Recently my husband and I have separated for many reasons which include him having two affairs and him feeling I am too controlling because I do not like him to go out drinking with one of the girls he had an affair with. We have a child together. But now he says he is not sure if he wants to even give it a try and very rarely comes around anymore. He has been drinking a lot and his personality has become very abrasive. He has had some financial struggles and does not help with child support at all and I continue to help him because I feel obligated to and because he said he can’t think about us when he is having money trouble. I am beginning to feel like I am holding on for nothing. He often leaves me feeling like nothing and in tears of despair. L., Las Vegas
You make me think of a Dan Fogelberg song:
Living in a house of cards
Praying the wind doesn’t blow too hard
Giving in to differences
Straining to keep up appearances
Making believe the thread can be saved
You’re aching to leave but deathly afraid of letting go
The threads entangled you so
Why is love always the last to know
L., find a safe, quiet place and sit down. Take a deep breath. Look away from these words for a moment. Then, when you’re ready, look back.
I derive no pleasure saying what I’m about to say.
You say you are “beginning to feel like I am holding on for nothing.” Shaping the issue that way misses the point, L. It is not that you might be holding on FOR nothing; rather, you are holding on TO nothing.
You might want to look away from these words again, and give yourself a minute. Think of it like those few crucial, critical, stunning moments that follow after the little boy calls out from the crowd, “But … he’s naked. The Emperor has no clothes!”
As a matter of fact, the Emperor is naked. He has no clothes. Because there are no clothes.
So, that begs another question. Why would anyone hold so tight for so long to nothing?
Actually, there are observable and understandable reasons. You’re not stupid. You’re not crazy. You’re not pathetic. It is your husband’s behavior that is crazy-making.
Your husband will neither choose you nor let you go. His behavior is inconstant and ambivalent. Remember those two words. Inconstancy and ambivalence are poison. Spiritual poison. For your soul. It will make you despair. Weep.
This slow-acting poison is what makes us say things like “[I’m separated from my husband] for many reasons which include him having two affairs and him feeling I am too controlling because I do not like him to go out drinking with one of the girls he had an affair with …”, and to say it without irony. L., if a close girlfriend said that to you, you’d grab her by the collar and shake her.
You’re holding on to nothing, probably, because you are still stunned. Incredulous. The very qualities of your love and your own values about marital vows begin to work against you here. You keep waiting for your husband to suddenly snap out of it, as if he just got in to a bad batch of loco beans.
Been there, L. Got the T-shirt. Your intuition screams the truth like bloody murder, and your heart just keeps arguing that, any minute now, your beloved will choose you.
Your husband is unaccountable, which is the surest sign that you are in love with a man who cannot/will not look at himself. Live however you like, L., but the MOST IMPORTANT RULE in my hope someday for a great love affair is the woman I’m with must be able and willing to look at herself.
People who live courageously look at themselves. People who live in fear don’t. Won’t. Can’t. And, sooner or later, these people will conscript your rights, liberties, self-respect, and eventually your very happiness in service to their abiding commitment not to look at themselves. They won’t mean to. They won’t intend to. But they will.
L., we hold on to nothing until we decide to let the nothing go. That’s it.
You typically have a breathtakingly honest approach to sensitive issues but I feel this week you held back. Why would you pose such a perfectly blunt question then skate around the issue by providing an out for her to not face the answer? You asked L., “Why would anyone hold on so tight for so long to nothing?”
L. reminds me of a time in my life where I was incapable of expecting and demanding more. What I’ve learned is that when you don’t know and value your own worth, you quickly settle for silently begging for the love and respect that should be freely given.
She already knows the type of man her husband is. She can’t change him, she can only change herself … love and respect herself more. She must find out why she believes she isn’t worthy of real love and turn it around to where she does not settle until she gets it. T., Las Vegas
For you, T., sounds like blunt would sound more like this: “L, love and respect yourself more because the reason you’re stuck and won’t let go of nothing is because you lack sufficient love and self-respect!”
Never once in my career as a therapist have I told someone to get married. Or to not get married. Or to stay married. Never once have I told someone to get a divorce. Or not to get one. Not even in drastic cases, like, domestic violence.
Here’s the deal …
It’s disrespectful. Such discourse inflates the role of therapist and diminishes the expectations we should rightly have for our patients.
Even if I’m certain my patient’s behavior is a pathology, I’m reminded that everyone attaches themselves sooner or later to behavioral pathology. Including me. Unless it’s an eminent danger to self or others, my job is to invite the patient to examine the behavior. It is not my job to advise, cajole, or scold the patient via my own prejudices of what constitutes behavioral health. Same goes for interjecting unsolicited interpretations of behavior.
This restraint on my part is a fundamental way I RESPECT my patient.
So, I thought I was pretty blunt just saying out loud what she already knew: She was holding on to nothing.
T., you say that “L. reminds me of a time in my life where I was incapable of expecting and demanding more. What I’ve learned is that when you don’t know and value your own worth, you quickly settle for silently begging for the love and respect that should be freely given.”
If you were a first semester practicum student and I was your supervisor, here’s what I would say to you:
Good for you! You have the acumen to be aware of your own countertransference. That’s the word we use to describe what happens when a therapist begins to notice their own life reflected in the content of the patient. Nothing wrong with that. Deployed skillfully, it can actually be a helpful part of the therapy.
But, do you have sufficient data to KNOW THAT YOU KNOW the central issue is the L’s “incapability?” See, I don’t think so. It could be just as likely that the ugly dilemma is fueled by something more positive. To wit: Betrayal, inconstancy, and ambivalence can, for a while, completely paralyze even people with terrific self-esteem and self-respect. These relationships are “crazy-making” but that doesn’t necessarily mean WE’RE crazy.
Living and loving in such insanity, our very character and values start to work against us. It is precisely our depth of commitment overriding the deeper voice that screams: “You’re mate is a schmuck/loser! Run like hell!”
Betrayal is like a sudden death. Ever hung around people who have lost a loved one to sudden death? Takes them sometimes a couple of months just to believe it. But their slowness to grasp reality is not evidence of lack of self-esteem. So it is with betrayal. Our slowness to grasp the reality of the betrayal and its implications are, ironically, a function of just how much we trusted.
Now, again T., you could be right. Maybe L is a woman without sufficient self-respect and self-esteem. But still, I’m not going to mess with her future or her destiny … and certainly not her right to autonomy.
In the meantime, she’s free to hold on to nothing as long as she chooses. And THAT’S the blunt message I AM willing to deliver. She is choosing.