Category Archives: Advice Column

Advice Columns Only

NewHeader5

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

TuscanFoodAd_2016

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.

FranceAd_2016

NewHeader5

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

FranceAd_2016

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

NewHeader5

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.

NewHeader5

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

FranceAd_2016

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

NewHeader5

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

FranceAd_2016

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.

NewHeader5

My brother left his girlfriend with a 5-month-old baby

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 30, 2007

They thought the baby would fix things, but he didn’t, so the dad split. Does that mean he’s no good?


Dear Cary,

Early this year, one of the greatest bright spots in my life occurred: I became an uncle. After 10 years of bleak family moments, we all finally had a moment of renewal. My older brother called me (I’m an expat and haven’t actually seen the munchkin) ’round about 4 a.m. EST: “God, he’s beautiful.”

Four months later my brother split with my sister-in-law. They were effectively, though never officially, married — 15 years together, since high school. OK bro, you had a son and split with your girl four months later. As he put it to me on the phone, “There’s no way people aren’t going to think I’m an asshole.” Right: People are going to think you’re an asshole. And the thing is, Cary, I sort of think he’s an asshole too, and I’m wondering whether I should.

To be clear, there was no plan on my brother’s part to run when a child appeared, and he’s determined to be there in general. He loves his boy and loves the woman in question, but is no longer in love. The breakup was apparently mutually agreed upon and (more or less) without rancor. They went through what I suspect is very common: There were problems in the relationship and when the pregnancy occurred, they thought a baby would solve those problems. They didn’t plan it, but neither of them agrees with abortion, and they thought, “Well, this will bring us closer together.” It didn’t work, apparently — the baby made it more clear that they were not compatible.

Fine.

But my brother is leaving this woman with a 5-month-old child. Having never actually had a sister, she’s the only person I’ll call sister. She’s intelligent, attractive and a good time out. I love her dearly. But now she’s an early-30s single mom and her life prospects just took a serious nosedive — because of my brother.

A central principle of modern Western life is that you ought to do what you think is self-sensible in relationships. Be yourself, right? “Staying together for the kids” is not sensible — for you or for the kids. But maybe sometimes you should hang in a little longer than you want to. Maybe my brother should stick in living as a family for, say, two years, if only to help the mother during the most tiresome times. Maybe sometimes, “staying together for the kids” makes a little sense.

He and I have been through a lot together — watching a father kill himself with alcohol. “I will not be that man and that includes not being trapped in a relationship I don’t want” is a guiding principle for both of us. I understand that motive and I agree that an unhappy marriage is worse than a divorce. But fuck, divorcing when you have an infant? Is my brother an asshole?

TM

Dear TM,

OK, let’s call your brother an asshole. What difference does it make what you call him? You love him, right? He’s your brother. You’ve been through a lot. You’ve probably sat up together nights worrying about your dad, and would he make it, and why’d he do what he did, and wouldn’t it have been better if he had been able to stop drinking. And there were probably times you thought this time he was really going to stop, and he got your hopes up, and then he blew it again and again until you really thought you couldn’t take it anymore, and then when you’d lost all sympathy for him he got gravely ill, and then what can you do, you can’t call a gravely ill man an asshole, so you had to have sympathy for him at the end and watch him die with a sickening blend of rage and love and helplessness, asking why did he have to die like that when there was help available, when there were people who loved him who were willing to do anything for him if he would just stop drinking.

So you and your brother are bonded in the deepest possible way by watching your father drink himself to death. And as brothers I imagine you cut each other a lot of slack, because you both know the deep wounds that that event left in you. And you are both committed to not making the same mistake your dad made, and to not being victims, and to not being unhappy. And all that makes sense. And none of us can judge what kind of personal hell your brother lives in as a result of trying to be a good man but being prone to the demons just like your dad was and maybe just like you are as well. We’ve all got demons and we do the best we can and sometimes we really fuck up and we’re assholes. And who can know what we’re going through, how hard it is, how many times we’ve pounded the wall with our fist or buried our face in a pillow at night. He’s your brother, so you also know he didn’t do this to harm people. He’s your brother, so you may know that he’s selfish and has trouble seeing the big picture, and maybe he doesn’t have such great impulse control and maybe he’s prone to fits of moodiness and helplessness and hopelessness, and maybe he’s also a bit of a dreamer and a charmer and has an outsize genius for a good time, and maybe he wants more out of life than a 9-to-5 job with healthcare and benefits like your dad had, because look what good that did, and look what good it did your mom to stay in a relationship that gave her nothing but crying time, so he’s not going to stop pulling the lever on the slot machine because you never know, a happy life has got to be possible.

