Today, we have a question from a reader who finds herself having been passed over for another woman – an event that has happened to her before and that, thus, has left her feeling devastated.

She writes:

I just turned 50. A year ago I decided to explore online dating after 10 years devoted to being a single mom. Still in the midst of coping with a painful rejection from a man I met there with whom I had a lot in common, but who decided there was ‘no chemistry’ after we explored a friendship (and was sexually impotent with me), I messaged another man who appeared to have similar values and interests. He responded very strongly that he was captivated by my profile and picture, and that he was soon moving to my city for a new job.

We chatted and emailed for 2 weeks. He was up front telling me that he was just out of a long term relationship and had some dates that went very well with another woman who lived here on a previous trip, but he wanted to meet me, too. ( I have always been skeptical of too much interest right away from men who don’t even know me yet, but he was incredibly romantic and charming and we just clicked even before we met.) We met/had our 1st date the day he moved here.

For 6 weeks he showed me everything I’ve never had in a man, and have been missing out on. Kind, attentive, respectful, passionate wonderful in bed, liked me for things I want to be liked for. I trusted him and started opening up with him in ways I have never before. Then I noticed him getting distant, and asked him if we needed to take a break, was he seeing/needed to see other people? (It was then I found out that he had been seeing the other woman he had mentioned all along, and he felt himself in a huge dilemma because he couldn’t be so close to 2 at once. He acknowledged that we were on the verge of an exclusive relationship. I felt like I was on an episode of the TV show “The Bachelor.” He chose the other woman, but indicated the he was ambivalent suggesting that we give it some time, see how we feel, he never has actually dated much (married for 14 years before his recent relationship) and needed to date. He said he felt dirty being involved with 2 women at such a level.

I was shellshocked, and incredibly sad. He was very kind and empathetic and apologized for hurting me. That only made it worse, because it showed his quality. I knew it was probably final, but hoped maybe in the future he’d come back. 3 weeks later, I impulsively initiated an online chat, he said he had been thinking of me, we talked on the phone briefly, and the next night I found flowers at my door that he had brought himself with a card that only said “I hope you’re doing well”. I emailed him a few days later that I missed him. He responded in a joking way. I then talked to him and was rather angry telling him the flowers were an ambiguous message and was there something unfinished between us or not? He said he didn’t mean to be ambiguous and “No”, but texted me a few days later wishing me well on a community event I was coordinating.

I feel like a fool, he was only being kind after he broke up with me, have been crying for 6 weeks now, am miserably depressed, think about him constantly, and check to see if he’s on the online dating site. He is. I can’t stop hoping there is still a possibility for us.

I am in despair about ever having a relationship. I am 50. I have had 2 other painful experiences in my life where men I was involved with have explicitly chosen another woman over me, and I know that is why this is so hard, in addition to the loneliness of the past 10 years. I am told I am very physically attractive, and young looking, and I get tons of online dating interest, but I can only think of him. It was only a 2 month relationship. What’s wrong with me to feel this pain so intensely? I have even started smoking again. Help.

And our response:

Hello and thanks for sharing your story. First of all, I’m very sorry to hear about this painful situation.

Here is my take on it and I don’t think it will surprise you. I think it’s something that you know but maybe just need to hear from another party to reinforce for you.

This man sounds like an honest man. He was up front about the fact that he was just out of a marriage and seeing other people in addition to you. He is in an exploration phase, unsure of even who he himself is at the moment, much less what he wants. I think that explains the sense of confusion around all of it. That confusion makes it difficult and can lead to people ending up hurt. But he was genuine enough to share this up front.

My sense is that being a caring person he really does feel badly about anyone getting hurt. But there was no simple way for that to be avoided. By being open with everyone involved (at least that’s what I’m gathering from your story) he did what he was responsible to do. Other than that it just sounds like a situation where it isn’t possible for everyone to win.

But, in the end, I feel like this is one of those situations where your best move is the same regardless of what is going on with him. Whether there is any hope of him coming back to you or not, in both cases it seems in your best interest to back off from the situation. Pressuring him would only make you seem less attractive and the other woman more attractive so it would probably diminish any hope that existed. And if he is sincere in telling you that there is actually not any chance of getting back together, then it would be a waste of energy.

If you needed to, I wouldn’t find it too much to simply prepare one last letter letting him know that you are interested and do want to be with him, but have to move on for now. After that I wouldn’t contact him anymore – certainly not in the foreseeable future until you were far past this pain.

At that point the focus becomes you and the terrible abandonment/inferiority that this is stirring up for you again. There are no magic words that I can say to fix that. But it does help to understand where those feelings come from. You mentioned having felt these feelings stirred up in earlier relationships where someone was chosen over you. Quite possibly this feeling of being passed over for someone else – of being “less than” – goes back even further.

The silver lining of these feelings is they can help us trace back to events that we have forgotten and not resolved and sometimes at least get some understanding if not resolution.

Sometimes I think these unearthings of painful feelings end up serving as nothing more than a strengthening phase. You can get through this hurt. It is almost a form of withdrawal. And if you take it day by day and work through it rather than run from it, it will pass in time leaving you even more resilient.

Some find it helpful as this withdrawal-like phase is going on to read books like those we recommend that validate those feelings and keep them aware of what is real and what is being magnified by the unresolved emotions reawakened from the past. Some find it helpful just to keep busy and distract so as to survive another day not going back to the source until they are strong enough to face the pain itself. And this can always be a good time to find a good therapist to help you through it.

