After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


Hi,

I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband

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Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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It’s not my fault

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 19, 2003

I want my husband to write a letter to my future lovers, telling them that the demise of our marriage was his fault.


Dear Cary,

I don’t always agree with you, but I do think you are compassionate and nonjudgmental, two of the most important characteristics for an advice columnist.

Now that I’ve buttered you up, I’m wondering if you can help me. I caught my husband cheating on me (e-mail love letter) a few months after we were married. We had dated for almost four years and were trying to have a baby. I left immediately and he was virtually unrepentant, ready to stay with his new flame, and I swear he acted cheerful, as if I was a worker he had to let go and he wanted to make our unfortunate, yet inevitable, parting of ways as pleasant and professional as possible. I was devastated even more by his callousness than by the shock of seeing the words “I love you” written to another woman. Although that was horrible enough.

Well, here I am four months after this incident and still trying to get over the shock. Then last week, on the phone, he told me his therapist thinks that, because his first wife cheated on him years ago and because his boss/friend died soon before we began dating, he had never really dealt with his grief and therefore started dating me to make me happy, I guess in an effort to avoid dealing with his grief. He said he was just a nice guy who told me he loved me because he wanted to make me happy while subconsciously he was really confused and unhappy. And that our trips to Europe and living together and him proposing on his knees was done to make me happy, while “subconsciously” he was really miserable.

Cary, you’ll have to believe me when I say that he didn’t act like he was miserable. We never fought and rarely argued. I’m considered a good person by all who know me. I’m good-looking — people used to tease him that I was too good for him. Friends and family thought I was great and encouraged our marriage. Our sex life was fine, mostly comfortable but we had our moments up to the end. He liked to flirt, but it was more like joking like a seventh-grader — not very sexual. But he was otherwise stable and I never thought he’d cross the line since he was cheated on by his first wife and knew how that felt. Plus he was always telling me how much he loved me, how lucky he was to have me.

I’m in therapy now for the trauma and even my therapist thinks that it is unusual to come across someone so self-deluded and willing to lie. She doesn’t even see the need to explore my part in the breakup since it is so obviously one-sided. I’m not saying I was perfect but I was trying. I had just committed to make a life with this person while he was off starting something new.

So here’s the thing. I feel like this guy ruined my life, and I want compensation. What I want is for him to write me a sort of reference letter that I can show to future lovers. In it I want him to admit that he was mentally messed up, or whatever, that I am a great person, and that the demise of our marriage was entirely his fault. That he lied to me from start to finish, knowingly or not. I’m afraid that without such proof I’m doomed to look crazy, stupid, or otherwise deserving of such treatment when I tell a prospective boyfriend that my husband cheated on me immediately after marrying me. I feel like I’ve been preyed on by a sexual predator, that he isn’t being punished, and that I have to suffer for being his victim for the rest of my life.

Did you ever read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”? There’s a part where a guy jilts his betrothed and her father makes him write a public letter admitting his guilt to save her reputation. The story portrays this act as useless and desperate. Is what I’m asking my “husband” to do a waste of time?

More Sinned Against Than — Anything

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Dear Sinned Against,

I am so sorry for what you have gone through. It must have been a terrible shock. I think your idea of getting your husband to write this letter shows that you have a good sense of humor, and I understand the lure of this idea. You have been wronged, and it is natural to want justice. But your quest for justice in this case has a tragicomic aspect to it that I think should warn you away from following through with it. That is, such a letter, if framed, could hang in your office. You could also make copies to hand out to your family and to people you date, and to maitre d’s, store clerks, cab drivers and hairdressers. Should you be arrested, convicted and sent to prison, you could request that it be among the few personal items you are allowed to keep with you in your cell. Should you be sentenced to death, you can, as a last request, read it aloud to those assembled in the execution chamber.

Do you see what I mean? You would only be inviting ridicule of yourself by pursuing such a solution. However understandable an impulse, it is a metaphor, a fantasy. I would suggest instead that you focus on concrete things that you can do, right now, to make life a little better while you live through the shock and grief of this event and try to get on with the rest of your life.

