My father walked out on us -- will my boyfriend do the same?

I'd like to trust men, but I'm haunted by abandonment.

Published January 9, 2006 11:23AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My dad cheated on my mom after 30 years of marriage with a woman half his age and left us for her and her daughter when I was 17. After he left, he never called, and I have seen him three times in the last seven years. Before the divorce, he was a wonderful, loving father. Now that I have been left by someone I trusted and loved for so many years, it is really difficult for me to trust another man, i.e., my boyfriend.

I am in love with a wonderful man right now and he is very attentive to my needs and feelings. We share all the same interests and goals. We have only been together for three months, but the love I feel for him is stronger and more passionate than I could have imagined. He is everything I ever wanted in a man.

But ever since my dad left, I have been concerned with being cheated on or being deceived by my boyfriend. This included a man I was with for five years, and after five years, I still wasn't convinced he was trustworthy even though he never did anything to deserve it. I think this helped to drive us apart and contributed to our eventual breakup. When my current boyfriend and I fell for each other, I hoped that my fears of infidelity would be assuaged and rendered powerless by our love. The problem is, even though I have found the most perfect love I could ever hope for, I still fear that he will eventually be unfaithful, and it is my destiny to be abandoned and hurt.

I want to love without worrying about 30 years in the future, but I can't help it. I really want children, but I never want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. I also don't want to end up like my mom, alone at 55, bitter and heartbroken.

I want to trust my current boyfriend more than anything, and I know that won't be possible until I deal with my problem head-on. I can't be content with blissful ignorance or push this feeling away by just telling myself I'm crazy. I'm always worried that he's flirting with girls he talks to, but I never know if that's actually happening, or if it's just me going into "untrusting mode." I'm really worried he'll become concerned with hurting me and not want to "take the plunge" (that's what happened with my boyfriend of five years). Is this something I should talk to him about? I really don't know what to do.

Fear of Trust

Dear Fear of Trust,

You went through a very upsetting parental divorce when you were 17. It has influenced the way you think about things. Perhaps that can be modified, but your past will never go away. It will be with you all your life.

You can't eliminate the possibility that someone might cheat on you or abandon you at some time. As humans we live with that kind of uncertainty; we cannot control other people nor can we know them completely. Nor can you change what has happened to you in the past.

What you can do, however, is work toward gaining a realistic view of the chances that this man might turn out to be untrustworthy. You can learn to live with that possibility, and explore the ways that you would cope with it if it did happen.

Here are some ways you might go about this.

First of all, do talk with him about what happened to you when you were 17 and how it influenced your ability to trust people. Let him know that children who are teens when their parents divorce sometimes later have trouble forming good long-term relationships. Make it clear that you know you were affected by this event and you know that your behavior in this regard is not always going to seem completely reasonable.

After talking to your boyfriend, start trying to gain a more realistic picture of your situation. When you think about it, what your dad did was pretty unusual. The reasonable thing to do is to try and determine how likely it is that such a thing might happen to you -- that you might marry a man, have children with him and then be abandoned after 30 years. Compare this possibility with other possibilities in life -- for instance, the possibility of being hit by lightning or having a brick fall on your head, or of being wounded in a bank shootout or being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, or dying in a car wreck.

If someone you know died in a car wreck, or if you yourself have been in a bad accident, you're likely to be a little jumpy in the front seat. That's normal. You have to learn to live with it, though, or people will stop giving you rides. This relationship is similar. You're just going to have to accept a certain amount of risk and uncertainty.

Another thing you can do is openly try to build trust by taking note of how predictable your boyfriend is. Whenever he does something that builds trust, take note of it. Say to yourself, that was a trustworthy thing he did!

This next part is a little complicated: When we concentrate on the outcome of a parent's behavior and say, "I will never do that!" we sometimes overlook the pattern of behavior that led to it. For instance, you do not ever want to do what your mother did -- marry a man who will abandon you. But you will probably repeat her behavior in many other ways. And you may be attracted to the same kind of men she was attracted to. Likewise, although you do not want to marry a man who will abandon you, you may want to marry a man who has the good traits your father had. So there may always be a certain tension between loving and trusting. And you may feel at times that you are being inexorably drawn to the very thing you are trying to avoid.

Here is something else that is a little complicated: Those of us who have been abandoned often feel uncomfortable and anxious much of the time. So we crave a feeling that things are normal and OK. When we find somebody or something that makes us feel that way, sometimes we think all our problems are solved. We tend to hope, as you say, that our fears of infidelity will be assuaged and rendered powerless by our love. Since love feels good in the moment, we are tempted to believe that feeling will last forever. We latch on to it like hungry puppies. We'd like it to last forever. But it doesn't.

The people or things that provide this sort of comfort often have a certain kind of power over us; it is sometimes as if they can see into our souls. We respond to this kind of genius with immense affection, gratitude and loyalty. But this kind of genius is often possessed by restless, adventurous people.

I notice that you say your current boyfriend is very caring and attentive to your needs. This may be true. But it doesn't mean he is necessarily the kind of man who will stick by you. You will need to think about this. It will help to learn more about his past relationships, his attitudes toward marriage and family, and his experiences growing up.

I'm not saying he'll drift off. I am suggesting that if the most important thing to you is finding a man you can count on to stick around, then look for that quality above all others.

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