Category Archives: Relationships

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Dragged into the ring

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Cary’s classic column from Thursday, THURSDAY, JAN 30, 2003

My boyfriend promised we’d be engaged by Christmas but we weren’t. Should I let it go or move out?

Dear Cary,

I have been dating my boyfriend for four years, and living with him for most of that time. We started (I think mutually) to discuss marriage about two years ago. I took a positive but relaxed attitude about it at the time, because I figured that it would come when it came. But it didn’t. I said about nine months ago, “Are we getting engaged?” and “When?” and was told not to bring it up again because it would ruin the surprise. This led me to believe that something was coming soon. Nothing happened. About a month before Christmas I brought it up again and my boyfriend told me that we would “definitely be engaged before Christmas.” I thought that this seemed rather noncontroversial, so I was pretty happy and relaxed.

Christmas, as you might guess, came and went. I got some nice stuff but no ring. (I am not ring-obsessed … I don’t want a big ring or even particularly a ring at all, but it seems to be the only way that I can talk about getting married with my boyfriend.) I brought it up about five days later, and got the “I was very busy before the holidays, etc.” runaround. My boyfriend has a fairly demanding job, but he works about two blocks from the diamond district. I would think that if he took one or two hours during the day to go pick out a ring, he could stay later at night. It is also not a money issue.

I didn’t spend a lot of time recriminating him. I have decided to work something out myself rather than bring it up again to him. My attitude is that he knows how I feel. We have been together a long time, and there is a point at which it is either gonna happen, or it ain’t. I am not looking for a husband, but I am looking for my boyfriend to be my husband, and, if he doesn’t want to, it is time to do what is painful and break up with him if that’s not what he wants to be. He does not seem to be brave enough to tell me himself, but if he wanted to get married, well … you know.

Our lease is up in the summer. I am thinking of saying then that I am getting my own apartment. Should I say something about that now, to tell him where I am on this, or should I just wait and continue to hope that we’ll get engaged before then and that nobody will be the wiser? I don’t want to pull some ultimatum shit two weeks before our lease is up, and I also would feel sort of sneaky looking for an apartment on my own while he thinks everything is fine. But I also don’t want to end up getting engaged in a hurry only because he doesn’t want to suffer the trauma of my getting my own apartment (I think he feels a bit too comfortable with our relationship as it is). I think that he would interpret “I’m getting my own apartment unless you get me a ring” as a threat meant to hurt him, but it really is only a fact, and something that will hurt me, too.

My boyfriend and I get along very well. We had problems during the first year or so of our relationship, but I think we’ve worked them out. There doesn’t seem to be a third party in the picture. My boyfriend seems happy to see me at night and he doesn’t disappear mysteriously or anything. There are no previous marriages or children on either side. We like our apartment and our life together. I can’t see that I would be happier alone, or happier with anyone else, but, honestly, I am not happy living together indefinitely like this. It’s fine for some people, but it’s not what I want out of life.

Sad

Dear Sad,

This reminds me of something that happened over 30 years ago, when I was wrestling. I was in junior high school and going out for the team. If you wanted to go out for the wrestling team, you got up early in the morning two or three times a week and dressed out and went into a little concrete block room, the wrestling room, and stood around a mat. The coach stood in the middle and demonstrated holds and asked for volunteers for various holds. Then there was a kind of round robin where volunteers stepped forward one by one into the ring. You didn’t hold your hand up or ask permission, you just stepped in and wrestled. We had been doing that for about 15 minutes, and most of us had stepped in and tried our hand at wrestling. And then the coach said, OK, those of you who have stepped in, I think you want to be wrestlers. And those of you who didn’t step in, I think you need to ask yourselves if you really want to be wrestlers. Because if you want to wrestle, you step in the ring.
I was startled but relieved, because I didn’t know it had been a test. And it wasn’t a test, really. It was just reality. If you want to wrestle, you step in the ring.

I think you need to tell your boyfriend that, based on his failure to buy the ring, you have reached a painful but inescapable conclusion that he does not really want to marry you. You can’t hang around and let him play you for a sap.

After you tell him that, and start making plans to move out, the ball is in his court. If he wants to woo you back, if he wants to convince you that you’re the most important person to him in the whole world and he wants to spend his life with you, he’s free to do his best. Because I remember what else the wrestling coach said. He said this doesn’t mean that the rest of you are off the team. If you want to prove that you’re wrestlers, he said, you can prove it. But I’m not going to drag you into the ring.

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If he really loved me, wouldn’t he beg me to go with him?

 

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 My boyfriend is leaving for
a career opportunity.

 Cary’s classic column from  TUESDAY, FEB 14, 2006

Dear Cary,

My problem is, predictably, about love; selfish love vs. unconditional love. I don’t know whether to feel like a doormat or like a good person.

I’ve been dating and then living with my boyfriend for a couple of years. We own a house together. We’re in our mid-30s and I have a child from a previous marriage. We have a lovely, sweet, respectful relationship; we are compatible in many ways and I really can’t imagine a much nicer connection. Well, apart from the fact that he’s considering leaving me.

You see, he moved to this town to start a new career and he’s succeeded in doing that, but he doesn’t’ really enjoy the new career and wants to go back to the other coast to resume where he left off. He’s really talented and has a lot of options.

Although it would be possible for me to move, I don’t really want to separate my daughter from her father, who is a good guy and a good parent, especially to move to a place that isn’t quite as nice as this place and where I would have to start over in my career. But I’m not completely closed to the idea, which may after all be an opportunity in disguise.

