Other People’s Husbands

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Image from “Barbie Wedding” by TheKristenGabs

“I finally married my own husband,” said thrice-wed Maya Angelou in 1975. “My mother has a theory that most people marry other people’s husbands. But I finally have my own.”

What did she mean by “other people’s husbands?” Are 50 percent of marriages doomed to fail before they even start? Are these unions meant to be nothing more than temporary arrangements because the person vowing “til death do us part” is merely borrowed until the real thing comes along?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the idea of marrying “other people’s husbands” could either be an admonishment or a message of acceptance.

On one hand, it could mean that I should’ve recognized inconsistency or incompatibility before getting married (shame on me); that perhaps we rushed into things out of immaturity, foolish love and blind optimism. On the other, it could signal that I must let go of what was never rightfully mine to keep in the first place. Maybe it’s a little of both. Maybe…

Falling in love does not equal finding the right person. (Wow. That’s huge.)

I believe that regret is a waste of time. There’s no point spending valuable energy dwelling on what could’ve happened if I’d only zigged instead of zagged. I also believe that some people come into your life as blessings and others come into your life as lessons. If I reflect on my divorce with this in mind, it helps to put more distance between me and negative feelings of bitterness-slash-resentment.

And by accepting that my ex and I were never meant to last, it helps release the pain of saying goodbye to the dream of how I thought my life would play out. No, I am not getting what I thought was in store for me or even what I may have believed I deserved.

When I go one step further and put him into a nameless, faceless category of “other people’s husbands,” it doesn’t dismiss what he did, but it does take power away from my own victim narrative of “my husband/wife cheated on me” or “my husband/wife left me.” The truth is, if he never truly belonged to me, I must stop leaning on the crutch of having been robbed of something. And by removing the possessive, I can start working on not taking divorce personally. Girl, he just wasn’t meant for you.

Maya Angelou had her share of hurt. Before she married her third husband, she’d had two previous marriages that ended so badly she refused to publicly discuss her first two husbands in interviews. And yet, she knew that a broken heart made you into the person you were meant to be and that it was important to move forward with that heart wide open, trusting that life had something better in mind.

That was the attitude I chose to take when I started dating again after my divorce. It took some time, but eventually, it led me to finding my partner. The first time we met, there was a connection, a familiarity, a realization that our lives were meant to intersect. I can’t explain it other than to say my heart knew that this was the tender, generous, good-humored love I was always meant to have.

So you’re the one I’ve been looking for.

Early in our relationship, I found myself lamenting how unfair it was that we’d met in our 40s and not our 20s. He gently reminded me that had the opportunity presented itself, we wouldn’t have been ready for it. We would not have been able to recognize what we see and appreciate in one another now. We would’ve been the right people at the wrong time.

Instead, we needed to go through our own ups and downs and learn from our relationships with others to really understand ourselves and what we were looking for. The twists and turns of my past, including marrying someone else’s husband, has brought me exactly to the person and to the place where I was always meant to be.  I finally have my own.

In all the world, there is no heart for me like yours. 

In all the world, there is no love for you like mine.  

(Maya Angelou)

Replaceable.

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I used to work at a company with such high employee turnover that management should’ve installed a revolving door in the reception area. Some business owners might have been deeply troubled to see nearly two dozen workers come and go within an 18-month period, but my boss remained unfazed.

“Imagine filling up a bucket with water,” he said, explaining his staffing philosophy. “Stick your hand in and then quickly pull it out. See the hole that’s left?”

Of course, there’d be no hole. The displaced water would instantly rush in to fill that spot. Other than a few ripples, there would be no evidence that a hand had even been there. And in a matter of seconds, the water surface would calm once again. The lesson? No one is irreplaceable.

This message washed over me again at a celebration for my daughter’s most recent college achievement. My family was there, my ex was there, and members of his family, including his new wife, were there. Since our marriage ended nearly six years ago, it marked the first time we were all gathered together in the same room.

