Category Archives: marriage

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My mother-in-law is a difficult person

She puts me down, she pops in, she meddles, she scorns, she does the backhanded compliment … need some help here!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 19, 2007


Dear Cary,

I am not one for hate or grudges. I dislike how they make me feel. Despite my flaws, I have always had a great capacity for empathy. This is perhaps why it is so distressing to me that I have finally found someone I have nothing but hatred for, and it is someone that I cannot be without unless I extricate myself from my living arrangement.

I hate my mother-in-law. I know. I am a cliché. I know these relationships are often fraught and loaded and laced with all the bittersweetness of letting go of your son. I know how hard it must be for her that we live on a different coast. I know that I am an imperfect match for him in that I am not traditional. I work freelance and travel frequently as part of my job. I am not an excellent cook. I hardly ever notice a dusty window sill. I laugh loudly and often. I hate shopping.

She is quite traditional. She likely dreams of a perfect match for her son that stays home every day cooking divine organic meals, cleaning the house from top to bottom, shopping for clothes for her son and getting the best possible deals.

I love her son unconditionally. It’s interesting that I have been referring to him as “her son.” In a way, that may be why I hate her. Nothing about my life with my husband seems truly to be mine or even ours. She wants to live every moment of it for us.

She shows up on a whim and stays for weeks at a time, no matter what else we may have planned. She stays with us and makes passive-aggressive, critical comments about every morsel I eat, how I clean, how the furniture is configured, what I need to buy, how often I am away, how I exercise, how I should exercise more, or less. She does everything she can to make me feel powerless and like a failure in my home. She is brash and opinionated with a veneer of “Oh, bless your heart! I love how laid-back you are that the floors are so dusty! That would drive me insane, but you just go on about your life as though nothing is wrong!” “I can’t imagine ever eating anything so rich! You are so blessed to have such a strong stomach and to care so little about your figure!” Every time I try to establish some boundaries about her involvement, she breaks through them.  Every time I try to simply appease her by, say, taking her advice, she is dissatisfied with the result. Every time she gives me those “compliments,” I choke out a “thank you” all the while feeling that there is simply no appropriate response.

She does whatever she can to register her disapproval of everything I am, and I am so, so resentful of her no matter how I try to tell myself that I should view putting up with her as an act of love for my husband. I am having a harder and harder time being civil to her when she makes disrespectful comments. My husband is a fiercely loyal son and bristles at any mention that she may be treating me inappropriately. I feel trapped. I cannot escape her. I am terrified that this anger, this hatred will cost me someone I love when I inevitably say something rude as a retort to one of her jabs. I know that is coming and I dread it. I know that in that case I will be very much in the wrong and will likely confirm what she has expected all along.

Please, you are such a lovely writer. I would love your insight.

How can I stop hating my mother-in-law?

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Dear Mother-in-Law Hater,

Wow.

You are dealing with someone who has a rare black belt in the art of putdown-fu. She is a trained master of tai-shit-on-you.

She’s a badass. That comment about you not caring about your figure is deep black magic.

This is a woman who, when she meditates, the Buddha looks nervous.

It’s not that you are holding a grudge, or that she’s your mother-in-law. It’s that she’s a difficult person.

You need counter-moves.

The good news: There’s help. The bad news: There’s help.

I mean, if there’s that much help, there must be that many difficult people.

Scary.

I wish I could say I’m an expert but I’m not. My one counter-move involves taking a deep breath, counting to three and running out the door.

But you can’t run. You have to stand and take it.

So get some help.

Google “difficult people” and see what I mean.

Here are some of the less-annoying and almost-helpful sites:

Think Simple Now has a few good ideas.

So does www.dealingwithdifficultpeople.com.

There is a ton of other advice out there on how to deal with this and much of it is useful and good … if you can put it into practice.

That’s the key. If you have a friend who is great at handling difficult people, spend some time with her. Do you know anyone like that? Think hard. Difficult people thrive in certain businesses and lifestyles. Fashion, the arts and entertainment businesses, as well as fast-paced, high-risk businesses such as high finance  … wherever difficult people thrive, you will find also the people who are good at handling difficult people.

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So seeking informal help among your set of friends is one good solution. Talking it out and learning from people who deal with this a lot may help.

