Moving on

How do you let go of an old love to let a new love grow?

Published August 15, 2003 7:27PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 36-year-old attorney who is married to a man I met in law school 12 years ago. He is a wonderful person, and I was attracted to him as soon as we met. Ironically, the thing that intrigued me the most became the source of my marital frustration: his unavailability.

You see, for years my husband has carried with him a profound sadness as a result of the breakup with his first fiancée, the only other girl he ever dated. She'd left him after getting pregnant by her boss, who was a foot shorter and 20 years her senior, which was a real blow to my husband's ego. His wounds appealed to my innate nurturer. I devoted myself to showing him how great life could be if he'd just allow himself to feel again. Believing I could love enough for the both of us, we married.

We were compatible on all of the important levels, and I respected and adored him. I valued the friendship and support we gave each other. But as the years passed, I grew disillusioned with his coldness, the emotional distance, his resistance to physical affection, the often condescending treatment, which communicated a belief that he'd never love me the way he had loved her or that he could even try.

Frustrated and lonely, I sought comfort in the arms of a lover. I hated the deception of an affair, but I justified my behavior by blaming my husband for not giving me what I needed. I told myself an affair was the lesser of two evils. After all, I didn't abandon him the way his former fiancée had done.

Living this double life left me conflicted, and eventually I ended the affair. Once again, I felt lonely and powerless to get basic needs met. I kept imagining a man with whom I could integrate the roles of lover and companion. I was so angry over my husband's shortcomings that I missed the little ways he was starting to let me in. Our polite, 10-year marriage inevitably faltered under the weight of my resentment.

Although we remained close, I left my husband. Ten months into our separation, I met a wonderful man, whom I'll call "R."

With R., I experienced my first healthy, reciprocal adult relationship. I found myself asking for the things I needed -- a risk I'd never felt safe enough to take with my husband. To love and to be loved in return was truly wonderful and empowering. I found myself wishing I could try this with my husband.

R. was already involved in a 10-year relationship with a girlfriend when we met. Falling in love complicated our lives and left us with hard choices to make. When we each found ourselves torn between two possible futures, R. opted to remain with his girlfriend, with whom he had a significant history.

I know I am fortunate, because for a brief moment, I had it, that bright, shining thing we all yearn for. Letting it go has been wrenching, but it has given me new compassion for my husband, who also loved and lost. Now I understand the temptation to hold on to the pain, which reminds us that we once loved. Because when the pain is gone, it's really over, isn't it?

Dan Fogelberg said it best: "It's so hard to walk away from love; it may never come again."

My husband and I have reconciled, and for the first time, we are at the same place in wanting to make our marriage work. I want to trust that I can love again after R. I believe real love is infinitely more satisfying than romantic ideals -- and scarier. I am ready to take the risk.

How do I make my husband see that it is only in surrendering to the possibility of getting hurt again that love can flourish? How do I convince us both that what lies ahead can be sweeter than our respective memories?

How do you let go of love so that new love may grow?


Dear Hopeful,

In spite of your both being lawyers, I don't think either of you can ever make a closing argument so persuasive as experience. It was your experience that taught you what your husband has endured. And it was his experience that shaped him in the way that you have found so intractable. So I think the lesson you need to take away from this is that time and experience are the powerful movers in your life, not verbal persuasion and concepts. I think it would be nothing but pain and heartache for you to try to convince your husband or yourself that what lies ahead is sweet, that he must open himself up to pain, that both of you must let go of love so that new love can grow. I think you have to accept him as his experiences have made him, wounded and protective and undemonstrative and whatever. You also have to accept yourself as you are, thirsty, unsatisfied, full of longing. That's who you are. But perhaps your recent experience has brought you closer to his point of view, made you more cautious, more accepting, less restless. And experience is a program of continuing education. Perhaps your experiences are now pulling you gradually together instead of driving you apart.

Mark Twain said: "We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it -- and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again -- and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more."

That goes more to the heart of the thing, doesn't it? Your husband sat on a hot stove lid, but now he won't even sit on a cold one. You're trying to persuade him, through rhetoric, that the stove lid is cold, go ahead, sit down on it! But no amount of persuasion can teach him that. He's going to have to experience for himself that the stove lid is not hot. You will have to induce him, somehow, to experience the stove lid as cold. How do you do that?

Frankly, I doubt that you helped matters by separating. Your experience may have taught you a little about what he's gone through, but his experience may only have reinforced what he already believed. I figure it like this: If he was wounded by a beloved who abandoned him, and you're trying to show him that it won't be like that this time, the last thing you want to do is abandon him. That may have simply taught him that he was right all along: See, women do leave you! See, you do indeed need to be guarded with your emotions!

If you ask me -- and you did! -- this all has to do with your fundamental belief about what human life is. It's all Freud's fault, basically: Before Freud, there was tragedy, comedy and fate. Immutable human nature clashed with blind fate, and the result was either funny or sad. That was life. Since Freud, there's been the option of minor repairs. Slowly but surely, we've become a civilization of psychological do-it-yourselfers, soul tinkerers, backyard phrenologists, basement analysts. We have gotten into the habit of remodeling each other. That is not always a bad thing. But if it blinds us to the godlike power of personal experience, or fills us with unreasonable expectations that others can change their nature to suit our wishes, then it is a bad thing. Face it: Things happen to people and they're never the same afterwards. Tragedy and Freud collide in the crucible of private experience. Sometimes tragedy wins.

He's not going to sit on that stove until he's ready.

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By Cary Tennis

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