In Dating Again: What Does Healthy Look Like? Part One, I discuss the importance of taking time to heal from abusive relationship(s). If you want to have healthier relationships moving forward, it’s essential that you identify and resolve the issues that contributed to making unhealthy choices in past relationship partners.
Do you understand your old relationship choices beyond, “She was hot. She love bombed me. It was great until she went crazy”? In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the person your ex was when the relationship ended, is the same person they were when you met. You just failed to see it.
If you’ve had more than one of these relationships, it’s not random bad luck. You likely have old vulnerabilities and wounds (probably from childhood) that require attention.
The first article also discusses qualities, attributes and personality characteristics of healthy adults. In other words, recognizing viable potential partners, or what healthy looks like.
This article focuses on you. How do you get healthy? What are the obstacles? How do you benefit from not resolving your issues? Hint: It requires confronting yourself and holding yourself accountable with absolute, unflinching honesty.
You could stumble upon the healthiest woman or man on Earth tomorrow. However, if you’re still stuck in your habitual ways of relating and attraction to what’s familiar (e.g., Crazy is exciting; healthy is boring), it won’t matter. You’ll push healthy potential partners away and continue to gravitate toward the disordered and/or hopelessly damaged.
If you’re codependent and have a pattern of relationships with emotionally immature, unstable, self-absorbed, selfish, abusive, angry, addicted and/or mentally ill individuals — whatever the configuration of an adult who’s incapable of healthy, enduring, stable relationships — it may be uncomfortable to read this. You may even feel angry with me for raising these issues. Please consider why you feel this way. I’m not victim blaming. Although, it may feel that way to some of you. Once you understand a relationship is exploitative and/or abusive, it’s your responsibility to a) insist on better treatment or b) end the relationship if better treatment isn’t forthcoming.
Hence the phrase, “there are no victims, only volunteers.” To which I’ll add the caveat once you recognize you’re being mistreated, taken advantage of, betrayed and abused. Healing involves holding yourself accountable. You do so by asking yourself questions like what attracts you to these types of personalities? What do you get out of these relationships? What old dramas or wounds are you recreating and replaying? What are the benefits and costs of doing so?
Blaming narcissists, borderlines and other garden variety jerks for the relationship problems and break-up is easy. It’s easy and lazy. Healthy, functional adults end relationships that are one-sided, exploitative, abusive and destructive. “But I loved her or him!” or “I stayed to protect the kids!” also don’t cut it as reasons to stay in a toxic relationship.
You may genuinely believe these things. However, they’re both examples of faulty reasoning. Abuse and codependency aren’t love. And the only way to protect children from a disordered parent is to remove them from their care. If you want to have healthy relationships moving forward, looking at this stuff is unavoidable.
I understand how hard it is. I’ve struggled with some of these issues, too. If you want to be healthier and, subsequently, have healthier relationships, there’s no getting around it. You have to do the work. Good news! The anticipatory fear of confronting these issues is often far worse than the emotional experience of consciously and actively confronting them.
What do you gain from unhealthy relationships?
As depressed, anxious and sick as you felt in these relationships, you got into them and stayed in them because you were getting something out of them. I’m not talking about the initial pink cloud of the love bombing stage, holding onto your assets or being able to see your kids everyday. There’s more to it. Namely, you likely derive secondary gain and avoid secondary costs by maintain your habitual style of relating.
This may seem counter-intuitive or perhaps like “victim-blaming.” Consider the following:
- If you have a repetitive pattern of unhealthy, neurotic, self-sabotaging and destructive behaviors and choices;
- Are unhappy/dissatisfied/miserable with the results of these behaviors and choices, and;
- Keep doing these behaviors and making similar choices despite your misery, odds are there’s a reason.
It’s not because the personality disordered and other self-absorbed, selfish, immature people are all that clever. Even before they remove the mask of normalcy, there are indicators. For example, healthy adults don’t love bomb! Some therapists may tell you that you enjoy the drama. That’s an over-simplification. Again, there’s much more to it.
If your issues go back to childhood, it’s probably a combination of repetition compulsion, codependency, trauma bonding and secondary gains and losses. Repetition compulsion is the unconscious attempt to gain mastery over an early traumatic event or relationship by recreating and repeating it with the aim of having a different, happier outcome in the present. Codependency is a dysfunction of interpersonal relating. It’s a repertoire of behaviors and beliefs learned in childhood about yourself, relationships and how to get your needs met. Codependents typically confuse being needed with being loved.
Healthy emotional bonds develop from feelings of affection, trust, healthy dependency and shared experiences (positive and negative) from time spent together. Bonds can also develop from trauma like war, or, on an interpersonal level, betrayal and abuse. Patrick Carnes, PhD (1997) observes, “Logic would say that using fear and threat is not a good way to gain cooperation and loyalty. The irony is that in a perverse way it is. Fear immobilizes and deepens attachment.” Trauma bonds are usually harder to break than bonds built on affection and trust. This is why grieving the loss of toxic relationships is more difficult and complex.
