Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ask the Faithful Readers #8: Like Riding a Bike

Dear Faithful Reader,

Riding a bicycle seems to be one of those skills you never forget. You can let the two-wheeler rust in the basement for years and yet when you hop on again it feels like you were never apart.

Some relationships are like that. I bet most of us have been apart from an old friend or a family member for an extended period of time, and then when you get together again you pick up right where you left off without missing a beat.

And this is a joyous, wondrous thing -- to instantly re-connect, to talk excitedly and laugh and hug and just know in your soul this is one of those amazing relationships that will never go away.

Other times we bump into a person we haven't seen in a while and the encounter is awkward. This may even be someone with whom we used to be good friends, but it's like trying to make small talk with a complete stranger.

Do you have an old friend with whom you instantly re-connect? Have you ever been surprised when you thought a particular relationship would survive a period of separation but it didn't? What do you think gives some relationships such seemingly infinite staying power, while others wither like neglected vines?

I will post my personal favorite comment next Saturday with a link to the respondent's blog.

Signed, The Inquiring Advice Guy
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A Slice of the Public Life

Last week I asked you about online rudeness -- whether you had encountered it and whether you thought people tend to interact differently online as opposed to face to face. Given that I posed this question to a group of bloggers, I received a great deal of informed opinion.

Several people told stories of online bickering and nasty comments. In some cases these resulted in people closing blogs or backing away from specific online friendships. We all know, though, that bickering and nastiness can also happen with our "real life" friends and family. Your comments didn't make it clear whether this happens more frequently online, only that it does occur and can sometimes be an issue.

The discussion pointed out that what constitutes rudeness can be a matter of opinion, and those of us who are so brave as to bare our souls in public should be prepared for whatever reaction comes back, be it positive or negative. That said, there was a general consensus that some online types seem to habitually attack others in their posts and comments, presumably in an attempt to get a reaction. This is apparently common enough that there is a term for this type of visitor: trolls. I liked the suggestion for handling this situation offered by Robin, who maintains a blog called R's Musings. Robin wrote:

Before I started my blog, I got into some negative commenting on a friend's blog with an 'anonymous' person, defending my friend, and then myself. The key, to me, is in being self-reflective. Why did I need to defend myself, or my friend to this person? I decided that not everyone is going to like me, and I don't need to defend my position. Commenting on his negative comments was just empowering him negatively, so I stopped commenting on those particular ones. Then I decided to start my own blog. I think it's very important to BE the example of what you're trying to promote. This 'anonymous' person now comments on my blog, and I find his comments becoming more and more thoughtful as I address ONLY his thoughtful comments. Something I learned in the STEP parenting program... ignore the bad behavior, and reward the good.

The more I thought about this, the more it reminded me of the challenges faced by public personalities like politicians and celebrities. Imagine the number of criticisms leveled daily at people like President Bush or Dr. Phil. When large numbers of people know about you, then by sheer statistics some percentage of them will be unhappy, argumentative or will simply disagree with your opinions. By creating a public website, perhaps we bloggers get a small taste of what more public figures have to withstand. Come to think of it, that would make a great topic for a future post.

Thanks again, everyone, for all your input.
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Friday, September 29, 2006

Dismaying Story #61: The Adult Survivor's Guilt

Dear Andrew,

I recently ran into an old friend from my hometown that I had not seen in years. In course of catching up, he asked me if I had heard of "Bob's" arrest. He went on to tell me he had been convicted on child molestation. I went home and researched it only to find out that Bob had been abusing his step daughter from the ages of 9-14, and was caught when she turned up pregnant. Turns out the mother knew the whole time and was also convicted.

My problem comes in that when I was about 10, he also molested me. I was a child from an abusive family and had been previously assaulted, so it really didn't seem like a big deal at the time. As soon as I hit 18 I moved away from that town, wound up in drug rehab and started a long trail of healing. I found a therapist, and eventually I began to understand that all the bad things that had happened were not my fault. My main abuse was in the home with physical and verbal abuse so the "other" stuff didn't seem so big a deal, I almost never thought about it. I moved on and became a happy and productive member of society.

Then when I read this, I felt such a deep sadness because I wondered if I should have come forward once I realized what had happened was wrong. By the time I could have done that I was 23 years old. He was not the only person outside the family to abuse me, and I learned how pedophiles will be drawn to children who are already victims. Still, I can remember thinking these men only did that to me and would never have done it to someone else.

The news about Bob's arrest brought that way of thinking to a painful halt. Do I go back and report the other abusers to the authorities now? If I had reported Bob, would it have spared his step daughter?

I just am not sure how to deal with the guilt. I feel so responsible. I know I am not really responsible for others actions, but my inaction may have allowed this man to hurt many other children.

Bob is off to prison, but there was an elderly neighbor who sheltered me from my abusive father and eventually began to abuse me sexually. He is maybe 75 years old now, retired and still married to the same woman. My accusation would be unlikely to end in a conviction and would drag my family through a lot.

Signed, Unsure What to Do

Dear Unsure,

I am sorry to hear of all the pain you have endured through the years as a result of your abuse. You say you have come to terms with much of what has happened to you, yet this letter shows that you still must deal with serious issues. This is common for adult survivors of child abuse.

The type of abuse you describe leaves life-long emotional scars. People in your situation often struggle to develop self-esteem, as it can be difficult to see yourself as valuable after someone treats you like an object for their own gratification. Then there is the guilt ("Why did I let this happen?"), frustration ("Why did this have to happen to me?") and emotional pain. Therein lies the essential selfishness of the abuser, who is willing to inflict such damage.

You are trying to balance your own current needs against the potential that you might be able to help other victims or prevent future abuse. By making an accusation now you would put yourself in an explicit, stressful conflict with the accused. You would have to admit publicly some painful occurrences in your past. You may worry that you would be opening yourself to potential disbelief or criticism, as in "Why didn't she ever say anything before?" You also mentioned the potential impact of this on those around you.

On the other side of the coin you have your guilt about what happened to Bob's step-daughter. Your feelings are understandable but you are not responsible for Bob's actions. It's not like you thought to yourself, "There is a good chance Bob may be abusing others but I won't say anything." Instead, it didn't occur to you that others might be at risk. You were not selfish or negligent, you simply are not an expert in the behavior of abusive people so you didn't foresee the danger. Bob no longer has access to his step-daughter, so your guilt does nothing to help her or yourself. One of my recommendations is that you should talk to your therapist to help rid yourself of this guilt.

This leaves you with the issue of what to do about your other former abuser. By now you realize abusers thrive in an environment of secrecy and silence. One of the most common pieces of advice given to children is that if you are being abused or feel at risk, then you should tell someone. In this case you wonder if anyone might actually be at risk, whether a 75 year old man could still be a threat to anyone. Of course he can. Does he have grandchildren? Might he baby-sit them?

Have you considered the possibility that telling people about this abuse could actually help you? One of the steps in shedding the victim mentality is often to stand up and say what happened. This is one way to show yourself that you are not going to simply accept it. This can help you take back the dignity and control that was taken from you. Since you have had years to work through your emotional issues, you may or may not feel this would be beneficial for you. This is another potential topic for discussion with your therapist.

To help make your decision, I recommend you contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline. Serving the United States, its territories, and Canada, the Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional counselors. The target group includes you -- adult survivors of child abuse seeking advice and assistance. Other jurisdictions around the world offer similar services.

This hotline will give you access to professionals who are intimately familiar with the issues you describe in your letter. They can provide definitive answers to your implied questions, such as whether a 75 year old previous abuser can still be a risk to children and how you can deal with your own family members. Dealing with professionals who specialize in this area should give you the best chance of addressing your worries about other potential victims while also looking out for your own needs.

All the best,
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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Dismaying Story #60: As If the Loss Is Not Enough

Dear Andrew,

My mother-in-law and I don't get along well at all, especially now. I married my husband just over one year ago. We moved away and had a beautiful baby girl seven weeks ago. Our life seemed to be going well. Of course there are ups and downs but who doesn't have those.

Here is part of the problem. My mother in law didn't really seem to approve of her only child marrying me. My husband has had mental issues in the past and has become a fairly heavy drinker since high school. We would fight about it almost all the time, as I didn't want my child to have an alcoholic father. His mother thought I was just being a nag.

Now, when our child was only 3 weeks old, my husband and I had a fight. He took off drinking and driving (something he never ever did) and ended up totaling our vehicle, and hurting himself quite badly. He just woke up from a vegetative state in the last week. His mother blames me. She thinks I was on his case again for drinking. And, in this situation, is it any wonder why I always tried to get him to cut down? She still won't speak to me, and now as I am going for trusteeship and guardianship of my husband (so i can take care of our bills and our child) I worry that she will contest it in court and make it more difficult for me to take care of her only grandchild. I don't think she has even considered the fact that I loved my husband and now am raising his child on my own.

