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 🙂



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


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.


He’s sober but he steals hotel towels!


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.


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.

How do I show her I’m serious?



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Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column, particularly your relationship advice for so long that sometimes the stories mirror my own hopelessly romantic life with such accuracy I’m convinced a significant other wrote it. Thank you for sharing your insight in these instances;  I can rest a little easier knowing I’m not alone in my quest to understand the complexities of relationships and the abundance of feelings that come with it .

I’d like to take the moment to tell you a story. There’s a woman I’ve known for some time. A few months ago I decided to pull the trigger and be more than friends with her. She is everything that I would look for in a long-term relationship: intelligent, success-driven, affectionate and genuine about her feelings. We connect on many levels, share many similar interests and aspire to the same goals. When we’re together, I feel like the luckiest guy on earth.

But that’s not to say it’s all perfect. There is also a side of her often leaves me anxious and frustrated. I’m no angel and being friends for so long, she’s well aware of my past misgivings. Her trust issues and insecurities over my willingness to commit to one woman have put me in a limbo between just dating and a committed relationship. The other “main” reasons she gives are: not knowing exactly what she wants in the long run, a former love interest she can’t seem to get over and her fear of falling in love and experiencing heartbreak again.

This has led me to wild emotional goose chase to prove myself to her. I have repeatedly attempted to put her fears to rest. I’ve told her my intentions, opened myself honestly to her questions about my past and have been patient through it all. Still, no dice. Her insecurities have damaged some of my friendships and are constantly putting a strain on our relationship.  Combined with her family’s constant involvement (they actually love me, which makes her even more anxious), I’m beginning to doubt if this is what I want.

Cary, what should I do? I’m in no rush to settle, but there is a strong desire for some stability at this point in my life. I genuinely like her and I might even be in love with her (that’s a whole other story). How do I explain that holding off on me while holding unto the past only makes me more apprehensive about our future? How else can I show her I’m “for real, for real” about what we have? How can I get her to let me in and trust me just enough to continue to grow and build our relationship? Or should I just move on? I feel that taking a laid-back approach forces me to just settle with whatever I’m given, and for me that’s a deal breaker. I’d hate to walk away from it all, but I’d even more hate to know I’m wasting my time.

In Limbo


Dear In Limbo,

The traditional—and quite effective—solution to the kind of limbo you describe is to ask her to marry you.

That is how you say you’re for real for real, you’re in it for the long haul, you’re not the man you used to be. That is how you say you’re not kidding around and you’re willing to risk not only that unendurable moment after you ask her when she sits back in her chair and gets a cloudy look in her eyes and the thought crosses your mind that she’s about to say no and you’re about to be humiliated, but also the following however many umpteen millions of years that represent the rest of your life.

It’s also how you get her to let you in and trust you enough to continue and grow and build the relationship. You may be thinking that if the relationship would only grow and build then you would be ready for commitment. But it’s the other way around. The relationship grows and builds because you make the conscious choice of commitment. Trust develops because you consciously create the conditions for trust. You don’t wait for the relationship to build. You build it.

Asking her to marry you is also a test for you. If you find that you’re not willing to ask her to marry you, it means she’s not crazy for having her doubts. Certainty doesn’t always come. You have to live with uncertainty and risk something dear to you. You have to take a chance.


I’m dating my doppelganger



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Dear Cary,

About seven months ago, I was coming out of a really bad relationship with a younger guy who was an immature, boring freeloader. He also cheated on me with men and women, indiscriminately. As long as he was receiving attention, he was happy. After breaking up with him, it was apparent he had mental issues; he threatened to sue me, and kill himself on my property. The cops and his parents had to remove him at various times from my porch.

During this time, I had friends and coworkers trying to introduce me to someone in particular, who they touted as “the male version of me.” Amused, I asked why they thought that and was told we looked, dressed and acted alike, and people wanted to see if we were long lost relatives. I don’t like being part of a spectacle so I ignored requests to meet this person. Then, I ran into him on my own outside of work and it was like looking into a mirror. I think we were both transfixed at how uncanny the resemblance was. Upon just meeting he even quoted a geeky joke that I knew the obscure punchline to.

I’ve never believed in soul mates or kinships before but I felt we had some kind of weird connection. I didn’t think it was attraction at first. We discovered we worked at the same place, and then it occurred to me, this was the guy my coworkers wanted me to meet. We became fast friends, hanging out at every break and day off. Due to the problems with harassment I was experiencing with my ex, I was disinclined to get into a relationship, so I never made any kind of flirtatious overtures. Meanwhile our mutual friends were encouraging us to date since we had apparent chemistry. I was happy to discover he had a girlfriend already, at first because I thought it would relieve my guilt at friend-zoning him, but later I realized I was just happy that it was a sign he wasn’t gay and therefore fair game.

