Category Archives: Advice

Advice and things about advice

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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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How to let go of old resentments

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 8, 2010

My husband and my brother are estranged because of a business deal


Dear Cary,

Earlier this year, around the time of your cancer diagnosis, you wrote about letting go of a long-held resentment. I am particularly interested in this topic because of a family conflict that has gone on for years in an understated way. Whenever it interferes with my life in a pragmatic way, I get completely stressed out and obsess about it.

My husband was badly hurt by my brother as a friend and business partner years ago. Since then, my husband refuses to be near my brother except on obligatory family occasions. I understand this position as a means of self-protection. My brother is charming and would like to smooth things over but doesn’t want to admit any wrongdoing or participate in the work of real reconciliation, and my husband will agree to nothing less. Frankly, I think they both would prefer never to see each other again.

That leaves me to be the linchpin of a relationship they would prefer did not exist. I feel torn by my loyalty to both of them. On a day-to-day level, it’s not usually a problem. I get together with my brother on my own. I’m a one-on-one sort of person anyway, so I kind of like it that way. Every now and then, though, I fear hurting my brother and his partner’s feelings by not inviting them to be part of our shared social life. I can’t even tell my mom when I’m having a party for fear that she will tell my brother about it or feel sad about my failure to include them.

How would you suggest that I deal with the emotional and pragmatic ramifications of this state? Also, can I do anything to help them resolve their bad feelings about one another?

Thank you for your thoughts.

Stuck in the Middle

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Dear Stuck in the Middle,

Resentments, long-held and seemingly intractable, can be suddenly lifted forever. Yet there is no foolproof method that I know of to make this happen. Time and events seem to work in concert with our own efforts.

No one prescription heals the infinite variety of emotional wounds. Rather, our searing and constant attention on these things seems to work in tandem with unseen currents of mercy flowing among us day and night. Eddies of warm wisdom encounter cold upwellings of  unrepentant prejudice and grudge, and out of that comes change. We struggle for years with a sense of grinding injustice, masticating the tough, fibrous hay of our own indignation, standing chilly in our pastures waiting for someone else to make a move. And then things change. Light comes in.

Meanwhile, though it sounds a little silly, thinking good thoughts about the one we resent, wishing them good fortune, blowing positive breath toward them, praying for them — these odd and counterintuitive actions sometimes have surprising effects. Who knows why.

While we wait for things to change, we envision scenarios: What if we got together at the old house and things would be just like they used to be? What if we went waterskiing? He loves waterskiing! We try to reach inner accommodation through judgment of externals: He is really being unreasonable now! I’ve done all I can do and now the rest is up to him! This can go on for years.

And then one day the two parties meet on the street and it is a sunny day and they have met by accident and it seems like a nice time to go boating.

So what are you to do about social arrangements, you who are in the middle? I rather think the best thing to do is simply invite the people who belong and let them decide to show up or not.

This may be tricky in the case of your husband. To invite your brother may seem like a provocation. But, while showing sensitivity to his feelings, I think it would be best if you simply tell him that your brother is your brother and family is family and people have to learn to be in the same room with each other.

This involves a certain amount of letting go. It involves just letting go and doing the normal thing and letting other people work out their differences.

And let me say this: We get to a point in these long-running disputes where we think, screw it, I’ve done enough and he hasn’t responded, well fuck it, it’s his turn.

But it’s never his turn. It’s always our turn. We’re the only ones whose turn it can be. There is always more we can do. We can always try again. We can always pick up the phone one more time. If we choose not to, that’s our choice. But there is always one more try.

And we find, if we take this approach, that after the 15th or the 20th try, there is a thaw, a lifting. If your brother is not working every day in some way to repair this rift, then he’s not doing enough. Likewise with your husband. Likely as not, neither one of these men is doing all he could do. Neither has made himself vulnerable. Neither has taken a genuine risk. Neither has taken it all the way.

I’m not saying I don’t understand that. I do. We’re sensitive creatures. We don’t like being hurt. I understand how one offhand remark from a family member can put one crooked for days, and how, therefore, we naturally try to avoid such things.

But I also know that we can do it. We can survive such hurts. And good can come of making the choice to endure such hurts and keep working at reconciliation. No matter what excuses we make, we have the choice: We can keep working at relationships or we can claim we have done enough and quit. Once we give up, things just get worse.

