Category Archives: secrets

How should I feel toward my father?

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011

I thought I knew him. Then he loaded up his U-Haul


Cary,

I had a really boring suburban life for a long time, wishing that something would make it interesting. I had a good relationship with my family and I thought that my parents would stay together forever.

Then we got hit with a hurricane.

After the hurricane I spent a lot more time talking to my father. We talked before but this seemed different, like how I thought the father-son deep(ish) discussions were supposed to go. He didn’t seem as happy as I had previously thought, but I assumed that was due to having 5 feet of water wash through our house, which makes for a somewhat more stressful existence. A lot of the time we spent after the storm was gutting the entire first floor, talking about his childhood and mine and what my plans for the future were. During our discussions I got the impression that my parents’ marriage wouldn’t last forever, so I steeled myself for the inevitable to occur.

Flash forward to a week after my 18th birthday in 2006, and I come home to my father packing up a U-Haul and leaving my mother. He left her a note (that I probably shouldn’t have read, but I think most people would have in my situation) saying that he felt that after I was born most of my mother’s love went to me and he felt left out; it was basically a page and a half of selfishness.

He showed me the apartment he was supposed to be living in (I called it a “small studio” but others might call it “I can go from my bed to my toilet in less than 10 steps! How convenient!”). I later found out that he had been cheating on my mother for years … multiple women with other kids, swinger parties, basically everything I thought he was above as a person. He is now remarried and his new wife has two kids and I can never really forgive him for what he did, but I do my best.

Last year, when I was stationed overseas, the day after my birthday I posted a Facebook message thanking everyone for their kind wishes and he left me a reply saying, “I knew there was something special about yesterday,” and this year … nothing. I don’t think he did it on purpose but no phone call, no text, no communication whatsoever. I don’t even know exactly how I felt, but I think I could best describe it as numb, though I don’t know if it is a numbness to him in general, or if it affected me even more than I thought it did at the time. It has been five days since my birthday and I still haven’t talked to him and I don’t know how to bring it up. On the one hand I want to call him out on this, but if I do that I don’t know if I will be able to stop myself and I will finally get up the nerve to ask him how long he was philandering and if he thinks I deserve an apology for cheating on my mother.

She was his wife, but she is still my damn mom.

Honestly, I don’t really have a specific question regarding this situation, I could just use some advice on what to do from here because I know I am going to have to talk to him eventually and I don’t really know how slighted I am supposed to feel about this situation. After reading that letter I don’t want me getting pissed about him missing multiple birthdays to be construed as being as selfish as he turned out to be. I guess I just would like to know how much anger I am warranted to feel toward him after everything that he has done. I feel emotionally conflicted and like I said before …

Numb

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Dear Numb,

I remember my father’s series of small apartments after he left my mother. I remember the meagerness and poverty, his effects strewn about, the boxes on the floor, the absence of furniture, the absence of a life. It was devastating, actually — that he had chosen this over us. I remember trying to be encouraging and upbeat. “Wow, this isn’t so bad. It’s kind of a nice place. Look out this window!” Yet it seemed bleak and incompetent. It was such a fall. Those dismal apartments, one after the other. That one in Miami on Biscayne Blvd., kind of a swingers pad, with a pool and I’ll always remember that smell of newly delivered furniture, cooking oil, eggs recently scrambled or made omelet-style, the simple food smells of a man cooking for himself, living a strange little life that was supposed to be exciting and carefree but which seemed lonely and pointless.

Yeah, I remember that. I remember wondering how I’m supposed to feel about all this. That tiny, damp little “studio” in the back of an old woman’s concrete block house near the University of Miami with the room air conditioner. I lived there for a summer jazz session while he … where was he? Was he at his mother’s? I think he was in his mother’s house on Mary Street, that house that later became the object of so much conflict when he sold it while my brother was still living in it.

I don’t completely recall how those various strange abodes came into his possession, but there he was, with his entourage of cardboard boxes and his war medals, evicted, divorced, moving on. Why? It seemed so stupid. It would have been simpler for him to stay in the house. But no, they couldn’t get along.

What was I feeling? Wanting to be supportive yet actually angry, puzzled and hurt, ashamed that he seemed diminished, no longer Dad, head of household, man of the house, reduced to man of the tiny studio apartment trying to get chicks at the pool to come up to see his “digs.”

It’s not something you want to see your dad do. And yeah, it was around the time I turned 18 that he first moved out. It’s a big letdown, a big hole in the gut; it’s not like anything you’ve experienced thus far.

And if your dad wants you to go see a therapist to help you deal with the divorce, well, that’s just creepy. Maybe you want to punch him but you don’t want to go to therapy especially at his suggestion because you’re not the one with the problem, and you didn’t make this problem, he made it by moving out, so why should you have to go to some creepy therapist and talk about your feelings when your feelings should really be directed at your dad?

Right?

Which is the point, really. That he fucked up and you’re angry with him and that’s a really, really hard thing to confront with a parent. I never did tell my dad how angry and hurt I was for him getting divorced like that. I believed at the time that the adult thing to do was to understand, not to be angry about it and certainly not to blame my parents, but to understand. Well, there’s a difference between blaming your parents for your lot in life and being angry at them for making boneheaded moves. So yes, I was angry at my father for years, but fighting to retain my love for him, and so dancing gingerly around the issues, pretending to be encouraging and charmed by his chosen existence when really it made me sick to see it. It made me sick to see my father and his two brothers all leave their wives and begin a dicey and peripatetic existence going from apartment to apartment and girlfriend to girlfriend or wife to wife. It was confusing and alienating and I didn’t like it but I was afraid to confront them because they were the elder men.

This fear of the elder men in the family goes deep. I had no idea how much power it had until years later. I had no idea how paralyzed I was. But I am not alone. Many men are afraid of their fathers. We do not know where they get this power over us so we pretend that they do not really have this power over us but, Oh, they have it. They have it in spades. Even my father, wiry, bespectacled, diminutive and professorial in manner: Oh, I feared him mightily! We may be angry but afraid to say we are angry for fear of violence. The father holds that violent edge, that family privilege, the nuclear option. You never know. My father was a strangely elusive but explosive man, given to surprising outbursts. And you never knew what was going on in his head.

He’s dead now.

I never confronted him. I never had that epic battle that sons and fathers sometimes have, where they finally let out that mixture of anger and tenderness, rage and pity that characterizes the relationship.

So what kind of conversation with my dad would I have wanted? If he were here today, I would like to hear him say that he did it for himself. He’d had it with living for others. He wanted to live for himself. Right or wrong, it was his decision to begin living for himself, and he did that, and it would have been helpful to hear him say that forthrightly.

Instead, when the subject of the divorce arose, we heard his painful self-recrimination and regret.

So if I could do it differently, or if I were in your shoes, what would I do? I would be frank and open about my feelings whatever they are. That doesn’t mean necessarily confronting family members about it. It more means being frank with yourself and those close to you about what you actually feel. Don’t try to figure it out. Accept it. Accept what you feel. You may feel impulses that morality prevents you from acting on. That’s OK to feel.

I can say with certainty that there is no correct way to feel. We men seem to think that if we want to be a certain kind of man, we may feel only a certain way. But a good man feels what he feels.

By feeling what we feel, we come to know ourselves. Then our true nature arises serenely and almost without notice. Then we need do nothing but trust our instincts. We become authentic.

And how does this vaunted authenticity come about? Slowly if at all. We keep going over it and over it, like sanding wood. More is revealed with every pass.

As to the numbness: I suspect you fear the torrent of tears that would erupt were you to say how you feel. You may need someone to yank it out of you. Like it’s stuck down there in your throat and a professional has to use his slim jim.

