Sweep Out the Old Relationship Issues
and Ring In the New Closeness
By Alicia Fortinberry, MS
What was your New Year's resolution? Stop procrastinating, start exercising, give up those midnight snacks? BORING!!! (As a friend of mine is fond of saying.) But here's a resolve that can really brighten and de-stress your life: finally taking a good look at those niggling relationship issues, resentments or secrets that keep us feeling slightly (or very) guilty. These are usually aspects of friendships we don't want to acknowledge, even to ourselves. Yet even seemingly small issues can play a powerful role in tarnishing relationships and diminishing closeness.
Eleanore has recently married and has a car and a nice house in the suburbs and a husband who makes a fair amount of money and travels a lot. Mara and she have been best friends since highschool; they've traveled and lived together at times over the years. Mara is a painter who makes next to zilch. Eleanore has always been the practical one of the pair: she was always good at making plans and ensuring things got done. Mara's whimsical enthusiasm counteracted Eleanore's serious, task-and-goal orientation and contributed fun and artistic projects. The two balanced each other well, but recently they have been drifting apart; last Christmas was the first time they've spent the holiday separately in a decade.
The problem turned out to be (when I spoke to both about it), that Mara, who was in therapy, had begun to resent Eleanore's tendency to control. Meanwhile, Eleanore felt Mara was not appreciative enough of the favors she did, such as running errands in her car and giving Mara a computer her husband had built. Eleanore's marriage and new station in life had upset the delicate balance of their friendship, and neither knew how to repair it.
"It got so bad I was afraid to answer the phone or look up my email, in case I got another request I couldn't say no to," says Eleanore. "I felt used, but I also felt terribly guilty for pulling away."
"I felt criticized the minute I walked into Eleanore's house," admitted Mara. "I stopped visiting or calling. But it wasn't a conscious decision. I miss Eleanore, but I don't know how to get back together."
Once the two women were willing to look at what was happening, the solution was fairly simple. Eleanore stopped criticizing her friend, realizing that this was a form of dysfunctional and unnecessary control. She also learned to be honest when she didn't want to help Mara. Mara recognized her own tendency towards dependency and her resentment of her friend's good fortune. She made an effort to seek rides from other people, and enrolled in a computer course so she wouldn't always have to ask her friend's husband for help.
Is there something about a friend of yours that's bugging you, but that you haven't really looked at? A good clue is when the phone rings and you hope it isn't them, or when instead of looking forward to spending the usual time with them you find yourself making excuses. Think: did you always feel this way, or has something changed? Do you feel the relationship is equal, and your needs are being met, or do you feel you put in most of the effort or wind up doing things you don't really want to do? Do you get irritated when you're with them, but try to brush it aside?
Sometimes the issue is something simple, such as requests you no longer want to meet, or a feeling that you keep giving in to their demands without them reciprocating. Sometimes the problem runs deeper, perhaps involving something you feel you can't say but that bothers you nonetheless.
Laura felt that Samantha's husband, Lance, was coming on to her. Samantha was upset by her friend's new coolness to her husband, and the relationship took a nose dive. After many months, Laura finally confided in her friend. Samantha didn't want to face the issue at first. However, she did confront her husband, who confessed he had a problem regarding flirting with women. Samantha's husband sought counseling, and the two women resumed their friendship. As terrible as the truth may seem, it is usually better to tell it. Exceptions are when the truth will hurt your friend or partner but bring no resolution or change.
Katrine had a history of flirting with inappropriate men, and this tendency did not stop when she got married. The roots of the problem were inappropriate sexual attention in childhood by her father, who ignored her the rest of the time. In seeking Daddy, she tended to look for inappropriate men. She discussed this tendency with her husband, and sought help for the problem. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, her problem was the perfect trigger for her husband, whose mother had been unfaithful to his father, leading to divorce. In her attempts at honesty, Katrine let her husband know every time she was "tempted" by another man. This simply made him feel edgy, mistrustful and powerless. At my advice, Katrine joined a 12-step program for sex and love addicts and brought her "confessions" to her sponsor and myself, sparing her husband.
These instances of the advantages of not telling are fairly rare. Mostly, think of the secrets you have. Do you really need them? Often clients who come to me want to hide their difficulties ranging from dyslexia to depression. However, they find that if they are open about their problems and enlist others in finding solutions, all parties are relieved. For instance, if you tell someone you are dyslexic and need them to repeat phone numbers so you can be sure you got them correctly, people are only too happy to help. Likewise, if you suffer from depression, let people know you may have difficulty calling them back if you are going though a bad patch, but that you'll recontact them when you emerge.
Arlene was a sex abuse survivor. This was a secret she hid from even her closest friends, a habit she had picked up as a child when she was threatened with dire consequences if she told her anyone what her older brother was doing to her. Her childhood fear was reinforced when she finally go up the courage to mention her brother's actions to her mother, and her mother scolded her for "making up stories." Arlene avoided long-term relationships with men, since her pattern was to stop wanting sex as soon as she felt secure in a relationship. (Sex was, to her, simply a price for closeness.) She told no one of this difficulty, not even her best woman friend, Jessie. Jessie began to feel that Arlene was holding back on her, and not sharing important confidences about her life. After much discussion in therapy, Arlene let Jessie in on her secret.
"I was so surprised by Jessie's reaction!" a jubilant Arlene reported back to me. "She said she was honored by my confidence and felt much closer to me. I no longer have to hide my uneasiness around dating from her, and she's even got some good suggestions."
Eventually, Arlene was even able to mention her difficulty to men she was becoming close to. Some weren't able to handle her sexual reticence, but she did find a man who understood and was determined not to let her past interfere in their relationship.
So make 2004 the year you don't let secrets or old patterns interfere with your friendships and happiness. Out with guilt and shame! In with joy and clarity!
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About the Author
Alicia Fortinberry is an award-winning health writer, and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with her husband and long-term collaborator Dr Bob Murray, she is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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