Dating at Midlife/Hot/cold girlfriend behavior since decision to divorce
QUESTION: Hi Dr. Belove:
I’ve read through many of your answers, and you seem like the kind of person expert enough to help me out here. Thanks for your time.
Wow, where to begin.
I’m a never-married guy. My ‘girlfriend’ and I are both in our 40s and live separately, about a half hour away from each other. We began dating nine months ago while she was very unhappily married, She was the initiator of our relationship, pursued me hard, and was very sexual and very aggressive from the beginning, and I let it happen (I admit, not very honorable, but that’s the way it was). As it were, she has two children she lives with, and her and her family and friends are devout church-goers, so we obviously had to do our dating by sneaking around.
After one month of dating, she told me she loved me. Three months after we began dating, she filed for divorce and her husband of over 20 years moved out of their house.
Since she made the decision to divorce, she’s been pretty much a train wreck (my words) and she alternates from admitting this (last week, she called herself “a total whack job”) to denying it. The week she made the decision to divorce, she became a different person to me — distant, cold, uncommunicative, with a faraway look in her eyes (normally, she’s very, very affectionate and constantly needs to be in touch with me). After several days like this, during which I basically left her alone, not understanding what was happening, she started getting back to her old self again, and she said that how she seemed to me is what she must be like under stress.
Since that first time, there have been several more episodes of this “stress” reaction, where she alternates treating me like the superstar boyfriend who rocks her world and whom she cannot get enough of, to a mere acquaintance she barely speaks with (and then, only about superficialities). One of these episodes came after a fight with both her soon-to-be ex and her parents, and she texted me that she couldn’t be with me anymore because “she has to get used to being a divorcee on her own.” (???) Two weeks later, she tearfully returned to me, and we went back to being good again with each other. But, she did ask me, very emotionally, to promise to never, ever leave her, since she began to suspect that I may start seeing other women because of the way she was behaving towards me. I told her I loved her, and all I want is to date her in a real and open way, and we would do so after her divorce was final. (No one, except a very few close friends of mine, know about our relationship to this day).
I also told her that I thought she should look into getting some help, that maybe she was depressed or that stress was really taking its toll on her (she already takes meds for anxiety). I told her I would stand by her and help her in any way she needed, even leaving her alone if that’s what was best, but I would like her to communicate with me and not just disappear without explanation. And I told her I would always be available if she wanted to talk to me. But she didn’t do any of what I asked her, and refused to get any help whatsoever.
Then, on a day about two months ago when she warned me she was feeling really stressed and anxious, she caused an accident at her work which damaged property (no one was hurt). On the phone with me, she was inconsolable. Never had I heard someone cry so hard and so much, which broke my heart. I tried to meet her to comfort her, but she wouldn’t let me see her. And then she disappeared again.
A month ago, her divorce became final, and she told me how relieved she felt.
We had been in contact since the accident and before the divorce, and something had happened between her and her family in the meantime. From the information she told me, I pieced together that her family never thought that she was going through with the divorce, that she would seek counseling instead to save the marriage, but when they found out she was going through with it, they “threw her under the bus” and stopped talking to her, accusing her of all kinds of things (this is from what she told me – no other specifics). And now, she says she has “trust issues” – there is no one she can talk to, no one she trusts, no friends or family to rely on. (By way of background, she has been strapped for money most of her life, filed for bankruptcy a couple of years ago, and lives in a small rented house. She works at her job as many hours as possible to support the household, and I have given her money to help her. And she is EXTREMELY sensitive to any criticism or negative comments about her, and believes that everyone at her work and small, tight-knit community, talks about her behind her back, which she hates more than anything).
Gradually, in the two weeks following her divorce, we became closer again, getting to the point where she seemed happy and was very enthusiastic for us to start fresh and have a great dating life. She always mentioned throughout our relationship how much we have in common and how “safe” I make her feel. But, then, I called her ‘moody’ in the course of making a joke, and that immediately sent her into silence mode again. I tried to talk to her about why that set her off, and she seemed okay for a bit after that, but the next day, I was accused of ignoring her, and we were back to her being cold, aloof, and gone again. She later told me in a text she just needed time alone, and that she’s no good to me right now, and thanks for putting up with her and giving her advice.
