Every week the Guardian has a “Problem Page” spread in the G2 section. There’s a problem, of course, which was set out in the previous week’s edition. It’s followed by half a dozen replies that readers, often anonymously, have offered by email, and then the resident psychologist makes her contribution. A consensus usually emerges from the reader’s comments and I often prefer their views to those of the psychologist whom I find strangely unempathetic.

Aunt Sally answers problems for the Sunday Times.   Her approach is different.  Sally Brampton presides over the bottom of each page, smiling in her chair, legs crossed, hands sitting in her lap, smile reaching her eyes, and she speaks such sense.   She does not shrink from telling it as it is, but she sweetens the pill with genuine affirmation.  I think I could take any bad news, any injury to my ego, from her.  I’ve included a previous question and answer from her here. Here’s an example that I tore out today and wish that every person was given at birth.

The man who poses the question is gay.  His sexual orientation, however, is irrelevant to his predicament.

I met a guy was a year out of an unhappy long-term relationship and seemed ready to move on. We live in different cities, but would spend hours on the phone. When he finally came to stay, he was very shy and nervous which was endearing. We got on amazingly well … Now he keeps standing me up, usually by text, then ignores my calls, but when we do speak, he always says he loves me and wants to be with me. I’ve read about avoidance and guys who are so scared of being hurt that they play power games and can’t get intimate. He admits he’s scared, and I’ve tried to reassure him, but it’s left me feeling really low about myself. I believe in honesty, trust and kindness in a relationship, and it’s just not there. I’ve walked away, but I’ve left an amazing connection. Am I holding on to something that isn’t there? It’s so easy to say that people have baggage, but surely it’s better to help and be understanding? I’m exhausted by all the anxiety.

You sound like such a nice man. Of course it’s good to help others and to be understanding about emotional baggage, but just because it’s good to be that way, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Who is it better for? Not you, it seems. After only a few months, you feel low about yourself and exhausted by anxiety. Surely that should tell you something? Look, for whatever reason, some people are emotional black holes. No matter how much love and kindness we hand out, it’s all absorbed into the vortex. Our actions come to seem both meaningless and pointless, because no amount of love and reassurance has any effect except to make them crave more – and more. That leaves us bewildered, anxious, and, frankly, feeling as if we don’t matter.

I think of people like that as emotional vampires. Unable to sustain themselves or fill the hole of need they carry inside, they leech the life out of others. I suspect you feel low about yourself because it is extraordinarily disappointing to encounter somebody who seems able to speak the language of love, but is unable, emotionally, to absorb its lessons. All the promises are simply dust. When he says he loves you, I’m sure he believes it to be the truth. It’s just that, emotionally, he can’t follow it through. We can understand something intellectually but fail to feel it emotionally. It’s a head-to-heart disconnect.

He may want to love you (or, rather, the idea of you), but as soon as you respond, he shuts down, and when you get too close, he runs away. That doesn’t mean he’s an avoidant. Avoidant patterns of behaviour are far more manipulative, involving a deliberate campaign of charm to pull somebody in and, once they are hooked, a push-me, pull-me game of bullying control.

It seems much more likely that he’s badly wounded emotionally, but – and here’s a big but – just because he’s wounded, it doesn’t mean that you can heal him, or that you should try. You don’t say what happened in his previous relationship. It could be that he was bullied or neglected, and that has caused him to feel scared of being hurt again. Or it could be that he was acting out similar dysfunctional or destructive behaviour; it at least has the merit of being familiar and, therefore, safe. Change is frightening because it’s a leap into the unknown, but I suspect your frustration lies in wanting to believe that, with sufficient love and kindness, he could and would change. Your anxiety stems from the effects that the unpredictability of his behaviour have on you, but also from your concern that you are abandoning something that could bring great happiness.

