Is our relationship a tear-down, or can it be repaired?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, NOV 10, 2004

We bought a house together and it’s tearing us apart.


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend and I met three years ago, fell madly in love, and six months later bought a fixer-upper in a transitioning neighborhood in an inner-city neighborhood. Things spiraled out of control, and we spent the past two-plus years vacillating between some of the highest highs and, alternately, the lowest depths of hellish fighting. At the beginning of this month, we spent a week apart, and on coming back I had decided that I, for my part, had taken him for granted over the past few years and wanted to do what I could to turn things around. But he dumped me.

We still own this house together, and it’s not in a salable condition. So we’re not in a position to just terminate things entirely and have been trying to be friends and working to get the house to a point where we can sell it. We’ve been getting along extremely well, although we don’t see much of each other.

I have spent this month doing a wholesale reevaluation of what it is that makes me happy and have been really embracing that. And, coming off two years of a relationship that left me very unhappy, I’m enjoying myself immensely and am so glad our relationship is over. The thing is, in the process, I have decided that what I really want is a happy relationship with him. I’ve dropped all of my baggage — the things I’ve hated about him, the things he did to me, and the things I thought he did to me. And I think we have the tools to make a good relationship possible, and an unprecedented opportunity to make a fresh start.

We just had a discussion, and he said: “Even though we’ve been getting along so well, every advice columnist I’ve ever read has said that people don’t change,” and so he doesn’t believe that things can be different. And since I know he respects your advice very much (when you ran your series on home ownership, he went so far as to say that you were the same person), I wanted to ask an advice columnist: Can people change? I think he’s misconstruing things — I don’t think you can force someone to change, but people are infinitely capable of change on their own.

Our problem was one of letting all of the little things build on one another, so that we were essentially sweating all the small stuff — a poor choice of words could set off a daylong argument. And I think a lot of this was based on the stresses of buying a house that needed a lot of work (and still does) six months into a relationship and being thrown into each other’s finances and lifestyles and everything else so quickly.

What I’m really looking for from you is insight as to whether what I’m doing seems misguided or naive — and do you believe a relationship can be remade?

K

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Dear K,

Your story is a charming one. You met and fell in love, and within six months you’d bought a metaphor. The metaphor, situated in an inner-city neighborhood, had a lot of possibilities but needed work.

Working on the metaphor was difficult emotionally; it would have been easier if it had simply been a house. But, like me, you are an optimist. You believe that metaphors can be improved and brought to market for a significant profit; you believe, as I do, that improving a metaphor improves its surroundings, and everybody, metaphorically speaking, profits from your labor.

Well, you’re in a tough spot now. While working on the metaphor, your relationship was damaged. People in relationships, like old walls, conceal ancient failures and burn spots, places where the circuits blew and almost caused a fire. People, like old houses, reveal their weaknesses reluctantly and sometimes only after a few blows with a sledge hammer. There might be a break that you can’t see somewhere beneath the floor. You can go a long time pretending it’s not really broken, that it’s just sagging a little. You come up with things to say. You say the joists are fine — it’s just an old floor.

But then the inspector comes and rips things up. Look at this! he says. It’s completely gone! There’s nothing holding it up! Lucky we found it in time! It’s amazing you survived!

Your ex-boyfriend says that all advice columnists say that people don’t change. I dare say in this perhaps unintentional distortion he’s attempting to conceal his own personal fracture, that he himself has reached a point of no return, that he himself feels he can no longer change. Perhaps what he can’t say outright is that he’d rather rip it up and build somewhere new, that your relationship is a tear-down. But he can’t say it directly because you still have a lot of work to do together. So he’s talking in the abstract, hoping to avoid a confrontation. Your partnership has been so volatile, he may feel he can’t take any more stress, any more violent shaking. Once you’re done with the house, that might change; he might simply be unable to see past the dust; he might need some finished drawings to help him visualize the future.

So what I would do if I were you, and I say this with all the compassion I can muster, is I would concentrate on getting the actual house on the market. I would work with him as a business partner. I would concentrate on paint, plumbing and plasterboard. If he is going to change in his feelings toward you, he will. But you have no control over what he feels. That is probably the one thing advice columnists do agree on.

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A big black hole

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 30, 2003

I get emotionally and sexually involved with people I care about. But I do it too often and too simultaneously.


Dear Cary,

I’m starting to feel like I’ve got a big black hole in my emotional makeup. It’s a feeling that comes from the way I go about relationships and the way I go about sex. Over the past several years, I have seldom been involved in a relationship without a second or, in one instance, third one happening on the side. If this were just cheap meaningless fucking I might actually feel better about it. It’s not. I get emotionally and sexually involved with people I genuinely care about. But I do it too often and too simultaneously.

It’s become a kind of agony. The women I have relationships with are awfully cool people, people I certainly want as friends and companions. In me, that feeling of friendship bleeds over easily into a desire for intimacy. There’s a part of me, too, that gets off on the idea of coupling, of knowing people I care about in more intimate ways. But my feelings don’t seem to go any further. It’s not that I fall in love but still want to get my rocks off. I just don’t fall in love in any way that would cool my urge to get involved with other people. I try to do monogamy (who knows what love really feels like, after all). I go into relationships as if I’m going to be monogamous. Then I’m not.

This is bad. If I were at least upfront about wanting little more than friendship and casual sex that would be one thing, but I still believe I want something more and can’t quite get myself there. Only, along the way, I end up toying with people who I’m theoretically very close to, end up lying to them. On several occasions, I’ve put myself on the straight and narrow, but it never seems to last long. I miss the intimacy with certain people, miss the emotional high, and next thing I know, I’m running roughshod over our quiet, normal lives.

This is my defect, but I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe infidelity is my way of dodging lasting commitments and deep, under-the-skin feelings. Maybe I’m not selective enough about the people I get involved with in the first place, choosing people (or letting myself be chosen by people) with whom I won’t want to maintain a lasting relationship. Maybe, deep down, I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch with a gift for rationalizing.

In other areas of my life, I’m a considerate, caring person, thoughtful of others’ emotions and interested in their happiness. But in this area I’m feeling like a plastic shell, like an emotional cripple trying to pass myself off as normal. Any advice?

Falling Short

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Dear Falling Short,

I have an elegant, if theoretical, solution: Tell the truth. It may be hard      er to begin telling the truth to those you’ve already lied to repeatedly, because that will involve admitting the harm you’ve done. But you can certainly begin telling the truth to those you meet in the future. Just tell them what you’ve told me.

By giving others the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether to become involved with you, it will give you firm ethical ground on which to continue being as you are. There is nothing wrong with being as you are, or feeling as you do. Your only sin is in deceiving others. There is no standard emotional quota you are required to meet; there is no agency that will be testing you on your capacity for monogamous love. That’s the beauty, and the terror, of freedom.

