Category Archives: loneliness

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My husband won’t touch me — what can I do?

I want desperately to have a child, and so does he.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, FEB 23, 2005

Dear Cary,

I am married to the man of my dreams — except for one thing: He won’t touch me. I’m not just talking about sex; I mean he’s averse to basic human contact. We’re down to a chaste kiss as he leaves for work, an occasional hug when I ask, and sometimes another chaste good-night kiss before he turns his back to me and falls asleep.

We’ve been together for almost 14 years (we’re both 37) and married for 12. We don’t have any children, although we married each other in part because we thought we’d have great kids together. We met in graduate school and reasoned that we’d get our careers off the ground before trying to start a family. More than a decade later, we’ve stopped even trying.

I think passion and romance are the sweetest stuff of life; he finds them completely unnecessary. When we were dating, he was a reluctant lover, always telling me, “We’ll do it after exams” or “It will feel more right after we’re married.”

For the first several years of our marriage, he blamed my weight as the sole reason we were not having sex. Let me clarify that I am an attractive woman with a beautiful face, long blond hair and a curvy, voluptuous body, which many men find very attractive — just not my husband. He told me about five years into the marriage that he’d felt deceived, that he’d believed I would change and lose weight. Of course, I’ve always said I wished I were thinner. At one point I lost a lot of weight, and nothing changed. However, at some point he did stop openly criticizing my body.

Several years ago, I went against all of my morals and upbringing and had an affair. I told myself it was my husband’s fault that I was forced to get my needs met elsewhere. But I was racked with guilt the whole time, and ultimately I ended it, resolving to try to make things work with my husband. A year later, it was still not working, and I separated from him. Only after the separation did he accidentally find out about the affair, and it was a wrenching experience for us both.

For a year we lived apart; I wound up driving home every weekend to see him. Because we just plain missed each other, we reconciled. But he warned me that his intimacy issues might be even worse than before my affair or the separation. Still, I wanted to try to make it work, and so did he.

Fast-forward three years later. It’s like I’m living as roommates with a best friend who is totally supportive of me emotionally and professionally, but not physically. He is my rock, my companion, the one I want to grow old with. Still, I don’t want to have a platonic marriage.

We went to a marriage counselor after our reconciliation with clear instructions that our objective was to find a way to be intimate with each other. The therapist said that our marriage appeared normal — if we were in our 60s, not 30s! During the second session, the therapist said he would only continue to see us if divorce were on the table. That was the last session we had with him.

Since then, we have near-weekly conversations about how to fix our little problem. We talk; I inevitably cry; he says that he doesn’t need intimacy and he’s sorry that I do, but he can’t give it to me. We’ve tried talking about this at other hours, too: on a Saturday afternoon over a game of Pente, over a bottle of wine at our favorite restaurant, in the car on a road trip as a philosophical discussion.

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Some people might ask if maybe my husband is gay. But he denies that he’s attracted to men and says that he likes to look at attractive women (implicit in that statement is that I’m not included in that group). He says it boils down to the fact that he doesn’t really like to be touched or to touch other people, and that he feels emotionally dead inside. I have a nephew with Asberger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, which among other things makes people ultra-sensitive to touch. I see a lot of similarities between my husband and my nephew, and I wonder if he might be afflicted with that disorder, too. I do know that my husband’s first and only other love really devastated him when she ended their relationship when he was 21, and I’ve wondered if that was the cause of his intimacy issues. But he said he was like this with her, too.

Every once in a while (three times last year), my husband takes pity on me and says that it’s time to reset the clock. That means we do the deed. Then I can no longer say, “Come on, honey, it’s been three (four, five, six) months since we made love,” since the clock is reset to zero. After such a resetting, it is an unspoken rule that I am not supposed to ask again for a really long time.

Cary, if I didn’t love this man, I would just leave. But he is wonderful to me in every other way. We are great partners in this thing called life, and we really get each other as people. I don’t want to leave; I want to break through these intimacy issues.

Please don’t tell me that I should get my physical needs met elsewhere. I’ve worked hard over the last three years since the reconciliation to rebuild trust. But for all of my self-denial, I feel like it’s getting me nowhere. I’m starting to go a little crazy from being starved for simple affection. And, yes, for sex, too. And deep down, I fear that I will never have a family, something which is extremely important to me (and, I thought, to him).