That’s one way to think of psychotherapists. They get inside the locked vehicle of your psyche, but with your permission.

It took me years before I could trust another man to listen to me cry. Are you kidding? I know. It’s icky. But eventually it was a matter of either let these feelings of shame and anger and outrage and humiliation and pitiful hurt show, cry them out in front of someone, demonstrate to someone just how deeply I was hurting, by way of saying, OK, this is me, this awful shambles you see before you, this sobbing shambles of a man, this is me, this is my state, this is what I’ve come to … or who knows what I would come to, walking around numb, as you say, from a lifetime habit of not feeling.

If you want to stop being numb you have to start feeling.

Basically, whatever you feel is appropriate.

We men have a code. We are supposed to feel certain things in certain situations. But the truth is, we feel what we feel. Even though that sounds dumb.

The stereotypical “sensitive male” is easy to ridicule. There was a lot of bogus “showing your feelings” in the 1970s. You don’t have to “show your feelings.” You just have to feel them and know what they are.

In my 20s I thought, If you are a real man, you will feel this way about this and that way about that. You will have learned the code. But you never really do.

This is what we men go through.

What do our fathers want from us and for us? What is expected?

What are we supposed to do and feel?

We never really know. We just feel what we feel. We try to stay true to ourselves and to the ones we love. That’s all we can do.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Bad things

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 14, 2004

I looked at my girlfriend’s text messages and found out she was in touch with an ex. Can we ever trust each other?


Dear Cary,

I have been in a relationship with a woman for a little over four months. In pretty much every respect, it has been absolutely incredible. We spend every night together, we share a lot of common interests, we are alike in all the right ways. We have met each other’s parents and have seriously discussed moving in together. There’s a problem, but the thing is: I can’t decide how big a problem it is.


A few months before she met me, she dated another man for about six months. He was, by her account, emotionally manipulative. When he broke up with her, she was extremely upset. Some time after we began dating, she told me that he had begun phoning and e-mailing her a great deal, even coming to her house and work unannounced. I was uncomfortable with this, but the issue was never really discussed again. Over the next few months, we grew closer and closer. Despite how great everything felt, I was always somewhat suspicious. I chalked this up to my own insecurities, which are admittedly an issue of their own. I could not shake the feeling that despite her interest in me, he was still somehow a part of her life.

A week ago I did what from your archives I understand is a fairly common but very bad thing. While she was in the shower, I checked the text messages on her phone. I’m pretty ashamed at myself for doing it, and though you will have a hard time believing it, I did not actually think I would find anything. But I found a rather unpleasant message. When she got out of the shower, I confronted her with it, and over the course of the last week we have been discussing it a great deal.

He had been phoning her and sending her text messages nearly every day for quite some while. He had even phoned her at her parents’ house at Christmas. He was trying to get her back and also trying to get her to move with him abroad. When we first started dating, she had seen him a couple of times but only for coffee. She told me that she did not answer his calls when he phoned most of the time, but that she did occasionally e-mail him or talk to him. She swore that since she had recently moved and changed jobs, he did not show up at her door anymore.

I feel deeply hurt by this. The trust issues that I had, and which I thought were problems of my own, turn out to have been at least somewhat justified. I do not know what to believe anymore. I have confronted her about secrets and lies before, about trivial things (I thought), and she told me that she would be more honest. So when she told me that she did not want to get back together with him, that she had not seen him except when he unexpectedly showed up at her door, and that she loved me, I wanted very much to believe her. And I think I do. I asked her a number of questions about it, and she truly opened up and told me a great deal. Whether she left anything out I can’t honestly say, except that I believe she is trying to be honest. She admitted that she had not done enough to get rid of him and had partly liked the attention he was giving her when he had once been so cruel.

I told her that if we were going to survive she would have to make a decision — it was either me or him (or maybe neither), but it was not acceptable to continue on like this. I do truly love her and feel that we can get past this, but I have told her that she must work hard to regain my trust, which includes not lying to me and making it as clear as can be to him that she does not want to be contacted by him anymore. I’m afraid she will revert back to keeping things a secret rather than dealing with the problem.

Am I being an idiot in giving her another chance, or am I making things out to be worse than they appear? Is she keeping some sort of contact with him simply out of spite (enjoying watching him suffer, etc.) or is she finding it hard to cut him loose because she is still uncertain of what she really wants? I should also tell you that she fears confrontation a great deal, which is why she tends to hide things. At least part of the reason why she doesn’t just tell him to F-off is because of this, at least I think. Should I stick around to find out?

(P.S. I realize that should we continue on, I will have to regain her trust as well. I do not intend to, nor will I ever, spy on her or check messages, etc., again. Obviously, I’ve got issues of my own that I’m trying to address, the problem being that it’s extremely difficult to do so in the current situation)

Confused and Sad

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Dear Confused and Sad,

First of all, you’ve only been together four months. That’s not enough time to really get to know someone. So your expectations seem a little high, and your fears seem a little exaggerated. “I’m concerned,” you say, “that I will never really get over this. As I said, we’ve talked about this a number of times over the last week…” See what I mean? One week is not much time to get over something.

Nor is talking with her necessarily the way to “get over this.” You don’t really know whether you can believe this woman. So talking with her shouldn’t reassure you. Based on what’s happened, you should feel a little anxious. Your lack of trust, it seems to me, is well-founded. Not only have you not known her that long, but it’s obvious that you’re not the only man on her mind.

I don’t think that means she’s being a bad person. She’s just not a simple person. Besides, you’re making a lot of demands on her for a guy who’s just been around for four months, and you’re the one who snooped on her text messages while she was in the shower.

So it seems right and natural that you two should mistrust each other.

As to the dynamics of your relationship: People tend to repeat certain patterns with their first few loves. That’s only natural — it takes a few tries to get it right. So if she was manipulated by this previous man, she may be setting herself up to be manipulated by you as well.

Not only that, but you and the previous manipulative man may have more in common than you suspect. He may have been cagey and emotional in his manipulation, while you are high-minded and full of principle. He may be a feeling type while you are a thinking type. But you both seek control over this woman.

Beneath attraction and love is often a struggle for dominance. Beneath complaints about manipulation is often a forbidden attraction to surrender. There may be something in your obsession with her behavior and her transgressions that excites her. Otherwise, she would simply defend her private life, tell you that you have no business snooping in her text messages, and that would be that.

So she may be playing a role in the only drama she knows, in which the man exercises authority, setting the agenda, the rules and the punishments, and the woman plays the seductress, subverting the man’s authority while at the same time reveling in his critical attention.

If that’s the game being played, you’re playing your position admirably, attempting to ferret out her secrets and demanding that she adhere to your principles.

You may not realize that your moral and ethical categories are not as real and powerful in the world as they seem to be to you (sometimes our personality types blind us to that). You also may not realize that the strands of rational power you project into the world are like strings others can pull to work you like a puppet.

So let’s try asking this: What does she want? What does she need? You mentioned that she gets satisfaction from this man’s attentions. So she has a need to be desired, to be sought-after. Don’t we all? She was hurt by this man and still has some feelings for him. There is nothing unusual in that. Her feelings are not under her conscious control, any more than yours are.

You may think that your demand for honesty and forthrightness is just common sense and naturally takes precedence over her rather ill-defined needs for attention and secrecy. But your demands are really just another form of irrational, subjective hunger. It is no more her duty to do the things you require than it is your duty to do whatever she wants. You simply hunger for rationality, while she hungers for attention. They’re both subjective hungers. Neither has the greater claim on virtue. But you act like you have a monopoly on reason and common sense.

