Murphy’s Love

June 18, 2012

Dear Stacy:

My ex-girlfriend and I broke up three months ago (her idea). She wasn’t happy. She wanted to go out more and wanted me to be more social than I really am (I’m an introvert, plain and simple). I started dating someone new, and it’s been pretty casual between us (she travels a lot for work) and I’m happy. At least I thought I was until my Ex updated her Facebook profile to show that she is “in a relationship” with a new guy. I thought I was over her and had moved on with my life, but seeing this update makes me so angry I can’t see straight. We’ve had some contact since the breakup (occasional texting, I ran into her at a party) and she has said nothing about the new guy. Then, suddenly she’s in a committed relationship out of the blue, and my friends are all asking me what I think about it. When I think about it, I’m not jealous, really. I’m just angry at her for making a public announcement like this without telling me first. I never changed my [Facebook] status to show I was dating someone new, because it’s not serious. I’m just so angry that she would tell me like this.
-Blood-boiling in Arlington

Dear Blood-boiling:
I’m so sorry that you are feeling humiliated – no one likes that feeling — and I’m impressed that you can already name it amid all the boiling blood and such. Your anger (Justified? I’m not sure . . .) makes sense as it functions as a surface emotion giving your mind the “permission” it needs to experience the humiliation. That’s what anger is, a surface experience giving us clues to a deeper, more difficult emotion. Your humiliation may be part of what’s driving the anger, but I would also imagine there was a little bit of denial operating under there as well. You got into another, very “casual” relationship soon after the breakup of a long-term coupling. This hints that you may not have really worked through the pain that comes when any relationship ends – regardless of who chose to exit first, there is always sadness and mourning when a partnership ends.
As you said, you “moved on” quite quickly into a casual dating situation with someone who is not overly available. This also suggests that you were working to find a quick fix to numb the pain of the breakup. So, here you are, several months later with a still burning wound lacking any intentional medical treatment (stick with this metaphor, I’m getting somewhere, I promise). Her status update was a new blow to that still-tender gash – super painful and undoing any of the minor remediation provided by New Girl’s presence. You need to clean this wound: e.g., pay attention to all the feelings of the breakup (which included basically being rejected for who you are and how you like to spend your time – not exactly easy to swallow). Process this grief with a friend, mentor or counselor, and finally set yourself to healing from this. Oh, and stop reading her Facebook updates. That’s masochistic behavior, and you need to start treating yourself better.

Dear Stacy:
I’m feeling caught in the middle of an argument between friends, and I need some advice. My friends, let’s call them Ross and Rachel, recently got married. We are all 24 years old, friends from college and former group housemates. They are now off living on their own and not adjusting to marital life too well. Both are complaining about the other to me – fights ranging from who should clean their apartment to how much money they should be saving. Rachel is miserable at her job, all her friends know it, and wants to quit, but Ross is not supportive. I’m really on her side about this, but he keeps talking about it. I feel like I’m being dishonest even listening to his rants about her selfishness. The short question is what advice to give about Rachel’s job since I really think she should quit. The larger question is how do I deal with my friends and their dramas now that they are a married unit?
-Middlegrounded in Northwest

Dear Middlegrounded:
You’re describing a very common, tricky situation as we transition from the Roommate Phase of life into True Adulthood. I completely understand your sympathy for their conflict, but I want to let you off the hook: this is not your problem. It’s a subtle shift, to be sure, but their move from housemates to lifemates necessitates another round of cord cutting. Ross and Rachel chose to leave the group house nest and start a new life together, meaning they cannot rely on the old process of going down the hall to complain about the odd housemate out. They are in their partnership together and need to sort through these issues on their own.

The good news is that you really don’t have to be the one to lay down the law about this new life phase – they will make this realization on their own with time. What you can do is use the so-called “smaller question” about Rachel’s job troubles as an exercise in boundary-setting. You are beginning a new phase in your relationship with them as well, one where you will not want to become the tiebreaker voter – believe me, taking on that role a few times will guarantee that when Couple realizes they are in a two-person marriage, you probably won’t even have a place as a confidant anymore. You aren’t less of a friend just because you don’t process their every move the way you used to – rather, you are evolving along with them. This is about growing up, and it’s not pain-free. Protect your investment: Tell both that you love them and admire their commitment so much that you don’t want to get involved. It’s the best long-term solution here.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed, professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist, practicing in Georgetown. Her website is, and you can follow her on twitter @StacyMurphyLPC. This column is meant for entertainment only and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Send your confidential question to [](

