Should I stay or should I go?

Am I crazy to get attached to a man who's been "clean and sober" only 15 months?

Published October 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Oct. 5, 1999

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 32 and for the first time ever have met a man I believe I could marry, have a family with and live happily ever
after. This man is the sweetest, gentlest, kindest, most
thoughtful, considerate, passionate guy I have ever known. We have been
dating for only two months, but they are among the happiest days I have
ever known. This wonderful man is a
recovering addict (cocaine, all forms) and alcoholic. He has been
"clean and sober" for 15 months. He attends weekly AA meetings and
helps others who want to quit drugs/drinking.

This is all terrifying to me. His past is something I cannot relate to,
and the very word "addict" is very scary to me. But I have decided that I
can continue to date him and accept his past, though the relapse rate for
cocaine is very,
very high (and isn't too great for alcoholism either), which terrifies
me. I fear giving my heart to someone who has such potential to ruin my
life. Yet I feel I am falling deeply in love with him. Can you offer me
any suggestions on how I can continue in the relationship without making
this a bigger issue than it has to be?
It is troubling me a great deal and I do not wish to bring it up
constantly to my lover. He has explained all he can, and I can't ask him
to explain any more -- it's my problem now if I continue to push this.


Dear Worried,

It's terrifying to me, too. I sense an addictive personality at
work here, an actor who can impersonate sweetness and gentleness and
kindness very capably in his desperation to get you into his life. This is a
huge issue, and you can't ignore it. Sorry. This romance doesn't seem like
a good idea at all, if you want my gut opinion, and if that seems cold and
rough, well, there is precedent for great suspicion. He just plain needs you
much too much. The combination of his history and his all-out campaign
to win you over sets off an alarm here. Forgiveness of a man's past does
not extend to going into partnership with him. Let this man put his past
further than 15 months behind him, and keep a little distance here. Be
cool. Don't be swept up by his intensity, which is only a function of his
need. A history of lying and scheming, which addiction involves, is hard
to break. I think you should turn on the lights and walk to the exit.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been married to a great woman for the last three years. She's smart,
funny, attractive and caring. I'm starting to wonder if I made a mistake
getting married, though. I love to flirt and enjoy the attention I get
from women. I frequently find myself wishing I were single and able
to pursue them. Now my wife has decided she wants a child, but I don't
want one. This desire to be single has been getting stronger over the
last six months and I'm afraid that we'll just end up divorced in a few
years. I don't want to be a divorced father. Should I ignore the call of
the wild, resign myself to being domesticated and give this woman a
child, or is my wandering eye an indication that I shouldn't
be married?

Born Free

Dear B.F.,

There is a dim adolescent quality about this letter that I find
unsettling. Perhaps you missed a step in your developement, or maybe I
hold an antiquated view of marriage, but a man married to a great woman
doesn't moon around like this. Everyone enjoys flirting, everyone enjoys
attention and every married person has days when he wishes he were
single; but to throw away your marriage on account of some vague
yearning is juvenile in the extreme. It's like quitting your job and moving
to Italy because you saw an Italian movie once and the people all seemed
so happy. This isn't the call of the wild, it's the whisper of the
narcissistic: Why should I settle for the love of one woman when so many
women seem drawn to me? If you're serious about this, ask your wife for
a separation and go out and flirt to your heart's content. Do not "resign"
yourself to marriage and fatherhood: Resignation is not the mood we're
looking for here. Resign yourself to the fact that you're immature, and an
immature person is capable of only limited pleasure.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Should I have a baby? I am 43, I have a 17-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy. I divorced their father 14 years ago and went
back to school and raised my kids. I did not date very much. Three
years ago I met and fell head over heels in love with a 29-year-old
man. We have been dating for three years, living together for one. He
wants children, and I am thinking about having his child. My previous
pregnancies were very easy for me and I am in very good health. He
would be a wonderful stay-at-home
dad. But I do worry about the possibility of having to raise another baby
alone. I also worry about our age difference and becoming a mother
again at this late stage. The clock is ticking. What do you advise?


