Category Archives: marriage


Help me be strong

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Dear Stuck,

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

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

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

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

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

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What do I owe him?

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses


Dear Adulterous,

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

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

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

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

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

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Mother-in-law blues

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 6, 2004

She’s not a bad person, but I resent how she imposes herself on our lives.

Dear Cary,

I’ve noticed that often your advice doesn’t come in the form of a specific answer to a specific problem. The advice you give tends to come in the form of a philosophy that transforms the problem into something acceptable and less overwhelming than it was before. I need a new way to see my mother-in-law before I am consumed with exhaustion and resentment.

My mother-in-law is not a bad person. She has a good heart buried under insecurities and self-centered behavior from a dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic mother and a father who never thought she was good enough. She has spent years in therapy and reading self-help books to become a more secure person, and in many ways she has succeeded. She raised a son whom I love very much, and she has a circle of friends she is devoted to.

While I can recognize that she is a good person, and acknowledge that she has had to overcome a great deal in her life, I resent how her struggle has imposed itself on me. She needs to control everything to feel safe. She is constantly trying to control me and my husband. She intrudes into our personal business, she makes frequent and unreasonable demands on our time, she sabotages our plans so that my husband will be available to her when he is supposed to be elsewhere, and she has questioned every decision she has ever seen us make.

Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with her to a degree. I’ve learned how to protect my privacy around her, how to avoid some of her more relentless manipulation and why she is acting the way she does. I have sympathy for what it must be like to be her. Most important, I’ve learned that I’m not going to be able to change her behavior, and I can only adjust how I react to it.

But now I resent her. I resent the amount of energy it takes to be around her. I resent that she comes into my home and that I have to be nice to her because she is my husband’s mother and my daughter’s grandmother. I resent always having to be the bigger person when we have a conflict because she can’t deal with not getting her way.

I have a hard time looking at her when she visits us. I feel resentful when she calls on the phone, when she comes up in conversation and every time I think about her. When she is around, I feel myself becoming withdrawn, sullen and angry. I can feel this resentment choked down in my chest like a hard knot or poison. I don’t think it is good for me. I think it makes me less of a person.

How do I get past this? I feel like I use enough energy dealing with her that I don’t have enough left over to keep this resentment festering inside of me, but on the other hand, I don’t seem to be able to make myself not resent her. How can I have her be part of my life and find some peace?



Dear Resentful,

As I read your letter I thought to myself, what a marvelous person you are! You seem to have such insight into your mother-in-law, such understanding. And then I realized that was the problem: You’re way too marvelous. You need to be way less marvelous. As long as you keep on being marvelous, your mother-in-law is going to keep walking all over you and you’re going to keep resenting it.

Paradoxically, as she walks all over you, you stand above her, judging her as she mistreats you. She walks all over you from underneath, as it were. It’s a peculiar geometric arrangement; it’s a metaphor for a relationship that has turned topsy-turvy.

This is a long answer. It’s taken me a couple of days to think this through and realize that understanding and sympathy, without active love flowing through them, can harden like dead skin and become a brittle shell. Knowledge about a person can come to substitute for knowledge of a person.

So in answer to your request for a new way of seeing your mother-in-law, I am going to suggest that you stop understanding her.

How does one stop understanding a person whom one understands so well? It may require pretending at first. Pretend that you have never seen her before. Next time you see her, take a deep breath, stand back and say as little as possible. Just try to see her clearly. See what she does and how she does it, how she exits a car, how she enters a room, how she puts down her purse, what she is wearing, what kind of skin she has, the texture of her hair, the color and condition of her shoes. Watch what she actually does and says. Try to remember the exact words she uses, and the tone.

The purpose of this is to try to superimpose your sense impressions over your knowledge, to edge out what you believe you know about her, in order to begin knowing her anew. And part of it is to give you something else to do other than fighting for control. It may have a calming effect; as you work to observe and be there in the moment, and as you fight off your habitual responses, refusing to say the regular things you say, the things you have learned to say over the years to avoid confrontation, you may find that you are not quite as upset. You will be getting some distance. The object is to try to neither control her nor be controlled by her.

So when you speak with her, be noncommittal; neither agree nor disagree with the assertions she makes. Say that you are not sure, that you will have to think about it. Do not argue with her, but do not agree, either. If she invites you somewhere, say you’re not sure, you will have to check your calendar. What you are doing here is wedging in some resistance, carving out a little space for yourself, for some autonomy. As you do this, take notice of what you feel, and how she reacts. Does she seem to grow angry if you do not agree with her? Does she grow argumentative? And do you feel fearful and awkward? That’s fine if you do; you’re in new territory. Just take careful note of what you’re feeling, and what she says and does.

The reason I suggest that you stop understanding her is not because it’s bad to understand why people do what they do. It’s because I think the view that we do what we do because of things that happened long ago has, at times, allowed us to remove ourselves from our more basic emotions and instincts about how others are treating us; if we can say I understand, I sympathize, we feel that we are acting in a correct way toward someone whom in actuality we may simply dislike, or whose behavior we disapprove of. The reason for understanding the roots of our behavior is not to relieve individuals of responsibility, but to give them the tools to change. It’s so we can see the irrationality and inappropriateness of our actions more clearly, and let go of them more easily.

So though you have been very kind, you haven’t been doing her any favors by being understanding and sympathetic. In fact, since she has been in therapy, she probably knows what she is doing but needs some help in changing it, in noticing the exact moments when it’s occurring. So I suggest that you do that. I don’t mean attack her. I just mean: Take note of specific things she does that you do not approve of. These should be things that directly affect you, not your husband or anyone else. These should be things she does to you directly that you want her to stop doing.

