Category Archives: divorce

breaking up with his kids

When I was first divorced, I knew that I would likely end up dating men who had children.  I thought that I was prepared for this eventuality, even though the first few men that I was involved with did not actually have children.  I thought that I knew what I was in for.

Statistics tell us that step-children are the primary stressor on second marriages and the biggest reported contributor to the deterioration of those marriages.  I am not here to dispute that.  Between my kids and James’ kids, we accumulated some pretty good examples of children acting out against the interloper in their family.  And some of my worst arguments with James — including the last one — stemmed from disagreements about the children.

But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with his kids.

Sure, his son Jay’s teasing of me ventured into the disrespectful realm sometimes, and yes his teenage daughter, Taylor, once spent an hour pretending like I wasn’t in the room.   His two youngest girls, devoid of guile, would sometimes ask me directly what I was doing there and how long I was staying, with the clear implication being that I was somehow interrupting.  But the moments that stuck in my heart were preciously sweet..  Like how, when we were all lying on the sofa watching a movie, Jay would allow me to put my arm around him, and he would ever so subtly snuggle against me.  Or the times when 9-year-old Chelsea would beg me to stay and hang out with them.  Or how little 5-year-old Chloe  insisted on carrying my purse to the car for me, just to be “helpful.”  So many tender, small moments that I cherish.

I last saw them 10 days ago, when I went to his house to say goodbye.  I couldn’t believe how sad it made me, how many tears fell on my solitary drive home over children that are not even my own.

I knew, from my own childhood experience, that when you date a single parent, you also date their children.  What I hadn’t fully appreciated is that when you break up with that single parent, you also break up with those children.  And it hurts.  A lot.

I have spent some time recently remembering my own experience on the other side.  I remember many of the men my mom dated, but none so clearly or so fondly as Van.  Van and my mom dated off and on from the time I was roughly two until I was 12.  They had a passionate, tempestuous relationship, and I learned early on that when they broke up, it was never forever.   Other men didn’t get a second chance, but Van kept coming back.

Van was as much of a father as I had in those early years.  On Sunday mornings, I’d curl up on his lap and he’d read me the comics, changing his voice for each of the Peanuts characters.  He took me hiking in the Shenandoahs, and built me snowmen in the yard, and taught me to ride a two-wheel bike.  He was the one who told me that my grandfather had died.  He was tall and handsome and funny and one of my best friends.

But one day he was gone.  The last time they broke up, I remember asking my mom what had happened.  She pursed her lips and said tersely, “We broke up.” I shrugged, certain that it didn’t mean anything and certain that he’d be back. But I never saw him again.  The weeks melted into months and the months turned into a year and my mom met and married the man who became my stepfather.  I loved my stepfather, but I never forgot about Van.

When I was 27, I finally tracked Van down and wrote him a long letter, telling him of my educational and professional achievements, my budding relationship with my now ex-husband, and updating him on all my friends and family he’d known.  I enclosed a photo of myself and my boyfriend.  I had no idea what to expect when I mailed the letter, but what I got back was no less than wonderful:  a lengthy missive telling me how often he’d thought of me over the years and how much he’d missed me.   He told me how he’d always regretted not having the opportunity to say good-bye to me, but my mother wouldn’t allow it.  He’d remarried and later retired, and he sent me a photo of him and his wife.

How I wish I could talk to Van now.  Not only must I get over James (damn hard on its own), but I must also let go of his children.  I can still see Chelsea’s smile and feel Chloe’s small hand in my own and laugh at Jay’s constant tickling or rib-poking.  I was not in their lives long enough to have made more than a passing impression on them; but I’ll remember them, and the weeks we spent together, always.  I protected my heart mightily with regard to James — walls and buttresses surrounding it lest I should fall completely in love with him and end up broken beyond repair.  But I had no such ramparts in place to protect my sorry heart from his kids.

There is so much about dating this time around that surprises me…. so much for which I am woefully unprepared.  Breaking up is brutal.  Around every corner is another reminder of James that cuts me quickly and cleanly and makes me wonder again how we ended up here.   Then, just when I catch my breath again, I round another corner and smack squarely into a reminder of his kids.  It’s bruising, I tell you.

I have found myself sinking into my own children for solace.  Their hugs and kisses ease my sense of loss.  Like the jilted lover who takes a new partner to bed to forget the smell and taste and touch of the one just lost, I am burying myself in my own children to block out memories of time spent in that other family.

I wonder what will happen the next time I date a man with children…. I suspect that I will not be so unguarded, so open to his children.  I suspect that I will begin — maybe already have begun? — to construct the walls that protect us from future grief.

And I wonder if I will ever see them again.  Possibly, but probably not.  Maybe for me they will remain frozen in time… captured in my photos from this hot summer that we spent together.   Locked in my heart forever.

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Filed under dating, divorce, general musings, healing, love, parenthood, relationships, sadness, single mom

the last dance

My mom likes to tell me stories about the old folks in her retirement community… how this couple has been married 53 years and is still (or, more likely, again) blissfully in love… how that couple can barely stand each other and is each waiting for the other to die…. how that woman is a “tramp” and will sleep with anyone with a pulse… and how that lovely lady can’t seem to find a decent man.

I love her stories.  I love to imagine the octogenarians at the clubhouse dances shuffling around the ballroom floor, cheek to cheek.  I love when she tells me about her elderly friend who has fallen in love and giggles like a school girl when she speaks of her “gentleman friend.”  So many of her retirement community love stories embody hope and tenderness and the perpetuity of blossoming love.

But the ones that break my heart just a little are the stories of the women who, year after year, attend the dances alone and wait for an attached man to be permitted by his female partner to whisk them around the dance floor just once.  These women are the perpetually date-less.  They eat nearly every meal alone, travel with their children and their girlfriends, and fill their days with bridge clubs and water aerobics.

