Intimate relationships: the cornerstone of many peoples’ lives. From a young age most of us are told that someday we’ll be in a long-term relationship or marriage, and we’re given both subtle and not-so-subtle messages about what those relationships are supposed to look like.
Beyond the superficial dating expectations in the US culture (men should date women shorter than they are, women should only date men with successful careers and nice cars, men should date women who are skinny and sexy, but not TOO sexy), we get even deeper messages: a relationship MUST be the most fulfilling aspect of one’s life. You should enjoy amazing sex all the time (within acceptable parameters) in your relationship or something is wrong. Partners should stay achingly, swooningly in love for their entire relationship. Our partner must be our best friend. We must “fall” in love in the beginning and that’s the only way for a good relationship to start out. Jealousy means that we’re really in love. It’s OK for us to snoop into our partner’s phone, email, or social media if we suspect they may be cheating on us. Our partner’s role is to fulfill us and “make” us happy, and if they don’t “make” us happy it’s acceptable to yell, scream, throw things, and talk behind their backs. And if they don’t change, it’s acceptable for us leave and then to gripe about them on social media.
Essentially, we’re told from the beginning that our relationship partners are supposed to save us from the drudgery of the world and be our everything.
Faced with these messages around relationships, many of us struggle. We date for the wrong reasons (to feel worthy, to give us what we lack internally), we stay with people who don’t want the same things as we do because we’re “in love” (with the implication that we’re not in control because we are experiencing a strong emotion), and we experience conflict–what we like to call ‘drama’, which is really just a pejorative term for “trying to get what I want from my relationship”– we fight and cry and go on the internet to despair of every finding “true love”. We disparage our partners and their gender and vice versa, and ‘round and ‘round we go.
Many of us find ourselves tearily wondering, after yet another ending: “Why does this keep happening?”
Maybe, just maybe: the messages we got for all those years were wrong.
For me, the revelation came after another breakup. As my (ex) boyfriend left the house, got in his car and drove away, I collapsed on the floor in tears, wondering why this was happening again. After 20 years of trying to be in relationships and ending up in awful, high-conflict situations where my partners couldn’t provide what I thought I needed, I was tired in a soul-deep kind of way. I was exhausted from all the drama and fighting and manipulation and unkept promises.
But the thing that changed everything, there on the floor–the thing that stopped that pattern for me–was the sudden realization, almost an enlightenment experience, that I was responsible for what had been happening in my relationships.
Not the men–ME.
I had always known that “it takes two to tango” and that we are responsible for our own actions in life, including what we bring to a relationship. And yes, many of the men I have dated have acted like jerks in many ways (including physical and emotional abuse, which are never justified). But this revelation was different. I finally truly understood what I had been doing for my entire adult life in relationships. I finally got why nothing had ever worked out.
The reason seemed so simple: I had been asking my dating partners to provide something that it was not their job to provide. I had been demanding that they provide Validation with a capital ‘V’: Validation not only of how I looked, dressed, kept my home, or had sex, but Validation of who I was as a person.
Validation is a real human need, and there’s nothing wrong with asking for it and wanting it. We’re hardwired to seek validation as children. When our parents validate us we feel safe and protected, we learn that we’re competent and valuable, that we deserve respect and love, and we gain self-confidence. And similarly, as adults, validation is important to our feelings of inclusion in social groups, of success at work and life (if your boss never gives you validation–praise, a bonus, a raise–they’re not a very good boss and you’re likely to be unhappy at work), and our happiness in our friendships and relationships. It’s natural to want to be seen as good, competent and successful.
The problem comes in when we can’t access our own self-worth unless someone else provides validation. And in romance, if we’re constantly seeking validation and reassurances, we can find ourselves in unsatisfying or conflicted relationships.
We often seek validation in relationships in harmful ways: jealousy (this is a natural emotion and nothing to be ashamed of, but if we deal with those feelings badly, it can get in the way of a healthy dynamic), controlling, manipulative, and passive-aggressive behavior, lack of emotional control (sometimes leading to abuse), hyper-attached behavior that ends up pushing our partners away (such as getting upset if they don’t respond to a text within our expected timeframe), and constant criticism.
In my experience and observation, high-conflict relationships are often a result of one or both people desperately wanting the other person to heal their wounds and acting in ways–trying to get those needs met or responding to the painful emotions when they aren’t met–that create tension and resentment.
Here’s what I now know: our partners are not in our lives to provide us with our self-worth and self-esteem. They’re there to love us, certainly, and should support our self-growth (and vice versa) , but they are not an ambulance crew with the job of fixing our wounds from childhood. They’re not our therapists; they’re (hopefully) our peers, friends, partners, and pit crew. They’re there to support us–and support can ultimately be healing–but it’s not their responsibility to sew up our wounds.
