Bad behavior

My boyfriend says all women like to be knocked around a little and he's sometimes rough physically. It's so hard to keep struggling, but I'm terrified of being alone. What to do?

By Garrison Keillor
Published April 18, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Mr. Blue is in New York, the return address of many letters in
the past complaining of loneliness and heartache, and when you
walk a few miles down Broadway from the Upper West Side to Times
Square, you do see some forlorn people, the well-dressed kind
walking alone and looking on the verge of tears, and the tattered
kind, sitting on a bench next to their grocery cart full of
treasures. Mr. Blue is not tempted to stop people on the street
in New York and offer advice, though. Even when sitting in a cafe
and overhearing a New Yorker tell her companion about the latest
jerk she dated, Mr. Blue does not lean over and offer

It is a great city if you're in the right frame of mind, and if
you're not, there are places that can put you there, like Bryant
Park, on Sixth Avenue between 41st and 42nd, behind the Public
Library. It is simply one of the most splendid outdoor spaces
anywhere. People with business in midtown come and sit beside
beautiful plantings of tulips and irises, and look across a plane
of lush grass, in a box canyon of handsome buildings, and turn
their pallid faces up to the sun. The sunny side of the park has
the crowd, the shade side is practically deserted. It's a diverse
crowd, lots of suits both male and female, lots of blue collars,
a smattering of tourists, young punks, old coots, two or three
disheveled people slumped on benches and talking to themselves,
and a few people like Mr. Blue who talk to themselves but for
professional reasons. There is a cafe under canvas on a plaza for
them what wants it, but it's so much more relaxing and sumptuous
to sit in the square and soak up sun amid the grandeurs of New
York. A block away is the old New Yorker office where the old
heroes toiled and Broadway is just to the west and north and the
old RCA studio where all those great original-cast albums were
made is on 44th and of course that literary hothouse, the two
great reading rooms of the library. After an hour in Bryant Park,
Mr. Blue is sorely tempted to tell his letter-writers, "My dear,
you really ought to get outside more." A person can sit at a
kitchen table and accuse himself of all sorts of failures and
betrayals and work himself into a dark mood indeed, and a person
can also go outdoors and sit in the park and take the sun and
lean his head back and feel somehow lucky. Sometimes life is
almost that simple.

A number of readers chided me for my advice to Heartbroken, the
wife whose husband is profligate with money (including a monthly
$500 marijuana tab), and I'm sure the readers are right. I told
her to split up their finances so that he couldn't drag her down.
The readers pointed out the obvious: $500 is a lot of money to
spend on reefer every month. (I guess it's a lot, I don't know,
I'm not active in the market.) "It seemed rather obvious to me
that their problem was not about money, but rather her husband's
drug addiction," wrote one reader. "Anybody who smokes that much
dope has a big problem." Well put.

Another reader wrote: "As a former lover of a habitual
pot-smoker, I can guess that money issues are not the cause of
the friction; rather, the friction is the result of the pot
habit. The money issues would cease to exist if the pot issue
went away, and if Heartbroken stays in this relationship, she
will continue to enable this person to medicate himself
and be unavailable to her."

Another reader said: "I learned the hard way in a somewhat
similar situation that one who uses marijuana on that scale is
dependent on it, and it totally screws up how they relate to the

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 31, dating a guy of 32 for four months now. I am not really
sure if it is serious or not. I often feel like just some
skank he's out to bang. However, he has hinted that he'd like to
spend more time with me or even move in together, and when I call
him on the carpet for behavior I don't like, he listens and says
that he'll try to do better. Sometimes there is improvement.

The behavior that disturbs me:

1) Saying "all women like to be knocked around a little." (He's
since stopped saying this.)

2) Very rough physically, sometimes bruising me. (He has since
been gentler as he's clued in that I don't like it.) This
behavior has included kicking me in the behind when I'm putting
on my shoes and "play-threatening" me with a belt.

3) Going through my pockets and wallets in front of me (because
"It's fun!").

(4) Being very obvious about "girl-watching" when he's with me.

(5) Sometimes taking 24 hours or more to return my phone calls.

I have tried a couple of times to break things off with him, but I
just can't seem to do it. Either I lose the nerve or he talks me
out of it. I'm so afraid of being alone. I feel so incredibly
lonely, all the time. A year ago, the one good guy who ever loved
me decided he no longer wants me. I really don't think I'll ever
again be treated as well as he treated me or be really loved
again. So if that's the case I might as well stay where I am,
it's as good as it gets. I feel so lost. The behavior I mentioned he has worked on so
it's not as serious anymore -- but it's so hard to keep
struggling. Oh, what to do, Mr. Blue? I want a new life.


