Tough love

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 5, 2003

I’m involved with a woman who has a serious physical condition. Should I stay, even though it’s difficult?


Dear Cary,

I recently turned 31, and after a life of much less romantic and sexual success than I’d like, I’ve become involved with a wonderful woman. We’re a great match in terms of personality and interests.

The problem is, she has a medical condition she calls idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. There are times when it literally hurts her to breathe. She can’t lie down to sleep, and all she can do is sit in the bathroom with the shower on full blast, inhaling steam. These attacks occur at random, which means that making any kind of plan with her is contingent on her health. Recently, my big weekend with her faded to nothing. I went out, she stayed at her place, and early Sunday morning she shooed me out because she was in agony.

Another problem is that she also has a diminished sense of touch all over her skin. When we’re together sexually, she says her body doesn’t feel much, though her brain likes it. (This may or may not have something to do with the fact she was working as a prostitute at age 14.) I’m always wondering if she’s really enjoying it or if she’s just doing it for me and feels no pleasure herself.

I don’t know if I can handle being with someone who is that sick. I feel guilty for saying that, because people with illnesses need and deserve love as much as anybody else, but they’re less likely to get it. I believe that if you care about somebody, you’re supposed to endure problems like sickness. However, I fear that I’ll eventually come to resent her for keeping me from the fun I want to have with her.

Should I stay or should I go before I get more involved with her?

I Didn’t Think It Would Be This Tough

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Dear Didn’t Think,

Believe me, you can handle it. You love her. You can handle it.
That doesn’t mean you can breeze through it. You’re going to suffer and that is going to tell you who you are, what you’re made of, why you came to her door in the first place, selling flowers or greeting cards or whatever you were selling when you came to her door. This is what we’re given, this awful disease. This is why we need the support of others, so we can keep on doing the right thing even when we’re crazy.

And yes, you’re going to resent her. Before it’s over you’re going to resent God too, and the CIA, the AMA, her mother, her father and all their genes; you’re going to resent Dr. James Watson and all the science of genetics; you’re going to resent time and death and Woody Allen and Nietzsche and everyone in between who ever thought they could joke about mortality and fate. You’re going to resent the Greeks, you’re going to hate the hot shower and how it reminds you of her affliction, you’re going to hate your lungs for how they mock her own, you’re going to hate your freedom for how it breaks her heart, you’re going to resent everything that keeps her from gulping down the same delicious breath of air that the rest of us feel entitled to. But you’re going to keep loving her. After all, you rescued her.

You have to see this thing through. There may come a point where you have to leave her, but when that time comes, you won’t be asking my permission. You’ll know, and she will probably know, too, when that time comes.

But for now you have to know that even if it doesn’t make sense in some practical way, even if easier temptations glitter all around your head, there is some reason that you’re with her. To ignore that would be a hollow act of dishonor. Not dishonor to her — she’ll get by no matter what happens; she’s firmly in the grip of fate, and she knows it. But it would dishonor you, your soul, the deeper reasons that are guiding you to do what you do, and who knows how long it would take you to repair all that. You might limp along the rest of your life, having failed to learn the lesson she’s offering you.

So see it through. Be there. Watch her die if that is what it comes to. This life on earth is not some pretty little joy ride. It’s the real thing.

How does it work?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 19, 2004

As you mature, are you more able to love and trust, or do you become bitter from the pain?


Dear Cary,

Do you think that people become more or less capable of love and trust as they grow older?

I’ve thought about this often, both in the context of relationships I have been in and in general with respect to the human condition. Sometimes I think that as a person amasses experiences, there is more to the person who is doing the loving so there is more that can be given in love. I also know that sometimes painful experiences have made me slower and slower to trust.

There’s a woman I love (we’ve been in a relationship for a while). Sometimes I think I love her more than anyone I’ve ever loved, but other days I think of a woman I loved in college and cannot believe that I ever loved someone so completely. I can no longer imagine the sort of trust and abandon I once knew. I feel that over the years I have been losing the ability to trust naively. I used to fight the loss of this naiveté, but now it just seems like a waste of energy: I am broken and will stay this way, I suspect.

