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ADVICE: My girlfriend wants me to pretend I’m just a ‘friend’ when her parents visit

Is going back into the closet for a significant other an automatic dealbreaker?

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Michael,

My girlfriend is graduating from law school in May and her parents are coming to D.C. for her graduation.

Kristy isn’t out to her parents. They have heard of me, but only as a good friend of Kristy’s. We have been dating for a little over a year.

Kristy wants me to be at her graduation and wants me to pretend we’re just friends in front of her parents.

I don’t want to participate in a charade. This means not going to her graduation. Or, if I go to the ceremony, it means staying away from her and her parents, so that we aren’t together on her big day.

Kristy is mad at me because I’m refusing to go. We’ve already had a version of this fight when her parents came for a visit last fall and she wanted me to meet them as “just a friend.” But this time is worse because it’s her graduation from law school.

Her parents are staying with her at her apartment and I asked her what she will do with the pictures of the two of us she has out. Kristy told me she is going to hide them. 

I think this is a pathetic move and a horrible idea to lie to her parents about our relationship. If we stay together, how would she backpedal from having told them we’re just friends? Lying makes everything too complicated.

Kristy says she isn’t ready to come out to her parents now. I asked her what she’s afraid of if she does come out to them, and all she could say was that she doesn’t want to let them down. She says she knows they’d be unhappy if they knew she was lesbian.

Outside of this, Kristy is really cool and has a lot of self-confidence. I just don’t get it.

How do I get though to her that she’s perpetuating a really bad situation? Also, how do I deal with her insisting that I “be there” for her at her graduation when this means pretending we’re not a couple?

Kristy tells me I am being an unsupportive girlfriend and that I should be more understanding that her parents would give her a tough time and evidently be devastated. She says I’m basically a spoiled brat for thinking it’s easy for everyone to come out, because both my parents have gay siblings and are really gay-positive.  

I understand that coming out isn’t always easy, and I don’t think I’m unsupportive for thinking it’s important to come out to your parents and be honest. Help?

Michael replies:

You can’t get Kristy to behave or think the way you do, or the way you’d like her to. Just as she can’t get you to do her bidding.

You each can advocate for what you’d like from your girlfriend, but you have to let go of the outcome. This may mean accepting each other as you are, if you do want to be together at present. 

Can you make your peace with having a girlfriend who isn’t out to her parents? That absolutely does not mean that you must pretend to be straight or lie about your relationship to them. It simply means tolerating that Kristy is not out to them.  

Can Kristy be OK with having a girlfriend who won’t participate in her charade with her parents? If so, you and Kristy might have a viable relationship, for the time being.

Obviously, this situation isn’t workable long-term, if the two of you want to take steps such as getting married, having a child or just including her parents in your lives in any kind of honest way.

If you’re willing to tolerate the situation, waiting to see what Kristy does while honoring your own bottom line of behavior, then you can stay in this relationship — for now.  

This would mean letting Kristy decide for herself how she wants to proceed, without your suggestions, prodding or ultimatums. 

Similarly, if Kristy wants a healthy, mutually respectful relationship, she would be wise to respect your choices and stop trying to shame you into doing what she wants. Shaming at times serves a valuable purpose, but it is too often an ugly tool employed from a place of low functioning to manipulate another person.  

You can’t get Kristy to stop this behavior, although you can certainly ask.You do get to choose whether or not you want to keep living with it: If you decide that you don’t want to be in this relationship with Kristy as she is, you are free to go. 

The same point holds true for Kristy. 

If you’re considering staying put for the present, here is a question to consider: Is Kristy taking any steps to deal with her fears about letting her parents down? If she’s not, you have good reason to be skeptical that she will change her stance anytime soon.

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

Tips for strengthening your relationship

On Valentine’s Day, recommit to tackling challenges together

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This Valentine’s Day, take these steps to strengthen your relationship.

Working as a couples therapist, I’ve had many people tell me over the years how difficult they think it is to have a happy relationship. “The divorce rate is over 50%.” “It’s so much work.” “If it’s this hard, something must be wrong.”

Here’s some very good news: The high divorce rate and the number of failed relationships you see around you need have no impact on the success of your own relationship. 

While building and maintaining a healthy relationship takes effort, doing so is possible, and the ongoing challenge of finding creative and loving ways to handle tough challenges can actually be fun. 

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are my top suggestions for steps you can take to have a great relationship. 

Please keep in mind that while these steps are simple in concept, they are not always easy to practice. So don’t get discouraged. And remember that if you consistently work at doing your best in your relationship, doing so will likely get easier over time.