Dear Lonely,

I don't know what "very rough physically" means
exactly, whether he's slugging you or kicking you or if it's a
playful boot in the butt, but at worst it's grounds for a
battering charge and at the very best it's boorish and idiotic,
the behavior of an 8-year-old bully. It isn't something you
beg a grown person to change; it shouldn't be there in the first
place. I don't care if he's modified some things and stopped
saying, "All women need to be knocked around." It's simply
abysmal, period, and you are in such pain from the loss of your
old love that you cannot bring yourself to stand up for yourself.
But you must. It's your life. You can't let somebody kick you
around and treat you this way. It isn't funny, it isn't anything,
it's just sort of hopeless. The searching of your wallet --
deliberate humiliation. The ogling of other women. The coolness
to your messages. Don't struggle with this. Don't accept it. Walk
away from it. You can have a new life. The moment this idiot is
out of the picture, life is going to look very new and a lot more

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 33-year-old woman engaged to a very sweet, dependable
30-year-old man. We've been together for five years, weathered
some storms, and last December he asked me to marry him. I
agreed, thinking it made sense, but now I feel I may not be
ready. I love him dearly, but we don't connect on an intellectual
level: He enjoys motorcycles, surfing and reruns of "The Simpsons,"
while I am more of a books-and-art-films type. He is also a bit,
well, boyish.

To complicate matters, shortly after the proposal, a very
attractive man at my fitness club became very friendly. We have
been spending a good bit of time together, working out and
running. Recently we went out to lunch and ended up kissing, and
for the first time in years I felt real passion. The
problem: He is married with two kids. While I know that a fling
would be emotionally unsatisfying and immoral, I am very tempted.
I find myself thinking about this man constantly, and am deeply
disappointed when he cancels plans we have made. I feel depressed
and very torn. Please help!


Dear Anxious,

Here's a new storm for you to weather. Don't try to
make headway. Lower sails and ride it out. The storm is inside
you, in your heart, not caused by these men, and the $1.95
opinion here is that you're not in love with the sweet dependable
man, but you can't bring yourself to break off with him, and you
have grasped onto the great kisser as a crowbar to pry you loose.
Sometimes we need drama to shake us loose of a life we're
dissatisfied with, and this is your drama. The attractive married
man, however, is using you in a dishonorable way, toying with
you, playing a game, and why should you accept this? An affair
with him can be worse than "emotionally unsatisfying" -- it can
bum you out 10 ways from Tuesday and leave you saddened,
ashamed and emotionally scorched. Nobody who cares about you
would give you any other advice than: back up, quit the club, cut
off all contact with the married man, put the marriage plans on
hold and sit tight and let yourself calm down. If you have
doubts about marrying the surfer, then listen to them. Don't let
yourself be sold a marriage that you aren't wholehearted about.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a guy, 24, who recently moved to Los Angeles with dreams of
fortune and fame. Four years ago, I dated a wonderful girl back
east who I still can't get out of my mind. We never got serious
back then, I was too immature, but two months ago she told me
that she is going to move here permanently. I have to try and
make something happen between us; I will regret it forever if I
don't. She is beautiful in every way, inside and out, but I have
no idea how to go about doing this. I also don't want to make her
move uncomfortable. I am her only friend here, and I don't want
her to think that I'm trying to put the moves on her, even though
I am. What is the best way for me to go about this? Should I
bring it up before she gets here or should I wait? And finally,
what is the best way for me to let her know how I feel without
making her uncomfortable?

In Love

Dear In Love,

Help out with the move, be a pal, tote the boxes,
help pick out the sofa, show her where to go to get the nice
tableware cheap and invite her to an occasional lunch or dinner,
perhaps a movie, and in the meantime, don't hurl yourself at her
or proclaim your feelings. Let friendship segue gracefully into
something else. She'll be able to sense some of what you feel for
her, so don't rush her, don't make big gestures. Chances are,
you're reading ahead in the script and she's still in the
flashback on Page 5, so be cool. And then when you're ready, take
her to the beach at sunset where it's the most natural inevitable
thing to turn to each other and kiss -- a person can hear the
music swell on the soundtrack and feel the camera come in for the
close-up and it would take a hardened heart indeed not to do the
right thing.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in love with a wonderful man. He's a little older (52 to my
40), enjoys the same hobbies (sails, enjoys the outdoors, great
food and wine), plays nice with my 15-year-old son, who also gets
along very well with Mr. Wonderful's three teenage children. We
spend lots of time together laughing and playing and enjoying
life together. The problem? He's incapable of throwing stuff
away. He collects newspapers, books, magazines, scraps, old mail
and leaves it in messy piles in the bedroom, the family room, the
kitchen on the stove, etc. It's a niggly sort of thing I know,
but I am a neat freak and we can't resolve it. I've tried
isolating the disaster, but it creeps out everywhere! I'm finding
lately tension in our conversations about the house, the "stuff,"
and recently, I'm not relaxing during sex! Help! We've been
together for less than a year, but we both want to marry and make
it work. He says he'll try, but he hasn't, really. Am I just


