Don’t Let This One Go


After the excitement of successive relationships with two beautiful but troubled women, Mark Sherman finds lasting love when he trades drama for stability. 

When my first marriage ended in 1966, after less than three years and one child, I was — to my surprise — overwhelmingly lonely. Of course I missed my son, but what surprised me was how much I wanted to be attached again. Here I was, a newly single guy of 24, a graduate student living in Cambridge, Mass., one of the places to be in the “Swinging Sixties” Now I could have the fun I’d never had. But as bad as my marriage had been, with me mostly to blame, I was hooked on partnership. I would fall in love three times in the next two years, but only with the last of these women would I find the ultimate prize: someone content and stable.

I was by no means either of those; I was neurotic. I still am, though today’s preferred labels are “needy,” “piece of work,” “damaged goods,” or “high maintenance.” I like “troubled soul,” though no matter what you call us, we are not easy to love and live with. There are our dysfunctional families, our moodiness, anger, low self-esteem—a potpourri of problems that keeps drug companies, mental health professionals, and publishers of self-help books in business.

We troubled souls do exert a strong pull on others, and I certainly felt that from the two beautiful women I fell for in the 18 months before I started dating the wonderful woman I would ultimately marry.

The first was three years older than me.  Her dark-haired beauty enthralled me and her sexual eagerness amazed me, so I never considered for a moment that this combination might not be a good omen for relationship permanence.

Within a month she had taken up with one of my fellow graduate students, though it turned out that we were just two in a long line of men.  After a while she and I were able to be friends, and one day she said, “You know I made a list of all the men in Cambridge I had slept with, and it was a long one. But then I realized that the list of men I hadn’t slept with would be even longer.”


Ten months later, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I met Mary.

Mary was 5’2″ and blond-haired, with just a hint of a southern accent, and a soft voice which soared exquisitely when she sang. Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was still a year away, but when I read it, I realized that Mary was the dream girl for a Jewish guy like me.  (Also, though only 22, she was already divorced — an immediate bond, since divorce was not so common back then.)

When, a week after we met, she surprised me by showing up to join me at our department’s Friday “happy hour,” she supplied me with one of the happiest moments of my young life. So lonely, feeling so hopeless on that cold Friday afternoon in December, I had just been saying to another graduate student, “Oh God, I wish I had a date tonight.”

The phone in the graduate student lounge rang, and he said, with no reason for either of us to think so, “There’s your date.”

And, yes, it was.  It was Mary and she was downstairs.

“Come on up,” I said, and my joy at hearing her voice only intensified when I saw her. Her beautiful long hair was down and she was wearing a red velvet dress.

We had a couple of drinks, and then walked to the Harvard Square Cinema.  She leaned against me as we sat there watching “Bonnie and Clyde.”  And when we went back to my place, we became intimate.  But she said no to actually having sex, and I am a man who, in those situations, always took no for an answer.

What did it matter?  I was in love.  Sex would happen next time.  Or the time after that.

It didn’t. But in all other ways she was a “man’s woman,” a woman who knows how to drive a man to passionate longing, and, not unrelated to this, often has few female friends. I had never been kissed like she kissed me, and I had never felt so special—whether she was expressing her awe over the songs I wrote, the jokes I made, the serious things I said.

“Mary, why can’t we just do it?” I pleaded.

“Because I wouldn’t be able to put the brakes on,” she said.

What was I doing wrong?  Desperate for an answer, I asked my therapist. He almost never gave direct advice, so I didn’t really expect it, but I was despairing.  I described the situation in detail, the intimacies we shared, and how Mary drew the line. Surely this man of 35, some ten years older than me, would know the secret.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I love her and she seems to love me, but she won’t have sex. And she’s been married! What should I do?”

“Mark,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “she’s trouble with a capital T.”

Not the answer I was looking for.

Sometimes I would call Mary and not hear back, and wonder if she was done with me, and worry, and feel pangs of jealousy over another guy she seemed to be interested in. And then, as if manipulating men’s emotions was something she had studied in school, she would call me at 5 a.m. and say how sorry she was and how she just had to see me; and I would feel elated that she had called, and would say, yes, yes, when?

