Free at last?

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Now that I’m finally free to leave my drag of a husband, he’s cleaning up his act. Should I leave him anyway?

 Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 10, 2003

Dear Cary,

For over a decade I promised myself I would move out of the house the day my youngest went off to college. For years I’ve lived with a drinking, underemployed, pessimistic drag of a mate. Nothing so awful I couldn’t hold out for the sake of the children, but always enough that I knew it wasn’t forever.

Well, the youngest is out the door soon, and my husband, perhaps aware there would soon be nothing to keep me attached, has suddenly become the loving, attentive, sober, amply employed spouse every woman desires. The problem is, I long ago mentally checked out, and can’t seem to emotionally reengage. Does this new behavior count for anything, since it is obviously forced, something he could have done years ago, and clearly fake, in order to keep me around? Should I stay and try to relearn to love him? Or should I remember the 15 years I wasn’t happy and get out now while I am able and while things seem so peaceful? What’s a fun-loving, out-of-love girl to do?

Ready to Run

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Dear Ready to Run,

Yes, I think you should probably leave. It sounds like you’ve built up too much resentment to see things clearly anyway, and I doubt that you’re likely to change.

Ideally, of course, in my universe, people do change; they endeavor to see the truth, full of nuance and paradox. But you’re a real person out there somewhere, not just an abstraction on paper. And real people often do not change, however much we wish they would. My own mother, for instance, bless her 80-year-old heart, still passionately enumerates my dad’s failures as if they happened yesterday, as if they caused every subsequent unhappiness that has visited the world. I can’t change her. I can’t change you. If you truly believe that your husband is just faking his new happiness because he can’t bear the thought of losing you, and that his change is the same penny-ante dime-a-dozen miracle that anybody can turn on or off any old time he wants to, and he could have done this years earlier but didn’t out of some fundamental contrariness, then you really should just leave.

In my ideal world, however, whether you leave him or not, you wouldn’t presume to know your husband’s motivations for his recent change, or for his years of failing to live up to your expectations. You’d recognize that your expectations of others don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. You wouldn’t assume that your husband’s decisions revolve around his regard for you. You wouldn’t blame him for who he is. You’d view these years you spent raising your children with some compassion for yourself and some humility and some perspective.

You would throw away your judgments, your recriminations, your belief in your own rightness. You would take responsibility for your actions and move on without comment. If you have stayed with this guy this long for the sake of the children, you would be proud of the fact that you did it for the children, but you would recognize that it was a choice; it wasn’t something he or the children forced you to do; you did it because it was the right thing to do and you did it willingly.

TuscanAd2016_earlybirdIn my ideal world, you’d have reverence for the sanctity of your own decisions. You’d honor without question that promise you made to yourself long ago. You wouldn’t make it conditional on your husband’s current behavior; you wouldn’t allow yourself to be manipulated whether he’s doing it consciously or not. You’d just move out. You’d just tell him that you’ve got to go.

Finally, in my ideal world, you would have the courage to seek the truth. You would rather know some uncomfortable facts than hold grudges and cast judgments. And so you would entertain the possibility that there are other reasons for your husband’s change. Perhaps, for instance, he’s found another woman and that’s why he’s so chipper. Perhaps you weren’t the only one feeling burdened and resentful and only sticking it out for the sake of the children; perhaps you weren’t the only one with dreams you felt were being stifled; perhaps he was suffocating all that time, knowing you only viewed him as a necessity, a provider of money and a figurehead, an interchangeable accessory to a mother’s life.

But that’s in my ideal world. In this world, I think you should just move out. One request, on behalf of your children: To your dying day, whatever you may feel about your husband’s failures and betrayals, always speak highly of him to your kids.

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Dragged into the ring

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Cary’s classic column from Thursday, THURSDAY, JAN 30, 2003

My boyfriend promised we’d be engaged by Christmas but we weren’t. Should I let it go or move out?

Dear Cary,

I have been dating my boyfriend for four years, and living with him for most of that time. We started (I think mutually) to discuss marriage about two years ago. I took a positive but relaxed attitude about it at the time, because I figured that it would come when it came. But it didn’t. I said about nine months ago, “Are we getting engaged?” and “When?” and was told not to bring it up again because it would ruin the surprise. This led me to believe that something was coming soon. Nothing happened. About a month before Christmas I brought it up again and my boyfriend told me that we would “definitely be engaged before Christmas.” I thought that this seemed rather noncontroversial, so I was pretty happy and relaxed.

Christmas, as you might guess, came and went. I got some nice stuff but no ring. (I am not ring-obsessed … I don’t want a big ring or even particularly a ring at all, but it seems to be the only way that I can talk about getting married with my boyfriend.) I brought it up about five days later, and got the “I was very busy before the holidays, etc.” runaround. My boyfriend has a fairly demanding job, but he works about two blocks from the diamond district. I would think that if he took one or two hours during the day to go pick out a ring, he could stay later at night. It is also not a money issue.

I didn’t spend a lot of time recriminating him. I have decided to work something out myself rather than bring it up again to him. My attitude is that he knows how I feel. We have been together a long time, and there is a point at which it is either gonna happen, or it ain’t. I am not looking for a husband, but I am looking for my boyfriend to be my husband, and, if he doesn’t want to, it is time to do what is painful and break up with him if that’s not what he wants to be. He does not seem to be brave enough to tell me himself, but if he wanted to get married, well … you know.

