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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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I’m going for it

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Cary’s classic column from

I’m in a passionless marriage and I’m going to have an affair — just thought I’d let you know in case you have some advice.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married for more than 30 years. We love each other more as friends than lovers, although our relationship is also based on respect and on a commitment to our grown children.

When we first married, I was running away from a very abusive first marriage and my husband wanted a wife to further his career. We learned to love each other over the years, but our relationship was never one of equals with the same goals.

He doesn’t like to do anything outside the home and doesn’t care to socialize except with the people he worked with before he retired. He never showed any interest in my work and he didn’t see any need to talk about our marriage or to do anything to help it grow into something other than a pleasant convenience. I was so grateful for the safety net he provided that I didn’t really push for more. He also lost interest in sex about 10 years ago, leaving me stranded with a vibrant libido. We have never been unfaithful to each other.

It took me a long time to let go of my fears and to start to assert myself as an equal, finally realizing that I’m worthy of more than a breadwinner. Now that our children are grown, I am wondering what it would be like to experience a relationship with a man in which we both care for each other as individual human beings, respecting each other’s differences and finding companionship and joy in the things we have in common.

I met a man last year while visiting family in another state. We have continued to correspond through e-mail and have developed a friendship and love that we both treasure.

I don’t know what to do. I care for my husband and wouldn’t want to hurt him; yet I know that if I leave, he would be devastated, not understanding what I’ve been trying to tell him for all these years. The man I’m in love with has asked me to marry him but knows that I’m not ready to go that far, at least not yet.

This is something so new and foreign to me that I can’t find an answer with which I’m comfortable. I do feel that I will go ahead and have an affair. I suppose I’m just asking if anyone else has had an experience like this and how it turned out.

Married

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Dear Married,

Good for you. Although I can’t speak specifically of a story like yours, it has a certain universal ring to it, a certain kind of large, inevitable truth, so that it must be something many women have undergone. I applaud you. Life is not to be wasted or dribbled away. I understand your need for safety, how that can motivate you — but you’re safe now, aren’t you? There’s no threat to you except the grief and incomprehension of your husband when you tell him that you’ve got to do this.

So you’ve tried to tell him how the lack of passion is killing you and he hasn’t understood? Or perhaps he has understood, but he’s too frightened to confront it. Perhaps he just pretends not to understand what you’ve been saying. Or perhaps you haven’t said it in a way that he really understands. Either way, it sounds like it’s too late now. You seem to have made up your mind.

Go and have your affair. Well, you don’t need my permission, do you? But I encourage you to go and do it. And read. Well, you don’t want to necessarily read “Madame Bovary” as a case study, but read about women like yourself, trapped in the kind of safe but suffocating bourgeois bargain that men and women all too easily make in difficult, frightening times.

Oh, I wish we could help your husband, too. I feel worst for the husbands in this country, because after the manly power of the muscles begins to fade, what have they got but wealth and clothes? A man can live his 70 years and never learn to speak a single feeling, and a wife can leave him and he’s like a dog set loose in the wilderness that never learned to hunt. They are such weak creatures sometimes; they are so dependent on their wives. And they think all the while that they’re doing the right, sacrificial thing, staying by their wives even when it’s icy between them. And all the while nobody’s doing anybody any favors. It’s so sad.

Does your husband have a best friend? I hope so. I hope he has a buddy and they can go fishing and get drunk and curse their wives bitterly. It’s good for men to express their feelings. We can’t always expect them to express their feelings in a lovely and mature way; sometimes the only way for them to do it is by being ugly. It might be healing. It might do them good.

WhatHappenedNextCall

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Our friend got drunk and went to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 6, 2008

We think she’s out of control, and we think she should tell her boyfriend.


Dear Cary,

I am writing to you to get advice about a friend of mine who has some rather troubling issues that I fear may one day turn into very serious issues that will affect her entire life, and not just for the short term. My friend, whom I will call Jan, has been my friend for 13 years. We went to high school together. Jan rooms with another mutual friend from high school, whom I will call Lisa. All three of us are 26.

