My husband is making me suspicious

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 17, 2006

He’s e-mailing an ex-girlfriend and chatting with strange women — and he gets defensive when I mention it.


Dear Cary,

I can’t tell if I’m paranoid or justified at this point, and maybe you won’t be able to tell, either, but I guess I just need someone else to think about this for a minute, because I’m exhausted.

I’ve been married for 13 years. We’ve had our ups and down, but thankfully, it’s been mostly up. We’ve got a small collection of children of various ages, and a busy, engaged life.

A few months ago, I got up early one morning to find my husband’s e-mail open, and in particular, a letter minimized on the screen. Clueless, I opened it, and was horrified to read a rather plaintive and deeply personal letter to his ex-girlfriend. Reading the entire letter, and the history of the e-mail trail as it bounced along, I was quick to realize he had been searching for her.

I chose not to say anything, because I couldn’t figure out what to say, other than I was hurt that he hadn’t told me about the contact.

A few weeks ago, he asked me to open his e-mail while he was at work to retrieve a phone number. Not only was there further communication from her, there was also communication from other women, like the women at the bank where he does business, and it referenced phone calls. There was nothing overtly sexual about them, but they were personal. When I managed to work one of the women’s names into a conversation, he flat-out lied to me and denied ever talking to her or writing to her. I know he did. I saw it.

I don’t know what to do. After I saw the last contacts, I confronted him. He’s furious with me, just spitting mad that I read his e-mail. I’m furious that it appears that he is trolling for women on the Internet. He says they are all just friends, but this isn’t like him. And my internal radar has gone off so loudly I can hardly hear anything else. He says it’s in my head, and it may be. I think the better guess is that he’s cheating, or planning to cheat, and he’s angry that he’s been caught.

Any ideas on the next step? He’s insisting that I’m paranoid and that he’s never given me reason to doubt him. I think writing and calling women secretively is a pretty big reason to have pause.

On Shaky Ground

Dear On Shaky Ground,

I can’t know whether he is cheating or thinking about cheating. But I suggest you give some thought to the following.

Is it OK in principle for him to have female friends that you don’t know about? Are there specific women friends that make you feel uncomfortable?

If there are, I suggest you tell him: When you communicate with your ex-girlfriend, I feel threatened. Or: These particular women make me uneasy.

You may be thinking that he should just know. But it is possible that he doesn’t. So get very specific.

What about thoughts? What if he communicates with a woman and wonders what it would be like to put his hand on her motorcycle? What if he actually touches her motorcycle? Does he have to tell you that? What if he touches her motorcycle but they don’t ride anywhere?

This could get tedious. But what I’m getting at is that you may have a detailed map in your head of what is OK and not OK but he doesn’t know that map very well. He needs to get to know that map.

Consider the problem of building and repairing trust, as discussed in this dry but possibly useful article. Reading and thinking about this might help you come to see trust as an actual phenomenon that needs to be strengthened and understood in your relationship.

This much is clear: He may be telling the truth, and he may be being candid. But he is not being candid enough to suit you. You require more trust-building behavior from him. I hope you can get it.

He wants you to trust him more. How can he get you to trust him more? Perhaps he can be more transparent and forthcoming in his accounts of his whereabouts, his comings and goings, his entrances and exits, his kisses and his handshakes, whom he writes to and how, how he talks to whom and for what reason and about what topics.

What is this, a prison? He may ask. Yes, you might reply: It is the prison of profound responsibility.

I left an abusive marriage, and now I’m in love with a thief

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, DEC 12, 2007

If we move in together, should I buy a safe?


Hi Cary,

I recently escaped a long-term (by today’s standards), abusive marriage. I’ve done remarkably well for myself, I think, and I feel like I have my shit together. I became reacquainted with an old friend about a year after my divorce, and we became a couple. He’s everything my ex was not: kind, considerate, expressive, gentle and loving — in addition to being funny, smart, inquisitive and wise. We are very much in love.

The problem? He has been sharing with me some of the details of his life that occurred while we were out of touch, and they’re not pretty. The latest confession involved stealing large sums of money from an incapacitated relative. I stopped him before he went into detail because I simply can’t imagine him doing that. It’s as if he’s talking about another person whom he knew once, not himself. And there have been other things from his younger, wilder days that really scare me. A lot.

