Some lessons are harder to learn than others.
And some of us are just slow learners.
Or perhaps we’re stubborn, or maybe it’s persistence, or optimism, or hopeless romanticism. Whatever it is, some of us seem biologically incapable of letting go sometimes.
I wish more than anything that I could write of how wonderful and perfect my life with James is now. How happily we have merged our families and how blissfully in love we are. How I now have everything I ever dreamed of when I broke my marriage apart. But of course I can’t do that. Because Cinderella isn’t real and neither is Prince Charming.
I have not written much since James and I reunited and moved in together. At first, it was because I genuinely was so blissfully happy I didn’t want to sound like a horrid braggart at my good fortune. Then, later, it became about not wanting to disappoint my readers, and later still, about not wanting to admit that I might have made an enormous mistake. The conclusion I have reached now, however, is that I love writing and I love this interaction with all of you, and I love knowing that — just possibly! — I might put something into words that someone else can relate to and feel understood by or reassured by or empowered by.
And so I am picking up my keyboard again and going to try to write about a love that is terribly flawed, potentially damaging, and possibly beyond salvation.
With age has come the wisdom that it’s usually pretty impossible to pinpoint the precise moment that signals the beginning of the end of something. I cannot exactly remember when I first wondered if James and I had made an awful mistake buying the house and moving in together. But I know that, as often happens, that unwelcome thought has become more and more present and persistent in my head, culminating this summer with me making plans to move out and going so far as to look at several houses and inquire about financing. (That was an adventure in itself. I was reminded that when a rental ad says that a property “needs some love,” you’d best expect broken floor boards, inoperable windows, and peeling paint.) It was sad to admit defeat and contemplate separating, yes, but things were so very bad that there was also some relief in the idea of a small place of my own for me and my girls and the assurance of peace in my life.
The rub was that I still love him. Perhaps I shouldn’t, given the things he has said over the past year, but I’ve never been a big fan of “shoulds.” So before I took the leap into one of the houses that needed some love, I sat down and examined what it would take for me to stay. I examined this question from a very pragmatic perspective — not what would I have to feel, but what he (and I) need to do in order for me to stay. Actual, concrete steps or actions or promises. So, because I’m a list-maker and addicted to my iPhone, I made a note on my phone containing my list. Then I slept on it for a couple of days, revised it, and finally told James (via text because we were hardly speaking) that I had a final proposal to make to save our relationship, and if he was interested in discussing it, he should let me know. I sent the text just days before his children left us to return to their mom’s for the school year, so I didn’t expect to hear anything back right away, and I didn’t.
The day his children left, I spent the day back-to-school shopping with my girls and returned home just before dinnertime. James said he’d like to talk, made us some cocktails, and we went out to our balcony. Then, using my iPhone list as a guide, I walked him through my proposal. It included some relatively easy demands, including “No serious discussions before I’ve had caffeine in the morning,” as well as some more difficult ones, including couples counseling with a therapist of his choosing, and if he didn’t seem engaged in the process, I would not go or pay for it. Given that James is quintessentially the man who does not like being told what to do, I was fully prepared for him to say, essentially, “No way, no how.” I really was. I had absolutely no expectations beyond being able to know that I had played my best hand at the end.
But he didn’t say no way, no how. He agreed to my proposal, and I agreed to halt my moving plans.
It has been a long enough road for us that I knew not to be too optimistic about our commitment to this new path. But, we did find some equanimity after that conversation. We went away for the weekend to his eldest daughter’s college graduation and had a truly nice time together. So nice, in fact, that I dreaded coming home. I just wanted to stay in that warm cocoon of ease and peace for as a long as possible. But when we returned, I was further heartened when James found the name of a counselor we had interviewed back in March and ended up not revisiting because she doesn’t take insurance, and called her for an appointment. He also located the paperwork she’d given us at the time and started completing it. So I did, too.
The first time we saw the counselor, Liz, she talked to us briefly about our goals for the therapy and how she typically works. Some of it we remembered from our appointment in the spring. At the end, she asked us to take two online tests that would help her understand our personalities better, how we probably relate to one another, and how she could best support us. She wanted us to complete them and send her the results before our next meeting, four days later. I could tell that James was loath to take the tests, but was pleased when he did the very next day. The results were fascinating and we spent the better part of that day comparing our results and discussing how they made us feel.*** Again, I was heartened — this alone was progress!
Our next meeting with Liz — our first real counseling session with her — also went well, and we left feeling, I think, like we might be able to actually do this. That perhaps we could be one of the couples who bucks the odds and saves our relationship! I think we both knew how dire our straits were, so I don’t mean to make light or understate the depth of concern and fear that our relationship was beyond saving, but I also think that we were increasingly hopeful. Unfortunately, she was leaving to spend a month back East and so our next session seemed far away.
My friend Annie has always described my relationship with James as taking two steps forward and one step back, and James and I are apparently slaves to our pattern, for not long after that counseling session we had another disagreement that culminated in him suggesting that we sell the house.
And that is where things sit, my friends.
Over the past six months or so, I have had some personal growth spurts unrelated to my situation with James, but those have served to better inform me of my own short-comings and blind spots. I have tried to figure out what the wisest course of action is with regard to me and James. I have tried to analyze what is right for my girls. I have tried to dig deep and ask my heart what it truly wants.
But I don’t have any clear answers. Because here is all I know: No one ever said it was supposed to easy, but it shouldn’t be too hard, either. I know that if we manage to make this work and grow old together, we will be one of those couples that signifies the value of hard work in a relationship, and this whole period will be told and re-told of evidence that relationships require work to survive. But if we don’t make it, we will both likely be saying, to others sometime in the future, that we should have pulled the plug sooner and not wasted so much time.
In my marriage, I knew when it was time to go, and once I knew, I hardly glanced back. That almost unwavering certainty was of enormous comfort to me during the darkest days of my divorce, and the lack of it is what paralyzes me now.
So I wait. I wait for a signpost signaling the next right path. I wait for my heart and mind to synch up. I wait for a certainty that won’t betray me later on.
*** The personality tests that James and I took are called the RHETI Enneagram test and the Instinctual Variant Questionnaire (IVQ). They are similar to the Myers-Briggs tests, but simpler and, for us, more accurate. They can be found on the Enneagram Institute’s website. The full RHETI Enneagram test is 145 questions and costs $10. The IVQ is much shorter and costs $8. The results can be emailed to you and do not require a therapist’s interpretation to be useful.