Most of the email I get from readers here is asking for advice, so this was very different.
Amy was very direct. She told me she had started reading my articles a couple of years ago when her marriage was falling apart. She’s 28 now and divorced from a man she said was a terrible choice for her.
As she continued reading what I write — about love and life and my own needs — she started wondering if she and I might be interested in each other.
“I know this is very presumptuous,” she wrote, “but when I read about what you want in a wife and a family, I keep thinking we want the same things. But you’ve made it obvious you still hold love for someone from your past. I don’t know if you’re willing to find someone else yet, so I thought I’d ask.”
Amy had a number of interesting and insightful questions. With her permission, I’m sharing some of our correspondence with you.
Since we’ve exchanged several long emails in the last few days, I’m using edited and condensed versions of her questions and my answers — but it’s still very long.
Amy: “Who is this girl you’re still in love with? Your ‘Kate’? Are you stuck on an old relationship that’s really dead? Or is there a realistic chance you could end up with her? There’s no reason to waste time pursuing something with you if you can never love anyone else.”
I can’t give you a realistic answer to any of this. I wish I could. There’s a lot that I can’t tell you, but I’ll tell you what I can.
First, there are parts of the story that I simply can’t tell (even in private), because it would betray Kate. [No, her name isn’t Kate. We were simply using the name of the female character from “The Family Man” as a stand-in.] Even if I never talk with her again, I would never do anything which I thought might cause problems for her or hurt her in some other way. So as much as I would like to tell the whole story — and I actually need to talk about it — I simply can’t. Protecting her is just the right thing to do. So here’s what I can say.
Roughly five years ago, I was completely convinced that Kate and I would be married and have a life together. We talked about it all the time. We talked about specifics of what our future life together would be. I remember that I had even figured out what I was going to make for her for our first anniversary. (I remember telling her about that and she was eager to know.) The future felt very certain. Some of the talk was in conversations, but there was also quite a bit in emails. I can go back and read those things to make sure I wasn’t imagining what I thought was going on. It was all really there. It was real. She was in love with me and I was in love with her. We both wanted a future together.
One night, something changed. Something came up related to how being married to me might affect her in a particular financial way. I remember the moment it happened. It felt very cold. And over the next few weeks, there was a slight and gradual shift. Knowing the facts that I know, I can read between the lines and draw inferences, but I can’t know for sure what was in her head. Up until that point, everything seemed to be constantly moving forward. From that point, things were simply on hold.
I eventually had to tell her she had to decide for herself what she wanted. Things couldn’t remain as they were. She said she would decide something within six months. I told her I wanted her but she had to decide. Then it was over and I was even more miserable.
In the five years since then, we have had brief times of communicating again, sometimes initiated by me and sometimes by her. She has sent me presents at times. I’ve remembered some dates in her life that were important to her for one reason or another. And every now and then, one of us would send a message out of the blue.
Here’s a typical example. A couple of years ago, she sent me an email to say she was listening to a couple of songs that day and thinking of me. She gave me links to a couple of songs that relate broadly to ruminating on lost love, but they could be interpreted in different ways.
In a strange coincidence, I had just been talking to someone who was originally from the state where she grew up and this person happened to be familiar with Kate’s small hometown. So I responded to her email by telling her what a strange coincidence it was to hear from her at that moment. She responded by saying, “Small world! Or another message from the Heavens to never give up on me.”
A psychologist told me a long time ago to judge what people want by what they do instead of what they say, but I haven’t been able to help seeing such occasional things as indicators that she does really want to end up with me, but that she hasn’t been able to work out how to make that happen. I have internal arguments about that. Part of me needs to hold onto that faith that she still loves me and wants me. Another part of me is angry with her and angry with myself for putting my life on hold for so long — for someone who would leave me hanging without an answer.
Amy: “What you’re describing from Kate doesn’t make sense. I hate to sound cynical, but if a girl wants you, she doesn’t wait around five years thinking about it. How do you explain any of that to yourself in a way that lets you keep hoping for her?”
You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. With that said, I have to tell you something about me and something about her that might help you understand.
First, I do not fall in love easily. I could meet a dozen women just like Kate in surface-level characteristics — look like her, be just as successful, be just as smart, etc. — and they could leave me cold.