So, that’s where we are. No communication for five days now – a record for us. Twice, she texted to see how I was, but both conversations were just cordial and friendly, nothing intimate like our relationship has been, and both were short conversations, as I cut them off because I didn’t see the point in having them. I am disappointed that she won’t talk to me about meaningful things and what is going on in her life.
I really love this woman, and want to help her, and wish to have a future relationship with her, but certainly not like this. In many ways, she is a very special woman to me, and when she has it together, she is a wonderful human being who always tries to do the right thing (despite what she did with her husband), and I have never caught her lying to me, even in the slightest. This is the most passionate relationship I have ever been in, and I enjoy her immensely, just not in this extreme hot/cold way.
From your experience, what’s going on here, what can I do, and how can I help her? Honestly, her mood-changing, mind-changing makes me crazy. Never being married before, what does divorce do to a person? Is what she’s experiencing and how she’s acting normal in any way?
Looking for some insight. Thanks.
Thanks for your confidence.
Please cut a little slack here. It's only a letter and the situation, as you
already can see, is quite complicated.
Also,the problem you present is about her and I'm only talking to you and only have
your version of it. But none the less, your question seems to be
about how to make sense of what's going on with her.
So let's do that first and get to you later.
What you've described is a pattern. You could probably summarize it better and with more nuance than me, but it's a sort of on-again-off-again, here-and-not-here, cuddling-up-taking-distance, going-and-coming dance.
You've described it a number of times and different ways. So let's say, for starters, that THAT is the pattern.
Even the dark secret of the affair might be an example of that pattern.
And maybe underneath that some serious reservations on her part about the trustworthiness of anyone who really matters to her. The example of her being thrown under the bus is perfect. Somehow we'd like to think that love is unconditional, at least in some tiny corner of the world. But not from her parents, it seems. Maybe.
So maybe that's part of her habitual ways of being in a close relationship and at some point, probably now, she correctly senses that she needs to get a little perspective on how she's conducted herself. A divorce a kind of admission of a kind of failure and so, failures are unavoidable, but wise people do want to know, "What are the lessons I need to learn?" So shes doing that
Most folks stumble into an affair or it's a sort of desperate solution to a problem and it doesn't always solve the problem. So she needs to think about that, too.
There is the whole weirdness of what an affair it, the secrecy, the fact of being in two different relationships and never really being entirely in one.
When the marriage ends, suddenly there is this challenge: how to be completely in one relationship, which is not easy except when people have been exceptionally blessed. Being an affair makes it easy to not have that adjustment phase. (Although if an affair lasts for more than say six months, then you really do have that adjustment challenge,but even then, it's not as intense because the couples is never really forced to deal with each other. They go back to their separate lives.)
So now here you are. And there are lots of challenges.
And there is the big NEXT STEP? question.
Simply bringing this thing into the open and gaining the acceptance of parents and children and friend networks is huge. It will require a lot of subtly and secrecy. You don't want to make an even bigger mess.
Is all this normal? Well, yes, if you consider having a crisis normal. It is normal for a crisis and a divorce is a crisis for many folks.
The fact that she refuses help is also significant. Maybe some good judgment here, too. It is hard to find someone to trust.
A lot of folks will go all moralistic on her and she won't be able to speak the truth about the whole situation, which includes her story with you.
What can you do?
Well, what I would do is normalize the weirdness of what's happening. I would say something like this:
It is a crisis. It is difficult. It is true, probably, that most of the essential folks in her situation are not nearly, remotely as trustworthy as she needs people to be. In many ways she is more on her own now than she's ever been. In many ways she does need to find her own solid footing.
In many ways she does need to both be apart from you, so she can figure out what she feels and thinks and is called to do for her life, and also she needs to have a connection with someone who loves her.
So her response does make a certain sense, seems appropriate and shows an accurate assessment of the challenge she's facing.