So, my question to you is, to what extent do you think people can change? I would like this man to move in with me, but how do I tell him that I’m considering buying a safe so I can keep my financial papers secure? How can I trust someone who could do the things he’s saying he did? He does express regret, and assures me that he’s “not that person anymore.” But who is he now? And why the need to share this stuff?

I have a tendency to be suspicious of anyone who’s nice to me, but I think in this case I need to be careful and protect myself. Yet I don’t want to hurt him, as he has been nothing but good to me. So, tell me, do you think a tiger can change its stripes?

Worried and Wondering

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Dear Worried and Wondering,

I would really slow down with your plans to move in together. You need to know more. You need time to digest this troubling information, and you need time to set up a support system. By support system I mean a network of women who have been through what you have been through and who meet regularly and have a set of principles they live by so they don’t repeat.

You need to become part of such a group in order to get useful feedback on what you are doing. You are in the middle of this thing. You can’t really see it. I can’t see it either. But I can sense it: Some kind of dangerous pattern is replaying itself here. So I urge you to slow down and look outside of this relationship, to a counselor and/or a support group. Slow down and get some perspective. Identify the pattern.

Sure, I’ve seen people change their spots. But it isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, they don’t change on their own, and the spots remain underneath. I mean they can stop stealing from their relatives. They can stop getting into abusive relationships. But the forces and patterns are still there, so, without constant work with a group or a counselor, they often do other things that are just as baffling and dangerous but look different on the surface.

They don’t even mean to do it! That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.

This is something people don’t get: We don’t love doing it wrong. We don’t set out thinking consciously, I think I’ll rob my grandmother, and now that I’ve robbed my grandmother and told my new lover about it, I think I’ll rob my new lover.

It’s not like this guy you love is going to set out consciously to rob you. And it’s not like buying a safe is going to make you safe. I’m not going to set out consciously to go on a drinking spree. I’m not thinking it would be a great idea to go out and get drunk. But absent constant, steady messages from outside reminding me what will happen if I do, I’ll drift over that way. I’ll drift over to the bar. It has been a long time since I had a drink. But absent my routine, the constant reinforcing of messages, I’m drifting to the bar.

Furthermore, just putting a combination lock on the liquor cabinet isn’t going to solve anything. If I slip into a pattern of using substances to blunt reality, I’m done for. If this man you are with slips into a pattern of taking what isn’t his, the whole thing is already over.

You are in a dangerous situation and you need to go slowly. You need to talk to people who have been through what you have been through and who know about these patterns so you can see what you are doing.

It won’t be easy. The drive to repeat is enormously powerful. I think that is another thing people just don’t get: We are all about repetition. If we repeat the “good” habits, nobody is surprised. But when we repeat the “bad” habits, everybody is baffled. So I’m saying it’s not about the qualitative nature of what we repeat, it’s about the repetition itself. The drive to repeat is more powerful than we admit. It is at the heart of identity, for identity itself is nothing but a set of repeated actions.

It’s not that we think consciously, I’m going to really fuck up my life right now. We just love doing things the way we know how to do, the things that help us get to a place of feeling right. So if we can get to a place of feeling right by being with people who beat us and steal from us, well, it’s not that we really like people to beat us and steal from us. We wouldn’t just ask them outright, Hey, I’d feel more comfortable in this relationship if you would beat me and steal from me. I’m not saying “Blame the victim.” I’m saying: Beware how powerful are the forces that bring us together with our abusers.

And to that end: Do not be afraid to be overly cautious. Trust your caution, your instincts. You say you have a tendency to be suspicious of people who are nice to you. Well, what you call “being nice to you” may well be the insidious seduction that is a prelude to eventual abuse. So trust your mistrust. It may be the best friend you’ve got.

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Bad things

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 14, 2004

I looked at my girlfriend’s text messages and found out she was in touch with an ex. Can we ever trust each other?


Dear Cary,

I have been in a relationship with a woman for a little over four months. In pretty much every respect, it has been absolutely incredible. We spend every night together, we share a lot of common interests, we are alike in all the right ways. We have met each other’s parents and have seriously discussed moving in together. There’s a problem, but the thing is: I can’t decide how big a problem it is.


