Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 7, 2004
I’m a healthy 26-year-old man and I’ve never had sex. Should I tell my girlfriend?
I’m a healthy 26-year-old male, normal in most ways physiologically and mentally. As far as I can tell, I’m a funny, bright guy people tend to gravitate toward, and I’m as sociable and interactive as anyone. I’ve never been especially big on the so-called dating scene, but I’ve kept in contact with it enough to not qualify as a complete leper.
I’ve recently begun seeing a beautiful girl (it’s been a couple of years since I dated anyone) who has been very interested in me for some time (which I of course didn’t notice for the longest time), and we’ve had a good time together, equal parts romance and intellect and all those late-night chats where you slowly fill in the gaps. I’m not a very “experienced” romantic, but I gather that she is, yet things have been incredibly fluid and comfortable. We have a good ability to be open and honest around each other, but I have run into a bit of a problem when it comes to telling her something that I assume is pretty unusual for a man of 26: I’ve never had sex. Not even anything remotely close to it. I’ve often joked about my adherence to celibacy, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the time for joking is done.
This springs from various aspects of my life involving a healthy (read: “non-rigid, non-fanatic”) dose of Protestantism (if you believe that can be healthy) and a not-so-good amount of insecurity. For whatever reason, I’ve avoided this like the plague, so I won’t merely blame any dogmatic hindrances. My singularity was brought into stark contrast in my eyes (not really for the first time) when I read a film review by the always interesting and divisive Charles Taylor who mentioned some phrase about “creepy abstinence teens.” Think of how creepy it would be for a girl who finds that she’s really into a “creepy abstinence late-twenty-something,” I find myself thinking.
I naively believe that if she cares for me she would be able to handle such an idea, but I’m guessing it would be unfair of me not to tell her at the outset (and she’d obviously figure it out soon enough anyway, or read it as a complete lack of interest), and since this is a huge part of relationships (I do realize this, believe it or not), I guess it would be even more unfair to expect her to stick with me if I felt I couldn’t bend my rules (which I’m still not sure about). And to be honest, the whole abstinence thing is driving me a bit mad.
OK, I’ve left you a mess. Please offer any thoughts you have.
The Creepy Celibate
I think you should tell her. I don’t see any other honest, reasonable, loving thing to do. That is what you want to be, right — honest, reasonable, loving?
Why is it naive to believe that if she cares for you she can handle it? On the contrary, it seems quite reasonable to believe that if she cares for you she could handle it. In fact, telling her such a thing has much to recommend it. It is far less troubling a revelation than many other things one might feel compelled to reveal to a woman one is interested in. For instance, what if you had slept with her sister, or had beat up her brother in elementary school? What if you had a criminal record, or a bad case of herpes? What if you had told her some lie that you now had to retract? Those would reflect poorly on your character and give her genuine pause. Having chosen not to have sex before marriage, it seems to me, indicates that you are a thoughtful person who will not take the act lightly.
Perhaps there are things you did not mention, however, that are truly troubling you — perhaps you are frightened and feel clumsy; you fear that you will not be a good lover, that you won’t know what to do and feel paralyzed by that fear. If you feel paralyzed, try looking at it this way: If she cares for you, she may take sheer delight in showing you the ropes.
After all, it might be a treat for a woman to make love with a man who is willing to start from scratch and learn what she alone is all about, as if she were the only woman on earth. It might be a pleasure to be with a man who does not insist that he knows everything. It’s a heady prospect when you think about it: She has the opportunity to become your entire sexual world. She need not compete in your mind with past conquests. She need not suffer your insistent moves learned on other bodies, old habits played out on her as though she were simply a stand-in for some other true love. No, if she gets you she’s going to get you completely, and she will be able to mold you into just the lover she wants. Think of that.
There’s a huge upside to this is what I’m getting at. A huge upside. Now, the downside may be that if you don’t manage the way you tell it to her, she may wonder if there isn’t some other more sinister reason for your lack of experience. So your task is to make sure she understands that this was a rational life choice that you are ready to relinquish now. Oh, that’s the other thing: You have to get ready to go for it. So get ready. Buy some condoms. Make your decision. Then find a good moment when you can take some time to talk it through, and lay it out for her.
The only thing you have to lose is your virginity.
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 25, 2009
The groom said my husband is dead to him. The bride refused my package.
A good friend of mine invited my husband and me to her destination wedding. We were thrilled to be invited as she was a bridesmaid in our wedding, however, when we saw the price for four days we realized we couldn’t go. At her bridal shower, a mutual friend had mentioned that her boyfriend couldn’t go and asked if I would go with her. My amazing husband was nice enough to agree and I went. While there, I overheard other couples talking about how cheap the trip was and how they couldn’t believe it was “such a steal.” I couldn’t help feeling hurt finding out these couples paid less than half of what I paid to go solo but it was too late. I was here now and that was that. The trip was great and the wedding was beautiful. At the end of the evening when I was saying my goodnights, her new groom said “Goodnight, and by the way, tell J he’s dead to me.” I stood on that dance floor frozen, my body numb as if physically slapped. After leaving my husband home because we couldn’t afford to go together, then finding out I paid $1,600 for myself when all of the other couples paid $1,200 together, then to hear him say my husband is dead to him because he didn’t go … I was appalled. I left the reception hall in tears. I got on the bus to the airport the next morning and completely avoided the receiving line and never said goodbye.
After she returned, I finally got the nerve to tell her how I felt. She told me I was selfish, the world revolved around me, how dare I ruin her day and that my wedding wasn’t perfect.
Needless to say the friendship is over, but I can’t help sitting here, six months later, still in shock. Should I have kept my mouth shut? Was it really not a big deal? Do friends just let this kind of stuff slide?
I recently found out she is pregnant, the holidays have come and gone, I attempted to mail her a letter and she sent it back “package refused.” I am just stunned that a friendship would end over this.
Am I a fool to think she was ever a friend in the first place or am I in the wrong?
