Sting's advice

Is it true that if you love someone you have to set them free?

Published August 20, 2002 7:33PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been with my boyfriend for over three and a half years. We are best friends, we make each other laugh, we are compatible in all the important ways.

One thing has been lacking for a long time, and that is intimacy. Somewhere along the line we stopped having sex and stopped being romantic. We didn't stop the sex completely, but it was infrequent; maybe twice a month or so. This is a problem that has hounded us for the past two years and we swore we'd go to counseling and then we put it off.

Four weeks ago we started going to counseling. Within a week he had completely withdrawn from me. He didn't want to be touched, he didn't want to be affectionate, he didn't want to kiss. These were things we always did.

It's three weeks later and he's now moved in with a friend temporarily and is considering moving out completely. We've lived together two and a half years. He claims we "need some time apart." He feels we've been living as friends for so long that nothing will change unless we really change things. I am terrified I am just losing him and he is subconsciously finding a way to dump me. I am also wondering at what point do I become a complete doormat (he is spending all his time with his friends and before he moved out he was literally staying out all night, without calling me to say where he was or when he was coming back). I feel like we're practically married (common-law-wise, we are) and this is completely unacceptable behavior for a married man, to just abandon his wife when he feels low.

Should I assume he is breaking up with me and end it now? Or do you think this is a reasonable thing for him to want and I am not being a doormat for letting him go for a while? I feel like he isn't really "spending time apart" from me; he's simply spending way more time with his buddies, pretending he doesn't have a girlfriend.

(P.S. This isn't about his seeing someone else -- yes, I'm positive. Oh, and we are still seeing the counselor through all of this.)

Nauseous and Still in Love

Dear Nauseous,

It sure sounds to me like he's breaking up with you. If I were you, I would accept that you two are breaking up and move on. In fact, I think you should try to break up with him before he officially breaks up with you.

Remember the letter last week from the woman who couldn't get over her anger at her ex? Someone wrote in and pointed out that I had ignored the issue of power, and that this woman's anger likely had much to do with the power dynamics between her and her ex -- that if she concentrated on how she finally stopped being a victim and ended the relationship, she would feel much better. In your case as well, I would be remiss if I didn't raise the issue of power, especially since you expressed a concern about at what point you "become a complete doormat." It seems your boyfriend has all the power and you're waiting around to see what he does. So it might help if you took some positive steps. In other words, kick him out. Break up with him. Cry a lot and let it go.

And, assuming this therapist isn't completely incompetent -- you went there for help with your relationship and it immediately fell apart? -- it would be good to keep seeing the therapist, on your own, to learn some new tools and behaviors for your next relationship.

Dear Cary,

I'm a 30-year-old woman. I met a man on an online chat. He's 18. He lives in Australia. We started just chatting for the heck of it, killing time, I guess. But we've gotten to know each other very well and have developed a very intense and serious connection and have fallen in love with each other. It might sound crazy, over the Internet, but it's true. We've exchanged pictures and all of that, lots of e-mails; we set times to talk to accommodate the time difference. It's not about cybersex, either. It's very personal and loving, based on having gotten to know each other very well over the past couple of months. We get on famously. We love each other completely.

I've always been attracted to younger men, but usually within a five-year range. He, too, dates older women and was until just recently dating an older woman with whom he broke up because he was confused about his feelings for me. We both look around at people and try to imagine ourselves with each other. He's very mature and intelligent and has been through more by the age of 18 than some people ever have to go through before they're 40 -- he's grown up fast. As for me, I'm not sick; I'm not a pedophile; I'm not rebounding. I'm a normal healthy woman who has been through some very normal, healthy relationships and has just gotten caught up in something I wasn't expecting. My girlfriends seem to think it's a fun fantasy, as long as that's what it remains, but I don't see it stopping there just yet.

We've talked about vacationing together (he's got money) to see if we're the same together in person as we are online and in our letters. We'd see how our "real time" together went and take it from there. My career allows me to be pretty mobile and I'd consider moving. He has a sister my age and has spoken at length with her about us and even the possibility of having children with me should things work out (I've never married; no kids). We're both thinking pretty seriously about this. And yes, we have talked about sex but a few times only recently -- the love came first.

