Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dismaying Story #75: Plato's Relationship Legacy

Dear Andrew,

I have a history of "friendships" with men, whom either want something more with me, or whom I want something more with. I do not know how realistic or fair it would be, to them or me, to continue the friendship, knowing that we are on different wavelengths. There are two such men in my life currently.

I have a 67 year old friend whom I can communicate with and enjoy the occasional night of dancing with, that I could not entertain a relationship with because of the age gap (more than 2x my age). We did share the occasional hug or peck on the cheek in our friendship, but somewhere along the way he developed stronger feelings for me and it is clear that he wants something more. I have expressed my feelings that I could not be more than friends with him, but the frequency of his affection interferes with the boundaries that I want, which have also been expressed to him. He is an excellent dancer and that is one of my favorite past-times, but the difference in our perceptions is affecting my motivation to see him. Do you have any suggestions to keep him as a friend and get him to respect the boundaries, so I can continue the friendship? Or would it be better to say good-bye and leave it alone?

The other man is someone I have known for 2 years, dating then and again recently. We have great communication, a deep connection on various levels and there is a physical chemistry as well. For whatever reason, he has stated that he is not ready for anything more than "friends only." Without getting into backgrounds, I understand his position. My dilemma is this, I want to continue a friendship with him - because that foundation has been built quite solidly, but I fear that my feelings for him and "hope" that we will get together again, may make future interactions awkward. I am ordinarily a person whom cuts my losses and moves forward, leaving ex's in the past, but this guy is someone whom I'd rather have in my life, even if only friends. I'm just not sure if I'm capable of being "only friends" with someone who in many ways could be the right guy for me. Am I setting myself up for continued heartache?

Signed, Platonic Possibilities


Dear Platonic Possibilities,

I must admit, dancing and hugging and cheek pecking between two otherwise unattached adults can be potent stuff. That combination has been known to get the embers of desire glowing, even when there is quite an age gap. I can understand how the older gentleman could fall for you and how he could take your continued desire to see him and go dancing as tacit approval for his advances, even if you say otherwise. To him, your actions may speak louder than your words. His ongoing expressions of affection mean that he is somehow encouraged to continue.

Think about how you react when he expresses his feelings. Is the feedback to him consistently neutral or even negative? Or do you get a bit of a payoff when he pays you that compliment? And does this tiny pleasure, however muted, come through to him? Do you smile? Maybe touch his arm in an "Aw shucks" gesture of fondness? If so, that would dramatically lessen the impact when you also suggest he shouldn't do that anymore.

Pay attention to your own reactions and cut out any rewards you might be unconsciously throwing his way. Combine that with telling him explicitly where you want the boundaries drawn, and that may encourage him to be good.

I can't say whether it would be better for you to simply walk away from your dancing partner. This seems to me to be a matter of balance and your own comfort zone. If you can keep the relationship on a level where the fun outweighs your annoyance, then it might be worth it to keep on. Only you can decide if any continued advances bother you enough to call it quits.

You might also want to consider this from his point of view. By allowing him to have hope when none really exists, are you keeping him from other relationships where he might have a better chance of finding what he is looking for?

The situation is reversed with the second guy -- you have the feelings and he wants to keep things light and breezy. You say you want to maintain the friendship even if that is all it is, but you also still hope his ambivalence will someday evolve into deeper feelings for you.

Some readers may remember Dismaying Story #47: The Objectionable Beau, which deals with a similar situation. If so, perhaps you can join me in telling Platonic Possibilities what she needs to hear: He's Just Not That Into You! Yours is one of the classic situations described in the book of that name by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. In my opinion, if this guy was going to be excited about having a relationship with you, he already would be. The chances are extremely low that his feelings will spontaneously bloom at some later magical date. You'd be better off to face the music right now; this is not the guy with whom you're going to ride off into the sunset.

Could you keep him as a friend? Sure, if that will make you happy. I wonder if it will, though. You said it yourself -- you have hopes for a deeper relationship. Since it won't be with him, I suggest you get busy looking for it elsewhere. As it stands now, he is getting the level of companionship he wants, while you are not.

As a final thought, you might want to consider whether having your older dancing partner in your life could be a roadblock when seeing other guys. There is certainly nothing wrong with having multiple platonic friends, regardless of gender. It is possible, though, (even probable) that potential dating partners might perceive the older gent as more than your friend and as a possible threat.

All the best,
Andrew
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Friday, October 27, 2006

Dismaying Story #74: Ex-Husband, Life-Long Father

Hi Everyone,

I'm on the road today so I'm a little late posting. I wrote this morning on the airplane and now that I've arrived at my hotel (in a warm, sunny destination :o) I'm able to post. I hope you are having a great day.

Dear Andrew,

My ex-husband insists on negatively commenting on my daughter’s appearance – hair, clothes, shoes, etc. No matter what she wears or what she does with her hair, he tells her she needs to “do something” different.

I’ve tried to stay out of it, but she comes to me heartbroken or lately, incensed over her father’s comments. Oddly, she resembles her father much more in appearance than she does me. How can I help without interfering in their relationship?

Signed, Caught in the Middle


Dear Caught,

You can't. Interfere away because helping sounds like a good idea.

I would approach this as if you were still together. You no longer share a marriage, but you are still co-parenting and you should do your best to minimize the effects of your separation on your children.

How would you handle it if you were all living in the same house? I bet you would have a private chat with him. You would ask him why he is doing this and tell him what kind of effect he is having on your daughter. Then, depending on the causes, you would look for a change. Do the same here.

I can only assume from your letter that his complaints about her appearance are largely baseless. Presumably she isn't going out the door in the morning looking like a vampy version of Madonna in concert. What, then, could his reasons be? The obvious question is whether he has resentment because of the divorce. Do you have primary custody of your daughter? Any contact with her could be a reminder of his frustration, putting him in a grumpy mood whenever he sees her. Or perhaps he has unrealistic and old-fashioned expectations of how young ladies should present themselves. If there is a new partner in his life, her resentment over you or his children could play into this; he could be reacting to and passing along negative sentiments that originate with her.

I can't predict which, if any, of these factors may be at work. If I were you, though, I would talk to him and see if he knows. Explain to him why the criticism has to stop and insist that he do so. As an ex you may have less leverage to ask for change than you did when you were married, but you should still try. If this is displaced resentment of you, then talking out the issues between the two of you may reduce the amount that spills over onto your daughter.

In addition, you can coach your daughter on how to handle criticism. This is not the last time in her life she will face it, and coping with it is an important life skill. We all need to be able to maintain a positive self-image in the face of negative external feedback. As many letter writers have already attested on this site, that is not always easy to do. Explain to her that she will face various forms of negative feedback in school, on the job, when she has a significant other, when she imposes unpopular rules on her own children, and so on. Help her understand the need to evaluate her own behavior objectively and honestly, to take ownership of any legitimate issues that others have raised, to use such feedback to improve in a constructive way, and to have the confidence to shed the emotional effects of unfounded criticism.

Has she actually explained to her father how his words make her feel? As unlikely as it may seem, it's possible he has no idea what kind of effect he is having on her. Hearing it directly from her might be the wake-up call he needs. Even if he won't listen, she is likely to feel better about herself (less like a victim) if she is able to stand up for herself in a mature, reasonable way.

If you have gained some insight into the reasons for his behavior, you may be able to help your daughter by explaining them to her. For example, this may be more of a problem between two ex-spouses, which he is unfortunately turning into a problem that involves your daughter. That still means she has an issue with her Dad, but it may help her to know that it's not just about her.

Hopefully treating him as a current co-parent rather than solely as an ex-spouse will make a difference. Good luck!

All the best,
Andrew

Do you have a group of regulars who visit your blog and leave comments? If so, then the current Question of the Week applies to you. Today is the last day to check it out before I provide a response tomorrow.
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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dismaying Story # 73: Past Baggage

Dear Andrew,

I am a forty-year-old man who has been divorced for twelve years. I've had a few relationships of varying lengths over the past 12 years (three years was the longest), but this is the first time I've been interested in getting re-married. I truly feel like I've found "the one."

