Dashed against the rocks

 

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 20, 2004

I’m in love with a siren who lured me and is now destroying me.


Dear Cary,

I have been involved with a woman for one and a half years. She is well mannered, dresses nicely, has style, is extremely intelligent, and is a stunning beauty. We also share many views on the world and, for example, an obsession with the same country that we would both like to emigrate to. We are the kind of couple where everybody turns around to tell us how beautiful we look together.

This woman has given me some of the best times of my life. I loved and trusted her with all my heart. But I got burned, and badly. A description of the depression I’ve gone through would not fit into one letter. She has given me some of the most beautiful times of my life and she has been the cause for the most depressing and sad times that I ever had to endure. She abused my trust, betrayed me, lied to me, dumped me for someone else. That was in the middle of our relationship and it’s the cause for our breaking up for over a month.

But I just couldn’t let go. When she told me that she still had feelings for me and that maybe we could make it work, I immediately went for it, despite much advice to the contrary from friends and family. And it worked well, after a time even very well.

And then it turned back into a disaster. As we both went off for university, she demanded attention that she knew I couldn’t potentially give her and compromises that she knew I couldn’t make. I tried very hard to make it work, to convince her that I loved her. Her reaction was indifference. She was just interested in her new friends, her new life — without me. That was last October, which is when I broke up with her, again.

Even after weeks, I thought of her every day, feelings alternating between anger and longing. I didn’t talk to her for over two months — didn’t help. As I was finally starting to get a handle on things, she called me again and said that she didn’t want to lose somebody she once trusted so much, that she’d like to keep me at least as a friend.

When we met again, all the signs were still there. The looks, the occasional hand on the other’s leg. The close-to-infinite goodbye hug. We started talking on the phone and e-mailing on an almost daily basis. Oh my god, I was back in her power again.

I can’t pull myself out of it, even though she’s been very ambivalent. One day, she tells me how much she misses me, that if I asked her to marry me, she’d say yes. The next day, she doesn’t even answer the phone. Then again, she blames me for everything that ever went wrong in our relationship.

Maybe this is just because there are hardly any girls in my small university in this small, depressing town? Maybe it’s because the advice to get myself somebody else is not an option?

Why can’t I let go? I feel like Odysseus passing the sirens. She draws me to her with her magical song and whenever I come near her, I get smashed on her deadly rocks. How can I escape her? I don’t think stuffing wax into my ear would work, much less having my friends tie me to the mast. But what can I do?

Bound by Love

Dear Bound by Love,

What Odysseus did may sound impossible or useless if taken literally. But metaphorically speaking it’s exactly what you have to do. Odysseus had his mates tie him to the mast. You need to have your friends tie you to a decision. Swear an oath to banish this woman from your life, and have your friends swear to hold you to it.

Now, Odysseus earned his crew’s affection and obedience through heroism. Few of us command such power over men. Moreover, few will truly grasp what you are asking. You may have several “friends” who enjoy your company and think you are a good guy, but to do what you require takes a maturity that doesn’t always show on the surface. So choose one person, and choose wisely. You have to place complete trust in this person.

Make a signed, written agreement. Say that if you should announce that you’re going to see her, they have permission to hold you down, slap you silly, and lock you in your room. Promise not to press charges if they should abduct you in a car and tie you to a tree in the woods. This is what it will take.

You’re in this woman’s power. We don’t have to talk about why, for now. We just have to recognize reality. You’re in her power. Her power is in her presence and in her beauty. It’s a delicious power, but for you it’s deadly. The only way to get out of her power is to get out of her presence. Don’t talk to her, don’t look at her. If you find yourself thinking about her, fine. No man could keep you from doing that. Let yourself think about her, but only as one regards an object in the mind. Do not allow yourself to speculate about her. Get my drift? Whenever you regard her in your mind, be sure there is a fence around her. Do not think about the ways in which next time it might be different. Do not take down that fence.

Furthermore, if you regard her in your mind, regard her only from the rear, as though she is receding from view. Do not look at her face. Do not let her eyes fall on you. Do not let her approach. Only regard her as an object receding into the distance. If you imagine her eyes looking at you, you will be in her power again.

