Category Archives: cheating


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


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


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


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.


Strong and weak

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I’m involved with a married woman who has been abused by her husband. What should I do?

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Feb 3, 2004

Dear Cary,

I recently got involved with a married woman. We had been good friends for quite some time. There was an immediate emotional connection upon first meeting, and a deeper physical attraction than we cared to admit at the time. Aside from some casual flirting, I never expected anything to happen. Boy, was I wrong. Everything was fine at first. It doesn’t feel all that different from a normal relationship when we’re together. I’ve never done anything like this and never thought it would be this easy to accept, but the more I found about her marriage, the more I became distressed at her situation.

I know both her and her husband, who are from a small town. I knew that they had a pretty loveless marriage. Lately though, I’ve found out that things were much worse than I had imagined. In addition to the emotional neglect, there is plenty of emotional (and earlier physical abuse). She tried to leave once unsuccessfully. After a while she decided to stay to save her parents from the embarrassment of the gossip about leaving such a “successful” husband. He married her because she’s pretty and came from a wealthy family — certainly not for love: He said as much at one point. They’ve talked about divorce before and he said he wouldn’t mind it. (I don’t care much for the concept of marriage obviously, but the casualness of the remark is shocking even to me.)

I didn’t have any moral qualms about getting involved. Now my amorality has gotten me in a fine mess. I’m worried about her safety should he ever find out. It also pains me that an otherwise beautiful and vibrant girl put up with such a miserable life. I feel that she deserves more than I can give her, like commitment. On the other hand, the last thing she wants is probably someone who falls in love with her and makes things even messier.

We have cooled things down to give her time to decide what to do, which so far has meant nothing. I’m annoyed with her acceptance of her situation. What is it about people that makes them incredibly strong yet weak at the same time? I understand that she has a difficult choice to make, but it’s ridiculous to throw your life away when you’re so young! There are times when I feel like pushing the envelope, like threatening to make public this whole thing or, more satisfyingly, beating the guy up, but I realize how stupid and counterproductive that is, so it ends up just being frustrating. I’m not expecting enlightenment, but some insight would help.



Dear Frustrated,

To understand why people remain in situations that look intolerable from the outside, why they fail to fight back when they’re being oppressed, why they acquiesce to the demands of their torturers, is to understand much about the history of oppression and genocide.

To understand why others acquiesce, it is best to start with our own behavior, which, presumably, we understand at least a little better than the behavior of others. So let us consider your own actions. First, you gradually became enmeshed in a situation that you never imagined. Remember that: We do not walk through a door marked “oppression.” We do not face two doors, one marked “morally acceptable” and the other “morally questionable.” We follow a long, convoluted trail past minor indignities, minor transgressions, subtle insults. We see a freedom removed here, a freedom removed there, and often for good, rational reasons — to protect us from an outside threat, for instance, a threat that we, being simply wives, or citizens, or outsiders, do not understand. We are now fighting in this country a “war on terror” in the interests of which we have tolerated much violation of freedoms once held sacred.

But such things happen gradually; there was no clear choice offered to us. No one said: OK, Americans, we’re all a little shaken up now, so what do you say we abrogate the Constitution? We don’t make a conscious, rational decision to trade eternal freedom for a temporary and illusory feeling of security, but we do it just the same. We call it something else. Because we are afraid, we go against what we know is right. We know what is right. But we also sense that to follow our instincts might threaten the welfare of the crowd. What if she left her husband and became impoverished, scorned and unhappy? We go against our gut instincts all the time because it’s always possible that we’re wrong, that someone else knows better, that we’re being foolish and: Acting like a child!

Do you not feel this yourself? That if you did what you feel is right — if you stood up in a room and said, This woman is being psychologically tortured by her husband! that you might simply bring greater harm to yourself and to her, that you might invite only shame and reprisal? Besides which, you are not without sin, are you? You who sinned with this woman! So it’s not without a certain sense of grievous cost that you contemplate exposing what you sense. There is also the wall of privacy around the marriage, and the still operative sense that a husband is a king, that he rules over his wife, and that anyone who interferes invites his righteous wrath. Do we not all carry vestiges of feudalism in our hearts, and does not social progress fight that every day?