I'm afraid, however, that a lot of my past baggage is getting in the way. The current problem is that my fiancée does not give me much praise and reassurance, and she needs and gives much less physical affection (I'm not talking about sex here) than I am used to and expect.

I have depression, was sexually abused as a child, and adopted when I was young. My depression is very well controlled through meds and cognitive behavioral work I do on my own, as well as what I've learned in therapy in the past. Through lots of therapy I have recognized that I have huge issues with fear of abandonment and feeling I'm not worthy of being loved. I've surrounded myself with very expressive friends who constantly reassure me by telling me how great I am.

I've mostly dated women who fit this mode. I also have a history of over-achieving and doing tons of volunteer work to prove my worth to myself. I realize I have become addicted to external praise. I realize that and I'm working on it.

In my current relationship, though, I'm having a hard time drawing the line between my insecurities versus my legitimate right to tell my fiancée what I need out of the relationship.

How does one know the difference between one's own baggage, and legitimate relationship concerns that need to be addressed?

Signed, Needs PLENTY of Hugs


Dear Needs Plenty of Hugs,

Many times since starting this site I have recommended that people should seek help from a professional -- a therapist or psychologist. As your letter makes clear, this is not always the end of the road, not by a long shot. There is never any guarantee that a series of sessions with a therapist will provide the relief you seek. It might be the most appropriate course of action -- your best bet, if you will -- and many people make tremendous strides as a result of their therapy, but seeing a professional is not always a silver bullet cure-all.

There can be several reasons for this. Some clients are simply not committed to putting in the effort to help themselves. As the joke in my sidebar alludes, you have to be ready and willing to make changes in your life.

Another fundamental reason is that psychology is an inexact science. Our understanding of the complexities of human behavior is far from complete, as is our knowledge of how to intervene when things go awry. Some types of behaviors are resistant to change, and persist despite the best efforts of patient and therapist.

You can point to several reasons for your fears. Feelings of low self worth are a classic response to sexual abuse, as is fear of abandonment for those who have been adopted or who have lived through foster care. Your therapy has made you aware of the fears as well as the causes, and has given you some techniques you can use to manage the effects. You have worked out other coping strategies on your own, such as gravitating toward expressive, supportive friends.

It is obvious, though, that you have not actually addressed the roots of your fears. You still struggle to think of yourself as worthy of love, as someone that people will like and want to be around.

Think about that. After years of therapy and medication, the problems are still there. Does that mean you are destined to struggle for your entire life? I have no way of knowing whether that is true in your individual case, but many people in your situation are able to make breakthroughs once they begin addressing the root causes rather than the surface behaviors.

Let's consider your self-esteem for a moment. You can do all the exercises you want, shouting "I'm great" affirmations at the top of your lungs, having therapists and friends assure you that you really are worthy, but at some point you will have some alone-time again. That's when your inner voice will whisper to you: "Psst. Hey! You know that was a load of baloney, right? None of that play-acting changes what you and I know. We both know what people really think of you." Your therapy has not evicted this malicious tenant from your head. You have not yet gone back to the events that caused your fears, dealt with them effectively and successfully, and discarded their harmful effects.

All of this is a preamble to answering your question, which is: How does one know the difference between one's own baggage, and legitimate relationship concerns that need to be addressed?

We all have baggage, every single one of us. We are all individuals with our own hot buttons, topics about which we really don't want to be teased, and sensitivities for which we could use a little moral support. These are legitimate relationship concerns. When your fiancée chooses to be with you, she chooses all of you. Like it or not, she will have to deal with your insecurities.

The question, though, is what constitutes an appropriate way to address these concerns. You would like her to give you more praise, reassurance and physical contact, which is just another form of reassurance -- the touch or hug when passing in the kitchen, in effect saying, "Yes, I still love you." In other words, you want her to feed your insecurities. You want the quick hit, the temporary fix of external gratification so you'll feel okay for another few minutes.

And I don't blame you. For someone who feels badly like you do, of course you are looking for ways to feel better, and temporarily better is preferable to not at all. It's okay for you to ask for this type of help. If this sort of touchy-feely constant reassurance does not come naturally for your partner, though, it may be difficult for her to provide it to the level you seek. You risk straining the relationship by asking her to provide more than she has to give.

More than that, it may not be the only way (or even the best way) for her to help address your legitimate relationship concerns. Perhaps she could say, "You should keep looking for a professional who can get to the root of your problems and help you discard their effects, someone with a proven track record of helping people with their self-esteem issues."

I realize that may be difficult to hear after all your experiences with therapy, but it just might be an idea worth considering. I wish you luck in achieving a workable balance of need-versus-give with your fiancée.

All the best,
Andrew

Does your inner voice take a few stabs at your self-esteem whenever you're naked, alone in the dark? Does this affect how you interact with others? Drop me an email and I'll try to help. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Monday, October 23, 2006

Dismaying Story # 72: The Kitten Substitute

Dear Andrew,

I'm in a long distance relationship. However, my boyfriend and I talk every day (MSN, SMS, calls) and we see each other every two months. He is my best friend and the best boyfriend I could ever imagine. Yet I didn't imagine how hard it would be to be so far away from him. I simply underestimated how important a hug can be, a kiss, to take somebody's hand when I'm feeling down, just the company while watching TV. We will be together again after a year, settling into a relationship that is made for life.

Still, I am worried. I have many guy friends. One in particular is my ex boyfriend. The relationship hurt me in so many ways and yet I decided I could be friends with him. We live in the same apartment complex and we spend a lot of time together. This would be okay if this ex was completely over his feelings for me, but this is not the case.

I enjoy being with him, though. He is finally the person I wanted him to be in the relationship although he still lies about certain issues, which was a huge problem in the actual relationship.

I don't ever want to be with him again. He even leaves the country in three months. I'd like us to enjoy the friendship because I went through a lot with him and I feel like I deserve him being there for me after he tortured me for so long. My benefit is I get a hug or two when I'm sad. He never knows why I'm sad because, although he knows I'm with my boyfriend, I wouldn't want to hurt my ex by talking about my boyfriend all the time.

It would probably be better for me and my relationship if I'd never see my ex again. Yet, I can't tell why it's so hard to tell him No when he asks me to come over to have dinner together, watch TV, go to parties together. I miss my boyfriend a great deal because I love him so much. I need to be given a hug though every once in a while and I'm afraid that I'll search (am already searching) for this closeness in my ex boyfriend who is simply available. I don't know when the lines of friendship might fade away and when it's actually considered cheating. Is it when I let him take me into his arms for 5 seconds too long, when I let him put his arms around my shoulders, when I lean on him, when maybe one day I'll fall asleep on his couch while watching TV? I know that I'd go absolutely crazy if the same thing happened to my boyfriend and a friend of his. The problem is that I don't have family in this town, nor my best (girl)friend to be there for me. The only person that seems really close is this ex of mine.

What can I do?

Signed, Needs a Hug


Dear Needs a Hug,

Let me get this straight. You love your boyfriend and plan to spend the rest of your life with him. At the same time you hug your ex-boyfriend and snuggle on his couch to watch TV, knowing he still has feelings for you ... and you're not sure if you have exceeded the bounds of simple friendship?

Of course you know.

Here are a couple of simple ways to tell if you are crossing the line. After you've spent some time with your ex, would you then call your boyfriend and tell him everything that happened? I bet not. Similarly, would you act differently with the ex if your boyfriend was standing behind you the whole time, looking over your shoulder? If you wouldn't do it with your boyfriend watching, then you shouldn't do it at all.

Several of your statements fail to hold water for me. For instance, you say your ex is now the person you always wanted him to be, but he still lies to you. Lying seems like it should be a deal-breaker. Why hang around someone who treats you like that, regardless of your circumstances?

