Murphy’s Love

December 8, 2010

Dear Stacy:

I’m a 56-year-old divorcee dating an about-to-be 66-year-old widower. We have been dating for nearly a year and spend most of our free time together. I attend his work functions, and we have mutual friends in common. My companion’s birthday is around New Year’s, and he is planning to retire from a high-profile law
practice soon thereafter. There will be a major celebration in his honor, and he has asked me for my opinions about venues and entertainment (I’m an event planner.). But I will not be invited to the party because his three
grown children will be there, and he has not introduced us yet. Although he told me they knew he was dating, it has come to light recently that they do not know he’s been in an exclusive relationship with me since January.

He has no plans to tell them and shuts down the conversation every time I bring this up. I know he’s not ashamed of me; his friends and coworkers all know my name. I think he’s just not willing to upset the kids’ memories of their mother, who died 10 years ago. I’m trying not to feel embarrassed by the situation, but I really don’t like the way this makes me feel about the children, his deceased spouse, or him quite
frankly. Any advice?

-Feeling Backburnered in Burleith

Dear Burleith:

I understand where you’re coming from. He’s only willing to bring you into his life to a certain point, and that is painful and somewhat embarrassing now that there’s a very public event about to showcase those boundaries. Of course you are struggling with your feelings about his wife and their children, but, if you’ve been reading my columns at all, you know where this is going; I think we need to focus more on your feelings about him and vice versa. You say that he shuts down communication each time you try to broach this subject.
First, I’d suggest that you decide whether this relationship is important enough for you to work through, and if it is hightail it to a couples counselor ASAP. People only “shut down communication” when they are feeling
threatened by another person’s demands, so take the time to learn how to have this conversation sans the fight and flight. If that doesn’t work, we have to start looking at your motivation for staying in a yearlong
relationship with someone who lied about whether his kids knew you existed, who asks for your event planning work product without payment or invitation to said event, and who responds to your emotional needs
by cutting off communication. If those red flags aren’t enough to get you to slow down, then I’d recommend spending some time with your own relationship needs and expectations. Is this what love has always looked like to you? Is that still good enough? I’m rooting for you to say “no more” to being taken advantage of in this
way, but this kind of realization is a process. Finding someone to talk it through is always a
great start.

Dear Stacy:

I’m in love with my married boss. He knows it and flirts with me incessantly. I used to think this was his way of moving toward a relationship or an affair, but it’s pretty obvious he just enjoys playing this game. While I truly hate that part of him, I’m still in love with him, and this saga continues. Please don’t tell me to quit my job; I love what I do, and I’m very good at it. Plus, the economy makes it hard to find something comparable. I’m just miserable each day and want some ideas for how to make life more bearable.

-In Love with the Boss

Dear In Love:

To summarize: You say you are in love with him, he’s an incredible jerk, and you do not want to quit your job. Well, there’s a very simple fix: Just fall out of love with him. It’s not going to be easy. You have maintained your affection for this person, despite his obvious disregard for your feelings, so I’d conclude that willpower is your strong suit. But if you refuse to take yourself out of the same situation that generated these feelings, you are going to have to redirect that determination toward keeping safe from harm. I’d start with blinders and
earplugs at the office. If those efforts don’t appeal to you, please consider finding someone to talk to about why you fell in love with him in the first place. What does the unavailable, manipulative boss-figure represent to you? Is your unrequited fantasy powerful enough to override all your natural, self-care impulses? You are reaching out in an advice column, which shows some sense of self-advocacy, but I know you can be more effective. A friend, a family member, a therapist; just make sure the person is able to hold the mirror tightly so you can truly see the impact of your decisions.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. 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 stacy@georgetowner.com.

