I pick the wrong men. Why?

In life, I'm an A student. When it comes to men, I get an F

By Cary Tennis

Published March 27, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hey Cary,

I don't even know what to write to you. I feel like writing out my life story is such a disaster. The thing is, most people wouldn't think I'm such a disaster. I function amazingly. I'm 30, have my degree, work a job I totally love, doing something I feel is incredibly important, and I have children that I adore and adore me. When it comes to parenting or my job or even when I was getting my education, I had no problems. Those were and are all cake.

When it comes to men, I suck. I know that it stems from my dad abandoning our family when I was 2, a horrible stepfather who emotionally abused me and then tried to sexually abuse me at 15, and basically just a childhood full of bullshit. I just don't really deal with that stuff, because I was sent to counseling as a child, and I feel like it was the only thing that kept me from turning into a hooker on a street corner in Vegas. It just seems ridiculous to dwell on the past. Plus, I think I turned out pretty good ... but ...

I am coming up on twice divorced. I got married at 18 and left him at 20. I was the 4.0 kid in high school, extremely shy, had never dated before, and getting married at 18 seemed like my best bet. He was emotionally abusive, so I left at 20. I had fallen crazy in love with another guy who didn't want me once I left, and so I was single for a brief time. Then I met my current husband, fell crazy in love, we moved in together and got married within a year, and now here I am all these years down the road and we're getting divorced. I consider him one of my best friends, but we made horrible marriage partners. Now we're trying to live together, raise our kids, and have our own "modern family." It's going OK. Some days are great. Some days I want to stick a fork in my eyeball. We're doing this because we think it's not only best financially, but it seems unfair to punish our kids when we can get along and maintain the family unit.

Now, here's my biggest problem. God. I cringe to write this. I fell in love with a very unhappily married man. Of course, I see him on a daily basis. Can't escape it. Would totally get fired for seeing him. I thought he would leave months ago. Shocker! He hasn't.

I just want to be happy, Cary. Oh my God, I so just want to be happy and I feel like the moment I get happiness then I go and do something stupid, mostly with a man, and fuck myself over again. I don't know how to escape this. I've tried reading self-help books and I saw a counselor, whom I didn't really like at all, and overall I think I'm an incredibly insightful and curious person about myself, but when it comes to actually NOT doing this shit, I fail. I can see myself doing it. I can admit to doing it. Then I go and do it anyway. It's as if I have to learn everything the hard way.

I'll take whatever advice you have. Lay it on me.

Sincerely ...


Dear You,

Here is one concrete thing you can do right now: Call a moratorium on all intimate sexual relationships. Stop seeing this married man. Conduct your relationship with your husband in a platonic way. Spend time alone when possible. Care for yourself and your kids. Do your job, eat, exercise, bathe, read, clean your house, pay the bills. Stay away from romantic relationships.

Do this for a set a period of time, say, three months.

Don't worry about having any great insights during that time. Just give yourself some breathing room.

This may really help you. It may sound like a drag, or downright inhuman, but give it a try. For one thing, it will show you that you really can live without romantic entanglement. That alone will broaden your choices.

So just try it. And if you find you just can't do it, that will show you something, too. That will tell you that you have lost the ability to choose whether to get involved with men or not.

While you are going through this period of conscious abstinence, you will want some help understanding your past and how it affects you today. You mention that you've seen counselors. I suggest you seek long-term psychotherapy, perhaps for a year or two.

Nobody can say exactly how your early experiences are affecting your behavior today. But it's a safe bet that what you are going through is connected to your experiences as a child. The only way to really understand those connections is to take the time to unravel your past. It is a kind of learning. It involves experimentation, observation and adjustment, and then more experimentation and observation. The only arena to really practice this in is your actual life. So you meet with a good therapist and talk about what is happening, then you go out into your life and when you repeat your problematic behavior, you take note of that, and then talk about it, and together you evaluate what happened, and visualize new solutions, new behaviors, new ways to handle the same situation, and then you go and try that out, and report back. So it's a long-term process. There's a lot to learn.

Dwelling on the past may seem illogical until you consider the logic of the unconscious. The unconscious is not logical in a thinking way, but in a poetic or mythic way. It seeks dramatic solutions. It seeks poetic justice. Having been wounded, we seek out people like those who wounded us, not because we seek to be hurt again, but because  the irrational, poetic, dramatic unconscious believes we can set things right if we reenact the past.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can often help with this sort of thing. It helps us to find the thoughts behind this behavior. In choosing a therapist, ask about CBT, and whether the therapist uses it and thinks it may help.

Is it true that you need to be in a relationship, any relationship, no matter how perilous, chaotic, dangerous and unsatisfying? I think not. I think you can prove that to yourself by abstaining for a period of time. Then, having gained some breathing room and some self-understanding, having learned to take care of yourself, you can eventually begin to date again, choosing carefully.

Take baby steps. No rushing. You've got time.

Cary Tennis

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