Consider also how desperately a child will cling to even the cruelest of families. Why is this so? Because the family is not just a social unit: It is the source of life itself. What courage that takes! And to what entities do we transfer this allegiance when we become adults? To our new family, of course, and also to the state, to institutions, to all those powerful figures in society by whose actions we are fed, clothed, sheltered and reassured: bosses, presidents, governors, CEOs, even newscasters and actors! Consider how much of our lives are led instinctually, how few rational choices we actually make, how craven we are, how rote are our actions, how predictable, how programmable, how meek and contemptible are we, the masses. And consider whom we admire, who our heroes are: Our heroes are not those who lead lives of great moral courage and clarity of perception, such as Noam Chomsky, Alice Miller, Ralph Nader and Ingrid Newkirk (the founder of PETA), who, for all their own shortcomings, their failure to see how strangely misguided they appear, can at least see through cultural bias to the clear ethical contradictions of our everyday lives.

They ask of us too much! They ask that we ignore our own emotions, that we risk offending our group, that we risk being not cool, we risk even upending our own emotional structure. So we turn against them for their “extremism,” their lapses of taste, their idiosyncrasies, their lack of common sense. And yet it is people like them who are telling the truth at any given moment; they are the ones who sound the alarm of atrocities long before the rest of us have the clarity of mind and the courage to see how dreadful it is what we’re doing. We turn against them because they offend us.

As your community will turn against you if you stand up and say that this woman with whom you are having an affair is being abused by her husband.

It is finally a private matter for her. Granted, such “privacy” can be yet another tool of oppression in the hands of abusive husbands and abusive parents. Nevertheless, as the interloper, and as a man who is not willing to commit to her, you have no standing. So you can only urge her to embark on the long, slow process of understanding the roots of her willful powerlessness, her willing enslavement. You can give her books to read. You can find a therapist who understands the complicated machinery of willing subjugation. You can do much to understand. But you are just a man among men. You have no godlike power to inject her with your understanding, or to move her like a chess piece across a mine field.

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I fell for a younger guy and now my head is spinning

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 I’m a wife, a mother and a doctoral candidate. I’m not the kind of person this happens to. What the hell am I doing?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 6, 2008

Hi Cary,

I’m a 28-year-old doctoral student, wife and mother; it’s a life I would’ve described once as busy, happy and thankfully boring. All has changed. This last summer, I went to my 10-year high school reunion and ended up having an affair. Up until that point, my husband was the only person I had ever had sex with. My husband and I met when I was a senior in high school. I hadn’t been saving myself for my future husband (no great moral or religious convictions involved). I was just waiting for a nice respectful guy. I did not know we would remain in love and marry five years later, but that is exactly what happened. He has insisted many times in our 11-year relationship that I would want to have sex with somebody else someday. I thought the notion was preposterous; I assured him I was too level-headed to want something so silly. Well, it turns out, he was right and I was naïve. Despite my intoxication, I was quite calculated in my decision making. The boy was 21 (so he said) and had crashed the after party; we didn’t know each other beforehand. It appeared to be the quintessential one-night stand, and I have now learned the hard way that infidelity is a crime of opportunity.

Since that night, I’ve discovered some interesting things about the boy. First, he’s not even 21 (which was a scandalous-enough age for me), he’s only 18. I about had a heart attack when I Googled him and saw he was in eighth grade in 2004. Second, he graduated high school last May and is an incoming freshman where I go to school and TEACH. After confronting him about lying, you’d think I’d wash my hands of the whole thing and try to pretend it never happened. That is what I had planned on doing, after all. Instead, I have been talking to him, texting him and IM-ing him almost every day, in secret of course, but often. We’ve hung out a few times. We have not had sex again, but that’s not for a lack of desire on my part, as I fantasize about him daily and we flirt constantly.

