You were victimized by a sociopath. Stop putting your hand in the flame

Hi! It’s me, Cary! How ya doin?

I’m out of the pool  eating toast and thinking about the novel. I’m committed to finishing by the end of May. I have it all planned out. It’s practically done! Finally.

Plus yesterday I finished my application to Yaddo, thanks to my Finishing School commitment. It was a long day but I got it done before my 6pm writing coaching appointment (I’m doing that too now, acting as a coach for writers who have projects that are promising but resisting ; I get on the side of the writer and together we push to dislodge invisible impediments).

Finishing School starts next week, Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at the house. If you have a project you’re trying to finish, let me know.

Me, personally, I used Finishing School in December to finish fiction and send it out and do my Yaddo application (I sure would love to have some uninterrupted time to write the next novel!) and I have dedicated the next five months of Finishing School, my own personal goal, to finishing the current novel. I’m dividing it up into five sections, one a month to finish up (they’re mostly written anyway). If you have a project you want to write and would like to dedicate one month or the next five months to it, get in touch with me at cary@carytennis.com. Maybe we can work something out. Dive in the deep end with me! I want company making art in the 21st century.

Now let’s answer a letter:

Dear Cary,

I have read and admired your advice for many years. I have always loved your well-considered and thoughtful advice about really difficult problems. I have started this letter to you hundreds of times but never finished it, but today is that day.

When I was a teenager (early ’90s, before the Internet – you might remember these distant times!!) I wrote something called a zine. It was a magazine about music and art that I wrote and laid out with a glue stick and photocopied and distributed at record shops where I lived. It was pretty well received – and if I do say so, looking back at old issues, well designed – and making it was the first baby steps in what would be my professional career. I learned to write well, to finish things, to find interesting stuff, to produce something that looked great that people would care about, all with absolutely no money.

As everyone did in those days I included an address to write to (again, no internet), and a few people did, sending contributing material and what I guess was fan mail. One guy in particular sent a long letter and some contributions, and I used them and wrote back and said thanks. He wrote again, became a regular contributor, and we corresponded over several years. I considered this person a good friend, though I didn’t know who he was. Later on we kept in touch and, thanks to Hotmail, this included keeping in touch when I moved overseas when I was 19.

A year or two later I found out that it had been my brother’s girlfriend – 6 years older than me – who had created and orchestrated this personality, written all these letters, corresponded with me for so many years. She was a horrible bitch to my face, often telling me I was worthless, selfish, ruining my family, didn’t deserve anything, she told me that my mother called her to complain about me (not true), her nickname for me was “charming little princess”, etc. etc., and in the meantime running this charade of a person who was my friend and someone I trusted.

The shock and fallout was unbelievable. Unbearable. A year later, my brother married her. That was the last time I spoke to my brother, in 2001.

It has been 16 years since I found out what she was up to, and the intervening years have been so fucking hard. I felt like a fool, I felt stupid, I was angry, I was humiliated, I was confused. I told my parents, who told me in no uncertain terms that they would “choose” between me and my brother, and would not exclude her from the family. Family anything became psychological torture as she paraded around as if she had a right to be there, and I felt like a pariah in my own family.

The campaign of emotional abuse and manipulation was bad enough, but the fallout has been another circle of hell altogether. My immediate family – parents and one other brother – simply do not believe that what she did was that bad, no one has advocated for me, no one has demanded that she apologise, and I have been told such things as “if it was sexual abuse it would be different” or “you just need to get over it” or “she had a hard life, it’s not her fault”. Every time I tried to talk about it, the subject was changed.

Cary, this made my 20s hell. I trusted no one. My self-esteem was nonexistent. I wanted to die. I didn’t trust my own experiences and was angry at myself for not “getting over it” and so very angry at my family for just abandoning me to my own misery. My parents refused to talk about it with me. I went to years of therapy, I was on medication, and I did all the things that are indicative of extreme and prolonged emotional distress. Eventually I moved 4000 miles away from home and started a new life.

Three years ago my remaining brother – who I had tried to have a relationship with – told me that my abuser and the brother who married her (who I think was implicit in the abuse, but have no proof) babysit his baby twins. I asked him why he would allow a woman who he damn well knew was an abuser of children to act as a person of authority in their lives and I was told “Oh we watch them really carefully” and “that just won’t happen.”

The subtext there is one of two things: either he doesn’t believe that the abuse happened the way I said it did, or he doesn’t think it was a big deal. Both of those things are absolutely unacceptable. I told him this, and told him that if those children are describing their relationship with those people to a therapist in ten years I will be the only one in the family not directly responsible for knowing what the situation was and letting it happen. We have not spoken since.

I have tried really hard to maintain a relationship with my parents, though they are clearly of the opinion – and have told me – that this really isn’t a big deal and the problem in the family is my failure to get over something minor. They’re in their 70s (I am 35) and I try to have compassion for the difficult position they’re in. I think I deserved better from them; they should have advocated for me, they should have protected me from this fallout by holding her accountable, but my abuser did so much to torpedo any trust relationship I had with my parents by telling me misinformation and manipulating the way I felt about them that I figure I have lost too many years with them to cut them out completely.

In recent years, after cutting my second brother out of my life, I have felt for the first time like I can breathe. I now realise that having a relationship with someone who invalidated the biggest trauma of my adult life was retraumatising me over and over, and that when I cut off ties with both of them I was validating myself, I was believing my own experiences, I was advocating for me – all things my family never did for me.

My problem is this: I visit my parents annually and spend the entire time sobbing. I am there right now, surrounded by family portraits of my parents, my brothers and their wives … I’m not in any of them, it’s as if I just don’t exist, like there’s two families. My mother said something tonight about all this being not as big a deal as I thought it was and it just set me off again; how can all this pain, all this therapy, all this hell of 16 years not convince them that what happened to me really happened? Why is the status quo more important than their own daughter? Why was I sacrificed on the altar of not making waves? I have had so many years of feeling desperately alone because of abuse where I was the victim, and have gone through so much shame, so much turmoil, so much loneliness and felt so bereft of love and worth. Everything about this situation sent the message that I am worthless – she perpetrated this, my brother married her, no one held her responsible, everyone pretends it didn’t happen. But it did, because I have been wading through the pain for 16 years. I don’t think that’s nothing.

My question is this: How the fuck can I finally feel okay about any of this? I am more functional than I used to be, but if I pause long enough to think about this whole system of abuse I just can’t stop shaking with sobs that last days, that shake me to my core. I fantasize about revenge sometimes – starting a website with her name dot com and outlining my story for employers and others to see, or other things that make her a victim instead of a person that can cruelly abuse and manipulate without consequences, but I know that won’t work and will only result in me poisoning my own psyche. I know it is not the spoon that bends, but me, but I have spent 16 years bending and I just can’t bend far enough. I have wished things were different, tried to make things different, been to years of therapy, drank, raged, did drugs, found a fulfilling relationship, made a good career, but nothing has ever been able to touch this pain of being disregarded by my family and my abuser winning. When I start to get better I am jolted back by the realisation that I am just disposable.