You’ve made ultimatums and demands that she come clean. But if she were to divulge everything she thinks and feels, would that do? What of the many, many fleeting thoughts and unconsummated desires that make up the daily life of the psyche? Is all that to be cleansed as well, subject to your security review?

I am only hinting around at things here, and it may sound like gibberish to you, but I sense there are important yet hidden assumptions at work here: That there are final ethical and moral categories which, if adhered to fully, will ensure a happy and confident union, for instance. What I’m suggesting is that if you place all your faith in these bright and symmetrical categories of right and wrong, truthfulness and falsehood, “getting over it” and “not getting over it,” you may miss what is actually happening in your relationship.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

How long do I keep this secret a secret?

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, MAY 8, 2011

My father is not my “bio-dad.” My mother’s lifelong lover is. Whom do I tell, and when?


Dear Cary,

I’m 44 years old and facing a dilemma concerning my father’s mortality. OK, it’s more complicated than that:

My parents divorced when I was 2 (I’m the third child, born six years after my next sibling, after my mother went through chemotherapy and had been told she’d never have more children). When I was in college, I learned that the friend of the family who had always just “been around” in my childhood was actually my mother’s lover — and my biological father.

I had always known that my mother’s marriage had been mostly an obligation: She was a “good Greek girl,” which meant that, despite being valedictorian in high school, she did not get to go to college, and she was expected to settle down with a nice boy from church. Now I understood that she had had an intense love affair with this married man (also Greek, from the same church) over the course of many years, that the affair became known to his wife and to my mother’s husband, my father. They ended the affair … except they really didn’t and a year or so later my mother got pregnant with me and concealed the truth for years … until my then-girlfriend-now-wife started asking questions about the man who was in so many “family” photos. My mother never found another love in her life, partly because she was dedicated to her kids and was exhausted raising us as a single mom with no child support, but partly because she and my bio-dad were an on-again-off-again thing for decades; he never left his wife and children, he has admitted that he’s been kind of a crappy father to his own kids, I’ve heard that he may have had other affairs and even fathered other children (though that seems unlikely and more like small-town spite) and he didn’t always treat my mother well (once he apparently called her and said he’d leave his wife for her … but only if she’d leave us kids; she wouldn’t speak to him for quite a while after that). At the same time, he was the closest thing she had to a true love, and I felt for her, for her loss, for the fact that one of the best things in her life had to happen in the shadows.

I tell you all of this as if it was passed along as a single story, but in reality I had to glean the details both before and after my mother’s death from cancer five years after I learned about my bio-dad. In the moment, my bio-dad was told that I knew; shortly after all of this was acknowledged, I brought them together for dinner in a nearby (and more anonymous) city and, when she was dying a few years later, I brought them together so that they could say goodbye. All of this was like espionage — no one could know because both spouses are still alive and the community would be scandalized. Even my (half) siblings didn’t find out about the affair and my parentage until after my mother’s death, which led to some hard feelings from them — not directed toward me, but unavoidably complicated our relationship as a family, which was already reeling after my mother’s death removed the center from our immediate-family lives. (My “father” is a nice guy but has been plagued with his own troubles over the years and is not interested in being the center of anyone’s life, though his relationship with me and my family is quietly kind and loving from both a geographic and emotional distance.) The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.

My bio-dad and I have remained in contact even after my mother passed away 17 years ago. He’s now in his early 80s and his health is failing. Because of adult-onset diabetes, he’s gone blind and now is unable to do much of anything on his own, which means he’s homebound and I can’t reach him, because he fears his wife finding out — I have to wait until he finds time to sneak a short call to me. And even then, our conversations are surface-level: catching up, casual thoughts about the future, etc. Someday soon I’ll get a call telling me that he’s passed away and I’ll have to face the first of two decisions: Do I travel back to my hometown to attend the funeral? I ask myself what I hope to get out of the funeral, and while I don’t want anything out of it, I can’t wrap my head around ignoring the funeral of the man who is my biological father. I’ve lost my mother and my extended family has drifted apart, so I’m sensitive to the number of people I have in my life that connect me to my past. Will I regret not going? Will going be a whole lot of effort for a relationship that was never that deep or meaningful? Since I’ve been told that I look a whole lot like him at my age, will I be flaunting something potentially painful to his family?

The second question is more complex. Since I first found this out, I’ve been sure that I don’t want to participate in the lies, and everything that I’ve learned about my mother’s life and everything that’s happened in my family since I’ve found out about this has only reinforced my sense that these lies have consequences that echo down through generations. I’m not willing to bear that burden any longer than I have to and I certainly don’t want to pass it on to my children. I’m not interested in hurting anyone — especially the spouses who were deceived for years about this affair and my parentage; there’s some question about whether either spouse knows about me being the result of this affair, but I think if either does, s/he has repressed that knowledge. In time, however, I need to be able to be truthful with my own children about their family history. Both in the name of factual truth (god forbid there’s some need to ask a genetic relative for a donation) and in the name of not being visited by the sins of the father, I feel this is the right thing to do. Back before my bio-dad was ill, I talked it over with him, suggesting that he either talk with his kids or leave some sort of letter in the event of his death. He was wary but said he’d think seriously about it … and then his health spiraled out of control and it just hasn’t felt like I could bring up the subject without sounding like the grim reaper discussing plans for the rapidly approaching end.

My thought is that I could wait until a while after his estate is settled so that any contact from me doesn’t look like a play for money and, assuming he’s left no notification, write a letter to his children basically just letting them know the history and that I desire nothing more than that each of us know the truth and be able to speak the truth — though certainly not before the spouses have passed away. In that way, I’d let them know that I exist and that I want nothing from them, but that I’m here if they are open to making contact on whatever level at some point in the future.

Am I crazy to want to do this? Is it a violation of his kids’ privacy? Of their desire, perhaps, to not know that their father betrayed their mother for most of his marriage? Do I wait to contact his other children until both betrayed spouses have passed away as well?

Genetic Truth-Seeker

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Dear Truth Seeker,

Whom you tell and when is important, but before you can make those decisions, something else comes first.

You must first make peace with the facts. That is not a simple matter. It will not be quick. It will involve looking honestly and at times painfully at all the ways this family secret has shaped your life.

You were raised in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies. That sounds harsh but it is true, and it is a gift; that is, it provides you with a fact-based framework in which you can begin to sort out who is your true, beautiful, shining self and who is the self that has been taught to hide, to keep others’ secrets, to carry the legacy of shame and darkness into yet another family generation.

You say, “The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.” Of course it has. It is safe to say that it has weighed on you more than you know. What will bring you lasting peace is understanding how this legacy led you to make the decisions you have made, and how it continues to affect you today. Your task in life from this moment forward is to examine in honest detail the many ways it weighs on you and how it has shaped your decisions. This is no less than the task of uncovering your life’s meaning. It is the task of uncovering who you really are.

The question of your paternity is important, but it is also a metaphor. We all seek to understand where we came from, as individuals, as family members, as members of racial, religious, ethnic, political and national groups, and as a species. We all come from mystery and contradiction. But those of us whose paternity is a settled matter do not have the added burden of knowing that if we speak the truth we may incur the wrath of others.

We do not have to walk around wondering what will be the reaction of others if we tell the truth. You, on the other hand, must face the fact that telling a fundamental truth about yourself will have explosive consequences. This must be a burden indeed.

It is the burden of the truth-teller in the family. Truth-tellers are often attacked. They upset things. They draw attention to themselves, and to matters others would rather not acknowledge. In this way, a family in which a secret is being kept is similar to a family in which some other secret — of addiction, abuse or alcoholism — is being kept. It also has echoes in the national cultural debate about who we are as a people, as tempers flare when we talk about the “founding fathers” and “where we came from.” That is because questions about origin lie at the heart of questions about existence.

