Strange declarations

Why do married men tell me they love me, then fail to take any action? Plus: I'm in love with him, but his kids hate me.

By Cary Tennis

Published March 12, 2002 8:39PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I was married 13 years before getting divorced four years ago. A couple of years before I left my marriage I was faced with a "declaration of love" from an unhappily married friend. We followed this up with an affair, which I foolishly figured would give me a good excuse for a divorce -- and a ready-made relationship to jump into afterward, because he was equally motivated to get out of an unhappy marriage, right? Wrong. After nine months and much prodding on my part, he dumped me (and is still in his marriage, seven years later). I was devastated by the loss of the relationship with him, but also decided to get on with my divorce and thus with the rest of my life.

Soon after I had moved out and moved on, yet another unhappily married male friend I had known since college made a similar "declaration of love," saying he had carried a torch for me for many years. I was shocked, but also not looking to him as future relationship material, nor did we become physically involved.

Now a good friend of mine is experiencing her own version of my story. Is this a case of "men want to change their wife, but women want to change their life?" (Two of these guys are "righteous and Christian" men who don't feel they are free to get divorced.)

Why bother us women with their "love" if they don't intend to back it up with action? (I've always hated those plotlines in romance novels, too.) What did these guys think would happen? Fantasy would supplant reality? Yuck.

Dazed and Confused Female of the Species

Dear Dazed and Confused,

This indeed sounds strange, baffling and irritating. The thought of a righteous Christian man making a declaration of love is a little redolent of cheap hair oil and Flannery O'Connor stories. Like you say, yuck. Maybe you should move to a part of the country where people don't do that.

The only thing I can think of is that where you live such utterances wield power, because of the gender thing, the unequal distribution of goods and services. Consider: If a woman were to declare her love for a man, he would take her to bed and that would be that. But when a man declares his love for a woman, there's property implicitly attached (at least, I'm assuming, there is in your part of the country). That's the only thing I can think of -- that it's a magical incantation used to place a woman in a holding pattern, which is a kind of power. And it may be that you underestimate how much we men love power. We love to watch the women wait. And a woman in a holding position is a nice option to have.

Consider: Why would a man say such a thing if it did not get results? If women universally said "So what?" to such vague and toothless imprecations and insisted on action, it might cut down on it. And that would be a good thing, for righteous Christian men, for unhappy marriages, for everyone!

Dear Cary,

I'm a 41-year-old woman in a 17-year relationship. I love my partner, and we have many wonderful things going for us. We love each other, we're very compatible, we have fun together. What we don't have is sex. I realize we are hardly the only long-term couple in the world with this problem, but what I need advice with now is how to grapple with the creative solution we have devised to deal with this dilemma.

We have therapized over this stuff for years, and it comes down to my partner's fears of deep intimacy and the complacency that comes with being with somebody for a long time. I am still very attracted to my partner, though I wonder if that's partially because of the years of sexual unavailability. Things are a bit of a one-way street in our classic "bed death" scenario. This has made it hard for me, since in some ways I feel I am just not attractive enough to be desirable. Yes, insecurity is an ugly thing.

This came to a head in two ways. I had an affair. It felt great, and this person has valued me and restored my sexual self-esteem. We haven't seen each other frequently, but when we have, it's been pretty wonderful. I broke things off after a period of time because I realized it was getting intense and starting to jeopardize my primary relationship, and I felt guilty about being dishonest.

Second, my partner fell for someone else and didn't actually have an affair, but I found out about the crush (mostly because it was painfully obvious). Despite my own recently checkered past, I got very angry and jealous and threatened. For a while, my partner agreed not to see this person and we tried hard to "work on things." After months of dramatic hellishness, we realized we had two choices -- break up, or become non-monogamous. Since we do love each other and have so much else going for us, we decided to try the latter.

So here we are. I've taken up with my affair again, and my partner has taken up with this other person. I agreed to this arrangement, but I am now struggling big time with the results. I can't stand it when I know my partner has been with her. I get jealous and am very distant and angry afterwards. I hate that I am like this, but I seem powerless to stop it.

Are we nuts to think this arrangement can work? We have sworn to keep "working on us" and not make this an excuse to not deal with our stuff. I hope that this arrangement will help things improve by giving us breathing room and freedom and cause us to not take each other for granted. But at times I want to go out and smash the headlights on "her" car. Ugh! Are we humans doomed to act out our basest emotions despite our own higher intentions?