And here is the bonus: The surprising fact is that the very intimacy and attraction you wish you could feel, if it is going to come into being, may very well come into being out of an assiduous practice of honesty. In other words, paradoxically, by admitting your incapacity for this kind of love, you may end up acquiring the capacity for it.

The reason is that when we are honest and build bonds of trust, a kind of attachment comes into being that is not just emotional or physical, but pragmatic and intellectual as well. By being honest about who you are and what you want, you bring your pragmatic intellectual reality closer to the spheres of the erotic and the emotional so that you, as one undivided person, can make choices that take into account all your capacities — ethical, moral, emotional and erotic.

I’m not saying this is a sure-fire method of solving your dilemma. I’m just saying it’s a worthwhile direction in which to head.

And I’m saying this: The conflict you feel, and your practice of dissembling about it, are one and the same. If you stop dissembling about it, it will no longer be your conflict. By being open about who you are, you become someone else’s problem. That person, wanting you to make different choices, may make your life more difficult. But therein lies a noble social struggle: The quest for freedom and authenticity in the capitalist gulag.

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If I could do it over …

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 17, 2003

I’ve been with one woman for my adult life, but now I feel closer to someone else.


Dear Cary,

I am a 42-year-old man married for six years; previous to marriage, my wife and I were together for 15 years. Do the math, and you’ll see that I’ve been with her all my adult life. She is 10 years older than I am, with a grown daughter; we have no children. The one certain fact is that we love each other very much, in the deep way that comes both from the many years together and the work we’ve done together to keep the relationship alive.

So here’s “but.” I have a woman friend of 10 years (call her J), to whom I’ve always been attracted. Years ago, I persuaded myself that it was primarily a physical attraction, and that intellectually and emotionally, my connection to my wife was stronger and more important than anything else. It doesn’t feel that way now. I can’t point to anything that’s changed lately; it’s just a growing feeling that J is the person I feel closer to, feel more at ease with, and want to be with all the time. Maybe it’s the fact that she is the opposite of my wife in some key areas: She’s independent, financially responsible, stays on an even keel emotionally, and does not use her keen intellect as a weapon. Somehow, this remarkable, wonderful woman can’t seem to find a permanent mate and is still single.

J is not perfect; I don’t have her on a pedestal. And none of this is new. When I was deciding to ask my wife to marry me, I went through a process of weighing pros and cons and the equation included my attraction to J. If I could do it over again, I would come to a different conclusion.

The path of least resistance is to maintain the status quo. Even after allowing a proper interval for the dust to settle, there’s no guarantee that I could ever be anything more than friends with J. Separating from my wife would have to be couched in terms of wanting to be single to find a new relationship that would make me happier and more fulfilled. Putting it in those terms would force me to tell a half-truth — I would have a hidden agenda, an unappealing prospect. I just feel stuck and would really appreciate some compassionate advice that you’re so good at dispensing.

Ponderously Pondering the Possibilities

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Dear Ponderously,

I have pondered this and here is how I see it: Right now you have two good relationships, one with your wife and one with your friend. Neither one is perfect, but they are both good and valuable. And each has the capacity to grow and change, to become better. So you are in a pretty good spot. If you separate from your wife, you lose one of those relationships right off the bat. So you are down to one relationship, the weaker of the two, a relationship that might be weakened still by your new single status. It might blossom, but you have no reason to believe it would. Keep in mind, your independent friend may value the fact that you are married; your status may in fact form a boundary that makes the friendship possible. So you are contemplating throwing away one good relationship and putting another at risk in the hope that you will become happier and more fulfilled.

If you want to become happier and more fulfilled, I think there are less destructive, less risky, and more innovative ways to go about it.

The question you need to ask, I think, is: How unhappy are you now with your marriage? Are you so unhappy that it would be better to be alone? It’s normal to be unhappy at times, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is making you unhappy while you are still in your routine, so it is common to say, Well, if only I weren’t married, maybe I wouldn’t be unhappy. If you simply need to be alone in order to have some peace of mind, perhaps you could go somewhere for a few weeks to get out of your daily marriage routine and try to re-inhabit some of your native contours.

I would try that, first. You seem to have good communication with your wife, so you could explain your need for some solitude to her. But perhaps there are other things you need to talk with her about. Perhaps you have been wounded in some way that you haven’t fully acknowledged; perhaps you are angry at your wife for something she did, but you aren’t coming clean about it. That may be the reason you find yourself drawn to this other woman, with whom you have a less difficult history. Think about it. Is there some way your wife hurt you that you would like to get back at her for? I don’t know for sure, but when you describe your friend’s best qualities, you contrast them with some traits of your wife. You mention that your wife uses her intellect as a weapon. Has she wounded you with her intellect in some way that you have yet to acknowledge? If I were you, I would look at that, and see if you can’t make peace with her.

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I’m hanging by my fingernails — but it feels good!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 1, 2005

I’ve got this situation with my husband that’s really rough. Maybe I should move on?


Dear Cary –

My husband wants to go visit his lovers. And I’m strongly considering moving on.

My husband has been cultivating a relationship with two men, life partners in an open relationship, since about 1993. One of the two was his father’s lover, and quite frankly I have been motivated partially by some concern for what I perceive as the inappropriateness of that relationship. But as important, or more, I am dedicated to monogamy. I love my husband. We are compatible to a degree that is unusual, and remarked upon by others. I met him in 1997, and we were married in 1999.

The relationship has never been easy. My husband is an alcoholic, and the first three years of the relationship were characterized by sleepless nights and other such drama. On particularly wild evenings, I’d drag my unconscious husband inside the chain-link fence (we lived in a scary neighborhood, and I was afraid he’d get attacked otherwise) and leave him to sober up. This period culminated in a catastrophic accident (likely his fault), which left him with over $200,000 in hospital bills, unable to work for two years, and partially disabled to this day. I don’t want to whine, but I supported us through this period and likely always will earn more than he does by a factor of 10.

I have always held multiple-skilled jobs, and when I wanted something I couldn’t afford, I picked up additional work from waitressing to freelance gigs. He is now in college, which I pay for, and has become a licensed craftsman. He has gone to visit his lovers three times now, once when we were not committed to each other, once solo (when of course he had sex with them), and once, last Thanksgiving, with me. So, bringing us to the present, last night he told me that his lovers had asked him to come visit again and were offering him a plane ticket to do so. He claims this is not a sexual visit, but understands where I stand on the issue.

I spent last night without sleep in a diner, drinking coffee and eating bad food, unable and unwilling to share our bed with him. Because I am absolutely appalled and angry. But I am also looking to the future. I am thinking of a life without him, and thinking of what might be available to me.

My feelings are complicated. I am concerned for him, angry at being thrown over and lied to (because I don’t trust him not to have sex with them, and may never), and feel that this situation is patently unfair. For starters, I haven’t been able to take a real vacation in over a year. I have been sent for work to many vacation-worthy, places and I have gone to every single one of them alone because my husband was too busy to come with me. Lying on a pristine beach … alone. Eating sushi in San Francisco … alone. On a big game hunt … alone. I have two upcoming assignments which he won’t join me on, either. And he backed out of our mutual vacation this fall, which would be the first we’ve taken together outside the United States.