Then it’s time for a long drive and a chat, like they do on “The Sopranos.” But take note: If this scene ends with her bullet-riddled body in the trunk of your car, you misunderstood my advice. Just take a long, relaxing drive, just you and her, out in the country somewhere. Driving makes it easier to talk sometimes. Pull over somewhere and have a picnic, or park where there are things to look at. Tell her first of all that you love her but that you haven’t been satisfied with the relationship you’ve had up till now and you want to put it on a new footing.

Now, if you’ve done your homework, if you’ve identified exactly the things you’re feeling when she comes over to your house, you can tell her these things: that you’re feeling out of control when she walks in the door, that last time she came over you felt your schedule was disrupted, that you’ve wanted to say no or place limits on when you are available but haven’t done it for fear that she would be offended, that you’ve made certain decisions that were then overruled and you felt overlooked or ignored or stepped on, that you’ve been angry with her at times but haven’t expressed it and now you feel it’s been all stored up inside and it’s eating away at you. Keep the focus on your feelings and not her behavior. Because what you want is an agreement that it’s OK for you to tell her how you’re feeling. You don’t want to start accusing her of things right away. You just want to tell her how you feel about them.

Be very careful to tell her only things that are true and concrete, not vague and generalized.

Since she’s been in therapy, she’s probably acquainted with the basic outline of her personality, and the things you tell her may ring true. She probably knows she has a pattern of stepping over boundaries until somebody stops her. She may feel relieved. You may find that she’s been waiting for this moment, that she’s known things are uncomfortable but didn’t know how to broach the subject with you. So she will probably be able to talk about these things. And if the going is rough, if you think it would be helpful, it probably wouldn’t be hard to arrange a session with her therapist as intermediary.

But first, give it a try on your own.

And if after a year things haven’t changed, do what a friend of mine suggests: move.

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Damaged goods

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAR 11, 2004

I got engaged, then found out she is bipolar. How can I break it off with the least amount of hurt for both of us?

Dear Cary,

I am in my 30s and from a religious background where one only dates (limited to conversations over dinner or telephone) with the intent of marriage.

A couple of months ago, I met an intelligent and pretty girl. We got together a few times and despite some differences, I felt that she was the one for me. We got engaged a couple of weeks ago.

Three days after our engagement she started crying about problems she had in her relationship with her mother. Then the next few sentences were a bombshell. She told me how she had battled depression and had been under psychiatric treatment for almost three years. I was in total shock, but kept it hidden from her. I reassured her that there was nothing wrong with her.

That night I could not sleep. Her erratic behavior was now appearing less benign than I believed earlier. The irritability, the sudden crying to the point of sobbing, the racing thoughts, complaints of insomnia, the mood swings.

I consulted a psychiatrist and within seconds of hearing the symptoms, he said that he strongly suspected bipolar disorder. Although it is a treatable mental illness, he said that there was no guarantee that it will not get passed on to the children; in fact there was a high likelihood of that.

Ours was not going to be a love marriage, but an arranged one, based on mutual interest and values. I am not in love with her, although I care deeply for her. I searched deeply within me to see if there was a future for us, but I found that I cannot raise a family where the burden of ensuring the emotional and mental stability had to be disproportionately borne by me. I am fully aware of adjusting myself to accommodate another person in my life and the compromises it entails, but this is more than what I had ever imagined. I stayed single so I could help my family. Since I am done on that front, I want to settle down in a peaceful and stable life with a partner, and not invite another challenge.

I don’t hold her responsible for not telling me about her problems before the engagement as she was very much interested in me and did not want to spoil it. We are all needy and a bit selfish and do things to buy ourselves happiness by sometimes jumping over the moral fence. But at the same time, I do not think that I am under any obligation, emotional or moral, to continue this relationship knowing what I know now. I know she will be very hurt, but I cannot be blamed for that.

How can I end this relationship with the least amount of hurt for both of us? It gives me no satisfaction to end this. I have been locked up in my apartment for the past few days and screening phone calls. I feel the darkness that descends with each night inside me. I just wish all this would end soon.



Dear Hurting,

What’s interesting here is that you didn’t have a change of heart. You had a deal that went sour. Whether you both understood the deal in the same way isn’t clear, but I’m inclined to agree that since she didn’t tell you about her history of psychiatric treatment, the deal is off.

Even if she hadn’t broken the deal, you’re free to break an engagement for any reason. The engagement is a kind of waiting period during which both parties assess their intentions and make sure they’re ready to go through with it. If serious doubts arise, the marriage is called off. It’s unpleasant, but it’s not a moral breach; it’s what the period of engagement is for.

What interests me also is the fact that this marriage you describe as “not … a love marriage” might yet be perceived as such by the woman, because of the enormous forces of culture and gender identity. Even if she is of your culture and knows the rhetoric, she still may see it not just as a business deal in which she bears children and shares in their raising but as the fulfillment of her emotional desires and perhaps, if she is an old-fashioned kind of woman, the realization of her purpose on earth.

It raises a whole host of questions: Is there a written contract for this arranged marriage, or are the terms assumed to be fully understood by the members of your culture or religion? Are you courting only women of this culture or religion? And, may I ask, how are women treated in your religion? Are they afforded equal rights, or are they expected to be subservient to the man? If they are, that could prove to be a grating source of conflict. And what about grounds for divorce? What if, for instance, the woman you marry turns out to be infertile, or to have a high chance of passing on some genetic disorder? Would that then be grounds for divorce? And what about abortion? If, for instance, her role is to provide a child to you, but bearing the child threatens her life, is she expected to risk her life to fulfill her contractual obligation? Is abortion permitted in your religion? I think you need to spell out these contingencies to any prospective bride. And the biological burden is not hers alone: She should be tested for reproductive health, but so should you. If you turned out to be infertile, any prospective wife would have the right to know that.

