Dire straits

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 25, 2003

I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection.


Dear Cary,

I have been married for eight years now and my love life is in dire straits. When I say “love life,” I mean the whole package, not just sex. Hugs, kisses, casual brushes, smiles, compliments. When I look back, I wonder if I ever should have gotten married in the first place.

Our relationship was always on and off while we were dating. That was my doing. I was not ready to make any long-term commitments. My wife was never happy about our many breakups, but she is the type of woman that can get a date by merely walking out her front door. A knockout. I eventually realized that different women were just that, different, not better. Whenever I had a dream about my life in the future, her face was always in the dream, no matter who I was dating at the time.

The problems started right after I proposed. She turned off like someone closed a spigot. At first it was just sex, but it quickly morphed into all forms of affection. She admitted her shortcomings (in writing) and explained that the stress of our wedding plans was making her lose interest in affection. In fairness to her, my parents were complete A-holes and nearly boycotted the wedding (they were too “tired” to make the reception). Like I said, A-holes. Yes, the wedding planning was stressful (though I did an equal share). However, I reminded her that when that stress went away, it would be replaced by a new and improved stress, and the process would repeat over and over again.

We now have four beautiful children. But to say they are stressful is an understatement. Plus, I have my own business and I worry about the next dollar all the time. I am still in love with my wife. The fact that she is still gorgeous after four kids makes her more attractive than before.

I used to want to have sex every day, but now I am happy to have sex once a month. But when it happens, so much energy has built up that it is anticlimactic. My wife does not voluntarily kiss me. About 90-95 percent of the time that I approach her for affection, she rejects me.

Have you ever kissed someone and could tell from the tension in their jaw that they were doing it just to get it done and could not wait until it was over? That is what it is like kissing my wife. Zero passion. I probably rank around the twenties in terms of her priorities. I think our philosophies do not match, though it could be a gender thing. I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection. When things get tough for me, I turn to my wife. When things get tough for my wife, she turns to the kids, or the vacuum cleaner.

Before we got married, our church required premarital counseling. It was fun. The counselor told us that we must make each other our first priority and that would make our marriage stronger than any amount of money or fame. We were told that by making each other our first priority we would be showing our children that our bond is important and leading them by example as to what a healthy marriage looks like. We are getting an F in that department. It is so bad that our children, who are all very young, get uncomfortable and sometimes upset when we kiss (or try to kiss) in their presence. They have already gotten the impression that the only form of acceptable affection is that which is directed at them. I do not know what to do.

I have told my wife all this so many times, I am a broken record. I look at pornography to relieve some stress. My wife knows about it and of course is not happy about it. I would agree with her if I showed a dropoff in desire for her, but no amount of looking at other women, clothed or non, decreases my desire for my wife or changes my belief that she is a raging hottie. I look at those pictures wishing my wife would do that. The nice thing about pictures is that you cannot get rejected. Bear in mind that my wife also used to be incredible in bed. I do not ask of her anything she did not willingly do before and in fact express great enjoyment doing. I do not ask her to swing from a chandelier, but when she does not even kiss me while we are making love, that is not only troubling but also hurtful.

I will never leave her, though I threatened to do that in the past. I will never make my children live in a broken household, except that it already seems broken. I am afraid that if I am caught at a weak moment, I will have an affair. I figure I am a duck circling a depression in the earth where a pond used to be. At some point I am going to get tired and have a heart attack or see a real pond in the distance and go there. How long can I be expected to circle in a holding pattern? I am sure I would enjoy an affair for a while, but I would enjoy my wife more. I give flowers, I write my own cards, I shower her with compliments and affection. Is there any hope?

Am I Missing Something?

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Dear Missing,

Thank you for your brutally honest, intelligent and moving account. I can imagine seeing this in a movie, or reading it in a novel, and wondering, “What happened? What is she thinking? How did they end up this way?” I have the feeling that many things have happened to hurt your wife, little things that she can’t explain but that she adds to the account of your faults every morning in her little counting house of resentments. The things that have happened to her are probably real and not really her fault, but if she could have expressed them along the way, if she could have processed them with you, together, perhaps you would not be so starkly shut out now. At least you would know what she’s thinking, what your crimes were, how long your sentence is.

It might not be anything you did wrong, aside from doing your duty as a husband and giving her all those kids. Bearing four children in eight years sounds like enough in itself to overwhelm a woman. Think of it: For almost your entire marriage she has been pregnant, nursing or both. As someone who can barely imagine raising even one or two children, I would think that the demands of bearing and raising these four children would consume so much of her spirit that you would naturally find yourself sitting on the back steps smoking a cigarette while the loud, bright laughing and crying of children and mother buzzed about your head like bees.

And while you’re sitting there bereft and alone you know she’s working with the children, needing your help and resenting you for taking even this moment to yourself because she does this all day long every day and you only flit in and out to lend a noble hand when it’s convenient for you blah blah blah.

You need to hear her story, how she got this way, what you did. But she may be so overwhelmed that she cannot even tell you the story; to tell you the story she might need first to hike for days into the mountains until her mind is clear and she’s high enough that she can sit on a rock and look over the entire county and then maybe the story would unspool, beginning with your first injury so slight she would have felt foolish to even mention it: Perhaps you didn’t compliment her on a pair of earrings. Perhaps you didn’t jump high enough with joy when she first told you she was pregnant. And then the second injury and the third, and her panic, her sense of entrapment, her worries about the business, her thoughts that perhaps she could have done better, the guilt she feels because she’s not erotic with you, her fears that because of her coldness you will leave her and the children. Perhaps she has had a lover or two and hoards the secret under her dress like a guilty girl. Perhaps you never take out the trash.

