Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am a semiretired man, still in good health both physically and mentally. Several years after my divorce in 2007, I met a woman (I’ll refer to her as Jane), and after a few dates, I could tell we could be together for the rest of our lives.

My daughter continued to live with me through her mid-20s because she was still trying to decide on the best career to pursue. Jane lived in an apartment with her teenage son, who has a medical issue that may make living on his own difficult.

After two or three years of dating, Jane told me that she did not want to continue our relationship unless we moved in together. Around this time, my daughter was moving into an apartment with her boyfriend, and I agreed that Jane, with her son, could move into my house.

Well, after three years, my daughter and her now-fiancé decided that they had to move back to my house because of serious financial reasons. I spent much time and money rearranging my house to accommodate my daughter and her fiancé, Jane and her son, and myself. I did not anticipate, however, that physical space would not be the only issue. From the start, the two “families” did not get along well, primarily due to different lifestyles. Because my daughter and her fiancé still have no source of income, and Jane has a well-paying job, I realized that, for the sake of harmony, I needed to ask Jane to find an apartment.

Jane found an apartment within two weeks for her and her son, but said she does not want to hear from me ever again, despite the fact that we both really love each other. I do not want to lose Jane and miss her terribly, but I believe I had no other choice. I do not see why Jane and I cannot continue to see each other; have dinners together; go to restaurants, clubs, plays, and movies; and take a couple of vacations together. I seriously believe that circumstances with my daughter and her fiancé will likely change, and that Jane and I could live together again then, whenever that is.

Unfortunately, because she was so angered by the choice I had to make, she continues to tell me that she never wants to see me again. I have told her of many older couples who, for various reasons—children, finances, personal habits—choose to live not together, but near enough to still have a vibrant relationship. Jane wants none of this “living apart together,” which has been the subject of many articles. I really don’t know what to do about this. I feel so alone and sad without her. Am I being unreasonable to expect Jane to see the benefits of our relationship despite not being able to live together with me for the next year or two?

Anonymous
Los Angeles, Calif.


Dear Anonymous,

You seem flummoxed by Jane’s reaction, and that might be because this is less about whether you’re being reasonable and more about the difficulty you’re having with perspective-taking—the practice of trying to understand someone else’s point of view.

In order to understand why Jane is feeling so angry (and beneath that, hurt, shocked, and betrayed), you’ll need to try to see your unilateral decision that she move out from her perspective. It’s only from a place of compassionate understanding that you’ll be able to communicate in a way that could potentially open her up to hearing from you. And if that door has indeed closed for good, the ability to cultivate compassionate understanding will be useful in any relationship that follows.

So let’s try some perspective-taking. So far, there hasn’t been a lot of effort on your part to understand why Jane is so angry. Instead you’ve been trying to argue with her anger, essentially telling her it’s not valid. After all, you say, there are many articles about couples who happily live apart—as if this has any relevance to a woman who, three years ago, told you that she would end the relationship if you didn’t live together. Think of it this way: Many articles feature couples who are happily polyamorous, but that doesn’t mean Jane—or you—wants to be polyamorous too.

One exercise to help you see things from Jane’s perspective is to imagine how she would tell this story if she were writing to me. It might go something like this:

Dear Therapist,

About six years ago, I fell in love with a wonderful man, and I couldn’t believe how compatible we were. We immediately became a couple, and enjoyed doing so many things together. We wanted to be together forever, and this felt like an exciting new chapter in our lives.

After a few years, I wanted to take what felt like the natural next step in our relationship—living together. We were a committed couple that was deeply in love, so it felt odd to still be a guest in the other’s home. I didn’t want to date someone; I wanted the intimacy of going to sleep together in our shared bedroom, eating breakfast together in the mornings, coming home to him at the end of the day, and hearing him laugh at something on TV while I’m reading on the sofa next to him. We lived together happily for the past three years, until his daughter and her fiancé, who are nearly 30 years old, moved in. They and I have very different lifestyles—I have a well-paying job; they have no jobs or income and are still “finding themselves”—and our personalities clashed. But instead of reminding his daughter that she was a guest in the household we had established together and asking her to accommodate the people she moved in with, he kicked me and my son out of our home—indefinitely, and with no deadline for his daughter and her fiancé to find jobs—but said he wanted to date me.

He didn’t ask me how I felt about his daughter and her fiancé moving in with us—his daughter decided she “had to.” He didn’t ask me how I felt about the possibility of living apart again—he decided we “had to.” This experience has left me feeling that we aren’t true partners in this relationship; we aren’t a couple working through issues as a team. I feel dispensable, as if the years we’ve spent together meant so little to him—as if I mean so little to him—that I can be tossed aside at his convenience. He says that he loves and misses me, but he seems to have no understanding of the impact this has had on me and the extent of the damage done.

Signed,
Jane

I don’t know if Jane tried to tell you anything like this before she moved out, or if she was so hurt that she simply left. But can you see now, having read this letter, how you made decisions that didn’t take Jane into consideration at all? For example, if you wanted to subsidize your daughter’s career exploration well into her late 20s, you could have preserved the living situation with Jane in a number of ways. Maybe you could have helped your daughter and her fiancé pay their rent instead of paying to fix up your own house for them. Or, if that wasn’t possible, once they were living in your house, you could have let your daughter and her fiancé know that along with a rent-free roof over their heads came the expectation that they needed to be as accommodating as possible to the people who already lived in the house, and if they weren’t happy with the way things were, they would be free to find other living arrangements—perhaps with your daughter’s other relatives, her fiancé’s parents, friends, or roommates.

In other words, you say you had no choice, but you actually had many choices—and you made the choice that would damage the trust between you and Jane and hurt her deeply.

What Jane needs—if she’s open to the possibility of reconciliation—is for you to communicate to her that you handled this poorly, caused her unnecessary pain, and can imagine how she must feel (the letter above might help you find those words). You’ll also need to show her that you’re willing to let go of this story of passivity and victimhood (I had no choice; why are you being this way; I’m so lonely and sad without you) and instead take responsibility for the decisions you made and the rift you caused—and that you’ll do so without making any excuses or trying to explain your side of things yet again.

You might share this in a letter to her, so that she can read it on her own and take the time she needs to process it. If she responds, you’ll need to work on your perspective-taking and really listen to how this experience felt to her, and what she would need to try to rebuild a relationship with you. And every time you have the knee-jerk reaction that you have no choice, remind yourself that you have an abundance of choices available to you, and that you can choose to say no, but you can also choose to say yes: Yes, I love you. Yes, I see you. Yes, you matter. Yes, my adult daughter and her fiancé can figure out a way to support themselves. Yes to creating a life together. Yes to us.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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