Monday, November 27, 2006

Dismaying Story #87: Sisters Who Need Each Other

Dear Andrew,

I recently sent a letter to my siblings and received a troubling response from my sister. I don't know how to respond to her. Here is the letter I sent:


-------------------------------

What I am going to share with you is in no way intended to be a negative reflection on anyone. I do not intend to hurt your feelings or upset you. If I do, please forgive me and talk to me about it.

I was married to a violent alcoholic. For a number of years we dealt with it by avoidance. The girls and I would go to our rooms at the end of the day before he came in the house to stay out of the way. There were times that we simply had to leave. If you think about it you may remember a time that we showed up at your place unannounced without a real reason.

That worked for a while. Then he would seek out whichever one of us was his target. Remember in 1996 when I tripped over a cat and fell down the steps breaking my tailbone and dislocating a hip? That was a lie; I was protecting one of my girls and got knocked down the stairs. Remember in 1989 when I walked into a cupboard door and got three stitches just below my right eye? Another lie. There were a lot of little lies that I told and in my mind I was saving face and protecting you.

We joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses because that was the only religion that he would allow and I desperately needed God in my life. Their meetings also gave us a safe place to go three nights a week.

I was never allowed to vote my own mind, not allowed to listen to music of my choice, or watch movies of my choice. They might have "given me ideas." I wasn’t allowed to have phone calls when he was home; not allowed to have friends or family over if he was home. While he had all these great things he never shared with the girls and me. He paid the mortgage; I paid for everything else related to the house and the girls. We rarely had money for extras while he had all kinds of toys-after all, he worked hard to earn it, and we didn’t.

When he moved out, he lived with the woman he was having an affair with at the time. When the affair ended, I forgave him and we moved on.

When we moved to a new city I thought "Oh a fresh start, everything will finally be okay." I discovered after we got here that the move was based on lies. His new assignment was to the country where another woman was. He is still seeing her to this day. He was spending three weeks there and one week with us. All this after the promises of moving to a new city so he would travel less and we could be a family again. The only saving grace was that the travel meant we were subjected to less violence.

That was the final straw. I was alone in a big city without family or friends. As you know, I can truly forgive anyone for most anything. However, I could not forgive my husband anymore. Between the adultery, the violence, and living in constant fear I had to do something. So, I got a job and filed for divorce.

It hasn’t been easy. The girls have suffered tremendously. It hurts me when someone says "he always was good to me" or "he never did anything to me" or "that’s all between you two." Those may all be true statements but I am your family and your loyalty should be to me not to the person who terrorized the girls and me. It really hurts.

Please forgive my selfishness in getting this off my chest. I do not want sympathy, just understanding. Perhaps forgiveness is also necessary since I have kept so much from you and perpetuated the lies for so long. Maybe I even need your forgiveness for telling you this when you did not want to hear it.

-------------------------------

After sending that letter, I received the following response from my sister:

-------------------------------

Many years ago you misunderstood something I said and have thought me a liar ever since. The only memory I have of my father is one and a half years of molestation that ended with him forcing me to have sex with him. I know you don't believe me and it kills me to watch you have a relationship with him. I'm not lying. I have several psychiatrists that will tell you I'm telling the truth. How can you and I get past this? Don't get mad at me, please. Let's finally talk about it.

-------------------------------

Andrew, how do I respond to her? I can't give up a relationship with dad when I really don't believe her. What do I do? How can we talk about it when I know she wants me to discontinue a relationship with him and I'm not willing to do that?

Signed, Disbeliever


Dear Disbeliever,

First of all, I am sorry to hear of all the pain you and your children have endured at the hands of your ex-husband. I'm sure it took a great deal of courage to finally break away.

I can assure you that your girls need a great deal of help, and will for some time to come. They need to learn that the dynamic they witnessed between you and your husband is not normal and is unacceptable. Their father has done a thorough job of showing them how unimportant they are. Talk with them about this. Explain why you put up with it and why there is no need for them to do the same. Do your best to convince them they are truly special and worthy of love, so they are not tempted to settle for whatever guy will show them some attention. If they don't learn that lesson, they are at great risk for accepting abusive and controlling men into their own lives.

As for your sister, you should give serious consideration to what she says, and talk with her about your father. Let me explain why.

First let's assume you are correct, that she has fabricated this story about your father. Why would she do that? Perhaps it is a plea for attention, or she may have some other unrelated grudge against him and this is her way of getting back at him. If so, then you must realize she is paying a hefty price for her subterfuge. She loses out on having a relationship with her father and must deal with a good deal of embarrassment and negative feedback from others, including you. This is a huge disincentive to tell such an untruth.

While children do occasionally tell such lies about their parents, the vast majority of people who reveal their long-held "dirty secret" are doing so because they can't hold the crippling emotional pain inside any longer. They are tired of living like a victim and need closure so they can begin the healing process.

Have you talked with your father about this? I suspect not -- your letter makes it clear that you tend to avoid initiating confrontation at all cost. You spent your entire adult life sweeping your own secrets under the carpet. Assuming you did talk to him, though, what would he say? If the allegations were false, he would deny them. If your sister is telling the truth, he would still deny what she has to say. He would express outrage and sadness that she would feel compelled to tell "such lies." In other words, his response would likely be the same regardless of the truth.

Can we point to some reasons why you would find it difficult to accept what she says? First, you have been through an incredible amount of conflict and trauma during the years of your marriage and in the difficult period following the divorce. I'm sure you feel you have endured just about all you can take for this lifetime and several more to come. You have a very real need to have supportive people around who can prop you up, make you feel accepted and loved. Your father likely fills such a role for you right now, and it would be devastating for you to have to give that up.

Secondly, you have shown almost (not quite, but almost) an infinite capacity to forgive and explain away bad behavior on your ex-husband's part. How likely is it that you would have the same tendency when faced with evidence of bad behavior by your father? I suspect the likelihood is high.

Clearly I have no way of knowing the truth of this situation. Based on the factors I mentioned, though, I believe the chances are very high that your sister is telling the truth.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. In your letter you say how much it hurts when your family expresses any kind of support for your ex-husband, and that was before you told them your story. What if, after you informed them about the abuse, they now chose to invite him into their homes and have a direct, loving relationship with him? How hard would that be on you? Well, that is what is happening with you, your sister and your father. She has told you about the abuse she suffered, and in spite of that must watch you have a direct, loving relationship with him. If you let yourself assume for a moment that she is telling the truth, can you imagine how painful that is for her? Yet despite that pain she is reaching out to you in a loving manner.

Even if you can't get past the idea that she is lying, what level of pain would prompt her to maintain that kind of story for this many years? She would have to be hurting tremendously to do that, and she would really need some help from her sister.