It is not so important to assign blame. The important thing is to figure out what you want. If you want this person back in your life, it is within your power to begin a campaign to win back her friendship. Your campaign may succeed and it may not, but you can at least take action to get what you want. But first you have to make a decision: Does her friendship matter enough to you that you would devote considerable time to winning her back?
This is the issue. All that other stuff, who was right, who was wrong, whose feelings are hurt worse, who should have done what, that’s all, like, whatever. Do you want her friendship back or not? Do you even like her?
One might assume that you like her because you asked her to be your bridesmaid. But not necessarily. You might have asked her because you thought she’d fit into the dress. Or because she’s popular in your social circle. I’m not sure if you like her or not. You do not make very clear your subjective feelings about her as a person, only that you are terribly upset about what happened, as anyone would be.
It takes some work to find out what your feelings are. But it is worth it. Once you admit what you actually feel, and what is actually important to you, you are free to make decisions based on that. This frees you from the compulsion to do what you think others expect you to do, and it frees you from the compulsion to do things that are, in essence, attempts to redo the past, or color over what happened, or change what is real.
So ask yourself: Is she really important to you? Do you have shared values? During the time you have known here, have you maintained a hope that you and she would remain friends for years to come? Do you enjoy spending time with her, just the two of you? When you think of her, do you say to yourself, “I really like her”? Or is she just a person in your social circle? Does she make you feel good when you are around her? Or have you always felt a little like you were competing with her for the limelight? And what about your husband, does he like her? Does he like her new husband? What about their relationship? Is it totally dead now too?
If you want her to be your friend again, take steps to win her back. Write to her and call her. Do not let her first angry refusal stop you. She may remain angry for a while. You may have to wait significant intervals between entreaties, lest she get the feeling you are some kind of unhinged stalker. But if you keep at it, and she will talk to you, just apologize for what happened; admit that this was a regrettable incident and that you want to be friends again.
Suggest that you and she get together, just the two of you. Go out of your way to be nice to her. If she is a sympathetic person, and you are honest with her about what happened — that you felt humiliated not only because you spent too much money but because of what her husband said — then she may respond in a genuine way.
As to what the groom said, well, guys are weird. Maybe he meant something like this: “Please tell your husband that I really was hurt that he did not come, because I thought he was, like, almost my best friend, and now obviously he doesn’t care about me as much as I thought.” In certain circles, guys can’t really say things like that about other guys. Instead, all they can do is punch each other and say things like, “Tell him he’s dead to me.” That’s supposed to convey this whole nuanced set of meanings, but yes, it does fall a bit short.
So, yeah, I know it sounds really fucked up. I’m not sure if I’d want to be friends with these people. The overarching message to you is that you need to spend some time, now that you are an adult, thinking about each of your “friends,” and trying to determine which ones are actually important to you. Then take steps to salvage the friendships that really matter, and forget the rest.
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 24, 2007
I’m crazy in love with my two sisters’ five kids. I feel like helping to raise them would give my life meaning.
My younger sisters each recently had two babies apiece — two boys on one side, two girls on the other side. There’s also a fantastic 7-year-old in the mix. I have, quite frankly, fallen in love with these children.
I am not a big lover of kids in general. When I was little I never dreamt about babies. As a teen I hated baby-sitting and did office work to make extra money. I married (then divorced) a man who didn’t want kids. At 35 my biological clock has finally kicked in, but I’m unlikely to have my own; I have hormonal health issues and there is no man in the picture, nor a lucrative career, nor a healthy savings account that would make single parenting or adoption feasible.
But being with my sisters’ kids has been this amazing, heart-opening experience. They say that the love a parent has for a child is overwhelming and unconditional. I must be feeling some small portion of that. They are gorgeous, utterly imperfect, joyful, maddening little people. And they are ours — the next chapter in our family’s story. Incredible.
I understand for the first time the importance of generational history — how children represent hope for the future, and why some families really function as clans, fiercely protecting their own. I wasn’t raised with those values. I missed the value of extended family and blood connection. But now, for me, that is changing.
I had a plan, after my divorce, to get myself out of my financial hole and go teach or volunteer in Asia or maybe New Orleans. I would see more of the world (I’ve already been to five continents, but is that really enough?) and maybe help build some schools or distribute food. And then I would move out West and live on the side of a mountain and hike every day and write a novel and move in with a guy who looks like the Marlboro man. If I wanted to, I could take off in six months to a year.
But now all the babies have been born. And I find myself not really wanting to leave the East Coast because I don’t want to miss anything with these kids. When I think about being far from them, or gone for many years, my heart just breaks. And doing what I’m doing now, my single, working-gal routine, being an auntie who mails gifts and visits on long weekends seems silly and pointless too. (If I am going to work an unsatisfying 9-5er, why not live near the people I love?)
My whole career, I’ve been working for nonprofits or groups in the business of helping people and the planet. It seemed the best place to put my energy, but it has been frustrating and unsatisfying. The world seems just a sick, sad, unfixable place. I don’t feel young and idealistic anymore. I feel like circling the wagons — around my nieces and nephews.
I am thinking of moving closer to one of my sisters to be more fully a part of these kids’ lives. I would find a decent job that pays the bills, but nothing I have to devote myself to 100 percent. I would save my best energy for being part of an extended family, and find my pleasure (and challenges of course) there.
I’m wondering, is that lame? Is it lame to “opt out” of career and travel to help take care of someone else’s children? Am I avoiding growing up by refocusing on my family of origin instead of going out into the world and forming a new life and a new family? Is it selfish and insular to prioritize hanging out with my family over helping others in the world? Will I be the old spinster aunt who borrowed someone else’s life instead of having her own? Would I be vamping these children to meet my own emotional needs? Would I be stunting my own creative and spiritual development? Would I be acting out of fear? Abandoning my dreams?
It’s not like I’m considering “opting out” to have my own kids. The “mommy wars” aside, most people understand that choice. But who opts out to be an auntie? I fit a certain profile — mid-30s career gal with lots of sexual freedom and few financial obligations. Should I not be enjoying “the prime of my life”? Experiencing my freedom, climbing the career ladder, reaching my potential, traveling the world, making some art or buying some real estate? Or looking for my next man on Match.com and pricing out fertility treatments?
