Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Slow Down: Joanne’s Response
I like how Harold framed the situation: that which is black and white for Rob continues to devolve into shades of gray for Celia. This may be a useful way to illuminate the road to compromise, too, as Harold suggests. Rob may need to move into the gray around issues such as personal fulfillment, and Celia may need to identify which aspects of their relationship she can see in simpler, black and white terms – such as, as many have commented, her commitment level.
The question is, how can they do that? This is an excellent opportunity for Rob and Celia to define the relationship they want. Without defined ground rules, relationships will be driven by unwritten ones. Rob and Celia are each running on ground rules from their own families, but they don’t know it, and because these assumptions are contradictory they are causing problems. It is easy to assume that Celia has the commitment “issues” because of her parents’ divorce, but Rob’s assumptions about relationships and life – that you decide it all at 24 and live with it the rest of your life – seem equally problematic.
I hope Rob and Celia can slow this down and find a third way – not just black and white, and not just gray, but defining which issues must be black and white and around which issues they must learn to tolerate some gray. As this conversation unfolds and they understand the other’s point of view better, their fear will decrease and their commitment to one another will increase.
Compromising what you want? (Harold’s response)
I am most struck in by Rob's question to Celia, "What do you want?" As I think on Rob and Celia's current crisis, I wonder is it a matter of black and white? From Rob's perspective, the question at hand seems simple enough. "Do you want a life with me or a life without me?", he infers. I sense Rob's growing frustration that the fighting is ultimately about Celia's answer to this question. Since Celia is clearly inconsistent on the matter, Rob understandably personalizes her mixed responses as "she wants me" one minute and "she doesn't want me" the next. In an effort to end the see-saw Rob pushes Celia to choose a path. Rob wants to feel secure in the relationship--that's fair. Rob also wants Celia to be consistent--that's also fair. But Rob's emotional insecurity about the relationship clouds his ability to see the situation from Celia's perspective.
Here's the problem. Celia doesn't see this as black and white at all. There are a lot of gray areas. For Celia this isn't about whether she loves Rob or not. She does! For her, it appears to be about getting all the things that she wants within reason--including Rob. Celia wants Rob to be an advocate for her personal aspirations--fair enough. She wants Rob to be sensitive to the issues that she has had in her background--fair enough. But, she also unfairly wants Rob to indefinitely wait in a "holding pattern" until she is ready for the next step. Celia's own issues with her family of origin including experiences of loss and rejection make it difficult for her to see how vulnerable Rob is feeling right now.
Rob and Celia feel like they are in a pressure cooker. They each need that sense of commitment from the other. But, they each see "commitment" differently. How do you release this pressure? Rob thought that presenting an ultimatum would provide the relief. Celia thinks that leaving the building to escape what feels like Rob's attempt to control her will release the tension. I think they are both off base here. I see compromising what they want from one another in a manner that affirms love and commitment (at least to the extent possible) is what they both need. My question to Rob is "How can Celia show you that she is committed to you even if she doesn't move in with you right now?" My question to Celia is "What, if anything, are you willing to give up to secure your relationship with Rob?"
Monday, October 20, 2008
This evening’s fight was typical, and the fact that Rob and Celia were arguing often enough that they identified each incident with names (such as “the after church fight,” “Monday’s email fight,” “The phone fight on the way to work this morning,” etc.) was beginning to throw up red flags for both of them. Once the idea of living together had been introduced a couple weeks ago, they began fighting over the how of it before they had even agreed on the whether, which further confused matters.
For example, Rob began, “So if you move in with me…” and immediately Celia reacted to the assumption that they would move into his apartment. Similarly, Celia began to chat about the research she had been doing online into the AmeriCorps program, wherein she found a non-profit in Boston for which she would like to work (the key piece for her, as she wants to travel and live outside Ohio) and immediately Rob was snagged into an argument about why she’s doing research on opportunities in other cities when they are trying to figure out how to take their relationship to the next step, here, in Columbus.
Tonight’s fight, destined to be known as the “spaghetti fight” because that’s what they were eating at Rob’s apartment, began when, in the same day they argued about Celia looking into AmeriCorps, Celia began to talk about a new development near the Ohio State campus that she thought might be nice to live in, close to her friends. Rob flipped, reacting less to the AmeriCorps or her living situation than to the fact that within the span of one day Celia’s inconsistency about what she wanted was so unbelievable.
“What do you want, Celia?” Rob yelled as he slammed down his fork and stood up. “To make a life here with me or to move on to this life you are imagining that seems to have nothing to do with me?”
This is the first time either of them had articulated the central conflict so clearly, and Celia herself seemed shocked at having it spelled out for her.
“I don’t know, Rob. I do want to be with you. Just not yet.”
“You have said that before. That’s not helpful here. You can’t have it both ways.”
“I’m only twenty-three years old. Why can’t I have it both ways?’ Celia began to tear up.
Rob, still angry but impacted by her tears, stopped and thought about that. “Because I don’t want it both ways. I need you to either make a commitment to me and this relationship, or make a commitment to pursuing yourself. If you need to do that, please do it, it’s fine; but let me know now so I can get on with my life.”
This was the black-and-white ultimatum they both had hoped to avoid, but now they felt nervously close to the brink of -- something. Celia wiped her mouth with her napkin and stood up. Rob watched as she walked toward his front door and picked up her purse. “I’ll let you know,” she said, opening the door, walking through it and closing it behind her.
Now it is time for you to put yourself in Celia's shoes. Using the poll to the right of the page, give us your feedback on how Celia should proceed. Your vote matters!
