My girlfriend made me watch "Annie Hall"

She does not banter brilliantly! She misses my clever references! Is she trying to tell me something?

Published August 27, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear readers,

First, I would like to address a question that came up over breakfast.

This girl used to know this guy. They may even have dated, but they were never close. One day after years of not hearing from him she gets a phone message. He suggests they maybe have some coffee. She likes this guy. She'd like to go out with him. But she doesn't want to seem too eager. So she doesn't return his call right away. And then a few days later when she finally returns his call, she is leaving a message for him and his voice-mail software announces that his mailbox is full. So she hangs up, midmessage, and doesn't know for sure if she left the message successfully or not.

She could call again but she doesn't want to seem too eager. But if he didn't get her message he will think she has dissed him. But she fears that if she is drawn into explaining to him that she isn't sure if he got the message but wanted to make sure -- not that it's that important to her anyway! -- it will come out not only that she really is, if not desperate, at least eager but also that she delayed calling for no good reason except she did not want to seem desperate or eager, which now seems, to her, like a less-than-admirable reason not to call someone back. And it seems like it's getting too complicated to explain. And is she going to seem like a dork if she ... Hold it right there! We need go no further! There's a general principle at work here: Always return phone calls promptly. It's not about making somebody think this or that; it's about being a responsible, polite adult. Responsible, polite adults return phone calls promptly. It's that simple. Even very, very busy people are able to return phone calls promptly. Delaying doesn't make you seem desirable or busy; it just makes you seem flaky.

But suppose you want to heighten his sense of anticipation. Fine. Suggest a date for two weeks from now. Suppose you want him to believe you are very busy and desirable, or that you are seeing another man, or that you are about to become engaged to a rock star who is touring Finland but will be back next month. Whatever it is you want him to believe, delaying returning a phone call is not the way to make him believe it. It's too vague. There's no way to know what it will make him believe. It leaves too much up to his imagination. The way to make him believe what you want him to believe is to tell him convincingly. That might involve lying and it might not.

Clarity about your own motives is liberating.

Dear Cary,

I grew up in one of those houses where the parents were enormously intelligent but didn't know it, so they put themselves down and put their kids down. Every emotion was acceptable except positive ones. I learned by negative example. I looked after myself and my little sister and managed to grow up and create the kind of life that I want. However, it took me a number of years to get over the idea that I was not some emotionally vulnerable weakling and so I never had my first sexual girlfriend/boyfriend relationship until I was 36 (I'm 38 now).

He's the first man I've ever had sex with (although not the only -- don't ask, it has little bearing on the situation or him and there's no guilt involved), but I feel that I have hit the jackpot. He is my friend. I can tell almost anything to him (except those things that women are wiser to keep from men, not because they shouldn't be told, but just because guys don't need to be made to wince over their pasta). He hugs me and cuddles me. He picks up on emotional stuff that I am often naive to (it is still a foreign language to me in some respects). He thinks I'm intelligent and creative and wonderful. I know he sometimes wonders how he got me (I picked him). He's kind, intelligent, insightful, big-hearted and ...

He doesn't recognize these things about himself. In some respects it's like being back home with my parents -- he drinks too much, is frozen by self-doubt after a bad business experience that fell apart at Christmas last year (it was a good time, let me tell you), he's gaining weight and he's got a huge underlying font of anger that he let loose on morons once in a while (nothing physical yet). For the most part, he keeps all this away from me and when he's with me he is emotionally available, loving, kind, supportive.

I try to help by pointing out all the wonderful things he does (we went on vacation and in three days of being together, I saw him help more people than I did in a year). I point out how emotionally attuned he is (I sent him to my doctor for a checkup and he noticed that she was shy in the first 10 minutes -- something I didn't realize for two years). He aspires to some presence in the community and I've talked to him about how bullying some guy in a bar is not going to gain him the respect he wants (to which he laughed, half-embarrassed, and said it didn't seem fair that he couldn't do both). I point to his previous business successes and tell him how he should invest in himself, as those investments have always paid off.

Is there something else I can do to help him? How did your wife help you stop drinking? Did she? I love him so much and want him to be happy.

Would-be Florence Nightingale

Dear Florence,

Sometimes people write with very specific problems: Should I invite my mother to my second wedding or not? My boyfriend seems to have moved out; does that mean he is breaking up with me? Letters such as yours, on the other hand, do not pose questions as much as mysteries. It is like finding a torn photograph where the onlookers' faces show concern or horror but the object of their gaze has been removed. You can only guess what actually happened. It is at such moments that I feel more like a fortuneteller than an advice columnist; I do not analyze, I conjure.

