My marriage was a mistake

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I wanted to be the bride but I don’t like being the wife. Now I face the toughest decision of my life.

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Aug 15, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am a 25-year-old woman with two dogs and a sad marriage. I’ve been married going on three years and for the past one year or so have been seriously thinking I’d be better off without him.

We met about four and a half years ago, and fell for each other pretty quickly (which is how a typical relationship always seemed to start out for me in the past). We dated for 11 months before getting engaged, and then five months later we tied the knot. It all happened so fast and there was so much excitement — but now I think that deep down I didn’t really feel like he was the right guy for me … I was young (a whole three years younger — wow, huh?) and I don’t think I was finished being independent. I just wanted to be the bride — and everyone else wanted it for me too.

After we got married he started traveling a LOT for his job. Of course, he traveled before but since we waited to live together until we got married I was now spending a lot more time by myself (that was before the dogs came along). So, I knew we’d have some times apart and I knew it would bother me a little bit — but it’s gotten to the point where when he is at home I wish he’d leave again. I don’t feel an attraction to him at all. I don’t want to be hugged, kissed, or even touched … we fight about it when he’s in the mood and I never am. When we try to talk about the subject of sex and why we don’t have it anymore, I tell him I don’t feel good about myself and maybe when I lose a couple of pounds I’ll feel better … I’ll tell him anything just as long as I don’t have to say, “I’m not attracted to you anymore!” I really don’t want to hurt him — I know he loves me, but I’m getting tired of living like this.

I feel also that I should say that he’s not a bad guy. He’s nice, has a good job and all that other stuff. Sure, he has his moments (we all do) where he can be a real jerk … but for the most part there really isn’t any particular reason why I don’t love him anymore … I just don’t.

I’m convinced that I married him too quickly and that I should have waited and dated a little bit longer. I’ve always been somewhat of the “heartbreaker” in my relationships. It was always me getting tired of the other person. I was hoping that it wouldn’t happen in this relationship … but I’m afraid it has — I’m afraid that what I felt for him at the beginning was really no different than what I’ve felt for other men in the past. Sounds sleazy, I know, but it’s the truth.

I want to divorce him. I want to sell our house and live my own life with the money that I make. Maybe I’d move away, maybe not — I want that freedom.

I guess the only thing that’s really slowing me down is my family. They love him! Also, I was raised in a religious family and divorce is a sin — of course, we all sin every day — but I feel bad about wanting to leave my husband. I feel that my parents will be so disappointed in me along with all of my siblings, and extended family for that matter (we’re a close family). His family is great too … but it’s not enough to make me love him.

Before my husband left for his last trip we decided to try marriage counseling. We were going to start as soon as he got back home. He’s been gone almost two weeks now and I’m still willing to try — but we haven’t said one word about it on the phone since he’s been gone. I don’t know if the marriage is worth saving. Right now I hope someone tells me it’s not. But I guess life would be easier too if I could fall for him again. I don’t know — I think I’ve put up a wall; my marriage is on one side and my freedom is on the other — I want my freedom.

I feel quite selfish for all these feelings that I’m having but I’m just not happy. I want to be happy again.

What do I do?


Confused (sincerely!)


Dear Confused,

If someone were to ask you today, What was the most difficult thing you’ve ever done? what would you say?

I ask this in order to understand what you are facing and put myself in your shoes.

I’ve been sitting here in the cafe trying to think of the most difficult things I did before I was 25. There is a bit to get through but I will get there. You’ll see.

I wasn’t exactly the heartbreak kid. I was the guy who waited to be broken up with. So I never divorced anybody or even left anybody. I just let things fall apart. When I think about decisions that I knew were necessary and were going to cause me pain and cause others to be mad at me … I don’t think I made any!

OK, how about this. When was the last time you realized you’d made a decision selfishly that affected another person’s well-being, and then found yourself obligated to rectify it? When was the last time you looked at something you did and not only saw that it had been a mistake but saw that you had done it knowingly for selfish reasons?

Stay with me. It gets better.

