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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Help me be strong

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 28, 2003

I’m in love with a man I work with. We’re both married with kids but we don’t want to break up our families.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love with a man I work with. He’s married, I’m married, both of us have kids — hard to make it sound original. However, while I have vivid fantasies of being with him, I basically don’t want to cheat on my husband, I don’t want to break up my family, and I don’t want to break up his family. I have a lot of respect for his wife, and I want my kids to be with their dad.

Mr. Wonderful started working for my company a few months ago. I was largely unsatisfied in my job, then he arrived and we were assigned to a project together. My work life has totally turned around, I’m working harder than I ever have and loving it, and we do really good work together. We enjoy each other’s company, and both of us have commented on how well we get along for only knowing one another for a few months. We work hard, then take breaks to discuss politics, family issues, the evil of the SUV and G.W.’s war in Iraq, then back to more hard work. We’re accomplishing so much for the company, and I think the boss is pleased.

There’s a physical charge between us for sure. All that clichéd stuff — the brushing of hands, feet pausing together a moment too long together under the table, makes me feel like a cheap romance novelist just to write it. It’s fun, but I’m fully aware of the thin line we are walking.

To complete the scene, a description of my marriage is required — my husband and I, even when we were dating, have always had a rocky relationship. We were together and apart a lot before getting married, kind of rushed into marriage after a particularly dramatic breakup and reunion (the dozen roses a day for a week variety), and now have two kids under 3 and a lot of added stress to an already stressful relationship. We’ve done couples counseling for about seven years now, and while it keeps us going, it doesn’t feel like we make much progress toward real change.

My husband is intense and exciting, but also is impatient, selfish and immature. My co-worker (C.W.) is kind and generous. While I really don’t want to divorce my husband, wreck C.W.’s marriage, and marry him (OK, I kind of want that on one level, but I don’t want all the drama that would entail), meeting him has made me realize that kind and generous men are out there, and if I were on my own I could probably meet another one. My husband and I are really trying to improve things, both of us agreeing to put effort into the marriage, but I’m not fully into it since C.W. is always in my mind somewhere.

The easy answer is quit my job and clear my mind; however, it’s a small town, C.W. and I are both committed to staying here, and it’s kind of the only (and best) game in town for both of us. I plan on moving on to something else (following a calling, but that’s another story) when my kids start school in four years, but for now I need this job.

I turn down C.W.’s requests to accompany him on errands during the day, but the occasional lunch together is such fun and so energizing, I’d hate to give it up, and then I’d also have to explain to him why. We have verbalized none of what happens nonverbally between us; it’s chaste as can be on the surface (though I do suspect a bit of office gossip). I’m struggling to separate the work and decisions about my marriage from the existence of C.W., but should I even try? Is it all connected in my feelings? Telling my husband that meeting C.W. made me realize that I deserve better treatment would not go over well, since I still have to go to work every day. I’ve been fibbing a bit, saying, “I’ve been recognizing my own needs more lately,” to explain my increasing dissatisfaction and crankiness around the house.

Does my husband deserve to be let in on what’s in my head? For the record, all of my friends, male and female, agree that my husband should be contributing to the family more, should treat me with more respect and kindness and shouldn’t be blaming me for everything the way he does, so I think I’m in the right in asking for better behavior from him.

Any insight you have would be welcome as I try to sort this all out.

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

You’re at a crucial point in your life; you’re dozing off in the driver’s seat, about to run off the road, and it’s my job to jump into the passenger seat, slap you silly, wake you up and put your hands back on the wheel.

It’s not that far, really, to Albuquerque. You’ll be there by morning. Your husband will mature. Your kids will become more self-sufficient. You’ll have other crushes and other brushes with marital disaster, and you’ll handle them better with practice. But right now, you have to just wake up and stay on the road. Don’t blow it. You have no idea how messed up things could get. Just keep your hands on the wheel, keep your eyes on the road, and think of your kids.

