I resent my fiancé

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 24, 2007

I grew up dirt-poor, so I should be happy that my future husband has money, but I’m mad at him instead!


Dear Cary,

Hopefully you can help me sort out this weird contradiction inside me, which started shortly after becoming engaged.

The man I am engaged to is everything I’ve always wanted to find, but after dating a long string of losers, I had resigned myself to being essentially alone. I actually enjoy being single and doing whatever I want, but I had always kind of hoped someone like this would come along. And, out of nowhere, he did! And he is amazing, would do anything in the world for me, is so kind and caring and funny, etc., etc.

And, as I only recently found out after meeting his parents, filthy rich.

I had no idea! He doesn’t live like a rich kid. He drives a beat-up old car, lives in a sparsely furnished and dingy-ish apartment, does or says nothing that would indicate that he is set to inherit millions. His grandmother was a famous actress in Hollywood, his parents live in an actual mansion; they are loaded. I was stunned to find all of this out. So, the man of my dreams becomes even more dreamy, right? Well, sort of … except now I find myself becoming more and more resentful of him and his upbringing every day, and I think it’s breaking us up!

See, I was not rich, or middle-class, or even lower-middle-class. We were POOR. My dad took off when we were young and my mom had a bunch of kids and a hardcore drug problem. I’m the oldest, so I took care of the younger kids while my mom was strung out, or missing, or screaming at us for one imaginary reason or another. Basically, it was hell and it makes me sick to think about it.

The good (almost miraculous) news is, all of the brothers and sisters are adults now and none of us have any drug problems, we all went to good schools and have steady jobs, no train wrecks in the bunch. I thought I had emerged unscathed and was doing a good job supporting myself and being happy, and then I unexpectedly meet this wonderful man, and then find out he’s rich, what more could I ask for. I should be deliriously happy. Instead I find myself sabotaging our relationship.

He tells me about fabulous trips he went on as a kid like they were no big deal, and I think in my head, “He is so ungrateful for everything he’s been given.” Or he’ll tell me about the private schools he went to, and I’ll think, “He has no idea what it means to struggle, how can he ever possibly understand ME and where I’m coming from?”

How can I get back to where it was, before I knew his family had all this money? When we were relaxed and easygoing with each other? Now things are tense, and I know it’s because my attitude toward him has changed. I have a snotty tone with him that wasn’t there before, so in return, he is acting distant toward me. Is it true that he is shallow because he’s never had to deal with hardship, and we will never truly understand each other?

He doesn’t judge me and where I came from so why am I doing it to him?

Resentful

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Dear Resentful,

Perhaps you could say to him something like this:

I grew up poor. I grew up poor and it affected me. It affected me in ways that I have never honestly articulated.

It is not something I talk about. I thought I had put it behind me. But obviously I haven’t. Seeing your parents’ house brought back many powerful feelings. I did not expect this. But here it is. Money, and my feelings about money, are now part of our relationship. So now we need to talk about money.

I would like to begin by saying that I had no idea that you had money when we met. I saw you and fell in love with you for who you are. You were the perfect man for me. But now for the past few days or weeks I have been being mean to you and I know you have noticed. It is because all these feelings of hurt about money have come back. I know that having money is a wonderful thing. But right now I am reminded of how I felt back in the time when I was growing up dirt poor with a drug-addicted mother, taking care of my siblings. This was a very hard time for me. Among the things I felt at the time was that people with money can never understand what I am going through. I formed this opinion as we often do in a state of great pain and deprivation. I projected onto people with money my own feelings of shame and worthlessness. It was a way to get through it and survive. But now I find I still carry these ideas with me, the way we find sometimes we are still carrying ideas of racism or sexism, or odd, personal prejudices, ideas that don’t make any sense given the facts, but which were formed in moments of great pain and despair, to help us get through it. So now I am sitting with you, whom I love, whom I plan to marry, and I find that you are a rich man. How do I regard you differently now that I know you have money? In my mind there is great confusion. How can I love a rich man? How can I marry a rich man? How do I separate the man I know from the man I think of as a rich man? I know who you are. You are just a man. You are a good man. Yet there is this money out there, attached to you, in your past and in your future. Does that make you a rich man like the rich men who ignored me when I was dirt poor and struggling to protect my siblings? No. But it reminds me of those times, and makes me sad and angry, and I am full of those feelings now, and so those feelings are a part of us, our relationship, our marriage. We will have to make room for those feelings. I am bringing them with me like a trousseau.

