This was supposed to be my traditional Thanksgiving post about something I’m thankful for. But now that it’s written, I don’t want to wait that long, so I’m calling it a Love Thursday post instead.
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The relationships we grow up in as children program us to seek out similar relationships throughout our lives. This is a well-documented phenomenon, even among those of us who are aware of it and vow to break the cycle.
One of the most common motivators for people who grow up in dysfunctional families is a deep subconscious desire to recreate the original home situation so that we can “fix it” this time around and finally get a happy ending. This is especially true for people who were cast in the scapegoat role as children and blamed for their family’s unhappiness. We think if we had just done this or that differently, everything might have turned out okay. We form relationships with the same kinds of needy, unhappy people we grew up among and spend all of our energy trying to make them happy. When that fails, we are blamed for their unhappiness and the cycle continues. We internalize that blame, we believe it. Like salmon struggling back upstream to their spawning grounds, we batter ourselves against those same familiar rocks over and over until we either escape the pattern or are destroyed by it.
As is tradition, I married a man who very gradually revealed himself to be basically a composite of my narcissistic, manipulative mother and my alcoholic, womanizing stepfather. Astonishingly, this did not result in the happy ending I had hoped for. But it did result in me becoming a parent, and that was a turning point in my journey. I was determined that my somewhat broken life would not produce broken children. I started viewing everything through the filter of how it would affect Luke and Elizabeth’s long-term well-being. Whereas in the past I would compromise on almost anything to sustain relationships that I valued, I started setting healthy boundaries. My marriage failed, but it did teach me an incredibly useful lesson: it’s no good trying to change yourself to please someone else. I’m not talking about self-improvement here, I’m talking about giving up the things that you like and value about yourself because someone else doesn’t like or value them. You’ll only end up changing into someone that neither one of you likes or values.
The thing is, life keeps putting you into the same kinds of situations with the same kinds of people until you finally learn all of the lessons that you need to learn from them. I’m actually grateful for that, because it wasn’t enough for me to just learn to recognize those kinds of people. Even spotting them from a distance, my instinctive reaction was not to back away but to roll up my sleeves and try a new approach. I am tenacious when working on a puzzle or problem, and I mistakenly thought that the way to heal the wounds of my childhood was to learn how to heal those broken people. I’ve certainly had no shortage of opportunities to try. People like that tend to become fixated on people like me, partly because we try so damn hard to make them happy and partly because our own happiness feels like an affront to them and they want to take it away from us.
What finally got me off of that hamsterwheel was realizing that my misguided efforts were not just detrimental to me, they were detrimental to the people I was trying to help. Letting someone mistreat you and suck you spiritually dry isn’t any better for them than it is for you. It doesn’t heal them of anything, it just makes them resentful and contemptuous and cruel.
The most difficult part of this journey was discovering that most of the relationships I had valued and worked to maintain over the years would (and did) evaporate the instant I stood up for myself. I lost my oldest friend that way a couple of years ago. This was a friendship that I thought would be rock-solid until one of us died, but she walked away without a backward glance the first time I stood my ground in a minor disagreement.
This is the legacy of my childhood, these one-sided relationships, and what I am most grateful for in 2017 is that they no longer sing their siren call to me. I can still spot them a mile away, and I still wish them well, but I have no longer have any desire to engage. Their unhappiness has nothing to do with me, and I prefer to keep it that way.
Happy Love Thursday, and may all of your relationships be the healthy kind.