Category Archives: marriage

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


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.


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.



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

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


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?



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


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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I’m hanging by my fingernails — but it feels good!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 1, 2005

I’ve got this situation with my husband that’s really rough. Maybe I should move on?

Dear Cary –

My husband wants to go visit his lovers. And I’m strongly considering moving on.

My husband has been cultivating a relationship with two men, life partners in an open relationship, since about 1993. One of the two was his father’s lover, and quite frankly I have been motivated partially by some concern for what I perceive as the inappropriateness of that relationship. But as important, or more, I am dedicated to monogamy. I love my husband. We are compatible to a degree that is unusual, and remarked upon by others. I met him in 1997, and we were married in 1999.

The relationship has never been easy. My husband is an alcoholic, and the first three years of the relationship were characterized by sleepless nights and other such drama. On particularly wild evenings, I’d drag my unconscious husband inside the chain-link fence (we lived in a scary neighborhood, and I was afraid he’d get attacked otherwise) and leave him to sober up. This period culminated in a catastrophic accident (likely his fault), which left him with over $200,000 in hospital bills, unable to work for two years, and partially disabled to this day. I don’t want to whine, but I supported us through this period and likely always will earn more than he does by a factor of 10.

I have always held multiple-skilled jobs, and when I wanted something I couldn’t afford, I picked up additional work from waitressing to freelance gigs. He is now in college, which I pay for, and has become a licensed craftsman. He has gone to visit his lovers three times now, once when we were not committed to each other, once solo (when of course he had sex with them), and once, last Thanksgiving, with me. So, bringing us to the present, last night he told me that his lovers had asked him to come visit again and were offering him a plane ticket to do so. He claims this is not a sexual visit, but understands where I stand on the issue.

I spent last night without sleep in a diner, drinking coffee and eating bad food, unable and unwilling to share our bed with him. Because I am absolutely appalled and angry. But I am also looking to the future. I am thinking of a life without him, and thinking of what might be available to me.

My feelings are complicated. I am concerned for him, angry at being thrown over and lied to (because I don’t trust him not to have sex with them, and may never), and feel that this situation is patently unfair. For starters, I haven’t been able to take a real vacation in over a year. I have been sent for work to many vacation-worthy, places and I have gone to every single one of them alone because my husband was too busy to come with me. Lying on a pristine beach … alone. Eating sushi in San Francisco … alone. On a big game hunt … alone. I have two upcoming assignments which he won’t join me on, either. And he backed out of our mutual vacation this fall, which would be the first we’ve taken together outside the United States.

I have been a good girl. I am not old, ugly, or incapable of getting action. Indeed, I turn down people regularly who assume that I am single because they have never seen my husband. And because my primary job is, in essence, negotiating with wealthy people, I meet many cultured, genteel, wealthy, available men, some of whom are interested in me. Finally, I have devoted a significant portion of my paycheck to our home, and to my husband’s college, retirement fund, and healthcare. Because of poor planning on his part, I just donated part of my college fund (which I have been building up so I can return to college when he finishes) to him and last year donated additional money to the IRS. Frankly, though I worry about the effect that my leaving would have on him and on me, the persistence of this issue pisses me off. And I suspect I can do better.

I realize that any partner is challenging, and that any relationship would take effort. But I sometimes dream of being with someone who doesn’t toy with my emotions, truly values me above others, and can be my professional equal. Am I wrong to fantasize about alternative partners and what they might hold for me?

Wrong to Fantasize?


Dear Wrong to Fantasize,

Here’s how your situation strikes me. It’s as though you had written to say, “Dear Cary, I have been hanging by my fingernails from the edge of a cliff for a few years now and, though it’s not really all that bad, as I have learned to kick my feet to frighten off the buzzards, nevertheless I have begun to wonder if I might be better off if I were to hoist myself back up on the ledge where I could sit comfortably and catch my breath. At least for a few minutes, or possibly an hour. Not that I would like to permanently reside on the ledge. I like hanging by my fingers from the edge of the cliff, and I’m good at it. But still, lately I’m beginning to wonder just how much longer I’ll be able to do this. I may eventually have to change positions not because I want to necessarily but simply because I run out of strength. What do you think?”

And of course what I think is, How did you decide to hang from the cliff by your fingernails in the first place, and why is it only now occurring to you to hoist yourself back on the ledge? Not that I don’t respect you for the talent and effort and sheer brute strength required to do what you’re doing. But to what practical purpose?