I think this sets the stage for how to respond. If you (or anyone reading this) have any follow-up questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

If you want to know how to fix a marriage, it often helps to know what’s not working. That is not as easy a question as it seems.

You see, there are symptoms and there are sources of symptoms. Most people focus on the symptoms.

So, for example, let’s say that you and your spouse are fighting a lot. If we ask what is not working in your marriage, you might say “We fight too much.” But fighting is a symptom. The question is “Why are you fighting?”

But even that might not give us the answer. Imagine I ask “Why are you fighting?” and you respond “Because he/she isn’t doing things he/she promised to do.” I could then ask “Why isn’t he/she doing things he/she promised to do?” and so on.

In fact, a good policy is to do just this. Ask “Why?” several times. There is even a technique based on this procedure called the “5 Whys” technique. Children naturally do this. They are rarely satisfied with the first answer about something. Once you explain it, they just ask “Why?” again. This might annoy you, but it’s actually a great way to get to the root of problems.

If you keep asking “Why?” enough times, you’re likely to learn some things, such as:

You don’t actually know the source of the problems

In this case, you will need to do more investigation into yourself and your partner. This might involve reading some books or seeing a counselor to help figure out the underlying source.

The source is actually something far in the past

Very commonly, the source of present problems is past wounding. A person who was neglected as a kid may lash out now when they perceive their partner is distancing. A person who was violated as a kid may lash out if not given enough space.

The source has to do with symbols

Why do couples so often have major problems over issues that, on the surface, seem minor, even trivial? The reason is that these small issues are symbolic of larger issues. It may not be a big deal that your spouse fails to clean up after themselves perfectly. But that may be symbolic of a larger pattern of irresponsibility. If that pattern of irresponsibility was something that bothered you with other people in your past, as well, the symbol can be even more potent.

We focused in on this difference between dealing with symptoms and dealing with sources in a previous piece called “Comparing the Two Fundamental Categories of Breakup Advice” in which we contrasted “symptom-focused” and “origin-focused” breakup advice. As you can tell, if you really want to know how to fix a marriage, we believe it’s important, in most cases, to take an origin-focused approach. There are ways to fix a marriage, in some cases, without knowing the sources. But in many cases it will be more effective if you do.

So what do you do once you’ve identified the source? At that point what is going to determine whether you can fix your marriage is how you and your spouse view the purpose of relationships. If you think the purpose is to stay who you each think you are and not change, then you will be committed to maintaining the source of the problem as it is, considering it a part of who you are. But if you think the purpose is to grow and develop, then you will be willing to work on transforming the source together.

Remember that, quite often, you are drawn to someone because your core wounds are complementary. You push each other’s buttons to bring those wounds to each other’s attention so you can help each other heal them.

So this is, in general, how to fix a marriage:

  1. Identify the source of the problems
  2. Become conscious about the origins of those sources
  3. Determine if you are willing to grow and develop together
  4. Work to heal each other’s wounded sources of suffering as a team

As always, a good therapist can be a huge ally in this journey of fixing a marriage, a journey which could be the most fulfilling of your life.

Step 1 – Make sure that you really do want to save the relationship

Often we are in pain over a relationship and want to make it last, even though deep down we know it’s not a healthy situation for us. It can be very difficult to save a relationship that we know isn’t right for us because we will be giving mixed messages and creating conflict.

Give this step some serious thought. If you truly believe the relationship is worth saving, then…

Step 2 – Give your partner what they need most at this time

What does your partner crave most right now in the relationship? In most cases, it is one of two things:

  • Closeness
  • Space

Odds are that lately you haven’t been meeting this need of theirs because it clashes with yours.

If you’ve been distant, it’s time to move a bit closer. If you’ve been overwhelming your partner, it’s time to move back and give them some breathing room.

Once you’ve spent some time meeting your partner’s main need and created some trust…

Step 3 – Share your stories

When you are talking to your partner, ask them to share with you the story of what has been going on for them recently in regards to the relationship. Listen carefully and mirror back what you’re hearing to make sure you’ve understood. Then ask if you can share your story. Stories are powerful. And try to focus on hearing their story and telling yours rather than finger pointing at each other at this stage.

Step 4 – Re-Romanticize

If Steps 2 and 3 of how to save a relationship have gone well, there should be some more trust and emotional rapport between you now. You might be tempted now to pressure for some kind of commitment. But instead, try putting yourselves in situations like those where you fell for each other in the first place. This is based on a technique called re-romanticizing that the great relationship therapist Harville Hendrix recommends. What did you used to be doing together when you fell in love? Go do some of those things again, even if you don’t feel like it before you do them.

Step 5 – Discuss the relationship’s status

Many people jump right to step 5. But if you do this without having built trust and comfort first, you may just push your partner further away. Only now, having done steps 1-4, it’s time to open up a more serious discussion of where things stand. If all has gone well, the bond will be rekindled between you and there will be a mutual desire to commit to each other again.

Saving a relationship can never be an exact science. Not every relationship can be saved. You can only do the best you can to make things work. Ultimately, your partner is a free person and has to make their own choice. But if you do these steps, you can be proud that you gave the relationship a chance, tried your very best to save your relationship and live with whatever the outcome is.

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