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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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Can a bigot be a good person?

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 24, 2004

He pursued me, but then rejected me because my religion was “wrong.”


Dear Cary,

Do you think someone who is narrow-minded and bigoted can truly lead a happy and fulfilling life? And can this person be considered a “good” person if they are good in other ways?

I went to an art exhibit/talk at a friend’s church. I was standing at the refreshment table and a man approached me and started talking to me. I thought he was just being friendly, but I realized he was quite interested in me and he asked me to sit next to him. He seemed incredibly excited about meeting me. Before he left, he wrote his cell number, home number and home e-mail on his business card and asked me to contact him. He said he hoped I would come back to the church again. I said I surely would, but made sure to let him know I was Jewish.

We went for a walk a week later. He seemed incredibly attracted to me, and I felt the same way about him. We were talking about where we went to college, etc., and I felt it was important to let him know my age, as I thought he might be a few years younger. I am 44, but look much younger. He said he assumed I was 35. He is 38. After a few more encounters, by phone, e-mail and in real life, he came clean and said he had been surprised to learn that I was Jewish and 44 and that those were complicating factors for him (he says he wants to have biological children).

Of course we all need to follow our preferences, desires and needs, particularly when it comes to children, but it is the way he rejected me — not based on my qualities and traits but on my bloodline — that floored me. He said in an e-mail that it was not possible to have a true and fulfilling intimate relationship (he’s never been married; I have been) when there was an underlying feeling that the other’s religion was “wrong.” I wrote back that I certainly didn’t see his religion as “wrong” (he’s Presbyterian, just for the record) but that he must think that of mine, and that, according to that line of thinking, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam would be wrong, too.

I thought we shared the same values; he seemed so kind and thoughtful, and was very intelligent and funny.

I know there are Jews who will only date and marry other Jews, but I’m not one of those people. Most of my friends, of all religions and cultures, seem happy just to have found someone good, regardless of their background.

Who are these people who secretly feel that those of other religions (and one would assume other races) are inferior and wrong? Of course they are everywhere, but this guy seemed so good and kind. Do you think a guy like this will find happiness in a relationship, and in life overall? I am kind of hoping he doesn’t.

Surprised but Shouldn’t Be

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Dear Surprised,

You ask good questions. Before trying to answer them, though, let’s say what happened here: You were hurt by a man who was attractive but thoughtless. After being hurt, you moved from the event itself to a set of sweeping questions and indictments, as a way of trying to understand what happened. That’s OK. I understand what you are saying; I understand the impulse to do that, and I share your outrage and bafflement. I’m also interested in Christian religious doctrine and how individuals can use it, or distort it, in their interpersonal relations. I don’t know if he’s a bigot or just a little careless in how he expresses some struggle he’s undergoing.

But it’s a shame you couldn’t work together to build a relationship, since you had a lot in common. Perhaps the relationship could have gone further if he had been more diplomatic. Instead of being so doctrinaire, he could have asked you what you thought about interfaith marriage, and about adoption, and expressed his reservations about it. He could have told you what sort of struggle he’s undergoing, trying to reconcile his religion with his desire to marry and raise a family with a woman he loves.

It’s possible that he did not want things to go further, for personal reasons not having to do with your different faiths. If that’s true, it’s a shame he had to drag in all that other baggage. On the other hand, if he was truly interested and just did something boneheaded, it’s even more of a shame, and he may regret it. (I sense that you hope he does regret it, but if so, you might think about trying to let go of that anger, as it will not help you to carry it around.)

I know this from personal experience: If we’re nervous, conflicted, insecure or fearful about how someone is going to take something, sometimes we work on it so hard that we end up saying the worst thing possible. Instead of trusting my instincts to guide me in a conversation about it, I will mull it over and over, as if by this magical process of mental refining I will arrive at some essence that is the “truth,” that I can then deliver up in triumph and finality: Here it is. I’ve decided. This is the situation. It becomes like a presentation before the Supreme Court.

I forget that what I really need to do is have a conversation with somebody. It’s comical, because the harder you work on what you think is the problem the farther you get from the problem — because the problem is relationship, and relationship is not something you can do in your head. It takes both people being present.

It sounds like this guy didn’t really have a conversation with you about this, he just announced his decision. I take it that part of what wounded you was the arrogance, the presumption, the way he just announced as if from on high that he had reached a conclusion and you were out. I don’t think that’s the way relationships between equals are supposed to work.

