Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, DEC 22, 2008
I’ve been dating her husband, but now she wants him back!
For the past seven months, I have been dating and falling in love with a man who is in the final stages of his divorce. After six years of marriage, it’s been a year and a half since they were together. Throughout their marriage she’d repeatedly cheated on him, told him she’d never wanted a family with him, lived away from him for years when she decided to go to graduate school and not invite him along. She never wore her ring, changed her name, or set up a joint bank account. It’s not that I feel there is anything wrong with choosing these things in a vacuum, but it didn’t seem as if she ever wanted to be married to him. She finally told him she wanted a divorce, something he’d never wanted. He remained true to their marriage for seven months after they decided to divorce by paying her rent and bills (as she is unemployed and broke), not dating anyone else, and being her emotional support. He began dating me when he moved out of their apartment, eight months after their estrangement.
Two months ago, this woman decided that she wanted her husband back. She started with calling him constantly, saying she wanted to be friends. Then she began to write him love letters, insisting that he’s abandoning his moral obligation to keep his vows — knowing this would hurt him and cause tremendous guilt. She made vague remarks about suicide. Through all of this, my relationship with him has remained strong, mostly because we are very much in love and I have been confident that this divorce will soon be finalized.
The other day, this woman let him know that she found a lump in her breast, which requires a biopsy. And I don’t know what to do. She has no health insurance and my boyfriend says that he cannot, as a human being with a conscience and compassion, move forward with the divorce until he knows she is healthy. I want him to leave her for good. This woman is not a child; she had over a year to get a job and/or insurance when she decided on a divorce. I think she should go home to her family in Kansas if she cannot take care of herself. I also feel he should be committing to me — we live together, we had been talking about a future together. I’m 29 years old and want to start a family soon — with him. I don’t know if I’m being unethical and callous by wanting him to put my emotional health before her physical health.
At what point does he stop helping her and start taking care of his own needs — and of my heart?
They were 40 days away from a divorce. Please help me.
A Lost Girlfriend
Dear Lost Girlfriend,
Today I am going to try to write with some passion, knowing that often it is hard to contain a reasonable argument within the stretched and tenuous boundaries of a passionate outburst. I must go slowly.
This is sad, first of all. This is so sad you want to put your fist through the wall. This is also drama. It illustrates the maxim that plot (or drama, or story) flows from character. Most interestingly, it flows from character flaws — not heroism but weakness. Your boyfriend has a weakness. She appears to be exploiting it. But did she create this lump in her breast, consciously? No, how could she? It is the hand of fate, played to one side’s advantage. She plays her hand the only way she knows how. You are on the sidelines watching. They will play this out.
It is a triangle. At the moment, you are on the outs. But things could change. They probably will. Triangles shift as allegiances shift. She will wound him and he will come back to you, and then she will woo him again.
Theoretically, he could walk away. What’s to stop him? His own need to take care of her stops him. He cannot bear to see himself except through her eyes. That is what it feels like. It is I guess what is commonly called codependence.
She asked for a divorce. A divorce severs one from responsibility for a former spouse, except for those responsibilities spelled out legally. Otherwise, the divorced partner is free. The divorced partner owes nothing to the other. Isn’t that so? Isn’t that what is sought in a divorce, to unburden oneself of responsibility for another, except as spelled out legally? That is what she asked for. But because of who she is, it was not to be depended upon. A person like that is not to be depended upon.
If she does not victimize him, she will victimize someone else. If he understood this, he might feel better about cutting her out of his life. She will take care of herself. She will find a way. If forced to go to her family, she will do that. She will take their money. She will find a way.
When we marry, we commit. We cannot know what’s ahead. That’s the point. We commit to sticking it out through the unknown. Likewise, when we divorce, we commit to going it alone, not knowing what will befall us. We make a decision not to turn back. She has turned back. But how can she do that? The hand was dealt, the cards were played, and now she wants to invalidate that, to pretend it never happened. That’s not the way the game is played. Thus the drama: Fateful decisions are made, and then we cannot accept what befalls us!
And here you are on the sidelines, helpless to influence the action. You, too, are playing a role based on who you are: You allowed yourself into the trap of dating a married man. It’s an oft-told tale. Until a man is completely free of his wife — not just legally but emotionally — a woman loves him at her peril. He is not completely free, so he cannot be completely yours. You will be competing for him.
It makes me furious with sadness. My fury is a response to sadness. Yet it’s also the way of the world, a story as old as time. And no one is really to blame. We are drawn together in these dramas. Our weaknesses recognize each other; we seek fulfillment and recognition in the faces of others; we greet each other, intuitively recognizing each other, like old cricket players meeting on an ancient field. We play another round, all knowing the rules.
I feel for you. I wish there was something you could do. I suppose there is. You could tell your boyfriend that he is acting codependently and should go see somebody who can help him sort out his responsibilities. She is, as you say, an adult. She is, or should be, responsible for her decisions. He is, or soon can be, a free man if he chooses to be.
You also can walk away. You are free to walk away, protect yourself, face the fact that there is a drama playing out between these two from which you are excluded and over which you are powerless. Can you do that? You may have to. Look at the situation clearly. How long can you wait? Will this be a lifelong pattern with him? How do you know? People can change, sometimes, but it’s hard work. More often we stick to the same old patterns, repeating the old, familiar motions.
It’s an old, old story. Sitting on my father’s desk here is his copy of “Oedipus, the King” by Sophocles. My father loved Sophocles. “Nothing can make me other than I am,” says King Oedipus.