Monday, 12 November 2012

Toxic Glue

I got an email the other day that I don't want to post right now as I am worried about the reader being identified. It's an unusual situation for most of my readers, and I hope even the bare outline doesn't make anyone say "Aha! It's my old friend X!"

In short, my reader is in a toxic, emotionally intense, if physically chaste, relationship with a very troubled, recently divorced man. She has tried to get out of it, but she is having a really hard time, in part because he keeps contacting her, and in part because she misses him and in part, I think, because of toxic glue.

Toxic glue is a phrase I have just invented for whatever it is that keeps you hooked to a guy even though being hooked to him makes you very unhappy. It's worse than a crush, because a crush implies unrequited love, whereas toxic glue gets its strength from mutuality. It's not that the guy doesn't reciprocate your feelings of attachment: it's that he does when he shouldn't.

Not all my readers are Catholics, so some will not agree that a divorced man might still be a married man. However, I hope I can convince these readers at least that it is a supremely bad idea to get involved with an unhappily married man, who becomes a divorcing man, who becomes a divorced man. People caught in marital breakdowns, especially if domestic abuse or children are involved, go at least a little (and sometimes a lot) crazy. And the divorce rate is so high, not because most people divorce, but because divorced people are more likely to divorce again. In a panic, many divorcing people throw themselves into rebound relationships.

The idea that marriage can be impermanent is so entrenched in English-speaking society, it's no wonder that even Catholic girls are influenced by it and think it might be okay to date a divorced man who has not had an annulment. The zeitgeist puts Catholic girls in a weird mental position: "I shouldn't be dating a married man, but he isn't really, really married, is he? I mean, like, he could have grounds for an annulment. He probably has grounds for an annulment, and it isn't really dating anyway."

And the guilt and fear of disapproval from Catholic parents and peers might keep such girls from asking for help in situations where such men have serious personal problems, either those that come along with the agonies of failed marriage or even worse ones. It's so easy, isn't it, just to curl a lip with disapproval and say, "Well, you should have known better." But what a failure of love that is. Love says, "You deserve better. How can I help you?"

I mentioned "dating," but never mind the whole artificial, shifting concept of dating, which is usually just whatever a person says it is. Emotional attachment is emotional attachment, plain and simple. My guess is that most of the time Single women can go out for a coffee with a married male friend or colleague, no problem, and then toddle off home without a pang. This coffee is a whole lot more innocent than an emotionally intimate email exchange between a single woman and an unhappily married man, even if they never go out for coffee.

Such emotional intimacy can become glue, and it is toxic glue if the woman realizes that she wants and needs to get out of the dynamic between her and the divorcing (or otherwise troubled) man but cannot get out. And in such a situation, she really needs to get help. She might need to sit down and tell her parents everything or, if for whatever reason she is afraid of her parents, a trusted older relative, a priest or a therapist.

One thing I cannot stress enough is that young, single people are vulnerable. Young single women are particularly vulnerable because, as far as I know, unhappy older men are more likely to exploit younger single women than unhappy older women are to exploit younger single men. (I am mentally listing examples of the latter, however.) Younger people are often awed and flattered by the attentions of older people, as long as the older people are not TOO old and still attractive in some way. Younger people are more likely than older people to believe whatever they are told, especially about an attractive person's "awful" husband or wife.

Oh dear, it's all so sad. Anyway, if you are in a toxic relationship with a man to whom you are not married--sexual, not-sexual, emotional, professional--and you cannot get out, please tell someone in a position of responsibility (parent, aunt, priest, therapist) who might be able to help you.


Jackie said...

This is really great advice, Seraphic. The only thing you may want to add is that if she has a gmail account, she can filter out Toxic Glue's email without it ever reaching her inbox. It's a great way for going cold turkey on no contact.

Everything you said is so true. Especially about the fear of guilt and disapproval keeping us from telling. And the vulnerability.

I wrote you earlier in the summer about an atheist who was in love with me and who I absolutely knew was the wrong choice, despite there being chemistry. The only solution was to break off any hope and block all contact. And even when you're doing the right thing, it still can be really rough.

In my case, this guy contacted mutual acquaintances about "us", sent gifts through the mail and STILL attempted text, calling and email. All this despite having promised not to contact me. To do that to a vulnerable single person who was in danger of emotional attachment was just WRONG.

(Though it made it that much easier to ignore and dismiss the attempts at manipulation. Because that is what it is.)

The quicker that LW cuts this off cold turkey, the easier it will be. Not "easy" but easier. My thoughts are with her.

PS: Regarding the "you should have known better" replies that keep us from telling:

Ironically, often the only way you can recognize a red flag is to have experienced it previously. And beyond that, knowing and getting yourself out of the red flag situation are two different things.

