I’m normal, but …

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 7, 2004

I’m a healthy 26-year-old man and I’ve never had sex. Should I tell my girlfriend?


Dear Cary,

I’m a healthy 26-year-old male, normal in most ways physiologically and mentally. As far as I can tell, I’m a funny, bright guy people tend to gravitate toward, and I’m as sociable and interactive as anyone. I’ve never been especially big on the so-called dating scene, but I’ve kept in contact with it enough to not qualify as a complete leper.

I’ve recently begun seeing a beautiful girl (it’s been a couple of years since I dated anyone) who has been very interested in me for some time (which I of course didn’t notice for the longest time), and we’ve had a good time together, equal parts romance and intellect and all those late-night chats where you slowly fill in the gaps. I’m not a very “experienced” romantic, but I gather that she is, yet things have been incredibly fluid and comfortable. We have a good ability to be open and honest around each other, but I have run into a bit of a problem when it comes to telling her something that I assume is pretty unusual for a man of 26: I’ve never had sex. Not even anything remotely close to it. I’ve often joked about my adherence to celibacy, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the time for joking is done.

This springs from various aspects of my life involving a healthy (read: “non-rigid, non-fanatic”) dose of Protestantism (if you believe that can be healthy) and a not-so-good amount of insecurity. For whatever reason, I’ve avoided this like the plague, so I won’t merely blame any dogmatic hindrances. My singularity was brought into stark contrast in my eyes (not really for the first time) when I read a film review by the always interesting and divisive Charles Taylor who mentioned some phrase about “creepy abstinence teens.” Think of how creepy it would be for a girl who finds that she’s really into a “creepy abstinence late-twenty-something,” I find myself thinking.

I naively believe that if she cares for me she would be able to handle such an idea, but I’m guessing it would be unfair of me not to tell her at the outset (and she’d obviously figure it out soon enough anyway, or read it as a complete lack of interest), and since this is a huge part of relationships (I do realize this, believe it or not), I guess it would be even more unfair to expect her to stick with me if I felt I couldn’t bend my rules (which I’m still not sure about). And to be honest, the whole abstinence thing is driving me a bit mad.

OK, I’ve left you a mess. Please offer any thoughts you have.

The Creepy Celibate

Dear Celibate,

I think you should tell her. I don’t see any other honest, reasonable, loving thing to do. That is what you want to be, right — honest, reasonable, loving?

Why is it naive to believe that if she cares for you she can handle it? On the contrary, it seems quite reasonable to believe that if she cares for you she could handle it. In fact, telling her such a thing has much to recommend it. It is far less troubling a revelation than many other things one might feel compelled to reveal to a woman one is interested in. For instance, what if you had slept with her sister, or had beat up her brother in elementary school? What if you had a criminal record, or a bad case of herpes? What if you had told her some lie that you now had to retract? Those would reflect poorly on your character and give her genuine pause. Having chosen not to have sex before marriage, it seems to me, indicates that you are a thoughtful person who will not take the act lightly.

Perhaps there are things you did not mention, however, that are truly troubling you — perhaps you are frightened and feel clumsy; you fear that you will not be a good lover, that you won’t know what to do and feel paralyzed by that fear. If you feel paralyzed, try looking at it this way: If she cares for you, she may take sheer delight in showing you the ropes.

After all, it might be a treat for a woman to make love with a man who is willing to start from scratch and learn what she alone is all about, as if she were the only woman on earth. It might be a pleasure to be with a man who does not insist that he knows everything. It’s a heady prospect when you think about it: She has the opportunity to become your entire sexual world. She need not compete in your mind with past conquests. She need not suffer your insistent moves learned on other bodies, old habits played out on her as though she were simply a stand-in for some other true love. No, if she gets you she’s going to get you completely, and she will be able to mold you into just the lover she wants. Think of that.

There’s a huge upside to this is what I’m getting at. A huge upside. Now, the downside may be that if you don’t manage the way you tell it to her, she may wonder if there isn’t some other more sinister reason for your lack of experience. So your task is to make sure she understands that this was a rational life choice that you are ready to relinquish now. Oh, that’s the other thing: You have to get ready to go for it. So get ready. Buy some condoms. Make your decision. Then find a good moment when you can take some time to talk it through, and lay it out for her.

The only thing you have to lose is your virginity.

Faking it

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

Can I stop him from going by pretending to come?


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold Fish

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Dear Cold Fish,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m 32 already. Time to get married!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, SEP 25, 2009

I’m tired of fooling around with guys who just want one thing


Dear Cary,

I’m still single at 32 and hate it. I absolutely want to find and fall in love with a man I can spend the rest of my life with. The problem is, I keep ruining things by sleeping with men too soon, often right away. And each time I make this mistake, I am left even more hopeless, feeling worthless, terrified and convinced that I’ll never find a man who wants more from me than sex.

Here’s the latest: I met a great, handsome, friendly, smart, nice guy at a friend’s barbecue. We clearly hit it off, had immediate chemistry, and proceeded to flirt all day. After the barbecue, we all went out to some bars, and we all got pretty drunk. I and my new man-friend continued to flirt, which eventually turned into making out on the dance floor. Fast forward an hour or so, and I’m happily going home with him, and we spend the night together. The next morning is nice, we exchange information and make plans to see each other again. But after our first real date, I never hear from him again. Because this is not my first rodeo, I slowly come to realize, AGAIN, that I’ve completely ruined any chance he and I ever had by sleeping with him right away. And it’s my fault; I ruined it and now I feel absolutely worthless. The whole thing crashes down and it’s MY FAULT. My fault for being spontaneous, for wanting to have fun, for being a fun girl. It’s MY FAULT because it’s my responsibility to say no, to know that a guy couldn’t possibly stop it and beyond that, has no reason to do so.

