Category Archives: marriage

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More on my great big Muslim Jewish atheist wedding

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Hi Cary,

I hope you’ll remember what this is about. I wrote last year about falling in love with the wrong person at college, an atheist Jew, the polar opposite of what my conservative Muslim family has always wanted for me. I wrote about worrying about telling my parents, and how’d they react and whether my relationship with my partner would succeed.

I told my parents last year and they reacted surprisingly well. No anger, no yelling, certainly none of the violence some commenters thought I’d see. They were surprised, and asked for some time to consider it. Eventually, they refused ‘permission’ for me to marry him, or at least said that they couldn’t give me their blessings because even though he has converted to Islam, he only did so for me and would probably not be a real Muslim. More than that, I think my dad worries about what people are going to say, and that they’re going to gossip about us and my family. I spent 6 or 7 months trying to get my parents on board at least agree to come to my wedding, and my dad took some strides towards coming around in that he talked to some people who have been in similar situations, but seemed reluctant to go further than that. His response when I asked him seemed to be ‘I’ll deal with it soon’. One day, after a few months of this, I kind of snapped and sent an emotional message about how I felt stuck, and I wanted to move on with his blessings, and would he please consider that this is what is right for me. He responded by calling my mom and relented: I could marry him, but it would have to be after my older sister got married so it wouldn’t affect her prospects. There will be a small ceremony in the U.S. at some Islamic center, but only my mother and one of my siblings will come, and my father won’t participate.

My sister sent me some texts about this, saying that I couldn’t have both my family’s support and this marriage, and I’m heart broken because that’s what I came home from college to get. I wanted to spend my time here to show them that I am still committed to my heritage and beliefs, and that I wanted to include them in the process as much as possible, that this isn’t an attack on them but a decision for myself that I am sure is right for me. I can’t imagine a wedding without my family, but I don’t know how to get them on board beyond keeping the dialogue going for the next six months or so that will inevitably pass before I can begin to plan for my wedding (my sister is about to get engaged to be married). I’m heartbroken because my parents are mad at me, and I feel a little guilty because I feel like a terrible daughter.

Thanks for listening.

Love’s Got me Looking So Crazy Right Now

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Dear Love’s Got me Looking So Crazy,

I’m sorry to hear that your father is being intransigent. I answered your original letter on Sept. 13, 2013, a few weeks before I left Salon.

As this commenter says (there were 135 comments to the original), I really didn’t give you an answer, in the sense of concrete instructions on how to proceed.

I didn’t know what you should do. I still don’t. That’s not unusual. It’s just honest.

In your 2013 letter it sounded as though he was going to pretend to convert. It now appears that he has indeed converted to your faith. You are going to go ahead with the wedding. You are going to live in the United States.

Well, congratulations. I hope you will keep us informed. What interested me in 2013 still interests me: How we Americans perceive your situation, and the story we tell ourselves about what you say. I still think I said some interesting meta-things:

This is the kind of story that Americans love. But underneath the happy American myth of blending cultures is the dark fact of sacrifice and loss. … Yours would be an unusual marriage but such marriages fit the American mythos. Consequently, you would have many people on your side — people who believe in the virtue of blending cultures. We are charmed by the idea of Muslims at bar mitzvahs and so forth. We think it’s cute. In other words, we don’t get the dark side of our own mythology.

The dark side of our mythology of self-reinvention is the charge of unseriousness. I mean, all the real cultural and psychic differences we overlook. Our silly millennial hope. Our political and economic evangelism. Our brittle, anxious faith. All that stuff. All that stuff that if you know what I’m talking about you know what I’m talking about.

I can say this, though: Here in America you can be married and forge your own life. Psychologically, you can’t escape your past or your families. You can’t escape who you are. But you can arrange the material conditions of your life together. You can choose what religious services to attend, and what to tell your children about what you believe. You can choose the schools your children go to. You can choose what to wear on your head.

Good luck. Please keep us informed!–Cary T.

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My great big Muslim-Jewish-atheist wedding

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Cary’s classic column from  THURSDAY, SEP 12, 2013

Can a devout Muslim and a Jewish atheist have a happy marriage?


Hi Cary,

I was born in the States to a conservative Muslim Indian family. My mother, younger brothers and I moved back to India when I was around 11, while my (very religious) dad stayed on in the States as a small business owner and came to see us three to four times a year. I came back to the States when I was around 18 to go to a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, graduated and moved back to India with my mom and brothers.

Although I didn’t realize it growing up, I was in the middle of a hot identity mess. While I have an American passport and have somehow retained the accent I had growing up, I’d always considered myself more Indian than American, and felt distinctly out of place in “white” cultural settings. I have a lot of white friends — black, Filipina and Asian too for that matter — but my closest are a group of brown girls at college who are similar to me — they have parents who grew up in Pakistan/Bangladesh and moved to the States and raised their kids there. The only difference is that they stayed there, and don’t really have meaningful relationships with people back home — “home” for them.

This is confusing for a lot of reasons to do with identity. Add to the mix a headscarf and a definitive non-Muslim boyfriend with whom I fell in love and it is all the more tricky. We decided to stay together and do the long-distance relationship thing after I moved back to India with my mom because we love each other, because we want to make this work, even though the only way for this to function with my parents’ blessings is for him, a raging Jewish atheist, to convert to Islam. And believe it or not, he’s learning. Semi-enthusiastically and slowly, but he is learning. And for his part he’s agreed to go through the motions and participate in rituals so long as our lives afterward have minimal interference from my family, which I imagine to be the case judging by the level of involvement my parents had and have in my younger brother’s marriage (he married quite young by choice). They are very hands-off once we’re out of the house. I eventually met his parents and we got along well although they were initially horrified at the idea of their son being with a Muslim. I think they’ve accepted us, and have an idea it’s serious.

Yes, it’s serious. We’ve talked seriously about marriage a few years down the road — he’s in the middle of applying to Ph.D. programs, and I want to start an MFA. He also wants to wait till he’s of a socially acceptable age in his family to marry. I don’t really have the luxury of time (my parents made me consider a total of four proposals while he and I were dating and they’re not slowing down). We’ve talked about telling my parents at the end of the year and when he’s learned enough to convert to Islam.

There are obviously a number of problems that I need to address, like, for instance, the ethics of this man pretending to be a Muslim so that he can marry me, the strain of the compromises we’d be making on us individually, and on myself — I’d have to leave my mental health nonprofit plans (inspired by own bouts of depression and rage during our relationship) in India behind to settle down in the States and give up ever really living there. He’s made it clear he can’t, which makes sense — it’s not politically very safe for a Jewish man to be married to a Muslim girl from the hood, ya know?

