Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dismaying Story #120: The Property Tax Debacle

Dear Andrew,

You helped me back in January (Dismaying story #105: Not Her Knight in Shining Armor). I still go back and re-read your answer sometimes.

I still need help on something - it's connected to the same guy, but it drives me crazy with guilt and shame. I cannot seem to forgive myself, and it haunts me.

This guy has been having some very serious financial problems. He broke up with his long-term girlfriend after she refused to stop drinking, and he is now paying the mortgage all on his own. It is crushing him.

He put the house up for sale immediately, but in this market, it has gone nowhere for the last 8 months. He is working 60 hours plus per week for overtime but cannot afford all of his bills now that his ex-girlfriend isn’t paying half. He also owes hefty child support for his 2 kids from his ex-wife, owes back property taxes, and is facing possible foreclosure or bankruptcy.

He is incredibly depressed and isolating himself. Says he has no friends and hasn’t spoken to anyone in his family in 4 years. In the past he mentioned feeling borderline suicidal. That scared me to death. He went to see a counselor, but I still have that fear lurking in the back of my head.

Owning a home (he is in his mid-40’s) meant everything to him as a man. His whole image of himself as successful and a provider and capable has been threatened, and his self-esteem is in the dirt.

I thought I could help without asking anything in return. I went online and paid his property taxes with my credit card.

When he found out, he was very upset and came to my house to talk to me. I cried and said I hadn't meant it to be a bad thing, that if it was a problem I could reverse the charges and take the money back.

He said no, he appreciated it, but that he would pay me back within the next two years ... but that I had no right to try to control his life. Then he got really nasty and said I was obsessive, and had read into everything he had ever done. That it was stalking to have invaded his personal privacy like that.

I couldn't fathom his response, when I truly thought there had been a friendship between us. He used to say that there "was a connection between us from the very beginning." I apologized profusely and asked him to give me another chance. He said the door was closed between us, and that his defenses were really up.

He said that he was "so not ready to begin dating again," but then he said that yes, he used to fantasize about me a lot because I was beautiful with an amazing body; and that he had wanted to make love to me every night, and that was different than having sex.

He hasn’t spoken to me now for 3 months and I am still grieving. I was the only person to step up to the plate for him when the chips were down. I thought I had done something kind. I meant well and it seems to have backfired horribly.

I didn’t ask him for anything in return.

He hasn’t paid me the money back, and I know he won’t be able to. It’s not the money I care about, it’s him.

Why would he keep the money if he was so angry about it? Why has he responded like this? How do I come to terms with the fact that I have alienated someone I valued so much?

I'm beating myself up mercilessly for this. I know not to ever give someone money again, so I will change my actions, but that doesn't undo a past that haunts me.

My biggest fear is that I am a bad person because he is angry with me about what I did. Surely if I was a good person, he would have responded differently.

Signed, Ashamed and Confused

Dear Ashamed and Confused,

I went back and reviewed Dismaying Story #105 to get some background on your relationship with this man. This is the guy who flirted with you for years while he was going out with another woman, then treated you like dirt when you were friendly after she broke up with him. I advised you to forget him and not look back.

Shan commented: "What a jerk."

Lori said: "Run like hell."

Nothing has changed. He is still acting like a complete jerk and you should still run like hell.

Okay, some people would consider it somewhat intrusive for you to inject yourself into their financial affairs without asking first, but it was obviously an act of friendship and supportiveness. It was incredibly giving of you. Any reasonable friend would see it in that light and would at least offer thanks for the help. For him to criticize the help and still accept it is hypocritical, rude, mean-spirited, ... I could go on. He is not your friend. He is an acquaintance who treats you badly. You should have dropped him like a hot potato long ago.

But you didn't. The obvious question is: why? Why do you cling to a dysfunctional friendship? Why do you value someone who has treated you badly in the past and continues to do so?

Why don't you feel you are worth more than that?

And therein lies your answer. He is not your primary problem. Somehow you have convinced yourself that you are unworthy, that you are a "bad person." He said some nice words to you in the past and that made you feel good. Now you are unwilling to let go of your quest to regain that good feeling. You fear that no one else would ever make you feel that way again. So you are willing to put up with any amount of boorish behavior on his part to keep open the possibility of hearing more words of praise and attraction.

And here is where your behavior pattern feeds on itself -- if he acts nicely, you see him as a nice guy and are flattered that he wants to be with you. If he acts poorly, you blame yourself instead of him. He can't lose! This is because you have such low feelings of self-worth.

Look at your letter. You say that you have alienated him. Baloney! You tried to help. He was the one who reacted poorly and created the chasm between the two of you (which you should be thankful for, by the way). You beat yourself up. You imply that the solution is to change your actions. You worry this happened because you are not a good person.

Let me say this publicly -- you are most definitely a good person. You do, however, have a huge issue with your self image. The committee in your head just loves to remind you how no one will want you, how you aren't good enough, that you aren't a good person, that you shouldn't let anyone see the real you because that won't be good enough for them.

This is a big part of the reason why you are attracted to a man who is so distant and unattainable. (Remember, you waited years for this guy while he had another girlfriend. That is a seriously unattainable man.)

My advice is to find yourself a coach who can help you with your self image. You need someone to help you root out the causes for your negative self talk and to jettison this self-defeating behavior from your life. And it can be done. I've seen many people get this kind of help and make amazing turnarounds in their lives.

Once you do that, this guy will no longer be a mystery to you. You will have the self-confidence to recognize the destructive role he plays in your life and to seek out friends who treat you with the respect and kindness you deserve.

All the best,
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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dismaying Story #119: Wanderlust

Dear Andrew,

I am a twenty three year old woman with a Master's Degree and a good job. I have a love of travel, some would say wanderlust. In between getting my degrees I worked in Latin America and traveled to many other parts of the world. Although it is hard to set up in new places I find it very exciting and I love meeting new people. As a result of my life style (and my personal tastes) I have never maintained a relationship much longer than a year ... until now. I have been dating a man for the past year and a half and we recently began living together. He waited for me while I went away for four months, he is supportive of all my decisions and he loves me very much. However, I have become antsy and I am beginning to dream of visiting the unknown. I want him to come with me, but he has commitments here and can only really leave a couple of weeks, maybe a month at a time. He and I would be fine if I went by myself, but these are the kind of experiences always thought I would share with my partner.

I am worried that if I don't do what I want I will resent him and myself, but that if I do go I will be living half in one country and half in another, in my head and heart anyways. I love this man and I want to make it work, but the more I realized how settled he wants to be, the more I feel strangled.

What should I do? Should I throw away the best thing that ever happened to me?

Signed, Wanting to Wander

Dear Wanting to Wander,

Have you thought of another option? Perhaps you and your man could plan for a time in the future when he could free up his commitments and travel with you for a more extended period. I suspect you have made if clear to him how important the travel is to you, and it sounds like you are important to him. He might make the choice to give that gift to you, even if it means sacrificing some part of his other commitments. Your part of the compromise would be waiting until he could make that work.

If that turns out not to be possible, then you have some choices to make. Is a more grounded existence bearable for you if that means you are with him? Is he that important to you? It sounds like you are finding out that is not true. You mentioned being antsy, becoming resentful, and feeling strangled. You didn't mention anything about how the thought of the travel makes you afraid of losing him, just how the thought of staying makes you afraid of giving up the travel. These are fairly clear indications that the status quo doesn't feel right for you, in spite of how much you like this guy.

