Why can’t I find a relationship that will last?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 6, 2008

Am I destined to be lonely? Do I pick the wrong men? Why am I still single?


Dear Cary,

I believe that I have lost my ability to trust my judgments on relationships. However, I still believe in love, and I have not given up all hope.

Here is the situation.

I am 33 and single yet again after another failed relationship. I am college educated, I work a high-pressure job, have quite a large group of close friends, and have some hobbies that I am pretty devoted to. So I guess you can say that I am not one of those people who is desperate for a romantic relationship out of fear of nothing else going on in my life.

I have always found the dating world difficult, but this is mostly due to some lingering self-doubts that have been around since high school. My dating life so far has been approximately five serious relationships. The longest (which was my college boyfriend) lasted about five years. It was a very ugly breakup, and I didn’t really get over it for close to two years. I could casually date, but would normally pick up guys with various issues (drug, alcohol, honesty problems, etc.).

I met a seemingly good guy who didn’t seem to come with excess baggage when I was 27, and had even made plans to marry. It seemed like a pretty normal relationship, and by far the most stable of my life. He broke up with me at the three-year mark, and immediately moved in with a girl from his grad-school class. (They married months later.) This situation pretty much floored me, as at the time it pretty much came out of nowhere. I went into therapy, and realized that there were lots of red flags in that relationship that I just didn’t see at the time. However, I was eventually able to move on, and not let the sadness completely ovewhem me. It was extremely difficult. I do sometimes believe that I carry some major scars from that relationship, but none so bad as to make me “give up.”

I then found myself falling in love with a friend of mine whom I have known since college. Hanging out with him was always a riot, because he is somewhat of a smartass, and is someone I can converse with on just about anything. However, he also has a rather serious binge-drinking problem, and could sometimes be difficult to deal with during one of his famously ugly hangovers. I realized that my constant interaction with him was very unhealthy for me. So I went back into therapy, and got some clarification on why I felt this way, even though I knew it was a hopeless situation.

My friends, who are good-natured, could never understand why I was constantly having these issues. I would get “You are really smart, really pretty, really interesting, etc., etc.” (I am also the only one who is not currently in a long-term relationship or married.) Some of my friends even went so far as to try to set me up on blind dates, but there was no real spark. I even jokingly said that I had developed an allergy to dating. But the reality is, I would love nothing more than to be in a satisfying relationship with a nice man who has charisma and can make me laugh.

My therapist mentioned quite a few times that I was doing the right things by keeping myself active, not trying to over-focus on finding a nice guy, and staying motivated with my hobbies. I work out quite a bit, and play several sports recreationally.

So now to my latest situation. I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship immediately, but was looking at trying to see where things were progressing. He showered me with attention, and while it was a little overwhelming at first, it was nice. He seemed pretty levelheaded, and we seemed to share quite a bit of interests, and had like backgrounds. While I was still trying to completely let go of all the feelings for the friend with the drinking problem, actually dipping my toe into the dating pool really seemed to help that situation.

However, out of nowhere, I was broken up with. When I asked for the reason, I was given “stressed out because of work” as the reason. I sympathized, and was told that, however, he still wanted to be friends. I have now found out that the real reason was that he was getting back together with his ex-girlfriend — the same ex-girlfriend who had screwed with his emotions last year. I was upset, but not so much for him going back to the ex-girlfriend, but by his lack of candor. I have once again lost my ability to trust. Even by keeping casual, and not being clingy, needy, etc., I still feel as though I have failed once again, and picked a guy who obviously has some major issues.

So how can I learn to trust my own instincts again? I feel like my guard — which I find naturally difficult to let down but which was once again finally coming down — has gone back up. I feel extremely jaded as maybe I am destined to be alone, yet somehow I still hope that maybe I will find a nice man who will not be a complete jerk. If I am “doing the right things in life” according to my therapist — to place the focus on other parts of my life — why do I still feel that empty feeling that borders on jealousy when I see my friends who are happy? I also question how I can ever really relax enough to take another chance if I seemingly have really questionable attractions in men.

Yet Another Brick in the Wall

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Dear Brick,

What is your reason for seeking a man? It may sound like a dumb question but … Is it to have children and raise a family? To avoid loneliness? To feel relaxed and confident in your world? To enjoy sex? To demonstrate your value and attractiveness to others? To keep pace with your friends? Perhaps with your therapist you can dwell on these questions long enough to see some specific and detailed answers emerge. This might help you in several ways. For one thing, it can help you see exactly what you are losing when a man goes away. And so it can help you think how to replace those specific things that he was providing. If he was providing sex, for instance, and you miss the sex, then you can set about trying to find more sex. If the ache you feel is loneliness, then perhaps you need the company of others. If you feel wounded or betrayed, then perhaps you can work on that woundedness, exploring it, asking, Is it anger toward him, is it shock at how I have been treated?

So rather than suggest how you might better find and maintain another relationship — for which many guides exist — my approach is more to explore the various aspects of having a man and see how having a man is connected to your larger life aspirations.

If you can define how finding a man relates to some larger aspiration you have — to have family, to be connected closely, to have security or to avoid being alone — then perhaps your true desires will become more specific and vivid, and you will come to see how your past relationships fit into a larger pattern, and you will not feel that everything is so hopeless. Patterns will start to emerge. You will start to see what your big struggle actually is. You will start to see a direction. The direction may involve a relationship with a man or it may involve something entirely different. You may find, for instance, if you sit with this, that some vocation is pulling you in a certain direction. The direction may not be clear to you but it will become clear, if you can settle down and try to see what is in the distance.

This pattern that causes you so much pain may be a very natural thing and not a problem at all. It may be a sign of a certain direction that you are being called to go. If you quiet your mind and let various images come to you, you will see this. I wonder what those images would be.

You have a rich life filled with friends, work and activities.

Right now, I sense that you are keeping busy partly to distract yourself — from what? From these “lingering self-doubts,” I guess. And what those lingering self-doubts are, in truth, I imagine is the truth of your being.

Men come into your life and go out of your life. Men do not act the way you want them to. Their feelings change, or diminish. They drink too much or take drugs. They lie. They have something that you want but then the relationship turns painful. What is the pain about? Is it feeling that you will always be lonely? Is it feeling that others cannot be relied on, that they let you down, that they take advantage of you, wanting only sex and entertainment and then moving on? Is it a feeling of futility about the future, that you will never have the life you dream of having?

