[Dedicated to N.S. Thanks for asking!]
Recently a reader asked me for some thoughts on beginning relationships. I said I’d reply in a post, because there have got to be others asking this same question, right? Some of these ideas come from a chapter in a book I’m writing (exciting! exciting!) which is based on ideas from my blog.
I used to have the sense of losing my senses, my power, my sanity–all–when I began a new relationship. That was, in part, due to the flood of love hormones that swished around inside my body, but it was also due to not having been raised with the ability to differentiate myself from another, from being a child expected to mirror the emotions of my parents. How confusing: love chemicals and hormones released into the bloodstream and brain, as well as becoming emotionally disembodied. Essentially: I released complete hold of the steering wheel. Not one little index finger on it steering.
I used to enter relationships as if jumping on for the ride, a one-way ticket or a contract with the church of Scientology, where a billion year contract (not just life) is signed! That was my approach. And, since that was my approach, when things hit the 3-month mark and got weird or something seemed “off,” I would somehow mind-bend the issue into my problem. Not theirs, never theirs.
Train Barreling down Tracks…
We get on for the relationship ride, with one-way tickets on this fast train. We commit, ever-loyal children of dysfunctional, rigid parents–oh, how we can commit. There’s the feeling, of rushing along, at least it was for me. It felt like being swallowed whole. Disoriented. Re-wired into a new brand of myself, the brand of my new boyfriend. I knew that, of course, I should take things slow. Of course I’d read that somewhere! That I should hold off on sex, that I shouldn’t move-in with someone I didn’t intend to marry (and if I intended to marry them, I should do that first anyway) and on and on. But, I was an exception. The books didn’t know me and they didn’t know the guy I had. And then, eventually, I would set boundaries in the relationship because I was being swallowed up and in order to keep from feeling squashed–a kind of retroactive boundary-setting. For me, that was often the sign of desperation in a situation that just wasn’t working.
That’s’ how not to do it.
Or Quiet Canoe Rowing?
My view these days is that beginning a relationship is much more like a canoe ride. One gets in carefully–the boat is stable when balanced–one foot at a time while steadying the boat and one’s self. (Whereas with a train you have to run, jump, and grab on while things are in motion.) It’s quiet, peaceful. With a canoe ride, you can notice your surroundings because you’re not moving fast. And one goes canoeing on quiet rivers and lakes. (I spent a lot of time in canoes as a child in Minnesota.) A canoe is unlike a row boat, a bit more like a kayak. A canoe isn’t flat-bottomed like a row boat, it has a rounded-bottom; so a canoe will tip from side to side unless there’s balance. Canoes are very sensitive, or responsive, to imbalance.
Because people canoe on very still bodies of water, one must row (action, intention) to make the vessel move — take action to propel the it forward. Like a relationship, one must participate, but gently. One must row on one side then the other to move the canoe forward and when you want to turn, it just takes a very gentle motion of rowing on one side to turn and adjust direction. Drama will overturn the boat.
When two people are rowing a canoe, communication is needed to decide how to row with the same strength and depth. If one person is rowing too fast or too furiously, the canoe won’t glide straight. Same thing in a relationship — if you both start slow, glide, and communicate about the speed and depth, you’re much more likely to glide gently along on the path you want. And if the other person wants to treat the canoe like a speed boat, then you have learned something about them, haven’t you? Speed matters.
I hope the canoe analogy makes sense, as I really feel it’s a beautiful analogy/approach to any new relationship.
I write “rules” as kind of a joke. On the one hand, people from dysfunctional families hate being told what to do, but on the other hand, we’re always wanting to know the rules/structure of things!
#1 Slow and steady is paramount; it might be frustrating but it pays off (and makes it easier to transition out of a lacking situation)
#2 Honor yourself; be honest with yourself about your doubts and take your doubts seriously
#3 Love beyond appearances; it might look odd or it might look great on the outside, but only you know how the relationship feels on the inside
#4 Keep your baggage between you and your journal, therapist, best friends – your new love isn’t your childhood trauma therapist
#5 Stop short of Explanations; your feelings and needs are VALID, you should never have to justify and explain yourself – and vice-versa, accept your new love’s feelings as valid
Really pay attention to #3, “Love beyond appearances.” Why? Appearances are given great weight in an alcoholic household — as long as things looked OK, they “were” OK. But this is your life now. If you’re getting to know someone with an impressive, shiny life, car, wardrobe, etc. then pay special attention to how much that matters to you and also ask yourself what about the person you would admire in the absence of all of that — who are they stripped of all the shiny stuff? Does it define them? What defines them? Similarly, present yourself as YOU, not as some sucked in, breath-held, belted version of yourself that’s incomplete and “perfect.” Show them your true self.
I’m sure there are more, but we’re just talking about getting into a relationship this time.
Is New “Love” Actually Psychosis in Disguise?
Sort of, yes. I mean, when we first meet someone and are touched with the love bug, we feel the wonderful sensations of
love infatuation flow over us. It softens our brains and hearts and lulls us into a sweet bliss. During that period, which can last from moments to days to weeks and weeks, we see the other person and life through rose-colored glasses. (Some say just long enough to procreate!) Once that begins to fade, it will fade all at once, completely, or bit by bit to a lesser degree. The speed at which that feeling fades and the degree to which it fades are both indicators of whether this new relationship has potential for longevity, or not.