You need to hear her story, whatever it is, so you know where you stand, but she may not, on her own, become ready to tell it for years. How can you get her to tell it? Could you track down that premarital counselor for some postmarital counseling? It’s possible she would say no to all of this. It’s possible you couldn’t get across to her how grinding and oppressive is the incessant rejection. But you need to find out what happened to her, what you did, how she changed, whatever it was. You need to find out so you can bag it up and tie it off with a narrative string, so you can carry it around slung over your shoulders, not eating away at you in your belly.

I threw out my girlfriend’s mementos

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 28, 2009

I tried to retrieve her photos from the Dumpster but they were gone! What have I done?


Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I have been together for five years, and although the beginning was a bit rocky, things are great now. Our setbacks were mainly due to my commitment avoidance. So, we’ve been living together now for six months, and I’ve started to … snoop. I admitted this to two friends, and one laughed that I waited so long, and the other was horrified that I would commit such a breach of trust. I don’t suspect anything untoward is happening, but I find some sort of tortured comfort in knowing the secrets. I have looked at her e-mail a few times in the past, and I don’t exactly stop myself from glancing over at her laptop when her in box is up — but I haven’t hacked into her account or spent half the night reading 1,400 old e-mails or anything — OK, that happened once, but there was a bottle of whiskey involved and the tail end of a really bad day.

She was just out of town for the weekend, and I spent most of the time rummaging through her things, reading old journals, and inspecting film negatives. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME? I am confident and trusting and respectful — or at least I thought I was. I find myself engulfed in a jealous rage when I find old photographs of her past lovers or racy journal entries or letters detailing wild sexual encounters (all prior to our meeting). Why is she holding on to these things? You’re probably asking, why am I looking at them? I can’t help it. Maybe this is why I was so hesitant to jump into a real commitment — I have trust issues … or control issues … or self-esteem issues … or maybe all of the above.

Here is the kicker: I threw out a box of her personal items. After I came to my senses, I panicked and tried to retrieve them. The maintenance guys in my apartment complex thought I was crazy going through the trash. I covered it up saying I threw out important paperwork by mistake. I came up empty-handed. Her personal memories are lost forever. A small part of me is wickedly satisfied, but the bigger (and much better) part of me is appalled.

What should I do if she discovers that these items are missing? I know if I come clean she will lose it, and I certainly don’t want to lose her. But if she is so dearly holding on to these items, then maybe that is a sign we shouldn’t move forward. If she becomes irate over a few photos of her sexual adventures or letters from past lovers, I have to worry, don’t I? Is she over these men or holding on? Why is she keeping this stuff? Will she be able to let go? Sure, these concerns just help me to validate my snooping, but we’re living together — when will she forget the old boyfriends?
HELP.

Private Dick

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Dear Private Dick,

Basically, unequivocally, I think you’ve got to tell her what you did. In throwing out her stuff, you moved beyond snooping into theft and destruction of personal property. If the relationship ends because you told her, so be it.

But it might not end the relationship. For one thing, it might be the sort of thing where it turns out that yes, OK, her boyfriend indeed does have a sort of problem, which is akin to like OK, maybe you’re an alcoholic or you’re bad with money or have some other life problem that is akin to just, well, having issues, but you’re willing to be honest about them and face them and seriously get some help and change.

And there is also the possible romantic/comedic element to this. In confessing to her, you might come off like a guy who is sort of seriously nuts but whom she still loves. In my heart there is room for all kinds of compulsion and insanity. I am seriously nuts in many ways. It hasn’t prevented me from holding down a job and a marriage and so forth. So I can relate to such compulsions as you describe. I tend to believe that lots of us walk around with crazy ideas, but we mostly don’t talk about it. Every now and then one of our crazy ideas gets the best of us, and we do something we’re going to have to own up to. So I’m glad when somebody talks about it.

I also think that if you were seriously dangerous you wouldn’t be writing to me; you’d be cowering in her kitchen with a hammer, and we’d never hear about it. Men who try to control women are truly dangerous, but it is my impression that they do not write to advice columnists.

But it is a serious breach. It’s the kind of thing that is going to freak her out, but if you withheld it, it would be worse. If you tell her now, you’ve got a better chance of saving the relationship.

I spent a little time thinking about where this fits into the whole moral picture. I mean, how is snooping through someone’s things different from spying on her when she is in the shower, or when she is getting dressed, or listening in on “the extension” (as we used to call the analog branch of a hardwired household phone line)?

You know these things are wrong. Because if you keep doing these things, she is harmed. I believe that she is harmed, morally or psychologically, by your snooping. I believe that’s what she would say if she knew: that she feels violated or harmed. And I think we ought to take people’s subjective assessments as having some weight.

Now, it may be that she also snoops. It may be that she is well aware of this tendency in people and will understand. Or it may be that she will be outraged to the point of demanding that you move out. I cannot take responsibility for what happens in your private life if you are moved to act on what I say. It’s still your choice. I can only say what I truly feel. And I truly feel you should tell her.

I do not know why we do these things. It may have to do with a lack of trust — that you feel she has some other world that competes for her attention, or that might threaten your belonging to her, your ownership of her. Ownership. That’s a word that comes up. That’s interesting. Do you feel that you own her? Do you feel in some way that what is hers is yours? It may be that you do. I’m not accusing you of anything; we all find, when we begin examining our assumptions, that we carry certain assumptions that are insupportable. Mainly we carry them as long as we do not examine them, and then, as we examine them, we go, Holy shit! I really do believe I own her! Where did that come from?!

And then you plumb your family history and see that, in fact, you were raised with the assumption that as a man you could own a woman, that you could have rights far greater than hers, that you could take her stuff, that you could “take her,” in all the senses of that phrase. Who knows. We have all kinds of stuff in our heads. That’s what makes therapy so much fun. Because when you approach it in a fairly detached way, you can see that, well, yes, these beliefs do reside in my mind, how do you like that? I don’t think they serve me very well, I don’t even think I consciously believe them, and yet there they are, residents in the attic.

