Do I love my wife enough?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 4, 2005

I’m a middle child, abandoned by my eldest brother. Did I marry just for security?


Dear Cary,

I am the third of five children. My oldest brother, by six years, ran away from home repeatedly during his teenage years. When he finally reached adulthood he flew the coop for good. As far as I know, my parents weren’t abusive, irresponsible or neglectful. We were a typical middle-class family in a typical middle-class town. By all accounts my brother was a smart fellow. Yes, he dabbled with pot and hung out with some rough kids but nothing beyond the norm.

Twenty years later I’m a 35-year-old husband and father of two. Looking back, I believe I may have responded to the incidents involving my brother by developing an exaggerated need for acceptance based on a deep fear of inadequacy. After all, my thinking goes, if my brother wasn’t able to stand up to this world, what hope have I? Granted, this is all navel-gazing self-assessment, but it feels right to me … this week.

So here’s where it gets sticky. I think I may have gotten married simply because my wife loves me. The prospect of a doting partner seemed too good to pass up, so I didn’t. And the life we’ve created together is wonderful in many ways. She’s a fantastic mother to our miraculous children. We live a very comfortable life and spend more time together as a family than most. But I’m not sure that I love my wife. It pains me to say it. I like her very much, but I don’t miss her when she’s gone. I don’t know if this makes it any clearer, but I don’t yearn for her. And I don’t think I ever did.

Where does this leave me? I cherish my family and don’t want to lose it. Should I soldier on under the “Nothing’s Perfect” banner? I think I could be happy enough. But is happy enough … enough?

Reluctant to Run Away

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Dear Reluctant,

It may not be necessary to your happiness to love your wife in the way you think you are supposed to. And it certainly would be foolish and cruel to announce one day that you are abandoning your family simply because you’re not sure your passion is of the correct wattage. So I think the wise and thoughtful thing to do is to delve into this absence you have discovered, to come to know its nature and its meaning.

What if it is true that you married your wife less because you loved her than because you wanted to be loved by her? That would not necessarily be some shameful revelation upon which the union and all its issue must perforce be scattered to the winds. It would be, rather, a fortunate realization — one that complements your larger sense of yourself as a middle child deeply wounded by your oldest brother’s desertion. Sometimes we seek to be desired rather than to be the desiring one because we cannot risk another idolized, idealized figure walking out on us. It would be too much. So we seek safe harbor.

I’m a middle child myself. I’m next to the youngest of five. I find comfort in the confines of compromise; I say, I’ll go if you’re going. I wait for a traffic signal before walking. But all the while — and I’m not sure if this is just me, or if this also is part of the middle child’s dilemma — I’m keenly aware of the opposite of nurture in my nature, the jealous will to extermination buried under an affable skin, the drive to excel that threatens the order. We do tend to explode, don’t we? We do so much for others and then we blow up, suddenly, when we don’t get enough in return — when our unwritten contract is violated.

So I express my crazy will to excellence as service to others. It’s safer that way. Hence, duh, big surprise that I would become the empathic writer of advice, no? — aching to dazzle and amaze, but all the while maintaining that virgin face of humble service!

Ah, the middle child deluxe!

I recognize your doubt about the intensity of your own emotions, but I wonder if it may not be so much related to your birth order itself as to your grief over your brother’s departure. Did you ever grieve his going? I mean really grieve it? Perhaps there is more feeling there than you thought. Postponement of such a thing can sort of put everything on hold, as though all our feelings were in line at the post office, waiting to be weighed, stamped and canceled. Maybe you have a lot more feeling to do yet before you can feel everything you feel for your wife. When was the last time you broke down and cried unexpectedly?

So, just to be clear: If you were to leave your wife and children, you would be not only be repeating your brother’s abandonment but also setting out on a likely fruitless journey. Whatever feelings you seek reside within you already.

You’re at a crucial point in your life. You could easily make the wrong decision. So I urge you to look at your history and understand why you’re stuck. You seem right on the verge of understanding. Somewhere close at hand, perhaps among the stifled tears over a brother’s departure, I think you will find the passion and yearning that you seem to have misplaced.

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Hard choice: Husband or job?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Apr 16, 2012

We’re 4,000 miles apart. He wants me to join him but I don’t want to sit around the house


Dear Cary,

I got married about three months ago to a man I truly love and respect. We are both doctorates in the same field in the sciences. We’ve always been long distance — we met in undergrad, seven years ago, but started dating only three years ago when we were both in grad school on opposite sides of the country. He finished his degree a year ahead of me, and started his new job in a city on the East Coast.

My problem is that upon graduating, I had a very hard time finding a job in my husband’s city. I had a good offer from a city 4,000 miles away, and have come here now to work. But I wonder if it was the right thing to have done and I am still applying to jobs in husband’s city. We are both miserable, he wants me to come back and give up the job. (He can’t leave his job right now because he is in the middle of a project and has to stick around for at least another year.) He keeps telling me that I should go back and live with him, and we should face our problems together.

I would love to go back as soon as I get a job offer and I have told him so. However, he thinks I should go back even if I don’t get a job offer in his city, as we are meant to be together now and he makes enough to support us both. But I don’t think I will be happy just sitting at home. I should mention that my current job in a faraway city is far from my dream job, but it comes with very good money (about 1.5 times what he makes) and I like being busy. I love my husband very much and cry myself to sleep sometimes, but I would still take being employed and being lonely over being unemployed and being together.

Is he wrong in asking me to leave the job without an offer from his city, or am I wrong in being unwilling to leave my current job before I get an offer from his city?

