There is a particular situation-- and a time in psychotherapy-- when I may be asked by a patient what his girlfriend—or her boyfriend--is thinking “deep down.” The situation I am referring to is at a point where the patient has come to wonder whether his or her lover is considering breaking off their relationship. Sometimes the lover has begun to behave in an unsatisfactory manner, which suggests that all that talk about commitment and marriage is going out the window. But my patient isn’t sure. So, I am asked to help figure it out.
Consider this situation: Amy and Harold (fake names, of course,) have been dating for about a year. Six months ago Amy moved into Harold’s apartment. Things were going smoothly. There were ups and downs as in any relationship, but mostly things were looking up--until another woman came to work at the automobile showroom where Harold worked. Harold made friends with the other woman and went out to lunch with her a few times. According to Amy, she felt Harold was not doing anything wrong; but, at the same time, Harold began treating her rudely from time to time. He would forget certain social obligations. Sometimes he stayed out all night. There came a time when Amy threatened to move out; and Harold responded by saying he thought that was a good idea.
Over the next few weeks, Harold saw Amy each week once or twice. They continued to sleep together; but Harold made plans to be away frequently with friends. He stopped asking Amy questions about her work. He did not find time to go out with her and another couple with whom they had been close. Finally, he drew Amy to one side and told her that he loved her, but he was no longer “in love” with her. When he spoke there were tears in his eyes. During the next few weeks, Harold did not call Amy or respond to her calls. Now, she wants to know what he is feeling “deep down.”
There is scarcely a time in any relationship when a man and woman do not feel, more or less at the same time, contrary feelings towards the other. I told Amy that Harold was ambivalent towards her. Indeed, very often, even when someone marries, he, or she, might still have some unspoken reservations. Such reservations can continue well into the marriage, in fact, indefinitely. What Amy wants to know, though, is something a little different. She wants to know if Harold’s feelings are predominantly negative or whether there is still some hope that because of his “deep down” love for her, he may return to her. She wants a reason to hope.
I imagine, I tell her, that probably when she moved in with him, Harold’s feelings towards her were about 90% positive and 10% negative; and now those they have reversed. Now he feels 10% positive to her and 90% negative. Maybe it’s seventy/thirty or eighty-eight/twelve. I am guessing. Recently someone asked me something similar. Does the fact that her boyfriend obtained an order of protection against her mean that he has lost interest in her? Is this a sensible question to ask?
There are things that Amy—and I—cannot know, but that come up in the conversation. Does Harold care for this other woman? Is he planning on being with her? What difference does it make?
Putting the question more properly: is there a chance that Harold, who has recently professed love but who seems to be determined to leave, will in the future want to return? The answer is, yes. I have seen ex-lovers return six months later. Recently, I saw a man who once again began seeing his ex-wife, to whom he had been married very briefly twenty years ago, despite the fact that he is currently married, apparently happily, to someone else. The longer someone goes without returning to the abandoned lover, though, the less likely it is that he, or she, will ever return. But returning is always a possibility. Does the fact that a man or woman has professed love at some point give some hint about whether the couple will come together again? No.
Some advice: a good rule to follow in romantic relationships is to judge what the other person is feeling and likely to do in the future by what that person does, and not by what he/she says. It is not that men and women dissemble, which they do from time to time. It is that they do not know, for sure, how they feel; and they certainly do not know how they will feel a few months or years later. But, it is reasonable to attribute some meaning to what a lover, or ex-lover, does. If someone takes out an order of protection, it is sensible to plan on that person being serious about not coming back.
A better question: is there something that Amy can do to encourage Harold to come back to her? The thing to do in this situation, I think, is to avoid doing those things that make his return less likely. She should not pester him. She should try not to seem desperate. It is reasonable over a period of months to continue to show some interest by texting on a birthday or a holiday; but then the ball is in Harold’s court. Either he will pick up the cue or he will not. There is no way Amy can sell herself to him.
Still a better question is whether or not Amy should want Harold to come back. There are many men—and women—out there. Many of them will like Amy—or whoever else the abandoned lover may be—in an unambiguous and unequivocal way. Why settle for someone who has to be convinced? (c) Fredric Neuman Author of "Come One, Come All." Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/