Murphy’s Love

November 3, 2011

Dear Stacy:
I’m a divorced, 43-year-old mother of two teenage boys. I pay attention to my appearance, still enjoy playing sports and am often mistaken for someone much younger. I suppose that makes me the proverbial “cougar,” a term that truly makes my skin crawl. My dating life following my divorce has been pretty stilted; I’ve been on a few dates here and there, but mostly my life has been devoted to raising my sons and advancing my PR career. But recently, I’ve found myself attracted to a much younger man. He’s 31 and our firms share office space. He flirts with me, even though I’ve been very up front about my age and the fact that I’m a mom, and I really enjoy the conversations we’ve had. He invites me to happy hours and has suggested we have lunch together, too. Each time I make an excuse and end up feeling embarrassed. Is it acceptable for me to be attracted to a younger man?
— K Street Kougar

Dear K Street:
First, congratulations on getting to the holy-grail place of being able to balance raising two teens, holding a job and keeping up with things you enjoy on your own. You ask, “Is it acceptable” be attracted to this person, but I don’t think that’s your real question. I think what you are actually wondering is if you can handle the possible consequences of following your heart (or, since it’s early in the attraction, at least following your flirt-instinct).

Your aversion to the “cougar” label makes some sense. Despite the Ashton/Demi pairings of the world, reality TV seems to be taking a mocking approach to the younger-man/older-woman dynamic right now. Still, your frustration with the title suggests that you are concerned about how other people will view the relationship, no matter how great the relationship itself might be. Tasking ourselves with spending time inside other people’s brains is a 24-hour-a-day job, with very little payoff. Yes, it’s too simplistic to say, “Who cares what others think?” But still, is that really where you want to put your energy, particularly when you’ve got kids, work and other responsibilities? Instead, channel it into the potential for a rewarding relationship with a new person who already clearly enjoys you. That’s a much healthier use of resources.

I’d also suggest that you give yourself time to consider what you are looking for in a relationship right now. Do you want something casual to ease you into the process of getting back out there? Do you want something more? Even if this doesn’t lead to a long-term relationship, it might be a fun, healthy, self-esteem-building experience — who would say no to that?

Dear Stacy:
I don’t know what to do. I just graduated from college and my parents have just informed me that they are no longer able (or willing?) to keep helping me financially. There was no hint that they might do this; all along they paid my credit card bills and student fees. Because of them I’ve never had to have a job, so I have no job experience and I can’t even get a job waiting tables. If I had known about their plans, I would have worked harder to find a job right after school ended. Instead, I’ve been putting my efforts into starting a business with a classmate and planning a post-grad trip abroad this fall. I am so angry that they are abandoning me like this. It really ruins everything I’ve worked for. I’m not speaking to them until I have a game plan. It’s been almost two months. What can I do to convince them that they are making a mistake that will permanently impact my future? I thought they had my best interests at heart — I guess I was wrong about them.
— 31st and On-My-Own

Dear On-My-Own:
I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you didn’t have a chance to reread this question before sending, and therefore you may have no idea how ungrateful it sounds.

If I hear you correctly, you are complaining that your parents put you through college and gave you the chance to make the most of your studies so that you could … keep spending their money after graduation? Even before the financial meltdown, that would have sounded far too entitled. Today, it sounds ludicrous and humiliatingly arrogant. The good news is that your parents have cut you loose at an age when most of your peers feel like they’re flying blind — you’re in good company and will blend in. (This kind of awakening is less tolerable when you’re say, 38 and whining that Daddy won’t cover your car payment.)

You are right, this is going to “permanently impact your future,” but in a good way. It may not be easy, but this is your opportunity to start taking responsibility for your own life. You should know that adjusting to a change in expectations is hard for everyone. But like many things, the difficulty doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Blaming others may be cathartic in the short term, but it’s like downing a candy bar at 3 p.m. — the sugar high soon expires, leaving you feeling tired and with no energy to change your circumstances. Get a job, any job, and work hard on your entrepreneurial dreams in the off hours. You have the chance to use all of that family support for what it was meant to be — a launching pad.

