College sweethearts

We were married for more than 20 years, then he left me for someone else. Is that my fault?

Cary Tennis
April 3, 2004 1:48AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I married my college sweetheart (let's call him David) at 19. For 20 years I believed that we were soul mates. We share a love of literature, music, theater and film, are well matched intellectually, love to talk about politics and Paul Krugman's latest column, are mutually supportive of one another's careers, and have two great children, ages 16 and 11. One area of concern was that our sex life dwindled to nearly nothing (maybe monthly). I have been heavy since our oldest child was born. I have tried everything but surgery to try to lose. I am a passionate woman, and I love sex with my husband. But with so much else that felt really solid about the relationship, this was a compromise I was willing to live with, while continually vowing to do my best to deal with the weight issue. David, when I have discussed my weight with him over the years, has said, "I just want you to be happy." I believed him.


A year ago David fell in love with a colleague (he works on the management end of the arts, and she is an artist). He tells me his love for her is about his identity, just as truly and deeply as if he had fallen in love with a man and learned that he was gay. After 10 months of couples counseling he left, about five weeks ago, and immediately began a relationship with her. (To his credit, he did not consummate the affair until after he had moved out.) Now he wants to tell our children about the relationship; he tells me it is serious.

David told me, in the course of counseling, that my weight had become a "crushing burden" to him. He also revealed, over the course of many months, that he has felt emotionally at my mercy for years -- he essentially can't endure my being angry or upset, and so has yielded to me on issues I had no idea were even problem areas. (He brought up the purchase of a couch, as well as something my son wore on the day of his christening, as examples.)

The woman (let's call her Mary) is thin and she is an artist in a field my husband cares about passionately. She seems like a good person. She is not younger than he is (one stereotype dodged, at least), but one year older. I too am an artist, though as an avocation: In real life I am a Protestant minister. I am gifted at what I do, well regarded by my colleagues and members of the congregations I have served. Despite the weight, I think it's fair to say I am a beautiful woman.


I am just so angry and sad. I am working very hard to be pleasant to my husband whenever our children are around, because he is a great father and loves them dearly, and I know they need him in his life. But I am hurting in a way I never imagined possible, and at the hands of a man I have trusted and loved for 23 years.

Was this my fault? OK, let's put it another way: Is my inability to lose weight reasonable grounds for my husband cutting and running when someone new came along? How does a woman screen potential partners for this peculiarity of character? Or isn't it peculiar at all?

Confused and Hurt


Dear Confused and Hurt,

No, this was not your fault, and no, your inability to lose weight was not reasonable grounds. There are no reasonable grounds for abandonment, for the breaking of a covenant. That doesn't mean that he's committed a crime, either; all it means is that what happened is not in the realm of reasonable grounds, but the realm of sudden storms, inexplicable blizzards and sunspots, unnatural avalanches and summer squalls, abnormal tides, exotic mutations, screaming monkeys, falling rocks, freak accidents of the heart. We are not talking about reasonable grounds. We are talking about the kinds of life-shattering things that we cannot comprehend logically, that force us to turn to our spiritual protectors to handle them and absorb them, to salve our wounds after the searing burn, to bring us out of shock, to bear us over the scorched ground.


Why is it that with us Americans when we feel the maddening pressure of grief we look for laws and right and wrong? Would it make you feel better to know that you deserved this, or that you didn't deserve this, that you or he had made some mistake in judgment or had some failure of will power? If you were stabbed in the chest, would you think, oh, if only I had lost some weight it wouldn't have happened, I could have controlled this man's heart? No, your proper role is to grieve and try to get through it, and place yourself in the hands of your spiritual protector. Do not torment yourself with hindsight. Just grieve, and seek solace in your relationship with the great power you pray to.

How to grieve? Grieve with purity. Grieve completely, until the poison is gone. Try not to turn it into knowledge about other people. The result of grief is not knowledge about other people. The result of grief is the contour of your own survival, a knowledge of your hidden animal strengths, the words you tell yourself when you think you can't go on, the noises you make when you're in pain, the shape of the road you're on and what it feels like to walk barefoot across the broken glass, the knowledge that somehow above all you survived, that this is your own fate and you survived, and if you survived this, you can survive the next trial too, and the next and the next and the next. That's what the grief is about: It sobers you up right quick, and reminds you to be ready. What I mean is that it's about you; what I mean is try not to make it about men in general and the awful things they do, like a lesson that you tell your grandchildren. God knows all about men and the awful things they do. Nobody needs to hear it from you. What people need from you is the example of your strength, your ability to bear the loss with dignity.

Do not let this make you into one of those women who says to their grandchildren, Here is the truth about men, what bastards they are, what a bastard your grandfather was. Instead, make it about how to live in a world where the bastards are going to pull shit like this all the time, how to carry grief as lightly as a Panama hat, how to know the deepest and hardest things about life and still tap-dance by. Make it into something you can tell your grandchildren about how to endure what gets handed to you, and how if you keep practicing, you learn to walk over it happily.


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