Twice burned

My first husband died in my arms; my second one changed his mind about wanting children. I'm 40 and devastated. Plus: Why do married men kiss me?

By Cary Tennis

Published October 1, 2002 7:09PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Ten years ago, I was an English teacher engaged to marry a doctor I'd loved since college. We had an adventurous, romantic relationship, fueled by a mix of the idealism of one's 20s and our own hard work, which suggested to us that we were going to have a very fine life. We reveled in each other; we relished our dingy apartment and ramen noodles because we knew we were lucky and wouldn't be without for long. Rob and I spent several of his residency rotations in developing countries, where he worked in free clinics and I helped local women learn to read. We enjoyed this so much that we planned to shape our married life around it, following in the footsteps of others we admired who'd raised worldly and self-possessed children overseas.

Four months before our wedding, he was killed when our bus went over a cliff in Guatemala. He died in my arms about an hour after the crash and was conscious for some of that time. Our conversation is crystalline in my memory -- he wanted me to promise him I would have a happy life and take care of his dog. Back at home, I lay on my mother's couch, went to grief counseling, returned the early wedding gifts, hollered at the universe, fretted that somehow my karma had caused this, bonded with the dog, stopped viewing myself as the wife who almost was, and finally got on with things.

Eventually I stopped comparing every man I met to Rob (who had, of course, become deified in my mind -- those who die young and in love at least get to spend eternity as beautiful memories). I also picked up a Ph.D., started a university job, volunteered in literacy initiatives overseas, earned a private pilot's license, joined a hiking club, took up photography, and valued my girlfriends.

When I was 34, I met Arthur. He's an avid mountain climber -- the kind who takes four months a year to climb peaks only airplanes are meant to see. We enjoyed traveling together, he sent flowers to my mother on her birthday, and he got along with the (by now very old) dog. He taught me to climb, and I took him flying. Two years into our relationship, he proposed. Arthur was as eager as I was to travel and continue our hobbies and, like me, hoped we'd have a child who enjoyed these things, too.

Then, on our first anniversary, he said he'd reconsidered his decision to have a child. That reconsideration deepened into an insistence on not having children and, in the last six months, a decision that perhaps he shouldn't have married in the first place. I should have seen it coming. He has a Ph.D. in physics, a field that profits from immense concentration and solitude; he was a bachelor until he was 42; he could ride in the car with me for six hours at a time without saying a word. He is kind to my family when they visit, but he refuses to waste his leisure time visiting them. He flies into a rage when I drop a pan or burn the soup. He prefers to eat his meals alone with a book. He backs out of every real estate deal we've entered, so we're still renting.

I believe him when he says it isn't me, but that he got married only to discover that he preferred Katharine Hepburn's advice to "live down the road and visit." I can't blame him -- how could he have known how he'd feel about being married until he was? I honestly believe he wasn't being disingenuous when he claimed to share my hearth-and-crib visions, but perhaps it was more something he thought he should do rather than something he wanted to do. Now, Arthur has said he's "willing" to remain married, but it's a chilly and untenable existence. He went to marriage counseling with me four times before denouncing it as "pseudoscience" and refusing to go back, even when I said it would help me tremendously.

I am devastated. I am not functioning; it's a good thing my job doesn't involve punching a clock. Last month, I spent 10 days locked in the apartment with the blinds drawn. I think it was some sort of sick experiment to see if someone would come looking. I damn near slept with a man in my flying club, and I still might. I feel indescribably lonely and horrid. I hate that I feel worse than I did when my fiancé died, for chrissakes. I cry so often I tell people I have pinkeye, but at the same time I know that compared with all of the devastation in the world, I have no good reason to feel sorry for myself. I've sought counseling and listened to the variations on the "Sure, you got a bum rap, but you're still young" theme.

But I am not young. I will be 40 soon, and the hearth-and-crib dream, simple as it seemed, is fast approaching impossible. Yet I don't understand the depths of my despair. Is it just a midlife crisis? The only real difference is that this time around I can't hope to meet a man and have a natural child. I had to re-envision and reinvent my whole life when Rob died, and I think I did so capably; why can't I this time? I can adopt or be a foster parent. I can date. I can sleep with the guy in my flying club. I can travel overseas and help teach women to read. I can become an eccentric professor who takes Elderhostel tours and talks to her cats. I am fully aware that I have no right to feel that life is not worth living but, you know, that is how I feel.

Hitting a Wall at 40

Dear Hitting a Wall,

Perhaps, for a while, you would benefit from doing nothing but grieving and tending to what may be serious depression. I think you need to give up trying to make your life work like a good Swiss watch and face the mess. Ignore your husband. He's going to be no help at all. Find a tough and intellectually rigorous psychiatrist who can help you through this. See if you can take a leave of absence. Accept that you need help and that sleeping with the guy in the flying club would just be a chilly charade.

