People think I’m a radical. And that’s … OK!

Hi Cary,

Something new is happening and I honestly feel like I’m in a corner.

Politically I am liberal. I am also atheist. And I consider myself a very tolerant and accepting person.

I will, for example accept that your favorite flavor of ice cream is vanilla, and that you say you love it, while mine is tiramisu. But, if you say vanilla is absolutely, without a doubt the best flavor, not to mention extremely healthy, I feel like I need to call you out on that, because there is no truth to any of that. At best, in your opinion, the best flavor is vanilla, but it’s not an absolute.

In other words, we all have the right to our opinions, but not to our own facts.

But when it comes to ice cream, who cares? Its just ice cream, so I would not say anything. In that scenario I would say something like “Yeah, I like vanilla too sometimes”,  and let it go. Again it’s just ice cream.

But politics is different. Global warming its different. Civil rights is different.

As a harmless example, recently, a member of the family posted a photo of George Washington with a quote that he supposedly said, which was in support of “stand your ground” type gun laws.

With the type of English it was written alone, I knew it was fake. But I did my research anyway, and sure enough, that quote was one of the top-5 fake George Washington quotes being circulated around.

Well, this family member posted it and wrote “Amen, George Washington”.

In other words, it was a kind of endorsement by George Washington. To her, because George Washington said that, it validated her opinion that we should all gave guns.

But of course, it’s a fake endorsement. And to me that is extremely dangerous. Extremely!

So it was the first time I replied … I replied by saying that George Washington did not say that, and I referred her to the sources which confirmed that was true.

She replied by saying that it didn’t matter, because she agrees with that statement anyway.

So I replied by saying that I had no issue with whether or not she agrees with the statement, but rather, I had an issue with her falsely saying George Washington did.

It sends the wrong message. It’s the kind of tactic where people try to rewrite history for political gain. It’s a slippery dangerous slope, etc.

And it ended there. She had no reply.

But since then Ive been called a radical and extremist, and that I am “just like them.”

If someone brings up in discussion a political theme and I disagree with it, I usually try to find the root source and see if it’s true or not. “What if I’m wrong?” I think, but if I’m not, then I say so. But I won’t agree and agree and agree with someone who keeps saying things that are not true.

The more passionate they become, I reciprocate.

Marco Rubio, for example, recently asked on national TV why no one talked about bomb control after San Bernardino. Well, the reason is because we already have bomb control, so it’s not the issue. The lack of gun laws is. But no one called him out on that (not many anyway).

When I brought that up one night with some Republican friends, they called me radical!

What’s worse is that my family, who are like-minded politically, said I was being radical too, that I should just let it go.

And finally, we had set up a lunch date with what would have been new friends. They seem nice enough. But then we found out we are polar opposites on many issues such as politics, religion, even civil rights wise.

But the lunch was cancelled. They couldn’t make it. And I said out loud that maybe that was a sign, even though I don’t believe in “signs”, and that we should just let it be.

Why even start a friendship with these people if we already know we disagree on so many things.

I though I was being pragmatic for both parties. But my wife thinks that’s radical and extreme.

And maybe in a certain way it is, but in this case, is it wrong?

So what do you think? I’ve given some different examples. Maybe you have some advice that broadly applies?

Actually, I’ve been thinking maybe the problem with liberals (at least for the political examples), is that we *should* be more radical. And not such pushovers.

There are no Rush Limbaugh type liberals and maybe we need some?

Maybe you can offer some mechanisms or tricks to keep me from talking at all?

Sincerely,

I-think-I’m-a-radical-but-maybe-that’s-OK?

Dear People Think I’m A Radical,

I suggest you stop trying to talk to people who won’t abide by the most fundamental rules of civil discourse and instead, find meaningful work on issues you care about. Donate money and time to efforts that you think are good. If you can get a job in advocacy or political research, do it.

There is real work to be done.

Seriously. This could be your moment, right here, where you make a big, life-changing decision. It will take work. You will have to begin a five-year or ten-year plan. But I sense that you are fairly young. Pick the issue that is most important to you–global climate change, civil rights, public education, media–and make a commitment to work in that area from now on. You may have to start small. It may have to be a volunteer role and not a job. But if you search your heart for the area that is most vital to you, where you can do some good, and begin your outreach and research in that area, and commit to it, and keep at it, your life will improve. If you begin as a volunteer it may turn into a career. Or not.

Either way, when you hear people talking crazy you can let it go because you know you are doing your part. You can say to yourself that every breath wasted on fruitless conflict is a breath that could be better spent in your chosen field of endeavor.

Get to work. That’s my advice.

But, on a personal note, I will agree that it actually does not seem to matter to a lot of folks whether something is true or not, and I find that disturbing and scary. I find it so disturbing and scary that I have left the country.

The joke is, I left America because the politics were too crazy, and went to Italy.

How long do I keep this secret a secret?

