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An interesting question that touches on some basic Freudian theory:

I’ve been reading your blog for the past few months and I really enjoy it. I hope you can help with this problem that has completely stumped me.

Eight years ago I left an abusive relationship.  In general things are much better now, I don’t have nightmares anymore, and it doesn’t generally affect me on a day to day basis. Or so I thought.

I have a deep hatred for one of my coworkers that I was never really able to explain.  It suddenly occurred to me that he reminds me of my abusive ex.  That is, he reminds me of the way my abusive ex appears when you first meet him.  Friendly but in a really jokey way, a little awkward, a little self involved.  They’re like twins, on the surface. I try to tell myself that this does not mean he’s like my ex once you really get to know him, but it doesn’t help. I hate him. And now that I’ve realized why I hate him I only hate him more.

What can I do about this? I’d like to stop hating him but if I can’t do that, how do I handle it?

Thank you for your help,

S

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

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

Check out The People’s Therapist’s new book.

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“A” wrote in with the following question:

I wanted to know your thoughts on the imbalance in power relationships at law firms.

My boyfriend, J,works for a partner in a firm. They’ve worked together on and off for 5 years. The partner was an associate when J joined as a trainee. They’ve been ‘friends’ but the friendship is not balanced. There’s an increasing tendency for the personal and professional relationship to blend, and not in a good way.
The partner will abuse his ability to prevent certain social situations from happening by increasing J’s work load. If we don’t agree to socialize on the weekend with him and his wife then the partner can make life difficult as well. He has a very controlling and dominating nature, and will often send emails which are childish and aggressive to J if he doesn’t get his way.

My question is … Is it ever appropriate to have a personal relationship with anyone who is in a position of power over you?

I find that it is not, and as a by stander in this merry-go round of their relationship with one another find that I am a helpless player who gets dragged in from time to time, but is unable to stand up and defend herself because, according to J, ‘he’s a partner and it’ll make work more complicated for me if we upset him.’

Also how to extract ourselves from this? J is in the process of applying for a new position elsewhere, but he still intimates that in the future he’ll want to continue being friends with this partner. Is this some kind of negative symbiotic relationship, whose negative side he cannot recognize because he’s been in it for so long?

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

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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I am happy to admit I do not know what lies at the farthest reaches of outer space, I do not know what happens after I die, and I do not know how long my relationship with my partner will last.

No one knows these things.  They are unknowable.

You might feel uncomfortable with these sorts of unknowns.  Uncertainty might make you anxious.  Infinity without end, your own mortality and the prospect of breaking up are scary – they challenge your sense of stability.  The child inside you still craves stability, even if the adult accepts it is only an illusion.

For better or worse, nothing is more common in this world than infinity, decay and entropy.  They are the building blocks of a universe that consists largely of vast stretches of emptiness with, here and there, some dust floating around.

A good parent behaves a bit like a con man, tricking a child into accepting a made-up world unreflective of the universe around him.  A child’s ideal world is a fantasy – small, secure and numbingly repetitious.  He goes to sleep at the same time every day and wakes up at the same time every day.  Meals are always the same, and at the same time, too.  Friendly imaginary characters like muppets and  cuddly purple dinosaurs are provided to reassure him things are okay.

As an adult, that type of environment would feel stifling.  Leaving things unknown – and occasionally surprising – can be more fun.  In part, that means accepting that expectations drawn from the reality of our daily lives might not be generalizable to the world as a whole.

For example, we live out our lives stuck to a round ball of rock by a mysterious force known as gravity.  If we keep traveling in any direction, we end up back where we began.  Just like your childhood neighborhood, that reality might feel safe and normal.  But simply because the Earth is designed that way doesn’t mean the universe is – space may well continue on forever.  Yes – without end.  Forever.

Same thing with death.  As a child, you got used to waking up each day and seeing the same friendly faces.  But as you get older you realize that situation isn’t permanent – people die, and you will too.

