Category: Abusive relationships

  • “Should I be miserable, or slightly less miserable?”: The Framing Problem

    A great letter about an all-too-common issue: do you stay in a mediocre relationship, or stick around to acknowledge your partner’s efforts at self-improvement, in hope that things maaaybe get better:

    Dear Dr Ali — My on/off partner of 4.5 years (with breaks) has a very avoidant attachment style, manifesting through extreme workaholic behaviour, using work to put distance between us. His work is stressful which exacerbates the issues. I have left the relationship twice. I am generally secure, with a very close, supportive family and friends network, but under this type of stress I become quite anxious. I’ve left whenever I realised I was persistently unhappy and ultimately feel alone within the relationship.

    We have an 8 year relationship as creative partners and are currently still working together (sporadically, not everyday). Our working relationship is great, I’d say because he feels safe and not threatened by intimacy. We are always happy to see each other.

    Both times I have left, he has reached out to try again. This time he started therapy to address these problems and in a few months there has been a significant acknowledgement of issues but no change so far. We love each other but I am worried that his underlying issues are so deep, he will never be able to commit to a relationship in a way that will make us both happy.

    Do you think it is possible for a strongly avoidant person to smooth off those edges and feel happy and fulfilled in a relationship rather than trapped and panicky (especially during the stressful times in life)? Ages are 38 and 40. Thanks, Cleo

    This kind of question comes up a lot, and it’s an example of what’s called the framing problem. See, Cleo, the correct question here is not “Can this person who has been making me feel anxious, unhappy and alone for 4.5 years with whom I’ve already broken up twice suddenly change and become the warm, caring person who fulfills all my relationship needs for the next umpteen years?” but rather, “Why am I putting up with this shit?” The real choice is between the mediocre-to-toxic relationship you’re having right now, vs the mutually nurturing and nourishing relationship that you could have with any of the millions of men that you haven’t broken up with twice yet.

    What you’re asking me is, “Hey doc. I just got this hot dog, and it fell in the sand. Should I just eat it, or is it possible for me to pick out all the grit and maybe wash it and then have a soggy mess that’s almost edible again and maybe a little less gritty, so I don’t have to throw it away?” If you have 5 bucks in your pocket, I’d say go get another hot dog, toss the other one and never think about it again.

    This type of thinking is very common, Cleo. The problem is with the framing: should I keep a miserable relationship, or a slightly less miserable relationship. It’s a false choice. You can also have a great relationship. Just not with this guy. I’m guessing that right about now, you’re getting a pretty unified chorus of friends and family saying that you deserve better. Maybe it’s time to listen to that.

    The reason this comes up so often is because of the sunk cost fallacy. I’ve written about this before in Chapter 5 of The Tao of Dating (ebook, paperback, and audiobook), “Understanding Men, Understanding Yourself”, p93:

    The Slot-Machine Theory of Human Behavior
    “Let’s say you’re in Las Vegas, and you’ve decided to play a slot machine. You put in a coin, pull the lever, and – nothing. Well, that’s fine – you weren’t expecting to win immediately anyway. So you put in another coin and – nothing again. In fact, nothing is the most likely outcome every time. Funny that.

    But before you know it, you’ve sunk quite a few coins in this machine. Now you’re thinking, “I’m invested; I can’t just quit now! I’ve fattened this thing up – it’s going to pay off any second now! Jackpot City!”

    The fact remains that the most likely outcome of your next pull (and the next, and the next, and the next) is still nothing. And that likelihood does not change whether you put in one coin or 10,000 coins before this pull.

    Psychologists have noticed that one of the reasons why this happens (and why casinos are making a mint) is that the human mind grasps poorly the concept of sunk costs. Those first 100 coins that you put into the machine are gone forever, and they have no bearing upon the outcome of the next pull of the lever. People tend to mistake the sunk cost for an investment, which has an expectation of future payoff commensurate with the investment. A sunk cost, on the other hand, is just plain gone.