So even though it’s about the dumbest, most assholic thing to do to leave your lover with an infant child after 15 years of implied common-law till-death-do-us-part, that’s what he did, knowing full well he’d be called an asshole for it. So let’s go ahead and call him an asshole and get that over with because there’s work to be done. There’s a kid who doesn’t know about any of this; he just knows he’s alive and he’s hungry and he needs to know that the world isn’t going to come crashing down around his head every 15 minutes when another of the “adults” around him gets it into his head to seek his bliss in Idaho.

So what do we do? And how do we do it?

Kids can grow up well under all kinds of circumstances. It’s about how you treat the kid and who the kid is. The last thing you want to do is tell this kid his dad’s an asshole. So let’s just pretend that everything we’re saying the kid is hearing. Now who is his daddy and why did he leave? He left because he had to. We don’t know why. He had to go do something really important, and he loves us and cares about us but he couldn’t live with us because he had to do something. And we love him and he’s a good man and he loves us and that’s just the way it is, because we don’t understand everything even though we’re adults and maybe it seems like we do. We don’t. We don’t really understand even how an electronic ignition works, or why sometimes you get “404? errors. We don’t know why some toys are lame and others are your favorite. We don’t know why some kids are bad and some kids are good. We don’t know much, except we love you and things are going to be OK.

Something like that. You get what I’m saying? I’m saying get real and painfully honest but don’t fill the kid’s head full of hateful garbage.

And beware of this, too: Intense disapprobation can be an intoxicant. You can get high calling people assholes, that is. You can get high and feel powerful talking trash. That’s one reason we do it. It makes us feel better. But that doesn’t make it useful or productive. Except for getting stuff off your chest and moving on. So yeah, maybe your brother is an asshole. Now help me move this crib.

Like I said, the important thing is, How can the people around this child help the child, and help the child’s mother?

One thing you could do, like you said, is urge your brother to stick around for a while in some capacity. Maybe not living in the same house with them, but nearby. Urge him to get a job and make some money and contribute to the well-being of his child and the child’s mother. And other people can help too. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. People just need to be there and help out. And your brother can leave his new girlfriend at home when he visits, and if he doesn’t have enough sense to do that on his own, you can tell him, gently, that he’s being an asshole again, and to leave the girlfriend at home. And when he comes over he can bring something for the boy. And the boy’s mom can welcome him as if he’s someone she likes, not as if he’s the shit-head asshole who left his infant child for reasons typically unfathomable and unforgivable.

I mean, we’re going to have these rotten thoughts when people do rotten things. But we’re going to try to do what’s right anyway. We’re going to try to be the adults in the situation, now and for the next 20 years.

I hate the rich! (But I need them for my business)

LISTEN! THIS ALL-NEW COLUMN IS NOW  AVAILABLE AS A PODCAST ON SOUNDCLOUD!

CaryPodcastRedBorder

Dear Cary,
 
My problem is that I hate rich people. I hate them but I am surrounded by them and have to get along with them. In fact I – and my future success –  depend on them.  But I despise them.

The worst part is, I hate them and yet, I sort of want to be one of them, at least financially.
 
I’m starting my own business.  I just celebrated the one-year mark.  Running your own business is hard.  I shed tears weekly, and lately, as things have become tighter, daily. 
 
My shop is in a wealthy neighborhood in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Every day wealthy people come into my store.  Their expectations are incredible – they want free samples, and never just one – they want multiple samples for their multiple children because little Monticello and Ariel may get in a fight if they have to share. Then of course both kids throw their samples on the floor because my product is clearly one only adults are going to like, something their rich-bitch mom should have realized before she asked for separate samples.
 