Another way to look at it is that by concentrating on having him do something, you are putting the power for your recovery in the hands of someone who does not have your best interests at heart. You need to concentrate on you, not him. Forget about him. Banish him from your life. He’s dead to you, OK? So stop talking to him on the telephone.
When I say you should concentrate on you, not on him, it may seem that I am implying that you are the guilty party. You’re not the guilty party. But you’re the only one who can recover from what happened to you; you’re the only one who can use what happened to become a better, wiser, stronger person. However blameless you are in his infidelity, your part in this event is the only part that matters now. If your therapist isn’t helping you explore that, I can’t imagine what you’re paying for. A therapist is not someone you hire to prove that you were right. Tell your therapist you want to explore your part in this matter, in order to find some deeper meaning in it. If your therapist doesn’t seem to understand what you mean, I would look for a professional who will help you do that. If you interrogate yourself deeply, with the aid of a therapist, you may learn something invaluable.

For instance, you might discover with some surprise just how very much the judgments of others matter to you. That might be why you fantasize about this exonerating affidavit. It might explain why you mention my being “nonjudgmental” as a qualifying characteristic (which, incidentally, if I may be so bold, kind of ticked me off! I guess you were kidding around, and perhaps I’m a little thin-skinned, but it put me on the defensive). And so you might then explore the role of judgment in your past and future life. It may be that your concern with judgment led you to overlook some things about this man’s character. It might also be leading you to overlook things in yourself. Judging may at times be a way of walling off something in yourself, some dark force, something in yourself you don’t approve of that you need to have power over.

As you explore the role of judging in your life, you may find that you have been using it to hold certain things at bay; you may want to explore new arts that affect you in unexpected ways. There is a rich world of emotion, of blood and sacrifice, of terror and darkness, of ecstasy and abandon, of rage, of passion, of laughter, roiling right below the surface of our daily lives; much of it is neither right nor wrong. If you can bring yourself to acknowledge these things, you may find both relief and a new kind of power that lies in the acceptance of the morally ambiguous.

If you can get some distance on your longing for retribution, your feeling that you’ve been sinned against, and your need for punishment and exoneration, you can be less driven by them and perhaps use them to your benefit. They can drive you crazy, but they can also be powerful attributes if you develop them consciously. They might even lead you to your life’s calling. Perhaps you belong in the realm of justice, as a prosecutor perhaps, or an investigator, or working on behalf of an idealistic organization such as Human Rights Watch.

You mentioned sin. I don’t know if that means you are a religious person, but if you are a Christian, for instance, you know the job of judging your ex-husband is already taken care of. You needn’t fear that the judging won’t get done. It will get done. Just not by you. Therein, too, you may find a kind of relief. Let it go, the whole need to judge him. Let God judge him.

So, reluctant and equivocating judge that I am, my final verdict is: Join an African dance class. Sit in a mud bath. Swim. Take peyote. Buy a dog. Get a therapist who won’t just take your money and tell you that you were right all along. And don’t talk to your ex on the telephone.

Good luck.

 

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My best friend is now my mom’s best friend

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Cary’s classic column from

What is she doing at my parents’ house when I’m not there?


Dear Cary,

I’ve known my best friend for 22 years, since we were 10. We grew up right across the street from each other. It has been one of those great friendships that weather the seasons in people’s lives when you can’t keep in touch very well: We can always hook right back up as if no time has gone by. She has always been considered a member of the family, and my parents often refer to her as their adopted daughter.

This sounds pretty good, yes? Well, I’ve slowly come to discover that having your best friend unofficially adopted by your parents is a drag.

I think the first incident that ruffled my feathers was when we were in college. We were both going to go on a camping trip with my folks, but her finals were over before mine, so she decided to go ahead and meet up with my folks where they were picking up their new R.V. There are all of these pictures of her “in my place” with my parents and their new R.V. I didn’t say anything about this, though, because I thought it was petty to be a little hurt, and what good would speaking up do anyway?

