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Honesty or selfishness: You be the judge

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My husband told me that he and my friend are attracted to each other — two days after my father died!

 Cary’s classic column from  FRIDAY, JUL 18, 2003

Dear Cary,

This past Tuesday, my father died. Although it was not unexpected, I loved him deeply and am dealing with a lot of grief. A close friend of mine has been living with me and my family for the past three or four months. Several years ago, she lived with us for a while, but eventually moved out when she (and my husband and I) became uncomfortable with the fact that she and my husband were attracted to each other. At that time, I assumed that a large part of the attraction, at least on my spouse’s part, was due to the fact that things were not good between us. For my friend, it was largely due to her then-single state.

Things are much better between us now than they were. However, very recently I thought I perceived that spark of attraction between them. There was too much going on (father dying, etc.) for me to give much thought to it. Two days after my father’s death, my husband confessed to me that he and my friend were, indeed, feeling an attraction. My friend is currently single again, which he somehow blamed as the source of the attraction. Apparently they talked about it and both agreed they were committed to their relationships with me and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. According to my husband, my friend felt strongly about not saying anything to me. My husband, however, felt that in the name of “honesty” he wanted me to know.

Why the fuck did he have to tell me this now? My dad just died. I’m up to my eyebrows in grief, and I feel like my spouse just dumped this problem in my lap. I feel like it’s his problem, and he tried to make it mine (and pretty much succeeded) so that he wouldn’t have to deal with this issue like an adult, by himself. I love this man, but sometimes he is the most self-absorbed son of a bitch on the planet. Of course, between kids, funeral arrangements, and the fact that I am highly confrontation-averse, we haven’t even had a chance to talk about this. It’s also taken me two days to process all of it, and figure out how I feel about it, but man, I know now, and I am mad as hell that he chose this time to dump this crap on me. Was this just heartfelt honesty or the actions of an adolescent trapped in a middle-aged male body?

Fuming, Grieving, and About to Boil Over

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Dear Fuming,

Honesty as a mask for thoughtlessness is a crock of shit. Don’t you just feel like punching him now?

So sorry to hear about your father.

Let me tell you what happened to me the other day, if I may, because it’s related to your story. My father is still living, bless his heart and prostate. Two days ago, as I was preparing dinner for a kitchen full of friends, the phone rang and it was my dad and he said, “Cary? I have some very disturbing news. You’re going to be in an auto accident.”

That was about the extent of the conversation. I thanked him for the news. The next day, my wife and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. I was the slow guy in the right lane.

I tried to work it out in my head: My father believes in psychic phenomena — prophetic dreams, channeling the dead, etc. None of his predictions have ever come true, as far as I know, so I figured I don’t have much to worry about. He’s always said strange things. He’s getting older and stranger. If it was anybody else I’d dismiss it. But it was my dad, so it creeped me out.

Then I talked to my sister. Apparently, around the same time he called me, he called her and told her I’d been killed in an auto accident. After much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments she got him to explain that I was indeed killed in an auto accident, but it happened in a dream he had.

Is your husband 80 years old? Has he raised five kids, survived prostate cancer and saved the world for democracy? If so, maybe you’d cut him some slack. But he’s not 80, is he? He should know better.

We were raised on a bogus “honesty” standard. We need a new standard. How about: compassion. Think of the other person. What will the news do to her? Will it amuse her? Will it make her happier, better able to cope with life, stronger, more knowledgeable, more confident? For instance, if you tell someone how well you think she’s coping with a recent tragedy, that you admire her strength, that might make her feel better. Even if she thinks you’re lying, the words will have a good effect. I mean, you can give someone an honest massage or a dishonest massage and it’s still going to feel good.

Likewise, if you honestly punch somebody in the face, it hurts just as much as a dishonest punch.

Knowing that your husband is attracted to your friend is not really useful knowledge. Useful knowledge would be something like: What is he going to do?

Could you maybe get that straight with him? Tell him you don’t want to talk about your friend. Also tell him you don’t want him alone with her. It should be the three of you or nothing. Also tell him he needs to work on his timing. And then drop it. You don’t need to talk about it anymore. The only time he should mention it again is if he and your friend decide to run away together to Montana and start an organic farm. Then he should tell you, so you’ll know to pick the kids up at school before driving to Montana to kick the shit out of him.

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Dragged into the ring

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Cary’s classic column from Thursday, THURSDAY, JAN 30, 2003

My boyfriend promised we’d be engaged by Christmas but we weren’t. Should I let it go or move out?

Dear Cary,

I have been dating my boyfriend for four years, and living with him for most of that time. We started (I think mutually) to discuss marriage about two years ago. I took a positive but relaxed attitude about it at the time, because I figured that it would come when it came. But it didn’t. I said about nine months ago, “Are we getting engaged?” and “When?” and was told not to bring it up again because it would ruin the surprise. This led me to believe that something was coming soon. Nothing happened. About a month before Christmas I brought it up again and my boyfriend told me that we would “definitely be engaged before Christmas.” I thought that this seemed rather noncontroversial, so I was pretty happy and relaxed.

Christmas, as you might guess, came and went. I got some nice stuff but no ring. (I am not ring-obsessed … I don’t want a big ring or even particularly a ring at all, but it seems to be the only way that I can talk about getting married with my boyfriend.) I brought it up about five days later, and got the “I was very busy before the holidays, etc.” runaround. My boyfriend has a fairly demanding job, but he works about two blocks from the diamond district. I would think that if he took one or two hours during the day to go pick out a ring, he could stay later at night. It is also not a money issue.

I didn’t spend a lot of time recriminating him. I have decided to work something out myself rather than bring it up again to him. My attitude is that he knows how I feel. We have been together a long time, and there is a point at which it is either gonna happen, or it ain’t. I am not looking for a husband, but I am looking for my boyfriend to be my husband, and, if he doesn’t want to, it is time to do what is painful and break up with him if that’s not what he wants to be. He does not seem to be brave enough to tell me himself, but if he wanted to get married, well … you know.

Our lease is up in the summer. I am thinking of saying then that I am getting my own apartment. Should I say something about that now, to tell him where I am on this, or should I just wait and continue to hope that we’ll get engaged before then and that nobody will be the wiser? I don’t want to pull some ultimatum shit two weeks before our lease is up, and I also would feel sort of sneaky looking for an apartment on my own while he thinks everything is fine. But I also don’t want to end up getting engaged in a hurry only because he doesn’t want to suffer the trauma of my getting my own apartment (I think he feels a bit too comfortable with our relationship as it is). I think that he would interpret “I’m getting my own apartment unless you get me a ring” as a threat meant to hurt him, but it really is only a fact, and something that will hurt me, too.

My boyfriend and I get along very well. We had problems during the first year or so of our relationship, but I think we’ve worked them out. There doesn’t seem to be a third party in the picture. My boyfriend seems happy to see me at night and he doesn’t disappear mysteriously or anything. There are no previous marriages or children on either side. We like our apartment and our life together. I can’t see that I would be happier alone, or happier with anyone else, but, honestly, I am not happy living together indefinitely like this. It’s fine for some people, but it’s not what I want out of life.