When I met his girlfriend, I actually liked her. I still would but it would be awkward to befriend your lover’s ex, that he dumped for you. Yep, you read that right. It is exactly what happened. Our mutual attraction, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and the urging of our common friends eventually chipped away at their relationship, and shortly thereafter we began dating. I have apologized to him about stealing him from her before. He gives me a quirky smile and says if they were as perfect for each other as we are, I wouldn’t have been able to, and that she was “getting on his nerves anyway.” His friends even stated that she wasn’t right for him. They also adore me, and I them. He doesn’t cheat, or hide things or act shady. He’s very honest and open about things. Despite that, I, a little insecurely, wonder if he could be stolen as easily from ME. It would only serve me right.

We seem perfect though. We look adorable together, the sex is great, we share hobbies and interests. We are a complement to each other in some ways, and a perfect match in others, and enigmatic and interesting in still others! We want a future. We’ve only been dating for six months now, but he talks about marriage and kids and our goals and careers with me. We never fight. When we disagree or do something accidentally hurtful, We actually TALK about it maturely! I don’t have a single ex who would have. We can take comfort or cry on each other’s shoulders if we’ve had a bad day or rough life. We do nice things for each other that I imagine partners in a marriage would! In fact, just realizing how perfect he is lately, has made me feel even more remorseful for poaching. How could she stand to lose someone as great as him?

Should I just accept that we are possibly soul mates and they weren’t? As hurtful as it must have been to her for us to date, do you think maybe he wasn’t right for her either and hopefully she is okay?

Do I need more closure to forgive myself? Should I apologize to her if I feel it is owed? I don’t want to rock this boat, but I’ve never done anything potentially this hurtful before and the guilt does eat at me. I actually looked at her Facebook twice to see if she’s gotten a new partner. I really hope she does so she can be this happy too, and I will feel less burdened with taking her happiness away.


So Happy & I Hate Myself For It


Dear So Happy & Hating Yourself,

You’ve come a long way since dating a guy who had to be removed from your porch.

In fact, you sound like you are in heaven. Wow.

So why feel guilty now? A better match was made. One is tempted to thank the benign forces of nature. One is also tempted to think well, once in a million whiles the random forces of our chaotic and meaningless universe get something right.

Either way, you’re swell. Peaches. Sweet.

It’s even nice that you feel bad for the girlfriend he dumped for you. You can afford to feel bad for others now because you are so happy.

Life will hit you hard eventually. There’s no reason to hurry that along. If I were you I would keep a journal so you can look back on this happy time. And, while writing the journal, if I were you (and I wish I could be) I would pay special attention to all the reasons, the concrete and perhaps repeatable reasons, that you are happy today. Some of them won’t be repeatable: your youth is not recoverable once it is gone, nor is your relatively undamaged psyche: once life in a declining stronghold of deranged capitalists and war mongers has had its way with you for a couple of decades, you’ll be suitably beaten down and morose like the rest of us.

But certain things you are doing now may be repeatable, and are worth writing down now so you can remember them. For instance: the nice things you do for each other; the way you regard each other; these may be repeatable. So when you get into trouble in the future, when life seems pale and lifeless, when this person you now love so madly turns into an ogre, you can try to recapture this happiness by repeating, consciously, the happy behaviors in which you now engage with blissful, unconscious ease. Remember this. This is sweet. This is how life is supposed to be.

I’m just kind of bowled over. I’m going to enjoy this. I suggest you do the same. Let’s all enjoy this, as a matter of fact, all our readers, everybody. Let’s just let this moment of happiness radiate outward from here.

Don’t mess with a good thing. Enjoy it.


Am I being used?

Dear Cary:

Thank you for bringing humaneness to advice columns. I hope you’ll consider taking time to help me figure out a problem. I was raised in a tribal culture where women keep things to themselves in order to keep others from worrying. I have trouble speaking to friends back home to help me work this out, and I am in a very rural area with no therapists close by.

I do not have any friends where I am living.

