Dear Neil: I need help. I’m in a 9 year relationship with my boyfriend, and we have a 5 year old child. We have broken up a bunch of times. Every time things are OK and we are not yelling or fighting with each other, I do something to rock the boat. We both have terrible tempers (we used to hit each other, but we haven’t done that in years). We both had an alcoholic parent when we were growing up. I love him, but I keep other guys around me in order to push him away. Can you help me?

Rocking the Boat

Dear Rocking the Boat: Often children of alcoholic parents grow up not feeling safe. An alcoholic parent can be unpredictable, moody, embarrassing and unstable. A child in that environment might very well shield herself from other people in order to make her world more stable, predictable and give herself the reassurance that she is out of harm’s way.

But then you grew up and entered an adult relationship, and it sounds like you are still shielding yourself. You are bringing forth the coping skills you adopted as a child, only now you are no longer a child, and now it is arguably harming you way more than it is helping you.

You appear to be distancing from your boyfriend so you can feel safer, protected and more secure around him. So what would you need from him in order to feel safe, secure and protected around him? What could he say or do that would make you feel safe enough so you could give up surrounding yourself with other guys, and you could commit to not pushing him away? Are you still afraid of being hit, as an example? Of being yelled at? Of his temper? Look at what you need from him in order to feel safe, secure and out of harm’s way.

Then tell him, and see if you can create a series of agreements that the two of you will periodically review—so you will know if the agreements are being kept. Maybe he will agree to lessen his part of the tension between the two of you in exchange for you not running away.

Dear Neil: I’m in a 2 year relationship. When we were together 6 months, my boyfriend got short tempered, didn’t want to be around me and he pushed me away, eventually sleeping with an ex-girlfriend of his. I took him back, but he still became angry, threw fits, hit walls—and eventually he hit me. He promised he’d stop, but it still continues to this day, and I’m scared. The logical thing would be for me to leave him, but I don’t know if I’m strong enough.

Don’t Know What to Do

Dear Don’t Know: Google “domestic violence advocate” for your city or region. You will find a host of resources and choices, including free counseling, legal advocacy services, safe houses or woman’s refuges, government agencies that offer assistance, and information and referrals to community resources. If you’re not strong enough to stand up for yourself, you need someone who can help you, and much of this help is free.

Certain boundaries have to be honored in an intimate relationship, and the most basic boundary concerns our sense of safety. It’s OK for a couple to disagree, fight or be angry with each other. It is not all right for you to be scared, for you to get hurt or for you to live in fear. Reach out for help.

Has your relationship turned cold and distant? Neil’s book Love, Sex, and Staying Warm can help you rekindle your passion.

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