It’s not surprising you’re tired and not thinking straight, with those kids waking you up at all hours and the job and the husband and the counseling and the work on the relationship and the secret crush. You’re probably just about done in. All the more reason to stick to the basics right now, and don’t complicate your life any further.
Don’t be telling your husband about what’s going on in your head. If, as you say, he is impatient, selfish and immature, he’s not going to be any help. It would just add stress. Instead, plug this leak at the source: level with your co-worker. Tell him that you know something is developing between you two and you’re putting a stop to it. Tell him you’re backing off and taking control for the two of you. Then do it. Be friendly but firm. Treat him like any other co-worker. If you find that hard to do, here’s a tip: Visualize how a woman would act if she wasn’t attracted to him, and copy what she does.

And then put more energy into your marriage. Rather than allow yourself to drift further away, reverse that: Give it all you’ve got. If you work hard, you can make it tolerable and secure while your kids go through those crucial early years. Here’s another idea that might help: Make a list of 10 concrete things you could do to cheer yourself up, improve your marriage and make life easier around the house, and then, one by one, work to make them happen. That should keep you busy and focused. Who knows, perhaps during the next few years, partly as a result of your hard work and partly as a natural process, your husband may mature, overcome his selfishness and impatience and become the man you would like him to be.

But if not, when the kids are older, and your individual finances are such that one of you could take care of the kids without undue stress, if you are still deeply unhappy in your marriage, perhaps it will be time to get a divorce. Just don’t do it now. The kids deserve a chance to get through elementary school without worrying about which parent they’re with on Tuesday and which house they’re sleeping in on Thursday. They started life with two parents and they’d probably prefer to continue life with two parents. So, for now, that’s your job. Keep your eyes on the road. Because, as they say in that Michelin ad, so much is riding on your tires.

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A lesser woman?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 29, 2003

The married man I’m sleeping with feels less guilty about it because I’m bisexual!


Dear Cary,

I’m a 30-year-old, intelligent, funny, independent, beautiful woman — or so I hear. I’m bisexual, but have been predominantly involved with women for the past 10 years.

I’ve known this great guy, an acquaintance from work, for several years now and he’s always attracted me in many ways. Good-looking, intelligent, extremely witty, charming, sensitive, an intellectual, the works. Oh, and married too. For his part I’ve always felt that he, too, was very attracted to me. He always made sure I knew it very clearly.

Fast-forward to last November, when we allowed ourselves to let it happen. We went out for dinner and a maddeningly passionate night followed. We’ve been seeing each other regularly and avidly, me trying not to fall completely in love with him, him wrestling with his guilt demons. Everything is unspoken between us. We act like friends, or rather fuck-buddies, but we have a really special and rare connection.

Fast-forward again to last Saturday. We were chatting online and the subject of my bisexuality came up (I have been totally open about this with him since Minute 1). He said that despite his earlier attraction to me the fact that I slept with women too had sparked his interest even more. OK, tell me something new; all men in this galaxy get all giddy when faced with a bi woman. The problem is that he added that this not only drew him more toward me, but that it also made him feel “less guilty about cheating on his wife,” because it’s not like he is with a typical woman, “it’s a whole different world.”

This crushed me. I really care about this guy, but I couldn’t help feeling like he saw me as some sort of a lesser woman, or a scientific experiment, or a circus freak. Why is it that men will do anything to have a bisexual lover but never know how to handle it? Should I withhold this fact from my future guy lovers for a while so that they feel they can really connect to me as a regular human being? Or am I overreacting?

Princess Turned to Frog

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Dear Princess,

You may be overreacting a little, but that’s pretty dumb and insensitive what he said. I wonder why he said it. People sometimes say dumb and insensitive things when they are under enormous pressure, or when they are struggling with inner conflict. He must feel a fair amount of guilt and fear, however much he’s trying to act casual.

