Old flames

Is it a danger sign that my husband has been contacting former girlfriends?

Cary Tennis
June 29, 2004 11:15PM (UTC)

Dear reader,

Every now and then I'll get a letter in response to a column. It'll come from a doctor or a researcher, or from someone with direct personal experience in the matter, and it'll say something like, "You know, that woman you wrote about, it sounds like she might have a brain tumor."


That always stops me cold. It would probably stop you cold too. I have no special medical or psychological expertise. If I had a hero, it'd be somebody like Lao Tzu or Charles Baudelaire or Jim Thompson, or somebody who plays the saxophone. I'm just another guy with a bunch of books and a DSL connection. I have strong empathy and a flair for expression, but that doesn't mean I know what I'm talking about when it comes to life-threatening problems. I often fear that someday there will be a case where grave medical or psychological danger is present and I don't see it, and as a result someone might not get the help that they need.

So for some time now, I have been wondering how to pass your valuable comments along to the people who need to hear them. When you write to me directly, or write a letter to the editor, if we want to make use of your comments we either have to publish them on Salon or forward them via e-mail to the letter writer. Both are labor-intensive and time-consuming actions, and neither assures success.

So when Table Talk recently became free to Premium subscribers, I saw the possibility for a solution. I've created a Table Talk forum for readers of this column. Table Talk provides an easy method to quickly share your thoughts -- and be sure that they will appear and be read. I will read the forum regularly to get your views, and post on it from time to time as well. My understanding is that anyone can read Table Talk, but it takes a membership to post messages.

I can see there's one post there already. (I actually messed up and created two forums by accident. I wanted to delete the one that had my name on it three times, because that seemed excessive and dumb. But that's the one the person posted to. Huh.) If you go there, you'll see what I mean. The person made Post No. 1, warning us that not everyone on Table Talk is a fan of this column. It made me feel oddly at home, like sitting around with my brothers and sisters arguing about something we didn't really care about all that much in the first place.

Anyway, we'll see how it goes. If it works, great. If it sucks, we'll just forget all about it. No matter what, it won't change the way the column works. And it won't alter my pleasure in receiving your notes directly.

So if you have thoughts to share on columns I've written, I hope, even if you write to me as well, that you will also post your thoughts there so others can see them. People may get much benefit from what you say. And if you've had a letter published in this column, I hope you will go to Table Talk and see what other people think. They may have some valuable ideas that I overlooked. The readership of this column is remarkably wise, kind, well-educated and articulate. I think, once the forum gets going and has been operating for a few weeks or months, you will be pleased with what you find.


By the way, here is a good introduction to how Table Talk works. If you have any questions, you'd better ask the Table Talk help people, because I'm just learning it too.

See you there. -- CT

Dear Cary,

I recently discovered that my husband has tried to contact some of his old lovers via e-mail. I've hesitated to bring this up to him, as I was technically snooping when I discovered this. I also recognize that it could be very innocent. I feel hurt that he has kept this from me. Why not talk openly about his desire to touch bases with old flames? If one's intentions are honorable, then it doesn't have to be a threatening situation.


While I've been tempted (through idle curiosity) to Google old loves, I've never taken the next step of actually contacting them, mainly because it always seemed like broadcasting the message "Hey you, I'm thinking about you now, and that means that I'm not really happy in my current relationship, because if I were totally satisfied then I wouldn't be reaching out to you."

Is this a sign that he is dissatisfied and unhappy in our relationship? I know that we are both dissatisfied and unhappy in our lives -- he's been struggling with a career change for four years, and I've increasingly gained weight. We're making significantly less money then we made two years ago, and are overwhelmed by credit card debt. We both feel like failures in very gender-specific areas.

I've recently been whitewater kayaking on the weekends, which inspires me, but also takes me away from him for two days at a time. He's responded by going out to bars alone on the weekends that I am gone. He's always been a voyeur, enjoying going out and people-watching and writing about it. So I've chosen not be threatened by that behavior, although it does strike me as an interesting way to react to his wife leaving him alone.


Despite all of this, we do have a lot of love for each other, and are able to connect in very meaningful ways. We both value closeness and loyalty.

Is his attempt to connect with old flames a red flag? Should I be concerned that he is heading off into dangerous territory? I know that I should be asking him about this, but we have had similar conversations, with him becoming extremely defensive. I want some other perspectives before I attempt to discuss this with him.

Worried Wife


Dear Worried Wife,

When I close my eyes and picture you and your husband, I see you engulfed in the same storm, but each of you is facing a different direction, trying to survive it independently. You, worried wife, are getting into a boat that's built for one; he, concerned husband, is calling out for help for himself but not for you. I see you standing back to back, each facing the storm but neither aware of the other.

It occurs to me that you might have things backward. Perhaps you've always dealt with things on your own, so that's what you're doing now. But marriage is not something you work on by yourself. Taking an individual approach to your problems may be making things worse -- by reinforcing this notion that you can fix things on your own. The sustaining force of a marriage is its very mutuality -- the mutuality of decision making and conduct.

So maybe if you could turn to each other and try to decide on some mutual course of action to solve some of your joint problems, you might be reminded how working together multiplies your strength and brings you closer together, and as a result you might develop renewed respect and love for each other, and then you might go, Oh, yeah, right, that's why we got married!


For instance, on the credit card debt: It's joint debt, right? You owe it together as husband and wife? So make it a priority that you can both work on together. Get all your papers in front of you. Write down the scary figures. Show them to each other. Look at the numbers. Look at them! Say the numbers out loud. Say how much you owe and how much you make. Say them out loud together and then look at each other and go, This is what we owe! This is who we are!

Likewise, you mention your weight. What is your weight? Can it be expressed as an integer? Is it a concern that you've been hiding from him? Since you're married, you probably eat a lot of meals together, either cooking or picking up prepared food. Perhaps you can look into whether your eating and exercise habits have anything to do with your increased weight, and if they do, perhaps you can jointly come up with some changes.

Ditto with your husband's career change: Is there any way you can help him with it? Try to think of tangible ways, like if his career change needs a ride somewhere, you could drive him there, or if his career change needs a tie, or a letter, or a phone call, you could do that.

I'm proposing simple, basic, tangible things because I believe basic things can be healing and strengthening; they tend to make life's problems look clearer and easier to manage. I am not addressing the snooping or how you got into debt or any of that. I'm saying take some direct, tangible actions toward mutual improvement, and let the emotions arise on their own.


Now there are of course pitfalls in helping each other. You may not want to help each other because helping each other involves knowing about shortcomings. You may not want to know about shortcomings. Maybe you thought there wouldn't be shortcomings. In the beginning you were svelte and he had oodles. You thought you'd always be svelte and he'd always make oodles. Tackle problems jointly? Problems? You didn't have problems. You had svelte. You had oodles.

Now you have problems. So welcome to the world. And how do you respond to this new reality? He's out at bars looking at chicks and you're paddling a one-person kayak.

You haven't yet learned how to face the storm together.

It's time to learn.


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