Secondly, why are you worried about hurting your ex by talking about your boyfriend? If your ex is just a friend, then he should be perfectly comfortable hearing about your boyfriend and should be supportive of your need to talk about him. This is another clear indication that your relationship with your ex is more than just being friends. If you are truly committed to your boyfriend, then you should be more concerned about hurting him by being with the ex.

Finally, let's call a spade a spade; you are dating your ex-boyfriend. Where I come from, that's what we call it when he phones you up to go to parties and to come over to his place and the two of you end up snuggling. This relationship has progressed to the point where you are uncomfortable enough to write to me. You know there is an issue, but you seem to be trying to convince yourself this is okay because you have to be apart from your boyfriend for a time and you feel all alone.

I understand loneliness is no fun but let's look ahead a bit. How are you going to feel when you are back together with your boyfriend and you have to think back on how you acted when he was out of town? Will you feel proud of your actions or will you feel guilty? I suspect it's the latter, and let me tell you, that one is no fun either. Then the two of you get married and he has to go away on a business trip for a few weeks. You'll be lonely then too. Would that make it okay to look up another guy for the physical contact you miss while your husband is away? Of course not, and it's not okay now, either.

What can you do? You can start honoring the commitment you have made to your boyfriend and stop wandering over that line. Start acting like you would if he were there watching you.

If you find you can't do that, then I wonder just how strong your commitment really is. If so, then it's not fair to your boyfriend to deceive him. Let him know what has been going on.

You say that's not what you want, though, so if I were you I would get a kitten to snuggle with, or find a new girlfriend or two so you can have someone to spend time with and confide in. Join a club. Take a class. Get a part-time job to fill up your extra hours. There are plenty of ways to distract yourself from your loneliness without resorting to cheating on your boyfriend.

All the best,
Andrew
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Friday, October 20, 2006

Dismaying Story #71: Learning Not to Gossip

Dear Andrew,

How can we better teach our daughters (or our children, for that matter) to be more open and honest with their peers? My daughter vented online about her best friend's behavior recently, and now she's sweating it out hoping the friend won't see her comments, which were made in the heat of anger.

I've often told her that she should give complaints to the person who has upset her and no one else, but I see her and her girlfriends repeatedly in a pattern of gossiping and complaining to each other about friends' actions.

Any pearls of wisdom?

Signed, Mom


Dear Mom,

I did a little research after I received your question; I talked to some kids in their first year of high school and a few mothers of high school kids. The small group of people I talked to does not constitute a scientific survey, nonetheless the results coincided with my expectations.

My sense is that virtually anyone is capable of talking to friends A, B and C about friend D, but this seems to be more prevalent with girls than boys, and in some social groups (cliques, if you will) rather than others. Some girls told me this happened all the time among their closest friends (and they assumed everyone does it), while others said they couldn't remember the last time it happened among the girls they normally hang out with at school. The moms echoed this sentiment, saying it was common when they went to school, but that some of their peers seemed particularly prone to malicious gossiping.

The interesting thing to me is to understand which kids, regardless of gender, are more likely to take part. Here are a few of the comments I received:

"It's the people who are more worried about being popular."

"They care the most about what people think of them -- the kids who were into wearing makeup first, that sort of thing." (And no, I don't think makeup is the issue. This is merely the way a child was able to describe her perception of the difference to me.)

"They gossip because they are insecure. They want to be liked."

This is the part that coincides with my expectations. Let's consider two fictitious young people, whom I will call Abigail and Betty. (They could be Al and Bob for that matter; the same psychological principles apply.) Abigail is confident in her self-image. She recognizes she is human and has flaws like anyone else, but she thinks of herself as basically a good person and assumes most people have a reasonably positive view of her. Betty, on the other hand, appears confident on the outside but has a little voice inside that constantly reminds her of her inadequacies. She is not sure at all what others think of her.

Of these two girls, Betty is clearly more attuned to how others treat her. Her social antennae are constantly unfurled and ready to interpret what the people around her say and do. She is looking for clues as to whether she is perceived positively or negatively by others, and the way she feels about herself may yo-yo up and down depending on her most recent observation.

Now put Betty together with a group of kids who feel the same way. They share a similar focus: who said what about whom and what that means. This is an incredibly big deal for all of them. As usually happens when a group shares a common interest, this will naturally be a frequent topic of conversation.

This leads to a key observation; gossiping is the symptom, while the underlying issue has to do with the way kids measure their self-worth based on cues from others. Not surprisingly, quite a few adults continue to use the same yardstick.

Parents can try to address either the symptom or the underlying issue. I suggest you work on both.

You are already coaching your daughter in social skills around conflict management. Keep it up. Tell her to assume that anything she says to one friend will eventually be heard by the entire school, including the person she is talking about. Your daughter will then feel bad because (a) she has hurt a friend, (b) others will know she hurt someone, and (c) now that friend may do or say something hurtful in return (and we have a pretty good idea how that will impact your daughter's self-image). If she wouldn't say it directly to her friend, then she shouldn't say it to anyone else because there is no such thing as a secret.

Tell her the kids who are liked best by everyone are those who don't gossip, for exactly the reasons mentioned in the last paragraph. Ask her if she wants to be one of those likable people.

Talk to her about her choice of friends. Hanging with others who lack confidence can be an effective way to reinforce and firmly entrench her insecurities. Remember: "If they'll gossip with you, they're gossiping about you."

Dealing with the underlying issue can be more of a long-term project. You can start by helping her recognize that mischievous inner voice. Ask her about one of her recent accomplishments. Perhaps she made the cheerleading squad. What are the chances that as soon as she was alone after the tryout the little voice piped up and said, "Sure, but you know you're not as good as most of those other girls." We all do this at times. Help her understand that she can reply to the voice: "Thank you for your input, now go back and hide in your dark corner and be quiet." Often simply recognizing the source of that negative self talk can lessen its power.

Explain to her the relationship between gossiping and self esteem. Get her to read this article if you think it will help her see the connection. Recognizing and acknowledging the root of the issue is a powerful first step toward change.

Teach her that her self worth is not defined by what other insecure kids have to say about her. She is much more than that. Tell her repeatedly what you think of her as a person and how glad you are that she is part of your life. Catch her accomplishing and being good; praise her for it. Help her recognize her own value and strengths. If she learns to define herself from within, then what others have to say will seem dramatically less interesting and not worth discussing.

Good luck!

All the best,
Andrew

100% of people who read this site report having relationships in their life, yet the backlog of questions is dwindling. Tell me about yours and it may be featured as a Dismaying Story. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dismaying Story #70: Fitting in with the Crowd

Dear Andrew,

Recently I was with a group of new friends I met a few weeks ago in college. These girls have known each other since they were in diapers and my insecurity resurfaced when I "lost" them in the cafeteria. I found them eventually, and in hindsight I know they weren't purposely avoiding me, I just took the wrong exit. At the time, though, flashbacks of being avoided by friends I thought liked me came back in a flood.

Or flashbacks of coming to say hi to a group of "friends" in the morning, only to have them get all quiet all of a sudden, or, worse, to keep bashing someone who could be me, and when I ask who they're talking about, they answer "oh, someone you don't know."

I've always been uneasy in group settings. I always feel like I'm being talked about behind my back, or that I'm just tagging along and they allow me to but would rather I not be there. If I'm not invited to a party, it's like confirmation of my worst nightmares.

My reasonable side tells me to ignore these feelings because it's probably just a mild case of paranoia, but deep down inside, I have this doubt -- I could be right.

I've had several episodes in my life that reinforced this feeling, like finding an insulting note written by a supposed friend in middle school, or the time some friends from high school purposely gave me the wrong directions, knowing I would get lost in an unfamiliar part of the city.

How can I get over this and have normal relationships, and not just one-on-one? Be part of a group without constant fear of backstabbing and betrayal?

