I recently ended a relationship with someone I loved very much. Things were really good between us for a good while – almost five years – but over the past several months, somehow we stopped being happy together. In every way, he was exactly what I needed. Except this: he’s married.
I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking. He’s not married like everyone else I see is married. He’s married in the “we live in the same house but haven’t touched in years” way. He and his wife even sleep in separate bedrooms, for crying out loud. They haven’t been happy together for a long time, if ever.
What started as a really great friendship between us has evolved into a complete clusterf*ck and now I’m afraid I’ll never talk to him again.
I’m writing you now because I woke up to an email from him this morning. Promising that he was going to see an attorney and get the ball rolling on a divorce. Begging me to reconsider. Telling me all the things I already know – that we are perfect together except for this small detail.
I’m afraid that I’m not strong enough to end this relationship and move on with my life. I have given him five years of my life and looking back it seems as if it’s all been a complete waste. I’m also afraid that I’ll never find this kind of love again, that every other man I meet after this will pale in comparison to him.
Am I a complete asshole for wanting him to leave his wife for a relationship with me? How do I move on with my life without constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at what I’m leaving behind?
Dead End Road
Dear Dead End Road,
I am so sorry for your heartache. Ending a relationship with someone you love is one of the most gut-wrenching choices to make. When I think of the five most traumatic experiences of my life, the end of a relationship in one way or another fills the top three spots.
When I was in the middle of my divorce, friends surrounded me in ways I didn’t know friends could. I had no idea how many people really cared about me until I started walking through the fire and they joined me on the road of coals.
One of these people I had known since college. We were just acquaintances for years, but even then there had always been an intense attraction between the two of us. He was super handsome, but more than that, I was drawn to his intellect, the thoughtful way he moved about his life, the love he had for his child, and, if I’m being honest, how much he seemed to like me. He was married, too. But much like your mister. Over the years, we developed a strong friendship based on mutual respect and care.
As my divorce was finalized, I found myself becoming more and more drawn to this man. In many ways, he was the complete opposite of my ex-husband, and I felt safe with him. It was probably the first time in all my life that I’d felt sheltered by a man who was not a family member. Reeling from a terrible marriage, this feeling of safety and security was like a drug. And I got hooked.
The thing about having a relationship with a married man, even one who is separated in every practical sense, is that no matter how you spin it, no matter what excuses you make for them, the truth remains that they are still legally, and I would argue spiritually, connected to another person. I knew this, but I justified my feelings because of how seemingly terrible my friend’s marriage was and how much we cared for each other. Kind of like how a drug addict justifies getting their next fix.
It took me a long time, but I finally came to understand the huge mistake I was making by investing so much of my time and emotional capacity in someone who was still at least one foot in his marriage.
What was so difficult about this realization was that it came way too late. In the process of trying to figure out what the hell to do with the mess we created, this man and I destroyed the friendship that we had enjoyed for over a decade. To date, it is one of the deepest, most profound losses of my life. We will probably never be friends again, and that is a heartbreaking, understandable truth I have had to accept.
Love is something that moves freely between two people. It is not forced, and it is not compelled.
Dead End Road, you are not an asshole for wanting this man to leave his wreck of a marriage for you. But it doesn’t really matter what you want for him. What matters is what he wants for himself. You could be the perfect woman, everything he needs, but you will never be able to convince him to love you fully. Love is something that moves freely between two people. It is not forced, and it is not compelled.
So I would encourage you to shift your focus to the second question you ask: How do I move on with my life without constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at what I’m leaving behind?
At the heart of your letter, Dead End Road, is a profound need to be loved. I can say that because I know exactly what that feels and looks like. This man – and any other man for that matter – will never be able to love you the way you must love yourself first. For me, it meant that I started some intense self-care practices that I used during my divorce. I made a list of all the things that brought me joy or calmed me or made me happy, and I committed to doing at least one of those things every day. By taking care of myself, I was able to shift my focus from the man I cared about to what mattered more than any other relationship – the relationship I had with myself.
I also reached out to safe female friends who loved me and who had earned the right to hear my shame story. I knew that these “move a body” friends would not judge me, that they would look me in the eyeballs and be willing to hear every guilt-filled detail without wincing or rolling their eyes. I knew that they would walk with me down the path to my own healing, and that we would all be better for it.
I’m now almost four years down this path, and while it has not been easy, I have learned so much about myself and about what an authentic, loving relationship should look like.
I am now married to a man who is one of the most devoted, sacrificing, forgiving people I have ever known. The love we share is rich and full and imperfectly perfect. He sees my flaws and loves me all the more. And you know what? He is 100% dialed in to our relationship. He’s not tied up in anyone else’s apron strings. I trust him completely.
The work that lies before you is worth it, my dear. It is grueling and will make you want to bawl your head off every now and then. But on the other side of that hill is a whole life full of whole love, and it’s waiting for you.
During that broken-hearted season in my life, these lyrics from a song by Mumford & Sons entitled “After the Storm” were a soothing balm for me. I hope they will be for you as well.
But there will come a time, you’ll see,
with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart,
but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart
and flowers in your hair.
I believe that all of our past experiences come together to create the people that we are – beautiful and broken and altogether breathtaking. As I’ve grown in my understanding of failures in life, I’ve learned that the only true way to be restored is to embrace them, to hold them tightly to our chest and let them shape us into stronger, softer, deeper feeling people.
You see, Dead End Road, you’re not on a dead end road at all. While the path you’re on might not be clear right now, there is so much more life and love in front of you. One step in front of the other, I’m sure you’ll find your way. And women like me who have walked this same road are standing on the sidelines cheering you on.
On my wedding day a little over a year ago, I wore a flower clasp in my hair to honor that difficult season, to pay homage to the woman who was broken and hurting and trying to find her way to a healthier, more love-filled life. Now, when I see that clasp resting among my other bridal jewelry on our dresser, I will think of you, too. I’m rooting for you, my sister.
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