So then you try to sweep them out if they don’t fit in. Or you learn to recognize when your behavior is being influenced by them, as in, Gee, I seem to be taking my girlfriend’s stuff again, why am I doing that? Oh yeah, I remember: because in some part of my brain I believe that I actually have greater rights than women! But I don’t really, do I? So I’d better put this stuff back and tell her that old mania has cropped up again!

Or whatever it is. It could be a sexual thing, that there’s a thrill to snooping. It could be a replacement for intimacy; you might feel a deep closeness to her that you do not get to feel while she is in the room because maybe she will not settle down or will not willingly be the object of your contemplative gaze or will not answer your questions about her past or about that part of her life she keeps separate from you.

At any rate, if you don’t tell her, I think you will have committed a wrong against her, and you also might never get to find out why you’re doing this. So it will be to your benefit, ultimately, to come clean.

So seriously, I think when you threw her stuff out, you crossed a line, and regardless of the consequences, you have to tell her. She has a right to know and a right to figure out what she wants to do about it.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Why did you skip the funeral?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Aug 23, 2010

A tragic death among deeply close friends: Her burial was like a ghost town


Dear Cary,

I want to say, first of all, that I am so happy to hear of your recovery. I always look forward to reading your thoughtful responses to letters.

I have, perhaps, many things I’d like to ask for advice about but for now I will get to the most pressing and troublesome issue:

I hate my friends. Not all of them, just a certain group of my oldest friends — 10 girlfriends, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten, and all of whom went to elementary through high school together. These friends have been neighbors, classmates, teammates and confidantes — we have spent a great deal of time with each other’s families, gone on vacations and to summer camps together, and maintained a very close-knit group for the past 20 years or so (we are all now 24-26 years old).

I never had any reason to doubt that these people would be my core group of lifelong friends up until about a year ago, following the sudden, tragic death of a member of the group, who was also my closest friend within the group. She passed away unexpectedly at the age of 25 under ambiguous circumstances that we will never fully understand as the autopsy results were inconclusive and the acquaintances she was with at the time remain either unable or unwilling to disclose the exact events preceding her death.

I know that often people rave about the departed as though they were saints and eulogies often tend to be excessively laudatory, but for my friend who passed away all of those things would be 100 percent true. She was a beautiful, fun, bright and incredibly loving and open-minded person. It was no surprise when she chose a career as a social worker — she was so warm and generous with her time and her spirit, she was selfless in her work and did not let roadblocks set up by her jerk boss deter her from pursuing a career she loved where she had the opportunity to really make a difference for others. She was a realistic and practical person but also somehow managed to stay optimistic in difficult situations and no matter what was going on in her life she was always there for her friends. If I called her even when she was incredibly busy with something, she would stop everything and talk to me about my problems — she was one of those rare and precious friends who would tell you to call anytime, day or night, and really mean it … and anytime you spoke to her you were in for a good story. She had a gift for storytelling, a propensity for spontaneity and adventure, a great sense of humor and a lighthearted appreciation for all the little silly and absurd moments in life.

Before her death, I thought our group of friends was very structurally sound. We were just beginning, in the years during and after college, to transform our little group from childhood/adolescent friends to adult friends. The 10 of us went to 10 different colleges in eight different states and wound up in similarly far-flung places after college, but we did a very nice job of keeping in touch: made great efforts to spend time with each other whenever possible, often circulated update e-mails or letters, exchanged phone calls and Internet communication, etc. I felt we had strong, irreplaceable bonds to each other that did not seem to dissipate over time or through the distance between us. In many ways she was the leader of our group; she was the one to call when you went home for the holidays because she’d be most likely to know when everyone was getting in and where we would meet. I’ve thought since her death that perhaps she valued and nurtured our friendships more than we did for her in return. When she died, I assumed our other friends would step up and try to fill that caring, nurturing role for each other. I thought in our grief — when most of us were confronting mortality for the first time as adults — we would cling relentlessly to each other for support and kinship, that we would be present for each other and for her family and other friends — to hold each other, to cry together, to show our love to each other and to her, to share our many wonderful memories of her and mourn her death together.

But most of our “friends” were not present.

Not only did only three friends out of the group actually attend the funeral, many didn’t even bother to call or write, save for a text or a quick message on the Internet here and there. Most of our friends were completely emotionally/spiritually and physically absent from the whole terrible situation. It seemed the expectation of those who absented themselves was that we not share with each other the unfamiliar and overwhelming pain we were experiencing, or worse — that they didn’t feel the pain at all or chose to ignore it.

When I expressed to my parents and a few other friends how baffled, hurt and disgusted I was with the lack of support I received from some of those old friends, they assured me things would change with time — no one knew what to do or say right now, our wounds were too fresh, that I couldn’t cast them off yet, they were hurting too. But as time went on and I still didn’t hear from them — as my attempts to call or write either went unanswered or insufficiently answered — I began to sincerely hate them. They weren’t there for me, collectively or — with the exception of two still wonderfully supportive friends — individually. More important, they weren’t there for her family; most important, they weren’t there for her. Almost all of them had managed to make it to her wedding the year before. But weddings don’t require anything similar to the constitution needed to endure a young friend’s funeral. Where were they now? When will they say goodbye? Will they go on thinking and acting as though things are the same and that friend with whom they once shared a life is still here with us now instead of being gone forever?

Despite my hate for them, and it is real and palpable, I still desperately want them to reach out to me, nearly a year after her death (she died in September 2009). I could never forgive them for all the months of abandonment, but I also don’t know that I want to completely cut them out of my life and I think for the sake of our shared histories and the bonds that our families still share back in our hometown, I should make an effort. I still have a certain amount of faith that they will reach out to me on their own and I fear if I say something — even in a very gentle and neutral way — I will lose them completely too, because obviously they’re incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing. I don’t want to lose them; I’ve lost enough.

