Closet case

My female lover left her husband for me, but she won't tell her children she's a lesbian. Should I wait for her to come around?


Garrison Keillor
October 12, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

A host of readers took issue with my advice to Worried, the young woman
falling in love with a man starting his second year of recovery from
cocaine/alcohol addiction, to "turn off the lights and say goodbye," which
the respondents felt was heartless advice indeed and showed a lack of faith
in the ability of people to overcome addiction and redeem themselves. Of
course, the readers may be right and I may be wrong in this particular
case. My advice to her was based on her letter, in which she says the
gentleman is "the kindest, most thoughtful, considerate, passionate man I
have ever known," and then says she is terrified of entering into a
relationship with him. One thing that terrifies her (and this,
unfortunately, got cut from the letter) is a video he showed her of himself when he was at the height of his addiction: He looks and sounds so much the same as he does today. She finds this spooky. She
says she has no experience with alcoholism or addiction and she "just
can't relate to it on any level" and she can't get his past out of her mind.
What set off the alarm here was the young woman's own fear.

Of course one would like to know much more, but "terrified" is a strong
word, not to be pooh-poohed by me. I advised her to cool the romance,
keep her distance, and then, in the last line, I stuck my neck out and told
her to walk out the door.

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Several readers told of their own recovery from drugs and felt I was
too pessimistic about the possibility of recovery from addiction. Perhaps.
But the letter is not a theoretical one, it's from one young woman, and if
she were my daughter and said she was "terrified" of this relationship, I
would tell her to get out of it. She clearly indicates that she is falling in
love against her better judgment. When your head says "No!" and your
heart says "Yes!" there's trouble down the road. Time to step back. It's
not for me to try to calm her fears; she can do that herself. It's my duty to
point to that word "terrified."

Dear Mr. Blue,

I met someone four years ago and fell in love at first sight. Wondrously,
it was mutual. Unfortunately, she was married. So I didn't pursue. But
she did. I ended up, after much persuasion, saying yes. She
unconsciously engineered a crash in her marriage and, realizing what she
had done, left me to see if she could mend things. My spirit nearly failed
me. I felt that if I had been older and frail, I surely would've died. But,
of course, I didn't pursue. After much introspection, she realized she was
no longer in love in her marriage and that she wanted to leave it and that
she did indeed love me. She got a divorce. She returned to me. I took
her back with much glee.

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We have been together two years and thus brings me to my dilemma.

I am a woman, and she is a woman. This is nothing new to me, but for
her it is a great surprise midway through life. On top of it, she has two
kids. I would like to have a family at some point, either just with
her kids, or combined with a new addition. (I haven't made up my mind.)
However, she feels that she will never want to live openly as a lesbian or
tell her kids about her secret life and that it might be better for them
psychologically not to know about our liaison. I know that I
would not be able to live with this situation, but am wondering if I'm
underestimating the effect that time and a positive relationship would have
on her. I have to admit that, sitting in my catbird seat at 36, it's difficult for me to remember all of the steps one
goes through: I've been out since I was in college, and have been dealing with the
topic since I was 12.

Since I love this woman so dearly, I'm thinking that I should set a
compromise. That is, I'll give her space and secrecy, but with a time
limit of a year or so, to see how things progress and to still protect my
self-respect. I don't know if I would be able to do this, but it seems to be
where my heart is. However, I wonder if I'm being an
unrealistic romantic, and if I'm asking myself to sacrifice too much.
Maybe I should rack up my losses, say that we want different things and
leave. The problem with that is that I still love her, and I know that she
loves me. Should I stay, or should I go?

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In Love

Dear In Love,

This has been a long and tumultuous ride of a romance, by anyone's
standards, and now you've come to a relative calm. You love each other,
you're dedicated to each other, you're both looking to the future. Now is
not the time to abandon this love because you disagree over terms. You
have the answer to your question, where you say that time and a positive
relationship might have a winning effect on her and lead to the sort of
openly acknowledged partnership that you want. This may take longer than
a year, though. It may take longer than that for her kids to learn to trust
you and accept you as a person in their lives. And the situation with her
former husband may be more complicated than you realize. There are all
sorts of reasons why your lover may not be in a position to live openly
with you. I don't think you're sacrificing too much, to keep things a
secret, if you love her dearly.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 25-year-old graduate student who has been dating a wonderful man
(and fellow student) for the past six months. He is kind, generous,
passionate, loyal and open. I told him that I loved him, and
while I think he cares about me, he is unable to say
the words. We will both graduate and look for jobs in the next few
months. I don't want to pressure him or be a nag, but I truly see this man
in my future and wonder why he can't verbalize his feelings for me. Am I
making too big a deal out of this? How long is too long to be patient
with a commitment-shy guy?