While I don’t fault you for what you’ve done, I hope you see that if the marriage is to serve certain specific purposes, you have to spell out all the contingencies, and make doubly sure that any future marriage prospect understands fully the nature of the contract. Because if it’s just a business deal for you, it’s also a business deal for her.

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Social cravings

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 20, 2002

I love my girlfriend, but she’s from an unambitious family. What’s an immigrant with a legacy wish supposed to do?

Dear Cary,

I am dating a wonderful young woman who makes me laugh. All the things I hate to do, like talking on the phone, cooking, changing tires, she can do with ease. All the things I am good at — sports, getting diplomas, reading — she has never been naturally inclined to do. I am a 24-year-old lawyer, and she is a 23-year-old administrative assistant.

My entire family, with the exception of my sister, came to this country with nothing and worked our way up. Coming from a small family, I am torn between marrying for love and marrying for perhaps a lesser degree of love with a higher chance of survival. Being young, employed, 6-foot tall and with reasonably decent manners, I am able to meet women and get along with them very well. I predict I can probably date and marry a nice woman with a larger, more established family if I just wait.

I am afraid that if I marry this woman, who lives with her divorced parent, I will harm my future progeny’s chances of success. This sounds rather cold, I know, but I feel a responsibility to establish myself in this country, and marrying a woman with no diploma and few close family members — delightful as she is — seems like taking a step backward. I’m not looking for a Kennedy-type clan, but I suspect that there is no natural desire for children to do well in school or to work hard. Those sorts of values are usually passed down through the generations.

There is also the networking advantage of being in a large family that stresses education. If I marry this woman — and as I write this, I can see her beautiful eyes gazing at me and her amazing way of getting melted butter on toast perfectly, spaced wonderfully next to the scrambled eggs, done just the way I like them — I will have a content, happy life.

If I marry someone a bit more established, a bit more brainy, I may not be as happy or as content as I am with this woman, but I know when I am 70, there will be a greater chance I will be able to flip through the family album and see a large group of doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes and scientists.

What’s an immigrant with a legacy wish supposed to do?



Dear Old-Fashioned,

If you are only 24 and already thinking about how you’ll feel at 70, you have admirable foresight. In view of your expansive time horizon, you can probably afford to wait a few more years before settling down, especially since you already have some doubts about this woman. And I think you should. I think you should hold out until you can honestly say to yourself that this is the woman for you.
I wish you luck. I do have some experience, however, with using a girlfriend to try to wedge myself into a new social stratum via her family, and I can tell you that such a strategy is fraught with peril. You sound at once quite knowledgeable and dangerously naive.
Social class is a powerful taboo in America, all the more powerful because it is taboo. So if you should find yourself in love with a woman from a large, powerful family into which you would like to marry, in whose summer houses you would like to sleep, at whose old French table you would like to stuff yourself with Christmas ham, with whose brothers you would like to play touch football on the lawn, beware. If you find that for some reason after many dinners and many lemonades on the deck you’re still not married to her, you may be undergoing a secret WASP torture of silence, the exact methods of which even WASPs themselves are unaware, so sublimely subtle can be the cruelty of America’s casual Brahmins.
If that happens, consider yourself put in your place. Remember, it took the Kennedys a couple of generations, too.



Demanding the big rock

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 She wants her fiance to spend three months’ salary on her engagement ring. Is that fair to the man?

 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 28, 2005

Dear Cary,

About a year and a half ago, my husband’s and my best friends broke up. She was unhappy and disappointed with him; he was rejecting and cheating on her. We all got together and got married at the same time, and they had been together over 12 years. They have a son (whom the husband never wanted) who is now 3. Since then, he has been through a couple of new girls, and she has recently moved in with her boyfriend of about a year. He is the complete opposite of her ex-husband, and is a very good man. I thought he would be her rebound man, since he was the first one after the split and is not really her type, physically or culturally. She has said right from the beginning that she’s not really attracted to him or passionately in love. She has been honest with him about that, but he hung in there. She now says that she loves him, but not like the way she loved her ex. He is good to her, and is trying hard with her son, who is a willful boy, to say the least.

My concern is that she may be in this relationship for the wrong reasons, but maybe I think that because I was raised very differently from her. I never expected a man to take care of me or that I would be dependent upon anyone. My friend sees this man as a way out of a financial hole. While my husband and I were progressing in our careers, our friends were working low-wage, dead-end jobs, despite high levels of education and potential. My friend has had severe financial difficulty, particularly since the baby and the split. Her job is better now, but she still couldn’t support herself alone. Her boyfriend’s company pays their living expenses, and he has always saved his money — he doesn’t believe in living in debt. This support is enabling my friend to get back on her feet financially. Her boyfriend is very generous, and she takes good care of him.

They have a conflict, though — they have been talking about getting married and she is adamant that she wants an expensive engagement ring — worth three months of his salary. She says that she doesn’t want to be greedy, but after the split she told herself that her next guy would be fairly well-off and the ring is an important symbol of that to her. I tried to tell her that’s a lot of B.S. put out by the diamond industry, but her upbringing was more traditional and she wants this. She’s also starting to lobby for a new, more expensive house, which he would pay for. He doesn’t believe in spending money on rings, he would rather spend it on something more worthwhile — like a vacation or furniture or a house. He has also depleted his savings setting up their current home for her, and needs some time to recuperate, but my friend is working herself into a tiz over the ring.

My question — is this a normal expectation that women have? It seems very antiquated and unfair to me. Is it right for my friend to expect an expensive ring? I see a lot of women wearing them — am I the weird one for thinking it’s ridiculous? Actually, I think part of the problem I have with this situation is that I see her as selling her soul for material goods. She loves this man, but does she love him enough? I don’t know.