We have never done enough. There is no such thing as enough. There is always more to do.

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Bad things

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 14, 2004

I looked at my girlfriend’s text messages and found out she was in touch with an ex. Can we ever trust each other?


Dear Cary,

I have been in a relationship with a woman for a little over four months. In pretty much every respect, it has been absolutely incredible. We spend every night together, we share a lot of common interests, we are alike in all the right ways. We have met each other’s parents and have seriously discussed moving in together. There’s a problem, but the thing is: I can’t decide how big a problem it is.


A few months before she met me, she dated another man for about six months. He was, by her account, emotionally manipulative. When he broke up with her, she was extremely upset. Some time after we began dating, she told me that he had begun phoning and e-mailing her a great deal, even coming to her house and work unannounced. I was uncomfortable with this, but the issue was never really discussed again. Over the next few months, we grew closer and closer. Despite how great everything felt, I was always somewhat suspicious. I chalked this up to my own insecurities, which are admittedly an issue of their own. I could not shake the feeling that despite her interest in me, he was still somehow a part of her life.

A week ago I did what from your archives I understand is a fairly common but very bad thing. While she was in the shower, I checked the text messages on her phone. I’m pretty ashamed at myself for doing it, and though you will have a hard time believing it, I did not actually think I would find anything. But I found a rather unpleasant message. When she got out of the shower, I confronted her with it, and over the course of the last week we have been discussing it a great deal.

He had been phoning her and sending her text messages nearly every day for quite some while. He had even phoned her at her parents’ house at Christmas. He was trying to get her back and also trying to get her to move with him abroad. When we first started dating, she had seen him a couple of times but only for coffee. She told me that she did not answer his calls when he phoned most of the time, but that she did occasionally e-mail him or talk to him. She swore that since she had recently moved and changed jobs, he did not show up at her door anymore.

I feel deeply hurt by this. The trust issues that I had, and which I thought were problems of my own, turn out to have been at least somewhat justified. I do not know what to believe anymore. I have confronted her about secrets and lies before, about trivial things (I thought), and she told me that she would be more honest. So when she told me that she did not want to get back together with him, that she had not seen him except when he unexpectedly showed up at her door, and that she loved me, I wanted very much to believe her. And I think I do. I asked her a number of questions about it, and she truly opened up and told me a great deal. Whether she left anything out I can’t honestly say, except that I believe she is trying to be honest. She admitted that she had not done enough to get rid of him and had partly liked the attention he was giving her when he had once been so cruel.

I told her that if we were going to survive she would have to make a decision — it was either me or him (or maybe neither), but it was not acceptable to continue on like this. I do truly love her and feel that we can get past this, but I have told her that she must work hard to regain my trust, which includes not lying to me and making it as clear as can be to him that she does not want to be contacted by him anymore. I’m afraid she will revert back to keeping things a secret rather than dealing with the problem.

Am I being an idiot in giving her another chance, or am I making things out to be worse than they appear? Is she keeping some sort of contact with him simply out of spite (enjoying watching him suffer, etc.) or is she finding it hard to cut him loose because she is still uncertain of what she really wants? I should also tell you that she fears confrontation a great deal, which is why she tends to hide things. At least part of the reason why she doesn’t just tell him to F-off is because of this, at least I think. Should I stick around to find out?

(P.S. I realize that should we continue on, I will have to regain her trust as well. I do not intend to, nor will I ever, spy on her or check messages, etc., again. Obviously, I’ve got issues of my own that I’m trying to address, the problem being that it’s extremely difficult to do so in the current situation)

Confused and Sad

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Dear Confused and Sad,

First of all, you’ve only been together four months. That’s not enough time to really get to know someone. So your expectations seem a little high, and your fears seem a little exaggerated. “I’m concerned,” you say, “that I will never really get over this. As I said, we’ve talked about this a number of times over the last week…” See what I mean? One week is not much time to get over something.

Nor is talking with her necessarily the way to “get over this.” You don’t really know whether you can believe this woman. So talking with her shouldn’t reassure you. Based on what’s happened, you should feel a little anxious. Your lack of trust, it seems to me, is well-founded. Not only have you not known her that long, but it’s obvious that you’re not the only man on her mind.

