Can men and women truly be friends?

My therapist thinks my male pal dumped me because he has the hots for me. Do I need to worry about my other guy pals now?


Garrison Keillor
February 15, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Feb. 15, 2000

Dear Mr. Blue,

A couple of months ago I got dumped by an old male pal of mine.
Silently. He just vanished, no fights, no discussions. He is a courtly,
warmhearted, principled guy who I've known for 10 years, a confidant.
My therapist thinks I was a romantic fantasy for him and he had to let go.
That, even in platonic relationships, men are more motivated by sexuality
than women are. Frankly, this didn't occur to me. Now I'm looking at my
other guy pals, wondering if this person will betray me too? Is it possible
that when you get right down to it, men and women truly can't be friends?

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Hurting

Dear Hurting,

Unless the men are gay there is usually some sexual
undertone to friendship with women. Normally it remains subterranean,
the man himself unaware of it, so it's no problem, but any buried feelings
can come to the fore, and perhaps your old pal got confused by his
feelings. Or maybe he is just depressed, or is going through a crisis that
leads him to want seclusion. Your therapist's interpretation is the $21 one,
and sometimes the truth is down in the $3 to $10 range. Don't worry about
your guy friends, based on your therapist's theorizing. Friendships
between women go through ups and downs too. Men and women can be
true friends, and then sometimes some of them can't.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I am on my second marriage. I was widowed at age 25 with three children. I
have been married for less than a year and my husband is gone all the
time. He works a job all day and plays in a band most weekends. I am
28 and he is 38. I have been feeling less and less like a family as the
months roll by. I take the kids to their activities and take full
responsibility of all household chores. Was it wrong of me to think that
when he asked me to marry him he would take the role of being a father?
And if so, how long do I give him to adjust?

Single Married

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Dear Single,

Surely your husband did not take up with this band suddenly
one weekend a few months ago. Surely you knew about this when you
married him. What you didn't know was how much you'd dislike his
absence on weekends, but surely you were aware of the parameters of his
life. If, by "adjust," you mean "give up playing music" it probably won't
happen for a while, and if it does, it'll be for his own reasons, not yours.
As for stepfatherhood, it's a gradual process, and one must be patient and
wait for affections to develop and bonds to be struck. Sit tight, take
things week by week, make the most of the time you have together and
do the best job you can raising your children.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

What should I do? I have been married nearly 30 years, since my late
teens. My wife is a good person, a good mother, a hard worker, who
gives me plenty of space. But romance not only is long gone, it seems
unrecallable. Our bedrooms are at opposite ends of the house (so my
snoring won't bother her). She doesn't visit me, since she's bothered by the mess of
my room, and I've stopped visiting her, not enjoying being gently kicked
out after a short stay. We both love our family, but don't really enjoy
each other's company, and do most everything separately. She seems
content to keep things as they are. But I feel torn and sometimes
impossibly lonely. I can't imagine how to extricate myself, and yet I find
it almost unbearable staying. I'm at a loss. Your thoughts?

Sunset Blue

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Dear Sunset Blue,

You're stuck in a rut of anger and self-pity. So do
something. Don't sink into the mud. Make your room as inviting and cozy
as you can and invite her to visit you there. Arrange to go on a trip with
her. Get outside the home and outside your marital history and your
misunderstandings, and sleep in a room together. A long ocean voyage
perhaps. A hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail. See what happens when
you get away. There are a hundred other small steps you could take, some
of them tiny indeed (work on your appearance, change your routine, try to
make mealtimes a little special, make a big deal about anniversaries and
birthdays), but sometimes a jiggle can loosen the logjam.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I am 41 and on my second marriage, to a man I love to pieces. When
things are
good, they are very good indeed. And when they go bad, they are very,
very bad. If I say something in a fit of pique, or frustration, or anger, or
hurt, he is wounded
and silent for hours. I believe in kissing and making up, so as to
minimize the upset, and he stays mad for at least the rest of the day and
often the next day or even longer. He says he "needs time to heal" after
getting his feelings hurt. I feel I am being punished. Apologies don't work
with him. Talking it out doesn't work. I'm afraid if I don't try to
reconnect, we'll just drift apart. Should I accept this painful behavior as
the price of an otherwise happy marriage? Is the silent
treatment normal male behavior?