I was certain I had my emotions well in check before the event, but what I didn’t expect was how surreal the whole thing was. As it turns out, I had a front row seat to watching my ex’s wife – my kids’ stepmother – living the life I used to lead. She hugged and chatted happily with the people I used to call family. She shared a drink with my former brother-in-law and later joined my former sister-in-law in a giggly trip to the ladies’ room. When a couple I once considered friends entered the party, she jumped up and greeted them with a warm hug. It was truly like It’s A Wonderful Life with me cast as George Bailey, forced to witness scenes of my own life without me in it.

It really hit me hard. Although my hand had been submerged in the same water for over 20 years, the water barely rippled when it got pulled from the bucket. Now someone else’s hand was in its place. My presence was not only not missed, it was as if I’d never even been there.

It took me a day or so to process my feelings. I knew I’d have to start self-analyzing in order to survive the year ahead when I will be in the same situation at least three more times. You see, my daughter is not only graduating in 2017, she’s getting married too.

I really, really envy couples who can walk in separate directions and completely move on with their lives after the ink on their divorce decree dries. Never again do they have to face the person who shredded their heart, and in an instant relive all of the hurtful things they did. They never have to hear about or worse, see what has become of their (better, happier, more successful and fulfilling) lives once they have been removed from it. They don’t have to meet the (better, happier, more successful and fulfilling) person who has replaced them and see how smooth and easy that transition was for people they once considered family.

That is not my case, nor is it the case of anyone who shares children.

Being able to define my pain was a start. Yes, it hurt to see this woman slip into the life I used to have, even if that is not my life nor the life I want anymore. It hurt to see her with others I cared about and equate that to mean that they no longer cared about me. It hurt to compare myself to her – I mean, she’s clearly much more lovable and more fun to be around than I am.

And then I began to see these painful untruths for what they were: my ego was hurt. I’m obviously special, so it seems only reasonable that once my hand was pulled out of that bucket of water, a giant hole would remain, right? Huh… what? What do you mean there’s no hole? Guess I’m not so special after all.

Quite often, ego can be our worst enemy. Its narrative is not conducive to healing and moving on. Instead, it beats you up, kicks you in square in the shortcomings and cruelly taunts you about the loss of the dream you had to leave behind.

I had to shift focus and once again remind myself that I have a new life now. The people that matter most in the world to me, my children, my partner and my family, are still at the center of that life. No one will ever change that. At the same time, I am a better, happier, more successful and fulfilled person for having left my marriage and for daring to dream of having a new life.

Once I took a deep breath, I had a second thought about my hand in the bucket of water. And then I remembered the Ripple Effect:

“The Ripple Effect is based on the understanding that we are all connected. These connections stretch like an incredibly interwoven and complicated tapestry. Each of us exists within this tapestry. Thoughts and actions are like stones dropped in a pond and they create ripples that travel outward. Everything we do and think affects the people in our lives and their reactions in turn affect others. The choices you make have far-reaching consequences. Each of us carries within us the capacity to change the world in small ways for better or worse.”

Honestly, I have no idea how my presence or my absence has affected the lives of others – so I cannot let my ego fill in those blanks. I can’t pretend to know how other people, including former family members, felt or reacted to having me sit in the same room that evening. Maybe they remembered the good times we used to have too. Maybe they still miss me in some small way.

That’s the problem with my old boss’ bucket theory. What he failed to realize is that everyone who comes into our lives, no matter how briefly, leaves an indelible mark. We can switch places; we can call in a substitute; we can be succeeded; but you and I are irreplaceable. We are not shoes, cars, iPhones or washing machines.

So, here’s what I know. When someone else is sitting in the chair you used to occupy, it is only a sign that after divorce, the earth continues to turn, the clock keeps ticking and yes, life does go on. Even when your ego is telling you that you’ve been replaced, the truth is that your personal worth and the impact you’ve made on others cannot be erased.

The Birthday Blog

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This week, the blog turned one and I turned 46.

When I first started this project, I was in need of some renewal and purpose in the post-holiday season. January is a cold and depressing month, and even though it’s my birthday, I seem to be ultra-sensitive to everyone’s grumbling which makes me susceptible to the blahs.

But January is also the beginning of a new year and a good time for a fresh start, so I went in search of a new creative pursuit. I had always thought about starting my own blog but couldn’t come up with a worthy theme. Up until 12 months ago, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I had plenty of material to mine in my own backyard.

