Dear Dr. Gail: Until last month, I was in a relationship with a 42-year-old professional man who had never been married. I am 38 and have never been married either. We dated for over a year. From the beginning, I felt that I was constantly defending myself. He accused me of being more concerned about my career than about personal relationships. When I told him my greatest dream was to have a family, he quizzed me on whether I really wanted children and even questioned whether I was selfless enough to be a parent.
He accused me of having too many past relationships. Before our relationship, he had none that lasted more than a few months. He criticized the closeness I have with my parents and siblings. He called my friendships dysfunctional and refused to spend time with even my closest friends.
I know this is the product of his insecurity and inexperience with relationships, and I feel horrible for not being more patient and tolerant. He did make several strides in our time together, including being less rigid about his schedule and talking about problems rather than having us retreat to our respective corners. Yet after another conversation where I expressed how his criticism depressed me, he said he did not want to hear my complaints again. We wound up ending things on an ambiguous note by simply not calling the other.
My question is twofold. First, should I initiate contact, if for no other reason than to get closure and show respect for the end of a significant relationship? Second, have I been selfish in not giving him more time to work through his insecurities? I want so badly to be in a loving relationship, but am beginning to believe I am either not equipped to be in one or not worthy for one. -- Looking for Love
Dear Looking: I’ll start with the old joke: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Only one, but the light bulb must want to change. If you can’t even talk to this man about your relationship without having him say, “I don’t want to hear it,” then that’s a clear sign he doesn’t want to engage you. You cannot change him, if he’s unwilling to change.
Even though you acknowledge this was not a quality relationship, part of you still wonders what you could have done more to save it. It sounds to me that you tried hard enough, if not too hard. In fact, it’s worth questioning why, when you felt so emotionally suppressed and criticized, you remained with him as long as you did. From the beginning, you had signs of his disdain for you. Yet, despite these red flags, you tried to work things out. (And believe me, in most cases, I am all for trying.)
You were even able to make some progress, but not enough to turn him into a loving, caring, supportive partner. At some point, it is certainly reasonable to conclude that you can’t change him, you’re not a good fit for each other, or you’ve reached an impasse and need to move on.
You say you want a loving relationship, but fear you are not equipped for one or worthy for one. It’s common for women to blame themselves when a relationship doesn’t work out. It’s also not unusual for them to wish so fervently to be in a relationship that they remain in one that isn’t loving and wears them down.
And many women are so shaken and disheartened by yet another failed relationship that they question their own self-worth. In fact, relationships like this one — where one partner repeatedly criticizes the other — intensify those negative feelings. You sound insightful and thoughtful, so it’s unfortunate that you spent over a year with someone who undermined your self-worth so much that you started to believe him!
Certainly, it is understandable that you feel the clock ticking at 38, but that’s no reason to stay in a bad relationship. You should spend your time and energy on seeking a better relationship rather than on rescuing this one.
You ask about creating closure. In general, it is better to be clear about an ending than to have a relationship peter out or to have a standoff, where each person refuses to speak first. In an ideal world, everyone would convey a clear message so the situation is tied up neatly. In your case, you can contact this man if you think it will give you closure. But because in your last interaction with him, he remained dismissive, it might be impossible to gain the closure you seek.
I also note that at 42, he has never had a significant relationship. That’s a red flag, which signals potentially insurmountable issues. Undoubtedly, there’s a reason for his lengthy bachelorhood: fear of intimacy, an idiosyncratic personality, etc. And he likely has no idea he has these characteristics. If fact, if someone told him he had them, he would probably deny it.
Any woman who stays involved with such an emotionally unavailable man has her work cut out for her, and may wind up in a protracted, unsatisfactory relationship that is destined never to come to fruition. A man with commitment and intimacy issues is bad boyfriend material — and even worse husband material.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Struggling to salvage a difficult relationship rarely works. Don’t blame yourself for its failure — some people you become involved with simply don’t have what it takes to be a good, loving partner.