But it is their nights that I wonder about.  Do they ever lie awake in bed and feel the loneliness?  Have they accepted their solitude with alacrity or do they secretly hope that some handsome retiree will come along and sweep them off their feet?  Do they miss being in love?  Do they get gussied up for the clubhouse dances in the hopes that someone new will be there or maybe a neighbor will bring a male friend?

The poignant and sad truth is that many of these ladies have fallen in love for the last time.  To be sure, some will stumble upon a sweet and special love in the twilight of their lives, but for many of them — based on the sheer ratio of men to women in their 80’s — those days are behind them.  And here is what I wonder about most:  did they know when the last was the last?  Or did they think, as we all do in middle age, that there would be another, someday, somewhere down the road….

I suspect the answer is different based on how the last love ended:  if it was a long-term marriage that ended in their spouse’s death, the women seem to believe and accept (often incorrectly) that there will not be another.  But when the last one was a “gentleman friend” that ended in a break-up, I wouldn’t be surprised if they — like most of us — start looking around the clubhouse for their next dance partner.

What would we do if we knew that we would never be in love again… that we’d danced our last dance with love… that we’d never feel that giddy lightness again…?  Just typing it seems blasphemous, and yet….

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

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Filed under dating, divorce, general musings, love, marriage, personal growth, relationships, single mom

withdrawals from the love bank

When I was going through my divorce, I heard about the concept of the “Love Bank,” and it really resonated with me.  The basic premise is that inside of us we each have a “love bank,” with accounts in the names of everyone we care about.  When someone treats us well, they are making a deposit into their account and we feel closer and more appreciative and more loving toward that person.  When someone treats us poorly or hurts us deeply, they make a withdrawal from their account and we feel less close to them, perhaps less trusting, less likely to try to connect with them at that moment.  If the withdrawals exceed the deposits, we ultimately fall out of love or stop caring for that person.  For the most part, once someone has overdrawn their account, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to save the relationship.

It is an intriguing and thought-provoking concept that I wish I had been aware of at the beginning of my marriage.  I have watched it play out in romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships over and over again.  Just for the record, my personal belief is that only our children have overdraft protection.  Perhaps our parents, too, to a certain extent, but even then not to the same degree as our children.

I think love bank withdrawals may be the best explanation for marriages that “just grew apart” or ones that seemed fine until “suddenly” one partner was done and over it and not looking back.  I know that was definitely the case in my own marriage — it wasn’t one or two big hurts or betrayals that brought us down, but many, many years of small hurts and disappointments coupled with weak apologies and obligatory acts of kindness delivered grudgingly.  Some people think that small hurts are not reason enough for a love to die, but, just like your bank account, multiple small withdrawals add up just as quickly (or more so?) as large ones.

What I have noticed most is that a lot of people don’t want to have to make things right when they mess up.  They want to apologize and have it all go away.  To a certain extent, I can understand that:  admitting we’re wrong is uncomfortable, and it makes us uniquely vulnerable.  Add to that the fact that most of us have encountered people who will exploit our moment of guilt and vulnerability into an opportunity to emotionally blackmail us or gain a power dynamic advantage. Such behavior, in the face of a sincere and heartfelt effort to make things right, is horrible, plain and simple.  And it teaches the apologizer — very clearly and directly — not to bother next time.  No self-respecting person should be expected to grovel or otherwise self-mutilate, just to make up for a screw-up.  It’s mean and unfair to expect.

BUT if you make a $1,000 withdrawal from the love bank, a $200 deposit doesn’t bring you back into balance.  And that’s the part that I think a lot of people — especially otherwise smart, well-intentioned men — miss.  If I’m angry about something, a quick apology and some make-up sex will get me over it.  But if my feelings are hurt?  If I’m disappointed in you?  If I feel unspecial or taken for granted?  Then a simple “I’m really sorry” — no matter how sincere — on its own isn’t going to bring the love bank balance back up to pre-incident levels.  I’m going to need a little more reassurance than that.  Some tender TLC.  A little reminder that you hate the thought of me crying over you.  No groveling, no public humiliation, no expensive grand gestures.  No, I’m just talking about the simple, little things.  Call me a little more often the next day.  Hold my hand more.  Tell me, just once more when I least expect it, that you’re sorry for hurting my feelings.  Acknowledge, in some tiny way that I can’t miss, that hurting me was not what you meant to do and not what you’d ever want to do.

And watch your love bank account balance take off.

I think the most powerful thing, to me, about the love bank idea is how well it captures our capacity for forgiveness, alongside the plain fact that forgiveness does not come without a price of some sort.  A sincere, well-delivered apology can be a huge deposit in the love bank, as can some small thoughtful token given at just the right moment.   It is amazing to me how those gestures, those tenderhearted attempts to demonstrate our care and concern can bring a relationship back from the brink of eternal bankruptcy.

I have forgiven a lot in my life, and I have been forgiven a lot. I have had friends who slept with my boyfriends, a mother who ruined my wedding reception, and a boyfriend who threw me down a flight of stairs.  I have betrayed friends and let people down and been the worst version of myself.  And what I have learned is this:  sympathy is not the key to forgiveness, empathy is.

When I have hurt someone I genuinely care about, what I try to do is imagine how I would feel.  Sometimes this is really, really hard to do.  But when I do that, and I am filled with the same feelings that my hurt friend or lover or family member is likely feeling, then I am compelled to make it right.  I want to take that pain away and help them feel better.  That experience is empathy.

Likewise, when someone has hurt me, a sympathetic apology only goes so far.  What really touches my heart, what convinces me that they truly do care for me regardless of what error they have committed, what dissipates my sadness or resentment or sense of distrust faster than anything is a little empathy.

Take this example: Many months ago, my friend Annie and I had a really rough time in our friendship.  She was doing something that was hurting me, and she didn’t understand why I was hurt.  After some time and several difficult conversations, she apologized, sincerely and without reservation.  But there was still space between us…. mistrust on my part, resentment on hers.  Then one day, she experienced something similar and called to tell me about it.  At the end of that conversation, she said, “I’m really sorry.  Now I realize how it must have felt for you.”  And in that instant, we were okay again, love bank accounts restored to previous levels.

