How should I feel toward my father?

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

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


Cary,

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

Then we got hit with a hurricane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numb

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Dear Numb,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

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

He’s dead now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basically, whatever you feel is appropriate.

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

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

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

This is what we men go through.

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

What are we supposed to do and feel?

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I want to leave my marriage but I’m afraid

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Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Overwhelmed with Regret

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Dear Overwhelmed with Regret,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My marriage was a mistake

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I wanted to be the bride but I don’t like being the wife. Now I face the toughest decision of my life.

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Aug 15, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am a 25-year-old woman with two dogs and a sad marriage. I’ve been married going on three years and for the past one year or so have been seriously thinking I’d be better off without him.

We met about four and a half years ago, and fell for each other pretty quickly (which is how a typical relationship always seemed to start out for me in the past). We dated for 11 months before getting engaged, and then five months later we tied the knot. It all happened so fast and there was so much excitement — but now I think that deep down I didn’t really feel like he was the right guy for me … I was young (a whole three years younger — wow, huh?) and I don’t think I was finished being independent. I just wanted to be the bride — and everyone else wanted it for me too.

After we got married he started traveling a LOT for his job. Of course, he traveled before but since we waited to live together until we got married I was now spending a lot more time by myself (that was before the dogs came along). So, I knew we’d have some times apart and I knew it would bother me a little bit — but it’s gotten to the point where when he is at home I wish he’d leave again. I don’t feel an attraction to him at all. I don’t want to be hugged, kissed, or even touched … we fight about it when he’s in the mood and I never am. When we try to talk about the subject of sex and why we don’t have it anymore, I tell him I don’t feel good about myself and maybe when I lose a couple of pounds I’ll feel better … I’ll tell him anything just as long as I don’t have to say, “I’m not attracted to you anymore!” I really don’t want to hurt him — I know he loves me, but I’m getting tired of living like this.

I feel also that I should say that he’s not a bad guy. He’s nice, has a good job and all that other stuff. Sure, he has his moments (we all do) where he can be a real jerk … but for the most part there really isn’t any particular reason why I don’t love him anymore … I just don’t.

I’m convinced that I married him too quickly and that I should have waited and dated a little bit longer. I’ve always been somewhat of the “heartbreaker” in my relationships. It was always me getting tired of the other person. I was hoping that it wouldn’t happen in this relationship … but I’m afraid it has — I’m afraid that what I felt for him at the beginning was really no different than what I’ve felt for other men in the past. Sounds sleazy, I know, but it’s the truth.

I want to divorce him. I want to sell our house and live my own life with the money that I make. Maybe I’d move away, maybe not — I want that freedom.

I guess the only thing that’s really slowing me down is my family. They love him! Also, I was raised in a religious family and divorce is a sin — of course, we all sin every day — but I feel bad about wanting to leave my husband. I feel that my parents will be so disappointed in me along with all of my siblings, and extended family for that matter (we’re a close family). His family is great too … but it’s not enough to make me love him.

Before my husband left for his last trip we decided to try marriage counseling. We were going to start as soon as he got back home. He’s been gone almost two weeks now and I’m still willing to try — but we haven’t said one word about it on the phone since he’s been gone. I don’t know if the marriage is worth saving. Right now I hope someone tells me it’s not. But I guess life would be easier too if I could fall for him again. I don’t know — I think I’ve put up a wall; my marriage is on one side and my freedom is on the other — I want my freedom.

I feel quite selfish for all these feelings that I’m having but I’m just not happy. I want to be happy again.

What do I do?

Sincerely,

Confused (sincerely!)

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Dear Confused,

If someone were to ask you today, What was the most difficult thing you’ve ever done? what would you say?

I ask this in order to understand what you are facing and put myself in your shoes.

I’ve been sitting here in the cafe trying to think of the most difficult things I did before I was 25. There is a bit to get through but I will get there. You’ll see.

I wasn’t exactly the heartbreak kid. I was the guy who waited to be broken up with. So I never divorced anybody or even left anybody. I just let things fall apart. When I think about decisions that I knew were necessary and were going to cause me pain and cause others to be mad at me … I don’t think I made any!

OK, how about this. When was the last time you realized you’d made a decision selfishly that affected another person’s well-being, and then found yourself obligated to rectify it? When was the last time you looked at something you did and not only saw that it had been a mistake but saw that you had done it knowingly for selfish reasons?

Stay with me. It gets better.

When I look over my first 25 years, I see a guy making easy decisions and then taking actions to make them even easier. I see a guy with amazing luck. I see a guy who got out of scrapes. I see a guy who drifted, followed, looked for signals, tagged along. I see a guy who mooched and cadged, whined, cajoled, pleaded, charmed, faked, seduced, flattered. I see a guy who skirted, fumbled, hid from difficulty, head full of poetry, skipped out when the bill came, left before the cleanup, felt above it all, thought he knew it all. I see a guy who hid his fear, ran from trouble, avoided avoided avoided. He took refuge, fantasized, pretended, dreamed, borrowed.

I see a guy who never honestly broke up with anybody. He just waited for things to fall apart and then moved on.

