Dragged into the ring

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Cary’s classic column from 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

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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.

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OK, I get it, my husband’s a verbal abuser

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 8, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to accept what my therapist has been pushing at — but I think I’m ready to act in my own interest.


Dear Cary,

I’m troubled.

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

And I do.

And yet on another level, I question the whole idea. The book contains no citations. It could well be cut from whole cloth, as they say — an angry woman’s fantasy of how men are, how men act. Even if that characterization is a straw man (womyn?), it is a tempting one, especially when the self-help verbiage gets a little much. But where do we draw the line? I seem to be standing on a line, on one side of which is mutually unproductive communication that can be resolved through talking and counseling and new approaches, and on the other is a crowd shouting “Why haven’t you DTMFA?”

Since I have been with him, I have gradually given up my passions — my theater, my academic field, my crafts, my gym membership. Only those things that he finds acceptable — the hobbies, the reading, the baking (but never on hot days) — remain. He wished to own a house. We own a house. I cook, clean, launder, mow the lawn, call the repairmen, run the errands, pay the mortgage. I have been working for seven years under the assumption that these are all choices I was involved in, decisions I made. And yet I daydream of a cozy studio apartment where I am alone and everything — the belongings, the music, the choices — is mine. Of going where the jobs in my field are, instead of staying where they aren’t. Of dallying with women, and perhaps men, with beautiful souls.

I take pills. I go to therapy. He goes back to school. I applaud this — it is a sensible decision that will lead to a stable job in his field — even as I resent his freedom to do so. I make a point of telling him that I wish to return to school (yet again) once he finds a job. He is wholly supportive of this, he says — once the loans are paid off, once we are no longer in debt. Despite my thrift, the loans pile up. When I fail to manage the money as he directs, I am chastised. Every cent I spend is one that cannot be used to pay off those loans and buy my freedom from menial jobs that siphon my self-confidence and passion, but which pay for the therapy to deal with the panic attacks and crying jags that primarily manifest themselves when he’s around.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a long and storied history of psychological instability in my family, on both sides, which has led me to believe that my problems were internal and self-contained. There is also (as I learned recently, yet have known all along) a long and storied family history of controllers and controllees, criticizers and objects of criticism. I am not sure what his family has given him, aside from a Midwestern up-by-the-bootstraps aversion to psychoanalysis of any kind.

A dear friend says that she had these concerns before she knew him, from my tone, from my phone calls. She met him, and “[saw] how he looks at me,” the love in his eyes, and her fears were assuaged. I know that he loves me, from that same look, those same heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. I also know that he expects me to read his mind, then tells me that I am the one who needs to fix my reactions so that we can communicate — who drives me to tears with his inconsistencies, then allows me the solace of his embrace.

It is not that I fear to be alone or independent — aside from the annoyance of dividing things up, the prospect seems inviting. But the prospect of remaking myself in my own image, of reclaiming the me that was, is more complicated. And there are so many things that I would miss. Friends, games, holidays, my mother-in-law, even the house that taunts me with its constant breakings and dirtiness. Him, the man who has been so good for me in so many ways, who rescued me from an equally dead-end (though less malignant) relationship, whom I’ve shared so many adventures with. Who I’m not even convinced is aware of what he’s doing.
And yet things cannot remain as they are.

Angel in the Details

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Dear Angel,

I am going to try to be direct. You know that’s not my style. But still.

I suggest you leave this guy.

There is only one twist: You make your new life first.

I basically agree with the DTMFA approach — with one caveat.

The caveat is that you begin not by disrupting your current life but by building your new one. If you leave without trying to rebuild your life first, you may find yourself alone in a new place, isolated from friends and family, without a solid network, without a life plan, having just gone through a traumatic breakup, flooded with emotion, and you may, under that stress, be more prone to fall back into your old pattern of finding a rescuer, a controller, a caretaker. You may slip back into the same situation with someone else. So I advise taking a gradual approach to building a new life so that when you leave him, you have a new life to step into. Work to develop new behaviors and reinvigorate abandoned passions.

For instance, these things you mention that you have given up — your theater, your academic field, your crafts, your gym membership: Put these things back in your life one by one. When you begin doing this, he may object. Keep in mind that you are leaving him anyway.

