I want to leave my marriage but I’m afraid

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Dear Cary,

Caitlyn Jenner recently made the poignant comment that, had she not transitioned, when the time came for her to die (as a man), she would have lain on her deathbed and thought, “I have blown my entire life.” I cannot stop thinking about that; it haunts me daily. Here’s my story.

When I was in my mid-thirties, I married a man that I did not love. In my young single years, I had suffered through several relationships in which I was crazy about my man, but he always left me. I felt as if something was terribly wrong with me. Every friend I had ever had was married, as well as all my younger siblings. Then, along came John. He was smart, educated, interesting and from a good family, and most importantly, he seemed to adore me. A few weeks into our dating, he surprised me with a diamond and said he wanted to marry me, and soon. Let’s just say I was swept off my feet by the proposal, but not by the man. He was, by now, my very best friend, but I was not in the slightest sexually attracted to him. I rationalized that problem away by telling myself that nearly every married couple I knew said that the sex “goes away” after a while, so what difference did it make that I was starting out my marriage that way? I was terribly lonely and thought this man could give me a good life. I married him.

Now we have been married over 30 years and I feel every day as if I’m dying a long, slow death of my own making. We have not had sex in 15 years. We have not even kissed in that time. I am starving emotionally and sexually. I fantasize every day about other men. And here’s another deeply sad thing to me. After we had been married only about a year, I suggested that we move from our small blue-collar town to a slightly bigger and more cosmopolitan town where we could both further our careers and also have a richer cultural life. He said to me, “If you want to go there, go ahead, but you’ll be going alone.” At another time, when I tried to talk to him about going to a counselor, he told me to go alone “because it wasn’t his problem.” Oh, and also, he added that if I left him, to “never plan to come back because he wasn’t going through all that.”

Let me add, too, that in all this time he has never added my name to the deed on our house, a fact I did not realize for many years until I stumbled upon it in our files. When I told him I very much wanted to be on the deed, he said it “wasn’t necessary.”  When his parents decided to hire first one, and later another estate planning lawyer, I found out that in both instances when writing their wills, they “forgot” to provide for me, their only daughter-in-law with whom they never had a cross word.

Cary, I am now 65 years old. Maybe I could live to be 80, as my mom did. But I don’t have enough money of my own to live on. If I leave him, I’m at the mercy of the divorce judge and we don’t have a large income as it is. I think, at this point, it is the fear of being extremely poor that keeps me here. I don’t know what to do. I want out so badly, but I’m so afraid of the future. Please help me.

Overwhelmed with Regret

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Dear Overwhelmed with Regret,

It is time for you to begin the biggest journey of your life. It is time for you to begin your journey of self-discovery. There are many ways to do this. I believe one of the best ways is to find a good psychotherapist and begin a program of regular weekly meetings for at least a year. What you want in a psychotherapist is one who can take you deep into the deepest regions of your self, so you can examine the choices you have made and come to love yourself enough to forgive yourself for some of those decisions.

This journey might happen in other ways as well. It might happen as a spiritual search. It might happen as the result of a return to your church of origin, or as a program of seeking; you might also begin it by attending a 12-step group that focuses on relationship issues. The reason I think psychotherapy is so ideally suited to you, however, is that it is safe and structured and can be fit into a life without disrupting that life. It can be done privately without causing a lot of gossip.

If you were younger you might take off in a van with a bunch of hippies and live in the Arizona desert. You might go backpacking in Europe, or live on a farm or a kibbutz. But I sense that you are settled in your habits and that such radical moves might result in unacceptable controversy and conflict in your marriage. That is why I think that a program of psychotherapy with a really good psychotherapist is your best shot at regaining your sense of who you are, why you have made the choices you have made, and what kind of life you want to live from now on.

I feel the regret in your voice and it saddens me but also fills me with righteous anger and hope, for I know that regret can be washed away. I know this. I know that when we can cobble together enough self-love and self-understanding, we can see our former selves with compassion. We can understand why we did the things we did, and we can forgive ourselves.