Dear Torn,

Don't worry too much about the age difference: Really, this
becomes less important as time goes by. And a 43-year-old mother is
likely to do better as a parent and enjoy it more than she did when she
was 24. But having a baby is no casual matter and you're right to worry;
and having had two kids already, you know what there is to worry about.
You worry about evil, you worry about runaway school buses and
pedophiles and lawn mowers hurling a pebble into your child's eye and
canoes tipping over and planes crashing, you worry about bacterial
meningitis, you worry about having your heart broken. The likelihood is
that you'd have a lovely child and the young man would be a good dad,
but a person can't only think about what's likely. The other likelihood is
that, if you don't have the young man's child, he will be cast down and
despondent. It's a good sign that a man wants to have children, don't you
think? If you feel secure and happy with him, then it's probably a good
idea, I'd say.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I don't seem to be good at unloving
people once I have come to love them. My first husband left me five years
ago for a younger woman. It was hard to watch him destroy our
marriage, and it took me about a year to forgive him, but I was more sad
than angry, and I still loved him -- even if I no longer
wished to be married to him. We reconciled and have remained good
friends. I'm still in close touch with his mother.

Last year I remarried happily and started a new family. I feel my life is
overflowing with blessings. But my new husband is having a hard
time accepting my continued (occasional) contact by phone and e-mail with
my ex-husband -- who also sends gifts on my birthday and holidays (guilty
conscience, maybe?).

I see my ex as absolutely no threat to my present marriage. He has no
desire to get back
with me; his tastes these days run to 25-year-olds and fast
cars (he is in the midst of a truly banal midlife crisis). I simply would feel
bad to sever such a long and close relationship. But my husband can't
seem to see it that way, and has made it clear he would prefer if I ended
all contact, although (nice guy that he is) he has refrained from delivering
any ultimatums. I don't want to hurt him, but I wish he could see
things differently. Am I deluding myself?

Trying In Tennessee

Dear Trying,

Your second husband is trying to simplify matters and
eliminate your past, the part he doesn't like, and that's understandable.
Romance demands focus -- it's you and me, baby, and let's close out all
the others -- and somehow your ex has drifted into your new husband's
imagination and is stuck there and he's trying to coax him out. You don't
need to cut off all contact with the ex, but surely it's no great problem to
put him in a corner for a while: Tell him e-mail is fine, phone calls aren't
fine and when he sends you presents, stick them in the closet. In order
for No. 2 to accept No. 1, they have to meet and talk and get along with
each other. Has that happened? If it hasn't, see if you can arrange it. But
make sure that No. 1 is prepared to be gracious. That's his role, to
befriend No. 2, and if he can't play it, then he can't be your friend either.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 37 and live with a 34-year-old man who when he moved in
with me was living on unemployment, having been fired from the
company where we were colleagues. For a while, he pursued his hobby,
mountain climbing. I assumed that when the
unemployment ran out he'd look for another professional job, but instead
he is doing low-level temp work and making no attempt to find something
that will allow him to make a dent
in his debts. I enjoy our relationship, but I am concerned about his lack of
focus since I would like to start a family within the next few years, if not
with him then with someone else. He says he will not commit to
and a mortgage with someone who is not sure about him, and that he
real love to be unconditional and that my ambivalence about him is a
betrayal, since he left his girlfriend to be with me. This seems like
poppycock to me; he did not warn me that he was taking an extended
break from the rat race, and I feel I have the right to change
my mind based on this new information. Am I hard and calculating, as he
would have me believe, or just levelheaded?


Dear Confused,

Oh dear. I'm afraid you've gotten yourself into a game
that can last for an inning or for 10 years of overtime, depending on how
long it interests you. Ambivalence is not a betrayal; it's an honest reaction
to reality, and unconditional love is not what seems to be going on here. It
appears to me that you took up with this man based on your hope that A.
would happen and lead to B. and soon you could have C. C. stands for
"children." I don't think that A. is happening. I think you're levelheaded. I
think you've changed your mind. It's your perfect right.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I used to write very witty stories for my friends, who all loved them, but
it seems this gift has gradually diminished. I sometimes pull out old stories
I wrote and they seem to belong to another time. I remember how I
mentally constructed them, the sheer exhilaration, almost a
drunkenness, as inspirations crackled in my mind like millions of sparks.
Nowadays I can turn out something slightly good, but nothing
remotely as good as things I wrote in the past. I am very troubled by this.
Is it possible for talent to fade away?

