Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I’m in a relationship with someone who loves me very much, but I’m unhappy. We’re too young to have stopped having sex (30 and 36), but in the last year I can probably count on both hands how many times we’ve been intimate – not for my lack of trying. My pleading has gotten him into counseling, but I have seen no measurable improvement in this time.
I love this man, but my resentment is eroding any feelings of goodwill. I’m writing because I’ve broken up with him twice over five or so years. Each time, I felt really free and relieved at first, but within a matter of months, I missed him so much that I went back to him and things of course reverted to how they are now. He’s not a bad person, but we are not a good match.
I don’t know how to stay strong when that aching loneliness inevitably returns. For what it’s worth, I have no family to turn to, and my best friends in this city are mutual friends (we met through shared activities) whom I don’t want to put in the middle. It takes a lot to let my guard down and be vulnerable with people, and not really having another person know me emotionally is probably contributing to this revolving-door policy. How do I get up the strength to leave and stay gone?
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You stop focusing on the problem of being attached to a guy who won’t have sex with you (and is OK with that!), and start addressing the underlying problem:
“It takes a lot to let my guard down and be vulnerable with people, and not really having another person know me emotionally is probably contributing to this revolving-door policy.”
I agree that if you had more emotionally fulfilling relationships, and if you had confidence in your ability to form new ones when old ones end, then you wouldn’t be so dependent on this one chronically unsatisfying bond.
Your knowing this, it seems, hasn’t been enough of a push for you to start exploring why your walls are so high and how you can dismantle them, so please give yourself the extra shove you need.
Being extremely guarded can feel like a personality trait, but if you spend enough time people-watching, I think you’ll see that as people get older and more settled into themselves, they become much less guarded – which tells me that a high need for privacy is in many ways circumstantial. If anything, the people who remain guarded and resolutely unmellow as they age are the exceptions who prove the rule, because so often they cling, for all to see, to old ways that long since stopped working for them.
If you’re ready to take a hard look at what circumstances might have influenced you to withhold intimacy except in the rarest of cases, even at your own expense, then you might find a path out of this lonely place.
A skilled therapist can be life-changing in this regard, but it’s also possible to self-guide, as long as you’re able to admit fault, embrace failure, invite change. It’s tough but rewarding work.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.