I don’t think that means she’s being a bad person. She’s just not a simple person. Besides, you’re making a lot of demands on her for a guy who’s just been around for four months, and you’re the one who snooped on her text messages while she was in the shower.

So it seems right and natural that you two should mistrust each other.

As to the dynamics of your relationship: People tend to repeat certain patterns with their first few loves. That’s only natural — it takes a few tries to get it right. So if she was manipulated by this previous man, she may be setting herself up to be manipulated by you as well.

Not only that, but you and the previous manipulative man may have more in common than you suspect. He may have been cagey and emotional in his manipulation, while you are high-minded and full of principle. He may be a feeling type while you are a thinking type. But you both seek control over this woman.

Beneath attraction and love is often a struggle for dominance. Beneath complaints about manipulation is often a forbidden attraction to surrender. There may be something in your obsession with her behavior and her transgressions that excites her. Otherwise, she would simply defend her private life, tell you that you have no business snooping in her text messages, and that would be that.

So she may be playing a role in the only drama she knows, in which the man exercises authority, setting the agenda, the rules and the punishments, and the woman plays the seductress, subverting the man’s authority while at the same time reveling in his critical attention.

If that’s the game being played, you’re playing your position admirably, attempting to ferret out her secrets and demanding that she adhere to your principles.

You may not realize that your moral and ethical categories are not as real and powerful in the world as they seem to be to you (sometimes our personality types blind us to that). You also may not realize that the strands of rational power you project into the world are like strings others can pull to work you like a puppet.

So let’s try asking this: What does she want? What does she need? You mentioned that she gets satisfaction from this man’s attentions. So she has a need to be desired, to be sought-after. Don’t we all? She was hurt by this man and still has some feelings for him. There is nothing unusual in that. Her feelings are not under her conscious control, any more than yours are.

You may think that your demand for honesty and forthrightness is just common sense and naturally takes precedence over her rather ill-defined needs for attention and secrecy. But your demands are really just another form of irrational, subjective hunger. It is no more her duty to do the things you require than it is your duty to do whatever she wants. You simply hunger for rationality, while she hungers for attention. They’re both subjective hungers. Neither has the greater claim on virtue. But you act like you have a monopoly on reason and common sense.

You’ve made ultimatums and demands that she come clean. But if she were to divulge everything she thinks and feels, would that do? What of the many, many fleeting thoughts and unconsummated desires that make up the daily life of the psyche? Is all that to be cleansed as well, subject to your security review?

I am only hinting around at things here, and it may sound like gibberish to you, but I sense there are important yet hidden assumptions at work here: That there are final ethical and moral categories which, if adhered to fully, will ensure a happy and confident union, for instance. What I’m suggesting is that if you place all your faith in these bright and symmetrical categories of right and wrong, truthfulness and falsehood, “getting over it” and “not getting over it,” you may miss what is actually happening in your relationship.

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How does it work?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 19, 2004

As you mature, are you more able to love and trust, or do you become bitter from the pain?


Dear Cary,

Do you think that people become more or less capable of love and trust as they grow older?

I’ve thought about this often, both in the context of relationships I have been in and in general with respect to the human condition. Sometimes I think that as a person amasses experiences, there is more to the person who is doing the loving so there is more that can be given in love. I also know that sometimes painful experiences have made me slower and slower to trust.

There’s a woman I love (we’ve been in a relationship for a while). Sometimes I think I love her more than anyone I’ve ever loved, but other days I think of a woman I loved in college and cannot believe that I ever loved someone so completely. I can no longer imagine the sort of trust and abandon I once knew. I feel that over the years I have been losing the ability to trust naively. I used to fight the loss of this naiveté, but now it just seems like a waste of energy: I am broken and will stay this way, I suspect.

I once was capable of complete love, but I think I had bad luck, or bad judgment, about what relationships merited that level of investment. And others have had bad judgment in trusting me, since I had come to lose my ability to trust naively. Now that I know so clearly the consequences of unwise love, I feel I am capable only of what one might call wise love. Not a bad thing — in many ways a very good thing — but not the stuff of passion either. Some would say that trust that asks for reasons is not really trust at all. But perhaps trust that asks for reasons is just the trust that mature (and fragmented) individuals are capable of.

