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The Sugars listen back to the letter from "Totally Confused" -- a 62-year-old, divorced woman who is shocked to find herself considering a reconciliation with her ex-husband, even after years of unhappiness inside their marriage. The situation is further complicated by the fact that he is engaged to another woman.
The Sugars were joined by Mary Elizabeth Williams, author of the memoir "A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles," who confronted a similar situation in her own life. Read the full letter from "Totally Confused" and the Sugars' thoughts below.
This episode was originally published on August 26th, 2016.
I'm a 62-year-old divorced woman and have been single for seven years. I was married for 30 years to a man who was basically a good guy. He was a good provider, responsible with our finances and actively involved with our 3 sons.
But the second half of our marriage was miserable for me because my husband was emotionally cold. He pursued many outdoor hobbies without me, he retired early and spent more and more time at a second house we bought at the beach. I was so lonely inside our marriage. I begged him to go to counseling with me but he wouldn’t, so I went alone. I tried to find activities we could do together, but he always turned me down. I’m an affectionate person, but he would never touch me or hold me unless he wanted to have sex.
After our youngest son was away at college I realized I’d had enough of our lack of connection, and I decided to divorce him. I waited so long to make the final move because even though he showed no interest in strengthening our marriage, I knew he would be devastated if I left him, and he was. Except for seeing him at our youngest son's graduation 4 and a half years ago, and the occasional text message greetings on birthdays or Christmas, my ex hasn’t wanted any contact with me over these past seven years since we broke up. But something has shifted recently.
Our oldest son is getting married soon, and in the spirit of that upcoming occasion, my ex-husband reached out to me several months ago and invited me to meet for coffee. He wanted to break the ice so it wouldn’t be awkward at our son’s wedding. We were both so nervous but it went well. I let him lead the conversation and had no preconceived expectations. We decided to meet again a month later, and that time was great; we laughed and reminisced. The week after that, he invited me to drive out of town together so we could visit my 93- year-old stepmother for the day. They’d always been very fond of each other. We had such a great time; I didn't want the day to end. During our time together, he apologized for several hurtful things he had done over the years, and we both cried.
We saw each other again and have talked on the phone, and each time he names these hurtful things he's done and he asks me for forgiveness. He said he was sorry for not listening to me, for not going to my office parties, for not hugging me or holding my hand. He said he was sorry for shaming me when I had gained weight. Everything changed for me as he named many, many cruel and insensitive wrongs he committed in our marriage. All my hurt and bitterness melted away.
I've never experienced this kind of forgiveness. I have a new sense of peace and an understanding of grace. I feel a deep love for him again, and he says he has never stopped loving me.
The problem is he's engaged to be married to a woman he’s worked with and known for years. His fiancée shares many of his outdoor hobbies, our sons all love her, and they have made a new life together. She knows we’ve been meeting but she doesn’t know what we’re feeling. He has only good things to say about her, but also says he never imagined we would have a chance to reunite. I have compassion for him because he’s in a difficult situation.
Sugars, we don't know what to do with these emotions. Two nights ago we talked on the phone for an hour. I feel closer to him now than I did in the last few years of our marriage. He is so attentive now when we talk. If he were single, I would reconcile with him and want to try again. I've had a few relationships since our divorce but no one I wanted to make a life with. I've made a new life for myself, moved to a new town, have new friends and hobbies. I'm healthy and financially stable. And I'm totally surprised by my feelings. I still love him, and I’d welcome the chance to start over.
I can't stop thinking about him. He texts me every day to say hello and to say that he's thinking of me. He doesn't know what to do with this turnaround either. There’s no instruction manual to figure this out. What advice do you have for me?
Steve Almond: There are so many beautiful aspects to this — to feel that sense of peace and understanding, to have this husband who withheld his love for you express real regret, to be able to let go of that bitterness and anger. If he were single, you'd reconcile with him. That's an exciting possibility. But he's not single. He's engaged. Your ex has some thinking to do, and he has a decision to make, and that's before you do anything else, other than continue to have a discourse with him. He's got to decide what he's going to do with his life. If he's in a situation where he is single again, well then, move forward and see whether there is an authentic sense of connectedness.
