Big 4-0

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My family gives me no respect

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 7, 2006

I’m accomplished and responsible but they treat me like a loser.


Dear Cary,

I have a great job, own my own home, car, dog and medium-size 401K, have put myself through college and law school. I am not a loser! So why does my whole family treat me like one?

My family is not a normal set of folks; we are in a whole new category of dysfunctional and it would take 20 hours’ worth of couch time to even come close to describing the crazy things below the surface. Anyway, the issue is that I want to be loved and respected. I am loved by some but respect is just not there.

My youngest sister is forever telling me how poor my judgment is, how bad my understanding of people is and how unprofessional I am, despite the evidence of my high-powered job at an internationally renowned organization. I have a résumé to die for. That is not just a boast but a statement of fact (OK, a boast, too. I need to bolster myself since I am not getting it from outside sources). She tells me that she has no faith in me, in my judgment or in anything about me, that my house is awful, my neighborhood sucks, my dog is poorly trained, etc. And this is the sister I get along with best.

My mother makes it clear that a woman of 39 (me) without a husband and without children is a loser by definition. I had a husband, a drug-abusing, foul-mouthed yet charming brute who almost bankrupted me, stole from me and my friends, cheated on me with other women and possibly men, and verbally abused me in public and private. Dumping him after seven years of marriage was the best decision of my life. I feel lucky that any of my self-esteem survived that one. Yet, here we are five years later and my mother still criticizes me for not keeping that guy! Her current advice: Find a man who wants American citizenship and trade my bed for a green card!

My father barely speaks to me because I dated a guy he did not like a year ago. Two of my sisters do not speak to me at all. I honestly do not know why but both claim to be angry at me. My brother thinks I am an irresponsible idiot. My last sister, who is the only one who acknowledges me as a fully grown and responsible adult, still tells me that my divorce from an abusive ex is a sign of my inability to keep a commitment!

For God’s sake, what is it going to take to get these people to admit that I am fine as I am and why the hell do I care! Are these people overly judgmental or am I insane?

Dissed by My Family

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Dear Dissed,

You are fine as you are. I know that. You know that. It’s the truth.
But your family is never going to give you what you want. That’s also the truth.

You will never be at peace with your family until you stop wanting what they will never give you.

It is easy to say, “Accept the way things are.”

But exactly how do we accept things? What is this action called acceptance? I would say that acceptance is knowing rather than wishing. You studied law. You committed many laws to memory. You may wish they were one way but they are the way they are. If you go into the courtroom and expect the laws to be different from the way they are you will not succeed. You must accept that the law is the way it is. You must know the law.

The same is true with your family. You must know your family as it is. You must study your family and know it thoroughly. That is your route to acceptance. Regard your family as a fact, immutable as the law. They are what they are. They behave in a certain way. The facts are unpleasant. But they are facts.

What happens to people who do not like the law and so do not obey it? They get their asses kicked.

You may not like what you know about your family but you must accept it or you will get your ass kicked. You will step into the ring expecting a kiss and get slapped. Don’t do it. Don’t let them kick you around.

You may find it hard to accept your family as it is. There are reasons for that. One reason is that in accepting your family as it is, you have to give up, or mourn, the ideal family that never was. You may have to go through a sort of grieving process. You may have to feel the hurt, the lifelong ache of wanting a family that is loving and kind and supportive and never getting it. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It hurts for a long time. But that is the price of knowing the truth.

I think the truth is worth it.

Here is a consolation: This other family, this ideal, imaginary family that you always wanted, this family that really gets you, that supports you, that appreciates you as you appreciate yourself: It is a real family, too. It is real in your mind. You can keep it, in fact. You can keep this imaginary family in your mind. This dream family is your family, too. It’s the family you deserve. It lives on a different street in a different neighborhood where only you can go.

Here is another consolation. Sometimes if you leave something alone long enough it begins to heal on its own and one day long after you have given up even thinking about it a gift arrives in the mail that is so delightful you break down right there on your doorstep because you had given up all hope of such a thing ever, ever happening.

I’m just saying it’s possible. Maybe one day if you leave this alone it may fix itself. But don’t hold your breath. Let it be.

Your family today is sad and difficult and dangerous. Remember that. Accept it. Don’t give them the opportunity to kick you around anymore.

Get what you need some other way. Get it from people who have it to give.

I came home to a sleeping country

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 28, 2013

Back in the States after the Peace Corps, I feel lost, like it’s unreal


Dear Cary,

After graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps. This whole growing up thing has been great, by the way! There are more interesting things to learn about and more important things to care about every day. And the older I get, the more I can do.

I was very close to my host family in my country of service. For two years, I lived in a hut in their compound. They were work partners, friends and parents to me. They introduced me to their culture, taught me the local language and showed me more about the meaning of family and community than I could ever hope to communicate with my words or works. As proud as I am of the work that I did there, my relationship with that family and the whole village community is what I’ll carry in my heart for the rest of my life.

