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My dad left us because he is gay

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 22, 2005

Why did he spend 18 years with my mom? Did he know all along, or what?


Dear Cary,

Two months ago my dad moved out of the house. For about two years he has been depressed and then he started to have a drinking problem. My mom tried everything. They decided to go to a marriage counselor but my dad didn’t like therapy. All he did was yell at the counselor and tell her that he did not have a problem and that he was not depressed.

Once my dad moved out he was much happier and calmer. With him here it was like walking on pins and needles. The week he left he called every day and then he called three to four times a week. I was confused. If he left then shouldn’t he just leave and not call to see what was going on? He didn’t check in while he was here, so why was he doing it now? He has been gone for two months now and it is so much better here. Me, my mom and my sister are much happier. But when my dad moved out my mom had not worked for 16 years. So she had to find a job and now has a full-time job but she doesn’t earn much money.

It has been really hard for me to adjust to all of these changes but I have managed. But two days ago my mom sat me and my little sister down and told us that she had to be honest with us about something. She said that she and my dad were getting a divorce and that it was not just because of his depression or his drinking. It was because she could not stay married to a gay man. My mom figured this out four months ago but it took her this long to tell me and my sister. They have been married for 18 years. Did he not know that he was gay? If he did know, then why did he get married to my mom? Was he just trying to make it go away? What was he doing? Why now?

Confused Child

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Dear Confused Child,

Those are good questions. I will attempt to answer them. But first I have a question for you: When you ask an adult a question, do you sometimes find that they don’t really answer it, that they talk about something else that you hadn’t brought up, which you weren’t even thinking about or don’t care about?

I seem to remember that happening to me when I was a child. When I asked an adult a question I had generally thought it through. I knew what I was asking. I wanted an answer. But often I was not taken seriously. Sometimes my questions were complicated, and I was often misunderstood. But I was not looking for sympathy or hugs. I was looking for answers. So I will attempt to answer your questions.

Yes, it’s possible that when your father married your mother he did not know he was gay. He may have felt he was a heterosexual man who had occasional homosexual feelings. As you suggest, he may have thought that getting married would make the homosexual feelings go away.

Why now? Well, as you will find out as you get older, the longer one lives with a truth, the more difficult it is to resist it. It’s as though you were holding up a wall. It becomes more and more tiring. You finally give in and let the wall come down.

So why did he call so much after he left? I can think of some reasons. One, of course, is that he loves you. The sound of your voice makes him happy. Also, he wants to continue to contribute to your well-being. Moving out doesn’t change that. Some people might say he feels guilty and is seeking forgiveness. That may be part of it. But it’s not your job right now to forgive him. You may be too angry at him to forgive him or even to want to speak to him. But if he is trying to be helpful, if he is inquiring as to your well-being, it’s OK to talk to him and tell him how you are.

You also ask why, if he’s going to go, he doesn’t simply go and not bother you? It’s a good question. It would simplify things if he were simply gone. But you would probably start to miss him, too, if he never called. It’s better this way, even though it may be upsetting to hear from him right now, because you don’t want to get into the habit of never talking to him.

For you, having to talk to him is probably a lot of work right now. It requires you to come up with a new way of relating to him. But if I were you, I would try to force myself to talk to him, to keep up the habit. You will probably find, as time goes on, that you settle into a new relationship with him and bit by bit you become glad to hear from him. What makes it hard right now, I’m guessing, is the way all your emotions well up when he calls. You may feel angry and sad all at once. You may feel things of an intensity and complexity that you haven’t ever felt before, and that may be frightening to you. It may feel as though you are getting a little crazy. Intense emotions will do that even to the strongest person. But that’s all right; then they pass and you are the same as you were. Your emotions won’t hurt you. They are not your enemy. In fact, if you look at them as a source of strength, they will help you get through this.

I have tried to answer your questions as clearly as I can, without adding a bunch of nonsense. Even so, I have probably said more than I needed to. It’s hard to avoid doing that. The important thing to remember is that your father still loves you, and things will get better. You can depend on that.

 

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It’s not my fault

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 19, 2003

I want my husband to write a letter to my future lovers, telling them that the demise of our marriage was his fault.


Dear Cary,

I don’t always agree with you, but I do think you are compassionate and nonjudgmental, two of the most important characteristics for an advice columnist.

Now that I’ve buttered you up, I’m wondering if you can help me. I caught my husband cheating on me (e-mail love letter) a few months after we were married. We had dated for almost four years and were trying to have a baby. I left immediately and he was virtually unrepentant, ready to stay with his new flame, and I swear he acted cheerful, as if I was a worker he had to let go and he wanted to make our unfortunate, yet inevitable, parting of ways as pleasant and professional as possible. I was devastated even more by his callousness than by the shock of seeing the words “I love you” written to another woman. Although that was horrible enough.

Well, here I am four months after this incident and still trying to get over the shock. Then last week, on the phone, he told me his therapist thinks that, because his first wife cheated on him years ago and because his boss/friend died soon before we began dating, he had never really dealt with his grief and therefore started dating me to make me happy, I guess in an effort to avoid dealing with his grief. He said he was just a nice guy who told me he loved me because he wanted to make me happy while subconsciously he was really confused and unhappy. And that our trips to Europe and living together and him proposing on his knees was done to make me happy, while “subconsciously” he was really miserable.

