My ex-boyfriend’s getting married to a woman I can’t stand

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, MONDAY, FEB 7, 2005

I don’t even want him as a boyfriend anymore, but I sure don’t want her to have him!


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend, who is now my best friend and roommate, is marrying a woman I can’t stand, and now all sorts of ugly, hidden emotions are bubbling to the surface.

The details would give “My Best Friend’s Wedding” a run for its money, really. Chris and I dated briefly, intensely, nearly a decade ago. I was his first love, he was mine, we were stupid and young and cocky and selfish; we broke up in a knock-down, drag-out fight and didn’t speak for almost a year. After college I moved across the country and we maintained loose correspondence. Then after a more serious but still failed relationship I moved back to our old college town and took a temporary job with his company. He generously offered to rent me a room in his house without contract so I could stay as long or as short as I wanted, and his kindness was definitely undermined by a desire to try things again.

It was awkward at first, but we settled into an easy dynamic and made surprisingly great roommates: We flirted, sometimes fooled around after a few too many drinks, but were content pursuing other people for more serious fun. My temporary employment turned into two years. I began to date one of our closest friends and the three of us shared the kind of friendship that would constantly have people asking me, “Which one is your boyfriend?” I, being the center of attention, was perfectly happy. Then Chris started dating Dawn, an older, prissy waif who didn’t like his friends, who brought out a whole other Chris — the Chris who feared growing old alone. We weren’t too concerned at first — surely he would see that she was unbearably boring, hear her clock ticking, notice how she changed his personality! He did and yet he didn’t, and a year went by. In the meantime he cheated on her and was constantly on the lookout for an exit. We continued our flirtation, even had sex a few times. We were there for each other, loved each other, were constantly amazed by one another. It made her insane that I lived with him, and I liked that.

Then last month he proposed. To her, I mean. An $8K ring, a trip to Europe, romantic dinners and roses galore. Not being much of a relationship person, it goes without saying that I wouldn’t really want all those things, but now I WANT THOSE THINGS. And most important, I don’t want Dawn to have them. After spending a week in the drunken haze of denial (during which time all our co-workers and friends came to me wanting reasons, answers, for him making what to us is a fool’s choice) Chris told me that it was time to move on, that our “relationship” was through, and I’ve been seriously depressed ever since.

Now my questions: I still have a boyfriend, sort of. Obviously I don’t deserve him since I’ve cheated on him, but he and I are compatible in so many more ways than Chris and I ever could be. I chose him over Chris in the first place. So why, oh why do I want Chris to be single? His fiancée is around more than ever — apparently the rock on her hand makes her more bold — and I have managed not to say a single word to her. They’ll be married in 10 months. He’ll sell the house that I’ve called home for almost three years now (a record, for me), take the cat — that I bought him! — and disappear into married life leaving the remnants of his bachelor years behind. Am I suffering from insane jealousy? Yes. Can I do a thing about it? Not that I can see. But at present I’m teetering wildly on destroying what friendship we have, and I don’t know how to handle all these changes with grace. I’m not going to run after him pleading, “Marry me! Let me make you happy!” — I don’t want that, anyway. So how can I move on? What I want is to let him go, to stop being angry and feeling like I somehow lost. Oh, and for him to regret his decision every second of every day for the remainder of his life, endlessly pining for me.

J

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Dear J,

You know, I’m a married guy, and some of my best friends are married, so I’m not speaking of everybody. But when I look around me and read letters such as yours I’m reminded of what really blows about the whole institution of marriage, how it places a fairy-tale gauze of happily-ever-after over raw social climbing, manipulation and financial maneuvering. In the process it disrupts vital social networks. It isolates people.

True love is all well and good, and people make their own choices. But what bothers me is how once we’re talking about marriage, suddenly nobody is allowed to say, This is a sham and a shame. It’s like marriage is the ultimate trump card. Play that card and, Aha! All of a sudden your social network doesn’t matter anymore. This is marriage. This is a wedding. They’re getting married! So shut your mouth.

Yeah, sometimes it’s all a bunch of baloney if you ask me. And the way people fall into it is appalling.

So what can you do? I dunno. I’d love it if just once, when they come to that part in the pre-game ceremony where the umpire says if there’s anybody here who knows any reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, if just once somebody would stand up in the bleachers and open her mouth and say, “Yeah, I know a reason. Because this guy was a friend of mine, a very good friend, and we had a house together and lots of good friends, and we’re losing all that, and we knew him, I mean we really knew him, not like this chick but really knew him like on the floor puking drunk and up till 4 afraid of dying and sick with the flu and diarrhea, we knew he didn’t like corn flakes because of a childhood accident he never talks about, we knew he had no backhand and always travels after he dribbles, we knew he never read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but did the Cliffs Notes instead, we knew this guy like a brother until this brittle, frosty chick got her nails done and dug them into his back and dragged him up here like one more expensive rag doll. We lived with this guy and now we’re going to have to move. We grew up with this guy and worked with this guy and we were this guy’s real family and now we’re losing all that. We were maybe the only real family he’s got, and now comes this frilly Victorian one-act play complete with costumes and scenery to say none of what we had with him even mattered, none of that was real, it was all just kids play and now we’re adults and putting away our childish things and setting up house for real. Well, all of that was real, it was probably as real as it ever will get. You’re walking away from your real life, my friend, your real friends, your real house and everything that’s real in your life today, and you’re doing it all for some glossy mirage of a fairy-tale life. So screw you and screw your special little invitations and your ridiculous bridesmaid outfits and your rented glassware and your aphasic caterer and the whole fraudulent kissy-kiss merging of families and pompous parental aplomb.”

And then just quietly excuse yourself.

As the ridiculous white limousine with the spray-painted windows and the tin cans tied to the bumper rolled out of Palookaville headed for the big time, you’d have a bit of explaining to do. But maybe, just once, it’d be worth it.

I left an abuser, but now I’m with a married man

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 14, 2007

I know I should concentrate on my own emotional health, but he says I’m special and he cares about me!


Dear Cary,

I recently ended a relationship with a boyfriend who was very violent and verbally abusive toward me. I am still trying to get over this relationship, in which I was psychologically traumatized. I went through a lot in that relationship that I have not shared.