Crazy About Him

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Dear Crazy,

I can't speak for the gentleman, but it would seem he is not
in love with you. Perhaps he is unable to be, due to some unpleasant
history of his own. Perhaps he is overwhelmed by the onrush of events so
close to graduation and is afraid to make such a declaration. Don't
pressure him to. Let the relationship coast. It's not in your hands. Six
months is long enough for the two of you to get some ideas about each
other, so if he is not inclined to pursue a future with you, you have to
assume he knows what he's doing.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I just became engaged to the most wonderful man in the world. I couldn't
be happier, but I have a problem: my father. My father, a former
alcoholic, has made me miserable for most of my life. He is unkind and
arrogant and thrives on picking fights with me. He owes us over 10
years of unpaid child support but drives a Porsche. My mother (who has
supported me my whole life, both financially and emotionally) doesn't
want him at the wedding. My fianci doesn't want him at the wedding.
Most of me doesn't want him there, either -- but there is a piece of me that
does.

Though I know he and his new adoring wife will only cause tension, I still
hope for something different -- the father I wish I had to walk me down the
aisle. But the hypocrisy of having my father take credit for anything
would make me sick. (When I told him of my engagement, he said he
would help pay for the wedding only if it would come out of back child
support he owed my mother. This man is a highly successful investment
banker who just threw a lavish wedding for himself. I told him I didn't
want a cent.)

I don't want his money, but I also don't want the guilt that would come
with not having him at my wedding. Is it fair to cause such a rift in our
family because I want only peace and joy on my wedding day? I know I
should cut him out of my life -- he has only brought me pain -- but telling
him I don't want him to attend the wedding would be a large, perhaps
final, statement.

I just don't know what to do: hope against hope for him to become a
good person, or cut my losses at age 27 and move on? How much should
one endure in the name of family?

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Betrothed and Bewildered

Dear Betrothed,

You don't need to cut him out of your life. If he wants to
see you, talk to you, take you to lunch, a ballgame, make him feel
welcome, but the wedding is yours to enjoy, not an occasion for therapy,
and if your father is incapable of sitting quietly in his pew and behaving
himself at the reception and if the war between him and your mother
simply can't be set aside, then don't send him an invitation. You don't
need to tell him not to come; simply don't invite him. If not inviting him
makes you feel guilty, then consider having a small wedding, you and the
MWMIW and your mother and a handful of others. What's important is
that you yourself enjoy the day and don't make yourself sick over it: It
isn't a political event, it's a religious occasion and a celebration, and the
bride and groom ought to have a terrific time.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I am 33 and my boyfriend is 36, and we both have the same goals:
marriage, a picket fence, a couple of kids. He is charming and we are
extremely attracted to one another. And when he's feeling good, things are
very good. But when he's feeling moody or impatient, loud arguments
occur. We argue furiously at least once a week, and the arguments are
usually from something he has misinterpreted, or petty jealousy. He often
says something that is highly insulting, and when I tell him he has hurt my
feelings, he blows up. Almost every time we battle, he
ends up going home, and we don't talk for a day or two.

We have tried couples therapy, but so far it hasn't worked, because he's
not using many of the new communication
techniques we learned. We are talking about marriage, but not until we
can be together for more than a week without a major blowup over
relatively small matters. We want to make it work, but we are both
very frustrated. Is there any advice to help us be better friends? Or should
I just end the relationship and move on?