Either way, I urge you to open your mind, your heart, and your arms and go talk with your sister. Each of you needs support from the other, big time.

All the best,
Andrew

Is there a relationship issue you have been afraid to talk about? Send me an email and I'll do my best to help. The identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
Read More ->>

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dismaying Story #86: The Designated Driver

Dear Andrew,

I am the oldest child in a large family that has seen a lot of instability and destruction in the past decade. My mother suffers from debilitating alcoholism and my father from equally destructive addictions. However, I have a healthy lifestyle, happy marriage, a college degree and a successful career — and I wish the same for my younger siblings.

One of my little sisters in particular has impressed me. She beat several odds (including placing a baby for adoption at the age of sixteen) to go from high school to college as seamlessly as possible. However, I recently learned that my sister is dating a total jerk, eight years her senior, with whom she is sexually active (despite her reform to premarital abstinence). She's flunking out of her first semester of college courses, and worst of all, drinking. She gave up her baby to avoid our mother's outcome, but she seems to be heading that way anyway. Perhaps that sounds extreme, but I believe that in our family, the difference between stability and alcoholism is little more than that first drink.

I've made a bad habit of wanting to "save" my mom and my siblings in the past, acting like a parental figure — taking them under my wing, moving in with them to help out at home, even having my sister come live with me this past summer to prepare her for college. When I see my sister compromising her values (again!) for some guy she says she doesn't even like, throwing away her hard-earned chances at an education, and experimenting with a substance she's genetically predisposed to become addicted to, my first instinct is to take over her decisions for her. I want to become the Designated Driver for her life.

I can't decide where to draw the line between helping her and watching her learn the hard way. I feel that "doing it for her" robs her of the refining fire experiences and the valuable learning curve that molded me into the person I am. I know my sister will listen to me if I talk to her. With this sort of influence, however, it's important to me that I have the right approach.

I suspect that her lack of motivation and self-respect may be a sign of depression. She is genetically prone to that as well, although I've never really noticed it in her before.

What should I do?

Signed, Designated Driver


Dear Designated Driver,

You are right to be concerned about your sister, and there is nothing bad about wanting to help her. Taking over the reins of her life may not be the only answer, though.

We all learn by observing the world around us, and it sounds like your sister witnessed many years of your parents displaying severely compromised life skills. In such circumstances it may not be surprising (though it is sad) when a young person starts making bad decisions of their own.

Like it or not, statistics tell us that it is common for college-age people to experiment with drinking and sex. For some this amounts to a natural transition into adulthood, while for others this type of behavior can lead to drastic consequences. Three signs of trouble concern me In your sister's case. The first is the pregnancy, which can happen to anyone when sex begins, but is nonetheless a sign that she was not able to successfully navigate through that particular patch of potential trouble. Then there is the older boyfriend. While age gap relationships can be made to work, they are uncommon and fraught with issues, so this also serves as a red flag. One of the issues, as you mentioned, is that sex for an older guy may be normal, whereas it may be more emotional baggage than your sister can handle right now.

The third issue for me is the fact that she is failing her college courses. As a university professor I have worked with thousands of college freshmen. In all those cases I have yet to see a student fail because of lack of ability. If they have the high school marks to be admitted, then they have the brain power to succeed. The issues are always around lifestyle and work habits. If your sister were applying herself to her studies, then she would be passing, it's as simple as that. She has lost sight of what is important right now (her studies) and has instead fallen into a destructive pattern of focusing on other things, which likely means partying with her boyfriend and other friends.

I have friends who are alcoholics, so I acknowledge there are many people for whom one drink is too many. That may indeed be the case with your sister, I don't know. What I do know is that I hear "drinking" and "failing courses" together. She has proven she can't handle both at the same time.

So what can you do about all this?

Should you treat her like an independent adult? Let her sink or swim on her own? Allow life to teach her some harsh lessons? I don't think so. First-year college students like to think of themselves as all grown up, but after working with them for over twenty years I can tell you they are usually not done maturing. She is too young for you to abandon her to the wolves.

Should you try to yank her out of college and protect her by sheltering her in your home for a while? That seems to be an over-reaction. She has to continue to strive, to live her life.

Happily, those are only the two extreme approaches. What about the other 99 percent of the options open to you? Since you say she will listen to you, I would sit her down and have a heart-to-heart chat with her. Start by convincing her that you are correct to be concerned. See if you can get her to agree that not all is well in her universe. Bring up the issues you mentioned in your letter, and try to be supportive rather than accusatory when you do so. Rather than acting exasperated and demanding to know "Why are you going back on your intentions?", ask her gently what she hoped to accomplish at college. Persist at this, even if she claims not to have any goals. Ask what any college student should be trying to achieve, such as building a foundation for her future. Then ask her whether she believes she is doing so.

You must stay with this step until you get her to buy into the idea that she has problems. You may or may not get agreement on all the issues (coursework, older boyfriend, sex, and drinking) so you will have to use some judgment as to when you think you have made enough progress to move on. You can talk again another time; it doesn’t all have to get done in one sitting.

Once she acknowledges there are issues, then you can move on to discuss potential solutions. Teenagers usually hate being told what to do, so I suggest you use the approach of asking for her ideas first. The answers may seem obvious to you (e.g. break up with the boyfriend) but are likely to be far less so to her. After all, she has made her current decisions for reasons that make sense to her. If the boyfriend is less than an ideal match, it is highly likely she believes she can't do any better. "No one else would want a loser like me, someone who has already had a baby and has parents like mine and can't even pass a few college courses." I would bet money that she has thoughts like these, so the prospect of dumping him will seem stressful. The thought of being alone may seem worse than the status quo. You need to recognize the underlying factors and patiently help her to see the truth, that she is worthy and doesn't have to settle in life.

Talk to her. Be her coach. Help her work through the issues behind her poor decision-making, and then cheer her on as she starts to take halting steps in healthier directions. That way you haven't abandoned her to life's cruel lessons, nor have you stolen her opportunity to experience and grow.

If none of that has any effect, and if her life continues to spiral downward, then the time may come when a more intrusive intervention makes sense. It doesn't sound, though, like you are at that point yet.

I wish both you and your sister good luck.

All the best,
Andrew
Read More ->>

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Dismaying Story #85: Love is a Verb!




Today's question is the most succinct I have received, as well as one of the most significant since it pertains to choosing a life partner.

Dear Andrew,

How do you know when a man really loves you?

Signed, Wondering


Dear Wondering,

I once talked with a man who was in the midst of a career change. He was moving to a new city for a couple of years, and then he would be assigned a position in yet another city. It was highly unlikely that this work would ever take him back to his hometown. He decided to make this move knowing that, for a variety of reasons, his wife and young children were staying in the hometown.

