I was in a very intense relationship on and off for nearly eight years with a woman who I cared for very deeply. We had a child when we were very young and obviously that made it seem like staying together was more of a necessity than a choice. During the last couple years together, we had periods of “opening” the relationship and seeing other people. It became apparent that her other interest was something more serious than perhaps either of us were prepared to admit initially. On a couple occasions, I became physically abusive, which was frightening for everyone and unprecedented. One thing led to another, and they now live together in a house with our son, and I live in a community house with roommates.
Now, I’ve suddenly become very lonely, and while I appreciate many things about my new life (no fights or drama, no crippling feelings of obligation), I realized that my relationship with my son has been destroyed. I am definitely running from the pain of being replaced, the idea that this other man can come along and succeed in all the places where I failed miserably. This makes me want to avoid the whole situation, not to mention the fact that I am scared of my own anger and never know when it might flare up. My counselor definitely thinks I should stay away from my ex, and so far I have.
So what’s appropriate? To stay away from this new family completely and let them live their life? Or to try to be a part of my son’s life in a more substantial way than just through the pocketbook?
-Lonely and Confused
I can only imagine how painful this letter was to write – your concern for your son and grief over the loss of that relationship is clearly heartfelt, and your frustration about only serving as a financier in his life is truly relatable. It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to give you son the “gift” of your distance after making an honest self-assessment about your anger. Further, your willingness to see a counselor and consider your feelings about this – rather than simply ignoring them for years on end – is evidence of the hope you have for the future, even if it’s currently buried under some other fiery emotions.
I do respect your counselor’s recommendation of staying away from the family for now. It sounds like you are tackling some big-ticket issues in therapy, like anger management and grief work, and those things take time. Perhaps the end result may be finding yourself in family therapy or relational counseling with your ex, simply for the purpose of working on your relationship with your son. If and when you feel comfortable, and your ex is willing, the guidance of a neutral third party (I would not recommend that you and your ex see your counselor; she is your support system and should not be compromised) could help you both find the non-combative communication skills to make it possible for you to be in your son’s life again.
How do you know when a relationship is worth saving? I’m just so tired of the fighting. The spastic moves between the highs and lows in our relationship are giving me whiplash.
-Back-and-Forth in Burleith
You didn’t give me much to go on here, but the short and sweet answer is no, unfortunately, there is no universal standard for determining whether a relationship is “worth saving.” It often comes down to measuring the couple’s emotional input versus output.
Are you putting in more than you are getting out? Is that something you can adjust? It sounds like maybe you have tried so much – fought so much – you just don’t have the fuel to keep going. Are you facing a particularly rocky road due to external factors right now, or does this relationship seem drawn to the rough terrain? I will quit with the driving metaphors, but not before suggesting that you consider some roadside assistance in the form of therapy, a couples retreat, pastoral counseling with a clergyperson, etc. An impartial third-party perspective (NOT your friends and family) might help you both figure out why your relationship has taken this turn.
But first, please reflect on your gut reaction to my proposal that you get help. In my work with couples I’ve seen a pattern in which the two people are so accustomed to the whiplash between good days and bad, that they no longer believe a happy medium is even possible. As such, they don’t do the things that can support that middle space. You were drawn to one another for a reason. In my experience, that reason is often to help one another heal something from your past relationships. We have to break the addiction to harming ourselves just so we can feel connected when the good days come around. Outside help can provide that calm space for healing and if you are resisting the idea out of hand, perhaps you might take the time to question whether the idea of true healing feels threatening and why.
Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is www.therapygeorgetown.com. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.