I'm an abused, divorced mom, and no great beauty

So does this new man really like me, or is it just sympathy?

Published December 8, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm female, divorced, raising teenagers, making decent money, managing fairly well. I don't have a lot of friends: The kids' schedules and my job leave me almost no free time, plus my marriage gradually isolated me. There was emotional abuse. Still, I'm capable, even creative and heroic on occasion. What I'm not is young, pretty, thin or any of those characteristics that translate into sex appeal.

I've been seeing a guy for a couple of years. We have fun. I don't think we're in love, but there are tender moments and a good bit of canoodling. (To you this is probably business as usual, but for me it's a big deal. In my marriage, sex was a horrible, painful, humiliating power struggle, and I'm amazed that I can bring myself to get in the sack at all.) He's generally sweet-natured and accommodating. Both of us are at a stage in life (he's also divorced, though almost a decade younger than I) where we don't feel any particular urgency about relationships. None of that earth-shattering, hormonal "I must have him or I'll die of heartbreak" stuff. We both know, at first hand, that one actually doesn't die of heartbreak.

But he's so kind that I wonder if he's just with me out of inertia, or even sympathy. I'd really like to know if he keeps seeing me because we already have a friendship, because he's too shy to pursue other women, because even though I'm kind of ugly he's too polite to say so. How can I determine this without everything becoming unbearably awkward? Even in my braced-for-the-facts state I know that "Are you just sticking around because you don't want to hurt me?" is pathetic.

Charity Case?

Dear Charity Case,

Is it because he's so kind that you wonder why he's with you? If he were a little meaner would his blandishments be more credible? Or does your concern arise not out of any particular quality in him, but out of a general feeling of unworthiness? Given what you've been through, it sounds like good fortune now comes to you mostly wrapped in a gauze of incredulity. You don't provide the details, but after emotional abuse comes difficult trust and slow accommodation to moral beauty.

If you were prettier would it be easier to understand why he's with you, or would you wonder then if it weren't just your body he was after, and not your nature? And would you not feel the same longing for reassurance no matter who your partner was? I rather suspect that you would. It is not so unusual for people to want reassurance. In the harsh commerce of sought-after, market-rate love, where strong-jawed men vie with strength, power and money for the surrender of slender-hipped, big-breasted sirens with bee-stung lips, the reassurance you crave takes a material form: engagement rings and endless dinners of exquisite meats and fine wines, followed by dizzyingly brief Porsche miles, the thrilling G-force of emotional acceleration and the sudden weightlessness of braking and release. But in your case, the quieter way your love is proceeding does raise the question: What language does this modest, wizened, battle-scarred romance speak? It sounds like it's speaking a more measured tongue than the dazzling clicks and whistles of an "Elimidate" outing with a former Stanford wrestling champion and MBA candidate.

But how, exactly, do you express your need for reassurance from this man without sounding craven and needy or seeming to be "moving too fast"? Since this need for reassurance seems largely existential -- he's not giving you any overt signals that he's just with you out of pity, it's your own doubt that you're hearing -- first I would wrap your arms around your own echoing uncertainty. Your story is important and moving. Know it more thoroughly; make better friends with your history. If sessions with a therapist or counselor will help you to flesh it out and understand it in more compassionate complexity, then I think it would be time well spent. Second, without demanding concrete assurances from this man, I think it is not unwise to simply reveal to him the beautiful fragility of your state. Do not be self-pitying; do not call yourself ugly or suggest that he could be with prettier women if he wanted. Just remind him of the struggle you've had, of how hard it's been to trust other people in the wake of your unhappy marriage, and remind him that despite all that, you remain, somewhere in your heart, still a high school sophomore tingling at the approach of the spring dance.

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