I moved cross-country with Mr. Wrong

I stuck with him so our kid would have a dad, but I think it's time to head back home

Published October 26, 2009 12:24AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

First let me say, I really enjoy the depth, creativity, non-judgmentalness and thoughtfulness of your advice. I am a writer, too (poet), and also read your columns from that perspective; but this question isn't about writing.

I don't know if my situation is one that can be improved based on advice -- maybe it's just something I have to come to myself -- but I have to check because I am in a very uncomfortable position and would love your perspective. I have moved across the country with a man I don't want to be with anymore, mainly because we have a small child together and I felt that to stay in the town where I was (where I was happy) would be to become responsible for separating my child from her father ... so I'm trying to "make it work" which, as a Leo, I must say is quite unlikely (if a Leo's heart isn't in it, it's over, period; yet I must also be ambivalent to have stuck it out like this).

What I am wondering is this: Is it ever the right thing to stay with someone for reasons that have not so much to do with one's personal happiness? What reasons are good enough for leaving someone -- just because you want to be happier? Are relationships really about happiness, or growth?

I feel like I have been placed on a path, since the unplanned birth of my child, that is about making other people happy instead of myself; it's about hard work and drudgery and the ideal of the "family" rather than passion. Cary, I am not enamored of this path (understatement) or skilled at it -- but it seems like one I must embrace in order for my heart to grow bigger and that is what's so confusing. I am frequently angry at my 2-year-old and resentful, though I am also loving and nurturing toward her when I can feel it in me, but the "angry" times are more than I would wish (and I feel that raising her would be much easier with a better, more involved and supportive partner, if there was a space for one to show up); and I am sick of living with someone (my boyfriend) who is also frequently angry and resentful and negative (he's an Iraq vet with PTSD ... and he won't get help with it, no matter how much I suggest it -- we've done couples therapy, too); it feels like living in a pressure cooker or walking on eggshells constantly.

This is the same way I felt about my parents in my childhood home. I feel no passion for this person anymore, which to me matters a great deal. I am usually angry with him and I think we bring out the worst in each other, at this point. But I also feel I have to be bigger than this, though I can't seem to be ... he suffered so much at war and doesn't have a family (father is dead, mother mentally ill) ... I feel somewhat responsible for his happiness and also, for his relationship with his child and this idea of being a family.

Problematically, my own early associations with family are far from positive or simple, as my home was full of physical and verbal abuse; and I suspect that this has more to do with my relationship problems, and whom I am drawn to, than anything else -- yet my friends and family have always disliked him and are very clear that they don't think he treats me well or respectfully (in terms of being loving, compatible and supportive; and my answer is always "he really loves me but often can't show it well; and we have a child together" which is definitely true but sounds like an excuse).

You can see how complicated it is. I want to leave, but don't know how or if it is "right" or when it would be. I know I'm able to do so and survive; I have left a marriage, in the past, to a man who was nicer to me. I know I can be on my own. But I have never done this kind of shift with a small child also relying on me. So the main question, recapitulated: Is it worth sticking it out until I am really, really sure; should I look into my early family stuff first (I've been in and out of therapy for 15 years already); should I just split it off (I have tried to do this several times already -- before I moved with him, we had lived apart for months), even though I just made a cross-country move with him? What do you think would be a useful way for me to frame this situation when I am thinking about it, to bring greater clarity and joy not just for me but for everyone involved?

On Eggshells, Internal and External

Dear Eggshells,

Sometimes, despite my allegedly poetic tendencies, I would like to be Dr. Phil. That way, when you say you moved across the country with a man you don't want to be with anymore I could say, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, stop right there, young lady, you did what? and we could all have a collective moment of generalized self-righteousness.

But I do not represent the conscience of America's status quo. I have heard too many stories that start out with such revelations but which when told to completion make a difficult, riveting, beautiful sense. That is why at Salon we run such letters at such length, because we have faith in the ability of adults to tell their whole story until it does start making sense.

So you told the truth, and you asked the big questions:  "Is it ever the right thing to stay with someone for reasons that have not so much to do with one's personal happiness? What reasons are good enough for leaving someone -- just because you want to be happier? Are relationships really about happiness, or growth?"

What do I think? I think it is legitimate to act according to your deepest and truest necessities, because your deepest and truest necessities do not spring from you and are not controlled by you; they spring from where you exist in the world; they come to you as instructions from the world and are thus not selfish and narrow as you might fear; they are broad and universal and thus poetic and heroic.

They are bigger than any narrowly conceived right-or-wrong principle.

You were happy in that town you left. You said so yourself. It met your deepest and truest necessities. Yet you left that happy town because you thought you had to follow a narrowly defined principle of loyalty to a man and protection of your child.

In a broader sense, you can be loyal to this man, protect your child and also do what you feel driven to do. These things can be in harmony. At some point, at a point in the exact center of the frame we have put around this picture, they are indeed in harmony. They converge at the center of this picture.

This framework I suggest says: Trust in the community of things beyond you; be in harmony with your deepest self, because that is the bigger way of truth; it is the bigger way; it may seem full of tragedy and apparent misstep, of apparent moral failing; it may bring down upon your head the judgment of others, of family and loved ones and later your own offspring; it may make you seem to be a person of questionable judgment; it may cause you to be an outcast. But if it is true to your destiny in this deep sense -- which can only be discovered by relentless self-inquiry and relentless allowing-in of the necessary, by allowing the earth to move you toward the place you belong, by trusting that it's not just about you and your decision but about where the world requires you to be -- then I think in the end there is some justice in whatever  decision you might make.

