EDITORS NOTE: This is part 4 of a series of articles for dating single parents. Begin with the first article here.
A pastor friend of mine beckoned me into his office, and I could see that he was deeply disturbed. He was sitting at his desk with his head in his hands. Without saying anything I sat down and waited for whatever might be coming.
The pastor looked up at me and said, “How could this happen? How could two of the more stable, steady people in my congregation suddenly and radically change their behavior? How could Tom and Judy just lose it?”
Judy, the woman he was talking about, was a rock solid person. She handled many of the single-parent activities and, for the past three years, oversaw all the divorce recovery classes in the church. She was his right-hand in his ministry, a wonderfully committed person and the pastor’s good friend. The pastor told me that Judy and Tom, another trusted friend of his, seemed lately to have become very close very quickly. Then suddenly, the pastor said, they both disappeared. The pastor hadn’t seen or heard from them now for weeks.
And some of Judy’s close friends were as confused as the pastor. Judy hadn’t communicated with them either. All signs were pointing to Tom and Judy being in a whirlwind romance and slam dunk in the meadow. And the pastor was asking me how could this happen. How could two responsible people behave like this—being so secretive, abandoning their responsibilities, and especially, backing away from the church and their friends? Such behavior might occur with people not as well connected with Christ or with the local church but never, in the pastor’s mind, with such reliable individuals as Judy and Tom.
As it turned out, only that morning Tom had finally called the pastor to arrange a meeting the next day for coffee. But after the pastor asked Tom point blank about his relationship with Judy, Tom admitted that they were planning to get married! So now they were engaged! The pastor thought he had had a better relationship with Tom and Judy than to learn about such a life-changing plan after the fact.
So the pastor asked me if I had ever seen anything like this before. Could I make sense out of what was happening?
Looking down at the floor and deep in thought I said under my breath, “It all revived.”
The pastor said, “What are you talking about?”
Returning to the present from my own thoughts I looked at the pastor and said, “Everything revived. That’s what happened.”
“What revived?” asked the pastor.
“Everything,” I told him. “Look, every divorced woman or man on earth who is now alone cannot survive emotionally or mentally without closing off certain happenings from their past. All the memories of long romantic walks holding hands, having heart to heart talks together, wearing special clothing, going special places, giving and receiving special gifts and flowers, traveling together, being loved and giving love—they all have to be put away. Memories of love, intimacy, companionship, kindness, giving and receiving love remind parents of what they have lost. To recall these experiences can cause unbelievable sorrow.
“Picture a single parent watching television alone. Suddenly a commercial comes on about some romantic getaway. I’m telling you it can reduce the parent to misery and tears in seconds. Single parents can go from ‘I’m fine’ to ‘I’m an emotional wreck’ in the space of fifteen seconds, leaving them miserable for hours. I know this may be hard to imagine, but parents who are alone are that vulnerable. Throughout their days and evenings certain thoughts, sounds, and feelings can wash over them, producing deep distress—and it takes time to recover. So, for emotional survival single parents have to close off memories from a time that was.
“A whole host of things can trigger painful remembrances. Situations occur that awaken emotions and revive memories. So parents have to identify these ‘triggers’ and, as much as possible, block them.
“And parents do learn what will awaken such feelings. They learn to avoid certain places and events, perhaps refrain from going into town on weekends. Certain smells and certain sounds can bring back painful memories. Even driving down Main Street and seeing a couple strolling along arm in arm causes them pangs of longing. Certain music, certain geographical places, quaint restaurants, and certain music, shows, events, and movies can trigger emotional loss. It may even come down to avoiding certain Hallmark Cards! Holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas can be agonizingly difficult for parents who are alone. Everything about such holidays speaks of family, love, and togetherness—sorrowful reminders of what they have lost. That’s why many single parents have to steel themselves for the holidays as something to get through as quickly as possible.
“So, in order to get along in life without always on the verge of becoming an emotional wreck, single parents who live alone have to work at building new lives for themselves and avoiding anything that will trigger reminders of emotional loss.”
“But,” my pastor friend said, “Tom and Judy are not fresh out of divorce. They had worked their way down off the mountain of difficulty and appeared to be doing just fine. Their divorces took place years ago and they have long since recovered. Judy ran our divorce recovery program for three years. If anyone has recovered and built a stable life, it’s her.”
I said, “Look at it this way. Remember the Jack-In-The-Box toy, where you crammed Jack and his long neck—a cloth tube with a spring—down into a little box and closed and latched the lid? Then when you twirled the handle and the little box finished playing its tune, the top suddenly unlatched and Jack exploded out. Remember how startling that was? Remember even when you expected it you still jumped? Well, in order to make their lives livable, single parents who are alone have to stuff all the memories and past emotions and romantic experiences away, close the lid, and forget about them. So there they lie like the Jack-In-The-Box—spring-loaded, all crammed together in a corner of the mind. But the lid is firmly latched and the parent is careful to do nothing that will trigger any painful thoughts and memories. They do this because they have to—for emotional survival.
“So, what happens when parents meet someone special? All too frequently, all the memories they have repressed explode to the surface, just like Jack being released from the box. All at once! But this is not just one Jack bursting out of the box—it’s more like thirty Jacks! Everything awakens! Single parents suddenly experience the happiness of having someone care about them, of not being alone and lonely. Hope and relief rush in like a flood, happy expectations and restoration of life and love and kindness and gifts and travel and touching and romance. Everything they’ve buried explodes to the surface.
