One by one I have been undoing the knots of my last relationship and turning each source of pain and anger into a lesson learnt, a new strength to live by. Most of the knots were undone several months ago, and I have not been feeling miserable about the ending for a long time. But always there has been something hanging on at the back of my mind, something that I had to face before I could let go. Unfinished conversations haunting my mind like ghosts.
I think I am, at long last, reaching the core of that now. It is not easy to face, but I have been coming to understand the extent to which I was responsible for hurting myself. Yes, he abused the trust I placed in him – but I had placed that trust in him too freely, more unconditionally than was wise, and I did not withdraw the trust until it was too late. I need to forgive myself for being so foolishly and wonderfully heart-open.
And more. I don’t want to say this, and I keep dodging away from it, but I can see now that the state of vulnerability I ended up in was genuinely unbearable for him. When you are confused and hurt yourself, the last thing you need is someone who is wide open to your words, and hurt by your confusion. Sometimes things you’re going through make you lash out, and it makes it harder when someone is standing close to you, even if that closeness was welcome in happier times. I can see how difficult it must have been for him, how suffocating my vulnerability must have become.
As someone who has tended to be too independent for most of my life, I really don’t like to see myself this way – but reading some of our old e-conversations again, it’s undeniably there. I have made a huge journey in my life from separateness and independence to openness and the willingness to trust. The fact that, in particularly difficult circumstances, I went a little too far does not in any way detract from the importance of that journey, or of the value of the trust and openness that I have learnt.
I have been resisting seeing this because his accusations of neediness were so painful to me, because they confirmed the longheld fear that, if I expressed honestly who I was and what I needed, I would be rejected. So to have my trust and honesty rejected so abruptly was deeply painful. To begin with I took his criticisms to heart. Then I learnt to see that his criticisms were vastly exaggerated and unkindly expressed (it was fairly obvious to friends of mine, but took me a while to accept because I didn’t want to think badly of him). It has taken rather longer to be able to accept that there was a small amount of truth to them.
But not much. A few weeks where I had an increased and uncharacteristic need for reassurance of affection and respect (which was rarely forthcoming) lasting a few weeks. And a heightened sensitivity to his comments about my personality and reactions that led to some angst-ridden e-mails and two evenings where I cried a lot, once in public. OK, he was a vulnerable person in many ways, but to claim he was traumatised by that to the point of being unable to cope with being in touch with me seems just a little excessive!
Of course there are also reasons that explain why I got into that vulnerable state, which wasn’t characteristic for me at all. I can’t ignore the ways in which he increased my vulnerability, encouraged me to need him, nor the way he treated my trust and my love with harshness, and certainly not the way in which he projected so many of his own difficulties onto me.
I don’t think it is fair for me to accept more than a small share of responsibility for the failure of this relationship, but I think it is vital for me to recognise the share I did have, and forgive myself for that, so that I can move on. And, even more importantly, to learn how to stop myself repeating this pattern.
One important part of not repeating the pattern is changing the way I relate to other people’s opinions, as I said in a recent post.
Another, perhaps paradoxically, is to be more explicit about my needs and wants, based on acceptance that it is OK for me to need and want them. Spending time with my parents recently, I noticed how rarely we express what we want – our family tends to negotiate in a much more indirect way, each tending to argue that others should receive a benefit that can’t be shared equally. And if someone does express a want clearly and explicitly, that’s generally unusual enough that it gets immediate action. So I grew up not really expressing what I want. I tend to feel that, if I explicitly say what I want, I am in some way binding other people to deliver what I want, and so am responsible for the consequences and for depriving other people of the pleasure. So I end up reluctant to say what I want – indeed sometimes I’m so busy trying to predict other people’s wants that I end up not paying attention to my own.
As a system, this works fine when everyone plays by the same rules, but leaves me trailing when surrounded by people who are used to much more direct expression of wanting (a bit like the game of Prisoner’s dilemma!). I think I need to adjust my behaviour so that I can be on a more level playing field. I’ve already taken some important steps in this direction. By being more aware of my needs and wants, I’m more able to take conscious and appropriate action to meet them, and so address them before they grown too difficult and painful for me to deal with appropriately.
A third and related dimension is to accept that it’s OK to want things, even if those things are impossible. I notice myself not even asking for things I want because I suspect they may not be possible. For some bizarre reason I catch myself thinking that even wanting, let alone asking for, something I can’t have, is somehow ridiculous and shameful. Rather than just a fact of life!
Yet again the aftermath of this relationship has taught me a huge amount about myself, and about relationships. It has been a long tail of processing for a quite short relationship… but it had an intense connection and an exceptionally painful ending, and the brevity in many ways made it harder to deal with.
I hope that processing my reactions slowly, patiently and in its own time will ensure that all the emotional baggage is turned into wisdom!
And I hope that it won’t be long before I have the opportunity to put these lessons into practice….