It may help to set a date and write it in your calendar, say, six months. In six months you are leaving. During that time you tackle the many concrete tasks of rebuilding your life. This includes looking at new places to live and working out your budget. As you pursue this project, at a certain point — and this may happen sooner than you expect — it may become impossible to continue to live with him. Your positive action may force buried conflicts to the surface. He may decide that he is divorcing you. He may become unstable. He may threaten you. If he is a certain kind of man, when his control over you is threatened, he may become dangerous. So, while laying the groundwork for an orderly departure, you need to also be ready to leave quickly if things get to that.

The point is this: To the extent possible, don’t act precipitously to your own detriment. Instead, begin putting your life together and try to leave at a time that is best for you.

Now, regardless of his objections, you may find that you yourself just can’t build this new life while still living with him. You may feel paralyzed, blocked, unable to act. If so, OK. Leaving him might be a precondition to putting your life together. That’s OK. Discuss this with your therapist and make a plan. But please do what you can to prepare first. Give it a try. Take what steps you can to reconnect with your theater, your academic life, your crafts and your gym first. Do what you can.

Just so we’re clear: Yes, I think you should leave. DTMFA or whatever. Just, to the extent possible, prepare first.

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It’s not my fault

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Sinned Against Than — Anything

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Dear Sinned Against,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck.

 

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Parents in a pickle

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Cary’s classic column from

Our son has asked us to be cool toward the parents of his ex-girlfriend. Should we do what he wants?


Dear Cary,

My college-age son just went through a nasty breakup with his girlfriend, which was largely due to her treating him incredibly poorly. I saw it unfold, and, though I have a bias, I know that he was mature in the situation and it was she who acted out of character.

The problem is that, socially, we run into the girl’s parents quite often. My wife and I were already quite nervous about this situation, especially since they, most likely, do not know the details of the breakup as we do. My wife and I had discussed it, and thought it may be best to just act like nothing has changed when we see them.

But then my son made a strange request: He asked that we act coldly toward them. In his own words, “Don’t be mean, just don’t be nice.” It seems he’s trying to send a message to their daughter through us. While I feel this request is a bit out of line, my allegiance, of course, lies with my son.

So how should we act?

Polite Parent in a Pickle

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Polite Parent,

I think you should act decently toward the parents of the girl, since they have done nothing to you. What your son is really asking for, in his oblique way, is not so much that you treat her parents a certain way, but that you reassure him of your loyalty to him, and give him no reason to doubt that loyalty. He may be afraid that you’ll hear a different side of the story and turn against him. Indeed, he may have exaggerated certain of her wrongs and covered up his own, and may be afraid that if his errors come to light, he will lose your support. So more than anything he needs to know that you are on his side. So reassure him. Tell him there’s nothing to worry about.

You know your son’s degree of maturity better than I do, and you know what kind of relationship you have. So I would leave it up to you how far to take the conversation. Some parents might find it an opportunity to discuss the principle involved — that though you support him and are on his side, you have to observe certain boundaries. Others may intuit that such a conversation would just confuse him, or undermine the basic message you are trying to give him. Maybe all he needs right now is your emotional support. You must be the judge of that. In any case, try not to get drawn into either committing or refusing to commit any specific act of social warfare. Just find some way to show him that in his moment of vulnerability and hurt, you’re on his side.

When we’ve been hurt, the hurt is sometimes compounded by a feeling that we are powerless to strike back and thus feel humiliated. So naturally one would dream of having the powerful figures in one’s life — one’s parents — do the bidding of a wounded ego, much as a wounded country might send its army to bomb the wrong country. Part of growing up is understanding that such wishes are best not acted on.

I would suggest that when you see her parents, ask them if they are aware of what happened between their daughter and your son, and suggest to them that it sounded like a very painful breakup. Ideally, you and the girl’s parents, as adults capable of dealing with the difficult truth about things beyond your control, could talk with compassion and understanding about what happened between your kids. Shake your heads, commiserate and move on. Though you may feel his pain as heartily as if it were your own, you cannot fight his battle for him.

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