DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #77: The Truth That Lives There

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This week Sugar is offering her advice in a response to five letters.

Dear Sugar,

I’m a 26 year-old woman who has been married for nine months. My husband is 40. His wedding proposal was terribly romantic, like something out of a movie starring Audrey Hepburn. He is kind and funny. I do love him. And yet…

He’s only the second person I’ve been in a serious relationship with. Throughout the wedding planning process I had second thoughts about settling down so young, but I didn’t want to hurt or embarrass him by calling off the wedding. There are so many experiences I fear I’ll miss out on by staying married to someone older. I want to apply for the Peace Corps, live all over the country, teach English in Japan, and yes, date other people. These are all things I was giving up when I said, “I do.” But it’s only hitting me now.

I feel stuck. I want to leave but I’m also terrified of hurting my husband, who has been so good to me and who I consider my best friend. Sugar, I’ve always played it safe: I picked the safe major, accepted the safe job, went ahead with the wedding. I’m terrified that leaving my husband will mean I finally have no excuse for why I’m not living the bold, experience-rich life I’ve always dreamed of.

Sugar, please help me.

Signed,

Playing it Safe

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Dear Sugar,

I am a messed up woman. I bear the scars of much emotional abuse, some physical abuse, and one sexual assault. I have an addictive personality, flirt with anorexia, OCD, and I don’t know what it’s like to live without the flush of adrenaline in my body from chronic stress. I’m vain, self-absorbed, depressed, angry, self-loathing, and lonely. Routinely.

I was raised to think I was a filthy person and God would only love me if I behaved. I mostly behaved. Then I met a man who told me God would love me anyway. I converted to fundamental Christianity and married the man. I was eighteen. That was seven years ago.

He is, for most intents and purposes, a good man. He means well and he loves me but he suffers from the faults of most young men in our religion: the head of household syndrome. I’m expected to be a certain way, so I am. He doesn’t realize he does this unless I tell him, and I’ve stopped bothering to tell him after so many years. But I am not really that person, and the longer we’re married the more trapped and broken I feel about burying the real me, the messed up person I already described. He knows all my scars, but as a Christian he doesn’t understand mental illness at all. He pleads with me to trust God more. He says if I just try harder, he knows I can get better. He says I have such potential.

I don’t blame him for my discontent (entirely). We were told we were too young to marry, but despite my own misgivings, I married to prove everyone wrong. We’re both incredibly stubborn. I thought if I could be the person I was supposed to be, I would make myself okay. I would be better. It was a lie I told myself.

I love him. He would never hurt me, and I don’t want to hurt him. But I don’t know how to stop this charade, how to heal, or how to make him understand. I spent a week in a psych ward for depression a few years ago because I just needed to put the brake on and knew that the only way to get through to him was something drastic: either I killed myself or I got help. I got help. However, the mask was back in place as soon as I was released, and my therapy was a joke. Nothing changed, and I feel myself reaching the breaking point again. I no longer have any urge to kill myself, and can recognize my own warning signs, but I do need a break. Pretending is tiring. My health has suffered over the past few months. We finally bought our first house, and most days I sit around it weeping.

I have thought of leaving so many times, but I don’t want to hurt him. He has worked hard to allow me to stay home (though we have no children). If I left, he would become a pariah in our church community, where we are currently leaders. I don’t want to do that to him. He does not believe in divorce, unless I cheated on him. I no longer know what I believe. I have tried talking about how I feel before, but we’re on two different planets. If I confronted him about how I feel now, he would feel betrayed by me, and I would feel horrible. He in the past has refused counseling, saying our/my life is great and we don’t need it, even if I do. My fear is that, as usual, if I say something, we seem better for a time, and the cycle continues. I am tired of the cycle.

