About once every quarter, the Modern Love column in The NY Times comes up with a doozie of Grace in Practice-like proportions, inevitably some meditation on how the competing forces of Judgment and Love work out in relationships, how one tears down and the other builds up. This past Sunday we got our fix with Molly Howes’ stirring account of her second marriage, “After the Radiance, Facing the Ashes,” a truncated version of which appears below. Suffice it to say, expectation proves to be a killer, breeding co-dependency and resentment and effectively ending the marriage. But unlike most such accounts, something interesting happens after the house of cards collapses – the sort of thing that can only happen when the pleasing/earning dynamic has reached its dead-end. One hint: it rhymes with “shove,” ht WL:

[Peter] was a relentless tide of optimism. I knew better, yet I let myself hope, too. He told me he would be a new kind of partner for me, someone who wanted to know everything about me. He told me his family would welcome us warmly and his children would love me. He told me I could count on him to make things go right. He told me we would have enough money and I wouldn’t have to work more than I already did…

He was not my first foolish dream. Beginning with my mother, I have always found it hard to resist someone else’s certainty. Her stories of radiant hope showed up each time she found a new house, a new state or a new piano-playing gig. Things were going to be great now. I bought it every time…

This arc of shining hope followed by disappointment has threaded its way though my life, now authored by me, with the help of various characters. Unlike my mother, some of these people did not believe in their impossible dreams at all. It turns out people say what they believe, or what they want to believe, or what they want you to believe, or whatever will get them what they want. Whether manipulative or benign, they all sound the same to me. Even the loving ones are selling something, and I have bought it way too many times.

Peter, for example, sold me with the strongest of all confidence-man approaches: He answered my doubts in a bigger way than I was asking for. His was an appeal to be the kind of person who can believe in love or some such transcendent thing. This approach has always been my downfall.

His castle in the sky began to crumble even before we were married. Not only was Peter not in control of everything as he had pledged, he was as surprised as I was when his family excluded my children, his son refused to talk to me, and we spent more than we earned.

This reckoning always comes in love. A big disappointment (usually involving the other person’s surprising limitations) arrives like clouds in paradise. My response to these crises has never been graceful. With Peter, I tried the usual doomed strategies, which are basically:

  1. Ditch the guy.
  2. Stay with him, but blame him. Forever.
  3. Stay with him, take it personally, and blame myself.

Despite my best (worst) efforts, we agreed to stay connected, while we juggled our new family’s needs and his family’s demands with everyone’s grief. We picked our way across what turned out to be our minefield of crummy family realities, holding hands.

I remember the moment the biggest castle piece fell. Unpacking our bags after a visit with his family, we were talking about how our respective family backgrounds were like night and day. I was hanging up black dress pants when I told him I had hoped his family would be a place for me to belong:

Over the buzz of the fluorescent closet light, I thought I heard him say, “I can’t take it anymore.”

“What did you say, honey?”

He dropped the laundry in his hands, then looked at me. “I can’t take in any more. It’s too much for me.”

“You mean the stuff about our families?”

“All of it. It’s more than I can handle. I’m sorry. I know I said I wanted us to talk about everything, that I wanted to know everything you felt. But I can’t handle it.”

It took a minute to penetrate.

He repeated, “I’m sorry.”

…I still wonder why the disappointments didn’t doom our relationship, but now, eight years later, I think our real relationship began with them. In the aftermath, something new happened: He had let me down, and he cared about my reaction. I didn’t have to pretend, as I had in childhood, that the falling bricks didn’t hurt. I didn’t have to create a world where I felt proud and lucky.

I know it’s not a crime to be carried away by love, and I now understand that his primary wish was to make himself and his family — and me — whole. Hardly a nefarious plot. The man I stayed with has good intentions and plenty to offer. The disappointments were sad, not tragic. And now we have built a new, lower-maintenance castle, one you might say is built with old bricks but new mortar…

Watch Dan in Real Life: Wedding Scene in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

He still reassures too easily, which makes it the opposite of believable or helpful. I don’t like being the naysayer, but somebody’s got to do it. So I doubt him, out loud, and he has learned not to promise me the world, at least not automatically.

Meanwhile, we’re still in love, so maybe the promises weren’t all baloney. Sometimes I think nothing harmful will befall me while we’re together. What’s more important, though, is that when disappointments happen — and they do — we’re still standing together. That’s why he’s a good person for me: I can dream a little myself and, if the dreams don’t come true, I’m not left alone to pick up the pieces.