"Are you sitting down?"
This was not a promising way for my fiancé to begin a phone conversation at 4 a.m. his time.
It was 10 p.m. in North Carolina, and I was standing at the bathroom sink of the hotel room my family had rented for a weekend at the beach, a weekend that had so far been full of happy chatter about wedding invitations, table decorations and the logistics of lodging my entire side of the family across the ocean in a country where they didn't speak the language. There was no place to sit besides the toilet lid, so I slowly lowered myself onto it, bracing for what would follow. "Yes, I'm sitting down."
"I can't marry you."
I felt like I was going to suffocate, then realized I was holding my breath and let it out. Finally I asked, as calmly as possible, "Why?"
"I just can't. I'm so sorry."
I couldn't get any further information out of him that night, despite my questions and tears. I had to hang up with no answers and put myself to bed in the same room as my parents and sister, trying in vain to muffle my sobs with a pillow.
The next morning at the crack of dawn I called France direct from the room phone. Those 10 minutes cost $50, I later discovered, but even if I'd known the price, I wouldn't have cared. All I could think about was hearing his voice again and reassuring him that there was a solution.
"It's OK," I said. "We don't have to get married. But we don't have to break up either. If you're not ready for marriage, we can just go back to being the way we were before."
The way we were before was good. Incredibly good. For the three years we'd been together, every time I told someone how much I loved him, I started crying -- because I felt that happy, that lucky. I cried at every sad movie, every sad TV show, and every sad news spot; any time someone on-screen lost anyone, or anything, they loved, I pictured myself -- losing him. I had never had so much to lose.
But I didn't really think it would happen. Not so soon. And I certainly didn't think he would choose to bring it about.
To my proposal that we return to the way things were before our engagement, he didn't give an outright "no." But he didn't confidently say "yes," either. Something was going on. There was something he wasn't saying.
"Whatever it is, you can tell me," I said.
He was silent, and I could have sworn I heard his heart breaking. Or maybe that was mine.
"I'm probably stronger than you think I am," I prodded. "Did you sleep with someone else?"
"Did you find out you have a child?"
"No, it's nothing that serious."
"Then what is it? Please just tell me."
It took me a week to get it out of him. Even then, he had to convey the news in an email. It began, "There is a girl."
He hadn't slept with her. He didn't need to. They'd been friends for 15 years -- since high school. They hadn't seen each other since he and I started dating, but then, poof, as soon as I left France to do my paperwork for the wedding and a permanent visa, there she was -- declaring she was in love with him.
"Are you in love with her?" I asked him.
"I don't know."
All right, you have the back story.
Now I want to talk about ultimatums. Because an ultimatum is what everyone wanted me to give him. Not during the first month, maybe. But definitely after three months, when he still couldn't make up his mind about whether it was going to be me or her. My friends and family couldn't understand why I was still talking to him, still torturing myself by listening to his ambivalence. Why didn't I tell him he had to give up seeing her and renounce any idea of a future with her, or I was gone?
I'm going to tell you why, but first I have to ask you not to judge me. The word I'm going to use is routinely employed to justify multitudes of codependent, masochistic sins, but I need you to try to believe me, at least for a few moments, when I tell you that my failure to walk away from this relationship was not an act of codependence or self-hatred. It was an act -- here comes that word -- of love.
A lot of couples in their wedding ceremonies have someone read First Corinthians 13: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (NIV). My fiancé and I had not yet made any vows to love each other in this way. We had not promised each other anything (even if we had put a deposit on the reception site and bought our rings). I was not obligated by any contract to stick around and give him time to figure out how his past related to his future. But the thing was, I did love him, in the First Corinthians 13 way. And I knew -- because he told me -- that he still loved me and didn't want to lose me, even if right now he felt terribly confused.
For the first six weeks or so after he told me about Her, I had a difficult time believing he could care so much for her -- and, let's face it, love her -- and still be in love with me, too. I had grown up with good old-fashioned middle-class American monogamy as my guide to the human heart. I believed that if you loved someone heart and soul, it would make you incapable of loving -- or even considering loving -- anyone else. That was naive, I admit, but it took many long conversations and many tearful nights in his arms to convince me that a person really could love two people at the same time. Despite his confusing feelings about his high school friend, our love for each other was just as strong as before, and even getting stronger with each new difficulty, with each new heart-to-heart talk.
