It’s a bitch, growing up the scapegoat in a household headed by a narcissist parent. In addition to all of the other trouble we have to deal with, we are denied the opportunity to know what a healthy relationship feels like, how it feels inside to interact with emotionally healthy people, and how to recognize them when we find them. Worse still, we too often reject eminently suitable potential partners because we do not emotionally respond to people who don’t push our buttons.
This, of course, is of little assistance to us in finding emotionally healthy partners and engaging in fulfilling relationships. It is well known in psychological circles that the victims of abuse often find themselves replicating their original abuse dynamics with new partners, acting out the drama over and over again. But I don’t think very many of us do it consciously…I don’t think many of us say to ourselves “Oh, now there’s a guy just like my abusive mother…let’s see if I can change him into a loving, caring partner…” But on the subconscious level, that’s just what a lot of us do.
Why? Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all, there is that feeling of familiarity, the recognition of his behaviours which give you clues as to how you are expected to act, react, behave, and feel. We are all creatures of habit, after all, and just like a song or a scent can invoke feelings of warmth and comforting familiarity, so can the behaviours of others. Secondly, I think that we subconsciously recognize the similarity to our childhood abuser(s) and hooking up with this person offers us an opportunity to engage the abuse and “get it right” this time. What “right” means is as individual as we are and could mean anything from prevailing over the abuse to somehow getting the abuser to have some compassion and empathy to us to even retaliating against the abuse. Whatever the definition, the whole premise of the relationship is unhealthy and pathological.
Emily Yoffe, writer of the “Dear Prudence” column on Slate.com says “…it’s a strange psychological quirk that people often unconsciously end up re-creating the situation they are seeking to escape. It is sadly common for people raised by abusive parents to find themselves involved with abusive partners…Of course you want to run away from your childhood and the people who populated it. But without exploring what happened to you, you may find yourself running around a track and ending up back at the starting line. You want to feel you’re moving toward something good in life, rather than forever fleeing the bad.”
Some of us are lucky (or subconsciously wise) and manage to find healthy partners in spite of our own dysfunctions. Unfortunately, I think people like that are in the tiniest minority and even they still have to deal with dysfunctional people in other aspects of their lives. Most of us, however, tread a treacherous minefield in seeking a partner, a minefield of our own subconsciousness and lack of awareness. And all too often we end up back at that starting line…
How do you find a healthy relationship with an emotionally healthy partner if you don’t know what it feels like or looks like and you seem to be attracted to people who end up bad news? Marni Battista (CPC, MA), who bills herself a dating coach, recently published an article entitled “6 Signs that he is ‘Mr. Boyfriend Material,’”and had the following to say: [my comments in violet].
1. He is truly in a place where he feels confident and secure in his ability to provide. Men are typically most confident, secure, and ready to be in an exclusive long-term relationship when they feel “settled.” They have spent time building their career and have the time available to invest in a relationship. They are financially secure. Remember, men who are not in this place in life are still worth dating; they are just not likely to be good candidates for a long-term partnership. If you are dating someone who is still climbing the ladder to emotional maturity and financial security, you will likely need to be extremely patient as he moves through these phases of manhood.
Basically, if the guy can’t support himself, he’s not a good bet for a long-term relationship; if he is only marginally self-supporting, he’s not a good bet for a long-term relationship; if he’s in a low-paying career, he can’t or won’t hold down a job for very long, if his lack of a job is somebody else’s fault…he’s not a good bet for a long-term relationship. Are there exceptions? Yes. Is the guy you’re eying one of those exceptions? Given our unerring proclivity for picking the wrong kinds of guys, probably not.