I gave him the opportunity to “escape” from this soap opera right after I discovered his lie. I wrote him a long e-mail, explained how complex my life is, how he’s just a young kid who shouldn’t be weighed down by my drama, and how it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if we cut our losses and stopped our “friendship,” as I am uncertain as to whether I will be able to keep it only friendly. Surprisingly, he seems uninterested in actually having sex again (though he only insists on abstaining for my good, he rationalizes). He is still texting me and IM-ing me on a daily basis about seemingly inconsequential things, much to my confusion and delight.

I’m baffled at our behavior — his and mine. I can’t figure out what he could possibly be getting from our relationship. I assumed he was using me for sex (as I was him) and that we would easily just stop talking. Instead, I have this sinking suspicion that we are using each other, I just can’t for the life of me understand for what. Talking to him is exciting, he makes me laugh, and I give him advice about his love life and he even wants to give me advice on my marriage (what does an 18-year-old know about marriage?!). I also give him advice about navigating school, and tomorrow I’m meeting him to help him figure out how to catch up in one of his classes he was thinking about dropping.

Even more baffling to me is how I could have anything in common with an 18-year-old. He’s shattered every misconception I’ve ever had about undergraduates, let alone freshmen! He’s handsome and surprisingly smart; he has novel and interesting opinions. I admire his free spirit and rebelliousness and he always keeps me guessing. I have a feeling that both of us are flattered by the other’s attention.

Cary, I was once faithful, logical and level-headed. Suddenly I feel like a stupid teenager again with a giant crush. My whole world has flipped upside down. I thought I knew myself, that I knew and understood the world, and suddenly I don’t think I understand anything anymore. I do feel guilty and ashamed about my infidelity, but that’s overshadowed for now by my obsession with meeting and communicating with this boy. What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him? What in the world are we doing?!

Completely Out of Character

Dear Out of Character,

I guess what I am struck by — well, let’s back up. First, since you refer to this young man as a boy, I strongly suggest that in your conduct with this person you scrupulously comply with all laws and professional regulations that apply. You were wrong about his age to start with; I’d suggest you verify his age — for real. If you don’t know what laws and professional regulations apply, find out. And then make sure you comply with them. Also you’re going to have to work out this thorny problem of deceiving your husband. But you also need to work out what is going on emotionally. If I can be of any help at all, it is probably in that area.

Here’s how I would put it: You have been visited by a stranger. That stranger is yourself. She demands that you get to know her.

While you’ve been pursuing your degree, you’ve been pretending she doesn’t exist. But here she is. She has desires and tastes that may shock you. They don’t make sense to you. But here she is. Think how she feels.

In pursuit of intellectual accomplishment we sometimes shunt aside elements of our personality; years later they arrive like strangers at our door. We ask, Who is this? Who is this person? Do I know this person? You don’t know me?! she asks. I’m you!

You’re me?

Sure I am.

Thus begins the hard but rewarding work of integration. Each personality is like a family, or a town. So get to know the relatives. It’s not a stranger at all. It’s you. Get to know her.

I want to make this observation, too: Your emotional life is at least as complex, and requires as much subtle intellectual attention, as the subject of your doctoral studies. Like any body of knowledge, it requires that the questions we pose be informed and pointed.

You ask, “What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him?” That can easily be answered, but only begins to get at the heart of the matter.

For starters, you’re getting love, for heaven’s sake. Who doesn’t want love? You’re getting admiration and the wonderful feeling of being sexually attractive to someone. These are not trivial things. But they are elementary. As you accept what has happened, I think you are going to ask bigger, more profound and thoughtful questions.

For now, I suggest that you confess. Confess that you are human. You are not that different from anyone else.

You are just as capable of acting in a way that is scandalous, dishonest, secretive, alluring, sensuous and dangerous as anyone else. You are also reasonable, intelligent, diligent, honest and reliable. You are both.

Surprise: This is you!

Let’s celebrate what this means: You are not only a doctoral student but a woman of mystery, trapped in intrigue.

Did you think that this mad, crazy love the poets write about was something they made up? It has come to visit you. So I implore you to open yourself to this and learn. Again, speaking in very elementary terms, here are some of the guiding principles, or salient features, of this new terrain.

