Afraid of being hurt again

Look for a man who has reached the "no bullshit" stage, where they accept who they are and the way life is.

Published December 4, 2001 8:47PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm about to turn 60 and have had a boyfriend for the last year-plus. We spend weekends together and have fun, but he's had a hard life, with foster parents, orphanages, divorces, etc., and says he's wary of getting close because he's been hurt many times. There are things I like about him and things I don't like. (I've been married three times and don't have any illusions about "perfect for me" guys.)

I'm thinking that maybe I need to break up with him and look for someone who would be more open to a real commitment, before I'm so old and decrepit that no man will even give me a second look. Every time I've tried to "talk things over" he withdraws or just trots out his old statement about being "afraid of getting hurt again." Should I move on or be more patient and hope he comes around? Should I lie about my age? (There's two good ones for you. Help!)

Stuck in SF

Dear Stuck in SF,

When men are young, they are often still learning how to express intimate feelings. So it's sometimes reasonable to stay with a young man while he masters the art. But since this man has had a long, hard life, and bases his reluctance to get close to you on the pain he's experienced during that life, it seems unlikely that he is going to abandon that rationale -- which is probably quite vital to his emotional equilibrium -- and quickly open up. He has probably made his accommodations to life and to his own limitations, and is asking you to accept him as he is. If that is not acceptable to you, you should break up with him and move on.

Older guys who've had rough lives don't seem to change much. They just learn to live with it, like a missing limb.

As to lying about your age: I wouldn't do it. So you're 60. That's a fact. Facts are beautiful. Facts are to be celebrated. They're all that stand between us and some murky world where nothing is true. The truth is to be celebrated. Any man who can't handle that fact isn't worth your time. A psychotherapist I know likes to say that when old men mature emotionally as well as physically, they reach a "no bullshit" stage, where they accept who they are and the way life is. A man who's done that is going to accept your age as simply one more beautiful fact.

Dear Cary,

The sky was blue and the birds were singing when my boyfriend and I met. Wild and crazy and passionate, we fell in love hard and fast. The dust blew off my days toiling in the ivory tower, staring at cells and test tubes hoping to find a cure for hypertension but bogged down by the incessant backstabbing, demanding mentors, failed experiments and that nasty dissertation.

We talked of marriage, children -- I even remembered what it was like when I was idealistic and wanted to write novels for a living! He is my best friend, my lover, my buddy. But then last night he blew the lid off of our life and broke up with me. The reason? He is depressed and needs time alone, although he still is very much in love with me. I am reeling.

Though we are both fairly young, 25, and under a great amount of pressure in our daily lives, I feel like I have just lost him forever. So, what do I do? Move on like a rebounding fiend? Call him and beg him to reconsider? Dress up in my sexiest red dress and make him so jealous he can't see straight? In the matters of science, I am a whiz ... it is in matters of the heart that I don't have a clue!

Dumped and Clueless

Dear Dumped and Clueless,

My gut feeling is that it's over. When a guy starts saying he's depressed, that he still loves you but he needs time to himself, there's a girl hiding under his bed. But that's just a hunch, really, based on scant evidence, as are all such hunches in this column. You don't need to be clueless in matters of the heart, however. Just apply the scientific method: Observe, hypothesize, test the hypothesis.

Use your data-gathering and analytical skills to paint a clear and unambiguous picture of what happened. Perform a relationship autopsy.

Start by recollecting: How precise was your boyfriend in his speech, generally? Did he display a meticulous regard for the truth, or did he simply say things for the effect they had, or because they sounded good? You need to analyze this in order to decide if his declarations of love and his intentions fit a pattern of genuine and well-thought-out expression, or if they were just wishful thinking or things uttered out of passion. If you can come to a conclusion about this, it will help you clarify your feelings. In other words, it helps to be able to say to yourself, "Yes, he said he'd like to get married, but that was just silly talk." If it wasn't ever actually going to happen anyway, it's not a missed opportunity. Nothing has been lost.

What is the nature of his "depression"? Is it true clinical depression that requires intervention, or is it the kind of emotional letdown that we've all experienced and recovered from? If it's true depression, you could suggest he get treatment, just out of humane concern; but otherwise, if he doesn't want to see you, I don't think his emotional state should play on your feelings.

List the conditions that led to the intensity of the relationship: Your need for escape from tedium, your relative youth, the sexual chemistry between you, whatever concrete factors you can identify. What elements in the relationship would contribute to your ideal long-term commitment, and what ones were simply catalysts for a series of small but intense detonations?

Finally, what parts of the relationship would you like to repeat, and what parts of it would you like not to repeat? Get all this down, as though making a report at the conclusion of an experiment.

And then, with the next guy, proceed more carefully. Weigh the probability of several outcomes even as the stars are exploding over your head.

Dear Cary,

I'm worried. I turned 27 a couple of months ago and I'm wondering whether I am experiencing early onset of middle age. I'm tired all the time. There are days when even moving a mouse around the pad is a task of Herculean proportions. I'm forgetful; I'll find myself giving a presentation to a bunch of men in suits and suddenly I will have lost track of basic vocabulary and I'll stand there mouthing like a dying goldfish. I have no libido to speak of -- though neither does my husband, and since he is also in his 20s and we have been married for less than a year, this is a sad state of affairs. There was a time when we couldn't keep our hands off one another; though we are still very much in love we are finding that sleep is a more attractive proposition. (I think we last had sex three weeks ago, though I can't be sure. It's a distant memory.)

