I’m reprinting this Question and Answer from the Salon Advice column by Cary Tennis.
I ought to be jumping for joy. I’m in my first serious relationship since the big split about two years ago. Holly is beautiful, she’s kind and she adores me. Her values are compatible with my values. The sex is excellent; the cuddling is even better. Her very presence is nourishing to me. All my family and friends think she’s the cat’s meow, and I do too. I love her — there, I’ve said it. She is everything I’ve wanted … almost.
Here’s the thing. I’ve got this old friend — not to mince words, old flame. Liv, by her own admission, is moody and difficult, and we know we’d be a mightily star-crossed couple, and yet talking with her is like playing footsie underneath the Algonquin Round Table. Liv herself is no threat to my current relationship — among other things, she’s got a boyfriend of her own, she’s two states away and she smokes. But I crave the kind of banter that we share, the intellectual playfulness, the fact that she gets all my obscure jokes (when she came to visit a few months ago, we collapsed into hysterics over the idea of programming a cellphone ringer to play John Cage’s _4’33″_), and it’s the No. 1 thing I’ve been looking for in a romantic partner. Holly, for all her charms and virtues, does not banter, and easily half my references go right past her.
I know I’m a perfectionist, and at least one friend has tweaked me for being ambivalent about this relationship simply because it isn’t perfect. Fair enough. But the question in my mind isn’t whether I can sustain a relationship that’s missing something, it’s whether I can sustain one that’s missing this one crucial thing. I need the mind-play like I need water and air. And while some guys can compensate easily enough for their gals’ lack of interest in, say, fishing by going off and sharing it with like-minded friends, it’s not so easy for me, because most of the friends I have whom I can connect with on this intellectual level are women — and I associate the banter so strongly with romance, and vice versa, that if I indulge this need with, say, my friend Lindsay (who is here in town, is single and doesn’t smoke) while in a relationship with Holly, it feels like cheating to me. Not being tall or rich or athletic or a dog lover, I can only offer a higher standard of behavior and trustworthiness as my main selling point, and I’m worried that I’m facing a choice between undermining that standard and forfeiting a key inner need.
I also haven’t ruled out the disappointing possibility that, even after two years on my own, I’m just not ready for a serious relationship yet, however much I might want one.
Holly is a very understanding woman, and I’m a very candid man, and I’d feel comfortable bringing this up to her if not for the fact that she had me watch “Annie Hall” with her last week, which seemed like a sort of coded message. Diplomacy is not my forte, and she is not without her own insecurities, and I have no idea how to raise the issue in a way that conveys the genuine respect and affection I have for her and doesn’t send the unintended and insulting message that she’s just not brainy enough to be my girlfriend. But I have the sense that if I don’t raise it soon, one or both of us is going to end up very unhappy, and it will be my fault.
O Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
I think you should do us all a favor and break up with Holly now. You’re going to sooner or later, so why not today? Don’t worry about hurting her. It won’t bother her all that much. She knows it’s coming, she just doesn’t know when.
You’ll hurt her far more if you stick around, because she may not have the courage to break up with you first. She might wait until life with you is unbearable and she’s begun to question her sanity. That would be a mistake, and it would add to my burden, because at that point she’ll write to me, asking why she’s measuring the meat cleaver for the nape of your neck when you’re really a lovely, clever, sweet person, if on occasion a little condescending. And I won’t know who she’s talking about because no one could give me such a clear portrait of you as you yourself have done by purporting to describe her! So when she writes I’ll probably suggest trying to work it out, by which time you will have found a way to visit your old flame on business trips during the week, and then you’ll finally leave her for your clever old flame, and Holly will blame me. So just end it now. She’s not going to get any cleverer and you’re not going to get any less self-centered, not anytime soon. Not till something knocks it out of you.
I remember one time I was sitting drunk in a bar and I saw a man get up and calmly walk to the other end of the bar and cold-cock some guy with a beer mug because he’d been listening to him talk all evening and he couldn’t take it anymore. It was wrong. It was felonious. But, like the twin towers attack, it happened for a reason, justly or not, and I wondered if that guy who got cold-cocked ever thought about what it was that enraged this stranger so, or whether he just chalked it up to bad luck and kept on charming the world to blithering murder.
I was pretty drunk, but I remember thinking, Yeah, I can understand that.