Sad

Dear Sad,

This reminds me of something that happened over 30 years ago, when I was wrestling. I was in junior high school and going out for the team. If you wanted to go out for the wrestling team, you got up early in the morning two or three times a week and dressed out and went into a little concrete block room, the wrestling room, and stood around a mat. The coach stood in the middle and demonstrated holds and asked for volunteers for various holds. Then there was a kind of round robin where volunteers stepped forward one by one into the ring. You didn’t hold your hand up or ask permission, you just stepped in and wrestled. We had been doing that for about 15 minutes, and most of us had stepped in and tried our hand at wrestling. And then the coach said, OK, those of you who have stepped in, I think you want to be wrestlers. And those of you who didn’t step in, I think you need to ask yourselves if you really want to be wrestlers. Because if you want to wrestle, you step in the ring.
I was startled but relieved, because I didn’t know it had been a test. And it wasn’t a test, really. It was just reality. If you want to wrestle, you step in the ring.

I think you need to tell your boyfriend that, based on his failure to buy the ring, you have reached a painful but inescapable conclusion that he does not really want to marry you. You can’t hang around and let him play you for a sap.

After you tell him that, and start making plans to move out, the ball is in his court. If he wants to woo you back, if he wants to convince you that you’re the most important person to him in the whole world and he wants to spend his life with you, he’s free to do his best. Because I remember what else the wrestling coach said. He said this doesn’t mean that the rest of you are off the team. If you want to prove that you’re wrestlers, he said, you can prove it. But I’m not going to drag you into the ring.

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I got derailed somehow!

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 I feel like I’ve failed at everything. How do I get back on track?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 16, 2005

Dear Cary,

I need help. I don’t know how my life got so badly off the rails, but it has. I have no idea what I can do to ever be happy again.

I used to have a lot of promise. I grew up in a small Rust Belt city, with good parents who loved me tremendously. I was always the smartest kid in the class, the one with straight A’s, the one who as a kindergartener was brought before the fourth-grade class to show off how well I could read their reading textbooks, the one who was going to be brilliant and amazing some day. I had enough friends of my own, but I got bullied a lot and never felt like I fit in, all through high school. Everyone told me that I would find my place in the world once I got out of high school. So I did; I graduated near the top of my class and headed off to a Great University in another part of the country. I remember my 20th birthday, walking around the campus, thinking how wonderful it was to be there and thinking about how bright my future was. At that moment, I thought the whole world was open to me.

Nothing has worked out like I had hoped. I had dreamed of a journalism career and worked on student publications, but I gave up while still in college when I repeatedly failed to get an editorial position above that of a lowly staff writer. Looking for a replacement career, I decided to become a lawyer. Part of me was thinking that law would be a good profession for me, but deep down I knew I chose it because it was the only profession I could get into without having to change my major and take an extra year to graduate. Right after I started law school, my reservations about being there and the stress of the workload threw me into a deep depression that kept me from getting good grades or following the regular career path of getting summer jobs with law firms. I started therapy for depression just before graduation, and recovered, but too late to help my career prospects.

So I moved back to the same miserable Rust Belt town where I grew up, living with my parents, unemployed. Eventually I passed the bar and got a low-paying legal job with a local government agency. I met and fell in love with a woman right before she moved to take a good job about a hundred miles away, in a much nicer and less depressing town. We kept up a long-distance relationship until she wanted something more; then we got engaged and she moved back, giving up her job for a much lesser one. Our relationship became much less pleasant once we were together all the time, and there are a lot of ways in which we are incompatible. But despite all my doubts, I felt that I couldn’t break up with her, since she had given up so much for me that I felt I owed her. So we got married, and still are.

Before the wedding, she wanted me to try to earn more than a civil servant’s paycheck, so at her urging, I opened up my own law office. I soon realized that my minimal career experiences up to that point had done nothing to prepare me for the pressures of litigating as a sole practitioner. I knew nothing, and was quickly swamped. I don’t have many clients, but that’s OK, because I can’t handle the work for the few that I have. I have tried to give up my practice for a regular job, but no one will hire me; in the legal profession, failing at a solo practice is viewed as a sign that you’re just not able to hack it as a lawyer. This has been a tremendous strain on my marriage, and my wife often lets me know just how disappointed she is in my inability to bring in as much money as she had expected when we got together.

Now, at age 34, I find myself a million miles from where I hoped to be when I started out. I haven’t accomplished anything great; instead I have only failed. I’m living in the same miserable town where I was born, unhappily married, and operating a failing business. I can’t help feeling like a complete failure. So what do I do now? How can I get anywhere? How can I regain the hope that I once had when I have no more faith in my ability to make the right decisions?

Swamped and Lost

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Dear Swamped and Lost,

I enjoyed your story very much. I should say I “related” to it I guess — enjoying other people’s tales of woe sounds so vulturish, doesn’t it? — but the truth is I do enjoy hearing tales such as yours because I relate so strongly to it. I mean, I got the feeling you should be a writer. You sound a lot like me. You seem to have the dour temperament for it, and failure in life seems so key to success in writing — it has a way of stripping away illusion. I also note that your use of language is very familiar to me personally; it’s that pattern of depression in which your depression is not delineated by the language so much as buried in it, mixed in it, like pebbles in concrete; pieces of your depression lie suspended in your language. I am very familiar with this. This is the kind of chatter that goes on in my own head.

I also see that you have done many of the things I did — quitting an organization, for instance, when you were not given your due as quickly as you thought you deserved to be given your due. Those of us who were singled out as children for being exceptionally bright often go through this, apparently; we are always the smartest one in class and we come to expect special treatment; we aren’t toughened sufficiently, perhaps, as younger children — especially if we only do what we are good at, the academic stuff, but shy away from sports and other activities where we might not be able to be the best; so we aren’t taught how to accept being second best, how to be just one among many; so when we encounter such situations later in life, we quit; we crumble; we throw a fit.

I had a particularly jolting moment last year in a conversation about my childhood when I described how, after a traumatic move away from my beloved boyhood home and neighborhood, entering a new school in seventh grade, finding myself stirred to a kind of intellectual frenzy, carrying home a stack of books taller than I was, books on, of all things “the halogens.” In this conversation, someone said to me, “Thinking is not enough.” I realized then that I had tried to think my way through adolescence! It might not sound like much, but like many things that strike us for reasons only we understand, it appeared to me that I had done all my thinking in order to avoid confronting the true challenges of becoming a person. Wow. And then I started to drink! I had no center! I had no heart! I was a walking, talking avoidance mechanism!

So without going into all of it, let’s just say it’s been a long road for me, learning humility, learning to be a worker among workers. And to this day, one of the most shameful aspects of my personality, the one that I still try to hide by adopting an air of being a regular guy, is that I think of myself as a superstar. Even saying it right now makes me cringe. I love to make myself cringe. I figure I’m hitting some kind of nerve. I do this like a performance: Watch me mutilate myself! Watch me cringe!