What kind of a person are you today? What secrets are you yourself keeping? How has the habit of keeping secrets to protect others affected your ability to love, to create, to be loved, to be a part of the world? How has it affected your sleep and your health, where you live and what you do with your time, your capacity for forming friendships, your work life, your intellectual interests, your passions? These are the things that you can examine if you have a regular course of therapy or peer counseling. What is your relationship with the church, whose power and views on sin influenced your mother to keep her behavior, and thus your origins, secret? How has this experience and this knowledge informed your notion of a “normal” life? Has it caused you to assume that everyone lives lives of deceit? Where else has secrecy and deceit crept up in your life? When you sense family secrets are being held in other families, are you drawn to them? Do you find yourself enmeshed in workplace intrigue? Do you find it easy to be honest with others about where you come from? Or are there dark areas that you have walled off?

Like an alcoholic or the child of an alcoholic, in the story of your family secret, you now have a narrative, like an origin myth. One part of the narrative is the search for your true identity. Another is your search for your real family. Another is the uncovering of clues to your own behavior: Why you made certain decisions, why you have reacted at times the way you did, why your relationships are the way they are.

Those of us who have such a central narrative often express a gratitude that strikes others as odd. But we are lucky because a fact like this can be an organizing principle. By studying the effect of this one secret, you gain the opportunity to uncover the core mysteries of your life: the particular ways this family secret has affected you. That is what you are now tasked to discover and make peace with. If we talked at length, some of those ways might emerge. But I am not a therapist. You and I won’t be meeting every week to talk about this. But I do suggest you find someone with whom you can meet every week to talk about this. It would be to your advantage if that person were skilled in family therapy and had experience with stories like yours. But it might also be someone who has simply been through what you have been through. The important thing is that you meet regularly over a period of time, at least a year. It takes time to see the truth.

I would really like to see you commit to a long-term process of uncovering the ways in which growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies has shaped your choices in life and your day-to-day behavior. This kind of thing is best done by meeting regularly with a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist or psychologist — someone trained to help as individuals break through the veil so we can see reality.

Reading other people’s stories is one way of coming to grips with your own story. Telling your story to others who have similar experiences is also helpful. By apparent coincidence, today’s Family Secrets site features a story about learning who one’s father is. Various newspapers, magazines and television shows also cover such stories, and in their protagonists you can find kindred spirits. In a sense, these people are your family — your spiritual, or experiential family. They are the people likely to recognize how you feel and how you have lived your life, better than your own family.

Another interesting affinity group is the stepfamily letters project. Telling our stories is one part of the process. Another is learning about Murray Bowen and family systems theory.

You seem to be a good man. This situation is hard. I commend you on your journey to find out what this story means to you.

Your life is the story of a secret. Unearth the secrets of that secret.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I fell for a younger guy and now my head is spinning

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 I’m a wife, a mother and a doctoral candidate. I’m not the kind of person this happens to. What the hell am I doing?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 6, 2008

Hi Cary,

I’m a 28-year-old doctoral student, wife and mother; it’s a life I would’ve described once as busy, happy and thankfully boring. All has changed. This last summer, I went to my 10-year high school reunion and ended up having an affair. Up until that point, my husband was the only person I had ever had sex with. My husband and I met when I was a senior in high school. I hadn’t been saving myself for my future husband (no great moral or religious convictions involved). I was just waiting for a nice respectful guy. I did not know we would remain in love and marry five years later, but that is exactly what happened. He has insisted many times in our 11-year relationship that I would want to have sex with somebody else someday. I thought the notion was preposterous; I assured him I was too level-headed to want something so silly. Well, it turns out, he was right and I was naïve. Despite my intoxication, I was quite calculated in my decision making. The boy was 21 (so he said) and had crashed the after party; we didn’t know each other beforehand. It appeared to be the quintessential one-night stand, and I have now learned the hard way that infidelity is a crime of opportunity.

Since that night, I’ve discovered some interesting things about the boy. First, he’s not even 21 (which was a scandalous-enough age for me), he’s only 18. I about had a heart attack when I Googled him and saw he was in eighth grade in 2004. Second, he graduated high school last May and is an incoming freshman where I go to school and TEACH. After confronting him about lying, you’d think I’d wash my hands of the whole thing and try to pretend it never happened. That is what I had planned on doing, after all. Instead, I have been talking to him, texting him and IM-ing him almost every day, in secret of course, but often. We’ve hung out a few times. We have not had sex again, but that’s not for a lack of desire on my part, as I fantasize about him daily and we flirt constantly.

I gave him the opportunity to “escape” from this soap opera right after I discovered his lie. I wrote him a long e-mail, explained how complex my life is, how he’s just a young kid who shouldn’t be weighed down by my drama, and how it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if we cut our losses and stopped our “friendship,” as I am uncertain as to whether I will be able to keep it only friendly. Surprisingly, he seems uninterested in actually having sex again (though he only insists on abstaining for my good, he rationalizes). He is still texting me and IM-ing me on a daily basis about seemingly inconsequential things, much to my confusion and delight.

I’m baffled at our behavior — his and mine. I can’t figure out what he could possibly be getting from our relationship. I assumed he was using me for sex (as I was him) and that we would easily just stop talking. Instead, I have this sinking suspicion that we are using each other, I just can’t for the life of me understand for what. Talking to him is exciting, he makes me laugh, and I give him advice about his love life and he even wants to give me advice on my marriage (what does an 18-year-old know about marriage?!). I also give him advice about navigating school, and tomorrow I’m meeting him to help him figure out how to catch up in one of his classes he was thinking about dropping.

Even more baffling to me is how I could have anything in common with an 18-year-old. He’s shattered every misconception I’ve ever had about undergraduates, let alone freshmen! He’s handsome and surprisingly smart; he has novel and interesting opinions. I admire his free spirit and rebelliousness and he always keeps me guessing. I have a feeling that both of us are flattered by the other’s attention.

Cary, I was once faithful, logical and level-headed. Suddenly I feel like a stupid teenager again with a giant crush. My whole world has flipped upside down. I thought I knew myself, that I knew and understood the world, and suddenly I don’t think I understand anything anymore. I do feel guilty and ashamed about my infidelity, but that’s overshadowed for now by my obsession with meeting and communicating with this boy. What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him? What in the world are we doing?!

Completely Out of Character

Dear Out of Character,

I guess what I am struck by — well, let’s back up. First, since you refer to this young man as a boy, I strongly suggest that in your conduct with this person you scrupulously comply with all laws and professional regulations that apply. You were wrong about his age to start with; I’d suggest you verify his age — for real. If you don’t know what laws and professional regulations apply, find out. And then make sure you comply with them. Also you’re going to have to work out this thorny problem of deceiving your husband. But you also need to work out what is going on emotionally. If I can be of any help at all, it is probably in that area.

Here’s how I would put it: You have been visited by a stranger. That stranger is yourself. She demands that you get to know her.

While you’ve been pursuing your degree, you’ve been pretending she doesn’t exist. But here she is. She has desires and tastes that may shock you. They don’t make sense to you. But here she is. Think how she feels.

In pursuit of intellectual accomplishment we sometimes shunt aside elements of our personality; years later they arrive like strangers at our door. We ask, Who is this? Who is this person? Do I know this person? You don’t know me?! she asks. I’m you!

You’re me?

Sure I am.

Thus begins the hard but rewarding work of integration. Each personality is like a family, or a town. So get to know the relatives. It’s not a stranger at all. It’s you. Get to know her.

I want to make this observation, too: Your emotional life is at least as complex, and requires as much subtle intellectual attention, as the subject of your doctoral studies. Like any body of knowledge, it requires that the questions we pose be informed and pointed.