Not That Old

Dear Not,

Funny you should mention it, the exact same thing is happening
to me, and I'm only 57, a little older than you but Not That Old. It's even
harder for me because I earn my living doing this, and gradually it gets
harder to come up with stuff that isn't nearly as good. Sorry to burden you
with my problem, but at least you know you're not alone.

Dear Mr. Blue

After a particularly emotional and traumatic year, I've been diagnosed
with a major depression, something that wasn't supposed to happen to
people like me, from families where both parents are still married to one
another, a professional woman who
seems to have everything going for her.

I am a pretty 24-year-old lawyer with "great opportunities for the
future." Problem is, these don't make me happy. Neither does being told
I have everything going for me. I have several close friends and loads of
acquaintances, but I feel lonely and sad. Since I've seen a
psychiatrist, who gave me medication, I'm not as depressed as before, but
I still
have this empty feeling.

Too Many Questions

Dear TMQ,

Depression can happen to anyone, up-and-comers as well as
down-and-outers. And this sadness will persist; you can't turn it around
suddenly. But it's good that you sought help and that the dark depression
has been mitigated. So I trust that you're out of danger. And I trust that
you'd know if you were in danger and would tell your psychiatrist.
Depression is trouble, and it can turn into anger against yourself. The
good news is that this traumatic year is over and you took the right step.
Now take some more. You don't mention that you enjoy your work: Is it
causing you stress that you can't manage? Is there some way to lessen
this? And can you give some thought to the subject of happiness?
Happiness is not a goal that we strive toward in hopes of someday
achieving bliss; it's more like a simple situation that we allow ourselves to
partake of, like eating a cookie. I, for example, can make myself happy by
getting on a bike and wheeling through St. Paul, forgetting about all the
deadlines staring me in the face, so why don't I do it more often? That's
the $64 question. I can't tell you what could bring you some happiness,
only that happiness is a habit to practice. A woman lawyer I know gets
her kicks competing on a kick-butt soccer team, and a friend in New York
gets hers volunteering at an inner-city school, and another friend gets hers
through yoga, which offers meditation and discipline and a nonverbal
religious experience; another likes to tell jokes, which nobody expects a
woman to do, and to make people laugh involuntarily, loudly. Happiness
is a small and lovely achievement, simpler than we like to think, childlike

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 20 years old, and I have a cousin who is 20 years older than
me. He has been a very good friend to me over the past seven or eight
years. He recently married a young widow with two young boys from her
marriage. My sister and I both felt it was the most impersonal and just
plain awkward
wedding either of us has ever attended. I began to avoid my cousin. I
suddenly didn't know what to say to him. When I did see him, he didn't
seem happy with his life, and this was about a month after the wedding.

A few weeks ago, he got into a massive car accident. It will take months
for him to heal.
I'm truly worried about him. I don't know if he's happy or sad.
My boyfriend says that I'm overreacting, that I
should accept that our relationship will never quite be the same again.
But my sister has the same worries that I do: that he married a woman
dating her for just a year, and that he made a mistake.

My cousin is like an older brother to me, but I truly have no idea what to
say to him anymore. I wish I could just snap out of this and (without
telling him
what's been on my mind) let him know I'm available to talk.