I am now in a relationship with a man who is married who recently moved to my city; his family is still living in the city he left. He told me that he and his wife are separated and that they have unresolved issues. He also told me that he has two children who will relocate with him, but he does not know if his wife will come. It seems to me that he is using me for sex, and I believe his wife and children will relocate with him.

I told him that I am developing feelings for him and he told me that is OK. However, I think that I should stop seeing this man before I get too deeply involved and just concentrate on myself and my emotional health. I don’t know what to do because this man tells me that I am special and that he cares about me, but I feel that I will be hurt again.

Don’t Know What to Do

Dear Don’t Know,

As I read over what you have written, I get the feeling that you see your situation with clarity. You know what happened to you. And you know that what you are doing right now is not really such a great idea. You know you should break up with this man. But you don’t want to because you are getting something from him that you need.

This man tells you that you are special and that he cares about you. You need to hear that right now. But you do not need to be in another risky relationship.

So I will say it too: You are special. I care about you. I will also say this: Many people reading this letter care about you. Many people reading this letter have been in situations like yours, and they know what you are talking about. Unlike this married man, however, we do not require anything of you. We just care about you.

You do need support and care. But you need to get it in a way that does not put you at further risk. So my suggestion is that you do two things. End this relationship with the married man. And actively seek support. That may mean finding a therapist to help with the trauma. It also may mean joining a support group for abused women.

Doing that will take courage. Where do you find the courage? You went through some things in that relationship that you have not shared. Sharing what you have been through will bring you courage. You have shared some of it with me. That is good. That is a start. You need to keep going, talking it through with a therapist and/or with other women who have been through similar experiences.

I will say this, too, at the risk of sounding a little “woo-woo” (that is what some of us in California call hazy New Age psychobabble): You don’t have to be in a relationship with a man right now. You may think you have to be. But you don’t. Not right now.

Since I am saying that many of us care about you, I should also warn you: Some people act crazy when they hear about abused women. They say crazy things. So just take it from me: Many, many people who are reading this letter know exactly what you are going through, and they care about you. And there are people near you, in your city and town, who are getting together right now to talk about what happened to them and to help each other get over it and go on with life day to day. So find those people. Find the people in your area who have been through this, and join them. Telling your experience will help them, and they will help you. You may have many complicated feelings as you do this. You may feel that some of the talking means you are “stuck in victimhood” or some such thing. People say things like that. All I can say is: Start talking about what happened. Reach out to other people. Seek support. Trust the process. And be good to yourself.

You might break up with this man first, and then join a group. Or you might find you need to spend some time with the group as a way of finding the courage to break up with this man. Or you might find you need to talk one-on-one with someone in order to decide about joining a group or breaking up with the man. The order you do things in doesn’t matter that much. The important thing is to begin.

Good luck. We will be thinking about you.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I only have quick relationships

Cary’s classic column fromTUESDAY, APR 19, 2011

I get in and I get out. How can I slow down?


Dear Cary,

I have always been good at quick relationships. Any time I have wanted a boyfriend, I just started flirting and it wouldn’t take long before someone would invest in me. Relationships could start overnight if I just acted perfect enough. But they didn’t mean much when the truth came out. My happy demeanor would fade away pretty quickly once I realized I was in a relationship with a guy I either had nothing in common with or wanted nothing to do with. I would turn bitter and everything would go down in flames with the same intensity with which it started. Then I’m back at square one.

About a year ago I finally noticed the pattern, but I don’t know how to fix it. For example, I met a guy who really is nice and we talked through email for a few weeks before trading phone numbers. Two months of talking and I felt like I was losing my mind. I finally asked him if he was going to come visit me or not. It drove him away faster than I could realize what happened. I assume I was too pushy, but with my history of talking and having a committed relationship within a month, I am feeling more than lost.

I have thankfully gotten what I feel is another chance at having a very nice, funny and intelligent guy. He really is great and we’ve been talking since Feb. 28 of this year. It’s been mostly through email, but I already feel like it’s taking forever. Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to fall into that same trap of driving him away again. I just don’t know if I’m doing the right thing at all. Do I keep dating others and make myself busy? Do I take his silence as a sign? Is he just trying to think things through before getting ahead of himself? And if so, how do I calm myself down enough to not care in the meantime?

I feel like the girl who pulled the short stick in life and was never even taught how to fish with it. Please help me to learn so I can end this bad cycle. I want a relationship that isn’t built just on convenience.

Love-Stumped

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Dear Love-Stumped,

If you want a relationship that isn’t built just on convenience, then you have glimpsed a truth about real relationships: They are profoundly inconvenient. Being in a relationship means there’s another person there, different from you, likely to respond in unexpected ways to things you say and do. This brings excitement but can be frightening and difficult. If you want control and convenience, with it come shallowness and brevity; if you want depth and longevity, you’re going to have to give up some control and convenience.

One way to begin to deepen the relationship would be to ask the other person some questions. This can be fun. For instance, you could ask the other person if he wants to have a relationship. This may hit him by surprise. He may ask, Well, what do you mean? You may say, Well, I’m not sure, exactly. Just wing it. You could ask then if he wants to have a relationship with you, and what kind of pace feels right, and what he has been thinking about. The trick here is to just ask the question and hear the answer. You don’t have to do anything.

There’s no right answer. What you’re doing is participating in a new way that opens up possibilities instead of closing them down.
There is no way to know what his answers will be. But by asking these questions, you give up some control and invite his viewpoint. In the past, you have probably been basing most of your conversation on what you think his reaction will be. Now, you are not trying to have any particular effect. You are asking open-ended questions in order to try out a new way of being with others.

By asking this other person what he wants, you will find out in what ways the relationship may require you to inconvenience yourself. It may be that he wants to spend a day with you reading by a lake. You may not want to do that. So then you have a choice. You can continue to run your life without any interference from outside, or you can decide to allow your life to be altered a little by the desires and ideas of another person. You can spend the day with him reading by the lake.

