Category Archives: cheating

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Bent rules

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 25, 2004

My boyfriend and I decided we could kiss other people, but he went further. What should I do?


Dear Cary,

I have been with the same man for more than six years. We met in high school, our relationship survived college and living together as recent grads.

About six months ago, my boyfriend moved to another city, five hours away. The long-distance thing was hard but I still had my life in our first city and he had a couple of friends in his city so we figured we could make it work.

Things really were going great — we’d see each other on weekends regularly, and during the week, even when living together we were both so busy we were OK with talking on the phone constantly and other forms of communication.

A month ago, he mentioned that he would like to “loosen” the rules to our relationship and that if he happened to be out somewhere and meet a girl he wanted to be friends with he felt like as soon as he mentioned his long-term girlfriend the new girl didn’t want to even pursue a friendship. We decided that it was OK to not say anything and even kiss other people but no current friends and no sex (in the Republican sense of that word). As a safety precaution, I told him I would want to know everything that happened — some friends called me crazy but I am glad I did this.

Last week, he called to tell me that at a friend’s party he made out with a girl. I knew he was lying and demanded to know all the details. Turns out he had “intimate relations” and sex with one of his friends. By the way, we were each other’s first and only.

I feel like I should cut him out of my life for betraying me so deeply but I still love him so much.

My friends all say different things, from dump him, to accept his apologies, to move down there to keep an eye on him, to just give it time. One thing I find frustrating is that he doesn’t seem to regret getting together with this girl, but he seems genuinely sorry that it hurt me.

We always communicated so well when we had problems and this is the first time that we are unable to come up with a solution. I thought we would get married, but now I feel like I can’t trust him.

Betrayed

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Dear Betrayed,

When he first mentioned to you that he wanted to “loosen” the rules, did it worry you at all? Was there anything different about the tone of his voice or his choice of words? Did it bother you in some way that you couldn’t quite articulate? Perhaps it bothered you but you wanted to be reasonable; perhaps you wanted to prove to yourself that you could trust him. At any rate, maybe he didn’t have a clear plan to sleep with this woman, but something had probably crossed his mind, and he was testing the waters. This conversation was an opportunity for you to express your reservations about where such a loosening of the rules might lead. He may have been looking to you, in fact, to express such reservations. When you instead agreed to his proposal, I think you implicated yourself in the outcome. I’m not saying he’s not responsible for what he did. But your acquiescence increased the likelihood that he would commit this indiscretion. For that reason, I do not think it was such a terrible betrayal. It was more like a foreseeable accident.

What you did, it seems to me, was akin to telling a kid it’s OK to play with matches in the forest as long as he doesn’t start a forest fire. It’s your responsibility to see where his actions might lead, and to prevent it.

Perhaps in some murky, unacknowledged way, you were testing him to see how far he would go. People have only so much willpower and so much awareness of their own drives. If you test them enough, they will eventually fail. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. It just means he’s human.

So to now condemn him on the basis of his failing this test seems harsh to me. On the other hand, his rationale about women not wanting to be friends with him when they find out he has a girlfriend sounds like a typical load of boyfriend bull. Women will be friends with you if you have a girlfriend. They just won’t sleep with you. That lame-ass story makes me suspect he really did have a plan in mind and was just looking for permission.

But I don’t think you need to break up with him. I just think you need to be a little more realistic. Since he’s your first partner, you’re young and you’ve been together since high school, you probably didn’t see this coming. But it’s something that was bound to happen, given the risk you took. I’d suggest you forgive him and try to stay together. Just tell him point-blank not to kiss other women.

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A big black hole

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 30, 2003

I get emotionally and sexually involved with people I care about. But I do it too often and too simultaneously.


Dear Cary,

I’m starting to feel like I’ve got a big black hole in my emotional makeup. It’s a feeling that comes from the way I go about relationships and the way I go about sex. Over the past several years, I have seldom been involved in a relationship without a second or, in one instance, third one happening on the side. If this were just cheap meaningless fucking I might actually feel better about it. It’s not. I get emotionally and sexually involved with people I genuinely care about. But I do it too often and too simultaneously.