The next incident revolved around my wedding. As often happens around big events such as weddings, many of our family members lost their minds, so we moved the wedding offshore and the only guests were my best friend and four supportive family members. Not surprisingly, when we returned home I was not on speaking terms with my folks (as they were not among the four). However, my BF continued a relationship with them, stating that she wasn’t the one who was mad at them and that they were also her friends.

I have long since made up with all familial relations and have had a more or less good relationship with the BF I was frustrated that her version of making time for me was to swing by my house for 15 minutes on her way home from work, but on the other hand she was there when my sister “came out” when she was a teenager and all hell broke loose and she came to live with us. And my BF was there the whole 12 hours I was in labor with my second son.

Before I get to the weird BF/mom triangle, I need to add one more angle to the back story: My BF is more like my folks than I will ever be. She is financially conservative and a saver. I buy $50 shoes for no good reason. She finished her undergrad degree in three years and then got a master’s. I took five years to get my B.S. and don’t have a job remotely related to my degree. Her house is always spotless. My house looks like you would expect if two adults, two toddlers, three cats and a dog all lived in 1,400 square feet. She always writes thank-you notes. I haven’t written one for anything received by either of my kids. In other words, she is just like my totally “perfect” parents, and I’m so not.

So, to the Mom + BF = BFF part: My BF was married a year ago July. My mom really stepped up and into the MOTB role on the wedding day because my BF’s mom was too busy getting sloshed. This seemed to create a bond between them. When my BF moved across the state (to be closer to her folks, ironically) she and my mom kept in touch. They e-mail back and forth every couple of weeks, and my BF and her hubby (whom my mom adores, natch) occasionally stay a day or two with my folks when they are on their way out of state — without even calling me to let me know they will be in town. When something significant happens with my BF (like a new job or something bad like an illness) she calls or e-mails my mom. I hear about it secondhand.

I approached my mom about this, and she said that I was being silly and that it is my own fault for not “keeping the conversation going” with my BF like she does. Did I mention that in addition to two toddlers I have two jobs and my husband is in school? Just taking the time to write you is a major luxury.

I can’t seem to get any advice on this because it is the weirdest thing any of my other friends or family have ever heard of. I can’t make the two stop being friends, and at this point I’m uncontrollably jealous at how my folks seem to respect her so much and how they seem to wish that I were more like her. It isn’t her fault that my folks dump this baggage on me, but does she have to condone it by being BFF with my mom? Honestly, I feel like “breaking up” with her. Then again, you can’t just find another 20-year friend on Craigslist.

Third Wheel

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Third Wheel,

This is about patterns. It’s about the patterns of what you want. It’s about the pattern formed by what you have always wanted and what you will never get and what you will always crave and strive for until you recognize what you are doing. It is about how you will never get what you have always wanted but other people will. Other people will get what you have always wanted, and they hardly even want it at all; they don’t even notice when they’re getting it; they don’t see how desperately you want it and need it. But you do. Or do you? Do you know how desperately you need your parents’ exclusive love? Do you know how desperately you needed them to be there for you when you were a little kid? Do you know how angry you still are at them for not giving you what you needed? Do you know how angry you have to be to exclude your parents from your own wedding, to move it offshore to exclude them? Do you know that you cannot patch this up just on the surface? You have to admit to yourself how hurt you are. This maddening jealousy is about how hurt you are, still, about your friend’s sitting in your seat in the R.V.

It’s about your best friend taking your place. And yet it’s not about that at all. That is, it’s not about who fills the void, it’s about the void itself. There is a void there where you are supposed to be in your parents’ esteem and affection and love and support. There’s an empty seat in the R.V. It’s about the empty seat itself. It’s not about who finally comes along to sit in it. Anyone could sit in it and you would feel the same. You would feel, “That’s my seat!”

