Tuesday, Nov 6, 2001 8:10 PM UTC

Long-distance love

My boyfriend smells good and I can't imagine kissing anyone else, but he lives in New Zealand! Our advice man consults on this and other conundrums.

Dear Cary,

I’ve been in an on-off relationship with an amazing person for the last three-odd (very odd) years. For the last two my sometime partner has lived far enough away that it takes two full days of travel and a ton of money for us to see each other. We have seen each other seven times for around five months total in the last two years. Our time together has been fairly normal: We love each other, we fight, we go to the movies, that sort of thing.

The problem is that three weeks before we’re set to see each other, my partner decides that it is impossible for us to have a relationship, and that we need to break up. At the same time, there’s always some other woman who begins to look interesting to him, and he decides that he wants to see what will happen with her. I cry and lament and accuse and get very worked up about everything, because I love this person, and the tickets are nonrefundable. Even though we’re broken up by the time I get there, we end up back together while I’m visiting, and then afterward he falls into a deep depression and decides that we should be together after all. I resist for awhile, then my resolve weakens, and I agree that we should get back together. Things are great between us for several months, then I buy nonrefundable tickets for a visit and it all happens again.

I bought the tickets almost a month ago and am due to visit in three weeks, and he’s decided that it’s impossible for us to be together, and has begun to be interested in someone else. I ought to be done with this person. Only, I really love him. He smells so nice, and he’s so smart, he’s got that great accent, and I can’t really imagine kissing anyone else. I was ready to move to New Zealand. Is there any way out of this other than saying goodbye and not looking back? Should I refrain from seducing him on this upcoming visit?

Dummy in NYC

Dear Dummy,

This is not a relationship, but a ritual. It sounds like quite an engaging if painful ritual, but it bears roughly the same resemblance to a relationship as a Civil War battle reenactment bears to the Civil War.

Relationships are stories, and in stories people go forward and change; if that doesn’t happen, adults lose interest. (Kids have more staying power.)

You could consider a certain kind of sex as the ritual part of a relationship, where infinite repetition is possible with but the tiniest diminution of effect: It works every time. Here, you put on the French maid costume again and then discover me in the bath playing with myself, and pretend to be disgusted, but then you come over to the bath and see I was actually playing with my little toy boat, and you ask me if you can touch the boat, and I say no, but then I squirt you with the boat and get the front of your maid’s costume all wet …

Gee, let’s do that again.

Far be it from me to tell you that instead of staging romantic reenactments like scenes from Ibsen you should be having serious conversations about your future with some enterprising young man who learned to swing dance in prep school, has a house in the Hamptons and takes his emotional growth seriously. But if the reason you’re writing to me is that you sense something troubling, or even dangerous, in your own behavior, please be aware that there’s also probably quite a payoff, and giving it up may not be easy. Of course you can simply stop cold turkey, but the lures of such entanglements are obviously not trivial, or you would not have bought the tickets.

I would submit that such strange repetitions allow us to shrink the aperture through which life’s peril shines on us. We all can handle so much reality, so much of the raw terror of our own mortal, solitary insufficiency in the face of God or the void; it is only in measured glimpses that we can stare at our own need to be loved for who we are. Why risk the shattering defeat of seeking a perfect counterpart who sees us as we see ourselves and recognizes the unrepeatable constellation of dreams, memories and desires that is our deepest self, when there are these shiny, hermetic adventures to be had? How much more prudent to invent a game to play that has certain elements of the grand romance — a heady cologne, long journeys by air, a remote and pristine island country, a beguiling accent, the threat of a rival — and then play it out a few times within a set of clear and sturdy boundaries: the return ticket, the practical impediments of being different nationalities, the tacit pact of noncommitment two hungry and frightened lovers make.

You ask if there is any way out, and of course there is: The exit is right in front of you. You just don’t go. You just quit. But tell that to a smoker or a heroin addict. What I’m suggesting is that it’s more than a strange entanglement; there’s an element of addiction, but it’s not going to kill you or even give you prematurely bad skin.

Do you want a real relationship like other people have? Actual relationships have their advantages, but they’re a lot of work. If the ritual pain becomes too much to bear, or the ritual pleasure wears thin, you might feel compelled to undertake the truly daunting quest for an actual life partner. Until then, if you can afford it and it doesn’t make you unbearably sad, why not go this one more time? After all, there’s a lot to be said for a man who smells good and has an intoxicating accent, even if three weeks before every visit he breaks up with you.

And if you are actually far more disturbed by this pattern than you let on in your letter, then let this be my whispered signal to you: Yes, absolutely, you can stop. Just don’t go. Sell the nonrefundable ticket. But the thing is, there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing unless you think there is, and you don’t have to quit unless you want to.