It’s possible that at that age, how he’d grown up, the role models he’d had, the stresses he’d been under, the fear of the Vietnam War and the draft and the early drug use, the hippie culture he was ushered into, he did not have any choices the way we think of choices. How would he have acted differently? What model was there to follow?

So the outward behavior was not exemplary. But we do not always know what we are doing — what we are protecting, what it is within us, exactly, that is surviving through our apparently selfish and chaotic actions.

Through all that, I see a kid carrying a gift like a kid in a fairy tale, carrying a precious gift under his arm wrapped in newspaper like the Maltese Falcon. He’s been charged with its care and upkeep through war and poverty and homelessness. He’s given a gift by his parents before leaving home, and he travels, knowing that if he could just get through the forest without losing this gift, keeping it close to him, sleeping with it next to him in the forest, hiding it from jealous thieves, disguising it from those who might recognize its true value and want it (and also from those who might recognize its true value and disparage it, wounding him, knocking his confidence out), if he could just hang on to it through hurricanes and bitterness and winter streets of windblown trash and rat-run alleyways under rattling windows, if through all those nights of traveling, shivering under wet blankets, if he could hold on to just this one thing, then later, eventually, if he survived, he could work out the rest of it — what to do with the gift, how to operate it, how to use it, how to keep it running. Years later he would realize that the gift was not a metaphor. In a moment of stress a vivid memory would come to him of being a very young child and clutching something to his chest, lying on the floor kicking and screaming and crying and holding on to this thing. And he would see that this was not a metaphor, that it was physical, it was a book or some writing, it was a Bible or a journal or a story he had written. There was something he cared about more than anything else, something he would live for and die for. There was one thing at least that was not a joke. There was a bottom line, a real thing not a totem, one thing he was living for all those years of wandering.

Think about it. When you think about the most difficult thing you have done, or the most sacred thing, or the most precious, is there one thing you can latch on to?

This is hard because at that age we don’t know it. Or maybe we do. Maybe we know it but don’t have the word for it. Maybe we know it but are afraid for it; we protect it by not naming it. We think that if we name it we may harm it so we keep it secret. At that age this one most precious and dear thing may be the one thing that no one knows about — not because we are ashamed of it but because we are protecting it from their careless murder.

So you have come to one of those points where the most difficult thing you have ever done may also be the thing that defines what is most sacred to you.

You must have the courage to do this. Where will you find the strength? You will find it in this hidden sacred object or idea, this thing that you are protecting by leaving. For you, perhaps the secret object or idea is a form of joy and freedom. Perhaps you are the heartbreaker because the lifelong song you sing is the freedom song. Perhaps that is the course of your life: Love, experience, freedom. That could be. It could be that you are the secret spirit of freedom, raised — this is fate’s fiat! — in strict religion and thus hiding this spirit, protecting it, not exposing it to ridicule and at times not even believing in it yourself, but all the same secretly at night knowing that the spirit of freedom is the thing that defines you and that if it were exposed they would destroy it. Knowing, too, that to keep their love you have tried to live within their world. So the hardest thing you have ever done may turn out to be just facing it: You are not the good wife. Nor were you meant to be. You are the adventurer. Not the adventuress, in the censorious Victorian sense of a selfish, scheming woman, but the free spirit, the woman who will not be chained. Maybe that is you. Maybe it’s the call of freedom in a very pure sense. Maybe there is great power here. Seek that power. Visualize it. Crystallize it. Make it real. Hang on to it. Don’t let them shame you into submission. Keep it. Protect it. Meditate on it.

Then as you do all the necessary things to free yourself, you will have this northern star in your sights. You will have your heading. You will know where you are going even though, because of the nature of what you seek, your seeking it makes you appear to be without compass, groundless, spinning. You are not groundless and spinning. You are going somewhere. You are going toward freedom.

Go in this direction and you will know where you are going. You will be going toward freedom. You will be always going there. It is not a place you ever get to, but a place you always head for.

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My charismatic ex married a pretty young thing

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 13, 2011

After 13 years and two kids, we still weren’t even married. So I’m burned but I’m not even the ex-wife


Dear Cary,

First of all, I want to tell you that I’ve been reading your column for years and have gotten great inspiration from your poetic and insightful advice as well as the comments from your readers. I was very worried to hear about your cancer and am grateful for your recovery and continued words of wisdom.

I’m 41 years old, and although I may look like your average SUV-driving suburban mom now, in my 20s I was a model and somewhat of a party girl. During this time I became involved with an extremely handsome, charismatic, wealthy man several years my senior. We were together for 13 years, during which I endured his alcoholism, childishness, refusal to commit despite my giving birth to two beautiful daughters, and repeated cheating.

We broke up for good three years ago. A few months later he met this girl. This cartoonishly gorgeous, 25-year-old girl who looked and still looks 18. When they’d been dating for a year or so … are you sitting down? … he proposed to her. He gave her this nauseating ring with a pink heart-shaped diamond, and I smiled and gritted my teeth as my daughters walked down the aisle in their giant sparkly circus of a wedding. (Note: Prior to this, my ex hated weddings … he wouldn’t even go to his friends’ because he said he couldn’t stand to see a man tied down!)