I once was capable of complete love, but I think I had bad luck, or bad judgment, about what relationships merited that level of investment. And others have had bad judgment in trusting me, since I had come to lose my ability to trust naively. Now that I know so clearly the consequences of unwise love, I feel I am capable only of what one might call wise love. Not a bad thing — in many ways a very good thing — but not the stuff of passion either. Some would say that trust that asks for reasons is not really trust at all. But perhaps trust that asks for reasons is just the trust that mature (and fragmented) individuals are capable of.

I want to love more deeply than I do. Is this something that one can will? I am curious what you make of this question about experience and love.

Navel Gazer

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Dear Navel Gazer,

It sounds like you’re talking about the fall of man, about what is lost in the passage from innocence to experience. Those are big subjects. After you’ve read Milton and Blake and Rousseau and, sheesh, I don’t know who all else, I guess the Bible of course, and all we know about adolescent development and attachment formation, and emotional life, wow, you could just go down the list of, basically, all of Western thought, and read everything, and after you’ve read all that and digested it, maybe you could just sit there and go, Yeah, right, OK, I get it.

I know what you are talking about, but I have no more answer than you do. What I do in this column is talk about specific situations, and use my intuition and whatever meager book-learning I’ve got to suggest unseen possibilities. It sounds to me like you have already abstracted your ideas from your experiences and are just offering the ideas. That doesn’t give me much to go on. They don’t have much meaning, detached from the experiences that gave rise to them.

We do not live life in generalities and ideas; we live it in specifics. Each experience has texture, weight, color, sound; I try to take a phenomenological approach to life, which means — to me, at least! — that experience must precede meaning; experience has to have a chance to occur before being smothered by concepts and meanings derived from it. You get what I’m saying? Let’s take a walk and look at the trees. It’s stuffy in here.

I’m hesitant to generalize, as you can imagine. But still, in general, I think as we get older and know more, we can lose the ability to have raw, unfiltered experiences. We start to generalize. And I want to fight that, so I can keep seeing clearly each new experience. I would rather be wrong than be blind, you know what I mean? I’d rather not understand the world than not be able to experience it. I know that sounds like a contradiction, in a way, because here I am trying to codify experience in order to provide direction to others. But more than that I am always trying to direct myself and others to the experience itself, because that is always where the truth lies: How you were hurt, what in particular you believed that turned out to be untrue, what specific decisions you made.

You say, “I once was capable of complete love, but I think I had bad luck, or bad judgment, about what relationships merited that level of investment.” And I sort of know what you mean, but if you are complaining about a lessened ability to feel, you may have to turn away from your abstractions and back to life in its sensual particulars. It might be the habit of mind that you think gives you insight into your problem that is causing your problem in the first place, you dig? Maybe your truth is what keeps you from experiencing life in its full intensity. Maybe you need to balance out that truth with a little falsehood, a little chaos and uncertainty.

Yes, it makes sense that experience would make you more cautious and less naive. But whether experience dulls your ability to feel, I do not know. I do not think so. I think that experience hones the judgment and increases the awareness, so that you are less likely to make certain mistakes or to trust certain people in certain situations. But I do not see why judgment and awareness should impede one’s ability to love deeply. Perhaps you mean not just deeply but crazily, dizzily, insanely, passionately, obsessively, as one loves when one is young. Yes, that kind of love does seem to diminish. Because one grows less crazy as one grows more sane. What can be done about that? What should be done about that?

I don’t know.

It’s complicated.

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Yo-yo man

Write for Advice
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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If he really loved me, wouldn’t he beg me to go with him?

 

Write for Advice

 My boyfriend is leaving for
a career opportunity.

 Cary’s classic column from  TUESDAY, FEB 14, 2006

Dear Cary,

My problem is, predictably, about love; selfish love vs. unconditional love. I don’t know whether to feel like a doormat or like a good person.