Where is the line, Sugar? When you want the life you have to work but it doesn’t, and you aren’t sure it can, and when you want a completely different life, too, because human beings are complex and it’s never that simple, which way do you go? Do I stay and rub myself out until maybe I am the person I was always expected to be? Is this just what it means to be an adult? I never had a good example of a marriage until I was already married, in my in-laws, and we do not look like them. But could we, in time? How long do you try before you admit you will never be that person? I accept the responsibility for making such a mess of my life. It seems inevitable in hindsight. But that doesn’t get it cleaned up.

Thank you.

Signed,

Standing Still

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Dear Sugar,

I am a woman in my late twenties who has dated the same guy for almost three years and lived with him for almost a year. All of my friends seem to be getting married and I feel as though I should be considering marriage too. However, the thought of marrying my boyfriend makes me feel panicky and claustrophobic. He has mentioned once the possibility of us tying the knot, and I think he sensed I was not comfortable discussing it, so he didn’t mention it again.

I’ve not had many boyfriends—one steady relationship in high school, a few very short-lived relationships post-college, and now this one. My boyfriend is the sweetest person you will ever find, and we have some things in common, but I don’t feel like those few things are enough. I find myself fantasizing about dating other people. I find my respect for my boyfriend waning. I don’t know if this is a temporary feeling, or if this relationship is not meant to continue for the long term. I’m bored with him and I’m afraid I will get more bored as time goes on. I’m also afraid that there really is no one better out there for me, that I should be grateful for what I have, and that anyone I would be seriously interested in would be unlikely to be interested in me in the same way (seems to be the case, judging from experience). I hate feeling like I’m doing my boyfriend a disservice by not loving him as much as he loves me.

What do I do, Sugar? Thank you for your help.

Signed,

Claustrophobic

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Dear Sugar,

I’m a woman living in limbo. Actually, it feels like hell. You see, I’ve been contemplating leaving my long-term relationship of ten years but I am in total paralysis. My husband loves me, adores me, worships the ground I walk upon–despite the fact that I am oftentimes distant, morose, and completely repulsed at the idea of having sex with him. Oh yeah, I also cheated on him.

A year and a half ago, a flirtatious dalliance with a co-worker turned into a tumultuous affair that created a shitstorm in my personal life and an aftermath of what seems like irreparable damage. To be fair, there’s a sizable litany of details about my marriage going back plenty of years, but I’ll give you the basics.

I met my husband almost ten years ago when I was in my early twenties. We got married after six years of dating because marriage was the next step. We’ve had our ups and downs, but my husband gave me stability, he was devoted to me, and I was convinced that nobody else could ever love me as deeply as he did. Having said that, if I were to be completely honest with myself, things never felt quite “right.” I know that looking at the fallout of a relationship in hindsight isn’t usually helpful, but I have a shitload of woebegone journal entries to corroborate that feeling, so bear with me.

I’ve come to realize that I’m seriously incompatible with my husband. I’ve had to deal a lot with my anger and frustration towards him (because I feel we’re on totally different pages in our communication styles), as well as major issues with his drug use and how I view his masculinity and my own sexuality (we essentially stopped having regular sex two and a half years into our relationship). There has been enough contentment and comfort that I’ve been able to stay with him, which also has to do with my philosophy that marriage isn’t all puppies and rainbows, and it requires hard work and endurance.

There are other issues that have arisen during our marriage: I began to discover a community and creative passions I couldn’t share with him; my husband decided he wanted kids, even though I had already told him I didn’t; and I became his sole source of emotional support. In response to the mounting pressures of our relationship, I began to numb myself to the niggling sense that something was wrong. I immersed myself in anything and everything that would mean I didn’t have to face up to not being happy in my relationship—ranging from alcohol to spiritual retreats to drowning my sorrows in work.

A couple years ago, I started to wonder if this was what I had to live with for the remainder of my life (and yes, we had had conversations about how to improve our sex life and the lack of passion/sense of stagnation in the past, but to little avail). I figured that if I felt numb, I still had plenty of intimacy stuff that needed to be worked through, and I needn’t make my relationship a theatre upon which to enact all my primal insecurities, fears, and daddy issues. All the same, the growing sense of desperation and loneliness kept rising.