Here is another thought. It’s hard to put into words. But I have seen people do it. To me, it seems like they have hit on a tone, a magical tone that they use on the difficult person. Or a way of positioning themselves psychologically. Perhaps it is partly physical posture, too. I know this is vague. It’s like … a center of strength. Find yours.

And the other thing, which I know I suggest a lot — because it’s so often needed! — is to find a therapist with whom you can work on ways, strategies to cope with her. There are so many problem-solving techniques, ways to limit your contact with her, setting boundaries, stuff like that, but they are hard to implement without somebody to talk them over with. If a therapist is not available, then use this friend of yours you’ve identified as your local difficult-person expert.

You just need some help dealing with a difficult person, and the Secret Service is unfortunately not in your employ.

Wow, wouldn’t that be something — sleek guys in suits with earpieces.

But no. No such luck.

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I gave up everything to be with my Russian husband and now I’m unhappy

I am a New Yorker living like a prisoner
in London.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 29, 2007

Dear Cary,

I’m American. My husband is Russian. We’re in our 30s, married about two and a half years, and live in London, where my husband is pursuing a Ph.D. We got married so I could stay here with him — in other words, my five-year residency here with permission to work is based on our marriage certificate. I might add that I married him to be with him, and not because I was particularly interested in living in London or, for that matter, unhappy with my life before.

We got together in part based on love of travel. We took road trips together, went to his country. This was years ago. Four, more or less. Some things happened. He moved here. I did my second year of an MFA program. I never finished. I moved here to be with him when I was about to start my thesis, got, like, a three-year-long case of writer’s block, and there goes my life. Now I work part time and wonder what the hell happened to me.

Here is the specific question. It relates to my rights, I think. You see, my husband cannot go anywhere without applying for a visa. This includes going across the Channel to France. The visa process is complex and demanding, and he hates to do it and resents it.
There are also disparities in our background. Mine — I won’t get into his — includes a little bit of money. Not much. But I have a kitty to dip into, so to speak.

I’m not crazy about London. At first I hated it. Gradually I came to see it as like New York, where I’m from, with the significant difference that here I lack family and support (interesting slip, considering that I’m married). Also, whereas in New York I can get into a car and drive somewhere fun, here I can’t even go to Europe. Because he can’t. Not that I mind going alone. I like it. But I can’t because he can’t. You see?

It was depressing two and a half years ago and it’s still depressing. I didn’t know before I abandoned my old life, sold my car, left my master’s program and gave away my cats (to my parents — I’m not absolutely heartless) that my husband would not be able to travel to Europe. What a crazy thing! Or maybe I knew it perhaps a month before I came here, but I didn’t know or let myself think about the extent to which this problem would take over my life.

Life with him is a constant battle I cannot win. He constantly tries to explain himself to me, puncturing holes in my logic and finding fault with everything. Maybe I should be like Sonia in “Crime and Punishment” and give up all my privileges, as he calls them, which are unfairly won by my evil country over his. I went to Paris by myself over a year ago for four days and am still being asked to explain this terrible betrayal. It’s true that every time I’ve taken a trip on my own, totaling 10 days in two and a half years, I haven’t asked for his permission or told him in advance. I didn’t want to be dissuaded. But it’s maddening to constantly be told how difficult it is to be Russian and how ungenerous I am by wanting to do anything at all when I feel I am experiencing the same thing, and quite often wonder why I don’t just make my life easier by finding someone with a better passport who understands my need to disappear every now and then without feeling slighted by it.

What are my obligations to him? And what are his to me? I feel like I know what they are, but they don’t seem to translate into this combination. I can’t deal with feeling so limited.

Of course I love him. But I wasn’t always this unhappy.

Thanks.

Stranded

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Dear Stranded,

You gave up a great deal to be with this man.

You sold your car and gave away your cats. You left the city and country in which your attitudes and expectations were understood and respected. And then what happened? You got writer’s block. I do not think these things are unrelated.

I think you have to leave this man.

It’s really that simple.

If there were a way to leave him symbolically in order to meet the needs of your psyche for solitude and autonomy, then perhaps you would not have to divorce him.

If you could leave him, for instance, and go into a room of your own with a door that closes, a door that he will not open if it is closed, a door that he respects, that would be a start.

