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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Online-love confusion

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 19, 2003

It was long-distance magic. But look! It’s fading! And he won’t say what happened!


Dear Cary,

It was the day before two terrifying exams, and there I was — flipping back and forth between my spreadsheets and the personals. It was an online browse, so idle that I hadn’t even searched: I was just looking for men who were looking for women and who were online at that moment. Then I saw his picture. Cute, I thought. Opened his profile: tall, I thought. Read a bit, and saw: charming, literate, similar interests and so forth. I then looked up to check his location and saw that it was an ocean away. Damn it, I thought. But on the other hand, I’m fond of correspondence as a procrastination technique, so I thought: why not? And dashed off a couple of lines, never expecting any response.

But I got one. And then another, and another, and another. You’ve heard this story a thousand times, I know: The verbal chemistry. The sense of intellectual, emotional, even physical connection, coming like a miracle from words on a screen. But knowing some of the pitfalls of that type of connection, after a bit I was no longer willing to keep it to those words on a screen. We both had some free time coming up; I said I needed either to see how this thing would play out face to face, or to call it quits. Quits wasn’t an option for him (though it would have been for me at that point — along with the feelings I was having came an enormous self-protective impulse), and having never been to his part of the world, I juggled some plans, got a ticket, and flew over.

It was magic, but not in the Harlequin-romance kind of way; we were two people in a situation unprecedented for both, and it was real and it was connected and (at least for me) mind- and soul-touching. Less bodice ripping than I’d expected, but restraint and — could it have been? — chivalry aren’t things I’d become accustomed to in men. And it was so easy to share space, to share hopes, fears and dreams; it was as if the scrim that separates and blurs so many nascent (or established) relationships simply didn’t exist.

And then I went home for my last term of grad school, looking mainly at postdegree options near home, but also one that would have brought me near him. And I told him about them all, not looking for promises or commitments on the latter — how could I have, based on something so ephemeral? But cool breezes were coming across the ocean. When I went back at midterm for an interview over there, it was all very cordial — but as if we were ex-colleagues meeting after one had left the firm, not two people who’d been powerfully drawn to each other, who’d dreamed big dreams together. So?

In the first intoxicating days we were getting to know each other, I asked for only one promise: that should things between us ever not seem right, that we’d talk, that we wouldn’t just let it fade away. But fading away is exactly what’s happened, and apart from the pain, it feels like such a waste. But the pain is there, and the loss, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why it happened like this — or why or how he just let go without a word. I’ve been as cool as I humanly can — no weepy “where are you” calls or messages, no scenes, slim-to-nil contact that mirrors his own — but damn, does it still hurt! Now I know in my head that if a man’s interested, he’ll make it known. And this one isn’t. And if he isn’t, then letting him see the extent of my grief won’t bring him back. And keeping up a “casual” correspondence with him is impossible for me; it would just stir up all the dreams and yearning yet again.

And yet — I feel like letting it go without really fighting for it could be a huge mistake, borne by my pride and fear and standing on ceremony. That’s the last thing I want. Is it brave to let go and put it out of my mind as best I can, or is it brave, having laid myself bare with him before, to do it once again (as given the status quo there’s really nothing much to lose)?

No Idea in New York

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Dear No Idea,

Sometimes laying yourself bare is the only way to get the truth. The relationship may or may not be worth fighting for, but the truth certainly is, and you ought to fight for that. Of course, if he’s British, as I suspect he is (I’m taking a leap, but that’s my job), what strikes you as the simple truth will strike him as an outrageously indiscreet revelation bordering on the obscene.

Figure it this way: If someone said he just wants to see what you look like, you’d be willing to appear before him, in public, in your corporeal self, right? You’d be showing him “what you look like.” But he might say he can’t really see what you look like at all with all those clothes on.

People can mean different things by “what you look like,” and they can mean different things by “the truth about what happened between us.” You can’t expect him to pour forth his most intimate feelings on cue. So you may have to craft some simple, direct questions that give you the outlines of his feelings, and sort of trace a picture, and then shade the picture and fill in the body yourself.

For instance, you would really like to know if he was ever in love with you, right? It might be painful, but you need to know. So you have to ask: “Were you ever in love with me?” If he says he was, ask him when that changed. Don’t ask him how, just ask him when. That will focus his mind on something, without committing him to discussing his feelings. In other words, did it change while you were together, or after you left? Did it change recently, or quite some time ago? On the other hand, if he says he was never in love with you, ask him if he was aware of how you felt about him. If he answers your question with a question, such as “Um, just how did you feel about me?” don’t answer. Instead, in turn, answer his question with a question. Ask him what he assumed you felt about him. Ask him what he thought.

You have to allow for the possibility that he knew quite well exactly how you felt about him, and he was just enjoying your attentions without any plan to reciprocate. If you’re in graduate school, you have to seek the truth.

There are a few other questions you could ask him, but I think you get the point: You need to get just a few facts so you can construct a little narrative for yourself: Here’s a picture of what happened to me. Here’s the car, here’s the accident, here’s me convalescing, here’s a calendar showing how long it took to heal, here’s my journal of how I got over it. And then look here at this photo, this is me, moving on. I’m the one on the horse! Can you believe how funny I look in a jockey suit?

There is one other thing about trying to get answers out of him if he’s British: You may have to frighten him. If you simply act like a sane, if somewhat direct, American woman looking for answers, he may give you nothing but the blandest of platitudes. You may have to play the crazy, demanding, selfish, ungovernable, hot-tempered, spoiled-rotten bitch-devil sex queen. If so, lay it on thick. Make a scene at his place of employment. Claim there’s a baby on the way. Whatever it takes.

And who knows, in the course of finding out the truth, you may uncover some feelings of his you didn’t know were there. Just because he’s behaving in a reserved way doesn’t mean he has no feelings for you. It just means he’s doing the right thing as defined by his culture. He may be crazy about you. He may think it’s you who doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. All you can do is find out.

My live-in boyfriend’s spending a week with a chick he met on MySpace

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, SEP 26, 2008

I’m not real crazy about the idea. Should I be jealous?


Dear Cary:

I am writing to you because I need to hear an opinion from someone who does not already love me or think I’m amazing. I need objectivity, beautiful and philosophical objectivity.

