Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dismaying Story #95: Forgiveness Is A Gift You Give Yourself

Dear Andrew,

About six months ago, my boyfriend of two and a half years and I broke up. We still love each other, but since we were finishing university and were embarking on significant lifestyle changes, we decided that it was best to call it off, rather than fighting to keep together a relationship that was already falling apart. (The one thing we shared was that we loved each other. We wanted very different things out of life; had very different interests; different values; different approaches to life. My family didn't like him, he didn't like them. Once we finished university we could no longer sustain the relationship we had enjoyed as students.

About three months ago, I met a guy that was the polar opposite of my Ex. We hit it off right away, and began to hang out on a daily basis, on a platonic level, after work, and it seemed like everything we talked about just brought us even closer, and brought to light more similarities between us. About a week later, he expressed a romantic interest in me. I was flattered, and admitted that I was attracted to him as well, but expressed hesitation to get involved in anything with him because a) we are coworkers; and b) I was just coming out of a very serious relationship, and didn't want to start something on the rebound. He agreed to take it slowly and just see where things went. However, he didn't stop pursuing me fairly aggressively. And I didn't object to being pursued in this way. It was nice to feel desirable and wanted, especially since my Ex had cut himself off from me entirely.

What transpired was a fairly intense relationship that remained unlabeled and underhanded. Because we are coworkers, and didn't want to become fodder for office gossip, we conducted a lot of our romantic activities on the sly. About three weeks in, my Ex showed up at my front door, crying, and begging me to take him back. Although I had spent three months wishing for this situation, I finally felt as though I was moving on, and told him that I was seeing someone else. A few days later, the new guy took me to his home before a party we were going to attend together, and we slept together for the first time. The entire experience felt dirty and wrong. Two days later, he said that we needed to talk and told me that he felt that our relationship had come together in a very dysfunctional way, and it made him uncomfortable, and he didn't want to end up hurting me in the same way he had hurt girls in the past, so he thought we should stop seeing each other.

I agreed that we had rushed things and jumped into a sexual relationship that I, at least, was not ready to have. We agreed to rewind a bit, and revert to the "dating" stage, and take things one step at a time. The next day, at work, as we went to get our morning coffee, he said that he had thought about it some more, and wanted us to be entirely platonic. That evening, as we chatted online, he explained that after we had slept together, he had started thinking about a serious relationship that had ended about two years ago, in which he and his girlfriend had been on the verge of engagement, before he panicked, and she gave up on him. He said that in retrospect, he thinks he should have married her, and every relationship he has been in since has ended up being a train-wreck, because of his inability to connect, and he claimed that he didn't want me to become part of his "relationship chaos and carnage roadshow."

This made (and continues to make) me very angry. I was entirely upfront with him from the very beginning about my reservations about getting into a relationship, and my personal and emotional difficulties. He knew that I'd been struggling with depression for a few years; he knew that I used to cut; he went in with all the cards on the table. He also knew what his own background was. But he chose to not share any of this information with me; he chose to lead me to believe that he really wanted to be with me. He chose to convince me that he was looking for a serious relationship. I feel used, and dirty. If he felt that he wasn't ready for a relationship, he shouldn't have started one. In effect, he told me what I wanted to hear, and toyed with my emotions until I began to believe that I might actually be able to be happy with him; and the moment I slept with him, he lost interest and backed out. I've tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, because I DO still have to work with him, and see him five days a week, but the more I think about it, the more used I feel. I feel as though he took advantage of my vulnerability and naivete, and turned me into a notch on his bedpost.

Am I being unreasonable? Because of him, I destroyed any possibility of getting back together with my Ex, as well, and that makes the anger even more intense. I want to stop hating him and I want to stop loathing myself, but I have no idea how to do this. The worst part is that deep down, I really want to believe that he's a good guy, and that once he sorts himself out, we will end up together.

Signed, Hurting and Hating

Dear Hurting and Hating,

Both of the guys in this story told you, "I don't want to be with you." This is a difficult message to hear because it bashes your feelings of self worth and clashes with your strong desire to make a relationship work. More than that, they delivered this message in an ambivalent, on-again, off-again fashion, which makes it even more difficult for you to decide what you want and predict what will happen. You spent three months wishing for your ex to show up and you still hope to end up with the co-worker.