Our lease is up in the summer. I am thinking of saying then that I am getting my own apartment. Should I say something about that now, to tell him where I am on this, or should I just wait and continue to hope that we’ll get engaged before then and that nobody will be the wiser? I don’t want to pull some ultimatum shit two weeks before our lease is up, and I also would feel sort of sneaky looking for an apartment on my own while he thinks everything is fine. But I also don’t want to end up getting engaged in a hurry only because he doesn’t want to suffer the trauma of my getting my own apartment (I think he feels a bit too comfortable with our relationship as it is). I think that he would interpret “I’m getting my own apartment unless you get me a ring” as a threat meant to hurt him, but it really is only a fact, and something that will hurt me, too.

My boyfriend and I get along very well. We had problems during the first year or so of our relationship, but I think we’ve worked them out. There doesn’t seem to be a third party in the picture. My boyfriend seems happy to see me at night and he doesn’t disappear mysteriously or anything. There are no previous marriages or children on either side. We like our apartment and our life together. I can’t see that I would be happier alone, or happier with anyone else, but, honestly, I am not happy living together indefinitely like this. It’s fine for some people, but it’s not what I want out of life.

Sad

Dear Sad,

This reminds me of something that happened over 30 years ago, when I was wrestling. I was in junior high school and going out for the team. If you wanted to go out for the wrestling team, you got up early in the morning two or three times a week and dressed out and went into a little concrete block room, the wrestling room, and stood around a mat. The coach stood in the middle and demonstrated holds and asked for volunteers for various holds. Then there was a kind of round robin where volunteers stepped forward one by one into the ring. You didn’t hold your hand up or ask permission, you just stepped in and wrestled. We had been doing that for about 15 minutes, and most of us had stepped in and tried our hand at wrestling. And then the coach said, OK, those of you who have stepped in, I think you want to be wrestlers. And those of you who didn’t step in, I think you need to ask yourselves if you really want to be wrestlers. Because if you want to wrestle, you step in the ring.
I was startled but relieved, because I didn’t know it had been a test. And it wasn’t a test, really. It was just reality. If you want to wrestle, you step in the ring.

I think you need to tell your boyfriend that, based on his failure to buy the ring, you have reached a painful but inescapable conclusion that he does not really want to marry you. You can’t hang around and let him play you for a sap.

After you tell him that, and start making plans to move out, the ball is in his court. If he wants to woo you back, if he wants to convince you that you’re the most important person to him in the whole world and he wants to spend his life with you, he’s free to do his best. Because I remember what else the wrestling coach said. He said this doesn’t mean that the rest of you are off the team. If you want to prove that you’re wrestlers, he said, you can prove it. But I’m not going to drag you into the ring.

If he really loved me, wouldn’t he beg me to go with him?

 

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 My boyfriend is leaving for
a career opportunity.

 Cary’s classic column from  TUESDAY, FEB 14, 2006

Dear Cary,

My problem is, predictably, about love; selfish love vs. unconditional love. I don’t know whether to feel like a doormat or like a good person.

I’ve been dating and then living with my boyfriend for a couple of years. We own a house together. We’re in our mid-30s and I have a child from a previous marriage. We have a lovely, sweet, respectful relationship; we are compatible in many ways and I really can’t imagine a much nicer connection. Well, apart from the fact that he’s considering leaving me.

You see, he moved to this town to start a new career and he’s succeeded in doing that, but he doesn’t’ really enjoy the new career and wants to go back to the other coast to resume where he left off. He’s really talented and has a lot of options.

Although it would be possible for me to move, I don’t really want to separate my daughter from her father, who is a good guy and a good parent, especially to move to a place that isn’t quite as nice as this place and where I would have to start over in my career. But I’m not completely closed to the idea, which may after all be an opportunity in disguise.

From his point of view, his career will go nowhere here because it’s not his passion and he has to move on while he is in his “prime.” He’s not pressuring me to move, as he understands my situation. I also think that he doesn’t want to be responsible for upsetting my daughter, from an understandably selfish point of view because our life would not be much fun living with a traumatized preteen.

So I’m stuck, trying to be reasonable, trying to practice some sort of loving nonattachment and yet wondering if I’m being way too reasonable, as at times my heart is breaking and I feel so unloved and unvalued. This brings up all sorts of awful feelings about being a mother, and how I won’t be able to really have a relationship until my kid is older, and also confusion about what I should expect from love. Should this relationship end because he doesn’t love me enough to wait two or three years until it’s better for me to move also? How can I expect to be his priority when he cannot be mine if I choose to prioritize my daughter? From his point of view, a child is as much of a choice as a career. From my point of view, a career is a choice and a child is a part of you, like an extra limb, until he or she chooses to leave.

I want to be adult about this; I want to be loving and supportive of this man who means so much to me. I want to always do the right thing for my child, but I also want to have a tantrum that the gods will hear from the heavens.

This week he leaves for an interview for a really good job over there. He stands a good chance of getting the job. He says we should wait to find out if it’s really a possibility and then make a plan. I tell him OK but inside I’m hurt and scared. I meditate and meditate, trying to feel more love than anger and fear.

What should I do? Should I just take control and tell him to leave now in order to end this ambiguous pain or should I just keep meditating and practicing unconditional love?

Holding my Breath, Trying to Breathe

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Dear Holding my Breath,

Have your tantrum. Then let him go.

