Relationships, at best, are messy.
And I think one of life’s rudest surprises for people is this truth.
There are a myriad of reasons for this, and many far more qualified, better-spoken individuals have written books on the Why’s. I’m not going into the Why, or what to do about it. I do, however, want to pay a visit to the battlefield of reducing yourself for the sake of pleasing or appeasing someone.
A number of years ago, I was given a gift in the house-fire-version of a friendship (meaning, it was brought down suddenly and without warning – at least for me). When I was sifting through the ashes to figure out what parts were mine to own, I came to a startling realization: I was inarguably codependent. Major enabler, among other things. I’m not sure how I didn’t see it before that, really, but that was the point in time it became a billboard in front of me.
I genuinely feel like that discovery was a gift. Was it hard to look at and own? Absolutely. Was I grieving for the aspects of the relationship that had been so fun and amazing and life-giving? Unequivocally. But life is seldom Either/Or, and this was a textbook case of “Both/And.” I was both devastated and grateful. I am not saying I was singing from a lamppost about my discovery – who wants to know they’re codependent?! (Not this girl.) Even so, it started me down a crucial path that has changed my life in critical ways, and is continuing to alter my experience of, and contributions to, relationships.
One of the first things I had to look at was how I got that way. I think some dispositions/personalities (including mine) are probably more prone to becoming unhealthy in this way if the ingredients and environment are right, but we aren’t born that way. I started exploring the characteristics and behaviors of codependence, spotting them in myself and some of my relationships, and then trying to trace back to where I started engaging with others so dysfunctionally.
(…Be careful what you go exploring for….)
Short version: Ground Zero for me turned out to be an earlier and longstanding relationship that was terribly enmeshed, unhealthy, and in which I learned (was required) to enable. To do my work and the other person’s. I had zero boundaries, and no file for them. To wit: my wiring dictated that my existence was for the sake of another. Another’s happiness, another’s needs, another’s anger. Another’s empty spaces. Another’s need for power and control. Another’s perception of their position and standing in the world.
I was a fixer. (Still am. I am definitely “in process”……)
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you that for me, my understanding of my value and sense of self came directly from how well I did or did not perform this role. I couldn’t know until late in my 40’s that a setup like that is always – ALWAYS – a setup for failure. You cannot make another person happy. You cannot fill another person’s empty spaces. You cannot compensate for what another person is, or feels they are, lacking. You weren’t meant to, you’re not wired for it, and it’s a relationship-wrecker for one to expect it (and for one to try to accommodate it). It’s a zero sum game. I had no value – I (perceived I) was worthless – because my job was to appease the other person, on my tab, and I was never really able to. On the occasions I did please them, it was short-lived. The target is always moving in a relationship like that, and you cannot have authentic connection when one person is constantly changing the rules of engagement. You also cannot have authentic connection when one of you is trying too hard – to help, to be loved, to be accepted, to keep the peace, whatever it is. Yep, you can take turns picking up the slack when things get tough. That is, on the healthy side of it anyway, what Love does. But it is not Love when one person has to reduce their true self to be acceptable to or “loved” by the other.
There was also chronic abuse in that particular relationship. The abuse of power (and its many tentacles) was constant and insidious for a long time, and then it stopped being necessary – not that abuse is ever necessary – because I had learned where the electric fences were and endeavored to not to even go near them. It got to the point where I was so easily manipulated that I not only didn’t notice or recognize it, but I would defend it to others. I would feel shame for falling short without the individual having to say a word. I felt guilt just thinking about doing or wanting to do something other than what I knew was expected. This made it scary for me to fail, or be vulnerable, or tell the truth, or say “No,” or to so much as disagree ….. Remember, my sense of self came from pleasing/appeasing. And I craved love and acceptance (who doesn’t?), and the fear of losing a chance at being loved and accepted overruled any nagging from the deepest pit of my stomach that I was bleeding out for the sake of an individual who was never going to apply pressure to my wounds. Zero sum game. One person’s gains are the sum of the other person’s losses – and I was always going to be the one paying out.
As I worked to heal and to change my dysfunctional behavior (in general – not just in one or any particular relationship), I realized it was imperative that healthy boundaries be established in the aforementioned relationship. I also realized I was living a lie in acting like our relationship wasn’t a train wreck, and like a significant amount of my story never happened, all for the sake of how this person perceived themselves and might be perceived by others. I was still protecting and fixing and (by extension) deceiving. Never overtly deceiving. Honestly, most of the time I didn’t realize I was doing it, and a lot of that was due to years of gaslighting and everything else (other abuses) that made me doubt my perception and distrust my own often-salient memories. It was always and only their version of things that was allowed, and I enabled that like I was getting paid to. I stuffed the truth over and over. I banished memories (tried to anyway – turns out they don’t ever actually leave), I nodded Yes when I wholeheartedly meant No ……… I denied ME in an effort to survive them and just live my life.
