Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dismaying Story #131: They Had A “Brief Thing”

Dear Andrew,

I am happily married – will be 9 years in October. No problems at all with my husband as he is a very good man and devoted husband and friend. Had forgotten old boyfriends, lovers, etc. everything many years ago when I met my husband and have been very happy.

My problem is an old lover that I saw a year ago this past April. I met him in 1993 and we did not really date – had a brief thing. Neither of us were married at the time but he ended up pushing me away. I never understood why and I contacted him on and off for almost 3 years. I loved him totally and never understood why he did not want me. Over the years, I dreamed of him on occasion and I thought of him whenever I went back to Myrtle Beach where we met. But nothing painful. No problems or regrets. I loved him still but it did not hurt and I did not have a desire to contact him. I knew that for whatever reason, he had some issues and I always believed he cared as I had pushed him one time and got a strong reaction and he admitted he cared for me. When I met him and afterwards, I believed that we were supposed to be together. I believed for the longest time that I would be with him and marry him. Even after none of that happened, I knew deep down that one day I would see him again. I can’t explain it, I just knew that I would.

I saw him at a professional conference. He stood in front of me on purpose so that I would see him. I know this because the last time I saw him he did the same thing and then denied having seen me. When I saw him last, his friend was looking at me really oddly at the same place where we met. I couldn’t figure out why this guy was looking at me so funny and then I saw “him”. I know his friend was waiting for my reaction and I had a big one. I did not talk to him that day last April when I saw him again as I was sure he did it on purpose. It was at a conference in one of those large ballrooms with 400 – 500 people and during a break I was talking to a former co-worker at the end of a table deep in conversation. Someone was standing in front of me and talking, but I thought nothing of it until he introduced himself and I looked up and there he was. Wanted to crawl under the table and die right then. I didn’t react. My friend did not even know what was going on but I told her later. Sent him an email, and called him last September and talked to him. He denied seeing me, getting my email, etc. I thought then that this was just not true.

I got a therapist (licensed family, marital, etc.) in January because I couldn’t shake it and went alone to try and sort things out as I never stopped loving him. It did not take her long to identify the reason for his behavior. After only 5 sessions/weeks she suspected he had a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I googled it and found all kinds of information on it. Wow – it explained 85 – 90% of the behavior I experienced from him. That helped a lot. I have an extremely detailed memory and I remember everything about him and everything that happened between us – things he said and things I said. The huge missing piece of the puzzle was found and I understood why he did not want me or love me and why he was such a paradox (he seemed to care, he wanted my attention, the way he looked at me was pretty unmistakable, but he would dodge and deny and distance himself).

I guess my question is, how do I really let this person go. I thought I had. I knew I still had feelings for him, but I had managed to bury them. I never expected them to resurface. I am doing much much better with it after having seen the therapist. It helped a lot. Have you ever dealt with NPD’s before? I could always hear the regret in his voice. I think he knows that something is wrong with him. When he said that I should have come and talked to him, I told him I couldn’t. He asked why I didn’t, I told him that I didn’t think he’d want to see me. He said he would have thought that was the other way around.

When I read the info about NPD, I see why it seemed that he was always threatened by me or afraid for some reason. I could not put my finger on when I would talk to him, but there were times I could hear the fear in his voice, I could feel the regret in a way from him, I could tell he was always struggling with what to say to me. He was very smart and that was part of the attraction. I believe he is the cerebral form of the narcissist. I expressed my feelings to him very clearly. I told him I loved him.

Is there any way to be over him once and for all? Is there any help for these people? Do they have any feelings or is really just a case of the lights are on but no one is home? Can I get over not getting what I wanted desperately and instead getting what I needed (a strong man for a husband)?

I would appreciate any thoughts you have.