I told him that no career aspiration would ever be important enough for me to move away from my family, that I simply loved them too much. This made him angry. "You have no idea," he said, "how much I love my family!"

As I reflected on this conversation later, I came to the conclusion that he and I used the word "love" in entirely different ways. He was talking about the intense emotion he felt inside. Despite how he phrased his response to me, he was referring to love as a noun, as an inner feeling.

To me, though, love is a verb. It is expressed by our actions toward others. When I say I love my family, I mean that I do things for them in an effort to make their lives better. Sure, this results from those strong feelings I harbor in my heart, but by themselves those feelings have no impact whatsoever on the people in my life. It is only when I translate those feelings into action that my love has a chance to enrich those around me. I could simply adore my wife and children, yet if I abuse, ignore, abandon, or otherwise treat them poorly, what good would my feelings of affection be to them?

I interpret your question to mean: "How can I tell when a man really harbors a deep and abiding love for me in his heart?" (And by the way, the question is equally valid when asked by a man about a woman.) In other words, I believe you are asking about love the noun. My answer is that you will never -- can never -- experience this type of love directly. It will always be hidden from view. I believe you should be concerned with his actions toward you. How do his feelings translate into behavior? What do you experience as a result of being with him?

Does he do supportive things for you? Does he make you feel good about yourself and about the two of you as a couple? Does he let you know that he cares, or does he keep it inside and assume you should just know? Are you doing all the giving in this relationship, or do the concrete expressions of love flow in both directions? Has he learned what makes you happy and what stresses you? More importantly, does he make an effort to do the former from time to time, and to avoid the latter?

In other words, if he generally treats you well, what more do you need to know? And if he doesn't, then that may be all the answer you need.

Here is another possible interpretation of your question: "How can I tell if he loves me enough to stay with me forever?" Unfortunately, as in other areas of life, there are no guarantees in love. If he has proven himself to be a caring and giving individual, though, and he seems to love being with you, then hopefully there is a good chance that will continue. Talk with him about your respective views on marriage, commitment, and divorce. How does he react when people you know get a divorce? Again, there are no guarantees, and every relationship must withstand highs and lows. Hopefully you can get a sense of how committed he is to your relationship.

I urge you to resist the following thought: "I am not very happy with the way he treats me now, but I know things will be better once we are married." If you have had this thought, you should think seriously about whether this is the relationship for you. In the vast majority of cases, what you see now is what you will get later. Do not count on changing him (or her, if you are a guy).

Finally, this is just one way to approach your question. I bet many readers will have other ways to gauge how their partner feels about their relationship, and these approaches are sure to be equally as valid as my thoughts. Make sure you drop back and see what others have to say. Hopefully you will find a few nuggets amongst the collected advice that will help you in your own situation.

All the best,
Andrew

The Question of the Week is about negative self talk and how it can inhibit our success in life. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so take a moment today and leave a comment.
Read More ->>

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Dismaying Story #84: Painful Love Letters




Dear Andrew,

My girlfriend broke up with me this past summer. I'm not "over" her and I don't think I ever will be. It was kind of an unpleasant breakup, as all are, but we agreed to be friends. I am not going to look for another relationship for a long time because, after this experience, I decided to wait a few years and my parents will arrange a marriage for me as is the custom in my family.

Is it a bad idea to read love letters that this ex-girlfriend wrote to me? Something tells me it's unhealthy. Another part of me says that keeping and reflecting on the good memories is okay. I think part of it is that the letters act as evidence that she loved me. Is this a guilty pleasure that I can afford? I don't think it's wrong per se, but it does make me miss her more. It makes me think of that time we were together and wish that it had lasted.

Signed, Not Over Her


Dear Not Over Her,

The love letters are not your problem. They are simply one way to jog your memory about the relationship you had. You currently have other things that make you think about the relationship, such as when you get up in the morning or when you take a breath. Your problem is that you are having trouble letting go.

You were obviously quite smitten with this girl right up until the time of the break up. Now you are left with all these memories of the great feelings she brought out in you, as well as profound regret that these feelings cannot continue. You are grieving the loss, which is why it hurts to look at the love letters.

A period of mourning is normal after a break up. Eventually, though, you must move past this phase and accept your changed circumstances. In your case I can see at least two factors that may make this difficult for you. First, she is no longer in your life as a partner, which means that you are working only from memories of her. It can be easy in this type of situation to idealize what happened, to forget any of her mundane or less-than-perfect characteristics (other than those you find endearing) and remember only the good. Some people build up an image of a "perfect" ex-partner in their mind.

Not only does that make it hard to let go, but it can lay the foundation for future relationship troubles. Regardless of whether your next relationship begins spontaneously or is arranged by your parents, you still have to make it work. That will be more difficult to do if you are constantly comparing your partner with an idealized memory. No one can live up to such unrealistic expectations, which means you may be dissatisfied for all the wrong reasons and have problems as a result.

It's news flash time, my friend. Your former girlfriend is not perfect either. If you were to get back together with her, over time you would find out she has the same range of wonderful and not-so-wonderful characteristics as the rest of us. Many people have the experience where they fantasize over a former partner, only to bump into them years later and find out that they don't match the memories at all.

If you want to see where this could be headed, read Dismaying Story #44: Hang On Tight about a woman who tried to reconnect with an old flame she had been fantasizing about for twenty-three years. Also check out the comment left by The Memoirist. These stories provide firsthand accounts of the troubles that crop up when we never really break up with someone in our mind.

You say you have decided not to enter into another relationship for some time. This is the second factor that increases the difficulty for you. Oftentimes the best way to get over one relationship is to discover an even better one! Your decision to wait may work out for you, but you should be aware of the additional difficulties this can create.

I can assure you with complete confidence that this former girlfriend is not the one for you. You see, she doesn't want to be with you. Her reasons don't matter. Any good times you shared in the past do not change this about her. You deserve a partner who wants you back, so you need to accept that this relationship is over and move on. Once you have truly done that, you will find that reading the love letters may be poignant, but will no longer be painful.

All the best,
Andrew
Read More ->>

Friday, November 17, 2006

Dismaying Story #83: Something Niggles Him

Dear Andrew,

Please help me understand my partner. I am 41 years old and my partner is 30 years old. We get on fantastically well. He always says how comfortable and relaxed he is in my company, and we have very similar interests. He says he has never been with anyone before that he gets on so well with BUT he says the relationship is 99% perfect. Something niggles him always.

He did say after going out with me for 3 days that the relationship probably won't work since his ideal partner will be a similar age to him and with no children. I have two children one 12 years and one who's 8 years and they all get on remarkably well. He encourages us all to go out together which I have never had before with any other relationship.

