I'd like a man just three nights a week -- I've got a life of my own

I've been divorced for 10 years. I'm a single mom. I can't afford to just go crazy over a guy.


Cary Tennis
November 1, 2006 3:09PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

March 13, 2007, will be the 10-year anniversary of my divorce. I'll be 33. I have said over and over again that if someone had told me then that I would still be single today, I might have tried to stick it out.

Actually I wouldn't have -- my husband was an asshole -- but it sounds good. The truth is, I never would have guessed then that I would still be single now. I've had friends that have been married, divorced and remarried all in the same 10 years that I've been divorced. I resist the urge, more often than I care to admit, to yell "Back of the line!" to other women who have stories similar to those of the friends I've just mentioned. The sad reality, though, is that I'm not sure I ever learned how to have a successful relationship.

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I've dated. I've had not-so-serious boyfriends, serious boyfriends, friends, and friends with benefits. But it seems that for the majority of my 10-year single life I've always had something better to do.

First I was a single mom of a very young child -- time-consuming, to say the least. I was also recently divorced and feeling a bit weighed down by the "baggage" I thought I carried.

Then, in 1999, my father had an arterial-venous malformation that ruptured in the cerebral area of his brain. The effects of the surgery to correct it (he wasn't supposed to live through that) lasted six years before he died. I spent almost all of my weekends for two of those years with him. Traveling across state lines to be with him, then traveling back to work on Sunday nights. All of this, while still being the single mom of a now-growing boy.

In 2001 I started taking classes at the local university, spending Saturdays and some nights in class. I graduated in May with my bachelors in accounting, an accomplishment that I am very proud of. And again, all of this while being the single mom of a young man.

Raising a child, as you can imagine, is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life. But doing it alone, by definition, can be one of the loneliest. Not a lot of people understand that for some reason. They have no qualms about saying, that I should be ---- (fill in the blank -- proud, grateful, etc.) that I've done it on my own without relying on anyone. What they don't know is that shoveling the driveway in the snow, taking out the trash in the rain, fixing the ductwork under the mobile home, house-training the puppy, talking to my son about nocturnal emissions (it's true), installing ceiling fans and light fixtures ... those are all tasks that come with this huge sense of accomplishment and a "who needs a man" attitude, as well as an overwhelming urge to cry. They're lonely tasks, and some people just don't get that.

So I go through these periods where I think I am ready. I'm strong and independent. I can take of myself and my son. I'm not looking for anyone to swoop in and clean up a mess, just someone who can hold an opinion and a conversation.

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I'm good starting out. I'm aloof, I'm confident, I'm brilliantly funny, and of course, beautiful. But then somewhere between "My name is..." and "I love you" this ugly beast rears its ugly head. Seriously, when I am not involved -- on any level -- with anyone, I am a strong, self-confident woman. At the first sign of interest from a male counterpart, I'm still those things. At the second sign -- I'm whiny, I worry too much, Im quiet and reserved, I don't say anything to rock the boat and turn into this wimpy caretaker-type person. It drives me absolutely insane. I don't even recognize myself and I hate it. The only time I feel normal after that is when I'm practicing the conversation that ends the courtship.

I've often said that I would like a man who acts like my boyfriend about two or three times a week (my parenting schedule permitting). Takes me to dinner, laughs at my jokes, showers me with attention, makes wild, passionate love to me but then leaves me alone to tend to my responsibilities. The problem is that I am not wired correctly to make even that situation work. I end up liking the guy and then the whole vicious cycle repeats itself.

I keep looking for someone or something to blame. But the truth is I can only find myself at fault. I'm the one who either breaks the wall down too quickly or doesn't break it down at all. There are only two occasions in 10 years where I can honestly say that my heart was broken. Granted, those two occasions sucked pretty bad, but Jesus, they were two days out of 3,650. How big of an impact could they have possibly had?

