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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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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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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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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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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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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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Dismaying Story #47: The Objectionable Beau

Dear Andrew,

My younger sister is one of my best friends. About a year-and-a-half ago she met this guy through work. He had a girlfriend at the time, and my sister had just gotten out of a serious relationship. He and his girlfriend eventually broke up (after a year of dating).

Several months after he’d become single, my sister and him became more than friends. She made it sound as if they were dating, and after six months I assumed that they were pretty serious (based on the amount of time they were spending together and things that my sister had said).

One day, out of the blue, she called me upset and said that she was fed up with the situation. That he continuously insisted that they were just ‘best friends’ despite the fact that their relationship had taken on physical aspects. Since then, he’s done things like date other women without telling her and has had multiple discussions with her about how they are ‘just friends.’ Despite his claim, they spend most nights together and hang out on a near-constant basis (last Sunday they spent all day together at a driving range, went to his apartment to make dinner, then she stayed over).

As time passes, I’m finding it more of a struggle to be nice to this guy. Initially, I got along well with him because he’s personable and funny, but I’m obviously infuriated by the way he treats my sister. He’s essentially told her before (when she complained about the situation) that she allows him to treat her that way, and that he never forces her to spend the night at his place or vice-versa. To me the situation seems relatively cut and dry – just because somebody is vulnerable doesn’t mean it’s okay to take advantage of them (just like it’s still unethical to steal a car even if somebody has left the door unlocked and the keys in the ignition).

I obviously wish that my sister would stand up for herself, tell this guy that she’s not interested and focus her vast amount of energy on someone that appreciates her. But regardless, to me, this guy is a jerk.

When my sister has spoken to me about it in the past, all I’ve really said so far is that she doesn’t deserve to be treated that way and that she should stand up for herself. I may have also asked once or twice if she would treat someone that she considered a close friend the way he’s treated her. I’ve tried to refrain from directly criticizing her or him, because it seems like doing so would just make things worse. Her roommate has been very vocal about not liking the guy and this has practically ended their friendship. They barely speak anymore. What stinks is that when it comes down to it, I suspect that she likes this guy enough to choose him over any of her existing relationships (with friends/family).

Since I’m angry with him and feel that I can’t be nice, I mostly just avoid speaking to him. My sister has noticed, and, I think understands why, though she seems to try to reconcile us by mentioning something positive he’s said about me, or throwing us into situations where we’re forced to interact, etc. Typically this just makes things awkward.

When it comes down to it, she’s stated several times that she’s convinced that he’s eventually going to come around and realize that they’re meant to be together. I’m no love expert, but I’d assume that as long as she lets him treat her poorly he’ll continue to do so. Also, it seems that he’s the sort of person that has no qualms about taking advantage of other people’s vulnerabilities – to me getting into a relationship with such a person would be asking for a lifetime of getting hurt (though maybe I’m just a cynic).

Frankly, I’m sick of hearing my sister say the same things over and over again as if they are shocking revelations whenever she gets fed up and overwhelmed with hurt. Even worse, I’m sick of her speaking about him blissfully, when she’s in the mode of ignoring the crappy situation. Should I be approaching this differently?

Signed, Bossy Older Sister

Dear Bossy,

I agree with you. She should drop this guy and walk away, and she should do it today. She is accepting a half-baked relationship with a guy who openly admits he doesn't mind jerking her around. This is neither a quality guy nor a quality relationship. I also agree that her actions place you are in a difficult situation.

I have given this situation a fair amount of thought, but from the point of view of a parent. What would I do if one of my children is in a serious relationship with someone I find objectionable?

Let's fast forward to a possible scenario where your sister ends up marrying this guy. If it is obvious to the two them that you don't like him, that there is open conflict between you and him, then you are forcing your sister into a situation where she will probably end up having to choose either you or him. The spouse who is openly disliked by the in-laws will be hurt and feel they are under attack. If your sister were to continue to be friendly toward you in that situation, he would take that as her condoning your actions toward him. If she wants her marriage to continue in any sort of harmony, she might indeed be forced to choose him to the exclusion of you. Even after taking that drastic step, there would undoubtedly still be life-long tension within the marriage over the fact that her family doesn't like him. This would be a traumatic ongoing situation for your sister, especially given that you and she have been good friends. All those special occasions that should be fun and joyous (like Christmas, birthdays, etc.) become conflict-ridden hot spots for the two of them.

