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Sacrifice and Love

“Happily ever after” is a [fill in the blank] .

Key points

  • Love requires we make sacrifices for one another.
  • You never know where life choices will take you until you arrive there.
  • What seems right in the moment may not be in the long run, which isn’t anyone’s fault.
  • We have to learn to live with where we are.
Procession to Sacrifice
Source: PICRYL

Monique is married (sort of), in her late 40s, with no children. She grew up in France, surrounded by privilege. She never expected her life to be anything but placid. She married a doctor somewhat older than herself, and he encouraged her to go back to school. She obtained a law degree, but never practiced. She thought she’d raise a family.

But then life took a turn. Her husband, a gastroenterologist, was invited to become an executive at the U.S. branch of an international drug company. It meant travel, an increase in pay, and the chance of further advancement. So, what could go wrong? New York sounded exciting. After some talk and long goodbyes, they packed up and left.

It took a while to settle in. Monique’s husband, Charles, was traveling more than they’d anticipated and sometimes was gone for a week. Did he realize how she felt? She thought he was too busy to wonder.

But finally, when he was back in New York, she insisted that they talk about her. They had been trying for a baby for years, but nothing ever happened. They decided that maybe it was time that Monique refocus her life, at least until a baby arrived (if it did). What about trying to practice law? It was Charles’ idea.

With a French law degree, she would have to obtain an LL.M. from an American law school, and sit for the Bar. It was a grueling prospect, but thousands of people did it each year. So, she decided in the spring to apply and was admitted. But . . . then she got pregnant. Finally, it seemed that she would feel fulfilled. If life wasn’t perfect—Charles was still traveling more than he was home—at least the baby would take up her time. It would give her life focus, a sense of purpose. Monique’s mother would fly over from Paris to help.

The problem was that about six months into the pregnancy, just after her mother arrived, Monique suffered a miscarriage. Her husband rushed back from Berne, where he had been attending a conference, and took a short leave of absence. They grieved together, and Charles cried. They made a decision that his job was ruining their life together. “Charles said the miscarriage was his fault, that if he had been with me, we might have saved the baby. He said I was chronically stressed because he was never there.”

Charles decided to quit his position and go back to practicing gastroenterology. He’d have to pass the U.S. exam, and intern for a year or two, but figured he could do that. Of course, Monique would have to support them. But she found work at a translation company turning legal briefs into French.

Thus, while nothing was going as Monique had planned, she wasn’t really unhappy. Her husband was at home—studying, mostly—and her mother had decided to stay for an extended visit.

But after two years, Charles could not pass his exam. He hated himself for having sacrificed his calling. In any case, now his life was turning out not to be as he’d expected, and he was becoming morose. Then he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

They caught it early enough so that it wasn’t fatal. But he had to have part of his colon removed, and he’d need chemotherapy. It would take perhaps a year until he was fully recovered and, during that time, he lacked the energy to do much of anything.

In bed, they’d talk about how each had made sacrifices for the other. She had given up a happy, almost idyllic life in France. He had left a job that excited him, where the prospects were tremendous. They agreed that when you love someone, that’s what you do. But Charles was clearly unhappy. “He’d ask ‘What am I supposed to do now? Live on your salary while I watch what I eat?’”

After a while, after they had lived here about twelve or thirteen years, Charles said that he’d had enough. He was going to be a doctor again, and to do it he’d have to return to France. It would be hard getting recertified, but still easier than passing those U.S. exams. Monique was stunned. Over the past several years, her mother had deteriorated, and had recently taken a fall. She was in an assisted living facility for people with memory loss, which Monique was attempting to pay for. She visited on weekends and some weeknights. Charles was giving her a choice: Come back to France with him, and leave her mother, or stay in the U.S. and forget those “obligations” that marriage supposedly imposed.

That was two years ago. Monique’s mother still recognizes her, and Monique can’t bear to leave. She visits Charles every so often now, and he contributes to her mother’s upkeep. He is not yet fully qualified to practice, but is earning what an intern does and expects that his salary will increase soon. But more to the point, he’s happier with himself. Monique wonders whether Charles is seeing someone, since he has stopped encouraging her to come back full-time.

Monique feels that she messed up her life. She blames herself, even though she also blames Charles. But I explained to her that what seems right at the time may not turn out right in the long run. Also, had she made a different choice—that is, had she persuaded Charles to remain in France, who knows what might have happened?

We never know how a decision will turn out. So now, Monique is still here. I suggested that she consider what she really wants. If she wants to go back to France, she should ask Charles. If she wants to stay here, at least for now, she should contrive to make a life here. But feeling sorry for herself, and being consumed with regret, can be paralyzing.

I thought perhaps she could let Charles know that she still loves him—which she does. She could see how he reacts. Her life has taken so many turns, and it can take so many more. We do all kinds of things for love, and it does all kinds of things to us. Love is never a prescription for equilibrium. Once in love, we’re never in the same place. We have to learn to live where we are.