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, MAY 8, 2011

My father is not my “bio-dad.” My mother’s lifelong lover is. Whom do I tell, and when?


Dear Cary,

I’m 44 years old and facing a dilemma concerning my father’s mortality. OK, it’s more complicated than that:

My parents divorced when I was 2 (I’m the third child, born six years after my next sibling, after my mother went through chemotherapy and had been told she’d never have more children). When I was in college, I learned that the friend of the family who had always just “been around” in my childhood was actually my mother’s lover — and my biological father.

I had always known that my mother’s marriage had been mostly an obligation: She was a “good Greek girl,” which meant that, despite being valedictorian in high school, she did not get to go to college, and she was expected to settle down with a nice boy from church. Now I understood that she had had an intense love affair with this married man (also Greek, from the same church) over the course of many years, that the affair became known to his wife and to my mother’s husband, my father. They ended the affair … except they really didn’t and a year or so later my mother got pregnant with me and concealed the truth for years … until my then-girlfriend-now-wife started asking questions about the man who was in so many “family” photos. My mother never found another love in her life, partly because she was dedicated to her kids and was exhausted raising us as a single mom with no child support, but partly because she and my bio-dad were an on-again-off-again thing for decades; he never left his wife and children, he has admitted that he’s been kind of a crappy father to his own kids, I’ve heard that he may have had other affairs and even fathered other children (though that seems unlikely and more like small-town spite) and he didn’t always treat my mother well (once he apparently called her and said he’d leave his wife for her … but only if she’d leave us kids; she wouldn’t speak to him for quite a while after that). At the same time, he was the closest thing she had to a true love, and I felt for her, for her loss, for the fact that one of the best things in her life had to happen in the shadows.

I tell you all of this as if it was passed along as a single story, but in reality I had to glean the details both before and after my mother’s death from cancer five years after I learned about my bio-dad. In the moment, my bio-dad was told that I knew; shortly after all of this was acknowledged, I brought them together for dinner in a nearby (and more anonymous) city and, when she was dying a few years later, I brought them together so that they could say goodbye. All of this was like espionage — no one could know because both spouses are still alive and the community would be scandalized. Even my (half) siblings didn’t find out about the affair and my parentage until after my mother’s death, which led to some hard feelings from them — not directed toward me, but unavoidably complicated our relationship as a family, which was already reeling after my mother’s death removed the center from our immediate-family lives. (My “father” is a nice guy but has been plagued with his own troubles over the years and is not interested in being the center of anyone’s life, though his relationship with me and my family is quietly kind and loving from both a geographic and emotional distance.) The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.

My bio-dad and I have remained in contact even after my mother passed away 17 years ago. He’s now in his early 80s and his health is failing. Because of adult-onset diabetes, he’s gone blind and now is unable to do much of anything on his own, which means he’s homebound and I can’t reach him, because he fears his wife finding out — I have to wait until he finds time to sneak a short call to me. And even then, our conversations are surface-level: catching up, casual thoughts about the future, etc. Someday soon I’ll get a call telling me that he’s passed away and I’ll have to face the first of two decisions: Do I travel back to my hometown to attend the funeral? I ask myself what I hope to get out of the funeral, and while I don’t want anything out of it, I can’t wrap my head around ignoring the funeral of the man who is my biological father. I’ve lost my mother and my extended family has drifted apart, so I’m sensitive to the number of people I have in my life that connect me to my past. Will I regret not going? Will going be a whole lot of effort for a relationship that was never that deep or meaningful? Since I’ve been told that I look a whole lot like him at my age, will I be flaunting something potentially painful to his family?

The second question is more complex. Since I first found this out, I’ve been sure that I don’t want to participate in the lies, and everything that I’ve learned about my mother’s life and everything that’s happened in my family since I’ve found out about this has only reinforced my sense that these lies have consequences that echo down through generations. I’m not willing to bear that burden any longer than I have to and I certainly don’t want to pass it on to my children. I’m not interested in hurting anyone — especially the spouses who were deceived for years about this affair and my parentage; there’s some question about whether either spouse knows about me being the result of this affair, but I think if either does, s/he has repressed that knowledge. In time, however, I need to be able to be truthful with my own children about their family history. Both in the name of factual truth (god forbid there’s some need to ask a genetic relative for a donation) and in the name of not being visited by the sins of the father, I feel this is the right thing to do. Back before my bio-dad was ill, I talked it over with him, suggesting that he either talk with his kids or leave some sort of letter in the event of his death. He was wary but said he’d think seriously about it … and then his health spiraled out of control and it just hasn’t felt like I could bring up the subject without sounding like the grim reaper discussing plans for the rapidly approaching end.

My thought is that I could wait until a while after his estate is settled so that any contact from me doesn’t look like a play for money and, assuming he’s left no notification, write a letter to his children basically just letting them know the history and that I desire nothing more than that each of us know the truth and be able to speak the truth — though certainly not before the spouses have passed away. In that way, I’d let them know that I exist and that I want nothing from them, but that I’m here if they are open to making contact on whatever level at some point in the future.