He has probably rehearsed in his head what he would say to his wife, should she discover his unfaithfulness. But imagine his telling her that it’s OK because you’re bisexual! That would be funny if it weren’t so bizarre. Any attempt to spin the situation would only deepen the wound. But the mind, writhing in moral dissonance, produces just such ghastly fantasies. It’s crazy and weird but true. I guess it’s how we try in vain to protect ourselves from the truth. I mean, it’s much easier for him to tell himself that it’s OK because you’re bisexual than it would be to tell himself that he’s betraying his wife.

It’s less painful, I guess, to pretend. I doubt that he sees you as a circus freak. He no doubt likes you a whole lot. But if there is a grain of revelation in what he said, it’s that, because you have mostly been with women, he doesn’t see you as the kind who would want to marry him and take him away from his wife. In his mental harem you’re probably the eternal temptress.

Also because you have not been married, you may have a blind spot about what a monumental struggle he is going through. I’m not saying this out of sympathy for him, but to help you see how distorted and crazy his behavior may become as he attempts to not deal with the situation. He faces the possibility of losing his wife if she finds out, plus he probably believes that because you are bisexual, he could never completely own you. You’ll always have that Sapphic option, both titillating and terrifying: While bisexual women attract men, they also frighten them, because the one thing a man has got they don’t really need.

There are larger questions here. If you are falling in love with him, and he is married, you’re pretty much guaranteed to bring some unhappiness into the world. Somebody’s going to get screwed. So here’s an idea for doing your part to create a sustainable erosphere. Go and make more happiness to combat the unhappiness you create. Do some good, selfless, joyful things. Call in sick and take a kid to the movies. Give money to beggars. Go to the beach and buy some cotton candy. Call your parents and tell them you love them. Make rainbows with a hose on the front lawn. And think up some better things than these.

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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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Damaged goods

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAR 11, 2004

I got engaged, then found out she is bipolar. How can I break it off with the least amount of hurt for both of us?


Dear Cary,

I am in my 30s and from a religious background where one only dates (limited to conversations over dinner or telephone) with the intent of marriage.

A couple of months ago, I met an intelligent and pretty girl. We got together a few times and despite some differences, I felt that she was the one for me. We got engaged a couple of weeks ago.

Three days after our engagement she started crying about problems she had in her relationship with her mother. Then the next few sentences were a bombshell. She told me how she had battled depression and had been under psychiatric treatment for almost three years. I was in total shock, but kept it hidden from her. I reassured her that there was nothing wrong with her.

That night I could not sleep. Her erratic behavior was now appearing less benign than I believed earlier. The irritability, the sudden crying to the point of sobbing, the racing thoughts, complaints of insomnia, the mood swings.

I consulted a psychiatrist and within seconds of hearing the symptoms, he said that he strongly suspected bipolar disorder. Although it is a treatable mental illness, he said that there was no guarantee that it will not get passed on to the children; in fact there was a high likelihood of that.

Ours was not going to be a love marriage, but an arranged one, based on mutual interest and values. I am not in love with her, although I care deeply for her. I searched deeply within me to see if there was a future for us, but I found that I cannot raise a family where the burden of ensuring the emotional and mental stability had to be disproportionately borne by me. I am fully aware of adjusting myself to accommodate another person in my life and the compromises it entails, but this is more than what I had ever imagined. I stayed single so I could help my family. Since I am done on that front, I want to settle down in a peaceful and stable life with a partner, and not invite another challenge.

I don’t hold her responsible for not telling me about her problems before the engagement as she was very much interested in me and did not want to spoil it. We are all needy and a bit selfish and do things to buy ourselves happiness by sometimes jumping over the moral fence. But at the same time, I do not think that I am under any obligation, emotional or moral, to continue this relationship knowing what I know now. I know she will be very hurt, but I cannot be blamed for that.

How can I end this relationship with the least amount of hurt for both of us? It gives me no satisfaction to end this. I have been locked up in my apartment for the past few days and screening phone calls. I feel the darkness that descends with each night inside me. I just wish all this would end soon.