After looking at this for a while, ask yourself, Is this the big thing? Are these relationships with men my purpose in life? No? What is my purpose in life? Do I really want to get married? Is that the big thing? Or is it something else? Do I really want to be a singer, or a gardener, or start a business?

So how about this: Make this year your year of digging deeply. Make this year your year of facing the shit. If you can do that, you can find out who you are and where you are going. Then these other things will seem minor. You will reach a point where you look around and see that having a boyfriend or not having a boyfriend is not the issue. You are 33 now and no longer just out of college, no longer frolicking about. Your life is right here before you. The issue is how you get up in the morning and face your life. People will come and go. Your friends will come and go, too. Your family members will age and their status in life will change, as yours will. Try to see the big picture.

Underneath all this worry, there is a distinct, unique, thriving person with a powerful voice and a distinct view of the world, and capabilities no other person has. Maybe that person does not want to fit in and get married. Maybe that person wants to run away and be a crazy woman, live in a shack on the highway, or be an inventor, or an architect, or a criminal, an actress, a helper of children, a writer, a telephone operator …

So there I go again, ranting. But I want to clear away the generalities. I want to ask you to spend this year understanding your life in a new way with the help of your therapist. I want to ask you to identify your deepest beliefs and desires and work with her to understand how they have created these patterns that cause you so much pain, and figure out ways to get where you need to go. I think you can do that.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My boss wants to get rid of me

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 2, 2004

She wants me to leave under my own power — in a nice, quiet way.


Dear Cary,

I’ve been working at a high-tech company for about five years. My previous boss adored me, gave me good raises and promised me a promotion. Unfortunately, she got fired three years ago and was replaced by another woman. (BTW, I am female as well.) Anyway, the new boss is youngish (she’s in her young 30s, I’m in my young 40s) and felt she needed to take the bull by the horns by giving everybody hell.

There is no question she is smart, organized and driven, but she expects way too much from her employees. There has been high turnover in her group since her tenure, but management doesn’t seem to notice because she manages “up” if you know what I mean. My first review from her was scathing, but the subsequent two were fine. I’ve been working on a major software project this year that required a lot of travel and a great deal of time and effort. I thought everything was going fine, but lo and behold she tells me that my “management” skills aren’t up to snuff and wants me to leave the department. She said she’ll get me another job in the company, but doesn’t want me in her group. No paperwork, no human resources, no anything — she just wants me to leave.

Here’s my beef: I had no warning about this at all. I appreciate that she doesn’t want to involve H.R. because they are typically on the side of the company. I admit culpability and that some things slipped through the cracks. But she is the type of manager that if you do 10 things right and one thing wrong, the one wrong thing wrong will be noticed. In other words, she is a micro-manager.

Your advice? Should I just smile and find another position in the company, or investigate this further? I’ve worked hard and don’t feel I deserve this. To make a Machiavellian reference, maybe I didn’t kowtow to the prince. There has never been any chemistry between us, and I never tried to brown-nose her.

Getting Screwed by a Boss From Hell

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Dear Getting Screwed,

You are probably correct that the problem lies in your relationship with your boss — or, more precisely, in your boss’s attitude toward you. Had you “managed up” as you say, in that relationship, perhaps she would regard you differently. But I don’t think you can fix that relationship now. She’s apparently made up her mind. She wants you gone.

The manner of your going, however, is still up for discussion. So I’m not sure I agree that it’s best to keep H.R. out of it “because they are typically on the side of the company.” The very fact that your boss does not want H.R. involved indicates to me that perhaps they should be involved.

I can think of several reasons your boss might not want H.R. involved. Perhaps she knows that you have a good performance record and she can’t make any kind of business case for moving you. Has she said anything about how her plan to get rid of you would help the company? Probably not. Perhaps what she is proposing goes against company policy — after all, H.R. is there for a reason. Also, H.R. may have noted the high turnover in her department and she may be afraid of bringing further attention to the problem. Perhaps H.R. cannot be “managed up” as easily as the other subpar midlevel managers she’s got wrapped around her little finger.

Meanwhile, she is trying to enlist you as an ally in your own undoing: You and me, honey, we don’t need H.R., we can settle this between us. She may be pretending to be on your side and against “the company,” but remember: She is the company. She is management. So don’t fall for that line.

Instead, why not go to H.R. confidentially. Explore your options. Get some counseling. You don’t necessarily have to tell them all the details. Just say that you’re looking into, you know, career development. You may have rights in this matter that you’re not aware of. Consider it from H.R.’s position. One of the things they try to do is avoid lawsuits from disgruntled employees. And while many in companies view the H.R. department as something like the principal’s office, there are always a few individuals who went into the field of human resources because they wanted to help people flourish and succeed. Of course, others go into it because they like to fire people and make them fill out forms. So you never know. But it’s worth looking into. At the very least, it will show your boss that you can’t be cowed or secretly manipulated.

It could backfire, of course. She could make things worse for you. But I don’t think she would fire you — if there were grounds for firing, she would have done it already.

I look at it like this: A personality conflict in a work situation is not the end of the world, and it does not have to be some ugly secret. It’s a fact of life. It happens all the time. Not everybody gets along. Not everybody likes everybody else. The right thing to do, I think, is to acknowledge it and deal with it in an aboveboard manner.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

The workers I supervise are out of control

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 1, 2007

I am supposed to be managing 15 people, but they are crazy and unmanageable. What am I to do?


Dear Cary,

I supervise about 15 people at my job, 13 of whom are women. I am a man. It is an office environment, not high pressure, with relatively technical work that mostly gets done well and on time. I’ve been in the office for 20 years, rising from the lower ranks to head of the area. My trouble is that I have lost any interest in dealing with the women on the staff.

A couple of them are just not very smart. I can rearrange work to handle that for some, but others are just too aggressively stupid. Most of the others are unbearably irrational. I say, let’s decide between A and B; there are many meetings where A is mutually agreed upon as correct, many documents explaining the whys and hows of A; then comes the time to implement A and there is an outcry that B was not given a fair hearing, that A is hateful and unworkable. There are also constant personality clashes — she said this, so I said that, so she won’t have lunch with her, so I won’t have lunch with them; she does a terrible job and is never reprimanded, while I am working my fingers to the bone with no recognition, and on and on … and on! These people honestly seem to have no lives that do not involve a constant assessment of the faults of their co-workers. If I work at all more closely with or engage in conversation more generally with any of the women who are smart and rational, the others are on the lookout and begin “teacher’s pet” treatment of the offender. I can’t stand them anymore!