Maybe I’m going too fast here. To back up a little: No, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to fantasize about a better life. In fact, I think you should move on in your life and make things easier on yourself. But when and if you begin to take action in that regard, you may encounter upsetting emotions. So it wouldn’t hurt to think about how you ended up here, before you make any sudden moves.

Let’s just speculate. Why have you taken on so much? Maybe it feels more secure to hang from the cliff by your fingernails than to trust somebody to grab your wrist and pull you up. Have you ever been able to depend on other people in your life? Might it be that in your early life there was no one to depend on but yourself? And, not to be insulting, but we do tend sometimes to do things for symbolic reasons, as though we had an audience. Is your hanging by your fingernails a demonstration of some sort? If so, you might ask yourself why you need to demonstrate your strength, and to whom you are demonstrating it.

Wouldn’t it be great to just haul yourself over the ledge and relax, sit there for a while enjoying the view? Oh, look, there’s your husband, stumbling! Look out! Oh, no! He’s going to fall! You’d better run and help him!

What if you just let him fall … as a thought experiment? Why do you have to rescue him? I mean, who says so?

Speaking of your husband, that business with his father’s lover indicates that there may be a lot of pain and confusion in his life that he’s going to have to deal with himself. That’s another reason, in my book, to think about extricating yourself. Maybe it would be best if you work on your life for a while and he works on his.

I’m going to make another guess, which is that when you begin looking for patterns in the choices you have made, you may find a pattern of choosing weak people and not trusting them. There is a connection there: If you choose weak people, you don’t have to trust them. Conversely, having strong people around can be threatening: You may have to trust them; you may have to give up some control. Hanging from the cliff by your fingernails may be a lot of work, but at least you have control. Besides, the view is truly amazing!

But I really think someone ought to fly close by in a helicopter and put it to you over the loudspeaker: Hey! You! Hanging by your fingernails from the cliff! Get back on the ledge! Now!

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My son eloped and cut me out

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 17, 2012

I only got a generic notice, as if I were just a bystander, or an acquaintance!

Dear Cary,

It’s my turn. I need advice.

I opened my mail earlier this week and found a wedding announcement — from my son. My son, whom I raised alone since he was 3 (he’s 30 now).  My son, whose selfish temper tantrums through high school stopped me from dating women (and therefore, anybody) for years. Whose tour of duty in Iraq I gritted my teeth and “supported” him through despite my soul-level objection to his joining the Army.

The same son who, after he got his head right, volunteered — practically begged — to officiate at my wedding last year to a very sweet woman who rode out his homophobia until it was gone.

The son (my only child) about whom friends marvel, “You guys are SO close! It’s heartwarming.”

He married his girlfriend of five years, which is whom he SHOULD marry — and I’ve encouraged that for a long time. But eloping with no discussion with anyone (family, anyway) is disappointing, to say the least. There were no family issues going on about them; everyone on both sides was hoping for and expecting them to marry sometime soon. I’m sad that they’ve just taken a little jaunt downtown and gotten married in secret, taking away from everyone the opportunity to participate and celebrate. Certainly they have the RIGHT to elope — but everything legal is not also a good idea.

All of that one could get over, and I no doubt will, but to just simply have been on the address list for a photocopied announcement — that’s too much for me. I got the news along with anyone else whose address they had — high-school classmates, work friends, former employees. It’s not like there was any other unhappiness going on; in fact, he called me “just to say hi” the same day they mailed the announcements, but without responding truthfully to “What’s new with you?” I’m overwhelmingly sad at having been held at arms’ length over this, and he is royally ticked off by my telling him — carefully — how hurt I was to get this notice in the mail. I was clear that I am happy for him to be married to this woman, and I sincerely hope it’s forever, but I feel like they just went off on a lark (“Hee-hee, let’s go get secret married and not tell ANYBODY — they’ll be SO surprised when they get the note!”) like teenagers, with no thought about the broader meaning of joining together publicly, of themselves as not just independent beings, but also part of a larger community of family and friends.

My friends are shocked, some even angry, and I feel hurt, hurt, hurt and sad, sad, sad. Slapped in the face. The wind knocked out of me. In light of my generic notification, I picked out a generic “congratulations” card and signed it with my first and last names (instead of “Mom”).  I have to see both of them this weekend at a family birthday party (and I can’t disappoint my young niece by staying away). I don’t know how I can do this without crying. How? How do I deal this weekend, and how do I get out of this mire of sadness I’m stuck in?

Sign me

The Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom


Dear Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom,

You sound like a good and well-meaning person who was hit hard by something and had no defenses against it. Sometimes something will just bring you to your knees. You aren’t expecting to be so deeply affected by something, and you aren’t expecting someone to do something, and then when it happens you have no defenses.