Cary, you’ll have to believe me when I say that he didn’t act like he was miserable. We never fought and rarely argued. I’m considered a good person by all who know me. I’m good-looking — people used to tease him that I was too good for him. Friends and family thought I was great and encouraged our marriage. Our sex life was fine, mostly comfortable but we had our moments up to the end. He liked to flirt, but it was more like joking like a seventh-grader — not very sexual. But he was otherwise stable and I never thought he’d cross the line since he was cheated on by his first wife and knew how that felt. Plus he was always telling me how much he loved me, how lucky he was to have me.

I’m in therapy now for the trauma and even my therapist thinks that it is unusual to come across someone so self-deluded and willing to lie. She doesn’t even see the need to explore my part in the breakup since it is so obviously one-sided. I’m not saying I was perfect but I was trying. I had just committed to make a life with this person while he was off starting something new.

So here’s the thing. I feel like this guy ruined my life, and I want compensation. What I want is for him to write me a sort of reference letter that I can show to future lovers. In it I want him to admit that he was mentally messed up, or whatever, that I am a great person, and that the demise of our marriage was entirely his fault. That he lied to me from start to finish, knowingly or not. I’m afraid that without such proof I’m doomed to look crazy, stupid, or otherwise deserving of such treatment when I tell a prospective boyfriend that my husband cheated on me immediately after marrying me. I feel like I’ve been preyed on by a sexual predator, that he isn’t being punished, and that I have to suffer for being his victim for the rest of my life.

Did you ever read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”? There’s a part where a guy jilts his betrothed and her father makes him write a public letter admitting his guilt to save her reputation. The story portrays this act as useless and desperate. Is what I’m asking my “husband” to do a waste of time?

More Sinned Against Than — Anything

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Dear Sinned Against,

I am so sorry for what you have gone through. It must have been a terrible shock. I think your idea of getting your husband to write this letter shows that you have a good sense of humor, and I understand the lure of this idea. You have been wronged, and it is natural to want justice. But your quest for justice in this case has a tragicomic aspect to it that I think should warn you away from following through with it. That is, such a letter, if framed, could hang in your office. You could also make copies to hand out to your family and to people you date, and to maitre d’s, store clerks, cab drivers and hairdressers. Should you be arrested, convicted and sent to prison, you could request that it be among the few personal items you are allowed to keep with you in your cell. Should you be sentenced to death, you can, as a last request, read it aloud to those assembled in the execution chamber.

Do you see what I mean? You would only be inviting ridicule of yourself by pursuing such a solution. However understandable an impulse, it is a metaphor, a fantasy. I would suggest instead that you focus on concrete things that you can do, right now, to make life a little better while you live through the shock and grief of this event and try to get on with the rest of your life.

Another way to look at it is that by concentrating on having him do something, you are putting the power for your recovery in the hands of someone who does not have your best interests at heart. You need to concentrate on you, not him. Forget about him. Banish him from your life. He’s dead to you, OK? So stop talking to him on the telephone.
When I say you should concentrate on you, not on him, it may seem that I am implying that you are the guilty party. You’re not the guilty party. But you’re the only one who can recover from what happened to you; you’re the only one who can use what happened to become a better, wiser, stronger person. However blameless you are in his infidelity, your part in this event is the only part that matters now. If your therapist isn’t helping you explore that, I can’t imagine what you’re paying for. A therapist is not someone you hire to prove that you were right. Tell your therapist you want to explore your part in this matter, in order to find some deeper meaning in it. If your therapist doesn’t seem to understand what you mean, I would look for a professional who will help you do that. If you interrogate yourself deeply, with the aid of a therapist, you may learn something invaluable.

For instance, you might discover with some surprise just how very much the judgments of others matter to you. That might be why you fantasize about this exonerating affidavit. It might explain why you mention my being “nonjudgmental” as a qualifying characteristic (which, incidentally, if I may be so bold, kind of ticked me off! I guess you were kidding around, and perhaps I’m a little thin-skinned, but it put me on the defensive). And so you might then explore the role of judgment in your past and future life. It may be that your concern with judgment led you to overlook some things about this man’s character. It might also be leading you to overlook things in yourself. Judging may at times be a way of walling off something in yourself, some dark force, something in yourself you don’t approve of that you need to have power over.

As you explore the role of judging in your life, you may find that you have been using it to hold certain things at bay; you may want to explore new arts that affect you in unexpected ways. There is a rich world of emotion, of blood and sacrifice, of terror and darkness, of ecstasy and abandon, of rage, of passion, of laughter, roiling right below the surface of our daily lives; much of it is neither right nor wrong. If you can bring yourself to acknowledge these things, you may find both relief and a new kind of power that lies in the acceptance of the morally ambiguous.

If you can get some distance on your longing for retribution, your feeling that you’ve been sinned against, and your need for punishment and exoneration, you can be less driven by them and perhaps use them to your benefit. They can drive you crazy, but they can also be powerful attributes if you develop them consciously. They might even lead you to your life’s calling. Perhaps you belong in the realm of justice, as a prosecutor perhaps, or an investigator, or working on behalf of an idealistic organization such as Human Rights Watch.

