Father Tony

The messy lives of men in love.

Filed By Father Tony | August 14, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living

Dear Father Tony,

I recently faced the end of a relationship I was in for most of my adult life. A relationship that I valued and worked hard at, with a man I still love and respect. We were together for over twenty years, and throughout that time survived many ups and downs, illnesses, recovery and change. Sometimes it isn't the catastrophic that destroys a relationship, some times it is as simple as a revelation during a quiet period. That is what happened to me.

I was on a weekend getaway and met up with friends in another city. I ended up having an amazing time, which served me up a warm dish of regret. It caused me to realize that I was stuck in a half lived routine, with a man with whom I no longer shared much in common with. I am in my forties, and guess I had a midlife crises, a realization that we only get one chance to live and love, and that I was currently squandering mine.

I met a man on this trip, who just so happened to be in the same exact spot as I, in his longterm relationship...

Continued after the jump!

We two spent the rest of that trip together, and have remained very close. I am having difficulty reconciling the end of my relationship and the sadness it brings, with the absolute joy my new friend stirs in me. Guilt versus the previously unknown happiness of a love I have never felt as strongly for another. My friend feels the same, and we are searching for a way to begin a life together as painlessly as possible for all involved. Is this a crash and burn scenario, or were we lucky to find one another after years of trying to make a go of it with people I'll suited for us? Life is unscripted and messy and I feel a mess. Any words of wisdom?


Dear AnonyMess,

While reading your letter, I felt sorry, hopeful and apprehensive for you. In that order. Also, let's assume that everyone in the "audience" is waiting to see if I will advise you to stay with a man you claim to have loved for decades, or, will I make benediction and Godspeed over the heads of you and you new lover.

As you may know, I am also in a twenty-plus year relationship, and I am always curious about other vintage couples that have earned similar "merit badges". Despite the fact that I know nothing about you beyond what you've told me above, I can't help but compare my circumstances to yours and to those of our coupled friends, as a way of testing and ultimately strengthening my own partnership. (Imagine C and I driving home from a weekend with another couple and saying to each other "Can you believe how they fight with each other? They really are the Bickersons. Hey! Watch the road and slow down. God, I hate the way you drive." Then silently we look through the windshield at our private but shared futures. The CD player in the dashboard sings about love but we ignore those lyrics. What do they know of men who fall in love and survive the decades eventually becoming two people drastically different from the ones who first met each other? )

Sometimes, I telephone C at work just because I want to hear his voice. The subject of the call is usually trivial. Schedules. Groceries. Errands. Even if we end up arguing about something during that call, and even if I say "Why do I even bother talking to you?", I feel a comfort that is only equaled by the times when he calls me for the same reason.

I suspect that you and your partner have lost that investment in each other if ever you had it. Your partnership seems to have become a joint bank account from which all funds have been withdrawn. The account remains open, but month after month you receive a statement indicating the same balance: zero, zero, zero.... The question is this: should you both add money to this account, or, should you close it out. It seems you have gone for many years without doing one or the other. But recently, as you have indicated, you have set up a new joint account with someone else, and at a different bank. You are both making matching contributions and getting a fine interest rate from the new bank. Now, when the statements from that old account arrive in the mail, you don't even open the envelope. Your new lover has the same "financial" history. You are smart enough to wonder if this will prove to be a "crash and burn" situation. I hope you have shared this thought with your new lover and that he is asking himself the same question.

You are certainly right about one thing: this is a messy situation, and what I need to do is make a suggestion about the most practical way for you to "manage your resources". In doing so, I must take into account the fact that life is messy, and that sometimes new doors open before old doors shut. This creates a draft that blows all those neatly stacked bank statements off your desk and out the window. When it comes time to file your income taxes, you won't have the required information. You may be audited. There may be penalties. You may feel regret, or, you may shrug and say "Life is messy".

Because there is no easy solution to that "messy" circumstance, let's focus on you for a moment. How will you feel about yourself when you pull the plug on your old relationship? Relieved? Guilty? Liberated? A failure? Selfish? Practical? Admirable? Scared? Get ready to feel them all. I am sure that you presently feel that you have an overdue right to some joy and passion after so many years of going without. I am also sure that you are presently worried that you may end up repeating the same behavior that bankrupt your lengthy partnership. I know I would be worried about that.

Here is what I suggest. Take it slowly. Clean up some of the mess you have made (and yes, you had a hand in the making of that twenty-plus year mess) before you get yourself any deeper into this new relationship. Most anyone will tell you that relationships struck on the rebound are built on shifting soil. Better to take the time needed to pour a strong and deep foundation. You say you still respect and love your partner. Do not lie to him. Do not cheat on him. Do not hide your feelings from him. You want to come out of this respecting yourself. You won't be able to do that if you marginalize him and turn away from him. Find the highest road and stay upon it. Be exceedingly generous with him. I bet I know what you are thinking: that if you follow this advice, your old relationship may be invigorated and you may decide to stay with it. That is probably the last thing you wanted to hear. It's so much easier to run toward some glittering disco ball of a new life. All I am saying is that you ought not to run. You ought to walk. Slowly. Pausing frequently. Your new lover should be doing the same. If you (plural) are meant to be together, you will survive the hobbling.

