Category Archives: Dating

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My boyfriend is my boss

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”


Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.

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A fellow attorney thinks I’m crazy

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Cary’s classic column from Sunday, Jun 5, 2011

Sure, I’m crazy — for him! But I botched my approach! Now how do I wriggle out?


Dear Cary:

I have been following your column for years. I hope you can help me — I need concrete advice, almost like a to-do list on what to do next. I have ruined a wonderful friendship, and I want to repair it.

I am an attorney. My workspace, and all others who are similarly situated, is a cubicle, so there is no privacy. I really like one of my co-workers. He is close friends with our boss and is one of the most respected attorneys here. I wanted to have a physical relationship with him. He said that he found me attractive but did not want a physical relationship for a number of reasons. He repeatedly said that women are crazy. He has absolutely no patience for “out of control.” We managed to develop a fairly close friendship. I started to get too deep. Yesterday I left him a voicemail message saying that I needed to dial back, that he would meet the woman he has been looking for, maybe even this weekend, and that I didn’t want to be in a position of missing my friend when he started spending all his time with that woman, so I was dialing back. He got upset. He said that we were never dating, that the message was the type of message one would get from a girlfriend. I thought I was being honest and self-protective. But instead I revealed myself as being in too deep and like another one of the crazy women in his life (his term, crazy women). I called him on the telephone as we drove to our homes. He said that it was a crazy message. My voice rose. I asked how it was crazy. He said, “Well, you’re the one who left it.” I truly value our friendship. I feel as though I have lost all dignity and revealed my worst (to him), most emotional side. I need concrete and specific advice on what to do. How do I repair the friendship?

Please do not reveal my name.

Emotional Attorney

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Dear Emotional Attorney,

Here is some clear, practical advice. Stick your head in his cubicle at your very next opportunity and say, “About that phone message. Just wanted to say. Sorry. I was a little wound up.”

Then he will probably say, “No problem. Don’t give it a second thought.” Or, “That’s OK.”

After he says that, be very careful. You are on your way out now. You are already done. Do not open up another line of argument.

He might say one or two more things. But you are already done. You’ve delivered the message. No matter what else he says, just say something like “Thanks. Just wanted you to know.” Or, “No problem,” and get out of there.

The next thing is the exit. Make your exit swift but not sudden. Make it even. Don’t rush out, but don’t linger. Try to get a rhythm into it, like, in terms of beats, it’s: One, pop your head in; Two, deliver your message; Three, acknowledge whatever he says; Four, turn lightly, in rhythm with your shrug, or your acknowledgment, and walk away with a light, relaxed step.Then settle into your cubicle and start reading a brief. Visualize a soundproof plexiglass wall between you, reaching up to the ceiling. He is not there. You are alone in your cubicle.

This should reassure him. The matter will promptly leave his mind.
Of course, the fact that it will promptly leave his mind is part of the problem. There is a huge issue remaining. It is an issue that, if you talk about it with him, will not settle things but make them more complicated. It would probably be a losing argument. At the same time, it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention it. Feminist advances in pay and freedom were won in hard-fought battles house by house, bed by bed and cubicle by cubicle. So while you may want to keep this huge issue out of the air for professional workplace reasons, let’s just state it for the record: He thinks women who express their emotions are crazy. He’s friends with the boss. So your long-term prospects for professional advancement may well be in the hands of men who think women who express their emotions are crazy.

Maybe you can change their minds. Or maybe you can find another law firm. There are lots of  law firms.

‘Nuff said, OK?

As far as maintaining your friendship with him over the coming months, do indeed “dial it back.” But telling him you’re dialing it back does not dial it back. It ramps it up. That’s what happened with that phone call. It’s one of those paradoxes. The way you actually dial it back is by changing the way you act around him. Visualize detachment. Look at him as though he were far away and tiny, like at the wrong end of a telescope. Speak with him in a controlled and deliberate way. Don’t share your feelings. Don’t ask about his romantic life. Keep your friendship professional.

And one more thing: Don’t call him on the phone from your car. If you find yourself having erotic thoughts about him, transfer them to someone else outside the office — a waiter, or a judge, or an attorney on the other coast you met at a conference.

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Mom says dump the boyfriend or leave home!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 25, 2009

We got caught making out and now my mom’s all like you have to break up with him if you want to keep living here


Dear Cary,

My name is V and I’m 18 years old. I have a boyfriend and he’s 18 years old too, but the situation here is that my family has never liked my boyfriend. Me and my boyfriend have been going out for 10 months, and he has always been a good boyfriend to me. The reason my family doesn’t like him is because of the way he talks all ghetto like.

My mom says that he has me threatened and that I’m scared of him, but she is saying things without knowing that my boyfriend actually respects me. He has never hit me or yelled at me, and if he did, I would tell him to watch it, and he’d be like, I’m sorry, babe. Besides that, Friday was his graduation, and after his graduation I went to his house to celebrate. While at his house, I called my mom and let her know I was going to be at his house, and she said it’s OK, she’ll go pick me up.