You mentioned sin. I don’t know if that means you are a religious person, but if you are a Christian, for instance, you know the job of judging your ex-husband is already taken care of. You needn’t fear that the judging won’t get done. It will get done. Just not by you. Therein, too, you may find a kind of relief. Let it go, the whole need to judge him. Let God judge him.

So, reluctant and equivocating judge that I am, my final verdict is: Join an African dance class. Sit in a mud bath. Swim. Take peyote. Buy a dog. Get a therapist who won’t just take your money and tell you that you were right all along. And don’t talk to your ex on the telephone.

Good luck.

 

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Only later did I find out he was cheating

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Dear Cary -

My ex and I divorced 7 years ago.  He instigated it. Although I knew he was dissatisfied with where he was at in life, it completely took me by surprise that he was unhappy enough in the relationship to want out. After he said he wanted to split, I went into fix-it mode, asking him for couples counseling (he went to two sessions and dismissed it), tried to get him to explain what, exactly, he was unhappy with, and tried to work with him to figure out what we as couple could do to change things.  After 14 years together, it seemed unthinkable that he would just throw in the towel. It became clear that all he wanted was out, so I acquiesced, and we split up. I kept the drama to a minimum, figuring that if he really didn’t want to be with me, I’d be better off without him. I never understood why he became so unhappy in the relationship, and spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to understand what I had done — or not done — to let my marriage get “that bad”.  Several months after the divorce was negotiated, my ex got together with a woman he had been friends with while he and I were together.  He later married her.  We both moved on.

Fast forward to the summer before last.  My ex’s best friend (with whom I remained on good terms with) found out that his own wife had been cheating. This unhappy situation compelled him to tell me that my ex had, in fact, been cheating on me with the woman my ex subsequently married.  Apparently, this affair had been going on for “years” before my ex and I separated.  The best friend “just thought I should know what really went on”.   And then he requested that my ex not know that he revealed this secret.

Well.

This information explains a lot of my ex’s behavior during the divorce — why he was so dead set on leaving, why he never could give me an explanation I could understand for his dissatisfaction, and why there seemed to be no solution he was willing to try. It wasn’t a total shock to me — I had wondered if something like that was going on after I learned this woman and my ex had gotten together — although at the time he broke our relationship off, I had no reason to think that he was having an affair at all, much less with her (she lived in another country where my ex occasionally went on business, and was married herself).  When I asked at the time if there was anyone else, he flatly stated that there wasn’t. I believed him.

So, Cary, it’s been a year and a half, and the information continues to eat at me.  I feel betrayed, hurt, angry … but there is no recourse, nowhere for that anger to go.  I haven’t spoken to my ex in five years. (I wanted nothing further to do with him after the divorce was final, even before this revelation). Our lives are completely separate, and most of my friends and family aren’t in contact with him anymore. I can’t go back to him now and call him on his behavior.  Had I known at the time, I would have done the divorce much differently — not legally, but emotionally. I would have had no qualms whatsoever about it. Friends and family would have known that this was why we were splitting. As it is, he cheated and lied and got away with it — there were no repercussions for him, and he got exactly what he wanted.  This makes me seethe, and there is nothing I can do about it.

I’ve boxed it up as best I can, just tried not to go there lest I be consumed with all the negative emotion. The anger and hurt is still there, though, popping into my consciousness when it’s not wanted, like a slow-acting poison that builds up to the point where it causes harm, and I have to actively contain it again. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t want it to be there a year, five years, ten years from now.  I just want to come to terms with it, somehow, and move on — this time for good.

How do I deal with his affair, now that the deed has long since been done?

Found Out Too Late

P.S. I can’t tell you how much your writing has meant to me — I’ve been reading your wisdom for years.  You’ve helped so many. Thank you, for all you do.

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Found Out Too Late,

When I used to write an advice column five days a week for a salary I would sit down at the desk and I would spend hours thinking about other people’s lives. I would pour my heart into it. That was the difference between the column I wrote and many other advice columns that were written more from an practical, problem-solving position. My aesthetic and moral challenge during that time was to full enter into a person’s situation emotionally, morally and spiritually. And the writing you refer to resulted from that. I did it that way because I knew that what I had been offered was a rare opportunity for a writer of some rather strange but sincere tastes and drives to work in a popular format on a large stage.

That has changed. I do not want to enter into the grinding outrage you must feel. I do not want to go there. To tell the truth, there were many times writing the column in the past when I didn’t want to go there either, but I did go there because it was my job and my commitment to a vast audience; I could sense the audience out there beyond the footlights and I suited up and Salon paid my salary and for that time it made sense. Now I am back to scrambling for an income and thinking about what I will do without savings, without a pension, without a job. I am back to hustling.

