A classic conundrum

Does it make sense to stick it out with one of the few people I've ever loved, even if the sex is dreadful?

By Cary Tennis

Published October 8, 2002 6:48PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm 25, and recently moved in with my girlfriend of six months. This is the first serious "adult" relationship I've ever had. I love her very much, no one makes me happier, but I also have been having occasional panic attacks -- 99 percent of the time, they don't relate directly to her personally, rather to the future questions: "What happens if we break up?" "How much will it hurt?" "What if she's not the one?" I think frequently of marriage and children but am frustrated with my occasional paranoia.

I think too much, probably, about everything. Sometimes just wondering why I'm not panicking starts me panicking. My parents divorced when I was 9, and I frequently feel as though everything good in my life is destined to go bad. I'm sure I'll have some doubts about her/our relationship whether we're together for five more weeks or 50 years, but I find it frustrating that these panic attacks interfere with my enjoyment of life.

Sometimes random things will set off my mind -- a relationship in a movie, a song, a television show, and it takes me a while to calm down. It wasn't until about a month and a half ago that I first started worrying. Around the same time, I was switching jobs and hating living with my then-roommate.

I don't want advice on the relationship, I feel quite confident about that. She's been absolutely amazing about "my mind," but I don't feel that I'm being very fair to her, as she bears the brunt of these panicky moments. She's wonderful about listening to me, talking to me, and helping me calm down, it's just that I feel like I shouldn't burden her with that.

Is there a good method for dealing with these worries, getting used to sharing your life with another person, living in the now, and balancing my occasional doubts with my frequent urges to ask her to marry me while we're brushing our teeth?

Probably Need a Lobotomy

Dear Probably Need a Lobotomy,

I too am frequently filled with intense loathing and despair, and I sometimes suffer mild panic attacks when I feel trapped in a situation or feel that there are too many items on the shelves in the grocery store. It's lessened in intensity over the years, but I don't really have a solution for it, other than to recognize what it is and that it will pass, and to just keep going.

At times I have thought that I was going mad. At other times I have thought there was something wrong with the world, or with the grocery store, something that could be fixed if only people would listen to me. Early in life, before I had accepted that these episodes were just a part of my particular life, I spent much time trying to blunt the sensations by ingesting various substances, and by fleeing, or changing the landscape or the curtains. I believed for a time that I was unhappy because the world had not yet become politically and culturally enlightened. I thought if I worked toward the political enlightenment of others I might stop suffering. I built a social outlook out of my angst; I wore my suffering like some wretched penitent. I believed that my symptoms were a kind of special knowledge.

But now I think I was completely wrong about all that. My problem was simply that I could not handle the pain and ambivalence of being alive and conscious. As I was walking to the grocery store yesterday thinking about your letter, I realized that the only ultimate solution to my unhappiness would have been to be suspended in warm liquid or cotton, weightless, tube-fed, in miasmic darkness, with soothing oceanic music, all the time. In other words, my problem was only that I was no longer living in the womb.

As a young man, I was too arrogant and too spoiled to accept that I had to spend time suffering like every other fool. My suffering had to mean something. I couldn't accept that it was just random mental bullshit. Now I suffer as a daily routine. Life goes on. I know my suffering is just a phenomenon like any other phenomenon. I might get bitten by a mosquito but I will not blame capitalism. I will put some lotion on it, or maybe ignore it until it goes away.

And, if I recall, that is the kind of attitude that adults seemed to have when I was a child. Remember? We would fall or get stung and cry and cry, but when they had a mishap they just picked themselves up and put on some lotion or a bandage.

So I would suggest that if you are anything like me, you are just a little bit crazy, and a little bit unhappy, and perhaps a little bit sensitive and creative and empathic, and you can live with it.

If it gets really bad, if you're going to harm yourself or your girlfriend, do yourself a favor and go see a doctor or a therapist. They can help you hold things together during the really tough times. But if it's just general craziness and worry, I would try to pay close attention to it, learn about it and wait until it passes. And while you're waiting for it to pass, try to think of something witty and amusing to say.

Dear Cary,

I'm married with two kids, another due in six weeks. My entire marriage has been a series of ups and downs. Before my wife got pregnant with my second child I was having an affair. I ended up moving out of the house and living three miles away while she was pregnant and I dated a few women. But I missed my oldest child. Once the new baby was born I really wanted to move back home to be with both my children. After the youngest turned a year old I moved back home. My eldest child, then 5 years old, was ecstatic. The marriage was still very shaky and it was made worse when my wife got pregnant again. This pregnancy and the second came after the failure of birth control.

So here I am with two kids, another due in six weeks, and in a completely loveless marriage. My wife and I don't touch each other, we don't kiss, we avoid all contact with each other. She has asked for a divorce once the "holidays" are over but I don't want a divorce; I want to live with my children. I can stay in this marriage just to be close to my children.

