I fell for a younger guy and now my head is spinning

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 I’m a wife, a mother and a doctoral candidate. I’m not the kind of person this happens to. What the hell am I doing?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 6, 2008

Hi Cary,

I’m a 28-year-old doctoral student, wife and mother; it’s a life I would’ve described once as busy, happy and thankfully boring. All has changed. This last summer, I went to my 10-year high school reunion and ended up having an affair. Up until that point, my husband was the only person I had ever had sex with. My husband and I met when I was a senior in high school. I hadn’t been saving myself for my future husband (no great moral or religious convictions involved). I was just waiting for a nice respectful guy. I did not know we would remain in love and marry five years later, but that is exactly what happened. He has insisted many times in our 11-year relationship that I would want to have sex with somebody else someday. I thought the notion was preposterous; I assured him I was too level-headed to want something so silly. Well, it turns out, he was right and I was naïve. Despite my intoxication, I was quite calculated in my decision making. The boy was 21 (so he said) and had crashed the after party; we didn’t know each other beforehand. It appeared to be the quintessential one-night stand, and I have now learned the hard way that infidelity is a crime of opportunity.

Since that night, I’ve discovered some interesting things about the boy. First, he’s not even 21 (which was a scandalous-enough age for me), he’s only 18. I about had a heart attack when I Googled him and saw he was in eighth grade in 2004. Second, he graduated high school last May and is an incoming freshman where I go to school and TEACH. After confronting him about lying, you’d think I’d wash my hands of the whole thing and try to pretend it never happened. That is what I had planned on doing, after all. Instead, I have been talking to him, texting him and IM-ing him almost every day, in secret of course, but often. We’ve hung out a few times. We have not had sex again, but that’s not for a lack of desire on my part, as I fantasize about him daily and we flirt constantly.

I gave him the opportunity to “escape” from this soap opera right after I discovered his lie. I wrote him a long e-mail, explained how complex my life is, how he’s just a young kid who shouldn’t be weighed down by my drama, and how it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if we cut our losses and stopped our “friendship,” as I am uncertain as to whether I will be able to keep it only friendly. Surprisingly, he seems uninterested in actually having sex again (though he only insists on abstaining for my good, he rationalizes). He is still texting me and IM-ing me on a daily basis about seemingly inconsequential things, much to my confusion and delight.

I’m baffled at our behavior — his and mine. I can’t figure out what he could possibly be getting from our relationship. I assumed he was using me for sex (as I was him) and that we would easily just stop talking. Instead, I have this sinking suspicion that we are using each other, I just can’t for the life of me understand for what. Talking to him is exciting, he makes me laugh, and I give him advice about his love life and he even wants to give me advice on my marriage (what does an 18-year-old know about marriage?!). I also give him advice about navigating school, and tomorrow I’m meeting him to help him figure out how to catch up in one of his classes he was thinking about dropping.

Even more baffling to me is how I could have anything in common with an 18-year-old. He’s shattered every misconception I’ve ever had about undergraduates, let alone freshmen! He’s handsome and surprisingly smart; he has novel and interesting opinions. I admire his free spirit and rebelliousness and he always keeps me guessing. I have a feeling that both of us are flattered by the other’s attention.

Cary, I was once faithful, logical and level-headed. Suddenly I feel like a stupid teenager again with a giant crush. My whole world has flipped upside down. I thought I knew myself, that I knew and understood the world, and suddenly I don’t think I understand anything anymore. I do feel guilty and ashamed about my infidelity, but that’s overshadowed for now by my obsession with meeting and communicating with this boy. What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him? What in the world are we doing?!

Completely Out of Character

Dear Out of Character,

I guess what I am struck by — well, let’s back up. First, since you refer to this young man as a boy, I strongly suggest that in your conduct with this person you scrupulously comply with all laws and professional regulations that apply. You were wrong about his age to start with; I’d suggest you verify his age — for real. If you don’t know what laws and professional regulations apply, find out. And then make sure you comply with them. Also you’re going to have to work out this thorny problem of deceiving your husband. But you also need to work out what is going on emotionally. If I can be of any help at all, it is probably in that area.

Here’s how I would put it: You have been visited by a stranger. That stranger is yourself. She demands that you get to know her.

While you’ve been pursuing your degree, you’ve been pretending she doesn’t exist. But here she is. She has desires and tastes that may shock you. They don’t make sense to you. But here she is. Think how she feels.

In pursuit of intellectual accomplishment we sometimes shunt aside elements of our personality; years later they arrive like strangers at our door. We ask, Who is this? Who is this person? Do I know this person? You don’t know me?! she asks. I’m you!

