Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 7, 2004
I’m a healthy 26-year-old man and I’ve never had sex. Should I tell my girlfriend?
I’m a healthy 26-year-old male, normal in most ways physiologically and mentally. As far as I can tell, I’m a funny, bright guy people tend to gravitate toward, and I’m as sociable and interactive as anyone. I’ve never been especially big on the so-called dating scene, but I’ve kept in contact with it enough to not qualify as a complete leper.
I’ve recently begun seeing a beautiful girl (it’s been a couple of years since I dated anyone) who has been very interested in me for some time (which I of course didn’t notice for the longest time), and we’ve had a good time together, equal parts romance and intellect and all those late-night chats where you slowly fill in the gaps. I’m not a very “experienced” romantic, but I gather that she is, yet things have been incredibly fluid and comfortable. We have a good ability to be open and honest around each other, but I have run into a bit of a problem when it comes to telling her something that I assume is pretty unusual for a man of 26: I’ve never had sex. Not even anything remotely close to it. I’ve often joked about my adherence to celibacy, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the time for joking is done.
This springs from various aspects of my life involving a healthy (read: “non-rigid, non-fanatic”) dose of Protestantism (if you believe that can be healthy) and a not-so-good amount of insecurity. For whatever reason, I’ve avoided this like the plague, so I won’t merely blame any dogmatic hindrances. My singularity was brought into stark contrast in my eyes (not really for the first time) when I read a film review by the always interesting and divisive Charles Taylor who mentioned some phrase about “creepy abstinence teens.” Think of how creepy it would be for a girl who finds that she’s really into a “creepy abstinence late-twenty-something,” I find myself thinking.
I naively believe that if she cares for me she would be able to handle such an idea, but I’m guessing it would be unfair of me not to tell her at the outset (and she’d obviously figure it out soon enough anyway, or read it as a complete lack of interest), and since this is a huge part of relationships (I do realize this, believe it or not), I guess it would be even more unfair to expect her to stick with me if I felt I couldn’t bend my rules (which I’m still not sure about). And to be honest, the whole abstinence thing is driving me a bit mad.
OK, I’ve left you a mess. Please offer any thoughts you have.
The Creepy Celibate
I think you should tell her. I don’t see any other honest, reasonable, loving thing to do. That is what you want to be, right — honest, reasonable, loving?
Why is it naive to believe that if she cares for you she can handle it? On the contrary, it seems quite reasonable to believe that if she cares for you she could handle it. In fact, telling her such a thing has much to recommend it. It is far less troubling a revelation than many other things one might feel compelled to reveal to a woman one is interested in. For instance, what if you had slept with her sister, or had beat up her brother in elementary school? What if you had a criminal record, or a bad case of herpes? What if you had told her some lie that you now had to retract? Those would reflect poorly on your character and give her genuine pause. Having chosen not to have sex before marriage, it seems to me, indicates that you are a thoughtful person who will not take the act lightly.
Perhaps there are things you did not mention, however, that are truly troubling you — perhaps you are frightened and feel clumsy; you fear that you will not be a good lover, that you won’t know what to do and feel paralyzed by that fear. If you feel paralyzed, try looking at it this way: If she cares for you, she may take sheer delight in showing you the ropes.
After all, it might be a treat for a woman to make love with a man who is willing to start from scratch and learn what she alone is all about, as if she were the only woman on earth. It might be a pleasure to be with a man who does not insist that he knows everything. It’s a heady prospect when you think about it: She has the opportunity to become your entire sexual world. She need not compete in your mind with past conquests. She need not suffer your insistent moves learned on other bodies, old habits played out on her as though she were simply a stand-in for some other true love. No, if she gets you she’s going to get you completely, and she will be able to mold you into just the lover she wants. Think of that.
There’s a huge upside to this is what I’m getting at. A huge upside. Now, the downside may be that if you don’t manage the way you tell it to her, she may wonder if there isn’t some other more sinister reason for your lack of experience. So your task is to make sure she understands that this was a rational life choice that you are ready to relinquish now. Oh, that’s the other thing: You have to get ready to go for it. So get ready. Buy some condoms. Make your decision. Then find a good moment when you can take some time to talk it through, and lay it out for her.
The only thing you have to lose is your virginity.
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 25, 2009
The groom said my husband is dead to him. The bride refused my package.
A good friend of mine invited my husband and me to her destination wedding. We were thrilled to be invited as she was a bridesmaid in our wedding, however, when we saw the price for four days we realized we couldn’t go. At her bridal shower, a mutual friend had mentioned that her boyfriend couldn’t go and asked if I would go with her. My amazing husband was nice enough to agree and I went. While there, I overheard other couples talking about how cheap the trip was and how they couldn’t believe it was “such a steal.” I couldn’t help feeling hurt finding out these couples paid less than half of what I paid to go solo but it was too late. I was here now and that was that. The trip was great and the wedding was beautiful. At the end of the evening when I was saying my goodnights, her new groom said “Goodnight, and by the way, tell J he’s dead to me.” I stood on that dance floor frozen, my body numb as if physically slapped. After leaving my husband home because we couldn’t afford to go together, then finding out I paid $1,600 for myself when all of the other couples paid $1,200 together, then to hear him say my husband is dead to him because he didn’t go … I was appalled. I left the reception hall in tears. I got on the bus to the airport the next morning and completely avoided the receiving line and never said goodbye.