It took failure to bring me to my senses. Failure can be a great gift. If you can finally allow yourself to fail, perhaps you can let go of being such a great and responsible guy, and so miserable. The way you’re going now, it sounds to me, you are failing very slowly, in such a way that you will never ever give up, but just keep failing interminably, never giving up but always failing, never surrendering but always sinking lower, never admitting that you might have made some choices that weren’t based on what you really needed but on what you thought you were supposed to do, never having the courage to just say, Screw it, I hate the law! This is not what I want! I want what I have wanted since I was a kid! … which is … what? To be a journalist? To study frogs? To move to the tropics? To live your life the way you want?

If there were no compelling psychological needs to keep you from living your life the way you want, it would not be a difficult thing at all. The practical barriers are minimal. The barriers are all psychological. That doesn’t mean they’re not real. Oh, boy, they’re real all right. It means, on the contrary, they are so real that they must be confronted head-on. The lack of practical barriers is deceptive. Maybe that’s exactly it: You’re so expertly functional that if you want to, you can stay right on that miserable edge of functional depression and buried rage your whole damned life until you’re lying on your deathbed thinking, Wow, I’m finally starting to feel like a human!

You could spend the next 40 years in a slow-motion free fall, agonizingly failing to live up to your dreams. You can stay there your whole life! In that way, those of us who have some definable problem are much better off. We hit bottom, as they say, and then we can start to get better.

What would it take for you to “hit bottom”? What would it take for you to realize that you need to stop slowly failing and have a good, healthy crackup? Would it take losing your practice? Your wife leaving you? Losing your house, your car, your clothes? Would you have to be on the street, wracked with clinical depression, dragging a few belongings down an alley, bruised from a beating you don’t remember, swollen from infection, weak from malnutrition, haunted by nightmares? What would it take? How far would you take this before you got up the courage to truly fail once and for all?

Maybe all you need is to go see a therapist now, before you lose everything. Maybe you’ll go in there all shaky and uncertain and when you sit down you realize that for the first time ever you can tell someone everything — and I mean everything! — and it starts to come out in tears and rage and sadness, and as you shake with the fever of grief and loneliness, as your hot tears fall, as all this surprising but curiously familiar activity begins in your heart, you start to realize how aloof you have held yourself all these years and thus how alone you’ve been, and this doesn’t even come as a thought but as a reality: In your body suddenly you’re human again, and only later do you reflect upon how difficult it has been to simply be a part of the human race, how above it you’ve held yourself, how numb you’ve been, and finally you can say screw it, screw the law, screw the demands of everybody that I be everything the test scores said I should be, screw my own Little Lord Fauntleroy specialness, screw my expectations, my vengeance, my dreams of power, I am what I am and that’s going to have to be good enough.

You’re only 34. You’ve got a couple of lifetimes to go.

p.s. I got sober at 35. It’s a good time to let everything come crashing down all at once — you’re still strong enough to lift a few of the timbers and crawl out of the wreckage!

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If he really loved me, wouldn’t he beg me to go with him?

 

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 My boyfriend is leaving for
a career opportunity.

 Cary’s classic column from  TUESDAY, FEB 14, 2006

Dear Cary,

My problem is, predictably, about love; selfish love vs. unconditional love. I don’t know whether to feel like a doormat or like a good person.

I’ve been dating and then living with my boyfriend for a couple of years. We own a house together. We’re in our mid-30s and I have a child from a previous marriage. We have a lovely, sweet, respectful relationship; we are compatible in many ways and I really can’t imagine a much nicer connection. Well, apart from the fact that he’s considering leaving me.

You see, he moved to this town to start a new career and he’s succeeded in doing that, but he doesn’t’ really enjoy the new career and wants to go back to the other coast to resume where he left off. He’s really talented and has a lot of options.

Although it would be possible for me to move, I don’t really want to separate my daughter from her father, who is a good guy and a good parent, especially to move to a place that isn’t quite as nice as this place and where I would have to start over in my career. But I’m not completely closed to the idea, which may after all be an opportunity in disguise.

From his point of view, his career will go nowhere here because it’s not his passion and he has to move on while he is in his “prime.” He’s not pressuring me to move, as he understands my situation. I also think that he doesn’t want to be responsible for upsetting my daughter, from an understandably selfish point of view because our life would not be much fun living with a traumatized preteen.

So I’m stuck, trying to be reasonable, trying to practice some sort of loving nonattachment and yet wondering if I’m being way too reasonable, as at times my heart is breaking and I feel so unloved and unvalued. This brings up all sorts of awful feelings about being a mother, and how I won’t be able to really have a relationship until my kid is older, and also confusion about what I should expect from love. Should this relationship end because he doesn’t love me enough to wait two or three years until it’s better for me to move also? How can I expect to be his priority when he cannot be mine if I choose to prioritize my daughter? From his point of view, a child is as much of a choice as a career. From my point of view, a career is a choice and a child is a part of you, like an extra limb, until he or she chooses to leave.

I want to be adult about this; I want to be loving and supportive of this man who means so much to me. I want to always do the right thing for my child, but I also want to have a tantrum that the gods will hear from the heavens.

This week he leaves for an interview for a really good job over there. He stands a good chance of getting the job. He says we should wait to find out if it’s really a possibility and then make a plan. I tell him OK but inside I’m hurt and scared. I meditate and meditate, trying to feel more love than anger and fear.

What should I do? Should I just take control and tell him to leave now in order to end this ambiguous pain or should I just keep meditating and practicing unconditional love?

Holding my Breath, Trying to Breathe

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Dear Holding my Breath,

Have your tantrum. Then let him go.

You are not loved enough. That is clear. You are loved, but you are not loved grandly, hugely, incomprehensibly, madly, as you wish to be loved. You are not loved enough that he would insist that you follow him, or refuse to leave you if you won’t follow him. You are loved but he also has this and that and the other that he needs to do, these things that are important to his career, that he must do now while he is in his prime. You could go with him, he says, but maybe you don’t want to on account of the daughter? — who, after all, he says, is a choice just like a career.

Not hardly, methinks. Not the same at all. You agree? Daughter not the same as a career? Not the same. Good. So let him go. And in your meditation try to understand this: You have a spiritual nature, but relationships are played out right here on earth, and the gods are not much help to us. I suspect that you are pure of heart but you are also hungry; you never got enough love; you keep being the good mother and good partner, expecting that if you are good you will be loved, and when you are not loved you feel a volcanic anger that you would like the gods to hear … no?

But the gods will not help you in this. So I suggest in your meditation you concentrate on what you want and how to express what you want.

It is terrible to be with someone who is always one step away from leaving. I think you will feel better if you let him go. It is a slow, agonizing suffocation. You get just enough to live on. It is like emotional waterboarding.

