My live-in boyfriend’s spending a week with a chick he met on MySpace

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, SEP 26, 2008

I’m not real crazy about the idea. Should I be jealous?


Dear Cary:

I am writing to you because I need to hear an opinion from someone who does not already love me or think I’m amazing. I need objectivity, beautiful and philosophical objectivity.

I have been dating a man (he’s 27, I’m 30) since January and we recently moved in together at his insistence and despite my reluctance. My reluctance stems from the fact that he has never had a serious girlfriend, and while he is loving in a somewhat aloof way and has made it clear to me that he cares about me, he has not yet told me he loves me.

He is on vacation right now, visiting friends, with plans to head to California to meet up with a young woman that he “met” via MySpace. We’re not talking lunch either — he will be staying with her, at her place, for an entire week.

Apparently they have been e-mailing, then speaking on the telephone, for the better part of the past year. She has been going through a divorce, and has expressed to him that he is the “only friend she has” that she can talk to about things.

I questioned whether he really wanted to do this back in April when he was making these plans. He laughed at me and thought I was jealous, then reassured me that I can trust him and that he is just “visiting a friend.” And don’t even get me started on what her expectations may be — a young almost divorcée whose Internet “buddy” is coming to stay for a week? I can only imagine what she has planned, and I’m trying really hard not to!

Now he’s gone, and I should have told him how I feel (I’m angry! I feel disrespected and disappointed!) before he left. So do I let him know how I’m feeling? Possibly ruin his vacation? Or do I keep it to myself, suffer through the week he’ll be with her and discuss it with him when he returns? Or do I just start perusing the apartment listings? Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Is this the way things work these days? Are the lines of morality blurred by all these electrons flying around?

Anxiously Living in Sin

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Dear Anxiously Living in Sin,

I’m going to try to make this fairly quick and straightforward. There are many reasons why a man living with a woman ought to be able to conduct a variety of friendships with other women, friendships in which they are not having sex, friendships that involve staying in the same place, even perhaps sleeping in the same bed chastely. I mean, there are many reasons such a thing ought to be possible. We are complex creatures with many needs for the society of others, and primary relationships ought not stifle us or limit us unnecessarily. I mean, a man ought to be able to have outside friendships that don’t imperil his marriage or primary relationship.

And I imagine, as I look up at the stars on a clear night and contemplate the vastness of the universe, I imagine there exists some world out there, and some manner of creature similar to us in certain ways and yet with this crucial difference — that they are not sexually jealous. Maybe there is such a creature and such a place. Maybe that is where Mr. Spock comes from.

But this world, from what I can tell, is not like that. In this world, when a woman lives with a young, attractive man, and the young, attractive man she lives with decides to spend a week with a woman he met on MySpace, the woman he lives with begins to contemplate the many new uses to which a kitchen knife might be put.

When creatures from these other worlds where sexual jealousy does not exist peer down at us they are no doubt mystified and feel superior to us. They do not fly into fits of rage at the behavior of the ones they mate with. Why should we? What difference does it make what he does when he is not in the primary mating-behavior space? Is it not counterproductive to “cut off his nuts with a kitchen knife,” as they say?

The kitchen knife is a highly charged symbol, domestically speaking, love-wise speaking, blues-song speaking, living-in-sin speaking. It refers, somewhat sexistically, to the fact that women, throughout much of history, have had few weapons with which to counter the physical superiority of the men they live with. But while confined to the kitchen they have also been masters of it and its many weapons. The physically superior male has been, in this classic myth, unaware of the implements available in the kitchen and the uses to which they might be put. Not to mention his unfamiliarity with just how much satisfaction a woman might find in putting the kitchen knife to these unexpected uses (uses that, we might add, are not authorized or intended by the manufacturer).

