Yes, this is how the conversation went around my dinner table a few nights ago. A friend – Melissa, early 30’s, is sharing her relationship crisis. She met this man on a conference trip and it was as if they were made for each other. They spent 4 days arm-in-arm strolling the streets of Chicago together, and as she tells it, “I was in love before the end of the second day.” He was perfect. They exchanged information and set a date to get together once they were back in California. Bliss.
The good times continued back on the west coast, and after a month of these fun and passionate dates she was deeply in love with this new man. It was only then that he said, “So, I think I should tell you that I’m still married. I’m not in love with my wife anymore, and she’s not in love with me, but I do live with her while we sort things out.”
Knowing Melissa for so long, I would’ve expect her to stand up, turn tail, and walk right out of the restaurant full of anger and indignation, but she couldn’t. “Grant, I really love this man. If there’s a chance that he’s leaving his wife. I want to be with him.” And then she asked me what I was hoping she wouldn’t ask, “What do you think I should do?”
It’s always good to answer that question with another questions: “Do you want my unvarnished opinion or do you just want me to support your decision?”
Which is really a pointless question to ask because most people say “yes” when they mean “no,” and she was no exception.
I started, “Melissa, my tendency in life is to play the odds. There have been people who have jumped out of airplanes and survived when their parachute didn’t open, but the odds are heavily against it, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Have there ever, in the history of the world, been relationships that started with one person in a marriage that have gone on to succeed and be happy? Of course. In my experience the odds are heavily against it and I don’t recommend it.
Let’s consider the possibilities:
• He’s completely lying about the status of his marriage. You are only a fun diversion, and he has no plans to leave the relationship.
• He’s bored with his marriage and wants to leave, for reasons that will likely reoccur eventually in his relationship with you.
• He’s unhappy in his relationship and would like to leave, but for a variety of reasons never will – while you wait in the wings.
• If he’s telling the truth, he’s established that when his marital relationship has tough times he will cheat. Could you marry him knowing this about him?
And perhaps one more that is a little more big-picture – If you’re interested in this man for marriage, and I know that you are, you’re going to be lashing yourself to him for a long, long time. (hopefully) One of the most important traits you need to vet in a potential life-partner is, “Does this person make good, solid, decisions most of the time?” In fact, eHarmony Founder and Psychologist Neil Clark Warren uses that criteria as a big determinate of emotional health. If a person is making good solid decisions over and over they, most likely, have good emotional health. Does this man, who you are considering, seem to be making good decisions?
If his wife is a terrible shrew, is this romance with you a good decision? Is it a good decision for his children?”
Of course, she didn’t want to hear any of this. “You’re ignoring the fact that he could be telling the truth and within 6 months we could be together!” I wasn’t ignoring that possibility, I just considered it such a low likelihood that I didn’t spend much time with it. Even if it happened it wouldn’t have changed most of my points.
Finally, we got down to the real issue. Melissa said, “Grant, you think there’s a great guy under every rock dying to be with me. There’s not! The good ones are married and if I keep waiting around I’m never going to find a great person!” So, in the end it was a self-esteem issue. What she was saying was, “Not many men want me. I have to make some big concessions to find a guy, and all things considered this is the best I can do.”
To hear an attractive, successful, young woman sit at my kitchen table and basically say, “Nobody wants me,” was a heartbreaking lesson in how low self-esteem kind completely blind a person to their market value. She simply didn’t believe that any decent man would want to date her. When this man expressed interest she jumped because she couldn’t believe he would want her. She was selling her own values down the river for a chance at a relationship – even if the chances of it succeeding were considerably low.
I won’t tell you that Melissa left with a big smile on her face that night. I tried to backpedal, “Hey, I’ve been wrong about plenty of stuff in the past.” But she knew that I probably wasn’t wrong this time. My final suggestion, which perhaps I should’ve said first was, “Why not tell him that you can’t see him until he is divorced and out on his own? You can start from a little more of a clean slate.”
But of course the damage/help was already done. The next time someone says, “What do you think I should do?” I’m going to say, “Go to Disneyland!”