So conjure I shall: Growing up as you did, you may have gotten into the habit of taking care of others before yourself, as a way of holding together those fragile bonds of love amid the carping and finely honed despair. But you got out of that family, and knowing you had to take care of yourself, you put off getting involved romantically and put together a life for yourself. Good for you. Having done that, however, you felt ready for a relationship, and now that you're in one, it feels eerily familiar.

I would bet that your family role as caretaker, worrier, consoler and fixer has returned, with those same old questions: Can I change this person? Can I help him see in himself what I see in him, help him reach his true potential? Can I save him from himself? Can I ease his pain?

You can't change people. That's just a black-and-white fact. You can set examples and you can entertain and comfort, and you can observe people change in response to the examples you set, but you can't change them. Incidentally, since you asked, my wife didn't really help me stop drinking, but she made life a lot more tolerable and interesting while I was doing it.

The problem-solving techniques we learn in early family life often reassert themselves later when we get into close relationships. So there you are, trying to fix your boyfriend's drinking. You can't do it. If you love him, I think you should stick with him, but you may have to accept a lot of behavior that every bone in your body is aching to try to change. So decide what's absolutely unacceptable and set some boundaries; be prepared to walk out if he violates them: criminal violence, heroin addiction, that sort of thing. If he's in a downward spiral, you may have to move on. But if he's just muddle-headed but moving forward, things will probably get better.

Meanwhile -- and this also is in the realm of conjuring -- I get a strong feeling that you need to read great works of literature, listen to music and spend time in art galleries. Read Greek tragedies, read Dostoevsky, read Shakespeare and Ibsen and Chekhov; don't ask me why or how I know this: I'm just conjuring. You've had a lot of buried pain. Read the masters, look at paintings, listen to intolerably long symphonies.

Dear Cary,

I was dating a fellow grad student for seven months. We called it "high-risk dating" because we're in the same study group and are neighbors in the dorm, but we agreed we would try to preserve our friendship if things didn't work out. He seemed like a great guy, well-liked on campus with a large circle of friends. In retrospect, he was often inconsiderate, seemed more concerned about managing his social network than building a relationship, but we were very happy together and he never wanted to spend a night apart.

We're spending the summer in separate cities for our internships. During our first month apart he would call in between social engagements, talk for five minutes and get rid of me to "talk to his mother." Things didn't feel right, and I called him on it. He denied there was anything wrong and insisted that he loved me. Then three days before I was supposed to fly out to meet his parents he calls to tell me that "something doesn't feel right" and he's not sure he wants to marry me. (Not that I ever suggested marriage!) He blamed me for his crummy behavior, mainly that he thought I worried too much about finding a summer job and making money to support myself during the school year. (Nevermind that I ended up finding a great job that pays well!) On top of that, he didn't think I should fly out to see him, because "what if his feelings don't change?" It was apparent he had made up his mind, I would never probably know the true story and there was no room for discussion. He didn't even offer to pay for the canceled plane ticket.

He hasn't called since our last conversation a month ago but sent a lame e-mail reiterating that he loves me but "something isn't quite right." I let him know that things were definitely over but I wanted to be on civil terms by the time school starts. School starts next month, and we will probably be in a few of the same classes. My suite is filled with things he stored for the summer. Our friends are scheduling parties we are both invited to. I think I've been treated poorly and am angry about it. How can I even begin to be civil to this person? How do I resist the temptation to call Goodwill to pick up his furniture?

Aspiring to Sainthood

Dear Aspiring Saint,

Depending on how much stuff there is, either rent a storage space for it and send him the bill, or give his things to a mutual acquaintance from whom he can pick them up. You will have to pay the first installment on the storage if you choose that route; assume that he may not pay you back. But make sure the subsequent bills go to him. After that, it's his choice: If he doesn't pay, he can forfeit his belongings, but it's not your responsibility.

Having disposed of the evidence of his existence, regard him in as neutral a way as possible. Treat him as nothing more than an acquaintance. I know you must be a seething cauldron of emotion about this, but it's a failed relationship and it's over.