Dear Cary,

I’ve been dating a wonderful girl for over a year now. She’s incredibly artistic, loves quirky movies like I do and makes a mean enchilada. I love her and can’t imagine myself being without her. But there is a small problem. She spent the last three years of her life (the first three after high school) stuck in her little hometown taking care of her sick mother. Because of this, she’s not sure about her place in the world and is not very self-confident when it comes to her future. As she herself put it once, she’s “independent thinking but not independent,” meaning she doesn’t follow the crowd; but when it comes to little things, she’s afraid to take a chance, afraid of getting hurt.

She is an amazing artist and could do a lot with that. She talks about art school but is too afraid to apply and too worried about money, even though she’s never done any research on financial aid or scholarships. How do I get this wonderful girl to believe in herself more and be a bit more independent? Am I wrong even asking this question? This is not something I want just for myself, I want her to be happy even if I’m not there. If something were to happen to me, I want her to be capable of moving forward with her life. Am I crossing the subtle line between trying to help her and trying to change her?

M

Dear M,

People do change over time, but they change because they discover how good the sea spray feels on their faces on the prow of a sloop, or how carrying a gun makes them feel safer after midnight. They change because of what they discover about themselves.

It’s hard to talk people into changing, but you can offer them experiences that catalyze change. That’s why parents push kids into Little League, summer jobs and college: Doing things changes you. So you can fill out the application for art school for her if you want, and you can take a long drive to an art school and walk around and watch students glop paint on canvas and smoke cigarettes in big, well-lit studios. Or if that’s too ambitious, you could buy her an easel, or some paints. There’s nothing wrong with that. Even if she doesn’t use it, she might be touched.

But more important, you ought to ask yourself: Do you like her as she is, the person inside those eyes, the maker of the mean enchiladas herself, or are you attracted to some hypothetical artist girlfriend for whom she is just the raw material?

Women are more frank about their man-improvement projects, but men do it too. Women have no problem putting a used guy up on the rack and rebuilding his tranny. Men’s defects are often visible and easy to fix: low and uncomfortable bed disease, self-image swelling, arthritis of the wallet joints and seasonal affective amnesia are some of the more common ones, not to mention such sartorial rashes as plaidophilia, easily cured with topical retail treatments.

But when a man confronts what he considers to be a woman’s defects, he encounters a kind of cognitive dissonance, because whereas women live in a realistic world of human shortcomings, a man lives in a fantasy world and pretends that every woman he’s involved with is the woman of his dreams. Only secretly does he wish that her butt were rounder and she had a show at the Modern, that she played swing piano and spoke Portuguese and could slip into a ball gown and make it sing.

So if you’re concerned about doing the Pygmalion routine, the question is not can you change her or is it OK to want to, but do you know and like the person that she is now. She has to be enough as she is. If she isn’t enough now, don’t invest in her like a futures crop. Even if she didn’t make a mean enchilada and have promise as an artist, could you still spend an afternoon with her without wishing you were ice fishing?

P.S. You didn’t say, but I’m inferring that her mother died. If so, she’s probably still grieving; it must have taken a lot out of her. Maybe she’s still nursing wounds and prefers relatively few people around, and doesn’t feel really ambitious right now. Compared with seeing her mother through a great illness and on to her reward, striving for a little status in the world may seem pointless right now. So give it some time.

Dear Cary,

To give you some background, five years ago I was involved with a man who incessantly cheated on me. Everyone in my circle of friends knew of his behavior — except me. Once I found out, I was completely humiliated and terribly heartbroken. Of course I ended the relationship, which took me over a year to recover from. Now, years later, I’m dating a marvelous man I adore and who adores me.

My problem is that he works many hours (he’s a lawyer) and that plays with my trust issues. As a protective measure, I go through the checklist of how to catch a cheater — Does he work many hours, etc. — and he sometimes fits the bill. I panic. This last weekend this panic got me into trouble. I worked myself into believing he was somewhere other than where he said he would be (he has a trial this week and had to work the weekend). So, I wrote him this very accusing e-mail demanding he let me know where I stood with him. Well, that went over like a lead balloon. What I was looking for was reassurance, what I got was a combative response.

I’ve apologized for my behavior, and tried to explain how the past haunts me, but I don’t know if he understood. Any suggestions as to how I can repair the damage?

On the Fence With Hope

Dear On the Fence,

In your best, most sober and confident state of mind, you have to decide if you trust him or not. If you really, really do trust him, and you’re just jumpy because of your past betrayal, throw yourself on his mercy and tell him that you love him and trust him but you are still crazy insecure; say you need him to tell you that you’re the only one he loves, that he’s faithful, that you don’t have to worry. Tell him: “I need to hear you say it.” And then when he says it, if you believe him and you still trust him, you probably just need reassurance through this period of insecurity.

But if when you sit down to have this frank talk with yourself about whether you trust him and you decide you don’t trust him, that’s different. You could hire a detective or otherwise plot to discover whether he’s fooling around. But even if your investigation came up clean, the investigation itself might linger like a breach of trust, and you might never feel comfortable with him again. So if you really, really, really don’t trust him, you should break it off because, for whatever reason, he’s not the one.

