I want to tell his wife about our affair

 

Cary’s classic column from Sunday, Mar 13, 2011

The man I love is deceiving his wife and I think she should know what kind of man she’s married to


Dear Cary,

I fell in love with an amazing, complicated man. He has a young child with an ex and he was living in the United States illegally. And he had a girlfriend. We became friends gently, over a long period of time. I’ve never had such an intense attraction, but we stayed away from it for a year. It finally broke, and our mutual feelings got stronger despite all best efforts.

Then after sleeping together for several months, he showed up at my doorstep and told me his relationship had ended. I couldn’t believe it, but I put the brakes on. Things were too intense and he needed space to get his life in order. We stopped sleeping together. Then he told me he had to leave the country, since he was here illegally.

He left. He wrote to me how much he missed me. Then, as quickly as he left, he returned. Within weeks he got back together with his ex and married her. I know he did this because he needs to be in the United States to be close to his child.

But he also started sleeping with me again, even more often than before. He took care of me, helping me around my apartment, and we spent more time together. Then he told me he loved me, that he made a mistake marrying her and that in a few years when he has his green card, we can be together.

I feel like he would do anything to stay close to his son, and it’s selfish that he’s using her and me.

This whole situation has broken my heart. Part of me wants to tell his wife, since she’s only 27 and they’ve been married for six weeks. I feel like he’s treating her so badly. But I always knew he was with her — she didn’t have that knowledge, and she married him. I don’t want this to continue for years, and for her to find out much later.

Maybe it’s not my business to tell her, but I feel like I would not want to be in her position. I know that by telling her, I will also be ending things for myself with him. Also, I went through a rough breakup at 26 — but it was best because I still had time to get my life in order. The sooner she sees what he’s capable of, the better it is for her.

I can’t believe I’m considering this, but I feel like it’s what I should do.

Lost

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Dear Lost,

You want to help his wife?

I think what would help his wife is for you to stop sleeping with her husband.

I suggest you quietly and firmly break off your relationship with this man. Then suggest that he tell her.

It’s up to him. He could tell her that he was having an affair and he’s ended it and he could commit to putting the marriage on a new, honest footing. He could be honest with her. He could tell her that he’s had an eye for other women but he’s through with that. He could tell her his son matters most to him, and that he’s going to stay in the marriage and love her as best he can, and raise his son, and live here legally.

But it’s up to him. At some point, if he keeps fooling around, it could be argued that someone should tell her. If he can’t stop fooling around with other women then his wife and child are both in jeopardy and she has the right to know. But still I don’t think you’re the person to tell her. It should be someone with no interest in the matter and no history.

Did you notice that you were sleeping with him as long as he had a girlfriend? Then when he broke up with her, you put the brakes on. Then when he married you resumed your affair. So you may have motives that are hidden from you. So, as I say, even if it becomes clear in the future that she deserves to be told, you would not be the best one to tell her.

Just end it. End it and let him decide what he’s going to do. Strongly suggest that he tell his wife and set things straight. But don’t step in and tell her yourself.

Maybe years later when his residency status is resolved and he can provide for his son, maybe he will want to divorce her and he will call you. I hope you do not wait for him. He’s made his choice already.

You know what I think you should do? I think you should find an unmarried man who lives in the country legally, and suggest coffee.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I feel awful about my affair

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindsight is 20/20

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Dear Hindsight,

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

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

It just takes time.

You can begin by contacting a marriage and family counselor.

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

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

But it doesn’t have to end badly.

A decent marriage and family counselor can help you.

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

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

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

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

How should I feel toward my father?

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011

I thought I knew him. Then he loaded up his U-Haul


Cary,

I had a really boring suburban life for a long time, wishing that something would make it interesting. I had a good relationship with my family and I thought that my parents would stay together forever.

Then we got hit with a hurricane.

After the hurricane I spent a lot more time talking to my father. We talked before but this seemed different, like how I thought the father-son deep(ish) discussions were supposed to go. He didn’t seem as happy as I had previously thought, but I assumed that was due to having 5 feet of water wash through our house, which makes for a somewhat more stressful existence. A lot of the time we spent after the storm was gutting the entire first floor, talking about his childhood and mine and what my plans for the future were. During our discussions I got the impression that my parents’ marriage wouldn’t last forever, so I steeled myself for the inevitable to occur.

Flash forward to a week after my 18th birthday in 2006, and I come home to my father packing up a U-Haul and leaving my mother. He left her a note (that I probably shouldn’t have read, but I think most people would have in my situation) saying that he felt that after I was born most of my mother’s love went to me and he felt left out; it was basically a page and a half of selfishness.

He showed me the apartment he was supposed to be living in (I called it a “small studio” but others might call it “I can go from my bed to my toilet in less than 10 steps! How convenient!”). I later found out that he had been cheating on my mother for years … multiple women with other kids, swinger parties, basically everything I thought he was above as a person. He is now remarried and his new wife has two kids and I can never really forgive him for what he did, but I do my best.

Last year, when I was stationed overseas, the day after my birthday I posted a Facebook message thanking everyone for their kind wishes and he left me a reply saying, “I knew there was something special about yesterday,” and this year … nothing. I don’t think he did it on purpose but no phone call, no text, no communication whatsoever. I don’t even know exactly how I felt, but I think I could best describe it as numb, though I don’t know if it is a numbness to him in general, or if it affected me even more than I thought it did at the time. It has been five days since my birthday and I still haven’t talked to him and I don’t know how to bring it up. On the one hand I want to call him out on this, but if I do that I don’t know if I will be able to stop myself and I will finally get up the nerve to ask him how long he was philandering and if he thinks I deserve an apology for cheating on my mother.