So on one side you have this counterproductive and seemingly inexplicable desire to put the kitchen knife to novel and unauthorized uses vis-à-vis the dude spending a week with his MySpace friend. You’d think we’d be beyond all that, being that we have put a man on the moon and also have speed-dating. You’d think the whole kitchen-knife-wielding-girlfriend thing would be ancient history.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing, or that it’s the only way it can be, or that you can’t try to live in a different world. I’m not saying that polyamory is bad, or unattainable, either; you might look into the possibility that you and he could have an open relationship; the idea of community that involves multiple simultaneous intimate relationships is, well … some people do that. I’m just saying that a lot of people are like this: When the dude you’re living with spends a week with a chick he met on MySpace, you start to think about the kitchen knife. I’m saying you’re not alone. These thoughts of the kitchen knife seem to be as deeply embedded in the animal nature of women as the desire to spend a week with the MySpace chick is embedded in dudes.

It’s one of those eternal verities.

So what to do? Be seriously unreasonable. Well, first, put the knives away. Then be seriously unreasonable. Tell him it’s either her or you. Seriously. Don’t pretend it’s reasonable. Just tell him you’re serious. Just tell him that’s the way it is. And peruse the apartment listings. Or, better yet, suggest that he peruse the apartment listings.
There’s probably a reason he hasn’t ever been in a serious relationship. Apparently, he’s not serious. I mean, he can’t be serious, right?

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I want to tell his wife about our affair

 

Cary’s classic column from Sunday, Mar 13, 2011

The man I love is deceiving his wife and I think she should know what kind of man she’s married to


Dear Cary,

I fell in love with an amazing, complicated man. He has a young child with an ex and he was living in the United States illegally. And he had a girlfriend. We became friends gently, over a long period of time. I’ve never had such an intense attraction, but we stayed away from it for a year. It finally broke, and our mutual feelings got stronger despite all best efforts.

Then after sleeping together for several months, he showed up at my doorstep and told me his relationship had ended. I couldn’t believe it, but I put the brakes on. Things were too intense and he needed space to get his life in order. We stopped sleeping together. Then he told me he had to leave the country, since he was here illegally.

He left. He wrote to me how much he missed me. Then, as quickly as he left, he returned. Within weeks he got back together with his ex and married her. I know he did this because he needs to be in the United States to be close to his child.

But he also started sleeping with me again, even more often than before. He took care of me, helping me around my apartment, and we spent more time together. Then he told me he loved me, that he made a mistake marrying her and that in a few years when he has his green card, we can be together.

I feel like he would do anything to stay close to his son, and it’s selfish that he’s using her and me.

This whole situation has broken my heart. Part of me wants to tell his wife, since she’s only 27 and they’ve been married for six weeks. I feel like he’s treating her so badly. But I always knew he was with her — she didn’t have that knowledge, and she married him. I don’t want this to continue for years, and for her to find out much later.

Maybe it’s not my business to tell her, but I feel like I would not want to be in her position. I know that by telling her, I will also be ending things for myself with him. Also, I went through a rough breakup at 26 — but it was best because I still had time to get my life in order. The sooner she sees what he’s capable of, the better it is for her.

I can’t believe I’m considering this, but I feel like it’s what I should do.

Lost

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Dear Lost,

You want to help his wife?

I think what would help his wife is for you to stop sleeping with her husband.

I suggest you quietly and firmly break off your relationship with this man. Then suggest that he tell her.

It’s up to him. He could tell her that he was having an affair and he’s ended it and he could commit to putting the marriage on a new, honest footing. He could be honest with her. He could tell her that he’s had an eye for other women but he’s through with that. He could tell her his son matters most to him, and that he’s going to stay in the marriage and love her as best he can, and raise his son, and live here legally.

But it’s up to him. At some point, if he keeps fooling around, it could be argued that someone should tell her. If he can’t stop fooling around with other women then his wife and child are both in jeopardy and she has the right to know. But still I don’t think you’re the person to tell her. It should be someone with no interest in the matter and no history.

Did you notice that you were sleeping with him as long as he had a girlfriend? Then when he broke up with her, you put the brakes on. Then when he married you resumed your affair. So you may have motives that are hidden from you. So, as I say, even if it becomes clear in the future that she deserves to be told, you would not be the best one to tell her.

Just end it. End it and let him decide what he’s going to do. Strongly suggest that he tell his wife and set things straight. But don’t step in and tell her yourself.

