Linda is in a dilemma. She tells me that her boyfriend of three years has not only gone to another city after losing a job – without looking first in New York – but he’s also avidly emailing flirtatiously with another woman. And when she asked him whether it was true, he replied, “I should be able to keep certain things private”.
Astonishingly, Linda has not talked to him about the fact that these events are serious threats to their relationship; when she visits him in Boston, she cries to him about it, but feels she “can’t do anything”. I tell her that it’s time to let him know that she’s upset and wants to have some discussions about what’s changed in their relationship – and whether these things are fixable. And she can say that she’d like to try to work this through, but she can’t do it without his participation.
(She expresses repeatedly to me that she feels powerless, though intellectually she’s aware that’s not really accurate.) The attitude she’s revealing to me, one of passivity, over-dependence and fear, is fine for the therapy room, but it’s also the very stance she’s portraying to Jay as she sits and cries but does and says nothing – and it makes him want to run away.
So she does know what she has to do, but she’s too afraid she’ll get answers she doesn’t want, and is postponing the inevitable. What she doesn’t understand is that even ‘scary’ answers don’t necessarily potentiate the end of a relationship’s (see Post on: Dealing with Negative Feedback) . In fact, significant relationship growth resides in the very ability to work deftly with upsetting feedback).
Indeed, it’s the avoidance itself that is the single greatest factor in the relationship’s potential demise at this point. When one strays in a relationship, there are clear and cogent reasons as to why, even if the person is unaware of them. In Jay’s case, his loss of this last job, after various years of job instability, is likely playing an important role- as he desperately seeks some sense of worth and value. But as Linda remains passive, talking to him by phone each day for two weeks without once mentioning it, Jay will continue to lose confidence in her ability to hold up at least her end of the relationship (and in fact, he probably wishes she’d be holding up more of his end during this time as well).
She occasionally tells him, “I’m not going to put up with you living far away and continuing to email with this woman”, yet she doesn’t follow through with any consequences, and as would be expected, Jay learns to dismiss these statements as meaningless. Thus, there’s nothing he really has to do to ameliorate the situation. Linda’s losing him; and her avoidance only further reduces his investment in their closeness.
Most of us could and most likely would be moved deeply by a partner who could risk saying “Hey, I love you – but I’m not ok with this, so let’s see if we can figure our way through this”. We’d feel we’re in the presence of someone strong enough and courageous enough to help us both through it; someone who wouldn’t be so frightened to lose us that they could stand up to us and look at our behavior – and ultimately do his or her share of the work to bring us closer.
It’s a sense of robustness that is key to being an ‘attractive’ and able partner.
(To those who’d say Linda should leave him, they’re ignoring the fact that affairs – or one or the other partner behaving badly – are simply a fact of many relationships at some point in their trajectory. Finding navigable ways to work with this eventuality is the only reasonable solution.)