Category Archives: Infidelity

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My girlfriend “settled” for me — and I don’t trust her

 

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Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

I shouldn’t have looked in her diary, but maybe it’s best that I did.


Dear Cary,
This summer, my girlfriend went to Central America for three months. She was in spotty contact with me the whole time, saying it was difficult to reach a computer. I’ve known her to be unfaithful to her past boyfriends. She actually cheated on one with me. I didn’t trust her when she came back, so when she left her journal on my desk for a week, I read the portion of it about her trip.

In it, I found a never-to-be-sent letter to her first boyfriend, my old best friend from years ago, written in drunken handwriting. She lamented that she still loved him and how “I went and found the closest thing to you and I settled, like everything in life, I settled.” I assume this is referring to me.

I wouldn’t have read her journal if I trusted her. Those trust issues aside, I feel like we have a good thing. We work on a lot of levels with each other, spend a lot of time together, give each other presents with cards, etc. Though neither of us has a career (I struggle playing music and waiting tables; she dabbles in various professional track jobs that don’t interest her), we’ve hit the mid-20s and relationships seem more serious.

She’s moving away soon to take a professional-track job in Mexico and I am considering following her, but this whole thing bothers me. I try to ask her about him to see how she responds, but she never lets on anything. Right now, she is visiting her old roommate who now lives with him, and I am unable to trust her. Of course she always says they are just friends, but that she still really cares for him in a platonic way and there is nothing to worry about.

Had I not read the journal, I could take her at face value. Maybe she tells me what she really means. But as it is right now, I can’t help getting mad at her because I feel she’s deceiving me. I have to resolve it somehow. I know journals are the dumping grounds for our deep insecurities, horrible thoughts, our fantasies, generally things we can’t say, and they may not always be real, but I can’t brush it aside so easily. How do I handle this?

Thanks,

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Too Curious

 

Dear Too Curious,

You know what I think? I think that every time I sit down to write this column I have the opportunity, if I play it right, to make a big difference in somebody’s life. So I try to do that. I try to do that by taking a guess at what the big issue in a person’s life is. There’s the diary and all that, and I’d like to say right upfront that reading your girlfriend’s diary is not the best idea. But what’s the big issue?

The way I figure it, the big issues make the difference. And a lot of times we don’t know what our big issues are. We may know what other people’s big issues are. But not our own. So we make big mistakes. We make them over and over. Often the big issues in our lives are not what we think they are. They tend to be emotional things. Say, for instance, you are a brilliant and talented jazz musician. So naturally you are on the road a lot. But say that also, in your heart of hearts, you are the type of guy who really needs to be sitting at the kitchen table night after night with a wife and kids and relatives. That is where you are actually happy. So you might say that your talent and your emotional needs are at odds. You might not know you need the security and warmth of a family life. You may feel empty and anxious on the road but maybe you call it something else. You call it the blues. So you end up meeting this need in some way — because you are on the road. You end up, say, doing heroin. You do heroin because heroin gives you the feeling of sitting at your kitchen table on a full stomach in the evening breeze, listening to the crickets.

That’s how our unacknowledged needs shape our lives. That’s how we lose our geniuses, how they disappear into the evening breeze on a quiet summer morning.

If you knew, from a young age, that you were not only a talented musician but also a person who requires the closeness of family, warmth, security, rootedness, then you might take the time to arrange your life so that you do not die of a heroin overdose in a Memphis hotel room.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I write the column. I think about geniuses dying in Memphis hotel rooms. I think about perfectly decent guys being lied to by one woman after another. I think about the demons that have driven me off the road from time to time, and how things might have been different if I had known what the demons were, or if I knew they might be coming.

Our emotional needs often aren’t as overtly interesting as our talents. But they drive us. Sometimes they drive us to a strange part of town.

So with you, I think there’s a good chance that you have the opportunity right now, today, to discover what big personal issue is driving you. I think I know what your big issue might be. I think you can face it. I think you can do something about it.

But first of all: Do not follow your girlfriend to Mexico. Do not do that. Do not travel there to see her after she gets herself set up down there. Do not discuss with her the pros and cons of traveling with her to Mexico before she goes. Do not tell her you will think about coming to be with her in Mexico. Instead, tell her you have decided to stay here in the United States and try to get your life together on your own, without her. Tell her that you are breaking up with her. Tell her it’s best this way.