Maybe years later when his residency status is resolved and he can provide for his son, maybe he will want to divorce her and he will call you. I hope you do not wait for him. He’s made his choice already.

You know what I think you should do? I think you should find an unmarried man who lives in the country legally, and suggest coffee.

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My husband is making me suspicious

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 17, 2006

He’s e-mailing an ex-girlfriend and chatting with strange women — and he gets defensive when I mention it.


Dear Cary,

I can’t tell if I’m paranoid or justified at this point, and maybe you won’t be able to tell, either, but I guess I just need someone else to think about this for a minute, because I’m exhausted.

I’ve been married for 13 years. We’ve had our ups and down, but thankfully, it’s been mostly up. We’ve got a small collection of children of various ages, and a busy, engaged life.

A few months ago, I got up early one morning to find my husband’s e-mail open, and in particular, a letter minimized on the screen. Clueless, I opened it, and was horrified to read a rather plaintive and deeply personal letter to his ex-girlfriend. Reading the entire letter, and the history of the e-mail trail as it bounced along, I was quick to realize he had been searching for her.

I chose not to say anything, because I couldn’t figure out what to say, other than I was hurt that he hadn’t told me about the contact.

A few weeks ago, he asked me to open his e-mail while he was at work to retrieve a phone number. Not only was there further communication from her, there was also communication from other women, like the women at the bank where he does business, and it referenced phone calls. There was nothing overtly sexual about them, but they were personal. When I managed to work one of the women’s names into a conversation, he flat-out lied to me and denied ever talking to her or writing to her. I know he did. I saw it.

I don’t know what to do. After I saw the last contacts, I confronted him. He’s furious with me, just spitting mad that I read his e-mail. I’m furious that it appears that he is trolling for women on the Internet. He says they are all just friends, but this isn’t like him. And my internal radar has gone off so loudly I can hardly hear anything else. He says it’s in my head, and it may be. I think the better guess is that he’s cheating, or planning to cheat, and he’s angry that he’s been caught.

Any ideas on the next step? He’s insisting that I’m paranoid and that he’s never given me reason to doubt him. I think writing and calling women secretively is a pretty big reason to have pause.

On Shaky Ground

Dear On Shaky Ground,

I can’t know whether he is cheating or thinking about cheating. But I suggest you give some thought to the following.

Is it OK in principle for him to have female friends that you don’t know about? Are there specific women friends that make you feel uncomfortable?

If there are, I suggest you tell him: When you communicate with your ex-girlfriend, I feel threatened. Or: These particular women make me uneasy.

You may be thinking that he should just know. But it is possible that he doesn’t. So get very specific.

What about thoughts? What if he communicates with a woman and wonders what it would be like to put his hand on her motorcycle? What if he actually touches her motorcycle? Does he have to tell you that? What if he touches her motorcycle but they don’t ride anywhere?

This could get tedious. But what I’m getting at is that you may have a detailed map in your head of what is OK and not OK but he doesn’t know that map very well. He needs to get to know that map.

Consider the problem of building and repairing trust, as discussed in this dry but possibly useful article. Reading and thinking about this might help you come to see trust as an actual phenomenon that needs to be strengthened and understood in your relationship.

This much is clear: He may be telling the truth, and he may be being candid. But he is not being candid enough to suit you. You require more trust-building behavior from him. I hope you can get it.

He wants you to trust him more. How can he get you to trust him more? Perhaps he can be more transparent and forthcoming in his accounts of his whereabouts, his comings and goings, his entrances and exits, his kisses and his handshakes, whom he writes to and how, how he talks to whom and for what reason and about what topics.

What is this, a prison? He may ask. Yes, you might reply: It is the prison of profound responsibility.

I kissed her and then her husband killed himself

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 10, 2012

Now I’m in an agony of guilt and my life will never be the same


Dear Cary,

I met a woman at work nine months ago.  We clicked immediately but I refused her advances because she was married, to her second husband, in fact.  After a few months, I could no longer resist the attraction.  Immediately after we kissed, she told her husband they hadn’t been in a real marriage for a long time and she was leaving.

