A couple of days ago I wrote about someone suffering over the loss of a painful relationship and I’ve received a torrential downpour of emails from people in similar situations since then. A man wrote in and said his wife had invited a man from work to a party at their house. She spent the whole afternoon with him, introducing him to all their friends, sitting next to him, endlessly putting her hand on his arm or leaning into him, swimming in the pool when he wanted to swim. He said the vibe was definitely flirtatious, and that many of his guy friends asked if he needed back up. Some of the wives asked him if he was okay. He pulled his wife aside at one point and told her he was extremely uncomfortable and so were many of their friends, but she rolled her eyes and said he was just being jealous again.
He told me the last time this happened he’d discovered she’d been texting and emailing with another guy from work who lives in another state. She sees him at conferences, but for the most part their relationship was happening over their laptops and cellphones. He told me he had checked her phone and her emails, because he had a very definite feeling something was off and he found pictures she’d sent of herself in a bikini sitting by their pool, and pictures of her curled up on their sofa. He saw an email in which she told this guy her husband was very possessive and she might not be able to write as much because it was making him crazier than usual. When he confronted her about that, she again said he was being jealous, and that it showed a real lack of integrity for him to be checking her emails and phone. She put passwords on everything, insisted this guy was a friend, and carried on. Anyway, at the end of the party, it was just the husband, the wife, and this guy left alone in the pool. The colleague did make small talk with the husband, but his attention was definitely on the wife, as hers was on him. She opened another bottle of wine and handed this guy a glass, and asked her husband if he wanted one, too. He said he was tired, and she told him he could go to bed anytime. At that point, he asked the guy to leave. He said he was polite, but he just told him it was late, and he needed to kick him out. That he had to get up early to drop their boys off at school. The guy gets his stuff and goes, and the wife goes to bed without saying a word to her husband. They’re in therapy because she thinks he needs help. As far as she’s concerned, she doesn’t have any problems.
Someone else wrote in feeling pain because she’s in love with a man who wants to keep their relationship hidden. He told her at the outset that he wasn’t looking for anything serious, but she fell for him anyway, and now when she runs into him in public, it crushes her that he acts like she’s just a friend. That he could go from being so close to so cold in a matter of hours. It’s brutal when someone pulls you in and then pushes you away, and for some people that’s their modus operandi. If you get too close, you’re going to get burned because for some, getting close is a dangerous proposition. There’s the possibility that you could find a tender spot and tap into something so painful they fear they couldn’t survive it. Or it enrages them that you’re asking for that kind of intimacy. Not because they don’t want it, but because they aren’t willing to be that vulnerable. If you fall in love with a person’s potential, that’s not the same as falling in love with them as they are. Accept people as you find them. Not as you see they could be or might be one day, and either love them the way they are, or set them free. Otherwise the love you’re offering is a form of rejection. It’s a kind of manipulation. It assumes your love will be enough to save them or change them. You’re going to break your own heart that way. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing where a person has room to grow, but it’s not loving to expect and ask someone to be somewhere they aren’t.
Lots of people wrote in saying they know they’re in something that isn’t healthy but they can’t get out. Some of them have children, and that always complicates things and in those cases it makes a lot of sense to go slowly and make sure you’re clear about the impact your choices are going to have on those around you. Counseling is a really excellent idea, because sometimes your feelings are so intense, they cloud your vision. This is true whether there are kids in the picture or not. How you see a person is not necessarily how they are and how someone sees you isn’t always accurate. A third, objective and compassionate set of eyes can be incredibly helpful. Two people can weave a very intricate web over time, and untangling it is not easy. People frequently become attached to their list of wrongs. Dig their heels in and recount every awful thing that’s ever happened in the history of the thing. The anger is so great, it colors everything.
If you know you’re in something that isn’t growing and isn’t loving, if you’re allowing yourself to be degraded, disrespected, neglected or abused, you really need to find yourself some help and support. Sometimes the way we’re coloring things in the rear-view mirror is also really inaccurate. When I finally left that much older man I dated when I was in college, I suffered intensely for over a year, and he was pretty awful to me. Not because he was a terrible person (although in retrospect I think it’s very selfish for a 37 year old man to chase down a seventeen year old girl), but because he was in an incredible amount of pain himself. Nonetheless, I loved him and thought I could save him and I tried to heal some of my deepest wounds in the context of that relationship, but instead, I drove the stake into my heart a little more deeply. We suffer those relationships the most because not only have we lost this person we thought we loved so much, we’ve also betrayed ourselves. The tendency is to look back and think, “If only…”, this, that, or the other thing. If I’d said this, or done that, or been more this way or that way. You know I’m going to say the work is always inside. You have to wrangle your own dragons and know yourself if you expect to be able to handle yourself well in the context of intimate relationships. If you don’t know who you are or what you want or how you feel or what makes you happy, it’s very hard to figure those things out as you try to factor in what someone else wants or needs in order to be at peace. There are exceptions to that rule. I know a couple who’ve been dating since they were fifteen years old and now they’re thirty and married with kids and very happy. They grew up together and figured it out together, but it’s highly unusual.
The bottom line is if you’re suffering it is your work to solve that and heal it, on your own or in the context of a relationship. You can’t wait for your partner to fix it, nor can you keep pointing your finger in their direction. You have to take care of yourself if you want to be able to nurture anyone else. If you’re depleted, you won’t have much to give. Please don’t allow yourself to be abused. Life can be so beautiful, but not if you allow yourself to stay stuck. Reach out if you need help.
Sending you love,