I have been dating a man (he’s 27, I’m 30) since January and we recently moved in together at his insistence and despite my reluctance. My reluctance stems from the fact that he has never had a serious girlfriend, and while he is loving in a somewhat aloof way and has made it clear to me that he cares about me, he has not yet told me he loves me.

He is on vacation right now, visiting friends, with plans to head to California to meet up with a young woman that he “met” via MySpace. We’re not talking lunch either — he will be staying with her, at her place, for an entire week.

Apparently they have been e-mailing, then speaking on the telephone, for the better part of the past year. She has been going through a divorce, and has expressed to him that he is the “only friend she has” that she can talk to about things.

I questioned whether he really wanted to do this back in April when he was making these plans. He laughed at me and thought I was jealous, then reassured me that I can trust him and that he is just “visiting a friend.” And don’t even get me started on what her expectations may be — a young almost divorcée whose Internet “buddy” is coming to stay for a week? I can only imagine what she has planned, and I’m trying really hard not to!

Now he’s gone, and I should have told him how I feel (I’m angry! I feel disrespected and disappointed!) before he left. So do I let him know how I’m feeling? Possibly ruin his vacation? Or do I keep it to myself, suffer through the week he’ll be with her and discuss it with him when he returns? Or do I just start perusing the apartment listings? Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Is this the way things work these days? Are the lines of morality blurred by all these electrons flying around?

Anxiously Living in Sin

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Dear Anxiously Living in Sin,

I’m going to try to make this fairly quick and straightforward. There are many reasons why a man living with a woman ought to be able to conduct a variety of friendships with other women, friendships in which they are not having sex, friendships that involve staying in the same place, even perhaps sleeping in the same bed chastely. I mean, there are many reasons such a thing ought to be possible. We are complex creatures with many needs for the society of others, and primary relationships ought not stifle us or limit us unnecessarily. I mean, a man ought to be able to have outside friendships that don’t imperil his marriage or primary relationship.

And I imagine, as I look up at the stars on a clear night and contemplate the vastness of the universe, I imagine there exists some world out there, and some manner of creature similar to us in certain ways and yet with this crucial difference — that they are not sexually jealous. Maybe there is such a creature and such a place. Maybe that is where Mr. Spock comes from.

But this world, from what I can tell, is not like that. In this world, when a woman lives with a young, attractive man, and the young, attractive man she lives with decides to spend a week with a woman he met on MySpace, the woman he lives with begins to contemplate the many new uses to which a kitchen knife might be put.

When creatures from these other worlds where sexual jealousy does not exist peer down at us they are no doubt mystified and feel superior to us. They do not fly into fits of rage at the behavior of the ones they mate with. Why should we? What difference does it make what he does when he is not in the primary mating-behavior space? Is it not counterproductive to “cut off his nuts with a kitchen knife,” as they say?

The kitchen knife is a highly charged symbol, domestically speaking, love-wise speaking, blues-song speaking, living-in-sin speaking. It refers, somewhat sexistically, to the fact that women, throughout much of history, have had few weapons with which to counter the physical superiority of the men they live with. But while confined to the kitchen they have also been masters of it and its many weapons. The physically superior male has been, in this classic myth, unaware of the implements available in the kitchen and the uses to which they might be put. Not to mention his unfamiliarity with just how much satisfaction a woman might find in putting the kitchen knife to these unexpected uses (uses that, we might add, are not authorized or intended by the manufacturer).

So on one side you have this counterproductive and seemingly inexplicable desire to put the kitchen knife to novel and unauthorized uses vis-à-vis the dude spending a week with his MySpace friend. You’d think we’d be beyond all that, being that we have put a man on the moon and also have speed-dating. You’d think the whole kitchen-knife-wielding-girlfriend thing would be ancient history.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing, or that it’s the only way it can be, or that you can’t try to live in a different world. I’m not saying that polyamory is bad, or unattainable, either; you might look into the possibility that you and he could have an open relationship; the idea of community that involves multiple simultaneous intimate relationships is, well … some people do that. I’m just saying that a lot of people are like this: When the dude you’re living with spends a week with a chick he met on MySpace, you start to think about the kitchen knife. I’m saying you’re not alone. These thoughts of the kitchen knife seem to be as deeply embedded in the animal nature of women as the desire to spend a week with the MySpace chick is embedded in dudes.

It’s one of those eternal verities.

So what to do? Be seriously unreasonable. Well, first, put the knives away. Then be seriously unreasonable. Tell him it’s either her or you. Seriously. Don’t pretend it’s reasonable. Just tell him you’re serious. Just tell him that’s the way it is. And peruse the apartment listings. Or, better yet, suggest that he peruse the apartment listings.
There’s probably a reason he hasn’t ever been in a serious relationship. Apparently, he’s not serious. I mean, he can’t be serious, right?

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Am I fickle?

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 5, 2003

I am exhilarated by the chase, but once I catch the girl I lose interest.


Dear Cary,

I’ve realized slowly over the last few months that I am one of those guys who is exhilarated by the chase but disappointed by the prize. My relationships never last for more than a few months because I lose interest in the poor girls so quickly once they’ve been “caught.” It has gotten to the point where I am sometimes glad when my pursuit of a girl does not work out because I can still care for and about her. I’ve pressed the pause button on anything that has the potential to become a romantic relationship for now because I’m worried about what this says about me. I’ve just gotten out of college and looking back this has been a pretty rigid pattern for me. Is this something I can expect to grow out of? I don’t know what to do aside from acknowledging that there is a problem.

Young and Fickle

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Dear Young and Fickle,

Yes, I think you will probably grow out of this. Or, more accurately, your social life and your work life will solidify, and the networks of people you associate with will grow more regular. As that happens, it will make less and less sense to pursue a woman only to seduce her and then leave her, because you will want her to become part of your social circle. You will want to have the added enjoyment of her becoming friends with your friends.

