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
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.