Fooling around or falling in love?

Should my husband be grading me on my sexual performance? Should I get braces? Should I trust someone just because he pays his taxes on time? Cary answers all these questions, and more.

Published October 30, 2001 7:23PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have been in a loving relationship for three years with a woman who is kind, intelligent, funny and who loves me very much. We both share the same beliefs and goals, and I am blessed to have her in my life.

Our physical relationship is less passionate and more sporadic in nature than I would like, though in the beginning of our relationship the opposite was true. We are working to bring the excitement back, and we are talking increasingly about marriage.

On one hand, I think I'm ready for this step. But there are aspects of my behavior that have been troubling me. To begin with, I keep in daily contact with two serious ex-girlfriends, both of whom still have feelings for me and for whom my own feelings are unresolved. I feel guilty because I know that there are more than platonic feelings involved, although I do not see a future with either of them.

Last weekend, at the end of a drunken night with friends, I ended up kissing another woman I had just met that night. The next thing I knew, we were in bed together (although kissing was the extent of it). I felt horrible the next morning -- this is the first time I have cheated on my girlfriend in our three years together -- but perhaps worse than the guilt, I felt worried about my own ability and desire to stay monogamous. I love my girlfriend, but the intoxication of kissing a new person was heady, and I don't know how to reconcile the two.

I am planning to visit one of my exes in the next few months, and I am thinking: If I don't have the willpower to resist a stranger, how will I fend off the desire to be with my ex? Should I fend off that desire? I feel that I must see her to get some closure to the situation, but I don't like the uncertainty that has been with me since this past weekend's indiscretion.

Am I a horrible man who doesn't deserve the love of this good woman, or am I just a flawed human being for whom there is hope? I want to have a life with her, but recent events make me wonder if I'm emotionally ready and/or capable of that. It all leaves me quite --


Dear Confused,

It sounds to me like you're not ready to settle down. There's nothing wrong with not being ready to settle down. But you owe it to your girlfriend to tell her -- not that you still have the hots for your exes, or that you got drunk and climbed into bed with some girl you just met (and especially not that you got drunk and got in bed with her "but we just kissed"!). But do tell her that you're not ready to settle down yet. She might be hurt and she might not want to wait around for you, but then again she might not be ready to settle down with you either. Start by telling the truth.

Are you sticking with her because that's what you think you're supposed to do to be a good man? There will be times for loyalty to triumph over impulse, but I don't think you're there yet. I think your impulses are still those of a young man who hasn't found his true love.

Dear Cary,

My husband of less than a year has the expectation of daily sex. He keeps precise records about how often we have sex and how satisfying he believes it has been. He has made it clear that he will divorce me if we do not have the type and frequency of sex he desires. He critiques my sexual performance, means of initiating relations and lingerie. I have never rebuffed his advances and have tried to be available to him as often as he'd like. I knew he had a strong sex drive when we married, and I have no problem with that; it's just that the quota system and hanging threat of the dissolution of our marriage is leaving me cold.

Am I wrong to feel he is being unreasonable? Am I wrong to believe there's more to "love" than a sexual quota?

Love Quota

Dear Quota,

He keeps precise records? That's amazing. Does he keep any other kind of journal, or will this ledger form the sole record of his existence should he shuffle off this mortal coil unexpectedly from terminal blueballs? I'm sorry if I seem to be making light, but please, my dear newlywed, get some perspective on your situation. Threats are the weapons of tyranny, and tyranny has no place in a marriage. As you say, there's nothing wrong with having a strong sex drive. But he has created his own court of the marriage bed, his own code of wifely procedure and his own system of erotic surveillance. He's running a little police state.

Of course, there might be those who find that romantic, especially if he puts his boots on first. But most folks don't like their sex acts graded daily in a book. In America, we tend to frown on such things, because they remind us of totalitarian regimes whose crimes against humanity we do not wish to see repeated. I get the feeling it doesn't exactly make you feel like lighting candles and drawing a bubble bath either.

So, to answer your questions explicitly: No, you're not wrong to feel he's being unreasonable, nor to believe that there's more to love than a sexual quota. You have a lot of work to do, and if he's not willing to do it with you, you're probably better off getting out of this marriage and starting over. Consider it a foible of youth. One day it will make a funny story you can scandalize your married friends with.

Dear Cary,

I am 32, married, one kid, homeowner, good job, yada yada. If you saw me you might even find me attractive, some say in a model sort of way. And then I smile and you may still find me attractive or you may not. In my mind's eye, you do not. It is simple: I am unhappy with my teeth and therefore I am unhappy with me. My question to you: Is it too late, at my age, to get braces? Can someone like me wear braces with pride for two years and feel no shame? Am I acting like an adolescent when there are bigger worries in this world? Or are my fears about my smile legitimate since I live in America where your looks are everything?