Face it: You’re addicted to her, OK? So you can’t have her anymore! Not even a little piece! You’re done! You’re through! It’s over, soldier!

As to why you are in her power: There is something of narcissism in this — for instance, in the pride you take in being seen as a stunning couple, and in the way she so pleasingly mirrors yourself in her thoughts and ambitions. Odysseus was not a narcissist; he was a warrior; he knew himself and he knew the other, both as enemy and lover. He knew his weaknesses and took precautions. His problem with the sirens was a problem of temptation, not narcissism. But narcissism appears to be the focus of your heroic struggle. So consider that you cannot look away from her because she is an image of your own beauty. Think of her as a reflection of yourself, and consider that the reason you long for her so is that you long for yourself, your own beauty. It’s an unfathomable paradox, this narcissism thing … but maybe that tear that Narcissus sheds, the tear that disrupts his perfect reflection in the river, perhaps that is what is needed here. Perhaps what that myth is saying is that rescue — death in Narcissus’ case, but we needn’t be so literal — comes through the power of emotion to disrupt the perfect reflection: when through long unrequited desire for perfection we finally break down and feel the tragic impossibility of such a union, the power of that emotion shatters the entrancing image, and we are free. Just think of Narcissus’ death at that point as the death of the narcissistic self.

Or think of it this way: The more you suffer, the worse she looks.

Boys leave

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jan 28, 2004

Why was I the cat’s meow on the fifth date and a sex buddy by the sixth?


Dear Cary,

So it’s happening again: Girl meets boy. Girl likes boy. Gets boy’s number. Girl and boy begin dating. Boy sends all of the “very interested” signals. Girl responds in kind. Incredible sex. Eye-gazing. Natural feeling, intelligent conversation. Then the sixth date: No eye contact, little attempt at conversation, unimpassioned sex. Boy abruptly, awkwardly leaves that morning, making no mention of weekend plans. Boy insults girl with small talk. Girl feels used and disappointed. Girl writes Cary.

What’s going on here? Seriously. This has happened to me before. But I didn’t expect it from this guy. He’s 33. He’s in med school. He’s traveled extensively with the military. He’s bright and clever. He lights up a room. He has a zest for life that’s devastatingly attractive to me. He’s confident.

My male friends tell me that I intimidate guys. I’ve tried to tone it down. With this guy I really took it easy. Followed his lead. Was always very much myself but let a little more of the softness through. I avoided all the old traps. It seemed to work. I was pleased with myself for breaking old patterns. Then, sure enough, with no warning he’s gone. Vacant.

Typically this is when I begin to act like a circus clown, jumping all around trying to pinpoint whatever it is that will take him back to where he was before, and this is when it gets ugly and I get pathetic, and the whole thing is scrapped (usually with good reason by then). But I really don’t want that to happen this time. I want to change this pattern. I want to understand what’s going on here.

I really like this one. I do. I rarely meet people that are as passionate about living as I am, and it felt so nice to not feel like someone’s specimen. He doesn’t need my energy to feed off of — he has his own. I trusted that he wouldn’t be another man who would profess how incredible I am and then in the next breath tell me that I’m “too much.”

I feel hurt and disappointed. How was I the cat’s meow on the fifth date and a sex buddy by the sixth? Cary, can you tell me what happened at five and a half? I can’t think of anything that I did. I really can’t. I’d tell you if I could. Why did he turn off, and more importantly how should I respond? Typically I would call and confront him (weirdness ensues), but this time I want to see what he does, and what you say, before I make a move to unearth whatever’s going on.

How should I proceed? And is there some way I can avoid this in the future?