Thank you,
Confused

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Dear Confused,

If marriage is an arrangement in which the husband is in charge and the wife must obey, then of course you would have to sacrifice what you want and join him. But if marriage is a negotiated project between equals, then it’s not a matter of who is right and who is wrong but a matter of negotiation. And that is what your marriage sounds like: a modern partnership in which each partner negotiates, and in which each partner’s personality and aspirations weigh equally.

It is a partnership built on love but material considerations are not shrugged off. We know that love does not conquer all. Love conquers some, and geography conquers some. Economics conquers some, and personality conquers some.

The luxury of romantic love that remains in the modern, negotiated marriage is the recognition that feelings do have a place. They may not justify recklessness but they deserve to be heard. He wants you. He wants you there with him. That is a real feeling. It doesn’t have to be sensible. It arises from passion. It is his feeling. It is real. It is what he wants. That doesn’t mean he will get it. He must negotiate. When he asks you to leave your job and come live with him, he is asking because that is what he wants. It doesn’t have to be the smart thing or the thing that will make you happy. He can still express his wish. It does not have the force of right. It is simply how he feels. So perhaps you can give him some of what he wants. Perhaps you can visit him.

Visit him as often as you can while you work this out. Give him some of what he wants. But be vigilant in meeting your own dreams and aspirations as well.

In a word: Negotiate.

My children were abused

Cary’s classic column from  Monday, Aug 12, 2013

I live with an awful history, and sometimes it is too much for me


Dear Cary,

I am writing with a problem that makes my heart physically ache.

Let me briefly lay the groundwork first, and then I will present the problem. I was married for almost 20 years to a man who had three children from his first marriage. We had three more ourselves, and I legally adopted my oldest stepdaughter when she turned 18. My stepchildren’s mother is extremely abusive, and all three of them were physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by her or her relatives. While I understand that she herself was a victim of the same behavior from her own family members, I cannot condone the perpetuation of the cycle. My adopted child (now 34) has worked really hard to separate herself from the traumas of her youth, only now to find that her father, my ex-husband, has now replaced her mother as the perpetrator of abuse in her life.

This daughter has a nice husband, a steady job in a call center, and a lovely son from a previous relationship. She also suffers from a mysterious auto-immune disease and severe chronic pain that nothing alleviates. She has mental problems that show up as bipolar but are probably more like PTSD. The more I study about bodywork, the more I understand that these conditions are outward manifestations of everything she has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of her natural parents.

My firstborn was molested by my stepson, and raped by a neighbor’s grandson, but when we found out (years later, since she was too ashamed to tell us) my husband dismissed it as normal children’s sexual exploration. I caved in and never pressed charges. I will regret forever that I was not able to a) prevent it and b) stand up to my then-husband and do what was right by our daughter. It took me years also to grow enough of a spine to file for divorce. (As you might correctly surmise, our relationship was a perfect match of emotional abuser and willing victim … until I finally broke and had to make a change.)

Despite these things that happened, believe it or not, I do not regret my marriage. We had a marvelous time for a good long while. I learned about not only practical matters (confidence with power tools, for example), but even in the disintegration of the relationship I learned a lot: to stand up for myself, to make changes, to be really honest and intimate in ways that I never was able to before. I had to go through the fire and the dark tunnels and every other metaphor of shame, guilt, depression, etc., and find my strength there.  By going through all that, plus therapy, plus going back to school, I was really able to change myself for the better. Relationships with my children, my parents and my friends all improved because of me learning how to communicate.

What my ex will never comprehend is that the divorce itself was actually an act of love and compassion on my part, because neither of us could be our best person with each other. My hope was that both of us individually could be better people, better parents, happier and more functional than we were as a couple. He was, however, devastated and retreated into self-medication with alcohol, medical marijuana and opiates, as well as bad-mouthing me to his entire family and our children.

The problem as it stands now is that my ex-husband, who is chronically unemployed and now lives on disability, continues to rain abuse on his eldest daughter, most recently accusing her of dealing her prescription painkillers to her 14-year-old brother (my youngest child), being a heroin addict and flaunting her “wealth” in his face (because she occasionally buys him groceries and little gifts). Out of all six of his children she is the one who has been most steadfastly determined to be kind and loving and financially supportive of him, and she receives for her efforts only more abuse and pain. My biological children all refuse to see him or speak to him. I have a hard time watching him deteriorate this way. There seems to be nothing left of the man that I fell in love with. And of course, my children have lost their father, not to death or disappearance, but to some mental illness that prevents him from being a loving parent. This hurts me the most.

Is there any other advice than “let go”? Cut all ties and never look back?

I apologize for the very long letter, but I felt that I needed to explain myself thoroughly. I hope you might find the chance to answer this letter among so many others that call out for your attention. At the very least, writing this has been helpful to ease my mind and my heart.

Best wishes,
E

Dear E,

It makes sense that you would want to cut all ties and never look back. But that is probably not possible. It wouldn’t work. You are tied to these people. They are your family.

But you can make adjustments — as you seem to have done already.

In a practical sense, you can do more of what is working and less of what is not. Make that your daily method. In the morning, think about what is coming up in the day, and find time to do more of the things that work for you, and try to eliminate the things that don’t work. If you can avoid seeing certain people in the family whose presence distresses you, then avoid them. If you can write more letters and contemplate your life more, if you can spend more time with supportive friends, then do more of that.

You can be strong for your daughter. You can advise her to cut ties with her father, because he is only bringing her grief. And you can protect yourself. You can, in a sense, abandon these people. Recognizing that there is nothing you can do anymore, you can step back. I know that probably sounds trite, like just “let go.” In fact, what I am saying is that “letting go” is a positive thing but it is not an abstraction; it is a constant practice.

How do you get through such things? This, right now, is exactly how you get through it: You tell your story. You do what works. If writing this letter made you feel better, then write 10 such letters. Write a hundred letters. Write every day.

