Love and Commitment: The Termite Solution

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Randy (not his real name) had a bad relationship history. Oh, he had plenty of relationships, but everything fell apart as soon as he and his lady friend lived together.

Randolph was almost — almost — the perfect boyfriend, up until the moment of cohabitation. He was tall, handsome, thoughtful, considerate, funny, and generous. Randy made a good living and made time for anyone he loved.

But living together was a wholly different and painful experience. He joked that his family had come from Slobovia, a fictitious country of his own invention, and that was why he was called a slob by some, at least regarding his spacious and expensive apartment.

Randy claimed that his family came from “Upper” Slobovia — the Slobovian nobility — and therefore became accustomed to lots of servants picking up after them. When the revolution of the “Lower” Slobovians finally came, the family fled the country in order to survive, but discovered that they had lost the ability to do the housework. Thus, he explained, he came by his messiness honestly. It was all a joke, of course, one that got stale pretty quickly.

Nor was it consistent with the fact that Randy kept his clothes clean and crisp, his shoes shined, and his personal hygiene tip-top. It was all the rest that went to hell, which his girlfriends always thought they could change about him. None succeeded and so he became relationship shy, at least to the extent of ever wanting to make a permanent residence with his romantic partners again.

He simply could put up with more clutter, more clothes on the floor, papers in piles, and the occasional cobweb in a dark corner than the more fastidious and beautiful women whom he dated.

Randy was about 35-years-old and looked a bit like Richard Gere at that age when I met him and his girlfriend Jill in relationship therapy. Jill reminded me more of Laura Linney in The Truman Show: blond and pretty, but not drop dead gorgeous. More of a healthy, attractive, girl-next-door type than a seductress.

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When we started, Randy told me that he really loved Jill, or so he said, and it was clear that she was crazy about him. Jill (not her real name either) was not a cleanliness nut or obsessive compulsive, but she was neat, didn’t like piles of books and papers or CDs growing like some in-home land-fill.

This young, accomplished, and very pretty lady wanted her bathrooms hygienic and the mess swept away before their friends began to think that his apartment was actually a larger than normal room of a teenaged boy. Nor did she desire to be a slave to keeping up the house cleaning. Randy needed to do his part. She couldn’t just leave the dishes in the sink in the evening, which was Randy’s habit, home and away, when he spent his nights with Jill. Order was important to her and Randy was indifferent to it except regarding his work and his appearance.

The man realized that he was at risk of losing his girlfriend once again, which was a good start to treatment. He was still leery of moving in with the woman he loved, but said he’d give therapy a try. It wasn’t until I’d seen photos of “ground zero” taken by Jill that I understood why, despite his other fine qualities, Randy’s mini-Slobovia was a relationship-killer. The Slobovian told me that he would put everything he had into this process, because he knew Jill was something special.

We’ll see, I thought to myself. Talk, as we know, is cheap.

We made a behavioral contract that both of them signed involving various tasks and elimination of clutter. Certain activities that Randy enjoyed were contingent on his fulfilling the contract and he agreed to forgo them unless he kept his part of the bargain: things like watching movies with Jill, going to concerts, and the like were forbidden unless he did. The contract worked briefly, but after a few weeks it was clear that Randy was still Randy. He’d found other things to fill his time and so wasn’t sufficiently motivated by the deprivation of the fun stuff he had put aside.

Neither one wanted to give up sex, at least while there were other possible therapeutic interventions that might work, so my suggestion about making sex contingent on the cleanliness and order of his apartment was dropped for the moment.

I’d noticed the apparent contradiction between Randy’s grooming and his messiness around the house. Indeed, he was even more fastidious about his appearance than I first realized. He got, and could afford, a weekly straight-razor shave at a high-end, specialty barber shop, where his hair was also trimmed regularly. He always wore patent leather shoes except when lying about the house or playing sports, the kind that dazzle the eye with their shine and that most of the rest of us only sport at our daughter’s wedding to complement a rented tuxedo. His finger nails were even manicured with some frequency and he had a monthly deep-muscle massage.

As you might have gathered by now, Randy lived the life he wanted to live, a life most of us can’t afford, and had a more than healthy dose of self-love, something all of us need in a smaller amount. If Randy’s narcissism could be measured by the cup of a typical morning coffee, he’d have three cups to everyone else’s one or two.