After a while being at his house, he was getting hot and turned on, so we told everyone we were going to the store, and as we went out the door, he pulled me into the basement and we went in there. We were alone, and let me tell you, I already lost my virginity before that with him, but we weren’t really doing anything besides making out and I did a striptease for him. After a while we heard people looking for us, and his aunt saw when I was slipping my dress back on and started to yell at me and told me to get out of her house. By the way, my mom didn’t know anything about me not being a virgin. So as I was putting my heels on, his aunt told my mom how she found us. My mom was upset, very, very upset after that day.

She hadn’t said anything to me up until yesterday, when she told me to sit down in the living room and started talking, and her rules were:

Break up with your boyfriend and you can live at my house under my rules and keep your studies at the university, or
Leave the house. If you’re not willing to leave your boyfriend, then go live with him and lose your studies.

And honestly I don’t know what to do. I need help because I love my boyfriend to death and he’s willing to help me out if I go live with him. As a matter of fact, he’s been looking for jobs already, and he talked to his aunt, and she said it is all right with her if I go with them, but I’ll have to get a job, and that’s OK with me.

My problem in deciding between one or the other is that my family has always been everything, but for some reason I have felt like they have been turning their back on me and they don’t want to listen to me. My mom is mad at me. She says she’s disappointed in me, and I’m afraid that if I stay here at my house that she’s going to keep on bringing this situation up, because my mom tries to control my life all the time. She says if I live under her roof, I do what she tells me to do. I have no opinion and no say in anything, and I am tired of them deciding for me.

I have already made a decision to leave my house and learn to be an independent woman on my own, and go live with my boyfriend and just make my life already. I am conscious that it is not going to be easy, but I just want to be with my boyfriend. To tell you the truth, I want for my family to at least get along with my boyfriend. That way I won’t have to leave. I really do not want to leave my house because of my little sister. She told me last night crying that she doesn’t want me to leave because she can’t sleep without me being in the room with her. I know I did things wrong, but in my opinion my mom is taking things way too far.

All I’m looking for is for someone to tell me their opinion on my situation and to help me out. I am really seeking some help.

Confused

 

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Dear Confused,

I think you should stay at home for now until things can get sorted out. Ask your mom for some time. Promise to stop seeing your boyfriend for two weeks or a month while you sort things out. That will give her time to cool down.

Then tell your boyfriend the only way you can still keep seeing him is if he will go, on his own, to talk to your mom. He’s got to apologize and impress her that he is a gentle and honest man. He’s got to humble himself before her. But he’s got to be honest with her, too. He can’t snow her. If she senses that he’s trying to deceive her, or charm her, or sweet-talk her, she will become hardened to him. It’s got to be genuine. He’s got to say that he likes you very much, enough that he is willing to make some sacrifices in order to continue seeing you.

Now, you can’t get this all done in one conversation with your mom. So just tell her that for now, you want to stay at home and you’re having a “moratorium” on the boyfriend.

Here is the important thing: You have to have some flexibility and patience. When families suddenly break apart over something like this, it hurts everyone. It hurts you, it hurts your mom, and it hurts your sister.

So you need to use conflict resolution. If you can slowly resolve the conflicts, maybe this can be worked out to everyone’s benefit.

There are a lot of emotions involved. Your mom is trying to protect you, and you are trying to grow and be your own person. That naturally creates conflict. You have to learn to do some negotiating with your mom.

In negotiating with your mom, you have to have some things to offer her. What do you have to offer? Make a list of all the things you have to offer her if you stay at home: You can help take care of your sister. Staying at home will make your sister happy. You can clean and cook at home. You can be with your mom and keep her company. And you can stay in school so you can get a good job.

Your mom doesn’t really want you to leave. She wants you to stay in school. She wants you to stay at home. But she is trying to be a good mom. And she is trying to feel like she has some power over what goes on. So give her some power. Give her what she wants. But do that in a way that gives you some rights, too.

Now, after your boyfriend talks to your mom, you will want to see what she says. If you want to keep seeing your boyfriend, you don’t want to have to do it in secret. So you’ll have to figure that one out. If he can’t be persuasive, maybe his aunt will have to come talk to your mom as well. And if you’re going to keep seeing him, there will have to be some limits. Your mom won’t want him going into your room, and she won’t want you sleeping at his house or spending the night somewhere. You can guarantee she won’t want that. But if he approaches her on his own, and apologizes for what happened, and impresses on her that he truly cares for you and wants what’s best for you, she might agree to let you keep seeing each other.

You have this on your side: She doesn’t really want you to leave. She wants to keep her family together, but she wants some control and some respect. So this situation can be worked out. It doesn’t have to end in bitterness.

And don’t forget your little sister. You can “lobby” your little sister: Tell her that you very much want to stay at home, and that you just have to work things out with your mom. Don’t necessarily try to get her to take sides, but just be honest with her. In a pinch, she can tell your mom that she, too, really wants you to stay.

