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Explaining my divorce

Posted by Meredith Goldstein  September 28, 2009 09:01 AM

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First of all, you were very funny on Friday.

Second of all, I forgot to mention that I recently got an e-mail from a very pretty young woman in Italy (yes, I saw a picture) who is a big fan of Love Letters. She lives in Salerno, which looks gorgeous based on my Googling, and she claims to be learning English by reading your comments. Scary, right?

Today’s letter, for your consideration:

Q: I’m a 40-something woman with college-age kids with whom I have close relationships. I have a job and home and friends I love. I’m respected professionally and personally. I have hobbies and goals and routines. What I don’t have is a significant other, so I'm dating again after the end of a more than twenty-year marriage. The problem is, I don't know how to answer the inevitable relationship questions, the kind of questions that turn a date into the interview-from-hell. In one way or another, and sooner rather than later (i.e. a first or second date), all guys ask a version of "what happened?" In real life, I'd never tell anyone I'd just met anything about my personal life. It seems inappropriate. Too much, too soon. But somehow, it seems de rigueur on a date to ask, and early on, before any connection has been established.

So, what's the big deal? There is no simple answer. My marriage ended slowly and badly: he was disengaged and chronically depressed and I stayed far too long "for the kids." When I initiated separation, he responded by spiraling into a suicidal and violent anger. He became untethered. He stopped seeing the kids; he grew violent and threatening; he was hospitalized; he refused medication or therapy; he lost his job. He’s still not well or working. And that's the short version, but as you can see, it's complex. And I did everything possible to help him and to save my children from the disaster. And for the most part (as much as possible), I’ve succeeded. And after two years and rebuilding and counseling, I’m ready to start dating. I’m relatively free, healthy, happy, and physically attractive enough to get plenty of overtures.

But I still stall on this question and most versions of it. It's not like I can say, “we're good friends,” or “we grew apart,” or “he had an affair,” all of which are within the realm of common experience. People understand these kinds of thing. But most people have never lived with the mentally ill, and society still blames those close to them, even though (god knows), no one is to blame. Most of my friends and colleagues have a sense of who I am apart from having been married, so my past relationship is not an issue with them. But when people who haven't known me hear about him for the first time, they're shocked, and almost inevitably, they conflate their sense of me with his anger and instability, with his mental illness, even though I've done everything possible to survive and thrive under difficult circumstances.

I don’t see telling first dates the whole story. Not that I wouldn’t tell a serious beau what happened, but all in good time. For now, I need to figure out an interim step. I need to figure out how to get past the question without sabotaging any chance to develop a connection. I need to figure out how to say the unsayable. Help.

– It's Complicated

A: IC, the best you can do on a first date is to say something like, “My ex-husband and I ended our marriage for a variety of complicated reasons. By the time we made the decision to part ways, the marriage had long been over.” If your date asks a follow-up question, say, “That’s a talk for another time. I wouldn’t want to ruin dinner.” Then smile.

The thing is, despite all of the therapy, there’s probably a part of you that feels responsible for ending a relationship with someone who is mentally ill. Those feelings of responsibility/guilt are normal, but don't assume they exist in anyone else's head but your own.

I know you’re concerned that a potential partner will judge your choice to end your marriage, but I'm not so sure they will. I, for one, didn’t. I read your letter and assumed you did all you could. The only conclusion I jumped to was that you escaped a marriage that had become emotionally unsafe. If you tell someone you’re dating what you told me in your letter, my guess is that they’ll empathize, not blame.

Everyone is vague about breakups and divorces on first dates. Just feel confident that when you are ready to share the awful details, it might not be as horrible as you think. Most 40somethings know that relationships can be complicated and painful even without mental illness. One of the bonuses of dating in your 40s is that people are less likely to judge and assume. They’ve been through more and know better. Give these potential romantic partners the benefit of the doubt. They might just be smart enough to listen.

Readers? How can IC be vague about her past on a first date? Will suitors judge her divorce once they realize she left a man with a mental illness? Share thoughts here. Letters to the right.

– Meredith


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ABOUT LOVE LETTERS: Welcome to Love Letters, the place for love advice (giving and getting). Globe relationship columnist Meredith Goldstein and Boston.com readers are ready to take your letters and tell you what's what. Have a question? Click here to submit or email us at loveletters@boston.com.
Blogger Meredith Goldstein

Meredith Goldstein is a Boston Globe columnist who follows relationship trends and entertainment. She offers daily advice on Love Letters — and welcomes your comments. Meredith is also the author of "The Singles," a novel about complicated relationships. Follow Meredith at www.meredithgoldstein.netand on Twitter. Love Letters can be found in the print edition of The Boston Globe every Saturday in the G section.

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