Advice: Relationships Should Be Better Than This

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I’ve been involved with a man, “Marc”, for six months now, and I really like him. He’s got a lot of admirable traits that most of us look for in a man. He’s gregarious, he’s honest, and he’s well-mannered and respectful. And, of course, he has baggage.

Marc was married before, but it ended poorly and he’s skittish about relationships. I get it. He’s also got this friendship with another woman that, frankly, I find confusing, and I don’t know if she’s just a friend or a romantic rival. They’ve been friends forever and I don’t mind that. But, he tells me things, particularly that she wants a relationship with him, but he’s not willing to give that to her yet. Honestly…I don’t know if I need Marc to be that honest with me. You know what I mean? He’s also told me that he loves her, and I don’t know if that means love-love, or friend-love. I’m so confused.

The other woman currently lives in another state but is considering relocating. Closer. Like, to our town. Marc says that her moving closer won’t necessarily mean he’ll want to be with her, and whenever he says that my stomach just plummets. Why is this even an option? I’ve been the girlfriend who’s been around, and caring, and am now emotionally involved. She’s just been some figure in the distance. What can I do to make him see that I’m here? Or should I try and protect my heart and walk away?

–Lost in Love

B&P: Oh my dear. No, no, don’t walk. Run away, far and fast.

B: I’m going to take issue right off the bat with this sentence: Marc was married before, but it ended poorly and he’s skittish about relationships. I get it.

No, you don’t. You don’t get it, because you’re not even listening to him. You say he’s honest, and you’re right. You just need to hear what he’s actually saying, and not what you want to hear (or decide to justify, if you don’t like your initial interpretation). He’s basically saying, over and over again, “I don’t want to commit to you.” He says it when he tells you he’s skittish. And he really says it when he says that this other woman moving closer jeopardizes the relationship you’re currently in.

Please note: by “relationship” I mean, you and Marc know each other and have some regular communication, but you also have relationships with your hairdresser, your co-workers, your mail carrier, etc, etc. The word “relationship” does not necessarily mean, you know. Relationship. Moving on.

P: And here’s the thing, when you’ve had a bad marriage and you’re skittish, if you’re a grown up, you do a couple of things: 1) you get some counseling and work through your issues, 2) you’re up front, not that you’re skittish, but that you’re unavailable. Oh, and 3) you probably don’t date someone here, while you’re planning on moving someone in from far away. So that’s him. What about you? As Terri says, and trust me the Bartender has heard ‘way too many of these conversations from intoxicated, broken-hearted people on the other side of the bar, you’re pretending that he’s interested in you. Why go out with someone who is not going to be in a relationship with you? You’re wasting valuable time or you’re using him as an excuse not to move into a grown up relationship while indulging in the drama that must ensue.

B: Now. I am not saying Marc doesn’t enjoy your companionship, and it’s possible that on some level he cares about you. But honestly, you sound like you’re a relationship fluffer as far as Marc is concerned. You’re enough to keep him aroused and entertained (on his terms), but not so much that he will take the relationship all the way.

Despite his vaunted honesty, dear, he is behaving dishonorably. What he’s doing is manipulative. Telling you that your place in his life is not secure, while “honest”, allows him to keep you at arm’s length and at the same time, keeps you walking on eggshells. Have you ever felt a moment’s peace inside this relationship? Have you ever felt secure, like you’re “home” with him? All you’ve told me and Ann about are successive instances of insecurity. NOT feeling loved. NOT feeling appreciated. At the end, you posit that you don’t even know if he knows you’re really there. WHAT. Though from him end, I wonder if he gets a real turn-on from it; he keeps knocking you down and you keep coming back, begging for more. This relationship—again, I use the term loosely—is so one-sided even you admit you’ve disappeared into it. Do you determine your sense of womanly worth by whether or not you’re with someone? I’m not being facetious or mean, it’s a yardstick people often use—men and women—to measure themselves.  You’ve already signed on to this and have agreed that this is your dynamic these last six months. Do you see it changing in a year? Can you live with this for another three years? Five? Do you still want knots in your stomach and eggshells under your feet twenty years and a few kids from now?