When I look over my first 25 years, I see a guy making easy decisions and then taking actions to make them even easier. I see a guy with amazing luck. I see a guy who got out of scrapes. I see a guy who drifted, followed, looked for signals, tagged along. I see a guy who mooched and cadged, whined, cajoled, pleaded, charmed, faked, seduced, flattered. I see a guy who skirted, fumbled, hid from difficulty, head full of poetry, skipped out when the bill came, left before the cleanup, felt above it all, thought he knew it all. I see a guy who hid his fear, ran from trouble, avoided avoided avoided. He took refuge, fantasized, pretended, dreamed, borrowed.

I see a guy who never honestly broke up with anybody. He just waited for things to fall apart and then moved on.

It’s possible that at that age, how he’d grown up, the role models he’d had, the stresses he’d been under, the fear of the Vietnam War and the draft and the early drug use, the hippie culture he was ushered into, he did not have any choices the way we think of choices. How would he have acted differently? What model was there to follow?

So the outward behavior was not exemplary. But we do not always know what we are doing — what we are protecting, what it is within us, exactly, that is surviving through our apparently selfish and chaotic actions.

Through all that, I see a kid carrying a gift like a kid in a fairy tale, carrying a precious gift under his arm wrapped in newspaper like the Maltese Falcon. He’s been charged with its care and upkeep through war and poverty and homelessness. He’s given a gift by his parents before leaving home, and he travels, knowing that if he could just get through the forest without losing this gift, keeping it close to him, sleeping with it next to him in the forest, hiding it from jealous thieves, disguising it from those who might recognize its true value and want it (and also from those who might recognize its true value and disparage it, wounding him, knocking his confidence out), if he could just hang on to it through hurricanes and bitterness and winter streets of windblown trash and rat-run alleyways under rattling windows, if through all those nights of traveling, shivering under wet blankets, if he could hold on to just this one thing, then later, eventually, if he survived, he could work out the rest of it — what to do with the gift, how to operate it, how to use it, how to keep it running. Years later he would realize that the gift was not a metaphor. In a moment of stress a vivid memory would come to him of being a very young child and clutching something to his chest, lying on the floor kicking and screaming and crying and holding on to this thing. And he would see that this was not a metaphor, that it was physical, it was a book or some writing, it was a Bible or a journal or a story he had written. There was something he cared about more than anything else, something he would live for and die for. There was one thing at least that was not a joke. There was a bottom line, a real thing not a totem, one thing he was living for all those years of wandering.

Think about it. When you think about the most difficult thing you have done, or the most sacred thing, or the most precious, is there one thing you can latch on to?

This is hard because at that age we don’t know it. Or maybe we do. Maybe we know it but don’t have the word for it. Maybe we know it but are afraid for it; we protect it by not naming it. We think that if we name it we may harm it so we keep it secret. At that age this one most precious and dear thing may be the one thing that no one knows about — not because we are ashamed of it but because we are protecting it from their careless murder.

So you have come to one of those points where the most difficult thing you have ever done may also be the thing that defines what is most sacred to you.

You must have the courage to do this. Where will you find the strength? You will find it in this hidden sacred object or idea, this thing that you are protecting by leaving. For you, perhaps the secret object or idea is a form of joy and freedom. Perhaps you are the heartbreaker because the lifelong song you sing is the freedom song. Perhaps that is the course of your life: Love, experience, freedom. That could be. It could be that you are the secret spirit of freedom, raised — this is fate’s fiat! — in strict religion and thus hiding this spirit, protecting it, not exposing it to ridicule and at times not even believing in it yourself, but all the same secretly at night knowing that the spirit of freedom is the thing that defines you and that if it were exposed they would destroy it. Knowing, too, that to keep their love you have tried to live within their world. So the hardest thing you have ever done may turn out to be just facing it: You are not the good wife. Nor were you meant to be. You are the adventurer. Not the adventuress, in the censorious Victorian sense of a selfish, scheming woman, but the free spirit, the woman who will not be chained. Maybe that is you. Maybe it’s the call of freedom in a very pure sense. Maybe there is great power here. Seek that power. Visualize it. Crystallize it. Make it real. Hang on to it. Don’t let them shame you into submission. Keep it. Protect it. Meditate on it.

Then as you do all the necessary things to free yourself, you will have this northern star in your sights. You will have your heading. You will know where you are going even though, because of the nature of what you seek, your seeking it makes you appear to be without compass, groundless, spinning. You are not groundless and spinning. You are going somewhere. You are going toward freedom.

