How can great love just stop, just like that?

It was perfect. It couldn't have gotten any better. And then like a switch it turned off.

Published September 22, 2006 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I spent the better part of the last year in a relationship with the man I thought I'd been looking for forever. He was 15 years older than I and lived 1,400 miles away, but we connected on a level I didn't think was possible. It was magical. Like coming home. He talked about getting married and we were seriously talking about my daughter and me moving to his state so we could develop our relationship further. And then six weeks ago he disappeared from my life altogether.

We saw each other as often as we could, which meant about every six weeks on average. We talked multiple times a day, almost every single day. We sent text messages and e-mails daily. He's a divorced 55-year-old with two adult kids. I'm a never-married, almost 40-year-old with an 8-year-old daughter. We had a very easy, natural relationship. I opened up to him in ways I'd given up on. I've always been far too careful with myself, and until recently, far too immature to really trust a man with my heart. So it was a joy in so many ways to open up to someone like that, emotionally and sexually. I felt free and understood. I thought I understood him as well. I got, for once in my life, what all the fuss was about. I trusted him completely.

His marriage ended four years ago. His wife cheated on him, and after they divorced she married the man she'd had an affair with. And then divorced him a year later. My boyfriend told me at the beginning of our relationship that he couldn't see himself ever getting married again. He was still angry with his ex-wife and he didn't feel he could trust another woman with his heart completely again. I understood where he was coming from. But the anger seemed to subside after some time. Or possibly he just stopped talking about it.

I was concerned at different points during our relationship that the emotional energy he put into his ex-wife was dangerous, it was too much. At the beginning he still saw her occasionally but at the end not as often. He helped her with odd jobs around the house and she still came to him for advice. My parents were amicably divorced 20 years ago. I felt I knew what that felt like, how it was supposed to feel and how people behave within that. But this was different. I thought he may still be in love with her. And it was something we talked about and he assured me he wasn't. She was the mother of his children and someone he had a lot of history with (they were married 20 years) and he told me he loved her like a sister.

Six weeks ago our relationship fell apart. He stopped communicating with me for the most part and the few times he did communicate with me he told me his silence was about sorting himself out, it wasn't about us, it wasn't about me. Which I believed then. And now I don't. A week after he told me that he cut off all communication. He didn't tell me he needed to do that, he didn't say he needed space or to take a break or to pull away, he just took it and he stopped responding to my attempts to reach out.

So, of course, now I do think it was about us, I do think it was about me. Or it wasn't and this is a huge midlife crisis and possibly he'll be back at the end of it. But in the meantime, I'm out here with my heart and trust completely broken. I thought I'd found the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. We talked about what a great team we'd make. How easy and natural our relationship was. And then he just walked away with no explanation as though we were in high school and had been on one or two dates and so then maybe no explanation is necessary and when you want out, you just leave.

But I deserve an explanation. I don't know how to heal my heart or my trust without one. And I know I have to move forward without him. I never, ever let anyone get this close for this very reason. I have an overwhelming belief that love will never stick for me, that it will always leave. Which is maybe all I needed to tell you and the rest of this has been superfluous.

How do I make myself believe that I'm worth it?

Worth It

Dear Worth It,

I don't know whether this sad, difficult experience will leave you too wounded and afraid to try again, or whether having had this one experience you will realize that it is indeed possible, and you will go out again and have a series of flings during which you steel yourself against fear of abandonment and simply enjoy the moment, or whether you will say to yourself that one time was good enough and now I know what all the fuss is about and I can sit back and rest, or whether in telling what happened to you enough times to your friends and your family and people in your church you will realize that he was always dropping hints that he was already half gone -- clearing his throat when a direct answer would have been easy, darting his eyes when they should have been on you, a nervous tic or a heavy-lidded opacity of mien all of which were saying in their oblique but decipherable language, "One day I'm surely going to leave you without a word of goodbye." (I don't know if it would make any difference whether he was dropping hints or not.)

I don't know whether he will find he has been stupid and cruel and have a change of heart, but perhaps he is sitting in a bar right now telling his story and the rancher he's talking to will shake him by the shoulder and say, "You've got to go back, you've got to," and he will drive all night through sleet and freezing rain to run out of gas at your very front porch where he will stay for the next 40 years, a romantic penitent, devoted, humbled, shamed by his desertion ... or whether you, after reading late into the night and putting down your book and turning out the lamp, will grab your car keys and start driving east, heading for his town, and drive all night and park outside his house and wait for him, and when he comes out you will take one last good look at him and see if you can read anything in his face.

I don't know if you will take this as a once-in-a-lifetime love and hold it dear to your heart or whether all you will remember is the leaving, not the magic or the love or the closeness but only the eventual absence. I don't know. I can only wish that you look beyond the leaving to the poetry of what happened before, that you mine this for everything it's worth, that you not concentrate on the disappearance but on what was there when it was there, that you not count yourself alone in your desertion but ally yourself with all the others who've also been left like this, unaccountably, silently, without a word.

These things happen and they take a long time to get over but always in the losing there is something to celebrate and remember: The priceless thing itself. It was there once. It really was there. It was not an illusion. It was not just a dream of something; it was the actual thing, the miracle, the love, the astounding knowledge of another's heart.

Some people never have it. You had it.

I'm not saying Shame on you, look on the bright side. You look on any side you need to look on, sister. Sometimes we need to rub our fingers along the cold, rusted hull of what was once a beautiful sailing ship. All I'm saying is, It was there. It really was. That fact will never change.

And when the hurt begins to subside, as it will, no matter what else happens, you will still have it, this memory, this priceless thing that belongs to you.

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