Long story short, after close to eight years of being completely faithful to my husband, I met Mr. Trouble. He turned my life upside down. We had a whirlwind affair that introduced me to a passion and sensuality that I hadn’t even known existed. I eventually told my husband about the affair and I also told him that I didn’t know if I could remain married—not so I could run off with the new guy, mind you, because I always thought of him as merely a catalyst rather than someone I wanted to actually be with—because the affair had triggered an awakening within me. While the affair tore at my conscience, it made me feel like I had confirmation, at last, that I wasn’t crazy. There HAD been something missing in my marriage.

Of course, my husband was devastated. So was I. In the interest of making a fully informed decision and honoring him, we’ve been trying to patch things up for the last year and a half. We tried couples counseling and had a trial separation (neither was very helpful). I’ve been utterly confused and angry with myself; my heart has been detached and I’ve been unhappy for a long time. My husband has so many hopes for us, but unlike a lot of people who describe the fire in their marriage fizzling out after a few years, I can honestly say that there was never any fire between us. I never felt a truly soulful connection was there. There was never any passion or romance or chemistry—just a scared, confused 22-year-old who was afraid of being alone and decided to stand by the first person who ever stuck around.

All of this is doubly complicated by my affair, which had a few false finishes but finally ended a few months ago. I used to think that I felt love for this other man, then that turned into obsession, and now I feel like I’m torn apart by withering hatred, and anger at myself for being taken in by someone who was obviously just using me. Getting over him has been a major trial for me because admitting that our relationship was just a lame sexual fling (even though it felt like so much more) would mean relegating myself to the fact that it wasn’t the clarion call I needed to figure out how I truly felt about my husband. It was just a cheap, unethical rendezvous with someone who had little interest in me beyond the sex.

My entire life has been ripped apart by this. On certain days, I feel strong and resolute; on others, I feel like a selfish, unfeeling cow who is incapable of truly loving someone. In following what I think is my intuition (leaving my husband), am I deluding myself and making the affair more significant than it actually was? Is it possible for me to have a life that feels fuller, has more feeling, and doesn’t force me to numb myself so much? And how can I possibly bear leaving, when that means I would absolutely break the heart of someone I love so much? More than anything, I wish I had it in me to learn to accept what happened and accept myself, as well as make sense of the whole mess, but I just keep spinning in that hamster wheel of indecision.

Signed,

Leaving a Marriage

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Dear Sugar,

I have deep faith in what you write. Thank you. I’m having some trouble getting over some trouble. There are truly harrowing experiences that your readers share, through you, with us. This isn’t one of those. It’s simple trouble. Someone shared love with me (starting when we were 21), and then he took it away (when we were 34). It wasn’t always love, and we weren’t always aware, and towards the end, my partner and I slammed against a wall of (im)maturation, and we realized that skimming across the surface of our individual and shared issues would no longer cut it. After all these years, I thought we were getting there together. I was ready and excited to dig in and get to know ourselves more deeply and make plans for the future. I thought my partner was too.

I was wrong. He told me he’d been thinking that he needed to leave. And then he left.

So ever since reading your column Tiny Beautiful Things I’ve been thinking about that situation and about what I would tell 20 year old me about the relationship path she was about to get on. From the old side, the hurt side, the trying to understand what happened side, and the poisonous “when could I and should I have done something differently to prevent this from happening” side. I’m still trying to teach myself to unlove this man. But even to type that pushes bruises. It’s been a while, but I can still feel howling gales and crippling nostalgia and am mourning the future we never had.

And I still have a question about your column. I want to understand you because I think it could help me. I want to know why you don’t need a reason to leave someone you love. “Wanting to leave is enough.” Why is it enough, Sugar? Why can’t “the terms of the relationship change” from within? Why can’t you come to know yourself and be/get ready for love with the person you love?

