Long-distance marriage

I live in Paris, my husband in the U.S. Should we divorce over champagne or stay as we are?

Published October 3, 2003 7:50PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 46-year-old American woman living in Paris, France. I moved here the most recent time in January 2001 after leaving my very kind but very rooted third husband in rural America. He and I married in 1996, and I moved into the big country house he had lived in alone since the mid-1970s. I have lived all over the world while he has never left his Southern roots.

After six months working in Central Asia in 1995, I returned to the States, he and I got back together after a two-year separation (during which I had impulsively married and later divorced a Russian scientist), and we decided to get married.

I sensed in my gut that it was a mistake, but at that time I felt tired of moving around so much. I thought I wanted to settle down and let some dust settle. My husband is a smart, gentle, funny, handsome man, but the differences between us were so stark that only I could really miss them. In fact, I chose not to examine the situation, though friends tried hard to share with me their skepticism.

I am a bit of an adventurer, needing to get out there and see the world for myself, while he is an armchair traveler, a book lover and quiet thinker with an impressive library. He is 11 years older than I. I became horribly bored and depressed and then mad at myself for not being happy in the big house with the loving husband. He could not understand why I resisted being content with such a perfect lifestyle. From his perspective, he had saved me from chronic nomadism. For five years, I made us both rather miserable by constantly begging him to quit his job, sell the house, and move with me overseas. He refused. I finally gave up and moved out myself.

Although we separated two and a half years ago, neither of us has had the will to divorce. My main security during my move here, I suppose, has been knowing that I have this stable, steady husband back in the States, though I know I have no desire to go back to the big quiet estate in the middle of nowhere. I fear I would quickly shrivel and die.

But hanging on to him, if only in the abstract, has impeded my really putting down roots here, making a real effort to find someone more compatible. I guess sometimes I become discouraged when I see what kind of men seem to be available -- there are lots of 45 and older single American women here desperately seeking love and romance -- and I remember all of my husband's good qualities and wonder what I'm doing out here on what can feel like a swiftly swaying limb.

To continue this rather contradictory saga, he is arriving here in Paris in two days and we plan to travel around Europe for six weeks together. We are not rich, by any means, but as a freelance writer I have a lot of flexibility and as a state employee, he has a lot of paid vacation. He is also brilliant on European art and history and traveling with him is a rich experience. Problem is, he goes back to Dullsville while I stay in the midst of the excitement. The other problem: We have remained good friends and often enjoy each other's company.

While he is here, before we get started on our journeys, we are planning to sign the divorce papers and toast the event with a bottle of champagne. In my head, I know that this is a bridge that must be crossed. But in my heart, it makes me very sad. Yet I see no other solution. Stay in Paris and keep my part-time husband in the States? (He actually would be willing.) Return to his house? (Neither of us wants that. It is so full of his and his family's things that there is not now and never has been much room for me.) Finally convince him to move here? (Not in a million lifetimes.) Regardless, I feel confident we will stay good and loving friends.

Needing Insight

Dear Needing Insight,

You seem to believe you can't stay in Paris and keep a part-time husband in the States. Why not? I don't see what's so implausible about that. A part-time husband is better than none, isn't it? And, if I may be so bold, you don't seem to pick very carefully. So if you divorce this one, there's no telling what the next husband might be like -- what new logistical problems he may represent.

That's not a knock. You have strong passions, you need to act when you need to act, you don't want life to pass you by while you're busy deciding, you don't want to dither. You like to act. You feel better when you can do something decisive. But this divorce won't decide anything, necessarily.

Besides, I'll feel bad for you in Paris all alone, an unmarried woman lost in the museum. And I feel bad for your husband, too. Poor guy, out there all alone in that big house in the country with his books. Why not just let things be the way they are and maintain this bond? You need him part of the time; he needs you part of the time. The rest of the time you can just do as you please.

Why do you have to divorce? Why not try to maintain this bond, unconventional as it is? If you should meet someone in Paris you want to marry, then you can get divorced. Until then, if it's not broke, don't fix it.

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