You were perhaps also hurt in ways that you have not fully acknowledged. Being a Jew, how can you not feel the sting of even the slightest suggestion by a Christian that you’re not good enough, that you’re flawed, that you’re not allowed, you’re not the right kind, you’ve got the wrong beliefs, the wrong heritage, that, as you put it rather evocatively, you’ve got the wrong bloodline? How can you not be put in remembrance of atrocities committed against your people?

Was he a bigot? I don’t know. I do think he was thoughtless. His actions were far less than divine. I do not think Jesus would have broken up with you that way.

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Faking it

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 4, 2004

Can I stop him from going by pretending to come?


Dear Cary,

I am an attractive young woman who is married to a man I love and trust very much. I love sharing my life with my husband, coming home and telling stories of our day, cooking dinner together, going on trips together, laughing, bitching, cuddling, hiking, shopping, and having adventures together. ‘Til death do us part.

I also love making love with my husband — though with far less frequency than when we first got together three years ago. But here’s what’s weird: I never have an orgasm. I’ve had sex with several men before my husband and though I also enjoyed sex then — same thing. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that a man has brought me to orgasm at all.

That’s not the real problem, though it’s a problem, to be sure. The problem I want to discuss is the fact that my husband doesn’t know any of this. I mean, I fake it. I always have. Why? Now that I’m with him, a man I can share so many things with — it seems sad and silly. But I faked it when I started having sex in high school because I was in high school and I didn’t know any better. Then I faked it in college because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t actually have an orgasm and it would be just so exhausting to try and I wanted to save guys the effort and the weirdness of having sex with someone who’s never really totally present.

Finally, when I met my husband several years ago, I knew he was different. I didn’t want to lie to him. I faked it early on but convinced myself that I just needed to try harder and to focus more and I could do it. Without involving him. I managed a few times, but far more often, it’s just easier to enjoy sex on the level that I’m accustomed to: enjoying the closeness, the pleasure — but not the intense physical pleasure of orgasm. But then it was too late to tell him. He takes such delight in my pleasure that I can’t imagine what telling him now would do to him and his self-esteem.

Obviously there are a lot of issues here, physiological and psychological ones, like why I’m unable to orgasm with a man (but perfectly able to do so myself) and why I feel the need to fake it. But the real question I want answered is: Is it possible that my marriage is as good as I believe it is? How weighty is this secret, really? Isn’t it possible that — though this does bother me — I am still capable of having a happy, healthy marriage? Or am I in denial that this is always going to be a huge roadblock in our marriage?

I don’t know what to think about this problem, let alone do! Please help!

Cold Fish

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Dear Cold Fish,

First I will try to answer the question you want answered. Then I will try to answer the question you don’t want answered.

I will do this because questions can be a form of control, and if control is part of the problem (as it is in your case), then it’s time to take a little of that control away from you, to tie you up a little, to shush your mouth and find a place in that quick and agile brain of yours for a new and contrary idea.

The question you want answered is: Can your marriage be as good as you think it is, even though you have been deceiving your husband in this way? The answer is yes, it may be as good as you think it is, even with the deception. Your inability to have an orgasm during intercourse with your husband is not necessarily some dark indicator of a fundamental rift, but simply, for the moment, a common physiological fact. It’s one you share with many women. Basically you can stop worrying that failure to come during intercourse means there’s something deeply wrong with your marriage.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeply wrong, however — which brings us to the question that you don’t want answered: Is it your role to shield your husband from the truth about you? This is the new and contrary idea that perhaps you don’t want to hear. No, it’s not your role to shield your husband from the truth about you. Such “protection,” however well-intended, is a form of control and disrespect. It is not as benign as you might like to believe. It may have larger implications beyond the bedroom.

It’s easy to understand how you got into this mess. A friend of mine was startled to find, when she took a poll at a dinner party, that she was the only woman there who had never faked an orgasm. She was the only one who even felt that it was a big deal. When she asked a prostitute friend of hers about the issue, she got another interesting fact: “I only fake it when I’m getting paid,” said the prostitute — which has some interesting implications, doesn’t it?

Sex between men and women often begins as mercenary barter in which each party, by seeking maximum pleasure and minimum pain, in effect makes an economic choice to minimize disclosure and maximize deception.

This is true as regards human vanity, in which a man may suck in his belly and a woman hide her thighs; it is true as regards emotional attachment, in which each party maintains the maximum of ambivalence lest unwanted commitments arise; and it is true as regards our desire to appear to be utterly sated, to exaggerate the pleasure we have derived from the encounter.

Why should this last form of deception be so important? It is, but why? Showing the other that we are pleased maximizes our options for repeat encounters. If we show displeasure, we limit our future chances. Furthermore, there is nothing creepier than bad sex, but bad sex is only truly bad sex when it is mutually acknowledged. Even the worst bad sex can be passed off as only mildly bad sex if both parties pretend, with great intensity, that it was really, really great.