After she returned, I finally got the nerve to tell her how I felt. She told me I was selfish, the world revolved around me, how dare I ruin her day and that my wedding wasn’t perfect.
Needless to say the friendship is over, but I can’t help sitting here, six months later, still in shock. Should I have kept my mouth shut? Was it really not a big deal? Do friends just let this kind of stuff slide?
I recently found out she is pregnant, the holidays have come and gone, I attempted to mail her a letter and she sent it back “package refused.” I am just stunned that a friendship would end over this.
Am I a fool to think she was ever a friend in the first place or am I in the wrong?
It is not so important to assign blame. The important thing is to figure out what you want. If you want this person back in your life, it is within your power to begin a campaign to win back her friendship. Your campaign may succeed and it may not, but you can at least take action to get what you want. But first you have to make a decision: Does her friendship matter enough to you that you would devote considerable time to winning her back?
This is the issue. All that other stuff, who was right, who was wrong, whose feelings are hurt worse, who should have done what, that’s all, like, whatever. Do you want her friendship back or not? Do you even like her?
One might assume that you like her because you asked her to be your bridesmaid. But not necessarily. You might have asked her because you thought she’d fit into the dress. Or because she’s popular in your social circle. I’m not sure if you like her or not. You do not make very clear your subjective feelings about her as a person, only that you are terribly upset about what happened, as anyone would be.
It takes some work to find out what your feelings are. But it is worth it. Once you admit what you actually feel, and what is actually important to you, you are free to make decisions based on that. This frees you from the compulsion to do what you think others expect you to do, and it frees you from the compulsion to do things that are, in essence, attempts to redo the past, or color over what happened, or change what is real.
So ask yourself: Is she really important to you? Do you have shared values? During the time you have known here, have you maintained a hope that you and she would remain friends for years to come? Do you enjoy spending time with her, just the two of you? When you think of her, do you say to yourself, “I really like her”? Or is she just a person in your social circle? Does she make you feel good when you are around her? Or have you always felt a little like you were competing with her for the limelight? And what about your husband, does he like her? Does he like her new husband? What about their relationship? Is it totally dead now too?
If you want her to be your friend again, take steps to win her back. Write to her and call her. Do not let her first angry refusal stop you. She may remain angry for a while. You may have to wait significant intervals between entreaties, lest she get the feeling you are some kind of unhinged stalker. But if you keep at it, and she will talk to you, just apologize for what happened; admit that this was a regrettable incident and that you want to be friends again.
Suggest that you and she get together, just the two of you. Go out of your way to be nice to her. If she is a sympathetic person, and you are honest with her about what happened — that you felt humiliated not only because you spent too much money but because of what her husband said — then she may respond in a genuine way.
As to what the groom said, well, guys are weird. Maybe he meant something like this: “Please tell your husband that I really was hurt that he did not come, because I thought he was, like, almost my best friend, and now obviously he doesn’t care about me as much as I thought.” In certain circles, guys can’t really say things like that about other guys. Instead, all they can do is punch each other and say things like, “Tell him he’s dead to me.” That’s supposed to convey this whole nuanced set of meanings, but yes, it does fall a bit short.
So, yeah, I know it sounds really fucked up. I’m not sure if I’d want to be friends with these people. The overarching message to you is that you need to spend some time, now that you are an adult, thinking about each of your “friends,” and trying to determine which ones are actually important to you. Then take steps to salvage the friendships that really matter, and forget the rest.
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 24, 2007
I’m crazy in love with my two sisters’ five kids. I feel like helping to raise them would give my life meaning.
My younger sisters each recently had two babies apiece — two boys on one side, two girls on the other side. There’s also a fantastic 7-year-old in the mix. I have, quite frankly, fallen in love with these children.
I am not a big lover of kids in general. When I was little I never dreamt about babies. As a teen I hated baby-sitting and did office work to make extra money. I married (then divorced) a man who didn’t want kids. At 35 my biological clock has finally kicked in, but I’m unlikely to have my own; I have hormonal health issues and there is no man in the picture, nor a lucrative career, nor a healthy savings account that would make single parenting or adoption feasible.
But being with my sisters’ kids has been this amazing, heart-opening experience. They say that the love a parent has for a child is overwhelming and unconditional. I must be feeling some small portion of that. They are gorgeous, utterly imperfect, joyful, maddening little people. And they are ours — the next chapter in our family’s story. Incredible.
I understand for the first time the importance of generational history — how children represent hope for the future, and why some families really function as clans, fiercely protecting their own. I wasn’t raised with those values. I missed the value of extended family and blood connection. But now, for me, that is changing.
I had a plan, after my divorce, to get myself out of my financial hole and go teach or volunteer in Asia or maybe New Orleans. I would see more of the world (I’ve already been to five continents, but is that really enough?) and maybe help build some schools or distribute food. And then I would move out West and live on the side of a mountain and hike every day and write a novel and move in with a guy who looks like the Marlboro man. If I wanted to, I could take off in six months to a year.
But now all the babies have been born. And I find myself not really wanting to leave the East Coast because I don’t want to miss anything with these kids. When I think about being far from them, or gone for many years, my heart just breaks. And doing what I’m doing now, my single, working-gal routine, being an auntie who mails gifts and visits on long weekends seems silly and pointless too. (If I am going to work an unsatisfying 9-5er, why not live near the people I love?)
