Baggage, “Bed Death,” and Suspected Infidelity Triangles

by A Married Dude

1. I am an unmarried mom lady, age 39, with no romantic prospects. Apparently this is a horrible thing, but for the most part I am a happy individual. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I love my life: I have friends, I read books, I have a smart kid, and I have the means to meet our needs.

Two years after my (collaborative, friendly) divorce, my ex-husband got sick. Very sick. He has literally weeks to live with terminal brain cancer. Needless to say, we’re all freaking out. I am trying to keep a calm front for everyone, but it’s only so-so. I have panic attacks in the car and after I put my kid to bed. And I really can’t understand why my brain keeps returning to a (probably false) insistence that NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME AGAIN and I am going to SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE ALONE. I tried dating, but I have so much baggage I can barely get out the door. The last guy I was kind of seeing seemed happy for a few months but then excused himself because he “couldn’t be the man I needed” or something silly like that. Something about my situation induces automatic guilt in dudes. Or else they just like women with fewer complications and more attention to pay to them.

Am I totally hosed here? Should I shelve myself until the kiddo is in college and hope that I can get back in the game in my mid- to late-forties? (HA.) I’m about to have no free time whatsoever. It scares me so much to think that my life is over, too, that I’m probably obsessing on it to avoid feeling grief and fear. But I can’t pretend that my life isn’t what it is in order to make a dude like me. Despite my divorce and recent dumping, I actually do think I make an okay partner, and it might be nice to be in love again someday. Any thoughts?

Thoughts? I have too many, starting with how sorry I am. A few years ago, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. For about a month there, it looked like she was going to die, leaving me to raise our toddler-age son alone. Although she’s now (touch wood) doing well, I spent too many days wearing the rictus grin of optimism, too many nights shaking with despair.

I dodged my bullet. Yours hit. Still, I know that the fear and sadness comes in layers and waves, layers and waves of shit. I understand that you’re not only grieving the imminent loss of a man you loved, the man who’s still your kid’s dad. You’re suffering from private losses, including the death — or so it sometimes seems — of love itself. And none of this is your fault. You got divorced, and you didn’t just survive: you made it work. It wasn’t you that got sick, but it’s you that gets left behind.

I don’t have any easy words; nor do I have new ones. But I absolutely do not think you’re hosed. You come across as smart and strong and funny. You seem impervious to bullshit, even your own. You sound awesome. Besides, I don’t believe that being a single mom is a romantic death sentence. Yes, it’s true that most men (and women) prefer less emotional baggage to more. But I know some fabulous moms, including one dear friend, who’ve fallen in love and gotten married in their late thirties or forties. The thing is, they weren’t struggling under the weight of raw emotions at the time.

You worry that, in fixing on your romantic prospects, you might just be trying “to avoid feeling grief and fear.” I think you’re right. To put it bluntly, I think there will be better times to focus on relationships with men you haven’t yet met.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t think about love. After all, your fear of loneliness isn’t just a distraction from your grief about death, divorce, and being dumped. (It doesn’t take Freud to see how these experiences are linked, emotionally if not in actual fact.) What I mean is that there’s a difference between giving yourself a break and putting yourself on the shelf until your kid goes to college. Don’t give up: that would be a loss to mankind, as well as yourself. But don’t be so driven by fear of solitude that you forget to care for yourself, too. If you do, you’ll only keep being dumped by emotionally shallow dudes who run away when they glimpse the terror and pain beneath your stoic exterior. Even worse, you’ll be taken advantage of by creeps who are attracted to you simply because you’re vulnerable. That’s a thing. Gross, right?

It’ll be better for everyone — for you, your kid, and the guys who’ll love you — if you take a little time to look after yourself. Good luck. I’m sorry you have to be so brave.

2. I am very nearly positive that one of my best friends (Person A) is cheating on his wife (Person B, also one of my best friends), with Person C, who is ALSO one of my best friends. I don’t have proof (nor have I been searching for it), but I spend a good amount of time with them, so I have overheard and seen some things that lead me to be PRETTY DAMN SURE that something’s going on. I also know them well enough to be positive that they are monogamous, not open, not swinging, and that Person C is not an accepted Special Guest Star in their marriage.

