How to handle my friend’s engagement?


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Hello Cary,

I am writing on how to think about a new situation. Some background: I briefly “dated” a man back in 2005. It was a long distance thing since I met him on a trip in another country, so for better or worse, we were as best friends. When our relationship ended, we remained, and still are best friends. He has recently become engaged, and I am very excited for him. But now I have been dealt a difficult situation.

I don’t know, or need to know, the details of his talk with his fiancée, but he recently told me that she is not comfortable with our friendship. In the end, to preserve his relationship, he informed me that he thinks he must stop speaking to me for “a while.” He did say that he tried, apparently to no avail, to convince her that I am not a threat. Indeed, I am not because there is very little I can do since I moved from the U.S. to Georgia, half a world away from where they live.

When I heard this, I was shocked and didn’t know what to say except for a simple “ok.” We are both adults and he is free to make these decisions. I also know that I cannot control her behavior, but only how I react and feel. At this stage, I feel hurt and disappointed. It isn’t killing me, but I wonder if there is an alternative way I can handle this for myself, besides feeling like nearly 10 years of best friendship was just flushed down the toilet?

Thank you in advance for any insight you may be able to provide that can help me see this in a new light.



Dear Suzanne,

I can’t tell him what to do, since he didn’t write to me. But if I were you, I would tell him that this is bogus and dumb. He should not cut off his contacts with his old friends in order to make his marriage work. In fact, he’s going to need his old friends. He’s going to need to redouble his efforts to keep his old network of friends and acquaintances together.

Today’s model of marriage places excessive demands upon two individuals to fulfill each other. As families and extended families have spread out, and as work and study require frequent travel and relocation, couples increasingly face the problem of social isolation. Two people aren’t enough for each other. They may have different social needs. He may be more extroverted than she is. At any rate, I just think this is a bad way to start off a marriage.

He and she should agree on some ground rules for his interaction with you. If they aren’t intuitively clear, then let me suggest some obvious things: You and he should not go to bed together.

No, I mean, that’s obvious. Beyond that, you should just do things together that are innocent friend-type things. Going out and getting drunk together would not be appropriate. But having coffee together, and having lunch, and attending certain social events with mutual friends might be OK.

It’s fair to ask that your relationship be appropriate. But there has to be room in a marriage for opposite-sex friendships, especially those that began before the couple came together.

If she doesn’t feel that he is capable of remaining monogamous then she shouldn’t marry him.

That’s what I would tell him. I would tell him that.

My family is feuding about politics

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 16, 2009

We’ve got Republicans, we’ve got liberals, and it’s getting ugly.

Dear CT,

Like many extended families, ours has people who live and breathe Republican doctrine, and people who are liberal. Since the early Bush years, we have given each other a wide berth. Cable television has nothing on the “America first! How dare you question our president, you traitor!” rhetoric of some members.

This week, someone sent out an e-mail talking about how Obama’s policies weren’t helping the economy and were probably killing it. Well, the floodgates on both sides opened. People felt personally attacked and were right to. We were attacked, and we attacked right back. Two apologies were made from our side. Their side didn’t acknowledge them. And since then, nothing.

What now? I do want the whole family to be able to be a family, on the about once-yearly occasions that we are together. I don’t know how to walk it back, though. The rift that opened up (even in myself) was shockingly deep and raw and beyond my predicting. If we are like this, no wonder they spit nails at each other in Congress. What do you suggest

Family Feud Participant; or, How Can They Say the Collapse Is Obama’s fault (and be such nice people otherwise?)


Dear Family Feud Participant,

“Would you like something to eat?” is a nice beginning. “Can I come over and help you mow the lawn?” is another.

You also might ask your relatives questions such as these: Are you still employed? Are you worried about losing your job? Are your friends and co-workers worried? What do they say? How do your own plans for retirement look? Have you changed any of your investment practices? Who was your investment advisor? Did she perform well, or foolishly? What is her outlook for the future? Is your housing secure? Do you have a pension at work? Do you feel that it is secure? Are you in a union? Is there a union where you work? How is the union regarded by your co-workers and company management? How do you feel about the future of your industry as a whole? Is your company gaining or losing market share? To whom or from whom? Europe? Asia? How did you feel about NAFTA when it was enacted? How do you feel about it now? Did your company support it or oppose it? What do your co-workers grumble about in their free time? And what is it like working today as compared to 10 years ago? Are you better off, worse off, or about the same?