Confused

Dear Confused,

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You don't mention alcohol, but the explosiveness of these
arguments makes me suspect it might be involved. If it is, it needs to be
addressed. The couples therapy that you tried sounds fairly superficial,
nothing that is likely to reach the deeper sources of your boyfriend's anger.
But to engage in a furious argument once a week or more is much too
strenuous for human endurance, at least for yours, and this is nothing you
should learn to accommodate. That's the line you need to draw in the
sand. The next time he blows up, don't fight back. If he goes home, don't
invite him back. Don't call him. Let there be a cooling-off period longer
than a day or two. I'd suggest a week or two.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After nearly five years my wife says she can't take it anymore. She sees
me as immature. I don't completely disagree with her, but there are
extenuating circumstances. I don't like to be "controlling," but she does.
I have deferred a number of things her way such as managing the money,
paying the bills, arranging for day care for our 4-year-old son. I would
actually enjoy doing these things, but she is such a control freak that I have
backed away to make things easier. She was born to manage. I have
never cheated on my wife and have nothing but the deepest of feelings
for her and my son. I know she feels the same way, yet she says she
can't be around me because I'm
too needy. I'm not as needy as she makes it sound, but I have relied on
her for a number of things
simply to avoid conflict -- every time I would try to make plans or
schedule things she would find
something "wrong" with my choice. I don't want to be a divorced father,
and the thought of my son
caught in the middle of a broken marriage is tearing me to pieces. Thanks
for your feedback.

Drifting Down the River

Dear Drifting,

I sympathize. Your wife sounds like a strict taskmaster. The way to deal
with this unpleasant managerial temperament, I'm afraid, is for you to get
out in front of it. That is, you must manage the money and pay the bills
and arrange for day care and do these things up to and beyond her own
high standards until such time as she relaxes. That's the way to stay
married. Do things the way she wants them done for a couple of years,
until she is satisfied that you can take initiative and responsibility and not
be indolent or careless or boyish. Surprise her with your competence.
Balance the checkbook and do it accurately. Clean up the kitchen before
she can mention it, and do the bathroom when she's not looking. Vacuum
out the car and take the clothes to the dry cleaners. You can save this
marriage by exerting yourself for an hour or two a day.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Over the last several years I've gradually lost the faith of my childhood
(Mormonism) until I have become an unbeliever and rather cynical. My
wife remains very devout. In every other way but religion, we remain
perfectly compatible and I still love her deeply. We have been married for
seven years and have a beautiful little daughter and another child on the
way.

The tenets of her faith are so inflexible that an admission of my unbelief
would end our marriage. But the prospects of spending the next 40 to
50 years living a lie weighs like an anchor on my heart. I cannot do
it.
And I can't help believing that in the long run she would be happier with
someone who shares this important aspect of her life.

Please help me.

Faithless

Dear Faithless,

This is a dilemma, but not hopeless. Avoid confrontation, and therefore
avoid a big cathartic confessional scene. Catharsis is not "honest," it's
brutal. Take the opportunity to talk about religion whenever the subject
presents itself and mention your doubts to the extent that she can bear. Be
kind. Be patient. Don't be an inflexible, adamant, assertive nonbeliever;
be a cautious, companionable, tolerant one. Listen to her when she
attempts to restore to you the faith she finds comforting. And allow
yourself to trust the love of your wife.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've never been good at making friends. When I was young,
my brother's and sisters' friends were my friends, and then in college I
met my husband, a very social creature with lots of friends with whom we
got along well and enjoyably passed the time. But he was always the one
to bring new people into our circle and arrange the outings. Other than
my husband, I never had a best friend or confidant.

Since our marriage has gone seriously downhill over the last several years
and we've grown more and more distant from one another, I find I have
no one to share my feelings with. I find that fears, despondency and self-pity dominate my thoughts rather
than hopes and aspirations.

I have several acquaintances at work with whom I sometimes talk, but
only superficially. I've opened up to my sisters but only on a
limited basis. I don't really feel comfortable talking about my intimate
problems with them. I've considered therapy, but find the idea of having
to pay someone to listen to me incredibly depressing. Interestingly, I've
found that writing down my thoughts seems to alleviate the heavy gloom
that sometimes envelops me, and helps me to clarify my feelings and look
more optimistically at my situation.

Any kind words of advice?

