I hate my girlfriend's boyfriend

We love each other, but she won't leave her abusive, jealous, e-mail-snooping man.

Published May 28, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

May I take a minute here? I don't think many agreed with me about the woman who wasn't sure who had impregnated her; indeed, readers disagreed with each other, so perhaps no answer could have found wide agreement. In any case, I was driving my wretched car this morning (the headliner has come detached from the ceiling and is sagging onto my head and neck; when this first began I tore some off; I should have glued it back, I suppose, because now it keeps falling down more) and it occurred to me that this problem has three groups of solutions, each of which favors one of its three participants -- the mother, the husband or the baby.

Before proposing a solution it seemed that I ought to ask which of the participants is most deserving of protection, because each solution will favor one participant over the others. In ranking the participants, I looked at who was the most aggrieved party, and who had caused the grief. Clearly the woman, the letter writer, had caused the grief -- with the one-night stand. The husband could be said to be aggrieved by the wife, yet because he is an adult capable of making choices and fending for himself, and he chose to marry her for better or for worse, he is not wholly innocent or deserving of complete protection. The child they have agreed to raise is, however, both incapable of making choices and unable to fend for itself, making it both blameless and deserving of complete protection.

So the best strategy appeared to be the one that maximized the likelihood that the blameless and helpless party would be both cared for and not punished for the mistakes of others. Thus the strategy of outright deception that I outlined.

To consider further subtleties is not only possible but seductive; each case branches off complexly and intriguingly. In some cases -- if they are mature and emotionally stable -- the correct solution might very well be for her to confess to her husband; in some cases the best thing might be to determine the paternity of the fetus and then decide; abortion also certainly remains an option. But what of specific actions and their myriad unforeseen effects? What if she told the husband and because of that he left her? What if she told him and they worked it out and their relationship became stronger as a result? What if he pretended to accept the truth but harbored hostility and suspicion of the child?

What if he insisted on nobly contacting the genetic father in order to involve him in the raising of the child, and she didn't want anything to do with the genetic father? What if he insisted on contacting the genetic father in order to bludgeon him with a shovel? What if the genetic father got wind and sued? What if they all three ended up in therapy, or on Jerry Springer? What if the families of the parties became involved, advocating for mutually incompatible solutions such as abortion, divorce and shared parentage?

What if the mother decided under the stress of the conflict that she no longer wanted to be a mother? What if she decided under the stress of the conflict that she no longer wanted to be married? What if buried aspects of their personalities surfaced under the conflict, creating agonizing fights and emotional trauma? What if conflicts developed between the husband and the family of the mother, plunging him into despair and weakening her family's confidence in him?

What if the husband decided he ought to have an affair as well to even the score? What if the affair he had was with his wife's sister? What if each tried to accept and forgive and simply could not, and their sex life dwindled, and they became morose and started drinking and taking drugs, and their marriage broke up just as the child was being born? What if she told her husband and the baby was born retarded? What if the one-night stand guy committed suicide for wholly unrelated reasons?

The permutations were dizzyingly various and complex. The only thing that could be said with confidence was that there was only one blameless party deserving of complete protection. Silence seemed to be the only thing that could be advised with some certainty to minimize the damage.

Of course we know silence has a cost all its own. But the cost, I hypothesized, would be mainly born by the one who caused all the trouble in the first place; it was a price I judged she could reasonably bear.

As one letter writer suggested, I do seem to approach these real-life problems more like a novelist than a therapist. And how could it be otherwise? I being a writer, and we meeting not in rooms by the hour but in this vast, strangely anechoic intellectual space unlike any humankind has ever before occupied? We do not know each other in the flesh; we know each other only as actors speaking lines, seeking our marks onstage in the dark, looking for threads to hold the narrative together. I don't mean to be paraphrasing Shakespeare, but I do mean to suggest that our strange, unexpected colloquy in cyberspace is only in certain respects a human community; in others, it is utterly abstract. Because we do not know each other's particulars, we rely on principles, on overarching and eternal concepts that embrace us all: innocence, responsibility, betrayal. We populate it not as people with fingerprints and birth certificates but as avatars in each other's minds, as plot points and symbols, as poignant enigmas made of words.