I hope you can let go of this regret and learn to see your life as the life you were meant to have. In fact, I feel this strongly! I feel it is urgent! I feel that you must find a way to do this, to change how you are seeing your life!

Psychotherapy is hard work. It is hard work to undo habits of thinking. It is hard work to feel grief for missed opportunities, and to face searing emotions that have been buried. But it is also joyous work, to feel for the first time in years that vibrant self you once knew. It is joyous work to replace regret with compassion, to replace resentment with acceptance, to replace baffled hurt with understanding.

You can do this. You can learn a new vocabulary so that you can speak of your past decisions as ones that made sense for who you are, or who you were at the time. This new vocabulary will talk about “meeting needs.” You had certain needs at the time, needs for companionship and security, needs to feel accepted by your family, and you did the things that would meet those needs. You did these things while thinking rationally. You made decisions that made sense at the time. You made these decisions while acting in a powerful nexus of family and society, of beliefs both spoken and unspoken, to meet needs and expectations both spoken and unspoken. For instance, at the time, it seemed reasonable to you that if sex went away eventually in a marriage, perhaps it would not be that important. This is not such a crazy idea. Other things were more important to you. You needed to be in a relationship with a man. You found a man and you decided to begin that relationship.

As it turned out, there were dead spots in the relationship; there were areas in which your husband was terse and adamant and uncompromising. These were political as well as personal matters, but you were not in a position to take them up in a political sense, so they remained simply personal matters, matters settled within the silent crucible of a cold marriage.

You lived through all that. You deal with it. You endured. You have lived a long time now, and you are a different person. Different things are important to you. So it is time to begin your life’s journey of self-discovery. You don’t need to leave your husband to do this. You can do it while married. You don’t need to try to fix your marriage. You don’t need to get your husband’s OK. You don’t need to even concern him with the things that you learn in therapy.

All you need to do is to begin, on your own, your journey of self-discovery.

The self has a language. It is not a language spoken publicly. It is spoken in private. It is a language of needs and fears, of hidden motives. This is the language that is unearthed in psychotherapy; it is the language you have been speaking all along to yourself, but when you begin speaking this language of the self aloud to a person whom you trust, this self, this self that has been buried and neglected, this self that you fear dying without unfolding, this self comes alive and will rescue you.

The true you is there, waiting to be invited out. This is what you can do in psychotherapy. You can learn to speak the language of the self and then invite your self out. This will be an immense relief.

Here is what I think about such dramatic changes as the one in which Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. I would say that although it made worldwide headlines, it was a completely private matter. Since he was a famous person, when he changed sex naturally it became a matter of public interest. But the important distinction I would make is that it was a private matter of the soul, or true self; what Caitlyn did was rescue her self, her true self, and this was a private matter. Other people undergo similar transformations; though they are not so visible, they are equally dramatic, subjectively.

You, too, can rescue your self, your true self. It does not have to be done in the tabloids. Nor does it have to be done as a divorced woman. To do this work, it really does not matter if you stay married or do not stay married. In the course of this journey, it may become clear that you have to get a divorce. Or it may become clear that you can remain married to this man and find your own happiness, a separate happiness.

The important thing is to embark on the great journey of your life, the journey of self-discovery.

I wish you luck on your journey. You will perhaps meet some of us on the way, some of us who are also on such journeys, in various guises, in various vehicles, on various roads, with various destinations.

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I’m gay and I’ve got nothing to apologize for

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She and I slept in the same bed. Her boyfriend wants an apology. But nothing happened!

 Cary’s classic column from  THURSDAY, JUL 7, 2005

Dear Cary,

My best friend (a woman) met a man last summer whom she is now living with in another state and will most likely marry in the next couple of years. I am a gay male, and he does not seem to have much experience or familiarity with gay people, although he doesn’t sound like a bigot at all. The problem is that, for New Year’s, she and I, along with two close friends of ours (a straight couple) flew to San Francisco and spent three nights in a single hotel room together. We had already made the plans when she became serious with him, and he did not come with us, although she invited him.