I want to love more deeply than I do. Is this something that one can will? I am curious what you make of this question about experience and love.

Navel Gazer

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Dear Navel Gazer,

It sounds like you’re talking about the fall of man, about what is lost in the passage from innocence to experience. Those are big subjects. After you’ve read Milton and Blake and Rousseau and, sheesh, I don’t know who all else, I guess the Bible of course, and all we know about adolescent development and attachment formation, and emotional life, wow, you could just go down the list of, basically, all of Western thought, and read everything, and after you’ve read all that and digested it, maybe you could just sit there and go, Yeah, right, OK, I get it.

I know what you are talking about, but I have no more answer than you do. What I do in this column is talk about specific situations, and use my intuition and whatever meager book-learning I’ve got to suggest unseen possibilities. It sounds to me like you have already abstracted your ideas from your experiences and are just offering the ideas. That doesn’t give me much to go on. They don’t have much meaning, detached from the experiences that gave rise to them.

We do not live life in generalities and ideas; we live it in specifics. Each experience has texture, weight, color, sound; I try to take a phenomenological approach to life, which means — to me, at least! — that experience must precede meaning; experience has to have a chance to occur before being smothered by concepts and meanings derived from it. You get what I’m saying? Let’s take a walk and look at the trees. It’s stuffy in here.

I’m hesitant to generalize, as you can imagine. But still, in general, I think as we get older and know more, we can lose the ability to have raw, unfiltered experiences. We start to generalize. And I want to fight that, so I can keep seeing clearly each new experience. I would rather be wrong than be blind, you know what I mean? I’d rather not understand the world than not be able to experience it. I know that sounds like a contradiction, in a way, because here I am trying to codify experience in order to provide direction to others. But more than that I am always trying to direct myself and others to the experience itself, because that is always where the truth lies: How you were hurt, what in particular you believed that turned out to be untrue, what specific decisions you made.

You say, “I once was capable of complete love, but I think I had bad luck, or bad judgment, about what relationships merited that level of investment.” And I sort of know what you mean, but if you are complaining about a lessened ability to feel, you may have to turn away from your abstractions and back to life in its sensual particulars. It might be the habit of mind that you think gives you insight into your problem that is causing your problem in the first place, you dig? Maybe your truth is what keeps you from experiencing life in its full intensity. Maybe you need to balance out that truth with a little falsehood, a little chaos and uncertainty.

Yes, it makes sense that experience would make you more cautious and less naive. But whether experience dulls your ability to feel, I do not know. I do not think so. I think that experience hones the judgment and increases the awareness, so that you are less likely to make certain mistakes or to trust certain people in certain situations. But I do not see why judgment and awareness should impede one’s ability to love deeply. Perhaps you mean not just deeply but crazily, dizzily, insanely, passionately, obsessively, as one loves when one is young. Yes, that kind of love does seem to diminish. Because one grows less crazy as one grows more sane. What can be done about that? What should be done about that?

I don’t know.

It’s complicated.

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The honeymoon’s over

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 28, 2004

I’ve been a wife for a week, but I already feel taken for granted.


Dear Cary,

Well, well, well, here I am, barely married a week. He’s the most kind, calm, sweet person I’ve ever met. Considerate, caring — you know, all those things for which we women cherish men.

He’s also sexy and totally into me. Well, sort of.

He’s got these friends. They get together occasionally (once every six weeks?) and fix computers all night and play computer games and drink themselves stupid. I usually spend these nights home (I’ve got two kids from a previous marriage), kind of waiting it out. Sometimes he comes home early-ish, (2 a.m.) and other times it’s late-ish (5 a.m.). I can’t sleep when he’s gone like this. I worry about accidents and him landing in jail and also what he’s doing. So I stay up and watch TV and feel kind of sick and very uncomfortable. This also impacts me the next day, because I work days. He used to work nights, but quit his job to find a day job, but he’s still on this night schedule, so he can have this night lifestyle and sleep all day.

The past few months, while he was with me making wedding arrangements, I couldn’t have been happier. When he saw his friends, it was usually for a game of disc golf in the evening and then home to me by 8 or 9 p.m. I hardly saw the friends (one came over to help him do yard work at my house, but that was pretty much it). Come the wedding, everyone had a great time, and we were off on our honeymoon.