The most important thing at this crucial point, whatever happens, is this: Stay close to your mom and to your sister. Stay in school until you have a useful skill and you know how to get a job and support yourself. And don’t count on your boyfriend. I’m sure he’s great, but things do change. At 18, a year is like a lifetime. Things could change.

So the best solution is for you to try to negotiate something with your mom where you can live at home. You’ll have to give up some things, but so will she. She’s angry right now and being overly rigid. Show her you can compromise, and maybe she will accept your solution.

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He e-mailed us to say, “I’m dating both of you”

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 16, 2009

I thought I liked this guy, but his message to me and the other woman he’s dating seemed pretty tacky.


Dear Cary,

I value your advice and read your column all the time. Anyway, after a long hiatus, I dove into the dating pool. I heard that my longtime friend Bob’s cute brother Sam was newly single. I sent him a card telling him that if he’d like to see a movie sometime or have lunch to call/e-mail me. Bob cautioned me that Sam was newly divorced and maybe I shouldn’t take action. I decided to anyway, even though I respect Bob’s opinion about most things.

Anyway, I really fell quickly for Sam. We couldn’t see each other very often because we live two hours apart and as a single parent I could only arrange to see him maybe once a month at most. The few times we saw each other lasted for several hours … we had so much to talk and laugh about — incredible chemistry … and we had frequent e-mails/phone calls in between … it seemed like we had a rare connection, at least to me anyway.

Then, I get an e-mail that he just started seeing someone that lives in his building. Now, get this, he e-mails me and Suzy on the same e-mail at the same time … as in “Margaret and Suzy, I am seeing you both … like you both … want it all out in the open …” I thought this was in really poor taste … didn’t seem to go with the thoughtful person I knew.

Anyway, I tried to be classy because, well, he could have continued seeing both of us and maybe I wouldn’t have found out … so in a weird way, I did appreciate his clumsy honesty. I told him that I couldn’t see him while he was seeing someone else; physically and emotionally I just wasn’t cut out that way and I wished him well.

He has since e-mailed me that I was the most genuine person he has ever met and that his time with me couldn’t be compared, and he signed it “Love, Sam.” Part of me wondered, What the heck does this mean? But the logical side of me decided to just ignore the e-mail.

Not sure if I will ever hear from him again, but I do miss him. If I do hear from him, is he worthy of another chance? I think so, but sometimes I have such huge rose-colored glasses on when it comes to romance that I set myself up to get slam-dunked. And I felt so sad about all of this.

This guy made me wonderful dinners. Made me CDs of my favorite songs. Loved to slow dance … I felt so at ease with him … but since he decided to see someone else I have to wonder if it was all BS.

I hate to think so. What do you think, being a man and all?

Puzzled

Dear Puzzled,

What I think, being a man and all, is that sometimes women spend too much time trying to figure out what we men are up to and not enough time trusting their own judgment. I think you’ve already decided what to do. That e-mail struck you as manipulative and invasive and strange, and it put you off.

Yet you crave his attention. Craving his attention is not a good basis for a relationship. Craving his attention is like needing a drug. He made you a nice dinner. He says nice things to you. Those things — the slow-dancing, the CD, the dinner — those are not the relationship. They are relationship-oriented products. He has shown himself to be an adequate producer of relationship-oriented products. You haven’t really encountered him as a person yet; you’ve only encountered him as a competent dispenser of feeling-like substances.

Not to say that all courtship behavior is a sham. Courtship behavior and its attendant relationship-oriented products make it safe for men and women to dance together. But within the slow dance and the dinner is supposed to be some relating. You have to sense there’s a man you like in there somewhere. I’m not sure you do. I feel more like you were so fragile and hungry that you fell for the appearance of something — for the relationship-oriented products he is able to produce. And that puts you in a dangerous spot because, as you say, you are a person who has such “huge rose-colored glasses on when it comes to romance that I set myself up to get slam-dunked.”

Some people call that “having boundary issues.” Having boundaries is about knowing your weaknesses and protecting yourself.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling fragile and hungry. It happens. We’re in a fragile, hungry time. I suggest, however, that you never allow yourself to become so fragile and hungry that you go against your own core values and instincts.

As a man, I can tell you that sometimes when we want a woman to do something, we produce our best relationship-oriented products and present them to her as if they represented our current feelings toward her. But what they actually represent is how we think we might feel once we get what we want from her. Once we get what we want from her, we might feel like a slow dance, like a diamond, like a rare filet mignon. But in the beginning it’s not poetry; it’s sales. Relationship is knowing and accepting another person. You have to like the guy. He has to not creep you out.

So what do you feel about a person who would send the kind of e-mail he sent? Some people might actually like it. But I think your reaction was like the reaction many women would have, which was that it was just tacky and strange. So trust your own response. I think you’ve already decided what to do.

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Guys keep dumping me

 

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 3, 2012

We date for six weeks and then they say, “There’s no spark”


Hi Cary,

I enjoy reading your responses because they are honest and very heartfelt, and –  I hope this doesn’t sound over the top — they’re often quite beautiful too.  

