I want to marry my wife's stepmother

I think it could work out well if we just time it right

Published June 27, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Ever since I wrote a column in 2006 with the headline "What's the best method for a painless suicide?" I get letters now and then asking for the information referred to in the headline. I don't give it out. I don't have it. Even if I did have it I would not provide it. I don't want to provide it. I argue against suicide in that article. And I oppose it in general, except for the kinds of assisted-suicide cases that the late Dr. Kevorkian advocated. Some of those situations make sense to me.

But mostly people write to me about suicide and I try to talk them out of it.

This morning I read the New York Times story about psychologist Marsha Linehan and dialectical behavior therapy, and her work with suicidal people, and her own history, and the term "radical acceptance" jumped out at me.

In addiction recovery something like radical acceptance happens. I myself have had something like an experience of radical acceptance. The whole thing makes a kind of sense to me. Though this is probably oversimplifying, when people are in pain and say they want to commit suicide, it seems they are trying to murder something, something awful they cannot accept, and perhaps, it occurred to me, perhaps it could be a lifesaving act to somehow accept that thing that they find so painful and so unacceptable that they feel they have to murder it. Perhaps the same kind of acceptance that is involved in addiction recovery is the kind of thing that can help people not commit suicide and instead live a fairly happy life.

The similarities between what Dr. Linehan calls radical acceptance and the kind of life-changing things that occur in addiction recovery and that also occur in the process of writing as a spiritual and healing practice are really interesting.

That's all. I was just thinking about that. Now for the letter.

Cary --

My wife's parents divorced long ago, when she was probably around 11 years old. Her dad married a woman, "Trish," 20 years younger than he, a woman he had an affair with while married, and had a child with her, in addition to the three kids he had with his first wife. My wife has resented her stepmother, and never really got over the whole thing very well.

Fast forward to today ... and I think I'm in love with "Trish" now. For years we've crossed paths at family gatherings, and I always found her very attractive (we're about the same age, 56, while my wife is several years younger than I), and we even flirted a bit over the years, but nothing significant. Her husband is now in very ill health, while at the same time my marriage is in awful shape, and I am no longer in love with my wife.

A few months ago, "Trish" chatted me up on Facebook -- I don't spend much time there and never had chatted there online, but we started chatting, and we became very close online, and confided in each other a great deal. Soon we started talking on the phone from time to time as well, and would kid around, or maybe it wasn't kidding, about running off together, meeting for a romantic getaway, etc. Physically, there is no relationship here -- just some hugs at family events, and some secret flirting there as well, but we never get together, just the two of us. I have suggested going to a movie matinee with her, and she's always real interested, but backs off eventually. She's afraid of hurting people -- she was the evil stepmother who broke up a marriage and stole my wife's father from her ... if we were to get together, she feels she would again be perceived as the bad person once again, this time taking a husband from my wife!

I told her we could get together so that it wouldn't look so bad for her -- I could move out on my own in a couple of years, after our own kids are away to college. Her husband, by then, will probably be deceased. At that point, "Trish" and I could date, and no one would know of our prior relationship. The other complications, I feel, would be minor -- my own kids have "Trish" as their step-grandmother, and she would then become their stepmother. My wife is not close to her half-sister, so I don't see a problem there, as she wouldn't be involved with her in any event. I would go from being an in-law to my wife's half-sister, to being her stepdad. Confused? I am!

Cary, should I just forget this whole thing, quit the chatting, and pretend the feelings don't exist? Or can love conquer all? Or just keep it at a platonic simmer, and not get ahead of ourselves? I'm crazy about "Trish." I know she has feelings for me as well. We both get anxious if we haven't talked or chatted for a day or two, and it just feels so right. Or, perhaps "Trish" just needs me to help her through the tough times she has, being alone, taking care of a sick husband ... and I need her to make up for the things that are lacking in my marriage. Maybe that in itself is enough, and leave it at that. I don't know sometimes, and maybe we're just two lost souls looking for answers. What do you think? What can I do?

Lost in Love, or Just Nuts ...

Dear Lost in Love or Just Nuts,

I had a vision the other day, like a waking dream, of how it feels like to be me, what my working life feels like. And it's like I'm sitting at a desk in a long hallway and the hallway is full of people shuffling along, all kinds of people, there's a guy with a parrot in a birdcage and there's a woman in a sparkly acrobat swimsuit-type thing juggling bowling pins and a clown and a busker and some tumblers and a guru with a long beard sitting cross-legged who has to get up every time the line moves and you'd think he'd be grumbling and maybe he is but you can't tell because of the long beard, and there's a young kid with a guitar and a housewife in an apron and a psychiatrist stroking his beard and some kids with a dog and a hula hoop and the line goes down the hall and down the stairs and out to the street, and as each person comes up to me I hand them a yellow 3-by-5 card and say, "Quit drinking. See a therapist. Next."