You don’t have control of your attraction.

You don’t understand it.

It feels wonderful.

It defies social norms.

It exposes you to danger.

You feel you are betraying someone.

You are breaking rules.

It is forbidden.

It came unexpectedly.

You and your love object are outwardly very different — your social class, age and education are markedly different.

You can’t make sense of it.

You are conducting it in secret.

It fulfills needs you did not know you had.

You are frightened by the fact that you cannot turn it off and on; it is out of your control.

You are, of course, faced with tricky practical and ethical problems because of it. So work out the practical problems. Deal with them upfront. But honor what this means. You are more complicated and passionate than you thought.


All my traveling makes my husband jealous


Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 4, 2008

He seems to believe that when I travel I must be sleeping with my boss.

Dear Cary,

I married my second husband in 2002, just a couple of months after completing chemo treatments for ovarian cancer. We’d been together a year and a half before I was diagnosed. Several times during the time I was being treated, he made the suggestion that we get married and I said no each time.

I was a little anxious after my sixth and final chemo and my oncologist prescribed an antidepressant to take for six months. Everything seemed so much clearer once I was taking the drug and I actually told him that I would indeed marry him.

I stopped working for nearly a year during my illness, but when we met, I was selling software and traveling very much. But, honestly, I have always traveled since I was 14 and I lived more than a decade in the north of Italy. I speak fluent Italian and French, some Spanish and Portuguese.

Initially, he was fine with my travel, but after six months or so, he would just go crazy when I would have to take a business trip (this was where my reluctance to marry him came from). I’m embarrassed to say that once, before leaving on a two-week business trip to South America, I didn’t tell him until I walked out of the door with my suitcases. I found that telling him ahead of time to prepare him only made him bitterly angry for the entire time before I needed to leave — he’d stop speaking to me. It is incredibly stressful.

Cut to six years later. I’ve been working for a fantastic software company for the past four years with very smart people who are at the cutting edge of our industry. I am again selling software but have been promoted and am also leading a team. I’m making a lot of money — almost twice as much as him. Our two salaries give us the ability to do nearly anything we want and save much of what we earn. We have a lovely home that we enjoy retreating to. We have everything anyone could want.

I have really tried to curb the amount of travel I do because I know it distresses him, but there are at least six or seven overnights a year and a few day trips that I must take, otherwise I’m not doing my job properly.

Between the trips, we get along fine. I say fine as opposed to fantastic because, frankly, each time he wigs out because of a business trip, I feel far less willing to give him any sort of benefit of the doubt, or trust. I mean, part of me thinks that anyone so suspicious of business trips has to be totally screwing around while away. Note that while he travels far less for his job, he actually does have to go away, and I suspect he limits his trips because of me, and that this actually causes him some issues. (I love when he goes away; I get the house to myself — I am free for a while!)

I become more immature in my dealings with him when he acts like such an ass — I hate that because I vowed to myself that this would be my last marriage and that I would act in a way that was as mature and loving and supportive as possible.

So, yesterday I got up at 6 a.m., caught an 8:35 a.m. train to New York, arrived at 11:20 a.m. for a noon meeting that lasted about two and a half hours. My boss was with me at this meeting. I invited him to come — it’s an important potential account for us and I felt that it was important that he join me. One of my sisters happened to be visiting NYC with my niece, so immediately following the meeting I caught a cab (sans boss) to meet them to say hello. I told my boss not to worry, to just catch the train home. He said he’d wait and we agreed to meet back at the station to take a slightly earlier train.

There was a ton of traffic yesterday and cabs were few and far between anyway, so I decided to walk to Penn Station and arrived only four minutes before the train left; my boss was waiting there for me. I told him I hadn’t changed my ticket, and neither had he, so we decided to stick with the game plan and take the 5:39 train. Neither of us had eaten anything the entire day. So we sat at the bar at Hooligan’s in Penn Station for an hour, had a drink and a bite to eat. My husband called me while we were eating but I didn’t answer. There was music in the restaurant and I didn’t want the hassle of him asking me where I was (I guess eating and drinking is foreplay — whatever). I called him immediately after we left the restaurant and were about to board the train. He asked me if my boss was taking the same train and I said yes. He said he should have known I was “out drinking” with my boss, implying as usual that I was committing adultery. By the way, the thought has crossed my mind to tell him no, I’m by myself. But for chrissakes, I have nothing to lie about. (Sometimes I’ll ask him to look me in the eyes and tell me he honestly believes I am having an affair — he can’t.)

