How can I not know what I am feeling?

If I'd been more honest with myself and with her, maybe we wouldn't have broken up.

By Cary Tennis

Published November 13, 2008 10:31AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a devoted reader of your column, and have been looking at it quite often recently to see if you have had people writing in with similar predicaments.

It's approaching a year since my breakup with someone whom I had been seeing for almost seven years. The "official" reason is that we had what turned out to be an intractable difference about whether eventually to have children (I wanted to, she didn't, and since she's 35 and I'm 31 we were reaching a point where a decision had to be made).

What complicated matters was that just before we broke up she had had some kind of affair (which apparently didn't involve sleeping together) with her advisor, a much older man (who was also a friend of mine), whom she had hero-worshiped from well before the time we met. I admired him tremendously myself, but had never felt threatened in the relationship. In fact, I'd always felt extremely secure in her love for me. (None of our friends were surprised, however, that this had happened.)

We'd been in a long-distance relationship for much of the time we were together (all but two years), she in India and I in the U.S. Years ago I had once told her that we shouldn't care too much if one of us were to stray, as long as it wasn't something that threatened the relationship itself. I never cheated myself in all this time, and I do think I believe in this principle quite deeply. But it scares me that it took me about six months after this happened to feel really angry.

What hurt most was to find, when we met and broke up, that what seemed to bother her most was not the fact that we had broken up, but what her fling would mean for her working relationship with her advisor, and for his relationship with his wife (which she seemed very eager to protect -- I have to say I found this pretty weird). I didn't seem to be part of the picture at all. Six months later I met her again (hoping that she might consider getting back together), and learned that what had then seemed a one-off thing had turned into something undefined but nevertheless ongoing.

That was pretty shattering -- much more so than the initial breakup, which had seemed to be over the "baby" issue, which, after all, had been hanging over our heads for a few years. She also told me that when we met just before our breakup she hadn't thought about breaking up: that it was only after seeing me again that she realized she couldn't have an honest relationship with me because of what she felt for her advisor. And when I told her that what had hurt me most was to see how easily she had moved on, she said that she now sees that she had been moving away for a while before this happened.

Looking back on the last two or three years (during which we were actually living together), I can see that this was true. I also see that I was desperately unhappy in certain aspects of our relationship, but had hidden that from myself, and very much thought that she was "the one." That scares me: How can one be so wrong about what one is feeling, and what someone so close to one is feeling?

Sometimes I wonder if things could have been different had we been more honest with ourselves and with each other. I feel that this issue about kids was a smoke screen for some deeper conflicts in our relationship, which we might have been able to resolve had we confronted them directly. But I'm beginning to feel there's not much point in trying to figure out just "what went wrong." Did she just fall in love with her advisor all of a sudden, because she had so much time alone with him in the last few months before their affair? Had she been drifting away from me well before, but not been completely honest with herself or with me? Could I have done something differently?

It's hard to figure out, since we've never been able to have a conversation about this post-breakup.  And I think at some level I'm scared to have one, for fear of what it might reveal -- e.g., that I was living a lie for a very long time. Sometimes it seems that it would be best to just regard this as one of those inexplicable ways in which life can fuck you up -- like an earthquake or something. 

So to summarize my two questions in this long note: How can one be so wrong about what one is feeling and what someone so close to one is feeling (and what can one do about being so wrong)? And is there any point to postmortem analyses of failed relationships?

I suppose there's a third question in the background, which is whether there's any point in trying to broach the subject of getting back together, given that we did share something quite special for a long time. (I think not -- she's never expressed any interest, and at this point I feel too battered to be able to handle another rejection, particularly if she's still with her advisor.)

Still in a Daze

Dear Dazed,

Intelligent people in academic pursuits often neglect to develop their feeling language. Neglected, their feeling language atrophies. Eventually they can neither decode, analyze and understand the feeling messages of others nor express with accuracy and nuance their own feelings.

Thus misunderstandings occur in intimate relationships that have borne long separations. Your lover was perhaps feeling things but was not able to communicate them; even if she could have communicated them, it's possible that you would not have been able to hear them. Because your feeling language had atrophied, the communication of feelings between you was not rich and complex but attenuated and simplified. Thus when she acted on her feelings it surprised you. You did not have a rich feeling map that would allow you to see what was coming or what in direction she was going.

