I have come to believe that so many relationships are so hurtful because we believe that is the love we deserve. For years after my parents’ divorce, I watched my mother have a 30- year affair with a man who would never really show up for her in the ways she needed. She would end it over and over again after holidays or her birthday when she was alone, and then after they would get back together, she would go on about how this is enough for her. This was all the love that she believed she deserved. My friendships during my adolescent years mostly, were like hers- and left me feeling wanting, not pretty enough, not good enough. Like many of us, I learned how to have relationships that belittled and hurt me. My earliest romantic relationships went from bad to worse, yet even through my tearful protestations that I deserved someone who would love me, I continuously attracted boys who didn’t see me or care about me. Basically I got the hurt that I believed I was worthy of.
Although most of my writing focuses on the evolution of love and what worked in my marriage, the truth is that our early years were mostly hurtful. I held my husband responsible for my loneliness and feelings of unworthiness, which only pushed him to close off to me even more. I still remember the therapy session, after years of the same arguments, when I finally understood that there was no way he could ever love me enough to take away the neediness that came from my own self-loathing. Thinking back on it, I can’t believe we made it through those years. Most people don’t. We end our relationships, usually in our most difficult moments, believing that will end the pain.
What we don’t foresee is that the next relationship will essentially begin at exactly where the last one ended. Our relationships are a mirror of what we believe we deserve. This explains the multiple marriage dynamics that entrap so many. Always believing this next relationship will be different but finding at the end, more similarities than differences in the unfolding demise of what began looking so promising. The issue is not really ever with the other person, although we can go through a lifetime believing it. Turning our gaze inward and looking at why we attract and maintain relationships that don’t reflect our own value is the only open door.
Remarkably for me, even with the meaningful transformation of my marriage relationship, I have come to realize recently how much of my adulthood I have spent in friendships that devalue me, much like they did in high school. My husband pointed out to me how my ancient fear of friendlessness has haunted me and compelled me into accepting relationships that, like my mother, never really embraced me or reflected the values I claimed to feel for myself. I often write that we don’t get to choose the love we want, rather we get to accept the love that is present or not. So, not surprisingly, for years I would make myself overlook the rigid boundaries and hurtful exclusions that characterized these friendships and try to focus instead on accepting the love that was available to me. This is a slippery slope that maintains many unhealthy relationships and even devolves into abusive relationships from which many never escape. I wish I could say that it was me who came to my senses and ended these relationships, but in truth, the end came when my “friends” realized that they couldn’t keep up the charade of our intimacy.
Although I believe it is true that we don’t get to choose how people love us, we must begin with some recognition of what love feels like; and what has become clear to me is that love should never make you feel small, unwelcome, or ashamed. Our real friendships and truly loving relationships are expansive. We want to share our world and the people we love with each other. Believing we are worthy of relationships that expand our capacity to love, to be fully ourselves is where to begin and how to measure our intimacy.