My whole career, I’ve been working for nonprofits or groups in the business of helping people and the planet. It seemed the best place to put my energy, but it has been frustrating and unsatisfying. The world seems just a sick, sad, unfixable place. I don’t feel young and idealistic anymore. I feel like circling the wagons — around my nieces and nephews.
I am thinking of moving closer to one of my sisters to be more fully a part of these kids’ lives. I would find a decent job that pays the bills, but nothing I have to devote myself to 100 percent. I would save my best energy for being part of an extended family, and find my pleasure (and challenges of course) there.
I’m wondering, is that lame? Is it lame to “opt out” of career and travel to help take care of someone else’s children? Am I avoiding growing up by refocusing on my family of origin instead of going out into the world and forming a new life and a new family? Is it selfish and insular to prioritize hanging out with my family over helping others in the world? Will I be the old spinster aunt who borrowed someone else’s life instead of having her own? Would I be vamping these children to meet my own emotional needs? Would I be stunting my own creative and spiritual development? Would I be acting out of fear? Abandoning my dreams?
It’s not like I’m considering “opting out” to have my own kids. The “mommy wars” aside, most people understand that choice. But who opts out to be an auntie? I fit a certain profile — mid-30s career gal with lots of sexual freedom and few financial obligations. Should I not be enjoying “the prime of my life”? Experiencing my freedom, climbing the career ladder, reaching my potential, traveling the world, making some art or buying some real estate? Or looking for my next man on Match.com and pricing out fertility treatments?
But if it’s really true I’m just here, in the unlikely and meaningless circumstance of being alive on a planet, doing my thing day in and day out, until I kick the bucket and am forgotten by time, then why not give the very best of myself to the people I love the most, i.e., my family? Here are five beautiful kids, to whom I am profoundly connected, who will need plenty of love and financial support to make their way in this insane world. I could devote myself to their well-being, like any good parent. Except that I’m not their parent, and they aren’t my kids.
Is that lame?
Optin’ Out Auntie
Dear Optin’ Out,
I don’t think your idea is lame at all. I think it’s courageous and decent.
Nor do I think you are avoiding growing up. I think you’re accepting who you are, how you feel and what you want. That is growing up. Growing up involves recognizing that who we really are doesn’t always fit the categories of value that we have learned through studying history and sociology.
A century ago, doing what you propose would have seemed perfectly sensible. Now, strangely enough, it seems a little daring. Now, as always, you have to decide for yourself.
I think you have largely decided already. But you are thinking it through and sharing your thoughts, trying to make sure it isn’t the wrong decision.
I think it’s great. Trust your instincts and your emotions. Accept who you are.
Must I make an argument for the utility of your decision? No, I don’t feel that I must. I am not a utilitarian. But I do think that our instincts are often powerful and wise, and that when we do what we are drawn to doing, social good sometimes comes of it. Can I prove that? No. Nor do I think we can always know what social good might come from our inclinations. For instance, we might be driven to write, or paint, or play music, not to change the world but to make ourselves happy. In the process, however, much unexpected social good might come. On the other hand, I might have an intense personal desire to rob your house. I would not argue that social good would come from that.
But do I want to really want argue about any of this? No. I just think that if you’re worried that you’re letting the world down, you can let go of that. The world is bigger than we think.
In fact, this impulse you have in no way implies that you are leaving the world or forsaking it. You are not a separate thing from the world, someone sent here to fix the world. You are a part of the world. It’s the same world telling you to do this that was telling you to do the other. Your impulse to help raise your sisters’ children is no more or less valid than your impulse to help strangers. If you were to ask where these impulses come from, I think you will find they all come from the same source: You have a burning desire, a passion, to act according to your conscience. Acting according to your conscience satisfies your sense of who you are. So keep following your passion wherever it leads you. If you feel in a few years that you are needed elsewhere, you can change yet again.
Frankly, your profile of the “mid-30s career gal” does not sound very attractive to me. Having had a taste of business life, I would think many women would find the same thing that many men have found — it kinda sucks. So why do it if you don’t have to?
Why not do what makes you happy?
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 4, 2005
I’m a middle child, abandoned by my eldest brother. Did I marry just for security?
I am the third of five children. My oldest brother, by six years, ran away from home repeatedly during his teenage years. When he finally reached adulthood he flew the coop for good. As far as I know, my parents weren’t abusive, irresponsible or neglectful. We were a typical middle-class family in a typical middle-class town. By all accounts my brother was a smart fellow. Yes, he dabbled with pot and hung out with some rough kids but nothing beyond the norm.
Twenty years later I’m a 35-year-old husband and father of two. Looking back, I believe I may have responded to the incidents involving my brother by developing an exaggerated need for acceptance based on a deep fear of inadequacy. After all, my thinking goes, if my brother wasn’t able to stand up to this world, what hope have I? Granted, this is all navel-gazing self-assessment, but it feels right to me … this week.
So here’s where it gets sticky. I think I may have gotten married simply because my wife loves me. The prospect of a doting partner seemed too good to pass up, so I didn’t. And the life we’ve created together is wonderful in many ways. She’s a fantastic mother to our miraculous children. We live a very comfortable life and spend more time together as a family than most. But I’m not sure that I love my wife. It pains me to say it. I like her very much, but I don’t miss her when she’s gone. I don’t know if this makes it any clearer, but I don’t yearn for her. And I don’t think I ever did.
Where does this leave me? I cherish my family and don’t want to lose it. Should I soldier on under the “Nothing’s Perfect” banner? I think I could be happy enough. But is happy enough … enough?