It’s become a kind of agony. The women I have relationships with are awfully cool people, people I certainly want as friends and companions. In me, that feeling of friendship bleeds over easily into a desire for intimacy. There’s a part of me, too, that gets off on the idea of coupling, of knowing people I care about in more intimate ways. But my feelings don’t seem to go any further. It’s not that I fall in love but still want to get my rocks off. I just don’t fall in love in any way that would cool my urge to get involved with other people. I try to do monogamy (who knows what love really feels like, after all). I go into relationships as if I’m going to be monogamous. Then I’m not.

This is bad. If I were at least upfront about wanting little more than friendship and casual sex that would be one thing, but I still believe I want something more and can’t quite get myself there. Only, along the way, I end up toying with people who I’m theoretically very close to, end up lying to them. On several occasions, I’ve put myself on the straight and narrow, but it never seems to last long. I miss the intimacy with certain people, miss the emotional high, and next thing I know, I’m running roughshod over our quiet, normal lives.

This is my defect, but I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe infidelity is my way of dodging lasting commitments and deep, under-the-skin feelings. Maybe I’m not selective enough about the people I get involved with in the first place, choosing people (or letting myself be chosen by people) with whom I won’t want to maintain a lasting relationship. Maybe, deep down, I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch with a gift for rationalizing.

In other areas of my life, I’m a considerate, caring person, thoughtful of others’ emotions and interested in their happiness. But in this area I’m feeling like a plastic shell, like an emotional cripple trying to pass myself off as normal. Any advice?

Falling Short

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Dear Falling Short,

I have an elegant, if theoretical, solution: Tell the truth. It may be hard      er to begin telling the truth to those you’ve already lied to repeatedly, because that will involve admitting the harm you’ve done. But you can certainly begin telling the truth to those you meet in the future. Just tell them what you’ve told me.

By giving others the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether to become involved with you, it will give you firm ethical ground on which to continue being as you are. There is nothing wrong with being as you are, or feeling as you do. Your only sin is in deceiving others. There is no standard emotional quota you are required to meet; there is no agency that will be testing you on your capacity for monogamous love. That’s the beauty, and the terror, of freedom.

And here is the bonus: The surprising fact is that the very intimacy and attraction you wish you could feel, if it is going to come into being, may very well come into being out of an assiduous practice of honesty. In other words, paradoxically, by admitting your incapacity for this kind of love, you may end up acquiring the capacity for it.

The reason is that when we are honest and build bonds of trust, a kind of attachment comes into being that is not just emotional or physical, but pragmatic and intellectual as well. By being honest about who you are and what you want, you bring your pragmatic intellectual reality closer to the spheres of the erotic and the emotional so that you, as one undivided person, can make choices that take into account all your capacities — ethical, moral, emotional and erotic.

I’m not saying this is a sure-fire method of solving your dilemma. I’m just saying it’s a worthwhile direction in which to head.

And I’m saying this: The conflict you feel, and your practice of dissembling about it, are one and the same. If you stop dissembling about it, it will no longer be your conflict. By being open about who you are, you become someone else’s problem. That person, wanting you to make different choices, may make your life more difficult. But therein lies a noble social struggle: The quest for freedom and authenticity in the capitalist gulag.

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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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I’m sleeping with my best friend’s fiancé

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Help me be strong

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 28, 2003

I’m in love with a man I work with. We’re both married with kids but we don’t want to break up our families.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love with a man I work with. He’s married, I’m married, both of us have kids — hard to make it sound original. However, while I have vivid fantasies of being with him, I basically don’t want to cheat on my husband, I don’t want to break up my family, and I don’t want to break up his family. I have a lot of respect for his wife, and I want my kids to be with their dad.

Mr. Wonderful started working for my company a few months ago. I was largely unsatisfied in my job, then he arrived and we were assigned to a project together. My work life has totally turned around, I’m working harder than I ever have and loving it, and we do really good work together. We enjoy each other’s company, and both of us have commented on how well we get along for only knowing one another for a few months. We work hard, then take breaks to discuss politics, family issues, the evil of the SUV and G.W.’s war in Iraq, then back to more hard work. We’re accomplishing so much for the company, and I think the boss is pleased.

There’s a physical charge between us for sure. All that clichéd stuff — the brushing of hands, feet pausing together a moment too long together under the table, makes me feel like a cheap romance novelist just to write it. It’s fun, but I’m fully aware of the thin line we are walking.

