Fear of fleeing

I actually spent a summer in Phoenix to get away from memories of a failed relationship.

Published April 4, 2003 8:38PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a 26-year-old man living with two roommates; my friends consider me well-adjusted, sensitive, fun to be around, and a generally good person. I have a wonderful job that is meaningful, I get to travel, and it pays the bills.

I do all right in the romance department. I have dated women consistently, had some good relationships, some bad. But I do tend to get overly committed and passionate even in situations where I should not. Currently I have embroiled myself in a bad situation -- I began sleeping with my roommate, a close friend that I love, but under the guise that it was just "physical." Of course, I found myself becoming extremely attached, and we broke it off when it became clear it wouldn't work. She was looking for fun; I was looking for more.

Here's the possible problem/question: My immediate reaction is to leave -- for example, I am using my travel option at work and I won't be home for a couple of weeks. And I feel myself planning on moving out, even changing cities.

I feel like I do this "avoidance" thing often when romantic situations don't work out. I had a bad breakup a couple of years back and did the same thing -- I actually spent a miserable and pointless summer in Phoenix, Ariz. (not the greatest vacation spot in July) to get away from my home and memories of that relationship.

Is it OK to do this? Some of my friends say it's healthy: I get some perspective, I get some space. But I have this nagging feeling that I am not dealing with the heavy emotional turmoil that comes with confronting a situation head-on. Still, why would I want to see my roommate/ex-lover find a new relationship, or God forbid, hear her going at it between our connected doors? That seems extremely unhealthy, too.

Is this kind of "avoidance" an acceptable route to feeling healthy?

Flying to Figure It Out

Dear Flying,

It often helps to take time and get perspective in order to deal with transitions. The question is, Are you really dealing with the transition in the real world, or are you just "getting perspective" inside your own head? What do you do when you get back to town? Do you call up the person and say there's no hard feelings, I understand what happened, I wish you the best? Or do you just let it kind of gradually disappear, like gasoline seeping into the dirt? If you're just letting these situations disappear, perhaps you are in the habit of avoidance and you're slowly poisoning your groundwater.

If you tend to become committed and passionate rather quickly, and then avoid seeing the person afterward, perhaps, hmmm, you may not be communicating well in the beginning. You may also be feeling shame about this "heavy emotional turmoil." I would try to understand what is so upsetting about confronting someone while you are having strong emotions. Is it that when you're in the grip of strong emotions you're less in control? Is it that you have to admit in front of someone that you somehow failed or made an error?

What you are actually avoiding may be a kind of shame or humiliation. Perhaps it is shame about having strong feelings, or about feeling weak; maybe when you were a child you were humiliated because you cried, and somehow whenever you feel like you might cry, you have to go hide.

Because, face it, OK, you're an emotional guy. There's nothing wrong with that. But if you haven't become proud of it, if you're ashamed of it somehow, then probably also you haven't developed it, haven't learned to let it shine. So you have this powerful emotional engine but it's sort of explosive and scary. And you have expectations of commitment and intensity that you don't express, so they come as a surprise to women.

And maybe women tend to back off a little because you didn't show that intensity in the beginning. So I think next time you go out with a woman you need to tell her right off that behind your gruff and manly exterior you are a very emotional and passionate guy. Just say that. Tell her you've had some bad experiences and you just want to be open about your expectations; ask her if she's interested in a serious long-term relationship or if she's just out for fun. If she's just out for fun, don't go out with her again. You don't need to risk getting hurt.

If she is interested, however, you need to also tell her, maybe not on the first date, but soon, that you have trouble dealing with breakups. It's no big deal. She probably does too. Everybody does. But saying you have a problem with it is a way of opening up the subject so you can sort of find out what her expectations would be if you were to break up. Is she friends with any of her exes? Are you friends with any of yours? What about that awful summer you spent in Phoenix? That could be a pretty funny story. It's nothing to be ashamed of. You just have to let her know who you are.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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