There is something in Kate’s heart that I have trouble leaving behind. I could list lots of things that are great about her, but all of those things are secondary to my desire to know her heart and to have real intimacy with what she is on the inside. I almost never find someone who affects me that way, so it’s very hard to give it up when I do.
Second, for reasons which I’m not going to go into here, I believe she is terrified — at least unconsciously — of someone knowing her as deeply as I want to. I believe she needs what I offer her and I believe part of her knows that, but I suspect it is far safer for her to allow such deep feelings to remain buried. I don’t think she wants to need anyone that much, so it’s easier for her to put those feelings in a box and ignore them except at those times when they bubble to the surface and overwhelm her. She is accustomed to impressing people with outward performance. She knows how to do that very well. As long as she stays in the world of people not knowing her as deeply as I want, she can remain comfortable.
So I think she would be scared — at least unconsciously — by what I offer to her and by what I want from her. So she finds it less threatening to wish for that sort of relationship from afar, while she keeps coming up with pragmatic justifications for doing nothing about it.
She might disagree with this. It’s been so long since we had an honest talk about the issues that it’s impossible to say. But this is a picture of my thinking which has allowed me to justify what she’s done — and to hope the moment will come when she decides to take a chance on what she really needs.
Amy: “Leaving Kate aside, what would it take for you to fall for someone else instead?”
You’re essentially asking me what my ideal mate would look like. I’m going to make this as objective as I can, but some of it is surely influenced by Kate, because I think of her as the ideal. Since I have seen someone else as an ideal before her, though, I acknowledge it’s possible for this to change. At least theoretically. I’m just pointing out that it’s hard for me to separate what is ideal from how I see her.
I want a woman who is very smart, very competent and who has values compatible with my own. I want someone who wants the same sort of loving family that I do. I want someone who is curious enough and open-minded enough to question how the world dictates that we live. I need someone who can think and grow and change with me. I don’t want someone who’s just going to lock in on whatever society tells her she ought to be and then live that life and raise children to blindly obey those values, too.
I want a woman who wants to raise successful and emotionally healthy children with me. Ideally, I’d like someone who wants to have two or three kids with me. Having children means a lot to me. But if I fell in love with someone and it turned out she couldn’t have children — which obviously does happen — that wouldn’t make me run away from her. It’s something I want, but the love between two people has to be the center of a family. If that’s not there, you don’t have what I consider a real family. You end up with some odd sort of substitute where the core is missing.
Physically, my ideal woman is tall, blonde and blue-eyed. Over the last 20 years, I’ve almost always dated taller women (about 5-foot-9 or taller). I’ve dated women with blue, green and hazel eyes. Although natural blonde is my preference, Kate is the only one I’ve ever loved who had blonde hair, so that’s a preference, not a requirement. (I even dated a woman who was 5-foot-3 about 10 years ago, but I really, really don’t like that. I have no idea why height appeals to me, because I’m only about 6 feet tall.) I’m not picky about body type. My ideal is a wider, more athletic build — what you might think of as a swimmer, for instance. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter. She can be skinny. She can be average. She can even be really overweight. I know this might be strange, but body type is the least physically important thing to me. And men who care about breast size are just silly. Things like that should not matter in the least once a guy is past the age of 14 or so.
I want someone who is culturally similar to me. By that, I mean someone whose instincts about how we should personally live are conservative in the ways my instincts are. I look and act very conservative and that’s the way I live. That doesn’t mean it’s the way I think, but I live about as conservative a life as you can imagine. I want someone who would be happy with that — not to satisfy me, but because we get our enjoyment from each other and from achieving things together in the world.
Amy: “So are you going to look for someone else or just wait for Kate?”
As crazy as it sounds to say this, I feel a terrible sense of guilt and disloyalty to admit that I think that if the right woman came along — and if she wanted me — I would be open to falling in love with her if there were something intangible in her that caused me to feel that way. I’m open to it, even though it feels like “cheating on Kate” to even admit that.
You see, if Kate were to call and say, “OK, I’ve realized that I want you and need you. I still love you and I want us to get married,” I would agree on the spot. I would acknowledge that there would be plenty to work out, that there could be plenty of problems to work through, that we would probably be well-served to get some ongoing therapy as we made the transition. But if she wanted to marry me tomorrow, I would walk away from everything I know and I would find a way to make it happen. That’s how committed I am to her.
