I’m 38 and want kids, but the men I’m dating don’t

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 11, 2005

Since divorce, life has been pretty swell, but now I want to settle down and be a mom.


Dear Cary,

I was violently thrust into the dating inferno after my divorce nearly six years ago. During that time I’ve run the gamut of interactions: everything from being played like a plastic Flutophone to having a couple of semi-rewarding, longish-term relationships to enjoying a few purely physical hookups.

During my period of self-actualization I’ve done the following:

Gotten a shitload of therapy

Realized creative dreams of writing and getting published

Learned how to parallel park on steep hills (on the left side)

Amassed a huge network of fabulous friends

Made peace with my ex-husband

Learned French

Got promoted and learned to accept, if not fully embrace, working for the Man

Traveled

Turned my ex-boyfriends into great friends

Learned to love yoga in 120 degree temperatures

According to the post-divorce survival guide, I’ve done everything correctly, yet I still can’t figure out why I’m approaching 38 and single. I have no problem getting dates, but finding someone who will, well, stick in this city has been problematic.

So, here’s my question. Lately I’ve found that the wonderful men who have been wanting to date me don’t want children. Either they’ve had their chickens or their need to create is sublimated by their artistic passions. I am still passionate about having kids. So, Cary, do I need to grow up and accept the fact that having kids may not be in the cards for me and allow myself to yield to these men who woo? Does it make sense to get attached to someone who isn’t on the same page? At what age does a woman throw in the towel? I’ve entertained having my own child, but lack of money and familial support make this a nearly impossible option.

Still Holding the Towel

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Dear Still Holding the Towel,

If having children is truly, absolutely, positively, without a doubt the one thing you most want to do above all other things, then you will have to make some major life choices, and quickly.

So please ask yourself how badly you want to have children. It isn’t enough to say you want it really, really badly. The question is, what are you willing to give up? Do you want it badly enough to give up living where you live and working where you work? Do you want it badly enough to compromise on the kind of man you raise those children with?

Or do you want to continue living in the city you love, working the job you have learned to appreciate, but just add a fabulous husband and a child or two — and perhaps a larger residence to accommodate the extra people?

If you’re willing to make significant sacrifices, and you start immediately, perhaps you can find a man, and a new home, and a new job, and get pregnant and raise some children.

But if you want to keep what you have and simply add some beautiful kids and a great husband, I would say the chances of getting all that are considerably slimmer.

So which is better? The fabulous life you have now, or the life you might have if you sacrificed what you have for what you want? It’s a matter of great unknowns and probabilities.

The situation is made more acute, of course, by your age. You are already well past prime childbearing age. You’re 38.

It’s not as though you’ve wasted these years. You’ve had a fabulous time. You could not have had this fabulous time if you’d been raising kids. Nevertheless, inexorable time has crept up, lessening your chances of conceiving.

We make choices.

So these are the two choices as I see them: 1) Devote everything you have to your one goal of getting married and having kids, which means being willing to compromise on everything else — job, city, man. Or 2) Devote substantially more energy than you already are devoting to the problem, but retain those elements of your life that you already know make you happy. That way, you may win the lottery and get everything you want, but if not, you have not given up so much.

My conservative bet would be on No. 2. Because even if you gave up everything you love to pursue the goal of getting married and having kids, there’s a reasonable chance that you would rush into something with the wrong man in the wrong town and the wrong job, and you’d be miserable, and you would have given up what you had. So the potential downside is considerably steeper; also, you might find that having children does not make you as happy as you thought it would.

So I suggest you stay in the city but narrow your dating, focus it only on men who want to get married and have kids. Put 100 percent of your effort behind that. Weed out the rest.

You may very well find a great man and get married and get pregnant and have some wonderful healthy kids and live happily ever after. Or you might adopt some kids. Or you might fall in love with a man who already has some kids. Or you might just enjoy your life as it is.

Believe me, not having kids is not the end of the world. For some people, in fact, it’s more like the beginning.

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Help! I’m getting older!

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I’m not ready for cats and pottery class, but I don’t know how to deal with the fear.

