Monday, January 29, 2007

Dismaying Story #107: The Sponge Lady

Dear Andrew,

I am a forty year old woman with a husband and three small children. Though my husband is a very nice man, we used to have disagreements over the division of household tasks and the issue of him and the kids being messy. We stopped having disagreements because I gave up and just did everything myself. I see now that I shouldn't have done that, but to make a long story short, it was out of life-long habit that I did so. I have recently discovered how much I still resent the losing battle that led me to just give up like that. My husband and I have been discussing the topic recently and he is angry with me because I have resentment over that old situation. I think the only way to get rid of the resentment is to work something out now that would seem fair and reasonable to both of us. We are just beginning to talk about this and we have just started re-organizing some rooms in the house. Also, we don't have a lot of time to devote, so this will be a slow (agonizing) process. Now I see anew why it was so easy for me to just give up.

My husband feels personally attacked if I desire something that he thinks is unreasonable and he also feels this way when I bring up the previous pitfalls that made me throw in the towel. If I don't bring up what went wrong before, how can we avoid the same outcome?

I gave up my job to take care of things and became a homebody. After years of following my family around with a sponge, I just can't take it anymore. I'm tired, disillusioned and the house has become disorganized and it's starting to get messy. My husband does do some things now that he didn't used to do, like cook and wash the dishes and I appreciate it very much, but what I need most is for me and my husband to be able to work together to really set things right again in the house and come up with a fair plan that involves everyone.

I can't seem to help complaining to him about how I got into this mess - he's the person I talk to about everything! But, still - I don't want to fight about it.

What can I do? It seems that my choices are:

1) forget the whole thing, suck it up, be quiet, trudge along doing the best that I can and try to find a way to be happy with it (this doesn't work for me anymore); or

2) keep working with my husband on reorganizing and talk to him about my needs and feelings around this, let him get angry and defensive, endure the arguing (which we both hate) and then hope that something good comes of it.

The second choice worries me because we both have baggage and I'm afraid it will all come bursting out of the closets and bury us. He was raised and catered to by a Mrs. Cleaver type, while his father was demanding and disapproving. I was the 'Cinderella' of an extremely dysfunctional and abusive family. We are both dealing with the after-effects of abuse from my past, in the sense that any hint of physical closeness and sexual excitement can send me into a panic attack. I'm seeing a therapist, but still I'm afraid I might be like this the rest of my life.

Surely there must be other choices for dealing with our impasse. I would even be okay with a way to make choice #2 bearable. Do you have any ideas?

Signed, The Sponge Lady

Dear Sponge Lady,

You have many issues going on all at the same time, any one of which would be difficult to deal with on its own. I'm glad you're getting professional help.

It can be easy in your situation to come to the conclusion that your husband is lazy when it comes to housework or that he doesn't care about your needs. While I've seen those elements before, I think the dominant element for you is misunderstanding. Your husband's mother taught him it was "fair" for the woman to look after the house and the kids. Since you are a full-time homebody, he likely has the same understanding as many other men -- that you have plenty of time to do the housework. He undoubtedly figures that he has his job and you have yours. He doesn't ask you to help with his, so it isn't fair to expect him to have to do yours. He probably figures he is already going above and beyond the call by doing more cooking and dishes than his father ever did, and STILL you complain.

Men want to be appreciated and considered competent. When you ask for more, it is easy for him to hear, "You are failing me." If he already feels he is trying hard, this is an incredible turn-off for him. "Why should I try harder?" he thinks to himself. "No matter what I've done, she still tells me I am failing her." There is the source of his resentment. He doesn't resent the idea of being supportive, he just wants it to be "fair" and for him to be appreciated.

One fundamental problem is that he doesn't understand your need for more help. He doesn't understand that being a full-time parent and homemaker is more than a full-time job. If you can, get him to read this article about Traditional Work Sharing. Many men have the common misperception that it is fair to treat the housework as "her job" for the stay-at-home mom. In that article I explain why that is anything but fair. If you can get him to understand this one point, you will be a long way to resolving your issue. Thanks to his Mom you have an up-hill journey to reach that point.

The other thing you can do is adjust how you approach the issue when you discuss it. Be aware of his need to be appreciated. Which do you currently do more: tell him how much you appreciate the things he does, or suggest that it would be great if he could do more? You will help your own cause if you can get into the habit of loading up on the former, which will help pave the way for doing the latter.

I would stay completely away from bringing up the past failures. I disagree that this is a necessary step to future success. Instead, it merely re-opens old sensitivities and makes him feel attacked.

Start the conversation by giving him a gift instead of what he perceives as an insult. Maybe you could explain that you now have a better understanding of the situation from his point of view and you're sorry that the way the two of you have dealt with the situation up until now has made him feel criticized. Tell him how much you appreciate what he is doing. Offering an olive branch is often the best way to start a dialog, since this sets a tone of conciliation, goodwill, and cooperativeness. Often your partner will be prompted to respond in kind.

