“‘I finally understand the gift you were giving me,’ I said, crying into my phone’s video camera. I was recording a message to my ex-wife, Lolly. She was out of town, and I planned to send it to her the next day when she got home. ‘Now that I’m falling in love with Carlos–falling in love with a man for the first time–I can finally see the true beauty of the love you have been trying to give me all these years, and it absolutely breaks my heart to see it so clearly. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’
It was Lolly, herself, who helped me meet Carlos. On the day we decided, brokenhearted and bawling into each other’s arms, that the pain we both felt in our mis-matched marriage was too excruciating for it to continue, she convinced me to post a profile on a dating app. ‘Here, turn around,’ she said, holding up her phone. ‘You have to let yourself start the process of dating guys. I’m taking a picture of the back of your head so nobody will know it’s you.’ She said this because we had to be careful about that for a couple of reasons–first, she and I are both psychotherapists, and we didn’t want any current clients to accidentally stumble on an online dating profile while, at least according to public perception, we were married to each other. Secondly, she and I had become recognizable in our religious community because of a coming out post we shared that went viral years earlier.
I let her take the picture without protest–I was mainly just shell-shocked by what was happening, and tired from crying so much. I then slapped up an oblique profile bio that didn’t reveal much about who I am, looked at the pictures of a few guys gingerly swiping right on one or two, and marveled that I might actually get to date someone I was attracted to, and assumed nothing would come of it. After a few minutes, it all became too much and I put the phone away. Lolly and I went to bed that night exhausted, heartbroken at what we were losing. Lolly, especially, was losing so much as we ended our relationship–her person, the one she had chosen and that she thought she could be with forever. But I still didn’t understand exactly what that loss was yet. That was soon to change.
To our surprise, the profile we threw together for me got a lot of attention. Many guys on the app seemed quite intrigued by this mystery-man with the (apparently very attractive?) back-of-the-head shot. It wasn’t long before I had my first date lined up.
Now, you have to understand, while I was a 37-year old man, practically and functionally I was about 13 in terms of dating or exploring my sexual identity. I was the epitome of arrested development. I grew up Mormon, and my faith community–which everyone I knew loved and trusted implicitly throughout all my growing up–insisted that the only way for me to live my life correctly and earn my place in heaven was to completely reject my gayness. Because of this, I never had even the most basic romantic experiences–things most people take for granted. I had never, ever had a requited crush. I had never held a man’s hand. I’d never milled awkwardly at a school dance expecting to maybe get close to someone I was attracted to. I hadn’t had my first kiss. I’d never even brushed my hand up against the hand of someone I was into and felt the electric buzz of mutual attraction.
I was basically a tween.
‘You have to do it,’ Lolly and my best friend Ben both said when I waffled in terror after awkwardly setting up my first date. ‘You have to go out with him. It’s just a lunch date!’ It had only been a week or two since Lolly and I had made our decision to split, and it all felt terribly rushed. I also knew how hard this must have been for Lolly (who tells her part of this story here), and it made me profoundly hesitant. But they were persistent. ‘If you are going to learn how to do this, you have to do it. You have to go on the date,’ they both urged.
I decided to go for it. My first date, a few days later, was with a nice guy I’ll call Eliot. I got dressed, and gave Lolly a hug as I walked out the door. She hugged me back with hurt and pain in her eyes. ‘Good luck,’ she said, and my heart broke for her pain. Yet I knew this is what she wanted for me, and for us.
This first date guy, Eliot, and I had decided to meet up at a Thai restaurant (that last line of my profile in the pic above was a winner!). I listened to 90’s rock all the way there, trying to get in touch with my teenage self. I was dating! I was finally doing the thing most people got to do decades earlier! I was doing the thing we are all meant to do! I was searching for connection, attachment, and the fun of finding love. Half of me was terrified and broken hearted. Another half of me was totally pumped. A particular song came on that reminded me of my teenage years (Black Hole Sun, by Soundgarden) and I could feel that part of myself–the teenage part of me that needed to go through the basic process of sexual development, which I had squashed away and ignored and even hated for religious reasons for 37 years–breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, he seemed to say. We’ve been waiting for this our whole life. And finally you are being brave enough to do it.
