I know all about helping couples adapt to every imaginable kind of loss—from the dwindling of passion they once felt for each other to the erosion of trust after an affair. Many clients I’ve seen have moved far beyond adapting and have managed to create something new and vibrant in the midst of a crisis. Nevertheless, when my husband dies unexpectedly—despite everything I’ve learned and taught others over three decades—I’m paralyzed. I have no clue how I’m going to move forward, much less adapt to my new life as a single couples therapist.
For 35 years, Steve helped me navigate the logistics of daily living, from managing my practice to keeping fresh batteries in the smoke detector. Then, following the successful removal of a meningioma, as he was on the mend and preparing to return to our two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, a clot from an artery in his leg traveled through his heart into his lungs. By the time the medical staff noticed, he was gone.
“I know you’re suffering, but you’re going to get through this,” my 53-year-old stepdaughter whispers at her dad’s funeral, one of her arms encircling my shoulders.
“I will,” I say, sounding more confident than I feel. “I’ll figure it out.”
After the funeral, I drive myself home, sit down on the couch, and fall asleep for 12 hours straight. The next day—and for many days afterward—I order takeout, stare into space, sleep, weep, wake up, and do the same thing again. Matter shrinks, gravity inverts, and time collapses. The grief I’m experiencing seems endless.
“Why did this have to happen?” I sob when my friend Sandy visits.
“It’s so painful.” She squeezes my hand.
Over time, I weep less, stare out the window less, and am able to make myself lunch. I begin walking through my neighborhood and seeing a few clients over Zoom. I hire an accountant to help with my taxes and, with my stepchildren, a lawyer to file a malpractice lawsuit against the hospital where Steve died. I reread his Valentine’s Day cards, look through photo albums, and sort through his clothes. Some shirts still carry traces of his woody, masculine scent. I let myself miss him, keeping whichever of his belongings had sentimental value and giving the rest to his children or charity. After a year, I renew my passport and fly overseas, a longstanding desire of mine that Steve—who preferred relaxing at home to traveling—never shared. After six months, I offer the same couples workshop we always led together—me as a certified Imago relationship therapist and Steve as a former teacher and Imago educator. This time, though, I teach and guide couples on my own.
Then, two years to the day when I drove Steve to the hospital with a small bag containing a toothbrush, a change of clothing, and an iPod loaded with his favorite music, I sit down at my kitchen counter, open my laptop, and do something I never thought I’d find myself doing in the eighth decade of my life.
I join Match.com.
On my first in-person date with a bearded, friendly man named Louie, I’m taken off guard as we relax on a bench overlooking the Hudson River.
“Can I see your foot?” he asks, smiling playfully.
I raise my foot to oblige him. He takes it firmly in his hands, removes my sandal, and begins kneading the arch and toes.
“Oh, that tickles,” I laugh nervously, pulling my foot back and returning it to my sandal. Being touched feels good, but unsettling. It dawns on me that if I keep going on dates with new people like Louie, I might find myself in a classic beware-of-what-you-wish-for situation. I’m seeking intimacy but can’t imagine getting naked with someone who isn’t Steve. It’s a scary thought.
I’m clear on what it takes to create a conscious partnership—one where you act in accordance with your core values, repair after fights, and communicate honestly and respectfully. But when it comes to online dating—or dating in general—I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve changed since the last time I dated, which was in my mid-30s. Will a new partner judge my older face, rounder belly, plumper legs, and less buoyant breasts? Online, many prospective partners my age are seeking women 5 to 10 years younger, which leaves a pool of partners in their late 70s and early 80s. They have kids, grandkids, great grandkids, and often one or two former or deceased spouses. Most have health issues—arthritis, cataracts, memory problems, prostate cancer, diabetes. They need heart surgeries and hip replacements.
Some conversations end before we can schedule an in-person meeting because even on video, our connection feels lifeless. Alternately, things go well on video only to fall flat in person. Caleb is different, though. He’s a former TV producer with a droll sense of humor and a sweet, expressive face; I feel comfortable with him right away. We go to the theater and visit art museums. He’s six years older than me and still an avid skier, tennis player, and jogger. Soon, I discover I can overcome my fear of being judged and take my clothes off with someone new. Caleb and I have a lot of fun in bed, and even take tantric sex classes together.
Our warm connection makes it all the more painful when, out of the blue, three months into seeing each other, I receive this text: “I can’t see you. It’s not about another woman.”
Weeks later, after several desperate messages from me, he agrees to meet for a walk in my neighborhood.
“What happened?” I ask point-blank. “Why did you disappear?”
“The patch of cancer on your face,” he says, “I didn’t want to catch it.”
“You can’t catch cancer, Caleb,” I say, shocked. “It’s not contagious.”