From his point of view, his career will go nowhere here because it’s not his passion and he has to move on while he is in his “prime.” He’s not pressuring me to move, as he understands my situation. I also think that he doesn’t want to be responsible for upsetting my daughter, from an understandably selfish point of view because our life would not be much fun living with a traumatized preteen.

So I’m stuck, trying to be reasonable, trying to practice some sort of loving nonattachment and yet wondering if I’m being way too reasonable, as at times my heart is breaking and I feel so unloved and unvalued. This brings up all sorts of awful feelings about being a mother, and how I won’t be able to really have a relationship until my kid is older, and also confusion about what I should expect from love. Should this relationship end because he doesn’t love me enough to wait two or three years until it’s better for me to move also? How can I expect to be his priority when he cannot be mine if I choose to prioritize my daughter? From his point of view, a child is as much of a choice as a career. From my point of view, a career is a choice and a child is a part of you, like an extra limb, until he or she chooses to leave.

I want to be adult about this; I want to be loving and supportive of this man who means so much to me. I want to always do the right thing for my child, but I also want to have a tantrum that the gods will hear from the heavens.

This week he leaves for an interview for a really good job over there. He stands a good chance of getting the job. He says we should wait to find out if it’s really a possibility and then make a plan. I tell him OK but inside I’m hurt and scared. I meditate and meditate, trying to feel more love than anger and fear.

What should I do? Should I just take control and tell him to leave now in order to end this ambiguous pain or should I just keep meditating and practicing unconditional love?

Holding my Breath, Trying to Breathe

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Dear Holding my Breath,

Have your tantrum. Then let him go.

You are not loved enough. That is clear. You are loved, but you are not loved grandly, hugely, incomprehensibly, madly, as you wish to be loved. You are not loved enough that he would insist that you follow him, or refuse to leave you if you won’t follow him. You are loved but he also has this and that and the other that he needs to do, these things that are important to his career, that he must do now while he is in his prime. You could go with him, he says, but maybe you don’t want to on account of the daughter? — who, after all, he says, is a choice just like a career.

Not hardly, methinks. Not the same at all. You agree? Daughter not the same as a career? Not the same. Good. So let him go. And in your meditation try to understand this: You have a spiritual nature, but relationships are played out right here on earth, and the gods are not much help to us. I suspect that you are pure of heart but you are also hungry; you never got enough love; you keep being the good mother and good partner, expecting that if you are good you will be loved, and when you are not loved you feel a volcanic anger that you would like the gods to hear … no?

But the gods will not help you in this. So I suggest in your meditation you concentrate on what you want and how to express what you want.

It is terrible to be with someone who is always one step away from leaving. I think you will feel better if you let him go. It is a slow, agonizing suffocation. You get just enough to live on. It is like emotional waterboarding.

I do not feel I have great insight into this situation. But consider this: If you regarded yourself with unconditional love, would you still be with him? Or would you say to yourself, he doesn’t think nearly as highly of me as I think of myself — perhaps he doesn’t really love me the way I deserve to be loved!

In other words, if you loved yourself the way you deserve to be loved, would you accept any less from a lover? Maybe think about that. You might come to see that it is best that he go off to wherever and pursue his whatever.

It may be sad to let him go, but you are relatively young. You will soon grow used to his absence and find someone new.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My boyfriend is my boss

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”


Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.

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My husband won’t touch me — what can I do?

I want desperately to have a child, and so does he.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, FEB 23, 2005

Dear Cary,

I am married to the man of my dreams — except for one thing: He won’t touch me. I’m not just talking about sex; I mean he’s averse to basic human contact. We’re down to a chaste kiss as he leaves for work, an occasional hug when I ask, and sometimes another chaste good-night kiss before he turns his back to me and falls asleep.

We’ve been together for almost 14 years (we’re both 37) and married for 12. We don’t have any children, although we married each other in part because we thought we’d have great kids together. We met in graduate school and reasoned that we’d get our careers off the ground before trying to start a family. More than a decade later, we’ve stopped even trying.

I think passion and romance are the sweetest stuff of life; he finds them completely unnecessary. When we were dating, he was a reluctant lover, always telling me, “We’ll do it after exams” or “It will feel more right after we’re married.”

For the first several years of our marriage, he blamed my weight as the sole reason we were not having sex. Let me clarify that I am an attractive woman with a beautiful face, long blond hair and a curvy, voluptuous body, which many men find very attractive — just not my husband. He told me about five years into the marriage that he’d felt deceived, that he’d believed I would change and lose weight. Of course, I’ve always said I wished I were thinner. At one point I lost a lot of weight, and nothing changed. However, at some point he did stop openly criticizing my body.

Several years ago, I went against all of my morals and upbringing and had an affair. I told myself it was my husband’s fault that I was forced to get my needs met elsewhere. But I was racked with guilt the whole time, and ultimately I ended it, resolving to try to make things work with my husband. A year later, it was still not working, and I separated from him. Only after the separation did he accidentally find out about the affair, and it was a wrenching experience for us both.

For a year we lived apart; I wound up driving home every weekend to see him. Because we just plain missed each other, we reconciled. But he warned me that his intimacy issues might be even worse than before my affair or the separation. Still, I wanted to try to make it work, and so did he.

Fast-forward three years later. It’s like I’m living as roommates with a best friend who is totally supportive of me emotionally and professionally, but not physically. He is my rock, my companion, the one I want to grow old with. Still, I don’t want to have a platonic marriage.