Reluctant to Run Away
It may not be necessary to your happiness to love your wife in the way you think you are supposed to. And it certainly would be foolish and cruel to announce one day that you are abandoning your family simply because you’re not sure your passion is of the correct wattage. So I think the wise and thoughtful thing to do is to delve into this absence you have discovered, to come to know its nature and its meaning.
What if it is true that you married your wife less because you loved her than because you wanted to be loved by her? That would not necessarily be some shameful revelation upon which the union and all its issue must perforce be scattered to the winds. It would be, rather, a fortunate realization — one that complements your larger sense of yourself as a middle child deeply wounded by your oldest brother’s desertion. Sometimes we seek to be desired rather than to be the desiring one because we cannot risk another idolized, idealized figure walking out on us. It would be too much. So we seek safe harbor.
I’m a middle child myself. I’m next to the youngest of five. I find comfort in the confines of compromise; I say, I’ll go if you’re going. I wait for a traffic signal before walking. But all the while — and I’m not sure if this is just me, or if this also is part of the middle child’s dilemma — I’m keenly aware of the opposite of nurture in my nature, the jealous will to extermination buried under an affable skin, the drive to excel that threatens the order. We do tend to explode, don’t we? We do so much for others and then we blow up, suddenly, when we don’t get enough in return — when our unwritten contract is violated.
So I express my crazy will to excellence as service to others. It’s safer that way. Hence, duh, big surprise that I would become the empathic writer of advice, no? — aching to dazzle and amaze, but all the while maintaining that virgin face of humble service!
Ah, the middle child deluxe!
I recognize your doubt about the intensity of your own emotions, but I wonder if it may not be so much related to your birth order itself as to your grief over your brother’s departure. Did you ever grieve his going? I mean really grieve it? Perhaps there is more feeling there than you thought. Postponement of such a thing can sort of put everything on hold, as though all our feelings were in line at the post office, waiting to be weighed, stamped and canceled. Maybe you have a lot more feeling to do yet before you can feel everything you feel for your wife. When was the last time you broke down and cried unexpectedly?
So, just to be clear: If you were to leave your wife and children, you would be not only be repeating your brother’s abandonment but also setting out on a likely fruitless journey. Whatever feelings you seek reside within you already.
You’re at a crucial point in your life. You could easily make the wrong decision. So I urge you to look at your history and understand why you’re stuck. You seem right on the verge of understanding. Somewhere close at hand, perhaps among the stifled tears over a brother’s departure, I think you will find the passion and yearning that you seem to have misplaced.
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 19, 2003
It was long-distance magic. But look! It’s fading! And he won’t say what happened!
It was the day before two terrifying exams, and there I was — flipping back and forth between my spreadsheets and the personals. It was an online browse, so idle that I hadn’t even searched: I was just looking for men who were looking for women and who were online at that moment. Then I saw his picture. Cute, I thought. Opened his profile: tall, I thought. Read a bit, and saw: charming, literate, similar interests and so forth. I then looked up to check his location and saw that it was an ocean away. Damn it, I thought. But on the other hand, I’m fond of correspondence as a procrastination technique, so I thought: why not? And dashed off a couple of lines, never expecting any response.
But I got one. And then another, and another, and another. You’ve heard this story a thousand times, I know: The verbal chemistry. The sense of intellectual, emotional, even physical connection, coming like a miracle from words on a screen. But knowing some of the pitfalls of that type of connection, after a bit I was no longer willing to keep it to those words on a screen. We both had some free time coming up; I said I needed either to see how this thing would play out face to face, or to call it quits. Quits wasn’t an option for him (though it would have been for me at that point — along with the feelings I was having came an enormous self-protective impulse), and having never been to his part of the world, I juggled some plans, got a ticket, and flew over.
It was magic, but not in the Harlequin-romance kind of way; we were two people in a situation unprecedented for both, and it was real and it was connected and (at least for me) mind- and soul-touching. Less bodice ripping than I’d expected, but restraint and — could it have been? — chivalry aren’t things I’d become accustomed to in men. And it was so easy to share space, to share hopes, fears and dreams; it was as if the scrim that separates and blurs so many nascent (or established) relationships simply didn’t exist.
And then I went home for my last term of grad school, looking mainly at postdegree options near home, but also one that would have brought me near him. And I told him about them all, not looking for promises or commitments on the latter — how could I have, based on something so ephemeral? But cool breezes were coming across the ocean. When I went back at midterm for an interview over there, it was all very cordial — but as if we were ex-colleagues meeting after one had left the firm, not two people who’d been powerfully drawn to each other, who’d dreamed big dreams together. So?
In the first intoxicating days we were getting to know each other, I asked for only one promise: that should things between us ever not seem right, that we’d talk, that we wouldn’t just let it fade away. But fading away is exactly what’s happened, and apart from the pain, it feels like such a waste. But the pain is there, and the loss, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why it happened like this — or why or how he just let go without a word. I’ve been as cool as I humanly can — no weepy “where are you” calls or messages, no scenes, slim-to-nil contact that mirrors his own — but damn, does it still hurt! Now I know in my head that if a man’s interested, he’ll make it known. And this one isn’t. And if he isn’t, then letting him see the extent of my grief won’t bring him back. And keeping up a “casual” correspondence with him is impossible for me; it would just stir up all the dreams and yearning yet again.
