Is this all there is?

I'm in love with a woman and she's in love with me, but I think I want more. How can I break it off with her? Plus: Is it OK to contact an old flame via e-mail?

Published January 29, 2002 8:06PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm 28 years old and I've been dating a 27-year-old woman now for almost a year. I'm in love with this woman and she's in love with me. We have fun together, we laugh, we spend lots of time together. Everything seems great. The only problem is I can't see myself spending the rest of my life with her.

We're just too different in so many important ways, and I don't feel the deep emotional connection with her that I know I should be feeling because I've felt it before with other people. So here's my dilemma: How do you break things off with someone when there isn't anything overtly wrong? We never argue, we have fun, we have great sex, but I really don't see us having a future.

FYI: this problem came into full relief after I met someone recently who sort of made me remember that there are people out there who I would be more compatible with. Nothing happened or will happen with this person, but it was an important realization for me.

Wanting Too Much?

Dear Wanting Too Much,

When the future arrives, it often seems just like the present, only a little later. So she might fit just fine into your life in the future, because it will seem so much like the present. But of course that future will also have its future, and you might be afraid that when the future of that future comes, she will not fit into it well at all. And yet when it comes, she fits in fine, because it's so much like the present. And so it goes.

So why not give the present a try? It is new, it has just arrived and it is relatively inexpensive. It is available for your inspection at any time.

You say, "I really don't see us having a future." I love that. Of course you don't see yourselves having a future because you're busy having a present. You know that silly thing they say in recovery places: How do you know that the moment is a gift? Because it's the present!

But really, to live a carefree and happy life it is necessary to rigorously interrogate your own assumptions about reality; then you may see that this "future" you want to be practical and realistic about is nothing but a linguistic mirage caused by the shimmer of words in the heat of worry.

But then, after all that rigorous interrogation of your assumptions, if you really have to break up with her, you don't need a good reason. Just say the relationship is too damned good and you can't stand it so you're breaking up with her because you love her and everything is fine. That'll show her.

Dear Cary,

Is it ever OK to look up an old flame just for the heck of it? I am a happily married mom, but I found my old high school sweetheart on the Web the other day. (Confession: Yes, I have tried to find him on the Internet a couple of times over the many years, but no luck until now.) Is it OK to send him an e-mail saying "Hi, old stranger"? Would he think this was weird, pathetic and an attempt to rekindle something long dead and buried? Is it?

I don't think I am trying to rekindle anything, but I thought it might be fun to say hi and see what he's up to. But quite honestly, I don't know if I'd tell my husband because I'm afraid he might get jealous or think I am unhappy with him. Does that make this the wrong thing to do? I am a pretty squeaky-clean person, and I'm happy staying that way.

Questioning My Motives

Dear Questioning,

Great question. So you are a good girl? How good? You sound very good. There is such a thing as keeping in touch, having completely innocent, adult communication with people with whom there may have been a torrid past. And I am in favor of it. But you have to know what you're doing. If you are troubled and looking for some lost happiness, if you are prone to sudden inexplicable affairs, sometimes precipitated by nights of intoxicated revelry, if there was something about him you could never resist, if he always got his way with you, then you're in trouble.

You have to know which temptations you can safely refuse and which ones are a danger to you. That is not as easy as it sounds, because the truly dangerous temptations often look the most innocent. But it's what we do as adults to stay out of trouble and avoid harming the ones we love.

Within a marriage, you have the right to a private life. You don't have to tell everything you do, every day. What's important is that your conscience is clear (you're a good girl, not a psychopath, right? you do have a conscience). So if you should contact him out of curiosity and concern for his well-being, I don't see anything wrong with that, and I don't think you need to tell your husband. You just need to be sure, in your heart, that your motives are good.

Dear Cary,

I am experiencing a difficult time in my life. I have been going out with two guys for four years now, and it is impossible to choose between the two. I have been going out with A for ten years and B, four years. When I first went out with B, I felt lots of guilt about seeing B while A and I remained in contact. I had hoped that A would go away in my mind but he didn't. Both A and B are still here for me.

1. B and I: We are having more fights, as I am getting quite dissatisfied with our lifestyle and with myself. B owns his business and works long hours, and I wish that he had more time for me, as I am pretty depressed these days. B and I used to be really close, but I think we sort of lost that recently. I think both of us are unhappy enough so we don't really want to be close to each other emotionally. I sometimes visualize B and I being happy together with kids but I don't know if we can succeed. B said he loves me and is willing to work with me if I will commit. He thinks that I am depressed because I always make mental comparison between A and himself and it's hurting our relationship.