We went to a marriage counselor after our reconciliation with clear instructions that our objective was to find a way to be intimate with each other. The therapist said that our marriage appeared normal — if we were in our 60s, not 30s! During the second session, the therapist said he would only continue to see us if divorce were on the table. That was the last session we had with him.

Since then, we have near-weekly conversations about how to fix our little problem. We talk; I inevitably cry; he says that he doesn’t need intimacy and he’s sorry that I do, but he can’t give it to me. We’ve tried talking about this at other hours, too: on a Saturday afternoon over a game of Pente, over a bottle of wine at our favorite restaurant, in the car on a road trip as a philosophical discussion.

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Some people might ask if maybe my husband is gay. But he denies that he’s attracted to men and says that he likes to look at attractive women (implicit in that statement is that I’m not included in that group). He says it boils down to the fact that he doesn’t really like to be touched or to touch other people, and that he feels emotionally dead inside. I have a nephew with Asberger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, which among other things makes people ultra-sensitive to touch. I see a lot of similarities between my husband and my nephew, and I wonder if he might be afflicted with that disorder, too. I do know that my husband’s first and only other love really devastated him when she ended their relationship when he was 21, and I’ve wondered if that was the cause of his intimacy issues. But he said he was like this with her, too.

Every once in a while (three times last year), my husband takes pity on me and says that it’s time to reset the clock. That means we do the deed. Then I can no longer say, “Come on, honey, it’s been three (four, five, six) months since we made love,” since the clock is reset to zero. After such a resetting, it is an unspoken rule that I am not supposed to ask again for a really long time.

Cary, if I didn’t love this man, I would just leave. But he is wonderful to me in every other way. We are great partners in this thing called life, and we really get each other as people. I don’t want to leave; I want to break through these intimacy issues.

Please don’t tell me that I should get my physical needs met elsewhere. I’ve worked hard over the last three years since the reconciliation to rebuild trust. But for all of my self-denial, I feel like it’s getting me nowhere. I’m starting to go a little crazy from being starved for simple affection. And, yes, for sex, too. And deep down, I fear that I will never have a family, something which is extremely important to me (and, I thought, to him).

My heart is breaking over the loss of so many important dreams. I may never become a mother, I may never have a family of my own, I may never again know sweet intimacy between a man and a woman, I may never even have another passionate kiss.

I can roll with things not being perfect. But he turns his shoulder to me every night when all I want is for him to take me into his arms and show me his love. Is this too much for a good wife to expect?

Mrs. Heartbroken

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Dear Mrs. Heartbroken,

It sounds like what you are going through is very painful. I know how desperately you are seeking a solution. But I do not think that a solution will arise until you look at the situation in a new light. I suggest that you ask not how you can get your husband to give you what you need, but what the meaning of your suffering is and what you are being called upon to do. Once you discover what you are being called to do, and accept that as your fate, you will find it easier to surrender, to stop fighting, to do what has to be done.

What your suffering means, I think, is that life wants to come through you. You are stopping it by remaining with your husband. That is why it hurts you so much. That is why you are suffering. It hurts to deny life. Of course it hurts. It’s meant to hurt. That’s how life tells you what it wants. You’re leaning into a wind full of needles. You’re defying something that wants to be born.

There is a baby that wants to be born, but there is also a happiness that wants to be born. There is some contentedness that wants to be born. And there is a man somewhere who wants to make you pregnant and raise a child with you. He’s banging on your window but you can’t hear him or see him because you’re frozen hard to your husband. Until you tear yourself away you will remain stuck, deaf and blind to your destiny. Of course, it is your choice whether you leave or not. I know you have said that divorce is nonnegotiable. I also know that nothing we say is irrevocable, and we cannot know the future or our own capacity for sacrifice and pain.

I think you will leave your husband eventually, or you will collapse around the emptiness. I only think you should leave him while you still have a chance to raise a family. It will hurt to leave your husband — it may tear some of your skin off, as though you were frozen to a January lamppost. But it would hurt more to stay. And I do not see that you have any choice, if you are to accept what life is asking of you.
Perhaps you feel that leaving your husband for purely personal desires might seem irresponsible. But these are not personal desires. These desires are universal. They are transpersonal. It will be easier to see that if you think in terms that transcend the individual self. Consider the awesome force that wants to move through you, to use you as its avenue of fruition; consider your needs for intimacy and affection as the way this force expresses itself. Think of the child who desires to come into existence.

Why is that so far-fetched a notion? We happily grant that when someone dies it’s beyond our control. Yet when life insists with a terrifying power on having us for its purposes, when some unknown being insists on disrupting our plans in order to be born, we find that strangely mystical and abstract. What is abstract about the force that through the green fuse drives the flower? Why is it so far-fetched to imagine that life wants to move through you, but that you are blocking it, and that is causing you pain?

It seems a shame that you and your therapist were unable to continue beyond two sessions because the question of divorce was deemed nonnegotiable. Shouldn’t everything be on the table in therapy? Isn’t the purpose of therapy revelation and change? How can the unexpected be revealed if you think you know what you want, and if you rule out certain options? I think if you rule out certain conclusions, you undermine therapy’s capacity to surprise, to unearth unexpected meaning. But perhaps that therapist did not have the right approach for you.

Divorce needn’t mean that your husband disappears from your life. If the bond between you is spiritual and familial, as it sounds like it is, you can maintain that bond. Your relationship needn’t simply end; rather, think of it as being transformed by grand, elemental powers. He will probably want to know this child and to remain your lifelong friend. Perhaps he can be like an uncle to this child.