To make a very long story short, Jan went out one night with one of her friends (whom I don’t know very well), and got really, really drunk — so drunk in fact that Jan and her friend decided to go to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines that they had just met that very night. Lisa and I were up until 5 a.m. trying to find Jan, who had been drunken-dialing us with worrisome messages like, “I lost my friend, I can’t find her! I’m in a hotel room. Come and find me!” CLICK.

We did find Jan and her friend and brought Jan home, and immediately I knew something wasn’t right with her. Lisa got the full story from Jan’s friend, who then went home. As it turns out, Jan had consensual, unprotected sex with one of the Marines.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. Jan is notorious for having dangerous (unprotected), drunken liaisons with boyfriends and strangers alike. This happens frequently enough that Lisa has unwittingly become a “guardian” figure to Jan, having to rescue her on many occasions. Jan acknowledges, when sober, she has a problem, but refuses to take any steps to solve the problem. Rather, she blames everyone else (“You and she didn’t come with me to the bar!”) or tries to avoid the subject altogether (“I know, I know! Can we not talk about it right now?”). Lisa, for how kind and absolutely fantastic she is, is just too averse to confrontation to put down her foot and say, “Enough is enough! You need real help, and I am not going to come to your rescue at 5 a.m. anymore.”

Now, the kicker is that Jan is continuing to have sex with her long-term boyfriend, and she absolutely refuses to tell him about her encounter. (She hasn’t gotten the results of her STD tests back yet, either.) I personally don’t know Jan’s boyfriend well enough to talk to him about it, and even if I did, I’m not sure if it would be my place to do so. However, I worry that Jan is putting her boyfriend in jeopardy by risking infecting him with any STDs she may have. Lisa, on the other hand, knows Jan’s boyfriend really well, but she doesn’t feel it’s her place to get involved and is uncomfortably passive about the situation. I equate this situation to Jan’s pointing a strange, unknown firearm at her boyfriend and pulling the trigger, not knowing if it will fire blanks or a bullet.

My respect for Jan has waned so much that I fear I may not be able to look her in the eye and consider her a friend. She is a 26-year-old woman, handling adult problems like a child. Worse yet, she is possibly endangering the life of someone she claims to love. (She has been with her boyfriend for eight years.) Her fear is that he will leave her, and he very well might, but doesn’t he have the right to know and make an informed decision, at the very least to ensure he uses protection when having sex with her?

Do you have any advice for how we should handle this situation? In your opinion, it is our responsibility to confront Jan’s boyfriend with this issue if Jan won’t? Also, do you think that Lisa should continue to be Jan’s guardian figure, or do you think that she is unwittingly enabling Jan by always being there to bail her out?

Concerned Friend

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Dear Concerned Friend,

The boyfriend has a right to know that he may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.

If the test comes back clean, that proves nothing. She is engaging in a pattern of behavior that may result in infection at any time.

She doesn’t need to tell him that she got drunk and went to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines. She just needs to tell him that because of her behavior he may have been exposed to an STD.

Informing him carries certain risks. The most likely risk is that they’ll break up. That would be unpleasant but probably for the best. There may be a risk of physical violence as well. Has he ever threatened her or her friends with violence? Some people respond violently to traumatic or upsetting news. If he is violent, she should be protected when she tells him. There should be someone capable of controlling him there — a friend or a police officer.

If she won’t tell him, someone else will have to tell him. Who will that be? Health department policies on partner notification differ widely from state to state and county to county. If she won’t do it, then you and your friends have to figure out a way to make sure it gets done.

Tell her that he has to be told and he is going to be told. Don’t let her talk you out of it. Instead, use the fact that he is going to be told as a way of persuading her to tell him herself. Maybe she will reason that if he’s going to be told anyway, she should do it first.

Then fill her purse with condoms.

Really. I mean, if she’s going to keep on like this — and she shows no sign of stopping soon — then she has to start putting condoms on the men she has sex with. Otherwise she’s a public health risk. She may be too out of control to actually be sure that her partners wear condoms, but put them in her purse just the same. Future partners may choose to wear a condom if one is available.

Remember: It isn’t just about her and him. It’s about those Marines, too, and about anybody else who might cross her path — or her boyfriend’s path, because we don’t know what he’s doing, either.

There is a limited amount of useful information on the Web; InSpot.org is a good place to start. See also this discussion and this article that discusses a survey of American doctors on the question of partner notification.