One of the other supportive friends from the group and I have talked extensively about how to handle all of this and while we both want the others to know our true feelings we also kind of feel like we shouldn’t have to make that effort because if they cared, they would have reached out to us in some way by now.

So, how do we handle ourselves around them? We all hung out as usual when we were at home over the holidays and I tried to make things as pleasant as I possibly could. We avoided the topic of death. There has been scant communication on the Internet/by phone but still the topic of her death hasn’t been discussed to any considerable degree.

Maybe it’s important that I explain that in other facets of their lives, these old, neglectful friends are very decent people — they hold noble jobs (two whom I consider the worst offenders of grief/consolation avoidance are respectively a child advocate and a youth counselor), are close to their families and are mostly either married or in committed relationships. This is the first time I have ever seen them act in a way that shows they don’t care about others and it has been shocking and all the more distressing to me to see kind, intelligent and sensitive people be so horrible when it comes to dealing with death.

I just don’t know how much longer I can keep my feelings to myself and I know that despite the outcome of whether or not I share my feelings, I could never truly be friends with them again. I want to do something that would have pleased my friend who died. I think she would encourage me to forgive them and would want me to maintain ties with them; maybe she’d even want me to take over her role as the core/leader of the group, but as much as I don’t want to completely lose what were once strong bonds of friendship and as much as I want to do the right thing by our departed friend, I feel like I could explode at them at some point and I have so much anger and hurt, I don’t know how much longer I can act civil, let alone friendly, toward them.

Hurt

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Dear Hurt,

We assume we will behave well when tested. But we are tested when we least expect it — in the middle of the night, in an unfamiliar area, when we are weak or distracted or afraid. If we could study first, we might perform better. But we are never prepared for life’s biggest tests.

We know the right thing to do. Anybody could tell you: The right thing to do is to make the airline reservation, pack the suitcase and show up at the funeral. But in a crisis, a part of us resists.

In our weakest moments grow seeds of doubt and indecision and avoidance … in subtle ways our best intentions are betrayed; we make grievous errors of omission. We become shameful no-shows. We experience memorable failures of moral nerve.

But through such failures we can learn. We fail to show up and we learn: You don’t let things slide. Not again. Next time you show up. Forever after that, you always show up.

That is, you get to learn from this as long as your friends stick with you through your failures. If your friends give up on you because you fail one test, then you may never learn. You push it out of mind. You say screw this, screw them, whatever.

Because of that, you, my friend, have an opportunity here and I hope you take it.

This is a chance for you to do some good. You can turn this around.
I suggest you do the right thing: Open communication with these people.

Reach out. But how? The conversation needn’t be an accusation or an interrogation. You don’t need to air the dark feelings you’ve had. Rather, think of the other person.

What do you say? Well, what you say is not as important as how you listen. Say as little as possible. But here are some things to avoid saying: Do not say point blank that you are hurt by their failure to appear at the funeral. Rather, say that you are still getting over what happened, and would like to talk a little about it. Then just listen. Keep your mouth shut and listen.

If your friend asks you for your feelings, you might say something like, “I really missed you at the funeral. It was hard knowing that you could not be there.”

She might talk about her decision not to attend the funeral, or she might not. I wouldn’t press her. She may feel guilty and find herself becoming defensive. If anything, just ask open-ended questions — how she felt about not being able to attend the funeral, what she was doing while the funeral was happening, if she was thinking about it, how it felt to miss it. Maybe she was relieved that she didn’t have to go. That would be difficult to hear but courageous to say; truth is often difficult to hear. Whatever she has to say, I would just listen and let it sink in.

In this way, you can perhaps let go of some of your anger toward your friends, and take a step closer to them, and make progress toward living with this terrible loss.

Your departed friend was a social worker. She was in service. Being in service means, strangely enough, overcoming other people’s objections to being helped.

We might be inclined to say, well, shit, if you can’t fill out the paperwork, then maybe you don’t really want the food stamps. If you can’t make it to your appointment on time, then maybe you don’t really want the counseling.

But those are our standards and our assessments. We may be like a jury, eager to convict. But we don’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. We don’t know their fears and demons. We don’t know what barriers they face.

Likewise, it is ironic that the child advocate and the youth counselor did not show; you’d think they would be most likely to rise to the occasion. But perhaps their jobs leave them so emotionally taxed that they have nothing left over for moments such as these.

So your friends did not show up at the funeral. They did not rise to the occasion. Yes, that is bad form. Yes, it reveals some weakness in them. But that is what it is: It is weakness. It is human frailty made palpable.

But this was your group’s first experience of death, and you, collectively, had no tradition for such a thing.

So perhaps you may think of this as your group’s first failure, as a passage out of innocence into experience. It was a defining moment; how each person responded to this death becomes a permanent mark.

Maybe you can now rise to the occasion and make something good come of this.

Listen. Try to heal your relationship with each of these dear friends.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I left an abusive marriage, and now I’m in love with a thief

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, DEC 12, 2007

If we move in together, should I buy a safe?


Hi Cary,

I recently escaped a long-term (by today’s standards), abusive marriage. I’ve done remarkably well for myself, I think, and I feel like I have my shit together. I became reacquainted with an old friend about a year after my divorce, and we became a couple. He’s everything my ex was not: kind, considerate, expressive, gentle and loving — in addition to being funny, smart, inquisitive and wise. We are very much in love.

The problem? He has been sharing with me some of the details of his life that occurred while we were out of touch, and they’re not pretty. The latest confession involved stealing large sums of money from an incapacitated relative. I stopped him before he went into detail because I simply can’t imagine him doing that. It’s as if he’s talking about another person whom he knew once, not himself. And there have been other things from his younger, wilder days that really scare me. A lot.