The work was good, too. When it went well, anyway. Our projects were complicated sometimes, and they were always being carried out in low-resource settings. It could be frustrating. But seeing a village pull together, as I got to over and over again, was a delight. I could go to bed at night, dehydrated and exhausted, truly emptied out, and feel so much joy. I intend to chase that feeling for the rest of my life, and I will follow it anywhere.

This feeling is like having this whole other element in my life, like a color I had never been able to see before my Peace Corps service, or like an entirely new way of putting the same old words and thoughts together, an entirely new way of living. It came every day, but some days more than others. The best days were the days that were full of work and people. The best nights were the nights when I went to bed sunburned and sore, with a light heart, a full stomach, and the knowledge that I had done a good thing well. I remember thinking: This is all I want. Let me not live a day past my ability to feel this way. Not an hour.

After my return to the States, which was about six months ago, I started a program of education that will bring me to a career I am certain I will love. It’s a career path that will bring me back to that feeling I’m talking about. It’s thrilling, and I feel lucky to be in this program. I am exactly where I need to be, having taken every opportunity for adventure and madness and good work that has come my way. At least, I’m 95 percent sure of all that, and that remaining whisper of doubt doesn’t come anywhere close to disturbing me.

Here’s the thing. I haven’t felt anything since I’ve come back to the States. A friend’s sadness has moved me deeply on a couple of occasions, and I was moved to the point of mild irritation by the need to take midterms and final exams this semester. But I haven’t emotionally connected to anything or anyone in a way that felt real to me. Things happen, and they’re sometimes things that I should feel keenly. But I don’t. I even took a volunteer job that I thought would push me emotionally. Nothing.

I don’t feel like I’m disconnecting myself from the people and things around me on purpose, but I don’t know how to stop it from happening. Nothing here seems real. It’s what I feel when I look at old sepia-tinted photos: that it’s a real world, or it was, but it’s not mine. I can’t put my hands on it, I can’t live in it, I can’t respond to it.

I know some people have trouble coming back from overseas. They fall apart in grocery stores, shocked by the variety of foods and consumer goods. They lose it in restaurants and bars, appalled by others’ inability to understand their experiences, or angered by their ignorance of faraway places. I’ve seen all that happen, and it’s not what’s happening to me. At least, I think it’s not.

How do you reconnect? How do you wake back up? How do you come home?

Not All Here

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Dear Not All Here,

Your question is so interesting that I am going to take a speculative approach to it, almost as though it were a writing prompt. For it reads like a novel that opens after many important things have already happened. We begin with exhaustion. The hero returns and now what? In storytelling sense, it might not seem like the best place to start. But we’re at a point of decision-making, which should lead to a story. The protagonist is having flashbacks to his time overseas. He is concerned mostly about that world that he has left. That is what he is thinking about, day to day. We wouldn’t want to hang around with him if he’s just going to be unhappy and live in the past. But we’ll put up with it for a little bit because we like him and trust him. He’s done something good and he’s troubled but it’s not because there’s something wrong with him. It’s more like a new problem for him to solve.

He buys a peach at a corner store and the man who sells it to him reminds him of one of the villagers and it sets off a train of thought where we see that he loved these people and longs for return. We grow to like this character as he goes about his daily life and tells us about the life he left in the village.

Since we have grown to like the character, we want something to happen to him or for him. If he is simply exhausted then there is no story. To make a story, first we think the character must  insert himself into bland American culture and try to change it. He must hurl himself up against it. That will make it an interesting novel. He must identify the elements in American society that are lacking and he must identify the disease. Is it ennui? Is this a dying empire? Is that what happened? The son of a dying empire experiences a vital culture and then returns to his dying empire and realizes the truth?

He must watch television and listen to the current political debate and contrast it with his recent experience in the village. For instance maybe he is sitting in a cafe working on his thesis and there is an argument on the television about “the debt.” He starts to think about “the debt,” how it is an abstract cudgel everyone is beaten by, how it looms like the threat of the paddle used to loom in schools before paddles were outlawed.

He tries to analyze what is wrong with the society he has returned to, and he sees that it is full of fear, irrational fear, superstitious fear, religious fear. He sees that the promise of rational progress, the Enlightenment dream of the free individual, the lessons of existentialism and psychoanalysis, the promise of technology, the daily miracles occurring in software, that all these things are occurring and yet the populace seems weirdly drugged. He begins to wonder if Americans might not have been hypnotized in his absence. Or is he the one who has changed? Was it always this way? No one can tell him. He asks a professor he has come to like and trust and the professor tells him that yes, American society is diseased and drugged, and we must each find our personal salvation wherever we can — in heroin, in Buddhism, in study. His professor’s answer seems both sincere and deeply cynical and he cannot reconcile these conflicting impressions, and feels that the professor has not been entirely honest with him, but then he realizes it’s not the professor’s job to be honest with him, but to provoke him to thought.