The date with Eliot was very nice. We had a great conversation, and both enjoyed it so much that he asked me to grab coffee afterwards. As we walked to a local Starbucks, he intentionally brushed his arm against my arm, and for the first time in my life, I felt the power of mutual attraction electrify our touch. It absolutely blew me away. I could not believe that I had been expecting myself to go without this critical part of the human experience my whole life. I knew instantly in that moment that not only was this ‘fun,’ it was necessary for human actualization. In that moment, and in a few other moments during this phase of my development (like after my first kiss, which was a different story and a different dude), everything in me cried out this! This is who we are! You are finally being your true self, and discovering who you really are! And it’s beautiful! As Eliot and I hugged goodbye at the end of our date I felt the electricity of shared attraction again and I was once again blown away. So this is why people are so crazy about all this love stuff I realized. This realization seemed silly and profound all at once.
Eliot, who lived several hours away but had been in the area for a work meeting, and I never were able to meet up again, but he was a wonderful, considerate first date, and I remember lying on my office couch at work afterwards, grinning ear to ear, basking in the silly, exuberant, visceral joy of that experience, thrilled at the world of possibilities that had opened up for my future. And beneath all of that was a growing agony at the pain that Lolly, my dearest friend, was having to endure as she let me go–which because I had never been romantically attached to her as a gay man, I did not have to do.
The next several months, I had scattered dating experiences and online conversations with guys. I only went on dates in Portland, several hours away from where I lived in Seattle. I operated this way so I could make sure to remain focused on my girls and my career and not lose my bearings as this new world opened up to me, and so that Lolly and I both would have plenty of time to process the shift that was happening in our life. (It also made it easier with the partial-anonymity thing. Lolly and I still hadn’t announced our divorce to our blog followers or our respective therapy clients, so discretion was still required until we had had the chance to be more public.) The dating experiences I had during this time taught me a lot. When dudes I was crushing on weren’t interested, I felt the brutal pangs of heartache. When things seemed to flow, I felt the surge of joy of infatuation–that delicious rush of dopamine and endorphins and other amazing chemicals which taught me so much about myself and my capacity to feel. Suddenly I understood so many things that I had never really understood before–love songs, movies, sub-plots and plots of TV shows that all centered around these experiences I was finally having. Things I had understood conceptually, and that I had seen happening all around me–and things I had thought I’d understood as I watched everyone in our culture but me experience them, and even thought I experienced something of in my relationship with Lolly–but things that, until these dating experiences, I’d actually had no frame of reference for truly understanding at all.
And then, months into the journey, I was monumentally blown away when it actually happened: the full enchilada, the big one, the real deal. (And no, I don’t mean just sex though that’s certainly part of it!) I started chatting with a guy named Carlos, and actually fell in love.
Holy smokes, ya’ll. I gotta tell ya, this was amazing. Most of you know this! Most of you have had these types of things happen since your teen years. But here I was, 37 years old (getting uncomfortably close to the famous 40-year-old virgin trope), virginal in almost every way, and totally inexperienced with the combination of chemicals that create attachment bonds in human beings. It was a revelation!
Carlos and I started talking when he hit me up on an app, on the same profile Lolly had snapped the picture of the back of my head for. When I first saw his profile, and the interests he’d listed there I naively thought, ‘uhh, probably not.’ (Jazz? No thanks. Camping? I’ll pass. Sports??? I’d rather die in a fire.) But when we started chatting, I could just feel it. I don’t know what happened–the stars aligned, the planets shifted in their orbits, tectonic plates made minor non-earthquakey adjustments–something big happened and I started falling in love. He was so amazing and sweet and wonderful and oh wow did I fall hard. We chatted on the app for a week or two, realizing how much we actually did have in common, and how much we relished in the things we didn’t have in common. And then, after a failed attempt at meeting up near Christmastime when he got a cold and couldn’t make it (when I asked if maybe he wasn’t really into me after all, he assured me that not wanting to meet me while sniffling mucous all night was because he was so into me), I finally made the three hour trek from Seattle to Portland so we could go on our first date.