Grieving and fighting depression is a lot of work, and with all your flying around and teaching people to read, you probably have never spent enough time on it to do it well. When I say grieve I don't mean grieving for that poor guy who went over the cliff with you in the bus. I mean grieving for the glittering dream of a perfect life you were foolish enough or idealistic enough to believe could come true. When the bus went over the cliff, you grieved for your fiancé, but staggered on, starry-eyed and invincible, toward the light, and you were betrayed again. But this time it is a more piercing betrayal because it is personal and more subtle; it has no exploding gas tanks and weeping Guatemalan Indian widows in colorful shawls; it is simply that a man you love turned out to be cold, aloof and imperious, and you're shocked by the barrenness of your life.

You may think now that since your husband has mistreated you, you're supposed to get up, dust yourself off, and found a school for the blind in Jakarta. That may be what Katharine Hepburn would do. But she was just an actress. In real life, when things fall apart, we sometimes get weepy and shut ourselves in, and the super calls a locksmith or, in some neighborhoods, a Jungian psychiatrist.

Here's another thing to consider: Just because some people strive to teach children to read and others strive to win big at the track doesn't mean that one form of compulsive striving is less painful than another. All human striving brings suffering. And, in fact, the hardest striving to give up is the kind that's cloaked in virtue. If you were a cat torturer, you could find plenty of people to help you quit. But if you're addicted to virtuous acts, who's going to take pity on you and help you recover? After all, your suffering looks like happiness and it's socially useful. Who's to say you're anything but an innocent victim with the best of intentions? Only your dark, truth-telling shadow can say.

I'm willing to bet that there is some messy, twisted madwoman in the attic who doesn't give two shits about teaching kids to read, who finds the professor a royal bore and would rather be playing cards with the maid, but she isn't allowed to speak. It's time for her to say how she's hated all these years being the good girl while anybody could see that beneath that world-saving missionary is a real woman racked with irrational passions.

You're at a crossroads. You need to ditch the physicist and get a psychiatrist who can help you face the tragic nature of your own striving and help you grieve for your own innocence.

Dear Cary,

Although chronologically I qualify as middle-aged, I'm inclined to sing to myself as I walk to work, I love my job, and I've even been known to be civil to people who are mean to me, just to aggravate them. I'm single and mostly happy with that, after two marriages and the subsequent mental housecleanings. I don't date much or hang out in bars, mostly because I have elderly parents who take up a great deal of weekend time.

So. I'm at this party with a bunch of former co-workers. We worked together over a decade ago, but we still get together periodically because we all like each other, almost like a huge family. One of the guys is someone I have always admired. He was the very best at what we all did, very bright, had time to write plays and movies outside of work, and sometimes regarded me as some kind of intellectual throwback to a bygone era, because I didn't know much about his particular area of expertise. At the party, he keeps trying to chat me up, we keep being interrupted by arriving pals, typical party stuff. Finally I had to go home, to be up early the next morning. He takes me aside, kisses and hugs me. A romantic kiss, believe me. I would have killed for this 10 years ago, when he was single, too. Now, of course, he's on his second marriage and has a 6-year-old child. He hasn't called since then, which is a good thing.

This has happened before with another guy, so my question is: Why do married guys do this? Especially in front of a group of people who know us both so well? Are some men just easily distracted?

Most Sincerely

Dear Sincerely,

Married guys do this because they're drunk. Sober husbands do not kiss co-workers indiscreetly in crowded rooms. They wait until they're alone.

There's also a slim possibility that your civility toward those who are mean to you might not be as aggravating to them as you think. It might come across as flirtation, and your use of it as a form of private amusement may constitute some sort of pattern that has unintended consequences. At least that's something to consider while waiting for him to pull his head back, open his eyes and give you that startled, sheepish look of a drunk married guy kissing a former co-worker in a crowded room.

Dear Cary,

I am writing because I have some probably unfounded concerns about my current relationship. I love my boyfriend, and he worships me. That is the issue.

First of all, I am not of a worshiping disposition. I had no idea that there were sane people out there who had this particular propensity. I figured that as time passed, when he was more comfortable in the relationship he would start treating me more like a friend, an equal; he is still treating me like a goddess after four months.

It's not that I am complaining, but it makes me nervous that our relationship cannot possibly continue for the rest of our lives. I do want to spend the rest of my life with him, but is it possible that he won't just realize I'm a human and be utterly disappointed? Is it possible that he would always worship me? Am I absolutely insane to be finding anything potentially wrong?