You are not loved enough. That is clear. You are loved, but you are not loved grandly, hugely, incomprehensibly, madly, as you wish to be loved. You are not loved enough that he would insist that you follow him, or refuse to leave you if you won’t follow him. You are loved but he also has this and that and the other that he needs to do, these things that are important to his career, that he must do now while he is in his prime. You could go with him, he says, but maybe you don’t want to on account of the daughter? — who, after all, he says, is a choice just like a career.

Not hardly, methinks. Not the same at all. You agree? Daughter not the same as a career? Not the same. Good. So let him go. And in your meditation try to understand this: You have a spiritual nature, but relationships are played out right here on earth, and the gods are not much help to us. I suspect that you are pure of heart but you are also hungry; you never got enough love; you keep being the good mother and good partner, expecting that if you are good you will be loved, and when you are not loved you feel a volcanic anger that you would like the gods to hear … no?

But the gods will not help you in this. So I suggest in your meditation you concentrate on what you want and how to express what you want.

It is terrible to be with someone who is always one step away from leaving. I think you will feel better if you let him go. It is a slow, agonizing suffocation. You get just enough to live on. It is like emotional waterboarding.

I do not feel I have great insight into this situation. But consider this: If you regarded yourself with unconditional love, would you still be with him? Or would you say to yourself, he doesn’t think nearly as highly of me as I think of myself — perhaps he doesn’t really love me the way I deserve to be loved!

In other words, if you loved yourself the way you deserve to be loved, would you accept any less from a lover? Maybe think about that. You might come to see that it is best that he go off to wherever and pursue his whatever.

It may be sad to let him go, but you are relatively young. You will soon grow used to his absence and find someone new.

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Does time heal all wounds?

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I have been through a lot of loss, but I can’t seem to get over losing her love.

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

Dear Cary,

At Christmas she left me, told me she had fallen out of love.
It has been half a year; I have dated, moved on, accepted that she is never coming back. I have taken other lovers, spent time with friends, done all the things you do to make peace with yourself, to accept that it is over and that she is never coming back.

She said she had fallen out of love; I later found out she had cheated and could not face up to me about it. I have no idea if I could accept that; I suspect that I couldn’t but that is not the main issue. I dream about her, about the times we shared, how loved I had felt.

My life has not been a pleasant one: orphaned, adopted by a very dysfunctional family. I found something that meant the world to me and then it went away. I know logically that it is for the best, no such thing as a good breakup, if it was good, you wouldn’t break up. I still find myself in tears when I run across her picture, or try to talk about the past with a friend. Five years of my life and it left a lot of tracks behind, it is not something I can avoid.

I was always under the impression that time healed all wounds, but I find myself with tears streaming down my face and I don’t know that there is a solution to this.
I survived my parents dying. I survived being in the Army and having to fight in a conflict I did not believe in. I survived my best friend committing suicide, but I can’t seem to heal past this.

When is it that this is supposed to stop? Is there something just broken inside of me?

Solo

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Dear Solo,

When people say time heals all wounds, they rarely mention the recommended dose. They don’t say, Time heals all wounds at a ratio of six months’ grieving for the first year of a relationship, with the period for each subsequent year diminishing on a curve determined by past experience and other concurrent psychological factors including recent traumatic events. They just say time heals all wounds and leave it at that. Which can raise your expectations unnecessarily.

Whatever you’re getting over always takes more time to get over than you think. First there’s this period where you’re willingly grieving; the incident is fresh in your mind and in the minds of others; people know you’ve been through something tough and they cut you some slack. You figure you need some time off. You take it. But at some point you think, OK, enough with that. I’m ready. I’m done. I’m cured. And then you try to get up and start living a normal life and it hits you again: There’s another wave of grief, and then another wave and another, and you can’t believe it. That’s the second phase, which is all about accepting that it’s not over until it’s over.

You mention some other losses in your life that you feel you handled better than this one. You say you survived these other things, but you can’t seem to beat this. Having survived these other things, it might seem that you ought to be able to beat this as well. But there’s another way to look at it. It could be that you never actually beat those past events or rose above them, but simply survived them. So they are still hurting you. Perhaps this breakup is sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. If so, that’s not a dangerous thing necessarily. It just means it’s really time to come to grips with loss.

When you can no longer carry every burden like a man, when you can no longer soldier on, when you can no longer absorb every blow, then it’s time to begin a new phase of life in which you acknowledge the loss. You stop being a soldier and become a philosopher. Instead of battling, you look for meaning. You look for the connections. With compassion, you examine your wounds to see exactly how they happened, what hit you, and from what direction; where were you standing and why were you there? Were you ordered to be there or had you just wandered into the jungle? Were you on a mission? Was someone trying to kill you or was it an accident?

This, I think, is the true healing phase. It’s not time that’s doing it. It’s you. It takes time to get functional again. And then it takes even more time to fully interrogate yourself, to conduct your own incident investigation, to get at the truth.

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I’m pulled like taffy in two different directions

My first boyfriend is no dime, plus he broke my heart — but I feel the old attraction

Cary’s classic column from Thursday, Sep 2, 2010

Hi Cary,

I’m an avid reader of your column and on more then one occasion have been found at my desk nodding and pointing in agreement with your thoughtful advice. So I thought you would be perfect for this problem. I’m 24 and have been in a “serious” relationship for five years now, but people have recently come into my life that have opened my eyes to the docility of the relationship.

