Should I stay or should I go?

I want to divorce my wife, but she just got pregnant. Should I still move on or stay for the baby's sake?

By Cary Tennis
Published June 11, 2002 7:23PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I met the girl of my dreams many years ago, and after some ups and downs, we got married. The ups and downs continued for seven years, and finally I decided it was time to cut bait. I can't say she ran around on me or is a heavy drinker or even wrecked the car. There's little things that just upset my sense of how things should be. I do things that annoy her too. We've been to counseling and we talk when things start building up, and we actually work things out, but it just hasn't been enough for me to feel content.

My original plan was to finish paying off the major debts (car payments, some house repairs) we had both incurred, and start the paperwork in April. The way I saw it was "no harm, no foul."

Then in March, we had a surprise. She's pregnant, and I'm going to be a father. I'm a bit nervous, excited, and scared out of my wits. Talking to my friends, this is apparently normal. It still doesn't change the fact that I want a divorce.

It's June, so you may be asking why I am still here. Right now, it's out of concern for my child-to-be. My wife has a history of depression, which her medication keeps at bay, but I don't want a postpartum depression episode lending itself to a phone call that our child has been hurt. I do realize that a divorce could lend itself to a depression, too.

So why not stay for the child's sake? Been there, done that, from the child's point of view. It's not a pleasant environment, and while my wife and I are a lot more civil when fighting/arguing than my parents were, I still don't think this would be a good thing.

My new plan is to keep everything flowing as smoothly as possible until the child is born, then start the divorce process as gently as possible. There's no other woman or man in my life. We're both educated with decent incomes. I don't have any reason to believe the child isn't mine. I don't have any desire to keep material possessions, and I want my kid to have a nice house to live in. I also want to see my child pretty regularly, so length of visitations might be a factor, but theoretically a small one.

Am I being a jerk for being supportive during the pregnancy even though I'm packing my bags for next year?

Leaving Quietly

Dear Leaving Quietly,

I don't think you're being a jerk. If you and she are committed to caring for the child, it seems that you are making the best of a situation that was complicated by unexpected events. What seems to harm children is not the lack of two parents per se, but the chaos, uncertainty, violence, neglect and anger that often accompany unstable households. It sounds as though you have thought this through very carefully, and that's admirable. True, outside parties could frame the narrative such that you're a vile bastard deadbeat cur. Perhaps your mother-in-law is composing such a ballad right this minute, in E-minor, with an Appalachian refrain.

And you must be prepared for further unexpected events. Your wife may become bitter and not feel very much like granting you as much visitation as you would like. She may remarry and your access may be further restricted. The child support you gladly agree to now may in time come to seem like an unfortunate burden, and you may find yourself looking for wiggle room. But none of these possibilities should prevent you from acting now. I know what you are talking about with the staying together for the child's sake. My parents did that and it really didn't improve things around the house.

As to your concern about your wife's depression: Childbirth and divorce may trigger episodes, but it doesn't follow that staying married -- or having an abortion -- would permanently cure her depression. If she has depression, she's going to have episodes. So do what you have to do, and then do your best, within your means, to provide protection for both of them, even if you can't be there.

Dear Cary,

I have been married for 10 years to a good, kind man who is severely disabled as a result of a car accident. The car accident happened when we were on the verge of getting engaged. He was hospitalized for months. I loved him and I didn't want to abandon him, so I married him anyway. It never occurred to me that he would not recover fully from his accident. But to this day he struggles with partial paralysis and cognitive problems because of brain damage. In spite of this, we have a loyal friendship and we have been reasonably happy together. I look out for him and protect him, and I feel proud that he has had a better life because of me. And he tries very hard to be a good husband to me, which is all you can ask of a person. I feel very lonely and frustrated at times because of his brain injury, however.