A few people suggested I write about the things I’d been dealing with since my divorce, but I had been avoiding it for fear of reliving the pain – which had subsided but not altogether disappeared. As I revisited the journal I kept after my marriage ended, I realized that grief still had a stranglehold on me. It was preventing me from fully opening up and allowing myself to be vulnerable in many aspects of my life – in my relationships, in my work and in my writing.

So I started this blog as a way to work through my layers of “stuff” and to hopefully find and accept the reason for my divorce. As Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

As those dots began to connect, I started to truly understand how cathartic it was to talk about what I’d experienced. And then an amazing thing happened. Other people reached out to me with their stories. Some said they could relate my musings to their own lives, even if they had not gone through a divorce. I also discovered a community of fellow bloggers and found comfort and kinship in how they shared their “stuff” too.

Over the past year, writing about my divorce has taught me about letting go, moving on and finding gratitude – but it’s your support, kindness and encouragement that has really been transformative. Thank you for helping me to find purpose and meaning where there was once only darkness. Dear readers – you too, are a gift. I am not sure which direction the blog will take in the year ahead, but I am looking forward to the journey even if that means revisiting the past. I hope you will join me.

The First Christmas

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When you’re divorced, Christmas is a ticking time bomb. It’s a dangerous combination of nostalgia and expectation with all the trimmings. You can no longer watch Love Actually without plainly seeing that a third of the storylines are about infidelity. You can’t hear “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” without knowing it’s about a child stumbling upon mother locking lips with a stranger in a red suit.

Let’s face it, you can’t just stick a pretty bow on the fact that you’re living with a painful loss while others are celebrating. To compound your grief, there are visitations by ghosts of Christmases past while so many of the things that used to define the holidays have simply vanished.

I remember shedding a lot of tears on my first unmarried Christmas. For the first time in 21 years, I was not with my in-laws on Christmas Eve. I wondered if anyone would even notice that I (and my famous meatballs) were not at the table. At least my meatballs would be missed. Sniff.

And then there were the decorations. Just 11 months before, all of the personalized stockings and cherished tree ornaments had been carefully wrapped in tissue paper and tucked away for the season. When they came out of storage, it was like they’d been kept in a hermetically-sealed time capsule, oblivious to the turmoil that had taken place during the year. They stood as a reminder that our family of four once celebrated Christmas under this roof – and never would again.

Although I had six months to prepare for that first Christmas season of my new life, the tradition triggers and resulting emotions still came roaring at me like an avalanche. It’s hard. But like any challenge, there are things that can be learned from it.

Accept that Christmases will never be the same. I think it’s only natural to mourn what you used to have at this time of year, especially when you didn’t know that last Christmas was going to be your last Christmas with an intact family. The truth is, everything in your life is changing and so too, must those holiday traditions and the expectations that come with them. After all, expectations are so often the fuel feeding that let-down feeling. I needed to let go of what I long believed Christmas must be in order to embrace what Christmas could be.

Set your boundaries. My ex’s parents divorced when he was young. As a boy, he would wait until his father came over on Christmas morning to open presents. When our marriage ended – under different circumstances – he assumed that we’d do the same. But having to share the joy of Christmas morning with someone who abused my trust did not sit well with me. I didn’t want the stress of seeing him on my couch, sharing in the gift giving (meaning he’d pitch in a few bucks while I made the lists, shopped, bought and wrapped) nor playing happy family for the kids’ sakes. I knew such behavior would set back the progress I’d made since we separated. I told him no and felt good about that. It was still my Christmas too, after all. It’s okay to turn down invitations (or impositions) if you need your space.

Do something different to shake up the routine. That first Christmas Eve was unseasonably mild and my mom and dad invited me take a winter hike with them. It was something we’d never done before, but it sounded good just to get away from my empty house. Being in the fresh air, surrounded by a forest of towering aspens dusted in snow, enjoying the beauty and solace of nature with two people who love me unconditionally was exactly what my soul needed. My advice is try to find something fun and different to engage your spirit. Take a hike. Try a new restaurant. Volunteer at a shelter. Make a snowman. Swap out It’s a Wonderful Life for Die Hard. And if you can do it with someone who adores you no matter what, all the better.

