I’m sleeping with my best friend’s fiancé

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 16, 2008

I didn’t like him at first because he was treating her bad, but now I’ve got him under my skin.


Dear Cary,

My best friend got engaged to the father of her kids about four months ago. I didn’t like him because in the beginning of their relationship he used to cheat on her and just treat her terrible. I’ve known my best friend a little over 14 years now and I hold a grudge toward him because of this. I really didn’t like him until he confessed to me that he liked me and had feelings for me the first time he met me.

At first I wanted to tell my best friend, but I didn’t want to get involved in that so I just decided to keep it to myself. Ever since that day he’s been texting me telling me that he wants to make me happy and just wants me to fill a void that he’s missing. He says that he loves my best friend but he feels incomplete. But now I caught feelings for him because I got to know him more than what I knew before. I understood why my friend was still with him even after all the cheating and lies because underneath it all he is a good person.

So I finally gave in and slept with him and now his feelings for me have been getting deeper. Now I feel the same way. I know what I’m doing is wrong but I can’t seem to shake off these feelings for him. I’m stuck and don’t know what to do.

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

You need to end this relationship. If you don’t, you will get hurt. If it is too difficult to end it while you are still living where you are living then consider moving away for three months to a year. If you have relatives, say, in California, or somewhere like that, ask them if you can come and stay with them for a while.

If you cannot get away, then you are just going to have to break up with him in a direct, straightforward way and stick to your decision. Tell him that this relationship is wrong and it is over and that is that.

After you have broken up with him, here are the rules: You cannot see this man. You cannot have coffee with him or talk with him on the phone. You cannot accept texts from him. You have to cut off all contact with him. You have to end this thing.

You may continue to feel a strong desire for him. That is OK to feel. You can feel it. It won’t kill you. You can live with desire. You can also redirect the desire. If the desire is mostly sexual, find somebody who turns you on to have sex with. If it is also that he gives you a warm feeling, a feeling of being liked and cared for and understood, then seek this feeling too, with friends or family. Find someone — not your best friend! — that you can confide in about this. Give yourself what you need. But end this relationship.

For some readers, the question of whether you confess to your friend that you slept with her fiancé will be the big issue. I’m sidestepping that, OK? She may find out. She may not. You may feel compelled to tell her. You may not. He may tell her. I am focusing on what you must do now and in the long term to build a good life, given what has happened.

And I’m thinking about your best friend. I feel for her too. What is she going to do? Do you want her to marry this guy? Really? Will she be better off with him or without him? What is he going to do for her? How is he going to help her live a good and happy life?

I am really concerned about your friend. She has children to support and a fiancé who cannot be trusted. The two people closest to her are deceiving her. She is a single mom who must support her children.

Plus, I must say, you owe this friend of yours. You have deceived her. You owe her. So after you have broken up with this man and severed all contact with him, I would like you to turn your attention to your friend. Ask yourself what you can do for her. Wouldn’t it be great if you were to settle down and get married and have kids, and your kids and her kids could grow up together? That would be a pretty good way for this to end up.

There are many reasons why she needs your presence. Given the situation she is in, she may be in for a hard few years and could use a friend nearby. This man, her fiancé, may cause her all kinds of heartache if she marries him. And if she does not marry him, she will be a single mother trying to make ends meet. So either way, she is going to have her hands full. And you are in a position to act in a new way, a way that will make you feel good about yourself.

What if you could find a good man and fall in love with him and marry him and have kids with him and live near her? I know you’ve been deceiving her but you can change. Or maybe you don’t have kids. Maybe you stay single. But you put together some kind of stable life. If you can put together a stable life and live near her and remain her friend throughout the next 20 years or so, while her kids are growing up, you can do a very good thing in this world.

People don’t tell you these things. We see families grow up around us but people don’t really tell us why some families and friends remain happy and others drift apart and end up lonely and bitter. Part of it is that some people are just situated near the ones they love. Sometimes it’s geography. So think about it at least. You obviously care for this person even though you’ve been deceiving her.

Twenty years may seem far in the future. But before you know it, 20 years will have gone by. It is in your power to decide where you are going to be while those years go by.

So that is what I would do. I would break off this relationship firmly and permanently. I would try to settle down and live near this friend. I would try to live a good life and maybe get married and have some kids and be there for her, so that whatever happens, whether she marries the fiancé or decides that he cannot be trusted, whether she finds another man or stays single, you can be a stable, ongoing presence in her life and in the lives of her kids. And you can continue to enjoy her presence as a lifelong friend.

It can be done. It would be a good thing.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I fell for a younger guy and now my head is spinning

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 I’m a wife, a mother and a doctoral candidate. I’m not the kind of person this happens to. What the hell am I doing?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 6, 2008

Hi Cary,

I’m a 28-year-old doctoral student, wife and mother; it’s a life I would’ve described once as busy, happy and thankfully boring. All has changed. This last summer, I went to my 10-year high school reunion and ended up having an affair. Up until that point, my husband was the only person I had ever had sex with. My husband and I met when I was a senior in high school. I hadn’t been saving myself for my future husband (no great moral or religious convictions involved). I was just waiting for a nice respectful guy. I did not know we would remain in love and marry five years later, but that is exactly what happened. He has insisted many times in our 11-year relationship that I would want to have sex with somebody else someday. I thought the notion was preposterous; I assured him I was too level-headed to want something so silly. Well, it turns out, he was right and I was naïve. Despite my intoxication, I was quite calculated in my decision making. The boy was 21 (so he said) and had crashed the after party; we didn’t know each other beforehand. It appeared to be the quintessential one-night stand, and I have now learned the hard way that infidelity is a crime of opportunity.

Since that night, I’ve discovered some interesting things about the boy. First, he’s not even 21 (which was a scandalous-enough age for me), he’s only 18. I about had a heart attack when I Googled him and saw he was in eighth grade in 2004. Second, he graduated high school last May and is an incoming freshman where I go to school and TEACH. After confronting him about lying, you’d think I’d wash my hands of the whole thing and try to pretend it never happened. That is what I had planned on doing, after all. Instead, I have been talking to him, texting him and IM-ing him almost every day, in secret of course, but often. We’ve hung out a few times. We have not had sex again, but that’s not for a lack of desire on my part, as I fantasize about him daily and we flirt constantly.

I gave him the opportunity to “escape” from this soap opera right after I discovered his lie. I wrote him a long e-mail, explained how complex my life is, how he’s just a young kid who shouldn’t be weighed down by my drama, and how it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if we cut our losses and stopped our “friendship,” as I am uncertain as to whether I will be able to keep it only friendly. Surprisingly, he seems uninterested in actually having sex again (though he only insists on abstaining for my good, he rationalizes). He is still texting me and IM-ing me on a daily basis about seemingly inconsequential things, much to my confusion and delight.

I’m baffled at our behavior — his and mine. I can’t figure out what he could possibly be getting from our relationship. I assumed he was using me for sex (as I was him) and that we would easily just stop talking. Instead, I have this sinking suspicion that we are using each other, I just can’t for the life of me understand for what. Talking to him is exciting, he makes me laugh, and I give him advice about his love life and he even wants to give me advice on my marriage (what does an 18-year-old know about marriage?!). I also give him advice about navigating school, and tomorrow I’m meeting him to help him figure out how to catch up in one of his classes he was thinking about dropping.

Even more baffling to me is how I could have anything in common with an 18-year-old. He’s shattered every misconception I’ve ever had about undergraduates, let alone freshmen! He’s handsome and surprisingly smart; he has novel and interesting opinions. I admire his free spirit and rebelliousness and he always keeps me guessing. I have a feeling that both of us are flattered by the other’s attention.

Cary, I was once faithful, logical and level-headed. Suddenly I feel like a stupid teenager again with a giant crush. My whole world has flipped upside down. I thought I knew myself, that I knew and understood the world, and suddenly I don’t think I understand anything anymore. I do feel guilty and ashamed about my infidelity, but that’s overshadowed for now by my obsession with meeting and communicating with this boy. What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him? What in the world are we doing?!