That does not work. The cost is unimaginable, and with no dividends. Remember – zero sum game; one person’s gain is the sum of another’s losses.
The day came when I realized I literally couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t physically manage it anymore, It had significantly impacted my health, and I couldn’t bear the emotional costs of it anymore either. I can’t even talk yet about what it did to my faith. Another post for another day.
I realized I had to take the next steps in my healing and growth process. I tried for the life of that relationship to bridge the gaps, and I still wanted to (and compulsively needed to) – I was all about “peace at any price.” But the price was way more than I could ever pay and I was terribly in debt. There also was no peace. In addition, I finally saw how unloving and unkind it is to enable others to live in a way that causes and perpetuates disconnection. We are meant for connection. Intimacy. Love. Anything that hinders it belongs kept outside the gates – hence, the need for boundaries in a healthy, loving relationship.
I did the best I knew how, with a rather limited tool box, to address the known issues. I forgave, and even reached out in an expen$ive gesture of peace and goodwill in hopes that making myself vulnerable and open would invite a set of healing conversations. Instead, it was again all left to me. And, as usual, it took me a while to realize it. (Like, a year or more….) More work and further down the healing road, I had to draw a harder line in the sand. If I couldn’t bring all of me to a table – including the critical parts of my story that make me who I am – then I couldn’t be at that table anymore. This confrontation – which was not mean or emotional, just clear and extremely honest – was met with silence as well as some other extraordinarily hurtful things. And listen, my point is not to make someone look bad. Hurt people hurt people, and we all have our own set of shortcomings that impact how we navigate life and relationships. My point is about who we are in the context of relationships, and that bleeding out won’t buy you love.
To be honest, this has been a horribly painful path and I am often unsure I would do it again if I could put the toothpaste back in the tube. I can really wobble over it at points, not because it wasn’t absolutely necessary – it was – but because it’s been riddled with pain and guilt and shame and paralyzing self-doubt. It’s textbook for someone like me to feel like I ruined everything by speaking the truth, and by recognizing (and ultimately declaring) that I couldn’t act like it wasn’t true anymore. I broke the rules. We all know them – the unspoken rules for the abuse of power/position. Don’t contradict. Don’t question. Don’t disagree. Don’t poke the bear. Don’t you dare tell. Don’t you dare call it ‘abuse;’ you either deserved it or are exaggerating or you flat out made it up. You’re a crazy liar…
One of many complex reasons people stay in unhealthy relationships long after the expiration date is the very real fear of breaking the rules – or really, fear of the consequences – to get out. And, in juxtaposition, we are kind-of the ones who enforce the rules by complying with them… enabling lies and manipulation to continue to dictate our lives and choices ….. sacrificing our freedom over and over on the altar of unmet needs. *Note: this is a learned behavior/survivor skill – if that’s you, I am NOT saying the situation was/is your fault. It’s a double bind, and we do what we have to, instinctively.* But it’s important, breaking those rules. We were not meant to live someone else’s version of our lives, nor are we meant to prostitute ourselves for love and acceptance. When we spend our energy and choices trying to please people, it’s not possible to be true to ourselves or to our gifts; it’s not possible to be who we were created to be.
I want to be who I was created to be. I want to know who that really is. I want to do what I’m here to do and I want to do it with all of me. I have lived a very compartmentalized life (still do in some ways), and I do not want that to be my epitaph.
You and I are here to love and to be loved. Love does not require us to be less than we are. Actually, love expects the best of us, and supports us in finding and being our most authentic selves. Love begets love, not fear. If a relationship requires that you stifle the truth, or make yourself smaller, or enable unhealthy behavior – if “love” demands its own way, it’s not love. And if it’s not love, you need to take a close look at why you’re there. You need to take an honest inventory of how it has impacted/continues to impact your behavior, your other relationships, and your life.
Relationships are worth the mess and the investment if both parties are allowed to bring all of themselves to the table, and are willing to work towards authentic connection with healthy boundaries. Love is worth fighting for, and intimacy is worth the hard work. I fully believe in restoration and in fighting for connection. But when the happiness or pleasure of one is the responsibility and at the expense of the other, that is not love nor intimacy; it’s bondage. We are meant to live free, and to help set others free. And there cannot be freedom independent of truth; truth and freedom go together.