I wish I could say she’s a cheap little gold digger who’s using him for all he’s worth … but she’s actually a very sweet, somewhat otherworldly person who to all appearances genuinely loves the bastard. He fully admits he doesn’t deserve her, calls her his angel, his salvation, etc., etc., etc. As far as I know he hasn’t cheated on her yet, which is a record for him. She’s crazy enough to keep up with his lifestyle and at the same time gives him the pampering devotion he demands, two areas where I always seemed to fall short.

Worst of all, my daughters … now 11 and 6 … like her more than me and their dad put together. They’re constantly pestering to visit and they talk about her like she’s Mary Poppins, Hannah Montana and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother rolled into one.

Not long after his marriage, my ex had a major health scare and quit drinking … something he refused to ever even try to do while we were together. It was while he was in the hospital, when I had to leave her sitting beside him, stroking his hair, at the end of visiting hours, that I realized I still love the bastard too. I know I’ve said a mouthful about him here but he’s far from all bad … he’s incredibly funny, sunny, generous, full of life, doesn’t have a mean or violent bone in his body, and is completely impossible to stop loving. And I can’t help feeling that if he’s going to settle down and be Mr. Stable-and-Sober now … after all I put up with, giving him the best years of my life, bearing and raising his kids while he was off partying … the least he could do would be to settle down with me and our girls, as a real, normal, husband, wife and kids family.

Except! In February they announced that she’s pregnant. A few weeks ago, they found out she’s having a boy. My ex is absolutely out of his mind with happiness. My girls are all excited about getting a baby brother. I’m the only person who’s not happy here. My jealousy has made me a bitter, ugly person I hardly know. I am literally fantasizing about one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met dying in childbirth. I keep a pistol in a safe for home defense purposes, and there are times … when my daughters are visiting their dad and stepmom, and I’m alone in the house all weekend … when I’ve seriously considered checking out and letting her deal with them full-time (on top of a screaming newborn!)

Don’t worry! I’m not immediately suicidal … in fact I’m looking hard for reasons to go on. Aside from what’s left of my looks I don’t bring much to the dating market. I’m not sure I could have another baby if I even wanted to, and already having kids makes it that much harder to find a relationship. What’s more, guys tend to get intimidated when I tell them about my ex. And it’s not unjustified … there are certain areas where he’s a hard (LOL!) act to follow.

There’s more to life than love and babies, you say? I’ve aged out of my former career, and can’t seem to hustle up the interest or motivation to go to school and start another, especially when his child support allows me to live quite comfortably without working. I read, I craft, I volunteer, but none of that fills the void.

I don’t even know what I’m asking for here. Hope? Sympathy? Suggestions? At this point, Cary, I’ll take whatever you can give. Thank you so much for reading.

Not Even the First Wife

Dear Not Even the First Wife,

How are you going to frame this situation so that you are at the center of the struggle and you are meeting your own needs and

finding your own joy?
The strength you need won’t all come from inside. You need to find strength from other people.

You need a community that is on your side and is a different kind of community, battle-scarred and wizened, chastened and realistic, reliable and unglamorous. Where will you find your models? I don’t mean fashion models, I mean role models. Strength is what you need now and you can find it in other people, but not people who are glittery and charismatic and intoxicating. You can find it in the gritty and mundane world of people who have taken a few hits and survived. There is a special kind of strength such people have. I have seen it.
You have to find your tribe. You may come upon them by accident. They may not look like your tribe. They may not dress like your tribe. But they will know you.

They may seem strange. Then again, they may be other SUV-driving moms who also have danced on polished marble floors and pranced on runways above adoring flashbulbs. You may find other ex-models who are now fashioning lives for themselves separate from the Peter Pans and man-boys who kept them amused during their early years. For it cannot be all that rare a story. It has a classic feel to it. It’s also possible that you would find like-minded women in Al-Anon, the group for people whose lives are affected by the drinking of friends, family and loved ones. It wouldn’t hurt to look into it.

If I were you, I would make like a huntress, looking for my tribe of strength.

No one can say what will happen to the new happy couple. Maybe he will have a profound transformation. Or maybe his pretty young wife is destined to endure things far worse than what you endured. If he does start drinking again, it will not be the carefree drinking of his yesterdays. And if he is going to quit drinking and change his life, he is going to face some hard truths. His charming act is not likely to endure. She may find herself married to a man who, much to her chagrin, begins in earnest a spiritual quest from which she is excluded. Then it may be she who goes out on him, and he who is left bewildered at home with his Tarot deck or his Big Book.

You say that she is somehow otherworldly. That would make perfect sense if what he was looking for was someone to perpetuate his denial. Or this otherworldliness may be a symbol of his awakening spiritual thirst. At any rate, if it’s any consolation, this moment cannot last. Much greater things await you.

Somehow, and it won’t be easy, you have to let that whole situation go. Somehow. But how? Your daughters are madly in love with their stepmom. Yes, how lovely. It is absurdly constructed to flatten you. Of course it is. This is fate, having its fun. So you have to summon the strength and wisdom to see this and understand its piquant, ironic character, and remember how the wheel is turning all the time. The Ferris wheel is turning, and right now you may be at the bottom, watching as the new cute couple ascend in their swinging seat and have the view of the city while you have the view of the carny’s toothless face as he leers at you alone in your seat on the bottom of the Ferris wheel.