But if it’s really true I’m just here, in the unlikely and meaningless circumstance of being alive on a planet, doing my thing day in and day out, until I kick the bucket and am forgotten by time, then why not give the very best of myself to the people I love the most, i.e., my family? Here are five beautiful kids, to whom I am profoundly connected, who will need plenty of love and financial support to make their way in this insane world. I could devote myself to their well-being, like any good parent. Except that I’m not their parent, and they aren’t my kids.
Is that lame?
Optin’ Out Auntie
Dear Optin’ Out,
I don’t think your idea is lame at all. I think it’s courageous and decent.
Nor do I think you are avoiding growing up. I think you’re accepting who you are, how you feel and what you want. That is growing up. Growing up involves recognizing that who we really are doesn’t always fit the categories of value that we have learned through studying history and sociology.
A century ago, doing what you propose would have seemed perfectly sensible. Now, strangely enough, it seems a little daring. Now, as always, you have to decide for yourself.
I think you have largely decided already. But you are thinking it through and sharing your thoughts, trying to make sure it isn’t the wrong decision.
I think it’s great. Trust your instincts and your emotions. Accept who you are.
Must I make an argument for the utility of your decision? No, I don’t feel that I must. I am not a utilitarian. But I do think that our instincts are often powerful and wise, and that when we do what we are drawn to doing, social good sometimes comes of it. Can I prove that? No. Nor do I think we can always know what social good might come from our inclinations. For instance, we might be driven to write, or paint, or play music, not to change the world but to make ourselves happy. In the process, however, much unexpected social good might come. On the other hand, I might have an intense personal desire to rob your house. I would not argue that social good would come from that.
But do I want to really want argue about any of this? No. I just think that if you’re worried that you’re letting the world down, you can let go of that. The world is bigger than we think.
In fact, this impulse you have in no way implies that you are leaving the world or forsaking it. You are not a separate thing from the world, someone sent here to fix the world. You are a part of the world. It’s the same world telling you to do this that was telling you to do the other. Your impulse to help raise your sisters’ children is no more or less valid than your impulse to help strangers. If you were to ask where these impulses come from, I think you will find they all come from the same source: You have a burning desire, a passion, to act according to your conscience. Acting according to your conscience satisfies your sense of who you are. So keep following your passion wherever it leads you. If you feel in a few years that you are needed elsewhere, you can change yet again.
Frankly, your profile of the “mid-30s career gal” does not sound very attractive to me. Having had a taste of business life, I would think many women would find the same thing that many men have found — it kinda sucks. So why do it if you don’t have to?
Why not do what makes you happy?
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 4, 2005
I’m a middle child, abandoned by my eldest brother. Did I marry just for security?
I am the third of five children. My oldest brother, by six years, ran away from home repeatedly during his teenage years. When he finally reached adulthood he flew the coop for good. As far as I know, my parents weren’t abusive, irresponsible or neglectful. We were a typical middle-class family in a typical middle-class town. By all accounts my brother was a smart fellow. Yes, he dabbled with pot and hung out with some rough kids but nothing beyond the norm.
Twenty years later I’m a 35-year-old husband and father of two. Looking back, I believe I may have responded to the incidents involving my brother by developing an exaggerated need for acceptance based on a deep fear of inadequacy. After all, my thinking goes, if my brother wasn’t able to stand up to this world, what hope have I? Granted, this is all navel-gazing self-assessment, but it feels right to me … this week.
So here’s where it gets sticky. I think I may have gotten married simply because my wife loves me. The prospect of a doting partner seemed too good to pass up, so I didn’t. And the life we’ve created together is wonderful in many ways. She’s a fantastic mother to our miraculous children. We live a very comfortable life and spend more time together as a family than most. But I’m not sure that I love my wife. It pains me to say it. I like her very much, but I don’t miss her when she’s gone. I don’t know if this makes it any clearer, but I don’t yearn for her. And I don’t think I ever did.
Where does this leave me? I cherish my family and don’t want to lose it. Should I soldier on under the “Nothing’s Perfect” banner? I think I could be happy enough. But is happy enough … enough?
Reluctant to Run Away
It may not be necessary to your happiness to love your wife in the way you think you are supposed to. And it certainly would be foolish and cruel to announce one day that you are abandoning your family simply because you’re not sure your passion is of the correct wattage. So I think the wise and thoughtful thing to do is to delve into this absence you have discovered, to come to know its nature and its meaning.
What if it is true that you married your wife less because you loved her than because you wanted to be loved by her? That would not necessarily be some shameful revelation upon which the union and all its issue must perforce be scattered to the winds. It would be, rather, a fortunate realization — one that complements your larger sense of yourself as a middle child deeply wounded by your oldest brother’s desertion. Sometimes we seek to be desired rather than to be the desiring one because we cannot risk another idolized, idealized figure walking out on us. It would be too much. So we seek safe harbor.
I’m a middle child myself. I’m next to the youngest of five. I find comfort in the confines of compromise; I say, I’ll go if you’re going. I wait for a traffic signal before walking. But all the while — and I’m not sure if this is just me, or if this also is part of the middle child’s dilemma — I’m keenly aware of the opposite of nurture in my nature, the jealous will to extermination buried under an affable skin, the drive to excel that threatens the order. We do tend to explode, don’t we? We do so much for others and then we blow up, suddenly, when we don’t get enough in return — when our unwritten contract is violated.
So I express my crazy will to excellence as service to others. It’s safer that way. Hence, duh, big surprise that I would become the empathic writer of advice, no? — aching to dazzle and amaze, but all the while maintaining that virgin face of humble service!
Ah, the middle child deluxe!
I recognize your doubt about the intensity of your own emotions, but I wonder if it may not be so much related to your birth order itself as to your grief over your brother’s departure. Did you ever grieve his going? I mean really grieve it? Perhaps there is more feeling there than you thought. Postponement of such a thing can sort of put everything on hold, as though all our feelings were in line at the post office, waiting to be weighed, stamped and canceled. Maybe you have a lot more feeling to do yet before you can feel everything you feel for your wife. When was the last time you broke down and cried unexpectedly?
