The Silence Breaks

So, I bumped into my ex-wife today and we had coffee.

Wait…what?!?

Yes, that’s actually what happened today. I dropped by a coffee shop in my old neighborhood and she happened to be there, too.

So, you may be wondering what happens when you encounter an ex-wife who had been incredibly hostile, combative, and adversarial? I have to say that my encounter today turned out totally different than I could have ever expected.

I walked into that coffee shop without knowing she’d be there. Yet there she was, sitting at a table near the place where coffee orders are picked up, so I knew I’d have to encounter her. I placed my order and went over to wait for it; this meant that I was standing about five feet away from her table and she is facing me. So, I just said her name—in the familiar form I had always used.

She looked up. I said, “Hi, how are you.” She said, “fine,” and looked back down at whatever she’d been looking at before. That was it, I guess. I thought there’d be nothing more, but at least I’d been cordial. I turned back around to wait for my coffee.

A few long seconds passed, and she says, “How are you?”

Uhhhh… what?

I walked over to her table and told her I was doing great; I read the situation very quickly and realized this was an invitation to talk. So, I sat down and we chatted—for pretty close to a half hour. We talked, we joked, we laughed, we reminisced. She asked about my family and I hers; we filled each other in on details. She told me about some of the work she was doing and I shared mine. It was like I had never missed a day with her and we were just catching up.

She revealed a couple of things to me that were very telling, however. She said that she thought she had recently seen my car nearby, so she thought I still lived in the area. I told her that I no longer had that car (it was unmistakable, but there are also a lot of identical cars on the road) and had recently traded up to something better. I had long suspected that every time she’d see a car like that one, she’d think about me, and this seems to be the case.

She also asked about our dog and told me that she had been thinking about her, “a lot, actually.” I somehow thought this would be the case as well. I shared some recent pictures and videos of the dog with her and her heart was clearly touched. I told her that she was always welcome to see the dog whenever she wanted. She initially demurred, but I assured her it would be okay.

She never once mentioned the other man, nor did she mention anything connected with him—nothing about where she lives, what she might be doing with him, and so on, even though so much of this she makes publicly available. I did not ask, and she did not offer. That is exactly as it should have been.

Some twenty to thirty minutes had passed by this point, and she reminded me that I’d better get on the road so I could get to the office. Again, I read the situation and realized I could just give her a hug on the way out. And I did. And she did not object.

I held her hand and told her not to be a stranger. I told her that I would be there for her if she ever needed anything, and that she just need to call or email. And I told her again how wonderful it had been to see her.

And then I left.

Conventional wisdom would say that things like this can never happen. Conventional wisdom would say that she would hate my guts forever and never want to see me again. Conventional wisdom would say all that and a lot of other things, too.

But conventional wisdom is just plain wrong.

I spent nearly two and a half years fighting for my marriage. My struggles, my triumphs, and my failures are all documented in the posts on this blog. I showered her with unconditional love despite everything that was happening and despite all the rather unpleasant things she felt she needed to do. This is likely a big part of why things turned out the way they did today.

Also critical to this was the fact that she saw a man today who was quite different from the one she wanted to leave behind several years ago. She saw a man who is self-assured, confident, open, relaxed, non-judgmental, caring, and kind. She saw in me an openness and a freedom that she has not known for years, and I think she deeply yearns to have that in her life again.

I do not know right now where any of this will lead. I left the entire experience on a positive note and walked away with gentleness and kindness. That was her last experience of me today, and I think it is a good experience that will stay with her.

So, my dear readers, I have asked you before, if you feel so inclined, to pray for her, and I’m going to ask you to do so again. Please just pray for her that finally her eyes be opened and that she can see her errant path for what it is. Pray that she finally want to abandon that path and walk a new one—a path that lead to wholeness, true happiness, and enduring love. Pray that she decide to walk that path with me and that our reunion can serve as a beacon of hope for those who feel their situations to be hopeless.

Clearly there is hope, but it requires both faith and action. If you’re facing a similar situation in your marriage, please do not give up hope. Please keep the faith, and have the courage to take the right action. You may be amazed at what can happen.

Limerence and the “Halo Effect”

Limerence comes in many situations and in different forms.

A young man falls in love with his college sweetheart and experiences limerence; if both he and the sweetheart are single, there is likely little problem. A deep sense of longing and desire for the partner develops; she is perfect and can do no wrong, and this makes him feel euphoric whenever he is with her and makes him yearn for her when she is away. This is the romantic love that is the subject of so many novels, poems, movies, and songs.

A middle-aged woman connects with a man in the workplace or in some other environment they both inhabit and becomes limerent. One or both of them are married and their relationship violates societal norms and the moral codes of various religions. Yet they feel that they are getting something vital from the relationship—something that is missing from their primary relationship with the spouse. This partner seems perfect and can also do no wrong, despite the fact that there are obvious character flaws that have allowed their inappropriate relationship to develop. Nevertheless, they  feel euphoric when they are together, pine for each other when they are apart, and experience guilt at the impropriety of their actions. Theirs is a forbidden love, one that is also the subject of so many more novels, poems, movies, and songs.

One feature common to both of these relationships is the belief that the romantic partner is “perfect,” yet there is an obvious problem here: no one is perfect; everyone has his or her flaws, major or minor. The college sweetheart might be rude to waiters at restaurants; her boyfriend dismisses this as a sign of her perfectionism that demands the best from everyone—especially if she is paying for something. He may even find this endearing, but certainly will overlook it. The middle-aged woman ignores the ring on her affair partner’s finger and the knowledge that this man is willing to violate his marriage vows to be with her. She will make excuses for his behavior and tell herself that he is still trustworthy, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

This is the “halo effect.”