Caleb is spontaneous and creative, but when he gets scared, he demands attention and immediate solutions. Because we’re still in the romantic phase of our relationship, I ignore many of the aspects of his personality I don’t like. For years, I’ve given lectures on how dopamine and oxytocin affect your ability to make well-informed, rational decisions when you first fall in love, but in February 2020, when covid hits, I go against my better judgement and invite him to move into my place, so we won’t be alone. What’s supposed to be a few weeks of cohabitating turns into nine months. During that time, Caleb’s anxieties grow.
“The delivery person is here!” he yells. “Where are the gloves? Get the gloves!”
“No need to panic,” I reassure him.
“How do we know someone didn’t sneeze on our food?” he frets, glaring at the plastic bag of Chinese takeout as if it contained radioactive waste.
In my own mind, I minimize the signs that Caleb suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder—such as when he ghosted me to avoid catching skin cancer—but once covid hits, his fear of germs and need to control his environment increase. Because I’m usually calmer, I research facts and statistics about germs several times a day and explain the realities of contagion to him. I set up medical appointments, cook or order our food, and pay our bills—his and mine. These were things Steve took care of in our marriage.
Living with Caleb reminds me of being stuck in a house with my demanding, rage-aholic father. We try couples therapy, but it doesn’t alter Caleb’s germ-related panic attacks. I consult with friends and therapist colleagues to figure out the best solution to what has quickly become an intolerable situation. Finally, he begins using a tricyclic antidepressant, which helps reduce his obsessive thinking about germs but wreaks havoc on his digestive system. Ultimately, he has so much pain from clogged bowels that he’s hospitalized and undergoes an emergency surgical procedure. Although it’s clear to both of us that we won’t be living together moving forward, we remain friends and continue talking on the phone a few times a month, even giving each other dating advice.
Not long after Caleb moves out, at the end of a Zoom session with a heterosexual couple I’d started seeing before Steve died, the female partner says, “We’re stuck in a catch-22. We’re doing all this work, but I still don’t feel excited about our future. It’s sad.”
Her eyes glisten. So do her partner’s. Although I don’t generally grow tearful in sessions with clients, I can feel tears welling up in my eyes, too—which surprises me.
“What I’m most afraid of is staying together out of obligation,” the woman says. “And wasting whatever time we have left to enjoy our lives, together or separately.”
As we wrap up the session, I guide them to share their takeaways.
“My takeaway is about you.” The woman smiles as she holds my gaze. “I could sense how deeply you were connecting to us and what we’re going through.”
“You helped us a lot before,” her partner says, “but it’s like you feel us differently now. You’re right in the trenches with us, not just guiding us from a distance.”
I wonder if living outside the bubble of Steve’s protectiveness has softened me, opening me up to the pain of some of the harder challenges of loving another person—the ones that don’t have readily available solutions.
What Just Happened?
A year after Caleb moves out, I date Neil, a retired business consultant, who brings me thoughtful gifts: expensive tea, luxury salts, flower powder to help me sleep, jewelry from Madrid. By our third date, he’s researching dance studios where we can take classes.
“I’m all in, and I’ll do my part to make this relationship work,” he says. After two failed marriages, he’d taken a break from dating, but with me, he talks about commitment a lot.
Then, circumstances separate us for two months. He visits his daughter overseas, and I run couples workshops in Florida. During that time, we meet regularly over FaceTime and Zoom. He sends me love poems. I text him good morning and good night. “Only you,” he sings over a video of a couple dancing with both our faces photoshopped onto their necks. On my 74th birthday, two dozen roses arrive at my office. In an elegant font, the card reads: “Only you.”
Eventually, when we’re both back in New York City, we meet at the same restaurant where we had our first date. I glimpse him in a booth at the back of the room as I make my way through the crowd by the bar. When he glances up, my throat clenches, and I have a fleeting impulse to turn around and walk back out of the restaurant the way I entered it.
“What’s it like to be back?” I ask as I sit down.
“Things are less exciting here.” The light seems to have drained out of his eyes.
We order, and the waiter brings our appetizers.
“Is something wrong?” I ask when the meal is over. “You seem distant.”
“I think I built us up too much in my own mind. I’ve lost interest in doing this.” He waves his hand in the air. “I’m sorry. I don’t feel emotionally available.”
We part ways coolly, and I hail my own cab. It feels like someone has thrown a switch on our budding romance. From one moment to the next, the passion has disappeared. What just happened? I wonder. Something scared him away. Had I ignored the obvious—signs of serious attachment issues, like the absence of friends in his life? Even the way he showered me with gifts and compliments early on seems like a glaring red flag now. Not long afterward, trying to make sense of it all, I learn from a podcast that this type of over-the-top generosity in the early stages of a romantic relationship has a name: “love bombing.”
The next day, he calls, and I pick up the phone.
