Did you know that the key to ending self-sabotage is to stop doing it?
No, not the most profound thing I've ever said or written, I know, but probably one of the truest.
Because as straightforward and as simple as it sounds the truth is if you want a different life - a better life - you have to stop everything you've been doing before to get it. And the end of a relationship is one of life’s way of giving you a moment to pause before moving on so that you don’t repeat the sins of your past.
Easier said than done, huh?
That’s because typically at the end of personal relationships, we tend to try to pick up the pieces and move on to the next one as quickly as possible, especially if we are carrying in ourselves a feeble definition of love. And, subsequently hastening the tendency to sabotage ourselves again if we haven’t taken the time to adequately reflect on what really went wrong.
However, if the only thing you’ve mastered in relationships is how to swiftly move on to the next one – and especially if you are like me and in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s – then it’s time to admit that your definition is faulty.
So, coming back to my first sentence: to stop your self-sabotage, you have to take the time and effort to really begin to understand and overcome your self-destructive behaviors first and stop doing them.
But don’t think this is self-righteous preaching. Because, again, I know full well it’s easier said than done.
Yes, even with my awareness of this concept, and my own work to heal, I admit that I still kept my fingernails dug into something that was dead and decaying until only recently.
So what was keeping me as a ghost haunting a relationship that was also dead?
It was “I love you.”
Three words that form a holy, sacred trinity in their own right. A sentence that by its simple structure completes one of the most powerful ideas there is on this planet. A phrase that can inspire and embolden. A phrase that is so potent that people are willing to die to protect and uphold it.
But, as history has proven, power is corruptible and can be misused, even unintentionally. And so it was, in our individual way to control what was happening to my ex and me, these coercive words had been passed back in forth over the last several months since the break-up. In text messages. Phone calls. And in person.
“I love you” had been used interchangeably in its present tense and past tense. Sometimes it was passionate, as in “I fucking loved you!” And sometimes sweet and sentimental.
It was volleyed back and forth from “I love you” to “So do I” during periods when we both were feeling particularly vulnerable because, in the end, we’d grown dependent on each other to always be there when we needed them.
And, sometimes those three words were sent out like a lone desperate arrow into the sky with an immeasurable sad and anxious silence following.
It’s obvious we had both been struggling to understand what it means. What the words mean. What we really meant when we said it to each other post-relationship. And they were keeping us both from moving on.
Defining “love” and its purpose has been a task taken up by scientists as well as poets. In its clinical definition, its feelings in the brain aroused purely by self-preservation and may be seen in some way exhibited by all animals on this planet. In its lyrical form, it’s pleasurable yet elusive, illogical, and sometimes painful.
But “unconditional love” - the primal love parents bestow onto their children – caring for them, nurturing them without any expectation that something should be given in return – is the bedrock for which all of our personal variations of love should be built upon.
And that is because unconditional love should be for most of us, our first love and only love we know. We learn it from the earliest moments of our existence and throughout our childhood. Receiving it is vital because it teaches us security in all forms.
But if our mothers or caregivers did not receive unconditional love and emotional support themselves, they, in turn, don’t know how to give it, and we didn’t get it in return.
So, in some families it is, especially when dealing with a narcissistic parent, when a child has to put their parent’s needs first, they learn that love is something to be “earned.” A transaction. And instead of being the “recipient”’ of your parent’s unconditional love, you become a “Giver.” And if you don’t continue to give, you learn that love as fickle and could abandon you at any time.
This is, in fact, the opposite of unconditional love. And this unstable foundation will unconsciously guide all of your relationships – with your family, your children and as well as your choice of romantic partners. Because some “Givers” grow up and remain “Givers” while others grow into “Takers” – demanding their due after having been denied it for so long.
To both, however, love will be anxious and approval-seeking. It will be “affirmations.” For a “Giver” it will be expecting less hugging, holding and attending by your partner to your own needs and instead replaced with acknowledgment of a “job well done.” Further, you will also hold the view that all love is scarce and stingy and only to be given when something is needed in return. Sadly, this will likely be how you will share love with your own children.
But the biggest casualty, whether you are a “Giver” or a “Taker” is not that you don’t know how to properly love other people, but you never learn to love yourself. That is because unconditional love also teaches you that you that you are special and important. Which in turn, boosts your own confidence in your self-worth. Therefore, you end up understanding what it’s like to love yourself first before you ever learn how to love another person. Or at least, that’s what you’re supposed to learn…
If you have a transactional view of love and don’t realize it, you won’t end up in romantic relationships with people with healthy views, unfortunately. Because if they give you their unconditional love – you will not feel worth it. It will leave you uneasy and unsettled. It will leave you doubting them and their affection. You will be waiting for the shoe to drop and for them to come back to you and expect something in return. Therefore, you will likely sabotage it or simply leave.
