Dashed against the rocks

 

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 20, 2004

I’m in love with a siren who lured me and is now destroying me.


Dear Cary,

I have been involved with a woman for one and a half years. She is well mannered, dresses nicely, has style, is extremely intelligent, and is a stunning beauty. We also share many views on the world and, for example, an obsession with the same country that we would both like to emigrate to. We are the kind of couple where everybody turns around to tell us how beautiful we look together.

This woman has given me some of the best times of my life. I loved and trusted her with all my heart. But I got burned, and badly. A description of the depression I’ve gone through would not fit into one letter. She has given me some of the most beautiful times of my life and she has been the cause for the most depressing and sad times that I ever had to endure. She abused my trust, betrayed me, lied to me, dumped me for someone else. That was in the middle of our relationship and it’s the cause for our breaking up for over a month.

But I just couldn’t let go. When she told me that she still had feelings for me and that maybe we could make it work, I immediately went for it, despite much advice to the contrary from friends and family. And it worked well, after a time even very well.

And then it turned back into a disaster. As we both went off for university, she demanded attention that she knew I couldn’t potentially give her and compromises that she knew I couldn’t make. I tried very hard to make it work, to convince her that I loved her. Her reaction was indifference. She was just interested in her new friends, her new life — without me. That was last October, which is when I broke up with her, again.

Even after weeks, I thought of her every day, feelings alternating between anger and longing. I didn’t talk to her for over two months — didn’t help. As I was finally starting to get a handle on things, she called me again and said that she didn’t want to lose somebody she once trusted so much, that she’d like to keep me at least as a friend.

When we met again, all the signs were still there. The looks, the occasional hand on the other’s leg. The close-to-infinite goodbye hug. We started talking on the phone and e-mailing on an almost daily basis. Oh my god, I was back in her power again.

I can’t pull myself out of it, even though she’s been very ambivalent. One day, she tells me how much she misses me, that if I asked her to marry me, she’d say yes. The next day, she doesn’t even answer the phone. Then again, she blames me for everything that ever went wrong in our relationship.

Maybe this is just because there are hardly any girls in my small university in this small, depressing town? Maybe it’s because the advice to get myself somebody else is not an option?

Why can’t I let go? I feel like Odysseus passing the sirens. She draws me to her with her magical song and whenever I come near her, I get smashed on her deadly rocks. How can I escape her? I don’t think stuffing wax into my ear would work, much less having my friends tie me to the mast. But what can I do?

Bound by Love

Dear Bound by Love,

What Odysseus did may sound impossible or useless if taken literally. But metaphorically speaking it’s exactly what you have to do. Odysseus had his mates tie him to the mast. You need to have your friends tie you to a decision. Swear an oath to banish this woman from your life, and have your friends swear to hold you to it.

Now, Odysseus earned his crew’s affection and obedience through heroism. Few of us command such power over men. Moreover, few will truly grasp what you are asking. You may have several “friends” who enjoy your company and think you are a good guy, but to do what you require takes a maturity that doesn’t always show on the surface. So choose one person, and choose wisely. You have to place complete trust in this person.

Make a signed, written agreement. Say that if you should announce that you’re going to see her, they have permission to hold you down, slap you silly, and lock you in your room. Promise not to press charges if they should abduct you in a car and tie you to a tree in the woods. This is what it will take.

You’re in this woman’s power. We don’t have to talk about why, for now. We just have to recognize reality. You’re in her power. Her power is in her presence and in her beauty. It’s a delicious power, but for you it’s deadly. The only way to get out of her power is to get out of her presence. Don’t talk to her, don’t look at her. If you find yourself thinking about her, fine. No man could keep you from doing that. Let yourself think about her, but only as one regards an object in the mind. Do not allow yourself to speculate about her. Get my drift? Whenever you regard her in your mind, be sure there is a fence around her. Do not think about the ways in which next time it might be different. Do not take down that fence.

Furthermore, if you regard her in your mind, regard her only from the rear, as though she is receding from view. Do not look at her face. Do not let her eyes fall on you. Do not let her approach. Only regard her as an object receding into the distance. If you imagine her eyes looking at you, you will be in her power again.

Face it: You’re addicted to her, OK? So you can’t have her anymore! Not even a little piece! You’re done! You’re through! It’s over, soldier!

As to why you are in her power: There is something of narcissism in this — for instance, in the pride you take in being seen as a stunning couple, and in the way she so pleasingly mirrors yourself in her thoughts and ambitions. Odysseus was not a narcissist; he was a warrior; he knew himself and he knew the other, both as enemy and lover. He knew his weaknesses and took precautions. His problem with the sirens was a problem of temptation, not narcissism. But narcissism appears to be the focus of your heroic struggle. So consider that you cannot look away from her because she is an image of your own beauty. Think of her as a reflection of yourself, and consider that the reason you long for her so is that you long for yourself, your own beauty. It’s an unfathomable paradox, this narcissism thing … but maybe that tear that Narcissus sheds, the tear that disrupts his perfect reflection in the river, perhaps that is what is needed here. Perhaps what that myth is saying is that rescue — death in Narcissus’ case, but we needn’t be so literal — comes through the power of emotion to disrupt the perfect reflection: when through long unrequited desire for perfection we finally break down and feel the tragic impossibility of such a union, the power of that emotion shatters the entrancing image, and we are free. Just think of Narcissus’ death at that point as the death of the narcissistic self.

Or think of it this way: The more you suffer, the worse she looks.

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Can I trust a cheating wife?

Dear Cary,

I met my girlfriend almost three years ago. She was married at the time. Things started casually. We flirted and maybe behaved inappropriately when no one was looking. Our flirting progressed, some playful touching and sometimes she’d teasingly pull her dress up a bit for a second or push her cleavage together for a quick tease. Eventually we began exchanging sexual text messages and pictures.

I knew that she had a husband and that what we were doing was wrong, but I justified it to myself by saying that nothing was really happening. It was all just flirting and having fun, nothing more. After she snuck to my house one day and things became physical for the first time, it became a full-blown affair.

