Category Archives: Relationships

NewHeader5

Faking it

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

Can I stop him from going by pretending to come?


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold Fish

TuscanFoodAd_2016

Dear Cold Fish,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FranceAd_2016

img_2910

Can I trust a cheating wife?

Dear Cary,

I met my girlfriend almost three years ago. She was married at the time. Things started casually. We flirted and maybe behaved inappropriately when no one was looking. Our flirting progressed, some playful touching and sometimes she’d teasingly pull her dress up a bit for a second or push her cleavage together for a quick tease. Eventually we began exchanging sexual text messages and pictures.

I knew that she had a husband and that what we were doing was wrong, but I justified it to myself by saying that nothing was really happening. It was all just flirting and having fun, nothing more. After she snuck to my house one day and things became physical for the first time, it became a full-blown affair.

I thought of her as my girlfriend and tried my best to just ignore the fact that she was married. It went on for nearly a year before her husband discovered what was going on, and immediately demanded a divorce and kicked her out of their home.

The stone stairway leading up to the bedrooms of le Château du Pin
The stone stairway leading up to the bedrooms of le Château du Pin

We have been living together and officially been in a relationship ever since and I truly care for and love her. We talk about our future and plan and dream about our life together. But my problem is that I don’t trust her. Every time she leaves the house I am nearly overcome with anxiety. I think about how we began, how she would meet me and smirk about the lie that she told her husband as she left her house. I see her phone and think of the secret messages between us. She says hello to a male friend of hers and I think about how we used to share a polite smile in public then have our mouths on each other in private.

I feel guilty. She vents to me about how people look at her and how her family judges her ever since her infidelity was exposed. They all really loved her husband. She hates that they hold it against her and I was ashamed to realize that I am no different from them. I hold it against her every day and I desperately want to stop. I want to be able to trust her and feel secure and comfortable when thinking about a future with her. How can I get past this?

Guilty Lover

Dear Guilty Lover,

I love this story and want to write about it honestly and not judgmentally even though it might sound judgmental anyway, like when somebody kills somebody and you call it murder but you’re not being judgmental, just kind of literal. I mean, literally, you were acting in a delusional state. Not in a bad way necessarily. Just in a delusional way. As in: pretending that stuff is not happening when it actually is happening.

You had to pretend because otherwise you would have to stop doing this thing that you were enjoying very much. You could have just admitted what you were doing and that it conflicted with your belief system, but you chose to keep your belief system intact and instead deny reality. That just blows my mind, but it’s very common and it is, I think, the key to a great many tragedies and mysteries of the human condition. We would rather sacrifice reality to save our belief systems. So rather than question your belief system, you split yourself in two: the person doing the act, and the person characterizing it.

Wonderful.

But delusional.

Hey. I’m not trying to be mean. Nor do I place myself above you. I have been delusional and acted in delusional ways, and trained professionals have called me all kinds of names. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just helpful to know what it is. It’s delusional.

In other contexts, such a delusional approach to reality might make you a super-dangerous and weird dude. But I think you know what you are doing because you feel anxiety. The anxiety you feel is the result of your attempting not to remain conscious of, nor to feel, what you actually do know and feel. The truth is, you are afraid that she will leave you. This is a rational fear based on observation. So you are smart to face it.

The curtain bed in an alcove of the "green room" at le Château du Pin
The curtain bed in an alcove of the “green room” at le Château du Pin

If she cheats on you, that’s normal for her. It’s what she does. So expect it.

Which leads us to the philosophical-inquiry part. And also the part about sexual freedom and gender relations and power. Because here is the other thing that gets me: Under what law or charter or agreement, when her husband found out she was having sex with you, did he have the right to throw her out of the house? Was that something they had agreed on when they got married? Like did she sign something that said if she cheated on him he could throw her out of the house? Or was that just common folk custom, to make the wife homeless if she was sexually unfaithful? And, further, as if she were chattel, was it then your responsibility to house her? Is it like the last man who fucked her now has to house her? What is going on here in the realm of gender roles and power? This is pertinent because housing is such a basic human need, and ought not rest perilously on the vagaries of human sexual conduct.

Granted that apparently this husband has the right to render his wife homeless, where do this husband’s powers end? Could he throw you out of your house, too, for conspiring with her? Could he throw everyone out of their houses? Could he throw me out of my house because she cheated on him?

OK, I know that is stretching it. We’re just asking, in a legalistic way, where his powers of throwing people out of their houses end.

I know people just do things. But it is instructive to inquire into the unspoken rules that govern the things people just do.

So here is an idea. Instead of throwing her out of your house if she cheats on you, why don’t you throw out this antiquated notion that when a woman has sex with a man other than the man she is living with he has to throw her out of the house and file legal action? Speaking of which: Legal action because of fucking? The power of the state because of fucking? Why involve the power of the state? The state, in general, is a terrible thing, brutal and ugly. Why involve it in sex?

Instead, why don’t you and she make an agreement? Why don’t you make an agreement that if she fools around once in a while it’s no big deal. Is that possible? Why not? Obviously, it’s something she does. What do you plan to do when she cheats on you? Is your purpose in life to uphold some abstract law that you and she haven’t even totally consciously agreed upon but just let hover in the air between you like an ancient sacrament?

I understand that you are anxious, and I feel for you. But I think you are anxious because you cannot accept the reality of your situation. You have put yourself in situation that is deeply conflictual. Your belief system says that cheating is bad, but your actions say, Hey, who cares? I like her! You are going to have to reconcile your belief system with your situation somehow, either by ending the relationship or expanding your belief system to accommodate what for her is fairly normal behavior. My opinion: It’s easier to change your belief system than it is to change another person’s behavior.

Of course, you are free to tell me I’m crazy for even suggesting that you accept her exactly as she is and let things happen as they are going to happen. It isn’t what most people would say. And, having thought about it, you may reach a different conclusion. You may decide that it’s your belief system that has to stay, and the girlfriend who has to go.

I’m just suggesting that you ask hard, penetrating questions in order to determine what is your own bottom line.

