The Emotional Drive-By
The Emotional Drive-By
By Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D
My friend Julie called the other day to tell me about having been hit by a drive-by again. She wasn''t referring to anything physically violent, but rather to what we have come to call the “emotional drive-by.”
You see, her ex-boyfriend had made contact again — this time in the form of a text message telling her that he was on his way to an elective surgery, that he was scared and that she should think good thoughts for him. It may sound harmless enough unless you know the back-story: Julie''s ex had a habit of popping up every now and then with late-night phone calls, text messages, and even visits. His message was often a variation on the theme that he was thinking about her fondly. One time he told her that he was listening to a CD she made him and thinking of her (this was at 12:15 a.m.). Another time he dropped by her house with flowers “just because.” Sound like courting behavior? It sure did to Julie.
The kicker is that he was the one who broke up with her , and these events took place long after the break up. Julie had had a difficult time moving past this guy in the first place, and this behavior of his just made it harder. “For a long time, I interpreted his phone calls and messages as evidence that he couldn''t live without me and was just having to take some time apart before he came running back,” she said. “It kept me hanging on.” Julie and I labeled this kind of behavior as the emotional drive-by because it did feel like an ambush. It triggered feelings of longing in Julie and kept her ex looming large in her consciousness.
Not only did the ex contact her on the way to surgery that day, but she also received a garbled, anesthesia-infused text message from him from the post-op recovery room. Initially, she took that as a sign of how constant she must be in his thoughts, although they had been broken up for nearly 10 months. When Julie found out through a mutual friend shortly thereafter that, not only was the ex in a new relationship, but that his girlfriend had driven him to the surgery and had sat in the waiting room throughout the procedure with the ex''s mother, it felt like a punch in the gut. “All this time, I had been rationalizing that, even though I knew he was dating, there was no one he was serious about and it was just a matter of time before we would be together. Why else would he be contacting me so regularly, reminiscing about times we had together?”
Julie went on, “He was always saying things that were evocative of our couple-ness. He never mentioned anything about whom he was dating or what was really going on in his life. I always figured that if we really were ‘just friends'' he would tell me about any significant new relationships. The fact that he omitted this information made me think at the time that there weren''t any. Now I know that he was just being selfish. He liked having me in his life in a limited way and he knew that if he told me about his girlfriend that he might lose me altogether.”
I encounter this dynamic with many people who are trying to get past a painful break-up. Perhaps neither person is really ready to move completely beyond the relationship, but for different reasons. Person A, usually the one who got “dumped,” is hoping to reunite. Person B, usually the “dumper,” wants to retain certain emotional benefits and privileges of the relationship without having to be in the relationship fully. When Person B makes overtures of any kind, Person A finds meaning behind it that prolongs the fantasy of the reunification.
Julie calls it the “a la carte” relationship. “There are parts of me that he doesn''t want to lose — emotional support, shared history, my sense of humor — whatever. So he wants to pick and choose those parts off the menu and leave the rest.” Julie and I discussed at length the ex''s behavior, and as any good friends do, imagined and analyzed every conceivable motivation, interpretation and meaning behind it. In the end, though, we kept coming back to one hard conclusion: Julie was responsible for participating in this dance with him, and as a result, was keeping herself in a very tortured place. “Because I secretly wanted to be back with him, I responded to him every time he made contact,” she said. “It''s like I thought if I gave him enough positive reinforcement, he would remember how great I was and he would want to be with me.” Julie and I discussed the undeniable truth that when two people really want to be together, they are together. Period. The fact that the ex is giving mixed signals is immaterial to Julie''s reality.
Julie resolved to burst her fantasy bubble by speaking directly to the ex about her feelings and asking him to refrain from contacting her again. She said. “I do think about how selfish he was with me as the a la carte friend, and I also think about how dishonest he must be with his current girlfriend. Do you think he told her about all the late-night calls and the text message on the way to surgery?”
As I am loyal to Julie, and not to her ex, I am not especially interested in his emotional honesty or capacity for intimacy. What I am interested in is helping Julie to recognize how she has kept herself hanging on to someone who is either incapable of or unwilling to be with her. She needs not to be so available to someone that really isn''t available to her. After all, we may not be able to see the drive-by coming, but we don''t have to let it hit us where we live.
Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D . is a licensed psychologist in private practice and is on the board of directors of Bicycling for Louisville. She may be reached at 412-2226 or at KABerla@aol.com .
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