This form of “love” is unfaithful because it cheats you out of happiness and sets you up for involving yourself in enmeshed or co-dependent relationships with other partners who have their own unresolved childhood issues. You will find yourself with someone who is looking for your affirmation of their own self-worth – someone who needs you to show them how important and special they are. And if you’re lucky, they will, every once in awhile, you'll get the "I love you" you are desperate to hear.
Ross Rosenberg, a psychotherapist who specializes in relationships, shared these signs of an unhealthy, enmeshed relationship:
You neglect other relationships because of a preoccupation or compulsion to be in the relationship.
Your happiness or contentment relies on your relationship.
Your self-esteem is contingent upon this relationship.
When there’s a conflict or disagreement in your relationship, you feel extreme anxiety or fear or a compulsion to fix the problem.
When you’re not around this person or can’t talk to them, “a feeling of loneliness pervades [your] psyche. Without that connection, the loneliness will increase to the point of creating irrational desires to reconnect.”
There’s a “symbiotic emotional connection.” If they’re angry, anxious or depressed, you’re also angry, anxious or depressed. “You absorb those feelings and are drawn to remediate them.”
Enmeshment isn’t only for lovers and spouses. In fact, your first relationship in life is with your parents or caregivers and so if your romantic relationships are consistently co-dependent or enmeshed, it’s because you had a similar familial relationship growing up.
And these types of relationships are doom to fail if neither partner is able or willing to change. In her article, 6 Signs of a Codependent Relationship, licensed therapist Linda Esposito points out that resentment becomes a dominating force in a co-dependent relationship for the person who is the “giver.”
“Resentment builds when you don’t recognize your own needs and wants. A common behavioral tendency is to overreact or lash out when your partner lets you down. Lacking an internal locus of control means searching for external sources of validation and control. You might try to control your partner’s behaviors, so you can feel OK. You might act self-righteous and bossy, and make unreasonable demands on your partner. And when you realize you cannot control his or her moods or actions, you become disappointed, and may slide into a depressed state.”
And in this relationship, the words “I love you” are not intended to arouse a warm feeling of safety and peace for another person.
Instead, they are the “Takers” weapon, used to incite guilt as in “You wouldn’t do that if you loved me?” Or it’s a “Givers” bid for approval and acknowledgment - “Don’t you love me?” Or, as Rosenberg points out, saying "I love you" is a way to satisfy the irrational desire to reconnect.
And so, Catholics believe that some souls are not sufficiently free from the physical effects of sin and its consequences to enter the state of heaven immediately, requiring residence in purgatory. And for us, in our mortal state, purgatory becomes that place in your mind where you cleanse yourself of these unintended violations you’ve committed against your well-being before you can ascend to the heavenly blessings that unconditional love will bring.
But what is this earthly form of limbo? How do we cleanse ourselves of errors in love we may not have known we even had?
Well, Esposito starts with the fact, which is that we all have to travel back into time and address our childhood issues and link them up with our emotional patterns so that we can undo them. And due to the complexity and the painful confrontation with unresolved feelings of anger, hurt, loss and sadness, this will most likely require psychotherapy. And time. An unsettling unknown amount of time.
After the break-up, like many of us, I did try to move on romantically. Within a month after we were separated, I signed up on online dating sites because I had that familiar and anxious feeling that I needed to be loved and I wanted them to go away. So, the addict’s call for the dopamine & serotonin rush that comes from the early days of attraction urged me on.
But inside of me, the change was already starting to happen and shortly after that, I realized I didn’t want to spend the time to filter through emails, go on dates or any of the obligatory work required. I wanted to spend time with myself and my kids.
I did, however, stay in touch with one person – a man one year and several miles down the road in his own realm of self-reflection and repair. And he became somewhat of a guide and support for me. He was able to let me know that it would be okay and that the fear of being in this foggy space would go away and the skies would clear as my inner peace began to settle in.
For many months, however, I had one foot pressed onto the bones of the old relationship and one foot on the road of perdition. But straddling these two countries by yielding to the power of “I love you” was keeping me trapped and unable to really move in either direction.
So I had to finally accept the truth that I was afraid to do it - to let go once and for all – because the familiar pain of holding on felt better than the fear of not knowing how long I’d have to work before I loved myself completely.
Thankfully, with the support of friends as well as the efforts I was putting into therapy, I had learned to set new personal boundaries and to listen to the divine part of myself that said I was worth every minute, day, month or year it would take to try.
So, it was that I finally picked up my foot and stepped fully onto a private pathway that will lead me once and for all to my heaven on earth...
Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone. Women need solitude in order to find again the true essence of themselves; that firm strand which will be the indispensable center of a whole web of human relationships.
-Anne Morrow Lindbergh