Dear Surrounded,

Even those of us who throw fistfuls of stuff
away hourly find ourselves beleaguered by stuff. It simply
accrues. I sympathize with your passion for clean surfaces, but
there's a certain inevitability about flotsam accumulating in
backwaters and perhaps one needs to make peace with it. Mail
flows in, catalogs stack up, unread books multiply and it's
tough to make them all disappear. You could certainly trade in
this guy for a man with zero junk who eats from a paper plate
while leaning over the sink so as not to dirty the kitchen, but
would he have three teenage children and sail and laugh? If you
work up a balance sheet on Old 52, I think most people would feel
that the guy is operating in the black. But we're not taking a
poll here, you're not them, you're you, and if junk on the
counters makes you so tense that you can't enjoy sex, then maybe
you need to do something freaky. Put the stuff in shopping bags
and stick it in the basement. Give him his own room where he can
wallow in papers. Give him two rooms. Three.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been with my significant other for about a year and a half.
Recently, he told me he needs some space to figure himself out,
and that right now he needs me as a friend. That's fine. My issue
is this: He has decided to seek solace in a mutual friend
(I've known her for six years and he and I met through her).
I believe she is in love with him. I know she's manipulative and
out for herself. I promised myself I would take a step back, but
this week I've been a complete basket case. Is there any hope? Am
I too much of a jealous and controlling girlfriend? Think I've
lost him for good?

Utterly Lost

Dear Utterly,

This sounds like a wishy-washy breakup to me, and
I'm sorry it's causing you grief. "I need some space to figure
myself out" is a euphemism for goodness knows what, and why try
to figure it out? It's his problem, and you simply have to take
the man at his word. He vants to be alone, or be with the evil
stepsister, and when a man vants to be alone, dollink, alone is
what you should allow him to be. This week you're a basket case,
and next week you'll feel sad and depleted, and the week after
that you'll be sitting up and taking nourishment, and in a month
you'll be back at the dance. Let him go.

Monsieur Bleu,

I'm engaged to a fabulous boy who knows my human frailties, but
is willing to spend his life with me nonetheless. I adore him as
well, but there's another love that refuses to budge. It's for a
friend I've known for years, and while we dabbled briefly in
flirtation, love Number Deux is the type whose true romance radar
jams beyond a 30-mile radius. So while I'm secure in the fact
that love Number Un is the man I should marry, would it bode
unwell for me to let Deux know that he'll always haunt my heart?
Or is all of this sounding like a bad "Ally McBeal" repeat


Dear L'amour,

Uh-huh. OK. Whatever. But like, is your heart
truly haunted by Deux? Or are we only being dramatic? And why
make Deux miserable by blowing a kiss at him as you march down
the aisle with Un? This is too farcical. Next thing you'll have
guys hiding in closets while your husband dashes through the
chateau waving a blunderbuss and the servants cower in the
pantry. My dear girl, the beauty of passionate love is in the way
it simplifies one's life. Believe it or not. Love is meant to
bring order to our lives. (Stop tittering, you in the balcony.)
To enter into marriage with a divided heart is to walk into chaos
and unhappiness. And who is Ally McBeal? Never heard of him.
Doesn't sound French to me.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Here I sit, a 34-year-old working on his 14th year of wedded
bliss, married to a woman who I certainly consider a saint but
who is a big fan of routine and comfortability and less
interested in sex, heat and sensuality. Her list of good
qualities is long, but I'm wondering if I should try adultery or
hope that chastity will ennoble me? Is it wrong to want it all,
or is it necessary to "settle" for the next best thing? And how
do you tell someone they are sexually dysfunctional?