In 2010 I started doing dissertation research in a small community far from my home. I met a man who was 62. I was 33. He seemed very young, was outdoorsy, and we spent a lot of time together on my project. He has been married and divorced four times. Only one of the marriages lasted a while, with “Sherry” (nineteen years). I have been married once (together for about twelve years, married for five)–the ex had an affair, and I will admit I have trust issues. My ex and I raised his son together, and I promised the son to love him like my own no matter what, and I do. Stepson still lives close to my “home”–far from the research community.

This older man and I started dating as a fling. We discussed that I was going to leave, write my dissertation, and seek an academic job. I’m of mixed heritage — American Indian, black, and white —  and I’m the first on my mom’s side of the family to have a doctorate, so this was a big deal, not just to me, but to my parents and Indian community. I actually did leave the research community and drove back home, to work and write my dissertation. However, a couple days after I left, a mutual friend called to say Manfriend had a heart attack and was in ICU. I immediately went back to take care of him and ended up moving in. His health generally declined from another condition, although he hides it well. He is now on disability, but it is not enough to support him at the level he likes.

Somehow helping him stretched out to three years. I love Manfriend — by which I think I mean I could not stand for him to be alone and killing himself trying to work, which is what he would do if it weren’t for my income.  I have supported him, cared for him, taken him to the hospital and to traditional healers, worried over him, taken care of all the work he can’t do around the house, advocated for him with doctors, etc. His kids rarely visit. He says he loves me, but he does not want to get married.  I did finish writing my dissertation, very slowly, while working two jobs to support both of us. There are no academic jobs here. I do other work in a high-stress but boring profession that does not pay well here.

Here are the hangups. He calls me “Sherry” sometimes. He speaks about Sherry to others and tells them how pretty she is, even shows off pictures of her and their daughter together and refers to her as “my old lady.”  Manfriend comments about how other men who are “shacked up” with women do so because they do not respect their girlfriends enough to marry them. About two years ago, Manfriend made comments about wanting oral sex from another woman in front of me and whispered to her something apparently salacious in front of me. He has not taken me out in about a year, so I no longer see him interact with other women, although he claims that the hitting on the other woman was only when we were “not as committed” (we had been living together and I was supporting him even then). He tells me that he thinks it is funny to tell people in town who ask about me and him (it’s a small town, and the age difference as well as my profession and race make us a curiosity for gossips) that he doesn’t even know me.

Manfriend is not as bad a boyfriend as it might sound. What I haven’t said is that he is also kind when he’s not being disrespectful. He cooks for me, listens to my frustrations with my job and my worries about Stepson and my elderly grandfather, and is very affectionate. When we are OK we laugh a lot together. We never go out together anymore. He does go out when I’m at work. By the time I get home and on the weekends, he says he is too tired or that I am too insecure and will get mad at him for looking at other women. But he doesn’t want me to go out by myself, so I have made no friends here other than “work friends,” not people I would share personal issues with.

I know I’m insecure and bringing my own old issues with trust into things. But I can’t get over the feeling that despite all this if Manfriend respected me or were committed to me much he would never have hit on other women (especially not in front of me), could manage not to call me Sherry during intimate moments, and could stop bragging about Sherry to other people. They’ve been divorced 15 years but apparently, according to her religious beliefs, she and he are still married since she does not believe in divorce. I also tend to think he would want to get married since, according to him, not getting married is a sign of disrespect. That we are racially different does not help. Sometimes I really think that if I were white he would not act like he was ashamed of living with me or try to shame me.

This is all very far from my family, and I’m now 36–getting old if I did want to settle down and have a child other than Stepson. I’m terrified that I’m losing precious time with my parents, elderly grandfather, and stepson and obviously weakening my relationships with all of them because we rarely see one another, and that I gave my beloved and also now elderly dogs back to Exhusband (Manfriend is violently allergic), all to be with a man who I sometimes suspect is using me. But, again, I hate the thought of leaving him alone, or of not having him in my life, and I think I find satisfaction in caring for someone.

How do I make a decision I can live with or let wanting a more stable relationship go? We are wearing each other out fighting. When we argue that pain and humiliation of him hitting on that other woman in front of me and telling people he lived by himself and didn’t know me just bubbles up as if they were new. I want to talk about it, and he doesn’t, which means I usually unload it all it once when I figure we’re already in for an argument–not good for either of us–and he responds with sarcasm and exaggeration, which tends to make it hard for me to keep “fighting fair.” The last fight ended with me vomiting up all these worries, crying, and telling him I was scared and him telling me I was making him sick with my “tantrum,” so I’m sleeping at my office for a while.

Any advice would be very appreciated.