I thought of her as my girlfriend and tried my best to just ignore the fact that she was married. It went on for nearly a year before her husband discovered what was going on, and immediately demanded a divorce and kicked her out of their home.

The stone stairway leading up to the bedrooms of le Château du Pin

The stone stairway leading up to the bedrooms of le Château du Pin

We have been living together and officially been in a relationship ever since and I truly care for and love her. We talk about our future and plan and dream about our life together. But my problem is that I don’t trust her. Every time she leaves the house I am nearly overcome with anxiety. I think about how we began, how she would meet me and smirk about the lie that she told her husband as she left her house. I see her phone and think of the secret messages between us. She says hello to a male friend of hers and I think about how we used to share a polite smile in public then have our mouths on each other in private.

I feel guilty. She vents to me about how people look at her and how her family judges her ever since her infidelity was exposed. They all really loved her husband. She hates that they hold it against her and I was ashamed to realize that I am no different from them. I hold it against her every day and I desperately want to stop. I want to be able to trust her and feel secure and comfortable when thinking about a future with her. How can I get past this?

Guilty Lover

Dear Guilty Lover,

I love this story and want to write about it honestly and not judgmentally even though it might sound judgmental anyway, like when somebody kills somebody and you call it murder but you’re not being judgmental, just kind of literal. I mean, literally, you were acting in a delusional state. Not in a bad way necessarily. Just in a delusional way. As in: pretending that stuff is not happening when it actually is happening.

You had to pretend because otherwise you would have to stop doing this thing that you were enjoying very much. You could have just admitted what you were doing and that it conflicted with your belief system, but you chose to keep your belief system intact and instead deny reality. That just blows my mind, but it’s very common and it is, I think, the key to a great many tragedies and mysteries of the human condition. We would rather sacrifice reality to save our belief systems. So rather than question your belief system, you split yourself in two: the person doing the act, and the person characterizing it.

Wonderful.

But delusional.

Hey. I’m not trying to be mean. Nor do I place myself above you. I have been delusional and acted in delusional ways, and trained professionals have called me all kinds of names. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just helpful to know what it is. It’s delusional.

In other contexts, such a delusional approach to reality might make you a super-dangerous and weird dude. But I think you know what you are doing because you feel anxiety. The anxiety you feel is the result of your attempting not to remain conscious of, nor to feel, what you actually do know and feel. The truth is, you are afraid that she will leave you. This is a rational fear based on observation. So you are smart to face it.

The curtain bed in an alcove of the "green room" at le Château du Pin

The curtain bed in an alcove of the “green room” at le Château du Pin

If she cheats on you, that’s normal for her. It’s what she does. So expect it.

Which leads us to the philosophical-inquiry part. And also the part about sexual freedom and gender relations and power. Because here is the other thing that gets me: Under what law or charter or agreement, when her husband found out she was having sex with you, did he have the right to throw her out of the house? Was that something they had agreed on when they got married? Like did she sign something that said if she cheated on him he could throw her out of the house? Or was that just common folk custom, to make the wife homeless if she was sexually unfaithful? And, further, as if she were chattel, was it then your responsibility to house her? Is it like the last man who fucked her now has to house her? What is going on here in the realm of gender roles and power? This is pertinent because housing is such a basic human need, and ought not rest perilously on the vagaries of human sexual conduct.

Granted that apparently this husband has the right to render his wife homeless, where do this husband’s powers end? Could he throw you out of your house, too, for conspiring with her? Could he throw everyone out of their houses? Could he throw me out of my house because she cheated on him?

OK, I know that is stretching it. We’re just asking, in a legalistic way, where his powers of throwing people out of their houses end.

I know people just do things. But it is instructive to inquire into the unspoken rules that govern the things people just do.

So here is an idea. Instead of throwing her out of your house if she cheats on you, why don’t you throw out this antiquated notion that when a woman has sex with a man other than the man she is living with he has to throw her out of the house and file legal action? Speaking of which: Legal action because of fucking? The power of the state because of fucking? Why involve the power of the state? The state, in general, is a terrible thing, brutal and ugly. Why involve it in sex?

Instead, why don’t you and she make an agreement? Why don’t you make an agreement that if she fools around once in a while it’s no big deal. Is that possible? Why not? Obviously, it’s something she does. What do you plan to do when she cheats on you? Is your purpose in life to uphold some abstract law that you and she haven’t even totally consciously agreed upon but just let hover in the air between you like an ancient sacrament?

I understand that you are anxious, and I feel for you. But I think you are anxious because you cannot accept the reality of your situation. You have put yourself in situation that is deeply conflictual. Your belief system says that cheating is bad, but your actions say, Hey, who cares? I like her! You are going to have to reconcile your belief system with your situation somehow, either by ending the relationship or expanding your belief system to accommodate what for her is fairly normal behavior. My opinion: It’s easier to change your belief system than it is to change another person’s behavior.

Of course, you are free to tell me I’m crazy for even suggesting that you accept her exactly as she is and let things happen as they are going to happen. It isn’t what most people would say. And, having thought about it, you may reach a different conclusion. You may decide that it’s your belief system that has to stay, and the girlfriend who has to go.

I’m just suggesting that you ask hard, penetrating questions in order to determine what is your own bottom line.

You are two adults, presumably capable of free, conscious choice. You can talk about it and work it out. It doesn’t have to be a big drama full of people throwing each other out of houses and filing legal papers.

My ex-boyfriend’s getting married to a woman I can’t stand

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, MONDAY, FEB 7, 2005

I don’t even want him as a boyfriend anymore, but I sure don’t want her to have him!


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend, who is now my best friend and roommate, is marrying a woman I can’t stand, and now all sorts of ugly, hidden emotions are bubbling to the surface.

The details would give “My Best Friend’s Wedding” a run for its money, really. Chris and I dated briefly, intensely, nearly a decade ago. I was his first love, he was mine, we were stupid and young and cocky and selfish; we broke up in a knock-down, drag-out fight and didn’t speak for almost a year. After college I moved across the country and we maintained loose correspondence. Then after a more serious but still failed relationship I moved back to our old college town and took a temporary job with his company. He generously offered to rent me a room in his house without contract so I could stay as long or as short as I wanted, and his kindness was definitely undermined by a desire to try things again.

