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Do We Really Need to Ask? Part 2

01 August


Deb’s post about whether there’s a need to ask gender on screening questionnaires made me recall a conversation she and I had about a different survey. Deb and I have been colleagues and friends for years now, so I felt comfortable asking her why she worded one of the questions this way:

What is your current marital status?

  • Married/living with partner
  • Single (not yet married/never married)
  • Divorced or separated
  • Widowed
  • Other _____________________

​I don’t like the label “widow”, maybe because it was forced on me after the death of my husband in 2013. I asked her why it was relevant for this survey. After almost 3 years, I consider myself single, a single parent. But obviously “not yet married/never married” does not apply to me.

It still feels strange, after years of confidently checking the “married” box on surveys and questionnaires, to have my circumstances staring me in the face.

According to, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 800,000 people are widowed each year in the United States. There are a total of 13.6 million widowed people in the U.S.; over 11 million of them are women.

I spoke to a few widowed friends about the widow label, and how they prefer to identify.

“I hate the idea that I am a widow,” says M. “I have trouble thinking of myself that way. It brings back tears and the remembrance of the trauma of (my late husband’s) last hours. It makes me feel that it immediately labels me as ‘old’.”

G. said, “When the first tax returns needed to be filled out after I became a widow I was shocked and dismayed to see no ‘widow’ box to check. I wasn’t married but I certainly didn’t feel ‘single’ after 45 years of marriage. But that’s what I was and still am to the IRS. It still feels strange to check the ‘single’ box, even after almost 3 years.”

“The label ‘widow’ still makes me either sad or slightly pissed off,” says Vivian. “It’s hard to understand why requests for this difference are even included in most forms/questionnaires. However, it strikes me that we are indeed in a very singular category (so) I don’t really mind when somebody asks me outright.”

My friend Lara, who lost her husband earlier this year said, “I just had to answer this question for the first time on a form – and at this stage I feel more comfortable ‘widowed’ than ‘single’ – but both are so…weird. And it’s a very good question to ask why it matters. Maybe… ‘It’s Complicated’.”

Ronda’s sentiments were closer to mine when she asked, “I am the same person through (all) the stages of my life so why should my marital status matter for someone’s research?”

M. found new love after widowhood, but said, “In spite of our union, I am still very conscious of having lost a great love. I still grieve for my former lifestyle of adventure and find it hard to accept that now is a new chapter in life. I am still stung by the word: widow.”

Deb and I had a good conversation about whether or not she even needs labels like this in most of her qualitative research. She allowed that unless the client was looking for feedback on a wedding service or a financial planning product, that perhaps marital status was irrelevant. She added that in qualitative research it is important to know if a potential respondent is living in a dual-income or single-income household because the income thresholds vary accordingly. Quantitative research is a whole other ballgame because sample sizes are large enough to parse sub-groups by these demographic variables and look for meaningful differences. But even in that instance, it’s hard to imagine that in a survey about cheese preferences that whether a person is widowed or not could have any bearing on what type of cheese they liked best. Maybe Wallace and Gromit would feel differently.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your experience in the comments, or drop us a line with your thoughts.

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