Big 4-0

Write for Advice
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.

I am a lone cow

 
Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 18, 2003

Is it reasonable to expect a happy love life, or in the end will it just be me, Aunt Zoey and a few too many cats?


Dear Cary,

I am a 29-year-old woman about to begin a doctoral degree in a field that truly moves and inspires me. I am lucky to have a close inner circle of genuine friends and a larger social circle full of interesting and varied people. My family is warm, loving, enjoyably eccentric and supportive. I am healthy, smart, driven, and am told I’m attractive and entertaining. I am extremely satisfied with and grateful for the direction my life has moved in over the past few years. So please understand that when I refer to being alone, I realize that I am surrounded by a whole lot of valuable platonic love.

That said, here is my issue. In my late teens and early 20s, I had two meaningful romantic relationships. Both of them ended tragically; the first man died suddenly in an accident and the other had resurfacing memories of childhood sexual abuse, then descended into a downward spiral of alcohol and denial, and away from me. Both relationships and their aftermaths led to a lot of learning and a redirection of my life for which I am exceedingly grateful. However, close to five years later, as I approach 30, I’m realizing that I have been alone for quite a stretch now, have had no real prospects, and I’m starting to get a little worried. Were those two relationships in my early adulthood useful, but aberrant, romantic occurrences in a life that will mostly be lived alone?

A few months ago, the tragicomedy of how perpetual and expected my aloneness has become hit me right between the eyes while attending a family wedding. See, our place cards had been rubber-stamped with either a cartoon cow or fish to indicate what we were having for dinner, and guests were grouped on their place cards as couples, rather than as individuals. On my left, my father and his longtime girlfriend shared a place card stamped with a cow and a fish. To my right, my brother and his longtime girlfriend had two pink cows, stamped side by side. On and on around the table, little cows and fish, holding hands, dancing, gazing at each other, contemplating their futures. And the image on my own card — a lone cow in the middle of a vast white space — stared out at me in this lost way that inspired laughter in the moment and tears later on that night. It was then that I realized that at most family events over the course of my life, the only people who have been reliably alone have been my 55-year-old Aunt Zoey and me. She has been a Lone Cow for as long as I can remember, and it’s important to note that her aloneness has not been by choice.

A few of my male friends (all in relationships) have offered their take on my situation. They say that they found me to be very attractive but simultaneously intimidating when we first met. They think I often attract men who have ego issues and are interested in “conquering me” to see if they can get the confident girl who has her shit together as a way of proving something to themselves. That theory doesn’t seem to hold water when I consider the vastly different types and personalities of the men I’ve briefly dated, but at the very least, it’s a kind way of saying, “It’s them, not you.”

So now my dating life consists of long stretches of nothingness interspersed with a parade of men who start out by being wowed by me, then pursue me ardently, then, as they get to know me more, lose interest and march right off the face of the earth. This is especially painful because I don’t feel I’m pulling any punches or putting out a false front. It’s as if the lack of skeletons in my closet and all the time I’ve spent figuring out who I really am has become a liability.

I guess I’m just asking if there’s reason to be hopeful about a substantial future love life, or if really, the hard, but more truthful answer is that I just need to make peace with the possibility that I might stay alone. That I might just be one of those people for whom the romantic relationship thing doesn’t pan out, to the confusion and consternation of all those who love me. That in the end, it might just be me, Aunt Zoey, and a few too many cats. Please, if I’m doing something wrong here, lay it on me.

The Lone Cow

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Dear Lone Cow,

My prediction is that you are going to end up very, very happy, in a deep, complex and loving relationship that lasts a long time, but it is going to happen slowly, and if you succumb to impatience, the waiting may test you to the limits of despair. You are young; it may be hard for you to imagine how much life lies ahead, but believe me, there is a lot to come. So you have to concentrate on the process, and make sure that you are having a good time now. And you have to guard your heart.

A lifelong wish that we know may or may not be granted can be a haunting, threatening presence, always there to undermine our faith in the future, always threatening to verify our deepest suspicions of our own unworthiness. Or it can be something on which you build a happy life that does not depend on its being granted, but only on the continuing search for it. That, I think, is the key: to make sure that the search is its own reward, and that during the search you are protected from its ups and downs.

Take fishing, for instance. If it were just about catching one fish, there would be no fishermen. It wouldn’t be worth it. But fishing, even though it is uncertain in its particulars, can be depended upon to be a fairly pleasant activity even if no fish are caught; it also can be depended upon to yield at least a few fish from time to time. Likewise, dating can be a pleasant activity even if, for a while, one candidate after another proves not to be the lifelong mate you seek.

I would suggest two things: Don’t go out with any men who don’t make you happy. Now, with fishing, or playing tennis, or finding a mate, a lot has to do with how you handle not catching anything, or hitting the ball in the net, or being rejected. The key for the long term is to avoid destroying yourself in retribution for your own small failures. In the case of love, I know how destructive it can be to want something so badly, to get your hopes up, to give yourself body and soul to someone and then to be disappointed, or to lose them to illness or death, or even to be intentionally abused or mistreated. It can ruin your appetite for fun.

Fun, nevertheless, I believe to be the key. Protect your heart for the long haul; don’t be greedy or impatient; don’t let yourself be enchanted; make a fortress around your feelings.

Now how, when the essence of love is surrender, can one find love if one is living in a fortress? Because once you build this fortress, you can step outside it and have adventures; you can take risks because you know you have a sanctuary you can run to in a storm.

The other thing is that the process must be enjoyable; you must ensure that it is. If you’re going out with men solely to find one mate, then every time you don’t find that one mate you have failed. In that way you can destroy yourself, and continually wound your heart. But if you go out with men to have fun, and make that a condition, then whether you find a mate or not you have not wasted your time, you have not wounded yourself. So I would make sure that you only go out with men who amuse you, who are kind to you, who represent an improvement in your life, with whom you feel happy in the moment.

If you make your own momentary happiness a prerequisite, then I think when you do find yourself alone, it will make sense to be alone. Because you will be able to look around you and see that your solitude is preferable to the company of an unpleasant man. And I would also take steps to increase your enjoyment of solitude, so that a fear of loneliness does not drive you to choose a mate before you’ve found the right one.

Eventually, because of the odds involved (which I think increase dramatically in grad school, what with all the smart, like-minded men around), and because you are such a treasure, you will eventually find yourself in that deep, lasting and long-wished-for relationship.

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