What's a girl to do?

A friend called me the most butch straight girl she knows. Am I going to have to dust off my delicate-flower routine to attract a man?

By Cary Tennis
September 17, 2002 11:37PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

My sister is a bright and interesting woman of 35. Even though I am five years her junior I have often found myself the one giving advice, which I am happy to do because we are a close family and I care. But the situation at hand requires a bit of outside perspective.


About six or seven years ago, my sister suffered a particularly devastating breakup and shortly afterward moved to Hawaii (where my brother already lived) to start a new life there. My sister hooked up with a person who became her live-in boyfriend. He is unsupportive of her continuing her education at a local college, he is a financially unstable cliché of a "beach bum," as well as completely antisocial with my family, who visits occasionally. She has given her heart and soul to his various projects, none of which earns her gratitude or respect. Over the last few years, she has almost given up and moved back to California -- going so far as to ship her car and belongings, only to stay about a week before she gets scared and goes back to what is, I suppose, safe and familiar to her. This is frustrating for my whole family, but after a lot of talk, we ultimately leave the decision up to her.

Recently, the boyfriend took a vacation to another country without even telling her he was going. That plus several suspicious "online chat" sessions with other women led her to her last straw. She decided to move back, finish her degree, and start over. Now she has been back three days and has been constantly talking with her boyfriend, and yes, folks, is on the verge of returning to him.

In my view, she's idolizing an inferior partner out of insecurity and should just make a break and start over, so that she has the opportunity at least to have a career, a normal husband, and kids (all of which she says she wants).


I'm afraid now that my anger and dismay could seep into the advice-giving, and that might scare her into returning. I've spent a lot of time coaching her to make this move forward in life, and now I feel frustrated that it was for nothing. I've also fallen into the trap of trashing the boyfriend that she keeps going back to. I've tried to get her to talk with a counselor who would be neutral, to help her sort things out -- I don't think she will.

How do you stand by and watch a loved one waste precious time in their life? Do you?

Not My Sister's Keeper


Dear Not Her Keeper,

It's painful to watch people you love suffer and make mistakes. It's especially painful when it seems avoidable, when it seems that if they only had some good advice, if they could just step back and see the situation clearly, they'd stop. But that's the trap: People screw up on purpose. They just don't call it screwing up. They call it living their life.


Maybe she sticks with this guy because she believes that if it weren't for her he'd be screwing up much worse. Maybe she's trying to save him from himself because she loves him. She could plausibly have learned that behavior in your family. By trying to fix her, you may be doing the same thing she is doing. To answer your question, your role in this situation should be one of loving but determinedly hands-off sisterhood. Yes, it is a little arrogant to assume you know what's best for her. People have to make their own mistakes. Sometimes they have to do that their whole lives. When do you give up on giving advice? When it's been given. Which means, definitely, by now at least. The same advice given over and over is no longer advice. It's a hammer. It just happens to be made out of advice.

Think about what you really feel toward your sister, the person. Don't divide her up into the sister that you love and the sister who's screwing up. It's all the same sister. It's possible, if you get really honest with yourself about it, that you are really angry toward your sister, or that you don't really like your sister that much. You love her of course, but you don't like her, at least not now. But that may be too hard to admit, so your hostility toward your sister comes out as assistance to the bad person who is screwing up, not to your sister the whole person.

It may be that you are actually quite pissed off at her for wasting your time. It may be that you have lost respect for her because of her repeated failures to do the reasonable thing. You may even feel, deep down, if you can admit it, angry at her because she reflects poorly on you.


I am suggesting that our noble efforts to help people we are close to who are screwing up can sometimes mask deeper feelings of superiority and contempt that are not so charitable. But if you can navigate through your conflicting feelings to a point where you let go of your judgments and just love her as she is, maybe you can go to her and tell her honestly that you think she's screwing up but you don't care, that you love her to death and that's all. Just tell her if she ever wants your advice again, or your help, that you will help her or give her advice. But until she asks you for your advice, you're just going to love her and leave it at that.

Then go to the Hawaii store, buy her a lei, and wave goodbye as she flies back to the islands.