These two relationships are on opposing ends of a spectum; on the one side, “normal” relationships occur, and on the other, “deviant” ones, such as adultery. But, this is a spectrum, and there is room for relationships to fall somewhere in the middle. This post is the story of one such relationship.

There is a person I know, albeit not very well—she is more or less an acquaintance I have made through professional circles—who has been quite public over the past few months via social media about relationship developments in her life. In the past, I have mostly known about her married life, her two kids, and her apparently devoted husband of the past decade. Thus it came as quite a surprise a few months ago when another man entered the scene and apparently created an odd sort of relationship triangle. This man was interacting with the kids and with her husband, spending time at the holidays with both in what seemed like a rather uncomfortable way. There were pictures of his presence and interactions with the kids and professions of how wonderful he was and how patient and accepting the husband was of the situation. Yet it was hard to tease this apart; it looked for all the world like an extramarital affair, but there was no direct evidence of such, and the husband was aware of the whole thing.

Very recently the nature of this relationship became clear as the whole situation crumbled to the ground. These revelations came directly from the acquaintance as she aired all her thoughts and feelings over social meda in the form of a public confession.

A couple of years ago, this acquaintance reconnected with an old college friend whom she had not seen for perhaps a couple decades. He was in jail at the time for some sort of drug-related offense. They began to talk on the phone, and the conversations became more frequent and intimate until they were happening nearly every day. By her own admission, they would talk for up to two hours at a time, and her chats with him allowed her to open up emotionally in a way that made her feel understood, safe, and loved.

I’ll just pause the narrative right here to point out that this is already the sign of a serious problem in the marriage. Ideally, the spouse is the person who should make his partner feel understood, safe, and loved; a spouse will typically usually confide in someone else in this way if there is a breakdown in the intimacy of the marriage. Mort Fertel, in his marriage coaching program Marriage Fitness, refers to this dynamic as “emotional infidelity.” This can happen between a man and a woman, as it had in this case; it can also happen between a woman and her closest girlfriend, or a man and his best golf buddy. The key thing here is that the emotional intimacy of the marriage is being compromised by the presence of a third person who is being told things that only the spouse should know.

Returning to our story, the acquaintance developed a deep emotional bond over the subsequent months with the incarcerated friend, going to visit him in jail, writing him letters, phoning him every day, and making plans. At some point, she apparently felt that this man was the love of her life that she was fated to be with. He was soon to be paroled and she even publicly asked her acquaintances via social media to write letters to the parole board in support of his case. It was also around this time that she asked her husband for a divorce.

Her husband agreed; not that he had much choice, mind you, as this is all taking place in a state with no-fault divorce laws. She merely needed to assert that the marriage was “irretrievably broken”—wording that is ever so conveniently pre-written into divorce petitions in this state—and the courts would willingly agree. Her husband nonetheless maintained a presence in her life through all this because of the kids, although it is hard to know whether they still lived together.

Soon after the divorce proceedings were filed, this man was paroled and came to visit his professed life partner. They spent the holidays together in the aforementioned public and rather awkward relationship triangle that was broadcast so visibly over social media. It seems that there also had been a number of people who had advised her that she was on the wrong path. After all, she was married, had kids, and was wanting to throw all that down the drain in favor of a relationship with a man who had documented drug abuse problems and who resultantly for years had been in and out of jail.

This is not to say that this man is a bad person, of course—I doubt he is—but rather that her choice did not appear to be a very sound one. Emotions are illogical, however, and a person in the throes of limerence is not likely to listen to the logical appeals of friends and family. If it feels right, it must be right. She willingly overlooked the behavioral flaws of this recent parolee and professed that he has changed, and that he can and will change further.

This is the “halo effect” in action.

The divorce appears to have gone final in the early part of this year and soon thereafter appeared on social media engagement pictures of the acquaintance and her recently paroled friend, both wearing engagement rings. They lived many miles apart—he had been jailed in another state—but had plans to be together for good. There were the expected “likes” and statements of congratulations; behind the scenes, there likely were also the admonitions and words of caution from concerned friends and family.

A few short months later, the story of these fate-driven life partners falls apart. The man’s addictions won the day and he soon found himself back in jail again. The acquaintance felt betrayed and heartbroken. She made a public confession over social media that their engagement was over and that they would not marry. She had decided to break of their relationship entirely. She asked others not to say “I told you so.” She struggled to come to terms with her obvious and understandable grieving. She sought counsel from friends and professionals. The halo that she saw over this man’s head was just an illusion after all.

It’s unclear where this person’s story leads now. She is divorced and caring for two kids. The ex-husband is still in the picture and appears devoted to his family and still seems to care for her. My instincts and experienc tell me that this aborted engagement could be a blessing in disguise; it could be the impetus by which they could learn the relationship skills that would give them a real life-long partnership filled with trust, devotion, and profound intimacy. It could be the start of a successful reconciliation. Only time will if that will be their outcome. I do hope it is.

To me, this brought home the extent to which a person can be deluded by romantic fantasy. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, of course, so it’s difficult to watch someone else go through it—especially knowing that the person will never listen to the timely and well-intentioned (and possibly well-informed) counsel of others. Limerence and its halo effect is just too powerful. They sometimes only learn when it is too late and the damage has been done. Hopefully for her and her family, that damage will be repaired.