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L.A. Affairs: Empty-nest syndrome turned me against my husband

Woman leaves empty nest for an outstretched hand.
(Brittanie Gaja / For The Times)

When I crafted my first online dating profile post-divorce, I sought a man who wouldn’t make me feel invisible. Someone who wouldn’t take up all the space in the room. I wanted a partner who’d encourage me to shine.

For nearly five years, I searched. First, there was the Bentley-driving businessman who gazed more at his iPhone than me. When I asked him on our third date to put the phone away during dinner, he mocked, “Aww, did someone’s daddy not give her enough attention when she was a little girl?”

I was done with rich men, men who seemed driven by title and expense account.

The new book features our favorite tales of searching for love in Southern California, curated from the beloved L.A. Affairs column.

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I kept searching, dating all kinds — bartender-actors, a teacher or two, and an up-and-coming entrepreneur who sat his laptop between us on every date. No, no and definitely not.

I wanted a kind, self-aware man, more generous with his time than his credit card. I envisioned someone a few years my junior, muscular and well-built. While watching Hugh Grant in “Love Actually” I decided a British accent might be nice, and if he could look like Hugh and have his sense of humor, that would be a bonus. I also knew that while this man would need to love kids, he would also need to be willing to fit into the life I had created as a single mom with my daughters.

Six months later, it happened.

We had a baby shower. We set up a nursery. We clung to the popular 12-week rule — that once a pregnancy reached that milestone, all would be well.

I stumbled over a chair at a personal development seminar and found myself locking eyes with a handsome man reaching his hand out to steady me. He introduced himself, making an awkward moment perfect. Several dates later, the guy I nicknamed “The Brit" explained that the reason he had so much time to spend with me was that he had been taking a break from high-pressure work in the entertainment industry and said that he was searching for a new career.

We took our first vacation two months into the relationship, zip lining, canoeing and mountain biking. When we threw off our clothes and swam in a Canadian lake in our underwear, cellphones tucked away in backpacks for hours, I knew he would never be the guy to trade time for money. As the relationship progressed and he went back to work in entertainment, he took on fewer of those jobs he hated so much, instead offering to help me with things around the house, with the kids, and in support of the business I was building as a dating and relationship coach. Six months in, when we took a picture in front of a sailboat named “At Last,” its moniker became the caption for how I felt:

In love. At last.

The secret to making the first move? Realizing that we’re all afraid to make the first move.

When we moved in together, I was buried in emails as I architected the new business and was on my way to earning many times over what he had in the entertainment industry. When he did dip back into work, it made our life together feel chaotic. His 16-hour days made it difficult for him to be home consistently. It was impossible to make plans around his schedule. When he didn’t work, I discovered I was more at ease, more grateful than pissed off, as he cheerily took on chauffeuring the kids, doing the shopping, taking care of them when they were sick and more. When we all visited his parents together in rural France and my youngest tugged on his arm to go collect eggs from their chickens, I savored that moment, grateful that my children, raised in Los Angeles, were experiencing a loving man who valued time over money and could offer them a reprieve from urban life.

Over the years, and after we married, he began to choose his own work less in favor of my work and our family. Just last year, he briefly became my full-time caretaker after a traumatic ski injury left me bedridden for months.

But when my daughters grew up and left the nest, and the role I loved as a mother became unnecessary, I wanted him to change.

We collected some of our favorite L.A. Affairs columns — which run weekly in the Los Angeles Times, and chronicle the ups and downs of dating in Los Angeles and the search for love — into a new book. Here’s a sneak peek at a few of the columns you’ll find inside. Hint: The book would make a terrific holiday gift!

On the day the last of our daughters moved out, I found myself complaining to my best friend: “He should go back to work now. He should find a job.”

With the house so quiet, I felt unhinged, spending most of my time nitpicking what I perceived as his lack of focus. I stewed. While we didn’t need the extra money, I became more insistent with each passing day that I wanted him to earn something.

It took the comment of a well-meaning friend — a stay-at-home mom — to provide some clarity. “He could be a travel agent or help special-needs kids,” she offered. And I wondered, had her husband, a lawyer, ever lain in bed at night thinking, “My wife should go to work.” After all, their kids were now solidly in their 20s.

Would I feel differently if the roles were reversed?

Maybe, I thought, I wanted him to change because what I was really terrified of was the freedom.

As a dating coach, I knew I would tell my clients to free themselves from preconceived ideas of what a husband should be. I would ask clients whether their partner violated their own “deal breakers.” Did their partner uphold those five or so values that truly mattered most?

My husband easily aced such tests.

Still, one night, I just couldn’t help myself. I began bugging him about whether he had researched becoming a paramedic, a career about which he had recently expressed interest.

“Yes,” he said, reaching for the remote and switching off the TV. “I looked into it.” But then he’d realized the extensive training would conflict with the plans we’d been making to travel the country in an RV. He had a point. And then he called me out.

“Look, I love taking care of you. I guess I’m just confused,” he said, his brow furrowed.

That night in bed, I melted into his arms, yearning to let go of my resentment and fear, only to remember yet another list I had made of things for him to do, all of them seemingly so urgent.

“What happened to fixing the grout in the shower?” I asked, my voice jarring him awake just as his breath had begun to settle into the peaceful lull of sleep.

I struggled like this for weeks. In the mornings when I meditated, I tried to free myself of the supposed ideals I had learned growing up, of husbands like Darrin on “Bewitched” and Mike and his Brady Bunch. When it hurt too much to bear the pain of my daughters living all over the country without me, I dwelled on him. Rather than focusing on my deep fear of shedding the mom role, or the terror I had about any number of empty-nester discussions, I was trying to control the only thing left: him.

A few evenings later, while dicing vegetables in the kitchen, I wondered if maybe I just wanted him to put a paycheck into the bank again because I was simply exhausted from doing the things that strong women do after they get divorced — bringing home the proverbial bacon, frying it up in the pan.

A mentor had once asked me to explore how my husband might meet my needs if I could take my hands off the steering wheel and let him meet me in a way that was authentic to him.

I wiped my tears remembering her words.

“Need a hand?” my husband asked as he entered the kitchen. I turned toward him and took his hands, appreciating his still-sexy accent, remembering the picture we took in front of that sailboat, leaned in and kissed his lips.

He had been exactly what I needed in order to become who I am now: the authentic, real me. I could have never been with a man too insecure to let me shine or pursue my own big dreams. He had sacrificed his own dreams and his own perceptions about what life should look like to give me and the girls what we had needed, and that had really been what I custom-ordered so many years ago.

He had met my needs — is still meeting my needs — in ways I could never have imagined.

I was finally ready to talk about selling the house, trying that two-month digital nomad experiment he had planned, driving the huge RV out of Los Angeles and figuring out who I am along the way — not merely a reflection of the amazing daughters we raised.

I am free.

And so is he.

At last.

The author is a transformational life, love and relationship coach and the CEO of the Institute for Living Courageously. She is working on a memoir and is on Instagram @datingwithdignity.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.


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