He may decide he wants to kiss you by the lake. You may find this agreeable. Or it may alarm you. You may fear that you’re about to do the same thing you always do. To make it more interesting, you can ask him a question before you kiss him. Ask him, Oh, I don’t know, ask him what he thinks is going to happen next. Maybe he will say something witty, or maybe he will seem confused and dim. Hmmm. What would be a witty and engaging response? Well, maybe he would say that he expects when he kisses you that the earth will shake and the heavens open up. That would be an acceptable response. At least he’s trying. On the other hand, he might stare at you blankly, with paralyzing fear in his eyes, and this may take the bloom off your whole afternoon.

The only way to find out is to experiment. Be a scientist. Observe and formulate hypotheses.

Here is another thing you can do. Remember your carefree days as a child. When you were a child, you were not plotting so carefully. You were not thinking so much about what others might say or do in response to what you say or do. I suggest you return to that time in childhood and remember what it felt like.

Then try relating to others with some of that simplicity from childhood, some of that innocence. This is just my idea. I’m no psychologist. But sometimes when I am too confounded and my thoughts are racing, this is what I do. I approach people simply again, as a child.

Remembering childhood relieves us of the burden of knowing what will happen next. We have no idea what will happen next. We’re just kids!

Think of childhood. Forget the rules. See what happens.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m 32 already. Time to get married!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, SEP 25, 2009

I’m tired of fooling around with guys who just want one thing


Dear Cary,

I’m still single at 32 and hate it. I absolutely want to find and fall in love with a man I can spend the rest of my life with. The problem is, I keep ruining things by sleeping with men too soon, often right away. And each time I make this mistake, I am left even more hopeless, feeling worthless, terrified and convinced that I’ll never find a man who wants more from me than sex.

Here’s the latest: I met a great, handsome, friendly, smart, nice guy at a friend’s barbecue. We clearly hit it off, had immediate chemistry, and proceeded to flirt all day. After the barbecue, we all went out to some bars, and we all got pretty drunk. I and my new man-friend continued to flirt, which eventually turned into making out on the dance floor. Fast forward an hour or so, and I’m happily going home with him, and we spend the night together. The next morning is nice, we exchange information and make plans to see each other again. But after our first real date, I never hear from him again. Because this is not my first rodeo, I slowly come to realize, AGAIN, that I’ve completely ruined any chance he and I ever had by sleeping with him right away. And it’s my fault; I ruined it and now I feel absolutely worthless. The whole thing crashes down and it’s MY FAULT. My fault for being spontaneous, for wanting to have fun, for being a fun girl. It’s MY FAULT because it’s my responsibility to say no, to know that a guy couldn’t possibly stop it and beyond that, has no reason to do so.

I keep following this pattern even when I know it won’t bring the outcome I want. But in the glow of the evening, all flushed with flirtation and fun and devil-may-care attitude, I just want to go with the flow, enjoy myself and have some fun. It seems like I have only two options — be myself, have fun, and then get rejected; or be constantly on guard, suspicious of all men, keep them at arm’s length, and maybe get a second date. Neither option seems ideal, but obviously the one I keep choosing is ultimately not going to get me what I want. I try to convince myself that I’m this sexually confident woman who doesn’t follow traditional gender roles, but really I can’t help believing that deep down, I’m just an insecure slut. I get opposing messages from all kinds of media — books, movies, magazines, etc. — some telling me that I should wield my sexual power how I see fit, others saying I should hold back “the goodies” for three dates, or one month, or 90 days, etc. So now I’m asking you. Am I sexually liberated, or just a slut?

Eternal Bachelorette

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Dear Eternal Bachelorette,

I don’t think this is about being either sexually liberated or just a slut. I think it’s about your desire to move from one stage of life to another. It is sad to give up the fun and carefree ways of your current life. This behavior has given you much joy in the past. Yet it is not serving you now. It’s making you unhappy. So you know you must give it up. But you keep doing it.

You don’t think there’s anything wrong, or bad, with what you are doing, but you don’t like the results.

There was a time not long ago when you were fine with what you’re doing. So what changed? You changed. You want something different now.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing.

But how do you become ready to move from one stage of life to the next? It helps to openly admit that it’s going to be sad to leave this stage of life you’ve enjoyed so much. If there were a ceremony to signal your readiness for this change, that would be nice. Perhaps there are, or were, at certain points in your life, but their efficacy was lost, or they were not held at the correct time. But this is no joke.

If you meet a man you like and you are afraid you are going to do the same old thing you always do but want to do something different, before you do anything, call yourself a cab.  Assume that you have nothing to lose by being frank and strong with this man. While the cab is on its way, take this man’s hand and lead him away from the crowd and lean him up against the wall behind the dance hall and tell him that you are so attracted to him in such a special way you’re likely to fuck him right then and there if he doesn’t call you a cab.

If he says, “OK, you’re a cab,” maybe there is a possibility. Put a GPS device on him. Tell him the cab is already coming, you know how to call cabs yourself. Get out of there. Pray that the cab comes fast.

Leave. Go home. Take a shower. Drink some tea. Get some sleep.

Give away what you have been withholding and withhold what you’ve been giving away. That doesn’t mean follow “The Rules.” It means get real. Tell him you want a man to fall in love with and stay with, and if that’s a problem for him then OK there are plenty of chicks. Plenty. Next. Not to be crass. But you have to come from a place of complete honesty and vulnerability and pain. Because if you want a lifetime relationship that is what it will be full of: honesty and vulnerability and pain.

It’s complicated, OK? Every pattern of pain is different. It’s your fingerprint of pain. It’s your snowflake of pain. Everyone is a little bit funny. So study yourself. Begin a course of spiritual growth. Begin meditating daily. Begin asking yourself big, open questions and being ready to receive the answers.

If you seem to be “difficult” or “can’t make up your mind” or are “wasting this dude’s time,” fine. Waste this dude’s time. You are not looking for a dude who is checking his watch to see if you’ve taken your clothes off yet. Not because you’re playing him but because you’re doing just the opposite: You’re being your true, cautious, wounded, loving self. Because for once you’re going to take care of yourself and value your own timing. You do not want a man who is in a hurry. You do not want a man who is looking for convenience. 7-Elevens are convenient. People don’t get married there.