My plan then was to get Randy to agree not to go to the barber, not to get the weekly straight-razor shave, not to wear his patent leather shoes, and to forgo manicures and massages until he did the weekly chores that would make his apartment look less Slobovian. I think this would have worked, but while we were still negotiating the details (with expected reluctance from Randy) something external intervened.

Between one of our weekly couple sessions Randy discovered that he was not as much the king of his castle as he thought. An infestation of termites had been discovered on the window sill of the hallway. Once this was verified by the landlord, Randy was told he would have to vacate the premises for three days while the exterminators did their job. Randy would be compensated for his required hotel stay, but before he needed to vacate, the property manager decided that since all the occupants would be out of the building, it was a perfect opportunity to do some remodeling which was expected to be finished in “not too long” a time.

Well, if you’ve ever had remodeling done, you know that “not too long” should be translated as “way too long” or “much longer than we promised.” Randolph also had concerns about what kind of poison might be used to kill the termites, and whether it would really be a wonderful idea to return to his place after just three days and risk contaminating himself. Moreover, he usually worked from home, and thought the renovation during the day time would make his work impossible. He talked about this with Jill, who graciously, but with a little trepidation, invited him to stay at her small apartment for as long as it took.

It took six or seven weeks, a period that tested both the lovers. Could Randy respect Jill’s desire for neatness and order? Would the two of them get into fights over it? Or perhaps they would find that her place was simply too confining and that he was cramped by a space much tinier than his own?

Something pretty remarkable happened. Randy saw, close up and every day, that Jill was doing everything she could to accommodate him and make his unexpectedly long stay pleasant for both of them. He knew that Jill was a teacher, but had never seen her do the tutoring she always did on Thursday night. The man observed the woman’s way with her struggling students, her patience, the manner in which she made work into play; but with a steady hand that ensured the work would be understood and completed, fun or not.

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Randy tried hard to change his ways and realized that he had been too self-involved all along with the women he had known. The phrase he had used in his younger days — that “A woman is like a bus. If you miss this one, there will be another one along in ten minutes” — certainly didn’t apply to Jill. He was used to the attention of attractive women and the (for him) never-ending line of them waiting for the chance to know him. He realized, too, that he didn’t want to know any other women ever again; that Jill was his one and only.

One day, at our weekly therapy session with the couple, he said, “I know that I will age and Jill will age and that there will probably be other younger women available to me. Some might be richer or poorer in some ways, but I won’t ever meet someone who has as good a heart as Jill — who loves me as much as Jill, who makes me a better person, and whom I love as much as I have come to love her.”

Randy returned to his apartment and to the lease he had signed months before and lived out the time there until his obligated stay was fulfilled. But he was neater now and he didn’t require much encouragement on that count. He wanted to do it because he saw himself more clearly, saw his selfishness more clearly, and wanted to please the woman he now knew was the love of his life. They then searched for a place together and were expecting to move in when therapy ended.

Still, as a therapist you never know. All the old axioms apply: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” or “Time will tell” seemed to fit this circumstance the best. I was, as I usually was in my therapeutic career, pretty sure, but not certain that things would work out for Randy and Jill. As it happened, they sent me a note about a year later, thanking me and saying that their life together was better than ever. And, in another few years I received a referral via their recommendation of my services to a friend. She was told by them to report to me that they were still doing very well. Randy had permanently surrendered his Slobovian citizenship and now there was a little one in the home.

Therapists only succeed when their patients want to change more than the therapist wants them to change. As the old joke goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is “One, but the lightbulb has to want to be changed.”

Counselors, in other words, can’t do everything, but we can do some things. Still, I never had a case quite like this one. Narcissists rarely have the kind of epiphany that Randy had. And there is more that made this special, because it was not even Randy or Jill or I who had to play our parts, but termites that made it all possible.

The top photo is not of the couple described in the essay. It is called After the Kiss: James Cospito and LiAnne Cospito at the Brookly Art Project Meetup, October 1, 2009. The picture was taken by See-ming Lee and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia. The second image is Laury Linney, taken at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival by gdcgraphics. The final picture is a Bus taken from the AIGA Symbol Signs Collection commissioned by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Like the other pictures, it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Growing Apart in Marriage

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In the black and white world of “absolutes,” life decisions are easy and obvious. But life as it is actually lived becomes a good deal more complex and muddy.

