Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Genetic Test for the Likelihood of Cheating?

Psychologists at the University of New Mexico recently reported on the results of a study that shows how genetic similarities between partners are predictive of sexual responsiveness and cheating, according to this NewScientist article. The team focused on specific genes belonging to the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), analyzing 48 heterosexual couples who had been in an exclusive relationship for at least two years. The participants were asked about their sexual responsiveness towards their partner and their unfaithfulness in the relationship.

The results show that MHC genetic similarities dramatically affected the women. They were less sexually responsive to their partners, more likely to have affairs, and more attracted to other males, particularly during fertile days of their menstrual cycles. In relationships where MHC genetic differences were significant, these potentially relationship-splitting behaviors were either absent or greatly reduced.

The fraction of MHC genes shared directly correlated to the woman's number of adulterous partners – if the man and woman had 50% of the MHC genes in common, the women had a 50% chance of cheating with another man, on average.

Men did not seem to be affected by the MHC similarities. The men's average sexual interest for their partners was the same regardless of genetic similarities or differences, and the same was true for their interest in women outside of their primary relationship.

The results were so predictive for the women that there has been talk of developing a genetic test to determine how likely a woman is to be faithful to a specific partner.

Is it just me, or do others find that a scary concept?

The study results make sense when you think in evolutionary terms. Every species is more likely to prosper when there is plenty of genetic diversity. I just think the idea of a compatibility test makes the whole dating process a bit too clinical for my taste. What do you think?
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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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Friday, January 26, 2007

Question of the Week #23: Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

Dear Andrew, Whenever I start going out with a new boyfriend, I can always find some reason to reject him within the first few dates.

Dear Andrew, I've been dating a guy for several months now that I know is not going to be "the one" (he is way too young for me) but we're having fun so I don't see why I should break up with him.

Dear Andrew, I have tremendous problems letting go and enjoying intimacy with my husband. Whenever he gets close, I tense up and all thoughts of arousal fly out the window.

Can you spot the common theme? The first young woman is afraid men will reject her, so she gets them first. The next woman is afraid she won't be able to make a real relationship work, so she puts herself in a situation that is sure to fail for some external reason ... therefore the failure will have nothing to do any of her own possible inadequacies. The final scenario features a wife who is afraid to let her husband too close lest he see the "real" her, where she lets her guard down completely; she is afraid if he sees the real her, he'll realize she isn't good enough.

In a word, fear ... brought on by longstanding feelings of low self-worth.

Looking back over the many Dismaying Stories on this site, this type of fear is one of the common elements in the questions I receive. It can exhibit itself as a critical inner voice, raging insecurity, or choosing not to take normal chances in your love life. These kinds of feelings seem to be incredibly common.

So how about you? Have you ever had a moment when you wondered if you were good enough? (And who hasn't?) Did this impact how someone perceived you? (Maybe they thought you were uninterested, when you were really feeling insecure or shy.) Are any of your relationships affected by these types of fears? Are the impacts huge, or is this just a minor, every-once-in-a-while thing with you?

Perhaps you've noticed this tendency in the people you know. Can you relate an anonymous story that demonstrates the kind of impact such fear can have on someone's life?

Or maybe you have a different interpretation of what causes the types of behavior I described. Either way, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
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Songs of Love!

People, people, people! What can I say? I'm overwhelmed! What a wonderful response to last week's question, which asked you to tell me about your favorite love songs.

I can't possibly do justice to all the great titles people suggested. We heard about Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Chicago, The Boss (that would be Springsteen), Smokey Robinson (who is a Miracle all by himself), and Newman and Streisand and ... oh heck, you'll have to check it out yourself.

I am particularly pleased so many new visitors took the time to respond. A great big "Welcome!" to Smunkee, Sarah Puglisi, Hope, Robin, Liz, Miss Profe, Kati, Sara, Sarah, klhp, flowerdrumsong,Mo, Just Keep Running, Student of Life, Nyemoni, and Distracted and Distraught. (Please forgive me if I missed anyone or included someone in the list who is actually a repeat visitor.)

Thanks again everyone. I had a great time humming along with all the lyrics!
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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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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Dismaying Story #104: Long Distance Inattention

Dear Andrew,

My man and I have not seen each other for two years. Since we are from different countries and the marriage process takes a huge amount of paper work and time, we have not yet been able to be together. We have tolerated many sad times during these two years but we hung on. My man built us a very nice and beautiful house, changed his job and is doing a tremendous amount of work all by himself. If things had gone well, we could have been together in almost two months.

I said this so you know that he loves me and is trying everything he can to get me.

We met two years ago in my country and spent a total time of 15 days together. The sexual attraction was huge but we did have a lot of silly fights during that little time. The fights mostly started because I was too insecure and I could not trust him 100%. Even though I hurt him badly with my words and actions, he still wanted me and has done so many sacrifices for me. I have tried to be an ideal partner for him. I have changed many of my bad traits, such as not giving him the silent treatment. I have been 100% loyal to him and have tried to be what he wants me to be.

The problem is that we have not had any physical contact with each other for two years straight, and that has had a very bad effect on our relationship. Our emails (we stopped talking on the phone a year ago) are only filled with sad words about how depressed and tired we both are. We accuse each other of not caring enough or not loving the other one enough.

He wants me to be an active person who works out and takes care of herself. I have failed many times but I have succeeded many times too.

I stopped working a year an half ago. I was a teacher and I liked my job. It provided enough money for me to feel as independent as I could. (I live with my parents). I gave up working because he did not want me to work in the same place that my ex did. I did not continue my university classes and dropped out. I have no self confidence anymore. Each time I suggest working again, he thinks I am thinking of long term plans for myself to stay in my country, and that makes him insecure. He told me that if I need money, he would send some. I can never accept it. I would rather drown than call for help. I need to be independent, have my own money, have my own job. I wanted to go back to university again, but again, he said no. I should wait until I go to him, then I could study whatever I like.