Thank you for reading. Please, if by some miracle you have read this diatribe and decide to respond, sign me off as

Anonymous

 

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Dear Anonymous,

So, I have to say, intuitively, I like you. You are a fine person. It hurts me to see you keep putting your hand in the flame.

You were the victim of a sociopath. You continue to be victimized by your family.

I suggest that you cut off all contact with your family for two years.

You are locked in an impossible struggle with them. You want them to be something they are not. This struggle is futile. It is hopeless. It is full of pain. But you have a choice. You are free to walk away from this futile struggle. You do not have to justify yourself or explain. They don’t own you. Walk away. Cut off all contact.

You are free to make this choice. It is the right choice for you. You are a free and independent person and must make this choice for your own survival and happiness.

Cut off all contact. Cut off all contact for two years. Do not call or write. Do not read emails from them.

If certain communications are necessary, make communications with them through a third party. There must be someone you can trust to do this. You say you have built a pretty good life for yourself, 4,000 miles away. That is great. It makes it easier to cut off contact because you will not be running into family members on the street.

Imagine how it would feel to go a day, a week,  a month, enjoying your life and not thinking of this event even once. Imagine how that would be! To be pretty much like other people, going about your life, enjoying the things you enjoy, being a master of your craft, being a part of a community, a worker among workers, liked and loved for who you are, sleeping well at night, enjoying life.

That is possible.

Do this, please. Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop opening the wound. Give yourself a chance to forget.

Maybe you won’t forget. That’s OK. I am not saying you should forget it or there’s something wrong with you if you don’t forget, or if it comes to mind frequently.

You’ve been injured. That’s not your fault.

But you have some choice in the matter. You have it within your power to change your habits and your circumstances. So give yourself a chance. Give your wound a chance to heal.

It won’t heal fast. It will heal slowly. That’s why the two years. Two years is doable. See what happens. After two years you might want to resume contact. Or maybe not. Give yourself two years and see how it goes.

Find a narrative. A narrative is like a box to put the story in and close the lid. The narrative is that you were the victim of a sociopath. Not just a sociopath but a sociopathic family system. This was unusual in its extent but its general pattern is familiar: When terrible things happen in a family system, the family system works to deny it. All these individuals are part of that system. They are doing what they think they need to do to survive in that system. They are afraid the system will destroy them if they oppose it. And they might be right. Look what the system did to you. This system is being run by a sociopath. It will try to destroy any member who to opposes it.

You are already the enemy of this system. You are a truth teller and  so it had to crush you. You continue to be a threat because you continue to say what is actually happening. So it attacks you when you appear. So don’t appear. Disappear. Live your own life.

You can do this. You can cut off all contact with your family. There is no law against it.

There will be difficulties. A part of you will resist making this change. It will feel weird like you just can’t do that. But you can. You can and I think you should.

Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop putting your hand in the fire.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

How can I free myself of my parents’ control?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 15, 2005

Mom and Dad say if I don’t lose weight, they won’t find me an apartment for grad school.


Dear Cary,

I am a 24-year-old young man who lives with his parents in a wealthy suburb of a major American city. I graduated from college three years ago. I spent a year abroad teaching English and came back to the United States at the end of 2003. I have had trouble getting full-time employment since then. I have had some internships and occasional temp work that gives me enough money to slowly pay off a small and interest-free debt (owed to my parents) and also have some spending money. My temp work does not give me enough money to afford rent. I wanted to move out of my parents house ASAP, so I did what most suburban kids in my situation do: I applied to grad school.

The problem is that the only grad school I got into was in the nearby city. I have a small trust that pays for tuition and books (legally it can only be used for education expenses until I turn 35). I still can not afford an apartment. My parents think I am overweight and told me that they would not start looking for an apartment for me until I weighed 145 pounds. My height is 5 feet, 6 inches. I lost six pounds very quickly, but my weight has been hovering at the 155-156 level for the past few weeks and nothing I do seems to make it go down. I go to the gym five to seven times a week. I eat less. It looks like I will not make 145 by the time school begins unless I starve myself and go on a water-only diet.

I have been a late bloomer my entire life but it is beginning to drive me insane and throw me into mood swings. I am the only person I know who lives at home. My social life really suffers for it as well. I know lots of people who live in the city and I feel like I do not get included in a lot of activities because it would require too much planning. They can just call or e-mail each other and say be at place X in a half-hour or 40 minutes. Including me would require giving me enough notice to let me catch a commuter train in, get on a subway, etc. If I end up commuting to grad school my social life will continue to suffer. I will not be able to go out to dinner after late-night classes and such because I will worry about getting home at a reasonable hour to study and get enough sleep.

I see my problem as being the sum of three things: my constantly being a late bloomer in all social situations, being too economically dependent on my parents, and that my parents believe it is acceptable to treat a 24-year-old with carrot-and-stick deals and punishments. I want to be free. I want to experience what it is like to be a 20-something living in a city and be able to do things at a moment’s notice. I feel like by the time I am independent of my parents it is going to be too late for all these things. Everyone else will have grown up and be on to the serious stuff like career advancement, settling down, buying houses, starting families, and worrying about 401K plans.

What can I do to make myself free, Cary? How can I convince my parents that they are being insane about the apartment-weight deal? (BTW, they got my brother an apartment no questions asked when he started grad school. They claim he was not overweight.) The few friends I told about my apartment situation think my parents are insane but can’t give any advice. Am I just being another spoiled rich kid from the suburbs who is learning harsh lessons about reality? How can I keep my sanity and stop from being depressed about my situation — and the fact that it never seems to improve?

Late Bloomer With the Carrot in Front of His Face

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Dear Late Bloomer,

You ask, “What can I do to make myself free?” What you can do to make yourself free is move out of the house and get a job.

You may hesitate to leave home because your parents are offering you a lot of help. But the “help” they are offering is not helping.

There are two kinds of “help” that parents typically offer. One is helpful help. Helpful help sometimes doesn’t seem like help at all. Being thrown out of the house, for instance, can be helpful, though it may not seem so at the time. Being made to wash dishes, pay rent and mow the lawn can also seem unhelpful, but can actually teach a young, indolent wastrel certain laws of economics and human behavior that govern an astonishingly large part of adult society, from competition for mates to distribution of resources to the balance of give and take required to maintain love and friendship. Real help sometimes does not look like help at all. Likewise, what looks like real help is sometimes nothing more than sinister manipulation that is confusing and undermines the spirit.

In your case, the “help” you are getting from your parents seems profoundly unhelpful. I would guess that’s because it’s not age-appropriate. When you were a weak little kid, the carrot-and-stick approach might have made a certain amount of sense: You were biologically dependent and in need of operant conditioning. You needed to learn rules of behavior by repetition and practice, and the reward system gave you incentive to keep practicing the same behaviors over and over until they became rote. The object of such a system is to prepare the weak, helpless child to become strong and self-sufficient. Once the child has reached that point, however, it’s time to abandon the carrot-and-stick approach. Otherwise, it becomes a system of control. It makes you crazy. It torments you. It undermines your more or less natural instinct, which is to leave the parental compound, forage for food, dig a shelter and mate.

