Long-Distance Relationships, Control, and Fear (Part 1): The Truth Behind Cheating; An Article for Men
by Sven Erlandson
This article originally published at Long Distance Lover:
Let’s have a little talk about the truth, particularly as it relates to long-distance relationships (LDR’s).
Ever heard someone say, “You can’t control other people”?
Well, it’s a lie. You can. The truth is, we control people and are controlled by people, every day. Your boss controls your behavior at work with a list of incentives, not the least of which is a paycheck, and punishments. We control children to keep them from running into the street, taking candy from strangers, and mouthing-off to their teachers.
And yes, we even control our girlfriends. We incentivize and de-incentivize actions by what we do and what we don’t do, what we say and don’t say, and how we respond and don’t respond to them.
And, truth be told, our girlfriends control us, our children control us, our parents control us, and we even control our bosses, to some greater or lesser degree.
For example, I was on a date, this past Monday night. The gal, Sarah, had me over to her apartment for dinner with her and her beautiful dog. We were having a lovely conversation and evening when Sarah asked a few questions about my past. Now, I knew from our previous two dates that Sarah leans politically conservative and is self-admittedly hawkish regarding the military.
So, because I like Sarah, I made sure to spend extra time dwelling on my past in the military, even though I only did the minimum number of years and never was deployed to war. Normally, I rarely talk about my military past, because it’s no big deal. But with Sarah, I made sure it at least came up. I didn’t lie in any way, but I made sure to dwell awhile on the military part of my past.
Just a guy highlighting his accomplishments; no big deal, right?
Well, actually it is. It’s a very small and even petty example, but it makes my point. Fundamentally, I was attempting to control her actions – i.e. make her like me – by somewhat controlling the flow of conversation, knowing that she had a thing for the military and, by logical extension, military guys.
Even in something as petty as dinner conversation. But it never stops there. In fact, control and what really drives control are big enemies of great relationships.
And the real truth is that we all do it, don’t we? We all control what we talk about. We all control how we are perceived by those we love and even by those people we neither know nor much care about. We are seemingly forever engaged in trying to control external events and control others, particularly our girlfriends, to create results favorable to us.
I have been counseling individuals and couples for over 20 years. And I know for absolute fact that we all, male and female alike, have asked or encouraged or cajoled or pushed a girlfriend to stop spending time with such-and-such friend, or stop going clubbing with her girlfriends, or not go to lunch with that friendly co-worker, etc. Because, we have all felt that jealousy — that FEAR that if she spends time with that person or those friends she will get hit on, cheat, and/or leave me.
So, it’s best to control – gently and surreptitiously – her actions and her thoughts if you can get away with it, right?
I mean, what’s the alternative? If I DON’T control my girlfriends actions, if I don’t cut her off from all of the things and people in her life that make me afraid, then I have to live with the fear. And I don’t want that.
So it’s better to DECREASE her joy in life to INCREASE mine. It’s better to undermine what were previously happiness sources for her (by coaxing her to minimize the times and things she does with friends, co-workers, etc) so that I can have a little more peace of mind. Though we never really look at it this squarely, we’re fundamentally engaging in self-protection at the expense of someone else’s autonomy and happiness.
I have done this myself, and I have seen clients and friends do this consistently.
The fear of being cheated on and rejected for someone else is so great that men and women will coerce their partners to stop doing things that formerly made their partners very happy.
And this begins the slow slide into unhappiness for your partner, because it doesn’t stop. See, once you realize you can control one thing about your girlfriend’s life, as a way to reduce your own fears, then you will inevitably do more things. Trust me, you will. I see it every day of every year – people trying to control their spouses or boyfriends/girlfriends as a way to reduce their own fears.
So, let’s just game this out a bit further.
You “encourage” your girlfriend to not go clubbing so much (notice I didn’t say “control” your girlfriend into less clubbing, because if I called it that, you would likely deny it), then you encourage her to not really go at all, anymore. Then you coax her to not spend time with male friends from her work.
Then maybe you even start discouraging her from spending time with female friends, and perhaps even family. And, queerly, you even discourage her from spending time alone (I’ve seen it!). The only time you are truly happy and at peace is when she is with you.
And slowly but surely, you have cut your girlfriend off from many of the things and people that used to be her primary sources of happiness in life. This is great for you, you think, because it now means she gives all of her attention to you, gets all of her attention from you, and all your fears are greatly reduced.
But they’re really not, because they’re not ever really addressed. The fears persist, even though the external triggers (her actions) have been reduced. Any slight deviation in her behavior brings all of your fears and jealousy back to the front of your mind. In other words, the fears never left. They just stopped being felt by you because you essentially made her stop doing things that triggered those fears.
And let’s look at the effect of this brilliant idea of yours of squeezing her happiness-sources out of her life.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the more you cut her off from those things that make her happy, the more unhappy she becomes. Whether you’re clever or overt about it, the effect is still the same. It doesn’t start that way. At first, she might actually swallow your cutting her off from happy things, because she feels good knowing she made YOU happy. But, this is a tale that never ends well.