I have spent three or four days away on business without ever speaking to him — he won’t call. He used to make repeated calls, like 30 calls in a row and when I would answer he’d scream so loud that others would hear, so I don’t trust him enough to answer the phone unless I’m alone. Once he canceled the credit card we both had an account on, so my card was denied. (I immediately got my own account following that episode.) When I do arrive home I am so happy to be there. I have two border collies and I love them; they are so happy to see me. But upon my return, my husband and I will go days and days and days without speaking. Life is too short for silence. And marriage is hard work; you can take baby steps forward and giant leaps back. These periods of silence are the giant leaps back for me.

I have repeated over and over again to him that I have never conducted myself in a way that could even be remotely construed as undignified — and it is the truth. I want to work hard, make money, come home to a supportive companion, be an honest, loving companion, be with my dogs and feel peace.

But this situation leaves me feeling as though I have no peace.

We have not seen a marriage counselor; however, I’ve tried other things, like laying out in advance the trips I know I’ll be taking. It doesn’t help for long, and he reverts to this outlandish behavior.

What do I need to do?

Dispirited, Disgusted, Distraught


Dear Dispirited,

One possibility is that your husband lives in mortal dread of being deceived by a woman. This dread may derive from experiences in his romantic past as well as from his childhood, and is probably part of a lifetime pattern of relationships in which he does not feel secure. Because this fear is so ingrained, and not actually conscious, he may not be able to see how stifling his behavior is; he may believe he is simply showing concern about your whereabouts as a normal precaution.

If he were to become conscious of this, like a man awakening from some kind of foggy dream, he might be able to say to you, I’m sorry, my love, I have been acting like a crazy man, and this is why: because I live in deep, mortal fear of abandonment and betrayal, and I’m sorry, I’ll try to stop acting like such a crazy man, I’ll try to get a more realistic view.

But until he becomes conscious of what he is doing, he will not be able to shine any light on this for you. Instead, he will keep you a prisoner of his fear.

Another possibility is that he himself is either involved or contemplating becoming involved in an outside affair. If this were the case then we might say he is projecting onto you his fear of discovery and his guilt about his dishonesty; he is seeing you as the untrustworthy party, the one who is deceiving him. He is projecting.

That sounds sort of clichéd but a friend told me a story, a very strange story, of just such an incident. A man she knew suddenly cut off all contact with her and began acting very crazy because he believed his wife was cheating on him. He believed this because he was cheating on her. There was no evidence that she was cheating. It was all because he was cheating and believed, therefore, that she must be cheating also. Very strange but true. He was imagining her to be having the same thoughts and feelings that he was having, and then he responded to her as though these projected thoughts and feelings were hers, not the products of his own guilt-driven imagination.

So such things are possible in our world. You will have to discover what is driving him. Is he simply afraid that you will abandon him, or is he himself being somehow unfaithful?


But even after you discover, through couples counseling or principled individual struggle with him, what exactly is the basis for his behavior — insisting, that is, that he tell you the unvarnished truth about his life and not relenting until you get what you feel is a complete and satisfactory answer — you have only begun to solve the larger issue.

Because here is what we do in a marriage: We try to protect what we have. We see where things can lead. So we guard ourselves against the weak moment, the seductive situation, the enticing opportunity; we avoid them. Of course we do. We screw ourselves down tight.

But in doing so we risk cutting ourselves off from our very sources of vitality and beauty and pleasure. We turn away from the life force that created us in the first place and which is the only thing that can sustain us.

We try to shut out danger but we shut out life. We shut ourselves off from the source of our energy and beauty. We shut out eros.