The door that is closed but not locked symbolizes your choices and your wishes. A door that is locked represents your power. You need for him to respect your wishes, not your power.

You have some power here. You have your own money. But he denigrates that power as privilege, i.e. power that is illegitimate, that you do not deserve. If he respects neither your power nor your wishes, there’s no basis for negotiation.

You could get a room of your own outside the relationship. You could just do it. But to get a room of your own within the relationship you need his respect. If you cannot negotiate with mutual respect, if you must negotiate only out of power, then the relationship is not one between two free equals; it is more of an authoritarian relationship in which power decides one’s fate.

I do not believe that the creative spirit can thrive under such conditions.

You do not want to have to lock yourself in. It is better to leave and be locked out.

There is much, much more to be said about this, but that is all I feel I can say with certainty and resolve.

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All my traveling makes my husband jealous

 

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 4, 2008

He seems to believe that when I travel I must be sleeping with my boss.


Dear Cary,

I married my second husband in 2002, just a couple of months after completing chemo treatments for ovarian cancer. We’d been together a year and a half before I was diagnosed. Several times during the time I was being treated, he made the suggestion that we get married and I said no each time.

I was a little anxious after my sixth and final chemo and my oncologist prescribed an antidepressant to take for six months. Everything seemed so much clearer once I was taking the drug and I actually told him that I would indeed marry him.

I stopped working for nearly a year during my illness, but when we met, I was selling software and traveling very much. But, honestly, I have always traveled since I was 14 and I lived more than a decade in the north of Italy. I speak fluent Italian and French, some Spanish and Portuguese.

Initially, he was fine with my travel, but after six months or so, he would just go crazy when I would have to take a business trip (this was where my reluctance to marry him came from). I’m embarrassed to say that once, before leaving on a two-week business trip to South America, I didn’t tell him until I walked out of the door with my suitcases. I found that telling him ahead of time to prepare him only made him bitterly angry for the entire time before I needed to leave — he’d stop speaking to me. It is incredibly stressful.

Cut to six years later. I’ve been working for a fantastic software company for the past four years with very smart people who are at the cutting edge of our industry. I am again selling software but have been promoted and am also leading a team. I’m making a lot of money — almost twice as much as him. Our two salaries give us the ability to do nearly anything we want and save much of what we earn. We have a lovely home that we enjoy retreating to. We have everything anyone could want.

I have really tried to curb the amount of travel I do because I know it distresses him, but there are at least six or seven overnights a year and a few day trips that I must take, otherwise I’m not doing my job properly.

Between the trips, we get along fine. I say fine as opposed to fantastic because, frankly, each time he wigs out because of a business trip, I feel far less willing to give him any sort of benefit of the doubt, or trust. I mean, part of me thinks that anyone so suspicious of business trips has to be totally screwing around while away. Note that while he travels far less for his job, he actually does have to go away, and I suspect he limits his trips because of me, and that this actually causes him some issues. (I love when he goes away; I get the house to myself — I am free for a while!)

I become more immature in my dealings with him when he acts like such an ass — I hate that because I vowed to myself that this would be my last marriage and that I would act in a way that was as mature and loving and supportive as possible.

So, yesterday I got up at 6 a.m., caught an 8:35 a.m. train to New York, arrived at 11:20 a.m. for a noon meeting that lasted about two and a half hours. My boss was with me at this meeting. I invited him to come — it’s an important potential account for us and I felt that it was important that he join me. One of my sisters happened to be visiting NYC with my niece, so immediately following the meeting I caught a cab (sans boss) to meet them to say hello. I told my boss not to worry, to just catch the train home. He said he’d wait and we agreed to meet back at the station to take a slightly earlier train.