In other words, try to move from the conceptual to the concrete. Underneath “political” rhetoric are often real concerns. Many people, when they talk about “politics,” are really talking about their fear of the future, or their failed marriages or anger at their parents or a wounded sense of pride at work or the sad loss of an adolescent hope for an ideal republic the likes of which are found only in fantasy novels. If you listen for your relatives’ real-life concerns, you may learn something. For instance, current economic troubles may affect your nieces’ and nephews’ plans to attend college and raise families. These are things you can talk about regardless of political beliefs.

You know, your letter got me all steamed up about the theoretical underpinnings of the decline of our political discourse, and I wrote a ton about it in the cafe, in a feverish, caffeine-fueled blaze. I also watched Jon Stewart’s interview with Jim Cramer last night and am still a bit buzzed by that. But when I read over what I had written, I realized, you know, I’m no theoretical genius or philosopher. I can sound like a bit of a blowhard, actually. Sometimes I’m just a big word machine. It’s like playing riffs on the guitar: You let loose and some wild stuff comes out and some of it is pretty cool. But there are people in the audience. You look up and you realize, my God! I’ve been noodling for half an hour!

Sometimes it’s better to simplify.

So I quietly cut out about 90 percent of what I had written. Only this was left: Yes, many of us have families. Families, thank God, are made up of individuals. Those individuals may have opinions we consider misguided, but they also have lives that we care about. Concentrate on the lives, not the rhetoric.

This is not to say, “Don’t discuss politics with family members.” Rather, it is to suggest that what you describe is not actually political speech. It is more like a symptom of a national communication disorder.

‘Nuff said. It’s Friday and quitting time. (Yes, we are workers, and yes, we do occasionally knock off for the week.)

But one final word (I really do not seem to be able to stop, do I? That’s my own communication disorder!): Ignore all mass family e-mails about politics! Mass family e-mails about politics are the worst! If you must respond, pause first, and then suggest, “OK, everybody, barbecue next week at Aunt Kate’s!”

My girlfriend’s stepfather is a real a-hole … and a dying man

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 29, 2007


This guy does not respect me or notice me! What can I do?

Dear Cary,

I am in my late 20s and have, in the last three months, fallen deeply in love with a woman of approximately the same age, in the same neighborhood practically. We have a wonderful relationship and became strongly attached to each other almost immediately. I could see myself spending the rest of my life with this woman, frightening as that sounds.

The problem is with her stepfather, with whom she lives along with her mother and (occasionally) her sister. He was diagnosed some time ago with congestive heart failure, or something of that nature. (I don’t get all the details, and I certainly don’t nag after them.) As a result, he has to make frequent trips to the hospital when his inside “gadgets” go off, and doctors have recommended him as a candidate for a heart transplant. In short, it isn’t good … dying of heart-related problems is common in his family.

Now for my problem: He’s a complete and total asshole. Maybe that sounds a bit harsh, but there you have it. Let it be known that I am courteous to her family, understanding of the hardships this medical issue puts her family through, and so on. I am also a very good boyfriend: I care deeply for this woman, I bring her flowers on the right occasions, and more importantly, I make her happy.

On top of all that, she was prepared to move to Florida to live with her no-account, uncaring boyfriend of four years when she met me, and as a result, broke up with him over the phone and remained living at home to be with me. In short, without my presence, she would have moved away, and (in all likelihood) she would have been absent from a large part of the end of her stepfather’s life.

Despite all of this, he continues to treat me diffidently, occasionally deigning to grant me a “hello,” but for the most part, he acts as if I am not there. He has zero interest in me as a person, never bothers to ask me any questions about myself or my family, and allows my attempts at conversations to hang in the air in an awkward silence.

I understand he is going through major medical issues, but does that give him license to be an unmitigated prick? At what point do I put aside considerations of being “the bigger man” and assert my rights, indeed, as a man? His actions make it difficult for me to take a part in my girlfriend’s family, and I have begun avoiding picking her up at her house in the hopes of avoiding him altogether. I’ve even started to harbor feelings of resentment toward my girlfriend, as she has said nothing to him about these issues. I understand why, just as I understand why I am hesitant to say anything to him: No one wants to aggravate someone who is probably dying.

I suppose the larger issue deals with the personal difficulties encountered when dealing with anyone, be they blood relative or not, who is suffering from severe health problems. But it angers me to think that anyone has the right to behave in this manner simply because they have a life-threatening condition. We are all going to age, probably have health issues and eventually die. Shouldn’t common courtesy and decency apply all the way through life?