So, just to be clear: If you were to leave your wife and children, you would be not only be repeating your brother’s abandonment but also setting out on a likely fruitless journey. Whatever feelings you seek reside within you already.
You’re at a crucial point in your life. You could easily make the wrong decision. So I urge you to look at your history and understand why you’re stuck. You seem right on the verge of understanding. Somewhere close at hand, perhaps among the stifled tears over a brother’s departure, I think you will find the passion and yearning that you seem to have misplaced.
Cary’s classic column from Monday, Apr 16, 2012
We’re 4,000 miles apart. He wants me to join him but I don’t want to sit around the house
I got married about three months ago to a man I truly love and respect. We are both doctorates in the same field in the sciences. We’ve always been long distance — we met in undergrad, seven years ago, but started dating only three years ago when we were both in grad school on opposite sides of the country. He finished his degree a year ahead of me, and started his new job in a city on the East Coast.
My problem is that upon graduating, I had a very hard time finding a job in my husband’s city. I had a good offer from a city 4,000 miles away, and have come here now to work. But I wonder if it was the right thing to have done and I am still applying to jobs in husband’s city. We are both miserable, he wants me to come back and give up the job. (He can’t leave his job right now because he is in the middle of a project and has to stick around for at least another year.) He keeps telling me that I should go back and live with him, and we should face our problems together.
I would love to go back as soon as I get a job offer and I have told him so. However, he thinks I should go back even if I don’t get a job offer in his city, as we are meant to be together now and he makes enough to support us both. But I don’t think I will be happy just sitting at home. I should mention that my current job in a faraway city is far from my dream job, but it comes with very good money (about 1.5 times what he makes) and I like being busy. I love my husband very much and cry myself to sleep sometimes, but I would still take being employed and being lonely over being unemployed and being together.
Is he wrong in asking me to leave the job without an offer from his city, or am I wrong in being unwilling to leave my current job before I get an offer from his city?
If marriage is an arrangement in which the husband is in charge and the wife must obey, then of course you would have to sacrifice what you want and join him. But if marriage is a negotiated project between equals, then it’s not a matter of who is right and who is wrong but a matter of negotiation. And that is what your marriage sounds like: a modern partnership in which each partner negotiates, and in which each partner’s personality and aspirations weigh equally.
It is a partnership built on love but material considerations are not shrugged off. We know that love does not conquer all. Love conquers some, and geography conquers some. Economics conquers some, and personality conquers some.
The luxury of romantic love that remains in the modern, negotiated marriage is the recognition that feelings do have a place. They may not justify recklessness but they deserve to be heard. He wants you. He wants you there with him. That is a real feeling. It doesn’t have to be sensible. It arises from passion. It is his feeling. It is real. It is what he wants. That doesn’t mean he will get it. He must negotiate. When he asks you to leave your job and come live with him, he is asking because that is what he wants. It doesn’t have to be the smart thing or the thing that will make you happy. He can still express his wish. It does not have the force of right. It is simply how he feels. So perhaps you can give him some of what he wants. Perhaps you can visit him.
Visit him as often as you can while you work this out. Give him some of what he wants. But be vigilant in meeting your own dreams and aspirations as well.
In a word: Negotiate.
WEDNESDAY, AUG 1, 2007
Men in their 40s keep breaking up with me because they want to have a baby. How selfish.
The third relationship in a row has ended because the man I was dating suddenly decided he wants children of his own. I’m 47 and the men were about my age. All said at the start they wanted a serious, long-term relationship, then Boom! They love me but I’m too old.
I’m not alone. You’d need a statistician to count the attractive, interesting, single women of a certain age who have been dumped for breeders.
I’m not talking about a clutch of pathetic broads sitting in a bar swilling cheap white wine and whining. We all go out on our own, do things we’re interested in and keep a sense of humor about it all. But when you do all that and see the slop computer matching comes up with, and are kind and polite when your 50-year-old ex introduces you to his 27-year-old wife and their new baby, it’s safer to stay at home and watch Bette Davis movies.
I’ve never lied about my age, and unless there’s some way — that only men know about — to bend the space-time continuum, men are aging at the same rate women age. So what’s with the baby wishes? Is it a cover for fear of commitment or are they just selfish?
I’m leaning toward selfish. My theory is that men of my generation have just had everything given to them. They grew up with at-home moms who took care of them. They came of sexual age before AIDS, when women were becoming independent, sex wasn’t evil anymore and being unmarried but living together was OK, so they didn’t need to commit. They got good jobs, they had independence plus relationships, and now they want to be young again, and with a young wife and children. They can be at 50 what they might have been at 30, only with money and a convenient excuse, age, for not meeting some of the more energetic requirements of parenthood.
I’m trying not to go from anger to fury. OK, I’m already way past fury — from sadness over another breakup to despair over never finding a romantic partner. How can I keep being optimistic despite disappointment after disappointment?
Thinking Men Are Spoiled
Your theory about men is certainly interesting.
If you had a good title — some kind of “syndrome,” perhaps, like the “Combover Syndrome,” or maybe “The Pot-Bellied Peter Pan,” you could do a book. Maybe you should. It might sell.
But whether your theory is true or false you’re still a modern person in the modern world and you have to make choices and look out for yourself and not let people fuck with you.
So let us look at the simple truth. You had a series of disappointing experiences with men. You were hurt. You feel bad. You are trying not to go from anger to fury to sadness to despair. You want to keep your optimism.
I wonder why you want to keep your optimism. This optimism seems dangerous.
Why do you want to keep it? Of what value is it to you? Is it a shield from a bleaker view? Is it a bulwark against a bottomless despair?
See, I have my own suspicion that sometimes what we call optimism is more like a suicidal, willful naiveté, and that rather than shielding us from despair it leads us there. I haven’t worked this all out in my head, you understand, but something tells me that optimism is not your friend.
So what if you were not optimistic? Could you continue to date men? What if you continued to date men but assumed that every man you dated was an inveterate selfish bullshitter?