She was his wife, but she is still my damn mom.

Honestly, I don’t really have a specific question regarding this situation, I could just use some advice on what to do from here because I know I am going to have to talk to him eventually and I don’t really know how slighted I am supposed to feel about this situation. After reading that letter I don’t want me getting pissed about him missing multiple birthdays to be construed as being as selfish as he turned out to be. I guess I just would like to know how much anger I am warranted to feel toward him after everything that he has done. I feel emotionally conflicted and like I said before …

Numb

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Dear Numb,

I remember my father’s series of small apartments after he left my mother. I remember the meagerness and poverty, his effects strewn about, the boxes on the floor, the absence of furniture, the absence of a life. It was devastating, actually — that he had chosen this over us. I remember trying to be encouraging and upbeat. “Wow, this isn’t so bad. It’s kind of a nice place. Look out this window!” Yet it seemed bleak and incompetent. It was such a fall. Those dismal apartments, one after the other. That one in Miami on Biscayne Blvd., kind of a swingers pad, with a pool and I’ll always remember that smell of newly delivered furniture, cooking oil, eggs recently scrambled or made omelet-style, the simple food smells of a man cooking for himself, living a strange little life that was supposed to be exciting and carefree but which seemed lonely and pointless.

Yeah, I remember that. I remember wondering how I’m supposed to feel about all this. That tiny, damp little “studio” in the back of an old woman’s concrete block house near the University of Miami with the room air conditioner. I lived there for a summer jazz session while he … where was he? Was he at his mother’s? I think he was in his mother’s house on Mary Street, that house that later became the object of so much conflict when he sold it while my brother was still living in it.

I don’t completely recall how those various strange abodes came into his possession, but there he was, with his entourage of cardboard boxes and his war medals, evicted, divorced, moving on. Why? It seemed so stupid. It would have been simpler for him to stay in the house. But no, they couldn’t get along.

What was I feeling? Wanting to be supportive yet actually angry, puzzled and hurt, ashamed that he seemed diminished, no longer Dad, head of household, man of the house, reduced to man of the tiny studio apartment trying to get chicks at the pool to come up to see his “digs.”

It’s not something you want to see your dad do. And yeah, it was around the time I turned 18 that he first moved out. It’s a big letdown, a big hole in the gut; it’s not like anything you’ve experienced thus far.

And if your dad wants you to go see a therapist to help you deal with the divorce, well, that’s just creepy. Maybe you want to punch him but you don’t want to go to therapy especially at his suggestion because you’re not the one with the problem, and you didn’t make this problem, he made it by moving out, so why should you have to go to some creepy therapist and talk about your feelings when your feelings should really be directed at your dad?

Right?

Which is the point, really. That he fucked up and you’re angry with him and that’s a really, really hard thing to confront with a parent. I never did tell my dad how angry and hurt I was for him getting divorced like that. I believed at the time that the adult thing to do was to understand, not to be angry about it and certainly not to blame my parents, but to understand. Well, there’s a difference between blaming your parents for your lot in life and being angry at them for making boneheaded moves. So yes, I was angry at my father for years, but fighting to retain my love for him, and so dancing gingerly around the issues, pretending to be encouraging and charmed by his chosen existence when really it made me sick to see it. It made me sick to see my father and his two brothers all leave their wives and begin a dicey and peripatetic existence going from apartment to apartment and girlfriend to girlfriend or wife to wife. It was confusing and alienating and I didn’t like it but I was afraid to confront them because they were the elder men.

This fear of the elder men in the family goes deep. I had no idea how much power it had until years later. I had no idea how paralyzed I was. But I am not alone. Many men are afraid of their fathers. We do not know where they get this power over us so we pretend that they do not really have this power over us but, Oh, they have it. They have it in spades. Even my father, wiry, bespectacled, diminutive and professorial in manner: Oh, I feared him mightily! We may be angry but afraid to say we are angry for fear of violence. The father holds that violent edge, that family privilege, the nuclear option. You never know. My father was a strangely elusive but explosive man, given to surprising outbursts. And you never knew what was going on in his head.

He’s dead now.

I never confronted him. I never had that epic battle that sons and fathers sometimes have, where they finally let out that mixture of anger and tenderness, rage and pity that characterizes the relationship.

So what kind of conversation with my dad would I have wanted? If he were here today, I would like to hear him say that he did it for himself. He’d had it with living for others. He wanted to live for himself. Right or wrong, it was his decision to begin living for himself, and he did that, and it would have been helpful to hear him say that forthrightly.

Instead, when the subject of the divorce arose, we heard his painful self-recrimination and regret.

So if I could do it differently, or if I were in your shoes, what would I do? I would be frank and open about my feelings whatever they are. That doesn’t mean necessarily confronting family members about it. It more means being frank with yourself and those close to you about what you actually feel. Don’t try to figure it out. Accept it. Accept what you feel. You may feel impulses that morality prevents you from acting on. That’s OK to feel.

I can say with certainty that there is no correct way to feel. We men seem to think that if we want to be a certain kind of man, we may feel only a certain way. But a good man feels what he feels.

By feeling what we feel, we come to know ourselves. Then our true nature arises serenely and almost without notice. Then we need do nothing but trust our instincts. We become authentic.

And how does this vaunted authenticity come about? Slowly if at all. We keep going over it and over it, like sanding wood. More is revealed with every pass.

As to the numbness: I suspect you fear the torrent of tears that would erupt were you to say how you feel. You may need someone to yank it out of you. Like it’s stuck down there in your throat and a professional has to use his slim jim.