So, my question to you is, to what extent do you think people can change? I would like this man to move in with me, but how do I tell him that I’m considering buying a safe so I can keep my financial papers secure? How can I trust someone who could do the things he’s saying he did? He does express regret, and assures me that he’s “not that person anymore.” But who is he now? And why the need to share this stuff?

I have a tendency to be suspicious of anyone who’s nice to me, but I think in this case I need to be careful and protect myself. Yet I don’t want to hurt him, as he has been nothing but good to me. So, tell me, do you think a tiger can change its stripes?

Worried and Wondering

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Dear Worried and Wondering,

I would really slow down with your plans to move in together. You need to know more. You need time to digest this troubling information, and you need time to set up a support system. By support system I mean a network of women who have been through what you have been through and who meet regularly and have a set of principles they live by so they don’t repeat.

You need to become part of such a group in order to get useful feedback on what you are doing. You are in the middle of this thing. You can’t really see it. I can’t see it either. But I can sense it: Some kind of dangerous pattern is replaying itself here. So I urge you to slow down and look outside of this relationship, to a counselor and/or a support group. Slow down and get some perspective. Identify the pattern.

Sure, I’ve seen people change their spots. But it isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, they don’t change on their own, and the spots remain underneath. I mean they can stop stealing from their relatives. They can stop getting into abusive relationships. But the forces and patterns are still there, so, without constant work with a group or a counselor, they often do other things that are just as baffling and dangerous but look different on the surface.

They don’t even mean to do it! That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.

This is something people don’t get: We don’t love doing it wrong. We don’t set out thinking consciously, I think I’ll rob my grandmother, and now that I’ve robbed my grandmother and told my new lover about it, I think I’ll rob my new lover.

It’s not like this guy you love is going to set out consciously to rob you. And it’s not like buying a safe is going to make you safe. I’m not going to set out consciously to go on a drinking spree. I’m not thinking it would be a great idea to go out and get drunk. But absent constant, steady messages from outside reminding me what will happen if I do, I’ll drift over that way. I’ll drift over to the bar. It has been a long time since I had a drink. But absent my routine, the constant reinforcing of messages, I’m drifting to the bar.

Furthermore, just putting a combination lock on the liquor cabinet isn’t going to solve anything. If I slip into a pattern of using substances to blunt reality, I’m done for. If this man you are with slips into a pattern of taking what isn’t his, the whole thing is already over.

You are in a dangerous situation and you need to go slowly. You need to talk to people who have been through what you have been through and who know about these patterns so you can see what you are doing.

It won’t be easy. The drive to repeat is enormously powerful. I think that is another thing people just don’t get: We are all about repetition. If we repeat the “good” habits, nobody is surprised. But when we repeat the “bad” habits, everybody is baffled. So I’m saying it’s not about the qualitative nature of what we repeat, it’s about the repetition itself. The drive to repeat is more powerful than we admit. It is at the heart of identity, for identity itself is nothing but a set of repeated actions.

It’s not that we think consciously, I’m going to really fuck up my life right now. We just love doing things the way we know how to do, the things that help us get to a place of feeling right. So if we can get to a place of feeling right by being with people who beat us and steal from us, well, it’s not that we really like people to beat us and steal from us. We wouldn’t just ask them outright, Hey, I’d feel more comfortable in this relationship if you would beat me and steal from me. I’m not saying “Blame the victim.” I’m saying: Beware how powerful are the forces that bring us together with our abusers.

And to that end: Do not be afraid to be overly cautious. Trust your caution, your instincts. You say you have a tendency to be suspicious of people who are nice to you. Well, what you call “being nice to you” may well be the insidious seduction that is a prelude to eventual abuse. So trust your mistrust. It may be the best friend you’ve got.

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Boys leave

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jan 28, 2004

Why was I the cat’s meow on the fifth date and a sex buddy by the sixth?


Dear Cary,

So it’s happening again: Girl meets boy. Girl likes boy. Gets boy’s number. Girl and boy begin dating. Boy sends all of the “very interested” signals. Girl responds in kind. Incredible sex. Eye-gazing. Natural feeling, intelligent conversation. Then the sixth date: No eye contact, little attempt at conversation, unimpassioned sex. Boy abruptly, awkwardly leaves that morning, making no mention of weekend plans. Boy insults girl with small talk. Girl feels used and disappointed. Girl writes Cary.

What’s going on here? Seriously. This has happened to me before. But I didn’t expect it from this guy. He’s 33. He’s in med school. He’s traveled extensively with the military. He’s bright and clever. He lights up a room. He has a zest for life that’s devastatingly attractive to me. He’s confident.

My male friends tell me that I intimidate guys. I’ve tried to tone it down. With this guy I really took it easy. Followed his lead. Was always very much myself but let a little more of the softness through. I avoided all the old traps. It seemed to work. I was pleased with myself for breaking old patterns. Then, sure enough, with no warning he’s gone. Vacant.

Typically this is when I begin to act like a circus clown, jumping all around trying to pinpoint whatever it is that will take him back to where he was before, and this is when it gets ugly and I get pathetic, and the whole thing is scrapped (usually with good reason by then). But I really don’t want that to happen this time. I want to change this pattern. I want to understand what’s going on here.

I really like this one. I do. I rarely meet people that are as passionate about living as I am, and it felt so nice to not feel like someone’s specimen. He doesn’t need my energy to feed off of — he has his own. I trusted that he wouldn’t be another man who would profess how incredible I am and then in the next breath tell me that I’m “too much.”

I feel hurt and disappointed. How was I the cat’s meow on the fifth date and a sex buddy by the sixth? Cary, can you tell me what happened at five and a half? I can’t think of anything that I did. I really can’t. I’d tell you if I could. Why did he turn off, and more importantly how should I respond? Typically I would call and confront him (weirdness ensues), but this time I want to see what he does, and what you say, before I make a move to unearth whatever’s going on.