This is not about the friendship between your friend and your mom, although that is a subject that could be taken up on its own. If your friend wrote to me about this, I would ask her about her own mother’s alcoholism. There is a story there too. But that is not your story. Your story is about your own unhappiness. If you were not unhappy, what would it matter that your best friend is also close to your parents? That would be a lovely thing, would it not? Would it not, in the most perfect of worlds, be just a warm and loving extension of human friendship to family, a beautiful melding of the familial and the personal? But no, you want something from her that you did not get from your parents, and now instead of giving it to you she’s giving it to them, so it is deeply painful to witness their closeness. You are in competition. You are competing with her for your parents’ love and moreover now you are competing with your parents for her love! You are the odd one out in the triangle. It shouldn’t be that way. If you’d gotten the love you needed originally it wouldn’t be that way.

But you never got what you needed, so it will always be this way. It’s always going to be this way for you until you face this awful, wrenching childhood thing: You are a little empty and will always be a little empty.

It’s not your fault. You didn’t get what you needed when you needed it. So face it and cry it out and scream about it and beat your fists against the wall and then toughen up and be who you are. You are messy and unorganized and impulsive. So fucking what? Who cares? You have the right to be who you are. You don’t have to be like your mom. And being like your mom would never get you what you wanted anyway. Because it’s too late now. You’re not going to get it. That chance is gone. Your chance to get that wonderful, enveloping, loving feeling of being completely the center of some strong, loving mother’s attention, to be the stable center of your parents’ stable lives, to live in the center of their undivided attention just long enough to be given the inner confidence and peace and stability that you see all around you but are not able to attain — that chance is gone. You’re not going to get that. You are who you are now. You have hurts. You have hungers. You need attention and warmth. This need you have is like the need for food. You need it every day.

I’m guessing that this crops up in other areas — in your marriage, with your kids. So here is what you can do. You can recognize that this gnawing hunger is the work of generations. Families send not just their genes but their hungers through the generations. This happens sometimes because of economic and social conditions, illness and poverty, overwork, racism, alcoholism, wars, scarlet fever, malaria, exodus and displacement, survival responses that are appropriate under dire circumstances but otherwise neurotic; it happens because of trauma and abuse, too many children to feed, violence, fear, infant mortality, crippling depression, the myriad devils of the human. And it gets transmitted silently through looks and blows for centuries, through tales and attitudes, through habit and practice, through sheer ineluctable personality.

So when you contemplate this hunger you must see that this hunger is the hunger of generation after generation. You may also recognize that this hunger is in part a spiritual hunger. That is, though it may be rooted in material circumstances, it will not be cured by material circumstances. You just have a need that can’t be filled. You are suffering, that’s all.

So here is what you do: You take your revenge by giving your children what your mother did not give you. You get some therapy and you strengthen yourself. You say to yourself, I am going to get stronger within myself. I am going to identify those hungers that I live with day to day and find ways to fill them day to day. You parent yourself. You give yourself the things you need that others did not and will not give you. You say to yourself, I recognize that every day I wake up and I need more. I will never get enough. I need to be fed every day. That’s just the way it is.

And you recognize that if you do not find a way to take care of yourself in this way, you cannot be of use to others. You do not do this for selfish reasons. You do this for your children.

It is possible that this is not true about you. If it is not true about you, that’s OK. It will be true about someone. That is the way this works. I am speaking from my heart. It is true about me. And it is true about many people I know. So if this is not true about you, it is true about somebody, somebody who is overhearing this and thinking, yes, he is like me, I recognize this hunger.

And if this is not true about you, then surely something like this is true about you. There is something true about your suffering and you must find what it is. You must find the pattern that is true about you, the pattern of your being, the things that you crave and cannot get. That is the pattern that will drive you to keep doing things that make you unhappy. That pattern is what you need to confront. It is your strength if you face it. It is your weakness if you run from it. It is your footprint, your mark, your signature. It is what you are and cannot escape. It is the only thing that matters.

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I was betrayed by people I trusted

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Cary’s classic column from

I thought they were my friends, but they’ve been laughing at me all this time!


Dear Cary,

About a year ago I found out that five of the people on my campus, including my freshman roommate and a bunch of people I thought were my friends, had been laughing at me behind my back on Facebook — which I’d never used — for months. I found this out when I broke up with my first boyfriend. (He told me under pressure.) Shortly thereafter, I realized that everyone else I’d been friends with at school were his friends, and they stayed his friends. I graduated early, thank God, but it did nothing for me in the end. Some latent psychological issues surfaced right then, and I became every bit that awkward, narrow-minded, ugly and damaged beast they had all seen from the beginning.