I have been a good girl. I am not old, ugly, or incapable of getting action. Indeed, I turn down people regularly who assume that I am single because they have never seen my husband. And because my primary job is, in essence, negotiating with wealthy people, I meet many cultured, genteel, wealthy, available men, some of whom are interested in me. Finally, I have devoted a significant portion of my paycheck to our home, and to my husband’s college, retirement fund, and healthcare. Because of poor planning on his part, I just donated part of my college fund (which I have been building up so I can return to college when he finishes) to him and last year donated additional money to the IRS. Frankly, though I worry about the effect that my leaving would have on him and on me, the persistence of this issue pisses me off. And I suspect I can do better.

I realize that any partner is challenging, and that any relationship would take effort. But I sometimes dream of being with someone who doesn’t toy with my emotions, truly values me above others, and can be my professional equal. Am I wrong to fantasize about alternative partners and what they might hold for me?

Wrong to Fantasize?

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Dear Wrong to Fantasize,

Here’s how your situation strikes me. It’s as though you had written to say, “Dear Cary, I have been hanging by my fingernails from the edge of a cliff for a few years now and, though it’s not really all that bad, as I have learned to kick my feet to frighten off the buzzards, nevertheless I have begun to wonder if I might be better off if I were to hoist myself back up on the ledge where I could sit comfortably and catch my breath. At least for a few minutes, or possibly an hour. Not that I would like to permanently reside on the ledge. I like hanging by my fingers from the edge of the cliff, and I’m good at it. But still, lately I’m beginning to wonder just how much longer I’ll be able to do this. I may eventually have to change positions not because I want to necessarily but simply because I run out of strength. What do you think?”

And of course what I think is, How did you decide to hang from the cliff by your fingernails in the first place, and why is it only now occurring to you to hoist yourself back on the ledge? Not that I don’t respect you for the talent and effort and sheer brute strength required to do what you’re doing. But to what practical purpose?

Maybe I’m going too fast here. To back up a little: No, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to fantasize about a better life. In fact, I think you should move on in your life and make things easier on yourself. But when and if you begin to take action in that regard, you may encounter upsetting emotions. So it wouldn’t hurt to think about how you ended up here, before you make any sudden moves.

Let’s just speculate. Why have you taken on so much? Maybe it feels more secure to hang from the cliff by your fingernails than to trust somebody to grab your wrist and pull you up. Have you ever been able to depend on other people in your life? Might it be that in your early life there was no one to depend on but yourself? And, not to be insulting, but we do tend sometimes to do things for symbolic reasons, as though we had an audience. Is your hanging by your fingernails a demonstration of some sort? If so, you might ask yourself why you need to demonstrate your strength, and to whom you are demonstrating it.

Wouldn’t it be great to just haul yourself over the ledge and relax, sit there for a while enjoying the view? Oh, look, there’s your husband, stumbling! Look out! Oh, no! He’s going to fall! You’d better run and help him!

What if you just let him fall … as a thought experiment? Why do you have to rescue him? I mean, who says so?

Speaking of your husband, that business with his father’s lover indicates that there may be a lot of pain and confusion in his life that he’s going to have to deal with himself. That’s another reason, in my book, to think about extricating yourself. Maybe it would be best if you work on your life for a while and he works on his.

I’m going to make another guess, which is that when you begin looking for patterns in the choices you have made, you may find a pattern of choosing weak people and not trusting them. There is a connection there: If you choose weak people, you don’t have to trust them. Conversely, having strong people around can be threatening: You may have to trust them; you may have to give up some control. Hanging from the cliff by your fingernails may be a lot of work, but at least you have control. Besides, the view is truly amazing!

But I really think someone ought to fly close by in a helicopter and put it to you over the loudspeaker: Hey! You! Hanging by your fingernails from the cliff! Get back on the ledge! Now!

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Did I luck out, or did I settle?

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My boyfriend is great, but I was never swept off my feet. What is this nagging feeling?

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 21, 2003

 


Dear Cary,

I’ve spent the past six years of my life with a wonderful man who is educated, caring, wonderfully attentive, incredibly expressive, and who happens to be a good fuck. I know of people who would be willing to settle with someone who possesses any one of his traits, but that seems to be what’s hounding me, that word “settle.” Years ago, before knowing this prince, I embarked on an infinite and fruitless number of dates with ogres, fiends, frogs and prince-posers. I met him in a period of my life where the prospect of spending my 30s as a dejected, jaded dog was slowly becoming a reality. I did not want to be that lonely man, the kind who spends just a tad too much time contemplating the latest selection of ice cream at Safeway. I wanted passion in my life. I needed stability. And when I met him, my dreams were fulfilled 50 percent.

My parents love my mate, and my nieces and nephews are crazy about him (they call him “uncle”). My friends all think that I am lucky to be with such a person (they’re all single), and when I broke off with him once, my father cried. It only took 12 hours for me to call my boyfriend back, begging for forgiveness and a second chance. Afterward, I felt like a lying schmuck, because what really guided my hand to dial the digits was not wanting to waste the three years we were together. And that I would be alone again in the world while someone else gets to have this wonderful guy.

He’s a psychotherapist by profession, and I know that I can talk to him about anything. Yet I dread having a talk with him since I’m not sure what outcome I’m hoping to come from it, or what I even want to talk about. When he cuddles me in his arm and kisses me tenderly I feel that I am home and secure as a bug. I’ve learned to adore him through all these years and I can picture myself being with him for the rest of my life. But that seems so final and long, and the thought that I was never really swept off my feet when I first met him haunts me daily. Sometimes I feel that maybe it’s me, that I wouldn’t know love if it tagged me on the forehead. Or if it sprouted slowly in my backyard. What do you think is wrong with me?

Kinda Confused

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Dear Kinda Confused,

What I think is wrong with you is that you think something is wrong with you. If something were truly wrong with you, you’d have bruises or burn scars and there would be a police report. You’d feel like killing yourself; you’d have no shoes; you’d be sleeping on a cot at the Salvation Army; you’d be penniless and on the street; your family would have deserted you or your lover would have betrayed you; you’d have a gun in your mouth, or you’d be in prison, or you’d have jumped out a window. You would not be hinting around that something might be wrong but you don’t know exactly what it might be.

You don’t have problems, so much as unanswerable questions. Why you weren’t swept off your feet is an unanswerable question. It’s not a dumb question; it’s understandable that you ask it. But there’s probably no concrete, complete answer, and, anyway, it doesn’t need to be answered in order for you to be happy. I think if you knew it was OK to not be swept off your feet, then you could just stop asking the question. So try replacing those doubts about why you were never swept off your feet with the affirmative knowledge that it is OK for your love to take the form it has taken.