The Partner

Dear Partner,

Well, basically, I'd say yes, we are doomed to act out our basest emotions despite our own higher intentions. Except that our basest emotions are smarter than our higher intentions. You appear to think that because you two thought up this "creative solution" on your own, putting it into practice shouldn't be frightening or difficult. That's like thinking that, if you're going to walk a high wire without a net, it'll be less scary and difficult if you spend a lot of time discussing how to climb the ladder first. The fact is that you're up there on the high wire now. It doesn't matter whose idea it was. If your partner starts having sex with someone else, the relationship may soon end. You know it, your partner knows it, and I know it. Everybody knows it. It's the way things work. Who knows why. Maybe God likes country music. But it's something we all know deep in our "basest emotions." That's why you're so upset. This fooling around threatens your relationship. It's not the solution to your problem.

What is the solution? Is there a solution? I don't know. But seeing your situation clearly has to be the first step. And clearly what you have done is alter the fundamental nature of your relationship. It is no longer a romance. It is now a coalition, a pragmatic joining of forces to mutual but separate benefit. Since pragmatism has entered the picture, your coalition is likely to shift as the needs of the members shift. So you're now in the realm of contracts. If I were you, I'd get a good agent. No smart player negotiates on her own. I'd go for a two- or four-year agreement, with penalties if you're traded early.

I know that sounded flip. But that's the fundamental truth: You've moved out of the realm of trust and security, and into the realm of negotiation and contracts. It's understandable that you're upset: Everything you have built all these years is threatened. So if it's possible, I would actually recommend making a contract with your partner that preserves at least a material fairness in the event that your experiment has the likely result.

Dear Cary,

You know all those letters sent to advice columnists from folks in their late teens or early twenties where the writers talk about how they've never been in a relationship, never kissed another person, never been in love, and they're scared half to death that they'll be like that for the rest of their lives? The advice is usually the same -- just be yourself, you'll meet someone special, it will happen.

When I was in my early twenties, I was in the same position as those letter writers. I had never been in a relationship, never even been out on a date. Now I'm 31, and I'm still there.

OK, that's not quite true. I have been on a few dates, all within about six months. But it's now been a year since that happened. I dated four women (none at the same time). I didn't see any of them for more than a few weeks. I broke it off with one, and the other three said, "Let's just be friends" after three or four dates. None of the dates went any further than dinner and a movie, and maybe a little kissing (so that did happen after all).

Here's the thing: On none of those dates did I enjoy myself at all. In fact, I was pretty miserable. I tried to put a good face on things, since I was the one who asked them out, and I tried to "tough it out" with three of them on the grounds that maybe it was just my complete inexperience screwing things up, and that once I got in the swing I'd enjoy going out. I know this was unfair to them, but I was hoping this unsociability wouldn't last. But it has. I do want to be in a relationship, I do want to care about someone (and have them care about me) and I understand it's not all wine and roses; you have to put work and effort into it.

So I tried to figure out who I was looking for, and the answer I got was, "I have no idea; not a single clue." I try to picture a "dream date," or life as a married man, and I can't call up any images beyond snippets of movies and other caricatures of life. I now dread the idea of going out, and even though I'm very lonely (I have few friends and no social life), I'm instantly turned off whenever the opportunity arises to make a date with someone. Note I said "opportunity," not desire. I've never been in love, I've never had a crush on anyone (male or female), and I've never met anyone I was seriously attracted to.

If it seems like I'm going all over the place, I'm sorry, but it's a pretty good picture of my mental state. Sometimes I feel the answer is right under my nose, but I just don't know what to do.

Falling and I Can't Get Up

Dear Falling,

The important thing is to be a part of a community, to have people who care about you. If I were you, I would concentrate on strengthening the friendships I have. Value them deeply and work on them. You don't have to go on dates if you don't enjoy it. And take this to heart: You don't have to have what you don't want.

Because never having had a crush sounds so unusual to me, however, I would recommend seeing a doctor to find out if you have a very low level of testosterone. If you knew the chemical and biological facts, that would provide a factual basis for further speculation.

You're not terribly unhappy, but you seem to think there's some role you're supposed to be playing. You know how sometimes you feel the answer is right under your nose? It is. This is your life. Live it and cherish it as it is. And if you don't have a girlfriend, work on your friendships, because in the long run, community is priceless, and isolation is a terrible fate.

Dear Cary,

I'm a 39-year-old woman with many interpersonal issues, mainly byproducts of a fairly emotionally destructive home life, but to this day I struggle. My biggest trouble usually comes in the form of work relationships.

At my last job I was the lone person not invited to parties by my co-workers, and though there was a pretty huge age gap (they were all in their mid- to late-twenties) I felt extremely hurt not to be included in the after-work drinks, the offsite birthday parties, and so on.