I’d have to make some lifestyle changes as well. The most important to me is that I dislike alcohol for religious reasons and he likes his occasional drink. He’s very controlled when he drinks, so I don’t ever mind if he does when I’m around and I’ve agreed to continue that policy. But truthfully I don’t know if I can live my married life rejecting a value that I grew up so observant of, even if I’m not quite as religious as I used to be. Not to mention that I’d be married to a man who doesn’t have any kind of religious ideals besides his cultural values, which are very different from mine. He says he’ll fast and pray with me, but how long can I realistically expect that to last? This strikes me as vaguely hypocritical at least — I’ve compromised other values by the sheer fact of dating him and I am in practice not very religious at all despite what the headscarf might imply — but I do believe in God and I am attached to my faith and culture.

Now, our relationship is wonderful. Despite being from such a radically different background (or is it really all that different? I spent my formative years in the States after all), and his belonging to the “white” culture at the school I spoke of earlier, I was instantly comfortable around him. Even though we had different tastes in everything, we’re similar people in personality and we connected, and expanded our interests to learn about the other. We’ve also had major trouble, and I had my serious doubts about him earlier on when he was more self-absorbed and less communicative, but he’s changed a lot, and he’s put up with a lot of my own flaws. Also remarkable about him is how he handled my depression when the first symptoms emerged and I started seeing a therapist. Despite having no exposure to this from within his own family, he didn’t scarper as I was afraid he might, and is supportive and involved in my treatment.

The best way I can describe it without going on for pages at length is that we’ve been through a lot, enjoy each other’s company immensely, have changed and grown a lot from our experiences together, and are deeply committed to one another. And from another perspective, the people who know me best and have watched my relationship with him evolve think we make sense together. His friends apparently really like me as well. And no man I’ve met since has made me want to put everything on hold to spend the rest of my life with him.

But even then, the reality of what I am proposing to do is weighty. Let’s not forget the religious father and relatives who might pick up on the fact that he’s not a real Muslim and reject our marriage on the grounds that Shariah doesn’t recognize a marriage between a non-Muslim man and Muslim woman? Even if that were to work, what about the reality of the lifestyle and religious adjustments I’d inevitably have to make to make this marriage work? What of our children, who will be confused as eff, caught between two cultures and worldviews? I cannot begin to imagine telling my parents that we’d need to have a Jewish wedding ceremony too, to respect his parents’ wishes, or that their grandkids would eventually probably have a bar mitzvah and go to the mosque. What of him and his potential resentment toward me for making him convert? And what of me and my potential resentment toward him when he inevitably fails to fast and pray with me? What of my scarf, and the multitudes of spiritual, social and political complexities of dating him and wearing the hijab at the same time? What of this long distance? We’ve been apart for three months, and we’ve been good with communication so far, but I’m terrified I won’t see him again for a long time, and that distance will drive a wedge between us eventually, especially considering that communication is not his natural strong point. Also consider the alternative — that if things don’t work out between us, I’d have to marry a Muslim man who’d accept that I dated a Jewish guy before I married him, and while those guys exist, they’re not exactly the proposals my religious family is drawing in. And I have no idea if those guys exist anywhere near where I live or work.

Sorry for the spiel but I’d love to hear how you wrapped your brain around this. Is this worth it? Do you see such a marriage working out without long-term bitterness and resentment? How?

Sincerely,

Love’s Got Me Looking So Crazy Right Now

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Dear Love’s Got Me Looking So Crazy,

All the problems you mention are solvable. The danger is the problems that you don’t mention because you don’t see them yet. Paradoxically, they will only appear as a result of solving the problems you do see.

Naturally, we focus on the problems we can see. We focus on the problems we have solutions for. For instance, one can accustom oneself to the use of alcohol. One can accustom oneself to new kinds of clothing and new phrases and rituals. But certain problems will arise that you are not prepared for.

One of them is the sheer exhaustion that attends solving all the problems you already see.

So you must go into this with a dual spirit: Certainty that you can solve the problems you can see, allied with complete surrender to the unknown.

I mean, it is admirable, nay, remarkable, that you have thought through this in such detail. That indicates seriousness and a capacity for problem solving. But you do not have limitless energy, nor limitless patience nor limitless tolerance nor limitless ingenuity and problem-solving ability and diplomatic skill and negotiating skill. Stuff can wear you down.

So if you do it, make it easy on yourself. Plan as stress-free and secure a life as possible. Having a secure income and a stable community will help. Being in an academic environment would probably ease things. Living in an American community where people are excited by your relationship, and interested in the intellectual challenge of it, and the problems of identity and culture that it poses would make things much easier.

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Another unseen danger is your own psyche, your own dark side, your own vulnerabilities that are invisible to you at present. How well do you know yourself? What if your religious feelings are deeper and more intractable than you realize? What if his are, too?

I mean, this is the kind of story that Americans love. But underneath the happy American myth of blending cultures is the dark fact of sacrifice and loss. Because we are a nation of immigrants, we are a nation of loss. We are a nation of people who do not fully own their own land; we may have mortgages and title, but spiritually, psychologically, we do not own our own land because we took it from others; we do not own our own land the way you own your own land when your parents and grandparents and village stretch into the misty realms of prehistory.

Yours would be an unusual marriage but such marriages fit the American mythos. Consequently, you would have many people on your side — people who believe in the virtue of blending cultures. We are charmed by the idea of Muslims at bar mitzvahs and so forth. We think it’s cute. In other words, we don’t get the dark side of our own mythology.

Most Americans do not have family in India. Most Americans have not faced religious persecution. Most Americans do not have to worry that marrying a Jewish man could invite physical attacks.

So your story is attractive but you are wise to ask if it can really work. Because we all are immigrants, we all share not only discovery but loss. So your story fits here. But it won’t be easy.

You could definitely make it easier on yourselves. But love isn’t like that, is it?

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Cary on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

I went home again

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Dear reader,

Now I feel like my dad. My dad grew up in a time way before mine, as dads tend to do. He would make allusions and we kids wouldn’t get them. “What? Who was Gracie Allen?”

“Why,” my father would say, “she was George Burns’ partner!” Good old Burns and Allen. These days you can’t really know who knows what. A noted novelist of my aquaintance posted on Facebook the other day that her son, who is in his twenties, didn’t know who Robert Redford was. So, my friends, especially my friends who are in my generation, the generation that hoped it would die before it got old, the generation that didn’t trust anyone under 30, well, now people under 40 look like children to us and we don’t trust anyone, period full stop.

Even the phrase full stop: Telegraph terminology: Will its origins soon be hopelessly obscure? What about the phrase “off the hook”: will its origins in the physical Western Electric telephone one day be lost? Telephones haven’t had hooks for a while, though the cradle of a desk telephone came to be called the hook informally, as in, “hang up.” We are placed on hold but we could just as easily be placed on standby if it weren’t for the physical origins of the phone. My, how I miss the warm analog phone.