Should you walk away from an otherwise good relationship to satisfy your wanderlust? Heck, how should I know. You are the only one who can balance what is important to you and make that choice. Yes, you might feel resentful of him if you stay. Yes, you might miss him like crazy and kick yourself for leaving if you go. Unfortunately life sometimes presents us with messy choices and conflicting desires. In this case you can't have your cake and eat it too. We are all forced to balance our needs as best we can -- and then we have to live with the consequences.

If it sounds like I'm ducking your question, that's because I am. You are the only one who can weigh all the factors and decide what is more important to you.

So bon voyage! ...or not. It's up to you.

All the best,
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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dismaying Story #117: Escalating Verbal Abuse

Dear Andrew,

I am at a loss of what to do about my marriage. I am 23 years old and I have been married for about 2 years. Right after we were married, I had a couple of horrible moments where I realized that I shouldn’t have married this man. He would be kind and attentive one moment and cutting and impatient the next. I told him that I thought I had made a mistake in marrying him. Because of our religion, we believe marriage to be sacred and eternal. I knew that I had to do everything that I could for my marriage. My mantra became this, “Maybe we shouldn’t have married, but we did, and I love him, so I will make it work.” I begged him to come with me to counseling, but he refused.

Months went by, with small incidents turning into huge arguments. I began putting everything I did or said into a pretty package for him, hoping there wouldn’t be anything he could pick apart. It really seemed that nothing I did was enough for him. He began treating me like trash, verbally abusing and controlling me. If something didn’t quite go his way, he would stand close to me with his face in mine and say “Can you be nice, can you be nice” over and over without letting me get a word in edgewise. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t want to tell my family because I wanted them to like my husband and get along with him. Meanwhile he was telling me that if it came down to it and I had to choose between him and my family that I would have to choose him.

Finally it came to a head after Thanksgiving. We spent the weekend visiting his brother’s family and my husband got upset over some really minor details. Like what type of pickles I had bought for the appetizers. He held most of his anger in, but moped around all weekend. Finally when we were on the 5 hour drive home, he exploded. Screaming at me for hours about how I am an embarrassment to him in front of his family, calling me a “Nazi” and a snot and many other horrible things. I couldn’t even say anything, I just cried and cried. When we arrived home that evening, we both kept to ourselves. The next day I went to work and I decided that I would go home and if he didn’t realize that how he had acted was awful, that I would have to leave.

When I arrived home that evening, he told me that “we needed to talk” and began to tell me how I needed to change. I knew what I had to do and began to pack some of my things. When he saw that I was serious about leaving, he became scaring, his moods changing like the flip of a coin. One moment he was begging me to stay, the next moment he was yelling at me to leave. He even stood behind the car so that I wouldn’t be able to leave. I felt like I was in a Lifetime movie or something! My heart was beating so fast. I finally got away and ran to the car to leave. I have been living with my parents ever since.

This is where things get trickier for me. I really don’t feel like I should ever go back and be with my husband. I am ready to get a divorce from him today. We have been seeing a counselor together, and he has undergone some major adjustments. Making promises of never treating me badly and being the husband of my dreams. I feel nauseous when he says these things and when I think of being with him, much less having kids with him. Because of my religion, there is a lot of guilt associated with these desires for a life without him. I feel like I should want to be back with my husband, but I really don’t. I am happier without him than I have been in a very long time. I feel like I am myself again after so much time trying to be who he wanted me to be.

My husband is saying that he will wait for me forever, and that he will never break the promises that he made to me at our wedding. This really concerns me for my future, wondering if he will ever let me be. I feel like I have time to be happy in my life and I don't know if he can be a part of that happiness ever again.

I am at a loss for what I should do.

Signed, Scared for My Future

Dear Scared,

I’m so sorry to hear about the abuse you have had to endure. It sounds like you have so far done the only thing you can. The situation you described was escalating. It’s not a big stretch from in-your-face verbal abuse to physical abuse. If you had stayed with him, I believe the chances are very high that is what would have started happening.

You are right to be leery of getting back together with him. The behaviors you describe are dysfunctional and extreme. He is controlling, lacks all empathy for seeing things from your point of view, and cares only for his own happiness rather than yours. The “can you be nice” routine is particularly scary. This is an individual with serious issues.

And when did his behavior change? Only when he was threatened with not having something he wanted -- that is, when you left and he faced the prospect of losing you. So he came up with a strategy to get what he wants again, which is to make nice, say the right words, and profess undying love.

Now what is likely to happen if you give in and move back together with him? Well, that would put the two of you back in the situation you were in previously. He would again have what he wanted. I suspect (and obviously so do you) that he would be nice for a while, and then the situation would eventually disintegrate back into the abusive relationship you had before.

This isn’t just skepticism on my part. Instead, I base my doubt on the fact that he has not gone through a process to change who he is. Yes, the two of you are going through counseling, but that is to talk about the dynamic between the two of you. That discussion centers around his behavior toward you. In other words, the focus is on one symptom of his problem, not the cause of his anger and controlling ways.

His behavior doesn’t just spring up in isolation. He is a seething, unhappy person inside. I don’t know the reason but there has to be one (or several). Something in his past has taught him to be deeply afraid or distrustful inside (or something similar), and his outward behavior toward you is the strategy he has developed for dealing with it. His internal belief system makes him feel justified in acting that way. For example, “I know I can’t trust anyone to really like me and that includes my wife so I will get respect the only way I know how, which is to demand it.” That may not be his mantra, but that is one example of how a fractured spirit can show itself to the rest of the world.

I doubt very much your couples counseling has done anything to address his individual issues. That means his internal dysfunction is still there. He may indeed have the best of intentions in terms of how he wants to treat you in the future. Unless he gets help healing himself, though, eventually he will encounter enough stress to trigger the internal pain, at which point the abuse will begin again.

My advice is to refuse to get back together with him until he has individual counseling to ferret out his own demons. He needs to gain insight into what is truly behind his behavior, and most importantly he needs to gain closure on whatever fears from his past are lurking in the corners of his mind. He needs to say more than “I am motivated to treat you better now.” He needs to be able to explain what was behind his old ways and why he is no longer affected by those emotional forces. You need to see evidence that he is happier and more content with his self-image. It should be obvious to you that his entire outlook on the world has altered in a good way. That should be a prerequisite for getting back together with him.

All of that depends on him developing a desire to heal for his own sake. At some point this has to become about him, just him, rather than simply an exercise he is going through to get you back. Again, I doubt very much your couples counseling has even come close to meeting that criterion.

I have no idea how willing he would be to put in the effort required to find the right helping professional (they are not all created equal) and go through that healing process. Even if he were willing, there is no guarantee he would succeed. And even if he made tremendous progress, there is no guarantee his old demons wouldn’t reassert themselves at some point. I wouldn’t blame you if you decide the personal risk is too great, that your future is too important to allow it to hinge on his willingness and ability to heal. His behavior is longstanding and you may come to the conclusion that he will never truly change. If so, you should not re-enter an abusive relationship.

I wish both you and your husband good luck in finding a happier place.

