Tomorrow morning I submit my divorce papers to the court with my husband. If I could have anything I wish, I wouldn’t be doing this. We’d both be going to counseling and giving it our very best to save our marriage. But he didn’t want to, so we are going to be divorced.
We don’t have kids, so it’s made things easier. We’re not fighting about possessions or money. We’re just walking away after 15 years of marriage.
We’ve been separated for nearly two years, and I’ve been going to counseling all along. He hasn’t. I’ve changed, he hasn’t. I still love him. I don’t know if he ever really loved me. I’ve come to accept it, thanks to antidepressants and the love of my many good friends and family — cousins, who live in a nearby country and whom I see a couple of times a year. I love my husband’s big family like my own, and I’ve done everything to remain close to them. I know they love me and I will continue to see many of them and my nieces and nephews. I would simply die if I thought I couldn’t have them in my life anymore. I love them so much. So, it sounds like I’m doing fine all things considered, doesn’t it?
Here’s the complication: I met a man, about a year after I was separated. We became friends, then we became lovers. He is fiercely in love with me. I don’t love him. He knows that I don’t feel the same way about him. But he is dear to me. He is always there for me. I know I will never love him like he loves me. I worry that I might be using him, due to my somewhat fragile condition.
I have set boundaries. He respects them. I feel free to date other men, though I really don’t — not seriously. When I call, he is there and it is a dear comfort to have him. I think about what I want for my future: I am 54, financially stable, and dream of retiring early and traveling, seeing more of my cousins whom I love dearly, and maybe getting more involved in my artistic pursuits that I have somewhat put aside. I sometimes dare to dream that I will fall in love again, be happy again, contribute to another’s happiness again.
This man is unemployed, unstable and, if I am honest, I don’t completely respect his life choices. Our emotional EQ feels unbalanced. And yet, we have fun together, have great sex, and he lets me have my space without question. I have the power in the relationship — an issue that I know was at the forefront of my divorce. And here I am again. Am I using him? Should I break it off? I feel guilty, fragile, alone and needy deep inside. On the outside, I am strong, very attractive, happy, carefree. Yet I am losing my family — my husband’s family — and it kills me.
I have no children. His family were my life, my future, people I could give myself to, care for, and who were there for me. Now I’m alone. How much longer do I let myself be so close with my male friend, whom I don’t want to hurt? I truly care about him.
Life seems so short. I want to be a good person. I don’t want to hurt or be hurt, as much as I can avoid it. Am I being selfish? Honest? I want to embrace my future and dance like there’s no one watching. But there is someone watching. It’s me.
Dancer in the Dark
Dear Dancer in the Dark,
If you are being honest with this man, then he knows where he stands. Though the circumstance is sad, you are each giving the other something needed, something welcome. You are being honest with him. That is all you can do. Why break up with him? To save him from his own feelings? Why deprive yourself of his presence? He is not ready to play more than a provisional role in your life. The way things are now, he is getting a great gift from you. He is benefiting from your presence, your kindness and your strength, your beauty, your passion. You need not kid each other. It makes sense now. It may not make sense later. That’s OK.
You are not just taking from him. You are also giving. He, like you, may be bereft in ways that are less apparent. He may have sorrows under the skin that you are soothing even as you are soothed.
In a general way, without being too autobiographical, I can say that when I was single and in my drinking years there were provisional relationships of the kind you describe. Strong, smart women were interested but kept their distance.
I am actually grateful now for those certain strong, smart women who knew to keep their distance. I remember poignant goodbyes that were also warnings, clues to my eventual collapse had I been able to decode them. I remember these things with gratitude.
Such sad, truncated encounters did not harm me. I quickly resumed my loneliness. Loneliness I knew how to do. What was dangerous was meeting another woman fully as unstable and grandiose as I was, and diving into a mad fusion of egos without boundaries. That was dangerous! And then the noxious, painful, sudden peeling away that left me raw. That took a while to get over.
So just be clear with this man. Just maintain your boundaries. You may tire of maintaining the boundaries. You may think, Why should I be doing all the work? It may be tempting, once you are divorced, to try to make this relationship into something it’s not. Be careful in this regard.
May I say, too, that your letter kind of breaks my heart? In some way that I can’t fully articulate?
And also there is this: You are in counseling but you are not in counseling with your husband. Can you fix a marriage by fixing yourself? I wonder about that. It may be that you have to fix the marriage. That would mean your partner has to be involved. So maybe it is worth one final effort. Is there any last chance that your husband would join you for counseling? Is there any chance at all? Did you work as hard as humanly possible to get him to join you in counseling, and then did you redouble your efforts?
Is it possible that some hard kernel of denial, once dislodged, could open up a new possibility? Is it possible that what stands between you and reconciliation is some secret, which compared to the breakup of a marriage and the loss of a family is not so earth-shattering that it could not be shared and dealt with? Could there be something between you that is preventing you from taking the truly forceful step of getting him into counseling?
Maybe there is one last effort to be made. And then, after that, acceptance.