I keep following this pattern even when I know it won’t bring the outcome I want. But in the glow of the evening, all flushed with flirtation and fun and devil-may-care attitude, I just want to go with the flow, enjoy myself and have some fun. It seems like I have only two options — be myself, have fun, and then get rejected; or be constantly on guard, suspicious of all men, keep them at arm’s length, and maybe get a second date. Neither option seems ideal, but obviously the one I keep choosing is ultimately not going to get me what I want. I try to convince myself that I’m this sexually confident woman who doesn’t follow traditional gender roles, but really I can’t help believing that deep down, I’m just an insecure slut. I get opposing messages from all kinds of media — books, movies, magazines, etc. — some telling me that I should wield my sexual power how I see fit, others saying I should hold back “the goodies” for three dates, or one month, or 90 days, etc. So now I’m asking you. Am I sexually liberated, or just a slut?

Eternal Bachelorette

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Dear Eternal Bachelorette,

I don’t think this is about being either sexually liberated or just a slut. I think it’s about your desire to move from one stage of life to another. It is sad to give up the fun and carefree ways of your current life. This behavior has given you much joy in the past. Yet it is not serving you now. It’s making you unhappy. So you know you must give it up. But you keep doing it.

You don’t think there’s anything wrong, or bad, with what you are doing, but you don’t like the results.

There was a time not long ago when you were fine with what you’re doing. So what changed? You changed. You want something different now.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing.

But how do you become ready to move from one stage of life to the next? It helps to openly admit that it’s going to be sad to leave this stage of life you’ve enjoyed so much. If there were a ceremony to signal your readiness for this change, that would be nice. Perhaps there are, or were, at certain points in your life, but their efficacy was lost, or they were not held at the correct time. But this is no joke.

If you meet a man you like and you are afraid you are going to do the same old thing you always do but want to do something different, before you do anything, call yourself a cab.  Assume that you have nothing to lose by being frank and strong with this man. While the cab is on its way, take this man’s hand and lead him away from the crowd and lean him up against the wall behind the dance hall and tell him that you are so attracted to him in such a special way you’re likely to fuck him right then and there if he doesn’t call you a cab.

If he says, “OK, you’re a cab,” maybe there is a possibility. Put a GPS device on him. Tell him the cab is already coming, you know how to call cabs yourself. Get out of there. Pray that the cab comes fast.

Leave. Go home. Take a shower. Drink some tea. Get some sleep.

Give away what you have been withholding and withhold what you’ve been giving away. That doesn’t mean follow “The Rules.” It means get real. Tell him you want a man to fall in love with and stay with, and if that’s a problem for him then OK there are plenty of chicks. Plenty. Next. Not to be crass. But you have to come from a place of complete honesty and vulnerability and pain. Because if you want a lifetime relationship that is what it will be full of: honesty and vulnerability and pain.

It’s complicated, OK? Every pattern of pain is different. It’s your fingerprint of pain. It’s your snowflake of pain. Everyone is a little bit funny. So study yourself. Begin a course of spiritual growth. Begin meditating daily. Begin asking yourself big, open questions and being ready to receive the answers.

If you seem to be “difficult” or “can’t make up your mind” or are “wasting this dude’s time,” fine. Waste this dude’s time. You are not looking for a dude who is checking his watch to see if you’ve taken your clothes off yet. Not because you’re playing him but because you’re doing just the opposite: You’re being your true, cautious, wounded, loving self. Because for once you’re going to take care of yourself and value your own timing. You do not want a man who is in a hurry. You do not want a man who is looking for convenience. 7-Elevens are convenient. People don’t get married there.

You’re ready for a new kind of life. Open the door to it thoroughly, passionately, completely, and I have a feeling it will come.

Act now for best results.

Big 4-0

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 18, 2002

I have a wonderful daughter but no love or romance, and life just sucks.


Dear Cary,

So, I just turned 40. So far, it sucks, thank you very much.

There’s something about a “magic number” birthday like 40 that brings the suckiness of one’s life particularly to mind.

Not that there aren’t a couple of bright spots. The brightest is my almost-6-year-old daughter, who lives with me three-fourths of the time (the other one-fourth she’s with her mother, 1,000 miles away). Another is my job, which (despite the usual level of political bullshit and general aggro) is pretty damned fun most of the time.

But I’m finding that a life that consists of sleeping, getting the kid ready for school, rushing to work, picking up and feeding the kid, and sleeping again — well, it really leaves a lot of room for improvement.

I admire myself for my commitment to doing the best I can for my kid, and (most of the time, except for the darkest parts of the night) I think I really did do the right thing in fighting like hell to have her go to school in my city (and thus to live the majority of time with me). But a part of me keeps whispering that if my kid remains my “only reason to live,” that’s ultimately going to be destructive for her (and incidentally for me).

Meanwhile, romance is nonexistent — there’s been nobody since my daughter’s mother booted my ass out of the house a couple of months before our daughter was born — and my “sex life” consists of furtive wee-hours masturbation to Internet porn and very occasional (when the kid is out of town) trips to sleazy strip joints.

I never did date much — each of the relationships I’ve had was instigated and pursued by the woman involved — and whenever, now, I think about trying to get involved with anyone, I run up against internal arguments that I can’t rebut: 1) I don’t know how. 2) I can’t see that I have time or room in my life. 3) Who’d have me anyway — a porn-using, over-40, tied-down-with-kid, chronically depressed geek?