So now your real life begins. You make a choice. You begin from scratch.

To begin your new life, take an hour of quiet time. Sit down somewhere where you will not be interrupted. Make sure you have some paper and a pencil or pen.

Write these words at the top of the page:

I trust these people:

Then make a list of the people you trust.

Who is on the list? With each person, ask: Is that person a friend, a relative, a former lover, a teacher, a public official, an animal? What are the qualities of the relationship that make you trust the person? Is there an element of structure or formality to the relationship that leads to trust? Do they tend to be family members, college friends? Are they women or men? Look for patterns.

Then make a list of the people you do not trust.

Who is on the list that you do not trust?

Pay special attention to this question: Where is your dad? Is he on the trust list or the do-not-trust list? Where is your mom? And where are you? Where do you put yourself on the list?

I predict that if you do this simple exercise with an open mind and an open heart, and you spend some time thinking about these people and why you do or do not trust them, it will cause you to experience some fairly deep emotions. You may, at that point, want to find some structure for yourself. You may want to find a psychotherapist to help you work through this. But if I am correct, and if you seriously work through this, you will learn who can be trusted and who cannot. You will gain a new respect for your own need for trust. You will see that you have ridden roughshod over your own need for security. You may be surprised about certain people; you may realize that certain people may not have been so much fun, but at least they could be trusted. Others, you may realize, you never really trusted to begin with. You will become, through this process, a man who is markedly less likely to be fucked over.

And then, once you have firmly in your mind what it means to trust and not trust and be trusted or not trusted, you can fall in love and get married and have kids and live happily ever after. Or at least you can navigate more carefully life’s baffling jamboree, its streets full of beauty, genius and betrayal.

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

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

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


Cary,

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

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

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

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

Cheater

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Dear Cheater,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So best to take steps now.

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I’m going for it

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Cary’s classic column from

I’m in a passionless marriage and I’m going to have an affair — just thought I’d let you know in case you have some advice.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married for more than 30 years. We love each other more as friends than lovers, although our relationship is also based on respect and on a commitment to our grown children.

When we first married, I was running away from a very abusive first marriage and my husband wanted a wife to further his career. We learned to love each other over the years, but our relationship was never one of equals with the same goals.

He doesn’t like to do anything outside the home and doesn’t care to socialize except with the people he worked with before he retired. He never showed any interest in my work and he didn’t see any need to talk about our marriage or to do anything to help it grow into something other than a pleasant convenience. I was so grateful for the safety net he provided that I didn’t really push for more. He also lost interest in sex about 10 years ago, leaving me stranded with a vibrant libido. We have never been unfaithful to each other.

It took me a long time to let go of my fears and to start to assert myself as an equal, finally realizing that I’m worthy of more than a breadwinner. Now that our children are grown, I am wondering what it would be like to experience a relationship with a man in which we both care for each other as individual human beings, respecting each other’s differences and finding companionship and joy in the things we have in common.

I met a man last year while visiting family in another state. We have continued to correspond through e-mail and have developed a friendship and love that we both treasure.

I don’t know what to do. I care for my husband and wouldn’t want to hurt him; yet I know that if I leave, he would be devastated, not understanding what I’ve been trying to tell him for all these years. The man I’m in love with has asked me to marry him but knows that I’m not ready to go that far, at least not yet.

This is something so new and foreign to me that I can’t find an answer with which I’m comfortable. I do feel that I will go ahead and have an affair. I suppose I’m just asking if anyone else has had an experience like this and how it turned out.

Married

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Dear Married,

Good for you. Although I can’t speak specifically of a story like yours, it has a certain universal ring to it, a certain kind of large, inevitable truth, so that it must be something many women have undergone. I applaud you. Life is not to be wasted or dribbled away. I understand your need for safety, how that can motivate you — but you’re safe now, aren’t you? There’s no threat to you except the grief and incomprehension of your husband when you tell him that you’ve got to do this.

So you’ve tried to tell him how the lack of passion is killing you and he hasn’t understood? Or perhaps he has understood, but he’s too frightened to confront it. Perhaps he just pretends not to understand what you’ve been saying. Or perhaps you haven’t said it in a way that he really understands. Either way, it sounds like it’s too late now. You seem to have made up your mind.