The person is my ex-boyfriend who cheated on me and broke my heart when I was 19 years old. He recently found my phone number and contacted me with the pretense that he wanted to ask for my forgiveness. In short, we have met up a couple of times, kissed, have talked about pursuing something more, but I keep putting it off because I feel terrible about what’s already been done. At the same time I feel like there has to be a reason for me sneaking behind my bf’s back and doing this to him. We have had our fights, and honestly I have tried to break up with him, but when I do so he always sways me otherwise. My ex is not a dime, either, as he has his baggage and I know I wouldn’t want him as a replacement — immediately anyway. My ex always brings up the fact that we should give it try since we loved each other once, and frankly they both seem like the same person. Ahhh!

Taffy (Pulled Two Ways)

Dear Taffy,

I like that word “docility.” You say your eyes have been opened to the “docility” of your relationship.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “docile” is “Apt to be taught; ready and willing to receive instruction; teachable.” Its second definition is “Submissive to training; tractable, manageable.” As in, “The docile wife would obey without a murmur.” Docile, like docent, comes from the Latin root “docere,” to teach.

So you have been teachable. Perhaps you have been taught all you can be taught and are hungry for new knowledge.

You want some excitement that you are not getting in your relationship and you are getting it by kissing this former boyfriend. But you feel bad about that.

Yet you say, “I feel like there has to be a reason for me sneaking behind my bf’s back and doing this to him.”

There probably is a reason, which is not the same thing as a justification. You’re doing to your current boyfriend what your ex-boyfriend did to you.

Perhaps you hope that sneaking around behind your boyfriend’s back means that he deserves it somehow. The logic there seems to be, “I’m doing this, therefore it must be OK. For why would I do it if I didn’t have a reason?”

Of course, the reason isn’t the point.

So the wheel turns. You’re in the grip of powerful forces. As are the titans of Wall Street, whom we vilify. Money and sex. It’s not like we could just tame them.

I also like your use of the word “dime,” as when you said your ex “is not a dime, either.” I had to look it up but I liked what I found, i.e., a metonym for a “10,” the term “10” having been immortalized by the Blake Edwards film, which one might say is “eponymous,” a word I used to detest in rock album reviews as it seemed so unnecessary when one could say “of the same name” just as easily.

And note the difference between metonym and metaphor: “When people use metonymy, they do not typically wish to transfer qualities from one referent to another as they do with metaphor: there is nothing press-like about reporters or crown-like about a monarch, but ‘the press’ and ‘the crown’ are both common metonyms.”

That is, there is nothing “dime-like” about your ex-boyfriend, even if he were a 10. And all this comparison reminds us of what’s going on in the relationship. You are restless, and you are thinking maybe there’s something better out there, and there’s something about the act of ranking pleasures that leads us to consider if we might do better elsewhere.

“‘Blake’s timeless original encapsulated the fallacy of “the grass is always greener” in relationships,’ said (Hyde Park chairman Ashok) Amritraj,” who was at that time, two years ago, talking about doing a remake.  (Are they still working on the remake? Man, that movie sure made for lots of posters on undergraduates’ dorm-room walls.) By the way, have you ever seen the original poster for the move “10”? We don’t tend to remember that one.

But we digress. But thank you for sending me on that little trek! It’s one of those digressions I’m often vilified for. But this one was suggestive, or productive, and I don’t mean like a productive cough. It was illustrative of my point — that we all want to stray from whatever is familiar. We grow tired of the routine. We seek things that make us light up. Our brains seek things that make them light up. That’s what the brain is for, aside from figuring out wiring diagrams. It’s for lighting up. And what does it light up? Is there a “spirit” or “soul” that lights up, or is it purely the lizardlike reflex of a faceless bundle of neurons?

I dunno. I really don’t. But I feel that we can all be much healthier if we tone down the moralizing and recognize that much of what we struggle with is beyond our control, neither good nor bad, just the car we’re riding in. We’re just trying to stay in the car we’re riding in, or drive the car we’re driving, or some other equally tantalizing and yet idiotic pseudo-mystical metaphor.

The truth is simpler. He turns you on.

You are young and easily turned on. It’s an animal thing. So don’t feel bad. I can’t tell you what is right or wrong.

I can suggest this: I suggest that you act in a way that makes you feel strong and unafraid.

Try that. Try acting in a way that feels strong and unafraid. Whatever that means. It might mean telling your current boyfriend the truth. Or it might mean continuing to see what happens. It’s up to you. It’s your show.

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My charismatic ex married a pretty young thing

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 13, 2011

After 13 years and two kids, we still weren’t even married. So I’m burned but I’m not even the ex-wife


Dear Cary,

First of all, I want to tell you that I’ve been reading your column for years and have gotten great inspiration from your poetic and insightful advice as well as the comments from your readers. I was very worried to hear about your cancer and am grateful for your recovery and continued words of wisdom.

I’m 41 years old, and although I may look like your average SUV-driving suburban mom now, in my 20s I was a model and somewhat of a party girl. During this time I became involved with an extremely handsome, charismatic, wealthy man several years my senior. We were together for 13 years, during which I endured his alcoholism, childishness, refusal to commit despite my giving birth to two beautiful daughters, and repeated cheating.

We broke up for good three years ago. A few months later he met this girl. This cartoonishly gorgeous, 25-year-old girl who looked and still looks 18. When they’d been dating for a year or so … are you sitting down? … he proposed to her. He gave her this nauseating ring with a pink heart-shaped diamond, and I smiled and gritted my teeth as my daughters walked down the aisle in their giant sparkly circus of a wedding. (Note: Prior to this, my ex hated weddings … he wouldn’t even go to his friends’ because he said he couldn’t stand to see a man tied down!)

