Everything matched perfectly – emotions, cultural tastes, humor, sex, life aspirations. Still, when the time came for me to leave the posting, I went back to patch up my marriage – mainly for fear of “losing” our young children. I launched myself into a terrible, 18-month emotional ordeal which ended up with me losing both the marriage and the girl. She had waited a long time and suffered a lot. Now she’s with another man.
Two more years have passed now since the girl left me, and I have much more perspective on things – which, if anything, has made things worse. My children are older now, my ex and I have an amicable relationship and are successful co-parents, and my fear of losing the children through divorce is long gone. I also now see much more clearly – precisely because my ex and I have since reconciled on a friendly basis – that there was really no realistic way to save the marriage in the long term.
In these two years, I have been meeting women. I even had a six-month relationship with a very beautiful woman, but we broke up because we were too incompatible emotionally. I dated two other women but pulled away from both – one, because she did not stimulate me intellectually, the other because I did not feel physically attracted enough. Right now I am in the process of backing out of a third dating relationship for the same reason. So far, all these experiences have, in the end, only reinforced the terrible grief I feel deep down in my heart for the wonderful relationship I lost because I was ready neither for divorce nor even to really recognize how special the relationship was. Because special she was indeed; I have thought it through so many times, gone through all the mental moves to relativize and demystify her, to “take her down from the pedestal,” and the process doesn’t work. It only keeps making me remember new, precious details from our relationship that I did not fully appreciate when they happened.
My life goes on, I’m successful in my work, I go out and socialize, I spend time with my kids – I feel like I do everything to make the grief go away. But once in a while – usually in some moment of quiet solitude when I see or experience something beautiful – the thought of “if only she were here” passes through my mind. And, once every couple of months, the thought makes me break down crying.
Some say, “happiness must come from within.” Up to a point, perhaps. But I feel like I’m there already; I’ve become much more stable since the most difficult days. Now I feel I can only move further if I find a new, happy relationship.
But it’s hard. I seem to never be much inspired by the women who are interested in me; however, I fear that the fact that they’re “all the wrong women” may mean simply that my standards are unrealistic. I am, after all, getting older. In a few years, I might well reproach myself for the opportunities I’m now so lightly letting pass. My problem is that I simply can’t become close with a woman if she is, either in looks, intelligence or emotional intensity, obviously inferior to the girl I lost. I feel that it would simply be an acknowledgement that the terrible mistake I made is final and irreversible.
More and more, I realize the possibility that I may never be quite as happy again as I was in those magical 10 months. How to deal with this feeling? And more importantly – when I date women, how to find my way between the two opposite pitfalls: one, to subject every woman to impossible comparative standards up front, so as to practically eliminate any chance of opening my heart to her – and the other, to willfully lower my standards to the point that I will jump into a relationship with a woman whom I’m unable to really love, no matter how much she tries? — Earnestly in Love with Her Memory
Of course you aren’t likely to ever be quite as happy again as you were in those magical ten months you were dating the woman you’ve become obsessed with, and it’s not because of her. It’s like when you go on vacation and everything is wonderful: The sun is so warm! The food is so delicious! And the endless time to fritter away doing nothing or whatever you want — it’s all so great. And then you come home to your house that needs a new heating system or a driveway that needs to be re-paved and to your kids and their endless homework and demands and to your widowed mother who hasn’t quite mastered how to take care of herself since your father died and to the weeds, the endless weeds, that threaten to overtake your entire yard. How can you ever be happy in real life when all your problems were delightfully suspended on vacation, at least temporarily?
It’s the same with this woman. She represented to you a respite from the stress and emotional turmoil of a failing marriage and caring for two young children. She may very well have been all the wonderful things you say she was and your relationship may have been super special, but the truth is, when you were with her, you were away from the things causing you stress, and, when you left her, you re-entered at least 18 months of what you call “emotional turmoil” as your marriage collapsed and you then established a new relationship with your ex-wife, figuring out how to co-parent successfully. These are things that will do a number on anyone. It’s natural that you would romanticize a time — and a person — in your life whose existence was free, at least immediately, of the pain and stress that followed upon your return home.
So, how do you deal with the feeling that you may never find that kind of happiness again? How do you date women without comparing them to the incomparable? You do what millions of people do when they get home from vacation: You accept that real life ISN’T comparable to the fantasy world of vacation and you move on. You counter the stresses of your daily life with as much joy and fun as you can find and create. When you are done with your work and your chores and caring for your children for the day, you fill the time that is left with the little things that make you happy: taking photos; watching movies; listening to live music; reading good books; cooking a new recipe; seeing friends; even planning your next vacation. And, yes, you “lower your standards,” though I prefer “shift your expectations,” because it’s unfair to yourself to view your reality through the same lens you view your fantasy world. Reality, with its bills and flu seasons and leaky faucets and imperfect potential love interests will always fall short if you keep comparing. Except for one big, huge, exception: Reality, as much as it can drain your energy and let you down, will always be there for you. It will keep you warm at night while your fantasy life is off galavanting with someone else.
If I were you, I’d take a solid six months and not date anyone. Clean your palate, so to speak. And get used to the idea that the women you’ll date in the future will be imperfect, just like you are. But it’s the imperfections that remind us we are alive and living fully in this world. It’s the imperfections — and the acceptance of those imperfections — that root us in reality. And while reality may never be the white sands and turquoise sea of our vacation memories, there’s great beauty and joy and happiness in what we are able to access more immediately and readily. There’s wonderful gratification in making our everyday worlds as rich and pleasurable as possible so that the re-entry from our occasional escapes isn’t so jarring.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.