Not Sure if I’m Being Used or Just Poisoning My Relationship With My Old Issues


Dear Longest Pseudonym Ever in the History of this Advice Column and that Means 12 Years,

Thank you for your letter. I don’t think it’s helpful to simply say you’re being used. It’s more complicated than that.

You are in an unusual relationship. You get a lot from this relationship. You also give a lot. You sacrifice. It is an unequal relationship. But you are not powerless in it. You have some power that you are not using. You have the power of refusal and of withholding. I don’t mean withholding sex. I mean withholding yourself, and the things you do for him.

Rather than be doctrinaire, strategically cut back. Stop doing certain things for him, while still maintaining the essential bond between you. The services you provide are not just practical. They are emotional. You supply him with approval and esteem; you allow him to believe that he is king. It’s OK for him to be king some of the time. But he is not all-powerful. He needs to know that his powers are limited.

I think you’re smart and compassionate and deserving of more than this man is giving you, but it is your responsibility to even things out with him. So pull back. Let him see that he can’t just get whatever he wants from you whenever he wants it. Retire into yourself a bit. Let him feel some tension. Let him wonder. Let him see that his lack of respect has consequences.

You say you are living in a small community far from home. You are isolated. You depend on this man more than you would if you had friends to confide in. So you need to make some friends. If that means breaking certain customs, by confiding things that in your tribe generally are not confided, and by on occasion denying him the pleasure of your company while you go and be among people in more equitable power relationships, so be it. In other words, branch out. Find some friends.

As to the essential question of whether to leave him in order to find a man to have a child with, that is a deep, challenging and far-reaching question I can’t presume to answer. But I do know that though you feel responsible for this man, you are not ultimately responsible for him. If you leave him, he will be OK. He will survive.

I sense that there is something deep between you and him. It is clouded and sullied by his crude lapses. That is a shame. I sense that he is not crude morally necessarily; he is a man of a certain time and he is used to getting away with certain things with women. But it is not too much to ask that he not call you Sherry, and not make crude comments to other women. It doesn’t matter whether you are there to hear it or not. You should insist that he not do this. It is disrespectful to women everywhere. It is wrong. He should be chastised when he does this.

We have a long way to go in this culture; our history of violence and subjection of peoples echoes in the present. To be a woman, an African-American and an Indian is to be thrice blessed and thrice cursed. Most blessings are also curses. This is nothing new.

So go inside yourself and be strong inside yourself. Do not give yourself away to him so freely. Let him see what he has to do. Let him see if he can make it up to you for his crude lapses, his arrogance, his pomposity. You obviously are drawn to a deeper side of him. He is not just an arrogant, pompous man. He is someone you love.

Just don’t be a sucker. Be strong. Make him work for it.


Breaking Down the Breakup (I think I should leave but I’m not sure how)


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Dear Cary,

I have been reading your letters for years, and usually I can find plenty of guidance through your responses to others. This time, I would like your thoughts directly.

I am a divorced mom of an elementary school child. I was married for a long time, and got divorced after my husband revealed years and years of extramarital affairs. It was a nightmare, but it’s been about six years now. I have rebuilt my life with much help from counselors, friends, and supportive family. I am starting to regain my professional life (I was once an incredibly high-achiever), and am used to the regular hassles of having to raise a child with a man who continues to treat me without much regard. I found much to relate to in your letter to a woman in a similar situation, and found comfort in your metaphor of a ferris wheel where everyone has turns on the highs and lows.

I do things slower than many, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I was ready to try dating. I met a lovely, sensitive, artistic man, and we’ve been through a lot together, between my wariness to date again and his health issues. We’ve struggled through because we have a lovely and deep connection. But after many ups and downs, we are parting ways. Or trying too. We have broken up a number of times, but this time at least for me, I can’t figure out any other ways forward. And I don’t think there’s anything to do about that. But I’m writing to you for your reflections because you are very insightful about these particular issues.

The man struggles with both mood issues and alcohol. He has suffered many different health problems, and has diligently trudged from doctor to doctor in search of answers, through traditional medicine, holistic health, and back to traditional medicine. He has had diagnoses of food allergies, depression, anxiety, and more recently, fibromyalgia. suffered a pretty large breakdown after his last switch between systems, and has worked hard to regain stability. He sees many different doctors regularly, is taking medicines and having his psychiatrist adjust them when problems arise. He works with a counselor, a psychiatrist, a family doctor, and a specialist. And he is working through his drinking issues, although he does not have them figured out. He has spent some time in AA, but didn’t last long there (for some semi-legitimate reasons, like a distaste for higher-power-culture, as well as for some less compelling reasons that point to him just not being ready yet).