I’ve been dating and then living with my boyfriend for a couple of years. We own a house together. We’re in our mid-30s and I have a child from a previous marriage. We have a lovely, sweet, respectful relationship; we are compatible in many ways and I really can’t imagine a much nicer connection. Well, apart from the fact that he’s considering leaving me.

You see, he moved to this town to start a new career and he’s succeeded in doing that, but he doesn’t’ really enjoy the new career and wants to go back to the other coast to resume where he left off. He’s really talented and has a lot of options.

Although it would be possible for me to move, I don’t really want to separate my daughter from her father, who is a good guy and a good parent, especially to move to a place that isn’t quite as nice as this place and where I would have to start over in my career. But I’m not completely closed to the idea, which may after all be an opportunity in disguise.

From his point of view, his career will go nowhere here because it’s not his passion and he has to move on while he is in his “prime.” He’s not pressuring me to move, as he understands my situation. I also think that he doesn’t want to be responsible for upsetting my daughter, from an understandably selfish point of view because our life would not be much fun living with a traumatized preteen.

So I’m stuck, trying to be reasonable, trying to practice some sort of loving nonattachment and yet wondering if I’m being way too reasonable, as at times my heart is breaking and I feel so unloved and unvalued. This brings up all sorts of awful feelings about being a mother, and how I won’t be able to really have a relationship until my kid is older, and also confusion about what I should expect from love. Should this relationship end because he doesn’t love me enough to wait two or three years until it’s better for me to move also? How can I expect to be his priority when he cannot be mine if I choose to prioritize my daughter? From his point of view, a child is as much of a choice as a career. From my point of view, a career is a choice and a child is a part of you, like an extra limb, until he or she chooses to leave.

I want to be adult about this; I want to be loving and supportive of this man who means so much to me. I want to always do the right thing for my child, but I also want to have a tantrum that the gods will hear from the heavens.

This week he leaves for an interview for a really good job over there. He stands a good chance of getting the job. He says we should wait to find out if it’s really a possibility and then make a plan. I tell him OK but inside I’m hurt and scared. I meditate and meditate, trying to feel more love than anger and fear.

What should I do? Should I just take control and tell him to leave now in order to end this ambiguous pain or should I just keep meditating and practicing unconditional love?

Holding my Breath, Trying to Breathe

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Dear Holding my Breath,

Have your tantrum. Then let him go.

You are not loved enough. That is clear. You are loved, but you are not loved grandly, hugely, incomprehensibly, madly, as you wish to be loved. You are not loved enough that he would insist that you follow him, or refuse to leave you if you won’t follow him. You are loved but he also has this and that and the other that he needs to do, these things that are important to his career, that he must do now while he is in his prime. You could go with him, he says, but maybe you don’t want to on account of the daughter? — who, after all, he says, is a choice just like a career.

Not hardly, methinks. Not the same at all. You agree? Daughter not the same as a career? Not the same. Good. So let him go. And in your meditation try to understand this: You have a spiritual nature, but relationships are played out right here on earth, and the gods are not much help to us. I suspect that you are pure of heart but you are also hungry; you never got enough love; you keep being the good mother and good partner, expecting that if you are good you will be loved, and when you are not loved you feel a volcanic anger that you would like the gods to hear … no?

But the gods will not help you in this. So I suggest in your meditation you concentrate on what you want and how to express what you want.

It is terrible to be with someone who is always one step away from leaving. I think you will feel better if you let him go. It is a slow, agonizing suffocation. You get just enough to live on. It is like emotional waterboarding.

I do not feel I have great insight into this situation. But consider this: If you regarded yourself with unconditional love, would you still be with him? Or would you say to yourself, he doesn’t think nearly as highly of me as I think of myself — perhaps he doesn’t really love me the way I deserve to be loved!

In other words, if you loved yourself the way you deserve to be loved, would you accept any less from a lover? Maybe think about that. You might come to see that it is best that he go off to wherever and pursue his whatever.

It may be sad to let him go, but you are relatively young. You will soon grow used to his absence and find someone new.

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