My heart is breaking over the loss of so many important dreams. I may never become a mother, I may never have a family of my own, I may never again know sweet intimacy between a man and a woman, I may never even have another passionate kiss.

I can roll with things not being perfect. But he turns his shoulder to me every night when all I want is for him to take me into his arms and show me his love. Is this too much for a good wife to expect?

Mrs. Heartbroken

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Dear Mrs. Heartbroken,

It sounds like what you are going through is very painful. I know how desperately you are seeking a solution. But I do not think that a solution will arise until you look at the situation in a new light. I suggest that you ask not how you can get your husband to give you what you need, but what the meaning of your suffering is and what you are being called upon to do. Once you discover what you are being called to do, and accept that as your fate, you will find it easier to surrender, to stop fighting, to do what has to be done.

What your suffering means, I think, is that life wants to come through you. You are stopping it by remaining with your husband. That is why it hurts you so much. That is why you are suffering. It hurts to deny life. Of course it hurts. It’s meant to hurt. That’s how life tells you what it wants. You’re leaning into a wind full of needles. You’re defying something that wants to be born.

There is a baby that wants to be born, but there is also a happiness that wants to be born. There is some contentedness that wants to be born. And there is a man somewhere who wants to make you pregnant and raise a child with you. He’s banging on your window but you can’t hear him or see him because you’re frozen hard to your husband. Until you tear yourself away you will remain stuck, deaf and blind to your destiny. Of course, it is your choice whether you leave or not. I know you have said that divorce is nonnegotiable. I also know that nothing we say is irrevocable, and we cannot know the future or our own capacity for sacrifice and pain.

I think you will leave your husband eventually, or you will collapse around the emptiness. I only think you should leave him while you still have a chance to raise a family. It will hurt to leave your husband — it may tear some of your skin off, as though you were frozen to a January lamppost. But it would hurt more to stay. And I do not see that you have any choice, if you are to accept what life is asking of you.
Perhaps you feel that leaving your husband for purely personal desires might seem irresponsible. But these are not personal desires. These desires are universal. They are transpersonal. It will be easier to see that if you think in terms that transcend the individual self. Consider the awesome force that wants to move through you, to use you as its avenue of fruition; consider your needs for intimacy and affection as the way this force expresses itself. Think of the child who desires to come into existence.

Why is that so far-fetched a notion? We happily grant that when someone dies it’s beyond our control. Yet when life insists with a terrifying power on having us for its purposes, when some unknown being insists on disrupting our plans in order to be born, we find that strangely mystical and abstract. What is abstract about the force that through the green fuse drives the flower? Why is it so far-fetched to imagine that life wants to move through you, but that you are blocking it, and that is causing you pain?

It seems a shame that you and your therapist were unable to continue beyond two sessions because the question of divorce was deemed nonnegotiable. Shouldn’t everything be on the table in therapy? Isn’t the purpose of therapy revelation and change? How can the unexpected be revealed if you think you know what you want, and if you rule out certain options? I think if you rule out certain conclusions, you undermine therapy’s capacity to surprise, to unearth unexpected meaning. But perhaps that therapist did not have the right approach for you.

Divorce needn’t mean that your husband disappears from your life. If the bond between you is spiritual and familial, as it sounds like it is, you can maintain that bond. Your relationship needn’t simply end; rather, think of it as being transformed by grand, elemental powers. He will probably want to know this child and to remain your lifelong friend. Perhaps he can be like an uncle to this child.

Why life chose you, who knows? But I can’t see much profit in resisting it. It’s obvious that, painful as it may be, you have to leave this man and seek someone you can raise a child with.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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I’m a college student with no natural social skills

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 3, 2008

I’m 21, female, and I don’t know how to talk to people!


Dear Cary,

I’ve recently come to the realization that I have no natural social skills. This is not really much of a surprise, considering I spent most of my childhood wondering if my classmates were, like me, sentient beings. While these days I can usually understand why people are doing what they’re doing, I still have a lot of trouble communicating, especially if there’s more than one other person involved in the conversation. Knowing what to say and when to say it is somehow really hard for me, so I frequently avoid situations where I have to talk to people. Since I’m female, and girls are supposed to be good at all that stuff, it just makes me that much more awkward.

