The smell of love is everywhere. Today is Valentine's Day, and Harvard Square has become Red Square. It has already been predetermined that “I will love on this day, damn it!” And the rows upon rows of Hallmark cards I’m gazing at cover every imaginable loving relationship—spouses, grandmas, friends, co-workers, even the family dog. But there is one they’ve left out. How do I find a Valentine card that says:
"I love you, but I don't want to live with you."
"I love you, but not in the way you want me to love you."
My husband of eight years, Steve: loving, decent, kind. Then there is me: loving, decent, kind…and not in love. I've been hearing this quiet voice for some time but have not wanted to turn up the volume. After all, isn’t it normal to sometimes feel utterly miserable in your marriage? Doesn’t everyone at some time experience profound loneliness and disconnection from their partner? And am I the only one who feels a giddy sense of freedom whenever my husband goes out of town or when I imagine living my life without him?
I wish I could tell a story of marital abuse—of how he gambled our money away out of utter despair and desperation or cheated on me. Nope. That was my parent’s story, but it wasn’t mine. Steve and I were good people who were just living two very different and separate lives. I liked to walk for hours - he liked to sit around; he liked the occasional smoke, while I had sworn off even caffeine. Steve was round, and I was square, and I was just plain tired and worn out from trying to make us fit. Yes, it was that simple.
But what wasn’t simple was that my heart was in a deep sleep, and I knew I had to wake it up if I ever wanted to feel alive again.
I will never forget what Steve asked me when we first met: "Are you sure I’m right for you? Sometimes I feel we’re out of sync with each other." As soon as the words came out of his mouth, I knew that they were true—but I shut them in a box, and never dared to open it again. To look in that box of truth would mean there would be no marriage and no escape from my lonely life.
I typically brushed aside the thought "I’m not in love" like I would a pesky fly hovering around me looking for dirt and attention. That thought smacked of downright fickleness; it reeked of a lack of commitment and stick-with-it-ness! After all, didn’t my own mother stick it out with my father after years of deceit and betrayal?
The worst part of knowing that I was not in love was the eerie familiarity. This was my second marriage, and yet here I was again, on the run from a perfectly good man. I could hear the voices: "There she goes again!" "What’s wrong with her? She must have some defect in her character. Poor Steve…"
So, did I go home that Valentine’s Day and say: "Steve, I’m going to leave you"? You bet I didn’t. Fast forward six months: Valentine’s Day is a distant memory, and I’ve spent endless hours and minutes locked in the arms of my old and familiar confidant called Avoidance.
I’ve done some serious plotting on how to leave with the least amount of drama, the least amount of emotion. Maybe I could sneak out one day when he was at work and follow-up with a letter. Maybe he would meet someone else and have an affair (this was the one I wanted most). And when I was at my most cowardly and most desperate - maybe he would die in an accident, but without any physical suffering. Everything that could possibly happen had to be pain-free. This above all was paramount.
I’m struck by how deftly I avoided confrontation – telling the truth. It was truly a work of art and precision on my part. This I could do so well, like walking a tightrope without falling. And I would continue to live with those painful and pesky thoughts hovering around me for another painful year.
It’s easy now to look back now and say: "So you weren’t in love, and you wanted to leave your husband—so what? What’s so bad about that? What awful thing was going to happen to you? Why did you care what others would think? What was so bad about making a mistake? So, what…so what?"
There were layers upon layers of stories in my mind, some of them deeply tragic and as gut-wrenching as a Thomas Hardy novel. But the simple truth was that the only thing that was really going on here was ME acknowledging a preference for how I wanted to live. I just wanted to tell the truth. And it was that simple. Like the lover who wants to shout out their love from a rooftop, I never believed that I could shout out for ME—that I could have a preference. That was much too bold, much too selfish. That truth was too brazen.
I wish I could tell you that I found the confidence and courage to confront Steve - that I looked him in the eye one day and with full integrity said: "I have to leave you." But it didn’t exactly happen that way.
The truth finally flew out of me in the strangest way.
It is the middle of the night. Steve and I are sleeping in our separate rooms. I am in the middle of a dream telling Steve the truth—that I love him, I want him to be happy, and that I have to leave. My words are honest, poignant, and loving. Steve is listening.
But then I suddenly wake up from my dream crying. And at that moment, he comes into my room, like a scared child wanting comfort, telling me he just had the strange experience of meeting me in my dream and hearing my message.
And at that moment we are both scared and in awe about what has just happened to us. How have we managed to connect with each other in our dreams?
But now we know the truth. And suddenly it seems as if we have no choice in the matter; the truth has a power all of its own. The truth has insisted on coming out.
We’ve both jumped into that danger zone, and the safety net of the truth has caught us. Now we can breathe. We sit in bed together for hours; we drink hot tea and eat toast. There is much to say and think about.
But one thing is clear - I’m going to turn left, and Steve will turn right. And we're both going to be okay.
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