How should I proceed? And is there some way I can avoid this in the future?

A Little Broken Hearted … Again

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Dear A Little Broken Hearted,

As I go over your letter, trying to locate you, the image I get is of a woman spinning wildly like a child on a gleaming ballroom floor, throwing sparks into the night, arranging the very universe by her dancing, drunk with attractive power. I see a woman who looks only outward at the shiny, spinning world full of lights but never inward lest she fall, a woman who sees around her other shiny, spinning, fabulous dancers and is briefly drawn into their orbits as they are drawn into hers, forming figure eights as they orbit each other on a great dance floor in some marble ballroom. It is a fabulous, glittering ball, half-mystical, and in this ballroom there is no conversation, only dancing and gesture; nor is there any progression, or any time; there is only whirling and more whirling and when the whirling stops there is only a dreamless sleep of exhaustion in plush red banquet chairs, and then more dancing. There is no remembering of hard times here in this ballroom, nor is there any self-doubt, nor are any names exchanged. No one can remember the last time the music stopped, and no one can remember the last time a contemplative word was uttered. This is not a place where contemplative people come; it is just a whirling ball, glittering and festive and timeless.

That is how I picture you, as a glittering dancer at a ball, who met another glittering dancer and danced wordlessly until you exhausted him and then he whirled away. But when he whirled away you were sad. You expected something else. But what was it you expected? No one in this ballroom knew that you expected anything else. All anyone does here is dance.

This man who turned away from you and hurt you: What was the substance of your understanding of him? What did you learn about his wishes and desires? Was he looking for a wife, or just a playmate? Was he completely single, or partially attached? Was he what they call “emotionally available”? Do you know how one would go about ascertaining if someone is “emotionally available”? Did you consider that a handsome, worldly, charismatic former military man who is now in medical school might be in some ways not emotionally available? Did it occur to you that in your busy, whirling extravagance of spirit you might have neglected to closely study his eyes, how he reacts to you, whether he’s shrinking from you as you expand to fill the room with your fabulousness, whether he might have appeared short of breath as you sucked the oxygen out of the air around him, whether you might have missed any attempt on his part, however subtle and coded, to warn you that he was not the man for you?

It may be that you have great attractive power but only have transactions, not relationships, with men; that would explain why men come and go from your boudoir at will — because although you may dance with them and sleep with them, you have neglected the careful disclosure and attentive listening through which two people establish an emotional narrative. You almost sound like a woman in the last stages of a magical girl phase, when you still have the power, intelligence, vivacity and attractiveness of youth to draw men to you, but find that drawing them to you is no longer enough, that you are groping your way into the world of difficult compromise and self-disclosure that adult relationships require.

If you are ready for that, you will find your way. Here is a tip: The next time you are attracted to a man, try to see him not with your eyes but with your heart. Ask your heart what it sees. It may not see the glittering prince that you see with your eyes. By your heart I mean your intuition, your spider sense, the instant feelings of fear or attraction that you used to rely on as a child.

You’re going to have to stop dancing and making love long enough to hear what the next man has to say. What he says may surprise you. It may also bore you. Such is life outside the ballroom and the boudoir.

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I love the West Coast

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 1, 2005

My problem is, I think I love my East Coast family more.


Dear Cary,

I’m hoping you can help with something that weighs on my mind a little heavier each day. I’m a 25-year-old professional woman, raised in Pennsylvania with four little brothers and sisters aged 18-23 whom I adore. A few years ago, I was working a post-college first job near my family home. I had a nice apartment in the city, saw my family often, and was making friends … but I hated my job. I was completely miserable and mourned my college years, the days of fun, friends and having a reason to get up each day. I hated the humidity, the East Coast conservatism, the snow, the lack of people my age, the rat race … everything.

When I became so unhappy that I thought I had nothing to lose, I risked my entire small savings account, quit my job, bought a van and moved to San Francisco, where I didn’t know a soul and had no job lined up. Thanks to Craig’s List, I found a home with roommates, found activities and clubs, even a dead-end administrative job that I didn’t mind so much because it paid the bills and there was much, much more in life to distract me from it. I lived there for two years, visiting my family back East two or three times a year, while making more and more West Coast friends, having more and more fun and finally beginning to feel comfortable with myself. I was having fun on the weekends and weeknights, I was dating more often, and really discovering an artistic, liberal, outspoken, fun-loving, adventurous side of myself I hadn’t known before, even during college.

Then one day I was referred to a dream job by a friend. Life got even better — I had everything I wanted, including the job. I kept in touch with my siblings as often as possible then, although they themselves were busy with college. During this time, we were all doing our own thing in different locations, talking sporadically, but I don’t think any of us really missed each other. We were all living too fast for that.

The dream job ended up transferring me to Seattle, where I’ve lived for almost a year now. Well, it turns out that life got even better. I love this town more than San Francisco. I have beautiful, wonderful friends here, all of them transports from around the country. I’m making great money. I’m involved in the community, I date a lot, have plans every night, and generally have what my parents have always referred to as “The Life.”

Now my siblings are starting to graduate from college. I just returned from seeing everyone for a week. It always takes us a few days to get back into the groove, but when we do, it is amazing. I miss my little sisters so much it hurts. I miss laying with our arms around each other watching TV together. My brother is opening a store and the whole family is helping him get it up and running — except me, of course, because I’m out here. On the day I left, my sister wrote me a letter asking me not to leave. I cried when I read it, laughed about it with her, and left anyway, came back home to Seattle.