Here is an example:

Take a middle-aged man and wife, both approaching 50. They married young for many of the same reasons that other people do: physical attraction, the fun and good times of first love, and religious faith.

He had been groomed to work hard, build businesses, and accumulate wealth. She had been raised to refinement, home making, and the raising of children. Although both were college graduates, neither saw education at the time as more than the expected and required thing to do.

They both succeeded at their appointed tasks. He was often absent, working late to achieve and maintain the commercial success that he won. She had the major responsibility for raising the children and keeping the home a beautiful and congenial place in which to live.

Time passed. As the children left the home, she turned increasingly to her religious community for companionship and to the comfort provided by her faith, the one which he professed only nominally. She attended less to her physical well-being and gained weight. She was satisfied with her life, fulfilled and sustained by her belief in God and a like-minded group of co-religionists. This woman believed her relationship to her husband was satisfactory in terms that were typical of a long-married couple with grown children.

The man, on the other hand, became more interested in philanthropy and involved himself in charitable projects in which the wife was uninterested, simultaneously turned-off by the religious focus of his wife; indeed, by now he had become sceptical of organized religion, if not agnostic in his outlook. And, in the free time that his success afforded him, he worked-out and kept fit. As well as discovering a passion for history, philosophy, and science, he read voraciously for pleasure. The world of ideas had captured him.

The wife would encourage her husband to pray with her and to attend bible study groups, but his study of the history of religion made him doubt the authority of the documents that his wife accepted as the foundation of her world view. She was calmed by the certainty of her belief in God, while he had become a sceptic.

For her part, the increasing “intellectuality” of her husband and his decision to return to school for occasional classes left her untroubled, but unable to connect with his newly developed interests. His efforts to engage his wife in conversation about the things that he found intensely exciting found her indifferent, unable even to feign curiosity. That was simply not who she was.

And so they grew apart, although her life remained satisfactory to her, since she was not looking for the intellectual interaction that her husband wanted; or sex, for that matter, although she dutifully complied with his desire to continue a physical relationship with her. Other than the children and  the practical matters that occupy business partners or roommates, there wasn’t much depth of communication, and certainly no meeting of minds.

The woman did not sense the extent of her partner’s disaffection, his feeling of emptiness, or experience these feelings herself. She was close to the children while he had only business associates, no close friends. Nor was he one to talk about his feelings with her easily, so that his wife’s lack of intuition left her unaware of his loneliness and his desire to engage with someone who stimulated him in every sense.

Indeed, intensity was not what his wife wanted, not in bed, not in the world of ideas, not in thoughtful conversation about his feelings. When he did try to achieve these things with her, he was left even more disappointed than before.

Still attractive to women, with a strong personality, good looks, and the status conferred by money and power, he was tempted by younger, more admiring females who offered a sense of engagement that his wife seemed not to value. Still, the ethic of responsibility with which he was raised gave him pause, and he experienced a feeling of anticipatory guilt as he thought about the prospect of being unfaithful.

Whether this man acted on the temptation for an extra-marital affair or sought a divorce is not something I’d like to address quite yet. First, I want to raise some basic questions about relationships and responsibility:

1. Should this couple stay married for what might be another 40 or more years?

2. Is it possible that the idea of fidelity — the promise of a lifetime of faithfulness — made more sense when lives were shorter than they are today? The average lifespan of 50 at the turn of the 20th century has now been extended, at least in this country, to the mid-70s for men, and even longer for women.

3. How much should we be held accountable for a decision (to marry) made at a relatively early age that does not — cannot — fully anticipate the unpredictability of changes in personality, behavior, and beliefs that may occur in any life?

4. To what degree should one member of a marital couple sacrifice his or her happiness so that the other member remains satisfied and content?

So what happened?

The female was not interested in marital therapy (although she did give it a half-hearted effort), instead believing that it was her husband’s lack of religious faith that should be the target of intervention, and that only if he was properly devoted to God would he be relieved of his troubles. He eventually did have affairs, but when his wife found out he saw what injury he had done to her, felt guilty, and renounced infidelity (and the divorce he also contemplated) going forward.

The husband attempted to accept his wife’s limited interests in the things that stoked his imagination. In his mind he had already hurt her enough and therefore could not demand more.

