Category Archives: Relationships

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I’m a crappy girlfriend

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Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Nov 30, 2010

I put my boyfriend through hell. How can I stop?


Dear Cary,

My problem is that I’m a pretty crappy girlfriend.

I have been in a relationship for over a year with someone that I really care about. He and I met in graduate school and have been living together … Well, we moved in together almost instantly. Generally, we laugh and have a great time together. I love to cuddle with him and the sex is great. I am so attracted to him and think that he’s brilliant. We talk for hours. I love his company. I want to build a life with him.

The problem is … well, me. I have times when I just freeze up. I can’t deal with any conflict. If he isn’t paying enough attention to me or being inconsiderate, rather than just tell him I’m annoyed, I do the freeze-out. In other words, I just get really cold and then say over and over, “Nothing’s wrong,” when obviously it is. And then I can’t get myself to just say it! Sometimes I’ll need his help and he will try to do something for me and I just won’t let him — for NO reason. And then other times I will freak out over how serious the relationship has gotten and I want to write the entire relationship off. I will try to break up and kick him out. He has literally said to me, “We aren’t breaking up over this,” multiple times. Once I started along that familiar breakup path and he actually dropped to his knees and begged me to stop. Honestly, I don’t want to break up. I just want to … I don’t know … I want to NOT DO THAT.

I want to stop the freakouts. The problem is that my past is creeping into my present. Before I dated my current, I was with X for nine years. We were best friends and I thought all was great. I believed that being in a successful relationship meant that you never (or very rarely) fought — and so I didn’t. I’m still not entirely sure why I left X, but I know that I don’t want to go back. And my current boyfriend is nothing like X.

I need to find a way to just relax. I need to get comfortable in this relationship. Something within me keeps saying that we are going to break up eventually so why not just get it over with? I feel like a psycho. I can shift so quickly from being totally in love with him to ready to evict him. What the hell is wrong with me? On an intellectual level, I realize that we work and things are good. I just can’t … relax. What the eff?!

My current boyfriend deserves better and I want him to stick around — for the long term. How do I stop being so … weird?! How can I just relax and be in love? I used to be able to do that when I was younger. I’m in my early 30s now. I hate that this relationship has so many unnecessary ups and downs. How do I put my most recent breakup in my past and get on with my present?

Wanting to Settle In

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Dear Wanting to Settle In,

If you want to change, you have to learn some new behaviors.

You can only learn these new behaviors by doing them.

One new thing you can do right away is simply report.

When you get into this situation, where he’s asking you what’s going on and you’re not responding, find a way to report what is going on.

If you had a black flag or a red flag that you could wave when you are in this state then you could signal him. That would be one way. It doesn’t have to be an explanation. The point is to simply report on what is going on with you. Try writing it down. Try asking him to stay there until you can say it. Do whatever you have to do to stay in the situation and report what you are feeling. You don’t have to fix it or understand it right away. Neither does he. A good first step is to just report what is going on.

It might sound silly but it is profound.

It’s like what we do in therapy. We start out when we come into therapy all in a crisis and waving our arms and getting into all this behavior that we’re used to doing because we are used to obfuscating. That is mostly what we do in life is obfuscate. It’s how we get by. So it is a radical shift to move from obfuscating to clarifying.

Clarifying seems silly at first. We assume we basically know what is going on. But the more we observe, the more we realize that we really don’t know what is going on half the time. Neither does anybody else.

What is going on right now? I am sitting at my desk with the dog lying on the carpet and it is warm and the electric heater is on and the lamps are on and there is a painting by my friend Judith Lindbloom on the wall and I am looking at it liking the yellow. I am liking the yellow and the squiggly blue and the squiggly white and that is what is going on and that’s it.

This sounds silly at first. If I am sitting in the therapist’s office being angry that might be all that’s going on right then. That’s enough. It doesn’t make me sound like a genius but it’s enough because it’s true. The truth is sufficient. That’s the big, groundbreaking insight: The truth is sufficient and it is often disarmingly simple.

Maybe a truth for you would be something like, “I want you to come over here and hug me and sit with me.” That might sound silly but if it were true it would be enough.

When you operate in this realm of simple truth for a while it starts to look like 99 percent of what we do day-to-day leaves people baffled. They really have no idea what we’re up to unless we tell them. So slowly we start reporting on our inner goings-on. We start saying, OK, I feel really blank right now, like I can’t think of a single thing and I’m just sad. Or we say, I’d really like to take a baseball bat and bash this guy’s car in. And then the therapist or partner listens, or makes suggestions, or does whatever he does.

Maybe you wrap your arms tightly around yourself and huddle in a ball but you tell him you’re doing that. You say, “I’m huddling in a little ball.”

And that’s OK. It’s a good starting point. Or maybe you start throwing things at him. If you start throwing things at him, just tell him that’s what you are doing. Say, “OK, I’m throwing things at you now.” That’s building a bridge.

We need other people to look at us and tell us what they think. Therapists are good for that. So are friends. So are readers.

For instance, this morning I get a letter from a reader who says from my prose she thinks I’m not OK. And I write back to her and say, You’re right. I’m not OK. I’ve been through a lot and I’m functioning but I’m not what I would consider OK.

But then, am I doing something wrong for not being OK? Or am I just going through what’s pretty normal for a guy who’s been through what I’ve been through?

I’m not OK but I’m improving. I’m not OK but that’s OK. I’m not OK but I’m not in danger. I’m just recovering.

So, anyway, you need to learn some new behaviors. At first, it isn’t about gaining insight. It’s about doing new things. These new things won’t feel natural at first. So it’s also about being uncomfortable.