She asked him to discuss dividing their possessions.  Shortly after, he went upstairs and shot and killed himself.

As you can imagine, she will never be OK.  For the first couple of months, I stayed awake 24 hours a day with two mobile phones in my hands in case she needed me.  At the suggestion of my psychiatrist, I told her she needed to see a professional, as I am not skilled in counseling and the strain was too great for me.  Since then, we somehow launched into a downward spiral of shutting each other out, then hurting each other, and now lying as well.

She spends her time with her parents and 18-year-old son from her first marriage.  We live in such a small town that we cannot go out for dinner, spend time with friends, or see each other much at all.  When she first returned to work after the tragedy, I would come by her cubicle on bad days and give her a small gift or trinket and a hug, until one of her colleagues warned me that he would cause trouble.  A week ago she left her job because she needs more time to heal.  I’ve tried to continue finding creative ways to distract her, make her feel normal, and be together.

I am convinced I will never work through this guilt.  When I see her old spot at work where her family pictures were, when she spends holidays with her husband’s family, when I go on a social networking site and see pictures of her and her husband, my world gets shaken like a snow globe.  Nearly every time I am left alone I break into tears.  I am overtaken by the irrefutable fact that my actions led to the extinguishing of a living flame and now it is snuffed forever despite what I would give to change things.

My parents got word of what happened and no longer speak to me.  My roommate is moving out tomorrow because he’s grown angry and hateful after unsuccessfully helping me through this.  I am nearly completely isolated and I clearly need to dedicate more time to work on myself.  Almost everyone I speak to insists that I need to leave her, especially my psychiatrist, but how do you break up with the woman you love after she’s endured such a traumatic loss?

Sincerely,
Overcome with Guilt

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Dear Overcome with Guilt,

Your actions did not cause this suicide. They did not lead to it. You were not central to it.

You did not advocate for this person to commit suicide, or provide the means for this person to commit suicide. You knew nothing of any suicidal inclinations he might have had. You did not know him. He did not know you. Presumably, if he knew of your existence, he knew of you only as one of his wife’s co-workers. You did not sleep with his wife. Nor did you know that, after kissing you, his wife was going to go home and tell him she was leaving him.

The one thing you did was that you broke a well-understood obligation not to kiss his wife. That is a real obligation, not to kiss his wife, which you broke. You are not supposed to kiss other men’s wives. You knew that. You did it anyway. That is something to feel remorse about. That is something you did that was wrong.

If it were possible to make amends, that would be something to make amends to him about. Unfortunately, because he chose to take his own life, you cannot make amends to him for that.

So you will have to live with that.

That’s your situation. You committed no crime. It’s not a nice place to be. But it’s not eternal damnation. It is the wretched confliction of feelings that arise when we are tangential to a tragedy.

You are tangential here. You were not central to the suicide and you are not central to this woman’s life.

I think your psychiatrist, who has more knowledge about your situation and more understanding of you as a person than I do, and is professionally trained and licensed to guide people in their affairs, probably should be listened to.

You should leave her alone.

We don’t refrain from kissing other men’s wives because we fear the husband will commit suicide. But there are certain things we might expect a husband to do if he finds out that we kissed his wife. In the movies, a good punch in the jaw is the agreed-upon right action. It’s a non-fatal expression of contempt and serves to reassert the husband’s dominant role in the wife’s affections. Seeing the man she kissed lying unconscious on the ground, she will either run to him, thus affirming that her affections have shifted, or she will run back to her husband, affirming that she recognizes her best bet is to stick with the one who is good at punching. That is how the movies portray these things. We know that real life is different. But we still like going to the movies.

Your response is sort of like a movie. You are all histrionic. You are all saying things will never be the same; you are staying up all night with two cellphones. This is a little overdoing it.

So how exactly did you harm him, and did you harm him in any material way, or only by way of your attitude toward him? You didn’t sleep with his wife, but, knowing that he existed, you did disregard him as a person. You disregarded his status as the husband. You in a sense depersonalized him; you disregarded his existence. That is what we do when we fool around with someone’s spouses; we depersonalize a stranger, or a person known to us; we do things that we know would hurt that person if he or she were to find out. This is not a good thing to do. It probably makes it easier when we do not know the person, but whether we have met or not met, we still know that some person exists whom our actions would hurt if they were to be found out.

