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Healthy People Make Healthy Choices - 3/14/2013

Sandy is an attractive, 46-year-old woman, who is also a successful entrepreneur. She owns  and operates a business she started from scratch ten years ago. She has over 20 employees, and foresees her company doubling in size in the coming year.

But that isn’t where her problem lies. If she performed in her interpersonal relationships as well as she does in business, she’d have no problems at all. However, similar to all too many individuals,  her personal life is in shambles. In her own word, “The reason I came to therapy has nothing to do with my career. It’s because, as much confidence as I have on the business  side of the ledger, when it comes to my personal life, I feel bankrupt.” More specifically, she and her second husband only go through the motions of maintaining a marriage. They have no sex life, share no common interests, and live separate lives, except when it comes to their three children, all of whom presently appear to be doing quite well. I fear, however, that in the future, they too will experience difficulties in forming intimate relationships. The reason? They have never been part of a healthy union, and have no positive role model to emulate.

To understand this notion, all you need do is look at Sandy’s history. Her mother was a spineless, frightened individual who was abused, emotionally and physically, by her father. Sandy described him as an inadequate feeling individual, who was a failure as a provider and compensated for his insecurities by intimidating his family. He had numerous relations with women outside of his marriage, a fact Sandy was aware of at a very young age. Her bedroom abutted her parents’ and she heard things through those walls that early on contributed to her notion that being involved in an intimate relationship, would only bring you pain and emotional hurt. Before entering therapy, she claimed to love her mother, and to perceive her as a victim who stayed in a terrible marriage in order to help her children. Consequently, Sandy totally blamed her father for her parents’ problems. At the same time, from early childhood, she directed every effort toward becoming financially self-sufficient, emotionally independent, and guarded in her interpersonal relations.  

Try to imagine Sandy, the little girl. Picture her living in a home with a philandering, often absent father figure she was fearful of and intimidated by.  You can’t lean on a person like that. Nor can you lean or depend on an emotionally depressed mother, who is  absorbed in her victim status, gone from home because of her job, and too weak to leave an abusive husband.

It reminds me of a little child I once saw in therapy, whose mother was so frightened of her husband that she, too, stayed in a home where she was repeatedly beaten and sent to the hospital on three occasions. After considerable therapy, she moved out. But she was still so terrified of being tracked  down that every night, she moved from one motel to another. After her third move, she brought her four-year-old child to see me, because the child had regressed. She wet the bed, spoke childishly, sucked her thumb, and threw temper tantrums. I brought the youngster into my office, and although shy and hesitant, she proved surprisingly verbal for her age. I asked, “How do you feel?” She responded, “I don’t know.” Then I asked, “What is it like inside?”  She hesitated, then said, “It’s like when you hurt one foot and then you hurt the other foot and you don’t know which one to stand on. It is the most articulate  description I’ve ever heard of the emotions felt by a frightened four-year-old child who has no one to support them, i.e., no foot to stand on. It makes you a believer in the statement that “ofttimes, out of the mouths of babes come words of wisdom. “

That was Sandy the child. Today, at 46, Sandy is, on the outside, a strong, self-sufficient business woman. But, on the inside, that little child is still present. Her husband,  a graduate engineer, hasn’t been able to hold a job, and she supports the family, reinforcing her notion that you can’t lean on anyone. The sadness is, the chain isn’t broken and, if nothing intervenes, Sandy’s children will grow up as she did.

The lesson you need to learn, and that Sandy had to see, is that there are countless individuals going through life unconsciously frightened of emotional commitment. Because of their fear, they avoid marriage or permanent relations altogether, or marry someone they can’t love and go through the motions of having a relationship without emotions. They are frightened to  open up, to become vulnerable or to fully share themselves. All of which takes place without conscious awareness. The result is a conflict between the adult in them who desperately wants love and the child on the inside who fears it. This fear disallows them to fully invest in a committed relationship, or to expose themselves to the hurt and angst that one normally experiences when living with any person on a full-time basis.  Consequently, they expect the worst and close down emotions before they have a chance to see if there can be something good at the end of their tunnel.

In therapy, I frequently see patients who, without realizing this fear, say, “I love my spouse, but I’m not in love with him/her.” In some instances, they choose either to tolerate their situation, or  become involved in extramarital affairs. Although anxious and guilt-ridden, they feel safe emotionally. About their spouse, they say, “I love him/her, but I can’t feel anything toward him sexually.” (They have no idea it’s because they’re too fearful of being hurt.) About their paramour, they say, “He/she totally excites me, but I can’t commit to him because I’m married.” It’s a very common problem. But the solution isn’t to choose between them, it’s to fix you first, by mitigating your fears of commitment because before you can make a healthy choice, you must be healthy, yourself.

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