Dear Captain Awkward,
I married my college boyfriend T three years ago, but our marriage became pretty awful. This past summer I went to a month-long program for my job and met M, who is honestly the most amazing person I’ve ever known. He gets me in a way no guy ever has. When we said goodbye he kissed me and it was like fireworks going off. We stayed in touch every day and realized we were in love. I knew I wanted to be with him, so I was upfront and honest with T about everything. T asked me if I would cut off all contact with M and go into counseling with him, but it was too late for that.
I flew to where M lives a few times and everything went to another level. He’s married too and has been unhappy for a long time but it’s more complicated because they have two kids. I moved out from the house T lives in (it’s owned by his company so I was the one who had to leave) and that was really hard. At first T was letting me stay a couple of months, then changed his mind and I had to leave in 2 weeks. Then he refused to keep our cat even though the apartment I found doesn’t allow pets, and gave it away to someone else. M is allergic but said he’ll live with them because that’s how much he loves me.
This summer M and I are moving in together. We’re keeping our current jobs until then for finances, and it gives him time to figure out how to tell his wife and kids. T and I are getting divorced, and I’m starting to feel happy again except T is telling everything to our mutual friends from college, including the girls I lived with, who are more my friends than his. He insists on telling all the details and blames me for breaking up our marriage. He’s prejudicing my own friends against me and against M, who he’s never even met. I’ve asked him to just say that we had irreconcilable differences and we’re moving on with our lives, but he refuses and says it’s his story too and he can tell it however he wants.
How do I talk to my friends without having to defend myself against everything? How do I show them how happy I am? I want them to meet M so they can see how good we are together, but feel like T has poisoned the well. I’m following my heart and it’s been really hard and I need their support, but I feel like T is actively trying to destroy that. I’m scared to lose them. What can I do?
Following My Heart
You get to leave your marriage. Wanting to leave is its own reason, and if you are unhappy and don’t want to be married to T. anymore, leaving was 100% the right thing to do. Be resolute.
However, people in the process of being left are unlikely to congratulate you for your openness, honesty, or for following your heart, especially not when they are still in the middle of the separating of the books and the giving away of the cat. The forthright way you handled things earns you no credit against the immediate aftermath of pain and loss. “I guess it could have been worse, you could have lied and led me on for a while first” isn’t exactly an “attagirl.”
While you are no doubt correct that T. is being vindictive by making sure that people who are primarily *your* friends know the dirty details, outside of the celebrity world announcing a divorce and seeking comfort and support afterwards isn’t handled by the couple releasing a joint press release where they agree that “irreconcilable differences” is the story they will tell all mutual friends. T’s “story”: that you guys were in a rough patch, you went away on a course and met a married guy with kids, fell in love with him after a few visits, and decided to get a divorce rather than go to counseling with him is true, it’s just being presented without all the happyshinyfuturelove stuff that you’re feeling about M. T’s feelings about that, whatever they may be, are real. T is right = you get to leave him, but you don’t get to leave him AND control what story he tells about that AND have everyone feel good that. You say, “He’s prejudicing my own friends against me and against M, who he’s never even met.“
Come on. I want to be on your side here. I want you to have a happy life. To address the elephant in the room, I’m honestly skeptical about the whole “You are getting divorced but M. has yet to tell his family what’s up” thing working out smoothly, but a) that wasn’t your question and b) I think it is brave to break off a relationship that everyone expects you to stay in because you know in your heart that it’s not what you want. When I hear that someone is leaving their spouse, I assume they have good reasons and don’t need the judgment of the world heaped upon something that already has so much friction around it. But do you honestly think that T. meeting M. would make a single bit of difference how he “feels” about him? Do you honestly think that it’s unfair of T. to harbor some resentment and hostility against M., even from afar? Or to answer “Hey, how are you?” with “My wife is leaving me for some married dirtbag*, so, not great, honestly?” Going out of his way to contact your friends is not the most graceful or cool way to handle this, I agree, but T. also doesn’t have a duty to present the situation or you in a positive light to the people he counts on, or to agree to the objective “amazingness” of M. or whatever. He’s not your press secretary, he’s your collateral damage.
There’s so much pressure to be in a relationship, stay in a relationship (even a bad relationship) that it’s not surprising that people sometimes have a hard time at first processing that a breakup can be really good news. But I have to ask, how close are these friends exactly?
I ask because, if Mr. Logic (a friend, and an all around splendid chap) called me and told me some tale about how the good Commander Logic (my friend, and a best friend) was ditching** him for some Tomedict Hiddlesnatch and shouldn’t I hate her forever, my first call would be to her to ask how she is doing and what’s going on. “Your husband told me the strangest story, what’s he on about? That is very odd behavior for him. Also, are you okay?“ And if the story were true and if I thought she was making a terrible mistake I would ask her, “Are you sure about this? Really REALLY sure? Really really really really supercalifragilisticexpialidocially sure?” but if she said “I’m sure” then I’d say “I feel a lot of trepidation about this and I don’t get it at all but I love you, so what do you need from me?” I would go to an awkward brunch with Frumious Hiddlesmarch to be a supportive friend (and out of sick curiosity) but to be honest I wouldn’t be all “I can’t wait to check out your hot new dude! Tell me about the way he leans!” while the bridesmaid’s dress from their wedding was still hanging in my closet. You can question someone’s choice while still loving and supporting them. And you can love and support someone while still thinking they are making a mistake, or while feeling cautious on their behalf.
