My fianc

I have a plan, but I have to get through school. She's freaking out.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 23, 2009 11:05AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

I will be away at our creative getaway for writers up at Marconi Conference Center Monday and Tuesday. The column will resume Wednesday. Hope you enjoy your weekend.

You know, I was thinking. In my 1,468 columns so far, I explore a wide range of subjective phenomena. That, I believe, is the writer's job: Try everything. Experience everything. Take every sensation, whatever it is, and try to tease it out into expression. Don't worry about how other individuals might value what is expressed. Express the junk, the madness, the tenderness, the reason. Express it all. Don't worry about creating an admirable persona, making yourself look good. Just attend to the phenomena. Don't succumb to the illusion that you're curing people, or that their lives hang in the balance. Just be transparent, express yourself, and leave it up to others to sort out.

So I do that. And to my continuing astonishment, some people respond with haughty insults, as though I were a social worker in their employ who has overstepped his station. Now, I know I mention this from time to time, and it's not like I'm looking for your sympathy, or complaining, but I do feel as though I have to clarify from time to time what I think I'm doing, how I see this thing.

I think I am an odd artist working in an odd medium for an artist. Mostly artists don't do this job. I am like an artist who paints crooked lines on the highway -- you've seen him, the guy sitting in the low seat behind the truck filled with barrels of sparkly yellow highway paint. Most of them paint straight lines. But you occasionally get an artist in there. He wants to express himself, so his lines are squiggly.

And behold! Some people like the squiggly lines better! They know the difference. They know they don't have to drive squiggly. They understand that the lines aren't literal instructions. They are design. They are expression. They are meant for the delight of the driver. And thus a new genre, or medium, is born: the Advice Artist!

Anyway, I just want to say, I am at heart a gentle soul. But the things people write to me and say about me? Where do they learn to do that? And why do they think that it is even remotely appropriate?

Man, a good walk in the rain is what some folks need. A good long walk in the rain. Luckily the rains have come to Northern California, and they bring with them freshness, green hills and peace.

Dear Cary,

I enjoy your articles a great deal and appreciate the advice you give to those who need it. Clichéd as it may sound, I never thought I would need the advice of an unbiased third party. Also clichéd, my life is mostly happy except for one glaring facet: my relationship with my fiancée. I hope that you can provide some advice to not only me but her, as she is a regular reader of your article as well. She does not know that I am writing to you but she will recognize our story soon enough.

I met "Dee" at a party and it was that storied "love at first sight." With sparks flying and hormones racing I was swept off my feet. Dee was (and still is) beautiful, incredibly smart, funny, sweet, and caring. Fast-forward approximately four years and what started as mutual attraction has grown into love. We both care for one another a great deal and I would do anything to bring joy to her life. These feelings for Dee are stronger than ever but our relationship has grown more and more turbulent over the past year. We have arguments every couple of weeks and, unfortunately, they have intensified over the recent holidays.

The primary cause of our arguments is the inequality in our relationship. Dee  graduated almost three and a half years ago and has a career that she loves. The problem is that I am still in school and have at least two more years until I receive a degree. I was no slouch either; I served in the military for a number of years to afford college but now I am paying the price for being behind my peers who already have their degrees. I work hard by attending school full-time and am putting in a solid 30-plus work week but I am going to be 27 soon. She is 26 and she is feeling the pressure from friends and family to get married and buy a house, though we are unable to at this point. She has already sacrificed a great deal so that I may attend college: She drives a shitty car along a shitty commute every day; we live in a shitty apartment in a shitty small town; and my shitty income adds nothing to her life. Though I make enough to pay my bills, barely, it leaves nothing left over to be saved for our eventual wedding, house, new car, etc. In summary, Dee feels forced to wait for things to get better and easier yet she deserves some of the rewards for her hard work and sacrifice now. To be honest, I agree with her that things have not been fair.

I recognize this problem but feel unable to make anything better for our situation right now. Another cause for our arguments can be attributed to her disposition. I certainly do not want to blame our arguments on her stress levels but I feel like not only am I battling the underlying issues within our relationship but I am also fighting against her diagnosed anxiety and depression. In our arguments she has grown more resentful, cruel and hurtful, going so far as to throw jewelry I had given her across the room while exclaiming wishes that it should be broken. This happened Christmas night, not 12 hours after I had given her a beautiful necklace that she seemed very happy with.

I love Dee very much, with all my heart, and I truly want her to be happy. She does deserve someone in her life that she can rely on for fiscal equality, but that man is not me right now. I feel like things will improve once I have my degree, but as time passes she grows less and less accepting of the necessary waiting needed. I am tired of being the powerless bad guy in the relationship, but that is the role that seems fitting right now. Is there anything I can do to salvage this relationship? Is she wasting her time on me, as she clearly states in our arguments? Is it fair to ask that she continue to sacrifice for me? I shudder to ask, but would she be better off without me in her life completely? Thank you so much, in advance, for any advice you can offer. I look forward to a reply.

