Saturday, October 28, 2017

Insecurity over Past Partners

Dear Andrew,

Traditionally my family goes to a resort every summer. I've been going there for 13 years and I had a tryst with a staff member there when I was about 17 or 18. Totally sexual, never saw or talked to this guy ever again. He doesn't work there anymore.

My husband and I are newlyweds. Recently we went to this resort to meet some of my family. Right before we got there the two of us stopped to eat at a restaurant. While we were there, my husband asked me right out of nowhere, "So, have you ever had a fling at this resort?!" My head went down and I tried to hide my face. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I hadn't told my husband about it because, had I told him about this in advance he probably would not have wanted to go.

Of course I told him the truth though. Then he got mad because I was "sneaky" in not telling him. He also said in so many words, I wonder how many sexual partners you've really had?! As if I lied when we talked about it before.

He then got up to go to the restroom. While he was gone I began having a panic attack, (as I have a history of anxiety.) When he got back, I went into full-fledged panic, couldn't breathe, began crying and shaking. This all happened right in the middle of the restaurant and I couldn't control it. He told me to wait in the car and he got our food to go.

Why oh why did he even feel the need to ask that stupid question!? Any type of question about my sexual escapades in the past is totally uncalled for. I don't understand why an intelligent man like my husband would ask any kind of question about this.

Signed, Anxious Newlywed

Dear Anxious,

Let's play "What if?" for a moment. What if your husband asked you that question but the two of you had a completely different reaction? Instead of shame, suppose the question amused you and, when you answered truthfully, you and hubby had a quiet and comfortable chuckle about it before dismissing it and moving on to other topics of dinner conversation. In my view, the problem is not about asking the question but rather how the two of you reacted to it.

Newlyweds go through many types of transitions as you begin to adjust to married life. One such transition is the loss of what I'll call the dating mentality, replacing it with the comfort of a lifelong partnership. Like many other changes in life, this one takes time. It is clear to me that the two of you are still in the midst of this journey.

To me, the dating mentality is the feeling of the chase. Since single people are relatively free to switch partners, there is often a perceived (and sometimes very real) danger that you might lose your boyfriend or girlfriend to a different partner. You are constantly in a competition. Any hint that your partner might have an interest in another can be threatening. Sexual involvement with a former boyfriend can be construed as one indication that you were very strongly attracted to that person, even if only for a short period of time. For a young man who has yet to shed the dating mentality, learning about such strong attractions can make him feel insecure. It sounds like this might be the case with your husband.

More than that, society teaches a young man to have conflicting expectations of the young women in his life. When dating, Mother Nature supplies the hormones that turn teenage boys into hunters. Hungry to gain sexual experience, guys will often put considerable pressure on their dates to go as far as possible. When it comes to getting married though, we want to feel secure, unchallenged. The Hollywood image of the perfect bride is one of virginal innocence. She dated but "saved herself for marriage." Like it or not, your husband has been taught that you are not supposed to be like all those other girlfriends he had. You are supposed to be special, above the rest. Is it any wonder he feels stress when he learns you are (gasp!) ... NORMAL?!

Girls also face a host of conflicting pressures. Premarital sex brings with it the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Mothers preach about the importance of protecting yourself. Girls who are known to "give it up" easily may be labeled in undesirable ways. These factors combine to associate with sex a powerful negative stigma in many young girls' minds. Mother Nature, however, would be perfectly happy if all girls started having babies as soon as they are able. In fact, Mother Nature wants this so badly that we all come equipped with a sex drive. When out on a date with an attractive young man, your body can wake up and say, "I bet some sex would feel GOOD right now!"

Many (heck, probably all) young women struggle to maintain self-esteem. They know the guys want sex. It can be easy to think of this as one way to be popular; make him happy and he will like you. Add to this the natural tendency to be curious about the unknown, as well as peer pressure from all the other girls who swear they are doing it ... well, you get the idea. Young women are pulled in ten different directions when it comes to premarital sex. Then, to top it all off, when you get married you are expected to magically shed all those inhibitions and become completely comfortable with marital relations. Is it any wonder that you, too, feel stress over this sort of issue?