As I read over your letter, I keep coming back to the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex.” You say she had “consensual, unprotected sex” — while drunk, in a hotel room full of Marines. The sex was with a Marine and it was consensual. OK. She had just the Marine — while drinking. OK. Maybe they were both drunk. We don’t know. And there were a bunch of Marines. She was drunk in a hotel room full of Marines. Marines are strong young men trained to kill. OK. They are also trained to be gentlemen. OK. And, well, it may have started out fun, but at one point she was dialing her friends on her cellphone, crying out for help, calling for rescue, crying out that she had been abandoned. She was drunk and afraid. It does not sound like an episode of “The Love Boat.” That’s not to say she was raped. But perhaps we could say she had sex with a Marine under conditions of traumatic fear blunted by drunkenness. That’s not good.

I picture that hotel room full of Marines and your friend, drunk, abandoned by her friend and hungry for something, seeking something, vaguely aware that once she starts drinking she often can’t stop or control what she does next, vaguely aware that whatever has been happening to her lately is happening again, and every time it happens it seems to get a little more out of control. When I picture that hotel room and what went on there — maybe with just one Marine but maybe more than one, given that her shame may be overwhelming and her memory incomplete — when I picture her desperation and her hunger for whatever it is she was seeking at the end of the night, and then I hear the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex,” I marvel at the gulf between the language and the event. Perhaps this language indicates the gulf between your world and hers as well, and between the full horror of what happened and our willingness to imagine the full horror of what happened.

So I wonder what she says to herself about it. I doubt she says to herself, “Well, I went and had unprotected consensual sex with a Marine again, darn it!” I wonder what she would say if she could speak freely, with deep emotion, to someone she completely trusted. I wonder how it seems to her — that she was abandoned by her friends and ended up being taken advantage of? That they were nice guys but things just got out of control? That it would have been great if she and the one Marine could have just gotten off alone by themselves? And did she, in her heart of hearts, do it to get back at her boyfriend for some slight real or imagined?

I also wonder in what sense it was truly consensual. We are animals and we feel fear. Drunk, we do things to survive. We can feel when there is a killer in the room. We can feel when a killer’s reflexes have been trained. We can feel when it would be unwise to resist. Given our animal nature, the instincts that drive us when we are drunk and incapable of rational choice, given our desperate pretense in the face of implied danger, to say that it was “consensual” is to say what? What does the phrase “drunken 26-year-old woman in a hotel room full of Marines” say to you? Does that say the same thing as “consensual, unprotected sex”?

The more I imagine what went on in that room, the more I wonder if you and your good friends have come to terms with, or admitted to consciousness, the full terror of the event. No one probably knows for sure what really happened in that hotel room. Has anyone uttered the word “trauma” in relation to these events? Imagine the trauma to her roommate. Imagine her own traumatic shame when she woke up. And where did she wake up, or come out of a partial blackout? In the hotel room with the Marines, or in her car, or on the street, or in her own bed? Shame and degradation hide behind the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex.”

So beyond the public health issue of notifying the boyfriend, the emotional trauma of the event needs to be acknowledged, and she needs to get some help. I am convinced, having been out of control at times in my 20s, that we do not just go out of control for no reason. It happens in context. It happens because of feelings, because of our inability to control our response to alcohol, because we are hurt, cut off from friends and family, fearful about survival, unable to process and admit to ourselves our feelings about other things, and it snowballs. It escalates. One out-of-control incident leads to shame and humiliation and fuck it all, who the fuck cares now, might as well get out of control again because my friends did not rescue me the first time, so fuck them too, they must not care about me, and since they don’t care about me I must be pretty worthless, and if I’m worthless you’re worthless too, you shit, we’re all worthless, so what if I give my fucking boyfriend an STD, he should have been there to protect me from those Marines and protect me from myself, too. So fuck him. Fuck you. Fuck it all.

This is the way we end up dead. It snowballs. We stop caring. We enter into a spiral of shame and anger and humiliation, hopelessness, betrayal and self-betrayal, abandonment and apathy. We shut off. It’s too much to feel. We go dead. We shut off by drinking more and by abandoning ourselves, by giving ourselves away in pieces like a car parted out to thieves.

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