My boyfriend is nice, but I fantasize about wilder times

Would I have stayed with him if I hadn't gotten ill?


Cary Tennis
June 27, 2007 2:35PM (UTC)

Hi, Cary,

I need perspective. Yours, preferably, and perhaps that of the multitudes on Salon.

My problem is: I don't know if I'm in the "right relationship" or not. I've heard variations on this problem before, but not exactly.

I'm 36. I've never been married, and I don't want kids. I live with my boyfriend; he's seven years younger. We've been together for half a decade. When we first got together, I was promiscuous/risky. The risky other person I was with at the time was incredibly sexy, but he was hurting me, and I just wanted to be out of that; I wanted a "nice" guy, someone uncomplicated.

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Several other things happened as I started dating my nice boyfriend and over the course of our relationship. My grandmother died. I got very sick (and recovered). My mom got sick (she's not going to get better).

I don't know if I would have stayed with my boyfriend if these things hadn't happened, and if he hadn't been so supportive during them -- which he was. I feel like these sicknesses broke me, so to speak. I feel like they changed me.

He and I get along very well. I am nervous and he is placid. I am clumsy and he is mechanically skilled. I am afraid of being close to people and he gets close to me anyway.

But he is not a person I thought I'd be with permanently (as if I know who that person would be in the first place). I paint, and he's not very interested in that, though he'll look at my work if I ask. He's a gamer, big-time. He's not as educated. Our senses of humor can be different.

Most of the time, I'm happy and contented. Other times, I long for a more exciting life filled with painting and people who understand it. I miss my promiscuous days and I worry that they're over. I've never cheated on him, but sometimes I fantasize about that.

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Is this normal? Do people choose a partner -- someone they're happy with most of the time, and get along with for the most part -- and make it work, while secretly daydreaming of other things? Is that just everyone's "quiet desperation"? (I can't remember who said that.) Or was I just damaged by sickness/death and reached out for a nice guy I wasn't incredibly compatible with in some ways, and now I'm too weak/broken to start over?

P.S. I've had therapy, and none of those doctors seem so insightful.

Please lend me your wisdom, Cary.

Quiet Desperation

Dear Quiet Desperation,

To paraphrase, you are asking, "Did I do OK? Was I brave enough, strong enough, true enough? Or did I cop out? Is this what happens to other people? Or do other people have some magic formula for overcoming adversity, avoiding disease and death, skating through unaffected?"

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First, I would say that yes, this is what happens to other people, and no, you did not cop out. It happens to most of us. We do the best we can. We start out with high ideals, but life does not unfold in an ideal way. Unexpected things come along. We take some blows. It takes time and energy to recover from the blows.

And besides, whether this is indeed "normal" or not, this is, most emphatically, your life. There isn't some other life you could jump into if this one wasn't up to your standards. This is it. You could head out for the territories, of course. But, like they say, wherever you go, there you are.

So my advice is to recognize that these longings for "a more exciting life filled with painting and people who understand it" are not simply nostalgic longings for a bygone time or a city with a better gallery scene. They reflect current needs you can meet right here, right now. You need to find a way to get these things into your life -- this life you're currently living. You may have been pursuing these interests with greater intensity at one time. But they are still important, and you can still pursue them. Indeed, you must pursue them if you are to live a balanced, integrated life.

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The question is how.

But before we get to that, there is this other matter of your state of mind, the general feeling you have about life right now. You are in a period of summing-up, it seems: Having gone through a time of promiscuity that left you experienced but wounded, you sought shelter; you settled down for a bit. But then, just when you had settled down for a rest, some storms came up, and you stayed longer than expected. Illness and death came into your life and changed you. This began as a respite. But things happened. They always do.

So you have been changed by life.

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I'm glad to hear you say you feel you were "broken" by these events. It's tempting at first to say, Oh, no, these things strengthen us! But if, staring courageously into difficulty, we see that something is indeed broken by adversity, what is that thing that is broken? If it were, say, our passionate delusion, that might be a good thing. If our passionate delusion that we are in control of life's outcome were broken, that would indeed be a kind of triumph, even though, initially, we feel broken and weak.

You say that most of the time you are happy and contented. It's normal to have some doubts and misgivings about certain choices you made, and to experience ups and downs. So you sound like you're in pretty good shape overall. You are a painter who lived a rather wild life and met a guy and experienced serious illness and death in the family and now are emerging and reassessing and asking tough questions.

So what do you do? You find creative ways to bring the things into your life that you need.

Involvement with other artists is key. Right livelihood is key. If you are a painter but are doing work that takes you far from painting, then seek work that puts you close to painting. I wouldn't automatically decide to move to a city with more galleries. But if you find a job that puts you closer to painting, and this job is in another city, it might mean moving.

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Don't just move, is what I mean. Move toward what you love.

Speaking of what you love, take a good look at this guy you're with. Maybe you didn't think this was going to last. But seriously bad stuff happened, and he stuck with you. That other guy hurt you for no reason and left you weak and wounded. This guy has got your back. That's some serious love. Maybe he doesn't dazzle you. But he's got some serious love. He's got something you need. Spend some time with him.

Here's the deal. We get out of our 20s, and eventually it dawns on us: We are not infinitely strong or infinitely capable of starting over. We are weakened by disease and death and bereavement. Things change us. We are shaped by life. There's no getting around it. This is the real thing.

And after we get through a particularly nasty episode of real life, we ask, Is that all there is?

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If that's all there is, my friend, then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze, and have a ball.

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