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This episode was originally released on September 9, 2016.
The Sugars bring you another "Rapid Fire" episode, where they give brief answers to a handful of letters that are all centered around a theme. The theme for this episode is "stay or go" — people who have a voice in their head telling them to leave their relationship, but who aren't sure it's the right move.
I have been pulled into an emotional affair with an older, married friend. He and I became close over the last two years. What I initially saw as friendship has grown into intimacy. He has a troubled marriage that’s been on rocky ground for a long time, and it has survived his infidelity. My friend and his wife have children and are trying to make their marriage work. While my intentions are not sexual, I care very deeply for my friend, and I still crave the closeness and emotional intimacy of our relationship.
Is there a way to salvage this friendship in a healthy and respectful way? Or do I need to politely bow out before I create more trouble in an already turbulent life?
Signed, Totally In Over My Head
Steve Almond: It’s unclear to me why you are referring to this relationship as an “emotional affair” rather than a “friendship.” My suspicion is that there isn’t sexual alchemy necessarily, but there’s something that feels secret and covert and that occupies a kind of emotional, intimate space that really is appropriate for a partner. You know a friendship is over when you’re talking more about somebody than to them, and you know a marriage is really in trouble when your partner isn’t the person with whom you have the deepest, most intimate conversations. You are in a relationship with this guy that occupies the space and the emotional energy and attention that should be going towards this guy healing his relationships with his wife, which is what he says he wants to do. My hunch is that your hunch is that you need to step back from this friendship until he figures out whether his marriage is going to be heal-able or not.
Cheryl Strayed: I think that you know the answer, TIOMH. You don’t sign a letter “Totally In Over My Head” unless you’re totally in over your head. You’re in a relationship that doesn’t feel right to you, and so, you need to bow out. We all crave closeness and emotional intimacy, and you can find that in a relationship that feels right. So you need to let this one go.
I have an agonizingly American dilemma. After I had an ugly and protracted affair, my husband decided that our marriage wasn't tenable anymore. We’ve been together for 8 years and married for 2, but for the past four months, we’ve been living separately. Despite my many pleas to reconcile, I've finally begun to accept that my husband no longer views me as his life partner, for reasons that are extremely valid. He has drawn up very equitable divorce papers and has displayed a lot of patience about me wanting to take some time to sign them.
I'm currently employed at a prestigious publication as a freelancer; I've been working for them for more than a year, but I don't yet have employee benefits — most pressingly, health insurance. Though I’ve gotten some vague promises that I am "next in line" for a staff position, there’s no indication of when a move in that direction might happen.
I’m currently reliant on my estranged husband's health insurance to control an intense anxiety disorder — and ironically enough my distraught feelings about our split. While I’m not ready to give up on him, I understand that he no longer wishes to be married to me, and I want to set him free to pursue someone that can be more faithful to him and can appreciate him fully. On the other hand, divorcing him will mean losing my health insurance, and I don't want to be saddled with crippling financial burdens in order to maintain my precarious mental health. Is it moral to delay the divorce process until I can secure employee benefits? Should I be looking for another job, even though the stability of a job I love is one of the few bright spots in my life right now? Help!
Signed, Un-spoused and Uncovered
Cheryl: It is moral for you to delay your divorce to keep your health insurance benefits, but to me, that’s not the question — it’s, does your husband want to do this? It might be a good idea to get really specific [with your husband] about what amount of time would allow you to figure out this health insurance situation. You know, the sad thing about a divorce is it really is, at the end of the day, a business negotiation. These health insurance questions are really common, sadly, in this society where we don’t all have access to health insurance. And so, I think it’s a reasonable claim to ask him to delay the divorce.
Steve: I think the larger crisis that’s underneath all this is that your life is in chaos right now, and it feels deeply disrupted by the end of the marriage, by your feelings of responsibility about that, by your desire to be back with this person, and, not incidentally, by your life as a freelancer. So in asking him, you need to be sure that you’re not further casting yourself into the role of somebody who’s living a provisional, disrupted life, because it sounds like that anxiety disorder you speak of is exacerbated by this feeling that you don’t really have a stable base at home or at work.