That’s one way to think of psychotherapists. They get inside the locked vehicle of your psyche, but with your permission.

It took me years before I could trust another man to listen to me cry. Are you kidding? I know. It’s icky. But eventually it was a matter of either let these feelings of shame and anger and outrage and humiliation and pitiful hurt show, cry them out in front of someone, demonstrate to someone just how deeply I was hurting, by way of saying, OK, this is me, this awful shambles you see before you, this sobbing shambles of a man, this is me, this is my state, this is what I’ve come to … or who knows what I would come to, walking around numb, as you say, from a lifetime habit of not feeling.

If you want to stop being numb you have to start feeling.

Basically, whatever you feel is appropriate.

We men have a code. We are supposed to feel certain things in certain situations. But the truth is, we feel what we feel. Even though that sounds dumb.

The stereotypical “sensitive male” is easy to ridicule. There was a lot of bogus “showing your feelings” in the 1970s. You don’t have to “show your feelings.” You just have to feel them and know what they are.

In my 20s I thought, If you are a real man, you will feel this way about this and that way about that. You will have learned the code. But you never really do.

This is what we men go through.

What do our fathers want from us and for us? What is expected?

What are we supposed to do and feel?

We never really know. We just feel what we feel. We try to stay true to ourselves and to the ones we love. That’s all we can do.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I threw out my girlfriend’s mementos

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 28, 2009

I tried to retrieve her photos from the Dumpster but they were gone! What have I done?


Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I have been together for five years, and although the beginning was a bit rocky, things are great now. Our setbacks were mainly due to my commitment avoidance. So, we’ve been living together now for six months, and I’ve started to … snoop. I admitted this to two friends, and one laughed that I waited so long, and the other was horrified that I would commit such a breach of trust. I don’t suspect anything untoward is happening, but I find some sort of tortured comfort in knowing the secrets. I have looked at her e-mail a few times in the past, and I don’t exactly stop myself from glancing over at her laptop when her in box is up — but I haven’t hacked into her account or spent half the night reading 1,400 old e-mails or anything — OK, that happened once, but there was a bottle of whiskey involved and the tail end of a really bad day.

She was just out of town for the weekend, and I spent most of the time rummaging through her things, reading old journals, and inspecting film negatives. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME? I am confident and trusting and respectful — or at least I thought I was. I find myself engulfed in a jealous rage when I find old photographs of her past lovers or racy journal entries or letters detailing wild sexual encounters (all prior to our meeting). Why is she holding on to these things? You’re probably asking, why am I looking at them? I can’t help it. Maybe this is why I was so hesitant to jump into a real commitment — I have trust issues … or control issues … or self-esteem issues … or maybe all of the above.

Here is the kicker: I threw out a box of her personal items. After I came to my senses, I panicked and tried to retrieve them. The maintenance guys in my apartment complex thought I was crazy going through the trash. I covered it up saying I threw out important paperwork by mistake. I came up empty-handed. Her personal memories are lost forever. A small part of me is wickedly satisfied, but the bigger (and much better) part of me is appalled.

What should I do if she discovers that these items are missing? I know if I come clean she will lose it, and I certainly don’t want to lose her. But if she is so dearly holding on to these items, then maybe that is a sign we shouldn’t move forward. If she becomes irate over a few photos of her sexual adventures or letters from past lovers, I have to worry, don’t I? Is she over these men or holding on? Why is she keeping this stuff? Will she be able to let go? Sure, these concerns just help me to validate my snooping, but we’re living together — when will she forget the old boyfriends?
HELP.

Private Dick

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Dear Private Dick,

Basically, unequivocally, I think you’ve got to tell her what you did. In throwing out her stuff, you moved beyond snooping into theft and destruction of personal property. If the relationship ends because you told her, so be it.

But it might not end the relationship. For one thing, it might be the sort of thing where it turns out that yes, OK, her boyfriend indeed does have a sort of problem, which is akin to like OK, maybe you’re an alcoholic or you’re bad with money or have some other life problem that is akin to just, well, having issues, but you’re willing to be honest about them and face them and seriously get some help and change.

And there is also the possible romantic/comedic element to this. In confessing to her, you might come off like a guy who is sort of seriously nuts but whom she still loves. In my heart there is room for all kinds of compulsion and insanity. I am seriously nuts in many ways. It hasn’t prevented me from holding down a job and a marriage and so forth. So I can relate to such compulsions as you describe. I tend to believe that lots of us walk around with crazy ideas, but we mostly don’t talk about it. Every now and then one of our crazy ideas gets the best of us, and we do something we’re going to have to own up to. So I’m glad when somebody talks about it.

I also think that if you were seriously dangerous you wouldn’t be writing to me; you’d be cowering in her kitchen with a hammer, and we’d never hear about it. Men who try to control women are truly dangerous, but it is my impression that they do not write to advice columnists.

But it is a serious breach. It’s the kind of thing that is going to freak her out, but if you withheld it, it would be worse. If you tell her now, you’ve got a better chance of saving the relationship.

I spent a little time thinking about where this fits into the whole moral picture. I mean, how is snooping through someone’s things different from spying on her when she is in the shower, or when she is getting dressed, or listening in on “the extension” (as we used to call the analog branch of a hardwired household phone line)?

You know these things are wrong. Because if you keep doing these things, she is harmed. I believe that she is harmed, morally or psychologically, by your snooping. I believe that’s what she would say if she knew: that she feels violated or harmed. And I think we ought to take people’s subjective assessments as having some weight.