I know I can't change his mind. He says we are very much attached to each other but he can't get the thoughts of his ideal partner out of his head.

I have always been under the impression you marry your best friend as he may never find the perfect person. We see each other every day and text every day and do absolutely loads together every week. We are sexually compatible but as his thoughts come back to him and we get serious again he backs off, as if he's frightened of getting too close.

Can you help understand his thoughts? Will he ever change his thoughts?

Signed, Not His Ideal Partner


Dear Not His Ideal Partner,

You are an ideal partner, just not for this guy. You need to find someone who will appreciate you for what you are.

Yes, I understand his thoughts very well. They go something like this: "Wow, what a great deal I have. I get to have sex when I want it. I get a companion to do fun things with me so I don't have to be lonely. I can even hang with her kids when I feel like it. And the icing on the cake? I don't have to promise her a darn thing! I can insult her, tell her she is not good enough for me and that I would really prefer someone different, and it doesn't matter! She still wants me around. This is fantastic. So until someone better comes along, hey, I might as well stick around."

His message to you is unequivocal and clear: "You are not what I want."

So here is my question to you. Why would you want a partner who doesn't want you? The fact that he is still hanging around doesn't mean that he really wants you and he just doesn't know it. It doesn't mean that he will realize over time how much you have come to matter to him. It simply means that he is getting a payoff for being with you today. He gets sex ... today. He gets companionship ... today. If you start talking about long term commitment, then again he tells you that he is most definitely not interested in that, at least not with you.

Why would you put up with that?

Because it means you don't have to be alone ... today. You are also getting a short-term payoff for being with him. More than that, you get that most precious of commodities in relationships -- you get hope. As long as he is hanging around, you can hope things will change. You hope he will eventually see what a wonderful relationship you have and realize he can't live without you.

Hope is a great thing, but in this case it is blinding you from seeing the truth. Your hope is trapping you in a go-nowhere relationship. It is preventing you from moving on and finding a guy who appreciates what an amazing person you really are.

His thoughts will not change. For whatever reasons, he is just not that into you. My advice is to accept that and walk away. Show this guy the door. Only then will you have real hope, because only then will you be available for the partner you deserve, the one who isn't constantly telling you that you are not good enough.

You deserve better than that. Give yourself permission to go find it. The right man for you is out there, I promise.

All the best,
Andrew

There have only been a few responses to this week's Question of the Week about how to make a relationship survive (and hopefully even thrive) during periods of enforced separation. If you have some thoughts on this topic, why not take a moment and contribute to the discussion. I'll post a few thoughts on this tomorrow.
Read More ->>

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dismaying Story #82: Will Leaving Make Him Come Back?

As I read other blogs, I often find posts about people struggling with their relationships. The issues (surprise, surprise) are frequently similar to those that show up in letters I receive from readers. The following is a recent post by Mony, who is clearly struggling. At the same time, though, she is focused on trying to repair the hurt. This shows a good deal of courage and determination, and I thought it was worth sharing. Mony writes:

Thank you for all of your sincere, non-judgmental, caring comments. Each one represented a hug & a comforting hand on my shoulder. Youse Rule.

On many occasions throughout my life I have been told how brave, strong & courageous I am. It's always amazing, if not a little startling to hear people talk about me in such a fashion because I often feel the exact opposite. I don't cry a lot. This is not because of an inner strength or a degree in self meditation. It just takes a heavy deal to bring me undone.

In the past few weeks I have cried countless times, into many different pillows, shoulders & tea towels. It was therapeutic if not a little damp.

I walked out on my husband because I was desperate to show him that I could not accept his dramatic mood swings or unprovoked temper any longer. I just couldn't bury my sadness or isolation another day. It was extremely hard to acknowledge that our polished lives had begun to tarnish & rust. I had glossed over our marriage for too long.

It's hard to air your dirty laundry in front of an unsuspecting audience. It's excruciating to remain motionless as everything drops from the display cabinet that is your life. It's awful to hear negative remarks about your relationship. Looking truth in the eye takes nerves of steel.

But I did it. And I am so glad that I did. Perhaps, just perhaps leaving him was exactly what I needed to do to salvage our relationship.

My husband has had an emotional year. His Mother's stroke has left him incredibly sad. Her recovery has been steady, yet slow. She is blind. She is completely dependant & unable to hold a lightening quick, animated conversation like she used to. We are getting to know the new woman she has become even though we dearly miss the one that she was.

My husband's family business has seen the exit of his Mum, Dad & sister since July. The load on him is unbearable. I know these things are partly to blame for his terrible moods. I also know it is no excuse to treat me badly. Hurting the ones we love can be so, so easy.

He has acknowledged his problems. He is confident he can do much better. He wants to let go of his inner macho shithead persona. He wants to be the man I married.

We are trying to undo the hurt. We are delving into the pile of distress to see if we can recover something beautiful. Sifting & sorting through all the dust in the hope of finding gold.

Brave. Strong. Courageous.
I am.
Read More ->>

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dismaying Story #81: Jealousy Over Past Partners




Dear Andrew,

I am in my ninth month of a relationship with my current girlfriend and I care about her very much. The problem is I was a virgin when we first had sex. I am the seventh guy that she has been with. I really care for this girl and I love her very much. We are both eighteen years old. She has made it clear to me that she doesn't think about them at all. I just want to know what I can do because I still have feelings of absolute hatred for her past relationships and flings. I really think that if I didn't love her like I do, I would leave her because it's very hard to take at times. How do I get over this?

Signed, Wishing I Was First


Dear Wishing,

Mother Nature is a very effective salesperson. She starts working her wily ways as soon as young people are old enough to physically become parents, trying to get them to have sex with each other. The urges are strong and I am enough of a realist to know that in many cases Mother Nature has her way.

Despite that, my advice to teenagers is to be very cautious about how early you become sexually active. Some of the risks are obvious -- pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases -- so you take the pill and use condoms and feel you are protected. No method of birth control is one hundred percent effective, and condoms have been known to break, so there is always some risk. More than that, such measures do nothing to protect you from the emotional landmines that sex introduces into a relationship, especially when the people involved are still maturing.

Two people can hold hands and kiss and touch, and it can feel like sex should be just an extension of that. Some people might think nothing will really change in the relationship if they go that one step further. Like it or not, that's simply not true.