Are we dreaming? Can this really work? I have a 34-year-old male friend seeing a 21-year-old woman but that somehow seems more acceptable because she's in her 20s. Love seems to be blind to age but 12 years is still a big gap. The global difference could likely be overcome as I have little keeping me in my present locale.

We Both Want to Know

Dear Wanting to Know,

Of course it can work. Anything can work. There are no rules. If I have any advice for you, it would be to visit him and spend some time with him, and have him visit you, and see what happens when you are on each other's turf. You don't even know what he smells like yet. You say you've talked but I'm not sure if you mean just through e-mail. You might not know what his voice sounds like. If so, what you've fallen in love with is a style of typing. That, and a photograph.

I'm not trying to belittle this. I'm trying to be factual and specific, in order to shed some light on all the other things that might constitute "love." What if you don't like his touch, or he doesn't like yours? What does "work" mean? Does it mean that it will not have the problems other relationships have? Does it mean that you're not going to write to me in three years and say the sex has decreased?

Of course it can work. But there might be things about him that you find hard to accept. What if he wears Tevas with socks?

Dear Cary,

I'm a 34-year-old, well-educated, successful-in-my-field man, living in Southern California. After a long history of serial monogamy interrupted by bouts of infidelities on my part, with the help of a therapist and a good deal of time with myself, I came to terms with a lot of my issues involving honesty and desires. I felt as healthy as I've ever been. In the midst of this process, about two years ago, I met a woman at a conference. Oddly enough, she was coming off the healing stages of having been a victim of someone else's infidelities and was just starting to date again.

We had an amazing, instantaneous connection that turned into a night of passionate sharing and shared passion. It would have been an amazing one-night stand. She lives in a state very far away (think noncontiguous and cold). But a chance schedule a couple weeks later found us in the same city at the same time during a very emotional holiday for both of us. We holed up for three days and opened our lives to each other. I found then, this amazing, strong, resourceful, inspirational, sexy, resilient, magical woman. We both realized we were in love. But we're also both very practical people. We didn't want to make any rash decision. The connection was the thing to be treasured. Somebody put us together for a purpose, and we would serve in each other's lives. The differences were startling (in addition to our divergent locales and personal histories, she is 13 years older than I, although she truly looks my age), but a connection is a connection.

So we decided to see where things went (at the same time agreeing to see other people). E-mails and phone calls by the thousands followed. Respective visits, trips together all over the country. Last fall, we agreed to make some decisions. She said she was ready to move, or have me move. Although neither of us had been seeing anyone else for months and I was madly in love with this woman, I still had unanswered questions. And I retreated to old, bad instincts, saying I felt too much pressure.

This lack of conviction on my part crushed her. She started seeing someone else. Someone that she admits isn't as much what she's looking for as I am. I took some time away from her and did some soul-searching. Then, she took a couple of months away on a previously planned trip. More time for me to think. I answered honestly and to my satisfaction those big questions. I know now: I want this woman in my life. I want the life that we can have together. We've still continued to see each other, to grab weekends when we can. To continue to communicate. To discuss those big questions. And the time we're together is no less magical, no less passionate, and because of our honesty, at the same time very real.

She says she thinks she wants to be with me, but the fear of being abandoned is stopping her from moving forward. This guy that she was seeing is kind of back. She thinks she may want to "explore" that. She believes he's safer and requires a lot less turmoil in her life. I'm at a point where I can't be the supportive friend that I was before and watch her date someone else who's there every day. As her friend I want nothing more than for her to be happy. And I hear the joy in her voice when we make plans for the future. I know that given time, she'll miss me and what we have. But I'm afraid that if I let her go now, let her explore this other thing, I'll never get her back. I feel like I'm fighting for the life that I want to have.

Do I have to follow Sting's (ugh) advice? Do I have to let her go? Is she trying to tell me something without saying it? Is there any chance that I'll be able to keep my best friend, even if I lose the love of my life?

Set Her Free?

Dear Set Her Free?

Sting's advice is absurd. If you love something, you don't set it free. You drag it home before someone else gets to it. What was he thinking?