There was a ton of traffic yesterday and cabs were few and far between anyway, so I decided to walk to Penn Station and arrived only four minutes before the train left; my boss was waiting there for me. I told him I hadn’t changed my ticket, and neither had he, so we decided to stick with the game plan and take the 5:39 train. Neither of us had eaten anything the entire day. So we sat at the bar at Hooligan’s in Penn Station for an hour, had a drink and a bite to eat. My husband called me while we were eating but I didn’t answer. There was music in the restaurant and I didn’t want the hassle of him asking me where I was (I guess eating and drinking is foreplay — whatever). I called him immediately after we left the restaurant and were about to board the train. He asked me if my boss was taking the same train and I said yes. He said he should have known I was “out drinking” with my boss, implying as usual that I was committing adultery. By the way, the thought has crossed my mind to tell him no, I’m by myself. But for chrissakes, I have nothing to lie about. (Sometimes I’ll ask him to look me in the eyes and tell me he honestly believes I am having an affair — he can’t.)

I have spent three or four days away on business without ever speaking to him — he won’t call. He used to make repeated calls, like 30 calls in a row and when I would answer he’d scream so loud that others would hear, so I don’t trust him enough to answer the phone unless I’m alone. Once he canceled the credit card we both had an account on, so my card was denied. (I immediately got my own account following that episode.) When I do arrive home I am so happy to be there. I have two border collies and I love them; they are so happy to see me. But upon my return, my husband and I will go days and days and days without speaking. Life is too short for silence. And marriage is hard work; you can take baby steps forward and giant leaps back. These periods of silence are the giant leaps back for me.

I have repeated over and over again to him that I have never conducted myself in a way that could even be remotely construed as undignified — and it is the truth. I want to work hard, make money, come home to a supportive companion, be an honest, loving companion, be with my dogs and feel peace.

But this situation leaves me feeling as though I have no peace.

We have not seen a marriage counselor; however, I’ve tried other things, like laying out in advance the trips I know I’ll be taking. It doesn’t help for long, and he reverts to this outlandish behavior.

What do I need to do?

Dispirited, Disgusted, Distraught

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Dear Dispirited,

One possibility is that your husband lives in mortal dread of being deceived by a woman. This dread may derive from experiences in his romantic past as well as from his childhood, and is probably part of a lifetime pattern of relationships in which he does not feel secure. Because this fear is so ingrained, and not actually conscious, he may not be able to see how stifling his behavior is; he may believe he is simply showing concern about your whereabouts as a normal precaution.

If he were to become conscious of this, like a man awakening from some kind of foggy dream, he might be able to say to you, I’m sorry, my love, I have been acting like a crazy man, and this is why: because I live in deep, mortal fear of abandonment and betrayal, and I’m sorry, I’ll try to stop acting like such a crazy man, I’ll try to get a more realistic view.

But until he becomes conscious of what he is doing, he will not be able to shine any light on this for you. Instead, he will keep you a prisoner of his fear.

Another possibility is that he himself is either involved or contemplating becoming involved in an outside affair. If this were the case then we might say he is projecting onto you his fear of discovery and his guilt about his dishonesty; he is seeing you as the untrustworthy party, the one who is deceiving him. He is projecting.

That sounds sort of clichéd but a friend told me a story, a very strange story, of just such an incident. A man she knew suddenly cut off all contact with her and began acting very crazy because he believed his wife was cheating on him. He believed this because he was cheating on her. There was no evidence that she was cheating. It was all because he was cheating and believed, therefore, that she must be cheating also. Very strange but true. He was imagining her to be having the same thoughts and feelings that he was having, and then he responded to her as though these projected thoughts and feelings were hers, not the products of his own guilt-driven imagination.

So such things are possible in our world. You will have to discover what is driving him. Is he simply afraid that you will abandon him, or is he himself being somehow unfaithful?

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But even after you discover, through couples counseling or principled individual struggle with him, what exactly is the basis for his behavior — insisting, that is, that he tell you the unvarnished truth about his life and not relenting until you get what you feel is a complete and satisfactory answer — you have only begun to solve the larger issue.

Because here is what we do in a marriage: We try to protect what we have. We see where things can lead. So we guard ourselves against the weak moment, the seductive situation, the enticing opportunity; we avoid them. Of course we do. We screw ourselves down tight.

But in doing so we risk cutting ourselves off from our very sources of vitality and beauty and pleasure. We turn away from the life force that created us in the first place and which is the only thing that can sustain us.

We try to shut out danger but we shut out life. We shut ourselves off from the source of our energy and beauty. We shut out eros.