You may be surprised to find that at times you are actually bored with your girlfriend, yet at the same time you do not want to leave her, because you have become accustomed to her company, your friends like her, and if you ditch her you will incur anger and recrimination not only from her but from your friends. Bit by bit, it just starts to seem like it isn’t worth it anymore, all the drama and pain, when you can’t go to any bar or club without running into some girl you’d rather not run into, all the dislocation, all the toothbrushes and underwear you can’t remember whose house you left them at, all the CDs and shoes and stuff.

So you’re going to probably end up with some girlfriend that you can tolerate long enough to end up really caring about, and then you don’t want to leave her and make her cry and have her throw things at you and have all her friends hate you and say bad things about you, so you’ll try to psych yourself for a long-term relationship. And that is when you will learn to modify your behavior a little, to appreciate things about her that take time to know. And then you’ll find that things get better if you stick around. And that is how society works to civilize young men and protect young women from their savage predations.

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Faking it

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 4, 2004

Can I stop him from going by pretending to come?


Dear Cary,

I am an attractive young woman who is married to a man I love and trust very much. I love sharing my life with my husband, coming home and telling stories of our day, cooking dinner together, going on trips together, laughing, bitching, cuddling, hiking, shopping, and having adventures together. ‘Til death do us part.

I also love making love with my husband — though with far less frequency than when we first got together three years ago. But here’s what’s weird: I never have an orgasm. I’ve had sex with several men before my husband and though I also enjoyed sex then — same thing. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that a man has brought me to orgasm at all.

That’s not the real problem, though it’s a problem, to be sure. The problem I want to discuss is the fact that my husband doesn’t know any of this. I mean, I fake it. I always have. Why? Now that I’m with him, a man I can share so many things with — it seems sad and silly. But I faked it when I started having sex in high school because I was in high school and I didn’t know any better. Then I faked it in college because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t actually have an orgasm and it would be just so exhausting to try and I wanted to save guys the effort and the weirdness of having sex with someone who’s never really totally present.

Finally, when I met my husband several years ago, I knew he was different. I didn’t want to lie to him. I faked it early on but convinced myself that I just needed to try harder and to focus more and I could do it. Without involving him. I managed a few times, but far more often, it’s just easier to enjoy sex on the level that I’m accustomed to: enjoying the closeness, the pleasure — but not the intense physical pleasure of orgasm. But then it was too late to tell him. He takes such delight in my pleasure that I can’t imagine what telling him now would do to him and his self-esteem.

Obviously there are a lot of issues here, physiological and psychological ones, like why I’m unable to orgasm with a man (but perfectly able to do so myself) and why I feel the need to fake it. But the real question I want answered is: Is it possible that my marriage is as good as I believe it is? How weighty is this secret, really? Isn’t it possible that — though this does bother me — I am still capable of having a happy, healthy marriage? Or am I in denial that this is always going to be a huge roadblock in our marriage?

I don’t know what to think about this problem, let alone do! Please help!

Cold Fish

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Dear Cold Fish,

First I will try to answer the question you want answered. Then I will try to answer the question you don’t want answered.

I will do this because questions can be a form of control, and if control is part of the problem (as it is in your case), then it’s time to take a little of that control away from you, to tie you up a little, to shush your mouth and find a place in that quick and agile brain of yours for a new and contrary idea.

The question you want answered is: Can your marriage be as good as you think it is, even though you have been deceiving your husband in this way? The answer is yes, it may be as good as you think it is, even with the deception. Your inability to have an orgasm during intercourse with your husband is not necessarily some dark indicator of a fundamental rift, but simply, for the moment, a common physiological fact. It’s one you share with many women. Basically you can stop worrying that failure to come during intercourse means there’s something deeply wrong with your marriage.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeply wrong, however — which brings us to the question that you don’t want answered: Is it your role to shield your husband from the truth about you? This is the new and contrary idea that perhaps you don’t want to hear. No, it’s not your role to shield your husband from the truth about you. Such “protection,” however well-intended, is a form of control and disrespect. It is not as benign as you might like to believe. It may have larger implications beyond the bedroom.

It’s easy to understand how you got into this mess. A friend of mine was startled to find, when she took a poll at a dinner party, that she was the only woman there who had never faked an orgasm. She was the only one who even felt that it was a big deal. When she asked a prostitute friend of hers about the issue, she got another interesting fact: “I only fake it when I’m getting paid,” said the prostitute — which has some interesting implications, doesn’t it?

Sex between men and women often begins as mercenary barter in which each party, by seeking maximum pleasure and minimum pain, in effect makes an economic choice to minimize disclosure and maximize deception.

This is true as regards human vanity, in which a man may suck in his belly and a woman hide her thighs; it is true as regards emotional attachment, in which each party maintains the maximum of ambivalence lest unwanted commitments arise; and it is true as regards our desire to appear to be utterly sated, to exaggerate the pleasure we have derived from the encounter.

Why should this last form of deception be so important? It is, but why? Showing the other that we are pleased maximizes our options for repeat encounters. If we show displeasure, we limit our future chances. Furthermore, there is nothing creepier than bad sex, but bad sex is only truly bad sex when it is mutually acknowledged. Even the worst bad sex can be passed off as only mildly bad sex if both parties pretend, with great intensity, that it was really, really great.

So sex itself is far from a raw unpeeling of our true selves; more than many of us care to admit, it involves great deception.

At least that’s how it often is in the beginning, especially between two people who really don’t know each other all that well. As sex progresses, however, in a relationship — and this is what we all know about its legendary capacity — it does have the power to radically strip us of every shred of pretense and bare our souls to each other and to the heavens as nothing else can. So naturally as a sexual relationship progresses, if the heavens do not open and the deception does not fall away but instead endures and indeed, because it must, increases in its variation and virtuosity, then naturally the sense that something is wrong does become sharper with every episode.

What happens, it seems to me, is that the various ways we deceive each other during sex become, after a while, a tool of emotional control in the relationship. Or at least it seems to have become so in your case.

Since women are often assigned the role of emotional caretaker in a relationship, a woman can gain power by “protecting” a man from the truth about her emotions and her body. Men collaborate in this deception by giving women a hard time when the truth is finally told.