I am 26 years old and I feel so old. I do not go out of the house, because I do not want to get into trouble. I do not hang out with my friends. I lock myself up in my apartment and only go to my parents' apartment at nights to watch TV with them. I stopped my social life so that I won’t give my man any reason to be suspicious, so that he could relax that I don't cheat on him.

The problem is that we have not had any physical contact with each other for two years straight, and that has had a very bad effect on our relationship. Our emails (we stopped talking on the phone a year ago) are only filled with sad words about how depressed and tired we both are. We accuse each other of not caring enough or not loving the other one enough.

Last week, my man went on a business trip and he could not contact me for three days. I cried every single night, thinking that he had committed suicide or had an accident. I was going insane with worry. I wrote him many emails during those three days telling how worried I was, that life is meaningless without him, telling him about my days and how depressed I was and telling him that I loved him. He contacted me after three days and told me that he had no way of contacting me, because his cell phone did not work in that area and neither did his mobile Internet. I just sent him an email telling him that I was so glad that he is back and that I loved him.

In reply he sent me an email telling me that for once he was content, because his trip had gone so well for him, but when he read my emails, they were like a cold shower for him. He said that I do not appreciate him enough and he wonders if what he is going through is futile. He says, "Why can’t you be stronger? Why can’t you appreciate me more?"

What have I done wrong? He knows I go insane with worry each time he doesn't send me an email. Did I not have the right to worry? And I never said anything mean in my emails, only my concern for his health and well being.

I had a bad breakdown after reading his email. I replied and told him I won’t put up with his abuse anymore. He had no right to call me weak and tell me that I don't appreciate him. I set us some new rules, telling him that he should send me the schedule of his week, he should treat me the same way I treat him. I told him I will start working again, despite the fact he has told me not to, told him that I won’t let my world go around him anymore. He does not give me the care and attention I need. I told him that I won’t let him affect me in my decision making, because he doesn't care for me and my sanity.

It wasn't a nice email.

He read the email and broke up with me. He said, "You went too far. Leave me alone, we are through."

In reply I said, "As you wish," and I have not contacted him, neither has he.

Two days have passed since then.

I love him. He is the only man I want to be with. He has proven himself to be a man for life over and over again. He loved me even when I hurt him, and I want him back. The trouble is, I have always initiated the apologizing and wanting to get back together. I know deep in his heart he wants us to make up too, but he is too proud to send me an email first. I do not want him to see me as needy. I want him to come to me first. That seems impossible.

What went wrong? What should I do to get him back? Do I have to change more? If yes, what should I change? Is there anything seriously wrong with us? Why can’t I be more appreciative and give him the respect he wants me to give him? Why can’t I control my temper?

Signed, Seriously Damaged

Dear Seriously Damaged,

Assume for the moment you could patch it up with him. Here are a few things to consider.

Let me get this straight. He won't "let you" work, take classes, or admit to having a bad day, which means that he cares only for his own needs, not yours. He gets suspicious if you have a normal social life with your friends. He tells you how you should interact with your own parents. He criticizes you, calling you unappreciative, weak, too insecure (even though he is also clearly insecure), and saying you have "many bad traits." He wants you to work out so you will be physically appealing for him. He has all the money in the relationship, but you are apparently not important enough for him to spend some of it to come visit you, or call you on the phone. He can't even bring himself to prop you up by offering a few supportive and loving words once in a while. The end result is that you are depressed, lonely, and completely unfulfilled in your lifestyle.

What exactly are you getting out of this relationship?

As far as I can tell, the only thing you are getting is hope. Your continued involvement with him (limited as it may be) provides you with the promise that you won't have to spend your life alone.

But here's what I can't get past. When you finally get your reward, when you reach that magical day you've been waiting for and the two of you can be together ... you'll be getting together with a guy who by your own account treats you horribly.

You say the attraction was intense when you first met. Well of course it was! It's always that way in the beginning. You two were only together during the infatuated excitement phase of a brand new relationship. Lust runs high, everything is fresh and new, and of course it all looks good. Yet even during that time you say all was not well, that the two of you had "a lot of silly fights" during the only time you were together.

Okay, he built a house. He works hard at his job. He has stayed in contact for two years. Those are good things but there is much, much more to being a supportive partner than that. I'd give him a failing grade in several other departments, such as caring as much about you as he does about himself, and being attentive to your needs.

Even if the two of you had not broken up, I would urge you to think long and hard before committing to a lifetime of that kind of treatment.

And don't think he will act differently once you are together, once the stress is gone, once you are married, once the moon is aligned with Venus. Far too many people have entered marriage thinking their partners will improve in some way. Experience has shown this rarely happens. Generally, what you see before the marriage is what you can expect to get for the rest of your days.

Do you want a husband who will dictate to you when you are "allowed" to have a job or take a course? Do you really want that little say in your life? Maybe so -- some cultures treat these sorts of issues differently than others, and I don't want to make assumptions. Even if that is okay for you, though, I'd think you'd want a partner who cares deeply about your needs and wants. Have you seen that from your boyfriend?

I have to ask myself why you have stayed in the relationship this long. I can only assume you are somewhat desperate to have someone in your life, so you are willing to take whatever promise this relationship holds. That makes me nervous for you. Desperation is a dangerous emotion when it comes to making relationship decisions. Desperate people will often stay in relationships from which more self-confident people would walk away.

Are you afraid you could not find another relationship? Do you have an idealized memory of those magical fifteen days of infatuation? Do you assume that the two of you will return to that state of excited lust when you see each other again? Perhaps these are some tough questions you should ask yourself.