So, do you simply swallow your objections, say nothing and pretend you like this guy? Absolutely not. I think there is a way you can try to help your sister and yet not risk placing her in that untenable position I just described.

At the core of my philosophy is that at some point younger sisters must be treated as adults who make their own decisions. (The same is true of our children, as I have discussed before in articles like Best Friends Go to College and If You Love Them, Set Them Free.) It really is her choice, not yours, with whom she chooses to spend her time.

While you should respect that, you also have an obligation to help her as best you can. You and I are both convinced she is choosing a non-supportive partner if she stays with this guy. Since you know she is headed for trouble, you should try to help her. I would sit her down for a private conversation, something like this:

You: "I want to talk to you about something, and I promise it'll stay just between you and me, okay?"

Her: "Okay..."

She may be wary, maybe even guess what is coming, but your promise should reassure her at least long enough for you to continue.

You: "First of all I'm in your corner, okay? We're friends and I'm going to support you in whatever you choose to do in life. You know I've worried about you and Bob, but I want you to know that if you and he were to end together, even married, I would respect that and be nice to him, okay?"

Her: "Good."

At this point she might launch into some objections about how you have treated him in the past. Just ride this out until it passes. Keep saying things like, "I know, and I'll try not to make you feel caught in the middle anymore."

You: "Having said that, I truly believe you are headed for trouble with him."

Continue on and explain the sorts of behavior you have seen in him, along with the consequences your sister is headed for if she remains in this relationship. There is likely a self-esteem component for her -- she may not feel like she deserves to be treated any better, or that she is unlikely to find someone else if she breaks up with him. You should try to reassure her on this score. Tell her this is a slam-dunk no-brainer that this is not the guy for her. Finish by reassuring her that despite all that, you respect her right to be with him if she wants, and if that is what she chooses then you will be the supportive big sister and be as nice to him as you can. You want her to receive your advice, but also to know that in public she will have your support and respect.

As the icing on the cake, you should take along a copy of He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. I may sound like a broken record after recommending this book to another reader only a few days ago, but your sister should really read it. Chapter 3 in particular could have been written about her. Here is what Greg has to say about a situation that is almost word for word identical to your sister's:

I looked up "I don't want to be your boyfriend" in the Relationship Dictionary, just to make sure I wasn't mistaken, but I was right. It still means "I don't want to be your boyfriend." Wow. And this is coming from a guy who's spending four or five nights a week with you. That must hurt. Nice to know your not-boyfriend gets to live in your world commitment-free. Not quite sure what you're getting. If you want to give all your time to a guy who's proclaiming he's not your boyfriend, then go ahead. But I'd hope you'd at least go find someone who isn't saying to your face, "I'm just not that into you."

Hopefully this approach will give your sister plenty to think about. I believe it is your best shot at trying to help her without alienating her.

Good luck!

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to check out this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. I will post my favorite response on Saturday with a link to the winner's blog.
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Monday, September 04, 2006

Dismaying Story #46: Till Death Us Do Part

Today's question comes from a post by Kacey, who has a blog called Cookie's Oven. You can find her full post here and the following is my shortened version:

Dear Andrew,

Early on in my marriage, I had lofty ideals that if, (God forbid) I should suddenly be run over by a speeding train or any other such catastrophe -- my dear husband would have to remarry, because he was so happy with me. Actually, I think I wanted someone to mother my children until they could fend for themselves. Deep in my heart, I knew that I couldn't stand the thought of him whispering sweet nothings into another woman's ears. The ugly little voice said in my ear, "What if he tells her about all your shortcomings?"

In my late thirties, a good friend died from a really nasty cancer and her husband told a few of "the guys" some of her intimate details. I cried at this betrayal. Another friend lost his wife a couple of years ago and is blissfully married to another woman and people are saying things like, "John is so much more fun with his new wife than he was before." My brother's widow of three and a half years is getting married next month. While I am extremely happy that she has found someone to be a companion, I harbor this nagging little thought: "You can't do this. You are my sister-in-law and your children are my nephews."

My husband has been with me as long as I can remember and I would hate to die and have him find out that some other woman would have been a better wife, lover, companion. There should be a pre-nuptial that says you cannot tell your new spouse the longings of your previous mate's heart.

Am I selfish or just losing it?

Signed, Kacey

Dear Kacey,

I think you are neither selfish nor losing it. Many people struggle with this same issue. (Some readers may remember an earlier post where I mentioned Jeff Foxworthy's take on the matter.)