My point being, if your marriage can break irrevocably upon the occasion of you meeting someone new, then it wasn’t that strong to begin with. So also go your friendships. If your closest friendships can be broken by your husband’s pre-emptive telling of your “good news” in a less than flattering way, what does it say about the strength of those ties? Either they are not so strong, because what kind of friend won’t even listen to your side of the story or call to find out if you are okay before passing judgment? Or, those friendships are very strong indeed and what you are hearing is “Are you really, really, really certain-sure? Like, 100% sure? Like, if this were a situation where you had to go to war and you needed to press the big red button, you’d for sure press it?” instead of what you want to be hearing, which is “He sounds dreamy, tell me all about him!”
My other point being, just as you cannot control the narrative that T. shapes around these events, you cannot control how your friends will feel about your decision or about M. So stop trying to “win” that part of the argument or pre-emptively defend yourself or him (as you point out, they’ve never met him, so have no basis for forming opinions) or get them to validate you or feel any kind of way at all. Spend time with them, talk to them like individual people (not an audience or as arbiters of your decision-making), acknowledge how messy things are, and acknowledge that they might be in an awkward position with regard to you and T.
Here’s a hint for talking about mutual friends who have not yet jumped off the T-rain in favor of the M-etro to your heart: Don’t oversell it. “But M. is so incredibly amazingly amazing, I just had to follow my heart, let me tell you about this anecdote that proves how right he is for me, so you can be happy for me as I follow my heart.”
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“Listen, this is so sad and hard to admit, but I just married the wrong person. I am sorry to cause T. so much pain, but the truth is that I was very unhappy with T. and was looking for a way out anyway. Meeting M., and seeing what it feels like to click with someone who is right for me, just sped up the timeline on a decision I was already in the process of making. I do hope you get to meet M. once the dust settles, but I understand if that’s too awkward right now. In the meantime, I’m glad to be here with you. Your friendship is important to me.”
Do you see the difference? The first is approval-seeking, and it’s also an appeal to forces greater than yourself and transparent as an attempt to convince yourself. TRUE LOVE, GUYS, HOW CAN IT BE WRONG I COULDN’T HELP IT IT JUST HAPPENED vs. I’m in the middle of some really hard, messy decisions and am grappling with them as honestly as I can, even though they are regretfully causing pain to someone we both care about. Even if these friends did know the marriage was sour and they are cautiously happy for you, they might feel strange saying so openly if T. is still bleeding all over Facebook.
Which leads me to this suggestion: If you need friends who will gush over M. with you and support you through the ups and downs of the next few months while you figure out this transition, a) look to newer friends, and friends who don’t also know T. and b) keep the “True love, yaaaaaaaaaaaaaay” or “I am finally freeeeeeeeeee!” stuff OFF of public social media feeds where people who know both you and T can see it juxtaposed with his posts about being forever alone. You’re allowed to ask for support from your people and generally live your life, and it’s only natural to want people to be excited about the things that you are excited about, but if you are worried about the opinion of your wider circle who overlaps with T., use filters judiciously and try not to rub salt in the wounds while they are fresh.
And like I said, don’t oversell the new thing. A cautionary tale: My college roommate had something like 37 distinct photos of her long distance boyfriend displayed in our 200 sq. foot dorm room. They’d met when he was an exchange student at her high school and done the long-distance thing for more than a year when he went home and she went off to university. They wrote each other letters and sent packages in the mail every single day. I was admonished never to pick up her mail when I got mine, because she liked the feeling of opening the mailbox and finding his packages in it so much and by getting the mail I was “ruining” it. Cool, whatever. They made mix tapes for each other, tapes of themselves talking, a tape that had nothing but various versions of “their” song (“Bridge Over Troubled Water, or, MY NEMESIS IN SONG FORM) over and over again for 90 minutes. Then they both studied in the same city during their junior year and broke up after 1 month of being in the same place for the first time in 3 years. I was super-sorry for her, as it is a sad story when two people who are obviously putting in the effort don’t work out, and she was a very cool and kind person who deserves nothing but happiness. And yet? 20 years later I still remember that dude’s dorky face and ever-rotating collection of polo shirts “decorating” every surface in our room and the crushing irony of their demise.
If this thing with you and M. works out and you are gloriously happy together, your close friends will come to know him. They will come to see that you’re happy without the hard sell, and maybe an “attagirl” in the form of “I didn’t think so at the time, but you made the right decision and I’m glad you’re so happy now” is in your future. However things go down, I don’t think you want “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST BE HAPPY FOR ME?” to be the tone of how things are between you, so take it very slow and acknowledge their skepticism.
*an imagined opinion of T’s, not a fair impartial judgment based on interactions, obviously!
**For the record, this situation is beyond unlikely, and lives firmly in the territory of the absurd, with unlikely Salvador Dali-esque clocks melting unlikely-ly all around it.