So in short, you need a way to get him to alter his "Mrs. Cleaver" view of the world, and you need a more effective way of communicating so you don't unintentionally insult him and make him defensive. Often the key to the communication is having an empathetic understanding of how stressful the situation is from his point of view. Get him to have the same empathy for your situation and you should be well on your way.

I have focused on your housework question, but I'm also aware you have larger issues stemming from past abuse. No doubt it is more difficult to work through supportiveness and communication problems when your closeness is compromised as you describe. I'm sorry to hear of all your struggles and I wish you and your husband all the best as you work through them.

With warm regards,
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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Dismaying Story #106: A Rival by Any Other Name...

This post is a multi-part email conversation I had with a young woman. I thought about combining this into the single question, single answer format but it seems to work as is. I'm interested in your reaction to this:

Dear Andrew,

About eight years ago, I met the most kindred spirit I have ever met. She and I were both in our last year of our undergrads in psychology and we instantly bonded. We did "hook up" a few times and I think I was somewhat in love with her. I think we are both bi but I've never really defined myself sexually.

She and I had a huge falling out about six years ago and we had not spoken since until October 2006. We have since reconnected and that bond is still there.

I however, have a very serious boyfriend with whom I am living now. He and I have been together two years and our relationship has been wonderful. I am quite sure he is going to propose to me soon. He is aware of my past bi-sexual experiences and we have a very honest and healthy relationship.

My problem? This friend stayed with us this past weekend and I still have very obvious sexual feelings for her. I realized I am still very much in love with her and have no idea what to do with my feelings. I can't get her out of my head.

What do I do?

Signed, Confused and Unsure

Dear Confused and Unsure,

You are confused between love and that initial rush of excitement that comes from newness and variety. You have a significant relationship with your boyfriend that you have developed over some time. I don't hear you express any dissatisfaction with that relationship so I assume the only fly in the ointment is the reappearance of this distraction, this kindred spirit.

You couldn't possibly know if you love her. You haven't had enough time together recently to establish that. So when you say "I am still very much in love with her," what you really mean is that you are in the midst of that rush of infatuation. This is your libido talking, not your cranium or your heart.

Let's play what if. What if you had just spent the same amount of time with her that you have spent with your boyfriend. You would have gone past the infatuation excitement and settled down into everyday life. You would have discovered that she is just a normal person, just as you discovered that about your boyfriend and he about you. You would have settled into a more mature relationship, like you currently have with your boyfriend -- good, but not as madly exciting. When you did spend time together with her years ago, it ended up not working out.

This is not a fair comparison between the girl and your boyfriend because you are comparing two different stages. Do you remember the rush of excitement when you first met him?

It sounds to me like you are being swayed by all that adrenaline and lust. My advice is not to give into those urges in the short term. It would be the same kind of betrayal to your boyfriend as if you met a new guy and hopped in the sack with him just because you felt the excited urge to do so. You are in a committed monogamous relationship, so act like it.

If time moves on and your feelings persist, then you might have to reconsider. If he asks you to marry him in the meantime and your attraction for another person causes you to hesitate, you might not be ready to be married ... to anybody. Or he might not be the right guy.

But you don't know that right now. Just because your libido speaks up over another person, and someone so different at that, doesn't mean he isn't the right guy. It might just mean you have an adventuresome streak, or that you haven't really figured out what it means to be truly committed to a relationship. Even people who have been married thirty years find themselves sexually attracted to other people. Commitment means you don't act on those urges.

All the best,

Hi Andrew,

Thank you so much for your well thought-out response. It was quite upfront and honest which is maybe just what I needed.

I agree with you on most of your points but feel slight hesitation when referring to this woman as someone I simply lust after. You are right, if I spent the same time with her as I have spent with my boyfriend, I would indeed fall out of the excitement stage at some point and fall into routine and pure commitment.

I guess my hesitation comes from my bisexuality - that is, I just realized that I am indeed attracted to both men and women and am not sure what I can do about it. I do love my boyfriend and would never be unfaithful to him but there must be other women out there that want a husband and children and to spend the rest of their lives with their families but still have urges to be with women.

I am not looking for permission to cheat on my boyfriend, nor do I question my wanting to be with him. I am completely open and honest with him and am wondering if I should share my thoughts with him. He knows I've been with both women and men. It's just that this one particular woman is someone that has haunted me my whole life. She and I get along so well and I just feel I need to be honest with my feelings to both my partner and her, though I may be wrong in wanting this.

Signed, Still Confused and Unsure.

Dear Still Confused,

I don't recommend sharing this with your boyfriend. How would you feel if he said to you, "I just wanted you to know -- that girl who lives down the hall is really hot and she has me all worked into a lather. I have these strong urges to be with her and I'm not sure what to do about it. I just thought I'd let you know that."

No. Doesn't work. It's okay to have the urges (I think everyone has them), but your partner should be able to trust that you will resist them.

If you become convinced that your feelings for another person mean you don't want to be with your boyfriend, THAT is when you open up about it and be honest. But that isn't the case here. You are feeling what I believe to be transient attractions. Those are best kept to yourself, otherwise you will hurt him and your relationship for no purpose.

That's not keeping a secret. It is protecting your loved one from a harmful message, which he has no need to know.