Having no defenses can be a good thing. Sometimes it’s the only way to truly feel something. In fact, I tend to think we often live in awful unreality, that we glide over tragedy and fate too easily, that we are glib and casual when we would be better served if we were grave and formal and silent, for daily we walk amid miracles and crimes.

I was at my locker this morning at the gym, next to a Russian man, and I said, “Excuse me,” so I could dial my combination into my green padlock and open my locker. I looked into his face as he turned, and I saw pain and sorrow and anger; the look was so open as to be startling; he was not guarded and bland or shallowly comical like so many of the American middle-class men who frequent the gym; I saw his face and I thought of what horrors he had endured, what secrets he had, what awful things he had lived through. His face was grave and true. It humbled me. I sat quietly and waited while he dressed.

So let’s just talk about emotional pain, and the dignity it involves, and its power. Let’s not talk yet about why your son did what he did or any of that. For starters, let’s say that emotional pain comes from an injury not to the body but to the soul, to our self-esteem or confidence or sense of who we are. In this case, it seems that your sense of  self in relation to your son was injured. You thought your son held you in a certain regard but his actions seem to show that he does not.

Let’s again delay talking about why your son did what he did and keep talking about you.  Let’s talk about your sense of yourself in relation to him. You have been his loving mom. You have been the most important person in his life. Being his mom has been one of your greatest roles. It has been a constant buoying force in your life. It has filled you with contentment and joy throughout the day. It has served to bolster your self-esteem and standing among your friends. Think about how important his place in your life has been. Just allow yourself to look at it. It might seem that to evaluate it like this might diminish it, but it won’t. It will just help you see in how many different ways your relationship to your son has been central to your self-esteem and well-being.

To be somewhat glib, let’s say that emotional pain goes away when the injury heals. In this case, your sense of self in relation to your son was injured. So how can that heal? Your son has suddenly moved out of your sphere and you are going to have to adjust. You are going to have to find new sources of joy and self-esteem. You might begin thinking about how your role in life will now change. You might begin thinking about how to let go of your son and find other sources of joy and contentment and pride day to day. You might also think about how to have a better relationship with your son, on these new terms in which he has moved out of your sphere of influence.

Let’s also now consider what your son might have been thinking and feeling. He broke some rules. He did something heedless but also romantic. I wonder how he sees rules. It is possible that he does not take certain rules very seriously. You say he joined the Army and went to Iraq. The Army has a lot of rules. Perhaps his tour of duty in Iraq left him with a feeling that some rules are important because they protect life and limb, and others are civilian rules that are not about life and death and so they don’t matter as much.

I don’t know if you pray or not, but if you do, it might not hurt to pray for your son. That might just mean conjuring him up in your thoughts and wishing for his happiness. It might just mean having him in your thoughts in a kind way. Pray for him to be happy and to be safe and to endure and prosper.

You might also pray for him to gradually acquire the wisdom to see how his choice hurt you so deeply; you might pray that he will acknowledge that one day. I think he will. I think he will one day see that it hurt you deeply, and he will tell you that he didn’t want to hurt you. Pray for him and love him. You will all get over this.


Help me be strong

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 28, 2003

I’m in love with a man I work with. We’re both married with kids but we don’t want to break up our families.

Dear Cary,

I’m in love with a man I work with. He’s married, I’m married, both of us have kids — hard to make it sound original. However, while I have vivid fantasies of being with him, I basically don’t want to cheat on my husband, I don’t want to break up my family, and I don’t want to break up his family. I have a lot of respect for his wife, and I want my kids to be with their dad.

Mr. Wonderful started working for my company a few months ago. I was largely unsatisfied in my job, then he arrived and we were assigned to a project together. My work life has totally turned around, I’m working harder than I ever have and loving it, and we do really good work together. We enjoy each other’s company, and both of us have commented on how well we get along for only knowing one another for a few months. We work hard, then take breaks to discuss politics, family issues, the evil of the SUV and G.W.’s war in Iraq, then back to more hard work. We’re accomplishing so much for the company, and I think the boss is pleased.

There’s a physical charge between us for sure. All that clichéd stuff — the brushing of hands, feet pausing together a moment too long together under the table, makes me feel like a cheap romance novelist just to write it. It’s fun, but I’m fully aware of the thin line we are walking.