All through our relationship, we have maintained an incredible friendship. I am so much myself with him, and I can talk to him about anything. When he is feeling well, I love thinking of our life together. But of course, he is unpredictable. He has been working at his health and well-being much longer than I’ve known him, but so many of his issues have responded to his past six months of work–but not enough that I feel confident moving forward. His drinking is a large concern for me, but is not something that I see in my daily life with him. That is, I know he struggles because he tells me so; but I am not with him when he drinks. The issue that I see most, and that is the cause for my lack of hope more directly, is his mood. When he is not feeling well, he cannot communicate effectively or, even, normally. It looks like he doesn’t know the rules for fair fights, but it turns out it is much more than that. He can’t hear what I say. He’ll be upset about something that happened two days ago, he’ll let it fester, and when we speak again, he’ll throw in kitchen sink complaints about all the things I do that drive him nuts. And there’s no speaking to him at this point, because he cannot hear. He takes anything I say in these conversations and turns all the words around. He has these problems with everyone in his life, at work, with family, with friends.

The heartbreaking part is that he knows this is a problem. He doesn’t want to be this way. He sees doctors and tries treatment and apologizes. He is a lovely, sincere person with a lot of beauty inside him, and a lot of struggles. But he doesn’t have it figured out, yet. That, and his drinking. And perhaps they are connected. We’ve hit the point in our relationship where we would move forward in some kind of larger commitment, which I can’t do under these circumstances.

My friends and family like this new man. And they also wish for something easier for me. They say things like, “He’s such a lovely fit for you, but you’ve also been through so much already. I wish it were easier.”

Cary, I’m not sure there’s any answer here beyond the one facing me, which is to continue to say no to circumstances I cannot manage. But it is heartbreaking. I find it difficult not to compare. My daughter’s father calls several times a week to talk to her, piping Facetime scenes of him and his cooing, round-faced sons into my kitchen. He has stomped on every significant relationship in his adult life, leaving a trail of heartache, debt, and lawsuits. But he is funny and charismatic. His reward? Marrying a smiling rich woman, and having babies. I see that, and then I see this man who can’t win for trying (that’s not to take away levels of personal responsibility). And I also see me–I am trying to work my way through this crap with honesty and without taking the easy way. Things are mostly fine in my life, but I have given up hope for another child, which I always wanted (I’m about to turn 40). And after this dating relationship, I feel so sad. I feel sad about the world, and how it works.

You should probably know that I am an INFJ. I realize I feel things bigger than most people.


A Possibly Dramatic Empath


Dear Possibly Dramatic Empath,

I think that this man is not suitable for you because of his many problems. I think you will need to let him go. This is not a workable relationship.

So how can I help? Maybe you need help implementing the breakup. So let’s break down the breakup.

First, whatever regular communication you have ceases. Communication changes from something you do routinely for emotional satisfaction to something you do only to tie up loose ends related to concrete commitments you have made during the relationship. That means if you feel like talking to him, don’t. That means if you have the thought that a certain performer he likes is in town and maybe he would like to go, don’t. That means if you want to explain something to him about why you feel sad it’s over or how you think he might improve, don’t. It means not communicating with him.

Second, it means physically disentanglement. If you have entangled monetary accounts and property, separate the accounts. If you owe him money, pay it; if he owe you money, collect it. Distribute or dispose of any joint property. If things he owns are left at your house return them. If things you own are at his house go and get them. Be thorough.

Third, any standing arrangements you have, such as meeting regularly at a cafe or going to the same bar: renounce them. Enact a new routine that takes you to places he doesn’t frequent. This isn’t because there’s anything traumatic or problematic about seeing him. It’s just the concrete way that a relationship is taken apart so that it no longer exists.

Often in seeking to know when a relationship is over one will wait to feel some subjective state of completion. But the relationship is not about your inner state; it is a tangible thing made up of interactions, commitments and property. You take away the interactions, commitments and property and the relationship is over.

You will still have feelings but that’s OK. You’re always going to have feelings. The important thing is to separate the feelings from the relationship. You will do better dealing with your feelings once you can deal with them as your own feelings, rather than as problems in the relationship.

