Dear Answer Queen:
I’m 54, divorced twice. Both marriages lasted over a decade. My first husband is the father of my (now grown) kids. We got married young and were good parents together, but eventually we had little in common and no spark, so I ended it. My second husband was thrilling, both intellectually and sexually, but he was bipolar, and it was just too damn hard. He left me, which ultimately was for the best. The rollercoaster highs and lows exhausted us both.
Then, just over a year ago, a longtime friendship of mine turned into something more. N is generous and attractive. He’s well-traveled and makes a good living (as do I), cooks a mean omelet, and loves the outdoors. Our sex life is compatible and fun.
I can’t help wondering whether there’s enough there for him to be The (New) One.
But he doesn’t make me laugh or challenge me intellectually. Since we don’t live in the same state and we both work a lot, we’re together only part-time, and when we are, we have a good time. Still, I can’t help wondering whether there’s enough there for him to be The (New) One. Neither of us is angling for marriage, but we’re also not getting younger, and I don’t want to stay with him if we’re not at least heading toward the long haul. As in, I don’t feel comfortable sticking around until “something better” does or doesn’t come along, because I’d never want to hurt him by leaving for someone else—nor would I want him to do that to me.
For what it’s worth, I think he views me the same way: 8.5 out of 10, but not more. So—what do you think? Stay? Leave? Write to Answer Queen? Help!
I can already feel the antennae rising in All the Single Ladies who (think they) would kill for an 8.5 with whom to hike mountains, make sriracha shrimp tacos, and watch Queer Eye. The therapist Lori Gottlieb wrote a whole—fascinating—book about this: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.
But that book came out years ago, and last I heard, even Gottlieb hadn’t married any of the men she was dating. So maybe it’s one thing for someone, myself included, to tell people to stop expecting perfection in a partner and just be glad you have someone who cares, and another altogether to have to wake up next to Mr. Not Quite Right and know you’re trapped there for the rest of your life. As my older, thrice-divorced friend Liz says, “It’s better to be alone than lonely with someone else,” and I’d be the first to agree. At least in theory.
I can already feel the antennae rising in All the Single Ladies who (think they) would kill for an 8.5
I have a hunch you might agree, too. After all, you chose to move on from a longtime first marriage because it no longer felt connected or exciting—something many people don’t do, whether out of guilt, inertia, fear of being alone, lack of funds to divorce, or just the chaos and heartbreak that almost always accompany ending a marriage. What’s complicated about your current situation is that there’s much to keep you in it and nothing compelling you to move on, other than worry that in the end it wouldn’t be enough. I admire you for actively thinking about this. It speaks to your character that you’re not choosing denial, which, from what I’ve seen, rarely leads to happiness, and also that you’re questioning whether to continue a wait-and-see approach that could lead to pain for either or both of you.
Should I Settle For Him?
The thing is, as great as it is that you’re contemplating all this, the fact that you are, after more than a year together, is a pretty substantial red flag. To me, if this were a relationship you could stay in happily forever, at this point you’d be thinking about other things—like how can we spend more time together/be there for each other/rescue a kitty from a kill shelter when we live in separate states. You’d be thinking about the future with this person, not about whether there’s a future.
As my older, thrice-divorced friend Liz says, ‘It’s better to be alone than lonely with someone else.’
I’m not contradicting what I just said—about the importance of being in something with eyes wide open—but more suggesting that if you’re still struggling with whether this person is The One, that’s a sign that what’s missing here—intellectual stimulation and shared sense of humor—might be too important to you to give up. Because after two long marriages, you must know you’ll never find everything in one partner.
My husband, for example, won’t be the one to make sure I drink tea when I’m sick, or to notice my new golden highlights, or to chat with me about the latest menopause manual, though he’s happy to listen when I bloviate about it, only occasionally peeking at his iPhone Twitter feed. But that’s why I have friends, therapists, NextTribe, and the adorable millennial pharmacist at my food co-op. I can live without doting from a partner, but I don’t think I could live with someone who didn’t make me laugh as I lay on my deathbed dehydrated because he didn’t bring me tea. That’s where I draw my line.
But I’m not you, and I can’t tell you to leave—or stay with—8.5, because that’s something you need to decide. I also can’t tell you to stop obsessing about what’s missing from the relationship—to stop “letting perfect be the enemy of good”—because no one can control someone’s mind, even, unfortunately, our own, most of the time. What I can say is this: In order to get over your insecurity about this situation, you need to take action rather than just agonize.
The Path Ahead
Start by talking to him. Obviously you can’t just come out with, “I love having sex with you and eating your excellent meals, but you’re too dumb and not funny enough for me” (ha). Instead, initiate a discussion about how he sees the future. Maybe, since you said he feels about the same as you do, taking a break could be palatable to you both. Six months off—possibly even with no contact at all?—in which you both try to date others. Yes, this could end badly if one of you finds someone else and the other doesn’t. But I don’t see how staying where you are now, after a year of questioning, is a solution, either. You need something to move from “wondering if this is enough despite its flaws” to “appreciating the hell out of this man.”
Obviously you can’t just come out with, ‘I love having sex with you and eating your excellent meals, but you’re too dumb and not funny enough for me.’
I know a couple who was in this situation. Together for a few years in their 40s, they both still Just Weren’t Sure this was for life. Eventually, she, an actress, got in her car and headed west. He, who had always been cavalier-ish about the relationship, found himself devastated without her. Meanwhile, she got to LA and realized that being middle-aged and alone in the land of youth, glitter, and Kardashians wasn’t quite what she’d hoped for. Eventually she went back, and he was waiting with arms open wider than they’d ever been. They’ve been together since, with, I’d venture, no more questioning whether this is The One. They needed to see what it was like to lose each other before they could see, and appreciate, what they had. They took that risk, and it paid off.
I hope the same payoff is in the cards for you—whether with 8.5, with someone else, or, like my older friend Liz, on your own but enlightened and surrounded by friends and family and lovers.
A version of this story was originally published in May 2018.