Now, it may be that she also snoops. It may be that she is well aware of this tendency in people and will understand. Or it may be that she will be outraged to the point of demanding that you move out. I cannot take responsibility for what happens in your private life if you are moved to act on what I say. It’s still your choice. I can only say what I truly feel. And I truly feel you should tell her.

I do not know why we do these things. It may have to do with a lack of trust — that you feel she has some other world that competes for her attention, or that might threaten your belonging to her, your ownership of her. Ownership. That’s a word that comes up. That’s interesting. Do you feel that you own her? Do you feel in some way that what is hers is yours? It may be that you do. I’m not accusing you of anything; we all find, when we begin examining our assumptions, that we carry certain assumptions that are insupportable. Mainly we carry them as long as we do not examine them, and then, as we examine them, we go, Holy shit! I really do believe I own her! Where did that come from?!

And then you plumb your family history and see that, in fact, you were raised with the assumption that as a man you could own a woman, that you could have rights far greater than hers, that you could take her stuff, that you could “take her,” in all the senses of that phrase. Who knows. We have all kinds of stuff in our heads. That’s what makes therapy so much fun. Because when you approach it in a fairly detached way, you can see that, well, yes, these beliefs do reside in my mind, how do you like that? I don’t think they serve me very well, I don’t even think I consciously believe them, and yet there they are, residents in the attic.

So then you try to sweep them out if they don’t fit in. Or you learn to recognize when your behavior is being influenced by them, as in, Gee, I seem to be taking my girlfriend’s stuff again, why am I doing that? Oh yeah, I remember: because in some part of my brain I believe that I actually have greater rights than women! But I don’t really, do I? So I’d better put this stuff back and tell her that old mania has cropped up again!

Or whatever it is. It could be a sexual thing, that there’s a thrill to snooping. It could be a replacement for intimacy; you might feel a deep closeness to her that you do not get to feel while she is in the room because maybe she will not settle down or will not willingly be the object of your contemplative gaze or will not answer your questions about her past or about that part of her life she keeps separate from you.

At any rate, if you don’t tell her, I think you will have committed a wrong against her, and you also might never get to find out why you’re doing this. So it will be to your benefit, ultimately, to come clean.

So seriously, I think when you threw her stuff out, you crossed a line, and regardless of the consequences, you have to tell her. She has a right to know and a right to figure out what she wants to do about it.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Why did you skip the funeral?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Aug 23, 2010

A tragic death among deeply close friends: Her burial was like a ghost town


Dear Cary,

I want to say, first of all, that I am so happy to hear of your recovery. I always look forward to reading your thoughtful responses to letters.

I have, perhaps, many things I’d like to ask for advice about but for now I will get to the most pressing and troublesome issue:

I hate my friends. Not all of them, just a certain group of my oldest friends — 10 girlfriends, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten, and all of whom went to elementary through high school together. These friends have been neighbors, classmates, teammates and confidantes — we have spent a great deal of time with each other’s families, gone on vacations and to summer camps together, and maintained a very close-knit group for the past 20 years or so (we are all now 24-26 years old).

I never had any reason to doubt that these people would be my core group of lifelong friends up until about a year ago, following the sudden, tragic death of a member of the group, who was also my closest friend within the group. She passed away unexpectedly at the age of 25 under ambiguous circumstances that we will never fully understand as the autopsy results were inconclusive and the acquaintances she was with at the time remain either unable or unwilling to disclose the exact events preceding her death.

I know that often people rave about the departed as though they were saints and eulogies often tend to be excessively laudatory, but for my friend who passed away all of those things would be 100 percent true. She was a beautiful, fun, bright and incredibly loving and open-minded person. It was no surprise when she chose a career as a social worker — she was so warm and generous with her time and her spirit, she was selfless in her work and did not let roadblocks set up by her jerk boss deter her from pursuing a career she loved where she had the opportunity to really make a difference for others. She was a realistic and practical person but also somehow managed to stay optimistic in difficult situations and no matter what was going on in her life she was always there for her friends. If I called her even when she was incredibly busy with something, she would stop everything and talk to me about my problems — she was one of those rare and precious friends who would tell you to call anytime, day or night, and really mean it … and anytime you spoke to her you were in for a good story. She had a gift for storytelling, a propensity for spontaneity and adventure, a great sense of humor and a lighthearted appreciation for all the little silly and absurd moments in life.

Before her death, I thought our group of friends was very structurally sound. We were just beginning, in the years during and after college, to transform our little group from childhood/adolescent friends to adult friends. The 10 of us went to 10 different colleges in eight different states and wound up in similarly far-flung places after college, but we did a very nice job of keeping in touch: made great efforts to spend time with each other whenever possible, often circulated update e-mails or letters, exchanged phone calls and Internet communication, etc. I felt we had strong, irreplaceable bonds to each other that did not seem to dissipate over time or through the distance between us. In many ways she was the leader of our group; she was the one to call when you went home for the holidays because she’d be most likely to know when everyone was getting in and where we would meet. I’ve thought since her death that perhaps she valued and nurtured our friendships more than we did for her in return. When she died, I assumed our other friends would step up and try to fill that caring, nurturing role for each other. I thought in our grief — when most of us were confronting mortality for the first time as adults — we would cling relentlessly to each other for support and kinship, that we would be present for each other and for her family and other friends — to hold each other, to cry together, to show our love to each other and to her, to share our many wonderful memories of her and mourn her death together.

But most of our “friends” were not present.