“I’d like to stay connected,” he says. “Maybe we could check in every month or so.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “That doesn’t work for me.”
The disappointment and embarrassment I feel in the wake of our breakup is a blow to my ego, given my personal and professional skills, knowledge, and breadth of experience. You should have known better, I keep telling myself. But the truth is, I’d loved feeling adored. The romance and glitter in the way Neil had wooed me temporarily eclipsed what I know matters most in a partner: a genuine interest in stepping out of your comfort zone and creating a relationship where you grow together.
Ocean Liners Turning
After several emails, I agree to talk to Jonathan, a retired history professor, on the phone.
“You’re funny,” Jonathan says at the end of our call. “And smart.”
“No need to compliment me.” I’m wary of praise after my experience with Neil.
“It’s not a compliment,” Jonathan says with a laugh. “It’s the truth.”
He lives nearby. We’re the same age. He’s been in two long-term marriages and an eight-year relationship with a woman he cared about deeply, his former domestic partner, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s not long after they started living together. Even when she no longer recognized him, he’d stayed with her and cared for her.
“You’re better looking than your photo,” he says the first time we meet in person outside the Time Warner building on Columbus Circle. He takes my hand. In the space of a few seconds, a simple touch sends a flow of energy through my head, neck, and torso that reminds me of times I’ve had way too much caffeine—only this sensation is sweeter.
“You too,” I manage to respond.
He’s dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, and his eyes sparkle—partly, I soon learn, because he puts eyedrops in them every half hour to slow the progression of his glaucoma. He walks with a cane due to neuropathy on one of his feet—the result, he later shares, of being a type 2 diabetic who doesn’t always monitor his glucose levels as closely as he should.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we spend all our free time together. I accompany him on treasure hunts to purchase first edition copies of books he loves, including On the Road. Like Kerouac’s character, Jonathan has lived his life as an adventurer and free spirit. He’s even hitchhiked across Central America, South America, and Mexico.
During our video calls, we stare at each other without speaking, sometimes for half an hour straight. I watch him, and he watches me. I blink. He blinks. It would be utterly boring to an outside observer, I’m sure. I notice slight movements of muscles around his mouth and across his forehead. There’s a lot to feel, and we feel it together. My shoulders relax, and my chest grows spacious. Sometimes, I’m so grateful and awestruck within our shared silence that my eyes fill with tears. His eyes do the same thing, which brings more awe, gratitude, and tears. We smile till our cheeks hurt.
Life is precious.
We fight, too. The more I enjoy our connection, the more it scares me.
“I need to be honest with you,” I tell him. “I want to be with someone healthy. You don’t take care of yourself.”
Instead of shutting down or getting reactive, he listens and nods.
“Wait—are you starting trouble?” He has a knack for using humor to deflect tension, a social skill I find both disarming and endearing.
Whenever I try to control him or tell him what to do, he asks, “What’s got you scared right now?” He’s a master of emotional jujitsu—his phrase—which I think of as the art of peacefully navigating reactivity in ways that help people come back to center.
These days, like a maestro guiding my own inner orchestra, I use all the strategies, tools, techniques, and theories that I’ve studied and taught others over the course of a lifetime. I practice containing my reactivity. I get curious about him. What are his needs, gifts, and limitations? What’s his perspective? I remind myself, My fears aren’t his problem to solve.
Jonathan says he feels like an ocean liner turning himself around in a small space—the space of whatever time we have together—to go somewhere new and exciting with me.
“Change happens slowly,” he says.
When he drives us to a friend’s dinner party, or to a young relative’s wedding, and merges too quickly into a lane of traffic, he’s willing to pull the car over so I can express my panic. He knows I’m hypervigilant in cars because I was in two car accidents as a passenger.
“You have choices,” he says kindly. “You can drive, if you want to, and let me be the passenger. You can find another means of transportation and meet me at our destination. Or you can lie back, close your eyes, and soothe yourself while I drive.”
He’s not the only ocean liner turning. I am, too.
Instead of telling him to stop eating sugary foods and white bread, I say, “I’m scared of loving you and then losing you. I’m trying to distance myself as a form of self-protection.” When I notice I’m thinking about a scary future possibility instead of savoring the present, I come back to the here-and-now. I see the interplay of light and shadow on the walls, a range of colors in the room, trees rustling outside, Jonathan’s face on the screen in front of me or next to me on my pillow. We enter a zone he calls timeless time, where there’s nothing to do, no items to buy at the grocery store, no clients to email, no household appliances to fix. There’s just us. I’m grateful for the discoveries and connections I’ve made, and for the ones I’m still making. Even after losing my husband, whose protection I thought I needed to function and survive, I’ve kept growing and healing. I haven’t lost my zest for life, love, or intimacy.
Steve would be happy for me.
PHOTO @ ISTOCK/RAWPIXEL
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