I’ve been in an unhappy marriage for 20 years. He’s cheated on me, had a child with another woman, and left me for another woman twice. Last year a younger guy I work with started taking notice of me. Things progressed to where we had sex, and have continued to do so. The sex is amazing, we can talk about anything and generally like spending time with one another. We both established that we weren’t entering into a relationship with one another, and if he happens to get a girlfriend that our friends-with-benefits arrangement would stop. The problem is, I fell in love with him. He knows but told me that while he loves me, he’s not in love with me.
We don’t go out in public with each other, we don’t hang out outside of work any more, we didn’t really do anything that would warrant that we were a couple. He made sure of it. I was fine with all this but lately I noticed that he stopped sending me sexual text messages (which I didn’t mind) and stopped touching me around other people. He’s interested in another woman we know and has started pursuing her. I knew this was going to happen but I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. I keep asking myself, why wasn’t I good enough for him? Why am I not good enough for anyone?
The questions is not why aren’t you good enough for these men. The question is, why do you keep settling for men and relationships that aren’t good enough for you? And unfortunately, those two things are linked – you believe that you don’t deserve respectful, loving, honest relationships, and so you settle for these relationships and situations that are disrespectful, unfulfilling and cause you intense pain. You stay with these men because you believe you deserve it. You endure this pain because you don’t believe you deserve more. You’re wrong, you do.
One of the very clear links between your relationship with your husband and the relationship you have with the man you work with is that they are both emotionally unavailable and have proven that they are not willing or capable of committing and caring for you in the way that you need. But another important link between these two relationships is that in both, you have believed that the one big, abstract idea – marriage or love – is enough. You were married and so that was enough reason to put up with the cheating, the lying, the unhappiness. You fell in love with the man in work and believe that because you’re in love, it’s enough reason to put up with lack of commitment and playing with your emotions. But marriage isn’t enough. Love isn’t enough. This may be hard to hear – after all, we’re constantly told that love is all we need, love is everything. But for a healthy relationship, love is not enough – this feeling of love must be accompanied by the actions of respect, honesty, commitment (in whatever form that takes), and care. These actions must be undertaken by both people, not just one of you.
Right now, you’re settling for the feeling of love instead of asking for the action of it. You’re settling for your one-sided feeling of love instead of asking for a mutually shared feeling and commitment. You’re settling for the abstract concepts of marriage and love without believing that you deserve the loving, tender, respectful, fulfilling, fun, joyful reality of them.
Many people make this mistake. Many people prioritise the feeling of love to the detriment of their reality. Many people believe that if their feelings for someone are strong enough, are passionate enough, that this will sustain them. And for people who are attracted to unavailable people, or who are stuck in unhealthy or abusive relationships, or people who are simply in relationships that aren’t fulfilling or challenging or evolving, this lie can be damaging. The lie that love is enough can keep people attached to unavailable, unhealthy or unfulfilling attachments. What we need to prioritise is love and the mutual enactment of that love and the realities of a relationship, combined.
One way to start thinking clearly about this is to stop thinking about these men and trying to shape yourself to fit what you think they want, and to instead think about what type of relationship you want. What does your ideal love look like? You have already started your list in this letter, as you note the things that have happened to you that have been hurtful or make you unhappy. You have learned from your marriage that you want a relationship that is respectful, faithful, committed, honest, trustworthy and reliable – because you know how much pain the opposite has brought. From your relationship with the man in work, you have realised that you want a relationship where you feel prioritised, where love is mutual and where you partner is delighted and proud to be with you and to cherish you – and only you. You know that you want these things because you know how awful it has felt to sideline these desires and shrink yourself for a man who doesn’t prioritise you.
There may be other things you have on your list that you haven’t dared to imagine because you have been so busy centring the men in your life. You may want adventure. You may want a relationship that prioritises personal growth. You may want to start a family. Think about what your ideal relationship looks like, what it feels like, what are the long-term dreams of this relationship and what it looks like day to day. Really try to visualise it, and write it down. Now notice how vastly different your current reality is from that. Neither man in your life is offering what you want, what you need or what you deserve. Don’t despair at this thought, and don’t blame yourself. Look at your list and look at this gorgeous, shimmering possibility of a different reality, of a different love, and recognise this moment for what it is: a moment of transformation. You can live and love differently. You can disentangle yourself from people who do not make you feel safe or respected or loved and you can seek out something different, instead. Once you realise the difference between prioritising love as a one-sided feeling and prioritising both giving and receiving love in a healthy relationship, you will never be able to unlearn this. This is your new origin story – the woman who learned what she wanted, and didn’t settle for anything less.
This truth may be simple – learning it in your mind and body and heart may be more difficult. You have spent at least two decades with emotionally unavailable men who made you feel like you didn’t deserve more. You have become accustomed to shrinking yourself down and believing yourself unworthy. These are deep wounds that need healing, and I strongly urge you to find a therapist who will help you do this.
These men do not define you. They do not dictate your worth, nor your future. You have always been worthy – and now you get to shape your future, and your future love. It will be amazing.