All the best,

Have you seen the Question of the Week? It raises the issue of whether couples can find ways to be happy together if they differ in some significant way. Check it out -- I would love to hear your opinion!
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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dismaying Story #116: When Monetary Styles Collide

Dear Andrew:

I am 38 and my live-in boyfriend is 35. We have lived together for almost 8 years. In all of that time, he has always signed over his paychecks to me because he has proven that he cannot be financially responsible. He did this with no complaints whatsoever because he admits that he handles money poorly. He was happy to let me take care of the finances, and so was I. We share a joint checking account and each of us has a debit card. I keep his card until he needs it and then he gives it right back to me for safekeeping. I do all the budgeting and pay all of our bills.

We got into credit card debt (they were in my name only) over the years and I got it all squared away with consumer credit counseling. We have been living on a cash basis for a full year. . . or so I thought.

I've always had the stable job. BF is a chef and he's had a series of jobs. I'll say from the get go that he is an extremely hard worker; he's not lazy or a slacker and for that I am proud. So imagine my happiness when he finally gets a head chef position for a sorority at a college nearby. He LOVED it.

Finally, a job that's worthy of him and his skills. That lasted for one year. He was fired because the company he worked for wanted him to sign an employment contract that was even more restrictive and one-sided than the one he initially signed. On the advice of his attorney, he didn't sign it. So he's been helping our farmer neighbors, being a handyman, feeding cattle, that sort of thing. They have been paying him an hourly wage, which is fine by me. My only requirement is that he's employed and contributes to the household financially and not sponge off me.

The sorority house wants him back on a private basis, not through the company. They want him to bid for the position. However, BF has been saying for years that he wants to go into cattle farming. He has renewed this wish and has already applied for a gov't grant. He says he will continue to be paid by our farmer neighbors in the interim. I am irate; we've both suffered and worked hard for 8 years for him to find a good kitchen gig and now he wants to change careers? I call shenanigans! Not fair! I am ashamed to admit that at one point I told him it was either farming or me. I admit that I put him under an immense amount of pressure.

Imagine my surprise and disgust when I pick up the mail one day and find out that he has two credit cards in his name! The balances equaled about $1,200.00. I was hurt, humiliated, embarrassed, and ashamed. He lied to me on all levels. Some of the money he was "'paid" by our farmer neighbors was actually a cash advance on his credit card. Also, he bought lots of tools for his new farming career and used these cards to purchase them. He lied about all of this, made up stories on how he got the tools, etc.

I told him I was leaving him. Sure, because of the debt he piled up, but first and foremost because he LIED. Here I swallowed my pride and went to consumer credit counseling, was doing without many things because we were living on a cash only basis, clutching my calculator in one hand, and my coupons in the other while at the grocery store, telling him how proud I was of us for living a year credit free, and he's lying to me the whole time.

He said he was scared to tell me because he didn't want me to worry about where the money was coming from, and that he'd take care of it. He also said it was "normal" to have credit card debt, in spite of the fact that I am working so hard to get out of it. He also called me a money Nazi (which is accurate: I'm extremely anal about budgeting and maintaining good credit). I controlled everything he did. He couldn't even buy a pack of cigs without asking me for the debit card first.

I told him to fess up to any other cards he has because I was going to find out in any event. He said those two were the only cards he had. Of course, I didn't believe him. I log onto his account and find that he has another one. The balance is about 8K. I almost got physically ill when I saw this. He said he got the last card because he thought it was over between us and he thought, "what the hey?" (The dates do coincide with the timing of everything). He admits he went on a "shopping spree" and was very selfish and was only thinking about himself. He also told me he had a little mini mid-life crisis and he said it felt so good to spend that money. I told him that while he was on his shopping spree, did he think about how we need a new dryer? A new bed? New doors for our house?

After my bemoaning the fact that he did not purchase anything for the "family," he goes out and maxes out his credit card and buys us a home computer. At this point, I am at a loss for words and told him that something is wrong with him.

I'm angry, depressed and feel totally disrespected. In spite of all of this, he does a lot for me and I still love him like crazy. But I'm so tired of being the stable one and taking care of everything. For once it'd be nice to have a man who could provide for me. I feel like his mother and I admit, I act like one.

Is the writing on the wall? Or should I hang on? How do I get over this rage I feel toward him? I'm seriously thinking about getting to a therapist to unload. Every time I look at him, I want to punch him in the face.

Signed, Angry Almost-Mother

Dear Angry Almost-Mother,

You and your boyfriend are both contributing problems to your relationship.

He has a money problem, and it won’t be fixed when he gets a better job. He simply doesn’t understand the need to be fiscally responsible and live within his means. He is correct when he says living with a little debt is common, but his track record seems to indicate that when left to his own devices, he will create an unmanageable level of debt. He has an unrealistic optimism about his ability to “take care of it” in the future, despite not having a realistic plan for doing so.

He also has an honesty problem. You are right to be concerned that he is so willing to lie to you, and has done so repeatedly.

You have a control problem. It is not normal for a girlfriend to control every penny her boyfriend spends and tell him what job he has to choose. I can understand how he would feel controlled, manipulated, and emasculated by your tight leash on his life.

You use his poor money management skills as justification for why it is okay to be so controlling, and to a limited extent I can see this. It’s not bad for one partner to step up and say, “Look, we’re having money problems. I’m good with money. Why don’t I track the funds for a while and see if we can get this under control?” That’s fine, but you controlling his every penny can’t be your ongoing life strategy. He is an adult and at some point he has to act like one when it comes to money or you will continue to have serious issues between you. Also, after getting the money situation under control, you need to loosen your grip on his life or you will never have the kind of relationship that both of you need. He needs some autonomy and you need someone to step up for you.

He uses your controlling ways as justification for lying and spending to excess. He doesn’t want to upset you, so he lies -- sorry, that one doesn’t cut it. He figures you won’t be around to control him any more, so he might as well spend himself into debt jail -- this is an indication that he lacks the skills and self-control to manage finances effectively.

No amount of control on your part is going to give him good money habits. Talking to a debt counselor can help him learn about effective management strategies, but at the fundamental level he has to make a decision for himself that he wants to keep his money under control. He doesn’t yet understand how damaging excessive debt can be and he is simply not afraid of it. Unless he learns this for himself, you two will always have a serious issue between you.

The same is true of your controlling ways. The two of you will have issues until you decide you want to share life on roughly a 50-50 give-and-take basis. If you do that right now, however, he is likely to implode financially and take you with him. He has also damaged your love and trust by lying to you.

Your path to regaining the love and trust lies through him. If he wants to get back in your good books, he will have to step up and demonstrate consistent responsibility, restraint, maturity, and honesty. He needs to prove all of this over a period of time so your hurt and anger can dissipate.

Given the story you told, I’m not sure how likely that is to happen.

Whether you are with him or another guy, I urge you to work toward curbing your controlling ways. You will be happier when you are with a man you can trust ... and you act that way by allowing him to live his own life as the other half of your relationship.

All the best,
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Friday, February 16, 2007

Dismaying Story #115: Saying the L-Word

Dear Andrew,

I just broke up with my boyfriend of eight months. I'm just wondering why he suddenly decided he didn’t love me anymore. He told me he loved me every day and on the morning we broke up he called to say he loves me. Then that evening he changed his mind. How is that? I'm sure if he doesn’t love me anymore, then that feeling must have been there for quite some time. I don’t understand why he kept telling me otherwise.

