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ADVICE: The no-fix fix?

Proposal backfires in attempt to solve a problem that wasn’t there

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Are there other times you have striven to please another person or “make them happy” without thinking of your own wants?

Michael,
 
After a year together, my girlfriend Beth moved a few hours away to go to grad school this past September.
 
Knowing sex is important to Beth, I worried that with the distance she might not want to stay in our relationship, as we could only get together every two or three weekends. So I proposed that we agree that we can have sex with other people when we aren’t in the same city.
 
My only interest in opening our relationship was so that Beth would not want to leave. I didn’t tell her my reasoning, because I worried she’d think I am pathetic or needy. I just said I thought it was a good idea for a long-distance relationship.
 
I was a little worried that if Beth slept with other women, she might become attracted to someone else. But I hoped that if we saw each other every few weekends, we would maintain our strong romantic/emotional connection.
 
I’ve gotten together with just one other woman since September and I didn’t really like the experience at all. It made me realize that being in love with the person I am having sex with is pretty much why I like sex.
 
But Beth can — and does — separate love and sex. She tells me she’s having a good time with other women when we’re not together.
 
Now I’m unhappy with the situation I created. Jealous even though Beth says she’s devoted to me and not going anywhere. But I’m afraid that if I tell her I don’t like an open relationship, she’ll want to leave me. What, if anything, should I do?

Michael replies:

If you don’t want Beth to see you as pathetic and needy, you will have to stop acting pathetic and needy.

You can accomplish this in large part by working to better understand yourself and what is important to you, and then basing your behavior on this understanding, rather than on what you hope your girlfriend might want.

There’s nothing wrong with being considerate of your partner. If Beth wants an open relationship while the two of you are living apart, you might consider this; but not if agreeing to do so would mean that you sell yourself out.

That said, when you proposed opening your relationship, were you proposing something that Beth particularly wanted? From your letter, it sounds like you came up with this proposal out of fear, without having spoken to Beth or having given any thought to your own feelings about an open relationship.

I am curious as to why you didn’t have a conversation about this, instead of rushing to offer a solution you thought Beth would like. Did you ask yourself what you might like, other than keeping Beth in the relationship?

Some questions for you to contemplate:

Why are you so desperate to be with Beth that you would suggest a dramatic change to your relationship in order to solve a problem she hadn’t even raised?

Is this behavior of yours one-time only, or are there other times you have striven to please another person or “make them happy” without thinking of your own wants?

Is it a pattern for you to fantasize about what another person wants and then do your best to create that situation without first checking with them as to their actual preferences?

One of my teachers often says: “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.”  Meaning, if you’re having a big, dramatic reaction to something, your response has its roots in your history.

I imagine that your desire to try and please someone else without considering your own contentment ties to your life story. When did you first engage in this behavior? Was it a dynamic in your family as you were growing up? What were you afraid would happen and what were the actual consequences if you disappointed another person? Starting to understand the roots of this behavior may help you separate past from present and fear from reality.

If you continue to twist yourself into a pretzel in hope of pleasing others, you certainly aren’t going to be happy or content. Nor will you be an alluring partner to anyone who values being with someone who is solid and self-confident. So I suggest you get to know your own wants, priorities and values.  Then respect yourself enough to take a stand when an issue is important to you, even though you cannot know what response you will get.

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

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Advice

How much fighting is OK in a relationship?

I love my boyfriend but we can’t agree on anything

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Is it good for couples to fight a lot? (Photo by Andrey Popov/Bigstock)

Dear Michael,

How much arguing is OK in a relationship?

Sometimes I think I’d like to spend the rest of my life with my boyfriend Adam but other times he drives me absolutely crazy.

We get into these fights where he just refuses to see it my way. He insists he’s right and digs in until I agree he has a point. He can never just agree with me or let it go.

The thing is, he doesn’t always have a point and if I won’t concede that he does, he says I don’t respect his intelligence.

Our fights range from Madonna’s talent (or lack thereof) to what is or isn’t OK to eat for breakfast, to whose job it is to take out the garbage, to what the best abs exercises are, to where we should go on vacation this summer, to whether recycling plastics accomplishes anything, to whether we should have sex in the morning or at night. I’m sick of it!

On the other hand, Adam is smart, funny, and super-hot. 

Is it normal for couples to fight so much? I don’t know why it’s so hard for him to see it my way sometimes.

Michael replies:

Sounds to me like you guys are in an ongoing power-control struggle where one of you is continuously trying to influence the other (power move), and the other one is continuously refusing to be influenced (control move).