The two men and two or three of the women on the staff are not like this, although they are no smarter, harder working or more trainable than the other women. But they are also rational. If I tell them something was wrong, do it this way instead, they say OK, fine. They do not react as if I were condemning them to the eighth circle of hell. They are never in my office crying. They never engage in long, furtive, whispering conversations. They don’t form cliques.

Often I find that something has been brewing for weeks only when it explodes. Since in the past I have always tried to get feuders to sit down and talk to each other or, alternatively, have told them to stop behaving like children, they have stopped coming to me to resolve disputes at the early stages. Either I have an unusually recalcitrant and unmanageable group or I have lost any ability to deal with middle-aged women, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I don’t think this long-running situation has made me a misogynist, although it has probably angled me in the direction of misanthropy. Or maybe that is just middle age. I could throw out the redeeming fact that I have a wife I’ve been happily married to for 25 years and three daughters, all of whom I carry on rationally with at least seven-eighths of the time, which seems pretty good compared to my work life.

The obvious answer is to try something new, but there are a number of reasons, financial and familial, that make changing jobs unfeasible for the next decade or so. I could also work to get some of them dismissed, but I spent two and a half years documenting and insisting that we do just that with the worst offender, and it was like a daily trip to the dentist. So here I am, the supervisor of 10 menopausal nut cases who do not respond to carrots or sticks, who resent me for trying to make changes, who resent me when I bring in human resources to help us assess our workplace issues, who resent things in general. Right now I’ve settled on ignoring them as much as possible, but this won’t do forever. Any advice?

Muddled in Massachusetts

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Dear Muddled,

I believe that this kind of group dysfunctionality happens when a group of people is particularly starved of things they need. They feel trapped in a situation in which they cannot get their basic needs met, so they are acting out in strange ways. Their needs differ — some may need power, some solitude, some sociability, some challenging work. But they are trying meet certain needs that have nothing to do with their assigned tasks. And there is a perceived shortage of whatever they need. Perhaps too many of them need power and there is not enough power to go around.

A strictly rational approach might leave one baffled by such a situation. But someone more attuned to emotional and spiritual needs might walk in and immediately see what is going on. I sense that you have abilities in both areas — you would like to approach this rationally, as a grown man, with 20 years’ experience in the business, but your attempts at being rational have been rebuffed. You have some sensitivity as well. It just may not have occurred to you to use it in a consciously structured way.

Basically, I would say open your heart to these people — in a very structured, scientific way.

So I suggest that you conduct a 15-week experiment, one week for each employee. Pick one person each week and study that person. Do not judge or instruct or interrogate. Just seek to understand what that person wants. Look at what she has on her desk. Look at her clothes. Ask yourself, What is important to her? Is security important? Is her family important? Her husband? Entertainment? Gardening? Children? Keep a journal of your observations and thoughts about each employee.

Relate to that person as a person, emotionally. Listen to her or him. Use your instincts for sociability; pretend that individual is a member of your family, or a friend. At the end of each week, ask yourself, What does this person really want? Some answer will come into your mind. It may seem silly. But I suggest you listen to it, strange and nonsensical as it may sound. What comes into your mind? A birthday cake? A trip to Ireland? A diamond ring? To publish a book of poetry? A new car? Some shoes? A new husband?

Write these things down.

At the same time that you are observing individuals, observe how the group behaves. How do they interact with one another? Which ones want to lead? Which ones want to follow? Which ones want predictability and order, and which ones require novelty? Which ones like a quick pace, and which ones like a slow pace? Which ones are morning people, and which ones are afternoon people? Watch to see which ones work hard at which times. When do they make phone calls? What do they like to eat?

As well as studying these people, you must also feed them. They are very hungry. They are spending all day trapped in a place they do not want to be, not getting what they want. Give them encouragement and praise. Give them lots of it. Lavish it on them. Lavish encouragement and praise. Find things they are doing well and praise them openly for it. Start handing out praise all day, every day. Every day walk around and see what they are doing and say, “Nice job.” Say, “Well done.” Say, “I appreciate the effort you put into this.” Say, “I appreciate the long hours you are keeping.” Say, “I appreciate your getting here on time every day.”

You might also pick up some award certificates and start handing them out. Think of things they can receive awards for and give them awards.

Study them and praise them for 15 weeks.

Then use what you have learned.

At the end of this 15 weeks ask yourself a bunch of questions about them as a group. Which ones would work well as subgroups? Which ones work together well, and which ones are in conflict? Can you design tasks so that the ones who work well together can work together? Can you remove joint tasks from those who are in conflict? Who are the leaders? Who are the ones who are most well liked? Who would they listen to in a crisis? What matters to them? Food? The location of desks? Certain assignments? Work hours? What is flexible and amenable to change? Give the leaders some power, however that is done.

This is admittedly experimental. But the way I think about it, you could try all these things, and of all these things, there may be a few things that actually bring some tangible improvement. At the same time, for you personally, there will be a feeling of improvement and accomplishment that comes with simply carrying out a program and acquiring information. You cannot know how it might help you. If you set out systematically to learn about your fellow employees, and to respond to them on an emotional level, you may find out all kinds of things. You may find out that they have skills you were unaware of. You may also find out that they have deficiencies you were unaware of.

Being neither a lawyer nor an employment consultant, I recognize that there may be areas of inquiry you need to stay away from for legal and/or company policy reasons. In fact, this admittedly crazy-sounding idea may fly in the face of everything you believe about how a workplace is supposed to run. But what can be the harm? I cannot imagine there could be anything wrong with simply setting out to learn more about the people you work with and provide them with various kinds of recognition and rewards. It may seem kind of sneaky and cold to “observe them experimentally,” but all I am really trying to say is: Open your heart to these people, in a very concrete way, in order to learn what their needs are and why they are acting out. And then try to satisfy some of their needs.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m sleeping with my best friend’s fiancé

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 16, 2008

I didn’t like him at first because he was treating her bad, but now I’ve got him under my skin.


Dear Cary,

My best friend got engaged to the father of her kids about four months ago. I didn’t like him because in the beginning of their relationship he used to cheat on her and just treat her terrible. I’ve known my best friend a little over 14 years now and I hold a grudge toward him because of this. I really didn’t like him until he confessed to me that he liked me and had feelings for me the first time he met me.

At first I wanted to tell my best friend, but I didn’t want to get involved in that so I just decided to keep it to myself. Ever since that day he’s been texting me telling me that he wants to make me happy and just wants me to fill a void that he’s missing. He says that he loves my best friend but he feels incomplete. But now I caught feelings for him because I got to know him more than what I knew before. I understood why my friend was still with him even after all the cheating and lies because underneath it all he is a good person.