And yet — I feel like letting it go without really fighting for it could be a huge mistake, borne by my pride and fear and standing on ceremony. That’s the last thing I want. Is it brave to let go and put it out of my mind as best I can, or is it brave, having laid myself bare with him before, to do it once again (as given the status quo there’s really nothing much to lose)?
No Idea in New York
Dear No Idea,
Sometimes laying yourself bare is the only way to get the truth. The relationship may or may not be worth fighting for, but the truth certainly is, and you ought to fight for that. Of course, if he’s British, as I suspect he is (I’m taking a leap, but that’s my job), what strikes you as the simple truth will strike him as an outrageously indiscreet revelation bordering on the obscene.
Figure it this way: If someone said he just wants to see what you look like, you’d be willing to appear before him, in public, in your corporeal self, right? You’d be showing him “what you look like.” But he might say he can’t really see what you look like at all with all those clothes on.
People can mean different things by “what you look like,” and they can mean different things by “the truth about what happened between us.” You can’t expect him to pour forth his most intimate feelings on cue. So you may have to craft some simple, direct questions that give you the outlines of his feelings, and sort of trace a picture, and then shade the picture and fill in the body yourself.
For instance, you would really like to know if he was ever in love with you, right? It might be painful, but you need to know. So you have to ask: “Were you ever in love with me?” If he says he was, ask him when that changed. Don’t ask him how, just ask him when. That will focus his mind on something, without committing him to discussing his feelings. In other words, did it change while you were together, or after you left? Did it change recently, or quite some time ago? On the other hand, if he says he was never in love with you, ask him if he was aware of how you felt about him. If he answers your question with a question, such as “Um, just how did you feel about me?” don’t answer. Instead, in turn, answer his question with a question. Ask him what he assumed you felt about him. Ask him what he thought.
You have to allow for the possibility that he knew quite well exactly how you felt about him, and he was just enjoying your attentions without any plan to reciprocate. If you’re in graduate school, you have to seek the truth.
There are a few other questions you could ask him, but I think you get the point: You need to get just a few facts so you can construct a little narrative for yourself: Here’s a picture of what happened to me. Here’s the car, here’s the accident, here’s me convalescing, here’s a calendar showing how long it took to heal, here’s my journal of how I got over it. And then look here at this photo, this is me, moving on. I’m the one on the horse! Can you believe how funny I look in a jockey suit?
There is one other thing about trying to get answers out of him if he’s British: You may have to frighten him. If you simply act like a sane, if somewhat direct, American woman looking for answers, he may give you nothing but the blandest of platitudes. You may have to play the crazy, demanding, selfish, ungovernable, hot-tempered, spoiled-rotten bitch-devil sex queen. If so, lay it on thick. Make a scene at his place of employment. Claim there’s a baby on the way. Whatever it takes.
And who knows, in the course of finding out the truth, you may uncover some feelings of his you didn’t know were there. Just because he’s behaving in a reserved way doesn’t mean he has no feelings for you. It just means he’s doing the right thing as defined by his culture. He may be crazy about you. He may think it’s you who doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. All you can do is find out.
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!
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’s classic column fromTUESDAY, APR 19, 2011
I get in and I get out. How can I slow down?
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.
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’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 23, 2003
There’s a kind of girl I like, but I don’t seem to get anywhere with her because I don’t speak the “cool people” language.
It’s been about three years since I started messing around with the online personals, after a tough breakup. During that time there was a nine-month relationship with a girl I met through friends who was “nice” but not exactly passionate, and we’ve deescalated into friends. Besides that, my dating life, though busy, has consisted of short episodes of e-mail/phone/dinner, rarely more than two dates, and that’s it. It’s almost always my choice not to continue, because it seems like I meet the same type of woman over and over again — in real life or online. I’m a pretty steady healer-type and people who respond to me in a romantic way tend to be high-strung, fairly insecure and fearful to an extent greater than I want to have a future with.
There’s another type of girl out there whom I see, make contact with and occasionally get responses from. This is the cute-as-hell, supercool, awesome, funny, smart sort of woman who really does it for me (and everyone else). We might go out on a date or two, but they don’t seem very interested. I think there’s some sort of language I don’t speak — the “cool people” language — and I know that to relate to the kind of women I want in my life I must speak it, but I don’t understand a word. This is getting to be a real bummer on me, and it’s hard on women who think we’re starting something and then get (gently) dropped.
I don’t start much of anything anymore anyway — seems sort of pointless with this broken record cycle. My amorous feelings are generally either dormant or anguished at having been woken up by someone who’s not interested. Can you offer some perspective, perhaps some changes to make or other ideas? My occupation and hobbies don’t put me near women on an activity-oriented basis, so the personals seemed like a good idea but it’s just not working out, at least not the way I’m approaching it. I know these things take time, but it’s been so long since I’ve been able to say the L-word and mean it in every sense.
Water, Water Everywhere
I know what you’re talking about. There’s a kind of person who shines, who is quick and bright and hard to catch, around whom it seems that life is sweeter, lighter, faster. And you want to ride in their cars and go to the parties they go to. But when you get in the car suddenly you’re like a bag of concrete in the leather seat, dusty and inert, and they look at you and you know they’re thinking how heavy you are and how unpleasant it’s going to be to have to carry you on their backs all the way up the steps of the glamorous house up in the Hollywood Hills where Ice-T lives.