You’re me?

Sure I am.

Thus begins the hard but rewarding work of integration. Each personality is like a family, or a town. So get to know the relatives. It’s not a stranger at all. It’s you. Get to know her.

I want to make this observation, too: Your emotional life is at least as complex, and requires as much subtle intellectual attention, as the subject of your doctoral studies. Like any body of knowledge, it requires that the questions we pose be informed and pointed.

You ask, “What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him?” That can easily be answered, but only begins to get at the heart of the matter.

For starters, you’re getting love, for heaven’s sake. Who doesn’t want love? You’re getting admiration and the wonderful feeling of being sexually attractive to someone. These are not trivial things. But they are elementary. As you accept what has happened, I think you are going to ask bigger, more profound and thoughtful questions.

For now, I suggest that you confess. Confess that you are human. You are not that different from anyone else.

You are just as capable of acting in a way that is scandalous, dishonest, secretive, alluring, sensuous and dangerous as anyone else. You are also reasonable, intelligent, diligent, honest and reliable. You are both.

Surprise: This is you!

Let’s celebrate what this means: You are not only a doctoral student but a woman of mystery, trapped in intrigue.

Did you think that this mad, crazy love the poets write about was something they made up? It has come to visit you. So I implore you to open yourself to this and learn. Again, speaking in very elementary terms, here are some of the guiding principles, or salient features, of this new terrain.

You don’t have control of your attraction.

You don’t understand it.

It feels wonderful.

It defies social norms.

It exposes you to danger.

You feel you are betraying someone.

You are breaking rules.

It is forbidden.

It came unexpectedly.

You and your love object are outwardly very different — your social class, age and education are markedly different.

You can’t make sense of it.

You are conducting it in secret.

It fulfills needs you did not know you had.

You are frightened by the fact that you cannot turn it off and on; it is out of your control.

You are, of course, faced with tricky practical and ethical problems because of it. So work out the practical problems. Deal with them upfront. But honor what this means. You are more complicated and passionate than you thought.

I’m a singer — but I drift from waitress job to waitress job

 I don’t know how to settle down. But I’m almost 30 and don’t want to waste my life!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

I’ve written to so many advice columnists and no one ever answers. I am plagued by problems — for years. In general, what the hell is the deal with me? I was so blithe and great and happy in childhood — but ever since I was, oh, 15, things have gone downhill, and I’m just about 29 now.

After high school, I moved away to go to college, but I quit after two years because I wasn’t really happy. I wanted to be a singer, as I had since I was 5, and I was doing some singing. But in general I felt unhappy, there was something lacking, and also I was in a relationship I wanted to get away from. So I quit school and moved away. In my new location, I sang a bit, got into another relationship, really wanted to get out of it, and moved away again. In my new location, I sang more, met another man, moved away with him, definitely had to leave, and — yes, moved away again. That was when I moved back in with my parents. I waitressed, moved to a new place, waitressed and sang there, then decided to finish school and did, but hated it the whole time. The school was lacking academically and was in a podunk town– where I met a new man, moved in with him, and then, about a year later, yes, moved away. Now I am living with my parents again and feeling quite at a loss.

I always dreamed of great things in life. But I’m going to be 30 and I’ve done nothing — nothing to be able to say, “Hey, I’ve made it!” In short, I’ve made nothing for myself (except learning the hard way whom not to fall in love with). I’m waitressing again, and yes, singing (in a tiny show where I make $75 a week and wear a rubber cone head — don’t ask). I think I’ll stop moving — I’ve wanted to for years. (Though I will move out of my parents’ house.) But just what the hell should I do? I’ve moved around since childhood — four years is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and one year is the longest I’ve ever held a job. There are so many things I am interested in — writing, editing, singing, dancing — but career-wise, my résumé is just a long list of waitressing and oddities.

Where I am now is the closest thing I have to a childhood home, and I have family here (my parents only live here half the year), and so I feel I might stick here. So sometimes I think I am finally ready to do “my life” and make something out of it, besides a mess. But other times I am very scared to think of the future — I don’t want to be forever drifting. I want a fulfilling career, a husband and family. But how to start? What am I to do? I am so bored waitressing and I have about three friends spread over the U.S. due to me being neither here nor there but always taken up with a tumultuous relationship with a man.

Tell me — where shall I start and while I’m waiting for roots to grow, how can I not be so bored?