(Frankly — as one who has no kids and so probably shouldn’t talk — I’m a little troubled by the carrot-and-stick system of child-rearing: How can it possibly prepare one for the real-world reward system, whose rules are strange and random and require problem-solving ability of a whole ‘nother order? How does a kid, raised in such a way, interpret situations where participants don’t spell out their reward programs quite so explicitly? “If I lose five pounds, then can I have the job?” “What?”)

It’s not that your parents are monsters, necessarily. Parents get used to dealing with you in a certain way. And at times, in my opinion, parents don’t really want you to leave; they would prefer to have you helpless. That doesn’t reflect well on the parents; but it’s not like they’re out consciously to screw you over. Nevertheless, they hamstring you with their systems of control and manipulation. They mess with your head.

You have to get away from it, for your own good.

So it’s time for you to leave. Don’t wait for your parents to kick you out. They’re not going to do that. Leave. Get a job. Learn to cook and clean for yourself. Work full-time until grad school starts. Keep a part-time job while you’re in grad school. If you need living expenses, take out a student loan. Take it out in your name. Don’t ask your parents to co-sign.

Remember: As the right-wing jingoists like to say, Freedom isn’t free.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

OK, I get it, my husband’s a verbal abuser

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 8, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to accept what my therapist has been pushing at — but I think I’m ready to act in my own interest.


Dear Cary,

I’m troubled.

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

And I do.

And yet on another level, I question the whole idea. The book contains no citations. It could well be cut from whole cloth, as they say — an angry woman’s fantasy of how men are, how men act. Even if that characterization is a straw man (womyn?), it is a tempting one, especially when the self-help verbiage gets a little much. But where do we draw the line? I seem to be standing on a line, on one side of which is mutually unproductive communication that can be resolved through talking and counseling and new approaches, and on the other is a crowd shouting “Why haven’t you DTMFA?”

Since I have been with him, I have gradually given up my passions — my theater, my academic field, my crafts, my gym membership. Only those things that he finds acceptable — the hobbies, the reading, the baking (but never on hot days) — remain. He wished to own a house. We own a house. I cook, clean, launder, mow the lawn, call the repairmen, run the errands, pay the mortgage. I have been working for seven years under the assumption that these are all choices I was involved in, decisions I made. And yet I daydream of a cozy studio apartment where I am alone and everything — the belongings, the music, the choices — is mine. Of going where the jobs in my field are, instead of staying where they aren’t. Of dallying with women, and perhaps men, with beautiful souls.

I take pills. I go to therapy. He goes back to school. I applaud this — it is a sensible decision that will lead to a stable job in his field — even as I resent his freedom to do so. I make a point of telling him that I wish to return to school (yet again) once he finds a job. He is wholly supportive of this, he says — once the loans are paid off, once we are no longer in debt. Despite my thrift, the loans pile up. When I fail to manage the money as he directs, I am chastised. Every cent I spend is one that cannot be used to pay off those loans and buy my freedom from menial jobs that siphon my self-confidence and passion, but which pay for the therapy to deal with the panic attacks and crying jags that primarily manifest themselves when he’s around.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a long and storied history of psychological instability in my family, on both sides, which has led me to believe that my problems were internal and self-contained. There is also (as I learned recently, yet have known all along) a long and storied family history of controllers and controllees, criticizers and objects of criticism. I am not sure what his family has given him, aside from a Midwestern up-by-the-bootstraps aversion to psychoanalysis of any kind.

A dear friend says that she had these concerns before she knew him, from my tone, from my phone calls. She met him, and “[saw] how he looks at me,” the love in his eyes, and her fears were assuaged. I know that he loves me, from that same look, those same heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. I also know that he expects me to read his mind, then tells me that I am the one who needs to fix my reactions so that we can communicate — who drives me to tears with his inconsistencies, then allows me the solace of his embrace.

It is not that I fear to be alone or independent — aside from the annoyance of dividing things up, the prospect seems inviting. But the prospect of remaking myself in my own image, of reclaiming the me that was, is more complicated. And there are so many things that I would miss. Friends, games, holidays, my mother-in-law, even the house that taunts me with its constant breakings and dirtiness. Him, the man who has been so good for me in so many ways, who rescued me from an equally dead-end (though less malignant) relationship, whom I’ve shared so many adventures with. Who I’m not even convinced is aware of what he’s doing.
And yet things cannot remain as they are.

Angel in the Details

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Dear Angel,

I am going to try to be direct. You know that’s not my style. But still.

I suggest you leave this guy.

There is only one twist: You make your new life first.

I basically agree with the DTMFA approach — with one caveat.

The caveat is that you begin not by disrupting your current life but by building your new one. If you leave without trying to rebuild your life first, you may find yourself alone in a new place, isolated from friends and family, without a solid network, without a life plan, having just gone through a traumatic breakup, flooded with emotion, and you may, under that stress, be more prone to fall back into your old pattern of finding a rescuer, a controller, a caretaker. You may slip back into the same situation with someone else. So I advise taking a gradual approach to building a new life so that when you leave him, you have a new life to step into. Work to develop new behaviors and reinvigorate abandoned passions.

For instance, these things you mention that you have given up — your theater, your academic field, your crafts, your gym membership: Put these things back in your life one by one. When you begin doing this, he may object. Keep in mind that you are leaving him anyway.

It may help to set a date and write it in your calendar, say, six months. In six months you are leaving. During that time you tackle the many concrete tasks of rebuilding your life. This includes looking at new places to live and working out your budget. As you pursue this project, at a certain point — and this may happen sooner than you expect — it may become impossible to continue to live with him. Your positive action may force buried conflicts to the surface. He may decide that he is divorcing you. He may become unstable. He may threaten you. If he is a certain kind of man, when his control over you is threatened, he may become dangerous. So, while laying the groundwork for an orderly departure, you need to also be ready to leave quickly if things get to that.

The point is this: To the extent possible, don’t act precipitously to your own detriment. Instead, begin putting your life together and try to leave at a time that is best for you.

Now, regardless of his objections, you may find that you yourself just can’t build this new life while still living with him. You may feel paralyzed, blocked, unable to act. If so, OK. Leaving him might be a precondition to putting your life together. That’s OK. Discuss this with your therapist and make a plan. But please do what you can to prepare first. Give it a try. Take what steps you can to reconnect with your theater, your academic life, your crafts and your gym first. Do what you can.

Just so we’re clear: Yes, I think you should leave. DTMFA or whatever. Just, to the extent possible, prepare first.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Let’s buy big, shiny things and act goofy!

 

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Cary’s classic column from Thursday, Dec 16, 2010

The avalanche of presents leaves me cold, but I feel guilty for opting out


Dear Cary,

I know this is a trivial problem but I’m fretting about it. I am single and I usually see my sister and her family at Christmas. There are eight to 12 adults (depending on who comes from out of town) and one baby in her family and they all give each other multiple presents, then spend about three hours on Christmas morning unwrapping them. They have plenty of money so the presents are pretty extravagant.