You can cling to the familiar childhood notion of waking up and starting a new day each morning by adopting primitive imaginary belief systems like reincarnation, or a heavenly paradise.  You can reproduce the familiar trope of a loving family with a strong parent figure through the invention of a god or goddess or a whole pantheon of imaginary deities.  These comforting, commonplace notions might permit you to evade the concept of a permanent ending for your life.

It’s more satisfying, and more fun, I think, to admit you don’t know what happens next.

One of my fond memories of attending Harvard University was studying with Stephen Jay Gould, the brilliant paleontologist.  Gould’s specialty was blowing his students’ minds by reminding them that their assumptions might not be generalizable to every situation.  He gave a lecture on how things would look if you were only a quarter inch – or 40 feet – tall.  My assumption – like a child’s – was that things would be pretty much the way they are now, except I’d be smaller or I’d be larger – essentially I’d be looking up at stuff or gazing down at it, but that would be that.

Gould explained that at 1/4 inch tall, gravity would no longer be an issue – you could probably jump from a great height and ride the breeze…but you might get your foot trapped in the surface tension of a puddle.

At 40 feet tall, your bones would be unable to support your body weight, which would be measurable in tons, and you would instantly collapse from the effect of gravity upon your mass.  You would be well-advised to take to the seas, like a blue whale, in order to survive.

Things look different, depending on circumstances.  As an adult, they are far more complex – and interesting – than they were when you were very young.

As a child, relationships were supposed to last forever.  Mommy and Daddy – the two relationships that mattered above all else – were necessary for your survival, and you took it as a matter of faith that they had to be there or you would perish.

But as an adult, you begin to understand that the universe might have no end, that all life must draw to a close – and that a partner is only a companion for as long as you – and he – decide to stay together.

An adult’s world needn’t be child-proofed.  It can be a bracing – and liberating – experience to see things as they really are instead of how we expect or wish them to be.

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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

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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One of my patients came to me last week looking like he’d just been through a war.

He plopped down in a chair and began to weep.

It didn’t take me long to realize he’d been “dumped.”  At least, that’s how he characterized it.

But I don’t believe getting “dumped” exists.  Here’s why:

First, the obvious reason – you don’t want to go out with anyone who doesn’t want to go out with you.  It doesn’t make any sense, and even if you could go out with someone who doesn’t want to go out with you, it wouldn’t be fair to the other person to to you – you both deserve better.

Second, a partnership is a system of two.  Nothing is unilateral in a partnership.  If your partner “dumped” you, and you’re surprised, that means you’ve been ignoring signals and your partner has been colluding with you in not bringing you his honest feelings.  You’ve been in a conspiracy together to avoid something you both have to face – the organic reality of what you have, where your relationship really is.

Why do people do this?  Because they are acting like children – regressing, under stress, into the child they still are inside and relating to their partner the way a child relates to a parent instead of as an equal, another adult.

A partnership must have balance – the balance that comes from two whole people – not two half-people – coming together to share a walk down the path of life.  You share a common goal – that shining city far away down the path – and you choose to walk there together, and to enjoy one another’s company along the way.

To exist in a successful partnership, you must first learn to love yourself.  A child cannot love himself because he doesn’t know himself – he looks to his parent to tell him who he is, that he is good, that he is worthy of love.  If a child is rejected, he feels he has failed in his evolutionary mission to survive by pleasing his parent, and so he places the fault within himself and concludes he must be bad, unloveable.  But an adult is different – he is self-sufficient, and he can be his own parent – tell himself he is worthy of love.

We all wear a price tag around our neck – and we assign the price.  That price tag shouldn’t say “best offer accepted” – it should say “one millions dollars.”  Otherwise you will be giving yourself away for too low a price to someone who doesn’t deserve you.

That’s why you need to love yourself in order to parent yourself.  And you need to parent yourself in order to separate from the child and become an adult.

You must be an adult in order to join forces with another adult and share experience together, as equal partners.

An equal partner in a balanced relationship cannot “dump” another equal partner.  That would violate the laws of physics.

So no – my patient wasn’t “dumped.”  No one ever gets dumped.  You just find out you have some work to do on yourself before you enter another relationship.

Most of that work is learning to love the child you once were – and still are.

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