It was awkward at first, but we settled into an easy dynamic and made surprisingly great roommates: We flirted, sometimes fooled around after a few too many drinks, but were content pursuing other people for more serious fun. My temporary employment turned into two years. I began to date one of our closest friends and the three of us shared the kind of friendship that would constantly have people asking me, “Which one is your boyfriend?” I, being the center of attention, was perfectly happy. Then Chris started dating Dawn, an older, prissy waif who didn’t like his friends, who brought out a whole other Chris — the Chris who feared growing old alone. We weren’t too concerned at first — surely he would see that she was unbearably boring, hear her clock ticking, notice how she changed his personality! He did and yet he didn’t, and a year went by. In the meantime he cheated on her and was constantly on the lookout for an exit. We continued our flirtation, even had sex a few times. We were there for each other, loved each other, were constantly amazed by one another. It made her insane that I lived with him, and I liked that.

Then last month he proposed. To her, I mean. An $8K ring, a trip to Europe, romantic dinners and roses galore. Not being much of a relationship person, it goes without saying that I wouldn’t really want all those things, but now I WANT THOSE THINGS. And most important, I don’t want Dawn to have them. After spending a week in the drunken haze of denial (during which time all our co-workers and friends came to me wanting reasons, answers, for him making what to us is a fool’s choice) Chris told me that it was time to move on, that our “relationship” was through, and I’ve been seriously depressed ever since.

Now my questions: I still have a boyfriend, sort of. Obviously I don’t deserve him since I’ve cheated on him, but he and I are compatible in so many more ways than Chris and I ever could be. I chose him over Chris in the first place. So why, oh why do I want Chris to be single? His fiancée is around more than ever — apparently the rock on her hand makes her more bold — and I have managed not to say a single word to her. They’ll be married in 10 months. He’ll sell the house that I’ve called home for almost three years now (a record, for me), take the cat — that I bought him! — and disappear into married life leaving the remnants of his bachelor years behind. Am I suffering from insane jealousy? Yes. Can I do a thing about it? Not that I can see. But at present I’m teetering wildly on destroying what friendship we have, and I don’t know how to handle all these changes with grace. I’m not going to run after him pleading, “Marry me! Let me make you happy!” — I don’t want that, anyway. So how can I move on? What I want is to let him go, to stop being angry and feeling like I somehow lost. Oh, and for him to regret his decision every second of every day for the remainder of his life, endlessly pining for me.

J

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Dear J,

You know, I’m a married guy, and some of my best friends are married, so I’m not speaking of everybody. But when I look around me and read letters such as yours I’m reminded of what really blows about the whole institution of marriage, how it places a fairy-tale gauze of happily-ever-after over raw social climbing, manipulation and financial maneuvering. In the process it disrupts vital social networks. It isolates people.

True love is all well and good, and people make their own choices. But what bothers me is how once we’re talking about marriage, suddenly nobody is allowed to say, This is a sham and a shame. It’s like marriage is the ultimate trump card. Play that card and, Aha! All of a sudden your social network doesn’t matter anymore. This is marriage. This is a wedding. They’re getting married! So shut your mouth.

Yeah, sometimes it’s all a bunch of baloney if you ask me. And the way people fall into it is appalling.

So what can you do? I dunno. I’d love it if just once, when they come to that part in the pre-game ceremony where the umpire says if there’s anybody here who knows any reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, if just once somebody would stand up in the bleachers and open her mouth and say, “Yeah, I know a reason. Because this guy was a friend of mine, a very good friend, and we had a house together and lots of good friends, and we’re losing all that, and we knew him, I mean we really knew him, not like this chick but really knew him like on the floor puking drunk and up till 4 afraid of dying and sick with the flu and diarrhea, we knew he didn’t like corn flakes because of a childhood accident he never talks about, we knew he had no backhand and always travels after he dribbles, we knew he never read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but did the Cliffs Notes instead, we knew this guy like a brother until this brittle, frosty chick got her nails done and dug them into his back and dragged him up here like one more expensive rag doll. We lived with this guy and now we’re going to have to move. We grew up with this guy and worked with this guy and we were this guy’s real family and now we’re losing all that. We were maybe the only real family he’s got, and now comes this frilly Victorian one-act play complete with costumes and scenery to say none of what we had with him even mattered, none of that was real, it was all just kids play and now we’re adults and putting away our childish things and setting up house for real. Well, all of that was real, it was probably as real as it ever will get. You’re walking away from your real life, my friend, your real friends, your real house and everything that’s real in your life today, and you’re doing it all for some glossy mirage of a fairy-tale life. So screw you and screw your special little invitations and your ridiculous bridesmaid outfits and your rented glassware and your aphasic caterer and the whole fraudulent kissy-kiss merging of families and pompous parental aplomb.”

And then just quietly excuse yourself.

As the ridiculous white limousine with the spray-painted windows and the tin cans tied to the bumper rolled out of Palookaville headed for the big time, you’d have a bit of explaining to do. But maybe, just once, it’d be worth it.

Boys leave

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jan 28, 2004

Why was I the cat’s meow on the fifth date and a sex buddy by the sixth?


Dear Cary,

So it’s happening again: Girl meets boy. Girl likes boy. Gets boy’s number. Girl and boy begin dating. Boy sends all of the “very interested” signals. Girl responds in kind. Incredible sex. Eye-gazing. Natural feeling, intelligent conversation. Then the sixth date: No eye contact, little attempt at conversation, unimpassioned sex. Boy abruptly, awkwardly leaves that morning, making no mention of weekend plans. Boy insults girl with small talk. Girl feels used and disappointed. Girl writes Cary.

What’s going on here? Seriously. This has happened to me before. But I didn’t expect it from this guy. He’s 33. He’s in med school. He’s traveled extensively with the military. He’s bright and clever. He lights up a room. He has a zest for life that’s devastatingly attractive to me. He’s confident.