I don't think the fact that she is female is relevant. If we assume you are bi-sexual, or at the least comfortable with closeness with both genders, then what difference does the gender of the third party make? It still boils down an attraction to a third party. If left alone, it is harmless. If acted upon, it is a betrayal of your commitment.

Some women might have urges related only to men, while you might have urges related to both genders. That doesn't change what your response should be.

I've always said, if the attraction is that strong, break up first, THEN take up with someone else, not the other way around. But only IF the attraction is that strong.

Best regards,

Hi again Andrew,

LOL - Okay - the way you presented that makes complete sense. I am trying to imagine if he came to me about an attraction to a man and you are right, it (the person's sex) wouldn't make a difference to me - his attraction would simply make me question our relationship and his intentions.

I guess the confusion for me lies in the fact that most straight men fantasize over two women being together and my boyfriend has even told me that if I want to be with a woman, then it would be okay with him. So from my perspective, I was given an "allowance" to feel this way and even to act on these feelings.

I agree with Kinsey's scale - the sexuality continuum - and feel that I've never classified myself thereby rendering me confused at this point in my life where I feel absolute defined attraction for both my boyfriend and my female friend.

But really, what you say makes complete sense to me and I feel I just have to see where my feelings go and stay true to myself and not hurt anyone in the process. I am committed to my boyfriend and would never jeopardize our relationship for anything.

Signed, Confused but Committed

Dear Confused but Committed,

That's an interesting wrinkle, but I would be very cautious of taking him at his word.

Have you ever seen the movie Indecent Proposal with Robert Redford? A couple is offered a million dollars if she will spend one night with the rich guy. The couple discusses it, she does it, with her husband's blessing, but she can never forgive him for valuing the money more than her, and he can never forgive her for the indiscretion, no matter the benefit.

Your boyfriend might say he wouldn't mind if you hooked up with someone else, but that is no guarantee he wouldn't mind if it ever happened. Most people are simply wired to want monogamy, whether it's training or biology I don't know, but the arrival of a rival almost always spells the beginning of the end, regardless of the flavor of the rival.

All the best,

Okay, so what does everyone else think? Does the gender of the third party make any difference when it comes to commitment? What if he says it's okay with him? Do you agree with me that jagged rocks usually lie just beneath the surface of that particular pool?
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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dismaying Story #105: Not Her Knight in Shining Armor

Dear Andrew,

A man I had flirted with and known platonically for three years told me that he was attracted to me physically, emotionally and intellectually, but he couldn't act on it - yet.

He'd be around intermittently, always acting like he was so interested in me but he was a loyal person and wouldn't cheat; and if I disappeared, he'd come find me, saying he was worried that I'd met someone else.

We are both in our forties, clean-cut, exercise, dry senses of humor, religiously indifferent and politically incorrect, morning people, like to read, like to cook, like to travel up the cast on vacation. I thought we had so much in common. I am single with no kids, financially stable, and figured I had no baggage/a lot to offer him.

He told me we had a "connection from the beginning," and that I was "beautiful, sensuous, intelligent, warm, loving, giving, genuine and beguiling." I told him I adored him, and he said I was "dangerous" and "he was scared to death of me", and "the physical and intellectual chemistry between us is great, that I drove him crazy, and he fantasized about me."

Then he broke up with his girlfriend and put his house up for sale, since he couldn't afford to carry the mortgage by himself.

Five months went by and I heard nothing from him. I'd see him in the neighborhood driving by, and his face would light up and he would smile and wave, but that was it. I was baffled, but figured he needed time to heal, and that I didn't want to be a rebound. I heard he was really depressed about his financial situation and might be facing foreclosure or bankruptcy. I called him, and he was as cold as ice, told me that we hardly knew each other, and that when he began to date again, there was a single mom co-worker he's been friends with for a year and a half that found him interesting.

They went out right after this, and he dumped her, and supposedly according to a mutual friend of ours, they are no longer speaking to each other AT ALL.

I was utterly devastated. How could he have said the things he did to me and then been so completely disinterested? I thought I knew him. I thought he was my Prince, and that we were twins. My heart is beyond broken.

Please help me see.

Signed, Blinded with Hurt

Dear Blinded with Hurt,

This is going to sound like a cliché, but you are FAR better off without him.

I understand that with all the commonalities he could seem like a good match, and all those complimentary words of attraction stroked your ego in a positive, empowering way. He allowed you to build up hope, which can be powerful but can also be dangerous. In this case it was dangerous, because there was no substance behind your hope for a possible future with him.

Plain and simple, he is an emotional train wreck. He was on again, off again with his previous girlfriend, the interim girlfriend, and also with you. I don't know what issues underlie that, and neither do you, but you're better off not knowing. If you did start dating, you would end up getting hurt even further when he switched off again and ran from that relationship. The manner in which he was so dismissive of your phone call is another indication that there are serious issues lurking beneath the surface.

He was flirting with you while living with someone else. If he'll do it with you, he'll do it to you. That means he would likely be cheating on you today if you had let him into your life.