This is why we refrain from such things — because we know that they can hurt other people. Generally speaking, our actions do not lead to other people’s suicides, especially the suicides of people we do not even know. Rather, suicidal people make choices over which we have no control. If we could reliably cause the suicides of others, rest assured it would be against the law.

In certain cases advocating for another person to commit suicide has been prosecuted.  One man sought out depressed people, “posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves.”

That’s a little different, I think you’ll agree. “While it is illegal in Minnesota to encourage suicide, there is no such federal law,” according to an ABC News account of the matter.

Out of another situation in which a person’s suicide was aided by information and interaction on the Web, H.R. 1183 has been proposed, which would  “make it a crime to use the Internet to help someone commit suicide.”

I find that interesting, personally, because my 2006 column titled “What’s the best method for painless suicide?” continues to get many hits every month from people some of whom are expecting to get practical, how-to advice. Some of them even write to me angrily or disappointed that I don’t show them where to buy poison or name the best bridges to jump off of.

People do get over the suicides of loved ones. They meet in groups and talk on the phone with hotline counselors and go through their lives. The pain and shock abate. And there is evidence to show that how we talk about such things affects how we will feel. So I would guard against saying such things as she will never get over it. It isn’t helpful. One who has been through such an event may feel outraged that others do not seem to understand its power; they do not seem to understand how deeply we have been hurt or how long the hurt persists or the many small ways in which our day-to-day functioning is impaired afterward. This is true. So it is hard to go through life grieving. It is hard to grieve among strangers who do not know the cause of our halting responses and occasional lapses into blank emotion-filled silences when we are tugged violently by the anchor of the underworld.

That is what it is like to go through life grieving.  It causes one to wonder if it might not be better to wear a black armband for a while, so others, even strangers, know to tread lightly. It is hard to go through life with a burden like that.

But it does not change the philosophical or logical problem. You did not cause this suicide. You played a part in this suicidal person’s personal drama. Or, that is, not even you played the part, but your image; this person’s image of you played a part in his own drama.

When you say, “I am convinced I will never work through this guilt,” you do yourself a disservice. Why not instead tell yourself, “I will work through this guilt.”

A part of us, of course, likes the sound of “never.” A part of us clings to it. And inasmuch as it allows us to feel the complete depth of the shock, it serves a purpose; it is poetic language. It is dramatic language. It indicates severity, or degree.

But beware the effect of such pronouncements, because they also work as prophecy. So find more poetic language, if you can; say that the depth of it is tearing you apart, that you feel devastated. You may need some kind of catharsis. Catharsis means working through. In fact, come to think of it, catharsis may be exactly what you need.

And, despite what you say, she will be OK. And you will be OK, too. But it will take time. for now, I suggest you listen to your psychiatrist. Leave this woman alone. Give it time. Back off.

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I feel awful about my affair

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2012

It was stupid, cruel and unsatisfying, and now I’m miserable


Dear Cary,

I really need you to tell me how to forgive myself, and how to carry on after I had an affair. I’m sorry if this ends up really long and please edit however you need to. Basically, I have been married for 15 years to a man who really is a fundamentally excellent person. We were married quite young for a couple in our socioeconomic bracket, and have been together since college. Like any couple that goes the distance, we have been to (relative) hell and back, most of which was the byproduct of trying to make our careers fit together, dealing with each other’s families, family money issues, etc. Totally run-of-the-mill problems. I have had my doubts, at times over the years, whether we were “meant for each other,” which we have discussed openly and honestly several times throughout our relationship.  We always come to the conclusion that we just do not want to break up. We love each other and we love most things about the life we’ve built.

Two years ago I entered an extremely challenging graduate program, which also wreaked havoc on our lives, and therefore, our relationship. Though I knew that all last summer and fall was an especially low point in our communication and in our overall happiness with each other, I’m still shocked and gutted whenever I “remember” that I cheated. Which is several times a day.