Completely Out of Character

Dear Out of Character,

I guess what I am struck by — well, let’s back up. First, since you refer to this young man as a boy, I strongly suggest that in your conduct with this person you scrupulously comply with all laws and professional regulations that apply. You were wrong about his age to start with; I’d suggest you verify his age — for real. If you don’t know what laws and professional regulations apply, find out. And then make sure you comply with them. Also you’re going to have to work out this thorny problem of deceiving your husband. But you also need to work out what is going on emotionally. If I can be of any help at all, it is probably in that area.

Here’s how I would put it: You have been visited by a stranger. That stranger is yourself. She demands that you get to know her.

While you’ve been pursuing your degree, you’ve been pretending she doesn’t exist. But here she is. She has desires and tastes that may shock you. They don’t make sense to you. But here she is. Think how she feels.

In pursuit of intellectual accomplishment we sometimes shunt aside elements of our personality; years later they arrive like strangers at our door. We ask, Who is this? Who is this person? Do I know this person? You don’t know me?! she asks. I’m you!

You’re me?

Sure I am.

Thus begins the hard but rewarding work of integration. Each personality is like a family, or a town. So get to know the relatives. It’s not a stranger at all. It’s you. Get to know her.

I want to make this observation, too: Your emotional life is at least as complex, and requires as much subtle intellectual attention, as the subject of your doctoral studies. Like any body of knowledge, it requires that the questions we pose be informed and pointed.

You ask, “What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him?” That can easily be answered, but only begins to get at the heart of the matter.

For starters, you’re getting love, for heaven’s sake. Who doesn’t want love? You’re getting admiration and the wonderful feeling of being sexually attractive to someone. These are not trivial things. But they are elementary. As you accept what has happened, I think you are going to ask bigger, more profound and thoughtful questions.

For now, I suggest that you confess. Confess that you are human. You are not that different from anyone else.

You are just as capable of acting in a way that is scandalous, dishonest, secretive, alluring, sensuous and dangerous as anyone else. You are also reasonable, intelligent, diligent, honest and reliable. You are both.

Surprise: This is you!

Let’s celebrate what this means: You are not only a doctoral student but a woman of mystery, trapped in intrigue.

Did you think that this mad, crazy love the poets write about was something they made up? It has come to visit you. So I implore you to open yourself to this and learn. Again, speaking in very elementary terms, here are some of the guiding principles, or salient features, of this new terrain.

You don’t have control of your attraction.

You don’t understand it.

It feels wonderful.

It defies social norms.

It exposes you to danger.

You feel you are betraying someone.

You are breaking rules.

It is forbidden.

It came unexpectedly.

You and your love object are outwardly very different — your social class, age and education are markedly different.

You can’t make sense of it.

You are conducting it in secret.

It fulfills needs you did not know you had.

You are frightened by the fact that you cannot turn it off and on; it is out of your control.

You are, of course, faced with tricky practical and ethical problems because of it. So work out the practical problems. Deal with them upfront. But honor what this means. You are more complicated and passionate than you thought.

He dumps me, then says, Can we be friends?

We were going to be married. I’m finally getting over the breakup when he calls and wants to be chummy!

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Sep 21, 2011

Dear Cary,

About six months ago, the man I thought I was going to marry left me unceremoniously for another woman. During the aftermath — the moving out, the settling of affairs — he acted cruelly and horribly, cementing the split and making damn sure I didn’t come back. I spent much of the next few months depressed, having constant nightmares about him, unable to get out of bed and constantly self-medicating, because the reality of my situation was too much to face. I work freelance, and have been accepting just enough work to scrape by, wishing the end of every gig to come so I could get back into bed. Slowly, I have been scraping out of this. I saw a therapist for a bit. I started dating a nice man who makes me feel loved and is kind enough to both give me my space and be there to help me heal. I was working more, dedicating myself to my jobs and beginning to hustle for new clients. I found the inspiration I had been missing to move forward with my pet project. I had been making new friends, reconnecting with old ones and looking ahead. Seemingly, I had forgotten all about him.

And then I received an email from my ex nonchalantly asking if we could be friends again. The grapevine quickly informed me that he and his new love had split. At first I felt palpable outrage — how dare he contact me so casually. I felt like I was owed an apology, or at the very least an acknowledgment of how badly he’d behaved. I did not respond; instead, I blocked him from contacting me and searched my psyche for the schadenfreude that was sure to come.

Instead, I’ve fallen very quickly back into depression. My thoughts are consumed with him and I am once again flattened by the sadness. In a way I hadn’t before, I miss him desperately. I wake up every morning wishing he was next to me. I’ve shut everybody out again, stopped looking for work, and spend most of my days sleeping, yet again. I’m lost and I don’t know how to pull out of this again. Although I know with every fiber of my rational mind that I should not contact him and that no good can come of having him in my life, I am overwhelmed with these feelings that I can only explain away as female biology. My brain is trying to find ways to rationalize the following statement: “If he is no longer with her, it stands to reason that he should be with me again.” I feel hurt that he hasn’t tried to get back together with me and sad that he destroyed what we had to pursue something that turned out to be so fleeting. I want to shake him and ask him, “Was it worth it?” I want to remind him how wonderful we were together, before the hurt and the betrayal. But these are ridiculous thoughts that I have no intention of entertaining. Instead I lie in bed tortured, wondering how and when I can get my life back.

I don’t have much of a support system. I met my ex when I moved to a new city, and now that he’s gone, I’ve found myself with few people to lean on. I live with my best friend now, but she has no advice, except to take the time I need to try to forget him and move forward. She has had some difficulty come up recently, so I don’t want to burden her with my troubles, which seem very petty and juvenile in comparison. I’ve asked the man I’m seeing to give me space, because I don’t want to lay this on him. What do I do? How do I heal and get back, at least to where I was before the email came in? Reaching out to my ex for closure is not an option; I feel that any contact with him right now would push me deeper down the hole. I also live in constant fear of running into him, or worse — ending up on a job together (we are in the same industry). I can’t regress every time I am reminded of his existence. I know that time is always the answer to these things, but I’ve never been fragile or delicate, and this feeling of being a walking house of cards is only making me feel worse. Please advise.

Being Sucked Back In Sucks

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Dear Sucked Back In,

There are three things I would like to say to you. The first is that you were mistreated and have a right to be angry. The second is that this is not a good time to push away new friends, so stay close to the man you recently began dating. The third is that sometimes breakups are not just “the way things turned out,” but acts of deliberate cruelty.

There are times, I’m sure, when people have a change of heart. They don’t know what is in their hearts, and they lie to themselves, or they think a relationship will work out, they think difficulties will be overcome, they overestimate their own capacities and the capacities of their mate. Things end.

But then there are the people who fuck you over.

This guy fucked you over.

He didn’t offer an apology. He didn’t throw himself at your feet. He didn’t apologize to you and to your father and mother and brother and sister and uncles and cousins and township.

He just called a few months later and asked if you could be friends.

Those of us who grew up in arid, overly intellectual households full of complicated codes and passive-aggressive behavior, we probably know about this better than most: One way to assure ourselves that someone loves us is to cause them pain. So we go about hurting people in order to remind ourselves that we can be loved.

That’s pretty sick, isn’t it? Knowledge of such impulses ought to inoculate us. But it doesn’t.

So what happens to those of us who may be full of pain but are too good to go around hurting others? We hurt ourselves. We turn it inward, being the little angels that we are. We turn it inward with depression, with drink, with suicide, with cutting, with failure.

So this guy seems to have no scruples. But you, you have scruples. So instead of gathering your tribe to light their torches and go burn his fucking hut down, you rely on some abstract notion of inner schadenfreude. You shut down and pray for vengeance. You turn your anger inward where it festers, sucking you into a bleak landscape of self-hatred and self-blaming. Face it, sister: You were fucked over and have a right to be angry. Schadenfreude won’t cut it. You don’t get any schadenfreude because this guy hasn’t had a fall. He hasn’t suffered. That’s the further outrage of it. He’s had a little girl trouble. That’s all. Other than that, he’s going about his self-involved little life, taking what he can take and giving nothing back.

He made you a promise, and relying on that promise you did many things. You arranged your life in a certain way. You were deceived. In some families, in some villages, this would be a crime. You are right to be outraged.