I do not feel I have great insight into this situation. But consider this: If you regarded yourself with unconditional love, would you still be with him? Or would you say to yourself, he doesn’t think nearly as highly of me as I think of myself — perhaps he doesn’t really love me the way I deserve to be loved!

In other words, if you loved yourself the way you deserve to be loved, would you accept any less from a lover? Maybe think about that. You might come to see that it is best that he go off to wherever and pursue his whatever.

It may be sad to let him go, but you are relatively young. You will soon grow used to his absence and find someone new.

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Does time heal all wounds?

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I have been through a lot of loss, but I can’t seem to get over losing her love.

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

Dear Cary,

At Christmas she left me, told me she had fallen out of love.
It has been half a year; I have dated, moved on, accepted that she is never coming back. I have taken other lovers, spent time with friends, done all the things you do to make peace with yourself, to accept that it is over and that she is never coming back.

She said she had fallen out of love; I later found out she had cheated and could not face up to me about it. I have no idea if I could accept that; I suspect that I couldn’t but that is not the main issue. I dream about her, about the times we shared, how loved I had felt.

My life has not been a pleasant one: orphaned, adopted by a very dysfunctional family. I found something that meant the world to me and then it went away. I know logically that it is for the best, no such thing as a good breakup, if it was good, you wouldn’t break up. I still find myself in tears when I run across her picture, or try to talk about the past with a friend. Five years of my life and it left a lot of tracks behind, it is not something I can avoid.

I was always under the impression that time healed all wounds, but I find myself with tears streaming down my face and I don’t know that there is a solution to this.
I survived my parents dying. I survived being in the Army and having to fight in a conflict I did not believe in. I survived my best friend committing suicide, but I can’t seem to heal past this.

When is it that this is supposed to stop? Is there something just broken inside of me?

Solo

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Dear Solo,

When people say time heals all wounds, they rarely mention the recommended dose. They don’t say, Time heals all wounds at a ratio of six months’ grieving for the first year of a relationship, with the period for each subsequent year diminishing on a curve determined by past experience and other concurrent psychological factors including recent traumatic events. They just say time heals all wounds and leave it at that. Which can raise your expectations unnecessarily.

Whatever you’re getting over always takes more time to get over than you think. First there’s this period where you’re willingly grieving; the incident is fresh in your mind and in the minds of others; people know you’ve been through something tough and they cut you some slack. You figure you need some time off. You take it. But at some point you think, OK, enough with that. I’m ready. I’m done. I’m cured. And then you try to get up and start living a normal life and it hits you again: There’s another wave of grief, and then another wave and another, and you can’t believe it. That’s the second phase, which is all about accepting that it’s not over until it’s over.

You mention some other losses in your life that you feel you handled better than this one. You say you survived these other things, but you can’t seem to beat this. Having survived these other things, it might seem that you ought to be able to beat this as well. But there’s another way to look at it. It could be that you never actually beat those past events or rose above them, but simply survived them. So they are still hurting you. Perhaps this breakup is sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. If so, that’s not a dangerous thing necessarily. It just means it’s really time to come to grips with loss.

When you can no longer carry every burden like a man, when you can no longer soldier on, when you can no longer absorb every blow, then it’s time to begin a new phase of life in which you acknowledge the loss. You stop being a soldier and become a philosopher. Instead of battling, you look for meaning. You look for the connections. With compassion, you examine your wounds to see exactly how they happened, what hit you, and from what direction; where were you standing and why were you there? Were you ordered to be there or had you just wandered into the jungle? Were you on a mission? Was someone trying to kill you or was it an accident?

This, I think, is the true healing phase. It’s not time that’s doing it. It’s you. It takes time to get functional again. And then it takes even more time to fully interrogate yourself, to conduct your own incident investigation, to get at the truth.

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My aunt lent me money … with one condition

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I desperately needed money so I agreed to her terms, but I find them chilling and bizarre

 Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, Nov 21, 2010

Dear Cary,

Almost 10 years ago my wealthy aunt loaned me some money. I have not seen or spoken to this aunt in many years now, nor have I repaid the money. I would very much like to repay her, or at the very least set up a payment plan so I can begin paying her a little at a time, but so far it hasn’t happened.

I am deeply ashamed that I haven’t picked up the phone or written a letter to at least acknowledge the situation, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to do so. This is partly because of the money and the length of time, but more than that it’s because of the circumstances of the loan. At the time, I was desperate for the money because I was trying to escape my abusive ex-husband, as per his parole officer’s recommendation.

My family has never been close. It is one of those families where there is a history of mental illness and everyone is always not speaking to everyone else. It took a lot for me to ask anyone for a loan at all. I was very scared and nervous about it, and the first relative I asked turned me down, which made it especially difficult to work up the nerve to ask my aunt but I was desperate.

My aunt immediately agreed to loan me the money, but the conditions of her loan broke my heart. Rather than requesting your standard IOU, she made me write and sign a form stating that if I should meet an untimely demise she would get her money back from my estate. At her request, my IOU specified that I might die soon. She was worried that my husband would murder me and she wouldn’t get her money back.

I was so anxious to get away from my husband that I wrote and signed whatever I had to, but I was stunned and hurt. I kept thinking of my own nieces, knowing that if one of them came to me with a situation like that, the very last thing that would ever cross my mind would be concern that I would not be paid back if she were murdered. My aunt did not even so much as ask if I was OK. My aunt does not love me. No one in my family loves anyone else, it seems, and that has as much to do with the fact that I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone in so long as any of the rest of it.

My horrid, vindictive mother insists that I not repay my aunt (her sister) because of what my aunt did, but I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to keep her money as payback for being cruel to me. She doesn’t owe me that money for revenge purposes. I would like to pay her back in full, but I am not interested in a relationship with her, or with anyone else in my family for that matter, including my mother. I have thought about it very seriously for a very long time, and I have decided that they are too far gone. The dysfunction is too severe and too deep. There is not one single relationship there worth even trying to salvage.

I am in serious financial trouble, to the point that I left the U.S. entirely because I could no longer afford to live there. Despite this, it’s been so many years. By now, had I even paid her $10 a month, I would no longer be in debt to her.

I like my new life in my new country, where everyone else seems to be as poor as I am. I am happily remarried and I have two baby sons. I am now a part of an extended family who does love each other very much. My own family is a part of my past that I’d like to forget, but I can’t stop thinking about the money. I need to pay it back, but in order to do that I have to make contact. I have to write or call my aunt and potentially open myself up to even more pain and humiliation.

I am in so much debt. I owe thousands of dollars to stateside hospitals for the baby I recently gave birth to and also for the baby I lost before him. I haven’t even been able to keep up with any kind of payment plan for those bills, and I can’t imagine where I’ll find the money to pay my aunt. For years now, every single time we are tallying up our bills and our debts and trying to figure out what to do about it I tell my husband, “And my aunt … don’t forget I need to pay my aunt.” Invariably he reminds me that it’s not a priority. He has seen very little of my family, and what little he has seen was enough for him to realize he didn’t want to see any more.

