Should I sleep with my Iranian co-worker?

He's a Zoroastrian refugee, tortured in Iran, and has never heard of an open relationship

Published August 31, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Recently, I've met someone, a man at work, who's a political refugee from Iran. He came here on the premise of promises that weren't kept. He hasn't seen his family in the last 10 years. He's been stabbed and otherwise traumatized, and he feels like everyone here treats him as an alien.

I've been known as being a lot more open-hearted than some of the other people who work there. I was the girl in high school who wanted everyone to feel welcome. I am finding out suddenly that I am still that girl. I cannot imagine how alone he must have been feeling in the time he's been here (several years now).

Here's my dilemma: I have always also been a very freedom- and liberal-oriented girl. I've had successful open relationships. I don't feel in a rush to get to the future. I want to have a husband and family someday but not tomorrow. I am attracted to him, but I am learning that means two different things for us. He is already way more dedicated to me than I would consider normal.

I'm in my mid-20s; he's almost 30. He talks about marriage ... with me. He talks about wanting a girl to have as "his own" and it terrifies me. I try explaining to him my own ideas about what I'm ready for and how a relationship should work, and it is like nothing he has heard before. But he is so enamored with me, he's willing to take whatever I give him. I am not used to this feeling, and I'm not sure I think it's OK.

He's been in the military, and he definitely shows signs of having traumatic experiences there. He's not religious, and he's a Muslim, he's Zoroastrian, so for that reason, he was tortured in Iran, somehow. He is not unwilling to discuss any of this, but tells me to ask questions, and I don't know where to begin.

Physically, we haven't "done it," but I could see it happening, and I think we'd both love it, and he wants it, but I know he probably has a lot more issues with attachment and security than I have. He is obviously depressed, but it's the functional kind, the kind where there's identifiable reasons, but reasons that might hurt for a long time.


Dear Unsure,

When I was younger I believed that most people's social and religious attitudes were malleable and could change according to experience and learning.

Now I'm more of the view that we cannot simply walk away from the cultures and experiences that made us into who we are.

The idea of personal freedom is intoxicating. But ideas do not govern our hearts. We might think they do, but experience teaches us the profound power of our early training in matters of sex, love and family.

So I say be cautious. He is likely to believe that sex means certain things. No matter what you tell him, in his heart, in his being, he will believe that sex means what he believes it means.

If he wants only sex, he can find that. He needs friendship more. So be his good friend. Be frank but kind. Tell him that you will be his friend but not his lover. Learn from him about Iran and Zoroastroanism, which has a long and fascinating history -- in particular, its marriage customs and also its funeral rites.

We Americans have been indoctrinated our whole lives to believe that one is free to change at will and to cross cultural and racial boundaries.

But America is a strange place. And it is a new place. His culture is very old. You and he are very different. You cannot possibly know all that this man feels nor what he has been through and how it has shaped him. So study his culture and try to understand that he is his culture, as you are your culture. It is not something he could toss off even if he wanted to.

Do not ask him to do what he is incapable of doing -- to ignore what he believes about marriage and family. It would risk destroying your friendship and leaving him with a feeling of betrayal and emptiness.

Instead, be his friend. Be his ally. And let him be your friend and ally, too. I think he will be a loyal friend if you allow the friendship to grow within careful boundaries.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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