You are not a one-woman rescue mission. Your job in life is not to shore up some guy’s sinking self-esteem, to motivate his lazy ass, to be the patient, loving, uncritical other half…that is his mother’s job…or it was while he was a kid. Now it is his job to motivate himself and make himself into a secure human being able to provide well for himself and his (eventual) family. You don’t have to settle for less, so why even waste your time dating men who don’t meet the most basic criteria for self-care? (Rhetorical question: we waste our time on men like this because it distracts us from working on our own issues…)
2. His words match his actions. A man who is capable of a long-term relationship has integrity, and as a result his words and actions match. He will call when he says he will call. He will ask you out a few days in advance. He will follow through on the promises he makes. This is one of the most crucial signs a man is ready to be your boyfriend. If his words and actions match consistently, it is clear he is ready to play in the big leagues—possibly with you.
Augh! This was my big bugaboo! He’d say something nice and do something rude and I would believe the words…and excuses…and lies. I felt guilty if I didn’t, like I wasn’t trusting him. I felt I owed him the benefit of the doubt. Guess what? I was wrong!
I was so stuck in this, my therapist actually had to say to me, in blunt language, “If his words don’t match his deeds, believe the deeds…they don’t lie.” Any many who habitually says one thing and does another is not to be trusted…and no healthy relationship can exist without trust.
3. He doesn’t play games. He doesn’t apply the “Three-Day Rule” to the women he dates, wait twenty-four hours before returning your phone call, or “vanish” to draw you into his world. When he is interested in pursuing you, he will let you know in an appropriate way. Conversely, if you play games with Mr. Boyfriend Material, he will politely decline the opportunity to get to know you, and dismiss you as possibly immature, or worse, “psycho.” Don’t over-text Mr. Boyfriend Material with idle chit chat messages. Be gracious, kind, and authentic, because Mr. Boyfriend Material is attracted to a confident woman who, like him, is past playing games.
This is addressing his authenticity: not only does he not play juvenile, manipulative dating games, he doesn’t play the kinds of games you find in Transactional Analysis books…no manipulation at all, just straightforward (but not rude, crude, or insensitive) communication.
Yes, we have to make allowances for personality types…some guys tend toward shyness and reticence, others are more outgoing. But regardless of personality types, if he is being manipulative, using pick up lines, ignoring you to see how you will react or overwhelming you with too much too soon, the smart move is to move on. He’s not the last man on the planet, you know…
Too often, we succumb to a feeling of desperation and think this one guy is our last chance for love and then make unwise moves as a result. First of all, no man at all is better than one who manipulates, abuses, or ignores us. Secondly, until we love ourselves enough to become our real selves (not the love-starved survivor of a narcissist), just what kind of man are we going to be attracted to…or attract? Emotionally healthy people tend to be put off by the emotionally needy because they want a partner, not a responsibility. So, in our own desperation to find love and be love, we actually drive away the very people who would be best for us. If you aren’t in a good place emotionally, find yourself a therapist and get there…then start looking for a boyfriend.
4. He knows how to express his feelings directly. Mr. Boyfriend Material will not manipulate you with silence or criticize or judge you. When he has a need, or feels like he must discuss something pertaining to the relationship, he does not hesitate to bring it up. He will also be honest in telling you when he needs to spend time with his friends, needs to work, or wants to go to the gym. He will expect you to respect his needs and not see his independence as rejection.
Like everything else, there is a balance needed here. Direct communication is not rude or insensitive, although sometimes it can be hard to hear (and if we are hypersensitive to criticism or implied criticism, we may hear insensitivity or criticism were it does not exist or was not intended). Showing your insecurity through clinginess, monitoring him (his phone, email, location, time on his own, etc), constantly checking in, sulking or being hurt when he wants time to himself all are relationship killers. Conversely, if he spends a lot more of his free time alone with the TV or his video games, or in the company of his buddies than with you, then there is a message in his behaviour that you should be listening to.
Too often we “reinterpret” what people say to us, including people we love. A message that might be painful when taken directly can lose its sting when we reinterpret it: “He didn’t mean that,” or “He’s just reacting to a bad day,” or “That’s his mother talking, not him,” or whatever we tell ourselves to avoid hearing the real message. It is important not only for him to express his feelings directly, but for us to really hear him when he talks to us and not reinterpret his message to be more palatable to us.
