By Nancy Poitou,
M.A., M.F.T., C.T.S. ©1999
Unfortunately we do not have enough pronouns and saying he or she, or s/he is clumsy. In this article it may sound as though I am characterizing men and women in different ways. I want to be clear that the examples I use, men do this and women do that are only for ease of reading. Both sexes make the mistakes and do the behaviors I describe. I have chosen pronouns by which sex seems to lean toward that particular behavior more often.
As a relationship therapist I have made observations of the troubled relationships in my practice. Non-professionals do not get any training or education in relationships nor parenting unless they seek it out or come to a therapist’s office when in crisis. Yet these are two of the most important roles in life. The only examples a person has in life is their parents and if those role models were not good, that means that people not only don’t have an understanding but may be starting out in life with a misunderstanding of relationships.
Tao means the “path” or the “way.” Tao is the way of ultimate reality, it exceeds all thoughts and imaginings, known only through mystical insight. Though words fall short, aspects can be described as both transcendent and immanent it is the way, the power, and the ordering principle of all life. Spirit that does not end, it is the graceful, flowing and infinite. The Tao is the way human beings can order their lives to be in harmony with the way the universe functions. It is the paradox and mystery of the universe. Like love. A paradox of being in harmony with rather than striving for specific outcomes. “Taoism’s approach is the opposite -- to get the foundations of the self in turn with Tao and let behavior flow spontaneously.” (Huston, p.277)
One of my observations of relationships is that those seeking a relationship want one too much and those in a relationship where the newness has worn off don’t want it enough. Single people seeking a relationship are way too anxious and in a hurry to be in a relationship and are therefore vulnerable to not seeing the prospective partner objectively and not using critical thinking. Low self-esteem is often behind this. The want a relationship to prove to themselves and the world that they are lovable. This is the basis of many relationship problems.
Some of the mistakes are:
1. Making An Impression. Putting far more energy into making a favorable impression on a prospective partner than evaluating whether this is a person is someone with whom they would want to be in a relationship. Thus they are not being an objective observer of the prospective partner. Examples: Most often it is the woman who will do this, the man may talk about himself for a while, then ask his date, tell me about yourself. She will tell him not about herself but rather what she thinks he wants in a woman. A man will begin a relationship acting as though money were no object, only later does the truth surface, she find out that he is deeply in debt and does not manage his money well. (This goes along with 2. Not knowing oneself and 3. Inauthentic.)
2. Not Knowing Oneself. Denying their own desires, feeling and opinions. Thus they set a precedent in the relationship of not speaking their truth. Later this backfires, once they finally begin to disagree they are already involved way over their head with someone who is now shocked to find out what they really feel. (This goes along with 3. Inauthentic.) The Tao Teh Ching states, “He who knows men is clever; He who knows himself has insight.” (Tzu, Ch. 33)
3. Inauthentic. Chameleon like behavior, meaning they are suddenly interested in the prospective partner’s interests and hobbies. I have seen people change their majors in college to the same major as the prospective partner, with each new relationship comes a new major. The prospective partner may have voiced an opinion regarding some aspect of life, though an important aspect of their of their life, they often down play that importance, again the truth always surfaces later and you’ll hear them defending, “If you really love me, you will be supportive and accept this about me.”
4. Fools Rush In. Not being able to tolerate the anxiety of dating and getting to know a prospective partner slowly means the individual often becomes sexually, emotionally, socially and sometimes financially involved before they know the person behind the mask, the authentic self. Don’t just pay attention to what a prospective partner says about themselves, but how is it demonstrated in their life? Do they say they love kids, but never see their own? Do they say they are ambitious and want a degree and a career, but drop out of school three months later? How do they talk about their “ex’s”? If there is contact, is it amiable? Does he describe every woman he ever had a relationship with as a bitch? But tells you how nice you are? I estimate that in most cases, you have barely scratched the surface of the authentic person until you have had six months of steady contact. What I see is they go out, very soon talking on the phone every day, seeing each other several times a week, before long they are living together and only 3 months have passed. Usually by that time the problems they had in their last relationship have already begun to surface.
