Relationship column: Great as a couple, not so great alone
August 20, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series.
Dear Neil: I was a full-time parent for 20 years while my husband traveled extensively, and the last 5 years of our 30 years together was all about crisis management because my husband was diagnosed with leukemia. He fully recovered, but I was all used up and felt very spent. So, I initiated the divorce.
But 5 years later, I am stuck. It's like I'm afraid to make big changes, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of the unknown. I've spent so many years taking care of other people that I don't have ideas on how to move on. Any suggestions?
— Afraid of the Unknown
Dear Afraid: It sounds like you have spent your adulthood functioning as a team member with your ex-husband, that you're intimidated and afraid of functioning on your own and you may have very little experience as to how to do it. You may need to explore the emotions that the ending of your marriage has created.
Perhaps you fear not being able to take care of yourself. Or maybe you are very introverted and shy, and are extremely uncomfortable to go places, do things and interact with other people on your own. It's possible you may have been a lifelong people pleaser, hooked on other's approval, and you haven't a clue about how to care for and receive approval from yourself.
It could be that you are feeling enormously disconnected from other people, and you secretly yearn for the comfort and security of belonging to and with someone else. Then again, you may have very low self-confidence and self-esteem, and therefore you question your ability to handle the curve balls that life inevitably throws at all of us.
These may be feelings you've always had but that being part of a couple insulated you from, so you didn't have to deal with or even be conscious of them. Your 30-year marriage may have protected you from having to think about all of these issues.
Your task is to figure out what's standing in your way in order to become a more full-functioning, vital, self-confident and independent person. So look at the following emotions very carefully, and explore which ones are in your way: loneliness; depression; anger; guilt; shame; blame; terror; fear; happiness; passion; joy; love. These are the emotions that are likely standing in your way, so look very thoroughly at which ones have hold of you, and then explore what you have to do in order to overcome the power they have over you.
Of course, it's always possible that you fear risking rejection, or that you don't feel good enough or lovable enough to explore other options and choices for your life. If so, that would entail working on and improving your self-esteem.
One more thought. Could you be emotionally hanging onto your ex-husband — and therefore you haven't put closure to that relationship — because you secretly wish for a reconciliation? If so, that will keep you stuck and unable to move on with your life, because you haven't actually detached from him. If that is the case, you need to put closure to your marriage. I will address how in next week's column.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 21st year of publication and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, and can email him through his website: http://www.heartrelationships.com. He is not able to respond individually to queries.