We men can change that over time, but it takes work. We need practice in coaxing out the difficult truth and welcoming it, giving it a home, living with it. We need to work at doing this and get better at it so that the great knowledge women harbor becomes more available to us. Women know more than we can ever get out of them, but we have only touched the surface of the reservoir so far. And that is the area in which I believe you are doing your husband a great disservice: You are allowing him to wallow in his ignorance. He deserves the truth.

We all deserve the truth from the women in our lives but we will get it only if we work at it. We have to offer rewards to the women who tell us the truth. No woman wants to tell the truth if it’s met with scorn, resentment, defensiveness or abuse. So we men have to create an environment in which women can and do tell us the truth about how they feel and what they want.

But it’s a 50-50 proposition. And in this case, I think you have to come clean.

The problem with “having a talk” — you know, sitting at the kitchen table all evening drinking tea and trying to “understand” each other — is that talk sometimes makes it worse; it makes the next sexual encounter awkward and fraught with anxiety. So I suggest, though it sounds a little nutty, that you disclose this fact during the act of sex itself. The next time you’re having sex, instead of acting out an orgasm, act out your disclosure with the same thespian enthusiasm; let loose with your confession at the top of your lungs: “I’m not coming! I’m not faking! I’m not coming! I’m not faking!” Don’t interrupt the sex act. If your husband pauses, just say “Harder! Harder!”

Later, when he says, “What the hell was that?” you can tell him, with genuine contrition, that you were afraid all these years that if he knew you weren’t coming he might think you were inadequate, or that he himself was inadequate, and now you know neither one of you is inadequate but that your orgasm could be a goal you could work on together. Now you know your only inadequacy is your fear of losing him. Your only inadequacy was your mistaken belief that you could stop him from going by pretending to come.

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My husband won’t set limits!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 5, 2006

Uncle Danny shows up in his R.V. for four-month “visits,” gobbling up our food and paying nothing.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are a professional couple in our mid-30s who have a house in a revitalized urban area in North Carolina. Since we moved into our house four years ago, my husband’s uncle — let’s call him Uncle Danny — has started visiting us in his R.V. for increasingly longer visits — the last one being four months! A little background on Uncle Danny. He is a traveling nurse in his mid-60s. He has never been married and was estranged from most of his family for many years, only remaking contact in the last five years. When Uncle Danny visits us, he expects to use my husband’s spare pickup truck — he takes the key from the rack and helps himself. He also helps himself to the food and beverages in our kitchen, never buying his own groceries during his interminable stays. He almost always invites himself along when my husband and I go out to dinner and never picks up his own check. I would faint if he ever offered to treat us! He does sleep in his R.V., but the rest of the time he’s with us in our house. When pressed as to how long he will be staying during each of these “visits,” he always gives some vague answer. We never know when he’s leaving until a day or two before he goes.

The real rub is that my husband allows this behavior and refuses to set limits with his uncle. My husband is pretty passive and detests confrontation. This year, Uncle Danny has been here from January through mid-April. He left for a few weeks to do some short-term nursing work in Northern Virginia and returned to our home on May 15. I am furious! I’ve insisted that my husband address this issue, and although my husband agrees that his uncle’s behavior is unacceptable, he is dragging his feet about approaching Uncle Danny with some limits.

My question is, how do I handle this situation? I am a generous person by nature and do not like the spite and anger that Uncle Danny inspires in me. I also do not like the stress he is creating in my marriage. But I also realize that it is not my place to deal with Uncle Danny directly. What should I do? How do I get rid of this man?

Tired of Being Mooched off of

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Dear Tired of Being Mooched off of,

Contrary to what you say, I think it is your place to deal with Uncle Danny. It is your house. If your husband won’t do it, it’s up to you.

Why your husband won’t or can’t do it and what that means about his character and his relationship with his family are something you may want to explore with him when you have a spare year or two to spend fighting like cats and dogs. But right now something needs to be done about Uncle Danny’s Ticonderoga, and you need to step in and do it.

Sometimes things just have to be said out loud and somebody has to say them. “You’re fired” is one of those things. “You have to leave” is another one. “I want a divorce,” “I’m breaking up with you” and “I’m resigning effective today” are others, bursting with import and significance but simple in their utterance. You just have to say the thing that has to be said and let it hang there in the air long enough to be heard and understood.

I know what happens when we overcontemplate these things. We look for ways to soften it. That’s fine. You can try to be kind about it. Just don’t let that process of looking for a nice way to say it prevent you from saying it. You certainly don’t have to be mean. Don’t let your welled-up anger spill out in spiteful little ways. But you have to say what needs to be said.

This thing you’re conveying is not really your fault. You’re just conveying the truth; you’re just looking at the situation and saying, here is the way it is. It’s not about you and your feelings; it’s about the household and the way it needs to be run.

It’s your job to set the rules in your household and enforce them. If you don’t do that, you’re not really running a household, you’re just occupying a house.

Tell Uncle Danny that your household has some rules and that from now on he will have to abide by them. The rules cover the length of his stays, the amount of notice he gives before he arrives and departs, and the general running of the household.

Set a limit on how long he can stay. You might have a certain time in mind; a month might be a good maximum, but you might want to limit it to two weeks, or even one week.

Tell Uncle Danny that while he is visiting you expect him to contribute to the household. That might mean paying for groceries and meals and also helping out with chores.

Family has its privileges, of course, but with privileges come responsibilities and reciprocity.

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Dashed against the rocks

 

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 20, 2004

I’m in love with a siren who lured me and is now destroying me.


Dear Cary,

I have been involved with a woman for one and a half years. She is well mannered, dresses nicely, has style, is extremely intelligent, and is a stunning beauty. We also share many views on the world and, for example, an obsession with the same country that we would both like to emigrate to. We are the kind of couple where everybody turns around to tell us how beautiful we look together.

This woman has given me some of the best times of my life. I loved and trusted her with all my heart. But I got burned, and badly. A description of the depression I’ve gone through would not fit into one letter. She has given me some of the most beautiful times of my life and she has been the cause for the most depressing and sad times that I ever had to endure. She abused my trust, betrayed me, lied to me, dumped me for someone else. That was in the middle of our relationship and it’s the cause for our breaking up for over a month.

But I just couldn’t let go. When she told me that she still had feelings for me and that maybe we could make it work, I immediately went for it, despite much advice to the contrary from friends and family. And it worked well, after a time even very well.