I wonder if you will feel guilty. You might. I know you’d like to help him. The sad fact is that you can’t. Al-Anon is useful for that. It is also useful to take stock of both your inclinations to help others and your history of helping others and being victimized by them, starting with your ex-husband. Al-Anon can help you with that as well. We, the readers of your letter, don’t know exactly what happened but it is clear that he deceived you for years. So one thing you will need to do in the future is enact security precautions: In relationships with men, insist on knowing what the ground rules are. If it is supposed to be an exclusive relationship, be like an arms inspector: demand proof. That may sound crazy but it is simple logic: A man you knew intimately deceived you regularly for years. His deceptions were probably discoverable. Unless he was a trained spy with excellent trade-craft, his deceptions were discoverable. There was a trail. You didn’t see it because you didn’t look hard enough for it. Had you proceeded on the assumption that men regularly deceive women, you would have discovered it. So let that experience form the basis for a new, less trusting, more security-conscious practice regarding men and sex.

I’ll bet your ex-husband is some kind of narcissist or sociopath. So try not to date a narcissist. Try not to date a sociopath. If you’re not sure, ask up front. Say, “Excuse me, but before we date, can you tell me: Are you a narcissist, or a sociopath? Do you routinely lie to women to manipulate them into sleeping with you and then hide your other affairs from them for years just so you can feel powerful and in control? Because if so, maybe I’m not your gal.” Now, I know that sounds silly, and the narcissist or sociopath of course will act baffled and confused, or maybe compassionate and understanding, but the relationship won’t go very far. He will decide that you’re not the woman for him. Some non-sociopathic guys will just think you’re too weird, but some will find it interesting and will want to know more.

Also try not to date anyone who has a problem with alcohol.

That is my advice to you: Break up with this man completely. Visit Al-Anon at least six times, enough times to really be able to decide if it can be helpful to you. And exercise some security measures with men.




Is my boyfriend the enemy?

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Dear Cary,

I am writing to you because I feel like I have landed myself in a situation where it is impossible for me to maintain either my happiness or my integrity, and I am hoping that you will be able to give some firm yet sympathetic advice.  I have often read your column when it was in Salon and I feel like if anyone has the right perspective on both matters of the heart and the movement, it is you.

For the last two years I have been an apprentice labor organizer with a union that represents hospitality workers, organizing the hotel that I currently work at as a restaurant host.  Although the work is extremely rewarding, it is also emotionally taxing.  For a long time I learned to deal with the pressures of the job on my own, relying on my network of friends and my own capability for self-renewal.  However, approximately three months ago I started dating a man who used to be a very well-liked cook at my hotel but was fired nine months ago because the chef felt threatened by his popularity — really.  In fact, I have organized a lot of my co-workers in part by retelling my boyfriend’s story. In the time since my now-boyfriend left the hotel we continued seeing each other at parties and went from work acquaintances to friends to lovers.  

Maybe this sounds naive, but I have never been in love like this before.  My boyfriend is a generous, creative, brilliant, charismatic, loving person, who challenges me, listens to me, supports me, and respects me.  He makes me feel safe and valued, and I hope I make him feel the same way.  We have already talked tentatively about a future together.  Something just feels right, and to be honest, I want to marry this man.

After we got together he started looking for a better job, saying he wanted to start saving more money for a house.  His English is not perfect, so I helped write a résumé and he got a call-back to be a head chef at a local nursing home.  We were ecstatic.

The evening after his interview he talked to me about the job, his soon-to-be boss, and everything that had happened that day for hours like a little kid after the first day of school.  Then he took out his interviewer’s business card and I saw the name of the company that was to be his direct employer: a sub-contractor that is public enemy #1 of the union.  

My boyfriend is going to be THE head chef in a kitchen for a non-union company that we might organize against in the near future!  It is my personal goal to eventually leave the hotel and become a staff organizer in my city — I love organizing workers and it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.  Although it is extremely unlikely, I might have to organize against him some day! Is this a definite deal breaker?  Am I overreacting?  Do I have to tell my lead organizer about my boyfriend’s new job?  She will go crazy.  Do they have a right to shut me out?  Should I stop organizing for love?  Should I try to get hired at a different union?

Part of me feels like I am obligated to leave him, but I also feel like I have a right to my own happiness and being with him is integral to that.  He and I kind of laughed off the situation and have made jokes about how we are enemies, but I have downplayed how much the situation is a serious conflict for me. I am so happy for my boyfriend but so sad for myself and the future of our relationship. My heart is broken.  What do I do?

Fight or Flight


Dear Fight or Flight,

Your boyfriend is not your enemy. Your boyfriend is just another worker trying to get by. He is a worker pursuing his livelihood in an unregulated labor market. What is he to do? Regulate the labor market himself? Absent himself from this job? His refusal to take this job would have no effect on the central reality. All it would do is put some other schmuck in the job.