My male friends tell me that I intimidate guys. I’ve tried to tone it down. With this guy I really took it easy. Followed his lead. Was always very much myself but let a little more of the softness through. I avoided all the old traps. It seemed to work. I was pleased with myself for breaking old patterns. Then, sure enough, with no warning he’s gone. Vacant.

Typically this is when I begin to act like a circus clown, jumping all around trying to pinpoint whatever it is that will take him back to where he was before, and this is when it gets ugly and I get pathetic, and the whole thing is scrapped (usually with good reason by then). But I really don’t want that to happen this time. I want to change this pattern. I want to understand what’s going on here.

I really like this one. I do. I rarely meet people that are as passionate about living as I am, and it felt so nice to not feel like someone’s specimen. He doesn’t need my energy to feed off of — he has his own. I trusted that he wouldn’t be another man who would profess how incredible I am and then in the next breath tell me that I’m “too much.”

I feel hurt and disappointed. How was I the cat’s meow on the fifth date and a sex buddy by the sixth? Cary, can you tell me what happened at five and a half? I can’t think of anything that I did. I really can’t. I’d tell you if I could. Why did he turn off, and more importantly how should I respond? Typically I would call and confront him (weirdness ensues), but this time I want to see what he does, and what you say, before I make a move to unearth whatever’s going on.

How should I proceed? And is there some way I can avoid this in the future?

A Little Broken Hearted … Again

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Dear A Little Broken Hearted,

As I go over your letter, trying to locate you, the image I get is of a woman spinning wildly like a child on a gleaming ballroom floor, throwing sparks into the night, arranging the very universe by her dancing, drunk with attractive power. I see a woman who looks only outward at the shiny, spinning world full of lights but never inward lest she fall, a woman who sees around her other shiny, spinning, fabulous dancers and is briefly drawn into their orbits as they are drawn into hers, forming figure eights as they orbit each other on a great dance floor in some marble ballroom. It is a fabulous, glittering ball, half-mystical, and in this ballroom there is no conversation, only dancing and gesture; nor is there any progression, or any time; there is only whirling and more whirling and when the whirling stops there is only a dreamless sleep of exhaustion in plush red banquet chairs, and then more dancing. There is no remembering of hard times here in this ballroom, nor is there any self-doubt, nor are any names exchanged. No one can remember the last time the music stopped, and no one can remember the last time a contemplative word was uttered. This is not a place where contemplative people come; it is just a whirling ball, glittering and festive and timeless.

That is how I picture you, as a glittering dancer at a ball, who met another glittering dancer and danced wordlessly until you exhausted him and then he whirled away. But when he whirled away you were sad. You expected something else. But what was it you expected? No one in this ballroom knew that you expected anything else. All anyone does here is dance.

This man who turned away from you and hurt you: What was the substance of your understanding of him? What did you learn about his wishes and desires? Was he looking for a wife, or just a playmate? Was he completely single, or partially attached? Was he what they call “emotionally available”? Do you know how one would go about ascertaining if someone is “emotionally available”? Did you consider that a handsome, worldly, charismatic former military man who is now in medical school might be in some ways not emotionally available? Did it occur to you that in your busy, whirling extravagance of spirit you might have neglected to closely study his eyes, how he reacts to you, whether he’s shrinking from you as you expand to fill the room with your fabulousness, whether he might have appeared short of breath as you sucked the oxygen out of the air around him, whether you might have missed any attempt on his part, however subtle and coded, to warn you that he was not the man for you?

It may be that you have great attractive power but only have transactions, not relationships, with men; that would explain why men come and go from your boudoir at will — because although you may dance with them and sleep with them, you have neglected the careful disclosure and attentive listening through which two people establish an emotional narrative. You almost sound like a woman in the last stages of a magical girl phase, when you still have the power, intelligence, vivacity and attractiveness of youth to draw men to you, but find that drawing them to you is no longer enough, that you are groping your way into the world of difficult compromise and self-disclosure that adult relationships require.

If you are ready for that, you will find your way. Here is a tip: The next time you are attracted to a man, try to see him not with your eyes but with your heart. Ask your heart what it sees. It may not see the glittering prince that you see with your eyes. By your heart I mean your intuition, your spider sense, the instant feelings of fear or attraction that you used to rely on as a child.

You’re going to have to stop dancing and making love long enough to hear what the next man has to say. What he says may surprise you. It may also bore you. Such is life outside the ballroom and the boudoir.

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Is our relationship a tear-down, or can it be repaired?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, NOV 10, 2004

We bought a house together and it’s tearing us apart.


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend and I met three years ago, fell madly in love, and six months later bought a fixer-upper in a transitioning neighborhood in an inner-city neighborhood. Things spiraled out of control, and we spent the past two-plus years vacillating between some of the highest highs and, alternately, the lowest depths of hellish fighting. At the beginning of this month, we spent a week apart, and on coming back I had decided that I, for my part, had taken him for granted over the past few years and wanted to do what I could to turn things around. But he dumped me.

We still own this house together, and it’s not in a salable condition. So we’re not in a position to just terminate things entirely and have been trying to be friends and working to get the house to a point where we can sell it. We’ve been getting along extremely well, although we don’t see much of each other.

I have spent this month doing a wholesale reevaluation of what it is that makes me happy and have been really embracing that. And, coming off two years of a relationship that left me very unhappy, I’m enjoying myself immensely and am so glad our relationship is over. The thing is, in the process, I have decided that what I really want is a happy relationship with him. I’ve dropped all of my baggage — the things I’ve hated about him, the things he did to me, and the things I thought he did to me. And I think we have the tools to make a good relationship possible, and an unprecedented opportunity to make a fresh start.

We just had a discussion, and he said: “Even though we’ve been getting along so well, every advice columnist I’ve ever read has said that people don’t change,” and so he doesn’t believe that things can be different. And since I know he respects your advice very much (when you ran your series on home ownership, he went so far as to say that you were the same person), I wanted to ask an advice columnist: Can people change? I think he’s misconstruing things — I don’t think you can force someone to change, but people are infinitely capable of change on their own.