How do I deal with her? Why does she blame me for this when I even called the cops on him that night to try and stop him from getting hurt?

Signed, Hurting Over My Husband

Dear Hurting,

I'm very sorry to hear about your husband, and also about your troubles with his mother. It is challenging enough to be a new parent without all these other issues on top of it.

You and your mother-in-law are both grieving what happened to your husband / her son. The senselessness and bad luck involved are incredibly difficult to deal with, as are the consequences -- the impacts on you, your mother-in-law and your child.

Even strong relationships can break down under such stress. For instance, marriages sometimes do not survive when parents must try to cope with the death of a young child. Your relationship with your mother-in-law was not strong to begin with, so it is not surprising the two of you would struggle when under this additional pressure.

Grief often goes through several stages and one of them is anger. Your mother-in-law's ability to deal with everything, including you, is probably at an all time low, and she may be likely to think things and say things that she wouldn't if circumstances were different. With all you are going through, your ability to cope is undoubtedly diminished as well.

She doesn't want to blame her son. She must realize at some level that it was his decision to drink and drive. That is difficult emotional terrain for her right now, though. She is grieving what happened to her son and doesn't want to criticize him. It is easier for her if her son is blameless, so her mind casts around for someone else to take the blame. The next obvious choice would be you. It's not fair to you, but it might be one coping strategy that helps to mitigate her grief.

This has to be incredibly hard on you, to deal with this broken relationship on top of everything else. Unfortunately I know of no way for you to hurry your mother-in-law through her grief process. I suggest you wait it out; her grief will eventually evolve. She will move through other stages beyond anger, hopefully to coping and eventually acceptance. This will not necessarily change things between the two of you, but at least then you may have a fighting chance of mending fences. Yours would not be the first relationship to benefit from the passage of time.

That leaves you with the issue of how to deal with her in the meantime. You mentioned she is not speaking to you. In the short-term, a little distance between the two of you might not be a bad thing, knowing you will likely have an easier time bridging the gap in the future. (And this is something you should try to do so your daughter can enjoy her grandmother.) If she contests you in court, then you'll need a lawyer's advice.

I wish you the best of luck as you try to deal with every aspect of your difficult situation.

All the best,
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Monday, September 25, 2006

Dismaying Story #59: Dream a Little Dream of ... Him?

Dear Andrew,

I am happily married but I have been dreaming for years about a former sweetheart. Gavin and I dated a long time in real life and both broke each other's heart.

He and I are always together in this recurring dream and things are wonderful. Then I ask him where his current girlfriend is and he says it didn't work out. I feel torn because I like his girlfriend. Gavin professes his love to me and I am happy because we are together.

The other night I had a new dream. Gavin and I were together and he was having a hard time leaving me. I told him go to his girlfriend and love her because I already had my chance with him and I blew it. His girlfriend told me that our friendship needs to be put on hold because of everything. I cried in this dream the same way as I did when Gavin and I broke up many years ago in real life. All my feelings and my thoughts in this dream were so real. Then I woke up so sad.

The thing is I rarely have any contact with Gavin any more. When I do it is only because we still have common friends. I love my husband very much. He is so good to me.

I feel like I am doing something wrong by having such a dream. Do you have any idea what it might mean?

Signed, Guilty Dreamer

Dear Dreamer,

I am no dream analysis expert. I do believe, though, that our dreams can reflect the thoughts and feelings that are rumbling around in the back of our minds.

One key phrase in your letter stood out to me: "Gavin and I ... broke each other's heart."

I believe you're playing "what if" with yourself. You have never really convinced yourself that you were better off without Gavin. You still play "what would my life be like if we had stayed together." Maybe it's deep in your mind, but it's there and it comes out in your dreams.

You need to look around, realize you have a great life and do what you should have done years ago ... you need to break up with the idea of Gavin. He still holds this mythical, special, rose-colored place in your mind. He may not be all the way to a full regret or an active yearning, but he's close. You've never fully let go.

If you had much contact with Gavin now, you'd probably realize he's just a guy and the grass is no greener over there. You must have had reasons back then for breaking up with him, which means "What could have been" is likely not as good as "What is." I suspect the more you can simply accept what happened and that it was for the best, the less you will have those types of dreams.

I don't think these dreams constitute any kind of betrayal of your husband, in large part because I don't think we have any control over our dreams. Yours are a reflection of a niggling fear that you might have missed out on something, that you might have failed in some way to take advantage of past opportunities. Fears and feelings of failure can be persistent. They like to crop up even if we would like them to go away.

So give your husband a big hug and toss that guilt out the window where it belongs. Who knows; maybe some night soon you'll have a dream where you break up with Gavin and tell him you know with all your heart that this is the right thing to do. I suspect it's long overdue.

All the best,

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to check out this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. Let me know what you think about online rudeness.

Also, don't forget this is the last week to submit questions for my upcoming online interview. The deadline is Friday, September 29th and the interview will be posted on Basil's Blog on Sunday, October 8th. To submit questions, send an email to basil dot interviews at gmail dot com with this subject line: Questions for Andrew McAllister, Ph.D. (To Love, Honor and Dismay)
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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Dismaying Story #58: Good Fences Make Good Ex's

Dear Andrew,

I have been married to the same person since 1973 and I have put up with a lot of weirdness from this person. My children and I suffered for it and I will never trust him again. I still spot lies and he still blames me for anything that goes wrong. He gets angry over little things, such as following our daughter to a doctor's appointment and she doesn't stay in the same lane ahead of him! I've been to counseling many times, though he would not go. It always ended with, "We've worked through everything with you individually but you have a definite problem with the marriage." He would rather I walk out on him than change, so I left.

Two years ago I moved away from my Florida home to take a good job across the country. Although he was extremely distant emotionally, now he calls me almost every night. He speaks about the kids, grandkids and people I mostly don't know from work or church. Never about us. If I ask a personal question he freezes up and there is a long space of silence and then he will make an excuse to hang up. I enjoy hearing news of the grandkids even though I speak with them often too. I am puzzled as to why he calls me all the time, as when I go "home" to visit, he spends very little time with me. No use to ask why he calls; that would be one of the "forbidden" questions. He says he loves me (rarely) but my idea of love is an intimate relationship and sharing of life together.

Before I left I was miserable and began not liking myself. I was becoming bitter. We never did anything together. When I would ask him to go to lunch he would begrudgingly do it but make me miserable so I stopped asking him to do anything with me. He only rarely ever asked me to do anything with him. If I went it was like a date with a stranger. I hate to go anywhere in a vehicle with him, it's like I'm trapped. One time I asked him to talk to me about finances and he said he was going to church. I said "If you walk out of that door and do not address this, you will have crossed a line in this relationship, closed a door that will never open again." And he left. So I pulled back, contributed toward the household with my income and began to live my own life with him only physically present.

Now I'm miserable being away from my home, my kids, grandkids, college opportunities, just the way of life in the South! I love it there and I hate it here, except I need the good money. If I go back "home" we will need to lead separate lives, financially, emotionally, and in every way. I think I can convert our study to a room for myself. One older daughter with her handicapped son live with us and it would be a hardship for her to lose this economical living space.

I guess I just want a reality check regarding my relationship or lack of it with my spouse, and my plans to return "home" in a couple more years when I can retire.

Signed, Indecisive

Dear Indecisive,

Your relationship with your husband was over long ago but neither of you has fully admitted it. Here is a big clue -- you moved across the country.

And he can't stand it. He doesn't like the fact that you decided whether the two of you would be together, hence his frequent calls. This is the only way he can retain control over whether or not the two of you are in contact. If the two of you don't talk, this is due to your decision to be apart and that won't do. But if you try to steer the conversation anywhere he doesn't want to go ... well he controls that too, doesn't he? Then when you go home he can choose whether to see you or not, so he exercises that choice. Again, he is in control of what happens between you.

You have pulled back from your husband but not all the way. Your letter makes it clear there will never be a loving bond between the two of you, yet you permit him to call all the time, the two of you talk about love, you have not divorced and you are considering moving back in with him. Regardless of your intentions, you are sending out clear signals to him that your marriage still has a chance.

Either you still have hope for your relationship (which I don't believe to be true) or you find it difficult to stand up to your controlling husband and finish what you started. I'd bet big money on the latter.

