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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Do you really know where your boyfriend lives, or do you just think you do? Is that apartment the only place he sleeps? Have you seen his rent receipts or his mortgage statement? For that matter, have you searched America’s city halls to determine how many times he’s been married before? Have you searched legal databases to find how many times he’s been arrested, or jailed, or sued, and by whom? Does he have three wives and five kids in Salt Lake City? How do you know?
If every woman in America investigated her boyfriend and sent me the results, I’d have column material for the next year. But that’s not how we do things here in America. We don’t snoop.
So what do you do when your boyfriend tells you outright that he’s not going to tell you where he lives? That was the question a letter writer presented last month, and the problem proved irresistible to readers. Not only did it present a mystery, and everybody loves a mystery, but it tweaked a nerve about privacy and trust. We got many, many letters begging us for the answer: “If ‘Where Does My Boyfriend Live?’ ever finds out the truth about the guy, please do publish it, as everybody who reads your column is now dying of curiosity along with you!” wrote one reader.
I couldn’t stand the suspense either. So I e-mailed the letter writer and asked her to flesh out the story. Many readers believed, as one put it, that “The only real mystery here is why this woman is not facing reality. He’s married and knows when he is on to a really good thing.” Her explanation indicates that the situation is a little more complicated, and indicates once again how complex and nuanced people’s lives are when you look at them in detail.
I’m going to quote liberally from her reply, while deleting certain parts to protect her and her boyfriend’s privacy:
“I’m happy to keep you, your readers, and nearby eavesdroppers apprised as to the events,” she wrote, “until such time as any one of them tells me, ‘Enough already. Yawn.’ I edited myself in writing to Since You Asked because quite frankly, the evolution of this five-year relationship, and [boyfriend's] personality quirks, are too numerous to mention in a letter to a columnist. I should have pointed out that the one road I couldn’t, wouldn’t, take, is the ‘sneak up on him’ route — the hiring of an investigator or the skulking in public records.”
She explained that her job would enable her to search public records easily if she wished. But her scruples, as well as her conviction that she wouldn’t find anything beyond his mother’s address, prevented her from doing so.
Besides, she said, “I knew it was of little value to look for any public records on [him], personally, because he has always told me, quite freely, that anyone ever looking for him would find him at Mom’s house, and that’s the way he liked it.
“I asked him several times, ‘Well, do you actually live there…?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. I’d have gone crazy long before now if I did.’ He likes his alone time, is pathologically neat (Note to self: Should I be concerned I’m using the word ‘pathologically’ so frequently?), and can’t abide his family’s sloppy living habits.
“So, we know that looking up public records is no option. It would be fruitless. I did, however, look up and find his parents’ address. I know exactly where it is. I would have no problem finding it. I know how to find people. I know what to do to find people.
“I’ve never driven by it. It has taken a tremendous amount of willpower not to.
“I am just so very reluctant to pull this trick and use my powers for evil purposes, like invading his almost maniacal need for privacy, which is not only the result of his upbringing, but also the result of his hating the idea of any people from his romantic past finding him.
“He once said, ‘All people come back. Everyone comes back at some time or another, whether you turn a street corner and bump into them loading kids in the minivan or they end up being the realtor who shows up to rent you an apartment. Everyone comes back. I’m trying to forestall that eventuality as long as possible by not being where I’m expected or likely to be.’
“He can and does visit his sisters, his parents, his friends, his barber’s home, his godchild’s home, his cousins’ homes. No one comes to his home. He just can’t have it that way.”
With certain identifying details removed, here is what she says of his family background:
“[My boyfriend] was raised by a family who is so pathologically private as to be … well, pathological. Family meetings were always a dramatic affair with Mother closing all of the drapes and windows ‘so that no one knows her business.’ They will not use frequent-flyer cards or grocery-shopper reward cards because Big Brother is watching and ‘The [grocery] doesn’t have any business keeping track of how often I buy groceries. The nerve.’ They probably invented the concept of the unlisted telephone number. [My boyfriend]‘s mother only reluctantly got a checking account. She didn’t cotton to the idea of merchants knowing her name and address … When she refinanced her home and had [my boyfriend] assist in completing all the necessary paperwork, she made him move to a lounge area in the bank while she signed the check so that he wouldn’t see the exact amount she was getting from the bank. ‘You’ll see it all soon enough when I’m dead and buried. No reason for you to see it now.‘
“This is the woman who raised [my boyfriend], and he is certainly his mother’s son.
