There once lived a man named Huffnagle. He was a sensitive man with a bright mind, and he was lonely. He had many good things in his life--he was young and athletic, got good grades in college, had some good friends, and he was handsome. He couldn't necessarily see these attractive attributes in himself because he focused on people who rejected him. He rarely risked his fragile ego to ask women for dates and, when he did, he was horrified if they refused him, even for really understandable reasons.
One day at the beginning of an academic year, Huffnagle met a lovely young woman named Hilda and walked her home from class. She was aloof and stand-offish but cordial. He assumed she was not interested in him and determined not to call her. He didn't even ask for her number.
The next week, Huffnagle and his roommates all decided they needed to start dating more. They bought tickets to a concert in a unique location and decided to all get dates. Huffnagle vowed to ask the next woman he ran into for that date. As he was walking from his apartment toward campus, Huffnagle met Hilda again as she was about to go out for a run--and he almost forgot his vow. But he kept the vow and asked her to the concert.
They had a good time, and he asked her for another date. However, Hilda's roommate called him and told him that Hilda was making fun of him with her other roommates. His fragile ego was unable to stand this kind of insult, so he walked to her apartment, asked her if it was true and, when she admitted it, he broke the date. She told him she was not interested in dating him anyway, but asked if they could be friends. He said that was up to her and walked away.
The school year progressed forward, as they always do, and Huffnagle dated once in awhile, but the first dates didn't ever seem to lead to second dates. Huffnagle was discouraged. He doubted he would ever find a woman who could put up with him and keep him company over the long haul.
One night, when Huffnagle was returning from a Valentine's Day dance in his tuxedo, he found Hilda waiting in his apartment. His date had not gone particularly well, and he had decided not to ask the same girl out again. Hilda wasn't there to see him, but he needed someone to talk to. He asked her if she was doing anything later that evening and she said no. He said maybe he would go to her apartment and see her. She had said she wanted to be his friend, so now he was going to talk out all of his romantic woes with her. However, Huffnagle's roommates got home, and they decided to watch a movie together, and Huffnagle completely forgot about telling Hilda that he would visit her.
The next day in church, Hilda asked Huffnagle what had happened. "I waited up until 1:00 a.m." she said. Huffnagle felt genuinely sorry to have inconvenienced Hilda and promised he would visit her that afternoon.
During that visit, Huffnagle and Hilda talked like best friends, reminiscing about childhood, sharing experiences, talking about literature and ideas, and connecting at a really deep level about emotions and spirituality. After that conversation, Huffnagle and Hilda were inseparable for the remainder of the school year. They often went to the beach together, got together in the evening to study together, went for long walks, and otherwise just craved each other's company.
As the end of the school year approached, Huffnagle realized that Hilda was planning to go on a mission, and he realized how much he would miss her. He thought he might never see her again, and it made him very sad. He thought about it over and over again, and he decided he did not want to live without her. So one quiet evening on a beautiful beach, Huffnagle proposed marriage to Hilda. He read her a poem he had written to her and said, "I love you Hilda. Will you marry me?"
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
THE TALE OF HUFFNAGLE THE HUMAN, PART 2
Huffnagle and Hilda tumbled ahead like careless puppies, having a baby 10 months after they were married, living in different cities where Huffnagle tried to develop a career. But early in their marriage, Huffnagle noticed that Hilda didn't seem entirely happy. She seemed to resent not going on a mission as she planned. She also made the comment wistfully that, "I was just getting to the point where I could get any man to ask me out and enjoying being young and single. Now I'm just old and married and knocked up!"
Huffnagle was very troubled by these words and didn't like Hilda thinking them, let alone saying them. Why was she missing the attention of other men? Wasn't the point of dating to find love and get married? Then why was Hilda missing the dating game? It seemed out of harmony with their religion. Wasn't eternal marriage the point of everything? Hilda's thinking seemed dangerous. Were there former boyfriends she missed? Did she wish she was with one of them? Did she regret marrying Huffnagle? He worried and fretted about Hilda constantly. He quizzed her and asked her questions trying to decipher any clue of her disloyalty or dissatisfaction--even if it was just a passing thought. She refused to discuss it with him, which only made his horriblizing worse as his mind concocted all kinds of things that might be going through Hilda's mind.
Hilda finally decided that she needed more money than Huffnagle could provide. So she got a job working nights as a waitress at a local diner. At first, Huffnagle objected to this because it would give them little time together as a couple. Hilda watched the children during the day when Huffnagle was at work, and he watched them at night while Hilda was at work. Hilda did seem a little happier. She kept all of the money she made for herself. It wasn't a lot of money, but it bought her some of the things she wanted, like the occasional pair of new shoes or a meal out with a girl friend. Huffnagle sometimes resented that He worked "for the family" and Hilda only worked for herself. He resented that she had more money to spend on herself than he had for himself, because most of what he earned was used to pay bills and support the family.
Hilda also made glowing comments from time to time about the men she worked with, or who flirted with her when she waited on them. Huffnagle wasn't so sure he liked having his attractive wife out in a social place where she was exposed to so much positive male attention.
Huffnagle also noticed that lovemaking had become less frequent and more of a chore for Hilda. She rarely wanted to be satisfied herself and mostly just wanted it to be over quickly so she could get back to reading her book or other solitary activities. Huffnagle tried to talk with her about how this hurt his feelings, but she refused to discuss it or even admit that it was a problem.
Huffnagle decided that maybe Hilda would talk to him in marriage counseling where there was someone else in the room to help Hilda feel safe. He proposed that they go to marriage counseling.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
THE TALE OF HUFFNAGLE THE HUMAN, PART 3
Hilda agreed to go to marriage counseling. Huffnagle loved Hilda desperately and he told the therapist, "I'll do whatever I have to do to keep my family together." Hilda was less convinced that she wanted the marriage to work, so most of the therapy focused on making Hilda happier. Occasionally, Huffnagle brought up the concerns he had, but the therapist said they were "putting the cart before the horse."