Our problem was one of letting all of the little things build on one another, so that we were essentially sweating all the small stuff — a poor choice of words could set off a daylong argument. And I think a lot of this was based on the stresses of buying a house that needed a lot of work (and still does) six months into a relationship and being thrown into each other’s finances and lifestyles and everything else so quickly.

What I’m really looking for from you is insight as to whether what I’m doing seems misguided or naive — and do you believe a relationship can be remade?

K

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Dear K,

Your story is a charming one. You met and fell in love, and within six months you’d bought a metaphor. The metaphor, situated in an inner-city neighborhood, had a lot of possibilities but needed work.

Working on the metaphor was difficult emotionally; it would have been easier if it had simply been a house. But, like me, you are an optimist. You believe that metaphors can be improved and brought to market for a significant profit; you believe, as I do, that improving a metaphor improves its surroundings, and everybody, metaphorically speaking, profits from your labor.

Well, you’re in a tough spot now. While working on the metaphor, your relationship was damaged. People in relationships, like old walls, conceal ancient failures and burn spots, places where the circuits blew and almost caused a fire. People, like old houses, reveal their weaknesses reluctantly and sometimes only after a few blows with a sledge hammer. There might be a break that you can’t see somewhere beneath the floor. You can go a long time pretending it’s not really broken, that it’s just sagging a little. You come up with things to say. You say the joists are fine — it’s just an old floor.

But then the inspector comes and rips things up. Look at this! he says. It’s completely gone! There’s nothing holding it up! Lucky we found it in time! It’s amazing you survived!

Your ex-boyfriend says that all advice columnists say that people don’t change. I dare say in this perhaps unintentional distortion he’s attempting to conceal his own personal fracture, that he himself has reached a point of no return, that he himself feels he can no longer change. Perhaps what he can’t say outright is that he’d rather rip it up and build somewhere new, that your relationship is a tear-down. But he can’t say it directly because you still have a lot of work to do together. So he’s talking in the abstract, hoping to avoid a confrontation. Your partnership has been so volatile, he may feel he can’t take any more stress, any more violent shaking. Once you’re done with the house, that might change; he might simply be unable to see past the dust; he might need some finished drawings to help him visualize the future.

So what I would do if I were you, and I say this with all the compassion I can muster, is I would concentrate on getting the actual house on the market. I would work with him as a business partner. I would concentrate on paint, plumbing and plasterboard. If he is going to change in his feelings toward you, he will. But you have no control over what he feels. That is probably the one thing advice columnists do agree on.

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

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 1, 2005

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


Dear Cary –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong to Fantasize?

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Dear Wrong to Fantasize,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have I ruined my marriage and screwed up my life?

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Cary’s classic column from Monday, Oct 25, 2010

I got restless and fooled around and now I’ve come back. Why do I feel I’ve betrayed myself?


Dear Cary,

This is going to sound very weird, coming from a man and all. I’m a pretty well-set guy in my low 50s, good income, very athletic and strong, nice little house in an awesome upscale Northern California area, one brilliant, stunningly beautiful 17-year-old daughter and one equally successful wife of 27 years. Like many couples, the pilot light on romance went out long ago as we both focused on self-preservation (health, fitness, career), domestic duties (cleaning, installing, fixing 90 percent of everything with own hands), and the most important, our daughter, who is absolutely brilliant and bound for the most prestigious engineering university in the world. My dream from the time of her birth is coming true for me.

Well, a year ago, during the 50 percent of time when I wasn’t traveling the world for my work, while commuting to work, a woman offered to help me blog my travels. Yes. I know what you’re thinking. It did. We did. Suddenly, all those feelings that love left me many years before getting married came rushing in. This new woman had everything I didn’t “push” for when I first met my wife and just settled for during 27 years. These shiny-new feelings of happiness and satisfaction were on the rock-star level in life. She had never been married and was seven years my junior and really, really wanted someone to spend the rest of her life with, having been involved with a man who was separating or separated about a year or so prior and before that being with someone for a much longer time.

She is what I’m not. Art-loving, outgoing, a true bon vivant, in that she spends her salary (equal to mine) almost as fast as it comes in (at least it seems that way) on restaurants and lots of little things that make each day pleasurable, nothing like jewelry or expensive clothes or such. Not a bad thing, just a polar opposite of what I’ve been accustomed to for 27 years of solitude and nothingness. What we had in common is what I don’t have with my wife: happy to spend nighttimes reading or seeing movies or just listening quietly to each other read out loud, athletic, motorcycle enthusiast, strong bicycle commuter, appreciative of the outdoors, fantastic in the love department and more than willing to travel and spend all her time experiencing museums, parks, hiking … All these things we did, and more.

I saw what I wanted and over a few months planned and planned. I bought a motorcycle. I got the courage to move out. The most difficult thing in my life was sitting on my knees one horrible night while crying and telling my daughter I would be moving out — this, after discussing it with my wife. My wife let me go, telling my daughter that I have to work this out. My daughter pretty much said, “You guys work it out.”

Well, moving out was a huge fiscal reality shock. I just paid and paid it seemed. I felt obligated to continue my burden of everything that came along with regards to upkeep for our house. I realized that I couldn’t save for my daughter’s future college expense and maintain the most important financial investment I had and have a great time.

This became a burning thorn in my brain. It was all I could think about. I hated it. I hated myself. The hardcore realist in me sat on top of the dreaming middle-age-crisis American male like a big elephant. I also knew that I was sticking my wife with responsibilities that now included being there 100 percent for my daughter. I began coming over for dinner on Saturdays and fixing stuff. Everything I paid for practically terrified me, knowing my checking account was no longer growing. I was now waiting for the next paycheck to bail me out. The thought of looming flood insurance premiums and property tax weighed heavily on me.

My times with my girlfriend were also beginning to erode as she could no longer easily tolerate my not exposing her to family and friends in my life. She hated the fact that I was visiting the house when I wanted. She would break up with me and not speak for a day or two or three at a time. This happened 10 times. I loved her madly, intensely, but I loved my daughter more and my need to maintain my role as a homeowner was stronger. I had no feelings to placate my wife at all. My daughter was everything. Moving her out of the house so I could divorce and divide the assets while she was getting ready for her SATs would be insanely selfish, at least it seemed to me. It would jeopardize her academic success, if not her very future. And, being a Catholic, I have had it drilled into me that selfishness is bad.