Ah, crazy love. I wrote a letter to Mary. I told her how much I cared for her, but how I simply could not go on with things the way they were. It’s in my journal, in my own handwriting—the reasons I was besotted: “Why do I like you so much? To me, it’s obvious. You’re pretty (very!), talented, intelligent, and witty. But most important, you usually seem to really like me. No girl has ever been as affectionate as you usually are.  The little things—the spontaneous kiss, the hand-holding, the comment on my hair or beard—all these things make me feel just plain good….”

I never sent it, and the main reason I didn’t is because a few days later I started going out with someone from a world very different from ours—the normal world.

In the months I was seeing Mary I had become friends with a young woman who worked for a professor in my department. She was one of a threesome with whom I frequently had lunch, and because we lived within one block of each other, we would often walk home together—talking animatedly the whole time.

She liked me, I knew, but I was still involved with “Trouble” and wasn’t interested in going out with anyone else.  She invited me to go to an art opening in Boston, and I said no.  Then she invited me to a party at her apartment, and I said yes. I was still on good terms with my brief love of a year before, so I asked her to join me and, since I was still going out with Mary, I took her too. So there I was, a very pretty blonde on one arm and a beautiful dark-haired woman on the other, and there was my friend, who really liked me, but whom I had barely thought of as a potential date.

She was a “woman’s woman.” She liked men, but she hadn’t taken the course on how to drive them crazy with desire. She didn’t routinely flirt, and she had many female friends. But how could I trade in my fantasy girl for a nice stable one? Did I really want a life as sane as someone like me could possibly hope for?

No longer seeing Mary became relatively easy, helped along by her starting to see another Jewish guy, named Stanley. So my stable friend became what today we’d call a “friend with benefits.” She wanted a deeper relationship, but I was not ready to commit to someone who, in her own words, didn’t have the “pizazz” factor. After we had gone out for a few weeks, she was wondering where things were going.

“Don’t you want to get to know me better?” she asked.

“I’m really not sure,” I said.

Having self-respect, along with her other sterling mental health qualities, she stopped seeing me. I wasn’t all that broken up by this. Maybe we’d just go back to being friends.

A few days later I had my three-year-old son with me. Daytimes with him were great, but, asleep by eight, he was not much company at night. I sat there reading in my studio apartment, trying to keep loneliness at bay.

What about my friend? I thought.

She only lived a block away, so I called and asked if she’d like to come over. I told her that my son was with me—in my studio apartment this meant there would be no awkwardness about anything beyond quiet conversation—and within a half hour she was there.

As we talked I began to realize that this was a “keeper.”  She hadn’t acted hard to get; she hadn’t said she’d come and than didn’t. In all ways, she had showed up. And, as always, she was so easy to talk to.

When it was time for her to leave, I said I would like to see her again.

“Okay,” she said.

I added, “But there might be more than just talk.”

“Okay,” she said again, and though she didn’t kiss me good-night, I was very happy.

It took me a few months to fall in love with her, and those feelings came almost as a surprise to me. I found myself saying “I love you” before I even knew I felt that way. She simply didn’t have what my brother has described as “neurotic power.”  She wasn’t needy.  She was strong and stable.

She was also smart and funny, and we never ran out of things to talk about. We still haven’t, after 42 years of marriage. But we also haven’t ever fully been able to deal with our basic difference.  Always searching for contentment, I meditate, read one self-help book after another, listen to CDs of Deepak Chopra in the car, and talk to my fellow troubled souls about how they deal with life. My wife has never meditated nor read a self-help book.  She already has what the rest of us are looking for.

Her biggest problem is the same one I have: Me.

A while back, as we drove to one of our favorite places to pick up our Friday night Chinese food, I was in good spirits; but on the way home all I could think and talk about were my dissatisfactions and frustrations with life.

“You sure are moody,” my wife said.

“Yes, I am,” I replied.

“You know sometimes I feel guilty for being happy,” she said

“Oh, no, that’s ridiculous,” I said. “It’s great that you’re happy.”