A few months before she met me, she dated another man for about six months. He was, by her account, emotionally manipulative. When he broke up with her, she was extremely upset. Some time after we began dating, she told me that he had begun phoning and e-mailing her a great deal, even coming to her house and work unannounced. I was uncomfortable with this, but the issue was never really discussed again. Over the next few months, we grew closer and closer. Despite how great everything felt, I was always somewhat suspicious. I chalked this up to my own insecurities, which are admittedly an issue of their own. I could not shake the feeling that despite her interest in me, he was still somehow a part of her life.

A week ago I did what from your archives I understand is a fairly common but very bad thing. While she was in the shower, I checked the text messages on her phone. I’m pretty ashamed at myself for doing it, and though you will have a hard time believing it, I did not actually think I would find anything. But I found a rather unpleasant message. When she got out of the shower, I confronted her with it, and over the course of the last week we have been discussing it a great deal.

He had been phoning her and sending her text messages nearly every day for quite some while. He had even phoned her at her parents’ house at Christmas. He was trying to get her back and also trying to get her to move with him abroad. When we first started dating, she had seen him a couple of times but only for coffee. She told me that she did not answer his calls when he phoned most of the time, but that she did occasionally e-mail him or talk to him. She swore that since she had recently moved and changed jobs, he did not show up at her door anymore.

I feel deeply hurt by this. The trust issues that I had, and which I thought were problems of my own, turn out to have been at least somewhat justified. I do not know what to believe anymore. I have confronted her about secrets and lies before, about trivial things (I thought), and she told me that she would be more honest. So when she told me that she did not want to get back together with him, that she had not seen him except when he unexpectedly showed up at her door, and that she loved me, I wanted very much to believe her. And I think I do. I asked her a number of questions about it, and she truly opened up and told me a great deal. Whether she left anything out I can’t honestly say, except that I believe she is trying to be honest. She admitted that she had not done enough to get rid of him and had partly liked the attention he was giving her when he had once been so cruel.

I told her that if we were going to survive she would have to make a decision — it was either me or him (or maybe neither), but it was not acceptable to continue on like this. I do truly love her and feel that we can get past this, but I have told her that she must work hard to regain my trust, which includes not lying to me and making it as clear as can be to him that she does not want to be contacted by him anymore. I’m afraid she will revert back to keeping things a secret rather than dealing with the problem.

Am I being an idiot in giving her another chance, or am I making things out to be worse than they appear? Is she keeping some sort of contact with him simply out of spite (enjoying watching him suffer, etc.) or is she finding it hard to cut him loose because she is still uncertain of what she really wants? I should also tell you that she fears confrontation a great deal, which is why she tends to hide things. At least part of the reason why she doesn’t just tell him to F-off is because of this, at least I think. Should I stick around to find out?

(P.S. I realize that should we continue on, I will have to regain her trust as well. I do not intend to, nor will I ever, spy on her or check messages, etc., again. Obviously, I’ve got issues of my own that I’m trying to address, the problem being that it’s extremely difficult to do so in the current situation)

Confused and Sad

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Dear Confused and Sad,

First of all, you’ve only been together four months. That’s not enough time to really get to know someone. So your expectations seem a little high, and your fears seem a little exaggerated. “I’m concerned,” you say, “that I will never really get over this. As I said, we’ve talked about this a number of times over the last week…” See what I mean? One week is not much time to get over something.

Nor is talking with her necessarily the way to “get over this.” You don’t really know whether you can believe this woman. So talking with her shouldn’t reassure you. Based on what’s happened, you should feel a little anxious. Your lack of trust, it seems to me, is well-founded. Not only have you not known her that long, but it’s obvious that you’re not the only man on her mind.

I don’t think that means she’s being a bad person. She’s just not a simple person. Besides, you’re making a lot of demands on her for a guy who’s just been around for four months, and you’re the one who snooped on her text messages while she was in the shower.

So it seems right and natural that you two should mistrust each other.

As to the dynamics of your relationship: People tend to repeat certain patterns with their first few loves. That’s only natural — it takes a few tries to get it right. So if she was manipulated by this previous man, she may be setting herself up to be manipulated by you as well.