“Now, growing up as he did with the ‘Might Be Jones But Why Do You Need to Know Our Name? Clan,’ he developed a habit of guarding his privacy and sees some logic to his mother’s and father’s secretiveness. He thought, ‘As far as the Department of Motor Vehicles is concerned, I live at my mom and dad’s house. Damn straight.’ Same goes with voter registration and the bulk of his mail. Calling his mother to see if he has any mail is a daily affair, and she looks forward to his daily visits to pick up his mail and turn down dinner.”
“Remember the scene in ’9-1/2 Weeks’ where Kim Basinger’s character opens Mickey Rourke’s character’s closet? All white shirts and suit jackets, perfectly hung, with precision, on matching hangars? That scene is what gave [my boyfriend] ‘wood.’ He loves precision and order and is somewhat compulsive about neatness. The miracle that he putters about in my somewhat disheveled loft with my piles of unopened mail and dirty dishes is amusing to me. He straightens up a bit here and there when he thinks I’m not looking. So goes the theory that he’s a sloppy pack rat with no toilet paper in his house and rat traps on the floors.”
My feeling, having read her letter, is that he might be a little obsessed with secrecy, but he’s open about it. So, paradoxically, he doesn’t seem deceptive because he’s hiding in plain sight. And, like his girlfriend, I feel compelled to respect his wishes for privacy. It seems to me that a wish for privacy is, in and of itself, essentially harmless. And what you have the right to refuse to disclose is at the heart of the privacy debate. There are those who would say, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you don’t have to worry.” But privacy is, in itself, worth protecting, because it represents a sacred boundary between the self and the public, the self and the state.
However, the problem is — and this is the conclusion I reached about their relationship — romantic relationships require intimacy, which inevitably conflicts with privacy. When you’re as rigidly private as this guy, something eventually has to give.
So I wrote back to her.
“Dear [Where Does my Boyfriend Live?]:
“It helped a lot for you to spell out some of his history and his family style. I think it’s wonderful that he and his family try to guard their privacy. At least the ideological impulse is wonderful. It’s just that in practice, it’s a little impractical, like people who stockpile guns in case the government comes after them. If the government comes after them, they’re toast. So keeping guns is sort of a symbolic act. And your boyfriend’s efforts to remain anonymous also seem largely symbolic. They seem to go beyond the practical things one can do to safeguard one’s credit cards and ward off identify theft, keep burglars out, etc.
“Nonetheless, I also get the impression that this symbolic behavior is vital to his sense of well-being. People devise lives that don’t push them too hard; they find their areas of safety; they burrow; they carve out niches; they do what feels safe. We all do.
“So it all makes sense in a way. And yet there’s no denying that he has put severe limits on your relationship. And maybe that’s part of what he has to do: He is saying, in effect, that the relationship can only go so far. He’s making it clear how far it can go.
“I get the sense that you’re not going to be happy with it unless it can go a little further. If I were you, I’d try to accept that it isn’t going to. I mean, I think it’s admirable that you didn’t go look at his mother’s house. You seem to understand this sacred boundary that he has drawn. And you probably know in your heart that even if you could get him to make some concessions, those concessions might ruin the sense of safety he has about the relationship. After making those concessions, it might not work anymore for him. Besides, this concern of his for privacy is going to work against the relationship’s growth at every stage; every moment, every time you feel like moving toward greater intimacy, greater sharing, that is going to impinge on his need for secrecy and privacy. Remember that line in ‘Annie Hall’ about a relationship being like a shark — it has to keep moving or die? It seems like your relationship is naturally ready to grow, but in this one area, it just can’t grow any more unless he is willing to give up a little of his privacy. He’s going to have to trust you. If he can’t do that, the relationship is not going to grow. So I think there is really no future growth in this relationship. It will stay the way it is. If you can live with that, you can live with that. If you can’t, you can’t.
“That’s my conclusion. Basically, after five years, you’ve reached that point where your relationship either grows or comes to an end. Unless you are willing to let it stay static. I suppose that’s an option; it’s just that it’s so hard when everything in you cries out for it to get deeper, bigger, better, more inclusive, etc. So I guess you have to decide if you can live with a relationship that has gone as far as it’s going to go.”
In her reply, she said, “Your response tonight is both candid and true, and I thank you sincerely for telling me what I needed someone else to tell me. Sad though it may be.”
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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday’s column.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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