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 7, 2006

Dear Cary,

I find myself pondering the notion of dating again after the demise of a long-term relationship. I’m female and in my late 30s, and I find myself increasingly self-conscious about being “an older woman” on the dating scene. While I’ve always been aware of the power of female youthfulness, the volume of that cry for the young ones seems ever-increasing, and sometimes it gets downright mean, as if women who age do so out of spite. In this big bad Northwest city, it seems cruelly competitive, and even scrolling through the letters section of Salon, I come across nasty references to women’s “expiration dates.” I can’t say I blame men for wanting to date younger women, and I’m not looking for an explanation or justification for this state of affairs. I know men face ageism in dating, too, but it’s far less common on the other side of the gender fence. The whole thing scares me and I don’t know how to deal with that fear.

I do have a few things going for me in the midst of this onslaught of matron-itis: I keep myself in great shape, I delight in all the feminine trappings — from fishnets to backrubs after a guy’s had a hard day to debating politics because it’s sexy, plus I’m blessed with excellent health. While I don’t lie about my age, I could shave off some years and successfully pass (but it’s not about that for me). While I’d like to have a serious relationship (marriage, most likely) with kids in our shared life someplace, I’m not at the mercy of my biological clock. I wouldn’t mind adoption, stepkids, foster kids, or even just being the crazy aunt ‘n’ uncle to the kids down the street. So I’m not racing against time in that regard, which relieves some pressure. Plus, I am pretty flexible about age myself. If some beguiling 58-year-old presented himself as a potential suitor and we were compatible, I wouldn’t think twice about hopping into his sidecar and blasting down the road with him.

I’m not the type to adopt a fire-sale mentality when it comes to dating — hardly desperate, hardly dependent upon a man to define my value. But I still find myself psyched out by the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be, and that that may count against me in more cases than not. I don’t need to hear that I should date in massive volume to better my odds or that my own self-worth is more important than the worth anyone else might ascribe to me. I simply would like you to tell me, friend, how exactly to run between the raindrops of this age thing? I’m not quite ready for cats and pottery class.

Scared of Math in Seattle

Dear Scared of Math,

There are people who can give you advice on dating and so forth, but I don’t think I’m that person and I don’t think that’s what you’re asking for. You’ve made it clear that you don’t want to hear certain predictable pieces of advice or platitudes. Plus you’ve written to me, as opposed to maybe some other person who might be able to offer more in the area of practical advice. That in itself says something.

So after reading your letter, which was very enjoyable — I like the way you have thought this through, and I like the way you express yourself, especially when you note that some people seem to think women age purely out of spite (that was good!) — I went over it again looking for actual questions or problems that I could address. And I found this: “The whole thing scares me and I don’t know how to deal with that fear.”

Now that I can relate to. The prospect of aging scares you and you don’t know how to deal with the fear. That’s a very honest statement. I think it’s a great place to start. It’s a great place to stop, too, if you get what I mean. It’s not really about age, it’s about fear.

You’re dealing with aging very well already. You’re taking care of yourself. You’re thinking through the options it presents and what it requires of you and so forth. But you didn’t say you don’t know how to deal with aging. You said you don’t know how to deal with the fear.

The fear, the fear, the fear. How does one deal with fear? How I deal with fear is mainly I try to identify and make concrete what it is I’m actually afraid of.

Have you ever noticed that a person who is not afraid to state the facts as they are can seem fearless? A person who is not afraid to say I am a socialist or I am a Republican or I am 65 years old and who dares you to do something about it — that that person can seem fearless? What is it about saying the obvious? Well, it makes the obvious obviously less important.

Watch me: My name is Cary Tennis and I am a 52-year-old recovered alcoholic.That’s the truth. You want a piece of me? I had a friend who was a writer who lied about his age in order to seem more interesting. We’re not really friends anymore. I wonder why. I am attracted to people who can tell the truth. It’s a good quality in writing as well — the ability to tell the truth. So I suggest you tell people exactly how old you are and let them deal with it. I mean, do you really want to have a serious relationship with a man who can’t handle the truth?

Another thing I suggest you do about your fear is to make a list of the things that you actually do fear that are related to aging. Make them concrete. Say them out loud: What if a man should reject you when you tell him your age? What would happen then? Would you have to go to the hospital? Would you be unable to speak for a month?