Why life chose you, who knows? But I can’t see much profit in resisting it. It’s obvious that, painful as it may be, you have to leave this man and seek someone you can raise a child with.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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How long does it take to get what you want?

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I’m trying to get a job where my boyfriend’s living and it’s just not working!


Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAY 5, 2005

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I were together for the first year of our relationship, then moved to separate cities after college. That was two years ago. I’ve planned to move up there as soon as I get a job, but in two years, I haven’t found anything. I’ve had some interviews. They all tell me they love me but I’m either overqualified (because of my education) or I have no practical experience in the field (which is true but how can I get it if no one gives me a chance?). In the meantime, I’ve been getting my master’s (which I am now finishing up) and working a mind-numbing administrative job here but I haven’t gotten any of the literally hundreds of jobs I’ve applied for. I’ve tried recruiters, family, friends, colleagues — I always get great feedback, and no one can tell me what I’m doing wrong. I can’t quit my job to do an internship or volunteer in the field because I really need the income. Not only is this extremely frustrating professionally — my self-esteem is in the toilet right about now — but I feel like my relationship can’t move on until we’re in the same city. I am so tired of doing the long-distance thing and it’s really straining our relationship. My boyfriend can’t move here because of his career (unlike me, he’s very successful). He tells me I should just quit my job and move there. I can stay with him in the 450-square-foot apartment that he shares with his odd roommate who doesn’t speak to me!

Cary, I have enough trouble with his tiny apartment just when I come stay with him — tripping over my suitcase, contorting into strange positions just to use the toilet, going nuts over how cramped everything is — the thought of living there indefinitely makes me want to rip my hair out. He simply does not get that I need at least a little personal space for sanity’s sake. He thinks I’m being prissy and stubborn. Even more pressing than that, I have no money and he lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world. He’s generous and offers to take care of me, but I don’t want to depend on someone else financially — it’s just not an option for me. I am not comfortable with the idea of moving to this city with no job, no financial security. If I could just get a decent job up there, I could figure the rest out, but it’s like some cosmic force wants me to remain miserable in my boring job and distant relationship forever. I’m at a complete loss and would really appreciate any words of wisdom that you could offer.

Frustrated

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Dear Frustrated,

It is taking you a while to find a job in the city where your boyfriend is living. There is nothing unusual about that. It will probably take longer than you would wish. Meanwhile, you have an excellent opportunity to learn how to be patient and tough — lessons life may have neglected so far to teach you. Patience and toughness are qualities some generations are taught earlier than others. Wars and economic depressions teach patience and toughness; peace, global empire and unprecedented economic prosperity, as Jon Stewart would say: Not so much.

I saw Christina Hoff Sommers on “The Daily Show” the other evening. She was promoting her new book, “One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance.” Some of what she said sounded shrill and kind of silly, and she has been accused of intellectual sloppiness, but I agree with her that trying to shield children from difficulty is dumb. And I have witnessed firsthand the pampered, fuzzy-headed, glazed look of inflated self-esteem that is the purported fault of our national softness. So when you mention that as a result of these setbacks your self-esteem is “in the toilet,” I can’t help thinking: Perhaps your self-esteem has merely experienced a natural correction.

I’m sorry, that sounds mean. Maybe I’m just being bitchy and jealous of the young. Perhaps I am hungry. What I want to say is that you are young and when you are young the waveforms of experience are short; you are just beginning to experience the yearlong and multiyear fluctuations of fate and circumstance that try the soul and harden the will. So treat your current struggle as an object lesson, and be prepared for similar setbacks. Self-esteem is cheap and, as Sommers pointed out, if she’s got her facts right, it does not correlate with morality or achievement. Persistence, patience, toughness: These qualities are dear and will last you a lifetime.

There, I’ve eaten. Life seems better now. Let me stop bitching and try to be helpful. The main thing is just to be realistic.

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So do this: Make a list of the things you want and are having trouble getting. The list might look something like this:

Finish your master’s degree.

Live with your boyfriend.

Get a job in your boyfriend’s city.

Find your dream job.

There might be other items, I don’t know. And these items all affect one another in complicated ways. But for the moment, clear your mind of how they interrelate, and just pick the one thing that is most important to you right now. If it helps, pretend you are dumb. Simplify. Just pick the one you want the most and put it at the top, without worrying about how doable it is.

Then consider how long that one thing might take.

Write that number down.

Then double it.

That’s probably a realistic target.

You get what I’m saying? Stuff gets harder once you’re out of school. It takes longer, costs more and isn’t as much fun.

But there are compensations. For instance, it’s your life and you can do what you want. Some would say that’s compensation enough.

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Adventure calls me but not my boyfriend

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I have an offer to study in the Arctic, but I’d have to leave my boyfriend behind.

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2006

Dear Cary,

I am at a crossroads in life and it is difficult. I have been working since high school, building my résumé. I finished my Ph.D., and have had a difficult time getting a job. I am a bit picky — I like romantic jobs, in certain geographic areas (generally the West and/or Alaska). I like adventure. Anyway, I’ve been offered such a job, studying what I want, in Arctic Canada (a village of 600 people, not a lot of English spoken, no roads to get there, $3,000 flight to get there). It is a job that will give me the experience to then go and get a better job; it is a great steppingstone. A ton of awesome experience. However, it is cold, dark (50 percent of the time), lonely, dry (no wine), not English-speaking, no fresh produce, dangerous (10 people have died on similar jobs since the 1970s), requires “barging” in food supplies, and it is far away from friends and family.