Worried in Washington

Dear Worried,

Too bad about the car accident, and you ought to sit down
and write your cousin a nice long letter about yourself and what you've
been up to lately, which he would appreciate in his recuperation. And
meanwhile you should let go of all these bad feelings about his marriage.
You may be going through the pangs of jealousy, I don't know, but if he
was a good friend to you in the past, you should be a good friend now,
and accept him as he is, a married guy. What to say to him? Tell him
about yourself. Let him tell you about himself. The old stately waltz of

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 34, married nine years, and have initiated a
move toward divorce. I have tried everything, but I am not attracted to
my husband and I feel like we have hurt each other deeply over the years.
I just feel spent. And the idea of "working some more" on our marriage
makes me want to jump off a bridge. We do have children (4 and 8, both
girls), and thinking about hurting them breaks my heart. It's what
stopped me from doing this a long time ago. My husband has basically
admitted to me that he hasn't put any effort into our marriage for the past
four or five years. And he desperately doesn't want us to get a divorce.
Now all his changes are too little, too late. But I still feel so confused,
as if both options are potentially bad ideas. Any pearls of wisdom?

Worn Out

Dear Worn Out,

You're the judge of the situation, and if you're truly worn
out and feel no attraction to your husband and see no hope for working
things out, then you should proceed in the direction of divorce. You can
always change your mind. (Some people divorce and later remarry: I
know of two or three.) But divorce is what you should be talking about.
Some people so dread the thought of divorce that they must behave
horribly to each other in order to force the issue. It sounds as if you and
your husband are at least civil and so you should be able to discuss the
crucial issues, custody and money, without resorting to a lawyer, at least
initially. Draft a proposal. Separate households, joint custody and the
terms designed so as to minimize the disruption to the lives of the little
girls. Present this to him in writing and offer to sit down and discuss it
with him. Resolve to yourself that you will bend over backward to
promote the spirit of civility. You will listen patiently, you will respond
with all due delicacy. If he insists on wanting to discuss the marriage, you
should respect that, but you may find it easier to do in the presence of a
third person, a professional counselor. But you should go ahead and put
the terms of divorce on the table. You're tired of talking about the past
and about pain and misunderstanding: So talk about money for a while.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I fell in love with a bright, affectionate man who makes me laugh, and we
married on the premise that we'd be equal partners in life and eschew
traditional gender roles. Though I've tried every strategy possible, he will
not do even 5 percent of the routine housework in our home. About once a
month, I can take it no longer and we have a huge fight, ending with
empty promises on his part. I am starting to wonder how I can
have children with this man. (Football season is here -- any advice?)


Dear Cheated,

Hire a cleaning person and bill it to your husband.
(Cleaning is about half of the housework.) If possible, hire a male
cleaning person, for the moral example. Do this cheerfully, with no
sermon attached. But don't fight over housework with your husband. No
strategy is going to work; he won't change; he simply wasn't brought up
right and it's too late for you to retrain him. So let him pay for someone
to do his share. The alternative is to let the house go to rack and ruin and
sleep on crusty sheets and eat off greasy plates, but that's not fair to you.
As for football season, it's optional, like every other media event. Ignore
it and eventually it'll go away.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I find myself hovering in my mid-30s without ever having had a lover.
There are several good reasons for this including plain old fear and
less-than-happy experiences with men. The point is that I am considering
taking steps to change my life, as soon as I can figure out what those steps
are. But if I do manage to connect with a likely gentleman, when should I
explain my situation, if ever? I can't imagine faking more experience than
I actually have, but something tells me that my lack of a past would
frighten off more men than having a diary like Madonna's would. Any

Too Little, Too Late

Dear TL2,

When you connect with the gentleman caller, you needn't say
one word about your sexual history, and if he's a gentleman he won't
inquire. There is nothing to explain, dear. It's not your risumi he's
interested in, it's your eyes and mouth and neck and hands and so on and
so forth. If you decide to step into the dark with him, there's no need to
fake anything. Maybe you imagine that there's a lot of acrobatics and
shouting that goes on, but that's not the case: Murmuring is good enough
for a reaction. And you do know how to murmur, don't you? The
woman's role in the exercise, aside from enjoying it, is to compliment the
man on his attractiveness, his warmth, his sweetness, his amazing prowess
at exciting you. The more you compliment him, the more excited and
capable he becomes.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a mostly attractive, moderately successful man, 32, with a nice career
as a graphic artist, a small cadre of close friends, good health and money
enough to meet my needs. The more I work at being a Happy Bachelor,
the more I find it hard to come home to a darkened house
and an empty bed. I've dated quite a bit, had several girlfriends and
even my share of romance, but no one has obtained the
keys to my heart. Am I a lovesick idiot to keep looking for a "soul mate"?
I feel
like the best parts of me are gathering dust on the shelf while
the rest of me tries to make do with what is left.

