Out of the past

I'm bored with my husband and son in New England. Should I go back to my passionate lover in L.A.?

By Cary Tennis

Published September 21, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When I was 25 (I'm 35 now) and living in L.A., I was in a healthy relationship with a great man. He was kind, patient, tolerant of my independent "free spirit" personality. We had a great lifestyle, leaving the city for camping, snowboarding, jet skiing and water-skiing on weekends. We were together for two and a half years, inseparable. One day I woke up and didn't want to be with him. I needed to grow up some more. I missed my family in Hawaii and was sick of the craziness of L.A. I wasn't ready to get married, to be an electrician's wife living in the Valley. I was gone within three months and broke his heart. Even though I made the decision, I suffered from guilt and regret. The poor guy didn't deserve to be dumped.

I got over it, though (or so I thought), met another man, got married when I was 29, had a baby when I was 31. My husband is a great guy, a loving father, a wonderful husband. We have a good relationship, though I don't feel much passion for him. I am often rejecting his advances out of lack of interest. In a way, I feel like he is a brother to me. We don't really do anything fun together. We coexist, raising our son. We recently moved from Hawaii to the East Coast to get ahead financially and put our boy in good schools. I'm lonely here; the large social circle I had is reduced to having my in-laws nearby. I feel I am living this monotone, go-through-the-motions, passionless life. I'm miserable.

Here is where the real trouble starts with me. I went to L.A. on vacation in June and met the old boyfriend for lunch. (He is now engaged.) I saw him and it was like nothing had changed, no time had passed. I was entranced by him. I have never strayed outside my marriage, and I have not even thought about it before now. Guiltily, I couldn't say no to seeing him a couple of more times.

Things ended with him asking me back, telling me he would leave his fiancée for me; he would raise my son as his own. I was shocked -- and surprised at the fact that I liked what I was hearing. The years we had together were the best of both of our lives, but things are complicated now. Can you ever go back? How could I take my son away from his father? Do I live a loveless life until he's grown and out of the house? My poor husband. I do not know what to do. I've thought about marriage counseling with my husband, but I feel so far gone. So detached. I don't know if it would help at this point. The past three years with him have been difficult for me. Do I lie in the bed I've made for myself? Do I have any right breaking up a family? I know there is "the grass is greener" theory, but I know what I would be getting myself into. I've been in that pasture before and miss it. I hope that you have the time to just comment on this. I really respect your advice and points of view.

Confused in New England

Dear Confused,

This is the kind of wrenching, maddening dilemma that gives life its strange, sad, brilliant flavor of desire and fate. This is the way we experiment with who we are: We buy things on sale and wish we could return them. We make vows and try to unmake them. Life itself issues forth from us and we wish we could push it back into our loins. The road narrows. There are fewer bars you can enter where you aren't already known. The bartender remembers.

We look at the front yard and the back yard and wonder if therapy might help. We can't imagine how, but we wonder. Here is how therapy might help: Therapy isn't just about solving problems in the here and now; it's about trying to apprehend the grave majesty of all that has so far occurred, trying to approach the past with a sense of the sacred, to honor it a little, to accept the overwhelming truth that you are now the servant of your doing.

You are the servant of your doing. Isn't that amazing? If you're constantly trying to undo it, maybe you don't understand that your doing is what's taking you where you need to go; it's your unfolding. You unfold it and then you want to fold it back up again but it doesn't fit back in the box anymore. I say this because it has been a great struggle for me to accept that what's done is done, I who would obliterate all my scores and start the game over and over again if I could only pay the price of all that destruction.

Can't we start over? In America, you can usually start over. But without a reason -- without the one-armed man who shot your wife -- you're just a selfish fool on the run; you're just somebody who left a mess behind. Is that who you want to be?

Sometimes we feel we have to follow our hearts, no matter what the cost. But the costs in this case seem prohibitively high. Your choices seem to be 1) to abandon your child and your husband, leaving them wifeless and motherless to fend for themselves; 2) take your child away from the father either by force or stealth (I doubt that he would amicably agree!); or 3) conduct a long-term clandestine relationship with this man from your past.

Each of these choices seems deeply destructive to others. I don't see how you could live happily knowing that you've walked out on or betrayed the people who depend on you for love and support.

It is natural, almost tautological, not to know what benefit you might get out of therapy. Not knowing is the very nature of personal investigation. If you knew enough to get you out of whatever you've gotten yourself into, you wouldn't be thinking about therapy, would you? For the time being, I would urge you not to break up your marriage. Instead, I suggest you get into therapy with the goal of learning to both honor your past and find some joy and contentment in your present.

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