First, the obvious question: should I say something? It’s worth mentioning that the couple has children. I have thought about just confronting Person C with something along the lines of “I don’t know exactly what’s happening, nor do I want to, but its obvious to me and please cut that shit out.” Or, sometimes I think I should tell Person B, because a friend should tell another friend when someone is doing something harmful to them. Right? On the other hand, I really want to keep my mouth shut and mind my own business. I do not want to be the catalyst to divorce and ruined lives, and there is a remote chance nothing is going on, or the wife is OK with it all.

My second question is about dealing with Person C, the interloper. She’s probably noticed the increased distance between us lately. I’ve known her the longest out of all these people, so I guess her role in this disappoints me more than the husband’s, although of course I know that they are both to blame equally. And yet, I don’t really want to NOT be friends with any of these people, because regardless of their bad decisions, they have a lot of redeeming and awesome qualities. Advice, please?

Oh, this is a hard one, too. (Hey, editors! Where are my questions about cargo shorts?)

Are your friends having an affair? Yes! Perhaps. I don’t know? You sound about as certain as a non-snooping person can be. (And congrats on the not-snooping!) That’s probably good enough, but good enough for what?

You face two dilemmas. There’s the urge to do something, without making things worse. That’s hard. Worse is that you’re torn between incompatible friendship obligations.

Quick example: in a recent NYT “The Ethicist” column, a woman wrote in asking whether she should snitch on her girlfriend, who was having an affair with the husband of a mutual acquaintance. The Ethicist said no. Even though she disapproved of the affair, the LW’s bond of friendship to her girlfriend trumped her abstract duty to the acquaintance. People do stupid things, especially when they’re lonely or horny, and if we can’t forgive our friends the harm they do to others, what good are we anyway? The Ethicist recommended that the LW instead confront her girlfriend, much as you’ve considered talking to Person C. The LW could rant and rage at her girlfriend, even end their friendship, but she had no right to visit ruination on the acquaintance’s marriage.

I thought this was solid advice. Problem is: which person here has the right to expect your support? You describe everyone in this triangle — from the wronged wife to the woman you’ve known longest — as a “best friend.” Is that true?

Let’s assume there really is no one here with a superior claim on your loyalty. How do you keep faith with your friends and try not to damage a marriage based on what’s really just a solid hunch?

The simplest answer is to do nothing. Maybe start looking for some new best friends.

But you seem like you’ve already decided to speak up. And, in any case, being silent definitely means breaking faith with Person B.

This is what I think you should do: meet with Person C, like you suggest. Stay cool. If she thinks you’re only trying to shame her, she’ll clam up or counter-attack. If she cares about B at all, you might persuade her to end the affair before it does irreparable damage.

Still, that rather lets Person A off the hook. Why do you never propose talking to him? Unless there’s some reason it’s impossible (e.g., his skin sparkles, he controls his own militia), you should talk to this best friend, too. He took a vow. To my mind, he’s even more responsible than the “interloper.”

So, talk to them, together or apart. You decide. Maybe they persuade you there’ve been no shenanigans. Sweet-but-unlikely relief! But if they admit the affair, be their friend and encourage them to take responsibility. Is this just a fling? If so, WTF?! Is it more than that? If so, WTF?!

After that, I think you’re done. You can encourage C and A to stop the affair, even ask them to confess. You can threaten them with the loss of your friendship if they don’t make things right. But that’s all. No going to B. That responsibility lies with the cheaters.

I know some readers will disagree. They’ll say it’s wrong to keep B in the dark. I get that. I can only speak for myself. And I think there’s a bright, if narrow, line between trying to protect a friend by encouraging the people hurting her to do right thing and assuming the role of relationship judge and jury. We’re talking about lust, here; maybe even love. This is some occult stuff. More than anything, we’re dealing with the precious and fragile lives that people have built together, stuck together as they are with compromise and promises, white lies and closed eyes and the rust of good intentions.

BUT BUT BUT … If they deny everything, and it turns out they’re lying, they’ve betrayed you too. This goes double if they promise to stop and then exploit your discretion as a way to keep cheating. FTS. You know now where your loyalty lies.

Altogether now: burn them with fire!