If you think through all that and decide you really want to make up, this is what I suggest. Tell him the truth. Open up and tell him how you are feeling and that you want to be with him. True honest expression of love and desire to be together is the way to break down barriers of anger and silence. Don't try to explain how he hurt you, just acknowledge whatever part you played and tell him you don't want to lose him.

If you end up back together, I suggest you give some serious thought to how you can find your identity in this relationship. You need to have a life of your own, even if it means he has to work through some of his own insecurities.

You've been living in a difficult situation for two years. I wish you the best of luck in trying to create a better one.

With warm regards,
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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Question of the Week #22: Your Favorite Love Songs

Close your eyes and I'll kiss you
Tomorrow I'll miss you
Remember I'll always be true
And then while I'm away
I'll write home every day
And I'll send all my loving to you

Ahhh, can't you just hear Lennon's guitar strumming madly away in the background?

Love songs have been a staple of the music industry forever it seems. They are part of the soundtrack of our lives. Here's another one you might recognize:

I know there's only, only one like you
There's no way they could have made two
Girl you're my reality
But I'm lost in a-a-a a dream
You're the first, you're the last, my everything

Have you got the tune in your head? Can you hear Barry White's low, rich voice as it swims up into the higher notes? Oh yeah, I knew you would.

What is your favorite love song? Or maybe you couldn't possibly pick just one. If so, tell us a few of your favorites.

I'm especially interested in why. Do the lyrics have a special meaning for you? Did you play that song over and over in your bedroom when you were in your teens? Did you dance to it at your wedding? Was it on the car radio when you had your first kiss? Or maybe the tune just grabs you on some elemental level.

And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple but now that it's done
I hope you don't mind
I hope you don't mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you're in the world

Hmmmm ... are my oldies roots showing? Careful, I feel a rendition of Crocodile Rock coming on.

So what is your song? And feel free to pop a few lyrics into your response, get everyone out there in blogland humming along.
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Commitment - Your Shield Against Relationship Adversity

What timing. I turned on Dr. Phil one day this week and saw a couple who have been married four months. The husband is constantly wondering if she is "the one." He struggled mightily before deciding to go through with the ceremony -- at one point his fiancée found him curled in the fetal position, crying. Her father confronted him the day before the wedding and said, "Well, what's it going to be? Are you going through with it?" Not long after the ceremony, the groom went so far as to tell her he would give the marriage six to twelve months and then see if he thought it was worth continuing.

What commitment! (What a shame, if you ask me.)

Needless to say, his bride is shattered. She feels like a car being taken out for a test drive. They're getting along okay, apparently, but that's not good enough for him. He still can't convince himself to really commit.

If the responses you folks provided to last week's Question of the Week are any yardstick to go by, those two are in serious trouble right from the get-go.

Anne wrote: Commitment combined with love is everything. It's the glue of trust, of respect, and of understanding. It isn't old-fashioned at all. What it says is that two people think enough of themselves -- and of each-other, to try to salvage (and perhaps even deepen) something they thought was precious originally.

Rose Connors backed up that sentiment: I think commitment, whether in marriage or other relationships, is a seminal concept if one hopes to be stable. I don't think close, meaningful relationships can exist without it. Therefore, only if one is content to have a string of relationships that disintegrate at the first sign of conflict, is it possible to go through life without commitment.

Then Kelly chimed in: I know that relationships are not just fun and games, but they are hard work. People go through ups and downs, and so do relationships. In this instant-gratification world we live in, it's easy to think after a few months of "bad times" that bailing is an option. But the bad times could be years. It doesn't mean that the relationship is doomed (though I'll agree with the above comments that there are times when you must get out). Patience and commitment and being willing to work through the tough stuff is a huge part of marriage. (P.S. I just visited Kelly's site to mention this post to her, and lo and behold I find out she became engaged a couple of nights ago. So a big CONGRATULATIONS to Kelly and her fiance!)

I could cite several more of your comments -- so many of your responses are right on the money. Thanks to everyone who contributed. I'm sure some of those words will end up in a published book in the not-so-distant future. (Everyone out there has their fingers crossed, right?)

Your collective message to the husband on the Dr. Phil show is clear: "Make up your mind if you want to have a shot at a successful marriage!"
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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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Monday, January 15, 2007

Dismaying Story #102: Husband Poaching

Dear Andrew,

Lately, a woman in my husband's office has seemed to take a romantic interest in him. I believe he's loyal to me, but it bothers me that she thinks she has a chance, and is not leaving him alone. She knows he's married, so her initial email to him was "So, do you have any younger brothers available?"

It's hard for me to believe my husband doesn't know that's one of the most cliché pick-up lines in the book—cleverly designed to gauge a crush's commitment to his/her current relationship, while simultaneously implying that you're into that person. "I know you're taken, so I'll let you know I'm interested in you by telling you I'm looking for romance, and I'd be interested in someone a lot like you since I guess I can't have the real you....or can I?"

Let's rewind a bit. He met one woman, we'll call her Betty, while we were dating. Betty called him at all hours of the night just to talk and would sound a little put out that he was with me (I could hear her on the line). She invited him on outings that he emphatically insisted were not dates, and showed up to his house with videos in hand at 11 p.m. on Friday nights when she thought I wasn't there. These kinds of things happened all the time with her. I grumbled about it, but didn't want to be the "insecure" jealous type and I wanted to prove that I trusted him, so I kept my cool and played nice with her.

I thought it would cease with our marriage, but she still calls and emails him (though less now than before). His tone of voice on the phone reveals how special she is to him. When I get upset about it, he sighs to demonstrate how tiring my insecurities are, makes me out to be a jealous, petty nag, defends her, a fight ensues, and he enters a defiantly defensive gridlock and essentially refuses to cut ties.