Keeping My Mouth Shut While the Anger Grows Within



Dear Keeping Your Mouth Shut,

Frankly, with all due respect, my friend, in order to solve your problem, you need to look at it from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t give two shits about you.

That idea may prove a conceptual stumbling block. That would be understandable. Life offers many lessons, as does the university curriculum, but it is still possible to reach your late 20s without realizing that many people just don’t give two shits about you.

Encountering somebody who doesn’t give two shits about your or your haircut or your sunglasses can bring you to your senses; it can strip you naked before the universe. It can humble you and cleanse you. And that’s what you need, with all due respect, my young friend: You need to be humbled, cleansed of your pride, alerted to your insignificance.

You don’t amount to a hill of beans in the eyes of a dying man. That is a spiritual realization.

That’s not to say you aren’t a good man, honest, clean-living and honorable; it’s to say that those things don’t amount to a hill of beans either, in the eyes of a dying man — or, in a certain sense, in the eyes of God if you believe in a God, or in the eyes of history, if you believe in immortality through the chronicles of human judgment. What matters is how you handle the challenges put before you.

So consider this man not an insufferable asshole prick motherfucker shithead idiot but something on the order of a messenger from God, a Buddha, a teacher, a Christ figure descended from the heavens to show you something you need to know.

What you need to know is that you are not the center of the universe.

Do not assume that because your feelings are hurt he has to change. Consider the possibility that your feelings are hurt because you are thin-skinned, sensitive and prideful.

Also consider the possibility that this man represents a test of your manhood, in the classic sense: You want his stepdaughter, but you must pass a test first. The test is: Can you handle his rudeness? Can you comport yourself with dignity as he narrows his eyes at you or ignores you altogether? Can you find a way to be of service to him and his family even as he disrespects you, not because you like him but because it has finally gotten through your thick skull that you are simply one actor in this drama?

So get him a glass of water. Bring him the newspaper. He may notice that some prick brought him a glass of water, that some asshole brought him a newspaper. Or he may not. Just show some respect, even if you don’t believe he deserves it.

You don’t have to do this, of course. You can continue to believe that he owes you something and is in the wrong. But if you continue to believe that, you will continue to suffer and grind your teeth. He will continue to have you in his clutches. He will continue to haunt you and cause you pain. The only way you can get out of this conflict is to reach a posture of serene, detached humility.

There are plausible arguments you might make against what I have suggested. You are free to make them. I would not endeavor to counter them, for what I am suggesting is that you reach beyond such arguments, that you experience a paradigm shift that will render those arguments, if not irrelevant, at least peripheral. What I am suggesting is that you have a moment of clarity. I can’t force you to have it. I can’t argue it into you. You have to come to it on your own. I can only reassure you that if you will let down your guard for an instant and allow yourself to have this moment of clarity, it will serve you well for the rest of your life.

I am offering you this, free of charge. Take as much time as you need.

Put yourself in this guy’s shoes. Look at yourself from where he sits. Imagine the depth of his pain and anger at being ushered off life’s stage prematurely. See yourself as the blur that you are to him. See yourself as nothing. See yourself as nothing and recognize — Oh, my God! — while I am all the things I say I am, I am also utterly nothing!

Once you get this through your head, life will get easier for you. You’ll be able to laugh this off. This is nothing. This is really nothing. Let it go.

Let it go, let it go, let it go.



I’m dating my doppelganger



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Dear Cary,

About seven months ago, I was coming out of a really bad relationship with a younger guy who was an immature, boring freeloader. He also cheated on me with men and women, indiscriminately. As long as he was receiving attention, he was happy. After breaking up with him, it was apparent he had mental issues; he threatened to sue me, and kill himself on my property. The cops and his parents had to remove him at various times from my porch.

During this time, I had friends and coworkers trying to introduce me to someone in particular, who they touted as “the male version of me.” Amused, I asked why they thought that and was told we looked, dressed and acted alike, and people wanted to see if we were long lost relatives. I don’t like being part of a spectacle so I ignored requests to meet this person. Then, I ran into him on my own outside of work and it was like looking into a mirror. I think we were both transfixed at how uncanny the resemblance was. Upon just meeting he even quoted a geeky joke that I knew the obscure punchline to.