I wish I could say she’s a cheap little gold digger who’s using him for all he’s worth … but she’s actually a very sweet, somewhat otherworldly person who to all appearances genuinely loves the bastard. He fully admits he doesn’t deserve her, calls her his angel, his salvation, etc., etc., etc. As far as I know he hasn’t cheated on her yet, which is a record for him. She’s crazy enough to keep up with his lifestyle and at the same time gives him the pampering devotion he demands, two areas where I always seemed to fall short.

Worst of all, my daughters … now 11 and 6 … like her more than me and their dad put together. They’re constantly pestering to visit and they talk about her like she’s Mary Poppins, Hannah Montana and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother rolled into one.

Not long after his marriage, my ex had a major health scare and quit drinking … something he refused to ever even try to do while we were together. It was while he was in the hospital, when I had to leave her sitting beside him, stroking his hair, at the end of visiting hours, that I realized I still love the bastard too. I know I’ve said a mouthful about him here but he’s far from all bad … he’s incredibly funny, sunny, generous, full of life, doesn’t have a mean or violent bone in his body, and is completely impossible to stop loving. And I can’t help feeling that if he’s going to settle down and be Mr. Stable-and-Sober now … after all I put up with, giving him the best years of my life, bearing and raising his kids while he was off partying … the least he could do would be to settle down with me and our girls, as a real, normal, husband, wife and kids family.

Except! In February they announced that she’s pregnant. A few weeks ago, they found out she’s having a boy. My ex is absolutely out of his mind with happiness. My girls are all excited about getting a baby brother. I’m the only person who’s not happy here. My jealousy has made me a bitter, ugly person I hardly know. I am literally fantasizing about one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met dying in childbirth. I keep a pistol in a safe for home defense purposes, and there are times … when my daughters are visiting their dad and stepmom, and I’m alone in the house all weekend … when I’ve seriously considered checking out and letting her deal with them full-time (on top of a screaming newborn!)

Don’t worry! I’m not immediately suicidal … in fact I’m looking hard for reasons to go on. Aside from what’s left of my looks I don’t bring much to the dating market. I’m not sure I could have another baby if I even wanted to, and already having kids makes it that much harder to find a relationship. What’s more, guys tend to get intimidated when I tell them about my ex. And it’s not unjustified … there are certain areas where he’s a hard (LOL!) act to follow.

There’s more to life than love and babies, you say? I’ve aged out of my former career, and can’t seem to hustle up the interest or motivation to go to school and start another, especially when his child support allows me to live quite comfortably without working. I read, I craft, I volunteer, but none of that fills the void.

I don’t even know what I’m asking for here. Hope? Sympathy? Suggestions? At this point, Cary, I’ll take whatever you can give. Thank you so much for reading.

Not Even the First Wife

Dear Not Even the First Wife,

How are you going to frame this situation so that you are at the center of the struggle and you are meeting your own needs and

finding your own joy?
The strength you need won’t all come from inside. You need to find strength from other people.

You need a community that is on your side and is a different kind of community, battle-scarred and wizened, chastened and realistic, reliable and unglamorous. Where will you find your models? I don’t mean fashion models, I mean role models. Strength is what you need now and you can find it in other people, but not people who are glittery and charismatic and intoxicating. You can find it in the gritty and mundane world of people who have taken a few hits and survived. There is a special kind of strength such people have. I have seen it.
You have to find your tribe. You may come upon them by accident. They may not look like your tribe. They may not dress like your tribe. But they will know you.

They may seem strange. Then again, they may be other SUV-driving moms who also have danced on polished marble floors and pranced on runways above adoring flashbulbs. You may find other ex-models who are now fashioning lives for themselves separate from the Peter Pans and man-boys who kept them amused during their early years. For it cannot be all that rare a story. It has a classic feel to it. It’s also possible that you would find like-minded women in Al-Anon, the group for people whose lives are affected by the drinking of friends, family and loved ones. It wouldn’t hurt to look into it.

If I were you, I would make like a huntress, looking for my tribe of strength.

No one can say what will happen to the new happy couple. Maybe he will have a profound transformation. Or maybe his pretty young wife is destined to endure things far worse than what you endured. If he does start drinking again, it will not be the carefree drinking of his yesterdays. And if he is going to quit drinking and change his life, he is going to face some hard truths. His charming act is not likely to endure. She may find herself married to a man who, much to her chagrin, begins in earnest a spiritual quest from which she is excluded. Then it may be she who goes out on him, and he who is left bewildered at home with his Tarot deck or his Big Book.

You say that she is somehow otherworldly. That would make perfect sense if what he was looking for was someone to perpetuate his denial. Or this otherworldliness may be a symbol of his awakening spiritual thirst. At any rate, if it’s any consolation, this moment cannot last. Much greater things await you.

Somehow, and it won’t be easy, you have to let that whole situation go. Somehow. But how? Your daughters are madly in love with their stepmom. Yes, how lovely. It is absurdly constructed to flatten you. Of course it is. This is fate, having its fun. So you have to summon the strength and wisdom to see this and understand its piquant, ironic character, and remember how the wheel is turning all the time. The Ferris wheel is turning, and right now you may be at the bottom, watching as the new cute couple ascend in their swinging seat and have the view of the city while you have the view of the carny’s toothless face as he leers at you alone in your seat on the bottom of the Ferris wheel.