This woman was now, once again, contented in her life, if ever mindful of her husband’s potential for further betrayal, of which she did not hesitate to remind him. The couple stayed in their rural suburban community away from the stimulus of the city that he craved, partly as his penance for harming her, and partly (she hoped) to keep him away from temptation. He did not again pursue other women or respond to their attempts to entice him.

Later, as his involvement in the world of business began to wind down he suffered a diminished and unsatisfactory life, relieved only by the self-stimulation of reading, his increased closeness to the children he had left for his wife to raise while he pursued the bread-winner role, the grandchildren who received the best of him (as his children had not), and the joy that came with being an active part of their small lives.

Most of us know at least one old friend, someone we hardly ever see anymore, with whom we somehow remain close. “We pick up wherever we left off, even though we haven’t seen each other in years,” or so we say in such situations. But we also know the experience of growing apart from a person we might even see fairly often.

In the first instance we have taken different routes in life, lived away from each other, but wound up in the same psychological, intellectual, and emotional place. In the second example, even though our external paths have not differed very much, our internal compasses led in different directions. We may be close by, but we are no longer close.

The relationship problems exemplified by the couple that I’ve described grew out of the divergence of these two human personalities as time passed. It would be easy to see one partner as evil and one as good, but I hope that it is clear that this situation was more complicated than that. The husband was not cruel. He did not wish to harm his wife and, in the end, was clearly leading the less happy life of the pair.

He had sought fulfillment by pursuing other women, at least temporarily. But did not his wife pursue her own self-interest, as well? It included a kind of marriage between herself and an institution of faith — the church and the people who made it up. That it did not involve sexual infidelity, however, does not mean that it had no effect on her husband. Indeed, he craved an intellectual, emotional, and physical exhilaration that his wife found unnecessary to her well-being.

It could be argued that in ultimately choosing fidelity to his wife, forsaking the kind of betrayal he had visited upon her earlier, the man had betrayed himself and the possibility of a satisfying companionship for himself ever after.

Life does not always easily correspond to neat categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Even the Ten Commandments are not seen as absolute by most Christians and Jews, at least those who justify killing in wartime or self-defense, or accept the State’s right to perform capital punishment.

Sometimes people who once matched well, change. Sometimes you can do nothing wrong and get an unfortunate result. Sometimes the choices that partners make prohibit mutual satisfaction because of who they are, not because one is good and one is bad. A relationship that works for both parties today may not continue to work indefinitely.

It is a bit unsettling to look at life this way.

But that is the way it looks from here.

The image above is American Gothic by Grant Wood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beautiful and Smart, But Unlucky in Love: The Reasons Why

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I have treated many beautiful women who reported a history of bad relationships: unfaithful boyfriends or husbands, frank physical or verbal abuse by their partners, or a loss of interest by the men from whom they most wanted that interest. There are lots of reasons for this. Here are a few:

1. If you came from a home where you were neglected, criticized, or abused, your self-worth is likely to be less than what it should be. Recall Marilyn Monroe: famous, beautiful, and talented, but insecure and unlucky in love. A woman with the background I’ve described often looks for approval from someone who unconsciously reminds her of the person who failed to love her as a child. It is as if the unconscious mind is still looking for the thing never achieved before (love or approval), and it only has value if it comes from a similar person. Since the parent in question was neglectful or critical, the chosen substitute will likely be that way as well, providing the woman with another chance to win loving attention. Given her poor choice of a partner, the sought-for affection and approval are no more likely than they were in childhood.

2. Whether male or female, if you moved too often as a youngster, the insecurity of being the new kid on the block is hard to shake. You may also feel the never-ending need to prove yourself. Once again, insecurity can lead to choosing someone less good and kind than you deserve.

3. Are you too needy? Are you dependent upon your boyfriend or husband to make decisions for you? Are you unable to support yourself financially? Can you bear to be without a boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance you are “the one and only?” This gets old. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your lover will almost surely tire of it, leaving you insecure if you don’t ask repeatedly for confirmation of his devotion (or him feeling put-upon if you do). As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires an ever-present escort who constantly bolsters you; and a tendency to lose your sense of self in the relationship, forget about your friends when with a romantic partner, and give-in to the new love-interest for fear he will otherwise leave you.