In my experience, the same is true for romantic relationships.  We all screw up.  We do things that hurt the people that we love.  But I honestly think that it’s what we do afterwards that matters most.  Do we diminish the other person and their feelings as ridiculous or unreasonable?  Or do we honor those feelings and try to help them let go of their hurt through empathy and caring?

I recognize, of course, that some people are truly unbalanced and so sensitive or over-reactive that there is no chance or possibility to make it right with them.  But I think those people are few and far between.  Most of us want to get over things.  We want to give people another chance.  We want to make our relationships better.

We want our love banks to be full.

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Filed under dating, divorce, friendships, general musings, healing, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom

how dare you

Not too long ago, I was randomly blog-surfing, and what I found amazed me:  blog after blog written by a divorced person, full of vitriol and hatred for their former spouse.  It wasn’t the anger that surprised me — I understand and accept that divorce breeds a lot of anger — it was the intensity, the duration, and most of all, the basis for it:  most of these posts to which I am referring could be summed up as “How dare you stop loving me?!”

As I read one after another, I was first amazed and then saddened by how summarily and brutally these writers labeled their former spouses as “evil” or “ruthless” or (my personal favorite) “demonic.”  Several times, I took a step back and tried to uncover the cardinal sins committed by these damned husbands and wives, but rarely was it one of the obvious Unforgivables.  Most often it was the more common and intangible “drifting apart,” “feeling unappreciated,” “unhappiness with the marriage,” or “feeling like she lost her identity.”  These reasons were universally dismissed by the writers as being insufficient grounds for leaving the marriage.  No, they insisted, their former spouses are simply evil.

Hmmmm……

I used to work with families whose children had been abducted, usually for sexual purposes.  I don’t need to be educated on the presence and power of evil.  I’ve seen it and felt it and know how real it is.  So let’s get a little perspective, shall we?

But I can forgive the hyperbole.  Love — and hate — makes people crazy.  Emotions are powerful and we are all their slave at one time or another. Anger is a completely natural expression of pain, and expressing it is the only way to purge it.  I understand that.  What I don’t understand is staying crazy, wallowing in it, embracing it as your actual reality for months or years.  That part is incomprehensible to me.

What I hear when I read these diatribes is this:  I don’t care if you (my husband or wife) was unhappy or miserable or even suicidal (don’t laugh; I’ve had several women confide to me that their thoughts of desperation and hopelessness went that far, and I was nearly there in my own marriage…).  I don’t care if I wasn’t meeting your needs or if you told me so a million times or if you did seven years of couples counseling with me (again, don’t laugh; one poor blogger did exactly that).  All I care about is that you dared to take your love away from me after you promised that you wouldn’t.

I don’t mean to be a complete bitch, but to that I have to say:  So sad, too bad.

The marriage contract is not indentured servitude.  You aren’t stuck until the other person decides that you’ve earned the right to leave.  None of us is entitled to another person’s love or physical companionship, but that’s really what so many of these rants sound like to me.  They honestly and genuinely sound as though the departed partners should have stayed, no matter their feelings, no matter the state of the marriage, no matter what.

I understand that marriage used to be exactly that — you stayed no matter what.  But then society evolved and most people began to agree that a physically abused spouse should not be required to remain in such a marriage…nor should a spouse who has been cheated on…or one who is saddled with their partner’s addiction issues.  And so, gradually, more and more acceptable reasons for divorcing emerged, and the concept of the “no-fault” divorce arrived when it became clear that most of the time, marriages did not end because one party was a “victim” and the other was “evil.”  Most of the time, it was just a long, sad road to Irreconcilable Differences.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that, in the abstract, most reasonable people can agree on the wisdom of these premises.  They can nod sagely and agree that a person who feels stuck in a sad or loveless marriage for many years should not be expected to serve a life sentence.  They can be supportive of friends who leave their marriages because the love was no longer was there.  But when it is applied to their own relationships, the polarizing categories of “good” and “evil” are resurrected.

This form of hypocrisy was evident to me from a very young age.  When I was growing up, my mother had many divorced friends and she was always accepting and non-judgmental of their reasons for having left their marriages. But when my father left, after spending four years explaining to her that he simply didn’t love her anymore and couldn’t stay in the marriage, she was furious beyond all reason or sense.  And she stayed furious for many, many years.  Even now, more than 20 years later, she still can barely say his name without clenching her teeth.  By her calculations, he had no right to stop loving her after he promised he wouldn’t.  He broke that promise, and so he is an awful person.

My friend Annie’s husband is another fine example of this.  Even though Annie worked really hard to stay in her marriage — marriage and individual counseling, self-help books, the support of family and friends, and various attempts to reconnect with him emotionally and physically — he told her recently that he would never forgive her for leaving.  Apparently she was supposed to simply suck it up and swallow her sadness and hopelessness and carry on for his sake?

Is that really the deal we strike when we marry?  Am I really to believe that because I promise to love you always, I must do so no matter how you treat me or make me feel?  Am I required to accept whatever efforts you make and just assume that is your best and highest effort at saving our marriage, or am I — like you — permitted to judge those efforts and find them insufficient?  Why are you allowed to say that I didn’t try hard enough to save our marriage but I am not permitted to level the same accusation at you?

I think that it is precisely this ability — perhaps even propensity — to embrace such a self-righteous posture that may be a common denominator among many failed marriages.  What I mean is this:  maybe people who are capable of and willing to villify their exes are more likely to be left.  Would that really be so surprising?

In my dating life, I gradually developed a rule about not dating men who’d been left by their wives unless there was a really good reason (e.g. she was mentally ill or unstable) or the circumstances giving rise to the marriage’s demise had changed (e.g. he used to be a workaholic and has since created a better work/life balance).  This wasn’t a rule based on prejudice or a lack of empathy, but of too many dates listening to men rail against their exes and slowly reveal to me her very good justifications in leaving him.  And of course there are huge and important exceptions — there always are.  But in my experience, they are exactly that — exceptions.