So sex itself is far from a raw unpeeling of our true selves; more than many of us care to admit, it involves great deception.

At least that’s how it often is in the beginning, especially between two people who really don’t know each other all that well. As sex progresses, however, in a relationship — and this is what we all know about its legendary capacity — it does have the power to radically strip us of every shred of pretense and bare our souls to each other and to the heavens as nothing else can. So naturally as a sexual relationship progresses, if the heavens do not open and the deception does not fall away but instead endures and indeed, because it must, increases in its variation and virtuosity, then naturally the sense that something is wrong does become sharper with every episode.

What happens, it seems to me, is that the various ways we deceive each other during sex become, after a while, a tool of emotional control in the relationship. Or at least it seems to have become so in your case.

Since women are often assigned the role of emotional caretaker in a relationship, a woman can gain power by “protecting” a man from the truth about her emotions and her body. Men collaborate in this deception by giving women a hard time when the truth is finally told.

We men can change that over time, but it takes work. We need practice in coaxing out the difficult truth and welcoming it, giving it a home, living with it. We need to work at doing this and get better at it so that the great knowledge women harbor becomes more available to us. Women know more than we can ever get out of them, but we have only touched the surface of the reservoir so far. And that is the area in which I believe you are doing your husband a great disservice: You are allowing him to wallow in his ignorance. He deserves the truth.

We all deserve the truth from the women in our lives but we will get it only if we work at it. We have to offer rewards to the women who tell us the truth. No woman wants to tell the truth if it’s met with scorn, resentment, defensiveness or abuse. So we men have to create an environment in which women can and do tell us the truth about how they feel and what they want.

But it’s a 50-50 proposition. And in this case, I think you have to come clean.

The problem with “having a talk” — you know, sitting at the kitchen table all evening drinking tea and trying to “understand” each other — is that talk sometimes makes it worse; it makes the next sexual encounter awkward and fraught with anxiety. So I suggest, though it sounds a little nutty, that you disclose this fact during the act of sex itself. The next time you’re having sex, instead of acting out an orgasm, act out your disclosure with the same thespian enthusiasm; let loose with your confession at the top of your lungs: “I’m not coming! I’m not faking! I’m not coming! I’m not faking!” Don’t interrupt the sex act. If your husband pauses, just say “Harder! Harder!”

Later, when he says, “What the hell was that?” you can tell him, with genuine contrition, that you were afraid all these years that if he knew you weren’t coming he might think you were inadequate, or that he himself was inadequate, and now you know neither one of you is inadequate but that your orgasm could be a goal you could work on together. Now you know your only inadequacy is your fear of losing him. Your only inadequacy was your mistaken belief that you could stop him from going by pretending to come.

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My husband won’t set limits!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 5, 2006

Uncle Danny shows up in his R.V. for four-month “visits,” gobbling up our food and paying nothing.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are a professional couple in our mid-30s who have a house in a revitalized urban area in North Carolina. Since we moved into our house four years ago, my husband’s uncle — let’s call him Uncle Danny — has started visiting us in his R.V. for increasingly longer visits — the last one being four months! A little background on Uncle Danny. He is a traveling nurse in his mid-60s. He has never been married and was estranged from most of his family for many years, only remaking contact in the last five years. When Uncle Danny visits us, he expects to use my husband’s spare pickup truck — he takes the key from the rack and helps himself. He also helps himself to the food and beverages in our kitchen, never buying his own groceries during his interminable stays. He almost always invites himself along when my husband and I go out to dinner and never picks up his own check. I would faint if he ever offered to treat us! He does sleep in his R.V., but the rest of the time he’s with us in our house. When pressed as to how long he will be staying during each of these “visits,” he always gives some vague answer. We never know when he’s leaving until a day or two before he goes.

The real rub is that my husband allows this behavior and refuses to set limits with his uncle. My husband is pretty passive and detests confrontation. This year, Uncle Danny has been here from January through mid-April. He left for a few weeks to do some short-term nursing work in Northern Virginia and returned to our home on May 15. I am furious! I’ve insisted that my husband address this issue, and although my husband agrees that his uncle’s behavior is unacceptable, he is dragging his feet about approaching Uncle Danny with some limits.

My question is, how do I handle this situation? I am a generous person by nature and do not like the spite and anger that Uncle Danny inspires in me. I also do not like the stress he is creating in my marriage. But I also realize that it is not my place to deal with Uncle Danny directly. What should I do? How do I get rid of this man?

