Loving the Wrong Person
We're all seeking that special person who is right for us.
But if you've been through enough relationships, you begin to suspect there's no right person, just different flavors of wrong.
Why is this?
Because you yourself are wrong in some way, and you seek out partners who are wrong in some complementary way. But it takes a lot of living to grow fully into your own wrongness. And it isn't until you finally run up against your deepest demons, your unsolvable problems--the ones that make you truly who you are--that we're ready to find a lifelong mate. Only then do you finally know what you're looking for. You're looking for the wrong person. But not just any wrong person: the right wrong person--someone you lovingly gaze upon and think, "This is the problem I want to have."
I will find that special person who is wrong for me in just the right way. Let our scars fall in love.
In an age where half of all marriages end in divorce it's no wonder that many of us are confused about what it takes to stay together and be happy. Many of us who are currently married were raised in homes where our own parents divorced. We may have actually never seen a functional or happy marriage "up close and personal".
One of the unconscious byproducts of being raised in a dysfunctional family, whether that dysfunction is divorce, addiction or other dynamics, is the idea that one must look out for oneself. This idea of not relying on anyone else and not trusting another person to truly "have our back" can subtly infiltrate an otherwise happy union. This dynamic can be viewed as "pro-self" versus "pro-relationship" behaviors.
A "pro-self" behavior behavior is essentially what it sounds like. At it's core, it's designed to serve oneself and protect one's own self-interest. We make these all of the time, and when they are not made in the context of a committed relationship, or when they are infrequent, they are not necessarily destructive. For example, choosing to work out an hour before work may be a great choice for you. It can allow you to take care of your body with exercise and reduce stress. But if going to the gym before work means that you leave your partner to manage the task of getting your four kids off to school, and you know from previous conversations that s/he feels very stressed and overwhelmed by this and has asked for your help, then this "pro-self" choice is now working against the health and happiness of your committed relationship.
"Pro-relationship" choices are also just like they sound. These are the choices we make that are best for the relationship. Deciding to go to the gym on your lunch hour because your partner needs help in the morning, is a "pro-relationship" choice. It may mean that you get a shorter work-out, or on some days, it may even mean not going to the gym at all. This may feel unfair, and of course we can't expect ourselves to be happy about it in the moment. But in the long run it is what is needed in order to make the relationship successful. Likewise, your partner needs to also be making more "pro-relationship" choices as opposed to "pro-self" choices. In that same couple one spouse may need to give up watching his/her favorite TV show at night in order to spend time with his/her spouse, who feels lonely because their partner tunes out with the TV instead of talking to him/her.
No one can make pro-relationship choices all of the time. We are human and as such we are prone to intermittent moments of selfishness, or egocentrism, or just plan forgetting to consider the other. We will, of course, sometimes make pro-self choices. But the more pro-relationship choices we can make, and feel good about making, the more healthy our relationship is going to be.
I can hear some of you thinking "wow, this is really naive!" What if your partner doesn't reciprocate? Well, that would need to change. This system (and a healthy, long-lasting and happy relationship) will only work if BOTH partners adhere to this rule. Both partners must be committed to making more pro-relationship choices than pro-self choices. If you and your current partner find this difficult then you may come from backgrounds in which your own parents did not prioritize their relationship above their own needs. You may have had a father who hid out in the garage all night working on projects while your mom felt lonely. Or you may have had a mom who bought things and hid the purchases from your father because she knew he would not approve. In these instances the parent is taking care of themselves over the relationship. If this is your history you may feel that making pro-relationship choices is naive or just plan stupid. You may feel that if you don't look out for yourself no one will, including your partner. If these feelings come up you may want to explore them in therapy with your partner. Through couples therapy you can learn what keeps you from making more pro-relationship choices and work to change those patterns. Just as we learned maladaptive patterns in childhood we can learn more healthy patterns as adults.
Pro-self versus pro-relationship behaviors is just one aspect of keeping a relationship healthy and happy. Stay tuned for more suggestions on how to evaluate your relationship patterns and improve on them.
Wishing you well in your connection to others,
David Richo's book How To Be An Adult In Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving is a very worthwhile read. The main hypothesis for this book is based on what he calls “The Five A’s”. These are:
· being Allowed the freedom to live “in accordance with our deepest needs and wishes”
According to Richo these are the basic ingredients needed to grow healthy self-esteem. I agree that these are all very valuable things and that without them we are likely not to feel loved or cared for. And I absolutely believe that humans have an innate need to feel connected to others, preferably in a way that feels loving and positive. Although if that is not available we will make due with connection through negativity rather than none at all.