    The way this concept plays out in a bad relationship is that the aggrieved party thinks that she has invested two years dating a jerk, so she can’t just throw that investment away. Besides, through her efforts, he might reform and thereby reward her with the jackpot she’s been working on all along.

    Well, there is no way to retrieve or throw away those two years – they’re gone for good. They are sunk costs. And the jackpot isn’t coming. Just as in playing a slot machine, the best policy once you realize you’re in a sunk cost situation is to cut and run and immediately stop your losses. The sooner a woman leaves behind the jerk, the sooner she’s opening her life to the arrival of a guy (perhaps even a Good Guy) who can be a catalyst for fulfillment.” [end of excerpt]

    Your question once again brings up the central question of relationships: What do you want, Cleo? Do you want an on-again, off-again relationship that stresses you out? Because that’s what you’re signing up for by staying with him. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and the past behavior has not been promising.

    It’s nice that you say you love him, but your mission in this life is to be your most radiant, giving, generous, creative self so you can give your gift to the world, not to have it drained out of you by one person. This man does not sound like the kind of person who as a partner can catalyze your greatness. As such, staying with him would be an act of selfishness. You have a much bigger mandate than having to deal with his issues. Be strong and move on so you can open the door to the right partner who’s been waiting for you for a long time now. And if that means being alone for a little while, that’s still a better spot than what you’re describing right now.

    Please recall that I wrote The Tao of Dating because a friend of mine told me she was dating with a man who lived under her roof paying no rent and beating her up. That was a really clear case of someone being in the wrong relationship, because he was physically abusing her. But sometimes the violence isn’t so obvious because it’s occurring emotionally.

    All relationships go through ups and downs, but please be mindful of what the overall arc of the relationship is. Does it go down, then go up again, with a general upward trajectory? Or does it go down, and then stay down till you get used to the new normal, then go down again? There’s a term for this in decision science: normalization of deviance. And if you’re stuck in the middle of it, it can sometimes be hard to tell if you’re compromising too much in a relationship.

    So here are some ways of finding out whether what you’re putting up with is normal relationship fluctuations or a toxic relationship:

    Are your friends worried about you? Do they often express concern about the state of your relationship? Do they ever say things like “He’s not good for you” or “Y’know, have you considered dating someone else?” If so, you may be in a toxic relationship.

    Do you find yourself apologizing a lot in the relationship? Like you’re always walking on eggshells, trying not to set him off?  The whole point of relationship is for two people to support each other, not to create an atmosphere of fear. There are plenty of dark alleyways you can walk down in the sketchy parts of the city to make you feel unsafe. Why construct one in your own home?

    Do you have a history of staying in bad relationships? If so, your idea of “normal” may be skewed such that you’re willing to put up with a lot more crap than you should.

    Do you feel that you’re flourishing as a person in this relationship? This is the absolute criterion that doesn’t even need the rest of them. If the answer is no, it’s time to think about why that’s the case.

    If you don’t feel psychologically safe on a day-to-day basis in your relationship, it’s really time to move on. Things like love, growth and joy only have room to happen when the parasympathetic nervous system and the mind and body feel safe. When your mind is in threat response mode, it just never gets past that. If that describes you, call on a trusted friend or counselor to discuss how you can extricate yourself from the situation.

    Speaking of flourishing — I’ve got a little something for you. On Tue May 31 at 6pm PT/9pm ET, I’m giving a free teleclass called “Happiness Engineering: The Five Pillars of Authentic Success.” Sign up for it here and I’ll send you a reminder for when it’s happening.

    All the best,
    Dr Ali

    PS: By popular request, Therapy Thursdays continues. If you have an issue that you think could benefit from a one-on-one consult via Skype, send a message to drali at taoofdating.com with “TT” in the subject line and I’ll see what I can do to accommodate you. There are 3 appointment slots per week, and they happen on Thursdays and Fridays.

