I'm a clinical psychologist with a relationship problem

He wants friendship but I want more -- could this be part of a negative pattern?


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Cary Tennis
January 4, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am not surprised to find myself writing to you, because your advice resonates on a personal and professional level. As a clinical psychologist in training, I find your advice eerily similar to something I might state in a session with a client in distress. In a nutshell, my problem, like those of many others who either write to you or seek professional services, is with relationships.

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I grew up in a family environment that was impoverished, both emotionally and financially. Despite these hardships, I had a serious relationship for six years and was admitted to a prestigious doctoral program. I have the insight into my core issues of abandonment, being alone or unloved, and their effect on my self-esteem. I have many friends who have functioned as my family. I pride myself on being a loyal, dependable and loving friend.

I think it's telling that I have not specifically stated my problem until this third paragraph. I am embarrassed to admit that I continue to maintain a friendship with a man whom I desire as a romantic partner. We met on a blind date that seemed to go well. When he called the next day to admit he was not interested, I offered friendship instead. That was one year ago. We have many mutual interests and are wonderful companions. He has been a good friend, especially in the past few months that have been stressful for me at work. On the surface, there is no reason not to be friends. However, whenever I think about him or spend time with him, the little voice in my head screams "ugly," "fat," "boring," etc. I truly value his companionship because he offers a balance to my scientific world: He is a writer and he represents the interests I decided not to pursue in my own profession. In every non-romantic aspect of life, he is a perfect complement to me. In fact, many people assume we are partners based on the amount of time we spend together and the way we interact. As you might have guessed, I have not accepted his decision that we are simply friends.

I am worried this is a repeating pattern for me, that is, the decision to offer my soul to someone who is uninterested in me romantically. It has happened once before. This doesn't seem fair. I know I haven't been able to end the relationship, because he offers a companionship that has been difficult to find in the red-state I've been living in. We will both move to different cities next summer, so maybe doing nothing is an option. Despite being successful in my career, I am trapped by an unproductive and unsatisfying relationship with a friend who does not want anything more than friendship. My other friends have advised me to end the relationship because of the negative aspects I mentioned, but these friends have parents and family who unconditionally love them. I hesitate to remove a caring person from my life.

Is it better to make my decision based on feelings, which may result from insecurities developed in childhood, or to be cool-headed and rational?

Thank you for any insights you may have about my situation.

Friend, Not Lover

Dear Friend,

Greetings. It is very early morning now and the sun is just beginning to stream into the downstairs room that I use as a place to write. Yesterday was the winter solstice and I was lucky enough to watch the sun go down over the Pacific, standing on a promontory provided by the federal Park Service. It is a magnificent wooden deck built over a massive concrete and steel bunker and gun emplacement, put there in the late 1930s to protect the Pacific Coast against Japanese attack. There were children and dogs and parents on the deck, relatives and friends gathered casually to mark the celestial event or perhaps just to catch the sunset like any other sunset. It was a sunset like any other sunset. Just something to catch.

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Just something in life, a positive moment, something within reach and yet not within reach, a moment that filled the time and yet was also bigger than the time, that provided enjoyment and yet symbolized something much larger and more profound. We didn't have to go into all that. It was enough to watch the sunset, down to that very last gumdrop of fire, and then climb in our trucks and head home.

It could have been much more. There could have been an announcer from the astronomy department at UC-Berkeley giving us the scientific cause of the sun's drunken wobble; graduate students could have handed out flyers detailing the arcs and the formulas that describe its journey across the sky; there could have been paintings and histories about the solstice, a Shakespeare concordance, a memorial to the Incas; there could have been pagan demonstrations of carnal arts, blood rituals, mud women, drums and painted faces and tie-dyed loincloths on Caucasian undergraduate wrestlers trying to pin one another on the sandy, unstable cliffs high above the waters; there could have been oceanographers from Woods Hole telling us just which short-lived areas of Pacific low pressure had generated the long, graceful waves that were crisply pitching forward their white peaks and crashing with a snap on the shore.

But there wasn't all that. It was just a sunset. Likewise, this could be just a friendship. It's a good thing, and everybody agrees that it's beautiful and powerful and profound. Maybe it's not attended by fireworks and romance and trips to Paris. But it is a nutrient. It's something you need. It's something that has come into your life that is good and true and stable. It's not something you could go and get another of. It's what you've got.

Believe me, I know the yearning for something more. I want every sunset to explode like the beginnings of a new universe. I want the sky to open up and the bearded face of God to speak to me in Arabic, which suddenly, unaccountably, I understand -- even though I don't know Arabic! I have been a seeker of miracles, a thirsty traveler, a taker of whatever pills a stranger offers if it offers a way out. I have been the guy climbing down the cliff at sunset, not content to watch but compelled to get into the act, whose hubris compels him to actually compete with the sun! Hey! Sure the sun's going down, but look at me, I'm falling off the cliff just for amusement's sake!

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Sometimes a sunset is just a sunset, no matter how many miracles have occurred backstage to put it on. And sometimes a friendship is just a friendship.

Don't be too hard on yourself. You're doing just fine. In a year, he may be gone, and something new will begin. Pace yourself. It's a long journey across the sky.

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