You are two adults, presumably capable of free, conscious choice. You can talk about it and work it out. It doesn’t have to be a big drama full of people throwing each other out of houses and filing legal papers.

NewHeader5

My brother left his girlfriend with a 5-month-old baby

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 30, 2007

They thought the baby would fix things, but he didn’t, so the dad split. Does that mean he’s no good?


Dear Cary,

Early this year, one of the greatest bright spots in my life occurred: I became an uncle. After 10 years of bleak family moments, we all finally had a moment of renewal. My older brother called me (I’m an expat and haven’t actually seen the munchkin) ’round about 4 a.m. EST: “God, he’s beautiful.”

Four months later my brother split with my sister-in-law. They were effectively, though never officially, married — 15 years together, since high school. OK bro, you had a son and split with your girl four months later. As he put it to me on the phone, “There’s no way people aren’t going to think I’m an asshole.” Right: People are going to think you’re an asshole. And the thing is, Cary, I sort of think he’s an asshole too, and I’m wondering whether I should.

To be clear, there was no plan on my brother’s part to run when a child appeared, and he’s determined to be there in general. He loves his boy and loves the woman in question, but is no longer in love. The breakup was apparently mutually agreed upon and (more or less) without rancor. They went through what I suspect is very common: There were problems in the relationship and when the pregnancy occurred, they thought a baby would solve those problems. They didn’t plan it, but neither of them agrees with abortion, and they thought, “Well, this will bring us closer together.” It didn’t work, apparently — the baby made it more clear that they were not compatible.

Fine.

But my brother is leaving this woman with a 5-month-old child. Having never actually had a sister, she’s the only person I’ll call sister. She’s intelligent, attractive and a good time out. I love her dearly. But now she’s an early-30s single mom and her life prospects just took a serious nosedive — because of my brother.

A central principle of modern Western life is that you ought to do what you think is self-sensible in relationships. Be yourself, right? “Staying together for the kids” is not sensible — for you or for the kids. But maybe sometimes you should hang in a little longer than you want to. Maybe my brother should stick in living as a family for, say, two years, if only to help the mother during the most tiresome times. Maybe sometimes, “staying together for the kids” makes a little sense.

He and I have been through a lot together — watching a father kill himself with alcohol. “I will not be that man and that includes not being trapped in a relationship I don’t want” is a guiding principle for both of us. I understand that motive and I agree that an unhappy marriage is worse than a divorce. But fuck, divorcing when you have an infant? Is my brother an asshole?

TM

Dear TM,

OK, let’s call your brother an asshole. What difference does it make what you call him? You love him, right? He’s your brother. You’ve been through a lot. You’ve probably sat up together nights worrying about your dad, and would he make it, and why’d he do what he did, and wouldn’t it have been better if he had been able to stop drinking. And there were probably times you thought this time he was really going to stop, and he got your hopes up, and then he blew it again and again until you really thought you couldn’t take it anymore, and then when you’d lost all sympathy for him he got gravely ill, and then what can you do, you can’t call a gravely ill man an asshole, so you had to have sympathy for him at the end and watch him die with a sickening blend of rage and love and helplessness, asking why did he have to die like that when there was help available, when there were people who loved him who were willing to do anything for him if he would just stop drinking.

So you and your brother are bonded in the deepest possible way by watching your father drink himself to death. And as brothers I imagine you cut each other a lot of slack, because you both know the deep wounds that that event left in you. And you are both committed to not making the same mistake your dad made, and to not being victims, and to not being unhappy. And all that makes sense. And none of us can judge what kind of personal hell your brother lives in as a result of trying to be a good man but being prone to the demons just like your dad was and maybe just like you are as well. We’ve all got demons and we do the best we can and sometimes we really fuck up and we’re assholes. And who can know what we’re going through, how hard it is, how many times we’ve pounded the wall with our fist or buried our face in a pillow at night. He’s your brother, so you also know he didn’t do this to harm people. He’s your brother, so you may know that he’s selfish and has trouble seeing the big picture, and maybe he doesn’t have such great impulse control and maybe he’s prone to fits of moodiness and helplessness and hopelessness, and maybe he’s also a bit of a dreamer and a charmer and has an outsize genius for a good time, and maybe he wants more out of life than a 9-to-5 job with healthcare and benefits like your dad had, because look what good that did, and look what good it did your mom to stay in a relationship that gave her nothing but crying time, so he’s not going to stop pulling the lever on the slot machine because you never know, a happy life has got to be possible.

So even though it’s about the dumbest, most assholic thing to do to leave your lover with an infant child after 15 years of implied common-law till-death-do-us-part, that’s what he did, knowing full well he’d be called an asshole for it. So let’s go ahead and call him an asshole and get that over with because there’s work to be done. There’s a kid who doesn’t know about any of this; he just knows he’s alive and he’s hungry and he needs to know that the world isn’t going to come crashing down around his head every 15 minutes when another of the “adults” around him gets it into his head to seek his bliss in Idaho.

So what do we do? And how do we do it?

Kids can grow up well under all kinds of circumstances. It’s about how you treat the kid and who the kid is. The last thing you want to do is tell this kid his dad’s an asshole. So let’s just pretend that everything we’re saying the kid is hearing. Now who is his daddy and why did he leave? He left because he had to. We don’t know why. He had to go do something really important, and he loves us and cares about us but he couldn’t live with us because he had to do something. And we love him and he’s a good man and he loves us and that’s just the way it is, because we don’t understand everything even though we’re adults and maybe it seems like we do. We don’t. We don’t really understand even how an electronic ignition works, or why sometimes you get “404? errors. We don’t know why some toys are lame and others are your favorite. We don’t know why some kids are bad and some kids are good. We don’t know much, except we love you and things are going to be OK.

Something like that. You get what I’m saying? I’m saying get real and painfully honest but don’t fill the kid’s head full of hateful garbage.