There’s nothing “wrong” with making power and control moves. We all do them, all the time. They’re part of every relationship: Writing this reply, I’m making a power move, in that I’m wanting to influence the way you think about your relationship. If you disagree with me, you’re making a control move by not accepting my influence. No problem at all: You don’t have to let me (or anyone) influence you.

The problems arise when these moves become the ongoing operating system of your relationship. One of you keeps telling the other person how to behave or think, or what is “correct”; and the other won’t agree, no matter what the issue. You each dig in. Warmth and collaboration go out the window. You can’t have a loving relationship when you’re mired in a power-control struggle.

The problem is not that you two see things differently. That’s an unavoidable part of life.  In any relationship, partners will at times have very different opinions, even about very important matters. The problem is that you’re choosing to argue about it, to try to prove that you are right and the other person is wrong. He won’t see it your way and you won’t see it his way. 

Notice that I’m putting you in the same boat as Adam. That’s because you’re joining him in this dynamic.

One thing you two can do to get out of this dynamic is to stop arguing about things that are a matter of opinion. It’s not possible to prove you’re right. Doing so just gets you dug in against each other.  

In general, it’s a waste of time to argue about why you are right and your partner is wrong. If you win the argument, your partner loses. And if one of you is the loser, you both lose because you wind up with a bitter relationship.

Instead, you could have fun enjoying the reality that each of you has very different opinions, even about very important things, and each of you has the job of figuring out how to live and generally be happy with someone who is different in some big ways from you. 

If you each start letting yourself be influenced by your partner, even if you don’t always agree on what’s “best” or “right,” you’re going to open yourself up to all sorts of experiences, possibilities, and ways of looking at things that you hadn’t considered. That’s one of the great ways that relationships push us to grow.

If you think I have a point, I’m glad. You may decide you’d like to make some changes in your relationship. Remember, though, that Adam is his own person. Perhaps you’ll be able to influence him to consider a new way of approaching your differences, perhaps not. 

That said, you have a lot of power over yourself. And if you decide you don’t want to keep getting stuck in power-control struggles, you can change this dynamic on your own simply by not participating. Not in a game-playing, “I’m right and you’re wrong” way, but by taking the position, over and over, that you two are different and sometimes see things differently, and you aren’t going to fight about who is right and who is wrong, because that isn’t going to get you anywhere good.

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

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Advice

After 16 years together, my wife suddenly wants children

‘I don’t want to be stuck in restrictive heteronormativity’

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Dear Michael,

A few months ago you answered a letter from a guy who wanted a baby but his boyfriend didn’t. I’m in the opposite situation. Carol and I have been together for 16 years (we’re married) and all of a sudden she wants to have a baby. This was never on the table until her dad died last year suddenly of a heart attack.  

Since then she’s been a different person. She tells me that she wants to focus on something “bigger” than just enjoying life and also wants some sort of sense that “life will go on.”

To me, being queer has always meant that we get to fully live life in the present, for us.  We don’t have to focus on having kids and all that entails: fertility stuff, sleep deprivation, diapers, babysitters, PTA obligations, college tuition, etc. Let straight people deal with those headaches while I enjoy myself. 

I don’t want to be stuck in restrictive heteronormativity, giving my time and energy to a kid who’s going to go from crying to whining to tantrums to rebellion to not talking to me. And then expect me to pay their bills after they’re 18.  

And why crowd the planet even more? In my opinion, having a baby on this planet is selfish sentimentality.

Carol and I always saw 100 percent eye-to-eye on this issue but now she’s gone over to the other side. I have shared all of the above to shake some sense into her but haven’t gotten anywhere. This was not our agreement at all.

I know you can’t change someone else, but doesn’t she owe our relationship a commitment to the life we already agreed on? I’ve suggested grief counseling but she says no.

Michael replies:

No one owes their partner a commitment to not change. It’s a guarantee that we all change over time. Relationships challenge us to stay with someone as we both evolve in big and sometimes unexpected ways over the years. There’s no way around this challenge if you want to stay happily married. 

It’s also true that you don’t have to keep living with someone who changes in ways you don’t want to accommodate. So, if Carol is certain that she wants to be a mom and if you are certain that you don’t, you can leave.

It makes sense that you’re sad and angry (putting it mildly) when your wife suddenly wants to completely upend your life. That said, you’re not going to improve your marriage by criticizing Carol or insulting her wish to parent. And if you pressure her to give up a deeply held wish, she will likely resent you.