What is needed in union work is profound respect for the choices each worker faces. So for now, sit tight. And think. Think about what this means. Working through hard contradictions like this will make you a better organizer.

What is integrity? Integrity is what you maintain in contradiction and complexity. Cops, teachers, lawyers, organizers, workers, artists all face contradictions. The ability to face them and work through them is integrity. The ability not to make black-and-white decisions is integrity. Think of somebody like Martin Luther King, Jr. Was his world simple? Was Walter Reuther’s world simple?

The way to progress is by respecting workers’ rights as independent people. We workers are not pawns to be pushed around either by management or by unions. We are individuals. Our passions are our own. Our passions are holy. Our likes and dislikes, our sexual interests and pleasures, our preferences in food and clothing, our private intellectual interests, our taste in music and architecture, our favorite names for each other, our jokes, the things we dream, these are the realm of the sacred human. No state, no union, boss or government has any business there. The business of business and government is to secure the concrete conditions for life so that life can be lived freely. That is all. They have no business in our personal lives.

The union exists to give workers power in negotiating material conditions. Wages, working hours, benefits, grievance procedures, hiring policies and the like are material matters. They are material and thus can be adjudicated and negotiated.

Romantic relationships are different. They are in the realm of the sacred and the ineffably human, that realm not reducible to work hours and wages, nor to political beliefs.

So as a practical matter and also as a matter of conscience, I suggest you do not tell your superiors in the union or anyone else about your boyfriend’s economic relationships. Where he gets his money is his business, not theirs. Questions of whether they might benefit from knowing, or whether the union might benefit from knowing, are moot. It is none of their business. It is his private life and your relationship with him is your private life.

Should they find out and believe it is relevant to your union work, then you may have a serious difference of opinion with your union boss, serious enough to warrant making a break with him or her and, if her views reflect union policy, a break with that union.

Living with integrity means risking your reputation. Unthinking, unreflective people will jump to conclusions. True believers will jump to conclusions. It may help you clarify your ideas by writing out a workable set of principles regarding your personal friendships and your union activism. Think it through. Test your ideas and your ideals and your feelings against each other.

Here is one thought-test: What if the union had a rule that no union members may have private friendships with non-union workers? What would that say about the union? It would say the union had usurped authority in an area of life that is not its proper concern, making it quasi-totalitarian.

As Hannah Arendt said, “For Nazism, all history is the history of race struggle; and, for Marxism, all history is the history of class struggle.” For some union workers, one might add, all history is the history of labor.

So I think you are on solid ground arguing that, in the first place, your boyfriend’s place of work is his private concern and, in the second place, all union workers must respect individual rights and learn to manage complexity and contradiction.

Life is holy. Life is mysterious. Life is non-ideological.

Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.

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Cary Tennis' Finishing SchoolNewsletter_NEW_Dec13


We fight like crazy but I love her



Hello Cary,

I’ve been reading your columns for a year or so. In fact, it was my ex who introduced me to your column. She also introduced me to lots of other wonderful things, like the benefits of going for a walk in the woods and how therapy can be helpful to people who don’t particularly think they need it.

I loved her and I do love her. She is beautiful, and she is in love with being alive. She is talented and self-motivated. She is affectionate and tender-hearted. She expresses her feelings in an unselfconscious way that I’ve never seen before or since. She is a wonderful human being. The thing is, we just didn’t work. Our now-ended relationship was fraught with conflicts and disappointments, but now that it seems to be over, all I can think of is when–that’s when, not if–we’ll get back together and how we can fix things when that happens. How can I stop thinking this way?

We’ve broken up and gotten back together before. Even after I moved out this last time, we’ve seen each other for no less than 3 separate periods, which were always bittersweet and beautiful, and ultimately abruptly ended. She would text when someone she knew passed, or I would see her at a music festival and call her sounding like the saddest boy who ever lived, and we would see each other again for a time. This most recent time, she broke her foot and I spent about 3 weeks taking care of her, and our tentative “I love you’s” and nervous closed mouth kisses break my heart to think about them now.