I guess maybe that would ruin it. OK, how about this: How about you continue to date but instead of optimism you carry with you a wise, careful, self-protective wariness and skepticism, perhaps paired with an inner certainty that you don’t need a damned fucking thing from any man. Nothing. You don’t need nothing from no man. Like the fish needs the bicycle, OK? You’re inert, self-contained, wary, observing, amused, detached. And you just pay attention to what you’re feeling. When your bullshit detector goes off you excuse yourself like you’re getting a phone call. And you quickly try to figure out what the fuck is going on. What do your instincts tell you? Are you being bullshitted again? Are you giving in to a wish, some wish that comes from someplace where wishes are never granted?
Your theory could be right or wrong. Certainly the historical conditions are there. But I’m not into making sweeping generalizations about men. You’ve still got the problem of personal choice. If certain patterns are repeating in your own life, then you are wise to look into what you are doing. You have to investigate it. You have to protect yourself. You have to stay away from men who do this to you.
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 27, 2011
Her husband died so I came to help. Now they act like I don’t exist
Dear Mr. Tennis,
I am a 65-year-old woman who has had a long and interesting life. During a particularly “interesting” time (think job loss, forced relocation, job search) I found myself estranged from my eldest child, a daughter 40 years of age, who had recently become part of a new family. Long story short, we didn’t speak much, if at all, for the next three or four years.
Sadly, this all changed when her husband, my new son-in-law, became ill with a terminal cancer. At her urgent request, I moved from my home on the West Coast to their home on the East Coast in order to help during his illness and subsequent passing.
When that sad time came, I realized my daughter couldn’t survive financially without my input, so I offered to stay with her until her daughter went into college (about five or six years) and she herself had been able to get a nursing degree. We share the expenses of the household and then spend our own money as we please. There hasn’t been any controversy about any of this.
My problem is that I am beginning to feel as if I am unwanted here. Neither my daughter nor granddaughter make any effort to speak to me if I enter a room, to bid me farewell as they go to work and school, nor to greet me when they return to the house. I am starting to find that if I don’t speak to them first, they don’t talk to me at all. They don’t invite me to go to dinner with them when they go out, nor am I invited to shopping expeditions, or school events, or anything. This makes me feel as if I’m not really a family member, but only a stranger who happens to be renting a room from them. I am asked to ferry the grandchild to and from school meetings and sports events, but that’s the only time the child speaks to me, when she wants a ride. I know that they may feel that they want time together, and I don’t necessarily want to go, but they could at least ask me.
Due to this move, I have sold or given away almost every possession I had accumulated to make a home for myself. I have kept only a few books, pieces of art, and clothing. I know I don’t have the “possessions” I’d need to furnish a new place for myself, but that can be remedied. I also know it would be impossible for my daughter to support herself and her daughter if I left, so I feel as if I’m trapped by this obligation.
I don’t feel comfortable talking about this to my daughter, as I think I may become too emotional, and she doesn’t like it when I do that. (That is what happened four years ago.) I don’t want to find myself ostracized in what should be my own home, and shunned like some stranger, but this is rapidly what is happening.
How can I make this work?
Would it be possible for you to arrange a little outing with your daughter and granddaughter, someplace quiet by the water, under some trees, where the three of you could relax and the granddaughter could play? If possible, make it a couple of days. Spend the night. Get lots of sleep. Don’t do much. Rest.
This will only be a start, of course. It is important to remember that your daughter and granddaughter are both reeling from this event. They have lost something big that they cannot replace. They are feeling things they cannot control or ignore. They need some convalescence. This is going to take a while. You’ve done a good thing by coming here. But they are wrapped up in their grief and fear and it is not going to be easy. They aren’t going to snap out of this right away.
While it must be painful to feel ignored like this, try to remember that you came to this household to be of service to your daughter. She has had a terrible loss. It would be great if she had better coping skills and better manners but, crushed with grief, some of us lose even the barest courtesy.
They must grieve. Given the harsh and hurried way we live in America, and perhaps more so on the East Coast than the West, grief is often cut short, and we see the distortion this causes in many ways. If we do not grieve — that is, if we do not actively and with some determination move through the experience of loss and allow the loss to take a roomy place within us — then our loss will set about to destroy us. It will work to bring us to our knees until we acknowledge it and do what is necessary. Depression is one way this happens. Drug abuse and suicidal behavior are others. It is possible that your daughter is moving through a period of depression. We can’t know, of course. But we can allow for the possibility.
Where does that leave you? That leaves you in the position of elder matriarch who has journeyed a long way to be of service. You have had a long life and you have learned a lot. One of the things you have learned is patience. You’ve committed to being in this household for five or six years. If you create certain roles for yourself now, you may find that your daughter and your granddaughter slowly move into the shade of your presence.
You can be a refuge for the granddaughter, like a shade tree. She may take some time to see what you offer. Right now she is struggling just to follow her daily routine. It must be terrible, the way students are rushed through life, to have something like a father’s death to carry around. If you create spaces in which she can find what she needs, it’s possible she will respond. That’s why I am suggesting that you create this pastoral, serene setting where the three of you can go and heal. There are other similar things you can do. I’m thinking, prepare the setting and let this grief-stricken woman and girl move into those settings. Not much needs to be said. It’s not a talking, analysis kind of thing. You may not be thanked for it. But if you pay attention, you will notice that you are providing a space in which they can soften into their grief.
If you like to control things and come up with great new ideas that will fix everything, like I do, and if you find it hard to sit still when others don’t immediately see the brilliance of your many schemes and offerings, then you may have some difficulty just quietly giving, and creating serene, healing settings, without expectation of return. So consider that you will indeed get a return: Your return is in the fulfillment of your role as matriarch and elder. Your return will be private.
Overall, what I am suggesting is that you take some time to meditate on the gravity and duration of the situation and on your exalted but unrecompensed role. What you do now may become one of the crowning achievements of your life as a mother and now grandmother. If you summon all you have learned in your long and eventful life, you can get through this and emerge with some satisfaction and a serene sense of completion.
