Category Archives: loneliness

CTFlyer200

I am a lone cow

 
Write for Advice

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

TuscanAd_2015

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

CTFlyer200

Guys keep dumping me

 

Write for Advice
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

TuscanAd_2015

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

CTFlyer200

I was betrayed by people I trusted

Write for Advice

 

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.

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

CTFlyer200

I’m lonely

Write for Advice

 

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

France_Ad_border_062314

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

WhatHappenedNextCall