Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Long Distance Relationship Problems

Dead Edahn,

[Ed. -- I tried to edit this question down as best I could. Basically, he's in a LDR, they talk ALL the time and she's starting to get annoyed with all the calling, but upset when he stops.]

In college, I met this girl. We started hanging out, talking and we had a lot of chemistry, but she had a boyfriend so nothing happened. By the time she broke up with her boyfriend, I was moving to the US. We didn't talk for the next 15 years until a year ago when destiny/life put us back in contact again. I found her through Facebook, and we started talking again. We started with the occasional email and me helping her with her homework, but through talking figured out that we wanted the same things in life. We have talked about our future together, marriage, she coming to the states, or me going back where she is. What I told her, that not only I was going to earn her love and respect, but that I was going to earn the love and respect of her daughter. The one thing we have clear is that we want to be together.

Well, we started a LDR; we are in our 3rd month. We do a lot of stuff together, we talk two to three times a day, we do homework, hers and her daughter’s, we read books together, we go to the movies, and every night we do video conferencing, also during the day I email her and send her poems and funny emails to make her laugh and enjoy her day. I have asked her is she minds the calls, the emails and all the attention I give her, and she says no, that she likes it and that she enjoys all of it. But a few weeks ago she stopped responding to my emails, saying she was really busy with work changes. I'm also busy, but I find the time to do it. I told her not to worry and that I do it regardless of getting an answer or not, and that was the end of it. I get the feeling that she doesn't want to hurt my feelings and that she really doesn't like it. She likes the attention, but not all the time. But when I pull back and don't call, she asks why I didn't and assumes I abandoned her. 

Yesterday while we talked she says that she is scared that I have ghosts in my life, that I have not told her all about my old relationships. I told her there is nothing to talk about, that I dated and that I did not find anybody worth giving my love to, and its true, and that I found the person I want to share the rest of my life with and that, that person was her. She said one of those ok's, that you can feel she still is not happy. How do I make her tell me what she is really thinking, I have tried but it has been to no avail. I do not want to lose her, it took me 15 years to find the love of my life. Please help me.

She thinks you have ghosts in your life? You're not dating Melinda Gordon, are you? Ha. Putting aside my question of how you go to the movies together in a long distance relationship, I think you are dealing with a lot of neediness and self-doubt. Instead of giving you some answers about what I would do (dial down the intensity, call less, make fun of her, and probably break it off) I'm going to try and help you develop a little more sturdiness and self-reliance.

There are two ways you can approach relationships. You can approach a relationship as something that will develop on its own with interest, compatibility (which are already there or not), time and some effort, or as something you need to actively construct, measure, and manage. Most people, in my experience, go into friendships with the former mindset, but romantic relationships with latter mindset. They try to build a relationship by devising clever gimmicks to keep their partner constantly attached, interested, and invested. They do things like broadcast their dedication to their partner (writing poems, excessive compliments), belabor the relationship's strengths ("You know what I love about us?"), entertain and try to create warm fuzzy feelings in their partner (humor, intense devotional statements like "I can't imagine being without you"), suppress legitimate disagreements, and put a lot of effort into demonstrating their value. None of this stuff is bad on it's own, but the motivation that produces them causes other problems.

When you constantly put pressure on yourself to be anyone -- someone loving, someone valuable, someone similar -- you have no time to relax and just be, even if just being is being bored or quiet. That time to just be is critical because it's when you shed the gimmick-filled role. That's when bonding and meaningful interaction start. Without that, you're interacting through an inauthentic role, which pressures others to play complementary roles. You end up growing more and more apart and start to depend on the the warm fuzzy feelings created by the gimmicks to hide the disconnection. When you don't have that warmness, i.e., when the feeling of disconnection comes back, the response is either more gimmicks, worrying, or blaming and fighting. The long-distance factor makes it harder to just be because you're expected to be actively interacting on the phone, while just being is a form of passive interaction. I think this is what's happening in your relationship.

What's missing is Trust, capital T. Not just trust in the fact that your partner won't cheat on you, but trust that you will naturally come together, that you're good enough for her (baggage included), and that even if you don't end up together, you'll be okay, even if you don't find a replacement. That lack of trust inspires the gimmicks listed above which are used to push you closer. I've experienced it many times and have described it before as trying to push together two repelling magnets; it's like whatever you do, they're just going to resist and push away from each other when you let go. Capiche?

Here's how to get started. First, commit to being honest with yourself at all times. Be honest about however you're feeling. Paying close attention in moments when you might be playing a gimmick will encourage that process of honesty. You don't have to discuss every change you observe with your partner just be honest about it with yourself, privately. Second, make a commitment to yourself to be cool with whatever comes up, rather than avoidant, ashamed, or self-critical. Take a few minutes every morning to picture what that would look like for you. When honesty and coolness build a quality I call Patience, but it also goes by the name of mindfulness, Presence, nonresistance, No-Mind, self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, or self-love.

Knowing what to do with all that data, Wisdom, will develop naturally over time. Just try and make the best decision you can keeping the themes of this post in mind. Sometimes you might have to disappoint your girlfriend and pull back, not just for her sake but for yours. As you start to get a better sense of what a healthy relationship looks like (vs. a needy one) you'll start making better decisions with more confidence.

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