  • Strive to always have a sense of humor about how difficult relationships can be.  We’re all different in big ways, so of course it’s hard to share your life with someone at times. If you can keep this in mind instead of thinking “this should be easy,” you will actually have a much easier time navigating the challenges of being coupled. 
  • Avoid wanting to be “right.” By this, I mean both trying to prove to your partner that you are right, and simply maintaining the belief in your mind that you are right.  Wallowing in this belief gives you a sense of superiority, competition, and grievance, all of which are corrosive to your relationship. In addition, if there is a winner in the relationship, there is a loser, and that’s a terrible dynamic for a couple to have.
  • Aim to be generous: Be open to saying “yes” to your partner’s requests whenever possible; endeavor not to keep score on who has been more generous; and make it a priority to support your partner’s happiness. And at the same time:
  • Have a boundary when necessary. When you say “no,” do so from your integrity, not from scorekeeping or spite. This means understanding why something is important to your partner, while at the same time being clear that something different is even more important to you that requires saying “no” to your partner’s request.
  • Accept that disappointment is inevitable in every relationship. Because we are all different, we will at times see, understand, think, prioritize, and behave in ways that are very different from our partners, including on important matters.  Therefore, it’s inevitable that we will occasionally be gravely disappointed in our partners, just as they will be gravely disappointed in us. That’s life.  Accepting this truth can make it easier to bear. 
  • Advocate for what is important to you. Two caveats, though. First, you don’t want to weigh down the relationship with too many requests. Second, be prepared to not always get what you ask for. It is not your partner’s job to meet your every want.
  • Don’t wait for your partner to make the first move when you want something to happen. If both of you are waiting for the other person to go first, nothing will happen.  This includes (but is absolutely not limited to) apologies, initiating sex, planning vacations, and starting hard conversations.

On a related note:

  • Focus on what you can do to improve a situation, rather than on what your partner is doing, is not doing, or should be doing. We don’t have much power over the other person, but we have a lot of power over ourselves.

A special note for gay men: Open relationships appear to be practically the norm these days, but they are tricky to conduct well. (Yes, monogamy has its own challenges.) Jealousy, messy boundaries, dishonesty, and trust issues get easily activated. If you want to build a strong open relationship, be aware that doing so takes a lot of skill, a lot of honesty, a lot of acceptance, and some ways of keeping your primary relationship special. 

Also keep in mind that being a gay man doesn’t automatically provide skills such as:

  • The solidity of self to be trusting and generous.
  • The ability to sense how far boundaries can be pushed without doing too much damage. 
  • The capacity to transcend feelings of jealousy and pain. 
  • The strength of character not to idealize outside sex partners.

Wishing you a happy Valentine’s Day!

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

When one half of a couple wants kids and the other doesn’t

How to navigate the biggest decision spouses will make

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Dear Michael,

I’m wrestling with my fiancé about becoming parents and it’s delaying our getting married.

We’ve been dating for three years and would like to spend our lives together. But the issue of becoming parents has always been a source of disagreement for us.

Will says he has never been that interested, while I’ve always wanted to be a dad.

Will says he is willing to do it if it’s important to me but he’s really concerned he will be resentful. He doesn’t want to give up having an active social life that includes going out a fair amount, drinks, dinners, and vacations with our friends, lots of time at the gym, etc. 

I like doing those things too but I’m feeling that I’m at a stage of my life (I’m 31) where I can put a fair amount of that behind me in order to focus on creating and raising a family. I wish he would also be willing to do so, but I know I can’t change his priorities.

I am hopeful we can work this out. For starters, I think that since he wants to go out more than I do, I could stay home a fair amount of the time and take care of the kids when he’s doing what he wants to do.  

Also, we are both pretty successful and could afford a fair amount of child care (especially as we advance in our careers—and we’re not going to be having children right away) so I’m thinking we could have a nanny who could take care of the kids when we want to stay out late or go away for a weekend, or even come with us sometimes when we travel so that we’re able to also do what’s important to Will and not just be with the kids at every moment. 

I’m thinking we can have the best of both worlds.

Will’s not as optimistic as I am and this worries me. I think I’ve come up with some good solutions and would like him to be supportive and on board. He says he doesn’t think it’s that simple but when I press him for what that means, he won’t say.

I don’t feel like we can get married until we’ve figured this out. What are your thoughts for how we can get to a place of agreement on this?

Michael replies:

If you and Will are going to build a successful long-term marriage, you both will need to develop your ability to discuss hard topics, including your differences of opinion on important matters.  Otherwise, you will have a lot of resentment, anger, and misunderstandings over the years.

Your current gridlock is an opportunity for both of you to work on tolerating hard conversations and the possibility of tremendous letdowns. This isn’t fun, but it’s an essential part of being in an intimate relationship.

My hunch is that Will won’t give you a straight answer because he doesn’t want to let you down. You can’t force him to tell you what he’s thinking, but perhaps you can get his answer by letting him know that you want to know what he’s thinking, even if what he’s thinking may gravely disappoint you.  

For you to have this conversation with Will, you will have to mean what you say: You must be prepared for him to tell you that he doesn’t want to be a father.

Unless Will is willing to parent with an open heart and without resentment, going forward with parenthood would be a mistake. The resentment would be corrosive to your relationship and would damage any children you might have. Children should never be made to feel that they are a burden or annoyance to a parent.  

Let’s look at your thoughts on making parenting more palatable for Will. 

With regard to your idea that the two of you could frequently go out and travel, while leaving the kids with a nanny: Good parenting is time-intensive. Especially in the early years, it’s vital that you consistently convey to children through your presence and actions that you are there for them, that you love them, and that they are your top priority.  This is how children develop a “secure attachment” — the bedrock of strong self-esteem, a sense of security that comes from inside, and the ability to form healthy relationships.  