Go in this direction and you will know where you are going. You will be going toward freedom. You will be always going there. It is not a place you ever get to, but a place you always head for.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My charismatic ex married a pretty young thing

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 13, 2011

After 13 years and two kids, we still weren’t even married. So I’m burned but I’m not even the ex-wife

Dear Cary,

First of all, I want to tell you that I’ve been reading your column for years and have gotten great inspiration from your poetic and insightful advice as well as the comments from your readers. I was very worried to hear about your cancer and am grateful for your recovery and continued words of wisdom.

I’m 41 years old, and although I may look like your average SUV-driving suburban mom now, in my 20s I was a model and somewhat of a party girl. During this time I became involved with an extremely handsome, charismatic, wealthy man several years my senior. We were together for 13 years, during which I endured his alcoholism, childishness, refusal to commit despite my giving birth to two beautiful daughters, and repeated cheating.

We broke up for good three years ago. A few months later he met this girl. This cartoonishly gorgeous, 25-year-old girl who looked and still looks 18. When they’d been dating for a year or so … are you sitting down? … he proposed to her. He gave her this nauseating ring with a pink heart-shaped diamond, and I smiled and gritted my teeth as my daughters walked down the aisle in their giant sparkly circus of a wedding. (Note: Prior to this, my ex hated weddings … he wouldn’t even go to his friends’ because he said he couldn’t stand to see a man tied down!)

I wish I could say she’s a cheap little gold digger who’s using him for all he’s worth … but she’s actually a very sweet, somewhat otherworldly person who to all appearances genuinely loves the bastard. He fully admits he doesn’t deserve her, calls her his angel, his salvation, etc., etc., etc. As far as I know he hasn’t cheated on her yet, which is a record for him. She’s crazy enough to keep up with his lifestyle and at the same time gives him the pampering devotion he demands, two areas where I always seemed to fall short.

Worst of all, my daughters … now 11 and 6 … like her more than me and their dad put together. They’re constantly pestering to visit and they talk about her like she’s Mary Poppins, Hannah Montana and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother rolled into one.

Not long after his marriage, my ex had a major health scare and quit drinking … something he refused to ever even try to do while we were together. It was while he was in the hospital, when I had to leave her sitting beside him, stroking his hair, at the end of visiting hours, that I realized I still love the bastard too. I know I’ve said a mouthful about him here but he’s far from all bad … he’s incredibly funny, sunny, generous, full of life, doesn’t have a mean or violent bone in his body, and is completely impossible to stop loving. And I can’t help feeling that if he’s going to settle down and be Mr. Stable-and-Sober now … after all I put up with, giving him the best years of my life, bearing and raising his kids while he was off partying … the least he could do would be to settle down with me and our girls, as a real, normal, husband, wife and kids family.

Except! In February they announced that she’s pregnant. A few weeks ago, they found out she’s having a boy. My ex is absolutely out of his mind with happiness. My girls are all excited about getting a baby brother. I’m the only person who’s not happy here. My jealousy has made me a bitter, ugly person I hardly know. I am literally fantasizing about one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met dying in childbirth. I keep a pistol in a safe for home defense purposes, and there are times … when my daughters are visiting their dad and stepmom, and I’m alone in the house all weekend … when I’ve seriously considered checking out and letting her deal with them full-time (on top of a screaming newborn!)

Don’t worry! I’m not immediately suicidal … in fact I’m looking hard for reasons to go on. Aside from what’s left of my looks I don’t bring much to the dating market. I’m not sure I could have another baby if I even wanted to, and already having kids makes it that much harder to find a relationship. What’s more, guys tend to get intimidated when I tell them about my ex. And it’s not unjustified … there are certain areas where he’s a hard (LOL!) act to follow.

There’s more to life than love and babies, you say? I’ve aged out of my former career, and can’t seem to hustle up the interest or motivation to go to school and start another, especially when his child support allows me to live quite comfortably without working. I read, I craft, I volunteer, but none of that fills the void.

I don’t even know what I’m asking for here. Hope? Sympathy? Suggestions? At this point, Cary, I’ll take whatever you can give. Thank you so much for reading.