He is angry. He asks what he is angry about. The answer that comes is that he is angry about loss. What he senses in the society to which he has returned is that it has lost a precious beauty, a burning faith. Part of this he chalks up to his youth. Of course the world is mostly tedium. Of course most people give up. As he works for a living he realizes why most people give up: Because to eat and pay rent one must get up every day and work at a job that takes all one’s energy, a job that requires one to focus on details that do not relate to any larger human project but seem to exist in a machine world all their own, and one wonders why so many millions of workers are spending their days hunched over in cubicles managing the details of this machine that is too huge to see or comprehend, a machine that does not speak to us or reveal itself but which nonetheless must be maintained. And then out of boredom he goes to the movies alone. He has heard of this movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and so he buys a ticket at a theater out in a quiet, foggy distract of the city (I wrote “distract” instead of “district” because just at that moment I was distracted; weird, huh? Such ticks might make this seem like a self-referential novel but that would not be good because a self-referential novel might be considered just one more symptom of a dying empire). He sits through “Zero Dark Thirty” and grows angry and sad. The movie strikes him as the bland recitation of an undigested trauma. This trauma, he realizes, this national trauma has not been transformed into wisdom but sits inert in the belly of the beast, and he realizes that the nature of a truly bad thing is that we cannot overcome it or comprehend it, that it makes us crazy or sterile or frozen, and this is how bad, boring art gets made as well — he has the thought that bad art is made by stuck analysands groping in blandness.

He walks out of the theater and for a moment he hates his country. He stops on a dark street corner and begins to weep for this country that only months before had seemed so bright with promise. He thinks about the men in the movie who got on the helicopters to go and murder America’s enemy and there is much about them that he likes but their mission had about it the bloodlessness of an execution. He seizes on that word “bloodless” and feels there is something bloodless in the land he has returned to.

But he goes on. He goes home. He breaks a vase in his apartment. He calls a woman he has been seeing and asks her if she would like to go to Turkey. He feels if he goes to Turkey he can wash out this anger and sense of betrayal. Why Turkey? she says. I haven’t been there yet, he says. I want to sit in a cafe and look at spires. She says that asking her to go to Turkey is impulsive and unreasonable. She’s got finals and he knows she’s got finals. It’s after 1 in the morning, why doesn’t he get some sleep. He needs to adjust, she says. He’s back in the States now and it’s time to adjust.

She hangs up. He sits in his chair looking out the window at the full moon. He’s not sure he wants to adjust. He fears that adjusting means sacrificing something sacred. It was a lot of work to find and cultivate that thing that is sacred. You don’t find that every day.

So he buys a ticket. He goes to Turkey to sit in a cafe and look at spires. He gets a little motorbike and starts riding out this road into the fields at sunset. He spends time wandering around the mosques. People tell him he’s missing his chance. He says the degree will have to wait. He’s got things to sort out.

Then something happens, or a series of things happen, and it’s 30 years later and he asks himself if he is happy, if he has done the right things, and realizes that his life has been rich because he heeded the calls when they came, and he resisted easy belief. He sacrificed some things. He parted tragically with his home. He left many things behind but he heeded the call.

That’s how your letter makes me feel. No matter how bland and disappointing our country is, there is always a shining call to answer. There may be another call for you to answer now. That may be why the country you have returned to seems unreal. Listen for the call. Listen for your next assignment. Trust the surprise.

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Have I ruined my marriage and screwed up my life?

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Lost

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Dear Feeling Lost,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yo-yo man

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 22, 2003

I’m with a man who says he doesn’t believe in love, but he’s loving when he’s with me. Help!


Dear Cary,

Around four months ago I started dating this guy, “Steve,” who I met over the Internet. Steve is tall, funny and smart. He tells me that I am wonderful. He is also petrified that I will turn into his ex-wife (he divorced three years ago) and try to control his life, beat him up, and keep him from friends and family. He tells me that he cares for me deeply but he can’t love me because love sucks and he is never going to do it again. When we are together he is very affectionate and a fantastic lover. When he is away he forgets to call me, forgets our dates, and seems irritated when I contact him. So we go back and forth, seeing each other about once or twice a week.

A little about me: About a year and a half ago my husband of three years and boyfriend of 10 said that he didn’t love me and possibly never did. We are divorced and I feel that I am a better person without my ex. I know, however, that I have residual feelings of inadequacy and a lack of faith in my intuition. Therefore, when Steve doesn’t call, I start to think that all of his talk of “You are great, beautiful, smart, sexy” is just polite talk and he really isn’t interested. Also I started dating my ex when I was 18 and am now 29, and Steve is basically my second boyfriend (and my second lover) so I am inexperienced in the arena of relationships.

Should I just cut my losses and tell Steve that he is obviously not ready for a relationship? Should I take a step back and just wait for Steve to be more interested in me? Or am I being really clingy? I get terrible advice from friends: Play uninterested, play dumb, pretend that you don’t care, etc.

Hope you have better advice,

Ms. Yo-Yoed

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Dear Ms. Yo-Yoed,

I hope I have better advice than your friends, too, though I think if you look hard enough at what your friends are suggesting, you’ll see that they and I both want much the same thing: for you to gain some control over your fate, to not just be reacting to what Steve is doing.

However, I am not a big fan of pretending. When you pretend, unless you’re a good actor, you leave your message open to interpretation. If you want him to believe that you don’t care, go ahead and tell him you don’t care. Give him the benefit of being able to respond to a clear message. But don’t play with his head or act coy. Because unless you were born to be coy, unless coy is who you are, he might not read coy even though you’re doing coy all over the place; instead, he may read goofy or strange or mentally ill.