    PPS: If you don’t have it already, you can get The Tao of Dating audibook for free when you sign up for a 30-day trial with Audible.

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  • Video Mailbag #2: Self-Sabotage 101

    Sometimes I get a letter from you ladies so rich with nuance, implication and dysfunction that I realize it would take me hours to write a response covering everything I want to say.

    That’s when I resort to this newfangled technology called “video”, and bang out a response in 10min instead of 10hrs. This means now you also get to stare at my mug to get your answer, so hey, enjoy :)

    Two news items first: I’m putting the finishing touches on a digital version of “Project Irresistible”, the 6-week teleclass that I’ve been running periodically to bring the principles of The Tao of Dating into your life and behavior. ‘Cause, let’s face it, if we actually learned everything we read in books, we’d all be hyper-successful super-geniuses by now with perfect lives, right?

    Well, it don’t work that way. One thing I learned in med school was that route of administration matters. So a well-designed course, with audio and written material and exercises, can make a big difference. More about it on Monday.

    Second, thanks for all your feedback on the Tao of Dating Cover Redesign Contest. Your votes so far have been very helpful, but even more so — your comments! Such aesthetes in our midst, but of course. Your taste matters, because lord knows I ain’t going to be reading this book — you ladies are. So chime in, cast your vote, and expound on your thinking here.

    Now let’s set the scene for this letter: our heroine, whom we shall call Gilda, gets together with this guy who was going through a divorce. Except that he gets back together with his wife, leaving Gilda high and dry. But then, he separates from his wife again, and comes crawling back to Gilda. They get together again, and — you guessed it — dude goes back to his wife, leaving Gilda a very sad camper. Except that now he’s finalized the divorce, and guess who he just called? Ay crud. So Gilda asks me: “What should I do, Doc?” Well, what do you think ladies? And before you get all judgey on her — you’d never think like this yourself, right? Here we go:

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  • Mailbag: On Leaving Toxic Relationships

    Last week, I received a rash of letters about bad relationships. Like, really, really bad relationships. I feel like these kinds of relationships are a little bit like cockroaches: for every one that you see, there are 70 that you don’t. Which makes me dread how many more of you must be in these kinds of relationships without telling me — or anyone else. Speak up! First, let’s get to this first letter here. After responding to all of the “I’m Stuck with Toxic Boy and Don’t Know What to Do” letters personally, I felt this one was representative of the batch:

    Dr Ali, I have been dating a man for the past 9 years on and off. He is 44 years old, divorced and still lives with his mother. He hangs out with his loser friends to smoke weed and drink alcohol. He hardly spends time with me when I confront him about the lack of time. All he tells me is that I complain about it too much and that I need to respect him and give him loyalty.

    His comments make me resent him, so on and off, I block him from my phone. What I heard from an ex is that the times we are not together he was sleeping around and dating other women. In our last break up, he started dating another woman a week after breaking up with me. A month later, he proposed to her and moved in with that woman. He never did anything like that with me.

    What bothers me is that he is trying to get back with me while he is still engaged to the other chick. I still love him but I feel disgusted and used. How do I let go of a loser who gave me crumbs of time?

    Resentfully, Bree

    Oh my. The only thing that’s missing here is “He also just recently got out of jail for a few felony charges and tends to beat me with a baseball bat for sport. And wants me to join his cult.” I mean, we all have different limits of tolerance, but it seems as if (more…)

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  • “Who would ever want me?”: On being lovable

    Hello, ladies and the occasional curious gentleman. Noah’s Flood has hit Northern California with full force, and I volunteered to be part of the crew that collects pairs of animals for the ark. The problem is that I really can’t tell the difference between, say, a boy armadillo and a girl armadillo. So if certain species end up going extinct in the near future, you didn’t hear about any of this. Deal? Deal.