I’m in my second year at a not very socially cohesive university (read: not typically American, students “seen and not heard”), and while I could never give up my program, or my life in this city, I sometimes feel really isolated, and this bothers me. I live with two lovely roommates, who are good friends, but one is moving out soon, and the other one, like my family, has her own “issues” to contend with, for lack of a better word. I’ve joined a school club and met some people there, but it’s only helped a little.

I’m also worried that my lack of social skills is preventing me from really growing up. Although I’m working now, finding jobs has been a problem, at least partly because I’m really not good at interviews. Also, I would someday like to think about dating — a euphemism, since I don’t think people my age really go on dates. The first and last time someone asked me out (to watch a movie in his dorm room), I wound up, for some reason, declining and telling him all about my German class, because I erroneously believed that he was very interested in studying German. Naturally, we didn’t get very far, and it was well after the fact that I realized his real intentions.

Now, at this point in my life, I really want (and possibly need) some practical advice, nothing about “meeting the right person” or “coming out of my shell,” or … you get the idea. I’m 20 years old and I’ve been this way my whole life, almost regardless of external circumstances, and I know I’m not likely to change radically any time soon. I’m just afraid that my life is going to be diminished by something I intuitively feel is not really under my control.

Some Weird College Kid

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Dear Weird College Kid,

I appreciate your taking the time to write.

The most practical advice I can give you is to learn all you can about the psychological phenomena of introversion and extroversion.

You’re not weird at all. Most likely you are strongly introverted. Many famous, brilliant and successful people are strongly introverted. It poses challenges, but it also gives you special powers. Your role in life, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to use those powers for the good of mankind!

That’s how I see it, and the sooner you find out about this the better off you will be.

Since Jonathan Rauch published his now-famous Atlantic essay “Caring for Your Introvert,” thousands of people who formerly considered themselves just weird and geeky have discovered that they are in fact introverts. Read the ongoing discussion about introversion and Asperger syndrome. Steve Silberman’s Wired article about the connection between Silicon Valley geeks behavior and Asperger syndrome is also quite interesting. My decidedly unprofessional view is that extreme introversion and Asperger syndrome exist along a continuum — at the edges of which they share certain characteristics. I am by test a highly extroverted male, but under stress I tend to act a little like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.” So don’t be scared or start thinking you have a disease. We’re all a little fuzzy on the edges.

The discussion the Jonathan Rauch article generated shows that you are not alone; your personality type is familiar to many; it is predictable and manageable. You aren’t crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you.

To say there isn’t anything wrong with you is not the same as saying you don’t need help. We all need help. That’s what education is. It’s help. So you have to educate yourself.

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It’s not true that introverts do not like to socialize in groups. They do, in small doses. But the activity drains them of energy. “Jonathan Rauch’s article highlighted the most important phenomenon associated with introverts,” writes a commenter at the discussion mentioned above. “It is not that they cannot socialize in groups, it is just that it exhausts them to their core to do so. This is why they are so misunderstood, and, usually, grumpy. People meeting my husband in a social setting at first do not realize he is such an introvert — he can be witty, extremely bright and engaging in short bursts. However, we have never, ever, in eleven years of dating and two years of marriage, attended a party or event in which he did not want to leave before I was ready to go. He just cannot sustain that level of interaction for more than a couple hours, even then needing several breaks to recharge.”

If this sounds a little like you, take heart. It is normal for an introvert.

As to the challenge of being an introverted woman: “On ‘is it harder for a woman to be introverted,’ I suspect yes,” writes another correspondent in the Rauch discussion mentioned above. “Women are expected to be warm, nurturing, ‘people’ persons, willing to talk and listen to others for hours. As a female in management, I have been criticized for not being like this at work. As Mr. Rauch said, one becomes very good at putting on the social act, but it takes energy. I need hours and hours alone to recover.”

The key is to learn to take care of yourself.

I would like to focus just a little bit on one sentence you wrote: “I’m also worried that my lack of social skills is preventing me from really growing up.” The American bias toward extroversion as a sign of maturity is a dangerous but little-discussed political phenomenon.