A rich feeling map. Now that would be a thing to have! It would have all our needs on it. We would know that all these needs must be met somehow. We would see if our partner had many unmet needs that she was likely to get them met somehow. We would know something was coming.

As to your other question, Is there much point to postmortem analyses of failed relationships? Well, if it gives rise to personal insight and behavioral change, then yes, it seems to me that there can be a point to it. If you can make some concrete changes based on what has occurred, then you have gained something.

But what concrete changes could you make? I would think you could embark on a program of feeling literacy, literacy in the irrational.

Let's put it this way. You and I are highly verbal. When we speak, we use language. We say what can be said. What cannot be said, we do not say. Why should we? We would sound like idiots trying to say what cannot be said. No one would understand us. We want to be understood. So we agree to be bound by the limits and conventions of language.

We want to make sense. We do not want to say things that sound trite, contradictory and hurtful, such as, I hate you because you are so wonderful, or I wish you would not wait for me, or I'm staying with you because I'm afraid and I'm used to you, or even more inexplicable things that cannot be explained or explicated, such as, I am ripe and going, or your birth has made me nervous, or you're a one but you're not the one ... these things might come into one's head as feeling statements, but they will not easily be understood by others, even by others skilled in parsing the irrational-sounding language of feeling.

If you can find some way out of language into your feelings, out of empirical argument and into the moment, then you can develop a habit of knowing what you feel. Ask yourself what you are feeling. What is present? If you develop the habit of this, you may learn to sense whether another person is feeling love toward you, or annoyance, or boredom. And if you develop sufficient courage and trust with another person, you can ask, What are you feeling right now? Are you feeling boredom? Or, Here is what I fear right now: I fear that you are leaving me. I fear that you are bored with me. I fear that I do not even know what I am feeling.

How do we get there from here?

We are programmable. We can receive messages, such as this one: "Whatever you are feeling right now is OK. Whatever you are feeling right now is good. You can look at what you are feeling right now and try to show it to me so I know what you are feeling."

Someone might say something like this to us in a safe, private setting, and rather than doing what we habitually do, which is turn away from what we cannot readily say, in favor of something that suits language better or something we are confident will make sense to someone else, instead we gaze at the thing we do not understand and we tell what we see there, even though we do not understand it.

We see a stick, and dirt, and our sister, and we are running. What is that? We do not know. But there is an emotion there somewhere.

You cannot very well go to your graduate advisor and say that you see a stick and your sister and some dirt, and that you are angry and afraid and feel yourself running. You do not even know what that means yourself. There is emotion there but we do not know what it means so we do not say it. But this is what we must do when we learn to know what we are feeling. What am I feeling? I am feeling a memory. It is a memory of fear. Why? I do not know.

That is the other thing. We must admit we do not know. We must admit that this is a realm that we do not know or understand.

This is what I mean about feeling. It does not make sense. It is not necessarily approved of. It may come as images or vague memories.

So these are the things that artists try to express.

But you don't need artists to express them. You can just find them yourself.

Have you listened to any great music lately, or cried over a movie, or remembered something sad from childhood, or experienced giddiness, or grief, or intense anger? Perhaps what this period of your life is telling you is that your emotions need tending to. I suggest you take this as a sign that for the next year or two, you want to try to redress some of the imbalance in your life brought about by the necessities of an academic life.

I suggest as a blanket approach: Honor the feelings that arise. Honor them so that they remain in the room. Do not frighten them off. Let them stay. Gradually you may come to understand them. That will allow you to have better, emotionally richer relationships, with fewer surprises.

Sorry, I wish this column were better. I have all these ideas but emotion is such a slippery topic! It resists the logical development of ideas! I think my answer to you might be better if it were conveyed by a strolling violinist! Or a gang of street thugs chanting. Or a gondolier singing at the top of his lungs.

Or maybe an old Bee Gees song!

Anyway, one does one's best, and when deadline approaches, one wraps it up. So this is my basic message: Pay more attention to the irrational realm of emotion. Pay more attention to your body. Spend some time with the arts. Get psychically refreshed.


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Cary Tennis

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