We all want to survive. We all want to avoid pain. We all want to avoid situations in which our wives are fucking strange men doggy style in high, luxurious rooms in hotels in faraway cities and not telling us about it until the day they decide to pack a suitcase full of lingerie and perfume, and we sit on the bed watching in a rage of paralysis and incomprehension, flooded with emotions about the packing of the suitcase, baffled by why the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume is being packed right at that moment, baffled about what specifically might be wrong with us physically or psychologically that caused the wife to pack the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume on that particular afternoon when we might otherwise be watching television or eating or watering the lawn.

We all wish to avoid such moments. So we seek safety and routine.

But in seeking safety and routine we court death. In seeking safety we cut ourselves off from the wealth and abundance of life forces that created us in the first place and that will sustain us only if we expose ourselves to them. We cut ourselves off from temptation and we cut ourselves off from life. We bloom a suicidal purity. We blossom dead flowers. We kill ourselves to keep ourselves safe. Such murder flows from deep distrust. It is not just distrust of you. It is broader. It is a distrust of the enterprise of living. It is a wrong relationship to the world. It is a relationship to the world premised on illusory control. We forget that we are not our own creators. We forget that our blood is a gift, that our brain is a gift, that our water and sweat and semen and tears and arm hairs and tongue, teeth, gums, jawbone, epiglottis, eustachian tubes, nose and throat and eyes, our spit and our urine and our shit, our hipbones and toenails and kneecaps, that all of us is a gift, that we have a source in the world, that cut off from that source we die. We forget this. We have to be reminded now and then. So we go out into the desert and somehow we are reminded.

My trip to Burning Man has reminded me that it is good to go outside our situation to see our situation. This is the beauty of it: Put people together in the desert without social rules and restrictions and what do they do? They make things and help each other. This human goodness, this desire to make things and help each other, if given a time and place, seems to arise spontaneously.

How easily we can become accustomed to thinking of our relationships, our philosophical posture and our behavior as things that we control and so must constantly work on! And of course this is not a bad thing to do, to ceaselessly struggle to find a right way to live and a right way to behave. But in the struggle we can forget about the source of all that we are. We can forget that underneath our effort and our conflict there is a bubbling spring of goodness, creativity, love, light, desire to help, kindness, wit, humor, warmth, togetherness, grand vision and fine craft, deep humanity, which requires only that we partake of it, only that we give it a little space to bloom. We forget that we are not in charge of these human qualities but that we are the recipients of them. We forget that we have to reach outside our sphere of domestic arrangements to something mystical and beyond us.

You faced death and you endured illness. In this you perhaps came in contact with this force outside us; you felt it; you felt the life force bubbling up through you of its own accord: the life, the priceless force.

So I sense that the solution to your conflict lies not just in solving the immediate conflict about your travel but in the two of you finding new sources of life and vitality that can flow into the marriage and make it richer and fuller. You already have such sources — in your work and your travel. These things give you energy and inspiration. He must find such things as well. And he must find out what has happened in his past to make him so afraid. Each of you has to find strength enough to endure the other’s absence, or the marriage bed will be a prison cell, stifling and dead.

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An unmarried woman, unhappy in India

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Hi Cary,

The theme of my letter is no different from the ones you probably receive by the dozens every day. I have gone through your site every morning devouring citations by troubled souls. But even when I spot some common patterns, I’m not sure why I feel my own problem is unique and quite frankly, I need your help.

I guess I should start with an introduction. I am a professionally qualified, independent woman living in a large metropolitan city in India. Most would say that I am quite accomplished. I enjoy a good position in a very large multinational corporation, I have a house of my own and I am seen by people as a warm, intelligent, mature and sensible person. My circle of friends and family is small but very caring.

Of course there is a catch. I am also single, have been so for most of my life. This is considered a disqualification at my age in this country. At the very least it makes me an oddity. People wonder why I am single and when they find no apparent reason, they often wonder aloud if I am ‘too independent’ and if I ‘scare men off’ with my financial independence and self-reliance.

I used to find this irksome in the beginning. As far as I was concerned, being single wasn’t a permanent choice I had made in life. I was simply waiting for the right man to arrive. Arranged marriages are quite the norm in India, even now. And in my twenties and then in my thirties I met quite a lot of men. But the ‘system’ left me aghast. Taking a lifelong decision over a cup of coffee with countless prying relatives and middlemen seemed so much at contrast to the careful, considerate approach I had otherwise formed in life with respect to most things. I found the process insensitive, intrusive and invasive. And even when I went through countless organized meetings with prospective grooms, I realized I was just not cut out for it.