4. Is your beauty (or sex) all you believe you have to offer? There are tons of gorgeous, sexy women out there and, unlike you, they won’t age! (Or at least it will seem so, since, as you get older there will be a new cohort of young females who eventually will look preferable in purely physical terms). Although men can be pretty primitive in their response to the physical characteristics of women, qualities like wit, kindness, intelligence, good humor, and integrity grow in their value to all but the most unenlightened men. As someone once said, “Beauty fades, but stupid is forever.”

5. If a man shows interest in you too early, are you turned off? It’s true that there is an element of gamesmanship in dating and mating, but don’t choose the intrigue of a man who is hard to get and miss the devotion and decency of another.

 

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6. Are you entitled? Do you believe your boyfriend or husband should keep you on a pedestal, shower you with gifts, and buy the best house in just the right neighborhood? Do you value money, status, and material things too much? If you do, a well-grounded man will tire of you or avoid you. One who is less secure or less enlightened may simply become weary of your demands for “more,” and instead seek a woman who is less self-involved and shallow.

7. Are you a good listener? I hope so, because relationships demand this. If you aren’t, your partner will not feel understood. Unless you respect the differences between yourself and your lover (which very likely were initially attractive), you will find the relationship works poorly or not at all.

8. As I’ve said before on my blog, sexual interest and enthusiasm are necessary parts of a good relationship. Abandon them at your own risk. However, this is not to suggest you should have sex simply because your partner wants (or worse) demands it.

9. Do you allow yourself to be demeaned in public by the man you are with? I always ask marital couples seeking therapy what attracted them to each other. One male I recall said, “She ‘shows’ well,” about his beautiful wife. The words and tone were demeaning, in no way a compliment. Indeed, the man might have said the same thing about a show dog or show horse. The lovely lady remained silent. A more self-respecting woman might have walked out of the room.

10. Do you have a drinking or drug problem? Does your male friend? How do you know you don’t? Just because friends and acquaintances drink as much as you doesn’t mean you can avoid the alcohol or drug-driven downside of heartache, arguments, and a bad end to the relationship. Read up on alcohol abuse to get a sense of where you stand: http://www.alcoholscreening.org/

11. Do you wind up with men you feel sorry for? Not a good choice. Do you give in to men who pursue you relentlessly, even though you aren’t enormously attracted to them? Again, this is not destined to lead to a successful match.

12. Do you believe you can change the man you are with? A miraculous transformation is unlikely to occur. Meaningful alternations in any of us take their own time and much painful effort. As the old therapy joke goes, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.” Take a measure of who you are with while you are still capable of being objective, which means your evaluation needs to be done early in the relationship. Once your heart takes over, rational judgments are either too late or altogether impossible.

13. As a father two two career-minded, married daughters, I applaud independent women who forge careers. But just as a man needs to remember his wife and children require attention, so do women in high-powered careers need to live by the same rules. If you are neglectful of your partner, mentally or physically exhausted by the work you do between 9 and 5, and consumed by issues related to your vocation, the relationship is at risk.

14. Are you too critical? If you experienced or observed a fair amount of criticism growing up, it is easy to become like the person who did this. Indeed, we are often at risk of becoming the thing we hate, or of normalizing the unfortunate characteristics we observed in our parents because we had no other family to compare them to. Compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance are needed in any good relationship, and in large quantities.

15. Do you expect your boyfriend or husband to fulfill your life and make you happy? No one can really do that for you, although having a companion can be worthwhile and important. But a relationship will not solve all problems or make life perfect. Don’t expect it to. The weight of that expectation is more than most lovers can bear.

16. One final point, and a sad one. If you are smart and beautiful, and especially if you are professionally accomplished, there are men out there who will be intimidated by your competence, intelligence, authority, and attractiveness. As a result, you might have to generate more than the usual amount of effort to find a good match. Unfair, but true.

In closing, I should say that making a good choice of mate, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, is challenging. But there are a lot of good people out there (albeit fewer men than women), so if your history shows a pattern of failed choices, its best to look in the mirror and ask why. And, if you can’t come up with an answer or change your pattern even though you are aware of repeating the same mistakes, therapy often helps.

This post has generated one very heated and critical comment. You might want to read it and see what you think: Dealing with Online Criticism of that “Bald, Ugly, Old” Man: Me.

The top photo is of Marilyn Monroe, a cropped frame from her 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. The second image is of Céline Du Caju, Miss Belgian Beauty 2006, taken by Eddy Van 3000 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.