Feminist Friend


Dear Feminist Friend,

My first thought is that your friend feels so strongly about the ring because it represents restitution, the righting of a wrong. “Wow,” she may have said to herself, “I was royally mistreated by my first husband, but I learned a valuable lesson. I’m going to make sure the next man treats me right.” I don’t just mean that the first husband didn’t give her enough jewelry, either. It’s about more than that. As women have achieved greater economic independence, some of the exchanging of goods between men and women has acquired an air of quaint antiqueness. So it’s important to remember that the exchanging of goods is about more than just the goods.

Social progress in private behavior is full of paradox, because as we become more “progressive” and “fair,” the remnants of feudalism and patriarchy retain a deep psychic pull, sometimes erotic, sometimes infantile and sometimes poetic. The magic of a ring, for instance, can work on many different levels. It can, for instance, convert to purposes of erotic narrative the politically objectionable facts of economic inequality between men and women. By sacrificing so much of his cargo for this ring, he is demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to satisfy her desires — which, you must admit, can be quite an attractive trait in a man. He is also performing a sort of quest, or contest: She sets for him this task, which he must complete to win her. He undertakes it willingly because he understands what the act represents: not that a woman is an object to be bought, but that, in an era of continuing economic inequality between the sexes, he is willing to sacrifice some of his goods on the altar of post-feminist reality. (Am I stretching it? Have I had too much coffee?)

We all know that in spite of social progress men still make more money than women and thus wield more power. So requesting that he buy this ring, although it sounds old-fashioned, may also be her way of asking that he recognize this continuing social and economic inequality; the act of buying the ring is a symbolic giving up of his unfairly derived power, a laying himself bare. It is also a symbolic sacrifice, much as one might spill wine or burn the flesh of sheep or goats. It makes ethereal beauty of a gross material good, as it were, much as the pressure of the earth itself over millions of years makes diamond of coal. It is a kind of alchemy, if you will: The man willingly transforms some of his economic power into a thing of beauty to adorn the woman. This could be a deeply satisfying ritual. It doesn’t have to be seen as a brazen and crass gold-digging.

On the other hand, such rituals can be practiced without any understanding of their underlying psychological significance. He may think that he’s buying her. She may think he’s just paying what she’s worth. Who knows? Once the man renders himself vulnerable in this way, it may be tempting for a woman who is still smarting from her former mistreatment to take advantage of his vulnerability, to enact her revenge on him as representative of men in general. He is piling his goods up for her, displaying them, hoping to win her. She may be tempted to take the stuff and run. So he is testing her as well: Can she resist the temptation? Can she accept what he offers and not become greedy? Can she absorb the meaning of his generosity and be satisfied by it, or has she some moral flaw, some bottomless hunger, some insatiable need?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope they are both capable of understanding the rituals they are performing. (Or at least that they respect their mystery. Part of a ritual’s power is that we don’t fully understand it in a literal sense; it retains a mysterious power over us, whence comes its peculiar satisfaction.)

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Honesty or selfishness: You be the judge

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My husband told me that he and my friend are attracted to each other — two days after my father died!

 Cary’s classic column from  FRIDAY, JUL 18, 2003

Dear Cary,

This past Tuesday, my father died. Although it was not unexpected, I loved him deeply and am dealing with a lot of grief. A close friend of mine has been living with me and my family for the past three or four months. Several years ago, she lived with us for a while, but eventually moved out when she (and my husband and I) became uncomfortable with the fact that she and my husband were attracted to each other. At that time, I assumed that a large part of the attraction, at least on my spouse’s part, was due to the fact that things were not good between us. For my friend, it was largely due to her then-single state.

Things are much better between us now than they were. However, very recently I thought I perceived that spark of attraction between them. There was too much going on (father dying, etc.) for me to give much thought to it. Two days after my father’s death, my husband confessed to me that he and my friend were, indeed, feeling an attraction. My friend is currently single again, which he somehow blamed as the source of the attraction. Apparently they talked about it and both agreed they were committed to their relationships with me and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. According to my husband, my friend felt strongly about not saying anything to me. My husband, however, felt that in the name of “honesty” he wanted me to know.

Why the fuck did he have to tell me this now? My dad just died. I’m up to my eyebrows in grief, and I feel like my spouse just dumped this problem in my lap. I feel like it’s his problem, and he tried to make it mine (and pretty much succeeded) so that he wouldn’t have to deal with this issue like an adult, by himself. I love this man, but sometimes he is the most self-absorbed son of a bitch on the planet. Of course, between kids, funeral arrangements, and the fact that I am highly confrontation-averse, we haven’t even had a chance to talk about this. It’s also taken me two days to process all of it, and figure out how I feel about it, but man, I know now, and I am mad as hell that he chose this time to dump this crap on me. Was this just heartfelt honesty or the actions of an adolescent trapped in a middle-aged male body?

Fuming, Grieving, and About to Boil Over


Dear Fuming,

Honesty as a mask for thoughtlessness is a crock of shit. Don’t you just feel like punching him now?

So sorry to hear about your father.

Let me tell you what happened to me the other day, if I may, because it’s related to your story. My father is still living, bless his heart and prostate. Two days ago, as I was preparing dinner for a kitchen full of friends, the phone rang and it was my dad and he said, “Cary? I have some very disturbing news. You’re going to be in an auto accident.”

That was about the extent of the conversation. I thanked him for the news. The next day, my wife and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. I was the slow guy in the right lane.

I tried to work it out in my head: My father believes in psychic phenomena — prophetic dreams, channeling the dead, etc. None of his predictions have ever come true, as far as I know, so I figured I don’t have much to worry about. He’s always said strange things. He’s getting older and stranger. If it was anybody else I’d dismiss it. But it was my dad, so it creeped me out.

