Goodbye to all that
September 20, 2010 10:31 AM   Subscribe

I was with my ex-wife for a long, long time. She cheated; we separated and ultimately got an easy divorce. We’ve each moved on, and I’m close to proposing to my girlfriend after about two years together. We’re a great pair. But I often feel unanchored, cast about by the knowledge that nothing lasts forever. Am I doing it wrong? Other divorced folks (esp. those on the dumped side)—what’s the path forward?

I married my high school sweetheart (yes, yes, I know), but it really was great for a long time. And then it wasn’t. She accepted a one-year position in another city, took up with a colleague (also married), and everything fell apart. I followed her to the new city to try to make things work, but it was all too far gone. We got a pretty painless divorce, all things considered, about four years ago. We had been together for about fifteen years.

I had a torrid rebound relationship that ran its course and, after looking for a little while and seeing a few people, found a wonderful woman who is a great match for me. She’s my best friend, and lots of fun. She loves me a lot, and I love her. I’m planning on proposing sometime in the relatively near future (don’t tell).

But while I look forward to solemnizing our commitment to each other, and while I can’t imagine someone I’d rather be with, I am often struck by the thought that if my first marriage could end so abruptly, so could my second. I had thought that I would grow old with my ex, whereas I have the sense that I might not with my current girlfriend.

Which is not to say that I’m scared or paranoid with the girlfriend—it feels more like knowing that, in all likelihood, you will change your current career before you retire. Things run their course. Enjoy them while you can. But the flipside is that some of the mystery is gone: love is an amazing partnership, but “happy ever after” seems like a fairytale. I had, in some ways, defined myself in terms of the relationship with my ex, and had to re-establish who I was once that relationship ended. These days, I feel like I am Self-Sufficient Me first, and then Relationship Me second. If my relationship with my girlfriend were to end, I’d be heartsick—but I know I could move on and find someone new. That knowledge, however, gives a very different feel to this relationship versus the blind faith in love I had before.

Is this normal? Is this something I should try to change? Other divorced Mefites, what was your path in the years after your breakups?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
i started dating again when i came to the realization that if i didn't try to find someone i knew i was going to be unhappy, but if i went looking for someone there was a chance that i might succeed the second time.

it's working so far.
posted by lester at 10:43 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

That knowledge, however, gives a very different feel to this relationship versus the blind faith in love I had before.

Growing up is often not a joyous process.

You are older and you don't see things with the eyes of the person you used to have the luxury of being. That's all. What's happening right now is that you only have one working model of a super long term relationship, and so whether you realize it or not, on some level you are likely to be measuring a relationship's success by how closely it matches the beats of your longest-term one to date, and there's really nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize you're doing it.

What I will tell you is this: Happily ever after doesn't need to be a fairy tale, but it's hard to come by and it doesn't happen like it does in the movies. It takes work, from both parties. But please try to realize that you still can't rule out happily ever after.

The love you want is someone who will stay with you to the end. Out of the roughly three billion women in this world, a very young version of you misjudged who that would be. But the thing about staying with you to the end is that you can't say whether she did or not until the end arrives.

And you've got a long way to go before then. So live, and love, and shed a bittersweet tear for the idealistic love of youth; it is not yours, but now you get to have the comfortable, well-tuned love of the slightly more vulnerable and much wiser older man that you are now. It's a trade-off.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:56 AM on September 20, 2010 [11 favorites]

Even if it DOES end, that in no way diminishes the relationship itself. Good - and great! - relationships can have sell-by dates. That's something we seem to have a hard time wrapping our brains around - it's either happily ever after, or it's CRAP. Not so. We're all gonna die someday, too - that doesn't make our lives themselves any less valuable and worthwhile.

That being said: I married young, divorced after seven or eight years together. I, too, have felt some heartsickness that I'm no longer as new and optimistic and starry-eyed as I once was... and also that I'll never get another chance to do things "for the first time". However, I view this as just another level of personal evolution. It is not as dopey and goofy and exhilarating and romantic as being seventeen, in a lot of ways... but it is also sooooo much more "real" now that I know what I'm doing. I KNOW how bad the fall can hurt, and I'm still choosing to climb. That's worth something, right?
posted by julthumbscrew at 11:02 AM on September 20, 2010 [16 favorites]

These days, I feel like I am Self-Sufficient Me first, and then Relationship Me second. If my relationship with my girlfriend were to end, I’d be heartsick—but I know I could move on and find someone new. That knowledge, however, gives a very different feel to this relationship versus the blind faith in love I had before.