After six months of marriage counseling, Hilda did feel better and more willing to be in the marriage. But her behavior toward Huffnagle didn't change very much. She was still unwilling to discuss his concerns. Since those had never been explored in counseling either, they remained unaddressed and continued to fester. Hilda continued to be uninterested in Huffnagle in the bedroom.
They built their dream home with a vaulted ceiling, wood floors, and an incredible mountain view. Hilda had always hoped that moving into a house like that would make her happy. (Huffnagle secretly hoped so too.) In the end, Hilda was happier for a few weeks -- until the newness wore off and the house was just a place to crash. They tried the same experiment with a luxury car for Hilda. She was happier for a few weeks and then it was just transportation.
As our couple was sitting in church on Easter Sunday, Huffnagle looked over and saw that Hilda was not wearing her wedding ring. His anger swelled within him, and he removed his wedding ring and dropped it in Hilda's purse. She looked over at him incredulously and whispered, "what?" Huffnagle whispered back, "You haven't worn your ring in months and you ask me what?"
That moment between Hilda and Huffnagle was the beginning of the end. Huffnagle decided that his concerns had never been important to Hilda, and he persisted harder than ever to make her hear him. In turn, Hilda persisted more stubbornly than ever to stonewall and resist all uncomfortable conversations. The more they did this dance, the more polarized they became--until Hilda wanted nothing to do with him and moved into to the spare bedroom.
Huffnagle went to Hilda shortly after this and said, "I love you Hilda. We've been together through good times and bad times--16 years. We have children. I don't want a divorce. Can we go to marriage counseling again?" She said she would think about it. Huffnagle went to her parents and told them everything and asked them to recommend counseling. They seemed troubled and said they didn't want to be involved, but said they would encourage her to go to counseling.
TO BE CONTINUED AGAIN . . .
THE TALE OF HUFFNAGLE THE HUMAN, PART 4
Hilda agreed to go to counseling again and said she was hopeful. Huffnagle was hopeful too. But this time around, Huffnagle was different in counseling. He didn't approach it with the attitude that he would do anything it took to save the relationship. He thought it would be better if both he and Hilda were heard and understood in counseling.
Perhaps Hilda was hoping that counseling would do what it did before--and get Huffnagle to focus only on making her happy at his own expense. Perhaps she was actually just done with the marriage and didn't know how to end it. Perhaps she only went to counseling to please her parents. Huffnagle could not tell for sure which of these answers was right or if they were all wrong together. All he knew was that, at first, it felt like Hilda was trying to "win" the sessions. Perhaps he was doing the same. It is common for people to go to counseling wanting the counselor to change their partners.
They say some marriages end with a bang and others with a whimper. This was definitely a whimper kind of ending. In fact, Hilda and Huffnagle never argued--during their marriage or in the middle of the divorce. Their marriage just seemed to fade out of existence.
The counselor once said, "You two don't seem to have any passion -- even to fire one of you up to go and file for divorce." Huffnagle knew, for his part, that he had been passionate about Hilda. But he was emotionally exhausted from years of over-functioning with a chronically depressed wife, and trying to earn the love of a woman who would never give it. One person cannot have enough love for two. Huffnagle had learned that the hard way.
Hilda moved in with another man before the divorce was final, believing she was finally in love. Huffnagle dated many women for a decade before he re-married.
As his single years passed, Huffnagle sometimes reminisced about his younger years and his marriage to Hilda and he was sad that something that began with so much promise seemed to almost end for no reason. He heard from the kids that Hilda's new husband had a bad temper and he hoped she was o.k.
As he thought about it, with the benefit of some time and distance, he understood that he had not been a perfect husband. That is not to overlook Hilda's limitations. But he could remember moments early in the marriage where he was needlessly insecure and jealous, and realized that his questioning of Hilda not only seemed weak and needy, but also reflected a lack of trust. He also thought about how he was always a little bit afraid that Hilda was not who he hoped she was, and might not be true to him and to their shared faith--and he had never been at peace about this. As he reflected on it, Huffnagle realized that this had probably helped to create a feeling in Hilda that she was not right for him and that she could not be what Huffnagle needed. This was reinforced by the fact that Huffnagle often looked to Hilda for his happiness and validation of Himself--which was overwhelming to Hilda and felt smothering to her.
Huffnagle came to peace with the idea that the demise of the marriage had not been all Hilda's fault. He had also played a role. He had loved Hilda the best he knew how at the time. There were marriages worse than theirs that went the distance--even involving severe mental and physical abuse. So what did that say for Huffnagle and Hilda? Not much. Such comparisons are seldom very helpful.
Huffnagle had always previously thought that marriages ended because of abuse and that people need a really good excuse to get divorced. He learned that divorce is about a choice, not an excuse. Huffnagle learned the hard way that you can never take love for granted. It is a precious gift. It cannot be taken, demanded, or extracted. It can only be freely given, and a wedding ring does not change that. Real love honors agency and accepts the consequences.
Huffnagle also learned that a marriage is more than a discovery--it is the creation of the two people involved. He learned that he could only create his 50 percent of it, and that marriage could be better if the two spouses together formed clear intentions about how to operate and create a marriage they both loved.
And here ends the tale of Huffnagle the human--utterly human isn't he? I hope all of us can see the little bits of Huffnagle and Hilda in ourselves and think a little more deeply about how we show up in relationships. Divorce creates a precious opportunity for us to intentionally consider how we can show up better, be less demanding, be more connected, and be more capable of personal happiness and, thus, marital happiness.