Is it a Good Relationship?
We tend not to trust our gut, right? So the questions about whether it’s a good relationship or not come quick. Also, for some, big questions of “marriage” or “forever” are on the mind, and that can make it hard to get in touch with your gut.
These are a few questions I ask myself in order to get at the answer to, “Is it Good, Is it Working?” Usually these things are clear within a couple to a few weeks.
Am I feeling energized by being with this person (or drained, overwhelmed, anxious, etc.)?
Does this person seem narcissistic?
Are these healthy butterflies, or the nervousness of unease?
Does this person tell me who I am, or ask who I am?
Does he seem comfortable with my differences of opinion?
Does he or she criticize others? Who? (Strangers, your family, the waiter?)
Do I feel confident around this person? Are they truly interested in you?
Do I feel sorry for this person, better than him, or “helpful” to this person? (Red Flag!)
Other questions, not necessarily tied to having had a dysfunctional childhood family:
Is this person asking me about myself beyond the first question? Is he asking Why, What, and Then What about the events of my day and mind?
When I express interest in starting a new project, does he ask to hear more–or tell me what he knows about the topic?
Do I feel safe, respected, tuned-in, and truly present while sexually intimate with this person?
Do this person’s actions clearly ‘say’ that my sexual pleasure is important to him?
Do I feel rushed? Accepted?
Does the word “flexibility” exist here between us?
Who makes the plans, initiates the date, and “lead,” or is it balanced?
Finally, about what does the person joke? (“Can’t wait till you bring your laundry over and wash mine, too, ha ha ha.” Jokes can be revealing, oh so revealing!)
I’d love to hear your questions, too! Please share them below in Comments. (Don’t be shy! You can post anonymously.)
Writing to say I love your blog and have been reading it for a while. This is a great resource and greatly appreciated!
I just found your site today and wanted to drop you a line to say this post really speaks to me (many of them do). The canoe analogy is truly beautiful and so very appropriate. Thank you.
Thank you so much for saying so a
What do you do when pressure and chaos is your norm and almost feels safer than the canoe. I always thrive in high pressure situations, especially at work, but when is quite I am jumping out of my skin. Even more so around people. I feel so uncomfortable around their normal lives. I don’t want to have to explain why I don’t have good relationships with family members and don’t want to have to lie to pretend I have a support family.
Hey Michele. Right, what DO you do? Pressure and chaos are “normal” based on my history, too. It was when the family had a “nice” weekend that, as a child and teenager, I’d start to tense up…and get ready for the antidote to calm, enjoyable times: chaos. Chaos would even us out. It was like a drug itself.
You have to determine what works for you. But I can tell you that for me I approach it in a couple of ways. For my excitement-craving side, I find outlets for it that I don’t feel bad about afterwards. So instead of getting my thrills off relationship chaos, I get it from jogging/running/cardio and from creative writing (no one can place limits on the depth of my imagination or the stories I can think up — and I don’t have to write them all under my own name, do I?!) That leaves me lots of room to play. That approach isn’t far afield from dieting philosophy; I’m not going to deprive myself of what feels good, but I’m going to channel it into something good. It’s so important to have compassion for ourselves. If we decide that excitement-seeking is “bad,” we feel shame and just further repressed…same ol crap from childhood.
The second thing I’ve been doing is to deconstruct the chaos-that-feels-safe stuff (using thinking, reading, writing, therapy) so that the not-quite-yet-grown-up child inside me understands that calm feels safe. Once I began to have some experiences of calm-as-good, that helped greatly. When I understood that controlling and manipulative behavior might feel reassuring in the moment, that it doesn’t play out well in the long run, ever.
Maybe one next step is giving yourself permission to like what you like? You don’t owe anyone an explanation, you’re right about that. No pretending is necessary. You’re right.
Wow thanks Amy great advice! …… I like the idea of deconstructing the chaos … I have to say I love getting smashed in a gym cardio class and running, I’ve never really understood why but if I haven’t for while I get really cranky.
Thank you.. I always love reading your posts as you always seem to provide a fresh perspective.
Hey Michele, whoo, woman you sure sound EMPOWERED. Love it!
I am unsure if you are still responding to questions on this blog, but I am curious if you believe that what you have written in this post could also apply to new friendships? I met someone recently and the two of us just clicked. Because of her position working at the college I was attending at the time we were not able to be friends, however as graduation was approaching she would excitedly mention our chance to be friends. First off, I am still trying to get this normal thing down and don’t know how to start a friendship in which I will have to work to see and communicate with the other person. I have no reason to be on campus and that is the only way I see her. Second, even though I really want to maintain a friendship with this person I am already waiting for her to change her mind. Maybe I am over-thinking everything, but is this normal for an ACOA, or maybe just for a person?
I hope you haven’t stopped posting to your blog. You are a great writer with great insight and it would be sad to lose that.
Hi! Thanks for the comment. I’m here I’m posting less at the moment because I’m writing a self-healing workbook! (I’m crazy-excited about that.) And I will soon be able to share pages from that…soon.
Definitely, yes, yes it can be applied to new friendships.