Money, I find, has deep meaning for me. For one thing, for me it is about responsibility. It is not about luxury but about want. Oddly enough, this just comes to me now, as I imagine many things will come to me as we talk about this: I still feel responsible for my siblings! How can that be? But I do. And I am worried what they will think if I marry a rich man. All these thoughts are running through my head. I am the responsible one. I am the one who takes care of everyone. How can I take care of you if you are the one with the money? And who will have the power when we marry? Who will control the money? Will we fight about money? You do not seem to care about money. This attitude I cannot fathom. My cares about money are boundless. My passions about money are boundless. To feel nothing about money is beyond my wildest imaginings. I am afraid you will reject me because of my attitude toward money! I am afraid of people with money because they have the power!

Here is my fear about marrying a man with money: Will you forget who I am? Will you forget who I am when you are with your rich friends? Will you place me in situations where I feel uncomfortable? Forgive me, but I must say this: You cannot forget that the woman you are marrying was once dirt-poor. I will not let you forget. It will have to be a part of every day for you, as it is for me. If you cannot accept that, then we cannot get married. You have to tell me now. Are you ready? Are you ready to marry a woman who was once dirt-poor, whose mother was an addict, whose view of the world was forged in a cauldron of fear and deprivation? Are you ready?

You make me happy with your answer. I was afraid but now it feels like it did at first before I knew you had money. I think it will be OK. But I will be a little crazy about the money. I will have to work through some things. But here is what I want. I want you to learn from me about poverty, about what it does, about how it happens, about why it is so hard to get out of, about why those who have money have an obligation — because it is often just an accident who has the money. In getting out of poverty, in working and struggling, I have come to believe that when certain things come unexpectedly into our lives they must be viewed as opportunities. So this, scary as it is, must be viewed as an opportunity. This is an opportunity for me to teach you about poverty. This is an opportunity for you to teach me about being rich.

And so on and so forth. I know I’m putting words into your mouth, but this is a conversation about money that ought to take place in many homes, between many people, because many of us have been poor and when we see a rich person or hear about money we feel torrents of emotion that we feel sometimes we can never explain. It is not so terribly complicated. Things happened to us and we never forgot it, and we carry these ideas with us to help us get by. But we need to have this conversation. It is the conversation we need to have as we step over bedraggled people in rags who sleep on our streets.

I’m a conflicted feminist

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 31, 2003

My family taught me to be an independent woman, but now they want me to find a man.


Dear Cary,

As a 32-year-old single female I have been told my whole life that I don’t need a man. I can be educated (I am), have a career (I am working on it) and own a home (I do). The importance of being independent was drilled into me from an early age and to be fair I embraced it with open arms. I love not having to depend on anyone, knowing that I made my way in the world by myself for myself. Yet all those people who told me that I didn’t need to count on a man are now the ones implying that I will be unhappy for the rest of my life if I don’t find and keep a man. I have had serious relationships and have been in love. And naturally I have had my heart broken. But I moved on and worked on my other goals — career, education — not ignoring my love life but not putting it as a priority.

Now I have friends and family who are encouraging me to “get out and meet people,” use an Internet dating service, and just basically start searching desperately for a relationship. I just can not/will not do this. First, there is an issue of pride at stake. How can I be an independent, intelligent woman and start frantically searching for a relationship as some kind of fountain of fulfillment? Second, who says I need a man? I have wonderful friends I love and a nice life.

Why do I still feel conflicted about all of this? Why can’t I just let it roll off my back that my achievements seem to be disregarded by some individuals simply because I don’t have a man in my life? Why is it that it hurts that people no longer ask whether I am seeing someone (just assuming I am not)? And does it mean I am less of an independent woman because I let these issues bother me?

Conflicted feminist

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Dear Conflicted,

Being independent doesn’t make you invulnerable. You can still get your feelings hurt. Being independent simply means that you make your own decisions and take responsibility for them.