Realize that others are hurting too. One thing that has always helped me is finding perspective, and that means looking beyond the lonely bubble I isolate myself in. Once I wiped away the tears, I saw that I was not the only one struggling with the holiday season. During the year, countless people have lost a loved one, moved away from home, divorced, suffered with poor health or have been laid off. By reaching out to someone also having a hard time, I gained new perspective. Talk it out, cry it out, hug it out. Trust me, it all helps you get to a place where you see you’re not alone. By connecting with someone in a meaningful way, you’ll be helping each other survive Christmas.

Surround yourself with what you love. One of my favorite things about Christmas is the colorful lights. String lights, rope lights, icicle lights, flood lights, net lights – you name it. If it sparkles, I love it. I’m just in my happy place basking in the luminous glow of an elaborate holiday light display. One of the new traditions I have with my partner is driving around our city, enjoying the seasonal lights. It pleases my inner childlike-heart to see twinkling trees through front windows and the radiance of a well-planned yuletide yard spectacle. Find something that helps you get out of your head and into a simple, joyful, marshmallow world.

As always, cut yourself some slack. Emotions are running high at this time of year and are as unpredictable as ever. You can’t help what you feel, and it’s normal to feel it with even greater intensity this season. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to sleep, sleep. At the same time, remember that you still have control over how you spend your time during the holidays and that you have the power to choose what feels right and healthy for you. It’s the gift you can give yourself.

Although Christmas always has been and always will be my favorite time of year, I recall that getting through that first unmarried holiday season was one of the most challenging times of my life. But I survived it by surrounding myself with love and with light – and every year since has been measurably better. In fact, when I look back on my Blue Christmas, I marvel at how far I’ve come. I bet you will too.

Merry Christmas.  

What I’m Made Of

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Art inspiration from http://www.stonestories.org

“I hope you understand that I’m not leaving you for someone else,” he said with a straight face, even though we both knew it was a lie.

Perhaps it was his attempt at self-preservation, as in, don’t go run and tell your lawyer I’m leaving you for another woman so you can bleed me dry. Maybe it was to protect his still-married mistress from whatever shenanigans I, the betrayed and scorned, might try to pull. And then there was the off chance it was actually for the sake of my dignity, as if, in some twisted way, that revelation was supposed to bring me some comfort. It didn’t.

Just a week earlier, he spilled his guts about that affair plus all the ones he’d had before. Then he packed up and left. Later, he said he’d be willing to come back and give our marriage another try if I wanted save our family. He gave me another week to think it over. Then he tacked an ultimatum onto it. If I didn’t take him back before the allotted time was up, he just might be tempted to fall back into bed with her next time she was in town.

They say you don’t really know a man until you’ve divorced him. They’re so right. I never learned so much about the person I was married to for 20 years as I did in those first few days.

But truthfully, I also didn’t really know who I was until I was divorced either. In fact, here are a few things I learned about myself:

I deserve better. As someone who had her entire life planned out and fall neatly into place since high school, the unexpected end of my marriage was not only painful, it was hard to let go of a dream that would never be fully realized. However, I immediately recognized that I was deserving of a much better marriage and a much better husband than one who’d threaten me with even more cheating if I didn’t take him back by his deadline. Thanks to his unacceptable bad behavior, I was able to redraw my boundaries and told myself that “I want what I deserve and I deserve what I want.” In divorce, I reclaimed my worth.

I am not afraid anymore. While most people rank public speaking and death as their greatest fears, for me, discovering my husband’s infidelity (nightmares had plagued me for years – go figure) and subsequent divorce was at the top of my list. But then my marriage ended and I managed to survive the worst thing I could have possibly imagined. Oh, it was a dark and scary time for sure, but it was also a chance for me to grow and to gain a new perspective. I became braver and more independent because of it. If I could face what I’d been most fearful of, there really was little left to fear.

It’s okay to take time for me. The first time my kids left to visit their father, I wasn’t able to hold back tears. I couldn’t believe our life had come to this. The silence at home was deafening and I dreaded not knowing what to do with myself. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read. I didn’t have the energy to go outside. But at the same time, I felt guilty just wasting this precious time when I had the world at my disposal. I soon realized that after 16 years of being a mom, spending time alone would take practice and that it was healthy for me and the kids to be apart. While I’ve never been great at self-care, I tried to look forward to opportunities to relearn what I enjoy and get reacquainted with who Barb is. By starting to “date” myself, I realized just what a great catch I am!