Am I crazy to want to do this? Is it a violation of his kids’ privacy? Of their desire, perhaps, to not know that their father betrayed their mother for most of his marriage? Do I wait to contact his other children until both betrayed spouses have passed away as well?

Genetic Truth-Seeker

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Dear Truth Seeker,

Whom you tell and when is important, but before you can make those decisions, something else comes first.

You must first make peace with the facts. That is not a simple matter. It will not be quick. It will involve looking honestly and at times painfully at all the ways this family secret has shaped your life.

You were raised in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies. That sounds harsh but it is true, and it is a gift; that is, it provides you with a fact-based framework in which you can begin to sort out who is your true, beautiful, shining self and who is the self that has been taught to hide, to keep others’ secrets, to carry the legacy of shame and darkness into yet another family generation.

You say, “The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.” Of course it has. It is safe to say that it has weighed on you more than you know. What will bring you lasting peace is understanding how this legacy led you to make the decisions you have made, and how it continues to affect you today. Your task in life from this moment forward is to examine in honest detail the many ways it weighs on you and how it has shaped your decisions. This is no less than the task of uncovering your life’s meaning. It is the task of uncovering who you really are.

The question of your paternity is important, but it is also a metaphor. We all seek to understand where we came from, as individuals, as family members, as members of racial, religious, ethnic, political and national groups, and as a species. We all come from mystery and contradiction. But those of us whose paternity is a settled matter do not have the added burden of knowing that if we speak the truth we may incur the wrath of others.

We do not have to walk around wondering what will be the reaction of others if we tell the truth. You, on the other hand, must face the fact that telling a fundamental truth about yourself will have explosive consequences. This must be a burden indeed.

It is the burden of the truth-teller in the family. Truth-tellers are often attacked. They upset things. They draw attention to themselves, and to matters others would rather not acknowledge. In this way, a family in which a secret is being kept is similar to a family in which some other secret — of addiction, abuse or alcoholism — is being kept. It also has echoes in the national cultural debate about who we are as a people, as tempers flare when we talk about the “founding fathers” and “where we came from.” That is because questions about origin lie at the heart of questions about existence.

What kind of a person are you today? What secrets are you yourself keeping? How has the habit of keeping secrets to protect others affected your ability to love, to create, to be loved, to be a part of the world? How has it affected your sleep and your health, where you live and what you do with your time, your capacity for forming friendships, your work life, your intellectual interests, your passions? These are the things that you can examine if you have a regular course of therapy or peer counseling. What is your relationship with the church, whose power and views on sin influenced your mother to keep her behavior, and thus your origins, secret? How has this experience and this knowledge informed your notion of a “normal” life? Has it caused you to assume that everyone lives lives of deceit? Where else has secrecy and deceit crept up in your life? When you sense family secrets are being held in other families, are you drawn to them? Do you find yourself enmeshed in workplace intrigue? Do you find it easy to be honest with others about where you come from? Or are there dark areas that you have walled off?

Like an alcoholic or the child of an alcoholic, in the story of your family secret, you now have a narrative, like an origin myth. One part of the narrative is the search for your true identity. Another is your search for your real family. Another is the uncovering of clues to your own behavior: Why you made certain decisions, why you have reacted at times the way you did, why your relationships are the way they are.

Those of us who have such a central narrative often express a gratitude that strikes others as odd. But we are lucky because a fact like this can be an organizing principle. By studying the effect of this one secret, you gain the opportunity to uncover the core mysteries of your life: the particular ways this family secret has affected you. That is what you are now tasked to discover and make peace with. If we talked at length, some of those ways might emerge. But I am not a therapist. You and I won’t be meeting every week to talk about this. But I do suggest you find someone with whom you can meet every week to talk about this. It would be to your advantage if that person were skilled in family therapy and had experience with stories like yours. But it might also be someone who has simply been through what you have been through. The important thing is that you meet regularly over a period of time, at least a year. It takes time to see the truth.

I would really like to see you commit to a long-term process of uncovering the ways in which growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies has shaped your choices in life and your day-to-day behavior. This kind of thing is best done by meeting regularly with a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist or psychologist — someone trained to help as individuals break through the veil so we can see reality.

Reading other people’s stories is one way of coming to grips with your own story. Telling your story to others who have similar experiences is also helpful. By apparent coincidence, today’s Family Secrets site features a story about learning who one’s father is. Various newspapers, magazines and television shows also cover such stories, and in their protagonists you can find kindred spirits. In a sense, these people are your family — your spiritual, or experiential family. They are the people likely to recognize how you feel and how you have lived your life, better than your own family.

Another interesting affinity group is the stepfamily letters project. Telling our stories is one part of the process. Another is learning about Murray Bowen and family systems theory.