After all, who among us cares for the thought of our spouse being with someone else? Sure, we can try to rationalize that we would be no longer be around if that were to occur, but at a gut level, right now, this is still a difficult image to bear.

Your fears go even deeper. You wonder if you might somehow come up lacking in comparison with the new model, and whether this would tarnish your husband's memories of you. It's bad enough to think about being gone, but you would at least want to be remembered well.

These are natural feelings and you shouldn't condemn yourself for having them.

To me, these worries are wrapped up in self-confidence and trust. You are insecure about how well your husband's feelings for you might survive after you are gone. You wonder if you can trust him to use common sense and decency when deciding what is appropriate to share with others about you.

Let me ask you this: Are you confident in your husband's feelings for you right now? Do you trust him not to run out with the guys this weekend and start discussing intimate details that should remain between the two of you? If so, then I suggest you have no need to worry about what he might do if you should happen to pass away first. His personality will not change, nor will his IQ suddenly drop. If he shows good sense now, then you can expect that to continue. Your good friend's husband showed poor judgment after she passed, but I wouldn't be surprised if he displayed a similar lack of common sense while they were still married.

Don't forget that when a widow or widower hooks up again, their new partner often faces a significant challenge. They must compete with a ghost, an idealized, blemish-free memory of the former spouse. You might be surprised to learn of the insecurities this could cause if your husband ever had another partner. Given his lifelong strong feelings for you, there is a good chance she would be quite threatened by his memories of you.

And yes, it's okay if that little voice just popped up in the back of your brain and said, "Good!"

This is always a difficult issue to contemplate. We may be torn between hating the thought of our spouse being lonely, versus hating the thought of them with someone else. In your case I hope you can have faith that the good man you are married to now would continue to be a good and decent person if the unthinkable happened to you.

All the best,

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to check out this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. I will post my favorite response on Saturday with a link to the winner's blog.
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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Dismaying Story #45: It's All in the Point of View

Dear Andrew,

I married into a family of business people. My husband's only sister had married "well." She was living the life of country clubs, cocktail parties with bar tenders and serving wenches. We were more your everyday pot roast and mashed potatoes type of people.

Her efforts to drag us into the realm of "the better life" were subtle but unending. There was not enough money to live according to their style. She is the best person in the world and has taken care of our children when they were tiny little people, but didn't understand that teeny little chickens stuffed with wild rice in orange peels are not things that your average four year old will express great fondness for --- not to mention the celery casserole on the plate with nothing to hide it under.

I would seriously love to tell her, "I have been in this family for an enormous amount of time and I love you dearly, but could you get off my back about living 'the good life.' "

As time has passed, she is mellowing a fuzz, but still maintains exaggerated memories of the poor but honest childhood she and my husband had. The next time she starts into one of her imagined stories, could I just ask her what really happened on that occasion?

I feel like a poor relation and we are not. Why do some people elevate their social standing, by putting others down?

Signed, Not So Poor

Dear Rich in So Many Ways,

Understanding someone else's motivation in a conflict situation can be a challenge. When this happens, there is often a natural tendency to do two things:
  • Make the issue about ourselves; and
  • Assume the other person is dealing from a position of strength.
You feel criticized, like the issue here is your lifestyle. That is an understandable reaction, since that has frequently been the topic of conversation. Going along with that, you feel like you are getting the worst of this exchange. She seems to have great confidence in the value of her lifestyle as compared with yours.

To gain a greater appreciation for what she might be thinking, however, it often helps to remember this: she has the same two natural tendencies.

From your sister-in-law's point of view, how might this be an issue about her? Is it possible this is more about her insecurities than her confidence?

I'm sure she's smart enough to figure out that her attempts to please your children (at least at dinner) are flops compared with your own. She may feel torn between two worlds. From her point of view, the upper crust folks may look down on her because of her childhood, and the down to Earth crowd doesn't understand her because she is different. I wouldn't be surprised if she feels nobody truly accepts her. She might envy the fact that you don't have two worlds pulling at you. Her attempts to draw you into her world might be a plea for company, a desire to have someone just like her with whom she can share the experience.

Her actions make more sense when you consider them from this point of view. Which is more likely, that a generally nice person would take every opportunity to put you down, or that a person with insecurities would have trouble concealing them? I suspect the latter.