I certainly don’t mean being present every minute — obviously, most parents have jobs, rely to some degree on childcare and babysitters, and need some time to occasionally have at least a bit of a life apart from being a parent. And I can’t tell you exactly what “enough” is, other than to say that parents should generally be the ones to wake their children up, feed them at least some of their meals, take them on adventures, bake cookies together, just hang out, read books to them, do the bedtime routine, and be there in those middle-of-the-nights when a child needs comforting.  

Your idea of staying home while Will does his thing seems like a quick road to resentment. Do you think you’d be happy wishing him a fun night on the town while you’re staying home for the umpteenth time with a sick or wound-up toddler who refuses to go to sleep, or simply stuck doing the bedtime routine solo, yet again? Moreover, it would be awful for your child to have a sense that one of his or her parents is somehow distant or unreliable. You want to aim for your kids to feel like they are the apple of your eye.

Here’s an idea: You are apparently doing all the work to figure out how to make parenting easy on Will. How about asking Will for his ideas on what it would take to make parenting something he’d be willing to do? Perhaps if the two of you collaborate, you could find a way forward that works for you both. 

On a related note, talking with parents (gay and straight) of young children about their experiences would be helpful and eye-opening to you both in all sorts of ways. 

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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How to keep your hands on the steering wheel of your life

Pay attention to yourself and strive to pause before you act

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Control your temper but set boundaries when dealing with conflict.

What do you do when your partner snaps at you, big time, after you’ve already had a hard day? Do you snap back, which may feel great in the moment, but might lead to a rotten evening? Or do you find some way to calm yourself and see if you can stay connected?

What do you do when your friends all seem to have a strong opinion about something important to you and you strongly disagree with them? Do you speak up and risk their censure? Or do you stay silent, go along with the crowd, perhaps keep your friends, but betray your beliefs?

What do you do when someone close to you presses you to take some action that you wouldn’t respect yourself for doing? Do you disappoint them, or disappoint yourself?

Many of us lack any sort of plan or guiding philosophy for how we would handle character-defining moments under pressure. Instead, we react, out of fear or anxiety or anger.  

 My view is, our lives go better when we’re thoughtful about how we respond to the hard stuff. When we do what we believe is right, even when doing so is difficult, we tend to respect ourselves—and like ourselves better.

There’s a name for this approach: Differentiation—the ability to hold your own shape and behave in a way that your respect even when there’s outside pressure not to.  

Holding a differentiated stance means staying as calm as you can in tough situations. It means standing up for what you believe is important even when there are consequences. It means operating with integrity. Differentiation is a necessary ingredient for any solid relationship, including romantic relationships, friendships, being a parent, and being adult sons and daughters to our parents.

 Aspiring to hold a differentiated stance is always worthwhile, though it is not always achievable and is definitely not a steady state. Something or someone (often someone close to us) will frequently press our buttons and throw us off. That’s just the way life goes. My advice when this happens: don’t get discouraged. Differentiation is more a journey than a destination. 

How can you get better at keeping your hands on the steering wheel of your life? You start by paying attention to yourself and striving to pause before you act. Yes, it is almost that simple. 

Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

In that pause, ask yourself why you’re having the reaction you’re having. When you have some understanding of what’s going on inside, you have more power over your response.

Also in that pause, strive to calm yourself as best you can. This will give you some bandwidth to focus on how you would like to respond, rather than simply reacting.  

Of course, calming yourself is hard to do when you’re anxious or angry. Yet there are many ways to calm down even a little, including taking a short break from the interaction to collect your thoughts, or taking some slow, deep breaths. One powerful way to get a grip is to remind yourself, “I’m likely to respect myself a lot more if I can do what I think is right.”

Now your mind may be calm enough to think about how you want to respond. Yes, screaming may sometimes be the way to go, but escalating a personal conflict usually takes us nowhere good. 

Here’s a question to ask yourself, not only in these moments, but all the time: “What would it mean for me to be a spouse/parent/friend/person whom I admire?” Answering this question gives you a standard you can aspire to reach and that you don’t want to sink below.

 A related point especially for couples, but with wide applicability: Many people come into my office certain that it’s the other person’s fault that things go awry. I always tell them that no matter whom they think “started it,” it is each of their jobs, individually, to hold themselves together and respond from the best in themselves.  

This means striving to avoid being the “winner.” Here’s an alternative: Be generous whenever possible; while also maintaining a boundary when it’s important to you, and accepting the other person’s having boundaries that are important to them. And remember: We all have to tolerate, be close to, and live with people who are very different from us in important ways. 

Striving to be well-differentiated helps us develop into stronger and more resilient people. The more we work at responding in ways that we admire to our challenges and difficulties, the better we get at dealing with all the stuff that life throws at us, which makes this ride more tolerable, interesting, and even enjoyable.  

And when we can look at the challenges we face as giving us strength and helping to give our lives meaning, our challenges may become easier to bear. 

Wishing you a good new year.

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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