Friday, September 01, 2006

Dismaying Story #44: Hang On Tight!

Dear Andrew,

Five years ago, the man I considered the love of my life sent me a letter out of the blue. We had not seen or talked to each other for twenty-three years. He was married with children and so am I. His overture of friendship, after so many years, hit me at a very bad time in my life and my marriage. My marriage was limping along. Not that my husband didn't try or wasn't a good husband and father. He has tried hard to make me happy but just isn't the man I wanted to marry the most. He is a kind, decent man who still loves me, despite everything.

Everything might have been okay between us if old High-School-Sweetheart hadn't resurfaced. H-S-S and I had a protracted email relationship (it was emotional but never sexual or physical -- no cybersex), which led to a luncheon meeting and several months later, a phone call lasting several hours, both of which occurred in the last year.

This relationship ended badly. He said he doesn't love me and never wanted to marry me, leaving me to wonder what he did want. He came looking for me after 22 years of marriage, so I wonder if he ever knew what he wanted or if he settled, too. The more he pushed me away, the clingier and more desperate I became. Eventually he began to feel threatened by me and the depth of my feelings. All communication from him became personal attacks. He blamed me, saying everything became a mess because of me, not him.

When he originally left me in 1978, I knew he was the person I wanted. I can't figure out why I wasn't what he wanted. I was at my peak at twenty -- young, pretty, shapely, talented, sought after by others, creative, passionate. I ask myself almost daily if at my personal best, I wasn't good enough for him, what could he have possibly wanted? What didn't I have? Where can I get it? How can I make him love me? After nearly 30 years, I still want to make myself "good enough" for him.

At the same time, I have a kind, attentive, loving husband who has forgiven me for my indiscretions with H-S-S, but who doesn't know that in my heart of hearts, if H-S-S turned around and said he loved me, I would go with him in a heartbeat.

He doesn't deserve what I feel for him. If I had married him, he'd be emailing other women behind my back. I'd love to be able to say "his loss because I am one terrific person" but I am overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy.

This is a complicated mess. I've started seeing a therapist. I just want to extract myself, to stop caring about someone who doesn't care about me, who doesn't deserve the mental and emotional energy I expend on him, and start really appreciating what I have.

Signed, Lost and Lunk-Headed

Dear Lost,

I understand how this might seem complicated to you. At the heart of it, however, I see one overriding issue. You never broke up with this guy. He left back in 1978 but you kept hanging on all those years, unable to accept the loss.

Adding to your confusion, the protracted emotional affair seems unusual in this type of situation. A more typical contact between two married people who knew each other twenty-odd years ago might go as follows: He surprises you with a call out of the blue, you spend half an hour chatting pleasantly, catching up on what has happened in the meantime, then you wish each other well and go back to your separate lives. That's it. Done, over with. His prolonged contact with you may indicate he has his own issues. That is his problem, though, not yours.

One of your mistakes is that you view the breakup as a judgment. You interpret "I don't want to be with you" to mean "You are not good enough for me." That is not what it means at all!

After all, what makes one person attracted to another? Many dimensions come into play, such as physical attraction, emotional compatibility, similar interests, common background, and so on. The formula is so complicated that it has resisted centuries of efforts to define it. When people are asked why they are in love, they are often unable to pin it down, falling back instead on catch phrases like, "I don't know what it is, she just has that certain something that attracts me."

Imagine yourself walking down a crowded city street. Suppose you are able to pick out a guy at random and start a relationship with him. If it turns out that the relationship doesn't work for him, does that therefore mean you are inadequate? Of course not. It simply means that love's chemistry doesn't work for the two of you as a couple. It means you both should move on and find someone else.

It is the same for you and your old high school sweetheart. The chemistry just wasn't there from his point of view. Millions of high school guys go out with pretty, shapely, talented, personable young women all the time, and most of those relationships end with a breakup. That doesn't make the girls any less pretty, and the fact that one particular relationship didn't work for you does not mean you are lacking in any way. It means he simply wasn't that into you.

To understand this better, you need to run, not walk, to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. This book discusses the all-too-common tendency of some women to make excuses for the men in their life, to hang on when they really should let go. The book is also well-written and entertaining, which doesn't hurt.

You made an error in judgment back in 1978 when you "knew" this was the guy you wanted to marry. Marriage is a two-way commitment, which is something this guy was never going to provide. I hope you would have enough pride in your own self-worth to not settle for such a poor deal. You want a man who wants you back. In other words, even though you didn't believe it at the time -- even though you still have yet to convince yourself of this -- you married the right man.

I will be very surprised if your therapist does not give you some variation of this same message. I urge you to listen and take it to heart. Sometimes happiness is as simple as wanting what we already have. You ended up with the guy who should have been your first choice all along.

All the best,

Thanks to everyone who has already answered this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question about teenagers who need to spread their wings. If you haven't done so, today is your last chance. I will post my favorite response tomorrow with a link to the winner's site.


  1. I met the guy I was "supposed to marry" 10 years after I had married someone else. Things changed and although I liked him, I realized I could never "love" him like before.

    Years, especially those 18-22 year old times - change peeps. College, Career Choice, Experience, Mistakes and even joining the Armed Forces.

    You sometimes have to sit back and coin-scratch the "good time years" of HS or College and see what has developed under the surface.

  2. Amen, Andrew! The wife in this case is searching for something outside her marriage to bring back that spark. I don't think she's in love with the HSS at all - she's in love with the idea of him. The man came back to try being friends with someone he cared about. She misinterpreted his intentions.