It won’t be easy. You’ll be taking some hits. But you can consider this the answering of a certain destiny.
It is only one destiny. It is demanding, but it need not be final. When you are done here — and you will be done here — there should be a long and sunny vacation awaiting you.
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 19, 2003
It was long-distance magic. But look! It’s fading! And he won’t say what happened!
It was the day before two terrifying exams, and there I was — flipping back and forth between my spreadsheets and the personals. It was an online browse, so idle that I hadn’t even searched: I was just looking for men who were looking for women and who were online at that moment. Then I saw his picture. Cute, I thought. Opened his profile: tall, I thought. Read a bit, and saw: charming, literate, similar interests and so forth. I then looked up to check his location and saw that it was an ocean away. Damn it, I thought. But on the other hand, I’m fond of correspondence as a procrastination technique, so I thought: why not? And dashed off a couple of lines, never expecting any response.
But I got one. And then another, and another, and another. You’ve heard this story a thousand times, I know: The verbal chemistry. The sense of intellectual, emotional, even physical connection, coming like a miracle from words on a screen. But knowing some of the pitfalls of that type of connection, after a bit I was no longer willing to keep it to those words on a screen. We both had some free time coming up; I said I needed either to see how this thing would play out face to face, or to call it quits. Quits wasn’t an option for him (though it would have been for me at that point — along with the feelings I was having came an enormous self-protective impulse), and having never been to his part of the world, I juggled some plans, got a ticket, and flew over.
It was magic, but not in the Harlequin-romance kind of way; we were two people in a situation unprecedented for both, and it was real and it was connected and (at least for me) mind- and soul-touching. Less bodice ripping than I’d expected, but restraint and — could it have been? — chivalry aren’t things I’d become accustomed to in men. And it was so easy to share space, to share hopes, fears and dreams; it was as if the scrim that separates and blurs so many nascent (or established) relationships simply didn’t exist.
And then I went home for my last term of grad school, looking mainly at postdegree options near home, but also one that would have brought me near him. And I told him about them all, not looking for promises or commitments on the latter — how could I have, based on something so ephemeral? But cool breezes were coming across the ocean. When I went back at midterm for an interview over there, it was all very cordial — but as if we were ex-colleagues meeting after one had left the firm, not two people who’d been powerfully drawn to each other, who’d dreamed big dreams together. So?
In the first intoxicating days we were getting to know each other, I asked for only one promise: that should things between us ever not seem right, that we’d talk, that we wouldn’t just let it fade away. But fading away is exactly what’s happened, and apart from the pain, it feels like such a waste. But the pain is there, and the loss, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why it happened like this — or why or how he just let go without a word. I’ve been as cool as I humanly can — no weepy “where are you” calls or messages, no scenes, slim-to-nil contact that mirrors his own — but damn, does it still hurt! Now I know in my head that if a man’s interested, he’ll make it known. And this one isn’t. And if he isn’t, then letting him see the extent of my grief won’t bring him back. And keeping up a “casual” correspondence with him is impossible for me; it would just stir up all the dreams and yearning yet again.
And yet — I feel like letting it go without really fighting for it could be a huge mistake, borne by my pride and fear and standing on ceremony. That’s the last thing I want. Is it brave to let go and put it out of my mind as best I can, or is it brave, having laid myself bare with him before, to do it once again (as given the status quo there’s really nothing much to lose)?
No Idea in New York
Dear No Idea,
Sometimes laying yourself bare is the only way to get the truth. The relationship may or may not be worth fighting for, but the truth certainly is, and you ought to fight for that. Of course, if he’s British, as I suspect he is (I’m taking a leap, but that’s my job), what strikes you as the simple truth will strike him as an outrageously indiscreet revelation bordering on the obscene.
Figure it this way: If someone said he just wants to see what you look like, you’d be willing to appear before him, in public, in your corporeal self, right? You’d be showing him “what you look like.” But he might say he can’t really see what you look like at all with all those clothes on.
People can mean different things by “what you look like,” and they can mean different things by “the truth about what happened between us.” You can’t expect him to pour forth his most intimate feelings on cue. So you may have to craft some simple, direct questions that give you the outlines of his feelings, and sort of trace a picture, and then shade the picture and fill in the body yourself.
For instance, you would really like to know if he was ever in love with you, right? It might be painful, but you need to know. So you have to ask: “Were you ever in love with me?” If he says he was, ask him when that changed. Don’t ask him how, just ask him when. That will focus his mind on something, without committing him to discussing his feelings. In other words, did it change while you were together, or after you left? Did it change recently, or quite some time ago? On the other hand, if he says he was never in love with you, ask him if he was aware of how you felt about him. If he answers your question with a question, such as “Um, just how did you feel about me?” don’t answer. Instead, in turn, answer his question with a question. Ask him what he assumed you felt about him. Ask him what he thought.
You have to allow for the possibility that he knew quite well exactly how you felt about him, and he was just enjoying your attentions without any plan to reciprocate. If you’re in graduate school, you have to seek the truth.
There are a few other questions you could ask him, but I think you get the point: You need to get just a few facts so you can construct a little narrative for yourself: Here’s a picture of what happened to me. Here’s the car, here’s the accident, here’s me convalescing, here’s a calendar showing how long it took to heal, here’s my journal of how I got over it. And then look here at this photo, this is me, moving on. I’m the one on the horse! Can you believe how funny I look in a jockey suit?
There is one other thing about trying to get answers out of him if he’s British: You may have to frighten him. If you simply act like a sane, if somewhat direct, American woman looking for answers, he may give you nothing but the blandest of platitudes. You may have to play the crazy, demanding, selfish, ungovernable, hot-tempered, spoiled-rotten bitch-devil sex queen. If so, lay it on thick. Make a scene at his place of employment. Claim there’s a baby on the way. Whatever it takes.
And who knows, in the course of finding out the truth, you may uncover some feelings of his you didn’t know were there. Just because he’s behaving in a reserved way doesn’t mean he has no feelings for you. It just means he’s doing the right thing as defined by his culture. He may be crazy about you. He may think it’s you who doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. All you can do is find out.