Let us consider how dangerous this bias is. It requires that the introvert abandon her particular genius in order to join the crowd. Consider the extroverted leader who values loyalty above clear thinking; consider the dangers we are led into by a coarse, unsubtle extrovert who distrusts the loner, the doubter, the thinker. Consider recent history. Consider the appalling behavior of Congress leading up to the Iraq war. Notice how our political system rewards extroversion and punishes introversion. If there were more introverts in Congress, unconcerned with how their fellows vote, might we see this country on a more balanced and thoughtful course?

But that is a larger, more long-term question. For now, we ask: What can you do to get through your college career and find productive work and a happy life? You can forge ties with other introverts. You can begin learning all you can about the joys and pitfalls of being an introvert. You can use the Internet. One of the best tools for understanding the interaction of various personality traits is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, based on psychologist Carl Jung’s theories about personality type. Just for fun, you might consider taking this short test, and see if what it says makes sense to you.

Life is harder in certain respects for deeply introverted people but it is not a disease or malady; it is simply a way of being.

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I am a lone cow

 
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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 18, 2003

Is it reasonable to expect a happy love life, or in the end will it just be me, Aunt Zoey and a few too many cats?


Dear Cary,

I am a 29-year-old woman about to begin a doctoral degree in a field that truly moves and inspires me. I am lucky to have a close inner circle of genuine friends and a larger social circle full of interesting and varied people. My family is warm, loving, enjoyably eccentric and supportive. I am healthy, smart, driven, and am told I’m attractive and entertaining. I am extremely satisfied with and grateful for the direction my life has moved in over the past few years. So please understand that when I refer to being alone, I realize that I am surrounded by a whole lot of valuable platonic love.

That said, here is my issue. In my late teens and early 20s, I had two meaningful romantic relationships. Both of them ended tragically; the first man died suddenly in an accident and the other had resurfacing memories of childhood sexual abuse, then descended into a downward spiral of alcohol and denial, and away from me. Both relationships and their aftermaths led to a lot of learning and a redirection of my life for which I am exceedingly grateful. However, close to five years later, as I approach 30, I’m realizing that I have been alone for quite a stretch now, have had no real prospects, and I’m starting to get a little worried. Were those two relationships in my early adulthood useful, but aberrant, romantic occurrences in a life that will mostly be lived alone?

A few months ago, the tragicomedy of how perpetual and expected my aloneness has become hit me right between the eyes while attending a family wedding. See, our place cards had been rubber-stamped with either a cartoon cow or fish to indicate what we were having for dinner, and guests were grouped on their place cards as couples, rather than as individuals. On my left, my father and his longtime girlfriend shared a place card stamped with a cow and a fish. To my right, my brother and his longtime girlfriend had two pink cows, stamped side by side. On and on around the table, little cows and fish, holding hands, dancing, gazing at each other, contemplating their futures. And the image on my own card — a lone cow in the middle of a vast white space — stared out at me in this lost way that inspired laughter in the moment and tears later on that night. It was then that I realized that at most family events over the course of my life, the only people who have been reliably alone have been my 55-year-old Aunt Zoey and me. She has been a Lone Cow for as long as I can remember, and it’s important to note that her aloneness has not been by choice.

A few of my male friends (all in relationships) have offered their take on my situation. They say that they found me to be very attractive but simultaneously intimidating when we first met. They think I often attract men who have ego issues and are interested in “conquering me” to see if they can get the confident girl who has her shit together as a way of proving something to themselves. That theory doesn’t seem to hold water when I consider the vastly different types and personalities of the men I’ve briefly dated, but at the very least, it’s a kind way of saying, “It’s them, not you.”

So now my dating life consists of long stretches of nothingness interspersed with a parade of men who start out by being wowed by me, then pursue me ardently, then, as they get to know me more, lose interest and march right off the face of the earth. This is especially painful because I don’t feel I’m pulling any punches or putting out a false front. It’s as if the lack of skeletons in my closet and all the time I’ve spent figuring out who I really am has become a liability.