He, fundamentally, was a bad actor in this marriage, and not because he's a bad guy, but because he was a weak guy in the context of the marriage. He’s got to be a strong enough guy now that if he wants to re-court you, which is essentially what this is, I feel strongly that he needs to be disentangled from anybody else and truly available to you, because he wasn't for the whole second half of your marriage.
Cheryl Strayed: When I first read this letter, I was swooning at the romance of this [situation]. They got married, they were together 30 years, it didn't go well. But guess what? They find each other again, and it's incredibly sweet and romantic. I'm really moved by your ex-husband's apologies, and I do think that, clearly, he's grown enormously as a person and as a partner, and that's super powerful whether you guys get together or not. But I think once I cut through that kind of fairy tale romance, I see that, essentially, Totally Confused is a woman who is falling for a man who’s in a relationship with another woman. And so, we don't know whether or not this will work out with you and your ex-husband. Maybe what's happening is, because of that apology and because of that time that you've spent reminiscing, you have a romantic friendship right now. And that's a very alluring and exciting moment, but maybe it's just a moment. I think that you, together and separately, need to explore whether you want to move more deeply into this. Do you actually want to try to date him again?
Steve: I would turn it around for the sake of boundaries and I would say he's got a decision to make, before you even start entertaining the notion of getting involved with him again. She's done a lot of difficult work to reconstruct her independence and her self-hood, even if she hasn't found a romantic partner. She's happy with where she's at.
It is a kind of different kind of fairy tale, where the Prince Charming comes along and he turns out to be a bad guy. And then suddenly, later in life, he's Prince Charming in the sense that he's finally paying attention to her. But it's not a fairy tale marriage until Prince Charming is no longer engaged to another woman and presents himself as a true courter for her heart. Then she gets to decide if this is worth trying again. And I think it's very dangerous, Totally Confused, to even entertain that he is in that world of possibility until he's completely disentangled. Because you've been the victim of this guy's inattention.
Cheryl: That's, to me, the absolute most important point here. I think if he does become single and you do decide to date, I just want to say, remember: You are not leaping back into that marriage. You might date him and actually find out a month into it that it isn't working out. The future isn't going to be defined by the past. Just because you were married in the past doesn't mean you're going to get together and remarry again. It means that you're opening yourself up to exploring this old relationship in an entirely new light, under new terms. And you can't do that, really, unless he's available. I actually know somebody who did this: Mary Elizabeth Williams. She's the author of a new, fabulous memoir called "A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles," and she really wrote a really beautiful Modern Love essay in The New York Times about what happened in her marriage.
Mary Elizabeth Williams, author of “A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles”: My husband and I were married for about 15 years. We were in it for the long haul and had two young children. And then, for a variety of compelling reasons, we broke up, but because we had young children, we really had to be very intimately involved in each other's lives. We actually rented an apartment in the same building so we could be close to our kids and close to each other, and even when the relationship between the two of us was not so great, the relationship with the kids always came first.
After some time, and I think after we both really got clarity on who we were and what we wanted, we started to have a very good friendship. We really started to like each other again, and I think a part of that was liking what we had figured out being apart. And then he started flirting with me, and I liked it. I have a very close friend who had been through very similar situation, and I said to her, "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to feel. I don't know what the right thing to do right now is, how to proceed. What did you do when you were in this situation?" And she said, "He said what I needed to hear. And I didn't know until he said it what that was."
Then, [my ex-husband] and I went out on a date, and he said, "You know, I used to think that when you were married, that was it — that you didn't have to think about the relationship anymore. Now I realize that, if you're in a relationship, you have to be in it every day, and you have to try every day." And I thought, "Oh, that's the thing I needed to hear." Then we started kind of moving back towards each other again. I think what it came down to was, whether you're initiating a breakup or initiating a relationship, you get to that place in your heart when you just feel like, "I'm OK, and I'm prepared to be hurt. I'm OK, and if this doesn't work out, I'm still glad I did this. I'm still glad I took a risk." And so, when I read this woman's letter, I could see very much that she's wrestling with that.
Cheryl: Obviously, you're with the same guy, but you've had two relationships with him. What's the difference between Marriage Part 1 and Marriage Part 2 for you?
