I've been married for nine years, and it's been pretty empty. We have two children. For the last few years, I find myself more and more attracted to a co-worker. We're friends, but suddenly there's more. I think she's the one. I'm in love with her, though nothing has happened between us yet. My friends are in my face saying this other thing is just a fantasy and that I should break off all contact and go to work on my marriage. What do you say? I think my feelings are real, not just a fantasy. -- P.H., Kirkland, Wash.
Ah friends. No one can have too many good ones. And, if you have chosen them wisely, P.H., their job includes getting in your face from time to time. Doesn't mean they are always right. But good friends are worth listening to, yes? Worth taking seriously.
But I'm not your friend. Which isn't to say I'm your enemy, or even your necessary antagonist. Just not a "friend" in the social, interpersonal sense of that word. And no therapist worth his/her salt should be -- your friend, that is.
I'm trying to imagine leaning up out of my chair and saying to a patient: "Extramarital interests are just fantasies. Break off all contact and go work on your marriage." And then I smile, blush and wince inwardly as I remember my life as a student, and I imagine having to face my supervisor after saying such a thing. He was so delightfully, pointedly sarcastic: "So, Steven, people give you money in exchange for your God's Eye View of their destiny? Your definitive pronouncements about values?"
You're not going to get the "fantasy/work on your marriage" lecture from me.
One of my favorite ways of respecting patients is reminding myself their lives are none of my business. Really. Might sound shocking, but that posture leaves me so much more room to be useful. It is a huge part of my genuine regard for patients. Anything else -- no matter my motive, no matter how sincere and caring it might feel to me -- would be a condescension.
Condescending to patients doesn't fit my values.
Next, I'm not buying the implication of indictment in the word "fantasy." All great love affairs begin, in part, in fantasy. That you have some fantasies about a potential love affair with your co-worker is neither here nor there. Of course you have fantasies. That's how you met and courted your wife, too. I'm saying fantasies aren't bad things. Or good things. They are normal things. Just things.
Next, there's this "go back to work on your marriage" thing. How would I know whether you should go back to work on your marriage? And how/why could it possibly matter to you if, personally, I did think so? Or didn't think so. It's not my marriage. It's yours.
Nope, come in to my office and say these things and what you'll hear from me is that none of these deliberations matter much. That the way you're shaping the inquiry itself might have limited usefulness to you. Feel however you want about this other woman. Feel however you want about your wife and your marriage. It doesn't change anything.
Try this instead: You're a married man in a marriage you describe as empty. You're a father. You have chosen to nurture and grow an as yet unrealized bond with a woman who is not your wife. And now there are no paths before you that do not include suffering.
So who are you? What do you value? What matters to you the most? Not just right now, but, say, when you're lying in hospice many years from now? Which of the many sufferings before you has the most integrity for you? The most meaning?
And, before you act definitively on ANY of these sufferings, there might be one other path of which you're yet unaware. Look over to your right. The trailhead is obscured by overgrowth and mottled sunlight. It's not on any map. And it's unlikely that you've ever had any "fantasies" about walking it. It's an often rocky, dark, uncomfortable path.
It's the path at the end of which you might find yourself. The Real You. And the answer to the question "What's really going on with me right now?"
If I had a word of caution for you, P.H., it's that sometimes human beings create jumbled, agonizing dilemmas of multiple suffering paths just to keep their attention off that other path.
So be careful. Be very, very careful.
Originally published in View News, Oct. 14, 2008.