And beware of this, too: Intense disapprobation can be an intoxicant. You can get high calling people assholes, that is. You can get high and feel powerful talking trash. That’s one reason we do it. It makes us feel better. But that doesn’t make it useful or productive. Except for getting stuff off your chest and moving on. So yeah, maybe your brother is an asshole. Now help me move this crib.

Like I said, the important thing is, How can the people around this child help the child, and help the child’s mother?

One thing you could do, like you said, is urge your brother to stick around for a while in some capacity. Maybe not living in the same house with them, but nearby. Urge him to get a job and make some money and contribute to the well-being of his child and the child’s mother. And other people can help too. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. People just need to be there and help out. And your brother can leave his new girlfriend at home when he visits, and if he doesn’t have enough sense to do that on his own, you can tell him, gently, that he’s being an asshole again, and to leave the girlfriend at home. And when he comes over he can bring something for the boy. And the boy’s mom can welcome him as if he’s someone she likes, not as if he’s the shit-head asshole who left his infant child for reasons typically unfathomable and unforgivable.

I mean, we’re going to have these rotten thoughts when people do rotten things. But we’re going to try to do what’s right anyway. We’re going to try to be the adults in the situation, now and for the next 20 years.

NewHeader5

He’s a pig!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 14, 2003

I love the man I live with, but he is completely lacking in table etiquette. I can even hear him chew!


Dear Cary,

I don’t even know if this qualifies as a “real problem,” but since I started reading your column way back when you took over for Mr. Blue, I’ve read some pretty wacky stuff, so here goes:

I am in a relationship with a man for whom I care very deeply. We’re in our mid-40s, have been together over four years, both have kids, (his are older and living in another town), and we moved in together last fall. So far, so good. We are adjusting to the schedule differences and quirks that couples go through when they live together. The “problem”? His table manners are atrocious! I find myself on Manners Patrol during each meal, ostensibly directed toward my children, but actually, they have better manners than he. He sits with his body very close to his plate and shovels the food into his mouth. The arm he’s not using is draped on the table, fingers are used to push food onto the fork. And the worst part? I can hear him chew! I actually got up from the table last night and moved to another chair. And the final gross-out: He licked his fork clean and attempted to get another serving of mayonnaise for his artichoke directly from the jar. I yelled at him to stop, and he acted like I shot his dog.

He has so many other attributes that are wonderful, but I’m really bothered by this. Is this is a control thing? Do you have any thought on how to get my point across without him thinking I’m busting his balls?

Ball-Busting Miss Manners

FranceAd_2016

Dear Ball-Buster,

I did have a thought or two. But I thought I’d ask my wife first. So I went upstairs just now — this is before coffee or anything — and after marveling at the way the 85-pound poodle was sitting upright on the edge of the unmade bed as if checking her makeup in the mirror, I said — to my wife, not the dog — “What would you do if I had terrible table manners?”

“I’d leave you,” she said.

So evidently your concern is not trivial. I do often encourage my wife to say the first thing that pops into her head, because, I suppose, I am some sort of perverse thrill-seeker. But she thinks things through afterward and comes up with mitigating, contradictory, mutually exclusive and sometimes seemingly irrelevant codicils. So then she said, “Well, actually, I’d train you.”

Some people need training. Your boyfriend is apparently one of them. Training an intimate is tricky. But it can be done. So far, what you seem to have done is first flee the problem by moving to another chair, and then attack him for it, by yelling at him to stop. Neither of those is likely to be very effective. They are the two extremes of the fight-or-flight impulses we used to hear about so much back when stress was considered the biggest problem facing America today. What you must learn to do instead is steer right between those two impulses. Rather than fighting or flighting, rather than shooting your boyfriend’s dog or moving into a tent in the back yard, you need to place your hands in you lap and say mildly, “If you stick your fork in the mayonnaise jar again, sweetheart, I’m going to stab your hand with a steak knife.” You can even do this in public, with one of those stagey smiles you use when you know you’re being watched by federal agents.

I’m kind of kidding around, aren’t I? Well, yes and no. The point is that you are not crazy or silly for thinking that it matters. It does matter. Everyone I talked to said that hearing the sound of someone chew, or seeing someone hunched simian-like over a plate of victuals was viscerally disturbing. While certain finer points of table etiquette may be a matter of class, once you have been taught to be sensitive to them, you cannot simply undo your conditioning. And he really ought to be given the opportunity to learn. So if you are in doubt, let me say this: I believe it is your right — nay, your responsibility! — to mold this howling, savage brute into the kind of suave, debonair stud you could hose down and take to KFC, or even to the Olive Garden, with pride.

The thing is, you have to learn some new behaviors too. As you might say to one of your children, Do you hear anyone else yelling at their boyfriend? All right, then. Use your indoor voice. Rather than barking at him or avoiding him, give him regular gentle reminders and corrections. If he resists, keep at it. He may at first think you’re busting his balls, but he’ll realize, after a while, you’re actually polishing his stones.

This will take time. You will need a program of long-term engagement. But if engagement is what you have in mind, such a course of instruction should fit nicely with the rest of your plans.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

NewHeader3

I left an abuser, but now I’m with a married man

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 14, 2007

I know I should concentrate on my own emotional health, but he says I’m special and he cares about me!


Dear Cary,

I recently ended a relationship with a boyfriend who was very violent and verbally abusive toward me. I am still trying to get over this relationship, in which I was psychologically traumatized. I went through a lot in that relationship that I have not shared.

I am now in a relationship with a man who is married who recently moved to my city; his family is still living in the city he left. He told me that he and his wife are separated and that they have unresolved issues. He also told me that he has two children who will relocate with him, but he does not know if his wife will come. It seems to me that he is using me for sex, and I believe his wife and children will relocate with him.

I told him that I am developing feelings for him and he told me that is OK. However, I think that I should stop seeing this man before I get too deeply involved and just concentrate on myself and my emotional health. I don’t know what to do because this man tells me that I am special and that he cares about me, but I feel that I will be hurt again.