    In other news, I’ve been doing some research on my ongoing project called Happiness Engineering. In the course of my readings, I’ve come across a bunch of interesting research emphasizing the importance of vulnerability, compassion, self-compassion and mindfulness. In my last article, I covered some of those topics. This being the hammer that the world has provided me for the foreseeable future, I’ll be looking at the letters you send me as the perfect nails for said hammer. Case in point, we have one from Cori, a 44-year old widow with 4 kids who just started dating again:

    After being married for years, my husband died of cancer, and I started dating again. I’m 44; the new guy is divorced. After dating for a while, the new guy says he wants to marry me. But after getting to know him for over year now, I’ve noticed that has a bad temper. He calls me names when he gets mad, like “jackass” – who even uses that anymore?! – and slams the phone down etc. Gets mad at me a lot. Told him it’s not fun anymore and I’m not okay with anger issues. He offered to change. I declined the offer. He argues that he is committed, dependable, and loving and I bring out the anger by doing stupid shit basically. I told him no go – husband of many years never called me a name, ever.

    Question: Am I nuts to break up with a man willing to take on a widow with four kids? I meet tons of men. I’m super sexual. Get hit on plenty but his point is they all just want sex, not love. I’d rather be alone! But do you think people change?! I really don’t. I feel pretty liberated by making my own choices and not allowing myself to settle…

    Anyway. As always just hoping for some honest thoughts from the smartest man I know (online anyway). Hope your love life is going better than mine. — Cori

    Dear Cori – I’d say you’re pretty smart, too, since saying stuff like “Just hoping for some honest thoughts from the smartest man I know” is exactly the way to motivate me :)

    Your letter brings up a bunch of interesting points. First off, because you’re so smart and fabulous, here’s what I would say: trust yourself. You don’t like the anger. Your late husband never called you a bad name the whole time you were together. Clearly this is something you don’t want to tolerate, and really nobody should. You already have clear boundaries, and he’s obviously violating them. He could be a trillionaire who’s a typhoon in the sack, but if he has a habit of pooping on the breakfast table, then you can’t be with him. Uncontrolled anger is like pooping on the breakfast table, except that it can happen unpredictably at any time, anywhere, not just at mealtime. His blaming it on you because you supposedly do “stupid shit” is BULLSHIT, emotionally manipulative and inexcusable. A grown man is responsible for his own behavior.

    Now this line from the letter was quite telling:

    “Question: Am I nuts to break up with a man willing to take on a widow with four kids?”

    Let me translate that into what it’s actually saying:

    “Since I’m just a widow burdened with 4 kids, I should hold on to any guy who would give me the time of day. I mean, when will I ever get another chance? Who would be crazy enough to want little ol’ me?”

    Well, Cori, I don’t know. Who would be crazy enough to want little ol’ you?

    And ladies — before you think that somehow this is a problem unique to Cori, please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a version of this go through YOUR mind, ahem:

    “Who would want to be with me with my oversize thighs / stringy hair / pot belly / C on my report card / chronic disease / neat-freak tendencies / crappy job / ugly neighborhood / weird family / shitty car / funny-looking feet / dwarf stature / beanpole height / asymmetrical boobs / annoyingly high voice / funny accent / other perfectly common no-big-deal issue which I will nevertheless unconsciously use as a barrier to intimacy?”   

    Now, I haven’t met you, so it doesn’t make sense for me to sit here and boost your ego by singing your praises. What I can do, however, is to tell you how you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are enough.

    See, I get hundreds of letters from you ladies every year. And you all think you have this one special problem that’s specific to you and you alone.

    Well, I’ve got news for ya. All of you have one problem and one problem alone, and it’s pretty much the same for all of you. And I’ve said before, it is this question:

    AM I LOVABLE?

    That’s pretty much it. Everything else boils down to that, as I mentioned in my last article. Am I worthy of love? Am I pulling my weight on this planet? Is there any good reason why people should like me, want to spend time with me and be nice to me?

    Luckily, the answers to those questions are entirely in your hands. Here are three things you can do such that you know that you’ve done your part in being, like, totally lovable:

    1) Am I being vulnerable?

