This week's assessment comes from Alice. She's writing a romance and wants some psychological insight into her backstories for her hero and heroine. Hero married young, then lost his wife and baby daughter. He's determined to never love again because he doesn't want to risk the pain. So he shuns emotional attachment.
Alice wants to know: Is it credible that a man who has lost his family would really date someone very young and fun to distract himself from his grief? Is it likely that a young woman who longed for a traditional home and family would choose a fast-paced adventurous lifestyle instead of a more conventional one that would give her a better chance of finding a man who was ready to settle down and have a family?
Alice, both your characters are experiencing reaction formation (which should sound familiar to you). I did a post here on this defense mechanism. Your heroine is displaying a very classic sense of this, while the hero's might be a bit harder to nail down, but I have a feeling his scenario will fit as well.
For those who don't want to read my other post, here's reaction formation in a nutshell:
Reaction Formation is when a person converts unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or anxiety-producing into their opposites. A person could behave in a completely opposite way of how they really want or feel (i.e. a woman fakes indifference to men and gives off an independent vibe when all she really wants is to be loved and cherished). A person could also believe the opposite of something simply because the true belief causes anxiety (i.e. a man believes that all women are gold diggers because to believe only his ex-fiance was is too painful).
Grease. Rizzo was tough on the outside, acted like she didn't care what people thought of her. She played loose and easy because it was better than admitting she really just wanted love like anybody else. Your gal is not wanting to admit that her deepest desire is to have a husband and the requisite 2.5 children. For some reason (which is what you have to figure out), to do this would bring her tremendous anxiety.
So she goes into this adventuresome career and on the outside, ostensibly loves it, thrives on it. But she's empty on the inside, because she does want love so badly, and traveling the world over is hardly conducive to this. Getting a nice, steady job as a librarian or journalism teacher at the high school would be better suited, but that would come at a price to her.
So why wouldn't your heroine want people to know her deepest desire? You mentioned that maybe she was living someone else's dream in order to go into that field. That might answer why she chose that particular field, but it doesn't answer why she doesn't want her inner motivation known. It probably has something to do with fear. Fear of looking weak, fear of not measuring up, fear of making the same mistakes her mother did. I'm afraid I can't help anymore with this, as it's your story, but hopefully that'll get you on the right road with her.
On to Hero. I had to laugh a bit at your question, but I meant you no disrespect. Almost every divorced guy I know has always moved on with someone younger, whether that was the reason for the divorce or if it happened later. Your guy isn't divorced, but widowed, which makes a difference, sure. However, you asked if it was credible for a man to date someone young to distract him from his grief. And I answer that with a RESOUNDING YES.
Why? Because it's credible that a person would do almost anything to distract themselves from grief. I did a ton of posts on grieving and the types of grief here. I'd read through them and figure out which kind he has.
I wouldn't worry about establishing a pattern of this type of behavior for him. She could be his first or his fifth. The first does bring with it some additional challenges...so maybe make her number 2. I don't think a reader would want him to appear like a womanizer or opportunist, so I'd be careful how you introduce this particular backstory. How old is the guy? It might be that he just connected with the Heroine somehow (through your external story skeleton), and since she was quite a bit younger than him, he didn't think his heart was in danger of any attachment. I'd be curious about this tidbit.
You did ask what would be a credible time to reintroduce him to the dating game. I wrote a post here on my general rule of thumb about waiting to move on: two years. I think anything less than that could come across as tacky to your readers, and you wouldn't want to ostracize anyone. I've also read in research that 2 years for the death of a spouse is about the average time it takes for the survivor to feel normal and ready to move on.
There you go, Alice. Hope this assessment has been as helpful as the last one I did for you! Thanks for writing in again!
And to you other writers out there...the queue is LOW, so now's a good time to write in!