Signed, Not Over Him


Dear Not Over Him,

I’m a results-oriented kind of guy. I am not that concerned, to be honest, about the reasons behind this man’s behavior. In terms of how you should react, it doesn’t matter if he has some personality disorder or he behaves that way because he is getting messages beamed to him from Mars or if it is because he is just a nasty person. The end result is that he has treated you a certain way and you have to react accordingly. You need to protect yourself from the poor treatment.

Not only that, your letter indicates that his behavior is a problem for you. I disagree. That’s his problem. Your issues are tied up in your own behavior. That’s actually good news because you have no control over what he does and all the opportunity in the world to control what you do.

To summarize your situation, you had a “brief thing” with a guy approximately fifteen years ago, which you characterize as not even dating. Based on this brief encounter and a few words of attraction you wrangled out of him, you became convinced you have a special connection with this fellow that you thought would result in further contact and potentially marriage. He on the other hand pushed you away, made it clear he didn’t want you, ignored and lied about your emails, and acted positively weird when you happened to bump into him later.

The real questions for me are these:
  • What made you feel so positive about this guy to begin with, when he had such an ambivalent response to your relationship?
  • Why has your feeling of a special connection persisted for so long even though all of the potentially reinforcing events have actually been negative?
  • And why oh why would a great gal like you squander your emotional energy on a guy who has made it quite clear he doesn’t want you?
There is a saying in the medical community that applies to diagnosis. “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras.” In other words, most situations are caused by the most common issues. I suspect strongly that your responses to this guy are based on the same underlying causes as last week’s Dismaying Story (with perhaps one twist). It sounds like at the time you wanted very much to be in a relationship. You received at least some positive feedback from this man – the “strong reaction” you received when you pushed him – so you allowed yourself to develop a strong hope that this might be THE ONE. Hope can indeed spring eternal and it seems to be doing so in your case.

This hope is so powerful, this feeling of inevitability so seductive, that you categorize his weirdness as issues to be overcome and any slight indication of interest as proof that your hope has merit.

Your letter also implies that the initial encounter was sexual, since it was “not really dating.” Our society teaches young women to attach great importance to sexual relationships, especially the first relationship that involves great passion and abandon. Young ladies who give sex freely and without discrimination are often portrayed as tramps, while intimacy with the great love of your life is viewed as special and unique. So if you simply had a romp with a random guy who quickly passed in and out of your life, then you may be tempted to think badly of yourself. But if this guy is THE ONE, then it’s different. The sex is a special thing that happened with a special person in your life. This could be a powerful motivator to attach additional significance to this relationship.

Since we have not spoken I have no way of knowing if this is a factor in your case. I mention it so you can think about it and decide if you wish to raise it with your therapist.

You need to place this relationship in the appropriate historical perspective so it will stop interfering with your current emotions. You need to ask yourself what would have happened if he had agreed to stick around, to enter into a more longstanding relationship with you.

That would have been a disaster for you. His “come here, come here, no get away” personality would have had you constantly tied up in emotional knots. His weird behavior would have had much more opportunity to cause you pain, and the end result would have been the same, with him eventually rejecting you – not because of any failing on your part but because he has proven that this is his pattern.

Yes, you can and must get over this guy. He is not deserving of your desire – his behavior towards you makes this unequivocally true. My advice to you is the same as I doled out last week – believe him when he says he doesn’t want you and move on. Your husband is really THE ONE and deserves to occupy that spot in your heart without sharing even a bit of you with anyone else.

Good luck!

All the best,
Andrew
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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dismaying Story #130: Why Doesn’t He Want Me?

Dear Andrew,

I am totally confused by this man. He is in his mid-40’s, is divorced after a ten-year marriage that he ended when he was 30, where they have joint custody of two teen-agers. He has been broken up from his last long-term girlfriend for a year and a half. She was an alcoholic, just like his Mother was. I am pretty sure he isn’t involved with anyone else. There was one other woman he dated casually because they both have worked at the same large corporation for years, but he said he wasn’t ever going to get sexual with her because her ex-husband is currently his boss at work. So technically he ought to be available, right?

