Monday, October 21, 2019

Dismaying Story #151: Is Her Boyfriend Wrong for Her?

Dear Andrew,

My roommate and I are from the same small town and we’re both in our first year of college. The problem is her boyfriend, who’s also from our hometown. He doesn’t seem to have many other friends (if any), so the two of them are constantly camped out in the living room in our apartment. I mean, every day, every evening, whenever they’re not in class. I can never relax in my own place without him there. I feel trapped in my bedroom most of the time.

It’s awkward to be around him. Most times he doesn’t even say hello to me when he comes in. The only thing he seems keen to do is play video games, which means ignoring my roommate. He also helps himself to our food without ever offering to contribute.

But I’m not so much concerned about the impact on me as I’m worried about my roommate. She’s attractive and outgoing but this is only her second boyfriend. It feels like she’s willing to put up with a not-great situation so she can have a boyfriend, any boyfriend. I think she’s selling herself short. I worry she’s going to end up marrying him (or someone like him) because she doesn’t realize how much better a relationship can be.

How can I tell her without ruining our friendship?

Signed, Trapped In My Bedroom

Dear Trapped,

Your roommate is lucky to have a caring friend like you. You’re right, though, to think she might be upset if you share your thoughts with her. Think about some of the ways she could interpret your words:
  • “That guy you’re so close to? The one you think so highly of? Yeah ... I don’t like him.”
  • “I’m better at judging men and relationships than you are. I don’t have faith in your ability to choose a worthy boyfriend.”

On the other hand, you might be wondering if her long-term happiness is important enough that it’s worth risking a bit of conflict between the two of you.

Well, quite a number of assumptions are wrapped up in that question. First, you’re assuming this is a less-than-ideal situation for your friend. But what if she’s the type of person who thrives on plenty of quiet time alone with her partner? Can you really be certain that a guy like this wouldn’t make her happy and fulfilled in the long run? You’re worried that she’s settling, but it’s also possible she’s with him because she enjoys what he brings to her life. Her needs in this department could be quite different from yours.

You might also be misjudging him. She gets to see sides of him that you don’t, like when the two of them are alone. Maybe he has qualities you’re not aware of. And he’s young, so much of what you’re seeing might simply be immaturity. He could be a diamond in the rough.

(One caveat: It’s a bad idea to enter a life relationship with someone who has fundamental characteristics you can’t abide ... but you assume you can change them. People mature and evolve, but in my experience our basic nature tends to remain the same.)

Then there’s the fact that you and your roommate are just beginning the great exploration of being away from home for the first time. Much will change by the time the two of you graduate. Her current boyfriend could be a distant memory by then, especially if your instincts about their poor fit are correct. She’s likely to figure that out.

These are some of the reasons why it’s up to her who she chooses to date, not you or anyone else.

On the other hand, my spidey sense started tingling when you mentioned she arrived at college without much dating experience. Chances are she has spent a good deal of time wondering why that is. Her inner voice has likely spent years gleefully explaining all the reasons to her: “Boys don’t like you. You’re not the sort of person anyone wants to date. There must be something wrong with you. You’re not pretty enough. You’re from the wrong town.”

We all have our scared, insecure inner voice that loves to pounce on any hint of low self-esteem. And yes, some people do “settle” in their relationships because they don’t think they can do better, that they wouldn’t find anyone else, that they’re lucky to even have a boyfriend.

I have no way of knowing which of these factors apply to your roommate, but hopefully they provide you some food for thought. There certainly are circumstances where I would hope anyone would speak up and try to help their friend, such as when abuse or other serious dysfunctions are involved. Only you can decide if you believe this situation is dire enough so you should risk voicing your concerns.

If you do so, try opening the conversation with questions instead of statements. Rather than saying, “I’m worried your boyfriend isn’t right for you,” perhaps begin with, “How are things going with you and your boyfriend?” The more she opens up about her own thoughts, that can open the door to gently nudge the conversation into the direction of whether their in-the-apartment-all-the-time routine is really working for her. The more the discussion is driven by her opinions rather than yours, the less likely you’ll be to endanger your friendship.

Another option is to share some great news with her (rather than the bad news about your misgivings). If you think her lack of dating experience is a factor, try serving as a positive alternative to her inner voice. Find opportunities to let her know how great she is. If a guy in one of your classes tells you she’s cute, make sure you pass that on. When the two of you are talking about all the awesome dating choices available to another girl, tell your roommate how your boyfriends better be good because the two of you are both “catches” and you have plenty of options, too.