Dear Cary,


I am a 32-year-old woman, attractive, in great shape, well-educated and traveled, with a professional career, an active social life, no debt and my own home. In other words, I am a decent catch. The problem? I haven't met any men in the past several years that I am even a tiny bit attracted to, or when I have, they've been taken. I enjoy my freedom and always have things to do. But now that I am closing in on three years without a single relationship, I am starting to feel like a freak. I slept with one person at the two-year mark of celibacy, mostly just to feel like a normal person again. That resulted in such a negative entanglement that I decided I really needed to wait for something good to come along. The irony of all this is, I enjoy having sex (from what I remember of it).

Should I feel weird about this lack of action in my life? Would a guy think it is weird that I haven't been with anyone in such a long period of time?

Also, do you think my 30s are going to be difficult? It seems like all my friends are married or getting married, and I'm worried that I am going to become isolated, at least until people hit their 40s and start getting divorced.

The Reluctant Celibate


Dear Reluctant Celibate,

Here's how you know when something is wrong with you: Something hurts really bad inside. You stay up all night crying and pounding on the wall. You get drunk and slash your wrists. You're sitting on a bus screaming the name of some long-dead boyfriend. You disrupt a party with a disjointed story about your dad and the doll that he was going to buy you and never did. You cut all your clothes into little pieces, and your best friends try to have you committed, and you are no longer welcome at your local bar because you've pulled the fire alarm one too many times.

That's how you know something is wrong with you. On the other hand, here is how you know when everything is OK: You are a 32-year-old woman, attractive, in great shape, well-educated and traveled, with a professional career, an active social life, no debt and your own home.

Sure, you're a little lonely and occasionally horny, but who isn't? That's normal. You're a little insecure about your social status and how others perceive you. You're probably concerned about the future, about maintaining close ties with others, about growing old alone. Again, those are normal fears. That doesn't mean there's anything weird about you.


Now face it: Not every woman gets a man. There aren't enough men to go around, for one thing. Most of them aren't that good anyway. It's just statistics. Fifty percent of men are below average. Some women will settle for basically a dick and a mouth and call it a man. Some will just wait it out unless they can get one of the good ones. Like you say, maybe you wait until everyone's getting divorced and get one on the rebound. I have a friend who made a career of marrying men and wouldn't marry one until he'd been broken in by some other woman. Maybe, if you wait around for one to come loose, you'll get one who doesn't even pay child support.

But here is the part where we talk about you, where I skate on thin ice and try to get at something more primal that goes on between people. You sound so independent, so competent, and so fundamentally unconcerned that there's something almost -- speaking from a man's point of view -- almost hermetically perfect about you. Perhaps you have become so self-contained, so self-sufficient, that men do not feel any urgency about becoming part of your life.

Men are like firemen. They jump on the truck when there's trouble, but the rest of the time they sit around the station house eating and playing cards. Men respond to situations where they can be of service and make a difference. We admire women who are competent, but we are attracted to women with problems. So if you want a man, get some problems.

They don't have to be monumental problems. It could be as simple as not knowing how to fix a faucet or hang a picture. Get some problems that require the attributes you like in a man. Maybe some problems that require strength. Strength is a nice attribute in a man. If you like a man, ask him to hang a picture for you. Don't tell him you need something hung. That's too obvious. Just get him up on a chair, arms raised, with a hammer, nails and some twisted wire. That could lead somewhere.


Dear Cary,

I've seriously begun to question if my love of being single is just an avoidance tactic. I have trust issues, minor neuroses and an independent streak that would turn the Boston Tea Party green with envy. I'm a returning undergrad at 25, a refugee from the dot-com fallout, and currently living with five other undergrads (18-22) that make me feel incredibly old. I am quite content spending the weekend playing on my computer, reading, doing homework or driving alone all over New England finding new and interesting places. I work for one university part time while I attend classes at another, and I find myself starting study groups with mothers and other married returning students. I can't think of one single friend off the top of my head, but when put to thinking about it, I find my single friends are the ones who are male and harass me to set them up with my nonexistent single female friends. The only thing that I envy my involved friends over is their access to getting laid.

I'm attractive, smart, chubby, able to fix my computer and car myself and recently moved all of my belongings into my new apartment alone. (Moving a queen-size mattress up a flight of stairs alone should be an Olympic sport.) Basically, not the type of girl who has guys lining up around the block to date but has them lining up to go with them to the repair shop to make sure they are not getting ripped off. A female friend recently commented that I was the most butch straight girl she knew, and that's kind of haunted me. I never considered myself butch (and I have the nail polish collection and 32 thongs to prove it).

