What is this "gut" we're always trusting?

How do I know my instinct is right, when it brings me so much pain?


Cary Tennis
July 14, 2010 5:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

First let me say that I am happy you are well. I enjoy reading your advice whether I can relate to the problem or not.

My boyfriend and I have been together for five years. He is 24 and I am 27. We have had our share of ups and downs and have come out of them. I don't know if we came out of them in a healthy way but we have shared laughs and good times. We both come from broken homes but have been there to support each other through it all.

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However, we do have a fair share of differences. I enjoy travel, food, meeting new people and trying out new things. He eats hamburgers, rice and beans, and pasta and that's about it. He has no interest in traveling unless it is in the U.S. and he never hangs out with my friends. I can count on my one hand the times he has come out with us. I try and invite him to things not involving dancing or partying because he is not a fan of either. He is not comfortable meeting new people because he says people will judge him for not having gone to college and he says he hates most people. I fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine last year and saved up and went to Paris. I went with a friend and had a beautiful time but I would give it all up just to have gone with him.

We live separately and when he comes over and I make dinner he never volunteers to wash dishes and when he does I get a response similar to "all right, I'll do you the favor." I got the same reaction, very recently, when I invited him to a friend's wedding. His first attempt at a wedding with me was a disaster -- he took his PSP (handheld video game) and a black hoodie and spent a good portion of the reception sitting there playing it with his hoodie on while I danced. He wanted to make that up to me and knew how important this wedding was.

A few days following the wedding he made me dinner and washed dishes and got me flowers but it all seemed so empty to me. Why is he doing things that I always wanted him to do? Was it only because he fucked up?

The more I thought about it I realized I wasn't angry but sad. Sad because I know that we are two completely different people with different interests. I feel I have compromised a good amount of my desires to placate him and his discomfort. I also feel that he shouldn't have to change who he is or what he wants to do or doesn't want to do to be with me. So I kind of broke up with him. I said let's break up and when I saw how pained he looked and when I felt my pain I took it back and said let's take a break. The discussion was messy, to say the least. He cried and I cried and he touched me and my hair and my arms like he would never be able to touch them again. Time and time again he said, "But what about our love for each other? Isn't that strong enough? How about the last five years?" He said he would hate me if I broke up with him and could never be my friend. That hurt the most.

It's been two days and I have not felt pain this excruciating before. I have had my share of shitty life occurrences. With parents and family and not affording school or food or clothes but nothing has ever felt like this. Nothing has been so confusing either. I don't know if I am doing the right thing but my gut says I am.

Who is this gut? What does it know about me? And can I trust it?

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How do you break up with someone you still love? The movies always make one person the bad guy or "the bitch" but I don't see things this way. I am not angry at him, no one was unfaithful or abusive. I miss him so bad my arms go numb sometimes and I fear the onset of hysteria. So what do I trust in myself that this is the right thing to do? He wants me to give him another shot and not give up on us but I don't see how he can change what he can't control.

So many questions. Sorry about that.

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Looking For a Breakup Song When You Are the Breaker-Upper

Dear Looking,

Frankly, I think sometimes I take myself too seriously. So I think I will just write you a letter as if writing to a friend.

My favorite part of your letter is where you ask, Who is this gut? What does it know about me? And can I trust it?

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I wonder about that, too.

In this case, I think your gut is telling you that he will never go to Paris with you. That is what your gut is saying. No wonder you feel sad.

You have made an assessment, based on his behavior, that in crucial situations he is likely to not come through. You have plenty of evidence that this is the case. So your gut, in this case, is the reality principle; it is your predictive capacity; it is your ability to assess the facts and make an adequate judgment on what's likely to happen in the near future.

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So you're making a good decision.

What makes it difficult is that this good decision is costing you emotionally. You're having to give up something. Powerful emotional needs, perhaps arising from certain traumas and difficulties in early life, are competing with your predictive capacity. He meets those needs. You and he recognize in each other a similar pain, and you know how to respond to each other in ways that gratify these unmet needs. So it's very painful to let that go.

So it's your job now to reassure this part of yourself and say, I know this is scary, I know it's painful, but we'll be OK.

And you will be OK. In fact, you will be better off.

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Whether we like it or not, we are in motion. We are headed somewhere. There is a future unfolding. We have to steer. So we have to always be looking a little down the road, and paying attention so we don't miss our stop. So you are doing the responsible thing by admitting to yourself that this thing is not headed in a good direction. As much as you love each other, you need to decouple your cars and get on different tracks.

I wonder if you are ever struck by the strangeness of all this, the way things have turned out. I wonder if you get those flashes where you wonder if anyone else feels the sudden strangeness of it all. Or if you stop and ask yourself from time to time, Am I living my life? Am I? Am I really living it?

Like I say, I thought I would just write you a letter. I have my own problems and they intrude. I get off on tangents.

What I mean is, well, are you living your life in italics. How do you get there? Well, there are always moments, maybe in a train station or maybe in an airport, or sitting at a table in a coffee shop when you look at him and what you are doing ... and see that no matter how many good decisions you try to make, there will always be surprises. Eventually, as surprises become more frequent, you begin to think less How am I living my life? and more just How is my life living me? Then your chief activity is to ride it truly and well, this life: Not to pretend that you are making all the decisions, but to try and be alert and graceful, to make it look good as it lurches this way and that, to stand on the subway in a balanced stance, maybe not even holding the strap, knowing that it will only lurch so far this way and so far that ... until this assumption, too, is trashed by the one in a million event of derailment. All of which reminds us that events unfold like a series of lessons about uncertainty and surprise, that life is a continual washing-away of assumptions about the future. As if to say, keep your eyes open, things will always be shifting, you will never be settled, you have to accept the motion and go with it, and if you do that, you will be OK.

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So you will be OK. That is the important thing. You are doing the right thing, and you will be OK.



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Cary Tennis

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