One note: Your communications with him, at least as you describe them, sound alarmingly vague and incoherent, particularly for people engaged in academic postgraduate study. You can't be studying English, because if you were, you wouldn't have been able to write me a coherent letter at all. So perhaps you are studying sociology, or religion, or botany; if so, try to bring to your future human relations some of the verbal precision required by your chosen discipline. Otherwise, your relationships will be plagued with misunderstandings about whether, for instance, you are engaged to be married.

Dear Cary,

I ought to be jumping for joy. I'm in my first serious relationship since the big split about two years ago. Holly is beautiful, she's kind and she adores me. Her values are compatible with my values. The sex is excellent; the cuddling is even better. Her very presence is nourishing to me. All my family and friends think she's the cat's meow, and I do too. I love her -- there, I've said it. She is everything I've wanted ... almost.

Here's the thing. I've got this old friend -- not to mince words, old flame. Liv, by her own admission, is moody and difficult, and we know we'd be a mightily star-crossed couple, and yet talking with her is like playing footsie underneath the Algonquin Round Table. Liv herself is no threat to my current relationship -- among other things, she's got a boyfriend of her own, she's two states away and she smokes. But I crave the kind of banter that we share, the intellectual playfulness, the fact that she gets all my obscure jokes (when she came to visit a few months ago, we collapsed into hysterics over the idea of programming a cellphone ringer to play John Cage's _4'33"_), and it's the No. 1 thing I've been looking for in a romantic partner. Holly, for all her charms and virtues, does not banter, and easily half my references go right past her.

I know I'm a perfectionist, and at least one friend has tweaked me for being ambivalent about this relationship simply because it isn't perfect. Fair enough. But the question in my mind isn't whether I can sustain a relationship that's missing something, it's whether I can sustain one that's missing this one crucial thing. I need the mind-play like I need water and air. And while some guys can compensate easily enough for their gals' lack of interest in, say, fishing by going off and sharing it with like-minded friends, it's not so easy for me, because most of the friends I have whom I can connect with on this intellectual level are women -- and I associate the banter so strongly with romance, and vice versa, that if I indulge this need with, say, my friend Lindsay (who is here in town, is single and doesn't smoke) while in a relationship with Holly, it feels like cheating to me. Not being tall or rich or athletic or a dog lover, I can only offer a higher standard of behavior and trustworthiness as my main selling point, and I'm worried that I'm facing a choice between undermining that standard and forfeiting a key inner need.

I also haven't ruled out the disappointing possibility that, even after two years on my own, I'm just not ready for a serious relationship yet, however much I might want one.

Holly is a very understanding woman, and I'm a very candid man, and I'd feel comfortable bringing this up to her if not for the fact that she had me watch "Annie Hall" with her last week, which seemed like a sort of coded message. Diplomacy is not my forte, and she is not without her own insecurities, and I have no idea how to raise the issue in a way that conveys the genuine respect and affection I have for her and doesn't send the unintended and insulting message that she's just not brainy enough to be my girlfriend. But I have the sense that if I don't raise it soon, one or both of us is going to end up very unhappy, and it will be my fault.

O Lord, Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

Dear Misunderstood,

I think you should do us all a favor and break up with Holly now. You're going to sooner or later, so why not today? Don't worry about hurting her. It won't bother her all that much. She knows it's coming, she just doesn't know when.

You'll hurt her far more if you stick around, because she may not have the courage to break up with you first. She might wait until life with you is unbearable and she's begun to question her sanity. That would be a mistake, and it would add to my burden, because at that point she'll write to me, asking why she's measuring the meat cleaver for the nape of your neck when you're really a lovely, clever, sweet person, if on occasion a little condescending. And I won't know who she's talking about because no one could give me such a clear portrait of you as you yourself have done by purporting to describe her! So when she writes I'll probably suggest trying to work it out, by which time you will have found a way to visit your old flame on business trips during the week, and then you'll finally leave her for your clever old flame, and Holly will blame me. So just end it now. She's not going to get any cleverer and you're not going to get any less self-centered, not anytime soon. Not till something knocks it out of you.

I remember one time I was sitting drunk in a bar and I saw a man get up and calmly walk to the other end of the bar and cold-cock some guy with a beer mug because he'd been listening to him talk all evening and he couldn't take it anymore. It was wrong. It was felonious. But, like the twin towers attack, it happened for a reason, justly or not, and I wondered if that guy who got cold-cocked ever thought about what it was that enraged this stranger so, or whether he just chalked it up to bad luck and kept on charming the world to blithering murder.

I was pretty drunk, but I remember thinking, Yeah, I can understand that.

By Cary Tennis

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