Not only did only three friends out of the group actually attend the funeral, many didn’t even bother to call or write, save for a text or a quick message on the Internet here and there. Most of our friends were completely emotionally/spiritually and physically absent from the whole terrible situation. It seemed the expectation of those who absented themselves was that we not share with each other the unfamiliar and overwhelming pain we were experiencing, or worse — that they didn’t feel the pain at all or chose to ignore it.

When I expressed to my parents and a few other friends how baffled, hurt and disgusted I was with the lack of support I received from some of those old friends, they assured me things would change with time — no one knew what to do or say right now, our wounds were too fresh, that I couldn’t cast them off yet, they were hurting too. But as time went on and I still didn’t hear from them — as my attempts to call or write either went unanswered or insufficiently answered — I began to sincerely hate them. They weren’t there for me, collectively or — with the exception of two still wonderfully supportive friends — individually. More important, they weren’t there for her family; most important, they weren’t there for her. Almost all of them had managed to make it to her wedding the year before. But weddings don’t require anything similar to the constitution needed to endure a young friend’s funeral. Where were they now? When will they say goodbye? Will they go on thinking and acting as though things are the same and that friend with whom they once shared a life is still here with us now instead of being gone forever?

Despite my hate for them, and it is real and palpable, I still desperately want them to reach out to me, nearly a year after her death (she died in September 2009). I could never forgive them for all the months of abandonment, but I also don’t know that I want to completely cut them out of my life and I think for the sake of our shared histories and the bonds that our families still share back in our hometown, I should make an effort. I still have a certain amount of faith that they will reach out to me on their own and I fear if I say something — even in a very gentle and neutral way — I will lose them completely too, because obviously they’re incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing. I don’t want to lose them; I’ve lost enough.

One of the other supportive friends from the group and I have talked extensively about how to handle all of this and while we both want the others to know our true feelings we also kind of feel like we shouldn’t have to make that effort because if they cared, they would have reached out to us in some way by now.

So, how do we handle ourselves around them? We all hung out as usual when we were at home over the holidays and I tried to make things as pleasant as I possibly could. We avoided the topic of death. There has been scant communication on the Internet/by phone but still the topic of her death hasn’t been discussed to any considerable degree.

Maybe it’s important that I explain that in other facets of their lives, these old, neglectful friends are very decent people — they hold noble jobs (two whom I consider the worst offenders of grief/consolation avoidance are respectively a child advocate and a youth counselor), are close to their families and are mostly either married or in committed relationships. This is the first time I have ever seen them act in a way that shows they don’t care about others and it has been shocking and all the more distressing to me to see kind, intelligent and sensitive people be so horrible when it comes to dealing with death.

I just don’t know how much longer I can keep my feelings to myself and I know that despite the outcome of whether or not I share my feelings, I could never truly be friends with them again. I want to do something that would have pleased my friend who died. I think she would encourage me to forgive them and would want me to maintain ties with them; maybe she’d even want me to take over her role as the core/leader of the group, but as much as I don’t want to completely lose what were once strong bonds of friendship and as much as I want to do the right thing by our departed friend, I feel like I could explode at them at some point and I have so much anger and hurt, I don’t know how much longer I can act civil, let alone friendly, toward them.

Hurt

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Dear Hurt,

We assume we will behave well when tested. But we are tested when we least expect it — in the middle of the night, in an unfamiliar area, when we are weak or distracted or afraid. If we could study first, we might perform better. But we are never prepared for life’s biggest tests.

We know the right thing to do. Anybody could tell you: The right thing to do is to make the airline reservation, pack the suitcase and show up at the funeral. But in a crisis, a part of us resists.

In our weakest moments grow seeds of doubt and indecision and avoidance … in subtle ways our best intentions are betrayed; we make grievous errors of omission. We become shameful no-shows. We experience memorable failures of moral nerve.

But through such failures we can learn. We fail to show up and we learn: You don’t let things slide. Not again. Next time you show up. Forever after that, you always show up.

That is, you get to learn from this as long as your friends stick with you through your failures. If your friends give up on you because you fail one test, then you may never learn. You push it out of mind. You say screw this, screw them, whatever.

Because of that, you, my friend, have an opportunity here and I hope you take it.

This is a chance for you to do some good. You can turn this around.
I suggest you do the right thing: Open communication with these people.

Reach out. But how? The conversation needn’t be an accusation or an interrogation. You don’t need to air the dark feelings you’ve had. Rather, think of the other person.

What do you say? Well, what you say is not as important as how you listen. Say as little as possible. But here are some things to avoid saying: Do not say point blank that you are hurt by their failure to appear at the funeral. Rather, say that you are still getting over what happened, and would like to talk a little about it. Then just listen. Keep your mouth shut and listen.

If your friend asks you for your feelings, you might say something like, “I really missed you at the funeral. It was hard knowing that you could not be there.”

She might talk about her decision not to attend the funeral, or she might not. I wouldn’t press her. She may feel guilty and find herself becoming defensive. If anything, just ask open-ended questions — how she felt about not being able to attend the funeral, what she was doing while the funeral was happening, if she was thinking about it, how it felt to miss it. Maybe she was relieved that she didn’t have to go. That would be difficult to hear but courageous to say; truth is often difficult to hear. Whatever she has to say, I would just listen and let it sink in.

In this way, you can perhaps let go of some of your anger toward your friends, and take a step closer to them, and make progress toward living with this terrible loss.

Your departed friend was a social worker. She was in service. Being in service means, strangely enough, overcoming other people’s objections to being helped.

We might be inclined to say, well, shit, if you can’t fill out the paperwork, then maybe you don’t really want the food stamps. If you can’t make it to your appointment on time, then maybe you don’t really want the counseling.