When there is so little money, and so much emotional and literal distance between us, I am not sure how to go about even beginning to pay my aunt back. Where do I start? What do I say? Should I just stick to the finances and not mention to her how it felt to realize that she would be willing to take money out of my traumatized and motherless children’s hands? Several years ago when my grandparents were terminally ill and their dryer broke, this same aunt bought them a new one, and she made my grandfather sign a paper stating that she got to keep the dryer after he died.

I keep thinking of things like this, and of the way my family works, and it’s making it so hard to pick up that phone. I have struggled so long to rid myself of the pain that comes with being a member of that family. I don’t know how to protect myself, other than by staying away entirely.

Thank you for your time,

G

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Dear G.,

It’s clear that you feel it’s important to pay the money back. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing right now. I think, rather, the most important thing right now is for you to take care of yourself and your kids.

So I suggest you not think about the money right now, but about the emotional content of what happened when you went to your aunt for help. What happened was bizarre and shocking. Of course, it was shocking that you were fleeing for your life as well. But your aunt’s coldhearted requirement was shocking. I mean, in a way, it was rational. But it was inhumane. It must have felt inhumane to you. It must have felt like some way of lowering you, diminishing you, to treat your life so cavalierly, as nothing more than a ledger line in her budget.

Of course there may be more to the story. Your aunt may have previously lent money that was not repaid and decided on this policy to protect herself. You say there is a history of mental illness in your family so perhaps there is a history of money being borrowed and not repaid. Perhaps your aunt has her share of problems as well. But you came to her in a moment of crisis and were presented with this morbid requirement. It must have thrown you.

So I can understand why you have not been able to touch it, and why to this day it lingers in your mind. I can see why you’d want to close the books on it.

Maybe you can close the books on it without reentangling yourself in this painful and destabilizing drama, at least for now. How? Well, one way might be to write your aunt a letter telling her all about why you came to her and what has happened in the interim and why you haven’t paid it and asking for her forgiveness.

Writing it to her might help you focus your feelings and uncover feelings you may not have realized you have. And it could be a way of saying goodbye to that chapter. You could even tell her, in the letter, that the reason you are writing it is that you just can’t deal with the craziness of your family right now and you just need for it to be over. You could declare it over.

Then maybe read the letter aloud. Maybe read it to a picture of your aunt. Light a candle and lean her picture up against the candle and read your letter to her and, I don’t know, burn the letter, or bury the letter. Just don’t send it to your aunt.

Write it but don’t send it.

Do a ritual that brings you some peace. You could use some peace.

And then, if you still want to pay your aunt back, open a savings account and begin putting money in the savings account. Put in whatever amount you can afford to put in regularly. Give this savings account a name. Call it Aunt Payback or something, so that it’s clear it’s an account to pay your aunt back. Just keep putting money in it. It might take years. But when it’s full, you can send the money to your aunt.

And, to return to that utterly morbid requirement in the IOU, I suggest you put instructions in your will such that if you should die before the payback account is filled and your aunt has been repaid, and if your aunt should indeed show up with her IOU demanding repayment from your estate, then whatever is in that should be used to settle her claim. That way, it’s sort of an insurance fund, so neither your kids nor your husband will be fully liable for this debt, should it come due.

You know, there’s a lot of talk about symbols in psychology and literature. And you hear people talk about what something is a symbol of. And maybe some symbols are like letters of the alphabet, in that they always have the same meaning. But it seems to me symbols are more like tools, or weapons, whatever is at hand for the psyche to serve her current purpose. If we are sad, deeply sad, ineluctably sad about how our family turned out, and if we grieve for a life that will never be, and if we grieve for many hurts and slights and insults received over many years, and if we go through a number of shocks and hurts and upsets and dislocations until we are thoroughly rattled, and we are always wishing that there were some solution that would ease the pain and bring back a sense of ease and delight and calm, then we may indeed come to seize on some object or idea and believe that it is the central object or idea, and that if we can just accomplish that, our other problems will evaporate.

It doesn’t matter what that symbol is. We’ll take whatever is available. For me, once I became attached to a truck and it symbolized everything I needed at the time. At other times I will become attached to money, or to a past event that I feel I must rectify, or to … oh, I don’t know, like a child believing if he gets a train set for Christmas he’ll be happy for the rest of his life and if he doesn’t nothing will console him.

So the work we must do as adults, in untangling all the threads of our tangled lives and emotions, the work is to take each piece and deal with it as it is, knowing that no one magical act can transform everything, knowing that there is no magic fix, but that if we patiently perform the painstaking operation of untangling each thread, we will make progress, and we will find increasing calm and order and hope. So we have to do the hard work of deciding which strings we are going to untangle first and which can wait and which ones we are just going to let go of.

Some strands we just leave tangled. It isn’t worth it. It may be appealing to perform one dramatic gesture that sums up the whole of our voluminous complaints and past injuries and imagine that if only we did this one thing, we would be in the clear. But that’s not how it works.

It’s too bad. I generally want to fix everything right away. That’s my nature. Believe me, it has not been easy to learn new ways of thinking. But I have, to some extent, and I think you can, too.

So there’s two parts to my suggestion. One, I’m serious about doing the ritual, to get to an emotional peace with this event. And then the other part involves practical action, because crazy as it is you apparently did incur this debt and it’s good to do what you can to repay such things and to prevent their becoming a burden on your children or husband, in the case of your death.

And then, do me a favor? Just try to enjoy your life? You’ve been through enough. Find some time to relax and enjoy your life. Don’t let this thing hang over you. Say goodbye to it. Bury it. Burn it. Let it go.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My sister’s engaged to a jerk

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Do I boycott the wedding?

 Cary’s classic column from  TUESDAY, DEC 28, 2010

Dear Cary,

My sister, who is 34 to my 30, has been dating a man in his early 40s on and off for the past 10 years. To give you some background on his character, when she first met him, he was in his early 30s and dating a 17-year-old girl (statutory rape where we come from). My sister began dating him shortly thereafter. Over the years he has cheated on her, dumped her because he felt she was socially inferior to him, and been caught in many, many lies. He has a child with another woman that he has completely abandoned. He has worn — in public and in photos online — vintage war pieces that are emblazoned with swastikas (he states that he is a war enthusiast and not a Nazi, but I and others have heard him make racist comments before). He was and currently is a teacher and has been accused by at least one female student of inappropriate sexual conduct.

For all of these reasons, he and my sister have broken up several times, sometimes for a year or longer, but they always end up back together. Each time they break up, my sister inundates our family with the kind of information about him I’ve mentioned above, yet when they get back together, little explanation is given and we are all expected to just accept him back with open arms. I have complied with this expectation three times now, but I reached my breaking point two years ago after they’d separated for a year and then got back together. This was after he was accused of sexual misconduct with his student. I asked many times and no explanation was given for her forgiveness of him, other than that the student had made the whole thing up. Given his track record, I am not willing to accept that.