You’re ready for a new kind of life. Open the door to it thoroughly, passionately, completely, and I have a feeling it will come.

Act now for best results.

My best friend is marrying a guy who’s nothing but trouble

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 21, 2006

She says I must either accept the situation 100 percent or forget being maid of honor.


Dear Cary,

I have a very good friend who is getting married soon. She’s smart, funny, talented, beautiful and successful. We’ve been friends for about 12 years (since high school) and we’ve always had the label “best friends” on our relationship, although we’ve definitely had ups and downs. Unfortunately, we seem to be at a crossroads. To make a long story short, a while back I introduced my friend to a group of guys that I used to hang out with sometimes, and she got involved with one of these guys. They moved in together really quickly, got engaged a few months later, and they’ll be getting married in about three weeks. My friend asked me quite some time ago to be her maid of honor, and of course I said yes.

But the more my friend has told me about this relationship, the more worried I’ve become. He’s called her names that I can’t repeat. He lies consistently about where he is and what he’s doing (she catches him and laughs it off). She’s called me sobbing because he says he’s coming home but doesn’t arrive. In most of these cases she’s already called him, found him drunk at a bar, and he’s brushed her off, basically saying that he’ll come home when he wants to (driving home drunk, by the way). He has multiple kids by different women. There are plenty more examples, but you get the idea.

My friend has a history of being in abusive relationships — not bad enough for a movie of the week, but definitely not acceptable either. In the past, I’ve been outspoken about my concerns. In every case, this led to our not talking for some period of time. I now realize that I’m not going to change her mind about any man, so I’ve become resigned to being as supportive as possible but being ready to be truthful if asked. Eventually she asked, and I told. I still tried to focus on the positive (“I just want to make sure that you’re happy for a long, long time,” etc.) so that she would be receptive, but she knows me well enough to have a pretty good idea of how I feel.

I have given this a huge amount of thought and reached the conclusion that the best way I can handle her wedding is to focus on the fact that I’m there to support my friend. I’ve made the decision to be there for her, and she’s made the decision to get married. The getting married part isn’t up to me. The being supportive part is. If I stay focused on that part, I know that I can be positive on her big day, which is of course what she wants. I can feel good about doing so because I know that I’m standing by my friend at a major event in her life. Obviously I will be warm and polite to everyone at the wedding. That’s how I’ve been planning to handle things.

Now for the twist: She recently told me that I need to either “choose to change my feelings” and be 100 percent supportive of the situation, or choose not to be involved. I’ve told her that I am 100 percent supportive of her, and that’s what really matters to me. I can change the way I behave, but I can’t erase my concern. I also can’t “choose” to abandon my longtime best friend during her wedding. I really believe that whether or not to include me is her decision. I think she’s avoiding the decision because she doesn’t want to be responsible for kicking me out. I don’t think she wants me to be there, and at this point it would be much easier to avoid it, but I’m afraid that I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

I don’t know what to say or do. It’s her wedding and I want to be there for her however she sees fit. I know that if I’m “disinvited” from the wedding, that will be like a nail in the coffin of our friendship. But I also don’t want to cause trouble for her by shoehorning myself in where I’m not welcome. At this point I just want to handle the situation with consideration and class, whatever the outcome is, and I just don’t know how to proceed.

Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Friend

 

Dear Here Comes the Bride,

It’s understandable that you want to support your friend. But standing up for her at her wedding implies that you approve of what she’s doing when you really don’t. It’s saying to her, Well, I may have had reservations, but now I think everything will turn out OK.

You and I know that’s not true. We don’t think things will turn out OK. We think she’s headed for stinky husband breath faintly redolent of Budweiser and paint thinner, mysterious car dents, implausible explanations for implausible whereabouts at implausible times of the night, sudden empty wallet syndrome, “friends” who are burglars, the phrase “child endangerment” uttered by state employees, oxygen-deprived skin tone exacerbated by severe bar tan, crushed beer can sculptures in the garage, multiple unpaid parking tickets, third-degree threatening demeanor, unorthodox sleeping outside in the grass and eventually a case of extreme indoor burliness.

This last condition, extreme indoor burliness, describes something I can’t otherwise explain, except to say that it arrives late at night with loud, indistinct speech and bad shoes.

Anyway, what I mean is, if she has to drag this guy out of a bar before they’re even married, think how much fun it’ll be after they’re married with three kids. Can you see her showing up to drag him home and he’s sliding his kids down that polished bar surface like so many shot glasses? It’s going to be really fun dragging him out of the bar then — because the kids are having fun with Daddy!

She’s made her choice. She’s given you your options. If you want to be true to yourself, if you want to handle the situation with consideration and class, I think you have to take her at her word. You have to call her bluff. You have to bow out of the wedding.

Does that mean you’re not supporting her? Just what is this “support” we’re always trying to give our friends, anyway? Is it support when we help them drive off a cliff? Nah. I don’t think so. I think what we owe our friends is our influence for the good. And if that conflicts with their knuckleheaded intentions, that’s OK. “In opposition is true friendship,” Blake said (though he meant something quite different at the time, I’m afraid).

The interesting thing about this is that I see redemption down the road. I don’t agree that this is the nail in the coffin for your friendship. It’s more as if, in a classic move by a drama queen, she’s setting up the second act by pushing you out. Once she hits bottom with this guy, you come back onstage as the good friend, the one who never bought into her whole crazy idea of marrying a troublesome dude just to see how troublesome he really can be. You get to be the hero.

Like I say, this is just the curtain on the first act. In fact, before you leave the stage, I think you get to make a little speech here. You get to tell her that you will always be her friend, that you will always be there for her, and if things go great for her you will be happy. But if things don’t go so well, and she needs somebody to talk to, or somebody to bail her out of a tough spot, you’ll be there. You can be there when he drives into a ditch with the children in the car and she decides she can’t take it anymore. You can be there when he calls from the police station to tell her that they’ve booked him. You can be there … whenever it’s time for you to be there.

Trust me, there will come a time. Don’t change your phone number.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My parents don’t like my boyfriend

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 9, 2005

We’d like to stay together, but I’m not sure I could handle the rift that would create.