And then it turned back into a disaster. As we both went off for university, she demanded attention that she knew I couldn’t potentially give her and compromises that she knew I couldn’t make. I tried very hard to make it work, to convince her that I loved her. Her reaction was indifference. She was just interested in her new friends, her new life — without me. That was last October, which is when I broke up with her, again.

Even after weeks, I thought of her every day, feelings alternating between anger and longing. I didn’t talk to her for over two months — didn’t help. As I was finally starting to get a handle on things, she called me again and said that she didn’t want to lose somebody she once trusted so much, that she’d like to keep me at least as a friend.

When we met again, all the signs were still there. The looks, the occasional hand on the other’s leg. The close-to-infinite goodbye hug. We started talking on the phone and e-mailing on an almost daily basis. Oh my god, I was back in her power again.

I can’t pull myself out of it, even though she’s been very ambivalent. One day, she tells me how much she misses me, that if I asked her to marry me, she’d say yes. The next day, she doesn’t even answer the phone. Then again, she blames me for everything that ever went wrong in our relationship.

Maybe this is just because there are hardly any girls in my small university in this small, depressing town? Maybe it’s because the advice to get myself somebody else is not an option?

Why can’t I let go? I feel like Odysseus passing the sirens. She draws me to her with her magical song and whenever I come near her, I get smashed on her deadly rocks. How can I escape her? I don’t think stuffing wax into my ear would work, much less having my friends tie me to the mast. But what can I do?

Bound by Love

Dear Bound by Love,

What Odysseus did may sound impossible or useless if taken literally. But metaphorically speaking it’s exactly what you have to do. Odysseus had his mates tie him to the mast. You need to have your friends tie you to a decision. Swear an oath to banish this woman from your life, and have your friends swear to hold you to it.

Now, Odysseus earned his crew’s affection and obedience through heroism. Few of us command such power over men. Moreover, few will truly grasp what you are asking. You may have several “friends” who enjoy your company and think you are a good guy, but to do what you require takes a maturity that doesn’t always show on the surface. So choose one person, and choose wisely. You have to place complete trust in this person.

Make a signed, written agreement. Say that if you should announce that you’re going to see her, they have permission to hold you down, slap you silly, and lock you in your room. Promise not to press charges if they should abduct you in a car and tie you to a tree in the woods. This is what it will take.

You’re in this woman’s power. We don’t have to talk about why, for now. We just have to recognize reality. You’re in her power. Her power is in her presence and in her beauty. It’s a delicious power, but for you it’s deadly. The only way to get out of her power is to get out of her presence. Don’t talk to her, don’t look at her. If you find yourself thinking about her, fine. No man could keep you from doing that. Let yourself think about her, but only as one regards an object in the mind. Do not allow yourself to speculate about her. Get my drift? Whenever you regard her in your mind, be sure there is a fence around her. Do not think about the ways in which next time it might be different. Do not take down that fence.

Furthermore, if you regard her in your mind, regard her only from the rear, as though she is receding from view. Do not look at her face. Do not let her eyes fall on you. Do not let her approach. Only regard her as an object receding into the distance. If you imagine her eyes looking at you, you will be in her power again.

Face it: You’re addicted to her, OK? So you can’t have her anymore! Not even a little piece! You’re done! You’re through! It’s over, soldier!

As to why you are in her power: There is something of narcissism in this — for instance, in the pride you take in being seen as a stunning couple, and in the way she so pleasingly mirrors yourself in her thoughts and ambitions. Odysseus was not a narcissist; he was a warrior; he knew himself and he knew the other, both as enemy and lover. He knew his weaknesses and took precautions. His problem with the sirens was a problem of temptation, not narcissism. But narcissism appears to be the focus of your heroic struggle. So consider that you cannot look away from her because she is an image of your own beauty. Think of her as a reflection of yourself, and consider that the reason you long for her so is that you long for yourself, your own beauty. It’s an unfathomable paradox, this narcissism thing … but maybe that tear that Narcissus sheds, the tear that disrupts his perfect reflection in the river, perhaps that is what is needed here. Perhaps what that myth is saying is that rescue — death in Narcissus’ case, but we needn’t be so literal — comes through the power of emotion to disrupt the perfect reflection: when through long unrequited desire for perfection we finally break down and feel the tragic impossibility of such a union, the power of that emotion shatters the entrancing image, and we are free. Just think of Narcissus’ death at that point as the death of the narcissistic self.

Or think of it this way: The more you suffer, the worse she looks.

I feel awful about my affair

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2012

It was stupid, cruel and unsatisfying, and now I’m miserable


Dear Cary,

I really need you to tell me how to forgive myself, and how to carry on after I had an affair. I’m sorry if this ends up really long and please edit however you need to. Basically, I have been married for 15 years to a man who really is a fundamentally excellent person. We were married quite young for a couple in our socioeconomic bracket, and have been together since college. Like any couple that goes the distance, we have been to (relative) hell and back, most of which was the byproduct of trying to make our careers fit together, dealing with each other’s families, family money issues, etc. Totally run-of-the-mill problems. I have had my doubts, at times over the years, whether we were “meant for each other,” which we have discussed openly and honestly several times throughout our relationship.  We always come to the conclusion that we just do not want to break up. We love each other and we love most things about the life we’ve built.

Two years ago I entered an extremely challenging graduate program, which also wreaked havoc on our lives, and therefore, our relationship. Though I knew that all last summer and fall was an especially low point in our communication and in our overall happiness with each other, I’m still shocked and gutted whenever I “remember” that I cheated. Which is several times a day.

There was this other man, I’ll call him X, whom I had been acquainted with for several months. One night, while out with a group of 10 or so other friends (my husband went home early that night, the rest of us were celebrating exams being over), he paid special attention to me. At the end of the evening I acknowledged to myself that X was maybe more interesting and intelligent of a person that I’d formerly noticed. Still, I was extremely surprised later that night to receive a borderline flirtatious text from him.