While it is understandable for you to feel that way, you have no need to feel ashamed or embarrassed for having a sexual history with former boyfriends. Whether anyone likes it or not, premarital sex is widespread and is considered by many to be normal behavior. I understand that some cultural groups may differ in these types of expectations, but I am speaking of the North American norm. Ask your girlfriends; how many of them were virgins on their wedding nights? Not many, I bet.

Parents must try to balance how we treat these opposing forces when it comes to our children. We all want to protect our children, to keep them safe from guys who just want a thrill, from STDs and unwanted pregnancy, and from the emotional pain that often comes when sex is introduced into relationships that are not mature enough to handle it. Knowing our children will have Mother Nature and peer pressure urging them on, the natural tendency is to resent all those messages that casual sex is okay, to teach our children to protect themselves. The hope is that these opposing influences will result in a healthy balance in our children's lives.

This healthy balance is key. Finding out that your wife has a deviant sexual history is likely to cause legitimate concern for a young husband. This is not the case with you, though; you simply had a few relationships that included normal sexual behavior. Why should you be ashamed of being normal?

The answer lies in all those expectations I discussed earlier. You and your husband have not yet shed that dating mentality. In your mind, sex still has that negative stigma attached to it. You also sense that your husband is threatened by the thought of you with another, even if it was in the past. Who could blame you for being hesitant to discuss this with him? I certainly don't. It is completely understandable and I urge you to forgive yourself.

I don't believe your husband was trying to attack you when he asked that question. That was likely his insecurity peeking out. His behavior might seem judgmental but I suspect he was only reacting to the social programming he has received all his life. I urge you to forgive him as well. He is human and has frailties like all the rest of us.

The normal course of events would be for you and your husband to become more and more comfortable with these sorts of issues as time goes on, and I suspect that is exactly what will happen. You might even speed up the process by reassuring your husband that his insecurities, while understandable, are completely unnecessary. Tell him you are his forever and your past boyfriends mean nothing to you. They are part of an ancient history that simply doesn't matter anymore.

Finally, I have to wonder if you have ever sought help for your "history of anxiety." Having difficulty drawing a breath because of such a conflict seems extreme. You might consider consulting with a physician to assess the severity of the issue and to determine what help might be possible.

I wish you and your husband all the best,
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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Sleeping Together Without Sex

Dear Andrew,

My boyfriend and I have been seeing each other for over a year now. Because we live in different towns and I don't have a car, early on in our relationship I started spending the night at his house on weekends. Both of us have decided to wait until marriage to have sex, though for different reasons, but we really enjoy the intimacy this set-up brings about, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I grew up in a conservative Christian family and believe that sex before marriage is wrong. It took some hard thinking on my part to determine if I was going to be alright with spending the night, but after careful evaluation, I realized that I trusted each of us and the benefits far outweighed everything. I asked for advice from some friends and from my sister, all of whom I thought would understand the situation, but in the end it was a very personal decision, and I stand by it. It was (and is) the right decision for our relationship.

However, there are a few people in our lives who do not (or would not, if they knew) understand the situation. He has several friends and family who know that I spend the night, and because of this, they assume we're having sex. Now, I can understand why in today's culture he doesn't want to correct this mis-assumption, but at the same time I don't want people to think that I condone premarital sex. I haven't asked him to tell these people the truth, but I would like to in some instances, like his father, with whom he is very close (and is also quite conservative). Also, my mother, who would certainly disapprove, does not know about this arrangement. Up until this summer, she lived out of state, and so it hasn't been an issue, but now that she lives half an hour from my house, I fear that the issue will come up. (If/when it does, the discussion will certainly end with, "but I'm 28, mother, I can make my own decisions, and it's my life!") I know she will not understand, and I don't want to negatively impact her opinion of him or of our relationship, especially since we've been talking marriage. So, I am careful when I talk to her. I think this situation makes my boyfriend uncomfortable and he would like me to "come clean" with her, but I can't see how that would be beneficial. In this case, it really is "what she doesn't know won't hurt her."

How can we resolve this situation? Certainly, what goes on behind closed doors is private and it really is no one else's business, but family seems to think that rule doesn't apply to them. I know we can't please all of the people all of the time, but I'm looking for a solution that will honor our decision and not make too many waves.