Let me play too: I fear being thought of as an old person. That is too vague. We want to zoom in even closer. And let’s make it you instead of me. I’m not playing anymore. So who exactly would think of you as an old person and how would that affect you? Well, say a man you like were to think of you as too old to date. Say he were to lie to you and tell you he didn’t want to go out with you because he was too raw from a recent breakup, and then you find out later that was a lie and really it was because you were too old for him. What would be the consequences of that? Would that make you lose your job or walk with a limp? Or say that you have a relationship and then the man decides you are too old and breaks up with you and tells you that’s why he’s breaking up with you. What would the consequences of that be? You would probably be angry and upset; you might be more upset than you expected to be. The real fear there, it seems to me, is the fear of emotional pain. It’s normal to fear emotional pain — to fear pain of all kinds. Would it be worse emotional pain if he broke up with you because you were older? How? Because age is something you cannot control?

Possibly.

You are a smart person. You can see where this is going.
What happens when we examine our fears in detail is a couple of things. Either they seem to melt away as trivial, or they lead to more existential things that genuinely do frighten us but which are big universal conditions that we share with all people. It is understandable to fear things we cannot control. That is the human condition.

I could do this all night. The issue is fear.

It also may be helpful to know that you do not have to get rid of your fear. It is OK to feel fear and continue to do what you are doing. There is a book out called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. I haven’t read it … but it’s a great title, don’t you think? It’s almost all you need to know right there.

The real problem is the fear … itself. Oh, boy, I’m not going to have to quote FDR, am I? Actually, it’s sort of bracing to listen to that famous speech. Maybe before you go out on your next date, just listen to that old guy FDR hammering out his lines. It’s actually, as I said, rather bracing.

He e-mailed us to say, “I’m dating both of you”

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 16, 2009

I thought I liked this guy, but his message to me and the other woman he’s dating seemed pretty tacky.


Dear Cary,

I value your advice and read your column all the time. Anyway, after a long hiatus, I dove into the dating pool. I heard that my longtime friend Bob’s cute brother Sam was newly single. I sent him a card telling him that if he’d like to see a movie sometime or have lunch to call/e-mail me. Bob cautioned me that Sam was newly divorced and maybe I shouldn’t take action. I decided to anyway, even though I respect Bob’s opinion about most things.

Anyway, I really fell quickly for Sam. We couldn’t see each other very often because we live two hours apart and as a single parent I could only arrange to see him maybe once a month at most. The few times we saw each other lasted for several hours … we had so much to talk and laugh about — incredible chemistry … and we had frequent e-mails/phone calls in between … it seemed like we had a rare connection, at least to me anyway.

Then, I get an e-mail that he just started seeing someone that lives in his building. Now, get this, he e-mails me and Suzy on the same e-mail at the same time … as in “Margaret and Suzy, I am seeing you both … like you both … want it all out in the open …” I thought this was in really poor taste … didn’t seem to go with the thoughtful person I knew.

Anyway, I tried to be classy because, well, he could have continued seeing both of us and maybe I wouldn’t have found out … so in a weird way, I did appreciate his clumsy honesty. I told him that I couldn’t see him while he was seeing someone else; physically and emotionally I just wasn’t cut out that way and I wished him well.

He has since e-mailed me that I was the most genuine person he has ever met and that his time with me couldn’t be compared, and he signed it “Love, Sam.” Part of me wondered, What the heck does this mean? But the logical side of me decided to just ignore the e-mail.

Not sure if I will ever hear from him again, but I do miss him. If I do hear from him, is he worthy of another chance? I think so, but sometimes I have such huge rose-colored glasses on when it comes to romance that I set myself up to get slam-dunked. And I felt so sad about all of this.

This guy made me wonderful dinners. Made me CDs of my favorite songs. Loved to slow dance … I felt so at ease with him … but since he decided to see someone else I have to wonder if it was all BS.

I hate to think so. What do you think, being a man and all?

Puzzled

Dear Puzzled,

What I think, being a man and all, is that sometimes women spend too much time trying to figure out what we men are up to and not enough time trusting their own judgment. I think you’ve already decided what to do. That e-mail struck you as manipulative and invasive and strange, and it put you off.

Yet you crave his attention. Craving his attention is not a good basis for a relationship. Craving his attention is like needing a drug. He made you a nice dinner. He says nice things to you. Those things — the slow-dancing, the CD, the dinner — those are not the relationship. They are relationship-oriented products. He has shown himself to be an adequate producer of relationship-oriented products. You haven’t really encountered him as a person yet; you’ve only encountered him as a competent dispenser of feeling-like substances.