So I finally gave in and slept with him and now his feelings for me have been getting deeper. Now I feel the same way. I know what I’m doing is wrong but I can’t seem to shake off these feelings for him. I’m stuck and don’t know what to do.

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

You need to end this relationship. If you don’t, you will get hurt. If it is too difficult to end it while you are still living where you are living then consider moving away for three months to a year. If you have relatives, say, in California, or somewhere like that, ask them if you can come and stay with them for a while.

If you cannot get away, then you are just going to have to break up with him in a direct, straightforward way and stick to your decision. Tell him that this relationship is wrong and it is over and that is that.

After you have broken up with him, here are the rules: You cannot see this man. You cannot have coffee with him or talk with him on the phone. You cannot accept texts from him. You have to cut off all contact with him. You have to end this thing.

You may continue to feel a strong desire for him. That is OK to feel. You can feel it. It won’t kill you. You can live with desire. You can also redirect the desire. If the desire is mostly sexual, find somebody who turns you on to have sex with. If it is also that he gives you a warm feeling, a feeling of being liked and cared for and understood, then seek this feeling too, with friends or family. Find someone — not your best friend! — that you can confide in about this. Give yourself what you need. But end this relationship.

For some readers, the question of whether you confess to your friend that you slept with her fiancé will be the big issue. I’m sidestepping that, OK? She may find out. She may not. You may feel compelled to tell her. You may not. He may tell her. I am focusing on what you must do now and in the long term to build a good life, given what has happened.

And I’m thinking about your best friend. I feel for her too. What is she going to do? Do you want her to marry this guy? Really? Will she be better off with him or without him? What is he going to do for her? How is he going to help her live a good and happy life?

I am really concerned about your friend. She has children to support and a fiancé who cannot be trusted. The two people closest to her are deceiving her. She is a single mom who must support her children.

Plus, I must say, you owe this friend of yours. You have deceived her. You owe her. So after you have broken up with this man and severed all contact with him, I would like you to turn your attention to your friend. Ask yourself what you can do for her. Wouldn’t it be great if you were to settle down and get married and have kids, and your kids and her kids could grow up together? That would be a pretty good way for this to end up.

There are many reasons why she needs your presence. Given the situation she is in, she may be in for a hard few years and could use a friend nearby. This man, her fiancé, may cause her all kinds of heartache if she marries him. And if she does not marry him, she will be a single mother trying to make ends meet. So either way, she is going to have her hands full. And you are in a position to act in a new way, a way that will make you feel good about yourself.

What if you could find a good man and fall in love with him and marry him and have kids with him and live near her? I know you’ve been deceiving her but you can change. Or maybe you don’t have kids. Maybe you stay single. But you put together some kind of stable life. If you can put together a stable life and live near her and remain her friend throughout the next 20 years or so, while her kids are growing up, you can do a very good thing in this world.

People don’t tell you these things. We see families grow up around us but people don’t really tell us why some families and friends remain happy and others drift apart and end up lonely and bitter. Part of it is that some people are just situated near the ones they love. Sometimes it’s geography. So think about it at least. You obviously care for this person even though you’ve been deceiving her.

Twenty years may seem far in the future. But before you know it, 20 years will have gone by. It is in your power to decide where you are going to be while those years go by.

So that is what I would do. I would break off this relationship firmly and permanently. I would try to settle down and live near this friend. I would try to live a good life and maybe get married and have some kids and be there for her, so that whatever happens, whether she marries the fiancé or decides that he cannot be trusted, whether she finds another man or stays single, you can be a stable, ongoing presence in her life and in the lives of her kids. And you can continue to enjoy her presence as a lifelong friend.

It can be done. It would be a good thing.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Warning signs

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, NOV 12, 2003

I’m in love with her, she’s in love with him, and I feel like a confused, heartbroken sucker.


Dear Cary,

A few months ago, I had a one-night stand with a co-worker. She had recently been seeing another co-worker who broke her heart because he used her as a sport fuck. But she was in love with him.

After our first encounter, we agreed that our thing was a mistake and we decided to not let it happen again. But it happened again, and again. We saw each other for a couple of months. Then one night, after I had grown tired of keeping our relationship a secret, she tells me that she slept with her ex (our co-worker) while she was seeing me. I confronted him about using her again and I freaked out on her for letting herself get used. Our relationship ended, but we remained civil since we all worked together. That lasted all of about three weeks. On my birthday I got a call from her and she invited me over to her place.

We started seeing each other again for a few months. She told me when we started up again that she was not ready for a relationship and that she couldn’t promise me anything. I was fine with that. I really liked her and wanted to give her space. But she’d call me every day. After a few weeks of this, she told me one day that she was finally feeling comfortable with the whole thing. Things were going well. And I was falling in love with her. I even left my job (for a better one), partly so that we wouldn’t have to worry about working together anymore.

About a month ago, I called her before I left to visit relatives out of state. She was totally shut down and refused to talk to me about anything. She told me that she needed alone time. I lost it. I demanded to know why this came up out of the blue. I told her it was over between us. I was done with her wishy-washy behavior. Right before I hung up on her, she told me that things could still be good between us. Two days after the “alone time” speech, I called her and she told me that she changed her mind. She told me she wasn’t ready for a relationship — not with me — not with anyone. I said some nasty things and told her that she would probably wind up having a “relapse” with this snark co-worker who broke her heart.

I’ve called her and e-mailed her several times demanding an explanation. Finally she told me that she was still in love with our co-worker. And while she knows it’s not reciprocal, she can’t help it. I also learned that he used her for sex yet again. This infuriated me because it meant that I had been heartbroken over a lie. She was perfectly willing and able to have a relationship, just not with me. I still care for her and love her. She’s hurting herself by chasing this windmill. Now she refuses to talk to me. Meanwhile, she told him just about every little detail of the relationship that she and I had. I feel like I’ve been sold out.

I should have seen the signs. But she sent me mixed signals. I suppose I believed the good ones and ignored the bad ones. Why am I the one being punished? Why is she confiding in this asshole who uses her and refusing to talk to me? I’m over the fact that she doesn’t want to be with me, but I want to be her friend and she won’t even let me do that.

Totally Confused Heartbroken Sucker

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Dear Totally Confused,

Your house has been burning for months now, but you keep running up to the flames and getting burned. You can’t seem to take your eyes off the spectacle of destruction. You’re drawn to it. You’ve got to turn around. Look away from the fire. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Go carefully in the other direction. Keep walking until there’s no more heat on your back and you can’t hear the roar. Find someplace cool and safe where there’s first aid. And don’t look back.

