Loving Someone with a Complicated Past
“I want to stop blowing up relationships,” said the young lady when I asked her why she was seeking counseling. “I’ve had a string of unsuccessful relationships, and they’ve all ended because of me.”
She talked about her history of being distrustful, of pushing people away, of being distant at times or needy at others. The next question might have been, “Why do you act that way in relationships?” but she already supplied the answer, “My dad was a real a–hole when I was growing up, so I know that’s why I do what I do.”
One of my favorite authors during my adolescence was Piers Anthony, who wrote in the Author’s Notes of his novel, Fractal Mode:
One thing you, who had secure or happy childhoods, should understand about those of us who did not: we–who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs (or seem to seek them), who are hyper-sensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic, and, above all, survivors—we’re not that way from perversity and we cannot “just relax and let it go.” We’ve learned to cope in ways you never had to.
I want to say that, while our childhoods and adolescence certainly affect us, they need not determine us. In other words, just because you experienced trauma or were abused–it doesn’t mean that you are incapable of having successful, healthy, adult relationships…
…but it can certainly be more difficult for those of us who bear childhood scars. It’s a challenge for us to assume only the best in our partners, or to be vulnerable, or to resist the urge to self-destruct. If it is your misfortunate to love someone who survived a nasty childhood, God bless you! You’re in for a bumpy ride.
Functioning at your best within your relationship with a Survivor will require a great deal of patience and understanding. You love a flawed human being, and while you certainly have your own flaws, perhaps yours are the more understanding foibles of poor communication, occasional selfishness, and a tendency to waste food or leave the lights on. Your Survivor partner, on the other hand, will weekly present with enough neuroses to make Freud light up a cigar during session. Can you handle that?
Can you be understanding without being enabling? Can you be compassionate without sacrificing your own valid interests? Are you willing to endure behavior that is designed to push you away–without tolerating abuse or rationalizing addiction? In short, can you daily exhibit loving kindness, the likes of which can be emotionally exhausting at times?
If you can, chances are you’re an ideal partner for a Survivor. And, here’s the good news! Once we’ve vetted you, once we believe that you’re here to stay and not going to let our sh-t push you away, once we’ve qualified you in whatever sick way we do in our own minds, then you will probably find that you’ll be rewarded with a love from your Survivor partner that is fiercely loyal, intensely focused, and always interesting! Never dull!
And we’ll someday be fully aware that that we’ve put you through some tough times and that you stuck–more than anyone else ever did before. You stuck. And we’ll be profoundly grateful for it.