Then I talked to my sister. Apparently, around the same time he called me, he called her and told her I’d been killed in an auto accident. After much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments she got him to explain that I was indeed killed in an auto accident, but it happened in a dream he had.

Is your husband 80 years old? Has he raised five kids, survived prostate cancer and saved the world for democracy? If so, maybe you’d cut him some slack. But he’s not 80, is he? He should know better.

We were raised on a bogus “honesty” standard. We need a new standard. How about: compassion. Think of the other person. What will the news do to her? Will it amuse her? Will it make her happier, better able to cope with life, stronger, more knowledgeable, more confident? For instance, if you tell someone how well you think she’s coping with a recent tragedy, that you admire her strength, that might make her feel better. Even if she thinks you’re lying, the words will have a good effect. I mean, you can give someone an honest massage or a dishonest massage and it’s still going to feel good.

Likewise, if you honestly punch somebody in the face, it hurts just as much as a dishonest punch.

Knowing that your husband is attracted to your friend is not really useful knowledge. Useful knowledge would be something like: What is he going to do?

Could you maybe get that straight with him? Tell him you don’t want to talk about your friend. Also tell him you don’t want him alone with her. It should be the three of you or nothing. Also tell him he needs to work on his timing. And then drop it. You don’t need to talk about it anymore. The only time he should mention it again is if he and your friend decide to run away together to Montana and start an organic farm. Then he should tell you, so you’ll know to pick the kids up at school before driving to Montana to kick the shit out of him.

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I want to leave my marriage but I’m afraid

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Dear Cary,

Caitlyn Jenner recently made the poignant comment that, had she not transitioned, when the time came for her to die (as a man), she would have lain on her deathbed and thought, “I have blown my entire life.” I cannot stop thinking about that; it haunts me daily. Here’s my story.

When I was in my mid-thirties, I married a man that I did not love. In my young single years, I had suffered through several relationships in which I was crazy about my man, but he always left me. I felt as if something was terribly wrong with me. Every friend I had ever had was married, as well as all my younger siblings. Then, along came John. He was smart, educated, interesting and from a good family, and most importantly, he seemed to adore me. A few weeks into our dating, he surprised me with a diamond and said he wanted to marry me, and soon. Let’s just say I was swept off my feet by the proposal, but not by the man. He was, by now, my very best friend, but I was not in the slightest sexually attracted to him. I rationalized that problem away by telling myself that nearly every married couple I knew said that the sex “goes away” after a while, so what difference did it make that I was starting out my marriage that way? I was terribly lonely and thought this man could give me a good life. I married him.

Now we have been married over 30 years and I feel every day as if I’m dying a long, slow death of my own making. We have not had sex in 15 years. We have not even kissed in that time. I am starving emotionally and sexually. I fantasize every day about other men. And here’s another deeply sad thing to me. After we had been married only about a year, I suggested that we move from our small blue-collar town to a slightly bigger and more cosmopolitan town where we could both further our careers and also have a richer cultural life. He said to me, “If you want to go there, go ahead, but you’ll be going alone.” At another time, when I tried to talk to him about going to a counselor, he told me to go alone “because it wasn’t his problem.” Oh, and also, he added that if I left him, to “never plan to come back because he wasn’t going through all that.”

Let me add, too, that in all this time he has never added my name to the deed on our house, a fact I did not realize for many years until I stumbled upon it in our files. When I told him I very much wanted to be on the deed, he said it “wasn’t necessary.”  When his parents decided to hire first one, and later another estate planning lawyer, I found out that in both instances when writing their wills, they “forgot” to provide for me, their only daughter-in-law with whom they never had a cross word.

Cary, I am now 65 years old. Maybe I could live to be 80, as my mom did. But I don’t have enough money of my own to live on. If I leave him, I’m at the mercy of the divorce judge and we don’t have a large income as it is. I think, at this point, it is the fear of being extremely poor that keeps me here. I don’t know what to do. I want out so badly, but I’m so afraid of the future. Please help me.

Overwhelmed with Regret


Dear Overwhelmed with Regret,

It is time for you to begin the biggest journey of your life. It is time for you to begin your journey of self-discovery. There are many ways to do this. I believe one of the best ways is to find a good psychotherapist and begin a program of regular weekly meetings for at least a year. What you want in a psychotherapist is one who can take you deep into the deepest regions of your self, so you can examine the choices you have made and come to love yourself enough to forgive yourself for some of those decisions.

This journey might happen in other ways as well. It might happen as a spiritual search. It might happen as the result of a return to your church of origin, or as a program of seeking; you might also begin it by attending a 12-step group that focuses on relationship issues. The reason I think psychotherapy is so ideally suited to you, however, is that it is safe and structured and can be fit into a life without disrupting that life. It can be done privately without causing a lot of gossip.

If you were younger you might take off in a van with a bunch of hippies and live in the Arizona desert. You might go backpacking in Europe, or live on a farm or a kibbutz. But I sense that you are settled in your habits and that such radical moves might result in unacceptable controversy and conflict in your marriage. That is why I think that a program of psychotherapy with a really good psychotherapist is your best shot at regaining your sense of who you are, why you have made the choices you have made, and what kind of life you want to live from now on.

I feel the regret in your voice and it saddens me but also fills me with righteous anger and hope, for I know that regret can be washed away. I know this. I know that when we can cobble together enough self-love and self-understanding, we can see our former selves with compassion. We can understand why we did the things we did, and we can forgive ourselves.

I hope you can let go of this regret and learn to see your life as the life you were meant to have. In fact, I feel this strongly! I feel it is urgent! I feel that you must find a way to do this, to change how you are seeing your life!