You know that there is no one complete solution to life’s suffering. But there are changes you can make. And you have to keep making them. You have to keep making adjustments because new things will always arise. Your ex-husband may continue to get worse. Your daughter may suffer continuing bouts of terror and depression and trauma. So you have to keep doing the things that work for you, and do more when you can.

You can also strengthen your capacity to hold and process the feelings that do come up; you can strengthen the way you hold the memories you have. You can strengthen your inner self so that when you think of these things they do not rock you back on your heels. You can learn to see the patterns in all this, to understand how it fits together. And you can also learn to honor the darkness, the ways in which there is no pattern but only evil. You can learn to respect the presence of evil; if not honor it, at least to abide it, so you are not surprised by it or defeated by it, so you can look it in the eye and be stronger than it.

This means calling upon your warrior spirit, your spirit of pure survival. Lately I have been thinking about the warrior spirit in all of us, the aggressive spirit. If you can think back to the act of being born, you can remember that when we are born we are fighting to the surface and we are pure aggression. We want to survive and that is all. We want to come into the world and that is all we know. This birth memory can serve you well. Remember that part of you that is pure survival instinct. It is strong.

So, no, I don’t have any great solutions, other than to trust yourself and the solutions you have already found, and to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, and trust your instincts about how to survive these terrible things, and look for the strength in yourself; feel the strength inside. Revel in your own strength, so when awful thoughts and memories arise, you can contain them.

There is no complete solution to living with awful things that have happened. There is only how you live with it day to day, with a strong, vibrant warrior’s spirit.

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My husband is making me suspicious

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 17, 2006

He’s e-mailing an ex-girlfriend and chatting with strange women — and he gets defensive when I mention it.


Dear Cary,

I can’t tell if I’m paranoid or justified at this point, and maybe you won’t be able to tell, either, but I guess I just need someone else to think about this for a minute, because I’m exhausted.

I’ve been married for 13 years. We’ve had our ups and down, but thankfully, it’s been mostly up. We’ve got a small collection of children of various ages, and a busy, engaged life.

A few months ago, I got up early one morning to find my husband’s e-mail open, and in particular, a letter minimized on the screen. Clueless, I opened it, and was horrified to read a rather plaintive and deeply personal letter to his ex-girlfriend. Reading the entire letter, and the history of the e-mail trail as it bounced along, I was quick to realize he had been searching for her.

I chose not to say anything, because I couldn’t figure out what to say, other than I was hurt that he hadn’t told me about the contact.

A few weeks ago, he asked me to open his e-mail while he was at work to retrieve a phone number. Not only was there further communication from her, there was also communication from other women, like the women at the bank where he does business, and it referenced phone calls. There was nothing overtly sexual about them, but they were personal. When I managed to work one of the women’s names into a conversation, he flat-out lied to me and denied ever talking to her or writing to her. I know he did. I saw it.

I don’t know what to do. After I saw the last contacts, I confronted him. He’s furious with me, just spitting mad that I read his e-mail. I’m furious that it appears that he is trolling for women on the Internet. He says they are all just friends, but this isn’t like him. And my internal radar has gone off so loudly I can hardly hear anything else. He says it’s in my head, and it may be. I think the better guess is that he’s cheating, or planning to cheat, and he’s angry that he’s been caught.

Any ideas on the next step? He’s insisting that I’m paranoid and that he’s never given me reason to doubt him. I think writing and calling women secretively is a pretty big reason to have pause.

On Shaky Ground

Dear On Shaky Ground,

I can’t know whether he is cheating or thinking about cheating. But I suggest you give some thought to the following.

Is it OK in principle for him to have female friends that you don’t know about? Are there specific women friends that make you feel uncomfortable?

If there are, I suggest you tell him: When you communicate with your ex-girlfriend, I feel threatened. Or: These particular women make me uneasy.

You may be thinking that he should just know. But it is possible that he doesn’t. So get very specific.

What about thoughts? What if he communicates with a woman and wonders what it would be like to put his hand on her motorcycle? What if he actually touches her motorcycle? Does he have to tell you that? What if he touches her motorcycle but they don’t ride anywhere?

This could get tedious. But what I’m getting at is that you may have a detailed map in your head of what is OK and not OK but he doesn’t know that map very well. He needs to get to know that map.

Consider the problem of building and repairing trust, as discussed in this dry but possibly useful article. Reading and thinking about this might help you come to see trust as an actual phenomenon that needs to be strengthened and understood in your relationship.

This much is clear: He may be telling the truth, and he may be being candid. But he is not being candid enough to suit you. You require more trust-building behavior from him. I hope you can get it.

He wants you to trust him more. How can he get you to trust him more? Perhaps he can be more transparent and forthcoming in his accounts of his whereabouts, his comings and goings, his entrances and exits, his kisses and his handshakes, whom he writes to and how, how he talks to whom and for what reason and about what topics.

What is this, a prison? He may ask. Yes, you might reply: It is the prison of profound responsibility.

Faking it

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 4, 2004

Can I stop him from going by pretending to come?


Dear Cary,

I am an attractive young woman who is married to a man I love and trust very much. I love sharing my life with my husband, coming home and telling stories of our day, cooking dinner together, going on trips together, laughing, bitching, cuddling, hiking, shopping, and having adventures together. ‘Til death do us part.

I also love making love with my husband — though with far less frequency than when we first got together three years ago. But here’s what’s weird: I never have an orgasm. I’ve had sex with several men before my husband and though I also enjoyed sex then — same thing. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that a man has brought me to orgasm at all.

