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Advice

Feeling smothered

Not having tough talks to avoid hurt is a futile effort

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Michael Radkowsky, advice, gay news, Washington Blade
Michael Radkowsky, advice, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Radkowsky

Dear Michael,

My girlfriend Rachel recently proposed to me. Although I answered “yes,” I’m really not sure if I should marry her. She’s very sweet, is always considerate, gets along great with my friends and family and makes me laugh. But I constantly feel like she wants more from me than I want to give her. I don’t just mean sex and affection, although that’s part of it. She always wants to be together, she always wants me to confide in her and she always wants to share everything with me. As a result, I sometimes feel smothered. I want to tell her to back off but I don’t want to hurt her.

Rachel always says that she wants us to be best friends, lovers and soul mates. I love her but also need my own space, my own identity and time with other people. Is there something wrong with me for wanting this? And is it possible to have a great relationship without being glued to my partner?

Michael replies:

One big question: Do you think your discomfort is just about Rachel’s behavior or is this also about your own uneasiness with closeness in a relationship? Consider whether you’ve had this feeling in previous relationships and how close the other person can get before you to want to back off. If this is a familiar experience, you may have some work to do on yourself.

In any case, you and Rachel are in the same boat: You each have one idea for how close you should be, while your partner has another, and both of you are trying to get your way. Rachel moves toward you and expresses the hope that you are soul mates, while you feel smothered and back off.  But neither of you is speaking directly about the real dilemma you are facing: How to be both a couple and two individuals with two different ways of being.

For a relationship to work well, you need to find a balance. How much do you lean on your partner and how much do you rely on yourself? How much do the two of you function as a single unit versus pursuing your own interests and friendships? There is no one right answer to questions such as these and your own answer is likely to shift depending on what is going on in your life. For example, when you’re in a tough situation, you may lean more on your partner — or pull away. And of course, your girlfriend will certainly have different ideas about such matters, because she is a different person.

Too much togetherness does not allow space for individuals to be individuals. Because no two people always think or want to act alike, pressure to be close all the time leads to tension and strife. Similarly, ongoing dependence or neediness can become a weight on the relationship, resulting in resentment and distance between the partners.

I’m not suggesting that you and Rachel should not be close and connected, of course; without closeness and connection, there can be no solid relationship. I am saying that relationships work best when both partners usually are strong, don’t lean too much on each other and can take care of themselves.

Why not break the gridlock and talk with Rachel about what is going on?  Keeping silent will not give you a chance to address and deal with your feeling smothered. And wanting not to hurt Rachel is a futile endeavor. It simply is not possible to have an intimate relationship without ever hurting your partner or being hurt by her.  Because the two of you, like any two people in a relationship, are different, it’s inevitable that you will have strong differences that at times will gravely upset each other. If you want your partner to really know you, you will have to tell her things that may hurt her.  And vice-versa.

If you decide to start a discussion with Rachel, remember that there is no one right way to be in a relationship. You each have your own preferences, so you each will have to develop the clarity to know what you are willing to live with and what you are not willing to live without. And please keep in mind that conversations about differing desires are tough. So if you get stuck or scared, consider seeking out a skilled couples therapist who can help you to have some difficult and clarifying talks.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].

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Advice

Am I the only gay man who doesn’t sleep around?

Seeking friend group less interested in drugs, partying

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Feeling isolated because your friends don’t share your values? Time for new friends.

Dear Michael,

I am a 22-year-old man and I am starting to hate being gay.

It’s not that I feel bad about being attracted to men. I would love to date a guy, get married, and spend my life with him. My problem is that the values of the gay men I am meeting have nothing to do with what I want in life.

I’ve been living in D.C. for almost a year now and pretty much all I come across are guys who want to have sex with as many hot men as possible.  

Relationships, commitment, and honesty don’t seem to mean anything, as far as I can tell. I’ve had guys in long-term relationships hit on me or propose threesomes with their partners.  My ex-boyfriend was hooking up on Grindr multiple times per week after we had agreed to be exclusive. When I found out, he told me that it’s impossible for a gay guy not to sleep around.