See, eventually, as her happiness decreases (and it WILL decrease, if you remove from a woman’s life those things that make her happy), she will rightly identify you (and your fears/jealousy) as the source of her unhappiness. Resentment toward you will grow. And it will be fully justified.
But beyond even the resentment is the simple math. No one person can fully meet the happiness needs of another. So, where your girlfriend formerly had 20 different friends and situations that made her happy, you’ve now reduced it to one – you – or some number much smaller than 20. And her unhappiness grows, as does her resentment toward you, while, as stated above, your fears never really go away.
Well, as her unhappiness fades and her depression and anxiety increase she feels more and more trapped, as well as more and more fearful of expressing to you what she really wants (to have her friends and life back). She knows that if she states what she really wants, your fears will all come up and you’ll ‘encourage’ her to see that she’s wrong. Your fears may even be so great that you raise your voice at her to keep her from exercising her own will.
And then comes the whopper!
Do you know what happens when a woman (or man) feels trapped, unhappy, depressed, and dead inside?
She tries to find things that make her feel happy. Hell, she tries to find things that just make her feeeeeeel anything at all again, because most or all of the things that used to make her feel happy and feel alive are now gone. And this is now where we see maladaptive behaviors arise.
Maladaptive behaviors are those actions that are done to try to cope with an otherwise overwhelming situation, but which create no positive change in the situation. It is in the state of radically decreased happiness and radically increased depression and/or anxiety that people start over-drinking, overusing drugs (prescription or otherwise), over-working, over-exercising, over-parenting their kids, gambling, stealing, and……wait for it…..cheating!
Yep, that’s right. The very thing the man was most trying to avoid by having his girlfriend spend less time around other men and around her friends is the very thing that he basically creates by cutting her off from her sources of joy. By reducing her positive and normal sources of happiness he drives his girlfriend to find maladaptive, non-constructive sources of happiness. The man creates the very thing he most fears. (And to iterate, women are just as guilty of this as men are.)
And, as I wrote in my last book (which you should definitely read if you’re in a relationship with a woman, or if you are a woman), female infidelity is experiencing a radical uptick in frequency, to the point where it now rivals that of male infidelity. Women are cheating all over the place. And what’s even more startling is that despite these new numbers, female infidelity is still greatly under-reported and under-researched!
As I state in the book, I have had affairs with the wives and girlfriends of over 25 men (and a few women), and I discovered after the book came out that the number is actually slightly over 30. And I can tell you for absolute fact that in nearly every case the woman’s boyfriend/husband/wife had contributed to choking her off from the things that formerly gave her joy.
Now, as an aside, I am NOT saying that someone else is to blame when a woman (or man) cheats. What I AM saying is that if you don’t think your actions contributed to her cheating, you’re an idiot. Serious!
Control and LDR’s: Living in Trust
I know many of you are thinking, “Shit man, I’m only 25 (or 30) years old, how does all this relate to me?”
It relates to you because we build good habits at young ages when we’re most inclined to do really stupid shit, like control another person so that you will supposedly feel less fear. Looking hard at your own fears and how you fuck up relationships is just as important when you’re in your twenties as is eating properly and going to the gym to work out. ‘
Further, this whole discussion of fear/jealousy as related to long-distance relationships is based on the fact that this is actually a relationship that you are in; this is actually something you want to thrive and grow and get even better than it already is, and perhaps even last a long time. This whole discussion is based on the belief that you actually want to have a kickass relationship with this woman you are with. I mean, think about it, why would you limit yourself to one girlfriend unless you wanted to be in a relationship with that person for a long time? It makes no sense, otherwise.
So, the fact that you want this relationship to last says that it’s damn important for you to start building good habits and start doing smart things, rather than controlling her in the attempt to mitigate your fears. And as you probably know well, fears are often worse in an LDR, because there is so much distance, so much time apart, and so much uncertainty.
I was dating a woman for nearly two years while she was on the road as a singer and dancer in the international tour of a Broadway show. We first met while she was on the road and we had to endure that craziness of being apart for two more years. It was great and it was awful. Fears constantly came up, for both of us.
And the challenge amid it all was the same as it is in all walks of life – the challenge to trust. It’s not just the challenge to trust the other person. I mean, yes, that’s part of it.
But the greater and far more important challenge
is to trust life, or God, or the Universe, or your own Higher Self,
or whatever you prefer to call it.
It is trust that no matter what happens,
you’ll be okay.
One of the biggest challenges of relationships
is to trust that even if this person leaves me and breaks my heart,
in the end I’ll still be okay.
And many of us will stand up and thump our chests, loudly proclaiming, “No one can hurt me. I’ll be fine if a woman leaves me.” But it’s bullshit, and you and I both know it. I know it because that same guy will then go trying to control his girlfriend’s actions….because he’s afraid of her leaving or cheating. Yeah, the truth is that we’re all afraid of getting our heart broken, because it just plain hurts. And that heart pain does not go away quickly. The more we loved, the longer it lasts after the breakup, no matter how hard we pretend we’ve let go and moved on.