Tired of Being Mooched off of

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Dear Tired of Being Mooched off of,

Contrary to what you say, I think it is your place to deal with Uncle Danny. It is your house. If your husband won’t do it, it’s up to you.

Why your husband won’t or can’t do it and what that means about his character and his relationship with his family are something you may want to explore with him when you have a spare year or two to spend fighting like cats and dogs. But right now something needs to be done about Uncle Danny’s Ticonderoga, and you need to step in and do it.

Sometimes things just have to be said out loud and somebody has to say them. “You’re fired” is one of those things. “You have to leave” is another one. “I want a divorce,” “I’m breaking up with you” and “I’m resigning effective today” are others, bursting with import and significance but simple in their utterance. You just have to say the thing that has to be said and let it hang there in the air long enough to be heard and understood.

I know what happens when we overcontemplate these things. We look for ways to soften it. That’s fine. You can try to be kind about it. Just don’t let that process of looking for a nice way to say it prevent you from saying it. You certainly don’t have to be mean. Don’t let your welled-up anger spill out in spiteful little ways. But you have to say what needs to be said.

This thing you’re conveying is not really your fault. You’re just conveying the truth; you’re just looking at the situation and saying, here is the way it is. It’s not about you and your feelings; it’s about the household and the way it needs to be run.

It’s your job to set the rules in your household and enforce them. If you don’t do that, you’re not really running a household, you’re just occupying a house.

Tell Uncle Danny that your household has some rules and that from now on he will have to abide by them. The rules cover the length of his stays, the amount of notice he gives before he arrives and departs, and the general running of the household.

Set a limit on how long he can stay. You might have a certain time in mind; a month might be a good maximum, but you might want to limit it to two weeks, or even one week.

Tell Uncle Danny that while he is visiting you expect him to contribute to the household. That might mean paying for groceries and meals and also helping out with chores.

Family has its privileges, of course, but with privileges come responsibilities and reciprocity.

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Dashed against the rocks

 

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 20, 2004

I’m in love with a siren who lured me and is now destroying me.


Dear Cary,

I have been involved with a woman for one and a half years. She is well mannered, dresses nicely, has style, is extremely intelligent, and is a stunning beauty. We also share many views on the world and, for example, an obsession with the same country that we would both like to emigrate to. We are the kind of couple where everybody turns around to tell us how beautiful we look together.

This woman has given me some of the best times of my life. I loved and trusted her with all my heart. But I got burned, and badly. A description of the depression I’ve gone through would not fit into one letter. She has given me some of the most beautiful times of my life and she has been the cause for the most depressing and sad times that I ever had to endure. She abused my trust, betrayed me, lied to me, dumped me for someone else. That was in the middle of our relationship and it’s the cause for our breaking up for over a month.

But I just couldn’t let go. When she told me that she still had feelings for me and that maybe we could make it work, I immediately went for it, despite much advice to the contrary from friends and family. And it worked well, after a time even very well.

And then it turned back into a disaster. As we both went off for university, she demanded attention that she knew I couldn’t potentially give her and compromises that she knew I couldn’t make. I tried very hard to make it work, to convince her that I loved her. Her reaction was indifference. She was just interested in her new friends, her new life — without me. That was last October, which is when I broke up with her, again.

Even after weeks, I thought of her every day, feelings alternating between anger and longing. I didn’t talk to her for over two months — didn’t help. As I was finally starting to get a handle on things, she called me again and said that she didn’t want to lose somebody she once trusted so much, that she’d like to keep me at least as a friend.

When we met again, all the signs were still there. The looks, the occasional hand on the other’s leg. The close-to-infinite goodbye hug. We started talking on the phone and e-mailing on an almost daily basis. Oh my god, I was back in her power again.

I can’t pull myself out of it, even though she’s been very ambivalent. One day, she tells me how much she misses me, that if I asked her to marry me, she’d say yes. The next day, she doesn’t even answer the phone. Then again, she blames me for everything that ever went wrong in our relationship.

Maybe this is just because there are hardly any girls in my small university in this small, depressing town? Maybe it’s because the advice to get myself somebody else is not an option?

Why can’t I let go? I feel like Odysseus passing the sirens. She draws me to her with her magical song and whenever I come near her, I get smashed on her deadly rocks. How can I escape her? I don’t think stuffing wax into my ear would work, much less having my friends tie me to the mast. But what can I do?

Bound by Love

Dear Bound by Love,

What Odysseus did may sound impossible or useless if taken literally. But metaphorically speaking it’s exactly what you have to do. Odysseus had his mates tie him to the mast. You need to have your friends tie you to a decision. Swear an oath to banish this woman from your life, and have your friends swear to hold you to it.