You need to define appropriate boundaries between the two of you. Start by having a good talk with yourself and admitting that you really do want to be apart from him. Look in the mirror and say the words right out loud.

Then tell him the same thing. Ask for a divorce. Tell him he can't call every day, and back it up by refusing to talk if he calls too frequently. It's great if you can still be friendly, but you need to take back some control and dignity. The bit about receiving news about the grandkids is really an excuse -- you can get that information from other sources. These steps are necessary to permit you to begin healing inside, to move forward to a new emotional place in your life that doesn't include being his wife. You have started that journey but stopped with everything in limbo. You no longer know who you are or where you fit.

Moving back to Florida can work for you. The timing may be dictated by economics, but the most important consideration is to make sure your new relationship with him is well defined with appropriate boundaries. Please, please forget this idea of moving back into the same house. Given the two personalities involved, there is no way you could be in the same physical space every day and have any sort of effective emotional fences. You can afford your own place now, so you can find a way to do the same back in Florida. Even after splitting your assets, you or your ex should be able to work out a way to co-habitate with your daughter and her son. The existing house is not your only option for helping them.

Hopefully taking these steps will help you cast aside the indecisiveness and move forward with renewed confidence.

All the best,
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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ask the Faithful Readers #7: Online Rudeness

Dear Faithful Reader,

I recently read a post by a woman who was experiencing problems in her life and didn't know where to turn. She was obviously in considerable emotional distress. I think many people do this -- we use writing as a form of therapy, a way to organize our thoughts around difficult issues. Blogging has the additional advantage that others can offer supportive comments and helpful advice.

In this case, however, her post drew a nasty response. By pure happenstance I stumbled across another blog where someone published a scathing discussion of this post, ridiculing her and saying in essence how they couldn't believe anyone could be so dim-witted and unable to handle those types of life challenges. I found the lack of empathy to be sad because we all have times when we struggle. What struck me more than anything, though, was the willingness to be rude and attack someone online.

You see, I doubt the same thing would happen in a face-to-face encounter. Imagine a few women are gathered for some social function at your home and this distressed person admits her feelings of anguish. Let's also suppose someone in the crowd is unsympathetic and thinks to herself, "Wow, is she ever dim." How likely do you think this critical person would be to walk up to the sad woman and start ridiculing her? And would the attacker then turn to everyone else in the room and continue the diatribe?

It is easy to forget that our online discussions involve real flesh and blood people on the other end. The folks who read our posts, emails and personal messages have all the same feelings and sensitivities as those with whom we have more direct relationships. The difference is that the Internet provides anonymity and distance. We don't have to see the reaction to our words. In most cases the people on the other end are strangers so there are virtually no negative consequences to fear (e.g. loss of friendship).

Others have recognized this phenomenon. A few nights ago I watched this ABC Primetime Special about an experiment that showed how the anonymity of the Internet can lead to online bullying among teenage girls. Another article is entitled Rampant Rudeness on the Internet.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people I have met online are friendly and respectful. The Faithful Readers who comment on this site tend to be extremely supportive of one another. Stories of close friendships springing up via the Internet are common.

What do you think? In your experience are people more likely to be rude online, or is there the same mix of nice versus not-so-nice you see in everyday life? What suggestions would you offer about interacting with people online?

I will post my personal favorite comment next Saturday with a link to the respondent's blog.

Signed, The Inquiring Advice Guy
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Friday, September 22, 2006

Dismaying Story #57: When Sleeping Really Means Sleeping

Dear Andrew,

My boyfriend and I have been seeing each other for over a year now. Because we live in different towns and I don't have a car, early on in our relationship I started spending the night at his house on weekends. Both of us have decided to wait until marriage to have sex, though for different reasons, but we really enjoy the intimacy that this set-up brings about, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I grew up in a conservative Christian family and believe that sex before marriage is wrong. It took some hard thinking on my part to determine if I was going to be alright with spending the night, but after careful evaluation, I realized that I trusted each of us and the benefits far outweighed everything. I asked for advice from some friends and from my sister, all of whom I thought would understand the situation, but in the end it was a very personal decision, and I stand by it. It was (and is) the right decision for our relationship.

However, there are a few people in our lives who do not (or would not, if they knew) understand the situation. He has several friends and family who know that I spend the night, and because of this, they assume we're having sex. Now, I can understand why in today's culture he doesn't want to correct this mis-assumption, but at the same time I don't want people to think that I condone premarital sex. I haven't asked him to tell these people the truth, but I would like to in some instances, like his father, with whom he is very close (and is also quite conservative). Also, my mother, who would certainly disapprove, does not know about this arrangement. Up until this summer, she lived out of state, and so it hasn't been an issue, but now that she lives half an hour from my house, I fear that the issue will come up. (If/when it does, the discussion will certainly end with, "but I'm 28, mother, I can make my own decisions, and it's my life!") I know she will not understand, and I don't want to negatively impact her opinion of him or of our relationship, especially since we've been talking marriage. So, I am careful when I talk to her. I think this situation makes my boyfriend uncomfortable and he would like me to "come clean" with her, but I can't see how that would be beneficial. In this case, it really is "what she doesn't know won't hurt her."

How can we resolve this situation? Certainly, what goes on behind closed doors is private and it really is no one else's business, but family seems to think that rule doesn't apply to them. I know we can't please all of the people all of the time, but I'm looking for a solution that will honor our decision and not make too many waves.

Signed, Sleeping Comfortably

[Excerpt from: Minutes of the Cupid Expeditionary Force (CEF) Case Status Meeting -- September 2006]

Mother Nature: And who do you have in the "almost ready to boil over" category?

Cupid #163: [consults notes] Let's see, I've been working with a couple of 18-year-olds who've been parking in a mini-van by the lake for the last few weekends. They're getting awfully close.

MN: [Smiles, makes large check mark on her clipboard with an obvious flourish] Excellent work! At this rate we'll have more babies on the way in no time.

163: And then there's Case Number, um [clears throat, mumbles] 413 dash 28 stroke B.

[Titters from the other Cupids in attendance]

MN: You mean . . .

163: [Nods, looks down at the table in obvious embarrassment]

MN: Last month you said they were sleeping together.

163: Yes but--

MN: Are you sure your Nookometer is working properly?

163: [Looks up and nods vigorously] I thought of that so I had the lab guys check it.

MN: And you're not using stale arrows?

163: Are you kidding? I even stopped by the armory and picked up a batch of Extra Strength. I've got those two looking like pin cushions most nights.

MN: [Blinks in astonishment] Well ... keep working on it.

[Excerpt ends]

Dear Sleeping,

As you can tell from the above, I think your instincts are right on the money; two adults who sleep together regularly are usually assumed to be doing more than just sleeping. This is because Mother Nature does her absolute best to get us to have sex. Most people realize that given time and repeated opportunities, her urges tend to win out.

I love that you seem so content about what your sleeping arrangement means for you. It was initially at the edge of your comfort zone but you worked through that. Your letter gives me the sense you are confident this is the right thing for your relationship. This confidence falters, though, when you start worrying about what others think of you and your boyfriend. You are not content to merely be doing the right thing; you'd like your friends and family to perceive you as doing so and to validate your behavior. You are afraid there will be conflict.

Your letter mentions two potential solutions -- hiding the fact (from your mother) that you are sleeping together and explaining to people that you are not having sex. Neither idea seems particularly viable to me.

Your boyfriend is right. You should be honest with your Mom and tell her what is going on. She will eventually find out (mothers always do) and then you will have two problems to work through. Not only were you sleeping with your boyfriend, but you were also dishonest with her and didn't trust her enough to tell her the truth. I wouldn't be surprised if the latter issue ends up being far more hurtful and difficult to resolve. If you do get married, you don't want that one hanging over your head. She should find out from you, and sooner rather than later. Honesty really is the best policy.

So far you have avoided this conversation because you fear her disapproval. Is it possible you are underestimating her? She may be conservative but I bet she is also intelligent and aware. She knows you are 28 and in a serious relationship. She might be a little upset at first and say you are making a poor decision, but I bet that will be the extent of it. If you have a reasonably strong relationship with her, this tiny bump in the road will have no lasting effect.

Besides, we all must learn to have strength in our own convictions. You can't go through life trying to please everyone else because that simply isn't always possible. If you truly believe you are acting properly, then you must learn not to tear yourself up over the possibility that others may disagree.

I also suggest you forget about telling people you are not having sex. First of all, as you said, it is none of their business. The conversation would make most people uncomfortable. Secondly, many people won't believe you anyway. They have no way to verify what you are saying and will think, "She doth protest too much." They will likely take this as confirmation of their suspicions.