I am the (embarrassingly) clichéd successful young woman who is still man-less. I’m 30 years old, I have a wonderful career, numerous close girlfriends, a sometimes frustrating but close and always supportive family, generally great co-workers and acquaintances.  I’m slender, fit, attractive, my nieces and nephews love me and people often call me their sunshine in perhaps an otherwise gray day. A source of pride for me is that I regularly make people laugh. I don’t say these things from a place of arrogance, or at least I hope not, but to set the scene for you, to give you a sense of who is on the other end of this letter. The good parts of me. The parts that everyone else sees.

And yet, I am single. I’m not temporarily, in-between relationships-single, I am chronically, seemingly unstoppably single.  I haven’t had a proper relationship in about four years. The people around me don’t understand why I’m alone either (or at least that’s what they keep telling me), and I trust them to be at least mildly honest about my deficiencies. And believe me, I know I do have them (OK, since I listed my good traits, I’ll list some bad as well — I’m overly sensitive, I’m very particular, I’m stubborn, I’m blunt to a fault at times, I cry every time I get upset, I can be self-obsessed and overly analytical, which is boring for others, etc., etc.).

Don’t get me wrong — I can’t say that I don’t meet men.  I do meet men, I do go out on dates, I do start the very beginnings of relationships. Over and over again. And not with jerks or awful men either — generally pretty decent guys, successful, kind, smart, funny, attractive. Catches. The problem is that after a few dates, they don’t seem to want to continue a relationship with me. About five to six weeks in, around the time things may become exclusive, or at least we start to talk about it, I generally get dumped on my butt or I have to end things because he tells me he’s not looking for anything more than casual. Sometimes I’m dropped in insensitive ways, but usually not — I get the old line that I’m great, he just doesn’t feel a spark. He just doesn’t think that we’re right long-term. There’s just something missing. Then these guys go on to happy relationships with someone else. I am not perfect in a relationship, but I try to treat a partner with respect and kindness. Nobody has ever called me a bitch after we’ve ended things — in fact, I’m still in touch in some form with nearly every man I’ve ever dated and slept with!

I tend to believe that there is a reason for the way things are in our life, and if someone can’t maintain a relationship, there’s a reason for that. If a woman keeps ending up with a guy who treats her awfully, it’s because she’s dating guys who are awful. Of course there’s more to it, but that’s the bare bones.  So, what am I doing wrong? What is the reason that guys want to date me at the beginning, but then lose interest so fast? Do I give a better first impression than the reality? I can’t help but start to develop a complex that, once someone really gets to know me, they are disappointed that the real me isn’t as great as the first-impression me. I would love to believe that they’re “intimidated by my amazingness” as some of my friends say, but let’s get real here — a guy wants to keep amazingness, not throw it away. I’m not completely delusional.  Is it that I’m punching above my weight? Should I pull out some old wives’ trick and try harder to make these guys stay? I’ve always thought that was a bit pathetic and a sure way to a crappy relationship, but maybe it’s in fact what all women do but we just won’t admit it.

There seem to be lots of uninteresting and unattractive (to me) guys out there, so maybe I’m just too picky by only dating the ones that really attract me. When I was 23 I threw away a chance of a baby and marriage because I panicked, I felt too young, completely unprepared and I wanted so much more in my life. I still fiercely respect my right to that decision, but I’ve regretted it for years and now all I want is to be tied down. Is this some kind of karma? My greatest fear is that I’ll be in this same dating Groundhog Day five years from now, so I want to stop the pattern that I’ve created, but I have no idea how.  I’m exhausted, and I want to find a good love.  Please give me a cold dose of reality and help me see this more clearly.

Trapped in Dating-Groundhog-Day

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Dear Trapped,

I am going to go out on a limb here and speak to you as if I knew you, even though I don’t. I am going to speak to you as if I knew your problem, as if it were something like mine.

My guess is that you are not “connecting” because you are not being your authentic self. Now, this is a huge thing to say. It may sound pretty nervy, and I admit it is. But I’m just going to say it.

You are acting in a way that is socially acceptable and no one could fault you for, and yet this way of acting is not right for the real you. In some way, you are being untrue to yourself. This is of course a long life habit, as it is with me. It is a hard habit to break. And it is hard to accept the proposition that while we are not liars or cheats or thieves, we are yet, at some deeper level, being emotionally deceitful. I’m probably going to be accused of “blaming the victim” or something but that is not what I mean.

I know this: People respond to our authentic self. If our authentic self is hidden, then they lose interest. We are of course taught to hide our authentic self. Most of us have an authentic self that is at odds with social expectations, so we learn to suppress it. In rare cases, people we think of as “charismatic” have authentic selves that merge well with the social moment. Such people are lucky and become famous and well-loved. But in your case, and in my case, the authentic self may not be the self you show the world, the successful, cheery self. But it is real. It may shock some people. It may not be welcome everywhere. But it is the real you.