Dear Cary,

I am a bright, personable woman in my late 20s who works full-time in a law firm and attends graduate school part-time. I am in love with a man who is a decade older than I am, a struggling musician and carpenter who has also found some very creative (read: not completely legal) ways to make money. He is bright, sensitive and caring. He is extremely proud of me, loves me, comforts me, gives me good advice, makes me laugh all the time and wants the best for my future. He is always telling his friends how wonderful I am, and he lets me know he thinks the world of me. He is my best friend and confidant, and we live together.

His father died when he was very young, but his family held off telling him until he finally realized for himself that his father was dead. As you can imagine, this created a lot of emotional turmoil for him. He was also a drug user most of his 20s; seven years ago he decided to quit cold turkey. He joined a construction business and used the physical labor to get off drugs. I should add that he still drinks and smokes pot. He’s been in a band for five years, and they’re getting a record together, but he’s said if this doesn’t pan out, he’s going to give up the idea of working professionally as a musician (or making it big). He’s even been speaking about going back to college. He’d started, but had to drop out because he couldn’t afford it, and his family didn’t see the need for it because he didn’t have a planned major. He’s also uninsured, even though he does dangerous work every day. Writing all this down, he sounds terrible. I can imagine that you will be completely able to understand why my parents feel the way they do: My parents and he do not get along.

I see how hard my parents have worked to get what they have. They grew up without money and are now comfortable (if sometimes still struggling), but they managed to provide me and my two brothers with great educations (although we kids all worked equally hard to secure academic or sports scholarships). My dad runs a landscaping business that frequently occupies him 24/7, and my mom worked her way up to vice president of a small company (she started 20 years ago as a secretary). My parents have had huge arguments about my decision to date this man. They also cut themselves off emotionally from me, and I’m not allowed to talk about him to my family.

I don’t wish to have strife between me and my family. They are the most important people to me. I know I’m still young. Honestly, though, if my parents and he really got along, if they had thought he was wonderful that first dinner, I think I might want to spend the rest of my life with him, but because they don’t, I do seriously reconsider where our relationship might end up. I know my boyfriend doesn’t sound good on paper. My friends don’t think he’s good enough for me, either, but I can’t help what my heart feels. We don’t want to struggle for the rest of our life. He’s been working really hard recently in construction, and he has a lot of contacts in the town we live in. We’ve also talked about having children (in the very distant future). But is all this a silly fantasy?

Where do I go from here? I had a dream last night that I broke up with him, then I yelled at my father for treating my boyfriend so poorly, and I spent the rest of my dream running through paths in the forest, crying and wailing for my boyfriend. When I finally found him, we reconciled, and I felt utter relief. I feel like I’m acting like a child, though. He sounds like a 39-year-old loser. I’m not trying to fix him up, but rereading this, it sounds like I am. I really don’t know what to do. I know it seems simple; I should find a doctor or a lawyer like my parents want. I probably sound sarcastic, but I’m not trying to be. My mother always tells me that it’s easier to marry rich. I know that he loves me and would make me happy and support me for the rest of my life, but I’m pretty sure my parents and he would never come around to getting along. Am I willing to make that sacrifice? Am I just too young and inexperienced? We’ve been together for four years now. I don’t know what I should do.

Torn

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Dear Torn,

The ideal solution, in my mind, would be for your boyfriend to approach your parents with an open heart and tell them that he’s in love with you, that he wants to marry you, and that he would like their blessing. If rebuffed, he would begin a campaign to win their consent — not their love, necessarily, merely their consent. He would endeavor to discover if there are any concrete conditions he might meet. He would analyze their objections and attempt to satisfy them. And he would be willing to give you up if your parents did not consent.

But you asked what you yourself can do, not what your boyfriend can do. Should you try to talk your boyfriend into approaching your parents as outlined above? I don’t think so. If he did it of his own accord, it would show that he has a certain kind of character. They might correctly see him in a new light. If he did it only after you persuaded him, it would have a different moral flavor, pragmatic and faintly cunning. It might in fact confirm their doubts about him.

But we do not know precisely what their doubts about him are, or where they come from, or what they mean, do we? It’s very complicated. Do they see something in him, some fatal flaw, that you are blind to? Do they just dislike him? Does he make them nervous? Does he lack manners? Was he disrespectful in some way at that first dinner? And is their problem truly with him, or is it with you? That is, are they trying to change something in you by objecting to him? Are they still trying to mold you into the person they think you’re supposed to be? Perhaps it’s all those things and more.

Now, in an ideal world, maybe love would triumph over family. But I take you at your word when you say how important your parents are to you. That’s the way things are right now in your world. Your soul desires this man — and that may be part of the rift as well, that he gives you something your family denied you, or that your family is repressing or trying to deny. In fact, he may represent your family’s past struggle itself, which they want to shield you from but which you must undergo on your own, anyway, as all children must learn their lessons themselves.

But assuming that your boyfriend were to ask for their consent, perhaps they would realize that they do have some concrete expectations or conditions. That would be a sign of progress. However crass it may be to discuss such things, they might have income requirements below which they would consider their daughter needlessly impoverished. From their standpoint, you may be sliding back into the very morass of economic struggle that they have climbed out of. So perhaps your boyfriend needs to make a proposal to your parents about the level of economic support he plans to provide. Perhaps your father might consider inviting your husband into his business. After all, they have been involved in similar work. And it might give your dad a shot at molding your boyfriend and having some control over him. Sure, such a position could be very uncomfortable for your boyfriend. Again, though, if he were willing to risk that, it might say something about how much he’s willing to do for you. Or, in a more practical vein, he might present your father a counter-proposal that they form some kind of partnership.

The possibilities, both tangible and psychological, are endless and fascinating. For instance, let us not forget that your boyfriend grew up without a father. I do not know what effect that had, but it’s possible, is it not, that as a result he never learned the culturally defined masculine style of deference and respect that a young man shows to a father, or to a father figure? There may also be something in his nature that bridles at a father figure — a mixture of anger, resentment and envy in his heart; your father may have picked this up at their dinner meeting (I mean, it had to be fairly tense to begin with, right? Meet the parents and all that?). Such a combination of conflicting feelings can make a person seem unbalanced, ill at ease, perhaps even frightening. Only vaguely sensing this, your father may have concluded that there’s just something “off” about your boyfriend.