As a child, I was ostracized by my family for being the creative one, my brothers and sister refused to spend any time with me, and my mother bitched if she had to take me to any of the awards ceremonies across the state. My father was largely absent. Although he discouraged my artistic endeavors, his memory is that he was a loving father who praised my work. Unfortunately, it was never within earshot.

I've been in therapy eight years, and while in some ways I've improved, I frequently feel as though things are moving too slowly. She won't let me try any antidepressants because she says if we don't fix the core problem we'll just be putting a bandage on something that needs surgery.

I'd like at some point to be able to develop loving relationships with the people around me, but I always find a way to sabotage things because I get scared (terrified, in her words) of getting too close to people. I become hypercritical of anyone who deigns to spend time with me. I keep hoping I'll get things right -- not give in to the fear of people and drive them away -- but the same thing happens every time. I do have a very small circle of friends, which I guess is all any of us can ask for, but I feel that I need more life in my life.

How do I break this cycle?

Wishful Thinking

Dear Wishful Thinking,

The way you break a cycle is you break one behavior in it. Say you always snort with derision when someone mentions James Michener. Then you pick that one behavior and make a decision that next time someone mentions James Michener or pulls out a James Michener book, you are not going to snort with derision. You wait for your chance. You're in a café with artists all around you. In their bags are books by Derrida, Foucault, Breton, Gide, Gogol. Across from you the pretty young blonde pulls from her bag "The Source." The beginnings of a derisive snort well up within you like a sneeze. It's so powerful. But you don't snort. You turn the snort into a neutral, unconcerned glance. You glance at the book and glance away. And you silently congratulate yourself on performing an anonymous act of kindness. Later, you accept the gold for a great personal victory.

That's how you break the cycle. One behavior at a time.

Dump the therapist. Eight years is too long. What the hell core problems could you not have gotten to in eight years? Are you depressed? If you're depressed and she won't give you antidepressants, go see a psychiatrist.

Dear Cary,

I'm a smart and attractive 22-year-old college senior at a prestigious school. About a year and a half ago, I began a sexual relationship with a friend of mine. I'll call him Pete. The only problem with this relationship was that Pete had recently moved in with his girlfriend Mary. There is no excuse for my participating in his infidelity, but all I can say for myself is that I had very low self-esteem at the time. Pete paid attention to me. He took risks for me. In short, I was important to him. But then I started realizing that Mary was more important to him. She was the woman he chose to stay with, after all.

After several months, Mary found out about our affair. I was relieved that it was out in the open -- the secrecy had begun to take a toll on me. But I was devastated when I had to face the fact that I had participated in hurting someone very, very deeply. Pete and I decided to stop seeing each other, and Mary agreed to try to work things out with him. It was, after all, only a physical relationship. I had begun to develop feelings for him, but I pretended that they didn't exist. I wanted to be around him and was afraid that bringing feelings into it would scare him away.

It was not too long after that when Pete approached me to begin seeing him again. Having begun to develop feelings for him (not to mention a very strong sexual attraction), I hesitantly agreed. It was on-again, off-again until he and Mary finally ended their relationship and she moved out. Pete and I have been seeing each other intermittently since then (about six months). Pete still requests, however, that we keep our relationship a secret. I understood this request at first. I, too, wanted to avoid causing Mary further pain. But it has been six months.

I like the fact that we have our own little universe that no one else intrudes upon. But keeping a relationship secret is tiring, and I am growing weary. I have asked Pete to compromise with me. I told him that at this point there should be no reason to keep this a secret unless he feels that something is wrong with our relationship. But he assures me that there is nothing wrong, he just wants to keep things the way they are. He's afraid that other people's knowledge will adversely affect what we have. Cary, is this a load of crap? He knows my feelings for him. At times he has been open with me regarding his feelings towards me; at other times he seems as though he only is with me for the sex. Should I give him more time or move on?

In Love and in Hiding

Dear in Hiding,

So what "other people" do you assume are the ones whose "knowledge will adversely affect what we have"? It wouldn't be Mary, would it? Would she knife him if she found out that he's still seeing you secretly? And, of course, he hasn't told you he's still seeing Mary, has he? He wouldn't want to "cause you further pain" or "scare you away," would he?

You remind me of Brigitte O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon." You're good, you're very good. You and your gang are all snowing each other but cloaking it in high-minded concern for each other's feelings. This must be what the conservative culture critics mean when they say situational ethics and relativism. Fuzzy weird bullshit.