I suspect that’s just wishful thinking. People can change, but challenging established patters of destructive behaviour takes enormous personal effort. Unless somebody is really willing to put in the work, it’s impossible to help them, no matter how much kindness, love and good emotional sense we send their way. We have to fulfil our own needs before we can be in a relationship with others. We have to be able to love ourselves before we can give love away. It’s like the oxygen mask in the aeroplane. You must put the mask to your own face before helping anybody else. Why? Because if you don’t have your own supply of oxygen, you’ll soon start grabbing at others and pulling them down in your desperation to get at their supply. He’s not deceitful or unkind; he just an oxygen grabber. You, on the other hand, are a giver and a man who believes in honesty, trust and kindness. Good. Those are excellent, healthy instincts that make for real happiness in a relationship. If I were you, I’d keep walking until you find them.

Here’s another one:

 I wonder if you could help me get over my fear of revealing my true feelings to an ex-boyfriend. We broke up 18 months ago, having dated for about 18 months, because his work commitments meant we never got the chance to spend any time together. He felt he was being unfair to me and I felt lonely and let down. My self-esteem and confidence were at their lowest. The decision to break up was mutual, and painful for both of us. Despite that, we remained close friends and, about a year ago, I asked him if he would be my boyfriend again. He said he loved me, but couldn’t bear hurting me again, because his circumstances had not changed. I said I couldn’t stay friends, because I still had such strong feelings for him. We parted, but recently he e-mailed to say he missed me and wished he could make me happy. We saw each other, but didn’t discuss it — we were too busy having a laugh and the matter never arose. I still love him, but I’m scared of being turned down again and feeling like a fool. How do I find the courage to tell him how I feel?

It seems to me that you love him more than he loves you. That’s the bottom line. He obviously likes you. He probably loves you, but what he is actually saying is: “I love you, but . . .” Pay attention to the “but”. As a wise woman once said: “In any sentence that starts, ‘Yes, but . . .’, everything after the but is bullshit.”

The work commitments might be real enough, but the excuses are bull. If he wanted to be with you, he’d be with you.

If he wanted to call, he’d call, no matter how busy he was. We always find time for the people who are foremost in our heart. And you, I’m afraid, are not. That does not mean that you are not in his heart. It simply means that you don’t come first, and that, I suspect, is where you need to be. As you said in your letter, it’s what drove you to leave him in the first place. He simply fell into line. Yes, he was upset. He was also aware of your loneliness and feelings of neglect, but was not prepared to do anything to change his behaviour.

He felt the same way a year ago, when you asked him if he wanted to be with you. You were clear you could not be friends, but he broke the agreement and contacted you via e-mail. Does that mean he has changed his mind? I have never thought e-mails are to be trusted. They are too easy. A sudden moment of loneliness. A quick tap on the computer and a message is sent. An e-mail is a false intimacy. If you really want to know how somebody feels, stand in front of them, look directly into their eyes and ask them. Eyes don’t lie. Words do.

It might have meant more if he had said something when you met. Were you really having such a laugh that the matter never arose? Or were you burning to ask while he was burning not to tell you, and so avoided intimacy with laughter? I wish I could give you courage. I know how frightening it is to hear somebody you love say no. I wish I could take your hand and say to him: “Look, what exactly are your intentions towards this woman?”

Instead, you have to ask him. Let’s put it another way. You are in agony now. You have already said you cannot be his friend and see his smile and know it is not intended particularly for you. If you ask if he’d like to get back together and he says no, you will be in agony too. Which agony is preferable? The first is relentless. The second is sharp, but will fade with time.

I wonder, too, if the real reason you can’t find the courage is because, in your heart, you know he’s going to say: “I love you, but . . .” A bigger concern might be that he says yes without meaning it wholeheartedly. I suspect it’s his concern, too, which is why he turned you down six months ago. He genuinely does not want to hurt you, and senses his power — that subtle imbalance of love. He might feel happy about being with you, at least for a time. But then work will take over, or whatever other concern happens to be uppermost in his mind, and he’ll be distracted from the thing you really want — his full attention. And you know what? It’s not good enough. A half-hearted love affair is never good enough. It is a gilded cage, half pleasure and half prison. It holds us back from the world and the full-hearted lover around the next corner.