Signed, Paranoid Girl


Dear Paranoid Girl,

You have learned a fear, and there doesn't seem to be much of a mystery where it came from. You had your feelings hurt on more than one occasion and this helped you develop an insecurity about your role in social groups.

If you look back, you will realize these "episodes" occurred when you were interacting with immature people. Unfortunately, children can be cruel to each other. Adults can too, of course, but this phenomenon seems especially common when we are younger. Any sign of weakness or vulnerability on the schoolyard tends to be noticed and held up for immediate ridicule. Young folks are still very "me" oriented. There is some degree of empathy for the feelings of others, but nowhere near as much as when we mature into adulthood.

School-age children also seem to be incredibly perceptive at picking out vulnerabilities. Some kids are perceived as easy prey and get teased over and over again. You admit that you have always been uneasy in group settings. Imagine someone like that approaching a group of girls in the hallway in middle school. Would you approach with confidence? No, you would emanate insecurity. You might as well have a neon sign on your forehead flashing, "I'm uncomfortable." That is all the prompting some young people need to be catty or play practical jokes.

This is where your feelings of "I could be right" come from. You struggled with fitting in when you were younger and now you are having a hard time shaking the feeling.

The good news is that you have reached an age where your friends are more mature. Being nasty for the sheer joy of tormenting someone becomes rare in college. (And yes, I'm sure some of you could tell a story or two, but they would be the exception rather than the rule.) Your fear has now become unfounded; you are afraid of something that is extremely unlikely to happen.

Fear can be a useful emotion when it protects us from a real and present danger. If you are inside an electrical generating station, fear of electrical shock is probably a good thing, something that will prevent you from foolishly touching things. An unfounded fear, on the other hand, can be debilitating, such as a fear of lightning that keeps you from going outside even on sunny days. The probability of a lightning strike in that situation is so remote that the fear is unreasonable and counter-productive.

In your case, you are preventing yourself from enjoying normal social interactions. You are afraid your friends might be nasty and immature, but that has now become unlikely. You need to drag your inhibitions out and take a good look at them in the strong sunlight. Is your fear helping or hindering you? Does it serve any useful purpose in your life? I don't think so. It's time to start letting go. As you have more and more positive experiences with your friends, you should eventually find that this fear has gone away for good.

More than that, let's imagine your worst fear coming true. Suppose a group of supposed friends are nasty to you. How should you respond?

See ya! Hasta la vista, baby. New friends, here I come! Nasty, immature people simply aren't worth worrying about. Most adults are not like that anyway, so why spend energy on the few who are.

My point is that you would survive such an occurrence just fine. People like that can only impact your life if you let them. So why worry about it?

You need to stop giving those schoolyard bullies from long ago all that power over you. Stand up and say, "I'm not going to cower in front of the memory of you anymore! I am now a young adult. I am going to hold my head high, knowing the vast majority of people I meet will appreciate that. And to heck with anyone who doesn't."

That'll show 'em!

All the best,
Andrew

A few people have already answered this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question about the challenges of being a step-parent. If you have some experience or observations related to this topic, why not join in the discussion?
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Monday, October 16, 2006

Dismaying Story #69: "I Shouldn’t Have to Ask"

Last week I published a post entitled How Not to Ask Your Husband for Help. Several readers left comments and I would like to respond to some of them today.

Cairogal wrote: Here's the rub, for me, anyway. I feel that when I have to ask my husband to share the responsibilities, that somehow that makes it a favor. I don't like to have to say, "Babe, would you mind taking out the rubbish?" because really, that sounds like I'm asking him to help me, rather than assume a shared responsibility.

This was followed by an anonymous comment: Cairogal's comment struck a chord. I have felt like that too. What softened it for a while was saying thank you to whatever help was given, but soon that took on the same feeling too, like it was still my responsibility but thank you for helping. Now I just don't say anything (which still doesn't feel good) but just quietly consider it a nice bonus when something gets done.

I have seen this type of dynamic before. "Why should I have to ask him?" many women will say. "He should just know the work needs to be done and pitch in on his own. If I have to ask, it ruins it."

There is no such thing as a "one size fits all" solution, so if Cairogal's approach works for her, then more power to her. I wonder if it truly does, though. She wants her husband to assume a shared responsibility, but it sounds like that has not happened. If it had, then asking versus not asking would no longer be an issue. Clearly the anonymous commenter is not getting the level of support from her husband that she would like.

The issue here is that we all tend to interpret the world in terms of ourselves, and women and men have different approaches when it comes to cooperating and helping out. Women are more likely to sense need in others and give without being asked. To them, this is a normal expression of supportiveness.

Men, on the other hand, like to view themselves as competent. An unsolicited offer of help is sometimes welcome, but also may be taken as an insult. Don't believe me? Wait until the next time your husband is struggling with some task. It could be anything -- assembling a toy, finding someplace while driving, whatever. Put on a sweet smile and ask him, "Would you like some help?" More often than not you'll get back a grumpy, "I can do it."

Okay, now put these two people together in the same household. Unfortunately society has taught many of us that housework has traditionally been the wife's responsibility. This is often no longer practical given that dual-income households are now the norm, nonetheless this historical bias remains. So the helpful wife starts off doing more than her share. She waits for her new husband to do like she would do -- to recognize her need for a full partner and to pitch in on his own accord.

He, on the other hand, interprets her actions on the basis of what he would do, which is to handle a task until he can no longer do so and only then ask for help. Since she has not yet asked for help, he assumes she neither needs nor wants it. He believes all is well, while her frustration is building. Eventually she explodes into the "criticize, blame and demand" mode I discussed last week, which puts him on the defensive and lessens his desire to help. She now concludes that nothing works. After all, she tried waiting him out and then asking him, and neither had the desired effect. So she gives up and "considers it a nice bonus with something gets done."

Men are more likely to ask for what they want, while women are more likely to offer help to others without being asked. Men assume women will ask and women assume men will offer. The result is an impasse. You can’t fight Mother Nature – just ask him! The keys to doing this successfully are how you ask and how you react to his various potential responses. Some people seem to intuitively know how to do this effectively (and perceive their spouses as helpful), while others struggle with these skills and achieve less satisfactory results. I'll post more on this later.

Finally, Walker wrote: I have noticed that gender doesn’t matter anymore especially with more women in the work force.

True, my articles about equitable sharing of housework do have a gender bias, but there is a good reason for this. I have met couples where the husband does most of the work. Statistical studies continue to show, though, that women still bear the brunt of the domestic workload in our society and that this is a source of marital strife in many homes. The guys will have to excuse me while I address these articles to the majority.
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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dismaying Story #68: When Meds Are Not Enough

Dear Andrew,

I got married twenty-four years ago when I was sixteen. I married someone so totally opposite to me so that I could be provided with stability and taken away from an incredibly dysfunctional home. I have gone through much in my life and that is an understatement. I have been abused in every way from my father, mother, brother, and older sister.

I married an abusive man, who eventually changed his ways when he found God. He has not hit me in years. He has become more gentle but can still be passively controlling. He has changed dramatically but I am still so afraid of him and I have no reason to be. I find myself living for his approval in EVERYTHING! I want to shake this off but don't know how. I am tired of living in fear all the time and walking on egg shells. I have become severely depressed and I am on antidepressants. I have been hospitalized once for a suicide attempt but I am far better now. I am on meds but I am still always afraid. What can I do?

Signed, Walking on Eggshells


Dear Walking,

I am glad you wrote to me because it gives me a chance to talk about an issue that affects many people, namely the use of medication to modify behavior. Drugs can be incredibly beneficial in certain circumstances; they can even save lives when the threat of suicide enters the picture, but they also have limitations.

You have been traumatized by the abuse in your life and you describe many of the classic symptoms that follow from such trauma. Your self-esteem is close to non-existent and your ability to cope with normal day-to-day stresses has been severely compromised. You fear negative consequences constantly (such as the disapproval of others) even in the absence of any immediate external reason to expect such consequences.