My last relationship, if you want to call it that, was a little over a year ago, and it was with a workaholic. Whenever we spent time together it was spent with driving to the shore, watching movies, or having sex. We had no friends in common and I think he met one friend of mine briefly when we ended up at the same movie. It ended with a conversation that started with his asking me why I didn't demand things like his previous relationships, and ended with his stating that he was uncomfortable with my size; I hung up on him. I haven't really looked back after two days of bitching to my friends about men and their need for petite clingy women ... OK ... correction ... he has come to mind when I realize how long it has been since I've gotten laid but that's about it.

So, is it possible to survive the wedding frenzy and remain happily single, or is it that I'm in denial about wanting a relationship? If that's the case, I'm going to have to dust off my delicate fucking flower routine usually only pulled out to get out of speeding tickets.

Just the Way I Am

Dear Just the Way You Are,

You sound just fine to me. But here's what you might do: Try to quantify how much you want a relationship vs. how much you enjoy being exactly as you are. Make a list. On one side list all the reasons you want a relationship and the things you think would come of it. On the other side list the joys you get out of being as you are and the things you would have to give up if you were in a relationship. And just feel which way the preponderance of evidence tilts. Do it again in six months. Do it twice a year. Right now, it would probably tilt toward remaining as you are. But at some point the evidence may tilt the other way. When it does, that's when it's time to consider making some changes.

Dear Cary,

I recently met a great guy -- for the second time. We were introduced about a year ago, and a few weeks ago I ran into him while I was out with friends. The next few days were pretty predictable: He called, we chatted a few times on the phone, we went out on a date and had a great time, and he called me the next day. We have so much in common -- we are both smart, successful 20-somethings with lots of friends and active social lives. We both love our families. We make each other laugh.

So what's the glitch? Well, there's been no second date. Easy, you say. He's not interested. But then how do you explain that he has called me almost every day for the past several weeks. We still laugh when we chat. I still smile when I see his number on the caller I.D. But he's never once suggested we get together again. Earlier this week I expressed my frustration -- in a cute, casual, nonthreatening way. I thought he got the point, but the weekend has rolled around, and the best I got was a "Why don't you come out with my friends and me tomorrow night?"

I would gladly go out with him and his friends, but I'd rather go out with him one on one, at least until I get to know him -- and his friends -- a little better. I'd like to politely decline and suggest we get together another time, just the two of us. But I fear if I say this, he will think I'm being pushy or too aggressive or I'm moving too fast. I've suggested we get together before --for lunch, for a drink, whatever -- but he's been too busy, either with work or he already has plans. (For the record, I do believe he's genuinely busy, due to the nature of his job and the fact that he's a very social creature.)

Am I being naive? Should I blow him off? Does he want only friendship from me? Or is he trying to take things slow -- something I ought to appreciate?


Dear Baffled,

He probably hasn't gotten as far along in his thinking about you as you have in your thinking about him. I would take it slow if I were you. Go ahead, hang around with him and his friends. If you like him, be generous with your time. It's a little early to start a power struggle. He may feel much better about going out with you if you seem to get along well with his crowd. If he's extremely extroverted, and young, and a male, he may feel a subtle threat to his group identity, to his belonging, if you push him to spend time with just you. Dating may seem like it cuts him off from his crowd. Maybe try a modified dating thing with you and a couple of your girlfriends. He probably likes lots of girls around. Maybe one night you'll end up just you and him.

If he's quite a bit more extroverted than you, it will just be one of those creative differences, those lively stresses in a relationship that keep it interesting.

From the letters from people your age I have recently received, it has become clear that your generation lacks clear dating protocols. It's not your fault. Nobody taught you. So keep that in mind as you navigate this thing: He probably has no clue what he's supposed to do. He doesn't know how his behavior is affecting you. It doesn't mean he doesn't like you. It just means he's not sure what to do.

Of course, it's possible that he doesn't want to be your boyfriend. But if you get along well, I don't see why you shouldn't hang around, have some fun, get to know his buddies, and see what happens.

Cary Tennis

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