You ask, “What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him?” That can easily be answered, but only begins to get at the heart of the matter.

For starters, you’re getting love, for heaven’s sake. Who doesn’t want love? You’re getting admiration and the wonderful feeling of being sexually attractive to someone. These are not trivial things. But they are elementary. As you accept what has happened, I think you are going to ask bigger, more profound and thoughtful questions.

For now, I suggest that you confess. Confess that you are human. You are not that different from anyone else.

You are just as capable of acting in a way that is scandalous, dishonest, secretive, alluring, sensuous and dangerous as anyone else. You are also reasonable, intelligent, diligent, honest and reliable. You are both.

Surprise: This is you!

Let’s celebrate what this means: You are not only a doctoral student but a woman of mystery, trapped in intrigue.

Did you think that this mad, crazy love the poets write about was something they made up? It has come to visit you. So I implore you to open yourself to this and learn. Again, speaking in very elementary terms, here are some of the guiding principles, or salient features, of this new terrain.

You don’t have control of your attraction.

You don’t understand it.

It feels wonderful.

It defies social norms.

It exposes you to danger.

You feel you are betraying someone.

You are breaking rules.

It is forbidden.

It came unexpectedly.

You and your love object are outwardly very different — your social class, age and education are markedly different.

You can’t make sense of it.

You are conducting it in secret.

It fulfills needs you did not know you had.

You are frightened by the fact that you cannot turn it off and on; it is out of your control.

You are, of course, faced with tricky practical and ethical problems because of it. So work out the practical problems. Deal with them upfront. But honor what this means. You are more complicated and passionate than you thought.

My wife is lying to me about her affair

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 24, 2007

I’m already raising two kids of my own. Should I divorce her and go it alone?


Dear Cary,

About a month ago, I discovered my wife of one year had had a fling with a co-worker that she initiated. I found out, I’m ashamed to say, by checking her e-mail because she’d been going out a lot, staying out late with people from work. When I complained about some of the excessive hours and frequency, she apologized, said she was being stupid, and was sorry. And it continued.

My gut told me something was wrong after one evening, when she was out late again, and we “argued” about it, and again she offered an apology, and then she was back in the bedroom, singing and burning a CD. The next day, I gathered up my courage, and dove into her e-mail. And there was the incriminating evidence. I was devastated. I confronted her, she was stunned, but not particularly apologetic and remorseful. I offered to forgive and understand, wanted to talk. She offered a litany of complaints/justifications, saying “Nothing happens in a vacuum.” She said that turning 32 (I’m 41), and working in an office with a bunch of single people, had made her acutely aware of her age. She said that although two or three months earlier she’d told me she wanted to have a baby, that the decision stemmed from the fact that she felt like an outsider in the home, never truly the mother of my two kids, and wanted a child of her own. I had agreed, but said that we needed to be practical regarding buying the home and getting financially stable before we made that move. She said that started her thinking about the age thing, and how she should take advantage of the time she had left before motherhood.

Then she wanted to clam up.

Although she agreed to stop seeing this person, she maintained her distance and withdrawal. She just wanted to act as though everything was OK, which was very difficult for me to endure, as we’d had no cathartic moment of remorse, regret and so on. I felt she was stalling for time. I went to visit a friend in N.Y. for three days to give her some space. I came back, wanted to make love, she would have none of it. The distance continued, and each time I tried to talk, she freaked and got angry, telling me I was pressing her. She went away for a long weekend to get some space. When she came back, nothing was better. We’d made a good show of acting normal around the house, trying to normalize things. Then I found out that she’d called the lover over the long weekend and lied to me about it. I tried to understand, again offering conciliation. And still no meaningful discussion. She told me I needed to be on meds, that my anxiety was out of control, that essentially I was making the problems worse. I already do take an as-needed prescription for anxiety.

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I immediately scheduled a session with a couples therapist. We agreed that we were both going with the intent of trying to work things out. She ended up turning the session on me and my anxieties, how she felt backed into a corner, and I had consented to begin taking antidepressants to try to give her the space she needed by further quelling my anxiety. But my anxiety, which I’ve dealt with as a separate issue for a while, was really being exacerbated by my gut feeling that she wasn’t being straight with me, was holding something back, and stalling for time. Later that week, she lied again, this time about grabbing a beer after finishing working late, and gave me some story about getting the car stuck in the snow. I didn’t believe her, confronted her, and after a lot of evasion, she confessed.

We made love finally two days later, and afterward she was very distant, but tried to be reassuring. I wrote her a letter saying that I understood she was in a difficult place, and probably grieving for what she’d thought the affair would offer, and so on, again encouraging her that if she did indeed love me, as she professed, then we could still work through this. She said we needed to talk, and she owed me more of what was in her mind. Again, I checked her computer, and in the Internet history found that she’d been checking into apartments — the evening after our first therapy session. So, I had some idea what was coming, but we calmly sat down with a bottle of wine, and I let her tell me everything. Essentially, although she declared flatly that the affair is over, the lover done with (supposedly it was a one-time thing and I’ve no evidence to the contrary), she didn’t know whether she was happy, taking things for granted here at the house. She basically was coming to the conclusion that she wanted a separation.

We’ve had a long and and occasionally stormy history, including a two-year hiatus when she moved to New York. She came back to be with me, moved in with me and my two children, and after two years wanted very much to be married. Apart from the usual squabbles about housework and dealing with my two kids (who embraced her and loved her) discipline-wise (and they’re both very good kids, just the typical too much TV, messy room stuff), we seemed to have a very functional and happy marriage. She said as much many times. I felt very secure.

And then this. She says that although she’s not moving out to be with the lover, and I think this is probably true, she’s wondering if there’s something more for her out there … independence, the single life, what have you. I have two kids from a previous marriage, and we are renting a house we were planning on buying. If we separate, then I’m going to have to find an apartment myself, adding to the disruption in the kids’ lives and mine.

Basically, I don’t know what to do. I have no idea what to do, or say. It seems like this should all be fixable, but she just doesn’t want to face the fixing. I’m frightened about myself, my children, and starting all over again at 41, having been so devastated by this sudden and unexpected upheaval in our lives.

Husband Lost at Sea

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Dear Husband,

Divorce this woman. Protect yourself and your kids.

If child support can be ordered by a court, by all means pursue child support. But do not depend on it. Rather, if losing her means moving to an apartment, then move now. Do not wait. You cannot depend on her support even if it is ordered by the courts. So put yourself in a position where you do not need her support. Take care of yourself and take care of your kids.

Make a new life. Simplify. Dedicate yourself to the raising of your kids. Be cautious. Meditate. Eat well. Help your kids with their homework. Clean the house. Cook. Sleep regular hours. Work out. Stay well. Be steady. Follow a routine. Know that you are doing the right thing. Realize that this is your calling in life. Submit to it.

Be clear about this: Your wife has to go. She is wreaking havoc on your lives. She made a promise to you and to your kids when she married you. She gave you to understand that she would be there for you and your kids. Now she has shown that she either is not capable or simply has no intention of following through with her commitment.

Do not pursue therapy with her. Simply get her out of your life.

She is unhappy. That is unfortunate. But you cannot make her happy. You can only participate in her misery.

If freeing her from her commitment would not harm anyone else, one could say, whatever, it was a failed romance.

But it was not just a romance. It was an agreement to raise children together.

You’re going to need some help. I suggest you educate yourself and look into organizations that support men who find themselves in situations like yours, for your troubles are inextricably related to your legal status as a man and a father. In asking for child support from your ex-wife, you will be in a non-traditional role, which may take special handling and raise special difficulties for you that other men with similar experiences may be able to help you negotiate.