Dear Stacy:
My husband and I have been married for four years and things are not going well. We don’t spend much time together because we both have demanding jobs. We also are in constant conflict about his family’s expectations (they want us to spend all our free time and vacations at their beach house in Easton). Adding to it, we have credit card debt and bought our one-bedroom condo at the peak of the market, making it impossible for us to sell anytime soon. It feels like the walls are closing in on us and I don’t know what to do. I have asked him to go to counseling, but he completely rejects the idea, saying we can’t afford it and won’t discuss it further. Just yesterday he told me to never bring it up again, yet we spent the whole night not talking to each other after another major fight. I’m so embarrassed and feel like a failure, and I don’t want any of our friends or family to find out what’s really going on. I feel like my only option is divorce, but this is a person I truly love and don’t want to lose.
— At a Crossroads on Corcoran

Dear Crossroads:
Thank you for writing such an honest and personal letter, but also one that is so universal. It’s not uncommon for early-stage marriages to face many bold-faced issues all at once: money, work pressure, family stress, communication struggles. I hope you are being gentle with yourself for not necessarily having all the answers just yet — I guarantee your friends and family already have or will face similar challenges in their own relationships. We spend a lot of time fantasizing about the fairytale of marriage, but most of us aren’t immediately equipped with the tools to survive it.

As a couples counselor, I have to make a small plug for going to therapy. Yes, it can be pricey, particularly if your insurance plan won’t reimburse you. But the cost of divorce is astronomically higher. When you include attorney fees (sometimes as high as $500 an hour), custody battles, moving expenses, and the cost of setting up separate households, the price tag could reach $50,000 or more. Even if you are unable to settle your differences, investing in some counseling can help improve communication, making it possible to choose a mediator instead of an attorney-directed separation, if it comes to that.

One part of your letter that stands out to me is your husband’s unwillingness to discuss therapy. It’s a red flag when one partner flatly refuses to do something the other is asking for (assuming it doesn’t qualify as unsafe). This can be a sign of rigidity and control that’s likely to only grow more powerful if it’s allowed to languish.

But his reluctance to try counseling is most likely based in fear of the unknown, fear of truly being seen, even fear of failure. You can’t force someone to confront their fear through intimidation — that’s when our defenses get even stronger. Patience, calm, and speaking from your own point of view (“I want us to go to therapy because I think I will be able to understand you better with the help of a third party…”) is the key to making him feel comfortable and open to the process.

At the same time, don’t discount the value of trying therapy by yourself. We all know every marital problem has two sides, and you might learn more about your own needs and how you contribute to the household stress. At the very least, you will find some healthy coping strategies that could help maintain and even strengthen the nourishing parts of your relationship.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to

Murphy’s Love

July 26, 2011

Dear Stacy:

I am the stay-at-home-mom of a great little 12-week-old boy. Not going back to work has been quite an adjustment, but my husband and I always agreed that I would leave my job until our kids go off to kindergarten. I have missed my colleagues and spending time on big projects, but I know that the “project” I’m currently managing is about as big as it gets.

It’s my dear husband who doesn’t seem to get it. Nearly every day, he comes home from work and asks, “So, what did you accomplish today?” Now that I am at home with our son, my husband suddenly expects me to become a domestic goddess. He wants me to make dinner every night, cancelled our maid service, and even thinks I should mow the lawn. None of this was consistently part of my responsibility before the baby came. We hired out for the jobs we didn’t like doing (housework, lawn care), and split the rest (cooking, shopping) between us. Today, his list of to-dos is so long he can’t keep up with it all, and the truth is, I don’t want to keep up with all of that. I thought we chose this new lifestyle so I could be a parent, I didn’t think I was signing on to be a servant. How do I explain myself without sounding like a whiny brat?

— Overworked on O

Dear Overworked,

Hmm, part of me wants you to just follow this script: “What did I accomplish today? I kept your son alive.”

While that’s probably not the most productive response, it felt pretty good to type.

It sounds to me like both you and Husband are still adjusting to becoming parents! Now that Baby is on the scene, you may need a reminder or clarification conversation about your household game plan. Have you had a conversation about your own expectations during this stay-at-home time? Does he know how you feel? Does he know how it sounds to you when he asks what you’ve “accomplished”?