I’ve never believed in soul mates or kinships before but I felt we had some kind of weird connection. I didn’t think it was attraction at first. We discovered we worked at the same place, and then it occurred to me, this was the guy my coworkers wanted me to meet. We became fast friends, hanging out at every break and day off. Due to the problems with harassment I was experiencing with my ex, I was disinclined to get into a relationship, so I never made any kind of flirtatious overtures. Meanwhile our mutual friends were encouraging us to date since we had apparent chemistry. I was happy to discover he had a girlfriend already, at first because I thought it would relieve my guilt at friend-zoning him, but later I realized I was just happy that it was a sign he wasn’t gay and therefore fair game.

When I met his girlfriend, I actually liked her. I still would but it would be awkward to befriend your lover’s ex, that he dumped for you. Yep, you read that right. It is exactly what happened. Our mutual attraction, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and the urging of our common friends eventually chipped away at their relationship, and shortly thereafter we began dating. I have apologized to him about stealing him from her before. He gives me a quirky smile and says if they were as perfect for each other as we are, I wouldn’t have been able to, and that she was “getting on his nerves anyway.” His friends even stated that she wasn’t right for him. They also adore me, and I them. He doesn’t cheat, or hide things or act shady. He’s very honest and open about things. Despite that, I, a little insecurely, wonder if he could be stolen as easily from ME. It would only serve me right.

We seem perfect though. We look adorable together, the sex is great, we share hobbies and interests. We are a complement to each other in some ways, and a perfect match in others, and enigmatic and interesting in still others! We want a future. We’ve only been dating for six months now, but he talks about marriage and kids and our goals and careers with me. We never fight. When we disagree or do something accidentally hurtful, We actually TALK about it maturely! I don’t have a single ex who would have. We can take comfort or cry on each other’s shoulders if we’ve had a bad day or rough life. We do nice things for each other that I imagine partners in a marriage would! In fact, just realizing how perfect he is lately, has made me feel even more remorseful for poaching. How could she stand to lose someone as great as him?

Should I just accept that we are possibly soul mates and they weren’t? As hurtful as it must have been to her for us to date, do you think maybe he wasn’t right for her either and hopefully she is okay?

Do I need more closure to forgive myself? Should I apologize to her if I feel it is owed? I don’t want to rock this boat, but I’ve never done anything potentially this hurtful before and the guilt does eat at me. I actually looked at her Facebook twice to see if she’s gotten a new partner. I really hope she does so she can be this happy too, and I will feel less burdened with taking her happiness away.


So Happy & I Hate Myself For It


Dear So Happy & Hating Yourself,

You’ve come a long way since dating a guy who had to be removed from your porch.

In fact, you sound like you are in heaven. Wow.

So why feel guilty now? A better match was made. One is tempted to thank the benign forces of nature. One is also tempted to think well, once in a million whiles the random forces of our chaotic and meaningless universe get something right.

Either way, you’re swell. Peaches. Sweet.

It’s even nice that you feel bad for the girlfriend he dumped for you. You can afford to feel bad for others now because you are so happy.

Life will hit you hard eventually. There’s no reason to hurry that along. If I were you I would keep a journal so you can look back on this happy time. And, while writing the journal, if I were you (and I wish I could be) I would pay special attention to all the reasons, the concrete and perhaps repeatable reasons, that you are happy today. Some of them won’t be repeatable: your youth is not recoverable once it is gone, nor is your relatively undamaged psyche: once life in a declining stronghold of deranged capitalists and war mongers has had its way with you for a couple of decades, you’ll be suitably beaten down and morose like the rest of us.

But certain things you are doing now may be repeatable, and are worth writing down now so you can remember them. For instance: the nice things you do for each other; the way you regard each other; these may be repeatable. So when you get into trouble in the future, when life seems pale and lifeless, when this person you now love so madly turns into an ogre, you can try to recapture this happiness by repeating, consciously, the happy behaviors in which you now engage with blissful, unconscious ease. Remember this. This is sweet. This is how life is supposed to be.

I’m just kind of bowled over. I’m going to enjoy this. I suggest you do the same. Let’s all enjoy this, as a matter of fact, all our readers, everybody. Let’s just let this moment of happiness radiate outward from here.

Don’t mess with a good thing. Enjoy it.


I know my co-worker’s evil secrets — because I was his therapist!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 15, 2007


I’m aghast to find I’ll be sharing an office with a man whom — for good but confidential reasons — I utterly detest.


Dear Cary,

I need your perspective on an issue that may not have a solution that I will ever find satisfying … but here goes.