I'm not sure why we expect people to automatically be able to do everything "right" immediately in the realm of relationships when they actually require learned skills of considerable difficulty.

Live and learn said...

Anon for this one.

I wish I would have had auntie Seraphic in my life a decade ago when a married man I admired used me as emotional support during his unhappy marriage. We started a romantic relationship right after he separated from his wife.

Stay away from unhappily married men, ladies. Never spend time with men who complain to you about their wives.

The man I was with was not a bad man, but he shouldn't have talked to me about his marital problems and he shouldn't have jumped into a relationship with me (or anyone) right after separating.

The only good things that came out of the above mess was my re-entering the church, and wising up to the ways of the world.

Speaking of toxic glue, it took a move overseas to finally break it off with him.

Lydia said...

Oh, ouch. As one who has been in a relationship with Mr. Toxic Glue, I can agree wholeheartedly with the fear of being judged by family or friends for a poor relationship. The worst is what you can do to yourself, though. It's ten years later and I'm happily married but I still beat myself up for not knowing better. It's especially hard if, at the time, you considered yourself a smart girl and a good judge of character.

I also would like to sing the praises of going cold turkey-yes, yes, yes! It's tempting to think you can remain friendly acquaintances after an emotionally intense, weird relationship, but it's just not possible and causes a lot of heartache.

Roadkill Rhapsody said...

What can we do if a friend in this situation doesn't even know for sure that she wants out? Is there anything we can do other than pray? Or anything that we shouldn't do?

Seraphic said...

Roadkill, we can't live our friends lives for them, so mostly all we can do is listen and ask the right questions. The right questions may help lead our friends to formulate the answers that they need.

One right question might be, "What kind of man would you really like to meet?" And her answer might prompt the question, "If you are stuck on X, how will you ever meet the kind of man you really want to meet?"

Seraphic said...

By the way, I am a firm believer in the cold turkey school of thought, especially in big cities, where your chances of accidentally crossing paths again are smaller than in a small community, like campus chaplaincy.

If you really don't want to see someone, you don't have to. Technically, you never even have to leave your chair, which I never cease to find a fascinating idea.

If you really wanted to, you could just chain yourself to a chair and never get up again, not eating or drinking or getting up for any reason whatsoever or answering the phone until your parents or someone broke in to find out what happened to you. Of course, you might be found dead and a horrible mess, but that's not the point. The point is free will. And if technically you have free will to that extent, you can certainly refuse ever to talk to a man ever again, from this very second on.

Urszula said...

I have had a Toxic Glue episode before, and I found 2 things helped. one was going cold turkey (and this only works if you are able to keep believing that no contact is is the best for both of you. If you are wracked with guilt or some misplaced feeling of compassion that 'he will die without me', it will not be easy).

The other thing was imagining my much younger sisters, to whom I've tried to be a good role model, in the same situation. The feelings of empathy and desire to protect them that I was able to conjure at the mere thought of them being involved with Mr. Roxi Glue were enough to have me seriously think that if this wasn't something I would wish upon my dear younger sisters, why was I standing for it myself?

It's also helpful to think ahead. What marvellous things I could be doing in a year or two, without the problems and emotional exhaustion that Mr. Toxic Glue brings me.

Prayers for your reader. Ending is not easy. But staying together with Mr. Toxic Glue is so, so much harder.

Anonymous said...

From the original "Toxic Glued"

I thought I'd leave a note about what happened. I broke it off and told him never to call, email or text me. I cried and cried and felt so depressed, though mostly because I felt sorry for him. He was angry and confused, so I apologized, but told him I never wanted to talk to him again.

Two weeks later he, naturally (sarcasm), wrote me a letter and mailed it to me. After that, my family and I cut off all contact with him (defriended him on Facebook) and I haven't seen or heard from him since. I was afraid of hurting him in his already painful situation at first, but after the letter, I was angry and I didn't really care.

It's been over a year and I am still not fully recovered. I don't like men very much, but I'm trying to refrain from guy-bashing. I wonder if I'll ever fall in love again. I think I will, but not for a while.

Unfortunately, he has "latched" on to some of my other girlfriends. I have sent them private emails alerting them to his tendency towards emotional vampirism (if that's a word).

The worst thing is that my mom doesn't trust me anymore. She doesn't trust my ability to judge other people's characters and she gets nervous when I mention guys or dating. This only makes me reluctant to ask her advice or talk to her about guys. In short, it is not a healthy situation.

Anyways, I wanted to post this for anyone in a toxic relationship who comes across this later and needs even more incentive to get out.

I can tell you that the six months after I stopped talking to him were some of the most peaceful, anxiety-free months of my life. A tremendous weight was lifted from my heart. Even though it was winter, I felt like spring had come overnight. I haven't regretted letting him go; it was one of the best decisions of my life.