What I realized in that moment curled up on the floor was that I had been asking my dating partners to fix me: to fill up the holes left when I hadn’t gotten everything I had needed for healthy emotional development as a child. And that it was unfair of me to ask them for that.
And just like that, the Bad Relationship Habit I was in stopped. The dating the wrong men, the drama, the fighting, the sadness, the frustration–it all stopped.
My whole attitude about dating changed. I was genuinely happy being single for the first time in my adult life. I focused on things I loved to do rather than on how to find my next boyfriend. When I saw happy couples, I no longer felt terrible and like I was a failure for being unhappy in whatever relationship I was in at the time. When I have dated, or when men have seemed interested in me, I’ve evaluated them based on whether we’re compatible–and what I want in that moment romantically–rather than judging based on what my heart was telling me. Just because the heart goes pitter-pat does not mean that what it wants is healthy.
After years of exploration, and years of pain in love, I experienced a quantum leap. It all clicked.
It can be challenging for many of us to hear that we have some responsibility for our own pain. I can hear some readers thinking it now: “What do you mean, it’s all my fault??” I know we often don’t want to understand the power of our own choices, and I know it can feel unachievable to stop making choices based on emotion. Emotions are so powerful!
And I understand that it’s much easier to blame others for everything that’s gone wrong–I did it for decades. But I’ve seen firsthand how accepting our roles in our situations can be freeing, and ultimately can help us create better situations for ourselves in the future.
Of course, none of this is meant to justify or rationalize the ways your partners have legitimately acted badly. Not at all. But if you really want to get out of the Bad Relationship Habit, you’ll need to take a long, deeply honest look at your own motivations and behaviors.
Do you have a pattern of doing any of these things in multiple relationships?
- Feeling extreme anxiety when your partners are not with you.
- Getting panicky when you and your partners have had conflict.
- Experiencing irrational jealousy (as opposed to the rational jealousy when your partners have cheated or tried to make you jealous) when your partners have had friends or colleagues of the gender they prefer to date.
- Attempting to make your partners jealous of you.
- Getting upset–not just annoyed: genuinely angry or anxious–if your partners don’t respond quickly enough (or respond in the “right” way) to a text, message, email, or phone call.
- Entering into relationships knowing your partners want different things than you do out of a relationship and then feeling hurt when they don’t change their relationship goals to match yours.
- Lying to and/or cheating on your partners.
- Manipulating, criticizing, and/or attempting to control your partners.
- Having a lot of high-drama fights with your partners.
- Threatening (or actually attempting) suicide or self-harm when fighting.
- Verbally or physically abusing your partners.
- Staying with partners who verbally or physically abuse you (I understand that this dynamic can be very complicated–this isn’t meant to shame anyone who has not yet left an abusive partner).
If you can say yes to any of these and if you have a pattern of difficult, unfulfilling, high-conflict, or abusive relationships, consider whether you’re either implicitly or explicitly asking your dating partners to fix you in a deep way. Are you asking them, in any way, for constant Validation of you as a person, to heal your childhood wounds, to heal your pain from past relationships, or to heal you from debilitating lack of self-esteem or self-confidence?
If your first response is “no”, I’d challenge you to take a deeper look.
Next time you feel that familiar anxiety or suffering when your partner doesn’t do something you want them to do, take some time to sit with that discomfort before you react to it. What does that feeling want from your partner? What is the lack inside that pain? If your partner had done what you wanted, how would your emotional response be different? How would you have felt then?
If the answer is that you’d feel validated, safe, or comforted, you may be asking too much of your relationship.
And if you’re feeling resistance right now to what I’m saying: look more closely. Is there a grain of truth?
It can be genuinely liberating to understand that you have the power to get what you want out of life without relying on others. And when you no longer need your partners to provide deep Validation–when you can get that through other means, including deeply supporting yourself in your self-growth–you create space in your life for really good relationships. Ones where you and your partner are with one another because you like being together, you respect one another, and you feel affection and friendship for each other, not because you feel lost and lonely without a romantic partner.
I’ll put it this way: If you’re starving, even week-old pizza or stale crackers look appetizing. But if you’re well-fed, you will choose more appealing options. You can learn to feed yourself, and, being fed, you can make better relationship choices.
To get there, I suggest doing a lot of self-work, whether that means therapy, reading, journaling, support groups, meditation, yoga, or a combination of all of these things.
But it starts with understanding that you are responsible for your own happiness, not your romantic partner.
This article first appeared on my Psychology Today blog.