Mr. Heart-on-a-shelf

Dear Mr. H.,

The idea of romance changes as one gets older, of course,
and as one learns more about himself, and perhaps you're looking for
someone other than who you think you're looking for. Maybe your head
isn't keeping your heart informed on these matters. But first of all, let's
agree on the fact that yours isn't the saddest situation one can imagine:
You might have written, "I am 32, a graphic artist, who is floundering in
the 10th year of a loveless marriage that should never have been." You're
young, unencumbered, eager and ready for something to happen.
So it probably will. Meanwhile, draw aside one of those close friends,
preferably a woman, and have her check you over for fleas. And give you
a fashion check. And advice on hair. And clothes. Some graphic artists
favor garish outfits that proclaim their artistness. Spend some of that
money on a suit that makes you feel stylish and cool, one of those baggy
ones that young guys like you look great in and guys like me look baggy

Dear Mr. Blue,

I thought I understood the concepts of irony and sarcasm. My trusty copy
of Abrams' "Glossary of Literary Terms" tells me that irony is saying the
opposite of what you mean in such a way that the alert listener
understands what you really mean, and sarcasm is a special condition of
irony usually involving comments about someone's
personal appearance.

So I was surprised to hear a misunderstanding between co-workers
explained away with the phrase, "I was just being sarcastic," when the
phrase in question was (to my mind) clearly ironic! It seems to me that the
two terms are generally used interchangeably. Who's right? Should I
throw away my Abrams'? And does it
make any difference?


Dear Yours,

I take your pseudonym to be ironic, since we two have never
met. If I were to respond to you by saying, "This is a question that goes
straight to the heart of Western Civilization," you would recognize this as
heavy-handed irony. I would call that sarcasm. "Irony" is the overall term
for saying something you don't mean for effect, and sarcasm is a blunt
form of irony. (You can be sarcastic about things other than personal
appearance, but maybe Mr. Abrams was a haberdasher by trade.)

Dear Mr. Blue,

What can you say to the bereaved at a funeral that isn't either an empty
clichi or a groping attempt to fondle someone else's pain?


Dear Inadequate,

The bereaved do not need you to express their grief, to
say magic words to dissipate it or to sum up the meaning of the life of
their dead. None of this is the slightest bit appropriate. Your presence is
the important thing, and the touch of your hand, and you simply say, "I'm
sorry. I am so sorry." That's all you need to say and all you can say. Less
is more. If you were in extreme grief and your body ached and you were
bleeding tears, you would resent anyone who tried to tell you what to
think or feel. "I am so sorry" says what you need to say. And after that,
you follow the cue of the bereaved and talk about whatever they wish to
talk about, or you remain silent. Silence is perfectly dignified.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 27-year-old woman who's been dating a man for a year. I think he
is the most wonderful man in the world, yet I have no strong feelings
for him at all. I've felt like this ever since we started dating, but
I've stuck with him because I feel like breaking up with him would be the
most terrible mistake I've ever made, because he's nice to me, has great
values, etc., and because I have a history of dating emotionally
inaccessible men. I'm afraid I'd never find anyone better!!! I guess my
real question is: What the hell is my problem? I've got a great boyfriend,
yet it doesn't seem quite "right," yet there's no one else I know who
seems more "right" for me than him.


Dear Drifting,

You don't have a problem, except that you're honest. You
are keeping company with a very nice man whom you're not in love with
but whose company you enjoy. So enjoy. He's a friend, and the word
"friend" is capable of many meanings and variations, but he's not the love
of your life. Stay with him as long as you like, don't worry about your
feelings, but don't lie about them either, not to him and not to yourself.
There is utterly no contradiction between his being the most wonderful
man in the world and your having no strong feelings for him. But as you
continue to see him, he may very well develop strong feelings for you,
and then you'll be terribly tempted to fake feeling something for him.
Don't go there.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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