I guess I’m just asking if there’s reason to be hopeful about a substantial future love life, or if really, the hard, but more truthful answer is that I just need to make peace with the possibility that I might stay alone. That I might just be one of those people for whom the romantic relationship thing doesn’t pan out, to the confusion and consternation of all those who love me. That in the end, it might just be me, Aunt Zoey, and a few too many cats. Please, if I’m doing something wrong here, lay it on me.

The Lone Cow

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Dear Lone Cow,

My prediction is that you are going to end up very, very happy, in a deep, complex and loving relationship that lasts a long time, but it is going to happen slowly, and if you succumb to impatience, the waiting may test you to the limits of despair. You are young; it may be hard for you to imagine how much life lies ahead, but believe me, there is a lot to come. So you have to concentrate on the process, and make sure that you are having a good time now. And you have to guard your heart.

A lifelong wish that we know may or may not be granted can be a haunting, threatening presence, always there to undermine our faith in the future, always threatening to verify our deepest suspicions of our own unworthiness. Or it can be something on which you build a happy life that does not depend on its being granted, but only on the continuing search for it. That, I think, is the key: to make sure that the search is its own reward, and that during the search you are protected from its ups and downs.

Take fishing, for instance. If it were just about catching one fish, there would be no fishermen. It wouldn’t be worth it. But fishing, even though it is uncertain in its particulars, can be depended upon to be a fairly pleasant activity even if no fish are caught; it also can be depended upon to yield at least a few fish from time to time. Likewise, dating can be a pleasant activity even if, for a while, one candidate after another proves not to be the lifelong mate you seek.

I would suggest two things: Don’t go out with any men who don’t make you happy. Now, with fishing, or playing tennis, or finding a mate, a lot has to do with how you handle not catching anything, or hitting the ball in the net, or being rejected. The key for the long term is to avoid destroying yourself in retribution for your own small failures. In the case of love, I know how destructive it can be to want something so badly, to get your hopes up, to give yourself body and soul to someone and then to be disappointed, or to lose them to illness or death, or even to be intentionally abused or mistreated. It can ruin your appetite for fun.

Fun, nevertheless, I believe to be the key. Protect your heart for the long haul; don’t be greedy or impatient; don’t let yourself be enchanted; make a fortress around your feelings.

Now how, when the essence of love is surrender, can one find love if one is living in a fortress? Because once you build this fortress, you can step outside it and have adventures; you can take risks because you know you have a sanctuary you can run to in a storm.

The other thing is that the process must be enjoyable; you must ensure that it is. If you’re going out with men solely to find one mate, then every time you don’t find that one mate you have failed. In that way you can destroy yourself, and continually wound your heart. But if you go out with men to have fun, and make that a condition, then whether you find a mate or not you have not wasted your time, you have not wounded yourself. So I would make sure that you only go out with men who amuse you, who are kind to you, who represent an improvement in your life, with whom you feel happy in the moment.

If you make your own momentary happiness a prerequisite, then I think when you do find yourself alone, it will make sense to be alone. Because you will be able to look around you and see that your solitude is preferable to the company of an unpleasant man. And I would also take steps to increase your enjoyment of solitude, so that a fear of loneliness does not drive you to choose a mate before you’ve found the right one.

Eventually, because of the odds involved (which I think increase dramatically in grad school, what with all the smart, like-minded men around), and because you are such a treasure, you will eventually find yourself in that deep, lasting and long-wished-for relationship.

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Guys keep dumping me

 

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

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


Hi Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trapped in Dating-Groundhog-Day

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Dear Trapped,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I was betrayed by people I trusted

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Cary’s classic column from

I thought they were my friends, but they’ve been laughing at me all this time!


Dear Cary,

About a year ago I found out that five of the people on my campus, including my freshman roommate and a bunch of people I thought were my friends, had been laughing at me behind my back on Facebook — which I’d never used — for months. I found this out when I broke up with my first boyfriend. (He told me under pressure.) Shortly thereafter, I realized that everyone else I’d been friends with at school were his friends, and they stayed his friends. I graduated early, thank God, but it did nothing for me in the end. Some latent psychological issues surfaced right then, and I became every bit that awkward, narrow-minded, ugly and damaged beast they had all seen from the beginning.

