Thank you for bringing humaneness to advice columns. I hope you’ll consider taking time to help me figure out a problem. I was raised in a tribal culture where women keep things to themselves in order to keep others from worrying. I have trouble speaking to friends back home to help me work this out, and I am in a very rural area with no therapists close by.
I do not have any friends where I am living.
In 2010 I started doing dissertation research in a small community far from my home. I met a man who was 62. I was 33. He seemed very young, was outdoorsy, and we spent a lot of time together on my project. He has been married and divorced four times. Only one of the marriages lasted a while, with “Sherry” (nineteen years). I have been married once (together for about twelve years, married for five)–the ex had an affair, and I will admit I have trust issues. My ex and I raised his son together, and I promised the son to love him like my own no matter what, and I do. Stepson still lives close to my “home”–far from the research community.
This older man and I started dating as a fling. We discussed that I was going to leave, write my dissertation, and seek an academic job. I’m of mixed heritage — American Indian, black, and white — and I’m the first on my mom’s side of the family to have a doctorate, so this was a big deal, not just to me, but to my parents and Indian community. I actually did leave the research community and drove back home, to work and write my dissertation. However, a couple days after I left, a mutual friend called to say Manfriend had a heart attack and was in ICU. I immediately went back to take care of him and ended up moving in. His health generally declined from another condition, although he hides it well. He is now on disability, but it is not enough to support him at the level he likes.
Somehow helping him stretched out to three years. I love Manfriend — by which I think I mean I could not stand for him to be alone and killing himself trying to work, which is what he would do if it weren’t for my income. I have supported him, cared for him, taken him to the hospital and to traditional healers, worried over him, taken care of all the work he can’t do around the house, advocated for him with doctors, etc. His kids rarely visit. He says he loves me, but he does not want to get married. I did finish writing my dissertation, very slowly, while working two jobs to support both of us. There are no academic jobs here. I do other work in a high-stress but boring profession that does not pay well here.
Here are the hangups. He calls me “Sherry” sometimes. He speaks about Sherry to others and tells them how pretty she is, even shows off pictures of her and their daughter together and refers to her as “my old lady.” Manfriend comments about how other men who are “shacked up” with women do so because they do not respect their girlfriends enough to marry them. About two years ago, Manfriend made comments about wanting oral sex from another woman in front of me and whispered to her something apparently salacious in front of me. He has not taken me out in about a year, so I no longer see him interact with other women, although he claims that the hitting on the other woman was only when we were “not as committed” (we had been living together and I was supporting him even then). He tells me that he thinks it is funny to tell people in town who ask about me and him (it’s a small town, and the age difference as well as my profession and race make us a curiosity for gossips) that he doesn’t even know me.
Manfriend is not as bad a boyfriend as it might sound. What I haven’t said is that he is also kind when he’s not being disrespectful. He cooks for me, listens to my frustrations with my job and my worries about Stepson and my elderly grandfather, and is very affectionate. When we are OK we laugh a lot together. We never go out together anymore. He does go out when I’m at work. By the time I get home and on the weekends, he says he is too tired or that I am too insecure and will get mad at him for looking at other women. But he doesn’t want me to go out by myself, so I have made no friends here other than “work friends,” not people I would share personal issues with.
I know I’m insecure and bringing my own old issues with trust into things. But I can’t get over the feeling that despite all this if Manfriend respected me or were committed to me much he would never have hit on other women (especially not in front of me), could manage not to call me Sherry during intimate moments, and could stop bragging about Sherry to other people. They’ve been divorced 15 years but apparently, according to her religious beliefs, she and he are still married since she does not believe in divorce. I also tend to think he would want to get married since, according to him, not getting married is a sign of disrespect. That we are racially different does not help. Sometimes I really think that if I were white he would not act like he was ashamed of living with me or try to shame me.
This is all very far from my family, and I’m now 36–getting old if I did want to settle down and have a child other than Stepson. I’m terrified that I’m losing precious time with my parents, elderly grandfather, and stepson and obviously weakening my relationships with all of them because we rarely see one another, and that I gave my beloved and also now elderly dogs back to Exhusband (Manfriend is violently allergic), all to be with a man who I sometimes suspect is using me. But, again, I hate the thought of leaving him alone, or of not having him in my life, and I think I find satisfaction in caring for someone.
How do I make a decision I can live with or let wanting a more stable relationship go? We are wearing each other out fighting. When we argue that pain and humiliation of him hitting on that other woman in front of me and telling people he lived by himself and didn’t know me just bubbles up as if they were new. I want to talk about it, and he doesn’t, which means I usually unload it all it once when I figure we’re already in for an argument–not good for either of us–and he responds with sarcasm and exaggeration, which tends to make it hard for me to keep “fighting fair.” The last fight ended with me vomiting up all these worries, crying, and telling him I was scared and him telling me I was making him sick with my “tantrum,” so I’m sleeping at my office for a while.
Any advice would be very appreciated.
Not Sure if I’m Being Used or Just Poisoning My Relationship With My Old Issues
Dear Longest Pseudonym Ever in the History of this Advice Column and that Means 12 Years,
Thank you for your letter. I don’t think it’s helpful to simply say you’re being used. It’s more complicated than that.
You are in an unusual relationship. You get a lot from this relationship. You also give a lot. You sacrifice. It is an unequal relationship. But you are not powerless in it. You have some power that you are not using. You have the power of refusal and of withholding. I don’t mean withholding sex. I mean withholding yourself, and the things you do for him.
Rather than be doctrinaire, strategically cut back. Stop doing certain things for him, while still maintaining the essential bond between you. The services you provide are not just practical. They are emotional. You supply him with approval and esteem; you allow him to believe that he is king. It’s OK for him to be king some of the time. But he is not all-powerful. He needs to know that his powers are limited.
I think you’re smart and compassionate and deserving of more than this man is giving you, but it is your responsibility to even things out with him. So pull back. Let him see that he can’t just get whatever he wants from you whenever he wants it. Retire into yourself a bit. Let him feel some tension. Let him wonder. Let him see that his lack of respect has consequences.
You say you are living in a small community far from home. You are isolated. You depend on this man more than you would if you had friends to confide in. So you need to make some friends. If that means breaking certain customs, by confiding things that in your tribe generally are not confided, and by on occasion denying him the pleasure of your company while you go and be among people in more equitable power relationships, so be it. In other words, branch out. Find some friends.
As to the essential question of whether to leave him in order to find a man to have a child with, that is a deep, challenging and far-reaching question I can’t presume to answer. But I do know that though you feel responsible for this man, you are not ultimately responsible for him. If you leave him, he will be OK. He will survive.
I sense that there is something deep between you and him. It is clouded and sullied by his crude lapses. That is a shame. I sense that he is not crude morally necessarily; he is a man of a certain time and he is used to getting away with certain things with women. But it is not too much to ask that he not call you Sherry, and not make crude comments to other women. It doesn’t matter whether you are there to hear it or not. You should insist that he not do this. It is disrespectful to women everywhere. It is wrong. He should be chastised when he does this.
We have a long way to go in this culture; our history of violence and subjection of peoples echoes in the present. To be a woman, an African-American and an Indian is to be thrice blessed and thrice cursed. Most blessings are also curses. This is nothing new.
So go inside yourself and be strong inside yourself. Do not give yourself away to him so freely. Let him see what he has to do. Let him see if he can make it up to you for his crude lapses, his arrogance, his pomposity. You obviously are drawn to a deeper side of him. He is not just an arrogant, pompous man. He is someone you love.
Just don’t be a sucker. Be strong. Make him work for it.