According to Richo, we come into the world needing the 5 A's from our parents. And, he argues, in adulthood we need these same “5 A’s” from our romantic partners. More profoundly he states that these are also the things we seek to have in our spiritual practice/relationship with our higher power. He feels that through a spiritual practice one can cultivate the 5 A’s in a way that brings these essential elements into our lives through a spiritual plane.
Whether or not you are spiritual I do think these 5 A’s are worth thinking about. According to Richo, “our work is not to renounce our childhood needs but to take them into account, work on them, and enlist our partner to help us do this, if s/he is willing…to unite with a partner who can join us in our work.” I wholeheartedly agree with this. These deep, basic childhood needs never go away. We crave our lover’s attention, their acceptance, their appreciation and their affection. And we thrive when they allow us to “live in accordance with our deepest needs and wishes.” A partner who can help us heal any wounding in these areas is a most precious and prized gift. They deserve our deepest loyalty, respect, care and cherishing. Treating them in this way is also a natural outflowing of having these childhood needs nourished. This is true, mature and lasting love.
According to Richo there are also 5 “mindsets” that tend to interfere with providing the Five A’s to our partners. These are:
Richo believes that these mindsets interfere with our authentic experience of the present moment. He states that “Each is a minimization that imposes our personal dramas upon reality and makes fair witnessing impossible.” Or in other words, these are states of mind that will keep you from being able to see your partner clearly and convey a sense of understanding to them such that they feel truly connected to you. They become the interference in the radio signal such that a beautiful melody sounds like a cacophony of static and notes.
As you have probably already surmised, Richo’s book covers a lot of ground. He explains how the Five A’s manifest differently in relationships with introverts versus extroverts. He talks about how to handle complex emotions like fear, grief and anger. He has an excellent chapter on whether or not committed partnerships are actually “for you”. He contrasts romance and addiction. He gives numerous suggestions on how to work through un-grieved losses and become one's own parent. All this in little more than 250 pages!
In addition to all of these topics we might expect given the title of his book, Richo touches on a very bizarre phenomenon common to human relationships. He notes that if we have some wounding or deficits in these 5 A’s we are likely to be very sensitive to that area in our romantic relationships. That makes sense. But where things get tricky is when we seek to re-enact the deficits, wounds and deprivations of our childhood with our current partners. You may be familiar with the idea that a child of an alcoholic is likely to (unconsciously) marry an alcoholic (or someone otherwise addicted—sex, drugs, work, food, etc.). From the outside this seems “crazy”. Why would you set yourself up for this type of familiar pain? Richo states that we unconsciously try to revive our earliest unmet needs in an effort to see if our partner can help us heal them. So if I was emotionally abused as a child I may gravitate towards that dynamic in my adult relationships in an attempt to “revive my earliest unmet needs”. In some way I am hoping that my partner can save me from the dynamic that I have co-created with him/her. Or, as a former supervisor of mine used to say, “we either marry our parents or we marry someone who is not like our parents but we unconsciously coach them to act like our parents. Or we marry someone who is not like our parents and stubbornly resists being coached to act like them, so we project our parents onto them, believing they are like our parents despite evidence to the contrary.” While this is not a very flattering portrayal of human nature, I have to say that in 20 years as a therapist I have seen this pattern played out numerous times in astoundingly creative ways.
Ultimately we want to be healed. We often don’t really know the ways we have been hurt, having grown in in the only environment we knew. As the expression goes, the fish does not notice the water. But as an adult we can take stock and look back to evaluate “what was missing?” Which of these 5 A’s do we need to work on in our adult life? And how can we do that? Richo would seem to answer that we can do that through a spiritual practice as well as our love relationships. Being a psychotherapist I try not to advise on spiritual matters! But I can absolutely endorse the idea that not only can your primary relationship heal these wounds but you will TRY to set things up to work them out whether you realize it or not. I would argue it behooves all of us to figure out our wounds and/or areas of neglect so that we can look for how we are re-creating them in our current romantic partnerships.
All in all I think that Richo has some great wisdom in his book. I would encourage anyone interested in creating more healthy patterns in their love lives to take a look at it. While it is clear that he is devoted to mindfulness as a discipline and drinks deeply from that well, his ideas are useful even if you don’t ascribe to the eastern-philosophy threads that run throughout.
As always wishing you health and happiness in your connection to others--
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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