I think that's realistic and healthy, and if I were your girlfriend I would feel comfortable having a relationship with someone who felt like this. Then again, I'm practical and not into the concept of the "soul mate."
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:03 AM on September 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

anonymous: That knowledge, however, gives a very different feel to this relationship versus the blind faith in love I had before.

This is not only normal but I think healthy. While it can seem sad to not have the rose colored glasses of before, I think it is also far more realistic and means you aren't putting some sort of idealized pressure on the relationship.

When I ended my first very long term relationship (which I'd consider the gay equivilant of the high school sweetheart -- both of us being in our first real relationship after coming out), I felt the same way you did. But I took it in a different direction. I thought I'd never have a relationship again because, hey what's the point?

I then realized that you can still have all the benefits of a healthy adult partnership without bogging it down with what society attaches to it -- ideas like "soulmates" or "the one and only" or the like. Even when you're not looking for a relationship, though, you can realize that people who want to be together are lucky to have found each other, just because there are so many people in the world. That's special enough without giving it some sort of magic. (When I was out there single, I couldn't even date guys who hadn't "been around the block" in ways similar to me because even though I thought their relationship ideal was stupid, I didn't want to be the one to break it to them.)

And then, though I still felt that their was a point to relationships but that they were not meant for me, I met somebody who broke that down by being impossibly the right match and somebody I didn't want my barriers to push away. What made it work is that even though he was somehow crazy about me, he and I were on the same page as far as relationships went: we're in for the long haul and going to try to make it work forever and would both be devastated if we drifted apart again like we had with our previous partners BUT we also know that the world will go on.

So I'm not sure what my point is except that I hope this sounds familiar to you, so that you realize, yes, what you're feeling is normal -- or at least non-unique -- and in my opinion, is a good marker for your future happiness.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:03 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know it is hard to feel fully engaged in the... well, engagement process while still being realistic about what may occur down the road. But you know, you are just doing and loving the best you can with what you already know.

"They lived Happily Ever After" is a fairy tale. Or rather, it is something you can (sort of) say about someone after the fact. As a goal to strive toward it is completely illusory. "They made the best of what they had every single day" is a little better.

If my relationship with my girlfriend were to end, I’d be heartsick—but I know I could move on and find someone new. That knowledge, however, gives a very different feel to this relationship versus the blind faith in love I had before.

Do you really want to experience a love that you could NOT recover from losing? Good lord.
posted by hermitosis at 11:17 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

These days, I feel like I am Self-Sufficient Me first, and then Relationship Me second

This is exactly the way I have learned that relationships should work -- it's hard to love someone else in a positive way if you don't love yourself first. Over-the-top romantic love is exhilarating, but a deep, self-aware love borne out of two people who respect themselves as well as each other is very, very satisfying.
posted by ukdanae at 11:25 AM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

There is always the chance that relationships will hurt us. But love takes risks. This sounds simplistic, but it's not, because of two truths about life: any relationship has the potential to hurt us; but if we don't take risks to secure them, our quality of life is actually worse. It's one of those things in life that we can't guarantee, but we also can't avoid, if we want to live to the fullest.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:26 AM on September 20, 2010

I was in a similar situation to you. My first marriage ended after he cheated and I have since remarried and started a family with my second husband. I hate to break it to you but you may very well never be able to give 100% without looking over your shoulder again. I wasn't. It sounds like several previous posters weren't either. When you commit in front of everyone you care about to being with someone forever and that ends up not happening, I truly think it scars you. (Not to trivialize a non-divorce type breakup, we just happen to be talking divorce here so bear with me.)

I have often said that each relationship I had got a little bit less of me than the previous one. And that was never more the case than between the divorce and now. I contribute to my savings always with the thought in the back of my mind that if I ever had to leave, I could. I think about my career in terms of taking care of myself and my kids, if ever something happened between us. He has said more than once that he'd like to strangle my ex husband because he really thinks the distance I maintain comes from that. Getting burned by someone who promised always to care for you is like a sucker punch, and you'll be watching for that a little bit for the rest of your life.