It wasn’t your house anyway, it was just a place you were staying because you hadn’t thought of anything better to do. So once you’re safe and your burns have healed, look for something better to do. That’s your job now. Casual hookups and one-night stands are fine if that’s what they are. But if you’re really looking for a more stable, committed relationship, then don’t expect casual things to turn into something else. You need to get clear about your intentions with women. If you’re the type of guy who’s likely to fall hard for a woman, then make sure the woman you fall hard for isn’t going to burn you.

In the meantime, to help you more fully understand your situation, maybe it would be helpful to make the distinction between a wound and a problem. The difference between a wound and a problem is that the problem can keep wounding you. A wound just heals. As long as you stay away from her, you don’t have a problem. You just have a wound that needs healing. Now if you go out and take one more look at that fire, and get burned again, then you have to start all over with the healing process. So stay away from the fire until you’re healed.

What would it mean to be healing? It would mean that even if you do on occasion think about her, even if you feel occasional pangs of regret and longing, you can honestly say to yourself and to anybody else that you’ve made a decision to let that episode go, that you fully understand you have no role in it anymore, that it’s none of your business — none.

Here’s a suggestion for the future. Next time, take it slow. Do not go to bed with a woman right away. Give it some time. Get to know her really well. Find out where she’s at emotionally. If she’s getting over a boyfriend, back off. What you need to look for is the ultimate clean, unencumbered, uncomplicated kind of romance, full of slow trust and careful commitment. It might not sound like so much fun, but, frankly, you’ve been a little reckless with your heart. So guard it more closely. It’s your heart. Be careful with it.

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I’m an insecure saboteur

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 14, 2004

I have a habit of destroying all of my relationships after they’re about a year old.

 


Dear Cary,

I have a problem with keeping friends more than about a year, mostly due to my insecurities, but I have no clue why I act the way I do or what to do about it.

I’m definitely not a people-person; I can easily put on a facade and be social when I need to, but it’s a facade, so I feel that hardly anyone I meet gets a clear picture of who I am. The few souls who do, the ones I feel I can identify with to the point of being myself while in their presence, invariably are new to the city, or have just broken up with a longtime significant other, so they’re rather alone and adrift and we quickly become best friends. After a few months, their social structure grows, either through meeting new people by themselves or through me, and I feel jealous and hurt, taking it personally that my new best friend feels the need to have a social life that doesn’t involve me.

So I start testing the friendship, acting petty and spiteful. With the current best friend (she’s a girl, I’m a guy), I find myself putting distance between us, being cold and unresponsive to her, all because she had the nerve to find a girl she loves hanging out with. Likewise, I hold this new friend in contempt, and when either or both of them want to get together with me, I feel like they’re just pitying me or humoring me, and that I’m an afterthought, never a first option.

I’m 28 and, looking back, I can see a clear pattern of this over the last 12 or 13 years. I’ve lost several great friends because of my selfishness, and I really don’t want to lose this current one. How can I just be happy that she, or anyone, is my friend? Why do we have to be exclusive best friends or simple acquaintances, without something in between being a possibility? I’m tired of ditching my friends simply because I’m not No. 1 in their lives, but I don’t know why I do this or how to stop my childish behavior.

Saboteur

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Dear Saboteur,

There is a passage in “The Remains of the Day,” the wonderful novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, in which Stevens, the butler attached to Darlington Hall, is asked by one Mrs. Wakefield about his past association with Lord Darlington. She has been touring the estate with an air that if not exactly contemptuous is not exactly respectful either. Standing to admire the stone arch that frames the doorway into the dining room, she wonders aloud if the arch is “mock” or not. Then, lowering her voice, Mrs. Wakefield says to Stevens, “But tell me, Stevens, what was this Lord Darlington like? Presumably you must have worked for him.”

“I didn’t, madam, no.”

“Oh, I thought you did,” she replies. “I wonder why I thought that.”
Stevens has told a lie that later embarrasses his current employer, and when he tries to explain it, he tells his employer, “I’m very sorry, sir. But it is to do with the ways of this country.”

“What are you talking about, man?”

“I mean to say, sir, that it is not customary in England for an employee to discuss his past employers.”

“OK, Stevens, so you don’t wish to divulge past confidences. But does that extend to you actually denying having worked for anyone other than me?”

“It does seem a little extreme when you put it that way, sir. But it has often been considered desirable for employees to give such an impression. If I may put it this way, sir, it is a little akin to the custom as regards marriages. If a divorced lady were present in the company of her second husband, it is often thought desirable not to allude to the original marriage at all. There is a similar custom as regards our profession, sir.”

“Well, I only wish I’d known about your custom before, Stevens,” his employer says. “It certainly made me look like a chump.”

Of course, it isn’t only custom that motivates Stevens, but protectiveness toward the estate and the life and era that it represents, as well as umbrage at Mrs. Wakefield’s suggestion that the arch might be “mock.”

As I read that passage last week, I found myself thinking about your letter. There was something of fierce protectiveness and attachment both in your letter and in Stevens’ behavior, something touching and noble and utterly nutty all at once.

This is something I understand from personal experience. I, too, sometimes act cold and distant with friends who seem to have strayed; and I sometimes feel compelled to lie or withhold information about my association with, or attachment to, things I hold dear. For instance, I sometimes studiously avoid telling inquisitive strangers that I am a writer or that I work for Salon, as though to divulge such facts were to open myself to possible harm. I am not always sure why I do this. It is a point of pride that I am a writer and I work for Salon; but it is a personal pride, a private thing, not something you wear on your chest like a medal from a war.

What impresses me in your letter is the bright and helpless clarity with which you observe your own behavior, much as though you were observing yourself through a soundproof pane of glass — much as Ishiguro has his narrator, Stevens, describe his actions with painful exactitude while pretending serene unconsciousness of the powerful emotions behind them.

A central theme of the book is dignity — the quality that allows Stevens to function flawlessly on the surface while events unfold that might reduce another man to tears.

At any rate, I wish to say that I understand what you are going through, and I think you can make some adjustments that will lessen your torment. There is nothing wrong with being a person who quickly forms deep attachments to others. In fact, it is a wonderful quality. But you must manage it. It is like a powerful gift. You do not want to use it indiscriminately.