Hate blogging someone is human.  It’s simply the latest version of what has gone on after break-ups for eons.  But hate blogging someone for eternity is not human.  It might just be evil.

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grieving before leaving

Last night I spent some time with my friend Lindsay, who is in town visiting.  A few months ago, she moved 1500 miles away from here to take an amazing job opportunity in the Pacific Northwest.  At the time, she was incredibly frightened about what the move would mean for she and Gray, her husband, but she was also hopeful that it would be the fresh start that they so desperately needed.  I wrote about my sadness in watching her go in I already miss her.

Seeing her last night was wonderful.  She looked amazing and her new job is everything she wanted and deserves and more.   We talked as if the time and distance between us did not exist, and I was so very grateful to be in her presence again.

But it was also very sad.  Because she is very sad.  Her marriage is crumbling around her and she is awash in the myriad of emotions that accompany that experience.  She vacillates between wanting — truly and completely — to save her marriage, and feeling almost certain that it is too late.  We sat at a cafe in the twilight by the creek, and I watched the candlelight play off her face and listened to her voice crack as she struggled to get the words out, and my heart broke for her.  I don’t know what her outcome will be, but I know that she is miserable and desperate for change and feeling hopeless, and those are all feelings I know all too well.

She has tried to reach her husband.  They have had some heart-wrenching, honest, no-holds-barred talks and each time she comes away convinced — certain! — that her marriage can be saved and they have finally turned a corner.  But within a week, the momentum is lost and their relationship has backslid into complacency and despair and silence.

Lindsay is grieving, and she’s only partly aware of it.  She is grieving her marriage and the end of all their mutual hopes and dreams.  She is processing the past and contemplating the future and considering her options.  Her heart and mind are engaged and attentive to their situation.  She is not passively awaiting some conclusion or resolution of their problem.

But Gray? As best she can tell, he has resigned himself.  She is frustrated that he doesn’t seem to see what is happening to them, that he is resigned to their situation and appears willing to live in that dismal space forever.

A few years ago I would have been puzzled and unconvinced by Gray’s apparent attitude toward their problems.  He couldn’t possibly not see it, could he??  He must realize what’s happening, mustn’t he???

Now I know better.

Between the work I’ve done in therapy and lots of reading on relationship ambivalence and my own observations,  I have realized that men and women face the end of relationships differently.  This is especially true of men and women over the age of 40.  Most women are proactive about examining their relationships, whereas most men are passive.  Men seem to mostly assume that things will be fine, or at least stay the same, while most women seem to think that things will have to change and get better or else they will leave.  I think this is why most men I know are surprised and stunned by the end of their marriages, while their wives report feeling like they were shouting at the top of their lungs for years before it ended.

I was one such wife.  I — quite literally and sincerely — informed my husband during our first year of marriage that if he continued to tell me I was stupid and treat me as such, I would be gone 10 years from then.  I loved him enough to want to work it out, but I made it clear that I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t live like that forever.  Over the course of our 11-year marriage, I reminded him.  Each time he apologized and acknowledged it and then…. nothing changed.

I think he, and many of my male friends, assume that the wedding contract is non-negotiable.  You signed on, you’re in it, the rest is just details.  Including whatever misery you might be in.

The best example of this is a man I used to be friends with named John.  John cheated on his wife throughout their 14-year marriage and spent considerable energy detailing her every failing. The space between them gradually opened to form an enormous emotional chasm, but he was basically okay with things and, although he talked about leaving, it was clear he never would.  Then his wife, Heidi, came home from a trip to visit family and announced that she was leaving him.  From that moment onward, Heidi seemed to lighten.  Her depressed state lifted and she moved forward, and out of their marriage.  Meanwhile, John was stunned.  Truly speechless and in utter disbelief.  And I was stunned that he was stunned.  Their marriage had been a mess for many, many years.  Heidi’s needs and feelings had played second fiddle to everything else in their lives for ages, and yet he was shocked that she was leaving.  I hardly knew what to say to him.

Someone once told me that when a man in his 40’s says he wants a divorce, you need to call a marriage counselor; but when a woman in her 40’s says she wants a divorce, you need to call a lawyer.  Because when we say we’re done, we’re really and truly done.

Every divorced woman I know spent months if not years being unhappy and grieving her marriage before she finally left.  I don’t know a single woman who made the decision impulsively or without enormous angst.  I also don’t know a single woman who regrets that decision.

Granted, my survey is by no means scientific, and it absolutely can apply in the reverse — there are women who feel blindsided while their husbands feel like it was years in coming, too.   But my point — and one that is borne out in psychological literature on divorce — is that 40-something women who leave tend to process quite a bit of their divorce before they leave.   To a very large extent, much of their grieving and pain occurs while they are still in the marriage.  Which is why, I think, so many men feel like their wives simply stroll out of the marriage without a glance back or a tear shed.  What they are missing is the simple and sad fact that she is already months ahead of him in her grief process, while he is only just beginning.  The pain and reality is fresh and new and harsh to him.  It is accepted and familiar and well-worn to her.

This is not a scientific white paper on divorce psychology, so I am necessarily making gross generalizations, but I think they are useful as a jumping off point when considering why men and women experience the demise of their marriages so differently.  Lindsay is lost in a morass of “what next?” s, while Gray is sitting with sad resignation.  Their experiences of this moment in their marriage are very different.

Sadly, I think that Lindsay will ultimately leave, because Gray has made it fairly clear that he is not interested in working on their marriage.  But she’s not ready yet.  She has a lot of processing and feeling and grieving to do before she’s going to be able to take that step away from him.  In the meantime, he is likely to continue assuming that their marriage, while far from good, is perfectly stable.  And when she finally goes to him and enumerates her reasons for leaving, he will be shocked.