All I can say is, you have some choices. You can be the slightly uncool guy who’s always in the background, as if silence and shadow followed you around; there’s a penumbra of uncoolness about your head so that it’s almost hard to see you even in the bright sunlight. You can be that guy if you want, if you feed on this action and you can stand not to be in the spotlight, can stand being the driver, the fetcher of cocktails, the one who always goes for beer.
I have been cool and I have been uncool, and cool is pretty good, but uncool is better. Cool is too much work; you have to be an athlete of ennui, a virtuoso actor of sweet nonchalance, you have to look as though where you just came from was the most fabulous place in the world except for the place where you’re headed to. You can do it if you study the movies. But you will always be pretending that you don’t wake up lonely and afraid in the middle of the night.
For all I know, maybe you don’t wake up lonely and afraid in the middle of the night. What do I know? My guess is that you’re an introverted sensing type who’s attracted to flashy extroverted intuitives. (As who wouldn’t be?) So by the time you’ve formulated a sentence about the weather they’ve already summed up the history of condoms and what’s wrong with Madonna. It’s dizzying and fun to be around them, but you always feel a step behind. Well, you probably are a step behind, but your steps are bigger and more solid.
Here’s a thought: If they have something you want, why not try to find out where they get it, and then see if you can get some yourself. Go to the places where they go. Listen to what they listen to. Take some of their drugs. See their movies. Because you have to start to feel the way they feel, and the cultural productions they consume contain the shape of their feelings and attitudes. You might be able to enhance your intuitive sense of where they’re coming from if you immerse yourself in their cultural milieu.
And, if my wild guess is correct, and you’re more oriented toward sensing, you can do stuff they can’t do. What can you do? You can take all that money you’re making doing some boring, solitary, analytical job and get a big house and have big parties where everything is just right. You might always be the Gatsby in the background, making sure the caterer gets tipped. But at least you’ll be in that bright, dizzying world.
I know this may be a little more elliptical and all-encompassing than you were hoping for, but I think your small problem represents a lifelong orientation, so you might as well think big.
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 12, 2012
After 15 years, suddenly she’s moody and unreachable — and I think it’s her boyfriend’s fault
I’m sure you’ve had letters similar to mine, but I’m sure there are others who might benefit by knowing it’s not just them who’ve dealt with a toxic friendship in their lives. I’ve dated some toxic men; one who was a verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic. I dated him off and on for about two years. During that time, I was aware that he was not the right one. When I finally had my fill of his BS, I walked away from the relationship. It took Al-Anon and some counseling for me to see the light and gain strength to move on, but I did move on. I have not dated anyone seriously in over three years. Had a few dates but nothing that really clicked.
I’ve had a friend (L.) for about 15 years whom I grew close to due to our part-time jobs in retail (we both moonlight there) and I also lived one street over from her until she moved down a few streets to another house. She has been married five or six times but I’ve only known her last ex-husband. He seemed like a nice guy and she has kids with him. She also had cheated on him (according to her and others). She has dated R. for about five years. R. is a recovered cocaine addict who went through rehab four times before becoming and staying clean and sober. He attended N.A. meetings until he no longer had to (due to court dealings). In the beginning, L. seemed really happy with R. and she and I seemed to get even closer due to some illnesses and surgeries she had a couple of years ago. R. was somewhat supportive when she had cancer but was totally not around when she had her knee replaced later that same year. It was around that time that I suspected that he was not the great guy she thought he was. I had felt like L. was a sister figure to me. We did have a bond and there was a sister love there, for sure. Then, this past year (July to be more exact), L. started to act moody and unhappy. She was short with me at work and didn’t talk much. The following week she apologized to me and things seemed better. Then, only a few weeks later, she comes to work one night and acts angry at everyone. She would hardly talk to anyone and she was trying to give all her work hours away that week (apparently due to personal issues). When I left that night, I told her to call me if she wanted to talk. She called me the next day to apologize again for her behavior and said I was her closest friend and that she should not treat me that way. I was sure whatever the issue was, it had nothing to do with me. She was fine for the most part but you could still see this edge to her that wasn’t settling. Later (while at her house to drop off something), I tried to talk to her about her behavior and how even co-workers had asked me what her problem was. I urged her to talk to a counselor if she could not or would not talk to me. I told her that I loved her and cared about her and that she knew she could call me. She said she knew these things.
Even though she knows these things, her bizarre, hot-and-cold behavior has persisted since this past summer. She sort of blew off my birthday and we didn’t do my birthday lunch until about a month later (and invited co-workers from her day job whom I didn’t know that well). I’ve always taken her out to dinner and given her a card or small gift. I felt slighted and disrespected with how she handled my birthday this past year as we had always done dinner together with just the two of us before.
I’ve known for quite a while what her problem really was and it’s a boyfriend who I believe is not only controlling, but emotionally and verbally abusive. Another friend of hers got engaged around the time she started behaving weird, so I also think that contributed to her overall attitude and behavior. Since that time, it’s a 50-50 chance on what her mood will be. She will be aloof, removed from people or act perfectly fine depending on how she is feeling about her guy. For Christmas, he gave her a ring but made clear it was not an engagement ring and that they were not getting married. She wants marriage (why I’m not sure) and he does not. She has vowed not to live with this man, but last week told me that they were going to move in together later in the summer. I suspect that she will see even less of her friends than she is now. We used to talk regularly on the phone. She has called me a time or two in recent weeks, but I have vowed to not call her unless she calls me and I need to return her call. To sum it all up, I’ve been treated badly by this friend. She has been short, hateful and downright ignored me at various times during the last five or six months. True friends don’t treat people in this manner. And while I can see that the boyfriend is the real issue, I can’t sit around and wait for her to see the light. I’ve returned to my Al-Anon meetings as I’ve found that the principles taught also help with other relationship issues (even those where there is no substance abuse). In reality, her guy might be clean and sober but he’s no longer in his own meetings, which would help him stay centered. He abuses and controls L. who then takes out her frustration on the very people who love and care for her the most.