Your mother is a possible exception. If you and she are close enough that you are comfortable discussing this sort of issue and she might believe you, then explaining the truth may help both of you feel better.

Finally, I bet this issue does not loom anywhere near as large in other people's minds as you think it does. In most cases when we worry about what others think of us, the truth is they're not thinking about us at all. They have their own lives to lead and (unfortunately) are busy worrying about what we think of them!

The "waves" you fear will be tiny ripples at most. I say hold your head high, look your family members straight in the eye and smile. They have no need to know about Cupid #163's frustrations.

All the best,

Do you have a relationship issue in your life? Send in your question and you may end up as a Dismaying Story. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dismaying Story #56: Divorcing Your Toxic Parents

Dear Andrew,

I don't have these challenges anymore, but I think it'd be interesting to talk about adult children ending toxic/abusive relationships with their parents. When I had to do this, I couldn't find information anywhere about what I was feeling and what I was doing, nor about how to do it. I relied on a friend who'd been there and could walk me through the emotions to help me, but other than that people thought I was insane. So many people said "But they are your parents!" and expected me to put up with harmful behavior just because!

It would be nice for people to hear from someone like you that they don't have to put up with it and that they are worth saving, even if it means doing something so hard and so strange. It would be helpful to touch on what it's going to feel like, how strange it's going to be to go against not only your whole family, but society as well, and give some tips or exercises in how to cope.

Signed, Better Off Now

Dear Better Off,

My sympathy goes out to you and any other reader who has faced such a difficult situation. Your parents are, after all, irreplaceable. They are the people who gave you life and nurtured you when you were completely helpless and dependent. Everyone would prefer to have parents to whom we can turn for love and support through our entire lives. This is, however, not always possible.

The world is full of different types of people, so parents naturally come in every possible flavor. Those who are addicted, emotionally lost, abusive, narcissistic, criminally insane or mentally ill can all end up as parents. Not everyone is up to the task of being an effective care giver and children sometimes suffer mightily as a result. These toxic effects can continue when the children become adults.

It should come as no surprise that people are sometimes better off apart from their parents since our laws recognize this need. All too often judges must order children to be removed from dangerous home environments and placed in alternative care.

Things have apparently changed since you originally searched for information; considerable material is now available on this topic. For example, Motherless is a site for sharing real-life stories of people who are apart from their mothers (and fathers in many cases) for all sorts of reasons, not least of which are those who had to make the difficult choice to walk away. Reviewing these stories will show you that you are not alone. You will gain tremendous insight into the ways other people deal with situations similar to your own. If you go the extra step of posting your story, this can not only be therapeutic but also offers others the opportunity to provide supportive comments.

A large number of online discussion forums address this topic. For example, the first post on this Beliefnet message board offers this insight: My Husband is a recovering victim of child physical abuse and even adult abuse, as the abuse mutated into emotional and mental abuse in his adult years. He learned through therapy that if he cut all ties with the abuser, his father, he could begin to heal. It has helped. However, cutting ties means leaving behind all the other family members who are still allowing themselves to be abused, including his mother. It has been the hardest thing we have ever gone through. But I must say, his mind and heart is heading in a healing path.

As a final example of an online resource, Adults Recovering From Narcissistic Parents is a "group for past victims of abuse who have made a conscious decision to change old patterns and behaviors which keep them from living a fuller and more productive life."

For a comprehensive guide about handling this type of situation, however, I recommend you consider the books recently published on the topic. From the book flap of Divorcing a Parent: Free Yourself from the Past and Live the Life You've Always Wanted by Beverly Engel (1991): No one should have to endure an abusive, unhealthy relationship that threatens his or her well-being -- even if that relationship is with a parent. In this ground-breaking book, Beverly Engel draws on her own personal experience, as well as the stories and letters of other adult children, to offer a complete guide to why, when and how to divorce a parent. Engel discusses good and bad reasons for taking this step, when to stop trying to reconcile, and how to prepare yourself emotionally for the actual divorce, including such alternatives as temporary separation. If you do decide that parental divorce; how to handle negative pressure from others; how to come to terms with your own grief and guilt; what to tell your own children, and how to deal with their relationships with their grandparents; how to cope with holidays; how to divorce a parent after his or her death; and what to do if you change your mind and want to reconcile.

Cutting Loose: An Adults Guide to Coming to Terms With Your Parents by Howard Halpern is a more recent book (2003) that discusses various ways of handling difficult relationships with your parents. Separation may sometimes be necessary but many relationships can be improved dramatically by setting boundaries and by the adult children learning how to respond more effectively to their parents. This book offers guidelines for telling the difference and for making improvements.

I agree with Better Off Now; everyone is worthy of a life without abuse, whatever the source. I must also offer a word of caution for those who feel their parents leave much to be desired. Cutting ties is a drastic step that should be taken very seriously indeed. Separation almost always comes with a bucket-load of negative consequences, even if the overall effect for the adult child turns out to be positive (which can sometimes be far from true). Keep in mind as well that you are not the only player in such a scenario. Might your parent's difficult behavior be an indication they need your help? (e.g. a possible undiagnosed mental illness) Will pulling out mean denying your siblings the support they need from you?

In many cases the appropriate course is to learn how to modify your own behavior so your parents are less able to act as a negative influence in your life. When reading the books I mentioned above, pay attention to the balanced advice about alternatives. If it turns out separation is necessary, then these books provide comprehensive advice for dealing with the many issues that arise from such a decision.

Again, I feel badly for anyone who has to deal with such a gut-wrenching conflict in their life. I hope the sources I mention above can provide some help. If this type of self-help material is not effective for you, counseling is another alternative.

All the best,

Do you have a relationship issue in your life? Send in your question and it may become a Dismaying Story. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Monday, September 18, 2006

Dismaying Story #55: My Sister's Boyfriend

Dear Andrew,

My adult sister has a history of being with sponge men - they take all she has in money and emotions and give nothing in return. Her daughter is five years old and hasn't seen her father in four years, and in that time, he hasn't contributed anything. He only worked some of the time, was a pothead and cheated on her. Her most recent man is exactly the same. They have been together off and on for over two years. He keeps going back and forth with the same woman. He and this other woman have an eight year old and a one year old, obviously conceived while he was with my sister. He also gave my sister an STD. She found naked pictures of this other woman on his camera phone and broke up with him but two weeks later they were back together.

Whenever he does something wrong she calls and cries and rants to me. Finally I got fed up with it. I told her I didn't want to see this man and I'd leave if he showed up at her house if I was there. She respected that and didn't put me in that situation, although both he and I attended my niece's preschool graduation and mutually ignored each other. My mother feels the same way about this man and has made it quite clear to my sister for over a year.

My sister came into about $24,000 a few months ago. She gave half to my mother for a credit card debt she ran up, and we have no idea what happened to the rest of it except she bought a second car she doesn't need. My niece says it was for this man. Six weeks after she got this money, my sister in the same week got evicted, had some furniture repossessed, had her phone turned off and lost her job.

My sister's birthday was two weeks ago and she had the audacity to bring this man to my mother's house and a huge fight ensued. There was some talk about my sister not letting my mother see my niece. I have sent her several long emails letting her know how furious I am with her.

She and my mother are no longer speaking. I have avoided her phone calls. I am tired of being her emotional support in this when she goes right back into the same area. I'd rather lose my sister than deal with all this. I am, however, extremely concerned about my niece, who isn't even in school all the time.

I have also had behavioral issues in the past, which were helped tremendously when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and received medication. I see some classic bipolar symptoms in my sister and have urged her to get an evaluation.

Signed, Exasperated Sister

Dear Exasperated,

Your sister's boyfriend is not the problem. He is a symptom of her deeper underlying issues, whatever they may be. You suspect bipolar disorder but there is no way to know until she is properly evaluated.

You and your mother are understandably frustrated by her behavior. She is clearly challenged by life and makes choices for herself and her daughter that are far from ideal. Part of your collective response is to fight with her, put restrictions on how she can be with you (no boyfriend) and avoid speaking with her. From her point of view, these actions make life more difficult and put distance between you.

It is easy to convince yourself that these actions are for her own good. If you do nothing, if you simply act as her sounding board and act as if everything she is doing is okay, then you feel like you are enabling the destructive behavior. Not only that, it is emotionally exhausting to care so much for her and to see her continue to make what in your view are bad decisions. Your reactions are completely understandable.

They are not, however, necessarily in your sister's best interest. For example, let's take the issue of the boyfriend. You are afraid that if you have a normal relationship with him, you will be telling your sister you approve of him. You want her to dump him for good so you refuse to have anything to do with him.