It would help, I suspect, to have someone like me involved. The advantage of, say, me, is that she wouldn't owe me anything more than my fee (which could be fairly low in her case) and a willingness to take the time to think and feel and ponder and search for what she needs to do next to handle this very complex situation she finds herself in.
At the very least you can give her that support, too, but behind that all, you have an agenda. You want her to end up with you, and that agenda can be experienced as pressure and you don't want that.
So maybe you also need an outrigger for support and stabilization.
And we haven't even touched why you might be still single at this point in your life, although there are probably reasons. When you are 23 and single, it's natural. When you are over 40 and single, there's a story involved
so that's a lot. I hope it's helpful
Feel free tofollow up.
Philip Alan Belove, Ed.D. \
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you for your reply...we’ll get to me at the end I guess...
Thank you for your insight on some of the issues she may be facing. Like I said, she’s not talking much about any of this, so an experienced, educated guess better than mine is helpful.
And, yes, you only have my side of things (I get “I don’t know” a lot when talking to her about emotion-based things like our topic. I suspect others would too). So, bringing someone like you in to help her may be futile, and besides, how can she trust you? (no offense). (I’ve quoted Hemingway to her: “The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them.” – but that was to no avail). She does need someone she can trust. She’s mentioned to me several times about having things “locked up inside her for years and years,” but I don’t know what they are or what she means. Or who and how she can trust...all she tells me at this point is that she really needs a friend, someone to be a friend to her.
You’re quite correct about the pattern, which started the week she went to see her attorney about divorce. Initiate contact insistently, get really close for a time, then unexplained emotional distress, then disappear, and repeat. Although this last time we danced this dance, she said she can’t keep doing this to me...and that she needs time.
She says her marriage was unhappy because she stupidly (her word) married a guy opposite of her in that he was a cold, aloof, unaffectionate person (but, who knows?), and that I am not like him and I’m everything that she’s ever looked for in a guy (back pat). She has also had at least one other affair before me (she admitted to one), and from what I gather, that ended badly, with people figuring it out, or at least suspecting, and the guy being an idiot. A few years ago, she got a makeover, found she was able to attract other guys, and went for it I guess, because of perpetual unhappiness at home and divorce at that time was unappealing (so why divorce now?)
I do ask for some clarification, though, on the NEXT STEP? part:
Bringing things in the open, you noted, will be huge, and will require “subtlety and secrecy.” But know one knows about us....piece of cake to me to show up any time in the future (I don’t really care about a timetable) as a ‘new’ boyfriend she met after her divorce (ex already wants her to get married ASAP so he can stop paying her)...I think the kids would like her to date (they’re both high schoolers), and from what I gather, they’re not too fond of dad and he’s been gone a while now...so I don’t understand about creating a bigger mess....she never seemed to believe a new relationship was a problem, either — we talked about going away on a vacation on our anniversary of being together (but maybe that was just wishful thinking on her part). As for friends, she claims she has very few now.
She told me she was glad she went through with the divorce and has no regrets at all. I believe her. Her crises with the divorce as she tells me is managing the household alone, finances, and the monotony of every day life — she tells me how bored, stressed, or overwhelmed she is (she’s started drinking). So, I don’t know about the guilt she feels or what else, because I don’t see that and she never talks about anything but the above three...but as for trusting, I agree with you and how you see it. I have a better understanding now of her trust issues. And I would also say she has some pretty low self-esteem.
And YES, she is petrified and terrified of people going all moralistic on her...I would say that is her biggest fear. Being judged by others. She claims she has been hyper-sensitive to people’s negative opinions all her life. And with my experience with her, I believe it. In her case, we’ve talked about how she knows at least a dozen divorced women from her past or that she works with at the hospital, and I asked her if she felt that she or anyone else judged them...she said no...so I asked her why she thinks she would be judged. No answer...
As for what I can do and say, I sort’ve lost you on the “what do I say to her” part. I don’t know what you mean by “normalize the weirdness.”