Hurting

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Dear Hurting,

What’s interesting here is that you didn’t have a change of heart. You had a deal that went sour. Whether you both understood the deal in the same way isn’t clear, but I’m inclined to agree that since she didn’t tell you about her history of psychiatric treatment, the deal is off.

Even if she hadn’t broken the deal, you’re free to break an engagement for any reason. The engagement is a kind of waiting period during which both parties assess their intentions and make sure they’re ready to go through with it. If serious doubts arise, the marriage is called off. It’s unpleasant, but it’s not a moral breach; it’s what the period of engagement is for.

What interests me also is the fact that this marriage you describe as “not … a love marriage” might yet be perceived as such by the woman, because of the enormous forces of culture and gender identity. Even if she is of your culture and knows the rhetoric, she still may see it not just as a business deal in which she bears children and shares in their raising but as the fulfillment of her emotional desires and perhaps, if she is an old-fashioned kind of woman, the realization of her purpose on earth.

It raises a whole host of questions: Is there a written contract for this arranged marriage, or are the terms assumed to be fully understood by the members of your culture or religion? Are you courting only women of this culture or religion? And, may I ask, how are women treated in your religion? Are they afforded equal rights, or are they expected to be subservient to the man? If they are, that could prove to be a grating source of conflict. And what about grounds for divorce? What if, for instance, the woman you marry turns out to be infertile, or to have a high chance of passing on some genetic disorder? Would that then be grounds for divorce? And what about abortion? If, for instance, her role is to provide a child to you, but bearing the child threatens her life, is she expected to risk her life to fulfill her contractual obligation? Is abortion permitted in your religion? I think you need to spell out these contingencies to any prospective bride. And the biological burden is not hers alone: She should be tested for reproductive health, but so should you. If you turned out to be infertile, any prospective wife would have the right to know that.

While I don’t fault you for what you’ve done, I hope you see that if the marriage is to serve certain specific purposes, you have to spell out all the contingencies, and make doubly sure that any future marriage prospect understands fully the nature of the contract. Because if it’s just a business deal for you, it’s also a business deal for her.

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Social cravings

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 20, 2002

I love my girlfriend, but she’s from an unambitious family. What’s an immigrant with a legacy wish supposed to do?


Dear Cary,

I am dating a wonderful young woman who makes me laugh. All the things I hate to do, like talking on the phone, cooking, changing tires, she can do with ease. All the things I am good at — sports, getting diplomas, reading — she has never been naturally inclined to do. I am a 24-year-old lawyer, and she is a 23-year-old administrative assistant.

My entire family, with the exception of my sister, came to this country with nothing and worked our way up. Coming from a small family, I am torn between marrying for love and marrying for perhaps a lesser degree of love with a higher chance of survival. Being young, employed, 6-foot tall and with reasonably decent manners, I am able to meet women and get along with them very well. I predict I can probably date and marry a nice woman with a larger, more established family if I just wait.

I am afraid that if I marry this woman, who lives with her divorced parent, I will harm my future progeny’s chances of success. This sounds rather cold, I know, but I feel a responsibility to establish myself in this country, and marrying a woman with no diploma and few close family members — delightful as she is — seems like taking a step backward. I’m not looking for a Kennedy-type clan, but I suspect that there is no natural desire for children to do well in school or to work hard. Those sorts of values are usually passed down through the generations.

There is also the networking advantage of being in a large family that stresses education. If I marry this woman — and as I write this, I can see her beautiful eyes gazing at me and her amazing way of getting melted butter on toast perfectly, spaced wonderfully next to the scrambled eggs, done just the way I like them — I will have a content, happy life.

If I marry someone a bit more established, a bit more brainy, I may not be as happy or as content as I am with this woman, but I know when I am 70, there will be a greater chance I will be able to flip through the family album and see a large group of doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes and scientists.

What’s an immigrant with a legacy wish supposed to do?