You’re not less of an independent woman because you have feelings. There’s nothing cowardly or submissive about being hurt by the petty stings of well-meaning friends and the deep nagging insult of veiled parental directives. When people are hinting around about what we should be, it feels like they don’t value us for who we are. Independence does not confer immunity from such emotions; nor does political enlightenment guarantee that all your strong feelings will be noble. You can feel just as outraged about your mother nosing around your dating life as you can about the dubious prospects for the U.S. rebuilding a stable Afghanistan. The U.S. said it would rebuild Afghanistan, and your mother said she wouldn’t pressure you about your love life. Governments and mothers are shameless liars. They’ll promise you anything just to see you smile.

Anyway, it sounds to me like what’s happening is you’re getting your feelings hurt, but the hurt is compounded by your own belief that you shouldn’t let it bother you. So my advice would be: Let it bother you. Because it should bother you. Let it drive you nuts. But then do something about it. Because it’s crazy the way people project; it’s like they’re shining their movies onto our bodies; you look down on your hand and there’s a wagon train heading west up your arm, there’s grandpa’s car dealership on your chest, there’s your uncle’s degree in sociology projected onto your forehead; we become maps of other’s hopes and dreams, and it’s a little surreal; and it may be that the more independent, i.e. the more un-anchored and undefined by caste, family, etc., we are, the more we represent the nothingness that makes them uncomfortable. Hence the more desperate they are to see us filing jointly, deducting mortgage interest and arguing about the babysitter’s piercings.

Let it bother you. Let it bother you enough that you take the time to sit down and analyze exactly what words or actions have hurt you or offended you. And then try to put into words what you believe the actual message was, and counter it. For instance, if your mother should say to you, “That boy you used to go out with, what was his name, whatever happened to him, wasn’t he in medical school?” you could translate that as “Because I am your mother, I love you and want the best for you and I’m afraid if you don’t find a good man you’ll end up an old crone alone in a Brooklyn pension eating Triscuits and Alpo.” And to this you might make a compassionate but firm response: Mother, I know you’re worried about me being alone, I know you want me to find a man, but I will always take care of myself whether I find a man or not. I’ll always be OK. Why? Because of what you taught me.

My husband is making me suspicious

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 17, 2006

He’s e-mailing an ex-girlfriend and chatting with strange women — and he gets defensive when I mention it.


Dear Cary,

I can’t tell if I’m paranoid or justified at this point, and maybe you won’t be able to tell, either, but I guess I just need someone else to think about this for a minute, because I’m exhausted.

I’ve been married for 13 years. We’ve had our ups and down, but thankfully, it’s been mostly up. We’ve got a small collection of children of various ages, and a busy, engaged life.

A few months ago, I got up early one morning to find my husband’s e-mail open, and in particular, a letter minimized on the screen. Clueless, I opened it, and was horrified to read a rather plaintive and deeply personal letter to his ex-girlfriend. Reading the entire letter, and the history of the e-mail trail as it bounced along, I was quick to realize he had been searching for her.

I chose not to say anything, because I couldn’t figure out what to say, other than I was hurt that he hadn’t told me about the contact.

A few weeks ago, he asked me to open his e-mail while he was at work to retrieve a phone number. Not only was there further communication from her, there was also communication from other women, like the women at the bank where he does business, and it referenced phone calls. There was nothing overtly sexual about them, but they were personal. When I managed to work one of the women’s names into a conversation, he flat-out lied to me and denied ever talking to her or writing to her. I know he did. I saw it.

I don’t know what to do. After I saw the last contacts, I confronted him. He’s furious with me, just spitting mad that I read his e-mail. I’m furious that it appears that he is trolling for women on the Internet. He says they are all just friends, but this isn’t like him. And my internal radar has gone off so loudly I can hardly hear anything else. He says it’s in my head, and it may be. I think the better guess is that he’s cheating, or planning to cheat, and he’s angry that he’s been caught.

Any ideas on the next step? He’s insisting that I’m paranoid and that he’s never given me reason to doubt him. I think writing and calling women secretively is a pretty big reason to have pause.

On Shaky Ground

Dear On Shaky Ground,

I can’t know whether he is cheating or thinking about cheating. But I suggest you give some thought to the following.

Is it OK in principle for him to have female friends that you don’t know about? Are there specific women friends that make you feel uncomfortable?

If there are, I suggest you tell him: When you communicate with your ex-girlfriend, I feel threatened. Or: These particular women make me uneasy.

You may be thinking that he should just know. But it is possible that he doesn’t. So get very specific.