Last week while on our honeymoon, he made arrangements to see one of these friends, his best friend, the day after the day we would get back in town, for a late-night computer-fixing drink fest.

So last night, he’s off festing and I’m lying in bed, married one whole week. I’m thinking, what is going on here? Is this normal behavior? Do guys just go off on benders so they keep their “one of the guys” status even though they’re married? Is that the right thing? I kind of feel left out too when he does this. (Why should I feel this way? I’ve had him all to myself for weeks!)

Today, I suggested that he “fest” during the day and gave him lots of reasons why. He agreed. Then, like 20 minutes later, he tells me that he and these friends are taking off for a weekend bachelor party camping trip in a couple of weeks.

All of a sudden, I feel like I got relegated to a somewhat derogatory role of “wife” instead of “girlfriend.”

Give me some realistic expectations here, Cary. I don’t want to be weird about this situation. I want him to have a happy life, have his friends, and have his fun. But I don’t want to sacrifice my well-being for sleepless nights either.

And I know marriage is a compromise. I get that perfectly. So — is this the compromise? An occasional sleepless night for me and an occasional night of craziness for him?

What do normal, sexy, happy couples in love do in this situation?

Dazed and Confused

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Dear Dazed and Confused,

Congratulations on your marriage, you blushing new bride. Sounds like you’ve got your hands full, what with the two kids and the new husband and all his friends.

Overall, though, if he’s getting together with his old buddies once every few weeks, it doesn’t sound too out of line. And if he’s still on a night schedule from a previous job, it’s not like he’s some inveterate nighthawk; sleep schedules can take some time to change.

Meanwhile, the key is to figure out what to do with yourself when all members of the family unit are not present. It might help to think back to what you used to do with your kids when you were home alone together, before you were married. Is it the waiting for him to come home that occupies your mind? Try to pretend that he’s away on a trip and not coming home at all. Go to sleep and forget about him.

But he’s not drinking and then driving home, is he? If he is, it’s no wonder you’re worried. I think you should insist that he find some other transportation. That’s something you should be firm about.

But it’s very difficult for a guy to maintain the healthy ties he has with other men once he gets married, and it will probably take some time to find ways that work. Eventually, his friends will get married one by one, and the old group will dissolve. Sad but true. Meantime, he has to try to preserve what is valuable, or sacred even, about his old ties with his buddies, and yet move into a new phase of an adult life of love and commitment. It’s not easy and there’s no set of clear instructions. You’re in a period of transition, so try to set up workable patterns, because whatever patterns you set up will tend to persist.

When I got married, the one thing I wanted to do was somehow involve all my friends in my life as a settled and proper married man — all the punks and anarchists and ne’er-do-wells who seemed to be my soul mates. Well, I didn’t really know how to do that and also achieve some semblance of order and safety in my married life. I still don’t. But I do the best I can. That’s all you can do.

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Should I stick with my girlfriend through her cancer?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 30, 2006

We’ve only been together 10 months, but I love her.


Dear Cary,

I’ve been reading your column for years, and appreciate all the honest advice you’ve given. I’ve thought of writing you before, but the problems seemed to resolve themselves.

Not this time.

I have a great girlfriend. I’m approaching 30 and she’s about five years younger. She has had some rough knocks — lost a parent a few years ago, endured her parents’ divorce before that. We’ve been dating for 10 months, which is my longest relationship (though not hers). We’ve talked about moving in together as a step toward marriage. I’m sure that’s what I want to do — I have a hard time with roommates and am petrified of taking the leap of marriage (with all its social and economic implications) without dipping my toe in and seeing how compatible we are. (Currently we live in the same apartment building and spend a lot of time together, but that simply isn’t the same.)

But that’s not my concern. My girlfriend was recently diagnosed with carcinoid, a form of cancer. The good news is that so far she’s relatively asymptomatic; it’s a slow-growing cancer that many folks have lived long lives with, and she’s getting advice on treatment from some of the best folks in the world. The bad news is that it has metastasized, so some of the common treatments may not be an option. We’ll know in a month what the aforementioned best folks have to say about treatment.