When I read your comment, I got a twinge in my gut (red-flag) from reading about your not being able to be friends and now being able to. (Also, it sounds like it’s less convenient for you?) I’m not saying that means anything, but I’m sharing it because it sounds like you, too, have some instinctual hesitations here about this friendship…? It strikes me that other people/institutions are setting the rules and boundaries in this new friendship, and that maybe you need to find a way to be in a more active role in it that’s based on your own life’s schedule and boundaries. To become more in charge of your side of how this friendship comes to develop. (For example, getting together when you have time but not more than that.)
If she’s excited to be able to be friends, is she willing to meet off-campus so that it’s convenient for you (at least half the time)? Just asking.
Part of getting the ‘normal’ thing down involves practice at walking away from and, also, establishing boundaries around friendships and romantic relationships. (Painful, but often necessary as we change and grow up.) So, this may be a good opportunity to feel what its’ like to navigate a new friendship – not leaving it, but defining it for yourself. Go slow – you don’t have to get together frequently, and you don’t have to give up your life story or divulge your secrets all at once. New friendships are great opportunities to slowly, slowly tell others about who you are (a form of respecting your true self) and what you really think about things, whether others agree or not. And it’s a great opportunity to listen to others and appreciate that they are different, separate, from you and you can share each others lives and moments and stories with interest and free from expectation.
Listen to your hesitations and your instincts. It’s easy to assume that our instincts are wrong because of how we grew up, but when you listen to your gut and try to decode what it’s telling you, you’ll begin to trust–and even rely on–your great, sensitive, helpful instincts.
Do you have any fears about this friendship?
Does this resonate at all ….what do you think?
Hope this helps!
Thanks for your kind words!
Congratulations on the book!! How exciting! I am already looking forward to reading it.
Thank you so much for the response! What you had to say definitely applied to this situation and others. In fact, I think it may have applied to other friendships more than this one (maybe not the desired outcome, but probably the necessary one. lol). I have really been working on establishing boundaries lately within old and new relationships (family included) and this will help me as I continue to do so! This one is a bit backwards though. I normally do not trust anyone enough to reveal any secrets for a very long time and I think this is where some of my negative feelings towards the friendship came in. It is the exception because of who this person was, and she actually knows more about me than most of my friends. Please ignore that red flag flying. As it turns out, not everyone judges you on your past and the family that you come from. You’re not surprised? I am a little. lol You are right, and from this point on I am taking it slow and will see what happens. I also do not plan on discussing the past or any major issues with her. It is like having a fresh start. Oh, and I do recognize that most people do not talk about friendships this much and it is quite odd to do so. Opps!
Anyway, I realize I have already given far too many details about my life (sorry, I didn’t mean to be quite so selfish and/or strange), and rather than share more, I just really want to thank you. Sometimes it is good to be reminded to follow my gut feelings or instincts!
I do have just one more question. Sorry!! At what age did you realize that your family really did have a negative impact on your behaviors? I mean, at what point did you start to seek out the ACoA community? Just curious!
The workbook that I’m writing (and thanks for your enthusiasm!) is all about this beginning phase of just starting to heal and confront what it means to realize how we were raised is impacting our struggles with relationships. Starting out with compassion. It aims to answer the “where the heck do I begin?!?” question… that’s the aim!
I was twenty when I realize that my problems with my boyfriend were rooted in my childhood pain. I remember it so clearly – I was standing in the bedroom I shared with a friend in an apartment in San Francisco. I think I even said, “I can’t have relationships till I confront my childhood?!” (choking back tears). And I signed up for therapy. And filled up a dozen journals with thinking and feelings and letters to myself as a little girl, to my mom…
I’ve had “ah ha” moments even since, even at age 40. (I.e., oh, glory, the learning, healing…it never stops!)
In terms of seeking out the ACoA community, that has always been very sporadic, and wasn’t till I was 30 or so…
Usually the pace and mode of friendships is pretty fluid and nimble…I bet you could pull back and begin a new, slower pattern and in a matter of months “slow” will be the natural pace of things…. I find that I can “reset” boundaries certain friendships pretty fluidly. With family, too. Although they totally push against it!
Feel free to keep in touch! -Amy
I hope that the book work is going well. I had another question for you. It doesn’t really pertain to this piece of writing as much as it would to other pieces, however it is related to something you said in your last response.
We were talking about boundaries and you mentioned creating them with family. My question is this: When attempting to establish boundaries, do you ever feel like it’s you with the problem, not them? It is important to note that I am not openly discussing boundaries with family or anything of the sorts. In fact, it isn’t even a conscious thing. I wonder though, how do you know who really has the issue if the whole family is up against you? The family I am referring to very much operates with a mob mentality. You are either with them or against them, and forget about disagreeing with them. I know it sounds like I am thinking this way as well, when I say they are all up against me, but they are very open about what they think of every person. Their behavior is a strong indicator as well. And as far as disagreeing, the latest rift came about because we didn’t agree with the pronunciation of my friend’s name. My friend, that I have known for 2 years. At least I have only been wrong for 2 years, whereas his poor parents have been wrong for 24! SO, now that I have been that over-sharing crazy person, I have to ask… How does a person set boundaries in a situation like this? And how does that person not feel like maybe they truly are the issue, even when they know logically this is not the case?? Oh, and this person does take some responsibility for the rifts and knows that she should know better than to disagree at all.