For your own sanity, the first thing I recommend you do is realize neither of these guys is the one for you. Regardless of the reasons, "I don't want to be with you" is a pretty clear indication that they don't want to be with you. Why should a dynamic bundle of personable hotness like you put up with that? You deserve (and need) a better deal than that. You gave it a try with each of them and it didn't work out. You learned some lessons and got your feelings bruised. If you step back and look at the big picture, though, you will realize that you are still a whole person and you are now free to get on with life, which hopefully includes meeting Mr. Right and having many wonderful bowls of ice cream together. Don't hold on to the flimsy hope of getting back into one of these damaged partnerships. Doing so will only prevent you from finding a fulfilling relationship. Put them behind you and move on, and do it today.

Regarding your co-worker, you did not destroy your chances with your ex "because of him." If you and your ex were meant for each other, if things were great between you, then (a) you wouldn't have broken up (this happened because of real problems), and (b) no fresh-off-the-vine new boyfriend would have been enough to make you turn away the crying ex. You would have swept him into your arms and held on tight. It didn't work out between you and your ex because of the problems between the two of you, not because of your co-worker.

When your ex showed up and you "felt like you were moving on," that was because you were moving on. You were not at your final destination, though, just the next stop along your life journey. You may feel like you wasted your time with your co-worker. I would argue, though, that dating your co-worker helped you understand there was life after your ex, which is something you needed to find out. While hurtful in the end, this brief relationship also fulfilled some of your needs for a while. Rather than focusing entirely on the painful aspects of this experience, it might help you to realize that some good came from it as well.

Then there is your anger over feeling used and poorly treated by your co-worker, about all the things he should have done differently. Naturally you are interpreting the relationship from your point of view. If you are honest, I suspect you'll have to admit to yourself that you entered the relationship because of what it might mean for your life; it made you feel desirable and wanted, like you were moving on, etc. You did not say to yourself, "I should start dating this guy because it will help him feel good about himself." No, we enter relationships because of our own hopes and needs. That doesn't mean you don't care about the other person, just that your own viewpoint dominates your thinking at the beginning.

This is evident in your letter, which interprets what happened only from your point of view. This is natural and understandable, but I believe you can gain a greater understanding of what happened if you now step back and also consider events from his viewpoint.

You now know that he has been carrying a big load of emotional baggage for at least two years. He entered your relationship in a state of weakness, and was hopeful this would be the one to break him out of it. He desperately wanted this to succeed so he could get past his problems. Of course he wouldn't dump his baggage on you at that point. Suppose he said, "Just so you know, I'm a total emotional mess inside and I can't get over my old flame and I have sabotaged every one of my recent relationships with my dysfunction." That would have you (and most women) making excuses and heading for the door in short order, which is exactly the opposite of what he was desperate to achieve. And in the eternal optimism of the dopamine-driven early stages of dating, he truly hoped and believed he would never have to tell you this, because THIS one was finally going to work out for him, dammit.

But it didn't, in fact couldn't. He needs to get over his internal anguish and forgive himself for his past decisions, and no new relationship can help him do that. He needs to heal inside before he will be able to fulfill his end of a functional relationship.

But he didn't know that when he started dating you, and in all probability he still doesn't realize it. You say he should have told you, and he should have realized, and he should have known better than to start something with you. That is the same as saying he should be aware of the nature of his dysfunction and should be able to get past it. Clearly he hasn't been able to do that; he is still mired in his past and can't see a way out. "Except maybe," he thinks, "if I find someone else, that will make the memories go away," which is what he tried with you.

You feel like he got the sex he wanted and then lost interest. I don't see it that way. I believe he failed in achieving what he wanted (to feel a strong attachment for you, thereby erasing his painful past). He ended it with you because his pain persisted in spite of how your relationship had progressed. He wasn't happy to notch his bedpost; he was miserable that his hopes didn't pan out and he was right back where he started ... and he had hurt you in the process. Considered from this point of view, his statement that he didn't want to hurt you any further was probably sincere.

Yes, one could argue that he might have spared you the pain if he had been more honest about himself up front. And you could beat yourself up wondering if you should have seen the signs and avoided getting involved with him. None of this helps you, though. All it does is make the pain persist longer than necessary.