You seem to be a good man. This situation is hard. I commend you on your journey to find out what this story means to you.

Your life is the story of a secret. Unearth the secrets of that secret.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

He does the dumbest things!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 5, 2004

I thought my husband was stupid, but he’s just got attention deficit disorder.


Dear Cary,

I’m 40 years old, married for 19 years, with three boys ages 4, 8 and 14, who are constantly and completely amazing to me. I never finished college and I married at 21.

I suppose that it’s also no surprise that a marriage that starts out so young is a rocky one, but we had a real revelation this week. For the past two months I had secretly been thinking, “You know, maybe the problem is just that he’s stupid.”

He does the dumbest things and makes the most ridiculous choices again and again and seems unable to think with any kind of logic. If he tries to clean our garage — which is like a cross between a junkyard and a toxic waste dump — he might find the car buffer, which would lead him to immediately go wax his truck, which would lead him to look inside the truck and decide to clean out the truck, where he might find a bill that’s overdue and he’ll end up sitting at his desk writing a check, having long forgotten that he was cleaning out the garage. His office is chaos, his truck is chaos, his business is chaos, and our life is not chaos only because I exhaust myself doing everything alone.

I’d been entertaining the idea that he’s just stupid and selfish and lazy and inconsiderate and then I read a description of adults with ADD that said, “They’re not stupid and selfish and lazy and inconsiderate. They need help.”

He’s willing to pursue treatment, but as with other changes in his life, it did not originate within himself but with my handing him the article and saying, “Look, maybe this is the problem.”

I’m not bucking for sainthood here. I was preparing to return to school, get my degree, get myself situated, and then get the hell out. I’ve been offering for the last year the appealing proposal that we find a duplex and live as a post-nuclear family — eating dinner together and sharing the parenting — just not sharing the living space. I don’t want other men — after 19 years of this, all I can think is, it’s too hard to get rid of the one I’ve got so, why the hell would I want another one? And I really don’t care if he entertains strippers and hookers all night as long as the kids don’t know.

I never wanted to look my boys in the face and say, “Your dad isn’t here because I can’t live with him. I know it makes you miserable, but hey, I’m happy.” I didn’t want to be the quitter, the bad guy — unless I had some proof of appalling behavior to hold up to people. It’s hard to explain to someone that you’re leaving your husband because of the condition of the garage.

People love this guy. He’s gregarious and funny. I guess I love him. I just wish he lived somewhere else.

He said to me last night when discussing getting treatment, “Well, part of this effort is going to have to come from you.” What I wanted to say was, “Fuck off!” Why is it my job to be the strong one who picks everyone up? Why is it when I went through a major depression I had to figure it all out on my own and seek treatment on my own and basically be completely responsible for myself and now, when he needs help, “Well, part of this effort is going to have to come from you.” Yeah, I know. It is. It is.

I don’t want to be my parents, still complaining and whining about my spouse and my miserable marriage after 40 years. But I’m almost halfway there, and I’m still complaining and whining about my miserable marriage. Will I regret breaking up my family, or will I regret choosing to continue a life in which I’ve never been happy?

Terri

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Dear Terri,

I loved your letter. It is filled with bitter wit and acrid observation, and beneath that you obviously have a huge, huge heart.

Here’s what I think: I think you stay. I think you stay and see this through and look for ways to be happy within the world you have chosen. Within the world you have chosen, you do not have to whine and be miserable. You have these three children who are a great joy to you. And you have this man whom you do indeed love.

You do love this man but you’ve let him tax you to the limit. You need a vacation. You need a massage. You need a weekend at a spa. You need some flowers. You need a nice meal at a nice restaurant and to come home to find the garage cleaned out by your 14-year-old — with the help of the 8-year-old and maybe even the 4-year-old. You need everybody to pull together.

How do you get there? I’m not sure. But you have the three boys on your side, of that I am sure. And you obviously have a great deal of leverage. I’ll bet there are books on this. I’ll bet there are techniques you can use to unify your family, divide the labor, and get yourself some breathing room. Perhaps the duplex idea can work. At least it shows that you are being creative. If the duplex idea can’t work, you can devise other structures to insulate you from your husband’s crushing disorganization and lethargy while he struggles to overcome his ADD. The 4-year-old will be in school soon, and your options will widen as he gets older and more independent. Perhaps you can go back to school part time. And you can look forward to improvement in your husband. So you can have some hope.

If you can swing it, get some help into your life. Get some support from other over-stressed mothers. There’s a group for everybody, isn’t there?

The only thing I urge you to do is to try to stay together with your husband for the sake of the kids. I’m not morally or religiously against divorce, but my observation, and my own experience, is that it is often destabilizing to children in ways that we don’t fully understand and can’t fully cure. That’s a definite cost, and I think in many cases the cost is simply too high.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

If I could do it over …

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 17, 2003

I’ve been with one woman for my adult life, but now I feel closer to someone else.