And then there is my boyfriend (of two years), and I love him. He is sweet, generous, kind; we love to talk to each other and cook together. We get along, it is very comfortable. This is the best relationship I have ever been in. He said he would rather pull out his teeth with rusty pliers than go to the Arctic. He hates the dark — he has seasonal depression. However, he does not really have career ambitions, and doesn’t have many suggestions on how we will earn a sufficient living for our family in the future (I think the Arctic gig will set me up for a good academic job that will be beneficial for our future). He says, do what you want to do for your career; I say it’s not just for my career, it’s for my spirit, my love of adventure and unique opportunities, and my disdain for suburbia. He says, “I don’t want to be blamed for you not taking this job.” I want him to say, “I love you, I don’t want you to leave, we can work something else out.” But instead, he says, “I love you, I can’t handle being the reason for you not to take this excellent opportunity, but, Sweetie, I don’t want to go up there.” So, I have to make a decision.

It is not as simple as pro and con lists. It is not as simple as listening to my instincts, my gut, either, because honestly I can’t tell what they are saying. Do you have any insights?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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Dear Should I Stay,

You say you don’t know what your gut is telling you, but I think you do.

Hold the picture upside down. Then you’ll see. You didn’t say there’s this guy you really, really like, who fits into your plans for the future, who utterly fascinates you, who is in fact just the kind of boyfriend you have been studying about for years, who in a certain way is key to your spirit, who attracts you even though he’s cold, dark and so dangerous that 10 people have died on him since the 1970s. You didn’t say that about your boyfriend. You said that about this village in the Canadian Arctic. That is where your passion is. That is where your life is headed.

Your boyfriend is not an adventure. Your boyfriend is a trip to the store. He may be a trip to the store in a comfortable automobile, but he is not the aurora borealis, or a pride of polar bears, or a village where people are living the way they have been living for a thousand years, or a rare lichen that thrives without light and heat like something from another planet.

The crazy thing is, this crazy thing you want to do is not even all that crazy. It’s squarely in your career path. Again, hold the picture upside down: If you had said you had been working toward a certain career your whole life and then suddenly got this crazy notion to travel up to a village in Canada, it would seem you were running from something or hadn’t thought things through. But this makes perfect career sense. It’s simply a case of your big dream finally starting to come true.

Dreams have a cost. Dreams sometimes mean saying goodbye. I think you should say goodbye. Maybe he will still be there when you get back, but if you love adventure, soon there will be another trip that he doesn’t want to go on but doesn’t want you to turn down on account of him. I think it’s an unfortunate pattern that could hamper your prospects for happiness. So say goodbye and go.

There may be one more lichen up there waiting to be discovered.

Find it.

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My boyfriend wants me to move, my daughter wants me to stay

Should I pick up and move four hours away to be with the man I love?

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

Dear Cary,

I have to make a decision and I need your help. Decisions have never been my forte, but for the past 11 years I’ve been able to make them pretty well because I had a kid. When you have a kid you make decisions that will help the kid. As much as possible. So I went back to school to be able to get a job with health insurance, eventually left my addicted husband, and was able to finish up another degree that was closer to my heart (and less practical) because I wanted to show her that you could “follow your dreams” and because I could be there some afternoons when she got out of school.

She’s 11 now. And much to my surprise/ dismay/ excitement I’ve fallen in love with a man who lives in a city about four hours from here. We’ve been seeing each other about two years. He lives in the big city, expensive, scary, invigorating. I see him every other weekend (I go down there) when my daughter goes to her dad’s. (The addiction isn’t something that will harm her physically unless he steals her allowance.)

However, this man I love doesn’t want a long-distance relationship anymore. Well, he never did. He wants me down there now. And if I don’t go down there now (or soon) he wants to see other people. And if he sees other people, I have to stop sleeping with him because I really suck at that sharing, multiple-lovers thing. Plus there are diseases. And I get jealous, paranoid and permanently sad.

He’s got a steady job (yippee!), he’s a good guy (I think, sometimes my judgment isn’t the best), and we have great, awesome, amazing sex. We talk about anything and everything. Practically every day. If I go down there this is what he’s willing to do: He’s willing to help me pay for an apartment. And if I don’t get a job with health insurance he thinks he can put us on his plan. OK, so this isn’t marriage, but I don’t know if either of us is ready for marriage again.

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So what am I waiting for?

1) He has faults! He’s a neat freak, controlling of his environment and occasionally gets mad. OK, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that he and my daughter don’t get along. He has never had kids. She has never had to share me with anyone (her dad got addicted soon after she was born). He’s controlling. She’s messy. He’s a snob. She likes pop culture. He’s a serious working artist. She’s a kid. He’s never had to put his needs aside for a kid. She’s never had to put her needs aside for a person she isn’t related to.

2) If I even mention the possibility of moving, my daughter bursts into those sobbing, horrible tears that kids have when their lives are about to be torn into pieces and their parents are ruining everything. Her best friend’s life would be ripped apart right at the tender age of 12. Our cat wouldn’t be able to go outside. I’d have to find a new dentist and doctor, and change the address on all my checks.

3) The big bad city is expensive. I live in a town that is cheap. This semester I am working three jobs and making it — but how can I live in the city with a kid, being a single parent and all? I’m not the best moneymaker in the world, although I’m trying hard. And what about the schools? How the hell can we navigate that labyrinthine system? And what if she gets mugged in the subway?