Over the past dozen years, I’ve tried breaking out of my destructive patterns with a variety of tools — psychopharmacology (antidepressants), a couple hundred SAA meetings, group and individual therapy, “men’s work” — and it’s all helped a little, but not enough, and going back for more seems as if it would be way too much work for way too little payoff. (Except for the antidepressants, which I keep up with and which probably keep me from completely imploding.)

So I’ve just kept on truckin’ as best I can — as I say, in the past six years, the kid’s been a great motivator. But it’s starting to feel as though I’m not ever going to get unstuck. And, frankly, another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through. What really aches badly — and makes it suck the most — is the loneliness of it all. (At least, that’s how I justify asking you for advice.)

Is there a way out of this that I’m missing?

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

I was very moved by your letter, because I recognize your thinking and the pain that comes with it. I am moved toward a kind of anticipatory grief, as though I see where you are headed in a dream and I cannot catch up with you to tell you to turn. I am chasing you with only a cane to help me hobble over the stones and you are heading faster and faster toward the edge of the cliff.

What sucks is not your life. What sucks is suicide. What sucks is that you are simultaneously inches away from accepting your life as it is and inches away from jumping off a bridge. Compassionate detachment is hard to maintain in the face of that. It is hard to maintain a safe distance when you say that “another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through.”

So let me talk to you as a brother, as a fellow who has walked that dark, oppressive corridor where it is hard to breathe and hard to move. Let me talk to you as someone who doesn’t care to be delicate, but who cares very much for you and the girl.

You say the Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings helped a little but not enough. How do you know what is enough? How do you know where you would be without them? Is it enough that group therapy, individual therapy, men’s groups and SAA kept you from suicide, from arrest, from incarceration, from losing custody of your daughter altogether? It may not feel like it helps enough, but if you’re depressed, you can’t rely on what it feels like. Your feelings aren’t going to tell you the truth; your feelings are going to lead you to a room in a cheap hotel and tell you to put a noose around your neck. You need something better than feelings: You need reality.

And how do you know it would be “destructive” if your daughter were your only reason to live? How many reasons do you need?

Basically you need to make little improvements in your life, and little adjustments in your expectations. You need to bring your life and your expectations closer together, so you’re not living in that airless void between is and should. Make incremental improvements in your life; make incremental adjustments in your expectations.

I’m no expert on psychology, but I can say that cognitive therapy helped me stop using language to reinforce my depression; it helped me construct a new, kinder interpretation of reality. I know that your feelings drive your language, but I also think your language feeds your feelings and that you can change your language to starve your feelings of their false bravado of bleakness. How about making your language more neutral, more factual, pulling it out of your mental shop of horrors? Instead of saying that your wife booted your ass out of the house, how about just saying that you and she split up. Instead of saying that your life consists of just sleeping, rushing, feeding, rushing, sleeping, try saying that you have a very busy and full life.

And instead of saying there are three internal arguments that you can’t rebut, why not try rebutting them? The first one, in fact, is eminently rebuttable on its face because it’s meaningless: “I don’t know how.” Of course you know how. If you didn’t know how to get involved with someone you could never have gotten married. The worst you could do is just repeat what you did the first time. The worst a woman could do is boot your ass out of the house, or, to use our modified language: The worst that could happen is you form a relationship and then it comes to an end. How bad could that be?

The second assertion is also easily rebuttable. Many single working parents find room in their lives and time for relationships. What is so different about your life? Are you on a book tour? I’m sure you could find the room and the time.

The third assertion is not really an assertion, but a question. What woman out there, indeed, would be interested in an intelligent, employed single father, evidently smart and tough, who is managing tolerably well with his share of human challenges? You have enough grit to take care of this girl, and that’s admirable.

I’m not saying you have to be happy. I don’t even know if it’s within your power to be happy. But I think it’s within your power to stay well back from the brink of suicide and hopeless depression. Maybe that’s just as good as it gets. Maybe it’ll have to be.

As I said, I was very moved by your letter. I don’t think there’s some way out that you’re missing. I think you know what to do and you just need to be reminded. Stay in touch with your groups. Exercise. Eat right. Get enough sleep. Keep taking your antidepressants. Remember: Your daughter won’t let you down. And some of us out here, if you just stick around, we won’t let you down either.

I found a girl in my son’s bed

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 30, 2009

I don’t think I’m comfortable with my 17-year-old bringing 16-year-old girls home — but what to do?


Dear Cary:

Last night I discovered my 17-year-old son brought a girl to stay the night. To say the least it was unexpected and I don’t think I was expected to find out. I found out when I woke up around 4:30 in the morning and went to have a glass of water and found an extra pair of shoes at the door.

I entered my son’s room to find a young girl of maybe 16 in his bed. I didn’t say anything (I think shock set in for a while) and said to him aloud that I wasn’t really sure what to say but would talk with him later on. I didn’t kick her out. I had to leave later that morning and my son worked at night so I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet. After thinking about it I’ve decided that it’s not something I’m comfortable with and plan on telling him I don’t wish for it to happen again. I also plan on reminding him that he comes from a long line of successful impregnators so he would be wise to keep protection handy.

I’m a fairly liberal parent and give plenty of leeway to my children. I’m a single father as well. My son is an A student who holds down two jobs, and he is going into grade 12 this fall. He’s easygoing, ambitious and intelligent. I’ve never minded him having girlfriends. I expect he will respect my wishes and not bring her again overnight.