What about thoughts? What if he communicates with a woman and wonders what it would be like to put his hand on her motorcycle? What if he actually touches her motorcycle? Does he have to tell you that? What if he touches her motorcycle but they don’t ride anywhere?

This could get tedious. But what I’m getting at is that you may have a detailed map in your head of what is OK and not OK but he doesn’t know that map very well. He needs to get to know that map.

Consider the problem of building and repairing trust, as discussed in this dry but possibly useful article. Reading and thinking about this might help you come to see trust as an actual phenomenon that needs to be strengthened and understood in your relationship.

This much is clear: He may be telling the truth, and he may be being candid. But he is not being candid enough to suit you. You require more trust-building behavior from him. I hope you can get it.

He wants you to trust him more. How can he get you to trust him more? Perhaps he can be more transparent and forthcoming in his accounts of his whereabouts, his comings and goings, his entrances and exits, his kisses and his handshakes, whom he writes to and how, how he talks to whom and for what reason and about what topics.

What is this, a prison? He may ask. Yes, you might reply: It is the prison of profound responsibility.

I kissed her and then her husband killed himself

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 10, 2012

Now I’m in an agony of guilt and my life will never be the same


Dear Cary,

I met a woman at work nine months ago.  We clicked immediately but I refused her advances because she was married, to her second husband, in fact.  After a few months, I could no longer resist the attraction.  Immediately after we kissed, she told her husband they hadn’t been in a real marriage for a long time and she was leaving.

She asked him to discuss dividing their possessions.  Shortly after, he went upstairs and shot and killed himself.

As you can imagine, she will never be OK.  For the first couple of months, I stayed awake 24 hours a day with two mobile phones in my hands in case she needed me.  At the suggestion of my psychiatrist, I told her she needed to see a professional, as I am not skilled in counseling and the strain was too great for me.  Since then, we somehow launched into a downward spiral of shutting each other out, then hurting each other, and now lying as well.

She spends her time with her parents and 18-year-old son from her first marriage.  We live in such a small town that we cannot go out for dinner, spend time with friends, or see each other much at all.  When she first returned to work after the tragedy, I would come by her cubicle on bad days and give her a small gift or trinket and a hug, until one of her colleagues warned me that he would cause trouble.  A week ago she left her job because she needs more time to heal.  I’ve tried to continue finding creative ways to distract her, make her feel normal, and be together.

I am convinced I will never work through this guilt.  When I see her old spot at work where her family pictures were, when she spends holidays with her husband’s family, when I go on a social networking site and see pictures of her and her husband, my world gets shaken like a snow globe.  Nearly every time I am left alone I break into tears.  I am overtaken by the irrefutable fact that my actions led to the extinguishing of a living flame and now it is snuffed forever despite what I would give to change things.

My parents got word of what happened and no longer speak to me.  My roommate is moving out tomorrow because he’s grown angry and hateful after unsuccessfully helping me through this.  I am nearly completely isolated and I clearly need to dedicate more time to work on myself.  Almost everyone I speak to insists that I need to leave her, especially my psychiatrist, but how do you break up with the woman you love after she’s endured such a traumatic loss?

Sincerely,
Overcome with Guilt

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Dear Overcome with Guilt,

Your actions did not cause this suicide. They did not lead to it. You were not central to it.

You did not advocate for this person to commit suicide, or provide the means for this person to commit suicide. You knew nothing of any suicidal inclinations he might have had. You did not know him. He did not know you. Presumably, if he knew of your existence, he knew of you only as one of his wife’s co-workers. You did not sleep with his wife. Nor did you know that, after kissing you, his wife was going to go home and tell him she was leaving him.

The one thing you did was that you broke a well-understood obligation not to kiss his wife. That is a real obligation, not to kiss his wife, which you broke. You are not supposed to kiss other men’s wives. You knew that. You did it anyway. That is something to feel remorse about. That is something you did that was wrong.

If it were possible to make amends, that would be something to make amends to him about. Unfortunately, because he chose to take his own life, you cannot make amends to him for that.

So you will have to live with that.

That’s your situation. You committed no crime. It’s not a nice place to be. But it’s not eternal damnation. It is the wretched confliction of feelings that arise when we are tangential to a tragedy.

You are tangential here. You were not central to the suicide and you are not central to this woman’s life.