That’s not the real problem, though it’s a problem, to be sure. The problem I want to discuss is the fact that my husband doesn’t know any of this. I mean, I fake it. I always have. Why? Now that I’m with him, a man I can share so many things with — it seems sad and silly. But I faked it when I started having sex in high school because I was in high school and I didn’t know any better. Then I faked it in college because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t actually have an orgasm and it would be just so exhausting to try and I wanted to save guys the effort and the weirdness of having sex with someone who’s never really totally present.

Finally, when I met my husband several years ago, I knew he was different. I didn’t want to lie to him. I faked it early on but convinced myself that I just needed to try harder and to focus more and I could do it. Without involving him. I managed a few times, but far more often, it’s just easier to enjoy sex on the level that I’m accustomed to: enjoying the closeness, the pleasure — but not the intense physical pleasure of orgasm. But then it was too late to tell him. He takes such delight in my pleasure that I can’t imagine what telling him now would do to him and his self-esteem.

Obviously there are a lot of issues here, physiological and psychological ones, like why I’m unable to orgasm with a man (but perfectly able to do so myself) and why I feel the need to fake it. But the real question I want answered is: Is it possible that my marriage is as good as I believe it is? How weighty is this secret, really? Isn’t it possible that — though this does bother me — I am still capable of having a happy, healthy marriage? Or am I in denial that this is always going to be a huge roadblock in our marriage?

I don’t know what to think about this problem, let alone do! Please help!

Cold Fish

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Dear Cold Fish,

First I will try to answer the question you want answered. Then I will try to answer the question you don’t want answered.

I will do this because questions can be a form of control, and if control is part of the problem (as it is in your case), then it’s time to take a little of that control away from you, to tie you up a little, to shush your mouth and find a place in that quick and agile brain of yours for a new and contrary idea.

The question you want answered is: Can your marriage be as good as you think it is, even though you have been deceiving your husband in this way? The answer is yes, it may be as good as you think it is, even with the deception. Your inability to have an orgasm during intercourse with your husband is not necessarily some dark indicator of a fundamental rift, but simply, for the moment, a common physiological fact. It’s one you share with many women. Basically you can stop worrying that failure to come during intercourse means there’s something deeply wrong with your marriage.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeply wrong, however — which brings us to the question that you don’t want answered: Is it your role to shield your husband from the truth about you? This is the new and contrary idea that perhaps you don’t want to hear. No, it’s not your role to shield your husband from the truth about you. Such “protection,” however well-intended, is a form of control and disrespect. It is not as benign as you might like to believe. It may have larger implications beyond the bedroom.

It’s easy to understand how you got into this mess. A friend of mine was startled to find, when she took a poll at a dinner party, that she was the only woman there who had never faked an orgasm. She was the only one who even felt that it was a big deal. When she asked a prostitute friend of hers about the issue, she got another interesting fact: “I only fake it when I’m getting paid,” said the prostitute — which has some interesting implications, doesn’t it?

Sex between men and women often begins as mercenary barter in which each party, by seeking maximum pleasure and minimum pain, in effect makes an economic choice to minimize disclosure and maximize deception.

This is true as regards human vanity, in which a man may suck in his belly and a woman hide her thighs; it is true as regards emotional attachment, in which each party maintains the maximum of ambivalence lest unwanted commitments arise; and it is true as regards our desire to appear to be utterly sated, to exaggerate the pleasure we have derived from the encounter.

Why should this last form of deception be so important? It is, but why? Showing the other that we are pleased maximizes our options for repeat encounters. If we show displeasure, we limit our future chances. Furthermore, there is nothing creepier than bad sex, but bad sex is only truly bad sex when it is mutually acknowledged. Even the worst bad sex can be passed off as only mildly bad sex if both parties pretend, with great intensity, that it was really, really great.

So sex itself is far from a raw unpeeling of our true selves; more than many of us care to admit, it involves great deception.

At least that’s how it often is in the beginning, especially between two people who really don’t know each other all that well. As sex progresses, however, in a relationship — and this is what we all know about its legendary capacity — it does have the power to radically strip us of every shred of pretense and bare our souls to each other and to the heavens as nothing else can. So naturally as a sexual relationship progresses, if the heavens do not open and the deception does not fall away but instead endures and indeed, because it must, increases in its variation and virtuosity, then naturally the sense that something is wrong does become sharper with every episode.

What happens, it seems to me, is that the various ways we deceive each other during sex become, after a while, a tool of emotional control in the relationship. Or at least it seems to have become so in your case.

Since women are often assigned the role of emotional caretaker in a relationship, a woman can gain power by “protecting” a man from the truth about her emotions and her body. Men collaborate in this deception by giving women a hard time when the truth is finally told.

We men can change that over time, but it takes work. We need practice in coaxing out the difficult truth and welcoming it, giving it a home, living with it. We need to work at doing this and get better at it so that the great knowledge women harbor becomes more available to us. Women know more than we can ever get out of them, but we have only touched the surface of the reservoir so far. And that is the area in which I believe you are doing your husband a great disservice: You are allowing him to wallow in his ignorance. He deserves the truth.

We all deserve the truth from the women in our lives but we will get it only if we work at it. We have to offer rewards to the women who tell us the truth. No woman wants to tell the truth if it’s met with scorn, resentment, defensiveness or abuse. So we men have to create an environment in which women can and do tell us the truth about how they feel and what they want.

But it’s a 50-50 proposition. And in this case, I think you have to come clean.

The problem with “having a talk” — you know, sitting at the kitchen table all evening drinking tea and trying to “understand” each other — is that talk sometimes makes it worse; it makes the next sexual encounter awkward and fraught with anxiety. So I suggest, though it sounds a little nutty, that you disclose this fact during the act of sex itself. The next time you’re having sex, instead of acting out an orgasm, act out your disclosure with the same thespian enthusiasm; let loose with your confession at the top of your lungs: “I’m not coming! I’m not faking! I’m not coming! I’m not faking!” Don’t interrupt the sex act. If your husband pauses, just say “Harder! Harder!”