Chronically Waiting, Dreaming and Scheming for a Life That Is Passing Me By

P.S. I have thought about performing musicals on a cruise ship but I need to build something for the future, not just another temporary excitement!

FranceAd2015

Dear Chronically Waiting,

So you’ve written to lots of advice columnists and nobody ever writes back? Well, I’ll write back. I’ll write back because there are certain things you need to know that no one tells you, things I have learned the hard way, things that are simple but can take a lifetime. You don’t have a lifetime.

So here is the deal in a nutshell: Your actions have put you in the spot you’re in. I’m not blaming you. I’m just directing your attention to the correct area. It’s time to change your actions. How do you do that? You adopt a different set of criteria for making decisions.

You left college after two years because you weren’t happy. “Happy” was a criterion for leaving college. That will have to change. “Happy” is not a criterion anymore. “Required for the next step” is a your new criterion.

For the next five years I suggest you do only those things that are required to take you to the next step. It will be hard to change but it is doable and simple and it will give you a much better shot at being happy.

Where do you start? You start by clarifying the goal toward which you are going to struggle for the next five years. I suggest creating a goal that is obtainable through hard work and that is measurable. I would say your goal right now should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft.

You may want to be a star. You may think that should be your goal. But I don’t think so. I think your goal should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. The desire to be a star may be a vision that motivates you. You may benefit from visualizing yourself as a star. But for a goal you need something that is under your control. Proficiency and excellence in your craft is something you can actually attain. It may sometimes precede stardom, but it is never a guarantee of stardom. There is no guarantee of stardom. But there are guaranteed milestones of proficiency and excellence that are obtainable.

So let’s say that your No. 1 goal in life is now to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft of singing and acting. That’s very simple. How is that done? It’s done through education and hard work.

If you adopt this one goal, your decisions can all flow from this one premise: Your purpose is to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. What do you do? Whatever you have to do in order to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft, that’s what you do.

How? You take voice lessons and acting lessons. You build your network of fellow singers and actors. You locate yourself in the best place possible for getting that kind of education, experience and contacts.

What place is that?

Well, there’s no doubt that Los Angeles and New York are the best places to go if you already have the skills. But where are the best places to learn these skills? Not necessarily Los Angeles and New York.

I’m not saying categorically that you should go back to school for a B.A. in performance. But I’m saying you want to gain the hard facts and take concrete actions. Maybe you look and find the best teacher and that teacher is in one of these towns with a top-rated drama and voice program. The talent tends to cluster. So you might move to a town with one of the top-rated schools. It’s this kind of thinking that I’m suggesting.

You may find it impossible to sit long enough and concentrate long enough to make the right plans. There may be more work involved in doing this. Some of this work may involve understanding what happened when you were 15. You were happy and then something happened. Sometimes things happen in adolescence and we form patterns of behavior as a result and we don’t find out until years later how that happened. We underestimate the power of these events somehow; we believe that we are able to make the right decisions but those decisions keep putting us in a bad spot. So in order to make this orderly shift, you may have to enlist the help of others. That would make sense.

Want to know a secret? I can hardly do anything on my own. Actually, I now have three professionals helping me cope with life. Three! One of these people is paid for by the city, as one of its programs to help small businesses. One is paid by my health insurance through my employer. And one of them I pay out of my pocket. OK, I’m kind of a basket case, but I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong with going out into the world and asking for help. It’s all worth it.

Want to know another secret? I want to be a singer, too. I used to be in a punk/new wave band. You want to hear me sing a punk song? I’m pretty bad! Tell you what. If you will promise me that you will go and start working seriously on your craft, I will send you — no, better yet, I will place on the Web for all to hear — a song that I wrote and sang in the early 1980s and, well, OK, that’s just the deal I’m offering. Because you need some kind of “accountability buddy.” You need somebody to be accountable to who won’t let you slide.

So you write to me and let me know what you’re doing, and then I will do this. I will place myself on the line, so that we have some accountability, you and me. So we have a deal.

I’m almost at my deadline now so I have to wrap up. But I want to say that the beauty of changing your life in this way, wrapping it around a purpose, is that your life begins to have a demonstrable shape. Someone asks, well, what brings you to Evanston, Ill.? And you say, well, I’m trying to become the best singer I can possibly be, and they have the best teachers here.

Having a goal makes your life a story. What is a story? It’s somebody who wants something and tries to get it. It’s what the person wanted and how he or she went about trying to get it. So you make your life a story. Then everything falls into place.

It’s not as easy as it looks. It’s not easy to change your life. It’s not easy to do things differently. But it can be done.

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