Anyway, this came up because when I use the headline, “I went home again,” I’m hoping that you’ll pick up the allusion to Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, which my dad was always quoting from, and understand that this column is about the sad and complicated business of revisiting the deeply emotional scene of the family.

“Who is Robert Redford again?”

“Oh, dear, he’s some old actor.”

Hey. One other thing. So I went to the Poets and Writers Live event at San Francisco’s Brava Theater on Saturday Jan. 10, 2015*** and had lots of emotional responses and I posted a couple of pieces in response to the event, mainly around the notion that when writers gather there ought to always be some formal acknowledgement of events in the world, whether they affect us materially or not, because we are in a spiritual union with writers everywhere. Solidarity and all that.

Anyway, here’s today’s column, after which I need to put the newsletter together — which is trying to be a weekly thing. Once a week. You can handle that, right?

***Lately I use dates in body text now because the physical containers of text are unreliable and unpredictable; unlike newspapers that would have dates on every page  … WordPress has date stamps, yes, but text can be extracted from its containers and then it’s just out there floating, unattributed, dateless, byline-less! I see journalistic posts whose dates are not attached and it drives me crazy! Because writing is history! And if dates are lost then … anyway, right, I’m writing this on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, and I’ve paid the mortgage, and property tax isn’t due again until April.

Dear Cary,

About 3 years ago, my husband, our toddler daughter, and I left San Francisco (I’d been out there 15 years) and moved back to the small Louisiana city where I grew up. This was all my idea. Much to my surprise, I had grown profoundly homesick after our daughter was born (I had sworn I’d never go back – the standard cliché, right?).

Well, my husband was incredibly flexible and accommodating, and circumstances have worked out. We were able to make our oddball techie careers work in Louisiana (amazing!) and now we are close to my parents, my brother and his family, and my lifelong best friend. We’re also able to live more comfortably and peacefully since the cost of living here is so much less than in SF.

Now to the difficult bit. There is an old relationship here, or actually a web of relationships, that nags at me. I know, I know. I can’t be the jerk who leaves home for 15 years (well, if you count college, it was actually closer to 20) and then returns like the prodigal daughter, and expects everyone to throw confetti and for everything to be “normal.” But gosh, you know, that would be nice, right?

So at the heart of this is my high school ex-boyfriend. This was a very serious first love relationship for both of us. We learned all our early lessons from each other – we were both lovely and heartbreakingly awful to each other – and didn’t really get out of each others’ business until college ended and I moved to California. After that, we were what I’d call “Christmas Card Friends” – you know? We wished each other well, and had forgiven each other everything, and would be in touch from time to time with big news, but that was about it – and this all took place from a safe long distance. Kind of typical adult management of a special, much-loved person from the past.

Well … ok, so now my past tends to walk into my mother’s house from time to time, when I’m there visiting with my children! He lives on my parents’ block now (Why did he have to buy a house so close to my old home?! And why are my parents closer to him now than they were when we dated?), he and his family are very close friends with my brother’s family (Why did he and my brother have to become friends?! Again, they weren’t when we dated.) – and I see them at my niece’s and nephew’s birthday parties, etc. Not to mention random run-ins at the grocery store.

We are both very polite, friendly adults about all this. We make pleasant conversation and admire each others’ children and go on our ways. I know we both wish each other nothing but the best.

Why then, does it STING, and bother me for days when he randomly shows up at my mother’s house when I am visiting?

I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I know that I am over him. I’m not carrying a torch, and I can completely understand why I ended up with my husband instead of him, and why he ended up with his wife instead of me. No harm, no foul. Good choices by nice people all around.

I think it’s his closeness to my family that bothers me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel angry at him for not staying “on his side of the fence,” and also angry at my parents and brother for being so close to him, for allowing him access to what feels like it should be my private, intimate space with them. At times, it even feels like I am watching my old life through a pane of glass – and he is still in it, and I should be in it, except there is another woman (his wife) playing my part. And here I am on the other side, shut out of the cozy circle.

It’s SUPER WEIRD. The sullen, teenager part of me that still exists wants to throw a shoe at him and say, “You, go away! Get out of my family! I didn’t choose you! You are no longer invited in!” But then I have this lingering, weird feeling that my family chose him instead of me.

This raises the question of my relationships with my family members. Perhaps I am scapegoating my ex for emotional difficulty with them? I’ve thought about that, too.

Well, with my parents, it just isn’t the case. I’ve got good, humanly flawed, but good relationships with both my mother and father. It took some time to re-establish these relationships as “close distance” once we moved back, but after some initial awkwardness as we learned how to relate again while living nearby, everything feels solid and real now. My mother, also, will admit from time-to-time that it’s “odd” to have my ex in such close proximity, but then she’ll say what is she supposed to do about it? She can’t ask him to move. So she just carries on with a smile on her face and ignores it. Dad doesn’t really talk about these sorts of things. Old school Dad.

My brother, on the other hand…my brother has given me the cold shoulder ever since I moved back, to an extent that’s palpable to everyone, and surprising and hurtful. We have a complex history, but were close as children. I left home when he was still in early high school. We’ve never been able to reconnect. He’s also a war veteran now and has experiences I’ll never understand, and that I tacitly know I should not ask about. I wish he’d let me love him anyway. I keep trying to take the high road, and invite him and his family to things, and he just quietly doesn’t show up most of the time, without ever making a scene or explaining why. He freezes me out, and hangs out with my ex-boyfriend instead. Literally. If I have an Easter egg hunt, he takes his kids (my children’s cousins) to my ex-boyfriend’s egg hunt instead. This has happened twice. Then again, they were probably going to egg hunts over there before I moved back, so…how can I blame him? And yet…if the shoe were on the other foot…I’d at least drop by.

I know my brother didn’t develop this relationship to spite me, and I try to keep breathing and just sit with it. But gosh it hurts.

I guess my question is: How to BE with all of this and not feel hurt-y and distracted like a teenager?  I just want everyone to be able to love each other and be happy and be okay.

Sincerely,
Gone Home Again

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Dear Gone Home Again,

You have returned to the scene of unresolved emotional attachments. Those attachments are still quite strong. They are not as strong as they were when you left but they are still strong and they are still unresolved. Leaving didn’t resolve them.

You would like them to be resolved but it’s a better bet  to learn to accept them, navigate around them. Why?

Because that’s something you can do!

You can’t change the behavior of other people. You say, “I just want everyone to be able to love each other and be happy and be okay.”