Is there something else I should say to him?

Concerned

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Dear Concerned,

There are many things you might say. But first: What is the girl’s name and age? Where does she live? What are her parents’ names, and their phone number and address? Those are reasonable questions. You may reasonably want to know much more — what precautions are they taking, how long have they been sexually active together, and how many other partners has your son had? But you need at least to know who the girl is and what her situation is.

Let’s hope she is at least 16. Otherwise he may have broken the law. And even if she is 16, in some states, under some combination of circumstances, sexual activity between them might be illegal. For instance, according to the age-of-consent laws linked to in the previous sentence, in New York state, “Sex with a person under 17 is a misdemeanor if the perpetrator is at least 16 (see infra). (‘Sexual misconduct,’ NY Penal Law § 130.20.)” So if they had sex in the state of New York, he may have committed a misdemeanor. It might not hurt to consult a family lawyer.

That said, might we talk a bit more broadly, and at distinct cross-purposes to what has just been said? For I am about to critique our entire society for doing what I have just done: treating sex first as a problem and second as a gift.

To begin again with an innocent mind cleansed of the obvious, let us ask: Why is sex bad?

We know that sex is not bad per se. Yet we routinely greet the sexual awakening as a problem. We do not celebrate it. It represents for your son a unique rite of passage. Your son is having sex! He must be very happy about that. He is also proud. He may have wanted you to discover him in bed with a girl. No matter what you said, just knowing that you saw him means a lot to him. This is not the pride of callous male conquest. It is rather the pride of discovery and arrival. It is probably something he would like to share, if he could do so safely, with fear neither of ridicule nor of corny congratulations in the gruff, squirm-inducing way of men uneasy with intimacy.

It is too bad that we do not have family rituals for celebrating such a thing. Weddings have metastasized into grotesque spectacles of affluence perhaps in part because they no longer represent the moment of sexual awakening. There ought to be rituals for that, the actual coming-of-age.

Fat chance.

Imagine trying to institute such a thing.

The very idea could get you arrested.

And yet I remember well.

I remember the clatter of dishes at dawn, tiptoeing out of a girl’s bedroom before the mom noticed. This happened a good bit in high school. And though we knew we had broken rules, we had no consciousness of having done wrong, only that we had done right in contravention of the many unreasonable restrictions imposed on us by ignorant adults. We felt such pleasure and beauty, such happiness and satisfaction! How could the gods not look favorably upon us — even if adults sought to constrain our desires?

And what were we supposed to do — emulate the adults around us whose arid, pleasureless lives filled us with dread? We did not wish to emulate a society of adults seemingly locked in a dry, tortured existence. We did not want to learn how to live our lives as they were living theirs. Why would we? What did they have to offer us?

So we defied them, quietly seeking pleasure where we could — in the darkness, in the early morning hours, in the quiet, air-conditioned rooms of our parents’ houses while they slept. We had found something that seemed to fulfill our destiny, ill-understood as it was, and we happily pursued it as though it were our life’s calling.

Of course, whatever your experience of sex was as a youth, you now are an adult and responsible for enforcing all the adult rules and so, too, of course you are uncomfortable with the idea of your son having sex because he’s your son, after all. Of course it gives you pause. How could it not? Let us count the ways in which the issue is bound to cause you discomfort:

You don’t control it. It could have bad consequences. You’re probably supposed to stop it. If you don’t stop it you may be held up to public censure and private condemnation. You might find yourself with a granddaughter or grandson. You might have to pay for a wedding. You might have to tell the girl to leave. You might have to police your house more vigilantly. You might have to think about your son having sex. You might be troubled by thoughts that seem just plain wrong: You shouldn’t be picturing your son having sex. You may find you carry a deep-seated taboo about that. It just plain isn’t right. Other things that may happen that you could find yourself worrying about: Your son may come to emotional harm. His girlfriend may come to emotional harm. You may find yourself wanting to console them or fix things you cannot fix. The parents of the girl may call you. You may feel responsible for your son’s actions even though you know that properly speaking you cannot be responsible for something you knew nothing about.

And yet in the midst of all this, you might wonder why this beautiful event, which is celebrated in rituals and songs and dances and paintings and sculptures and myth the world over, is cause for such concern.

Sex may bring pregnancy and the threat of disease. There are religious taboos in addition to the many unpleasant repercussions mentioned above. It is an issue for a father to deal with. It is many things. But while you do what must be done, as a father, as an adult, try to take a minute to celebrate this as well. It is also an awakening.

 

Is my son gay?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUL 5, 2005

As a mom, I can’t help wondering — but is it any of my business?


Dear Cary,

I’m writing to you A) because I like your column, and B) because you were once a 20-year-old male. I’ve got one of them — a 20-year-old son, not a column — and I’d appreciate some advice.

“Kent” is a good kid. Actually more than a good kid; he’s a bit of a phenom. Very bright, high-achieving, athletic, popular, good-looking, yadda yadda. Top student in high school, president of this and that, and he’s now attending a wonderful university on a pretty wonderful scholarship. He’s funny and good company and we’ve always had an enjoyable, mutually respectful relationship. I feel very fortunate to have such a great kid.

So … is there a problem? I dunno. Is it a problem that a young man as described above has never had a girlfriend? Dates to the prom and such, sure. But not, to my knowledge, a romantic relationship, ever. He’s always had good friends who are girls, but he hangs out primarily with other bright guys not unlike himself.

