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Love, Marriage and Grey Divorce Italian Style

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On a recent trip through the Amalfi and Adriatic coasts of southern Italy, we had the pleasure to encounter Italians as paying guests in their homes. Invariably, what one does for a living comes up in conversation. After explaining what I do, I'm often given an earful, full of personal disclosures. Here's a co-parent arrangement shared with me that I'd like to retell, with permission.

A fit and urbane handsome man in his early 50s, our host Ulysses (not his real name) married young and has two adult children from this relationship. After nearly two decades he divorced in his late 30's. The children lived with their mother, whom he refers to as his 'ex.' Ulysses had regular visitation and infrequent overnights.

Ulysses claims he always got along well with his first wife who lives up north in Rome. His 30-year-old unmarried and childless career-minded daughter from this marriage lives nearby. His 23-year-old son is getting a late start with university in the fall and now lives with him. Daughter stopped by for a short visit during our stay. Clearly there is an easy closeness between all of them.

Ulysses refers to the mother of his third child as his current 'wife.' They never married after 15 uninterrupted years together, physically separated 6 years ago, and now share custody of a young adolescent. Their teen lives primarily with her mother (who has no other children of her own) and stays overnight in her own bedroom in her father's home from time to time; partly so that she can spend more time with Ulysses and his fourth child from another mother he calls his 'lover.'

Ulysses also spends two nights a week with his 'wife' in her home. He professes they have a strong emotional and intellectual bond. Three years after separating from his 'wife,' who is about his age, Ulysses took up with his 'lover,' a woman now in her early 40's. He also spends two nights a week with her and their son, a toddler, in her home.

The only problem according to Ulysses is his 'lover's' complaint. She underestimated Ulysses connection to his 'wife.' Ulysses' 'lover' has no other children, never wed, and wants to marry him. Ulysses is adamantly opposed to remarriage.

Ulysses insists he isn't sexually intimate with his 'wife' or 'lover,' but I must tell you I don't believe it. When asked how he'd feel if they had other romances he winces, shrugs, and with upturned palms says he'd prefer to not know about it. Ulysses doubts the women have other paramours.

For holidays and vacations, Ulysses meticulously splits his time between his 'wife' and 'lover.' His 'ex' is in a long-term relationship and doesn't enter into this calculation. Ulysses views himself as a free spirit and abhors being told what to do or when. It's obvious he values being seen as an honorable man.

We have a good laugh when I point out the irony that Ulysses' 'wife' and 'lover' have more time without him, than he has without them. For a man who wants to call the shots and be left alone, in reality he spends a great deal of time and energy pleasing others with limited success and at the personal expense of having to rotate between three homes on a weekly basis.

While it clearly pains him to know that his 'lover' suffers, he doesn't anticipate anything will change. When I ask him how the women see him, he says he is patient, kind, and a good listener. I imagine he is financially generous too, which we don't get into. Ulysses says his parents, who've been married over 50 years, completely accept and do not openly judge his situation. They acknowledge and treat all their grandchildren,along with their mothers, respectfully and equally well.

The day we left, Ulysses was leaving town too. His 'wife', a lovely, refined woman and a teacher by profession (same as his 'lover') stopped by for a visit. We were introduced. She came by without their teen to bid him farewell. Ulysses was taking a week of holiday with his 'lover' and their toddler. To keep it equitable, the week after he and his 'wife' would be taking their holiday together at a different location.

Ulysses mentions to his 'wife', who's English is limited, that I will blogging about their situation and she approves. In my limited Italian I say to her that Ulysses has big ideas about small feelings. To this she vigorously nods her head and seems to understand. It appears some things resist translation and others don't.

If only she and I could have talked more candidly. I remain curious about the women's perspectives. I'm sure the 'lover' has a lot to say. How do they feel about being part of an unintentional or accidental trouple (a variation of a three-way) relationship?

Ulysses is a contradiction. He's traditional enough to believe minors should reside primarily with their mothers and bohemian enough to want an open relationship. I think a nerve was hit with Ulysses. He talks a good game but there were tell-tale signs of his anxiety. For instance, he chain smokes and at times appears distracted. Who knows? I was supposed to be on vacation, and yet on the eve of returning to work, here I am still thinking about this family.