Having said all that, I do think it will get better. I've been remarried for four years now and I am in a better place than I was even 12 months ago. Every year that goes by, he gets deeper into my heart and I think it would be harder to lose him, and I let him in a little more. But it's not like the consuming love that I wasted on my first husband. I don't know that it ever will be.
posted by supercapitalist at 11:34 AM on September 20, 2010 [11 favorites]

The path forward is to do what you're doing and eventually grow into faith and trust in your relationship that is built from experience, and so solid as to be unshakable.

Before you had that faith and trust and it came more easily and maybe it felt a lot freer, a lot more simple, because you didn't realize that it could be misplaced. Losing the simplicity, the freedom of not knowing what could happen is very, very sad. I think it's worth mourning.

The benefit is that you now know that you are you, and that whatever happens, you'll survive. It ends up feeling a lot more like it's a conscious choice to be in your relationships, and not a need.

It's amazing to look back on what you've built even without that blind trust. Despite what you've been through, despite the fact that you knew what could happen--you'll know that you built an amazing, trusting, and loving relationship, because you were brave, strong, and committed.

Congratulations on your upcoming engagement!
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:36 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sometimes relationships go bad and sometimes they don't. There is never a guarantee of anything in life. Live life to its fullest for now and don't look back.

For some this may be a terrible analogy, for others perhaps not so much... This isn't about the "training", but the overall experience, of course. :P Think about puppies. Sometimes you get a puppy and the puppy is easy to train and live with, being a perfect dog from day one. Other times you get a nightmare puppy who takes a lot of time, energy and patience but eventually grows into a great dog. A small few get puppies who no matter how patient and understanding their owners are, they still have permanent problems (behavioral or otherwise) and you have to learn to adapt to them. With puppies, you never really know how (s)he will be until later in their life. Sure there are clues to look for, but nothing concrete.

The same goes here. You can only love each other and go into it with a positive attitude and when I say that, this means the willingness to truly commit and do whatever it takes to make things work. There is not much else to consider.

If by some chance it ends badly, you'll at least be able to tell yourself that you did everything you possibly could. The key is never to compare to past relationships and never look back. What is in the past is in the past. Learn from it and move forward.
posted by magnoliasouth at 11:39 AM on September 20, 2010

What you're feeling is definitely rational, and I can completely empathize with it. I'm maybe not as far along as you, but divorced my first wife (5.5 year relationship) after she had an affair and we failed to work it out, and I am now in an extraordinarily happy relationship with a woman that is better for me in every conceivable way. Life is just awesome.

However, I do have the sense that things are ephemeral that you're referring to, and I don't remember having that at all in the first relationship. I remember distinctly feeling, even when things were going south, that I could make anything work, and that this was just some phase. After all, my parents have had ups and downs, and this is marriage; it's forever! Etc.

Post-divorce, I'm definitely not in a hurry to get married again, though would still like to some day, and, either way, but when I think about it feels much more like a pragmatic step rather than a huge romantic leap into Forever; in that way, I guess some of the naive magic I felt the first time around is just gone. Also, I am absolutely going to make sure that I look out for my own needs much more going forward than I did in my last relationship (ultimately, you have to look out for #1). On that point:

These days, I feel like I am Self-Sufficient Me first, and then Relationship Me second. If my relationship with my girlfriend were to end, I’d be heartsick—but I know I could move on and find someone new. That knowledge, however, gives a very different feel to this relationship versus the blind faith in love I had before.

I think that's really the key. As long as you have your own identify, any relationship you're in will be better off (this is not an intuitive observation, for sure). There's an old adage: one of two, not half of one. Relying on one person in either direction for too much of something for a long time strains any relationship. One of the things that really helps my current relationship tick is that we are both very ambitious and independent, but prioritize each other very highly. We spend tons of time together, but are both really busy outside of that time. Somehow the balance just feels right and sustainable. My failed marriage did not have this characteristic.

I mean, it's hard to boil down any relationship to one thing that destroyed it over time, but I'm pretty sure this one was a big one.