It seems to me that in arranging our romantic lives in such private and secular ways, we overlook how society, family and religion have protected us in the past from such calamities by placing a high price on a promise of marriage. And I suppose it is necessary to note how in gaining independence women have given up some social protections. We say, happy day, sister, you’re on your own, but where is the social remedy? Where is his punishment? Where is his amends? Where is the family, or the society, to enforce the making of such amends?

Well, we have insisted that family and society get out of our hair, so we can handle things on our own. And now we sit alone with our catastrophes.

So reach out to those around you. This is no time to be shy. Go out with this new man. Burden him with your woes. Burden him until he yells out for you to stop.

Do not let your life be further wrecked by this ex. If he shows up again, chase him off your property.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I lost my inheritance on a “technicality”

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 1, 2009

Due to an “error,” the stepdaughter gets everything.


Dear Cary,

It really is not about the money. My dad worked two and three jobs his whole life and ended up with a relatively small estate to distribute among his eight kids and his stepdaughter. He died first. Then his wife died. My brother took her into his home and his beautiful, loving family helped her die a better death than tied screaming to a hospital bed, which is where she was.

Now the estate is being settled and due to a technicality, an error in his wife’s will, all of the proceeds are being given to the stepdaughter, even though my dad and his wife’s wills stated that all proceeds will be shared among all of the children. We are all asked to sign a paper that we relinquish all claims to the estate and accept a token amount from the stepdaughter.

I can’t bring myself to sign it. Mostly I feel like it is a disrespect of my dad and his whole life and an unethical act. I feel like if I sign this paper and accept this insulting amount of money, I am going against his wishes and it’s just plain wrong. Please believe me that the amount of money is so small as to be negligible, even if we got the full amount that the will instructed. So it really is not about the money. I know people often say that and it really IS about the money. But the money feels more symbolic to me than anything.

I don’t know what to do. Is it Buddhism that says when you don’t know what to do, do nothing? I try to live an ethical life with my actions in line with my beliefs. (Although I don’t have the guts to be a tax resistor.)

This resistance to relinquishing the claim feels like it comes from a very deep place inside, a big no to being reasonable. I have no interest at all in suing or going to court or hiring a lawyer. I just do not want to sign a paper that feels wrong to me. I don’t even know if it will hold up the distribution process or what. I don’t care. I guess I should care because some of my sisters are in extremely bad financial positions and the small amount would be a big amount to them.

This whole thing feels like a mocking twist of fate — the Cinderella story gone south. The selfish stepsister gets the prince and fortune. The good sisters and brothers get sent out in a blizzard with no bread crumbs to lead them home. The bad guys win. I have mixed up many folkloric themes but you get my drift.

I love your column and appreciate any thoughts you can share with me, Cary. Thank you very much for your work.

Sister Left Out in the Cold

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Dear Sister Left Out in the Cold,

When an “error in the will” or a “technicality” causes one heir to benefit to the exclusion of all the others, doesn’t it make you wonder what actually happened? Do you feel satisfied with the explanation that it was just a “technicality,” an “error in the will”? I don’t think I would feel satisfied with such an explanation. So I do think you should see a lawyer — not to fight this necessarily, just to get a clear understanding of what happened.

Did someone fail to file something by a deadline? Was some language the wrong language? Was something mistyped? Was something misfiled? What exactly was this “technicality”?

In my book, there’s another word for “technicalities.” That word is “law.” “Technicalities” are what the law is made of: specific, detailed, exacting requirements. Lawyers are supposed to take care of all these “technicalities” so that the wishes of the dead are honored.

When these requirements are not carried out, and that failure creates an unfair advantage for one party to the detriment of the others, that doesn’t really sound like a “technicality” to me. It sounds more like a “screwing.”

Isn’t that really what’s going on here? A screwing?

Isn’t that really why you’re upset? There was a shared understanding and a clear intent, as spelled out in two people’s wills, about what should happen. Then an entirely different thing happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it benefits one party to the detriment of all the others.

And you’re being very polite about this.

As heirs, I guess we’re supposed to honor the dead with our piety and humility and acceptance. That’s what’s underneath this, at least in part, emotionally speaking, isn’t it?

But do we really honor the dead by letting a “technicality” corrupt what they wished for?

If everyone agrees that this “technicality” is unfair, that the estate was supposed to be distributed equally, then perhaps you draw up a document stating that the stepdaughter promises, upon the settling of the estate, to distribute the proceeds to all the children, as is the intent as understood by all of you. If she’s willing to do this, then maybe you know that it’s mainly fate that seems bent on screwing you. Whereas if she clings to the notion that this “error,” this “technicality,” is what rules, then perhaps you come to understand that it was not a technicality at all.

At the very least, you deserve to know what happened.

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It may be something truly random and innocent, the fault of no one. But then what we’re talking about is incompetence. You’re being screwed by fate and incompetence. OK, at least you know. So what’s worse, to be screwed by somebody who knows he’s screwing you, or to be screwed by incompetence itself, by somebody who doesn’t even know he’s screwing you — by somebody who, in turn, is no doubt being royally screwed by somebody else and hasn’t even felt it yet?

I can’t decide. It’s so hard to pick. Maybe it depends on how good-looking he is.

Damn. I’m getting worked up now, too.

I’m getting worked up because words like “technicality” and “error in the will” are the costumery of scoundrels. I’m getting worked up because the law can be a beautiful instrument for justice and should not be used for obfuscation or to justify the unjustifiable. I’m getting worked up because we ought always, as citizens, be alert to the manifold and dazzling ways that people will use the law to blind us, to confuse us, to frighten us into submission, to remind us of our subservience before the masters of the law, to remind us that we are not really free citizens in the face of the law but servants from whom only obedience is expected, and that as children of parents we ought to be only meek and grateful for whatever passes to us, and never question the law or the lawyers and their “technicalities” and “errors.”

I’m getting worked up because use of the law to hide the truth reminds us that torture, in one universe, is what those who want to carry it out say it is, and that legality, for those who want to break the law, is whatever they say it is, and that what’s right, despite the manifestly stated wishes of all involved, is what the lawyers say is right, because they are in command of all the “technicalities.”

It stinks. You’re getting screwed and it stinks and you deserve to see the face of whoever or whatever is screwing you. Whether that face be the face of fateful incompetence, of greed, of selfishness, of covertly hostile maneuvering, of brilliant cunning, or of accident, of bureaucratic bungling, of unconscious wishes surfacing as error, whatever: You deserve to see the face of whatever is screwing you.

So find a good lawyer, one who is on your side, show the lawyer the facts, and don’t leave the office until you yourself understand what happened.

Then at least you know. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is healing. At least, by knowing the facts, we reconcile ourselves to the world of scoundrels and bungling and simple, blasted fate.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

The bride fired her bridesmaid — me!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 10, 2009

I guess I’m guilty of conduct unbecoming a bridesmaid — but I thought she chose me for who I am


Dear Cary,

I was asked by a dear friend to be her maid of honor. I was immediately a little worried. I’m not into traditional wedding fanfare. I’m kind of like the stereotypical guy in that respect: Tell me where to go and what to do, and I’ll do it. Plus, the wedding has been on a rushed schedule at a time when I have a lot going on in my life too. Add to that the fact that the bride and I have been drifting ever since she met her fiancé, about a year ago. The two are inseparable and not that social; I’ve just naturally spent more time with other company. Maybe my biggest mistake was not expressing my concerns when I was first asked. But I’ve been a maid of honor before and it’s gone fine, and I imagined this would be the same.

You can see the train wreck coming. Fast-forward to a month before the wedding: I get a scathing e-mail from the groom without the knowledge of my friend (I’m certain she did not know), stating that it’s time to “talk to me about my role as maid of honor” and maligning me for my many failures in the role. The e-mail was snide and contemptuous, questioned my values, and accused me of being “irresponsible,” “unaccountable,” “selfish,” of “not caring” and not being true to my “compassionate progressive values.” He said I misunderstood or underestimated the role, and that he couldn’t understand my lack of involvement or inquiries about the wedding planning. He ended by saying he had no faith that I’d show up for rehearsal and that he didn’t care anyway.