Thank you for your thoughts on this most vexing of questions, and for giving me time to expand on my own.

Dear Cary,

I'm in my mid- to late 20s, at the beginning of an art career. I recently finished my master's. I recently fell in love with a handsome and talented drummer, who was adventurous, a social butterfly, charming and obsessed with literature. He was an interesting risk that I took on gladly (at the time) -- he hadn't finished high school, was looking for a job, was in a successful band and was recovering from heroin addiction. I had only been in love (mutually) with one other person in my life, and I was ready to give anything to this one, and I did. I gave him a place to live, fed him, drove him to drug-counseling sessions and held his hand during heartbreaking mood swings and self doubt. In return, he gave me loads of moral support for my own problems and dried my tears, and really cared about and understood me. Our romantic connection was intense and unparalleled. I found myself happily telling close friends how deeply in love I was. I also partied adventurously with him, drinking and dancing all night.

After several months, there was no progress in his finding a job and a real home. At one point, he confessed he'd "slipped" -- used once, quickly followed by recommitment to change. He'd already gotten ultimatums from his band and friends, and now he got one from the girlfriend. It's impossible for me to express how badly I wanted him to "get well" -- to get away from the drug and get his life together. Then came the awful week (one in which I had a very stressful deadline): What is that funny bruise? Is he "nodding out"? Why are there footprints on the toilet seat? When I finally confronted him, he was honest, except this time he'd been using for many days, sometimes in my room. I felt so violated, I could barely speak.

And so I broke it off with him and left him to his own devices. My heart was smashed to bits, and I felt that I had been forced to break it myself -- not by him, but by the drug. I told myself if he took his recovery seriously and started taking steps in the right direction, that I would take him back. He has taken the breakup as an excuse to go further down the path, and I feel that I must give up on him. To thicken the plot, he's now paying rent and living with mutual friends next door. I'm watching his decline as a performance, and we're not really talking.

A mere four weeks after this all happened, I met someone else -- a shy painter, smart as hell, educated, eccentric, gorgeous and not addicted to anything. I'm very attracted to this one, and he to me. Again the connection is intense, but I feel split. I'm still in love with the drummer. I feel like a traitor to both, even though I know it's not my responsibility (or even possible) to "cure" the drummer. Meanwhile, I hunger for that deep connection again, but it's not fair to make the painter some sort of fallback.

Should I give my heart some breathing room and take it slow (or even take a break) with the painter? Or should I dive right in and let this feeling of whiplash subside over time?

Nobody's Martyr

Dear Nobody's Martyr,

A drummer obsessed with literature? I've never heard of that before. I've heard of shy, gorgeous painter boys, though. Nothing wrong with that. Something tells me, though, that what you need to do for your art and your mental health is cure yourself of romanticism, of the need for being out of your head, of drama and longing and cleverness, cure yourself even of your own attractiveness, cure yourself of your image of yourself as a woman living a creative life, cure yourself of desire, of the need for acceptance, cure yourself of cuteness and the need for cuteness in others.

Cure yourself of rock 'n' roll and thinness and artistic ideas and academic titles, cure yourself of studios and theses and advisors and tuition, cure yourself of matriculation and postgraduate research. Cure yourself of ambition and boredom and self-defensiveness and self-consciousness and be very uncool for a while; be as uncool as you possibly can be. Give up on thrift shops. Grieve for the heroin addict. Wear only Ban-Lon shirts. Stop going to the nightclub you keep going to. Disappear so your friends wonder where you are and when they finally see you, be evasive. Become difficult and stubborn. Concentrate on your art. Concentrate on technique. Sit on the floor and try to breathe normally.

Try doing that for the rest of your life, and see if it doesn't help.