Secondary gains and secondary losses are unconscious psychological motivators that help maintain self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors that aren’t readily obvious. For example, you want a healthy relationship that’s mutual, reciprocal and emotionally and physically intimate with a kind, gentle, strong, trustworthy, interesting (and by interesting I don’t mean a case study for a psychology textbook) partner. Yet, you keep choosing the opposite of that.
Yes, yes, I know. The ex seemed to be have all those qualities for the first 180 days. That doesn’t explain the decade after the first 180 days, or the three successive relationships since then with women/men who have similar issues though, does it?
When trying to change longstanding patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, it’s critical to identify and understand self-imposed obstacles that perpetuate the old ways of being. For example, an alcoholic, “Joe,” desperately wants to stop drinking, but continues to relapse. One could argue Joe lacks self-control or attribute his drinking to the disease model. Or, we could look at the motivators that reinforce Joe’s drinking.
Most of Joe’s friends congregate at the pub (i.e., affiliation needs) and drinking is part of his work culture (i.e., affiliation and financial security). Additionally, drinking helps Joe cope with a loveless, sexless marriage and chronically angry, critical wife. If Joe sobers up, he may lose friends, clients and his job and have to deal with the reality of his unhappy marriage.
Dr. Will Joel Friedman, PhD discusses “motivational hidden agendas and perceptual blind spots of human endeavors” in his article, The Benefits of Suffering and the Costs of Well Being: Secondary Gains and Losses. According to Friedman, secondary gains are “benefits or advantages which people often derive or receive from their physical, neurotic, and character disorders as well as life difficulties. It is theorized that the individual does not consciously and intentionally search for these benefits, but that there is a payoff (i.e., some enjoyment) in them.”
Friedman provides two lists in his article regarding the benefits of suffering and the costs of being well. There are similarities and differences among the secondary gains and losses of the personality disordered and the codependent. What both the codependent and the disordered share is neither wants to make personal changes, yet expects their partner and the relationship to be different.
Narcissists and borderlines want to keep narcissisting and borderlining without experiencing negative consequences. The codependent wants the NPD/BPD to be the person they pretended to be during the love bombing stage — all the admiration, excitement and euphoria and none of the pain, disillusionment and craziness. Codependents would also like the NPD/BPD to reciprocate the care giving. Not going to happen.
The benefits of suffering or secondary gains from Friedman’s list I observe most commonly in my practice include:
1. “(Negative) attention, thinking oneself invisible, useless or valueless.” Staying in these relationships maintains beliefs developed in childhood about your sense of worth and identity in relationships. Do you believe it’s your job to take care of others? Is it how you derive a sense of worth, e.g., how much a partner “needs” you? Healthy adult partners don’t “need” you like disordered people “need” you.
Healthy adults want companionship, support (not enabling), emotional depth and intimacy (not intensity), physical intimacy, mutual loyalty (not blind loyalty to an abuser) and mutual trust. A healthy adult doesn’t require fixing, saving and doesn’t go from one self-created mess to the next, expecting you to clean up after them. Deriving a sense of worth and importance from pushing the broom behind an adult toddler is sad and unhealthy. It’s also not love. It’s an example of continuing to play the role of the parentified child as an adult.
2. “(False) self being built up by knocking another self down.“ It’s true narcissists and borderlines see themselves as victims when they’re, in fact, usually the aggressors. They believe you deserve to be treated the way they treat you. Isn’t it also true that, in comparison to an emotionally volatile and irrational narcissist or borderline, you feel healthier, more rational and even superior to such a chaotic individual?
Now consider who’s crazier? The person projecting, gaslighting, exploiting, lying and engaging in emotional reasoning? Or the person trying to reason with and trying to fix Crazy? Many clients, if they’re being truthful, don’t want to give up the position of being the healthier, saner and more stable partner. They’re afraid a healthy adult wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with them. If you’re being honest with yourself, being honest to an emotionally mature partner and not engaging in old unhealthy defense mechanisms, you have the makings of a healthy relationship.
3. “(Unhealthy) laziness and resigning oneself to helplessness.” You don’t have to make any changes — emotional, psychological, attitudinal or philosophical. In other words, you can continue to avoid dealing with your stuff. Alternately, repeatedly being in no-win situations can cause a sense of despair and learned helplessness. You’re not actually helpless, though. It’s possible to triumph in no-win situations. You do so by removing yourself from the source of the no-win situations.
4. “(Negative) acting out unrealistic fears and anxieties, including being alone, unloved, unwanted, rejected, not good enough, worthless, undeserving, disliked, and stupid.” Many clients believe this is how *all* relationships are, how *all* women are or how *all* men are, so why bother ending the relationship. They also often believe staying with their abuser is better than being alone, or that no one else will love them. Of course, staying in the relationship compounds these fears and faulty beliefs.