I know it sounds a little trite; I wouldn’t say it except that the alternative is so destructive. What if you threw off what you have, tore asunder the fine bonds of family you have worked hard to form, dashed the hopes of the one who has been constant and true, and had a big garage sale? When you emerged no richer, no younger, no thinner, no better-looking and with quite a few dishes missing, would you have improved your chances of being swept off your feet by a new man with all the qualities of your current lover plus the added bonus of his off-the-feet-sweeping ability?

Not likely. In your mind there may be a storybook romance that you feel you could have if you only weren’t stuck in the romance you’re in. But the romance you’re in sounds remarkably lifelike. That makes it better than anything in a storybook, we being, after all, remarkably lifelike humans and not characters in a book.

You’re a lucky guy and you’ve got a good thing. Cherish it. If you really think about how good you’ve got it, you might jump for joy; you might even get carried away and sweep yourself off your own feet.

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Have I ruined my marriage and screwed up my life?

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Cary’s classic column from Monday, Oct 25, 2010

I got restless and fooled around and now I’ve come back. Why do I feel I’ve betrayed myself?


Dear Cary,

This is going to sound very weird, coming from a man and all. I’m a pretty well-set guy in my low 50s, good income, very athletic and strong, nice little house in an awesome upscale Northern California area, one brilliant, stunningly beautiful 17-year-old daughter and one equally successful wife of 27 years. Like many couples, the pilot light on romance went out long ago as we both focused on self-preservation (health, fitness, career), domestic duties (cleaning, installing, fixing 90 percent of everything with own hands), and the most important, our daughter, who is absolutely brilliant and bound for the most prestigious engineering university in the world. My dream from the time of her birth is coming true for me.

Well, a year ago, during the 50 percent of time when I wasn’t traveling the world for my work, while commuting to work, a woman offered to help me blog my travels. Yes. I know what you’re thinking. It did. We did. Suddenly, all those feelings that love left me many years before getting married came rushing in. This new woman had everything I didn’t “push” for when I first met my wife and just settled for during 27 years. These shiny-new feelings of happiness and satisfaction were on the rock-star level in life. She had never been married and was seven years my junior and really, really wanted someone to spend the rest of her life with, having been involved with a man who was separating or separated about a year or so prior and before that being with someone for a much longer time.

She is what I’m not. Art-loving, outgoing, a true bon vivant, in that she spends her salary (equal to mine) almost as fast as it comes in (at least it seems that way) on restaurants and lots of little things that make each day pleasurable, nothing like jewelry or expensive clothes or such. Not a bad thing, just a polar opposite of what I’ve been accustomed to for 27 years of solitude and nothingness. What we had in common is what I don’t have with my wife: happy to spend nighttimes reading or seeing movies or just listening quietly to each other read out loud, athletic, motorcycle enthusiast, strong bicycle commuter, appreciative of the outdoors, fantastic in the love department and more than willing to travel and spend all her time experiencing museums, parks, hiking … All these things we did, and more.

I saw what I wanted and over a few months planned and planned. I bought a motorcycle. I got the courage to move out. The most difficult thing in my life was sitting on my knees one horrible night while crying and telling my daughter I would be moving out — this, after discussing it with my wife. My wife let me go, telling my daughter that I have to work this out. My daughter pretty much said, “You guys work it out.”

Well, moving out was a huge fiscal reality shock. I just paid and paid it seemed. I felt obligated to continue my burden of everything that came along with regards to upkeep for our house. I realized that I couldn’t save for my daughter’s future college expense and maintain the most important financial investment I had and have a great time.

This became a burning thorn in my brain. It was all I could think about. I hated it. I hated myself. The hardcore realist in me sat on top of the dreaming middle-age-crisis American male like a big elephant. I also knew that I was sticking my wife with responsibilities that now included being there 100 percent for my daughter. I began coming over for dinner on Saturdays and fixing stuff. Everything I paid for practically terrified me, knowing my checking account was no longer growing. I was now waiting for the next paycheck to bail me out. The thought of looming flood insurance premiums and property tax weighed heavily on me.

My times with my girlfriend were also beginning to erode as she could no longer easily tolerate my not exposing her to family and friends in my life. She hated the fact that I was visiting the house when I wanted. She would break up with me and not speak for a day or two or three at a time. This happened 10 times. I loved her madly, intensely, but I loved my daughter more and my need to maintain my role as a homeowner was stronger. I had no feelings to placate my wife at all. My daughter was everything. Moving her out of the house so I could divorce and divide the assets while she was getting ready for her SATs would be insanely selfish, at least it seemed to me. It would jeopardize her academic success, if not her very future. And, being a Catholic, I have had it drilled into me that selfishness is bad.

Yes, divorcing and selling the house to put the assets away for my daughter seemed asinine, to say the least, although my wife even suggested it once in a fit of upset feelings. A financially astute friend deemed it financial suicide, him being a recent divorcee in the same city. The taxes would lay carnage to the principal, yet I never substantiated any of what he told me, unfortunately. I expressed to my girlfriend I wasn’t easily accepting her conviction that people come out of their divorces easily all the time. I also accepted that I was putting her as No. 2. She was right.

To make a long story shorter, I gradually spent a little more time each week speaking to my wife, finally expressing my interest in coming back, most importantly for our daughter’s sake. She was happy. Now, back in the house, seemingly hunky-dory, my daughter and I speak a lot more and I help her with homework and take her and her friends around whenever I can. I cook dinner like I did before and go to work and come home like I did before. I broke the lease on my apartment, not having completed a year, feeling fortunate for having understanding landlords.

My girlfriend and I have a had a rocky exit, until yesterday. Now, I feel fully horrible. I know she is looking for the perfect man who will spend at least as much money and time doing all the things we did, if not a lot more. I accept I cannot be happy sexually with my wife ever again but am ridiculously depressed about not having her in my life. Before I met my girlfriend, my wife and I had sex infrequently, perhaps once or twice a month. It was quite perfunctory, almost ritualistic, punctual and “sanitary.” Now, the thought of sex with my wife is almost nauseating, and though I did, a month later, I have stopped completely. It’s too much a lie. I just don’t want to anymore.

I’m so sad that I lost my girlfriend and my shot at happiness. The only cure for this ache seems to be to move out once my daughter is more grown, but that is a long way off. I know my girlfriend is gone. I know the only solution would be to accept her back once my daughter was gone, I was divorced and my house-concern was settled. But that is stupid. She said she wants me to be happy with my family now. I feel she has met someone quite promising on an online dating service and wants to amputate me from her life. I’ve deactivated my Facebook page and just want to disappear into work and my athletic endeavors. Perhaps I’ll begin traveling the world again. Perhaps I will immerse myself in graduate school. Perhaps I will get the courage to kill myself or accept the end that may come in my road sports.

Why do I feel like I betrayed myself? Why do I feel the right thing to do was the wrong thing to me? I have no friends to talk to this about.