My gaydar has never “pinged.” My husband (his stepfather) says firmly, “He’s not gay.” And if he is, well, he is. I guess what my dilemma boils down to is this: Is there any acceptable way for me to inquire into his personal life? Am I totally overstepping to even wonder? I suppose I wouldn’t be, at least as much, if I wasn’t watching his younger brother throwing himself into the joys of girlfriends with such delight. It makes me wonder why that didn’t happen with Kent.

I suppose you’ll ask, “Why do you need to know?” And I don’t, of course. It’s his life. But I am nagged at by the thought that if a young man were having concerns in the sexuality department, it could be an awfully isolating experience. If anything is going on, I hate to think of him going through it alone.

Can you give me any guidance?

Stymied

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Dear Stymied,

I was indeed once a 20-year-old male. For a while, I was even younger than that. I remember when I was around 16 my dad and I were out back behind the garage and he was trying to talk to me about my girlfriend. I remember thinking, “What does ‘knocked-up’ mean?”

He was trying to ascertain certain facts and issue certain instructions regarding the activities my girlfriend and I were engaging in. But the language he used was this weird hybrid of delicate Victorian circumlocution and World War II sailor talk. So I could not be sure if he was saying that we should stop our activities altogether (“She’s not some tart, or harpie, or gold-digger, is she?”), use condoms (“Pop two bits in a Texaco slot machine and get yourself some rubbers!”), or perhaps just follow Supreme Court rulings a little more closely (“If she gets knocked up, you’d better hope you’ve got John Law on your side”). This was a few years before the Roe vs. Wade decision. I told him she was on the pill. He looked relieved — and also, if I remember correctly, a little jealous. The whole conversation, as one would expect, was awkward.

Today, for public health reasons, parents have been instructed in how to talk to their children about condoms, AIDS and STDs, but that doesn’t mean that truly intimate things are any easier to talk about. The intimate is, by nature, difficult.

So how would I like to have been spoken to at that time, or a little later, as a 20-year-old, about the matter of my sexuality? By the age of 20, I had a passionate, if incomplete, vision of where I was headed in my life. I pictured myself being married and monogamous, but I did not picture myself raising a family (I am married with no children). I pictured myself moving to a major coastal city and trying to get involved in literature and the arts (here I am in San Francisco, working for Salon). These things, even at that time, I think I could have told my parents, had we been able to have a kind of neutral, open-ended talk about my dreams for the future.

If I had been gay, I think at the age of 20 I might not have been ready to proclaim myself as such to my parents. But my vision of the future would probably have contained the essential elements. I would probably have not seen a wife in the picture. I would probably have seen a life primarily occupied with my same-sex friends — the bright young men you refer to. The things I would leave out — dating women, romancing women, marriage to a woman — would probably indicate to a perceptive person where I was headed, whether I wanted to disguise my final destination or not. So rather than asking your son point blank, Are you gay? I suggest you take some time — a good amount of time — to ask him about his dreams for the future.

He will better be able to answer you if he understands what you want. What you want is something a little amorphous that yet requires great precision in its description: You want to know how to dream about the future.

Put it this way: You’re a mother. Mothers dream about the future, about family and what their kids will do. Your son appears in your dreams about the future. But you do not know how to dress him, what occupation to give him, whether to make him married, single, divorced, living with somebody, what. Likewise, sons also dream about the future. They do not want to deceive their mothers. But neither do they wish to be labeled. I’m sure your son would like to give you some reliable sign of what he envisions for himself, as long as he can do it without being misunderstood or pigeonholed.

So I think you absolutely should talk to him about what kind of life he wants to have for himself. I could imagine something like this:

“You know, ‘Kent,’ I’m a mom, and naturally I think a lot about my kids and the future and our relationships and the things that stand between us and greater understanding, and I’ve been wondering for a long time now about some of the things we pretend to be when we’re really not, so I’m just going to ask you point blank: Are you really named ‘Kent’”?

To which he may reply, “No, Mom, my name is not ‘Kent’! That’s the name you gave that advice columnist, asking him if I’m gay!” [LAUGHTER]

OK, so much for sitcom dialogue. I can’t put words in your mouth, but I can suggest a general outline for the kind of conversation that will help you. You need, first of all, the proper setting. For instance, a long drive is a great place, because he can’t get out of the car to get a soda or change the channel on the television. Dinner in a private place, or a long walk are also good settings.

I would indeed tell him that you are wondering what the future will hold for him. I would say that there are a lot of choices one can make in life, and that it’s vital to be true to oneself when one makes those choices. (Each choice is a blow of the sculptor’s chisel — is that too corny?) Tell him that you sense he is building a very accomplished and admirable life, that you see it in every decision he makes. But tell him that you want to get a better sense of where he is going with this life of his. I would stress that your deepest wish is that he make his decisions in accord with his truest self.

You might also say that the whole question of whether one is to marry and have children or not marry, or whether one even wants to have sexual relations with women or with men, is something that often evolves over a great deal of time, and that one need not place oneself in a box at the age of 20 and say, “This is what I am.” One’s identity can be more fluid than that. It can evolve. But tell him that you’ve noticed that he hasn’t had any serious girlfriends and you wonder if that means anything. One simply wants to know how to think about another’s life, where it is heading, what the choices are, what the possibilities are. What kind of future does he envision? Is it a future with a romantic partner? Is it a future with a man or a woman? Are there kids in that future?