She indicated shortly after the trip that he was upset when he learned that we had shared a bed together, but I didn’t hear anything else about it and considered the issue dead. Then, last weekend, my friend visited and said that he is still very upset about it, and he wants an apology from me. When she asked him what’s wrong with sharing a bed with a gay man, he said it just doesn’t look right.

I think the larger issue is that when they first met, we talked on the phone a lot (an hour or so a day) and there was a transition period where we started spending less time talking so that she would have room for this relationship. But I think there was some distinct jealousy from him at the beginning, and admittedly it was tough for me at first, also.

I am very happy for her, and overall he sounds like a great guy who cares a lot about her. But my question is, should I apologize to him even though I think we did nothing wrong by sharing a bed? I’m not opposed to the idea of swallowing my pride for the sake of moving on, but I also don’t want him to think either of us was doing anything wrong or trying to hurt him. I have not met him in person yet, and they will both be visiting next month for a wedding that we’ll all attend.

I would truly value your opinion on this matter.

Sleeping on It

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Dear Sleeping on It,

Because of the complex emotions and cultural signals involved, I think you ought to arrange to have a private chat with him when he visits.

I don’t think you need to apologize per se, but you do need to acknowledge his discomfort and its cultural and psychological origins. In other words, don’t disrespect him. Like it or not, you offended him by sharing a bed with his fiancée. His world has been disturbed and he feels it ought to be put right. That’s a normal human reaction. He hasn’t put it very delicately, but perhaps where he comes from when some guy shares a bed with one’s fiancée for three days over New Year’s what is called for is not delicacy but rather old-fashioned bluster. I think a simple acknowledgement that you offended him, an expression of regret for offending him, and a promise to be more sensitive to his concerns in the future would suffice.

Have a sincere chat, but remember that you are also negotiating. By promising to not share a bed with her in the future, you can give him something he values greatly while giving up relatively little yourself. What you actually want is not so much the freedom to sleep with her. What you want is to be able to talk to her at length on the phone and spend time with her alone without his jealous interference, right?

So be ready and willing to make a concession that you will not share a bed with her in the future. But make sure he understands what you want. Also, try to help him see your friendship with his fiancée in a positive light. What you have is a perfectly respectable friendship. Unfortunately, contemporary social mores do not clearly delineate what is permissible and not permissible in a friendship between a gay man and a romantically committed woman.

The beauty of pledging not to sleep in the same bed with her again, whether it is right or wrong, is that the more secure he feels, the more trouble-free your friendship with her will be. If you play it right, you will get all that you want without giving up anything of real value to you. Sharing a bed with her is simply a symbol of the kind of intimate bond you have; it is not essential to your friendship. What is essential is that you be able to stay in contact on the phone and be with each other without him around.

The only thing I can think of that threatens to derail such a remarkably good-natured, supremely rational bargaining session is the subterranean existence of certain powerful but as yet unacknowledged emotions — what you might call a subtext, or a hidden agenda.

It might bother you more than you realize, for instance, that some relative stranger is seeking veto power over the way you, a gay man, choose to behave privately with your best friend. It might seem that he is reenacting ancient sexist rituals of control. You may feel that you are losing her forever; this may threaten to plunge you into great sadness. You may detect in his objections, nice a guy as he is, a cultural backwardness and ignorance that even in the complete absence of malice nevertheless results in stereotyping and stigmatizing of gays.

You might feel some or all or none of these things. So take a little inventory of your emotional state before you talk with him. You have an opportunity here to create an exemplary model of how straight men and gay men can negotiate the tricky issue of jealousy over women. If you react angrily to something he says, he may become defensive and possessive and your little man-to-man chat could come to nothing.

The important thing, remember, is for you and he to come to an understanding. Your shared love and admiration for this woman binds you together. In that respect, you are like brothers.

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