Signed, Sleeping Comfortably

[Excerpt from: Minutes of the Cupid Expeditionary Force (CEF) Case Status Meeting -- October 2017]

Mother Nature: And who do you have in the "almost ready to boil over" category?

Cupid #163: [consults notes] Let's see, I've been working with a couple of 18-year-olds who've been parking in a mini-van by the lake for the last few weekends. They're getting awfully close.

MN: [Smiles, makes large check mark on her clipboard with an obvious flourish] Excellent work! At this rate we'll have more babies on the way in no time.

163: And then there's Case Number, um [clears throat, mumbles] 413 dash 28 stroke B.

[Titters from the other Cupids in attendance]

MN: You mean . . .

163: [Nods, looks down at the table in obvious embarrassment]

MN: Last month you said they were sleeping together.

163: Yes but--

MN: Are you sure your Nookometer is working properly?

163: [Looks up and nods vigorously] I thought of that so I had the lab guys check it.

MN: And you're not using stale arrows?

163: Are you kidding? I even stopped by the armory and picked up a batch of Extra Strength. I've got those two looking like pin cushions most nights.

MN: [Blinks in astonishment] Well ... keep working on it.

[Excerpt ends]

Dear Sleeping,

As you can tell from the above, I think your instincts are right on the money; two adults who regularly sleep together are usually assumed to be doing more than just sleeping. This is because Mother Nature does her absolute best to get us to have sex. Most people realize that given time and repeated opportunities, her urges tend to win out.

I love that you seem so content about what your sleeping arrangement means for you. It was initially at the edge of your comfort zone but you worked through that. Your letter gives me the sense you are confident this is the right thing for your relationship. This confidence falters, though, when you start worrying about what others think of you and your boyfriend. You are not content to merely be doing the right thing; you'd like your friends and family to perceive you as doing so and to validate your behavior. You are afraid there will be conflict.

Your letter mentions two potential solutions -- hiding the fact (from your mother) that you are sleeping together and explaining to people that you are not having sex. Neither idea seems particularly viable to me.

Your boyfriend is right. You should be honest with your Mom and tell her what is going on. She will eventually find out (mothers always do) and then you will have two problems to work through. Not only were you sleeping with your boyfriend, but you were also dishonest with her and didn't trust her enough to tell her the truth. I wouldn't be surprised if the latter issue ends up being far more hurtful and difficult to resolve. If you do get married, you don't want that one hanging over your head. She should find out from you, and sooner rather than later. Honesty really is the best policy.

So far you have avoided this conversation because you fear her disapproval. Is it possible you are underestimating her? She may be conservative but I bet she is also intelligent and aware. She knows you are 28 and in a serious relationship. She might be a little upset at first and say you are making a poor decision, but it's possible that will be the extent of it. If you have a reasonably strong relationship with her, this bump in the road likely will have no lasting effect.

Besides, we all must learn to have strength in our own convictions. You can't go through life trying to please everyone else because that simply isn't always possible. If you truly believe you are acting properly, then you must learn not to tear yourself up over the possibility that others may disagree.

I also suggest you forget about telling people you are not having sex. First of all, as you said, it is none of their business. The conversation would make most people uncomfortable. Secondly, many people won't believe you anyway. They have no way to verify what you are saying and will think, "She doth protest too much." They will likely take this as confirmation of their suspicions.

Your mother is a possible exception. If you and she are close enough that you are comfortable discussing this sort of issue and she might believe you, then explaining the truth may help both of you feel better.

Finally, I bet this issue does not loom anywhere near as large in other people's minds as you think it does. In most cases when we worry about what others think of us, the truth is they're not thinking about us at all. They have their own lives to lead and (unfortunately) are busy worrying about what we think of them!

The "waves" you fear are likely to be tiny ripples at most. I say hold your head high, look your family members straight in the eye, and smile. They have no need to know about Cupid #163's frustrations.