Don’t Know What to Do

TuscanAd_March2016

Dear Don’t Know,

As I read over what you have written, I get the feeling that you see your situation with clarity. You know what happened to you. And you know that what you are doing right now is not really such a great idea. You know you should break up with this man. But you don’t want to because you are getting something from him that you need.

This man tells you that you are special and that he cares about you. You need to hear that right now. But you do not need to be in another risky relationship.

So I will say it too: You are special. I care about you. I will also say this: Many people reading this letter care about you. Many people reading this letter have been in situations like yours, and they know what you are talking about. Unlike this married man, however, we do not require anything of you. We just care about you.

You do need support and care. But you need to get it in a way that does not put you at further risk. So my suggestion is that you do two things. End this relationship with the married man. And actively seek support. That may mean finding a therapist to help with the trauma. It also may mean joining a support group for abused women.

Doing that will take courage. Where do you find the courage? You went through some things in that relationship that you have not shared. Sharing what you have been through will bring you courage. You have shared some of it with me. That is good. That is a start. You need to keep going, talking it through with a therapist and/or with other women who have been through similar experiences.

I will say this, too, at the risk of sounding a little “woo-woo” (that is what some of us in California call hazy New Age psychobabble): You don’t have to be in a relationship with a man right now. You may think you have to be. But you don’t. Not right now.

Since I am saying that many of us care about you, I should also warn you: Some people act crazy when they hear about abused women. They say crazy things. So just take it from me: Many, many people who are reading this letter know exactly what you are going through, and they care about you. And there are people near you, in your city and town, who are getting together right now to talk about what happened to them and to help each other get over it and go on with life day to day. So find those people. Find the people in your area who have been through this, and join them. Telling your experience will help them, and they will help you. You may have many complicated feelings as you do this. You may feel that some of the talking means you are “stuck in victimhood” or some such thing. People say things like that. All I can say is: Start talking about what happened. Reach out to other people. Seek support. Trust the process. And be good to yourself.

You might break up with this man first, and then join a group. Or you might find you need to spend some time with the group as a way of finding the courage to break up with this man. Or you might find you need to talk one-on-one with someone in order to decide about joining a group or breaking up with the man. The order you do things in doesn’t matter that much. The important thing is to begin.

Good luck. We will be thinking about you.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

NewHeader5

I only have quick relationships

Cary’s classic column fromTUESDAY, APR 19, 2011

I get in and I get out. How can I slow down?


Dear Cary,

I have always been good at quick relationships. Any time I have wanted a boyfriend, I just started flirting and it wouldn’t take long before someone would invest in me. Relationships could start overnight if I just acted perfect enough. But they didn’t mean much when the truth came out. My happy demeanor would fade away pretty quickly once I realized I was in a relationship with a guy I either had nothing in common with or wanted nothing to do with. I would turn bitter and everything would go down in flames with the same intensity with which it started. Then I’m back at square one.

About a year ago I finally noticed the pattern, but I don’t know how to fix it. For example, I met a guy who really is nice and we talked through email for a few weeks before trading phone numbers. Two months of talking and I felt like I was losing my mind. I finally asked him if he was going to come visit me or not. It drove him away faster than I could realize what happened. I assume I was too pushy, but with my history of talking and having a committed relationship within a month, I am feeling more than lost.

I have thankfully gotten what I feel is another chance at having a very nice, funny and intelligent guy. He really is great and we’ve been talking since Feb. 28 of this year. It’s been mostly through email, but I already feel like it’s taking forever. Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to fall into that same trap of driving him away again. I just don’t know if I’m doing the right thing at all. Do I keep dating others and make myself busy? Do I take his silence as a sign? Is he just trying to think things through before getting ahead of himself? And if so, how do I calm myself down enough to not care in the meantime?

I feel like the girl who pulled the short stick in life and was never even taught how to fish with it. Please help me to learn so I can end this bad cycle. I want a relationship that isn’t built just on convenience.

Love-Stumped

TuscanAd_March2016

Dear Love-Stumped,

If you want a relationship that isn’t built just on convenience, then you have glimpsed a truth about real relationships: They are profoundly inconvenient. Being in a relationship means there’s another person there, different from you, likely to respond in unexpected ways to things you say and do. This brings excitement but can be frightening and difficult. If you want control and convenience, with it come shallowness and brevity; if you want depth and longevity, you’re going to have to give up some control and convenience.

One way to begin to deepen the relationship would be to ask the other person some questions. This can be fun. For instance, you could ask the other person if he wants to have a relationship. This may hit him by surprise. He may ask, Well, what do you mean? You may say, Well, I’m not sure, exactly. Just wing it. You could ask then if he wants to have a relationship with you, and what kind of pace feels right, and what he has been thinking about. The trick here is to just ask the question and hear the answer. You don’t have to do anything.

There’s no right answer. What you’re doing is participating in a new way that opens up possibilities instead of closing them down.
There is no way to know what his answers will be. But by asking these questions, you give up some control and invite his viewpoint. In the past, you have probably been basing most of your conversation on what you think his reaction will be. Now, you are not trying to have any particular effect. You are asking open-ended questions in order to try out a new way of being with others.

By asking this other person what he wants, you will find out in what ways the relationship may require you to inconvenience yourself. It may be that he wants to spend a day with you reading by a lake. You may not want to do that. So then you have a choice. You can continue to run your life without any interference from outside, or you can decide to allow your life to be altered a little by the desires and ideas of another person. You can spend the day with him reading by the lake.

He may decide he wants to kiss you by the lake. You may find this agreeable. Or it may alarm you. You may fear that you’re about to do the same thing you always do. To make it more interesting, you can ask him a question before you kiss him. Ask him, Oh, I don’t know, ask him what he thinks is going to happen next. Maybe he will say something witty, or maybe he will seem confused and dim. Hmmm. What would be a witty and engaging response? Well, maybe he would say that he expects when he kisses you that the earth will shake and the heavens open up. That would be an acceptable response. At least he’s trying. On the other hand, he might stare at you blankly, with paralyzing fear in his eyes, and this may take the bloom off your whole afternoon.

