Looking the gift horse in the mouth

Dr. Daley on Sex and Relationships

Dear Dr. Daley: About five years ago I got hired at my first job. (I was 16.) Where I work, there are representatives from companies who come into our store and install demo stations. About one month into my job, one of the representatives for one of the companies came in. He was tall, skinny, had thick black hair, bluish green eyes, and oh so many tattoos! He was incredible! Unfortunately, we didn’t hit it off so well. He didn’t talk to me at all, unless he had to… which lead me to believe he didn’t care for me much. In return, I would try to joke around with him to show him that I was a cool girl with an interesting personality. Unfortunately again, I think it backfired, because he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me after that.

photo / mrhappy 

So five years went by of awkward conversations until finally, one day, I had had enough. I mustered up all the courage I had to ask him out… only to find out he had a girlfriend of eight years… and that he was 31.

Ouch. I know.

I think it was one of the worst, figurative, kicks to the gut I had ever had – about the girlfriend of eight years, not the age. After that, to save as much face as I could, I offered a friendship instead of a relationship. He seemed like a neat guy, and from the outside it appeared like we had a ton in common. He agreed, and that’s when everything began. We talked on the phone, talked online, and even hung out every now and then. He confessed that he didn’t hate me for those past five years, he was just too afraid to talk to me. We hit it off so well! Eventually it started to bother his girlfriend, and that’s when the trouble began.

Even though we were just friends at the time, she started checking his cell phone, reading our AIM conversations, and quizzing him every night about what we talked about. She even went so far as to forbid him from talking and hanging out with me. Because he was trying to appease his girlfriend, he agreed not to talk to me anymore or hang out with me. He made it about a day before breaking down and telling her “no dice.” After that we started talking more. The more we talked the more I thought I had found the most perfect person for me. We would talk for an hour or so a day on the phone, and then for hours online at night. This was all in the course of one month.

One night while talking, he confessed that when he was attempting to break all contact with me, he was miserable. He said his chest felt heavy, and he didn’t want to do anything. He even told me about how I was what he had always wanted in a woman. He was also telling me about how he was sick of his girlfriend’s crap. The way she was trying to “spy” on him, and how she would question him every night about what we did or what we talked about.

The following week he came back into my store, looking utterly miserable. Immediately I felt a horrible tug in my stomach and confronted him. He told me then that he had to make a choice: Her or me. If he wanted to stay with his girlfriend, he could never speak to me again. The rest of his visit was agonizing. Before he left, he asked me, “What do you want me to do?”

Honestly? I knew. I wanted him to leave her and run away with me like some sort of crazy fairy tale… but instead I bit my tongue and told him that it was his decision, and that I couldn’t be the one to make that choice for him. I also told him, though, that I did really like him and that I would date him if he were single. After that he left and we hugged goodbye.

Twenty-four hours went by without hearing anything from him. I assumed he chose her. I mean, why wouldn’t he? Eight years, a house… it seemed like so much to give up for just little old me.

Well, I was wrong. That night he told me they were breaking up, and that he would call me again tomorrow. We started dating about two weeks after that and have been dating for a couple of months now. Everything is perfect and I am the happiest I have been in such a long long time. But something has been bothering me.

Is it all too good to be true? This seems like some sort of fairy tale. Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve this, or that I am going to wake up and it will all be a dream. Is it all my fault that their relationship ended? Am I a home wrecker? If he left a house and eight years for me, what would it take for him to want to move on and leave me later? What do you think about this whole situation? Does he still have feelings for her? I mean, I’m sure he still cares about her, but do you think he misses being with her?

Maybe I’m just being irrational? Should I not be looking the gift horse in the mouth?

photo / skyfaller 

Dear Gift Horse Looking Girl: As I am sure you know, I was an English major; I just love it when someone gives me a chance to teach a new vocabulary word. From Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition because it’s the only dictionary in the office:

dis-in-gen-u-ous, adj (1655): lacking in candor*; also, giving a false appearance of simple frankness: CALCULATING.