Young women have many potential concerns. Pregnancy impacts both people involved, but obviously more so for the girl. Often girls worry about whether they will get a reputation as someone who is loose and easy. For many people, sex implies a deeper commitment to the relationship, which can add pressure if things don't always go smoothly or when you break up. Girls tend to be taught that good girls don't, so their inner voice can pipe up and suggest they are now a bad person, that the sex is wrong. This can make it difficult for them to relax and enjoy the sex (which makes me wonder if it is worth doing in those circumstances). And here is another common lament: "Does he really like me, or does he only want to be with me because I give him the sex he wants? Would any guy want me if I didn't put out?" I could go on.

The list is somewhat shorter for the guys, but can still cause plenty of dismay. "Why can't she just relax and enjoy it like I do? Why does she have to act like it's such a big deal?" The answers are essentially found in the preceding paragraph, but young men frequently lack the insight to understand the concerns involved from the girl's point of view. This apparent lack of empathy can, in turn, deepen the issues for the girl, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of problems.

Another common concern for young men is the one expressed in the letter. Despite the realities of pre-marital sex, society perpetuates the image of two virgins on their wedding night as ideal. A virginal boyfriend can feel that his more experienced partner somehow falls short of that vision. More than that, the dating game for guys is one of attracting a girl, beating out the competition. They want the girl all to themselves and past sexual partners can be perceived as competitors. This may seem illogical -- they are, after all, in the past -- yet your letter is an example that proves my point. "She has made it clear to me that she doesn't think about them at all." In other words, you worry that she still thinks about and has feelings for those other guys, that you are competing with them for her feelings.

The bottom line is that life is simpler in teenage relationships that don't involve sex.

To me, your situation is all about (a) knowing what you want in life, and (b) your emotional development. Perhaps you would truly prefer a virginal partner, someone who fits with that societal ideal. You may not be attracted to a girl who has had several partners at such a young age. If so, then this is not the girl for you and you should move on. If that's the case, though, you should examine your own behavior; by having sex with her you have created exactly the situation you are trying to avoid. It would be hypocritical to act one way and expect others to behave differently.

I don't believe that is what is going on with you, though. You simply can't get past that competitive mindset. The image of her with someone else drives you bananas, and you worry about what those images mean to her.

Here's the thing. This is your first sexual relationship so it feels extra special to you. You have never had this feeling before and you can't imagine it going away. The natural assumption is that she must have had this special feeling for those other guys, which makes it difficult for you to imagine that her extra-special feelings for them could have disappeared. You have never had the experience of moving on to a new relationship after having sex, so you find it hard to understand what it must be like for her, and you imagine the worst.

If a girl has a sex-less relationship and breaks up, her partner becomes an ex-boyfriend. The relationship is over, done with. If she has sex and then breaks up, her partner becomes (surprise, surprise) every bit as much of an ex-boyfriend. The fact that sex took place does not increase the threat to subsequent beaus.

You need to come to the realization that this is not about her; it's all about your own insecurities. She is with you because she wants to be. Count yourself fortunate and let the past go.

All the best,
Andrew
Read More ->>

Friday, November 10, 2006

Dismaying Story #80: Catching a Cheating Spouse




Dear Andrew,

I've been married over a year now. Several years back, with my then-boyfriend now husband, there were issues of trust. More specifically, I did not trust him. I don't consider myself a jealous person, but the distrust was based on vague information, strange stories on his part, things that just didn't add up. Gut instinct, essentially.

Here we are, 3 years later, and I feel much better. I should say, I felt much better until last night. I went to bed before my spouse, as usual. I had been watching something scary on TV, and decided to leave the bedroom door open, something we don’t normally do. I struggled to fall asleep, and within 15 or 20 minutes, I noticed he was on the phone. This is not unusual. He’s got family in Europe and often talks to them late at night. What was unusual about this was that his conversation was in English. I could not hear anything specific, but I did notice his tone. It was soft, not something he ever adjusts when talking to family or friends, regardless of the time of day. They’re loud people. The TV, which he originally had on, was turned down. Shortly thereafter, he turned it up, loud enough to cover the conversation. It reminded me of the way he used to talk to me on the phone, way back when during our courtship; as if he was trying to conceal the privacy of our conversations from other ears. Only this time, I was the other set of ears.

I struggled to listen from the bedroom for a while, but thought, “This is ridiculous!” I walked out into the living room, sat down and watched TV while he continued his conversation. His voice increased in volume (as if now there was nothing to hide) and he lowered the volume of the earpiece. It didn’t matter. I could tell it was a woman. The conversation seemed to change course when I entered the room. He began filling in details about his work day. Then it turned to some conflict at work. He eventually said, “I’ve gotta go” and hung up. I didn’t ask anything, but continued to watch TV. He immediately informs me that this assistant manager was calling him for his advice, and he was being dragged into a problem at work that he didn’t want a part of. Only problem was, his phone never rang. It was 11:00 at night.

My husband has a history of lying about things that are seemingly small, in order to avoid conflict. The problem is, those small lies created doubt in my mind, particularly on a night like last night. I hadn’t noticed any of these lies until a few months ago, when I caught him in a very strange lie, but couldn’t expose him. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not a jealous or suspecting person. So why did I lay in bed last night fantasizing about finding his phone and checking to see who made the call and who received that call? And his phone? Out of sight. Not by his bedside this morning and not in the living room. The basis for my insecurity is a sporadic and unsatisfying sex life. Andrew, what sort of advice can your offer now that you have some insight into the mind of a wife who fears her husband is seeking physical companionship from another woman? We absolutely cannot afford the cost of therapy at this time, though I believe we desperately need it.

Signed, Suspicious


Dear Suspicious,

Those who have discovered that their spouse has been having an affair often comment that the signs of the infidelity had been evident for a while but they chose not to believe them. Your account of the late night phone call does not make you seem like a jealous, insecure wife. On the contrary, it sounds like your instincts are spot on. His behavior did not fit with familiar patterns and he lied about receiving the phone call rather than making it. I would be suspicious too.

Your letter also suggests other ongoing problems in your marriage. There are trust issues dating back some time, an unsatisfactory sex life (which means it is almost certainly unsatisfactory for him as well) and he has a habit of telling lies. This sounds like a high-risk situation to me. According to the FAQFarm article Signs of a Cheating Spouse, here are a few of the common indicators:
  • They act distant. Your intimacy level goes down.
  • You stop having sex, or have sex less often.
  • Someone from the opposite sex calls that you never heard off. Perhaps they say it is a business call.
  • They develop a special interest in appearance and personal grooming.
  • They start having unexplained time away. For example, a trip to the store for some milk takes an hour, or they frequently call to tell you they will be home late, e.g. they are helping out a friend, their truck broke down.
The first few items from that list could be taken directly from your letter. There are other signs and I suggest you look at the article.