This type of fear reaction has two components, physical and behavioral. These two sides feed off each other and make the reaction difficult to modify. We all have physical reactions when faced with traumatic events. You know the symptoms -- your mouth goes dry, you feel a surge of adrenaline course through your body, you get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, you tremble, your hair stands up, and so on. This is your body going into an alert status to prepare you to either fight or flee.

An abusive event also teaches you that such trauma is possible and you should watch out for it in the future. Repeated abuse can cause people to go further and come to several unfortunate conclusions. Chronic victims often believe the pain is inevitable and unavoidable, that the abuse is somehow their fault, that they deserve it or invite it because they are unworthy, and so on.

You were abused by your husband, so his very presence can serve as a stimulus to remind you of the trauma. This invokes a behavioral reaction (for example, walking on eggshells, fear, seeking approval, etc.) and a physiological reaction. When you feel the fear, do you get a little spurt of adrenaline or a dry mouth? I bet you do.

So you went to your physician, who is trained to respond to medical emergencies. The primary methods of intervention are pharmaceutical and surgical. (And yes, I know many physicians go beyond this, but many also tend not to.) At the time you were in the midst of a medical emergency, namely acute depression with suicidal tendencies, so you received a predictable response -- you were hospitalized and prescribed anti-depressants. This was almost certainly the appropriate treatment to get you through the immediate crisis, the period of greatest risk. As you can attest, however, this is not sufficient to address your ongoing issues.

The pharmaceutical solution offers attractive benefits for both the physician and the patient. Our North American medical system places great time demands on doctors. They are typically challenged to care for a flood of patients in a finite amount of time. Writing a prescription is time efficient and is one of the main things physicians are trained to do. Physicians simply do not have time to sit and talk for hours with each of their patients. The medical system is not set up to handle that, and doctors are not rewarded financially for doing so.

Patients also tend to be comforted by the medical model. The underlying message is, "This is not your fault. This is a medical condition to be treated with pills. You don't have to do any hard work or accept any responsibility. Simply take this pill and all will be well." Happily, I can tell from your letter that you don't subscribe to this view. You are asking, "What else can I do?" You are ready to take ownership of the solution and move forward, which is a healthy sign.

The fundamental problem is that pills can only change the physiological aspects of your reactions. They do little or nothing to address the behavioral side. You have never come to terms with the severe damage to your self-image. I would bet good money you have not forgiven yourself for "allowing" the abuse to happen. In your mind, it is still partly your fault. You still expect bad things to happen in your life, even though you say they have essentially stopped. You have been conditioned to expect them, so you now need to reverse that process, to condition yourself to expect them not to occur. This type of behavior modification is difficult to achieve by yourself. I recommend you see a psychologist, whose job it is to spend the time with you that a physician simply cannot. Psychologists are also trained differently and can offer the type of help you need to address your behavioral challenges.

Medication can sometimes be beneficial while you are taking part in behavior modification therapy. In certain cases, pills can help quell the undesirable physical reactions and make it easier for you to isolate and address the behavioral reactions. It wouldn't surprise me, though, if you find you no longer need the anti-depressants once you learn to let go of the fear. For your sake, I hope that is where you are headed.

Finally, you mentioned that your husband can still be passively controlling. Since you "walk on eggshells," I can only assume you have trouble sticking up for yourself in your marriage. Hopefully once you come to terms with your own individual challenges, you will be in a better position to begin working out more equitable ways of interacting with your husband.

All the best,
Andrew
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Friday, October 13, 2006

Dismaying Story #67: A Confusing Attraction

I have invited Tom Matthews, a colleague of mine from the San Diego area, to serve as a guest columnist and help answer today's question. Tom is a personal coach who helps a diverse range of clients deal with personal issues such as bolstering self confidence, recognizing and eliminating negative self talk, public speaking, and interpersonal communication. He is also the author of NAKED, ALONE, IN THE DARK, a forthcoming book about the power of the discovery of humble self confidence. I provided Tom with an anonymous copy of the following question:

Dear Andrew,

I am happily married to the man of my dreams. We are still in love after many years and are truly partners in every way. I can't imagine being married to a better man.

The problem is that recently I have been having very strong romantic feelings for someone else -- someone who happens to be a woman. I am certain that she doesn't suspect my feelings for her. We are only casual acquaintances. She is not gay. But then again, I never would have classified myself as gay, either. I've never had romantic feelings for any other female.

What surprises me is that my love for my husband is diminished not at all by the love I feel for this woman. I am as happy with him as I have ever been but I still sometimes find myself pining for this lovely woman who has no clue how much I adore her.

Is this sort of attraction normal after many years of marriage? Am I just going through some sort of mid-life crisis? Or am I destined to always love this woman from afar knowing I would never do anything to hurt my husband?

signed, Surprised and Confused


First let's see what advice Tom has to offer and then I will provide my response.

Dear Surprised,

Sometimes we are confronted with a person that, for reasons we cannot explain, induces a feeling of attraction or love in us that seems inappropriate. I often find the impact of such a person is based on a memory or an event in our lives. For instance, I had a client whose wife developed exactly the sort of attraction for another woman that you describe. Turns out the other woman reminded her of a teacher who had nurtured her when she had no one else to do so. Even the woman's name was the same as the teacher. Thankfully she saw a therapist before she spoke with the "other woman." The therapist helped her discover the object of her desire was just an ordinary person, and not an angel or some sort of salvation.

Unless there have been other events or circumstances to suggest you have homosexual or bisexual tendencies, this type of attraction almost certainly indicates a desire for nostalgic comfort. The woman to whom you are attracted is probably the personification of someone (or sometime) that tugs a heart string of simpler and easier times, thus the attraction after several years of happy marriage. Call it an emotional mid-life crisis, a need to be comforted and a desire for a simpler time.

The bottom line? You have, by your own admission, what most people pray for: a happy marriage. Whatever you do, do not jeopardize that for the indescribable, fleeting emotional need to have something else. Look deep into your heart and see what is genuinely working in your intentions and motivations concerning this woman. Whatever superficial comfort or thrill you may get in pursuit of these feelings comes with an enormous price tag, even if you never told your husband of your intentions or what transpired. Regret and unspoken truth (the worst kind of lie) is a bitter pill to swallow once an impulse is acted upon.

Are you bi-sexual? I doubt it. Does this woman evoke something in you? Absolutely. Should you ignore it and be grateful for what you have? Yes!!! Stop being confused and start being grateful.

Good luck!
Tom

Dear Surprised,

To me, the issue of commitment to a marriage is the same regardless of the gender of the "other person." Just to gain some perspective, what if you found yourself attracted to another man? You still love your husband, but for some reason you feel a rush of excitement and warmth whenever you meet or think about this other guy. Should you do anything about it?

Here's the thing. Everyone meets attractive people. How could we not? The world is full of them, and every once in a while we meet someone who strikes a special chord. There is a wow factor, something about them that makes us sit up and take special notice. When you are married, though, you have a responsibility to file those feelings where they belong. Go ahead and enjoy that tiny tingle of pleasure that comes from seeing someone attractive, then file it under "Life's Harmless Diversions" and get on with your day.

Would you find it easier to recognize this attraction as a diversion if the other person were male? Possibly. In any case, the issue of fidelity is the same and so should be your response.

You are left wondering, though, how you could be attracted to another woman. Tom is right; this woman -- no, strike that, your perception of this woman -- fills some need for you. She invokes a feeling for which you have a strong need. It could be that when you think of her you feel safe or needed or mothered or not alone in the world. Like Tom suggested, this may be because she reminds you of someone else or another time in your life. The important realization for you, though, is that it is this feeling for which you are actually yearning; she is only the stimulus.