I hate the overly nice way they talk, I hate the self-congratulatory niceness.  “Oh thank you so much,” they say when you give their brats a sample.  “Kids, What do you say?” they demand sweetly. And I am forced to stand there with a smile plastered on my face while these kids look at me with knowing eyes and indifferently drop their samples on the floor and ignore their mother’s cajoling “Say thank you, Monty, can’t you say thank you to the nice lady?”  

You can always tell when a kid has a rich parent, because that’s the kid who puts his hands all over the glass display cases, attempts multiple times to touch the product, and picks up anything that isn’t nailed down.  I find myself flying around trying to stop them from destroying anything while waiting on the other rich customers who look annoyed that I am not giving them my full attention. Usually at this point I just want to yell “Fuck all y’all!” and close up shop for the day. But I need their sales, so I don’t.
 
The worst part is when people pretend to be nice and show an interest, because it’s a shallow niceness and a shallow interest that doesn’t have anything to do with actually caring or wanting to help.  I’ve never been one to wish for other people’s stuff but when I think of all the security these women have, and they ask me in their never-been-rushed voices, “Oh, how did you ever decide to come up with this business? One year is so awesome! Good luck to you!”

I don’t need their luck or their niceness – I need their money! I need them to either buy the damn product they want to endlessly sample and photograph for social media, or invest in the business they call their “weekly addiction.”   
 
Why do so many of them think I want to hear about their vacations? “Oh we’re going to be in France for three weeks!” and “We’ll be in Spain the entire summer.”  They yak endlessly about their kids’ private schools and even tell me how much it cost. So there I am, pursuing some 5-year-old brat with three samples clutched in his hand, knowing that he is attending a $30,000-a-year preschool (this is not an exaggeration, this is an actual FACT), knowing that when his mom leaves the store, it will likely be without a purchase:  How am I supposed to not scream and go crazy?
 
Most of them don’t work, but sit on the boards of nonprofits and plan charitable events where they ask everyone to donate goods and time so they can pat themselves on the back for raising huge amounts of money.  A particularly influential woman who has talked about investing in my business for a long time now came to me with an “opportunity” – she wanted me to provide her with free product for an event because it would be “great exposure.” 
 
At first I agreed, thinking I was just providing her with a couple of hundred units.  But then she asked for them to be individually packaged, and delivered at a special time.  This opportunity for “exposure” ended up costing me about $2,000 that I do not have to spare, and of course I did not get a single order out of it, or even a phone call, though lots of people exclaimed to me how great my product is. 
 
Meanwhile the woman I provided all the free stuff to has an actual Renoir hanging on her wall.  A real one, not a print. She can write a check for the entire 200 units – heck she can write a check to the nonprofit and enable all the renovation they so badly need with just a swipe of her pen.

But instead she is creating this huge event where tons of rich people will get together and pay $500 per plate for fancy food and my fancy product and they will pat themselves on the back for how generous and good they are, when in fact they are just spending exorbitant amounts of money on a fancy meal prepared just for them by a five-star chef.  There isn’t really any generosity in this act of eating an overpriced meal, but you’d think the organizer was goddam Mother Teresa  listening to her complain about how hard it is to raise all of this money from her super wealthy friends.
 
Cary, I work 75 to 100 hours a week.  I can barely look these women in the eye sometimes, I find myself resenting them so much. They ask me how my business is going and I tell them great, because I have no desire to tell them about the hard work and the anxiety of not getting paid for more than a year, and being responsible for the paycheck of so many other people, and managing the taxes and the utility costs that I discover are 4 times higher than the average, so I have to call PG&E to address the issue … they will never understand. They are constitutionally incapable of understanding.
 
I need a way to manage my feelings around these women (it’s men sometimes too, but mostly women). I can’t burn up with hatred every time I hear their soft, slow, super-polite accents! I don’t want to roll my eyes – not outwardly and not inwardly – when they dicker for discounts.  I don’t want to hate their children.   I just want to join their ranks, for the security, yes, but also to do actual good with actual money, once I have some.

How do I keep my sanity while I try to keep my business, by keeping people I hate as customers?

Not Rich Yet

Dear Not Rich Yet,

You’re going to hate what I say, so I’ll just say it and get it over with:

You need to befriend these women. You cannot run this business and live a happy life with this resentment eating you up.

