Dear Dr Ren:
I’m a guy in my mid-thirties who came out of a long-term relationship about a year ago.
Almost immediately I met Ken. I loved being with him and he sure helped me quit thinking about my ex.
Now eight months later, Ken is making noises about moving in together, and even when he’s not, it’s clear that I’m right back in another capital R relationship.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m crazy about this guy, and I don’t want to ruin a good thing if I’m only gun shy. Still, I feel myself resisting.
Is this commitment phobia because I’ve just been burned, or am I confusing feeling good with love?
Let me begin by congratulating you for being more aware than the average bear (not that I know you’re a bear *wink*). Generally such a letter would come from Ken, asking why you won’t commit to the Relationship.
Ken is your transitional man, the fellow you hook up with to salve your broken heart while you are grieving the loss of a love.
It’s about timing, you see.
What Ken is like and how you fit together is almost irrelevant. He may be the perfect man for you and you for him. But you have no way to know because you have a lesson to learn that you can’t accomplish if you are in relationship.
You said in your letter “he sure helped me quit thinking about my ex.”
Ken appeared when you were in the throes of grief, having just lost your long-time lover. You felt lonely and unloved.
It doesn’t matter whether we are the leaver or the left. In those first weeks and months, we confront our fear of abandonment. It is also when we begin to make decisions about who we are, independent of our partner. It is during this time that we resolve our grief and redefine ourselves.
Without this period of resolution and redefinition, we move unfinished into the next relationship, stalling the tough emotional work that must be done.
Granted, it’s an easy choice between a) sitting still with your pain, all by yourself, and examining who you really are, until you feel confident and loveable again, or b) honeymooning with someone who thinks you are fascinating.
But, as you are learning, dodging the work and choosing the honeymoon eventually begins to itch because you really do need to mourn your loss. That may explain your “resistance” and “commitment phobia.” And facing it now may have the added consequence that you have to mourn the loss of the original boyfriend and the new one, if Ken can’t accommodate your needs.
But remember: there’s the part about finding out who you are now, too, and that can be remarkable. The only way we can fly is if we have space to fully extend our wings. You may find you need to be alone, out of a “capital R relationship,” to figure out what you want next out of life.
It may be that that’s Ken, or someone like him. Or maybe not.
In the meantime, you need to resolve your Relationship with Ken.
In the pursuer/distancer dance you describe, you have the power to change the rhythm by asking directly for what you want. Of course, that requires your figuring out what it is you do want.
You have some choices.
You could do nothing, wait for your limerence (new relationship energy) to fade and wait till you get really annoyed. Of course, you’d have to live with yourself and the inevitable fallout. Not the high road.
You could sabotage the Relationship so that Ken breaks up with you.
You could probably do this by picking a fight with him about how he smothers you and then accuse him of being “just like my ex!” You could then flounce out, leaving him feeling responsible. Also low road.
Or you could tell Ken how much you care for him and appreciate his help through a rough patch.
You could explain why you’ve been unable to commit to him because the timing of your meeting precluded your processing the end of your last Relationship. You could tell Ken that you are confused about your feelings and need some time to sort out what is really going on for you. Then, after deciding what that is, you could ask for what you want from him.
Then you sit back and give him some time to respond.
Yes, this would be the high road choice.
It is challenging to take responsibility for ourselves and give others the same opportunity. The consequences are clear and immediate, though sometimes painful. Foolishly, we believe it hurts less to cut off the puppy’s tail an inch at a time.
It is also rewarding, though the rewards are not always immediate.
Perhaps a grief counsellor can help you resolve your losses efficiently.
Ken may surprise you with his compassion and understanding. You may discover remarkable qualities in yourself.
Regardless of the outcome, you will be free of the doubt that plagues you now.
Clarity is its own brand of happiness.