On the other hand ‘love’ didn’t happen to me either with the exception of a very intense relationship that ended quite abruptly at a young age. It was a long distance affair that wilted and died a slow motion death. After that there were close encounters — men who fell in love with me, whose love I couldn’t reciprocate. And then those whom I felt I could have loved but they were with other people.

By and large, even in the midst of a suspecting world that cannot fathom why and how a girl like me is single, something tells me this can happen. Oh hell, there are worse things that happen to people in the world, like hunger or poverty or disease. And an educated person like me cannot lament the lack of love forever. So mentally, I am quite prepared to not hang my boots just yet. Except, emotionally, I feel a little rudderless.

Gradually as time is passing by, I am wondering what am I doing with my time and life? What is the purpose of building this home I have spent years paying a mortgage on? And after I die, who shall inherit it? Is this all there ever shall be? Will I ever be able to share the inconsequential details of my days with anyone? And why this daily grind? Who do I strive every day for? I do a lot of problem solving at work, Cary. And clearly I know there is a problem here. My heart and my mind are in conflict. And I’m not in a happy place.

What’s your advice to women like me? We’re traveling far and wide in life, making small strides every day. We’re career women. We have financial and social standing. But still, it’s not enough to keep us from being vulnerable. If love and companionship are going to be elusive, how should we placate our hearts? And what should we make our next goal?

Maybe your advice can help me find my way from here.

Sincerely, Lost Somewhere in the Middle

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Dear Lost in the Middle,

Your letter led me in several directions, and was not easy to answer. I started thinking about consciousness and selfhood, and horizontal identity as talked about in Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree, and the status of women in India generally and Indian culture, and the problem of abduction and forced marriage …

So it took me a couple of weeks. But I’m going to finish up today and see if I can boil down my thoughts to a few simple paragraphs.

First, and most generally, let’s talk about the things you have in common with all people. I think it might help you to see your feelings in a broad human context, and think of yourself not specifically as an unmarried professional woman in India but just as a person. Just as a person you may feel lonely. You may wonder why you have done the things you have done, and what the future holds.These are not feelings limited to you. I suggest that you place yourself in a broad context and approach your life questions broadly. For many of the answers are the same regardless of your status and culture. If you are lonely, seek friendship. If you have tax and inheritance questions, consult an attorney. If you wonder why you have done certain things, if you want to ponder the meaning of your life with a wise and sympathetic witness, then seek a wise and sympathetic psychotherapist and begin examining your life. If you are troubled by the cultural attitudes that circumscribe or limit your life, then become active in Indian cultural affairs. These are things that you can do. You have money and friends and a house. You can begin this journey.

You can begin this journey and it will help if you do not seek answers quickly. Rather, become active in the search. For the search itself is the answer. The activity is the answer. To be swept up in the stream of life is the answer. If you decide you want to change attitudes and laws regarding the status of women in India, then dive in; join a group of women or form a group of women and see what you can do. The activity will change your life. It will deepen and enrich your life.

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OK. That’s two paragraphs. Now I want to say one thing about Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree. But I don’t want to talk about it too much. I actually want to recommend that you read it. Then you can talk about it with other people. The reason I want you to read it is that I want you to think about your horizontal identity as a single woman and how that conflicts with your vertical identity as a daughter and citizen and employee. I have a feeling that you have a very particular sensibility and you have made choices in your life in accordance with that sensibility. You have, in other words, honored your true being. In doing so, you have made sacrifices. Or rather, you have refused to make sacrifices and those refusals have in themselves been sacrifices. That is, you decided you weren’t just going to turn your body over to the state, as it were, the state of men. You weren’t just going to say, Oh, Gee, I’m a woman in India and women in India marry so I must marry. You said, Wait a minute, this doesn’t feel right, I think I won’t do this. Not until it feels right. And that was a sacrifice because in doing so you ran the risk of never marrying.

That is the cost of being true to oneself.