Dear Cary,

I am a 42-year-old man married for six years; previous to marriage, my wife and I were together for 15 years. Do the math, and you’ll see that I’ve been with her all my adult life. She is 10 years older than I am, with a grown daughter; we have no children. The one certain fact is that we love each other very much, in the deep way that comes both from the many years together and the work we’ve done together to keep the relationship alive.

So here’s “but.” I have a woman friend of 10 years (call her J), to whom I’ve always been attracted. Years ago, I persuaded myself that it was primarily a physical attraction, and that intellectually and emotionally, my connection to my wife was stronger and more important than anything else. It doesn’t feel that way now. I can’t point to anything that’s changed lately; it’s just a growing feeling that J is the person I feel closer to, feel more at ease with, and want to be with all the time. Maybe it’s the fact that she is the opposite of my wife in some key areas: She’s independent, financially responsible, stays on an even keel emotionally, and does not use her keen intellect as a weapon. Somehow, this remarkable, wonderful woman can’t seem to find a permanent mate and is still single.

J is not perfect; I don’t have her on a pedestal. And none of this is new. When I was deciding to ask my wife to marry me, I went through a process of weighing pros and cons and the equation included my attraction to J. If I could do it over again, I would come to a different conclusion.

The path of least resistance is to maintain the status quo. Even after allowing a proper interval for the dust to settle, there’s no guarantee that I could ever be anything more than friends with J. Separating from my wife would have to be couched in terms of wanting to be single to find a new relationship that would make me happier and more fulfilled. Putting it in those terms would force me to tell a half-truth — I would have a hidden agenda, an unappealing prospect. I just feel stuck and would really appreciate some compassionate advice that you’re so good at dispensing.

Ponderously Pondering the Possibilities

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Dear Ponderously,

I have pondered this and here is how I see it: Right now you have two good relationships, one with your wife and one with your friend. Neither one is perfect, but they are both good and valuable. And each has the capacity to grow and change, to become better. So you are in a pretty good spot. If you separate from your wife, you lose one of those relationships right off the bat. So you are down to one relationship, the weaker of the two, a relationship that might be weakened still by your new single status. It might blossom, but you have no reason to believe it would. Keep in mind, your independent friend may value the fact that you are married; your status may in fact form a boundary that makes the friendship possible. So you are contemplating throwing away one good relationship and putting another at risk in the hope that you will become happier and more fulfilled.

If you want to become happier and more fulfilled, I think there are less destructive, less risky, and more innovative ways to go about it.

The question you need to ask, I think, is: How unhappy are you now with your marriage? Are you so unhappy that it would be better to be alone? It’s normal to be unhappy at times, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is making you unhappy while you are still in your routine, so it is common to say, Well, if only I weren’t married, maybe I wouldn’t be unhappy. If you simply need to be alone in order to have some peace of mind, perhaps you could go somewhere for a few weeks to get out of your daily marriage routine and try to re-inhabit some of your native contours.

I would try that, first. You seem to have good communication with your wife, so you could explain your need for some solitude to her. But perhaps there are other things you need to talk with her about. Perhaps you have been wounded in some way that you haven’t fully acknowledged; perhaps you are angry at your wife for something she did, but you aren’t coming clean about it. That may be the reason you find yourself drawn to this other woman, with whom you have a less difficult history. Think about it. Is there some way your wife hurt you that you would like to get back at her for? I don’t know for sure, but when you describe your friend’s best qualities, you contrast them with some traits of your wife. You mention that your wife uses her intellect as a weapon. Has she wounded you with her intellect in some way that you have yet to acknowledge? If I were you, I would look at that, and see if you can’t make peace with her.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m hanging by my fingernails — but it feels good!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 1, 2005

I’ve got this situation with my husband that’s really rough. Maybe I should move on?


Dear Cary –

My husband wants to go visit his lovers. And I’m strongly considering moving on.

My husband has been cultivating a relationship with two men, life partners in an open relationship, since about 1993. One of the two was his father’s lover, and quite frankly I have been motivated partially by some concern for what I perceive as the inappropriateness of that relationship. But as important, or more, I am dedicated to monogamy. I love my husband. We are compatible to a degree that is unusual, and remarked upon by others. I met him in 1997, and we were married in 1999.

The relationship has never been easy. My husband is an alcoholic, and the first three years of the relationship were characterized by sleepless nights and other such drama. On particularly wild evenings, I’d drag my unconscious husband inside the chain-link fence (we lived in a scary neighborhood, and I was afraid he’d get attacked otherwise) and leave him to sober up. This period culminated in a catastrophic accident (likely his fault), which left him with over $200,000 in hospital bills, unable to work for two years, and partially disabled to this day. I don’t want to whine, but I supported us through this period and likely always will earn more than he does by a factor of 10.