There was this other man, I’ll call him X, whom I had been acquainted with for several months. One night, while out with a group of 10 or so other friends (my husband went home early that night, the rest of us were celebrating exams being over), he paid special attention to me. At the end of the evening I acknowledged to myself that X was maybe more interesting and intelligent of a person that I’d formerly noticed. Still, I was extremely surprised later that night to receive a borderline flirtatious text from him.

I kind of hate myself for returning the attention. Looking back, I realize that I was just so flattered. No one tells you when you get married that you become invisible to other men, and it’s not that I think I’ve been out there looking for inappropriate attention …  but I found it surprisingly welcome when it came. And that’s how it all began. I’m so ashamed that it took so little, so very, very little, to tempt me into cheating on my husband.

Looking back at last year, I know now that there was something really wrong with me, for awhile. I was at least depressed, and actually I have begun to wonder if I even might have had a manic episode.  I suddenly was drinking often, and a lot (which I no longer am). I know that the pressure of my schoolwork has been affecting me in all sorts of ways that I don’t seem able to recognize in myself until that “phase” is over and I’m in the next one. However, even though I know this is a factor, I just don’t think any amount of stress is an excuse for what I did. Though my husband and I were having trouble connecting last year, and we were seriously considering a trial separation, that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter.

Because my husband and I are really open-minded people, each with friends from both genders, and neither of us prone to jealousy, I never even told one lie. There were a couple of lies of omission, but I think I was able to live in a little bit of denial for awhile just because I really never had to be sneaky, or make up stories. I just kind of detached from him, for a few weeks. Since I’ve been living in the library and so preoccupied with school the last couple of years, he didn’t notice.

The affair really only lasted a month and was much more of an emotional affair than a physical one, although the relationship was consummated, once. I have not confided any of this experience to anyone.  After sleeping with X (it makes me nauseated just to type this), even during, I knew that I really wasn’t attracted to him at all, and I just immediately realized what a mistake it all was. I got myself out of there, and began the process of ending it. Which is when I of course finally realized that X’s own mental and emotional stability was, well, compromised.

I just can’t believe how stupid I was, from the beginning. It’s hard to believe I deserve any credibility, but please know that I am usually a very perceptive, very self-aware and intentional person. How was I able to just take leave of my senses, for weeks? It is legitimately scary.

When I broke things off with X, firmly, he actually tried to physically keep me from leaving his house. Of course, nothing could have convinced me further that I wanted nothing to do with him EVER again.

Even though it all ended months ago now, there are still some things that keep me up at night. First of all, the clarity that comes with the regret of doing such a despicable thing is kind of a gift. I was able to wholeheartedly throw myself into my marriage again, and this year, 2012, my husband and I have felt closer than maybe ever. But of course, he doesn’t “know.”  We had actually discussed adultery a couple of times over the years, when we’ve seen friends or friends’ parents go through it, and we decided, each of us, that we did not want to ever know if the other had cheated on them! I know now that neither of us ever believed it would actually happen, but just by having those talks, I’m pretty sure he really doesn’t want to know.

In the beginning, I wanted to confess. Now I really don’t, and instead live in fear that he’ll hear it through the grapevine. As I hinted, X has done some things that made me realize, way later than I should have, that he is manipulative, needy and self-centered. Since he still asks me to meet him out socially on occasion, and often expresses his disapproval when I decline, I know he is not as “over” me as I pray for him to be. He can be a bit delusional. I am afraid that he will someday find justification for spilling the story to one of our common friends. I don’t know for sure that this hasn’t happened already.

What is worse is that he has a number of really incriminating and embarrassing texts from me on his phone, that he could show to anyone, at any time he felt like it. Sometimes I think I’m being paranoid when I play this scenario out in my mind, but at the same time, this is a man who pursued a married woman, the husband of whom he professes to like and respect, ensured she got drunk any time he was around her, and balked when she ended it after a few weeks. He is no saint.