I feel that Betty wouldn't persist in such a way if she felt that it was hopeless, that she didn't have a chance. After a few years of her blatant disrespect for relationship boundaries and his unwillingness to honor my role as his wife, I started to lose trust in him. So without his knowledge, I got in the habit of monitoring his email for any sign that he was giving her reasons to persist. This snooping, however, feels like a dirty, compulsive weakness. Part of me is looking for damning guilt, but part of me hopes that I will find something that redeems him.

I learned of the more recent office admirer (let's call her Wilma) while observing this email correspondence. It makes me think he's developed a habit of passively encouraging this behavior because it's flattering, which I can understand, but this encouragement allows her to undermine me and mock our marriage. The fact that she is so brazen indicates that she is a mate poacher, something I've been hearing a lot about lately. I learned that poachers target people in serious relationships because of the thrill and power of seducing an unavailable person, taking competitive behavior to a new level. When a man flirts with me knowing that I'm married, I'm a little offended. He is discrediting the significance of my marriage and disrespecting not only my boundaries, but also my husband.

Just like with Betty, my husband defends Wilma. He defends this situation and insists it's a cordial, professional relationship. I don't buy it. In my opinion, there is really no such thing as harmless flirting with someone else's spouse and it concerns me when people brush it off as innocent. In fact, I think the likelihood of adultery is intensified when people militantly dismiss it as "innocent"; it's as if they like their guards to be down, and are desperate and determined to remain that way, as vulnerable to temptation as possible.

Because of her brazen arrogance, and her apparent confidence that she could poach my husband any time she wanted, I am incensed. It's not enough for me to know she's wrong. I need HER to know it. Maybe I am too insecure, and this is definitely petty. But I feel like a chump and I'm angry that he's not sticking up for me—or for his own marriage.

I have been giving him extra praise to ensure he isn't craving it enough to seek it from anyone else, but I feel like nothing I say as his wife is as exciting as the things that come from the fun, fresh, coworker who doesn't HAVE to say those things. I know that I'm superior to her in pretty much every way (personality, success, looks, class, talent, and the fact that I'm not a tacky menace) and that I shouldn't be threatened. I guess it just enrages me to watch her try.

Imagine that you lived next to a pedophile and you had small children. You have taught them all about strangers and grown-ups that could hurt them even when the ones who seem nice. You've even specifically warned your kids to stay away from the pervert next door, and you know they would not get into his house or car if he asked them to. But when they walk to their bus stop, you can see the pedophile staring at them and trying to figure out ways to entice them. Wouldn't that disturb you?

My husband is obviously more discerning and less vulnerable than a small child, but I am just as upset knowing there is a woman who has her eyes on him, plotting to take him. It's also upsetting that he refuses to see her as predatory (yes, it's a strong word…but the shoe fits) and thus lives with his guard down.

I have concluded that no matter what I do, he can't be convinced and she can't be stopped. The only way to get through my issues will be to do it on my own and make peace with it. It seems impossible to do. I understand that jealousy in small doses is not harmful and in fact can add a little flavor to the relationship…but this is different than that. I put up with this type of drama in my dating years. But I'm married now and I should not have to deal with these kinds of things anymore. I hate that I'm competing for my own husband. I hate that he's allowing it. I REALLY hate that he defends her and I hate that I can't do anything about it. It's making me into an angry, bitter, untrusting person.

From an outside perspective, do you believe I should be concerned? Do you believe these situations lead to adultery? How can I stop this pattern? How can I just shrug it off like some women? I would love your insight.

Signed, Protecting What's Mine

Dear Protecting What's Mine,

I understand your anger toward the women you consider to be potential mate poachers; I would also resent someone I thought was making a serious play for my spouse. To me, though, the main issue does not depend on whether you are right or wrong about the intentions of those women. My concern is the way your husband has handled the situation.

His first interest should be in safeguarding and nurturing the relationship he has with you. He is not doing that. He knows the things that bother you, yet he continues to do them. This shows a blatant disregard for your feelings. He is not attaching the degree of importance that he should to looking after you and the relationship between the two of you.

Results matter. If the result of some behavior is damage to your marriage, then that should be enough for him to stop that behavior, or at least work with you to make sure you are not being hurt by that behavior. He is doing neither.

He has learned that you will put up with him crossing the line. If you need to own a piece of this problem, this is it -- by not wanting to appear jealous or petty, you have taught him that you will put up with it.

He can't control what other women do, but he can control his responses to those other women. His response to them should be: "This makes my wife uncomfortable so you have to stop doing this." The fact that he won't do so is a major danger signal in terms of how close the bond is between the two of you.

You should make this point with him and insist that he put your needs before those of one of his friends, regardless of whether the friend is male or female.

You are not being overly sensitive or jealous. He is being insensitive, uncaring and flirtatious because he likes this attention from other women -- another danger sign. Allowing another woman to drop by to watch a movie alone with him at 11 pm on a Friday night is WAYYYY over the line... and he knows it. Everybody knows that, which means he is getting a payoff from it, enough that he is willing to battle with you to retain it.

An ongoing email correspondence with another woman where he discusses personal matters about you and his marriage -- to me that is one form of emotional affair.

It is also a bad sign that he is willing to let someone else demean you and your marriage without defending you. A husband who holds his wife and marriage in high regard would never allow that or condone it with silence. I would shut anybody down in a heartbeat if they said something nasty about my wife, and that includes my parents, boss, children, co-workers ... you name it. I would simply never allow anyone to do it. You are right to be upset about this. Furious and hurt would be the appropriate response from you.

Yes I would consider all of these to be danger signs in terms of adultery. If I were you I would check out my post from November 10 entitled Catching a Cheating Spouse. I note that this article mentions monitoring of email and phone records as possible ways to find out if your spouse is being unfaithful.