I love this woman — she’s intelligent, funny, enthusiastic, willing to try new things, gorgeous, laughs at the same things I laugh at, whimsical. I’ve “dealt” with the cancer issue by putting any decisions off until we know more. Such decisions include moving in together and her moving back to her family for treatment (and her possibly asking me to move from where we are now, close to my family).

Frankly, I’m scared of continuing this relationship, if she only has, say, five years to live. Do I really want to be a widower at 35? I want kids — can I handle being a single parent? (To say nothing of the emotional trauma.) Or even if she lives a normal life span, but with complications, can I handle taking care of my partner?

On the other hand, this is really good. I felt like I’ve grown more over the past 10 months than ever before. I don’t know whether it will lead to marriage, but there are times when I hope so.

I really don’t know what to do. Any advice?

Confused in Colorado

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Dear Confused,

If you do indeed love this woman, this is no time to be making a calculated exit. I have a feeling that if at the age of 30 you have never had a relationship longer than 10 months, you have been exiting when the emotional costs of the relationship are too high. This may be your opportunity to find out what it means to stick with someone through hard times — to be somebody who guts it out for somebody else and doesn’t ask to be excused when things get tough.

Are you ready for this, the great, defining challenge of your life? Are you ready to accept what life has put before you?

I hope you can answer yes. I hope you can put aside whatever cynicism you have acquired by living in an absurd world and recognize that however absurd this world is, it places before us occasional opportunities to respond with unambiguous moral clarity.

There are moments, if you are actually living life, when cynicism cannot approach or tarnish the grandeur of the real thing. This is your life.

Are you ready?

You might not be. You might not grasp what this means. But I think you do grasp what this means and you are ready and you want somebody to help you do the right thing. Why else would you have written to me? If you have been reading the column all this time then you already know what I think. I’m not going to suggest that you ditch this woman and look for something more convenient. I believe in heroic responses. People often say things happen for a reason. I don’t necessarily believe that. But I believe we must live life as if things happen for a reason. We must create meaning. Otherwise we’re just sick, pathetic, clueless bastards!

What I mean is, we create meaning in our lives by responding with our highest selves. We try to do the right thing. To the degree we fail, we fail. But we don’t just walk away from a drowning lover.

In this case the right thing is to stick with this woman through this life-threatening challenge.

What sticking with her means concretely is what you and she must decide together. If she has a supportive family near good medical care then it would seem to make sense for her to go be with her family.

What you and she decide to do I can’t say. But I would suggest that you give her support yet also maintain some distance. That means staying near her but not yet living together. Even if you want to do this great, heroic thing, you should go slowly. You don’t know what would happen if you moved in together and began trying to cope with this thing together. Living together might make things worse, not better. It might be too much for both of you. But I think you should consider moving to the same town where she will be, so that you can be her boyfriend and be there for her and see where it leads. The more support she has near her the better.

The criterion you should use is: Does your action constitute loving help and support for her, or does it constitute hungry, sentimental involvement in her tragedy? It is easy to confuse these things; we may feel a surge of energy at another’s misfortune and use that energy to satisfy a need for drama. Or we may use it to be a quiet source of support.

How can you love her and be of support no matter what happens? That is your question. I would not do anything hastily. That has apparently been your habit: to get into and out of relationships hastily. This is the time to try doing something differently, deliberately, carefully, with the restrained passion of a great love.

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Is our relationship a tear-down, or can it be repaired?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, NOV 10, 2004

We bought a house together and it’s tearing us apart.


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend and I met three years ago, fell madly in love, and six months later bought a fixer-upper in a transitioning neighborhood in an inner-city neighborhood. Things spiraled out of control, and we spent the past two-plus years vacillating between some of the highest highs and, alternately, the lowest depths of hellish fighting. At the beginning of this month, we spent a week apart, and on coming back I had decided that I, for my part, had taken him for granted over the past few years and wanted to do what I could to turn things around. But he dumped me.

We still own this house together, and it’s not in a salable condition. So we’re not in a position to just terminate things entirely and have been trying to be friends and working to get the house to a point where we can sell it. We’ve been getting along extremely well, although we don’t see much of each other.