Psychotherapy is hard work. It is hard work to undo habits of thinking. It is hard work to feel grief for missed opportunities, and to face searing emotions that have been buried. But it is also joyous work, to feel for the first time in years that vibrant self you once knew. It is joyous work to replace regret with compassion, to replace resentment with acceptance, to replace baffled hurt with understanding.

You can do this. You can learn a new vocabulary so that you can speak of your past decisions as ones that made sense for who you are, or who you were at the time. This new vocabulary will talk about “meeting needs.” You had certain needs at the time, needs for companionship and security, needs to feel accepted by your family, and you did the things that would meet those needs. You did these things while thinking rationally. You made decisions that made sense at the time. You made these decisions while acting in a powerful nexus of family and society, of beliefs both spoken and unspoken, to meet needs and expectations both spoken and unspoken. For instance, at the time, it seemed reasonable to you that if sex went away eventually in a marriage, perhaps it would not be that important. This is not such a crazy idea. Other things were more important to you. You needed to be in a relationship with a man. You found a man and you decided to begin that relationship.

As it turned out, there were dead spots in the relationship; there were areas in which your husband was terse and adamant and uncompromising. These were political as well as personal matters, but you were not in a position to take them up in a political sense, so they remained simply personal matters, matters settled within the silent crucible of a cold marriage.

You lived through all that. You deal with it. You endured. You have lived a long time now, and you are a different person. Different things are important to you. So it is time to begin your life’s journey of self-discovery. You don’t need to leave your husband to do this. You can do it while married. You don’t need to try to fix your marriage. You don’t need to get your husband’s OK. You don’t need to even concern him with the things that you learn in therapy.

All you need to do is to begin, on your own, your journey of self-discovery.

The self has a language. It is not a language spoken publicly. It is spoken in private. It is a language of needs and fears, of hidden motives. This is the language that is unearthed in psychotherapy; it is the language you have been speaking all along to yourself, but when you begin speaking this language of the self aloud to a person whom you trust, this self, this self that has been buried and neglected, this self that you fear dying without unfolding, this self comes alive and will rescue you.

The true you is there, waiting to be invited out. This is what you can do in psychotherapy. You can learn to speak the language of the self and then invite your self out. This will be an immense relief.

Here is what I think about such dramatic changes as the one in which Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. I would say that although it made worldwide headlines, it was a completely private matter. Since he was a famous person, when he changed sex naturally it became a matter of public interest. But the important distinction I would make is that it was a private matter of the soul, or true self; what Caitlyn did was rescue her self, her true self, and this was a private matter. Other people undergo similar transformations; though they are not so visible, they are equally dramatic, subjectively.

You, too, can rescue your self, your true self. It does not have to be done in the tabloids. Nor does it have to be done as a divorced woman. To do this work, it really does not matter if you stay married or do not stay married. In the course of this journey, it may become clear that you have to get a divorce. Or it may become clear that you can remain married to this man and find your own happiness, a separate happiness.

The important thing is to embark on the great journey of your life, the journey of self-discovery.

I wish you luck on your journey. You will perhaps meet some of us on the way, some of us who are also on such journeys, in various guises, in various vehicles, on various roads, with various destinations.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


My marriage was a mistake

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I wanted to be the bride but I don’t like being the wife. Now I face the toughest decision of my life.

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Aug 15, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am a 25-year-old woman with two dogs and a sad marriage. I’ve been married going on three years and for the past one year or so have been seriously thinking I’d be better off without him.

We met about four and a half years ago, and fell for each other pretty quickly (which is how a typical relationship always seemed to start out for me in the past). We dated for 11 months before getting engaged, and then five months later we tied the knot. It all happened so fast and there was so much excitement — but now I think that deep down I didn’t really feel like he was the right guy for me … I was young (a whole three years younger — wow, huh?) and I don’t think I was finished being independent. I just wanted to be the bride — and everyone else wanted it for me too.

After we got married he started traveling a LOT for his job. Of course, he traveled before but since we waited to live together until we got married I was now spending a lot more time by myself (that was before the dogs came along). So, I knew we’d have some times apart and I knew it would bother me a little bit — but it’s gotten to the point where when he is at home I wish he’d leave again. I don’t feel an attraction to him at all. I don’t want to be hugged, kissed, or even touched … we fight about it when he’s in the mood and I never am. When we try to talk about the subject of sex and why we don’t have it anymore, I tell him I don’t feel good about myself and maybe when I lose a couple of pounds I’ll feel better … I’ll tell him anything just as long as I don’t have to say, “I’m not attracted to you anymore!” I really don’t want to hurt him — I know he loves me, but I’m getting tired of living like this.

I feel also that I should say that he’s not a bad guy. He’s nice, has a good job and all that other stuff. Sure, he has his moments (we all do) where he can be a real jerk … but for the most part there really isn’t any particular reason why I don’t love him anymore … I just don’t.

I’m convinced that I married him too quickly and that I should have waited and dated a little bit longer. I’ve always been somewhat of the “heartbreaker” in my relationships. It was always me getting tired of the other person. I was hoping that it wouldn’t happen in this relationship … but I’m afraid it has — I’m afraid that what I felt for him at the beginning was really no different than what I’ve felt for other men in the past. Sounds sleazy, I know, but it’s the truth.

I want to divorce him. I want to sell our house and live my own life with the money that I make. Maybe I’d move away, maybe not — I want that freedom.

I guess the only thing that’s really slowing me down is my family. They love him! Also, I was raised in a religious family and divorce is a sin — of course, we all sin every day — but I feel bad about wanting to leave my husband. I feel that my parents will be so disappointed in me along with all of my siblings, and extended family for that matter (we’re a close family). His family is great too … but it’s not enough to make me love him.