But the Ferris wheel must turn. They have to come to the bottom to get out. Then you will be at the top, looking out over the city, swinging in your Ferris wheel swing, while the cute new couple down below must exit past the leer of the toothless carny.

No question about it: This is a difficult moment for you. You can embrace what has arrived, or you can run from it. I suggest you summon your courage and embrace what has arrived. It is an occasion for grace: You are being called upon to find a deeper source of strength. You will find it, and it will carry you.

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

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

Being Sucked Back In Sucks

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Dear Sucked Back In,

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

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

But then there are the people who fuck you over.

This guy fucked you over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I want kids, but he doesn’t. What could be simpler?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 31, 2005

Should I break it off now and look for a man who wants to raise a family?


Dear Cary,

I’m a 31-year-old smart, cute, funny, perennially happy physician who is in love with a 38-year-old chemistry professor. He is everything I want in a man. He’s warm, kind, caring, handsome, intelligent (some of our most interesting conversations are about quantum physics … grrrrr) and crazy about me. He has never been married and had a happy childhood. We can discuss any topic under the sun — conversation and silences are both filled with pleasant comfort and warmth. He is a liberal, an environmentalist, funny and wise about life and otherwise inexplicable things like taxes and stocks and — oh! — the sex rocks! In all a perfect package, except he does not want kids and I think I do.

We met online five months ago on a dating site as I was going through my divorce. I was not heartbroken about the divorce, as I had an “arranged marriage,” we never fell in love, the ex and I were totally mismatched and it was a relief to get separated. When the chemist and I started dating, it was supposed to be a testing-the-waters type of thing. He was, after all, the first guy I had ever dated. (I’m from a culture that frowns on making out with boys you are not married to.) But he feels right and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

So, where do I go from here? He likes his quiet time, is a bit of an introvert, likes to hike and travel, and does not think that he can sacrifice all of this for 18 years to raise a child who may or may not turn out to be a fine upstanding citizen. (These are scary times, you know.) He’s got a point there. I like sleeping in on the weekends, not having to worry about nannies, day care, poopy diapers, pediatrician visits, the Family and Medical Leave Act, teenage angst and whatever else is inevitable. But I’ve achieved a lot in life, I’m going to be financially secure, I have a wonderful job I love and a great family (who are overseas), and in two or three years I may yearn for the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

So before I fall deeper in love, should we break up, cut our losses and run, or should we let time decide? Should I let someone who seems to be “the one” go and hope to meet someone else who will be a better “one”? If we took care to arrange for adequate day care, to ensure that he and I went on a “date” once a week without the little one and took vacations just by ourselves to keep the fire kindled, would that give me the best of both worlds? Or is there a chance that I would doom the relationship to failure by making him compromise?

Looking Ahead

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Dear Looking Ahead,

If he doesn’t want kids and you do, then you should break up with him.

There, that was simple, wasn’t it?

So, if it was so simple, where have I been for the last hour? Why have I been thinking about probabilities and branching courses of action?

I got caught up in this notion of “the future.” The future is unknowable. Everybody will tell you that. So why do we spend so much time thinking about it? Knowing we can’t know it, we attempt to know it anyway, and then we start to feel like we can’t know anything at all, not even the present, because who knows, we might turn into chickens, or we might open a soft-drink bottling plant!

“Soft-drink bottling plant?” “Chickens?” Why did such notions enter my mind? Those are images out of rural Florida and Alabama. Those are images out of my childhood. (See the hour-glass bottles of Coca-Cola clinking along the conveyor belt; see the man in overalls pick up a bottle, open it and take a swig; it looked like the best job in the world!)

Why did those particular examples arise? What is going on here? Ah! Now I’m remembering. When I was a kid, we lived in the future. You never knew when something might happen to alter the way things were, so the way things were wasn’t really the way things are, so you couldn’t make any plans. We didn’t open boxes and put things away because we might be moving. We didn’t throw things away because we might need them. You never knew. Anything might happen. Best to leave your options open. Why even leave the house? You might get polio. Then again, you might not. Who could know?

The notion of an unknowable future became a source of paralysis for me later in life. So there I was again just now, the happy writer, trying to live in the moment, sitting at the computer, luckiest guy alive, getting paid to do what I love, and getting all paralyzed and confused about a simple yes-or-no question — because it involved the problem of the future! (Apropos of nothing — except perhaps the humorous synthesizing powers of the unconscious — what came into my mind, actually, was the phrase “software bottling plant.”)

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So how do you make this issue of the future concrete enough to make a decision about it? You stop thinking about wanting kids in the future and think about wanting them right now. You want kids right now. You are practical enough to realize that you can’t attend to them right now, but you want them. Likewise, you can treat his lack of desire for kids as a definite trait. If he wanted kids he would probably have made some by now. He would have gotten married.

So it’s not that mysterious.

Ha ha. Watch out. Everything is that mysterious.

We move from mystery to clarity to mystery. We embody paradoxes and contradictions. We express them in dramatic symbols; we act out the ineffable. He is a chemist. You are a doctor. You enjoy great chemistry together. Quantum physics excites your molecules. You understand how something can be indeterminate, can become its opposite, can change shape, can be unknowable in one way and knowable in another. I suggest that you determine that you want kids and he does not. But I acknowledge that in the act of determining, you may alter what you determine. You are both scientists of life and matter. States of matter can change. Water becomes steam. Water becomes ice. Elements influence one another. When the conditions are right for life, life sometimes appears.