Dear Perplexxxed,

This could be a deep-seated problem requiring
years of therapy with people in white lab coats listening to both
of you recount your childhoods, but let's assume it isn't and you
and St. Immaculata are simply in a rut and aren't thinking about
sex at the same time. She thinks about it while you're shaving
and you think about it the rest of the time. I don't think you
can tell your wife she is "dysfunctional" and expect her to react
with anything but resentment and perhaps make a few remarks of
her own. Much more fruitful, to my way of thinking, is to start
dating her again, doing what you can to break the routine, and
the classic method of doing this, of course, is the Journey, or
Pilgrimage. (You're much too young to go on a cruise.) You choose
an exciting destination, and a pleasant means of getting there,
and a series of romantic inns en route, and there, among the
potpourri dishes and the herb-scented candles, in dim light, you
remove the mints from your pillows and climb into bed all warm
and moist from your Jacuzzi and you let the old magic go to work.
Adultery is a perilous choice, and for you, I don't recommend
chastity. I recommend a nice hotel room.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm in a quandary. I'm 35, an editor/writer, love my work,
and live in Boston, which I love and where I moved three years ago
to get to know a man I met at a wedding in Vermont. He's a
reporter, smart, kind, a good friend, but is afraid of
commitment. We still live about an hour apart. Though I really
love him, I can't get him to move forward on planning a wedding,
home, family -- and there is a major lack of spark in our
relationship. I feel really frustrated sexually.

Then when I was feeling really frustrated by all of this in
February, I looked up an old flame on the Internet, a lawyer in
D.C., incredibly smart and cute and sexy -- we met one night
four years ago in New York, had dinner and then he kissed me and
totally swept me off my feet; we necked in his car for two hours,
and then when he didn't call me for three weeks I gave up on him
and met the guy I'm with now.

Anyway, the lawyer says he still has thoughts about me too. He
told me he just broke up with someone, hints that he wants to
settle down and start a family in a year when his
government job ends and says he loves the West. He is amazing --
our conversations completely turn me on, in a way I haven't
been for four years. I really want to see him, but I fear he is
going to dump me and of course I'm betraying my boyfriend. But
part of me wants to take the leap, throw caution to the winds,
fly to D.C. and let go of all my logic, just enjoy him and how he
makes me feel. I'm scared I'll fall in love with him and mess up
my life here, which is based on a real friendship. Yet this lawyer
intrigues me. What do you advise? Is he really interested in me,
or is he just toying with me?


Dear Tempted,

He's really interested in seducing you, and by gosh
the gentleman has done a good job of it. A lawyer who can get an
editor to want to let go of her logic is quite a Casanova and
obviously a heck of a good necker. Did you cry out in pleasure
and rake his back with your fingernails? Four years later, you're
still swept off your feet. But is he swept off his? Can you get
the Learned Counsel to throw caution to the winds and fly up to
Boston? Somehow I feel that you should be the home team and he be
the visitor. Maybe this is just old-fashioned courtliness on my
part, but why not set the bar a little higher? There's a Ritz
hotel overlooking the Boston Public Garden and I'll bet they
offer a fine weekend package. Send him the ad. Let him do the
flying and reserve the suite and fall in love with you, and you
enjoy him and then dump him. Unless of course you fall in love
with him, in which case you can both go out West and start
ranching in Wyoming. As for the reporter, his transmission is in
neutral, he doesn't know what he wants. You've done everything
but propose to him and he is waiting to see how he feels next
year or the year after. He lives far enough away that he needs to
make appointments to see you. Just close your appointment book
for a few weeks.

Dear Mr. Blue,

On the surface, everything is fine in my life -- I'm in a
prestigious Ph.D. program, have many friends and a loyal, devoted
live-in boyfriend and even a dog. The problem? I am bored. I
gave up a chance to write for a living so I could earn big bucks
in the biotech industry, and now I regret it. My boyfriend is
kind, supportive, affectionate, and yet I am intensely attracted
to my lab buddy. He and I got drunk last weekend and admitted to
mutual overwhelming desires to make love. Am I crazy to question
my safe career choice and Milquetoast boyfriend? Or should I throw
away everything I've worked for to feel some excitement in my


Dear Restless,

It must be spring at last if ladies in doctoral
programs are getting drunk with their lab partners and thinking
about getting out of science and into lit'rature. This couldn't
have happened in February. When the arctic winds blew through the
cracks, a loyal, devoted boyfriend and a kind, supportive dog
looked pretty darned good to you, but now the flowers are in
bloom and pheromones drift through the air and it's rutting
season in the laboratory. And you're asking Mr. Blue for
permission to get excited? Honey, I am no advocate of boredom. I
only recommend that 1) you don't impulsively chuck a program
you've invested time in and that you run this past some friends
and an academic counselor before you come to a decision; and 2)
be a pal and tell the live-in that he and the dog are now a
couple and you are a single and then find a place to live that
isn't your lab partner's. And then, my dear, you're free as the

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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