It felt like having the wind knocked out of me. So, I responded immediately, cc’ing my friend, basically saying “WTF?” (probably should have waited until I had a cooler head, admittedly). A few more e-mails ensue, I try to defend myself and point out that the groom’s e-mail was totally inappropriate and graceless, and my albeit defensive response is construed as a statement that I feel like the wedding is a burden, or that it’s all about me, and my friend’s whole family and the rest of the wedding party are royally pissed at me because of my response to the groom’s e-mail. So, my friend boots me from the wedding party because “others” don’t want me in the wedding anymore but says I can still come as a guest. I tried after my initial defensive response to be as apologetic and deferential as possible just to try to salvage things (trying to take the high road), but to no avail.

If the bride and groom’s actions sound irrational and extreme, it’s because that’s exactly how I experienced them.

After all the drama, honestly, my first reaction to being ousted was relief. A couple weeks have gone by, and now I feel totally pissed off. The truth is, I tried. I participated in planning and throwing a shower, and a bachelorette party, I got gifts, tried on dresses, etc., rearranged work responsibilities to make all the events … by no stretch was I the model maid of honor, but frankly I can’t imagine treating anyone close to me the way I’m being treated, especially someone who’d been doing things for me all summer — even if I found those efforts disappointing. And maybe this sounds like a lame excuse, but she never once expressed any hopes or expectations for what I would do. The missive from the groom was the first word ever uttered to me. I feel totally hung out to dry.

I was gracious when she dumped me, and we both tried to spin this as not an indictment of our friendship, but more and more it feels like one. Neither of us have reached out to the other since the “break,” and yesterday I reaffirmed my commitment to go to the wedding in an e-mail to see if I’m still welcome (still trying to take the high road) and received no response. It took her three days to write a tepid response that I can still come.

Our mutual friends agree I’ve been treated badly but think I should suck it up, and for the sake of the friendship put on a smile and go to the wedding. They think she’s stressed and under the influence of an overzealous fiancé and family, and that I’ll earn respect by showing up for her.

I have valued this friend. But the more I reflect on this situation I feel so angry and misunderstood. I feel I am owed an apology. It deeply offends me that my friend hasn’t stuck up for me, hasn’t acknowledged anything I actually did do for her, and doesn’t empathize with my point of view at all. Even though she blames the discord on the feelings of her family, I believe that they take their cues from her, and she could have stuck up for me as her friend.

How do I go to the wedding in these circumstances? But how do I not go, if I want to preserve a chance to salvage the friendship? Is there anything worth salvaging?

Maid of Honor Never Again

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Dear Never Again,

I have long labored under the illusion that when a bride chooses a maid of honor she is expressing her esteem and love for that person, declaring her to be part of her intimate circle of friends and family and pledging, symbolically, to include her in the new life that begins with the ceremony and will continue for years afterward.

I did not realize that choosing a maid of honor was equivalent to hiring an unpaid event planner on a probationary period, pending her demonstrated competency and loyalty to the company, lacking which she could be fired like a janitor from Manpower.

I guess I was wrong, and so were you. You thought you were chosen for who you were, for how she holds you in esteem. It turned out that you were hired provisionally on a trial basis and dismissed when your performance was judged subpar.

Knowing that weddings are pageants of power and status rather than declarations of loyalty and love can perhaps dull the blow. You can say to yourself it’s just another bullshit social competition. Also, some of the pain we find in adult friendships and social conflicts can be traced back to childhood. But that does not make the pain go away.

So just exactly what happened here? What was it about this friend that you liked so much? Did she make you feel special in some way? Did you feel when you were with her that you were the most important person in the world to her? Did her loyalty indeed shift suddenly and completely to her husband? Certain people make us feel wonderful when we are the subject of their attention but leave us devastated when, with a guiltless, frictionless, sociopathic cool, their attention shifts to a new object of reflection. Such people do not form deep bonds and cannot empathize; their relations with others are reflections of themselves. When you are giving such a person what she needs, that is, reflecting back to her a suitable image of herself, then you are her favorite and she loves you as she loves herself (ha ha). When you express yourself, however, or deviate from the image of herself she sees in you, then she turns away to find a more suitable reflection of herself.

Perhaps that is what happened. Perhaps you were the victim of a person with narcissistic tendencies. After all, a modern American wedding is a narcissist’s dream. Such a wedding ignores the great fact of all rites of passage: that while something is gained, something is lost. It only celebrates and does not mourn.

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Rather than accept the reality that not all of her friends are perfect reflections of herself, and not all of her friends exist solely to support her narrow view of who she is, which would have been an adult approach, your friend retreated from reality. The loss she might have accepted she instead transferred to you. She made you lose, rather than face reality.

It is ironic that the one ritual that is supposed to usher us into adulthood is so festooned with pastel fantasies of preadolescence. It is also an indictment of our culture. Covering ourselves in the rituals and symbols of childhood, we blind ourselves to our coldest and most bloody conquering, muttering silly platitudes about God and country while blithely marauding across the planet, conquering and destroying all that is not Disney.

By acting in such a way, the bride turned away from maturity. You, on the other hand, can use this event to grow stronger and wiser.

Painful as this is personally, I hope you will examine in detail what friendship means to you. What traits do you look for in friends? What do you value? Who among your friends is truly your ally? Who would come to your aid in a crisis? Who values you for your uniqueness and cares about your feelings? And who seems to be hanging around you only for what they can get? Who steps forward and offers help when you are in a jam or feeling bad? And who seems to be around only during the good times? Did any of your friends tell the bride what they thought of this action?

As for your own character: Each of us must know our strengths and weaknesses. Next time someone asks you something like this, you have a chance to say, Sorry, I’m not sure that’s for me. There’s no shame in that.

Lesson: Beware the narcissistic bride. If you displease her, she will inscribe the scarlet F for Fired on your forehead.

Since it’s been a few weeks since you wrote me, I include your addendum here:

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UPDATE: Dear Cary — So, I did go to the wedding, sat with our mutual friends, and was basically ignored. This was a few weeks ago, and she and I have had no contact since. I have mulled whether there is anything else I can do, but I think now the ball is in her court, and I fear that this friendship is over.

My friend and her husband are decent, reasonable people. I honestly do not know how they justify between themselves this sustained anger at me. My only suspicion is that the groom is very possessive, and as my friend’s closest girlfriend, I wonder if that was threatening to him (subconsciously, as he would never admit that to himself). He does not like her doing things without him. She accommodates this, realizing it’s an insecurity but also flattered by the depth of his love and need. I feel that he set this whole thing in motion with his explosive e-mail, and that my friend lacks the perspective right now to look objectively at what he did. I believe she sees his letter as an act of loyalty and love.

I have two rival impulses at this point: I still want to express to my friend my point of view, which I never did for fear of “ruining” her wedding. It also makes me sad to lose her as a friend. But I think this is out of my hands. I actually think the person who holds our fate in his hands at this point is the husband. And that pisses me off and makes me want to walk away. I don’t know that anything good would come of trying to talk honestly with my friend. But it feels bad, too, to walk away without an honest conversation.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

You were victimized by a sociopath. Stop putting your hand in the flame

Hi! It’s me, Cary! How ya doin?

I’m out of the pool  eating toast and thinking about the novel. I’m committed to finishing by the end of May. I have it all planned out. It’s practically done! Finally.

Plus yesterday I finished my application to Yaddo, thanks to my Finishing School commitment. It was a long day but I got it done before my 6pm writing coaching appointment (I’m doing that too now, acting as a coach for writers who have projects that are promising but resisting ; I get on the side of the writer and together we push to dislodge invisible impediments).

Finishing School starts next week, Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at the house. If you have a project you’re trying to finish, let me know.

Me, personally, I used Finishing School in December to finish fiction and send it out and do my Yaddo application (I sure would love to have some uninterrupted time to write the next novel!) and I have dedicated the next five months of Finishing School, my own personal goal, to finishing the current novel. I’m dividing it up into five sections, one a month to finish up (they’re mostly written anyway). If you have a project you want to write and would like to dedicate one month or the next five months to it, get in touch with me at cary@carytennis.com. Maybe we can work something out. Dive in the deep end with me! I want company making art in the 21st century.