And I will be sad for both of them.

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ashley wilkes was not risk averse

A fellow blogger had an interesting post over the weekend that involved the idea of people being emotionally “risk averse.”  Her post was about the man whom she loves — a married man who has decided to stay with his wife but doesn’t want to let her go.  She sympathizes with his plight.  She feels bad that he is so torn.  She understands and accepts his decision, as well as his waffling, even as she tries mightily to disengage herself and move on.  She wrote of her lover being “risk averse” in assessing his marriage, their relationship, and the options before them.

I wrote a comment to her post and then decided that it was really worthy of a whole post of my own, because I think it’s a concept with which we frequently wrestle, in lots of relationship settings unrelated to infidelity.  It seems to me that if someone cannot or will not make a choice related to a relationship, they are frequently labeled as being risk averse to a potentially difficult outcome.

It got me thinking:  What do we really mean when we say someone is risk averse in an emotional setting?  One professional hat that I wear is that of risk manager, so I fully understand and appreciate and value the concept of weighing costs and benefits, but I think we’ve begun to apply it as a pretty euphemism for a not-pretty behavior…

Remember Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind? Now, I understand Ashley… really I do. I’d probably be great friends with Ashley and spend hours in philosophical conversation with him. He’s basically a good guy and he has some interesting and poetic and romantic ideas.  But there is a reason he is not the hero of the book. This is because, quite frankly, he is a pansy (yes, I know there’s a better word for it, but I’m going with “pansy”). He spends the whole book wringing his hands and saying variations of “Oh my, what shall I do?” while Rhett Butler…. well… Rhett Butler is a man of action, right? He doesn’t dither, he doesn’t over-analyze. He acts. And we swoon. Every. Freakin’.  Time. That’s not to say Rhett isn’t complex, or tortured, or capable of being crazy in love, but just that he’s not an emotional coward.

And what of Scarlett? As strong as she is, she makes excuses for Ashley nearly the whole way through the book. She understands, she sympathizes, she tries to hold his pain for him. Until she finally realizes that it’s not that he’s loyal to Melanie; it’s not that he is such a great gentleman; it’s not that he’s smart; it’s that he’s too scared to do either the completely right thing or the completely wrong thing. So he dithers.

Today, we’d call Ashley Wilkes “risk averse.”

See my point? Now, I’m being kind of harsh here, I know, and I do honestly believe that “risk averse” can be appropriately applied in some emotional situations. When one has been terribly, terribly hurt, natural caution does (and should) emerge to make us much more calculated in our assessment of situations before we leap. But I’ve gradually realized that most people who call themselves risk averse have no greater reason for fear than most of us; they simply choose to hide behind it.

I have a friend who had her heart shattered a few months ago. She is, most definitely, risk averse right now. She is so wounded and cynical and frightened. But she has every reason to be… what happened to her was horrible and mean and she needs time to regain her confidence in assessing risk and her ability to take leaps of faith. And she will. This is a temporary, rational reaction to a very bad experience.

I’m also dating a man right now who falls into the risk averse category. Prior to his marriage, he was fearless (and I do mean fearless; I shudder at some of his stories). But his ex-wife is truly the stuff of a bad Lifetime movie… she is more deceitful and manipulative and calculating than I ever thought truly possible in real life; her diabolical schemes literally shock me.  But he loved her. He sincerely, deeply loved her. Bought her whole Brooklyn Bridge, and paid dearly for it in every possible way. Five years after their divorce, he is still gun-shy. Normally, I’d say man-up and get over it, but the more I hear what she did to him and to men since him, the more amazed I am that he’s opening up to me at all. But he is.  He’s trying.  He doesn’t want to be paralyzed forever by his fears of repeating one awful mistake.

I suspect that some readers might argue that maybe some people are just naturally risk averse and don’t need a specific reason to exercise extreme caution in their emotional affairs.  Perhaps.  But to that argument I fire back:  how is that different from emotional cowardice? Why do we grant this kind of emotional dithering a nice, almost-laudable label?  What happened to the value of decisiveness?  The idea of “strength of character”?  The concept of facing a fear head-on and deciding that we must overcome it and we must do so without a guarantee?  Show me an American hero — male or female — who was risk averse.  Just one.

So, my point to my fellow blogger was that maybe before we grant someone the sympathetic title of “risk averse,” it might be interesting to ask ourselves why.  Why is this person “risk averse”?  How is this behavior different from sheer emotional cowardice?  At what point does prudence become an excuse to wring our hands and say “Oh my, whatever will I do?”

I sincerely do not mean to be harsh toward those who are struggling through understanding their relationship or their capacity to be in that relationship.  What I am taking issue with is the Ashley Wilkeses of this world, for whom ongoing, drawn-out indecisiveness causes pain for themselves and others, and even wreaks havoc with their own life.   At some point, you’ve done enough thinking and it’s time to make a decision.  Or, as my one guy friend likes to say:  Grow a pair.

Because Ashley Wilkes was not risk averse.  Ashley Wilkes was  a pansy.

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was it worth it? (pt. 2)

A new friend wondered aloud recently if I would have the desire and commitment to fight for the kind of love and intimacy I claim to seek, or would I let fear and doubt strangle the possibility.  Because I respect his opinion, I gave his comment some serious consideration.

Every person leaves a marriage for their own, very personal reasons.  I left because I was dying inside.  My ex-husband was not a drinker or a gambler.  He didn’t sleep around or lie or beat me.  I did not hate him or think him an awful person. But there did not exist between us that magical connection that is as fragile as the finest, thinnest silk thread, and as strong as steel.  Our love was not capable of surviving the challenges and punishments inflicted on it by circumstance and time, and no amount of wishing that it was could change that.  That connection, that intimacy simply wasn’t there.

It took me many years to accept that this was the truth… to face it in my own heart and do what was best for both of us… to acknowledge that I could no longer pretend that what we had was enough…. to finally leave.

