Write for Advice
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.
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.
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.