“Okay—don’t say ‘I told you so,’” Grace began. “Yes, I heard back from Jeremy—finally called me after ghosting after we spent the night together. And yes, even though I felt crushed—again I was all excited to give him another chance and start over. Just like I always do if the guy ever calls again. And yes, it did make me feel pretty again—wanted—and sexy. My insecurity didn’t totally vanish, but even while I was telling myself this time it’s gonna be different, I also knew it was still a crap-shoot.” 

“Get familiar with your typical relationship patterns, and use that understanding to make more thoughtful, more adaptive choices.”Grant

Grace had a of experiences growing up of people close to her letting her down—especially her mother, a professional woman, and her father, who she described as “a drunk.” She was beginning to believe there might be something to Dr. N’s suggestion that, since childhood, she had unconsciously and at least partly deliberately set up a pattern in her relationships that allowed herself to keep her distance so she wouldn’t be disappointed and hurt when someone important to her let her down. She had gotten as far as wanting something to change, both in herself and how she chose romantic partners, but what was supposed to happen and how was far from apparent.

Dr. N told her in session one day, “It does make me a little uneasy sometimes. You can go into such a tailspin when a boyfriend disappears, torturing yourself with ‘what’s wrong with me?’ questions. But I think your take on that is starting to change. Let’s look at you and Jeremy a little more. How long has it been now?”

“I’m almost afraid of jinxing it if I tell you, but next week it’ll be four months. That’s pretty good considering I was sure he’d bailed on me after that night together. But I’m playing it differently in at least one way: I’ve been honest with him about all the times I’ve broken up with guys before we made it half a year. At first, he seemed to think it was funny—as if it were keeping some kind of spreadsheet. Then he kind of blew it off, said he wasn’t thinking ‘that way’ about it at all. But he still doesn’t seem ‘all that into me’ the way he did at first. Back then we were texting all day long—a lot of times about he we couldn’t wait to get together and have sex. But now it almost seems as if everything else in his life has suddenly become more important than me. Sometimes he even makes lame excuses for why we can’t get together. “ 

“How will you both know you’ve had enough of not getting enough?”Daniel

“And as for the sex, well, the last time we got together, the first thing he told me was that he couldn’t stay long because he had to get home early.”

“The day after that happened, I said something about it—asked him if he was losing interest, but he said, ‘no, everything’s fine.’ Well, I wasn’t convinced and am just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Doctor, do you think I made a mistake seeing him again after he did his first disappearing act?”

Over a year before this, Dr. N introduced Grace to the concept of irrelationship, the defensive mechanism many couples use when the prospect of true intimacy begins to show itself. In irrelationship a couple will turn a relationship with a promising start into a pattern of keeping their distance from one another. Having explored her own background of unconsciously sabotaging the possibility of intimacy, Grace was starting to realize that the growing distance between her and Jeremy looked suspiciously like past experiences with men. This difference now was her beginning to question why she had always allowed a “distancing pattern” to settle in without saying anything about it. It was dawning on her that she had always collaborated with men she liked by keeping a tight boundary between them.

Dr. N reminded her about the 40-20-40 technique by which couples learn to deal openly with the anxiety that makes them want to check out, either gradually or precipitously, as they get “too close for comfort.” But the 40-20-40 requires both partners to be willing to acknowledge that something “isn’t right,” and to uncover what’s behind their histories of relationship fade-outs. 

“Working through irrelationship—like just about every other significant change in behavior or pattern—is about recognizing the difference between the problem and the solution.”Mark

If they can commit to exploring why intimacy is so scary for them, the 40-20-40 then becomes the technique for building relationship sanity, a state of openness to exploring any and all feelings both partners experience about relationship at any given moment.

“But Jeremy gets pissed off if I even bring up the way he disappeared,” Grace reflected. “Can I really expect him to open up to me about his own feelings when he won’t even listen to mine? Maybe the thing for me to do is just cut my losses and walk away.  Again.”

“Yeah. Again,” Dr. N replied. “But the reason you and I are working together in the first place is to change the way things have always been. And you’ve done some great work the last couple of months. I’d be sorry if we missed another opportunity of exploring ways to distance yourself from what you’ve always done. And there’s something else: When Jeremy turned up again after all those weeks, he just might have been signaling to you that he’s more invested in you than he quite realizes. And if that’s so, maybe he’s ready to work on keeping that investment.”

“But how will I know?

“That,” Dr. N said, “is a question I think you’re going to have to talk about with him.”

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