4) Her dad. Not the best parent in the world, but still, he’s her dad. We’d work out some alternative agreement for custody probably; however, it wouldn’t be every other weekend. He wouldn’t come to see her school plays — that is, if schools have plays down there (and textbooks, and windows).

5) If I don’t move there’s a chance that I can work my life a little differently. It has been a hard 11 years. I’m tired. I’ve got a chance to work less than I do now, starting this summer. I would be able to be there a little bit more for my daughter, but I could also work on my other love, writing. I’ve got stuff started — it’s just been hell trying to get the time to finish. Writing was my second degree and my “follow your dream” idiocy. I love it. I miss it. I desperately want to see if I can actually do it.

Is that pitiful? I can’t tell anymore.

We talked about our impasse this weekend. I asked for another year, so that I can take advantage of this possible job situation, and he said fine, but he wants to see other people.

If he starts seeing other women I have no doubt that he’ll be snapped up in no time. He’s cute, fun, smart and neurotic, living in a city filled with cute, smart, fun women who are attracted to neurotics, don’t have children, and have big expensive breasts. Shaved legs. Money. No obligations. “Sex and the City” and all that.

As I said, I think I really love him, for what that is worth. I’m just not sure what that’s worth anymore.

I want to know what the right decision is. How do you know that? I thought my marriage was something that would last for a long time — that it was Right, with a capital R. That love conquered all. That my husband would never lie to me. That I would never fail him. But he did lie, and I failed him in some essential way. People do shitty things to each other. Look at your mail. Affairs. Addictions. Betrayal.

Is love worth it? Or should I just resign myself to going to the movies alone on Saturday night, watching everyone else snuggle and share popcorn? I’m tired of being alone and I’m scared to be with someone. I don’t want to ruin my daughter’s life. I don’t want to ruin my life. I want him to wait for me. I want him to want me enough that this situation is OK with him. But it isn’t. He has needs. I have practical responsibilities and obligations that shape my life in a serious way. I love him. I love my daughter. I’m driving myself insane.

Sorry to go on. You better go get some coffee or Xanax or whatever you take to get through your mail. Thanks for listening.

Now, please tell me what to do.

Stuck, Trapped and Insane

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Dear Stuck, Trapped and Insane,

Stay right there. Don’t make a move.

You are so close to having things right. And you are so close to blowing it.

I wish I could jump in my truck and drive out there and talk you down.

I am so glad that you wrote, so at least I can say, I’m envisioning a life for you where you stay put and enroll in a class and start doing regular writing assignments and start to feel the salutary effect of a regular regimen, and where things slowly start to come together and get a little easier and your daughter blossoms into this amazing person and you carve out the time you need because you know the terrain and you have control over it and it’s your turf, and bit by bit the boyfriend issue works itself out, either because he does go away finally and it is sad but you are in a good place to handle it, or maybe he sees that if he wants more of you he will have to drive up there sometimes and see you, but you do not sacrifice your own life for something as uncertain as a neurotic artist living the complex life of a neurotic artist in the city.

So you mentioned “Sex and the City.” Do you remember when Carrie Bradshaw followed her glamorous boyfriend Aleksandr Petrovsky, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, to Paris? Remember what a bad time she had, how when she joined the artist on his turf he had no time for her? Remember how heartbreaking that was?

So stay where you are. Enjoy your daughter’s happiness, which will be amazing but fleeting. Write. Take a class that requires you to find the time. If you have a deadline you will find the time. That is what I did today — I am actually a student of writing as well as a practitioner now, and I had a deadline today. I had to give something to my teacher. So I did it. I found the time. That’s how we do it.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? That is what I am asking myself now. OK, here is why — and if this is my personal bias then this is my personal bias: I identify with your daughter. I identify with her because I so did not want my parents to move just when at the age of 11 I was getting a foothold, when I was finally developing a sense of myself in the world, some mastery of the neighborhood and of the school, some friends, some continuity, some reasonable ability to plan and see a future and a network of adult teachers upon whom perhaps I could call for guidance, and a strong interest in science … but they moved. And I was a lost kid and so then began all the acting out and now years later I’m still working to undo it.

So, yeah, OK, I’m taking your daughter’s side. But not just that: I’m taking your side, too. Because if you move you are uprooting yourself.

Oh, man. You have a chance here to do the right thing is what I’m saying! You can do your writing and you can keep things stable and sweet and down to earth and I know that is the right thing. I can feel it in your letter.

Besides, you aren’t itching to move. That’s the thing that gets me most of all: You are sad about the prospect of losing this man but you do not want to move. Why can’t he move? He’s got no kid. If he wants to be around you all the time why can’t he move?

Why? Because he has his life in the city. He has his life in the city. Doesn’t that tell you something? It tells me something: If you move to be with him you’re going to be fitting into his life and when you don’t fit perfectly into his life there’s going to be trouble. You will have uprooted your daughter, given up your jobs and your residence, disrupted the joint custody arrangements with your ex, and abandoned your support network. You will be somewhat dependent upon him.

Don’t do it. Stay where you are.

And how to handle the man? Here is how I suggest you handle the man. Tell him you’re not going to move. Concerning his desire to see other people: Tell him that if he is going to see other people you don’t want to hear anything about it ever. No talking about the other people. None.

That doesn’t mean you’re agreeing to stay with him. If you’re not comfortable even knowing that he is seeing other people, maybe you decide to end it. But just tell him, now, to protect yourself, no matter what else happens: No talking about other people. Because you already know you can’t handle that. Don’t get into it with him. Decide on your own. If that’s where he’s going, and you can’t handle it, then end it. But don’t allow yourself to be negotiated out of the good life you already have.

