Bart finally said it. It wasn’t easy. Nevertheless, he was able to tell her that he more than cared and that he didn’t want to play games any more. Then he uttered the words, “I love you”. They were greeted by an interminable period of silence. Then she looked at him with tear-filled eyes and said, “It isn’t that I don’t care for you. It’s just that I’m not ready to say the words. Maybe I’m too frightened to say them. It would be easy to say it, just to appease you, but I want to say it with heartfelt meaning. And, for whatever reason, I can’t at this time.
A multitude of thoughts bounced around in his head, among which were, “The hell with her. If she doesn’t feel the same way, why should I?” There are plenty of other women who would give their eye teeth for me to have said that. What am I supposed to do, just sit here and cool my heels, waiting for her to make up her mind?” He left that night with an empty hole in his stomach. He loved her, but it hurt for her not to feel the same way. All his life, similar to almost every other human being, he learned that you never let yourself be vulnerable to the point that you’re hanging out there, waiting for someone to throw you a crumb.
To avoid that happening, every individual, as a child, has probably had a conversation that went this way: “I like you a little.” “I like you a little, too.” “Truthfully, I like you a little bit more than a little.” “Well, I like you a little bit more than a little.” Slowly, jointly, the conversation escalated to a mutually expressed degree of “like”, or even love. Although never verbalized, we were taught that it’s almost a sin to love someone who doesn’t feel the same way. Sadly, too many potentially loving relationships never materialize because of the inability of individuals to openly express their deep felt feelings. In the past, we’ve labeled these persons “commitment-phobic”. But, that only described their behavior, not their underlying feelings. In most cases, these individuals wanted the relationship as much as their partner. They may have even pursued or initiated it. But, when it came time to commit, they ran.
It’s very sad that we teach people to be vulnerable and to repress, mitigate or hide their true feelings for fear of being rejected. This lesson needs to be changed. We have to tell our children that, “The wherewithal to express feelings and love doesn’t make you vulnerable, it makes you strong. It says you have the courage to express your emotions openly and that you needn’t be ashamed of or frightened by the fact that you can care for someone. Not in a dependent or needy fashion, but out of strength and with pride,” Then, no matter the response you receive, you might feel a sense of confidence and self satisfaction over your wherewithal to be transparent. In this context, any reaction leads to a win-win situation. If your partner won’t answer, or doesn’t care, you win by recognizing, sooner rather than later, that you shouldn’t chase after someone you’ll never catch. You cut the relationship off , go your way and search for a partner who will respond positively. On the other hand, you might elicit the response you desire and have nowhere to go but up. The axiom is: know what you want and go after it, but never bang your head on a brick wall.
There’s a story I’d like to share with you about a woman who discovered that her husband has had countless extramarital relations throughout the twenty seven years they had been married. They were evidenced by letters she discovered hidden in a box in the back of their garage. She confronted him and asked him to come to therapy. Instead, he left to live with his most recent paramour. She later divorced him, but was left heartbroken, feeling betrayed and fearful of ever entering into another relationship.
A year later, she sold her home because of her bad memories and went shopping for a townhouse. In one of the complexes she visited, a man leaving the sales office, said “hello.” She tried to avoid his gaze, but he said, “You may not remember me, but fifteen years ago, my son dated your daughter.” She looked at him and recalled meeting him. He said, “My wife died about a year ago and I’m looking for a townhouse to start a new life.” He then asked if she would have coffee with him. She refused, but he said, “Can I call you in the future?” She hesitantly said, “Yes.”
The next two months in therapy, I encouraged her to date him, if only as practice for meeting someone else in the future. Eventually, he told her that he really cared, which only served to scare her more. She came to therapy and said, “I’m frightened to death. What should I do?” My answer, “Tell him.” She did and his reply was, “I’ll go as slow as necessary to allow you to know that I’d never hurt you, that I care, that you’re someone I feel I could spend the rest of my life with. I hope that you’ll find a way inside your heart to trust me and to take a chance on loving again.” His response could not have been more perfect. It didn’t eliminate her fear, but it did give her reassurance that he cared. They’ve been happily married for the past eighteen years.
His words are the quintessential example I have shared with countless frightened patients throughout the years. He did far more than make himself vulnerable. He showed strength and commitment to his feelings. He recognized that she wasn’t able to return his love immediately, but his actions and reactions to her weren’t determined by her problems. Instead, he behaved out of his own resolve, desire and love. I’d have each of you learn to follow in his footsteps.