Stymied

Dear Stymied,

The behavior is immature and rather common, especially
among men who perhaps are less socially adept on the whole, less able to
tolerate differences and deal with disagreement, more apt to be thrown
into a funk by an angry word from the goddess of love. I don't say you
accept this behavior, but you do accept that it will modify only slowly
over time, and that you need to tone down your fits of pique. Make them
less piquant. If A leads to B, then you may need to change A at least a
little. But when he goes into a swoon, you needn't be silent and moody
yourself. You can be perfectly cheerful and ignore his silence. He's
playing it up for you. Don't be such a good audience.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

How much of an age difference is too much? I am a 45-year-old
professional woman with a 31-year-old professional man. I have three
grown children and the personal and financial freedom I have longed for
for 25 years. He is mature, brilliant, financially secure and has no
children, ex-wife, etc. We enjoy the same things and get along
beautifully. I am inclined to just enjoy his company and let our
relationship develop as it will. However, I keep doing the math (when he's
40, I'll be 55, etc.). He has recently been honored by his employer with a
professional excellence award, which includes a four-day trip for two to
Florida. He has asked me to join him. I am thrilled for him and would
love to go but am nervous about how our age difference will be viewed by
his corporate executives and counterparts. Your insights would be greatly
appreciated.

Perturbed

Dear Perturbed,

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Stop doing the math and enjoy what you have. You get
along beautifully, you're enjoying your life; don't borrow trouble. Go
with him to Florida, enjoy the experience and stifle your fears. Of
course it could all blow up tomorrow, and he could run off with an
18-year-old cocktail waitress, or you could fall in love with a 68-year-old
beach boy, but today is fine and you should take hold of it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Two-and-a-half years ago, I fell in love with a woman, and she and her
daughter moved to live with me. We've had piles of wonderful times.
There've been a few times I've slept in the computer room, but heck, people
argue. She's told me that she is thinking about leaving because she is
unhappy with my clutter, my crankiness with our/her daughter, my anal
bill paying, etc.

My concern is the damage it will do to us and her 16-year-old daughter
who has adopted my kids and me as her only family. This love affair
seemed to be the end of a search after two failed marriages. I fear that this
has all been an illusion like all the other times.

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Really Sad

Dear Really,

Make a gesture. Clean your house. You can do it in two
days. Go through and dispose of everything you don't use and don't need,
and be unsparing. Put other stuff in storage. Strip the place down to the
floors and walls and basic furniture. Do it as a symbolic step in her
direction and also for its own sake, as a way to clarify your thinking.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 30-year-old professional, dating the most wonderful girl for the past
year. She is pretty, sweet, smart and just plain nice. There is just one
problem: She is a little overweight. I have tried to not make her feel bad
about it, but she has no desire to change. She complains about it, but
when I tell her it is all the candy, pizza and soft drinks she consumes, she
becomes hurt and defensive. I can hardly take it anymore. I don't want to
spend my life with someone I don't feel completely attracted to. This
morning I looked in her lunch bag and found pizza and a chocolate candy
bar! I don't know what to do! I can't live like this for the rest of my life.
Should I confront her, or just move on?

Hungry for Help

Dear Hungry,

Your wonderful girl is hung up on eating, which eases her stress,
including the stress of worrying about losing you. So she has one more
candy bar and tells herself that after this one more she'll start eating better
even though she doesn't want to. You can't change her. You can't change
your feelings about her foraging. You can tell her you love her, which
would be good, and in a calm moment, you might be able to get her to
talk to you about her eating patterns and identify something she wants to
change and that she'll accept your help with. Perhaps she'd agree to go
see a dietician with you. There's only so much you can do, and then you
must decide if you prefer life with a wonderful overweight girl or go
shopping for something a little more anorexic.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My 17-year-old son has attention deficit disorder. His bad behavior (shoplifting, calling his
principal at odd hours and cursing him, marijuana use, drinking) has
placed extreme pressure on other members of my family, especially my
husband, who is the boy's stepfather.
My son is lazy, uses nasty language, is disruptive, and the stress has been
terrible. My husband needs to shut down emotionally every night before
he comes home. This morning my son refused to get up for school, and I
told him he needs to make other living arrangements after his 18th
birthday in April. I am heartbroken. We've been through therapy, but I do
not feel my son can make the changes
necessary to live in our home. I grieve that I brought a child into this
world who is so destructive and irresponsible. I have prayed for guidance
and for compassion, and I am overwhelmed by the need to ask him to
leave the home.