But the Ferris wheel must turn. They have to come to the bottom to get out. Then you will be at the top, looking out over the city, swinging in your Ferris wheel swing, while the cute new couple down below must exit past the leer of the toothless carny.

No question about it: This is a difficult moment for you. You can embrace what has arrived, or you can run from it. I suggest you summon your courage and embrace what has arrived. It is an occasion for grace: You are being called upon to find a deeper source of strength. You will find it, and it will carry you.

I gave up everything to be with my Russian husband and now I’m unhappy

I am a New Yorker living like a prisoner
in London.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 29, 2007

Dear Cary,

I’m American. My husband is Russian. We’re in our 30s, married about two and a half years, and live in London, where my husband is pursuing a Ph.D. We got married so I could stay here with him — in other words, my five-year residency here with permission to work is based on our marriage certificate. I might add that I married him to be with him, and not because I was particularly interested in living in London or, for that matter, unhappy with my life before.

We got together in part based on love of travel. We took road trips together, went to his country. This was years ago. Four, more or less. Some things happened. He moved here. I did my second year of an MFA program. I never finished. I moved here to be with him when I was about to start my thesis, got, like, a three-year-long case of writer’s block, and there goes my life. Now I work part time and wonder what the hell happened to me.

Here is the specific question. It relates to my rights, I think. You see, my husband cannot go anywhere without applying for a visa. This includes going across the Channel to France. The visa process is complex and demanding, and he hates to do it and resents it.
There are also disparities in our background. Mine — I won’t get into his — includes a little bit of money. Not much. But I have a kitty to dip into, so to speak.

I’m not crazy about London. At first I hated it. Gradually I came to see it as like New York, where I’m from, with the significant difference that here I lack family and support (interesting slip, considering that I’m married). Also, whereas in New York I can get into a car and drive somewhere fun, here I can’t even go to Europe. Because he can’t. Not that I mind going alone. I like it. But I can’t because he can’t. You see?

It was depressing two and a half years ago and it’s still depressing. I didn’t know before I abandoned my old life, sold my car, left my master’s program and gave away my cats (to my parents — I’m not absolutely heartless) that my husband would not be able to travel to Europe. What a crazy thing! Or maybe I knew it perhaps a month before I came here, but I didn’t know or let myself think about the extent to which this problem would take over my life.

Life with him is a constant battle I cannot win. He constantly tries to explain himself to me, puncturing holes in my logic and finding fault with everything. Maybe I should be like Sonia in “Crime and Punishment” and give up all my privileges, as he calls them, which are unfairly won by my evil country over his. I went to Paris by myself over a year ago for four days and am still being asked to explain this terrible betrayal. It’s true that every time I’ve taken a trip on my own, totaling 10 days in two and a half years, I haven’t asked for his permission or told him in advance. I didn’t want to be dissuaded. But it’s maddening to constantly be told how difficult it is to be Russian and how ungenerous I am by wanting to do anything at all when I feel I am experiencing the same thing, and quite often wonder why I don’t just make my life easier by finding someone with a better passport who understands my need to disappear every now and then without feeling slighted by it.

What are my obligations to him? And what are his to me? I feel like I know what they are, but they don’t seem to translate into this combination. I can’t deal with feeling so limited.

Of course I love him. But I wasn’t always this unhappy.

Thanks.

Stranded

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Dear Stranded,

You gave up a great deal to be with this man.

You sold your car and gave away your cats. You left the city and country in which your attitudes and expectations were understood and respected. And then what happened? You got writer’s block. I do not think these things are unrelated.

I think you have to leave this man.

It’s really that simple.

If there were a way to leave him symbolically in order to meet the needs of your psyche for solitude and autonomy, then perhaps you would not have to divorce him.

If you could leave him, for instance, and go into a room of your own with a door that closes, a door that he will not open if it is closed, a door that he respects, that would be a start.

The door that is closed but not locked symbolizes your choices and your wishes. A door that is locked represents your power. You need for him to respect your wishes, not your power.

You have some power here. You have your own money. But he denigrates that power as privilege, i.e. power that is illegitimate, that you do not deserve. If he respects neither your power nor your wishes, there’s no basis for negotiation.

You could get a room of your own outside the relationship. You could just do it. But to get a room of your own within the relationship you need his respect. If you cannot negotiate with mutual respect, if you must negotiate only out of power, then the relationship is not one between two free equals; it is more of an authoritarian relationship in which power decides one’s fate.

I do not believe that the creative spirit can thrive under such conditions.

You do not want to have to lock yourself in. It is better to leave and be locked out.

There is much, much more to be said about this, but that is all I feel I can say with certainty and resolve.

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I want kids, but he doesn’t. What could be simpler?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 31, 2005

Should I break it off now and look for a man who wants to raise a family?


Dear Cary,

I’m a 31-year-old smart, cute, funny, perennially happy physician who is in love with a 38-year-old chemistry professor. He is everything I want in a man. He’s warm, kind, caring, handsome, intelligent (some of our most interesting conversations are about quantum physics … grrrrr) and crazy about me. He has never been married and had a happy childhood. We can discuss any topic under the sun — conversation and silences are both filled with pleasant comfort and warmth. He is a liberal, an environmentalist, funny and wise about life and otherwise inexplicable things like taxes and stocks and — oh! — the sex rocks! In all a perfect package, except he does not want kids and I think I do.

