Katherine came to see me as soon as I got to dinner Monday night. She had told me bits and pieces in the past about an on-again, off-again relationship she’s had with a man, but I had never expressed an opinion about it — because she had never asked.
Tonight, she wanted advice.
Rick had seemed to be the man of her dreams. He was good looking, charming, attentive — and he seemed to be on his way to being successful. At first, their relationship had been great. They had started talking about a future together and it seemed as though her dreams were coming true. Then Rick suddenly backed off.
She didn’t know why. He didn’t break up with her. Not exactly. He just kept her at arm’s length and seemed more closed. He eventually pulled away more and more, going days without talking with her and making excuses not to see her. She felt that she was being discarded, very slowly.
But when another guy started pursuing her — and Katherine talked to Rick about breaking up — Rick professed love and pursued her again.
The story gets complicated, but the couple have gone through several rounds of this cycle. Rick will act as though he wants her. Katherine will believe things are finally going to work. But then Rick makes up one excuse after another to pull away. And when he believes she’s about to move on, he pursues again — just enough to keep her from leaving him.
Katherine desperately loves Rick. She’s convinced that he loves her, too, despite his unwillingness to commit to her, despite his unwillingness to keep the promises he makes when he’s wooing her.
She told me that she’s been willing to put up with the horrible times because she loves him so much — and because she’s been convinced that he will commit to her at last.
I knew my answer right up front, but I preferred to gently lead Katherine to the conclusion on her own. So I started asking her a series of questions.
I asked her to talk to my about what a loving relationship is like. I asked her to talk to me about how a man would treat her if he really loved her in a healthy way. And then I got her to characterize Rick’s actions when he pulled away from her. I asked her why someone who loved her would push her away and then refuse to let her go when she tried to separate herself to find someone new.
This last point really hit her hard. If he didn’t want her — and refused to commit to her — why did he keep doing just enough to keep her from finding what she needs somewhere else? Why didn’t he tell her that he wasn’t going to marry her?
“Would an emotionally healthy person do that?” I asked gently.
All of a sudden, Katherine understood something which she had been overlooking. She looked shocked and started saying she couldn’t believe how stupid she had been.
For all this time, Katherine had thought the big question was whether Rick loved her or not. Since she believed that he really did love her, she couldn’t believe that he would keep her dangling on a string unless he planned to eventually commit. Surely, he was going to marry her. But she now realized she had been asking the wrong question.
The question wasn’t whether Rick loved her or not. Of course he loved her, at least as much as he was able to. But he wasn’t emotionally healthy enough to have a loving, intimate relationship with anybody. He loved Katherine and wanted her until she got too close — and then he ran away.
The truth which Katherine discovered on her own while we talked is that it didn’t matter how much he loved her, because he wasn’t healthy enough to commit to her. He wanted her, but he was unconsciously scared of the love and intimacy he craved. And he wasn’t mature enough — or healthy enough — to do what he needed to do to get himself healthy, much less to do what was best for Katherine.
This was a shock to Katherine. It was devastating and it was a relief at the same time. She’s not sure whether she’s strong enough to walk away from him, but she now suspects she needs to — because she fears he’s going to get healthy. He’s too scared of his feelings to do that.
I was feeling pretty good about how the conversation had gone. I had helped to lead Katherine to a bitter truth which she needed to understand. She was grateful for the insight, but she was still grasping for a way to hold onto her love for Rick.
Then she asked me something I didn’t expect. She turned the subject to me.
“Have you ever done anything like this?” she asked.
And suddenly, I was faced with applying my own questions and my own reasoning and my own conclusions to my own life. I didn’t like the implications, but I needed to be honest with her.
“Well, this is a little complicated,” I said. “Let me figure out how to start the story.”