Since my friend Sandra made this comment about my dating life, this has become one of my mantras. I had just fallen tragically in love for the first time and she was attempting to console me. For months, I had compromised my own needs, became completely unproductive in the rest of my life, and ultimately lost of sense of who I was as my life revolved around another person. I missed class and flaked on friends just to coordinate schedules. When the relationship ended, I felt that life -- even finishing college -- couldn't go on. For days, I didn't get out of bed and thought things would never pick up. A gnawing feeling lasted several months. Even now, there's part of me affected.
What defines a pathological relationship? Are there warning signs? No relationship is perfect and we all get swept up in the raw emotion of meeting someone new. However, when the sense of individuality is lost and support borders on dependence, a relationship may be in need of serious reconsideration.
Here are some questions to ask yourself aboutthe state of your relationship:
- What are your goals (spiritual growth, sex, children)?
- Is that where the relationship is heading?
- Do you feel trapped?
- Do you feel protected (emotionally or financially) and couldn't live without the other person?
- Do you always think about past good times, not recent events and wait for them to come back?
- Do your feel responsibility for your partner's behavior (the cause of anger or anxiety)?
- Are all your friends mutual?
- Do you fear being alone and a relationship takes that fear away?
- Do you feel unable to take care of your own life?
- Is being physically separated an emotionally painful experience?
When starting a new relationship, everything in life seems to fit into place. The possibilities are endless. What would normally be an irritation somehow becomes charming. We've all been there -- trapped in a false sense of reality, overlooking potential red flags. Eventually, you find yourself sleeping at his house the majority of time and your neighbors wonder if you've moved. You wonder the same thing as you wipe the dust off the phone in your apartment. You convince yourself the situation is more convenient (to whom?) because of his hours. Or perhaps you are at home waiting for her call on a Friday night. She never calls. Even though you spent the weekend sulking, complaining to friends, when she calls back on Monday expressing her lack of time, you reply, "Oh, that's okay. No big deal."
Being alone underlies a common fear of "growing old." But ultimately, our experience is solitary -- even as we hold another person as close as physically possible, our mental and emotional perspective is uniquely our own. When someone comes along who moves our reality to another plane, we falsely believe we can defy this principle. The boundaries between you and that other person are merged. There's something thoroughly intoxicating about this experience. We return to an infantile state when we did not make a distinction between ourselves and other objects or people. Most relationships naturally move beyond this state after several months and individual roles get defined. But what if that doesn't happen? One's existence becomes falsely defined in relation to someone else.
Back to me: Some kids inherit parents skilled in arts and crafts. Some enjoy the fine talent of good cooking. My mom perfected the skills of a classic codependent. I can see in retrospect that her own needs were displaced to the benefit of another in two separate marriages. She defined herself only as a wife or mother. I continually consider how much this affects my own relationships. Perhaps the best we can do is to consciously acknowledge our examples and hope our relationships are different with the self-awareness.
How do you avoid dysfunctional relationships?
Oftentimes, we fail to appreciate that our relationships change as they move beyond the "honeymoon period." Expect that the relationship will progress this way. Trying to hold onto the bliss may be the first red flag of a time bomb. Relationships should be about defining separate roles, having individual friends and maintaining one's outside interests. When there is a loss of individuality, issues of control arise. Lovers end spiritual and personal growth and begin to resent each other. Together, peanut butter and jelly go together make a distinct contribution while sharing the definition of a sandwich. When the only subtlety in your contribution is whether you are crunchy or smooth, your relationship may be endangered.
What we bring to a relationship is often based on our parent's relationship, our expectations, and our fantasies. Perhaps we always feel as if there is only one possible soul mate. Because of this, the ending of each relationship seems tragic and irreplaceable. We also bring our addictions, compulsions, personality types or even mental illnesses. If I find myself acting a certain way or doing things just to please another person, especially in fear of rejection, that's my first sign to follow the lights to the nearest exit.