Advice

Miss Information: How can I keep my turbulent childhood from ruining a great relationship?

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Dear Miss Information,

I swear I am a grown-up! I have a great full-time job and am getting my masters; I live with my boyfriend and we have a pet; I know how to cook and balance my checkbook. However, I have a terrible habit from childhood that I just can’t kick: I suck my fingers. Whenever I’m sleepy or bored, two fingers from my left hand find themselves in my mouth and I don’t know how to stop. It’s totally embarrassing and makes my fingers pruney. What can I do? — Orally Fixated

Dear Orally Fixated,

Excuse me, I’ve got to get this out of my system.

BOYFRIEND’S PENIS-IN-MOUTH JOKE! BOYFRIEND’S PENIS-IN-MOUTH JOKE!

You may be a grown-up, but I’m still working on not giggling every time I pass a dog pooping on the sidewalk. The expressions they make are priceless.

I have to ask: other than pruney fingers and embarrassment, why is this a problem? You’re still able to work full-time, go to grad school, and maintain a functional relationship. You may feel sheepish, but it’s not so devastating that it’s keeping you housebound. Who cares if your fingers are a little wrinkled? You’re going to get old, they’re going to get wrinkled anyway. Were you planning on being a hand model? Unless your teeth are being pushed in different directions or your boyfriend is threatening to leave you, consider whether you’re making a big deal out of nada.

Why? Because finger-sucking is just a coping mechanism. A way of self-soothing that’s usually learned as a child. Over time, most people will drop the habit, along with their pacifiers, teddy bears, security blankets, and replace them with more adult curatives, like cigarettes, anti-depressants, and alcohol. It’s funny how we deem people who knowingly inhale carcinogens as sane, if not a little stupid, yet we see an adult with a silly-looking but non-toxic appendage in their mouth and assume they’ve got epic psychological problems. Then again, it doesn’t help your cause when you’ve got people like Amy Winehouse as your spokeswoman.

Drinking, smoking, foot tapping, knuckle-cracking. Everybody’s got something, Orally Fixated. Especially people who are juggling a full-time job and grad school. Be glad you’re not pounding Ritalin or inhaling Domino’s Bread Bowls. If you want to stop, do some research. You could try traditional treatments (therapy, medication), alternative treatments (acupuncture, hypnosis) and a myriad other suggestions and bits of folk wisdom everything from bitter-tasting sprays and bandages to plastic contraptions that look like they belong on injured tennis pros.

Whatever method you choose or advice you follow, remember to trust yourself. After nine years on the nic sticks, I quit smoking with the intention of having a cigarette if I ever really, really wanted it. There were people who told me I’d never be able to sustain that. One cigarette would trigger a backslide and it’d all be over. I might as well commit to cold turkey or not give it a go. It’s been over a decade and I’m still at my rate of one or two a year. Knowing I can do something makes me want it less. It’s not for everyone, but it’s right for me. Fuck the haters, find what works, and keep doing it.

Readers, do any of you still suck your fingers or thumbs? How did you quit (or come to accept) a habit you were trying to stop?

Dear Miss Information,

I’m twenty-six and have recently re-entered the world of monogamous dating after two years of moderately enjoyable single life. One of the reasons why I resisted dating again was due to a spectacularly bad breakup involving infidelity on her end. That experience, combined with some family and self-image issues, kept me in a safe, insulated shell while I nursed my wounds. I’m in a much better place now. That said, when I started dating my current girlfriend, I didn’t want to pass up the chance to capitalize on our chemistry.

My question is about communication and openness. I’m very aware of my trust issues and my need for lots of attention and approval, most of which stem from a turbulent family life. I’m addressing and handling them through therapy and lots of study on the subject (I’m a textbook co-dependent son of an alcoholic mother). But I’m noticing times in which these issues creep into my current relationship. I’m all for communication in a relationship; however, I’m wary of scaring her away.

My friends have advised me that emotional honesty is a great sign of a healthy relationship, and if I address the situation candidly, she’s less likely to react negatively when or if situations arise. They say she may even be genuinely touched that I shared myself with her. I’m somewhat skeptical — we’re happy so far, and I don’t want her to think of me as an emotional burden. What do you think? — Faltering Comeback

Dear Faltering Comeback,

Sharing emotions does not make you an emotional burden. It’s how you share those emotions that sets the tone of the relationship, whether it’s a make-or-break status talk or a casual one-off on the way to the grocery store.

You may be wary about baring your inner soul, but my guess is she’s already familiar with your exposed psyche. If it’s not nude, it’s at least semi-nude. We underestimate the ability of others to read our moods while simultaneously believing we’re better at masking them than we actually are. You get so focused on your own internal monologue that it drowns out the verbal and non-verbal communications you’re giving to those around you.

As the adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA), this is amplified even further. Classic ACOA lit, such as this book (which you should get, despite the atrocious cover) by Janet Woititz, tells us that ACOAs tend to:

1.    Take themselves way too seriously
2.    Assume an unnecessary amount of responsibility for other people’s feelings
3.    Gain approval by morphing into whatever they believe will please those around them

Your question speaks to all of the above. Here’s how: you went through a bad breakup. Instead of taking the easy route and jumping into another serious relationship, you hung back and took some time off. You enrolled in therapy and started working on your issues. A lot of people would go for a month or two, then drop out. Not you. You stuck with it, and are continuing to apply those insights (i.e., "I’m noticing times in which these issues creep into my current relationship") and learn about yourself.

You’re a friggin’ hero, Faltering Comeback, and far more evolved than a lot of daters out there. Your biggest fault is that you believe having faults makes you unique and special. (See #1). Furthermore, you’re worried that, by having faults, you’re somehow inflicting harm on your girlfriend. (See also #2). Finally, you assume that you’re going to be rejected for — holy shit how DARE you — having emotions. So instead you hold back and act like Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky because that’s what you think your girlfriend wants. (I’ll take #3, Peter, for the block).

Listen to your friends. Be more open with your girlfriend. Don’t speak in therapy terms. Use your own voice, be as real as you can, and do it in spurts. I can’t tell from your letter whether there’s any heavy-duty abuse in your past, but if there is, then I would proceed with even more caution. People react in all kinds of ways to that, including disbelief and denial. Work out a plan with your therapist on what you’re going to share and how, and prepare yourself for the best and the worst.

The amount of time you’ve been together is the other variable. Are we talking weeks? A couple of months? A year? The shorter the duration, the less you should share. And it’s really for your own benefit: protecting your progress takes a bigger priority over "scaring" anyone off.

Hey guys, have any of you grown up with an alcoholic parent or guardian? How has that affected your relationships now?

Have a question? Email erin@nerve.com. Letters may be edited for length, content and clarity.