Murphy’s Love

November 17, 2010

Dear Stacy:
My girlfriend is pressuring me to get married, and I don’t know what to do. We’re both 28 and have been dating exclusively for five years. She is the love of my life, but I just don’t see the need to get married,
at least not yet. Both her parents and mine are divorced—less than amiably—and I always promised myself I wouldn’t get into that situation. My girlfriend and I each have our own places but spend most nights together. I think moving between houses is kind of fun, but she hates it. We have all the commitments of a married couple—holidays, vacations, friends in common—but without the messy issues of combining households and finances (which she’s not so good at, by the way). I don’t want to ruin a good thing by forcing myself down the aisle. How can I explain this without sounding like a commitment-phobic jerk? So far, I’ve avoided the issue as much as I can.

– Anonymous

Dear Anonymous:
I’m curious why you find nightly sleepovers to be so fun. Are you a camping nut, or is it just easier to commit on a part-time basis? If you’ve both been together for five years and this drop-in arrangement hasn’t started to wear thin, I’d guess that more is going on here than you’re letting on, maybe even to yourself.

You offer a few clues: two children of divorce, lingering conflicts between both sets of parents, concerns about Girlfriend’s financial savvy. At the same time, thinking that you are fulfilling the most important commitments of a married couple, yet not living together, suggests that your expectations about marriage are off. If you didn’t have a great model for marriage growing up, that certainly might help explain
things. But if you want a healthy marriage—whether in name or in spirit—it means agreeing to a life that embraces it all: moving under one roof, communicating even when you don’t want to, making money decisions together and helping each other with common goals.

This kind of commitment comes with big risks but promises big rewards as well. You might feel uncertain whether you’re ready to invest the kind of emotional capital it takes to build a healthy marriage, but it sounds like Girlfriend wants to try. Admitting that you’re worried is admirable, but protecting yourself by avoiding the issue is downright cruel. Talking with your partner is the next step you need to take — to share your worries over sharing the same fridge, your fear of repeating your parents’ divorce, and the anxiety you feel about her shopping sprees. Whatever you do, you need to stop playing possum. It’s disrespectful to you both and prevents you from hearing her vision of a happy marriage. You might be surprised to find out that it’s not far from your own.

Dear Stacy:
I’m a newlywed. My husband and I dated for three years before we were married last spring, and I get along great with his family. His sister is several years younger than we are and lives in the area. Up until
the wedding, she and I had no issues, but ever since my bachelorette party, I haven’t been able to shake her. She has friended all of my bridesmaids on Facebook and has insinuated herself into my circle of girlfriends. She shows up for our ladies’ nights and is constantly asking questions about how my marriage is going. She’s really a nice person, just so much younger and clueless about what’s appropriate and what is not. I want my friends to be my friends and my family to be my family. How do I disinvite her without
being disowned?

–Crowded in Clarendon

Dear Crowded:
Defriending a family member sounds like a topic for Oprah to address. But I sympathize with your situation. Breaking up with a friend can be treacherous; breaking up with family can require a lawyer. Hopefully we can come up with something a little less dramatic.

It sounds like Sister-in-Law (SIL) looks up to you and your friends, admires your marriage, and generally wants to be close to you. This is not unusual Little Sis behavior when you’re in grade school, so I’m going to prescribe a grade school-type intervention: boundary-setting. Kids need limits so they know what to expect and won’t launch into worry-based over-functioning. It sounds like SIL may be a little anxious and trying to figure out what’s appropriate SIL behavior. Tell her. Show her. Help her. I don’t mean that you block her from your life. Just be gentle and firm about who is invited to ladies’ night and who is not.

Also, show an interest in how she’s relating to people her own age. She may really be after your wisdom and advice but just doesn’t know how to ask for it and has opted to try osmosis instead. With some sisterly guidance and some time, you may not need to delete your Facebook account entirely.

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 stacy@georgetowner.com

Murphy’s Love

October 20, 2010

Dear Stacy:
I am about to tell my parents about my new boyfriend, “Tom,” and I could really use your help. I’ll cut to the chase: I’m 26 and he’s 48. We met online, and he lives in southern Maryland. We were just friends at first, but then things turned romantic and we have spent hours talking on the phone and IMing about the challenges that lay before us. He was in a long-term relationship when we first met, so our in-person meetings were more like once a month. But now he’s single and we are ready to tell our friends and family about our relationship.

