The other day I got a call from a woman, Shelley, who described her relationship with a man she was living with, a man who alternated between being emotionally abusive and emotionally cold and withdrawn. She responded with all the Getting and Protecting Behaviors, so you can imagine how their relationships was going. Both of them were a complete mess. Then she asked me what she should do.
Now, I don’t propose to know what anybody should do, but I have had enough experience with human relationships to make reasonable suggestions based on what I see in any given set of circumstances. So I said to Shelley, “Is there any doubt in your mind that your boyfriend is terribly empty and afraid?”
“No,” she said.
“How about you?” I asked. “Is there any doubt that you are empty and afraid?”
She paused, so I continued, “This is not an accusation of you, sweetie, just an attempt to make an accurate description, which is absolutely necessary before you can make a good decision about what to do next. If you don’t recognize what is true, how can you make good decisions about what to do?”
“But I don’t think I’m empty and afraid all the time,” she said.
I chuckled. “So if your boyfriend is doing everything you want — which is pretty rare — then you do well. But the moment he becomes difficult — angry or withdrawn or whatever — you don’t do well at all, do you?”
“No, not really.”
“So if you’re getting everything you want, you’re not empty and afraid, but do you see how that doesn’t mean much? Your emptiness and fear are either right out in the open or lying right under the surface all the time, so you’re not really in a better position than your boyfriend. Do you see that now?”
“Well . . .”
“It’s your Getting and Protecting Behaviors that prove it. You feel like a victim almost all day, every day. You get angry very easily. You withdraw from your boyfriend and from other people a lot. These Getting and Protecting Behaviors exist only in response to emptiness and fear, proving that you really are empty and afraid almost constantly. It’s critical that you see that.”
“It’s starting to make more sense now.”
“So both you and your boyfriend are empty and afraid. You’re both drowning and confused. In that condition, what are the odds you could have a healthy, fulfilling relationship?”
“Really, more like zero.”
“So what are you suggesting.”
“What do you want more than anything?”
“To be happy.”
“Perfect goal. Just perfect. And that will require that you get a great deal more Real Love in your life. That’s the only way you could be happy. You’re just barely learning how to do that, and every time you move a tiny step forward, you have a negative interaction with your boyfriend, who can suck all the love out of a room in an instant, and then you’re right back to the beginning again. Is that fair to say?”
“Pretty much, yes.”
“Keep in mind that I’m not criticizing him here. I’m really describing your inability to deal with difficult situations. Imagine that you’re a seedling, just barely coming out of the ground. In order to grow, you need the very best of soil, sun, water, and temperature. In fact, without the right environment, you might die. Would it be wise for us to put you out in the desert?”
“Or on a mountaintop, in the snow?”
“Not because there is something inherently wrong with those places — deserts and mountaintops can be great places for some things — but we’d be foolish to put you there because those places would simply be too difficult for the growth of most seedings. And that’s the case with you and your boyfriend. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with him. He has his own path to walk, his own lessons in life to learn — and I find no fault with that — but at this point he’s just too difficult an environment for you. You can’t learn and grow around him.”
“You’re saying I should leave him.”
“Oh, sweetie, I’m not saying you should do anything. I’m just describing how things are. You’re just learning what happiness and Real Love are. You’re far too weak to be in an environment as difficult as the one created by your boyfriend.”
“How do you know I can’t learn this while I’m living with him?”
“Oh, I suppose there exists a mathematical possibility that you could do it, but why would you want to? Your primary goal is to be happy, not to succeed in a relationship with this particular man. In fact, the second goal may make the first goal impossible.”
“But how do you know?”
“Suppose you’re a horse trainer. You want to run a horse in an important race, but the horse is limping, and you want my opinion — as an expert horse veterinarian — about whether the horse can win the race. After examining the horse physically and with X-rays, I discover that the horse has a serious fracture of his ankle. It’s a miracle that the horse can even walk, but I tell you that if the horse attempts to run, the ankle will surely shatter. I know this from extensive experience with thousands of horses. Will you ignore my advice and run the horse in the race anyway?”
“No, but — ”
“And that’s the kind of advice I’m giving you now. I’ve intimately interviewed thousands of people in relationships and watched the results of their decisions and their behaviors. Both you and your boyfriend are literally crippled emotionally, and you want to know if you can run a race together. Sure, you could try, but the odds of your running successfully are exceptionally remote, while the odds that you’ll actually injure each other are quite high. So my question is, Why race?”
“So what should we do?”
“Again, I won’t tell you what you should do, but I can tell you that if you’re unprepared for a race, you might consider preparing for the race. What would we do with the horse with the broken ankle? Assuming the break were reparable, we’d prescribe a course of medical and perhaps even surgical treatment, followed by a long and intensive course of physical rehabilitation. Then, after a long period of rehab and testing, we’d try walking the horse, then jogging, then running. Someday we might even consider racing.”
“It would be the same with you,” I continued. “I would suggest that you study the principles of Real Love like your life depended on them, which it does. You’ll find that learning about Real Love and finding it is much, much easier when you don’t have someone around you who is constantly draining you with his emptiness and fear — like your boyfriend does. So then what you do is practice telling the truth about yourself so you can get all the love you can from people who actually have it to give. You do this with a wide variety of people, and all this practice with Real Love is a kind of emotional and spiritual rehabilitation. The more you get loved, the stronger you become, the more whole you feel, and eventually you’ll be able to participate in a healthy relationship.”
Most people are in such a hurry to be in a relationship, but because they’re completely unprepared to be unconditionally loving, they simply can’t have the kind of relationship they want. Every ounce of effort we exert to prepare ourselves for a relationship will repay us a hundredfold when we’re actually involved in one. If we attempt to take shortcuts, however, and become involved in a relationship before we’re prepared, the price we’ll pay is usually heavy indeed.
Delightfully, the preparation itself can be great fun. Finding Real Love and growing in our ability to love is a wonderful experience, not something we endure until we can find a relationship.
Prepare yourself for a healthy, fulfilling relationship
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