What if you started spending more time with this woman and tried to develop a relationship with her. First, I suspect you would discover that you have never been attracted to women in general because you are not bisexual, so the relationship would flounder on those grounds. More than that, you would find that these special feelings she invokes in you would subside. Real, day-to-day life would intrude. You would discover the grass is no greener on her side of the fence, that she is just another person with both nice and not-so-nice attributes. At that point you would realize you had made a tremendous mistake.

Yes, you are going through some sort of crisis, and no, you are not destined to love her forever. Try to identify the need she seems to fill for you. If you can't come up with this on your own, you might consider seeing a therapist for some confidential counseling. You need to find another way to fulfill that need, which might mean coming to terms with some unresolved insecurity or re-connecting with your mother on a deeper emotional level. If you can accomplish this, then both your crisis and your misplaced attraction will be over.

All the best,
Andrew

Do you have a relationship issue in your life? Tell me about your situation and it may be featured as a Dismaying Story. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
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Monday, October 09, 2006

Dismaying Story #66: Family Planning Pressure

Dear Andrew,

Recently at a party my Mom made a comment that, "we'd better have grandchildren while she still had the energy" and everyone laughed, including me. I'm used to this. My Dad whispered something in my ear on my wedding day as we were dancing, and I know how full their hearts will be the day I make them grandparents.

I do however feel pressure from time to time and sometimes it seems to get to me. This is probably typical considering my age and the fact that I've been married for over two years. It's the natural progression and the next step, but lately, it seems to be all I’m hearing. Many of my friends are either already parents, pregnant, trying to conceive or working up to that next step. My husband and I have talked about having children since early in our relationship and have had several serious talks quite a few times about when the time may be right for us. So far, we haven’t been able to answer that, which makes the pressure consume me.

One of my friends happened to be at this party. As the evening was winding down, from across the room in front of all of our guests and after my Mom's humorous comment about grandchildren, this friend shouts that we should get pregnant together. Mind you, she's been trying for all of a week and secondly, we're not that good of friends where that might be something I'd actually consider! I laughed it off because it was #1) none of her business #2) nothing I wanted to discuss with a room full of friends and family.

I managed to contain my composure until most of the guests had left, and then I burst, shouting, "Does it make me a bad person that I’m not pregnant yet?" I looked around the room at dazed faces staring back at me. Crickets chirped, I heard a pin drop - and I felt completely mortified.

It bothers me that my reaction was aimed at the wrong people, and actually those that love and adore me most. It also bothers me that it upset me so much and that I allowed something so small get under my skin. I don't know why it bothered me to the extent that it did, but when she questioned me and my baby motives, I felt like I had to defend our decision, our relationship and that she perceived me as a bad person because I wasn’t reproducing with her.

My husband and I need to decide for us when the time is right. It's not a matter of will we or won't we. We already know that answer. It's a matter of when. For me, it's difficult to know when it is the right time because it's a scary decision full of many unknowns. We're in no hurry for several reasons; for instance I'd like to have a house and a mortgage before we have children.

Thankfully my family all accepted my apologies with a hug, although I am still quite embarrassed about my outburst.

Signed, Not a Mom Yet


Dear Not a Mom Yet,

I always feel a bit sad, for several reasons, when I hear of a young couple getting married in their teens because of a pregnancy. Parents who are so young face many extra challenges, such as trying to be parents and spouses when they are not yet fully mature, the need to earn a living when they may not have completed their education, and so on. One of the big reasons I feel sad for them, though, is that they will miss out on what I consider to be one of the most glorious parts of a marriage. They will have virtually no time to be just a couple, without children.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love kids. My wife and I have a few stress factors of our own running around the house and I'm tremendously happy they are part of my life. I am also glad that my wife and I had several years at the beginning of our marriage when it was just the two of us. We had some time to figure out who we were as a couple, to work out how we wanted to handle many life-sharing issues such as balancing the housework, managing household finances, and deciding where and how to spend holidays. We had the opportunity to be together, just the two of us, and to grow close as a couple.

Time. We had the time we needed to develop a strong bond between us. We became married partners in fact, not just on paper. Later, our children also benefited. They got to grow up within the context of a more stable household as a result of those years we had alone.

You say you are in no hurry to have children, but at the same time the decision as to when you take that leap consumes you at times. You feel pressure to have a baby quickly, and at the same time you want to wait for a number of reasons.

You strike me as a people pleaser and a planner. Both of these can be good things, but in this case they also add to your stress. You care very much what others think of you and your actions, so their comments about babies weigh on you. The needs and desires of others add to the pile of reasons in your mind as to why you should consider having a baby sooner rather than later. Being a careful planner, though, you want to have your ducks in order before you take the plunge. This is a big part of the push-pull conflict that has you so stressed out.

First you should recognize where all that pressure is coming from. Did the comments from your mother and friend create the stress inside you? No, they merely contributed to it. If the "when to conceive" debate was not already a huge issue for you, then you would have laughed those comments off easily with hardly a second thought. You have had a raw nerve over this issue for some time, though, so their comments hit home in a big way. They awakened your internal self doubts, which fought and tumbled inside you for a while as the party wound down. You worked yourself into such a highly agitated state that your frustration made you burst out.

Of course your family hugged and forgave you. I can tell from your reaction that such outbursts are not typical for you. Your family knows this, and can no doubt tell you are feeling pressure. You should forgive yourself, as well; most of us do things like that once in a while and it's no big deal.

You and your husband have only been married two years. For some people that is enough "couple time" prior to having children, but for you it is not. You should accept that and take the time you need before taking the leap into parenthood. If it helps you feel any better, the magic number for my wife and I turned out to be six years. (... and her grandmother was convinced that any couple who waited so long was destined to be childless.) So relax. You have plenty of time.

Since you are a planner, here is a suggestion that might help you put the issue more to the back of your mind for a while. Make a list of the major life issues you want to take care of before having your first child. Ignore the desires of your friends and parents; this is your life and the decision should be based on your needs, not theirs. At the bottom of the list, write down a rough guess-timate of the number of years it will take to work through the issues. Talk with your husband -- are you both okay with the idea of waiting that long to have children? If not, pick a compromise that makes both of you comfortable. Back up nine months from that point, mark a big red "X" on your mental calendar, and give yourself permission to spend the intervening time focusing on life and each other.

Of course, things may not work out exactly like your plan, and that's okay. You may change your minds in the meantime, and we all know what Mother Nature likes to do with such plans. Giving yourself permission to focus on something else is the key, though. You should decide, for your own sanity, that it is okay for you to stop obsessing about it for a while. Then when someone drops a baby hint, hopefully you can simply smile, knowing you have already taken into account what is important for you and your husband.

All the best,
Andrew
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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Dismaying Story #65: Beyond the Five-Minute Drill

A few months ago I published an article about The Five-Minute Drill, a technique to deal with young children who cry at bedtime and won't go to sleep. Do you go in and soothe them ... only to be right back in the same boat when you leave again? Do you stay out and endure the pain of their protracted crying? The Five-Minute Drill offers an effective third alternative.

A few moms have written to me since then, asking for clarification of how to apply this technique in their specific situations. The following is one such email conversation (with the names removed), which shows how one issue can sometimes hide another.

Dear Andrew,

I tried the 5-minute Drill with my two-year-old and it hasn't worked! I need help! What IS working actually makes me feel really bad.

Two weeks ago my psychiatrist made a suggestion on what I should do: "Hold the Door Shut." I talked it over with my husband and he wasn't okay with it either. After a couple hours of struggling with her I ended up trying his suggestion, and well it worked, kind of. My daughter screamed and banged on the door until she fell asleep on the floor in front of her door. When my husband went to check in on her after her room was quiet for awhile, he woke her up because he couldn't open the door! By this time we were EXTREMELY tired and gave into the evil, sleeping with Mom and Dad. The next night we resorted to holding her door shut again (after trying the 5-minute drill for a couple hours). This time she fell asleep under her bed. We left her there, and around 3 am she woke up and didn't know where she was and freaked out.