So, screw up your courage and tell him how you feel and what you need. Tell him your truth and ask him to tell you his — in full. Ask him to spell it out, if necessary. It may be that you need to hear every little detail, however painful. It is far better to live with the whole truth than to live with part of it, because our minds hang onto the stuff that is left unspoken and play havoc. Whether he says yes to you or no, if you share true intimacy and proper respect with each other, there will be real comfort in that.

And another, except this time you have to guess the question from the answer:


No, of course you don’t have to make yourself hate him. That would be childish, as in: “If you don’t love me (do what I want/ be what I want you to be/behave in the way I think you should behave), I have to hate you.” What is there to hate? It sounds as if he’s trying to let you down gently and take things back to where you started, as friends. He hasn’t called much because he is trying to put a distance between you. That may not be brave of him, but his intentions are good, even if his methods are lousy.

He is frightened of hurting you. He would like to keep you as a friend, but doesn’t know how. His nonchalance and jokes are a way to avoid telling you something he knows you don’t want to hear. You don’t want to hear it because, at heart, you know what it is. The reality is, you don’t want to face the truth.

But you both know the truth. He doesn’t want to express it. You don’t want to hear it, so you get drunk and jump into bed with him. Really, it’s not the best way. It is meaningless, avoidant sex, which leaves us feeling shabby and empty, because we know we are not sharing real intimacy, but using sex to avoid real intimacy — which is telling each other the truth about the way we feel. And he is going to say yes to sex. He’s a bloke, and I bet you’ re gorgeous. That doesn’t mean he wants to be with you, it just means he wants to shag you. If he wanted to be with you, he’d have made a lot more effort than he has been doing recently.

So you need to accept that. But there’s a lot more invested in this, because you started out as friends and, perhaps, eventually that’s the way you would like to be again. If that’s the case, then you do need to talk to him, in an adult way. That means asking him to tell you truthfully how he feels, and accepting his reply without bursting into tears, blaming him, getting angry or running away.

 It will hurt less once you hear the truth. The thing that has been stressful for you is not knowing. The philosopher Nietzsche said: “It is not fear that drives people mad, but uncertainty.” Being clear is always the best way. So sit him down and ask him to be straight with you. Don’t avoid the truth or difficulty. Avoidance simply sets us up for more problems. All those unspoken truths have a habit of hanging around and poisoning relationships. He can’t say what he feels, you can’t bear to hear him say what he feels, so you both end up avoiding each other, and what could have been a good friendship ends up wasted.

I know how much it hurts to admit that somebody does not want to be with you. But that is a part of accepting that we can’t always have what we want. And that, I’m afraid, is life. You need to step back a little and see that this is not personal. I know that sounds mad (what is rejection, if not personal?), but he’s not saying that he doesn’t value you, he’s saying that he can’t connect to you in the same way that you would like to connect to him. It does not make you less lovable. It just makes you feel less lovable. There is a world of difference in those two statements. I know it’s tough. Every single person reading this knows how tough it is. We’ve all been there. So how do you stop the feelings? By accepting them and behaving with grace and dignity, which restores self-worth and self-love in a way that hating somebody never can. Hatred is toxic. It poisons and corrodes you much more than the people at whom it is directed.

Here’s another quote for you, because that’s the kind of mood I’m in this week. It’s from the Buddha, who said: “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” He does not mean that you have to love your boyfriend when that’s the very last thing you’re feeling. That would be false. It means that you have to behave with love, and by behaving in this way, you will not only experience compassion for others and how they might be feeling, but, perhaps just as importantly, you will feel compassion for yourself. And if there is any single antidote to stress and depression, it is compassion.

A Memoir of Depression


See also: https://adifferentvoice.wordpress.com/2007/10/23/mind-the-gap/