I still get tingles thinking of that first time I saw Carlos standing there in the parking lot of his apartment complex, waiting to take me out to get Thai (people really did take me at my word on that final line of my profile, and in this case, it worked!). After lunch, he took me out for an incredibly romantic day of hiking in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, eating tacos, visiting a cafe for beverages and reading, then sitting on his bed in his apartment, sipping wine, and talking, relaxing and kissing as the sun set and the wonderful day came to a close. By the end of the night, we both knew in our hearts (even though you don’t really know, so you would never say it out loud, but we have since compared notes) that this was it. ‘I have two songs in my head,’ he said that night, before I left to go home. ‘The first is Norah Jones with Q-Tip, when she says, ‘Life is better now that I found you.’ And the second is my favorite from high school, A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Electric Relaxation.’ That’s what feel with you, Josh. Electric relaxation.’ I knew exactly what he meant. I had been trying all day to think of a way to describe the chill, wonderful, electric vibe that we’d been feeling together, and that was it: electric relaxation. As I drove away that night, I was truly smitten. I wrote in my journal that night that I thought, deep down, he might be the one.
Because we lived three hours apart from each other, and because Carlos was not new to the dating game and he wanted this one to count, we took things very slowly. As a month or two passed, my feelings for him deepened and grew, and I discovered new contours and edges to our love. As this all happened, I began, slowly, to understand what the human capacity for romantic love could really be. Each new phase of it, every new experience, every new plumbed depth of adoration and attachment increased this comprehension. Falling in love was truly a beautiful human process that absolutely changed my life. It changed me deeply. It healed things in me that I didn’t understand needed to be healed. It watered brittle, dying grasses of my soul that I hadn’t known could be verdant and lush. It increased my health (I literally did not get sick, even with a common cold, for the first year-and-a-half after letting love in my life). It increased my quality of life, and allowed me to understand beauty, commitment, and connection in ways I never imagined possible–ways I simply hadn’t known existed.
Which is why, several months into the process, it finally hit me one morning in the shower: this was what Lolly had been trying to give me for the 16 years of our marriage. And this was what she was having to let go of as we ended our marriage This realization was a sucker punch. It wasn’t that I was stupid, or that I hadn’t done my best to appreciate the gift that Lolly had been offering me. As a sexual minority oppressed by a major religion, I had simply not had the human experiences necessary to understand that gift. I’d been none the wiser, but now, I finally got it. As I stood there under the hot water, all the memories of our marriage, our beautiful life together started flooding back, and I understood for the first time in the context of those achingly beautiful feelings of the love I felt for Carlos, what Lolly had been feeling for me the whole time. What she had been feeling, and what she had been missing for 16 years as I had never had the capacity to return that delicate, tender gift she had been offering me.
I also understood on a new level how terrible and traumatic our separation was being for her.
I thought my heart would never stop breaking for her–for what our marriage had done to her, and for the way such a beautiful gift had been squandered for so long. Because oh, how I adored Lolly platonically, and oh, how deeply and truly and genuinely I had wanted to love her back as her husband. And oh, how painful to know so completely, so exquisitely, how those tender, vulnerable feelings had been given to me for so long, and had fallen on dead ears, on blind eyes, and on an entity that could never understand them, or appreciate them for what they meant.
It was in that moment, after getting dressed as I bawled, that I picked up my phone and pressed ‘record’ so I could explain this realization to her. I also wrote the thoughts I shared in the video into an email, which I will share a bit of here. This is one of the saddest emails I’ve ever written:
‘I am heartbroken that now you are being asked to take this sacred, years-long love and shatter it, disrupt it, change it, transform it. I am starting to see how absolutely devastating that must feel. I feel stupid that I didn’t know–but how could I, of course? But Lolly, I want you to know, as you go through this process of dismantling the love you had for me, that I understand what you are giving up, and that I so appreciate and cherish the love that you developed for me. That it is not something I discard lightly, but instead a beautiful thing that I relinquish. That it is something I treasure with all of my heart. That I will miss–with all my heart–being the object of your affections. Please know that I ask you to dismantle this love not because I don’t want it, and not because the gift is not precious to me–because it is probably the most precious gift I’ve ever been given–but because to keep it, to ask you to continue to love me in this way when I literally cannot love you back in the way a woman should be loved (and oh how clearly we can see this now), would be the ultimate selfish act. It would be heartless and cruel.