3. I’ve been with my current significant other for approximately three years now. We’ve lived together for two of those years, and we’ve started to hit the point where we’re acting more like roommates than romantic/sexual partners. We hang out all the time and watch TV and go for walks and stuff, but our sex life has gone downhill somewhat in recent months. We both want to keep things spicy, but we’ve kind of hit a wall. I mean, we try to have sex regularly and mix things up in the bedroom, but it turns out that neither of us is very imaginative, despite our best efforts. Plus, we’re both hyper-aware and self-conscious, so buying into the absurdity of sexual situations can be difficult. For example, we’ve had lengthy discussions about how impractical the idea of sex on the beach is, and dirty talk usually ends with us dissolving into giggles rather than heading to the bedroom.

I suggested that we start watching porn together, and he was amenable to the idea. I’ve never really seen much porn, and the porn that he watches on his own doesn’t do much for me. So, I guess my question is: where do we start? I would prefer that it be non-exploitative and non-hokey (so no pizza deliveries or leopard print sheets), as well as stuff that could conceivably help get both of us off (so, appealing to both men and women). It doesn’t even have to be porn, per se. Erotically charged movies or TV shows would probably be fine. A more general question is “What are some things we can do to keep the fire alive?”

Bed death. Ugh. My first real love died of bed death. Actually, there were lots of problems, but none caused me more pain than our waning passions.

If you’d asked twenty-something me, I would’ve told you to cut your losses. Even now, I could never stay with a partner who didn’t want to jump my bones on the regular. But I’m older now. I’ve been with the same astonishing woman for more than a decade and she’s helped me learn that desire is a tidal system, not a cataract. You love one another, you’re talking, and you’re laughing. There’s a way back, even if you haven’t found it yet.

Anyway, porn ahoy! The world is full of it. And maybe it’s even what you need to break through the wall of your self-consciousness. Given your inexperience, I reckon you need to do some solo research before breaking out the laptop in company. You’ll feel more confident about sharing smut if you first of all discover what works for you. Also, if he’s anything like me, your dude gets so turned on by brazen expressions of female desire that it won’t much matter what you choose.

As it happens, the Hairpin has published a bunch of excellent posts on woman-friendly pornography and erotica. Typing “porn” in the little search bar above brings up a lot of stuff that’s, uh, relevant to your interests. Make sure to check out this post on porn and female desire. Don’t neglect the comments, which include tons of great suggestions, including a bunch of naughty tumblrs that showcase the variety of dirt that’s out there, from cheesecake to hardcore BDSM. I’m also betting that the comments to this column will quickly fill up with recommendations. You won’t let LW3 down will you, you fucking filthy fuckers?

To be honest, though, I don’t think porn’s the answer, no matter how fun it is. Nor do I have much faith in any of the standard “keep the flame alive” fun-’n’-games. (Pretend you’re strangers! Masturbate for each other! Have sex every night for a month! Abstain for a month! Stick your finger in his ass!)

These things are all aces in and of themselves. But, really, I was struck by two phrases in your letter: “we hang out all the time” and “we’re both hyper-aware and self-conscious.” I might be wrong, but if you really do hang out all the time, you might find that it helps to create a little distance. Do things alone. Make sure you get emotional and imaginative sustenance via friendships with other people. Don’t let yourself always fall back into a space of familiar companionship. I’ve recently taken up an outdoor sport. I did it for myself but, lucky for me, Mrs. Dude gets hot when I battle the elements, however amateurishly. I’m taking full advantage of this happy accident — and I don’t need to throw her down on an itchy sandy beach to do so.

When you do spend time together, don’t just schedule the proverbial quality time. Try activities that might jolt you out of your physical self-consciousness and into a more visceral, more sensual orientation to each other and the world. I’m at risk of coming across all gross here, so let me just say that these things don’t need to be sexual. I’m not talking about swinging. You could do anything: get wasted and go dancing, build something together, get inked, get lost, get fit, get fat … The only rule is that you do it together, that it has a physical element, and that the idea of it makes you a bit anxious or excited. Remind you of anything?

4. One last question: how do you feel about cargo shorts?

Cargo shorts are horrid. Everyone knows that.

A Married Dude is one of several rotating Married Dudes who don’t claim to know everything about marriage. Do you have a question for A Married Dude?

Photo by Andrea Slatter, via Shutterstock