My boyfriend just left for an extended period of time to bike across the country (he's really cool). We talked a lot about how things were going to be after he left, and I felt comfortable with it all. I trust him. He left two days ago, and now, I'm in a panic. I feel much sadder than I thought I would. I've always been on the other side of things - the one leaving for adventures and having fun while my loved ones cheered me on. Now I'm watching him fulfill a dream, and while I’m happy for him, I miss him incredible amounts. How do I cope with his trip without being jealous, sad and paranoid? How can I make the most of my time without him? How do I cherish, rather than dread, the opportunity to be by myself for the next few months?
Signed, Blue Without You
Steve: The sentence that’s really illuminated here is “He left two days ago, and now, I’m in a panic.” He left two days ago. Hey, you love him more than you thought. I think what you need to do right now is try to really discern how much of this is, “I miss him,” and how much of it is, “Dammit, he gets to do this and I don’t.” My hunch is that it’s a complicated mix of those two. Wallowing in feelings about his departure — especially feelings of envy — is exactly the wrong thing to do if you want to start to enjoy his time away. And he’s on a bike trip — I imagine they still have phones…? Or write each other letters. That’s what people used to do — it sustained their relationships, it deepened their relationships. So, my sense is, this is a great opportunity.
Cheryl: Sometimes growth — in fact, always growth — is uncomfortable and queasy and painful. I think that it’s really valuable to ask these questions, especially if this relationship does end up being one that sustains over time. You’re responsible for your life — do something cool yourself. And that doesn’t mean you try to one-up him, but that you think more deeply about what makes you feel like you’re seeking and having adventures.
Three months ago, I relocated for my long-distance boyfriend. I left my dream job, my beloved city and great friends, and took a significant pay cut to move to a new city to live with him. When I first made the move, we were incredibly happy to finally be ending our long-distance relationship. Now, things are markedly different.
We’ve been fighting almost daily, and my usually sunny disposition has dimmed dramatically to the point where friends and family are starting to worry about me.
The main reason we fight is because of my cats — two adorable, sweet, and loving cats I adopted five years ago, long before I met my boyfriend. My boyfriend has never been fond of my cats, but told me he would do his best to get along with them when I moved in with him. He hasn’t. His only interaction with them has been to yell at them and chase them into a tiny powder room where we keep their litter box. They’ve become so scared of him that they hide in a crate to avoid him. They won’t come out while he’s home, even to go to the bathroom. To make matters worse, he has a dog whom he treats like a king, and expects me to do the same.
He now says that he doesn’t think he can live with cats, and he wants me to send them away to live with my parents. While this is an option, I feel like this is incredibly unfair to me and diminishes the importance of my cats in my life. If the tables were turned, I feel he would absolutely choose his dog over me.
Part of me wonders whether this goes beyond just a hatred of cats. Is he simply unwilling to compromise in general, whether it’s about cats or anything else? He says that’s not the case, and that without the cats, things would be back to normal. I’d love to give this a fair shot since I’ve already sacrificed so much and it does seem silly to end a 2 ½ year relationship over cats, but I’m 30 years old, and I don’t want to waste any more of my time on this relationship if he’s going to be stubborn and selfish forever.
I’m so torn about what to do. Please help!
Signed, Crazy (and Confused) Cat Lady
Cheryl: This one is not complicated for me at all. From one cat lady to another, honeybun, you should absolutely go. This is not about cats, OK? You’re ending a 2 ½ year relationship over that fact that you’re with somebody who’s not kind, not considerate, and not respectful, and those are big, deep, important things. You sacrificed a lot. You gave up this life you loved to move in with this guy, and guess what, you learned something you didn’t expect — that you had fallen in love with somebody who is selfish. It’s one thing to say, “I’m not really in love with your cats, but I love you and respect you, so I’m going to make my best effort to live with these cats.” Your boyfriend showed you what his best effort was, and it was to be abusive and mean to these cats. If you’re dealing with somebody who, at core, isn’t kind and respectful, to me, those are deal-killers. When I read this letter, I see him killing that deal over and over again in really core ways.