To complete the scene, a description of my marriage is required — my husband and I, even when we were dating, have always had a rocky relationship. We were together and apart a lot before getting married, kind of rushed into marriage after a particularly dramatic breakup and reunion (the dozen roses a day for a week variety), and now have two kids under 3 and a lot of added stress to an already stressful relationship. We’ve done couples counseling for about seven years now, and while it keeps us going, it doesn’t feel like we make much progress toward real change.

My husband is intense and exciting, but also is impatient, selfish and immature. My co-worker (C.W.) is kind and generous. While I really don’t want to divorce my husband, wreck C.W.’s marriage, and marry him (OK, I kind of want that on one level, but I don’t want all the drama that would entail), meeting him has made me realize that kind and generous men are out there, and if I were on my own I could probably meet another one. My husband and I are really trying to improve things, both of us agreeing to put effort into the marriage, but I’m not fully into it since C.W. is always in my mind somewhere.

The easy answer is quit my job and clear my mind; however, it’s a small town, C.W. and I are both committed to staying here, and it’s kind of the only (and best) game in town for both of us. I plan on moving on to something else (following a calling, but that’s another story) when my kids start school in four years, but for now I need this job.

I turn down C.W.’s requests to accompany him on errands during the day, but the occasional lunch together is such fun and so energizing, I’d hate to give it up, and then I’d also have to explain to him why. We have verbalized none of what happens nonverbally between us; it’s chaste as can be on the surface (though I do suspect a bit of office gossip). I’m struggling to separate the work and decisions about my marriage from the existence of C.W., but should I even try? Is it all connected in my feelings? Telling my husband that meeting C.W. made me realize that I deserve better treatment would not go over well, since I still have to go to work every day. I’ve been fibbing a bit, saying, “I’ve been recognizing my own needs more lately,” to explain my increasing dissatisfaction and crankiness around the house.

Does my husband deserve to be let in on what’s in my head? For the record, all of my friends, male and female, agree that my husband should be contributing to the family more, should treat me with more respect and kindness and shouldn’t be blaming me for everything the way he does, so I think I’m in the right in asking for better behavior from him.

Any insight you have would be welcome as I try to sort this all out.

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

You’re at a crucial point in your life; you’re dozing off in the driver’s seat, about to run off the road, and it’s my job to jump into the passenger seat, slap you silly, wake you up and put your hands back on the wheel.

It’s not that far, really, to Albuquerque. You’ll be there by morning. Your husband will mature. Your kids will become more self-sufficient. You’ll have other crushes and other brushes with marital disaster, and you’ll handle them better with practice. But right now, you have to just wake up and stay on the road. Don’t blow it. You have no idea how messed up things could get. Just keep your hands on the wheel, keep your eyes on the road, and think of your kids.

It’s not surprising you’re tired and not thinking straight, with those kids waking you up at all hours and the job and the husband and the counseling and the work on the relationship and the secret crush. You’re probably just about done in. All the more reason to stick to the basics right now, and don’t complicate your life any further.
Don’t be telling your husband about what’s going on in your head. If, as you say, he is impatient, selfish and immature, he’s not going to be any help. It would just add stress. Instead, plug this leak at the source: level with your co-worker. Tell him that you know something is developing between you two and you’re putting a stop to it. Tell him you’re backing off and taking control for the two of you. Then do it. Be friendly but firm. Treat him like any other co-worker. If you find that hard to do, here’s a tip: Visualize how a woman would act if she wasn’t attracted to him, and copy what she does.

And then put more energy into your marriage. Rather than allow yourself to drift further away, reverse that: Give it all you’ve got. If you work hard, you can make it tolerable and secure while your kids go through those crucial early years. Here’s another idea that might help: Make a list of 10 concrete things you could do to cheer yourself up, improve your marriage and make life easier around the house, and then, one by one, work to make them happen. That should keep you busy and focused. Who knows, perhaps during the next few years, partly as a result of your hard work and partly as a natural process, your husband may mature, overcome his selfishness and impatience and become the man you would like him to be.