Another danger sign is something you didn't say. When a marriage is in good shape and the trust level is high, then life is an open book. Neither partner has anything to hide so asking questions is not considered threatening. If that had been me and my wife in your story, I have no doubt she would have immediately come back with, "What do you mean someone called you? The phone didn't ring. And I could hear that it was a woman's voice." All the cards would have been on the table immediately. I'm not saying that is what you should have done (see below), just that your silence is one more indicator of a less-than-trusting relationship.

In your situation, I believe you reacted appropriately by saying nothing. I have seen several resources that advise you to keep your initial suspicions to yourself, including an About.com article called How to Catch a Cheating Spouse. This article suggests several reasons for waiting:
  • If you are wrong, your lack of trust can hurt your spouse and damage your relationship.
  • Your spouse is apt to make more mistakes if you act trusting and dumb than if you accuse them.
  • If they are cheating, you should wait to accuse them until you have enough evidence to prove it and you're ready to take action.
  • For your own sake, you should wait until you can handle their response. Suspecting is one thing; having them confirm their adultery is much worse.
I suggest you should try to gather the information you need to confirm whether your suspicions are true. You said you can't afford therapy, so I suspect the same is true of a private detective. If so, the About.com article also offers several ways you can gather information on your own, including the following:
  • Keep a detailed journal of your spouse's activities. See if there is a pattern to your spouse's 'extra' times away.
  • Record times and dates of phone calls that are hang-ups and/or wrong numbers. Call unknown phone numbers from a pay phone, say nothing, see if you can identify who answers.
  • Check the mileage on the car before and after trips.
  • Become unpredictable. Show up at your spouse's office for lunch without notice. Say you're working late when you plan on being home early or on time.
  • Read their email.
  • Go through their wallet or purse.
We all have a tendency to avoid looking for answers when the result might be bad news. In a case like yours, though, finding out the worst is still better than not knowing.

Regardless of whether he is cheating, you are right in thinking that your marriage has issues, with a general lack of trust and closeness at the top of the list. If you decide to work on those issues, here are a couple of quick suggestions:
  • Sharing positive experiences tends to build closeness. Find ways to have fun together on a regular basis.
  • Trust develops when both partners live life as an open book. Ask him if he is willing to do so, and get in the habit of having absolutely no secrets from each other.
Of course, these suggestions may be difficult to achieve if he is in the habit of lying to you, or if he is indeed cheating. Not all marriages survive that kind of betrayal.

I wish you luck in your search for answers.

All the best,
Andrew
Read More ->>

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Dismaying Story #79: Alone with her Thoughts

Dear Andrew,

I grew up an Air Force brat. This meant I moved around a lot and did not form lasting friendships. The only friend I have from childhood is my sister. I sometimes feel like I live in her shadow since she is older, but that is beside the point.

I am now 27 and have few friends. I have a very hard time making friends because I have terribly low self-esteem. I am always afraid people are judging me and talking about me behind my back. I think this relates back to my childhood, but I am just not able to get over this insecurity. I think I am beautiful and have a great family, so my insecurity is not about my looks; it's about who I am as a person. I never feel like I am good enough on the inside, like I am not worthy of having friends.

How do I get over this and make friends? I fear it's not as simple as going to a new book club.

Signed, Friendless


Dear Friendless,

You are right; it is not as simple as getting out there and meeting more people. You need to change what is going on inside yourself. The good news is that this is possible to do.

Moving frequently as a child is a circumstance of your life and a contributing factor to your problem, but it is not the cause. Yes, moving can make it more challenging to form lasting friendships, but it does not preclude doing so. Some people are so gregarious and sociable that they would manage to fill their life with friends even in those circumstances.

You also mention a lack of friends, low self-esteem, fear of judgment, and feelings of low self-worth. Again, these are not the causes of your problem -- they are symptoms. You need to identify the causes so you can recognize them, acknowledge the impact they are having on your life, and discard their influence.

What do you say to yourself when you are all alone? Is your internal self-talk positive or negative? You have already answered that -- you express doubt about yourself. You question whether you are good enough and tell yourself that you are not.

These fears came from somewhere. Your negative self-talk habit did not just spring up spontaneously. This is based on your accumulated life experiences. Somewhere in your past you have been conditioned to react like this. You have learned to do so.

Happily, you can also learn positive self-talk. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to go through a discovery exercise where you recognize the influences in your past that helped to create your self-defeating habits. You can identify the positive impacts that these influences contributed to your life (because you want to retain these), and then discard the negative aspects.

Such negative internal voices flourish in the dark. They love to remain anonymous. When you are feeling vulnerable and alone, they delight in showing just enough of themselves so they can tell you how unworthy you are and then they scurry back into their dark crevices. Dragging them into the harsh sunlight and exposing their true nature is often an effective way to recognize the lies they tell. Identifying the true nature of your self-talk can make it possible to manage it.

When that voice inside you says, "You know they won't like you," you can respond, "Hey, I recognize you. Thank you for your input. Now go back and sit on your stool in the corner and be quiet."

You are worthy of friendship. Everyone is! More than that, the problems you describe are incredibly common. I hear similar stories all the time, including from some of the most outwardly confident and successful people you can imagine. It is amazing how many of us struggle with those self-doubting internal voices. But they can be managed by finding someone to help guide you through the discovery process I described.

All the best,
Andrew

Do you have a story that you tell people about how you and your significant other met? If so, then the Question of the Week is for you!
Read More ->>

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Dismaying Story #78: She Found Someone Else




This heartfelt story is a touch on the long side, but it is a poignant description of a painful situation that all too many people end up facing. I offer a few thoughts of my own at the end.

Dear Andrew,

I am a man who has been married for seven years. I have been a father since I was seventeen and my wife was sixteen. We did not get married out of some obligation to try to make it work for the child. We got married three years later when we realized our love was deeper than ever.

I decided that I needed to get into a better job and took a chance on a commission based job. It was hard and retail was hard on the family time. After finding no better pay and the store closing I got a new job at a better place and things started to look up until the winter when sales drop dramatically but the bills don't. Our credit card debt grew along with my depression. I got to a point where I was desperate to get out the hole we had dug but the debt grew. We tried to work on our spending but my wife wanted to have fun and that included going to bars. I didn't mind going out except I could never get the debt out of my head.

Along the way I became more and more depressed and I just suppressed it. I became moody a lot and the job's hours forced me to miss a lot of things with the family. It was hard but I felt that my love for my family would keep me going on.

Things got worse and our debt got to an overwhelming number and my wife decided we had to do something drastic. She found a job where all the money did not have to go to daycare. We were so happy and she was excited. This was our way out of debt and onto a better life. This is when my story of dismay starts.

