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Posts Tagged ‘commitment’

My patient was in a tizzy about a relationship:

“I don’t know if I can do this.  I mean – he’s talking about going on a vacation together.  What if we break up before then?”

I tried to calm her down.

“You guys have been dating for a month.  No one’s bought tickets.  He’s just talking.  And you two seemed to be having fun together.”

“But I don’t want to hurt his feelings.  Maybe I should break up with him now, before he gets too into me.”

“You barely know each other.  Give it a chance.”

“But what if I want to date someone else?  Wouldn’t that be cheating?”

“After a month?  It’s too soon for commitment.  Try to relax and have some fun.”

I encounter this type of anxiety in my patients all the time.  Relationships are scary because people make them scary.  Even during the first few weeks, they build up the pressure until they’re going nuts, then complain that they feel smothered, walled-in, overwhelmed, suffocated – it doesn’t make any sense.

When you climb a ladder, you shouldn’t look down because you’ll get scared.  The trick is to ignore how high you’re getting, and keep climbing.  At some point it doesn’t really matter how high you are – you’re high enough that if you fell, it would be bad.  So why bother looking and get freaked out – just keep climbing.

It’s the same with relationships.  Don’t look too far ahead or you’ll panic.  Try to relax, keep going, and have fun.  If you pay too much attention to how many weeks, or months, or even years have gone by, it will only spook you.  Take it day by day, moment by moment.  How long a relationship has been running doesn’t tell you anything about its quality in the moment, where it’s actually playing out.  Maybe you’ve been together 60 days or 60 years. They both probably seem like a long time, depending on where you are in your life.  The more important question is are you happy together right now?

The past is behind you and the future is unknown.  The present is where you live.  That’s where relationships take place.  The key question each day is:  am I having fun?  Do I want to continue to share experience with this person?

If the answer is yes, keep going.  If not, maybe wait a little while longer, and if the answer is still no – it might be time to move on.

I’m amazed at how quickly my patients begin to feel overwhelmed by relationships.  That happens because they rush things – stare out at the distant horizon instead of staying in the moment and concentrating on today, the time you’re sharing right now with another person.

Remember, it’s easy to break up.  It takes about two minutes.  Say “this isn’t working for me” and walk away.  Done.  You can end a relationship in the time it takes to brush your teeth.  No one is “trapped” in a relationship.

Starting a relationship is the time-consuming part:  meeting someone, connecting, finding out about one another and keeping it going.

The road ahead in every relationship is unknown.  And it doesn’t really matter all that much because you can’t control the future.

I’ve developed a few general time guidelines for relationships, just from watching my clients and seeing what works.  I think four months of dating is a symbolic milestone.  That’s the first time it would be remotely sensible to consider whatever you two have more than casual dating, and maybe even contemplate the idea of becoming exclusive.  I don’t know why I chose four months – maybe the idea of sharing an entire season of the year is symbolic.  You’ve gone one quarter of the way around the sun in one another’s company, from equinox to solstice (or vice versa.)

Six or eight months seems like a reasonable time before you consider yourselves a couple and present yourselves as such.  A year or 18 months seems like a reasonable amount of time before you think about moving in together.

These are not hard figures – everyone has their own way of doing things.  But if you’re going much faster than that, you’re probably rushing things – trying to get to the end of the road instead of letting things unfold organically, and stopping to enjoy the ride.

There’s no rush to get “established” in a relationship.  A relationship never has to be anything other than a choice you’re making because you’re enjoying it – something you want to do, today, for yourself.

Anyone who’s in a really good long-term relationship will tell you:  it’s best when every day feels like the first day, when you first met someone interesting and thought – hey, this is fun.

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This week’s question was a bit long, but it raised interesting issues, so I’ll print it in full:

My boyfriend and I have decided to have a wedding. We’re not getting married in the legal sense, and in fact I share many of your views on civil marriage and lifelong commitment, but we like the idea of a party with our friends to celebrate our union with one another as it is right now and will remain for the foreseeable future, and we’ve been together long enough that we don’t think people will take issue. I spent part of this morning working on some words I could say that, for me, define my commitment.

When I was six years old, my dad left my mom. I asked each of them, at different points, why that happened, and their answers have always resonated with me. My mom said that my dad had told her that he decided at one point early in their relationship that he wasn’t going to bring up a problem unless it ranked a 9 or a 10, and then one day he looked around and there were piles of 7’s and 8’s. He told me that my mom had all kinds of expectations that she never communicated, but would then get disappointed and upset when they weren’t fulfilled. When I was brainstorming my vows this morning, here’s what I came up with:

I promise to be with you as long as we both so choose.

I promise to talk to you when there is a problem, even a little one, but to do so with love.

I promise to be honest with you about my expectations.

I promise to learn how to be a better partner to you every day.

I only got that far before I looked at it and realized what I had done. What a slap in the face. Right there in the middle, my parents voices were still telling me what not to do in a relationship. In my mind, these are the two reasons relationships fail, so I have to do the opposite. My question is whether this is really a bad thing. It’s not like the promises I’m making, to communicate clearly with a partner, are so strange or egregious, and I’ve known for a long time that some of my habits in relationships were governed by those words I heard as a child. Still, it makes me want to reconsider what it is that makes a meaningful commitment between two people, and define it as what it is, rather than what it’s not. How worried should I be?

Maggie

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

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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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