Distinguishing the Shmuck from the Mensch

The best way to avoid divorce, even before you get married, is to understand the difference between a shmuck and a mensch and how the former can often impersonate the latter and wreak unnecessary havoc in your life.

There are many colorful and descriptive words that have become part of the American dating lexicon, and in my opinion, these two are among the best. Just as the word pesto triggers an aromatic burst of basil, mensch evokes someone of character, integrity, and selflessness. Schmuck, on the hand, screams self-absorbed, opportunistic, and unresolved mother issues.

Divorced women are particularly vulnerable. On the one hand, a failed marriage can heighten awareness to negative traits and stave off an unsuccessful coupling. On the other hand, a divorce can leave you craving the affirmation that comes with dating an emotionally available person who appreciates and enjoys being with you.

Here is how this misconception can evolve:

You have recently returned from a fabulous Caribbean vacation with your two best friends. You were able to finish reading the new Jodi Picoult novel, and there was the perfect ratio of beach to bar time. You chatted up a diverse group of men: Europeans who seemed unaffected by the looming debt crisis, and hedge fund managers who held on to their BlackBerry® like a pack of cigarettes.  But, there was one guy who stood out, who wasn’t texting or checking his voice mail. In fact, like you, he spent a good deal of time reading—an actual book. You walked by his cabana several times to see if you could catch the title. It was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which made you feel good, because you love that book, and you assume that anyone reading it is has a strong personal vision.  On the third night you talked to him at the pool bar, and you found out that he is a physical therapist who works at a famous rehab institution. This means that he works with people who are physically and emotionally vulnerable, and that made you feel safe. The following days and nights were magical. He told you that he would like to spend a year in the French countryside, preferably closer to Avignon than St. Tropez, but he’s deferred it because his widowed mother recently had a hip replacement, and he wants to make sure she’s back on her feet before he leaves the country for an extended period of time.

The next month is bliss. You share your respective bucket lists and discover that you both want to visit the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and the Rodin museum in Paris.

You cannot believe your luck and how present he is. How he actually listens to you and remembers that you don’t like cilantro but adore capers and pink peppercorns. You are touched by his use of the word “our” when he refers to getting milk for “our” coffee, and when looking for a parking spot for “our” car.  Just recently you were discussing how much the two of you wanted to watch the film “Inception” and he said “make sure to add it to ‘our’ queue.” You are ready to start naming your children.

Then one day you are at his apartment, and he plays back a message on speakerphone. You hear a woman’s voice and she is saying something like “are we still going sailing next weekend?” and then the room starts spinning. But you have had a few years of therapy, and you know it isn’t cool to attack him with your insecurities so you wait until later to calmly ask him if this is a monogamous relationship.

He seems baffled by the question and asks what has brought this on, and for the next twenty minutes you are unable to let him finish a sentence. He starts saying “Here’s the thing…” and you cut him off sharply stating “You are using me, aren’t you? I can see why you haven’t been in a relationship for the last three years!” He realizes that your petals are folding, and says “The truth is that I do have very strong feelings for you, and it is making me apprehensive. So yes, I have been seeing other women, but not seriously.”

You can relate to his anxiety and appreciate his honesty, so you feel better now. Over the next few weeks you regain your equilibrium and return to your Pilates class. You have bought tickets to a concert in the park for next Saturday, and he suddenly remembers that he forgot to mention that he is going rock climbing with the guys for a long weekend. 

This is the beginning of him creating real distance in the relationship. There are more examples of this along with a general lack of courtesy—like showing up late but not bothering to call. The level of commitment goes down little by little, and you start to feel sad and unsafe. What held so much promise now seems dangerous and duplicitous and reminds you of all of the issues that you grappled with in your former marriage.

How did this happen when the beginning seemed so positive and reassuring?



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