It’s uncomfortable but you will do it because you love truth.

Truth is great. The thing about the truth is that once you get there you can stop. But then you have to feel. That’s part of it, too. You have to feel the truth. And the truth is not always comfortable.

But in the long run, it’s better to feel the truth. So you have to learn to be uncomfortable. That’s when you’re really getting somewhere, when you can sit and be uncomfortable and know you are uncomfortable and know you don’t have to do anything about it but sit there and feel.

I like your boyfriend. He seems like a really nice guy who cares about you. These things he does make it evident that he’s willing to stick with you.

So just report. Say what is going on. Start with that. And keep doing it. It will get easier and more interesting.

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My husband won’t do his laundry

 

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

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


Dear Cary:

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

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

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

At any rate, at least I got to vent!

Thank you,
Buried in Laundry

 

Dear Buried,

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing: Breathe!

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I am a lone cow

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

Is it reasonable to expect a happy love life, or in the end will it just be me, Aunt Zoey and a few too many cats?


Dear Cary,

I am a 29-year-old woman about to begin a doctoral degree in a field that truly moves and inspires me. I am lucky to have a close inner circle of genuine friends and a larger social circle full of interesting and varied people. My family is warm, loving, enjoyably eccentric and supportive. I am healthy, smart, driven, and am told I’m attractive and entertaining. I am extremely satisfied with and grateful for the direction my life has moved in over the past few years. So please understand that when I refer to being alone, I realize that I am surrounded by a whole lot of valuable platonic love.

That said, here is my issue. In my late teens and early 20s, I had two meaningful romantic relationships. Both of them ended tragically; the first man died suddenly in an accident and the other had resurfacing memories of childhood sexual abuse, then descended into a downward spiral of alcohol and denial, and away from me. Both relationships and their aftermaths led to a lot of learning and a redirection of my life for which I am exceedingly grateful. However, close to five years later, as I approach 30, I’m realizing that I have been alone for quite a stretch now, have had no real prospects, and I’m starting to get a little worried. Were those two relationships in my early adulthood useful, but aberrant, romantic occurrences in a life that will mostly be lived alone?

A few months ago, the tragicomedy of how perpetual and expected my aloneness has become hit me right between the eyes while attending a family wedding. See, our place cards had been rubber-stamped with either a cartoon cow or fish to indicate what we were having for dinner, and guests were grouped on their place cards as couples, rather than as individuals. On my left, my father and his longtime girlfriend shared a place card stamped with a cow and a fish. To my right, my brother and his longtime girlfriend had two pink cows, stamped side by side. On and on around the table, little cows and fish, holding hands, dancing, gazing at each other, contemplating their futures. And the image on my own card — a lone cow in the middle of a vast white space — stared out at me in this lost way that inspired laughter in the moment and tears later on that night. It was then that I realized that at most family events over the course of my life, the only people who have been reliably alone have been my 55-year-old Aunt Zoey and me. She has been a Lone Cow for as long as I can remember, and it’s important to note that her aloneness has not been by choice.

A few of my male friends (all in relationships) have offered their take on my situation. They say that they found me to be very attractive but simultaneously intimidating when we first met. They think I often attract men who have ego issues and are interested in “conquering me” to see if they can get the confident girl who has her shit together as a way of proving something to themselves. That theory doesn’t seem to hold water when I consider the vastly different types and personalities of the men I’ve briefly dated, but at the very least, it’s a kind way of saying, “It’s them, not you.”

So now my dating life consists of long stretches of nothingness interspersed with a parade of men who start out by being wowed by me, then pursue me ardently, then, as they get to know me more, lose interest and march right off the face of the earth. This is especially painful because I don’t feel I’m pulling any punches or putting out a false front. It’s as if the lack of skeletons in my closet and all the time I’ve spent figuring out who I really am has become a liability.

I guess I’m just asking if there’s reason to be hopeful about a substantial future love life, or if really, the hard, but more truthful answer is that I just need to make peace with the possibility that I might stay alone. That I might just be one of those people for whom the romantic relationship thing doesn’t pan out, to the confusion and consternation of all those who love me. That in the end, it might just be me, Aunt Zoey, and a few too many cats. Please, if I’m doing something wrong here, lay it on me.

The Lone Cow

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Dear Lone Cow,

My prediction is that you are going to end up very, very happy, in a deep, complex and loving relationship that lasts a long time, but it is going to happen slowly, and if you succumb to impatience, the waiting may test you to the limits of despair. You are young; it may be hard for you to imagine how much life lies ahead, but believe me, there is a lot to come. So you have to concentrate on the process, and make sure that you are having a good time now. And you have to guard your heart.

A lifelong wish that we know may or may not be granted can be a haunting, threatening presence, always there to undermine our faith in the future, always threatening to verify our deepest suspicions of our own unworthiness. Or it can be something on which you build a happy life that does not depend on its being granted, but only on the continuing search for it. That, I think, is the key: to make sure that the search is its own reward, and that during the search you are protected from its ups and downs.

Take fishing, for instance. If it were just about catching one fish, there would be no fishermen. It wouldn’t be worth it. But fishing, even though it is uncertain in its particulars, can be depended upon to be a fairly pleasant activity even if no fish are caught; it also can be depended upon to yield at least a few fish from time to time. Likewise, dating can be a pleasant activity even if, for a while, one candidate after another proves not to be the lifelong mate you seek.