Not to say that all courtship behavior is a sham. Courtship behavior and its attendant relationship-oriented products make it safe for men and women to dance together. But within the slow dance and the dinner is supposed to be some relating. You have to sense there’s a man you like in there somewhere. I’m not sure you do. I feel more like you were so fragile and hungry that you fell for the appearance of something — for the relationship-oriented products he is able to produce. And that puts you in a dangerous spot because, as you say, you are a person who has such “huge rose-colored glasses on when it comes to romance that I set myself up to get slam-dunked.”

Some people call that “having boundary issues.” Having boundaries is about knowing your weaknesses and protecting yourself.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling fragile and hungry. It happens. We’re in a fragile, hungry time. I suggest, however, that you never allow yourself to become so fragile and hungry that you go against your own core values and instincts.

As a man, I can tell you that sometimes when we want a woman to do something, we produce our best relationship-oriented products and present them to her as if they represented our current feelings toward her. But what they actually represent is how we think we might feel once we get what we want from her. Once we get what we want from her, we might feel like a slow dance, like a diamond, like a rare filet mignon. But in the beginning it’s not poetry; it’s sales. Relationship is knowing and accepting another person. You have to like the guy. He has to not creep you out.

So what do you feel about a person who would send the kind of e-mail he sent? Some people might actually like it. But I think your reaction was like the reaction many women would have, which was that it was just tacky and strange. So trust your own response. I think you’ve already decided what to do.

Guys keep dumping me

 

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 3, 2012

We date for six weeks and then they say, “There’s no spark”


Hi Cary,

I enjoy reading your responses because they are honest and very heartfelt, and –  I hope this doesn’t sound over the top — they’re often quite beautiful too.  

I am the (embarrassingly) clichéd successful young woman who is still man-less. I’m 30 years old, I have a wonderful career, numerous close girlfriends, a sometimes frustrating but close and always supportive family, generally great co-workers and acquaintances.  I’m slender, fit, attractive, my nieces and nephews love me and people often call me their sunshine in perhaps an otherwise gray day. A source of pride for me is that I regularly make people laugh. I don’t say these things from a place of arrogance, or at least I hope not, but to set the scene for you, to give you a sense of who is on the other end of this letter. The good parts of me. The parts that everyone else sees.

And yet, I am single. I’m not temporarily, in-between relationships-single, I am chronically, seemingly unstoppably single.  I haven’t had a proper relationship in about four years. The people around me don’t understand why I’m alone either (or at least that’s what they keep telling me), and I trust them to be at least mildly honest about my deficiencies. And believe me, I know I do have them (OK, since I listed my good traits, I’ll list some bad as well — I’m overly sensitive, I’m very particular, I’m stubborn, I’m blunt to a fault at times, I cry every time I get upset, I can be self-obsessed and overly analytical, which is boring for others, etc., etc.).

Don’t get me wrong — I can’t say that I don’t meet men.  I do meet men, I do go out on dates, I do start the very beginnings of relationships. Over and over again. And not with jerks or awful men either — generally pretty decent guys, successful, kind, smart, funny, attractive. Catches. The problem is that after a few dates, they don’t seem to want to continue a relationship with me. About five to six weeks in, around the time things may become exclusive, or at least we start to talk about it, I generally get dumped on my butt or I have to end things because he tells me he’s not looking for anything more than casual. Sometimes I’m dropped in insensitive ways, but usually not — I get the old line that I’m great, he just doesn’t feel a spark. He just doesn’t think that we’re right long-term. There’s just something missing. Then these guys go on to happy relationships with someone else. I am not perfect in a relationship, but I try to treat a partner with respect and kindness. Nobody has ever called me a bitch after we’ve ended things — in fact, I’m still in touch in some form with nearly every man I’ve ever dated and slept with!

I tend to believe that there is a reason for the way things are in our life, and if someone can’t maintain a relationship, there’s a reason for that. If a woman keeps ending up with a guy who treats her awfully, it’s because she’s dating guys who are awful. Of course there’s more to it, but that’s the bare bones.  So, what am I doing wrong? What is the reason that guys want to date me at the beginning, but then lose interest so fast? Do I give a better first impression than the reality? I can’t help but start to develop a complex that, once someone really gets to know me, they are disappointed that the real me isn’t as great as the first-impression me. I would love to believe that they’re “intimidated by my amazingness” as some of my friends say, but let’s get real here — a guy wants to keep amazingness, not throw it away. I’m not completely delusional.  Is it that I’m punching above my weight? Should I pull out some old wives’ trick and try harder to make these guys stay? I’ve always thought that was a bit pathetic and a sure way to a crappy relationship, but maybe it’s in fact what all women do but we just won’t admit it.