    What’s the most lovable thing in the world? An infant, a kitten or a puppy would qualify. So cute! So adorable!

    And so completely useless. I mean, what can a baby do? Not much besides pee, poop, and make nipples sore. And yet, because it’s also perfectly defenseless, everyone adores it.

    Now, granted, there are also some deep evolutionary mechanisms at work assuring that we find wrinkly, pudgy, smoosh-faced, income- and sleep-annihilating babies adorable, otherwise the human race just wouldn’t propagate.

    Nevertheless, it’s still true that lovability is directly proportional to vulnerability. One thing we all know for sure: perfectionism, the polar opposite of vulnerability, is distinctly non-cuddly and just plain unattractive. So if you’re trying to attract men, what may work even better than trying to come off as a hypercompetent, fiercely independent overachiever is this: a little bit of emotional self-disclosure.

    Admit that sometimes things are tough. That you wish you had more support, more close company that you could share experiences with. That you miss your dad who passed away 6 years ago, and that you wish he could have met his grandkids. That all the responsibility of being a powerful woman weighs you down sometimes. That the scar from the surgery still hurts. That you gave up your childhood dream of being a classical cellist for a corporate job. Emotional self-disclosure of pain or imperfection like these make you more vulnerable, and therefore more approachable and lovable.

    Vulnerability brings out the protective and nurturing instincts of a man – his noblest aspects. Perfectionism, on the other hand, brings out his competitive instincts. Which one would you prefer? Would you rather fight or be cherished? Your choice.

    At the same time, “vulnerable” means “more subject to harm.” So make sure the person you’re making yourself vulnerable to is the right audience for it. Last thing you want is some brute who’ll attack you just when you’ve exposed your soft underbelly.

    Also, make sure that vulnerability is the spice, rather than the whole dish. If you’re perpetually talking about the pain in your life, that’s not vulnerability – that’s just whining. This is not about dumping your woes on people. This is about discreetly making yourself vulnerable, in measured doses, to someone you like.

    2) Am I being self-compassionate?

    Generally speaking, people can only love you to the extent that you love yourself. So – how much do you love yourself? If you’re constantly putting yourself down and telling yourself how much of an idiot you are, then you’re probably going to end up with someone who agrees with you or worse.

    Why? Because you’re going to reject out of hand any guy who likes you more than you like yourself. “What could he possibly see in me? He’s either crazy, deluded or faking it.” That would be funny if it weren’t true of so many people I know.

    The antidote to this is a healthy sense of self-compassion (which apparently is different from self-esteem, but that’s a story for a different day). According to Prof Kristin Neff of the University of Texas in Austin, who pioneered the field and wrote the book on self-compassion (full delightful title: Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind) there are 3 components to it:

    a) Self-kindness, meaning that we are gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Basically, when you flub, be as nice to yourself as you would be to others. Simple.

    b) Recognizing our common humanity, meaning that we feel connected to others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. This is what I was talking about earlier in the article when I said all of you have the same am-I-lovable problem. You’re not alone in being alone, as the immortal bard Sting put it in the song Message in a Bottle.

    c) Mindfulness, meaning that we remain aware of our pain but keep that observation in perspective, rather than ignoring the pain or exaggerating it.

    Practice self-compassion, and the beast of low self-worth is likely to go on a very long vacation.

    3) Am I being loving?

    If you’re being vulnerable and self-compassionate, that’s a great start. But being loving is also an active, outward-directed thing. So this is third part of doing your homework so you know that you are totally, completely, 100% worthy of love involves building up other people in addition to not tearing yourself down. Some ways of being loving:

    • Being a catalyst for others’ growth
    • Habitually making folks feel like a million bucks
    • Expressing your appreciation of people
    • Being focused more on giving than taking (while still looking out for yourself, ahem – no doormats or martyrs, please)
    • Valuing people as ends in themselves, not as means to some other end
    • Saying more positive things than negative things (3:1 ratio at least)

    The good news is this is all under your control. You can choose to be vulnerable. You can choose to be loving. And when you do, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are worthy of love.