Live your good life. Take care of your daughter. Write. Work less. Enjoy the sun. Sleep well at night. Invite the boyfriend up if you like. Or say a sad goodbye. But cherish your life. It will be OK.

Write for Advice

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How do you escape a scary love affair with a powerful married man who is your professional superior, and abusive, and dangerous?

Dear Cary,

I’m a young woman who moved to the US a few years ago to do my PhD (I am currently in another country for a post-doc). I’m in a very difficult situation, I feel so desperate and depressed, like there’s no way out. For more than 2 years I have been in a relationship with a married man, who was my PhD advisor (I eventually switched advisors so that he wouldn’t have to write a letter of recommendation for me to find a job or be involved in my thesis committee). I don’t excuse myself and I know most people would judge me very harshly, and I do too. The guilt that I feel has brought me to dark places I never imagined existed in me, I know the way things happened is wrong, no matter how much love there is. I felt, at the time, as if I had no power to control the feelings I was starting to feel. The connection between him and I was growing every day without us being able to control it, and this was taking me with it. I felt powerless, drowning into something much bigger than me, that was already destroying my self worth. Even though I felt overwhelmed and powerless by my feelings, and I felt as if I had no choice, I do know I had a choice, and I did not handle it well. Being in this situation has crushed my self esteem and sense of worth. I’m drowning, this is all I can think of during the day and is affecting my health, my mind, my whole life.

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For a part of the year he doesn’t live with his wife and we video chat for hours and hours every day, and I travel to see him whenever I can, even going to a different country about once a month, when we live like we were married, only to have to deal with the pain of his absence when he leaves. I’m extremely attached and I drop anything to just talk to him – I stopped doing things to be available to talk to him when he can. I know we have an incredible bond and in his way he loves me deeply, but he has been unable to separate. He’s afraid of hurting his wife even more (she never found proof of the extent of our relationship, but she knows), there’s the effect this might have on his kids (who are not young anymore, but of course this is big), the financial burden of a divorce and how that would affect people’s perception of him. I try to be understanding but living in this situation has been heart breaking for me too.

I love him deeply but I am also worried about how our future would be. There are moments when he gets emotionally abusive and angry and that devastates me. He crushes me with words, also professionally. He’s very possessive and I feel like I have to be careful with everything that I talk to him about and how I say things. He’s much older than me and I worry he’ll get even more possessive as time passes. The fact that we still have work projects together (even after I finished my PhD) makes everything so much more complicated. Our relationship already had a big impact on my professional life, which is just starting, and I’m worried how things will affect it even more, no matter what turn they take. I can’t focus on anything, let alone work efficiently. He is uncomfortable with me working with other people, I feel like I depend on him so much and that he could destroy my life if he wanted.

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Last month I was with him when I got sick. Initially we thought I just had a flu, but my fever didn’t improve as the days went by. He treated me in a horrible way, he got upset because “I ruined the trip”, we couldn’t have sex and I couldn’t help clean the house. He treated me with such contempt and so much anger, he was upset when I asked him for a blanket when I was shivering, he didn’t offer to get any medicine for me or even ask how I was feeling. I’ve never felt so vulnerable. The last day he said he couldn’t wait for me to leave because I am a pain in the ass and he couldn’t stand me like that. When I found out what I have (it’s a virus that will go away on its own, and I’m finally well now after one month) he got out of his mind, repeating “I did this” to him. He blamed me for potentially passing this virus to him, even though it was not my fault I got sick. He couldn’t care less how I felt, he just blamed me and worried about himself. A bit after that I had to move to another city and during this process my car was broken into and half of my belongings were stolen. He keeps repeating to me he wishes I had been more careful, because now he has to deal with me upset about what happened. I can’t believe the man I love so much can say and do these things. It makes me question whether it is not my fault, if I was overbearing, if it’s the situation that’s making him act this way.

Most people would say I’m a pretty, very intelligent young woman, and there are plenty of interesting guys who want to date me, but I can’t bring myself to end things with him (at least until he sorts out what he wants to do). Even after what happened last month, I am still terrified of breaking up with him. I’m so afraid of him, of what he might do to me professionally, of his anger and his reaction, of the horrible things he says, and I feel so much guilt and sadness for everything.

I’m really lost, I don’t know what to do and I’m in desperate need of some advice.

Thank you,
Lost

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Dear Lost,
At first, when reading your letter, I was forming a picture of two flawed adults who have fallen in love in less-than ideal circumstances and are just going to have to make the best of it. Then my sense of it changed when you described his behavior when you got sick. I now think you are in an abusive, dangerous relationship and you need to leave.

I cannot diagnose people. But I can recognize patterns. The patterns here are those of a predatory man taking advantage of his political, social and economic privilege to get what he wants from a weaker partner while protecting his own professional, political and family privileges. That alone is enough to suggest that you must leave. His anger and lack of compassion add an element of danger to the mix, indicating that not only should you leave, but you should leave now.

There are too many areas of asymmetrical power here. Let’s just briefly name the major ones:

Age disparity
Gender Disparity
Power and status disparity
Marital status disparity

All those could, of course, be overcome by two partners of mutual goodwill. But in this case, he is using those factors to his advantage without regard for your well being.

If you cannot leave him on your own then you need the help of a paid advocate. Locate a good marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist or psychologist and explain that you need support and guidance in leaving a destructive relationship. Make it clear that you are not seeking help in deciding what to do, that you have decided what to do and only need help and support in carrying it out.