Since you are not a very social person, you should find it relatively easy to be alone. There you have an advantage over extreme extroverts. If you do not need to be with people all the time, you can take the time to choose more wisely, and I think you need to do so.

Since you say that you tend to befriend newcomers who quickly establish a social network that draws them away from you, I suggest that if someone is new to your area, you stand back and let them become acquainted on their own before you offer your friendship. As regards your current troubling friendship, I think you owe your friend an explanation. Simply tell her that you seem to have formed a powerful attachment to her, all out of proportion to what has actually transpired between you. If you feel embarrassed or troubled by this, simply tell her what you feel. Do not put this in the form of a demand or ultimatum. Just stick to the facts. Tell her that you want to remain her friend, but that you wish you could spend more time together. And concentrate on spending time with her alone — not with her and her friend.

You may find that she is more extroverted than you realized, that she needs a certain hubbub of people about her, that she doesn’t have the ability to concentrate on one person for long enough to develop a deep and lasting bond. If so, take a lesson from this episode: If you want to develop a close and lasting friendship, choose more carefully; take more time; go more slowly. And if possible, choose someone who is not radically more outgoing than yourself.

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How do you kick out a disorderly roommate?

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

We all like to party, but she takes it way too far.


Dear Cary,

I’m a 24-year-old female living with two roommates in a rental house. Being in our 20s, drinking, etc., is not exactly frowned upon. Hell, we love it. My one roommate, whom I’ll call “Blondie” (age 26), and I both know when enough is enough; however, “Red,” at the age of 28, does not have a handle on herself. She frequently drinks to excess and fights with her equally dysfunctional boyfriend. None of this is relegated to the weekends, but just whenever she feels like getting pissed.

The most recent incident was this Saturday, at a friend’s birthday party in our local haunt. She and her boyfriend got into a huge argument (drunken, of course). He left the bar (Blondie’s boyfriend prevented Red’s boyfriend from driving drunk, thank God), and she was sobbing. Apparently, she forgot that during the festivities, she flirted with some random guy not with our group, which her boyfriend saw.

Without getting too far into it, I’m basically sick of the two of them — and her especially. What it all adds up to is she is making living peacefully in that house almost impossible. The next morning Red and her boyfriend behave as though nothing happened the night prior, and the rest of us are left to feel as though we are walking on eggshells. It’s completely uncomfortable and wholly strange. I last confronted her when the two of them came home drunk and had a loud fight at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. She seemed to understand it was totally unacceptable, but only because it was late and I wake up early for work.

Cary, what do I say to her? Blondie and I are at the end of our collective rope. We both want her out, but I don’t think it would be fair to ask her to pack it up without confronting her first. I’m not sure how to be tactful and not come off as though I’m judging her. Please help.

End of Tether

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Dear End of Tether,

I was slithering around in the weeds trying to get the words right in my typically pseudo-therapeutic nonjudgmental California style when I began to feel a curious outrage. Yes, you could sit her down and explain that the energy isn’t right, that it’s not a harmonious mix, that the vibes are wrong. You could say that your lifestyles are different, that you don’t feel comfortable the way things are and you think it’s time to make some changes. You could say she’d probably be happier living somewhere else, all of which would be sort of true.

But on the occasion of Saul Bellow’s death, in the memory of his thunderous prose, his intellectual passion, his moral clarity, I find myself questioning the drained, vapid language of California compassion, wondering if we ought not to stop hiding behind our subjectivity and be a little more straightforward in our judgments of others, to say outright that we have a code of conduct and we expect others to abide by it, that some behavior is better than other behavior. What’s wrong with telling her to get the hell out? Do you really want to help her or do you just want to get a good night’s sleep? The truth of it is that she’s behaved abominably.

What is your responsibility in this matter? Are you her therapist, her sister, or just a citizen who entered into an implicit social contract that she appears to have blithely broken time and again?

Yes, I may sound ill-tempered this morning. Perhaps I am. I hope it doesn’t appear I’m taking it out on your roommate. It’s just been bugging me for a while now: This whole pseudo-therapeutic cliché of dealing with conflict by concentrating only on your own feelings — how did that work its way into our culture? It may be fine in therapy, but not all life is therapy. Life is also open conflict. There’s this other thing that’s bugging me, too, our creeping Orwellian debasement of language. As the dominant culture lies to us, we have to be careful not to lie to ourselves and to each other in our daily lives. We need to learn how to say what we mean.

Why is it better to say, “I just don’t feel comfortable with some of your actions”? What is wrong with saying, “I think your behavior is wrong and it ought to stop”? Is it really being more truthful to talk only about our own feelings, as if our feelings were all that is knowable?

There’s this logical flaw as well: Saying you’re “uncomfortable” assumes that your antagonist gives a damn about your comfort. Isn’t that assuming rather a lot? It requests compassion from someone whom you are actually chastising with veiled judgment. There’s something kind of perverse and dishonest about that. We’re in conflict. Why should they care whether we’re comfortable or not? Isn’t that the problem right there? She doesn’t care if you’re comfortable. That’s why you’re uncomfortable!

The very word “uncomfortable” makes me uncomfortable — intellectually. What is “uncomfortable”? Is it pain? Is it outrage? Is it anger? Is it rational disapproval? Is it any idea or emotion at all? It’s merely the absence of comfort! Is comfort our highest social value? Do we aspire to nothing greater than the sensation of reclining in a Barcalounger? What about progress through struggle, what about impulse control, what about consequences, what about learning in a painful fashion, when her roommate descends the stairs with an ax, just what murderous thoughts are aroused at 2 a.m. by her drunken voice in the kitchen?

If you’re conflicted about resolving this conflict in a nice way, I can see why. But I’m not sure you’re required to be all that nice and understanding. Maybe you just need to be direct. Picture Donald Trump in the boardroom: No hard feelings, but you screwed up and you’re fired.

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Help me be strong

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 28, 2003

I’m in love with a man I work with. We’re both married with kids but we don’t want to break up our families.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love with a man I work with. He’s married, I’m married, both of us have kids — hard to make it sound original. However, while I have vivid fantasies of being with him, I basically don’t want to cheat on my husband, I don’t want to break up my family, and I don’t want to break up his family. I have a lot of respect for his wife, and I want my kids to be with their dad.

Mr. Wonderful started working for my company a few months ago. I was largely unsatisfied in my job, then he arrived and we were assigned to a project together. My work life has totally turned around, I’m working harder than I ever have and loving it, and we do really good work together. We enjoy each other’s company, and both of us have commented on how well we get along for only knowing one another for a few months. We work hard, then take breaks to discuss politics, family issues, the evil of the SUV and G.W.’s war in Iraq, then back to more hard work. We’re accomplishing so much for the company, and I think the boss is pleased.