For two years, I have asked that he be kept away from me. The other members of our family have made their peace with him and accepted him back into their lives, but I’m the lone holdout. Holidays and other family gatherings are awkward as we work in “shifts” — my husband and I spend the morning at my parents’ house and in the afternoon we leave so my sister’s boyfriend can come over. Well, now things have changed. Over Thanksgiving they got engaged. No one in my family told me (I live in a different city now) and I read about it on Facebook the next day. I am now faced with a choice of accepting this person — my sister’s future husband — back into my life so that I can be involved in their wedding, or of continuing to maintain my distance from him, thereby severing my relationship with my sister.

This situation has become polarizing and it has left me extremely depressed. I dearly miss my sister and the relationship we used to have, but this has affected us so much. She feels that I am judging her and her choices and that I do not love her “unconditionally.” She has dismissed most of the accusations that have been made against him over the years as misunderstandings. She says it is not her place to defend him to me and that if I have further questions I need to ask him. But the thought of even sitting down to have a conversation with this man makes me very uncomfortable. He is extremely intelligent and manipulative and I feel in many ways, he’s dangerous. I spent eight years getting to know him and I came to the conclusion that he’s just not a good person. My family has said that he’s changed and has been attending counseling sessions, but in my opinion if he hasn’t even admitted to the things it seems obvious he’s done, then how much can he have changed?

I am flying home for Christmas, but she wrote and said she would not be seeing me because if I do not accept him, I do not accept her. I don’t feel this is true as I love my sister very much. She is an intelligent and caring person, but for the life of me I don’t understand why she has chosen to spend her life with this man. I know I can’t choose her mate for her or tell her what to do, but I also don’t feel that I should be forced to accept someone like him into my life.

I don’t want to lose my sister over this. Should I suck it up for the sake of the family and have a discussion with him, or am I right to stand my ground?

Scared and Depressed

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Dear Scared and Depressed,

Your sister has made a choice that places her beyond your reach. The relationship you remember having with her is gone for now. It might come back but it is gone for now.

There may be many reasons for this. There may be things in her personality, or her life journey, that require her to be with this man. There may be things in her nature that blind her to his obvious flaws. You may have to accept the possibility that in her way she is just as messed up as he is.

What that means in practical terms is that you have to protect yourself. You cannot protect your sister. So you protect yourself.

That is a terrible thing to realize, that you cannot protect your sister. Yet you know it’s true. You have tried to protect your sister and she has again and again shaken off your protection and has gone to be with this man who is obviously a danger.

So in a way, you have lost your sister. That is hard to accept. Such a thing is heart-rending. Such a thing grinds away at one’s happiness. But the sooner you accept it the sooner you can begin living with it. Living with the truth is better than grinding away in fruitless battle.

Your sister gets something that she needs from this man. We don’t know what that is. We wish that she would get into therapy and discover her reasons for returning to him, and we wish that, having discovered those reasons, she would find alternatives that enrich rather than impoverish her. We wish she would find the unacknowledged needs that are driving her to make poor decisions. We can wish this. But we must also know that she is a free being, and she will make choices, and we have no power over those choices.

It’s a terrible thing, freedom. Freedom of choice is nice when people make choices we approve of, but when they make bad choices we want to yank that freedom away from them and make their choices for them. But that’s another price of freedom: People get to mess up their lives terribly all on their own, and we have to stand by and watch.

Your only reasonable choice is to keep this man out of your own life. If that means some separation from your sister, that is a necessary price.

You do not have to go to her wedding. You do not have to be a party to this. You can tell your sister what you believe and tell her why you are not participating in the wedding and let her go.

For now at least, she is lost to you.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My husband wants kids but I like things the way they are

 

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We’ve got a great life going. Let’s not spoil it.

 Cary’s classic column from  THURSDAY, APR 9, 2009

Dear Cary,

I had a great childhood, full of country walks and art projects and picture books. My parents loved each other and they loved me and my siblings. I was not, despite all this, a particularly happy child.

I have a great adult life, with a wonderful husband, a demanding but stimulating job, warm friends and a nice apartment in a leafy part of the city. I am not, despite all this, a particularly happy adult.

I don’t think this is a huge problem. I’m prone to introspection, I often find the world confusing and upsetting and at times the human race makes me despair. So I work hard, study for my doctorate in my spare time, take long walks in the fresh air, read novels, look at paintings, choose pretty clothes and love my husband. These things make life meaningful for me. Oh, I’m 38.

My husband had a troubled childhood with parents who never liked each other much and have lived separate lives for decades. He was sent away to a residential school. He was reluctant to get married because his childhood made him cynical about marriage and family. His role models were artists and musicians and he wanted an urban life of coffee bars and foreign cinema and experimental music.

We did get married and it has been wonderful. But now he says he is struggling to find meaning in his life. His old role models don’t look so good anymore. Now maybe he’d like to find a different identity. Maybe he’d like to make a proper family and undo his old cynicism. He wants to do that with me.

Cary, I never wanted to be a mother. I don’t much like children. I don’t want to give my body over to someone else. I’m scared of childbirth. I don’t want to go to mommy and baby groups. I like to read books and I need lots of sleep. I need to work, and not just for the money. I’m not a happy person and I think I might make unhappy babies. There are too many people in the world already.

He loves dogs. I also love dogs. A dog would be good. But not a baby. What should we do?

Bonnie

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Dear Bonnie,

What should you do? What you’re doing: Think it through. Discuss it. Take your time. Figure out what’s going on, what has arisen in your husband’s life to make him think maybe he wants a kid, what social pressures are at work, what unseen longings, etc. Don’t just have a kid even though you don’t want one just because maybe it might, uh, make one of you a little happier!

Studies cited in this 2008 Newsweek article as well as more recent research indicate that having children does not increase happiness. It’s, of course, a perennial topic here at Salon. You could read the book we published about this. We’ve all weighed in, ad nauseam and to our occasional embarrassment. Our conclusions, though they differ, all rest on the assumption that 1) it is a personal and complicated choice that intelligent people must make consciously and 2) um, in the end, you kind of have to trust your gut.

We all struggle mightily with this stuff, as we struggle mightily to build our new, godless, secular humanist world! This new, godless, secular humanist world has kids in it, but it also has people in it who don’t have kids and aren’t freaked out about not having kids. It has people in it who admit, OK, I’m not the happiest puppy on the block and that’s OK. I think hard about the tragic inequities in the world, etc. I am not a trivial, smiling happy person! It has people like you in it! And people like you do not have to have kids! We just have to stick together on this, because there are social pressures always at work. If you live in a nice, happy, hip neighborhood that’s suddenly full of strollers you maybe start thinking you’re a little off, a little strange, a little out of it, if you don’t have a brood.