During the training for the job she became good friends with a man, I guess due to his attentiveness. The job training required a lot of time together. After the training was over we had a vacation for the week of the Fourth of July. I felt there was something amiss but couldn't put my finger on it and tried to have a good time. We made love a few time but it was a family vacation so no real romance. The intimacy was strained and I didn't really think it anything but the fact my family was there. There was no fighting and it was a pleasant time mostly. My wife did go for walks alone a few times and I found out later it was to call her new friend. She called him every day we were there.

When we got back my wife wanted to go see her friends and go out. I was fine with it not worried about anything and just thinking she wanted to catch up. Our seventh year anniversary was that Monday and so was her first day of work. I spent the day with my boys and we had a good time but I didn't do much but laundry. I also had a plan to make the day seem like just another day and then knock her socks off that weekend. I never got the chance.

She went to her friend's apartment who lived down the hall she said to tell her about her day at work. She came back and said we needed to talk. She seemed distant and I stopped what I was doing and asked what was up. She wanted to talk when the boys were asleep but I pressed her asking if she was pregnant. She said no she was unhappily married and had met a friend at work. I was blown away. I had never thought her so unhappy as to look elsewhere for love. She assured me they were just friends but he was understanding and they talked about their similar situations. She said he was married but separated and didn't want a divorce from his wife because it meant a large alimony payment he would have to make. I was hurt and shocked. I was scared but anger never crept into my head that night. I tried to find the words to show her that I did love her and that it was something we could get through but her mind had been made up. That night she stayed over at her friend's house down the hall. I cried myself to sleep wanting to call her but not knowing what to say.

Two days later I moved out to my mother's house. My wife and I talked about what had happened and why she was doing this. She said she had been unhappy for four years but held it in because she had felt trapped with no job and a baby. She said she tried to talk to me about it but couldn't so she thought it would go away. Then she gave me the "I love you but I'm not in love with you" line which I have now found out is the killer of a lot of marriages. I went to a counselor and tried to talk to my wife but she wanted time away and refused to see me. I begged and pleaded and generally went crazy. After many useless conversations and arguments we agreed to see a marriage counselor. It was a disaster because the counselor basically sided with my wife in the belief that there was no hope and it was time to move on. Let me tell you of the rage I felt that day. This was a person who I thought should have got into the issues a little deeper before passing judgment. I know now that we didn't even get near anything that was truly wrong in the marriage and just got to the symptoms.

I read a book called "The Divorce Remedy" and read it and put into act the techniques proscribed within. It is a very good book for anyone in this situation and a true starting point for the road to moving forward. I got a life and worked hard on changing the things I thought were wrong in me and not so much the thing my wife saw as wrong.

It did a lot for my self esteem and confidence. It also showed me that there is a true need for people to stand up for marriage in the U.S. The state of marriage in the States is such a sad affair with a fifty-fifty chance of staying married to one person forever. There is a thought that the individual's happiness is most important no matter what the consequences of the actions. The cycle of divorce is vicious and cruel for most of the people going through it. It is said that one third of the divorces in America are warranted for real reasons of severe abuse and life threatening relationships. The rest could work if there wasn't such an easy road out. Divorce is easier than working on a marriage. In what I have seen it isn't the better road either. The saddest part of it all is the biggest casualties end up being the children and the life they have shattered and torn apart.

My efforts to work on saving my marriage haven't got me back with my wife and she is still moving toward divorce. I have decided to fight for my wife. I have told her this and we have really duked it out over our conflicting views. My wife tells me that she has lost the physical attraction to me and that once gone it will never come back. I have a different view and that is that she had decided to not be attracted to me because of the want for something more, some greener pastures on that other side of the fence. I know that deep in my heart of hearts we had a real love. We didn't know how to make a marriage work and that was because they never had that class in high school or college or anywhere. There are books to guide you on the way and get you where you need to be. A positive attitude is contagious and gets you places you would never think possible.

Every time I think this marriage is over something happens to give me hope and move things in the right direction. I have decided to become passionate about marriage and start with mine. I have written this story to tell everyone who will listen that marriage needs champions to fight for it. I'm not saying everyone should go out and get married. I know there are people who feel just as strongly about not being married as I do about being married. Go ahead and live that life and be as happy as you can. I am saying that those who find marriage sacred shouldn't hesitate to voice that view. When a friend tells you they aren't happy in their marriage and are thinking about divorce, stand up for marriage. Let them know the facts of life and divorce. If you don't know them, find out. Tell them all relationships require work and a marriage requires ten times the effort of any other. Tell them the hardships and troubles, when overcome, will give them more than they ever thought they could have. Believe in true love and soul mates and they will happen.

Signed, A Married Man


Dear Married Man,

Thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry to hear of your troubles.

I'm sure your wife could tell me of several legitimate concerns from her point of view. She is obviously unhappy, and both of you must have contributed to the problems.

I have never been a believer, though, in ending a marriage by finding someone else. This is a betrayal of the commitment we make when we say those vows. Someone who is committed to a marriage will fight hard to save it, even in the face of adversity, especially when there is adversity.

It sounds like the first conversation you and your wife had about your marriage troubles was the one where she told you she had met someone else and wanted out. If she was truly committed to your marriage, the first conversation should have been about acknowledging the problems and expressing a desire to fix them. I can understand if meeting someone else was the trigger for recognizing the depth of her dissatisfaction, but a committed person would react to this revelation differently. In my opinion, she should have resolved the situation with you fully before moving on to someone else.

That doesn't mean all marriages can necessarily be saved, but someone who is committed should at least make the effort.

I wish you good luck in resolving your situation.

All the best,
Andrew
Read More ->>

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Dismaying Story #77: A Pressure Cooker Relationship

Dear Andrew,

I've been with my guy for five years. I kissed him after he'd swore that he wasn't sexually involved with his ex, although they did sleep together after he left her. They have a son together and she'd been having affairs all the way through the relationship.

Our sexual attraction was so strong that we just HAD to go there. But I waited to make a physical move until he had confirmed they weren't still sleeping together and I wouldn't be the "other" woman.

I soon found out he lied to me and we had a big fight. Since then I have real trouble trusting his word and we have a very dramatic relationship. I stayed with him because the bond was so strong and I wanted him to have a loyal partner, but he put me in a terrible position and it still rattles me now.

He's also terribly jealous, obviously because of his ex's exploits. He has a real problem with me not wanting sex and has been verbally abusive about it. Now he is just moody when I don't want it. I've tried everything I can think of to make this work, I'm confused whether to stay or go.

This is the longest and most angst ridden relationship I've ever had and I thought committing was staying with it no matter what problems arise. His way of dealing with problems is mostly to say we'll split up then, when I agreed once, he stalked me badly for 3 months, harassing phone calls and constant attention but I think really it's more a case of he doesn't want anyone else to have me.