I have a resilient heart. Despite the pain and sadness enveloping it, my heart has never lost its flicker of hope and compassion. Just 48 hours after he left, my ex returned home to see the kids after work. Knowing he’d be hungry, I whipped up a sandwich for him. It might have been wifely instinct, but the gesture came from a surprising place of kindness and empathy knowing we were both hurting. That is just who I am. I am grateful that my heart never gave out or gave up on me. Even while healing, it demonstrated more compassion toward others and an even greater capacity to love those who mean the most to me. My heart never once stopped believing that I would someday love and trust again.

I am my mother’s daughter. I can’t overstate how much my parents did to support me and my kids in that first year of divorce. My mother was everything. Even though she was hurting too, she scooped us up, hugged us, fed us and comforted us;  offering gentle counsel or a listening ear, holding us together and presenting us with a welcome distraction or a helping hand. She had a calming effect on me in the midst of total chaos. I have always looked up to the women in my family as remarkably strong and wise individuals and at a time I felt my weakest, it lifted me to know that I was cut from the same cloth. The love, faith, compassion and strength of my mother helped me to rediscover my own.

Looking Back on Moving Forward

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Recently, I was asked how someone is ever supposed to move forward when they keep getting sucked back into the heartache following betrayal and divorce.

I wish I knew what to say; I’m certainly no expert. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’ve moved forward until something happens that would have, at one time, caused me to downward spiral – and I realize that it doesn’t anymore. Oh, I still get sucked back in too. I feel anger and resentment. There are still times my self-confidence is shaky at best; there are still times I convince myself that I’m unlovable. But they are only temporary emotional ruts and I know I can gradually work myself out. These times come less frequently and to a far lesser degree than they once did.

But the truth is, I don’t really know how I got here – or even where “here” is.

There is no roadmap to healing after heartbreak, no marker that will let you know when you’ve finally reached your destination (“Ding! You’re now all better and ready for a new life!”). Thankfully, there are things like the five stages of grief that you can check yourself against – until you realize that you will pinball between denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance for years to come, if not the rest of your life.

I think the misnomer about “moving forward” is that you will eventually step over some magical invisible line and never have to feel it anymore. As if once you get past it, the hurt won’t catch up to you and the person who crushed your soul will never cross your mind. Wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, it’s more accurate to say that the pain never quite disappears, although it does dull into a manageable ache over time.

I was grateful to catch a TV interview with Vikki Stark, a marriage counsellor and therapist. Vikki was married more than 21 years when she was blindsided by her husband leaving her for another woman and has since turned her experience into helping women recover from similar situations. Vikki’s book Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal offers the following, spot-on ways to free yourself from the darkest, loneliest days and start moving forward.

So to my friend reaching out for a lifeline of advice, I really couldn’t say it any better than this – in fact, Vikki’s list might be the most solid bit of post-divorce advice I have read yet, and looking back, I can see my own journey in her valid, valuable points. So take a deep breath and…

  • Recognize that the chaos won’t last forever.
  • Accept that the marriage is really over.
  • Integrate the fact that your partner has changed irrevocably and is beyond caring for your welfare.
  • Understand why he/she needs to justify their actions any way possible – including rewriting history, lying or attacking you.
  • Give up trying to get the acknowledgement and apology that you deserve.
  • Revise your beliefs in human nature. You now have learned that some people are capable of deception.
  • Believe in your self-worth. You must stop feeling discarded, empty and less valuable than the woman (or man) who has taken your place or than married women in general.
  • Get accustomed to being self-reliant and independent.
  • Expect good things in your future. Don’t assume that you will always be alone or miserable.
  • Stay positive! Stop yourself from becoming bitter or developing a victim mentality.

Incidentally, Vikki is happy, successful and enjoying a new healthy, long-term relationship. She has moved forward. And so will you.

The Truth About Homewrecking Ogres

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I have often wondered what kind of person knowingly goes to bed with someone who is married. Is it a power trip to seduce a taken man (or woman), or is it simply about the thrill of no-strings sex (though there are always strings attached)?