Instead of these tactics, how about being curious regarding her desire to parent? What “bigger” meaning is she hoping to get from life? How does she think her father’s untimely death affected her, not just on this issue but possibly in other ways as well?

There’s great value in being curious about our partners’ differences rather than contemptuous or critical. That’s a path toward greater intimacy, in that we get to deeply understand the person we are spending our life with. While you may not stay with Carol, you still might want to have a close and caring relationship with the woman you’ve spent 16 years with. Understanding her better might also help you make some peace with her desire to parent.

I also want to encourage you to consider that there are many ways to be gay, lesbian, queer — to be just about anything. You could say it’s “heteronormative” to want to parent; but you could also view it as a common human (and non-human) desire that is unrelated to sexual orientation. Carol has different ideas for how she wants to live. This doesn’t mean that she is foolish.

I’m curious about why you have such an unrelentingly negative view about parenting and kids. Is it possible that you’ve had some tough experiences in your life that have shaped this view? 

I’m not pushing you to change your mind, but you might consider talking with some parents to get some sense of what parenting, and children, are actually like. 

You might open up your thinking, and your heart. You might decide you are willing to lean in Carol’s direction, or you might not. In any case, I’m hopeful that you would get a more balanced picture of what parenting and childhood can be. 

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

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Advice

Should I divorce my husband for the hot new guy in our building?

Debating whether to leave or stay after the sex goes cold

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Dear Michael,

I’ve been with my husband for 10 years and the sex is pretty much gone. It stopped being exciting a long time ago and pretty much the only time we ever do it is with the occasional third.

A really hot guy moved into our building about a year ago. We would see each other sometimes in the elevator or at our building’s gym and we started talking and really hit it off. Mark is 15 years younger than I but we seem to have a lot in common. We started hooking up and the sex is amazing.

I haven’t told my husband because it’s breaking our rule about no repeats. I have to say that the secrecy is hot. It’s kind of a thrill to take the elevator upstairs when I say I’m going on an errand. But it’s more than that. I have a connection with Mark that is far more amazing than what I have ever felt with my husband. Not just the sex. We just enjoy being together, talking about anything and everything.

My husband went to visit his family last weekend and I spent the whole time with Mark. Since then I can’t stop thinking that I want to leave my husband and be with Mark.

Part of me thinks this is a crazy mid-life crisis. I mean, this kid’s in a totally different place in life. But we have mind-blowing sex and a fantastic connection. I’d like your thoughts on how to proceed.

Michael replies: 

You’ve got a lot to consider.

First: Sex with a long-term partner changes over time. It tends to be less about erotic heat and more about the connection with a person whom you love. In other words, it’s being with the person you’re with that makes the sex meaningful and even great. Having a good sexual relationship with a long-term partner comes far more from a heart connection than from a crotch attachment.  

Second: You seem ready to throw your relationship under the bus pretty quickly, without addressing other problems in the relationship besides sex. When you are sneaking around, lying, and rule-breaking , I don’t see how you can look your husband in the eye; and if you can’t look him in the eye, you certainly can’t have even a half-way decent relationship.

Yet another point to consider: Affairs pretty much always seem more exciting than marriage. The partner is new, which almost automatically makes the sex hotter; the secrecy is a thrill; and you don’t have to deal with paying the rent, house chores, and all the petty annoyances of living up-close with someone day-in, day-out.  

You are bringing lots of energy to your affair, and everything about it is exciting. You are bringing no energy — at least no positive energy — to your marriage. You get what you put into a relationship.

Divorce is not something that should be entered into lightly. Be aware that if you leave your husband for Mark, you will no doubt find over time that the sex becomes less exciting and that the connection is not always fantastic. No surprise, 75 percent of marriages that begin with affair partners end in divorce. While I don’t think statistics predict what will happen to any particular couple, believing that you will have a significantly better relationship with your affair partner than you did with your husband sets you up for likely disappointment.

Many gay men focus on “hot sex” as the big draw, pursuing a lot of sex with a lot of men, and/or pursuing an ongoing series of relationships that last until the sex cools. If that’s what you want, that’s fine. But it’s a different path from pursuing a close and loving long-term relationship, which involves knowing someone well and having him know you well; collaborating on getting through the hard stuff life throws at us; finding ways to make peace with disappointment; and consistently striving to be someone worth being married to. 

How to proceed? While you are the only person who should make that decision, I would suggest that whatever your choice, keep in mind that marriage can be more than what you’ve made of it, so far.

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

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