I have always held multiple-skilled jobs, and when I wanted something I couldn’t afford, I picked up additional work from waitressing to freelance gigs. He is now in college, which I pay for, and has become a licensed craftsman. He has gone to visit his lovers three times now, once when we were not committed to each other, once solo (when of course he had sex with them), and once, last Thanksgiving, with me. So, bringing us to the present, last night he told me that his lovers had asked him to come visit again and were offering him a plane ticket to do so. He claims this is not a sexual visit, but understands where I stand on the issue.

I spent last night without sleep in a diner, drinking coffee and eating bad food, unable and unwilling to share our bed with him. Because I am absolutely appalled and angry. But I am also looking to the future. I am thinking of a life without him, and thinking of what might be available to me.

My feelings are complicated. I am concerned for him, angry at being thrown over and lied to (because I don’t trust him not to have sex with them, and may never), and feel that this situation is patently unfair. For starters, I haven’t been able to take a real vacation in over a year. I have been sent for work to many vacation-worthy, places and I have gone to every single one of them alone because my husband was too busy to come with me. Lying on a pristine beach … alone. Eating sushi in San Francisco … alone. On a big game hunt … alone. I have two upcoming assignments which he won’t join me on, either. And he backed out of our mutual vacation this fall, which would be the first we’ve taken together outside the United States.

I have been a good girl. I am not old, ugly, or incapable of getting action. Indeed, I turn down people regularly who assume that I am single because they have never seen my husband. And because my primary job is, in essence, negotiating with wealthy people, I meet many cultured, genteel, wealthy, available men, some of whom are interested in me. Finally, I have devoted a significant portion of my paycheck to our home, and to my husband’s college, retirement fund, and healthcare. Because of poor planning on his part, I just donated part of my college fund (which I have been building up so I can return to college when he finishes) to him and last year donated additional money to the IRS. Frankly, though I worry about the effect that my leaving would have on him and on me, the persistence of this issue pisses me off. And I suspect I can do better.

I realize that any partner is challenging, and that any relationship would take effort. But I sometimes dream of being with someone who doesn’t toy with my emotions, truly values me above others, and can be my professional equal. Am I wrong to fantasize about alternative partners and what they might hold for me?

Wrong to Fantasize?

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Dear Wrong to Fantasize,

Here’s how your situation strikes me. It’s as though you had written to say, “Dear Cary, I have been hanging by my fingernails from the edge of a cliff for a few years now and, though it’s not really all that bad, as I have learned to kick my feet to frighten off the buzzards, nevertheless I have begun to wonder if I might be better off if I were to hoist myself back up on the ledge where I could sit comfortably and catch my breath. At least for a few minutes, or possibly an hour. Not that I would like to permanently reside on the ledge. I like hanging by my fingers from the edge of the cliff, and I’m good at it. But still, lately I’m beginning to wonder just how much longer I’ll be able to do this. I may eventually have to change positions not because I want to necessarily but simply because I run out of strength. What do you think?”

And of course what I think is, How did you decide to hang from the cliff by your fingernails in the first place, and why is it only now occurring to you to hoist yourself back on the ledge? Not that I don’t respect you for the talent and effort and sheer brute strength required to do what you’re doing. But to what practical purpose?

Maybe I’m going too fast here. To back up a little: No, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to fantasize about a better life. In fact, I think you should move on in your life and make things easier on yourself. But when and if you begin to take action in that regard, you may encounter upsetting emotions. So it wouldn’t hurt to think about how you ended up here, before you make any sudden moves.

Let’s just speculate. Why have you taken on so much? Maybe it feels more secure to hang from the cliff by your fingernails than to trust somebody to grab your wrist and pull you up. Have you ever been able to depend on other people in your life? Might it be that in your early life there was no one to depend on but yourself? And, not to be insulting, but we do tend sometimes to do things for symbolic reasons, as though we had an audience. Is your hanging by your fingernails a demonstration of some sort? If so, you might ask yourself why you need to demonstrate your strength, and to whom you are demonstrating it.

Wouldn’t it be great to just haul yourself over the ledge and relax, sit there for a while enjoying the view? Oh, look, there’s your husband, stumbling! Look out! Oh, no! He’s going to fall! You’d better run and help him!

What if you just let him fall … as a thought experiment? Why do you have to rescue him? I mean, who says so?

Speaking of your husband, that business with his father’s lover indicates that there may be a lot of pain and confusion in his life that he’s going to have to deal with himself. That’s another reason, in my book, to think about extricating yourself. Maybe it would be best if you work on your life for a while and he works on his.

I’m going to make another guess, which is that when you begin looking for patterns in the choices you have made, you may find a pattern of choosing weak people and not trusting them. There is a connection there: If you choose weak people, you don’t have to trust them. Conversely, having strong people around can be threatening: You may have to trust them; you may have to give up some control. Hanging from the cliff by your fingernails may be a lot of work, but at least you have control. Besides, the view is truly amazing!

But I really think someone ought to fly close by in a helicopter and put it to you over the loudspeaker: Hey! You! Hanging by your fingernails from the cliff! Get back on the ledge! Now!