I really like him. He is very intelligent and fun to talk to, well-read, charismatic, observant, physically healthy and active. He also has the added plus of being good-looking, has a smile that could light up a Christmas tree, and has a good job that he’s been at for twenty years.

I know he likes to drink, but it doesn’t appear to be excessive. The rest of his life is very clean cut. He doesn’t smoke, take drugs or gamble.

He verbally flirts with me, tells me that I have the most beautiful eyes, and an amazing body, that the chemistry between us is so thick it is palpable, and that he can’t keep his hands off of me. But the most he ever does is occasionally fondle me like a starving 15 year old. But we haven’t had sex! He acts like he wants me but then does not do anything about it but grab and squeeze my breasts and bottom.

He is obviously a heterosexual, because his two major relationships that I know about were with women. He is very visual and sensual. He even moaned once when he saw a lacy thong in my underwear drawer.

He literally can’t be around me for even thirty seconds without reaching out to touch me, but it stops there. He’ll rub me through my clothes, but not try to undress me, and then he runs out the door. He will e-mail me and tell me how much I arouse him, but then makes excuses and says that he is emotionally and sexually scared of me.

When I said I wouldn’t hurt him, he said that he knew that, but he'd hurt himself. I wondered if maybe he was impotent, but I have seen the very definite outline of a large erection through his pants as we were cuddling on the couch one time, so obviously his body works just fine.

He said that his former girlfriend said he was a lousy lover, and so he has no self-confidence. He has heard me moan with pleasure when he caressed me, and I told him that I loved him touching me, and that I have wanted him so much for so long that there was no way he could be anything but a success with me. He got mad at me and told me that he didn’t trust me. He said I am just an object to him, like any other beautiful woman he sees on the street. He said that he doesn’t want me, that I misread him, and he was just being friendly.

I’m really starting to question my desirability, both as a person and a woman because of this behavior. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Does it to you?

I shower every day, brush my teeth, am physically in good shape, dress conservatively but nicely, don’t have any s.t.d.’s, and enjoy making love.

I’ve never encountered a man who acted like this before. Please explain so I can stop being so baffled, and get on with my life!

Signed,
Sexually Frustrated


Dear Frustrated,

This guy is throwing conflicting signals at you. On the one hand he visits, spends time with you, flirts with you, and fondles you. These are generally considered to be indications of interest.

Then he says, “I don’t want you.” I looked up that phrase in the dictionary. It means, “I don’t want you.”

So there are two questions in this situation. The first is the one you asked: Why would a guy act in such a contradictory way? I’ll get back to this one.

To me, though, the more relevant question for you is this: Why would a terrific person like you spend your time chasing someone who says right to your face that he doesn’t want you?

You and I have never met but I will go out on a limb and suggest some likely answers to that question. You are at the point in your life where you are dating guys in their mid-40s. This is not your first rodeo, which means one or more relationships in your past didn’t work out. You want very much to have a relationship in your life, so you are willing to put up with the occasional bump in the road to try to make it work. When things don’t go smoothly, you question your desirability (okay, I cheated ’cause you fed me that one) and start to wonder if you could ever have a successful relationship. This adds to your anxiety, so you hold on a little harder to the faintest possibility that this one might work out. After all, he flirts with you, spends time with you, so there’s a chance ... right?

Wrong. On several counts.

First of all, you definitely can have a successful relationship. All it takes is two people who genuinely want to be with each other, and who can both figure out how to make the other person feel good about being there. You can do this. And yes, at the most basic level it really is that simple.

