- On May 22, 2017
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By Laura Stassi
Grace and Peter’s gray love story was unexpected. And it was messy, because it was littered with other people’s broken hearts. The story sounds sweet to those who knew Grace and Peter as high school friends and neighbors in Virginia in the ’70s. It’s horrifying to those who knew Grace with Walt, her husband of 30 years, and their three kids in Texas.
“Everyone in Virginia thinks it’s so romantic Peter and I got together,” Grace said over lunch one day. “And everyone in Texas thinks I’m a whore.”
Grace, 56, speaks candidly and humorously about her experience but even now, three years after marrying Peter, 57, the anguish she still feels about hurting Walt and their grown kids is palpable. She’s emotionally healthy now, and Walt has had a gray romance of his own and is remarried. Still, Grace has regrets.
“If I had truly thought about what divorce really meant, what relationships would really suffer, if I had just been more clear-headed, maybe I would have asked for just a time out from Walt, maybe a little separation,” Grace said.
Grace was far from thinking clearly on that night in December 2009 when Peter reached out with the relatively innocent Facebook message, “Hey, remember me?” She had lost 30 pounds she didn’t need to lose, was drinking wine like it was water, and “popping Xanax like there was no tomorrow,” she said. The youngest of her three children had launched, and “I had turned into the caricature of the woman who hits menopause and empty nest at the same time and just loses her frickin’ mind.”
Grace and Walt had met at the University of Texas. They got married after Walt earned his mechanical engineering degree. He was 24, analytical and practical, and kept his feelings buttoned up tightly. Grace was 19, creative and emotional, a right-brained to his left-brained thinker.
“He’s a real caretaker,” Grace said, “and a good, good man. But our personalities are so different, plus 19 is just too young to get married. There was one moment on our honeymoon when we were walking along the beach, and I got physically ill because I started thinking, ‘What have I done?’ ”
Grace and Walt had a daughter and two sons while his job took them all over the world. They were living in Saudi Arabia when the first Persian Gulf War broke out. Grace begged her husband to leave but he refused, calmly noting the chances of a Scud missile hitting their home were infinitesimal.
“It was statistical odds compared to emotion, fear, panic,” Grace recalled. “Every night the siren would go off, and I’d grab all three kids and go hide in the closet. That’s when something kind of shifted in me. They became my kids, and I no longer trusted anyone else to make decisions regarding what was best for them.” She later was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.
After Saudi Arabia, the family settled in Texas. With Walt frequently gone for work, Grace threw herself headlong into parenting and along the way, lost herself. “We’ve been hearing about men who become unhappy at midlife for a really long time,” she reflected. “But women just usually drown themselves in eating and drinking, and shopping.”
Throughout December 2009, Grace and Peter poured their hearts out to each other online, and made plans to meet. Peter sounded miserable, too. Married and divorced twice, he was living unhappily with a volatile girlfriend and their teenaged daughter in the DMV — D.C., Maryland, and Virginia region. He had already left once. He promised his daughter he’d never leave again.
After the Christmas holidays, Grace drove from Texas to Virginia to rendezvous with Peter. She stayed at the home of her parents, who were spending the winter in Florida. Peter came over shortly after she arrived. They wound up sitting on the sofa for hours, talking and snuggling.
“It was like reuniting, even though we had never been a couple in high school,” she said. After three days together, it had became physical and Peter was proclaiming his love for her. “It was so exciting,” Grace said. “It was like, this must be the thing that’s missing, the thing that’s going to make me happy.”
Grace returned to Texas with no plans to end either her affair or her marriage. She stole away to Virginia again. But in early March, Grace’s son Bryce and his wife moved back into the Texas family home temporarily after an overseas work assignment. Bryce and Grace had always been close, and he immediately sensed something was up. After putting spyware on Grace’s computer, he discovered her communications with Peter.
Bryce confronted Grace, threatening to tell his dad if Grace didn’t end the affair. Instead, Grace told Walt herself and moved into their vacation cottage nearby.
Walt, shell-shocked, asked Grace to see a marriage counselor with him. She refused. Bryce stopped speaking to Grace; her daughter and other son were dumbfounded and devastated.
By August 2010, Peter had extricated himself from his relationship. He bought a house in the DMV, and Grace moved in with him. She traveled to Texas frequently to try to repair her relationships with her sons and her daughter, who was now a mother herself. Grace and Walt were officially divorced in November 2011.
In June 2014, Grace and Peter got married in a simple backyard ceremony. “I don’t want to fail again,” she said, “and we both want to stay together.” Still, gray romance often comes with baggage. Grace may have been frustrated and even bored by Walt’s slow and steady nature, but she’s frequently caught off guard by Peter’s fiery, excitable, and sometimes irrational behavior. She also has found it difficult to trust him.
“Peter was a lousy husband to his two wives, and he was a lousy partner to the mother of his child,” Grace said. “In our darkest fights, I tell him that I married him to punish myself. I did it because I didn’t think I deserved anything better. It’s beyond cruel.”
But Grace said Peter is a better partner than she gives him credit for, and he proved he’s committed when he sold the house he bought in 2010. With the proceeds, he bought two homes: one that’s close to his daughter and his job and where they live full time, and one in Texas for them to stay in when they visit Grace’s kids and grandchildren. Grace has mended her relationship with them, even Bryce after he went through the trauma of his own divorce.
“I wish that hadn’t happened to him,” she said, “but his heart softened to me.”
Grace is philosophical about the path she took to be with Peter. “In many ways, it’s been a real relief to have fallen on my face,” she said. “It took a load off of me. I’m not angry anymore. And I’m not judging other people anymore. I have empathy and sympathy for people who commit wrongs.”
She also hopes her gray romance can be a cautionary tale for others who may be facing similar situations. “If you know yourself, move forward. Make sure you’re thinking clearly and if you are, then trust your instincts.”
“But if you aren’t, slow down and do what you need to do to think clearly,” Grace said. “Don’t do anything you can’t undo.”