I want to buy a friend of mine a drill for her birthday. I know a drill is an odd gift for a woman, but I am pretty sure she would appreciate it. The trouble is that she is married. She has been very kind to me while I work through this separation and divorce and I feel a particular fondness toward her for that. I am a little attracted to her and I have had a lot of fun spending time with her and talking about my wife and marriage. I want to get her a nice birthday present because I want her to know I appreciate what she has done for me. I want to get her something thoughtful because I think it would make her feel good.
But as I said, she is married, and complicating the situation is the fact that I am a little attracted to her. The real strain comes from a lack of confidence in my ability to possess a feeling or thought without taking some associated action. I worry that, because I like her and am attracted to her, some measure of sexuality or inappropriate intimacy will enter our relationship. I do not want that to happen… the concept of family is too important to me. I am not disillusioned, believing she is “the one”, to be had at any cost. I am not even *that* attracted to her. But, however small they may be, I still have some feelings of desire for her and I do not know how to guarantee that I can spend time with her and reveal my plutonic fondness without risking the loss of control of my behavior. The consequences are grave for her, her family, and most importantly, me.
This dilemma regarding the birthday gift is not particularly interesting to me in it’s own right, but is serves as an excellent example of a problem that saturates my life. It is very difficult for me to separate thoughts and feelings from behaviors. Moreover, if the associated behavior is bad (an affair in this example), then I consider the feelings and thoughts to be bad as well. If I discover that I am feeling attracted to this friend, I will feel guilty about that. There are a couple of ways that I might handle this situation if I felt like I was losing control of it. I might withdraw from the relationship and let it fade with time and distance. If that was not effective I might do some irritating things that could diminish her fondness of me.
But the most likely consequence of this phenomenon is that the relationship would be self-limiting. Without any reciprocated fondness from me, she is likely to lose interest in forging more of a relationship with me. The tradeoff here is that I sacrifice a supportive and rewarding friendship for the guarantee that nothing inappropriate will happen. As I said before, this is only of limited interest in isolation. However, considering that most feelings could have some inappropriate behaviors attached to them colors nearly every encounter with the risk of a destructive outcome. Hence, most of my relationships are self-limiting in the way I just described.
All of this is only one aspect of the complicated framework in which I try to build relationships. When I was sixteen I was sent away from my family to boarding school because my mother thought my behavior was unacceptable and sure to leave me ruined for life (I was not doing anything very far outside of normal teenage rebellion). A few years later I dropped out of college and moved in with my grandparents. When they tossed me out of the house I moved in with my other grandmother. She also threw me out. In all of these experiences I think I learned that even the most shoe-in relationships were, in fact, extremely tenuous.
The modern day result of that is an overpowering compulsion to cater to my perception of my partners needs with little or no regard for my own. A few days ago an email friend wondered if it might bother me that she did not want to reveal her name. When I read that my instant reaction what to comfort her… No, it does not bother me at all. I think that it really does not bother me, but that is not the point. There was absolutely no time between reading her message and experiencing my response for me to consider my own feelings on the issue. I was instantly and internally reacting in a way that I thought would bring her the most comfort.
This compulsion to comfort a partner is motivated by the belief that the relationship is already dangling by a thread. If I rock the boat, even a little, the relationship will disintegrate around me. This ideology is so deep-seated that I do not even consider this in the normal course of a day, even though this reaction is excited countless times. If my relationship with my own parents and grandparents was so delicate, it is not possible for me to fathom a robust relationship with a coworker or casual friend. In truth, I never even believed my marriage was any more rugged than it was the day we decided to date.
These two attitudes toward other people work to reinforce each other. On the one hand I limit relationships because of the risk of inappropriate behavior. But then I am unable to explore my own feelings in the relationship because I regard it as too immature to withstand the stress of conflict. Any time I honestly explore my own feelings I suffer the chance I could uncover something upsetting to the other person. If I upset them, they will leave. It is tried and true as far as my experience teaches.
It is also pretty clear how these two attitudes would create very fertile ground for a pedophile to practice his black arts. I believed I had to submit to his desire if I wanted a relationship with him (it did not occur to me that it might not be worth having a relationship… the alternative of isolation seemed much worse). But then I was unable to access my own feelings about the abuse because that risked introducing intolerable conflict. I suspect that it was during the course of this abuse that I perfected these two techniques. Now they are integrated into mainstream life for me.
With these tools I have forged a clever way to attempt to manipulate people and situations to produce outcomes I consider desirable… i.e. the continuum of a relationship, never mind the quality. Now Ann and I are separated and divorcing and the manipulation scheme has failed… failed quire miserably. I could spend all night analyzing the reasons why it failed, but I think only one bares mention. This approach produces flimsy relationships that lack the substance of trust. They will certainly collapse under the strain of mere time, and if I pile on the stress of abuse fallout they are doomed from “hello”.
Now I find myself in a situation where I want to run back to Ann and say look what I have discovered! I think now we could have a real chance if you are willing to make another go at this with me. It is in this frame of mind that I want to discount any contribution Ann might have had to our situation. I believe that I could have brought about a different outcome if I had only been more open, or more compassionate, or more… more what? In truth, given the set of problems we had to work through, I am not sure I could have changed anything no matter how much I improved about myself. Ann was not willing to assume responsibility for her own feelings, much less any actual contribution to our marital strife.
But still when I look at my bank account profile and see the words “legally separated” I feel like I have failed at one of life’s great tests. I think I feel the way I might have if I had been unable to pass the necessary classes and get my engineering degree. This flies in the face of my working theory that enough perseverance can bring any end to pass. It is hard for me to acknowledge the fact that two people must be fully committed to ensure the survival of a marriage. It is not enough to perfect my manipulation skills and try again to win Ann’s heart.
This urge to share my work (and possible progress) in therapy with Ann in the hopes that she will want to try again at our relationship is a carefully crafted, albeit subconscious, effort at manipulation. If we were to make another attempt at marriage, and we wanted to start from a healthier footing, Ann would have to come back without persuasion. She would have to come back for the man she left, not the man I promised to become, or even claimed to be now. That, of course, is not going to happen. Then the desperation to salvage our relationship kicks in and I want to thrust my own reasoning aside and return to manipulation though appeasement and adaptation.
Intellectually, however, I can readily admit that, even if I was successful, I would return to a marriage that was as doomed as it was from the beginning. The solution to the problem of a flimsy marriage is not the refinement of co-dependency, but the abandonment of that philosophy altogether. This is easy to discuss in an academic sense, but much harder to practice because it requires me to abandon my singular approach to all relationships and develop a frightening level of self-reliance. Abusive childhood experiences crippled my ability to comfort myself in times of distress and this in turn leaves me clinging to whatever relationship I can find, even if it is of only limited and intermittent comfort.
I am going to be the first to acknowledge that, while my writing tonight might be packed with valuable, introspective insight, it is lacking in the emotional intensity these subjects warrant. I think, though, that is okay for now. The full emotional and psychological impact of this is surely more than I can tolerate now, and I do not think it would be beneficial to try to drive myself out of an emotional hiding place to confront this. Now that I have put some of my behaviors into conscious thought, I think the associated feelings will start to work their way to the surface.
Although it is difficult to acknowledge ongoing coping without being critical, I am pretty sure that it is necessary to let my psyche ration out the response on it’s own time table. I have endured some horrifically traumatizing events and I think that my subconscious deserves a fair amount of credit for bringing me though as intact as it did.
"Don't waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself." -Mary Schmich