All the best,
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Saturday, October 07, 2017

Learning to Fight Fair

Dear Andrew,

My husband and I cannot manage to resolve conflict. He has this passive aggressive strategy of dropping little verbal bombs, then denying he is even angry and not acknowledging there is a conflict then refusing to discuss the fact that now my feelings are hurt. This hurts my feelings further because I feel as if he does not give a hoot that I am upset, because he refuses to discuss the circumstances to a resolution. On occasion I will get a solicited, "Well then I'm sorry," which is very shallow and insincere.

I am getting tired of being beaten up by him and having to "let it go" to keep peace in my marriage. I think one of the reasons he refuses to discuss anything is he rarely admits when he is the source of a mistake or may have been behaving inappropriately. I, on the other hand, am the type of person who does not sit well with conflict and prefers to confront the conflict, try to understand the other person, express myself so I feel I have been understood and then move forward.

Here is an example. Yesterday morning my husband told me we would be leaving for his brother's house at "about 12:30." To me this means give or take 15-20 minutes. I came downstairs at 12:50, ready to leave. He is sitting on the couch, visibly angry. I say, "Are you ready to go?" He responds, "Yep, I have been ready." My husband stomps around the house and gets in the car. On our way, he expresses his irritation that we are late. I tell him you told me we were leaving at about 12:30. It is now ten after one, twenty minutes after I came down because the kids were not in the car and he had to collect his stuff. Now he denies ever saying that. He asks the kids what time he told them to be ready, ooooops....they say 12:30. Still nothing from him, pissed off mode. I say, "You said 'about.' If you meant pulling out of the driveway at 12:30, then you need to tell me that."

He says nothing while he can still affect the course of events, angrily comments after there is no turning back, lashes out at us all because we don't read his mind, then never apologizes and doesn't give a crap he hurt my feelings. That is the kicker of it all, he simply doesn't care that my feelings are hurt, and just expects me to "let it go" to keep the peace.

This is very typical. He tries to appear very passive because he will never acknowledge his feelings and therefore he sees himself as very easy to get along with. I, on the other hand, find him somewhat impossible to get along with where conflict is concerned because he refuses to address it by simply refusing to talk about anything. My attempts to seek reconciliation are perceived as bullying. I back off, and nothing gets addressed. Even if I wait hours, days, weeks, we will not address the circumstances further. I cannot think of one time he has initiated a discussion with me to resolve a conflict. I have to drag him to a discussion and half the time that never accomplishes anything either because he will refuse to acknowledge his feelings. For example yesterday he said he wasn't mad, although he lashed out at me and the kids and was a total jerk.

I could use some help!

Signed, Looking to Talk Things Out

Dear Looking,

You should treat this as a project. The basic materials you will need are a good-sized piece of paper, a thick felt marker, and some tape to put the paper up on the wall. I'll get back to these in a moment.

The dynamic you describe is quite common. It occurs because without realizing it, you teach each other ineffective ways of responding to the other.

Here is how the cycle goes. You start with two people who dislike conflict intensely. That would be you and your husband. I can tell this because of the severity of your reactions. Both of you hate to be criticized and instinctively do things to avoid it. One of the issues is that your strategies for doing so are different.

You respond by actively trying to suppress any criticism coming from him, including any requests for change. (All such requests, no matter how positive and constructive, must include an element of criticism.) You immediately make it clear to him that his request is invalid, unwelcome and he is a jerk for making it. Don't believe me? Re-read your letter; you say exactly that. You are not doing this to be vindictive. Instead you feel attacked and poorly treated, and this is the way you have learned to deal with those feelings.

He responds to criticism by trying to avoid whatever instigated it in the past. As I have just described, you have taught him he will be criticized for admitting he is upset with you. He reacts by refusing to admit it. His coping strategy when he becomes upset is to deny, deny, deny, and then wait for the storm to blow over. Once in a while he becomes upset enough that he just has to say something (as in the "about 12:30" incident) but then he gets reminded rather quickly that this causes him to be criticized, so he retreats back inside his protective shell. Apologizing would mean admitting he is upset, which is inconsistent with his instinct of deny, deny, deny.

This teaches you that you will be punished for trying to talk out any issues. The punishment happens when he retreats into his uncommunicative shell and shuts you out, all the while making it abundantly clear with his nonverbal communication that he is galactically ticked off. As a result you have learned to "let it go" to "keep the peace." There is not really any peace to keep in that situation, though. You are both upset. You both desperately wish there were some way to make the issues go away, and you are tremendously frustrated that nothing seems to help.

