Dear Dr. Robert Saltzman,
I stumbled upon your page this afternoon while trying to get some insight on a dream that my girlfriend has been having lately. I've read some of your advise and thought you might be able to help me out.
The basics: My girlfriend (23) has mentioned twice now that she has had bad dreams in which I've broken up with her or "left her". She mentioned while describing one of them that she was "begging" me to take her back. The dreams, at least the ones she's told me about were within a few days of each other.
Some background. We've been dating for over a year and a half now and living together for a year. We've had some typical and unusual hard times in the past dealing with various issues, but overall it's been great. Recent issues have been her "need" to be in control, in other words, at times she can get very controlling and mean when she doesn't get what she wants.
I've had my fair share of control issues due to her insisting that all of her electronic communication devices such as cell phone and computer be kept completely private and locked with passwords. Although she insists that she has nothing to hide she refuses to let go of these precautions. Leading into a more recent issue that I decided one day to ask her why her voice mail box was full. Long story short, it was very easy to detect that there was something there she didn't want me to hear, since she deleted some messages right before she dialed it to "show" me who had left her messages (not by my request).
Back to the dreams. The dreams that I mentioned occurred a day or so after this voicemail discussion. She never came clean about it, and my thoughts are that she feels guilty and might realize that it's causing me to distrust her. I've tried to let this issue go even though I know the truth but I feel it's very apparent to her that I feel I can't trust her because of things like this.
My question is regarding the dreams. Does her having these dreams indicate what she's afraid of? Could this mean that she wants us to break up and go our separate ways? I realized that there are other issues in our relationship other than these dreams, but despite the issues I know that she has the best intentions. Our relationship has had it's up and downs and I don't want it to end, but I fear that this is a sign that something really isn't right.
Interpretation of dreams is a difficult art at best, and is totally impossible, in my view, without being able to speak directly with the dreamer in order to solicit her associations to the images in the dream. So I am afraid that I will not be able to answer the main question you put to me. However, your letter touches upon another important issue which I would like to address, and that is the area of trust and control.
Now you say that your girlfriend seems to need to be in control, and that her expression of this need can get ugly when she does not get what she wants. This makes me wonder why you would want to be with a person like that. Please do not misunderstand: I am not saying that you should not be with a person like that, only that I wonder what else is so great about her that you would find it worthwhile to put up with a woman who wants to control you. This is a question which I believe you should put to yourself, Josh, and try to answer seriously, because the odds are that she will not be able to change this feature of her personality even if you ask that she change it, and even if she wants to change it. Almost always, the need to be in control stems from a deep insecurity which will not allow the person simply to let things be as they are. In other words, the person who needs to be in control, and who becomes upset when she feels that she has lost that control, usually is someone who is afraid to trust life to unfold in its own way--someone who lacks the confidence, that is, that she will be able to cope successfully with changes as they occur.
Since this is the case, before this affair goes any further--before you get even more involved, more tangled up in your girlfriend's fears, needs, and weaknesses--I believe that you would be well advised to understand that being subjected to her need to dominate emotionally and to her habit of turning mean when that need is frustrated are part of the price you pay for being with her, and that most likely you will continue to pay as long as you are with her. Don't get me wrong, Josh, there is always a price to pay in any relationship--as John Paul Sartre put it, "Hell is other people."--so I do not mean to say that anything is unusually wrong with your girlfriend, only that you should ask yourself if the benefits of this liaison are worth the psychological price. In other words, to stay with Satre's metaphor, is this the hell you want to live in, or would another kind of hell perhaps suit you better?
If you determine that this game is worth the candle--that the positive returns, in other words, are worth suffering her domination and sometimes meanness--then your letter raises another issue which, in my opinion, needs to be addressed, and right away: this is your need to be in control! What gives you the idea that you ought to have access to your girlfriend's computer and cell phone? Doesn't she have the right to privacy and a private life? Does everything have to be shared? Personally, if I were your girlfriend I would by no means want you to read my email or hear my telephone messages. Some of them have nothing to do with you, I am sure, and some, perhaps, involve things she does not want you to know about, and I see no reason whatsoever that you should know absolutely everything about your girlfriend. Would you also want to follow her around when she goes out alone, or eavesdrop when she is speaking with another person? Where would this end?
I understand that sexual jealousy is an important feature of many relationships, particularly when the parties to the relationship are young, full of hormonal drives, and not yet fully committed to one another. But as I see it, it is your job to suffer your jealousy by yourself (it is your jealousy after all), not to expect that your girlfriend should never have "anything to hide," as you put it, so that you should be allowed to address your insecurity and jealousy by checking up on her whenever you like. This entire idea about not having "anything to hide" is a bit naive in my view; all of us have things to hide, and most of us are very practiced at hiding them. Perhaps after years of marriage--if you two ever get that far--there would be very little left to hide, but certainly not at the beginning. Suppose, for example, that your girlfriend has been communicating with a friend about some difficult feelings which she does not want to share with you. Should she not have the right to do that? Suppose she is even speaking with a friend about doubts and fears regarding her romance with you. Why shouldn't she be able to do that privately, and keep all of it from you?
I know you are young, Josh, but it is time to grow up. Sexual relationships are not wide-open friendships just filled with mutual trust and purely altruistic emotions. Sex is a complex battleground where some of the most profound insecurities about loving and being loved in return are played out--often in painful and stressful ways (as you expressed when you said that you two have "had some typical and unusual hard times in the past dealing with various issues."). I have written more about dating and sexual relationships as an egoic battleground in another ask the psychologist letter which you might like to read. A sexual bond may turn, eventually, into a deep and wonderful kind of friendship, but that takes time, commitment and love; it is not at all automatic, and, judging from your letter, you two are not there yet--not even close.
To put it bluntly, if I have to read your email and listen to your telephone messages in order to "trust" you, I don't trust you, and probably I doubt that you love me or that you really are my friend. And that's where you are with your girlfriend--no trust, no real friendship. As I said earlier, real friendship between sexual partners does not come easy, but it will never come at all if you continue wanting to check up on her.
If you want a real love, a real amour, Josh, here is my advice: have fun with this woman, enjoy her, do things together. If she burns you, so be it. You will learn from that and move on to better things. If she does not burn you, then you have a real friend. As this is sometimes expressed:
"How do you tame a bird?"
"Leave the door of the cage open. If the bird is free to fly, but stays, she is yours."
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