There’s a physical charge between us for sure. All that clichéd stuff — the brushing of hands, feet pausing together a moment too long together under the table, makes me feel like a cheap romance novelist just to write it. It’s fun, but I’m fully aware of the thin line we are walking.

To complete the scene, a description of my marriage is required — my husband and I, even when we were dating, have always had a rocky relationship. We were together and apart a lot before getting married, kind of rushed into marriage after a particularly dramatic breakup and reunion (the dozen roses a day for a week variety), and now have two kids under 3 and a lot of added stress to an already stressful relationship. We’ve done couples counseling for about seven years now, and while it keeps us going, it doesn’t feel like we make much progress toward real change.

My husband is intense and exciting, but also is impatient, selfish and immature. My co-worker (C.W.) is kind and generous. While I really don’t want to divorce my husband, wreck C.W.’s marriage, and marry him (OK, I kind of want that on one level, but I don’t want all the drama that would entail), meeting him has made me realize that kind and generous men are out there, and if I were on my own I could probably meet another one. My husband and I are really trying to improve things, both of us agreeing to put effort into the marriage, but I’m not fully into it since C.W. is always in my mind somewhere.

The easy answer is quit my job and clear my mind; however, it’s a small town, C.W. and I are both committed to staying here, and it’s kind of the only (and best) game in town for both of us. I plan on moving on to something else (following a calling, but that’s another story) when my kids start school in four years, but for now I need this job.

I turn down C.W.’s requests to accompany him on errands during the day, but the occasional lunch together is such fun and so energizing, I’d hate to give it up, and then I’d also have to explain to him why. We have verbalized none of what happens nonverbally between us; it’s chaste as can be on the surface (though I do suspect a bit of office gossip). I’m struggling to separate the work and decisions about my marriage from the existence of C.W., but should I even try? Is it all connected in my feelings? Telling my husband that meeting C.W. made me realize that I deserve better treatment would not go over well, since I still have to go to work every day. I’ve been fibbing a bit, saying, “I’ve been recognizing my own needs more lately,” to explain my increasing dissatisfaction and crankiness around the house.

Does my husband deserve to be let in on what’s in my head? For the record, all of my friends, male and female, agree that my husband should be contributing to the family more, should treat me with more respect and kindness and shouldn’t be blaming me for everything the way he does, so I think I’m in the right in asking for better behavior from him.

Any insight you have would be welcome as I try to sort this all out.

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

You’re at a crucial point in your life; you’re dozing off in the driver’s seat, about to run off the road, and it’s my job to jump into the passenger seat, slap you silly, wake you up and put your hands back on the wheel.

It’s not that far, really, to Albuquerque. You’ll be there by morning. Your husband will mature. Your kids will become more self-sufficient. You’ll have other crushes and other brushes with marital disaster, and you’ll handle them better with practice. But right now, you have to just wake up and stay on the road. Don’t blow it. You have no idea how messed up things could get. Just keep your hands on the wheel, keep your eyes on the road, and think of your kids.

It’s not surprising you’re tired and not thinking straight, with those kids waking you up at all hours and the job and the husband and the counseling and the work on the relationship and the secret crush. You’re probably just about done in. All the more reason to stick to the basics right now, and don’t complicate your life any further.
Don’t be telling your husband about what’s going on in your head. If, as you say, he is impatient, selfish and immature, he’s not going to be any help. It would just add stress. Instead, plug this leak at the source: level with your co-worker. Tell him that you know something is developing between you two and you’re putting a stop to it. Tell him you’re backing off and taking control for the two of you. Then do it. Be friendly but firm. Treat him like any other co-worker. If you find that hard to do, here’s a tip: Visualize how a woman would act if she wasn’t attracted to him, and copy what she does.

And then put more energy into your marriage. Rather than allow yourself to drift further away, reverse that: Give it all you’ve got. If you work hard, you can make it tolerable and secure while your kids go through those crucial early years. Here’s another idea that might help: Make a list of 10 concrete things you could do to cheer yourself up, improve your marriage and make life easier around the house, and then, one by one, work to make them happen. That should keep you busy and focused. Who knows, perhaps during the next few years, partly as a result of your hard work and partly as a natural process, your husband may mature, overcome his selfishness and impatience and become the man you would like him to be.

But if not, when the kids are older, and your individual finances are such that one of you could take care of the kids without undue stress, if you are still deeply unhappy in your marriage, perhaps it will be time to get a divorce. Just don’t do it now. The kids deserve a chance to get through elementary school without worrying about which parent they’re with on Tuesday and which house they’re sleeping in on Thursday. They started life with two parents and they’d probably prefer to continue life with two parents. So, for now, that’s your job. Keep your eyes on the road. Because, as they say in that Michelin ad, so much is riding on your tires.

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My former best friend became a stripper

 

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Cary’s classic column from December 10, 2010

Wow. We were so close in high school, and now she’s doing drugs and hanging out with gangs


Dear Cary,

“Jenny” and I were the best of friends in high school. We did everything together and were more like sisters than friends. After high school, I went away to college. She never went to college, but moved to a larger city about an hour away. Although we kept in touch for the first few years, our contact dwindled. It was both of our faults. She didn’t call me much, and I didn’t call her much. There was no falling out. At this point, I haven’t seen or spoken to Jenny in four years.

I was shocked recently to find out that Jenny got her 2-year-old son taken away from her. The reason was failing drug tests and suspected gang affiliations. I also found out she is working as an exotic dancer. This is all wildly out of character for the Jenny I knew. I’m extremely concerned about her health, safety and well-being. I don’t have her current contact information, but I think with minimal effort I could get it.

My dilemma is this. I am now 29 years old and married. My husband and I own a home, and I have a steady public sector job. We are currently expecting our first child. In other words, we have a lot to lose. I am worried about making contact with a person who is a drug user and (suspected) gang member. I don’t know what type of people she associates with now. I’m worried about putting my family or my job at risk by reaching out and associating myself with her. On the other hand, I’m terrified that I’m going to pick up the newspaper one of these days and read that her body was found in a gutter. I would feel so guilty for not having tried to help.

Should I sacrifice my family’s safety to reach out and try to help a friend who was once like a sister?

Guilty BFF

Dear Guilty BFF,

It must be upsetting to hear this news about your friend. You obviously care about her and do not want to see her hurt. However, this is her life.