So why am I involving my own life in this reply? Because things have changed for me, too, and I have decided that I must write this column differently, that I must face the fact that things have changed, and because your letter is about change. Things are always changing. That sounds really banal. The disturbing and difficult truth I actually wish to convey is that having lost the job at Salon I no longer have the motivation I would once have felt, to go deeply into your emotional state, as I would have before, in order to come up with the things I used to come up with. Indeed, I am relating to you as a person, as a flawed person, as a person who has lost some things too, not that what I have lost is at all comparable to what you have lost, but while relating to you as a person I am also resisting, and I wonder if readers will sense that.I am resisting the kind of exhausting emotional commitment I used to make on a daily basis. I am also resisting the shallow platitudes that might result if I did not level with you. This column is going to be different now.

Also, I am trying something new: I am not trying so hard to be a saint. When I was writing the column I got a bit of a saint complex. I was always trying so hard to be good! Did you sense it? Did you sense this person—me—sort of trying to be a saint, as though if I did a good enough job I would be absolved of my sins or I would receive the attention I desire or as though that gaping spiritual wound I carry would heal? I know that certain wise people would sense that, would sense that I was using the writing as a kind of therapy or spiritual solution when other more sensible and pertinent solutions were more readily available and more effective (pay attention to the people in my life, exercise, pray, meditate). And I myself sensed it. I sensed that sometimes the column was neither important writing nor sound spiritual practice but a kind of pretend world, because I was relating to people I would never meet on the front porch or at a taco stand, would never see smile, would never talk to, and so I was not getting what I really needed, which was to be in an actual community of people, on the street, under the sun, breathing the same air.

I was also aware that the relationship between me and writers of letters, though I worked against this consciously, sometimes took on the air of a kind of false therapy; I was aware at times that I would pretend to be a therapist, when I was nothing of the kind. Of course I always protested that this was just writing. And it still is. In fact, more than ever, this is just a writer finding a way to work out his own thoughts and emotions in a certain literary form.

I sense that even saying this is a kind of transgression, and that people may leave, may abandon me or say that what I am doing in replying in this way is bullshit. But this is my new program.

OK. Enough of that. You wrote for advice. I can give you some very practical advice, which I feel wholeheartedly is correct and useful: Get into a regular program of psychotherapy with someone who is really, really good and intuitive. Don’t just get some bullshit therapist who gives you platitudes. That won’t help. Here’s a good test. Go to a therapist for an initial consultation for free, you know, that 20-minute conversation or phone conversation or something that they will usually do before the “mutual decision” is made to have a client-therapist relationship. I mean, they usually do that, don’t they? That’s how I usually have found therapists. So, in this initial conversation, what I’m suggesting is—and I wish at times that I had done this—ask yourself if this therapist is telling you anything you didn’t already know. Because some therapists are amazingly intuitive and also sort of vibe with you, recognize you, see you. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better than others: They’re just right for you. They’re able to see you. They get your Zeitgeist. Others will not get you, and you will spend fruitless weeks going over the same stuff and not getting anywhere. So make your search for the right therapist your journey. Talk to at least five.

If you do that, if you find one who can tell you some things you didn’t know, then you can burrow into this grinding resentment and start to take it apart and see how it relates to other experiences of abandonment and betrayal and you can begin to untangle things.

That’s a very simple solution. It boils down to “Get a good therapist.” But it is also about me writing about my life and my own difficulties, which I have determined to do now, in this new phase of my life.

In the process of being newly honest in this column I am learning things. I am learning that I am afraid of offending people. I am afraid of offending you. I do not want to offend you. I want to get to a place where the normal social niceties do not apply, where we are communicating strictly from an honest perspective. Yet I am afraid of hurting your feelings and I feel this urge to reassure you. So I am seeing how that has worked in the rest of my life, too, how I have been afraid to offend people and so have not really listened for the truth, sometimes, or wanted to believe their facile lies because I did not want to really dig for the truth. And also I have learned that really bad things do happen, and they do bring us down to our knees, that it is amazing and surprising just how fully we can be stopped, stunned, whatever you want to call it, and I don’t want to get into clichéd metaphors to suggest the intensity of emotional experiences, but you know what I mean. I’m saying Yes, this is the human experience: We get shit on and it takes a long time to get over it.

So you must find reassurance in your own life, by finding the help of the right therapist. And I could go into all the millions of reasons it should be a therapist but that would just be saying thing I’ve said over and over. If people say Well, therapy doesn’t work sometimes I would say, What else is there? What else is there, what other comfort, whatever other process of searching is there. Sure, there are others. There are churches and ashrams and all kinds of things. But this is the secular West. This is what we have. If there is something else, then throw yourself into it. Maybe there is something else. Maybe there is a God. Maybe there is a regular support group. I just think that the kind of concentrated, ongoing encounter with your deepest feelings and memories good therapy provides, and the conscious search for meaning and patterns in your past experiences, is the way to go.

I wish you luck. I feel for you. I feel the same anger and disappointment you feel. That’s another reason, I guess, that I initially resist fully entering into the spirit of your experience. I don’t want to feel it. It certainly doesn’t feel good. I certainly feel certain things about how he was able to lie to you all that time. I do think that such things are damaging, and that he was damaging you, and that it was wrong, that you deserved to know the truth and that if there is some kind of justice for such transgressions that it should be done. I do feel that, on your behalf and also on behalf of society in general: That we do not need to know everything all the time and that secrets are occasionally necessary, but when it comes right down to it, as it did in this case, and you needed to know, he should have told you. So I get why you are upset.