You hint at this when you express the fear that once these guys get to know  the real you they lose interest. I think that is close but not exactly it. When we see a person truly, we cannot help but love her. But when we catch only a glimpse of her hidden self, then we are confused. We sense contradiction and a great hiding, a hiddenness. The “spark” these guys are talking about ignites when the genuine person is seen.

Here is another thought: You may still be mourning the loss you had at 23. I would guess you are still angry and sad about this thing. I feel for you. I am sorry for your loss. You probably put on a happy face and cheer people up but you are not happy. You are still sad about this. You don’t know quite why you did what you did. Perhaps even the burden of choosing was not an unqualified gift. I don’t know. We are complicated. Social and political rights are complicated. We can be grateful for autonomy and yet also yearn to have the path laid out for us. We can relish making our own decisions and yet at times hate the burden this places on us. You made a choice and it was the right choice at the time. You weren’t ready.

One thing that can happen after an event like that is that we go on in a state of incompleteness, of incomplete mourning. This is what people mean sometimes when they say we have “baggage.” We have not moved through certain events emotionally, so we are still responding to current events as though they were happening in the past.
So let us regard this string of unsatisfying encounters as a sign: Your mission is to encounter your authentic self. I wonder who she is.

She may be fierce and angry. She may be wounded. She may be simply sad. Who knows, she might be fiercely funny. She might be frighteningly strong! She may be voracious and sexy and naughty. She may have wanted all her life to be a scientist or mathematician. She may want to be a fisherman. She is probably many things. I wonder who she is. Show her. Let her be. Then she will find her mate.

You have accomplished a lot on the outside. You have some inner work to do now. If you begin this great journey now, no matter what happens in the arena of dating, you will find your authentic self and that is the great human mission.

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Dating rules

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Cary’s classic column from

Is it possible to go out with two women at the same time and get away with it?


Dear Cary,

I’m in a bind: After going a couple of years without a serious relationship, I recently met two very cool women in the course of two days. Gal No. 1 is smart, funny, confident, good-looking and slightly counterculture. Gal No. 2 is smart, witty, lighthearted, self-deprecating and a little bit kooky. On a shallow level, I find No. 1 just a little bit more physically attractive.

As I met them at essentially the same time, I thought it would be OK to get to know them both. I had enjoyable e-mail and then phone relationships, and then had very nice dinners with each. No. 1 is open but taking it as it comes; No. 2 seems to be more proactively interested in me. I might be a slightly better personality match with No. 2, but I really don’t know either one of them well enough to say that with conviction.

In the event that everything continues to proceed well, is there any general time limit or number of dates by which I should get on the stick and make a decision? I’m not the kind of guy who feels OK about simultaneously dating two women, and the last thing I want to do is hurt someone’s feelings. Is it totally stupid to be swayed by the attractiveness of No. 1 even though No. 2 and I get on very well? I’m in my early 40s (as are both women) but feel like a dumb, naive high school kid. I don’t want to screw this up. Help!

Conflicted

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Dear Conflicted,

Does God exist? If God does not exist, then this is random nature at work, which means that randomness can be as kind as it can be cruel, which means that consciousness has no monopoly on agape. I see no reason why you should feel compelled to tamper with nature. On the other hand, if God does exist, then God has put these two women into your life for some unseen but no doubt lofty purpose — not the least of which might be the beneficial effects of certain fantastic imaginings that may occur to you. God, if he exists, is not altogether without a sense of humor.

So what to do? Do whatever you feel like doing. Leave it up to the women. Don’t try to control everything or be super cagey about it. Just lay it out there. Say that you met two women at the same time and you’re currently dating both of them. Say that such a situation has never happened to you before, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead and you don’t want to do anything rash, dishonest or hurtful, so you’re just laying it out there.

I don’t think that you have any great responsibility beyond just saying what’s going on. In fact, I would hesitate to try to spin it in any particular direction, because that could backfire; the minute you start trying to spin, you enter the realm of unintended consequences. You really have no way of knowing how it’s going to end up.

But if the totally Zen approach is a little much, and you’d feel better guiding the conversation toward some definable options, you might ask each woman if she has entertained any notions of your relationship becoming serious enough to warrant the easing out of the other. In other words, try to find out if either of these women is thinking seriously about you.

You might also remind these women that you are a man, and thus completely without guile or cleverness, and that if they think you’re cooking this up as some kind of manipulation, they vastly overestimate you. Remind them that you don’t particularly relish the difficulties it poses.

I don’t think you have much to lose by being open about the situation. I do not think that either woman will refuse to see you on account of it, although if one does, it probably means that she wasn’t all that into you anyway. If that happens, consider yourself to have been granted a second piece of good fortune: It relieves you not only of the burden of a difficult choice, but of the potential heartache of a futile courtship.

So, again, I say, just let go of the outcome and explain the situation. Nothing bad can come of it.

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Help! I’m falling for a fat man!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 27, 2006

I like this guy a lot, but the poundage is a turnoff.