Later, when he says, “What the hell was that?” you can tell him, with genuine contrition, that you were afraid all these years that if he knew you weren’t coming he might think you were inadequate, or that he himself was inadequate, and now you know neither one of you is inadequate but that your orgasm could be a goal you could work on together. Now you know your only inadequacy is your fear of losing him. Your only inadequacy was your mistaken belief that you could stop him from going by pretending to come.

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Fear of fat

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, APR 12, 2004

I am going to marry a man I love, but he says if I gain a lot of weight he might leave me.


Dear Cary,

I am engaged to a fantastic person. For the first time I feel I am with someone who loves me for who I am, and not for who they want me to be. He loves it all, the good and the ugly, and that leaves me feeling very at ease in this relationship. I also feel I’ve come to a point in my maturity where I can reciprocate such a love.

In the course of planning our wedding, certain issues have come up that never seem to come up until the reality of spending the rest of your lives together is concrete and imminent. We’ve weathered all of these touchy areas (our mutually dysfunctional family histories, our finances) very well. But there is one thing that has come up a few times that I’ve been unable to resolve and I don’t know if I’m oversensitive about it or whether I have real cause for concern.

Once, when we were discussing various statistics I’ve read about the success rates of marriage, he asked me on what grounds would I ever divorce him. I had to wrack my brain to think of something that would make me want to lose this valuable person from my life. Almost anything seemed workable when I thought about it. So, I threw out something that seemed not even remotely possible: child molestation. When I returned the question, I expected to get back an equally morally reprehensible reason, something he knew I would never act upon. Instead, he said, “Well, if you gained a lot of weight, I would probably divorce you.”

I was more than surprised and I argued with him that he should love me as a person, not for my body, and that there were a myriad of reasons that I could gain weight, other than pure lack of concern for my health and/or laziness. To him, though, me gaining 50 or so pounds meant that I would become undesirable to him and that I had no concern for his desire for me and that I had changed as a person.

It hasn’t really come up since then, but last night we were watching a program about obese teens, and he made the comment that he was glad I didn’t weigh as much as one of the profiled teenage girls did. I made a joke about being glad as well, but his comments about my gaining weight have been buzzing annoyingly in my mind.

Growing up, I had issues with weight control. I starved myself for a few months as a teenager, but upon hearing from friends that I looked unwell, I began eating again. My stepmother would weigh and measure me every time I went to visit my father until I was finally old enough to tell her to shut up. I had a relationship in my early 20s with a vegan boy who asked me to become vegan in order to maintain the relationship. When he caught me eating (horrors!) something with dairy in it, he’d berate me, calling me weak and unfaithful. My current partner has never made me feel this way and part of me feels he thinks my gaining weight is as unlikely as him committing a sexual crime. I guess I just find his attitudes toward obesity judgmental and not compassionate.

It is unlikely that I would gain an unusual amount of weight, but I don’t like the worry of doing so hanging over my head. Am I being overly insecure because of my past experiences or do I have real reason to feel wary of moving forward with this person? In nearly every cell of my being, I feel positive and secure about marrying this person, but I can’t let this issue go.

Worried

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Dear Worried,

I think you have real cause for concern. If you have a history of susceptibility to body weight issues, and he has an unusually intense interest in your own weight, I think that’s a recipe for trouble. Neither you nor he seems to have a great problem in and of itself, but when you’re paired, you’re like catalysts for each other.

I think you should talk to him again about this theoretical question and find out if he was kidding. If not, it could be trouble. I’m no expert, and so the opinions of some experts would be helpful here. But as a connoisseur of madness, I believe we all carry the seeds of self-treachery, that we sometimes secretly seek out people who hold the keys to our own destruction. Anorexia seems to be a disease of body-hatred, or self-hatred. To put a finer point on it, perhaps we seek to become divine by freeing ourselves of the gross material and animal forces that circumscribe our reality, that burden us with birth, life, eating, shitting, disease and death. We try to displace those irksome terms of service with standards of eternal beauty through thinness and wasting. If so, if that’s what the disease is all about, then you may have found the perfect person to trigger that disease, and are thus in some danger of succumbing to it.

You may in fact have that disease in some latent form, and have sought out this man — or your disease has sought out this man — so it can fulfill itself. (As addicts sometimes do.) If he were to threaten to leave you if you did not stay thin, perhaps you think you need a man to threaten to leave you so that you can stay thin.

Part of the problem is the assumption that there is a real you that can be loved apart from your body. I’m not sure how much sense that makes. If there were a real you that could be loved apart from your body, what’s the sense in getting married? Why not just be loved at a distance? Love is not an abstract essence; it is a behavior. Love is an action performed on a body. I don’t necessarily mean sex itself, but I do mean that you have to be there for love — you bring your body with you. That’s a bit of a tangent, but I get the feeling that the mind-body split has much to do with the weight problem: That if the mind were truly sovereign over the body, it could keep the body thin, and thus the refusal to eat is a declaration of sovereignty over the animal. At the root of that is the false notion that the two are split. No better evidence could arise of its falsity than the fact that when the mind gains sovereignty over the body and stops it from eating, the body dies, and with it, presumably, the all-sovereign mind.

The mind is presumed to die unless, allied with the disease of anorexia, there is a belief in afterlife. I haven’t really looked into what dead anorexics believed. It’s a terrible and tragic thing, and I don’t mean to treat it cavalierly: What you hear in my voice, I think, is not a cavalier attitude, really, but an exasperated and tragic anger, such as that I feel when I see heroin addicts die, such as that I feel as I watch Courtney Love fall apart in front of our eyes, such as I’ve felt when I’ve seen my friends die from drugs and alcohol. It’s not pretty and it’s not funny.