I would not insist that he declare himself in any final way. But if he balks at discussing the future at all with you, there I would press him. I would not say that’s OK, we don’t have to talk about the future. You do have to talk about the future. Having achieved much already, he obviously thinks about the future; he thinks about rewards and consequences. He’s not some slacker dude who lives in the moment. If he resists discussing the future with you, he may be frightened. If you sense this, I would not let him veer away from it merely because he is frightened. This is where you can actually do some good; you can lend him some adult strength. This is where some pressure could be helpful. If indeed he has a secret to entrust to you, this is your chance to accept it. Don’t let the opportunity slide by. Resist the impulse to take off the pressure. Let it be an uncomfortable moment. Remain silent and let him speak if he wishes to. Do not interrupt him. Hear him out.

I have had letters from young men who have not yet gotten involved with women because of various things — religious fears, fears of disease, shyness, ignorance about courtship, performance fears, trauma because of one bad experience. What these young men had in common was fear of some sort. The fact that he hasn’t had a long-term girlfriend yet doesn’t mean he’s gay. We don’t know what it means. But I think you are right to try to help him talk about something that he may feel he’s going through alone.

The trick is to give him enough room to talk — and, as I said, to apply gentle pressure if he becomes afraid to speak.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I want to leave my marriage but I’m afraid

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Dear Cary,

Caitlyn Jenner recently made the poignant comment that, had she not transitioned, when the time came for her to die (as a man), she would have lain on her deathbed and thought, “I have blown my entire life.” I cannot stop thinking about that; it haunts me daily. Here’s my story.

When I was in my mid-thirties, I married a man that I did not love. In my young single years, I had suffered through several relationships in which I was crazy about my man, but he always left me. I felt as if something was terribly wrong with me. Every friend I had ever had was married, as well as all my younger siblings. Then, along came John. He was smart, educated, interesting and from a good family, and most importantly, he seemed to adore me. A few weeks into our dating, he surprised me with a diamond and said he wanted to marry me, and soon. Let’s just say I was swept off my feet by the proposal, but not by the man. He was, by now, my very best friend, but I was not in the slightest sexually attracted to him. I rationalized that problem away by telling myself that nearly every married couple I knew said that the sex “goes away” after a while, so what difference did it make that I was starting out my marriage that way? I was terribly lonely and thought this man could give me a good life. I married him.

Now we have been married over 30 years and I feel every day as if I’m dying a long, slow death of my own making. We have not had sex in 15 years. We have not even kissed in that time. I am starving emotionally and sexually. I fantasize every day about other men. And here’s another deeply sad thing to me. After we had been married only about a year, I suggested that we move from our small blue-collar town to a slightly bigger and more cosmopolitan town where we could both further our careers and also have a richer cultural life. He said to me, “If you want to go there, go ahead, but you’ll be going alone.” At another time, when I tried to talk to him about going to a counselor, he told me to go alone “because it wasn’t his problem.” Oh, and also, he added that if I left him, to “never plan to come back because he wasn’t going through all that.”

Let me add, too, that in all this time he has never added my name to the deed on our house, a fact I did not realize for many years until I stumbled upon it in our files. When I told him I very much wanted to be on the deed, he said it “wasn’t necessary.”  When his parents decided to hire first one, and later another estate planning lawyer, I found out that in both instances when writing their wills, they “forgot” to provide for me, their only daughter-in-law with whom they never had a cross word.

Cary, I am now 65 years old. Maybe I could live to be 80, as my mom did. But I don’t have enough money of my own to live on. If I leave him, I’m at the mercy of the divorce judge and we don’t have a large income as it is. I think, at this point, it is the fear of being extremely poor that keeps me here. I don’t know what to do. I want out so badly, but I’m so afraid of the future. Please help me.

Overwhelmed with Regret

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Dear Overwhelmed with Regret,

It is time for you to begin the biggest journey of your life. It is time for you to begin your journey of self-discovery. There are many ways to do this. I believe one of the best ways is to find a good psychotherapist and begin a program of regular weekly meetings for at least a year. What you want in a psychotherapist is one who can take you deep into the deepest regions of your self, so you can examine the choices you have made and come to love yourself enough to forgive yourself for some of those decisions.

This journey might happen in other ways as well. It might happen as a spiritual search. It might happen as the result of a return to your church of origin, or as a program of seeking; you might also begin it by attending a 12-step group that focuses on relationship issues. The reason I think psychotherapy is so ideally suited to you, however, is that it is safe and structured and can be fit into a life without disrupting that life. It can be done privately without causing a lot of gossip.

If you were younger you might take off in a van with a bunch of hippies and live in the Arizona desert. You might go backpacking in Europe, or live on a farm or a kibbutz. But I sense that you are settled in your habits and that such radical moves might result in unacceptable controversy and conflict in your marriage. That is why I think that a program of psychotherapy with a really good psychotherapist is your best shot at regaining your sense of who you are, why you have made the choices you have made, and what kind of life you want to live from now on.

I feel the regret in your voice and it saddens me but also fills me with righteous anger and hope, for I know that regret can be washed away. I know this. I know that when we can cobble together enough self-love and self-understanding, we can see our former selves with compassion. We can understand why we did the things we did, and we can forgive ourselves.

I hope you can let go of this regret and learn to see your life as the life you were meant to have. In fact, I feel this strongly! I feel it is urgent! I feel that you must find a way to do this, to change how you are seeing your life!

Psychotherapy is hard work. It is hard work to undo habits of thinking. It is hard work to feel grief for missed opportunities, and to face searing emotions that have been buried. But it is also joyous work, to feel for the first time in years that vibrant self you once knew. It is joyous work to replace regret with compassion, to replace resentment with acceptance, to replace baffled hurt with understanding.