We met online five months ago on a dating site as I was going through my divorce. I was not heartbroken about the divorce, as I had an “arranged marriage,” we never fell in love, the ex and I were totally mismatched and it was a relief to get separated. When the chemist and I started dating, it was supposed to be a testing-the-waters type of thing. He was, after all, the first guy I had ever dated. (I’m from a culture that frowns on making out with boys you are not married to.) But he feels right and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

So, where do I go from here? He likes his quiet time, is a bit of an introvert, likes to hike and travel, and does not think that he can sacrifice all of this for 18 years to raise a child who may or may not turn out to be a fine upstanding citizen. (These are scary times, you know.) He’s got a point there. I like sleeping in on the weekends, not having to worry about nannies, day care, poopy diapers, pediatrician visits, the Family and Medical Leave Act, teenage angst and whatever else is inevitable. But I’ve achieved a lot in life, I’m going to be financially secure, I have a wonderful job I love and a great family (who are overseas), and in two or three years I may yearn for the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

So before I fall deeper in love, should we break up, cut our losses and run, or should we let time decide? Should I let someone who seems to be “the one” go and hope to meet someone else who will be a better “one”? If we took care to arrange for adequate day care, to ensure that he and I went on a “date” once a week without the little one and took vacations just by ourselves to keep the fire kindled, would that give me the best of both worlds? Or is there a chance that I would doom the relationship to failure by making him compromise?

Looking Ahead

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Dear Looking Ahead,

If he doesn’t want kids and you do, then you should break up with him.

There, that was simple, wasn’t it?

So, if it was so simple, where have I been for the last hour? Why have I been thinking about probabilities and branching courses of action?

I got caught up in this notion of “the future.” The future is unknowable. Everybody will tell you that. So why do we spend so much time thinking about it? Knowing we can’t know it, we attempt to know it anyway, and then we start to feel like we can’t know anything at all, not even the present, because who knows, we might turn into chickens, or we might open a soft-drink bottling plant!

“Soft-drink bottling plant?” “Chickens?” Why did such notions enter my mind? Those are images out of rural Florida and Alabama. Those are images out of my childhood. (See the hour-glass bottles of Coca-Cola clinking along the conveyor belt; see the man in overalls pick up a bottle, open it and take a swig; it looked like the best job in the world!)

Why did those particular examples arise? What is going on here? Ah! Now I’m remembering. When I was a kid, we lived in the future. You never knew when something might happen to alter the way things were, so the way things were wasn’t really the way things are, so you couldn’t make any plans. We didn’t open boxes and put things away because we might be moving. We didn’t throw things away because we might need them. You never knew. Anything might happen. Best to leave your options open. Why even leave the house? You might get polio. Then again, you might not. Who could know?

The notion of an unknowable future became a source of paralysis for me later in life. So there I was again just now, the happy writer, trying to live in the moment, sitting at the computer, luckiest guy alive, getting paid to do what I love, and getting all paralyzed and confused about a simple yes-or-no question — because it involved the problem of the future! (Apropos of nothing — except perhaps the humorous synthesizing powers of the unconscious — what came into my mind, actually, was the phrase “software bottling plant.”)

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So how do you make this issue of the future concrete enough to make a decision about it? You stop thinking about wanting kids in the future and think about wanting them right now. You want kids right now. You are practical enough to realize that you can’t attend to them right now, but you want them. Likewise, you can treat his lack of desire for kids as a definite trait. If he wanted kids he would probably have made some by now. He would have gotten married.

So it’s not that mysterious.

Ha ha. Watch out. Everything is that mysterious.

We move from mystery to clarity to mystery. We embody paradoxes and contradictions. We express them in dramatic symbols; we act out the ineffable. He is a chemist. You are a doctor. You enjoy great chemistry together. Quantum physics excites your molecules. You understand how something can be indeterminate, can become its opposite, can change shape, can be unknowable in one way and knowable in another. I suggest that you determine that you want kids and he does not. But I acknowledge that in the act of determining, you may alter what you determine. You are both scientists of life and matter. States of matter can change. Water becomes steam. Water becomes ice. Elements influence one another. When the conditions are right for life, life sometimes appears.

Knowing what you want and what he wants, I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that certain combinations of people create unforeseen reactions. So before you break up with him, have a very frank talk. You may have awakened something in him. He may have awakened something in you.

It’s not so simple after all. Sorry, but that’s life.

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My wife is lying to me about her affair

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

Then she wanted to clam up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Husband Lost at Sea

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Dear Husband,

Divorce this woman. Protect yourself and your kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OK, I get it, my husband’s a verbal abuser

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 8, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to accept what my therapist has been pushing at — but I think I’m ready to act in my own interest.


Dear Cary,

I’m troubled.

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

And I do.