A good friend’s wife announced that she was in love with someone she’d been having an affair with at work. She made the decision for them both to end their 15-year marriage, move out of the home they shared with their children and start a new life with her lover. My friend was angry and had every right to be. Although he had never personally met the lover, he despised this individual for ripping their family apart and referred to them as “Shrek” – a slur against their perceived nastiness, yes, but also their selfish, ogre-like behavior.

According to mythology, an ogre is a hideous, clumsy creature that takes what it wants without regard and, horrifically, feeds on the flesh of its victims. So really, my friend wasn’t all that far off base. In both of our cases, ogres deliberately pursued and pounced on our spouses in the workplace, despite their being in a marital fortress clearly surrounded by a moat of family photos and clad in gold-banded armor signifying ineligibility.

Come on. It isn’t like they didn’t know our spouses were married with kids. They knew and didn’t care.

Unbeknownst to each other, my friend and I had separately contacted our homewrecking ogres once we discovered their existence, emailing them photos of our sweet children’s faces in an attempt to shame them into realizing that this affair wasn’t a game. There were real consequences to their actions, with real families with real hearts as collateral damage.

The only responses we got back? Silence. Shrugs.

Going forward, we directed a lot of our bitterness and resentment toward our respective ogres. We villainized them for intruding on our fairy tale existences and callously stomping all over our happily ever afters. Worse, when an ogre plays the innocent victim, telling your 16-year old that “you can’t help who you fall in love with” (which might be true, but you are certainly in control of whether or not you act on it), it makes it very easy to detest them.

If you’ve been cheated on, you know how deep the trauma of betrayal goes. It gnaws at your sense of security and self-worth. You begin to suspect that ogres are lurking all around, because they are. I know that’s true because at least half a dozen of them (that I’m aware of) were able to penetrate and plague my marriage. Naturally, it erodes your trust in people, more specifically, women without boundaries or acceptance of the moral girl code that says to leave other women’s husbands alone.

It took some time, but I eventually realized that it’s easier to make the affair partners out to be monsters because we don’t know them. On the other hand, we know our spouses better than anyone; we love them and we trust them. We share a history, children and a life together. We know that they would never cheat or lie to us so surely, they were coerced by some evil entity into leaving their senses and breaking their vows, right? Wrong.

Villainizing the other woman/man is merely a distraction from the truth. The person who broke their vows is truly the guilty party – they allowed the ogre into the marriage fortress. Ultimately, I came to the realization that for healing to take place, the focus should not be on the outsider. Instead, the rage and blame should be on the person who decided to ruin your marriage long before they took their pants off. It doesn’t matter if they were happy or unhappy, lonely or fulfilled, drunk or sober. When it comes to infidelity, the responsibility always lies with the person in the committed relationship.

No, it’s not easy questioning whether your marriage was a sham and if you’ve been clueless about who you’ve spent the past two decades of your life with. It certainly forced me to stop seeing my spouse as who I thought he was or wanted him to be and start looking at the ugly truth after he showed his true self.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, ogres still need to own up to the deplorable part they played in the affair; they are the desperate creatures willing to jump into bed with a married person. They made their choice; they are not a victim of the heart (or any other body part). Yes, I know that there is a school of thought that says berating the other woman is akin to “slut shaming” but I like what Chump Lady has to say about that that: “You shouldn’t ever be ashamed of your sexuality. You should be ashamed of treating people like shit.”

My anger toward the other woman has somewhat softened into empathy. I have met her on a few occasions and she is, in fact, quite unmonsterlike. She seems to be an intelligent, level-headed, and dare I say, good person. I have little reason to believe she intentionally set out to inflict pain on me and my children. Of course, that does not excuse what she did. But let’s face it, if she hadn’t been one of my ogres, another would have been right around the corner to snatch away my happiness.

I really don’t know what damage in her past would cause her to choose the destructive path that she did, but her selfish decision will always define her presence in my life. I feel bad for her in that way. I also feel bad that she is now married to a man she knows is unable to stay monogamous, but once again, that was her decision. While I do not wish her ill will, I do wish her luck.