One of my favorite things to do is to read fiction. After a break when the kids were babies, I started to read fiction again in 2017, the year that Shawn got sick. Obviously, when he was in the hospital, my reading was put on hold, and once he died I found I couldn’t focus long enough to do much reading of anything.
But as I began to heal, I also began to read again. Nonfiction was impossible for me at first, so I stuck with beach reads and dystopian fiction, my two favorites. Once Chris and I were seriously dating, he marveled at how I could get lost in a book and totally forget my surroundings.
This happened to me a few weeks ago as I read Liane Moriarty’s book, The Hypnotist’s Love Story. It’s more than a decade old, but I like the author and I thought it would be a light read for me as I transitioned to living in Colombia. But guess what I found out once I was deep into the book? The main character is dating a widower! Usually, I hate books like this, because I think grief in fiction is often done poorly, but I hung on and kept reading.
(Side note, if you want to read this book, stop reading this blog post now. Spoilers ahead! Also, I borrowed this from the library and have returned it, so I don’t have real quotes here, just my synopsis.)
In the book, the main character, Ellen, is not a widow but is a hypnotist, and she finds herself falling in love with this widower named Patrick. There’s a lot of backstory, but early on in their relationship she starts hypnotizing him, at his request, to try and help him relax. During one hypnosis, she (seemingly unethically) questions him about his love for her and he admits that he “doesn’t love her like he loved his late wife.” He does not know that he’s admitted this to her, but she has a huge crisis about what it means that he doesn’t love her in the same way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this book. And oddly, I’ve gotten a couple of different messages from readers over the past few months about their own relationships, with questions that mirror this book’s themes. Here’s the basic gist of the type of question I’ve received, though I’ve changed the names and specific situations:
Marjorie, I lost my late husband Marcus three years ago after a long battle with cancer. Marcus and I were high school sweethearts, and we were married for 15 years, so we really grew up together. It seemed impossible when he was gone, but eventually, I started dating again. A year ago, I met my boyfriend David. He’s wonderful, and we share so many interests and values. In fact, in some ways, I have more in common with David than I did with Marcus! We like more of the same activities and we seem to fight less than I ever did with Marcus. We really connect and communicate, in a way that I’m not sure I ever have before. What does this mean? Does this mean my relationship with Marcus wasn’t actually as perfect as I thought it was at the time?
I’ve taken a long while to answer emails like this, because I want to be careful. I never really know what other people’s relationships were or are like. I can only speak for myself, of course.
But then again, as I think back to the book, I’m not sure I even speak for myself. Because that 20 and 30-something girl I once was? She’s not who I am today.
Let me try and clarify what I mean.
I have a very strong connection with Chris. That’s obvious if you’ve been reading my blog over the past few years, or if you know us in real life. Our connection is different than the connection I had with Shawn. Shawn and I started dating in our early 20s and had to grow up together. We disagreed more, fought more, grew more, and questioned each other more. Many times, we did this because neither of us really knew what the answers were to the big questions in life. We were young, learning how to navigate new careers and new experiences and new parenthood and new homeownership. But through it all, we always loved each other. In fact, I think some of the reason that we had such a strong bond is because we had to go through so many of these intense life moments together.
Maybe this is part of why I was totally broken when he died. I had grown into my 38-year-old self with him by my side. Before him, I wasn’t even much of an adult. Facing the world without him seemed impossible. But of course, I did, and I began to heal.
As I healed, I found out that there were some things I had never really thought about in my life up until that point. I hadn’t thought about how to navigate life on my own. I wasn’t sure what it meant to define myself to the world without Shawn. I didn’t even know what kind of beer I liked, to be really honest. My whole self had been so tied to Shawn since my early adulthood that being without him was super disorienting. Finding myself was a huge process, as I’ve documented in the first 2+ years of this blog. It wasn’t Shawn’s fault – or some massive flaw in our relationship – that we had a different connection than I have with Chris now.
When I started dating Chris at age 41, I knew much more about how to bring my best self to a relationship. I (mostly) knew what I wanted from a man and from a relationship and from the world. And I wanted Chris. I wanted to stay up all night talking to him and I wanted to take new risks with him and I wanted to laugh and cry with him. I fell for him, and I fell hard, in a way that felt very new.
Does this mean my relationship with Chris is somehow more or better than the one I had with Shawn? Maybe. But I have no idea what it would have been like to be in my 40s with Shawn. Maybe we would have changed as a couple, in ways I couldn’t have predicted? Maybe things would be better or worse or we would have connected more on some brand-new issue or maybe we would have found some new aspect of our relationship or maybe….God knows what. All I know is that I can’t know what never happened, and I can’t compare my relationship with Chris to my relationship with Shawn.
I’m a different person now than I was when I was married to Shawn. Chris and I are both older than Shawn and I ever were, and so don’t usually allow myself to think back to how it “should have been” back when Shawn was alive. (Of course, I totally still do this, trying to imagine I could have been a better, more mature, more thoughtful wife with Shawn. But then again, don’t we all wish we were more thoughtful at age 25?)
Back to the book. In it, Ellen finally confronts Patrick with the information that he said (in hypnosis!) that he would “never love her like he loved his late wife.” Do you know what Patrick says in response to Ellen? He says that of course he doesn’t love her the same way that he loved his late wife, because he fell in love with his late wife at age 18, and the way we love at that age is just different than how we love at 40 or 50 or some other age. Not BETTER, but different. And that now that he’s in his 40s, he loves Ellen so much, but it’s different than he loved his late wife. Again, it’s not that he loves her better….just different.
So can your second love, the one you find in mid-life, be better? Maybe or maybe not, but the one thing I know is true is this: you really can’t know what never was. Comparing my two great loves isn’t helpful for living my life.
What I do know is this: maybe 40-year-olds have something figured out that 20-year-olds don’t. And right now, I’m just so happy that I have my 43-year-old husband in my life, one who is sexy and wise and a shit-ton of fun.
Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.