So I’m begging you now, get some help from an expert on eating disorders.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I left an abusive marriage, and now I’m in love with a thief

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, DEC 12, 2007

If we move in together, should I buy a safe?


Hi Cary,

I recently escaped a long-term (by today’s standards), abusive marriage. I’ve done remarkably well for myself, I think, and I feel like I have my shit together. I became reacquainted with an old friend about a year after my divorce, and we became a couple. He’s everything my ex was not: kind, considerate, expressive, gentle and loving — in addition to being funny, smart, inquisitive and wise. We are very much in love.

The problem? He has been sharing with me some of the details of his life that occurred while we were out of touch, and they’re not pretty. The latest confession involved stealing large sums of money from an incapacitated relative. I stopped him before he went into detail because I simply can’t imagine him doing that. It’s as if he’s talking about another person whom he knew once, not himself. And there have been other things from his younger, wilder days that really scare me. A lot.

So, my question to you is, to what extent do you think people can change? I would like this man to move in with me, but how do I tell him that I’m considering buying a safe so I can keep my financial papers secure? How can I trust someone who could do the things he’s saying he did? He does express regret, and assures me that he’s “not that person anymore.” But who is he now? And why the need to share this stuff?

I have a tendency to be suspicious of anyone who’s nice to me, but I think in this case I need to be careful and protect myself. Yet I don’t want to hurt him, as he has been nothing but good to me. So, tell me, do you think a tiger can change its stripes?

Worried and Wondering

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Dear Worried and Wondering,

I would really slow down with your plans to move in together. You need to know more. You need time to digest this troubling information, and you need time to set up a support system. By support system I mean a network of women who have been through what you have been through and who meet regularly and have a set of principles they live by so they don’t repeat.

You need to become part of such a group in order to get useful feedback on what you are doing. You are in the middle of this thing. You can’t really see it. I can’t see it either. But I can sense it: Some kind of dangerous pattern is replaying itself here. So I urge you to slow down and look outside of this relationship, to a counselor and/or a support group. Slow down and get some perspective. Identify the pattern.

Sure, I’ve seen people change their spots. But it isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, they don’t change on their own, and the spots remain underneath. I mean they can stop stealing from their relatives. They can stop getting into abusive relationships. But the forces and patterns are still there, so, without constant work with a group or a counselor, they often do other things that are just as baffling and dangerous but look different on the surface.

They don’t even mean to do it! That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.

This is something people don’t get: We don’t love doing it wrong. We don’t set out thinking consciously, I think I’ll rob my grandmother, and now that I’ve robbed my grandmother and told my new lover about it, I think I’ll rob my new lover.

It’s not like this guy you love is going to set out consciously to rob you. And it’s not like buying a safe is going to make you safe. I’m not going to set out consciously to go on a drinking spree. I’m not thinking it would be a great idea to go out and get drunk. But absent constant, steady messages from outside reminding me what will happen if I do, I’ll drift over that way. I’ll drift over to the bar. It has been a long time since I had a drink. But absent my routine, the constant reinforcing of messages, I’m drifting to the bar.

Furthermore, just putting a combination lock on the liquor cabinet isn’t going to solve anything. If I slip into a pattern of using substances to blunt reality, I’m done for. If this man you are with slips into a pattern of taking what isn’t his, the whole thing is already over.

You are in a dangerous situation and you need to go slowly. You need to talk to people who have been through what you have been through and who know about these patterns so you can see what you are doing.

It won’t be easy. The drive to repeat is enormously powerful. I think that is another thing people just don’t get: We are all about repetition. If we repeat the “good” habits, nobody is surprised. But when we repeat the “bad” habits, everybody is baffled. So I’m saying it’s not about the qualitative nature of what we repeat, it’s about the repetition itself. The drive to repeat is more powerful than we admit. It is at the heart of identity, for identity itself is nothing but a set of repeated actions.

It’s not that we think consciously, I’m going to really fuck up my life right now. We just love doing things the way we know how to do, the things that help us get to a place of feeling right. So if we can get to a place of feeling right by being with people who beat us and steal from us, well, it’s not that we really like people to beat us and steal from us. We wouldn’t just ask them outright, Hey, I’d feel more comfortable in this relationship if you would beat me and steal from me. I’m not saying “Blame the victim.” I’m saying: Beware how powerful are the forces that bring us together with our abusers.

And to that end: Do not be afraid to be overly cautious. Trust your caution, your instincts. You say you have a tendency to be suspicious of people who are nice to you. Well, what you call “being nice to you” may well be the insidious seduction that is a prelude to eventual abuse. So trust your mistrust. It may be the best friend you’ve got.

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The honeymoon’s over

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 28, 2004

I’ve been a wife for a week, but I already feel taken for granted.


Dear Cary,

Well, well, well, here I am, barely married a week. He’s the most kind, calm, sweet person I’ve ever met. Considerate, caring — you know, all those things for which we women cherish men.

He’s also sexy and totally into me. Well, sort of.

He’s got these friends. They get together occasionally (once every six weeks?) and fix computers all night and play computer games and drink themselves stupid. I usually spend these nights home (I’ve got two kids from a previous marriage), kind of waiting it out. Sometimes he comes home early-ish, (2 a.m.) and other times it’s late-ish (5 a.m.). I can’t sleep when he’s gone like this. I worry about accidents and him landing in jail and also what he’s doing. So I stay up and watch TV and feel kind of sick and very uncomfortable. This also impacts me the next day, because I work days. He used to work nights, but quit his job to find a day job, but he’s still on this night schedule, so he can have this night lifestyle and sleep all day.