As with most things in life, though, the devil is in the details. How can I make my partner feel good about being with me? I could write a whole book on that subject. (And maybe I should, what do you think?) I can suggest one element that may apply to you. Your behavior changes when you worry about your own desirability. You start to predict that your partner will not be attracted to you and to expect failure. A natural reaction is to shy away from the failure, which can make you act in a number of counter-productive ways toward him, such as being distant or irritable. Many women in this situation have told me they will often end the relationship first just to “protect” themselves from the inevitable hurt that will come when he finally admits she is undesirable to him. In other words, the insecurity causes the very outcome she fears.

The good news is that the opposite is also true. You can dramatically increase the chances of your relationships working out if you convince yourself that you are a dynamic person with plenty to offer. I’m sure this is true of you. You are in good shape, like being with people, enjoy sharing intimacy, and of course there is much more to you that you didn’t mention. A guy would be lucky to have you in his life. Start believing that and acting that way and you are a long way toward making it happen.

The first step is getting past Mr. I-Don’t-Want-You. Here is the good news on that front. He has problems with your relationship ... BUT HIS PROBLEMS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU.

He exhibited a mass of insecurities, which clearly existed long before he met you. I don’t know whether they were caused by an overbearing mother or a previous lover who laughed at him or an over-active imagination that spawned fear of rejection deep in the dark recesses of his soul. I don’t know what’s behind his ambivalent behavior and in terms of solving your problem I don’t care. I can state most unequivocally that his behavior is not caused by any failing on your part. He told you so, that his lack of confidence existed before he met you.

Not only is he insecure, he is also rude, self-serving, and incredibly insensitive to your needs and feelings. His actions and words indicate that he doesn’t care how you are affected. In other words he is using you to take what he needs, no more, no less, and to heck with what that means for you. He told you this as well, when he used the word “object.” Any guy who will grab your breasts and then treat you with such callousness is a jerk in my book.

For heaven’s sake, Frustrated, drop this guy like a hot potato. Today. There is zero chance of a future here for you. Every day you stick around will just add to the pain. Hold your head up high and walk away.

Then run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore and pick up a copy of He’s Just Not Into You. I guarantee you will find the same question in there: Should I stay with a guy who tells me he doesn’t want to be with me? I also guarantee you’ll find the same answer.

All the best,
Andrew
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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dismaying Story #129: Crossing the Line of Emotional Abuse

Dear Andrew,

I read Dismaying Story #125: Feeling Trapped and the truth is I can relate a lot. My parents were not abusive, not in the physical sense of the word. I did receive a slap or two, but it was - I believe - in the normal range. They were not blatantly abusive in the verbal sense of the word either. But - although they were a lot within the normal range with everything and I can't think of anything morally or ethically or legally wrong with the way they raised me, I can also blame a lot of my problems in life on the way they handled things with me.

For you to understand what I mean, I will quote my father's occasional "pearls of wisdom":

"Why did you dye your hair red? Only gypsies dye their hair red" (at a family gathering, with around 10 people in the room)
"What's the point in taking extra courses in college! You're already failing the ones you have"
-"Dad, I'm third in my class"
-"I knew your college was no good"
Before I went to college: "You should study programming. Pays good" Later, I'm dating a programmer who's earning thrice my salary: "See, I told you should study programming. You never listen." (repeat over and over whenever money comes into the conversation)
"There are people who decide to be with someone even if they don't love them. You should be happy that your boyfriend wants to be with you and not wonder why he decided so."
"You should marry your boyfriend, that way you know he won't leave in a couple of years when he gets sick of you."
"Men are pigs. When me and your mother got married, there were three girls who expected me to propose. And I'm one of the good ones"

All these are told in 'banter mode', with a smile on his face like he's joking. I don't know why I keep listening to what he says and yet I do. And after he says it I spend hours thinking about it, replaying it in my head. And whenever I fail, whether he's aware of it or not, I keep hearing his voice telling me that "I never listen".

Every time I start something he points out everything that could go wrong. And then when it does, he says "I told you so". And then there's a long speech about how much he loves me and he wants what's best for me and he wants me not to get hurt, which is why he is doing what he is doing.