So perhaps he could talk honestly to your father about what it was like to lose his own father under such baffling circumstances. He might suggest that because of his past he is probably in some sense searching for a father, and that if your father were to give your marriage his blessing that he would be like another son. But then that opens a whole other can of worms. The question of your age difference enters into it. If your boyfriend is too close to your father’s age, the idea of his being a son-in-law could be weird to your father: Rather than feeling that he is gaining a son, your father could feel he is gaining a competitor.

So there’s no end to how tricky and weird this situation could be. Bottom line, the more I think about it, what you need to do is tell your boyfriend that as much as you would like to marry him, unless the rift between him and your folks is healed, you cannot face a life with him, and you are going to have to move on. In saying so, do not suggest any particular course of action. Leave it up to him. See how he responds to the challenge. See what comes of it. Give it some time. But be ready to move on if nothing positive happens.

Personal earthquake

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2003

I’m in love with a man who was abused by a priest.


Dear Cary,

I am a relatively successful American gay man in my late 30s who has recently begun to live and work in Brussels, Belgium. I love my life here and I am quite excited by the work I do. I worked very hard to get here, and in many ways, being here is the culmination of many things for me — personal, vocational, educational, political, etc. I am also in a nine-year relationship with a lovely, lovely man whom I love very much. However, he has had a bit of a personal earthquake recently and I am in need of some guidance.

My partner was abused by a Catholic priest when he was a teenager. He recently decided to pursue some legal remedy, which required that he spend six months in the United States. During this time, he joined a very large and supportive group that held him up when it seemed like he might sink. Ultimately, he won the legal remedy, and we are now together in Europe. However, this priest “stuff” unearthed a world within him that is still a bit ugly and very deep and requires lots of personal work on his part. And he is utterly without the support network that provided him with so much sustenance during the trauma. In other words, there is nobody but me.

Since I was not with him in the U.S. during this time, I’m still not sure that I fully understand the earthquake he went through. But I do know that he has been having trouble since coming here. He has been relatively unsuccessful at finding ways to work on the priest stuff while in Brussels. Although I am a very loving and supportive partner (and he would definitely agree), I simply am not the therapeutic type and I do not have the skills to do much more than love him and try my best to give him what he needs right now. But it seems that my best might not be enough under these circumstances.

Some of his friends who were part of the support group don’t think Brussels is a very good place for him to be right now. They honestly think that he should be back with his community in the U.S. so that he has a lot of support to work on his stuff. There have even been calls for me to move back too, to help and support him. It seems that for him, there is a choice between being with me here and getting over this major shit.

Then there is my side of this — the dream-come-true stuff that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Plus, there is my fundamental problem with the state of the U.S. right now. I think that I would shrivel up and die if I were to return to the country that seems to provide the antithesis of the things that I find important in life — things that are such fundamental, sane values here in Europe. My partner recognizes this too, and feels the same way about being here. But some of his emotional needs are just not being met.

I do not want to set up a dichotomy of choices such as 1) stay in Europe and risk my partner’s emotional health and be the selfish careerist and 2) go to the U.S. where the partner has emotional health but I shrivel up personally and derail the train that has brought me (us) to what I thought was our desired destination. There is definitely something in the middle of those two choices that I am having a difficult time locating. Thoughts? Thanks.

Don’t Want to Derail

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Dear Don’t Want to Derail,

Thank you for your thoughtful and moving letter. I was told by someone recently that the real value of this column isn’t so much my advice as the letters themselves, such clear, honest and concise expositions of the human condition.

I agree with you that the solution lies in some middle path, but my proposal may sound a bit ambitious: If there is not a large abuse-survivor network in Brussels, I think your lover should stay there with you and devote himself to building one. And I think you should help him.

I don’t know if you are aware of how A.A. began, but it began with a man’s discovery that if he sought out fellow sufferers and attempted to help them, he got better himself. I don’t see why the same human principle wouldn’t work with the trauma of priest sexual abuse. In fact, I suspect something along the lines of mutual support by fellow sufferers has worked well in the U.S., which is probably why your mate misses it so much. But rather than lament its absence, why not build a group in Brussels? This is a marvelous opportunity to give the world something enduring and useful. And it is a way for you, who feels understandably at a loss, to offer invaluable aid: Your practical skills and knowledge of the area can help him. If you are successful, thousands will be indebted to both of you as the magnitude of this monstrous crime continues to unfold.

To your mate, I would say there is nothing more healing than making oneself useful to others. And there is nothing more useful to others than the hope, strength and wisdom of a fellow survivor. Besides, the American spirit says, if you can’t find it in stores, make it yourself.

And there is the geopolitical angle: While America’s recent course of action in Iraq has strained relations with Europe, this is a chance to do your small part to bring Europe something of America’s true genius, which lies not in diplomacy but in its unselfconscious and practical solutions to the moral and spiritual vexations of our time. For all its silly slogans, its encounter-group tribalism and Wal-Mart confessionals, the self-help movement is still a gift to the world as profoundly helpful as Vienna’s gift of psychoanalysis. Rather than lament that because of their private, dignified nature Europeans have not seen fit to provide expatriate Americans with the therapeutic gatherings they crave, it seems to me it’s the job of you expatriates to bring such American inventions to Europe. It would never occur to Europeans. But some version of it, adapted to European sensibilities, might well help thousands of your partner’s fellow European victims of priest sexual abuse. And in helping them, of course, he will be healing himself.

Tough love

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

I Didn’t Think It Would Be This Tough

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Dear Didn’t Think,

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

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

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

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

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

Dire straits

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 25, 2003

I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection.


Dear Cary,

I have been married for eight years now and my love life is in dire straits. When I say “love life,” I mean the whole package, not just sex. Hugs, kisses, casual brushes, smiles, compliments. When I look back, I wonder if I ever should have gotten married in the first place.