And yet on another level, I question the whole idea. The book contains no citations. It could well be cut from whole cloth, as they say — an angry woman’s fantasy of how men are, how men act. Even if that characterization is a straw man (womyn?), it is a tempting one, especially when the self-help verbiage gets a little much. But where do we draw the line? I seem to be standing on a line, on one side of which is mutually unproductive communication that can be resolved through talking and counseling and new approaches, and on the other is a crowd shouting “Why haven’t you DTMFA?”

Since I have been with him, I have gradually given up my passions — my theater, my academic field, my crafts, my gym membership. Only those things that he finds acceptable — the hobbies, the reading, the baking (but never on hot days) — remain. He wished to own a house. We own a house. I cook, clean, launder, mow the lawn, call the repairmen, run the errands, pay the mortgage. I have been working for seven years under the assumption that these are all choices I was involved in, decisions I made. And yet I daydream of a cozy studio apartment where I am alone and everything — the belongings, the music, the choices — is mine. Of going where the jobs in my field are, instead of staying where they aren’t. Of dallying with women, and perhaps men, with beautiful souls.

I take pills. I go to therapy. He goes back to school. I applaud this — it is a sensible decision that will lead to a stable job in his field — even as I resent his freedom to do so. I make a point of telling him that I wish to return to school (yet again) once he finds a job. He is wholly supportive of this, he says — once the loans are paid off, once we are no longer in debt. Despite my thrift, the loans pile up. When I fail to manage the money as he directs, I am chastised. Every cent I spend is one that cannot be used to pay off those loans and buy my freedom from menial jobs that siphon my self-confidence and passion, but which pay for the therapy to deal with the panic attacks and crying jags that primarily manifest themselves when he’s around.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a long and storied history of psychological instability in my family, on both sides, which has led me to believe that my problems were internal and self-contained. There is also (as I learned recently, yet have known all along) a long and storied family history of controllers and controllees, criticizers and objects of criticism. I am not sure what his family has given him, aside from a Midwestern up-by-the-bootstraps aversion to psychoanalysis of any kind.

A dear friend says that she had these concerns before she knew him, from my tone, from my phone calls. She met him, and “[saw] how he looks at me,” the love in his eyes, and her fears were assuaged. I know that he loves me, from that same look, those same heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. I also know that he expects me to read his mind, then tells me that I am the one who needs to fix my reactions so that we can communicate — who drives me to tears with his inconsistencies, then allows me the solace of his embrace.

It is not that I fear to be alone or independent — aside from the annoyance of dividing things up, the prospect seems inviting. But the prospect of remaking myself in my own image, of reclaiming the me that was, is more complicated. And there are so many things that I would miss. Friends, games, holidays, my mother-in-law, even the house that taunts me with its constant breakings and dirtiness. Him, the man who has been so good for me in so many ways, who rescued me from an equally dead-end (though less malignant) relationship, whom I’ve shared so many adventures with. Who I’m not even convinced is aware of what he’s doing.
And yet things cannot remain as they are.

Angel in the Details

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Dear Angel,

I am going to try to be direct. You know that’s not my style. But still.

I suggest you leave this guy.

There is only one twist: You make your new life first.

I basically agree with the DTMFA approach — with one caveat.

The caveat is that you begin not by disrupting your current life but by building your new one. If you leave without trying to rebuild your life first, you may find yourself alone in a new place, isolated from friends and family, without a solid network, without a life plan, having just gone through a traumatic breakup, flooded with emotion, and you may, under that stress, be more prone to fall back into your old pattern of finding a rescuer, a controller, a caretaker. You may slip back into the same situation with someone else. So I advise taking a gradual approach to building a new life so that when you leave him, you have a new life to step into. Work to develop new behaviors and reinvigorate abandoned passions.

For instance, these things you mention that you have given up — your theater, your academic field, your crafts, your gym membership: Put these things back in your life one by one. When you begin doing this, he may object. Keep in mind that you are leaving him anyway.

It may help to set a date and write it in your calendar, say, six months. In six months you are leaving. During that time you tackle the many concrete tasks of rebuilding your life. This includes looking at new places to live and working out your budget. As you pursue this project, at a certain point — and this may happen sooner than you expect — it may become impossible to continue to live with him. Your positive action may force buried conflicts to the surface. He may decide that he is divorcing you. He may become unstable. He may threaten you. If he is a certain kind of man, when his control over you is threatened, he may become dangerous. So, while laying the groundwork for an orderly departure, you need to also be ready to leave quickly if things get to that.

The point is this: To the extent possible, don’t act precipitously to your own detriment. Instead, begin putting your life together and try to leave at a time that is best for you.

Now, regardless of his objections, you may find that you yourself just can’t build this new life while still living with him. You may feel paralyzed, blocked, unable to act. If so, OK. Leaving him might be a precondition to putting your life together. That’s OK. Discuss this with your therapist and make a plan. But please do what you can to prepare first. Give it a try. Take what steps you can to reconnect with your theater, your academic life, your crafts and your gym first. Do what you can.

Just so we’re clear: Yes, I think you should leave. DTMFA or whatever. Just, to the extent possible, prepare first.

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Can I stop my aging parents from suing each other into oblivion?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 9, 2008

Divorced, they’ve been squabbling in courts for over a decade.