Maybe you want revenge, too. That wouldn’t be surprising. The actual taking of revenge is problematic, but maybe you will hear of some disappointment or misfortune he has had, and maybe you will feel a little satisfaction. Good for you. He fucked you over. Nothing wrong with a little schadenfreude, to remind you that there is some justice in the universe.

So look what happened. I got into the spirit of it anyway. I’m glad you stuck with me. Journalistic practice teaches us to do away with the throat-clearing and get immediately to the substance. But in my new process I am going to leave the throat-clearing in; I am going to be honest about my initial feelings and let us see, together, how those feelings change as we move through the subject together. So now I am outraged and I am feeling some of what you must be feeling. But I can’t stay with that. I’m working on a book. I have to go now.

Get some help. Treat this as a real issue. Don’t expect it to just go away. Treat this as an opportunity to explore your past, to really find some wisdom. Your life will go better if you do. You’ll see how this experience fits in your life and you’ll learn from it and you’ll be stronger and will feel better.

That’s my advice, for what it’s worth.

 

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My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday, JUL 21, 2003

What do I owe him?


Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses

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Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.France_Ad_fix

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I need support from my brothers in a messy divorce

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Hi Cary,

Your column spoke to a writer’s heart. It encouraged. It gave strength. It had passion and power.

It would be lovely if you would continue to offer advice.

That said, I need some support and advice. I’m in the midst of a contentious divorce. Friends started telling me several months ago that this was bad before I realized how the situation had deteriorated. How this divorce was not just another breakup, but a Shakespearean-level tragedy.

Collateral damage is beginning to pile up as my spouse (well, it is my view of this) gathers the orcs for her raids. To give some idea of her mindset, she had an order of protection placed on me when this started. It was vacated and recently when she attempted to have me arrested, a witness was present who was able to tell the police, “He didn’t do any of the things she claims.”

Okay, she lied to get the OP. But here is the kicker. Following that initial OP among the first calls she made was to my daughter, crowing how I’d been kicked out of the house (my daughter was also removed from the house as a result of the OP, not legally, but in fact).

Among the casualties are the relationships with my brothers.

There is a concept when relationships like these go sour to blame the victim. I’ve heard, several times now, “You ought to make up with your brother.” These souls treat me as the issue. I’m to blame for what has happened.

I won’t bore you with this. Let’s summarize this as I wake in the morning, look myself in the mirror and I feel damn good about myself. My brother? He is offering protection to a predator. And, no it isn’t my wife.

More collateral damage appeared this week. The divorce has been going on for eight months. In that time I’ve spoken to my second brother once, maybe twice.

This week I needed some emotional support. I made the mistake of calling on the second brother. Our discussion had nothing to do with the family. I was asking for professional advice on dealing with my attorney. My brother is nationally known for mediation and recently retired from the bench.

He quickly started in on me. I was to blame for not getting a prenup. I was to blame because I can’t articulate why there are bells and whistles in my head when I’m asked to work with a vendor suggested by my divorce attorney. I was to blame because I was asking for advice and he had only a few minutes to consider his answer. (Ummm… eight months and two phone calls in the midst of a contentious divorce?)

I stopped him finally and said, “Why am I to blame here? Why can’t you just accept the feeling in my gut? I’m calling for emotional support. I don’t see a lot of it.”

At that point he hung up. I was upset, but not yelling or angry. I was under assault and I had to stop him. My defense was reasonable and within the boundary of normal given the offense. And that statement above? That was the extent of my protest.

Nevertheless, I’ll be blamed as being angry and confrontational.

There are a few ways to deal with this as I see it. Maybe you can help me see additional ways? I’m thinking a handwritten note that lays out that I need emotional support, not blame, is in order. But writers, we can be so snarky can’t we? ;)

I could also walk away, as I’ve always done. I walk away and I seethe in anger. That seems a mistake.

Or, I could write that letter (or this letter). Put them aside and know that this brother is a detached jerk. That I asked for too much from him. Anything I say (or not say for that matter) confirms to him and others that I’m the problem.

Jump, if you want Cary, to the idea that I was the family vessel that received the blame. It would be true. Jump to to the understanding that this is a family of survivors of alcoholism.

There is a policy for dealing with family turds like this that I located on the web. It is called ‘state occasions only.‘ I like that idea.

And, I like summarizing the situation like this: my brother (1) is an ass who threw me under the bus to protect a predator and brother (2) we’re just distant.

Your thoughts?

Patrick

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Dear Patrick,

What you need is support. You’re not going to get it from your brother. But you can find it in lots of places. I suggest you set out to find the healthy support that you need.

It will help to have a clear picture of what this support is. It isn’t exactly the same as being told you are right, or were right in your decisions. But it’s being affirmed as a human being with rights and feelings. It is the kind of support found most often in 12-step groups, men’s groups, and in private sessions with therapists.

Your relationships with your individual family members is a separate issue. Do not go to them for support. There are many reasons for this. The most basic is that you’re not going to get the support you need from them. So it’s illogical to go to them. Beyond that, going to them exacerbates the problem because it brings up deep emotion rooted in family history.