However, the odds of that happening are very, very tiny. Even if she were to decide she wanted to move forward, it would be a longer process that we would probably face. So I’m not saying we would literally marry the next day. I’m simply saying that if I had to make that firm commitment with nothing further worked out, I would take the chance and never look back.
As far as I rationally know, she doesn’t think much about me anymore. Certainly not nearly as much as I think of her. She knew how I felt and what I thought. I was very clear about what I wanted. I left no room for doubt. The choice was always hers and hers alone — and her silence for these years is deafening.
Kate isn’t perfect, any more than I am. I think I have a pretty good handle on where some of her issues lie and where their solutions are. I think the odds are high that she will go on with her life as it is and never really deal with her issues. I think it would be easier for her in the short term, but it’s going to make her miserable (maybe dangerously so) in the long term. And this might sound egotistical, but I think her best chance of finding what she needs — emotionally and psychologically — is with me.
I don’t assume she reads anything here anymore. She used to, but when people lose interest in loving someone — as we have to assume she’s done with me — they slip away from caring what that person might have to say. I hate that, because I have an intense need for her to know my heart and my thoughts. Much of what I write is a love letter to her, even if she doesn’t know that.
With all of that said, I would be insane not to at least consider someone else who met my criteria and was interested in me. My heart tells me to ignore everybody else and to gamble everything on Kate deciding she loves me and wants me. My head says I should look around.
If human beings lived for 500 years or 1,000 years or something like that — and I was assured of that many years — I would wait for her for many, many years, even if I knew I’d be unhappy in the meantime. I’d wait a hundred years. I might be crazy, but I’m that certain about her.
However, we don’t live that long. I’ve wasted five years waiting for her so far. I plan to live another 40 years or so, but I need someone who wants to share her years with me now — not in some future time a decade from now.
I am miserable and lonely and go through cyclical fits of depression and hopelessness — all related to her absence. I have felt as though my life has been on hold. I feel unable to move forward. That’s not her fault, because she has the right to live as she wants, but I need love and support in order for me to be what I need to be.
I’ve always worked best in life with a partner. Even when I was a teen-ager, I needed one partner in a project to be really good at what I was doing. Even if that person didn’t contribute to the idea or the primary action of making things happen, just having someone there changed everything for me. I don’t know why.
It’s the same way today. There are things I want to do and need to do. If the emptiness in my heart weren’t such a distraction, I would be pursuing a very different course of action. I don’t say that to blame anyone. I just mean that I have a weakness of some sort which requires I have love in my life to achieve what I need to do. I’ve said before that I need a muse. It would be better not to need someone else, but if a man is crippled, he doesn’t complain that he needs a crutch to walk.
About two or three years ago — I’m losing track — a young woman approached me and said she had wanted to date me but that I had never seemed interested. We tried dating and spent the next four months seeing each other regularly. I had to break it off, because she simply wasn’t the right one and never would be.
I say that to say that I’m willing to consider someone else, but I can’t imagine someone else winning me over. That probably sounds like a terribly arrogant thing to say, because I’m not necessarily this amazing catch who all the women in the world want. I’m just trying to be very honest.
If Kate showed up and said she wants me, I would have to pursue her. Period. But if someone else was interested and turned out to meet my criteria and started making inroads, things could change.
When I reconnected with Kate about five years ago, I was still moping about someone else who I had lost (through my own bad decisions, in that case). But as soon as Kate and I started talking again, I remembered why I had been so infatuated with her the first time. Before I knew it, I was hopelessly in love with her — and the other woman seemed like a distant memory. Kate had completely surpassed that woman in every way.
Can the same thing happen again? Right now I don’t think so, but I’m rational enough to know it could. That’s about as honest as I know how to be about it, even if it’s not a very satisfying answer.
So this is some very long context to some of the other things I’ve written about here. There’s still a lot I can’t explain — out of fairness to her — but this explains as much as I think I need to in order to answer the question.
I need someone to love and to take care of. I would be overjoyed if that were Kate. But if she doesn’t want me — or doesn’t want to make whatever changes would make it work — something has to change for me.
Living this way is slowly killing me.