To complete the scene, a description of my marriage is required — my husband and I, even when we were dating, have always had a rocky relationship. We were together and apart a lot before getting married, kind of rushed into marriage after a particularly dramatic breakup and reunion (the dozen roses a day for a week variety), and now have two kids under 3 and a lot of added stress to an already stressful relationship. We’ve done couples counseling for about seven years now, and while it keeps us going, it doesn’t feel like we make much progress toward real change.

My husband is intense and exciting, but also is impatient, selfish and immature. My co-worker (C.W.) is kind and generous. While I really don’t want to divorce my husband, wreck C.W.’s marriage, and marry him (OK, I kind of want that on one level, but I don’t want all the drama that would entail), meeting him has made me realize that kind and generous men are out there, and if I were on my own I could probably meet another one. My husband and I are really trying to improve things, both of us agreeing to put effort into the marriage, but I’m not fully into it since C.W. is always in my mind somewhere.

The easy answer is quit my job and clear my mind; however, it’s a small town, C.W. and I are both committed to staying here, and it’s kind of the only (and best) game in town for both of us. I plan on moving on to something else (following a calling, but that’s another story) when my kids start school in four years, but for now I need this job.

I turn down C.W.’s requests to accompany him on errands during the day, but the occasional lunch together is such fun and so energizing, I’d hate to give it up, and then I’d also have to explain to him why. We have verbalized none of what happens nonverbally between us; it’s chaste as can be on the surface (though I do suspect a bit of office gossip). I’m struggling to separate the work and decisions about my marriage from the existence of C.W., but should I even try? Is it all connected in my feelings? Telling my husband that meeting C.W. made me realize that I deserve better treatment would not go over well, since I still have to go to work every day. I’ve been fibbing a bit, saying, “I’ve been recognizing my own needs more lately,” to explain my increasing dissatisfaction and crankiness around the house.

Does my husband deserve to be let in on what’s in my head? For the record, all of my friends, male and female, agree that my husband should be contributing to the family more, should treat me with more respect and kindness and shouldn’t be blaming me for everything the way he does, so I think I’m in the right in asking for better behavior from him.

Any insight you have would be welcome as I try to sort this all out.



Dear Stuck,

You’re at a crucial point in your life; you’re dozing off in the driver’s seat, about to run off the road, and it’s my job to jump into the passenger seat, slap you silly, wake you up and put your hands back on the wheel.

It’s not that far, really, to Albuquerque. You’ll be there by morning. Your husband will mature. Your kids will become more self-sufficient. You’ll have other crushes and other brushes with marital disaster, and you’ll handle them better with practice. But right now, you have to just wake up and stay on the road. Don’t blow it. You have no idea how messed up things could get. Just keep your hands on the wheel, keep your eyes on the road, and think of your kids.

It’s not surprising you’re tired and not thinking straight, with those kids waking you up at all hours and the job and the husband and the counseling and the work on the relationship and the secret crush. You’re probably just about done in. All the more reason to stick to the basics right now, and don’t complicate your life any further.
Don’t be telling your husband about what’s going on in your head. If, as you say, he is impatient, selfish and immature, he’s not going to be any help. It would just add stress. Instead, plug this leak at the source: level with your co-worker. Tell him that you know something is developing between you two and you’re putting a stop to it. Tell him you’re backing off and taking control for the two of you. Then do it. Be friendly but firm. Treat him like any other co-worker. If you find that hard to do, here’s a tip: Visualize how a woman would act if she wasn’t attracted to him, and copy what she does.

And then put more energy into your marriage. Rather than allow yourself to drift further away, reverse that: Give it all you’ve got. If you work hard, you can make it tolerable and secure while your kids go through those crucial early years. Here’s another idea that might help: Make a list of 10 concrete things you could do to cheer yourself up, improve your marriage and make life easier around the house, and then, one by one, work to make them happen. That should keep you busy and focused. Who knows, perhaps during the next few years, partly as a result of your hard work and partly as a natural process, your husband may mature, overcome his selfishness and impatience and become the man you would like him to be.

But if not, when the kids are older, and your individual finances are such that one of you could take care of the kids without undue stress, if you are still deeply unhappy in your marriage, perhaps it will be time to get a divorce. Just don’t do it now. The kids deserve a chance to get through elementary school without worrying about which parent they’re with on Tuesday and which house they’re sleeping in on Thursday. They started life with two parents and they’d probably prefer to continue life with two parents. So, for now, that’s your job. Keep your eyes on the road. Because, as they say in that Michelin ad, so much is riding on your tires.

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What do I owe him?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 21, 2003

My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?

Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses


Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought  to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.

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