In order to stop going to your brothers for support you may first need to understand first why you are doing it, when it’s not the best thing. You are probably doing it because of a lifelong wish to fix something, to have things the way they ought to be, the way they were supposed to be. So in order to stop going to your brothers for support you may have to accept the fact, in a deep way, not only that you come from an alcoholic household, but deeper than that: You’ve been hurt by this and suffered loss, and it is not recoverable. You have to accept the loss. You have to grieve. Now, it may be too painful to grieve. It may feel as though your entire world, your future, your self, was bound up in that dream of having the family work the way it was supposed to—i.e., having brothers you could turn to in times of distress.

That’s a very sad thing. It’s sadder than just knowing you had an alcoholic family. It’s really about having to let go of a wonderful dream. I know how sad that is. I had a wonderful dream, too, of how I thought my family should function, and for a long time this dream would precede me into a room; I would be thinking, if I just go back there, if we just have a family home, if this, if that . . . it will be just like my ideal childhood. But guess what? Even this ideal childhood is a wish, some kind of fantasy. My childhood wasn’t ideal. It’s just another place that I can pretend was trouble-free; it’s another fantasy.

To break free of the fantasy means accepting that it’s never going to be the way you wish it would be. It’s not. You don’t have to castigate your brothers. Just accept that they are the way they are, and that they’re not the appropriate people to turn to for the kind of support you need right now.

Find a group of men who are going through divorce. If you have anger issues, find a group of men dealing with anger. If you have substance abuse issues, or sex and relationship issues, or issues with food, or money, or your family, find appropriate groups where you can share your feelings and get support.

Remember: The support you need is not going to come from your family right now. So be smart. Find the support you need where it is most likely to be found: among fellow sufferers, fellow travelers, people who’ve been there and are offering a helping hand.

Now, a note about the column. (I’m putting this at the bottom because I don’t want to lead with stuff about me. That makes the column less of a service.)

I am writing the column one day a week right now and feeling my way through the transition from a full-time writer for Salon to a freelance writer, teacher and entrepreneur. My first love at the moment is novels, followed by short stories and then poetry, and if I can find a way to do everything I will. If the column slips away a little bit as I pursue these other things then that’s how it is. The last thing I want to do is keep writing it when I’m not in the spirit of it and drive it into the ground, like somebody who keeps dancing because he doesn’t notice the music has stopped.

I’d like to go out clean, on top.

So we’ll see. It’s partly a money thing and partly a creative economy thing, partly a creative ecology or infrastructure thing, and partly, to tell the truth, I feel like what I did for 12 years was write this thing every day and that was a particular kind of challenge. I gave it everything I had every day for 12 years and doing it just once a week is not the same. I can’t afford to do it five days a week because I have to make money.

So we’ll see. Again, thanks for the good words.

And remember: Your brothers are not going to give you the support you need right now. Go to the appropriate source for the support you need.

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Am I being used?

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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.

Best,

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

Connecticut_PatCary1

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.

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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.

From

A Possibly Dramatic Empath

Connecticut_PatCary1

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.

 

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She asked for a divorce, then found a lump in her breast

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, DEC 22, 2008

 

I’ve been dating her husband, but now she wants him back!

 

 

Dear Cary,

For the past seven months, I have been dating and falling in love with a man who is in the final stages of his divorce. After six years of marriage, it’s been a year and a half since they were together. Throughout their marriage she’d repeatedly cheated on him, told him she’d never wanted a family with him, lived away from him for years when she decided to go to graduate school and not invite him along. She never wore her ring, changed her name, or set up a joint bank account. It’s not that I feel there is anything wrong with choosing these things in a vacuum, but it didn’t seem as if she ever wanted to be married to him. She finally told him she wanted a divorce, something he’d never wanted. He remained true to their marriage for seven months after they decided to divorce by paying her rent and bills (as she is unemployed and broke), not dating anyone else, and being her emotional support. He began dating me when he moved out of their apartment, eight months after their estrangement.

Two months ago, this woman decided that she wanted her husband back. She started with calling him constantly, saying she wanted to be friends. Then she began to write him love letters, insisting that he’s abandoning his moral obligation to keep his vows — knowing this would hurt him and cause tremendous guilt. She made vague remarks about suicide. Through all of this, my relationship with him has remained strong, mostly because we are very much in love and I have been confident that this divorce will soon be finalized.

The other day, this woman let him know that she found a lump in her breast, which requires a biopsy. And I don’t know what to do. She has no health insurance and my boyfriend says that he cannot, as a human being with a conscience and compassion, move forward with the divorce until he knows she is healthy. I want him to leave her for good. This woman is not a child; she had over a year to get a job and/or insurance when she decided on a divorce. I think she should go home to her family in Kansas if she cannot take care of herself. I also feel he should be committing to me — we live together, we had been talking about a future together. I’m 29 years old and want to start a family soon — with him. I don’t know if I’m being unethical and callous by wanting him to put my emotional health before her physical health.

At what point does he stop helping her and start taking care of his own needs — and of my heart?

They were 40 days away from a divorce. Please help me.

A Lost Girlfriend

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Dear Lost Girlfriend,

Today I am going to try to write with some passion, knowing that often it is hard to contain a reasonable argument within the stretched and tenuous boundaries of a passionate outburst. I must go slowly.