Dear Cary,

I write this letter to you with the hope of gaining some clarity in a situation that it appears I cannot remove myself from.
My parents have been divorced for more than a decade now, but unfortunately neither of them got the memo that divorce means moving on with their lives. They still wrangle each other in court to this day. The reasons range from money to psychological damage caused by the other. You name it, and one has probably made a court matter of it. The two of them don’t speak, and I am the proxy by default.

Needless to say, this has deeply affected me for a while. After more than a decade of hearing the victim complex both my mother and father carry, it is not difficult to realize there is no rationalizing with either of them. I have not had a close relationship with either of them for a long time now, and over the course of the past year I have put so much distance between them and myself that I only touch base with them once a month.

I told myself I would not allow them to hold me back from living a happy, productive and fulfilled life. I can’t say I have neared any of those goals, but I can say that keeping them and their dysfunctional lifestyles at bay has allowed me to live a somewhat emotionally tame lifestyle.

But a difficulty has presented itself. My mother has signed her competency over to her friend/confidant, who coincidently is a former attorney. This individual has filed four lawsuits to date against my father as my mother’s guardian, and it doesn’t look like he is going to stop anytime soon. My father feels that he is being extorted.

He feels that if my mother is truly incompetent, why sign over power to an individual outside her immediate family? Basically, he feels that a fraud is being committed. And honestly, I can’t say I completely disagree with him. I am not a lawyer, nor I do I know the legal definition of incompetence, but something about this situation makes me want to call “bullshit.” At the same time, I am unsurprised and prefer to sit on the sideline instead of getting tangled in the mess.

I can’t say my father is a complete victim here. He is an attorney, and takes full advantage of that fact. It feels like after all these years of his taking such advantage, my mother will go to whatever lengths possible to get what she feels is rightfully hers, even if it means bending the truth.

My father tries to guilt me into doing something about this. His take is: “You have the power to stop what she is doing. She is wronging me.” I feel like, What’s the use? Why should I get caught up in a problem he helped exacerbate?

My siblings and I have spent enough time as the pawns in their juvenile warring for the past 12 years. Even if I do try and take the reins of being guardian, my mother will undoubtedly fight me on it. Nor will this end the power struggle between my parents. They’ll find something new to fight over.

What I am looking for, Cary, is for someone to tell me that my ambivalence in this situation is right. I feel like this is my time to start my life (I am in my mid-20s) … I have a lot going for me, and I don’t want to be sucked back into their dysfunction. Am I entitled to close my eyes to this situation?

Your opinion please.

Ambivalent Son

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Dear Ambivalent Son,

Of course your ambivalence is right. It is a natural response to an impossible situation.

Yet you must decide. You must decide whether to intervene. And I suggest, for better or worse, that you do try to intervene. I say this fully understanding the difficult emotional consequences such an attempt can have. I say this because you stand at least some chance of avoiding further damage. You stand at least some chance of doing some good.

At least engage your own legal counsel and examine the alternatives. After seeing all the options you may decide that doing nothing is best. At least you will have examined your options thoroughly. I suggest you do this as soon as possible. Such situations can get worse quickly. Assets can disappear; relationships can turn bitter; those who stood by can be burdened with lasting regret that they did not step in sooner.

In suggesting this, I feel like a fool, frankly, for often what happens is this: Even after forgiving oneself and others for shortcomings; even after admitting that we have absolutely zero chance of achieving a better past; even after recognizing that we are powerless over our parents; even after recognizing that we did indeed do what we could, that we did indeed try and were rebuffed, even after weekly sessions in therapy going over it and over it, the painful situation persists and we remain ambivalent and embittered and crippled by its insidious, undermining power: I failed as a son. I failed as the good son, the son with promise. I failed to protect my parents.

The only oasis of blamelessness in this hurricane of guilt and recrimination is the knowledge that one fails in such endeavors not because one is a bad son but because one is powerless over the ultimate fate of others.

This is a difficult thing to keep in mind. It needs constant reinforcement. We do not have godlike powers. If I had godlike powers I would change my parents. I would change my siblings. I would put us all in a big white house by the river. I would take us all back there to a quiet summer street shaded by banyans and mimosas, walking by the seawall, dangling our toes in the water, bicycling to the store for popsicles, devoid of cares, attending to childhood, sure and safe in the embrace of our parents who were young and strong and could be trusted to solve any problem and untie any knot. That is what I would do if I had godlike powers. I would take us back there. I would make life a fantasy. We would all tend lovingly to my parents as they aged and weakened, cooing over them and rocking them to sleep and feeding them with spoons. We would sing them lullabies and change them and protect them from things they cannot comprehend. In love for one another we would sacrifice, each of us, to the extent we were capable of, and each of us would understand that each sibling has gifts and limitations, and we would honor each other for our gifts and our limitations, and we would all take turns taking care of our parents.

That is what I would do if I had godlike powers. But I do not. Neither do you. So we do what we can. To the extent that you can gain some legal power in this matter, I hope you take steps to do so. If you can protect assets and prevent further lawsuits, if you can arrange for binding arbitration between the parties, perhaps you can avert certain catastrophes.

As to precisely how you do this, legally and financially, I respectfully yield to legal and financial experts. My point is more a moral one: You have to try. You may be damaged in the attempt. You may find that suddenly you are the enemy of all. They may all turn against you, including your siblings. But you will have tried.