If you are in a relationship and not free to be honest and to be you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get out. It does mean that you need to get extremely honest with yourself, and probably need to enlist some objective help. If you’re in an abusive relationship, you do not stay for the sake of Maybe’s for WhatIf’s. You need to be safe – physically, emotionally, mentally – before you can work on anything else. If they were going to change, they’d likely have done it by now. And if they’re truly intent on changing, they’ll accept the current consequences of their earlier choices and behavior – including, if needed, your getting to a safe(r) distance.
You are worth wholeness, so here is written permission and encouragement for you to pursue it. Will you face opposition when you set boundaries and pursue truth? Most likely. The fears there can be substantial. What if I’m wrong? What if it’s just my perception? What if no one believes me? What if people think I _________ (made it up)(am mean)(am a horrible person)(am the problem and the other person the victim)?
They may. Some will.
1.) Repeat after me: “What other people think of me is none of my business.” (Don’t know the originator of that, it is attributed to a range of people – I did not say it first, though.)
2.) People are always going to make up stories about you in their heads no matter what, and what I mean by that is that it’s human nature to fill in the blanks for ourselves about other people’s stories, circumstances and choices. We fill in other people’s thought bubbles, we assume, we judge. We rarely collect all evidence available before making decisions or forming opinions. Most of us do this in general to some degree.
There is little I hate (fear) more than being judged and/or misunderstood, so I’m not meaning to affect that I don’t care/it doesn’t bother me. It does, terribly. My toolbox for dealing with that effectively is still very immature. But here is what I know: you can’t please people and you weren’t meant to spend your life trying. It’s not healthy for them or for you; every adult needs to take responsibility for their own peace, happiness, and issues. If part of your being whole is changing the nature of a relationship(s) you’re in or even disconnecting from it for a time (or more), then that’s what you have to do. And, trust me, I know that’s a mouthful. And I want to clarify: I am not advocating for divorce or quitting. I’m not talking about running away from relationship difficulties or conflict, or doing so because you’re “just not happy.” I am talking about relationships that have caused or are causing harm – particularly if the other party is not willing to go to the War Room to do battle for it.
If you have been in a toxic, abusive, or codependent relationship for any extended period of time, it’s not only a paramount challenge to forge a new way of relating or thinking (old habits die hard), but you are also likely working against neural networks in your brain that instruct (demand) you not to break the rules. This makes it harder to bear the thought, or actuality, of being judged or criticized or blamed by others. (What if they’re right? I’m the one who broke the rules…..) But ya know what? If they aren’t in the foxhole with you, they probably don’t deserve a say in how you manage it. If they don’t come to you to have your part filled in by you, it’s on them when they misconstrue what you’re doing. That’s not your fault or your responsibility. It doesn’t necessarily make them the enemy, either, just willfully ignorant. These aren’t the people you want on your personal Board of Directors. And that’s okay. The people you need will show up, and stay. I think the biggest lie we believe in regards to breaking the rules is that, if we do, we will be alone. That is, basically, how we get and why we stay in unhealthy relationships after all, is it not? So, be gracious and compassionate with yourself, and take care of you. You are not and will not be alone, no matter what people may think or say about you in the process.
3.) You deserve to be whole. It is meant to be well with you. If a relationship – with a boss, a friend, a coworker, a parent, a partner, a spouse, whomever – is relying on your compliance, silence, omissions, enabling, or the reduction of who you are, it’s time for you to put your own oxygen mask on. St. Francis DeSales said, “Be who you are, and be that well,” and you simply cannot do that if a relationship requires you to be a lesser version of yourself. And by the way: one really unhealthy relationship, if key, can/will have a negative impact on all of your other relationships in some way. Don’t kid yourself.
“Be who you are, and be that well.”
If you are in an abusive situation, you need to reach out to friends, family, clergy, or a someone trustworthy and more objective in order to get help and support ASAP. Here is a link for a hotline if you’re in a domestic abuse situation. If you aren’t, but you know your relationship(s) is/are unhealthy and out of balance, outside help can, of course, be appropriate there also. Find someone who will challenge your thinking and behavior, though – not simply a good listener. A good start and one I highly recommend in any case is Dr. Henry Cloud’s book, Boundaries, as well as his online resources.
You deserve to be whole. YOU DESERVE TO BE WHOLE. The world needs you to bring all of you – wonderful, beautiful, complex, authentic You – to the collective table. Grab on to your wholeness and don’t give up – no matter how hard it is or what people may think or say. You are worthy.