A grad student in China has taken possession of my soul

I know it sounds crazy, but should I leave my wife?

Published July 11, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm 30 years old, married for almost five, no kids. I love my wife and would never want to do anything to hurt her. We just got back from a several-week trip to China. Ever since we got back about a week ago, I haven't been myself. I told my wife that I'm just depressed, having a hard time readjusting to everyday life after such an amazing experience. No doubt that is part of the problem, but it's not the real problem. The real problem is, of course, a girl.

We got to spend some time talking and socializing with a group of Chinese grad students, and one of them has me absolutely mesmerized. She's smart, charming, clever, creative and stunningly beautiful -- and I must admit, that "Chinglish" of theirs is totally endearing. She's also married to a husband 10 years her senior, but that's pretty much irrelevant, isn't it? She's in a communist country on the other side of the world. We've exchanged a few e-mails since I got back, but it's all been totally innocuous.

I know that even entertaining a fantasy is a total waste of time, but I can't help it. This may sound weird, but if it was just sexual, I'd be able to pass it off as a "lust"-type thing that I'd never be able to act on, nor would I if I had the chance. But this is more. My fantasies aren't sexual. I fantasize about bringing her back to America or, even better, moving to China and spending the rest of my life with her. I've never been this wrapped up in a woman after only knowing her for a day and a half.

She sent me a link to her blog, which is all in Chinese, but whatever. She had a few pictures of herself on there that just make my heart sing. They're just normal, everyday pictures, but that almost makes it worse. I also didn't see her husband in any of the pictures (I guess he could be the one taking the pictures, but I doubt that). I'm just at a total loss here. I assume that in a few weeks or months, I'll have forgotten her and everything will be back to normal. But is that a good thing?

There's another complicating factor here. My wife is physically handicapped. She depends on me more than the typical wife does, I think. She was handicapped before I met her, so it isn't as though I didn't know what I was getting into. I'm also not so arrogant as to believe that if we split up, she would never again find someone to accept her. But I do feel that leaving would basically make me the worst person in the history of the world, especially leaving for a fantasy with zero future.

I've written, edited, scrapped and rewritten a letter to my new foreign fantasy at least a dozen times in the last week. It's always just one click away from being sent, but I never do it. It wouldn't really be right to play the scenario out, find out what happens, and then decide what to do in my current relationship.

So, anyway, please just tell me to get a grip, that I'm just focusing my feelings of this whole amazing experience on one person, that it's totally insane for one married person to fall in love with another in 24 hours on the other side of the planet, and to scrap a marriage of five years because of a crush.


Dear Crazy,

You are asking to be brought to your senses, to be awakened from this reverie, this exotic state of mind, this rich, intoxicating dream. To "get a grip" means to tighten it up, push it down, bite the bullet, shake it off, get hold of yourself.

There will be time for that. But not so fast. I suggest first that you celebrate it.

Celebrating it is tricky. It means admitting that the soul is morally and politically naive. That is why we feel such ambivalence about our anti-imperialism and our loyalty to country, why we feel such guilt: The soul is naive. It wants what it wants.

The self is like a state; it contains rebellious forces living in fear of annihilation. This woman seems to have awakened such a force.

Naturally, your inclination, as the person nominally in charge of your self, is to put down, shut off, choke, annihilate. That is what we do with rebellions. We put them down and get on with the business at hand.

But I suggest that you attempt a broader, kinder, more inclusive, classically liberal response instead. What is this insurrection asking for as it stands outside the gates of your marriage palace waving banners and shouting? It is demanding more space for beauty, for sensuality and grace and the erotic awakening of travel.

And also for the forbidden.

It seems to be asking that you expand your boundaries.

Now, the boundaries of marriage are somewhat fixed; you cannot invite this woman into your home; you cannot move to China to live with her. She is married and has a life. You are married and have a life. But it is not necessary to change your domestic arrangements. This is about something less threatening: It is about recognition.

If you merely "get a grip," in the sense of repression, a tightening down, the same demands will spring up again later.

But if you fully recognize this phenomenon for what it is, you may be able to integrate it into your life, culturally, spiritually, aesthetically, and thus become richer.

In other words: Understand what this is and honor it. That may require you to expand what you believe -- you may have to accept that while not exactly a supernatural experience, this is a mythic occurrence of almost unbearable force. Such things happen from time to time, triggered by encounters with people and locales that seem to be endowed with unusual power and beauty. It may be that we project onto such people and locales our fervent wishes to encounter the divine, to escape the mundane. Or, for all we know, the earth may be dotted with mystical places populated by goddesses of unimaginable power and beauty.

The important thing, it seems to me, in secular psychological terms, is that you have had a powerful encounter that awakened hidden aspirations and desires. Find a way to integrate this into your life, rather than repressing it or taking it literally, allowing it to shatter you.

In other words, do "get a grip." Get a grip on this experience. Hold it. Contain it. Keep it. It's priceless and eternal.

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