I'm going for it

A note to the librarian. Plus: I'm in a passionless marriage and I'm going to have an affair -- just thought I'd let you know in case you have some advice.

Published February 24, 2003 8:27PM (EST)

Dear Readers,

I have a feeling I really wasn't much help to the "old-maid librarian" who was looking for a relationship with a man that went beyond mere friendship. My simple solution, of course, was for her to just take her clothes off. That might work for some people, but the problem is that you have to get to that point. If she were the kind of woman who could just take her clothes off and seduce a man, she probably wouldn't be complaining to me, would she?

There is a much longer and more complex answer that I wish I could give her. Perhaps I can give just a piece of it now: Intimacy is not just about taking your clothes off. Since you are well read, and men take pleasure in talking with you, it may be that you are using your verbal capacity to make sure things stay comfortable and well ordered, at the expense of your perhaps more disorderly passions. You don't have to howl in the wilderness. I'm not suggesting some weird nonverbal touchy-feely solution; I'm thinking that to shake up your love life, you could shake up your reading life.

Well, say you're reading Graham Greene. Why not switch to Rimbaud? Why not immerse yourself in romantic poets, in the beats, in Blake? Why not try to stir up something in your soul that will electrify you? Try to find an art that both attracts you and frightens you. Go see the Matthew Barney installation at the Guggenheim; visit a blues club late at night; scour your mind for images of forbidden things that have excited you, of sudden ecstasies, of late nights where you forgot who you were, of the times the fireworks went off in your head.

Take note of when you are sitting and talking to a man and you wish for the conversation to go one way and it goes another. Have the courage to say no, that is not what I meant, I meant something else! Take note of when you become bored or restless, and act on it. Even announce it! Learn to say: "I am restless and bored and this is what I really want right now: Ice cream, a kiss, a run down the beach." Stand on your head! Turn the music up. Make a prank phone call! Get on the floor and wrestle with the dog! Refuse to be bored!

Such actions may involve risk. If taking risks is a problem for you, it may be because you are not in the habit of carefully evaluating what exactly the risk might be. You can usually contain the risk. Consider, for instance, with a given man, the worst that could happen if you behaved outrageously. Would he tell scandalous stories about you? All the better! Would he denounce you? How delicious! Would he refuse to see you? Fine. Would you be paralyzed with embarrassment, terrified to leave your building? It would pass. You would have to go to work. You must be willing to lose something if you wish to gain something; you must be willing to be judged if you step outside convention; you must be willing to accept whatever response you get. But, as the Boss -- of whom you may or may not approve -- says, you can't start a fire without a spark. You must be willing to screw up a little. Screwing up can be the smartest thing you ever did. It's OK to screw up. It's OK to embarrass yourself. Consider: This is your life and your soul we're talking about! This is not some school play! It would be a far greater sin for you to drift along in a haze of moderation than to start a fire or two. Go fuck some things up.

There. That's more along the lines of what I wish I had said. It still might not be of any help, but at least I've given it a shot. At least I've risked something.

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married for more than 30 years. We love each other more as friends than lovers, although our relationship is also based on respect and on a commitment to our grown children.

When we first married, I was running away from a very abusive first marriage and my husband wanted a wife to further his career. We learned to love each other over the years, but our relationship was never one of equals with the same goals.

He doesn't like to do anything outside the home and doesn't care to socialize except with the people he worked with before he retired. He never showed any interest in my work and he didn't see any need to talk about our marriage or to do anything to help it grow into something other than a pleasant convenience. I was so grateful for the safety net he provided that I didn't really push for more. He also lost interest in sex about 10 years ago, leaving me stranded with a vibrant libido. We have never been unfaithful to each other.

It took me a long time to let go of my fears and to start to assert myself as an equal, finally realizing that I'm worthy of more than a breadwinner. Now that our children are grown, I am wondering what it would be like to experience a relationship with a man in which we both care for each other as individual human beings, respecting each other's differences and finding companionship and joy in the things we have in common.

I met a man last year while visiting family in another state. We have continued to correspond through e-mail and have developed a friendship and love that we both treasure.

I don't know what to do. I care for my husband and wouldn't want to hurt him; yet I know that if I leave, he would be devastated, not understanding what I've been trying to tell him for all these years. The man I'm in love with has asked me to marry him but knows that I'm not ready to go that far, at least not yet.

This is something so new and foreign to me that I can't find an answer with which I'm comfortable. I do feel that I will go ahead and have an affair. I suppose I'm just asking if anyone else has had an experience like this and how it turned out.


Dear Married,

Good for you. Although I can't speak specifically of a story like yours, it has a certain universal ring to it, a certain kind of large, inevitable truth, so that it must be something many women have undergone. I applaud you. Life is not to be wasted or dribbled away. I understand your need for safety, how that can motivate you -- but you're safe now, aren't you? There's no threat to you except the grief and incomprehension of your husband when you tell him that you've got to do this.

So you've tried to tell him how the lack of passion is killing you and he hasn't understood? Or perhaps he has understood, but he's too frightened to confront it. Perhaps he just pretends not to understand what you've been saying. Or perhaps you haven't said it in a way that he really understands. Either way, it sounds like it's too late now. You seem to have made up your mind.

Go and have your affair. Well, you don't need my permission, do you? But I encourage you to go and do it. And read. Well, you don't want to necessarily read "Madame Bovary" as a case study, but read about women like yourself, trapped in the kind of safe but suffocating bourgeois bargain that men and women all too easily make in difficult, frightening times.

Oh, I wish we could help your husband, too. I feel worst for the husbands in this country, because after the manly power of the muscles begins to fade, what have they got but wealth and clothes? A man can live his 70 years and never learn to speak a single feeling, and a wife can leave him and he's like a dog set loose in the wilderness that never learned to hunt. They are such weak creatures sometimes; they are so dependent on their wives. And they think all the while that they're doing the right, sacrificial thing, staying by their wives even when it's icy between them. And all the while nobody's doing anybody any favors. It's so sad.

Does your husband have a best friend? I hope so. I hope he has a buddy and they can go fishing and get drunk and curse their wives bitterly. It's good for men to express their feelings. We can't always expect them to express their feelings in a lovely and mature way; sometimes the only way for them to do it is by being ugly. It might be healing. It might do them good.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read Friday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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