A Little Broken Hearted … Again

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Dear A Little Broken Hearted,

As I go over your letter, trying to locate you, the image I get is of a woman spinning wildly like a child on a gleaming ballroom floor, throwing sparks into the night, arranging the very universe by her dancing, drunk with attractive power. I see a woman who looks only outward at the shiny, spinning world full of lights but never inward lest she fall, a woman who sees around her other shiny, spinning, fabulous dancers and is briefly drawn into their orbits as they are drawn into hers, forming figure eights as they orbit each other on a great dance floor in some marble ballroom. It is a fabulous, glittering ball, half-mystical, and in this ballroom there is no conversation, only dancing and gesture; nor is there any progression, or any time; there is only whirling and more whirling and when the whirling stops there is only a dreamless sleep of exhaustion in plush red banquet chairs, and then more dancing. There is no remembering of hard times here in this ballroom, nor is there any self-doubt, nor are any names exchanged. No one can remember the last time the music stopped, and no one can remember the last time a contemplative word was uttered. This is not a place where contemplative people come; it is just a whirling ball, glittering and festive and timeless.

That is how I picture you, as a glittering dancer at a ball, who met another glittering dancer and danced wordlessly until you exhausted him and then he whirled away. But when he whirled away you were sad. You expected something else. But what was it you expected? No one in this ballroom knew that you expected anything else. All anyone does here is dance.

This man who turned away from you and hurt you: What was the substance of your understanding of him? What did you learn about his wishes and desires? Was he looking for a wife, or just a playmate? Was he completely single, or partially attached? Was he what they call “emotionally available”? Do you know how one would go about ascertaining if someone is “emotionally available”? Did you consider that a handsome, worldly, charismatic former military man who is now in medical school might be in some ways not emotionally available? Did it occur to you that in your busy, whirling extravagance of spirit you might have neglected to closely study his eyes, how he reacts to you, whether he’s shrinking from you as you expand to fill the room with your fabulousness, whether he might have appeared short of breath as you sucked the oxygen out of the air around him, whether you might have missed any attempt on his part, however subtle and coded, to warn you that he was not the man for you?

It may be that you have great attractive power but only have transactions, not relationships, with men; that would explain why men come and go from your boudoir at will — because although you may dance with them and sleep with them, you have neglected the careful disclosure and attentive listening through which two people establish an emotional narrative. You almost sound like a woman in the last stages of a magical girl phase, when you still have the power, intelligence, vivacity and attractiveness of youth to draw men to you, but find that drawing them to you is no longer enough, that you are groping your way into the world of difficult compromise and self-disclosure that adult relationships require.

If you are ready for that, you will find your way. Here is a tip: The next time you are attracted to a man, try to see him not with your eyes but with your heart. Ask your heart what it sees. It may not see the glittering prince that you see with your eyes. By your heart I mean your intuition, your spider sense, the instant feelings of fear or attraction that you used to rely on as a child.

You’re going to have to stop dancing and making love long enough to hear what the next man has to say. What he says may surprise you. It may also bore you. Such is life outside the ballroom and the boudoir.

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

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

K

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Dear K,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear Cary –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong to Fantasize?

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Dear Wrong to Fantasize,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

Here is the situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Another Brick in the Wall

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Dear Brick,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My ex-fiancee is engaged to a jackass

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 Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Feb 25, 2004

Should I tell her he’s cheating?


Dear Cary,

A friend, and ex-fiancée, of mine recently became engaged to someone she has known for only six months. They are planning a wedding only three months from today. When they were dating she never had anything positive to say about him and seemed on the verge of dumping him before he proposed. She has distanced herself from all of her friends because, though they are supportive, none of them think it’s a good idea. But the reasons that she gives for cutting her friends off are the tantrums that he throws every time she speaks to anyone who has ever said anything negative about him. I feel that her actual reason is that she wants to avoid thinking about her own fears and doubts about this man because she wants a successful relationship so badly that her partner is irrelevant.

She and I both know I have a conflict of interest in this. She knows that I still love her very much and had hoped that we could try again. The timing of our relationship was wrong for both of us and it ended badly, but our friendship survived. We are both very much attracted to each other. I didn’t take the news of her engagement well; rather, it led to a pretty intense depression and a lot of messy fallout. Her fiancé used that drama as his justification for forcing her to choose between friendship with me and their relationship. I lost.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing you.