My parents are kind of conservative. They live in Ohio and visit quite often. It’s been tough to hide my relationship from them, but now that Tom is free and I am planning to move closer to be near him, it’s time for them to know. My dad has never liked my boyfriends – no one’s good enough for his “little girl.” Can you help me formulate a plan? What’s the best way to give this kind of info – write a letter or just introduce him at dinner? I know if they were patient, they would like him. Tom and my dad even went to the same university, so they have that in common. I’d like to ease them into this – any ideas?

-Star-crossed in the Palisades

Dear Palisades:
You admit you have been hiding this relationship, so I’m going to skip over the obvious questions
about your emotional maturity in choosing a cyber-based coupling with someone so much older and inaccessible. While the truth probably lies somewhere between you having daddy issues and him being your cosmic soul mate, I’m not going to judge and am sure you already have your defenses about those issues well-established. So let’s spend our time with the hiding question instead. Unless you are completely upfront about the reasons you kept the Parents in the dark, this will continue to be a dramatic interpretation of a relationship, and never the real thing.

We hide things from our families when we aren’t comfortable with the consequences of others’
knowing. We also hide things when we are ashamed of what we’re doing. Where does this relationship fall on that continuum? It sounds like your parents visit often because they love and care about you (unless you aren’t mentioning their habit of regularly rebuking their child in a booth at Clyde’s because they just can’t get crab cakes in Ohio). Have you been embarrassed by the choices you’ve made in your relationship? Then owning up to those feelings might be the best place to start the conversation.

I am talking about agreeing to some level of vulnerability here. Open self-assessment can feel like a relief when we’ve been under so much pressure (you know, like hiding a nearly six-month relationship
and a covert plan to move to another city), but it also has the benefit of disarming your “opponent.”
If you and Tom want to take this pairing public, it’s better to start from a place of openness, or at least make that the norm from now on.

At the same time, online relationships don’t always have the best track record for translating into face-to-face romances, so please be sure before you bring your parents into the equation – and definitely before you break a local lease and hire Mayflower. Has Tom met your friends? What are your expectations in moving closer to him? Have you found a job there? Maybe take some time to make this a more reality-based relationship before you invite the whole family (and their opinions) to the party.

Dear Stacy:
I am a person who has a very hard time making decisions. I ask a lot of people for advice, hoping something will resonate, but then end up even more confused than I was in the first place. I wish this was limited to big issues, like dating and career, but sometimes I can’t even make a choice about a restaurant or whether to buy a pair of shoes. I just keep thinking about what might come along instead, and how my life could be impacted if I make the wrong choice. It’s starting to drive me crazy, not to mention the friends and family I’m constantly bombarding with questions. I need someone to set me straight.

-Compass-less in Kalorama

Dear Kalorama:
So you want to work on your over-questioning nature, by asking another person a question.

While I hate to play into this regularly scheduled drama, this is an advice column, so I suppose questions are the starting point. What do you get when you ask others for their opinions? Do you get the counsel you say you need, or do you get something more basic, like the opportunity to finally
have someone else’s full attention? I’d guess that you are not too comfortable asking for what you need from others, and that playing 20 Questions has been the quickest route to some coveted one-on-one time.

Please don’t be embarrassed. Many of us have come to believe we don’t deserve to be the center of someone else’s attention unless we’re in a crisis. Who can blame you for creating that crisis every now and then? But shoes are not a crisis. Chipotle v. Pizzeria Paradiso is not a crisis. And you aren’t going to lose everything by making a single choice. I’d imagine that you have built up a tolerance for your own gut instinct, to the point that you may not even notice when it’s giving you direction anymore. It’s time to learn to start trusting yourself again.

This is not to suggest that you should go it alone on everything. A personal “panel of experts”
is an important tool – I usually run this column by my own consortium including The Sister, The College Roommate, and The Trusted Colleague. But the truth of adulthood is that every other person in the world is less qualified than YOU are to make a decision for YOU.