And it is. I know I give a lot to our marriage. I am a loving husband, I’m not boring, and I’m a very involved father and grandfather. But my wife has given me the gift so many of “my people” never seem to find: a stable partner. I am still so very grateful that at a time when my youthful passions and need for excitement were in full bloom, I listened to the quiet voice that said, “Don’t let this one go.”


Photo: Flickr/MissTurner

About Mark Sherman

Mark Sherman is editor of the Boys Initiative blog (, and also writes one for Psychology Today (Real Men Don’t Write Blogs). He received his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard, and has taught, researched, and written on gender issues since coauthoring Afterplay: A Key to Intimacy in 1979. Having three sons and four grandsons, he is especially interested in how boys and young men are doing both in and outside of school.


  1. I’m so glad I stumbled on this post. I didn’t know what to search for in GMP but I got lucky. So, I found her and I don’t want to let this one go. I’ve been in a relationship before and she was half-crazy but moody. The feelings were so strong… Now I met this girl. She’s the best soul I’ve ever met and the best partner I could imagine. Yet, I never felt those sparks of falling in love (should I?) but I love her more than anyone or anything else in the world. I totally want to be with her and I think we can have an amazing life together but some days I find it hard to stay focused on our relationship. I feel like she’s lacking something (which she’s not, my mind then reminds me) and I doubt my feelings for her. But there’s not a single moment that I’ve thought that I don’t love her or don’t want to be in a relationship with her. She doesn’t have that zing but she surely is the best partner I could have, supportive, a best friend, a sexy girlfriend, everything. And that’s exactly what reveals that, as you said, there’s only one problem: Me.
    I realize again and again that I’m the only reason I’m not happy with my life, that it’s just my job to make me happy. Somehow.
    It’s good to see that I’m not alone there. How do I deal with it? You wrote only a few words on the most important part of the whole article. Meditate? Self-help books? Should I hit the gym? Travel alone? See my friends more? What are the strategies? What do you do? Do I tell her it’s the lack of zing that’s confusing me? She’s doubting my feelings sometimes, I’m so jealous she can just be happy being with me while, what, I’m looking for more?! Am I broken? Is there some problem with me? Some days I feel I identify with Dexter from the TV series. We’re both under 30 and she’s younger than me but it feels to me she’s so much more mature. Most days I’m happy and sexy and erotic with her. But some others it’s harder to bring the excitement in the bedroom. Please help, I really need advice on this.

  2. Great story. I think it is really important to see how much friendship makes a relationship last. If you want longlasting support, you need to be friends. The spark will die out, and if there’s nothing underneath it, it ends. Though female, I identify with him, I am the moody contemplative type that used to date melodramatic people who gave me excitement, but in the end became exhausting. I am now in my longest, best relationship with a man totally opposite: steady, organised, logical, mature, stoic. Everything I used to find boring I have learned to appreciate. We rarely fight and when we do, we learn from it. It’s true that yes, I confess, sometimes I get bored. Sometimes I wish he was more adventurous. There are things I like to do he doesn’t join me for and sometimes I wish he would. At the same time, he lets me go off and have my adventures without him and isn’t jealous. He’s just honest that he doesn’t like some things I do and would rather not fake it when I have friends to do those things with instead. Those past relationships may have had less boring moments, but they also had more tears and confusion, and uncertainty about the future.

  3. Valter Viglietti says:

    Thank you Mark, a fine article and a honest tale about your life.

    Having had my fair share of relationships (no divorce yet, thank God), I learned the same thing you’re talking about.
    I think most people (both sexes) overestimate sexual attraction and drama, and they’re looking for a constant life of excitement – like being high all the time. I believe they confuse “falling in love” with love itself, and the two are NOT the same thing.

  4. My current boyfriend told me early in our relationship that he felt “comfortable” with me and that he didn’t feel particularly infatuated with me, compared to earlier relationshps. He meant it as a positive (he saidnhe wasn’t looking for crazy drama anymore) but I was devastated and almost broke up with him the following day. I came really close because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in a relationship with a guy who basically felt I was incredibly nice, stable and boring. Why would a guy want that? I figured our relationship was doomed. Luckily, I stuck it out, and we are still together.