Okay, what would happen if she did dump him for good? Her history provides the answer; she would find another guy you would probably dislike just as much. Like it or not, she is an adult who will make her own decisions. You can't save her from herself because she will be with herself for the rest of her life. While it makes you feel somewhat better to not see the boyfriend, you have also introduced a major strain between you and your sister, and a major headache for her. Now she has to deal with a boyfriend whose feelings are hurt because her family doesn't like him. She is under pressure not to be nice to you because that would send a clear message to him that she approves of how you are treating him. I doubt these are the outcomes you are shooting for.

All this not speaking and refusing to see her boyfriend is designed to reduce the strain on you and your mother, not to help your sister. While this is an understandable defense mechanism on your part, I believe you would really rather help her.

You are on the right track when you say she should be evaluated by a health professional, probably a physician or psychiatrist. The strategy you and your mother should adopt is one that has the best chance of convincing her to seek this evaluation. In other words, you want to be able to influence her. Unfortunately, the strategies you mentioned -- fighting, placing restrictions, not speaking -- all put distance between you and diminish your ability to influence her.

While you want to be firm and not admit that you approve of her choices, you also want to show her that you support her and have her best interests at heart. Reach out and be welcoming rather than pushing her away.

She has resisted taking your advice, so maybe you can enlist the aid of a third party. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, have you considered asking the boyfriend for help? He is obviously giving her something (e.g. companionship, validation) or she wouldn't stay with him. Maybe he would be delighted if she got help for her behavior. Remember, he is directly in the firing line. Perhaps he could convince her to see a doctor.

When deciding how to deal with your sister, try to make choices that increase (rather than damage) your closeness and ability to influence. If you are able to do that, you should have a better chance of moving her situation in a good direction.

All the best,
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Saturday, September 16, 2006

An Invitation to Contribute

By far the most common element in the questions I receive relates to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Many people feel badly about themselves in some way, which causes them to doubt whether they are truly worthy of love and respect. This can exhibit itself in many ways. An insecure single girl may stay with a boyfriend who isn't quite right for her because she worries no one else will want her. A married woman is aware that her husband loves her but suffers the pain of "knowing" he can't do so fully because of her perceived inadequacies.

To help with this, I have an idea for a series of articles (or even a book) called:

High Maintenance and WELL Worth It!
Why Men Really Do Love Women Like You

Think of this as "Chicken Soup for the Insecure Soul." Each article/chapter provides messages of support and empowerment related to one type of insecurity, arguing why there is no need to feel unworthy in this regard.

Men also have insecurities but tend not to read this type of material as often, hence the focus on women. (Take for example the number of women versus men commenting on this site.)

"I worry that guys don't love women like me because of my [blank]." Some women fill in that blank in many ways, including how they perceive their own:
  • age (too young, too old)
  • dating experience (too much, not enough)
  • appearance (e.g. braces, complexion, hair, figure, freckles)
  • weight and/or size (too thin, short, tall, heavyset)
  • family and/or friends
  • personality (e.g. abrasive, shy and retiring, no fun to be with, too forward, sense of humor)
  • education
  • career / job / ambition (or lack thereof)
  • financial status (spending habits, ability to manage money, debt)
  • life circumstances (e.g. single mom, divorced, still living with parents, dealing with illness or physical condition)
  • independence versus neediness (e.g. inexperienced, high maintenance, set in her ways)
  • And on and on...
None of these issues preclude having a wonderful, loving relationship, yet many people worry they will.

I invite you to contribute to this topic. There is no specific timeframe for doing so -- you can leave a comment today or if the topic resonates with you and you wish to submit a more substantial piece of writing, take your time and email it to me later.

You can contribute in any of several ways both large and small, including the following:
  • Do you like the concept? Can you suggest other insecurities?
  • What messages do people need to hear about one (or more) of these issues so they can feel better about themselves?
  • What experiences have you had or what life lessons have you learned that would help someone with any of these issues?
  • Can you tell an illustrative or uplifting story related to one of these issues?
I have some ideas on these topics but I know your collective experiences will enrich the result tremendously.

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The Game Boy Generation

Last week I asked you to comment on whether you think the time spent by today's youth on electronic entertainment has a significant effect on their social skills.

Some people mentioned problems with excessive electronic game playing, especially the resultant lack of physical exercise. Other readers countered by pointing out that some neighborhoods are now simply too dangerous to allow kids to roam at will. Games and TV can help to entertain when children must spend time indoors. Still others have seen kids bond in positive ways over the games, sharing strategies and using games as a reason to get together.

Perhaps the key word is "balance." Most of you seemed to feel that computer games can play a reasonable role as long as children's lives also include other activities. Michelle Pendergrass, who contributes to a blog called Writer ...Interrupted, summed this up well with a single line in her response: "Anything in excess always causes problems."

Thanks again, everyone, for all your contributions.
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Friday, September 15, 2006

Dismaying Story #54: A Spicy Latin Dish versus Chicken Soup

Dear Andrew,

I am three weeks away from my wedding. Yes, three weeks! I have been with my fiance for over a year and a half. He travels for work, though, so our time together hasn't been consistent.

My cold feet are so severe it is causing panic attacks and physical illness. I have had an affair, I have tried to leave him and somehow he always finds a way to convince me to stay. He isn't abusive, he is kind and loving and sensitive. He expresses his love in every way he knows how and is consistent in his devotion. We don't have a very passionate relationship but basically the same core ideals (except the cheating). He is sitting here now, letting me search the Internet for answers without interrupting or being angry.

Why do I have these intense urges to walk out on someone who is so amazingly good to me? Maybe it's fear of commitment, I am only 25 years old but he is one of a kind. I have never been so loved by such a good honest man, yet I can't get the thought out of my head that there is some amazing relationship, more exciting and thrilling out there.

I made contact with my previous boyfriend and it was shocking how much I saw in him that was probably unattractive but sounded so much more of what I want. My attractions in the past were to guys with a little fire, a sarcastic wit and a sense of adventure. Maybe a spicy Latin dish, my fiance is like chicken soup. So I'm afraid I might be a little destructive and am creating situations for myself that are sure to end in pain. The relationship I am in now is safe and comfortable, but I fear boredom more than death.

Please tell me if there is anyway to know what I really want for sure. How do I soul search productively?

Signed, Confused and Scared Bride-To-Be

Dear Confused,

I wish there were a sure-fire way to always know what we want in life. You've probably heard the cliches like "listen to your heart," but what if your heart is sending out conflicting messages?

I have dealt with this issue before, though the previous letter writers were not just about to be married. The Ghost of the First Love is about a 21 year old woman with a "wonderful" boyfriend, but she is afraid she will cheat on him or otherwise blow it. She finds "bad boys" all too tempting. Sound familiar? In response to that story, another young woman wrote to say she also has a "nice" boyfriend but she is Still Chasing that Excitement, which is missing in her relationship. Finally (and you might find this story the most interesting) a third young woman wrote about how she is Living the Story. She broke up with her "nice" boyfriend when he asked her to move in and her heart rebelled. Two years later she met someone else and knew immediately he was the one. Her message: "When something's wrong you feel it" and you should listen to that feeling.

As you read those three articles, pay attention not only to my advice but also to the comments readers left in response to those posts. My readers are an astute bunch and often offer up plenty of "been there, done that" advice. This should provide some insight into why you have urges to walk out.

Neither I nor any of the other readers, however, can decide whether you should get married in just over two weeks. Only you can make that judgment call. Let me suggest a soul searching test that might help.

What if you could back out of the wedding with absolutely no negative consequences? Maybe you find a magic wand that can make everyone (including him) forget you were ever engaged. You could undo all the wedding arrangements, get back all the money, choose to be single again or back to simply dating this guy. Would you do it?

If so, ask yourself if any of these factors are playing a part in your decision to go ahead with the wedding. Is it because you would be embarrassed to admit to everyone that you changed your mind? Would some people be upset with you? Are you worried about the money you've put into it? Do you think this might be your only chance to be happy? (It isn't, as "Living the Story" should illustrate.)

I urge you to ignore all those factors. None of them amount to a hill of beans compared with the impact of marrying the wrong person, especially if children enter the picture before you figure that out. The only reason to go ahead with the wedding is if you want to spend the rest of your life with him. If you would rather wait, then wait. It's too important to let other factors influence you.