Not Even the First Wife

Dear Not Even the First Wife,

How are you going to frame this situation so that you are at the center of the struggle and you are meeting your own needs and

finding your own joy?
The strength you need won’t all come from inside. You need to find strength from other people.

You need a community that is on your side and is a different kind of community, battle-scarred and wizened, chastened and realistic, reliable and unglamorous. Where will you find your models? I don’t mean fashion models, I mean role models. Strength is what you need now and you can find it in other people, but not people who are glittery and charismatic and intoxicating. You can find it in the gritty and mundane world of people who have taken a few hits and survived. There is a special kind of strength such people have. I have seen it.
You have to find your tribe. You may come upon them by accident. They may not look like your tribe. They may not dress like your tribe. But they will know you.

They may seem strange. Then again, they may be other SUV-driving moms who also have danced on polished marble floors and pranced on runways above adoring flashbulbs. You may find other ex-models who are now fashioning lives for themselves separate from the Peter Pans and man-boys who kept them amused during their early years. For it cannot be all that rare a story. It has a classic feel to it. It’s also possible that you would find like-minded women in Al-Anon, the group for people whose lives are affected by the drinking of friends, family and loved ones. It wouldn’t hurt to look into it.

If I were you, I would make like a huntress, looking for my tribe of strength.

No one can say what will happen to the new happy couple. Maybe he will have a profound transformation. Or maybe his pretty young wife is destined to endure things far worse than what you endured. If he does start drinking again, it will not be the carefree drinking of his yesterdays. And if he is going to quit drinking and change his life, he is going to face some hard truths. His charming act is not likely to endure. She may find herself married to a man who, much to her chagrin, begins in earnest a spiritual quest from which she is excluded. Then it may be she who goes out on him, and he who is left bewildered at home with his Tarot deck or his Big Book.

You say that she is somehow otherworldly. That would make perfect sense if what he was looking for was someone to perpetuate his denial. Or this otherworldliness may be a symbol of his awakening spiritual thirst. At any rate, if it’s any consolation, this moment cannot last. Much greater things await you.

Somehow, and it won’t be easy, you have to let that whole situation go. Somehow. But how? Your daughters are madly in love with their stepmom. Yes, how lovely. It is absurdly constructed to flatten you. Of course it is. This is fate, having its fun. So you have to summon the strength and wisdom to see this and understand its piquant, ironic character, and remember how the wheel is turning all the time. The Ferris wheel is turning, and right now you may be at the bottom, watching as the new cute couple ascend in their swinging seat and have the view of the city while you have the view of the carny’s toothless face as he leers at you alone in your seat on the bottom of the Ferris wheel.

But the Ferris wheel must turn. They have to come to the bottom to get out. Then you will be at the top, looking out over the city, swinging in your Ferris wheel swing, while the cute new couple down below must exit past the leer of the toothless carny.

No question about it: This is a difficult moment for you. You can embrace what has arrived, or you can run from it. I suggest you summon your courage and embrace what has arrived. It is an occasion for grace: You are being called upon to find a deeper source of strength. You will find it, and it will carry you.

I hate being wrong!

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I’m ruining my relationship because I’m too quick to argue.

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 8, 2005

Dear Cary,

For as long as I can remember, I have been very bad at arguing with people. As soon as someone disagrees with me, I get angry because I feel attacked, like the other person is out to show that I am wrong. And for some reason, I hate being wrong! So my immediate reaction is to get very defensive, I raise my voice, and I end up saying something I later regret. Needless to say, the whole thing ends with me beating myself up, and the other person feeling alienated from me. This bothers me especially because my mother does the exact same thing and I hate it!

I have noticed this tendency in me for a long time now, but I have never been able to stop. I did some anger management work with a therapist a while ago, but because I moved and switched to a counselor at school who cannot see me regularly, I have not been able to continue this important work. They tell you to stop and count to 10, control your breathing, calm yourself down before you talk. But that’s the whole problem, I could never think of stopping myself until it was too late! The hurtful things had already come out of my mouth, and I was stuck picking up the pieces.

Right now the problem is urgent because my relationship with a wonderful boyfriend is in peril because of my insecurity and hatred of being wrong. He is closing himself off to me because I have hurt him, and no doubt I am no longer attractive as a woman with no confidence in herself and a bad temper. How do I stop ruining my relationships and hating myself? How do I stop hating being wrong?