    I’ve never been the kind of woman who can manipulate men with my beauty or sexiness. I’m always the stable one, the nice girl, the boring friend, the good sport. I admit, this is something that has always affected my self esteem negatively, because men seem to like the high maintenance, sexy, exciting women, which I’m not. I don’t play games. Games make me tired. Sigh. So, it is nice to know that guys eventually wise up and see the charms of boring stability. 🙂 I guess I’m sort of like the Nice Guy who can’t impress the women when he’s young.

    • Valter Viglietti says:

      @Sarah: “men seem to like the high maintenance, sexy, exciting women”

      Do all women like the same kind of man? Of course not.
      So, stop thinking all men like the same kind of women. That’s just silly and shallow.

      Of course, almost everybody likes a sexy and exciting partner (hey, emotions make us feel alive!).
      But “high maintenance”,”hard to get”, etc? It all depends.
      I’d say that wise guys know that a healthy relationship is based more on a strong friendship than on hormones or “sparks”.

  5. Mark, if I had been your wife, I would have thought you were too much drama just like those other women you dated! It’s all relative I guess. If you had called me after 8, after your son was down, I would have thought I was getting a booty call. But I do think stable, kind, generous partners are under-rated.

  6. Yes the idea of the “spark”, the magic” is what keep us from healthy relationships; the theory of playing hard to get, is what people do. Real relationships are easy, a bit boring, and simple. I always say that men like drama queens and women like mind games; it is like an addiction that keeps us on edge.

    I don’t like the spark anymore, and when I start loosing myself over a man, I know it is not a good relationship…

  7. Booster Blake says:


    Thank you for your insightful and helpful reflection of your choices in life partnership. It’s very comforting and inspiring to me to hear this perspective. I can relate to your “troubled soul” characterization, and I feel I’ve been conditioned to refuse to settle for anything less than the “right” partner. But what is “right”? Is it a woman that possesses me mind, body, and soul? Someone that I can’t stop thinking about? Is that the hallmark of partner-worthiness? Or as you have discovered, is it something less flashy and more secure?

    Allow me to share a bit more…

    I’m 40, been divorced from a 10 year marriage for 5 years now, and I have two sons. When I got back into relationship, I was gunshy and decided to give open relationships a try with two amazing women. One was young, free-spirited, artistic, passionate, moody, and had that “pizzazz factor” (I called it “zing” at the time). It’s a quality of attraction that makes devotion to that person feel almost effortless (perhaps even addictive). The other was more emotionally stable, mature, self-sufficient, understanding, more like how you describe your wife now.

    After about six months into the relationship, I revealed to the older one the fact that I didn’t feel the zing with her like I did with the other woman. I expected her to leave me as a result, which I think is kinda what I wanted to happen but what she said next floored me. She said, “Ok, well is what we have good enough? It’s okay if you have different feelings for her, after all we’re different people so that makes sense. But is there enough between you and I to make it worth your time and energy to continue to see each other?” It was the most humble, considerate, understanding, supportive thing I’d ever had a partner say to me (I’ve since given her plenty of hardheaded opportunities to top it with more). I thought, there’s no way I’m going to leave a woman that can love me like that!

    I should’ve given her my heart right then. But I didn’t. I was still fixed on the notion that my partner needed to have that zing. I feared I’d be shorting my dream of romantic bliss otherwise. So, in time, as I withheld my fullest expression of love, she met someone else. Someone more ready to meet her love. A fantastic man and good friend of mine. They fell in love and now live together. They continue to have an open relationship and she still claims that I have her heart. That she still hopes to marry me someday…. But “not right now”, she says. “I’m enjoying this man and I don’t want to leave him. But I don’t want you to leave me either. I supported you while you had multiple partners and I want you to do the same for me.”