Signed, Confused

Dear Confused,

The simple (and no doubt painful) truth is that he never was in love with you. A person may wake up one morning and realize they would rather not continue with their partner, but that doesn’t happen when that person is truly happy about the relationship.

While you were still together it was in his best interest to make you happy. This kept the day-to-day relationship sailing along with as much harmony as possible. Perhaps he figured out that saying the “L” word made things work better between the two of you. Or this may simply be his manner with all his girlfriends. Or perhaps he tried very, very hard to convince himself this was the relationship for him and saying “I love you” was part of how he did that. I don’t know -- there could be any number of reasons why a boyfriend would say those words repeatedly, even when the relationship is destined to end.

I’m not saying your boyfriend was trying to deceive you. I’m sure this happens sometimes and that may have been his intent, but not necessarily.

So what do you do if your boyfriend or girlfriend says the words? How do you know if their words are really true? As in most circumstances in life, you also pay attention to their behavior. Actions truly do speak louder than words.

In your case, though, the reasons why he told you he loved you all the time are no longer important. The only relevant fact now is that he has admitted this is not the relationship for him. My advice is to stop worrying about why and what if and if only. Set your sights on the future, one that doesn’t include him. Go find yourself the guy who will say “I love you” and really mean it!

All the best,
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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dismaying Story #114: The Living Together Debate

Dear Andrew,

I am twenty-five years old and I have a boyfriend who is twenty-seven. We have been going out for a year and seven months. We met online and had an online relationship for a month or so and we could not wait and we decided to meet each other since we have many things in common and think alike. We’re about to get engaged soon and we both want to move in together. Ever since we started our relationship it’s been going fast. We said to each other that we love each other early on in the realtionship. We started having sex after a month together and we know that are each other's soul mate.

We’re ready to be engaged and I want to move in with him when we find a place. My mother and father are traditional and they love him, but they disagree and are giving me a hard time about it. They think we should get married before living together, but we don't want to get married right now. We want to eventually, but we just want to have an engagement period and enjoy it.

My mother didn't have an engagement period because she got pregnant with me so they got married. She doesn’t understand the whole engagement part. She is pushing us to get married now! She tells me that in order for me to live with a man that we have to get married. I have always seen my mom support my cousin and now she brings the fact up to me that I should not be like her and live with a man without being married. Ever since I met my boyfriend I told my mother that he was the man I would marry. Now she tells me, “You always wanted to and you eventually will, so why not now?”

As a sociology major I know that couples these days wait to get married and have kids. They move in together without getting married first. She is stressing me out, causing us to fight and I am always stressed out when I see my boyfriend.

Should I move out just like that? I am an adult so I know I can move out without her permission, but I don't want any conflict brewing or bad feelings. I don’t want to have any negative karma coming my way especially now.

Signed, Torn

Dear Torn,

I have written in the past that once you get married, your first allegiance should shift to the new family that you and your spouse have just formed. You are not, however, in that position yet. You still have a foot in both worlds. You want to make a commitment to this relationship but you are still living at home. Despite the fact that you are an adult, your mother is still an important influence in your life and a source of hard-won wisdom.

I agree you should be careful about creating immense amounts of tension with your parents over this relationship. Assuming you end up marrying this guy, everyone will be much happier if he has a good shot at getting along well with his mother-in-law. Does that mean you should just let your mother tell you what to do? No, but you are right to be concerned about the long-term effects of any conflict you create now. Sometimes these sorts of issues can cause rifts that last a lifetime.

It is true that many people live together before getting married, so much so that much of the social stigma that used to be associated with doing so has now gone away. Several readers of this site have left comments in the past suggesting that living together is a good way to “try out” the practical side of a relationship, a way to find out if you are a good fit when it comes to sharing dishwashing duties and a tube of toothpaste.

I can tell that your mother disagrees with this view ... and so do I.

The theory sounds great -- let’s make sure we are compatible before making the ultimate commitment. You say you want to enjoy your engagement for a while and this seems to you like the best way to do so. These arguments have merit, and I suspect some readers will once again leave comments in favor of these factors.

To me, though, there are also risks with this scenario. I’ve seen the downside outweigh the good.

Every relationship has challenges. There are always times when your little voice inside pipes up and asks if all this stress is really worth it. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just walk away?” Living together brings extra stresses regardless of whether you get married first. You and your partner must share life to an unprecedented level, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for joy, but also for conflict. If you are married, you have extra incentive to stick it out, to really try your best to make things work. This increases the chances your relationship will succeed.

Simply moving in together does not create that extra level of commitment. The implication (and sometimes the explicit intention) is that you are trying each other out. This in itself can plant seeds of doubt that will grow like crazy when the inevitable challenges arrive. Then one day an argument erupts and you don’t have that commitment to serve as your shield against adversity. It is all too easy to simply walk away.

This leaves many people feeling inadequate when it comes to relationship skills. “I have failed once,” your inner voice says. “I wasn't good enough for that partner. Will I be good enough the next time?”

More than that, people who have lived together a time or two can struggle when they do get married. They have become used to the idea that living together still leaves the door open for walking out. This same feeling can carry over into the marriage, which leads to all sorts of problems.

Of course, many people manage to live together, remain committed, and have a long and wonderful marriage. I’m not saying living together is always a formula for disaster, just that it brings with it some extra challenges. Relationships are hard enough without weakening the commitment that is typically necessary to make them work.

I would be giving you exactly the same advice if I were in your mother’s shoes: enjoy your engagement for as long as you want to, but strongly consider getting married before moving in together.

Like I said, not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. You need to balance all these factors -- your own judgment and wishes versus the caution urged by folks like me and your mother ... and the potential for future mother-in-law problems for your hubby-to-be.

All the best,

Since this is Valentine's Day, why not take a moment and respond to the Question of the Week about Valentine's Day stories.
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Monday, February 12, 2007

Dismaying Story #113: For the Sake of the Children

Dear Andrew,

I am the mother to a 4 year old brilliant little boy. His father and I have been separated since he was about 10 months old, and since then it has just been the two of us.

About six months ago I started a new job. Upon starting this new job, a co-worker asked what it was like being a single parent as his wife of 18 years had just left him with their three children. He has custody of the children. They are in the process of working out a visitation schedule, but she never showed up for the last scheduled visit.

Over the next few months we became best friends and somewhere along the way we fell in love. This man makes me feel like no other has. He does not try to change me and I do not try to change him. We really complement each other.

The problem I have is with his children. His ex-wife picked up and left without saying so much as a word. She left behind a 2 year old, 7 year old and 14 year old. I do not know her side of the story so I try to stay out of it as much as possible, but every time that I am around I can hear their pain. I listen to the youngest as he wakes in the middle of the night wanting her to comfort him. I see the 7 year old act out in anger, and listen to the words that he says to me. I read what the 14 year old girl writes -- how she misses her and wants her mom to be there.

I know I cannot fill her shoes. I cannot take away their pain although I wish I could. The question that it raises for me is this:

He says his marriage was dragging him down. It was unhealthy for him and essentially for his children. He claims even if I was not in the picture they would never have the conversation that would possibly bring them back together. But I know that with me in the picture, this conversation will never have the chance to take place. If I was not there it might. Even though it was not something that he wanted for himself, should it be something to sacrifice for the sake of the children?