The past few months, while he was with me making wedding arrangements, I couldn’t have been happier. When he saw his friends, it was usually for a game of disc golf in the evening and then home to me by 8 or 9 p.m. I hardly saw the friends (one came over to help him do yard work at my house, but that was pretty much it). Come the wedding, everyone had a great time, and we were off on our honeymoon.

Last week while on our honeymoon, he made arrangements to see one of these friends, his best friend, the day after the day we would get back in town, for a late-night computer-fixing drink fest.

So last night, he’s off festing and I’m lying in bed, married one whole week. I’m thinking, what is going on here? Is this normal behavior? Do guys just go off on benders so they keep their “one of the guys” status even though they’re married? Is that the right thing? I kind of feel left out too when he does this. (Why should I feel this way? I’ve had him all to myself for weeks!)

Today, I suggested that he “fest” during the day and gave him lots of reasons why. He agreed. Then, like 20 minutes later, he tells me that he and these friends are taking off for a weekend bachelor party camping trip in a couple of weeks.

All of a sudden, I feel like I got relegated to a somewhat derogatory role of “wife” instead of “girlfriend.”

Give me some realistic expectations here, Cary. I don’t want to be weird about this situation. I want him to have a happy life, have his friends, and have his fun. But I don’t want to sacrifice my well-being for sleepless nights either.

And I know marriage is a compromise. I get that perfectly. So — is this the compromise? An occasional sleepless night for me and an occasional night of craziness for him?

What do normal, sexy, happy couples in love do in this situation?

Dazed and Confused

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Dear Dazed and Confused,

Congratulations on your marriage, you blushing new bride. Sounds like you’ve got your hands full, what with the two kids and the new husband and all his friends.

Overall, though, if he’s getting together with his old buddies once every few weeks, it doesn’t sound too out of line. And if he’s still on a night schedule from a previous job, it’s not like he’s some inveterate nighthawk; sleep schedules can take some time to change.

Meanwhile, the key is to figure out what to do with yourself when all members of the family unit are not present. It might help to think back to what you used to do with your kids when you were home alone together, before you were married. Is it the waiting for him to come home that occupies your mind? Try to pretend that he’s away on a trip and not coming home at all. Go to sleep and forget about him.

But he’s not drinking and then driving home, is he? If he is, it’s no wonder you’re worried. I think you should insist that he find some other transportation. That’s something you should be firm about.

But it’s very difficult for a guy to maintain the healthy ties he has with other men once he gets married, and it will probably take some time to find ways that work. Eventually, his friends will get married one by one, and the old group will dissolve. Sad but true. Meantime, he has to try to preserve what is valuable, or sacred even, about his old ties with his buddies, and yet move into a new phase of an adult life of love and commitment. It’s not easy and there’s no set of clear instructions. You’re in a period of transition, so try to set up workable patterns, because whatever patterns you set up will tend to persist.

When I got married, the one thing I wanted to do was somehow involve all my friends in my life as a settled and proper married man — all the punks and anarchists and ne’er-do-wells who seemed to be my soul mates. Well, I didn’t really know how to do that and also achieve some semblance of order and safety in my married life. I still don’t. But I do the best I can. That’s all you can do.

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He does the dumbest things!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 5, 2004

I thought my husband was stupid, but he’s just got attention deficit disorder.


Dear Cary,

I’m 40 years old, married for 19 years, with three boys ages 4, 8 and 14, who are constantly and completely amazing to me. I never finished college and I married at 21.

I suppose that it’s also no surprise that a marriage that starts out so young is a rocky one, but we had a real revelation this week. For the past two months I had secretly been thinking, “You know, maybe the problem is just that he’s stupid.”

He does the dumbest things and makes the most ridiculous choices again and again and seems unable to think with any kind of logic. If he tries to clean our garage — which is like a cross between a junkyard and a toxic waste dump — he might find the car buffer, which would lead him to immediately go wax his truck, which would lead him to look inside the truck and decide to clean out the truck, where he might find a bill that’s overdue and he’ll end up sitting at his desk writing a check, having long forgotten that he was cleaning out the garage. His office is chaos, his truck is chaos, his business is chaos, and our life is not chaos only because I exhaust myself doing everything alone.

I’d been entertaining the idea that he’s just stupid and selfish and lazy and inconsiderate and then I read a description of adults with ADD that said, “They’re not stupid and selfish and lazy and inconsiderate. They need help.”

He’s willing to pursue treatment, but as with other changes in his life, it did not originate within himself but with my handing him the article and saying, “Look, maybe this is the problem.”

I’m not bucking for sainthood here. I was preparing to return to school, get my degree, get myself situated, and then get the hell out. I’ve been offering for the last year the appealing proposal that we find a duplex and live as a post-nuclear family — eating dinner together and sharing the parenting — just not sharing the living space. I don’t want other men — after 19 years of this, all I can think is, it’s too hard to get rid of the one I’ve got so, why the hell would I want another one? And I really don’t care if he entertains strippers and hookers all night as long as the kids don’t know.

I never wanted to look my boys in the face and say, “Your dad isn’t here because I can’t live with him. I know it makes you miserable, but hey, I’m happy.” I didn’t want to be the quitter, the bad guy — unless I had some proof of appalling behavior to hold up to people. It’s hard to explain to someone that you’re leaving your husband because of the condition of the garage.

People love this guy. He’s gregarious and funny. I guess I love him. I just wish he lived somewhere else.

He said to me last night when discussing getting treatment, “Well, part of this effort is going to have to come from you.” What I wanted to say was, “Fuck off!” Why is it my job to be the strong one who picks everyone up? Why is it when I went through a major depression I had to figure it all out on my own and seek treatment on my own and basically be completely responsible for myself and now, when he needs help, “Well, part of this effort is going to have to come from you.” Yeah, I know. It is. It is.