    Navigating the heart thru open relationships is a tough one and I’m learning so much about myself and how I operate. It’s been a year now and I still struggle everyday with the heartbreak of feeling like I’ve been replaced, despite her protests that I haven’t, that she loves me just as much as ever. As I sit in this place of discomfort, I wonder what I should do. Do I fight for her by sticking it out, supporting her no matter what? Hope that something will shift with her current partner and I’ll have her to myself again? Or do I accept that I’m not made for this sort of thing and move on to create another relationship elsewhere? I don’t know yet. But what I do know, what I have learned from this darling and secure woman, is what to look for in my next partner, whomever she may be. And my friend, the zing ain’t it.

    • You’re musing about your open relationship with the two different people hit home for me. I have experienced what you are going through in two different ways. The first way I was in your shoes. I had the partner with the zing and the one who was more stable. I held on for a very long time to both partners but ultimately I wanted to give monogamy a try (I am typically more of an open relationship sort of girl) and I took the zing option. Life without artistry and passion and all that just wasn’t doing it for me. In the mean time I lost the other partner. It was not fair for me to ask him to be monogamous as that wasn’t who he really was at that time and it was more fair for me to let him go to find him. He found himself in another woman who completed him. I have lost touch with him but it was a difficult time.

      I wanted it all. I wanted everyone to wait for me to come around. I learned from that experience that for me to be right an open relationship is not about waiting for anyone to come around. Navigating the open relationship isn’t about people waiting in line to be the next monogamous partner. It’s about giving completely to the partners that you have (to me at least).

      I also went through this as the girl without zing in an open relationship with a man who wanted zing and wanted stability all at the same time. He would get jealous when I found men who appreciated my lack of zing (I was zingier in my youth). He wanted 22 year old party girls and it wasn’t me. He kept trying to make me have zing. I would be perfect if changed just that after all. I was never going to be what he wanted and he couldn’t give himself to me completely. I sense he has some regrets about the end of that open relationship as he floats by every so often musing over how he just wants a kind and good hearted girl now. How he doesn’t want zing. I clearly hear the hint but I shut the door on that relationship option and moved on to others. Sometimes we drama free girls aren’t so bad afterall. lol

      I’ve always been fascinated about how I hear as often from men that women keep choosing the bad boys how many men choose the women with the absolute most drama to be with then complain about it. Maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

      • Booster Blake says:

        Thanks Kat for your share. You said:

        “It’s about giving completely to the partners that you have (to me at least).”

        Let me ask you something. Do you really feel that you are able to fully give all that you are to more than one person? There’s something about the devotion we give to just one person that doesn’t feel like it gets honored when we share that special place with more than one. Is that your experience too?

  8. 22 and already divorced? How on earth did you not just run for the hills at that point?

    “Searching for contentment” is a fool’s errand., essentially by definition, but if you haven’t figured this out yet I’m probably not going to persuade you. The contentment lies in the search: there is no finding.

    • Mark Sherman says:

      Actually, I was just turning 24.

      • I was talking about “Mary”, not you.

        • Mark Sherman says:

          Got it, and I see what you mean. But I have to say that back then when — before the huge spike in divorce rates — when I told a young woman I was divorced, that often was the end of the relationship right there. To meet someone who was also divorced made me feel understood in a way that I hadn’t often been. To be understood (empathized with) can be a very powerful experience.

          • Joanna Schroeder says:

            Even today that is the case. I was married at 22, divorced at 24. The next man I fell in love with broke up with me when he learned I’d been divorced. He said marrying a divorced girl wasn’t in his “plan” for himself. He ended up saying he MIGHT be able to get over it. It seemed enough, I wasn’t going to marry anyone else anyway, in my mind.

            When I met my husband, 2 years later, he LOVED that I’d been divorced, only because he had too and we both didn’t imagine getting married again. We chose instead to have a baby together, then another, and then finally got married. That was 8 years ago!

  9. Fantastic article. I was nodding my head A LOT during that last conversation you mentioned with your wife. 🙂
    I think some naturally wrestle more with life and its frustrations than others but if you’re the naturally contented one in the partnership, it’s great if you can strike a balance between letting it wash over you and giving support where you can. Easier said than done sometimes!

  10. I love your honesty. It’s great to see a long lasting, good relationship–one where we can admit that life is not always easy. Relationships are tough but you seem to have found the right balance.


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