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My charismatic ex married a pretty young thing

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 13, 2011

After 13 years and two kids, we still weren’t even married. So I’m burned but I’m not even the ex-wife


Dear Cary,

First of all, I want to tell you that I’ve been reading your column for years and have gotten great inspiration from your poetic and insightful advice as well as the comments from your readers. I was very worried to hear about your cancer and am grateful for your recovery and continued words of wisdom.

I’m 41 years old, and although I may look like your average SUV-driving suburban mom now, in my 20s I was a model and somewhat of a party girl. During this time I became involved with an extremely handsome, charismatic, wealthy man several years my senior. We were together for 13 years, during which I endured his alcoholism, childishness, refusal to commit despite my giving birth to two beautiful daughters, and repeated cheating.

We broke up for good three years ago. A few months later he met this girl. This cartoonishly gorgeous, 25-year-old girl who looked and still looks 18. When they’d been dating for a year or so … are you sitting down? … he proposed to her. He gave her this nauseating ring with a pink heart-shaped diamond, and I smiled and gritted my teeth as my daughters walked down the aisle in their giant sparkly circus of a wedding. (Note: Prior to this, my ex hated weddings … he wouldn’t even go to his friends’ because he said he couldn’t stand to see a man tied down!)

I wish I could say she’s a cheap little gold digger who’s using him for all he’s worth … but she’s actually a very sweet, somewhat otherworldly person who to all appearances genuinely loves the bastard. He fully admits he doesn’t deserve her, calls her his angel, his salvation, etc., etc., etc. As far as I know he hasn’t cheated on her yet, which is a record for him. She’s crazy enough to keep up with his lifestyle and at the same time gives him the pampering devotion he demands, two areas where I always seemed to fall short.

Worst of all, my daughters … now 11 and 6 … like her more than me and their dad put together. They’re constantly pestering to visit and they talk about her like she’s Mary Poppins, Hannah Montana and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother rolled into one.

Not long after his marriage, my ex had a major health scare and quit drinking … something he refused to ever even try to do while we were together. It was while he was in the hospital, when I had to leave her sitting beside him, stroking his hair, at the end of visiting hours, that I realized I still love the bastard too. I know I’ve said a mouthful about him here but he’s far from all bad … he’s incredibly funny, sunny, generous, full of life, doesn’t have a mean or violent bone in his body, and is completely impossible to stop loving. And I can’t help feeling that if he’s going to settle down and be Mr. Stable-and-Sober now … after all I put up with, giving him the best years of my life, bearing and raising his kids while he was off partying … the least he could do would be to settle down with me and our girls, as a real, normal, husband, wife and kids family.

Except! In February they announced that she’s pregnant. A few weeks ago, they found out she’s having a boy. My ex is absolutely out of his mind with happiness. My girls are all excited about getting a baby brother. I’m the only person who’s not happy here. My jealousy has made me a bitter, ugly person I hardly know. I am literally fantasizing about one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met dying in childbirth. I keep a pistol in a safe for home defense purposes, and there are times … when my daughters are visiting their dad and stepmom, and I’m alone in the house all weekend … when I’ve seriously considered checking out and letting her deal with them full-time (on top of a screaming newborn!)

Don’t worry! I’m not immediately suicidal … in fact I’m looking hard for reasons to go on. Aside from what’s left of my looks I don’t bring much to the dating market. I’m not sure I could have another baby if I even wanted to, and already having kids makes it that much harder to find a relationship. What’s more, guys tend to get intimidated when I tell them about my ex. And it’s not unjustified … there are certain areas where he’s a hard (LOL!) act to follow.

There’s more to life than love and babies, you say? I’ve aged out of my former career, and can’t seem to hustle up the interest or motivation to go to school and start another, especially when his child support allows me to live quite comfortably without working. I read, I craft, I volunteer, but none of that fills the void.

I don’t even know what I’m asking for here. Hope? Sympathy? Suggestions? At this point, Cary, I’ll take whatever you can give. Thank you so much for reading.

Not Even the First Wife

Dear Not Even the First Wife,

How are you going to frame this situation so that you are at the center of the struggle and you are meeting your own needs and

finding your own joy?
The strength you need won’t all come from inside. You need to find strength from other people.

You need a community that is on your side and is a different kind of community, battle-scarred and wizened, chastened and realistic, reliable and unglamorous. Where will you find your models? I don’t mean fashion models, I mean role models. Strength is what you need now and you can find it in other people, but not people who are glittery and charismatic and intoxicating. You can find it in the gritty and mundane world of people who have taken a few hits and survived. There is a special kind of strength such people have. I have seen it.
You have to find your tribe. You may come upon them by accident. They may not look like your tribe. They may not dress like your tribe. But they will know you.

They may seem strange. Then again, they may be other SUV-driving moms who also have danced on polished marble floors and pranced on runways above adoring flashbulbs. You may find other ex-models who are now fashioning lives for themselves separate from the Peter Pans and man-boys who kept them amused during their early years. For it cannot be all that rare a story. It has a classic feel to it. It’s also possible that you would find like-minded women in Al-Anon, the group for people whose lives are affected by the drinking of friends, family and loved ones. It wouldn’t hurt to look into it.

If I were you, I would make like a huntress, looking for my tribe of strength.

No one can say what will happen to the new happy couple. Maybe he will have a profound transformation. Or maybe his pretty young wife is destined to endure things far worse than what you endured. If he does start drinking again, it will not be the carefree drinking of his yesterdays. And if he is going to quit drinking and change his life, he is going to face some hard truths. His charming act is not likely to endure. She may find herself married to a man who, much to her chagrin, begins in earnest a spiritual quest from which she is excluded. Then it may be she who goes out on him, and he who is left bewildered at home with his Tarot deck or his Big Book.

You say that she is somehow otherworldly. That would make perfect sense if what he was looking for was someone to perpetuate his denial. Or this otherworldliness may be a symbol of his awakening spiritual thirst. At any rate, if it’s any consolation, this moment cannot last. Much greater things await you.

Somehow, and it won’t be easy, you have to let that whole situation go. Somehow. But how? Your daughters are madly in love with their stepmom. Yes, how lovely. It is absurdly constructed to flatten you. Of course it is. This is fate, having its fun. So you have to summon the strength and wisdom to see this and understand its piquant, ironic character, and remember how the wheel is turning all the time. The Ferris wheel is turning, and right now you may be at the bottom, watching as the new cute couple ascend in their swinging seat and have the view of the city while you have the view of the carny’s toothless face as he leers at you alone in your seat on the bottom of the Ferris wheel.

But the Ferris wheel must turn. They have to come to the bottom to get out. Then you will be at the top, looking out over the city, swinging in your Ferris wheel swing, while the cute new couple down below must exit past the leer of the toothless carny.

No question about it: This is a difficult moment for you. You can embrace what has arrived, or you can run from it. I suggest you summon your courage and embrace what has arrived. It is an occasion for grace: You are being called upon to find a deeper source of strength. You will find it, and it will carry you.