Hate Being Wrong

Dear Hate Being Wrong,

One night a couple of years ago I was home listening to the radio and an author I admire said, in response to a question from a telephone caller, “I am willing to be judged!” I felt suddenly lifted up out of my chair, freed of a pressing weight. Exactly! I am willing to be judged! What had I been so afraid of?!

I do not know why on this particular night this particular voice had such an effect. Perhaps, as you are struggling now, I was struggling then with what I perceived to be a defect of character. I was afraid of the judgments of others. In a moment that was all whisked away: What do I care what they think? What harm can it do? I am willing to be judged!

Here was a successful, talented author, who had been through much darkness, as I have been, and he had found this way of dealing with his own fear by embracing it like a fighter: Bring it on! Go ahead! Take a shot!

It was a marvelous, liberating moment.

In journalism, of course, being right is part of the job. In conversation, however, and in certain kinds of writing, one can express one’s feelings in a way that sidesteps the problem of right and wrong, by staying in the realm of the subjective. You can’t be wrong if you’re talking only about your own wishes, your own feelings, your own desires. Others may judge you but they can’t prove you wrong. For instance, if you were to say that the war in Iraq is wrong, it would be an arguable point. If you were to say, however, that you wish it had never begun, that is simply your wish. No one can argue with that. You have the right to your feeling.

If you assume that others should feel as you do, that’s where you’re in trouble. They may feel differently. A roomful of opinions can coexist because none of the opinions are wrong; they are all simply human phenomena.

Someone might then say to you it’s a good thing the war has begun because it’s rid the world of Saddam Hussein. But you don’t have to be glad the world is rid of Saddam Hussein. You have the right to your own feelings. You might have no feelings at all about Saddam Hussein. There is a great deal of leeway for surprise in the subjective world, should we choose to claim it. We do not have to have every correct emotion; we might have a few that are subversive and amoral. We might not, for instance, care at all about Terri Schiavo. We might not care about the pope. We might not care about Barry Bonds, or Bono, or Patrick Leahy, or Tom DeLay. It’s subjective, and that’s all there is to it. There is a great deal of freedom in this; it not only frees you to have your own ideas, and be a little looser about life, but it frees others as well; if you’re not concerned about whether you’re right or wrong, if you don’t feel the need to only associate with people who agree with you, you can learn much about what people actually feel about events, and get closer to the mystery of who they are.

When people argue about politics, often what they say amounts to nothing more than unexamined prejudice shouted into a void of passionate misunderstanding. I prefer to talk about other things. That is my right, and I guard it jealously.

We are judged constantly but it matters so little! No one will admit that they judge us. To bring it out into the open is so refreshing! So judge me as stupid! So judge me as a moron! So judge me as wrong! So what! What happens after you judge me? Nothing! Look at the sky! It’s still the same brilliant blue! Look at my face! It’s still the same face. There is no appreciable difference in the universe now that I have been discovered to have held the wrong opinion, once or twice or a thousand times! Judge me, suckers, judge me! Judge me! Judge me! Judge me!

Oh, boy. There I go. As I often do, I have veered away from your actual question into my own passions and prejudices. My apologies. To try to help you with your more immediate problem, I would make these suggestions and observations: The techniques you were taught by your anger management therapist are good ones. Though you are not in contact with that therapist, you can still use those methods. Keep working at it. Try counting to 10 well before you get angry. Identify situations where you might become angry, and try the counting before anything happens. For instance, if certain people or situations set you off, breathe deeply before you become angry, and count to 10 before responding.

Most important, keep at it. You won’t be cured overnight, but you will improve. Behavior change happens gradually through persistent effort. Look for degrees of improvement. If you do blow up, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s not too late. If you blurt something out, stop as soon as you realize what’s going on. Then you can use what you’ve learned. Say, “Whoops, I’m sorry, there I go again. Let’s calm down.” Relax. Let it go. That’s improvement. Take some deep breaths, do your counting, and focus on the feelings of the other person. If you have offended, apologize. Do this in the moment, as soon as it happens. Any improvement you can make is worth making.