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For 37 years, my husband and I were wed. Then, my best friend and I fell in love.

 For 37 years, my husband and I were wed. Then, my best friend and I fell in love.

(Photo: Courtesy of Liz Hilliard)

I took a very big breath, filed for divorce from my husband of 37 years, met a woman, and started to rebuild my life authentically with a new goal at the age of 64.

I was liberated from the restrictions of fear and cultural expectations that I had allowed to hold me captive in the pursuit of honesty and self-awareness by ending a marriage that had been on life support for a far too long period. I did the thing I must not do, to paraphrase former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and that, in turn, became my ticket to freedom — not only freedom from a stagnant marriage but also freedom to explore my passion and sexuality and to ultimately become the person I was hesitant and terrified to become.

I had been living in the shadow of other people's expectations and my own low self-worth for far too long while preaching to my business clients about discovering their own power, accepting it, and taking steps to live their truth. I even wrote a book called "Be Powerful: Find Your Strength at Any Age," which became a bestseller on Amazon as a result of customers and others who were curious about how I managed to stay youthful and attractive in my 60s. However, as I worked on that book, I started to experience an expansion that, even to myself, I had not yet put into words.

Genuinely vulnerable and strong, as I wrote my story, I started to understand deep down that I was writing the story I wanted to hear—but not entirely.

Throughout most of this process, my buddy and coworker Lee was by my side, assisting me in uncovering information, emotions, and passions that I had not yet acknowledged. It evoked images of fire and freedom, fear and well-being. Unbeknownst to me, I was also falling in love with Lee as I was rediscovering my soul and my love for life. Although the words were not coming easily, the feelings were.

Rewind to the beginning of the story. My daughter is both my best friend and my only child. We've always had an extraordinarily tight relationship. She has always been my greatest affection and first thought. My intention was to raise her with kindness, magic, courage, and honesty. We cherished freedom and exploration. We experienced both common and extraordinarily difficult moments, yet we did so consistently in harmony.

There was one exception, though, and that was the fact that her father and I were dealing with a rocky marriage. For the sake of our family, I was unable to tell her that secret. There was no way I was telling her that. I was unable to let her carry that weight. I believed that it was my responsibility to protect her while keeping my adult life and the changes in my marriage a secret.

I was happy and decided to give my new fitness business, Hilliard Studio Method, to my amazing daughter and son-in-law when they wanted to start their lives together in Charlotte, North Carolina. We decided to develop it together, discovering new pleasures.

Although our relationship appeared to be a prescription for failure, if not outright craziness, it has been anything but that!

Although our relationship appeared to be a prescription for failure, if not outright craziness, it has been anything but that!

In 2012, Lee arrived for her first lesson at our studio right as it was beginning. I hurried her out and instructed her to attend another class since there were no open spaces left. She recalls feeling a peculiar vibe as I put my hand on her back to gently lead her out during our first encounter. Fortunately for me, she returned. After seeing Lee complete the workout when she returned, my daughter advised that we hire Lee as an instructor.

That marked the beginning of the three of us becoming close friends. Lee joined us right away for our trips, and we all quickly grew close. The new dynamic was enjoyable and fluid. Working, having fun, and traveling as friends and families brought us joy and fellowship.

Sometimes, the most unexpected persons and locations lead to the discovery of love. When I eventually opened my eyes four years ago, it was right there for me to see. I knew I was in love with Lee when I accepted the emotions in my complete heart and inner voice. We were not only close friends but also divorce-affected women who identified as straight at the time. She also added the icing on the cake.

Although our relationship appeared to be a prescription for failure, if not outright craziness, it has been anything but that! I initially went on a denial rampage, stating very good reasons why the relationship couldn't continue. I was unable to ignore or deny the love and respect we felt for one another, though.

During a tough afternoon at work, Lee — then simply Lee, not my Lee — flung her arms around my neck and said: "I've got you. I've realized that I might not be fully heterosexual. It hit me like a cupid's arrow. You'll be ok, I assure you.

I wasn't held by her words. I pushed her away from me because the high-voltage electricity hit me so hard. When I realized at that precise time that my heterosexual self was no longer intact, I was horrified on all levels: physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I was shocked to learn that I was more than just a heterosexual person—it was definitely not that—and I still don't know what it is.

Is it possible to fall in love right away? Maybe, but in my opinion, this feeling had been developing without my knowledge for a very long period. Can you instantly change? Absolutely and unequivocally. When it originates from my heart, my gut, and my soul, there is no disputing the truth. Faced with such knowingness, the intellect is powerless.

I texted Lee that evening to come to supper with me. I had to control my emotions at that same moment because I was overcome with astonishment and ecstasy. I'm not frightened of my feelings by nature, and this feeling was a 911. I can still picture the silly grin that appeared on my face when she swiftly said "yes" to my request.

I told her I loved her in a new way that I couldn't express while sitting outside on my back patio. I wanted to see if she shared any of these emotions because I needed to be honest. Did she? I was afraid to even touch her hand.

Photo: Photo by Laura Tompkins

Soon after that night, we started to discover the joys of an undiscovered passion and love—one that I had never felt and most definitely had never expected—together. All at once, we were sincere, naïve, goofy, and serious. With our marriages already in disarray, our divorces still ongoing, and the potential for further family strife, we were likewise stepping on perilous terrain. While simultaneously attempting to concentrate on the ramifications that would undoubtedly affect our families, we were caught up in the ecstasy of one another.

People were able to easily assume all kinds of things about our relationship because we were practically divorced from our husbands at the same time and frequently in the public glare together. Being a well-known person in my tiny community, the malicious rumors that started sweeping the city like wildfire posed a threat to my family, my profession, and my sanity.

Those who could sense the obvious attraction between Lee and me but could only imagine the worst called me out before I was ready to go public. Since I was having trouble wrapping my head around this weird story, I was compelled to speak rapidly.

One very essential person, my ex-husband, needed to know the truth right away and would soon become my ally on this new road. He was heroic and supportive right away while I was in fear.

See, love is, in fact, love. By that point, my ex-husband and I had moved past the hurt and pain of our failed marriage, but I'll always remember the gravity of the situation. I will adore him and protect him for the rest of my life because of it.

No matter how beautifully it's handled—which in our case was a mutual and respectful end to a partnership that had not been functioning for years—the terror, darkness, and pain of divorce are real. However, a divorce cannot exist without loss, hurt, or vulnerability, and those are the precise emotions you need to overcome. Those are the best people to educate you on how to accept change.

Where you discover your power is in your capacity to access your deepest, most vulnerable self. And I was about to discover my power by letting go of the past, taking responsibility for my deeds, and allowing the unfathomable love I had for Lee to make me utterly exposed and vulnerable.

When my adult child discovered that her parent's marriage was not what it looked like, the divorce had already devastated her. We had portrayed ourselves as the ideal couple out of love and concern for her. But the façade we put on to preserve our face did nothing but keep us from facing the truth and make our agony worse.

I missed the chapter of a self-help book that describes how to delicately give such news to your child. My kid felt misled and betrayed. She recognized me as her most trusted friend, confidante, and truth-teller. Early on in my relationship with Lee, I failed to tell her and a rift developed between us that still exists but is stubbornly suppressed.

The hardest time of my life was when I told my daughter the truth. The words I used to describe my brand-new, foreign feelings—feelings I had never before felt—came out hastily, clumsily, and bewildered.