I confirmed something about him that I had suspected for a long time, but it gives me no comfort because I cannot tell her what I know. Since they started dating he has given her lecture after lecture about how faithful he is, how important monogamy is to him, how he has never cheated on anyone he’s ever been with. She didn’t tell him that she had never been faithful to anyone, including me. He picked fights with her in public among their mutual friends over the fact that she is bisexual and that if she pursued her interest in women, she would be cheating on him. He did these kinds of things so often that I began to suspect that he was being defensive.

Tonight I found out that he was indeed cheating on her, and not only on her, but on his previous girlfriend. He left his previous girlfriend to be with the woman he was seeing on the side. There are nearly three months of overlap between the time he started “exclusively” seeing my friend and the time he finally stopped cheating on her. I found this out directly from the other woman. I even know the dates.

I can’t tell her. For one, she has a tendency to shoot messengers so if I’m to have any hope that she and I will end up together it has to come from another source. Two, my motives are suspect. At the same time, if she does find out and also finds out that I knew, she will never forgive me. I try to keep my big damn mouth shut, but she sees through me and will know if I am hiding something.

Do I e-mail him a picture of the other woman with a caption saying, “I know everything”? Do I go to the bar he manages and tell him that if he doesn’t come clean, I’ll have the other woman do it for him? Do I tell her myself and take it on the chin?

At a Loss

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Dear At a Loss,

Here’s what you do: You don’t e-mail him a picture. You don’t confront him at his bar. You don’t put someone else up to it. You don’t take it on the chin. You don’t do anything.

What you do is you let it go. You let her go. You let him go. You let everything go. Do some yoga: That part at the end where you let everything go out of your toes, do that. Sit in a blues club and let it go. Do the breath of fire and let it go. Do the downward dog and let it go. Put on some Coltrane and let it go; take a walk in the woods and let it go; go hunting or driving or running or cycling or whatever you do that stops you from thinking about her and her dishonesty and bad choices and willful blindness. Let it go.

There’s the personal angle and there’s the legal angle. The personal angle is that people make bad choices in their personal lives and it’s none of our business. The legal angle is that people make bad choices in marriage and it’s none of our business except where the marriage, as a public contract, affects children, property, other wives, etc. Just being a jackass isn’t grounds for anything. If he’s already married with kids in Idaho or a rap sheet that takes three minutes to print or three wives in Utah, OK, that’s relevant information that his intended betrothed ought to know. But if he just wasn’t done with all his sexual entanglements before he sexually entangled himself with your friend, that’s between them.

Besides, I have a feeling it’s not her moral choices that are bothering you as much as it is her sweet sex and who’s getting what you used to get. Because why else would you want to get back together with a woman who was never true to you or to anyone else anyway, unless she’s such a salty sweet bundle of lips and thighs that the mere thought of her makes you tingle so badly you need a neurologist or a priest? How could a guy who admits upfront that he’s got only selfish interests and who admits that she never was true to him anyway be deeply interested in the moral problem of infidelity and lies?

So don’t pretend to take the high road just to get to the low road. Whatever road you’re on, turn around and walk the other way. You’ve got no rights in the matter, being, as the poem says, “neither father nor lover.”

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Free at last?

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Now that I’m finally free to leave my drag of a husband, he’s cleaning up his act. Should I leave him anyway?

 Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 10, 2003

Dear Cary,

For over a decade I promised myself I would move out of the house the day my youngest went off to college. For years I’ve lived with a drinking, underemployed, pessimistic drag of a mate. Nothing so awful I couldn’t hold out for the sake of the children, but always enough that I knew it wasn’t forever.

Well, the youngest is out the door soon, and my husband, perhaps aware there would soon be nothing to keep me attached, has suddenly become the loving, attentive, sober, amply employed spouse every woman desires. The problem is, I long ago mentally checked out, and can’t seem to emotionally reengage. Does this new behavior count for anything, since it is obviously forced, something he could have done years ago, and clearly fake, in order to keep me around? Should I stay and try to relearn to love him? Or should I remember the 15 years I wasn’t happy and get out now while I am able and while things seem so peaceful? What’s a fun-loving, out-of-love girl to do?