Why couldn’t you? I think what happened with us must be like what happened to you, in some way, when you were in love with your first husband but weren’t ready to love one person, as you wrote about in your column Scared & Confused. Maybe my boyfriend was experiencing something like you did, and I am experiencing something like your ex-husband. Except you were so young; we were approaching middle age. You “didn’t want to stay with a man I loved anymore but I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge what was so very obvious and so very true.”

But why? And what was true? I don’t sense it’s because you thought the next person would be better, would fix something or fill some hole in you. A person could careen from one partner to the next forever, avoiding self-accountability and chasing what ifs. Why was it obvious and true for you to choose to leave? And how did he feel about it? When is leaving the right thing to do, and when is it a failure? I think it would help me—the one left—to know.

I’m living my life day by day. It goes by, the past couple years. But among many shining truths of strength and resolve that I try to live out is one that keeps my heartsick and keeps me from living fully. I still love him. I feel like something horrible wrenched me from my life, and I split, and the real me is elsewhere, in a life shared with him where I trust and am loved and have this core of peace. I still ache to get back there, but I can’t find it. Some days I want to poster the damn telephone poles with my own picture. I’m trying to understand why he left me. I worry that if I don’t I’ll always be stuck looking for myself.

Signed,

Trying

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Dear Women,

I chose to publish your letters together because placed alongside each other I think they tell a story complete enough that they answer themselves. Reading them, it occurred to me that allowing you to read what others in a similar situation are struggling with would be a sort of cure for what ails you, though of course I have something to say about them too. As Trying noted in her letter, I struggled with these very questions mightily in my own life, when I was married to a good man whom I both loved and ached to leave. Your letters brought me back there, to the most painful era of my life.

There was nothing wrong with my ex-husband. He wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty close. I met him a month after I turned 19 and I married him on a rash and romantic impulse a month before I turned 20. He was passionate and smart and sensitive and handsome and absolutely crazy about me. I was crazy about him too, though not absolutely. He was my best friend; my sweet lover; my guitar-strumming, political rabble-rousing, road-tripping side-kick; the co-proprietor of our vast and eclectic music and literature collection; and daddy to our two darling cats.

But there was in me an awful thing, from almost the very beginning: a tiny clear voice that would not, not matter what I did, stop saying go.

Go, even though you love him.

Go, even though he’s kind and faithful and dear to you.

Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.

Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.

Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.

Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.

Go, even though you once said you would stay.

Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.

Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.

Go, even though there is nowhere to go.

Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.

Go, because you want to.

Because wanting to leave is enough.

Get a pen. Write that last sentence on your palm, sweet peas—all five of you. Then read it over and over again until your tears have washed it away.

Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here To Serve button has been eternally pinned. We’re expected to nurture and give by the very virtue of our femaleness, to consider other people’s feelings and needs before our own. I’m not opposed to those traits. The people I most admire are in fact nurturing and generous and considerate. Certainly, an ethical and evolved life entails a whole lot of doing things one doesn’t particularly want to do and not doing things one very much does, regardless of gender.

But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.

Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn’t mean you pack your bags the moment there’s strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that.

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Trying, in your letter you write that your trouble is simple, but I can see that your grief is extraordinary. I’m so sorry for that. I’m sorry you got your heart crushed. My inbox is full of emails from people who are suffering for similar reasons and there’s nothing I can do for you or for them but say there are better days ahead. Time will heal this wound, sweet pea. I know that for certain, though I also know that feels impossible to you right now. There is more love to be found and you’ll find it someday and everything you learned from your 13 years with your former boyfriend will contribute to your ability to do it better next time around.

I don’t know why he left you. I can’t even properly answer your question about why I needed to leave my ex. I was tortured by this very question for years because I felt like such an ass for breaking his heart and I was so shattered I’d broken my own. I was too young to commit myself to one person. We weren’t as compatible as we initially seemed. I was driven by my writing and he begrudged my success in equal measure to his celebration of it. I wasn’t ready for long-term monogamy. He grew up upper middle class and I grew up poor and I couldn’t keep myself from resenting him for that. He was more politically correct in bed than I wanted him to be. My mother died and my stepfather stopped being a father to me and I was an orphan by the age of 22 and reeling in grief. I had biological father wounds and biological grandfather wounds and in order to heal them I needed fifty men and three good women to have sex with me.