In Agony

Dear Agony,

ADD is about attention and is a hindrance to learning; it's not a license
for antisocial behavior. At 17, your son knows the rules and evidently
chooses to transgress them, and so you must allow him to experience the
consequences of his behavior. A painful ordeal for a parent. You need to
avoid anger, though, and show him genuine affection and interest, even as
you let him know the consequences from you of his behavior. And you
must separate, in your own mind, this harmful behavior from the terrific
person he could become. I hope that his father, and stepfather, are playing
a role; across all cultures, one role of the father is to teach socially
acceptable behavior. Unfortunately, you'll have to watch this boy
suffer, but perhaps with your help he can fail in ways that are painful or
embarrassing but not destructive. So I worry about your cutting him loose
at this point. He needs to see for himself that he is harming himself and to
know that you care about him. This particular cookie isn't baked yet.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Two years ago, I met and fell in love with a very sweet man obsessed
with staying young. A good-looking guy, he nevertheless had
"procedures" to move hair from the back of his head to the front, redefine
his pectorals, straighten his nose and on and on (and on). What really got
to me, though, was his eating obsessions, the way he agonized for hours
over what to fix for meals. When I suggested he might want to seek
counseling over this, he threw me out. I still love him, but I don't know
how to proceed with reconciliation. How do I handle this?

Sad

Dear Sad,

Oh dear. This sweet man seems to be off the chart, way beyond
the 99th percentile. And you can't change him. Does he want
reconciliation? If so, you could apologize for not appreciating his goal of
eternal youth, and agree not to mention the subject until he asks you for
help with it. But it doesn't sound as if mealtime is going to be much fun
for you, looking across the table at the kelp and the yak yoghurt. And this
is an obsession that gets daffier and daffier as the sweet man approaches
senescence.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been married for six years to a wonderful, romantic man who was
alone for 12 years before we met. We are both 54. I have a grown
daughter
who adores him. He has a son who has been great but rather
self-centered, and
a daughter who was 21 when we married and has made my life hell ever
since.
She causes me endless pain with her snide remarks and her demanding and
manipulative ways. From day one of our marriage she has had a crisis
every year. What can I do to
come to peace with this very egotistical, self-centered grown woman?

Stepmom

Dear Stepmom,

Don't despair, don't feel bad. You're the adult, she's the
child. Really. You have a good life, she is floundering. Let your husband
do all of the parenting, and you turn the other cheek. Be loving and a little
distant. Make tea. Listen to her and don't feel you need to reply to
snideness. Be a heroine. When she pulls out of her bad stretch, you and
she could become very good friends, sometime in 10 years or so, and
you'll have lunch together and she'll recall what a shit she was and you'll
just sit and smile.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm happily married, 37, with a young daughter who loves to visit my
in-laws. We see them three or four times a year and I find them
completely obnoxious, especially my father-in-law who is unlike anyone
I've ever encountered: dictatorial one moment and whining the next. I try
to be polite and civil, and I'm a naturally easygoing person. What can I
do to not let this man get to me?