But those are our standards and our assessments. We may be like a jury, eager to convict. But we don’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. We don’t know their fears and demons. We don’t know what barriers they face.

Likewise, it is ironic that the child advocate and the youth counselor did not show; you’d think they would be most likely to rise to the occasion. But perhaps their jobs leave them so emotionally taxed that they have nothing left over for moments such as these.

So your friends did not show up at the funeral. They did not rise to the occasion. Yes, that is bad form. Yes, it reveals some weakness in them. But that is what it is: It is weakness. It is human frailty made palpable.

But this was your group’s first experience of death, and you, collectively, had no tradition for such a thing.

So perhaps you may think of this as your group’s first failure, as a passage out of innocence into experience. It was a defining moment; how each person responded to this death becomes a permanent mark.

Maybe you can now rise to the occasion and make something good come of this.

Listen. Try to heal your relationship with each of these dear friends.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Bent rules

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 25, 2004

My boyfriend and I decided we could kiss other people, but he went further. What should I do?


Dear Cary,

I have been with the same man for more than six years. We met in high school, our relationship survived college and living together as recent grads.

About six months ago, my boyfriend moved to another city, five hours away. The long-distance thing was hard but I still had my life in our first city and he had a couple of friends in his city so we figured we could make it work.

Things really were going great — we’d see each other on weekends regularly, and during the week, even when living together we were both so busy we were OK with talking on the phone constantly and other forms of communication.

A month ago, he mentioned that he would like to “loosen” the rules to our relationship and that if he happened to be out somewhere and meet a girl he wanted to be friends with he felt like as soon as he mentioned his long-term girlfriend the new girl didn’t want to even pursue a friendship. We decided that it was OK to not say anything and even kiss other people but no current friends and no sex (in the Republican sense of that word). As a safety precaution, I told him I would want to know everything that happened — some friends called me crazy but I am glad I did this.

Last week, he called to tell me that at a friend’s party he made out with a girl. I knew he was lying and demanded to know all the details. Turns out he had “intimate relations” and sex with one of his friends. By the way, we were each other’s first and only.

I feel like I should cut him out of my life for betraying me so deeply but I still love him so much.

My friends all say different things, from dump him, to accept his apologies, to move down there to keep an eye on him, to just give it time. One thing I find frustrating is that he doesn’t seem to regret getting together with this girl, but he seems genuinely sorry that it hurt me.

We always communicated so well when we had problems and this is the first time that we are unable to come up with a solution. I thought we would get married, but now I feel like I can’t trust him.

Betrayed

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Dear Betrayed,

When he first mentioned to you that he wanted to “loosen” the rules, did it worry you at all? Was there anything different about the tone of his voice or his choice of words? Did it bother you in some way that you couldn’t quite articulate? Perhaps it bothered you but you wanted to be reasonable; perhaps you wanted to prove to yourself that you could trust him. At any rate, maybe he didn’t have a clear plan to sleep with this woman, but something had probably crossed his mind, and he was testing the waters. This conversation was an opportunity for you to express your reservations about where such a loosening of the rules might lead. He may have been looking to you, in fact, to express such reservations. When you instead agreed to his proposal, I think you implicated yourself in the outcome. I’m not saying he’s not responsible for what he did. But your acquiescence increased the likelihood that he would commit this indiscretion. For that reason, I do not think it was such a terrible betrayal. It was more like a foreseeable accident.

What you did, it seems to me, was akin to telling a kid it’s OK to play with matches in the forest as long as he doesn’t start a forest fire. It’s your responsibility to see where his actions might lead, and to prevent it.

Perhaps in some murky, unacknowledged way, you were testing him to see how far he would go. People have only so much willpower and so much awareness of their own drives. If you test them enough, they will eventually fail. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. It just means he’s human.

So to now condemn him on the basis of his failing this test seems harsh to me. On the other hand, his rationale about women not wanting to be friends with him when they find out he has a girlfriend sounds like a typical load of boyfriend bull. Women will be friends with you if you have a girlfriend. They just won’t sleep with you. That lame-ass story makes me suspect he really did have a plan in mind and was just looking for permission.

But I don’t think you need to break up with him. I just think you need to be a little more realistic. Since he’s your first partner, you’re young and you’ve been together since high school, you probably didn’t see this coming. But it’s something that was bound to happen, given the risk you took. I’d suggest you forgive him and try to stay together. Just tell him point-blank not to kiss other women.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

How to let go of old resentments

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your thoughts.

Stuck in the Middle

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Dear Stuck in the Middle,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Bad things

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

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


Dear Cary,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confused and Sad

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Dear Confused and Sad,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m hanging by my fingernails — but it feels good!

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 1, 2005

I’ve got this situation with my husband that’s really rough. Maybe I should move on?


Dear Cary –

My husband wants to go visit his lovers. And I’m strongly considering moving on.

My husband has been cultivating a relationship with two men, life partners in an open relationship, since about 1993. One of the two was his father’s lover, and quite frankly I have been motivated partially by some concern for what I perceive as the inappropriateness of that relationship. But as important, or more, I am dedicated to monogamy. I love my husband. We are compatible to a degree that is unusual, and remarked upon by others. I met him in 1997, and we were married in 1999.

The relationship has never been easy. My husband is an alcoholic, and the first three years of the relationship were characterized by sleepless nights and other such drama. On particularly wild evenings, I’d drag my unconscious husband inside the chain-link fence (we lived in a scary neighborhood, and I was afraid he’d get attacked otherwise) and leave him to sober up. This period culminated in a catastrophic accident (likely his fault), which left him with over $200,000 in hospital bills, unable to work for two years, and partially disabled to this day. I don’t want to whine, but I supported us through this period and likely always will earn more than he does by a factor of 10.