Divorce sucks.  Plain and simple.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, if I had one.  I lived through my parents’ horrific divorce, and I still wasn’t prepared for how painful and wretched my own divorce was.  There have been ample opportunities in the last couple of years to search my soul and re-examine my commitment to my decision, and plenty of dark moments of intense pain and grief that have seriously challenged that dedication.  Lots of tears and lots of peaks and valleys.  And time after time, I have sat across from a perfectly nice, attractive, interesting man and thought, “If I wanted this, I could have it.  But is it enough?”  And over, and over, and over again, I have answered no.

Deep down, in the very core of my soul, I know extraordinary love is possible.  I have felt it and seen it and tasted it in my own life, lost myself in it and surrendered completely to the possibilities inherent in it.  I have also witnessed it in my friends’ relationships, heard their stories, and seen their eyes sparkle with that magical connection that cannot be adequately explained, even after decades together.

Am I frightened of getting hurt again?  You betcha.  Does my flight reaction still kick in with an annoying regularity.  Yep.  But over the last few months, I have finally begun to really push back against these demons.  I know that they could very well rob me of the prize that I seek with my full heart, and I absolutely, resolutely, with every ounce of my Irish stubbornness, refuse to grant them that victory.  No, no, a thousand times no.

I know it won’t be easy to find the kind of love and connection that I want.  And once it’s there in front of me, I’ll have to step up and dig in and commit myself fully to the adventure it presents.  I know that I’ll stumble, that those old fears and reflexes will show up like the party-crashers that they are.  Hopefully my partner in that great journey will have the patience to love me through it as I show the unwelcome guests the door.  Hopefully he’ll understand that beating these demons is simply part of my journey and not a reflection of my commitment to my ultimate goal.

Perhaps I won’t find the kind of love that I seek.  Maybe I’ll reach old age and simply be one of those remarkable old ladies with a bevy of amazing, loving friends and a life full of smaller miracles.  But I hope not, and I intend to keep trying to be open, trying to be brave, for the rest of my life.

I met someone recently who, like a nudge from the universe, reminded me of the profound possibilities that exist in the realm of love.  Against all traditional definitions of what is “rational” and “smart,” I have embarked on a wonderful adventure of mutual discovery with this man.  I have no idea where it is going, and, yes, that scares me a little, but at the very least, I have discovered another kindred spirit who seeks the same thing I do.  We are out there.

I have told only my two closest friends about this new man, and their reactions have told me volumes about my own commitment to the kind of love I seek, because they are both completely unsurprised that, once again, I have signed on for the adventure.  Are they worried that I’ll be hurt?  Of course they are; they love me.  Are they supportive of me taking this risk?  Of course they are; they love me.  They understand that I will never be happy with less, and so they cheer me on as I press forward.

When I first announced that I was leaving my husband, my then-closest friend scolded me, saying, “Well, I sure hope it’s worth it!” I endured her scolds silently, knowing that I could never make her understand how I felt or why I was doing what I was doing.  And what she could never appreciate — not in a whole lifetime — is that it is already worth it.  I am no longer dying.  In the last two years I have learned how to live again.  Yes, I crawl into bed alone most nights, and yes, I am poorer than I once was, and yes, my future is wide open and uncertain.  But there is possibility.  There is a chance.  There is hope.  And there is me, standing in the middle of all of that.

So, yes, it was worth it.  A thousand times, yes.

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the value of pain. seriously.

I read an article the other day that reported that scientists have discovered that social rejection actually is painful.  Apparently, by studying MRI’s and PET scans of the human brain activity, scientists have found that the areas of the brain that are triggered by social rejection overlap with the areas of the brain that recognize physical pain.  So, it appears that scientists have now confirmed what every dating woman has always known:  being rejected hurts.  Literally.

I think we all have slightly different ways of experiencing that pain.  I feel it in my muscles, which ache like I’ve run a marathon, and in my chest, which tightens like the clenched muscle it is.  I had a friend once who got physically ill every time she got her heart broken; it was like she was vomiting out all her pain, until she was empty. It was almost as painful to watch as it probably was to go through.

I think we also process our pain differently.  My mother used to rage when she was heartbroken — slamming kitchen cabinets, pounding fists on the table — the outward manifestation of the violence happening in her heart.   I have a friend who retreats to her sofa and her remote control, watching countless movies and episodes of Sex in the City until she finally tires of her own sadness and gets up and moves on.  Then, of course, there are my guy friends, who self-medicate to forget about it, at least for a little while.

As for me, first, I fall into a fog.  I mindlessly move through my day, reaching the end of each one with no real memory of how I got there.  Second, I become restless and antsy, pacing like a caged cat, my mind racing like a mouse in a maze to uncover an alternative happy ending.  Then, finally exhausted, I surrender to the reality of my situation, force all memories and theories and what if’s to the recesses of my mind, and bury myself in work and my children.  This moving on period usually culminates in a date or two with a guy who really wants to spoil me, just to remind myself that such men exist.  Oh, and there’s usually crying.  Lots of crying.  What can I say?  I come from a theatrical family.

But I think, even as I sit in the midst of a present pain, that there is some value in hurting.  As a child, my mother used to constantly remind me that adversity builds character.  “People who have it easy,” she would say, “are boring.”  As an adult, I know she is right.  It is only through our struggles that we truly discover ourselves and our world in any meaningful way.  It just sucks that those struggles have to hurt so much.

I have also realized and come to appreciate that pain is grounding.  There is something profoundly humbling in coming to grips with the fact that someone does not care for you as you thought or wished that they had.  It knocks you down a peg or two, puts you in your place, squashes any hubris that might have been taking root as you basked in the glow of your successful relationship.  I found myself this morning, lying in bed, reviewing in my head my ex-husband’s catalog of grievances against me, examining each one for possible validity, and wondering — for the umpteenth time — if maybe, just maybe he was right about me after all.  It is an extraordinarily painful exercise to move through, but definitely valuable.  Because each new pain peels back another layer of understanding, of perspective, so that some of his complaints begin to stand on their own legs, while others sink further into the morass of crappy, wrong things he said about me.