I think your psychiatrist, who has more knowledge about your situation and more understanding of you as a person than I do, and is professionally trained and licensed to guide people in their affairs, probably should be listened to.

You should leave her alone.

We don’t refrain from kissing other men’s wives because we fear the husband will commit suicide. But there are certain things we might expect a husband to do if he finds out that we kissed his wife. In the movies, a good punch in the jaw is the agreed-upon right action. It’s a non-fatal expression of contempt and serves to reassert the husband’s dominant role in the wife’s affections. Seeing the man she kissed lying unconscious on the ground, she will either run to him, thus affirming that her affections have shifted, or she will run back to her husband, affirming that she recognizes her best bet is to stick with the one who is good at punching. That is how the movies portray these things. We know that real life is different. But we still like going to the movies.

Your response is sort of like a movie. You are all histrionic. You are all saying things will never be the same; you are staying up all night with two cellphones. This is a little overdoing it.

So how exactly did you harm him, and did you harm him in any material way, or only by way of your attitude toward him? You didn’t sleep with his wife, but, knowing that he existed, you did disregard him as a person. You disregarded his status as the husband. You in a sense depersonalized him; you disregarded his existence. That is what we do when we fool around with someone’s spouses; we depersonalize a stranger, or a person known to us; we do things that we know would hurt that person if he or she were to find out. This is not a good thing to do. It probably makes it easier when we do not know the person, but whether we have met or not met, we still know that some person exists whom our actions would hurt if they were to be found out.

This is why we refrain from such things — because we know that they can hurt other people. Generally speaking, our actions do not lead to other people’s suicides, especially the suicides of people we do not even know. Rather, suicidal people make choices over which we have no control. If we could reliably cause the suicides of others, rest assured it would be against the law.

In certain cases advocating for another person to commit suicide has been prosecuted.  One man sought out depressed people, “posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves.”

That’s a little different, I think you’ll agree. “While it is illegal in Minnesota to encourage suicide, there is no such federal law,” according to an ABC News account of the matter.

Out of another situation in which a person’s suicide was aided by information and interaction on the Web, H.R. 1183 has been proposed, which would  “make it a crime to use the Internet to help someone commit suicide.”

I find that interesting, personally, because my 2006 column titled “What’s the best method for painless suicide?” continues to get many hits every month from people some of whom are expecting to get practical, how-to advice. Some of them even write to me angrily or disappointed that I don’t show them where to buy poison or name the best bridges to jump off of.

People do get over the suicides of loved ones. They meet in groups and talk on the phone with hotline counselors and go through their lives. The pain and shock abate. And there is evidence to show that how we talk about such things affects how we will feel. So I would guard against saying such things as she will never get over it. It isn’t helpful. One who has been through such an event may feel outraged that others do not seem to understand its power; they do not seem to understand how deeply we have been hurt or how long the hurt persists or the many small ways in which our day-to-day functioning is impaired afterward. This is true. So it is hard to go through life grieving. It is hard to grieve among strangers who do not know the cause of our halting responses and occasional lapses into blank emotion-filled silences when we are tugged violently by the anchor of the underworld.

That is what it is like to go through life grieving.  It causes one to wonder if it might not be better to wear a black armband for a while, so others, even strangers, know to tread lightly. It is hard to go through life with a burden like that.

But it does not change the philosophical or logical problem. You did not cause this suicide. You played a part in this suicidal person’s personal drama. Or, that is, not even you played the part, but your image; this person’s image of you played a part in his own drama.

When you say, “I am convinced I will never work through this guilt,” you do yourself a disservice. Why not instead tell yourself, “I will work through this guilt.”

A part of us, of course, likes the sound of “never.” A part of us clings to it. And inasmuch as it allows us to feel the complete depth of the shock, it serves a purpose; it is poetic language. It is dramatic language. It indicates severity, or degree.

But beware the effect of such pronouncements, because they also work as prophecy. So find more poetic language, if you can; say that the depth of it is tearing you apart, that you feel devastated. You may need some kind of catharsis. Catharsis means working through. In fact, come to think of it, catharsis may be exactly what you need.

And, despite what you say, she will be OK. And you will be OK, too. But it will take time. for now, I suggest you listen to your psychiatrist. Leave this woman alone. Give it time. Back off.

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