“And I have to tell you, these fabulous feelings of joy and relief become an intoxication that is so powerful and so overwhelming that parents can hardly handle it. They no longer have dating—dating has them. They are so overwhelmed with the intensity of new awakenings that they easily lose their sense of reality. All their longings and desires can now be fulfilled. Couples are quickly drawn deeply into a relationship. Like people dying of thirst, when they find water, they plunge right in.
“And it’s not just all the romance and Jack-In-The-Box awakenings that overwhelm them. Just as powerful is the realization of how difficult their lives have been.
“With the relief and romance comes the realization of how utterly lonely they have been—they have had to do everything by themselves and handle all problems and difficulties on their own. There has been nobody to talk to, and they have lived life without a special companion.
“They realize that they’ve been living in the Arctic winter but somehow learned to adjust to the harsh weather. They learned how to insulate themselves from the cold, how to drive in the deep snow, how to adjust to the inhospitable climate. Living in the Arctic became a matter of going through the motions and pretty soon life became bearable. Life in the freezing Arctic wilderness became so familiar that they didn’t think about it any longer. But now, they are suddenly in the midst of a beautiful tropical meadow, experiencing tremendous relief and happiness. And it is the meadow that has awakened them to the desperately lonely conditions they have lived in for so long.
“I’m telling you, experiencing hope and love plus realizing how lonely they have been in their life is one of the most powerful emotional combinations I can imagine for a couple.”
“That must be what has happened to Tom and Judy,” the pastor said. “Everything in their lives changed abruptly and their senses were awakened!”
I nodded. “Yes,” I said, “Everything has come to the surface. Jack is out of the box.”
The pastor sat back to take this all in. “They both just launched off into the meadow and never looked back,” he said, “…but they did so behind everyone’s back and were so quiet about everything.” Then he looked at me with some new realization. “Does this happen to everyone?” he asked.
“Not everyone. But it’s more common than not. In the church it’s better. Some may disagree with me, but I believe that people in the church are overall a bit more responsible than those out in society. But every single parent, Christian or not, experiences these powerful awakenings to some degree. It’s just that Tom and Judy are acting more like persons who live in a secular society than those who live under the Lordship of Christ. The way their behaving now will only hurt their future together. Too bad.”
The pastor said, “I bet they see me as a threat to their relationship. That’s why they haven’t called me. I know I would be. There are some concerns I have about Tom that I’d sure like to speak with Judy about. I don’t want Judy hurt. I’ve known Tom for years. But they just want to do their thing, huh?”
“Big time,” I said. “You are likely one of the few people who could really disturb their meadow experience. In this case, I guess they’re thinking they don’t want any obstacles and are going to do what they want to do apart from any counsel from you. But you say you are meeting with Tom tomorrow?”
“Yes. But it looks to me like they’re getting married regardless of what I have to say. That’s the pattern so far. Any suggestions of what I should say? Is there any way to turn this around, at least to delay for awhile their race toward marriage? Got any ideas?”
“Sorry, no. And I agree with you. I don’t think Tom’s meeting with you to ask for your advice. If he does, talk away—you already know what to say. But Tom’s not looking for guidance. I’ll bet he’s meeting with you to see if you’ll do their wedding, likely a question you had better be prepared to answer.”
“Well, then,” the pastor said, “thanks for letting me vent a bit. But before you go, tell me, if you don’t have any suggestions for me for Tom and Judy, is there anything we can do to help couples who meet and everything becomes very intense and all these awakenings happen?”
I shook my head. “No, once they’ve gone this far,” I said, “It’s pretty much unstoppable. The only way to help single parents realistically handle the powerful intoxicants is to speak to them early, before they date. Teach them all about the meadow, what they’ll experience when dating, and why they should avoid running headlong into it. Explain clearly what will happen in the future if they pursue the lure of the meadow, what they will feel, how they will react. So when all the powerful awakenings and attraction and excitement come at them, the accuracy of your teachings may give them pause and help them practice a better type of dating behavior. Unfortunately, there are always dating parents who will leap madly into the meadow, think they are different, think their love is unlike any other, think that all warnings and cautions apply to everyone else but them—and off they go. But teaching about the meadow early will help a fair number of parents who will truly listen to what you have to say, take it seriously, and use caution and wisdom when in a new relationship.”
Epilogue: Tom and Judy did marry, a marriage that was performed by their pastor friend, but the marriage lasted less than a year. Judy continues to feel extremely hurt and bitter toward Tom. She claims he lied to her, representing himself to be someone he was not, acting like one person in church and another outside the church. She also is very distressed that she has lost her church, because as long as Tom continues to attend their original church, Judy will not. She goes to another church in the same locale.
Dr. Donald Partridge’s first marriage lasted thirteen years. Once divorced, and with two very young children, Don lived as a single parent with his children. Later Don remarried and has been in a highly successful stepfamily with seven children for the past 22 years. Dr. Partridge has committed himself to working full time with single parents and stepfamilies and has written some very helpful books and pamphlets on how single parents can date and remarry successfully, how to build great stepparent/stepchild relationships, and how to insulate your children and raise them to be stable, emotionally healthy kids in the midst of calamity and shifting family systems. Available at www.blendingfamily.com.