There seem to be lots of uninteresting and unattractive (to me) guys out there, so maybe I’m just too picky by only dating the ones that really attract me. When I was 23 I threw away a chance of a baby and marriage because I panicked, I felt too young, completely unprepared and I wanted so much more in my life. I still fiercely respect my right to that decision, but I’ve regretted it for years and now all I want is to be tied down. Is this some kind of karma? My greatest fear is that I’ll be in this same dating Groundhog Day five years from now, so I want to stop the pattern that I’ve created, but I have no idea how.  I’m exhausted, and I want to find a good love.  Please give me a cold dose of reality and help me see this more clearly.

Trapped in Dating-Groundhog-Day

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Dear Trapped,

I am going to go out on a limb here and speak to you as if I knew you, even though I don’t. I am going to speak to you as if I knew your problem, as if it were something like mine.

My guess is that you are not “connecting” because you are not being your authentic self. Now, this is a huge thing to say. It may sound pretty nervy, and I admit it is. But I’m just going to say it.

You are acting in a way that is socially acceptable and no one could fault you for, and yet this way of acting is not right for the real you. In some way, you are being untrue to yourself. This is of course a long life habit, as it is with me. It is a hard habit to break. And it is hard to accept the proposition that while we are not liars or cheats or thieves, we are yet, at some deeper level, being emotionally deceitful. I’m probably going to be accused of “blaming the victim” or something but that is not what I mean.

I know this: People respond to our authentic self. If our authentic self is hidden, then they lose interest. We are of course taught to hide our authentic self. Most of us have an authentic self that is at odds with social expectations, so we learn to suppress it. In rare cases, people we think of as “charismatic” have authentic selves that merge well with the social moment. Such people are lucky and become famous and well-loved. But in your case, and in my case, the authentic self may not be the self you show the world, the successful, cheery self. But it is real. It may shock some people. It may not be welcome everywhere. But it is the real you.

You hint at this when you express the fear that once these guys get to know  the real you they lose interest. I think that is close but not exactly it. When we see a person truly, we cannot help but love her. But when we catch only a glimpse of her hidden self, then we are confused. We sense contradiction and a great hiding, a hiddenness. The “spark” these guys are talking about ignites when the genuine person is seen.

Here is another thought: You may still be mourning the loss you had at 23. I would guess you are still angry and sad about this thing. I feel for you. I am sorry for your loss. You probably put on a happy face and cheer people up but you are not happy. You are still sad about this. You don’t know quite why you did what you did. Perhaps even the burden of choosing was not an unqualified gift. I don’t know. We are complicated. Social and political rights are complicated. We can be grateful for autonomy and yet also yearn to have the path laid out for us. We can relish making our own decisions and yet at times hate the burden this places on us. You made a choice and it was the right choice at the time. You weren’t ready.

One thing that can happen after an event like that is that we go on in a state of incompleteness, of incomplete mourning. This is what people mean sometimes when they say we have “baggage.” We have not moved through certain events emotionally, so we are still responding to current events as though they were happening in the past.
So let us regard this string of unsatisfying encounters as a sign: Your mission is to encounter your authentic self. I wonder who she is.

She may be fierce and angry. She may be wounded. She may be simply sad. Who knows, she might be fiercely funny. She might be frighteningly strong! She may be voracious and sexy and naughty. She may have wanted all her life to be a scientist or mathematician. She may want to be a fisherman. She is probably many things. I wonder who she is. Show her. Let her be. Then she will find her mate.

You have accomplished a lot on the outside. You have some inner work to do now. If you begin this great journey now, no matter what happens in the arena of dating, you will find your authentic self and that is the great human mission.

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Dating rules

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Cary’s classic column from

Is it possible to go out with two women at the same time and get away with it?


Dear Cary,

I’m in a bind: After going a couple of years without a serious relationship, I recently met two very cool women in the course of two days. Gal No. 1 is smart, funny, confident, good-looking and slightly counterculture. Gal No. 2 is smart, witty, lighthearted, self-deprecating and a little bit kooky. On a shallow level, I find No. 1 just a little bit more physically attractive.