I would suggest two things: Don’t go out with any men who don’t make you happy. Now, with fishing, or playing tennis, or finding a mate, a lot has to do with how you handle not catching anything, or hitting the ball in the net, or being rejected. The key for the long term is to avoid destroying yourself in retribution for your own small failures. In the case of love, I know how destructive it can be to want something so badly, to get your hopes up, to give yourself body and soul to someone and then to be disappointed, or to lose them to illness or death, or even to be intentionally abused or mistreated. It can ruin your appetite for fun.

Fun, nevertheless, I believe to be the key. Protect your heart for the long haul; don’t be greedy or impatient; don’t let yourself be enchanted; make a fortress around your feelings.

Now how, when the essence of love is surrender, can one find love if one is living in a fortress? Because once you build this fortress, you can step outside it and have adventures; you can take risks because you know you have a sanctuary you can run to in a storm.

The other thing is that the process must be enjoyable; you must ensure that it is. If you’re going out with men solely to find one mate, then every time you don’t find that one mate you have failed. In that way you can destroy yourself, and continually wound your heart. But if you go out with men to have fun, and make that a condition, then whether you find a mate or not you have not wasted your time, you have not wounded yourself. So I would make sure that you only go out with men who amuse you, who are kind to you, who represent an improvement in your life, with whom you feel happy in the moment.

If you make your own momentary happiness a prerequisite, then I think when you do find yourself alone, it will make sense to be alone. Because you will be able to look around you and see that your solitude is preferable to the company of an unpleasant man. And I would also take steps to increase your enjoyment of solitude, so that a fear of loneliness does not drive you to choose a mate before you’ve found the right one.

Eventually, because of the odds involved (which I think increase dramatically in grad school, what with all the smart, like-minded men around), and because you are such a treasure, you will eventually find yourself in that deep, lasting and long-wished-for relationship.

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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

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

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


 

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

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

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

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

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

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

So, my friend, make your application now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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He e-mailed us to say, “I’m dating both of you”

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 16, 2009

I thought I liked this guy, but his message to me and the other woman he’s dating seemed pretty tacky.


Dear Cary,

I value your advice and read your column all the time. Anyway, after a long hiatus, I dove into the dating pool. I heard that my longtime friend Bob’s cute brother Sam was newly single. I sent him a card telling him that if he’d like to see a movie sometime or have lunch to call/e-mail me. Bob cautioned me that Sam was newly divorced and maybe I shouldn’t take action. I decided to anyway, even though I respect Bob’s opinion about most things.

Anyway, I really fell quickly for Sam. We couldn’t see each other very often because we live two hours apart and as a single parent I could only arrange to see him maybe once a month at most. The few times we saw each other lasted for several hours … we had so much to talk and laugh about — incredible chemistry … and we had frequent e-mails/phone calls in between … it seemed like we had a rare connection, at least to me anyway.

Then, I get an e-mail that he just started seeing someone that lives in his building. Now, get this, he e-mails me and Suzy on the same e-mail at the same time … as in “Margaret and Suzy, I am seeing you both … like you both … want it all out in the open …” I thought this was in really poor taste … didn’t seem to go with the thoughtful person I knew.

Anyway, I tried to be classy because, well, he could have continued seeing both of us and maybe I wouldn’t have found out … so in a weird way, I did appreciate his clumsy honesty. I told him that I couldn’t see him while he was seeing someone else; physically and emotionally I just wasn’t cut out that way and I wished him well.

He has since e-mailed me that I was the most genuine person he has ever met and that his time with me couldn’t be compared, and he signed it “Love, Sam.” Part of me wondered, What the heck does this mean? But the logical side of me decided to just ignore the e-mail.

Not sure if I will ever hear from him again, but I do miss him. If I do hear from him, is he worthy of another chance? I think so, but sometimes I have such huge rose-colored glasses on when it comes to romance that I set myself up to get slam-dunked. And I felt so sad about all of this.

This guy made me wonderful dinners. Made me CDs of my favorite songs. Loved to slow dance … I felt so at ease with him … but since he decided to see someone else I have to wonder if it was all BS.

I hate to think so. What do you think, being a man and all?

Puzzled

Dear Puzzled,

What I think, being a man and all, is that sometimes women spend too much time trying to figure out what we men are up to and not enough time trusting their own judgment. I think you’ve already decided what to do. That e-mail struck you as manipulative and invasive and strange, and it put you off.

Yet you crave his attention. Craving his attention is not a good basis for a relationship. Craving his attention is like needing a drug. He made you a nice dinner. He says nice things to you. Those things — the slow-dancing, the CD, the dinner — those are not the relationship. They are relationship-oriented products. He has shown himself to be an adequate producer of relationship-oriented products. You haven’t really encountered him as a person yet; you’ve only encountered him as a competent dispenser of feeling-like substances.

Not to say that all courtship behavior is a sham. Courtship behavior and its attendant relationship-oriented products make it safe for men and women to dance together. But within the slow dance and the dinner is supposed to be some relating. You have to sense there’s a man you like in there somewhere. I’m not sure you do. I feel more like you were so fragile and hungry that you fell for the appearance of something — for the relationship-oriented products he is able to produce. And that puts you in a dangerous spot because, as you say, you are a person who has such “huge rose-colored glasses on when it comes to romance that I set myself up to get slam-dunked.”

Some people call that “having boundary issues.” Having boundaries is about knowing your weaknesses and protecting yourself.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling fragile and hungry. It happens. We’re in a fragile, hungry time. I suggest, however, that you never allow yourself to become so fragile and hungry that you go against your own core values and instincts.