Some people don’t question themselves at all after a break-up.  They move out of that potentially painful space with the confidence and certainty that they are not at fault, are not flawed, are not to blame in any way for the dead relationship.  Such people leave me incredulous, and I’m not sure whether I envy them or want to slap them.  But I am forced to concede that it must be a nice, easy way to avoid the fog-and-restlessness-and-crying-and-overanalyzing  approach that I employ.

I think, however, that the most valuable part of pain is the clarity that it brings with it.  Sometimes it causes me to pause and consider the choices others have made with which I have disagreed.  Suddenly, I don’t feel so smart and righteous after having my ass handed to me.  In my humility, I must admit that perhaps their way was the better one, perhaps they are the wiser for having chosen it.  Perhaps I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about and should quit spouting off like I do.  Perhaps the choices that I’m making — about who to date and how to date — are the very choices that are giving birth to these painful episodes.  Maybe, just maybe, I’m not as smart as I think I am.  In fact, maybe I’m completely clueless.

A friend commented today that every time I am hurt, it is a moral crisis for me — I re-examine myself, take myself apart and look for broken pieces, trying to identify the culprit that tripped the trigger that caused the pain.  As he said to me, “Not everyone is worth a complete transmission overhaul.  Some guys are only worth an oil change.”   I don’t disagree that, to a certain extent, he is precisely right.  But I do wonder if that isn’t what we’re supposed to do with pain.  Are we not to learn from it?  Am I to be so sure in my self-identity that no criticism leveled against me shall ever receive any credence?  I can only conclude that there must be some form of moderation involved — that perhaps I delve too deeply, too often, as he suggested.

I have noticed that the very issue of emotional pain is somewhat taboo among those who write for inspiration or motivation, and I freely admit that I waffled over whether to even publish this post.  But I have to be honest:  I really hate advice-givers and bloggers and motivational speakers who are perpetually happy and well-adjusted.  I mean, seriously, don’t they ever have any self-doubt or melancholy?  Even Carrie Bradshaw cried once in a while, and she’s fictional.   Besides, I promised myself when I undertook this project that my blog would be real and true and unvarnished.  So, if you tuned in today for a bit of uplifting prose, I apologize.  It just wasn’t in the cards.

As for my current pain, I hope that it doesn’t last long and that I can shortly return to the peaceful and contented place I was before this man reappeared in my life.  And maybe, just maybe, I will emerge from this little episode armed with more knowledge and wisdom and self-awareness than before.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe the clarity to emerge from this period will be the clarity that I really am clueless and I really am naive and I really am vulnerable.  But I suppose there is value in that information, too.

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discovering the “parallel relationship”

Today, I am pondering the surreal quality of discovering that you have been engaged in a “parallel relationship.”  A parallel relationship, for those of you fortunate enough to not have encountered this particular brand of pain, is when the two people in a relationship are having completely different relationships.  The easiest example of this is the girl who thinks her boyfriend is totally committed and in love, while he’s telling his homeboys that she’s nice enough and the sex is okay.  These two people are not having the same relationship experience.  They might both be enjoying the relationship in their own ways, but they are definitely not on the same page.  That example might be the clearest, but I actually don’t think it’s the most common.  At least not at my age.

I think the most common version of the parallel relationship at my age has to do with the person who is simply looking for someone to pass the time with.  In the post-divorce, middle-aged world, companionship and sex are valuable commodities.  The once-married are used to having those things, and miss them when they’re gone.  So they seek out someone to fill the role, usually temporarily, to meet those limited and specific needs.   It’s kind of like a friends-with-benefits (FWB) situation.  You spend quite a bit of time together, have sex, maybe even meet each other’s friends, but there is no expectation or desire of it going any deeper.  It’s a great system, when you’re on the same page.  When you’re not, frequently a parallel relationship will emerge:  one party is going along, happily thinking that this FWB thing is great and lots of fun; the other party is also going along happily, feeling good about things but unaware that the relationship isn’t really a relationship at all.  It’s more of a friendship.  With sex.  It has a short shelf-life and absolutely no future.  Minimal investment will be made in the relationship — usually just enough to keep it alive.  Certainly not enough to take it anywhere further.

The dangerous thing about the parallel relationship is that you may not even know you’re in one.  When you first start dating, things are always casual.  You gradually spend more time together, learn more about each other, have more fun.  You might start to rely on each other a little bit more, maybe get more comfortable with each other, talk every day, spend time hanging out without having sex.  But here’s the catch:  you still aren’t in a relationship.  This could just as easily be a long-term FWB situation.  And you might not know it until some little action or word clearly spells it out for you.

Which is what happened to me today.

I have been, against what should have been my better judgment, allowing myself to get close to a man who will never truly care about me.  It’s probably not his fault, to be fair.  We can’t control our feelings.  Whatever “that thing” is, he just doesn’t feel it for me, and if I’m being honest, I’ve known it all along.  He has never exactly lied to me.  He has never “led me on.”  But I liked him and I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was some real potential there.  I thought this despite ample evidence to the contrary.  I refused to see the obvious and instead applied my own standards for behavior and engaging to him. I was thinking that we were seriously interested in each other and exploring what might (or might not) exist between us, but I think now that he was simply having fun with me, enjoying his time with me, all the while knowing that it would never really be anything.  We were having parallel relationships.

So now I am in that awful place of having to sort through the reality of what is, versus the dashed hopes of what might have been.  The reality feels heavy and empty and cheap.  The dashed hopes feel like sharp shards of glass that slice me each time I touch them.  But touch them I will.  I will pick up each and every piece and place them in the prettily-wrapped box in which they came.  Then I will take out my metaphorical Sharpie and mark the box, in clear, firm letters, “Nothing.”