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 8, 2004
My boss is a nasty, sexist, arrogant man. How can I defend myself against his unreasonable behavior?
I hate my boss. He’s a horrible, old, mean, vain, nasty, sexist, arrogant man who yells and berates me and the rest of his staff constantly. I have a stomachache all day long while I’m working and often fantasize that he will die.
There’s no use in trying to talk to him about his behavior. Our office is his fiefdom and he would only blame me for being too sensitive. Loudly.
In any other circumstance, I would, of course, quit. But I am a first-year graduate from law school, he is a judge, and right now he pretty much owns me. If I quit, I have no doubt he would do what he could to make my life very difficult. He has contacts at the law firm that I plan on working at next year and despite his reputation for being a horrible person, I think there’s a big chance they would renege on my offer.
His influence is, of course, limited. I could always move to another city and start over. But I’ve worked so hard. I went to a really good law school. I have a very bright future, and this job is a big part of that. After all my hard work, it would be such a disappointment to have this conspicuous blemish to work around.
On the other hand, I don’t know how long I can control myself. I’m proud and I have tremendous difficulty not defending myself when he berates me. If I talk back too much I may just cross that line.
I have only five months left on my contract. I know that I should harden myself to it as best I can, do what I can to preserve my dignity, and just finish the year off. But I want to quit more than anything I can imagine. I really think I’m getting an ulcer from all the anxiety and stress.
I’ve been thinking about saying that I need to leave to care for an ailing family member (which I do have). He would yell at me and be horrible, but I don’t think he’d sabotage me in that situation. I hate putting my co-workers in the situation and I hate lying. But I don’t know that I can go on. Can you give me some advice?
A Very Desperate Serf
The law, it seems to me, is a tool for justice and fairness. To determine what is just and fair, we first determine what is true — we determine the facts. To this end, the law is written with precision. For instance, the law does not say that it shall be punishable by a term in prison not exceeding 25 years if anyone shall be found by a jury of his peers to be a moronic, incompetent motherfucker. We recognize that there are indeed moronic, incompetent motherfuckers out there, but it’s a subjective call. It’s hard to prove.
For that reason, a good lawyer focuses on the facts.
If the fact is that he’s disappointed with your work, and angry with you because you did not meet his expectations, then certain actions might flow from that. There would be nothing wrong in his telling you that. That much could be regarded as a fact: He had certain expectations that were not met, and as a result he had certain feelings.
However, if he deduces from his feelings that you are a backward jackass, and further deduces that since you are a backward jackass he is justified in abusing you, he’s not being a very good lawyer. He’s acting on flawed assumptions. The assumption that you are a backward jackass is subjective and unprovable; it’s no basis on which to act.
Habitual criminals and habitually abusive people have in common their disregard for the suffering of others, and their disregard for the facts. They justify their abuses on erroneous, misleading, meaningless or unprovable notions — that the victim was a lowdown, deserving scoundrel, for instance. Or that the victim was an incompetent and overly sensitive law clerk. If your boss believes you are a backward jackass and therefore it’s permissible to call you names, he’s got more in common with the criminal element than he does with an officer of the court.
So I think you should stand up to him, either in person or in writing, and argue the point that verbal abuse runs counter to the spirit of the law. If he blames you for being too sensitive, you need a counterargument. Ask him if slaves were being too sensitive. Ask him if Rosa Parks was too sensitive about sitting in the back of the bus. Ask him who determines how sensitive one should be. It’s the law that determines that, right? Find cases in which employees fought abusive bosses and ask him if they were too sensitive. Find cases in which sexist, abusive language was used as the cause for damages for, say, intentional infliction of emotional distress.
As to your concerns about the practical consequences of fighting back: The law is more than a career, it’s a calling. As a lawyer, you have a duty to uphold not just the law but what it stands for — shielding the weak from the predations of the strong.
I’m not suggesting you act recklessly, only that you place principle above personal convenience. There are things you can do to shield yourself. If you have contacts at the law firm you intend to work for, see if you can’t have a confidential communication in which you describe the instances of abuse. Ask if it’s well known that he engages in such behavior. Ask if such behavior is tolerated at the firm you plan to work for. Ask what the possible repercussions would be if you were to have a principled falling out with this judge. And think hard about whether you can in good conscience work for a firm whose culture condones such behavior as this judge is known for.
A lawyer needs a fighting spirit. If you’re going to use your training for good in the world, you have to learn to fight tyranny. What better time to begin fighting tyranny than right now?
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 13, 2009
If I marry, I get a 16-year-old who can barely take care of herself.
I’m 29 and my potential stepdaughter-to-be is 16. We live under the same roof, and it’s driving me crazy inside.
Let’s rewind the story by six months to last July, when my boyfriend and I chanced upon a really nice flat with a magnificent sea view and decided to sort of officially move in together. He bought the flat because he had the money (with some chip-in from his mother), and I helped to make it a home with gadgets, accessories and lots of tender, loving care.
His daughter from a previous marriage, let’s call her Anna, “moved back in” with him years ago because her mother became mentally unstable when the girl was about 10. She abandoned Anna in a foreign country in a fit of madness. At that time, he used to rent a condo with a friend, and I stayed over a few nights a week. Anna spent most of her waking hours either in school or at her nanny’s who lived just a few floors below. I hardly saw her and neither did he, but we did make it a point to at least have a nice dinner together every weekend. It was an arrangement that suited me fine.
When we bought the flat, I knew the present arrangement would happen because she seemed old enough to care for herself and would no longer live near the nanny. What I didn’t realise was how much of a child she still is. I feel bad saying the following but the thoughts are real, so why lie in a letter seeking help? She appears to be a mess.