You must befriend some of these thin, miserable women with their thin, miserable lives of privilege. You must conjure out of your vast reservoir of compassion some compassion for these poor, thin people whose poverty is hidden behind a veil of pearls. They deserve your pity and compassion, not your contempt.  Do you honestly think anyone would live such brittle little lives of hollow-eyed pretense and lip-glossed lies if they actually knew any other way to be in the world, knew anything of dignity, of serenity?  Don’t you think they long for connection in their cold, rattling, second-run Ionesco lives of wine-upmanship and crooked mah-jong?

I don’t even know what crooked mah-jong is.

Seriously, the rich are terrible, terrible people but they suffer just like you and me — well, maybe not just like you and me; they have better mayonnaise. But what do they dream at night? They dream of naked clowns pulling out  all their teeth!

Right? It’s not just me, right?

In pure business terms, they are your bison. You have to know what spooks them and what attracts them or one day you will wake up and all the bison have walked away.

Or to be more prosaic: Your market is a thin slice of the American elite. You could try to find a different market but this is the market you’ve got so you need to get closer to it. Otherwise, they will walk away. And believe me, they can afford to. The sickening thing is the power imbalance. They don’t need you and they don’t need me. They can walk away and there’s nothing you or I can do. All we can do is lay out sugar cubes and hope they acclimate.

OK, sure, there are some of these women that you just cannot, as a matter of physics, get next to. I understand that. But I know in my heart there are also a few that are different, and you have to make an effort to befriend them.

Though they don’t look like it, these women actually are human beings. They may be thin, blonde and incredibly wealthy but inside they are just frightened children who have been hurt on the playground just like you and me and who have run crying to their mama just like you and me. Their mama may have had a nanny and a chef to deal with the trauma but still that only made it just a little bit worse in the end, because now they’ve got attachment disorders.

They have fears just like you and me. They care about their children. Sure, they show it differently–by buying small islands with tennis courts–but they care, and they care about the world, too — that thin, gleaming, incredibly good-smelling slice of it with which they are familiar.

So psyche yourself up and start befriending your market.

But how can you safely cross the retail curtain? How can you  leap over that counter and collar them before they rush off to their nonprofit board meetings and spa treatments?

OK, here is what you do. First just observe. That is always the first step in any such perilous operation. Observe the women who come into the store and pay attention to how you feel about them. Sure, there are the bitches. But they can’t all be bitches. There isn’t enough bitchiness in the bitchquifer for them all to be bitches. (“Bitchquifer: The subterranean layer of porous rock where five-sevenths of the earth’s bitchiness is stored.”)

Observe carefully. You will see at least one woman who is rich but different. That’s the one you need to cull from the herd.  She’s rich but she’s also brassy or sarcastic or unbelievably relaxed and nice. She’s interesting in some way. There is something about her. Even though she drives one of those cars that euros fly out of at high speeds and she’s pushing a stroller that looks like what Beyoncé arrived at the MTV Awards in, something  tells you she is an outsider.  Maybe she is Southern. Maybe she is working class. Not all rich women were born rich. Some just got hit over the head with it.

Approach her. Ask her name. Tell her you hate all the rich bitches who give you a hard time. Tell her you’d like to slap their kids and give them enemas. OK, don’t say that. But be yourself. Be genuine. Share. Give her extra freebies. Tell her you like her. Ask her to come by again when she has more time to chat. Friend her on Facebook. Learn her kids’ names.

You know how to do all this. You’ve done it before, only with people you like. It’s the same thing.  You just have to do it before you know if you actually like the person.

It’s not lying. It’s sociological jujitsu. You are in charge here. It is, in part, a seduction.

Once you have gotten to know this customer, close the shop for 20 minutes so you and she can go out for coffee (no, it is not against the law in America to close your shop for 20 minutes and grab a cup of coffee). Learn as much as you can about her. Eventually you will talk about money. There will be a sign. She doesn’t have to tell you how much she has but somehow you will end up talking about money. Ask who her broker is.

You are in business! What else is there to talk about? It’s the American way!

This will get easier after you’ve done it once. That’s what all the prostitutes say.