Thank you, kind sir.


Dear OMG,

Men worship God because they fear God. Men worship women because they fear women. Fear of God can be attractive in a man because it is rational: God smites and is thus worth fearing. Women do not smite. They yell and cry and make a man feel like a turnip, but that is the price of love -- as a decent fear of God is the price of existence. So worshiping women is irrational and unattractive.

He's all mixed up if he's worshiping you. But what can you do? You can't talk people out of worshiping. It's like arguing with a turnip. All you can do is cancel the worship service. Get one of those big electric signs that you can haul behind your car, the kind they park outside revival meetings down South that say "Fish Fry and Bible Study Sunday 6 p.m.," fix the letters to say "Today's Girlfriend Worship Service Canceled," and park it in your yard.

Dear Cary,

I need a Cyrano. My story begins about eight years ago in college, when I went out with a wonderful woman. Or more of a girl, really, and I was a boy. She was beautiful, with short blond hair, brilliant blue eyes and an adorable button nose. Someone who laughed easily. Liked to be crazy and act foolishly now and then. She was loyal, sweet, madly in love with me. An incredible, wild, sexy lover that I still dream about all these years later. The only woman I've ever felt completely at home with without any of my clothes on. Did I mention she was amazing in bed?

But I wouldn't be writing if the story had a happy ending. I made a mistake probably millions of stupid men have made before me. I assumed that the passion, the fire, the infatuation that attaches to the beginning of a relationship, would last forever. When it didn't (after a couple of years), I sought it elsewhere. I broke her heart. She was understandably angry with me. I deserved it. She wouldn't speak to me. I soon regretted it, but never really had the chance to make up for it.

So the years have passed. I've fallen in and out of love. I've learned that there are more, even better parts to a relationship than the infatuation that's there at first. I've grown up. I have a good job. I'm a pretty good-looking guy. I date plenty of women who are attractive, successful, smart. Though none recently have provided any kind of inspiration. None that I can see myself with one, five, ten years from now. In bed on a Sunday morning together. Going for a drive with our dog hanging its head out the window. Having children.

And an interesting thing has happened recently. Girl, now woman, and I have started speaking again. On the phone, in person, over e-mail. I think about her a lot. Part of me loves her again -- I guess a small part always has. And I think she feels the same way but won't admit it to herself. But I can tell in a way that one can read a former lover. I know what it means when she looks at me when she tilts her head slightly to the left, when the tone of her voice gets slightly higher, sweeter. I know when her laugh is genuine. Or when she laughs despite herself. And I thought to myself that maybe, if she still loved me after all these years, she would be willing to try again. But if she stopped loving me, and now I am a new guy who she obviously likes to talk to and spend time with, why not start something fresh?

But despite our renewed friendship, bad feelings still linger. Her parents, her friends, would not be happy if we got back together. Trying again with me would entail more than just going on a date and having a good time. It would mean having to explain to everyone in her life that she was giving that jerk another chance. Or maybe dredging up feelings that she'd rather not. She has indicated to me, though not directly, that she is not up for it.

And yet I can't help but think that if she did give it a chance, it could work again. And I'm not asking her to marry me. I'm not asking her to be my girlfriend. All I want is for her to be open to the idea. To go out on a date. A romantic date. Where at the end of the night I kiss her on the lips and we both see how it feels. See if there is anything. And then decide where we go from there. And I need the words, an idea, a strategy to convince her to try. What do I say? What do I do? Help me, Cary, you're my only hope. When we get married, you'll be the first to get the invitation.

Needing a Cyrano

Dear Needing a Cyrano,

Sorry, I'm not in favor of this. I'm not on your side here. You need to let this one go. The worst thing a man can do is claim that he knows what a woman is really feeling when she tells him otherwise. In that direction, my friend, lies only madness and pain. Trust me on this one. That look, that tilt of the head, may signal that she still has some tender feelings for you, but once you've broken a woman's heart, once you've betrayed her, destroyed her trust and become a deceiver in the eyes of her family and friends, you are toast. There's no way you are going to have a romance with this woman again. What's worse, because she may still have some feelings for you, you might be able to get her drunk and screw her and pretend that it's a fresh romance. That would be low. Cut your losses and stop bothering her.

Better yet, take it a step further and do the really stand-up thing: Sit her down and tell her that you realize you screwed up, you missed your chance, and from now on as a way of making amends you're going to be her steadfast and loyal friend, no strings attached. Her girlfriends will be impressed. And when she finally finds the right guy, maybe you'll be allowed to attend the wedding, where all her girlfriends will be smelling really good and wearing their best underwear.

Cary Tennis

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