Feeling Lost

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Dear Feeling Lost,

I love to run these long letters where people tell what could be, if you stretched it out, a novel. It’s all there. It’s a novel that takes place over the course of a year or two in your life. You were just getting along, wondering if this was all there is, then you met someone, things happened, you took it as far as it could go, but there were limits. There were costs involved. Choices had to be made. The costs were too high. So you returned.

And here you are. You’re back. You wonder if you did the right thing. You know more than you did before. You have a story now. You’ve gone out there beyond the fences and seen what it’s like. And now you’re back to finish what you started. You’re back now to raise your daughter, get her safely into adulthood and conclude whatever it is between you and your wife that remains.

I wonder what your wife thinks about all this. I’m just curious. I’m sure readers are curious, too. And we’re curious what kind of man you are; that is, if we were to meet and talk in person, would you be able to be as honest and straightforward and raw as you are in this letter. I think you are quite honest. People will jump all over you, probably. They always do. I suggest you shake them off. There is nothing more honorable than just telling the truth about your own life. People who denounce letter writers do not seem to honor that fact. There is something redeeming in just telling your story. I’m frequently amazed at the lack of respect. But whatever. I’m sitting in this cabin in North Florida now, having rejoined a small group of my high school friends for one of our infrequent reunions. We’re all getting old. So maybe I’m no quite myself, and maybe also I relate to your story because it’s told from the perspective of someone who got restless and thought maybe he’d made the wrong choices and so set out to correct them, and then found that maybe those choices were somehow the best ones he could make.

The beautiful thing about getting old is that big things happen to you and you do gain that gravitas, that perspective, that you wish you had when you were younger. You know what you did. You are not confused by it. You’re facing it.

So this is how we get through it. Why do you feel like you betrayed yourself? That’s one of those questions that only you can find the answer to, but you do need help in finding it. I wish we were sitting together talking. Maybe it would become clear. Or maybe it’s not the right question. Maybe the question is more like, did you betray yourself? What would it mean to betray yourself? Is that the right word? Or is there something more precise. It seems to me like you didn’t betray yourself. Rather, you made a real-life decision. It seems to me like you could have kidded yourself but you chose to be honest about your situation. You’re not perfect. You ran off. But then you came back.

You’re not perfect and life is not perfect and you did the best you could. And then you spelled it out here.

Like I say, in the territory it covers, and in its overall shape, it could be a novel. So you might think about that. There are so many things you need to think deeply about. Writing it out more fully is one way to think it through. What if you were to write scenes? Think of the scenes that truly tortured you, and the ones that brought you to unimagined bliss. Write them. If questions arise in your mind, write out what is going on in your mind. You might find that writing is a useful tool for settling, or clarifying, exactly what you did and why. Don’t get into writing it like a “novelist.” Just write it in the way that feels true to you. I think you will find that some of the issues become clearer.

Since you have no friends to talk to about this, I hope you can find someone who, if not a friend, can at least act as a principled ally, or witness. Maybe there is a group of men in your area that gets together to talk about marriage and divorce. I wouldn’t be surprised. In Northern California there seem to be groups for everything. And it does help to talk things out. It helps immensely, as does writing about them.

So make it a goal, or a priority, to find a group, or an individual, where you can go and feel comfortable just talking through this. What you did was huge. You have powerful feelings about it. There are moral and ethical issues to sort through. It’s very difficult to sort through something like this on your own. And yet, as you say, “coming from a man and all,” many of us tend to hesitate doing the hard work of finding a way to sort through this with the help of others. So that’s my prescription for you. Make it a priority to get into group for divorced or divorcing men, and/or find yourself a talented therapist, someone you are drawn to, someone whom you can take seriously. This might not happen right away. Give it time. But put it up there at the top of your list, and I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

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Yo-yo man

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 22, 2003

I’m with a man who says he doesn’t believe in love, but he’s loving when he’s with me. Help!


Dear Cary,

Around four months ago I started dating this guy, “Steve,” who I met over the Internet. Steve is tall, funny and smart. He tells me that I am wonderful. He is also petrified that I will turn into his ex-wife (he divorced three years ago) and try to control his life, beat him up, and keep him from friends and family. He tells me that he cares for me deeply but he can’t love me because love sucks and he is never going to do it again. When we are together he is very affectionate and a fantastic lover. When he is away he forgets to call me, forgets our dates, and seems irritated when I contact him. So we go back and forth, seeing each other about once or twice a week.

A little about me: About a year and a half ago my husband of three years and boyfriend of 10 said that he didn’t love me and possibly never did. We are divorced and I feel that I am a better person without my ex. I know, however, that I have residual feelings of inadequacy and a lack of faith in my intuition. Therefore, when Steve doesn’t call, I start to think that all of his talk of “You are great, beautiful, smart, sexy” is just polite talk and he really isn’t interested. Also I started dating my ex when I was 18 and am now 29, and Steve is basically my second boyfriend (and my second lover) so I am inexperienced in the arena of relationships.

Should I just cut my losses and tell Steve that he is obviously not ready for a relationship? Should I take a step back and just wait for Steve to be more interested in me? Or am I being really clingy? I get terrible advice from friends: Play uninterested, play dumb, pretend that you don’t care, etc.

Hope you have better advice,

Ms. Yo-Yoed

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Dear Ms. Yo-Yoed,

I hope I have better advice than your friends, too, though I think if you look hard enough at what your friends are suggesting, you’ll see that they and I both want much the same thing: for you to gain some control over your fate, to not just be reacting to what Steve is doing.

However, I am not a big fan of pretending. When you pretend, unless you’re a good actor, you leave your message open to interpretation. If you want him to believe that you don’t care, go ahead and tell him you don’t care. Give him the benefit of being able to respond to a clear message. But don’t play with his head or act coy. Because unless you were born to be coy, unless coy is who you are, he might not read coy even though you’re doing coy all over the place; instead, he may read goofy or strange or mentally ill.

For those reasons, I am more in favor of the declarative sentence. (I’m also a big fan of the occasional bald-faced lie, but in this case, I think the truth will get the right results.) Tell him, for instance, that when you heard him say he couldn’t love you it sounded to you like he was saying he couldn’t love you. Ask him if you heard him correctly. If you did hear him correctly, then utter this declarative sentence: I am looking for a man to love me. Tell him you spy daylight between your desires and what he is offering.

I suggest doing this because you need your situation spelled out clearly. Once it’s spelled out, I think you’ll see that this man is not the man you are looking for. You are looking for love and he’s told you he can’t do that. But don’t tell Steve he’s not ready for a relationship. You have no idea what Steve is ready for. Tell him you’re not ready for a relationship with a man who can’t love you.

Then, as you move on and look for the right man, concentrate on the observable facts; state clearly what you want and look for agreement. If you don’t get agreement, take it at face value: He doesn’t want to give you what you want. Many negotiable aspects of a relationship can be spelled out: How frequently you get together, whether fidelity is required, is he looking to get married and raise kids, that kind of thing. The less intuiting you have to do, if you feel your intuition about men is weak, the less trouble you’ll get into. I’m not saying get it in writing, exactly, but be explicit about what’s going on in your head. And pay attention to what he says and assume that he means it.