For the last 4 months I have been known as a friend to their father. I felt more comfortable with that especially in their situation. About a month ago we sat down with the oldest and explained what was going on. She greeted it very warmly telling me that she wanted her father to be happy. The seven year old has become quite attached to me, but as his buddy, not his father's girlfriend. The two year old however does not seem to be warming up to it that much, which I can not blame him for. My son has met Chris and his children. The kids really enjoy their play time.

I just want to make sure that my presence right now is not going to do any more damage to them. They are such good kids but are in so much pain. I know Chris is looking out for the best interest of his children, but I do understand where his emotional state could cloud his judgment.

I love this man with all that I am. I do not need him in my life -- even better than that I want him here. This is a choice for me. I just want to make sure that I am making the right choice for all involved.

Signed, Concerned for the Kids

Dear Concerned for the Kids,

First off I should say this is one of the most heartwarming questions I have received. Your question boils down to, "Should I sacrifice myself for the sake of others?" I can tell you are a caring and giving person, and you should feel good about that.

You are asking if you should remove yourself from his life so there would be one less potential impediment to him getting back together with his wife, just on the slim chance that might happen someday.

He says his marriage was troubled, and that the situation was not good for the children. She left him and he ended up with full custody of the children. He has given no indication that he would like to get back together with his ex-wife, nor have there been any moves to get the two of them even talking about something like that.

I understand your idea. You see the children suffering. They want their mother back, AND they want to live in a happy, well-adjusted household. You wonder if they got their mother back, maybe there would be a chance for the functional household to happen as well.

Here's my problem with that vision. They already tried that. The mother, father, and three children were already together, for quite some time ... and it didn't work. I don't know why, and you say you try not to go there, but the result of that 18-year experience was that she left. Now she doesn’t show up for scheduled visits with the children, which is another sign that there are issues.

I think you have to trust your boyfriend's instincts on this one. If he thought another go with their mother would work out, wouldn't he say so? If a possible reconciliation was in the wind -- if you had heard some hint of that -- then your reasoning for stepping aside might have some validity. That's not the case, though.

If the two of them were to get back together again, it would thrust the children back into a broken home. There is a good chance that would lessen their quality of life rather than improve it. Again, you and I both have to rely on their father's instincts on this one. He thinks they are better off now. As difficult as this transition is on the children, hopefully they are on their way to a more stable, less emotional home life than they knew previously. It is not always better to stay together for the sake of the children.

Suppose the two of them reconciled ... and then separated again. You have to admit a reconciliation would be tenuous. What kind of emotional roller coaster would that be for the children?

All in all, your idea of stepping aside so the mother might return doesn't seem to hold water.

HOWEVER ... you still might want to proceed with caution.

You met this man just after his wife left. He had very little time to deal with the issues in his own mind before you came on the scene. The same is true of the children. They were only beginning their grieving and adjusting process when you showed up.

In a situation like that, I can see how having you on the scene is an extra element for the kids to have to deal with. It's hard to deal with Mom leaving, and also difficult to deal with the idea of Dad being with someone else. Even if Mom never comes back, your presence may add to their emotional burden, at least in the short term. His priority right now should be his children. They are hurting, and badly. His love life with you should take second chair to doing whatever it takes to help the children through this time.

On the other hand, having a warm, giving, stable female presence might be a help for them. You mentioned that at least two of his children have given you positive feedback. You can judge whether your presence is, on balance, positive or negative for the children. (And I mean independently of the issue of their mother potentially returning.)

In summary, you are right to think of the children's interests first. Their mother's return, however, may not automatically be in their best interest.

Good luck with your situation. I hope everyone involved makes the adjustments as well as is possible.

All the best,
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Friday, February 09, 2007

Dismaying Story #112: Worried About the Naked Woman in the Bathtub

Dear Andrew,

I'm in a bit of a dilemma and I'm hoping you can help me sort through it. My boyfriend and I have known each other for two years. Up until October '06 we were really good friends. We've been hopelessly in love for most of the time we've known each other. I lived out of the area for a while so when I moved back for a new job, we decided to start dating.

He has kind of an interesting past. He is 25 and I am only his second relationship. The other was in high school. In the time between he had what he called 'randoms' -- women he had sexual relationships with. Since we've been together he has assured me he loves me and that he would never cheat or stray or do anything to make me lose confidence in our relationship. For the most part, he's done that.

We both work full time and our schedules rarely mesh, but we see each other 3-4 days a week and talk on the phone every day. When we are together, I feel like everything is perfect.

I was cheated on in my last relationship. That left me feeling cautious, especially with his past.

He has seemed withdrawn the last few weeks. It could just be the fact that he's looking for a new job and his immediate future is uncertain. We've already spoken about moving in together over the summer and where our life is going to go. I was concerned, and I have the passwords to his email, MySpace, IM services, etc. He told them to me one night when we'd had a bit too much wine with dinner. I went into his email and MySpace yesterday and found in his email activation notices and newsletters from various dating and sex personal sites. I also found emails from a woman. The emails started out innocent enough. Her saying she was working too much, him saying that was no good. But then she said all she needed was a hot bath to recoup. He replied saying he had images of her naked in the bathtub and he shouldn't keep going because his mind was full of dirty thoughts. She replied saying that was fine, and he replied back saying they should IM or talk on the phone. These exchanges occurred about 3 weeks ago. His accounts on the personal sites are all active and have been accessed in the last week or two.

Should I confront him or just let it go? If I confront him, he'll know I was snooping, and I don't know for sure if he would have actually met her, or anyone else. Or do I let it go and wait for him to cheat, while hoping he doesn't?

Signed, In a Dilemma

Dear In a Dilemma,

That's quite a pickle -- in order to confront him about doing something underhanded, you have to confess to doing something underhanded. That's not the big issue, though. He has a track record of relationships with no commitment. For years he has been getting together with women for fun and jollies with absolutely no expectations placed on him.

Could he change and go monogamous with you? Of course he could. People mature; their needs and goals evolve. However you now have clear evidence that he has not changed his ways. He is actively looking for other women. There is no other reason why he would be working the dating sites, not to mention baldly flirting about sex and nakedness with another woman. This is completely unacceptable in a committed relationship. He was doing his best to develop a sexual relationship with that woman, and based on her email response I would be surprised if he hasn't already succeeded. His withdrawn nature during the time since those emails is another clue pointing to the same thing.

My advice is to walk away. Your boyfriend is still too immature and self-centered to commit to a stable relationship, and staying will only end up hurting you. He may eventually be ready to commit, but he is not there yet, and waiting for him to get there would be a GALACTICALLY bad idea for you. He may never get there and the journey would be so painful for you that the relationship would be poisoned beyond repair by the time he did.

The worst thing you could do would be stay and say nothing. You would be setting yourself up for more pain. (I say "more" because I'm sure it hurt plenty to discover what you did.)

Could you confront him, hope that he will break down and apologize and swear to never do anything like that again and the two of you will live happily ever after? Sure, you could, but in my opinion the chances of that scenario happening lie somewhere between zero and unlikely. He has proven he is not ready to give up his wandering ways. Confronting him would likely result in an immediate break-up, which he could then blame on your "deceitful" ways in invading his privacy.