As a man, I can tell you that sometimes when we want a woman to do something, we produce our best relationship-oriented products and present them to her as if they represented our current feelings toward her. But what they actually represent is how we think we might feel once we get what we want from her. Once we get what we want from her, we might feel like a slow dance, like a diamond, like a rare filet mignon. But in the beginning it’s not poetry; it’s sales. Relationship is knowing and accepting another person. You have to like the guy. He has to not creep you out.

So what do you feel about a person who would send the kind of e-mail he sent? Some people might actually like it. But I think your reaction was like the reaction many women would have, which was that it was just tacky and strange. So trust your own response. I think you’ve already decided what to do.

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Guys keep dumping me

 

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 3, 2012

We date for six weeks and then they say, “There’s no spark”


Hi Cary,

I enjoy reading your responses because they are honest and very heartfelt, and –  I hope this doesn’t sound over the top — they’re often quite beautiful too.  

I am the (embarrassingly) clichéd successful young woman who is still man-less. I’m 30 years old, I have a wonderful career, numerous close girlfriends, a sometimes frustrating but close and always supportive family, generally great co-workers and acquaintances.  I’m slender, fit, attractive, my nieces and nephews love me and people often call me their sunshine in perhaps an otherwise gray day. A source of pride for me is that I regularly make people laugh. I don’t say these things from a place of arrogance, or at least I hope not, but to set the scene for you, to give you a sense of who is on the other end of this letter. The good parts of me. The parts that everyone else sees.

And yet, I am single. I’m not temporarily, in-between relationships-single, I am chronically, seemingly unstoppably single.  I haven’t had a proper relationship in about four years. The people around me don’t understand why I’m alone either (or at least that’s what they keep telling me), and I trust them to be at least mildly honest about my deficiencies. And believe me, I know I do have them (OK, since I listed my good traits, I’ll list some bad as well — I’m overly sensitive, I’m very particular, I’m stubborn, I’m blunt to a fault at times, I cry every time I get upset, I can be self-obsessed and overly analytical, which is boring for others, etc., etc.).

Don’t get me wrong — I can’t say that I don’t meet men.  I do meet men, I do go out on dates, I do start the very beginnings of relationships. Over and over again. And not with jerks or awful men either — generally pretty decent guys, successful, kind, smart, funny, attractive. Catches. The problem is that after a few dates, they don’t seem to want to continue a relationship with me. About five to six weeks in, around the time things may become exclusive, or at least we start to talk about it, I generally get dumped on my butt or I have to end things because he tells me he’s not looking for anything more than casual. Sometimes I’m dropped in insensitive ways, but usually not — I get the old line that I’m great, he just doesn’t feel a spark. He just doesn’t think that we’re right long-term. There’s just something missing. Then these guys go on to happy relationships with someone else. I am not perfect in a relationship, but I try to treat a partner with respect and kindness. Nobody has ever called me a bitch after we’ve ended things — in fact, I’m still in touch in some form with nearly every man I’ve ever dated and slept with!

I tend to believe that there is a reason for the way things are in our life, and if someone can’t maintain a relationship, there’s a reason for that. If a woman keeps ending up with a guy who treats her awfully, it’s because she’s dating guys who are awful. Of course there’s more to it, but that’s the bare bones.  So, what am I doing wrong? What is the reason that guys want to date me at the beginning, but then lose interest so fast? Do I give a better first impression than the reality? I can’t help but start to develop a complex that, once someone really gets to know me, they are disappointed that the real me isn’t as great as the first-impression me. I would love to believe that they’re “intimidated by my amazingness” as some of my friends say, but let’s get real here — a guy wants to keep amazingness, not throw it away. I’m not completely delusional.  Is it that I’m punching above my weight? Should I pull out some old wives’ trick and try harder to make these guys stay? I’ve always thought that was a bit pathetic and a sure way to a crappy relationship, but maybe it’s in fact what all women do but we just won’t admit it.

There seem to be lots of uninteresting and unattractive (to me) guys out there, so maybe I’m just too picky by only dating the ones that really attract me. When I was 23 I threw away a chance of a baby and marriage because I panicked, I felt too young, completely unprepared and I wanted so much more in my life. I still fiercely respect my right to that decision, but I’ve regretted it for years and now all I want is to be tied down. Is this some kind of karma? My greatest fear is that I’ll be in this same dating Groundhog Day five years from now, so I want to stop the pattern that I’ve created, but I have no idea how.  I’m exhausted, and I want to find a good love.  Please give me a cold dose of reality and help me see this more clearly.

Trapped in Dating-Groundhog-Day

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Dear Trapped,

I am going to go out on a limb here and speak to you as if I knew you, even though I don’t. I am going to speak to you as if I knew your problem, as if it were something like mine.

My guess is that you are not “connecting” because you are not being your authentic self. Now, this is a huge thing to say. It may sound pretty nervy, and I admit it is. But I’m just going to say it.

You are acting in a way that is socially acceptable and no one could fault you for, and yet this way of acting is not right for the real you. In some way, you are being untrue to yourself. This is of course a long life habit, as it is with me. It is a hard habit to break. And it is hard to accept the proposition that while we are not liars or cheats or thieves, we are yet, at some deeper level, being emotionally deceitful. I’m probably going to be accused of “blaming the victim” or something but that is not what I mean.

I know this: People respond to our authentic self. If our authentic self is hidden, then they lose interest. We are of course taught to hide our authentic self. Most of us have an authentic self that is at odds with social expectations, so we learn to suppress it. In rare cases, people we think of as “charismatic” have authentic selves that merge well with the social moment. Such people are lucky and become famous and well-loved. But in your case, and in my case, the authentic self may not be the self you show the world, the successful, cheery self. But it is real. It may shock some people. It may not be welcome everywhere. But it is the real you.