She has never gone for a haircut on her own. She does not know how to boil water, do a bed, dress herself appropriately and often needs to be reminded to brush her teeth and wash her hair. I brushed these initial signs aside as my inexperience with teenagers. Maybe my expectations were too high. But her dependence on instructions, sloppiness, clumsiness and general head-in-the-clouds mishaps simply surfaced every time she asked for help for something really basic, dropped a mug because she couldn’t tear her eyes off one of her books (she reads and finishes on average one fantasy book a day and generally does nothing else during the hols), soiled a towel with menstrual blood and just kept reusing it till I noticed and stopped her, and proclaimed to be an expert in something and then failed miserably because she simply imagined she was.
To be fair, she’s having a tough time negotiating the nitty-gritty of life because of an opulent lifestyle lived as child. She had maids to feed her and wash her, a chauffeur to drive her around, and a full-time tutor who coached her in every subject. The aforementioned lovely nanny continued the trend of waiting on her hand and foot. The woman also happens to absolutely love Anna. They keep in contact and she often invites Anna back for sleepovers. Come mid-February, Anna will be going to a new school, and the nanny has even told her to come back to stay with her because her own children have gone to university and she wants to have Anna in the house.
Looking at the bigger picture, going back to stay with the nanny is a short-term solution. I should think about Anna as a permanent feature in my life with my boyfriend should we get married. Like it or not, I will be her stepmother, and I can’t keep offloading her to someone else because she can’t take care of herself and I refuse to play caretaker or teacher. In my mind, I can hardly take care of myself.
In my most selfish moments, I think about how she will have a problem graduating because her studies are in a mess, since there’s no one to constantly monitor her. Seeing that she was getting nowhere on her own, we got her tutoring for a few of her weaker subjects, but I think it was too late. In any case, she told me that she thought getting tutoring for all her subjects was the norm. I think she expected to be rescued and was disappointed. I don’t know how she is going to pass junior college and get a degree at any rate. I also think about how she is going to get a job, clueless as she is about what her interests, strengths or weaknesses are. Being kind of unattractive physically, she might have problem falling in love and getting married. She still hates boys, for goodness’ sake! As I said, in my most selfish moments, I think about being burdened with Anna for the rest of my life.
I love my boyfriend. We have a great four-year relationship, and I can’t imagine leaving him. But. If I can’t accept a future with his daughter in the picture, if I can’t love her like my own, if I refuse to pick up where all other sensible adults in her life left off, then where is all this going? Her dad tries to be her friend, but I think what she really needs is a mother. Someone to teach her about the basics all over again. He can’t do that. It’s not in his nature or capability and he may well end up yelling at her and getting no improvement.
My mother was a free-and-easy but loving type who stressed independence in her children early. She wasn’t big on verbal guidance and detailed instructions. Looking back, I can’t remember how I picked up all those common skills that seem to just develop. No one had to tell me I was old enough to get a haircut by myself. I simply went when it was time and I loved it. No one had to tell me not to use dirty towels. Or maybe someone did, but I can’t remember. Whichever the case, I don’t know how to teach whatever this “common sense” is without going mad. It’s alien territory. My mother didn’t teach me so much as showed me in daily life. You don’t verbalize the basic! It’s so damn awkward and it makes me angry! And since we are talking about angry, I hate doing her laundry, folding her panties! I would rather be doing that for my mum and not someone else’s daughter! You see how mixed up my thoughts are about this?
So, what should I do? What should I do? What the hell should I do about Anna for the next two years, for the next 10 years, for the rest of my life? Or should I just say, I’m not the right woman for this father-and-daughter pair and move on?
Asking for It
Dear Asking for It,
I think clearly you are not the right woman for this father-daughter pair and you should move on.
To put it simply, resources need to be directed toward the care, feeding and upbringing of your boyfriend’s daughter. He is her father. Her mother is incapacitated. So he has a clear, unambiguous duty to raise her. You do not. You have no responsibility toward this girl. But if you marry your boyfriend, then you will have the same clear, unambiguous duty toward her as he does. Since you know that you’re not up to it, to marry him would be unconscionable. It would verge on the fraudulent: to knowingly take on a role in someone’s life that you do not want and are not capable of performing. So if you can do any good in this situation, it would be by telling your boyfriend that you are releasing him from the relationship so that he can turn his full attention to being a parent.
You say that while your boyfriend was renting the condo and Anna was living there with him, you and he hardly ever saw her. That may be one reason she does not know how to care for herself. No one has taught her. The comparison you make between your childhood and Anna’s childhood is not quite fair. Your mother did not go insane and abandon you. Your mother was there for you. Your mother taught by example. Of course you picked up life skills. I understand that it drives you crazy to see this child who has not picked up any of the life skills you took for granted at her age. Yes, it is baffling and crazy-making and outrageous. But it is because her mother went insane and abandoned her and her father did not pick up the task.
So now he has to raise her. In order to accomplish that, certain resources are needed. It is unclear whose money paid for the child’s opulent upbringing. But since she still has a nanny, there must still be resources, in a trust, or in your boyfriend’s bank, or in his mother’s bank, to pay for the care, feeding and education of this girl. Those resources should be explicitly directed toward that end. If your boyfriend cannot structure the resources at his disposal so they are used appropriately, then a professional should step in and set up a legal structure to ensure that the resources go where they are needed.
Having set up the legal structure to direct the appropriate resources toward the raising of this girl, then your boyfriend needs to act as a parent. The child should live with her father, and the father should pay the nanny to make regular visits to their home both to teach the daughter how to care for herself and to teach him how to care for a child. He should also arrange for the daughter to make periodic visits to the nanny’s home, so that she can absorb what life lessons she can about the orderly running of a household. Who else can help? What about your boyfriend’s mother? Can she make regular visits to the home and also help raise this girl? You mention that she has financial resources. She may also have love for her granddaughter.
In short, what I am recommending is that your boyfriend admit that up till now he has not been a good father to this girl. I am recommending a radical change, a radical shifting of priorities. If he is unable or unwilling to do that, or if he is incapable of even comprehending what is meant by a radical shifting of priorities, then my second choice would be for the child to go live with the nanny, and for all the resources earmarked for her support to be directed there.
But in my heart I feel that this father ought to dedicate the next few years of his life to raising his daughter. And you ought to do what the situation calls for, which is to urge everyone concerned to do what has to be done, and then step aside.