Cary, I love it more here every day. I see myself living the rest of my life here. But my brothers and sisters are settling into a life near where we grew up. I’ve seen my mom’s sister be the one in the family who lives far away, and I see her excluded from the special relationships that my mom and her other sisters share. I don’t want that. I could still live a couple more years out here, while everyone gets really settled (they are still career-hopping and moving around, but I know they will all stay near home), but I know I must go at some point. I know deep in my heart that I must move back to Pennsylvania if I don’t want to be “that sister.” Should I give up everything I love, including my job here (which can’t be replicated on the East Coast), to move back and start fostering a life in a place I hate everything about, save for my sisters, whom I love more than anything? I know it will stifle me to live back there again, right when I am flourishing in my identity and personality out here. Should I move now, or in a couple years, when I know I just shouldn’t wait any longer? Please help me

“Torn” or Something

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Dear “Torn,”

Yours is the dilemma of mobility and economic freedom. It is a dilemma disguised as a gift. It requires you to choose. I can’t really tell you what to do.

I do not know what I would do, either, if I could do it over. I have conflicting feelings about having spent the last 30 years on the opposite coast from my family. But here are some ways to think about it, some vague trajectories and generalities that you might consider, in somewhat random order:

San Francisco and Seattle are great cities for the young. What they offer can be found few other places — openness to experimentation, liberal social attitudes, concentration of youth with similar backgrounds, lots of highly educated people and the jobs to support them. In my opinion, while these areas offer incomparable experiences for the young, what they offer for middle-aged and older can be found elsewhere as well, and often at less expense — schools, housing, parks, good restaurants, recreation opportunities. And their drawbacks can loom as more important the older you get — the expense, the fast pace and loose social ties, the constant change. Likewise, or conversely, the tradition and stability of the East, which you find stifling now, may tend to become more attractive the older you get.

San Francisco and Seattle are great cities to visit, but expensive to live in. If you have to live in one place and visit another, it might be slightly better to be visiting the West Coast but living on the East Coast.

Dream jobs may be harder to find in Pennsylvania, but if you have experience and you are willing to spend a good bit of time looking, you may be able to find a job you like. You are in a perfect position to look now. You can take as long as you like. You are also gaining valuable experience — perhaps at a level of responsibility that might be hard to duplicate on the East Coast at your age. (That’s just a guess.)

You can always move back to the West Coast again, if you find the East Coast unworkable. Whereas, if you never come back to the East Coast to live, you may always be haunted by a thought that you abandoned your family, that you missed the best years of your sisters’ lives, etc.

The West Coast is a great place to reinvent yourself. The East Coast is great once you know who you are. Perhaps it’s during the process of inventing oneself that one is so fragile and thus so dependent on a nourishing environment. You need people supporting you while you’re experimenting with who you are; once you know who you are, it becomes less important to have external support and approval. So perhaps the East Coast would stifle you now, in your experimental period, but after you’ve constructed an identity and lived in it for a while, worked out its kinks, smoothed it out, made it comfortable, then it can travel with you back to Pennsylvania.

So I suggest you do as much as you can on the West Coast while you can. Become who you are. Become who you aren’t and everything in between. Try everything you want to try and some things that you don’t. Then you can return to the East Coast with a glad heart, knowing you’ll be with your sisters and your brother and all the people you love so dearly.

As to the West Coast, it’ll be here for you. Drop in anytime.

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Bent rules

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 25, 2004

My boyfriend and I decided we could kiss other people, but he went further. What should I do?


Dear Cary,

I have been with the same man for more than six years. We met in high school, our relationship survived college and living together as recent grads.

About six months ago, my boyfriend moved to another city, five hours away. The long-distance thing was hard but I still had my life in our first city and he had a couple of friends in his city so we figured we could make it work.

Things really were going great — we’d see each other on weekends regularly, and during the week, even when living together we were both so busy we were OK with talking on the phone constantly and other forms of communication.

A month ago, he mentioned that he would like to “loosen” the rules to our relationship and that if he happened to be out somewhere and meet a girl he wanted to be friends with he felt like as soon as he mentioned his long-term girlfriend the new girl didn’t want to even pursue a friendship. We decided that it was OK to not say anything and even kiss other people but no current friends and no sex (in the Republican sense of that word). As a safety precaution, I told him I would want to know everything that happened — some friends called me crazy but I am glad I did this.

Last week, he called to tell me that at a friend’s party he made out with a girl. I knew he was lying and demanded to know all the details. Turns out he had “intimate relations” and sex with one of his friends. By the way, we were each other’s first and only.

I feel like I should cut him out of my life for betraying me so deeply but I still love him so much.

My friends all say different things, from dump him, to accept his apologies, to move down there to keep an eye on him, to just give it time. One thing I find frustrating is that he doesn’t seem to regret getting together with this girl, but he seems genuinely sorry that it hurt me.

We always communicated so well when we had problems and this is the first time that we are unable to come up with a solution. I thought we would get married, but now I feel like I can’t trust him.

Betrayed

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Dear Betrayed,

When he first mentioned to you that he wanted to “loosen” the rules, did it worry you at all? Was there anything different about the tone of his voice or his choice of words? Did it bother you in some way that you couldn’t quite articulate? Perhaps it bothered you but you wanted to be reasonable; perhaps you wanted to prove to yourself that you could trust him. At any rate, maybe he didn’t have a clear plan to sleep with this woman, but something had probably crossed his mind, and he was testing the waters. This conversation was an opportunity for you to express your reservations about where such a loosening of the rules might lead. He may have been looking to you, in fact, to express such reservations. When you instead agreed to his proposal, I think you implicated yourself in the outcome. I’m not saying he’s not responsible for what he did. But your acquiescence increased the likelihood that he would commit this indiscretion. For that reason, I do not think it was such a terrible betrayal. It was more like a foreseeable accident.

What you did, it seems to me, was akin to telling a kid it’s OK to play with matches in the forest as long as he doesn’t start a forest fire. It’s your responsibility to see where his actions might lead, and to prevent it.