Sure. Me too. But all we can do is live with people as they are. I still wish my parents would get together after the divorce but they’re both dead now. Even when they were alive: Fat chance.

But we wish, fervently and without ceasing, don’t we? We wish like children with birthdays coming. We wish like crazy. We pray. We hope. We think maybe … We don’t even notice when we’re doing it. When you see your ex-boyfriend and it takes you a while to figure out why it upset you, it’s happening before you even notice it: You’re wishing things were different. You’re thinking about the past and how it might have been or how it’s supposed to be now but the crystalline amazingness of the present absolutely present totally right this instant now has escaped you. The beauty of the air, your children, your own hands, the doorway where you stand being suddenly irritated that he’s visiting your mom, the amazing history you and he had together, the tenderness, the blooming of love, the learning adult lessons, the passion, the enduring regard: All that escapes you and you’re just irritated because he’s in your family space and you think it’s your family space and not his.

Just pay attention to that. Notice it. Notice it and then turn to how you can be of service in the present moment. How can you bring some joy into the present moment?

Let the child wish. But be aware that you are the adult and you know that these things are not going to happen.  When you catch yourself wishing things were different, try asking, How can I bring joy to this situation? How can I contribute?

The payoff is not in everybody thanking you and saying what a great sister/daughter/wife/mom you are. The payoff is private. It’s your own sense of well-being. It’s the relief of not thinking about that annoying ex-boyfriend.

Give. Offer of yourself. This will distract the hungry child within. It will redirect your emotional sense of purpose. It may also have a positive effect on those around you but they won’t necessarily tell you.

It will be healing, though. After another year or so, you may notice that things seem more normal. It won’t be other people changing. It will be you. You will have created a kind of normal for yourself.

There’s more to say. I don’t seem to be able to stop today:

You say you swore you’d never go back. Why? What was it about your small Louisiana city that made you swear you’d never go back? Are those attributes still there? What were you running from? Did you feel too big for the town? Hemmed in? Do you still feel that way? Was it partly a pride thing, i.e. I’m the one who made it out of that stinking town and if I go back I’m admitting defeat?

Give it some thought. For, while you can’t make these emotions go away, you can examine them. For instance: What is the competition about? Is it a competition for place in the family? Was competitiveness a feature of your relationship when you were together? What were you competing for? Did you, perhaps, imagine a whole future life together with him, and now that future life, that totally imagined thing, has come into conflict with the real thing? In this imagined future, were you his wife?

Consciously, rationally, you of course know that you are not his wife. But see if you can dig a little deeper; maybe a part of you still clings to that fantasy. Get your knife under this fantasy that is stuck to the floor and pry it up. Pry it up and fling it off. It’s a bit of stuck programming. It’s something that never happened. It never happened so you never lost it. It was never real to lose. We do that with the future, don’t we? We imagine things in such detail that when we confront their absence we feel loss, even though it never happened

Also, let’s be clear: You’re the one who left.

When somebody leaves, other people are hurt. They miss you and they wish you were still around. After a while they make other arrangements. They get on with life. If there were things they used to do with you, they do them with other people. They set up routines. And they may have to more or less consciously let go of you, because it hurts too much and it’s too much work to keep missing you every day.

You say you’re not asking for confetti to be thrown, “But gosh, you know, that would be nice, right?” The child in you, the purely emotional part of you, really does want the confetti.

Your secret wish, I suspect, is to be, indeed, the prodigal daughter returning. Of course you would not ask for such treatment. And yet that irrational part of you, that child that you were when you left, that child still wants these things.

You’ve been back three years already, but here is a suggestion: Imagine that you are the new person in town and see what friendships and alliances you can make that work for you today.

Look around for people you didn’t used to be so close. See who is available.

Your brother may seem cold but he has made other arrangements and is dealing with his own life. It may be too painful for him to revisit the site of his old attachment to his older sister. Things have happened. You left him. Then he went to war. things happened. He has his own life. So he happened to become good friends with your ex-boyfriend. That may make you feel a pang of regret but it is quite natural. For him, it may have been like keeping a lock of your hair. He may have been far more attached to you than you realized at the time, or realize now. Your boyfriend may have been in a sense a replacement for you, a reminder of what it was like when everybody was cozy and young.

To go to your Easter egg hunt now, he would have to disappoint somebody else. These are the people who have stayed and made lives for themselves. If you look at it from their perspective, it might make sense that they will not change their routines just because you have returned. I think your best bet is to find new routines that do not conflict with theirs. Find routines that add to the mix rather than create difficult choices. Can you go to your ex-boyfriend’s Easter egg hunt?

There is a lot for you to deal with here. To sum up, here are my suggestions:

  • Don’t expect these unresolved emotions to just go away.
  • Remember that other people are beyond your control
  • Try to start fresh, as though you were new in town
  • Be of service; when you feel you’re not getting what you want, change your thinking and ask, What can I bring to this situation? How can I contribute?

Wow, that was a lot. I sure wrote a lot this time. Well, I’ve always gone long. Hope you’re not too bored with this!–ct

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OK, I get it, my husband’s a verbal abuser

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 8, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to accept what my therapist has been pushing at — but I think I’m ready to act in my own interest.


Dear Cary,

I’m troubled.

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

And I do.

And yet on another level, I question the whole idea. The book contains no citations. It could well be cut from whole cloth, as they say — an angry woman’s fantasy of how men are, how men act. Even if that characterization is a straw man (womyn?), it is a tempting one, especially when the self-help verbiage gets a little much. But where do we draw the line? I seem to be standing on a line, on one side of which is mutually unproductive communication that can be resolved through talking and counseling and new approaches, and on the other is a crowd shouting “Why haven’t you DTMFA?”

Since I have been with him, I have gradually given up my passions — my theater, my academic field, my crafts, my gym membership. Only those things that he finds acceptable — the hobbies, the reading, the baking (but never on hot days) — remain. He wished to own a house. We own a house. I cook, clean, launder, mow the lawn, call the repairmen, run the errands, pay the mortgage. I have been working for seven years under the assumption that these are all choices I was involved in, decisions I made. And yet I daydream of a cozy studio apartment where I am alone and everything — the belongings, the music, the choices — is mine. Of going where the jobs in my field are, instead of staying where they aren’t. Of dallying with women, and perhaps men, with beautiful souls.