Not only that, but you and the previous manipulative man may have more in common than you suspect. He may have been cagey and emotional in his manipulation, while you are high-minded and full of principle. He may be a feeling type while you are a thinking type. But you both seek control over this woman.

Beneath attraction and love is often a struggle for dominance. Beneath complaints about manipulation is often a forbidden attraction to surrender. There may be something in your obsession with her behavior and her transgressions that excites her. Otherwise, she would simply defend her private life, tell you that you have no business snooping in her text messages, and that would be that.

So she may be playing a role in the only drama she knows, in which the man exercises authority, setting the agenda, the rules and the punishments, and the woman plays the seductress, subverting the man’s authority while at the same time reveling in his critical attention.

If that’s the game being played, you’re playing your position admirably, attempting to ferret out her secrets and demanding that she adhere to your principles.

You may not realize that your moral and ethical categories are not as real and powerful in the world as they seem to be to you (sometimes our personality types blind us to that). You also may not realize that the strands of rational power you project into the world are like strings others can pull to work you like a puppet.

So let’s try asking this: What does she want? What does she need? You mentioned that she gets satisfaction from this man’s attentions. So she has a need to be desired, to be sought-after. Don’t we all? She was hurt by this man and still has some feelings for him. There is nothing unusual in that. Her feelings are not under her conscious control, any more than yours are.

You may think that your demand for honesty and forthrightness is just common sense and naturally takes precedence over her rather ill-defined needs for attention and secrecy. But your demands are really just another form of irrational, subjective hunger. It is no more her duty to do the things you require than it is your duty to do whatever she wants. You simply hunger for rationality, while she hungers for attention. They’re both subjective hungers. Neither has the greater claim on virtue. But you act like you have a monopoly on reason and common sense.

You’ve made ultimatums and demands that she come clean. But if she were to divulge everything she thinks and feels, would that do? What of the many, many fleeting thoughts and unconsummated desires that make up the daily life of the psyche? Is all that to be cleansed as well, subject to your security review?

I am only hinting around at things here, and it may sound like gibberish to you, but I sense there are important yet hidden assumptions at work here: That there are final ethical and moral categories which, if adhered to fully, will ensure a happy and confident union, for instance. What I’m suggesting is that if you place all your faith in these bright and symmetrical categories of right and wrong, truthfulness and falsehood, “getting over it” and “not getting over it,” you may miss what is actually happening in your relationship.

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My girlfriend “settled” for me — and I don’t trust her

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

I shouldn’t have looked in her diary, but maybe it’s best that I did.


Dear Cary,
This summer, my girlfriend went to Central America for three months. She was in spotty contact with me the whole time, saying it was difficult to reach a computer. I’ve known her to be unfaithful to her past boyfriends. She actually cheated on one with me. I didn’t trust her when she came back, so when she left her journal on my desk for a week, I read the portion of it about her trip.

In it, I found a never-to-be-sent letter to her first boyfriend, my old best friend from years ago, written in drunken handwriting. She lamented that she still loved him and how “I went and found the closest thing to you and I settled, like everything in life, I settled.” I assume this is referring to me.

I wouldn’t have read her journal if I trusted her. Those trust issues aside, I feel like we have a good thing. We work on a lot of levels with each other, spend a lot of time together, give each other presents with cards, etc. Though neither of us has a career (I struggle playing music and waiting tables; she dabbles in various professional track jobs that don’t interest her), we’ve hit the mid-20s and relationships seem more serious.

She’s moving away soon to take a professional-track job in Mexico and I am considering following her, but this whole thing bothers me. I try to ask her about him to see how she responds, but she never lets on anything. Right now, she is visiting her old roommate who now lives with him, and I am unable to trust her. Of course she always says they are just friends, but that she still really cares for him in a platonic way and there is nothing to worry about.

Had I not read the journal, I could take her at face value. Maybe she tells me what she really means. But as it is right now, I can’t help getting mad at her because I feel she’s deceiving me. I have to resolve it somehow. I know journals are the dumping grounds for our deep insecurities, horrible thoughts, our fantasies, generally things we can’t say, and they may not always be real, but I can’t brush it aside so easily. How do I handle this?