You hint at this when you express the fear that once these guys get to know  the real you they lose interest. I think that is close but not exactly it. When we see a person truly, we cannot help but love her. But when we catch only a glimpse of her hidden self, then we are confused. We sense contradiction and a great hiding, a hiddenness. The “spark” these guys are talking about ignites when the genuine person is seen.

Here is another thought: You may still be mourning the loss you had at 23. I would guess you are still angry and sad about this thing. I feel for you. I am sorry for your loss. You probably put on a happy face and cheer people up but you are not happy. You are still sad about this. You don’t know quite why you did what you did. Perhaps even the burden of choosing was not an unqualified gift. I don’t know. We are complicated. Social and political rights are complicated. We can be grateful for autonomy and yet also yearn to have the path laid out for us. We can relish making our own decisions and yet at times hate the burden this places on us. You made a choice and it was the right choice at the time. You weren’t ready.

One thing that can happen after an event like that is that we go on in a state of incompleteness, of incomplete mourning. This is what people mean sometimes when they say we have “baggage.” We have not moved through certain events emotionally, so we are still responding to current events as though they were happening in the past.
So let us regard this string of unsatisfying encounters as a sign: Your mission is to encounter your authentic self. I wonder who she is.

She may be fierce and angry. She may be wounded. She may be simply sad. Who knows, she might be fiercely funny. She might be frighteningly strong! She may be voracious and sexy and naughty. She may have wanted all her life to be a scientist or mathematician. She may want to be a fisherman. She is probably many things. I wonder who she is. Show her. Let her be. Then she will find her mate.

You have accomplished a lot on the outside. You have some inner work to do now. If you begin this great journey now, no matter what happens in the arena of dating, you will find your authentic self and that is the great human mission.

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I’m not sure I trust him. Is he lying to me?

 

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Hi Cary,

I have a problem, and I don’t know whether it’s with myself or my partner. You have an exceptional understanding of the human mind and soul, so I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me out. 

We’ve been doing distance this past year with the intention of telling our parents that we want to marry soon. The stakes are high because we’re from polar opposite backgrounds, and we both have to go out of our way to placate our families if we want their blessings. I’ve told my siblings, and was all set to tell my parents tomorrow (time constraints: there’s a small window for him to meet my dad. They’ll both be in the same state for a short time very soon) until something funny happened. 

He’s been busy this past week (he is a med school student), so we haven’t been able to talk much. This doesn’t happen often: we Skype/call/chat almost everyday. He also left Friday evening for a road trip with one of his college friends. He was supposed to call me when he got in to their hotel (we’re 12 hours apart). He’s usually good with his promises, but this time he didn’t call. When I texted to tell him I was starting my day and would be busy for the next few hours, he replied that he was sorry and would reach his hotel in an hour. He called in an hour but I was away from my phone attending to the work I had to do. I am boring you with the details because somewhere during this time, I suspected he was lying to me. I have absolutely no proof that he was, and rationally it makes perfect sense to me that he had arrived late. But he has a history of concealing things from me, and I realized some time during these last 12 hours or so that when it comes down to it, I do not entirely trust him. Rationally, I think I do for the most part, but instinctually when he doesn’t answer his phone or something goes awry, I tend to think the worst. For instance, this morning (the day after) I saw that he was online at 11 am his time, but he texted at 12.30 saying that they had just gotten up. There could be a number of explanations for this (like he came online for a second and fell back asleep, he defines ‘just’ very broadly, etc), but my instinct is to explain inconsistencies with dishonesty.

This history in brief: a while after we started dating, he asked for a break. He was graduating from college and didn’t know if our relationship was right given our radically different backgrounds. This upset me. I told him he could have all the space he wanted, but I wasn’t comfortable with us seeing other people while we were away, and if he wanted that we would have to break up. He agreed to the terms, but didn’t tell me when we got back together that he’d kissed a girl while I was away. He told me this a few months after we reunited, when I just found out that he’d also hung out with his ex-girlfriend once when we were dating. Nothing happened, he said, they just went to grab coffee because she insisted. But he hid it from me because ‘(he) knew (I) wouldn’t like it.’ This seemed silly: I wouldn’t have cared that he had coffee with her if he had just told me. The fact that he hid it from me made me suspicious of him, and hurt me deeply. He insisted that the incident with the girl was the only other thing he was hiding from me. 

I was very upset (truthfully, thinking about this still upsets me and I wonder all the time if he was entirely truthful), but we recovered from it okay. Somewhere along the way, we swapped Facebook passwords. I didn’t surveil him but one day while I was on his profile, I saw he received a message from an old flame. It was completely friendly, but I noticed he was curious about her. They replied back and forth once or twice. This unnerved me, and when I obliquely brought up the subject of old flames and openness, he said there was nothing he had to tell me. I asked him if he was absolutely sure there was nothing I’d want to know, and he insisted that there wasn’t. This was after he last admitted to covering things up. This was also while he was messaging her. It felt shady to question him like this, but I also felt shattered and furious. I told him what I knew, and he apologized and said he didn’t know why he had lied. Later, he denied any wrong doing, said that he hadn’t been hiding anything, that he insisted there was nothing to tell me because it hadn’t occurred to him that I might want to know about the messages. I find this hard to believe. I am completely open with him about everything. He isn’t the jealous sort, and doesn’t feel at all bothered by my wishing my ex boyfriend a happy birthday. And while I am clearly insecure about our relationship, I don’t think I’ve ever been irrational or unfair about his past girlfriends or female friends either.