Ready to Run

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Dear Ready to Run,

Yes, I think you should probably leave. It sounds like you’ve built up too much resentment to see things clearly anyway, and I doubt that you’re likely to change.

Ideally, of course, in my universe, people do change; they endeavor to see the truth, full of nuance and paradox. But you’re a real person out there somewhere, not just an abstraction on paper. And real people often do not change, however much we wish they would. My own mother, for instance, bless her 80-year-old heart, still passionately enumerates my dad’s failures as if they happened yesterday, as if they caused every subsequent unhappiness that has visited the world. I can’t change her. I can’t change you. If you truly believe that your husband is just faking his new happiness because he can’t bear the thought of losing you, and that his change is the same penny-ante dime-a-dozen miracle that anybody can turn on or off any old time he wants to, and he could have done this years earlier but didn’t out of some fundamental contrariness, then you really should just leave.

In my ideal world, however, whether you leave him or not, you wouldn’t presume to know your husband’s motivations for his recent change, or for his years of failing to live up to your expectations. You’d recognize that your expectations of others don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. You wouldn’t assume that your husband’s decisions revolve around his regard for you. You wouldn’t blame him for who he is. You’d view these years you spent raising your children with some compassion for yourself and some humility and some perspective.

You would throw away your judgments, your recriminations, your belief in your own rightness. You would take responsibility for your actions and move on without comment. If you have stayed with this guy this long for the sake of the children, you would be proud of the fact that you did it for the children, but you would recognize that it was a choice; it wasn’t something he or the children forced you to do; you did it because it was the right thing to do and you did it willingly.

TuscanAd2016_earlybirdIn my ideal world, you’d have reverence for the sanctity of your own decisions. You’d honor without question that promise you made to yourself long ago. You wouldn’t make it conditional on your husband’s current behavior; you wouldn’t allow yourself to be manipulated whether he’s doing it consciously or not. You’d just move out. You’d just tell him that you’ve got to go.

Finally, in my ideal world, you would have the courage to seek the truth. You would rather know some uncomfortable facts than hold grudges and cast judgments. And so you would entertain the possibility that there are other reasons for your husband’s change. Perhaps, for instance, he’s found another woman and that’s why he’s so chipper. Perhaps you weren’t the only one feeling burdened and resentful and only sticking it out for the sake of the children; perhaps you weren’t the only one with dreams you felt were being stifled; perhaps he was suffocating all that time, knowing you only viewed him as a necessity, a provider of money and a figurehead, an interchangeable accessory to a mother’s life.

But that’s in my ideal world. In this world, I think you should just move out. One request, on behalf of your children: To your dying day, whatever you may feel about your husband’s failures and betrayals, always speak highly of him to your kids.

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

 

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 My boyfriend is leaving for
a career opportunity.

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding my Breath, Trying to Breathe

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Dear Holding my Breath,

Have your tantrum. Then let him go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does time heal all wounds?

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I have been through a lot of loss, but I can’t seem to get over losing her love.

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

Dear Cary,

At Christmas she left me, told me she had fallen out of love.
It has been half a year; I have dated, moved on, accepted that she is never coming back. I have taken other lovers, spent time with friends, done all the things you do to make peace with yourself, to accept that it is over and that she is never coming back.

She said she had fallen out of love; I later found out she had cheated and could not face up to me about it. I have no idea if I could accept that; I suspect that I couldn’t but that is not the main issue. I dream about her, about the times we shared, how loved I had felt.

My life has not been a pleasant one: orphaned, adopted by a very dysfunctional family. I found something that meant the world to me and then it went away. I know logically that it is for the best, no such thing as a good breakup, if it was good, you wouldn’t break up. I still find myself in tears when I run across her picture, or try to talk about the past with a friend. Five years of my life and it left a lot of tracks behind, it is not something I can avoid.

I was always under the impression that time healed all wounds, but I find myself with tears streaming down my face and I don’t know that there is a solution to this.
I survived my parents dying. I survived being in the Army and having to fight in a conflict I did not believe in. I survived my best friend committing suicide, but I can’t seem to heal past this.