Go and have your affair. Well, you don’t need my permission, do you? But I encourage you to go and do it. And read. Well, you don’t want to necessarily read “Madame Bovary” as a case study, but read about women like yourself, trapped in the kind of safe but suffocating bourgeois bargain that men and women all too easily make in difficult, frightening times.

Oh, I wish we could help your husband, too. I feel worst for the husbands in this country, because after the manly power of the muscles begins to fade, what have they got but wealth and clothes? A man can live his 70 years and never learn to speak a single feeling, and a wife can leave him and he’s like a dog set loose in the wilderness that never learned to hunt. They are such weak creatures sometimes; they are so dependent on their wives. And they think all the while that they’re doing the right, sacrificial thing, staying by their wives even when it’s icy between them. And all the while nobody’s doing anybody any favors. It’s so sad.

Does your husband have a best friend? I hope so. I hope he has a buddy and they can go fishing and get drunk and curse their wives bitterly. It’s good for men to express their feelings. We can’t always expect them to express their feelings in a lovely and mature way; sometimes the only way for them to do it is by being ugly. It might be healing. It might do them good.

WhatHappenedNextCall

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I’ve been cheating on my husband for a year and it’s driving me crazy

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Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 27, 2004

I’m a good girl, but I can’t seem to stop.


Dear Cary,

I had to have liquid courage to be able to write this message.

I’m married. I’ve been having an affair for nearly a year.

It’s the same-old, same-old someone-I-work-with kinda thing. I’ve been married for several years and we’d been together for several years before that. Lots of ups and downs, highs and lows, but about 15 months ago I had never felt happier or more content with my life. No kids, but that was what we wanted for now. Lots of time and all that.

Then we moved and I started a new job. And the very first day I was there I met him. So, enormous, earth-shattering, energy-shifting attraction is apparent. I thought it was just me but it turned out to be entirely mutual. Months of e-mailing, flirting and knee-melting eye contact ensue. Then it got physical. Then it got really physical. And it was wonderful. All of it. It was amazing how much we really, genuinely liked each other and how attracted we were to each other.

But of course, there’s a husband and a girlfriend in this picture. Both husband and girlfriend are delightful, attractive, talented, supernice people that anyone would be lucky to have. So things got a little crazy, chances were taken and of course a couple of close calls later we were thinking that it was time to cool it. That lasted a few weeks. Things get started again but at a lower temperature. Then more chances were taken, then things cooled off again (me feeling horribly guilty and used and sick with myself), then they heat up again and here we are.

I love how you tell people things they can take with them forever. I need that. I think sometimes that I’m literally going to crack in half from the strain of this. Sometimes out of nowhere my throat just closes and I well up. Anywhere, grocery store, work, driving. I had a perfect, wonderful and blessed life that for some reason I felt I had to completely trash. I’m a nice, good girl. I’m happy nearly all the time. I have lots of friends who think highly of me. I’m smart and attractive and have always been thought of as solid as a rock. I earned my moral superiority. This is all so deeply out of character, so nightmarish. I saw it all happening and knew it was wrong but I still went on. It was not a case of temporary insanity by any means. It didn’t “just happen.” The buildup took ages. It’s like I’m having a dream but I just can’t wake up, I can’t make it stop or go away. I haven’t told my husband but it has still affected my marriage profoundly and I’m not sure that it will recover.

For God’s sake, I know that there are way bigger problems one could have. I’m sure that this sounds like a spoiled brat crying about her diamond shoes being too tight. But I’m also pretty sure that I’m not the only person in the world doing this. (Does this sound like I’m trying to justify why you should help me? Well, maybe I am.) I have no one to turn to. Tonight is the first time that I have cried about this. I think I’m absolutely at my wit’s end. I can’t stop thinking about him or seeing him when there’s an opportunity. I think I’m probably half in love.

But also, I don’t think this is a good man. Besides the fact that he pursued the hell out of this when he was in love with another girl (not that I’m judging), I just get the feeling that he’s very superficial. Phony (there, I said it). I’m not excusing myself but I think I was manipulated. And yet, I can’t stop. No amount of thinking of the consequences, whether they be the damage to my marriage or the damage to my heart, stops me. I’ve tried totally cutting off contact and it doesn’t work. I love my job and it loves me. Leaving it is not an option.