Down in the Doldrums Alone

Dear Down,

Some of us aren't so socially adept, perhaps because, like
you, we inherited comfortable social situations and never had to build
them for ourselves. We perched on the perimeter and absorbed enough
conviviality to satisfy us, not knowing where it comes from. One does
develop social skills eventually, and I'm sure you must be more adept
than you realize. Of course, it takes a while to develop a friendship to
which you can entrust yourself honestly. But it starts with a single small
step: You call up someone and arrange to meet for coffee or a walk, and
you talk about this and that, and when you sense that intimacy is offered,
you give up your secret -- you're going through a bad patch right now
and beset with gloom and despond -- and then the other person chooses
how to respond. Maybe she is tongue-tied, maybe she rushes to assure you
that all is well, maybe she says a dumb thing, like, "Oh well, it happens
to all of us," but maybe not; and maybe she responds in a way that says
she's been there herself. If writing can alleviate some of the worst of the
gloom, then you're lucky, and by all means pursue it and set aside time
for it. But you need to beat the bushes and find a real person to hang out
with, and then find another, and maybe even a third. Sometimes they
move away, you know.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 55, and my first book was accepted at a big publishing house and is
now in galleys, which I read tonight and somehow feel is dated,
negligible. The book won't come out for another seven months and I feel
let down. It is no longer compelling to me. I just feel really horrible at
how much I sacrificed to do this. The ego that made me get it done seems
sick. How do I unwind from this? How can I be a person again? Why did
I go so crazy to get this book out?

A Supposedly Lucky Writer Who Feels Anything But

Dear Supposedly,

You may be suffering post-partum depression here, a
natural reaction to the stress and hard labor you've been through. But
before you unwind, give your full attention to the galley proofs and steer
the book through its last stage of correction. This demands your full
attention, so postpone the letdown a little longer. And then turn your back
on this book. Mortify your ego with selfless generosity and good deeds.
Repair whatever human connections may have been sacrificed to this
book. Enjoy the end of your travails. And then, in seven months, go out
and tell the American people why they ought to buy three copies apiece.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Saturday, my wife went to lunch with friends. She said she'd be back
around 6 p.m. She finally rolled in around 3 a.m. Sunday morning, drunk
as a senator. We had words; among hers were "trapped," "I'm a terrible
mother" and "If I want to go out and have a few drinks with my friends I
don't want to feel guilty about it."

After about an hour of this I realized that my wife is having a midlife
crisis ` la any number of Richard Benjamin movies. She wants to hang
out late at the office, go drinking with her single friends and rely on me to
take care of our splendid little 3-year-old carnivore of a daughter. She
would like to meet a younger and less self-conscious fellow with whom to
entertain herself sans commitment. She is having a guy's midlife crisis.

So, in the space of a few days I had to face the fact that my marriage is a
hoax and my wife is a better guy than I.

We're trying to work this out. I don't know how to move along because I
really like spending time with our daughter. And aside from the marriage
being defunct and her lack of patience with child care, I really enjoy living
with and being around my wife; we'd make pretty good roommates.
Above all, I don't want to muck up my daughter's life.

Oy. Got any thoughts?

Hapless in Honolulu

Dear Hapless,

Don't abandon the ship at the first sight of the reef. It's a
good ship. You like each other, you have a sweet little daughter, so don't
leap to conclusions about the marriage based on one drunken discussion in
which you each said some jagged things. Try to avoid having any more of
those conversations in which you sit around and sum up your life or your
marriage in broad, dark terms. Don't discuss anything important when
you're drunk, and don't take her seriously when she's drunk. This is far
from hopeless, and I think you should sit tight, be patient, practice great
kindness toward your wife and see how you both feel in three months. Or
six. And meanwhile, devote yourself to being a good father.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Back in the age of the typewriter, you did a first draft, then proceeded to
revisions, covering it with all kinds of marks. Then you retyped the
whole thing, an arduous process that forced you to go through your
manuscript
word by word and led to additional changes as you went. Everything
went through three drafts before it was turned in.

Now the word processor corrects your typos and revision is as easy as can be
and you can tinker endlessly with your work, but I have concluded that I
must go back to the old-fashioned way. I am finished with a 150,000-word
manuscript and feel I must print it out, mark it up and retype the whole
thing. This will take months. But it's the only way to force the original
through the brain a word and a page at a time.

