All letters to advice columnists start with an extensive listing of the mate's remarkable qualities. I am in love with an amazing man - he is generous, caring, lighthearted and supportive of my goals and dreams. My wife is a beautiful and engaging person with a quick wit and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. Before the inevitable deal breakers that us professional advice column readers skim down to, there is always the extensive if somewhat generic affirmation of the above-par-in-every-respect spouse or lover. But when we get down to business and it turns out that the spectacular man is completely negligent of all physical intimacy, that the last hug or kiss occurred 3 years prior; or that the deliciously wondrous wife never misses an opportunity to control and belittle the hopes and dreams of her husband; when it seems like any sane person would have abandoned what is clearly a seriously deficient if not outright malicious partner, I think back to that person described in the first short paragraph. Is the desperate writer deluding herself? Does she really think that the man who has never once offered to help with the laundry (and who in fact dumps his own dirty clothes on top of her pile of laundry every day) is endlessly compassionate? Is the woman who has never expressed an interest in any of the passions that fuel her partner (not even once offering to attend the opera with him) really that beguiling?
Or perhaps having a plan of the letter already in mind, knowing the damning things that she is about to commit to paper - and if she is one of the lucky ones with a particularly unfortunate yet solvable problem - to syndication, to online publication, and possibly to her lying, cheating, withholding, nagging, overbearing, neglecting, and in all other respects perfect husband's eyes - she must comfort the invisible readers with a few platitudes that might weakly convince us that there are really, really good reasons for why she didn't leave years ago. I always imagine the worst. I bet she knows just how preposterous her situation is, that any normal person would have already left a husband whose medication's psychosis-inducing side effects are so severe that the children's doors must be locked at night and an overnight bag with five thousand dollars always sits in the trunk of her car. But these writers, they soldier on. They are desperate yet they long for our approval. Is it just them, or is their situation a little untenable? Wouldn't you have stayed beside the depressed wife who has gained 300 pounds from years of downing useless anti-depressant cocktails? She is after all their wife. They know they've had a few hard years, but isn't this what love is all about? Shouldn't they just weather the last few years of desperate, desperate desperation? Because after all, look at their husband: he is so kind to the children and has never once failed to support them financially at the cost of his own dreams.
And see this is where the curtain falls away and I know for sure that this sad and weary writer doesn't believe a tiny shred of all those things in that glowing first paragraph. Because secretly they want the columnist to tell them what they've been suspecting all along and have only now, with the act of writing and revealing everything from behind the mask of Desperate in Delaware, Last Straw in LA, or simply Lost!!! been able to acknowledge to themselves: that this person to whom they have given the best years of their lives, whose children they have borne, for whom they have sacrificed their own ambitions, and who they are still thinly convinced is otherwise a good person, really does not value, respect, or love them at all. Now that it's there, written in such clear language on the paper, they marvel that they never saw it with such perfect clarity before. These letters cry out for the sometimes no-nonsense and sometimes wistful columnist to just say it, just let me know once and for all that if I leave him, I will have been justified. And if my family and my friends and even my husband try to tell me that I should stay with him for the kids, that I should just be patient for a few more years till things look up again, I can be strong and say "No." Because I wrote it all down. Because I shared everything with all those people. Because I painted you in the best possible light before I told them the truth about how you've been hurting me all this time, and even though I gave you much higher marks in the looks, caring, and patience areas than you ever deserved, they still told me to leave you. That's why. And that's how I know that everything in that first paragraph is a lie, and in fact a knowing lie. Because the plain, ugly truth would be too raw. At least this way, the imperfect (only slightly!) partner has been given the fair shake they deserved.