Now, Odysseus earned his crew’s affection and obedience through heroism. Few of us command such power over men. Moreover, few will truly grasp what you are asking. You may have several “friends” who enjoy your company and think you are a good guy, but to do what you require takes a maturity that doesn’t always show on the surface. So choose one person, and choose wisely. You have to place complete trust in this person.

Make a signed, written agreement. Say that if you should announce that you’re going to see her, they have permission to hold you down, slap you silly, and lock you in your room. Promise not to press charges if they should abduct you in a car and tie you to a tree in the woods. This is what it will take.

You’re in this woman’s power. We don’t have to talk about why, for now. We just have to recognize reality. You’re in her power. Her power is in her presence and in her beauty. It’s a delicious power, but for you it’s deadly. The only way to get out of her power is to get out of her presence. Don’t talk to her, don’t look at her. If you find yourself thinking about her, fine. No man could keep you from doing that. Let yourself think about her, but only as one regards an object in the mind. Do not allow yourself to speculate about her. Get my drift? Whenever you regard her in your mind, be sure there is a fence around her. Do not think about the ways in which next time it might be different. Do not take down that fence.

Furthermore, if you regard her in your mind, regard her only from the rear, as though she is receding from view. Do not look at her face. Do not let her eyes fall on you. Do not let her approach. Only regard her as an object receding into the distance. If you imagine her eyes looking at you, you will be in her power again.

Face it: You’re addicted to her, OK? So you can’t have her anymore! Not even a little piece! You’re done! You’re through! It’s over, soldier!

As to why you are in her power: There is something of narcissism in this — for instance, in the pride you take in being seen as a stunning couple, and in the way she so pleasingly mirrors yourself in her thoughts and ambitions. Odysseus was not a narcissist; he was a warrior; he knew himself and he knew the other, both as enemy and lover. He knew his weaknesses and took precautions. His problem with the sirens was a problem of temptation, not narcissism. But narcissism appears to be the focus of your heroic struggle. So consider that you cannot look away from her because she is an image of your own beauty. Think of her as a reflection of yourself, and consider that the reason you long for her so is that you long for yourself, your own beauty. It’s an unfathomable paradox, this narcissism thing … but maybe that tear that Narcissus sheds, the tear that disrupts his perfect reflection in the river, perhaps that is what is needed here. Perhaps what that myth is saying is that rescue — death in Narcissus’ case, but we needn’t be so literal — comes through the power of emotion to disrupt the perfect reflection: when through long unrequited desire for perfection we finally break down and feel the tragic impossibility of such a union, the power of that emotion shatters the entrancing image, and we are free. Just think of Narcissus’ death at that point as the death of the narcissistic self.

Or think of it this way: The more you suffer, the worse she looks.

My friend has gone bad

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 23, 2008

I hate to lose my best college buddy, but her behavior is beyond the pale.


Dear Cary,

I am having problems with my friend (let’s call her Mary). Mary and I have been friends since college. We are in our early 30s now. Neither of us is married: Mary is completely single and I have a significant other. We have lived, traveled and partied together. Mary has seen me at my best and emotional worst. We have a large group of friends in common whose weddings and baby showers we attend together. In many ways, our lives have paralleled each other’s — we have both moved from coast to coast and, for the third time, we have found ourselves living in the same large metropolitan area.

A year ago, I was laid off from my job. I decided to search for a job in the area where Mary lives. During that time she was very supportive of me — she allowed me to stay with her whenever an interview brought me to her city. I accepted a job near Mary, and she allowed me to stay with her while I searched for an apartment. During that time, despite my lack of income, I made sure to treat her to meals out, bottles of wine, etc.

Six months have passed since I started my new job, and I have settled in to my new life. My friendship with Mary is rapidly deteriorating. She is part of a gaggle of single, professional women who like to have expensive nights on the town during which they “trawl” for men. Mary earns a lot of money and often bankrolls these nights out for certain of these girls who don’t make a lot of money. She even goes so far as to organize and pay for little overnight and weekend trips. As a result, she has collected a group of women friends who really look up to her and will drop anything to spend time with her. In principle, I have a problem with this. Even if Mary would pay for me, I wouldn’t let her. As a government worker, I can’t afford the expensive lifestyle. At first, I went along with these outings, but lately have declined the invitations and suggested alternative daytime activities such as going to museums and on hikes.