Your path to freedom is not just to accept this behavior from your husband. Instead you should make the arguments I have made in this email and insist that he stop. If he persists in ignoring your complaints ... well, you have to decide how far you are willing to go to back up your request that he treat your with dignity and respect.

If you think he might already be cheating, you may wish to wait to confront him until you have read the article I mentioned and followed the advice given there.

These are strong words and I don't mean to add to your hurt and torment. As I see it, though, you will never be happy until the situation changes somehow. You can make it change. Stand up for yourself, say what you mean ... and mean what you say.

All the best,
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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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Stories About Gaining Closeness

A big thank you to each of you who left a story for last week's question about building bridges with the people in your life. The responses make for a refreshing collection; they restore my faith in our collective desire to be close to one another and in our willingness to reach out.

The stories include long-distance friends propping each other up, a mother who is grateful for the closeness she has with her daughters, forgiveness for a mother after many years when closeness was missing, help for a neighbor in a time of need, reconnecting with elderly parents, selflessness in a community crisis, and making a special trip with a son. If you haven't had a chance to read them, I recommend you take a look. I suspect you will find them as heartwarming as I did.

My favorite contribution is from a reader who left only his first name, Tom, so I am unable to reciprocate with a link. Tom writes about losing himself in the bottle, separating from his wife, and then...

"I had an awakening and came to her and asked if we could save the marriage. She showed me divorce papers and said she had reached a point of indifference. I asked if she would give me a chance and put the papers in a drawer until we got some help. Three months later I paid her back for the lawyer and we burned the papers together, stayed in therapy and I got sober. That was eleven years ago and we are happier than ever. I am my 15 year old son's hero and my wife loves me unconditionally. But more important, I love them and will never allow the world to come between them and myself again."

Now that's what I call a Good News Story! Tom, good for you and your wife for your successful reconnection. You definitely have a marriage worth fighting for! Thanks for sharing your tale, and also to everyone else who did the same.
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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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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hate Consumes Energy - Forgiveness is Self-Inflicted Freedom

My last post about Getting Past a Rape stirred up more emotion among those who commented than any Dismaying Story has for some time. The responses raised some unresolved issues, so I would like to address them today.

Here is the email response I received from the original letter writer:

Andrew, Thank you so much for your response. It really helped a lot just to hear someone outside my family feel concern and frustration over the things that happened to me. It put me at ease to hear that just because I fear something doesn't mean it occurred already, and to be reassured about my own and other people's reactions to my story. Also, I already have some practice in forgiving people. Seven years ago, my mother and I became estranged from my grandmother. She died two years ago without ever contacting us again. Afterwards, I had many dreams that my house was haunted and that she had come back to life. I read in a dream dictionary that dreaming about haunted houses can indicate "unresolved issues with dead loved ones". One night I dreamt about her as a little girl, and when I woke up I said in my head, "I forgive you." I've had trouble fully doing that and have sometimes still felt anger, but it took me a long way toward peace of mind regarding that relationship! So I will work on forgiving that boy. I don't know about therapy right away, but just knowing that someone knowledgeable believes therapy could help makes a difference. And you're right - it would really be worth almost anything if it worked!

Then, apparently after thinking a bit more, a follow-up email arrived:

But if I forgive him, aren't I knuckling under and becoming his victim again? Can't I be freer if I rise like a phoenix from the ashes of my hate?

This is a natural reaction to my suggestion, especially by someone who has suffered so much for so long because of the actions of her rapist. This was my response:

No, knuckling under is something you do to someone else. When you "knuckle under to someone" you give them their way IN THE FUTURE. You give them your implicit permission to continue on with their behavior. That would only apply if you were in contact with him, so that is not at all what you would be doing.

By forgiving him in your own mind (there is no need to inform him of the forgiveness) you are letting go of the hate.

Hate requires energy to keep it going. It is churning, bitter, and consumes you -- not him ... just you. Since you have no contact with him, your hate has no effect on him at all. Just on you. It eats up your energy, takes up your time and your thoughts, blocks your emotions, makes closeness with your husband difficult to achieve, and makes others perceive you differently (because you act differently on the outside when you are carrying hate around inside). Think of the amount of energy you have poured into this over the years.

By letting go of that, now you free up all that time and energy for other things. You allow peace and tranquility back into your heart, your days, your relationships, your home. You make a choice to live in peace rather than with hate.

You can choose, but don't be hard on yourself if you are not ready to do so, or if it takes time. It is not a trivial step to accomplish.

By holding on to the hate, you continue to be a victim. By throwing it away (i.e. by forgiving him), you finally stop being one.

Think how big and brave and strong you will have to be to say "I forgive him" and really mean it. How could such a display of strength mean you are becoming a victim again?

That brought the following response from the letter writer:

That makes sense. I will work on this - it's something that never occurred to me before, even with all the retreats and Take Back the Nights and seminars on helping survivors of sexual assault. Thank you so much, again! I definitely needed a different solution than all the ones I'd tried before.

Okay, so far so good. But then came a series of comments that pointed out quite correctly there is even more to resolving this type of issue. I'll list the comments here, and then offer a few additional thoughts of my own. Lynn wrote:

I believe it would be very helpful to the rape survivor if you would define the word 'forgive' in very specific terms. The word has been carelessly bandied about to the point where its meaning has become extremely ambiguous. Depending on the frame of reference of the survivor, the advice to forgive (without definition) might be meaningless or even unhealthy, depending on the survivor's own definition. As a rape survivor myself, I can tell you that it is easy for things, even such things as 'universally (mis)understood' words, to lose their definitions in the aftermath of such an annihilistic attack on the cohesion of the self. Some people think forgiveness means to pardon the person who has done wrong. With this definition, the survivor would have to say, "It's okay. I won't hold it against you. Let's just let bygones be bygones. I forgive you." Then, next time the survivor starts crying in the middle of sex, she will wonder what is wrong with her. After all, she has forgiven and should be healed. This would only make her feel more guilty and worthless.

