Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’m having problems about how to deal with difficult changes in my relationship with my girlfriend. We have been going out for four years now. We get along very well and have managed to stay close despite the fact that we have been in separate colleges.
Recently, I’ve been feeling the need to rediscover what it’s like to be on my own. I care very deeply for my girlfriend and still think we can have a good future together. It’s just that I’ve been in a steady relationship from the last year of high school through most of my college years and I never really had a chance to see what life is like as a single person. My girlfriend is very upset and in a lot of pain over this. It hurts me to see her in pain. I try to comfort her, but I can’t give her what she really wants right now – a commitment from me to immediately go back to things as they were in the relationship.
I don’t know what to do. I’m having trouble sleeping and I’m anxious a lot – especially when she calls me crying. We have all the same friends so breaking up also means changes in our friendships with others. I don’t see any answers or any way of resolving this situation.
Dr. Norquist responds:
A relationship is only satisfying when both parties are happy with it. Getting back together with her to assuage her pain will not work, because your feelings will not be genuine and your resentment will grow. The painful truth is that you can’t take away her pain right now. There are no answers currently that will satisfy both your needs and hers.
Psychologically, however, it is healthier to be comfortable managing your life as a single person before making a long-term relationship commitment. Making a commitment before getting to know yourself as a single adult in this world leaves certain aspects of your growth as an individual undeveloped. These autonomy needs can re-surface at a later date, when they can be even more disruptive to your life. Premature commitment may temporarily meet unresolved security needs, but it is at the expense of your personal development.
That said there are certainly couples who are able to manage quite well in establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship from the high school years onward. The key qualities for doing this are flexibility, the ability to honor individual needs within the structure of the relationship, an easy sense of partnership, a balance of power within the relationship, and a developed sense of individual identities.
This crisis can either be the next step in a relationship that allows for growth, or the ending of a relationship that has served as a supportive part of your formative years. Both of you will determine the outcome. As you know, it is vital to listen to and respect what feels genuine and true for each of you, and to not base your decisions on fear. Please write again if this does not address your question adequately.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2013 Chaitanya Counseling Services