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Did I luck out, or did I settle?

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My boyfriend is great, but I was never swept off my feet. What is this nagging feeling?

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 21, 2003

 


Dear Cary,

I’ve spent the past six years of my life with a wonderful man who is educated, caring, wonderfully attentive, incredibly expressive, and who happens to be a good fuck. I know of people who would be willing to settle with someone who possesses any one of his traits, but that seems to be what’s hounding me, that word “settle.” Years ago, before knowing this prince, I embarked on an infinite and fruitless number of dates with ogres, fiends, frogs and prince-posers. I met him in a period of my life where the prospect of spending my 30s as a dejected, jaded dog was slowly becoming a reality. I did not want to be that lonely man, the kind who spends just a tad too much time contemplating the latest selection of ice cream at Safeway. I wanted passion in my life. I needed stability. And when I met him, my dreams were fulfilled 50 percent.

My parents love my mate, and my nieces and nephews are crazy about him (they call him “uncle”). My friends all think that I am lucky to be with such a person (they’re all single), and when I broke off with him once, my father cried. It only took 12 hours for me to call my boyfriend back, begging for forgiveness and a second chance. Afterward, I felt like a lying schmuck, because what really guided my hand to dial the digits was not wanting to waste the three years we were together. And that I would be alone again in the world while someone else gets to have this wonderful guy.

He’s a psychotherapist by profession, and I know that I can talk to him about anything. Yet I dread having a talk with him since I’m not sure what outcome I’m hoping to come from it, or what I even want to talk about. When he cuddles me in his arm and kisses me tenderly I feel that I am home and secure as a bug. I’ve learned to adore him through all these years and I can picture myself being with him for the rest of my life. But that seems so final and long, and the thought that I was never really swept off my feet when I first met him haunts me daily. Sometimes I feel that maybe it’s me, that I wouldn’t know love if it tagged me on the forehead. Or if it sprouted slowly in my backyard. What do you think is wrong with me?

Kinda Confused

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Dear Kinda Confused,

What I think is wrong with you is that you think something is wrong with you. If something were truly wrong with you, you’d have bruises or burn scars and there would be a police report. You’d feel like killing yourself; you’d have no shoes; you’d be sleeping on a cot at the Salvation Army; you’d be penniless and on the street; your family would have deserted you or your lover would have betrayed you; you’d have a gun in your mouth, or you’d be in prison, or you’d have jumped out a window. You would not be hinting around that something might be wrong but you don’t know exactly what it might be.

You don’t have problems, so much as unanswerable questions. Why you weren’t swept off your feet is an unanswerable question. It’s not a dumb question; it’s understandable that you ask it. But there’s probably no concrete, complete answer, and, anyway, it doesn’t need to be answered in order for you to be happy. I think if you knew it was OK to not be swept off your feet, then you could just stop asking the question. So try replacing those doubts about why you were never swept off your feet with the affirmative knowledge that it is OK for your love to take the form it has taken.

I know it sounds a little trite; I wouldn’t say it except that the alternative is so destructive. What if you threw off what you have, tore asunder the fine bonds of family you have worked hard to form, dashed the hopes of the one who has been constant and true, and had a big garage sale? When you emerged no richer, no younger, no thinner, no better-looking and with quite a few dishes missing, would you have improved your chances of being swept off your feet by a new man with all the qualities of your current lover plus the added bonus of his off-the-feet-sweeping ability?

Not likely. In your mind there may be a storybook romance that you feel you could have if you only weren’t stuck in the romance you’re in. But the romance you’re in sounds remarkably lifelike. That makes it better than anything in a storybook, we being, after all, remarkably lifelike humans and not characters in a book.

You’re a lucky guy and you’ve got a good thing. Cherish it. If you really think about how good you’ve got it, you might jump for joy; you might even get carried away and sweep yourself off your own feet.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My son eloped and cut me out

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 17, 2012

I only got a generic notice, as if I were just a bystander, or an acquaintance!


Dear Cary,

It’s my turn. I need advice.

I opened my mail earlier this week and found a wedding announcement — from my son. My son, whom I raised alone since he was 3 (he’s 30 now).  My son, whose selfish temper tantrums through high school stopped me from dating women (and therefore, anybody) for years. Whose tour of duty in Iraq I gritted my teeth and “supported” him through despite my soul-level objection to his joining the Army.

The same son who, after he got his head right, volunteered — practically begged — to officiate at my wedding last year to a very sweet woman who rode out his homophobia until it was gone.

The son (my only child) about whom friends marvel, “You guys are SO close! It’s heartwarming.”

He married his girlfriend of five years, which is whom he SHOULD marry — and I’ve encouraged that for a long time. But eloping with no discussion with anyone (family, anyway) is disappointing, to say the least. There were no family issues going on about them; everyone on both sides was hoping for and expecting them to marry sometime soon. I’m sad that they’ve just taken a little jaunt downtown and gotten married in secret, taking away from everyone the opportunity to participate and celebrate. Certainly they have the RIGHT to elope — but everything legal is not also a good idea.