I kind of hate myself for returning the attention. Looking back, I realize that I was just so flattered. No one tells you when you get married that you become invisible to other men, and it’s not that I think I’ve been out there looking for inappropriate attention …  but I found it surprisingly welcome when it came. And that’s how it all began. I’m so ashamed that it took so little, so very, very little, to tempt me into cheating on my husband.

Looking back at last year, I know now that there was something really wrong with me, for awhile. I was at least depressed, and actually I have begun to wonder if I even might have had a manic episode.  I suddenly was drinking often, and a lot (which I no longer am). I know that the pressure of my schoolwork has been affecting me in all sorts of ways that I don’t seem able to recognize in myself until that “phase” is over and I’m in the next one. However, even though I know this is a factor, I just don’t think any amount of stress is an excuse for what I did. Though my husband and I were having trouble connecting last year, and we were seriously considering a trial separation, that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter.

Because my husband and I are really open-minded people, each with friends from both genders, and neither of us prone to jealousy, I never even told one lie. There were a couple of lies of omission, but I think I was able to live in a little bit of denial for awhile just because I really never had to be sneaky, or make up stories. I just kind of detached from him, for a few weeks. Since I’ve been living in the library and so preoccupied with school the last couple of years, he didn’t notice.

The affair really only lasted a month and was much more of an emotional affair than a physical one, although the relationship was consummated, once. I have not confided any of this experience to anyone.  After sleeping with X (it makes me nauseated just to type this), even during, I knew that I really wasn’t attracted to him at all, and I just immediately realized what a mistake it all was. I got myself out of there, and began the process of ending it. Which is when I of course finally realized that X’s own mental and emotional stability was, well, compromised.

I just can’t believe how stupid I was, from the beginning. It’s hard to believe I deserve any credibility, but please know that I am usually a very perceptive, very self-aware and intentional person. How was I able to just take leave of my senses, for weeks? It is legitimately scary.

When I broke things off with X, firmly, he actually tried to physically keep me from leaving his house. Of course, nothing could have convinced me further that I wanted nothing to do with him EVER again.

Even though it all ended months ago now, there are still some things that keep me up at night. First of all, the clarity that comes with the regret of doing such a despicable thing is kind of a gift. I was able to wholeheartedly throw myself into my marriage again, and this year, 2012, my husband and I have felt closer than maybe ever. But of course, he doesn’t “know.”  We had actually discussed adultery a couple of times over the years, when we’ve seen friends or friends’ parents go through it, and we decided, each of us, that we did not want to ever know if the other had cheated on them! I know now that neither of us ever believed it would actually happen, but just by having those talks, I’m pretty sure he really doesn’t want to know.

In the beginning, I wanted to confess. Now I really don’t, and instead live in fear that he’ll hear it through the grapevine. As I hinted, X has done some things that made me realize, way later than I should have, that he is manipulative, needy and self-centered. Since he still asks me to meet him out socially on occasion, and often expresses his disapproval when I decline, I know he is not as “over” me as I pray for him to be. He can be a bit delusional. I am afraid that he will someday find justification for spilling the story to one of our common friends. I don’t know for sure that this hasn’t happened already.

What is worse is that he has a number of really incriminating and embarrassing texts from me on his phone, that he could show to anyone, at any time he felt like it. Sometimes I think I’m being paranoid when I play this scenario out in my mind, but at the same time, this is a man who pursued a married woman, the husband of whom he professes to like and respect, ensured she got drunk any time he was around her, and balked when she ended it after a few weeks. He is no saint.

Here are the issues that might be slowly killing me. How can I live with myself? My husband really is a great person, and the love of my life, and just because we were going through some doubts and hard times, I did something that would absolutely break his heart into a thousand pieces. One of the things that also stops me from confessing to him is that, if telling him destroyed our relationship, I’m scared it would also prevent him from ever trusting anyone else. I know he thinks I’m this great moral person and if I were able to betray him like that, then there’s no one who wouldn’t.

And it’s not just that I cheated on him that is so disturbing, it’s that I didn’t even choose someone, for lack of a better term, more worthy. X is just not a person I would even date, if I were single. I just feel pathetic. How can I call him needy, when I was so taken with the first person to pay me a compliment?

Sometimes I struggle with all of this even being real. Even though I might not have earned any credibility here, please believe me that this is very out-of-character for me. Now that the fog has lifted, so to speak, my memories from this affair seem like a movie that I watched, instead of a time that I lived through. There is another time in my life that feels that way, when my mother almost died after a terrible accident, and was in the hospital for months. So I know that in a way, it’s kind of a protective mechanism, but how do I make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Right now, nothing repulses me more than the thought of doing something like this again, but . . . I know now that I’m capable of really terrible things. I never knew that before.

Mostly, I’m just sick that I can’t undo this. I’ll always know. I’ll always know that I “ruined” our marriage, even though my husband (hopefully) won’t ever have an inkling. There was just this pure thing, this devotion, that we had, that we had promised to each other, and I was so ready to throw it away. And he never would. I don’t deserve him.  Living with this regret is just so unbelievably harsh. I’m pretty sure time is making it worse. It’s like the longer I “get away with it” the worse I feel. Is my whole experience just a total cliché anyway? Does everyone who cheats on their partner end up feeling this way?

I’m realizing that it’s taken me this long to even write this letter, to reach out to someone, because deep down, I still need to punish myself, and prolonging the bad feelings is the worst punishment I can inflict, that doesn’t also hurt my husband.

What do I do? How do I try to let this go? I’ve never, ever had such a low opinion of myself.

Hindsight is 20/20

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Dear Hindsight,

It will take time for you to forgive yourself. It will take time for you to sort out what kinds of unhappiness led you to make this mistake.

But that’s fine. You have time. You have a pretty good life in most ways. There is just some unhappiness in your life that you have tried to ignore. This affair was the result. Once you begin looking at your unhappiness, things will start to make sense, and you will find some compassion for yourself and will begin to forgive yourself.

It just takes time.

You can begin by contacting a marriage and family counselor.

If you do nothing, it’s likely that over time the severity of this event’s impact on your emotional life will lessen. But your marriage will probably end badly.

It will end badly because as you withhold your emotions the marriage will offer less and less satisfaction until it is practically worthless as a life-supporting partnership. It will become just another burden to maintain, just another life-sucking routine.