Your pain is because you are grieving the loss of your hope, your dream. I know you weren't all the way to counting on this relationship, but it had at least graduated to the level of "very real possibility" in your mind. When he was so cold, this plummeted immediately all the way to "no possibility at all," leaving you in this grieving state. You're angry too, asking "How could he lead me on like that and then be so cold?" The answer is because he has serious problems. You had no way of knowing about them earlier, but now you do.

There is a silver lining. A worse scenario would have been for him to begin going out with you, allowing you to make an even deeper emotional commitment, before his problems reared their ugly head. You would have been even more devastated and angry if it had worked out that way.

There never was an opportunity there -- it's just unfortunate that he was able to fool you into thinking there was. As hard as it is, this is one you're going to have to chalk up to experience and move on.

Will that advice make your grief dissipate? Not right away, but time will do that. Then you'll be on to greener pastures.

I hope that helps, and that you find some peaceful relief soon.

All the best,

I've been having a blast hearing about your favorite love songs. Why don't you take a moment now and join in the fun?
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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Dismaying Story #103: My Husband Looks At Pornography

Dear Andrew,

My husband and I have a 16 month old son and have been married for a little over a year. We have a lovely home and my husband works hard and he is a wonderful father to our son. He is also very caring and would do anything at all for me. He never yells or argues with me. I love him very much and I am very lucky to have him.

When I was pregnant I did not get very much attention from my husband. He didn't want to have sex with me, saying he didn't want to hurt the baby, even though I told him this wasn't possible he still did not want to. I felt very alone and rejected. One night while I was resting on the bed I had to go to the bathroom. I walked past the computer room caught him masturbating to porn. I was very shocked and felt even more rejected. I later found out that he had been doing that a lot while I wasn't around.

Why would he prefer to do that than have sex with me? He told me that it was normal and that all men do it, he said he was doing it when I met him all those years ago on the Internet, and I knew that because I had seen him do it for me, although I didn't realize that he was still doing it to this day. I feel very upset about it and I don't know why. Whenever I leave the house to go somewhere all I can think about is what my husband will be up to, it drives me nuts. If I ask him if he has been masturbating he always says NO. He downloads porno movies all the time and he says he never watches them, but why would he download them if you never planned on watching them?

Do I have insecurity problems? How can I deal with this better? Do all men really do this when their wives are out of the house or downstairs watching TV? Is it normal? Is it healthy for him? Why do I feel like he is cheating on me although he clearly isn't? I wish that I could go back to that night when I walked in on him, if I never seen him doing it then I still wouldn't know what was going on and I think I would prefer it that way. My husband says he only ever did it while watching movies and not ever chatting with anyone on the internet or paying for one of those private shows, but I find it hard to believe him sometimes.

Signed, Feeling Rejected

Dear Feeling Rejected,

I'm always uncomfortable when discussions start turning toward what "everyone else" does. It's kind of like the teenage girl rolling her eyes when the mother complains that the skirt is too short. "Mom, everybody is wearing them!" To which most mothers reply, "I don't care about every other girl; I don't want you wearing that."

Same deal here. Would your feelings change if you found a statistical survey that showed a high percentage of men were regular viewers of porn? I doubt that very much. We could debate the morality of whether what he is doing is right or wrong, but again, that wouldn't solve your issue. I'm a results-oriented kind of guy, and your husband needs to understand that the results here are not up for debate. His behavior is causing you to be unhappy, which means the two of you have a problem. That problem isn't going away regardless of any morality debate or what happens in other people's homes.

As I wrote in this earlier article: It doesn't take much head scratching to understand how porn can be immensely threatening for many women. You want to feel like you are the most special person on the planet to your husband. Your relationship is supposed to be monogamous, which means his desire for intimacy should be satisfied by coming to you, not by turning to other women. When he is getting his jollies by looking at others, the implication is that you are not enough for him, that these other women are superior or more fulfilling. Worse than that, even pictures of other women are somehow preferable, when you are right there in the flesh.

This issue arose in your household at a time when you were already feeling less than desirable to your husband. The weight gain of pregnancy runs counter to society's "slim is beautiful" message, which naturally makes many expectant women feel vulnerable in that regard. Your husband compounded this by shying away from intimacy. I don't know his reasons for doing so, but the effect is clear; you felt unwanted and undesirable in his eyes.

That is a big part of the reason why you have reacted so strongly to the revelation that your husband masturbates. You said in your letter that you didn't find it threatening earlier in your relationship, especially when it was part of a shared activity. At the time you felt secure, wanted, loved, and included. The circumstances are now much different. The two of you now have extra history between you, which includes him rejecting physical intimacy while you were pregnant. Now you feel insecure, unwanted, and pushed aside.

Your husband needs to wrap his head around the realities of your new situation. He believes what he is doing is normal and harmless, and at an earlier phase of your relationship that might have been correct. Now, though, the results are much different and he must react to that. He has not shown sensitivity to your feelings and now he must compensate to make up for that.

