AMY AND BEN
Amy and Ben have been living together for eighteen months. Despite feeling that they still love each other, there is a lot of tension in the air. It was Ben who pushed for them living together. Amy was very cautious, because she has a four-year-old son, James, whose needs also had to be considered. The tension in their relationship centers around Amy’s feeling that Ben doesn’t fully understand and accept the commitment that living together implies. While loving Amy feels right for Ben, his ego is fighting against it all the way. He often acts as if only his needs are important.
Before moving in together they had discussed what such a step would mean in terms of responsibilities and limitations. Amy explains it this way: “Ben doesn’t really get that I’m a single mom and not like a regular girlfriend. I can’t go out and see a movie or hang out with friends whenever he feels like it. I have a son; I can’t be that spontaneous. Everything I do requires childcare, and that’s not easy to arrange. I can’t count on being out every Friday or Saturday night, because I may not have a sitter. But that’s what he wants to do—and watch out if anything gets in his way.” Amy continues: “And the other thing is that I don’t want to leave my child that often. I thought he understood all of this, but it’s just not working. I feel pressured by him, not helped. And believe me, the last thing I need is more pressure.”
“The other thing that’s upsetting,” Amy explains, “is that while he and James really get along and I can tell he likes James, Ben never offers to watch him so I can run an errand or go to the gym for an hour. If we’re living together and talking about getting married at some point and we’re a family, why does he still act as if that’s only my job and how dare I ask him? Is that how it’ll be when we’re married? If not and he’ll be willing to do it then, why not now?”
“I thought living together would make us closer and able to be there for one another. But I’m not feeling supported as much as I’m feeling caught between being there for my son and pleasing my boyfriend,” Amy concludes.
When it was Ben’s turn he agreed a lot with what Amy had to say: “I love Amy and can’t see myself living without her. I know on an intellectual level that I’m being selfish, but it’s hard for me not to do it. I’m not easy to live with; I’ll be the first one to admit that. I’ve always gotten my own way. Even as a kid I made sure I got more attention than my sisters and brothers. I’m very competitive that way. I’m not good at letting other people have their way. My life has a certain pattern to it, and I don’t like change. Living together has been hard because of this. I knew I loved Amy, but didn’t see how much changing it would take once we lived together. I complain a lot about how controlling she is, but it’s just an excuse. Really it’s the other way around.”
Ben continues: “So far the relationship has been better for me than for Amy. I can see that. I’ve made it that way by being so stubborn. I know it’s not fair, but I still do it. I’m not good at giving. I don’t mean with money; I think I’m generous that way. I mean giving up what I want to do and not having my way. If I want to go for a run, I do it; nothing stops me. Letting go of something I want to do is hard for me. I don’t like losing, and giving feels as if I’m losing. I know that’s screwed up, but that’s how I think. I’d be losing freedom or control over my life—that’s how it feels. But I know I can’t be this way if I want to be with Amy and James. I hope I can change.”
Like a lot of people Ben believed that his “me first” survival mentality was a good thing and that it served him well in a competitive society. It’s true that having a strong will can help you make your way through difficult times in a competitive environment. Self discipline and determination are valuable character traits.
But more often than not, our willful egos tend to be immature and impulsive. Our need to have instant gratification sabotages our self discipline. The result is that we become quickly frustrated and easily distracted. We struggle to stay focused and pursue goals that we say are important to us.
It’s pretty much the same in your relationship. For the up-close, unselfish kind of caring you need to do to stay “in love,” your survival-oriented ego is a handicap. It’s just not very good at going beyond itself to regularly make your partner a top priority. So instead of helping you to be kind, thoughtful, patient, and giving, it makes you less able to access these sensitivities. Many of the problems that plague roommate couples happen primarily because they are reacting to one another with their egos firmly in charge.