What if it is "just" a fear of commitment? (This previous post discusses commitment phobia in women.) If so, how would this impact your relationship if you get married while in that state? Many people fool themselves into thinking they will magically feel differently about various issues after the ceremony. "Oh, I'll be more comfortable with sex once we're married." Or maybe, "I'll stop worrying about whether he's the right guy once we're wearing the rings." Sorry, it doesn't work that way. You will be the same people with all the same issues. If you're having trouble committing to this guy, you might want to take the time needed to lay that issue to rest one way or the other before making the ultimate commitment.

A little touch of cold feet or nervousness is normal. Panic attacks, physical illness, affairs, boredom and being tempted by former boyfriends are not. You have issues you need to resolve before tying the knot. Hopefully the ideas discussed above will give you a framework for doing that.

All the best,

Thanks to everyone who has already answered this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question about the relationship skills of the Game Boy generation. If you haven't done so, today is your last chance. I will post my favorite response tomorrow with a link to the winner's site.
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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dismaying Story #53: The Once in a While Boyfriend

Today's story has a unique twist -- it was submitted simultaneously to me and to Useless Advice from Useless Men. We agreed that both sites would post a response today. After you have a look at the story below, you might want to wander over there and see how they dealt with this issue.

Dear Andrew,

My boyfriend tells me he likes his time to himself on nights and weekends, meaning he doesn't want a girlfriend, yet he does. He loves a casual relationship. His initial excuses were that he lost track of time. Then he added why are Friday and Saturday nights more important than any other day of the week? I tried to talk to him about this and he said, "Oh, you're back to that ... again."

I told him I want to break up and he blew me off, saying I'm just crabby. I emailed him a strong letter saying the same thing and more. He stormed over and he argued me out of breaking up.

I got tired of this and posted a profile on a dating site. My profile is so diluted because I'm not really free to date, didn't get my permission to break up. He's aware of my profile, he's checking up on me.

I think this guy just hates to lose. He can't agree to a break up if it's my idea. Sooner or later he will find someone else and then he'll have no problem calling me up to break it off, because it will be his idea.

I'm really writing this to myself. I've just got to kick myself hard enough to stop being stupid.

Signed, Can't Seem to Kick Myself

Dear Can't,

If he doesn't want to see you, this guy is definitely not into you. You'll recognize him in Chapter 2 of He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. (Yes, Faithful Reader, you've seen that book before, but when the shoe fits...) He is also arrogant, self-centered and doing his best to dominate you. Do yourself a favor and walk away, today.

But you already know all that. Your letter makes that clear. The important questions to me are these: When you so clearly want to leave, why have you not done so? Why do you feel you need a guy's permission to break up with him?

A relationship only works when both people want it. If one of you wants out then it's over, even though the other person may not be happy about it. That's just how it works. Trust me, you don't need his permission. He can't force you to want him or to spend time with him. Lock the door, hang up when he calls, refuse all requests to get together -- he'll eventually get the hint. If he doesn't, then he falls into the stalker category. That's where police and restraining orders come in, though the vast majority of break ups never come to that.

What bothers me most is that you clearly feel powerless in this situation. Something in your past has trained you to react in this way. This is not about "being stupid." There are other powerful factors at work.

This sounds like a variant of battered woman's syndrome. You have not said anything about physical abuse but there is clearly emotional abuse involved. This syndrome is characterized by learned helplessness, low self-esteem and no psychological energy to leave, which is a good description of your situation.

Whether it happened with this guy or not, something in your past has taught you to feel powerless in relationships. I suspect some part of you believes you don't deserve any better. You know this guy is no great shakes but you're convinced the next one will be cut from the same cloth anyway, so why bother doing anything about it. More than that, you allow him to make decisions for you, even if that is not what you want. You just don't have the energy to do what is needed.

It turns out this guy is not your problem. Your real issue lies within yourself. You must find a way to heal your spirit, to convince yourself that you are fully worthy of a place in the world, that you are just as good as anyone else, that you truly deserve happiness and fulfillment in your life. I can't tell from your letter what inner demons from your past are haunting you, but you need to drag them out into the sunlight where you can reveal their lies so they will shrivel and die. This can be difficult to do alone. Professional advice from a therapist or psychologist can often be tremendously helpful.

Emotional power is a funny thing. If you believe you have none, then you don't. If you truly believe you have it, then you do. Once you find yourself a healthy dollop of self confidence, I doubt you'll ever have trouble with this type of situation again.

All the best,

Okay everyone, I'm on my way over to Useless Advice from Useless Men now to see what they have to say on this issue. Are you coming?
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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Dismaying Story #52: Stormy Weather Friends

Dear Andrew,

I have had some rough times in my life, including poverty, chronic illness (lupus, myasthenia gravis and more), and my sons have Tourette's Syndrome and OCD. My husband had polio as a child. My mother is diabetic. We had our 18th anniversary last year and seriously wondered if we'd make it to 19 because the marriage was in such bad shape. Our house is leaking from several places in the roof.

But ... I have several really good friends. They are always there for me. We laugh together. We know the important things in life. I am not judged by what I don't have. They have more than I do but they don't look down on me. They are great support.

Suddenly the world is looking up for me. My husband recently decided maybe God was better off being in control than him and our marriage has gone through a dramatic healing. We're happy for the first time. We're getting a house through Habitat for Humanity. A book I wrote four years ago suddenly found its way to a paying publisher. Even my health isn't quite as bad and my sons are doing great.

Now my friends seem to be jealous of my good fortune. My friends who are healthy and have had good marriages. My friends who have healthy children. My friends whose incomes are double and triple ours, with fewer mouths to feed.

They're making comments like, "Well, it all just seems to be going your way now doesn't it?" in rude tones. A friend out of state sent me a necklace and one of my friends said, "well, if one more good thing happens to you, you'll just be the grandest person on earth now won't you!" and walked away. Another said, "It all seems to be going your way these days."

I've supported these women in their hard times and their good times. I never realized that I was supposed to be the poor trashy 'relative' that allowed them to always say, "At least I'm not as bad off as she is."

I've heard of fair weather friends but not stormy weather friends! How do I deal with these people who are jealous of my life finally going in a good direction? It's not like I won the lottery and things magically turned around. I spent years struggling, praying and working hard for these changes.

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

Stephen King's first published novel is about a teenager named Carrie who didn't fit in well with her peers. In his memoirs entitled On Writing, King describes a real-life situation he observed while in high school that helped provide background for Carrie. He describes a ne'er-do-well teenage girl whom he calls Dodie. This young lady had the impertinent audacity to come back from Christmas vacation one year looking resplendent in a new outfit, complete with permed hair. King writes:

The teasing that day was worse than ever. Her peers had no intention of letting her out of the box they'd put her in; she was punished for even trying to break free. I had several classes with her, and was able to observe Dodie's ruination at first hand. I saw her smile fade, saw the light in her eyes first dim and then go out. By the end of the day she was the girl she'd been before Christmas vacation--a dough-faced and freckle-cheeked wraith, scurrying through the halls with her eyes down and her books clasped to her chest.

Dodie fulfilled a role in the lives of her schoolmates, just as you do in the lives of your friends. When your role starts to evolve, it can seem to them that some piece of their own world is changing and people often react poorly to change. It upsets some inner sense of balance and calm. Your friends were apparently quite comfortable with the box you had always been in.

To understand their motivation, I tried turning the situation around and examining it from their point of view. You mentioned at least two friends who acted the same way. What was it about their shared experience that evoked a common reaction? I wondered if something in the way you celebrated your good fortune might have been viewed as flaunting or somehow irritating. But here's the thing; no matter how I twisted and turned your situation and peered at it from different angles, I couldn't find a view consistent with your friends being mature and supportive.

Like everyone else, I have friends with significant issues in their lives. I thought about them having a sudden burst of wonderful fortune and reacting with all the fist-pumping, in your face jubilation you could imagine. I know without a shred of doubt that I'd be right there celebrating with them, with no reservations whatsoever. I would be happy for them because I care about them.

Your friends' reactions show that, at least in this instance, they care more about themselves than they do for you. In my view they are fair weather friends. They were happy and friendly as long as you didn't disrupt their world, as long as things were going well from their point of view. As soon as you introduced change into their lives, however, and caused a minor ripple they had to deal with, then they turned on you.

I would be completely honest with them. Tell them how their reactions surprised and hurt you, that you would expect friends to be happy for your good fortune, not resentful. Explain that despite recent events, you still have significant issues in your life and need the emotional support of those around you. Hopefully this will open their eyes so they can apologize and get back to acting like friends. If not, you need to find some new friends, real ones this time.

