A Cross-Cultural Trap?

Image Q While working in Brest, I met a Frenchman. Things deepened over the few months I was there, but when an interesting job opened up at our Paris headquarters and I asked my boyfriend to commit to the relationship despite the distance, he refused… so I broke things off completely, even though he offered to stay friends. Since arriving I’ve been very depressed about the breakup, and wonder if I fell into some kind of cross-cultural trap.

A It may be that your situation has a cross-cultural twist to it in that you, as a woman, took a major initiative in asking your boyfriend for a commitment – a bold step which a Frenchman of his generation might have found frightening or even aggressive. Americans are generally more outspoken than the French, and traditional man-woman roles still tend to prevail here with respect to courtship behavior. It seems that your request did not take those factors into account.

However, you must also weigh in what you know about him personally which might have been behind his reluctance to commit. Your relationship started off casually and evolved gradually into something more meaningful – this was no coup de foudre with its attendant illusion of having found the sister soul. Could this mean that he is a laid-back person who likes to take things slowly? You say you were in Brest for only a few months.

This is a relatively short time as relationships go, and he might well have found your request to be totally premature time wise, despite his strong feelings for you. What do you know about his previous relationships? Have these ended painfully or dramatically? Past hurts more often than not cause wariness about getting in too deep when a new relationship is formed. An aversion to what might have felt to him like a control maneuver could also have been activated, not to mention a perhaps universal masculine fear of the woman who “tries to get her hooks into” the man of the hour (in French: “lui mettre le grappin dessus”).

The second thoughts you are having now should also encourage you to look more closely at your own handling of this. Would you have made the same demand if you hadn’t decided to move? If not, was it really fair to ask him for a commitment based solely on your decision to change jobs? What fears from your own history with relationships might have prompted your need to nail things down at that juncture? And why, when he did not bend to your pressure, did you then react by calling it all off? Isn’t this throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

I find it significant that, despite your apparently extreme position, this man wishes to “stay friends” with you. This indicates quite clearly that he doesn’t want to break off the connection. If you still have deep feelings for him, use his offer as an opening to work your way back into his life. Try to respect his slower rhythm; give the relationship more time either to ripen or to wither naturally. If you notice that he avoids defining or even talking about the relationship, don’t insist until you have the sense that you are once again in the position of a partner. This will doubtless necessitate patience on your part, but if the relationship is pleasurable and nourishing, it will be worth it.

Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem.