Jennifer and Steve were divorced four years ago, but their marriage died years before that. They were bright, attractive individuals, but they were severely challenged, emotionally. Neither had ever severed their emotional umbilical cords. Thus, their interactions were only re-enactments of the feelings and emotions they experienced as children, which contributed to emotional baggage sufficiently heavy to thwart the possibility of them ever having a healthy relationship.
Steve had several extramarital affairs, but his relationships quickly lost their glitter, causing him to decide to stay with Jennifer because “it was best for the kids”. Four years, three therapists and another affair later, he resigned himself to the fact he would never be attracted to her. Please note: Jennifer played no role in any of his decisions. She was a total non-entity.
Meanwhile, Jennifer obtained an MBA and was hired for an executive position. The accolades she received there helped her to realize her relationship with Steve was unacceptable. Steve read the situation well and, rather than be “fired”, decided to divorce.
Jennifer later met the “perfect man”. She thought she had finally discovered what love was. He was tall, good looking, successful, a devoted father and sensitive to her feelings. But he wasn’t truly available. He devoted an inordinate amount of time to his children, but, never informed them he was dating. He justified his behavior because of his ex-wife’s infidelities and her immediate introduction of her boyfriend to their children.
I felt John was hiding behind his children. He adamantly rejected my notion. Jennifer, however, accepted his explanation, portraying herself as the caring partner he should love. Two years later, after a wonderful Christmas vacation, Jennifer risked saying, “the holiday was wonderful, but I can’t stop thinking about next Thanksgiving. You’ll have your children. I won’t, so I’ll have no place to go.” His lack of a response introduced a reality she had previously refused to recognize. John reacted in a 180º opposite manner. Jennifer getting too demanding and dependent. Her expectations exceeded any changes he intended to make.
As they sat in my office, he adamantly maintained his position. Jennifer’s reaction was a stiff upper lip and cautious verbalizations. I suggested that, if I were her, I would feel depressed, frightened and resentful. She agreed. I turned to John and said, ‘After hearing Jennifer, I’d feel weak if I caved in, guilty over disappointing her, and angry because of her expectations.” He modified my statement. “I don’t feel anger. Eighty-five percent of the women I’ve talked to about this agree with her.”
That’s the whole picture. I’d have you consider: What should Jennifer do? If she stays, can she retain any sense of self respect? If she leaves, will she regret it? Was she putting too much pressure on John? Was he setting limits, lacking in compassion or afraid to commit? Should he have told his children about Jennifer? Think about it while I share what I said to them.
I started with a question. “What do you expect from me? Do you want me to tell you who’s right or wrong, or asking me to make your decisions? Those behaviors aren’t my job. However, if I were Jennifer’s parent or friend, I would say, “What’s wrong with you? Have you, or so little self-worth that you would date a man over two years who doesn’t introduce you to his children? Why did you accept being a non-entity?”
If I were one of John’s buddies, I’d say, “You have every right to set limits for yourself. Just because Jennifer has expectations, you’re not obliged to fill them. Don’t stay out of pity, obligation, or guilt, it won’t help either of you.”
“Neither of you are bad people. John has clearly stated his position. That’s positive. Conversely, Jennifer, you have every right to want more of a commitment than you’ve gotten. At the same time, I’m pleased that you took the risk of being emotionally vulnerable. That’s positive. So, instead of concentrating on your loss, be joyful that you had the courage to care for someone who cared back. Figuratively speaking, you got on a flight from Los Angeles to New York, but it landed in Dallas. Now you have to transfer planes. The trip will take a little longer, but it’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled. Previously, you were too afraid to even get on the plane.”
“What concerns me, however, is that if what you wanted wasn’t consistent with what you got, John didn’t let you down, you did. You need to realize that playing the “good girl” wasn’t successful with your parents or your former spouse, so why would you expect it to work with a boyfriend?
I felt that, if Jennifer decided to end the relationship, she had to set rigid boundaries. Not talk to, see, or communicate with John, because when she interacts with him, she becomes a dependent child who is angry at herself for settling and angry with him because he wouldn’t change. What she needed to say was, “John, I love you, but I can’t see you anymore. It hurts too much. Please don’t contact me unless you can ring my doorbell with your children beside you and introduce them to me.”
To John, I said, “I feel the Christmas was too good. The time together caused you to feel more and fear more. It initiated expectations in Jennifer, which frightened and caused you to hide even more behind your children. Nevertheless, I’m proud that you made a decision instead of acting passive-aggressively as you have in the past”.
Sylvia Robinson once said, “It’s not holding on that makes one strong, sometimes it’s letting go.” There is a lesson Jennifer, John and all of us can learn from this. Without a healthy sense of self, you rationalize or distort reality in order to avoid having to face your fears. You aren’t honest, you capitulate, cling to resentments and increase the hurt you feel, as well as the hurt you inflict on others. All the while, you try to change other people in order to make your life better. What you need to do instead is let go of past beliefs and fears and act on the basis of what you think, instead of allowing messages from childhood control your behaviors. When you are finally able to let go of earlier dictates, you will come to see yourself as someone of worth. You’ll perceive yourself as someone who deserves and is entitled to be loved and cared for. You will be more inclined to risk loving someone else, even though your love may not be returned. When or if it isn’t, rather than clinging to your loss and disappointment, you will grieve, accept your loss and adopt new goals to reach for. All because you will have found you.