It's up to you if you want to admit that you looked at his email (and honesty is the best policy, even if the admission is painful) but either way I recommend you find yourself another guy, one who is ready for the kind of relationship you deserve.

All the best,

Several readers have already responded to the Question of the Week about relationships in fiction. Take a moment to see what books other people list as their favorites, and maybe nominate one of your own.
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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Dismaying Story #111: Missing the Game of Life

Dear Andrew,

I’m supposed to be at the perfect point in my life. I have a wonderful nice home in a nice neighborhood. My husband and I both have new cars. Finances are stable. I have a teenager from a previous marriage, and my husband and I have a toddler. Sure there are the normal ups and downs of real life, and I can keep that all in perspective. But there’s something that’s really bothering me, and I’m not sure what to do.

My husband, who is very sweet, and smart, and funny, is spending all his time with “his mistress” ...the computer, and his buddies who are doing the same thing. He is completely wrapped up in an online game. He works his eight-hour day, then comes home and gets straight on the computer. He takes breaks for dinner and/or to go out to dinner, and will occasionally (rarely) take an evening off, but sometimes, he’ll just fix a plate and take it back into the office. This has been going on for years.

I try so hard to be understanding and supportive. I understand the game and its dynamics. I understand why he enjoys it so, and the interaction he gets with his friends. I remind myself that at least he’s not out doing drugs or gambling, or worse. But I miss our intimacy. We only manage to have “marital relations” a couple of times a month. He stays up late playing his game, and I go to sleep after I get the kids to bed.

My teen resents his playing because she gets stuck will all the chores, and “he never does anything.” My toddler, whenever he doesn’t know where daddy is, automatically runs to the office to see if he’s there. My husband is uncomfortable taking care of the toddler because he’s deferred the caretaking almost completely to me since he was born. He loves his son, but just doesn’t spend much time with him and doesn’t know how to take care of him. He’s getting better, and is making a conscious effort to spend more time with him. But if anything ever happened to me, I don’t know how well they’d fare.

And me...I feel like the housekeeper/nanny most of the time. We do communicate. We talk about it. Though dropping hints and being subtle doesn’t work with him (sometimes it almost takes a brick-to-the-head for him to get the point). He knows what he’s doing. I quite often joke (but not really joking) about being a computer widow. If/when I have an emotional breakdown, he will take a little time off, to smooth my ruffled feathers, but then he’s right back to it. But, I won’t / can’t / don’t want to ask him to give up a hobby that he enjoys so much.

So, do I continue on, status quo, with my husband playing a bit-part in the production that is our family? Do I try to find fulfillment for myself by finding my own hobby that includes my kids? Do I take what I can get from him and try to be happy?

Signed, Lonely in a Full House

Dear Lonely,

Regarding the questions in your last paragraph: no, no, and most emphatically no.

Your husband wants to have a wife and kids who take care of themselves, and then are there for him when he wants to take a few minutes to participate. Basically he is still living the single life. This is extremely selfish, irresponsible and dysfunctional to a large degree.

You have had a role in creating and propagating this problem too. You have enabled this imbalance by acting as if it’s okay, by doing the chores and the childcare and making it possible for him to act like this. You drop hints and make jokes, and based on that mild reaction he assumes what he is doing is okay.

It is not okay. It is a long, long way from okay. He is ignoring his duties as a husband and father. He is being selfish and irresponsible. Games and other hobbies have a place in life, but that is to enrich our spare time with entertaining diversions. A responsible adult takes care of life’s necessities first and THEN plays. Heck, we even teach our kids to do their homework before they can play. Your husband still hasn’t learned that basic life lesson.

To put it bluntly, you need to grow a backbone and insist he finds a better balance in his life. He needs to grow up and realize that his wife and children should rank WAY higher in importance than any game, any friend, any diversion. He has life completely backwards, and you are letting him get away with it.

And here’s the thing. You already knew all of this.

My guess is you have a long history of avoiding conflict. You’d rather suffer in silence than ruffle feathers. You need to stop doing that in this instance. The price is too high, and it’s not just you paying the price. If things continue on as they are, your marriage will be little more than a hollow shell. It may not survive - relationships need effort and time and attention. Your children will have no relationship at all with their absentee father. That means you bear the cost; your kids and your husband will as well ... he just doesn’t realize it at this point.

The solution: Be honest. Tell him you need more. Tell him the kids need more. Tell him he is being irresponsible, that his life balance is way off, that he needs to grow up and treat you and the kids as important, and the game as merely a nice diversion if and when he has time to fit it in.

He doesn’t have to give up the game. Most people find time for extracurricular activities. He just needs to find a better balance. The two of you need to work out a schedule when he can take some time for the game, but he needs to put the family first.

Sure he’ll pout and complain and say it’s not fair and you don’t understand and you’re being unreasonable and on and on...

So what? That’s just the price you need to pay to go from a dysfunctional situation to a functioning family that includes a participative father. You need to stick to your guns, knowing you are right.

He’ll say that’s not enough time for the game. Baloney. He takes time off to go to work, so he can take time off for his family obligations as well.

Hopefully once he becomes more involved he’ll realize what he’s been missing and be glad of the change. But that will take time. Be strong in the meantime because your family needs a champion right now, and that’s got to be you.

My guess is you’ll think, “Oh my gosh that’ll be SO hard to do!” Yes it will, but it’s necessary and it’ll be worth it. Good luck!

All the best,
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Monday, February 05, 2007

Dismaying Story #110: In Sickness and in Health

Dear Andrew,

I am 37 and my husband is 51. We have been married for nine years. We were together for about five years before we were married. We have a two-year-old son. We have not had sex since July of 2005. We haven’t had a great sex life since we were first dating and that was only for a few months. The problem is that he has very little sex drive. About three months after we started having sex, he had a brain aneurysm surgically repaired. Before the surgery he was all over me sexually, but afterwards he was never the same. Now I have to beg him for sex. He almost always puts me off with some excuse.

I cannot count the number of times that I have been answered with:
It’s Friday, we have the whole weekend.
You know I don’t like to do it during the week.
I like it in the morning.
I’m too tired, how about tomorrow (after promising it today earlier in the day)
I thought about approaching you earlier, but then didn’t do it.
I didn’t know it had been that long (a month or more!)
I came onto you the other day and you ignored me (he never made it clear, he would hug me or something and not actually say anything, and I was so used to trying not to react that I didn’t realize he was coming onto me, if he even was)

He can get an erection. I can help with that and I’m glad to do it.

I have asked over and over if there is anything I could do to make things easier for him. I have tried to express to him many times how unhappy with our marriage I am, and how I feel like I have tried everything I could to make things work. He has talked to a couple of doctors over the years and all they do is test his testosterone and prescribe Viagra. He likes using the Viagra because it makes him more confident. However when we have Viagra available, it’s still always me pushing for sex. It sits in the cabinet like it’s not there. Talk about frustration!

We haven’t had sex in so long because I stopped asking. I’m tired of feeling humiliated and ignored. I’ve thought long and hard about divorcing him over this issue. I used to really love him, but now I’m not sure that I am truly in love with him anymore. I feel like he broke my heart over and over all these years and nothing will change him. I have cried over and over about my feelings and tried to be very clear that I’m truly hurt. He says that he doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t know what’s wrong and he doesn’t know how to fix it. This is always his answer. I don’t know how to love someone and not have sex with them.

