ in both the intensity of grief and patterns of grief reactions, especially with respect to adverse health and psychological outcomes within the first two years after the demise of a husband (Sanders 1988). It appears that younger widows experience a different adjustment than do older widows, in part because they have fewer cohort friends who are also widows.

Younger survivors are developmentally ‘‘out of sync’’ with their cohorts, and this exacerbates their sense of loneliness and need for companionship (Levinson 1997) Their expectations may be different because they have more years ahead and more potentially eligible marital partners in the future than do older widows. Blacks appear to have an easier time adjusting to the loss of a spouse through divorce than do whites, and black females, who may receive more familial support than whites do, appear to adjust more easily than do white females. Finally, income and financial security play a major role in adjustment: Those near poverty have the most difficult time coping with the loss of a spouse. Female survivors have more problems coping with the loss of income than do their male counterparts, often because their incomes are tied to health insurance, retirement, and other benefits that accompanied the husband’s occupation. Men have more difficulty than do women handling the household chores that were often the responsibility of their wives. Future male cohorts may have less difficulty with this because of changes in the socialization of male children and the rising age at first marriage, and the fact that young men have to cope with household responsibilities on their own before marriage.

Widowhood and Remarriage

The probability of remarriage is significantly lower for widows than for widowers, especially at the older ages. It appears that while a large majority of older widows remain attracted to and interested in men in terms of companionship, for a variety of reasons only a small minority report a favorable attitude toward remarriage (Talbott 1998). Some may feel they are committing psychological bigamy and therefore reject remarriage as an option (DiGiulio 1989). There is also a tendency to idealize the former partner, a process known as sanctification (Lopata 1979). This makes it difficult for widows to find a new partner who can compare favorably with the idealized image of the deceased (Berardo 1982). Widows also remarry less frequently than do widowers because of the lack of eligible men and the existence of cultural norms that degrade the sexuality of older women and discourage them from selecting younger mates. Many women manage to develop and value a new and independent identity after being widowed, leading them to be less interested in reentering the marriage market. There are other barriers to remarriage for the widowed. Dependent children limit the opportunities of their widowed parents to meet potential mates or develop relationships with them. Older children may oppose remarriage out of concern for their inheritance. Widowed persons who cared for a dependent spouse through a lengthy terminal illness may be unwilling to risk bearing that burden again.

Widowhood and Mortality

The increased risk of mortality for widowed persons has been widely reported. Men are at a greater risk than women after bereavement. The causes of these differences are unknown. Marital selection theory posits that healthy widowers remarry quickly, leaving a less healthy subset that experiences premature mortality. Other factors, such as common infection, shared environment, and lack of adequate daily care, also may influence the higher mortality rates of the widowed.

Studies of whether anticipatory grief or forewarning of the pending death of a spouse contributes to adjustment to bereavement have yielded conflicting results (Roach and Kitson 1989). Some suggest that anticipation is important because it allows the survivor to begin the process of role redefinition before the death, whereas unanticipated death produces more severe grief reactions. Survivors who have experienced unexpected deaths of their spouses report more somatic problems and longer adjustment periods than do those who anticipated the loss. Anticipatory role rehearsal does not consistently produce smoother or more positive adjustment among the bereaved. It appears that the coping strategies employed by survivors vary with the timing and mode of death, which in turn influence the bereavement outcome.

Social Support and Reintegration

It has been suggested that social support plays an important role in the bereavement outcome and acts as a buffer for stressful life events, but the research is somewhat inconclusive, partly as a result of difficulties identifying those support efforts which produce positive outcomes and those which do not and the fact that support needs change over time. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the extent to which members of the social network provide various types of support to the bereaved is important in the pattern of recovery and adaptation (Vachon and Stanley 1988). Available confidants and access to self-help groups to assist with emotional management can help counter loneliness and promote a survivor’s reintegration into society. The social resources of finances and education have been found to be particularly influential in countering the stresses associated with the death of a spouse. Community programs that provide education, counseling, and financial services can facilitate the efforts of the widowed and their families to restructure their lives.

For many older widows, a substantial period of future living alone remains: on average, another fourteen years or more. Borrowing from occupational career models, some researchers have suggested that adopting a ‘‘career of widowhood’’ orientation may facilitate the recovery and well being of these survivors: ‘‘That is, for most persons, widowhood need not be considered the end of productive life, but rather the beginning of a major segment of the life course, and one that should be pursued vigorously in order for it to be successful and fulfilling’’ (Hansson and Remondet 1988). In this perspective, the widowed are encouraged to seek control over their existence by actively construing their own life courses. The assumption is that they will adapt better if they plan for where they want to be at different potential stages during the entire course of widowhood. This plan might include the following phases: ‘‘a time for emotional recovery; a time for taking stock, reestablishing or restructuring support relationships, and formulating personal directions for the future; a time for discovering a comfortable and satisfying independent lifestyle, and for determining an approach to maintaining economic, psychological, and social functioning; perhaps a time for personal growth and change; and a time for reasoned consideration of one’s last years and assertion of a degree of control over the arrangements surrounding one’s own decline and death.’’

There is considerable heterogeneity among the survivor population and thus in their ability to implement a successful ‘‘career in widowhood.’’ They differ, for example, in relational competence, that is, characteristics that help them acquire, develop, and maintain personal relationships that are essential for social support (Hansson and Remondet 1988). Establishing a new and satisfying autonomous identity after the loss of a spouse is never easy. The probability of achieving that goal can, however, be enhanced through counseling strategies designed for individual circumstances and programs that help survivors avoid desolation coupled with meaningful social and familial support systems.

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This Aricle was Written by
FELIX M. BERARDO
DONNA H. BERARDO

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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