The reason I think of your horizontal identity is that I think you may gain support and a feeling of belonging if you will seek out and bond with other single professional women. For you have distinct qualities that will unite you. You will understand each other. There may not be such “fraternal” organizations readily available in your area. I don’t know. When I search on the Internet under “single professional women in India” of course, no surprise, I find dating sites. Which tells us a lot, doesn’t it — that your status is viewed as a lack, a state of incompletion that must be completed by supplying a mate. As, in the case of the deaf, people think it’s a state of incompletion that must be remedied. Whereas, surprisingly if you don’t follow it, a good number of deaf people do not want to be made into hearing people. They want to preserve their identities. You may, similarly, not want to be “completed” by the addition of a man. You may want, actually, to remain as you are but not feel you are incomplete.

Do you feel incomplete? Maybe you do. We all do from time to time.

So I think I addressed consciousness and selfhood by suggesting that you think of yourself broadly and link your feelings to larger humanity. And I mentioned  Far from the Tree and horizontal identity. And, finally, as you may know, India ranks 114th overall in the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, while at the same time ranking 15th in the category of women’s political empowerment. So clearly there is a gap between the attainment of women in the realm of politics and the way women are treated in other areas of Indian life. This schism may be a clue to how you are feeling: You have done well, and yet in your day-to-day your accomplishments are not valued and or your status does not reflect your accomplishments.

Finally, I would just ask in general, What are you missing, in particular, that can be traced to your individual choices? What is that thing that is missing? And how do you find it?

Good luck! You are not alone.

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My wife is lying to me about her affair

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 24, 2007

I’m already raising two kids of my own. Should I divorce her and go it alone?


Dear Cary,

About a month ago, I discovered my wife of one year had had a fling with a co-worker that she initiated. I found out, I’m ashamed to say, by checking her e-mail because she’d been going out a lot, staying out late with people from work. When I complained about some of the excessive hours and frequency, she apologized, said she was being stupid, and was sorry. And it continued.

My gut told me something was wrong after one evening, when she was out late again, and we “argued” about it, and again she offered an apology, and then she was back in the bedroom, singing and burning a CD. The next day, I gathered up my courage, and dove into her e-mail. And there was the incriminating evidence. I was devastated. I confronted her, she was stunned, but not particularly apologetic and remorseful. I offered to forgive and understand, wanted to talk. She offered a litany of complaints/justifications, saying “Nothing happens in a vacuum.” She said that turning 32 (I’m 41), and working in an office with a bunch of single people, had made her acutely aware of her age. She said that although two or three months earlier she’d told me she wanted to have a baby, that the decision stemmed from the fact that she felt like an outsider in the home, never truly the mother of my two kids, and wanted a child of her own. I had agreed, but said that we needed to be practical regarding buying the home and getting financially stable before we made that move. She said that started her thinking about the age thing, and how she should take advantage of the time she had left before motherhood.

Then she wanted to clam up.

Although she agreed to stop seeing this person, she maintained her distance and withdrawal. She just wanted to act as though everything was OK, which was very difficult for me to endure, as we’d had no cathartic moment of remorse, regret and so on. I felt she was stalling for time. I went to visit a friend in N.Y. for three days to give her some space. I came back, wanted to make love, she would have none of it. The distance continued, and each time I tried to talk, she freaked and got angry, telling me I was pressing her. She went away for a long weekend to get some space. When she came back, nothing was better. We’d made a good show of acting normal around the house, trying to normalize things. Then I found out that she’d called the lover over the long weekend and lied to me about it. I tried to understand, again offering conciliation. And still no meaningful discussion. She told me I needed to be on meds, that my anxiety was out of control, that essentially I was making the problems worse. I already do take an as-needed prescription for anxiety.

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I immediately scheduled a session with a couples therapist. We agreed that we were both going with the intent of trying to work things out. She ended up turning the session on me and my anxieties, how she felt backed into a corner, and I had consented to begin taking antidepressants to try to give her the space she needed by further quelling my anxiety. But my anxiety, which I’ve dealt with as a separate issue for a while, was really being exacerbated by my gut feeling that she wasn’t being straight with me, was holding something back, and stalling for time. Later that week, she lied again, this time about grabbing a beer after finishing working late, and gave me some story about getting the car stuck in the snow. I didn’t believe her, confronted her, and after a lot of evasion, she confessed.