Whenever I make plans with Mary, at the last minute, she brings other people along to the activity. For instance, if I invite her to dinner and make a reservation, I find out that at the last minute she has invited other people along and changed the reservation. I once invited her on a hike and to dinner at my house afterward; she invited five people along without asking me first and then wouldn’t let me know whether anyone was coming, even though I called her several times. In the end, I got tired of waiting and made other plans. When Mary called me to let me know they were “on the way,” I explained to her that I had made other plans when I didn’t hear back from her; she got really angry. Another time she invited me on a day trip, and, after I accepted, I received in an e-vite in which she had asked 35 other people to come along; then she told me I would have to find my own transportation to our destination because she had to drive the others who don’t have cars. I canceled.

I feel like it is rude for Mary to always include so many other people without asking me when I am the one who has made the invitation. I feel like it is rude of her to wait until the last minute to let me know when we can meet up. I feel like she is doing this because she has to be in control of the situation. I can’t stand being controlled in this way, so often I cancel when she pulls these stunts. However, it gets worse.

Lately, when I have plans to meet Mary, she is really late. A few weeks ago, she told me to meet her at her house. At the agreed-upon time, she texted to say she was getting a pedicure and would meet me in 10 minutes. She didn’t arrive until 45 minutes later — I had to wait the whole time on the sidewalk in front of her house on a dangerous street populated by hookers and crackheads. Last week, at a party we were co-hosting for our college friend from out of town, she arrived almost three hours late. Then over the weekend, when she was supposed to meet me and my boyfriend for drinks and dinner to celebrate my birthday, she arrived one and a half hours late and we missed the dinner reservation. Each of these times, there was no acknowledgment of the tardiness or apology.

You are probably thinking this is a no-brainer: Cut ties with Mary. But it is not that easy. The truth is that Mary and I have many memories and friends in common. She considers me one of her best friends. We actually do have a good time together.

What should I do? It is hard for me to accept the fact that Mary has to be in control and won’t be happy unless I follow her around like a puppy. My heart tells me that, deep down, Mary is very unhappy about something and is acting out. I feel like I can’t have a heart-to-heart with her because Mary would never admit to having anything less than a perfect life.

Help

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Dear Help,

I think you said it very well: It is hard for you to accept the fact that Mary has to be in control and won’t be happy unless you follow her around like a puppy.

So how? How do you “accept” and “move on”?

First you must “fix” this phenomenon. Not repair it, but “fix” it in the traditional sense of the word: See it as permanent. You cannot repair this. But you must fix it, i.e. freeze it in time, see it as a fait accompli. As long as you try to repair this, you will never fix it. You will be swept along in it like flotsam on a wave.

One way is to do as you have done above, only more so. List her transgressions exhaustively. List all her offenses. You do not need to make it in narrative form; it can be simply,

Showed up late for 33rd birthday.

Brought uninvited guest to funeral.

Forgot wedding, etc.

What fascinates me about the inner life, or, if you will, the spirit, is that by “fixing,” or making a pattern of behavior visible (this pattern is “character”), we see the contour of a spirit; likewise, by “fixing” a pattern of behavior we can see the contour of a friendship. Once we can see it then we can let it go.

As kids we made rubbings of pennies and leaves. You place the object under a paper and carefully — or savagely, depending on your temperament and style — rub the flat side of a pencil lead over the paper so the lines of the object appear. (That was such a beautiful thing, to watch an image appear, transferred to a portable medium; also watching a photograph develop in a tray: the same thing! After the image appeared on the Kodak paper, my father would bathe it in fixative, making the image permanent.)

Until we fix the condition we continue to wait for hours on cold steps for our friend. Strangers pass and size us up. We feel powerless and put upon. So we name it. What would you call it? The Incredibly Unavailable Former Friend? The Spectacularly Insensitive Hostess? The Monumentally Uncommunicative, Perpetually Late, Uncaring, Chaotic, Childish Former College Friend?

It matters that you give it a name. But you do not need to be accurate in its diagnosis. You are not going to cure this disease. You just need to name it and fix it in time.

You name it and fix it in time so you can accept it: This is your former friendship. This friendship is lost to you now.

Note the “friendship” is lost to you. The “friend” is still there. That is what is so vexing. The friend is still there but the friendship is gone.

So you say, “this woman I used to be friends with.” You say, “this incredibly selfish person I was close to in college.” Ah. That is hard, no? By fixing it you lose it. Then you have to mourn it.

It’s really, really sad, I know.

You have to feel it. You have to feel it and let it go.

That is what you do. You capture this image; you freeze it, as if taking a photo. Then you develop it and bathe it in the fixative of your own gaze.

