Q My French boyfriend and I are fighting over how to spend summer holidays. We have planned a 10-day camping trip in Wyoming, but I intend to stay in the US on my own for an extra week to visit some former college classmates in California. My boyfriend insists that he should come with me, even though he knows none of these people and speaks very little English. He gets very upset when I explain that I want to do this without him, saying that such a plan is not good for our couple, that I am being selfish, and that if I really loved him, I’d want him along. In my opinion, his lack of understanding shows not only the limits of his caring, but also a lack of appreciation of all I do in France to adapt to his culture…
A You both seem be using this disagreement to demand a “proof of love” from the other. This is a trap into which most of us fall, and which can do a lot of damage to a relationship. In essence, each of you is saying: “If you really loved me, you would want me to be happy, and because you won’t honor my wishes, it shows that you just don’t care.” Carried far enough, this position becomes a shameful manipulation in the ongoing efforts we all deploy to get our particular needs met within a couple relationship.
When we first fall in love, readily acceding to the loved one’s desires often feels so easy that we usually aren’t aware of how tied in it is to the fusional nature of this stage. Reclaiming one’s own turf happens gradually, but it does happen, and when our partner’s wishes begin to clash with ours, we experience that phenomenon as a withdrawal of love.
It is clearly unconstructive and unfair to boil everything down to that. Has your boyfriend expressed other fears about your needs for autonomy? Does he habitually feel left out when you get together with your English-speaking friends?
These or other personal insecurities on his part could be driving his reluctance to allow you time on your own, but you also need to focus on what reservations you might, in fact, really have about your couple which are part of why you prefer not to have him accompany you to California: For instance, are you afraid your friends might not like him? Are you ashamed of him in any way? Do you anticipate that certain unexpressed tensions might get amplified during such a trip, and perhaps result in a break-up? His reactions could be driven by an intuitive perception of your hesitations.
If, however, your truthfully believe that none of the above applies, and that this disagreement really is about you needing time for yourself, you and your boyfriend must deal head-on with the dependence vs. autonomy dimension of your partnership – a task which confronts all couples. In this respect, a phrase that often helps is: “This is for me, not against you.”
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.