Old-Fashioned

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Dear Old-Fashioned,

If you are only 24 and already thinking about how you’ll feel at 70, you have admirable foresight. In view of your expansive time horizon, you can probably afford to wait a few more years before settling down, especially since you already have some doubts about this woman. And I think you should. I think you should hold out until you can honestly say to yourself that this is the woman for you.
I wish you luck. I do have some experience, however, with using a girlfriend to try to wedge myself into a new social stratum via her family, and I can tell you that such a strategy is fraught with peril. You sound at once quite knowledgeable and dangerously naive.
Social class is a powerful taboo in America, all the more powerful because it is taboo. So if you should find yourself in love with a woman from a large, powerful family into which you would like to marry, in whose summer houses you would like to sleep, at whose old French table you would like to stuff yourself with Christmas ham, with whose brothers you would like to play touch football on the lawn, beware. If you find that for some reason after many dinners and many lemonades on the deck you’re still not married to her, you may be undergoing a secret WASP torture of silence, the exact methods of which even WASPs themselves are unaware, so sublimely subtle can be the cruelty of America’s casual Brahmins.
If that happens, consider yourself put in your place. Remember, it took the Kennedys a couple of generations, too.

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Free at last?

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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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Honesty or selfishness: You be the judge

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My husband told me that he and my friend are attracted to each other — two days after my father died!

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

Dear Cary,

This past Tuesday, my father died. Although it was not unexpected, I loved him deeply and am dealing with a lot of grief. A close friend of mine has been living with me and my family for the past three or four months. Several years ago, she lived with us for a while, but eventually moved out when she (and my husband and I) became uncomfortable with the fact that she and my husband were attracted to each other. At that time, I assumed that a large part of the attraction, at least on my spouse’s part, was due to the fact that things were not good between us. For my friend, it was largely due to her then-single state.

Things are much better between us now than they were. However, very recently I thought I perceived that spark of attraction between them. There was too much going on (father dying, etc.) for me to give much thought to it. Two days after my father’s death, my husband confessed to me that he and my friend were, indeed, feeling an attraction. My friend is currently single again, which he somehow blamed as the source of the attraction. Apparently they talked about it and both agreed they were committed to their relationships with me and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. According to my husband, my friend felt strongly about not saying anything to me. My husband, however, felt that in the name of “honesty” he wanted me to know.

Why the fuck did he have to tell me this now? My dad just died. I’m up to my eyebrows in grief, and I feel like my spouse just dumped this problem in my lap. I feel like it’s his problem, and he tried to make it mine (and pretty much succeeded) so that he wouldn’t have to deal with this issue like an adult, by himself. I love this man, but sometimes he is the most self-absorbed son of a bitch on the planet. Of course, between kids, funeral arrangements, and the fact that I am highly confrontation-averse, we haven’t even had a chance to talk about this. It’s also taken me two days to process all of it, and figure out how I feel about it, but man, I know now, and I am mad as hell that he chose this time to dump this crap on me. Was this just heartfelt honesty or the actions of an adolescent trapped in a middle-aged male body?

Fuming, Grieving, and About to Boil Over

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Dear Fuming,

Honesty as a mask for thoughtlessness is a crock of shit. Don’t you just feel like punching him now?

So sorry to hear about your father.

Let me tell you what happened to me the other day, if I may, because it’s related to your story. My father is still living, bless his heart and prostate. Two days ago, as I was preparing dinner for a kitchen full of friends, the phone rang and it was my dad and he said, “Cary? I have some very disturbing news. You’re going to be in an auto accident.”

That was about the extent of the conversation. I thanked him for the news. The next day, my wife and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. I was the slow guy in the right lane.

I tried to work it out in my head: My father believes in psychic phenomena — prophetic dreams, channeling the dead, etc. None of his predictions have ever come true, as far as I know, so I figured I don’t have much to worry about. He’s always said strange things. He’s getting older and stranger. If it was anybody else I’d dismiss it. But it was my dad, so it creeped me out.