When is it that this is supposed to stop? Is there something just broken inside of me?

Solo

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Dear Solo,

When people say time heals all wounds, they rarely mention the recommended dose. They don’t say, Time heals all wounds at a ratio of six months’ grieving for the first year of a relationship, with the period for each subsequent year diminishing on a curve determined by past experience and other concurrent psychological factors including recent traumatic events. They just say time heals all wounds and leave it at that. Which can raise your expectations unnecessarily.

Whatever you’re getting over always takes more time to get over than you think. First there’s this period where you’re willingly grieving; the incident is fresh in your mind and in the minds of others; people know you’ve been through something tough and they cut you some slack. You figure you need some time off. You take it. But at some point you think, OK, enough with that. I’m ready. I’m done. I’m cured. And then you try to get up and start living a normal life and it hits you again: There’s another wave of grief, and then another wave and another, and you can’t believe it. That’s the second phase, which is all about accepting that it’s not over until it’s over.

You mention some other losses in your life that you feel you handled better than this one. You say you survived these other things, but you can’t seem to beat this. Having survived these other things, it might seem that you ought to be able to beat this as well. But there’s another way to look at it. It could be that you never actually beat those past events or rose above them, but simply survived them. So they are still hurting you. Perhaps this breakup is sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. If so, that’s not a dangerous thing necessarily. It just means it’s really time to come to grips with loss.

When you can no longer carry every burden like a man, when you can no longer soldier on, when you can no longer absorb every blow, then it’s time to begin a new phase of life in which you acknowledge the loss. You stop being a soldier and become a philosopher. Instead of battling, you look for meaning. You look for the connections. With compassion, you examine your wounds to see exactly how they happened, what hit you, and from what direction; where were you standing and why were you there? Were you ordered to be there or had you just wandered into the jungle? Were you on a mission? Was someone trying to kill you or was it an accident?

This, I think, is the true healing phase. It’s not time that’s doing it. It’s you. It takes time to get functional again. And then it takes even more time to fully interrogate yourself, to conduct your own incident investigation, to get at the truth.

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He dumps me, then says, Can we be friends?

We were going to be married. I’m finally getting over the breakup when he calls and wants to be chummy!

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Sep 21, 2011

Dear Cary,

About six months ago, the man I thought I was going to marry left me unceremoniously for another woman. During the aftermath — the moving out, the settling of affairs — he acted cruelly and horribly, cementing the split and making damn sure I didn’t come back. I spent much of the next few months depressed, having constant nightmares about him, unable to get out of bed and constantly self-medicating, because the reality of my situation was too much to face. I work freelance, and have been accepting just enough work to scrape by, wishing the end of every gig to come so I could get back into bed. Slowly, I have been scraping out of this. I saw a therapist for a bit. I started dating a nice man who makes me feel loved and is kind enough to both give me my space and be there to help me heal. I was working more, dedicating myself to my jobs and beginning to hustle for new clients. I found the inspiration I had been missing to move forward with my pet project. I had been making new friends, reconnecting with old ones and looking ahead. Seemingly, I had forgotten all about him.

And then I received an email from my ex nonchalantly asking if we could be friends again. The grapevine quickly informed me that he and his new love had split. At first I felt palpable outrage — how dare he contact me so casually. I felt like I was owed an apology, or at the very least an acknowledgment of how badly he’d behaved. I did not respond; instead, I blocked him from contacting me and searched my psyche for the schadenfreude that was sure to come.

Instead, I’ve fallen very quickly back into depression. My thoughts are consumed with him and I am once again flattened by the sadness. In a way I hadn’t before, I miss him desperately. I wake up every morning wishing he was next to me. I’ve shut everybody out again, stopped looking for work, and spend most of my days sleeping, yet again. I’m lost and I don’t know how to pull out of this again. Although I know with every fiber of my rational mind that I should not contact him and that no good can come of having him in my life, I am overwhelmed with these feelings that I can only explain away as female biology. My brain is trying to find ways to rationalize the following statement: “If he is no longer with her, it stands to reason that he should be with me again.” I feel hurt that he hasn’t tried to get back together with me and sad that he destroyed what we had to pursue something that turned out to be so fleeting. I want to shake him and ask him, “Was it worth it?” I want to remind him how wonderful we were together, before the hurt and the betrayal. But these are ridiculous thoughts that I have no intention of entertaining. Instead I lie in bed tortured, wondering how and when I can get my life back.