You can do this. You can learn a new vocabulary so that you can speak of your past decisions as ones that made sense for who you are, or who you were at the time. This new vocabulary will talk about “meeting needs.” You had certain needs at the time, needs for companionship and security, needs to feel accepted by your family, and you did the things that would meet those needs. You did these things while thinking rationally. You made decisions that made sense at the time. You made these decisions while acting in a powerful nexus of family and society, of beliefs both spoken and unspoken, to meet needs and expectations both spoken and unspoken. For instance, at the time, it seemed reasonable to you that if sex went away eventually in a marriage, perhaps it would not be that important. This is not such a crazy idea. Other things were more important to you. You needed to be in a relationship with a man. You found a man and you decided to begin that relationship.

As it turned out, there were dead spots in the relationship; there were areas in which your husband was terse and adamant and uncompromising. These were political as well as personal matters, but you were not in a position to take them up in a political sense, so they remained simply personal matters, matters settled within the silent crucible of a cold marriage.

You lived through all that. You deal with it. You endured. You have lived a long time now, and you are a different person. Different things are important to you. So it is time to begin your life’s journey of self-discovery. You don’t need to leave your husband to do this. You can do it while married. You don’t need to try to fix your marriage. You don’t need to get your husband’s OK. You don’t need to even concern him with the things that you learn in therapy.

All you need to do is to begin, on your own, your journey of self-discovery.

The self has a language. It is not a language spoken publicly. It is spoken in private. It is a language of needs and fears, of hidden motives. This is the language that is unearthed in psychotherapy; it is the language you have been speaking all along to yourself, but when you begin speaking this language of the self aloud to a person whom you trust, this self, this self that has been buried and neglected, this self that you fear dying without unfolding, this self comes alive and will rescue you.

The true you is there, waiting to be invited out. This is what you can do in psychotherapy. You can learn to speak the language of the self and then invite your self out. This will be an immense relief.

Here is what I think about such dramatic changes as the one in which Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. I would say that although it made worldwide headlines, it was a completely private matter. Since he was a famous person, when he changed sex naturally it became a matter of public interest. But the important distinction I would make is that it was a private matter of the soul, or true self; what Caitlyn did was rescue her self, her true self, and this was a private matter. Other people undergo similar transformations; though they are not so visible, they are equally dramatic, subjectively.

You, too, can rescue your self, your true self. It does not have to be done in the tabloids. Nor does it have to be done as a divorced woman. To do this work, it really does not matter if you stay married or do not stay married. In the course of this journey, it may become clear that you have to get a divorce. Or it may become clear that you can remain married to this man and find your own happiness, a separate happiness.

The important thing is to embark on the great journey of your life, the journey of self-discovery.

I wish you luck on your journey. You will perhaps meet some of us on the way, some of us who are also on such journeys, in various guises, in various vehicles, on various roads, with various destinations.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

Help! I’m falling for a fat man!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 27, 2006

I like this guy a lot, but the poundage is a turnoff.


Dear Cary,

Currently I’m dating a man who just won’t leave my consciousness, not for a moment. I think of him all the time. He’s pretty special.

My problem is this: This wonderful man with whom I’ve shared some amazing moments and do share a phenomenal connection … he’s overweight. He’s not merely out of shape or a hike and a swim away from fit, he’s fat.

I’ve made a conscious effort to look past it (“it” being my own stupid, shallow, superficial, counterproductive reaction to the weight), but there it is, all of the time. In bed, he’s attentive, very strong, wonderful — we enjoy genuine chemistry — but even when the lights are out I find it difficult to navigate his flesh. I’m a smallish person stature-wise; it’s difficult for me to wind around a man with what little leg I’ve been given, never mind a man the size of one and a half men.

Worse yet is I fear being a selfish lover, because I don’t fantasize pleasing him the way I would ordinarily with a slimmer man. I’m intimidated, daunted and generally unprepared for certain activities.

I don’t know what to do. It’s a turnoff. And worst of all, part of the reason it’s a turnoff is that I see myself with a head-turner when the lights are on. I’ve always been with striking men — not pretty boys, but men who had that quality; after all, it’s that quality which turns my head in the first place. And this man just doesn’t light my fire in that way. I’m attracted to nearly everything about him but his size. So he doesn’t light my fire, and doesn’t feed my ego in the company of strangers. I hate myself even for admitting it; it’s just so superficial.

Am I trying to convince myself that we have a future together? Is there any way I can get past my bias and enjoy this person for who he is in total?

Weighing in, in Washington

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Weighing in,

You haven’t gotten this far by pretending. You’ve gotten this far by being straightforward and honest, and I suggest you continue being straightforward and honest.

This is harder, of course, because we are freaked out about fat. It is one of our crazy things. It goes deep. It has its paradoxes and corollaries as well — we are freaked out about skinny, and we are freaked out about food, and the planet, and the body and money and exercise and power. We are a freaked-out culture. We are all freaked out.

The fat man knows this.

If you are a fat man in America you cannot help noticing that people are freaked out about fat. People will suggest exercise bikes. They will feed you lean portions. They will say to each other, “It’s his fault, and it’s disgusting; he must have no willpower; he must eat the wrong things; he must be repressing something; he must not respect himself.” And what does the fat guy say? He says, Yes, thank you for that astute observation, I have indeed noticed that I am fat.

