My patient was beside himself. The younger woman he’d been dating was jerking him around, he fumed. Last week, when he was finally out on a date with someone else, starting to enjoy himself, she’d left him an open-ended text message, asking what he was up to and whether he wanted to get together sometime.
Suddenly, in the middle of this date with another woman, he could think of nothing but her, and his hopes were once again raised that their relationship could be what he’d long desired.
Feeling too distracted to wait, he interrupted the date and hurried to the men’s room to reply to the text. She answered right away, proposing that they go see a movie together the next day. He dropped all other plans to be with her.
The next day they ended up returning to his place where, to his surprise, things turned steamy. They had terrific sex, and he was asking himself afterward if this meant they were back together as a couple. That’s when she started gathering her things to leave, and delivered a speech about how she didn’t want this to “mean anything” – just “no big deal.”
Since then several days had gone by, he hadn’t heard from her, and things were right back to where they were before. He hesitated to contact her to ask her out again, since she’d made it clear in her speech that she liked to be the one to contact him, not the other way around. So he didn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, the other person he was dating was calling and asking what was wrong and he didn’t know what to tell her.
This was the last straw, he insisted. It was like running in a maze. He was going to cut this young woman off once and for all. This was it. He’d give her an earful. He didn’t care if he never spoke to her again.
I could see why he was angry. Clearly, the young woman he’d been dating was ambivalent about their relationship, and it felt like she was sending him mixed signals. One minute she behaved as if they were together. The next she said she wasn’t sure. Then, when he was convinced it was over and crawled off to lick his wounds, she would appear out of nowhere, as though nothing had happened.
It might be she was simply too young. He was more than 20 years older, and he knew what he wanted – commitment. She had less experience with relationships and avoided the topic, and it was causing a lot of friction.
He told me he wanted to confront her with his anger – burn bridges, end it, have it over with and done.
I suggested something better: enforcing boundaries.
Burning bridges – discharging anger in an attacking way and cutting off communication – is destructive and creates hurt and misunderstanding. I proposed using direct communication instead: telling her what concessions he was willing to make for their relationship – and where he drew a line.
We spent some time together exploring precisely what his boundaries were. Interestingly, the more we defined his needs, the more sympathetic he grew to hers.
He began to realize that, to some degree, she had communicated her own boundaries to him. She didn’t want commitment, at least not now. She was willing to date him, but with the understanding that it was entirely open. She didn’t know where she stood, and she couldn’t pretend she did. She was still feeling her way and wanted the freedom to do just that.
It was his turn to decide where his boundaries lay, and to communicate them back clearly and actively. He’d been avoiding that task, he realized, because he’d been hoping her boundaries would shift to suit his own desires.
He decided to write her a letter. In it he explained his boundaries. He communicated clearly that they were at different stages in their lives, and that a committed relationship was his first priority.
He didn’t feel that he was rushing her – they’d been dating for over six months. And his purpose wasn’t to threaten or to pressure – it was simply to tell her where he stood.
If she didn’t wish to commit to him, that was her choice, but he was going to discontinue their romantic relationship so he could move on. He needed space to find what he really wanted, and that meant asking her to please stop treating him as though he were just a guy she was dating. He wasn’t. He couldn’t be. He needed more than that, and he wanted to find someone who could provide it.
The act of composing this letter brought my patient a measure of resolution, and relief. Just organizing his thoughts into a piece of direct, active communication brought him further along the path to understanding his own needs.
This was his best self, his most conscious, authentic self, speaking through that letter. No one could ask for more than that. He respected himself for doing the hard work – containing his anger, examining it, and putting it into words.
It wasn’t about burning bridges and never speaking to her again. It was about enforcing boundaries – expressing his own needs in a way another person could hear and understand.
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