Getting over losing you

My husband left me for the suicidal folk singer/welfare mother down the street. I know I should miss him, but I really don't.


Garrison Keillor
July 25, 2000 11:05PM (UTC)

It's been sunny for weeks here in Pig's Eye and I would give almost anything for a good rainy day, to sweeten the atmosphere and green up our plants and give us one of those elegant black-and-white days instead of these bright Technicolor ones we've had too much of, which are like commercials for stuff I don't want to do (biking, boating, fishing, golfing). I'm a reader, thank you very much. It takes a rainy day to melt the work ethic and give you permission to sit and do something pointless and pleasurable, like rereading Flannery O'Connor. I used to live in a house with a big screened porch across the front, and on rainy summer days, I'd lie on the couch with my Lucky Strikes nearby and let myself drift through "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" or "The Violent Bear It Away" or "Wise Blood" and savor that small perfect voice and feel privileged in its company.

Now there are online support groups for the sorts of folks Flannery O'Connor wrote novels about. (Readers told me about them, I don't figure this stuff out on my own.) You Borderline Personality Disorder people can go to www.bpdcentral.com and you "involuntary celibates" (a new term for me) can go to www.ncf.carleton.ca/~ad097/ic-home.html. In any case, don't write to Miss O'Connor with your troubles, she daid.

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There was strong reader response to my response to the woman whose husband has a big crush on a teenage intern at the office. I advised her to play it for laughs, since he was coming home and telling her all about it. A couple of men wrote in to say that they'd been in similar situations -- one said that he was attracted to an intern in a fatherly way, he having no daughter -- and had had to be careful and rein in their feelings. And a woman wrote: "I know men who have left their spouses over what began as a harmless flirtation. When a husband who by nature is not a player feels an attraction for another woman, it can be far more dangerous to the marriage than the behavior of a common cheat. All flirtations should be taken as potentially harmful."

OK. Though that seems rather stringent to me. Houses have burned to the ground, thanks to the careless use of candles, but some people still light candles. If I had a match, I'd light one for you, if I had a candle.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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After four years of happy (I thought) marriage, my husband dumped me to shack up with the suicidal folk singer/welfare mother down the street. He never told me what he felt was wrong with our relationship, only that we needed some time apart -- from which he never returned. It was very painful and humiliating, but the thing is, I don't miss him. After less than three months, I seem to be completely over him. I'm enjoying a new job, exciting classes and fulfilling time with friends (but not dating). So am I an evil, shallow person for discarding my marriage so easily?

Jugglernaut

Dear J.,

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Evil, no. Shallow? I don't know. Perhaps the marriage was shallow, a marriage of convenience, and when he took off with the folk singer, it was like the theft of a green-striped couch. It's a shock to have your house broken into and your stuff stolen, but then when you realize how ugly that green couch was, it's no big deal. Think of all the long and drawn-out ways he could have left you, going through years of miserable therapy, enduring a string of infidelities, bearing a child and subjecting it to the unhappiness -- instead you got a self-disposing husband. Four years of bliss and then, bang, he disappears in a cloud of particles. In five years, he'll send you his lover's CD in which she laments ever having met him and compares her life to a shattered glass flower. Enjoy it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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My big problem is procrastination. I'm a college student -- a junior, assuming I finish writing two term papers and make up a test this summer -- and it's a huge struggle for me to budget my time so I can finish my work. Something better always comes along and I postpone doing what I should do and go have a few beers and wait until the last couple days and then dash like hell to throw something together. My mother and dad say they don't know how I'll ever graduate. My girlfriend predicts that I'll be flipping burgers at McDonald's in the fall. I'd like to change this self-destructive behavior and don't know how to go about it. Do you think that therapy could help? My parents once offered to pay for it if I'd go. Please help.

Too Late

Dear Too Late,

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What's the prob, Bob? So you flunk out of school: That's no tragedy. School is for scholars, not for you. You are only postponing the inevitable. Why? It will be such a huge relief when the moment of reckoning finally comes. It's like when your parents went on a trip and you invited 200 friends to the house for a keg party and at 2 a.m. everyone was running drunk in the street and honking horns and throwing up in the roses. You knew the cops were going to come. You knew it. And finally they did, and it was a relief. The uniformed gentlemen got out of their squad cars and walked toward you and they helped you locate reality. Reality is what you crave. An education that consists of four years of scraping by and going through the motions is the worst education of all. Far better to enlist in the Army. You need to get in deeper trouble so you can find a little reality. Stop studying. Don't take the tests. Sit tight. Eventually, someone will come and rescue you from your illusions.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 40, she's 32. We have no children. We've had eight years of marital bliss followed by one year of gradual frostiness. I became withdrawn during my final year of grad school and she got immersed in her job and spent little time at home -- which made me a little jealous and sullen. She also became very emotionally independent in the last year. We talked about it finally this last week. She says she loves me but is no longer in love. While I think that is a fixable problem faced by many couples, I fear she's shut the barn door on me. She holds grudges for a long time. This weekend was an emotional epiphany for me as I realized how we grew apart and how much she means to me. I'm now giving her the attention I previously denied her, but I fear she killed me off in the last year. What do I do to bring her back?