Now I know none of these things constitutes cheating (we were on a break the first time, coffee with an old girlfriend isn’t a big deal in itself, and an innocent Facebook exchange is hardly tantamount to an affair), but he has a slight habit of hiding things. Things that are not inconsequential to me, either. This much I know I can fault him for: the fact that I wouldn’t like his meeting a girl is no excuse not to tell me. In fact, it’s more of a reason to tell me. What I don’t know is whether my suspicions of his faithfulness are fair. Am I being unreasonable for doubting him the way I did earlier today? 

It’s clear at any rate that there is a problem here. While we’re very communicative and generally happy, as soon as communication lapses a little, I get restless and nervous. I don’t know how to address it with him because 1) I’m not sure if this a problem with myself and 2) if not, I don’t know how to get an honest answer from him. If he’s hidden things from me before, what are the odds that he’ll open up to me about any indiscretions right before we talk to our parents? I know he loves and misses me, and wants this to work very much, and he will not want to jeopardize that if he is hiding anything. Is the distance making me paranoid, do I have reason to be this way, or am I a distrusting person? I’m not sure if I can tell my parents about him if I have a serious problem on my hands. 

Please help. 

Sincerely,

Frazzled

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Dear Frazzled,

You know, some of us more or less take it for granted that whenever we are out of sorts, whenever we have a problem with somebody else, the problem, ultimately, is with us. We know that the only way we can live in peace in the world is by accepting the world as it is, and accepting everyone in the world as they are. We recognize that our main problem is not other people, and the state of the world, but our lack of acceptance. Our problem is us. Our problem is our belief that we can and should work to make other people conform to our expectations.

This is huge! Surveilling other people, gauging their behavior, comparing it to our set of expectations and taking action when it threatens to deviate is the dominant mode of interpersonal relationships for many, many couples and families in the United States. And yet it is a recipe for relationship disaster.

This is an opportunity to talk about an alternative.

It’s a radical idea, actually, that when somebody is doing something we don’t like, the problem is with us. It goes against everything we’ve been taught. What we’ve been taught in school and family is that there are standards to uphold, that there are right ways and wrong ways to behave, that there’s a consensus. In this way of thinking, you’re either with the consensus or not with it. If you’re with the consensus, then you have the right — nay, dare I say, the duty! — to place blame on the other person who is not with the consensus; and if you’re not with the consensus, then you have to shape up.

In place of this insistence upon other people conforming to our expectations, I submit that what we need is a deep and abiding reverence for each and every human being.

What we need is reverence for the person. We need that not just as an abstract idea to kick around on blogs and on TV but in our daily lives, with our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives, our employers and employees, strangers we meet on the streets. We need a little bit of holy wonder. A bit of awe. A bit of awe that you are even in this relationship. A bit of awe that this guy likes you and is interested in spending his life with you.

Now, he could be the wrong guy for you. That’s something you need to decide. You need to weigh your possible future heartache against your tangible present pleasure.

But to get out of this debilitating cycle of worry, try a little experiment.

Try having no expectations of him at all. Just watch what he does. Do this for one week. Take notes.

Observe him in the wild. What do you see? How do you feel about what you see?

Ah, but here’s the rub! You can’t see him because he’s not there! You’re not in the same location! You’re many time zones removed! You’re “doing distance.” You’re in a “long-distance relationship.”

A “long-distance relationship” is not really a relationship. It’s a technological holding cell. It’s a container for a plan. All over the world people are conducting these things they call “long-distance relationships” but they’re not really relationships between humans. They are relationships between machines. The machines are having a relationship with each other, and you’re pushing buttons and footing the bill.

You get nervous when the intervals and rhythms of communication change. Of course you do! Because that’s the only indication you have that this person even exists! That’s not enough! You need him with you. Your body needs him. All your body gets now is the cool glossy feel of a smartphone screen. That’s not enough. You need him to physically be with you.

But aside from all that, for the sake of exploration, let’s say that you are together, and you are still uneasy, and let’s ask: What if you knew that no matter what your boyfriend does, you would be fine? Could you live that way? Could you live knowing that if this relationship works out, great, you and he can be happy together, but if it doesn’t, fine, you are free to make your own life?

What if, in personal relationships, we didn’t care if people live up to our standards at all? What if it didn’t matter? What would happen? What if you didn’t care what he did? What if you just hung out with him because you liked him?

This is a philosophical question based on the premise that in personal relationships, interpersonal harmony is more important than either party’s individual performance against a set of abstract metrics.

In this scenario, love means granting freedom to another person — freedom to be who they are. It means acceptance, not interpersonal policing.

These are the things I think about: How can we increase harmony and decrease conflict? Why do we know so little about each other? Why are our expectations so out of line with what people are really capable of? How can we increase human understanding and decrease conflict? If high ideals and expectations in personal conduct increase conflict, then is the conflict worth it? Is it the kind of conflict that is likely to persist and never be resolved?

There is something to be said, I suppose, in sports and business, for having expectations that are nearly impossible to meet, to force people to strive. But in personal relationships, it is not performance against a set of numerical standards that is important; it is the harmony within the relationship itself. So it would be better for expectations to be in line with performance capabilities. It would be rational for you to reduce your expectations so he can meet them.

But now we’re getting a bit far afield.

Here’s the bottom line.

I see that I just typed, “Here’s the bottom line.” But is there a bottom line? Or is that just another habit of mental laziness, the assumption that, after we have thought about this and that and expressed ourselves and played around with possibilities, that there is some tidy bundle of words that will sum it up?