Sorry for posting yet ANOTHER question!
Well….rather than viewing it as me with “the problem” or them with the problem, I usually look at the interactions between me and my family as a dynamic. Everyone is “the problem.”
Is it helpful to know if you’re the problem? Or is it more useful to see the architecture of the interaction between you and your family? (Sorry, that’s pretty rhetorical, isn’t it!?)
Focusing on what you want things to be like, how you want to function, and how you want interactions to feel can be helpful. When you’re talking about how to pronounce someone’s name (which is only about how the person’s name is pronounced) and it becomes about the whole With Us/Against Us thing and whose team you’re on, rather than about how a name is, or isn’t, pronounced…how do you want to be in that situation? Do you want to just figure out how the name is pronounced? Or are you wanting to be right? Or are you wanting everyone to be in agreement, no matter the answer? What becomes important to you in the situation? And, if you can, try to think about what motivations seem to be driving the dynamic, the underlying desires. It’s hard to be wrong, especially when others enjoy it, but it can be a beautiful thing to be different, humble and human. Oh. So. Human.
Hope this helps….curious what you’ve come up with.
Write to me anytime!
Hi Amy! Have you read any books by Pia Melody? They are excellent, and while they are not targeted at ACoAs, the books are right in line with all of this.
A canoe is paddled. A row boat, rowed! I find your blog very engaging, thank you.
I wanted to let you know that I love this article and have referred back to it repeatedly over the past few years as I have been exploring dating again at 40 after a long marriage, and this time dealing with my ACA past.
“Canoeing” has become a shorthand between me and a couple of close friends for when we are starting relationships and discussing them with each other. It is an incredibly useful concept and article.
Thank you for letting me know that! How wonderful. It’s a worthwhile journey. ESPECIALLY in our 40s.
I am not a ACOA but a child from a dysfunctional family to some degree. I noticed that pity theme recently and looking at it now. Learning to stop fixing everybody. I just loved the Does this person tell me who I am, or ask who I am? Soooooo revealing, unbelievable! Thanks a lot for your insights.
Thanks Germany! I tend to think of ACoA as a category within the larger umbrella of dysfunction, so I think there’s a lot to relate to for…well, just about anyone. Pity and love are so easily confused! Particularly when the one who is pitying/loving doesn’t have solid self-esteem or a good handle on personal boundaries and limits. Glad to know that you gained some insights!
I was in what I thought was a loving relationship after being divorced a long time and not letting me trust anyone. I had very young children and did not trust bringing anyone into our lives. Not sure it was totally prudent but a decision I made at the time given my children were so young 1 and 3. When I finally met someone, he was so smitten with me, came on strong pretty fast but was so complementary it felt so different then my marriage. He showed me respect and I thought communication was good. He too was an ACOA but did not deal with it. He was not in denial in that he admitted and willingly disclosed his wounded childhood. I did the same being an ACOA and being part of Alanon and having a loving relationship with my alcoholic father who has been in recovery for 35 years. However, I did recognize I was in a relationship with a hard core enabler. I recognized this and knew I had the same tendencies so was acutely aware. Yet, I did allow his endeavors to take priority over mine, his work, his hobbies etc. Although, he constantly reinforced that I was important to him and for the most part very attentive. At the same time, he was very generous and wanted to include me with his family and mine with his. OVer Thanksgiving we took a spectacular vacation with both families at his suggestion and prompting. It seemed after that was over, there were signs of his backing away. yet, he kept up the pretense of our relationship being on sound ground. I did not trust my gut and question when I started to feel there was a wall beginning to build between us. Then after sharing holiday memories, New Years and a Family party immediately after, he came 4 days later to break up with me in person, inform me that he had strong feelings for his ex wife and went back to his marriage of many years even though he had been divorced for more than 5 years and separated even longer and was in a loveless marriage for many years as he often described. Needless to say, I felt blind sided and he was not interested in any way of continuing anything in the future with me. He felt such strong feeling towards his ex, he needed to see if he could make it work again for his family. Never would I want to come in between a families wholeness as I was devastated by my own divorce and inability to keep a family in tact. I am so hurt , he never checked in on me or had any regard for me after a 10 minute shocking break up. I was just another business transaction. I finally put myself out there after about 16 years of not dating. I enjoyed his company, we were very compatible and both were into being good parents. It is just unfathomable that someone could turn on a dime after painting the picture of total disdain for their spouse. While I am not thrilled by my ex and some of his behaviors, I have come to accept that is the person he is and not my place to change him. I have as good a relationship as possible for the benefit of my children and try to co parent with their best interests in mind. It seems to be working.
I am very upset with myself for making my boyfriend’s needs and schedule more important than my own and not speaking up when my gut told me he was moving away. Now its over and I never get a chance to say what is on my mind. My gut was beginning to fear he may leave me but I thought that was ungrounded and tried to dismiss but we just did not speak up about our true feelings. Now, I feel stressed all the time with back and neck pain and can not stop grieving the relationship which ended in January and its now April. I feel betrayed again like I did with my ex husband. i am going on some match dates but my heart is not into it but I don’t want to stop trusting like I did after my marriage ended. I read your piece on relationships and I felt it was speaking to me. I know I should keep my focus on myself but I have been so hurt and my mind keeps thinking about what it could have been with more honesty between us. I feel like he is willing to settle for mediocre love when what we shared was special almost up until the very end. i feel confused and betrayed. Thanks for listening!
