I’m a crappy girlfriend

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Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Nov 30, 2010

I put my boyfriend through hell. How can I stop?


Dear Cary,

My problem is that I’m a pretty crappy girlfriend.

I have been in a relationship for over a year with someone that I really care about. He and I met in graduate school and have been living together … Well, we moved in together almost instantly. Generally, we laugh and have a great time together. I love to cuddle with him and the sex is great. I am so attracted to him and think that he’s brilliant. We talk for hours. I love his company. I want to build a life with him.

The problem is … well, me. I have times when I just freeze up. I can’t deal with any conflict. If he isn’t paying enough attention to me or being inconsiderate, rather than just tell him I’m annoyed, I do the freeze-out. In other words, I just get really cold and then say over and over, “Nothing’s wrong,” when obviously it is. And then I can’t get myself to just say it! Sometimes I’ll need his help and he will try to do something for me and I just won’t let him — for NO reason. And then other times I will freak out over how serious the relationship has gotten and I want to write the entire relationship off. I will try to break up and kick him out. He has literally said to me, “We aren’t breaking up over this,” multiple times. Once I started along that familiar breakup path and he actually dropped to his knees and begged me to stop. Honestly, I don’t want to break up. I just want to … I don’t know … I want to NOT DO THAT.

I want to stop the freakouts. The problem is that my past is creeping into my present. Before I dated my current, I was with X for nine years. We were best friends and I thought all was great. I believed that being in a successful relationship meant that you never (or very rarely) fought — and so I didn’t. I’m still not entirely sure why I left X, but I know that I don’t want to go back. And my current boyfriend is nothing like X.

I need to find a way to just relax. I need to get comfortable in this relationship. Something within me keeps saying that we are going to break up eventually so why not just get it over with? I feel like a psycho. I can shift so quickly from being totally in love with him to ready to evict him. What the hell is wrong with me? On an intellectual level, I realize that we work and things are good. I just can’t … relax. What the eff?!

My current boyfriend deserves better and I want him to stick around — for the long term. How do I stop being so … weird?! How can I just relax and be in love? I used to be able to do that when I was younger. I’m in my early 30s now. I hate that this relationship has so many unnecessary ups and downs. How do I put my most recent breakup in my past and get on with my present?

Wanting to Settle In

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Dear Wanting to Settle In,

If you want to change, you have to learn some new behaviors.

You can only learn these new behaviors by doing them.

One new thing you can do right away is simply report.

When you get into this situation, where he’s asking you what’s going on and you’re not responding, find a way to report what is going on.

If you had a black flag or a red flag that you could wave when you are in this state then you could signal him. That would be one way. It doesn’t have to be an explanation. The point is to simply report on what is going on with you. Try writing it down. Try asking him to stay there until you can say it. Do whatever you have to do to stay in the situation and report what you are feeling. You don’t have to fix it or understand it right away. Neither does he. A good first step is to just report what is going on.

It might sound silly but it is profound.

It’s like what we do in therapy. We start out when we come into therapy all in a crisis and waving our arms and getting into all this behavior that we’re used to doing because we are used to obfuscating. That is mostly what we do in life is obfuscate. It’s how we get by. So it is a radical shift to move from obfuscating to clarifying.

Clarifying seems silly at first. We assume we basically know what is going on. But the more we observe, the more we realize that we really don’t know what is going on half the time. Neither does anybody else.

What is going on right now? I am sitting at my desk with the dog lying on the carpet and it is warm and the electric heater is on and the lamps are on and there is a painting by my friend Judith Lindbloom on the wall and I am looking at it liking the yellow. I am liking the yellow and the squiggly blue and the squiggly white and that is what is going on and that’s it.

This sounds silly at first. If I am sitting in the therapist’s office being angry that might be all that’s going on right then. That’s enough. It doesn’t make me sound like a genius but it’s enough because it’s true. The truth is sufficient. That’s the big, groundbreaking insight: The truth is sufficient and it is often disarmingly simple.

Maybe a truth for you would be something like, “I want you to come over here and hug me and sit with me.” That might sound silly but if it were true it would be enough.

When you operate in this realm of simple truth for a while it starts to look like 99 percent of what we do day-to-day leaves people baffled. They really have no idea what we’re up to unless we tell them. So slowly we start reporting on our inner goings-on. We start saying, OK, I feel really blank right now, like I can’t think of a single thing and I’m just sad. Or we say, I’d really like to take a baseball bat and bash this guy’s car in. And then the therapist or partner listens, or makes suggestions, or does whatever he does.

Maybe you wrap your arms tightly around yourself and huddle in a ball but you tell him you’re doing that. You say, “I’m huddling in a little ball.”

And that’s OK. It’s a good starting point. Or maybe you start throwing things at him. If you start throwing things at him, just tell him that’s what you are doing. Say, “OK, I’m throwing things at you now.” That’s building a bridge.

We need other people to look at us and tell us what they think. Therapists are good for that. So are friends. So are readers.

For instance, this morning I get a letter from a reader who says from my prose she thinks I’m not OK. And I write back to her and say, You’re right. I’m not OK. I’ve been through a lot and I’m functioning but I’m not what I would consider OK.

But then, am I doing something wrong for not being OK? Or am I just going through what’s pretty normal for a guy who’s been through what I’ve been through?

I’m not OK but I’m improving. I’m not OK but that’s OK. I’m not OK but I’m not in danger. I’m just recovering.

So, anyway, you need to learn some new behaviors. At first, it isn’t about gaining insight. It’s about doing new things. These new things won’t feel natural at first. So it’s also about being uncomfortable.

It’s uncomfortable but you will do it because you love truth.

Truth is great. The thing about the truth is that once you get there you can stop. But then you have to feel. That’s part of it, too. You have to feel the truth. And the truth is not always comfortable.

But in the long run, it’s better to feel the truth. So you have to learn to be uncomfortable. That’s when you’re really getting somewhere, when you can sit and be uncomfortable and know you are uncomfortable and know you don’t have to do anything about it but sit there and feel.

I like your boyfriend. He seems like a really nice guy who cares about you. These things he does make it evident that he’s willing to stick with you.

So just report. Say what is going on. Start with that. And keep doing it. It will get easier and more interesting.

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