Throughout this, be protective of your children. Make sure their needs are met and their routines are followed. Tell them that you are taking care of them and they are going to be OK. Show them strength and kindness and hope and love. Be a model for them of how to face the world. Make a safe and strong little unit, you and your two kids, an unshakable foundation.

If you eventually want another woman in your life, your kids come first. Do not put your household at risk again for your own needs.

Seek family support. Where is the mother of your children? You do not mention her. If she is alive and can help support her children, insist that she do so. Other members of your family may also be able to help. Reach out. For the sake of these two young children, reach out.

Yes, this involves emotional sacrifice. But it also means playing a satisfying role. What greater thing could there be? I plead with you, dedicate yourself to raising these children.

Make it your life. Throw yourself into it. No matter what else happens, that is one good thing you can do.

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I’m a sad lil’ starfucker and can’t get him out of my head

Dear Cary,

My husband of 16 years and I have never made an official list, but it’s always been accepted that were we to have, in some fantasyland, the opportunity to sleep with a certain few adored famous people, the sin would be exonerated.  (I should mention here that over the years both of us have had our indiscretions with plain old normals, and while the aftermath has never been fun,  we’ve discovered that the occasional infidelity isn’t really a dealbreaker for us.)

Well, five years ago, I actually had a totally unexpected and baffling encounter with one of the people on my unofficial list.  I told my husband about it, and he was unhappy, but  reluctantly conceded that he understood.

In the years since, this Famous Person and I have exchanged the odd email and text, mostly merely friendly, occasionally rather dirty, but I honestly didn’t think anything further would ever come of it.  Until, this last summer, he contacted me out of the blue, saying he was going to be in NYC, where I live, for a few days, and wanted to meet.  I went to his hotel, and we spent close to six hours together, fucking and talking and drinking and eating and making each other laugh.  It was scary, because it was way more than just screwing a celebrity.  It felt intimate, and I felt understood and seen by him in a way that had until then been the sole domain of my husband.

But this was never going to go anywhere. I love my husband.  Also, shamefully, it matters that Famous Person kindly, but frankly, made explicit that no relationship was going to happen.  So I erased his 310-area-code number from my phone, and endeavored, somewhat successfully, to cease all contact with him.   I have tried to do the right thing and put it past me and commit to my marriage.

The problem is this: this particular Famous Person is extremely prolific, and I can barely get on the internet without seeing some article on Gawker or Hollywood Reporter or some such about his latest project.  I honestly admire and follow his work, have for more than a decade, and can’t see how I could or would want to give that up.  And now, each mention of or quote from him brings me back to that afternoon in that hotel, and makes it impossible to let go.  What I find myself entertaining is a total fantasy, and going nowhere, I know that, but his constant presence is like a loose tooth needing to be worked at.  How do I flush this guy from my system?

~ Sad Lil’ Star Fucker

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Dear Sad Lil’ Star Fucker,

You say you can’t see how you could give up following his career but you can stop following his career, you just don’t want to and I totally understand not wanting to because it feels too good to stop which is the whole friggin’ point here. You have to stop doing something that feels good and that’s no fun.

It’s no fun but its doable, not like landing a spaceship on an asteroid.  You don’t want to because it’s a pleasure and I get that but here’s the thing: It used to be an unalloyed pleasure but now it’s alloyed. It’s an alloy whose good old reliable tensile strength and stability have been altered by the addition of something volatile. It’s been changed. You can’t use it for what you used to use it for. You’ve gone and changed it.

Can you catch yourself before you check out his next post? Can you? If you can, you can stop being re-triggered. You pretty much have to, just the same way you know you have to stop short of doing a million other things that you could imagine doing but you don’t because you’re married and it isn’t worth it.

You have to stop enjoying this dude is what it comes down to. He’s off-limits. He’s crack cocaine  and now you’re a person who’s developed a problem. You have to stop or it just gets worse.

How worse? Oh, hell: Every every pleasurable moment itches to be reborn; every taste itches to reach farther down the tongue to lick and tickle molecules sleeping since the Pleistocene age; every come-hither blue-eyed call to your baby maker seeks to reproduce not you but itself, because every nerve and cell is  seeking glory all its own, pleasure and ecstasy and more more more, grow, grow, grow  because everything is holy and everything is living and everything is hungry just like you and I, hungry to multiply and hungry to expand, and every itch for laughter is an itch that never ends, and every tingle memory says, “Replay me again, tingle, replay me again,”  because this is the sublime beauty of our world exactly: All we see and all we believe ourselves to be are nothing but the  clumsy craft of some god’s passing  fancy, and all the glories we see around us are nothing but the projection of our dreams onto the darkest screen of space, and all our highest deeds are nothing but doodles to fill the emptiness (pleasure is a filling of the existential hunger).

Therefore, be it resolved: This automatic triggering of six lovely hours in a hotel room, the eating and fucking and laughing, will continue as long as you allow it to be triggered by reading Gawker. Furthermore be it resolved: What we are and have been since the beginning is some random god’s answer to its own emptiness, its grand yet half-baked scheme to populate its stars and be amused. And what amuses this god? Our pleasures and our folly, at which we keep, like fools, for the amusement of our gods.
Just put this thing on the list of things you can’t do because you’re married and it isn’t worth it.

Along the lines of, “Was there another Troy for her to burn?” we suggest: Find some other star to follow.

p.s. OK, so Yeats was a little harsh; but it’s just such a great line.

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My girlfriend “settled” for me — and I don’t trust her

 

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Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

I shouldn’t have looked in her diary, but maybe it’s best that I did.


Dear Cary,
This summer, my girlfriend went to Central America for three months. She was in spotty contact with me the whole time, saying it was difficult to reach a computer. I’ve known her to be unfaithful to her past boyfriends. She actually cheated on one with me. I didn’t trust her when she came back, so when she left her journal on my desk for a week, I read the portion of it about her trip.

In it, I found a never-to-be-sent letter to her first boyfriend, my old best friend from years ago, written in drunken handwriting. She lamented that she still loved him and how “I went and found the closest thing to you and I settled, like everything in life, I settled.” I assume this is referring to me.

I wouldn’t have read her journal if I trusted her. Those trust issues aside, I feel like we have a good thing. We work on a lot of levels with each other, spend a lot of time together, give each other presents with cards, etc. Though neither of us has a career (I struggle playing music and waiting tables; she dabbles in various professional track jobs that don’t interest her), we’ve hit the mid-20s and relationships seem more serious.

She’s moving away soon to take a professional-track job in Mexico and I am considering following her, but this whole thing bothers me. I try to ask her about him to see how she responds, but she never lets on anything. Right now, she is visiting her old roommate who now lives with him, and I am unable to trust her. Of course she always says they are just friends, but that she still really cares for him in a platonic way and there is nothing to worry about.

Had I not read the journal, I could take her at face value. Maybe she tells me what she really means. But as it is right now, I can’t help getting mad at her because I feel she’s deceiving me. I have to resolve it somehow. I know journals are the dumping grounds for our deep insecurities, horrible thoughts, our fantasies, generally things we can’t say, and they may not always be real, but I can’t brush it aside so easily. How do I handle this?

Thanks,

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Too Curious

 

Dear Too Curious,

You know what I think? I think that every time I sit down to write this column I have the opportunity, if I play it right, to make a big difference in somebody’s life. So I try to do that. I try to do that by taking a guess at what the big issue in a person’s life is. There’s the diary and all that, and I’d like to say right upfront that reading your girlfriend’s diary is not the best idea. But what’s the big issue?