P: Wow, I can’t say I think there will ever be kids… It won’t be enough about him. I wish I could say I don’t have any experience with this. But I bet most women have dated some version of him, hopefully for a short time. It was funny, right before Terri received this question I’d been reading an article (help, I can’t find it) that talked about why your ex would want to remain friends with you — big answer: because he’s a narcissist. He wants all the attention. And it’s an easy parallel to draw with Marc. He’s got “marriage issues,” he’s got a girl back home, and he’s got you keeping the home fires burning. And he’s so “honest” and “meaningful” and therefore must care about you, right? I wish he did. But more truthfully, I wish that you didn’t think he did. Whatever he’s saying, let’s pay some attention to what he’s doing. (A lot, and not much of it with you.)

B: I wish I had nicer things to say about where I thought your relationship could go, but I don’t. I think you’re Marc’s Miss Right Now, but I don’t think you’re his Miss Right. Of course, I can’t make you do what you don’t want to do but I can’t see a reason for you to stay. And more to it, I can’t see a reason why you wouldn’t make an appointment with a therapist and discuss your willingness to be strung along for six months, and even fall in love with the stringer. You know this relationship isn’t right, which is why you’re writing to us. But in much the same way that I can’t make you do anything, you also can’t make Marc do anything. You can’t make him love you more, you can’t make him commit (and mean it), you can’t make him stop having contact with Miss Out-Of-Towner. The only thing you can control is your behavior. Take a good, long, hard look at what you’ve got and where you’re going. If you truly, in your soul, like it, then stay. If your stomach drops to the floor and you feel that sense of panic, then I think you have your answer. Good luck.

P: I not only want you to look at what he’s offering, I would like you to look at what you want and why you’re willing to jam yourself into a relationship that gives you no place to be a valuable person. How can you move forward in your life if you’re so willing to be stopped by someone who really doesn’t care for you? Because if he cared about you — not for how you make him feel, but for you — he’d leave the relationship because he wasn’t giving you what you deserved. Nope. He’s using you and you’re enabling it. Are you enjoying the drama? I’ll tell you, drama is not love; it’s just drama. Please give yourself better. Allow yourself to deserve someone wonderful who’s ready to be in your life. Leave so you can have it.

How much louder does he have to say it?

How much louder does he have to say it?

Dark & Stormy

  • 2 oz dark rum
  • 5 oz ginger beer
  • lime wedge

Fill a highball glass with ice. Pour rum over ice, top with ginger beer. Give a stir, and squirt with a lime wedge. Enjoy!

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Advice: Sister on the Rebound

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

My two sisters and I have generally been close. Recently, we have undergone a bit of an upheaval, and it’s causing some issues in our family.

The youngest, Susan, has been married to Stan for 13 years. Susan and Stan separated four months ago. Last month, Susan started dating again. She seems to have clicked with one man in particular, and has even introduced him to her children. The children are, understandably, confused by what’s happened between their parents. They told me and my other sister they’re unhappy. Of course, we know my sister’s separation isn’t the boyfriend’s fault, when he’s around he reminds the children of their parents’ problems. We see that this hurts them. When we tried to talk to Susan about this…suffice to say that talk didn’t go over very well.

We are planning a birthday party for our aunt, and I know Susan wants to bring her new boyfriend. My other sister and I haven’t invited him and, quite honestly, aren’t ready to meet him yet. We are still mired in the emotional conflict between Susan and Stan. And, we know that the boyfriend’s presence at the party won’t go over well with Stan. It will damage whatever chance of reconciliation they may have, or affect their ability to have a working relationship if they do divorce.

I don’t want to sound mean, but we are exhausted with Susan’s current situation. I don’t want to have to fake it with the boyfriend. We don’t condone any of this, and we know it’s hurting the children. How can we show support to our sister when we see how much this hurts her kids?