Steve: Let me give you few more hints as to why you might want to head Cheryl’s advice: “We’ve been fighting almost daily, and my usually sunny disposition has dimmed dramatically to the point where friends and family are starting to worry about me.” Or I’ll do you one better: “If the tables were turned, I feel he would absolutely choose his dog over me.” Yeah...that’s a warning sign. Just Golden Rule this sucker — you would never say, “Get rid of your dog, I can’t stand him.” There’s a power balance that’s out of whack. You gave up a lot — dream job, beloved city, great friends — and it’s disappointing to face that and step back from a decision. But it’s so abundantly clear to me that the only way that this relationship could work is if the terms of it were radically reinvented. He needs to understand that the things that you love and the creatures that you love matter to you, and therefore, they should matter to him.
My husband is emotionally abusive. We have a 2 year old daughter. I know I need to leave but I am so completely stuck. I look at apartments I could rent every day. I know how much better my life will be away from him. I know I will be fine, better than fine in fact, once I go. But I still can't seem to get the ball rolling. It’s not money that keeps me here, or security (although both of those things will be challenges). I think it is shame. I'm ashamed that I picked such a bad father for my daughter. I'm ashamed that I knew he was a bad choice but I still had a baby with him. I'm ashamed that I have put up with this for 10 years. I'm ashamed of how I have let him treat me.
I don't know how to take the first step, to start the momentum that I need to see it through. I have tried to tell him I am leaving but he threatens me until I back down. I know I need to go in secret but it feels very underhand. Please help me find the first step. I know I can do this but I don't know how.
Signed, Stuck Feet
Steve: Get off the island. There are millions of women and men who have to get out of relationships like this. It’s the toughest thing you’ll have to do, but you’re not alone in having to do it, and there’s a vast network of people and books and narratives and professionals who will help you. As frightening and destabilizing as it feels, there are many paths, and you have to start walking down one of them.
Cheryl: Shame is the number one thing that people feel who are in abusive relationships, and part of that is steeped in this idea that people who find themselves victims in a relationship, it disrupts our self-concept. We think, “Well, I would never be that person.” It brings shame when we find ourselves in that situation. But you need help, and you don’t have to do this alone. Ultimately it will be you who scoops up your daughter and walks out that door, and as the child of a woman who did that herself when I was 6, I’ll tell you, it’s powerfully important that you do make that choice for yourself, and for her. What we have now that my mother didn’t have 40 years ago is all of these resources that are available to you locally and nationally. Those domestic violence resources are not just about physical violence. Emotional abuse can be as painful or more painful than physical abuse, so you get to tap into those resources, too. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can connect you to resources to help you take those first steps. The minute you make that move that you know you need to make, life becomes easier. It doesn’t become harder. The hardest part, Stuck Feet, is right now. You must go. And I really just beg you to reach out to every resource that will help you do that.
Is "wanting to leave" [as Cheryl wrote in her “The Truth That Lives There” column for Dear Sugar] enough, even when you have a sweet and precious 1 year old?
Signed, Mama Wanting to Leave
Cheryl: Yes, it is enough. Obviously, the stakes are higher when you have a child with the partner you want to leave — the consequences are also felt by the child. I think many of us have this idea that the ideal scenario for our children is, if you had that child with a partner, that you and that partner will stay together and thrive. But what happens when you aren’t thriving — and it sounds to me, MWTL, like you aren’t — if you have that persistent feeling that you need to leave, you probably need to listen to yourself. What that’s going to lead to is probably some pretty great things for your child, too, because your child will have a parent — two parents, maybe — who get to have more fulfilled lives. You are never doing a partner a favor by staying with them out of pity or guilt, so I think that leaving doesn’t mean that you don’t continue to co-parent with somebody, and I think that listening to that true voice is also a great way of setting an example for your child about how it is that we find fulfillment in our lives.
Steve: We don’t have a lot of information here, so it’s a “go,” but with the proviso that your partner is also a parent, and that means that your job now is to leave the romantic relationship in a way that recognizes that even though the partnership didn’t work, the parenting relationship in the ideal does. Is there a way for the parenting relationship to work out better than the partnership did?
New episodes of Dear Sugars are released weekly. Do you have a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.