We all want to survive. We all want to avoid pain. We all want to avoid situations in which our wives are fucking strange men doggy style in high, luxurious rooms in hotels in faraway cities and not telling us about it until the day they decide to pack a suitcase full of lingerie and perfume, and we sit on the bed watching in a rage of paralysis and incomprehension, flooded with emotions about the packing of the suitcase, baffled by why the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume is being packed right at that moment, baffled about what specifically might be wrong with us physically or psychologically that caused the wife to pack the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume on that particular afternoon when we might otherwise be watching television or eating or watering the lawn.

We all wish to avoid such moments. So we seek safety and routine.

But in seeking safety and routine we court death. In seeking safety we cut ourselves off from the wealth and abundance of life forces that created us in the first place and that will sustain us only if we expose ourselves to them. We cut ourselves off from temptation and we cut ourselves off from life. We bloom a suicidal purity. We blossom dead flowers. We kill ourselves to keep ourselves safe. Such murder flows from deep distrust. It is not just distrust of you. It is broader. It is a distrust of the enterprise of living. It is a wrong relationship to the world. It is a relationship to the world premised on illusory control. We forget that we are not our own creators. We forget that our blood is a gift, that our brain is a gift, that our water and sweat and semen and tears and arm hairs and tongue, teeth, gums, jawbone, epiglottis, eustachian tubes, nose and throat and eyes, our spit and our urine and our shit, our hipbones and toenails and kneecaps, that all of us is a gift, that we have a source in the world, that cut off from that source we die. We forget this. We have to be reminded now and then. So we go out into the desert and somehow we are reminded.

My trip to Burning Man has reminded me that it is good to go outside our situation to see our situation. This is the beauty of it: Put people together in the desert without social rules and restrictions and what do they do? They make things and help each other. This human goodness, this desire to make things and help each other, if given a time and place, seems to arise spontaneously.

How easily we can become accustomed to thinking of our relationships, our philosophical posture and our behavior as things that we control and so must constantly work on! And of course this is not a bad thing to do, to ceaselessly struggle to find a right way to live and a right way to behave. But in the struggle we can forget about the source of all that we are. We can forget that underneath our effort and our conflict there is a bubbling spring of goodness, creativity, love, light, desire to help, kindness, wit, humor, warmth, togetherness, grand vision and fine craft, deep humanity, which requires only that we partake of it, only that we give it a little space to bloom. We forget that we are not in charge of these human qualities but that we are the recipients of them. We forget that we have to reach outside our sphere of domestic arrangements to something mystical and beyond us.

You faced death and you endured illness. In this you perhaps came in contact with this force outside us; you felt it; you felt the life force bubbling up through you of its own accord: the life, the priceless force.

So I sense that the solution to your conflict lies not just in solving the immediate conflict about your travel but in the two of you finding new sources of life and vitality that can flow into the marriage and make it richer and fuller. You already have such sources — in your work and your travel. These things give you energy and inspiration. He must find such things as well. And he must find out what has happened in his past to make him so afraid. Each of you has to find strength enough to endure the other’s absence, or the marriage bed will be a prison cell, stifling and dead.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


My wife is lying to me about her affair

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

Then she wanted to clam up.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Husband Lost at Sea


Dear Husband,

Divorce this woman. Protect yourself and your kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


I’m cheating on my husband and loving it. Is that a problem?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 9, 2007

I’ve been a cheater since my very first boyfriend and no one has ever found out.


I am a cheater. I’ve never had a boyfriend or husband that I didn’t cheat on. When I was younger, it would just be making out behind a boyfriend’s back; as I got older, I would sleep with men that were not my husband. I am also a “lapper,” in that I tend to start a new relationship while still in the previous one.

I’ve been with my current husband for almost seven years and married for two. We started dating while I was with my first husband. I would imagine he could infer from how our relationship began that I am not the most faithful of types, but I don’t believe he suspects anything. And for the first five or six years of our relationship I was faithful.