Yes, divorcing and selling the house to put the assets away for my daughter seemed asinine, to say the least, although my wife even suggested it once in a fit of upset feelings. A financially astute friend deemed it financial suicide, him being a recent divorcee in the same city. The taxes would lay carnage to the principal, yet I never substantiated any of what he told me, unfortunately. I expressed to my girlfriend I wasn’t easily accepting her conviction that people come out of their divorces easily all the time. I also accepted that I was putting her as No. 2. She was right.

To make a long story shorter, I gradually spent a little more time each week speaking to my wife, finally expressing my interest in coming back, most importantly for our daughter’s sake. She was happy. Now, back in the house, seemingly hunky-dory, my daughter and I speak a lot more and I help her with homework and take her and her friends around whenever I can. I cook dinner like I did before and go to work and come home like I did before. I broke the lease on my apartment, not having completed a year, feeling fortunate for having understanding landlords.

My girlfriend and I have a had a rocky exit, until yesterday. Now, I feel fully horrible. I know she is looking for the perfect man who will spend at least as much money and time doing all the things we did, if not a lot more. I accept I cannot be happy sexually with my wife ever again but am ridiculously depressed about not having her in my life. Before I met my girlfriend, my wife and I had sex infrequently, perhaps once or twice a month. It was quite perfunctory, almost ritualistic, punctual and “sanitary.” Now, the thought of sex with my wife is almost nauseating, and though I did, a month later, I have stopped completely. It’s too much a lie. I just don’t want to anymore.

I’m so sad that I lost my girlfriend and my shot at happiness. The only cure for this ache seems to be to move out once my daughter is more grown, but that is a long way off. I know my girlfriend is gone. I know the only solution would be to accept her back once my daughter was gone, I was divorced and my house-concern was settled. But that is stupid. She said she wants me to be happy with my family now. I feel she has met someone quite promising on an online dating service and wants to amputate me from her life. I’ve deactivated my Facebook page and just want to disappear into work and my athletic endeavors. Perhaps I’ll begin traveling the world again. Perhaps I will immerse myself in graduate school. Perhaps I will get the courage to kill myself or accept the end that may come in my road sports.

Why do I feel like I betrayed myself? Why do I feel the right thing to do was the wrong thing to me? I have no friends to talk to this about.

Feeling Lost

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Dear Feeling Lost,

I love to run these long letters where people tell what could be, if you stretched it out, a novel. It’s all there. It’s a novel that takes place over the course of a year or two in your life. You were just getting along, wondering if this was all there is, then you met someone, things happened, you took it as far as it could go, but there were limits. There were costs involved. Choices had to be made. The costs were too high. So you returned.

And here you are. You’re back. You wonder if you did the right thing. You know more than you did before. You have a story now. You’ve gone out there beyond the fences and seen what it’s like. And now you’re back to finish what you started. You’re back now to raise your daughter, get her safely into adulthood and conclude whatever it is between you and your wife that remains.

I wonder what your wife thinks about all this. I’m just curious. I’m sure readers are curious, too. And we’re curious what kind of man you are; that is, if we were to meet and talk in person, would you be able to be as honest and straightforward and raw as you are in this letter. I think you are quite honest. People will jump all over you, probably. They always do. I suggest you shake them off. There is nothing more honorable than just telling the truth about your own life. People who denounce letter writers do not seem to honor that fact. There is something redeeming in just telling your story. I’m frequently amazed at the lack of respect. But whatever. I’m sitting in this cabin in North Florida now, having rejoined a small group of my high school friends for one of our infrequent reunions. We’re all getting old. So maybe I’m no quite myself, and maybe also I relate to your story because it’s told from the perspective of someone who got restless and thought maybe he’d made the wrong choices and so set out to correct them, and then found that maybe those choices were somehow the best ones he could make.

The beautiful thing about getting old is that big things happen to you and you do gain that gravitas, that perspective, that you wish you had when you were younger. You know what you did. You are not confused by it. You’re facing it.

So this is how we get through it. Why do you feel like you betrayed yourself? That’s one of those questions that only you can find the answer to, but you do need help in finding it. I wish we were sitting together talking. Maybe it would become clear. Or maybe it’s not the right question. Maybe the question is more like, did you betray yourself? What would it mean to betray yourself? Is that the right word? Or is there something more precise. It seems to me like you didn’t betray yourself. Rather, you made a real-life decision. It seems to me like you could have kidded yourself but you chose to be honest about your situation. You’re not perfect. You ran off. But then you came back.

You’re not perfect and life is not perfect and you did the best you could. And then you spelled it out here.

Like I say, in the territory it covers, and in its overall shape, it could be a novel. So you might think about that. There are so many things you need to think deeply about. Writing it out more fully is one way to think it through. What if you were to write scenes? Think of the scenes that truly tortured you, and the ones that brought you to unimagined bliss. Write them. If questions arise in your mind, write out what is going on in your mind. You might find that writing is a useful tool for settling, or clarifying, exactly what you did and why. Don’t get into writing it like a “novelist.” Just write it in the way that feels true to you. I think you will find that some of the issues become clearer.

Since you have no friends to talk to about this, I hope you can find someone who, if not a friend, can at least act as a principled ally, or witness. Maybe there is a group of men in your area that gets together to talk about marriage and divorce. I wouldn’t be surprised. In Northern California there seem to be groups for everything. And it does help to talk things out. It helps immensely, as does writing about them.

So make it a goal, or a priority, to find a group, or an individual, where you can go and feel comfortable just talking through this. What you did was huge. You have powerful feelings about it. There are moral and ethical issues to sort through. It’s very difficult to sort through something like this on your own. And yet, as you say, “coming from a man and all,” many of us tend to hesitate doing the hard work of finding a way to sort through this with the help of others. So that’s my prescription for you. Make it a priority to get into group for divorced or divorcing men, and/or find yourself a talented therapist, someone you are drawn to, someone whom you can take seriously. This might not happen right away. Give it time. But put it up there at the top of your list, and I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

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Why can’t I find a relationship that will last?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 6, 2008

Am I destined to be lonely? Do I pick the wrong men? Why am I still single?