Really good friendships are hard to find. I’ve been there for L. always and don’t feel like I’ve ever let her down but I can’t say the same about her for me. I would never, ever let a man come between her and me, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. I want her to be happy and she’s always had a guy during the entire time we’ve been friends, but this guy has her brainwashed. He doesn’t want her to spend time with me or even her kids. That seems plainly obvious to me.
This whole situation has hurt terribly. In some ways, it’s just as painful as letting go of a romantic relationship. You don’t expect your friends to hurt you as badly as a guy can. Maybe, in time, she will see the light. In the meantime, I realize I need to be around more positive friends — ones who don’t take out their frustrations on me instead of the person who is really upsetting them. It’s so very hard to move on, isn’t it?
I would appreciate some advice and tips for accepting this situation as it is because I don’t see any possibility in the near future that she will leave this guy.
Hurt By a Friend
Dear Hurt By a Friend,
This letter contains two important things, things that are hard to learn, things that are painful to accept, hard, priceless little gems that point to bigger truths. One is how the principles of Al-Anon can help in relationships where no drugs and alcohol are involved. The other is how friendships can be just as painful as romantic relationships.
I love that those two things come out here. That is why I chose to print this letter, because while I may not have any brilliant answers for you, people who read this letter and think about it will see the patterns here and may recognize similar things in their own lives and may be moved to take action that will free them from those patterns.
Frankly, for me, reading this letter mainly just makes me realize how bad a friend I’ve been over the past few years. When I think about how I treat my friends, well, it’s not pretty. I’m so thoughtless and self-involved! I am! It’s terrible! I am a terrible friend! I have no time for my friends! I’m so wrapped up in other things! I’m over-scheduled! I’m obsessed with my “work.” And if you ever do get me for dinner or lunch or just to hang out, I’ve got one eye on the clock; I’m thinking about some story or some song.
I should be in a band. I should live in a tribe. I belong in a supervised unit. I’m not much good at being a secular adult. It’s really kind of pathetic.
But I go on. I write my column and do my stuff. It’s all very magical and cool. But I am a terrible friend. So that’s my resolution for the New Year: I’m going to be a better friend. So watch out if you think you are a friend of mine! I’m coming for you. I’ll be on your porch! I’ll be hanging out in your backyard! I’ll be throwing stones at your window!
See, that’s my model of friendship; it’s something I crystallized when I was 12 and hasn’t changed. When I was 12, I knew how to have a friend. You rode bikes around and played with stuff and talked. That was a friend. Sometimes you snuck out at night. You had adventures. You explored stuff, like broken ships’ hulls, and swamps and forests, and you captured small invertebrates and studied them. That was a friend. What is a friend now? I dunno! Someone you have dinner with? I hate the having dinner with! Having dinner with is not fun! Dinner is what you have to quit playing and come in the house to have! Dinner is something your friend can’t come out because he’s having! Why is everyone always having dinner? I don’t want dinner! I want to go out in a boat!
Having dinner is too adult. I want beanbag chairs and an outdoor swing. I want party treats, noisemakers and funny hats. I want cake and a screaming fit.
Seriously, I think everything I know about friendship I learned when I was 12 and I’d like to go back to riding bikes and playing war and talking about nothing we understood.
Except I don’t like to ride bikes anymore. That’s the problem, see? I don’t even know how to have fun as an adult even if I had friends to have fun with! I don’t like riding bikes anymore because it’s not fun. Now it’s work, it’s a way to get to Petaluma in only five hours, it’s sanctioned races and funny shorts. What’s fun for me now? Going down to the seawall to watch the sunset. We have a pretty-new friend, Madison, who joins us on the seawall for the sunset. That’s our fun. We have a few other friends, too, and they know who they are and how badly we treat them. But mostly, it’s us cleaning the house and me frowning over numbers.
Every therapist I’ve ever been to asks me what I do for fun. Are they trying to tell me something?
But enough about me, right? Because you see what’s going on here, right? You see why I’ve got no friends? Because it’s all about me! You come looking for a sympathetic ear and I turn it all to me. Isn’t that typical?
Sorry. But look, you’re the strong one here. You’re going to be OK. That doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t hurt. They are. And you deserve to be treated well. But you know, going to Al-Anon and all, you know the limits; it may be time to mourn the passing of this friendship and find some people you can have fun with. Your friend is caught up in something that you can’t fix, and you know that. And you know that toxic relationships can seem a lot like drug addictions: The person is irritable and moody, unreliable, disappears on you, doesn’t show up, is erratic, misses work … just like a drug addict.
You know all this from your Al-Anon meetings. Wow, thank God for Al-Anon.
So what I want to give you is some encouragement to go out and enjoy yourself and find some new friends who appreciate what you have to offer. You know the drill. You’ll be there for this friend of yours when she comes around, if she comes around, but you’re not going to chase her down. You can politely decline invitations if they’re not going to be the one-on-one situations that you require. You don’t have to sit with a bunch of strangers like some out-of-towner.