When I used to join them on Christmas morning, they always had one present for me. I brought one present for each of them, usually something not so expensive, like a book or a pair of gloves — but those things added up to a substantial sum for me, because there are so many of them. Nobody particularly noticed what I brought — I couldn’t buy anything that would stand out amid the glitter.

I found myself simultaneously sneering at them (secretly) for their materialism and excess, and feeling hurt and envious because I only got one present and they each got a whole wagon load. So I stopped visiting on Christmas morning for the big unwrapping extravaganza, and I stop by on Christmas Eve. I give a big check to someone who helps poor families, or sometimes I just give a bundle of money to a struggling family, instead of buying all those scarves and socks for people who have way more than they need.

This works pretty well. But as the season comes round again, I find I’m still feeling some umbrage about their way of celebrating the holiday. I just want to stop feeling so out of joint about it, to relax and enjoy the visit when I go, and celebrate the joy of giving in my own way.

Do you have any cool ways for me to change my attitude?

Reluctant Scroogette

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Dear Reluctant Scroogette,

There was this wonderful thing you used to do when you were a kid. You woke up and got presents.

It was magic.

Later you grow up and these people join your family and do this big exchange of gifts and it’s not at all like it used to be and it just feels hollow and stupid and I wouldn’t blame you if it made you feel left out and disappointed and even a little angry because it’s almost as though these people are trampling on something that was really wonderful and sweet and they’re sucking all the majesty out of it and completely missing the message of charity and love and really pretty much destroying the innocence and the magic of it with their big-wallet showoffiness.

But you have come up with a solution. You have changed your routine and found a way to make it mean something to you without disrupting the pleasure of everybody else. It must be a great relief to visit your sister on Christmas Eve and not have to do all that other stuff. It’s quite a victory!

And maybe it doesn’t have to be all sad. Sure, you can write checks to charities but Christmas is also supposed to be fun. Maybe there is a way for you to feed that part of yourself that really misses the childhood Christmas. See what you can do to regain some of that sacred feeling. That innocent feeling. Go have some fun. Get in the snow.

Have some happiness.

That’s really what it’s about. Have some happiness.

If nothing else, this is the one time in the year that Americans can act goofy and have fun. We don’t really know exactly what to do with this holiday anymore, but at least we know how to buy big shiny things at stores and act goofy. So let’s do that. Let’s have some happiness. Let’s buy big shiny things and act goofy.

We can all say to ourselves, OK, for once in the year, it’s my right to try to have some happiness. Let’s go out and find some, wherever we find it. Maybe it means sitting on a hill, or firing a gun, or blowing a horn, or rowing a boat.

Go find some happiness. It’s the season.

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I’m a sad lil’ starfucker and can’t get him out of my head

Dear Cary,

My husband of 16 years and I have never made an official list, but it’s always been accepted that were we to have, in some fantasyland, the opportunity to sleep with a certain few adored famous people, the sin would be exonerated.  (I should mention here that over the years both of us have had our indiscretions with plain old normals, and while the aftermath has never been fun,  we’ve discovered that the occasional infidelity isn’t really a dealbreaker for us.)

Well, five years ago, I actually had a totally unexpected and baffling encounter with one of the people on my unofficial list.  I told my husband about it, and he was unhappy, but  reluctantly conceded that he understood.

In the years since, this Famous Person and I have exchanged the odd email and text, mostly merely friendly, occasionally rather dirty, but I honestly didn’t think anything further would ever come of it.  Until, this last summer, he contacted me out of the blue, saying he was going to be in NYC, where I live, for a few days, and wanted to meet.  I went to his hotel, and we spent close to six hours together, fucking and talking and drinking and eating and making each other laugh.  It was scary, because it was way more than just screwing a celebrity.  It felt intimate, and I felt understood and seen by him in a way that had until then been the sole domain of my husband.

But this was never going to go anywhere. I love my husband.  Also, shamefully, it matters that Famous Person kindly, but frankly, made explicit that no relationship was going to happen.  So I erased his 310-area-code number from my phone, and endeavored, somewhat successfully, to cease all contact with him.   I have tried to do the right thing and put it past me and commit to my marriage.

The problem is this: this particular Famous Person is extremely prolific, and I can barely get on the internet without seeing some article on Gawker or Hollywood Reporter or some such about his latest project.  I honestly admire and follow his work, have for more than a decade, and can’t see how I could or would want to give that up.  And now, each mention of or quote from him brings me back to that afternoon in that hotel, and makes it impossible to let go.  What I find myself entertaining is a total fantasy, and going nowhere, I know that, but his constant presence is like a loose tooth needing to be worked at.  How do I flush this guy from my system?

~ Sad Lil’ Star Fucker

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Dear Sad Lil’ Star Fucker,

You say you can’t see how you could give up following his career but you can stop following his career, you just don’t want to and I totally understand not wanting to because it feels too good to stop which is the whole friggin’ point here. You have to stop doing something that feels good and that’s no fun.

It’s no fun but its doable, not like landing a spaceship on an asteroid.  You don’t want to because it’s a pleasure and I get that but here’s the thing: It used to be an unalloyed pleasure but now it’s alloyed. It’s an alloy whose good old reliable tensile strength and stability have been altered by the addition of something volatile. It’s been changed. You can’t use it for what you used to use it for. You’ve gone and changed it.

Can you catch yourself before you check out his next post? Can you? If you can, you can stop being re-triggered. You pretty much have to, just the same way you know you have to stop short of doing a million other things that you could imagine doing but you don’t because you’re married and it isn’t worth it.

You have to stop enjoying this dude is what it comes down to. He’s off-limits. He’s crack cocaine  and now you’re a person who’s developed a problem. You have to stop or it just gets worse.

How worse? Oh, hell: Every every pleasurable moment itches to be reborn; every taste itches to reach farther down the tongue to lick and tickle molecules sleeping since the Pleistocene age; every come-hither blue-eyed call to your baby maker seeks to reproduce not you but itself, because every nerve and cell is  seeking glory all its own, pleasure and ecstasy and more more more, grow, grow, grow  because everything is holy and everything is living and everything is hungry just like you and I, hungry to multiply and hungry to expand, and every itch for laughter is an itch that never ends, and every tingle memory says, “Replay me again, tingle, replay me again,”  because this is the sublime beauty of our world exactly: All we see and all we believe ourselves to be are nothing but the  clumsy craft of some god’s passing  fancy, and all the glories we see around us are nothing but the projection of our dreams onto the darkest screen of space, and all our highest deeds are nothing but doodles to fill the emptiness (pleasure is a filling of the existential hunger).

Therefore, be it resolved: This automatic triggering of six lovely hours in a hotel room, the eating and fucking and laughing, will continue as long as you allow it to be triggered by reading Gawker. Furthermore be it resolved: What we are and have been since the beginning is some random god’s answer to its own emptiness, its grand yet half-baked scheme to populate its stars and be amused. And what amuses this god? Our pleasures and our folly, at which we keep, like fools, for the amusement of our gods.
Just put this thing on the list of things you can’t do because you’re married and it isn’t worth it.