He should do everything in his power to make you know you are the pinnacle of desire to him. He should go out of his way to not even glance at another woman for a while, regardless of whether she is walking by on the street or posing on a computer screen. He should sit you down and look into your eyes and assure you that he loves you, that you mean everything to him, that he is sorry for making you feel so terrible, and that he will make it up to you no matter how long it takes. He should cease and desist entirely with all forms of porn (and yes, of course he wouldn't be downloading the stuff unless he was also watching it) because doing otherwise will surely hurt you. His insensitivity has left him with no other option if he wants to make things right again. More than that, he should do this in as visible and transparent a manner as possible -- rid the computer of all such material and show you he is doing so. This is part of demonstrating how much you mean to him.

He should be patient and understanding of your hurt feelings, especially if and when the two of you are snuggling or making love. He should understand it may take a while to rebuild trust, and he should not complain about or criticize any lack of desire on your part in the meantime.

In my opinion, that's what it will take to get you past your understandable feelings of insecurity. In order for that to happen, though, your husband's eyes need to be opened about the effects of his actions. Maybe you should print out this article and ask him to read it. You say he is a caring person who will do anything for you. Hopefully that is true and having his eyes opened in this way will be enough to prompt him to step up and provide the support you need.

All the best,

The responses so far to the Question of the Week provide wonderful affirmations of the power and necessity of commitment in relationships. Thanks to everyone who has contributed. I am also interested in examples of the flip side, where a lack of commitment has caused issues. Any thoughts around why commitment might have been lacking would also be helpful. I would appreciate any such insights you have to offer.
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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Question of the Week #21: Your Shield Against Relationship Adversity

Today's question is all about commitment, which I think of as the force that shields your marriage against all the challenges the two of you must endure. Every relationship involves adversity from time to time. A truly committed couple responds to the hard times by asking themselves, "How are we going to get through this? What will get us to the other side?" Someone who lacks commitment, though, might ask, "Should I stay or leave?"

Don't get me wrong; I realize some challenges overwhelm even the strongest commitment. When a relationship is toxic and abusive, sometimes the only possible path is to save yourself by ending it.

In many cases, however, I believe commitment can spell the difference between fighting hard to save the marriage versus bailing out over problems that could be worked out. As John Beecher once said, “Strength is a matter of the made-up mind.” If you both make up your minds that this marriage is forever, it's amazing what the two of you can find the strength to accomplish.

I'd like to hear your views about commitment in marriage. Why do you think commitment is important? Do you have a personal story in which commitment was all important in making a relationship work? Or perhaps you know of a situation where a lack of commitment was one of the major problems.

Do you agree with my assessment of commitment, or do you think the whole concept is outmoded and old fashioned? How does it apply to dating relationships or people who are living together but not married?

This question is more than just a passing fancy on my part. I am currently putting together a book proposal and one of the chapters is about commitment. I would love to quote your opinions and stories in the book, so write as much or as little as you wish. No response is too long or too short. Feel free to answer all of the questions I posed, or just one; it's up to you. I am eager to hear what you have to say.
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Friday, January 12, 2007

Dismaying Story #101: Can She Still Find Love?

Dear Andrew,

My friends tell me that at age 58 I may have to redefine "love", settling for companionship and friendship, and not expect to have physical attraction and passion along with them. I'm fortunate to appear fairly youthful and attractive at my age, so I do have my share of male attention, but haven't been able to fall in love with anyone in the 6 years I've been single. I would like to remarry but know statistically that my chances diminish as I approach and enter my 60s.

I've had nice, caring men fall in love me, but don't feel the love in return for them as I felt in my second marriage of 13 years. At age 40, I found the love of my life. We were extremely happy for 10 years when he revealed he had been living a secret life as a cross dresser (I believe he also has gender identity issues). We tried for almost 3 years to overcome the issues, but in the end my needs in the marriage were no longer met. So my memory of the love I felt during the healthy part of the marriage sets the bar for what I want to feel again.

Are my friends right? Will I never have love as I've experienced as a younger woman? It is true that many of the men my age that I'm attracted to are looking over my shoulder at women in their 40s and 30s, so that feels discouraging as well.

Signed, Mature and Still Interested

Dear Mature and Still Interested,

Part of my answer would be the same whether you are 15 instead or 58. Simply put, you are putting the cart before the horse.

One of your goals is to be deeply and passionately in love. You would also like to be married. And you have all of this in mind before you've even met your potential partner.

It usually takes time to develop a deep and abiding attraction between two people. Sure, you hear about love at first sight where everything is magical right from the start, but normally things don't work that way. You start out slow and simple, maybe a movie, a pleasant conversation, a quiet afternoon where neither of you have to be alone for a change. If you can do that with relatively little pressure, then you give the seeds of attraction a chance to grow.

But you've experienced what love can be like and you're anxious to get that back. So when you start seeing someone, every step along the way you ask yourself, "How do I feel right now? Am I passionate? Do I like this guy enough? Could we be married?" What an incredible amount of pressure to put on yourself. My educated guess is that your desire for "the big prize" is preventing you from enjoying fully the smaller pleasures along the way. As a result, you're making it more difficult for things to develop naturally, at their own pace. The pressure will make you more critical, less able to smell the roses along the way.