*You may want to look up “candor” on your own.

As I am also sure you know, I at my advanced age have had the dubious privilege of playing just about every role in the love repertoire. I’ve been the dumper, the dumpee, the cheater, the cheater’s blood-soaked victim, the one who gets romance going and the one who’s had romance kindled for her to the point of delicious inevitability. So I can look at this new relationship of yours from the point of view of both the women involved. I hope you can, too.

While you showed far more maturity and restraint with Cute Tattooed Guy than I would have done at your age, I always hope for better than that. But once you “offered a friendship instead of a relationship,” it seems you lost sight of what friendship means. When you are a friend who appears to be creating a problem in your friend’s life, you back way off and stay backed off. Not for a whole day or a whole week, but maybe for months or even a year. You give your friend room to give their relationship the best possible chance for survival or a clean and thorough ending. You wait, saying nothing. When they call and say they can’t get through another day without you, you say, I’m sorry, you have some important stuff to do in your relationship. Call me in six months.

Think what your “friendship” must have been like for his partner of eight years. Do you imagine she didn’t know how women work? At that point any fissures in their relationship began to split wide open until all that was left was rubble. And there you were, standing right in the middle of the rubble, young and pretty and hanging on his every word, ready to bring him home and wash the dust off all those lovely tattoos. It’s new for you, but it’s among the oldest stories in the book. One day you will probably live through her side of it.

I don’t know how much of this you can know at 21. I will say that if C.T. Guy doesn’t know it at 31, he’s either being more disingenuous than you, or I wouldn’t throw my birth control pills away just yet. When you ask, How do I know he won’t do this to me? you ask a mouthful. Merriam-Webster may not list my definition of “commitment,” but I think it’s something the two of you ought to have some serious conversations about.

In case you’ve missed it, I offer a three-part definition of commitment:

  1. We stay together no matter how we are feeling about one another at a given moment.
  2. We make no major decisions without talking them over first.
  3. We do nothing without considering its impact on the other person. Further explanation is available upon request.)
photo / Daisy Romwall 

An eight-year relationship, as you may one day discover, is a complicated thing. It’s not easy to keep up that early level of passion, intimacy, and excitement. Plain old day-to-day life creates rifts, distance, and an accumulation of major and minor disappointments. When such periods occur, there is great vulnerability. It’s pretty normal to start wishing for something easier, more fun, something new. A couple must do a lot of work to save the relationship, or, finding that impossible, take the time to let it go and ponder what just happened before moving on to a new one.

Now, who knows? Maybe C.T. Guy’s ex was a crazy bitch with a $200 a day heroin habit. Maybe he needed to get out. Leaving her could be the best decision he’s ever made. But you’ll never know, because you were in the middle of the dissolution. That’s why this dream relationship feels uncertain to you: Even if you didn’t “cause” his previous relationship to fall apart, you helped. You know it and so does he. This necessarily creates a complication between you two. It’s one of the reasons why rebound relationships are often like amazingly beautiful side-by-side hand-carved deck chairs on the Titanic. Splendid but doomed.

Even if the two of you stay together, he needs time and space to truly finish up with his previous relationship. He has to figure out what went wrong with their dyad; how he could have been a better lover; and what actually sucked about his ex. They probably ought to have a few conversations about it all. Conversations that are none of your business, unless you opt to offer her an apology for participating in the whole deal, in which case you must do that on your own.

Best of luck with all this, really. As I say, it’s a lot to comprehend at 21. And when I get my hands on the person who thought up the whole “learn by experience” model, I’ll thrash them for both our sakes.

About the author Dr. Nancy Daley is a licensed psychologist and adjunct assistant professor who teaches Human Sexuality at The University of Texas at Austin. If you would like to submit questions for her to answer in this column, please send them to drdaley at thatotherpaper dot com.

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