Knowing what you want and what he wants, I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that certain combinations of people create unforeseen reactions. So before you break up with him, have a very frank talk. You may have awakened something in him. He may have awakened something in you.

It’s not so simple after all. Sorry, but that’s life.

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My thoughts of the past are tormented by the present!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 16, 2005

I’m finally ready to deal with a long-lost love, but a recent breakup seems to be all I can think about.


Dear Cary,

I recently went through a breakup of a very short affair. Three months after it began it was completely over, by her choice.
I went into this believing it might have a long lifespan. Mostly I was drawn to her because being with her reminded me of the life I’d previously led, a life with a wonderful soul mate who died many years ago.

This fling woman (she is newly out as a lesbian, and I was her first physical relationship with a woman) behaved badly while breaking up with me. I’m not faulting her for that. My problem is that the grief that has surfaced with this breakup is clearly tied to the lingering grief of losing my first and only love, long-ago soul mate, a man who died of AIDS. When I try to bring up how that original loss feels, so that I can deal with old feelings of losing a boy who A) was in my life for 18 formative years, B) I lost to a devastating battle with AIDS, and C) whose death has colored my entire life, I find only this fling woman comes to mind.

How do I reach past this buzzing annoyance and get to the harder, still half-buried, deeper grief? Why am I allowing myself to dwell on a short-lived mismatch? Is the harder stuff so painful I can’t bear to look it in the eye? Can anything so old (two decades now) be so strong that I need to avoid it with this distraction, even when I’m actively trying to access it?

I’m ready at this late date to deal with this first grief, yet my mind will only come up with these sloppy seconds.

Tormented by the Present

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Dear Tormented,

Whereas usually it’s the past intruding upon the present that troubles us, in your case it’s the present intruding upon the past. In fact, you are troubled by the fact that the past won’t trouble you enough. You finally feel ready to deal with the past, but it doesn’t want to deal with you. So let’s talk a little about what you are trying to accomplish. What is it about that old loss? Why are you trying to get to that “harder, still half-buried, deeper grief”? I would suspect that if you are not actively troubled by painful memories today, and if it is difficult to vividly recall the poignancy of the loss, then perhaps you have indeed dealt with it, in the sense that it has mercifully receded from consciousness over time, as it should. Your preoccupation with this more recent event may be quite natural.

So what is it really that troubles you so? Perhaps being over that grief is itself a kind of disappointment; perhaps you long to feel full-force that grief once again, because the grief itself is a luxuriant, intoxicating sensation.

Which leads me to ask, at the risk of being presumptuous, if perhaps you aren’t hungry for an annihilating intensity of grief, grief as a drug, old grief, in fact, used to push aside your current feelings. In which case it would be your current feelings that are actually pushing to the surface for good reason — because your mind is telling you that in spite of what you might wish, these are important feelings, that in spite of its brevity, for whatever reason, such are the mysteries of physical love, this affair affected you deeply.

For instance, you mention that she did not behave well but you claim that doesn’t matter to you. You also mention that you thought this affair might really turn into something, but it didn’t. My guess is that what you’re feeling is anger and disappointment over this recent affair. My guess is that you cared for her more than you let on, and that her rejection of you hurt more than you care to admit. So why not permit yourself the leeway to feel these things more deeply? You may need to grieve this relationship with the same intensity that you grieved the other one; that it was short and intellectually inconsequential may make scant difference to the heart.

If you also wish to pursue the neurological phenomenon, to study how the brain prioritizes memories, that might prove fruitful. I have read that scientists are making great strides in understanding the mechanics of memory; those mechanics may have a lot to do with how we end up feeling happy or sad. I myself don’t understand much of that. But it can’t hurt to look into recent discoveries by neurologists. Just don’t neglect the fact that, for whatever reason, you were apparently affected quite strongly by this recent affair. If you honor that, you may be rewarded with a new appreciation of your capacity for love.

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My wife is lying to me about her affair

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 24, 2007

I’m already raising two kids of my own. Should I divorce her and go it alone?


Dear Cary,

About a month ago, I discovered my wife of one year had had a fling with a co-worker that she initiated. I found out, I’m ashamed to say, by checking her e-mail because she’d been going out a lot, staying out late with people from work. When I complained about some of the excessive hours and frequency, she apologized, said she was being stupid, and was sorry. And it continued.

My gut told me something was wrong after one evening, when she was out late again, and we “argued” about it, and again she offered an apology, and then she was back in the bedroom, singing and burning a CD. The next day, I gathered up my courage, and dove into her e-mail. And there was the incriminating evidence. I was devastated. I confronted her, she was stunned, but not particularly apologetic and remorseful. I offered to forgive and understand, wanted to talk. She offered a litany of complaints/justifications, saying “Nothing happens in a vacuum.” She said that turning 32 (I’m 41), and working in an office with a bunch of single people, had made her acutely aware of her age. She said that although two or three months earlier she’d told me she wanted to have a baby, that the decision stemmed from the fact that she felt like an outsider in the home, never truly the mother of my two kids, and wanted a child of her own. I had agreed, but said that we needed to be practical regarding buying the home and getting financially stable before we made that move. She said that started her thinking about the age thing, and how she should take advantage of the time she had left before motherhood.

Then she wanted to clam up.