Somebody in this relationship has to stop waffling, and it might as well be you. You say you want this woman in your life. If you want her, take her, but take her for good. Wanting her in your life doesn't mean wanting her in your life until the electricity between you stops being perfect. You're not going to want her like crazy every second. You can't rely wholly on how you feel, because you're not always going to feel exactly the same way. You have to make a decision and then stick with it. All this exploring your feelings is a little narcissistic, if you ask me. Make your choice and live with it. Ask her to marry you and tell her unequivocally that you'll stick with her. And be willing to do that. If she doesn't say yes, move on. At least you tried.

Dear Cary,

I am 25 and eight months into a deep affair with a 48-year-old married man. (I always date older men. This is not a big deal for me.) He and I were before and still are very close friends, above and beyond the sexual aspect. We are completely honest about how we feel about each other; there are no games or lies. I love him, am in love with him, and he knows this. He loves me, too. He has no intention of leaving his wife, which is fine with me, because I am a commitment-phobe and this way, I don't have to subconsciously plan out my usual sabotage. There is a very low level of sneakiness involved because our jobs are such that we are supposed to be out late together, and he treats me like an absolute queen. This is the most rewarding, open, healthy relationship I have ever had, and I am happy.

However, most of my friends do not believe that this is possible. They can't understand how I can be in love with someone and yet have no expectations of, or any plans for, a future with him. Because he is cheating, they say he cannot possibly be a wonderful, loving, caring, kind and funny man -- he must be a hateful scumbag. They say I have an Electra complex, that's he's my "daddy" ... yeah! I acknowledge and understand my Electra complex. I hug my Electra complex. Electra complex, I kiss you. They don't think I am truly happy, just delusional, and am heading for a colossal train wreck of broken hearts. They don't understand the concept of loving someone so much that you don't mind letting them go, because a) they're never really yours to begin with, and b) they're always inside your heart, anyway.

Despite my opinion that my friends are a bunch of bitter wonks, they are my friends and so I have to explore the possibility that they could be right. Is it possible to be in love with someone and have no desire for a future with him? I know he's not the man I will end up with, but is there something wrong with me loving all holy hell out of him right now?

Love vs. Rational

Dear Love vs. Rational,

I certainly think it is possible that you feel fine about what you are doing, and that you are not in any danger of being emotionally hurt when your relationship ends. Somewhere at the end of this paragraph there is going to be a "but." You can sense it coming, can't you? I can feel its approach myself, but I'm trying to delay it, to make this moment between us last. It's beautiful, isn't it, how we feel about each other right now? I don't want this to end; I just want to look into your eyes and tell you everything is going to be ... oh, shit. The doorbell. It's my wife. Holy shit.

Hi, baby. I'm calling from my car. I'm on the freeway. I'm heading to the club. She just doesn't understand our love. I was never going to leave her, but now she's leaving me. I don't know, she just can't get over it, the thought of you and me. And she's taking the house in Brentwood. Let's move in together. You and me. I've got an apartment in Hollywood. You don't want to? Come on, what we had was so perfect. What do you mean, now that I'm divorced you don't want to see me? You said you'd love me forever. You said I'm in your heart always. You meant that abstractly? What the fuck are you talking about, abstractly? There was nothing abstract about what we were doing! You fucking cunt! I'll get you fired so fast even checks you haven't written yet will bounce. You'll never work in this town again. You can't toy with me. What do you mean, what was all that talk about freedom? That was bullshit, that's what it was. I'm crazy about you baby, I need you now, I need you. You can't leave me! You'll be sorry!

You standing there in your party dress on your cellphone in the ladies room, him on the freeway, headed to the club, you having to leave the club because you don't want to see him, wishing he would just go away and forget, but him so typically unable to just forget and move on, so typically caught up in his own little problems. And then it's so annoying how you keep running into him in restaurants, and he's got this cheap-looking older woman for a girlfriend now, and he's not dressing as well as he used to, and he complains about the child-support payments, how the ex is bleeding him, and it's almost like he blames you for all that, but you never did anything, and you're half afraid one day he's going to ask you for money, but you're not doing so well yourself because job-wise things keep going bad for you and you wonder if it's him wrecking your life by remote control or just a string of bad luck after everything was going so well. It just turned out his heart was not as pure as yours. But people are so weak, and so conventional.

I think that was the "but."

By Cary Tennis

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