I want to stop feeling so out of control. I’ve maintained my dignity but I think I’m getting to the point where I’m going to crack. I think the only thing I’ve actually learned here so far is that it’s not the shitty things that other people do to you that make you lose your trust or faith in human nature, it’s the things that you do to them. I don’t know if I’ll ever look at other people the same way. If I could do this and just go merrily about my life then who knows what’s really going on with anyone?

Am I doing this because I don’t really want my wonderful life with my nice house and my pretty things and my fantastic husband? The husband’s not entirely perfect. He’s been known to take me for granted and he’s at times been really cold. Overall, though, he loves me very much and is proud of me. The life we have is exactly what we wanted. We’re the Brad and Jennifer of our crowd. I just don’t understand what I’m doing. A while ago I thought that I wasn’t a bad person, just a person who did a bad thing, but if I keep doing it when I know better then I’ve crossed that line too. I’m so torn right now between the desire to get on a plane and get far away or to just go to bed and not get up for about a year.

Do you have any ideas for me besides the plane or the bed?

Can’t Draw the Line

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Dear Can’t Draw the Line,

Now and then we are all darkly drawn to bet everything on a loser, as if all our riches were dust compared to some powerfully plastic decoder ring from a gumball machine. I’m not saying I understand it, I’ve just noticed it happens. And since it’s a choice and not an accident, we have to figure it means something.

Perhaps, as you say, you are doing this because you don’t want your wonderful life with your nice house and your pretty things and your fantastic husband. Maybe you’d prefer sitting on a thin mattress in a cheap motel with your lipstick smeared across your tear-stained face, waiting for some cowboy to finish drinking his beer and losing at pool so he can sing you the one country song he knows by heart. Maybe you need to get this bad girl out in the open where she can spit on her husband and get slapped for it, so the cops can come and she can pretend everything’s just fine officer and then kick him in the balls and take a ride in the car with the fence between the seats.

Whatever it is, something is clearly calling your name and it’s not the life you’re living.

You seem very bright but divided emotionally. We become divided when we neglect the inner life of symbols. We neglect the inner life of symbols when the outer life of objects consumes us. The world of things exhausts us because it gives nothing back; the objects don’t breathe, they don’t sing; even a diamond ring just glitters in silence. I think you’re looking for a song filled with soul. At least that’s what I would be looking for if I were caught in the jaws of whatever’s eating you. So all I can say is: sketch the beast. What is it whose hour has come ’round at last? What does it look like and what is it slouching toward? Get hypnotized if you have to so you can see it. You’ve got to give it form, whatever is calling your name. You’ve got to apprehend it clearly.

Say it’s a locomotive racing down the track. Why are you on it? Is it the rocking motion that puts you to sleep? Or is it the pounding in your heart that keeps you awake? Are you in this for the thrills or the way it dulls the pain? Or, like always, is it a little of both?

Do you love your husband? Do you truly, truly love him? Can you see going to the ends of the earth with him, all the way to the edge where the ground gives way and you tumble arm in arm, so far down you can’t see the bottom? If you love your husband, you’ve got to tell him, and follow this all the way. Because it isn’t a one-time thing, an offhand fling. It’s a big beast that’s got you in its jaws, and you’ve got to cry for help. You’re too far gone to get out on your own. If your husband is the one, you’ve got to make a tearful confession.

If you don’t love your husband, I don’t know what to tell you. Because then the whole thing looks cheap and tawdry: Your secret doesn’t even matter. But I believe you have enormous soul, that you do love your husband and you’re just way over your head in something you don’t understand. So I say throw yourself on his mercy and find out what you’ve got. You’ve either got a man who loves you more than you know and will try to rescue you from this thing, or you’ve got a man who’s too shallow and selfish to see that this isn’t just a bad wifey doing a no-no, that this is a big, howling beast that threatens both of you.

There’s only one rule: It all means something. No matter what happens, if it ruins your marriage or you patch it up, your true task is to understand what it means. That could take a lifetime, so you might as well start in.

 

Cary Tennis Loire Valley Writing Retreat

 

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