Now let’s answer a letter:

Dear Cary,

I have read and admired your advice for many years. I have always loved your well-considered and thoughtful advice about really difficult problems. I have started this letter to you hundreds of times but never finished it, but today is that day.

When I was a teenager (early ’90s, before the Internet – you might remember these distant times!!) I wrote something called a zine. It was a magazine about music and art that I wrote and laid out with a glue stick and photocopied and distributed at record shops where I lived. It was pretty well received – and if I do say so, looking back at old issues, well designed – and making it was the first baby steps in what would be my professional career. I learned to write well, to finish things, to find interesting stuff, to produce something that looked great that people would care about, all with absolutely no money.

As everyone did in those days I included an address to write to (again, no internet), and a few people did, sending contributing material and what I guess was fan mail. One guy in particular sent a long letter and some contributions, and I used them and wrote back and said thanks. He wrote again, became a regular contributor, and we corresponded over several years. I considered this person a good friend, though I didn’t know who he was. Later on we kept in touch and, thanks to Hotmail, this included keeping in touch when I moved overseas when I was 19.

A year or two later I found out that it had been my brother’s girlfriend – 6 years older than me – who had created and orchestrated this personality, written all these letters, corresponded with me for so many years. She was a horrible bitch to my face, often telling me I was worthless, selfish, ruining my family, didn’t deserve anything, she told me that my mother called her to complain about me (not true), her nickname for me was “charming little princess”, etc. etc., and in the meantime running this charade of a person who was my friend and someone I trusted.

The shock and fallout was unbelievable. Unbearable. A year later, my brother married her. That was the last time I spoke to my brother, in 2001.

It has been 16 years since I found out what she was up to, and the intervening years have been so fucking hard. I felt like a fool, I felt stupid, I was angry, I was humiliated, I was confused. I told my parents, who told me in no uncertain terms that they would “choose” between me and my brother, and would not exclude her from the family. Family anything became psychological torture as she paraded around as if she had a right to be there, and I felt like a pariah in my own family.

The campaign of emotional abuse and manipulation was bad enough, but the fallout has been another circle of hell altogether. My immediate family – parents and one other brother – simply do not believe that what she did was that bad, no one has advocated for me, no one has demanded that she apologise, and I have been told such things as “if it was sexual abuse it would be different” or “you just need to get over it” or “she had a hard life, it’s not her fault”. Every time I tried to talk about it, the subject was changed.

Cary, this made my 20s hell. I trusted no one. My self-esteem was nonexistent. I wanted to die. I didn’t trust my own experiences and was angry at myself for not “getting over it” and so very angry at my family for just abandoning me to my own misery. My parents refused to talk about it with me. I went to years of therapy, I was on medication, and I did all the things that are indicative of extreme and prolonged emotional distress. Eventually I moved 4000 miles away from home and started a new life.

Three years ago my remaining brother – who I had tried to have a relationship with – told me that my abuser and the brother who married her (who I think was implicit in the abuse, but have no proof) babysit his baby twins. I asked him why he would allow a woman who he damn well knew was an abuser of children to act as a person of authority in their lives and I was told “Oh we watch them really carefully” and “that just won’t happen.”

The subtext there is one of two things: either he doesn’t believe that the abuse happened the way I said it did, or he doesn’t think it was a big deal. Both of those things are absolutely unacceptable. I told him this, and told him that if those children are describing their relationship with those people to a therapist in ten years I will be the only one in the family not directly responsible for knowing what the situation was and letting it happen. We have not spoken since.

I have tried really hard to maintain a relationship with my parents, though they are clearly of the opinion – and have told me – that this really isn’t a big deal and the problem in the family is my failure to get over something minor. They’re in their 70s (I am 35) and I try to have compassion for the difficult position they’re in. I think I deserved better from them; they should have advocated for me, they should have protected me from this fallout by holding her accountable, but my abuser did so much to torpedo any trust relationship I had with my parents by telling me misinformation and manipulating the way I felt about them that I figure I have lost too many years with them to cut them out completely.

In recent years, after cutting my second brother out of my life, I have felt for the first time like I can breathe. I now realise that having a relationship with someone who invalidated the biggest trauma of my adult life was retraumatising me over and over, and that when I cut off ties with both of them I was validating myself, I was believing my own experiences, I was advocating for me – all things my family never did for me.

My problem is this: I visit my parents annually and spend the entire time sobbing. I am there right now, surrounded by family portraits of my parents, my brothers and their wives … I’m not in any of them, it’s as if I just don’t exist, like there’s two families. My mother said something tonight about all this being not as big a deal as I thought it was and it just set me off again; how can all this pain, all this therapy, all this hell of 16 years not convince them that what happened to me really happened? Why is the status quo more important than their own daughter? Why was I sacrificed on the altar of not making waves? I have had so many years of feeling desperately alone because of abuse where I was the victim, and have gone through so much shame, so much turmoil, so much loneliness and felt so bereft of love and worth. Everything about this situation sent the message that I am worthless – she perpetrated this, my brother married her, no one held her responsible, everyone pretends it didn’t happen. But it did, because I have been wading through the pain for 16 years. I don’t think that’s nothing.

My question is this: How the fuck can I finally feel okay about any of this? I am more functional than I used to be, but if I pause long enough to think about this whole system of abuse I just can’t stop shaking with sobs that last days, that shake me to my core. I fantasize about revenge sometimes – starting a website with her name dot com and outlining my story for employers and others to see, or other things that make her a victim instead of a person that can cruelly abuse and manipulate without consequences, but I know that won’t work and will only result in me poisoning my own psyche. I know it is not the spoon that bends, but me, but I have spent 16 years bending and I just can’t bend far enough. I have wished things were different, tried to make things different, been to years of therapy, drank, raged, did drugs, found a fulfilling relationship, made a good career, but nothing has ever been able to touch this pain of being disregarded by my family and my abuser winning. When I start to get better I am jolted back by the realisation that I am just disposable.

Thank you for reading. Please, if by some miracle you have read this diatribe and decide to respond, sign me off as

Anonymous

 

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Dear Anonymous,

So, I have to say, intuitively, I like you. You are a fine person. It hurts me to see you keep putting your hand in the flame.

You were the victim of a sociopath. You continue to be victimized by your family.

I suggest that you cut off all contact with your family for two years.

You are locked in an impossible struggle with them. You want them to be something they are not. This struggle is futile. It is hopeless. It is full of pain. But you have a choice. You are free to walk away from this futile struggle. You do not have to justify yourself or explain. They don’t own you. Walk away. Cut off all contact.

You are free to make this choice. It is the right choice for you. You are a free and independent person and must make this choice for your own survival and happiness.

Cut off all contact. Cut off all contact for two years. Do not call or write. Do not read emails from them.

If certain communications are necessary, make communications with them through a third party. There must be someone you can trust to do this. You say you have built a pretty good life for yourself, 4,000 miles away. That is great. It makes it easier to cut off contact because you will not be running into family members on the street.

Imagine how it would feel to go a day, a week,  a month, enjoying your life and not thinking of this event even once. Imagine how that would be! To be pretty much like other people, going about your life, enjoying the things you enjoy, being a master of your craft, being a part of a community, a worker among workers, liked and loved for who you are, sleeping well at night, enjoying life.

That is possible.

Do this, please. Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop opening the wound. Give yourself a chance to forget.

Maybe you won’t forget. That’s OK. I am not saying you should forget it or there’s something wrong with you if you don’t forget, or if it comes to mind frequently.

You’ve been injured. That’s not your fault.

But you have some choice in the matter. You have it within your power to change your habits and your circumstances. So give yourself a chance. Give your wound a chance to heal.

It won’t heal fast. It will heal slowly. That’s why the two years. Two years is doable. See what happens. After two years you might want to resume contact. Or maybe not. Give yourself two years and see how it goes.