I believe he honestly thinks he's doing the right thing. But when he tells me to marry my boyfriend so that he won't he leave me he actually convinces me not to marry my boyfriend because he'll leave me anyway... if that makes sense.

Now, when I moved out and don't talk as much to him anymore, whenever I start something new I think of what could go wrong 'daddystyle'. This makes me more efficient and, yes, at work it does me good - I am ready for failure and I know what to do 'just in case'. But somehow I think he's setting me up for failure. I have grown to expect failure. I have grown to accept that I will one day break up with my boyfriend. That I will be fired from my job. That I will fail. And most of the time I prepare myself for that case.

I don't know if this kind of behavior counts as abuse, in the real sense of the word. But it still hurts, even more when I realize exactly what is happening and what I am doing and why, and when I realize I am almost powerless to stop it. It might not be abusive, but I still need to escape it.

Signed, Normal and Yet Not


Dear Normal and Yet Not,

I looked up the verb “abuse” in the dictionary and found this: To hurt or injure by maltreatment. To assail with contemptuous, coarse, or insulting words.

Your father certainly hurts and insults you with his words. We have to be careful how we apply such a definition, though, since many of us are probably guilty of hurtful words or the occasional insult when we are angry or in the midst of a heated argument.

In you father’s case, however, this is a long-standing pattern of consistent put-downs, insults, and condescension. Furthermore, his actions seem to have had a profound effect on your self-image. You have been conditioned to expect personal failure and to expect others to treat you poorly.

To me that clearly crosses the line. His behavior is abusive. Parents should support their children and lift them up. I tell my children all the time – no matter who you meet in life, you will never meet anyone who wants you to succeed and be happy more than I do; I will always have your back, no matter what. Your father may believe he is helping you with his “advice” but he is actually hurting you.

You seem to have entered into a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy – you begin a relationship and before long you begin wonder how long it will be before your boyfriend recognizes your faults and leaves. This causes you to be stressed and to act less positively in the relationship than you might otherwise. While with your boyfriend you may be moody, stressed, worried, defensive. In short, you are less fun to be around because you have little faith in the outcome of the relationship. In many cases this will cause the very outcome you fear. He will leave you because he can tell things aren’t going well. Then that little voice inside pipes up: “See? Your father was right. You will always fail. Your boyfriend will always leave. You are not worthy of happiness and a life-long companion.”

But here’s the thing – that little voice is wrong and so is your father. In a scenario like I just described, the boyfriend doesn’t leave because of who you are, he leaves because of how you have acted. This is very good news, because you can’t change who you are (and there is no need to) but you can certainly learn new behaviors.

You can learn to recognize the falsehoods that your inner voice serves up and to ignore them. You can reverse the years of negative conditioning and alter how you view your place in the world. You can stop criticizing yourself and expecting failure. You can stop hearing your father’s voice every time you try to achieve something.

You are far from powerless; you absolutely can do these things. This is neither easy nor automatic, but with the right help you can certainly achieve it. Find someone to talk to, preferably a therapist or counselor who can recognize what is happening and coach you through a transition toward self-awareness and self-affirmation.

You will be amazed at how much power you truly have to control your own success and happiness.

A final note: By far the most common search term used to reach To Love, Honor, and Dismay is “toxic parent.” This truly surprises me. The many Dismaying Stories on this site deal with a wide variety of issues I would have predicted would be more common. Nonetheless, apparently toxic parents are a problem for many people. You may gain additional insight into your situation by reading Dismaying Story #56: Divorcing Your Toxic Parents.

Good luck!

All the best,
Andrew

By the way, keep those questions coming. I have received a few Dismaying Story emails recently but I could use many, many more.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My Email Address

Hi Folks,

A reader with email challenges asked for the address, so here it is:

lovehonoranddismay@yahoo.com

Note this is shown on the sidebar to the right. Thanks to everyone who has written in ... and keep the letters coming!