The only way to find out is to experiment. Be a scientist. Observe and formulate hypotheses.

Here is another thing you can do. Remember your carefree days as a child. When you were a child, you were not plotting so carefully. You were not thinking so much about what others might say or do in response to what you say or do. I suggest you return to that time in childhood and remember what it felt like.

Then try relating to others with some of that simplicity from childhood, some of that innocence. This is just my idea. I’m no psychologist. But sometimes when I am too confounded and my thoughts are racing, this is what I do. I approach people simply again, as a child.

Remembering childhood relieves us of the burden of knowing what will happen next. We have no idea what will happen next. We’re just kids!

Think of childhood. Forget the rules. See what happens.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

NewHeader5

My parents don’t like my boyfriend

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 9, 2005

We’d like to stay together, but I’m not sure I could handle the rift that would create.


Dear Cary,

I am a bright, personable woman in my late 20s who works full-time in a law firm and attends graduate school part-time. I am in love with a man who is a decade older than I am, a struggling musician and carpenter who has also found some very creative (read: not completely legal) ways to make money. He is bright, sensitive and caring. He is extremely proud of me, loves me, comforts me, gives me good advice, makes me laugh all the time and wants the best for my future. He is always telling his friends how wonderful I am, and he lets me know he thinks the world of me. He is my best friend and confidant, and we live together.

His father died when he was very young, but his family held off telling him until he finally realized for himself that his father was dead. As you can imagine, this created a lot of emotional turmoil for him. He was also a drug user most of his 20s; seven years ago he decided to quit cold turkey. He joined a construction business and used the physical labor to get off drugs. I should add that he still drinks and smokes pot. He’s been in a band for five years, and they’re getting a record together, but he’s said if this doesn’t pan out, he’s going to give up the idea of working professionally as a musician (or making it big). He’s even been speaking about going back to college. He’d started, but had to drop out because he couldn’t afford it, and his family didn’t see the need for it because he didn’t have a planned major. He’s also uninsured, even though he does dangerous work every day. Writing all this down, he sounds terrible. I can imagine that you will be completely able to understand why my parents feel the way they do: My parents and he do not get along.

I see how hard my parents have worked to get what they have. They grew up without money and are now comfortable (if sometimes still struggling), but they managed to provide me and my two brothers with great educations (although we kids all worked equally hard to secure academic or sports scholarships). My dad runs a landscaping business that frequently occupies him 24/7, and my mom worked her way up to vice president of a small company (she started 20 years ago as a secretary). My parents have had huge arguments about my decision to date this man. They also cut themselves off emotionally from me, and I’m not allowed to talk about him to my family.

I don’t wish to have strife between me and my family. They are the most important people to me. I know I’m still young. Honestly, though, if my parents and he really got along, if they had thought he was wonderful that first dinner, I think I might want to spend the rest of my life with him, but because they don’t, I do seriously reconsider where our relationship might end up. I know my boyfriend doesn’t sound good on paper. My friends don’t think he’s good enough for me, either, but I can’t help what my heart feels. We don’t want to struggle for the rest of our life. He’s been working really hard recently in construction, and he has a lot of contacts in the town we live in. We’ve also talked about having children (in the very distant future). But is all this a silly fantasy?

Where do I go from here? I had a dream last night that I broke up with him, then I yelled at my father for treating my boyfriend so poorly, and I spent the rest of my dream running through paths in the forest, crying and wailing for my boyfriend. When I finally found him, we reconciled, and I felt utter relief. I feel like I’m acting like a child, though. He sounds like a 39-year-old loser. I’m not trying to fix him up, but rereading this, it sounds like I am. I really don’t know what to do. I know it seems simple; I should find a doctor or a lawyer like my parents want. I probably sound sarcastic, but I’m not trying to be. My mother always tells me that it’s easier to marry rich. I know that he loves me and would make me happy and support me for the rest of my life, but I’m pretty sure my parents and he would never come around to getting along. Am I willing to make that sacrifice? Am I just too young and inexperienced? We’ve been together for four years now. I don’t know what I should do.

Torn

TuscanAd_March2016

Dear Torn,

The ideal solution, in my mind, would be for your boyfriend to approach your parents with an open heart and tell them that he’s in love with you, that he wants to marry you, and that he would like their blessing. If rebuffed, he would begin a campaign to win their consent — not their love, necessarily, merely their consent. He would endeavor to discover if there are any concrete conditions he might meet. He would analyze their objections and attempt to satisfy them. And he would be willing to give you up if your parents did not consent.

But you asked what you yourself can do, not what your boyfriend can do. Should you try to talk your boyfriend into approaching your parents as outlined above? I don’t think so. If he did it of his own accord, it would show that he has a certain kind of character. They might correctly see him in a new light. If he did it only after you persuaded him, it would have a different moral flavor, pragmatic and faintly cunning. It might in fact confirm their doubts about him.

But we do not know precisely what their doubts about him are, or where they come from, or what they mean, do we? It’s very complicated. Do they see something in him, some fatal flaw, that you are blind to? Do they just dislike him? Does he make them nervous? Does he lack manners? Was he disrespectful in some way at that first dinner? And is their problem truly with him, or is it with you? That is, are they trying to change something in you by objecting to him? Are they still trying to mold you into the person they think you’re supposed to be? Perhaps it’s all those things and more.

Now, in an ideal world, maybe love would triumph over family. But I take you at your word when you say how important your parents are to you. That’s the way things are right now in your world. Your soul desires this man — and that may be part of the rift as well, that he gives you something your family denied you, or that your family is repressing or trying to deny. In fact, he may represent your family’s past struggle itself, which they want to shield you from but which you must undergo on your own, anyway, as all children must learn their lessons themselves.

