By Esther Mann, LCSW
Four years ago, I got divorced. I have two sons and, unfortunately, their father is not much of a dad. He pops in to see them when it’s convenient, but since he quickly remarried after our divorce and went on to have another child with his new wife, I get the feeling that he has moved on with his new life. His old life (meaning his two sons and I) is history for him. There is no consistency to when the boys will see him. He sometimes says he’ll show up and then never does. It’s all just so heartbreaking for my boys.
I am interested in remarrying, despite what my last marriage was like. I feel lonely for the company of a man and I feel that my sons need to have the presence of a male in the house regularly, to help them grow up properly.
Thank goodness, my parents don’t live too far away and we spend time with them, so at least my children get a chance to be around a stable environment. I think the male influence of my father is important for them. But I still think it’s important for them to have someone around on a more consistent basis.
Six months ago, my cousin was at a wedding and met a friendly young man who was also divorced. He thought he was nice and easy to talk to. My cousin came home all excited, wanting to fix me up with him.
I don’t get set up often, and I am anxious to meet someone wonderful. But I asked around about this guy. Though a few people said that he seemed like a friendly, nice guy, I heard—from more than one person—some horrible stories about how he behaved in his first marriage. It’s the kind of thing that I don’t even feel comfortable writing about in this letter. It’s bad.
My gut told me to stay away, but some friends suggested that sometimes awful rumors can get started about someone and that one date couldn’t hurt. So I finally decided to let my cousin set us up. From the first date, we had a great time. He is charming and attentive and seemed so caring toward me—everything my first husband wasn’t. After the fourth date I decided to confront him straight on about the stories I heard about him, hoping he would tell me that the rumors were all malicious lies.
Imagine how surprised I was when he told me that they were true. That he was a terrible husband—young, immature, and totally not ready to be married. But he explained that he’d been working really hard on himself and he understands that his behavior was absolutely unacceptable and he is a changed man.
Our relationship has gotten serious and I know he is ready to propose. I know that I care for him a lot. We have a great time together and I’m ready to be married and move on with my life. I feel like I’m constantly living in a state of limbo, working so hard to be both mother and father to my children, and I’m ready to have someone step into the picture and give me a hand. He is also someone I can enjoy being with and develop a meaningful relationship with.
Can a person who was capable of doing something so horrendous actually work on himself enough to the point where he can be trusted? Can a person change?
The last thing my sons and I need is another divorce!
Though many people may disagree with me, I believe that people can change. If I didn’t believe this to be true, I would be out of business! But for a person to change, he has to be committed to hard work over a period of time. “Quick fixes” are few and far between. Sometimes a person finds himself hitting rock bottom so fiercely, and the reality of where he is becomes so disturbing, that it serves as a wakeup call that inspires major changes.
Aside from those “light bulb” moments, changing one’s character is an ongoing process that requires commitment and a tremendous amount of diligence. It takes time to know if the changes a person commits to will really stick. A person can behave well for a while and then, because of temptation, laziness, sloppiness, forgetfulness, or a change of heart, easily fall back into former bad behavior.
Marrying a man who admits to having behaved badly in his first marriage might be considered playing Russian roulette with your future. You could get lucky and he could wind up being the husband of your dreams, but you could also draw a bullet. Six months of dating is not nearly enough time to observe how this young man behaves in various situations. You want to date long enough to see how he reacts to frustration and boredom and how he handles getting angry. Does his level of respect wane over time or ramp up? How does he interact with others—your friends, his family members, even waiters? Ask him exactly what he’s been doing to change the error of his ways. Has he been talking to a rabbi, a therapist, a trusted friend? Can you be brought into the conversations at some point?
Before anyone commits to marriage, all of these issues need to be examined seriously. But in this particular case, because of his awful track record, the stakes are greater and you need to be that much more attentive.
My fear comes from how anxious you are to remarry—both for your sake and for the sake of your boys. I can certainly understand how difficult it must be to raise these children on your own. I’m thrilled to hear that your parents play a significant role in all of your lives and believe that is a major gift you are all receiving. But some of the worst marriages are born out of desperation. It’s so easy to overlook red flags, even blatant writings on the wall, when one is anxious to marry and get on with one’s life.
I also wonder whether your expectations are reasonable. For instance, it sounds as though you are looking for a replacement dad for your children. That is not always a given. This guy may turn out to be wonderful with your boys, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily wants to be their father, especially considering that they already have a father, though a delinquent one.
I’m hoping that you are not looking for someone to save you. Yes, life is so much easier to travel with a loving and supportive person standing by your side. But before one even goes there, one has to feel complete unto herself. So make sure that you are looking to remarry for all the right reasons.
I know that I haven’t given you a straight answer. No one can see into the future and give you a guarantee. So although I think a person shouldn’t be penalized for life for doing something awful if they have truly and deeply worked on themselves, made amends, and understand how to be their best selves, I think you have to take it slow. After you’ve given it much more time, listen to your gut. Often our guts whisper warnings that we ignore, because we are desperate to get what we want and think we need. But the warnings are often there. I trust that with time, patience, and insight, you will ultimately make the right decision.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.