Does Amy Eden still reply or is this from the past? It appears I am the first post in 2015
Hi Rie, absolutely I do
I’ve been writing this blog for ten years, so the post span a range of times, years, and topics.
Hi, Rie. Truly, thank you for sharing all of this.
It’s hard to let go of relationships when they suddenly end. It’s like they say about death and grieving — it’s harder to grieve a sudden death.
It’s particularly hard when the other person ends it. It’s like being blindsided, like you said. What do you do when you can’t tell the person what you’re thinking and feeling? What do you do when you can’t process your emotions with that person? Find the answer. (Here is one place, journal writing is another…)
Many times neck and shoulder pain go hand in hand with unexpressed voice, unexpressed thoughts, unexpressed feelings. It’s not too late to express those feelings, to a trusted therapist or in writing. Believe me, I know how difficult it is to believe something is really over when it felt good, and when it ends suddenly that’s especially hard. You weren’t given a voice or a vote in the decision to break up. No wonder the breakup felt like a business transaction! You weren’t treated with humanity, for whatever reason. You weren’t given a voice at all.
Though now it sounds like you’ve taken then opportunity to self-reflect and see that a part of you had sensed that ‘something’ was off. And you were right. Even if you didn’t act on your intuition, you now know what your intuition feels like. Next time that feeling comes and a little voice in your heart or mind senses something, you can pay attention. You can voice your voice, heart, mind.
It’s hard to be alone. It invites feelings and discomfort. Especially enduring the frustration of not being able to try things again, to not have that option, to not enjoy moments of sharing jokes, intimacy, and time with someone you enjoyed. Is it possible to accept that it wasn’t meant to be right now, and that while you didn’t like his decision, it is part of his story and he had to make that decision? Is it possible to believe that you’re now freed to find a new chapter to your story that will be even better and more important for You — where you are the focus? Perhaps you gained a lesson in losing yourself a bit, becoming enmeshed a bit, and now with that lesson fresh in your mind you can cultivate compassion for yourself. I have been in a similar place, and for a time (if not still) believed that “one day” I’d have another chance with the guy I loved. Some days I knew that would never happen, and should never happen. Other days, I breathe: I reach my arms, open them wide and send love out into the room, the neighborhood, the world…when I do, I feel content and forget the torture of unrequited love. Grief cycles, grief has phases, and the frustration of feeling wronged lessens over time. It helps to believe, to trust, that deep down we know better. That our instincts might be quiet, meek, and small, but they are RIGHT.
If you get a chance, download the 15 page self-healing vocabulary list that’s on my book page. I have a feeling that reading through that might have value for you. It’s on this page, under Free Stuff: http://guesswhatnormalis.com/2009/01/kindbook/
Also, thanks for the nudge to reply
And enjoy your night!
I enjoyed this blog. Having not ever gotten past a first date I’m clearly struggling a bit – have you any helpful hints or suggestions for quelling the freakout moments after a first date? (My usual thoughts are “if only the poor fella knew who I really was…” – it’s completely irrational but difficult to switch off!)
I’m glad you do.
First dates are tough! They are exciting and scary, both. It’s hard to forget to not expect…Great Things right away. It’s hard to remember to just take the date and the person at face value and enjoy them, meeting them, and finding out what they’re all about. We habitually or accidentally focus on our own selves. But we don’t know how others perceive us because we don’t know what lens they’re looking at us through. The reality is that there is no “off” switch for vulnerability. It’s part of the dating experience. The more comfortable you are with who you are, the more you love yourself and all of your flaws, feel at home in your Self, the more comfortable dates will be — and you’ll go from worrying about them ‘finding out’ who you really are, to worrying about whether they are actually mature and responsible enough to be with you. Vulnerability is a part of being human, and huge part of learning to love and to be loved. The key is to chuckle at your thoughts about “if only they know who I really am…” and manage that vulnerability while staying the course of getting to know someone.
I have found that dating can be excruciating when you have had a rough childhood and then when you have repeated those relationship patterns into adult life. When you finally try to break them, it is no easy task. There is fear and doubt with every word spoken, every text received, every nuance in behavior. Managing expectations and understanding and being comfortable with vulnerability is such a challenge! I think that today’s dating culture doesn’t help either – so many people like “the idea” of you or dating and the world can be such a fickle place. So when it fizzles out so quickly and without warning, our committed, loyal selves become devastated easily (at least I do/have). It’s all a part of the growing process, but it’s not easy! I sympathize with Sonas. But everyday is one day wiser and one day more in touch with yourself!
Being ‘comfortable with vulnerability’ yes, love that phrasing — being with vulnerability is key to relationships.