The way I figure it, the big issues make the difference. And a lot of times we don’t know what our big issues are. We may know what other people’s big issues are. But not our own. So we make big mistakes. We make them over and over. Often the big issues in our lives are not what we think they are. They tend to be emotional things. Say, for instance, you are a brilliant and talented jazz musician. So naturally you are on the road a lot. But say that also, in your heart of hearts, you are the type of guy who really needs to be sitting at the kitchen table night after night with a wife and kids and relatives. That is where you are actually happy. So you might say that your talent and your emotional needs are at odds. You might not know you need the security and warmth of a family life. You may feel empty and anxious on the road but maybe you call it something else. You call it the blues. So you end up meeting this need in some way — because you are on the road. You end up, say, doing heroin. You do heroin because heroin gives you the feeling of sitting at your kitchen table on a full stomach in the evening breeze, listening to the crickets.

That’s how our unacknowledged needs shape our lives. That’s how we lose our geniuses, how they disappear into the evening breeze on a quiet summer morning.

If you knew, from a young age, that you were not only a talented musician but also a person who requires the closeness of family, warmth, security, rootedness, then you might take the time to arrange your life so that you do not die of a heroin overdose in a Memphis hotel room.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I write the column. I think about geniuses dying in Memphis hotel rooms. I think about perfectly decent guys being lied to by one woman after another. I think about the demons that have driven me off the road from time to time, and how things might have been different if I had known what the demons were, or if I knew they might be coming.

Our emotional needs often aren’t as overtly interesting as our talents. But they drive us. Sometimes they drive us to a strange part of town.

So with you, I think there’s a good chance that you have the opportunity right now, today, to discover what big personal issue is driving you. I think I know what your big issue might be. I think you can face it. I think you can do something about it.

But first of all: Do not follow your girlfriend to Mexico. Do not do that. Do not travel there to see her after she gets herself set up down there. Do not discuss with her the pros and cons of traveling with her to Mexico before she goes. Do not tell her you will think about coming to be with her in Mexico. Instead, tell her you have decided to stay here in the United States and try to get your life together on your own, without her. Tell her that you are breaking up with her. Tell her it’s best this way.

So now your real life begins. You make a choice. You begin from scratch.

To begin your new life, take an hour of quiet time. Sit down somewhere where you will not be interrupted. Make sure you have some paper and a pencil or pen.

Write these words at the top of the page:

I trust these people:

Then make a list of the people you trust.

Who is on the list? With each person, ask: Is that person a friend, a relative, a former lover, a teacher, a public official, an animal? What are the qualities of the relationship that make you trust the person? Is there an element of structure or formality to the relationship that leads to trust? Do they tend to be family members, college friends? Are they women or men? Look for patterns.

Then make a list of the people you do not trust.

Who is on the list that you do not trust?

Pay special attention to this question: Where is your dad? Is he on the trust list or the do-not-trust list? Where is your mom? And where are you? Where do you put yourself on the list?

I predict that if you do this simple exercise with an open mind and an open heart, and you spend some time thinking about these people and why you do or do not trust them, it will cause you to experience some fairly deep emotions. You may, at that point, want to find some structure for yourself. You may want to find a psychotherapist to help you work through this. But if I am correct, and if you seriously work through this, you will learn who can be trusted and who cannot. You will gain a new respect for your own need for trust. You will see that you have ridden roughshod over your own need for security. You may be surprised about certain people; you may realize that certain people may not have been so much fun, but at least they could be trusted. Others, you may realize, you never really trusted to begin with. You will become, through this process, a man who is markedly less likely to be fucked over.

And then, once you have firmly in your mind what it means to trust and not trust and be trusted or not trusted, you can fall in love and get married and have kids and live happily ever after. Or at least you can navigate more carefully life’s baffling jamboree, its streets full of beauty, genius and betrayal.

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I forgot to tell my wife I have a 12-year-old daughter

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 8, 2005

I fathered a child when I was a screwed-up loser and kept it secret all these years.


Dear Cary,

Boy, did I screw up.

About 13 years ago, I fell for a friend of my sister’s and got her pregnant. I was at this point in my life a loser. I had no job, no home (I was living with my father), no car, no license (never had it), no complete education, and absolutely no prospects. Her family, predictably, hated me.

After a couple months of unremitting and conflicting pressure from our families, she “realized” that I was a loser and she cut me loose. No contact, no nothing.

The last night that we ever discussed the baby was the night she gave birth. I got raving drunk and never discussed it again. My very WASP-y and remarkably repressed family followed suit (or was it I that was following suit?) Either way, the topic was off limits, that part of my brain and my heart was blocked off with yellow tape, and everyone moved on.

She married and her husband adopted the baby. I turned my life around materially and spiritually (education, wonderful wife, good job, house, etc.). I never tried to contact her or the baby. I told myself that I was only a “donor” and that I would only screw things up for her and the baby. Eventually, my wife and I bought a home not too far from my daughter and her family.

I dealt with the issue alone, fighting the late-night demons and doing everything I could to hold the situation at bay.

Years passed. A mutual friend of the family ran into the woman and told my sister that my daughter is 12 now and asking a number of questions. The resemblance is unmistakable and her parents have done a wonderful job (I am thrilled for them and her ). Faced with this, and only because I was faced with this, I decided to tell my wife about the situation.

Predictably, my wife is furious and feels (rightly) that I have violated her trust. We are just about to start a family of our own, and now everything in my life has been thrown into play. I don’t know if I would have been able to reveal this if not forced. Now that it is out in the open, the events are painful and crushing.

I’m scared, I’m confused, and I suddenly feel every bit as worthless as I felt all those years ago. I don’t think that my wife is going to leave me (we are looking into starting some kind of couples therapy), but I feel like I am still paying for not being good enough all those years ago. I am starting to get angry at those folks who are angry at me.

I have written a letter to my daughter’s mother and adoptive father, explaining where I am in my life and that we are very open to contact and a relationship, once rules and boundaries have been established; but my primary concern is my wife. I do not want to lose her (or her respect) over this.

Three days ago I had a normal life, and I feel like I am never going to have that again…

What a tangled web we weave…

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Dear Tangled,

I do not think you will lose your wife over this, or that your life will fall apart. You will get into counseling and learn about family systems and the keeping of secrets. You will work out some arrangement with the family of your daughter, and your wife will look at you with unfathomable anger for an indefinite period, and if you are good and do not completely freak out, eventually the normal life you had three days ago will return. But I hope out of this comes some thinking about how you have been living and where the secrets come from and who this person was who so many years ago fathered a daughter and kept it secret from his wife. I detect in your letter perhaps a lack of empathy for your earlier incarnation, and I would like to share a little about how I, who was also a bit of a loser and somewhat out of control, have come in middle age to regard my earlier self.

It has been helpful for me to see that I did some of the things I did because I was trying to do the right thing, strange as it appeared. It has been of great help to me to realize that I have often been an innocent actor, naive and lazy and deluded but not malicious. Like you I was trying to survive. I was doing what I had to do at the time. It has been helpful in considering why certain episodes went wrong to consider what I was running from and why I kept so many secrets and why the truth seemed unsurvivable. Was there some knowledge so corrosive that the silence in our household was a kind of insulation, a balm to naked skin?

What truth was so terrible at the time that it could not be uttered in the house? That you had sex without love? Is love a pair of handcuffs that must be worn every time? Is it a sin to do something simply because you really, really want to and it feels really, really good? Was it a sin to make love to your sister’s friend? Was there no one else around who could take you by the hand and show you what you then had to do? Was this all up to you? Are you the sole perpetrator of some crime? Must you punish yourself now for rest of your life?