So I suggest what you do is go in your backyard and sit quietly and meditate on the fact that you are not turned on by this fat man. Meditate on the fact that you like him very much but he doesn’t turn you on. Wait for something to come to you. Accept the answer that comes. If you come to the feeling that you have to end it, then end it. If you come to the feeling that you want to stay with him for a while more, then stay with him for a while more. If you come to both, then put each on an apothecary’s scale, weigh them and choose the one that weighs a little more.

Don’t try to reason it out and don’t guilt-trip yourself. We don’t know why we are the way we are. It’s not our job to know. Just meditate on it and wait for an answer.

Maybe you meditate on it and the answer that comes is that it’s just not right for you. OK. Make a tearful goodbye. Or maybe you meditate on it and it continues to intrigue you and so you stay with him for a while. What’s the harm in that? Maybe you learn something new. Maybe you have sex and it turns out to be good. Maybe it’s just some learning you have to do — maybe you are not used to having sex in ways that are not automatic; maybe there would be some learning at first and then it would be automatic, just as it always was. What can it hurt to find out?

And by the way, why are you in such a hurry lately? Two or three dates is not all that much time. Human emotion goes slowly. Insight is a complex computation; it can take days on our little computers.

Besides, consider: The sex is great in the beginning lots of times. This you no doubt know. It doesn’t always stay great. It might dwindle down. It might be great at first with some guy you don’t like that much otherwise. It might dwindle down and then what have you got? A guy you don’t like all that much anyway whom you don’t like to fuck much either anymore.

Some things are painful and sad and wrong but nonetheless true.

We are the way we are for reasons unknown to us. You needn’t feel guilty if it isn’t working out. Quiet your mind and wait for the answer to come to you.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My new boyfriend’s mom has cancer

 

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Hi Cary,

I am seeing a great guy, but things have recently become very ambiguous between us and I’m not sure the best course of action for me.

We were dating for a little over two months, it was a slowly deepening fantastic and mature relationship, and I care for him, he clearly cares for me, we were falling in love. But as it happened, on our second date he found out his mom has a widespread and fast moving cancer with unknown prospects for treatment.

He didn’t seem much affected by it at first, and he consistently deflected my offers of support and my concern. But over the weeks I felt like he was holding back, being emotionally distant, reluctant to fall for me, and eventually started contacting me less and being less available to see me.

I asked him about it, and he came back and said that due to his mother’s illness something fell apart in him and he can’t manage to be in a relationship right now, that things were great with me and it isn’t me, but he can’t tolerate the contrasting pleasure and pain, he can’t be there for me, he can’t uphold his end of a relationship, and he doesn’t want to hurt me or let me down, that he has to do this alone, that it’s simpler and a relationship would complicate things. He didn’t say the words break-up or just-be-friends, but he made it clear we are no longer in a relationship. Since three weeks we are still in almost daily contact and see each other around once a week, we have joint projects and plans to do things together, he’s still affectionate. Last time I saw him we were overwhelmed by our mutual attraction and made love all night, but in the morning he was distant and bothered by my presence. His behavior is quite clear that it’s no longer a relationship, but something else and rather ambiguous.

We have both handled this situation quite delicately, thoughtfully, and I want to be there for him as much as he will accept me, as much as he needs, but I feel tortured and confused about what that means for us. We have feelings for each other, we are attracted to each other, we enjoy each other’s company, we have joint projects together… but he isn’t available for a relationship.

How can I find a way for me to continue to be there for him without torturing myself always pining for more, how can I find a peaceful sustainable existence in this ambiguity? How can I ride this out with him, deepening our connection, our intimacy, and be there in the months or years when he is ready for a serious relationship? How can I give my support and love, but not expect him to reciprocate ? Should I invest myself in my single non-romantic life? Should I move on and date other people ?

Thanks for your help 🙂

G

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Dear G,

Just tell him, clearly and often, that you are there for him during this time and that he does not need to right the balance sheet. There is no balance sheet. There is just you. You are there for him and that’s the end of it. That’s what he needs and it’s what you can give him.

You say you feel tortured and confused about what this means for you. It’s not surprising that you’re confused. One set of rituals has collided with another.

But there is no mystery about what is required. What is required is that you behave like a good, caring human being. If you make love you make love. If you don’t talk for a while you don’t talk for a while. The rules of romance are suspended. If you have needs for companionship or sex that he cannot meet, do not feel bad about meeting them in other ways. Being there for him doesn’t mean you put your life on hold. Just be there for him when you can be. Contact him regularly and don’t require him to call you back. Just remind him regularly that you are there.

Relationships deepen when one partner suffers a loss. In unguarded moments your friend will reveal hidden strengths and weaknesses. His core beliefs will come to the fore. You will see who he is.

It’s possible that you will be surprised by what you see. It’s possible, likewise, that he may not be able to be intimate with you in any meaningful way while he is facing the possible loss of his mother.

What I meant when I said that two sets of rituals had collided is that the ritual of dating has collided with the ritual of friendship. The confusion that results shows just how artificial the expectations of the dating relationship are. It seems to presume that no unforeseen human events will occur. When they do occur, the dating ritual participants are thrown into indecision.

This illustrates how dating rituals distort our natural instincts toward compassion and caring. It’s very interesting: If he were a friend, even a friend you’ve only just met, you would not be confused about how to respond to this event in his life. You would express your concern and make yourself available to him. But because you are following a dating ritual, each of you feels strangely compelled to apologize for the disruption.  It is as though people date in a vacuum, excluding all real-life events.

So the important thing is to act in the human sphere, to act in friendship. Put “the relationship” on hold.

Let go of your hopes and expectations for a relationship and just be there. Be a good human being and a good friend. You know how to do that.

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