I often ask myself, what makes people continue to make the same mistakes over and over during their lifetime? Shouldn’t the lessons learned from those mistake guide them into a future clear of those harmful situations? Clearly the old teaching is “let the baby touch the hot stove to learn never to touch a hot stove.” So, why doesn’t this apply to human behavior? Why is it that humans continue to make the same mistakes repeatedly, especially in relationships?
Take a client of mine: a young, slender woman in her early 30s, with long brown hair, piercing brown eyes and a subtle, yet mentionable personality. She is stuck in an endless cycle of love and hate with her boyfriend of many years. After many sessions, it appears that as soon as *Alanna becomes strong enough to break apart from this relationship, he promises to change, better himself, and begins to dote on her continuously in efforts to regain her companionship. Yet, no sooner than recommitting to the relationship, he begins to ignore her needs and slip back into his unaccommodating ways.
This pattern is quite damaging to my client, as now she feels not only used, but more so, stupid for believing that “this time “ he was really going to change and they would make it work. I find this to be more damaging than the lack of action because this tears to her core of beliefs and her impression of worthiness. Now, not only is she left beating herself up mentally for being “dumb” enough to believe her boyfriend, but now she has to begin to build up her strength to begin her fight for independence again. At times, she spends more time in our sessions tearing herself apart, referring to herself as stupid and weak, comparing herself to the Disney character Dumbo, instead of strengthening her. This can then shape her subsequent weeks fighting her way towards strengthening her damaged self-esteem and self-worth. On average, we spend 3/4 sessions attempting to pull her out of a downward depressive spiral, and the remainder 1/4 sessions building her to be more independent and self-fulfilling.
I often wonder when the last time she truly felt happy- without interruption- wholeheartedly happy. When she really felt that her life was what she chose, and not what she morphed her life into for her relationship. When I begin to address that topic, she prefers not to think to deeply- as it causes her to examine the question “Would she be happier without him?”
I press her at times to consider what she would do with her life if she had no other person to consider when making decisions. Where would she go? Where would she live? What job would she take? What would she do in her free time? Every now and then, I see a sparkle in her eyes, filled with dreams of her future. This quickly fades as she realizes that these dreams would never happen- since she chooses to continue to play the round-a-whirl relationship game. Knowing she may possibly have continued happiness, or at least more happiness than she currently has, why does she choose to stay?
*Lori is a strong, intelligent wife and mother of three, who owns her own business with her friend. At times, she looks beautifully put together and other times, completely run-down when she comes to see me. It is evident that she wears her emotional battles on her face. She struggles with her decision to accept what she terms as “mediocre marital conditions” and leaving her husband of 25 years. Although our conversations are geared more toward examining why she chooses to stay in her marriage, we do have the occasional discussion of why she has not dissolved her marriage. She is self-made, independent, strong willed, and motivated in business. So, then why stay? Ironically, the question of her choice to stay in a marriage is even perplexing to her. She has stated that she is afraid of being alone for the rest of her life, but not enough to prevent her from divorce. For her, the mitigating factors are her children. Although they are maturing, and becoming more self-sufficient, Lori is afraid of missing out on her children’s lives if she has to share custody. For her, the choice doesn’t come down to nuances of child support, palimony, or finding a new place to live- it comes down to valuable time spent with her children in their family home. She considers the fleeting moments of her children’s childhood before the conditions she lives in with her husband. So, she stays.
So that then morphs into the question, if women such as the two I have spoken about entered a relationship as independent, strong, and intelligent women, how did they surrender their needs to another human being, not of their own flesh?
Although I mentioned two women in the previous paragraphs, self-sacrifice in relationships can also happen to men. Many men are culturally taught to be the provider, sometimes at the expense of their wants and desires. Some men work mundane 9-5 jobs, just to maintain a household. Over time, resentment toward the wife (at times, children) continues to build, until one day the male provider has had enough. So, let’s examine the male perspective in the same way using *Joseph’s story.
Joseph was a good looking, young teenager who had the potential to play college lacrosse. Too much partying and not enough studying led him to loose his partial scholarship. However, with the help of financial aid and loans, Joseph was able to finish college and begin to work at a financial company with great potential for growth. Although Joseph did not want to work in finance beyond his third year there, he had met his girlfriend there and liked working together. Over time, both his girlfriend and Joseph were promoted and increased their yearly salaries. They had both grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle and enjoyed the perks the company offered them. Still, Joseph disliked what he was doing and started to look for jobs elsewhere, without telling his now-fiancée. Within two weeks, Joseph had landed an interview and a job offer at a local high school in the role of athletic director. Considering his love of lacrosse, football, and other sports, Joseph thought his fiancée would support the decision for Joseph to work at a job that, he felt, gave meaning to his life. His fiancée did not agree with his desire and gave him an ultimatum to choose between their relationship and the new job. I am currently awaiting his final decision.
“When is it ok to say ‘I’ve had enough of you and your wants. It’s my turn now!”
So, if Joseph chooses his relationship over his personal happiness, won’t that in of itself cause life-long resentment and anger- in the name of providing for his relationship? At what point in their lives should Individuals like Joseph, Lori, and Alanna choose themselves over their partners? When is it ok to say “I’ve had enough of you and your wants. It’s my time now- take it or leave it?” When is it ok to make those they love recognize that it takes two people to run a partnership/relationship/family- that is it only sacrifice by one, but compromise and equal sacrifice over the course of the relationships? I know it is human nature to want to be attached to another human, but at what cost to the self?
I find myself urging my clients to find their own voices in their relationships, yet at times, I struggle to find mine in my marriage. It is hard to be the spouse or partner that sacrifices their own needs and wants when fulfilling the role of relationship caretaker. I know, I return to that lane at times. Although I can answer the questions I have asked in this article using deep explanations of neuroscience and physical chemistry, I don’t really think those answers would help us to really “feel” the answers that we are searching for in relationships. Instead, my belief is in being mindful of all our decisions, when concerning individual decisions and partnership decisions. Weigh your options, create your pros and cons lists, and talk through the decisions, both with your partner and yourself. If it means sacrificing your dreams, hopes, and goals, for your relationship- consider how that will play out for your relationship in the long run. If contempt and hated of your partner cross your mind- well, I think you know the answer to that decision. If you are willing to go without a job, vacation, home, etc, without contention- then perhaps consider making a decision that benefits your partner more. However, the best way for each partner to make decisions is to compromise when possible. Most decisions have the possibility of compromise. It takes giving up of individual wants and putting the ego on hold at times, but often it is the most beneficial and strengthening for your relationship.
Sadly, there are times, like in the case of Alanna, where she had to walk away for good. It took her a few months to solidify her decision in her heart and mind, but she found herself happier for more days in a month than unhappy- which made her decision obvious to her. Today, she has re-entered the dating world, after a reasonable hiatus, with a clear picture of what she wants from her partner, but more important, what she wants from herself. She has worked at strengthening her self-esteem, self-worth, and her confidence. She has adopted a rescue dog for companionship and even joins weekly play dates at the local dog park. Her road was long, tumultuous at times, but she will tell you her story and she will shine at the thought of her future – the same future she thought wasn’t previously possible.
*Names have been changed for client confidentiality.