I've tried sleeping on her floor until she falls asleep, which I really don't want to make a habit of! I've tried letting her leave her light on and read books. I could go on and on.

Signed, Tired Mom


Dear Tired,

Sorry to hear of your troubles. I would be uncomfortable with holding the door too.

Let me ask you this. How would you handle it if she threw a fit over something she wanted you to buy her in a store? Or over not eating her food? Or over not wanting to wear the clothes you bought her?

Have you done the same thing here? She is throwing a fit over something she doesn't want to do. In those other cases, I bet she would find out in no uncertain terms how upset you were with her behavior and how it is completely unacceptable. Has your feedback conveyed this message in this case? Try using the same approach you would over any other situation where she acts in a way you find unacceptable. Make sure she knows you won't stand for it. Different people use different methods; do what you feel comfortable with.

All the best,
Andrew

Dear Andrew,

Thank you. It is seriously going to take a very strong front!

She is extreme about everything. If you put her in clothes she doesn't want to wear, she strips the clothes off. If you feed her something she doesn't want to eat, she throws it. Her tantrums in the store...well, that's the reason I refuse to shop without my husband!

She is the sweetest most well-mannered child ON HER TERMS! We'll have to keep working at it...with LOTS of patience!!

Signed, Tired Mom


Dear Tired,

Aha! (Hey, that's fun to say :o) The pattern becomes more clear. She is not just throwing tantrums over bedtime, but about lots of things in life. This is a struggle for control between the two of you. It's possible you are actually showing too much patience in those situations. When you tolerate her tantrums, this can make her feel insecure. Kids need to know that someone is looking after them, that they are NOT in control, because they are incapable of looking after themselves and the world is a scary place if Mom and Dad aren't in control. You need to set firm boundaries on what you consider to be acceptable behavior and take control. You can use whatever strategy you want for giving the message of intolerance (e.g. timeouts, removing both of you from the situation, ignoring the undesirable behavior, whatever you choose) but it must be applied consistently. Every. Single. Time. You must be large and in charge. She needs it, and you definitely need it.

I suspect if you can get on top of this more general issue, the nighttime issue will go away along with it.

All the best,
Andrew

Not many people have answered this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. I'd love to hear about the special friends with whom you always re-connect instantly regardless of how long you've been apart.
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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Dismaying Story #64: A Love Triangle with a Twist

Dear Andrew,

For the past six years I have become extremely close to a girlfriend of mine...not in a sexual sense at all, but as a 'we really GET each other' sense. We socialized all the time together...shared our most private thoughts and confidences with each other.

She's now dating my ex-husband. I haven't been with him for over seven years and yet I find this incredibly difficult to deal with. To begin with I almost encouraged it. It all started out as a joke of sorts with flirting and carrying on, both of them recently out of relationships and feeling vulnerable. I love them both and want them to be happy. Why is it that I don't seem to be able to cope with them doing that TOGETHER?

I'd always thought there was an unwritten rule that you don't hook up with your best friend's exes. Regardless of how long ago it was they were together. At first I thought I'd adjust, but as the months passed it became obvious to me that I was NOT going to adjust and that if I was really honest with myself, I'd never been happy about it at the start anyway.

Eventually I pulled away from her and said I needed more time to get used to them. She panicked and the two of them called it a day. That's not what I wanted...I just wanted to step back and let them relax and enjoy each others company without me being involved. We were all quite awkward around each other and it seemed the best solution.

So, then she comes back to me and tells me they're no longer seeing each other. I think she expected us to go back to the way it was, but I couldn't. For me the damage had been done. She continued to ring and visit and just as I was starting to get back on track and feel comfortable the 'old' way again, I found out she's actually been sneaking around seeing him and sleeping with him anyway. I only found this out because I had my suspicions with various things she'd say or do, and I waited for her to say something. She didn't so I approached my ex husband. We have a solid relationship as parents to the boys and we're good friends. I expected only honest answers from him and I got them.

I confronted her, we spoke about it rationally and in the end I closed the door on my friendship with her. I miss her terribly and I miss the different views and perspectives she used to bring to my life, but I actually don't feel I want to share any of my personal thoughts with her any longer.

Am I being selfish about this? I don't have any romantic feelings toward my ex husband any longer, so I don't believe that has something to do with it. I will say I struggled with the fact that my girlfriend deceived me. That was a HUGE trust issue for me.

Do I need to just get over myself and stop being so stubborn about this issue?

Signed, Minus One Good Friend


Dear Minus One Good Friend,

There certainly can be an "Ewww!" factor when two people with whom you are close start becoming more than just friends. This dynamic is commonly used in stories to heighten the tension around a new relationship, often with a sibling and a best friend. Think Chandler and Monica on Friends hiding their relationship from Ross, or Harry Potter seeking his friend Ron Weasley's approval for kissing Ron's sister Ginny. This also happens with ex-boyfriends, two close friends, widowed or divorced parents, or, as in your case, ex-spouses.

So why do you have that reaction? My theory is that you have existing relationships with those two people and you don't want that to change. Sure, you can still have relationships with both of them, but the budding romance means things won't be quite the same. Can you confide in your girlfriend quite as much, when you have to wonder if she'll talk to her new beau about it? You are good friends with your ex, so the same issue also applies in that direction. And what if they break up? You may be caught in an uncomfortable position in the middle. Their romance threatens your status quo.

I don't believe there are any "rules" about these types of situations. You gave up any right to influence your ex-husband's choice of dating partners when you divorced him, and girlfriends don't normally exercise that kind of control over each other. The issue here is whether they should have avoided this relationship to protect your feelings.

Well, you have two people who are alone and starting to feel an attraction for each other. They have a chance to enrich their lives with each other, to develop something special. Are the existing friendships you have with these people inherently more special or more important? On the other hand, the relationships with you came first. Should those relationships preclude the third one starting?

You also mentioned the trust issue with your girlfriend. Let's consider why she was hiding her involvement with your ex. Did she do this out of maliciousness or because she wanted to hurt you? Not at all. She could tell from the beginning you were uncomfortable, which put her in an awkward position. She didn't want to give up her chance for a romance, but neither did she want to give up her valued friendship with you, so she tried to have both. I'm not saying this excuses her dishonesty, merely that it has nothing to do with trying to hurt you and everything to do with her desire to keep you as a friend. She sensed she would lose you if the truth came out, and it turns out she was right.

One way you might gain some comfort is to put yourself in their place. Try realizing that their needs are every bit as important as your own. Imagine what it would feel like to be your girlfriend; she sees you valuing your own status quo more than her chance for happiness. How would it make you feel if the shoe were on the other foot?

There is nothing that says you must get over this and become comfortable with it. You may always feel uncomfortable with their relationship, and there are plenty of other people who would feel the same way. That is completely understandable. It is unfortunate, though, because the two people who end up losing are you and your girlfriend.

I wish you good luck as you try to sort through your feelings.

All the best,
Andrew

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Dismaying Story #63: Repulsed by Sex




Dear Andrew,

I am married and I don't want to have sex anymore. I find it repugnant. When my husband kisses me, I feel like he is trying to swallow my face. When he touches my breasts, I want to swat his hand away.

How can I recapture that loving feeling?

Signed, Just ... Ugh


Dear Just Ugh,

I have heard it said that when the sex is good, it constitutes a small fraction of your relationship. When it's going badly, though, it dominates your thoughts and feelings. Sex probably seems like THE big issue in your marriage right now. There is a good chance, however, that your lack of libido is actually a symptom of some other underlying problem. My short answer for how to recapture that loving feeling is to identify this problem and address it directly.

Many types of life issues can cause what you describe. You could be struggling to feel good about your husband and your marriage for any number of reasons, such as the way he treats you or how he makes you feel generally. It's hard to feel like being intimate when the relationship itself is on the rocks.