Both of you are misinterpreting the actions of the other. He sees your reactions as aggression, not realizing they are really a manifestation of your insecurities about being criticized. Many people in your husband's position are simply astounded when they learn that their spouse's actions come from vulnerability, not a desire to dominate. A husband who believes his wife wants to dominate him will tend to resist, while one who is aware of his wife's vulnerability is more likely to want to protect and help her.

You believe his silence means that he doesn't care about you. As I have already described, this is not at all what causes his behavior. Like you, his self-esteem takes a hit when he gets criticized, so he tries to avoid that. His actions are the result of vulnerability (again, just like you), not callousness.

By not understanding the vulnerabilities involved, both of you become firmly entrenched in your criticism-avoidance strategies, and become even more convinced that the entire situation is the other person's fault. If you look at your letter, you will notice that you lay the blame at his feet and say nothing about the possibility that your own actions may be contributing to the problem.

This is not his fault, nor is it yours. This is a matter of the two of you not understanding each other and not knowing what to do. With a little insight and patience, you should be able to turn this around.

Since you wrote to me, you are the one who has to initiate the solution. You need to be the hero, the first one to swallow your pride and take action. So here is what you should do. Start by popping the cap off that felt-tip marker and writing this on the paper: It takes two to tango! Then tape it up where you have to look at it every day. In other words, you need to buy into the concept that this is not a problem with him, but rather with the two of you. You need to take ownership for your role in the relationship. That's the internal part.

Externally, you need to change how you react to your husband. Instead of explaining to him how he is wrong to be upset with you (which is how you describe your actions in your letter) you should first consider whether he might have a point, even a partial one. The 12:30 incident involved a two-way communication breakdown. Sure, he could have been more clear in explaining his expectations. On the other hand, you found his request to be vague and yet you did not admit that up front. You simply made an assumption about what he meant, one that met your own needs, and then went with it. You both had a role in the miscommunication.

You could have smoothed the water considerably by admitting your part in this and apologizing, without also explaining his mistake to him. If you do this consistently, he will soon come to trust that he will not get backlash for mentioning things to you. His tendency to retreat into silent mode will decrease. You can even do this when he lets you know with body language that he is upset. The more times you behave like this, the more quickly he will learn and the sooner he will become more communicative. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge your part and criticize him back, then you lose the benefit.

Going along with that, tell him that you now realize how your reactions have been affecting him. Apologize for this general trend. Tell him that you really weren't trying to be aggressive, you are just sensitive about criticism and you will try to do better.

No doubt your instincts are screaming at you right now. "But that's not fair," they are saying. "Why should I have to give in? Then he can just lord it over me." Here's the thing; apologizing is not giving in. It is simply acknowledging that you had a role in whatever happened and that you are a big enough person to admit that. Apologizing is really a way for both of you to win, because you can stop spending your time being resentful of each other and start building a loving bond.

Then your delicious surprise should happen. When you change how you react to him, he will start changing how he reacts in turn. Once you have admitted your part and apologized (in other words, once you have been the hero) his natural reaction is to reciprocate. He will start saying things like, "Well, I guess I could have been a little clearer in what I said. Sorry about that."

Now you're on a path where you can start to trust how the other will react, and how they are feeling inside.

Two words of caution. First, don't be discouraged if it takes more than once for this to work. You have been teaching each other for a long time; it may take a while before you each stop expecting the other to react negatively. Have a little patience.

Secondly, at some point you will have the breakthrough two-way apologies and it will feel great. This is a surprisingly dangerous moment. You have both had specific complaints on your mind for some time that you have been dying to unload on your partner. This may seem like an opportune moment to do so, when the other is in a receptive mood. You should resist that urge or you may be right back where you started. Forget the past grievances, because you now know the reasons and are starting fresh. And don't be surprised if he picks that moment to voice a criticism. I have warned you this may happen and explained why, so you can choose not to react negatively. Simply be the hero and apologize once more.

Good luck!

All the best,
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