I don’t have much of a support system. I met my ex when I moved to a new city, and now that he’s gone, I’ve found myself with few people to lean on. I live with my best friend now, but she has no advice, except to take the time I need to try to forget him and move forward. She has had some difficulty come up recently, so I don’t want to burden her with my troubles, which seem very petty and juvenile in comparison. I’ve asked the man I’m seeing to give me space, because I don’t want to lay this on him. What do I do? How do I heal and get back, at least to where I was before the email came in? Reaching out to my ex for closure is not an option; I feel that any contact with him right now would push me deeper down the hole. I also live in constant fear of running into him, or worse — ending up on a job together (we are in the same industry). I can’t regress every time I am reminded of his existence. I know that time is always the answer to these things, but I’ve never been fragile or delicate, and this feeling of being a walking house of cards is only making me feel worse. Please advise.

Being Sucked Back In Sucks

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Dear Sucked Back In,

There are three things I would like to say to you. The first is that you were mistreated and have a right to be angry. The second is that this is not a good time to push away new friends, so stay close to the man you recently began dating. The third is that sometimes breakups are not just “the way things turned out,” but acts of deliberate cruelty.

There are times, I’m sure, when people have a change of heart. They don’t know what is in their hearts, and they lie to themselves, or they think a relationship will work out, they think difficulties will be overcome, they overestimate their own capacities and the capacities of their mate. Things end.

But then there are the people who fuck you over.

This guy fucked you over.

He didn’t offer an apology. He didn’t throw himself at your feet. He didn’t apologize to you and to your father and mother and brother and sister and uncles and cousins and township.

He just called a few months later and asked if you could be friends.

Those of us who grew up in arid, overly intellectual households full of complicated codes and passive-aggressive behavior, we probably know about this better than most: One way to assure ourselves that someone loves us is to cause them pain. So we go about hurting people in order to remind ourselves that we can be loved.

That’s pretty sick, isn’t it? Knowledge of such impulses ought to inoculate us. But it doesn’t.

So what happens to those of us who may be full of pain but are too good to go around hurting others? We hurt ourselves. We turn it inward, being the little angels that we are. We turn it inward with depression, with drink, with suicide, with cutting, with failure.

So this guy seems to have no scruples. But you, you have scruples. So instead of gathering your tribe to light their torches and go burn his fucking hut down, you rely on some abstract notion of inner schadenfreude. You shut down and pray for vengeance. You turn your anger inward where it festers, sucking you into a bleak landscape of self-hatred and self-blaming. Face it, sister: You were fucked over and have a right to be angry. Schadenfreude won’t cut it. You don’t get any schadenfreude because this guy hasn’t had a fall. He hasn’t suffered. That’s the further outrage of it. He’s had a little girl trouble. That’s all. Other than that, he’s going about his self-involved little life, taking what he can take and giving nothing back.

He made you a promise, and relying on that promise you did many things. You arranged your life in a certain way. You were deceived. In some families, in some villages, this would be a crime. You are right to be outraged.

It seems to me that in arranging our romantic lives in such private and secular ways, we overlook how society, family and religion have protected us in the past from such calamities by placing a high price on a promise of marriage. And I suppose it is necessary to note how in gaining independence women have given up some social protections. We say, happy day, sister, you’re on your own, but where is the social remedy? Where is his punishment? Where is his amends? Where is the family, or the society, to enforce the making of such amends?

Well, we have insisted that family and society get out of our hair, so we can handle things on our own. And now we sit alone with our catastrophes.

So reach out to those around you. This is no time to be shy. Go out with this new man. Burden him with your woes. Burden him until he yells out for you to stop.

Do not let your life be further wrecked by this ex. If he shows up again, chase him off your property.

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