All of that one could get over, and I no doubt will, but to just simply have been on the address list for a photocopied announcement — that’s too much for me. I got the news along with anyone else whose address they had — high-school classmates, work friends, former employees. It’s not like there was any other unhappiness going on; in fact, he called me “just to say hi” the same day they mailed the announcements, but without responding truthfully to “What’s new with you?” I’m overwhelmingly sad at having been held at arms’ length over this, and he is royally ticked off by my telling him — carefully — how hurt I was to get this notice in the mail. I was clear that I am happy for him to be married to this woman, and I sincerely hope it’s forever, but I feel like they just went off on a lark (“Hee-hee, let’s go get secret married and not tell ANYBODY — they’ll be SO surprised when they get the note!”) like teenagers, with no thought about the broader meaning of joining together publicly, of themselves as not just independent beings, but also part of a larger community of family and friends.

My friends are shocked, some even angry, and I feel hurt, hurt, hurt and sad, sad, sad. Slapped in the face. The wind knocked out of me. In light of my generic notification, I picked out a generic “congratulations” card and signed it with my first and last names (instead of “Mom”).  I have to see both of them this weekend at a family birthday party (and I can’t disappoint my young niece by staying away). I don’t know how I can do this without crying. How? How do I deal this weekend, and how do I get out of this mire of sadness I’m stuck in?

Sign me

The Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom

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Dear Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom,

You sound like a good and well-meaning person who was hit hard by something and had no defenses against it. Sometimes something will just bring you to your knees. You aren’t expecting to be so deeply affected by something, and you aren’t expecting someone to do something, and then when it happens you have no defenses.

Having no defenses can be a good thing. Sometimes it’s the only way to truly feel something. In fact, I tend to think we often live in awful unreality, that we glide over tragedy and fate too easily, that we are glib and casual when we would be better served if we were grave and formal and silent, for daily we walk amid miracles and crimes.

I was at my locker this morning at the gym, next to a Russian man, and I said, “Excuse me,” so I could dial my combination into my green padlock and open my locker. I looked into his face as he turned, and I saw pain and sorrow and anger; the look was so open as to be startling; he was not guarded and bland or shallowly comical like so many of the American middle-class men who frequent the gym; I saw his face and I thought of what horrors he had endured, what secrets he had, what awful things he had lived through. His face was grave and true. It humbled me. I sat quietly and waited while he dressed.

So let’s just talk about emotional pain, and the dignity it involves, and its power. Let’s not talk yet about why your son did what he did or any of that. For starters, let’s say that emotional pain comes from an injury not to the body but to the soul, to our self-esteem or confidence or sense of who we are. In this case, it seems that your sense of  self in relation to your son was injured. You thought your son held you in a certain regard but his actions seem to show that he does not.

Let’s again delay talking about why your son did what he did and keep talking about you.  Let’s talk about your sense of yourself in relation to him. You have been his loving mom. You have been the most important person in his life. Being his mom has been one of your greatest roles. It has been a constant buoying force in your life. It has filled you with contentment and joy throughout the day. It has served to bolster your self-esteem and standing among your friends. Think about how important his place in your life has been. Just allow yourself to look at it. It might seem that to evaluate it like this might diminish it, but it won’t. It will just help you see in how many different ways your relationship to your son has been central to your self-esteem and well-being.

To be somewhat glib, let’s say that emotional pain goes away when the injury heals. In this case, your sense of self in relation to your son was injured. So how can that heal? Your son has suddenly moved out of your sphere and you are going to have to adjust. You are going to have to find new sources of joy and self-esteem. You might begin thinking about how your role in life will now change. You might begin thinking about how to let go of your son and find other sources of joy and contentment and pride day to day. You might also think about how to have a better relationship with your son, on these new terms in which he has moved out of your sphere of influence.

Let’s also now consider what your son might have been thinking and feeling. He broke some rules. He did something heedless but also romantic. I wonder how he sees rules. It is possible that he does not take certain rules very seriously. You say he joined the Army and went to Iraq. The Army has a lot of rules. Perhaps his tour of duty in Iraq left him with a feeling that some rules are important because they protect life and limb, and others are civilian rules that are not about life and death and so they don’t matter as much.

I don’t know if you pray or not, but if you do, it might not hurt to pray for your son. That might just mean conjuring him up in your thoughts and wishing for his happiness. It might just mean having him in your thoughts in a kind way. Pray for him to be happy and to be safe and to endure and prosper.

You might also pray for him to gradually acquire the wisdom to see how his choice hurt you so deeply; you might pray that he will acknowledge that one day. I think he will. I think he will one day see that it hurt you deeply, and he will tell you that he didn’t want to hurt you. Pray for him and love him. You will all get over this.

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