Along the lines of, “Was there another Troy for her to burn?” we suggest: Find some other star to follow.

p.s. OK, so Yeats was a little harsh; but it’s just such a great line.

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My girlfriend “settled” for me — and I don’t trust her

 

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Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

I shouldn’t have looked in her diary, but maybe it’s best that I did.


Dear Cary,
This summer, my girlfriend went to Central America for three months. She was in spotty contact with me the whole time, saying it was difficult to reach a computer. I’ve known her to be unfaithful to her past boyfriends. She actually cheated on one with me. I didn’t trust her when she came back, so when she left her journal on my desk for a week, I read the portion of it about her trip.

In it, I found a never-to-be-sent letter to her first boyfriend, my old best friend from years ago, written in drunken handwriting. She lamented that she still loved him and how “I went and found the closest thing to you and I settled, like everything in life, I settled.” I assume this is referring to me.

I wouldn’t have read her journal if I trusted her. Those trust issues aside, I feel like we have a good thing. We work on a lot of levels with each other, spend a lot of time together, give each other presents with cards, etc. Though neither of us has a career (I struggle playing music and waiting tables; she dabbles in various professional track jobs that don’t interest her), we’ve hit the mid-20s and relationships seem more serious.

She’s moving away soon to take a professional-track job in Mexico and I am considering following her, but this whole thing bothers me. I try to ask her about him to see how she responds, but she never lets on anything. Right now, she is visiting her old roommate who now lives with him, and I am unable to trust her. Of course she always says they are just friends, but that she still really cares for him in a platonic way and there is nothing to worry about.

Had I not read the journal, I could take her at face value. Maybe she tells me what she really means. But as it is right now, I can’t help getting mad at her because I feel she’s deceiving me. I have to resolve it somehow. I know journals are the dumping grounds for our deep insecurities, horrible thoughts, our fantasies, generally things we can’t say, and they may not always be real, but I can’t brush it aside so easily. How do I handle this?

Thanks,

TuscanAd_Voice2015

Too Curious

 

Dear Too Curious,

You know what I think? I think that every time I sit down to write this column I have the opportunity, if I play it right, to make a big difference in somebody’s life. So I try to do that. I try to do that by taking a guess at what the big issue in a person’s life is. There’s the diary and all that, and I’d like to say right upfront that reading your girlfriend’s diary is not the best idea. But what’s the big issue?

The way I figure it, the big issues make the difference. And a lot of times we don’t know what our big issues are. We may know what other people’s big issues are. But not our own. So we make big mistakes. We make them over and over. Often the big issues in our lives are not what we think they are. They tend to be emotional things. Say, for instance, you are a brilliant and talented jazz musician. So naturally you are on the road a lot. But say that also, in your heart of hearts, you are the type of guy who really needs to be sitting at the kitchen table night after night with a wife and kids and relatives. That is where you are actually happy. So you might say that your talent and your emotional needs are at odds. You might not know you need the security and warmth of a family life. You may feel empty and anxious on the road but maybe you call it something else. You call it the blues. So you end up meeting this need in some way — because you are on the road. You end up, say, doing heroin. You do heroin because heroin gives you the feeling of sitting at your kitchen table on a full stomach in the evening breeze, listening to the crickets.

That’s how our unacknowledged needs shape our lives. That’s how we lose our geniuses, how they disappear into the evening breeze on a quiet summer morning.

If you knew, from a young age, that you were not only a talented musician but also a person who requires the closeness of family, warmth, security, rootedness, then you might take the time to arrange your life so that you do not die of a heroin overdose in a Memphis hotel room.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I write the column. I think about geniuses dying in Memphis hotel rooms. I think about perfectly decent guys being lied to by one woman after another. I think about the demons that have driven me off the road from time to time, and how things might have been different if I had known what the demons were, or if I knew they might be coming.

Our emotional needs often aren’t as overtly interesting as our talents. But they drive us. Sometimes they drive us to a strange part of town.

So with you, I think there’s a good chance that you have the opportunity right now, today, to discover what big personal issue is driving you. I think I know what your big issue might be. I think you can face it. I think you can do something about it.

But first of all: Do not follow your girlfriend to Mexico. Do not do that. Do not travel there to see her after she gets herself set up down there. Do not discuss with her the pros and cons of traveling with her to Mexico before she goes. Do not tell her you will think about coming to be with her in Mexico. Instead, tell her you have decided to stay here in the United States and try to get your life together on your own, without her. Tell her that you are breaking up with her. Tell her it’s best this way.

So now your real life begins. You make a choice. You begin from scratch.

To begin your new life, take an hour of quiet time. Sit down somewhere where you will not be interrupted. Make sure you have some paper and a pencil or pen.

Write these words at the top of the page:

I trust these people:

Then make a list of the people you trust.

Who is on the list? With each person, ask: Is that person a friend, a relative, a former lover, a teacher, a public official, an animal? What are the qualities of the relationship that make you trust the person? Is there an element of structure or formality to the relationship that leads to trust? Do they tend to be family members, college friends? Are they women or men? Look for patterns.

Then make a list of the people you do not trust.

Who is on the list that you do not trust?

Pay special attention to this question: Where is your dad? Is he on the trust list or the do-not-trust list? Where is your mom? And where are you? Where do you put yourself on the list?

I predict that if you do this simple exercise with an open mind and an open heart, and you spend some time thinking about these people and why you do or do not trust them, it will cause you to experience some fairly deep emotions. You may, at that point, want to find some structure for yourself. You may want to find a psychotherapist to help you work through this. But if I am correct, and if you seriously work through this, you will learn who can be trusted and who cannot. You will gain a new respect for your own need for trust. You will see that you have ridden roughshod over your own need for security. You may be surprised about certain people; you may realize that certain people may not have been so much fun, but at least they could be trusted. Others, you may realize, you never really trusted to begin with. You will become, through this process, a man who is markedly less likely to be fucked over.

And then, once you have firmly in your mind what it means to trust and not trust and be trusted or not trusted, you can fall in love and get married and have kids and live happily ever after. Or at least you can navigate more carefully life’s baffling jamboree, its streets full of beauty, genius and betrayal.

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My husband doesn’t want this kid!

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, APR 10, 2011

We talked and I thought he was up for this, but now it looks like he never was


Dear Cary,

I am a 33-year-old married mother of one. While the discussion of having more children was always sort of tabled for my husband and me, after hearing about the painful process of having a baby after 35 from some of our friends, my clock went into overdrive. While we are not in the best financial position to have another child, we were not any better off five years ago when we had the first one — and she has all the love, support and stuff a kid could want.

So we had it out: time vs. money, money vs. time. I explained that he would still be able to make babies long after it would be safe for me to carry to term, that getting pregnant now might be harder than it was the first time, that it still takes 40 weeks to cook the baby and I’d expect our lives would change between now and then.