But that meant that I couldn't simply throw in the towel. I couldn't say, "If you don't stop seeing her, I'm not speaking to you anymore." I didn't hear it as manipulation when he told me that, even if he had to see her right now in order to figure out some things, he was still hoping that he and I would be able to make a life together. I heard it as the man I loved crying out for patience and understanding in the midst of the most difficult situation he had ever faced, a situation that called upon him to decide once and for all who he was and who he was going to become.
It's the hardest thing in the world -- at least for me -- to live in a state of uncertainty. I usually prefer things not just nailed down but bolted, Super-Glued and tightly wrapped with several layers of duct tape. I did not want to go through days, weeks or months of not knowing if all the patience, kindness and trust I was showing were going to pay off in happily-ever-after or were instead going to make me even more devastated when one day he announced that he was marrying Her. But as I contemplated the idea of an ultimatum, I realized that there was one thing worse than uncertainty: choosing to give up on the man I loved. Cutting myself off from the man who could tell when I was out of sorts before even I had realized it, the man who was the most trustworthy, kind and gentle person I had ever met, who encouraged me, challenged me and, most of all, loved me -- that was not just hard. It was impossible.
And so I tread that territory that everyone warned me against: the middle ground. We were not "together," but we were not really separated, either. We wrote each other emails almost every day. Sometimes he called. We both said "Je t'aime," even though I knew he might be saying the very same words to her. I knew that he was seeing her, talking to her, trying to work things out in his mind.
Some days it was just grueling. There were days I just wanted to scream at him, and a couple of times I did, by email: "I AM SO ANGRY AT YOU! HOW CAN YOU PUT ME THROUGH THIS?!" He took my anger as his just deserts, which was unnerving. I didn't want him to accept my anger. I wanted him to eliminate it. I wanted him to tell me he would love me, and only me, for the rest of his life.
But in addition to these torturous moments, there was also a miracle.
The longer our honest communication about his doubts went on, the more calm I became. We're not talking three or four months of limbo here. We're talking seven, and no end in sight. Again, I imagine you'd like to shake me and say, "Stop talking to him! Get a life! He doesn't deserve you!" But let me tell you a secret: I am happier right now than I have ever been.
How is that possible?
Well, it's complicated, because a lot of things have happened to me in the wake of this broken engagement. The soul searching I did in the first few months led me to some life-changing discoveries about myself, my family and even God. But the biggest factor in my current happiness is my realization that my fiancé's decision about our future will not make or break my life. I have come to believe -- out of necessity, I suppose -- that external factors do not ultimately determine my happiness. I determine my happiness, by my own attitude. And I can choose to be happy in complete ignorance of the outcome of this particular situation.
I am convinced that the only way to live without ultimatums -- and thus generously and without resentment give our loved ones the time and space they will on occasion need -- is to become very good at taking care of ourselves. For me, this has primarily meant allowing myself to be creative. I began to write. The experience was so empowering that it led me to try other creative outlets I had long abandoned. I pulled out the pastels I'd had as a teenager and started drawing things that made me happy: moose, caribou and Dall's sheep. I bought frames for my pictures and hung them above my bed, where I admire them and remember that life really is amazing, and sometimes the scariest, most radical changes in our lives are the ones that ultimately bring us the most joy.
I take myself out for coffee every Thursday afternoon and allow myself to read, write or think about whatever I want while I relax for two hours in the coffee shop. A few weeks ago, I got my ears pierced for the first time. And I got my first massage. These are the things that have helped me through. Along with supportive family and friends. And God.
With this much happiness and energy in my life, I’ve learned that I can live with uncertainty. I can live with not knowing whether the man I love will ultimately choose me. Because I am not sitting around miserable waiting. I am not wasting my time so that I need a positive outcome to "make it all worth it." Every day that I'm living right now is intrinsically worthwhile; I’m putting passion into all I do.
If the man I love does come back, it will not be because I have threatened or manipulated him. His return will not be mere capitulation to the all-or-nothing terms I have set. It will come from a place of deep self-knowledge that he has found in his own time. And if I take him back, it will be because of similarly deep self-knowledge, made possible by this very difficult thing I have chosen to do: live with limbo, and take responsibility for my own happiness.