What is it with gay men? Everyone seems to predominantly focus on sex. Whenever I go out to brunch with my gay friends, people are showing pictures and sometimes even X-rated videos of their latest hookups. Sex isn’t something special, just a recreational activity/competition.  
None of my straight friends act anything remotely like this.

Also, pretty much every gay man I spend time with seems to love getting trashed. I’m not anti-alcohol but I don’t see the fun in getting completely drunk regularly. I’m wary of recreational drugs but guys around me use them nonchalantly all the time. What kind of connection can you have with people around you when all of you are drunk or high on something?

I’ve tried to talk with my gay friends about how I feel but they respond like I’m from another planet, as if I’m questioning why they want to breathe oxygen.

I just think there’s a lot more to life than hooking up, that people should treat each other as more than just potential sex partners, and that sleeping around when I’m in a relationship doesn’t make for a great relationship. But I seem to be the only gay man I know who feels this way.

I don’t want to live the kind of life I see all around me. But I worry that unless I give up my values, I’m going to be lonely.  

Michael replies:

What kind of life will you have if you give up your values? Could you respect yourself or create a life that is meaningful and that you would enjoy?

We all face pressure to conform to those around us so that we will fit in. Doing so is understandable. As you describe, it can be lonely to be on the outside. But betraying who you actually are is a high price to pay for acceptance.  

This is why people come out. And this is why, despite the peer pressure, you are the only person who should decide the kind of life you want to lead as a gay man.

There is little point in discussing the many possible reasons why many gay men dedicate so much time and energy to sex. Everyone is free to choose how they want to live and what they want to focus on. And this includes you.

You can’t change other people or a community. But I’m hopeful you can find a community of friends with whom you are a better fit. I know you are far from alone in feeling as you do, because I regularly hear stories similar to yours in my practice. So rather than settling, keep looking, and look beyond the ways in which you’ve made your social life so far. The friend group you develop may not be as large as your current circle of acquaintances. (Or it may be larger!) In any case, you’d likely find it far more nurturing, and a lot more fun, to spend time with others who are more like-minded.  

It is not easy to feel like the odd man out. And when you want a different life from what most of your peers are seeking, it’s easy to doubt that you are OK. I’m sure you already know this from having grown up gay.  

When we come out, we have the hope that we will finally have a real peer group and won’t feel so different anymore. But that’s not always the case. Gay men are not one homogenous group and many of us have to do some searching to find some people with whom we really connect.  
You are doing important work in thinking about who you are and how you want to live. I hope you will make the choice to honor your time on earth by living it authentically.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality.

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Advice

Working from home is taking over our lives

We need to create boundaries and return to offices

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working from home, gay news, Washington Blade

Back in the late 1980s when I was a young financial analyst at a New York bank, I’d leave the office at five and go home to my little Upper West Side studio. With no cable, internet, or cellphone, a landline was my only connection to the outside word till I went back to work the next day.

What was it like? Tranquility is the word. Surrounded by Manhattan, I was as isolated as a monk in a cell, with uninterrupted hours to read a book, cook, or listen to an album. And of course I could go out on the town without a work crisis reaching out to ruin my plans.

I’ve been thinking back to those days a lot, lately. Working as a psychologist, I’m hearing more and more clients complain lately about how much time they’re putting into their jobs. Folks have been working from home for a year now, and as the months have gone by, many of us are spending more and more hours on the job.

What’s going on? I hear a few justifications.

First, many people tell me that they don’t feel they have an excuse not to reply when they get a text or email from a boss or colleague after normal work hours. After all, what else would they be doing? This is especially true of my single clients who don’t have children. Even dinnertime isn’t off limits.

Second, as the pandemic drags on and most of us have so few sources of fun and stimulation, people are turning more and more to their jobs for something — anything — to keep them occupied.

And, of course, there’s the reality that we’re working from our homes. There’s no physical boundary keeping work at work.

So while it’s great not to have to commute or wear pants, working from home is making it even easier for our jobs to take over our lives than they already were. Put bluntly, this sucks.

We all need a break from work. Every day. Your job likely isn’t paying you for 16-hour days. Even if it is, you need to have some fun, rest, and recharge your brain.