And then I will carefully, deliberately make my own way once again, a little less sure of myself, a little less trusting, and a little less open.

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the divorced and the furious

Anger and I have never been friends.  I was raised in a household where the only anger tolerated was my mother’s.  Every one else had to be “nice.”  As a result, I grew up not really knowing how to constructively deal with my anger, so most of the time, I swallowed it.  And it became an ulcer on my soul called depression.  It wasn’t until, as an adult, I had a therapist explain a theory about depression that centered on the idea that depression is anger turned inward.  In other words, it’s anger with no place to go… for one reason or another, the anger you feel cannot be expressed, so you bury it and grow increasingly depressed.  This is a clinical depression, not a sadness or a grief, but a low-energy hopelessness about your situation that usually feels completely out of proportion to the actual facts of your situation.

Once I understood the concept, I had one of those beautiful “aha!” moments when something in your life just clicks into place in a way that completely alters your worldview.  This theory, I realized, explained so much of my life and the intermittent depression I’d struggled with privately.  I wasn’t sad, really, I was just very, very, very pissed off, but too “nice” to do anything appropriate with that anger.

Anger is still something with which I’m learning to get comfortable, and it’s not easy for me.  Of all the emotions, anger seems to me to be like that loud, bawdy, vulgar aunt who drinks too much at Christmas, burps loudly, and laughs at her own jokes.   There is no softness to anger, it is angular and sharp and hard.  It is unforgiving and unyielding, and it frightens me how it can be blinding in its extremes.   I realize that it is a vital emotion, and one that can be cathartic and cleansing when managed properly, but when I’m angry, I mostly feel like a newbie driver behind the wheel of a semi-truck — ill-prepared and dangerous, ready to roll over an innocent bystander at any minute.  So, I guess you could say I’m working on it.

When my parents divorced, my mother was outraged.  I am not exaggerating; there is seriously no other word for her feelings toward my dad.  His primary sin was that he didn’t love her anymore, and for this she was completely and utterly furious with him.  Now, my mom comes from a long line of Eastern European hotheads, and she did her ancestors proud.  She stayed furious at my father for 13 years after their divorce.  Yes, that’s right: THIRTEEN YEARS.  For 13 years, she seethed.  If his name was mentioned, her face and demeanor perceptibly changed.  Those who had anything nice to say about him were banished, and he became this horrible villain in her life story.  Fortunately for her (and all of us, really), an enormous falling out with me followed by some intensive therapy helped her let go of most of her anger.  Thank goodness.

Since my separation, I have dated plenty of guys who were divorced, and, not surprisingly, anger has been a frequent theme.  As expected, some of these men reported ex-wives who were a combination of Medusa and the Wicked Witch of the West, but I became adept at being an active listener and discerning what was real and what was pure emotion.    I learned to avoid the men who had a lot of unresolved anger; my experience with my mom had taught me that anger of that nature is ultimately visited on everyone around the injured person, and that’s a kind of baggage I decided to avoid.

That’s not to say that I don’t get pissed off at my ex or that I wouldn’t be in a relationship with a guy who didn’t have a fairytale happy relationship with his ex.  I’m not talking about the guy who still gets annoyed at his ex or thinks she’s a crazy bitch.  I’m talking about the guy who is seething.  The guy who has so much anger in his heart toward his ex that there probably isn’t room in there for anyone new.  That guy is, for all real intents and purposes, still in a relationship with his ex, as much as if he were still sleeping in her bed.  He is engaged with her, consumed by her, negatively infatuated by her.  And for any woman who is good enough to try to love him, he is a dead end.

The most obvious example of this kind of man was one of my first match.com dates.  We’ll call him Chris.  Chris and I met for coffee one morning and talked for over an hour.  He was handsome and interesting and seemed to smile easily. But as the minutes ticked by, I perceived that, despite his relaxed Colorado demeanor, inside he was clenched tight as a fist.  I asked about his ex-wife, and, at first, he claimed no hard feelings and enumerated some of her wonderful qualities.  I sat back and listened and, as often was the case, he kept talking.  And I saw that his smile, while easily worn, had a tightness about the edges, a sharpness to it that belied his inner anger.  He pulled at the napkin in front of him with a kind of controlled fury that I noted with apprehension.  He talked of her egregious behavior and how she had failed to honor her commitment to a life together until death did they part.  I finally interrupted him and asked how long they had been divorced.

Nine years.

They had been divorced nine years and Chris was still raging over her and the fact that she had left him.  Wow.  Needless to say, I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.

Of course divorce makes people angry.  It might even make them rageful. A lot crappy things are done and said when a marriage is dying and a divorce is being born.  But what the two people do with those feelings and how much control they surrender to them and how long they hold onto them are all very telling.  Does their anger color their world view?  Are they aware of their anger or do they deny it? Do they ever consciously let go of that anger in order to make a new life?  Or do they allow the anger to consume them, so that they are living a life in the shadow of a relationship long over?

Last week, my ex-husband disappointed me.  In a big, big way.  And I was shocked at how quickly my anger and resentment toward him boiled up again.  I spent a few days telling all my friends (not our friends, but my friends) what an asshole he was.  I had bad dreams and journaled furiously about how perfectly this latest offense encapsulated my reasons for divorcing him.  I avoided this blog, lest it become a repository for my negativity. And then, after a couple of days, I was spent.   So, I turned away from him and my feelings about him and back to the life I’m creating for myself.  And in the last few days I’ve hardly thought of him at all.

I’m sure there isn’t only one right way to deal with the anger of divorce, but I know that this is the way that I’m dealing with it.  I’m trying to allow my anger to speak when appropriate, but to do so constructively and without malice.  As with any new skill, I’ve had mixed results.  But so far, I’m just glad it hasn’t become the centerpiece of my life.  Because anger held too tightly for too long creates a barren and harsh landscape, inhospitable to compassion and love and empathy and intimacy.  I learned this early and I learned it well.   Thank goodness.

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