Your husband may be having a crisis of meaning, feeling unaccountably empty, disconnected, without grounding and community, without moorings in the continuity of life. When one reaches a point like this, the idea of having kids may well spring to mind. One may look around and think that what makes other people happy will make one happy as well; one may forget that what meager happiness one has eked out so far from life has been hard-won, that the few fragile truces one has hammered out between conventional morality and one’s innermost beliefs were reached through ruthless honesty about who one really is. Well, sure, one feels exhausted. Sure, one feels that other people get all the breaks. They are the majority. We are the minority.

So stick to your guns and have faith in the kind of clear-eyed problem-solving that has worked for you so far. Do not abandon your core principles and beliefs. Rather, adjust. See how new pressures have arisen, new needs, and ask how can your current arrangement meet these new needs? How can you meet these new needs for community, rootedness, a sense of connectedness to the sacred in life, the wonder of childhood, etc.?

When we creative, non-generative folks reach a certain stage in life, we begin to look around to see how we can be of value to our community, perhaps to our country as well. We see that though we are not parents, we have much to offer the future. We try to see how we might become involved.

I suggest that your husband sit down and take stock of his life. List the things that make him happy. You say he wanted an urban life of foreign cinema and coffee bars. Does he have that? Why is he discontented? How involved is he in this urban life of foreign cinema and coffee bars? Is he directly involved with a creative life or is he an onlooker? The greatest satisfaction seems to come from doing, not observing. If he feels restless and disconnected perhaps he needs to embark on a creative project in which he is deeply, personally involved. Perhaps he needs to be of service to his community. There are so many ways that we secular urban folks can meet our needs for connectedness through unconventional means! We start urban gardens! We organize against injustice! We create public art! We amuse ourselves together! We go to the movies! The dream of happy secular urban bohemianism lives on! It does not require babies!

But in and of itself, not having a kid will not address the deeper question. The question is how to find connection and meaning in life, how to feel more authentic and more “right” about what one is doing. How to feel, like, yeah, OK, what I’m doing is right for me, it makes sense, I’m where I belong, doing what I was meant to do. How do you find that? By doing what you’ve been doing all along, and being who you are.

Does that sound like a cop-out? I mean it sincerely.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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Will our words ever be heard again?

 

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We write and we write and we write on the Net, dispensing thoughts and advice. For what?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 4, 2009

Dear Cary,

My problem is that we have a one-day cycle in our writing, in our lives. You read our problems; then people read our problems in your column. Then people read our responses, but then the sun comes up again, and all our writing goes down on the cycle, to oblivion.

I go nuts trying to give good advice to your letter writers, and also trying to provide wisdom and info in other Salon topics. But it all washes away after a single day. Smart, thoughtful posters get their say, but raging ding-dong posters get away with their silliness, because it all starts over again every day.

I always have imagined that future historians and archaeologists will read Salon, and gain insight on our society. But, Lord Almighty, we have so many words on our World Wide Web, and so many people!

Classical civilization had fewer writers than we have now, and even fewer whose work has survived. It is possible for a person to read every single surviving written work from all of Greek and Roman literature. Now, though, yikes! Overall, we generate as many words in a day as all those surviving classical works.

So! My question: Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again? Will our best, well-meant advice ever help anybody else in the future? Will our detailed knowledge ever help anybody in the future? Or do we just get filed, permanently?

And, does it matter?

Frequent Wise Man

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Dear Frequent Wise Man,

We do not know what will be left of our culture.

I do imagine that in oral cultures a great deal of brilliant talk was made and all of it is lost. I imagine that Homer composed poems more brilliant than any that were written down, and they are lost. I imagine that throughout time seers and sages have solved the mysteries of the universe while drunk on wine or high on hallucinogens, have seen it all and tried to convey it but had no tools with which to do so, and therefore countless moments of wisdom and genius, perhaps the very keys to the universe itself, have been glimpsed and they are lost.

If you have ever had the sensation of comprehending for an instant the totality of the universe and thinking, I’ve got it! I see it! I understand! and then slinking sheepishly into the house an hour later with only the fuzziest recollection of what you have witnessed, then you can imagine how many times this has happened throughout history, how many solutions to the world’s ills, how many poems of crystalline brilliance, how many mathematical proofs, how many perfect melodies and glistening poems and fantastic, indescribable visions of universal harmony have come to our ancestors and our brothers and sisters throughout time meditating high on mountaintops or walking along dirt paths from village to village or sitting in forest shacks and caves, or journeying in ships across vast oceans or contemplating the enormous desert sky, and you can imagine the tragedy or humor implicit in this: that it all has been lost. I imagine that many who have taken psychedelics have seen, in an instant, the very core of existence, but have not had the mathematics or the physics or the poetry to convey it, and so those visions are lost. I imagine that in the pubs of Ireland poems are composed daily by farmers in their cups and they are lost by the morning. I imagine that in New Guinea seers know with utter certainty the secrets of the universe but do not trust us or do not know us or figure we wouldn’t understand anyway, and so these secrets of the universe will die with them and be lost.

At the same time, as we prattle on endlessly in our way, I imagine that software of ever-increasing subtlety will be devised to ferret out important truths from the staggering mass of words that now pile up like a digital landfill, clogging the servers of the world. I imagine that everything we have written on the Net will eventually be retrieved, sorted and priced, valued according to its originality and wit.

But does what I imagine bear any relationship to the actual future we race into as though sliding down an icy mountain? Will what we say here ever really be unearthed and used? Will there be a need for it? Are we just playing out the old fantasy of immortality, dreaming that our words will live on? And, as you say, does it matter?

I do not know, but you and I and all the rest of us go on dreaming, trying to see the order in chaos, to glimpse the perfection at the edge of madness, look for the souls of trees and hear the voices of clouds and see in each occluded heart some echo of divinity. I know that we keep on talking and writing and it goes somewhere. Perhaps in that universe that even now is spinning backward from our own, our words are coming back out of the spring air and into our mouths and back into our brains where they will lie dormant, as if never spoken, until the pre-universe universe contracts sufficiently to cause another Big Bang, and it will start all over again, and after millions of years fish will climb the rocks and grow lungs again and apes will pick up tools and invent language all over again, and again as they speak and speak they will begin to wonder, Will this ever be heard again? Will future generations benefit from all our thoughts and visions? Does any of this really matter? And again the apes will go to psychiatrists and lie on couches and fill the air with doubt and uncertainty.

So it goes. Our uncertainty and doubt extend to the infinite sky and throughout time, shrouding perfection, blurring truth, undermining what feeble faith we can muster, reminding us that we are both divine and mortal, that we live both inside time and outside time, that we are creatures of many worlds, and that we will always wonder, and always try to cheat death, and always listen for the echoes of our words in every strange town, on every strange mountain, in every strange dream that comes to us in the night.

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I want to leave my marriage but I’m afraid

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Dear Cary,

Caitlyn Jenner recently made the poignant comment that, had she not transitioned, when the time came for her to die (as a man), she would have lain on her deathbed and thought, “I have blown my entire life.” I cannot stop thinking about that; it haunts me daily. Here’s my story.