As I met them at essentially the same time, I thought it would be OK to get to know them both. I had enjoyable e-mail and then phone relationships, and then had very nice dinners with each. No. 1 is open but taking it as it comes; No. 2 seems to be more proactively interested in me. I might be a slightly better personality match with No. 2, but I really don’t know either one of them well enough to say that with conviction.

In the event that everything continues to proceed well, is there any general time limit or number of dates by which I should get on the stick and make a decision? I’m not the kind of guy who feels OK about simultaneously dating two women, and the last thing I want to do is hurt someone’s feelings. Is it totally stupid to be swayed by the attractiveness of No. 1 even though No. 2 and I get on very well? I’m in my early 40s (as are both women) but feel like a dumb, naive high school kid. I don’t want to screw this up. Help!

Conflicted

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Dear Conflicted,

Does God exist? If God does not exist, then this is random nature at work, which means that randomness can be as kind as it can be cruel, which means that consciousness has no monopoly on agape. I see no reason why you should feel compelled to tamper with nature. On the other hand, if God does exist, then God has put these two women into your life for some unseen but no doubt lofty purpose — not the least of which might be the beneficial effects of certain fantastic imaginings that may occur to you. God, if he exists, is not altogether without a sense of humor.

So what to do? Do whatever you feel like doing. Leave it up to the women. Don’t try to control everything or be super cagey about it. Just lay it out there. Say that you met two women at the same time and you’re currently dating both of them. Say that such a situation has never happened to you before, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead and you don’t want to do anything rash, dishonest or hurtful, so you’re just laying it out there.

I don’t think that you have any great responsibility beyond just saying what’s going on. In fact, I would hesitate to try to spin it in any particular direction, because that could backfire; the minute you start trying to spin, you enter the realm of unintended consequences. You really have no way of knowing how it’s going to end up.

But if the totally Zen approach is a little much, and you’d feel better guiding the conversation toward some definable options, you might ask each woman if she has entertained any notions of your relationship becoming serious enough to warrant the easing out of the other. In other words, try to find out if either of these women is thinking seriously about you.

You might also remind these women that you are a man, and thus completely without guile or cleverness, and that if they think you’re cooking this up as some kind of manipulation, they vastly overestimate you. Remind them that you don’t particularly relish the difficulties it poses.

I don’t think you have much to lose by being open about the situation. I do not think that either woman will refuse to see you on account of it, although if one does, it probably means that she wasn’t all that into you anyway. If that happens, consider yourself to have been granted a second piece of good fortune: It relieves you not only of the burden of a difficult choice, but of the potential heartache of a futile courtship.

So, again, I say, just let go of the outcome and explain the situation. Nothing bad can come of it.

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We fight like crazy but I love her

 

 

Hello Cary,

I’ve been reading your columns for a year or so. In fact, it was my ex who introduced me to your column. She also introduced me to lots of other wonderful things, like the benefits of going for a walk in the woods and how therapy can be helpful to people who don’t particularly think they need it.

I loved her and I do love her. She is beautiful, and she is in love with being alive. She is talented and self-motivated. She is affectionate and tender-hearted. She expresses her feelings in an unselfconscious way that I’ve never seen before or since. She is a wonderful human being. The thing is, we just didn’t work. Our now-ended relationship was fraught with conflicts and disappointments, but now that it seems to be over, all I can think of is when–that’s when, not if–we’ll get back together and how we can fix things when that happens. How can I stop thinking this way?

We’ve broken up and gotten back together before. Even after I moved out this last time, we’ve seen each other for no less than 3 separate periods, which were always bittersweet and beautiful, and ultimately abruptly ended. She would text when someone she knew passed, or I would see her at a music festival and call her sounding like the saddest boy who ever lived, and we would see each other again for a time. This most recent time, she broke her foot and I spent about 3 weeks taking care of her, and our tentative “I love you’s” and nervous closed mouth kisses break my heart to think about them now.