I don’t know that I could have sex with him again. I have never had a problem having an orgasm and thought I was “ easy.” But as soon as we had sex, I’d wonder when the next time would be. I don’t understand why he couldn’t try to satisfy me sexually without having intercourse. I don’t understand how he could listen to me cry and not do better. Somehow in 2004 I managed to get pregnant. We had tried years before without success, and thought we weren’t able to get pregnant. So we have sex three times in a four month period and bam I’m pregnant. He’s so in love with his son, and I would feel like the biggest jerk if I took him away from him.

I don’t know that I’m strong enough not to cheat if I had the chance. I will be honest and say I have cheated before. Although it was sexually satisfying, it wasn’t good because I didn’t have a relationship with them. I haven’t had sex with anyone in about 10 months. I have actually wished that I didn’t have a sex drive. I think I’d be pretty happy without it at this point. It’s hard to focus on the rest of my marriage without thinking about the sexual part.

He is not interested in counseling. Any suggestions I have of him taking herbal supplements or doing anything that I’ve read about get shot down pretty quickly. He tells me how humiliating it is to talk to a doctor about it. Try it from my point of view pal. He says he loves me and lives to make me happy but is not interested in going out of his way to have sex with me.

I do not nag him, and I really don’t make negative comments about his manhood, or be bitchy about sex. It is really hard to not be bitchy about other things.

The way I think is that if he isn’t going to give me sex, than he would maybe want to step it up around the house chore wise. He’s quite lazy. I could live with that, I’m lazy sometimes too, but I’m tired of doing everything around the house.

We tried counseling in 2001. We only had about four sessions before we moved to another town on short notice. We hadn’t really gotten into treatment. He didn’t like the exercises the counselor suggested, and he doesn’t feel like anyone would be able to tell us anything that would help. I just believe that he will not change, will not make an effort to change, and cannot figure out a way to compromise and see the bright side of things. They usually look pretty bleak to me.

I have thought about counseling for myself, but even the type based on one’s income is too expensive for me. I don’t want to be divorced. I don’t want us fighting over my son. I don’t want us fighting in front of my son. I am afraid that I cannot teach my son to believe in true love when I don’t believe in it myself. If I had the money I would probably have left him last year, or even before that, especially if I didn’t have my son. I really feel it was a mistake to marry him knowing he had this issue. It just got worse over the last few years. I always thought that I could tough it out, but now I am not so sure. It’s awful to be with someone I always thought of as my best friend and feel like he doesn’t even care enough about me to make the effort to change.

Signed, Starved for Love

Dear Starved for Love,

I’m sorry to hear you are having such a hard time. There is a great deal going on in your situation, much more than just the sex issue.

Before the surgery he was all over you, but since then he barely has a sex drive. Bam, just like flipping a switch when the surgery happened. It seems clear the change is a side effect of the surgery.

A difficulty for you is that he CAN still have sex, claims to want to please you, but he doesn’t follow through. I imagine it might be easier to bear if he had a medical condition that clearly prevented any possibility of sex, then there wouldn’t be all this anguish over whether it will happen.

It’s unclear how much of the rest of it could also be due to the surgery -- general lack of ambition and energy, poor memory, etc. He could also suffer from some degree of depression, which can have similar symptoms. Careful now -- I said “he could” and that’s a long way from “he does.”

If you acknowledge that part of this, maybe even a large part, is medical, then you have to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself what degree of dysfunction you are willing to endure in order to sustain the marriage. I can’t advise you on that -- it is such a personal choice. You made a vow to stay with him in sickness and in health, but it’s unclear how much of the dysfunction in your relationship can be chalked up to sickness.

The excuses you mentioned (“Not during the week”) are just that, excuses, not real reasons. The real reason is that he just doesn’t feel like having sex, and like I said that seems to be linked to the surgery. But it is harder for him to admit, “I just don’t want to,” so he makes other excuses.

Usually in a situation like this I would say something like this: Even if he isn’t interested in the things you need, he married you and he has a responsibility to look out for you. He should step up and be a giving husband, even if he does so only as a gift to you.

In this case, though, I can’t get past the medical angle. I have no way of knowing how much of a factor that is. He doesn’t seem motivated to please you. He says he is but his actions say otherwise, and the actions clearly speak loudest. If he truly had your interests at heart, he would make the effort.

But he doesn’t. Is it depression? Is it medical? Is it merely someone who is feeling sorry for themselves and is stuck in such a rut that he can’t bring himself to look out for his own needs, let alone yours? I have no possible way of knowing.

Recently I posted an article called Love Is a Verb where I argued that love and good intentions held in your heart have no direct effect your spouse. It only matters if you take action; if you actually do things to make your spouse’s life better. Your husband is not doing this for you and it sounds like there is a good chance that won’t change. Again I don’t know that for certain, but the picture you paint is bleak when it comes to his willingness to seek help and solutions.

I understand it would be crazy hard to leave. I have children too and I can’t imagine forcing them to be with only one parent most of the time. But here is another thing to consider. What will your son learn growing up in the current environment? That he can expect wives to be dreadfully unhappy? That it is okay for the husband to sit around, ignore his wife’s needs, etc.? What kind of a role model will your marriage provide for him, assuming things stay much as they are now? Studies show boys tend to grow up and emulate their father’s behavior.

And what if you happen to have another child? What would that do to your world?

I suspect you may eventually be forced to make some tough decisions. Will you accept what you have and make the best of it? That’s one option. The other option is to leave. Neither option is ideal and only you can make that choice.

I will offer one piece of advice, though. If you truly want to look elsewhere for sex and companionship, end this relationship before you do so. (Or commit fully to your marriage and leave the other men alone.) You will feel so much better about yourself if you do it in the right order. If some guy will cheat with you, ask yourself this -- how likely is he to cheat ON you later, once you have left your husband to be with him? Do yourself a favor and deal with this relationship all by itself for now.

My thoughts are with you as you search for the best way forward for everyone concerned.

All the best,

Have you read a good novel lately? Or maybe you are writing a book and would like to tell us about it. If so, now is a great time to check out the Question of the Week about relationships in fiction.
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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Dismaying Story #109: Mr. Indecisive

Dear Andrew,

I am currently in a relationship with my girlfriend of about 18 months, however we've known each other and have been involved off and on for the last 12 years. All this time she has always wanted to be in a committed serious relationship and I resisted, meanwhile getting into those very same type relationships with other women. For some reason I just never thought it'd work out or that we were compatible. We would see each other for a couple months at a time before one of us would say or do something to anger the other and we wouldn't speak for months. We followed this same routine for 12 years (not including when someone was in a relationship).

Eventually I decided to do what I felt everyone (friends and family on both sides) felt like I should do, which was "be" with her. Admittedly, allowing what others thought was right to influence me was the wrong thing to do. But I really do love her and I felt like that was enough. Well, immediately into the relationship, the issues began to arise. We fight regularly over simple matters that I attribute to us being and thinking so differently on EVERYTHING.