An anonymous abuse survivor responded:

I agree with Lynn. The concept of forgiveness is often misconstrued. To forgive is not to condone, or accept or validate. To forgive is to release yourself from bondage. I grew up in a very abusive home and it was not until I forgave my parents for who they inherently were, was I able to stop defining myself as an “abuse survivor.” Instead I was able to finally declare that I am a writer, and artist, a teacher, a husband, a father and a good man…I also happen to be an abuse survivor and I use that label only as a way to help others who had the same experience. What I came to realize is the physical, sexual and emotional abuse I lived through was not about me, but my abusers. When I realized this I was able to heal. I pray this woman has the same realization. Beside, the boy apologized, was remorseful and wanted her to know he was sorry for what happened. For her to want him to die and go to hell after all this time shows me she needs to realize that was then and this is now. Now can be wonderful, I know because now my life is blessed. I still feel the sting of the past every once n a while, when I do, I call someone less fortunate and share my compassion. It frees me.

To which Lynn wrote:

I read the comment left by Anonymous, which was very courageous. He said, "To forgive is to release yourself from bondage." I rejoice for the well-deserved peace that anonymous has found. To be released from the bondage is ultimately what rape and abuse survivors want. Anonymous then said that it was not until he FORGAVE his parents that he was able to stop defining himself as an abuse survivor. By the definition he previously supplied (to release ONE'S SELF from bondage), it would not have been possible to "forgive" another person. This is what I mean when I say that this word is so ambiguous as to have lost its definite meaning entirely and has instead become an abstract concept open to interpretation not merely by each individual, but even with each usage of the word! If you like you can read the comments of this post to see what the various commenters had to say on the topic of forgiveness and you will see what I mean. I hate to even use the word, but if I may say, sometimes people rush to "forgiveness" to spare themselves the grief of having to truly confront what was done to them. For me, this premature, fake "forgiveness" did not work. I grabbed onto it anyway, because forgiveness is supposed to make it all just go away. Who wouldn't want that? I don't have the answers. I can't give advice, I'm currently working on my recovery and sometimes I'm a train wreck and I'm well aware of it. For me, I have realized very recently that I can no longer minimize what has happened, and no apology from any perpetrator would end the suffering. That's just magical thinking. I was beaten, neglected, tormented AND raped and I'm angry about it. I'm not in a 'forgiving' mood. I'm furious and I make no apologies for it. Funny, when I allow myself to be angry, I feel some things starting to move. Perhaps, forgiveness, as defined by Anonymous, "to release yourself from bondage", is not the method of healing, but the result. It's very kind and compassionate of you, Andrew, to take on the topics that cause human suffering.

Wow. Thank you all for your heartfelt and honest input.

You are right when you say that words can be misconstrued, and that well-intentioned attempts at healing can fall short, leaving people feeling distraught all over again. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet that guarantees healing, and any suggestion that making an effort to forgive might be considered a magic, instant solution would be misguided.

The suggestions I made -- working toward regaining self-worth, and defining yourself as something other than someone else's victim -- these are not events in your life. These are not things you do once and then say, "There! I'm healed now." You can't say, "I forgive him" and expect everything to be better all of a sudden. Just as pain has had years to work its insidious effects on your spirit, you will also need time to learn a different way to see the world and to react to it.

Healing is a process, not an event. It takes work, persistence, determination, constant support from yourself and those around you, and it takes time. That is one of the reasons I suggested the letter writer could use some help from a professional. Such a journey is much more difficult when attempted alone. Even friends and family are often unable to provide the depth of help required, partly because they lack the distance and objectivity to be credible in the eyes of the person attempting to heal, and partly because they may not have the depth of understanding to continually steer the process back in the right direction.

So, as Lynn suggested, it is certainly possible (probable, even) that the letter writer could do her best today to forgive her long-ago rapist, only to continue to have the same fear reaction tomorrow when faced with physical intimacy. Such deep-rooted reactions almost never change that quickly. Part of the reason is they are multi-faceted. Your body has learned to react physiologically to sex as a threat. Your pulse quickens, you tense up, your breathing becomes shallow, you start to shake -- these are not voluntary responses. You can't forgive them away any more than you can wish them away. It takes time and repeated exposure to the beginnings of intimacy in a safe, nurturing, healing environment.

That means your husband or boyfriend should say to you, "It's okay. I know you're scared and I'm here for you. We don't have to do anything you don't want to. We'll take all the time you need; months, years if need be. We can just sit here with all our clothes on and talk for a while, and we can do that as many times in a row as it takes. I'm not going anywhere and I'm not going to judge you. I know this is hard and I think you're incredibly brave. I love you and I'm proud of you. You're safe with me."

And guys, just a hint. This one won't cut it: "I wish you'd hurry up and see a shrink and get that fixed so we can have a normal sex life." No way Jose. She's going to need a MUCH more supportive attitude from you than that.

I agree with the anonymous commenter that forgiveness in this context has nothing to do with condoning or excusing the actions of the rapist. At the root of it, it's about saying, "I've decided I'm tired of hating you and what that does to me, so I'm not going to hate you anymore." Whatever word you want to use, whether it's "forgiveness" or something else, that is what has to happen if you are to move past the hurt and stop defining yourself based on the painful past.

Lynn, I mentioned in the Dismaying Story that the letter writer has to make a decision. She has to decide she is sick and tired of living like that, and that she wants to be done with the hate. You say you are not ready to make that decision yet and that is absolutely understandable. You don't have to justify your reactions to anyone but yourself. There is no "right" way to react to such devastating emotional trauma, and you obviously need time to feel like you are feeling right now. Take that time, and you're right -- you don't need to offer any apologies for doing so.