The way that ended was when we talked about how something of mine was still left in her apartment. She asked me to come get them, and we set a time for this. I recently received a promotion of sorts at work, with increased responsibilities, a change in hours, and a raft of new people to help train. A couple of these people were my own friends whom I had referred to the position. I really want to keep this job and be perceived as a valuable presence, so I’ve probably been working too hard and taking on too much responsibility in order to make an impression. Between the long hours of work (and worrying about work when I wasn’t there), recent car troubles, and taking care my ex, I felt really worn out the day before I was supposed to go get my things. I texted her to reschedule. She asked why I was canceling so suddenly, and I explained, to which she responded that she didn’t like that I had time for everything and everyone else but not for her. She mentioned that I’m working so hard to make sure everything goes right in my life, but don’t have time to clean up the messes I left her with. I ended up telling her that she can’t lay this guilt trip on me considering how much I have helped her lately, and told her to leave me alone. She was on the mend and in much better shape than when she initially hurt herself, so I thought it was “right” for me to assert my needs and tell someone who was bringing me down to leave me alone. I haven’t heard from her since.

Keep in mind, I was just asking to reschedule, not trying to cancel. I really just wanted a day of rest. This was how many many many of our fights would play out. It’s like we don’t even hear each other. I think, now, in retrospect, that though her words were saying that I was inconsiderate and selfish, the meaning was that she was lonely and needed reassurances from me.

The thing is, even if we talked again and I approached her with this knowledge in the back of my head, I think it would eventually descend into the same situation. Because I’ve been there before, again and again. Even so, I can’t help but want her, and miss her, and feel like I abandoned her. I can’t help but think about the time we read one of your advice columns together, where you urged someone in a bad relationship to stick it out. The metaphor you used was of a partially-constructed house, and how, if they left now, they’d be driving by that half-built home every day for the rest of their life, never knowing what it would’ve been like when it was completed.

She is genuinely one of the most caring, understanding, and loving people I have ever known. Each fight–and there were many–felt shocking and surprising. The speed at which we would distance ourselves from each other makes my head spin just to think about it. I know that we didn’t work together, but I feel like if I just accept that we will never work, that we can never be together, I will fall apart. So I go day to day anticipating the time when we will, by some magic, be together and happy, because the alternative reality is too harsh for me to bear. I’m driving by our half-built house thinking “it’s almost finished” and ignoring the fact that the budget is depleted, the workers have all fled, and that each day that I’ve seen it since construction ended it has fallen further in on itself. I don’t want to think this way. I want to be realistic. I know that if I hang onto this hope, I only set myself up for even more crushing disappointments. Help!

It’s Still Good

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Dear It’s Still Good,

Yes, it’s possible that this pattern will happen again. But it’s also possible to change what you do when this pattern emerges, to acquire a repertoire of words you can say that is well-learned enough that you can access it when you are stressed and upset, and then taking a minute to think of what to say before you lash out. It’s about being extra considerate.

What happened is behavior. Behavior can change. You can’t stop the emotions but you can learn to avoid escalating; you can learn to give when giving is the only thing that will work.

Wow, that’s a nice metaphor you remember. It is relevant. Because you bring to the relationship a set of stuff that is good enough to start with but it’s not enough to complete the relationship. You have to learn new behaviors specific to this person and this relationship. That includes learning to navigate through these difficult situations when each of you is at a low point and each of you needs something from the other and neither of you feels like it’s right that you should be the one to give in. One of you has to give in. One of you has to be selfless and not get what you want for the time being. In this conversation on the phone with her, in my opinion, that person was you.

You have to hurt for her sometimes. That’s as blunt as I can be. She will make you hurt. You have to be the bigger one at that point and accept the hurt. Until she herself learns to moderate her own selfish needs, you will have to be the one who hurts. That’s the price of keeping her.

Maybe you don’t want to pay that price. That’s up to you. What I’m saying is that it’s within your power to keep this relationship, and keep her, if you can just put your feelings and your pride aside now and then and meet her emotional needs, however unreasonable and ill-timed they may seem.

Yes, you were tired and yes more than anything in the world you wanted things to go your way and they didn’t. Yes, you needed some attention and you weren’t going to get it from her. Yes, it sucked. But that’s how relationships are sometimes. You were both at a low point and you were both needy and one of you was not going to get what you wanted.

It was unfair and will be unfair in the future. It’s not going to even out. When she’s low, she’s maybe not going to make the noble gesture just to make you feel better.

But you can learn to shift gears and buck up. You can ask her to hold on and then you can take a deep breath and think it through and let your emotions settle. You can say, “OK, I understand this is a disappointment and you know what? I don’t want to disappoint you. I love you and I want you to be happy. I do have a lot to do and it is a little inconvenient but I am coming over and I am bringing flowers.”

Or something like that.–ct