What do you recommend?

Luddite

Dear Lud,

I recommend that a writer put his manuscript through at least
one paper stage of rewrite, and perhaps more than one. There is a danger
with electronic writing that a sort of tonelessness and flabbiness creeps in.
You can sometimes spot these passages in books, where everything goes
slack and pages pass and there's no focus, no edge and no narrative voice
either: Somehow the ease of writing to a screen facilitates this literary
sleepwalking. On computers, people tend to write in pages and
paragraphs, not sentences. To guard against it, you print out your work
and you go over it with a pencil and revise, and then you make the
changes onto your disc. It's a little more tedious, but it sharpens the
editing. You're very ambitious to think of retyping the whole manuscript
on a typewriter; I'm not sure I could ever go back to that.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I have been best friends for years with the man who
introduced us. We love him like a brother. Through the years, we have
watched him burn through women and friends, using them for his own
purposes and then casting them aside. Because of his wit and enigmatic
personality, people let him off the hook. We always looked the
other way, not wanting to be judgmental. It was easier to take this position
when we didn't know the people he was doing it to. But in the last six
months, his selfish actions have deeply upset my husband and me, making
it difficult to look the other way. It's nearly impossible to talk to him
about serious issues like this; he shuts down at the very sight of
confrontations. We are having a difficult
time throwing away a longtime friendship, but aren't able to trust this
friend whom we love so dearly. He needs to know what's up
and we simply do not know what to say to him.

Stuck

Dear Stuck,

Write him a letter. Be careful what you say, but write to him
and let him know what you've witnessed and how you feel about it. And
then wait for him to approach you about it. This lets him know what's up,
and it also spares him the confrontation he dreads and gives him a
chance to think over the ethics of what he's doing and how it offended
you. When he's ready to talk to you again, he'll be in touch. You run the
risk of losing his friendship, but if you're losing respect for him, you may
lose that anyway and in a slower, more painful way.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a single, 27-year-old male who recently went back to school to
finish up a postponed undergraduate degree. I waited tables for years
while trying to figure out what to do with my life. Two years ago, I took
a peek into an improvisational comedy theater and find myself hooked. I
receive a lot of praise and find myself addicted to the pressure of being in
the spotlight in front of a crowd. But I feel the pressure to settle into a 9
to 5 career like most of my friends who are financially stable and have
significant others. I feel a strong pull toward the comfort they all
have, and it is tough to justify my want for the struggling actor's life,
especially starting out at 27. What should I do?

Late Bloomer

Dear L.B.,

There is no substitute for finding work that thrills you, and
you've found it onstage doing comedy. So long as you love doing it, you
have something more valuable than stability and comfort. Some very
desperate people enjoy financial stability and physical comfort. Keep on
with what you're doing, and be watchful for opportunities to take bigger
chances on bigger stages.

Dear Mr. Blue,

When my boyfriend and I decided to get married I told
him that a bachelor party with a stripper was out of
the question. Am I being uptight or is it fair to put
my foot down to an insulting tradition? Nobody is
going to wave a penis in my face before we get married
so why should I accept a nude woman giving him a lap
dance?

Bucking the Tradition

Dear Bucking,

Tradition it may be and a primitive one it is, getting the
stud excited before he mounts the mare, and if you don't like it, you're
not uptight to object. If the boyfriend and his pals want to go see
strippers, they can do it on their own; it needn't be an official sanctioned
wedding event.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My boyfriend and I are both in our late 20s and work
at the same place. For a while I kept catching him
obviously checking out a 19-year-old temporary
receptionist. When we are out in public together I
constantly notice that he is giving attractive girls
the once over. Should I be concerned about this
wandering eye?

Jealous Again

Dear Jealous,

I'd think a man odd who doesn't enjoy looking at attractive
young women, but you're the one standing next to him and you're
concerned about it, so I guess it's a problem. You'll find it hard to restrict
his vision, though it might help to move to a religious community where
the women wear sack dresses. First, you might think about your own
jealousy and where it comes from. Do you feel unattractive? Do you feel
you have so little to offer as a friend that the young man would prefer a
babe, any babe? And if you do, then maybe you need to indulge in a little
self-examination. Jealousy is a virulent misery.


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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