He's with you for the sex. And you're with him for the sex. Call Mary and ask her if she's seen him lately.

Dear Cary,

I ended a relationship with the love of my life almost a year ago. We dated for about a year. We loved each other intensely and passionately and had the greatest chemistry you can imagine -- feeling synergy in conversation, sex, family and work. Most of the time, that is. We broke up because things got too intense, and we were both stubborn and selfish. And I think I loved him too much and he knew that, which as you know becomes detrimental in many relationships, resulting in total emotional closing-up for him and embarrassment for me.

I was involved with a new person for a few short weeks, just someone who took up space. I ended it, and once again alone (and happier), I realize my problem. I never stopped loving "my love." It plagues me because I think about him still, and I know that in my mind I believe that he was my soul mate and I'll never find any person with whom I feel "like a kid" again. I want to move on with my life, but dating is not doing it. I am a wonderful, loving and successful woman with so much to offer, and fear that this unforgotten love is holding me in the past -- somewhere I never choose to live. Yet another side of me refuses to get older, have kids and marry someone I just love, and sit down and tell my grandkids about "that one person who set my soul on fire."

Time has yet to heal these wounds. How do I resolve my conflicting emotions and move forward from what I know not to have been a successful union, anyway?

What am I thinking?

Dear What Am I Thinking,

If this weren't one of the big, universal experiences, James Joyce wouldn't have written "The Dead" and Henry James wouldn't have spent so many words on this concept of "the life unlived." Life is a constant withering of possibilities. Every choice murders a possible future. We could easily be in a state of constant mourning and secret itchy remembrance. But there is an intoxicating fire in the life we have chosen, the doors that are open, the light in the eyes of the person we are with. All we have to do is slow down and look into the fire.

There is no solution, any more than there is a solution to death. This what life is like: This is the poetry of it.

One year isn't enough to stop fantasizing and forget. I'd give it seven or so.

Dear Cary,

I am in love. My boyfriend is in love. We are past 40, he's closer to 50, and both of us are divorced -- he for two years, I for 10. We've been dating for more than a year, seriously involved for six months. I just adore the man, and I think he feels the same way about me. Problem: His children, both girls -- one 12, one 16 -- don't like me and make a point of letting him know it. I don't think this would be a problem if 1) he took a stand with them and let them know that we are adults in an adult relationship, and I'm the person he chooses to be with, or 2) I only see him when they aren't around (he shares custody and they live with him every other week).

Neither of these solutions is perfect or, perhaps, workable over the long term. I don't want to miss seeing him on Christmas and holidays, and not go with him to the beach for family vacations. I don't want to feel like an outsider in his life. Nor do I want to be subjected to the older girl's rudeness when I'm with him (she has given him a number of ultimatums concerning me, such as refusing to spend the week with him if she finds out that I've stayed with him at his house during the week when she's at her mom's house).

It also saddens and angers me that he apparently listens to these complaints as if they are on a loop, going 'round and 'round. My boyfriend and I have discussed this at length, and I think he sees that he has been subject to the girls' whims and wishes throughout the two years since he and his ex split. But this hasn't changed his response to them, which is either to listen to their complaints ad nauseam or avoid having the four of us spend time together. I want a full relationship, and I'd like to get married sometime in the next few years. What should I do? Step further out of the picture? Or hang in there, waiting for a door to open?

On the Outside

Dear On the Outside,

If I were one of those girls, I wouldn't like you, and nothing you could do would change that. If I were one of those girls, and my dad had gotten divorced two years ago, I would not like anybody who intruded into my already disrupted family life, and I would not like anybody whose presence held the threat of taking my father away from me. I would do what I could to make life unpleasant for her. I would not want her around.

If I were in the relationship that you describe, I would realize that, for now, the dad has a primary responsibility to be there for his daughters, and if I truly loved him and trusted him, I would accept the limitations on our time together for the next six years or so.

If you can't do that, perhaps you'll have to find another man. But if the opportunity to serve these girls in ways they will never acknowledge or repay intrigues you, if you could be there for their dad and, by not being there, be there for them, perhaps it is something you should undertake, just because you can do something good for the world.

While you can't control how the girls feel, if he really loves you and thinks you're a wonderful person, it wouldn't hurt for him to tell them that. Who knows, they might find it reassuring to know that he is not a passive victim but is getting a lot out of his relationship with you.

But perhaps, having already raised a child, you've had enough of selfless service to the young. In that case, you'll probably be happier, and less trouble to the world, if you find a guy who's not raising children.

Cary Tennis

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