When my husband had his accident, his personality and appearance changed so drastically that many of his friends couldn't cope with it. But a few were loyal and maintained a relationship with him. One of these friends has been wonderful to both my husband and me for years now. We are very close. Over the years I have developed a secret and embarrassing crush on this friend, who is healthy and mentally sound and fun to be with. But I just kept these feelings to myself, because I know that it is not right for me as a married woman to feel that way. But one night, my husband, me and this friend were all watching TV together one night, hanging out, and my husband went to bed early and left us alone. This friend eventually offered to give me a massage, and although I knew I should have just gone to bed, I didn't. I got the greatest foot and back massage of my life, and then this friend just held me in his arms and stroked my hair, and it all felt great. Nothing else happened.

I felt really guilty about this, so I told my husband what happened. He just laughed it off and said he trusts me. I told him that it would be wiser for him not to trust me, and not to leave me alone with this friend anymore, and preferably not to have him spend the night anymore. But he didn't take me seriously. This friend has stayed over a few times since then, and each time, my husband goes to bed and we end up massaging each other and each time it escalates a little more. I feel really torn up about it because this is the only physical contact I have had with a man that actually feels good. Physical relations with my husband are very frustrating because of his disability. I know that if this situation continues, I'm going to end up doing something I regret.

I want to talk to this friend and tell him that I don't want him to stay over anymore. I don't want my husband to lose this friend because of my lack of self-control. I am really struggling with this. Part of me just wants to let the situation escalate and see what happens, but I know that would be wrong. The smarter part of me wants to do the right thing and speak up before I end up sleeping with him. I've never slept with anybody but my husband. I was a virgin on our wedding night. I've never known what it's like to be with someone who isn't disabled. So it is an added temptation for me. Anyway, if you can give me any suggestions on what to say or how to handle this situation better, please let me know. Thank you for your help.


Dear Tempted,

I cannot say I really feel in my heart it would be so terribly wrong for you to find out what sex is like with another person. Fate has intervened in your life and altered the terms under which all the sensual promise, the physical pleasure, of your marriage would be fulfilled. You have been admirable in shouldering the responsibilities and the sacrifices fate has presented you with. I can't help feeling that fate may now be offering you some compensation. Yes, tragedy and heartache may ensue; or it may turn out that the terms of your marriage are now becoming necessarily and humanely elastic. You waited until marriage, you have been faithful, you have cared for your husband, and this is not some drunken fling you are contemplating.

I'm not saying do it and I'm not saying don't do it. If you are convinced that you don't want to do it, you can easily stop it. The way to stop it is to state unequivocally to your friend that all physical contact between you must cease, and to stop all flirting, touching and fooling around. If you tell him not to touch you and he does, make him leave the house and don't see him. That much is clearly within your power to do. But I suspect the reason you haven't done it is that you are not completely sure you don't want to have sex with him. And I, likewise, am not completely sure that it would be utterly wrong if you did. Yes, it would be breaking the marriage rules. But if you're looking for someone to take the role of a punishing Christian father or God and shout down from the heavens, "It's wrong!" I'm sorry, I just can't do that. I have too much compassion for you.

Dear Cary,

I think I'm falling in love. What's the problem? She's 17. I'm 24.

Now before you give me a lecture on the finer points of Nabokov's "Lolita" and refer to me as Humbert Humbert, please realize that I've spent the better part of the last few months trying to convince myself that this is a situation I need to avoid.

The problem is, it's not working.

I am a college-educated, well-rounded man who has a lot going for him. I'm in graduate school working toward my teaching license while holding down a job that I absolutely love as the director of events for an independent bookstore. I live on my own and am a fantastic cook who actually knows how to work an iron and a vacuum cleaner. I even make money on the side playing the piano for weddings, parties and other special events. In short, I consider myself to be a quality human being.

My attitude on relationships? Well, like most guys my age, I've had many crushes during my life. Unfortunately, I've never acted on any of them. As far as sex, I do believe in saving myself for marriage -- or at least for the person I'm going to marry. I sometimes fear I may have taken my celibacy to the extreme (it's still possible for me to marry the first girl that I ever kiss), but I do believe that underneath the obvious jokes that can be made about my lack of experience there is a element of the respect that I have for my future life's partner that should be acknowledged.

The point is, this is not a situation of "older guy wants younger girl because she'll be easy to get into bed."

