Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today, the Sugars are joined by Mary Elizabeth Williams, the author of the new memoir A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles. They grapple with a letter from a woman who is falling for her ex-husband, seven years after they divorced. And to complicate things more, he's already engaged to another woman.
I'm a 62-year-old divorced woman and have been single for seven years. I was married for 30 years to a man who was basically a good guy. He was a good provider, responsible with our finances and actively involved with our three sons.
But the second half of our marriage was miserable for me, because my husband was emotionally cold. He pursued many outdoor hobbies without me, he retired early and spent more and more time at a second house we bought at the beach. I was so lonely inside our marriage.
After our youngest son was away at college I realized I'd had enough of our lack of connection, and I decided to divorce him. Except for the occasional text message on birthdays or Christmas, my ex-husband hasn't wanted any contact with me over these past seven years. But something shifted recently.
Our oldest son is getting married soon, and my ex-husband reached out to me and invited me to meet for coffee. He wanted to break the ice so it wouldn't be awkward at our son's wedding. We were both so nervous but it went well. We decided to meet again a month later, and that time was great; we laughed and reminisced. During our time together, he apologized for several hurtful things he had done over the years, and we both cried.
We saw each other again and have talked on the phone, and each time he names these hurtful things he's done and he asks me for forgiveness. I feel a deep love for him again, and he says he has never stopped loving me.
The problem is, he's engaged to be married to a woman he's known for years. His fiancée shares many of his outdoor hobbies, our sons all love her, and they have made a new life together. He has only good things to say about her, but also says he never imagined we would have a chance to reunite.
Sugars, we don't know what to do with these emotions. I feel closer to him now than I did in the last few years of our marriage. If he were single, I would reconcile with him and want to try again. I've made a new life for myself, moved to a new town, have new friends and hobbies. I'm healthy and financially stable. And I'm totally surprised by my feelings. I still love him, and I'd welcome the chance to start over.
I can't stop thinking about him. He texts me every day to say hello and to say that he's thinking of me. He doesn't know what to do with this turnaround either. What advice do you have for me?
Steve Almond: There are so many beautiful aspects to this — to feel that sense of peace and understanding, to have this husband who withheld his love for you express real regret, to be able to let go of that bitterness and anger. If he were single, you'd reconcile with him.
But he's not single. Your ex has some thinking to do, and he has a decision to make. He's got to decide what he's going to do with his life.
Cheryl Strayed: I'm really moved by your ex-husband's apologies, and I do think that, clearly, he's grown enormously as a person and as a partner, and that's super powerful whether you guys get together or not. But I think once I cut through that kind of fairy tale romance, I see that, essentially, Totally Confused is a woman who is falling for a man who's in a relationship with another woman.
I think if he does become single and you do decide to date, I just want to say, remember: You are not leaping back into that marriage. You might date him and actually find out a month into it that it isn't working out. The future isn't going to be defined by the past.
Mary Elizabeth Williams: My husband and I were married for about 15 years. We were in it for the long haul and had two young children. And then, for a variety of compelling reasons, we broke up, but because we had young children, we really had to be very intimately involved in each other's lives.
After some time, and I think after we both really got clarity on who we were and what we wanted, we started to have a very good friendship. And then he started flirting with me, and I liked it.
Then, [my ex-husband] and I went out on a date, and he said, "You know, I used to think that when you were married, that was it — that you didn't have to think about the relationship anymore. Now I realize that, if you're in a relationship, you have to be in it every day, and you have to try every day." Then we started kind of moving back towards each other again.
Steve: We were kind of on Cloud Nine reading this letter until we ran smack into the problem: He's engaged.
Mary Elizabeth: Totally Confused deserves what we all deserve, and what, by the way, her ex-husband's fiancée deserves, which is somebody who is "all in." And this guy has not made his choice.
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to hear what Totally Confused and her ex-husband decided to do with their rekindled feelings for each other.
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