This is sad, first of all. This is so sad you want to put your fist through the wall. This is also drama. It illustrates the maxim that plot (or drama, or story) flows from character. Most interestingly, it flows from character flaws — not heroism but weakness. Your boyfriend has a weakness. She appears to be exploiting it. But did she create this lump in her breast, consciously? No, how could she? It is the hand of fate, played to one side’s advantage. She plays her hand the only way she knows how. You are on the sidelines watching. They will play this out.

It is a triangle. At the moment, you are on the outs. But things could change. They probably will. Triangles shift as allegiances shift. She will wound him and he will come back to you, and then she will woo him again.

Theoretically, he could walk away. What’s to stop him? His own need to take care of her stops him. He cannot bear to see himself except through her eyes. That is what it feels like. It is I guess what is commonly called codependence.

She asked for a divorce. A divorce severs one from responsibility for a former spouse, except for those responsibilities spelled out legally. Otherwise, the divorced partner is free. The divorced partner owes nothing to the other. Isn’t that so? Isn’t that what is sought in a divorce, to unburden oneself of responsibility for another, except as spelled out legally? That is what she asked for. But because of who she is, it was not to be depended upon. A person like that is not to be depended upon.

If she does not victimize him, she will victimize someone else. If he understood this, he might feel better about cutting her out of his life. She will take care of herself. She will find a way. If forced to go to her family, she will do that. She will take their money. She will find a way.

When we marry, we commit. We cannot know what’s ahead. That’s the point. We commit to sticking it out through the unknown. Likewise, when we divorce, we commit to going it alone, not knowing what will befall us. We make a decision not to turn back. She has turned back. But how can she do that? The hand was dealt, the cards were played, and now she wants to invalidate that, to pretend it never happened. That’s not the way the game is played. Thus the drama: Fateful decisions are made, and then we cannot accept what befalls us!

And here you are on the sidelines, helpless to influence the action. You, too, are playing a role based on who you are: You allowed yourself into the trap of dating a married man. It’s an oft-told tale. Until a man is completely free of his wife — not just legally but emotionally — a woman loves him at her peril. He is not completely free, so he cannot be completely yours. You will be competing for him.

It makes me furious with sadness. My fury is a response to sadness. Yet it’s also the way of the world, a story as old as time. And no one is really to blame. We are drawn together in these dramas. Our weaknesses recognize each other; we seek fulfillment and recognition in the faces of others; we greet each other, intuitively recognizing each other, like old cricket players meeting on an ancient field. We play another round, all knowing the rules.

I feel for you. I wish there was something you could do. I suppose there is. You could tell your boyfriend that he is acting codependently and should go see somebody who can help him sort out his responsibilities. She is, as you say, an adult. She is, or should be, responsible for her decisions. He is, or soon can be, a free man if he chooses to be.

You also can walk away. You are free to walk away, protect yourself, face the fact that there is a drama playing out between these two from which you are excluded and over which you are powerless. Can you do that? You may have to. Look at the situation clearly. How long can you wait? Will this be a lifelong pattern with him? How do you know? People can change, sometimes, but it’s hard work. More often we stick to the same old patterns, repeating the old, familiar motions.

It’s an old, old story. Sitting on my father’s desk here is his copy of “Oedipus, the King” by Sophocles. My father loved Sophocles. “Nothing can make me other than I am,” says King Oedipus.

Indeed.

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Can our marriage survive infertility and depression?

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Write for Advice
Dear Cary,

I wrote to you once about seven years ago — I was a faithful column reader before and until now. Your advice was spot on, and now I find myself in a heartbreaking situation that I hope you will shed your light on.

My husband and I have been married for six years. We have a mostly happy marriage with ups and downs. I love him. We have been struggling with my infertility this entire time. Basically, my ovaries have not and will not work. Of course I did not know this before we got married, although I suppose I should have wondered. I had never used birth control; I figured that the rhythm method just worked! Now I realize that my body did not work. These years of infertility have been heartbreaking. We have gone through a myriad of treatments. During this time, my husband has become increasingly cold and even cruel; certainly not compassionate. He feels like we are throwing our money away at the infertility industry. Most heartbreaking is, is that he will not adopt and will not use donor eggs (and his sperm) to have a child. In my mind, we have plenty of money — and there are ways to build a family. He just refuses. He doesn’t want kids that aren’t  “his own”; he sincerely thinks he could not love them as his biological children (despite what every parent of adopted and donor-conceived children say; your commenters will surely say this, and saying this does not help). He doesn’t want to be forced to do something he doesn’t feel right about. I understand that.

I tell him that I need compassion from him, and he says he “doesn’t express love in this way,” and I need to just acknowledge the infertility and get over it. The infertility is ruining our marriage. I could imagine handling this mountain to climb, if I felt like someone was climbing it with me. I could imagine a euphemistically called “childfree” life, if I had not found out that my husband is so callous and unsupportive. The way that my husband acts,  it’s as if he has fallen out of love with me. He says he loves me, although he sometimes says he just wants to “get away from all of it (i.e., divorce).”