Our insecure inner voice tends to be a persistent, life-long companion, so it’s unlikely you can eliminate her self-doubts ... but I bet you can help. Everyone can use a supportive friend like you to help them feel better about themselves. And the more positive her self-image becomes, the more confidence she’ll have to look out for her own needs regardless of who she’s with.

All the best,
Read More ->>

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Dismaying Story #150: Dreaming of a Former Sweetheart

Dear Andrew,

I am happily married but I have been dreaming for years about a former sweetheart. Gavin and I dated a long time in real life and both broke each other's heart.

He and I are always together in this recurring dream and things are wonderful. Then I ask him where his current girlfriend is and he says it didn't work out. I feel torn because I like his girlfriend. Gavin professes his love to me and I am happy because we are together.

The other night I had a new dream. Gavin and I were together and he was having a hard time leaving me. I told him go to his girlfriend and love her because I already had my chance with him and I blew it. His girlfriend told me that our friendship needs to be put on hold because of everything. I cried in this dream the same way as I did when Gavin and I broke up many years ago in real life. All my feelings and my thoughts in this dream were so real. Then I woke up so sad.

The thing is I rarely have any contact with Gavin anymore. When I do it is only because we still have common friends. I love my husband very much. He is so good to me.

I feel like I am doing something wrong by having such a dream. Do you have any idea what it might mean?

Signed, Guilty Dreamer

Dear Dreamer,

I am no dream analysis expert. I do believe, though, that our dreams can reflect the thoughts and feelings that are rumbling around in the back of our minds.

One key phrase in your letter stood out to me: "Gavin and I ... broke each other's heart."

I believe you're playing "what if" with yourself. You have never really convinced yourself that you were better off without Gavin. You still play "what would my life be like if we had stayed together." Maybe it's deep in your mind, but it's there and it comes out in your dreams.

You need to look around, realize you have a great life and do what you should have done years ago ... you need to break up with the idea of Gavin. He still holds this mythical, special, rose-colored place in your mind. He might not be all the way to a full regret or an active yearning, but he's close. You've never fully let go.

If you had much contact with Gavin now, you'd probably realize he's just a guy and the grass is no greener over there. You must have had reasons back then for breaking up with him, which means "What could have been" is likely not as good as "What is." I suspect the more you can simply accept what happened and that it was for the best, the less you will have those types of dreams.

I don't think these dreams constitute any kind of betrayal of your husband, in large part because I don't think we have any control over our dreams. Yours are a reflection of a niggling fear that you might have missed out on something, that you might have failed in some way to take advantage of past opportunities. Fears and feelings of failure can be persistent. They like to crop up even if we would like them to go away.

So give your husband a big hug and toss that guilt out the window where it belongs. Who knows, maybe some night soon you'll have a dream where you break up with Gavin and tell him you know with all your heart that this is the right thing to do. I suspect it's long overdue.

All the best,
Read More ->>

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Dismaying Story #149: 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,
Read More ->>

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Dismaying Story #148: 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,
Read More ->>

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dismaying Story #147: Is It Wrong to Settle?

Dear Andrew,

I wonder how many women out there have 'settled,' meaning they are not in love and never were with their partner, but because of finances or some other reason have settled. Is that why there are a lot of women out there that lose themselves in Harlequin Romances? Is that why they find themselves in chat rooms on the Internet, or worse, at dating sites?

I have two sons of 30 and 32. Both of them have been dating a special girl for several years. I know they are not happy, and when I had a chance to talk to them alone I told them how I felt. I said, son, don't settle! If you're not absolutely in love with this woman, keep going. If your eyes don't light up when she enters the room, keep going. If she is gone for three days and you don't miss her and yearn for her return, keep going. Don't settle! Not only are you being unfair to yourself, you're also doing her an injustice.

That's the advice I gave them.

Sadly, I haven't taken my own advice. For the past 10 years I've been living with a man who has made my life easier. I met him when I began bringing up my own grandkids. He just made it much easier for me to do this. By bringing home a steady paycheck, it enabled me to stay home and bring up these kids. We meet each other's needs and respect each other. He wants someone to come home to at night, cook his meals, and I need someone to help me bring up these kids of 8 and 11.

Our daily talk is of the weather and the kids and bills. He is no great thinker. He's a very simple man with very simple needs. We are opposites; while I need intellectual stimulation, he doesn't. He's content to sit on the couch and watch sci-fi movies.

I know I'm not the only one, and I believe if we did wait for this 'great love' in our life, many of us would be alone.