If we assume this is true, then her idealized childhood memories are another way of saying, "See? We really do have something in common." Correcting her would be likely serve only to make her feel more isolated and rejected. If you can appreciate these comments from her point of view, I suspect you will feel less like correcting her.

More than that, with an understanding of what she has likely gone through, you may be able to find opportunities to reassure her, to make her feel accepted and appreciated. I suspect that, more than anything else, might cut down on the number of times you hear about this sort of issue.

All the best,
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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ask the Faithful Readers #5 - Separate Finances

Dear Faithful Reader,

Recently an acquaintance mentioned they had noticed a common trait among their friends whose marriages ended in divorce. Apparently every one of these couples maintained separate finances. As always happens when someone brings up a relationship issue, this got me thinking.

I can see how separate bank accounts could raise potentially prickly issues. Who should pay for what? Both spouses live in the house / apartment, so who should pay the mortgage / rent? If one person pays, might they feel the other is taking advantage of them? If the payment is shared, what happens when someone comes up short? What does it mean for one spouse to "owe" money to the other? Might that debt lead to resentment, possibly in both directions? Does this "What's mine is mine" approach indicate a lack of commitment, an unwillingness to share in fundamental ways? Or in some cases could separate finances allow two people with different spending habits to coexist without stressing each other?

What do you think? Do separate bank accounts mean you're one step closer to having separate addresses?

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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If You Love Them, Set Them Free

Last week I asked about the struggles that arise as teens gain independence and parents must find a way to let go. Many thanks to all the readers who contributed comments. The sheer volume of responses is, I think, an indication of the importance of this issue and the complexities involved.

No single theme dominated your responses. You mentioned a variety of approaches, including the following:
  • Talk a lot with your children. Discuss important life issues. Teach values and skills. Start when they are very young and continue until the teens become convinced you don't know anything anymore. Then you must step back and trust the foundation you built.
  • If they still live under my roof then they must live by my rules.
  • It is important to encourage good behavior in teens, not just to prohibit the bad.
  • Once they move out, young adults have a need to assert their own control.
  • At some point you need to give more control to the teens. Several respondents mentioned a message like, "That is not what I would do but it's your decision. I'm here for you if you need me."
  • Ban the big no-nos and don't sweat the small stuff.
  • It's not the job of a parent to be a friend.
  • Some parents are tempted to be strict because they fear the child's behavior might reflect poorly on the parents.
  • Being firm and setting limits has a subtext; we love you and we want you to be safe.
  • Parents must show by example, not just tell.
Perhaps the overall message is that letting go can be a difficult struggle, even when parents are mindful of the issues. These difficulties come shining through in the comment from Lisa, who maintains a site called Internet Lovers. Lisa writes:

My kids are 15 1/2 and 17. I've worried all the time about letting my boys go...when is the right time? What if something happens they don't know how to handle? What if they get in with the wrong crowd? God forbid, what if they decide to experiment with drugs? The list is endless.

I feel I've done the best I can at teaching my teens the differences between right and wrong, good and bad. As far as I believe, we instill these traits into them from a very early age. It's been a rocky road for me to let them slowly go over the years. But I grit my teeth and try to show that I have absolute faith in their decisions. I have to trust that I've taught them well, and I have to have faith that they will follow through with that, putting their own unique spin on it.

I say "It's not something I would do, but if that's how you want to do it, then ok, it's up to you." I think this lets them know I'm not keen, but they have a right to do it their own way. If they fall on their faces, they know it happened because of their choice and hopefully learn from it...and it stops me from coming out with "I told you so." Because by twisting the words a little, I didn't lol

Besides the 'typical' teenage changes and angst, and the battle of testosterone going on between my boys during their respective puberties...we haven't done so badly really.

And saying that, I don't think I've ever questioned my own parenting ability more than I have in the past 2 years.

I suspect Lisa's willingness to question her own approach is exactly the strength that allows her to figure out what her boys need most.

Thanks again to everyone for pitching in.
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Friday, September 01, 2006

Dismaying Story #44: Hang On Tight!

Dear Andrew,

Five years ago, the man I considered the love of my life sent me a letter out of the blue. We had not seen or talked to each other for twenty-three years. He was married with children and so am I. His overture of friendship, after so many years, hit me at a very bad time in my life and my marriage. My marriage was limping along. Not that my husband didn't try or wasn't a good husband and father. He has tried hard to make me happy but just isn't the man I wanted to marry the most. He is a kind, decent man who still loves me, despite everything.