Here are the issues that might be slowly killing me. How can I live with myself? My husband really is a great person, and the love of my life, and just because we were going through some doubts and hard times, I did something that would absolutely break his heart into a thousand pieces. One of the things that also stops me from confessing to him is that, if telling him destroyed our relationship, I’m scared it would also prevent him from ever trusting anyone else. I know he thinks I’m this great moral person and if I were able to betray him like that, then there’s no one who wouldn’t.

And it’s not just that I cheated on him that is so disturbing, it’s that I didn’t even choose someone, for lack of a better term, more worthy. X is just not a person I would even date, if I were single. I just feel pathetic. How can I call him needy, when I was so taken with the first person to pay me a compliment?

Sometimes I struggle with all of this even being real. Even though I might not have earned any credibility here, please believe me that this is very out-of-character for me. Now that the fog has lifted, so to speak, my memories from this affair seem like a movie that I watched, instead of a time that I lived through. There is another time in my life that feels that way, when my mother almost died after a terrible accident, and was in the hospital for months. So I know that in a way, it’s kind of a protective mechanism, but how do I make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Right now, nothing repulses me more than the thought of doing something like this again, but . . . I know now that I’m capable of really terrible things. I never knew that before.

Mostly, I’m just sick that I can’t undo this. I’ll always know. I’ll always know that I “ruined” our marriage, even though my husband (hopefully) won’t ever have an inkling. There was just this pure thing, this devotion, that we had, that we had promised to each other, and I was so ready to throw it away. And he never would. I don’t deserve him.  Living with this regret is just so unbelievably harsh. I’m pretty sure time is making it worse. It’s like the longer I “get away with it” the worse I feel. Is my whole experience just a total cliché anyway? Does everyone who cheats on their partner end up feeling this way?

I’m realizing that it’s taken me this long to even write this letter, to reach out to someone, because deep down, I still need to punish myself, and prolonging the bad feelings is the worst punishment I can inflict, that doesn’t also hurt my husband.

What do I do? How do I try to let this go? I’ve never, ever had such a low opinion of myself.

Hindsight is 20/20

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Dear Hindsight,

It will take time for you to forgive yourself. It will take time for you to sort out what kinds of unhappiness led you to make this mistake.

But that’s fine. You have time. You have a pretty good life in most ways. There is just some unhappiness in your life that you have tried to ignore. This affair was the result. Once you begin looking at your unhappiness, things will start to make sense, and you will find some compassion for yourself and will begin to forgive yourself.

It just takes time.

You can begin by contacting a marriage and family counselor.

If you do nothing, it’s likely that over time the severity of this event’s impact on your emotional life will lessen. But your marriage will probably end badly.

It will end badly because as you withhold your emotions the marriage will offer less and less satisfaction until it is practically worthless as a life-supporting partnership. It will become just another burden to maintain, just another life-sucking routine.

But it doesn’t have to end badly.

A decent marriage and family counselor can help you.

Your main hurdle may be in shedding your current frame of reference long enough to begin to look at what actually happened. For instance, you express amazement that this happened, and yet empirical evidence is that it happens a lot. So, in rational terms, your error was in excluding yourself from the set of people capable of having an affair. Every married person is capable of having an affair. There was really no basis for excluding yourself. You are human like everyone else. The intensity of your desire to stay true to your husband is obviously not a guarantee of success. It is only a wish. You just made a common human error in thinking: With no basis for doing so, you excluded yourself from the set of people capable of having affairs. Similarly, I excluded myself from the set of people capable of having cancer until I got cancer. It’s a common mental error. If you go back and examine your life to find the basis for your belief that you would not cheat on your husband, you will probably find the same kinds of baseless beliefs that millions of other people have also had. So I suggest you bring some academic rigor to your examination of your own life. But don’t try that on your own. It’s too painful and destabilizing. Do this only under the care of a therapist. Because you may make a second mistake: You may blame yourself. You have to do the opposite of blaming yourself. You need to forgive yourself. That may take some time. You haven’t been taught how to forgive yourself. You will have to learn. A therapist can help you with that.

This is not a puzzle or theorem but a wound. You can put off the actual work of recovering for quite some time. But eventually, you will have to begin.