Of course we can’t shut ourselves off from the world as completely as I did in those pre-internet/cellphone days. But we need to draw a boundary, even if it means disappointing our employers and colleagues by doing so. I’m not talking about not doing your job. I’m just talking about setting a limit on how much of your life you are willing to give to your work.

Standing up for your own well-being can be scary. There may be real risks in terms of job security and compensation. Only you can decide for yourself when it is vital to say “no.” But advocating for yourself is necessary at times. To quote Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”

Taking action on your own behalf is also a skill you want to develop, because it will help you in all areas of your life. If you can’t say “no” in order to eat dinner uninterrupted, watch a movie you’d like to see, spend time with someone you love or get a good night’s sleep, you’re going to get chewed up and spit out by others, quite a lot.

Recently, I’ve been reading that D.C.’s downtown is in danger of financial ruin. As many people may not be be returning to the office after the pandemic, some believe that the whole web of service businesses may collapse.

I’m hoping that the doomsdayers floating this theory are wrong, and that as the pandemic ends many of us will head back to the office, at least much of the time. We need to get back to setting a stronger boundary between work and the rest of our lives.

Yes, we’ll be helping our city rebound. And we’ll also be making a big step toward taking care of ourselves, by re-constructing a life that’s about way more than work.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com.

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Advice

ADVICE: Despair vs. resilience in trying times

Coronavirus lockdown has many down but you’re stronger than you think

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As the COVID-19 crisis goes on without our having any clarity about how or when this crazy situation will improve, most everyone I know is super-anxious about getting sick, fed up with being locked down or both. Is there a way for us to get through this any easier? 

Here’s a start: Acknowledge that there are no guarantees in life.

When we accept that life is going to throw all sorts of challenges at us and that there is sometimes nothing we can do to stop these challenges from coming, that leaves us with one great option: Work on becoming more resilient so we can better deal with the hard stuff, including the very hard stuff.

This is called resilience. Being able to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep going forward. Cliché, yes, but it’s what we need to do if we don’t want life to beat us down.

Good news: resilience is a trait we are born with. As I’m writing these words, I’m watching my 4-month-old, who recently learned to turn from his back onto his belly, trying to turn from his belly onto his back. He’s been at this for days, and has succeeded just once. He keeps crying and trying. He won’t give up. That’s resilience.

Further good news: If you’re LGBT, you likely have already done some work in this area. All the difficulties that we experience as we grow up — struggling to accept an identity that’s stigmatized, teasing, rejection and worse — and here we are. How? All of us found a way to keep moving forward in our lives rather than letting circumstances defeat us.

Of course, this is pretty much true of anyone who has been through tough times and survived. Many of our elders who experienced the Depression, wartime, or worse tell us that they aren’t fazed by the virus or having to stay at home. Having endured previous struggles, they know they can do their best to endure this one.

That’s what all of us must keep in mind now. Knowing that we have had the resilience to get through past difficulties can support us in getting through this new hard time.

Another important point to keep in mind: When we give our suffering meaning, it helps us endure the suffering. Reminding ourselves that striving to endure this tough period will make us even more resilient can actually help us to more easily endure it.

Other ways we can strengthen our own capacity for resilience: 

Do our best to take care of ourselves, of course. When we eat well, find a way to exercise, get adequate sleep and take breaks from virus-worrying through meditation or just focusing on something pleasant or uplifting, we’re less anxious and better able to keep calm. The ability to soothe ourselves is key to being resilient.

Stay connected to people around us so that we don’t wind up feeling isolated and alone, which can deepen feelings of hopelessness. We all need supportive friends and family whom we can ask for assistance when we really need it to survive. Knowing that they are there is part of feeling resilient. And if we’re able to help others in some way — dropping off groceries for an elderly relative or neighbor, or simply being willing to listen — we’re likely to feel stronger and more able to cope.

Appreciate what we have. This can include a roof over our head, food to eat, people and companion animals we love and simply being alive right now. Doing will serve us much better than lamenting.

While none of us will live forever, we all want to stay in the game as long as we can. Striving to be resilient can help us keep going forward through life with the belief that if it’s possible to survive, we have a good shot at doing so. And that belief can give us hope, determination and a positive outlook.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay individuals and couples in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com

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