When you say you don’t want to come across like a “whiny brat,” it suggests that some part of you is feeling bad about not taking on all the household duties. That sounds like the modern Superwoman complex gone awry. Presumably you and Husband made the joint decision to have a child and the joint decision to parent with you at home. A calm, honest conversation about your own feelings and expectations is the only way to ensure that he actually hears what you’re thinking.

And who knows, you might learn that he isn’t feeling so great about not being on-site with your son. Men have their own Superman complexes — is he allowed to name his feelings about the situation? Perhaps his questions are only masking his own disappointment about the way things are going. Again, an honest conversation is the only way to find out.

Meanwhile, I’d also recommend that you to seek out old friends who are newly minted stay-at-home-moms (or meet some new ones) to find a support circle during this transition time. You haven’t chosen the “easy” route here, and just because you’re already walking it doesn’t mean you don’t need some encouragement from others on the same road.

Dear Stacy:

I have been married for 11 years to the love of my life. We have two children together, a nine-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl. My husband is everything I have always wanted. We have always been very compatible and I feel so lucky to have him as my partner.

Lately though, I have started working closely with a male colleague, I will call him “Bob.” We’re on a big project, which has included some travel together. The more time I spend with Bob, the easier and more fun it becomes. On the last trip, when we went to dinner I felt like we were “on a date.” I felt a lot of attraction for him, and I think he felt the same for me. We didn’t talk about it, and neither of us did anything to make a move.

My question is whether I should tell my husband. We have always been completely honest with each other, and I would want him to tell me if he felt as much attraction for a woman as I feel for Bob. But I asked my best friend and she thought I was crazy to potentially damage my marriage when I have no intention of acting on the feelings. I don’t know what to do — should I keep it a secret? Bob and I will be working closely together for at least another six months.

— Attracted in Arlington

Dear Arlington,

Let’s run through the scenarios. What exactly would telling him do? I agree with Best Friend that it is likely to damage your relationship with Husband, but what other purpose would it serve? Do you want to tell him so that you are semi-publicly shamed into not acting on the feelings? Or perhaps a part of you wants Husband to lose it, giving you permission to seek solace in Bob’s open arms? Or maybe you come from a tradition where lusting in your heart is such a burden, you just want to confess to someone? If that’s the latter’s the case, my advice is simple: find someone else to talk to. If you’re still unsure of the purpose, let’s turn the conversation away from Husband and back to you.

What is this really about? You make such a strong case for your great marriage, I wonder if you are allowed to admit that things might not be as wonderful as they “should be.” Yes, marriage is about partnership, family, and unconditional love — but those things don’t always add up to something sexy and intriguing day after day. Do you need more romance, excitement, spontaneity? That’s nothing to be ashamed of, and the good news is you can get it at home, with a little work and creativity.

When we’ve been with our partner as long as you have, we sometimes forget that we have to use actual words to convey what’s going on in our brains. The two of you may have honed your connection over the last 11 years so much that he’s a mind-reader when it comes to co-parenting or picking out your favorite ice cream at the store. Still, he might need a little more guidance on this one, since family routines are notorious for soothing even the best of us into relational apathy. You don’t have to own up to the attraction to get what you want, you may just have to make surprise vacation plans, or just flirt with him a little more in public. Give it a shot before setting off a bomb in your happy home.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of D.C. in Georgetown. Her Web site is This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to

Murphy’s Love

Dear Stacy:

I have a problem, and I’m just going to say it straight up. I’m a 25-year-old Hill staffer with a master’s degree and a wide circle of friends – and I’m a virgin. I dated guys in high school and college, but never got close to having sex with any of them. It’s not a religious thing – I just haven’t had the opportunity. I can blame my parents for handing me a healthy fear of getting pregnant in high school, but I assumed that my college and post-grad experiences would include long-term boyfriends and the intimacy that comes with those kinds of relationships. I never had the chance to just “get it over with” and now each time I meet someone new, I worry about having to eventually tell him I’m a virgin. It’s so embarrassing; I never even talk about it with my girlfriends – all of whom seem to be having wild sex with short- and long-term boyfriends. All of the sudden, engagement rings are starting to pop up on the hands of friends and coworkers – I’m running out of time. What is wrong with me? I feel like I missed my chance to find The One.
— Sexually Frustrated in Foggy Bottom

Dear Foggy Bottom:

Deep breath. Your letter carries a lot of anxiety – which can only hint at the large burden you are carrying around because of this. I’m hopeful you felt some amount of relief in writing. Often, just naming a feeling can diffuse some of its power. So you’re a virgin. I promise you’re not the last unicorn in DC. But let’s talk about why this seems so overwhelming.