All the best,
Andrew
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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Dismaying Story #128: Leaving in the Middle of the Night

Dear Andrew,

I am an educated woman, self supporting, and trying to straighten out debt that my late husband left me. As an artist, my personality is very laid back. I have never had any problem attracting men. I grew up in a household with all males, do not take myself seriously, and travel quite extensively.

After my husband passed away I was pursued by a man quite a few years my senior. He runs a successful business, is very comfortable financially, and has been divorced twice.

We dated for several months. He continuously mentioned his financial status to me and made me feel judged in comparison with all of the women who came before.

We recently took a trip to Mexico. He asked a local elderly man how much the man would pay for me. I was mortified but he thought it was funny. Then when I tried to explain to him why his cell phone stayed on roam and was out of network, he blatantly informed me that I was a know-it-all. He walked away from me and ignored me for the rest of the evening.

I decided I could no longer take this rude person. After he fell asleep, I silently packed, checked into a hotel, booked another air carrier, and returned home.

Since then I have received several emails from him. He commented that all artists have mental problems, diagnosing me as bipolar, as well as insisting that I am a terrible mother and a loser. I had to rent a car since my car was left in his garage. I was only able to retrieve it by threatening to report it as stolen.

I did not love this man. Perhaps I could have, but I don't understand his sick humor, his judging me. I am totally confused, as this man told me he loved me.

Is this what is out there? Can you explain this nightmare? Was I wrong to just leave after his humiliating jokes at my expense? I would so appreciate if someone could shed some light onto this personality.

Signed, Humiliated


Dear Humiliated,

I am always limited in understanding situations like this because I can react only to one point of view. There are usually two sides to most stories, which is why couples counseling works best when both partners take part. In this case I don’t know his side of the story.

The facts in your letter, however, make it plain that this man can certainly be insensitive. Offering to sell you to a stranger is a joke that an adolescent might consider funny, but I would expect most mature men to be more respectful of their companions. The derogatory emails are also low-class to me. Clearly your relationship was in trouble at that point, or even completely over. In neither case is insulting you a productive or respectful thing to do.

Were you wrong to just leave? I don’t think so. The more courteous thing for you to do would be to tell him you were leaving and give him a chance to talk with you about it. On the other hand, his rudeness did not earn him much in the way of courtesy from you.

Perhaps you felt that confronting him would be threatening to you, that he might be abusive. Or perhaps you felt there would be little point to the conversation, given that he was unlikely to be repentant or anxious to make up. In a situation where you feel threatened, you have every right to protect yourself, even if that means leaving without explanation.

Is this what there is out there? In other words, are all men rude and insensitive? Of course not. I believe such folks are the exception rather than the norm, but I can understand why your experience might tempt you to think otherwise. I think the underlying subtext to your question is: “Is this the type of man I can expect to attract?” This one is a little tougher, because your own behavior can influence the type of men who are most attracted to you. If you project a meek image, this might appeal to men who are threatened by confident women, or men who tend to play a dominant role in their relationships. On the other hand, acting friendly and quietly confident may attract men who are comfortable dealing with that type of personality and who respond in kind. Of course many relationships run counter to this thinking, but I have seen this sort of dynamic happen time and time again.

In other words, you can influence who is attracted to you by how you interact with the world.

You have already spent more time worrying about this man than he deserves. He treated you poorly and has not earned your attention. Write him off as a failed experiment and move on.

I don’t know enough about him or the situation to speculate on why he behaved as he did, but it doesn’t make any difference to you now. You are out of the relationship and should stay out.

Most importantly, don’t allow his boorish behavior to change how you react to the next guy who comes along. Try to enter the next relationship with an open mind and a positive attitude. That way you will be doing all you can to increase your chances of finding Mr. Right, or Mr. Fun-to-spend-time-with, or whomever you may hope to find.

Good luck!