Find a narrative. A narrative is like a box to put the story in and close the lid. The narrative is that you were the victim of a sociopath. Not just a sociopath but a sociopathic family system. This was unusual in its extent but its general pattern is familiar: When terrible things happen in a family system, the family system works to deny it. All these individuals are part of that system. They are doing what they think they need to do to survive in that system. They are afraid the system will destroy them if they oppose it. And they might be right. Look what the system did to you. This system is being run by a sociopath. It will try to destroy any member who to opposes it.

You are already the enemy of this system. You are a truth teller and  so it had to crush you. You continue to be a threat because you continue to say what is actually happening. So it attacks you when you appear. So don’t appear. Disappear. Live your own life.

You can do this. You can cut off all contact with your family. There is no law against it.

There will be difficulties. A part of you will resist making this change. It will feel weird like you just can’t do that. But you can. You can and I think you should.

Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop putting your hand in the fire.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My girlfriend “settled” for me — and I don’t trust her

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

I shouldn’t have looked in her diary, but maybe it’s best that I did.


Dear Cary,
This summer, my girlfriend went to Central America for three months. She was in spotty contact with me the whole time, saying it was difficult to reach a computer. I’ve known her to be unfaithful to her past boyfriends. She actually cheated on one with me. I didn’t trust her when she came back, so when she left her journal on my desk for a week, I read the portion of it about her trip.

In it, I found a never-to-be-sent letter to her first boyfriend, my old best friend from years ago, written in drunken handwriting. She lamented that she still loved him and how “I went and found the closest thing to you and I settled, like everything in life, I settled.” I assume this is referring to me.

I wouldn’t have read her journal if I trusted her. Those trust issues aside, I feel like we have a good thing. We work on a lot of levels with each other, spend a lot of time together, give each other presents with cards, etc. Though neither of us has a career (I struggle playing music and waiting tables; she dabbles in various professional track jobs that don’t interest her), we’ve hit the mid-20s and relationships seem more serious.

She’s moving away soon to take a professional-track job in Mexico and I am considering following her, but this whole thing bothers me. I try to ask her about him to see how she responds, but she never lets on anything. Right now, she is visiting her old roommate who now lives with him, and I am unable to trust her. Of course she always says they are just friends, but that she still really cares for him in a platonic way and there is nothing to worry about.

Had I not read the journal, I could take her at face value. Maybe she tells me what she really means. But as it is right now, I can’t help getting mad at her because I feel she’s deceiving me. I have to resolve it somehow. I know journals are the dumping grounds for our deep insecurities, horrible thoughts, our fantasies, generally things we can’t say, and they may not always be real, but I can’t brush it aside so easily. How do I handle this?

Thanks,

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Too Curious

 

Dear Too Curious,

You know what I think? I think that every time I sit down to write this column I have the opportunity, if I play it right, to make a big difference in somebody’s life. So I try to do that. I try to do that by taking a guess at what the big issue in a person’s life is. There’s the diary and all that, and I’d like to say right upfront that reading your girlfriend’s diary is not the best idea. But what’s the big issue?

The way I figure it, the big issues make the difference. And a lot of times we don’t know what our big issues are. We may know what other people’s big issues are. But not our own. So we make big mistakes. We make them over and over. Often the big issues in our lives are not what we think they are. They tend to be emotional things. Say, for instance, you are a brilliant and talented jazz musician. So naturally you are on the road a lot. But say that also, in your heart of hearts, you are the type of guy who really needs to be sitting at the kitchen table night after night with a wife and kids and relatives. That is where you are actually happy. So you might say that your talent and your emotional needs are at odds. You might not know you need the security and warmth of a family life. You may feel empty and anxious on the road but maybe you call it something else. You call it the blues. So you end up meeting this need in some way — because you are on the road. You end up, say, doing heroin. You do heroin because heroin gives you the feeling of sitting at your kitchen table on a full stomach in the evening breeze, listening to the crickets.

That’s how our unacknowledged needs shape our lives. That’s how we lose our geniuses, how they disappear into the evening breeze on a quiet summer morning.

If you knew, from a young age, that you were not only a talented musician but also a person who requires the closeness of family, warmth, security, rootedness, then you might take the time to arrange your life so that you do not die of a heroin overdose in a Memphis hotel room.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I write the column. I think about geniuses dying in Memphis hotel rooms. I think about perfectly decent guys being lied to by one woman after another. I think about the demons that have driven me off the road from time to time, and how things might have been different if I had known what the demons were, or if I knew they might be coming.

Our emotional needs often aren’t as overtly interesting as our talents. But they drive us. Sometimes they drive us to a strange part of town.

So with you, I think there’s a good chance that you have the opportunity right now, today, to discover what big personal issue is driving you. I think I know what your big issue might be. I think you can face it. I think you can do something about it.

But first of all: Do not follow your girlfriend to Mexico. Do not do that. Do not travel there to see her after she gets herself set up down there. Do not discuss with her the pros and cons of traveling with her to Mexico before she goes. Do not tell her you will think about coming to be with her in Mexico. Instead, tell her you have decided to stay here in the United States and try to get your life together on your own, without her. Tell her that you are breaking up with her. Tell her it’s best this way.

So now your real life begins. You make a choice. You begin from scratch.

To begin your new life, take an hour of quiet time. Sit down somewhere where you will not be interrupted. Make sure you have some paper and a pencil or pen.

Write these words at the top of the page:

I trust these people:

Then make a list of the people you trust.

Who is on the list? With each person, ask: Is that person a friend, a relative, a former lover, a teacher, a public official, an animal? What are the qualities of the relationship that make you trust the person? Is there an element of structure or formality to the relationship that leads to trust? Do they tend to be family members, college friends? Are they women or men? Look for patterns.

Then make a list of the people you do not trust.

Who is on the list that you do not trust?

Pay special attention to this question: Where is your dad? Is he on the trust list or the do-not-trust list? Where is your mom? And where are you? Where do you put yourself on the list?

I predict that if you do this simple exercise with an open mind and an open heart, and you spend some time thinking about these people and why you do or do not trust them, it will cause you to experience some fairly deep emotions. You may, at that point, want to find some structure for yourself. You may want to find a psychotherapist to help you work through this. But if I am correct, and if you seriously work through this, you will learn who can be trusted and who cannot. You will gain a new respect for your own need for trust. You will see that you have ridden roughshod over your own need for security. You may be surprised about certain people; you may realize that certain people may not have been so much fun, but at least they could be trusted. Others, you may realize, you never really trusted to begin with. You will become, through this process, a man who is markedly less likely to be fucked over.

And then, once you have firmly in your mind what it means to trust and not trust and be trusted or not trusted, you can fall in love and get married and have kids and live happily ever after. Or at least you can navigate more carefully life’s baffling jamboree, its streets full of beauty, genius and betrayal.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m cheating on my husband and loving it. Is that a problem?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 9, 2007

I’ve been a cheater since my very first boyfriend and no one has ever found out.


Cary,

I am a cheater. I’ve never had a boyfriend or husband that I didn’t cheat on. When I was younger, it would just be making out behind a boyfriend’s back; as I got older, I would sleep with men that were not my husband. I am also a “lapper,” in that I tend to start a new relationship while still in the previous one.

I’ve been with my current husband for almost seven years and married for two. We started dating while I was with my first husband. I would imagine he could infer from how our relationship began that I am not the most faithful of types, but I don’t believe he suspects anything. And for the first five or six years of our relationship I was faithful.

Then last year, I slipped back into my old ways. No particular reason why — I love my husband and am still very happy with him — but an opportunity arose to sleep with an old friend, and I didn’t want to pass it up. That seemed to give me a free pass to fool around with other men — another old friend (just out of curiosity), random men in bars (for fun), a client (terribly unethical, but that makes it even more exciting).

The strange thing is that I really don’t feel any guilt. And I don’t want to leave my husband. I’ve never been caught and I don’t think I ever will be. I really haven’t had any fallout from these illicit acts — it hasn’t affected my work or my personal life. Part of me thinks I do it because I always act so responsible and upstanding in all other parts of my life — that I need some sort of release. I suspect I may stop if we have kids (we’re in our mid-30s), but I don’t really see a reason to. Is there something wrong with me?