I have spent this month doing a wholesale reevaluation of what it is that makes me happy and have been really embracing that. And, coming off two years of a relationship that left me very unhappy, I’m enjoying myself immensely and am so glad our relationship is over. The thing is, in the process, I have decided that what I really want is a happy relationship with him. I’ve dropped all of my baggage — the things I’ve hated about him, the things he did to me, and the things I thought he did to me. And I think we have the tools to make a good relationship possible, and an unprecedented opportunity to make a fresh start.

We just had a discussion, and he said: “Even though we’ve been getting along so well, every advice columnist I’ve ever read has said that people don’t change,” and so he doesn’t believe that things can be different. And since I know he respects your advice very much (when you ran your series on home ownership, he went so far as to say that you were the same person), I wanted to ask an advice columnist: Can people change? I think he’s misconstruing things — I don’t think you can force someone to change, but people are infinitely capable of change on their own.

Our problem was one of letting all of the little things build on one another, so that we were essentially sweating all the small stuff — a poor choice of words could set off a daylong argument. And I think a lot of this was based on the stresses of buying a house that needed a lot of work (and still does) six months into a relationship and being thrown into each other’s finances and lifestyles and everything else so quickly.

What I’m really looking for from you is insight as to whether what I’m doing seems misguided or naive — and do you believe a relationship can be remade?

K

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Dear K,

Your story is a charming one. You met and fell in love, and within six months you’d bought a metaphor. The metaphor, situated in an inner-city neighborhood, had a lot of possibilities but needed work.

Working on the metaphor was difficult emotionally; it would have been easier if it had simply been a house. But, like me, you are an optimist. You believe that metaphors can be improved and brought to market for a significant profit; you believe, as I do, that improving a metaphor improves its surroundings, and everybody, metaphorically speaking, profits from your labor.

Well, you’re in a tough spot now. While working on the metaphor, your relationship was damaged. People in relationships, like old walls, conceal ancient failures and burn spots, places where the circuits blew and almost caused a fire. People, like old houses, reveal their weaknesses reluctantly and sometimes only after a few blows with a sledge hammer. There might be a break that you can’t see somewhere beneath the floor. You can go a long time pretending it’s not really broken, that it’s just sagging a little. You come up with things to say. You say the joists are fine — it’s just an old floor.

But then the inspector comes and rips things up. Look at this! he says. It’s completely gone! There’s nothing holding it up! Lucky we found it in time! It’s amazing you survived!

Your ex-boyfriend says that all advice columnists say that people don’t change. I dare say in this perhaps unintentional distortion he’s attempting to conceal his own personal fracture, that he himself has reached a point of no return, that he himself feels he can no longer change. Perhaps what he can’t say outright is that he’d rather rip it up and build somewhere new, that your relationship is a tear-down. But he can’t say it directly because you still have a lot of work to do together. So he’s talking in the abstract, hoping to avoid a confrontation. Your partnership has been so volatile, he may feel he can’t take any more stress, any more violent shaking. Once you’re done with the house, that might change; he might simply be unable to see past the dust; he might need some finished drawings to help him visualize the future.

So what I would do if I were you, and I say this with all the compassion I can muster, is I would concentrate on getting the actual house on the market. I would work with him as a business partner. I would concentrate on paint, plumbing and plasterboard. If he is going to change in his feelings toward you, he will. But you have no control over what he feels. That is probably the one thing advice columnists do agree on.

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My son is almost 30 and won’t leave home

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 4, 2007

I know I can’t support him anymore — I need to save for retirement. What do I do?


Dear Cary,

I’m a single mother with a grown son. I love him more than I can say. He’s a good person, a great guy in so many ways — smart, creative, kind to animals, etc. We get along well, have common interests and enjoy each other’s company. The rest of my immediate family is dead, and he is literally all the family I have.

The problem is that he’s turning 30 and shows no signs of wanting to leave home. He did move out and try the roommate route twice, but both times it did not turn out well and he moved back in with me. This wouldn’t be so bad — we do get along and all — but he doesn’t pay half the expenses, or even a quarter. In fact, he doesn’t pay me anything at all. My frequent requests for him to contribute to the rent and utilities often result in his losing his temper and yelling at me that all I care about is money. He spends his salary on himself: clothes, movies, computer accessories, you get the drift. It’s as if he still sees himself as a teenager with an allowance.