All the best,
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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Dismaying Story #51: The Sister-In-Law Wars

Dear Andrew,

My husband and I have been together for 10 years. When we first met, I was drinking to suppress my sorrow over losing my first born child. He died at 1 month of age due to a heart attack and being pre-term. My husband was using meth and cocaine. I understand his family's reaction towards me when we first got together. I was another throw-away girlfriend, an 18 year old flake. But then I got pregnant, and they had their doubts that the baby was my husband's. Once they were convinced, and my husband cleaned up, things slowly changed for the better within my relationship with his parents.

But the siblings, after 10 years they still treat me like the throw away girlfriend. They gossip behind my back, they say terrible things about me to my babysitters. The biggest problem is with my youngest sister-in-law. She is only a year younger then I am but still behaves as though she is in high school. She says derogatory things in front of my children, and verbally abuses me when I ask her not too. She blames me for my husband's drug use, even though I had met him after he started all of that. He has been clean 8 years now, but she won't let go. Sometimes I feel like she hates me only because she was unable to marry her brother. Then there is the fact that I had the first grandson, which is a big deal in that family. She showed up shortly after the birth of our last son, ignored me totally and the first words out of her mouth was an insult towards the newborn. It has even got to the point where my mother-in-law had to physically restrain me from hitting her.

I try to stay away from family events that I know she is attending, but I am tired of this animosity. I have tried being nice, and helpful, I have tried ignoring, but her gossip comes back to me and can be painful. I love my husband dearly, I love his parents. But I don't know what to do about this sister in law. Should I continue to ignore her?

I know this hurts my husband. He loves her but can't stand the fact that she behaves this way towards me. I want it to stop or at least have this hatred towards me suppressed enough so that everyone can enjoy the family events.

Signed, Not So Throw-Away

Dear Not So,

I am sorry to hear of the loss of your son. That is the type of pain that follows you for a lifetime, but I hope time has taken some of the sharpness away and made it more bearable.

You mention the various ways you have tried to mend fences with your sister-in-law. The glaring omission in your letter, though, is what your husband has done about it.

I'm a big believer that once you get married, that marriage now becomes your primary household, your number one family. Extended family is incredibly important, of course, especially once children come along. Children gain wonderful benefits from having loving grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. In a conflict like this, though, your husband has to make it clear where his primary allegiance lies.

He knows how his sister treats you, yet I assume (because you didn't say otherwise) that his own relationship with her has not changed much. What message is she likely to take from this? That's easy. He is showing that he condones her behavior, at least to the extent he is willing to tolerate it.

If that continues, what kind of pressure does that put on the relationship between you and him? You say he doesn't like the behavior, but it wouldn't surprise me if the fact that he tolerates it will at some point become an issue between you. He is now your husband and the father to your children. It's time for him to step up and act like a husband. He needs to let his sister know where his primary allegiance lies.

More than that, he is the one with the leverage here. You and your sister-in-law are forced into occasional contact and the two of you have not developed a close bond, which means the thought of you withdrawing from a relationship with her is not much of a threat from her point of view. On the other hand, I bet her relationship with her brother is important to her. That gives him some bargaining chips you don't have.

He needs to get her alone and tell her in no uncertain terms that she is hurting you, she is hurting him (not only because he hates to see his sister acting this way but because she is driving a wedge into his marriage) and he will not stand for it. He must look her straight in the eye and tell her that she will treat you and your children with respect, and that if she continues to force him to choose between his sister and his wife ... she will lose.

In many cases this will be enough to turn the tide. If that doesn't happen, he must be willing to back up his words. To show that he will not tolerate her behavior, he should refuse to subject you and himself to that relationship unless and until she can at least be respectful.

I also know that it usually takes two to tango, even if the bitterness comes primarily from one direction. You mention being physically restrained from trying to hit her, so your sister-in-law is obviously not the only one with fighting spirit. Are there times in the past when you have thrown fat on the fire with things you have said or done? Once your husband lays it on the line with his sister, you must be willing to do your part (and from your letter it sounds like you are). You want respect from her so you should treat her the same way.

Hopefully that will open the door to begin healing the rift.

All the best,

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to check out this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. Let me know what you think about the relationship skills of the Game Boy generation.
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Monday, September 11, 2006

A Small Tribute

According to news reports, the tragic events of five years ago today were precipitated when people associated with Al-Qaeda became angry over US involvement in the Middle East. The logic seems to be, "We want the US to change what they are doing, so we will strike out with aggressive, destructive action in the hope this will dissuade America from continuing." To date, the response seems to be increased involvement of the US and its NATO allies in the Middle East. The official attitude appears to be, "No way are we going to let the terrorists push us around. In fact, we're going to do our best to cut their feet out from under them." This is hardly the result the terrorists seem bent on achieving.

The Al-Qaeda leadership could choose to use different tactics, such as diplomatic communication or publication of their concerns in the hopes that world opinion might influence US decision-making. Perhaps Al-Qaeda feels they are not powerful enough to make these strategies work, so they choose a course they hope will actually have an impact. Like I said above, they are creating an impact all right but the results so far don't seem to be the ones they are after.

We also deal with conflicts in our personal relationships, albeit on a smaller scale. Suppose your spouse does something you don't like. This could be anything, like the way your wife can't seem to get along with your mother or your husband's refusal to help get the kids ready for school in the morning. You're fed up with it and you want it to change, so what do you do? We could try any number of strategies, and I bet most of us have to admit to being aggressive at times. He won't help so you yell at him, tell him how unhappy you are and demand that he should start pulling his weight. Maybe you give him the silent treatment for a while, or angrily refuse his request to iron his shirt, making sure he knows the reason why. (And no, I don't think a wife should automatically iron her husband's shirts. Maybe he was running late and asked for a favor. This is just an example. Work with me here.)

What will his reaction be? A spouse with any spine at all will often want to show he has one. He doesn't want this type of dynamic to continue, so he will be highly motivated to resist your pressure tactics. The same would typically be true when a wife doesn't want to encourage her husband's aggression. The spirit of cooperativeness flies out the window and the whole situation can spiral downward.

Kind of like what is happening between Al-Qaeda and the US.

Let me be clear here; I am NOT implying that aggressive spouses act like terrorists. The scale of destructiveness is not even in the same ballpark. I draw the parallel to point out that the tactics used in both cases tend to be equally ineffective. I firmly believe that terrorism will always be a futile gesture because it is based on flawed psychological principles. The idea is to scare people into doing what you want. When you treat someone badly though (as the terrorists most definitely did on 9/11) their response is usually to push back, to become even more firm in their resolve not to give in to those tactics.

The same is true when we strike out in anger towards the people in our lives, whether they are our spouses, children, friends or co-workers.

Perhaps there is a way we can all offer a small tribute to those who lost their lives five years ago and in the conflicts that have taken place since then. Maybe we can learn a lesson and resolve not to use pressure tactics in our personal relationships. By communicating and negotiating instead, we can build up rather than destroy the spirit of trust and cooperation.
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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Dismaying Story #50: Standards of Tidiness

Dear Andrew,

I'm a purger of things. I dislike clutter in all its forms and absolutely can't stand having knick-knacks and odds and ends littering my house. My husband on the other hand is a hoarder. He is constantly holding on to things "just in case" or for future use. This drives me batty. I have often told him that I don't mind if he keeps things so long as he doesn't come asking ME where they are at a later date. If he were willing to keep his stuff organized and neat I wouldn't complain but the mess of his "areas" (i.e. basement, garage, his desk) makes me want to pull my hair out in frustration. Any tips on how to get him to straighten it up?

Signed, Anti-Clutter Bug

Dear Anti-Clutter,

This is a common problem in many homes. The two of you have different standards for what you consider to be neat and tidy. You mention the mess in "his" areas, so I assume much of the house is kept to a higher standard of tidiness, one with which you are more satisfied. Yours is a typical scenario -- the person with the higher expectations makes sure most of the house is livable and the other spouse has their own domain where their rules hold sway. You don't consider this to be a complete solution, though.

Your view seems correct to you; cleaner is inherently better and messy drives you batty. The cost (i.e. your effort) involved with keeping things neat is well worth it to you. Likewise you'd rather replace an item once in a blue moon (another slight cost of your approach) rather than keep things "just in case."

You should realize, though, that his approach also has costs and benefits. He doesn't have to worry as much about whether he is throwing something out that he will need later. He gets his areas to the point where they are "clean enough" for him, and the extra effort involved in organizing further doesn't seem worthwhile. Balancing that off are the costs of knowing this bothers you, having to hunt for things and living with more clutter.

These two approaches both involve tradeoffs. You both balance the cost of the effort against the satisfaction you gain from a certain level of tidiness. The difference is where that balance point is for the two of you.