Although she agreed to stop seeing this person, she maintained her distance and withdrawal. She just wanted to act as though everything was OK, which was very difficult for me to endure, as we’d had no cathartic moment of remorse, regret and so on. I felt she was stalling for time. I went to visit a friend in N.Y. for three days to give her some space. I came back, wanted to make love, she would have none of it. The distance continued, and each time I tried to talk, she freaked and got angry, telling me I was pressing her. She went away for a long weekend to get some space. When she came back, nothing was better. We’d made a good show of acting normal around the house, trying to normalize things. Then I found out that she’d called the lover over the long weekend and lied to me about it. I tried to understand, again offering conciliation. And still no meaningful discussion. She told me I needed to be on meds, that my anxiety was out of control, that essentially I was making the problems worse. I already do take an as-needed prescription for anxiety.

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I immediately scheduled a session with a couples therapist. We agreed that we were both going with the intent of trying to work things out. She ended up turning the session on me and my anxieties, how she felt backed into a corner, and I had consented to begin taking antidepressants to try to give her the space she needed by further quelling my anxiety. But my anxiety, which I’ve dealt with as a separate issue for a while, was really being exacerbated by my gut feeling that she wasn’t being straight with me, was holding something back, and stalling for time. Later that week, she lied again, this time about grabbing a beer after finishing working late, and gave me some story about getting the car stuck in the snow. I didn’t believe her, confronted her, and after a lot of evasion, she confessed.

We made love finally two days later, and afterward she was very distant, but tried to be reassuring. I wrote her a letter saying that I understood she was in a difficult place, and probably grieving for what she’d thought the affair would offer, and so on, again encouraging her that if she did indeed love me, as she professed, then we could still work through this. She said we needed to talk, and she owed me more of what was in her mind. Again, I checked her computer, and in the Internet history found that she’d been checking into apartments — the evening after our first therapy session. So, I had some idea what was coming, but we calmly sat down with a bottle of wine, and I let her tell me everything. Essentially, although she declared flatly that the affair is over, the lover done with (supposedly it was a one-time thing and I’ve no evidence to the contrary), she didn’t know whether she was happy, taking things for granted here at the house. She basically was coming to the conclusion that she wanted a separation.

We’ve had a long and and occasionally stormy history, including a two-year hiatus when she moved to New York. She came back to be with me, moved in with me and my two children, and after two years wanted very much to be married. Apart from the usual squabbles about housework and dealing with my two kids (who embraced her and loved her) discipline-wise (and they’re both very good kids, just the typical too much TV, messy room stuff), we seemed to have a very functional and happy marriage. She said as much many times. I felt very secure.

And then this. She says that although she’s not moving out to be with the lover, and I think this is probably true, she’s wondering if there’s something more for her out there … independence, the single life, what have you. I have two kids from a previous marriage, and we are renting a house we were planning on buying. If we separate, then I’m going to have to find an apartment myself, adding to the disruption in the kids’ lives and mine.

Basically, I don’t know what to do. I have no idea what to do, or say. It seems like this should all be fixable, but she just doesn’t want to face the fixing. I’m frightened about myself, my children, and starting all over again at 41, having been so devastated by this sudden and unexpected upheaval in our lives.

Husband Lost at Sea

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Dear Husband,

Divorce this woman. Protect yourself and your kids.

If child support can be ordered by a court, by all means pursue child support. But do not depend on it. Rather, if losing her means moving to an apartment, then move now. Do not wait. You cannot depend on her support even if it is ordered by the courts. So put yourself in a position where you do not need her support. Take care of yourself and take care of your kids.

Make a new life. Simplify. Dedicate yourself to the raising of your kids. Be cautious. Meditate. Eat well. Help your kids with their homework. Clean the house. Cook. Sleep regular hours. Work out. Stay well. Be steady. Follow a routine. Know that you are doing the right thing. Realize that this is your calling in life. Submit to it.

Be clear about this: Your wife has to go. She is wreaking havoc on your lives. She made a promise to you and to your kids when she married you. She gave you to understand that she would be there for you and your kids. Now she has shown that she either is not capable or simply has no intention of following through with her commitment.

Do not pursue therapy with her. Simply get her out of your life.

She is unhappy. That is unfortunate. But you cannot make her happy. You can only participate in her misery.

If freeing her from her commitment would not harm anyone else, one could say, whatever, it was a failed romance.

But it was not just a romance. It was an agreement to raise children together.

You’re going to need some help. I suggest you educate yourself and look into organizations that support men who find themselves in situations like yours, for your troubles are inextricably related to your legal status as a man and a father. In asking for child support from your ex-wife, you will be in a non-traditional role, which may take special handling and raise special difficulties for you that other men with similar experiences may be able to help you negotiate.

Throughout this, be protective of your children. Make sure their needs are met and their routines are followed. Tell them that you are taking care of them and they are going to be OK. Show them strength and kindness and hope and love. Be a model for them of how to face the world. Make a safe and strong little unit, you and your two kids, an unshakable foundation.

If you eventually want another woman in your life, your kids come first. Do not put your household at risk again for your own needs.

Seek family support. Where is the mother of your children? You do not mention her. If she is alive and can help support her children, insist that she do so. Other members of your family may also be able to help. Reach out. For the sake of these two young children, reach out.

Yes, this involves emotional sacrifice. But it also means playing a satisfying role. What greater thing could there be? I plead with you, dedicate yourself to raising these children.

Make it your life. Throw yourself into it. No matter what else happens, that is one good thing you can do.

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