Dear Cary,

I believe that I have lost my ability to trust my judgments on relationships. However, I still believe in love, and I have not given up all hope.

Here is the situation.

I am 33 and single yet again after another failed relationship. I am college educated, I work a high-pressure job, have quite a large group of close friends, and have some hobbies that I am pretty devoted to. So I guess you can say that I am not one of those people who is desperate for a romantic relationship out of fear of nothing else going on in my life.

I have always found the dating world difficult, but this is mostly due to some lingering self-doubts that have been around since high school. My dating life so far has been approximately five serious relationships. The longest (which was my college boyfriend) lasted about five years. It was a very ugly breakup, and I didn’t really get over it for close to two years. I could casually date, but would normally pick up guys with various issues (drug, alcohol, honesty problems, etc.).

I met a seemingly good guy who didn’t seem to come with excess baggage when I was 27, and had even made plans to marry. It seemed like a pretty normal relationship, and by far the most stable of my life. He broke up with me at the three-year mark, and immediately moved in with a girl from his grad-school class. (They married months later.) This situation pretty much floored me, as at the time it pretty much came out of nowhere. I went into therapy, and realized that there were lots of red flags in that relationship that I just didn’t see at the time. However, I was eventually able to move on, and not let the sadness completely ovewhem me. It was extremely difficult. I do sometimes believe that I carry some major scars from that relationship, but none so bad as to make me “give up.”

I then found myself falling in love with a friend of mine whom I have known since college. Hanging out with him was always a riot, because he is somewhat of a smartass, and is someone I can converse with on just about anything. However, he also has a rather serious binge-drinking problem, and could sometimes be difficult to deal with during one of his famously ugly hangovers. I realized that my constant interaction with him was very unhealthy for me. So I went back into therapy, and got some clarification on why I felt this way, even though I knew it was a hopeless situation.

My friends, who are good-natured, could never understand why I was constantly having these issues. I would get “You are really smart, really pretty, really interesting, etc., etc.” (I am also the only one who is not currently in a long-term relationship or married.) Some of my friends even went so far as to try to set me up on blind dates, but there was no real spark. I even jokingly said that I had developed an allergy to dating. But the reality is, I would love nothing more than to be in a satisfying relationship with a nice man who has charisma and can make me laugh.

My therapist mentioned quite a few times that I was doing the right things by keeping myself active, not trying to over-focus on finding a nice guy, and staying motivated with my hobbies. I work out quite a bit, and play several sports recreationally.

So now to my latest situation. I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship immediately, but was looking at trying to see where things were progressing. He showered me with attention, and while it was a little overwhelming at first, it was nice. He seemed pretty levelheaded, and we seemed to share quite a bit of interests, and had like backgrounds. While I was still trying to completely let go of all the feelings for the friend with the drinking problem, actually dipping my toe into the dating pool really seemed to help that situation.

However, out of nowhere, I was broken up with. When I asked for the reason, I was given “stressed out because of work” as the reason. I sympathized, and was told that, however, he still wanted to be friends. I have now found out that the real reason was that he was getting back together with his ex-girlfriend — the same ex-girlfriend who had screwed with his emotions last year. I was upset, but not so much for him going back to the ex-girlfriend, but by his lack of candor. I have once again lost my ability to trust. Even by keeping casual, and not being clingy, needy, etc., I still feel as though I have failed once again, and picked a guy who obviously has some major issues.

So how can I learn to trust my own instincts again? I feel like my guard — which I find naturally difficult to let down but which was once again finally coming down — has gone back up. I feel extremely jaded as maybe I am destined to be alone, yet somehow I still hope that maybe I will find a nice man who will not be a complete jerk. If I am “doing the right things in life” according to my therapist — to place the focus on other parts of my life — why do I still feel that empty feeling that borders on jealousy when I see my friends who are happy? I also question how I can ever really relax enough to take another chance if I seemingly have really questionable attractions in men.

Yet Another Brick in the Wall

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Dear Brick,

What is your reason for seeking a man? It may sound like a dumb question but … Is it to have children and raise a family? To avoid loneliness? To feel relaxed and confident in your world? To enjoy sex? To demonstrate your value and attractiveness to others? To keep pace with your friends? Perhaps with your therapist you can dwell on these questions long enough to see some specific and detailed answers emerge. This might help you in several ways. For one thing, it can help you see exactly what you are losing when a man goes away. And so it can help you think how to replace those specific things that he was providing. If he was providing sex, for instance, and you miss the sex, then you can set about trying to find more sex. If the ache you feel is loneliness, then perhaps you need the company of others. If you feel wounded or betrayed, then perhaps you can work on that woundedness, exploring it, asking, Is it anger toward him, is it shock at how I have been treated?

So rather than suggest how you might better find and maintain another relationship — for which many guides exist — my approach is more to explore the various aspects of having a man and see how having a man is connected to your larger life aspirations.

If you can define how finding a man relates to some larger aspiration you have — to have family, to be connected closely, to have security or to avoid being alone — then perhaps your true desires will become more specific and vivid, and you will come to see how your past relationships fit into a larger pattern, and you will not feel that everything is so hopeless. Patterns will start to emerge. You will start to see what your big struggle actually is. You will start to see a direction. The direction may involve a relationship with a man or it may involve something entirely different. You may find, for instance, if you sit with this, that some vocation is pulling you in a certain direction. The direction may not be clear to you but it will become clear, if you can settle down and try to see what is in the distance.

This pattern that causes you so much pain may be a very natural thing and not a problem at all. It may be a sign of a certain direction that you are being called to go. If you quiet your mind and let various images come to you, you will see this. I wonder what those images would be.

You have a rich life filled with friends, work and activities.

Right now, I sense that you are keeping busy partly to distract yourself — from what? From these “lingering self-doubts,” I guess. And what those lingering self-doubts are, in truth, I imagine is the truth of your being.

