After my previous two posts about how relationships with our dads or other early caregivers affect our current romantic relationships, many of you asked questions and shared your experiences. In particular, one email exchange offered a beautiful illustration of what I’ve been trying to capture in these posts. The reader who emailed agreed to let me rewrite and publish a condensed and edited version of our exchange. (Some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)
Dear Dr. Jen,
I always felt I had to take care of my mom. She was a free spirit who loved to party, and she did a lot of drifting around from place to place. I remember being seven years old and, at the time, my mom was living at this beach house with whatever boyfriend she was dating that month.
Wherever my mom was, it was party time. There were always tons of people over at her house, and there was always lots of music, dancing, and laughing. There was also a lot of drinking and smoking pot.
One afternoon during one of these parties, I wandered up to the roof deck. As I stood on the deck alone, I could hear all the music and laughter from the adults below. It suddenly occurred to me that if I stayed up on this deck and didn’t return to the party, no one would know I was gone – at least not until tomorrow when my mom would finally wake up and need me to make her coffee.
I remember that as I sat there, I felt panic and then deep sadness. I was suddenly very aware of how invisible and meaningless I felt. The feeling of sadness started to become so intense that I started to get scared. When this happened I immediately ran back down to the party and tried to tell my mom what I had just experienced. She told me I was being negative and said not to think about things like that.
Flash forward thirty years. Now, I am in my late 30s and have been in a long-term, on-again off-again relationship with a man similar to my mom.
Like my mom, he’s so much fun to hang out with and so easy to laugh with. But, also like my mom, he can’t function as an adult – he can’t take care of himself financially, can’t keep a job, etc., etc.
When things are good between us, they are near perfect, and I feel like I am with my true soul mate. Our relationship pattern is that we will date and have the best of times together. Then inevitably we’ll get into a fight over something stupid. He usually blames me for the fight saying that I’m insecure or too sensitive.
I’m willing to consider if this is true, but I’m worried he is just trying to get out of taking responsibility for his part of the fight, which makes me not want to take responsibility for my part.
After a fight, we usually stop talking for several days and the sadness I feel without him becomes unbearable. I am usually the one who will apologize for everything and beg him to work things out with me. When we do get back together, things are great for a while and then we are back to the same pattern again.
I’m in the midst of one of those breakups right now, and, of course, I’m devastated. I’m fighting so hard not to call him, but I feel so much love for him and feel lost and sad without him.
Today my therapist helped me realize that the sadness that I feel right now is the same sadness that scared me so many years ago on my mom’s roof-deck. I feel that same overwhelming feeling of not being cared about or missed. I want to go running back to my boyfriend (like I ran back to the party) to stop the complete feeling of despair. My therapist asked me if I could try to tolerate some of these feelings instead of running back to him. I want to, but I don’t know how.
And here is my response:
My Dear Sweet Friend,
I must say that I am so impressed by your courage and insight. Deep sadness about feeling lost and meaningless is one of the most painful places to sit. Of course, what makes it more difficult is that in your early and recent relationships, you have been told that you’re “negative” and “too sensitive” if you let yourself experience or express these feelings.
However, it sounds like this is stuff you already know. What you’re asking now is how do we tolerate some of these painful feelings when they come up. I wish I had an easy answer for you, but I don’t. The only way out is to go through it. The good news is that it is possible, it just takes a lot of time and patience and practice. Remember, when you were a child, you were stuck with your mother’s life choices and bound to her opinions of you. Now you have options.
Replacing an old habit with a new skill is like learning a foreign language as an adult. It’s not easy and will definitely take much practice and focus with a lot of space for mistakes and learning. And of course, when we are out of our comfort zone (feeling sad and lost), we can’t help but want to run back to what feels comfortable and natural. But, as we’ve been discussing in recent posts, what your history taught you was “normal,” was not actually normal, and still is not good for you, even if allowing yourself to fall back into these patterns of beliefs and actions temporarily gives you some relief from the pain.
It sounds like your therapist is on hand to help you with this process, which I’m glad to hear. Learning new skills (especially emotional skills) almost always requires a teacher and guide.
What I recommend is that you allow yourself much time and space to heal, knowing that your process will not be perfect. You will take steps forward and steps back. But stay committed to yourself by learning and growing. You are SO worth it.
All my best to you!