But assuming that your boyfriend were to ask for their consent, perhaps they would realize that they do have some concrete expectations or conditions. That would be a sign of progress. However crass it may be to discuss such things, they might have income requirements below which they would consider their daughter needlessly impoverished. From their standpoint, you may be sliding back into the very morass of economic struggle that they have climbed out of. So perhaps your boyfriend needs to make a proposal to your parents about the level of economic support he plans to provide. Perhaps your father might consider inviting your husband into his business. After all, they have been involved in similar work. And it might give your dad a shot at molding your boyfriend and having some control over him. Sure, such a position could be very uncomfortable for your boyfriend. Again, though, if he were willing to risk that, it might say something about how much he’s willing to do for you. Or, in a more practical vein, he might present your father a counter-proposal that they form some kind of partnership.

The possibilities, both tangible and psychological, are endless and fascinating. For instance, let us not forget that your boyfriend grew up without a father. I do not know what effect that had, but it’s possible, is it not, that as a result he never learned the culturally defined masculine style of deference and respect that a young man shows to a father, or to a father figure? There may also be something in his nature that bridles at a father figure — a mixture of anger, resentment and envy in his heart; your father may have picked this up at their dinner meeting (I mean, it had to be fairly tense to begin with, right? Meet the parents and all that?). Such a combination of conflicting feelings can make a person seem unbalanced, ill at ease, perhaps even frightening. Only vaguely sensing this, your father may have concluded that there’s just something “off” about your boyfriend.

So perhaps he could talk honestly to your father about what it was like to lose his own father under such baffling circumstances. He might suggest that because of his past he is probably in some sense searching for a father, and that if your father were to give your marriage his blessing that he would be like another son. But then that opens a whole other can of worms. The question of your age difference enters into it. If your boyfriend is too close to your father’s age, the idea of his being a son-in-law could be weird to your father: Rather than feeling that he is gaining a son, your father could feel he is gaining a competitor.

So there’s no end to how tricky and weird this situation could be. Bottom line, the more I think about it, what you need to do is tell your boyfriend that as much as you would like to marry him, unless the rift between him and your folks is healed, you cannot face a life with him, and you are going to have to move on. In saying so, do not suggest any particular course of action. Leave it up to him. See how he responds to the challenge. See what comes of it. Give it some time. But be ready to move on if nothing positive happens.

NewHeader5

Tough love

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 5, 2003

I’m involved with a woman who has a serious physical condition. Should I stay, even though it’s difficult?


Dear Cary,

I recently turned 31, and after a life of much less romantic and sexual success than I’d like, I’ve become involved with a wonderful woman. We’re a great match in terms of personality and interests.

The problem is, she has a medical condition she calls idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. There are times when it literally hurts her to breathe. She can’t lie down to sleep, and all she can do is sit in the bathroom with the shower on full blast, inhaling steam. These attacks occur at random, which means that making any kind of plan with her is contingent on her health. Recently, my big weekend with her faded to nothing. I went out, she stayed at her place, and early Sunday morning she shooed me out because she was in agony.

Another problem is that she also has a diminished sense of touch all over her skin. When we’re together sexually, she says her body doesn’t feel much, though her brain likes it. (This may or may not have something to do with the fact she was working as a prostitute at age 14.) I’m always wondering if she’s really enjoying it or if she’s just doing it for me and feels no pleasure herself.

I don’t know if I can handle being with someone who is that sick. I feel guilty for saying that, because people with illnesses need and deserve love as much as anybody else, but they’re less likely to get it. I believe that if you care about somebody, you’re supposed to endure problems like sickness. However, I fear that I’ll eventually come to resent her for keeping me from the fun I want to have with her.

Should I stay or should I go before I get more involved with her?

I Didn’t Think It Would Be This Tough

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Didn’t Think,

Believe me, you can handle it. You love her. You can handle it.
That doesn’t mean you can breeze through it. You’re going to suffer and that is going to tell you who you are, what you’re made of, why you came to her door in the first place, selling flowers or greeting cards or whatever you were selling when you came to her door. This is what we’re given, this awful disease. This is why we need the support of others, so we can keep on doing the right thing even when we’re crazy.

And yes, you’re going to resent her. Before it’s over you’re going to resent God too, and the CIA, the AMA, her mother, her father and all their genes; you’re going to resent Dr. James Watson and all the science of genetics; you’re going to resent time and death and Woody Allen and Nietzsche and everyone in between who ever thought they could joke about mortality and fate. You’re going to resent the Greeks, you’re going to hate the hot shower and how it reminds you of her affliction, you’re going to hate your lungs for how they mock her own, you’re going to hate your freedom for how it breaks her heart, you’re going to resent everything that keeps her from gulping down the same delicious breath of air that the rest of us feel entitled to. But you’re going to keep loving her. After all, you rescued her.

You have to see this thing through. There may come a point where you have to leave her, but when that time comes, you won’t be asking my permission. You’ll know, and she will probably know, too, when that time comes.

But for now you have to know that even if it doesn’t make sense in some practical way, even if easier temptations glitter all around your head, there is some reason that you’re with her. To ignore that would be a hollow act of dishonor. Not dishonor to her — she’ll get by no matter what happens; she’s firmly in the grip of fate, and she knows it. But it would dishonor you, your soul, the deeper reasons that are guiding you to do what you do, and who knows how long it would take you to repair all that. You might limp along the rest of your life, having failed to learn the lesson she’s offering you.

So see it through. Be there. Watch her die if that is what it comes to. This life on earth is not some pretty little joy ride. It’s the real thing.

NewHeader5

Dire straits

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 25, 2003

I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection.


Dear Cary,

I have been married for eight years now and my love life is in dire straits. When I say “love life,” I mean the whole package, not just sex. Hugs, kisses, casual brushes, smiles, compliments. When I look back, I wonder if I ever should have gotten married in the first place.

Our relationship was always on and off while we were dating. That was my doing. I was not ready to make any long-term commitments. My wife was never happy about our many breakups, but she is the type of woman that can get a date by merely walking out her front door. A knockout. I eventually realized that different women were just that, different, not better. Whenever I had a dream about my life in the future, her face was always in the dream, no matter who I was dating at the time.