I recently started working for a new employer and I have been very happy in my new work environment until last week. Last week I was introduced to a new colleague whom I will be sharing an office with. This new employee and I had a professional relationship in a job I held prior to this one. As a result of this relationship (which was therapeutic in nature and is protected by confidentiality), I am in possession of a great deal of personal information about this person that could be very damaging if it ever got out. The information I have, if known by the employer, would have certainly resulted in him not being hired. In fact, it is my belief that he should not be in any position that involves the high degree of trust and power that this position holds. This individual has been (and most likely still is) involved in illegal behavior for which he has never been formally charged or convicted. He also has some serious mental health and addiction problems that have not been resolved. This person is highly charismatic and intelligent and is able to schmooze his way through very difficult situations. He presents as very warm and interested, but his ability to manipulate others for his own pleasure and gain borders on sociopathic.

This individual does not appear to be uncomfortable with the situation and has made no attempt to approach me regarding our past relationship.

We haven’t started sharing our office space yet, but I am dreading the day I enter my office and he is sitting there. I don’t feel that I can ask for a change in office assignment without raising questions that could indirectly violate confidentiality. Simply declining to provide an explanation could cue people to the possibility that he was a past client of mine.

I fully understand that I don’t have any basis on which to breach confidentiality, yet I feel this very strong desire to raise the alarm. On a human level, I really believe that he is a horrible person who has the potential to harm our clients. I guess my question is: How do I live with the knowledge that he could do harm and I cannot do anything about it until it happens? Any thoughts that you can offer me would be greatly appreciated.



Dear Burdened,

I’ve gone over and over this and, like you, I can see no justification for breaching confidentiality. So, strange as it is, I think you have to put away what you have learned about this man through the privilege of your profession and treat him as a person you have never met.

Depending on the laws that govern your profession in your area, however, and on the details of his activities to which you have been privy, you may have not only a duty of confidentiality but also a duty of disclosure. For instance, in California and some other states in the U.S., since the Tarasoff ruling, mental health professionals have a duty to warn potential victims of their clients.

For that reason, I think it would be wise to consult an attorney, in confidence, about what might trigger a duty to disclose under the laws in your area. You need not name the person or even the specific circumstances, if doing so would breach your promise of confidentiality. But you need to know where you stand legally.

Beyond that, the question is, how in hell are you going to walk into the room and sit down at your desk and smile and treat this man as if he were someone you know nothing about — knowing what you know and feeling toward him as you do?

Well, I would ask: How do we bear what we know about anyone, whether in their presence or not? How do we bear all the secrets we receive in confidence, from clients, from lovers, from strangers who tell us things that cannot be revealed?

We bear it by making a decision. Like judges, we make a ruling. We seal the testimony. That’s that. It’s done. It’s in the vault, as they used to say on “Seinfeld” — except, amoral bastards that they were, on “Seinfeld” everybody had everybody else’s combination.

But this is not “Seinfeld.” You can give the combination to no one.

That is how you begin. Your knowledge of this man and his activities is locked away. You behave as if you have just met.

But it is not easy to keep it locked away. We want to discuss. We need to discuss. So I suggest you discuss this with your own therapist, or someone else fully as bound to confidentiality by fiduciary responsibility as you yourself are to this former client. And do so before the pressure becomes too great and you inadvertently disclose. Do it as a matter of your routine, the maintenance of your psychological fitness.

Perhaps, too, it will help to think a little about just why this confidentiality is so important, to remind ourselves why it is, in essence, a matter of life and death to be able to confidentially place our problems before another. The implications of this are indeed profound. It think it is because in every criminal, sociopath and murderer, somewhere in that scorched landscape of mayhem there is a soul, quivering in a shed, aghast at what has been done. There is a tormented soul. There is confusion and sickness. There is blankness and forgetting. And there is evil. It is to this tormented soul that the ministrations of the psychotherapist are addressed in confidence. They are addressed in confidence because the crimes of the man are not the crimes of the soul. Acts cannot be undone, but the soul can be healed.

It is no small privilege and no small burden. You are charged with care of the soul.

Now, as to the man himself, the con, the manipulator, I suggest you deal with him as a fully responsible actor in the world. He gets no pass. Take note of his actions, his evasions and his schemes. Stand apart and observe. Avoid being taken in. Do not trust him with anything of value. Avoid joint assignments. Pay attention. And when his activities outside of your privileged foreknowledge become troubling on their own merits, then you can do what any responsible professional would do in such a case.

If he’s as bad as you say, it won’t be long until such an occasion arises.