Then I talked to my sister. Apparently, around the same time he called me, he called her and told her I’d been killed in an auto accident. After much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments she got him to explain that I was indeed killed in an auto accident, but it happened in a dream he had.

Is your husband 80 years old? Has he raised five kids, survived prostate cancer and saved the world for democracy? If so, maybe you’d cut him some slack. But he’s not 80, is he? He should know better.

We were raised on a bogus “honesty” standard. We need a new standard. How about: compassion. Think of the other person. What will the news do to her? Will it amuse her? Will it make her happier, better able to cope with life, stronger, more knowledgeable, more confident? For instance, if you tell someone how well you think she’s coping with a recent tragedy, that you admire her strength, that might make her feel better. Even if she thinks you’re lying, the words will have a good effect. I mean, you can give someone an honest massage or a dishonest massage and it’s still going to feel good.

Likewise, if you honestly punch somebody in the face, it hurts just as much as a dishonest punch.

Knowing that your husband is attracted to your friend is not really useful knowledge. Useful knowledge would be something like: What is he going to do?

Could you maybe get that straight with him? Tell him you don’t want to talk about your friend. Also tell him you don’t want him alone with her. It should be the three of you or nothing. Also tell him he needs to work on his timing. And then drop it. You don’t need to talk about it anymore. The only time he should mention it again is if he and your friend decide to run away together to Montana and start an organic farm. Then he should tell you, so you’ll know to pick the kids up at school before driving to Montana to kick the shit out of him.

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My sister’s engaged to a jerk

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Do I boycott the wedding?

 Cary’s classic column from  TUESDAY, DEC 28, 2010

Dear Cary,

My sister, who is 34 to my 30, has been dating a man in his early 40s on and off for the past 10 years. To give you some background on his character, when she first met him, he was in his early 30s and dating a 17-year-old girl (statutory rape where we come from). My sister began dating him shortly thereafter. Over the years he has cheated on her, dumped her because he felt she was socially inferior to him, and been caught in many, many lies. He has a child with another woman that he has completely abandoned. He has worn — in public and in photos online — vintage war pieces that are emblazoned with swastikas (he states that he is a war enthusiast and not a Nazi, but I and others have heard him make racist comments before). He was and currently is a teacher and has been accused by at least one female student of inappropriate sexual conduct.

For all of these reasons, he and my sister have broken up several times, sometimes for a year or longer, but they always end up back together. Each time they break up, my sister inundates our family with the kind of information about him I’ve mentioned above, yet when they get back together, little explanation is given and we are all expected to just accept him back with open arms. I have complied with this expectation three times now, but I reached my breaking point two years ago after they’d separated for a year and then got back together. This was after he was accused of sexual misconduct with his student. I asked many times and no explanation was given for her forgiveness of him, other than that the student had made the whole thing up. Given his track record, I am not willing to accept that.

For two years, I have asked that he be kept away from me. The other members of our family have made their peace with him and accepted him back into their lives, but I’m the lone holdout. Holidays and other family gatherings are awkward as we work in “shifts” — my husband and I spend the morning at my parents’ house and in the afternoon we leave so my sister’s boyfriend can come over. Well, now things have changed. Over Thanksgiving they got engaged. No one in my family told me (I live in a different city now) and I read about it on Facebook the next day. I am now faced with a choice of accepting this person — my sister’s future husband — back into my life so that I can be involved in their wedding, or of continuing to maintain my distance from him, thereby severing my relationship with my sister.

This situation has become polarizing and it has left me extremely depressed. I dearly miss my sister and the relationship we used to have, but this has affected us so much. She feels that I am judging her and her choices and that I do not love her “unconditionally.” She has dismissed most of the accusations that have been made against him over the years as misunderstandings. She says it is not her place to defend him to me and that if I have further questions I need to ask him. But the thought of even sitting down to have a conversation with this man makes me very uncomfortable. He is extremely intelligent and manipulative and I feel in many ways, he’s dangerous. I spent eight years getting to know him and I came to the conclusion that he’s just not a good person. My family has said that he’s changed and has been attending counseling sessions, but in my opinion if he hasn’t even admitted to the things it seems obvious he’s done, then how much can he have changed?