Please know that I appreciate, now, the tender, beautiful and sacred feelings you have had for me in a way I never could before, and that they are a gift to me, and that I regard them with the sacredness and awe of a newborn baby or a treasured relic, and that it will be the deepest, most aching, most yearning-filled regret and sadness of my life that I could not return that love to you no matter how hard I tried. I will always be sad I’m losing you. I will always be sad about what we thought we could have, but ended up not being able to have.
I love you Lolly.
Thank you for the gift of your love. Please, take it, tenderly, back from me. If you give it to me, it dies, never returned the way it should be. Take it gently from my trembling hands, knowing how loathe I am to let it go, and put it in a safe box, knowing that a day will soon come when you will meet a man worthy of it, and able to return it to you in kind.’
Thus, in finally feeling the sweet pangs of love myself, I also learned more of grief. In knowing what love is, I came to also know the magnitude of what I was losing in Lolly, and the magnitude of her suffering–the suffering of my best and dearest friend–as we did the necessary work of letting each other go in this way, after years of giving me her heart and getting no romantic love (but an abundance of best friend love) in return.
This story is very sad in an O. Henry kind of way, but it doesn’t have a tragic ending. So far, it actually has a very happy ending. Lolly and I still live together raising our four daughters together, and plan to do so until our girls are fully grown. She and I have also opened a psychotherapy practice together, and enjoy helping our clients through their own complex, sometimes heartbreaking journeys. Carlos and I are as in love as ever (at this moment, I am writing on my laptop in a parking lot while he is inside grocery shopping). He lives in an apartment nearby, eventually planning to move in with us when we can move into a bigger home. He and I going on two years since those first messages back and forth on the dating app we met on. My daughters adore him, truly, and he has become an integral part of our family.
Most wonderfully (and, in it’s own way, sadly) of all, I have recently had the great privilege of watching as the final paragraph of the email I shared above has taken place. Lolly, my very best friend and the woman I love most on this planet, has fallen in love with a good man who can return the gift of her beautiful affections. While they haven’t yet chosen to be very public about their relationship as of yet (hence, no pics!) I can already say that watching the way requited love is transforming Lolly’s life is one of the sweetest treasures of my existence! I am so incredibly happy for her. She is herself again, and it is beautiful to see! I cannot deny that intertwined into that joy is some grief, too–the sadness of old dreams that were never to be, and regret at times, even after all of this, that I could not have been the man to give her the gift of requited love, no matter how hard I tried.
But those things are easily subsumed by my immense joy in Lolly’s happiness. Her new love is now integrating himself into our family just as Carlos did, and Lolly lives her life grinning from ear to ear, beaming with the glow of true love. And while we don’t all live in the same house just yet, we plan, when the time is right, to purchase a homestead where we can all be together. There, our daughters can be raised with both of their loving parents, along with their parents’ respective partners, in a home whose legacy is laughter, and joy, and love, and a pattern of embracing one another for exactly who we are, no matter what, and never pushing a loved one away, no matter who they become.
That is unconditional love, you see.
That is family.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Josh Weed. You can follow his journey on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube,and his blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read Josh’s powerful backstory of coming out to his wife:
‘My wife knew I was gay since I was 16. ‘You need to come out of the closet.’ She was right.’: Gay man in 10-year-long straight marriage comes out gay publicly, ‘We were trapped. Something had to give.’
And his wife’s perspective on their marriage:
‘Are you gay?’ ‘No,’ he said immediately. I looked at his wounded face. It turns out, I was right.’: Husband comes out as gay, couple divorces but continues to live together happily co-parenting, ‘I have chosen to continue to love Josh as my family’
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