Dear Cary,

Currently I’m dating a man who just won’t leave my consciousness, not for a moment. I think of him all the time. He’s pretty special.

My problem is this: This wonderful man with whom I’ve shared some amazing moments and do share a phenomenal connection … he’s overweight. He’s not merely out of shape or a hike and a swim away from fit, he’s fat.

I’ve made a conscious effort to look past it (“it” being my own stupid, shallow, superficial, counterproductive reaction to the weight), but there it is, all of the time. In bed, he’s attentive, very strong, wonderful — we enjoy genuine chemistry — but even when the lights are out I find it difficult to navigate his flesh. I’m a smallish person stature-wise; it’s difficult for me to wind around a man with what little leg I’ve been given, never mind a man the size of one and a half men.

Worse yet is I fear being a selfish lover, because I don’t fantasize pleasing him the way I would ordinarily with a slimmer man. I’m intimidated, daunted and generally unprepared for certain activities.

I don’t know what to do. It’s a turnoff. And worst of all, part of the reason it’s a turnoff is that I see myself with a head-turner when the lights are on. I’ve always been with striking men — not pretty boys, but men who had that quality; after all, it’s that quality which turns my head in the first place. And this man just doesn’t light my fire in that way. I’m attracted to nearly everything about him but his size. So he doesn’t light my fire, and doesn’t feed my ego in the company of strangers. I hate myself even for admitting it; it’s just so superficial.

Am I trying to convince myself that we have a future together? Is there any way I can get past my bias and enjoy this person for who he is in total?

Weighing in, in Washington

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Weighing in,

You haven’t gotten this far by pretending. You’ve gotten this far by being straightforward and honest, and I suggest you continue being straightforward and honest.

This is harder, of course, because we are freaked out about fat. It is one of our crazy things. It goes deep. It has its paradoxes and corollaries as well — we are freaked out about skinny, and we are freaked out about food, and the planet, and the body and money and exercise and power. We are a freaked-out culture. We are all freaked out.

The fat man knows this.

If you are a fat man in America you cannot help noticing that people are freaked out about fat. People will suggest exercise bikes. They will feed you lean portions. They will say to each other, “It’s his fault, and it’s disgusting; he must have no willpower; he must eat the wrong things; he must be repressing something; he must not respect himself.” And what does the fat guy say? He says, Yes, thank you for that astute observation, I have indeed noticed that I am fat.

So I suggest what you do is go in your backyard and sit quietly and meditate on the fact that you are not turned on by this fat man. Meditate on the fact that you like him very much but he doesn’t turn you on. Wait for something to come to you. Accept the answer that comes. If you come to the feeling that you have to end it, then end it. If you come to the feeling that you want to stay with him for a while more, then stay with him for a while more. If you come to both, then put each on an apothecary’s scale, weigh them and choose the one that weighs a little more.

Don’t try to reason it out and don’t guilt-trip yourself. We don’t know why we are the way we are. It’s not our job to know. Just meditate on it and wait for an answer.

Maybe you meditate on it and the answer that comes is that it’s just not right for you. OK. Make a tearful goodbye. Or maybe you meditate on it and it continues to intrigue you and so you stay with him for a while. What’s the harm in that? Maybe you learn something new. Maybe you have sex and it turns out to be good. Maybe it’s just some learning you have to do — maybe you are not used to having sex in ways that are not automatic; maybe there would be some learning at first and then it would be automatic, just as it always was. What can it hurt to find out?

And by the way, why are you in such a hurry lately? Two or three dates is not all that much time. Human emotion goes slowly. Insight is a complex computation; it can take days on our little computers.

Besides, consider: The sex is great in the beginning lots of times. This you no doubt know. It doesn’t always stay great. It might dwindle down. It might be great at first with some guy you don’t like that much otherwise. It might dwindle down and then what have you got? A guy you don’t like all that much anyway whom you don’t like to fuck much either anymore.

Some things are painful and sad and wrong but nonetheless true.

We are the way we are for reasons unknown to us. You needn’t feel guilty if it isn’t working out. Quiet your mind and wait for the answer to come to you.

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My new boyfriend’s mom has cancer

 

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Hi Cary,

I am seeing a great guy, but things have recently become very ambiguous between us and I’m not sure the best course of action for me.

We were dating for a little over two months, it was a slowly deepening fantastic and mature relationship, and I care for him, he clearly cares for me, we were falling in love. But as it happened, on our second date he found out his mom has a widespread and fast moving cancer with unknown prospects for treatment.

He didn’t seem much affected by it at first, and he consistently deflected my offers of support and my concern. But over the weeks I felt like he was holding back, being emotionally distant, reluctant to fall for me, and eventually started contacting me less and being less available to see me.