And yet – it’s a challenge to learn what healthy vulnerability feels like (versus the vulnerability of letting our boundaries be crossed). For me, I grew up without a sense of personal rights and boundaries (what are those!?), so I couldn’t understand why time and again I would agree and say yes and give and give…way beyond my boundaries…until I collapsed/snapped. And then I’d have to cocoon myself or leave the relationship in order to recover my batteries, energy, sense of self, safety. I had to learn the importance of boundaries (and what boundaries were!) — which then helped me understand what ‘vulnerability’ actually was.
Anytime someone says they don’t want to do something, and the other person pushes them to do it (whether “for us” or “for them”) – that’s a boundary violation.
I also didn’t realize way back when that when someone asked me to do things that weren’t comfortable for me financially, emotionally, physically, sexually, that I could say no and feel I had a right to that ‘no.’ (I said yes because I trusted them more than myself. I trusted them to be respectful and careful.) I also learned that I could question whether I wanted to be with someone who put me in that position time and again (that realization came much later).
This stuff is not easy. Getting the concepts is important, then new ways have to be practiced – to be learned, so we can feel what “good” and “healthy” actually feels like. Our bodies and minds like good and healthy. And then we gravitate to that more and more, until it becomes much less of a struggle to steer clear of toxicity. Our mistakes are our mentors.
Thanks for the comment! It is right-on!
I didn’t see many (any?) men reply to this thread, but to join in and say this was all very very helpful to read.
As a chronic people pleaser, its hard to get start with any endeavor with a new person and not get instantly “sucked it”. At least for me.
Yup! It sure is tough resist getting sucked in when a new relationship begins. With a tendency to people-please (aka chameleon living) and with the chemical change to our bodies and minds that occurrs when we fall in love — it’s a real battle to stay sane, clear-headed, and stay on-course. We start to “cope” and “survive” and our need to be safe and fear of being abandoned grows large.
For me, I noticed that it became easier to choose more appropriate potential partners after I began to practice valuing myself more. I practiced speaking up for my needs and wants. I started to notice that my “natural” attraction to self-centered empathy-compromised people faded and faded.
It’s all about getting at that core issue of believing your needs and wants are valid and should be a part of the conversation. You then begin to choose people who share that value. And you begin to give it back to them, because you value it as well. So people-pleasing becomes balancing needs and wants between people.
As you begin to understand deeply how valid your needs and wants are, and begin to express them (at first clumsily and then more delicately) you’ll notice a shift in what sort of people to feel drawn to — and less interested in being around (a good therapist who can support you and champion you can help, too). Truly. There’s hope!
Thomas, our male training in America is often times incompatible with sensitivity. It’s a misunderstanding of masculinity.
I’m a guy, and have been around recovery rooms over 20 years. However, I got into a new marriage and new job 15 years ago, and….I put on “the false self”. I was a “yes” man. It worked long enough…..as long I lied to myself. The people I was afraid of (the honest people) let me know something was wrong. I lost both my job and my marriage within the last 5 years.
And today, while writing on an ACA forum, I realized I’m afraid of authority figures: my ex-wife, bosses, ministers, even ….my sponsor. Wow. I’ve been in an old role, and am just realizing it.
Regarding relationships, I often put the other’s authority in front of me since I know that position very well. But…..it doesn’t work. I’m wondering what I need to focus on now. Thanks for hearing me out.
Oh Alfred! (Nodding at your words as I read your comment.) Thank you for this. Glad you used this space to share and think.
I can relate to your story about living with a false self – until, pop, it’s over.
I was 40 when it popped, and I was like, “Really? Isn’t it a bit late to start over?” But life has been truer ever since — lighter. (Must have been a heavy, unconscious mask.) I had been in Survival mode (defensive, reactive, just getting by) for years and years. Once I started working at living as my true self, I got a feel for how that felt and the difference I felt when I acted from false self vs. true self. It feels different. (I cared a lot less about the age of waking up.)
For me there are two sides to the authority figure issue stuff – there’s the anxiety around the various people I assign authority figure status to, and well as this kind of limp, passive, fearful way that I “comply” with their wishes. The question is, “Do I fear authority figures — or do I fear that I will need to express my needs? (to my wife/husband/neighbor/banker/sponsor” You know what I mean?
It’s surprising how long we can live what seems like, looks like, should be, a “right” life…not knowing we’re in that old false-self role. We can live for year and years in that mode. I imagine that some live a lifetime in false self mode, if they have various addictions to stay numbed that long.
I’m glad you woke up – there’s much life ahead.
Thanks again for the thoughts.
My father is an ACOA, but didn’t drink himself. My mom’s father was an ACOA, but he didn’t drink, either. My mother also had undiagnosed and untreated mental illness (depression and narcissistic traits, if not full-blown NPD). I was married to an ACOA, and my only other serious relationship (occurred after my divorce) was also with an ACOA. Neither man had any therapy as an ACOA, though they have been in therapy for things such as depression. My mother was very emotionally abusive and neglectful when I was younger, and her manipulation continued until she died. Not surprisingly (I’m sure) both of my serious romantic relationships were also emotionally abusive as well. In the latter one, I was really trying to establish boundaries, expressing my needs (totally different for me), and also confronting problems so that we could get them in the open and try to fix them. In the beginning, he said he wanted to do the same things, learning from his previous marriage (also dysfunctional). But, sadly, things changed, and yes, I assumed it had to be my fault. It turned into this very painful roller-coaster where he saw me as either his mother or his ex-wife, both of whom he saw as inciting “drama.” I hated the rollercoaster and the drama! It always seemed so unnecessary to me and like we should have been able to work things out. But whenever I set a boundary regarding treatment I wouldn’t tolerate, he reacted very strongly, as if I was asking him to disregard his feelings, needs, and his very ‘self,’ and to give more than he should ever be asked to (when in reality, he was the most selfish, ungenerous person I’ve known). I can recognize both of these perspectives as perhaps being common to Adult Children. Unfortunately, I also hung on way too long, instead of honoring myself enough to walk away early on, when it became clear how things would go.