My personal opinion is that love can blossom at any age. Can you fall as deeply in love at 58 as you were at 40? I don't see why not. My father re-married in his seventies to a wonderful woman he had dated when he was 17 and lost contact with for over 50 years! (They had both lost spouses in the meantime.)

If it's passion you're after, age is partly about your state of mind, how you approach life, and physical attraction is in the eye of the beholder. You can still identify with that, can't you?

My advice is to relax and let life happen at its own pace. If you spend some time with a gentleman, enjoy that time for its own sake and stop worrying about the longer term -- there will be plenty of opportunity to consider the bigger issues if and when a relationship matures and gets serious. This is one case where wishing too hard for something actually makes it less likely to happen.

I disagree with your friends. You can still get that lovin' feelin' back. And if some guys look past you for a younger woman, that's their loss, right? You've already had nice, caring guys show that they enjoy being with you. The next time that happens, forget about the passionate love part for a while and just enjoy dinner and the movie. The rest will take care of itself.

All the best,

This week's Question of the Week is a request for stories about how you found a way to be closer to someone in your life. The responses so far are heartwarming, and I invite you to add a story or two. Since I'm later than usual posting this on Friday, I'm going to wait until Sunday to post my favorite response (along with a new question). So here's your chance -- I'd love to hear a happy story starring little ol' you!
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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dismaying Story #99: That "Friends-Only" Kind of Love

Dear Andrew,

My boyfriend and I have been together for about nine months and I am having an extremely hard time getting over his past sexual relationships. I think a lot to do with it is the fact that he had a lot of "flings" with close female friends who he is still currently good friends with. One of these girls in particular is one of his best friends who he hangs out with on a fairly regular basis and even says "I love you" in a friends-only manner. He keeps reassuring me that he is "in love" with me and that he simply "loves" her as a friend. I have told my boyfriend several times that this makes me uncomfortable but he insists that they will remain only friends and that I have nothing to worry about. This situation has been eating at me for some time and I was just seeking some advice on how to get over my insecurities with my relationship.

Signed, His Current Love

Dear His Current Love,

I wrote about a similar situation a couple of months ago in Jealousy Over Past Partners, in which a young man hated the fact that his girlfriend had previous sexual partners. I suggest you read that article because my advice to him forms part of my answer to you -- in your case an ex-girlfriend is just that, an ex, regardless of whether sex was part of the previous relationship. She's out, you're in. In general I support the view that we should not automatically assume old flames are threats. Unless you have evidence that he still has feelings for her or is playing both sides of the fence, the fact that he had previous sexual relationships does not necessarily represent a danger to your current relationship.

However ... and this is a big "however" ... your story involves additional factors. Hanging out on a fairly regular basis with his ex-girlfriend as one of his current best friends and exchanging the "I love you" line is a different story, especially since you have admitted this makes you insecure. That scenario would probably have the same effect on most people.

Sure, guys and girls can simply be friends who hang out. It happens. But he and the ex have been intimate in the past, which means there is more of a connection there than simply old friends. They still invest a good deal of time into each other and don't mind throwing that "love" word around. I doubt they use that word with all their friends, so they still have a special bond. My instinct is that you're right to be uncomfortable. Whether your boyfriend wants to admit it or not (even to himself perhaps), it sounds like they are playing the game called, "We'll pretend to just be friends for a while but who knows what the future will bring."

Do I know that for sure? Of course not; that's just my educated guess.

But let's suppose I'm wrong. Suppose their friendship is entirely innocent and he is completely devoted to you.

That's still not enough.

Sometimes we also have to demonstrate our devotion, especially when our partner is feeling insecure and needs a little extra support. In other words, appearances count. Your boyfriend is doing a wonderful impression of someone who still has a thing for his ex, and his actions are speaking more loudly to you than his words. If he truly cares for and values his relationship with you, he should be willing to show you that you have nothing to worry about. That means backing off a bit with the ex. Sure, be friendly, but all this "still my best friend" and "we still love each other" stuff is over the line.

How do you get over your insecurities? You need his cooperation. If he is unwilling to do that, then either (a) you have real reason to be insecure, or (b) he lacks the empathy and supportiveness to be a giving partner. Either way I would consider that to be a danger signal.

Hopefully he'll see the light and find a way to put your mind at ease. If so, leave the past where it belongs (that would be in the past) and enjoy the fact that he is with you because he wants to be.

Good luck!

All the best,

Not many people have suggested New Years relationship resolutions in response to this week's Question of the Week. Perhaps you can think of a really good one that someone you know should make. Whether it's you or someone else, I'd love to hear your ideas. I'll pitch in with a personal resolution of my own on Saturday.
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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Dismaying Story #98: After Her Gay Husband Left

Dear Andrew,

I was married for 24 years to a sweet, funny, intellectual guy with lots of talents. We had three children together, we traveled the world, and we were in the Peace Corps together.

Then one day, out of the blue, he told me he was gay. He had thought about it for 5 years and said I would now have plenty of time to get used to the idea. Within two weeks I received a bill for his HIV and syphilis tests (both negative). He began to wear strange clothes and get fancy haircuts. He brought his gay friends home while I was at work (with the kids there). His address book was full of appointments with a man I know to be gay. He wanted to stay married, but he wanted to go forth and be gay.