After about a year we decided to try living together. She moved into my house and this was a much easier transition than either of us expected. But I had hoped it would help our relationship and it hasn't. Basically, my way of coping with the constant conflict between us is to shut down and just try not to incite anything. The only way I could do this was to keep interaction to a minimum, which of course was detrimental in its own way. I started to feel like I was unable to be myself around my own girlfriend for fear that a fight would break out over something I'd done or said without realizing it.

I made an emotional connection with another woman, which my girlfriend found out about. She considers this cheating and I've always known her stand on emotional/physical cheating. It's all cheating. So now, she is waiting for me to make a decision on whether or not I feel that the relationship is worth working on. She says I've never given her the opportunity to "fix" our problems because I wasn't communicating with her but instead, I was shutting down, avoiding the issues (she's in school for her doctorate in psychology also).

She has always said I should not feel obligated to her, that I should only try to save the relationship if I really believe it can work. The problem is I don’t believe it can work but I'll always feel obligated to make her happy after so many years of disappointing and hurting her. I don't know that I'm willing to hurt her one last time.

Unfortunately, I feel the damage has been done and I'm not sure I can be happy in this situation anymore. However, I also know how miserable I will be if she leaves. I'm well aware that if she leaves, chances are, I'd never see her again. She's made it very clear that it would be almost impossible for her to forgive me.

Am I just afraid to tell her that I think it's too late to fix the relationship or am I afraid of how serious this relationship is and will be?

Signed Mr. Indecisive

Dear Mr. Indecisive,

Your letter says in several ways that you don’t want to be with her. “I never thought it would work out. I thought we weren’t compatible. I’m not sure I can be happy with her. I don’t believe it can work. It’s too late to fix things.”

Okay, I’ve got it -- despite your longstanding friendship with her, you don’t think this is a good relationship for you.

So what makes you think staying with her would be such a good deal for her? Why would you let your friend invest her time and emotional energy into a guy who doesn’t believe she is the most amazing partner ever? Why would you allow her to sell herself short like that? You said it yourself -- you are not participating fully in the relationship, which means she is getting a raw deal.

Maybe you could change. Maybe you could get serious and give this gal your all. That’s a nice idea but it seems to me you already tried that when the relationship first started. It didn’t work. The disagreements and disconnect started immediately.

What will likely happen if you hang on? My prediction is the turmoil will continue; your history shows this is highly probable. You will continue to feel trapped and dissatisfied. She will continue to sense your obvious discomfort, which means she will also be dissatisfied. Eventually one or the other of you will be so tired of the same old pattern that the relationship will end, but only after prolonging the dysfunction for a while.

You said you feel obligated to make her happy. Trust me; that’s not what you are doing by hanging on.

You should do her a favor and end it now. This may be a difficult message in the short-term, but it is a much more painful situation if you keep her in a doomed relationship for longer than you have to. The sooner you release her, the sooner she can find a guy who will be truly into her.

I wish both of you all the best in working this out.

With warm regards,
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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dismaying Story #108: The Mid-Level Manager

Dear Andrew,

I have been with my girlfriend for seven years. We have a child together.

She began cheating on me five years ago, and then it started again two years ago, multiple times. Finally, I had to end the relationship, despite counseling we went through. She continued to have the affair, during 6 months of counseling.

I am a very rational person and chose not to be bitter, for both my sake and my daughter. My partner then proceeded to "lure" me back into the relationship, while still being separated. I began to get back into the relationship carefully. She is living apart from me, but I have been to get her back, despite what she did to me (yes, it is sort of humiliating). She is still having multiple relationships hidden from me, and still wants to keep me as a plan B. She cannot be trusted.

She does have several emotional issues, as a child (raised by alcoholic parents both who were dead before 50 years of age). It seems she is not happy with herself and is addicted to attention. Her outlet is sexual attention from as many guys as she can get. She denies it all. I suggested personal counseling but I don’t feel she is capable of doing it.

I have never been able to discuss emotional issues with her because it hurts, which has been the thrust of some of our problems. I almost consider the way she has disregarded my feelings as emotional abuse.

I really believe anything is possible. I am a Mid-Level Manager and believe in developing employees into positive peak performers. I have been credited with turning around many problematic employees. I guess that’s similar as to what I am trying to do here. However, this is definitely different. I cannot control / influence the actions of this girl. She believes she needs time, but we’re spending time going down a dangerous slope.

The sad thing is, I love her so much and I want my child to have parents who are together. I think I have convinced myself she is right for me, and I fear starting over with someone else.

Why is she still hanging on to me? Why won’t she tell the truth? Am I just another pawn in her game? I could use some advice.

Signed, Unsure What To Do

Dear Unsure,

You ask why she does the things she does, but the issue to me is this -- why do you do the things you do? Why do you stay with in a relationship with so many obvious problems? You’ve suggested a few possibilities, so let’s consider them one at a time.

You want your daughter to have parents who are together. Fair enough. That’s a good thing ... if by staying together you are providing her with positive role models and a healthy, nurturing environment. I question whether this relationship can provide that for her. What will she learn from seeing her mother being unfaithful over and over again, or from seeing you accept poor treatment and a complete lack of commitment from your partner? Children mimic what they see and grow up to emulate what they’ve known. In some cases it can be in the child’s best interest to not maintain a broken home.

You think there’s a chance you can turn her around, which will then turn the relationship around. While your partner may eventually resolve some of her internal issues and change her behavior, you’ve got seven years of recent history that shows how unlikely this is to happen anytime soon. And this is entirely different from managing people in a workplace, for several reasons. Obviously this is personal rather than professional, neither of you have a subordinate role (at least I certainly hope not), and your emotional involvement is monumentally higher. You can think rationally while at work, while that can be much more difficult when it comes to your partner.

You love her. You think she might be “the one” so you should hang on no matter what. Well you can think of love as a feeling or as a behavior. Two people can have all sorts of fuzzy feelings for each other, but it’s their behavior that actually impacts their partner. Is your partner acting in a loving way toward you? Is she acting in a loving way toward your daughter by honoring her parents’ relationship? Clearly not. I don’t know what defines “the one” for you, but I would hope you would have higher ambitions for a life partner than that.

You fear trying again with someone else. I suspect that has more to do with your desire to hang on than any of the other reasons. The future is full of scary unknowns if you walk away. Will the next woman hurt you too? Will you be able to find someone else who doesn’t mind the fact that you are already a father? “Will anyone else even want a person like me?” you ask yourself, and you suspect the answer is “No.” If you can convince yourself that you are worthy of love and commitment (and you are), I suspect this will go a long way toward making it clear how you should move forward.

She hangs onto you because you allow her to do so. She isn’t looking for a committed relationship with all those other guys, and she is clearly incapable of providing one for you. This is not a game to her -- instead I suspect she is an incredibly unhappy person who is engaging in self-destructive behavior for any number of dysfunctional reasons. Telling the truth would mean admitting her problems and, in all probability, losing you.

Your partner has some work to do if she wants to feel better about herself, and I think the same is true of you. Her repeated infidelity has turned your partnership into a mockery. She lies to you and cheats on you. If I were you, I would want more out of a relationship than that. You should seriously consider whether your reasons for staying are valid.

All the best,

This story involves an element of fear, which is the focus of the current Question of the Week. If you haven't yet had a chance to pitch in, I'd appreciate hearing your views on the subject.
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