The way that ended was when we talked about how something of mine was still left in her apartment. She asked me to come get them, and we set a time for this. I recently received a promotion of sorts at work, with increased responsibilities, a change in hours, and a raft of new people to help train. A couple of these people were my own friends whom I had referred to the position. I really want to keep this job and be perceived as a valuable presence, so I’ve probably been working too hard and taking on too much responsibility in order to make an impression. Between the long hours of work (and worrying about work when I wasn’t there), recent car troubles, and taking care my ex, I felt really worn out the day before I was supposed to go get my things. I texted her to reschedule. She asked why I was canceling so suddenly, and I explained, to which she responded that she didn’t like that I had time for everything and everyone else but not for her. She mentioned that I’m working so hard to make sure everything goes right in my life, but don’t have time to clean up the messes I left her with. I ended up telling her that she can’t lay this guilt trip on me considering how much I have helped her lately, and told her to leave me alone. She was on the mend and in much better shape than when she initially hurt herself, so I thought it was “right” for me to assert my needs and tell someone who was bringing me down to leave me alone. I haven’t heard from her since.

Keep in mind, I was just asking to reschedule, not trying to cancel. I really just wanted a day of rest. This was how many many many of our fights would play out. It’s like we don’t even hear each other. I think, now, in retrospect, that though her words were saying that I was inconsiderate and selfish, the meaning was that she was lonely and needed reassurances from me.

The thing is, even if we talked again and I approached her with this knowledge in the back of my head, I think it would eventually descend into the same situation. Because I’ve been there before, again and again. Even so, I can’t help but want her, and miss her, and feel like I abandoned her. I can’t help but think about the time we read one of your advice columns together, where you urged someone in a bad relationship to stick it out. The metaphor you used was of a partially-constructed house, and how, if they left now, they’d be driving by that half-built home every day for the rest of their life, never knowing what it would’ve been like when it was completed.

She is genuinely one of the most caring, understanding, and loving people I have ever known. Each fight–and there were many–felt shocking and surprising. The speed at which we would distance ourselves from each other makes my head spin just to think about it. I know that we didn’t work together, but I feel like if I just accept that we will never work, that we can never be together, I will fall apart. So I go day to day anticipating the time when we will, by some magic, be together and happy, because the alternative reality is too harsh for me to bear. I’m driving by our half-built house thinking “it’s almost finished” and ignoring the fact that the budget is depleted, the workers have all fled, and that each day that I’ve seen it since construction ended it has fallen further in on itself. I don’t want to think this way. I want to be realistic. I know that if I hang onto this hope, I only set myself up for even more crushing disappointments. Help!

It’s Still Good


Dear It’s Still Good,

Yes, it’s possible that this pattern will happen again. But it’s also possible to change what you do when this pattern emerges, to acquire a repertoire of words you can say that is well-learned enough that you can access it when you are stressed and upset, and then taking a minute to think of what to say before you lash out. It’s about being extra considerate.

What happened is behavior. Behavior can change. You can’t stop the emotions but you can learn to avoid escalating; you can learn to give when giving is the only thing that will work.

Wow, that’s a nice metaphor you remember. It is relevant. Because you bring to the relationship a set of stuff that is good enough to start with but it’s not enough to complete the relationship. You have to learn new behaviors specific to this person and this relationship. That includes learning to navigate through these difficult situations when each of you is at a low point and each of you needs something from the other and neither of you feels like it’s right that you should be the one to give in. One of you has to give in. One of you has to be selfless and not get what you want for the time being. In this conversation on the phone with her, in my opinion, that person was you.

You have to hurt for her sometimes. That’s as blunt as I can be. She will make you hurt. You have to be the bigger one at that point and accept the hurt. Until she herself learns to moderate her own selfish needs, you will have to be the one who hurts. That’s the price of keeping her.

Maybe you don’t want to pay that price. That’s up to you. What I’m saying is that it’s within your power to keep this relationship, and keep her, if you can just put your feelings and your pride aside now and then and meet her emotional needs, however unreasonable and ill-timed they may seem.

Yes, you were tired and yes more than anything in the world you wanted things to go your way and they didn’t. Yes, you needed some attention and you weren’t going to get it from her. Yes, it sucked. But that’s how relationships are sometimes. You were both at a low point and you were both needy and one of you was not going to get what you wanted.

It was unfair and will be unfair in the future. It’s not going to even out. When she’s low, she’s maybe not going to make the noble gesture just to make you feel better.

But you can learn to shift gears and buck up. You can ask her to hold on and then you can take a deep breath and think it through and let your emotions settle. You can say, “OK, I understand this is a disappointment and you know what? I don’t want to disappoint you. I love you and I want you to be happy. I do have a lot to do and it is a little inconvenient but I am coming over and I am bringing flowers.”

Or something like that.–ct