For those reasons, I am more in favor of the declarative sentence. (I’m also a big fan of the occasional bald-faced lie, but in this case, I think the truth will get the right results.) Tell him, for instance, that when you heard him say he couldn’t love you it sounded to you like he was saying he couldn’t love you. Ask him if you heard him correctly. If you did hear him correctly, then utter this declarative sentence: I am looking for a man to love me. Tell him you spy daylight between your desires and what he is offering.

I suggest doing this because you need your situation spelled out clearly. Once it’s spelled out, I think you’ll see that this man is not the man you are looking for. You are looking for love and he’s told you he can’t do that. But don’t tell Steve he’s not ready for a relationship. You have no idea what Steve is ready for. Tell him you’re not ready for a relationship with a man who can’t love you.

Then, as you move on and look for the right man, concentrate on the observable facts; state clearly what you want and look for agreement. If you don’t get agreement, take it at face value: He doesn’t want to give you what you want. Many negotiable aspects of a relationship can be spelled out: How frequently you get together, whether fidelity is required, is he looking to get married and raise kids, that kind of thing. The less intuiting you have to do, if you feel your intuition about men is weak, the less trouble you’ll get into. I’m not saying get it in writing, exactly, but be explicit about what’s going on in your head. And pay attention to what he says and assume that he means it.

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I’m a suburban husband in my 40s and I think I’m getting depressed

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 11, 2008

I don’t know if this is just typical midlife stuff, or if I’m in serious psychological trouble.


Dear Cary:

I am a suburban husband in my 40s with two wonderful kids, a good marriage, a secure job and financial situation, no medical problems, no substance problems, or anything like that. I work in a technical field, but harbor pretensions of being a creative person. My emotional state has always been somewhat up and down, but in the past six months or so, it has moved more decisively into the negative territory than it has since high school, if ever. I’m always tense, and frequently feel hunted, like I’m barely holding on by my fingernails, just holding my life together. I feel as though it’s all I can do to keep my head above water.

Sometimes I am almost overwhelmed with panic, and at other times I get these flashes of depression, and I wonder how I’m going to make it through the workday. I feel as though it’s all I can do to stay on top of the details of my life, yet all I am actually called upon to do is drag my sorry ass to work, drag it home again and do the dishes sometimes. In the past I have had artistic endeavors, and one in particular that I consider my true passion and have devoted a lot of work to, work I am proud of. I feel I have betrayed that passion by not having any energy for it these days. I feel that my life is entirely defensive — there is no grip-it-and-rip-it attitude left. Things that used to make me feel more alive now just seem like hassles and pressure trips (like travel). Diversions that I once considered transporting or transforming are now almost irritating distractions. I have tried meditation, and have a sense that I should do it more often, but, you know, I don’t. Oh, and my libido has pretty much disappeared.

Is this just a run-of-the-mill midlife crisis? Looking back at what I’ve written, it actually seems a little more messed up than that, like textbook depression. There is no rational reason for the feelings of dread I feel most of the time. Should I just smack myself and stop whining like a little girl? How can I introduce some perspective into my life in a way that my gut and heart will understand? I strongly resist the idea of pharmaceutical help, which I’m sure a professional would steer me toward. Then again, maybe I’m like the adulterer who tells his mistress and himself that he’s miserable with his marriage but never seems to get around to divorcing his wife — actually much happier with the current situation than he lets himself believe. (What do you want? Look around and ask yourself: What have you got?) I’m quite functional and am good company: Most people who know me would be very surprised to know I wrote this.

What’s your take?

Out of Gas

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Dear Out of Gas,

Well, I really appreciate your writing to me, first of all. And, sort of in line with what I have written above, I’m trying to stay away from the position of, like, knowing it all and being clever, which is the death of a real advice column, and instead just relate to people from the heart. So I can say that I’ve felt how you feel, and I’ve come close to clinical depression myself, and also steered clear of antidepressants. I did consult a psychologist and found out some pretty surprising things, things I hadn’t noticed or thought about. And I was able to make some adjustments and I’m better off for it. I don’t have those periods of blinding despair and depression that I had started to have. And I’m, uh, nicer to myself now. So I got out of my 40s without ending up in the nuthouse. Hurray for me, I’m an American male success story.

I don’t know why this seems to happen in the 40s, except that by the time you’re 40 if you’ve actually been working you’ve been doing meaningless bullshit for so long that it really starts to get you down. I’m not saying your work is totally meaningless but, come on, there’s something else you’d rather be doing. I mean, you can do your technical work for a while, and make a good salary, and put plenty away as investments, you can sacrifice for your kids’ future and put your own needs aside, you’re strong, you’re a man, you can handle it. But after 20 years of that it’s not surprising that you’re starting to fray. You’re not getting enough sleep, you’re having to do what other people tell you to do at work, you’re behaving yourself, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do so people don’t say you’re a creep or so your wife isn’t embarrassed by you. And that’s fine for a while, but Jesus, if you think of how you were at age 18, and what you liked to do, what gave you pleasure, what your ideals were, and you think what your life would be like if you had followed those ideals, and then you think if there is anything in your life today that meets those ideals … no wonder men in their 40s crack up. You’re not alone.