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I feel awful about my affair

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2012

It was stupid, cruel and unsatisfying, and now I’m miserable


Dear Cary,

I really need you to tell me how to forgive myself, and how to carry on after I had an affair. I’m sorry if this ends up really long and please edit however you need to. Basically, I have been married for 15 years to a man who really is a fundamentally excellent person. We were married quite young for a couple in our socioeconomic bracket, and have been together since college. Like any couple that goes the distance, we have been to (relative) hell and back, most of which was the byproduct of trying to make our careers fit together, dealing with each other’s families, family money issues, etc. Totally run-of-the-mill problems. I have had my doubts, at times over the years, whether we were “meant for each other,” which we have discussed openly and honestly several times throughout our relationship.  We always come to the conclusion that we just do not want to break up. We love each other and we love most things about the life we’ve built.

Two years ago I entered an extremely challenging graduate program, which also wreaked havoc on our lives, and therefore, our relationship. Though I knew that all last summer and fall was an especially low point in our communication and in our overall happiness with each other, I’m still shocked and gutted whenever I “remember” that I cheated. Which is several times a day.

There was this other man, I’ll call him X, whom I had been acquainted with for several months. One night, while out with a group of 10 or so other friends (my husband went home early that night, the rest of us were celebrating exams being over), he paid special attention to me. At the end of the evening I acknowledged to myself that X was maybe more interesting and intelligent of a person that I’d formerly noticed. Still, I was extremely surprised later that night to receive a borderline flirtatious text from him.

I kind of hate myself for returning the attention. Looking back, I realize that I was just so flattered. No one tells you when you get married that you become invisible to other men, and it’s not that I think I’ve been out there looking for inappropriate attention …  but I found it surprisingly welcome when it came. And that’s how it all began. I’m so ashamed that it took so little, so very, very little, to tempt me into cheating on my husband.

Looking back at last year, I know now that there was something really wrong with me, for awhile. I was at least depressed, and actually I have begun to wonder if I even might have had a manic episode.  I suddenly was drinking often, and a lot (which I no longer am). I know that the pressure of my schoolwork has been affecting me in all sorts of ways that I don’t seem able to recognize in myself until that “phase” is over and I’m in the next one. However, even though I know this is a factor, I just don’t think any amount of stress is an excuse for what I did. Though my husband and I were having trouble connecting last year, and we were seriously considering a trial separation, that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter.

Because my husband and I are really open-minded people, each with friends from both genders, and neither of us prone to jealousy, I never even told one lie. There were a couple of lies of omission, but I think I was able to live in a little bit of denial for awhile just because I really never had to be sneaky, or make up stories. I just kind of detached from him, for a few weeks. Since I’ve been living in the library and so preoccupied with school the last couple of years, he didn’t notice.

The affair really only lasted a month and was much more of an emotional affair than a physical one, although the relationship was consummated, once. I have not confided any of this experience to anyone.  After sleeping with X (it makes me nauseated just to type this), even during, I knew that I really wasn’t attracted to him at all, and I just immediately realized what a mistake it all was. I got myself out of there, and began the process of ending it. Which is when I of course finally realized that X’s own mental and emotional stability was, well, compromised.

I just can’t believe how stupid I was, from the beginning. It’s hard to believe I deserve any credibility, but please know that I am usually a very perceptive, very self-aware and intentional person. How was I able to just take leave of my senses, for weeks? It is legitimately scary.

When I broke things off with X, firmly, he actually tried to physically keep me from leaving his house. Of course, nothing could have convinced me further that I wanted nothing to do with him EVER again.

Even though it all ended months ago now, there are still some things that keep me up at night. First of all, the clarity that comes with the regret of doing such a despicable thing is kind of a gift. I was able to wholeheartedly throw myself into my marriage again, and this year, 2012, my husband and I have felt closer than maybe ever. But of course, he doesn’t “know.”  We had actually discussed adultery a couple of times over the years, when we’ve seen friends or friends’ parents go through it, and we decided, each of us, that we did not want to ever know if the other had cheated on them! I know now that neither of us ever believed it would actually happen, but just by having those talks, I’m pretty sure he really doesn’t want to know.

In the beginning, I wanted to confess. Now I really don’t, and instead live in fear that he’ll hear it through the grapevine. As I hinted, X has done some things that made me realize, way later than I should have, that he is manipulative, needy and self-centered. Since he still asks me to meet him out socially on occasion, and often expresses his disapproval when I decline, I know he is not as “over” me as I pray for him to be. He can be a bit delusional. I am afraid that he will someday find justification for spilling the story to one of our common friends. I don’t know for sure that this hasn’t happened already.