Now I am in graduate school. I work a day job so menial that it’s difficult to talk to some people in the academic community. I’m a recently outed gay woman with social skills in the negatives and a face that I can’t make excuses for. To top it all off, I’m 21 and still every bit a sheltered and naive country girl. Everything that was true when it was on Facebook is still true now.

I understand that this is the way things are. I would have experienced a lot of this eventually, bullies or no bullies. I see a therapist, took medicine for a while. But I still feel compelled to isolate myself. I just couldn’t take another incident like this.

But what I really want to know is why, one year later, I’m still thinking about it. Nobody has been able to explain why this one thing haunts me so badly. The best explanation I can think of is that what those friends and acquaintances posted was really close to the truth that I knew and didn’t want to see. But I’ve accepted the truth and I’ve made changes where I could. Is this not enough? What more can I do? Even a jerk ought to be able to shrug off a few Facebook comments after 12 months. Right?

Baker Street

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Baker Street,

While I’m not a social scientist, I do think about stuff like this, and it seems to me there is a good reason why an experience of betrayal by the group would continue to appear painfully in your thoughts long after its occurrence. I think it is about banishment and exile, about being shunned. It’s not so much about the hurtful words that were said. Nor, I suspect, is it about the truth of what was said. Rather, it is the recognition of banishment. Psychologically, emotionally and indeed organically we depend on the group for survival.

When you leave your family for the first time to live on a college campus, you transfer your dependence and your allegiance from family to social group. So it would seem reasonable to assume that the social group would then be as vital to you, psychologically, as the family was. Your animal nature would perceive the group as the source of shelter and food and protection, just as your family played that role.

So when you find that they have betrayed you, it sets off alarm bells deep in your primitive, survival-oriented self. It’s not that you’ll have nothing to eat, necessarily (although in the dining hall you may find yourself eating alone, guarding your tray like a prisoner does). It is that you have been kicked out, forced to wander. Imagine what it would be like to be literally shunned by all communities, if you had to wander from village to village. Imagine that you had been branded an outcast, and every village you came to, hungry, thirsty and lonely, the villagers would see this ugly brand and turn you away.

Now here is the thing about cosmopolitan society and the modern world. We don’t live in no fucking village. We are free to wander. You can go to California and call yourself Dolly or Nikita. You can be the stranger about whom all one knows is what you tell them. You can go somewhere where nobody sees the mark, or if they see it they do not realize that it is a brand of banishment. They don’t know what it is. It’s just a mark. You can say it’s a birthmark.

That is what we do, those of us who are different. That is what is so merciful about modern technological and postindustrial society: We are free to come and go and define who we are.

Except — and this is the weird thing: Social networking on the Internet seems to be taking us back to the primitive village where everybody knows our business and everybody can see the mark.

So you may have to disappear from the Internet, just as, in former times, you might have found it necessary to disappear from a village in which you had found yourself unjustly shunned and betrayed.

(Isn’t that interesting: While modern cities have long offered the iconoclast a geographic anonymity, the collapse of physical distance brought about by the Internet has put us all in a tiny village with no curtains — a village, incidentally, full of nosy parkers and busybodies! It’s a very annoying place at times, now that our faces are on it!)

That’s the interesting thing to me, anyway: that the technology of social networking seems to be dragging us away from the anonymous cosmopolitan and toward the tribal. I’m not sure I’m so crazy about that. I sort of like the unlimited opportunities of the modern urban situation, where you can come into town and reinvent yourself, as so many of us did in the pre-Internet San Francisco and pre-Internet New York.

So my advice to you: Get off the Net and travel, physically, to an urban setting that loves gay people and is hospitable to outsiders, where you can reinvent yourself on your own terms. And accept the fact that this was a deep and shattering betrayal and it will probably come up in your thoughts from time to time. That’s just the way we work.

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