Dear Cary,

I'm a woman in love with a man, and he loves me. We live thousands of miles from each other, but have been having an unlikely and beautiful love affair for six months. Now we suddenly have the chance to abandon our posts and relocate anywhere we want.

Recently, I told him that we should relocate somewhere together. He said that he couldn't have his love for me clouding his vision right now, and that it's absolutely critical at this time that we view our lives as separate from each other, so that we can make the right decisions about our futures. He says he loves me and that he is actively trying to exclude me from his decision-making process in the same breath. I believe what he says, and I believe that he sees no contradiction in this. I also believe that he has his head up his ass.

If I think someone is beautiful and fun, if I have nothing but affection and respect for him -- then I will tell him that I like him a lot. If I get dizzy every time I see him, if he causes me to have revelations, if I want to protect him from his fears, if I want to meet his mother and thank her for raising him -- then I will tell him that I love him. If I feel like I need to include him in my future, then I will tell him that I love him. I thought I understood this distinction, but I guess I don't. Am I wrong to assume that a declaration of love means a promise of things to come?

Does "I love you" necessarily mean different things to men and women? When a man tells you that he loves you, what the hell does that mean, anyway?

Looking for a Future

P.S. This sounds like a topic for a Cosmo article, and I'm deeply sorry for that.

Dear Looking for a Future,

Oh, man, what a great question. Excuse me while I take my head out of my ass long enough to try to answer it. I know where this guy's coming from, and it's not so weird if you're a guy, but you are so persuasive in your letter ... Well, that's just like a woman, isn't it, to make so much goddam sense that you begin to think maybe you should just put your head back up in your ass where it belongs and stop trying to reason with her!

Anyway, he's probably a very bright guy, right? And principled? And all those other things you love about him? But what is this craziness about? I think you've got him on the ropes and he's struggling to keep his balance. See, as guys we are taught to fight our emotions with everything we've got and not to ever let them affect our decisions. Pure logic, that's our thing. But if he is struggling, if he actually used the phrase "absolutely critical" and said he's actively trying to eliminate you from the decision-making process, he's obviously got it bad. He's nuts about you. This is his way of showing it. Because being nuts about you, for him, is a weakness to be countered with massive logic. He's a goner. He could no more make a rational decision right now than a worm could juggle. The only point to all this, and it's a backward tribute to you, is that he's struggling so hard to remain rational and dispassionate precisely because he's head over heels in love with you.

That's not to say that his own gambit won't backfire. He may cogitate himself right out of a girlfriend. It wouldn't be the first time. I think you just have to let his wheels whir and his circuits hum and hope he spits out a logical answer, like "Let's look at some houses. They have some nice ones in Berkeley."

Dear Cary,

This is about sex, bonding with oxytocin and the single girl. I'm a 33-year-old female who's looking for two things: first and primarily, a loving connection with a man who I can make a life with or, in the interim, an attractive man who will fill me up with passionate rolls in the hay. Now, I know that my desire for sexual connection and my desire for intimacy are essentially the same thing -- which causes "the Problem."

To counteract this conflict I've considered using a rule from "the Rules" where I should wait at least 30 days to have sex with a man I am seriously attracted to. The object being that I can get to know them better, we can bond through shared activities and conversation, not sex. Letting the sexual tension ferment into a full-bodied and well-deserved bonding.

Recently I met a man who has my socks rolling up and down. I find him adorable and have a Big Crush on him. We've shared six dates in a three-week period and he keeps calling me back. (And I have to keep dodging my brain, which keeps screaming "Marriage! Kids! Family!") This is great, yet I deliciously caved in on the third date and went to bed with him. Now, I have these two desires: I am crazy about him and crazy for sex with him.

Have I blown it? How is a man motivated once he gets a woman he's attracted to in bed? Does having sex early ruin the chances for a more serious relationship? My 30-day rule seems to mitigate the possibility of a man just "getting into my pants" because they reveal their true colors by not waiting, but I don't have this gauge anymore.