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Hopeful

Dear Hopeful,

I'm sorry you had that discussion in which she said she's no longer in love, whatever that may mean. (Is "emotional independence" a new term for what we used to call anger?) I agree it's fixable. But you don't get to heaven by talking about it, you must turn your face toward heaven and begin marching. You become a more loving couple by being more loving. Her grudge will heal but you mustn't pick at it and analyze it. There is love in your heart and a purity of purpose and this will do more good than discussion of The Problem.

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What to do? 1) Take a trip. Go someplace she's always wanted to go, and be her gentle, good-humored companion. Use this trip to create one bright beneficent memory that will shine over the next year or two as you work to fix things. 2) Start dating: work out together at the gym, hike, put on your pink jacket and charcoal pants and go out to dinner or a show, go to the movies -- simple stuff, but busy people can be neglectful of their pleasure. 3) Relax and recover your physical intimacy, the entire simple physical language that exists between lovers at their easy best. Nothing is so powerful at dispelling bad feelings, jealousy, sullenness, as the gentle act of love, intercourse itself and also the hundreds of slight gestures and overtures and pats and caresses that spring up spontaneously between lovers. If they aren't springing up, it's because you're repressing them, in fear of rejection: Prompt yourself to touch her more often. Two lovers in proximity like to touch each other, at least bestow the occasional caress. You've seen married people who are with each other and never look at each other, never reach out -- this is deadly, deadly. I don't come from touchy-huggy people, I know. Physical affection can be a powerful curative.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 23, heading for New York City in the fall and the job of my dreams (staff writer on a fashion mag), and then suddenly the light dawns and I think, Hey, I'm from Wisconsin. I talk Wisconsin. I look Wisconsin. One word out of my mouth and those people are going to smirk into their Chardonnay and never listen to me again. You're from the Midwest and you made it in New York. What's the secret?

Cheesehead

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Dear Cheesehead,

You regard me as an authority? Me? A guy who knows which types of foliage make the best toilet paper? A guy who feels that sushi can be improved by putting bacon and melted cheese on it? I don't know any secrets at all. I only know that nobody makes it in New York, it isn't that sort of place. Everything changes so fast. People think they've made it and suddenly they're standing on the boulevard of broken dreams, trying to wave down a gypsy cab. As for smirking, don't look for it and you won't notice it. Two crucial things in New York: Do the work and enjoy the town. New York furnishes vast pleasure to them what can hear the music and do the dance. They may be from Wisconsin or Denmark or Japan, but they walk down the street and it appeals to them, the hurly-burly and the eccentrics and the street musicians, the aroma of pizza and chestnuts and hot dogs, the jangle of a dozen different languages, the distant siren, the rumble of the subway, the pockets of grace and elegance and the flash and hustle and the river of perspiring humanity. A person who knows how to make himself happy can do well in New York. Enjoying the carnival is more important to your happiness than "making it." But do do the work.

Dear Mr. Blue,

When I was 15 and trying to be a writer, I met a guy, 20, an aspiring filmmaker, who encouraged me. He was very complimentary and we spent most of a summer together, until he confessed that he had romantic feelings for me, and I confessed that I had the same for him, so we parted. I was heartbroken. It didn't help that we kept running into each other. Finally, we went to bed together. I was still a minor and he panicked after we had sex and he brushed me off rather brusquely. Many poor men since then have had to bear the brunt of my hurt feelings.

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Now I'm 30, in a comfortable but passionless marriage and writing full-time (thanks to my kind and generous husband). Through a bizarre set of circumstances, the filmmaker and I have recently renewed our acquaintance. All the old sparks are still there, for both of us. He is enjoying some success in Hollywood; my friends say to use the contact for everything it's worth and have fun with the flirting, but I know in my heart that it goes much deeper than that. Why am I opening this wormy can? I adore my husband, but this man still makes me tremble -- intellectually, emotionally and physically. Are we fools to believe in such a thing (in his words) as "missed destinies"?