I don’t want to be my parents, still complaining and whining about my spouse and my miserable marriage after 40 years. But I’m almost halfway there, and I’m still complaining and whining about my miserable marriage. Will I regret breaking up my family, or will I regret choosing to continue a life in which I’ve never been happy?

Terri

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Dear Terri,

I loved your letter. It is filled with bitter wit and acrid observation, and beneath that you obviously have a huge, huge heart.

Here’s what I think: I think you stay. I think you stay and see this through and look for ways to be happy within the world you have chosen. Within the world you have chosen, you do not have to whine and be miserable. You have these three children who are a great joy to you. And you have this man whom you do indeed love.

You do love this man but you’ve let him tax you to the limit. You need a vacation. You need a massage. You need a weekend at a spa. You need some flowers. You need a nice meal at a nice restaurant and to come home to find the garage cleaned out by your 14-year-old — with the help of the 8-year-old and maybe even the 4-year-old. You need everybody to pull together.

How do you get there? I’m not sure. But you have the three boys on your side, of that I am sure. And you obviously have a great deal of leverage. I’ll bet there are books on this. I’ll bet there are techniques you can use to unify your family, divide the labor, and get yourself some breathing room. Perhaps the duplex idea can work. At least it shows that you are being creative. If the duplex idea can’t work, you can devise other structures to insulate you from your husband’s crushing disorganization and lethargy while he struggles to overcome his ADD. The 4-year-old will be in school soon, and your options will widen as he gets older and more independent. Perhaps you can go back to school part time. And you can look forward to improvement in your husband. So you can have some hope.

If you can swing it, get some help into your life. Get some support from other over-stressed mothers. There’s a group for everybody, isn’t there?

The only thing I urge you to do is to try to stay together with your husband for the sake of the kids. I’m not morally or religiously against divorce, but my observation, and my own experience, is that it is often destabilizing to children in ways that we don’t fully understand and can’t fully cure. That’s a definite cost, and I think in many cases the cost is simply too high.

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If I could do it over …

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 17, 2003

I’ve been with one woman for my adult life, but now I feel closer to someone else.


Dear Cary,

I am a 42-year-old man married for six years; previous to marriage, my wife and I were together for 15 years. Do the math, and you’ll see that I’ve been with her all my adult life. She is 10 years older than I am, with a grown daughter; we have no children. The one certain fact is that we love each other very much, in the deep way that comes both from the many years together and the work we’ve done together to keep the relationship alive.

So here’s “but.” I have a woman friend of 10 years (call her J), to whom I’ve always been attracted. Years ago, I persuaded myself that it was primarily a physical attraction, and that intellectually and emotionally, my connection to my wife was stronger and more important than anything else. It doesn’t feel that way now. I can’t point to anything that’s changed lately; it’s just a growing feeling that J is the person I feel closer to, feel more at ease with, and want to be with all the time. Maybe it’s the fact that she is the opposite of my wife in some key areas: She’s independent, financially responsible, stays on an even keel emotionally, and does not use her keen intellect as a weapon. Somehow, this remarkable, wonderful woman can’t seem to find a permanent mate and is still single.

J is not perfect; I don’t have her on a pedestal. And none of this is new. When I was deciding to ask my wife to marry me, I went through a process of weighing pros and cons and the equation included my attraction to J. If I could do it over again, I would come to a different conclusion.

The path of least resistance is to maintain the status quo. Even after allowing a proper interval for the dust to settle, there’s no guarantee that I could ever be anything more than friends with J. Separating from my wife would have to be couched in terms of wanting to be single to find a new relationship that would make me happier and more fulfilled. Putting it in those terms would force me to tell a half-truth — I would have a hidden agenda, an unappealing prospect. I just feel stuck and would really appreciate some compassionate advice that you’re so good at dispensing.

Ponderously Pondering the Possibilities

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Dear Ponderously,

I have pondered this and here is how I see it: Right now you have two good relationships, one with your wife and one with your friend. Neither one is perfect, but they are both good and valuable. And each has the capacity to grow and change, to become better. So you are in a pretty good spot. If you separate from your wife, you lose one of those relationships right off the bat. So you are down to one relationship, the weaker of the two, a relationship that might be weakened still by your new single status. It might blossom, but you have no reason to believe it would. Keep in mind, your independent friend may value the fact that you are married; your status may in fact form a boundary that makes the friendship possible. So you are contemplating throwing away one good relationship and putting another at risk in the hope that you will become happier and more fulfilled.

If you want to become happier and more fulfilled, I think there are less destructive, less risky, and more innovative ways to go about it.

The question you need to ask, I think, is: How unhappy are you now with your marriage? Are you so unhappy that it would be better to be alone? It’s normal to be unhappy at times, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is making you unhappy while you are still in your routine, so it is common to say, Well, if only I weren’t married, maybe I wouldn’t be unhappy. If you simply need to be alone in order to have some peace of mind, perhaps you could go somewhere for a few weeks to get out of your daily marriage routine and try to re-inhabit some of your native contours.

I would try that, first. You seem to have good communication with your wife, so you could explain your need for some solitude to her. But perhaps there are other things you need to talk with her about. Perhaps you have been wounded in some way that you haven’t fully acknowledged; perhaps you are angry at your wife for something she did, but you aren’t coming clean about it. That may be the reason you find yourself drawn to this other woman, with whom you have a less difficult history. Think about it. Is there some way your wife hurt you that you would like to get back at her for? I don’t know for sure, but when you describe your friend’s best qualities, you contrast them with some traits of your wife. You mention that your wife uses her intellect as a weapon. Has she wounded you with her intellect in some way that you have yet to acknowledge? If I were you, I would look at that, and see if you can’t make peace with her.

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