Start small: plan a date with your significant other, take charge of the Thanksgiving Day festivities
– but make sure to build in the opportunity to pause and review your choices, noting the less-than-catastrophic outcomes. Make a list of your successes and check it often. Retraining your brain to appreciate your own sense of direction is going to be a process, but it’s going to be worth it, especially when someone – gasp! – asks you for some advice.

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 stacy@georgetowner.com.

How Can You Tell if it’s Time to See a Therapist?

September 22, 2010

 

-Life is messy and often confusing. Sometimes you’re up, and then you’re down. You have a plan, and life throws you a curve. Life can feel like it’s just too much, and it can make you question, “Is this all there is?” No one is happy all the time. No one’s life is perfect.

So how can you decide that your particular situation is one that might be helped by psychotherapy?

You might be lucky enough to have a close friend or family member who has had a positive experience with therapy and is comfortable enough with it – and with you – to make the suggestion. Other people can often see your distress more clearly than you can yourself, so consider their recommendation seriously.

But even if no one has said anything to you here are some signs that it’s time to see a therapist:
• When the same kinds of problems recur in your life. You may have conflicts at work or repeated “misunderstandings” with your friends. You may have disappointing romantic relationships or frequently feel that you don’t fit in. Or you might notice that people become annoyed with you, and you don’t really understand why. The key here is that when a problematic situation becomes familiar and you recognize that you’ve been in the same spot before, that’s when it’s time to see a therapist.
• You’re having trouble sleeping.
• You notice a change in your usual sleeping, eating or drinking habits.
• You’re having trouble concentrating or motivating
yourself to do things.
• You’re irritable or anxious and searching for something to blame it on.
• You feel physically unwell, but your doctor says you’re okay.
• The things you used to enjoy are not much fun anymore, and nothing else positive has taken their place.
• You’re trying to figure something out or to move forward with a work or family issue, and you’re stuck.

The list is by no means exhaustive; rather, it is meant to be suggestive. Besides paying attention
to the way you are feeling and thinking, it is important to recognize that certain life situations,
while normal and even desirable, can be so stressful that they put you at risk.

It’s easy to understand that a death in the family or the breakup of a relationship makes you emotionally vulnerable, but it is also the case that life transitions, such as leaving school and starting work or moving to a new city, are challenges that shake up your life and make new demands at the same time as they remove you from your old friends and other supports. These transitions can often be navigated more smoothly with the help of a therapist.

Murphy’s Love

June 2, 2010

Dear Stacy:
I am a successful, attractive D.C. woman about to turn 38 and will be celebrating with (drumroll, please) YET ANOTHER BREAKUP! This time I really thought the relationship was a go, but he turned out to be exactly like every other guy I’ve dated over the years, and I’m finally noticing the pattern. Things always start off well — the connection is strong, the sex is fantastic, we make big plans for the future. Then, after four months, six months, or a year, things change and he just isn’t there for me anymore. He starts “forgetting” plans we’ve made, not including me in activities, changing the rules. I’m not good at confrontation, so I seem to just let the distance grow while frantically trying to bring us back closer together. Eventually, he just ends it with the “It’s not you, it’s me” spiel. What can I do moving forward besides giving up entirely?
— Done With Men on Dumbarton

Dear Done With Men:
Wisdom comes with age, and it sounds like congratulations are in order for identifying a pattern in your past relationships! That’s really the first step in making a change: figuring out what we’ve done before that just isn’t working.

You have described the classic relationship trajectory. We all start off in the romantic stage, with its popping hormones, long-term fantasizing and believing we’ve found a kindred spirit who knows us inside out without even having to finish a sentence. That’s nature’s trick for getting us into a relationship. Soon, however, our brain chemistry changes, and we enter the power struggle phase. It sounds like this is the part that trips you up, and you’re not alone. You say you don’t like confrontation, so you allow the walls between you and your would-be soulmate to build thicker and thicker. You may be using unconscious tools to try to drag him back into deep connection — tools like passive aggression, controlling behavior, pouting, etc. Meanwhile, he also may be using his own tools to maintain his safe distance: isolating himself, forgetting your plans together, acting like it’s not his problem. The result is the classic push-and-pull scenario, until the loving bonds break under the stress. The power struggle is survived only through awareness and communication. When you both understand what you need to feel safe in relationship, then you both are able to start giving back to it.