It’s true that he doesn’t make enough money to live on his own. We live in Los Angeles, and the cost of living is pretty high. He would have more options if he had a better job, and this keeps almost happening. And then it’s as if he sabotages the situation. Why? When I was his age, I was supporting myself and raising him, all by myself.

I saw a movie called “Failure to Launch” about this very situation. It was a comedy. But this isn’t funny. I keep thinking that this situation could be a lot worse, but it still just grates on me. The fact that he seems to feel it’s all right to sponge off me hurts; it shows a serious lack of love and respect for me. And yet, he does seem to love and respect me. I don’t get it. My retirement is approaching on little cat feet; I should be socking away any extra cash for myself, not using it to support him. I keep seeing my future self, living on Social Security and my small retirement account, and still supporting him. Or even worse, still working because I can’t afford to retire. I can’t stand it.

Where did I go wrong? What can I do? I can’t throw him out on the street; I just can’t. But not leaving the nest and learning to fend for himself in the world aren’t good for him. I know he wants to find the right woman and get married, too, but he rarely dates. Who wants a man who is still sponging off his mother?

Please give me some advice. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Forever Mom

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Dear Forever Mom,

There really is only one thing you can do. You have to kick him out. That is, in more gentle terms, you have to tell him firmly that he has to find another place to live.

It may be difficult emotionally. So take some time to prepare. Preparation is not the same thing as delay. It doesn’t mean putting it off until you feel ready. It means setting a date, making a commitment and then planning fully and well.

I suggest you begin by writing him a letter, explaining the situation much as you have explained it to me. You will want to tell him face to face about your decision. But writing it out will give you a chance to explore the issues; giving him a copy of it will ensure that you are both clear on exactly what the future arrangements will be.

Take a couple of weeks with the letter. Make a couple of drafts. Delete parts where you find yourself overjustifying, or attacking, or bringing up old hurts and slights. Avoid emotional pleas. Just tell him, as you have told me, that you cannot support him any longer, that you have to be socking away your cash for retirement and that you have set a date by which he must move out. Tell him the date. Make it stick.

You must be definite about the date by which he is to leave. You must be clear about the fact that he cannot return even if the roommate situation isn’t to his liking. You have to stick to your guns. His inability to make a roommate situation work in the past is a concern, but it is his concern, not yours. If he has to live with roommates, he will have to find a situation that works.

You are not just kicking him out on the street. If you want to assure yourself that adequate housing is available in your area, consult ads for roommate situations and do the math. Give him the figures if you like. If his income is not going to be sufficient, tell him that he is going to have to find some way to increase his income. If he needs a loan to make it through the first six months, suggest a way that he can get a loan. But do not make him a loan yourself. You must stop supporting him if you are to meet your own financial goals.

Do not forget to review the laws that cover tenants in your area. Even though this is a personal arrangement between you and your son, it is possible that in the eyes of the law you are considered a landlord and may have responsibilities in that regard. I don’t know about that, myself. I suggest you consult with an expert — either a landlord-tenant attorney or a legal aid agency qualified to advise you.

This is a tough situation. There is no reason for you to kid yourself. It could be one of the hardest things you have ever done. And you will miss him. It would be wonderful if he were to find self-sufficiency, form a family of his own and bring you into it, so that you have a place in a new family. That would be great for everyone. But whatever happens, know this: You are doing the right thing.

As you write your letter and think this through, other small details of the arrangement may occur to you. That is good. No detail is too small to consider and agree about. I suggest, for instance, that you explicitly insist that he perform the physical move himself, or enlist moving help on his own. If he needs furniture and you have some pieces you wish to let go of, offer him those specific pieces of furniture. If he needs dishes and cookware and you have some extra, set some aside for him. But make it clear that once he has moved out, what remains in the house is your property, not his. Tell him that he should not just come around whenever he feels like it and remove random objects.

These are small things, but they are important. Making all these conditions is a way of creating your new independent relations. It will be difficult but it will accomplish the necessary thing: Your son has to separate from you. He has to become independent so that later in life, when the conditions of dependency change, he can offer support to you.

Write your letter. Cook him some dinner. Tell him he has to move out. Give him the letter. Tell him you love him.

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