5. He is single. This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning that a man who is worth your time is not in a relationship, going through a divorce, or in a relationship with someone who “just doesn’t seem to understand him like you do.” As a result, he is emotionally available to pursue a relationship with you. He does not have to hide you until the divorce is final, “call you later” under the guise of running an errand, or meet you in a hotel, his art studio, or at your place because he hasn’t yet moved out of the home he shares with his partner.
This is important for a number of reasons in addition to those cited above, especially for us. We are groomed from childhood to be victims, to be passive and wait patiently for whatever crumbs will fall from the table for us. Less-than-scrupulous men whose relationship attentions are otherwise engaged just love us…we are ready-made, pre-programmed playtoys! We so want to be loved, we will put up with anything, believe anything, forgive anything, just to believe we are. We make the ideal “other woman” because we are trained to wait…and wait…and wait some more, and to live on hope. And there are a lot of men out there who will take advantage of that.
We avoid being exploited by such men by absolutely refusing to get involved with a man who is already emotionally involved elsewhere…and that includes men who are separated or going through a divorce, and men who have recently experienced a breakup. Allowing yourself to be the other half in a rebound relationship is a guaranteed one way trip to heartbreak. And if we happen to find the man we are dating has lied to us and he already has a wife/girlfriend/fiancée/live in female that he did not tell us about, we accept no excuses or explanations, we cut our losses and move on.
Why? Because a man who lacks integrity in the dating stage will not suddenly find it when he becomes your official boyfriend/fiancé/husband. He will still be a man who lies to you when it serves him to do so. The old saw about “if he will cheat with you, he will cheat on you” is absolutely correct because it means this is a man who has a mindset that says “it is ok to cheat under certain circumstances” and he gets to choose what those circumstances are, when they have arrived, and whether or not you deserve to know.
6. He does not expect any kind of physical intimacy sooner than you are ready.
While Mr. Boyfriend Material finds you incredibly attractive, he does not expect you to kiss him at the end of the first or second date and he does not expect you to have sex with him until the time is right, once you two have gotten to know each other and determined that you’d like to advance your relationship to the next level. What’s more, if he does angle for physical intimacy early on (say, after the third date, for instance), he won’t mind if you refuse. In fact, he will most likely apologize profusely, respect you immensely, and be impressed by your self-respect, dating dignity, and confidence—all huge turn-ons.
This is something we need to get a grip on…not just him pressuring you for intimacy too soon, but us feeling the need to “clinch the deal” by getting him into bed (surely I am not the only ACoN who has ever felt/done that, am I?). It has to do with respect and boundaries.
If he respects your boundaries, he won’t pressure you. If he respects you, he won’t pressure you. And if you respect him and the possibility that a real, lasting relationship might be possible with this man, you won’t rush things, either. Emotionally healthy people are not interested in the needy and desperate…and rushing things may be interpreted as just that. Rather than planning the wedding after your first date, maybe you can slow things down and just learn to enjoy his company, spend time observing him and how he handles things, and discovering what kind of person he is. If you take your time and you are honest in your observations, you may discover he wants to control you, change you, or remake you into his fantasy of the ideal woman…and that would be a guy to jettison. The time to start fantasizing about your wedding gown is when he pops the question, which shouldn’t be after dating for just a few short months.
Some of you may be thinking “yah, but this is just about picking a boyfriend, not a husband. Why should we have such high standards?” Well, the vast majority of husbands (and ex-husbands) were, at one time, introduced as “my boyfriend.” My husband introduced himself to my coworkers as “her [meaning my] boyfriend.” Achieving boyfriend status is the first step on the path to husband status, so why let unsuitable candidates even step on the path? If he won’t make a good provider, if he doesn’t treat you with respect, if he is immature or plays emotional games…why do you want to associate with him in the first place? Because you are afraid he is the best you can do?
Well, if you think that way, then consider this: every night you spend with a man who belittles you, denigrates you, invalidates and disrespects you, mooches off you, lies to you, is a night you are not available to meet a man who would love, respect and care for you.
When you pick a partner, shouldn’t it be someone who is actually good for you just the way he is?