Finally, I personally cannot imagine staying in a life without passion or joy. I'd feel like a cat on a hot tin roof (or like a disillusioned priest?). Just gotta jump. But a cat has nine lives. How many have you got left?

Thank you for writing, and know that I will be wondering about you and hoping for your happiness. Please let me know what happens.


Father Tony

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Fr. Tony, to me, this seems like very sensible advice. I don't have the good fortune to be in a relationship, but I will certainly keep your words in mind for future adventures in life. :)

Very sound advice, Father Tony. I enjoyed reading the post; I was really invested in it. The end of a relationship is always challenging.

I am fascinated by the fact that some relationships built on the ever-shifting sands of a rebound do eventually establish secure foundations. I've seen it happen with friends who were coming out of long years of being closeted and heterosexually married -- the comfort, support, and safety of the new relationship seemed to help them weather the turbulent transitions.

A big part of my fascination, though, is rooted in knowing that I'm not good at jumping from one relationship to another. The foundation I need to rebuild after a relationship ends is personal and singular. Who am I now? What are my needs and wants, my flaws and gifts? How are those different since the relationship started and when the relationship was working?

I don't mind acknowledging that I'm often slow that way. Slow to grieve the loss of a relationship. Slow to ground myself again as an independent person. Slow to build up new relationships. That gives me time to think, heal, and grow.

I'd like to echo Tony and Bose: go slowly. As the participant in a relationship of 37 years—30 of those married—I can tell you that there will inevitably be some very painful times, during which you must communicate clearly.

Anonymous, you are at a time of discernment, but your head is not clear. Your heart is racing with the allure of a currently burden-free relationship, and that can prevent you from being present with your partner and from considering the implications of your actions. Slow down. Start talking. Talk until you can get past the recriminations and down to the truth of your needs and expectations.

If you and your current partner have changed over the years to the point of no commonality, then talk so that your dissolution is calm if not amiable. I have found it easiest to talk in these moments when a third party is present to referee. It keeps the emotional level manageable. Ask your friends to recommend a counselor. And talk.

Here's hoping that all parties involved will find peace.

Dump the zero and get with the hero, is what I say.

But that's why I'm not in the business of dispensing advice.

Dear Alex,
My goodness! And you look so sweet in your Bilerico photo.

Such wisdom and fine advice from the master. And yet I feel so for Anonymous. How exciting and seductive is the rush of new love, of fresh passion? And how addictive is that sense of being fully alive and absolutely present in each pinnacle moment of joy with the new love?

When my husband was very, very ill, I entertained fantasies of running away, of becoming free. I would imagine what life would be unencumbered, perhaps with the thrill of a new love to go along with it.

The weight of obligation and commitment can become staggering and I almost found my legs too weak to carry me through, though it was the love of my life lying on his sick bed.

Someone told me once that he cheated on his wife vigorously, but he would never divorce her because of commitment. I said at the time, fuck commitment. Commitment can eat up the soul, suck out the life, kill the spirit of one who commits when it's a one-sided effort and nothing comes back to sustain that obligation. But injuring a loved one, killing his spirit, sucking out his life by leaving is unbearable to a certain kind of tender heart.

I hope it goes well for Anonymous and that the new love proves to be everything he hopes; that the leaving of the old love can be accomplished with grace and compassion.

As someone that is also in a 20+ year relationship, this is beautiful advice, Father Tony. Maybe the new guy is the one. Maybe he isn't. Is it the thrill of something shiny and new? Only time and shared experiences can tell. Go on a road trip with him, that is a fine test. Whatever you do, don't have any regrets about how you treated someone that was a part of your life for 20 something years.

You capture Anonymous's dilemma from the first words in the title of this post all the way thru, and provide wise counsel for working thru this all-important question.

I wanted to note there's another [admittedly tricky] option: nurturing both the existing relationship and the new one.

More and more of us are loving in this way, and it can provide a fresh foundation for approaching how we love others romantically and personally. The same introspection, open but considered communication, and generous respect and honesty are all required in such relationships as in one-to-one partnerships. But it's important to realize the gray area between the black and white choices can flourish in some peoples' lives.

To your great run on Bilerico, Father Tony.

The question left dangling, to me, is how he thinks the lover feels about their marriage. Could he be also feeling trapped? Or is he simply comfortable and unaware? Would this news come as a shock to him or as a shoe he's been waiting to drop?

What is there to add? Father Tony has said it all. The most beautiful part is when he wrote "Be exceedingly generous with him." Please treat everybody in this situation well and what happens might surprise you.

Two weeks ago I saw my best friend's (K.) ex-husband and his current boyfriend swap K.-stories and roll their eyes at him together. It took them time to get to this point, particularly the new bf would have preferred K. to break off all contact with his ex, but I believe my friend was absolutely right in treating his ex the way he did. (At one point he refused a divorce settlement suggested by the ex's lawyer because it would leave his ex-husband with too little money.)

So I just want to send my support to "AnonyMess" (that was cheeky, Father T!) and encourage him to take it slowly, take stock, be honest with himself and treat everyone with respect. The rest will follow.