Now I am in graduate school. I work a day job so menial that it’s difficult to talk to some people in the academic community. I’m a recently outed gay woman with social skills in the negatives and a face that I can’t make excuses for. To top it all off, I’m 21 and still every bit a sheltered and naive country girl. Everything that was true when it was on Facebook is still true now.

I understand that this is the way things are. I would have experienced a lot of this eventually, bullies or no bullies. I see a therapist, took medicine for a while. But I still feel compelled to isolate myself. I just couldn’t take another incident like this.

But what I really want to know is why, one year later, I’m still thinking about it. Nobody has been able to explain why this one thing haunts me so badly. The best explanation I can think of is that what those friends and acquaintances posted was really close to the truth that I knew and didn’t want to see. But I’ve accepted the truth and I’ve made changes where I could. Is this not enough? What more can I do? Even a jerk ought to be able to shrug off a few Facebook comments after 12 months. Right?

Baker Street

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Baker Street,

While I’m not a social scientist, I do think about stuff like this, and it seems to me there is a good reason why an experience of betrayal by the group would continue to appear painfully in your thoughts long after its occurrence. I think it is about banishment and exile, about being shunned. It’s not so much about the hurtful words that were said. Nor, I suspect, is it about the truth of what was said. Rather, it is the recognition of banishment. Psychologically, emotionally and indeed organically we depend on the group for survival.

When you leave your family for the first time to live on a college campus, you transfer your dependence and your allegiance from family to social group. So it would seem reasonable to assume that the social group would then be as vital to you, psychologically, as the family was. Your animal nature would perceive the group as the source of shelter and food and protection, just as your family played that role.

So when you find that they have betrayed you, it sets off alarm bells deep in your primitive, survival-oriented self. It’s not that you’ll have nothing to eat, necessarily (although in the dining hall you may find yourself eating alone, guarding your tray like a prisoner does). It is that you have been kicked out, forced to wander. Imagine what it would be like to be literally shunned by all communities, if you had to wander from village to village. Imagine that you had been branded an outcast, and every village you came to, hungry, thirsty and lonely, the villagers would see this ugly brand and turn you away.

Now here is the thing about cosmopolitan society and the modern world. We don’t live in no fucking village. We are free to wander. You can go to California and call yourself Dolly or Nikita. You can be the stranger about whom all one knows is what you tell them. You can go somewhere where nobody sees the mark, or if they see it they do not realize that it is a brand of banishment. They don’t know what it is. It’s just a mark. You can say it’s a birthmark.

That is what we do, those of us who are different. That is what is so merciful about modern technological and postindustrial society: We are free to come and go and define who we are.

Except — and this is the weird thing: Social networking on the Internet seems to be taking us back to the primitive village where everybody knows our business and everybody can see the mark.

So you may have to disappear from the Internet, just as, in former times, you might have found it necessary to disappear from a village in which you had found yourself unjustly shunned and betrayed.

(Isn’t that interesting: While modern cities have long offered the iconoclast a geographic anonymity, the collapse of physical distance brought about by the Internet has put us all in a tiny village with no curtains — a village, incidentally, full of nosy parkers and busybodies! It’s a very annoying place at times, now that our faces are on it!)

That’s the interesting thing to me, anyway: that the technology of social networking seems to be dragging us away from the anonymous cosmopolitan and toward the tribal. I’m not sure I’m so crazy about that. I sort of like the unlimited opportunities of the modern urban situation, where you can come into town and reinvent yourself, as so many of us did in the pre-Internet San Francisco and pre-Internet New York.

So my advice to you: Get off the Net and travel, physically, to an urban setting that loves gay people and is hospitable to outsiders, where you can reinvent yourself on your own terms. And accept the fact that this was a deep and shattering betrayal and it will probably come up in your thoughts from time to time. That’s just the way we work.

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I’m lonely

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Cary’s classic column from

I’ve kept my HIV-positive status to myself except for one time — and that person doesn’t communicate with me anymore.


Dear Cary,

I really like the humane advice you give and I need some myself.

I am HIV positive and have known this for 15 years now, ever since I was in my mid-20s. Since I have never had an associated illness (never even a symptom), am doing well on the available medications, and do not fit the profile that many people associate with the condition, hardly anyone knows about my status.