Do you really need to assign blame? How does this help you? You need to forgive him for hurting you. And don't do it for his sake; forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. It is the way you free yourself from the pain and allow yourself to gain closure, to move past the recriminations and brooding. I truly believe your co-worker did what he did based on hopefulness. Perhaps this realization will help you feel compassion for his pain, as well as forgiveness for sharing it with you.

Similarly, you need to forgive yourself for being human. We all want to feel desirable and wanted, and you shouldn't beat yourself up for trying to find happiness. I've yet to see a crystal ball that really works, so at the beginning there was no way you could have been expected to know how things would work out.

A better approach would be to open your heart in case Mr. Right walks by later today. And in case he happens to be on his way to an ice cream parlor.

All the best,

Is the holiday season hard on your relationships? Or does this time bring you closer to your friends and family members? Weigh in with your opinion by checking out the current Question of the Week.


  1. Thomas K. Matthews11:54 AM

    Andrew, you have given perfect advice here. So often we are driven by our own past experiences that we see events and relationships from the attitude of “it’s only happening to me.” I work with couples who have reached a point in their relationship communication dynamic where they could not recognize a spouses attempt to heal rifts due to the inner turmoil driven by not just their present relationship, but every one they ever had. Forgiveness allows us to start over, and we cannot bury the hatchet and leave the handle sticking out. We must clean the slate and start over if we wish to be happy. Having healthy communication with ourselves allows us to have healthy relationships with others. Yes she was reluctant to get involved, but also felt good from the attention. As she was suffering from the previous failed relationship she was almost desstined to become involved, it is human nature. Once there both parties were trying to find something in each other while ignoring what needed to be addressed in themselves. If we are okay with our own self worth then we can find our soul mate. Think of it this way, we cannot find mister right if we are still miss wrong, or vise versa. We need to learn from our past life experiences, not be defined by them. My advice, forgive him, then yourself and take some time to focus on casting off the defining emotions that drive the fear of repeating the past. Be happy and embrace your own wonder and then when mister right stops to ask for directions to the ice cream parlor, you will know him when you see him, and he will see you as well.
    Thomas Matthews

  2. Great post and you are right on target with your advice! Funny too how easy it is to get stuck beating ourselves up like this person appears to be doing instead of learning and moving on. I think our human nature gears us to stick around and get it right but it doesn't work that way. One has to move on...

  3. Andrew,
    Once again you are spot on! As I was reading her letter, I was formulating my thoughts and then I read your response and you covered, very eloquently what I was thinking. Excellent job!

  4. The co-worker got what he wanted and that was to get her in bed and right after that, she lost her appeal.
    I think he is just a player racking up points for his ego.

    As for her and her ex, as they grew together their interests in life changed and they didn’t adjust for it but instead I bet they butted heads.
    Just like everything else in life there comes a time when changes are happening and for young people those changes are drastic once they finish school and enter the real world.
    Gone is the carefree lifestyle and responsibilities of life kick in.
    She said the relationship was falling apart which lead to its ending, she didn’t say why it was falling apart.
    What they could have done is step back from each other instead of breaking up and restart the relationship over to get to know each other as adults rather than the kids they knew so well.
    If they like the new person I am sure they could have adjusted if not then they would know for sure.
    I spent 17 years with someone who was not the same person when it ended that I knew from the start and I know I wasn’t either.
    From the age of 15 she was who I liked but by the age of 32, I didn’t know her and if we had met at that stage of our lives I would have never had a relationship with her.
    I just didn’t like the person she had become which was the total opposite of the girl I fell in love with.
    I think she should be happy she didn’t waste her whole life before she found this out.

    Forgiveness is a luxury that can get expensive, I know that for a fact.

    Just in case I don’t get back here before Sunday, Have a Merry Christmas.

  5. I believe everyone comes into our life for a reason, good bad or indifferent. They all guide us to know what we do want and mostly what we don't want in a relationship.

    As long as we keep putting one foot in front of the other we are okay.

    All roads lead to different destinations and when you find the right one you'll know it in your heart and know that it is worth the chance of following.

  6. I can only say to the poster that she herself felt the relationship wasn't a good choice, and that the encounter was "dirty and wrong", so why when he's being totally honest does she get angry? It's not a personal rejection, from how I read it. It's a man who is being a good person and letting her know upfront what his feelings are. I think it's commendable. Sure, it sucks and it hurts, but if she understands that it is not about her, then she should be fine.