Smitten, Sex Craving and Earnestly Desiring a Lifelong Companion

Dear Smitten Kitten Who Lost her Mittens,

I do not think that having sex early in a relationship necessarily harms its prospects for longevity. It might simply be a sign that he is the one! And if you are both ready to go for it, rules are going to be of little use to you. My wife and I fell in love rather suddenly. We did not have what you would call a long and elaborate courtship. And while such a courtship might make a good story, I fail to see how it would provide a stronger foundation for a marriage than the simple, immediate certainty that this is the person one wants to be with.

As to how a man might change once he seduces a woman: If he is primarily interested in the conquest and loses interest afterwards, delaying it will not change that; it will only mean you spend more time unfulfilled and wondering what will happen next. So what's the point? -- unless you're prepared to try stringing him along the rest of your life, including during courtship, engagement and after marriage. And if you are, would you please report yourself to the police so they can warn him?

I think you're just going to have to improvise now. Your Rules are already broken.

Dear Cary,

I'm a single 33-year-old who has fallen madly in love with my son's 29-year-old teacher at school. It was electric from the beginning. We are intensely (physically) attracted to each other, and emotionally, it was like we'd known each other all our lives. And we both love each other very much. If you ever looked for the definition of "soul mates" you would see our picture there.

The problem? She's always had a boyfriend, and has been living with him for five years. When I met her 11 months ago she told me she had a boyfriend but that they had been having problems for a long time and she was going to soon move out. She knew he wasn't "the one" and she wanted to get to know me better. We talked on the phone multiple times almost every day, including a $700 long-distance bill when she was at her family's house last summer on vacation. We leave each other notes and cards and occasionally give each other gifts. She comes to see me at my office every now and then. We've kissed quite a few times and were with each other physically a few times (although we never slept together).

Her boyfriend knows about me. He checked the call logs on her cellphone after the first couple of months and found and called my number. He has the code to her cellphone voice mail and calls it many times a day to listen to her messages. He checks her personal e-mail. He's called and threatened me once and even threw her around the room and hurt her in a fight about me. When pressed, she admits to him when she sees me and that we've been together. He is very insecure and still wants to be with her very much.

She has been saying for 11 months that she wants me and sees us together in the future. She asks me to be patient, but doesn't expect me to sit idle and wait for her. She tells me "soon," but then stays with him. She knows it won't work with him but stays because it's "comfortable." We still talk frequently, but when I ask her about moving out she gets quiet and (sad) emotional. She says she loves him, but is not in love with him. She said she's just weak and hasn't been able to do it.

What should I do? What course should I plot?

All Dressed Up With Nowhere to Go

Dear Dressed Up,

This teacher is in a dangerous situation. She has to leave this guy. Violent, controlling, insecure boyfriends are the ones who end up beating and killing their girlfriends. Perhaps because of an authoritarian upbringing she is comfortable with an authoritarian structure and so is not as alarmed as she should be by this man's behavior. But snooping in her e-mail, listening to her voice mail, threatening her friends and physically abusing her goes over the line. She may not realize how much danger she is in.

While you have a responsibility to help her leave, you are probably not the one to convince her; it would be too easy for her to believe that you just want her to leave him to be with you. What she needs is more objective allies that she trusts, with whom she is not romantically involved, and perhaps who have had similar experiences. Depending on her politics, her background (she may be accustomed to abuse) and her personality structure, those key allies might be other female teachers, her principal, her boss, a clergyman, a family member or friend, etc., and the mode of her decision-making might be collaborative or it might be authoritarian; that is, she might need to talk it through and come to her own decision, or she might simply need to be ordered by an authority figure to leave him. Either way, the bottom line is, she needs to get out of there, and you need to do what you can to make that happen. If I were you I would talk to a person at a domestic abuse shelter about the best way to proceed.

Good luck. Don't kid around. She needs to leave this guy.

By Cary Tennis

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