Men come into your life and go out of your life. Men do not act the way you want them to. Their feelings change, or diminish. They drink too much or take drugs. They lie. They have something that you want but then the relationship turns painful. What is the pain about? Is it feeling that you will always be lonely? Is it feeling that others cannot be relied on, that they let you down, that they take advantage of you, wanting only sex and entertainment and then moving on? Is it a feeling of futility about the future, that you will never have the life you dream of having?

After looking at this for a while, ask yourself, Is this the big thing? Are these relationships with men my purpose in life? No? What is my purpose in life? Do I really want to get married? Is that the big thing? Or is it something else? Do I really want to be a singer, or a gardener, or start a business?

So how about this: Make this year your year of digging deeply. Make this year your year of facing the shit. If you can do that, you can find out who you are and where you are going. Then these other things will seem minor. You will reach a point where you look around and see that having a boyfriend or not having a boyfriend is not the issue. You are 33 now and no longer just out of college, no longer frolicking about. Your life is right here before you. The issue is how you get up in the morning and face your life. People will come and go. Your friends will come and go, too. Your family members will age and their status in life will change, as yours will. Try to see the big picture.

Underneath all this worry, there is a distinct, unique, thriving person with a powerful voice and a distinct view of the world, and capabilities no other person has. Maybe that person does not want to fit in and get married. Maybe that person wants to run away and be a crazy woman, live in a shack on the highway, or be an inventor, or an architect, or a criminal, an actress, a helper of children, a writer, a telephone operator …

So there I go again, ranting. But I want to clear away the generalities. I want to ask you to spend this year understanding your life in a new way with the help of your therapist. I want to ask you to identify your deepest beliefs and desires and work with her to understand how they have created these patterns that cause you so much pain, and figure out ways to get where you need to go. I think you can do that.

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What do I owe him?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 21, 2003

My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?


Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses

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Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought  to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.

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My ex-fiancee is engaged to a jackass

Write for Advice
 Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Feb 25, 2004

Should I tell her he’s cheating?


Dear Cary,

A friend, and ex-fiancée, of mine recently became engaged to someone she has known for only six months. They are planning a wedding only three months from today. When they were dating she never had anything positive to say about him and seemed on the verge of dumping him before he proposed. She has distanced herself from all of her friends because, though they are supportive, none of them think it’s a good idea. But the reasons that she gives for cutting her friends off are the tantrums that he throws every time she speaks to anyone who has ever said anything negative about him. I feel that her actual reason is that she wants to avoid thinking about her own fears and doubts about this man because she wants a successful relationship so badly that her partner is irrelevant.

She and I both know I have a conflict of interest in this. She knows that I still love her very much and had hoped that we could try again. The timing of our relationship was wrong for both of us and it ended badly, but our friendship survived. We are both very much attracted to each other. I didn’t take the news of her engagement well; rather, it led to a pretty intense depression and a lot of messy fallout. Her fiancé used that drama as his justification for forcing her to choose between friendship with me and their relationship. I lost.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing you.

I confirmed something about him that I had suspected for a long time, but it gives me no comfort because I cannot tell her what I know. Since they started dating he has given her lecture after lecture about how faithful he is, how important monogamy is to him, how he has never cheated on anyone he’s ever been with. She didn’t tell him that she had never been faithful to anyone, including me. He picked fights with her in public among their mutual friends over the fact that she is bisexual and that if she pursued her interest in women, she would be cheating on him. He did these kinds of things so often that I began to suspect that he was being defensive.

Tonight I found out that he was indeed cheating on her, and not only on her, but on his previous girlfriend. He left his previous girlfriend to be with the woman he was seeing on the side. There are nearly three months of overlap between the time he started “exclusively” seeing my friend and the time he finally stopped cheating on her. I found this out directly from the other woman. I even know the dates.

I can’t tell her. For one, she has a tendency to shoot messengers so if I’m to have any hope that she and I will end up together it has to come from another source. Two, my motives are suspect. At the same time, if she does find out and also finds out that I knew, she will never forgive me. I try to keep my big damn mouth shut, but she sees through me and will know if I am hiding something.

Do I e-mail him a picture of the other woman with a caption saying, “I know everything”? Do I go to the bar he manages and tell him that if he doesn’t come clean, I’ll have the other woman do it for him? Do I tell her myself and take it on the chin?

At a Loss

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Dear At a Loss,

Here’s what you do: You don’t e-mail him a picture. You don’t confront him at his bar. You don’t put someone else up to it. You don’t take it on the chin. You don’t do anything.

What you do is you let it go. You let her go. You let him go. You let everything go. Do some yoga: That part at the end where you let everything go out of your toes, do that. Sit in a blues club and let it go. Do the breath of fire and let it go. Do the downward dog and let it go. Put on some Coltrane and let it go; take a walk in the woods and let it go; go hunting or driving or running or cycling or whatever you do that stops you from thinking about her and her dishonesty and bad choices and willful blindness. Let it go.

There’s the personal angle and there’s the legal angle. The personal angle is that people make bad choices in their personal lives and it’s none of our business. The legal angle is that people make bad choices in marriage and it’s none of our business except where the marriage, as a public contract, affects children, property, other wives, etc. Just being a jackass isn’t grounds for anything. If he’s already married with kids in Idaho or a rap sheet that takes three minutes to print or three wives in Utah, OK, that’s relevant information that his intended betrothed ought to know. But if he just wasn’t done with all his sexual entanglements before he sexually entangled himself with your friend, that’s between them.

Besides, I have a feeling it’s not her moral choices that are bothering you as much as it is her sweet sex and who’s getting what you used to get. Because why else would you want to get back together with a woman who was never true to you or to anyone else anyway, unless she’s such a salty sweet bundle of lips and thighs that the mere thought of her makes you tingle so badly you need a neurologist or a priest? How could a guy who admits upfront that he’s got only selfish interests and who admits that she never was true to him anyway be deeply interested in the moral problem of infidelity and lies?

So don’t pretend to take the high road just to get to the low road. Whatever road you’re on, turn around and walk the other way. You’ve got no rights in the matter, being, as the poem says, “neither father nor lover.”

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