Getting clear about your own expectations can really help you move toward a more conscious dating experience. What are your top 10 wants in a boyfriend? Do your past relationships reflect those desires? If they don’t, maybe your unconscious self is searching out a different kind of person. Taking the time to figure out what that part of you is looking for and why may result in a better match next time.

Dear Stacy:
My wife and I have been happily married for 10 years. We had our second baby two months ago, and now my wife doesn’t seem interested in me anymore. She makes it very difficult for us to be physical — bringing our infant into the bedroom, always telling me how tired she is, breaking down and crying whenever I try to talk with her about our sex life. She used to be a runner and returned to her exercise routine immediately after our first son was born, but this time she has no motivation. She has stopped taking care of her appearance: she has gained weight, rarely wears makeup, still dresses in her maternity clothes, zones out in front of the TV. I’ve tried talking with her about it, but it usually ends in a fight after which she retreats from me and our kids, putting even more of the household burdens on me. I’m wondering if having kids was a huge mistake and if this means my marriage is permanently damaged.
— In Reserve on Reservoir

Dear Reservoir:
I can hear the earnestness in your words and can imagine you are anxious for a solution. But I also hear something else in your letter that may not be so obvious to someone sitting right inside your relationship — it sounds as if your wife may be severely depressed.

If every mom who wasn’t interested in sex so soon after giving birth was diagnosed with depression, antidepressants would be included in every box of diapers. In other words, a lagging sexual drive at eight weeks post-pregnancy is not unusual. But your wife’s disinterest compounds some of the other symptoms you named. Postpartum depression (PPD) afflicts approximately 10 percent of new mothers — that means it’s likely at least one mom in your playgroup suffers from it, or will during their childbearing years. The marked contrast between your wife’s first and second pregnancies sounds like a red flag — as is the lack of interest in her appearance, tendency to break down when confronted and gaping at the television.

The good news is that PPD is highly treatable with therapy and medication. Helping your wife find support, while letting her know you will be patient as she heals, is the very best option. At the same time, supporting someone dealing with depression can be difficult. Finding your own resources — confiding in a friend, counseling, or hiring a babysitter so you can have some time off — is also a valuable gift to you both.

Dear Stacy:
My mother-in-law has always been overbearing and too into my business. She asks blunt questions at inappropriate times (e.g. She inquired, “How exactly are you going to lose weight before the wedding?” AT OUR ENGAGEMENT PARTY!). We have had some good times over the years, and I hoped we had grown closer now that we’ve given her her first grandchild. But my son is three and going through normal developmental steps, she continues to question my judgment about parenting, particularly asking blunt questions about whether he might have autism (he is not autistic in any way) or if he’s inherited my family’s “bigger boned” genes. I want to tell her off, but I know that wouldn’t be productive in the long run. Still, I think my frustration with her is obvious to everyone, including my son, and I don’t want him to develop animosity toward her either.
— Put-out on P Street

Dear Put-Out:
The irritating mother-in-law may be a tired cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason — it comes up a lot!

Your frustration sounds entirely legitimate, and recognizing that your simmering bitterness might rub off on Junior shows even more self-awareness on your part. So let’s channel that effort into realizing that the fantasy that having a baby might magically change the person she is was just that, a fantasy, and she’s not doing anything new or different from the way she’s acted all the years you’ve known her son. That said, it is your job to protect your family from negative influences.

You haven’t mentioned your dear husband’s opinion on all of this, which suggests one of two things. Either he has no opinion because you haven’t shared your frustration with him, or he has chosen to ignore you both on this topic. Feeling like we aren’t alone in our struggles can be a major part of rising above insecurity. If you take the time to calmly, safely, carefully talk with him about your concerns, I imagine he might have some helpful advice for moving forward — whether that means enduring her negativity together, making a family decision to avoid her entirely, or sharing tips for how to get her to hear your side.

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