Before my husband left for his last trip we decided to try marriage counseling. We were going to start as soon as he got back home. He’s been gone almost two weeks now and I’m still willing to try — but we haven’t said one word about it on the phone since he’s been gone. I don’t know if the marriage is worth saving. Right now I hope someone tells me it’s not. But I guess life would be easier too if I could fall for him again. I don’t know — I think I’ve put up a wall; my marriage is on one side and my freedom is on the other — I want my freedom.

I feel quite selfish for all these feelings that I’m having but I’m just not happy. I want to be happy again.

What do I do?


Confused (sincerely!)


Dear Confused,

If someone were to ask you today, What was the most difficult thing you’ve ever done? what would you say?

I ask this in order to understand what you are facing and put myself in your shoes.

I’ve been sitting here in the cafe trying to think of the most difficult things I did before I was 25. There is a bit to get through but I will get there. You’ll see.

I wasn’t exactly the heartbreak kid. I was the guy who waited to be broken up with. So I never divorced anybody or even left anybody. I just let things fall apart. When I think about decisions that I knew were necessary and were going to cause me pain and cause others to be mad at me … I don’t think I made any!

OK, how about this. When was the last time you realized you’d made a decision selfishly that affected another person’s well-being, and then found yourself obligated to rectify it? When was the last time you looked at something you did and not only saw that it had been a mistake but saw that you had done it knowingly for selfish reasons?

Stay with me. It gets better.

When I look over my first 25 years, I see a guy making easy decisions and then taking actions to make them even easier. I see a guy with amazing luck. I see a guy who got out of scrapes. I see a guy who drifted, followed, looked for signals, tagged along. I see a guy who mooched and cadged, whined, cajoled, pleaded, charmed, faked, seduced, flattered. I see a guy who skirted, fumbled, hid from difficulty, head full of poetry, skipped out when the bill came, left before the cleanup, felt above it all, thought he knew it all. I see a guy who hid his fear, ran from trouble, avoided avoided avoided. He took refuge, fantasized, pretended, dreamed, borrowed.

I see a guy who never honestly broke up with anybody. He just waited for things to fall apart and then moved on.

It’s possible that at that age, how he’d grown up, the role models he’d had, the stresses he’d been under, the fear of the Vietnam War and the draft and the early drug use, the hippie culture he was ushered into, he did not have any choices the way we think of choices. How would he have acted differently? What model was there to follow?

So the outward behavior was not exemplary. But we do not always know what we are doing — what we are protecting, what it is within us, exactly, that is surviving through our apparently selfish and chaotic actions.

Through all that, I see a kid carrying a gift like a kid in a fairy tale, carrying a precious gift under his arm wrapped in newspaper like the Maltese Falcon. He’s been charged with its care and upkeep through war and poverty and homelessness. He’s given a gift by his parents before leaving home, and he travels, knowing that if he could just get through the forest without losing this gift, keeping it close to him, sleeping with it next to him in the forest, hiding it from jealous thieves, disguising it from those who might recognize its true value and want it (and also from those who might recognize its true value and disparage it, wounding him, knocking his confidence out), if he could just hang on to it through hurricanes and bitterness and winter streets of windblown trash and rat-run alleyways under rattling windows, if through all those nights of traveling, shivering under wet blankets, if he could hold on to just this one thing, then later, eventually, if he survived, he could work out the rest of it — what to do with the gift, how to operate it, how to use it, how to keep it running. Years later he would realize that the gift was not a metaphor. In a moment of stress a vivid memory would come to him of being a very young child and clutching something to his chest, lying on the floor kicking and screaming and crying and holding on to this thing. And he would see that this was not a metaphor, that it was physical, it was a book or some writing, it was a Bible or a journal or a story he had written. There was something he cared about more than anything else, something he would live for and die for. There was one thing at least that was not a joke. There was a bottom line, a real thing not a totem, one thing he was living for all those years of wandering.

Think about it. When you think about the most difficult thing you have done, or the most sacred thing, or the most precious, is there one thing you can latch on to?

This is hard because at that age we don’t know it. Or maybe we do. Maybe we know it but don’t have the word for it. Maybe we know it but are afraid for it; we protect it by not naming it. We think that if we name it we may harm it so we keep it secret. At that age this one most precious and dear thing may be the one thing that no one knows about — not because we are ashamed of it but because we are protecting it from their careless murder.

So you have come to one of those points where the most difficult thing you have ever done may also be the thing that defines what is most sacred to you.

You must have the courage to do this. Where will you find the strength? You will find it in this hidden sacred object or idea, this thing that you are protecting by leaving. For you, perhaps the secret object or idea is a form of joy and freedom. Perhaps you are the heartbreaker because the lifelong song you sing is the freedom song. Perhaps that is the course of your life: Love, experience, freedom. That could be. It could be that you are the secret spirit of freedom, raised — this is fate’s fiat! — in strict religion and thus hiding this spirit, protecting it, not exposing it to ridicule and at times not even believing in it yourself, but all the same secretly at night knowing that the spirit of freedom is the thing that defines you and that if it were exposed they would destroy it. Knowing, too, that to keep their love you have tried to live within their world. So the hardest thing you have ever done may turn out to be just facing it: You are not the good wife. Nor were you meant to be. You are the adventurer. Not the adventuress, in the censorious Victorian sense of a selfish, scheming woman, but the free spirit, the woman who will not be chained. Maybe that is you. Maybe it’s the call of freedom in a very pure sense. Maybe there is great power here. Seek that power. Visualize it. Crystallize it. Make it real. Hang on to it. Don’t let them shame you into submission. Keep it. Protect it. Meditate on it.

Then as you do all the necessary things to free yourself, you will have this northern star in your sights. You will have your heading. You will know where you are going even though, because of the nature of what you seek, your seeking it makes you appear to be without compass, groundless, spinning. You are not groundless and spinning. You are going somewhere. You are going toward freedom.