This is not that much different from other potential conflicts within a marriage. You want a soft bed, he prefers a concrete slab. You'd like to spend as you go, he'd rather save for a rainy day. Neither person is right or wrong; you simply have different preferences.

The keys to resolving such conflicts are communication, recognition and compromise. You have already made it clear to him what you want, so it sounds like you have a good start on the communication. Do you recognize, though, that his approach also has merits? I can almost hear you gritting your teeth while you read that, and I understand, I truly do, because I am like you; I clean by filling garbage bags. Still, if we are to be fair, we must recognize that not everyone will share our preferences. From the flip side, does he recognize how much of an irritant this issue is to you?

It sounds to me that the two of you have already worked out a compromise. Much of the house is your way and a few areas are his. You would prefer the compromise to be "everything should be my way." But is that really a middle ground?

You should realize that the "messes" in his area are not messes to him. This is his optimal level of cleanliness when balanced against the effort to go further. You do the same thing, just at a different level. When you stop cleaning, couldn't you go further, sanitize more deeply? While it is understandable that his "messes" irritate you, you are asking him to put up with the irritation of extra effort that seems excessive to him.

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with asking your partner to help out around the house, to fix a problem for you. The key is to find a balance that works as well as possible for the two of you.

I have no way of knowing if you already have a good balance or if he should pitch in more. My point is you should consider other compromises besides simply getting him to adopt your standards fully. Can the two of you agree to work together and do a periodic purge of his areas? Could he limit his messes primarily to areas where he can close a door so you don't have to see them? If the basement is a large area in your home, could he agree to improve that one trouble spot somewhat?

Finally, the "how to" issue you asked about. You should have a calm discussion where you both lay all your issues on the table and then jointly decide on a solution. I suspect you could help him to feel cooperative by acknowledging that his position has merit, then follow that up by explaining why it still bothers you. Talk about how important this issue is to each of you, as that may influence where you end up. Discuss the relative merits of a number of options. When two people care about each other, this approach almost always results in a compromise that works.

All the best,
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Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Date Has Been Set!

A big Thank You! to everyone who has already submitted questions for my upcoming online interview. I now know the date for the big event. (Okay, maybe it's not so big but hopefully still fun.) The interview will be posted on Basil's Blog on Sunday October 8th. You can still submit interview questions until Friday, September 29th. To do so, send an email to basil dot interviews at gmail dot com with this subject line: Questions for Andrew McAllister, Ph.D. (To Love, Honor and Dismay)

You can see a list of upcoming interviews here. Thanks again for making this possible.
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Ask the Faithful Readers #6 - The Game Boy Generation

Dear Faithful Reader,

I have heard people refer to today's youth as the Game Boy generation. Kids today enjoy a vast array of electronic entertainment that didn't exist back when I was younger. My children have at least three cable channels that offer them 24-hour programming for kids; in my day we had cartoons only on Saturday morning. It is common to hear of youngsters (and even the not so young) spending hours every day in front of video games.

Some parents believe this has a significant impact on the social abilities of many young folks. All that time interacting with a machine is time not spent learning how to get along with other people. Some wonder whether more young people today face extra challenges building relationships as a result.

Other people might argue that every generation has its share of introverts versus extroverts, and that shy people have always had solitary pursuits they could turn to as a replacement for social activities.

What do you think? Are the social skills of the "Game Boy generation" different from those of days gone by?

As always, I will post my personal favorite comment next Saturday with a link to the respondent's blog.

Signed, The Inquiring Advice Guy
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Joined at the Bank Account?

Last week I asked this question: Do separate bank accounts mean you're one step closer to having separate addresses? As always, my Faithful Readers stepped up to the task and provided an answer, a resounding "No."

I counted how many people voted in each direction. This was complicated slightly because your responses focused on different aspects of the issue. Of those who clearly stated an opinion, the tally is:

Separate accounts can work fine: 14
Separate accounts are associated with relationship trouble: 4

A few salient points came through in several responses:
  • Regardless of how the accounts themselves are managed, the money should be managed with joint decision making. Communicate openly about money decisions and avoid secrecy.
  • A few people mentioned practical considerations that can make separate accounts necessary, such as alimony or a business run by one spouse.
  • A scarcity of funds can contribute to marital tensions, regardless of what types of accounts are used.
Interestingly, even though most people said that separate accounts are workable, more people reported using shared accounts. This many people said they use each scheme:

Joint accounts only: 11
Mostly joint with minor "spending" accounts on the side: 5
Separate accounts: 8

I guess it boils down to the same sort of comments several readers left earlier this week in response to the issue of shared versus separate sleeping arrangements; a relationship can thrive as long as you love and respect each other and treat each other well. The rest is just details.

My favorite response is from Starbender, who has a blog called This s#%t drives me crazy!!! While the sentiment in her comment does admittedly run against the grain compared with the above discussion, I picked this one for sheer entertainment value. Starbender writes:

I think separate bank accounts are Fantastic..... (as long as mine gets 2 stay a secret!) shhhhhhh!

Thanks to everyone for all your contributions!
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Friday, September 08, 2006

Dismaying Story #49: Forsaking All Others

Dear Andrew,

My almost-14 year old son is very mature for his age and has grown up a lot in the past year. He came home from the first day of school feeling very discouraged because a boy he’s been good friends with for about a year and a half (I’ll call him Robert) is in all his classes. This may sound like a dream come true for some kids, but here’s the problem: my son’s interests and tastes have changed and he wants to pursue new friendships but he’s a very kind-hearted boy and seriously non-assertive. He’s well liked, though, because he’s funny and easy to be with and there are several acquaintances that could develop into friendships outside school if he was more “available.”

Unfortunately Robert has no other friends and has become very needy, wanting to do everything with my son, is not interested in developing other friendships and gives my son a hard time when he spends time with other friends who go to a different school.

My son knows himself well, i.e. that having Robert around means he’ll fall back into a default position because it’s easier and because he dreads hurting his friend’s feelings. As a highly sensitive kid, he knows how terrible social rejection can be. Being proactive does not come naturally to him so he also knows that being in a position that forces him to seek out new companions is the only way it’s going to happen.

I understand his angst because I, too, have some social anxiety and found myself retreating to an easier position far too often, too, when I was his age, but I also know that the result is unsatisfying relationships and I don’t want this to happen to him. Have you got any tips/suggestions that he could try to get himself out of this social rut?

Signed, Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned,

Robert's demand that your son ignore other friends is selfish and inappropriate. Your son (I'll call him Tom) should cultivate other normal friendships to develop his social skills. Tom needs to learn how to deal with a variety of personalities and this will also likely provide more opportunities for fun. If he allows himself to be dominated by Robert, he runs the risk of being labeled and shunned by other kids.

This is clearly a case of Robert putting peer pressure on your son to do something inappropriate that he would normally not choose for himself. Tom must find a way to resist this pressure and do what is in his own best interest.

That said, it is good that your son would prefer not to trample Robert's feelings. Tom may consider just hanging with Robert in part because that is the easy road, but it is also a sign of maturity. Tom is aware of the needs of another and is considering whether he should make a sacrifice to help a friend.

While it is good to be giving and supportive, sacrificing your son's social life on an ongoing basis is simply too much to ask, especially to support a social weakness that is not good for his friend either. Robert also needs to broaden his social horizons, to develop more confidence and skills. It would be one thing for Tom to ignore other people for a brief time while a friend is particularly needy (for example, making sure Robert is not alone at a school dance) but it is quite another matter for your son to give up his entire social life.

Your son doesn't want to hurt his friend's feelings, but does he realize Robert is (unwittingly) hurting him in a very real way?

Tom doesn't need to reject Robert, but he should reject his friend's possessiveness. Tom can continue to spend time with Robert and to let him know he is glad to be his friend, but he should also spend time with others. If Robert gives him a hard time, Tom must find the courage to stand up to him, to refuse to be bullied into a situation that is harmful to himself. If Robert comes to accept this, then all is well. Otherwise, your son must realize he has done all he can for his friend and should walk away.

All the best,

This question provides a nice change of pace. Recent Dismaying Stories have dealt almost exclusively with significant others. Those relationships are, of course, endlessly fascinating and I'm sure will continue to be our most frequent topic (so keep sending in those S.O. questions). It's also interesting, though, to talk about how we deal with all those other folks in our lives. So send me an email and ask about the challenges you have with parents, children, siblings, cousins, in-laws, neighbors, co-workers, friends, your doctor, your butcher, your baker or your candlestick maker ... you name it. Let's spice this site up and get working on a variety of relationships!
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