We stayed together for one miserable year and then divorced. Our last child was in high school and we were the talk of the town. Most of my friends deserted me. Our children suffered terribly. Both boys were often asked if they were gay like their father.

But here's the thing. I divorced this man eleven years ago. I have moved on in every logistical way -- have a job, am self supporting, have good relationships, and am close to my children. I understand he is gay and I think I have forgiven him. But on some level, I am still grieving. I ruminate about this and think of him every day with sadness and anger. I am often depressed. I can't even imagine a relationship with another man. He told me last year he felt he was not a part of the family, even though he is invited to everything we do. I blew up and wrote him a letter that must have scorched his mailbox.

Shouldn't I be over this by now? What else can I do to get over it? By the way, he is now HIV positive, to my sorrow and anger. Why would a man sell everything of value for gay sex, or is that the issue? How could a man place that over the value of a family, a long history, family unity, and everything else? I would appreciate any comments.

Signed, Still Grieving

Dear Still Grieving,

I’m sorry to hear of your pain. Everyone has their own pace for grieving and healing, so you shouldn’t feel bad because you have not yet found a way to resolve this within yourself.

There are multiple issues involved in his departure from your life. The first is garden-variety rejection, which is devastating all by itself. He wanted you, enough to spend many years with you and create a family ... and now he doesn’t want you anymore. He wants someone else, maybe even several someones. That hurts.

Your ex-husband has gone further by saying he isn’t part of the family, even though he is still father to your children. This is another loss for you. Many divorced folks continue to co-parent, even when one is gay or lesbian. This strikes me as either (a) selfish on his part, (b) a reaction to extreme stress on his part as he searches to understand his own identity, or (c) a combination of both. I suspect (c) is most likely the case. Whatever the reason, it adds to your emotional burden.

Then there is the revelation that he is gay. This is difficult for many people to understand and I believe this is the primary reason you have not been able to come to a full resolution, even after several years have passed.

Focusing on sex is a common reaction when someone close to you comes out of the closet. After all, many people identify this as the one aspect of the gay lifestyle that would be most unfathomable for themselves. In your case you might be able to imagine yourself having dinner with another woman, sharing an apartment, or even walking down the street holding hands. You may have done all of the above with a roommate or relative. But the thought of stripping off your clothes and getting hot and sweaty with someone of the same gender? Many heterosexual people find that image foreign to say the least.

Sex can be a powerful motivator for some people, and I have no way of knowing how much of a factor it was (or is) for your husband. Clearly, though, identifying yourself as gay is about much more than sex.

Turn the situation around and ask yourself this: was sex the primary reason you chose to get married? Or was it a combination of companionship, physical attraction (which includes sex but also more), desire to have a family, and a wish to share a bond of togetherness with someone to whom you are attracted? Of course; it was a combination of factors. The same is true for gays and lesbians. Since sex is not the primary defining characteristic for your relationships, it seems unreasonable to assume it is for others.

This is not simply a matter of him choosing fleeting pleasures over the things you believe to be important in life. Rather, it is analogous to the yearning you would feel if you were raised in a society of lesbians and you came to realize you would rather be married to a man.

That doesn’t explain or excuse his choices to act on the yearning while you still have a child in school (some people might have chosen to wait, others would have found the wait excruciating) or to isolate himself from your family, but hopefully it helps you understand how he could yearn to make the change.

To help quell your feelings of grief, I suggest you examine your judgments about the two lifestyles. You clearly think of his former family life as valuable and good, while his current lifestyle seems less so. You need to recognize that you are making judgments from your viewpoint, which is different from his. To him, his new lifestyle offers such significant advantages that he was willing to endure significant costs to achieve it. (Don’t for a second think is was easy for him to admit that he was gay or to make such radical changes to his life.) Even if you can’t understand those advantages (and admittedly, his HIV positive status likely makes it more difficult and sad for you to do so), you should try to accept that they are real and valuable to him.

You may never get to a place where you are completely comfortable with his choices, but hopefully these realizations can help diminish the constant anguish and wondering that you are going through. Perhaps a greater understanding from his point of view might help stop that never-ending loop playing the question “Why?” in your head.

You might also try reading a book such as the one I feature at the top of this article (the image is linked to Amazon). I wish you the best of luck finding a greater measure of peace over this issue.

With warmest regards,
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Monday, January 01, 2007

Dismaying Story #97: The "Untainted" Woman

Dear Andrew,

One year ago, at the age of 41, I married a man that I had been with for 5 years. Those years were tumultuous, full of growth that was brought on by a lot of arguments. Somehow, we decided to marry, thinking we could continue to grow into a healthy relationship. This is my first marriage, and his second. I had not had a lot of intimate relationships before this, and he has had many women in his life. He says that one of the reasons he chose me is that because I am "untainted" in regards to men.

I have some insecurities that are based in my childhood. I have worked to grow past them and have done a relatively good job so far, with a bit more traveling to do. The big problem is that I cry. I cry when my husband says something that hurts. This further irritates the problem between us. He gets angry, which makes me cry more.

