In love and war

Dr. Daley on Sex and Relationships

In love and war

photo / aubrey Zack Morris? 

Dear Dr. Daley: My boyfriend of one year is leaving for Iraq in about a month. Both of us want to stay together, but some friends and family members seem to be dropping subtle hints that we should we put the relationship on hold while he’s away. How would that affect him? If he returns home a changed man, how will I deal with it?

I know I’ve told you I spent 14 years married to a philosopher. No worries – eight years later I am pretty much recovered from most of it. However, I do remember asking him once whether anyone had ever come up with a better ethical system than the old Golden Rule. (For those of you who have never been taught the Golden Rule, and it looks like there are millions, including certain readers’ friends and family members, it goes like this: “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.”) Easier to remember than all the stupid usernumbers and passwords you all seem to have at your fingertips, actually living up to this standard would change the world overnight.

Before I forget to nag you, let me say that people who take surveys about what they should do in a given situation are generally looking for a consensus of opinion to support them in doing exactly what they wanted to do in the first place. If this is you, and you just want a bunch of people backing you up when you dump your “boyfriend of one year,” stop reading now and go tell the guy the truth for once. And please don’t hand him the “my parents don’t think it’s a good idea for me to wait a whole month for you to come back and then deal with possible problems on top of it, so as a good compliant daughter I am acceding to their wishes and breaking off this relationship no doubt to the benefit of us both” crap. Please just say, “I don’t want to.”

Every relationship faces crossroads where the commitment question must be faced by the TWO people involved. At the risk of boring my former students and annoying whomever it was I stole this definition from, I offer you a three-part definition of commitment. I think any people in a relationship must define their commitment specifically and discuss it at length. Very specifically. Nothing is crazier than being in a relationship when its participants aren’t even in the same book, let alone on the same page. So here it is:

  1. We stay together no matter how we feel about each other 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.

Like the Golden Rule, easy to say and profoundly difficult to live up to. You may or may not be ready to make such a commitment to your sweetheart. No shame in that; the shame comes in not being honest about it. I’m thinking just about anyone older than 12 is capable of holding onto an important relationship during a month or so of separation. So that’s not the problem. If you don’t think you can endure a month apart, there is something terribly wrong either with the relationship or with you. If it’s you, get some good psychotherapy and stay out of serious relationships until you and your therapist have reason to believe you are ready to live up to one.

You ask, what if “he returns a changed man?” Let’s see. You go off to a foreign country where people with serious weapons are seriously trying to kill you 24/7, you run into and out of bombed-out buildings, you watch your friends get blown to bits and maybe you even have some bits blown off yourself. And you return home a changed man?????

Of course he will return home a changed man, darlin’. Your question is whether you love him enough – and whether you are mature enough – to work through whatever he brings home with him. Again, no shame in that; no one can predict how well they will cope under such circumstances. If you weren’t anxious about the prospect, there would be something seriously stupid about you.

I think this is probably not the time to say to your deployed honey, “Well, I just don’t know if I could handle helping you on and off the toilet.” But if you love him enough and want to do your best to hold onto this relationship, you could say, “This is all really scary and all I can promise is that I will stay completely faithful to you while you are gone and I will put in 100% to hold onto this relationship when you return.” (Oh. Don’t do the WWII thing and elope before he goes. America doesn’t need another divorce.)

Then you will live up to your best image of Girlfriend while he is away, even if it means standing in line at the post office week after week with boxes of Maxim and chocolate-chip cookies. You will anticipate challenges upon his return, and you will have advanced knowledge of all the “help” resources available in case the two of you need them after his return. You will make it clear to your former Decisions Committee that you expect their full and enthusiastic support and will walk out at the first whiff of “We told you so.”

The VA will be a good place to inquire about counseling resources, but there are plenty of therapy-type helpers out in the world who work with post-trauma adjustment as well. We are, of course, optimistically assuming that you will have more upon his return than the image of his mother walking away from a hole in the ground with a stars-and-stripes triangle clasped to her breast.

There’s nothing wrong with fear and doubt. Just confront them honestly, figure out what you are capable of, and shut down the voting booth. When you are adults, there are some things that must be decided strictly between you and your man.

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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Anonymous's picture

Hi Dr. Daley. I think you should read your questions before you write your answers (or have the paper hire a proofreader?). This person did not say her boyfriend is going to Iraq FOR one month (who would be deployed for one month anyway?), she said he was going IN one month.

I’m not saying the philosophy behind your answer is wrong or anything, but it sure would look better if you didn’t devote multiple sentences to something your reader never said.

Bernie's picture

Its three in the morning first time reader enjoyed the intelligence thank-you