My question to you is this: Would you avoid relationships with an ACOA if that person had not yet acknowledged the effect that addiction has had on his/her adult relationships? It seems that while both men knew that their parents’ drinking caused a lot of chaos in their homes as kids, they were in denial about how it was still affecting them as adults. Because I am pretty introspective by nature, and I have been open about looking into how my childhood has affected my adult relationships, it has been very convenient for them to dump blame onto me and my ‘issues’. I am slowly coming to some of the same realizations you referred to in your blog post, but while I think it would be nice to have a loving relationship, I’m really having to talk myself into giving dating another shot. Part of me feels like no matter how much work I do, I will be forever too damaged, and will only attract men similar to those who have hurt me so deeply. The risk seems far, far greater than any potential reward.
Thank you for reading this, and for your blog.
Oooooh! That is a really good and important question. I’m mostly curious what YOUR answer to the question is so you’ll have to tell me now that I’ve given you mine: if someone hasn’t done their work, it’s going to be hard to have a long lasting relationship with them. Rather than say I’d avoid ACoAs who haven’t done their work and acknowledged their childhood’s role in relationships, I would say, “I want to get into a relationship with someone who is on par with me, or ahead of me, spiritually and emotionally, someone who has done work to address issues that stem from their childhood and know how to be intimate with another human being.”
We tend to attract what we will put up with, and vice-versa. If you’re incompatible with someone and you don’t leave – why is that? What does that say about where you’re at in your self-value evolution? Forget them, look at you. Where are you at, what do you need, deserve, expect, what?
One way of thinking about it is that you’ll attract/be attracted to men who are at a similar rung in the growth ladder as you. You will learn what you need to learn from him and with him, and then you two will either continue climbing together or you’ll need to end the relationship so that you can continue to grow. One way to see relationships is: they are a time and place to practice what you’ve learned and to come face to face with what you haven’t yet learned (and learn it). By practice I mean to take very seriously, in good faith, not as some temporary gig. We never know how long anything will last. But we can always be in practice.
When it took me too long to leave a relationship, it had nothing to do with the man (of course I can only say, and see, this now, a decade later!) It took me too long to leave relationships because I was grappling with myself: did I believe that I deserved better, or didn’t I? I stayed as long as that inner battle lasted, which came after the initial realization that I should leave, that I wanted to leave. But a part of me didn’t believe that I deserved better, and that kept me treading water.
My frustration with them not being what they ‘could’ve been’ was always a distraction from that inner battle I was working out with my own self-value.
You might like this article – from the self-help site Baggage Claim
“Is Emotional Unavailability All That Different from Incompatibility?” http://www.baggagereclaim.co.uk/is-emotional-unavailability-all-that-different-from-incompatibility/
Just stumbling across this blog and I really appreciate the thoughtful posts as well as comments. I am 6 months out of a relationship with a man with borderline personality disorder. The relationship was so difficult, confusing and exhausting that I finally sought therapy. Over the course of the last year, I came to realize that my dad has narcissistic personality disorder and that my mom is codependent, so I guess I am a mix of both. Anyway, I wanted to share a few resources that I found TREMENDOUSLY helpful so far in my journey. I will add that I don’t consider myself “fixed” or “problem-free” only that these resources have deeply resonated.
1. Mindfulness-based Therapy – Past attempts at therapy would tend to leave me feeling “stirred up” and “gross.” Of course, I figured “something’s wrong with me.” However, I persevered. My current therapist utilizes a “mindfulness based approach.” You may see it as: sensorimotor psychotherapy or mindfulness-based therapy or body-oriented therapeutic approaches. This has proven absolutely TRANSFORMATIVE. Maybe it sounds odd, but it’s simply an approach that asks you to explore how your body feels when you’re talking about a certain situation. If you’re generally cut off from your feelings, this actually helps you access what in the world you’re feeling. You actually learn how to feel your feelings again, let them run their course, and over time, life lightens up a bit.
2. Out of the Fog – http://outofthefog.net/ This site captures different personality disorders and helped me determine what in the world was going on with my ex and eventually my dad. I definitely cried a lot in reading this site. I will say that I spent hours reading through blogs and books for about a month and then it subsided.
3. Copdependent No More –
I highly dislike the word codependent as the word itself frustrates me since it’s so hard to describe. However, I finally swallowed my pride and read this book and for the first time realized why I have struggled emotionally for so many years. Boundaries, oh boundaries. These days, I use the word bucket. I try to stay in my own bucket (my own feelings, my own perspectives) and out of other people’s buckets (their feelings, their perspectives, their circus, their monkeys – are not mine).
