Dear Neil: Me and my partner have been a couple for three years. In that time he has left me and come back eight different times. He came back to me two months ago, telling me he loved me and that he really wanted to make our relationship work. Things were going very well, and then out of the blue he ran off again and now refuses to talk with me. He had a terrible childhood where both of his parents treated him really badly, and he has commitment issues.
I have an 11-year-old son to think about, and this is tearing me apart. Do I walk away - knowing that my lover is out there hurting and alone - or do I wait around for another few years while he decides if he is ready to be with me and let go of his past?
- Distraught in the UK
Dear UK: People don't just let go of their pasts. He would have to actively be working on letting go of his past, most likely with a psychotherapist. And even then, it's hard to do, and there are no assurances that he would be successful at it. So it is a reasonably safe bet that if he is not actively working on his issues with a trained professional, he's not going to be more able to commit in the future.
He sounds as if he is afraid of getting close - or of staying close - to anyone, and that pattern is also not likely to change on its own. It means that he may have learned to not trust anyone when he was younger, which is a good strategy for protecting yourself and being safe, but not a good strategy for being in an intimate relationship. Intimate relationships require that we open ourselves up to someone else - and work through conflicts, disagreements, fears and insecurities together. So you waiting around for years in the hope that he will see the light sounds like an awful idea.
Are you worthy of being loved? Are you worthy of feeling secure in a love relationship? Is your son worthy of a stable environment to grow up in? If so, stop buying into this notion that the only love you can get is this. In a healthy love relationship, couple's can talk about their issues, concerns, fears and insecurities - and make requests about their needs, desires and wishes. So if your boyfriend needed reassurance or tenderness, for instance, he could just ask for it.
But in an unhealthy love relationship, which is what you're describing, you can't openly address such subjects, so he acts on his fears without talking about them, and you're left walking on eggshells around him for fear that if you don't, he'll bolt again. Are you willing to live like this (and subject your son to this) indefinitely?
Perhaps you can do better than this. Find somebody who is willing to talk through issues, fears and feelings - instead of just acting on those issues or fears. If you don't, get used to feeling unstable and insecure in your relationship with him for a very long time.
Dear Neil: I find myself stuck in a relationship where I'm passively riding along, where my desires and needs are unimportant. My husband is depressed and a bit narcissistic, and I'm beginning to think that I fell in love with him during a rare up-phase in his mood, but I didn't know him well enough to know how rare those up-phases are.
The person I'm married to is someone I don't even like, and I don't like the person I am when I'm with him, either. When we married, I thought this would be a relationship where I could grow. But I've gone backwards, and I no longer know how to grow in this enviroment. It's been eight years. Is this just the "7 year itch?" Will this pass?
- What Do I Do in Dallas
Dear Dallas: This will not pass, and certainly it will not pass by itself.
You could, however, open a very honest conversation with him about how you feel about him and about your marriage. You then could tell him what you would need in order to feel better, closer, warmer and more comfortable around him. At least that would give him a fair warning that something in the marriage is very wrong for you, and it would afford him the opportunity to respond to your needs and wishes.
So what is it that you need in order to feel like you're in a relationship that has something in it for you? What would make this relationship worthwhile, healthy or growth oriented for you? Make sure you tell him, and make sure you communicate how dire you feel.
But if he doesn't respond, or if his response is fleeting, this dynamic is not going to change.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder, Colorado. His column is in its 20th year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: www.heartrelationships.com, but he is not able to respond individually to queries.