Speaking of being nice to yourself … man, you sound like you put yourself down a lot. You might think it’s just regular humility, not making too much of yourself, or being realistic. But behind it, you’d be surprised, there could be these assumptions you don’t even know you have, like, oddly enough, that you really do deserve to be slapped like a little girl. That you’re not good enough. That you’re a fraud. I mean, look at how you talk about yourself. You say you “harbor pretensions” of being a creative person. What kind of talk is that? Would you talk about somebody else that way? Creativity belongs to all people, regardless of class, race, economic level, gender, whatever. It’s not some special prerogative of the rich and the gifted, or the politically popular. What is with all this judgment, like you can’t write or paint or do music unless you are a professional at it? How did we get to this point as a culture?
What about having a little humility and saying, You know what, I feel better when I paint duck decoys, so I’m painting duck decoys. And fuck you, get out of my garage. And don’t call them figurines. They’re duck decoys.

OK, so that does not sound so brilliant. But that’s what I’m saying, that some of this stuff is not about being brilliant. It’s about being real. It’s about being truthful. It’s about being able to live with yourself.

So in a nutshell, here is my three-part program for you. First, do get yourself checked out as to the whole clinical-depression angle. Get your blood done and all that. If they say yeah, you’re a case, you can decide for yourself whether to take meds or not. But see what the clinicians say. If you don’t want to take any drugs, don’t take them. Just tell them you’re not taking any drugs. Just say you want to get checked out.

Second, start a program of taking care of yourself, meeting your own needs. Start tomorrow: Eat a good breakfast. Relax before you drive to work. Relax after you drive to work. At work, have a good lunch — I mean a healthy, well-prepared lunch. Take a full hour or whatever. Leave work early and go to the gym. Have a good two-hour workout, a sauna, a good shower. Or, if you don’t belong to a gym, do some running in the woods, or whatever you do for exercise. Then go home and have a good meal and hang out with the family. Get to bed early. Get lots of sleep. Don’t yell at anybody. Take it slow.

Try it again the next day, same thing. Get lots of sleep, eat well, plenty of exercise, take it slow. Goof off a little. Exercise. Enjoy the air. Take a look at your calendar. Schedule a vacation with the wife. Book a place with a hot tub and a slow pace.

And the third thing, which you can do on your own and also in conjunction with a therapist if you decide to go that route, is just recognize that there are tangible forces in the world working against you, and that you need to be conscious of how you are reacting to these forces. People say, “Don’t blame others for your problems,” and all that. Well, fine. But don’t introject either, OK? Don’t blame yourself. We’re living in pretty scary times. Don’t pretend that it doesn’t affect you. It’s healthy to have an adversarial view of those portions of the world that are against you. Life is a fight.

And if you don’t like your life, say so. If you don’t like going to work every day at the same time and driving the same route, and coming home to the same suburb, say so. It may help you start making some long-term plans for change. It’s not against the law to have complaints about the way our society is organized. You put monkeys in the suburbs, they’d go nuts; they’d tear the houses down and start living outside in the park. We’re all cooped up in these little houses and it’s spooky. OK, so I am an unreconstructed hippie and devotee of Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri. Our suburban living may work fine for some, but it would drive me nuts.

We ought to protest in the streets simply because there is not enough joy in our lives! Why don’t we do that? Wasn’t it wonderful when we were 16 and we’d go demonstrate in the streets not even knowing what exactly was wrong or how to fix it, just saying we’re here, we’re fucked-up 16-year-olds and we’re not going to take it anymore! We don’t have to have all the answers. There’s a lot in this world not to like. I mean, where do you want to begin? And let’s not get started on all the killing, the explosions, the destruction that’s going on. I’m just saying, how can we not be affected by that?

So, to sum up: First, get yourself checked out by an expert to see where you are on the official spectrum of depressive episodes. Second, take concrete steps to eat better, get more rest and get more exercise. And third, get mad! Recognize that there really are many external forces working against you, and it’s not surprising or shameful to be affected by all this, the way the world is, the way you have to live your life. It’s good to be affected by it. It shows you’re human. It shows you’re awake. It shows you’re alive.

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My 8-year-old misses his old life — should we move back to the suburbs?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 19, 2006

It was good to separate from their alcoholic dad — but I feel bad about bringing my kids to the city.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are recently separated. To make a long story short, he developed a serious drinking habit over the course of our nine-year marriage and refused to seek treatment. He became violent, mismanaged his business, squandered an inheritance and was terribly irresponsible with money, so much so that when we sold our house a few months ago we narrowly escaped foreclosure.

