Winning love of one distracted by another a tough job

I am 72 years old. I believe I am in love with someone who is almost 70.

When we return after an evening out, I get as far as inside the front door, get a motherly kiss and invited to leave. I have never been invited to come over to watch TV or offered dinner. Yet we enjoy each other’s company almost twice a week for dinner and movies and talk on the phone daily.

She has told me she is in love with someone. I am told he did not want a commitment or marriage, and it appears no longer wants a lasting relationship with her. However, she claims he is always on her mind and cannot let that feeling go away. She has stated to me she loves me as a friend but is not in love with me.

I believe this relationship is going nowhere, but have hopes over time I may win her over. Should I continue to think that way? Or should I terminate the relationship and end my heartache?

— N.W., Las Vegas 

Falling in love changes us. So does falling out of love. So does falling in love, yet then walking away from that love. Not choosing it. So does falling in love and not getting chosen. Getting dumped.

All four of the combinations change us. Change us radically. We’re not the same. We’re never the same again.

OK, I suppose someone might argue that my position is too sweeping. Too generalized. That there are people who can open their hearts. Then close them. Just like that. Say "yes" to a great love, then decide to say "no," or be told "no," and simply go on about their day. Back to a single life, back to dating, to waiting for the next love, to unloading dishwashers alone. And never miss a beat.

Perhaps there are people for whom an encounter with love is not much more than a ride on a double Ferris wheel. Fun. Exhilarating. Interesting, maybe. But they exit the ride the same person as the one who got on. Two or three deep breaths, then their attention turns toward the other rides on the midway.

OK, let’s say people like that exist. Here’s what floats across my mind …

Something’s wrong with them. Oh, I don’t mean "wrong" like evil or wicked or mentally ill. Wrong — like, something never developed. Because if you can love deeply or be loved deeply and not be changed, then you’re never going to be entirely present to the experience of being fully human.

But, another way of looking at folks like this is to wonder if they are simply kidding themselves, and us for that matter. There are people who have carefully honed the skill of never listening to their own hearts. They habituate "life by compartments."

This ability is, when used in certain times and places, a sign of mental health. Let’s be clear: I want the pilot of the Boeing 737 I’m riding in to be able to compartmentalize the agony of his recent discovery that his wife is having an affair. I’m all for him weeping, raving and tending his broken heart — right after he safely lands the plane! Just not now. Because I’m on this plane.

But some folks deploy "life by compartments" as the ultimate ego-defense. Matters of the heart are organized into pieces and parts, but never come together into a significant whole. These people make certain that love never changes them.

Either way, you won’t find me courting these folks. My love is worth a lot. I only want to fall in love with someone who is willing to be radically changed by my love.

So here’s the good news. This woman you’re seeing is not developmentally stunted, nor does she dodge authentic human experience with carefully calculated compartments.

The bad news, for you, is that love changed her. And, until she works through those changes, she won’t be available for courtship. Companionship, yes. But not courtship. Anything you’re telling yourself to the contrary is wishful thinking. When she does work through it, it’s an entirely separate question whether she’ll desire a courtship with you.

Terminating the relationship won’t end your heartache. It will merely change why your heart is aching, and to what end.

Originally published in View News, March 24, 2009.

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