Our relationship was always on and off while we were dating. That was my doing. I was not ready to make any long-term commitments. My wife was never happy about our many breakups, but she is the type of woman that can get a date by merely walking out her front door. A knockout. I eventually realized that different women were just that, different, not better. Whenever I had a dream about my life in the future, her face was always in the dream, no matter who I was dating at the time.

The problems started right after I proposed. She turned off like someone closed a spigot. At first it was just sex, but it quickly morphed into all forms of affection. She admitted her shortcomings (in writing) and explained that the stress of our wedding plans was making her lose interest in affection. In fairness to her, my parents were complete A-holes and nearly boycotted the wedding (they were too “tired” to make the reception). Like I said, A-holes. Yes, the wedding planning was stressful (though I did an equal share). However, I reminded her that when that stress went away, it would be replaced by a new and improved stress, and the process would repeat over and over again.

We now have four beautiful children. But to say they are stressful is an understatement. Plus, I have my own business and I worry about the next dollar all the time. I am still in love with my wife. The fact that she is still gorgeous after four kids makes her more attractive than before.

I used to want to have sex every day, but now I am happy to have sex once a month. But when it happens, so much energy has built up that it is anticlimactic. My wife does not voluntarily kiss me. About 90-95 percent of the time that I approach her for affection, she rejects me.

Have you ever kissed someone and could tell from the tension in their jaw that they were doing it just to get it done and could not wait until it was over? That is what it is like kissing my wife. Zero passion. I probably rank around the twenties in terms of her priorities. I think our philosophies do not match, though it could be a gender thing. I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection. When things get tough for me, I turn to my wife. When things get tough for my wife, she turns to the kids, or the vacuum cleaner.

Before we got married, our church required premarital counseling. It was fun. The counselor told us that we must make each other our first priority and that would make our marriage stronger than any amount of money or fame. We were told that by making each other our first priority we would be showing our children that our bond is important and leading them by example as to what a healthy marriage looks like. We are getting an F in that department. It is so bad that our children, who are all very young, get uncomfortable and sometimes upset when we kiss (or try to kiss) in their presence. They have already gotten the impression that the only form of acceptable affection is that which is directed at them. I do not know what to do.

I have told my wife all this so many times, I am a broken record. I look at pornography to relieve some stress. My wife knows about it and of course is not happy about it. I would agree with her if I showed a dropoff in desire for her, but no amount of looking at other women, clothed or non, decreases my desire for my wife or changes my belief that she is a raging hottie. I look at those pictures wishing my wife would do that. The nice thing about pictures is that you cannot get rejected. Bear in mind that my wife also used to be incredible in bed. I do not ask of her anything she did not willingly do before and in fact express great enjoyment doing. I do not ask her to swing from a chandelier, but when she does not even kiss me while we are making love, that is not only troubling but also hurtful.

I will never leave her, though I threatened to do that in the past. I will never make my children live in a broken household, except that it already seems broken. I am afraid that if I am caught at a weak moment, I will have an affair. I figure I am a duck circling a depression in the earth where a pond used to be. At some point I am going to get tired and have a heart attack or see a real pond in the distance and go there. How long can I be expected to circle in a holding pattern? I am sure I would enjoy an affair for a while, but I would enjoy my wife more. I give flowers, I write my own cards, I shower her with compliments and affection. Is there any hope?

Am I Missing Something?

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Dear Missing,

Thank you for your brutally honest, intelligent and moving account. I can imagine seeing this in a movie, or reading it in a novel, and wondering, “What happened? What is she thinking? How did they end up this way?” I have the feeling that many things have happened to hurt your wife, little things that she can’t explain but that she adds to the account of your faults every morning in her little counting house of resentments. The things that have happened to her are probably real and not really her fault, but if she could have expressed them along the way, if she could have processed them with you, together, perhaps you would not be so starkly shut out now. At least you would know what she’s thinking, what your crimes were, how long your sentence is.

It might not be anything you did wrong, aside from doing your duty as a husband and giving her all those kids. Bearing four children in eight years sounds like enough in itself to overwhelm a woman. Think of it: For almost your entire marriage she has been pregnant, nursing or both. As someone who can barely imagine raising even one or two children, I would think that the demands of bearing and raising these four children would consume so much of her spirit that you would naturally find yourself sitting on the back steps smoking a cigarette while the loud, bright laughing and crying of children and mother buzzed about your head like bees.

And while you’re sitting there bereft and alone you know she’s working with the children, needing your help and resenting you for taking even this moment to yourself because she does this all day long every day and you only flit in and out to lend a noble hand when it’s convenient for you blah blah blah.

You need to hear her story, how she got this way, what you did. But she may be so overwhelmed that she cannot even tell you the story; to tell you the story she might need first to hike for days into the mountains until her mind is clear and she’s high enough that she can sit on a rock and look over the entire county and then maybe the story would unspool, beginning with your first injury so slight she would have felt foolish to even mention it: Perhaps you didn’t compliment her on a pair of earrings. Perhaps you didn’t jump high enough with joy when she first told you she was pregnant. And then the second injury and the third, and her panic, her sense of entrapment, her worries about the business, her thoughts that perhaps she could have done better, the guilt she feels because she’s not erotic with you, her fears that because of her coldness you will leave her and the children. Perhaps she has had a lover or two and hoards the secret under her dress like a guilty girl. Perhaps you never take out the trash.

You need to hear her story, whatever it is, so you know where you stand, but she may not, on her own, become ready to tell it for years. How can you get her to tell it? Could you track down that premarital counselor for some postmarital counseling? It’s possible she would say no to all of this. It’s possible you couldn’t get across to her how grinding and oppressive is the incessant rejection. But you need to find out what happened to her, what you did, how she changed, whatever it was. You need to find out so you can bag it up and tie it off with a narrative string, so you can carry it around slung over your shoulders, not eating away at you in your belly.

I threw out my girlfriend’s mementos

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 28, 2009

I tried to retrieve her photos from the Dumpster but they were gone! What have I done?


Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I have been together for five years, and although the beginning was a bit rocky, things are great now. Our setbacks were mainly due to my commitment avoidance. So, we’ve been living together now for six months, and I’ve started to … snoop. I admitted this to two friends, and one laughed that I waited so long, and the other was horrified that I would commit such a breach of trust. I don’t suspect anything untoward is happening, but I find some sort of tortured comfort in knowing the secrets. I have looked at her e-mail a few times in the past, and I don’t exactly stop myself from glancing over at her laptop when her in box is up — but I haven’t hacked into her account or spent half the night reading 1,400 old e-mails or anything — OK, that happened once, but there was a bottle of whiskey involved and the tail end of a really bad day.

She was just out of town for the weekend, and I spent most of the time rummaging through her things, reading old journals, and inspecting film negatives. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME? I am confident and trusting and respectful — or at least I thought I was. I find myself engulfed in a jealous rage when I find old photographs of her past lovers or racy journal entries or letters detailing wild sexual encounters (all prior to our meeting). Why is she holding on to these things? You’re probably asking, why am I looking at them? I can’t help it. Maybe this is why I was so hesitant to jump into a real commitment — I have trust issues … or control issues … or self-esteem issues … or maybe all of the above.

Here is the kicker: I threw out a box of her personal items. After I came to my senses, I panicked and tried to retrieve them. The maintenance guys in my apartment complex thought I was crazy going through the trash. I covered it up saying I threw out important paperwork by mistake. I came up empty-handed. Her personal memories are lost forever. A small part of me is wickedly satisfied, but the bigger (and much better) part of me is appalled.

What should I do if she discovers that these items are missing? I know if I come clean she will lose it, and I certainly don’t want to lose her. But if she is so dearly holding on to these items, then maybe that is a sign we shouldn’t move forward. If she becomes irate over a few photos of her sexual adventures or letters from past lovers, I have to worry, don’t I? Is she over these men or holding on? Why is she keeping this stuff? Will she be able to let go? Sure, these concerns just help me to validate my snooping, but we’re living together — when will she forget the old boyfriends?
HELP.

Private Dick

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Dear Private Dick,

Basically, unequivocally, I think you’ve got to tell her what you did. In throwing out her stuff, you moved beyond snooping into theft and destruction of personal property. If the relationship ends because you told her, so be it.

But it might not end the relationship. For one thing, it might be the sort of thing where it turns out that yes, OK, her boyfriend indeed does have a sort of problem, which is akin to like OK, maybe you’re an alcoholic or you’re bad with money or have some other life problem that is akin to just, well, having issues, but you’re willing to be honest about them and face them and seriously get some help and change.

And there is also the possible romantic/comedic element to this. In confessing to her, you might come off like a guy who is sort of seriously nuts but whom she still loves. In my heart there is room for all kinds of compulsion and insanity. I am seriously nuts in many ways. It hasn’t prevented me from holding down a job and a marriage and so forth. So I can relate to such compulsions as you describe. I tend to believe that lots of us walk around with crazy ideas, but we mostly don’t talk about it. Every now and then one of our crazy ideas gets the best of us, and we do something we’re going to have to own up to. So I’m glad when somebody talks about it.

I also think that if you were seriously dangerous you wouldn’t be writing to me; you’d be cowering in her kitchen with a hammer, and we’d never hear about it. Men who try to control women are truly dangerous, but it is my impression that they do not write to advice columnists.

But it is a serious breach. It’s the kind of thing that is going to freak her out, but if you withheld it, it would be worse. If you tell her now, you’ve got a better chance of saving the relationship.

I spent a little time thinking about where this fits into the whole moral picture. I mean, how is snooping through someone’s things different from spying on her when she is in the shower, or when she is getting dressed, or listening in on “the extension” (as we used to call the analog branch of a hardwired household phone line)?

You know these things are wrong. Because if you keep doing these things, she is harmed. I believe that she is harmed, morally or psychologically, by your snooping. I believe that’s what she would say if she knew: that she feels violated or harmed. And I think we ought to take people’s subjective assessments as having some weight.

Now, it may be that she also snoops. It may be that she is well aware of this tendency in people and will understand. Or it may be that she will be outraged to the point of demanding that you move out. I cannot take responsibility for what happens in your private life if you are moved to act on what I say. It’s still your choice. I can only say what I truly feel. And I truly feel you should tell her.

I do not know why we do these things. It may have to do with a lack of trust — that you feel she has some other world that competes for her attention, or that might threaten your belonging to her, your ownership of her. Ownership. That’s a word that comes up. That’s interesting. Do you feel that you own her? Do you feel in some way that what is hers is yours? It may be that you do. I’m not accusing you of anything; we all find, when we begin examining our assumptions, that we carry certain assumptions that are insupportable. Mainly we carry them as long as we do not examine them, and then, as we examine them, we go, Holy shit! I really do believe I own her! Where did that come from?!

And then you plumb your family history and see that, in fact, you were raised with the assumption that as a man you could own a woman, that you could have rights far greater than hers, that you could take her stuff, that you could “take her,” in all the senses of that phrase. Who knows. We have all kinds of stuff in our heads. That’s what makes therapy so much fun. Because when you approach it in a fairly detached way, you can see that, well, yes, these beliefs do reside in my mind, how do you like that? I don’t think they serve me very well, I don’t even think I consciously believe them, and yet there they are, residents in the attic.

So then you try to sweep them out if they don’t fit in. Or you learn to recognize when your behavior is being influenced by them, as in, Gee, I seem to be taking my girlfriend’s stuff again, why am I doing that? Oh yeah, I remember: because in some part of my brain I believe that I actually have greater rights than women! But I don’t really, do I? So I’d better put this stuff back and tell her that old mania has cropped up again!

Or whatever it is. It could be a sexual thing, that there’s a thrill to snooping. It could be a replacement for intimacy; you might feel a deep closeness to her that you do not get to feel while she is in the room because maybe she will not settle down or will not willingly be the object of your contemplative gaze or will not answer your questions about her past or about that part of her life she keeps separate from you.

At any rate, if you don’t tell her, I think you will have committed a wrong against her, and you also might never get to find out why you’re doing this. So it will be to your benefit, ultimately, to come clean.

So seriously, I think when you threw her stuff out, you crossed a line, and regardless of the consequences, you have to tell her. She has a right to know and a right to figure out what she wants to do about it.

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