2. A and I: A wants me to settle with him and forget about the past. A has been waiting for me for four years now while I'm with B, and I feel really guilty. We have known each other since college and I feel more bonds than love sometimes. However, I have always been comfortable with A, who acts calm most of the time.

I am really lost and confused but I need to settle with one. Please help.


Dear Lost,

You say you are pretty depressed these days. I would focus on the depression and not the boys. Let me make an analogy: Say you were in the woods and trying to start two fires, but you had a deep cut in your arm. And you couldn't get either fire going because gathering wood was hard, and traveling between the two fire sites was tiring, and lighting it was hard because you couldn't spend enough time on either one, and nothing was working because your arm had this deep cut in it that made everything difficult. And a ranger happened along and you asked him, "Which fire should I light? I can't decide?"

He might suggest that first you fix the arm.

Does that make sense? The depression, like a cut in your arm, is something you can do something about. The boys, like the fire, are projects that may or may not work out regardless of what you do, and even if they do work out, you're still going to have that cut in your arm, which makes anything hard to enjoy. I assume that you are not like that guy in Jack London's story "To Build a Fire" -- that is, you don't actually need the fire to survive. It's just something to keep you warm.

How do you deal with depression? First you say, "I think I'm depressed" to someone who is trained in such matters: a doctor, a therapist, a caring friend. And then you follow through with whatever you have to do: You talk, you keep appointments, you consider information carefully, you try to trust the people who are trying to help.

However, let's say, for the sake of speculation, that everything in your life is peachy and you just can't decide between these two men. I believe in making choices just to move forward. Sometimes it doesn't matter what the choice is. It just matters that you make one. Choices clarify the situation. And they set in motion a set of imperatives which, however artificially constructed, can still give a sense of meaning and purpose to your life. They function as the rules of the game, and in following them and playing the game you begin to have the sensation of meaningfulness.

In its rudimentary form, meaning is nothing more than pattern; when things are all lined up, for instance, when their behavior is predictable, then one has the sense that they have meaning.

That is why marriage is such a satisfying cultural arrangement: It's a built-in system of meaning, like a little significance machine. Suddenly certain relatives are significant, certain dates are significant, certain acts with other people are significant. That is also why being determinedly single is so satisfying as well: It is a country of possibility where every turn has meaning because of its potential; every act is transformed into an adventure because at every turn there could be the prize: marriage, a hot fling, a mysterious encounter, whatever you happen to want at the moment.

So we confer meaning on life by defining our status and following the resultant plot line. If I didn't believe that you were depressed, I would simply suggest that you make a choice and follow it through. But I get a strong feeling that you first need to get some help for your blues.

Dear Cary,

This may be one of the oddest questions that you receive, but how much credence do you put in fate? If I was to say that coincidence, in running into (not literally) the same person twice, is the rule of space and time, then what is the rule for three and more times? Analytical as I may be, or just anal, I can't see any pattern to the strange encounters. I am completely dumbfounded.

Perhaps a little background is in order ...

I am a young guy who met a lovely and somewhat mysterious girl some years ago. The dating -- if I can call it that -- was very brief. I can't recall how long (liar), but in general, it was about as long as the incubation period for mono -- though, thank God, that didn't happen. It was a strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes angst-burdened relationship. Then it screeched to a halt and dissipated like a stick-drawn picture on the desert floor in a dust storm. Couldn't really tell you why ... but I was dizzy and confused for some time afterward.

Since then, there have been more than five instances of "close encounters" in many different places that made no sense on the surface (the world isn't that small). So, I now wonder about what forces are at work -- hopefully I haven't stepped over into the "dark side." We don't run in the same concentric circles in life -- that was apparent when we first met. So I find it quite odd, a little disconcerting and very confusing that we keep running into each other.

If you are going to ask if we talk when we meet, then the answer is an unqualified no. These are just small, and surreal, instances that don't seem to demand any exchange of words. Though I do go away from each one feeling a nagging sense that there is something not being said, that should be expressed. It is also obvious that we both recognize each other every time one of these encounters happens and move on as if not sure that this is actually taking place. And, no ... I don't take heavy drugs. I am a fairly balanced, sensitive and average guy -- basically as status quo as can be -- who can't seem to understand the fortune, or misfortune, these encounters may present themselves to be.