Everything might have been okay between us if old High-School-Sweetheart hadn't resurfaced. H-S-S and I had a protracted email relationship (it was emotional but never sexual or physical -- no cybersex), which led to a luncheon meeting and several months later, a phone call lasting several hours, both of which occurred in the last year.

This relationship ended badly. He said he doesn't love me and never wanted to marry me, leaving me to wonder what he did want. He came looking for me after 22 years of marriage, so I wonder if he ever knew what he wanted or if he settled, too. The more he pushed me away, the clingier and more desperate I became. Eventually he began to feel threatened by me and the depth of my feelings. All communication from him became personal attacks. He blamed me, saying everything became a mess because of me, not him.

When he originally left me in 1978, I knew he was the person I wanted. I can't figure out why I wasn't what he wanted. I was at my peak at twenty -- young, pretty, shapely, talented, sought after by others, creative, passionate. I ask myself almost daily if at my personal best, I wasn't good enough for him, what could he have possibly wanted? What didn't I have? Where can I get it? How can I make him love me? After nearly 30 years, I still want to make myself "good enough" for him.

At the same time, I have a kind, attentive, loving husband who has forgiven me for my indiscretions with H-S-S, but who doesn't know that in my heart of hearts, if H-S-S turned around and said he loved me, I would go with him in a heartbeat.

He doesn't deserve what I feel for him. If I had married him, he'd be emailing other women behind my back. I'd love to be able to say "his loss because I am one terrific person" but I am overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy.

This is a complicated mess. I've started seeing a therapist. I just want to extract myself, to stop caring about someone who doesn't care about me, who doesn't deserve the mental and emotional energy I expend on him, and start really appreciating what I have.

Signed, Lost and Lunk-Headed

Dear Lost,

I understand how this might seem complicated to you. At the heart of it, however, I see one overriding issue. You never broke up with this guy. He left back in 1978 but you kept hanging on all those years, unable to accept the loss.

Adding to your confusion, the protracted emotional affair seems unusual in this type of situation. A more typical contact between two married people who knew each other twenty-odd years ago might go as follows: He surprises you with a call out of the blue, you spend half an hour chatting pleasantly, catching up on what has happened in the meantime, then you wish each other well and go back to your separate lives. That's it. Done, over with. His prolonged contact with you may indicate he has his own issues. That is his problem, though, not yours.

One of your mistakes is that you view the breakup as a judgment. You interpret "I don't want to be with you" to mean "You are not good enough for me." That is not what it means at all!

After all, what makes one person attracted to another? Many dimensions come into play, such as physical attraction, emotional compatibility, similar interests, common background, and so on. The formula is so complicated that it has resisted centuries of efforts to define it. When people are asked why they are in love, they are often unable to pin it down, falling back instead on catch phrases like, "I don't know what it is, she just has that certain something that attracts me."

Imagine yourself walking down a crowded city street. Suppose you are able to pick out a guy at random and start a relationship with him. If it turns out that the relationship doesn't work for him, does that therefore mean you are inadequate? Of course not. It simply means that love's chemistry doesn't work for the two of you as a couple. It means you both should move on and find someone else.

It is the same for you and your old high school sweetheart. The chemistry just wasn't there from his point of view. Millions of high school guys go out with pretty, shapely, talented, personable young women all the time, and most of those relationships end with a breakup. That doesn't make the girls any less pretty, and the fact that one particular relationship didn't work for you does not mean you are lacking in any way. It means he simply wasn't that into you.

To understand this better, you need to run, not walk, to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. This book discusses the all-too-common tendency of some women to make excuses for the men in their life, to hang on when they really should let go. The book is also well-written and entertaining, which doesn't hurt.

You made an error in judgment back in 1978 when you "knew" this was the guy you wanted to marry. Marriage is a two-way commitment, which is something this guy was never going to provide. I hope you would have enough pride in your own self-worth to not settle for such a poor deal. You want a man who wants you back. In other words, even though you didn't believe it at the time -- even though you still have yet to convince yourself of this -- you married the right man.

I will be very surprised if your therapist does not give you some variation of this same message. I urge you to listen and take it to heart. Sometimes happiness is as simple as wanting what we already have. You ended up with the guy who should have been your first choice all along.

All the best,

Thanks to everyone who has already answered this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question about teenagers who need to spread their wings. 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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