Anyway, good luck with it! It sounds like you've found a great match and a lifelong best friend. I really hope it works out for you both!
posted by kryptonik at 11:40 AM on September 20, 2010

I almost married my high school sweetheart. I comfort myself with the knowledge that although I won't ever have a lifelong one-and-only love now, I'll understand break-up songs. I'll be able to empathize with the many, many other people who have gone through break-ups. It's part of the human experience too, I think. Staying with one person your entire life is the exception to the rule, not the ideal, necessarily. Consider all the people who lose a spouse young to war or disease or accidents and then remarry. And also, part of me will always love my ex. Just because we're not living together, married, doesn't mean that we're not still growing old together in a sense-because I know he and I will have that shared memory of our romance for as long as we're both around. I guess I see love as a third entity, like a little world created and entered only by two people. Each one is different, so they can't really be compared. It might help to remember all the friends you had in childhood that you've since lost touch with. At the time, you might have sworn to be blood brothers (or whatever) and been best of friends, but just because you had more than one such friendship as you grew up, it doesn't really invalidate or replace the others. People still change and outgrow each other all the time as adults, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Even those people who stay together for life are never really the same people as they were when they were young, in the long run.

"Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death." -Anais Nin
posted by Nixy at 11:44 AM on September 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

In a lot of ways you don't feel all that different than anyone else your age, thinking about marriage. I got married when I was thirty one, I was and am very much in love, but way more "realistic" i suppose than how I felt about a lot of things when I was younger.

A lot of the way we feel about things when we are young has to do with what we don't know, and what we haven't felt. It's sweet to remember that delightful vacuum, but it's even sweeter to wring joy from fullness.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 1:04 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you're imagining a greater knowledge of the future than you actually have.

One relationship doesn't give you enough data points to tell you where this is going to go. Yes, things will change, but you could be with this woman for a brilliant 50 years together. Don't sell that option short by saying that "all things run their course." Yes, there may be an end in there, but there may not. Don't try to fill in the blanks of what you can't see - just let it happen. And, enjoy. People who find love a second time like you have are very, very fortunate.

Always uncertain, is the future. Take it a day at a time.
posted by Citrus at 1:12 PM on September 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

You need to let go of your past insecurities and open up to your partner entirely - place all the chips on the table and go all in. Anything less means you are still not ready and could end painfully if she feels you holding back or you feel like there is something missing. I think you should give it your best shot and hand her your heart and trust even thorough it is a scary thing to do. Anything else means a blah life for you both, possibly with you two drifting apart as times goes on.
posted by meepmeow at 1:31 PM on September 20, 2010

I have been there, I can tell you that you need to trust your partner until she gives you a reason not to. It is scary trusting another person to not betray you, but to live life afraid of what if is not good. You just have to let go, it is better to love and lose then to not love at all.
posted by sandyp at 4:38 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Let me make an analogy, and hopefully it'll help (I am divorced and feel 100% as you do):

When you were a child, your parents were invincible, all-knowing superheroes. One day, you grew up and realized they were human. Did this realization make you love them less, or love them more? Knowing that they could be wrong, make mistakes, even die... did it make you cherish your time with them any less because they weren't part of a fairy tale, or did it make you realize your own mortality, humanity, and the gravity of your own behaviors that much more?

I think what you've written here proves that you have much better judgment now about what a realistic relationship can be, and what you will and won't be able to live with in a marriage. That you won't commit to an idea that is clearly unattainable, but to a real relationship with a human being, faults and all, that COULD fail, is far nobler than having your identity and entire future being dependent on another person and pre-written the moment you say "I do."

Committing to someone on realistic terms, knowing it could end and choosing to do so anyway, is the hallmark of maturity. You are choosing to try marriage again, knowing the risks and realities of what that means in a way you didn't before when you were young. Nothing is guaranteed.

As the widowed Italian woman Luisa says in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train: "Sometimes the greatest love can last only one week."

I never really understood the gravity and simplicity of that statement - or the whole "better to have loved and lost than never loved at all" mindset - until I was on the other side of that "blind faith" you wrote about. Conditional love is liberating, while unconditional love is a myth and, at times, a painful trap people cannot free themselves from. No single decision defines the path the rest of your life will take, and really, isn't that a GOOD thing?
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:46 PM on September 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

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