Recently, I was invited to participate on a panel on dating and relationships, and I decided to write a blog about the unfair burden on relationships and a few of the things that I’ve learned over the years about them, both personally, as well as in my role as a therapist.
I wasn’t born knowing how to ‘do’ relationships; few of us are. More often than not, we learn by some sort of psychic osmosis by directly or indirectly observing our parents, or parental figures, interact with one another throughout our formative years. However, that’s not often the good news since many of us didn’t have the sorts of role models who could demonstrate healthy and loving behaviors in their relationships with one another, nor even with us, their children. So, inevitably when we leave home, and become involved in intimate relationships ourselves, we do the only thing we know how: we set out to re-create what we’ve learned, and, with no real surprise, the “recipe” once again fails. Thus, the cycle of dysfunction continues to pass from one generation to the next.
During my earlier years, I realized that I looked to relationships for different things. For example, when I was 16-years old, I looked to relationships to ‘save me’ somehow from the alcoholic dysfunction that wrecked havoc in my family home on a daily basis. But eventually, I found a patient and loving young man, who for reasons of his own, became willing to play the role of savior to this young, hurt, and very confused girl. Our relationship lasted for 7 years, and we eventually parted such that we were able to keep in tact our love and respect for one another, even 33 years later. Yet, as I reflect back on that relationship, and a few others that took place afterwards, I realize that I was armed with absolutely no useful – and certainly, no healthy – tools to negotiate the inevitable issues that arise within any intimate relationship, including those of compromise, respectful disagreement, money, sex, autonomy, and so on. I adopted a “kill or be killed” approach, which clearly wasn’t going to bode well for a relationship that would stand the test of time. I had much to learn, indeed.
As I moved on, I hit a point in my mid-20s that lead me to decide that in order to have the opportunity to create the sort of life I truly wanted, I needed to make some significant changes. And, so I did, but I didn’t make those changes alone. In fact, I was fortunate enough to meet some very kind and special people at that juncture in my life who have now become lifelong friends, and who were kind enough, and patient enough, to lend me the sort of guidance that I never had while growing up in that crazy, alcoholic home. And, as a result, I learned vital skills that aided me in beginning to develop healthy relationships while using the sorts of emotional tools that I’d never known existed. Needless to say, I made the most of this amazing opportunity to learn, and over the years that seemingly minor decision to finally ‘do things differently’ has changed both me, and my relationships, profoundly ever since. And, as a result, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in the sort of intimate relationship for over 20 years that I’d previously never thought possible.
But, in order for my own past experiences to prove useful for me professionally, I spent time reflecting back on the ways in which I (consciously and/or unconsciously) looked to intimate relationships to somehow ‘fix’ the broken parts of myself, to fill the black hole that ran though the middle of my emotional gut. I, like millions of others, was raised on movies and songs that both supported and encouraged dysfunctional ways of thinking, such that if I could only just find my ‘soul mate’, the one that would truly love me unconditionally, I’d be more or less instantly healed. I would no longer be alone or lonely – ever. I’d be at peace, and would finally be magically ‘right’ with the world around me. In addition, I, again like many others, especially in the throes of early attraction (aka, sex-addicted, hormone-based, adoration – and usually of ourselves), sought to find that perfect ‘fit’ in a partner such that I could finally feel better about myself physically, emotionally, intellectually, and, yes, even spiritually. In fact, many people believe their deep attraction to ‘him’ or ‘her’ causes them to have a powerful life-changing spiritual experience. Yet, on the other side, when the deep intensity of the new relationship begins to fade, that spiritual experience is more often than not viewed in retrospect as simply being rooted in a powerful, and blinding, hormonal surge, and, that assessment is usually quite accurate!
What I came to understand as a result of this self-reflection, however, is that by putting a burden on relationships I was in, such as the task of ‘fixing’ me, I was ultimately dooming it to failure. And, as it goes, there usually isn’t just one person in the relationship who’s unconsciously seeking some sort of emotional repair; the other one is usually looking for the same thing, but perhaps in different ways. And, so considering the overwhelming weight of expectation that couples place on their relationships, it’s not at all surprising that the divorce rate is so high. But, each time we walk through the glittering door of hope and expectation into a new relationship stubbornly believing yet again that “this one will be different”, we inevitably find that it usually isn’t. So, I’ve found that unless we stop long enough to reflect on the roles we’ve played in the sinking of past relationships, and become willing to learn a healthier way to ‘do’ them, they can’t help but continue to wilt and die. The short of it is that we simply need to grow up, and instead of abdicating responsibility for our own emotional recovery by handing over the burden of a bucket that’s filled with all the hurts and resentments of our broken and sad pasts to the one we say we love, we need to become willing to start dealing with the contents of it ourselves. And, in so doing, it’ll likely be the first tangible, courageous, and vital, step that we take toward developing a framework for the kind of mature relationship that has a greater probability of thriving in the long term. Not necessarily an easy step to take, but one that should not be missed.