I just want to feel normal. And sadly, the only time I feel normal is when I'm on my own. But when I'm on my own, I daydream about the day when I'm not anymore. It's ridiculous, and I find myself wondering if I will ever feel normal again.

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Can be there be love after life's letdowns?

Abnormal

Dear Abnormal,

Of course there can be love after life's letdowns. Of course there can be.

I really get the feeling, and it is a strong feeling, that you can do this.

Consider the reasons you have not done this up till now. Some of them are very concrete and beyond your control. You truly have been burdened with other things. It's not like there's something wrong with you. You have been taking care of other people. Now, maybe you have unusually strong feelings about taking care of other people. That would be natural. You took care of your father before he died. You take care of your son. Perhaps you have been somewhat conditioned over the last few years to take care of the men in your life rather than to let yourself be loved by them.

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Were you loved by your father? Were you loved by your husband? Perhaps not. Perhaps you have a recent history of not being loved. That can change.

I have a feeling that if you meet a man that you like, if you would articulate what you need and what you want from him, the right man, then you could bring into being the kind of relationship you want.

You make the rules for your son, right? So you can make the rules for other people in your life as well. You can make the rules for your boyfriend. You can say, using the same smart, problem-solving, knowledge-absorbing, can-do attitude you have used to get through the B.A., you can say to the boyfriend, here is the kind of relationship I require. Here is what I expect. Here is what I need. Are you cool with that? I predict that there will be a man or two who will find what you propose quite refreshing, because men, too, suffer from the problem of not being able to spell out expectations and boundaries when dating women -- especially, I would guess, women who are also single mothers. For a man is probably wondering what expectations there will be: Does this woman want a stepfather for her son? Does she want an economic partner? If you are open with the man, he may feel more comfortable, knowing what the rules and the expectations are.

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There are probably lots of things happening in your heart that you are not quite aware of. That's normal, too. We all do this. We have certain habits and expectations. We have to find out what they are. It may be that because of your recent history, you feel more comfortable taking care of men than asking for their love and negotiating the boundaries between your own life and their lives.

But you've done that very well in the past, with other men. You have done it well with your son and with your father.

You called your ex-husband an asshole, so perhaps you still feel some hostility and hurt toward him. And you say you have had your heart broken twice, but you sort of underplay the pain. So there are probably reasons it is not easy for you to negotiate the boundaries of a powerfully emotional relationship: There is probably more feeling there than you have the time, energy or willingness to deal with.

But hear this: You can deal with it. This emotional reservoir is not infinite. You will not fall into it and drown. You can feel these things. You do not have to do much about all these feelings. So you feel queasy and insane when you are falling in love. Many women say they feel these things. That is OK. It doesn't mean you have to do anything differently. You may feel crazy and needy and controlling and goose-bumpy and whiny. But you can still act in a way that is strong and responsible. You can still tell a man, I like you, I want to be with you three nights a week, I want to not be with you the other four nights.

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As an example of how you might have powerful feelings but still do and say what has to be done and said, consider the range of feelings you had while you were taking care of your dad. There may have been times you felt rage and hopelessness; there may have been times that, even though he was the victim of this thing, you felt anger toward him. You may have dreaded some of the trips you took those last two years of his life to care for him. You probably felt all kinds of things. And yet you did what you had to do. You did the right thing. Similarly, in raising your son you have probably felt a lot of over-the-top emotions. Changing the ceiling fixtures, you may have felt like setting fire to your home. But you did not. You took care. You made responsible decisions.

Perhaps you were able to be responsible, in part, because others were depending on you. It may be easier for you to justify caring for and taking care of others than caring for and taking care of yourself. How can you get your own needs up there on the same level as the needs of others?

It might take some twists. You might have to look at yourself in the third person and say, There's this person, and here is what she needs, and I am going to work to take care of that person and make sure she gets what she needs, because I love her and she is dependent on me. Take a good look at this person and get her what she needs.

Of course, this person is you, but that just makes it all the more interesting.

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