Make it a practice with your other customers. Get below the surface. Engage them. If money is the elephant in the room, then talk about the elephant. Over time, doing this will not only change your attitude but it will help the business.

Some of these women will be interested in writing. Perhaps you can start a writing group with them. After all, Virginia Woolf didn’t just say you need a room of your own. She said you need a room of your own and money.

(p.s. Can you just imagine the kinds of things these women would write about? Can you just imagine?)

NewHeader5

He’s a pig!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 14, 2003

I love the man I live with, but he is completely lacking in table etiquette. I can even hear him chew!


Dear Cary,

I don’t even know if this qualifies as a “real problem,” but since I started reading your column way back when you took over for Mr. Blue, I’ve read some pretty wacky stuff, so here goes:

I am in a relationship with a man for whom I care very deeply. We’re in our mid-40s, have been together over four years, both have kids, (his are older and living in another town), and we moved in together last fall. So far, so good. We are adjusting to the schedule differences and quirks that couples go through when they live together. The “problem”? His table manners are atrocious! I find myself on Manners Patrol during each meal, ostensibly directed toward my children, but actually, they have better manners than he. He sits with his body very close to his plate and shovels the food into his mouth. The arm he’s not using is draped on the table, fingers are used to push food onto the fork. And the worst part? I can hear him chew! I actually got up from the table last night and moved to another chair. And the final gross-out: He licked his fork clean and attempted to get another serving of mayonnaise for his artichoke directly from the jar. I yelled at him to stop, and he acted like I shot his dog.

He has so many other attributes that are wonderful, but I’m really bothered by this. Is this is a control thing? Do you have any thought on how to get my point across without him thinking I’m busting his balls?

Ball-Busting Miss Manners

FranceAd_2016

Dear Ball-Buster,

I did have a thought or two. But I thought I’d ask my wife first. So I went upstairs just now — this is before coffee or anything — and after marveling at the way the 85-pound poodle was sitting upright on the edge of the unmade bed as if checking her makeup in the mirror, I said — to my wife, not the dog — “What would you do if I had terrible table manners?”

“I’d leave you,” she said.

So evidently your concern is not trivial. I do often encourage my wife to say the first thing that pops into her head, because, I suppose, I am some sort of perverse thrill-seeker. But she thinks things through afterward and comes up with mitigating, contradictory, mutually exclusive and sometimes seemingly irrelevant codicils. So then she said, “Well, actually, I’d train you.”

Some people need training. Your boyfriend is apparently one of them. Training an intimate is tricky. But it can be done. So far, what you seem to have done is first flee the problem by moving to another chair, and then attack him for it, by yelling at him to stop. Neither of those is likely to be very effective. They are the two extremes of the fight-or-flight impulses we used to hear about so much back when stress was considered the biggest problem facing America today. What you must learn to do instead is steer right between those two impulses. Rather than fighting or flighting, rather than shooting your boyfriend’s dog or moving into a tent in the back yard, you need to place your hands in you lap and say mildly, “If you stick your fork in the mayonnaise jar again, sweetheart, I’m going to stab your hand with a steak knife.” You can even do this in public, with one of those stagey smiles you use when you know you’re being watched by federal agents.

I’m kind of kidding around, aren’t I? Well, yes and no. The point is that you are not crazy or silly for thinking that it matters. It does matter. Everyone I talked to said that hearing the sound of someone chew, or seeing someone hunched simian-like over a plate of victuals was viscerally disturbing. While certain finer points of table etiquette may be a matter of class, once you have been taught to be sensitive to them, you cannot simply undo your conditioning. And he really ought to be given the opportunity to learn. So if you are in doubt, let me say this: I believe it is your right — nay, your responsibility! — to mold this howling, savage brute into the kind of suave, debonair stud you could hose down and take to KFC, or even to the Olive Garden, with pride.

The thing is, you have to learn some new behaviors too. As you might say to one of your children, Do you hear anyone else yelling at their boyfriend? All right, then. Use your indoor voice. Rather than barking at him or avoiding him, give him regular gentle reminders and corrections. If he resists, keep at it. He may at first think you’re busting his balls, but he’ll realize, after a while, you’re actually polishing his stones.

