Fixing the pattern.

Dear Amy: I’m a smart, well-educated woman in my mid-50s. I’ve been dating “Chas,” (in his mid-60s) for five years. This is my first relationship after over 30 years with my ex. (My ex-husband abruptly left me and our kids for another woman).

Chas and I have maintained a long-distance relationship. He tells me daily how much he loves me. He got a tattoo with my initials.

I have a great job in health care. Before the pandemic we managed to meet every four to six weeks (usually I was the one traveling to see him — an eight-hour drive). We’ve discussed moving in together. I have been looking for a job closer to him (he’s retired).

I love him, although he is very moody and has been verbally abusive.

Recently over the phone, we had a small argument; I suggested that we cool off and talk again before the end of the day.

Well, I have not heard from him since (more than two months ago). I apologized via email, voice mail and text. Nothing.

Unfortunately, this has happened before — one time, he simply never showed up at the airport when I flew in.

Some of these “off” periods have lasted as long as six months, and I am always the one to reach out. This behavior mirrors the end of my marriage and I feel betrayed, stunned and shocked all over again.

Friends say this is “ghosting” and is widespread in the dating world now.

I am working on self-esteem with a therapist. If this behavior is common, I’m not sure I’ll ever be strong enough to start dating again. How do I move forward?

— Blindsided

Blindsided: “Ghosting” is when someone ignores you, without explanation. I don’t believe the behavior is new, but the ubiquity of technology makes it feel more visceral.

Yes, he is ghosting you. He has done this before, and you have always coaxed him back. Over the course of your five-year relationship, you have done the heavy lifting — traveling a great distance to see him, even though you are working and he is retired, staying with him even though you have felt degraded, and forgiving him after he ditched you.

You could use this man’s behavior as an excuse to avoid all men. You could claim that you’ve been spooked by “ghosting,” but — this is actually about you. Chas was abandoning you the whole time, especially when there was an uncomfortable moment to confront. Every time he was abusive, didn’t show up or avoided you after a conflict, he was leaving the relationship.

I suspect that your choices now are related to your self-worth (possibly a legacy of your ex-husband’s abandonment). When you truly believe you are worthy (and you are!), your relationships will reflect it. (c) Ask Amy

That’s not ghosting. It’s the silent treatment. Ghosting implies a certain level of losing interest and slipping away into the ether. But this guy’s punishing her by not talking.

Ghosting is when you reach out to someone like, “Hey, I haven’t heard from you in a while. How’s it going?” and they never get back to you. I guess at some point they lost interest and drifted away.

But giving the silent treatment is more calculated, more cruel. Whereas ghosting is done when you’ve realized you don’t feel a connection, the silent treatment is more of a control issue and a very immature way to treat someone. The mature way to do it, if you must, is what the letter writer did. “We’re angry, so let’s separate and regroup at the end of the day.”

(And I totally appreciate her using “the end of the day” in its actual meaning, rather than the cliche way of saying, “Well, at the end of the day, you have to live with the kitchen cabinets you picked. Um, gag me. You have to live with them all day long, not just at the end of the day. A more proper way to say that would be, “At the heart of the matter, you have to live with the cabinets.”)

This isn’t a letter where it’s as simple as, should she dump him, or should she not dump him? She should dump him, but that’s not the point, and it won’t solve anything. At the heart of the matter (thank you very much), she’s repeating and reliving the shock of her husband’s abandonment by subconsciously creating this scenario with Mr. Wrong. If she dumps him, she’ll just recreate it with someone else.

Don’t get me wrong. She should dump him. But she also needs to break the cycle of shock and abandonment.

I know exactly what she’s going through. I have a cycle that I’ve been trying to kick to the curb for years now. I meet a guy, I like the guy, I express an interest in the guy, the guy rejects me, I accuse him of being worthless, and I get triggered by my childhood trauma (one of them) and feel worthless.

I’m sitting here wondering why guys never think I’m sexy. It’s been a lifelong thing. Guys have never been into me. I’m not feminine enough or girly enough or flirtatious enough. If I were to attempt to have sex with someone, I’d probably start laughing. From what I understand, that could be misinterpreted.

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Yeah, I don’t get it. I never stop traffic (well, not because of my gorgeousness–I have been known to stop it deliberately on several occasions). I don’t understand it. I think I’m sexy. But part of the recurring pattern is that the guy’s not interested in me, presumably because I’m not pretty enough or sexy enough or feminine enough or flirtatious enough.

It’s weird, because I never go looking for a man who’s masculine and muscular and sexy and built. (Don’t get me started, but I hate lumberjack-type men.) I look for a man who has depth and awareness and is wholesome and loving and caring and can connect with me. So I must be attracting a lot of men who don’t share my values. That makes sense. It’s probably best to discover that, anyway.

It’s possible (nay, likely) that I subconsciously-on-purpose seek out men who’ll be that shallow so that my pattern will get triggered. That way, I can keep reaffirming my own worthlessness.

Granted, I no longer feel worthless, as of… a few weeks ago? A month? I’m bad with time. So we’ll have to see if the pattern keeps recurring. My sense is that it won’t. I think the pattern’s gone for good, at long last.

Why do patterns even get started? Is it a coping reaction? Like, “I can’t handle what just happened, so I’m going to project it onto a pattern that will plague me. And that way, whenever I’m not plagued by the pattern (because I’m dealing with some other aspect of life), I’ll be able to cope with whatever happened,”? What a logical headache! Um… so, placing it into a pattern at the time of the trauma must take the pressure off in the moment, because traumatic stuff can be dangerously overwhelming.

So in a sense, the creation of a pattern at the beginning of time is a dissociation of what happened into a recurring event. (Run with it, Meg. You majored in psychology.) Okay, that almost makes sense. In repeating the pattern, we hope to have a different outcome, but human nature being what it is, I bet it never happens that way. This letter writer’s never going to wake up one day and discover that her boyfriend truly loves her and will never give her the silent treatment again. (Does that sort of thing ever happen in real life?!)

So the pattern has to be broken by the person who created the pattern; i.e., the trauma victim who projected the pattern from the trauma in the first place. This is more proof that it’s an unfair world.

As ridiculous as this’ll sound, I’d urge this letter writer to watch The Golden Girls. Stanley Zbornak left Dorothy after 38 years of marriage. Dorothy struggles to fix her relationship with him and get her own life in order, and the series has a very, very happy ending in that regard in the two-part series finale.

One day, she randomly and unexpectedly falls in love with Blanche’s wealthy, handsome uncle (Leslie Nielsen), when Blanche fobs her visiting uncle off on Dorothy. They go on the world’s most ridiculous date at a lobsterhouse.

Afterward, they decide to get married. It starts as a ruse to freak out Blanche for her scheming ways, but it “takes”. On the way to the wedding, Dorothy’s abducted by her driver, who turns out to be Stanley Zbornak, her ex-husband. He tells her that he’s hurt that he wasn’t told of her upcoming wedding, and Dorothy confesses she feared he’d ruin it by virtue of being him (which is highly believable), and he says he’d never do that–that he’s happy for her, and driving her to the church is his gift for her. It’s a real tear-jerker. But to appreciate it, you have to watch the whole series.

I know it’s silly to find inspiration in television shows, and that they married off Dorothy because she didn’t want to be in the spinoff show, Golden Palace, and that it’s fiction, but something about it fills me with hope.

2 thoughts on “Fixing the pattern.

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