Cheater

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Dear Cheater,

You have three choices. You can split up with your husband so that you are free to engage in these activities without causing great emotional harm to others; you can confront your husband about this behavior and tell him that you’ve been in the grip of something seriously injurious to him and you’re scared and you want to make it right and stay together; or you can secretly begin working with someone qualified to help you understand and change your behavior and figure out, as you go along, how to disentangle yourself from this behavior and do the least amount of damage possible, with the likelihood of eventual disclosure.

Whichever option you choose, you must understand this: The current situation is untenable. You’re just playing the odds right now, and you have been lucky. Luck is not a workable plan.

So the choice is yours. Not knowing you in particular, or your husband, and having no overarching moral belief about monogamy, I can’t say which choice is best. You are a free being. I do believe, though, from an ethical standpoint, that if you want to continue as you are, you have to become unmarried.

On the other hand, if you want to change your behavior, then you either have to tell your husband what has been going on now, or you have to enter into a course of therapy or deliberation or counseling of some sort.

Those are the choices, my friend. They are fairly stark. They are not great. About all they have to recommend them is that they are preferable to maintaining the present course.

I am not even remotely qualified to diagnose people psychologically. But I will say that it crossed my mind that you might be one of the estimated 4 percent of Americans who are sociopaths. But a quick read of an interview with author Martha Stout, who wrote “The Sociopath Next Door” and who popularized that statistic, led me to believe that, because you have recognized that you have a problem, you are probably not a true sociopath.

Here are the relevant passages from Sara Eckel’s 2005 Salon interview with Stout:

“What makes you decide that a person is or isn’t a sociopath?” Eckel asks.

“Conceptually, for the purposes of the book,” says Stout, “I’m talking about people who have exhibited symptoms such as extreme chronic deceitfulness, lack of remorse, lack of personal responsibility, and a general desire to control people and make them jump.”

Deceit, Stout says, is the central behavior of sociopathy: “More scientifically, the best I can offer is the rule of three. If someone lies to you once or twice, it could be a misunderstanding. If someone lies to you three times, then chances are you’re dealing with a liar. And deceit is the central behavior of sociopathy.”

Based on that, my thought was, wow, maybe you are a sociopath! But read on:

“What I have found,” Stout says, “and what breaks my heart, is that I’m hearing from good people who are afraid that they are sociopaths. They are feeling disconnected from people for a variety of reasons and are questioning their own dark sides. But if you’re questioning your attachments to others and questioning your dark side, you don’t have very much of one. That is not a concern that a sociopath would have.”

So, my friend, according to this expert, if you are writing to me, you are probably not a sociopath.

“Do you ever see sociopaths in therapy?” asks Eckel.

“Not unless the court refers them,” Stout says. “They feel just fine about themselves.”

They feel just fine about themselves! Actually, it sounds like you feel pretty darned good about yourself, considering. But you had the wisdom to compare your behavior with that of others and ask if anything is wrong. So perhaps you are simply a person who has a functioning conscience but is caught up in a habitual behavior from which you simply have not yet had any educational consequences, such as losing a husband or a job, or being ostracized, or feeling in deep emotional pain.

As I say, I’m not qualified to say. I do think, however, that if consequences happen, and you are not a sociopath, you are going to feel it acutely, and it is not going to be pretty. And you are going to hurt a lot of people.

So best to take steps now.

I forgot to tell my wife I have a 12-year-old daughter

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 8, 2005

I fathered a child when I was a screwed-up loser and kept it secret all these years.


Dear Cary,

Boy, did I screw up.

About 13 years ago, I fell for a friend of my sister’s and got her pregnant. I was at this point in my life a loser. I had no job, no home (I was living with my father), no car, no license (never had it), no complete education, and absolutely no prospects. Her family, predictably, hated me.

After a couple months of unremitting and conflicting pressure from our families, she “realized” that I was a loser and she cut me loose. No contact, no nothing.

The last night that we ever discussed the baby was the night she gave birth. I got raving drunk and never discussed it again. My very WASP-y and remarkably repressed family followed suit (or was it I that was following suit?) Either way, the topic was off limits, that part of my brain and my heart was blocked off with yellow tape, and everyone moved on.

She married and her husband adopted the baby. I turned my life around materially and spiritually (education, wonderful wife, good job, house, etc.). I never tried to contact her or the baby. I told myself that I was only a “donor” and that I would only screw things up for her and the baby. Eventually, my wife and I bought a home not too far from my daughter and her family.

I dealt with the issue alone, fighting the late-night demons and doing everything I could to hold the situation at bay.

Years passed. A mutual friend of the family ran into the woman and told my sister that my daughter is 12 now and asking a number of questions. The resemblance is unmistakable and her parents have done a wonderful job (I am thrilled for them and her ). Faced with this, and only because I was faced with this, I decided to tell my wife about the situation.

Predictably, my wife is furious and feels (rightly) that I have violated her trust. We are just about to start a family of our own, and now everything in my life has been thrown into play. I don’t know if I would have been able to reveal this if not forced. Now that it is out in the open, the events are painful and crushing.

I’m scared, I’m confused, and I suddenly feel every bit as worthless as I felt all those years ago. I don’t think that my wife is going to leave me (we are looking into starting some kind of couples therapy), but I feel like I am still paying for not being good enough all those years ago. I am starting to get angry at those folks who are angry at me.

I have written a letter to my daughter’s mother and adoptive father, explaining where I am in my life and that we are very open to contact and a relationship, once rules and boundaries have been established; but my primary concern is my wife. I do not want to lose her (or her respect) over this.

Three days ago I had a normal life, and I feel like I am never going to have that again…

What a tangled web we weave…

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Dear Tangled,

I do not think you will lose your wife over this, or that your life will fall apart. You will get into counseling and learn about family systems and the keeping of secrets. You will work out some arrangement with the family of your daughter, and your wife will look at you with unfathomable anger for an indefinite period, and if you are good and do not completely freak out, eventually the normal life you had three days ago will return. But I hope out of this comes some thinking about how you have been living and where the secrets come from and who this person was who so many years ago fathered a daughter and kept it secret from his wife. I detect in your letter perhaps a lack of empathy for your earlier incarnation, and I would like to share a little about how I, who was also a bit of a loser and somewhat out of control, have come in middle age to regard my earlier self.

It has been helpful for me to see that I did some of the things I did because I was trying to do the right thing, strange as it appeared. It has been of great help to me to realize that I have often been an innocent actor, naive and lazy and deluded but not malicious. Like you I was trying to survive. I was doing what I had to do at the time. It has been helpful in considering why certain episodes went wrong to consider what I was running from and why I kept so many secrets and why the truth seemed unsurvivable. Was there some knowledge so corrosive that the silence in our household was a kind of insulation, a balm to naked skin?

What truth was so terrible at the time that it could not be uttered in the house? That you had sex without love? Is love a pair of handcuffs that must be worn every time? Is it a sin to do something simply because you really, really want to and it feels really, really good? Was it a sin to make love to your sister’s friend? Was there no one else around who could take you by the hand and show you what you then had to do? Was this all up to you? Are you the sole perpetrator of some crime? Must you punish yourself now for rest of your life?

It has been of great help to me from time to time to conjure up this innocent being, this young boy who was simply trying to express love and wonder, and later this young man who seemed to be in trouble but was not robbing houses or hitting people on the head. I suggest you do not hate this younger man, this fuck-up, this version of yourself. I suggest, instead, that you learn to love this nasty little fuck-up that you had to leave behind. I suggest that you offer a hand of forgiveness to this nasty little fuck-up. He was a guy trying to figure it out. He was a guy trying to get along. He was a guy trying to live with whatever it was that hurt. What was it that hurt? Who ever knows what it is with a young guy that hurts so much? We don’t talk about it among ourselves, although always there will be a stoned glance or a touch between young men, high on this or that, that says I know the crazy hurting thing too, it’s a motherfucker. So you followed the trajectory of your hurting and you got drunk the night your daughter was born.