I can't stop thinking about her. We work together, and I see her about once a week. All it takes is for her to smile at me once to give me enough adrenaline to live on for the rest of the month. She's intelligent, funny, an amazingly good person, and simply adorable. Now it's way too soon to really use the big L-word here. She and I are getting to be friends, but we're really just scratching the surface. The thing is, I want more -- even if it's just a deeper friendship. But I don't even know what the socially appropriate boundaries are for a 24- and 17-year-old to even be friends, much less the boundaries on any potential romantic relationship.

How far is it OK for me to take this? Can I pursue romance with this girl? Can I even pursue a friendship with her? I am NOT asking for a license to have sex -- she's underage! I am asking if I should go with my feelings and try to make her a part of my life, or if this is one that's best to let fly by.

Interested but Cautious

Dear Interested but Cautious,

The reason states have laws about the age of consent is that we all understand that minors deserve protection, that they're not capable of making all the adult decisions that are required when you're having sex and falling in love and taking acid and driving cars and going to raves and forming bands and protesting wars and all the things that people do starting at quite a shockingly young age. The principle here is that she is entitled to protection; she's not an adult; she can't make all her own decisions. So who is going to be the adult here? You're 24; you're adult. The only thing that disqualifies you is that you're falling in love with her, and falling in love can turn you back into a child, with all the impulsive selfishness and changeability of a child.

It sounds like there ought to be somebody here who knows her well enough and has her best interests at heart who could look at you and hear you out and either say yes, OK, you can go out with my daughter, or no, sorry, you can't.

Assuming she's not living on her own, but with her parents, I can't help feeling, old-fashioned as it sounds, that's the way to go. Ask her parents. But to avoid embarrassing her, you should approach her first and tell her you want to ask her out but tell her you think you should meet her parents first.

Does that sound too crazy and old-fashioned? I don't think so; I think the kind of scrupulousness you demonstrate in your letter calls for it.

P.S. This Web site about age-of-consent laws may be informative.

Dear Cary,

At the end of college, I spent one summer falling in love with a boy who made my soul sing one lovely note, and my body a delightful counterpoint. He was struggling through a rough long-distance relationship at the time and I had just ended one myself. We were smitten. After I finished school I moved to a big city for a job. I asked him to jump and come with me, but he was afraid and didn't.

Four years went by during which he married his girlfriend, and I married the wonderful man who is my husband. Life was pretty solid and then this boy and I got in touch again. It's been about a year now. We e-mail and phone regularly and have seen each other twice. Both of us have matured and are happy in our respective lives, but we are also knocked on our asses by the strength of the connection that still exists between us. It's so dang cool I can't get over it. Neither one of us wants to leave our spouses and run off together into the sunset, but finding the equilibrium of the fantastic friendship that is still there without opening the floodgates to the physical desire is a real challenge. Plus having a night together to revisit those more fundamental emotions sounds nothing short of perfect. I can't feel guilty about it because I love the man, and it's no threat to my feelings about my marriage.

Are we dreaming? Is it possible to make the friendship work? Or a fling? I just don't want to look back when I'm 64 and regret.

Am I Nuts?

Dear Am I Nuts,

What you've got is great just the way it is. Don't ruin it by pushing it too far. Feel the tingle, the excitement, the bond, and enjoy it. Want a fling? Think it through. You've already had your fling. Why try to repeat it? What if you slept together, what then? Chances are, it wouldn't be as good as you imagine, or as good as you remember. But if it were, that would be even worse: Then you would be faced with agonizing choices, none of them good. Both your marriages would be threatened. Do you tell? Do you not tell? If one of you decided to leave his or her marriage and the other didn't, that would suck. If both of you decided to stay married but one of you wanted to continue the affair, that would suck. If you wanted to really go for it, you both would have to decide to leave your spouses! What a nightmare! What baggage to take into a new marriage! What headaches!

No, I think you've got the best of both worlds right here: You're both married, you like each other, there's a spark of attraction that feels great, there's the memories of the times you had together, but there's no pain. Make a move either direction and you've got massive pain. So just enjoy this; it sounds wonderful. Don't mess it up.

Cary Tennis

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