Complicating the mess is that I have recently changed careers, which involves significant additional training, because I figured if I were not to have children, at least I could have a career that I found more fulfilling. He said that the infertility and my being in school is really hurtful, and he finds it difficult to talk about. Trying to communicate about it is like pulling teeth.

My school is in a different state — and we had planned to move to this state together; we were happy for a change. At the last minute he decided not to move; so now we live apart — although the “plan” is for him to move in about eight months. All of this is incredibly difficult.

I understand that my options are to divorce and become a single mother by myself (donor sperm + donor egg or adoption) or stay with him and not have children. I don’t want to be a single mother; I don’t want a divorce. I don’t want a divorce because that is not why I got married. I believe people who love each other — in sickness and in health — should be able to work things out. Perhaps you and your comments will astutely observe that it takes two to make a marriage work, and for whatever reasons, my husband has checked out. Perhaps. But he has not sent me divorce papers. But knowing that I could build a family but not doing so because of my husband’s recalcitrance is so painful I feel it in my chest <a href=”http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2010/November/takotsubo-cardiomyopathy-broken-heart-syndrome”>(takotsubo syndrome)</a>.

He has finally started to go to a counselor; I think that much of his meanness is a result of depression and his own grief and confusion.

I also think he doesn’t want to be labeled  “the bad one,” who divorces his wife because she is infertile. I understand that my infertility is also a loss for him, even if he is handling it in a different way. I am in counseling too. We tried couples counseling to discuss our disagreement about creating a family, but it centered around his depression instead of our marriage and was not helpful after three months. Now that we live in different states, couples counseling is not happening. We see each other every month or so. We talk every day. He says he loves me. But once we start to talk about  “next steps,” he shuts down. He is a bit passive-aggressive (he would rather not make a decision and then all of a sudden we are too old to adopt).

 I feel like I am just waiting for him to divorce me. I don’t want to file for divorce because I can see through his pain and depression (and cruelness) to the person I loved and married. I don’t want to divorce him, when it is he who questions his commitment. I don’t want to divorce myself. Yet not having a family with children to grow old with is extremely sad. Your commenters will say to fill my life with other things (i.e., to change “childless” to “childfree”). But I already have great friends, hobbies, travel and a fulfilling career! How could it be any better? I had a great husband, and I hope he starts being one again. Childless won’t become happily childfree with a cruel husband. If I divorce, do I go on a dating site and say, “I’m forty and infertile! Who wants to adopt children with me!”? I would not have time to wait for someone else to have a family with — I would have to do it alone. How can I divorce the family I have, to adopt another family? The choices I have are all bad.

Thanks for your advice,

Infertile and Sort-of Alone

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Dear Infertile and Sort-of Alone,

The key to your situation is for your husband to recover from depression. Depression can distort one’s thoughts and cause one to act cruelly. You can’t make any good decisions together, as a couple, as long as he is in depression. So the best decision you can make, right now, is to put off any permanent changes until he can be treated and show some improvement.

Does he resist treatment? He may. Until his condition becomes unbearable for him he may resist treatment. And it is a complicated situation. But the one clear message I want to send to you is that your husband is suffering from depression and that is the main problem in your marriage. So whatever can be done now to help him recover from depression should be your top priority as a couple.

His depression may resist treatment. It may last a long time. It may have several causes. He may have ups and downs. But it is the central issue and it can be treated.

Having children or not having children is not the central issue. The marriage is. A marriage can be a boundless source of energy and support for both partners if both partners are healthy; such a marriage can weather loss and disappointment. It can be a safe haven in which crucial decisions can be made. The question of children or no children may be a painful thing for him to face in his depression but it is not the central issue and it is not causing his depression. Nor is your moving to go to school causing his depression.

We don’t know what is causing it. But, again, it is my strong feeling that his depression is the factor that is pushing your marriage to the brink.

If nothing can be immediately done about his depression, or if he takes steps and there is no immediate improvement, then wait. Let life go on and let your marriage be in a holding pattern for a while. Meanwhile pay attention to your own needs; live on your own and wait. There is no need to divorce him yet. Just wait. Wait until he finds treatment and shows steady improvement or until one day you realize nothing is going to change and that his love is gone and the marriage is over. You may reach the point where you see that he is a lost cause and will never get better and there is nothing you can do. No one can say how long that might be but I feel certain that you will know if it reaches this point and that it will come to you as a kind of death. If it happens, it will come to you with fhe force of certainty and you will feel grief because it will be over. You won’t need anyone to tell you it’s over and you won’t need to guess or wonder. It will come to you that the marriage is over and then dissolving the marriage legally will be a formality. Then grieving will happen because the marriage is over, not because you are getting a divorce. It will be a kind of grieving because a kind of death has occurred, metaphorically speaking; he has gone so far into his depression that he cannot come out.

My guess is that this will not happen, that you will wait and he will improve and you will learn how to live together with your different feelings about children. You will have some shared loss and you will go on. That is what I see. The fact that he has started seeing a mental health professional is a good sign. There are many effective treatments. If he can find one, and stick with it, and improve, then the chances are good that you can have a marriage that works for you, even if it does not give you everything.

I pray that you will find the strength and wisdom to see this through.

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

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