But it doesn’t have to end badly.

A decent marriage and family counselor can help you.

Your main hurdle may be in shedding your current frame of reference long enough to begin to look at what actually happened. For instance, you express amazement that this happened, and yet empirical evidence is that it happens a lot. So, in rational terms, your error was in excluding yourself from the set of people capable of having an affair. Every married person is capable of having an affair. There was really no basis for excluding yourself. You are human like everyone else. The intensity of your desire to stay true to your husband is obviously not a guarantee of success. It is only a wish. You just made a common human error in thinking: With no basis for doing so, you excluded yourself from the set of people capable of having affairs. Similarly, I excluded myself from the set of people capable of having cancer until I got cancer. It’s a common mental error. If you go back and examine your life to find the basis for your belief that you would not cheat on your husband, you will probably find the same kinds of baseless beliefs that millions of other people have also had. So I suggest you bring some academic rigor to your examination of your own life. But don’t try that on your own. It’s too painful and destabilizing. Do this only under the care of a therapist. Because you may make a second mistake: You may blame yourself. You have to do the opposite of blaming yourself. You need to forgive yourself. That may take some time. You haven’t been taught how to forgive yourself. You will have to learn. A therapist can help you with that.

This is not a puzzle or theorem but a wound. You can put off the actual work of recovering for quite some time. But eventually, you will have to begin.

Why not begin now, while you are still in fresh pain, while you are still motivated, while you still feel that it is an intolerable moral burden to live with? Emotional pain is a great motivator.

This can be fixed. Your marriage can survive. You can forgive yourself. But you need to begin.

My brother left his girlfriend with a 5-month-old baby

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 30, 2007

They thought the baby would fix things, but he didn’t, so the dad split. Does that mean he’s no good?


Dear Cary,

Early this year, one of the greatest bright spots in my life occurred: I became an uncle. After 10 years of bleak family moments, we all finally had a moment of renewal. My older brother called me (I’m an expat and haven’t actually seen the munchkin) ’round about 4 a.m. EST: “God, he’s beautiful.”

Four months later my brother split with my sister-in-law. They were effectively, though never officially, married — 15 years together, since high school. OK bro, you had a son and split with your girl four months later. As he put it to me on the phone, “There’s no way people aren’t going to think I’m an asshole.” Right: People are going to think you’re an asshole. And the thing is, Cary, I sort of think he’s an asshole too, and I’m wondering whether I should.

To be clear, there was no plan on my brother’s part to run when a child appeared, and he’s determined to be there in general. He loves his boy and loves the woman in question, but is no longer in love. The breakup was apparently mutually agreed upon and (more or less) without rancor. They went through what I suspect is very common: There were problems in the relationship and when the pregnancy occurred, they thought a baby would solve those problems. They didn’t plan it, but neither of them agrees with abortion, and they thought, “Well, this will bring us closer together.” It didn’t work, apparently — the baby made it more clear that they were not compatible.

Fine.

But my brother is leaving this woman with a 5-month-old child. Having never actually had a sister, she’s the only person I’ll call sister. She’s intelligent, attractive and a good time out. I love her dearly. But now she’s an early-30s single mom and her life prospects just took a serious nosedive — because of my brother.

A central principle of modern Western life is that you ought to do what you think is self-sensible in relationships. Be yourself, right? “Staying together for the kids” is not sensible — for you or for the kids. But maybe sometimes you should hang in a little longer than you want to. Maybe my brother should stick in living as a family for, say, two years, if only to help the mother during the most tiresome times. Maybe sometimes, “staying together for the kids” makes a little sense.

He and I have been through a lot together — watching a father kill himself with alcohol. “I will not be that man and that includes not being trapped in a relationship I don’t want” is a guiding principle for both of us. I understand that motive and I agree that an unhappy marriage is worse than a divorce. But fuck, divorcing when you have an infant? Is my brother an asshole?

TM

Dear TM,

OK, let’s call your brother an asshole. What difference does it make what you call him? You love him, right? He’s your brother. You’ve been through a lot. You’ve probably sat up together nights worrying about your dad, and would he make it, and why’d he do what he did, and wouldn’t it have been better if he had been able to stop drinking. And there were probably times you thought this time he was really going to stop, and he got your hopes up, and then he blew it again and again until you really thought you couldn’t take it anymore, and then when you’d lost all sympathy for him he got gravely ill, and then what can you do, you can’t call a gravely ill man an asshole, so you had to have sympathy for him at the end and watch him die with a sickening blend of rage and love and helplessness, asking why did he have to die like that when there was help available, when there were people who loved him who were willing to do anything for him if he would just stop drinking.

So you and your brother are bonded in the deepest possible way by watching your father drink himself to death. And as brothers I imagine you cut each other a lot of slack, because you both know the deep wounds that that event left in you. And you are both committed to not making the same mistake your dad made, and to not being victims, and to not being unhappy. And all that makes sense. And none of us can judge what kind of personal hell your brother lives in as a result of trying to be a good man but being prone to the demons just like your dad was and maybe just like you are as well. We’ve all got demons and we do the best we can and sometimes we really fuck up and we’re assholes. And who can know what we’re going through, how hard it is, how many times we’ve pounded the wall with our fist or buried our face in a pillow at night. He’s your brother, so you also know he didn’t do this to harm people. He’s your brother, so you may know that he’s selfish and has trouble seeing the big picture, and maybe he doesn’t have such great impulse control and maybe he’s prone to fits of moodiness and helplessness and hopelessness, and maybe he’s also a bit of a dreamer and a charmer and has an outsize genius for a good time, and maybe he wants more out of life than a 9-to-5 job with healthcare and benefits like your dad had, because look what good that did, and look what good it did your mom to stay in a relationship that gave her nothing but crying time, so he’s not going to stop pulling the lever on the slot machine because you never know, a happy life has got to be possible.

So even though it’s about the dumbest, most assholic thing to do to leave your lover with an infant child after 15 years of implied common-law till-death-do-us-part, that’s what he did, knowing full well he’d be called an asshole for it. So let’s go ahead and call him an asshole and get that over with because there’s work to be done. There’s a kid who doesn’t know about any of this; he just knows he’s alive and he’s hungry and he needs to know that the world isn’t going to come crashing down around his head every 15 minutes when another of the “adults” around him gets it into his head to seek his bliss in Idaho.