If that were the case, why not just deliver the tidy bundle of words and ignore the rest?

Because the complicated stuff is what’s interesting!

I’m not going to sum it up.

I sit in my room, thinking these thoughts. They don’t amount to a hill of beans, really, but they have been my thoughts, and now they are yours.
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I found the man of my dreams so late in life!

Cary’s classic column from

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


 

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

In Love With Tony

Dear In Love With Tony,

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

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

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

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

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I made out with a jerk

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Cary’s classic column from

We work together and now things are very, very awkward


 

Dear Cary,

Hi. Today I’m working from home because I’m so confused and humiliated about a situation at work that I am taking advantage of this option whenever I can. I started this job about a year ago, as a temp who was quickly hired into a high-powered position. Before that, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program after a year of research in the Third World because I realized the academic life just wasn’t for me. After I came back from life abroad, I couldn’t find work for awhile and just got depressed. Between work, trips to the gym, and finally finding some friends, until a few weeks ago I was rebuilding my life and things were really starting to look up. I was looking forward to a lot of things. I haven’t dated or had sex in almost two years, but I figured that would come. I’m not a supermodel, but I’m good-looking and seem to attract men when I bother to do things that aren’t work or the gym. I’m 31, my situation in life is constantly improving, and a lot of people would be happy to be where I am.

When I started the job, a certain male co-worker caught my eye. We flirted a bit, but nothing serious. We would talk about sci-fi shows and books and generally had really nice interactions. He is 41 and divorced, with several bitter relationships behind him. He’s also a vegan and a self-professed feminist with high social ideals.

A few weeks ago we had a work party at a bar to celebrate a milestone in our year-long project. A few of us stayed late and were having a good time. When I went out for a cigarette, he followed me and kissed me. We spent the rest of the evening making out. It was followed by texts and Skype chats, and an invitation to the symphony. We went, had a great time, and went out for drinks. The subject of us working together came up, since we work in a small office where things could get awkward quickly. I said that we could take it at whatever pace he was comfortable with and see where it could go. So he invited me back to his apartment and sexy time ensued. I was happy and excited, thinking that maybe things were going to move forward in the one part of my life that had been empty for so long.

And then I heard nothing. When I texted him, I got a polite response that his day went well and that I left some jewelry at his place. Nothing more. Then I emailed him to ask if he wanted to get together over the weekend and heard nothing. I saw that he was active on the online dating site that we both have profiles on, but he didn’t answer for days. On a Friday afternoon, he sent me an email saying that he wanted to be good friends. That we could really be great friends, but that was what he was comfortable with. He said he was too busy to tell me in person, but he could drop my jewelry off and spend a few minutes with me before he went to dinner on Sunday. He said he was sorry I would be disappointed. It ended with an exclamation point about how excited he was about it being warm and being able to be outside. There was no real explanation, no apology, no discussion of how this would affect our work. Attempting to keep my dignity, I responded with “Message received. Please leave my jewelry on top of the fridge at work — no one will notice.” There has been little communication since, though when he did leave the jewelry for me, he was a bit chatty in the email, asking how I was. I didn’t respond.

I’m definitely hurt, but I’m angry and most of all confused. How do you go through a year of flirting to change your mind like that? How can he be so cavalier knowing that I’ll be uncomfortable in our workplace? He knew how long it had been for me and he escalated things anyway. The way he went about things and handled this was stupid and cruel. And we have to email each other 10 times a day for work purposes. How do I interact with him after he treated me with so little respect?

A close friend in my office knows what happened, and encourages me to just leave it alone and let it blow over. Part of me thinks that’s the way to get through this with my dignity intact. Part of me wants to send an email that isn’t explosive, but that at least calls him out on his bad behavior. Maybe I should talk to another co-worker for advice. I don’t know what to do, and it’s so much harder to shake off the hurt and anger when we have such close contact all the time. It’s also hard to shake off the feeling that there is something inherently wrong with me that made him change his mind so quickly. My self-esteem, which had been growing, is now at a rock-bottom low. I don’t think I function in the world very well, because I do expect to be treated with respect and kindness by those around me, and I do expect people who profess certain values to live by them.

What was he thinking? Why would he do this to me and to our workplace? Am I the immature one for expecting people to be careful? Is it right to do something or to leave it alone? I’m confused and uncomfortable, Cary, and I would really appreciate your advice.

Confused and Dismayed

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Confused and Dismayed,

This guy had several bitter relationships behind him. Guys with several bitter relationships behind them are doing something wrong. Look at the pattern.

Here’s what you need to do. You need to adopt some protections for the future so that you do not get involved with another man like this.

Maybe you lack the ability to spot such men. Learn to recognize them. Here are some clues:

Real men who will treat you well may occasionally eat halibut. They might hold the door open for you even if you can get through under your own power anyway. They do it because they’ve seen what happened with Stalin. If that doesn’t make perfect sense that’s OK. It’s meant to be sort of oblique. A man who’s OK and not going to screw you over might even be rude to you but he’ll apologize when it’s pointed out to him. He won’t pretend his rudeness was an instance of high social ideals in action.

He’ll just apologize.

Without beating up on men, because after all I am one, can I just say that if you have been socialized as a man you have learned some pretty rotten stuff? This learning is called “being realistic about the world out there.”