I sincerely hope for your sake, though, that you eventually get to a place where the hate has served its purpose and you are ready to set down that burden. Many people describe the experience of letting go of the hate as if a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. My wish is that you have that experience some day ... when the time is right for you.

With warm wishes for a healing future,
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Monday, January 08, 2007

Dismaying Story #100: Getting Past a Rape

Dear Andrew,

My first boyfriend raped me when I was fourteen, and then broke up with me three days later because he couldn't handle the guilt. None of my friends seemed to believe me, and at least some of the ones who acted like they did laughed at me behind my back. This was my first sexual experience.

I wasn't ready for it to go as far as it did, and I worry that I may have been molested by my uncle as a small child. He has been diagnosed as a sociopath, and was sent to a boys' home as a teenager because he attacked my grandmother. My father told his mother-in-law (my maternal grandmother) that no one was ever to leave me alone with my uncle, or they would never see me again. When I was in counseling as a teenager (around the same time as the rape), my mother sent me out of the room to answer a question the counselor asked. She had asked, "Did your brother ever do anything like that to your daughter?" My mom doesn't remember this incident at the counselor's office. I instantly think of bathrooms when someone mentions molestation, and I used to have frequent nightmares that I was hiding in my grandparents' bathroom and my uncle was coming to find me. I was always either naked or in just a bathrobe in these nightmares.

My second counselor didn't seem to believe me when I told her, just as my friends had disbelieved me. I told her about it, and she changed the subject and never brought it up again. I have not had very many good counseling experiences.

I did not have sex again for five years. Often during sex I will start to shake and cry. It took me a long time after having sex again to actually enjoy it - before that I was just glad to be like normal girls. Now I am in a long-term relationship, and we have sex about once a week. I know my boyfriend would like it to be more frequent, and he has asked me before to seek counseling to deal with this rape. I don't feel as though I would get anything out of counseling that I haven't already done to heal myself, and it would be a financial burden on us. But I know I have a libido - I often have sexual dreams about doing things with him that I have never considered in daylight. And even when I get aroused, I blush and feel ashamed thinking of how much I let go when we have sex - all the silly things I say and do that are embarrassing to think about when one is in one's "right mind". Obviously, I believe this embarrassment probably goes hand in hand with my past sexual experiences. What can I do to connect my inner mindset with my outer self?

Signed, Still Traumatized

I had some questions for Still Traumatized, which she answered as follows:

- Do you berate yourself for "letting" the rape happen?

Not really. I was visiting my dad the summer before, and "cheated" on my boyfriend with another guy. We were "going out", but since we were thirteen nothing much was going on. My best friend told my boyfriend, and from then until the rape I was constantly letting him walk all over me because of the guilt. So then I would take his verbal abuse because I figured I "deserved" it for dating another guy at the same time. We had also been messing around (the rapist boyfriend and I) and things were progressing further and further. But I didn't feel like I let the rape happen - it was a situation where I didn't have any control over the actual rape, and it also happened so quickly.

- At any point since then (including now) have you ever found yourself pulling back when you get close to someone, either emotionally or intimately?

I have never pulled back emotionally, but I have a loooooooonnnngg history of pulling back during intimacy - I will get so far with someone and then start to cry or shake or get scared. It doesn't happen as much with my current boyfriend, but from the time of the rape until I was nineteen (five years), I didn't actually have any type of penetration with anyone.

- Have you ever been afraid to show people the real you, for fear they will discover you are not good enough? Have you compensated for this feeling by over-achieving at school or work?

Oh yeah. Ever since I was a child! I have always felt like if I can be good enough and smart enough and pretty enough and nice enough, I can make everyone happy all the time.

- If you could write a letter to your rapist, what would you want to say to him?

I don't really want to tell him anything. Since we went to school together for the next three-plus years, and since we had all the same friends, I saw plenty of him. When we were seniors, he said that he was sorry for what happened, but that it was a bad relationship "all the way around". He asked if we could be friends. I felt like I had been slapped - I told him I didn't think that would work for me. I don't want to say anything to him. I just want him to die and go to hell. Or live the rest of his life thinking every minute of every day about what he did.

- And if you could wish for an ideal letter back from him, what would he say?

That he was going to commit hara kiri over his guilt. No amount of I'm sorry can give back what he took from me.

Dear Still Traumatized,

I want to be clear that I could never pretend to know completely what your experience is like, dealing with the aftermath of being a rape victim -- I haven't lived through it like you have. I have worked closely with other people who have been in just about your exact situation, though, (teen rape with longstanding consequences during adulthood, eventually gaining peace after many years) so I believe I have some degree of insight.

"None of my friends seemed to believe me..."

That is a defense mechanism on their part, and an unfortunate consequence for you. You needed support that they were not equipped to provide. If they had responded with, "Oh you poor thing, that's terrible," then that is followed obviously with, "What can I do to help?" Then (from their still-not-quite-mature point of view) they are dragged into the middle of a situation that is too horrible for them to contemplate. It's much more comfortable for them to ward off the situation and ignore it. In other words, they were reacting with their own interests in mind, not yours. That's pretty typical for adolescent teens, who tend to me-oriented. Like I said, though, this was unfortunate for you and undoubtedly added to your pain.

"My second counselor didn't seem to believe me when I told her... I told her about it, and she changed the subject and never brought it up again."

That is unconscionable. I view someone in the helping professions as the last line of defense for issues like this. If she didn't help you, where could you go from there? Exactly where you did -- home to struggle with it on your own. That is completely unacceptable. If she thought this was a legitimate issue then she should have helped, or at least referred you to someone who had the expertise to deal with this type of issue. If she thought you were telling a false story, then that should have also sent alarm bells ringing in her head. Nobody would tell a story like that unless they were hurting in some way, and a caring counselor should want to uncover that pain and help.