The problems started right after I proposed. She turned off like someone closed a spigot. At first it was just sex, but it quickly morphed into all forms of affection. She admitted her shortcomings (in writing) and explained that the stress of our wedding plans was making her lose interest in affection. In fairness to her, my parents were complete A-holes and nearly boycotted the wedding (they were too “tired” to make the reception). Like I said, A-holes. Yes, the wedding planning was stressful (though I did an equal share). However, I reminded her that when that stress went away, it would be replaced by a new and improved stress, and the process would repeat over and over again.

We now have four beautiful children. But to say they are stressful is an understatement. Plus, I have my own business and I worry about the next dollar all the time. I am still in love with my wife. The fact that she is still gorgeous after four kids makes her more attractive than before.

I used to want to have sex every day, but now I am happy to have sex once a month. But when it happens, so much energy has built up that it is anticlimactic. My wife does not voluntarily kiss me. About 90-95 percent of the time that I approach her for affection, she rejects me.

Have you ever kissed someone and could tell from the tension in their jaw that they were doing it just to get it done and could not wait until it was over? That is what it is like kissing my wife. Zero passion. I probably rank around the twenties in terms of her priorities. I think our philosophies do not match, though it could be a gender thing. I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection. When things get tough for me, I turn to my wife. When things get tough for my wife, she turns to the kids, or the vacuum cleaner.

Before we got married, our church required premarital counseling. It was fun. The counselor told us that we must make each other our first priority and that would make our marriage stronger than any amount of money or fame. We were told that by making each other our first priority we would be showing our children that our bond is important and leading them by example as to what a healthy marriage looks like. We are getting an F in that department. It is so bad that our children, who are all very young, get uncomfortable and sometimes upset when we kiss (or try to kiss) in their presence. They have already gotten the impression that the only form of acceptable affection is that which is directed at them. I do not know what to do.

I have told my wife all this so many times, I am a broken record. I look at pornography to relieve some stress. My wife knows about it and of course is not happy about it. I would agree with her if I showed a dropoff in desire for her, but no amount of looking at other women, clothed or non, decreases my desire for my wife or changes my belief that she is a raging hottie. I look at those pictures wishing my wife would do that. The nice thing about pictures is that you cannot get rejected. Bear in mind that my wife also used to be incredible in bed. I do not ask of her anything she did not willingly do before and in fact express great enjoyment doing. I do not ask her to swing from a chandelier, but when she does not even kiss me while we are making love, that is not only troubling but also hurtful.

I will never leave her, though I threatened to do that in the past. I will never make my children live in a broken household, except that it already seems broken. I am afraid that if I am caught at a weak moment, I will have an affair. I figure I am a duck circling a depression in the earth where a pond used to be. At some point I am going to get tired and have a heart attack or see a real pond in the distance and go there. How long can I be expected to circle in a holding pattern? I am sure I would enjoy an affair for a while, but I would enjoy my wife more. I give flowers, I write my own cards, I shower her with compliments and affection. Is there any hope?

Am I Missing Something?

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Missing,

Thank you for your brutally honest, intelligent and moving account. I can imagine seeing this in a movie, or reading it in a novel, and wondering, “What happened? What is she thinking? How did they end up this way?” I have the feeling that many things have happened to hurt your wife, little things that she can’t explain but that she adds to the account of your faults every morning in her little counting house of resentments. The things that have happened to her are probably real and not really her fault, but if she could have expressed them along the way, if she could have processed them with you, together, perhaps you would not be so starkly shut out now. At least you would know what she’s thinking, what your crimes were, how long your sentence is.

It might not be anything you did wrong, aside from doing your duty as a husband and giving her all those kids. Bearing four children in eight years sounds like enough in itself to overwhelm a woman. Think of it: For almost your entire marriage she has been pregnant, nursing or both. As someone who can barely imagine raising even one or two children, I would think that the demands of bearing and raising these four children would consume so much of her spirit that you would naturally find yourself sitting on the back steps smoking a cigarette while the loud, bright laughing and crying of children and mother buzzed about your head like bees.

And while you’re sitting there bereft and alone you know she’s working with the children, needing your help and resenting you for taking even this moment to yourself because she does this all day long every day and you only flit in and out to lend a noble hand when it’s convenient for you blah blah blah.

You need to hear her story, how she got this way, what you did. But she may be so overwhelmed that she cannot even tell you the story; to tell you the story she might need first to hike for days into the mountains until her mind is clear and she’s high enough that she can sit on a rock and look over the entire county and then maybe the story would unspool, beginning with your first injury so slight she would have felt foolish to even mention it: Perhaps you didn’t compliment her on a pair of earrings. Perhaps you didn’t jump high enough with joy when she first told you she was pregnant. And then the second injury and the third, and her panic, her sense of entrapment, her worries about the business, her thoughts that perhaps she could have done better, the guilt she feels because she’s not erotic with you, her fears that because of her coldness you will leave her and the children. Perhaps she has had a lover or two and hoards the secret under her dress like a guilty girl. Perhaps you never take out the trash.

You need to hear her story, whatever it is, so you know where you stand, but she may not, on her own, become ready to tell it for years. How can you get her to tell it? Could you track down that premarital counselor for some postmarital counseling? It’s possible she would say no to all of this. It’s possible you couldn’t get across to her how grinding and oppressive is the incessant rejection. But you need to find out what happened to her, what you did, how she changed, whatever it was. You need to find out so you can bag it up and tie it off with a narrative string, so you can carry it around slung over your shoulders, not eating away at you in your belly.

NewHeader5

I threw out my girlfriend’s mementos

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 28, 2009

I tried to retrieve her photos from the Dumpster but they were gone! What have I done?


Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I have been together for five years, and although the beginning was a bit rocky, things are great now. Our setbacks were mainly due to my commitment avoidance. So, we’ve been living together now for six months, and I’ve started to … snoop. I admitted this to two friends, and one laughed that I waited so long, and the other was horrified that I would commit such a breach of trust. I don’t suspect anything untoward is happening, but I find some sort of tortured comfort in knowing the secrets. I have looked at her e-mail a few times in the past, and I don’t exactly stop myself from glancing over at her laptop when her in box is up — but I haven’t hacked into her account or spent half the night reading 1,400 old e-mails or anything — OK, that happened once, but there was a bottle of whiskey involved and the tail end of a really bad day.