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Why can’t I find a relationship that will last?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 6, 2008

Am I destined to be lonely? Do I pick the wrong men? Why am I still single?


Dear Cary,

I believe that I have lost my ability to trust my judgments on relationships. However, I still believe in love, and I have not given up all hope.

Here is the situation.

I am 33 and single yet again after another failed relationship. I am college educated, I work a high-pressure job, have quite a large group of close friends, and have some hobbies that I am pretty devoted to. So I guess you can say that I am not one of those people who is desperate for a romantic relationship out of fear of nothing else going on in my life.

I have always found the dating world difficult, but this is mostly due to some lingering self-doubts that have been around since high school. My dating life so far has been approximately five serious relationships. The longest (which was my college boyfriend) lasted about five years. It was a very ugly breakup, and I didn’t really get over it for close to two years. I could casually date, but would normally pick up guys with various issues (drug, alcohol, honesty problems, etc.).

I met a seemingly good guy who didn’t seem to come with excess baggage when I was 27, and had even made plans to marry. It seemed like a pretty normal relationship, and by far the most stable of my life. He broke up with me at the three-year mark, and immediately moved in with a girl from his grad-school class. (They married months later.) This situation pretty much floored me, as at the time it pretty much came out of nowhere. I went into therapy, and realized that there were lots of red flags in that relationship that I just didn’t see at the time. However, I was eventually able to move on, and not let the sadness completely ovewhem me. It was extremely difficult. I do sometimes believe that I carry some major scars from that relationship, but none so bad as to make me “give up.”

I then found myself falling in love with a friend of mine whom I have known since college. Hanging out with him was always a riot, because he is somewhat of a smartass, and is someone I can converse with on just about anything. However, he also has a rather serious binge-drinking problem, and could sometimes be difficult to deal with during one of his famously ugly hangovers. I realized that my constant interaction with him was very unhealthy for me. So I went back into therapy, and got some clarification on why I felt this way, even though I knew it was a hopeless situation.

My friends, who are good-natured, could never understand why I was constantly having these issues. I would get “You are really smart, really pretty, really interesting, etc., etc.” (I am also the only one who is not currently in a long-term relationship or married.) Some of my friends even went so far as to try to set me up on blind dates, but there was no real spark. I even jokingly said that I had developed an allergy to dating. But the reality is, I would love nothing more than to be in a satisfying relationship with a nice man who has charisma and can make me laugh.

My therapist mentioned quite a few times that I was doing the right things by keeping myself active, not trying to over-focus on finding a nice guy, and staying motivated with my hobbies. I work out quite a bit, and play several sports recreationally.

So now to my latest situation. I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship immediately, but was looking at trying to see where things were progressing. He showered me with attention, and while it was a little overwhelming at first, it was nice. He seemed pretty levelheaded, and we seemed to share quite a bit of interests, and had like backgrounds. While I was still trying to completely let go of all the feelings for the friend with the drinking problem, actually dipping my toe into the dating pool really seemed to help that situation.

However, out of nowhere, I was broken up with. When I asked for the reason, I was given “stressed out because of work” as the reason. I sympathized, and was told that, however, he still wanted to be friends. I have now found out that the real reason was that he was getting back together with his ex-girlfriend — the same ex-girlfriend who had screwed with his emotions last year. I was upset, but not so much for him going back to the ex-girlfriend, but by his lack of candor. I have once again lost my ability to trust. Even by keeping casual, and not being clingy, needy, etc., I still feel as though I have failed once again, and picked a guy who obviously has some major issues.

So how can I learn to trust my own instincts again? I feel like my guard — which I find naturally difficult to let down but which was once again finally coming down — has gone back up. I feel extremely jaded as maybe I am destined to be alone, yet somehow I still hope that maybe I will find a nice man who will not be a complete jerk. If I am “doing the right things in life” according to my therapist — to place the focus on other parts of my life — why do I still feel that empty feeling that borders on jealousy when I see my friends who are happy? I also question how I can ever really relax enough to take another chance if I seemingly have really questionable attractions in men.

Yet Another Brick in the Wall

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Dear Brick,

What is your reason for seeking a man? It may sound like a dumb question but … Is it to have children and raise a family? To avoid loneliness? To feel relaxed and confident in your world? To enjoy sex? To demonstrate your value and attractiveness to others? To keep pace with your friends? Perhaps with your therapist you can dwell on these questions long enough to see some specific and detailed answers emerge. This might help you in several ways. For one thing, it can help you see exactly what you are losing when a man goes away. And so it can help you think how to replace those specific things that he was providing. If he was providing sex, for instance, and you miss the sex, then you can set about trying to find more sex. If the ache you feel is loneliness, then perhaps you need the company of others. If you feel wounded or betrayed, then perhaps you can work on that woundedness, exploring it, asking, Is it anger toward him, is it shock at how I have been treated?

So rather than suggest how you might better find and maintain another relationship — for which many guides exist — my approach is more to explore the various aspects of having a man and see how having a man is connected to your larger life aspirations.

If you can define how finding a man relates to some larger aspiration you have — to have family, to be connected closely, to have security or to avoid being alone — then perhaps your true desires will become more specific and vivid, and you will come to see how your past relationships fit into a larger pattern, and you will not feel that everything is so hopeless. Patterns will start to emerge. You will start to see what your big struggle actually is. You will start to see a direction. The direction may involve a relationship with a man or it may involve something entirely different. You may find, for instance, if you sit with this, that some vocation is pulling you in a certain direction. The direction may not be clear to you but it will become clear, if you can settle down and try to see what is in the distance.

This pattern that causes you so much pain may be a very natural thing and not a problem at all. It may be a sign of a certain direction that you are being called to go. If you quiet your mind and let various images come to you, you will see this. I wonder what those images would be.

You have a rich life filled with friends, work and activities.

Right now, I sense that you are keeping busy partly to distract yourself — from what? From these “lingering self-doubts,” I guess. And what those lingering self-doubts are, in truth, I imagine is the truth of your being.

Men come into your life and go out of your life. Men do not act the way you want them to. Their feelings change, or diminish. They drink too much or take drugs. They lie. They have something that you want but then the relationship turns painful. What is the pain about? Is it feeling that you will always be lonely? Is it feeling that others cannot be relied on, that they let you down, that they take advantage of you, wanting only sex and entertainment and then moving on? Is it a feeling of futility about the future, that you will never have the life you dream of having?

After looking at this for a while, ask yourself, Is this the big thing? Are these relationships with men my purpose in life? No? What is my purpose in life? Do I really want to get married? Is that the big thing? Or is it something else? Do I really want to be a singer, or a gardener, or start a business?

