I asked Sing Yu to tell me about the significant relationships he’d had with women in his life — what was good about them and what was bad, as well as how they turned out. “Let’s see,” he said. “I was always the geeky type; I never dated until graduate school. Then I fell madly in love with this fellow graduate student from China, and of course she was married. She came here to study, and she left her husband behind. We had an extremely stormy relationship off and on — it was always a fragile affair, and you never quite knew whether we were breaking up or not. Anyway, it lasted two or three years. Finally, it ended. It’s not clear to me to this day who broke it off, but I think it was kind of mutual. It became so painful it was not worth going through the cycle. Then shortly after that I met my ex-wife. We got married.”
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Well, I met my ex-wife in Maryland. I was doing post-doc work. She’s a very interesting person, and I was very attracted to her. She is American, of English and Irish descent. Very intelligent and very intellectual but also loads of fun and, I think, very attractive. But then she is also very independent and very self-centered.”
“How do you mean that?”
“We were married for five years, but the marriage started deteriorating after the first two or three. When we first married, she told me clearly she wanted to settle down and start a family, which is what I wanted as well. But then things changed. She started to want her own life, so to speak. Not wanting to take responsibility and that sort of thing. She just wanted to do art and music and sort of let the relationship go. I had no objection to her doing art and music, but she really wanted something more. I think she wanted a more Bohemian life.”
“Were you surprised by this?”
“I was surprised by the abruptness of it. I knew she was drifting away. I knew she didn’t want to work. I knew she wanted to be an artist. But what really happened was she went to Mexico — I can talk about it now without much emotion because it was ten years ago. But she went to Mexico with a friend of hers, and when she came back she told me she had met somebody in Mexico. She said she wanted to try a new life. So we got divorced, and she spent a year with that guy. She brought that guy into America, but it didn’t work out.”
Sing Yu’s story got more complicated when I asked him if he was still in touch with his ex-wife.
“Well, what happened was that about a year and a half ago, she came back into my life and said she wanted to get back together. We had been divorced for eight years, and she said she wanted to get back together. She said fundamentally that the period we broke up was a very irrational time of her life, but our marriage was very fundamentally sound; it was just a certain period of insanity that ruined it, so she wanted me to consider getting back together. I thought about it long and hard. I really missed her. When you love somebody, it’s hard to resist the idea of getting back together. But the way she left me was very tough; it was just like, ‘Okay, honey, I’ll see you next week!’ So I don’t know if I could ever trust her again.”
I wondered if his experience with his ex-wife impacted his view of women in general.
“No question that it did. I think, looking back, a lot of my relationships are kind of random anyway, but I think fundamentally it’s always bouncing from one end of the spectrum to the other end. Never quite finding myself fully happy. After my wife and I broke up and I came back to San Diego, I dated, though not very seriously. Then I met this Thai girl who also worked at the same company that I worked at, and we got pretty involved. That was fun for a year or so, and then we broke up. It was getting — what’s the word? — she was possessive and needy, very needy. She was also very hyper. She couldn’t stay put, things were slightly out of order, and she would drive me nuts. But sexually it was a good match, and also culturally, because she was from the Orient and I had links there. And she and I also were pretty Americanized. It gave us a lot in common. But that didn’t work out. She was very needy.
“I was the one who broke that up. That one was hard for me. I broke it up. She wanted to continue, but she was extremely possessive. I had some friends that were female, but they were just friends that I like to spend time with, and she would be extremely jealous and didn’t want me to have anything to do with that. So that was one of the reasons I felt like, if I were to stay in a relationship with her I would have no other significant friendship with a female. And at the same time, actually, what was also factoring into the thinking was, I still missed my wife, and comparing my wife to that woman. I thought, ‘Well, my wife is this and this and that, so intelligent, so intellectual, so da-da-da-da-da.’ So that, too, was part of the dynamic, I think. I had certain expectations that she did not meet.”
This seems to be a problem for most men who enter into new relationships in midlife. They’re always comparing them to previous relationships. Once men have had a serious relationship, every other one is measured by that. A lot of men’s inner monologues are “She is like her in this way, but she is not like her in that way,” and this often prevents men from seeing a potential partner clearly, in her own right. This was true for virtually all the men I spoke with, and it’s my experience as well. I’m sure the same comparisons must be true for women. It’s one of the primary limiting factors of the serially monogamous relationships of our time.