Photo by Yuvraj Singh / Unsplash

When our partner self-immolates, how can we protect ourselves, but keep on loving them, even if it means letting go?

(Dear Reader: This is a true story based on someone close to me. I have changed the details to protect their privacy, but the facts remain the same)

Karl is close to 65, and has had his fair share of failed relationships. He's spent a lot of his life alone, by choice. Because as an aging man, the lay of the land is, at best, littered with potholes.

If not outright land mines.

Karl's standing on one right now in his own love life. That awful, sick feeling that a soldier gets when he presses his boot into the loam and hears that deadly click?

He's there. It's his partner, and he's trying to figure out how to save their relationship. If not that, at least himself, without losing more than just tears. Such losses this late in life can do about as much damage as a Claymore mine to head and heart.

I've known Karl for sixteen years. We used to live near each other in Washington State until I moved back to Colorado. Once I did move, our texts, calls and emails trebled in frequency, as we found that our friendship was far more important to our mutual sanity than we'd previously thought.

I've treasured Karl's humor, his perspective and his ability to make sense out of insanity. As we both make our way into our later years, the value that he brings to my own aging process, which is for my part a solo one, is priceless.

Two years ago, on  Our Time, Karl found someone. That woman,  let's call her Rochelle, had a family by a previous marriage, and three kids. The marriage disintegrated. Rochelle has custody of the boys, but initially that was a distant concern.

The first years of their relationship were one long, luscious honeymoon of shared interests and discoveries. Karl was over the moon. So was Rochelle.

I met Rochelle once. She was remote, standoffish, polite but not trusting. Very unlike the warm, embracing, deeply happy Karl. I didn't think anything of it; what happened between them was not my business. I only cared that Karl was happy.

Then, slowly but surely, the kids. The oldest is eighteen. The other two, mid-to late teens. And all of them sullen, resentful, angry. Not only do they take that anger out on their mother but also especially on Karl, who has done his level best to befriend, be available and be as supportive a partner as possible.

The boys are hostile and abusive to Karl. Rochelle does nothing about it.

Long story short, Rochelle's family doesn't embrace Karl. If anything he is, at best, tolerated, but not included, and certainly the kids do all they can to make him feel unwanted. Rochelle's an enabler, and caters to the kids' toxicity and the grandparents' isolating behavior. She is clearly terrified of having the kids grow up and leave her house, and has turned into the classic helicopter parent.

Rochelle can't see it. At least not clearly enough to see how the family dynamics, especially those of the boys, are tearing chunks out of Karl's happiness, his sense of belonging in that relationship, and any belief that there is to be any kind of future.

Karl and I had a long talk about this last week. He is in considerable pain. As a 65- year-old man, his options, as are some of our relationship options later in life, limited.  He doesn't want to age alone any more than I do, but here's what I admire about his process.

As Karl watches Rochelle struggle, he's had the courage to back away and set boundaries. In the past Rochelle has agitated about cohabitation. Karl won't have it, for he loves his forested property and the welcoming home he has worked his entire life to create. Not only does he not want constant company, recently Rochelle indicated that the most aggressive and angry of the boys would be around much of the summer.

Which meant said boy would be spending much more time in Karl's house.

That landed with all the grace of a piano from a skyscraper.

Karl won't have any part of it. Rochelle is struggling with the coming empty nest, and is hanging onto the boys for all the wrong reasons.

Karl went through a terrible failed marriage, and I have watched him work his way through successive relationships, always gaining wisdom, insight and learning from each one. His ability to set clear, healthy boundaries is a wondrous thing to behold. I have learned a great deal from this good man about that very thing.

He's applying all of that right now. The more Rochelle thrashes around in confusion, the more Karl steadies himself and provides a safe place first for his own feelings and then, for Rochelle, but on his terms.

Karl's learned that at this point, and I have to agree, the ability to set clear boundaries and protect our space isn't just a matter of convenience. It's about our sanity. Rochelle is struggling, Karl feels for her, but it's not Karl's job to save, fix or salve Rochelle's life.

Rochelle's life is on fire. That it is nearly impossible for her to see the part she plays in this, that she can't see the pain that this is causing my friend Karl, is why my friend has to accept some hard truths.

First, there really is nothing he can do but hold a space for Rochelle to do the work she has to do.

Second, accept that no matter how much they love each other, no matter what stands to be lost, Rochelle's choices may well cost them both a late-in-life love that seemed too good to be true.

Third, as with any of us, Rochelle's battle is deeply personal, and is hers alone. Part of the terribly difficult journey of mature love is to understand where we have to step away. That he can't fix her pain, that he can't help with the kids isn't a reflection on him. When we take such things personally we subject ourselves to far greater pain than necessary.

All pairings have such moments. To that, the great writer Rainer Maria Rilke (these quotes from The Marginalian) wrote:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.

Karl is willing to allow this bonfire to burn out on its own, for in the great beauty of solitude Rochelle must find her own way, in order to bring a more complete whole to the pairing that can be, but only if she will do the work that only she can do.

We are sold the idea that first, we must be paired to be whole, which is not true.

Also, that others can somehow carry our burdens, or make life easier, or somehow prevent us from experiencing the worst life has to offer, which is also not true. What is true is that when that love is complete, when we love ourselves enough to recognize another's need to do Deep Work without our interference, we love enough so that the person we adore has the space and grace within which to do that hard work.

Maria Popova writes:

Our paradoxical longing for intimacy and independence is a diamagnetic force — it pulls us toward togetherness and simultaneously repels us from it with a mighty magnet that, if unskillfully handled, can rupture a relationship and break a heart. Under this unforgiving magnetism, it becomes an act of superhuman strength and self-transcendence to give space to the other when all one wants is closeness. And yet this difficult act may be the very thing — perhaps the only thing — that saves the relationship over and over.

We have- and I most certainly have dealt with this- the compulsion to fix what only those we love must fix for themselves. Such actions rob them of their growth, and ultimately they will hate us for it, without even knowing why.

As much as Karl loves her, loves what they have together, wants badly for it to work, he is having to, at 65, back away or get burned. I watch this unfold, and compare Karl's courage with the sometimes craven need to save those in my life who have troubles. His lesson is my teacher. Karl is brave enough to accept the end of that relationship, or the challenges that stepping back cause, in order not only to protect himself, but to honor Rochelle's process.

For those of us who love people with addictions, parents of addicted kids or adult kids with addicted parents, all of this holds true in the same way. My parents were unable to allow my troubled brother the space to burn for a while, and find a way to staunch the flame. As a result, he took his life, for being smothered by those who did not love him enough to allow him to burn on his own.

To believe in someone we love utterly, to know that they will always be apart from us, and in loving that, only in also loving that, can we also have a true relationship. Finally, from Rilke:

...But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.

Photo by Greg Becker / Unsplash