All of these are reasons are true enough in their specificity, but they all boil down to the same thing: I had to leave. Because I wanted to. Just like Playing It Safe does and Standing Still does and Claustrophobic does and Leaving a Marriage does, even if they aren’t ready to do it yet. I know by their letters they each have their own lists and all those words on all of those lists boil down to one that says go.

I imagine that’s what it boiled down to for your former partner too, Trying. That like me, he came to trust his truest truth, even though there were other truths running alongside it—such has his deep love for you. You ask: “Why can’t ‘the terms of the relationship change’ from within?” And my answer is that they can. In successful long-term relationships they usually do. But in order for that to work all parties involved must be willing and capable of making that change. And for some reason they sometimes aren’t, no matter how hard they try or wish to be able to.

I didn’t just up and walk out on my ex-husband one day. I desperately wanted to not want to leave. He knew I was ambivalent, in spite of my true love for him. I agonized in precisely the ways the women who wrote the four letters above are agonizing and I shared a fair piece of that struggle with my ex. I tried to be good. I tried to be bad. I was sad and scared and sick and self-sacrificing and ultimately self-destructive. I finally cheated on my former husband because I didn’t have the guts to tell him I wanted out. I loved him too much to make a clean break, so I botched the job and made it dirty instead.

The year or so I spent splitting up with him after I confessed my sexual dalliances was wall-to-wall pain. It wasn’t me against him. It was the two of us wrestling together neck-deep in the muckiest mud pit. Divorcing him is the most excruciating decision I’ve ever made. But it was the wisest one too. And I wasn’t the only one whose life is better for it. He deserved the love of a woman who didn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost in her ear.

While you’re probably in no mood to be philosophical about the devastation your boyfriend’s leaving has caused you, Trying, I think it’s worth saying that it’s far better to be alone and therefore open to new, more fulfilling love, than it is to be involved with someone who half wants out. If your former boyfriend didn’t ultimately love you the way you love him his leaving was a kindness that someday, far from now, you’ll be grateful for. And it’s a kindness that you, Playing It Safe, and you, Standing Still and you, Claustrophobic and you, Leaving a Marriage may just have to muster the courage to mete out. Even if that kindness delivers a fatal blow.

It wasn’t until I’d been married to Mr. Sugar a few years that I truly understood my first marriage. In loving him, I’ve come to see more clearly how and why I loved my first husband. My two marriages aren’t so different from each other, though there’s some sort of magic sparkle glue in the second that was missing in the first. Mr. Sugar and my ex have never met, but I’m certain if they did they’d get along swimmingly. They’re both good men with kind hearts and gentle souls. They both share my passions for books, the outdoors and lefty politics; they’re both working artists, in different fields. I argue with Mr. Sugar about the same amount as I did with my former husband, at a comparable velocity, about similar things. Others have praised both of my marriages as admirable; in each, I’ve been perceived as one half of a “great couple.” And in both marriages there have been struggles and sorrows that few know about and fewer still were and are capable of seeing or understanding. Mr. Sugar and I have been neck-deep together in the muckiest mud pit too. The only difference is that every time I’ve been down there with him I wasn’t fighting for my freedom and neither was he. In our nearly sixteen years together, I’ve never once thought the word go. I’ve only wrestled harder so I’d emerge dirty, but stronger, with him.

I didn’t want to stay with my ex-husband, not at my core, even though whole swaths of me did. And if there’s one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it’s that you can’t fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out. It’s a god we must obey, a force that brings us all inevitably to our knees. And because of it, I can only ask the four women who wrote to me with the same question: will you do it later or will you do it now?

Yours,

Sugar

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