I could not afford to purchase another home in the idyllic suburban town in which we lived, so I moved with my two children, ages 4 and 8, to the city. I love it here, as I am a 15-minute walk away from the university where I am a graduate student in a very demanding biomedical research program. I am sharing a house with my sister, who is helping me immensely. She watches my children so I can run to the grocery store and is home when I have to stay late in the lab.
Five months into our move, my 4-year-old has adjusted, but my 8-year-old is miserable. He misses his friends and his old lifestyle, and his best friend who lived next door. There were 18 children on the block where we lived and they were always outside playing together. There are few children where we live now (unless you count the rowdy undergrads), and even if I allowed him to go outside by himself there would be no one to play with. Though we go to the park on weekends, he is not spending nearly as much time outside or with friends as he used to. Yes, there are great cultural opportunities here and it is more diverse, but that matters little to my son.

I feel so guilty for having removed my son from such a wonderful environment that I am considering moving back. Although I could not afford to purchase a house in that town, I could rent something small there. However, this would mean a longer commute for me, getting home later in the evening and the loss of my sister as a housemate, as she wants to remain in the city.

My dilemma is this: The city is better for me, but Mayberry is better for my son. Should I move yet again (an exhausting prospect) or make him tough it out?

Even if we did move back we would not be on the same block. I am aware that on the scale of possible human tragedies this one ranks pretty low, and though I remind him of this and offer him Lemony Snicket books, it does not comfort him. I know I had to leave the marriage, but did I have to leave the town too? I’m starting to think that in the turmoil of a dying marriage, I put my own needs before those of my children.

Sincerely,

Guilty in the City

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Dear Guilty,

I can relate to what your son is going through. When I was 12 my family moved to a world I did not recognize.

I did not know what to do to feel the way I used to feel. I did not know what I needed or how to get it. I did not know what I was feeling or what I had lost.

Knowledgeable adults could have helped this sensitive kid adjust. But such people were not available, and the adults who were available were overburdened with challenges of their own. So I was left to my own devices.

I did not do well in that situation. I did not develop the coping skills I needed. I now know that to adjust and grow in my new surroundings I needed to do two things: to maintain ties with my old world and to forge ties with my new world. But I did not know that then. I was just a kid.

So I had some troubles.

Therefore, my heart goes out to your son, who is much younger than I was when we moved. His connection to his home has been torn. He is doing his best to adjust. But he does not know how to adjust, nor does he have the powers to create a new world in which he can feel comfortable and confident.

Luckily, he has you. You are going to have to create that world for him. I suggest that rather than moving back to the suburbs or suggesting that your son just “tough it out” you consciously set about to create structures for your child that maintain some ties with his old world and help him cope with his new world.

Drive back to your old neighborhood and let your 8-year-old hang around, breathing in the air of the old place. Let him go play with his friends for a while in the old neighborhood. Have his best friend come and spend the night. Let him spend the night at his best friend’s house and then pick him up. Maintain the connection to the old neighborhood without having to move back there.

At the same time, create structures in his new world so he can develop new ties. I don’t know what organizations are available or what his interests are. Nor do I think this is going to be easy. I remember what it was like to live in a neighborhood where all a kid had to do was walk out of the house and his playmates and friends were all right there. In such a setting, there was no need for formal activity programs such as the Boy Scouts or what have you. But that world is gone. Your son is going to have to do things differently now. He is going to have to participate in more formal social structures. Pick some fun activities that will put him in regular contact with others.

He may resist. I certainly did. But I suggest that you be firm. You know what is necessary. He does not. He may think he knows what he needs, but he is just a kid. You are the mother. You know best. If he finds it hard to get to know new kids, help him. Keep at it. Do not let him fail.

You have a chance here not only to help your son adjust to his new surroundings but to counteract the lesson that an alcoholic father imparts to his children: that when stressful change arises, one responds by collapsing inwardly and drinking. You can demonstrate a more positive pattern — that one responds to stressful change by creatively adapting, by coming up with new ways to interact with the world.

You don’t have to explain all this to your son. Instead, teach by example. You can simply say, “We’re adapting to change.”

I do suggest that for the sake of maintaining a positive attitude you think of it as “adapting” rather than as “toughing it out.” Try being grateful for the opportunity you have gained — that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life watching the father of your children kill himself in front of you, fearing that he will crash his car into the neighbor’s garage or collapse on the front porch with his pants down around his ankles. You have escaped that danger. You and your children are safe. You may find, when you consider your good fortune, that you feel some measure of gratitude to the wrinkle of fate or cosmic force or God that brought you this far unharmed.

Your kids are going to find this hard. They are going to miss their dad. And they’re going to be sad and upset sometimes. But I think, all in all, that you have a very lucky 8-year-old.

My queer radical feminist peers are aghast that I want to marry

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 8, 2006

I’m only 21 but I’m itching to get hitched!


Dear Cary,

For slightly over a year I have been in a serious relationship with the best human being I have ever met. He’s principled, loyal, wickedly funny and just the right kind of twisted. We have friends and pastimes in common. We get along with each other’s families. We fight productively and civilly, have a cat together, banter, and crack each other up. I could go on and on, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one — we’re solid.

We’re best friends, and we’ve started talking about getting engaged within the coming year or so.

The inevitable wrinkle: I’m 21.

I know that a few decades ago I would be prime marrying age and a while before that I’d have been considered a spinster, but these days nobody gets married at 21.