Some people will say you have to remain with the man and with the child because that is the way it is. Some people will say, Whoa, young lady, stop right there.

So here are a few things I believe to be true: Kids can grow up in a variety of ways. Kids can grow up with two parents who love each other, or who stayed together in a bleak simulacrum of relationship "for the children" and who therefore offer to their children a model of distorted and repressed relating; they can grow up with the uncertainty and chaos of a parent who follows her heart in a narrow, selfish way without regard to larger principles at work and thus does not provide what the child needs; they can grow up with at least one parent who is fully a provider, who finds in the world what her child needs, whether embodied in a single partner or in a community of people, some of whom may become significant guides for the child, and who collectively provide safety, continuity and support.

Children can grow up all kinds of ways. They're going to be wounded by life no matter how they grow up. They will be unprepared for certain things by definition. So you set the stage for the child to do what the child has to do: to learn the world and acquire confidence and safety and grow strong.

Here is how I would frame it. You thought of your child's needs, which is admirable, but you  lodged them in their symbol, i.e., you lodged your child's need for the masculine in the narrow body of your boyfriend. Your child needs a relationship with the male principle, the masculine, which is balanced and rooted; your child needs to sense that you are rooted and safe and cared for; you need to care for her and give her rootedness. But that can be found in the world. It need not be found in one specific romantic partner who is, as you indicate, wounded in his own way and in need of care, and resistant to care, and thus weakened. Because he is wounded and resistant, he may not be the best person to help you care for this child. He needs care of his own. So it might be best for all concerned if you go back to the place you were happy, and let him seek the care and the rootedness that he needs, and then if you are getting what you need, the child will also get what she needs.

Everyone will get what they need. Maybe not what they want, but what they need.

Get grounded. Go back to your town and stay there. Find support there. Have a routine. Get time to yourself. Get physical separation from your boyfriend, but keep him in the picture. Provide a stable home for the kid. Get yourself connected with other mothers. Stay true to your passionate nature. Sing to your baby. Rock your baby in a rocking chair and sing to your baby. Sleep. Get a place with a porch. Have your family visit.

That's how I would frame it, not in terms of right and wrong but in terms of needs, and what is available to the child. And in a more general sense, thinking of the child's need for a father not as embodied in a particular man but embodied in masculine properties of rootedness, strength, competence, at-homeness in the world. It might be that the community will be the father, in a sense.

The child needs initiation into the world of competence, steadiness, mastery over the forest and the machine, confidence, simplicity, camaraderie, practicality, soldierly discipline. This is interesting -- that the village might be the father.

And what of the actual father and his rights? Who is he and what does he need? Obviously he is wounded. His father died and his mother was not stable; she was disarranged, not present, unavailable, strange and perhaps frightening. So he went to war. He went to war and was further wounded. So he is a wounded man, capable of love but angry, uncared for, resistant to care, perhaps resistant to reliving or refacing the true horrors that exist in his mind. It may seem like a cliché, but we can often do people a favor by setting them free. He needs more than you can give him.

To speak of the nation's political actions as the actions of a unified psyche is pushing it, definitely. Yet there is something glimmering on the edge of this picture about the distorted relationship to masculinity our nation has evolved. Sure, I'm conflicted about masculinity. But it's not just me. We have evolved as a nation, as a result of complex social changes, a distorted and unhelpful view of masculinity, of fatherhood, of the beauty and grandeur of the masculine. It manifests itself in many ways. One way this manifests itself is the way an army on a religious crusade has come to substitute for the missing family. Another way is in the rise of disembodied techno-combat, the killing of phantasmagorical monsters with fingers on a button. As nationhood itself is a crumbling anachronism, what are our orphaned, stateless, villageless young men fighting? Some phantasmagorical Other. Always the Other. Because we have a problem with the Other in our own souls.

Thank you for indulging me one paragraph of speculation on a matter about which I probably should not speculate.

Also one more paragraph about the therapy you have been in, and then I am done. Over the past year my thinking about therapy has evolved, as I have experienced the difference between therapy practiced primarily to help the individual adjust to a society's demands, and therapy practiced to help the individual discover her deeper nature, confront it and find the courage to live according to it. I sense that the work you now need to do involves some kind of transformative, somatic reexperiencing and embodiment of the powerful wounding in your past and in your boyfriend's past. I'm not sure where you are, or who is available. So I say: Genuinely ask for help, and find a path to a therapist who has a poetic soul, who has been through the fire, who has a grounding in archetypal patterns. After all, you are a poet. So you need a therapist who can guide you across the river, no matter what you find on the other side.

Finally, do this for me, OK, today: Picture yourself being OK. Find an image of being OK. How can you be OK for today? Is there a place you can sit on the steps in the sun and be OK for a while? Can you wheel your child through a leafy park and be OK for today? Find a way to be OK just for today. Then maybe repeat it tomorrow, and the next day, as you make your plans to return to the town where you were happy.

I picture your going back to your happy town with the child and establishing a stable place there, in community, and providing your child what she needs of the masculine, not necessarily embodied in a specific man, but in certain qualities. I picture you being OK. I picture the reconciliation of apparent opposites. I picture some tiny dot of justice in the center of the frame.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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