Marked in Limbo

Dear Marked in Limbo,

You have just described one of the sublime pleasures in life and art: the discovery of mysterious patterns that may or may not have a meaning but are intriguing simply as patterns. You are free to do with this pattern what you will; if you're superstitious, or crave the comfort of belief, you can say that it's evidence of some order in the world. You can say it's a sign. And you can play with it.

No doubt much went unsaid between you, which makes it uncomfortable for both of you. You may like her a great deal more than she realized. Or she may have realized how much you liked her and just wasn't ready for that kind of attention. So she may be uncomfortable when she sees you. But the wonderful thing about these chance encounters is that you can make of them anything you like. If you want to dispel the uneasy silence, just make a hearty acknowledgement of the phenomenon: "Well, it's you again!" Or simply say hello to her as if running into her were a normal thing. Or let the strange silent glances continue. It's up to you.

Since you are young, you may be experiencing this delicious phenomenon for the first time and thus not recognize it as simply a part of the world's mysterious forces -- and as one of the ingredients of art. You bump into a woman in a red dress on Athens Street in Cleveland and then you bump into the same woman in the same red dress on Cleveland Street in Athens. And that goes into the movie.

Play with it. Enjoy it. Define it as you wish. It's the world's strange gift to you.

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married eight years, together for 11. I could spend an hour listing all the things that make him remarkable. He's sincere, sexy, funny, thoughtful. He left his job to stay home to raise our two daughters after I returned to work. He calls me to tell me he loves me. He thinks I look sexy in my red fleece pajamas. He cooks, he shops, he hangs my delicates out to dry. I love him, I trust him, I want to grow old with him. He feels the same way. Perfection, right?

So what brings me to you? In our 11 years, I have never been able to get him to give an opinion on anything. Sure, there are tough questions, like what do you think happens when you die? Then there are the apparently tough questions like, what's your favorite rock band? What's your favorite color? Which do you like better, apples or oranges?

I am tired of being told "I don't know." Does he just not care about anything? Does he think I'll belittle his opinions? What? I yearn to talk with him over a glass of wine about things other than our kids or how cute I look in slippers. What will happen when our kids move out? I don't want to end up sitting silently next to him in our dotage with his-and-hers recliners, a TV and a cat. Do I need to change my expectations? Or dangle him from the roof until he can choose between apples and oranges?

Pro Choice

Dear Pro Choice,

My wife and I have this problem, too. It's not that I don't have opinions. But I believe that my opinions must be thought-out and informed. I do not like to have opinions about things I do not have an opinion about. I know this is a vexing and irritating trait for my wife. She thinks, why can't you have an opinion about life on Mars? So, expert husband that I am, I have learned to have opinions about things I have no opinion about. I think the haircut is good, very good. I think the dress is excellent. Occasionally, for the sake of authenticity, the dress is not so good and must be changed, in my opinion. Occasionally the haircutter's intentions must be questioned, but only mildly. In the end, to tell the truth, the haircut is always superb, and I could send you to her hairdresser myself, if you like.

Sometimes, because I am hoping she will find her keys and join me at the door, I do not have an opinion about the apple crumb cake or the new shoes. But I try to come up with something better than a grunt because I know this is not the beginner's hill, but the expert husband slope; it is always the finals, and I am being scored. And she will read this and will not be surprised; she will not think: Oh, my God, he has been lying to me all this time and really doesn't have an opinion! Because two things: 1) She knows I am an artist and create what I need as I go along, including opinions about stockings and 2) By pretending to have opinions, I actually have acquired some discernment, so by now, I do in fact have genuine informed and well-thought-out opinions about the sponge cake, the Kate Spade purse and the hideous shawl, which will not be worn under any circumstances.

So, enough about me, let's talk about your husband. Maybe he thinks since he does all this actual stuff that the opinions are optional. After all, for lots of us men, it's the doing, not the talking about it, that matters. Or maybe he is too tired. Maybe he is mad at you and will refuse to give you an opinion until you apologize.

My big breakthrough came when I realized that in terms of domestic bliss the effect of my words on my wife's subjective reality is far more important than the objectively verifiable validity of the words themselves. And that the ability to show interest in alien subjects is part of the key to lifelong happiness. And as to you, O opinionated wife, I would only caution you to avoid characterizing him as having no opinions. If you consider the world from his viewpoint, you might find he has diverse and unexpected opinions about utterly alien things.

By Cary Tennis

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