I have always held multiple-skilled jobs, and when I wanted something I couldn’t afford, I picked up additional work from waitressing to freelance gigs. He is now in college, which I pay for, and has become a licensed craftsman. He has gone to visit his lovers three times now, once when we were not committed to each other, once solo (when of course he had sex with them), and once, last Thanksgiving, with me. So, bringing us to the present, last night he told me that his lovers had asked him to come visit again and were offering him a plane ticket to do so. He claims this is not a sexual visit, but understands where I stand on the issue.

I spent last night without sleep in a diner, drinking coffee and eating bad food, unable and unwilling to share our bed with him. Because I am absolutely appalled and angry. But I am also looking to the future. I am thinking of a life without him, and thinking of what might be available to me.

My feelings are complicated. I am concerned for him, angry at being thrown over and lied to (because I don’t trust him not to have sex with them, and may never), and feel that this situation is patently unfair. For starters, I haven’t been able to take a real vacation in over a year. I have been sent for work to many vacation-worthy, places and I have gone to every single one of them alone because my husband was too busy to come with me. Lying on a pristine beach … alone. Eating sushi in San Francisco … alone. On a big game hunt … alone. I have two upcoming assignments which he won’t join me on, either. And he backed out of our mutual vacation this fall, which would be the first we’ve taken together outside the United States.

I have been a good girl. I am not old, ugly, or incapable of getting action. Indeed, I turn down people regularly who assume that I am single because they have never seen my husband. And because my primary job is, in essence, negotiating with wealthy people, I meet many cultured, genteel, wealthy, available men, some of whom are interested in me. Finally, I have devoted a significant portion of my paycheck to our home, and to my husband’s college, retirement fund, and healthcare. Because of poor planning on his part, I just donated part of my college fund (which I have been building up so I can return to college when he finishes) to him and last year donated additional money to the IRS. Frankly, though I worry about the effect that my leaving would have on him and on me, the persistence of this issue pisses me off. And I suspect I can do better.

I realize that any partner is challenging, and that any relationship would take effort. But I sometimes dream of being with someone who doesn’t toy with my emotions, truly values me above others, and can be my professional equal. Am I wrong to fantasize about alternative partners and what they might hold for me?

Wrong to Fantasize?

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Dear Wrong to Fantasize,

Here’s how your situation strikes me. It’s as though you had written to say, “Dear Cary, I have been hanging by my fingernails from the edge of a cliff for a few years now and, though it’s not really all that bad, as I have learned to kick my feet to frighten off the buzzards, nevertheless I have begun to wonder if I might be better off if I were to hoist myself back up on the ledge where I could sit comfortably and catch my breath. At least for a few minutes, or possibly an hour. Not that I would like to permanently reside on the ledge. I like hanging by my fingers from the edge of the cliff, and I’m good at it. But still, lately I’m beginning to wonder just how much longer I’ll be able to do this. I may eventually have to change positions not because I want to necessarily but simply because I run out of strength. What do you think?”

And of course what I think is, How did you decide to hang from the cliff by your fingernails in the first place, and why is it only now occurring to you to hoist yourself back on the ledge? Not that I don’t respect you for the talent and effort and sheer brute strength required to do what you’re doing. But to what practical purpose?

Maybe I’m going too fast here. To back up a little: No, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to fantasize about a better life. In fact, I think you should move on in your life and make things easier on yourself. But when and if you begin to take action in that regard, you may encounter upsetting emotions. So it wouldn’t hurt to think about how you ended up here, before you make any sudden moves.

Let’s just speculate. Why have you taken on so much? Maybe it feels more secure to hang from the cliff by your fingernails than to trust somebody to grab your wrist and pull you up. Have you ever been able to depend on other people in your life? Might it be that in your early life there was no one to depend on but yourself? And, not to be insulting, but we do tend sometimes to do things for symbolic reasons, as though we had an audience. Is your hanging by your fingernails a demonstration of some sort? If so, you might ask yourself why you need to demonstrate your strength, and to whom you are demonstrating it.

Wouldn’t it be great to just haul yourself over the ledge and relax, sit there for a while enjoying the view? Oh, look, there’s your husband, stumbling! Look out! Oh, no! He’s going to fall! You’d better run and help him!

What if you just let him fall … as a thought experiment? Why do you have to rescue him? I mean, who says so?

Speaking of your husband, that business with his father’s lover indicates that there may be a lot of pain and confusion in his life that he’s going to have to deal with himself. That’s another reason, in my book, to think about extricating yourself. Maybe it would be best if you work on your life for a while and he works on his.

I’m going to make another guess, which is that when you begin looking for patterns in the choices you have made, you may find a pattern of choosing weak people and not trusting them. There is a connection there: If you choose weak people, you don’t have to trust them. Conversely, having strong people around can be threatening: You may have to trust them; you may have to give up some control. Hanging from the cliff by your fingernails may be a lot of work, but at least you have control. Besides, the view is truly amazing!

But I really think someone ought to fly close by in a helicopter and put it to you over the loudspeaker: Hey! You! Hanging by your fingernails from the cliff! Get back on the ledge! Now!

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My son eloped and cut me out

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 17, 2012

I only got a generic notice, as if I were just a bystander, or an acquaintance!


Dear Cary,

It’s my turn. I need advice.