Why Oh Why

Dear Why,

Practice the art of friendly reserve, a sort of Zen social
correctness, in which you are cordial and passive, and let everything
unpleasant pass without comment. You're the American ambassador to a
banana republic with a buffoon for a dictator and you go to tea at the
generalissimo's palace and let him puff and blow and you sit with an
unflappable smile on your face until it's time to go and then you leave.
You can manage this three or four times a year.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 34-year-old writer with a broken heart, having ended things with
my girlfriend, 25, after a year together. We broke up after I returned from
a month at a writing
colony when she would phone me several times each day, worrying,
jealous, not liking my being there. I was exhausted by her accusations and
decided to end the
relationship, and now I feel terrible about it. Truth be told, she was a
sweetheart, sensitive,
loving and intelligent, who brought me back into the world after five
years
of mild depression. She taught me how to live again, and I miss her now
more
than I've ever missed anyone. We haven't talked for weeks, she is very
angry with me for ending things as I did. Is this a lost cause? I still love
her so much and miss her terribly.

Wanting Her Back

Dear Wanting,

Write her a letter telling her what you told me, starting
with "I feel terrible ...," and deliver it in person. You were wrong to
dismiss her so high-handedly for her garden-variety jealousy, and if she's
sensitive and loving, she ought to forgive you and take you back.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am an anthropologist married for three years to a very lively, lovely,
creative, crazy and moody artist. You know the story. We
seem to have a major problem: When we are together, she can't paint and
I can't write. Just having me in the same space dispels her creativity, and
I can't focus on my work when she is dancing and blasting music. When we are
together, we bicker endlessly; when we are apart we pine for each other's
company. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to rent a larger apartment or a
separate studio for her, and I have no office space in which to work, being
a mere adjunct professor. We have discussed separation, even divorce.
Can a writer and an artist remain married, or are these mutually exclusive
domains?

Nuts in NYC

Dear Nuts,

To me, a hick from the sticks, this seems nutty indeed, an
example of the New Yorker's pathological attachment to his apartment, no
matter how unpleasant. The solution is to move to Hoboken, or
Westchester, or Riverdale, or Pelham, or some other outlying settlement,
get more space for the money, and learn to get work done on a train. Or
else you learn to go to the library and work. There are public libraries and
also a considerable number of subscription libraries that are very pleasant
to work in. You pay your membership and you come in and find a quiet
corner. Make do.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am amazed at the amount of misery and chaos I read in your column,
people obsessing about what their life lacks, and so forth. So I wonder,
how are you doing, Mr. Blue?

Faithful Reader

Dear Faithful,

I do OK and can't complain, and it's nice of you to ask.
It's a good time in a man's life, pre-geezerhood. Narcissism abates
somewhat, and one doesn't think so much about failure or decline since
one is in the midst of it. Americans are fascinated by glamour and success,
which is understandable, but the declining years are more fun, in actual
truth, provided the descent is not too precipitous. I wouldn't be 30
again for all the tea in China, and thank goodness it's not a choice. The
50s make for a nice decade, in my book, and I've heard the 60s can
be even better. To be free of any obligation to be cool is freedom indeed.
So how are you doing, Faithful Reader? If the river of misery and the
winds of chaos have not touched your treehouse, then good for you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

How does one help a talented and self-destructive friend? Mine has
immense writing talent and a significant drinking problem. He remains
"functional" (if you can call it that), in the sense that he holds a steady
corporate job and appears fine. Yet I and others know he is not. His
writing is suffering, as is his personal life (though he denies this). Several
times, he has broken down and asked for help but only when he was
drunk, and I assured him that I would help him find a program. Later
he brushes off any need for assistance. I have written him letters begging
him to seek help, but to no avail. He seems to think he has to do it
without professional help. He has the bitter legacy of an alcoholic father
who tried AA and never kicked the habit. And he considers the many
successful and heavy-drinking writers, like Tennessee Williams or
Hemingway, as models. All of his friends are worried and perplexed. Is
there anything we can do? Should we do an intervention? Or give up but
keep in touch?

Helpless to Help a Friend

Dear Helpless,

You are helpless, and so is he. There are only three
choices for you: 1) love him as he is and mourn the tragedy; 2) reject
him and cast him out of your life so you don't have to witness the crash;
or 3) get together formally with all of his friends and an attorney who
knows how commitments work, and "do an intervention," knowing that
this may result in him applying alternative No. 2 to the whole damned lot
of you, or that even if he accepts the challenge, you might end up with
alternative No. 1.


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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