Am I despicable?

Q: For the past five years, I've been dating a girl I met in college. Since graduating, we've moved to areas separated by a 5-hour time difference. We have continued to try to make the relationship work, as imperfect as it is and despite the distance. However, in the last year or so there have been increasing arguments and frustrations that resulted in a 3 week breakup, after which we decided to give it another try.

While I care for her greatly as a friend and companion, we both have incredibly hectic schedules, and with the time difference, we don't get to spend very much time talking with each other. And by now I'm definitely aware that I'm not as physically attracted to her as I used to be. I know that she would ultimately like to marry me, and that would probably be fine with me, except for one problem...

I recently spent a work-related week with a girl whom I've known for two years as a colleague. When we first met, we didn't get along at all, constantly bickering for no reason. But since she was dating my best friend, I got used to being around her, and eventually we started attacking each other less, and began occasionally having meaningful conversations. Whether it was closeness borne out of our constant fighting, or a recognition of the frightening natural chemistry that had been there all along, we began to realize an awkward and subtle--yet very real--attraction to one another. Although never verbally acknowledged, the tension was communicated through passing glances and brushed contact. And then there were moments of honesty and tenderness; the consolation after a stressful day, rides to and good-byes at the airport.

Again, this is my best friend's girlfriend. I was trying very hard to stay loyal, but short of cutting off all ties to the couple (with whom I worked very closely on a daily basis), I simply did not possess the strength to control my attraction. I'm inclined to believe that if my friend suspects anything, he is not convinced enough to voice any concern. This has been my plight for quite some time now.

One week ago, this girl met me in another state on work-related business. She called me when she arrived, upset with relationship issues. It seemed that while spending the prior month with her boyfriend on a work-trip, it became clear that he did not necessarily want to marry her. As we are all applying for transfers to new locations at this time, this new information threw a monkey wrench in their plans to relocate together. Long-story-short, she arrived at my doorstep, I told her things would be ok and held her until she stopped crying, we laughed about a few things, and she went back to her hotel.

When not working together, we divided the next six days into eating together, my consoling her, and our usual insulting banter. Towards the end of the week, the usual "goodbye-hug-and-kiss-on-the-cheek" turned into a long and tender embrace, punctuated by eye contact filled with longing and a kiss on the cheek that was aching to be about two inches closer to midline. On our last day together, we held each other knowing it would be the last time, and she stole a light kiss from my lips. As I turned to my car to drive to the airport, and she lingered behind to see me off, I heard one word escape her lips: "Strange..."

I could not have put it any better. That was the most that either one of us acknowledged the connection that had taken hold. And in that one word, I knew how the story would play out. She would go back to her reality, and I to mine. It would be a month or two before we faced each other again, and in the meantime my best friend would probably be able to smooth over their relationship issues. My plane would land, and I would repeat the same predictable conversation with my girlfriend that we had engaged in every night for as long as I could remember.

I never understood what people meant when they said that they "just knew" when someone was right for them. Having never personally experienced that, I simply believed it to be the inflated ideals of hopeless romantics. I am now humbled, and admit my folly, for I have never felt so alive.

I love my girlfriend, as I am sure my best friend and the girl love one another. Yet there is something truly palpable that draws this woman and me to one another. I have seen in her eyes a future that would have been, and it is beautiful. Though bittersweet through and through, that knowledge alone will give me the strength to return to reality without questioning what might have been. A small victory, but a great consolation nonetheless.

Certainly, greater men than I have been ridiculed for allowing lesser things to slip through their fingers. I ask you, Dr. Susan: With this story I confess my humanity. Am I despicable? -- Nick

Dr. Susan: Not despicable, Nick, but there's more of the hopeless romantic in you than you admit. Of course you feel intensely alive: you're walking around in a constant state of (at least) emotional arousal. The barely-known and lightly-brushed-against is so much more titillating than the same-old-same-old. So you're human, and proximity has caused you to be attracted to your best friend's girlfriend. So far you haven't acted on this, for the most part. And now you have a big decision to make. Do you want to continue to hang onto your not-so-satisfying long-term relationship forever? Have kids with her and never have sex with anyone else? Whether or not you ever get close to this other girl again is beside the point for now. Your time with her has been a catalyst for you to re-examine the rest of your life. Not all college romances can withstand the pressures of reality.

You sound smart, Nick. Some of the pain of the bittersweetness of your loss (and a loss it is, of something you never had and can't have) might be alleviated if you learn a little about how we fall in and out of love. In my own book Loving in Flow, for example, I've explained in detail how affairs happen (yours was just a baby affair, but if you think your girlfriend wouldn't call it the real thing, don't kid yourself). The forbidden, just because it is, is exciting. And we humans too often confuse excitement with sexual arousal, and sexual arousal with real and lasting love. Learn to make the distinctions and you won't find yourself suffering as much as your more ignorant brethren.

So when you question what might have been (as you should), remember, it was the tension you thrilled to: the situation, not just the person. But even if we can't have what we can't have, we don't have to settle for just any old relationship. The thought of marriage shouldn't strike you as ho-hum. Don't let your frantic schedule push you into the wrong decision.

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