I opened my mail earlier this week and found a wedding announcement — from my son. My son, whom I raised alone since he was 3 (he’s 30 now).  My son, whose selfish temper tantrums through high school stopped me from dating women (and therefore, anybody) for years. Whose tour of duty in Iraq I gritted my teeth and “supported” him through despite my soul-level objection to his joining the Army.

The same son who, after he got his head right, volunteered — practically begged — to officiate at my wedding last year to a very sweet woman who rode out his homophobia until it was gone.

The son (my only child) about whom friends marvel, “You guys are SO close! It’s heartwarming.”

He married his girlfriend of five years, which is whom he SHOULD marry — and I’ve encouraged that for a long time. But eloping with no discussion with anyone (family, anyway) is disappointing, to say the least. There were no family issues going on about them; everyone on both sides was hoping for and expecting them to marry sometime soon. I’m sad that they’ve just taken a little jaunt downtown and gotten married in secret, taking away from everyone the opportunity to participate and celebrate. Certainly they have the RIGHT to elope — but everything legal is not also a good idea.

All of that one could get over, and I no doubt will, but to just simply have been on the address list for a photocopied announcement — that’s too much for me. I got the news along with anyone else whose address they had — high-school classmates, work friends, former employees. It’s not like there was any other unhappiness going on; in fact, he called me “just to say hi” the same day they mailed the announcements, but without responding truthfully to “What’s new with you?” I’m overwhelmingly sad at having been held at arms’ length over this, and he is royally ticked off by my telling him — carefully — how hurt I was to get this notice in the mail. I was clear that I am happy for him to be married to this woman, and I sincerely hope it’s forever, but I feel like they just went off on a lark (“Hee-hee, let’s go get secret married and not tell ANYBODY — they’ll be SO surprised when they get the note!”) like teenagers, with no thought about the broader meaning of joining together publicly, of themselves as not just independent beings, but also part of a larger community of family and friends.

My friends are shocked, some even angry, and I feel hurt, hurt, hurt and sad, sad, sad. Slapped in the face. The wind knocked out of me. In light of my generic notification, I picked out a generic “congratulations” card and signed it with my first and last names (instead of “Mom”).  I have to see both of them this weekend at a family birthday party (and I can’t disappoint my young niece by staying away). I don’t know how I can do this without crying. How? How do I deal this weekend, and how do I get out of this mire of sadness I’m stuck in?

Sign me

The Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom

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Dear Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom,

You sound like a good and well-meaning person who was hit hard by something and had no defenses against it. Sometimes something will just bring you to your knees. You aren’t expecting to be so deeply affected by something, and you aren’t expecting someone to do something, and then when it happens you have no defenses.

Having no defenses can be a good thing. Sometimes it’s the only way to truly feel something. In fact, I tend to think we often live in awful unreality, that we glide over tragedy and fate too easily, that we are glib and casual when we would be better served if we were grave and formal and silent, for daily we walk amid miracles and crimes.

I was at my locker this morning at the gym, next to a Russian man, and I said, “Excuse me,” so I could dial my combination into my green padlock and open my locker. I looked into his face as he turned, and I saw pain and sorrow and anger; the look was so open as to be startling; he was not guarded and bland or shallowly comical like so many of the American middle-class men who frequent the gym; I saw his face and I thought of what horrors he had endured, what secrets he had, what awful things he had lived through. His face was grave and true. It humbled me. I sat quietly and waited while he dressed.

So let’s just talk about emotional pain, and the dignity it involves, and its power. Let’s not talk yet about why your son did what he did or any of that. For starters, let’s say that emotional pain comes from an injury not to the body but to the soul, to our self-esteem or confidence or sense of who we are. In this case, it seems that your sense of  self in relation to your son was injured. You thought your son held you in a certain regard but his actions seem to show that he does not.

Let’s again delay talking about why your son did what he did and keep talking about you.  Let’s talk about your sense of yourself in relation to him. You have been his loving mom. You have been the most important person in his life. Being his mom has been one of your greatest roles. It has been a constant buoying force in your life. It has filled you with contentment and joy throughout the day. It has served to bolster your self-esteem and standing among your friends. Think about how important his place in your life has been. Just allow yourself to look at it. It might seem that to evaluate it like this might diminish it, but it won’t. It will just help you see in how many different ways your relationship to your son has been central to your self-esteem and well-being.

To be somewhat glib, let’s say that emotional pain goes away when the injury heals. In this case, your sense of self in relation to your son was injured. So how can that heal? Your son has suddenly moved out of your sphere and you are going to have to adjust. You are going to have to find new sources of joy and self-esteem. You might begin thinking about how your role in life will now change. You might begin thinking about how to let go of your son and find other sources of joy and contentment and pride day to day. You might also think about how to have a better relationship with your son, on these new terms in which he has moved out of your sphere of influence.

Let’s also now consider what your son might have been thinking and feeling. He broke some rules. He did something heedless but also romantic. I wonder how he sees rules. It is possible that he does not take certain rules very seriously. You say he joined the Army and went to Iraq. The Army has a lot of rules. Perhaps his tour of duty in Iraq left him with a feeling that some rules are important because they protect life and limb, and others are civilian rules that are not about life and death and so they don’t matter as much.

I don’t know if you pray or not, but if you do, it might not hurt to pray for your son. That might just mean conjuring him up in your thoughts and wishing for his happiness. It might just mean having him in your thoughts in a kind way. Pray for him to be happy and to be safe and to endure and prosper.

You might also pray for him to gradually acquire the wisdom to see how his choice hurt you so deeply; you might pray that he will acknowledge that one day. I think he will. I think he will one day see that it hurt you deeply, and he will tell you that he didn’t want to hurt you. Pray for him and love him. You will all get over this.

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