This will take time. You will need a program of long-term engagement. But if engagement is what you have in mind, such a course of instruction should fit nicely with the rest of your plans.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

NewHeader5

My life is a failure

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 27, 2005

Like a man waking up from a coma, I suddenly realize in my 40s: My life is a sad, painful, ugly ordeal!

Dear Cary,

This past year has been pretty painful. I feel that I have lived a failed life. About a year ago it was like I woke up from a long coma and for the first time clearly saw my life for what it has been. I started looking back on what I wanted when I was 14 or 15 and what I thought my life would be, and it was like a jolt from wherever that I had not achieved the things I wanted the most in my life.

Due to a variety of family problems, personal problems, illnesses, stupid mistakes, bad relationships and just plain bad luck that I don’t want to detail here, my life has been a sad, painful, ugly ordeal. Therapy and medication only helped me so much. Most of my problems were in the social and emotional areas. I just didn’t get the development and life experiences that most people get. A painful childhood led to an even more painful adolescence. I had a brief respite when I was around 14 or 15, but I wasn’t able to completely get over the obstacles.

I also wasn’t able to help my younger siblings avoid the same problems and pitfalls I faced. It was a nightmare watching them go through the same things. I had also hoped to have a family of my own, but I was not able to overcome my social problems to do that.

I have done OK in some areas. With some difficulty I was able to go to college, hold jobs, and maintain my own home. I am surviving, and there are things in my life I enjoy, but I also know I will never be completely well and normal and feel whole.

Going back over my life, I have been seeing very clearly how this problem led to that problem, this mistake led to that mistake, etc. I know part of it is probably my age; I am in my 40s, a time when you look back. But am I also going through the grieving process for the things I have lost in life? The pain has been acute. I don’t think therapy will help. You can’t go back 20 or 30 years and change things.

Lost Dreams

TuscanAd_March2016

Dear Lost Dreams,

No, I don’t suppose you can go back and change things in the past. But if you are willing to seek a happier life, your analysis of your past behavior could prove a starting point for changing things in the present. Perhaps you can identify ways you might do things differently today. The question is, how, in practical terms, do you accomplish that? How do you apply your insights? How do you translate them into behaviors? What concrete actions can you take to put into effect these insights you have gained? And also, what might stop you? What lies between your insights and their application, between theory and practice? What further, perhaps hidden, personality traits or beliefs might work to stop you from changing your life, in spite of all you now know?

This would be a great time to put down on paper specifically what actions you might take today to change your life. Since you have not provided specifics, I can’t know what those things might be. But one of them might be that, in the very beginning, you will first refuse to rule out anything. That would, I think, include the refusal to rule out further psychotherapy. But it would not be a prescription for it, either.

It would be nice if there were specifics to work with. But at least the refusal to rule anything out leaves you the widest selection of options. Let’s play a little game with that, just to be sure it’s clear what we’re talking about. For instance, if it turns out that you need to run for president in order to have a happier life, will you be willing to do that? What if you have to stop eating asparagus? Meatballs? Tuna? What if it turns out that you need to get up at the same time every day and to exercise three times a week on strength equipment? What if you have to give up coffee? Will it make any difference to you what you need to do? What you need to do might seem surprising; it might not make sense; it might offend your sense of who you are and what you know. I’m suggesting that you be prepared for that.

Your ruling out certain possibilities may be a protective device. But what further is there to protect yourself from? You have already suffered deeply in the failure to become what you desperately want to become. So I would abandon all caveats at this point. I would abandon everything. I would continue walking into whatever crazy flames you’re in. I’m one of those people who believe that deep change comes through difficult surrender, surrender of protection, surrender of the sense of knowing what we’re doing; I believe in shamanistic transformation through trial and madness. It sounds to me as though you have come very close to a painful madness of truth; you have seen the tragic dimensions of your life. Many, many people never get this far. You, in your comprehension of your own failure, have gained a valuable bit of wisdom. To have fully grasped the way our dreams don’t pan out, the way the water always rises around us, to be standing now, in your 40s, waist deep in the flood asking the most fundamental, searing questions about life — you are very close to some kind of transformation anyway. So please do not give up. Please do not foreclose on any option available to you.