So how about this: Make this year your year of digging deeply. Make this year your year of facing the shit. If you can do that, you can find out who you are and where you are going. Then these other things will seem minor. You will reach a point where you look around and see that having a boyfriend or not having a boyfriend is not the issue. You are 33 now and no longer just out of college, no longer frolicking about. Your life is right here before you. The issue is how you get up in the morning and face your life. People will come and go. Your friends will come and go, too. Your family members will age and their status in life will change, as yours will. Try to see the big picture.

Underneath all this worry, there is a distinct, unique, thriving person with a powerful voice and a distinct view of the world, and capabilities no other person has. Maybe that person does not want to fit in and get married. Maybe that person wants to run away and be a crazy woman, live in a shack on the highway, or be an inventor, or an architect, or a criminal, an actress, a helper of children, a writer, a telephone operator …

So there I go again, ranting. But I want to clear away the generalities. I want to ask you to spend this year understanding your life in a new way with the help of your therapist. I want to ask you to identify your deepest beliefs and desires and work with her to understand how they have created these patterns that cause you so much pain, and figure out ways to get where you need to go. I think you can do that.

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Self-education

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 20, 2004

I grew up in an abusive household, but I’m determined to be happy. Am I capable of it?


Dear Cary,

I grew up in the home of a raging alcoholic, drug abuser and emotionally and verbally abusive father. For the first 18 years of my life every encounter I had with any man was abusive and violent in some form. I spent my entire 19th year of my life crying, every day, all the time. It finally occurred to me that it wasn’t fun being so depressed and that I could change it. I spent the next few years reflecting on all that had happened and even- tually taking action to change my situation. I was determined to have a normal and healthy sex life, and good or bad I went about this by a series of love ‘em and leave ‘em “relationships,” the longest of which lasted three weeks. I barely passed high school but started to read quite a bit, kind of a self-education.

At first I faked being happy, and started doing things to make myself healthier. Eventually I didn’t have to fake any- more. I made a lot of progress over the years and really broke free of my past when I moved to a small college town out west when I was 22. I rarely even think about how bad things used to be. I am incredibly happy with my life and feel that I am very healthy. I am in college and making straight A’s; I snowboard all winter and hike and backpack all summer. I am sure you have heard that you can see the face of God in nature; I am not religious but I found that to be true for me. I don’t want to load

you down with too much background, but I feel that some of this is likely to still be with me.

I had my first real relationship this year. I dated a man for 10 months; I ended it this October because after 10 months all he could see was that I was great fun outdoors, a blast in the sack and fun to drink with. I wanted more, the whole package, and I couldn’t believe that after 10 months this was all he could see. So I ended it.

I started to date a new guy in November. Perhaps that was too soon but it is what it is. This man is wonderful; he’s caring, sweet, really good-looking, smart, funny, fun and goofy, a lot of really wonderful attributes. He works in violence prevention and is very involved in the women’s movement. He’s giving me all the stuff that I couldn’t get from my first relationship. It’s small stuff but he cuddles, and stays the night, and holds my hand. There are problems, though; the sex is too sweet and car- ing, he asks me every time if I am sure I want to do this, and then follows up during to make sure I am OK. It makes me uncomfortable and unsure if I do want to do it. I suppose we started being intimate rather fast but I know no other way. I find myself comparing him to the guy I used to date. I want orgasms but he seems unwilling to go down on me, which is the only way it happens for me. It seems that for him sex is about connecting emotionally, for me it is about pleasure. It’s strange because he’s very affectionate except when we have sex. He has started to be more comfortable with me going down on him, but says that I shouldn’t have to deal with that. Will this just get better with time? Have I rushed this? Can I talk to him about it? I’ve tried talking to him a little about it and he usually says that I am the most open and to-the-point woman he’s ever known. Is it too soon to talk about sex?

We went skiing the other day and I found myself comparing him once again to my ex. He’s not as playful and it just wasn’t as much fun. However, later that night we had dinner and I had a great time and was reminded that I could really like this guy. I am still friends with my ex and we ski together on a regu- lar basis and always have a blast. Is that being unloyal? Can

I give my time and joy to my ex and still date this man? Did my relationship with my ex last so long because he kept it so very casual? Am I capable of a real relationship? Should I even worry about any of this?

I hope I wasn’t too long-winded. Thank you for your time; I’ll appreciate your thoughts on any or all of this.

Finally Having Some Fun

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Dear Finally,

Congratulations. You’ve done remarkably well.
You know, a person could linger on your first sentence for a long

time: “I grew up in the home of a raging alcoholic, drug abuser and emotionally and verbally abusive father.”

A person could figure, that’s all anybody needs to know every- thing about you. And indeed, while I’m trying to concentrate on your questions and think about your present, I am strongly drawn back into myself, to the dark, heavy center of memory, not because I was abused but because I share some ineluctable consciousness of the Fall.

I’m glad you’re having a good time, and I think you’re doing all the right things. It’s great to be skiing. I’ll bet just flying on the snow could keep you happy forever if you could just keep flying down the mountain.

But perhaps because I have a cold, which also keeps drawing me into myself, it’s taking everything I’ve got to stay focused on you, there in your bright and shining ski suit. Regardless of what specific advice I can offer about these men, I want this encounter to be about the rest of your life. I want to give you something, in this chance meeting, that you may think back on years later. And that is this: What I have observed is that the effects of an abusive child- hood never seem to go away completely.

I don’t know the statistics. I just speak as an observer. I don’t even know if it’s possible to make statistics on how the immortal phan- tom of abuse lingers, how much it weighs, what electrical charge it

carries, what kind of light it emits. I don’t know if the phantom of abuse has any measurable reality at all; perhaps its footprints can be found in an altered brain chemistry. And against what control could we measure it, anyway? Would we not need a duplicate you, raised by a duplicate father except without the alcoholic tirades, the unpredictable departures, the simmering, acid explosiveness?

I don’t want to be a downer, and I don’t want to condemn you to a lifetime of therapy groups and self-doubt, like a cancer survivor always fearing it might come back. So I can only say what I have observed: Even though you feel you have banished these episodes in your early life forever, you need the courage to always bear them close to your breast, where you can see what they’re up to. Because they may be working on you as you age. As surely as early musical training, the early traumas of chaos and abuse are there, a kind of language eager to be spoken again.

If you don’t pay attention, in odd moments of stress and over- whelm, you find yourself speaking this strange language without realizing it at first. It’s already installed, and there’s no tag on it saying “this is your bad experience, don’t replicate this.” It won’t even feel like abuse, because it’s such a part of you.

Darn. I don’t mean to scare you. I forget what your question was. OK, the new guy: He’s obviously not your true sexual mate. You don’t click. You need someone rougher, more self-assured. He’s too tentative for you. But the first guy probably did not have the com- plexity you seek. So keep having fun, and keep looking. You obvi- ously have a lot of depth, and a lot of energy to take on the world. The only thing that worries me is what I’ve seen so many times — how you can overcome these early events by staying active and alive, but if life takes a bad turn, the only model you have for coping with adversity is this age-old raging father figure.