I asked him about it, and he came back and said that due to his mother’s illness something fell apart in him and he can’t manage to be in a relationship right now, that things were great with me and it isn’t me, but he can’t tolerate the contrasting pleasure and pain, he can’t be there for me, he can’t uphold his end of a relationship, and he doesn’t want to hurt me or let me down, that he has to do this alone, that it’s simpler and a relationship would complicate things. He didn’t say the words break-up or just-be-friends, but he made it clear we are no longer in a relationship. Since three weeks we are still in almost daily contact and see each other around once a week, we have joint projects and plans to do things together, he’s still affectionate. Last time I saw him we were overwhelmed by our mutual attraction and made love all night, but in the morning he was distant and bothered by my presence. His behavior is quite clear that it’s no longer a relationship, but something else and rather ambiguous.

We have both handled this situation quite delicately, thoughtfully, and I want to be there for him as much as he will accept me, as much as he needs, but I feel tortured and confused about what that means for us. We have feelings for each other, we are attracted to each other, we enjoy each other’s company, we have joint projects together… but he isn’t available for a relationship.

How can I find a way for me to continue to be there for him without torturing myself always pining for more, how can I find a peaceful sustainable existence in this ambiguity? How can I ride this out with him, deepening our connection, our intimacy, and be there in the months or years when he is ready for a serious relationship? How can I give my support and love, but not expect him to reciprocate ? Should I invest myself in my single non-romantic life? Should I move on and date other people ?

Thanks for your help :)

G

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Dear G,

Just tell him, clearly and often, that you are there for him during this time and that he does not need to right the balance sheet. There is no balance sheet. There is just you. You are there for him and that’s the end of it. That’s what he needs and it’s what you can give him.

You say you feel tortured and confused about what this means for you. It’s not surprising that you’re confused. One set of rituals has collided with another.

But there is no mystery about what is required. What is required is that you behave like a good, caring human being. If you make love you make love. If you don’t talk for a while you don’t talk for a while. The rules of romance are suspended. If you have needs for companionship or sex that he cannot meet, do not feel bad about meeting them in other ways. Being there for him doesn’t mean you put your life on hold. Just be there for him when you can be. Contact him regularly and don’t require him to call you back. Just remind him regularly that you are there.

Relationships deepen when one partner suffers a loss. In unguarded moments your friend will reveal hidden strengths and weaknesses. His core beliefs will come to the fore. You will see who he is.

It’s possible that you will be surprised by what you see. It’s possible, likewise, that he may not be able to be intimate with you in any meaningful way while he is facing the possible loss of his mother.

What I meant when I said that two sets of rituals had collided is that the ritual of dating has collided with the ritual of friendship. The confusion that results shows just how artificial the expectations of the dating relationship are. It seems to presume that no unforeseen human events will occur. When they do occur, the dating ritual participants are thrown into indecision.

This illustrates how dating rituals distort our natural instincts toward compassion and caring. It’s very interesting: If he were a friend, even a friend you’ve only just met, you would not be confused about how to respond to this event in his life. You would express your concern and make yourself available to him. But because you are following a dating ritual, each of you feels strangely compelled to apologize for the disruption.  It is as though people date in a vacuum, excluding all real-life events.

So the important thing is to act in the human sphere, to act in friendship. Put “the relationship” on hold.

Let go of your hopes and expectations for a relationship and just be there. Be a good human being and a good friend. You know how to do that.

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Doctor in love

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday,  NOV 4, 2003 10:29 AM PST

I had a crush on a colleague, and now she wants to be friends, but I don’t. How do I get rid of her?


Dear Cary,

I’m a Salon reader from Mexico and I enjoy reading your column very much. Now I need your advice.

I am a medical doctor and there is a colleague of mine I had a big crush on, but circumstances have not been appropriate for me to try to “advance” the relationship (she had a boyfriend at first, then she was out of the country for some time).

When I finally started — rather softly — to make a move, she started working with another doctor, 10 years her senior. Obviously he snatched her. Now, I am not really hurt nor do I have any remorse or hatred. It was just a crush. I was not in love or anything. It was not meant to be, and I am over it already. But she wants to keep being my friend. She seems to be completely clueless about my feelings. I don’t want to keep being her friend. I don’t loathe her; I just don’t want to be around her anymore. But I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to face her because I know I would end up saying more things than I would rationally think convenient.

I have tried to be evasive, tried to drive her away in a “passive way.” But she is still there. What should I do? How do I get rid of her (in a smooth way)?

Tired of Being Nice

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Dear Tired,

When beings are denied privileges solely because of attributes over which they have no control, such as whether they are women or men, or white or black, or human or animal, it is sometimes called “objectification.” What that means, I think, is that the one who has the power is free to act as though no bona fide relationship exists with the other, as though there is no bond of reciprocity, as though the other were a piece of furniture or a magazine, to be used without regard for its feelings or mental processes.

That sort of objectification is what your letter hints at, and it is that habit of being that you need to address. The tragedy of such a habit is that it walls off a rich and rewarding realm of human bonds, in which we trade some of our power and autonomy for a sense of community and trust.