Or, let me rephrase that. Liberal upper-middle-class university-educated alt-culture feminist intellectual daughters of feminists and intellectuals don’t get married at 21.

My friends have uniformly responded to any mention of marriage with either abject horror or resigned sorrow. (My best friend and honorary gay husband is a notable exception. He loves my partner and has cheerfully agreed to be my future best man.) My social circle at school is made up mostly of queer, radical feminist, and/or polyamorous hippies living in the most left-wing city in Canada. Discussions about marriage tend to focus on its insidious role as a tool of social control in the hands of patriarchs, religious extremists, capitalist whores, the family-values gang, right-wingers and other shadowy demons of the first order. Walking into the “Womyn’s Centre” with an engagement ring on to visit a friend (a room my partner’s Y chromosome disqualifies him from entering) would be a profound act of social suicide. My older friends, mostly 30- to 40-year-old teachers, poets and activists, are too enamored of my youthful freedom to bear talk about settling down. Even my mother, who is gagging for grandchildren, said she couldn’t believe I was her daughter when I said I’d give the hypothetical rugrats my partner’s last name.

Feminism aside, there’s the age issue. Another leap of faith I’m going to have to ask you to take is to believe that I’m not your average 21-year-old. Growing up as the daughter of two black sheep who called their parents on alcoholism and childhood abuse has left me with a very strong understanding of what it means to create and maintain healthy families as well as a lot of emotional and communicative skills learned from therapists and my incredible parents. I’m still changing, but I know myself. I’ve lived alone for three years, I’ve traveled, I’ve pursued education in an area I love passionately. My partner is a new and wonderful part of my life, not the end of it. But people talk like I’m going to join a nunnery or sacrifice my sense of self on the altar of matrimony to become a brood mare. OK, exaggeration. They tell me I’ll regret it. But it still makes me angry.

My partner, being male and 33 with no previous relationships and no children, is facing opposite pressure. After having been treated as somehow broken or defective for years, having a steady girlfriend has done nothing but help his social standing. He lives in a world of couples, and he’s no longer the odd man out. His family, god love ‘em, and especially his twice-married younger sister, are prone to making thinly veiled comments about us getting married and popping out spawn. As you can imagine, pressure to have kids is totally new to me, and hard to handle.

I guess my question isn’t whether or not I should get married. I’m pretty solid on that — I love him more than I knew I was capable of, and marriage fits into my values, my religion, my needs, my lifestyle. It doesn’t feel like a choice, it feels like an unimaginable blessing. My question is how to handle the pressure coming from all angles. Is there a way to filter the other voices and keep some clarity about the matter?

Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous: Is there a way to reconcile feminism and young marriage? A way that sounds snappy and can be used as a comeback the next time someone sneers, “I never thought I’d hear you talking like that”? How about a nice way to close the topic when his sister says, “Well, for at least one more year I can say I’ve made all the grandchildren in the family”? Is it possible to have the community involvement implicit in a public ritual like marriage without all of the judging, bitching and wheedling, or should I suck it up and get used to it?

Nesting Up North

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Dear Nesting,

I can’t think of anything more radically feminist than doing what you want. What else, fundamentally, have feminist women worked so hard for? Was it the dream of feminists that one day any woman who thought to make choices on her own would be scorned and shamed by other feminist women? Was that the idea?

I thought the idea was that women could gain the freedom to make their own decisions — on their own, when they want, regardless of age, social background or possible economic repercussions.

Social movements arise because of individual suffering. It is individual suffering multiplied many times, but it is individual and profound. When many people suffering in their own personal way recognize a set of external causes, then it is possible for them to work together to change the circumstances of their lives to benefit all of them. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement arose because individual people felt deep personal suffering and found the proximal causes of their suffering in social, economic and legal circumstances. They worked together to change those circumstances.

Working together requires individuals to sacrifice their individuality for the benefit of the group. But that is a practical necessity, not an ideal. The ideal is that social movements make it possible for individuals to do what will make them happy.

It doesn’t sound like your peers really understand that. It sounds like you are encountering the kind of in-group social pressure that arises after an oppositional movement becomes the status quo.

You may be too young to remember this, but there was a time when there were no mohawk haircuts in suburbia. Then one day some enterprising young man made it possible. He assembled the tools and materials and made himself a mohawk haircut in suburbia.

A bridge had been crossed.

That bridge has been crossed many times now. Young suburban men who wear mohawks are like docents in a museum, kindly reminding us of our heritage.

Similarly, certain orthodoxies that arose out of women’s struggles for freedom and equality were at one time materially significant issues. Women put off marriage and childbearing and in doing so broke new ground for other women. They changed society’s expectations. But now those new expectations have become entrenched as a new orthodoxy.

You may delay childbearing if you wish. That is an important freedom. But you do not have to.

It’s more complicated than that, I realize. Social struggle does not end with victory and a parade. But how can we be expected to make symbolic actions of self-denial when happiness stands grinning on our doorstep, jangling the keys?

In my book, any social movement that does not recognize that needs to do a little more criticism/self-criticism.

Somebody needs some consciousness-raising!