    But wait! There’s more. There’s a side benefit to all of this. As a result of all of these practices, e.g. making others feel like a million bucks, YOU’RE going to feel like a million bucks, too! Scientists have shown that all of this stuff that you do – raising people up, sharing of yourself, being giving – has a direct, positive effect on you. It makes you feel good!

    So to go back to Cori’s original question: Who would want to date a 44-year old woman with 4 kids? Who’s gonna love you, girl?

    Well, if you’re doing the stuff that we just talked about, the answer is legions of guys – assuming they have some sense in them. At the same time, the work of vulnerability, self-compassion and being loving is its own reward. How’s that for a win-win?

    So go forth and live it up. Make someone’s day — especially your own. I’ve gotta put on my rain gear and catch some armadilloes for now, but I fully expect to hear back on how it went for you when I’m back.

    Best, Dr Ali

    PS: As you may know, the audiobook of The Tao of Dating for Women is now available on Audible and Amazon. Audible has a deal where you can get it for free. And if you’re one of the first people to put up a review of it on Audible.com, I will hook you up with a free download code to send to a friend. I have 15 gift codes left, so hurry! Once your review is published, send me an email with “AUDIBLE REVIEW” in the subject and the link to your review, and I shall hook you up with the goods.

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  • How to get over a breakup

    This month, no fewer than three of my friends have pressed me into service as a breakup counselor. And if three of them are actually telling me about it, that means there are another 300 out there who are not.

    So in the interest of helping out all of those suffering in silence now or in the future, I’m compiling a list of interventions that many have found useful in handling such matters of the heart. Let’s start with the non-negotiable one first:

    1) Break contact completely.

    We’ve all heard of drugged-out celebrities going to rehab, but ever wonder what actually happens there? The first thing rehab does is to keep the patient away from his drug of choice. His brain’s been so lit up by his habit that neuronal receptors for the drug are now screaming for another fix like a million hungry chicks.

    Well, your ex-lover operates on your brain just like that drug, so now you need to detox, too. You need to give your (more…)

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  • If you think you’re in an abusive relationship, read this NOW

    Recently I read a moving, sobering article about a great woman who was stuck in an abusive relationship.

    I couldn’t believe what I read.  Here was a super-smart woman — a doctor, in fact — who was letting a man beat her up, literally and figuratively, for five YEARS.

    At various points, he kicked her, choked her, and even held a gun to her head.  Dr Karen E Johnson was fearing for her life.  And yet she still stayed with him.

    The pattern is a familiar one: he was ‘romantic’, made breakfast in bed, said sweet nothings to her, and did all kinds of other nonsense that sucked Dr Karen in and kept her with him.

    Let me make it clear: men should be the protectors and providers for women — not their attackers.  Any kind of physical violence means you need to get out.  IMMEDIATELY.

    I don’t know what it takes for a smart woman to wake up, realize that it’s not okay for a guy to raise a hand on her EVER, and walk out.  Or call the police.

    The statistic I heard was that it takes 5 attempts before a woman finally leaves her abuser for good.  And it almost always takes outside help — from a friend, family member, therapist, social worker, concerned neighbor.

    Whatever it takes, I want to take this opportunity to tell you that YOU CAN DO IT.  You have my full permission and support to break out of this.  To get you started, here’s an excellent article about the signs to look for BEFORE a guy gets abusive.  It’s well-researched and very insightful:

    Tell Somebody: 10 Surprising Signs You’re Dating an Abusive Guy by Liz Brody, Editor-at-Large of Glamour Magazine

    And here’s the link to Dr Karen E Johson’s website, where she has two free ebooks, Five Ways to Find Out if You’re In an Abusive Relationship and 5 Ways to Take Your Power Back: DrKarenEJohnson.com

    Here are some excerpts from her article ‘Secrets and Lies’ (more…)

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