I know that staying together for the sake of kids is supposed to be worse than a divorce, but I don't buy it. My kids have absolutely no clue that my wife and I don't love each other. We still do things as a family, we vacation as a family, eat dinner as a family. I was miserable when I was living three miles away from my children. I know that I will be miserable if we divorce. Yes, I will be happy about being out of a loveless marriage, but the loss of seeing my children every day will tear me apart. My wife has said that we will co-parent the children but that she will insist that the children live with her. That is completely unacceptable to me. I can't imagine a worse fate than losing my kids again. What do I do?

Loveless in New England

Dear Loveless,

I'll probably get lots of angry mail about this, but I'm with you, I salute you, I think it's great that you want to stay with your kids. I hate divorce, especially when there are kids involved. Look at all the letters we've gotten lately from young people, the children of divorce, who are bewildered and bereft. Why not stay there in the house and love your kids -- if their mother will allow it? Maybe there are some tragic, painful betrayals that you haven't detailed; maybe your wife has been deeply hurt and can't stand to look at you. Maybe you left that part out. But if she can accept you in the house, I think that's great.

But I am curious, if you can't touch each other, how she got pregnant again. Or maybe that was before things got so cold. So maybe things will warm up again.

Here is some advice: If you can talk her out of divorce, and you are allowed to stay in the house, you really have to live by some rules. You're making a sacrifice. You have to sacrifice your own pleasure for the security of your children. If you really think you can do that, I'm all for it. But if you're going to be driving your wife crazy by going out with other women, and your presence becomes more destabilizing than your absence, then you really have no right being there with your kids, because rather than adding to their security, you're detracting from it.

Good luck.

Dear Cary,

I am a 24-year-old male journalist, in a relationship with a woman a year younger I met in college about three years ago. After a very intense, yearlong friendship, the two of us became lovers in a casual, albeit monogamous fashion. At some point our relationship turned into something I wouldn't hesitate to describe as love. The two of us moved in together with four other roommates for the next year and a half. Given the nature of our professions (she is a sporadically employed artist) we ended up spending quite a lot of time together, hours and hours of play and deep conversation. Of all the women I've dated, "D" is the one with whom I've had the most mutual understanding. I think she would be a fantastic mother, that she will eventually find success in her career, and that she is one of the finest human beings I've known.

So let's cut to the chase: The sex is terrible. It's not a question of certain aspects of it, particular things she does (or doesn't do) that grate upon me. The situation is more drastic than that. I've just never really been attracted to her. I did my best -- it may have been a mistake -- to hide this from her, hoping I would eventually develop more of an attraction for the woman I love. I consider the problem to be mine. For maybe two years before meeting D, I was attracted, and almost exclusively dated, women of a certain ethnic type, other than that into which D and I were born. I feel ashamed that race should be a factor at all in my attraction. D is incredibly, almost frighteningly intuitive, and I think she sensed the problem almost from the beginning. She is also the type of person who places love before sex. I thought I was too, but now I am beginning to have doubts.

This flaw in our bond, minor as it seemed at first, led me to break up with D about six months ago. I got together with a woman and had great sex but very little to talk about. After a few months the memory of a deeper personal congress led me to break up with that second woman, and reestablish ties -- not sexual -- with D. Although D no longer seems to trust me as she once did, she seems to want, like I do, our old bond back. We hang out, have fun, but I sense she is fearful that I will run off with another woman again. I meanwhile want what everybody wants in a relationship: everything. I feel like I'm having to choose between two identities, the animal and the spiritual, and it's breaking me completely.

Does it make sense to stick it out with one of the very, very few people you've loved, even if the nookie is dreadful?

Cleaved in Cleveland

Dear Cleaved,

The short answer is that if there's no attraction there, you ought to get out of the relationship, and try to remain friends.

But over the long haul, you have to understand: You're never going to find the perfect woman. Eventually, you're going to settle. You're only 24. You are likely to meet several women over the next 10 years with whom you are sexually and temperamentally compatible to various degrees. You can hold out for the perfect woman, but each time you break up with one who comes close but just isn't it, you're going to take an emotional hit. Each time you take a hit, you are going to be less keen to go through a breakup again, and more motivated to settle down.

At the same time, as you age, the number of possible future relationships will decrease. So with each rejection, the urgency of finding the right woman increases, as does the fear that you will never find the right woman. So at a certain point, you're going to balance all the factors out and decide that this is the woman for you.

Then it gets really tricky, because you haven't even consulted her yet. She might have other ideas. She might not have exhausted her search.

Anyway, to increase your chances, I would try to stick to women to whom you have some sexual attraction, even though it might not be the mind-blowing animal magnetism you would like it to be. There's usually a diminishment of sexual fervor, so you want to start out strong.

Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Love And Sex Sex Since You Asked