Time passed, but when he told me he was ready to try, I believed him. Now that we are expecting, he is sullen and withdrawn, moody and distant. When I gave him what I thought would be happy news, he said, “Congratulations! Shit!” Which left me feeling hurt and it’s been downhill since then.

So where do we go? Stay married and have two kids, one of which he secretly never wanted? Get divorced because he doesn’t feel like being responsible? Something else? I wish I could just talk to him, but he just sits there and then I find that I am only angrier and more confused than before.

Just the Two of Us

TuscanAd_Voice2015

Dear Just the Two of Us,

It will feel stupid at first. You’ll sit there with him and he’ll be all sullen and you’ll ask him something and he’ll murmur something and you’ll want to throw something at him but this is where you make your spiritual breakthrough.

You don’t throw something. That’s a spiritual breakthrough. You realize that in a way this isn’t about you and how angry you are with him, and it’s not about him and what a stupid thing he said.

It’s about living on earth in the child’s time.

You’re going to have a second kid and it’s a stupid time to get a divorce so you have to learn to sit there while he goes through all his gears. I’m not saying it won’t drive you crazy. But it’s worth doing because the alternative is to keep stomping around the house because he’s imitating a statue in a wax museum.

The thing about listening to somebody is it doesn’t have any preconditions or time limits. If you’re going to sit there and demand that he talk right now, you might as well not do it. You have to sit there long enough that he notices you’re there and then you have to sit there a long time after that, pretending that you’re just kind of hanging out.

It’s like with dogs.

Getting him to talk, I mean.

Some dogs if they’re well trained will respond to direct commands. But a lot of time what you’re doing is indirect and sneaky. If I want to hang out with the dog I have to pretend I’m not really hanging out with the dog. They don’t like needy humans. It seems undignified to them. So you have to sidle up but you’re really doing something else, like reading a magazine. And then the dog is like, OK, if you must, sit here with me and read.

Some people think this standoffishness is more like cat behavior. Maybe some cats. But the poodles are like that. And sullen guys are like that, too.

Now, maybe it hurts your pride to have to do anything but yell at him. And, OK, yes, he did say the stupidest thing possible for a man to say when his wife tells him she’s pregnant.

In fact, what he said was so stupid you want to crawl inside his skull and play back the tape and see what exactly he was thinking.

Was he thinking, Oh, boy, here’s a clever way to let her know that I’m glad the baby’s coming but I’m also scared? Or maybe, here’s a great way to let her know that I’ve been angry at her since this whole thing started, but I haven’t said anything, but now that she’s actually pregnant here’s the perfect time to get back at her? Or maybe he was thinking, Uh, I think I’ll just say something really stupid now. And maybe she’ll love me more because I’m really stupid.

Whatever. It was the stupidest thing he could say. But it’s a little late for you to be wanting the perfect man. This is the one you got. Divorce is a dumb idea while you’re pregnant and worried about money. So you have to somehow get closer to him and that might mean having a little humility. So do it. Sit quietly and let him talk. Wait until he tells you what’s going on. Ask him if he’s clinically depressed. Get some help from a marriage counselor. Put aside your pride but reward yourself later somehow. It’s for the greater good.

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My terrific online friend is terrible in person!

 

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Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 12, 2005

How can someone so special on the Internet be such a drag in real life?


Dear Cary,

I have this friend. Let’s call her Susan. Susan and I became friends online several years ago, through mutual (in person) friends. For several years, we had a deep and magical friendship, what I might call a “life of the mind” friendship. We wrote letters and e-mails and had long phone calls. We supported each other through difficult times. Occasionally we met in one city or another for the weekend, but mostly her day-to-day life was something I heard about but didn’t participate in.

Now Susan is getting married, and I am involved in the wedding. Steadily I am being drawn into her “real life,” meeting her friends and family, and hearing endless wedding details.

At first I was happy to be part of the reality of her world. After all, she is my friend, right? But I’ve been discovering that my “life of the mind” friend is a very different person in, well, person. At a distance, she is thoughtful and philosophical. In person, she needs constant attention and tending. My husband and I have discovered that we really don’t like her husband-to-be, and we’re not looking forward to spending more time with him.

I’m worried that my disenchantment with her wedding is becoming more apparent, and that I will sadden her day by not being the happy spaniel she expects me to be.

But here’s the nub of my problem: I miss my friend. Can I go back to being a “life of the mind” friend? Should I try to explain all the things she does that drive me batty, and try to grow the in-person friendship into being more like the virtual one? Or should I just give it up for a bad job and fade out of her life after the wedding?

Disillusioned Friend

TuscanAd_Voice2015

 

Dear Disillusioned,

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it acts as a space into which we can project an imaginary or secondary self, one more congruent with our own values, more thoughtful, more articulate, more honest.

There are many reasons for this — the relative newness of the medium (we have not been conditioned since birth to cloak our identities there, to adopt a narrow mode of discourse suited to the demands of the classroom and the corporation); the privacy it affords us (we sit alone at a keyboard; our faces are hidden); and the positive feedback loop it engenders (the personas we project are greeted as actual beings). For many of us, conduct on the Internet retains an element of idealistic play; we are not there strictly for profit, but in order to be who we are, or who we would be if we could be who we dream ourselves to be — the Internet acts as a vast stage upon which we strut like eager children, free of the constant gravity of circumstance, free to be, for a short time, the people we feel we were meant to be.

Of course, offline we remain the same shoddy, unkempt, short-tempered, disorganized persons we always were, living in close, overheated rooms that smell of cat litter and rancid butter, shuffling about looking for the toenail clippers, muttering about Karl Rove and steroids in baseball.

In meeting her family and friends, it’s almost as if you have seen something you weren’t supposed to see — look in that window there, that’s your friend, isn’t it, sitting at that cluttered kitchen table, picking at a zit, eating mayonnaise straight out of the jar?

We are so cruel. Our first thought is not, Is it not ever thus? but … You are such a disappointment in real life! We take it almost as a betrayal, forgetting that quite the opposite is true: Here is a person who has made something finer of herself than what her crude circle requires; she has gone as far beyond it as she can go — in her mind, with her wits, with her soul. We might admire what a Herculean task it was in the first place to rise above all that dull and heavy circumstance of town and family and school.

This goes deeper. Inwardly we are so much richer and better, we are capable of so much more; we are princesses abandoned at birth; we are supermen concealing our powers behind mild-mannered anonymity. It might be said that what some people project onto the Internet is not only a heightened, idealized self but in fact a kind of divine self. I do not think anyone ever lives up to such ideals; most people never even reveal them. It is in fact a tribute to the Internet that it allows so many people to reveal so much.

So my advice to you is to make the best of the situation with the wedding; do not attempt to reconcile the contradictions you are seeing. Do your best to be a cheerful and helpful member of the wedding party. If you need an outlet, a way to process the strange feeling of disconnect between your online friend and your embodied friend, I suggest you keep a journal of this experience. It is, after all, a fascinating thing. But I don’t mean an online journal. I mean a personal journal.

For certain relationships — chiefly ones destined to become romantic — the Internet acts simply as a gateway; the “real” relationship only matures after two people begin meeting in person. But other relationships, friendships, the “life of the mind,” are perhaps better if they live out their entire lives in the Internet space. Your friendship may be one of those.