Do it. It may save your life.

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I want kids, but he doesn’t. What could be simpler?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 31, 2005

Should I break it off now and look for a man who wants to raise a family?


Dear Cary,

I’m a 31-year-old smart, cute, funny, perennially happy physician who is in love with a 38-year-old chemistry professor. He is everything I want in a man. He’s warm, kind, caring, handsome, intelligent (some of our most interesting conversations are about quantum physics … grrrrr) and crazy about me. He has never been married and had a happy childhood. We can discuss any topic under the sun — conversation and silences are both filled with pleasant comfort and warmth. He is a liberal, an environmentalist, funny and wise about life and otherwise inexplicable things like taxes and stocks and — oh! — the sex rocks! In all a perfect package, except he does not want kids and I think I do.

We met online five months ago on a dating site as I was going through my divorce. I was not heartbroken about the divorce, as I had an “arranged marriage,” we never fell in love, the ex and I were totally mismatched and it was a relief to get separated. When the chemist and I started dating, it was supposed to be a testing-the-waters type of thing. He was, after all, the first guy I had ever dated. (I’m from a culture that frowns on making out with boys you are not married to.) But he feels right and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

So, where do I go from here? He likes his quiet time, is a bit of an introvert, likes to hike and travel, and does not think that he can sacrifice all of this for 18 years to raise a child who may or may not turn out to be a fine upstanding citizen. (These are scary times, you know.) He’s got a point there. I like sleeping in on the weekends, not having to worry about nannies, day care, poopy diapers, pediatrician visits, the Family and Medical Leave Act, teenage angst and whatever else is inevitable. But I’ve achieved a lot in life, I’m going to be financially secure, I have a wonderful job I love and a great family (who are overseas), and in two or three years I may yearn for the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

So before I fall deeper in love, should we break up, cut our losses and run, or should we let time decide? Should I let someone who seems to be “the one” go and hope to meet someone else who will be a better “one”? If we took care to arrange for adequate day care, to ensure that he and I went on a “date” once a week without the little one and took vacations just by ourselves to keep the fire kindled, would that give me the best of both worlds? Or is there a chance that I would doom the relationship to failure by making him compromise?

Looking Ahead

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Dear Looking Ahead,

If he doesn’t want kids and you do, then you should break up with him.

There, that was simple, wasn’t it?

So, if it was so simple, where have I been for the last hour? Why have I been thinking about probabilities and branching courses of action?

I got caught up in this notion of “the future.” The future is unknowable. Everybody will tell you that. So why do we spend so much time thinking about it? Knowing we can’t know it, we attempt to know it anyway, and then we start to feel like we can’t know anything at all, not even the present, because who knows, we might turn into chickens, or we might open a soft-drink bottling plant!

“Soft-drink bottling plant?” “Chickens?” Why did such notions enter my mind? Those are images out of rural Florida and Alabama. Those are images out of my childhood. (See the hour-glass bottles of Coca-Cola clinking along the conveyor belt; see the man in overalls pick up a bottle, open it and take a swig; it looked like the best job in the world!)

Why did those particular examples arise? What is going on here? Ah! Now I’m remembering. When I was a kid, we lived in the future. You never knew when something might happen to alter the way things were, so the way things were wasn’t really the way things are, so you couldn’t make any plans. We didn’t open boxes and put things away because we might be moving. We didn’t throw things away because we might need them. You never knew. Anything might happen. Best to leave your options open. Why even leave the house? You might get polio. Then again, you might not. Who could know?

The notion of an unknowable future became a source of paralysis for me later in life. So there I was again just now, the happy writer, trying to live in the moment, sitting at the computer, luckiest guy alive, getting paid to do what I love, and getting all paralyzed and confused about a simple yes-or-no question — because it involved the problem of the future! (Apropos of nothing — except perhaps the humorous synthesizing powers of the unconscious — what came into my mind, actually, was the phrase “software bottling plant.”)

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So how do you make this issue of the future concrete enough to make a decision about it? You stop thinking about wanting kids in the future and think about wanting them right now. You want kids right now. You are practical enough to realize that you can’t attend to them right now, but you want them. Likewise, you can treat his lack of desire for kids as a definite trait. If he wanted kids he would probably have made some by now. He would have gotten married.

So it’s not that mysterious.

Ha ha. Watch out. Everything is that mysterious.

We move from mystery to clarity to mystery. We embody paradoxes and contradictions. We express them in dramatic symbols; we act out the ineffable. He is a chemist. You are a doctor. You enjoy great chemistry together. Quantum physics excites your molecules. You understand how something can be indeterminate, can become its opposite, can change shape, can be unknowable in one way and knowable in another. I suggest that you determine that you want kids and he does not. But I acknowledge that in the act of determining, you may alter what you determine. You are both scientists of life and matter. States of matter can change. Water becomes steam. Water becomes ice. Elements influence one another. When the conditions are right for life, life sometimes appears.

Knowing what you want and what he wants, I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that certain combinations of people create unforeseen reactions. So before you break up with him, have a very frank talk. You may have awakened something in him. He may have awakened something in you.

It’s not so simple after all. Sorry, but that’s life.

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An unmarried woman, unhappy in India

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Hi Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely, Lost Somewhere in the Middle

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Dear Lost in the Middle,

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

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

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

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

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

That is the cost of being true to oneself.

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

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

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

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

Good luck! You are not alone.

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