I spy

I found out that my boyfriend is meeting his ex for lunch. Should I "accidentally" show up at the restaurant?

By Cary Tennis
Published February 5, 2002 8:22PM (EST)

Dear Readers,

A few weeks ago I told a woman who hadn't had sex with her husband since their honeymoon that maybe they should take their clothes off and get into bed and see what happened. I also told her it sounded as if she had a low opinion of herself and that maybe she should look into why that was.

I got a ton of mail about that. Many people said it was obvious that her husband was gay. Many others thought I wrongly blamed her for her husband's problem, that I was prescribing "self-esteem" for a problem that had nothing to do with her.

My refusal to label her husband as gay is a matter of principle. People get to declare themselves whatever they are; we don't get to do that. It's a commonsense and human principle.

As to the self-esteem thing, it's easy to ridicule the excesses of an overly therapeutic and pampered culture. But that doesn't mean that self-hatred isn't a problem. That belittling, demeaning inner voice chattering like a madwoman about our uselessness, our stupidity, our unloveliness, our lack of talent and the hopelessness of our prospects is a real obstacle to happiness that can be effectively countered therapeutically. This I know firsthand.

By the way, I enjoyed psychologist Lauren Slater's criticism of the excesses of self-regard in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "The Trouble With Self-Esteem." Basically, there are people who could use a little more. There are also people who could use a lot less. It's important to distinguish between self-esteem and the feeling that you're better than others. It's important to regard yourself with compassion, whatever your faults, whatever a clear-eyed and balanced self-assessment says about you.

And one more thing: No matter how clearly we see ourselves, sometimes just to go out onstage we have to lie a little bit to ourselves about how beautiful we are and what a good voice we have. Nothing wrong with that. Whatever gets you through the interview. No sense being paralyzed by an excess of realism; we don't have to always show the world we know how mediocre we are. Folks have a way of finding that out on their own.

The New England Patriots' bravado prior to Sunday's Super Bowl may have looked a little misplaced, given the realistic odds. But look what happened. Come to think of it, their decision to be introduced as a team rather than individually was a nice emblem of balanced self-regard, and a nice way of avoiding the corrosive effects that egotism can have on a group.

Dear Cary,

I get the feeling I'm going to be dead by the time I'm 30 (I'm 21 now) or so, either because of a disease, an accident, murder or something. I haven't really planned anything beyond that mark, and the thought of my actually living beyond that boggles the mind.

I keep fantasizing about being diagnosed with cancer. That way, I can quit whatever stupid job I have, get a bunch of credit cards, spend money and buy things and live comfortably before ultimately passing away in some hospital in a drugged stupor for the pain. While getting cancer isn't suicide, letting it kill me would probably be construed as such. As for intentional pills, booze and a gun suicide, it's not something I would ever do, not having the strength (or weakness, whatever) to go through with it, nor the absolute certainty of what's in store for me after I'm gone.

On the surface, I tell myself I have this all worked out and it makes sense, but I keep going over it in my head, like I get the feeling I'm missing something, skipped over a detail or two.

Just Rambling

Dear Just Rambling,

Is this where I try to save you? And then you go out and kill yourself and I feel dark and bludgeoned in the gut because I wasn't watching over you? Is this where the sexy hand of death touches your shoulder and you turn away from all of us and follow that seductive figure into a silence that we fill with funeral orations, an emptiness we people with wreaths and photographs on the mantel?

Over and over I have watched friends who became a little too cozy with nothingness lean too far over the rail and disappear. And I have watched with sober humility the demonstration of my wise words' impotence.

It would be wrong for me to let my anger and grief at all those I have watched die take over. If you're having suicidal ideation, as they call it, I urge you to get help from the world of psychotherapy. I urge you to do that in the same spirit in which I would drag your body off the railroad tracks if I saw you lying there. But then, we all have to go home to bed, don't we, and we don't know when you'll sneak out of the house back to the tracks and wait for the trembling engines.

Those of us who choose to live have no defense against your death. So I hope and pray you find the strength to keep going, that you find something outside yourself worth living for, that death gets lost in your neighborhood and rings the wrong bell, that the tender majesty of biology reasserts itself, that the instinct to live takes over. But nobody can tie you up and force-feed you until you're 30.

Dear Cary,

After four years of telling myself to just do it, I finally took an HIV test last week. It wasn't my idea. Something appeared on my skin about a month ago, and my dermatologist suggested I take a series of blood tests "just to make sure" -- HIV being one of them.

I've been petrified to take the test since my last one in 1996. For some stupid reason, I preferred the "ignorance is bliss" approach. I don't engage in what is considered "high risk" behavior, but the thought of possibly having the disease was so terrifying to me, I would have preferred not to know.

I was informed that it would take 3-5 days to get the results back and was ready for the grueling wait. What I did not prepare for, however, was that I'd turn into a raving lunatic during those days, convincing myself that I had somehow contracted HIV over the last few years and playing out all sorts of scenarios in my head of how I'd tell my parents, friends, etc. I drove myself so crazy, in fact, that at one point I said to my (by now extremely irritated) best friend that I wished I had never gone to do the test in the first place! How warped is that?

