A big black hole

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 30, 2003

I get emotionally and sexually involved with people I care about. But I do it too often and too simultaneously.


Dear Cary,

I’m starting to feel like I’ve got a big black hole in my emotional makeup. It’s a feeling that comes from the way I go about relationships and the way I go about sex. Over the past several years, I have seldom been involved in a relationship without a second or, in one instance, third one happening on the side. If this were just cheap meaningless fucking I might actually feel better about it. It’s not. I get emotionally and sexually involved with people I genuinely care about. But I do it too often and too simultaneously.

It’s become a kind of agony. The women I have relationships with are awfully cool people, people I certainly want as friends and companions. In me, that feeling of friendship bleeds over easily into a desire for intimacy. There’s a part of me, too, that gets off on the idea of coupling, of knowing people I care about in more intimate ways. But my feelings don’t seem to go any further. It’s not that I fall in love but still want to get my rocks off. I just don’t fall in love in any way that would cool my urge to get involved with other people. I try to do monogamy (who knows what love really feels like, after all). I go into relationships as if I’m going to be monogamous. Then I’m not.

This is bad. If I were at least upfront about wanting little more than friendship and casual sex that would be one thing, but I still believe I want something more and can’t quite get myself there. Only, along the way, I end up toying with people who I’m theoretically very close to, end up lying to them. On several occasions, I’ve put myself on the straight and narrow, but it never seems to last long. I miss the intimacy with certain people, miss the emotional high, and next thing I know, I’m running roughshod over our quiet, normal lives.

This is my defect, but I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe infidelity is my way of dodging lasting commitments and deep, under-the-skin feelings. Maybe I’m not selective enough about the people I get involved with in the first place, choosing people (or letting myself be chosen by people) with whom I won’t want to maintain a lasting relationship. Maybe, deep down, I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch with a gift for rationalizing.

In other areas of my life, I’m a considerate, caring person, thoughtful of others’ emotions and interested in their happiness. But in this area I’m feeling like a plastic shell, like an emotional cripple trying to pass myself off as normal. Any advice?

Falling Short

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Dear Falling Short,

I have an elegant, if theoretical, solution: Tell the truth. It may be hard      er to begin telling the truth to those you’ve already lied to repeatedly, because that will involve admitting the harm you’ve done. But you can certainly begin telling the truth to those you meet in the future. Just tell them what you’ve told me.

By giving others the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether to become involved with you, it will give you firm ethical ground on which to continue being as you are. There is nothing wrong with being as you are, or feeling as you do. Your only sin is in deceiving others. There is no standard emotional quota you are required to meet; there is no agency that will be testing you on your capacity for monogamous love. That’s the beauty, and the terror, of freedom.

And here is the bonus: The surprising fact is that the very intimacy and attraction you wish you could feel, if it is going to come into being, may very well come into being out of an assiduous practice of honesty. In other words, paradoxically, by admitting your incapacity for this kind of love, you may end up acquiring the capacity for it.

The reason is that when we are honest and build bonds of trust, a kind of attachment comes into being that is not just emotional or physical, but pragmatic and intellectual as well. By being honest about who you are and what you want, you bring your pragmatic intellectual reality closer to the spheres of the erotic and the emotional so that you, as one undivided person, can make choices that take into account all your capacities — ethical, moral, emotional and erotic.

I’m not saying this is a sure-fire method of solving your dilemma. I’m just saying it’s a worthwhile direction in which to head.

And I’m saying this: The conflict you feel, and your practice of dissembling about it, are one and the same. If you stop dissembling about it, it will no longer be your conflict. By being open about who you are, you become someone else’s problem. That person, wanting you to make different choices, may make your life more difficult. But therein lies a noble social struggle: The quest for freedom and authenticity in the capitalist gulag.

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