Why not begin now, while you are still in fresh pain, while you are still motivated, while you still feel that it is an intolerable moral burden to live with? Emotional pain is a great motivator.

This can be fixed. Your marriage can survive. You can forgive yourself. But you need to begin.

Bent rules

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 25, 2004

My boyfriend and I decided we could kiss other people, but he went further. What should I do?


Dear Cary,

I have been with the same man for more than six years. We met in high school, our relationship survived college and living together as recent grads.

About six months ago, my boyfriend moved to another city, five hours away. The long-distance thing was hard but I still had my life in our first city and he had a couple of friends in his city so we figured we could make it work.

Things really were going great — we’d see each other on weekends regularly, and during the week, even when living together we were both so busy we were OK with talking on the phone constantly and other forms of communication.

A month ago, he mentioned that he would like to “loosen” the rules to our relationship and that if he happened to be out somewhere and meet a girl he wanted to be friends with he felt like as soon as he mentioned his long-term girlfriend the new girl didn’t want to even pursue a friendship. We decided that it was OK to not say anything and even kiss other people but no current friends and no sex (in the Republican sense of that word). As a safety precaution, I told him I would want to know everything that happened — some friends called me crazy but I am glad I did this.

Last week, he called to tell me that at a friend’s party he made out with a girl. I knew he was lying and demanded to know all the details. Turns out he had “intimate relations” and sex with one of his friends. By the way, we were each other’s first and only.

I feel like I should cut him out of my life for betraying me so deeply but I still love him so much.

My friends all say different things, from dump him, to accept his apologies, to move down there to keep an eye on him, to just give it time. One thing I find frustrating is that he doesn’t seem to regret getting together with this girl, but he seems genuinely sorry that it hurt me.

We always communicated so well when we had problems and this is the first time that we are unable to come up with a solution. I thought we would get married, but now I feel like I can’t trust him.

Betrayed

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Dear Betrayed,

When he first mentioned to you that he wanted to “loosen” the rules, did it worry you at all? Was there anything different about the tone of his voice or his choice of words? Did it bother you in some way that you couldn’t quite articulate? Perhaps it bothered you but you wanted to be reasonable; perhaps you wanted to prove to yourself that you could trust him. At any rate, maybe he didn’t have a clear plan to sleep with this woman, but something had probably crossed his mind, and he was testing the waters. This conversation was an opportunity for you to express your reservations about where such a loosening of the rules might lead. He may have been looking to you, in fact, to express such reservations. When you instead agreed to his proposal, I think you implicated yourself in the outcome. I’m not saying he’s not responsible for what he did. But your acquiescence increased the likelihood that he would commit this indiscretion. For that reason, I do not think it was such a terrible betrayal. It was more like a foreseeable accident.

What you did, it seems to me, was akin to telling a kid it’s OK to play with matches in the forest as long as he doesn’t start a forest fire. It’s your responsibility to see where his actions might lead, and to prevent it.

Perhaps in some murky, unacknowledged way, you were testing him to see how far he would go. People have only so much willpower and so much awareness of their own drives. If you test them enough, they will eventually fail. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. It just means he’s human.

So to now condemn him on the basis of his failing this test seems harsh to me. On the other hand, his rationale about women not wanting to be friends with him when they find out he has a girlfriend sounds like a typical load of boyfriend bull. Women will be friends with you if you have a girlfriend. They just won’t sleep with you. That lame-ass story makes me suspect he really did have a plan in mind and was just looking for permission.

But I don’t think you need to break up with him. I just think you need to be a little more realistic. Since he’s your first partner, you’re young and you’ve been together since high school, you probably didn’t see this coming. But it’s something that was bound to happen, given the risk you took. I’d suggest you forgive him and try to stay together. Just tell him point-blank not to kiss other women.

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Bad things

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

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


Dear Cary,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confused and Sad

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Dear Confused and Sad,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A big black hole

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Short

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Dear Falling Short,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Have I ruined my marriage and screwed up my life?

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Lost

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Dear Feeling Lost,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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