Um, so, go for it. Marry the dude. Have a ball. Sisterhood is powerful. So is love.

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Can therapy fix my parents?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 6, 2005

We’ve been in counseling for about six months now, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting them.


Dear Cary,

You and other sage advice givers often recommend that people seek therapy for their problems, especially when a couple or family needs a mediator to help settle their issues. I’m a big believer in the power of talking it out with a disinterested third party. My question is, how do you know when it’s time to quit?

I’m 24 years old, and have a college degree, a good job and enough friends to keep me from getting lonely. I’ve been in individual therapy for a few years now, and it’s really helped me deal with some self-esteem and emotional issues, many of which are connected to my difficult family situation. I’ve been in family counseling with my parents for about six months. My parents probably seem to strangers like very pleasant people, but they are in massive denial over all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues, and they don’t want to take the risk of trying to deal with them, so they’ve basically shut down emotionally. Being raised in an environment where people were afraid of their feelings has had a profound effect on me, and I have a lot of buried anger toward them for raising me in such a repressive, unhappy environment.

When I was in college, I dealt with them as little as possible, pretty much only when I needed a check for my tuition. Once I graduated and no longer needed their money, they got upset that I wasn’t interested in continuing a superficial, dishonest relationship with them. We started counseling, at my request, because I was hoping I could explain to them why I’m so angry, so that we could be more honest with one another and move forward. However, it’s clear to me that they’re not interested in honesty — they just want me to go back to pretending that everything is nice and happy. They don’t want to deal with their own issues because they’re afraid, and they don’t want to deal with my issues because that would mean they’d have to admit that something might be wrong with them.

My therapist seems to think that they might eventually come around, but he has never met them. The family counselor says I can quit anytime I want, and that I should leave if I don’t feel the counseling is productive, but she has demurred when I asked whether she thinks continuing could be productive. I don’t want to give up on my parents, but at the same time, being around them drives me absolutely crazy (to the point of literally needing to spend two days curled up in the fetal position crying after spending the weekend with them) because either I have to pretend to feel something I don’t, or we end up fighting and they tell me it’s my fault for being “irrationally hostile.” We go around and around and never get anywhere, and I’m constantly upset about it. I feel like I’m wasting my time and energy trying to fix a situation that’s out of my control.

So do I quit? Is there any good reason to stay? And if I do quit, should I just cut them out of my life entirely? Is there something to be gained from putting myself through the pain of dealing with them? And can I fix a relationship with people who don’t want to fix themselves?

Thanks for listening. Even if you don’t answer, it feels good to have been able to ask.

Daughter

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Dear Daughter,

Nice to hear from you. It sounds like it’s too painful for you to deal with your parents right now. Why not take a break from them and focus on other areas of your life? At age 24, I imagine you are entering the workforce and establishing yourself socially and professionally, and perhaps beginning to look for a mate. The kinds of changes you want in your relationship with your parents may be impossible to obtain at this time, while other achievements may be well within your grasp.

So if I were you, I would continue in therapy but put your parents on the back burner. I would define some other goals therapy could help me with, like getting a better understanding of myself, clarifying my purpose on earth and finding out what might be holding me back from truly purposeful action.

If, however, you do come to feel that it’s your relationship with your parents that is holding you back, then try this: Ask yourself not how you feel about your parents but what you owe your parents. What are your obligations at this point in your life? They have put you through college but now you’re on your own: How can you fulfill your obligations?

This is different from asking what your parents want from you. Our parents may want us to fulfill certain unconscious wishes they retain from childhood, from their own relationships with their parents. We cannot help them with that. You can determine, however, what your concrete obligations are. And I think you can probably fulfill many of those obligations.

So what are our obligations to our parents? In general terms, you might come up with a list something like this: To speak with them or visit at least once a month. Not to cause them undue pain. Not to shame them. Not to steal from them. To treat them kindly and with respect. To help them when they become no longer able to take care of themselves. To be a comfort to them when possible.

Beyond fulfilling such obligations as these, we can get into trouble. For not only do you have obligations to your parents, but they have obligations to you. One of their chief obligations is to provide an environment in which you can become who you are. So if you betray yourself, then you betray your parents as well. For instance, suppose you conclude it’s your duty to your parents to become a plastic surgeon. If you are not suited to be a plastic surgeon, then in trying to become one you undermine your parents’ chief duty to you.

So the best you can do, as an adult, is to fulfill your concrete obligations to your parents. The rest — the emotional tenor of your relationship, your compatibility, your taste and politics and ideas, their projected wishes for you — is chancy.

If you can satisfy yourself that you are doing what is right and necessary as a daughter, perhaps it will ease some of the pain that arises when you see your parents. Perhaps it will also allow you to limit your contact with your parents without an undue sense of guilt.

It’s hard at 24 to imagine how a lifetime of experience has molded one’s parents, and harder still to keep in mind that time will continue to change them, robbing them of both their acuity and their rancor. If you simply go about living, you will find that these things take place, slowly but surely, seemingly without anyone’s effort.

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Free at last?

Write for Advice

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

Ready to Run

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Dear Ready to Run,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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