    I have to say that I think if she were to turn around and look at the man she's with, she might see how he could be asking the same questions about her that she's asking of the HSS. She's got a good man, but since the marriage has settled into something somewhat familiar, she's looking for something that's missing inside herself. Maybe she thinks that's her HSS. I think it's more likely that she needs to develop who she is apart from the wife (and mother, if that's the case). She needs an identity separate from her husband.

    Can you tell I've been in her shoes to some extent? :))

  3. I agree w/ Dr Andrew. Break it off. Good ridance too! The man is NOT worthy of your heart or your emotions. I too would be looking at "what is in it for him" to contact you, seek YOU out after all these years??? ~scratches head~

    I recently re-connected w/ an old flame and it was nothing short of magical. I am not married nor is he, so timing can be part of any equation in the "chemisty" as Dr Andrew suggested.

    I am sure if you put all your energy and the wonderful emotional support you get from your husband back into that relationship, you will be able to see how foolish the HSS guy is...Sometimes it is with great hearbreak that we find our TRUE love.

  4. love that book - that recommendation to get it was one of the best things you have done on this web site!!

    not that you don't do a lot - you do, it's just when i was recommended that book from a girlfriend and read it -- it spoke to me so much so that i gave copies to every single and dating woman i knew including my own daughter...

  5. Your right Andrew...she is with the right man...Im not sure she is worthy of him, but....hopefully she will see what a big mistake it would be to take off with HSS. I doubt that he is even considering taking off with her. Some people mistake chemistry for love....obviously HSS doesnt. What a shame she has wasted so much time trying to get acceptance from this guy....I married my HSS and now we are divorced.....does that ring any bells?

  6. Andrew... that was wonderful! You really DO give the best advice. I hope this woman's therapist is good and gets her through this -- I think it's going to take a bit of time... but at least she has taken the first step.

  7. I see it from this perspective (having long ago reconnected with the person who broke my heart at 21): We idealize, we romanticize the past. It's Proustian. Memory is selective and tricky. It's like the long-sober alcoholic romancing the drink and forgetting the ravages of havoc. When I reconnected with that former fiancee, I soon learned i was fantasizing about a person who never existed, or at least not anymore. And i became grateful; it would've never worked. Then I began to dislike the person. We never speak anymore. But maybe Dr. Andrew is right in this sense: I finally broke up, on my terms.

  8. Dear Andrew, Here comes the hard nosed woman of the year. I am tired of people "what iffing" their lives. A twenty year marriage is not exactly going steady. An adult woman lets go of her teenage fantasies and does not look back at what might have been. Lot's wife looked back at Soddom and Gamorrah and turned into a pillar of salt. If you have a loving, caring husband and are still tempted to jump at the chance to run off with a dude that started all this introspection --- you are living in soap opera land. Time to grow up, thank your lucky stars that you married the RIGHT man and beg his forgiveness for your mental infildlity,

  9. I was given this same advice years ago. I was miserably married at the time, and was in marriage counseling. At one point, I mentioned my highschool sweetheart, and how I felt no man would ever live up to "him". Of course, I had not seen or heard from "him" in 10 years, but I was still quite sure I should have waited for fate to bring us back together someday...Well, time passed, and a few years after that divorce, I was walking with my new husband (the only one I claim!) and I heard a familiar voice call my name...I was "him" I was shocked! After going twenty years without a word, there he was in front of me at the mall! We exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch, on friendly terms, for a year or two. Of course, he tried to lure me away from my husband...BUT, from the beginning I saw perfectly clearly that this was a guy who moved away and abandoned me as a young girl...made no effort to stay in touch even though he knew my heart was broken at the time, and, well, had never amounted to a damned thing. Of course he wanted to get back something from his past! He grew up to be a loser! And all my earlier fantasies of my "one true love" were far better in my head! The reality was that this was, for a fact, NOT the right guy for me (I still care about him, he's an old friend, and that is just fine the way it is)

  10. Anonymous7:24 AM

    Interesting responses...I found your comments helpful, Dr. McAllister, and others. To those who felt the need to criticize and condemn my actions, I've done plenty of that myself, to dangerously elevated levels of "how could I be so stupid," which is what drove me to the therapist in the first place.

  11. Now how can I get my friend this book without insulting or crushing her? The boy she's after isn't into her.

  12. H-S-S is a great big JERK, and does not deserve a second thought (oh yes, AND, as you say Andrew, he definitely "has issues") ...sheeesh!

  13. Anonymous9:34 AM

    Dear Dr.Andrew n ppl,
    Interesting views here.
    I hav a similar prob.Im 25 n engaged to this really nice guy, sweet,simple,nonfussy,my family likes him.Hes righteous,simple strong sense of right n wrong at the same time loves me like anythng.I knw he wud neva ever cheat on me.We r havin a long distance since i am in another country studying to be a surgeon.
    The prob here lies with me. I have cheated on him twice.1sttime it got over i promsied myself i wud neva do it again.He doesnt know nything abt it.But 2nd time i got carried away again.I was too involved for 2 months.this guy broke my heart so bad i though id die.he said he wud marry the girl his family chose for him,not me.this after he said he loves me.I was prepared to leave evrything for him.But he left me.We parted on pretty ugly terms.
    my fiance still doesnt know abt this affair i had behind hisback.I donno why i keep doing this to him? Hes such a gr8 guy. I was so in love with him.This was 4 yrs ago. ive changed.y do i keep fallin in that trap?wat am i looking for? am i a case of someone who cant appreciate what they have?I keep thinkin i will fall in love again? Is it just the initial rush that drives me on this path? Am i a commitment phobic?please shed some light on this!