I don't think he's been unfaithful but I know he's feeling under desired and I'm feeling over desired. My libido stays hidden all the time now. He constantly reminds me that I wasn't this way when we first met, which makes me feel like a freak. He's very sexual and I feel everything nice he does for me is done with this ulterior motive to have sex. I know guys need this to feel wanted and loved but to what extremes will they go to for it?

I can't be the only woman in the world to want less sex after 5 years and all the problems we've had. But he just continues to make me feel bad about it because it makes him feel bad. I think we've both just hanging on and waiting to meet someone else, which is what he did before.

I also need some financial security and to feel like my man is able to look after us but he's one of those don't worry money always comes guys. I've been trying to worry less and copy his beliefs on this but whenever I bring up things I'm worried about he mostly freaks out.

Obviously he has some amazing qualities and we have shared some wonderful times but we always seem to be in a state of flux and it's hard to relax into a happy place of feeling secure.

He has made efforts but they seem to only last for 2-3 weeks then it reverts back to the old ways. I know I'm no saint and I'm a handful sometimes but I feel it's an emotionally immature relationship. I'm afraid all guys are really like this and I might as well have the devil I know.

Please advise me, it's driving me crazy. Is love really this complicated? It feels like it's all about his desires and insecurities overriding everything.

Signed, Under Pressure


Dear Under Pressure,

Anyone who is a regular reader of this site knows that I like to examine situations from both sides. In this case, though, I am having a difficult time coming up with a viewpoint that paints your boyfriend in anything but a negative light. Yes, it sounds like he has issues and insecurities, but that is no excuse for the way he treats you.

I feel confident in what you should do, and I have some thoughts as to why you have not already done so. Let's discuss both.

First, here is my advice. Leave him. Today. Regardless of whose fault you think these problems might be, this is a poisonous relationship for you and after five years, it is not going to get better.

This isn't even a close judgment call. Let's add it up. He has cheated on you, lied to you, emotionally and verbally abused you, stalked you, shown a complete lack of understanding and empathy for your reactions to problems caused by his actions, disrespected you, and neglected your needs (emotional, financial, and everything-else-al). Your lack of libido is completely understandable given all these issues. Who would be turned on by that scenario? And these are only the issues you have mentioned in a one-page email. I bet there are more where they came from. Whatever amazing qualities you see in him and fun times you have, it's not worth the pain you are enduring.

Not all guys are like this, I promise. I am not like this. My friends are not like this. I'm sure many readers can assure you that their men are not at all like this. Love definitely does not have to be this complicated. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that what you are experiencing from him is not love at all. Love is giving and kind. A loving boyfriend wants you to be happy and tries to make that happen. It doesn't sound like this guy is trying, and even if he is, he is failing miserably.

I truly believe you would be better off to get out of this relationship. If he stalks you again, take whatever steps you feel are necessary to keep yourself physically safe. Talk to the police and get a restraining order. (And stalking is proof positive he is not the kind of guy you want to have around.)

Your email makes it clear you know this is not a great relationship. So why have you kept him? You've mentioned a couple of reasons (worried that he will stalk you again, thinking this might be as good as it gets, rationalizing about "the good times") and I suspect there are more. People who have experienced this kind of poor treatment often come to believe they don't deserve any better, and worry no one else would want them. Neither of these worries is true. No one deserves that kind of abuse and emotional neglect, and yes there are plenty of other (and better) fish in the sea.

Have the courage to make a positive change in your life. You are worth it.

All the best,
Andrew

If you haven't already done so, now would be a great time to give some thought to the Question of the Week regarding trust between parents and children.
Read More ->>

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Dismaying Story #76: Longstanding Complaints

Dear Andrew,

My younger sister is 50 years old and has been married for 27 years. She has complained about her marriage most of that time. As you may have heard, arranged marriages are the norm in India, where the parent finds the prospective spouse. My parents gave her the freedom to reject her current husband before they were married but she chose to go through with it. We later found out that he wanted very much to marry another girlfriend but his mother forbade it and finally, under pressure from her, he agreed to marry my sister. She found out about this around the time she had her first child, but she stayed with him, had a second child, and kept complaining.

He seems affectionate to her family (she says it's all put on) but I have seen flashes of anger when he deals with her. Much of what she says of him may be true. Whenever any of us suggest a strategy, though, she rejects it because it's not exactly what she has in mind. Now I no longer feel I should get involved because I feel she has to make a decision herself. She still rings my 89-year-old mother up and complains. She may sound ready to walk out one evening and sound totally different the next day.

Don't you think my sister and her husband have gotten so used to this destructive relationship pattern that it actually fulfills some need in them both? What should my mother and I do? Should we intervene?

Signed, Concerned Older Sister


Dear Concerned,

Your sister gets some sort of payoff for complaining to you and your mother, or she wouldn't do it. It sounds to me, though, as if she is confusing activity with accomplishment. She talks about her marriage a great deal but apparently does little to actually improve it; if she had, she would no longer need to complain.

Your sister is facing the same issues and pressures today that she has for so many years. After consistently making the same decisions all along, she is highly unlikely to take the initiative and make a change now.

So should you intervene? I'll answer that by asking you a question: what sort of intervention could you try? You have already listened, discussed, cajoled, sympathized, and made suggestions to her. What else could you do? She has not listened to you so far, so she is unlikely to start now.

Like it or not, she is an adult and is responsible for making her own life decisions. You can't step in and decide. Given that there are children involved, I'm not sure you would take that responsibility even if you could.

As callous as it may seem, I recommend you simply take steps to reduce the amount of frustration this causes for you and (if possible) your mother. You have to accept that the situation is not going to change and there is nothing you can do about that. Step 1 is to stop trying.

Step 2 is to construct a protective emotional barrier around yourself. Your sister will want to keep on complaining. You could ask her to cease and desist, explaining that this has never done any good and you would prefer not to have this conversation anymore. If that is too stressful for you (for example, if you know that would hurt her feelings) you can listen, nod politely and then forget about it as soon as she is done talking. You need to have the wisdom to recognize this is a situation you cannot fix, and the courage to give yourself permission to stop worrying about it.

That is easier said than done, I know, and it may be especially so for your mother, who has undoubtedly spent a lifetime doing her best to protect her girls. I suspect, though, there is little more that either of you can do.

Unless, of course, you talked her into asking for advice on how to improve her marriage. To whom could she send an email.... Hmmm, let me see...

All the best,
Andrew

Take advantage of this week's special! Relationship advice is FREE on all days containing the letter "r" and half that price on all other days. Send me an email and I'll do my best to help. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.
Read More ->>