She was just out of town for the weekend, and I spent most of the time rummaging through her things, reading old journals, and inspecting film negatives. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME? I am confident and trusting and respectful — or at least I thought I was. I find myself engulfed in a jealous rage when I find old photographs of her past lovers or racy journal entries or letters detailing wild sexual encounters (all prior to our meeting). Why is she holding on to these things? You’re probably asking, why am I looking at them? I can’t help it. Maybe this is why I was so hesitant to jump into a real commitment — I have trust issues … or control issues … or self-esteem issues … or maybe all of the above.

Here is the kicker: I threw out a box of her personal items. After I came to my senses, I panicked and tried to retrieve them. The maintenance guys in my apartment complex thought I was crazy going through the trash. I covered it up saying I threw out important paperwork by mistake. I came up empty-handed. Her personal memories are lost forever. A small part of me is wickedly satisfied, but the bigger (and much better) part of me is appalled.

What should I do if she discovers that these items are missing? I know if I come clean she will lose it, and I certainly don’t want to lose her. But if she is so dearly holding on to these items, then maybe that is a sign we shouldn’t move forward. If she becomes irate over a few photos of her sexual adventures or letters from past lovers, I have to worry, don’t I? Is she over these men or holding on? Why is she keeping this stuff? Will she be able to let go? Sure, these concerns just help me to validate my snooping, but we’re living together — when will she forget the old boyfriends?
HELP.

Private Dick

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Private Dick,

Basically, unequivocally, I think you’ve got to tell her what you did. In throwing out her stuff, you moved beyond snooping into theft and destruction of personal property. If the relationship ends because you told her, so be it.

But it might not end the relationship. For one thing, it might be the sort of thing where it turns out that yes, OK, her boyfriend indeed does have a sort of problem, which is akin to like OK, maybe you’re an alcoholic or you’re bad with money or have some other life problem that is akin to just, well, having issues, but you’re willing to be honest about them and face them and seriously get some help and change.

And there is also the possible romantic/comedic element to this. In confessing to her, you might come off like a guy who is sort of seriously nuts but whom she still loves. In my heart there is room for all kinds of compulsion and insanity. I am seriously nuts in many ways. It hasn’t prevented me from holding down a job and a marriage and so forth. So I can relate to such compulsions as you describe. I tend to believe that lots of us walk around with crazy ideas, but we mostly don’t talk about it. Every now and then one of our crazy ideas gets the best of us, and we do something we’re going to have to own up to. So I’m glad when somebody talks about it.

I also think that if you were seriously dangerous you wouldn’t be writing to me; you’d be cowering in her kitchen with a hammer, and we’d never hear about it. Men who try to control women are truly dangerous, but it is my impression that they do not write to advice columnists.

But it is a serious breach. It’s the kind of thing that is going to freak her out, but if you withheld it, it would be worse. If you tell her now, you’ve got a better chance of saving the relationship.

I spent a little time thinking about where this fits into the whole moral picture. I mean, how is snooping through someone’s things different from spying on her when she is in the shower, or when she is getting dressed, or listening in on “the extension” (as we used to call the analog branch of a hardwired household phone line)?

You know these things are wrong. Because if you keep doing these things, she is harmed. I believe that she is harmed, morally or psychologically, by your snooping. I believe that’s what she would say if she knew: that she feels violated or harmed. And I think we ought to take people’s subjective assessments as having some weight.

Now, it may be that she also snoops. It may be that she is well aware of this tendency in people and will understand. Or it may be that she will be outraged to the point of demanding that you move out. I cannot take responsibility for what happens in your private life if you are moved to act on what I say. It’s still your choice. I can only say what I truly feel. And I truly feel you should tell her.

I do not know why we do these things. It may have to do with a lack of trust — that you feel she has some other world that competes for her attention, or that might threaten your belonging to her, your ownership of her. Ownership. That’s a word that comes up. That’s interesting. Do you feel that you own her? Do you feel in some way that what is hers is yours? It may be that you do. I’m not accusing you of anything; we all find, when we begin examining our assumptions, that we carry certain assumptions that are insupportable. Mainly we carry them as long as we do not examine them, and then, as we examine them, we go, Holy shit! I really do believe I own her! Where did that come from?!

And then you plumb your family history and see that, in fact, you were raised with the assumption that as a man you could own a woman, that you could have rights far greater than hers, that you could take her stuff, that you could “take her,” in all the senses of that phrase. Who knows. We have all kinds of stuff in our heads. That’s what makes therapy so much fun. Because when you approach it in a fairly detached way, you can see that, well, yes, these beliefs do reside in my mind, how do you like that? I don’t think they serve me very well, I don’t even think I consciously believe them, and yet there they are, residents in the attic.

So then you try to sweep them out if they don’t fit in. Or you learn to recognize when your behavior is being influenced by them, as in, Gee, I seem to be taking my girlfriend’s stuff again, why am I doing that? Oh yeah, I remember: because in some part of my brain I believe that I actually have greater rights than women! But I don’t really, do I? So I’d better put this stuff back and tell her that old mania has cropped up again!

Or whatever it is. It could be a sexual thing, that there’s a thrill to snooping. It could be a replacement for intimacy; you might feel a deep closeness to her that you do not get to feel while she is in the room because maybe she will not settle down or will not willingly be the object of your contemplative gaze or will not answer your questions about her past or about that part of her life she keeps separate from you.

At any rate, if you don’t tell her, I think you will have committed a wrong against her, and you also might never get to find out why you’re doing this. So it will be to your benefit, ultimately, to come clean.

So seriously, I think when you threw her stuff out, you crossed a line, and regardless of the consequences, you have to tell her. She has a right to know and a right to figure out what she wants to do about it.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up