I take pills. I go to therapy. He goes back to school. I applaud this — it is a sensible decision that will lead to a stable job in his field — even as I resent his freedom to do so. I make a point of telling him that I wish to return to school (yet again) once he finds a job. He is wholly supportive of this, he says — once the loans are paid off, once we are no longer in debt. Despite my thrift, the loans pile up. When I fail to manage the money as he directs, I am chastised. Every cent I spend is one that cannot be used to pay off those loans and buy my freedom from menial jobs that siphon my self-confidence and passion, but which pay for the therapy to deal with the panic attacks and crying jags that primarily manifest themselves when he’s around.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a long and storied history of psychological instability in my family, on both sides, which has led me to believe that my problems were internal and self-contained. There is also (as I learned recently, yet have known all along) a long and storied family history of controllers and controllees, criticizers and objects of criticism. I am not sure what his family has given him, aside from a Midwestern up-by-the-bootstraps aversion to psychoanalysis of any kind.

A dear friend says that she had these concerns before she knew him, from my tone, from my phone calls. She met him, and “[saw] how he looks at me,” the love in his eyes, and her fears were assuaged. I know that he loves me, from that same look, those same heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. I also know that he expects me to read his mind, then tells me that I am the one who needs to fix my reactions so that we can communicate — who drives me to tears with his inconsistencies, then allows me the solace of his embrace.

It is not that I fear to be alone or independent — aside from the annoyance of dividing things up, the prospect seems inviting. But the prospect of remaking myself in my own image, of reclaiming the me that was, is more complicated. And there are so many things that I would miss. Friends, games, holidays, my mother-in-law, even the house that taunts me with its constant breakings and dirtiness. Him, the man who has been so good for me in so many ways, who rescued me from an equally dead-end (though less malignant) relationship, whom I’ve shared so many adventures with. Who I’m not even convinced is aware of what he’s doing.
And yet things cannot remain as they are.

Angel in the Details

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Dear Angel,

I am going to try to be direct. You know that’s not my style. But still.

I suggest you leave this guy.

There is only one twist: You make your new life first.

I basically agree with the DTMFA approach — with one caveat.

The caveat is that you begin not by disrupting your current life but by building your new one. If you leave without trying to rebuild your life first, you may find yourself alone in a new place, isolated from friends and family, without a solid network, without a life plan, having just gone through a traumatic breakup, flooded with emotion, and you may, under that stress, be more prone to fall back into your old pattern of finding a rescuer, a controller, a caretaker. You may slip back into the same situation with someone else. So I advise taking a gradual approach to building a new life so that when you leave him, you have a new life to step into. Work to develop new behaviors and reinvigorate abandoned passions.

For instance, these things you mention that you have given up — your theater, your academic field, your crafts, your gym membership: Put these things back in your life one by one. When you begin doing this, he may object. Keep in mind that you are leaving him anyway.

It may help to set a date and write it in your calendar, say, six months. In six months you are leaving. During that time you tackle the many concrete tasks of rebuilding your life. This includes looking at new places to live and working out your budget. As you pursue this project, at a certain point — and this may happen sooner than you expect — it may become impossible to continue to live with him. Your positive action may force buried conflicts to the surface. He may decide that he is divorcing you. He may become unstable. He may threaten you. If he is a certain kind of man, when his control over you is threatened, he may become dangerous. So, while laying the groundwork for an orderly departure, you need to also be ready to leave quickly if things get to that.

The point is this: To the extent possible, don’t act precipitously to your own detriment. Instead, begin putting your life together and try to leave at a time that is best for you.

Now, regardless of his objections, you may find that you yourself just can’t build this new life while still living with him. You may feel paralyzed, blocked, unable to act. If so, OK. Leaving him might be a precondition to putting your life together. That’s OK. Discuss this with your therapist and make a plan. But please do what you can to prepare first. Give it a try. Take what steps you can to reconnect with your theater, your academic life, your crafts and your gym first. Do what you can.

Just so we’re clear: Yes, I think you should leave. DTMFA or whatever. Just, to the extent possible, prepare first.

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I don’t like his kids

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 6, 2009

I thought I could learn to love being a stepmom, but I don’t


Dear Cary,

I’m probably one of the most unromantic people who ever lived, and have always cringed when someone says they found their “soul mate” or their “one and only,” because really, out of all the people alive at any given time in the world, what’s the likelihood that your “other half” would walk into the same bar or church or drugstore that you did on that particular night? I mean, if you truly have a soul mate, isn’t it likely he/she is in mainland China or Bangladesh instead of in your town? No, I always thought that the key to really being in a successful relationship was figuring out which compromises you could live with and finding a person who matched those.

Instead, at 37, I fell deeply in love with and married a man whom I could probably characterize with a complete lack of irony as my “soul mate.” I love our relationship — I have never felt more deeply or intimately bonded with anyone in my life, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Except I can. When we met I was single — never married, no kids, never even lived with someone else. I left home when I was 15 (I didn’t have much of a relationship with my own parents) so I had things my own way for a long time: 22 years.

I’d like to interject here that I’m relatively normal, and I have friends who like me and would probably also tell you I’m normal (with a few caveats). I think I’m in the realm of normally attractive; but I didn’t mind being single, and in a way I had the best of both worlds for a long time. I dated a man for 20 of those years who didn’t want to live with or marry me, and while early on in the relationship I thought that I could somehow change that, over time I grew to like it. I had a date when I needed one, felt some security in the relationship, but acted as an independent agent most of the time.

In my late 20s and 30s I traveled alone a lot, which was a pretty hedonistic pleasure and something I still miss. Eventually, though, I outgrew that quasi-relationship and began to want a real partner to share my life with. When I met my husband I knew practically immediately, unquestionably, he was the one. But after two and a half years, I am at my wits’ end — not with my husband but with his kids (three of them, ages 7 to 17).

I should say here that there isn’t anything wrong with his kids; they are nice enough, generally polite and respectful. But I don’t like them much. I don’t ever feel comfortable in my own home when they are there. I miss my privacy, I hate that they take what goes on in our house to their mom’s; I miss coming home to a quiet house, no TV or loud voices or questions about what’s for dinner. But mostly I miss my privacy — I lived too long alone for it to be otherwise.

I imagined (I think we both imagined) that I would grow to love them, but it just hasn’t happened. They are with us half the time and I just dread their visits. I don’t treat them poorly and I try hard and mostly consistently to make sure they have good lives when they are with us, but I am just exhausted. This weekend they ended up staying an unexpected extra couple of days with us, and I just had a complete meltdown about it. It feels like I never get a day off when they are there — I can’t let down my guard, I feel obligated to keep working hard to create the illusion of a happy, loving home, so that everyone can be happy, but I’m not happy about it at all. I’m trying to be less selfish, but it feels like when I come home from work my second job begins. It’s just hard, all the time. Intellectually, I know it’s not that having them an extra couple of days is any big deal, but emotionally, I am absolutely exhausted, and I couldn’t pretend to my husband that this was OK. A huge debate ensued (another, as I haven’t kept my feelings hidden prior to this) and he finally said, “You just don’t belong here. You belong with that guy down the street with no kids.” It was a kick in the stomach, but perhaps right. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. I never really wanted kids, and this pretending all the time to try to make everyone happy is wearing me down. Or maybe that’s a cop-out. But that’s why I’m writing you.