We made love finally two days later, and afterward she was very distant, but tried to be reassuring. I wrote her a letter saying that I understood she was in a difficult place, and probably grieving for what she’d thought the affair would offer, and so on, again encouraging her that if she did indeed love me, as she professed, then we could still work through this. She said we needed to talk, and she owed me more of what was in her mind. Again, I checked her computer, and in the Internet history found that she’d been checking into apartments — the evening after our first therapy session. So, I had some idea what was coming, but we calmly sat down with a bottle of wine, and I let her tell me everything. Essentially, although she declared flatly that the affair is over, the lover done with (supposedly it was a one-time thing and I’ve no evidence to the contrary), she didn’t know whether she was happy, taking things for granted here at the house. She basically was coming to the conclusion that she wanted a separation.

We’ve had a long and and occasionally stormy history, including a two-year hiatus when she moved to New York. She came back to be with me, moved in with me and my two children, and after two years wanted very much to be married. Apart from the usual squabbles about housework and dealing with my two kids (who embraced her and loved her) discipline-wise (and they’re both very good kids, just the typical too much TV, messy room stuff), we seemed to have a very functional and happy marriage. She said as much many times. I felt very secure.

And then this. She says that although she’s not moving out to be with the lover, and I think this is probably true, she’s wondering if there’s something more for her out there … independence, the single life, what have you. I have two kids from a previous marriage, and we are renting a house we were planning on buying. If we separate, then I’m going to have to find an apartment myself, adding to the disruption in the kids’ lives and mine.

Basically, I don’t know what to do. I have no idea what to do, or say. It seems like this should all be fixable, but she just doesn’t want to face the fixing. I’m frightened about myself, my children, and starting all over again at 41, having been so devastated by this sudden and unexpected upheaval in our lives.

Husband Lost at Sea

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Dear Husband,

Divorce this woman. Protect yourself and your kids.

If child support can be ordered by a court, by all means pursue child support. But do not depend on it. Rather, if losing her means moving to an apartment, then move now. Do not wait. You cannot depend on her support even if it is ordered by the courts. So put yourself in a position where you do not need her support. Take care of yourself and take care of your kids.

Make a new life. Simplify. Dedicate yourself to the raising of your kids. Be cautious. Meditate. Eat well. Help your kids with their homework. Clean the house. Cook. Sleep regular hours. Work out. Stay well. Be steady. Follow a routine. Know that you are doing the right thing. Realize that this is your calling in life. Submit to it.

Be clear about this: Your wife has to go. She is wreaking havoc on your lives. She made a promise to you and to your kids when she married you. She gave you to understand that she would be there for you and your kids. Now she has shown that she either is not capable or simply has no intention of following through with her commitment.

Do not pursue therapy with her. Simply get her out of your life.

She is unhappy. That is unfortunate. But you cannot make her happy. You can only participate in her misery.

If freeing her from her commitment would not harm anyone else, one could say, whatever, it was a failed romance.

But it was not just a romance. It was an agreement to raise children together.

You’re going to need some help. I suggest you educate yourself and look into organizations that support men who find themselves in situations like yours, for your troubles are inextricably related to your legal status as a man and a father. In asking for child support from your ex-wife, you will be in a non-traditional role, which may take special handling and raise special difficulties for you that other men with similar experiences may be able to help you negotiate.

Throughout this, be protective of your children. Make sure their needs are met and their routines are followed. Tell them that you are taking care of them and they are going to be OK. Show them strength and kindness and hope and love. Be a model for them of how to face the world. Make a safe and strong little unit, you and your two kids, an unshakable foundation.

If you eventually want another woman in your life, your kids come first. Do not put your household at risk again for your own needs.

Seek family support. Where is the mother of your children? You do not mention her. If she is alive and can help support her children, insist that she do so. Other members of your family may also be able to help. Reach out. For the sake of these two young children, reach out.

Yes, this involves emotional sacrifice. But it also means playing a satisfying role. What greater thing could there be? I plead with you, dedicate yourself to raising these children.

Make it your life. Throw yourself into it. No matter what else happens, that is one good thing you can do.

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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

Write for Advice
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

Write for Advice
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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