That which is familiar, even if it sucks, is often less scary than the unknown. Additionally, many clients feel comfortable “functioning” in their dysfunction because it’s familiar. They don’t have to feel the fear of change or the fear of taking new (and hopefully healthier) risks such as being in a relationship with a healthy adult.
5. “Misguided attachments (i.e., “have to’s”), tied to pleasing someone’s performance standard and obtaining love, or to avoid displeasing someone’s performance standard and losing love.” This is basically a codependent person’s raison d’être. If you become healthier, you won’t be able to tolerate (at least not for long) being around toxic, psychologically stunted people. Furthermore, if you lose a partner’s, a parent’s, a sibling’s or a friend’s love for making healthy choices and taking care of yourself, they don’t love you! They want you to stay unhealthy and weak, so they can retain control and feel better about themselves.
People who love you want you to be happy, healthy and well. They don’t demand that you harm yourself to prove your love and devotion to them. They encourage you to practice self-care and to have interests and friendships that aren’t controlled by or revolve around them.
6. “To think oneself as important, “special”, indispensable, or irreplaceable.” This is what some people describe as “the narcissism of the codependent.” It’s the leftover magical thinking of the former parentified child that he/she can fix their parent and obtain love, admiration and approval by being extra good, selfless, high-achieving, etc. In an adult, it’s hubris to believe you can fix, save, rescue or love someone into changing their personality, or personality disorder as the case may be.
It’s also hubris to believe that any adult won’t survive without you. If we’re talking about narcissists and borderlines, they often line up their replacement happy meal before your relationship with them has ended. You’re just starting the grieving process and they’re feeding off their next host.
7. “To obtain the addictive mood change desired (i.e., obtain an adrenaline rush / “buzz” or create high drama/personal soap opera).” Dysfunctional and/or abusive relationships are characterized by periods of high arousal, emotional intensity and trauma bonding. Healthy relationships typically don’t feature disappearing and reappearing acts, alternating periods of calm and chaos, I love you and I hate you or hyper-sexuality followed by no or very infrequent sex.
The sympathetic nervous system (i.e., the fight, flight or freeze response) is in overdrive, which releases adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. This plays a significant role in developing Complex-PTSD. It’s also why so many clients feel bored with healthy people and stable relationships. You can’t get off a decades long, non-stop emotional roller coaster ride and expect to walk straight. Life and relationships are different (i.e., better) once you’re off the roller coaster and become acclimated to stable ground.
8. “Avoidance of conflict, yelling, domination, and aggression.” Many people stay in toxic relationships due to FOG (fear, obligation, guilt). They’re afraid to demand better treatment and/or end the relationship because they legitimately fear how their irrational, accountability-allergic partner will react. So you basically remain in a painful relationship in order to avoid feeling more pain. For many clients, the real time pain and fear of staying in the relationship has to exceed the anticipatory pain and fear of losing the relationship before they’re ready to leave.
9. “To obtain sympathy, pity, and others feeling sorry for him or her.” In my clinical experience, abuse victims generally fall into one of two groups. Either they keep the abuse secret from everyone — friends, family and even therapists — and then choose someone to confide in as a precursor to exiting the relationship. Or, they’re a member of every narcissistic abuse online support forum and Facebook group, complaining about their spouse with no immediate plans (if ever) to end the relationship.
The former group is more likely to get out, do the work, heal and make healthier choices. The latter group tends to avoid taking personal responsibility for their choices and becomes indignant when other Shrink4Men Forum members, for example, confront them about their unwillingness to make necessary changes. This is typically when the latter flounces off in a huff and doesn’t return to the forum. Sometimes, this is a stage in the healing process. Some people never go beyond this stage, sadly.
If you’re unready or unwilling to address these issues, it’s unlikely you’ll develop an attraction to and appreciation for healthy women and men. You’ll continue to feel “bored” or a lack of “chemistry” when presented with the opportunity of an honest to goodness healthy reciprocal adult relationship. Even if you attract a healthy person to you, they probably won’t tolerate your old codependent behaviors (e.g., people pleasing, withdrawing, avoiding conflict, avoiding true intimacy, avoiding healthy vulnerability, etc.,) for too long.
Alternately, you could stumble upon another codependent who’s also doing the work (this has happened to several clients). In which case, she or he is likely to be more tolerant and patient of your baggage if you’re willing to be honest with yourself and them about your residual issues and are making the effort to resolve them. It’s actually quite beautiful witnessing clients experience this kind of relationship. There’s typically a mutual understanding derived from similar experiences, an acceptance of old wounds, fears and vulnerabilities, a gentleness in confronting each other about their respective stuff and a joyful appreciation of all of the above.
Dating Again, Part Three will discuss the costs or secondary losses that come with changing and healing. I hope to have it completed by the end of this week, so please check back.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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