Thanks,

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Too Curious

 

Dear Too Curious,

You know what I think? I think that every time I sit down to write this column I have the opportunity, if I play it right, to make a big difference in somebody’s life. So I try to do that. I try to do that by taking a guess at what the big issue in a person’s life is. There’s the diary and all that, and I’d like to say right upfront that reading your girlfriend’s diary is not the best idea. But what’s the big issue?

The way I figure it, the big issues make the difference. And a lot of times we don’t know what our big issues are. We may know what other people’s big issues are. But not our own. So we make big mistakes. We make them over and over. Often the big issues in our lives are not what we think they are. They tend to be emotional things. Say, for instance, you are a brilliant and talented jazz musician. So naturally you are on the road a lot. But say that also, in your heart of hearts, you are the type of guy who really needs to be sitting at the kitchen table night after night with a wife and kids and relatives. That is where you are actually happy. So you might say that your talent and your emotional needs are at odds. You might not know you need the security and warmth of a family life. You may feel empty and anxious on the road but maybe you call it something else. You call it the blues. So you end up meeting this need in some way — because you are on the road. You end up, say, doing heroin. You do heroin because heroin gives you the feeling of sitting at your kitchen table on a full stomach in the evening breeze, listening to the crickets.

That’s how our unacknowledged needs shape our lives. That’s how we lose our geniuses, how they disappear into the evening breeze on a quiet summer morning.

If you knew, from a young age, that you were not only a talented musician but also a person who requires the closeness of family, warmth, security, rootedness, then you might take the time to arrange your life so that you do not die of a heroin overdose in a Memphis hotel room.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I write the column. I think about geniuses dying in Memphis hotel rooms. I think about perfectly decent guys being lied to by one woman after another. I think about the demons that have driven me off the road from time to time, and how things might have been different if I had known what the demons were, or if I knew they might be coming.

Our emotional needs often aren’t as overtly interesting as our talents. But they drive us. Sometimes they drive us to a strange part of town.

So with you, I think there’s a good chance that you have the opportunity right now, today, to discover what big personal issue is driving you. I think I know what your big issue might be. I think you can face it. I think you can do something about it.

But first of all: Do not follow your girlfriend to Mexico. Do not do that. Do not travel there to see her after she gets herself set up down there. Do not discuss with her the pros and cons of traveling with her to Mexico before she goes. Do not tell her you will think about coming to be with her in Mexico. Instead, tell her you have decided to stay here in the United States and try to get your life together on your own, without her. Tell her that you are breaking up with her. Tell her it’s best this way.

So now your real life begins. You make a choice. You begin from scratch.

To begin your new life, take an hour of quiet time. Sit down somewhere where you will not be interrupted. Make sure you have some paper and a pencil or pen.

Write these words at the top of the page:

I trust these people:

Then make a list of the people you trust.

Who is on the list? With each person, ask: Is that person a friend, a relative, a former lover, a teacher, a public official, an animal? What are the qualities of the relationship that make you trust the person? Is there an element of structure or formality to the relationship that leads to trust? Do they tend to be family members, college friends? Are they women or men? Look for patterns.

Then make a list of the people you do not trust.

Who is on the list that you do not trust?

Pay special attention to this question: Where is your dad? Is he on the trust list or the do-not-trust list? Where is your mom? And where are you? Where do you put yourself on the list?

I predict that if you do this simple exercise with an open mind and an open heart, and you spend some time thinking about these people and why you do or do not trust them, it will cause you to experience some fairly deep emotions. You may, at that point, want to find some structure for yourself. You may want to find a psychotherapist to help you work through this. But if I am correct, and if you seriously work through this, you will learn who can be trusted and who cannot. You will gain a new respect for your own need for trust. You will see that you have ridden roughshod over your own need for security. You may be surprised about certain people; you may realize that certain people may not have been so much fun, but at least they could be trusted. Others, you may realize, you never really trusted to begin with. You will become, through this process, a man who is markedly less likely to be fucked over.

And then, once you have firmly in your mind what it means to trust and not trust and be trusted or not trusted, you can fall in love and get married and have kids and live happily ever after. Or at least you can navigate more carefully life’s baffling jamboree, its streets full of beauty, genius and betrayal.

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