While you have taken brave and difficult measures to discover the reasons for your unhappiness, you may also have boxed yourself in by limiting the kinds resources that you believe might get you over the top. When you say, “I don’t think therapy will help,” you may be right; but it also sounds a like a prophetic proclamation without much practical meaning; you may be doing what a lot of us might do in a similar circumstance — to attempt a kind of preemptive walling-off of further emotional or spiritual discovery. Because, of course, the whole thing can be quite painful. If you just mean that you don’t think much pointless psychobabble about the past is likely to help, I would agree. If you should get into therapy and find it’s pointless psychobabble, please have the courage to follow your instincts.

But, having had these difficult insights about your life, and being left with many practical questions about how to put them into practice, you might benefit from some concrete assistance making specific present-day changes in your behavior. You will have to seek the relevant know-how to make those changes. Whether that know-how is in the hands of psychotherapists or economists or general contractors or plumbers or hypnotherapists or Buddhist monks I have no way of knowing. All I know is that most big projects require some kind of help.

So rather than tell you what I think you need to do, I will just plead with you to keep going, to hang in there, to find a way to apply your insights to your current life. Whatever is of use to you, use it. Whatever is of no use to you, let it go. But keep going, keep struggling to understand your life, and don’t rule anything out.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

NewHeader5

My brother is no good, and I’ve had enough!

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 30, 2007

He’s in and out of jail, he hardly works, and he always gets thrown out of where he’s staying.


Dear Cary,

I need some advice. I have a 30-year-old brother who has been in and out of jail and constantly needs my help. My mother and father are divorced and are alcoholics and cannot help him at all.

I have built a life with my husband and two kids. My brother constantly needs help with money and he only works two hours a day because his job has now cut his hours. He lies all the time — I don’t even know what to believe anymore. He is constantly moving because he has no money to pay rent so he gets kicked out.

He is living with my aunt at this time and has ruined that because they are going to kick him out soon. For some reason I always help him. I am even paying for a rental car for him at this time. I feel responsible to help him but it’s killing me. My husband is always upset at me and I constantly have anxiety due to his problems.

Please help, what can I do.

Fed Up

FranceAd_2016

Dear Fed Up,

What you have to do is sit your brother down and tell him that what he’s doing is no longer tolerable to you, and that you are cutting him out of your life. Tell him that you will no longer take his phone calls, or welcome him into your home, or pay his bills, or lend him money or help him in any way.

This might be done in a group, or it might be done privately, depending on many factors, including whether he is a physical threat. It might be done with the help of a counselor or facilitator. You may want strong, capable persons in the room so that he cannot threaten you physically. Or you may want to ask your police or sheriff for a “civil standby.” Often used where property must be recovered by one party in a dispute — say, a husband has been kicked out of the house and wants his clothes back — it might be available to you in this case, if it’s something you feel is necessary.

However you arrange it, you have to tell him that this situation is over.

If you think he has mental problems or if you know of someone in the community that can help him, do not hesitate to give him information about the help that is available to him. And be willing to speak to others who you think might be able to help him — for instance, if he needs job training, or education, or therapy. But beware of making promises that if he does such and such, all will be fine. If you want to put conditions on him, make them concrete and make sure they are things that would really make a difference for you. Don’t sell yourself short, that is. Don’t make it easy on him. For instance, if he has a drug problem, then maybe you say he has to demonstrate that he has been clean for one year, or, if drugs are not his problem, he has to demonstrate that he can hold a regular job and pay his own rent for one year. If there are conditions, make them tough.

You know what you want to see. You want to see him living up to his word, working hard, caring for himself, paying his own way, being dependable and truthful. But he may be skilled at fooling people. He may do well in the short term, but you will still be walking on eggshells, wondering if he’s fooling you and if he can make it long-term.

The bottom line is, just tell him the truth. If you don’t know what it will take for him to get back in your life, tell him that. It’s enough that you’re honest with your brother, painful as it may be for everyone.

There are many ways this can be done, but the essentials are the same: A difficult, painful but necessary message has to be conveyed to someone who doesn’t really want to hear it, is not completely trustworthy or predictable, and whose reactions may be extreme and unpleasant.

After that, you just have to stick to it.

Good luck.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up