Friday, October 10, 2008
Commitment is the key! (Harold’s response)
Joanne hit the nail on the head in identifying this as a classic pursuit-withdrawer cycle. From my experience working with couples who are in this "dance", I believe that the relationship is going down if they don't figure out a compromise. As Joanne points out, the question though is whether living together is going to help the situation. I don't think so. I say this because underneath all of the clutter I think there is something missing---commitment. But first, let's be clear. There are many couples who have flourishing marriages today who lived together before they got married. But, when you think about your own circle of friends with this experience, how many led to authentic, happily-married relationships? Research in this area suggests that "relatively few" is probably the answer. I think the real issue here is about emotional security. We all need emotional security! I know I do. It has taken me a while to understand what this means for me as an adult. But the truth is that from childhood through adulthood, we all want to feel connected and loved by others. We want to trust that this attachment is strong and unwavering. In my own experience when I didn't have such assurances, I consciously and sometimes subconsciously adopted "defensive" stances to protect my emotions. In other words, my focus was to guard against being alone or rejected.
Although my wife and I did not live together prior to our marriage, I do believe that the same issues of emotional security are at play. In many ways, this dance is already evident in Rob and Celia's relationship. Neither is trusting that the other is going to be there for them. Neither is convinced that the other is committed to their needs at an emotional level. Living together does nothing to help these attachment concerns. Unless they are able to address their underlying emotional needs they will continue to struggle with commitment issues. And, my primary concern is that living together will actually mask these real issues. Think about your own engagement or marriage. How many times have you fought over an issue that isn't really the issue? I'm guilty!
Honestly, I'm just not sure that Rob and Celia can answer Joanne's legimate "Live together - why?" question right now because it requires emotional insight that they don't seem to have. What are your thoughts? Maybe you have successfully navigated the transition from premarital cohabitation to marital bliss or maybe not. We'd love to get your comments! And, don't forget to vote on what you think they should do.
Classic Pursuit-Withdraw Cycle (Joanne’s assessment)
Rob and Celia are stuck in a pursue-withdraw pattern that will likely get worse without something changing. The more Rob pursues Celia (marry me now!), the more anxious Celia becomes and she withdraws (not yet!). Her withdrawal makes Rob more anxious – he doesn’t want to lose her – so her pursues further (so if not marriage then what?), and she withdraws more (well I don’t know but I do want to be a couple), and so on. This is the underlying cycle to their surface fighting. They know two things: they don’t want to end the relationship but something, or someone, has to give. A couple can either allow this kind of negative pattern to sink them, or they can recognize the fighting as a sign that they need to change what isn’t working.
Rob, in love with Celia, seems willing to compromise his desire to marry her in order to keep her. Celia seems willing to compromise her need for freedom by making a seemingly less binding commitment to living together.
Negotiation is an important skill in all relationships. Rob and Celia have very different short-term goals, and Celia’s short-term goals (finding a permanent local teaching job and traveling/living elsewhere) actually seem contradictory. They bring entirely different family-of-origin packages to the relationship and, frankly, Rob seems more mature than Celia.
My question about Rob and Celia is this: Is living together a legitimate, negotiated compromise, which is healthy, or is it just another expression of the pursuit-withdraw cycle – wherein Rob kinda, sorta, not really gets a permanent relationship and Celia kinda, sorta, not really gets some semblance of freedom? For me, live together or not seems like a less important question than live together: why?
Thursday, October 02, 2008
Introducing Rob and Celia
Rob Benton, 24, and Celia Gillespie, 23, met in a fencing class, of all places, at Ohio State University. Rob had been in his last semester as an accounting major, and Celia had been in her third year studying music education. Walking from class together had led to casual campus lunches, which led to dinner dates on weekends, and they had been together now for over two years. They still live in Columbus, the city in which they met and went to school.
Rob recently asked Celia to marry him, and was crushed when she turned him down, not with a flat out refusal but with a “not yet.” Celia told Rob that while she loves him, she doesn’t want to settle down because she would like to travel first. She’s not even sure she wants to live in Ohio although that’s where she’s been focusing her job hunt. She’d like to work for a school district. Right now she teaches private piano lessons and directs a church choir a few hours a week. Her income is low but so are her expenses, as she is still living with several roommates, a couple of whom are still in college.
Rob is settled into the job he was offered before he graduated, in Columbus, working for the Ohio state government. He has always wanted a family of his own and fears Celia will avoid marriage indefinitely if he doesn’t “nail her down” now. He is also becoming convinced that there is more going on than Celia will admit.
Celia was the younger of two girls in her family but they were only eighteen months apart. She grew up in a rural area of Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was twelve and she and her sister Catherine lived with their mother near Mom’s parents in Canton until they both went to college. Dad has since remarried and lives in Kentucky with his new wife and their infant. Rob can’t help but wonder if Celia’s resistance to marriage has something to do with the divorce and remarriage.
Rob is the oldest of three in his family. He grew up in Cleveland, where his father was also an accountant and his mother was a high school English teacher. One of his two sisters just graduated from high school and is starting college in New York state soon. His youngest sister is still in high school.
Rob and Celia are beginning to talk about living together. For Rob, this is intended to be a step toward marriage, while Celia prefers to think of it instead of marriage, “at least for now.” Neither is happy with the compromise but neither are they willing to give up on the relationship yet. However, they are fighting more and more, as Celia experiences Rob’s efforts to nail her down as controlling, and he feels jerked around by her resistance. They are wondering if living together might help them return to some semblance of normal in the relationship and give them a foundation for moving forward.
Now it is time for you to put yourself in Rob or Celia's shoes. Using the poll to the right of the page, give us your feedback on how this story should proceed. Your vote matters!
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