I am flying home for Christmas, but she wrote and said she would not be seeing me because if I do not accept him, I do not accept her. I don’t feel this is true as I love my sister very much. She is an intelligent and caring person, but for the life of me I don’t understand why she has chosen to spend her life with this man. I know I can’t choose her mate for her or tell her what to do, but I also don’t feel that I should be forced to accept someone like him into my life.

I don’t want to lose my sister over this. Should I suck it up for the sake of the family and have a discussion with him, or am I right to stand my ground?

Scared and Depressed

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Dear Scared and Depressed,

Your sister has made a choice that places her beyond your reach. The relationship you remember having with her is gone for now. It might come back but it is gone for now.

There may be many reasons for this. There may be things in her personality, or her life journey, that require her to be with this man. There may be things in her nature that blind her to his obvious flaws. You may have to accept the possibility that in her way she is just as messed up as he is.

What that means in practical terms is that you have to protect yourself. You cannot protect your sister. So you protect yourself.

That is a terrible thing to realize, that you cannot protect your sister. Yet you know it’s true. You have tried to protect your sister and she has again and again shaken off your protection and has gone to be with this man who is obviously a danger.

So in a way, you have lost your sister. That is hard to accept. Such a thing is heart-rending. Such a thing grinds away at one’s happiness. But the sooner you accept it the sooner you can begin living with it. Living with the truth is better than grinding away in fruitless battle.

Your sister gets something that she needs from this man. We don’t know what that is. We wish that she would get into therapy and discover her reasons for returning to him, and we wish that, having discovered those reasons, she would find alternatives that enrich rather than impoverish her. We wish she would find the unacknowledged needs that are driving her to make poor decisions. We can wish this. But we must also know that she is a free being, and she will make choices, and we have no power over those choices.

It’s a terrible thing, freedom. Freedom of choice is nice when people make choices we approve of, but when they make bad choices we want to yank that freedom away from them and make their choices for them. But that’s another price of freedom: People get to mess up their lives terribly all on their own, and we have to stand by and watch.

Your only reasonable choice is to keep this man out of your own life. If that means some separation from your sister, that is a necessary price.

You do not have to go to her wedding. You do not have to be a party to this. You can tell your sister what you believe and tell her why you are not participating in the wedding and let her go.

For now at least, she is lost to you.

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My husband wants kids but I like things the way they are

 

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We’ve got a great life going. Let’s not spoil it.

 Cary’s classic column from  THURSDAY, APR 9, 2009

Dear Cary,

I had a great childhood, full of country walks and art projects and picture books. My parents loved each other and they loved me and my siblings. I was not, despite all this, a particularly happy child.

I have a great adult life, with a wonderful husband, a demanding but stimulating job, warm friends and a nice apartment in a leafy part of the city. I am not, despite all this, a particularly happy adult.

I don’t think this is a huge problem. I’m prone to introspection, I often find the world confusing and upsetting and at times the human race makes me despair. So I work hard, study for my doctorate in my spare time, take long walks in the fresh air, read novels, look at paintings, choose pretty clothes and love my husband. These things make life meaningful for me. Oh, I’m 38.

My husband had a troubled childhood with parents who never liked each other much and have lived separate lives for decades. He was sent away to a residential school. He was reluctant to get married because his childhood made him cynical about marriage and family. His role models were artists and musicians and he wanted an urban life of coffee bars and foreign cinema and experimental music.

We did get married and it has been wonderful. But now he says he is struggling to find meaning in his life. His old role models don’t look so good anymore. Now maybe he’d like to find a different identity. Maybe he’d like to make a proper family and undo his old cynicism. He wants to do that with me.