So once the wedding is over, I suggest you resume your online relationship as if nothing had ever happened.

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I don’t like his kids

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 6, 2009

I thought I could learn to love being a stepmom, but I don’t


Dear Cary,

I’m probably one of the most unromantic people who ever lived, and have always cringed when someone says they found their “soul mate” or their “one and only,” because really, out of all the people alive at any given time in the world, what’s the likelihood that your “other half” would walk into the same bar or church or drugstore that you did on that particular night? I mean, if you truly have a soul mate, isn’t it likely he/she is in mainland China or Bangladesh instead of in your town? No, I always thought that the key to really being in a successful relationship was figuring out which compromises you could live with and finding a person who matched those.

Instead, at 37, I fell deeply in love with and married a man whom I could probably characterize with a complete lack of irony as my “soul mate.” I love our relationship — I have never felt more deeply or intimately bonded with anyone in my life, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Except I can. When we met I was single — never married, no kids, never even lived with someone else. I left home when I was 15 (I didn’t have much of a relationship with my own parents) so I had things my own way for a long time: 22 years.

I’d like to interject here that I’m relatively normal, and I have friends who like me and would probably also tell you I’m normal (with a few caveats). I think I’m in the realm of normally attractive; but I didn’t mind being single, and in a way I had the best of both worlds for a long time. I dated a man for 20 of those years who didn’t want to live with or marry me, and while early on in the relationship I thought that I could somehow change that, over time I grew to like it. I had a date when I needed one, felt some security in the relationship, but acted as an independent agent most of the time.

In my late 20s and 30s I traveled alone a lot, which was a pretty hedonistic pleasure and something I still miss. Eventually, though, I outgrew that quasi-relationship and began to want a real partner to share my life with. When I met my husband I knew practically immediately, unquestionably, he was the one. But after two and a half years, I am at my wits’ end — not with my husband but with his kids (three of them, ages 7 to 17).

I should say here that there isn’t anything wrong with his kids; they are nice enough, generally polite and respectful. But I don’t like them much. I don’t ever feel comfortable in my own home when they are there. I miss my privacy, I hate that they take what goes on in our house to their mom’s; I miss coming home to a quiet house, no TV or loud voices or questions about what’s for dinner. But mostly I miss my privacy — I lived too long alone for it to be otherwise.

I imagined (I think we both imagined) that I would grow to love them, but it just hasn’t happened. They are with us half the time and I just dread their visits. I don’t treat them poorly and I try hard and mostly consistently to make sure they have good lives when they are with us, but I am just exhausted. This weekend they ended up staying an unexpected extra couple of days with us, and I just had a complete meltdown about it. It feels like I never get a day off when they are there — I can’t let down my guard, I feel obligated to keep working hard to create the illusion of a happy, loving home, so that everyone can be happy, but I’m not happy about it at all. I’m trying to be less selfish, but it feels like when I come home from work my second job begins. It’s just hard, all the time. Intellectually, I know it’s not that having them an extra couple of days is any big deal, but emotionally, I am absolutely exhausted, and I couldn’t pretend to my husband that this was OK. A huge debate ensued (another, as I haven’t kept my feelings hidden prior to this) and he finally said, “You just don’t belong here. You belong with that guy down the street with no kids.” It was a kick in the stomach, but perhaps right. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. I never really wanted kids, and this pretending all the time to try to make everyone happy is wearing me down. Or maybe that’s a cop-out. But that’s why I’m writing you.

I know you have already discussed a very similar topic, and people were particularly savage with the poor woman who wrote in. I might have been one of those savage letter writers myself had I not had this experience, but now I can really identify with some of her sentiments.

This is the hardest thing I have ever done. I try to show up, I try to make sure the kids get the time and the money and the experiences I know that my husband wants for them, I try to be the partner that he wants and that includes accepting his kids. Part of what attracted me to him in the first place was the love he has for his kids. But I am at the end of my rope. I am just deep-down bone-tired in ways that I can’t express, and I don’t have much reserve left to draw from.

And I don’t want to hear from all those asses out there who say, “Well, you knew he had kids.” Yes, I did, but no, I couldn’t have really had that deep-down, gut-level understanding of what it meant until I had worn these shoes for a while. I love my husband. I want him to be happy. I don’t love his kids, and I can’t make myself feel that I do, but I wish the best for them and want them to be happy and well-adjusted too.

I just don’t know that I can keep this up, and don’t want to walk away from what I truly believe is the best relationship I will ever have. I’m just not sure what to do.

Stepmom

TuscanAd_Voice2015

 

Dear Stepmom,

You have to meet your own needs. If you can’t meet your own needs within this relationship then the relationship can’t last.

Some people might not approve of your needs. Screw them. You didn’t invent your own needs.

I suggest that in order to meet your own needs within this relationship, you make some unusual changes.

One simple change might be as follows: You don’t live there all the time. You find a second place to live part of the time, while the kids are at the house.

Meanwhile, while you negotiate with your husband, you radically alter your current schedule. You claim as much control over your space as you can.

The situation is this: You need your own space. You need more time to yourself. You need frequent breaks from the group. You need peace and quiet. You need what you need.

You are 37. You are an introvert. In terms of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, you may be an INTP or INTJ — an introverted intuitive thinking perceiving type, or an introverted intuitive thinking judging type. Basically, according to type, you have certain requirements. Your requirements — the ecology of your energies, as it were — are real and pressing. You either meet them and function well, or you fail to meet them and function poorly.

In order to negotiate any kind of change, you will also need to know what your husband requires. His requirements may be unspoken. He will have to make them explicit. Does he require you to live in the house every day while the kids are there? What kinds of labor does he require from you while the kids are there, and in what amounts? What is negotiable? What can be traded off? I am thinking of meals and housecleaning. It may be fair that he expects you to share in the housecleaning and meal preparation, but could it be done by you while you are alone, or could you pay, out of your salary, to have it performed by a housecleaning service? Likewise with meal preparation: It may be necessary to the economy of the house that you prepare some meals for the kids, but can you do it on your own time? Do you have to eat with everybody, or could that be negotiable?

Discussing this will require you to separate labor from the sentimental duties of family life. The very notion of such a thing may be upsetting to him if he has not studied feminism or Marxism. For instance, if you were to get out of the house while the kids are there, yet still come by to pick them up and take them places, and still prepare meals for them, would that be a workable compromise, or would it violate some unspoken desire for you to play the sentimental role of mother and wife? This can be a volatile area, because it brings up childhood memories and desires. But if he is a rational and flexible man, perhaps you can work with him on this.

During this interim period, here are some strategies for getting much-needed breathing room.