It has been of great help to me from time to time to conjure up this innocent being, this young boy who was simply trying to express love and wonder, and later this young man who seemed to be in trouble but was not robbing houses or hitting people on the head. I suggest you do not hate this younger man, this fuck-up, this version of yourself. I suggest, instead, that you learn to love this nasty little fuck-up that you had to leave behind. I suggest that you offer a hand of forgiveness to this nasty little fuck-up. He was a guy trying to figure it out. He was a guy trying to get along. He was a guy trying to live with whatever it was that hurt. What was it that hurt? Who ever knows what it is with a young guy that hurts so much? We don’t talk about it among ourselves, although always there will be a stoned glance or a touch between young men, high on this or that, that says I know the crazy hurting thing too, it’s a motherfucker. So you followed the trajectory of your hurting and you got drunk the night your daughter was born.

Fathers have been getting drunk and leaving town for centuries when their babies are born: In spite of our storied propensity for engendering life, we do not always welcome it when it arrives, we kind of wish it would go away, we want to be left to our tools and our greasy hands and our shade trees, our violent metal and brief explosions, our gray primer and rust, our certainty of objects. The birth of a child means more life, more crying, more questions, more hunger, more lying and walking away, more required courses, more questions we cannot answer, more tests, more tedium, more teachers, more classroom sitting, more desolate afternoons, more diapers and howling, more unbridgeable gulf, more rules, more discipline, more silence. We do not like life in a lot of ways. For some of us men we like a few books, we like a little racquetball, we like maybe a sauna and some swimming, we like a long drive down a leafy road in a good truck, but we did not sign on for the entire program and it tires us out, frankly, and after the truck is parked we just want to lie down and go to sleep, and it is like this day after day for many of us men, which is why we father kids and go off into the woods, never to speak of it again until it comes up by a careless word or two in the supermarket, and there we are again, saddled with ourselves, bending under the incomprehensible load of what we have done — given life to a child who now looks out at the world and says, I don’t know, man, what you’re all so fucked up about, this looks pretty good to me. Just wait, we say. Just wait.

What I mean is, you need to conjure up some compassion for the teenager you once were, this wayward loser without a home or a job. You need to do this in order to stop hanging your head in shame for having been simply young and confused and unsure what to do. My sense of it is that your keeping of secrets arises out of intense shame. You need to replace that shame with some compassion and respect. To do that you need to go back down some of those same old roads and find out what you were really looking for back then.

I can’t do that for you. But my guess is that you were looking for a way out of WASPish silence, the long tradition of family secrets, the code your family lived by. You were looking for a more authentic way of feeling and being. Making love and getting drunk seemed like ways to get to something real. But at the crucial moment, when your waywardness truly bore fruit, it was a forbidden fruit it bore, so you turned away in fear. You turned back to what you knew best: the keeping of secrets, the silent bearing of shame.

Now, as an adult man, it’s time to pick up where you left off. It’s time to finish what you started — not with teenage acting-out but with a sober acknowledgment that wild, untamable passions are as important to your life as oatmeal for breakfast and plenty of life insurance.

You’re married now. You’ve got a house and a job. You’re safe. It’s time to hold your head up and acknowledge who you were then and who you are now and make the best of a pretty good situation.

I hope you get a chance to tell everything. Sometimes, after a life of secrets, telling everything helps.

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After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


Hi,

I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband

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Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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My alcoholic father has a child we never knew about

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, January 22, 2008

 

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Way back when, he gave up rights to the child, but now I want to know my half-sibling.


Dear Cary,

Until a few years ago the only issue I had with my dad was his drinking and resulting behavior. A family member recently uncovered a secret that my dad has been keeping for ages. When he was very young he and another woman, whom he was never married to, had a child. To my understanding my dad tried to provide for that child, but the relationship went sour and the mother asked my dad to sign away legal rights to another man (the person she eventually married and who I believe she is still with today).

My sibling and I have asked questions and have only gotten some answers. My dad is not interested in finding this child, but is not trying to hide from the child’s finding him, either (i.e., he keeps his name listed in the phone book). So, we have a half-sibling out there in the world and have been asked to leave it all alone. My mom supports this notion, stating that doing otherwise would only complicate things (i.e., future family functions or airing the laundry of the past).

I have decided to respectfully leave it alone — for now. My sibling, on the other hand, was for a time on a quest to find this person (with no success as far as I know). When my parents divorce (this is certain) my dad will have a reasonable amount of time to get his life in order and his addiction corrected (i.e., discovering new and healthy coping skills). If he chooses to continue drinking (and I do believe that, to an extent, addiction is a choice), he has been warned that a relationship with me will not be an option. (I’ve carried his weight for too long … I’ve set my boundary.)

Should this be the case, I will then look for the half-sibling because it would no longer “complicate things” due to the ending of contact with my dad. If he gets himself together, however, I will potentially lose this option … unless I go against my dad’s wishes. Knowing that a part of me (my dad) is out there calls to me and nags at me from time to time. (Do I have an entire additional family out there? Am I an aunt? Would I be accepted as part of their family? Rejected as part of “him”?)

Even though my dad has lost just about all respect, I don’t necessarily want to go against his wishes (but at the same time a part of me could give a shit about his wishes). So what do I do? If I do nothing, will the internal nagging go on forever? Do I continue to wait it out to see what my dad does with his life? (As if I haven’t been waiting long enough already!) Or do I go about finding this person because I have some right to know him or her, given our bloodline connection? I realize that this person may not want to be found, and may not want a relationship with other half-siblings, but how am I to know this for sure if I don’t find the person and ask? Any thoughts?

Mesmerized by the Possibilities

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Dear Mesmerized,

A secret in the alcoholic family is like a precious jewel or a newborn child, a thing to marvel at and a cause for rejoicing. I imagine a family gathered around its secrets as though around a warm hearth, celebrating with a birthday cake and candles, passing secrets down through generations like jewelry. Why am I imagining this? I do not fully understand. It is certainly not a literal thing; it is more like a dream. But stick with me here and let us see where this goes.

I note how you calculate the effect of your choices, worrying how people will be affected. I suspect this has much to do with the relationship of a child to her alcoholic father.

Let’s go back a few years. The child of the alcoholic watches his condition. She dreams he will overcome. She tiptoes. She considers her actions carefully, not wanting to hurt the parent or abandon him or draw attention to his frailty, but guarding her flank too, knowing how he can lash out.

She develops theories. She considers whether the parent’s condition is a choice or a sickness. It becomes a central matter, like the existence of God: Is his ailment partly his choice, or is it wholly not of his making? Does he deserve my sympathy and pity or only my scorn?

She conditions her choices on his condition. If he is well, she can move about freely. If the parent seems vulnerable, she reconsiders.

Your concern for how your actions will affect others is nice but it is excessive, and seems to be the legacy of a childhood with a man whose shifts of mood were mercurial and catastrophic.

You had a father who could not be relied upon and trusted, who would not shoulder the burden, who put his burdens on you to carry. He left you resentful and wounded. Step free from this alcoholic father for one precious moment. Make a decision based on your own desire to know. You speak to me of what is right, as if I should know what is right! How am I to know what is right? Something happened in your father’s life and you want to know about it. You want to know your half-sibling. That makes sense to me. It is in fact the only thing in this situation that does make sense to me: You want to know the truth. I want to know the truth, too. That I understand. The feelings of people are something to consider, but in this matter I think you need to honor your desire for the truth.

Oh, people in your family will react. Sure. Of course they will. You can count on people in your family to react. There will be repercussions and effects no matter what you do. Your silence and inaction have their effects as well.

Do what you need to do to know what you need to know. Take up this quest.

I’m aware of the downside. But the upside is that you become a beacon in the room, a ray of light: You broke free. You took some action. You faced a secret.

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