When I was in my mid-thirties, I married a man that I did not love. In my young single years, I had suffered through several relationships in which I was crazy about my man, but he always left me. I felt as if something was terribly wrong with me. Every friend I had ever had was married, as well as all my younger siblings. Then, along came John. He was smart, educated, interesting and from a good family, and most importantly, he seemed to adore me. A few weeks into our dating, he surprised me with a diamond and said he wanted to marry me, and soon. Let’s just say I was swept off my feet by the proposal, but not by the man. He was, by now, my very best friend, but I was not in the slightest sexually attracted to him. I rationalized that problem away by telling myself that nearly every married couple I knew said that the sex “goes away” after a while, so what difference did it make that I was starting out my marriage that way? I was terribly lonely and thought this man could give me a good life. I married him.

Now we have been married over 30 years and I feel every day as if I’m dying a long, slow death of my own making. We have not had sex in 15 years. We have not even kissed in that time. I am starving emotionally and sexually. I fantasize every day about other men. And here’s another deeply sad thing to me. After we had been married only about a year, I suggested that we move from our small blue-collar town to a slightly bigger and more cosmopolitan town where we could both further our careers and also have a richer cultural life. He said to me, “If you want to go there, go ahead, but you’ll be going alone.” At another time, when I tried to talk to him about going to a counselor, he told me to go alone “because it wasn’t his problem.” Oh, and also, he added that if I left him, to “never plan to come back because he wasn’t going through all that.”

Let me add, too, that in all this time he has never added my name to the deed on our house, a fact I did not realize for many years until I stumbled upon it in our files. When I told him I very much wanted to be on the deed, he said it “wasn’t necessary.”  When his parents decided to hire first one, and later another estate planning lawyer, I found out that in both instances when writing their wills, they “forgot” to provide for me, their only daughter-in-law with whom they never had a cross word.

Cary, I am now 65 years old. Maybe I could live to be 80, as my mom did. But I don’t have enough money of my own to live on. If I leave him, I’m at the mercy of the divorce judge and we don’t have a large income as it is. I think, at this point, it is the fear of being extremely poor that keeps me here. I don’t know what to do. I want out so badly, but I’m so afraid of the future. Please help me.

Overwhelmed with Regret

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Dear Overwhelmed with Regret,

It is time for you to begin the biggest journey of your life. It is time for you to begin your journey of self-discovery. There are many ways to do this. I believe one of the best ways is to find a good psychotherapist and begin a program of regular weekly meetings for at least a year. What you want in a psychotherapist is one who can take you deep into the deepest regions of your self, so you can examine the choices you have made and come to love yourself enough to forgive yourself for some of those decisions.

This journey might happen in other ways as well. It might happen as a spiritual search. It might happen as the result of a return to your church of origin, or as a program of seeking; you might also begin it by attending a 12-step group that focuses on relationship issues. The reason I think psychotherapy is so ideally suited to you, however, is that it is safe and structured and can be fit into a life without disrupting that life. It can be done privately without causing a lot of gossip.

If you were younger you might take off in a van with a bunch of hippies and live in the Arizona desert. You might go backpacking in Europe, or live on a farm or a kibbutz. But I sense that you are settled in your habits and that such radical moves might result in unacceptable controversy and conflict in your marriage. That is why I think that a program of psychotherapy with a really good psychotherapist is your best shot at regaining your sense of who you are, why you have made the choices you have made, and what kind of life you want to live from now on.

I feel the regret in your voice and it saddens me but also fills me with righteous anger and hope, for I know that regret can be washed away. I know this. I know that when we can cobble together enough self-love and self-understanding, we can see our former selves with compassion. We can understand why we did the things we did, and we can forgive ourselves.

I hope you can let go of this regret and learn to see your life as the life you were meant to have. In fact, I feel this strongly! I feel it is urgent! I feel that you must find a way to do this, to change how you are seeing your life!

Psychotherapy is hard work. It is hard work to undo habits of thinking. It is hard work to feel grief for missed opportunities, and to face searing emotions that have been buried. But it is also joyous work, to feel for the first time in years that vibrant self you once knew. It is joyous work to replace regret with compassion, to replace resentment with acceptance, to replace baffled hurt with understanding.

You can do this. You can learn a new vocabulary so that you can speak of your past decisions as ones that made sense for who you are, or who you were at the time. This new vocabulary will talk about “meeting needs.” You had certain needs at the time, needs for companionship and security, needs to feel accepted by your family, and you did the things that would meet those needs. You did these things while thinking rationally. You made decisions that made sense at the time. You made these decisions while acting in a powerful nexus of family and society, of beliefs both spoken and unspoken, to meet needs and expectations both spoken and unspoken. For instance, at the time, it seemed reasonable to you that if sex went away eventually in a marriage, perhaps it would not be that important. This is not such a crazy idea. Other things were more important to you. You needed to be in a relationship with a man. You found a man and you decided to begin that relationship.

As it turned out, there were dead spots in the relationship; there were areas in which your husband was terse and adamant and uncompromising. These were political as well as personal matters, but you were not in a position to take them up in a political sense, so they remained simply personal matters, matters settled within the silent crucible of a cold marriage.

You lived through all that. You deal with it. You endured. You have lived a long time now, and you are a different person. Different things are important to you. So it is time to begin your life’s journey of self-discovery. You don’t need to leave your husband to do this. You can do it while married. You don’t need to try to fix your marriage. You don’t need to get your husband’s OK. You don’t need to even concern him with the things that you learn in therapy.

All you need to do is to begin, on your own, your journey of self-discovery.

The self has a language. It is not a language spoken publicly. It is spoken in private. It is a language of needs and fears, of hidden motives. This is the language that is unearthed in psychotherapy; it is the language you have been speaking all along to yourself, but when you begin speaking this language of the self aloud to a person whom you trust, this self, this self that has been buried and neglected, this self that you fear dying without unfolding, this self comes alive and will rescue you.

The true you is there, waiting to be invited out. This is what you can do in psychotherapy. You can learn to speak the language of the self and then invite your self out. This will be an immense relief.

Here is what I think about such dramatic changes as the one in which Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. I would say that although it made worldwide headlines, it was a completely private matter. Since he was a famous person, when he changed sex naturally it became a matter of public interest. But the important distinction I would make is that it was a private matter of the soul, or true self; what Caitlyn did was rescue her self, her true self, and this was a private matter. Other people undergo similar transformations; though they are not so visible, they are equally dramatic, subjectively.

You, too, can rescue your self, your true self. It does not have to be done in the tabloids. Nor does it have to be done as a divorced woman. To do this work, it really does not matter if you stay married or do not stay married. In the course of this journey, it may become clear that you have to get a divorce. Or it may become clear that you can remain married to this man and find your own happiness, a separate happiness.

The important thing is to embark on the great journey of your life, the journey of self-discovery.

I wish you luck on your journey. You will perhaps meet some of us on the way, some of us who are also on such journeys, in various guises, in various vehicles, on various roads, with various destinations.

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