Her life is not an emergency. Her house is not on fire. She is not hanging from a cliff yelling for help. She is living her life, such as it is.
She probably does not have a nice clean kitchen where the two of you could sit and chat. It may be hard to make an appointment with her if she is busy getting a fix or getting bail or dealing with child protective services or managing her complex social life.

So if you want to see her, I suggest you drop in where she dances. It will give you a chance to see her without making an appointment. You might find, after seeing her dance, that you’re not really ready to call her or see her privately. It will give you a chance to feel what it’s like to be in her world, without making yourself known.

You might not like the environment. But it will help you understand what her life is like.

Her dancing may well be the high point of her life.
To you, it may seem like a pretty disgusting way to live. But this is a life your friend has chosen. It’s not a prison in which she is being held against her will.

I know that kind of life. And one thing I know about that kind of life is that when you are living that kind of life, you do not look out at all the shiny, clean people going about their orderly lives and wish your life could be like that. You have your problems, but you do not envy the straight people. You look down on them.

Such a life is not an unremitting horror. It has its ups and downs. She may occasionally be beaten and taken advantage of. She is probably exploited financially and occasionally robbed and threatened. But it’s her life and it has its rewards and its logic.

Whether by choice or not, your friend’s life is a life that many, many people in this country lead — a life of minimal income, frequent scrapes with the law, battles with social institutions, sporadic nightclub employment, frequent drug use and drinking, and association with people who have done time and are likely to do more time. In this world, violence happens with some regularity and usually has some logic to it. It arises out of personality conflicts or disputes over money or property or intimate relationships. It is something to be avoided if possible but not something that would in and of itself cause a person to flee the environment altogether. It is just something that happens, and you learn to live with it.

Think about what your friend was like when you knew her. What was her personality like? Did she have a lot of pride? Was she a passionate person? Did she like to drink when you knew her? Was she a thrill-seeker? Did she seem moody? Was she honest? Did she steal? Was she more interested in sex than you were? What kind of family did she come from? Try to connect that person you remember with the person who is dancing naked in a bar for money, who cannot pass a drug test even to keep her baby.

What do you come up with?

The most interesting thing to me in this is to ask what do you have in common? What traits do you have that might have led you into a similar life? Are there things about your friend that you used to admire, things that now you see have led her this way? Was she, for instance, a great dancer? Was she tough and stubborn and fun-loving. Were you?

If you approach her, approach her as a friend. If you can stay in touch with her, there is a chance that sometime down the road, if she reaches a true crisis, she will reach out to you for help, and you will be there. But until she asks for your help, do not assume you are there to rescue her.

I’m 38 and want kids, but the men I’m dating don’t

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 11, 2005

Since divorce, life has been pretty swell, but now I want to settle down and be a mom.


Dear Cary,

I was violently thrust into the dating inferno after my divorce nearly six years ago. During that time I’ve run the gamut of interactions: everything from being played like a plastic Flutophone to having a couple of semi-rewarding, longish-term relationships to enjoying a few purely physical hookups.

During my period of self-actualization I’ve done the following:

Gotten a shitload of therapy

Realized creative dreams of writing and getting published

Learned how to parallel park on steep hills (on the left side)

Amassed a huge network of fabulous friends

Made peace with my ex-husband

Learned French

Got promoted and learned to accept, if not fully embrace, working for the Man

Traveled

Turned my ex-boyfriends into great friends

Learned to love yoga in 120 degree temperatures

According to the post-divorce survival guide, I’ve done everything correctly, yet I still can’t figure out why I’m approaching 38 and single. I have no problem getting dates, but finding someone who will, well, stick in this city has been problematic.

So, here’s my question. Lately I’ve found that the wonderful men who have been wanting to date me don’t want children. Either they’ve had their chickens or their need to create is sublimated by their artistic passions. I am still passionate about having kids. So, Cary, do I need to grow up and accept the fact that having kids may not be in the cards for me and allow myself to yield to these men who woo? Does it make sense to get attached to someone who isn’t on the same page? At what age does a woman throw in the towel? I’ve entertained having my own child, but lack of money and familial support make this a nearly impossible option.

Still Holding the Towel

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Dear Still Holding the Towel,

If having children is truly, absolutely, positively, without a doubt the one thing you most want to do above all other things, then you will have to make some major life choices, and quickly.

So please ask yourself how badly you want to have children. It isn’t enough to say you want it really, really badly. The question is, what are you willing to give up? Do you want it badly enough to give up living where you live and working where you work? Do you want it badly enough to compromise on the kind of man you raise those children with?

Or do you want to continue living in the city you love, working the job you have learned to appreciate, but just add a fabulous husband and a child or two — and perhaps a larger residence to accommodate the extra people?

If you’re willing to make significant sacrifices, and you start immediately, perhaps you can find a man, and a new home, and a new job, and get pregnant and raise some children.

But if you want to keep what you have and simply add some beautiful kids and a great husband, I would say the chances of getting all that are considerably slimmer.

So which is better? The fabulous life you have now, or the life you might have if you sacrificed what you have for what you want? It’s a matter of great unknowns and probabilities.

The situation is made more acute, of course, by your age. You are already well past prime childbearing age. You’re 38.

It’s not as though you’ve wasted these years. You’ve had a fabulous time. You could not have had this fabulous time if you’d been raising kids. Nevertheless, inexorable time has crept up, lessening your chances of conceiving.

We make choices.

So these are the two choices as I see them: 1) Devote everything you have to your one goal of getting married and having kids, which means being willing to compromise on everything else — job, city, man. Or 2) Devote substantially more energy than you already are devoting to the problem, but retain those elements of your life that you already know make you happy. That way, you may win the lottery and get everything you want, but if not, you have not given up so much.

My conservative bet would be on No. 2. Because even if you gave up everything you love to pursue the goal of getting married and having kids, there’s a reasonable chance that you would rush into something with the wrong man in the wrong town and the wrong job, and you’d be miserable, and you would have given up what you had. So the potential downside is considerably steeper; also, you might find that having children does not make you as happy as you thought it would.

So I suggest you stay in the city but narrow your dating, focus it only on men who want to get married and have kids. Put 100 percent of your effort behind that. Weed out the rest.

You may very well find a great man and get married and get pregnant and have some wonderful healthy kids and live happily ever after. Or you might adopt some kids. Or you might fall in love with a man who already has some kids. Or you might just enjoy your life as it is.

Believe me, not having kids is not the end of the world. For some people, in fact, it’s more like the beginning.

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