Alternatively, this could be a symptom of strong emotions like fear or guilt. Some folks are raised up in ultra-strict households where sex and guilt are tied hand-in-hand every step of the way growing up. It can be difficult to let go of this association later when sex is "supposed to be okay now."

You could be suffering from a trauma in your past. If you have been raped or abused physically, sexually or emotionally, then physical intimacy can trigger strong memories and a powerful aversion.

Even plain old day-to-day stress can wring the sex drive right out of you. Drag yourself out of bed at six a.m., rush around to get everyone off to school, work, whatever, work all day, worry about the bills and the housework and the groceries and your in-law problems and goodness knows what else, and by the end of it you feel like a wet noodle. Then just when you get a chance to relax he starts feeling frisky. (There are strategies for dealing with this, such as making dates when you actually have a little time to relax and connect emotionally before worrying about the physical stuff.)

Regardless of the root cause, your first step is to be honest with your husband. You need to admit to him you have a problem and ask for his help in addressing it. You may have been reluctant to bring this up with him until now, not wanting to deal with his hurt feelings or perhaps fearing you will damage your relationship irreparably. These are valid concerns. You should be able to deal with them effectively if you position the issue appropriately. Simply saying, "I don't want to have sex anymore because I hate it" will be difficult for him to hear. A likely interpretation of this is, "I no longer find you attractive -- I am repulsed by you." A less threatening approach might be to say, "There's something going on with me and I'm not sure what it is. I need your help to fix it." Then when he (hopefully) shows concern and offers to help, explain that your sex drive has hit rock bottom and you're convinced there must be some reason that has little or nothing to do with sex, but you don't know what it is.

Your underlying problem may actually have plenty to do with sex, in the sense that your sex drive depends in part on your emotional state. Talking with your husband in the manner I suggested, however, may help reduce the perceived threat from his point of view. You want to put up as few barriers as possible to getting him into a helpful state of mind.

You need your husband's help for several reasons. He is your life partner and should be there to help you during your times of need. This issue affects him and your relationship directly, so it is only right and fair that he should know and have a chance to help work it out. The most immediate and pragmatic reason, though, is that you need to stop having sex right away. We all become conditioned by our positive or negative experiences. Every time you have sex and find it repugnant, you are becoming more and more conditioned to view sex, your husband and your marriage as negative. The emotional ladder you must climb is growing taller each time you continue to have sex in your current state. If your husband understands this, hopefully he will be able to support you in what you need to do to heal yourself.

I recommend you see a professional therapist or psychologist. Hopefully this will enable you to understand whatever is behind your sagging libido and begin charting a path to a better place.

All the best,
Andrew

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to check out this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. I'd love to hear about the special friends with whom you always re-connect instantly regardless of how long you've been apart.
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Monday, October 02, 2006

Dismaying Story #62: The Tyrannical Aunt

Dear Andrew,

We moved to a very small town a year ago because it has one of the best VA hospitals in the country and we have family here. When I first announced we wanted to move, the family out here was very excited and offered all sorts of help. However, I made the mistake of buying a house that my aunt did not look at. I didn't think it was a big deal. I needed to place an offer on the spot or risk losing the property. I knew it was perfect the moment I first saw it. The house closed, and my husband and I began to pack for the move. All of a sudden the cousins out here couldn't be available to help. Not one family member bothered to call us when we arrived. It was a nightmare.

Then the gossip began getting back to us. My relatives had been told that we bought the house in haste, didn't have any furniture and had moved here to sponge off the family. I couldn't understand where this was gossip coming from. It was not based in truth in any way.

I soon learned that my aunt is the self-proclaimed matriarch of this family. She will tell you what you should think, how you should live, and what you should do - and if you don't abide by it, she makes you an outcast with the rest of the family. She has always had major control issues, so this behavior is not a symptom of old age. To the public, she is a very sweet lady. To us, she is evil.

I am physically limited and it sometimes leaves me unable to function. When I suggest she allow me to do the things I physically can (such as washing dishes) instead of walking up and down the steps to put things away in the basement, my aunt refuses. If I sit down to catch my breath and calm my heart, I am avoiding work. If I don't call her, I am not calling out her just to be spiteful. Should I need to cancel a visit due to being unable to move, I am doing it only to be lazy.

I have basically written the whole family out here off. I want nothing more to do with a bunch of weak willed human beings who worship my aunt as some sort of chaotic goddess. I was raised to be a strong person, despite my limitations, and I don't need to ask someone's opinion on whether or not I should use the washroom before I eat (trust me, the woman is that controlling.) I enjoy being self-sufficient, and that angers my aunt most of all. She seems to have this deep desire to be "needed" by the world. My husband will no longer tolerate her. My mother is angry, and very hurt that we are being treated this way. The family was not involved with us before we moved, and the only side of the aunt I ever saw was the "polite side", so I don't have any qualms about parting ways.

My problem is that she is too controlling to leave us alone. When people don't please her, she goes out of her way to discredit them, which she has already done to me at one church (I changed parishes, and I don't tell anyone we are related.) I worry she will try to discredit us should we seek to adopt our child. She has lived here so long and been so involved with everything that almost everyone knows her.

I have tried talking with her (she won't let things go), I have tried being polite, and I have tried reaching out to my cousins. They won't acknowledge me, in fear that it would get back to the aunt. What's your opinion of all this? Any ideas on how we can protect ourselves from her, other than moving away, which we can not afford to do?

Signed, Caught in my Aunt's Town


Dear Caught,

Let's assume your aunt is basically a happy and contented person, who knows that everyone admires and likes her. Can you imagine someone in that frame of mind engineering such a destructive chain of events as has befallen you? No? Well neither can I.

Your aunt is almost certainly a desperately unhappy person. She has towering, raging, monumental insecurities. She is neither blind nor stupid, so she knows what others think of her. She has come to be this way because many years ago she had no faith that others would like her or pay any attention to her of their own free will. So one day, probably as a child, she tried being overbearing. Lo and behold, it worked! She was able to bully someone into listening to her ... and there was a momentary high, a personal validation. For a brief moment your aunt actually mattered -- the reaction of that other person made it so in her mind. Her fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy; it caused her to become a person who is difficult to admire.

So her niece moves into town and tries to be polite and reasonable in an attempt to get her to change her time-proven strategy. It won't work. Your aunt could change, but it would mean identifying and addressing all those personal fears of inadequacy. These have been part of her self-image so long that at this point she believes them to be carved in stone. This is her reality. People don't like her (she believes down deep inside, perhaps not even consciously) and they never will. Such longstanding fear is resistant to change. It would require a will to change on her part and considerable therapy to make headway against it. Unfortunately, nothing you say or do will be enough to change her.

Ironically, she has no power over anyone unless they willingly give it to her. If every single person she talks to understands what is going on and refuses to give in to the emotional pressure, then her approach would be utterly ineffective. Unfortunately, many of us are averse to confrontation so her strategy tends to get people to knuckle under to her will. Do you have a shot at changing how most of your small town reacts to your aunt? I doubt it.

The only person you can control in this scenario is you, and it sounds like you are doing what you can in that department. You are holding your head high and refusing to play her game. Good for you. You have put some distance (figuratively) between you and your family, including her, to insulate yourself from the effects. That works for me.

As I see it, though, your primary problem is that you can't insulate yourself from everyone in town. Living in isolation is no fun. So you seem to have two possible strategies. You can seek out others within the community who have also refused to fall under your aunt's spell and choose to fill your life with those folks. If that doesn't seem possible, I would start planning for the day when you can afford to move.

You moved there for the hospital and family. The second one has ceased to be a draw, so that leaves the hospital. Surely other communities have good medical facilities. Your house would sell ... in time. If jobs and income are an issue, start looking elsewhere and something will eventually pop up. You may not be able to afford to move immediately, but I bet you could do so in time.

In a larger community, I would simply advise you to seek out other people. If this is not possible in your small town, your best bet might be to cut your losses and head for less poisoned waters.

All the best,
Andrew
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