The results came back negative, and I feel like a million bucks. I can't believe I waited this long to do it. What a relief! Had the results come back positive, that, too, would have been a relief because at least then I could begin dealing with it. At least I would've known.

But all this got me thinking: How many other people are procrastinating as I did?

Positively Negative

Dear Positively,

Bingo. I was that way, too. Knowing is better. But how to change people, how to reach inside their heads and make them see, make them stop procrastinating? You can't.

What can you do? You can be an example. You can say, "I got tested, and I'm glad I did." You can drive someone to get tested if he or she decides to do it. You can accompany him or her to the place. You can give money and time to the institutions that do the testing, so that when people are ready, the facilities are available. And you can speak your mind. People will do what they're going to do, but at least if you speak your mind you know that you did what you could do. You made yourself an example. You spoke your mind. You made sure the help is available.

And you never know what effect you have. Things stick in people's heads when they're struggling with issues like procrastination, and they might never tell you how you helped. You never know. You just have to do what you can.

Dear Cary,

Thanks for your excellent advice re: New Zealand "relationship." Just to let you know, I ended up not going to New Zealand, the boy and I went three months without speaking (during which time each of us cultivated separate relationships) and now, he and I are en route to becoming friends. A happy ending.

But my new question has to do with men generally. Last night a male friend and I were eating soup at 1:30 a.m., and the talk turned to relationships. I asked him why it is that men become mean when they're feeling withdrawn, when it makes women so unhappy and it would be so easy for a man who didn't feel like talking to give the appropriate woman a tender kiss, a deep look, and then to say, "Sweetie, I'm just not in the mood to communicate. It's got absolutely nothing to do with you." My friend said that no woman would be satisfied by such a display, but, in any case, why can't women just see when a man feels like being left alone? Why can't she understand that when he retreats into himself, it doesn't have anything to do with her, but that once she keeps on insisting that he emerge from this condition it becomes about her?

Where Are Men From, Anyway?

Dear Where Are Men From,

I think maybe men are from Pittsburgh and women are from Philly, but I don't know for sure. I'm so glad things turned out well with you and your friend in New Zealand.

I personally think this little primal scene you describe (and I know exactly what you're talking about) is about the meanings we assign to gestures and states of mind, and that it takes a little acting, and a little architecture, to get through it.

I'll tell you why I become mean when I'm feeling withdrawn: Because I really truly do want you to leave me the fuck alone. I am like a testy dog, and I will snap.

What to do?

When I am in my black terrible funk but can muster even a shred of decency and compassion (which is sometimes), I do as you suggest: Make a compassionate, sincere, connected gesture. I call out from way down in the well: Hello there, I see you just barely! I'm down here where you can't reach me but don't worry, I'm OK. I'll be back. I still love you.

Women worry when we're down there, don't they? They think we need rescuing. But we don't. That terrible subterranean sulking is our holy rite; it's how we recharge. We fill up with the stony cold of the earth and then we return stronger, perversely refreshed.

It's a guy thing.

Here's a hint for women: Watch what guys do with each other. We give each other space. Asking "Are you OK?" isn't perceived as helpful. It's perceived as a challenge, an interruption, a rebuke.

Architecture helps, too: A guy needs his own room. You can't really sulk with a woman around. She's always going to ask if you're OK.

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend of 14 months is a wonderful, attractive, stand-up guy. Until now, I have completely trusted him. I've been hurt in the past and will be the first to admit that I can be hypervigilant bordering on paranoid. The problem is that deeper investigation quite often proves that my paranoia is justified! I recently broke into my boyfriend's computer and read his e-mail and discovered that he recently had lunch with one ex-girlfriend and has made plans to have lunch with yet another ex-girlfriend.

We have an agreement that we will tell each other this type of thing. Ex-girlfriend No. 2 really worries me because I know that they had very strong feelings for each other at one point (he broke up with her to date me), and I know she would love to get back together with him and she will periodically send him postcards "just to keep in touch." I do feel terrible about being so sneaky, but I also feel like I need to continue to monitor his e-mail to find out what is really going on here. How bad are my actions? Do you think I should confess and confront him? I am also considering scheduling lunch with a friend for the same time/place as his lunch date with Ex No. 2 so that I can "accidentally" catch him in his lie. What do you think?

Paranoid and Perturbed in Silicon Valley

Dear Paranoid,

Spying has no place in personal relationships. If you don't trust him, stop seeing him. Give him up. Let it go. Do the right thing. In the long run, doing the right thing feels better than getting what you want.

As to your paranoia being borne out by reality: Ever hear that joke about the guy with the imaginary chicken who sees a psychiatrist about it? He knows it's a problem. But he can't give it up because, he says, "I need the eggs."

It doesn't matter if your paranoia is correct or not. It's your paranoia, your inner state of worry, frenzy and compulsion, that's the problem, not the boyfriend.

Cary Tennis

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