Go in this direction and you will know where you are going. You will be going toward freedom. You will be always going there. It is not a place you ever get to, but a place you always head for.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


My husband thinks I should make more money

I’m doing the kind of work I love, but he’s earning so much more!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 16, 2006

Dear Cary,

How do I get my husband to stop telling me that I make too little money? I am a full-time copy editor at a magazine, making what copy editors make when they first start out in their careers. I love my job and feel that I am well suited for it; unfortunately, the pay is crap (you’re well aware of this, I believe).

My husband is a first-year attorney at a prestigious firm, earning more than triple my salary. He has worked hard to get where he is, putting himself through law school at night while working a full-time job at a firm during the day for four years. He grew up without much money, and the result is that he’s not only deeply concerned about financial security, he now always wants (I’d even say needs) the best that money can buy.

He associates with a lot of attorneys whose wives are also attorneys or hold high-paying positions, and these people live it up in a way that we can’t. This frustrates my husband and sometimes when we’re confronted with this, he’ll ask me why I can’t get a better-paying job, perhaps go to law school and become an attorney myself. I’ve told him that comments like these are demoralizing, not to mention unfair, since this is the path that I’ve chosen for myself and I’ve worked hard at it — he just works harder. He’ll acknowledge that his comments are not supportive, but add that that’s just the way he feels — that I’m not working as hard as I could while reaping all the benefits of his hard work.

I know it’s true that I benefit from our situation while he puts in long hours at a job that’s not his passion, but it’s not that I’ve ever asked him for any of this. In fact, I’d rather he switch careers and do something that makes him happier, since it’s quite clear that he doesn’t love any aspect of his job except for the salary. But he completely rejects that idea.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe he’s right. He does half the housework and is a caring and loving husband in every other respect. In fact, I’d say that his disapproval of my career choice is out of character for him — he’s really quite easygoing about most other things and I can’t say that we seriously fight over anything else. Do I need to suck it up, start bringing home half the bacon? Am I being a slacker? My heart tells me no, but maybe that’s just because my mind is screaming, “I don’t want to work any harder than I have to!”

A Grim Reaper


Dear Grim Reaper,

There are three interlocking issues here. The first is political — how two working partners of different sexes apportion the labor fairly. The second is personal — why he at this particular time seems to have a need for you to make more money, and how you personally respond to that. And the third is historical — what family history and long-standing needs are being expressed here.

To answer the first question, what is a fair distribution of labor in a marriage partnership between equals, I think the obvious answer is that it should be 50-50. But of course you have different abilities and different needs, so you make adjustments. And don’t forget, you also have a question about how to share in the rewards. So ask yourselves, What is a fair way for both partners to share in the labor and the proceeds from the labor, if each partner’s labor is disproportionately rewarded?

If you and he can agree in principle, you will have a common goal of fairness that you are both working toward. You probably cannot answer these questions with certainty and exactitude — people have been trying to do so for decades! — but discussing them and struggling to find a balanced answer will reveal much, particularly any previously unexpressed beliefs and expectations that may be influencing you.

The second question involves a bit of a mystery: Why does he at this particular time need for you to make more money? You say this behavior is out of character. That suggests that he has recently encountered some new kind of stress that is too great for him to handle in his accustomed ways. Most likely that new stress comes from his job. Since he is a first-year lawyer, he is working long hours under intense pressure to perform at a high level. That alone can change somebody. But second, he is in a new social realm, and while the work pressure is intense, I am going to guess that it is the social pressure that he is finding most painful.

You say he grew up without much money. Many of the lawyers he now socializes with probably grew up quite comfortably. He may find himself a little intimidated though he might not come right out and say so. Instead, it would express itself as an aspiration: If I only had what they’ve got, I’d be on top of the world (i.e., the unexpressed thought: I would not be as intensely uncomfortable as I am right now).

He has advanced socioeconomically, but that does not mean he automatically belongs to the club; climbing the ladder in America is not a painless experience; it takes guts; it cannot be done without some sacrifice of confidence and dignity and self-worth. He is going to feel small and unentitled at times. He is going to be a small fish. So perhaps in addition to a typically murderous workload for a new associate, he is feeling socially inferior, his manhood and status are being challenged, and he has begun fantasizing how nice it would be to have a high-powered wife, a diplomat or movie star, to bring to the party, to bring to the table, to display to his boss. It would be natural to envy the men who squire rich, beautiful wives to the office functions, to long for the kind of ease and power represented by their addresses and their automobiles.

As to the third issue, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of family history in shaping our attitudes toward work. Having come from a family with little money, but being quite ambitious by nature, he may have grown impatient with his father and mother, wishing they had made smarter choices and worked harder. It’s possible he’s responding to you with the same impatience with which he responded to his family.

If he thought that once he became a lawyer life would be cleansed of doubt and fear, he may now be dismayed and frustrated at how difficult such transformation is. When we are under stress we sometimes combine several issues in one symbol. So although he knows better, he may see your job as the one thing that now stands between him and the realization of his grand vision. (Perhaps that’s overstating it, but it’s the kind of thought-knot we can get into when frustrated.)

His family history is not the only one that is relevant here. It is likely that you got your values and attitudes about work partly from your family as well.

You have different attitudes toward work. You like work for its intrinsic value, how it opens up and magnifies your abilities and your interests; he sees work as a vehicle to survival, status and acquisition. Neither approach is wrong. Most kinds of work have elements of both. But for him to suggest you take his approach to work instead of your own — I can see why it is demoralizing. You probably feel it as an attack on yourself — because your choice of work is an expression of who you are, not where you are trying to get to.

You need to sort these things out together.

You’ve got a lot to talk about. Good luck!

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