And, yes, I do have an agenda: that we at least get a shot at normal dating and a possible fun life together. I see a lot of potential for us, more so than with just about anyone else I’ve ever known, and I think she does too.
In my most altruistic moments, I care about nothing other than for her to be at peace. I see she suffers a lot, whether or not I understand any of it. I agree with you that she’s totally on her own. I do see that. I would like to help her, but she won’t let me, or I don’t know how. (Normally, I try to be a lot of fun with her. But, when I sense she’s down – Me: How can I help you today? Her: I don’t know. Me: Okay, let me know if I can do anything to help you get through the day. Her: I just need a friend. Me: I would like that a lot. You want me to just talk to you? Her: I don’t know...)
I have honestly never thought I put any relationship pressure on her whatsoever. All I’ve let her know was that when her divorce was final, that I’d like to date her openly, no specifics. Just that I would like it, no insistence. From the beginning, she has been the pursuer, and I have let her continue in that role. I just let her know if I’m available for her ideas. I have not asked her for anything that would be called “relationship-y.” Nothing. I haven’t even asked her for a date. Everything we did was her doing, her idea. I just went along, or made the specifics happen.
All of my life I’ve looked to solve problems. She’s very good at getting things done. I have hope. She says she needs time. I say Ok.
So, I’m looking for the best way to handle things until (if) she comes around, kind of like, what’s the opposite of running the hell away from her and never talking to her again? I don’t think I can be a jerk and leave her alone in her current circumstances. I need a kind of a psychology kit, because she will never seek that kind of help professionally (I’ve even offered to pay). Does that make sense? In other words, what’s some good advice on how best to support her during this bad, lonely period for her, and take care of myself at the same time?
As for why I’m still single, you want a separate question on that? There probably is a story there.
Well, it's good that it's been a secret. My main advice is that you can overestimate the secrecy so be careful.
Yes, she does need time. Very important.
Normalize the weirdness is the key and I'm sorry I wasn't able to explain it better.
In the paragraphs that followed I tried to expand on that concept by explaining all the cross currents and conflicting issues she must deal with. She is in transition. She is reorganizing her life and her vision of her future in some very fundamental ways. She is wise enough to sense that she can't afford to be manipulated or pushed into yet another scenario that she herself did not envision. At the same time, she is terribly alone. She trusts almost no one. So it's walking a tightrope.
It sounds like her husband was the kind of man who simply didn't see her most of the time. Very low empathy. Very in his own world. There is some strange safety in that if you are the sort of person who doesn't trust and doesn't want to be manipulated. Keeping your inner life secret is easy when you are around such people.
It also sounds like you were her connection to the world of the heart. She had a secret receiver that was hidden somewhere and she could go there and have a heart connection. Not a very good solution but a survival strategy.
That phase of her life is now over.
What you have to do is to be present and available without being demanding or threatening to disappear as punishment. That's simply a description of an ordinary loving relationship. You both might be strangers to that.
Also, the pattern of you doing nothing and allowing her all control is only good temporarily. It's not something you (either of you) can long live with.
Eventually she'll have to learn to trust. When she finally steps across that line she will find that sharing some of those awful stories with the right person is a great relief and as she empties that baggage she will find stuff she can throw away and also some things quite precious hidden away. You lighten your load and you also enrich yourself. It's a midlife process. It's a time to revisit the survival strategies of childhood and consider them from an adult perspective.
We make an assessment of how life works sometime around pre-adolescence and never reconsider those premises until mid forties, or later.
At some level, I'm sure she'd like to deal with all that stuff, if only she could find a safe place in which to do it. But when you're in a war zone, you don't ever drop your defenses.
So she has her guard up.
You have a tolerance for that, apparently. Probably a powerful streak of kindness. It may be that your own shadow side has some sharpness and it would be worth knowing how that works.
Well, this is getting to be more a psychic reading than psychological advice and I hope it's all reasonably close to the mark and compassionate and helpful. Feel free to follow up.
Also, you might want to share some of this with her.
Philip Alan Belove, Ed.D.