Do I love my wife enough?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 4, 2005

I’m a middle child, abandoned by my eldest brother. Did I marry just for security?


Dear Cary,

I am the third of five children. My oldest brother, by six years, ran away from home repeatedly during his teenage years. When he finally reached adulthood he flew the coop for good. As far as I know, my parents weren’t abusive, irresponsible or neglectful. We were a typical middle-class family in a typical middle-class town. By all accounts my brother was a smart fellow. Yes, he dabbled with pot and hung out with some rough kids but nothing beyond the norm.

Twenty years later I’m a 35-year-old husband and father of two. Looking back, I believe I may have responded to the incidents involving my brother by developing an exaggerated need for acceptance based on a deep fear of inadequacy. After all, my thinking goes, if my brother wasn’t able to stand up to this world, what hope have I? Granted, this is all navel-gazing self-assessment, but it feels right to me … this week.

So here’s where it gets sticky. I think I may have gotten married simply because my wife loves me. The prospect of a doting partner seemed too good to pass up, so I didn’t. And the life we’ve created together is wonderful in many ways. She’s a fantastic mother to our miraculous children. We live a very comfortable life and spend more time together as a family than most. But I’m not sure that I love my wife. It pains me to say it. I like her very much, but I don’t miss her when she’s gone. I don’t know if this makes it any clearer, but I don’t yearn for her. And I don’t think I ever did.

Where does this leave me? I cherish my family and don’t want to lose it. Should I soldier on under the “Nothing’s Perfect” banner? I think I could be happy enough. But is happy enough … enough?

Reluctant to Run Away

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Dear Reluctant,

It may not be necessary to your happiness to love your wife in the way you think you are supposed to. And it certainly would be foolish and cruel to announce one day that you are abandoning your family simply because you’re not sure your passion is of the correct wattage. So I think the wise and thoughtful thing to do is to delve into this absence you have discovered, to come to know its nature and its meaning.

What if it is true that you married your wife less because you loved her than because you wanted to be loved by her? That would not necessarily be some shameful revelation upon which the union and all its issue must perforce be scattered to the winds. It would be, rather, a fortunate realization — one that complements your larger sense of yourself as a middle child deeply wounded by your oldest brother’s desertion. Sometimes we seek to be desired rather than to be the desiring one because we cannot risk another idolized, idealized figure walking out on us. It would be too much. So we seek safe harbor.

I’m a middle child myself. I’m next to the youngest of five. I find comfort in the confines of compromise; I say, I’ll go if you’re going. I wait for a traffic signal before walking. But all the while — and I’m not sure if this is just me, or if this also is part of the middle child’s dilemma — I’m keenly aware of the opposite of nurture in my nature, the jealous will to extermination buried under an affable skin, the drive to excel that threatens the order. We do tend to explode, don’t we? We do so much for others and then we blow up, suddenly, when we don’t get enough in return — when our unwritten contract is violated.

So I express my crazy will to excellence as service to others. It’s safer that way. Hence, duh, big surprise that I would become the empathic writer of advice, no? — aching to dazzle and amaze, but all the while maintaining that virgin face of humble service!

Ah, the middle child deluxe!

I recognize your doubt about the intensity of your own emotions, but I wonder if it may not be so much related to your birth order itself as to your grief over your brother’s departure. Did you ever grieve his going? I mean really grieve it? Perhaps there is more feeling there than you thought. Postponement of such a thing can sort of put everything on hold, as though all our feelings were in line at the post office, waiting to be weighed, stamped and canceled. Maybe you have a lot more feeling to do yet before you can feel everything you feel for your wife. When was the last time you broke down and cried unexpectedly?

So, just to be clear: If you were to leave your wife and children, you would be not only be repeating your brother’s abandonment but also setting out on a likely fruitless journey. Whatever feelings you seek reside within you already.

You’re at a crucial point in your life. You could easily make the wrong decision. So I urge you to look at your history and understand why you’re stuck. You seem right on the verge of understanding. Somewhere close at hand, perhaps among the stifled tears over a brother’s departure, I think you will find the passion and yearning that you seem to have misplaced.

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

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

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


Dear Cary:

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

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

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

What’s your take?

Out of Gas

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Dear Out of Gas,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

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