Our society is sex-obsessed, so you cannot be blamed for thinking about yourself in comparison to the billboards, TV shows, and public displays of affection by teens on the Metro. But when you start equating virgin-status with marriage potential, we have to think about your emotional maturity. Let’s talk about why none of your relationships has progressed to the level of intimacy that would lead to having sex or getting married.

What exactly are you looking for? Do you want to find a soul mate to bring home to mom and dad, or are you actually more interested in your career and spending time with your friends right now? That’s ok, you know. It may not feel like it all the time, but at 25 you really are not on the cusp of Old Maidhood. Are we dating simply to clear this rite of passage, or for something deeper, during which losing your virginity will only be a side effect? Being clear about your intentions is the first step in getting what you want.

Next, where are you looking? If you think you have to hang out at the bar, waiting to give it up to the first guy to buy you a drink, I’d imagine that there is a part of you so violently opposed to that scenario, that it’s keeping you from connecting with anyone, anywhere. So let’s take your virginity off the table. You are a catch – a career-focused, highly-educated femme with a lot of friends around you – start acting like it. Do your girlfriends know you’re looking to meet someone? Are you trying online dating? Is there someone you’d like to ask out, but the virginity question takes you so far down the mental rabbit hole, that you’re avoiding it altogether? There’s no reward without some risk. He’s not going to find you if you’re hiding in your cubicle.

I get it, believe me, the pressure about “women of a certain age” and the dating/marriage/baby trifecta is a common theme in my counseling office. But if you are viewing your virginity (or cup size, or height, or accent) as a defect, then you give it the power to keep you out of relationship. With the right person, your level of experience will be an asset. Give him the opportunity to surprise you.

Dear Stacy:

My three daughters are grown up and out on their own. I still live with my wife in the house they grew up in, and so we still have some of their personal items here at home. I like having these things to remember the good times we had when they were younger. It’s not like I’ve created a shrine to my girls, I’m just talking about a few trophies, awards, photographs, and the odd report card. I keep these things in a spare room, and my daughters each have said these mementos are not important to them, and that they do not wish to have them in their own homes. My wife, on the other hand, thinks that since the girls do not want these keepsakes, we should throw them away. She has started calling me a “hoarder,” after watching some cable TV show, and has threatened to purge the house when I’m not here.

Her words make me mad and embarrassed. I’m also worried that she will act on her threats, and I don’t know what to do.
— Wanting More Time in Washington

Dear Wanting,

Your letter gives me the opportunity for a brief public service announcement. Hoarding is a trendy topic these days – the mass media would have us believe that every third household has its own hoarder. But most in the mental health community agree that this condition falls somewhere between the larger categories of impulse-control disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders, both fairly uncommon diagnoses. People suffering from these types of disorders may be unable to resist the drive to do something harmful to themselves or others, and may believe that if they do not act on the compulsion, something even worse will happen. Pyromania, kleptomania and compulsive gambling are impulse-control disorders. While there is no official diagnosis for hoarding as of yet, most agree that it includes the compulsive need to acquire and store largely unnecessary items.
What I’m getting at is that hoarding much more complicated than holding onto a few mementos in the spare room.

Parenting is a life-altering experience. It’s not uncommon for moms and dads to hold onto things that remind them of those times. If it’s indeed what you say it is – just a few items in the spare room – I’d be curious about why this bothers your wife so much.

I wonder if this is part of the regular division of labor in your relationship? Do you take on the emotional and she holds the practical? Consider approaching her about this (in a non-threatening way) so you can learn about her motivations, and perhaps explain your own in terms she can understand. We are hard-wired to react to confrontation with defensiveness – that’s what our brains believe will keep us alive when under attack. If you address the issue in a gentle, fact-finding manner, you may be surprised by what you hear from her side. Perhaps she’d like to use the space for another purpose. Maybe she wishes you held onto souvenirs from your honeymoon in the same way. You may need to make a deal that you get to keep the items, even though she doesn’t understand. But you never know unless you ask, and make room for the answer.

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 This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to