Pretty in an Austin Powers sort of way

Dear Pretty,

By all means, get braces. It's certainly not too late. They make them practically invisible these days. They aren't just cosmetic, either; crowded or crooked teeth are harder to clean and thus more susceptible to gum disease later in life. So go find a dentist and do it. You'll be glad you did.

Dear Cary,

Last week you offered the following tip to discern whether a lover has our best interests at heart: "Look at how they conduct themselves in the rest of their lives. Does she remember her friends' birthdays? Does she cheat on her taxes? Does she pay parking tickets? Does she apologize when she's late for dinner?"

For one year I dated a warm and generous man who always remembered birthdays, paid his parking tickets within 24 hours, was honest and early with income tax and was never late for dinner. He also spent those same 12 months actively pursuing a married colleague.

I broke up with him last summer. His co-worker left her husband later that month, and they have been together ever since.

So ... if "the simple rules of right and wrong in life apply to romantic love as well," how do I come to grips with being so unbelievably duped?

Still Blind, Even in Hindsight

Dear Still Blind,

How awful to have been deceived so. The habit of deceit is often visible in those penny-ante transactions where we do not consider ourselves subject to ethical scrutiny, but there must always be the meticulous quiet stranger who keeps to himself until one day he dismembers the kids and packs them in the icebox, grabs his fly rod, backs the station wagon out of the drive and waves cheerfully to the neighbors. Afterward you wonder if you hadn't always noticed some cold glint of the bonesaw in his eyes. But it's vexingly difficult to reconcile the actions of a psychopath with the manners of a deacon.

The thing about psychopaths, so I hear, is they don't suffer pangs of conscience. It's easy to walk away from a shallow grave wearing the untroubled smile of a deacon when you really feel you've done nothing wrong. I'm not saying that a man who does his taxes in January but cheats on his girlfriend is a psychopath, but there are lovers who sweep us up with anarchic passion, whose pretty chaos intoxicates us until our patter becomes tiresome and they shove us out of the car on the turnpike. And then there are the embezzlers of love, silently robbing our hearts by sums too tiny to feel until one day they don't show up, and we do the books, and it all adds up to millions, siphoned off in increments and decimals. And although it seems worse to be a victim of heartless calculation than of passions uncontrolled, the enveloping charisma of irresponsible attraction has a calculation all its own.

The emotional embezzler is hard to catch and harder to defend against; he's the terrorist, the sleeper agent. How to guard against deception that gives no sign? Do we all hire private detectives to shadow everyone we know, especially those who've given us no cause for suspicion?

The logic of the problem ends in a contradiction: To deceive someone, you must give no hint of deception; therefore he who gives no hint of deception may be intent on deceiving; therefore the most apparently honest may be the most deceptive. So everyone must be put under surveillance.

But none of this answers your question: How do you come to grips with having been so duped? I'm afraid the answer is the same whether you've been swept up in a whirlwind or played by a master spy. You get over it slowly, by telling the story, by studying it like a text about yourself, by taking walks and exercising and drinking wine with friends, by working to build trustworthy friends and community. Bit by bit, it recedes like a fever or a slow-moving storm.

Dear Cary,

I love her, and in my heart I believe she loves me. When I indulge in the fantasy of waking up 30 years from now, still completely into and crazy about the woman I am with, it's her face I see.

We have been on-again/off-again, gun-shy, terrified, carried away, you name it. But one thing remains an issue: I just can't speak clearly to her. I try to speak of the depth of my love and the strength of my support for her through difficulties, but somehow I manage to insult her instead. She is usually very understanding, but this last time may be the last straw. I hurt her feelings quite severely, all in an attempt to be romantic and warm.

Is there any way that I can become a normal human being, instead of the mutant contortionist I am around her? With my head up my ass, my foot in my mouth, my tongue tied in knots and my heart on my sleeve?

The Anti-Cyrano

Dear Anti-Cyrano,

There are ways to say the right thing. One way is to prepare. Since you have demonstrated that you can state a problem succinctly in writing, I suggest that you spend a few evenings composing a simple statement that you wish to make to her.

Sitting down and composing a statement to her will force you to simplify what it is you have to say. Do you want to marry her? Do you want her to be your girlfriend? What? And then practice it a few times. Keep it simple.

And then, when you have composed the statement you wish to make, pick the simplest, most unassuming and uncomplicated venue. Don't for instance, try to engineer a passionate epiphany on the Golden Gate Bridge. Don't take her skydiving and tell her on the way down that she's the only one for you. Just consider how a reasonable, well-balanced human being would choose a setting to say something important to someone they care about, and do it that way.

By Cary Tennis

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