That's all I say, over and over, is, "Quit drinking. See a therapist. Next."

And that's my life.

And it's really stupid because half the people in line don't really need to quit drinking. It's just my focus. Because who needs to quit drinking? I need to quit drinking. So I quit. A long time ago. But I tell everybody to quit drinking because that's my tiny little world.

So I could say that to you, not that you need to quit drinking or anything really. But think the vast majority of people who write to me do so because they have something to figure out that they can't figure out on their own, and it's the kind of thing that doesn't just have one set answer. It's part of a pattern of living.

But if you want an answer from me I would say definitely do not pursue this. I mean, that's simple, right? Do not pursue this. Do not go to the movies in the afternoon with your wife's stepmother. Do not flirt with your wife's stepmother. Do not entertain notions of marrying your wife's stepmother. Just stop it.

That's what I would say.

But I just wouldn't stop there. I would say also if you want to have a halfway decent and happy life that you need to get into therapy and figure out what the hell is going on that you would be thinking of doing this thing. If you knew what was propelling you in that direction you might understand what is going on in your own marriage. I'm not saying you have to fall back in love with your wife and stay with her. But you have to find out why you are contemplating this disastrous and potentially harmful entanglement with your wife's stepmother.

Sure, stuff happens. But the pattern here is too much.

See a professional. I'm not a professional anything. I am just a person with an Internet connection. You should see a professional. But here is what I think anyway. I think that before you do this you need to figure out why you want to do it.

Theoretically, just theoretically, let's just imagine that it is a fabulous idea for you to marry your wife's stepmother. Even if it were the greatest idea in the world, it would still be unusual enough that you would want to think about it, so you would be able to explain it to others, and you would want to find out what unexplored motives you might have and what unforeseen effects it might have on others.

So whether it is a good idea or a bad idea, you need to get some help figuring out why you want to do it.

But I think, personally, that it's not such a good idea. I think, frankly, that it would have a terrible effect on your wife. I mean, you talk about "Trish's" husband dying. To you he's Trish's husband. To your wife, he's her father. That's your wife's father who's dying. And she apparently feels that Trish has come between her and her father. So now that her father is dying, and she might like to be closer to him, what would it be like for her to discover that her husband has taken up with her father's wife?

It would not be a good thing, let's just put it that way.

So I really think you should just put this on ice, whatever it is and wherever it comes from, just freeze it.

You say you're no longer in love with your wife. But did the love just go away? Or is there a story behind that? Is it possible that deep down you are angry with her and want to hurt her?

Because this would be a great way to do that, if that's what you want to do. This would be a great way to hurt your wife and keep hurting her.

Your wife feels that her stepmother took her dad from her. And now, as you say, if you went through with this, it would be as if now this same woman is taking her husband from her. You would be repeating a primal injury to your wife.

So maybe that's what you want to do but don't realize it. Maybe you are so angry with her about something that you're not really aware of, that you want to do this devastating thing to her. Also, possibly, the stepmother is unwittingly acting out some revenge scenario of her own, maybe on her own husband, your wife's father, or maybe on the stepdaughter she maybe never wanted or always resented or felt she was competing with for the affections of her husband.

People do stuff like this. It's what's in all the heavy Greek tragedies and good movies. We don't realize what we're doing. Precisely because we can hurt people so grievously when we don't know what we're doing, it's our responsibility to know what we're doing. It's our responsibility to look at all the angles. Self-knowledge is not just a luxury. It's more a responsibility. It's like learning to drive right so you don't run people down.

So as you come down the hall, and stop at my desk, and ask me this complicated question, I just do what I always do, I write something on the card, hand you the card and say, Quit drinking. See a therapist.


And there's something in your breezy presentation that makes me wonder if you aren't missing a few things. This idea of moving out so no one would know ... that's a little optimistic. People would probably find out. And the idea that "The other complications, I feel, would be minor -- my own kids have 'Trish' as their step-grandmother, and she would then become their stepmother," well, such a change would probably not be minor to them.

You're probably a swell guy and all, but the reasons and implications for all these things need to be teased out.

So quit drinking and see a therapist.


Citizens of the Dream

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By Cary Tennis

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