I know you have already discussed a very similar topic, and people were particularly savage with the poor woman who wrote in. I might have been one of those savage letter writers myself had I not had this experience, but now I can really identify with some of her sentiments.

This is the hardest thing I have ever done. I try to show up, I try to make sure the kids get the time and the money and the experiences I know that my husband wants for them, I try to be the partner that he wants and that includes accepting his kids. Part of what attracted me to him in the first place was the love he has for his kids. But I am at the end of my rope. I am just deep-down bone-tired in ways that I can’t express, and I don’t have much reserve left to draw from.

And I don’t want to hear from all those asses out there who say, “Well, you knew he had kids.” Yes, I did, but no, I couldn’t have really had that deep-down, gut-level understanding of what it meant until I had worn these shoes for a while. I love my husband. I want him to be happy. I don’t love his kids, and I can’t make myself feel that I do, but I wish the best for them and want them to be happy and well-adjusted too.

I just don’t know that I can keep this up, and don’t want to walk away from what I truly believe is the best relationship I will ever have. I’m just not sure what to do.

Stepmom

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Dear Stepmom,

You have to meet your own needs. If you can’t meet your own needs within this relationship then the relationship can’t last.

Some people might not approve of your needs. Screw them. You didn’t invent your own needs.

I suggest that in order to meet your own needs within this relationship, you make some unusual changes.

One simple change might be as follows: You don’t live there all the time. You find a second place to live part of the time, while the kids are at the house.

Meanwhile, while you negotiate with your husband, you radically alter your current schedule. You claim as much control over your space as you can.

The situation is this: You need your own space. You need more time to yourself. You need frequent breaks from the group. You need peace and quiet. You need what you need.

You are 37. You are an introvert. In terms of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, you may be an INTP or INTJ — an introverted intuitive thinking perceiving type, or an introverted intuitive thinking judging type. Basically, according to type, you have certain requirements. Your requirements — the ecology of your energies, as it were — are real and pressing. You either meet them and function well, or you fail to meet them and function poorly.

In order to negotiate any kind of change, you will also need to know what your husband requires. His requirements may be unspoken. He will have to make them explicit. Does he require you to live in the house every day while the kids are there? What kinds of labor does he require from you while the kids are there, and in what amounts? What is negotiable? What can be traded off? I am thinking of meals and housecleaning. It may be fair that he expects you to share in the housecleaning and meal preparation, but could it be done by you while you are alone, or could you pay, out of your salary, to have it performed by a housecleaning service? Likewise with meal preparation: It may be necessary to the economy of the house that you prepare some meals for the kids, but can you do it on your own time? Do you have to eat with everybody, or could that be negotiable?

Discussing this will require you to separate labor from the sentimental duties of family life. The very notion of such a thing may be upsetting to him if he has not studied feminism or Marxism. For instance, if you were to get out of the house while the kids are there, yet still come by to pick them up and take them places, and still prepare meals for them, would that be a workable compromise, or would it violate some unspoken desire for you to play the sentimental role of mother and wife? This can be a volatile area, because it brings up childhood memories and desires. But if he is a rational and flexible man, perhaps you can work with him on this.

During this interim period, here are some strategies for getting much-needed breathing room.

Make a time map of a week with the kids in the house. Schedule yourself out of the house as much as you can. Find places you can go in the evenings to get away for a few quiet hours. Perhaps the library? Or a sport? Is there a gym or a running path you can use to get away? Create tasks and appointments outside the house that you must take: a meditation class, a yoga class, a meeting with a friend, a lecture, a scientific demonstration, a meeting with a psychologist, a poetry reading. Heavily schedule yourself plenty of outside activities. Then, when you leave the house, remember that you have choices: You do not necessarily have to attend these things you have scheduled. You can change your mind. You can simply leave the house and have some time to yourself. You can occasionally decide to stay home and enjoy the family, too. The important thing is to protect this being inside you that feels violated and exhausted by all this contact, over which you feel you have no control and no choice.

This is not about “emotional space.” This is about actual space: a room with a closed door and no other people in it. To get what you need to stay in the relationship will require some novel  changes. Just because they are novel does not mean they are wrong, or can’t work.

Keep in mind what is at stake here. You have found the best relationship of your life. If it’s going to succeed, you have to find a way to meet your needs.

You may not be able to orchestrate all these changes on your own. You may need to enlist the help of a counselor or therapist to carry out the steps involved. You may also feel significant resistance to carrying out these steps. In fact, not to overstep the bounds here, but sometimes when we have defined ourselves in a certain way, we must then prove to others that we are that way. The way we do that is by not being able to do certain things that are uncongenial to our nature. That is, we are rewarded by failure.

But that may be going a little too far. Let’s just say that these steps are important but will be difficult, and if you find yourself avoiding them, get some help.

You may also have certain beliefs that act as barriers. For instance, you may believe that you ought to have motherly feelings and play a motherly role. I don’t think you have to play a motherly role. I think you should stop trying to do that.

Lastly, on the subject of your personality type, consider this paragraph about how the INTP functions, from TypeLogic.com:

“When present, the INTP’s concern for others is intense, albeit naive. In a crisis, this feeling judgement is often silenced by the emergence of Thinking, who rushes in to avert chaos and destruction. In the absence of a clear principle, however, INTPs have been known to defer judgement and to allow decisions about interpersonal matters to be left hanging lest someone be offended or somehow injured. INTPs are at risk of being swept away by the shadow in the form of their own strong emotional impulses.”

If this were true of you, it might explain why you undertook this emotionally draining and challenging role: In the presence of a charismatic attraction, your thinking side was submerged temporarily. Thus you allowed yourself to enter into a situation which, had you been able to think about it clearly, you would have known would be very risky and possibly unworkable.

You may still be able to save this thing. But it will require some novel problem-solving.

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I was duped

 
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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUL 1, 2003

No one told me how disappointing and boring married life is!


Dear Cary,

I am a 34-year-old woman, married for about 14 months. If I had known how disappointing and boring marriage would be, I would never have done it. What is worse, is that all my married friends and siblings never really talked to me about the reality of married life — they all act as though I should have known. But really, I had no idea, and am bitter about not having a clue; I feel like I was tricked into something. (I had tried to postpone the marriage, and my husband took it so badly, I went ahead with it anyway. A big mistake, I now believe.)

My husband is the kind of guy I was supposed to marry — handsome, funny, ambitious. Loves my mom, and is very considerate to me. In some ways, I shouldn’t complain, except for the fact that I feel I am sleepwalking through my life. The depths of my quiet desperation are amazing to me, and are approximately 14 months old.