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My Christian daughter says I’m going to hell

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Cary’s classic column THURSDAY, OCT 4, 2007 03:10 AM PDT

I don’t believe in God but I want to allay her fears.


Hi,

I am the father of a 13-year-old daughter whose mother has been taking her to an evangelical Christian church her whole life. Her mother’s family is entirely Christian. I am not a Christian, and in fact think that organized religion is actively harmful to her development into a rational adult. None of my friends are Christian, nor any of my family.

Her mother and I split up right before she was born, but I have been an active parent. She lived with me for fifth and seventh grades and has been with me every summer and every other holiday. Right now, I have her every other weekend. Religion is not the only issue her mother and I have had, but until this point we have been able to compromise and get along with each other pretty well.

As my daughter gets older, however, she has started to become fearful that because I am not a Christian, I am going to hell. When I try to explain my beliefs (that I don’t believe in God or a higher power), she cries. I am certainly not trying to deny her mother the right to take her to church, but I don’t want to cut my two weekends a month with her short to take her back to her mother’s to attend church. Nor do I want her mother telling her that I am going to hell.

It has gotten to the point that if I even try to broach the subject of religion (mentioning my belief in evolution or that homosexuals are not sinners), it upsets my daughter greatly. Obviously, this is not what I want, but I do want to be able to communicate to her what I believe.

Her mom thinks that I am denying her freedom by not taking her to church on the weekends that I have her, but I am just trying to help her see that other people believe other things and that having an open mind is a good thing.

What am I doing wrong? And more important, how can I talk to my daughter about this without making her cry?

Unholy Father

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Dear Unholy Father,

Does football exist?

Some would argue no. Surely they have heard people speak of football and argue forcibly about its rules and the conduct of its games. But they have never been to a game and would never go to a game because to them football is a mass illusion with a peculiar, inexplicable allure for millions of clueless fools, on whose hard-earned dollars certain unscrupulous people get very rich.
If your daughter is not a football fan she might argue thus. Moreover, she might argue, football is harmful to the development of a peaceful, nonviolent culture.

To which you might respond, well, if football does not exist then how can it be harmful?

And she would say, well, people gather to watch games, but what they are watching is not really football. It is just a bunch of people believing in football. There is no actual football. It is an illusion, a group hallucination. But it warps people’s minds and diverts them from more important things.

To which you might reply, Have you ever been to a friggin’ game? How can you say that? What can this thing that we are doing possibly be if it is not football?

Well, she might say, that’s your problem. All I know is that football does not exist, and if it did exist, I’d know.

How can you know unless you go to a game? you’d ask her in exasperation. Moreover, how can you know what goes on there after just one game? You would need to attend games regularly for maybe several years, or at least a couple of seasons, before you could really feel you know what’s going on there!

Exactly.

What I am trying to say is, the way to help your daughter grow is not to debate the existence of God. It is to go to church with your daughter and experience what she is experiencing.

You can argue about who is winning and who is losing. But at least watch the game.

Her problem is not that she believes in God. It’s that she believes you are going to burn in hell when you die. It’s her concern for you, and her fear for you, that are the problem. She wants to believe otherwise but has no solid grounds on which to place any hope. If you go to church with her, you will make it possible for her to believe that there is at least a chance that you will not burn in hell. From this she will derive great benefit. It will give her some peace of mind. The peace of mind she derives from it will help her in her schoolwork and in her relationships with others. It will help her sleep at night and it will improve her attitude toward you. It will be one less complaint she has against you. It will be one less wedge her mother can use between you. And it will be the only way you will ever be able to argue with her about religion with any credibility, should you choose to do so when she gets older.

Now is not the time to argue with her about religion. Now is the time to strengthen your bond with your daughter by participating in things that matter to her, by showing her that you respect the way she lives her life and by showing her that you have an open mind.

But don’t just go to church with her. Meet with one of the officials. That’s right, wander right down on to the field and speak with one of the guys in the striped shirts. Or whatever they wear. Arrange a private conference. In this private conference, you can say whatever you like. It doesn’t matter really. It might be a good conversation or it might be utterly ridiculous. But show your daughter that you are willing to engage with one of the people she respects. Show her that you have enough humility and independence of spirit to engage, that you are not fearful or dogmatic or close-minded.

In your own mind, you might approach the matter as a consumer. Don’t be glib with the official or you may be ejected. But in your own mind, think of salvation, or “eternal life,” as a product.

How is this product obtained? Are there instances in which people are granted “eternal life” at random, or must every grant be preceded by an act of faith, or surrender? Are there exact words one must use to close the deal, or will any words to the effect of “I’m in!” suffice? Would a silent act of surrender suffice? If a silent act of surrender would suffice, then is it possible that you have already been saved? And, once granted, can this product be recalled? For instance, what if a child were to be a fervent believer and then later lost his belief? Would that initial belief still grant him eternal life? Go over the terms and conditions, as it were.

Once you have done this, and conversed with an official, you might be able to confidently tell your daughter, without going into specifics, that you think everything is going to be OK, eternal-life-wise. She would probably appreciate that.

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