For instance, if I were drinking with a group of young men (which of course I mean I’m 23 years sober but if) and if I mentioned that I had had a one-night stand with a woman at work and had decided I didn’t think it was going to work out long-term, and I was wondering what to do about it, there would not be an immediate outpouring of, “Let’s talk about this together, guys, and put ourselves in her shoes and imagine how she’s feeling and debate the ways you can smooth things over with her and make her feel better about what happened.”

The consensus would be: “Cut her loose, dude. End of story.”

If I were to pursue the issue and say, “Well, guys, what about her feelings, and the awkwardness of it, and the fact I sort of led her on to believe it was going to be more than what it turned out to be?” the consensus would still be, “Shit happens. Cut her loose, dude. End of story.”

If I were to say that I think she and I should have some conversations about how things are going to proceed henceforth, there would be some good-natured ridicule and they would move down to the end of the bar.

Guys are taught to let it go and move on. In a fundamental way, this leads logically to the eventual dehumanization of the other. That is, if you are taught to make unilateral decisions in a relationship, then what you are really doing is invalidating the relationship and in the course of it invalidating the other.

The logic of it looks like this: If one is in a relationship then each person has a say. Ethically speaking, if one is in a relationship, one cannot make decisions about the relationship without the involvement of the other. Yet we guys are taught to do precisely that: to be independent, to make up our own minds, to keep our own counsel, to stand on our own two feet, to lay down the law. That’s what he’s doing. He’s doing what men have been taught to do for centuries. He’s made this decision about the relationship all on his own, without any involvement by you. He probably thinks he’s handling it pretty well. Amazing, isn’t it?

If one person has no say in matters concerning them both, then that is a kind of objectification, isn’t it? To treat someone as having no say, no opinion worth hearing, no desires worth considering, is to consider that person less than human, is it not?

So this is why you’re upset. You have been dehumanized.

Of course, this kind of dehumanization goes on all the time. It is so common that we scarcely pause to consider it. We men are taught to do this. We are taught to dehumanize the other. We don’t call it that. We call it being realistic and grown-up.

He’s the product of bad conditioning. He may also have a mild personality disorder. That doesn’t mean you have to be nice to this guy or like him or feel sorry for him. It just means that his behavior is not inexplicable. It’s a perfect emblem of how we live today. It is a perfect emblem of the society we accept as normal.

That’s why many of us feel half crazy most days.

Don’t trouble yourself too much. You’re fine. You just thought you were dealing with somebody like yourself. You’re not.

You must learn to recognize guys like this and stay away from them. If you can’t recognize guys like this, ask your women friends. If you don’t have any women friends, make some.

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Cary’s classic column from

Is it possible to go out with two women at the same time and get away with it?


Dear Cary,

I’m in a bind: After going a couple of years without a serious relationship, I recently met two very cool women in the course of two days. Gal No. 1 is smart, funny, confident, good-looking and slightly counterculture. Gal No. 2 is smart, witty, lighthearted, self-deprecating and a little bit kooky. On a shallow level, I find No. 1 just a little bit more physically attractive.

As I met them at essentially the same time, I thought it would be OK to get to know them both. I had enjoyable e-mail and then phone relationships, and then had very nice dinners with each. No. 1 is open but taking it as it comes; No. 2 seems to be more proactively interested in me. I might be a slightly better personality match with No. 2, but I really don’t know either one of them well enough to say that with conviction.

In the event that everything continues to proceed well, is there any general time limit or number of dates by which I should get on the stick and make a decision? I’m not the kind of guy who feels OK about simultaneously dating two women, and the last thing I want to do is hurt someone’s feelings. Is it totally stupid to be swayed by the attractiveness of No. 1 even though No. 2 and I get on very well? I’m in my early 40s (as are both women) but feel like a dumb, naive high school kid. I don’t want to screw this up. Help!

Conflicted

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Dear Conflicted,

Does God exist? If God does not exist, then this is random nature at work, which means that randomness can be as kind as it can be cruel, which means that consciousness has no monopoly on agape. I see no reason why you should feel compelled to tamper with nature. On the other hand, if God does exist, then God has put these two women into your life for some unseen but no doubt lofty purpose — not the least of which might be the beneficial effects of certain fantastic imaginings that may occur to you. God, if he exists, is not altogether without a sense of humor.

So what to do? Do whatever you feel like doing. Leave it up to the women. Don’t try to control everything or be super cagey about it. Just lay it out there. Say that you met two women at the same time and you’re currently dating both of them. Say that such a situation has never happened to you before, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead and you don’t want to do anything rash, dishonest or hurtful, so you’re just laying it out there.

I don’t think that you have any great responsibility beyond just saying what’s going on. In fact, I would hesitate to try to spin it in any particular direction, because that could backfire; the minute you start trying to spin, you enter the realm of unintended consequences. You really have no way of knowing how it’s going to end up.

But if the totally Zen approach is a little much, and you’d feel better guiding the conversation toward some definable options, you might ask each woman if she has entertained any notions of your relationship becoming serious enough to warrant the easing out of the other. In other words, try to find out if either of these women is thinking seriously about you.

You might also remind these women that you are a man, and thus completely without guile or cleverness, and that if they think you’re cooking this up as some kind of manipulation, they vastly overestimate you. Remind them that you don’t particularly relish the difficulties it poses.

I don’t think you have much to lose by being open about the situation. I do not think that either woman will refuse to see you on account of it, although if one does, it probably means that she wasn’t all that into you anyway. If that happens, consider yourself to have been granted a second piece of good fortune: It relieves you not only of the burden of a difficult choice, but of the potential heartache of a futile courtship.

So, again, I say, just let go of the outcome and explain the situation. Nothing bad can come of it.

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