Make a time map of a week with the kids in the house. Schedule yourself out of the house as much as you can. Find places you can go in the evenings to get away for a few quiet hours. Perhaps the library? Or a sport? Is there a gym or a running path you can use to get away? Create tasks and appointments outside the house that you must take: a meditation class, a yoga class, a meeting with a friend, a lecture, a scientific demonstration, a meeting with a psychologist, a poetry reading. Heavily schedule yourself plenty of outside activities. Then, when you leave the house, remember that you have choices: You do not necessarily have to attend these things you have scheduled. You can change your mind. You can simply leave the house and have some time to yourself. You can occasionally decide to stay home and enjoy the family, too. The important thing is to protect this being inside you that feels violated and exhausted by all this contact, over which you feel you have no control and no choice.

This is not about “emotional space.” This is about actual space: a room with a closed door and no other people in it. To get what you need to stay in the relationship will require some novel  changes. Just because they are novel does not mean they are wrong, or can’t work.

Keep in mind what is at stake here. You have found the best relationship of your life. If it’s going to succeed, you have to find a way to meet your needs.

You may not be able to orchestrate all these changes on your own. You may need to enlist the help of a counselor or therapist to carry out the steps involved. You may also feel significant resistance to carrying out these steps. In fact, not to overstep the bounds here, but sometimes when we have defined ourselves in a certain way, we must then prove to others that we are that way. The way we do that is by not being able to do certain things that are uncongenial to our nature. That is, we are rewarded by failure.

But that may be going a little too far. Let’s just say that these steps are important but will be difficult, and if you find yourself avoiding them, get some help.

You may also have certain beliefs that act as barriers. For instance, you may believe that you ought to have motherly feelings and play a motherly role. I don’t think you have to play a motherly role. I think you should stop trying to do that.

Lastly, on the subject of your personality type, consider this paragraph about how the INTP functions, from TypeLogic.com:

“When present, the INTP’s concern for others is intense, albeit naive. In a crisis, this feeling judgement is often silenced by the emergence of Thinking, who rushes in to avert chaos and destruction. In the absence of a clear principle, however, INTPs have been known to defer judgement and to allow decisions about interpersonal matters to be left hanging lest someone be offended or somehow injured. INTPs are at risk of being swept away by the shadow in the form of their own strong emotional impulses.”

If this were true of you, it might explain why you undertook this emotionally draining and challenging role: In the presence of a charismatic attraction, your thinking side was submerged temporarily. Thus you allowed yourself to enter into a situation which, had you been able to think about it clearly, you would have known would be very risky and possibly unworkable.

You may still be able to save this thing. But it will require some novel problem-solving.

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I’m cheating on my husband and loving it. Is that a problem?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 9, 2007

I’ve been a cheater since my very first boyfriend and no one has ever found out.


Cary,

I am a cheater. I’ve never had a boyfriend or husband that I didn’t cheat on. When I was younger, it would just be making out behind a boyfriend’s back; as I got older, I would sleep with men that were not my husband. I am also a “lapper,” in that I tend to start a new relationship while still in the previous one.

I’ve been with my current husband for almost seven years and married for two. We started dating while I was with my first husband. I would imagine he could infer from how our relationship began that I am not the most faithful of types, but I don’t believe he suspects anything. And for the first five or six years of our relationship I was faithful.

Then last year, I slipped back into my old ways. No particular reason why — I love my husband and am still very happy with him — but an opportunity arose to sleep with an old friend, and I didn’t want to pass it up. That seemed to give me a free pass to fool around with other men — another old friend (just out of curiosity), random men in bars (for fun), a client (terribly unethical, but that makes it even more exciting).

The strange thing is that I really don’t feel any guilt. And I don’t want to leave my husband. I’ve never been caught and I don’t think I ever will be. I really haven’t had any fallout from these illicit acts — it hasn’t affected my work or my personal life. Part of me thinks I do it because I always act so responsible and upstanding in all other parts of my life — that I need some sort of release. I suspect I may stop if we have kids (we’re in our mid-30s), but I don’t really see a reason to. Is there something wrong with me?

Cheater

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Dear Cheater,

You have three choices. You can split up with your husband so that you are free to engage in these activities without causing great emotional harm to others; you can confront your husband about this behavior and tell him that you’ve been in the grip of something seriously injurious to him and you’re scared and you want to make it right and stay together; or you can secretly begin working with someone qualified to help you understand and change your behavior and figure out, as you go along, how to disentangle yourself from this behavior and do the least amount of damage possible, with the likelihood of eventual disclosure.

Whichever option you choose, you must understand this: The current situation is untenable. You’re just playing the odds right now, and you have been lucky. Luck is not a workable plan.

So the choice is yours. Not knowing you in particular, or your husband, and having no overarching moral belief about monogamy, I can’t say which choice is best. You are a free being. I do believe, though, from an ethical standpoint, that if you want to continue as you are, you have to become unmarried.

On the other hand, if you want to change your behavior, then you either have to tell your husband what has been going on now, or you have to enter into a course of therapy or deliberation or counseling of some sort.

Those are the choices, my friend. They are fairly stark. They are not great. About all they have to recommend them is that they are preferable to maintaining the present course.

I am not even remotely qualified to diagnose people psychologically. But I will say that it crossed my mind that you might be one of the estimated 4 percent of Americans who are sociopaths. But a quick read of an interview with author Martha Stout, who wrote “The Sociopath Next Door” and who popularized that statistic, led me to believe that, because you have recognized that you have a problem, you are probably not a true sociopath.

Here are the relevant passages from Sara Eckel’s 2005 Salon interview with Stout:

“What makes you decide that a person is or isn’t a sociopath?” Eckel asks.

“Conceptually, for the purposes of the book,” says Stout, “I’m talking about people who have exhibited symptoms such as extreme chronic deceitfulness, lack of remorse, lack of personal responsibility, and a general desire to control people and make them jump.”

Deceit, Stout says, is the central behavior of sociopathy: “More scientifically, the best I can offer is the rule of three. If someone lies to you once or twice, it could be a misunderstanding. If someone lies to you three times, then chances are you’re dealing with a liar. And deceit is the central behavior of sociopathy.”

Based on that, my thought was, wow, maybe you are a sociopath! But read on:

“What I have found,” Stout says, “and what breaks my heart, is that I’m hearing from good people who are afraid that they are sociopaths. They are feeling disconnected from people for a variety of reasons and are questioning their own dark sides. But if you’re questioning your attachments to others and questioning your dark side, you don’t have very much of one. That is not a concern that a sociopath would have.”

So, my friend, according to this expert, if you are writing to me, you are probably not a sociopath.

“Do you ever see sociopaths in therapy?” asks Eckel.

“Not unless the court refers them,” Stout says. “They feel just fine about themselves.”

They feel just fine about themselves! Actually, it sounds like you feel pretty darned good about yourself, considering. But you had the wisdom to compare your behavior with that of others and ask if anything is wrong. So perhaps you are simply a person who has a functioning conscience but is caught up in a habitual behavior from which you simply have not yet had any educational consequences, such as losing a husband or a job, or being ostracized, or feeling in deep emotional pain.

As I say, I’m not qualified to say. I do think, however, that if consequences happen, and you are not a sociopath, you are going to feel it acutely, and it is not going to be pretty. And you are going to hurt a lot of people.

So best to take steps now.