Cary, I never wanted to be a mother. I don’t much like children. I don’t want to give my body over to someone else. I’m scared of childbirth. I don’t want to go to mommy and baby groups. I like to read books and I need lots of sleep. I need to work, and not just for the money. I’m not a happy person and I think I might make unhappy babies. There are too many people in the world already.

He loves dogs. I also love dogs. A dog would be good. But not a baby. What should we do?

Bonnie

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Dear Bonnie,

What should you do? What you’re doing: Think it through. Discuss it. Take your time. Figure out what’s going on, what has arisen in your husband’s life to make him think maybe he wants a kid, what social pressures are at work, what unseen longings, etc. Don’t just have a kid even though you don’t want one just because maybe it might, uh, make one of you a little happier!

Studies cited in this 2008 Newsweek article as well as more recent research indicate that having children does not increase happiness. It’s, of course, a perennial topic here at Salon. You could read the book we published about this. We’ve all weighed in, ad nauseam and to our occasional embarrassment. Our conclusions, though they differ, all rest on the assumption that 1) it is a personal and complicated choice that intelligent people must make consciously and 2) um, in the end, you kind of have to trust your gut.

We all struggle mightily with this stuff, as we struggle mightily to build our new, godless, secular humanist world! This new, godless, secular humanist world has kids in it, but it also has people in it who don’t have kids and aren’t freaked out about not having kids. It has people in it who admit, OK, I’m not the happiest puppy on the block and that’s OK. I think hard about the tragic inequities in the world, etc. I am not a trivial, smiling happy person! It has people like you in it! And people like you do not have to have kids! We just have to stick together on this, because there are social pressures always at work. If you live in a nice, happy, hip neighborhood that’s suddenly full of strollers you maybe start thinking you’re a little off, a little strange, a little out of it, if you don’t have a brood.

Your husband may be having a crisis of meaning, feeling unaccountably empty, disconnected, without grounding and community, without moorings in the continuity of life. When one reaches a point like this, the idea of having kids may well spring to mind. One may look around and think that what makes other people happy will make one happy as well; one may forget that what meager happiness one has eked out so far from life has been hard-won, that the few fragile truces one has hammered out between conventional morality and one’s innermost beliefs were reached through ruthless honesty about who one really is. Well, sure, one feels exhausted. Sure, one feels that other people get all the breaks. They are the majority. We are the minority.

So stick to your guns and have faith in the kind of clear-eyed problem-solving that has worked for you so far. Do not abandon your core principles and beliefs. Rather, adjust. See how new pressures have arisen, new needs, and ask how can your current arrangement meet these new needs? How can you meet these new needs for community, rootedness, a sense of connectedness to the sacred in life, the wonder of childhood, etc.?

When we creative, non-generative folks reach a certain stage in life, we begin to look around to see how we can be of value to our community, perhaps to our country as well. We see that though we are not parents, we have much to offer the future. We try to see how we might become involved.

I suggest that your husband sit down and take stock of his life. List the things that make him happy. You say he wanted an urban life of foreign cinema and coffee bars. Does he have that? Why is he discontented? How involved is he in this urban life of foreign cinema and coffee bars? Is he directly involved with a creative life or is he an onlooker? The greatest satisfaction seems to come from doing, not observing. If he feels restless and disconnected perhaps he needs to embark on a creative project in which he is deeply, personally involved. Perhaps he needs to be of service to his community. There are so many ways that we secular urban folks can meet our needs for connectedness through unconventional means! We start urban gardens! We organize against injustice! We create public art! We amuse ourselves together! We go to the movies! The dream of happy secular urban bohemianism lives on! It does not require babies!

But in and of itself, not having a kid will not address the deeper question. The question is how to find connection and meaning in life, how to feel more authentic and more “right” about what one is doing. How to feel, like, yeah, OK, what I’m doing is right for me, it makes sense, I’m where I belong, doing what I was meant to do. How do you find that? By doing what you’ve been doing all along, and being who you are.

Does that sound like a cop-out? I mean it sincerely.

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