Then last year, I slipped back into my old ways. No particular reason why — I love my husband and am still very happy with him — but an opportunity arose to sleep with an old friend, and I didn’t want to pass it up. That seemed to give me a free pass to fool around with other men — another old friend (just out of curiosity), random men in bars (for fun), a client (terribly unethical, but that makes it even more exciting).

The strange thing is that I really don’t feel any guilt. And I don’t want to leave my husband. I’ve never been caught and I don’t think I ever will be. I really haven’t had any fallout from these illicit acts — it hasn’t affected my work or my personal life. Part of me thinks I do it because I always act so responsible and upstanding in all other parts of my life — that I need some sort of release. I suspect I may stop if we have kids (we’re in our mid-30s), but I don’t really see a reason to. Is there something wrong with me?



Dear Cheater,

You have three choices. You can split up with your husband so that you are free to engage in these activities without causing great emotional harm to others; you can confront your husband about this behavior and tell him that you’ve been in the grip of something seriously injurious to him and you’re scared and you want to make it right and stay together; or you can secretly begin working with someone qualified to help you understand and change your behavior and figure out, as you go along, how to disentangle yourself from this behavior and do the least amount of damage possible, with the likelihood of eventual disclosure.

Whichever option you choose, you must understand this: The current situation is untenable. You’re just playing the odds right now, and you have been lucky. Luck is not a workable plan.

So the choice is yours. Not knowing you in particular, or your husband, and having no overarching moral belief about monogamy, I can’t say which choice is best. You are a free being. I do believe, though, from an ethical standpoint, that if you want to continue as you are, you have to become unmarried.

On the other hand, if you want to change your behavior, then you either have to tell your husband what has been going on now, or you have to enter into a course of therapy or deliberation or counseling of some sort.

Those are the choices, my friend. They are fairly stark. They are not great. About all they have to recommend them is that they are preferable to maintaining the present course.

I am not even remotely qualified to diagnose people psychologically. But I will say that it crossed my mind that you might be one of the estimated 4 percent of Americans who are sociopaths. But a quick read of an interview with author Martha Stout, who wrote “The Sociopath Next Door” and who popularized that statistic, led me to believe that, because you have recognized that you have a problem, you are probably not a true sociopath.

Here are the relevant passages from Sara Eckel’s 2005 Salon interview with Stout:

“What makes you decide that a person is or isn’t a sociopath?” Eckel asks.

“Conceptually, for the purposes of the book,” says Stout, “I’m talking about people who have exhibited symptoms such as extreme chronic deceitfulness, lack of remorse, lack of personal responsibility, and a general desire to control people and make them jump.”

Deceit, Stout says, is the central behavior of sociopathy: “More scientifically, the best I can offer is the rule of three. If someone lies to you once or twice, it could be a misunderstanding. If someone lies to you three times, then chances are you’re dealing with a liar. And deceit is the central behavior of sociopathy.”

Based on that, my thought was, wow, maybe you are a sociopath! But read on:

“What I have found,” Stout says, “and what breaks my heart, is that I’m hearing from good people who are afraid that they are sociopaths. They are feeling disconnected from people for a variety of reasons and are questioning their own dark sides. But if you’re questioning your attachments to others and questioning your dark side, you don’t have very much of one. That is not a concern that a sociopath would have.”

So, my friend, according to this expert, if you are writing to me, you are probably not a sociopath.

“Do you ever see sociopaths in therapy?” asks Eckel.

“Not unless the court refers them,” Stout says. “They feel just fine about themselves.”

They feel just fine about themselves! Actually, it sounds like you feel pretty darned good about yourself, considering. But you had the wisdom to compare your behavior with that of others and ask if anything is wrong. So perhaps you are simply a person who has a functioning conscience but is caught up in a habitual behavior from which you simply have not yet had any educational consequences, such as losing a husband or a job, or being ostracized, or feeling in deep emotional pain.

As I say, I’m not qualified to say. I do think, however, that if consequences happen, and you are not a sociopath, you are going to feel it acutely, and it is not going to be pretty. And you are going to hurt a lot of people.

So best to take steps now.


It’s not my fault

Write for Advice


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

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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