Mary Elizabeth: It probably helped that I got cancer — twice, in fact. What I learned through getting back together with someone and then also having something really devastating come into our lives, was I really could see that this was someone who was committing every day and who was making a choice every day. That was the big thing for me — was just feeling like, “I don't have to be doing this, and this isn't because I'm afraid of what else might be out there if I'm alone.”
Totally Confused said this in her letter: You can be so lonely in a marriage. I think you can be lonelier in a marriage in a way that is almost more profound than anything else, because it isolates you so much. It’s the thing that you can't tell anybody else — that profound kind of despair and loneliness.
Steve: So you've changed and evolved, but I wonder if you have encountered some of the same dynamics or difficulties you had the first time around and whether you managed them differently? Or have you become different people and those problems don't come up?
Mary Elizabeth: I think it's a little bit of both. I mean, I think we are, at our core, always very much the same personality types. I think that's what draws us to certain people, and that's what also repels us from certain people. He and I definitely have a classic good-cop, bad-cop dynamic — I'm the hothead and he's the mellow one, and that doesn't change. But I think we have more respect for the way that our differences can really work well together because we had time in our adult lives to see what it was like being out there without that other person.
I know I'm a good person without him. I know that we will both tell you that that breakup needed to happen, and I think both of us really did bloom in many significant ways when we broke up. But then to take those kinds of fundamental aspects of your character and then come back into a relationship and say, "How can we use this to be a real team?" — it's kind of classic Marvel comics stuff. Are we going to be adversaries, or are we going to fight on the same side? I feel like now we fight on the same side a lot more often.
Steve: We were kind of on Cloud Nine reading this letter until we ran smack into the problem: he's engaged.
Mary Elizabeth: Yeah, that's a pretty big one. But here's the thing: I think you still feel a very intimate bond with someone you thought you were going to spend the rest of your life with, and you certainly feel it with someone you've had children with. And so, of course she's going to feel this bond with him. I was really struck reading her story how amazing it was that she was able to get to this place of forgiveness and compassion and grace, and that he was able to give exactly the kind of apology we all dream that the person who has hurt us the most would give.
Cheryl: It's a beautiful thing to get to have coffee with your ex-husband of 30 years when he says to you, "I'm so sorry, I wronged you.” But I know the power of nostalgia — it's a very compelling thing and it doesn't necessarily mean that that's going to sustain them going forward in their new lives. Were you afraid that you were just being nostalgic when you fell in love with your husband again?
Mary Elizabeth: I was. I was like, "Oh god, am I like falling back into something that I know went wrong?" I think it helped for us that I felt we really did have closure. I remember a conversation where he said to me, "I know I have to let you go." Once we really felt like, “OK, that marriage is a thing of the past and that relationship is a thing of the past,” then I could understand that whatever came next would be new and would be different. When would people say, "Oh, you're back together," it would bristle me a little because I would think, "I'm not back. I'm moving forward with this person.”
Here's what I would say [to Totally Confused]: You were married for 30 years, and you say that half of that was bad. Fifteen years of your life was not good. I completely believe, because I have experienced it, that people change. I completely believe that you and this man are in very different places and that you can really look at each other freshly, released from the pain. But I don't believe that this woman, who has been through so much and knows what it's like intimately to be hurt in love and to be hurt specifically by this man, believes that what they are doing and what he is doing is being respectful to the woman that he has said he's going to marry. Totally Confused deserves what we all deserve, and what, by the way, her ex-husband's fiancée deserves, which is somebody who is “all in.” And this guy has not made his choice. And to say, “I've never stopped loving you” while you're engaged to somebody else, I’ve got to say, if my fiancée said that to another woman, I would not be his fiancée for much longer.
The thing that I also get from her that I identify with is, when you get to that point of forgiveness, sometimes the last thing left is these embers of this old love you used to have. The smoke has cleared around all of these other really sad, difficult, traumatic things, and now she can see again that love they used to have. But I don't know if she's looking at a love that they could have in the future.
Steve: I love that distinction you're drawing because it's really at the heart of it. It's a wonderful thing that you can see again the first half of your marriage, where you weren't lonely and neglected and so forth, but that's very different from saying, “We're ready to think about making another marriage.”
Mary Elizabeth: My honest-to-God belief is that being able to clear [oneself] of that burden of the pain of the past automatically opens you up to better things. If she's in a place of forgiveness, she is in a place of strength. And now I just have so much hope for her.
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