I’m sorry I got caught up in all this, but that first sentence speaks so loudly to me. Because I assume that you and I belong to a quiet society of secret sufferers, that we recognize each other on the street like an underground, that we know each other to be differ- ent because we don’t react like others do. We’re more driven, more crazy, more desperate, hungrier, touchier, louder, always breath- lessly skating on thin ice above the dragon; we know better than to

stop skating and sink into the water.
Visualize a loving childhood. Visualize what it would have been

like if your father had been a strong, stable, loving, sober man who never left you waiting in a dark parking lot, who never slept the whole day through when he was supposed to do the grocery shop- ping, who never told you anything but the sweetest words a girl could hear.

And then, regardless of how well things are going, pay atten- tion to how your reactions differ from those of people who were not abused. Watch for signs that this first ugly language you were taught is calling out through you to be spoken.

And if it has to be spoken, speak the vehement words on paper, speak the cruel glances in drawings, play out the tirades in loud guitar chords.

You can be perfectly happy. But the past never goes away com- pletely.

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Mad about him

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 21, 2003

Our love makes me feel part of something bigger, but his anger scares me.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love. Hooray! This is a good thing. It’s beautiful. There is mutual honesty, caring and affection. This man encourages me to think and to explore, and he makes me feel beautiful and loved. Our love makes me feel a part of something bigger, some biological necessity. He’s the first person with whom I’ve ever considered starting a family.

I know all the joys that come with love, and I know that love involves risk and vulnerability. But, we’re fighting. I’m not a good fighter. I am learning to be a good discusser of feelings, but a fighter I am not. My beloved is a fighter.

Rarely (maybe three times in the last year) he gets really angry and blows off steam through a kind of violent stream-of-consciousness spoken fantasy. I’m not frightened or threatened personally; I know he uses those words to let go of anger, and he would never act on his violent thoughts. But I never know how to react to these outbursts. The first time it happened, I tried to talk him down immediately. But after we both calmed down, we discussed it and he said that he doesn’t want to be talked down, he wants to feel that anger in the moment and then let it go. This sounded fine to me. (Does it help to know that he is an artist? The only time I’ve ever seen him like this is when his art is attacked — not just a critical review, but really scathing remarks.)

Recently he had a temper tantrum at my house. His violent stream of vocabulary was really unnerving and disturbing to me. So I told him that if he needed to talk that way therapeutically, that he had to go talk to someone else, because I just couldn’t handle seeing him that way. So, of course, he left.

When we discussed it later I found that he wants me to fight for him, with him, next to him, to be on his side — to be angry at whomever has wronged him. He thinks that it’s him and me against the world, and he doesn’t feel like I “have his back” or support him emotionally.

I want to support him, but I don’t want to be “against” anyone. I just don’t deal with things the way he does. I’d rather sit down and discuss something with someone than tell that person to shove off.

My roommate heard his recent outburst and doesn’t really feel comfortable with him around the house. I think she’s overreacting, but if that’s the way she feels, there isn’t really anything I can do. My boyfriend sees my acceptance of her feelings as a betrayal to him. He thinks I should have told her off and stood up for him. He’s really disappointed.

Is this simply one of those fundamental differences that can’t be overcome? I feel like I would be compromising myself to fake an empathetic anger if I don’t feel it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to leave him stranded, feeling embarrassed and ashamed of his anger. I know that relationships involve introspection and that lovers can teach you things about yourself and help you grow. And I see his point about me needing to “butch up” in certain circumstances. I’m at an impasse. I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’m not going to become an angry person. I don’t want to be one.

Trying to Stand by My Man

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Dear Trying,

What makes the dramatic display of anger frightening to onlookers is the worrisome sense that bones are going to get broken if it keeps up much longer. If you don’t know the guy who’s stringing together a sputtering symphony of profane threats, making withering allusions to sexual dysfunction and raising questions about the phylum and genus of one’s parentage in an often alliterative and sometimes surprisingly musical — if hardcore — way, you might be justified in assuming that the next step is going to be the breaking of facial bones or some kind of epileptic seizure. Especially if you’re in the next room, it’s hard to tell if and when the police are going to be pulling out their tiny notebooks and talking in that strangely repressed monotone that the most violent of public authorities seem to think lends gravitas to their mien. The whole thing is to be avoided if at all possible — as no doubt you’ll agree.

But since you’ve latched onto a man who isn’t stuffing and holding onto his anger like a good citizen but instead sees life as some primal battle that must be fought, us against them, as loudly as possible, you don’t have the option of avoidance.

Feeling as I do somewhat hemmed in by our undemonstrative public culture, I do sympathize with this guy. But, heck, it’s your job to be hemmed in, buddy. Because, look, the rest of us are hemmed in. So what makes you think you can pop off while the rest of us are meekly submitting to the rules of polite society? Because you’re an artist? Ah, go fuck yourself!

That’ll get me in trouble, won’t it? But you see, that’s how I feel, and it’s healthy to just let it out, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t healthy really, because already I’m filled with remorse for my little outburst, as perhaps your boyfriend is, in a mild way, when he realizes that his outbursts aren’t going over in the heroic way he would like.

I think the most important question is: Can he control when and where he has these outbursts? There seems to be an element of conscious choice in your boyfriend’s outbursts. Perhaps he knows where the line is; perhaps he can bring himself to the brink of losing control and then back off, and feels cleansed and powerful afterward. Perhaps, like an actor, he conjures up frightening emotions and directs them for artistic effect. But there is also an element of loss of conscious control, perhaps allied to a longing for primitive power.

The fact that he frightened your roommate suggests that he either is not in control of these outbursts, or that he does not use good judgment. If he can control this, perhaps he ought to find some theatrical environment where he can take it as far as he wants to, without frightening your roommate. If he cannot control it, then he and you have a problem. An outburst could get him in trouble if it happens at the wrong time. He could get shot. Besides, nice people will get the wrong idea.

I’m really curious: Where did your boyfriend learn to talk that way? Did he pick up this stream-of-consciousness angry-man act from his father? Is there a library of tantrums in the closet of his mind, passed on from father to son like a box of porno tapes? Or did he think this all up on his own? Did he grow up rich or poor, on a farm or in the Bronx? Is he Italian or Norwegian? I’d love to know where he comes from, where he learned this.

But the bottom line is: 1) He doesn’t get to dictate how you choose to express yourself; you’re both free to express yourselves in the manner that seems true to you. If he thinks that because you don’t yell, you’re not on his side, then maybe he can’t hear well. 2) He needs to know that under certain situations his yelling and screaming is way out of line and is going to have consequences. 3) You need to look into whether he’s got a history of violence; the yelling and screaming may just be an outlet, but there may be a history of violence, or abuse, behind it. If so, that’s a serious matter. He could be dangerous. If you feel really frightened, there may be a reason.