“Obviously he snatched her,” you say. That makes it sound as though women are routinely handed around from doctor to doctor like so many copies of Playboy, to be privately enjoyed and then passed on. If so, there is a certain ethical inequality in your workplace, a kind of gender discrimination. I’m not saying it’s the kind of thing you can fix, but it’s the kind of thing you, as a doctor, should recognize as poison and avoid in your personal dealings.

I think you really did have feelings for her. You say you were not hurt, that it was just a crush. Regardless, you do not have the right to smooth this over and make it go away just because it is inconvenient for you.

You have probably spent most of your youth studying the medical sciences, looking for ways to control disease and analyze chemical and biological processes. So you may not have had much time to study how human communities function. But I think you will be much happier in life once you understand this: You have entered into a relationship with this woman already. In a moral sense, you do not have the right to simply, “in a smooth way,” get rid of her. You owe her the truth: That you were interested in her not as a friend but as an amorous companion, and now that the possibility of such a relationship seems remote, you are disappointed and it is painful to be around her.

What she then does with this truth is her concern, not yours. The reason we tell each other the truth is that we want to maximize personal freedom: The more truth someone knows, the better she can make the best decisions for herself. It’s true in medicine, and it’s true in relationships.

If it helps in preparing your speech, conceptualize it this way: You have some bad news to deliver to her. Deliver it like a doctor. Tell her the facts. Tell her what her likelihood of recovery is and explain her treatment options. Tell her the condition is curable and not fatal.

But please do not tell her that simply because it sounds good. Tell her the truth. And if you should say more things than you would “rationally think convenient,” there’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in having strong feelings for someone, or in feeling disappointed or spurned. It’s part of being a man.

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He’s sober but he steals hotel towels!

Cary,

I’m dating a man but I’m uncomfortable with some of his behaviors. He is about eight years sober and attends Alcoholics Anonymous regularly. He and I dated about four years ago and I adored him but couldn’t tolerate some of his bad behavior so the relationship ended. He seems to have grown a lot in the last four years and I was excited and hopeful to give the relationship another chance.

However, he still doesn’t follow the same rules of society that I do. Here are some examples of things he’s done in the last couple of months: He’s tried to sneak into places that he should be paying to enter; he’s takes the towels from hotel rooms; and he outright lifted a towel off of the maintenance cart and took it home.

He knows I’m uncomfortable with his behavior. He jokingly asked if I would feel better if he returned the towels to the hotels (and I said yes).

He occasionally will tell me things he did before he was sober. For example, he said he flooded a vacant house on purpose. I hear no remorse from him when he tells these stories and it seems unlikely to me that he ever worked the Step 8 the way it was intended to be worked.

When I reentered a relationship with him this time I went in with the attitude of keeping things light and taking things day by day. But now he is asking more of me and I’m losing interest in him.

I don’t know if I should just ease out of the relationship or if I should let him know why I’m cooling off. It seems only fair to tell him why I’m backing away, but I don’t want to create a scene either. I would want to stay in the relationship if he was working on changing this behavior but I know I can’t change him.

Your advice sure would be appreciated.

Sunshine

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Sunshine,

You can’t change him. But you can place before him the opportunity to keep going out with you, and let him choose. You can say to him, I like you a lot but I won’t go out with you if you keep stealing towels.

Then it’s up to him. I’d choose you over hotel towels and I don’t even know you that well. But you’ll just have to find out what he wants to do.

Maybe he has a different definition of stealing. When people are drinking sometimes they have a different definition of drinking. Like beer is not drinking. Or one glass of wine is not drinking. So maybe to him taking a towel is not stealing. Maybe it would have to be fifty towels for it to be stealing.

If there is a definitional problem at the heart of this, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, may help.

I get what you mean when you say you can’t control his behavior. You’re powerless over that. But he’s not. He is capable of making choices. So put the choice before him. He may be motivated to change his behavior when he contemplates the benefits to be obtained.

There is, of course, an apparent contradiction between his attendance at AA meetings and his attitude toward stealing towels and sneaking in places. Maybe he hasn’t read the AA literature on stealing towels and sneaking in to places. (Just kidding. I don’t think the literature expressly contemplates such activity; one is left to make such connections on one’s own.)

But let’s not go there. His membership in AA is his business. The thing that properly concerns you—and it is a proper concern—is that he acts dishonestly in front of you. That troubles you. It should. So just tell him it’s a deal breaker. And then stick to it.

Now, you’re not his AA sponsor, and neither am I, and it’s none of our business, but I am a writer and writers are curious and like to create hypothetical scenarios for sheer amusement. So personally I would find it amusing if, say, his sponsor were to recommend that he take a rigorous textile inventory of himself.

Or of his house. How many towels has he got in there? And how could he make amends? Should he visit each hotel and walk around the halls until he finds a housekeeping team hard at work, and just casually throw in the towel? (Speaking of which, maybe his resistance has to do with a resistance to surrender, i.e., he refuses to throw in the towel.) (Groan.)

Anyway, I like the comic possibilities. It could be his quest. Like “My Name is Earl.” You could film it and put it on YouTube.