So what do we do? And how do we do it?

Kids can grow up well under all kinds of circumstances. It’s about how you treat the kid and who the kid is. The last thing you want to do is tell this kid his dad’s an asshole. So let’s just pretend that everything we’re saying the kid is hearing. Now who is his daddy and why did he leave? He left because he had to. We don’t know why. He had to go do something really important, and he loves us and cares about us but he couldn’t live with us because he had to do something. And we love him and he’s a good man and he loves us and that’s just the way it is, because we don’t understand everything even though we’re adults and maybe it seems like we do. We don’t. We don’t really understand even how an electronic ignition works, or why sometimes you get “404? errors. We don’t know why some toys are lame and others are your favorite. We don’t know why some kids are bad and some kids are good. We don’t know much, except we love you and things are going to be OK.

Something like that. You get what I’m saying? I’m saying get real and painfully honest but don’t fill the kid’s head full of hateful garbage.

And beware of this, too: Intense disapprobation can be an intoxicant. You can get high calling people assholes, that is. You can get high and feel powerful talking trash. That’s one reason we do it. It makes us feel better. But that doesn’t make it useful or productive. Except for getting stuff off your chest and moving on. So yeah, maybe your brother is an asshole. Now help me move this crib.

Like I said, the important thing is, How can the people around this child help the child, and help the child’s mother?

One thing you could do, like you said, is urge your brother to stick around for a while in some capacity. Maybe not living in the same house with them, but nearby. Urge him to get a job and make some money and contribute to the well-being of his child and the child’s mother. And other people can help too. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. People just need to be there and help out. And your brother can leave his new girlfriend at home when he visits, and if he doesn’t have enough sense to do that on his own, you can tell him, gently, that he’s being an asshole again, and to leave the girlfriend at home. And when he comes over he can bring something for the boy. And the boy’s mom can welcome him as if he’s someone she likes, not as if he’s the shit-head asshole who left his infant child for reasons typically unfathomable and unforgivable.

I mean, we’re going to have these rotten thoughts when people do rotten things. But we’re going to try to do what’s right anyway. We’re going to try to be the adults in the situation, now and for the next 20 years.

He’s a pig!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 14, 2003

I love the man I live with, but he is completely lacking in table etiquette. I can even hear him chew!


Dear Cary,

I don’t even know if this qualifies as a “real problem,” but since I started reading your column way back when you took over for Mr. Blue, I’ve read some pretty wacky stuff, so here goes:

I am in a relationship with a man for whom I care very deeply. We’re in our mid-40s, have been together over four years, both have kids, (his are older and living in another town), and we moved in together last fall. So far, so good. We are adjusting to the schedule differences and quirks that couples go through when they live together. The “problem”? His table manners are atrocious! I find myself on Manners Patrol during each meal, ostensibly directed toward my children, but actually, they have better manners than he. He sits with his body very close to his plate and shovels the food into his mouth. The arm he’s not using is draped on the table, fingers are used to push food onto the fork. And the worst part? I can hear him chew! I actually got up from the table last night and moved to another chair. And the final gross-out: He licked his fork clean and attempted to get another serving of mayonnaise for his artichoke directly from the jar. I yelled at him to stop, and he acted like I shot his dog.

He has so many other attributes that are wonderful, but I’m really bothered by this. Is this is a control thing? Do you have any thought on how to get my point across without him thinking I’m busting his balls?

Ball-Busting Miss Manners

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Dear Ball-Buster,

I did have a thought or two. But I thought I’d ask my wife first. So I went upstairs just now — this is before coffee or anything — and after marveling at the way the 85-pound poodle was sitting upright on the edge of the unmade bed as if checking her makeup in the mirror, I said — to my wife, not the dog — “What would you do if I had terrible table manners?”

“I’d leave you,” she said.

So evidently your concern is not trivial. I do often encourage my wife to say the first thing that pops into her head, because, I suppose, I am some sort of perverse thrill-seeker. But she thinks things through afterward and comes up with mitigating, contradictory, mutually exclusive and sometimes seemingly irrelevant codicils. So then she said, “Well, actually, I’d train you.”

Some people need training. Your boyfriend is apparently one of them. Training an intimate is tricky. But it can be done. So far, what you seem to have done is first flee the problem by moving to another chair, and then attack him for it, by yelling at him to stop. Neither of those is likely to be very effective. They are the two extremes of the fight-or-flight impulses we used to hear about so much back when stress was considered the biggest problem facing America today. What you must learn to do instead is steer right between those two impulses. Rather than fighting or flighting, rather than shooting your boyfriend’s dog or moving into a tent in the back yard, you need to place your hands in you lap and say mildly, “If you stick your fork in the mayonnaise jar again, sweetheart, I’m going to stab your hand with a steak knife.” You can even do this in public, with one of those stagey smiles you use when you know you’re being watched by federal agents.

I’m kind of kidding around, aren’t I? Well, yes and no. The point is that you are not crazy or silly for thinking that it matters. It does matter. Everyone I talked to said that hearing the sound of someone chew, or seeing someone hunched simian-like over a plate of victuals was viscerally disturbing. While certain finer points of table etiquette may be a matter of class, once you have been taught to be sensitive to them, you cannot simply undo your conditioning. And he really ought to be given the opportunity to learn. So if you are in doubt, let me say this: I believe it is your right — nay, your responsibility! — to mold this howling, savage brute into the kind of suave, debonair stud you could hose down and take to KFC, or even to the Olive Garden, with pride.

The thing is, you have to learn some new behaviors too. As you might say to one of your children, Do you hear anyone else yelling at their boyfriend? All right, then. Use your indoor voice. Rather than barking at him or avoiding him, give him regular gentle reminders and corrections. If he resists, keep at it. He may at first think you’re busting his balls, but he’ll realize, after a while, you’re actually polishing his stones.

This will take time. You will need a program of long-term engagement. But if engagement is what you have in mind, such a course of instruction should fit nicely with the rest of your plans.

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