Not every counselor or therapist is going to be a star, or even minimally competent, so I guess it's "buyer beware" as in most other areas of life. Unfortunately people seeking therapy are, by definition, not always on top of their game at the time and may see their options as limited. Several parts of your story make me sad and this is one of them. You needed a results-oriented professional who would make it their business to guide you toward a healing path and not settle for any less.

"I worry that I may have been molested by my uncle as a small child..."

Small children (or anyone for that matter) sometimes block out difficult memories as a defense mechanism against being overwhelmed by the pain. It is also possible to dream repeatedly about something we fear (even if it never happened), and then wonder if there is any substance to it. I have no way of knowing how real this vague memory is for you. Clearly, though, the anguish you feel over it now is yet another indication you are a wounded spirit and sexual abuse (the rape, and potentially your uncle) is a huge part of the cause.

"What can I do to connect my inner mindset with my outer self?"

I'll tell you where I believe you need to get to, and offer a few suggestions as to how you might accomplish that.

Your feelings of self-worth are close to rock bottom. One of the terrible consequences of rape and other forms of sexual abuse is that they objectify the victim. "I must not be worth much," your inner mind comes to believe, "since all I was to him was something he could use to satisfy his urges. My feelings, my needs, my worth -- all of this meant less than his fleeting sexual want, which means I am way down there on the worthless scale." You fear it could happen again, that plenty of other men have the predilection and power to do this to you. You feel powerless to protect yourself. Powerless translates to weak, and weakness to low self-worth.

So you try to compensate in other ways in an effort to feel better about yourself. You work hard in school, you get a good job and become an over-achiever. Inside, though, the same feelings persist.

Now along comes a romantic interest. Things progress and you start to open up to each other. "DANGER!" your inner mind yells. "I can't let him see the real me, because I know it won't be good enough for him. I'm not worthy, not really. If I let myself go during sex, if I throw caution to the wind and lower my inhibitions, then I will be out of control, and I never ever let myself get out of control. That would mean opening myself to the potential for more hurt, and I just can't take any more of that." So the result is: "I will get so far with someone and then start to cry or shake or get scared."

You need to regain your sense of self. You need to re-discover what you knew intuitively as a small girl -- that you are already worthy of love and closeness and respect, just the way you are. Before life's big and little knocks took their toll on you, back when you were a complete innocent, you floated happily through your days with faith that life was a good place to be and that you deserved your place in it as much as anyone on the planet.

The rape stole a huge chunk of that away from you. Other events and life circumstances took even more, such as your uncle or your friends' reaction when you reached out for help.

Some way, somehow, you need to regain that faith.

Secondly, you have to take the power over yourself back from your rapist. Here is a huge clue:

"No amount of I'm sorry can give back what he took from me."

You're absolutely right. He can't give you back anything. You have to claim it for yourself.

I suspect right now you believe you have no choice. "The rape happened and as a consequence I feel terrible. I can't change the past, so I can't change the consequences."

That belief is completely understandable ... and completely wrong.

At some point you need to make a decision for yourself. You need to decide that you are sick and tired of continuing to give that guy power over your life. Since you were fourteen you have defined yourself as a victim. You need to say, "I don't want to be a victim anymore. I choose to begin the process of changing that."

This is not about getting anything from him, because he hasn't got anything you want. Like you said, his apologies are not enough. What you need must come from yourself. You need to give yourself permission.

Permission to stop defining yourself by how much you hate him, by how much you want him to hurt, by your wish that you could hurt him as much as he hurt you ...

Permission to stop defining yourself based on him.

He needs to be gone from your life and he won't be until you let go of him. He's like a bloodsucker who has been attached to your side since you were fourteen. You need to grab hold of him, yank him off and throw him away.

You need to start defining yourself based on YOU, not on him.

But you can't because you're still angry at him, you still hate him, you still resent like hell what he did to you, so he still has this power over you, he defines who you have become, because...

...because you have never forgiven him.

Are you still there? I know that's a tough one to hear, but stick with me now, we're almost there.

I have seen it happen and I have seen it work. I have seen rape victims regain there happiness and libido by doing exactly that. You don't forgive someone else as a gift to them; you do it as a gift to yourself. It is the only way you will ever be able to let go of all that hurt and rage, the only way you will be able to look at yourself and say, "You know what? I'm a good person."

Those are two tough goals for someone in your position: (1) work to regain your self-worth and (2) cast off your victim role by forgiving your rapist.

I wouldn't be surprised if your immediate reaction to these suggestions is negative. Forgiving him is probably the last thing you feel like doing and I don't blame you. But that would be about, "Why should I do that for him?" Hopefully at some point you will be ready to ask the more pertinent question: "Why should I do that for myself?"

Identifying an effective path to accomplishing these goals is also tough. Despite your past experiences with ineffective counseling, I believe most people in your position would benefit from the help of a results-oriented professional. The chances of you being able to work through this alone are much less than they would be with help. While it may be a financial burden, ask yourself: What if it worked? What would that be worth?

You might try the letter writing exercise I mentioned in my earlier questions to you. Write a letter to your rapist, which you need never show to anyone -- this is an exercise for yourself. Tell him about your pain, what he has done to you. Get it all off your chest. Put it away for a few days, then get it out and write another letter. Write the response you would most like to hear from him, keeping in mind my suggestion of forgiveness as the only way you will ever regain your power and peace. Put that away for a couple of days, then write a final letter to him, closing the conversation with him forever. This can be an effective way to gain closure with someone you don't want to contact.

You can also contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE. They may be able to direct you to free, confidential counseling with someone who is trained in helping with exactly the issues facing you.

You are worthy of being loved, just the way you are. Have patience with yourself and hopefully you can find a path to regaining some of that lost faith.

All the best,
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