Dear Cary,

Long ago, my parents met at a radio station in South Florida. My mom wanted to see the guy who had gotten the job she’d been after. She stormed into the studio and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw my father, all 170 pounds of his long blond hair and tie-dyed T-shirt. They fell head over heels for each other and were soon married. As I understand, my parents’ entire hippie generation had relationships like this. He was 23, she was 27 and they were married for 15 years, before divorcing badly after my mother gave my father permission to seek sex elsewhere (as they were swingers and she traveled 80 percent of the time) and then got pissed off, sometime during the late ’80s, when he took her up on her offer. As I’ve recently turned 24 and have in my past more sexual exploits, conquests and “relationships” than I could possibly begin to imagine, I’m beginning to worry that I’m nearing the point that I’m past my prime. My hair falls out three and four at a time and I’m beginning to sprout new hair in the strangest places. I’m not nearly as suave and debonair as I used to be and I feel sometimes as if I’ve fallen off my “gaming horse,” though I’ve played “the game” to death and am sick of it.

Strangely enough, there even seems to be a shortage of women. I live in Atlanta, a city of 4.5 million people. I’ve lived fast and hard, having done more in 24 years than most do in 40. Could it be that I’ve whizzed past my relationship prime like I missed my childhood? Am I being too demanding? I want a woman who’s intelligent, articulate, witty, creative, honest, caring, open and successful, athletic and beautiful? I’ve met so many women who have some, but not even close to all of those qualities. The grand majority of women who have the physical attributes are shallow, petty and uninteresting, and those that have the mental, spiritual and emotional attributes are typically more suited for being a ballast weight on a shipping vessel.

I know your first reaction will be to cite my age and dismiss my questions with a simple, “Oh, you’re so young … it’ll happen, just wait.” But, that just doesn’t seem to be it. I had a full-time job when I was 13, ran a nightclub when I was 15 and joined the Marine Corps at 17. I owned a house, had 17 employees and a six-figure income by the time I was 23 and the only thing I’ve not been able to figure out is the romantic side of life. I’m not unattractive and despite my seemingly cocky résumé above, am a very affable and generally good-spirited person. Have the sins of my past been revisited upon me now? Have I doomed myself to a life of looking for love, but never finding it?

Perspicacious

Dear Perspicacious,

Well, let me restate the problem: You’re concerned that while you’ve found remarkable success in other areas of life, you haven’t found true love, and you feel that the whirlwind pace of short relationships you’ve had up till now, as well as the emotional lessons you learned from your parents, may have something to do with it. I would say you’re probably right.

This is a guess, but in seducing many women in short succession you may have acquired some bad interpersonal habits. They may be preventing you from forming the kind of bond with a woman that love grows out of. You were too young to notice, but in the ’60s and ’70s the flip side of your parents’ hippie hedonism was the feminist revolution, in which women declared themselves full human beings and attempted to curtail their widespread objectification by men by attempting to reclaim and redefine certain images of sexuality and desire (have I got that basically right, dear?). The result of this was an accommodation on the part of men that involved no small degree of soul-searching about relationships, power, beauty and love.

Now that the benefits of the feminist movement have largely been won for women, the sort of agonizing debate over who opens doors for whom and who whistles at whose wiggle isn’t as common as it used to be. But some simple truths about men and women remain, one of which is that a relationship is different from a merger and acquisition or a “conquest.” And therein may lie your confusion. As much as it might appear possible — because we still do commodify women — money can’t buy you true love, and there is no direct route to it such as might be sold on late-night infomercials. There have been songs about this. I can’t believe I’m actually having to say these things.

Complaining that you had 17 employees by the time you were 23 and yet have not found true love is like complaining that your degree in biochemistry doesn’t seem to have helped your hockey game. The two just aren’t related.

Face it: Even though you don’t want me to say it, I’m going to say it: You’re only 24. You just don’t know enough yet. But let’s explore this in a little more painful detail: It’s reasonable to assume that many women of the type you seek probably exist, and if you set about now looking for them, using the most efficient, businesslike methods at your disposal, within a year or two you may have identified several who meet the requirements. But once you locate such a woman, what then? You will find that each of these women in turn has a whole set of independent requirements. How likely do you think it is that your ideal woman has you as her ideal? And how are you going to guarantee that she remains single and available, and how are you going to arrange for her to be in your city, and to take a liking to you? And what do you do when she reveals quirks in her personality that do not comport with your master plan? Can you simply rezone her, or order her to conduct remedial work to bring her up to code?

It’s an awful lot of work you’re facing. Why not just try to live a normal life, enjoy your success, have fun and if you meet a woman you feel really happy with, who laughs at your jokes and makes you scream in the night, just try to stick around with her and hope she doesn’t find you too unbearably tiresome.

Array