When we were dating, we always had fun; he made me feel sexy and attractive. He’s still very kind, but the sex has dropped off considerably. We don’t go out together much because he’s not interested in the things I am. I often go alone to plays or exhibits I want to see. I have tried to involve him, but really, I have married someone who is not my intellectual partner. He’s simply not interested in those things, and I feel as though he was duping me into believing he was. I have spoken to him about my unhappiness and he’s always attributed it to something else — living in a different city from family, not having enough friends, etc. But after developing new hobbies and friendships, I still feel the same dullness about my entire life, stemming from my primary relationship being so mundane. I’ve always been a happy-go-lucky, independent person, so I am bewildered as to the depths of my unhappiness now.

We are all taught that marriage is the natural culmination of all our efforts toward love, and yet, I know of no one who is happily married. I do know some miserable parents of toddlers, and some couples who bicker constantly. Perhaps they are happy. My parents have been married for 40 years, and don’t have sex anymore. I no longer suppose they are happy — just together out of habit by this point.

Perhaps I should mention that I began dating my husband after leaving an exciting but underpaid career for one that I enjoy, and pays better, but lacks the adventure quotient. My husband is very emotionally dependent on me, and would be crushed to learn that I am considering leaving him and starting over somewhere new. We don’t have any children and I feel that I could leave and begin again.

Please don’t tell me to try harder. I’m the one doing all the work to try to bring some stimulation into our relationship. He seems to think that all is well, despite my explanations to the contrary. How much boredom is one supposed to cope with as part of marriage? Am I just having a problem maturing? Is “lack of fun” grounds for a divorce? How do people do this? I had always wanted an extraordinary life. But from here, it is looking very long indeed.

Trapped in the Marriage Donut

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Dear Trapped,

Madam, what you need is a divorce. You made a dumb mistake. It was an honest mistake, but it was dumb. Luckily, this isn’t the Middle Ages — not yet anyway. Get a divorce, and the sooner the better — while it’s still legal.

The divorce should free up some time for you to write the book. And then, after the book becomes a bestseller, you will have all the time you need to visit the museums and eat the lunches. In the book, if you just tell in, say, a couple of hundred pages what you just said to me, in more detail but with the same combination of dizzying naiveté and withering honesty, every married woman in the country will want to read it — aloud to her friends.

Of course marriage is sometimes as you say. But then, so is single life. Those of us who are married and plan to remain so have done it because the alternative is so much more frightening and bizarre — to be out there among all those dangerous, untethered people, randomly ranging on the urban prairie, unleashed from family and institution, neighing and pawing the ground as the sun sets every night: It’s sheer madness to contemplate singlehood. Many of us who are now married tried to remain happily free and single but could not bear that kind of happiness and freedom any longer.

As you say, the world offers so much in the way of books and music and entertainment! There is so much to do! But some of us also need security, comfort, routine, an ally, someone we can trust, someone who when encountered in the morning does not bark like a stranger raised by hyenas, someone whose allegiance is unquestioned, someone who has read some of the same books, someone who can buy toothpaste at Target when we run out, someone who is not an aunt or uncle or visiting graduate student at the nearby polytechnic institute: there are a million reasons to stay married, aside from the sheer madness of love, that is. It is hard to explain sometimes, especially when one is moody and inconsolable and wants to crawl around inside an apartment with all the drapes drawn for three or four days but there is this other person in the house to whom some explanation is owed for the unaccountable blankness of affect … there are times, of course, when the sheer lunacy of the arrangement strikes home with particular force.

Nonetheless, as marriage is a delicious and mad torment, so is life itself.

So get the divorce, free up some time and write the book. Call it, “If I had known how disappointing and boring marriage would be, I would never have done it.” Who could resist a title like that?

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My husband won’t do his laundry

 

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 23, 2007

We were sharing household duties, but then things got out of whack and now I’m ready to bitch-slap my hubby!


Dear Cary:

My husband won’t do his laundry and I want to bitch-slap him. Yes, this is coming from a middle-aged, professional woman. Here’s the skinny: This is my second marriage, his first. And yes, we went into this marriage nine years ago with shared responsibilities. We sort of fell into a pattern, with him assuming all the lawn and maintenance work and me taking care of the home, including the laundry. We both worked full time and both pitched in to do things like cleaning and food shopping, depending on our schedules.

But back to the laundry. I really didn’t mind doing the laundry and did it all on Saturday morning while I cleaned or we cleaned together. But things all changed last October when hubs lost his job. I told him he needed to pick up more housekeeping chores, including doing his own laundry. He did pick up some chores (only sporadically, as long as they didn’t interfere with his obsession with golf) but was pretty lax about his laundry. He soon fell into the same pattern of piling all of his dirties in the laundry room on Saturday morning … for me to do.

I resent this and have asked him several times to take care of this before the weekend but he never does. He has returned to work, but he sets his own hours and has plenty of time to do his laundry. Things have come to a head here lately since I’ve had to assume full-time care of my two grandchildren, ages 2 and 5, while their mother is sick. These little folks generate tons of laundry, and I am now so mad at hubs that I want to punch him in the face. Maybe he will listen to an outside opinion.

At any rate, at least I got to vent!

Thank you,
Buried in Laundry

 

Dear Buried,

My outside opinion is that you need outside help. You’ve got too much to do. If you can swing it, just hire somebody. If you can’t, then you have to put on paper the number of hours required for all the tasks of running the household, and the number of hours you and he have available to run the household, and stare at the numbers while you weep and gnash your teeth and curse the gods, and then hire some outside help.

Believe me, there isn’t enough time in your week. You may think there is but there isn’t. You may think there would be time, since hubby sets his own hours. You may think it’s a simple matter for him to stop doing what he’s doing. And if you were the kind of person who was very clever about setting up conditioned reflexes in a husband to surreptitiously alter his behavior, you might be able to alter his behavior. But it’s clear from the way you’re approaching this that you aren’t able to alter his behavior. You’ve already lost patience. So stop trying. Maybe in an ideal world he would do what you tell him to do. But I have a feeling that’s just not going to happen. Because at this point it’s not about the laundry. It’s about the power struggle between you two. It’s about pride and ego and unfairness and probably a lot of built-up resentments about a whole bunch of other stuff that you didn’t mention but that you will explain to the therapist you end up going to after this really comes to a head and you throw his laundry into the yard and he runs over it with the mower.

