I'm a woman in love with a married woman

What makes it harder is that we're both psychotherapists and we have to work together.

Published August 3, 2006 11:28AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have been out of the closet as a gay woman for the last 10 years or so. I have never been in a relationship with someone who did not define themselves as gay or bi, until now. For six months I had an affair with a married woman who seduced me. I ended it a month ago.

It was an intense relationship for a couple of reasons. First, we are both from the same Latin American country. The other reason is that we are both psychotherapists. (Yes, we are crazy, aren't we?) This bonded us because it allowed us to speak to each other in the same language: not just our cultural one, but our professional one. We understood each other in the deepest way.

As I mentioned, we have stopped talking and the affair has ended. I decided to end it when I began to feel like a second-class citizen because she had her marital responsibilities. I miss her terribly, and there is a part of me, a part that is in denial, that still wishes she would choose me. Intellectually, I know this will not happen.

My question is about continuing to work next to someone for whom you still have feelings. How do you manage? I can't change jobs because my employer sponsors me for my visa. She may eventually change jobs, but I can't control when this happens. I only see her once a week, but for that day and the following day I am an emotional mess. I try to limit our conversations to just casual "checking in" interactions.

I was hoping you could give me some advice on how to cope with being in love with someone whom you are trying to let go, and have to see on a regular basis. Please help me.

Woman in Love

Dear Woman in Love,

This is a very interesting question, and I would be happy to give you my ideas.

I would think that what you need for these encounters is a repertoire of neutral behaviors that you can consciously call up when you need to. I base this on the assumption that while you cannot necessarily change how you feel in a general way, you probably can, through practice, gain control of your physical responses to her, and in that way make your interactions more neutral.

There may be many ways to do this. As a professional psychotherapist, you may already have some techniques at your disposal, and my ideas, improvisational and untested as they are, might seem rather strange. Nonetheless I offer you my thoughts.

Go to the grocery store and interact with a female grocery clerk whom you do not find particularly attractive or interesting. Buy some groceries and speak to her. Watch how you speak. Pay attention to your breathing and heart rate. Do they change? Does your pulse quicken? Chances are that when you speak to a grocery clerk whom you do not find attractive and with whom you have no deep emotional history, nothing happens. Do you behave with practiced kindness, or professional courtesy, or maybe even a somewhat brusque manner? You are probably flat in your demeanor.

Would it be possible for you to adopt that same behavior with this woman at work? It may sound crude to suggest that you speak to her as though she were a grocery clerk. I do not mean that in a demeaning way. I'm sure you treat grocery clerks with appropriate courtesy and respect, as you treat most other people in your day-to-day life. What I am suggesting is that you are not sexually turned on by certain unattractive grocery clerks, nor do you have a powerful emotional history that is activated when you see them and hear their voice. It is this erotic neutrality that you need to tap into.

Try it out alone in the privacy of your home or office: Imagine standing in line at the grocery store with an unattractive grocery clerk behind the counter ringing up some purchases. Say her name as though you were reading it on her Safeway name tag. Say it carelessly as though it meant nothing to you.

Is that possible -- to say it in a bland, uncaring way? Or do you find yourself having involuntary responses?

If you cannot say her name without having automatic responses to it, try saying it 50 times while picturing her ringing up your groceries. Say it slowly. The first few times you may have responses. I predict by the 30th or 40th time, you will have very little response to it. Go for 50. If you can get to the point that you can say good morning to her with no response, then recall that when you see the woman at work. Try to speak to her in the same way.

If she was the seducer, perhaps she is still seducing you in some way. Does she do certain things to pique your desire for her? Does she smile at you or seem to flirt with you in some way? Perhaps she is giving you signals that make it difficult to respond in a neutral way. If so, you might also want to find ways not to look at her directly, particularly not to "drink her in" with your eyes.

If you are successful in making these changes, it's possible that she might find your behavior provocative. After all, you say that one reason you ended the relationship is that you felt like a second-class citizen. You were in somewhat of a one-down position. If she has become accustomed to wielding seductive power over you, enhanced by the fact that, as a married woman, she is somewhat untouchable, she may react sharply when you stop registering her effects. The change in your tone may strike her as insultingly brusque.

I would not worry about that, but simply be alert to the possibility. You have to get over her. You and she have to behave before your clients and co-workers as though there were nothing between you. You are simply taking the first step toward that new behavior.

Just don't tell her that you are picturing her as a grocery clerk.

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