But if not, when the kids are older, and your individual finances are such that one of you could take care of the kids without undue stress, if you are still deeply unhappy in your marriage, perhaps it will be time to get a divorce. Just don’t do it now. The kids deserve a chance to get through elementary school without worrying about which parent they’re with on Tuesday and which house they’re sleeping in on Thursday. They started life with two parents and they’d probably prefer to continue life with two parents. So, for now, that’s your job. Keep your eyes on the road. Because, as they say in that Michelin ad, so much is riding on your tires.

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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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A lesser woman?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 29, 2003

The married man I’m sleeping with feels less guilty about it because I’m bisexual!


Dear Cary,

I’m a 30-year-old, intelligent, funny, independent, beautiful woman — or so I hear. I’m bisexual, but have been predominantly involved with women for the past 10 years.

I’ve known this great guy, an acquaintance from work, for several years now and he’s always attracted me in many ways. Good-looking, intelligent, extremely witty, charming, sensitive, an intellectual, the works. Oh, and married too. For his part I’ve always felt that he, too, was very attracted to me. He always made sure I knew it very clearly.

Fast-forward to last November, when we allowed ourselves to let it happen. We went out for dinner and a maddeningly passionate night followed. We’ve been seeing each other regularly and avidly, me trying not to fall completely in love with him, him wrestling with his guilt demons. Everything is unspoken between us. We act like friends, or rather fuck-buddies, but we have a really special and rare connection.

Fast-forward again to last Saturday. We were chatting online and the subject of my bisexuality came up (I have been totally open about this with him since Minute 1). He said that despite his earlier attraction to me the fact that I slept with women too had sparked his interest even more. OK, tell me something new; all men in this galaxy get all giddy when faced with a bi woman. The problem is that he added that this not only drew him more toward me, but that it also made him feel “less guilty about cheating on his wife,” because it’s not like he is with a typical woman, “it’s a whole different world.”

This crushed me. I really care about this guy, but I couldn’t help feeling like he saw me as some sort of a lesser woman, or a scientific experiment, or a circus freak. Why is it that men will do anything to have a bisexual lover but never know how to handle it? Should I withhold this fact from my future guy lovers for a while so that they feel they can really connect to me as a regular human being? Or am I overreacting?

Princess Turned to Frog

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Dear Princess,

You may be overreacting a little, but that’s pretty dumb and insensitive what he said. I wonder why he said it. People sometimes say dumb and insensitive things when they are under enormous pressure, or when they are struggling with inner conflict. He must feel a fair amount of guilt and fear, however much he’s trying to act casual.

He has probably rehearsed in his head what he would say to his wife, should she discover his unfaithfulness. But imagine his telling her that it’s OK because you’re bisexual! That would be funny if it weren’t so bizarre. Any attempt to spin the situation would only deepen the wound. But the mind, writhing in moral dissonance, produces just such ghastly fantasies. It’s crazy and weird but true. I guess it’s how we try in vain to protect ourselves from the truth. I mean, it’s much easier for him to tell himself that it’s OK because you’re bisexual than it would be to tell himself that he’s betraying his wife.

It’s less painful, I guess, to pretend. I doubt that he sees you as a circus freak. He no doubt likes you a whole lot. But if there is a grain of revelation in what he said, it’s that, because you have mostly been with women, he doesn’t see you as the kind who would want to marry him and take him away from his wife. In his mental harem you’re probably the eternal temptress.

Also because you have not been married, you may have a blind spot about what a monumental struggle he is going through. I’m not saying this out of sympathy for him, but to help you see how distorted and crazy his behavior may become as he attempts to not deal with the situation. He faces the possibility of losing his wife if she finds out, plus he probably believes that because you are bisexual, he could never completely own you. You’ll always have that Sapphic option, both titillating and terrifying: While bisexual women attract men, they also frighten them, because the one thing a man has got they don’t really need.

There are larger questions here. If you are falling in love with him, and he is married, you’re pretty much guaranteed to bring some unhappiness into the world. Somebody’s going to get screwed. So here’s an idea for doing your part to create a sustainable erosphere. Go and make more happiness to combat the unhappiness you create. Do some good, selfless, joyful things. Call in sick and take a kid to the movies. Give money to beggars. Go to the beach and buy some cotton candy. Call your parents and tell them you love them. Make rainbows with a hose on the front lawn. And think up some better things than these.

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My ex-fiancee is engaged to a jackass

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 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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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.