There are reasons for this, I'm sure. We are both stressed, he with the final year of a degree he needs for a professional qualification, I with a job that sometimes requires brutal hours. I'm also working on a doctorate as well as several novels in various stages of incompletion. We worry about money, since at the moment all his energy must go into getting this degree out of the way and my salary is small. There's the aging Jewish mother I befriended in a moment of weakness and whose life story I agreed, foolishly, to write. Her children have pretty much abandoned her and she might drop dead any day from a leaking aneurysm so every day I don't work on the book I feel guilty about it. But I've lived with all these competing demands for long enough to have absorbed the stress they exert.

A friend of mine has suggested that I get tested for chronic fatigue syndrome, but I don't believe in it, certainly not enough to go on some hideous Ayurvedic diet as she has. Apart from a very long holiday at a health spa -- which I can't possibly afford -- I don't know what to do.

I suppose what I'm really asking for is reassurance that I am not a freak -- and a little bit of comfort if I am.

Dog tired

Dear Dog tired,

At first I was going to say that you just need to get enough sleep, eat right and exercise. And that still may be true, in the sense that if you did those three things, you would have to cut out some of the other activities that seem to be sapping your energy. But the more I study your letter, it looks like before you do anything else, you need to cut back your commitments. What's more important, the three novels or the woman's life story? What's the most important of the three novels? What are the absolutely essential work commitments, and which ones are you volunteering for? You can't do everything. Slash relentlessly until you can find some free time.

Once you've eliminated the draining activities from your life, concentrate on three simple things: Get enough sleep, eat better and exercise. Try for eight hours sleep a night, and get up at the same time every day. Eat regular sit-down meals. And work out at the gym three times a week, doing both aerobics and a strength routine. If you can afford it, get a trainer, which will dramatically speed up your progress.

And while you're at it, how could it hurt to consult a doctor about chronic fatigue syndrome? You may not believe in chronic fatigue syndrome, but diseases do not take our belief systems into account when choosing their hosts.

After dealing with the practical conditions of your life that may be causing your fatigue, why not take this opportunity to look at the beliefs that got you into this mess.

Maybe you're just a girl that can't say no. Maybe you don't accept your own limits, or you think you have to do all these things because something bad will happen to you if you don't. Or maybe you're one of those people who stays in frenetic motion to avoid certain issues. So on your to-do list, right below "Consult physician about CFS," put "Consult psychotherapist about possible unresolved issues I'm avoiding." Maybe one visit will demonstrate that psychotherapy is not for you; the purpose of doing it is to eliminate all the possibilities. If you don't believe in psychotherapy, think of the therapist as the equivalent of a physical trainer; you can do the same work on your own, but the trainer can spot the areas where you can get the most improvement.

Dear Cary,

I teach English in Japan. I have been fairly seriously seeing a really great older (than me by seven years) divorced Japanese woman for the past nine months, and despite the fact that my contract was up in July, I was able to renew for another year at the last minute to see what happened with our relationship.

Here are the problems: I hate teaching English, but those are the only jobs for a lowly gaijin in this backwater Japanese prefecture. I would like to go back to the U.S. or possibly to the U.K. to pursue a graduate degree or at least find a job that doesn't make me feel completely pointless, but even if my girlfriend was willing to leave her job with the going-broke private high school where we met, she doesn't speak English very well, so life abroad would be very difficult for her. Since I have very little language difficulty, I would not be against returning to Japan later, provided I could find decent work, but at this point, I don't see much of a future opening up for me here -- except for with her.

In addition to my job vs. girl dilemma, she has all the emotional baggage of a failed marriage to a pretty cool guy, plus that of a relationship with an awful man she dated for a year before dumping him for me. She seems much more with it and self-confident than when I first met her, and I think that has a lot to do with me.

I am happy to have helped her turn her life around, but I fear that if I left her (which would be terribly painful for me as well), she would sink even lower than when we met. We have talked about all of this in great detail and honesty, but it always comes down to both of us saying, "I don't know if this can work, but I can't stand the thought of losing you." And so we vow to slow down and just see where it goes, but after a month or so, there we are again, terribly in love and terribly conflicted on what to do.

This is the only woman I have dated who did not irritate me to the point that I had to walk out, or who just mistreated and dumped me. If it weren't for all this job-life and international nonsense, she'd be a keeper with no hesitation whatsoever. But those two factors just keep insisting on throwing a wrench into the works, and unless we can figure out a way around them, we're screwed.

I can only renew the contract for one more year from next summer, so there is a limit to the time we can buy.

Soon to be Jobless in Japan

Dear Soon to be Jobless,

If it were simply a matter of where to set up a household, it would be easy: You and your girlfriend go to America, get married and just get on with life. You help her get used to how things are done here, she studies English and after a few years she starts to feel at home. If you were committed to each other, that would seem reasonable. Amor omnia vincet, as they say. But I don't get the feeling there's enough amor to conquer anything, much less everything.

Some of the things you say raise the question of whether your feelings and your intentions are clear and strong enough to withstand the pressures a move to the United States would create. You say she's the only woman you've dated who did not irritate you to the point that you had to walk out, or who mistreated and dumped you. And you say that if it weren't for the "nonsense" of your different cultures and work life, she'd be "a keeper." That doesn't sound like the kind of deep, mature and mutual love that such a move would require from both of you.

You know, it's not easy to know exactly what's going on between you two, and harder still to justify the feelings I get just from a turn of phrase, but I can't help thinking that this relationship is not promising. If it's all that's keeping you in Japan, I'd advise turning your attention to your own professional development, going to grad school in the States, getting out of a job you hate and a culture that doesn't accept you as a full member and dating some nice American girls.

By Cary Tennis

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