Too Old to Play Lolita

Dear Too Old,

One could write this tale of yours several different ways, as a love story in which the young woman is true to her heart and leaves the kind but clueless husband for the man she really loves and finds true happiness in Tinseltown, making artistic but successful pictures. Or it could be a comedy, in which the young woman exploits the smitten filmmaker and rides his Rolodex to fame and fortune and at the appropriate moment kisses him goodbye and leads the faithful husband to a mansion in Bel Air. Or how about a drama, in which the young woman realizes that the man who makes her tremble is something of a phony, a seducer, one who specializes in causing tremors but who has not much depth or substance beyond that. She realizes that in this life she is on her own, responsible for her actions, and a passionless marriage is not beyond remedy. There is a circle in hell reserved for those who betray a benefactor. You risk damaging your very soul if you toy with the rounder and stab your good husband in the back.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm seeing a man who I love immensely but I can't help thinking about his family's history of medical problems. Especially as we start talking about marriage. His siblings are young and already they've experienced cancer, arthritis, knee and back pain, etc. He already suffers from bad knees and arthritis in the shoulders, which limits our outdoor activities. I am an outdoorsy gal who likes to travel and hike, and I fear that if we married I would just end up resenting him because of his medical problems. Would I be a jerk if I ended things over this issue?

Hopefully Not a Jerk

Dear Hopefully,

You didn't intend to think these thoughts but there they are and you can't put them back in the bottle. So deal with them. The vow says "in sickness and in health," and if you'd rather not start out the marriage in sickness, if the thought of it is painful to you, then stop and sort things out. Tell him you need to take a few weeks to be by yourself, and use the time to think this through. Your fears are appropriate: The health of the gentleman's family is something worth noticing -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree -- and the simple fact is that, if you married him, you could expect to be caring for an arthritic old man in the near future. So how immense is your love?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am heartbroken over my niece who is on the verge of becoming engaged to a young man she met in high school two years ago. She is a beautiful and intelligent young woman, earning straight A's in college, aiming toward medical school and a career in psychiatry. He is a slug, an obese dull boy who dropped out of college and now sits around in his pajamas in the middle of the day watching TV and playing video games. He comes from a pathetic family of obese and addictive folks and is dependent on her for every smidge of stimulation in his life. She comes from a family of high-powered overachievers (believe me, I know, I've been sitting down to dinner with these people for years -- they're ferocious) and I can imagine that she wearies of our company, at times, but my God, her boyfriend is dead weight. The family is mystified. Obviously she's using him to punish us, but I'm worried that she'll go too far and actually marry the lummox. I've been close to her since she was a sprat. What can I do?

Aunty

Dear Aunty,

You love her, stay close to her. Don't be a critic, be the zippy aunt who is fun to go to dinner with and a little irreverent about the family and who is genuinely interested in her life and her future. If you stay friends, there will come a moment when you'll get to voice your opinion. She'll invite you to, or she'll talk about the boyfriend and pause and wait for you to put in your two cents, and there's your opening. Whatever you say, say it in one short sentence, and even if it's a scorcher of a sentence, say it with a smile. And then say no more. Do not be lured into a discussion. Tell her, "That's your business. I don't know the man. It's your life." Words to that effect. But do give her that short hard slap of a sentence (e.g., "You will never be happy being married to him"). Brevity is crucial. Advice is dissipated in long perorations. I've said enough.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My parents have been having a lot of conflicts and are going to get a divorce. I'm afraid that anything I say could provoke them into an argument, or if I'm alone with one of them, I'm afraid they'll start insulting the other. Help! I want them to have peace with each other, what should I do?

Worried Daughter

Dear Worried,

This is a grim situation for you and there isn't much you can do about it because you're not the cause of it, nor anything approximating a cause. A person in the midst of anger and chaos that isn't of your making should absent herself when the going gets rough. Don't let yourself be drawn into the fight, don't let them use you, don't let either of them poison you against the other. You're precious to them, and perhaps you can use a little influence to persuade them to be civil and not yell and not say sharp jagged things, but mostly you need to look the other way and pretend not to notice. It ain't pretty.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a man who has realized his dreams. Ever since my late teens I have wanted to be a lonesome rebellious poet. So I am. At age 39, I find my literary talent played out and the whole misanthropic lifestyle is getting old. I'd like to find a new game.

Unmarried, and having worked a series of low-paying jobs, I have the sense of burned bridges behind me. I would like to do something constructive for other people, but I just seem to make people nervous. Is there a practical way for people like me to reintegrate with humanity, or should I simply grind my teeth, write bad poetry and try to sustain my pathological sense of superiority over other people?

Disorphic

Dear Disorphic,

I'm sure you did more than write bad poetry in those 20 years. And I hope those low-paying jobs didn't include teaching. Anyway, it's good you want to rejoin humanity, which is in constant need of kindness. You can reintegrate and reclaim your soul by allying yourself with the meek, the poor in spirit, the oppressed and the suffering, with people whom you might expect to feel superior to. You won't make them nervous, they have more important things on their minds. They'll be oblivious to your misanthropy. And they'll appreciate any good thing you do. It's the folks at the cocktail party at the country club who will sniff you and detect something weird and loserly and edge away; the folks at the Dorothy Day Center or the halfway house or the hospice or the rehab center or the nursing home will not feel this way. Get a job as a nurse's aide. It's low-paying but you'll get reintegrated. You'll help the helpless, doing a job that not many people care to do, and you'll meet wonderful nurses who will restore your faith in humanity.


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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