Perhaps in some murky, unacknowledged way, you were testing him to see how far he would go. People have only so much willpower and so much awareness of their own drives. If you test them enough, they will eventually fail. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. It just means he’s human.

So to now condemn him on the basis of his failing this test seems harsh to me. On the other hand, his rationale about women not wanting to be friends with him when they find out he has a girlfriend sounds like a typical load of boyfriend bull. Women will be friends with you if you have a girlfriend. They just won’t sleep with you. That lame-ass story makes me suspect he really did have a plan in mind and was just looking for permission.

But I don’t think you need to break up with him. I just think you need to be a little more realistic. Since he’s your first partner, you’re young and you’ve been together since high school, you probably didn’t see this coming. But it’s something that was bound to happen, given the risk you took. I’d suggest you forgive him and try to stay together. Just tell him point-blank not to kiss other women.

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Medical meddlers: It’s my body, not yours!

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 15, 2009

My mother and my boyfriend want to tell me how many pills to take


Dear Cary,

When I was 18, I had my first kidney stone. I had lithotripsy for another at 19 and a very serious bacterial infection in my kidney in between. I am now 25, and have spent seven years with intermittent pain and urinary tract infections. In the past year, the pain has gotten to the point where I experience it in various degrees on a daily basis — sometimes it is so bad I just want to cry. On top of this, I have gone through a series of doctors who have all doubted I have any problem at all — the “stones” don’t show up on CAT scans and they can’t find any other reason for my pain. I have been called a drug seeker, and told I am making it up. I know some of them — male urologists — think they are dealing with a hysterical female.

I have finally got a diagnosis from a new primary care physician and gynecologist of interstitial cystitis (pelvic pain/urinary problems) with kidney stones. These doctors at least believe me — when I have days of pain, followed by voiding debris, it seems the logical explanation. We are proceeding slowly toward more complete treatment — because of the seven years of missed diagnosis and rude doctors, they are making sure others I am referred to are aware of my condition and will be sympathetic toward it. We are still trying to get to the root of the stones, and specifically why my pain has only ever been on the right side of my body. They’ve also referred me for pain management, which is going to be a huge relief.

My problem comes from friends, my boyfriend, and relatives — specifically my mother. They have been supportive and helpful during these times, especially when I haven’t been able to be a pleasant person or reciprocate their kindness immediately. But now many have started focusing on my use of painkillers.

When I hadn’t started a drug regime for my IC, I was taking three Lortab a day. My mother even went so far as to count my pills and lecture me over the phone about being a drug addict. I now take tramadol for daily pain, and have Lortab for when things get really bad. Many people ask how much I have taken, express concern over the number of pills I use (I never exceed doctors’ recommended dosages), and make comments about how they are afraid I have an addiction problem. I also suffer from anxiety — and this only makes it worse. I am very aware of the danger narcotics pose. And I suspect I might have some symptoms of addiction, such as getting overly fixated on getting more pills when I am running low. But this is because my pain is under-managed. All I want to do is feel normal. I’ve tried to explain that pain medication is part of my treatment, but people seem to take such a sharp view toward the drugs. My mother is a nurse and makes comments about the “addicts” in their office who get 90 Lortab a month (what I used to take, meaning three a day). My boyfriend is always inspecting what pills I am taking, asking if I really feel that bad, and saying he doesn’t like it when I’m “stoned” on my medication.

Obviously, there is no way to not have these people involved — they support me through all my trials, pains and rough spots. But I can’t deal with the questioning and accusations anymore. When I tell them there is nothing wrong with taking pills as prescribed, they think it is my endorsement of them. They tell me I need “help.”

I do need help. I need proper medical treatment for my condition. I need to get better. And until then, I am going to use painkillers so I can lead a normal life. Despite these difficulties I’ve maintained good grades and have my dream job. I have friends, relationships, hobbies — but in order to enjoy these things, I can’t be in excruciating discomfort. How do I deal with this situation?

On Meds, Not a Junkie

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Dear Not a Junkie,

Since I’m not a doctor, let’s talk about this as a relationship issue. Let’s just say that in your relationships with people, they keep interfering in something that is basically none of their business. You are looking for a way to draw boundaries, or say no, or get some control over a part of your life.

There is an area of your life that you want control of. You don’t want to discuss it with certain people.

There are ways to do this. They range from blatant refusal to polite refusal, but they are all about refusal. You have to refuse.

How are you at refusing? I’m betting you’re not very good. Neither am I, frankly. I’ve got a little note in my wallet that reminds me to think before saying yes. I also tend to disclose too much. I like to talk about my life but then find I’ve disclosed more than I’m comfortable with and then people give me advice and question my judgment and then I get resentful and start to sulk. You don’t want to see me sulking. It’s unpleasant to behold. Yeah, I’ve got boundary issues! Like right now, already, see what happened? We were talking about you and all of a sudden it’s about me. That’s a kind of a boundary thing, too: I’m trying to say I identify, but then I’m also switching the territory.

So let’s keep talking about you.

One way to draw the necessary boundary is to have a blanket statement that you use on all people who are not your doctor. You might say something like, This is a medical issue and I only discuss it with my doctor.

It may sound weird at first. People may make a joke, or react with anger. Keep your calm. Don’t give in but don’t explain yourself either. Explaining yourself (I’ve learned this with salespeople) just gives them an opportunity to overcome your objections. So, just say no.

The idea is to have a stock policy you adopt with everyone, even your mother, that you just don’t discuss your medical treatment with people who aren’t your doctor.

Now, I have a family. I know about families. You’re supposed to play your part. When you make boundaries, you’re sort of changing the rules. You’re saying, I don’t really like my part that much. But they like your part. It’s the part they want you to play. They can’t play their part if you don’t play yours. They don’t like it when you change the script. So be prepared. Stand your ground. Quietly stand your ground.

Just make it a blanket statement. And then go to the movies.

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