Sad Sisters

~~~The Bartender and The Priestess respond~~~

P: Wow, so, Terri, How many people were in that marriage bed? Do we need to count toes?

B: I know, right? This question comes with a lot of holes in the backstory, so much of what I want to say about this is probably going to be more general than I would like. And yet, there’s still so much to talk about…

Or rather, I would have a lot to talk about, except I’m suffocating.

My lovely Priestess has hit one of my initial questions square on the head: who was in this marriage, anyway? Was it your sister and her husband? Or was it you, your sister, your other sister, and the separated husband? How are you “knee deep” in their emotional conflict? Do you even know what a boundary is?

You say you and the sister in question have always been close; surely, you must have had some inkling that she and her husband were unhappy, before their separation. When my brother left his wife, I knew he was desperately unhappy. I didn’t know it would happen on the day it did, but when he left, it made sense. You know “close family” isn’t synonymous with “hive mind”, right? Your sister doesn’t have to behave in a way that you like, even a little, if it doesn’t suit her. She can wear short skirts and vote Democrat and change her religious affiliation and date men who aren’t her (legally separated) husband, and she doesn’t owe you an ounce of explanation, right?

P: Exactly, my sweet Purveyor of Spirits! Sisters, let’s start at the end, where you wonder how to support your sister. I have to say there is nothing, nothing I’ve heard that begins to suggest that you are looking to support your sister. I’ve heard a little bit about your supporting her children and a lot about supporting a marriage about which you have said nothing. News flash: judgment is not support, it’s judgment. So, my dear supportive sisters, do you have any idea why your sister wants a divorce? Because it was your sister who was in that marriage. If you’ve been in it, it’s been because you’re butting in. Your sister needs your support. No one ends a 13-year marriage without a lot of pain, particularly when the spouse is the person with whom you made a family. This was never an easy decision.

B: The only people she owes anything to in this time of significant emotional upheaval are her children. You say they’re reminded of their parents’ conflict by the presence of the boyfriend. I call BS. They’re reminded of their parents’ conflict by the fact that Mom and Dad live in two different places. They’re reminded of the conflict by one less body in the house at night. They’re reminded of it by the hole at the dinner table, by who’s not checking their homework, by who’s not giving them kisses goodnight, every night. To blame the children’s sense of loss and confusion on the presence of one man undermines the reality of that loss, which is with them much more than their mother’s new boyfriend. Their pain and confusion should not be greeted with, “We’re sorry this is your mother’s new normal, kids. Blame THAT guy.” Care and support? Missing in that statement. Instead, try saying, “Welcome to the day after everything changed. Let’s hold hands as we plunge together into the void.” How do you approach these hurt, confused children? Arms folded, sniffing over the tops of your glasses and “Tsk, tsk”ing at your sister as she goes on a date? Or arms open, ready to offer love to a grieving family?

Because believe me, your sister is grieving. Even if she’s the one who initiated the separation and claims relief, there’s still grief and confusion. Chances are she’s played every second of her marriage over in minute detail, asking herself any one of the million questions that accompany this seismic shift. Why didn’t this work? Why did I pick the wrong guy? Maybe I’m the wrong girl. How did I stay with this person for 13 years? Should I have left earlier? Would I have been better off if this marriage never happened? Did we ever really like each other?

And so on, and so on. Even if she is stock-sure this was the best move for her, she’s still got to climb out of an emotional bog. That is her reality.

P: If this is only about your religious beliefs about the sanctity of marriage, what, if anything do you know about whether or not the husband held the marriage as sacred. What was your sister due in her marriage? Was she getting it? Did you ever talk to her about it? Or did she, understanding what kind of response she would get from you, stifle her feelings and say nothing? I don’t even know from what you’ve said who wanted the divorce. Do you know? Or are you just clear your “little” sister is wrong.

You say the separation has been stressful on the family. My suspicions are it’s been more stressful on your sister. Who are you to be knee deep in the conflict? And while you are, what are you stirring up? It seems to me the conflict is between the ex and your sister.

And if there’s conversation about reconciliation beyond your clapping for that Tinkerbelle, I haven’t heard it. (ps, as much as I love Tink, in this place, I don’t think she’s real.)

Tink isn't coming back. In all likelihood...neither is the ex. Move along.

Tink isn’t coming back. In all likelihood…neither is the ex. Move along.

B: Here is the reality of the situation: your sister is rebounding. She is free to run around with her underpants on her head so long as she’s not self-destructive and putting herself or her children in danger. “If they reconcile”, or imagining how un-civil the divorce could be if your sister dates, are not reality. Honey, you’re projecting so hard you should get a job in a movie theater. And the reality is, also, that no matter how emotionally unprepared you are for your sister to start dating again, most divorcees do not decide to live partnerless forever. You, and the children, will have to make room for a new beau at some point. Is now too soon? Maybe. But you don’t get to decide that for your sister, any more than your sister gets to decide where you’re going to work, or how often you play the lottery as you dream about a better life in the south of France. Or whatever. You get to arrange your life as you see fit, she gets to do the same with hers. That’s how it works.