It could be that because at 21, I met and married a very abusive man and got divorced six years later. Perhaps that has led me to believe there is no such thing as the perfect love, the perfect soul-mate. After that disaster, I decided to be alone. Then at 46 I took on the responsibility of my grandson and met this guy. I was unemployed at the time. We dated, but I broke off the relationship four times. I felt suffocated. Finally I gave in. He just made it so easy and my life was easier knowing that I could handle this responsibility.

I read stories in magazines about great marriages and couples who still love each other passionately after twenty or thirty years. A part of me is jealous and the other part doesn't believe it.

I personally don't know any couple that I can say without a doubt are deeply in love and have been for years.

Signed, Taking the Easier Road

Dear Taking the Easier Road,

It would be easy for me to sit here and preach about how no one should settle, and how a deep and abiding love is this sacred thing that everyone can have if they only have faith and are willing to work at it...

...and I'm not going to do that. Like most of the issues that get thrashed around on this site, this one can be viewed from different directions. The following are a couple of possible viewpoints (and I'm sure the readers can offer others).

Most everyone would love to be perfectly fit, in wonderful health, have a worry-free supply of well-managed finances, be in a rewarding career that fits your interests and doesn't over-burden your life, have plenty of time to enjoy fulfilling hobbies and interests, and so on. Life has many dimensions and unfortunately not everyone succeeds equally well in all of them.

Some people have a knack for creating wealth, while others scrape by from paycheck to paycheck. Success may come from skill and daring, while happenstance and good fortune seem to smile more on some people than on others.

The same is true for love. Building a relationship works best when people feel good about themselves, are willing to compromise, are compassionate and empathetic, share some commonalities, find each other physically attractive, and on and on. Some part of this is skill -- the ability to get along with people, to communicate clearly, to interpret the intentions of others correctly, etc. -- and there is also luck involved: for example, the people you happen to meet, and whether you feel that zing of attraction when you do.

Many people have negative experiences that inhibit their ability to succeed in this area; they have extra emotional hurdles to overcome because of rape, abuse, or a variety of other types of prior life trauma. In terms of interpersonal skills, some people are simply stronger than others. It is little wonder, then, that not everyone develops a love worthy of a Harlequin romance.

This is not necessarily an excuse to settle, though. For example, your finances might have always been horrid, but you can still decide to hone your money management skills and improve your situation. The same is true for your relationship skills (though I think relationships are more complex than checkbooks, so the learning path is not always as clearly defined).

Your letter implies he is inherently the wrong guy and your choices are (a) stay and settle, or (b) leave and in all likelihood be alone. There are actually more options than that. You could put some work into developing common activities for the two of you to enjoy. Maybe you could entice him into horseback riding, golf, biking, or ballroom dance lessons. Find ways to cheer and giggle together and you just might be surprised what this will do for your attitude toward each other.

Try pretending that he is the love of your life, and act that way for a week or two. You might be amazed what this does to your mindset and to his behavior toward you. It's highly likely that he is well aware of your ambivalence about him, which makes him less likely to show affection for you, which feeds your negative feelings, and the negative spiral is on. Put a conscious effort into reversing the emotional vibes for a while and the spiral now has a chance to move in the other direction.

Like the old saying goes, if you can't be with the one you love (that is, someone who matches your vision), then love the one you're with.

Here is another way to think of this issue. What if you were alone with a guy on a desert island? Assume there is no chance of ever escaping. Chances are he wouldn't be the guy you would pick if you had thousands to choose from, but he's the one who happened to survive the shipwreck. Isolation is the overriding factor here, which I believe would drive most couples in this situation together.

Many of us become partially isolated for a variety of reasons. Your personal desert island is defined by your abusive prior relationship and the hardships of raising two grandchildren with little or no income. I wouldn't wonder if your current partner has had life challenges of his own, such as loneliness. These factors drive the two you together, and ignoring them for some ideal vision of love would be unrealistic.

Does this mean those with hardships should just accept whatever partner they can get? Of course not. We all have our own threshold for when a relationship is not worth keeping. But neither should we beat ourselves up if our love life is partially driven by pragmatic factors.

And for the record, my wife and I have been married for 34 years and we're still crazy about each other. (Is she crazy to put up with me that long? You decide.) What about the rest of you out there? Can you offer a hopeful story to Taking the Easier Road?

All the best,
Read More ->>

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Dismaying Story #146: 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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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Dismaying Story #145: Husband Poaching

Dear Andrew,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signed, Protecting What's Mine

Dear Protecting What's Mine,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,
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