So, living in the state of trust is an incredibly powerful place to be. For, once you know you’ll be okay, no matter what happens, once you know that life/God/universe/time will mend your soul and you will be able to eventually move on, once you TRULY know that, you are then free to live without the need to control your girlfriend’s actions. Once you can trust life, you are then more able to trust your girlfriend when she says she really loves you and actually has zero desire to be with anyone else.
Once you can trust that you’ll be okay in life, no matter what happens, and that you’ll get over even the worst heartbreak in the future, you can live today encouraging your girlfriend to do those things that bring her joy, that truly make her come alive, even if they bring up occasional fears for you. Once you can trust you’ll be okay, you are much more able to push through your fears and let go of anxiety and worry.
And, truth be told, if she DOES at some point cheat on you, then you have the wonderful, if painful, confirmation that she is not the woman for you. Oh, and by the way, there are no flukes when it comes to cheating. There are no accidents. If she is cheating, or even thinking about it, there’s far deeper shit going on that she either doesn’t want to discuss or has tried to discuss but you’re not listening.
More importantly, the more trust and liberty you give her to live her own life, the more she actually enjoys you and wants to be with you. Further, the most effective way to learn if you can ever trust someone....is simply to trust her. Then, let the chips fall where they will.
Ultimately, in any LDR you have but two choices, live in fear or live in trust. That’s it. You can either fear that the pain of being cheated on would be too great to bear, and thus attempt to encourage/control her actions; OR you can trust that even if you lose this terrific gal, you’ll be okay, you’ll survive, you’ll learn, and life will go on.
See, as I wrote in I Steal Wives, there is no such thing as a pain-free relationship. You can spend your entire life in fear of getting your ass handed to you in a relationship, and thus spend all your time in relationships trying to control her by getting her to do things that assuage your fears. But the gods-honest truth is that you’re still going to get your ass handed to you in relationships. At some point or another, EVERYONE inflicts pain and EVERYONE gets hurt, as sure as the sun rises in the east.
Once you realize that pain is inevitable in any relationship, you’re forced to come to terms with whether or not you can handle it when the pain does come. And if you’re smart, you look for mechanisms for releasing your own pain in your life, whether it’s pain from relationships, work, deaths, loss, etc.
There are many ways to internal pain, such as journaling, counseling, meditation, releasing techniques, accepting techniques, and the like. And having ways of reducing inner pain and fears is critical to happiness. Because, there’s only so much pain you can swallow or pretend like it’s no big deal, before it all comes back to haunt you.
Yes, unless you’re living in a state of trust that you’ll be okay, you’ll never fully trust your girlfriend or wife. And if you don’t continually challenge yourself to live in that trust, you will, either actively or by default, engage in actions that undermine her happiness. And eventually she will either cheat on you, leave you, or engage in behaviors that create a whole world of misery for you and her both.
On the flip side, if you DO live in a state of trust in the Universe/life/God — trust that you’ll be okay, even though you’re still occasionally scared she’ll cheat or leave you — you begin to live with greater peace. You become more unflappable. You actually become happier.
See, the real problem ISN’T your girlfriend, whether she’s cheated in the past or not, whether she’s hot or not, whether she goes out a lot or not, whether she has guy friends or not, or whether she swears her undying loyalty to you or not. The real problem — the true source of all your fear, jealousy, and anxiety — is right inside your own head and buried deep inside your own soul. Your fear is precisely that, yours!
So, maybe the real challenge is not to attempt to control your environment (read ‘girlfriend’) to make it less scary, but to look inside at the real source of all your fears. Only then can you begin to live in a state of trust, which brings inner calm and greater happiness in its wake.
The truth is, you’ve been hurt before, you’ve had your heart broken before, you’ve been dumped before, and maybe you’ve even been cheated on before. And you hate, hate, HATE that feeling. You hate the helplessness. You hate feeling like a fool. You hate just the sheer pain that you can’t control but just infects your gut and mind. You hate it all. And perhaps you’ve even sworn you would never let it happen to you, again.
Well, news flash: We’ve ALL had our asses handed to us by love. And you can be pretty sure it’s going to happen again, despite your best efforts to control all the variables and not let it happen again. And, the real shitter of the whole situation is that unless you open up and RISK becoming vulnerable again, you will never have a truly loving, happy, and fulfilled relationship, again.
Why? Because true love requires the opening of the heart. It sucks, but it’s true. What’s more, you KNOW it’s true, despite your best efforts to act tough or protect your heart.
So, you can spend your life forever trying to control other people and external events, generally to little avail. Or, you can recognize that bumps and bruises are going to happen throughout life, and rather than forever trying to eliminate them you can control your response to them.
For, the only state that has any chance of true and lasting joy is the state of trust and letting go of fear.
Part 2 will be posted next week: Tips for moving past fear and into a better relationship. HOW do you walk away from, or walk through, your fears, so as to live in a state of trust and joy?
Sven Erlandson, MDiv, is the father of the 'spiritual but not religious' movement, the cutting-edge of author of several books -- including Badass Jesus and I Steal Wives: A serial adulterer reveals the real reasons more and more 'happily married' women are cheating -- and has a spiritual counseling practice in Manhattan, NYC.