So, what I’m saying is, there might theoretically be enough time in your week if you were different people. If you were people who only did chores maybe. That would mean that you are not really people. That would mean you are machines. I mean, you could cut out rest. Or sleep. Or recreation. Or spiritual time. Or family fun. Or eating meals. Or sleeping in. Or taking care of the 2-year-old, or the 5-year-old. You could cut out all the things that seem inessential and frivolous. But you wouldn’t. You’d do them anyway. Because that’s who you are.

So just hire some outside help. If you don’t have the money to hire outside help, then accept the fact that the laundry isn’t going to get done. I mean, stop doing it. Stop doing his laundry. Leave it on the floor. Let him do it.

You can do that or you can keep doing what you’re doing.

My point is you have to end this thing. You’ll probably eventually have to settle your power struggle with him, but for the time being, use some of that professional salary to get in some outside help. Or just don’t do his laundry.

One more thing: Breathe!

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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

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I found the man of my dreams so late in life!

Cary’s classic column from

Why can’t I get over my bitterness at my bad luck?


 

Dear Cary,

It seems crazy to write you at this time because actually I am happier right now than I’ve ever been in my life. I am engaged to a wonderful man and we are going to be married in the spring. He is 53, handsome, with thick salt-and-pepper hair and a truly sweet nature. I am 45. I’m crazy about him and I never thought we’d end up together. When we met, in 1995, we were both married to other people.

I know it sounds like a convenient coincidence, but both of us really were married to unfaithful, abusive people. When “Tony” and I first found ourselves thrown together, we quickly developed intense feelings for each other, yet when we talked about it, we decided not to act on it. Neither of us wanted an affair, for a lot of reasons. So the years went by and we talked on the phone occasionally, or met for coffee once in awhile. In 1997 I told Tony I couldn’t see him at all anymore — I was trying so hard to make my marriage work. I had two small children (Tony has two children as well, but they’re older) and every time I saw him, I wanted to be near him again and I felt I couldn’t “do the right thing” — i.e., concentrate on my husband.

Well, eventually Tony got divorced, and in 2000 I finally left my abusive husband. Now Tony and I are together, and after dating for several years we have taken the plunge and decided to marry. I can’t believe it finally came true — it’s like a dream. He’s the love of my life and he feels the same way about me. Our kids get along great and each set of kids loves the other person.

So, Cary — why am I writing you? This is why. And dear God, I really want to know whether other people feel the same way. I hope you can tell me. I can’t seem to get over wondering why Tony and I didn’t meet sooner, didn’t have a chance to fall in love and marry sooner, didn’t have a chance to have children together. Here’s something funny for you: We grew up in this midsize Southern city only about three miles away from each other. For the first 25 years of my life, Tony and I never lived more than five miles away from each other. He dated a girl in my neighborhood; I often rode my bike past his house (never knowing). Yet we didn’t meet. In 1989 he was invited to my brother’s wedding, but didn’t attend; he was separated from his wife at the time and could have met me then — I was a bridesmaid. It would have been a perfect time to meet — if we had, we could have married and had children. I have the strangest feeling that Tony and I have crossed paths a hundred times in our lifetimes. Yet we didn’t meet. And by the time we did — and by the time we finally got untangled from our bad marriages — it was too late to have a child together. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have found him at all — most people go their whole lives and don’t feel this.

Cary, I can’t seem to let this go. It hurts so much that I’ll never have this man’s child, that I wasn’t his first wife, that I wasn’t there when he was young, that I was with other people, wasting my time. I find myself HATING the woman he married, who bore him two children and treated him terribly. I happened to see a snapshot of that wedding once, and the image is burned in my brain. Why wasn’t that me? Why aren’t his kids mine? Why aren’t my kids his? Why didn’t we have that wild youth together? Why couldn’t it be me in his arms? Why didn’t we meet sooner? Why? Why? I even find myself, for brief flashes, terribly resenting his younger child for being the daughter of her mother and not of me. It’s breaking my heart. I was taught that God leads you to the “one” you are meant to marry. So why didn’t it happen? Yes — we (hopefully) have 25 years of happiness ahead of us. He says to concentrate on that. So why can’t I let go of the agonizing jealousy, and the wondering why it will never be 50 years together? I can’t stop feeling like it’s sooooo late, and it’s not fair. And how do I get past the jealousy of thinking of him having children with someone else? Please say something to help me get over this. Does anyone else feel this way? I can’t bring myself to ask even my closest friends, for fear that nobody else suffers through this!

In Love With Tony

Dear In Love With Tony,

Some things happen for reasons so random, complex and indeterminate that to question them is fruitless. How could you possibly retrace your childhood to learn why you never met? Your bicycle routes through the neighborhood, your trips to the store, the parties you might both have attended: All that is swept away into the past. It’s tempting to try to retrieve it, as though the past resided in some vast TiVo and could be replayed to pick out the details. Replay that scene again: How close did you come to him there? What were the missed opportunities?

But without an accurate record, we replay the past in our heads and, whether we mean to or not, we refashion it to our liking; each time we replay it, our wishes reshape it until we come to believe what we want to believe — that we really were only a hairsbreadth away from winning the Nobel Prize, that an Olympic gold medal was just beyond our reach, that it was only the barest of chances that prevented us from meeting and marrying the man of our dreams. And then, because we have come to believe that fate has not favored us, the suffering begins: Why, Lord, why? When I was so close?

By this time your feelings, though real, are based on a fiction. You were never really so close to being with this man. It only seems so in retrospect. At the time, you were doing what you had to do, and so was he. There were children to be looked after, and relationships to conclude. You had made some choices that had unexpected consequences, that led to unforeseeable difficulties. You worked through those difficulties. You are now grieving for some lost time. But you did the right thing as long as you could. And now you have found some happiness. Your happiness is tinged with sadness about what might have been. But it is still happiness. Having been through so much, you are perhaps a little greedy for more of this happiness. You think of what life might have been like if this happiness had been there all along. It’s understandable to think of such things. But do not let such thoughts torture you. There is nothing you can do about the past now. Let it be.

Spend some time feeling what you feel and remembering what you remember — not for what it means, but just for what it is. Out of this, a story may emerge that explains what happened. Stories are a kind of mercy. So after looking over your past you tell a story. Perhaps it begins as a polite apology to the present, for being unavoidably detained in the past. Or perhaps you say, “There was a raging storm. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights and then I was rescued.” You say you were held captive as a slave until finally set free by strong hands. You say there was some sorcery involved: A spell was cast over you; you were blinded and could not walk away until one day the spell was lifted and the sun shone and you could see and you walked out of enslavement into freedom. You don’t know why you were enslaved, or who put the spell on you, or why your rescue happened when it did. But now you are free, and grateful. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. I was lost but now I’m found.

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I’m going for it

Write for Advice

 

Cary’s classic column from

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Married

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Dear Married,

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

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

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

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

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

WhatHappenedNextCall

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