What is worse is that he has a number of really incriminating and embarrassing texts from me on his phone, that he could show to anyone, at any time he felt like it. Sometimes I think I’m being paranoid when I play this scenario out in my mind, but at the same time, this is a man who pursued a married woman, the husband of whom he professes to like and respect, ensured she got drunk any time he was around her, and balked when she ended it after a few weeks. He is no saint.

Here are the issues that might be slowly killing me. How can I live with myself? My husband really is a great person, and the love of my life, and just because we were going through some doubts and hard times, I did something that would absolutely break his heart into a thousand pieces. One of the things that also stops me from confessing to him is that, if telling him destroyed our relationship, I’m scared it would also prevent him from ever trusting anyone else. I know he thinks I’m this great moral person and if I were able to betray him like that, then there’s no one who wouldn’t.

And it’s not just that I cheated on him that is so disturbing, it’s that I didn’t even choose someone, for lack of a better term, more worthy. X is just not a person I would even date, if I were single. I just feel pathetic. How can I call him needy, when I was so taken with the first person to pay me a compliment?

Sometimes I struggle with all of this even being real. Even though I might not have earned any credibility here, please believe me that this is very out-of-character for me. Now that the fog has lifted, so to speak, my memories from this affair seem like a movie that I watched, instead of a time that I lived through. There is another time in my life that feels that way, when my mother almost died after a terrible accident, and was in the hospital for months. So I know that in a way, it’s kind of a protective mechanism, but how do I make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Right now, nothing repulses me more than the thought of doing something like this again, but . . . I know now that I’m capable of really terrible things. I never knew that before.

Mostly, I’m just sick that I can’t undo this. I’ll always know. I’ll always know that I “ruined” our marriage, even though my husband (hopefully) won’t ever have an inkling. There was just this pure thing, this devotion, that we had, that we had promised to each other, and I was so ready to throw it away. And he never would. I don’t deserve him.  Living with this regret is just so unbelievably harsh. I’m pretty sure time is making it worse. It’s like the longer I “get away with it” the worse I feel. Is my whole experience just a total cliché anyway? Does everyone who cheats on their partner end up feeling this way?

I’m realizing that it’s taken me this long to even write this letter, to reach out to someone, because deep down, I still need to punish myself, and prolonging the bad feelings is the worst punishment I can inflict, that doesn’t also hurt my husband.

What do I do? How do I try to let this go? I’ve never, ever had such a low opinion of myself.

Hindsight is 20/20

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Dear Hindsight,

It will take time for you to forgive yourself. It will take time for you to sort out what kinds of unhappiness led you to make this mistake.

But that’s fine. You have time. You have a pretty good life in most ways. There is just some unhappiness in your life that you have tried to ignore. This affair was the result. Once you begin looking at your unhappiness, things will start to make sense, and you will find some compassion for yourself and will begin to forgive yourself.

It just takes time.

You can begin by contacting a marriage and family counselor.

If you do nothing, it’s likely that over time the severity of this event’s impact on your emotional life will lessen. But your marriage will probably end badly.

It will end badly because as you withhold your emotions the marriage will offer less and less satisfaction until it is practically worthless as a life-supporting partnership. It will become just another burden to maintain, just another life-sucking routine.

But it doesn’t have to end badly.

A decent marriage and family counselor can help you.

Your main hurdle may be in shedding your current frame of reference long enough to begin to look at what actually happened. For instance, you express amazement that this happened, and yet empirical evidence is that it happens a lot. So, in rational terms, your error was in excluding yourself from the set of people capable of having an affair. Every married person is capable of having an affair. There was really no basis for excluding yourself. You are human like everyone else. The intensity of your desire to stay true to your husband is obviously not a guarantee of success. It is only a wish. You just made a common human error in thinking: With no basis for doing so, you excluded yourself from the set of people capable of having affairs. Similarly, I excluded myself from the set of people capable of having cancer until I got cancer. It’s a common mental error. If you go back and examine your life to find the basis for your belief that you would not cheat on your husband, you will probably find the same kinds of baseless beliefs that millions of other people have also had. So I suggest you bring some academic rigor to your examination of your own life. But don’t try that on your own. It’s too painful and destabilizing. Do this only under the care of a therapist. Because you may make a second mistake: You may blame yourself. You have to do the opposite of blaming yourself. You need to forgive yourself. That may take some time. You haven’t been taught how to forgive yourself. You will have to learn. A therapist can help you with that.

This is not a puzzle or theorem but a wound. You can put off the actual work of recovering for quite some time. But eventually, you will have to begin.

Why not begin now, while you are still in fresh pain, while you are still motivated, while you still feel that it is an intolerable moral burden to live with? Emotional pain is a great motivator.

This can be fixed. Your marriage can survive. You can forgive yourself. But you need to begin.