You were her best friend. That meant something. Now she’s lost to you. So mourn that. Mourn it deeply. It was a beautiful thing. Mourn that thing but do not go chasing after her. Be strong. Turn to others who are happy and healthy and can enjoy your company and make you laugh.
Pray for her, if that’s what you do. Offer her Al-Anon. Let her know that if her relationship ever gets to be too much, there is a group that can help her. Just let her know it’s there, and be willing to take her to a meeting if she ever wants to go.
And then let it be. Take some heat off yourself. There are people out there who want to be friends. There are people out there who know how to be friends. (God knows I don’t!) So look around you and let some friendships happen. Let them happen.
We write and we write and we write on the Net, dispensing thoughts and advice. For what?
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, FEB 4, 2009
My problem is that we have a one-day cycle in our writing, in our lives. You read our problems; then people read our problems in your column. Then people read our responses, but then the sun comes up again, and all our writing goes down on the cycle, to oblivion.
I go nuts trying to give good advice to your letter writers, and also trying to provide wisdom and info in other Salon topics. But it all washes away after a single day. Smart, thoughtful posters get their say, but raging ding-dong posters get away with their silliness, because it all starts over again every day.
I always have imagined that future historians and archaeologists will read Salon, and gain insight on our society. But, Lord Almighty, we have so many words on our World Wide Web, and so many people!
Classical civilization had fewer writers than we have now, and even fewer whose work has survived. It is possible for a person to read every single surviving written work from all of Greek and Roman literature. Now, though, yikes! Overall, we generate as many words in a day as all those surviving classical works.
So! My question: Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again? Will our best, well-meant advice ever help anybody else in the future? Will our detailed knowledge ever help anybody in the future? Or do we just get filed, permanently?
And, does it matter?
Frequent Wise Man
Dear Frequent Wise Man,
We do not know what will be left of our culture.
I do imagine that in oral cultures a great deal of brilliant talk was made and all of it is lost. I imagine that Homer composed poems more brilliant than any that were written down, and they are lost. I imagine that throughout time seers and sages have solved the mysteries of the universe while drunk on wine or high on hallucinogens, have seen it all and tried to convey it but had no tools with which to do so, and therefore countless moments of wisdom and genius, perhaps the very keys to the universe itself, have been glimpsed and they are lost.
If you have ever had the sensation of comprehending for an instant the totality of the universe and thinking, I’ve got it! I see it! I understand! and then slinking sheepishly into the house an hour later with only the fuzziest recollection of what you have witnessed, then you can imagine how many times this has happened throughout history, how many solutions to the world’s ills, how many poems of crystalline brilliance, how many mathematical proofs, how many perfect melodies and glistening poems and fantastic, indescribable visions of universal harmony have come to our ancestors and our brothers and sisters throughout time meditating high on mountaintops or walking along dirt paths from village to village or sitting in forest shacks and caves, or journeying in ships across vast oceans or contemplating the enormous desert sky, and you can imagine the tragedy or humor implicit in this: that it all has been lost. I imagine that many who have taken psychedelics have seen, in an instant, the very core of existence, but have not had the mathematics or the physics or the poetry to convey it, and so those visions are lost. I imagine that in the pubs of Ireland poems are composed daily by farmers in their cups and they are lost by the morning. I imagine that in New Guinea seers know with utter certainty the secrets of the universe but do not trust us or do not know us or figure we wouldn’t understand anyway, and so these secrets of the universe will die with them and be lost.
At the same time, as we prattle on endlessly in our way, I imagine that software of ever-increasing subtlety will be devised to ferret out important truths from the staggering mass of words that now pile up like a digital landfill, clogging the servers of the world. I imagine that everything we have written on the Net will eventually be retrieved, sorted and priced, valued according to its originality and wit.
But does what I imagine bear any relationship to the actual future we race into as though sliding down an icy mountain? Will what we say here ever really be unearthed and used? Will there be a need for it? Are we just playing out the old fantasy of immortality, dreaming that our words will live on? And, as you say, does it matter?
I do not know, but you and I and all the rest of us go on dreaming, trying to see the order in chaos, to glimpse the perfection at the edge of madness, look for the souls of trees and hear the voices of clouds and see in each occluded heart some echo of divinity. I know that we keep on talking and writing and it goes somewhere. Perhaps in that universe that even now is spinning backward from our own, our words are coming back out of the spring air and into our mouths and back into our brains where they will lie dormant, as if never spoken, until the pre-universe universe contracts sufficiently to cause another Big Bang, and it will start all over again, and after millions of years fish will climb the rocks and grow lungs again and apes will pick up tools and invent language all over again, and again as they speak and speak they will begin to wonder, Will this ever be heard again? Will future generations benefit from all our thoughts and visions? Does any of this really matter? And again the apes will go to psychiatrists and lie on couches and fill the air with doubt and uncertainty.
So it goes. Our uncertainty and doubt extend to the infinite sky and throughout time, shrouding perfection, blurring truth, undermining what feeble faith we can muster, reminding us that we are both divine and mortal, that we live both inside time and outside time, that we are creatures of many worlds, and that we will always wonder, and always try to cheat death, and always listen for the echoes of our words in every strange town, on every strange mountain, in every strange dream that comes to us in the night.