All the best,
Andrew

Last week I mentioned that I was scheduled to be interviewed live on a nationally-syndicated radio program. The interview took place last Saturday and I have to say ... it was a blast! I truly enjoyed talking with Darla Shine and she has invited me to be a regular on her program, which is moving to a Monday-to Friday format on Top-20 stations in the Fall. If you missed the interview, you can find the archived audio file here. Click on the August 2 show. My interview takes place about three-quarters of the way through the two-hour audio file.
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Friday, August 01, 2008

Dismaying Story #127: Dealing With Mental Illness

Dear Andrew,

My friend is remarried and has three boys, 14, 11, and 9. Her first husband has a lot of mental problems, which is why she left him. She's out of the toxic relationship, but her boys aren't. Their dad is still in contact, and that contact is troubling. Dad was diagnosed with mental illness years ago.

Dad has often promised to send holiday presents to the boys, yet they never come. My friend is not inclined to cover for him and buy the gifts for the boys as she believes that's deceitful. I don't see how she could, anyway. Dad will contact them after the holiday with photos of the gift cards he's bought, saying if Mom lets them visit, he'll give them their presents. He's accused her (to the boys) of stealing the gifts he sent, money he says he sent, etc. He can't see them as there is a court order barring him from private contact. He's hurt the boys physically in the past. He won't give them anything in front of her or the court-appointed representative because he thinks they are both working against him to take his money.

My question is this - with the courts guarding his right to talk to his children, how can Mom address the topic of Dad and his illness? These boys, especially the youngest, are hurt by his behavior. I think she's done a great job, but she's even said there are times she doesn't know what to say to the boys when Dad hurts them again. She chooses silence, but as she said, the oldest boy is beginning to want more of an explanation and maybe just a sounding board.

Any suggestions would be welcome.

Signed, Dealing With Mental Illness


Dear Dealing,

That is a tough situation. Often it is much harder to see our loved ones hurt than it is to be hurt ourselves. I suspect your friend would do anything to protect her children, and she clearly feels hand-cuffed by the circumstances.

Your friend seems to believe that being honest with the boys would be hard on them. Maybe she worries they are too young to understand the concept of mental illness, or that they would be inclined to shun their “crazy” father if they apply that label in their minds. Or maybe she worries the boys would find the truth more unsettling than his seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Admittedly I am not as close to this situation as your friend, but neither of those worries seems as potentially damaging to me as the situation you describe. The boys are hurt over and over again by their father’s actions.

What can they conclude from this?

Children often see the world from a self-centric point of view. They will interpret his actions with themselves at the center of the issue. In their minds, they are directly related to the cause of his actions.

“He doesn’t give me a present because he doesn’t like me, because he doesn’t think I’m good enough, because I’m really not good enough” ... and so on.

This is obviously hard for the boys. They have zero responsibility for the situation and for their father’s behavior. Allowing them to believe otherwise can lead to problems with low self-esteem and all that brings with it.

My suggestion is that the best way to protect the boys is to explain to them in an age-appropriate manner that their father has a sickness. Reassure them that the specific things he does are due to the sickness, not because of any bad opinions of the boys or because of any failings on their part.

Children often surprise adults with their ability to absorb and cope with life issues. I suspect your friend can help her children by leveling with them, giving them a truthful explanation of what is happening, and helping them deal with all their reactions, questions, and doubts, both immediately and over time as they think about the issues. I bet they handle the revelation better than their mother might predict, and chances are good that their overall stress level will be reduced.

Please wish her good luck for me.

All the best,
Andrew

Tomorrow (Saturday) is a first for me. I will be interviewed on a nationally-syndicated radio program. People in 120 different markets will listen to me talk with Darla Shine of the Happy Housewives Club. The interview arose because of Dismaying Story #14: The Affair-Proof Marriage, which is slated to be the topic of the interview. If you happen to live in a city that carries Darla Shine, perhaps you’ll get a chance to listen in.
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