Wants Love to Be Enough

Dear Wants Love to Be Enough,

Love is not enough. You need a plan.

You have a plan. You know the money will come and what's needed is patience. What you are doing sounds sensible. And yet at times she blows up and attacks you.

To be blunt, I would say: Stop trying to take care of her. She is bullying you and you are falling for it.

She has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. But her anxiety and depression do not excuse her attacks.

Does she proclaim her diagnosis like a grant of immunity?

In my view, unless we are profoundly psychotic or schizophrenic, unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, we are responsible for our behavior. We may behave badly but if we can remember what we did then we can acknowledge it, admit we were wrong and commit to change. Does she do this? Or does she act like nothing happened? Does she truly not remember? If she does not remember, then there may be something more serious going on. She may be having breaks with reality.

But you are not her psychiatrist. Neither am I.

So I think you have two choices as long as you remain in the relationship. You can take a zero-tolerance stance, which means if she blows up like this you leave and only come back when she demonstrates that she is capable of reason. Or you engage, stay in the room, signaling that you are committed to responding to the person you know is in there, even if she is behaving madly. You stand your ground, be the strong one, and remind her that she is out of line, that you have a plan and you're moving in the right direction. You try to get through to her. You speak reason to her and hope that she can hear you through her disordered emotions.

It takes courage to stand in the room and talk reasonably when someone you love is attacking you. It might be better to just get out. You be the judge. You don't need to do this for her, that's for sure. It's not like you owe it to her, or like you're going to fix her. It's more like an expression of your own principled being: You look at her and tell her what you see. Perhaps she will be able to hear you.

Then respond to her emotions. Her behavior may be crazy, but her emotions are familiar. She is frightened and angry and needs reassurance. Deal directly with her feelings. She's upset, she's angry, she's afraid. That's all that's going on. She's feeling frightened, depressed and alone, and needs reassurance and strength.

Now what could be the content of her emotions? These are things she might not say out loud, but what she is actually thinking and feeling. "My fiancé is a loser!" "I'll never be rich!" "He doesn't care about me and what I want!" "He's lazy and stubborn and self-righteous!" "My fiancé is a sucker!" "He's stupid!" "He's a worm, he's got no backbone!" "I will look like a fool for marrying him!"

And if we go beneath these unuttered thoughts, we might find more species-wide, fundamental fears: "I will not survive." "We will produce no children." "He will not protect me." "We will be driven out of our village." And also thoughts of this nature: "I am a worthless piece of shit." "I have failed." "I have made some error from which there is no recovery." "I am unloved."

All such thoughts are familiar to us, if we will only admit it. And they are often driving our behavior, but we interpret them as more like, "You don't make enough money! I'm tired of living like a pauper! My unhappiness is your fault!"

Many women have been raised to regard men as service modules. It's not their fault how they were raised. Our deepest fears find expression in such social myths.

I do hope, in this regard, that if you stay with her, you challenge her belief that you are a service module designed to provide maximum consumer goods. And I hope you challenge your own belief that once you get some more money you have to buy a new car and a house. There may be other things that are more important. I really believe that for couples struggling about money, having a good relationship with money is more important than having more money itself. You and she will have to learn how to talk about money.

So my bottom-line advice to you is twofold. One, examine your assumptions about money and lifestyle. I recommend "The Lifelong Activist," by Hillary Rettig, because while we may not be activists, we are trying to live our lives in a certain way, according to certain principles, and trying to figure out how to make that work economically. I very much like how Rettig describes the way we can be pressured into adopting a consumerist lifestyle that saps our energy and spirit as well as our money. And I like her approach to time management -- it's very rigorous and programmatic, which some of us respond well to.

And the other thing is this: Gain a thorough brief on your fiancée's anxiety and depression. It will be an integral part of your life together, should you go forward. So you need to know when you are responding to her, as the person you love, and when you are responding to this twisted set of agonized symptoms. To her, I would say, if we do not actively endeavor to understand what we are doing, and seek insight, then we are not taking responsibility for what we can change. For instance, you go to therapy and you hear something, like the idea that anxiety is sometimes not a symptom so much as a tool, a method for avoiding phenomena that are trying to reach consciousness: Now that's something you can use. It can point you somewhere. You can say, Aha, now I see: I am feeling anxious because there are certain facts, and certain feelings, that I am keeping at bay. What are they?

And then you begin the joyous, treacherous descent. Then you become the intrepid explorer.

I would also say to her: You can do this. You can deal with your anxiety and depression in a loving, straightforward way. You can learn to love this man and not blame him for your unhappiness and psychic pain. But it will take work.

Love is not enough. You need a plan.

And now I have done it again, haven't I? I have practiced my art of expression as though it were an art of instruction. It is indeed a subtle distinction.

Conflicts about money? Read pp. 44, 47, 81, 130, 223, etc.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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