This is how I want it. I vowed from the beginning that I would live a “normal” life as long as possible. I am also very aware that telling people puts a great burden on them because they have to live with upsetting knowledge, and I also fear distorting friendships by having people feel sorry for me (which I dread), or people sticking around when they really don’t like me just because they feel somehow obliged to.

At the same time, as I’m sure you can imagine, it gets very lonely, and this includes time spent with support groups (which I have not found very useful in my case). Apart from the existential issues, there are the very visible and practical ones: You have to hide to pop all your pills, you have to take them with or without food, you get tired, your body changes in bizarre ways, you have to make up excuses at work for why you have so many doctor’s appointments. Just covering, lying and planning all this is exhausting.

It is also true that I do get very depressed, in a way that I don’t think I would if I was negative. Inevitably, friends notice this and it seems downright inexplicable to them, since on the outside I seem to have a lot going for me.

That’s my prelude. A couple of weeks ago, fed up with the constant dissembling and lying, I “outed” myself to a friend in an e-mail (we live some distance apart and all our communications are by e-mail.) This was an unusual thing for me to do, but I just wanted this person to understand me a bit better, in particular, understand why I get anxious and down when no obvious explanation exists. There is no question of any (sexually) intimate relationship between us — we have talked about some very personal topics in the past, and I decided to step out of my comfort zone and include this one.

Well, two weeks later, no response, whereas normally we communicate several times per week.

I feel awful. You feel so vulnerable when you disclose information like this — you only do so if you feel you can totally trust the person. I mean, trust the person to behave with compassion, solidarity and maturity. I guess the silence means I misplaced my trust. I am also angry with myself for my poor judgment, for making myself vulnerable to someone who obviously doesn’t share my own values about being there for friends in need.

Cary, are my reactions appropriate, in your opinion? Should I take this as a lesson to shut up in the future — once bitten, twice shy? I would also like to take this opportunity of conveying to your readers that should they ever find themselves on the receiving end of information like this, the worst thing they can do is withdraw in silence. If you can’t think of what to say, at least say that you can’t think of what to say.

Also, if ever this person does make contact with me again, what would be the best way for me to handle it? It is hard for me to judge, since I am so used to being the bearer of bad tidings and not the recipient (except from my doctor).

Wondering Alone

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Dear Wondering,

I applaud you for having the courage to out yourself this one time, and I’m sorry it did not turn out better. I think you have taken on far too heavy a burden of secrecy, and this painful first step should be followed by a second and a third, which should be progressively less painful, so that eventually you can come out of this mode of secrecy altogether. It is far too much work to hide such a thing; should the disease eventually weaken you, it will be an unsupportable burden. You deserve to live in a community of compassionate people who do not need to be deceived. The only way you can find such people is to trust them with your truth. Some may react badly. Most, I think you will find, will respond like human beings.

Not only do you deserve to be able to live honestly and openly with your disease, but those who truly care about you also deserve to know the truth. You can’t control what their reactions will be; that is the risk you must take to live in community with others.

I think your advice about how to accept such information is splendid. People often do the wrong thing when they hear such news. I think part of the reason is that we overestimate the amount of influence our behavior has on others. We think that if we say the wrong thing we will devastate someone else. We think if we reveal our disease that others will be incapacitated, unable to respond. And if we find a case in which that is so, we tend to see it as proof. But I do believe at the heart of this over-regard for others is a kind of over-regard for our own importance. The truth, I believe, is that while others are more capable of compassion than we might surmise, they are also not quite as concerned with us as we would like to believe. That is, we are not the center of their lives. So when we deliver such news it is often neither as devastating as we fear nor as earthshakingly important as we would wish.

Further, when, believing that we must control what is known about us, we habitually act with deception, we may hide the particulars but what we reveal is the pattern of deception itself; people may not perceive that we are HIV positive; they just perceive that we are deceptive.

I understand your desire not to become an emotional burden, but I think you have taken it too far, and everyone will benefit if you began confiding in others about your status.

And if that person you first confided in should finally get back to you, try to stick to the facts. Just say you noticed that after you said you were HIV positive, you didn’t hear anything for quite a while, and that it was hurtful, and see if you can have a frank and open discussion about it.

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