When this happens, he will reach out to other women via the internet (not meeting them in person, as far as I know). He tells me he is not getting his needs met emotionally from me, so he seeks that out elsewhere. I call him on it, he denies it at first, then admits that yes, he is chatting with other women. He says it is a "distraction". Of course, this does nothing but to make me feel more insecure.

I need to learn how to deal with my insecurities and how they feed into the problems we have in our marriage. I also need to make the tough decision as to whether I should leave the marriage, and more than likely spend the rest of my life alone and bitter. This man has a lot of qualities that I admire. I searched far and wide to find someone that met my very specific criteria for a mate. When I met him, I felt he was the one I wanted to be with.

My questions for you:
  • How does a woman meet the needs of her husband emotionally?
  • -From your perspective on the limited information I have written here, am I wasting my time in this marriage?
I did not marry to get divorced, yet this is causing a lot of stress in my life that is affecting me in other areas.

Signed, Wondering What to Do

Dear Wondering,

I have been wandering around on this planet for quite a number of years now and to the best of my knowledge I have never met a tainted woman. The fact that your husband views women who have had previous relationships as somehow spoiled or corrupted as a result ... well, that seems bigoted and highly conceited.

When you display distress (crying) it makes him ... angry? I understand it would be stressful and frustrating for him when you display emotion he doesn't understand and therefore feels powerless to remedy. I would expect a supportive husband, however, to react to distress on your part with concern, compassion, caring, a desire to help you -- something along those lines.

"He tells me he is not getting his needs met emotionally from me, so he seeks that out elsewhere." Wow. What an emotional blow to the head that is. "You know honey, you're just not good enough for me. And by the way, whenever I feel dissatisfied (which happens all the time), I'll just get my jollies from other women instead." He is having emotional affairs with these other women, which are every bit as destructive to your marriage as sexual affairs. And it wouldn't surprise me if someone with his obvious lack of commitment is headed for sex as well, if he hasn't been there already.

Are you kidding me? Does he honestly believe these are reasonable behaviors within a marriage? You don't say what criteria you were looking for in a husband, but I can't believe your goal was to find someone who is bigoted, unsupportive and unfaithful. There are clearly reasons why he has gone through a large number of failed relationships.

I honestly don't know what kind of wife could meet the emotional needs of a guy like that. I expect she would have to care only about his needs and have none of her own, let him do whatever he wants without complaint, and never present him with any kind of problem. Have you ever met a woman like that? I haven't and I hope not to, because it would make me sad; she would be an empty shell of a person.

How much better it is to have a wife who yearns for life, who has normal needs and desires. Sure, we all come with our own form of baggage, but that's just the normal price of admission for playing the game called marriage. When he said those vows, he agreed to stick with you in good times and bad, which means helping you with any problems you might have. Your crying is not "the problem." It is merely a symptom of your distress. He's not living up to his end of the bargain; he's simply running away instead.

Your letter implies that you have somehow let him down by not meeting his needs. I don't see it that way. You both have needs. He refuses to help with yours and then runs away so you have no opportunity to address his.

You have described two major issues in your relationship. The first is your fear and insecurity, which arises from childhood events and circumstances. I guarantee this has contributed not only to the difficulties you have had in this marriage, but also in your apparent reluctance to get into a relationship at all. Your personal road to happiness lies directly through the resolution of these issues from your past. This is not something you need to fix in the context of your marriage, but simply for yourself. If you have not already done so, I highly recommend you find a coach or therapist to help you with this resolution.

The second major issue is your husband. He needs to understand that he is not stepping up and being a man in this relationship. He is acting like a spoiled little brat who is used to getting his way and who runs off and cries to someone else if that doesn't happen. He needs to learn how to be empathetic, giving of his time and emotion, and supportive of your needs. He doesn't yet understand that doing so is the only way for his needs to be met; that is the only way he can ever have a partner who shows him how loved and appreciated he is for all his support.

With work, patience and the right help, you should be able to resolve the first issue. I don't know how likely it is, though, that you can resolve the second issue. It sounds like he believes you are the problem, and he would probably resist the idea that he should change. Even if he did come to that realization, he would have to be willing to address long-standing attitudes and poor relationship skills. And at this point he is clearly not committed to you, your needs or your marriage. He would have to swing a long way over to the side of supportiveness and openness, and stay that way for quite a while to heal the considerable hurt he has caused you.

I can't recommend which way you should jump, but you clearly have a steep hill to climb if you want to turn this relationship into a happy place to be.

Finally, I completely disagree that you would likely end up alone and bitter for the rest of your life if this marriage fails. I have seen incredible turnarounds in people's lives when they get the coaching help they need to quiet those inner voices that keep reminding them about the traumas from their past. You will be amazed at the difference this can make for you, and the possibilities it can open up for your life, regardless of who you end up with. I wish you luck in achieving that peace and happiness.

All the best,

And to everyone else who is reading along, I wish each and every one of you the very best for 2007! May you all find peace, happiness and satisfaction in glorious achievement in this new year.
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