P: Is it better that people don’t dash into relationship? You betcha. Does anyone recommend that the first thing you do after getting out of a long marriage is bonk your way through life — no therapist or counselor worth his/her salt (that I’ve known) has suggested this.

But many, many people do. They’re struggling their way toward happiness. Most people find their way out of the rebound period, maybe a little wiser, a little more ready to find their happiness. And your sister deserves a chance to be happy. We’ll all hope she’ll be content with the infatuation period long enough to figure out if she really likes this guy.

Your job is not to sniff about this but to be understanding.

B: I am sure your concern for the children is well-intentioned and heartfelt, but you need to make sure they are living in reality, too. “Yes, your mother and father live apart from one another. But no matter where they call home, or who they date, or whether or not they talk to one another, they will always love you. We’ll be here to help them along the way, as well, because they’re scared and confused and have to figure out the world around them, because it’s different for them now, too. But we’ll be OK, because we’re family and we have a ton of love between us. See? Now, your worries are much less scary.”

That’s what you should say. Instead of, “Poor us, we don’t have the energy for this.” You’re punishing your sister, and using the kids as leverage, because you don’t want to adapt to the changes in her life. That’s not support. That’s control.

P: The one place I’m going to give you some props is that you’re concerned about the kids. That’s laudable. Often after a death or a divorce a parent can go a little crazy with the freedom. If you’ve been unhappy in a marriage, it’s a heady feeling to spend time with someone who thinks you’re great, especially if you think they’re great too. Infatuation is a marvelous thing. It’s dangerous, but it’s marvelous.

Terri made some great points about what to say to the kids. It’s great that you are willing to stand up for your nieces and nephews. And if you feel things are really out of whack, you might say, if you can manage to be straightforward and caring: Sweetie, I know you’re really happy, but your kids are not ready to see you as a sexual being under any circumstance and particularly not when they’re reeling from the break up. They’ve come to us and they’re confused.

Hopefully that will wake a mother’s heart.

If it doesn’t then you need to talk to the kids. (also how old are these kids? What you say changes a bit with age.) You do NOT need to be disapproving of the mom, you do need to say, “wow, you sound hurt and confused. You know your mom loves you. You know your dad loves you. You didn’t want this for the family, but unfortuntately families are based on marriages, and when they break is difficult. It’s rarely just one person’s fault or another’s. They’re sad too. And whatever happens, they love you. That’s never going to change, even if they’re both finding different ways to deal with the changes that are happening in their lives. And you know we’re right here to support you. Things will settle down a bit. Keep talking to us,” or some version of that. It’s a much better alternative than teaching them to be judgmental little so-and-sos.

B: Be gracious to the boyfriend at the party. I can’t even consider you have any other option. And knock it off with the “she’s the youngest” rank. She’s old enough to be married, have kids, and decide her life isn’t working for her. She is not a baby; she is your peer, and that sort of familial seniority-ranking should have stopped once you were all done with high school. Pointing out that she’s younger than you only puffs you up, but it has no real merit behind it.

P: If you’re not planning on leaving your husbands behind for your aunt’s celebration, why would your sister think she needed an invitation for her date? I’m not sure why you’re not ready. You’ve had four months to get used to this. And my guess is you’ve missed several years of paying attention to the demise of this marriage, completely ignoring your sister’s comfort.

You may be missing your soon to be former brother in law. That’s sad. There’s nothing that says you can’t eventually have cordial relations with him. However, that time is not now. He needs to lean on his family and friends for support. If you preference your B-I-L over your sister, you’re likely to lose the sister, especially if she has a spine. Nobody loves a sister who makes them earn a place in the family she was born into. She’s divorcing her husband, for goodness sakes; she didn’t steal the family silver.

B: Circle the wagons around your sister! She’s your sister. She’s not some oddball interloper.

P: So, in the meantime, if you can’t manage to be happy about this, wish your sister happiness and love her. That’s what close families do.

Do I need to say it again? BOUNDARIES, people!

Do I need to say it again? BOUNDARIES, people!

Many thanks to Deb Slade for her Phabulous Photography!

Many thanks to the Lewisburg Hotel for its generous use of location!

If you want to learn more about The Bartender and The Priestess, go here!

Do you have a question? Email us at bartender priestess @ gmail (dot) com. If you’re a non-spambot human, remove spaces and punctuate accordingly. 

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