Fathers have been getting drunk and leaving town for centuries when their babies are born: In spite of our storied propensity for engendering life, we do not always welcome it when it arrives, we kind of wish it would go away, we want to be left to our tools and our greasy hands and our shade trees, our violent metal and brief explosions, our gray primer and rust, our certainty of objects. The birth of a child means more life, more crying, more questions, more hunger, more lying and walking away, more required courses, more questions we cannot answer, more tests, more tedium, more teachers, more classroom sitting, more desolate afternoons, more diapers and howling, more unbridgeable gulf, more rules, more discipline, more silence. We do not like life in a lot of ways. For some of us men we like a few books, we like a little racquetball, we like maybe a sauna and some swimming, we like a long drive down a leafy road in a good truck, but we did not sign on for the entire program and it tires us out, frankly, and after the truck is parked we just want to lie down and go to sleep, and it is like this day after day for many of us men, which is why we father kids and go off into the woods, never to speak of it again until it comes up by a careless word or two in the supermarket, and there we are again, saddled with ourselves, bending under the incomprehensible load of what we have done — given life to a child who now looks out at the world and says, I don’t know, man, what you’re all so fucked up about, this looks pretty good to me. Just wait, we say. Just wait.

What I mean is, you need to conjure up some compassion for the teenager you once were, this wayward loser without a home or a job. You need to do this in order to stop hanging your head in shame for having been simply young and confused and unsure what to do. My sense of it is that your keeping of secrets arises out of intense shame. You need to replace that shame with some compassion and respect. To do that you need to go back down some of those same old roads and find out what you were really looking for back then.

I can’t do that for you. But my guess is that you were looking for a way out of WASPish silence, the long tradition of family secrets, the code your family lived by. You were looking for a more authentic way of feeling and being. Making love and getting drunk seemed like ways to get to something real. But at the crucial moment, when your waywardness truly bore fruit, it was a forbidden fruit it bore, so you turned away in fear. You turned back to what you knew best: the keeping of secrets, the silent bearing of shame.

Now, as an adult man, it’s time to pick up where you left off. It’s time to finish what you started — not with teenage acting-out but with a sober acknowledgment that wild, untamable passions are as important to your life as oatmeal for breakfast and plenty of life insurance.

You’re married now. You’ve got a house and a job. You’re safe. It’s time to hold your head up and acknowledge who you were then and who you are now and make the best of a pretty good situation.

I hope you get a chance to tell everything. Sometimes, after a life of secrets, telling everything helps.

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My father’s widow is stingy

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 9, 2005

I know he would have wanted to give me more money, but his will left everything to her.


Dear Cary,

I’m 34. My father passed away a year and half ago. He remarried when I was 15 but started dating my stepmom (SM) when I was 9.

Dad and SM kept their finances separate. My father was known to help his kids out when she wasn’t looking. For all I know, she was doing the same with her kids. My sister, the black sheep, was barely welcome in their house, but my dad still helped her out. Which is why his will surprised me. My dad left all the money in a trust that SM administers. She gets his pension too, which leaves her taken care of for life.

I hate that this bothers me, but she’s been reluctantly generous since my dad died. She spent the first year crying poor. She grudgingly sent me my father’s desk, making it clear to me how much the shipping cost. She won’t ship any other furniture of his to me unless I pay. Meanwhile, she gave her oldest son her Volvo, the second one she’s given him. She’s now moving her youngest son and his girlfriend into her condo at an extremely subsidized rate. Everything I’ve gotten from her since my father died, I’ve had to ask for.

I’m now pregnant with my first child. I spoke to her before I was pregnant about possibly helping us out financially the first year we have a child. I explained that it would make a big difference because I wouldn’t feel pressure to rush back to work. Since I announced the pregnancy, she has offered to buy me a car seat and some maternity clothes but made no mention of our previous discussion. My in-laws, who are very generous, immediately told us how they could help us financially. They constantly surprise us with their gifts. The abundance has been especially comforting since my dad’s death.

I think I feel abandoned by my dad. I think every day that she is not generous with me I feel extra slighted. I honestly think his will was the will of a man who thought he was going to die at 90. He always assumed he would, even after his cancer diagnosis. How do I move on? Do I bring up the finances with her again? It’s making it hard for me to talk to her and then of course I feel money-grubbing.

Just writing this letter is making me sad.

Wanting More

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Dear Wanting More,

You say you feel abandoned by your father. Your father may have abandoned you many times in the past, physically, financially and emotionally. But this time he did not abandon you. He died. That is different. That is not abandonment. It is an excused absence.

Perhaps he led you to believe that he would never die and he would always take care of you, so his death does seem like a betrayal or abandonment. But who had the largest loss of all? He is the one who lost his life. His loss was the greatest of all.

It is our job, as the living, to make peace with the dead.

What do we owe the dead? We owe the dead the opportunity to truly be gone. That is one great consolation of death — that, as television ads for the advance purchase of burial plots put it, in death we do indeed settle our “final expenses.” Isn’t that a lovely thought, that there finally is, indeed, a permanent caesura to our endless invoices? Perhaps in this painful weighing of gifts is a refusal to let go of your father completely.

It is hard to make peace with the dead when we are still entangled in their affairs. So I think you need to change the way you think about the money and property your father left. To do that, you may need to face with renewed clarity the fact of his death, its utter finality. He is completely gone. Everything that was once his is no longer his. It is no longer your father’s money. It is his widow’s money. The decisions she makes about how to use her money will be based on her values and the relationship that you and she have, not on your idea of what your father would have wanted.

A person’s will leaves certain instructions about the disposition of his estate, and through that legal instrument the dead may continue to exert an influence over the living. But it is a mistake, I think, to reach beyond his legal instructions and presume “he would have wanted this” or “he would have wanted that.” Indeed, he may have told you many things about what he wanted. But unless they are written down, those utterances lose all force as the last breath leaves his body. The living are left to sort it out with the only tools they have.

Those tools are, it seems to me, our values, our human decency, our feelings for each other and our regard for our own security. Among your father’s strongly held values, I take it, was the belief that parents ought to help their children financially when they can, well into adulthood. Now, the values a person lives by are admirable in two ways. One, they have an inherent validity — it’s clear that society benefits from honest dealings, concern for children, etc. Two, they are seen as admirable because of the esteem in which we hold the person. We look up to our parents and emulate their values. That admiration based on our esteem for the person is, I think, the basis on which we say, My father would have wanted this. In saying so, we are honoring not only his values but our memory of him as a person. We are carrying on a relationship with him even though he is no longer here. We do this out of love for him. That relationship, that continuing love for his memory, is vital and should not be denigrated.

But unfortunately it is not a basis for settling property disputes. Many people loved your father and had an idea about what he would have wanted. Many people held him in esteem and shared his values. But the money now belongs to his widow. It is she who must make the decisions about how to use it. If you can persuade her that the values your father lived by are good in and of themselves, and that she ought therefore to give you more money, more power to you. Perhaps you can construct an argument in which you distill and renew the values he lived by and present that to her. But the argument must, I think, be based in present reality.

As a way of working through this you might ask yourself: What is the importance of those values he held and bequeathed to you? Why is it still vital that parents help their children well into adulthood? How did he balance the needs of children and widow, and how ought that be managed now? What concerns for her own well-being might she have that she has not spelled out? Why, on their merits, are her actions miserly or unfair? In short, what is the right thing to do?

As you think it through, you may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with her actions themselves. Indeed, you may find that there isn’t anything wrong with what she is doing, judging by contemporary standards. If so, you may then be left with only your sadness over your father’s passing. That is a great sadness indeed. In fact, once you think it through, the money may seem the least of your loss, compared to who this man was and what he meant to you.

It is best in life to turn from matters over which we have little control and little responsibility to those matters over which we have great control and great responsibility. Those matters are chiefly the conduct of our own lives and how we care for our own loved ones, whose hopes, like ours, are that we be generous and prosper as long as we can.

Walking on a hillside meadow perhaps one day soon you will feel the wind and it won’t have his breath in it; sitting at his desk one day it won’t be his desk anymore, but your desk. I’m not saying it will happen today or tomorrow, but it is something to look forward to, a state of understanding and acceptance that will make your present anguish over Volvos and car seats seem strangely disconnected from life’s grave and joyous milestones.

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