4. Deeper Dating by Ken Page – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/finding-love/201202/deeper-dating-the-three-steps-lead-love
This book is more about intimacy (into-me-see) and vulnerability than dating. You literally can only take in a chapter at a time because the wisdom here will knock you on your a**. I wouldn’t recommend reading this unless you are only really solid emotional footing. Honestly, you probably shouldn’t attempt dating unless you are in a pretty good emotional place. As Mr. Page will teach you…when you don’t value your core gifts, you’ll attract people who don’t value your core gifts. These are called attractions of deprivation. As you learn to value your core gifts (the internal values that are most dear to you), you will experience attractions of inspiration. Super cool stuff.
It’s very generous of you to share these resources, I’m grateful.
The words you used to describe the relationship are very familiar to me – “so difficult, confusing and exhausting” – nodding my head especially about confusing and exhausting! Bingo. When someone isn’t loved unconditionally as they’re growing up, the effects of that can manifest in personality disorders and crippling low self-esteem. It’s impossible to know if someone has a personality disorder because they *seem* successful, charming, etc. and SAY all the right things. And, who would suspect!? In time, after we stop trying to solve their problems by changing ourselves, we begin to take a detached view of the discrepancies between what they say and do, promise and forget, accuse us of, etc…and come to be eyes-wide-open about the deep rift in the person we’re with. Confusing, exhausting, and so difficult indeed!
You’ve described a wonderful Healing Starter Kit here!
I have’t heard of Deeper Dating, I ought to check that out! I agree with you on the Beattie codependency book – very good at explaining what codependency actually is (though that word, codependency, isn’t fun). I think it’s ‘required’ reading for anyone reading this blog – particularly as addiction/alcoholism/adverse childhood experiences all have an aspect of codependency, whether it’s the spouse of the addict or the whole family/extended-family unit.
Yes, yes, yes about mindfulness-based therapy! I’m so glad you mentioned that. I often think of meditation in terms of mindfulness, but therapy is a wonderful environment for mapping emotions in the body. Sounds like it contains some of the nurturing and modeling about feelings we may not have received as children (but can now give ourselves). I write about correlating feelings to sensations in the body in my book, in the chapters and visualizations in Part Two: Feelings and Feeling Them.
If you have a link to a site that you feel explains that type of therapy especially well, could you share it?
(Happy day after Thanksgiving!)
Aside from my personal, very positive, experience in therapy, I don’t have a great deal of knowledge or resources on the practice of mindfulness or body-oriented treatment. However, here’s what I’ve found online via search, along with my 2 cents:
Mindfulness cognitive therapy: http://mbct.com/
Based on my experience, the mindfulness practice allows you gain, a smidge more awareness than you had the day before, to actually consider how your body actually feels in a particular moment. A qualified therapist can assist a client in exploring what that means or brings up (thoughts, memories, images, feelings, no rules, it’s just whatever your body and brain generates – which is why I trust it more so than other forms of therapy/worksheets/talk therapy, etc) and then you can sit with the feelings right then and there, experience them, honor your experience and then move on with life in the next moment.
I’ll add that I’ve actually done meditation alone, but it’s a completely different benefit gained than in a therapeutic setting, or at least that has been my experience. Meditation quiets my mind and increases my awareness, for the most part. Mindfulness cognitive therapy provides an access point to feelings I can’t generally access. In the past, the lack of this skill led me to overeat, or bite at my fingernails (or insert any odd addiction here and it applies to human beings everywhere). Once I learned how to start accessing feelings again, all those more destructive coping mechanisms that I’ve relied on since my teenage years somewhat magically subsided, with zero “management” required (no dieting, no checklists, no tracking app needed, no special nail polish, etc.).
Sensorimotor psychotherapy (pretty scientific article in nature): https://www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org/articles.html
From the abstract referenced above: “By using the body (rather than cognition or emotion) as a primary entry point in processing trauma, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy directly treats the effects of trauma on the body, which in turn facilitates emotional and cognitive processing. This method is especially beneficial for clinicians working with dissociation, emotional reactivity or flat affect, frozen states or hyperarousal and other PTSD symptoms.”
I laugh just a bit in reading that last sentence there because those are all areas in which I have struggled, which has obviously affected my ability to have successful romantic relationships with healthy minded people. Getting there though, getting there. I have a great deal of authentic hope. That, also, is new.
Happy Post Thanksgiving to you as well. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Thank you for sharing more! I love everything you’ve written here about your experience with mindfulness cognitive therapy. You’ve brought the experience to life. And I chuckled at the “smidge” more awareness than the day before – indeed! That has been my experience with meditation – no leaps, but a small, mellow, quiet “smidge” of new awareness growing inside.
Just sitting with feelings — ah, yes. Just that. Not easy. But powerful. And I can imagine that, with the assistance of a therapist to guide the work, has the potential to be quite powerful work.
I’m thankful for your taking time to share about this.
I have really enjoyed the posts and the talks–and the humor! There was another site like this your readers might enjoy as well, Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers–used to have a forum which is, alas, gone, but much of the humor is still up. Here I am, pushing sixty, and figuring out how narcissistic mom and dad were!
Thanks for letting us know about the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers blog. Humor is essential!