5. Abandoning Your Authentic Self. They give up their own friendships, interests and activities to be available to the prospective partner. Their life goes on hold. Thus expecting the prospective partner to do the same and meet all their needs. Some go to the extreme, one man sold the airplane he had been rebuilding for the previous ten years, flying was a lifelong interest. He said he needed to sell it to get married though his girlfriend did not want him to sell it, she knew the plane was important and did not want him to be bitter about selling it years later. It was also somewhat manipulative, “see I gave up this to marry you, now you must marry me.” She later broke off the engagement, he was devastated and no longer had his plane.
6. Opposites Attract. For example an introvert may be attracted to an extrovert, because the extrovert makes it easy for them to meet and get to know people. Later in the relationship they are tired of being around other people so much and want to spend quiet time alone so they begin to try to change the partner. The qualities that first attracted them are the very reasons they become dissatisfied. Qualities that attract us to someone are qualities we are better off developing within ourselves. Yes, opposites do attract, but do not make good relationships. Seek a partner that is more like you, and has similar values and interests. Another example is one partner saying, he’s good for me because his frugality will help me find balance. Only later to be fed up with the tightwad who is now perceived as being a penny pincher. This line of thinking is a form of justification and denial.
7. Denial. Some relationships that start as an affair are in denial about trust. They think that the prospective partner would never cheat on them, because their relationship will be different and the excuse or justification for this betrayal is accepted because they are nothing like the last partner. Some people habitually get involved with the next person before letting go of the previous relationship. (Very needy) Another example, one of my supervisors tells a story about a couple that met in a bar and in that first meeting she gets insulted and pours a drink over his head. Now she complains that he is an alcoholic. The clues were there from day one, she just refused to see them.
8. Cultural Conditioning. Again a lack of critical thinking. Our culture looks at relationships through rose colored glasses, never so much as considering do they really want to be in a relationship or have children, then are shocked when they realize they are unhappy. Most people assume they need a relationship to be happy. The reality is that the segment of the population that is most at risk for depression is married women with young children. Statistics show that single, divorced and widowed women cope better and are happier than men in the same situations. For men the opposite is true. How did we buy into the cultural lie that women want and need marriage and men don’t? Men actually need women more than women need men.
9. Unrealistic Thinking. Thinking the other person will change after they are married. If there are problems before marriage, I will guarantee that those problems will only get worse after marriage. If you are not happy now do not marry thinking things will change. Some people justify marriage because then there will be an official commitment and he won’t be so insecure, jealous and suspicious all the time. I wish marriage licenses contained that kind of magic.
10. Misperception. Mistaking jealous, controlling behavior for love. It is abuse not love. It is about insecurity and low self esteem. Or the reverse. Thinking that they need to control the other person to keep them in the relationship. A lot of very needy behavior is thinking that they can keep the other person by clinging, being suspicious, having them account for every moment of their time apart or simply not allowing the other to have any outside relationships. This behavior will only result in driving the other person away, the opposite of what was intended. If you cannot trust the person, you shouldn’t be in a relationship with them. The Tao, “He who conquers men has force; He who conquers himself is truly strong.” (Tzu, Ch. 33) Let go, if they choose to be with you, you can be sure they are there for the right reasons. Neediness is not attractive, confidence is. If you are that needy then you need to go to therapy and not be in a relationship until you can let go. “When you are lacking in faith, Other will be unfaithful to you.” (Tzu, Ch. 17)
The Tao Teh Ching has quite a bit to teach us.
“Man at his best, like water,
Serves as he goes along:
Like water he seeks his own level,
The common level of life. (Ch. 8).”
(Huston, p. 279)
We need to learn about letting go and allowing life and love to find it’s own level. If you have to struggle in a relationship to keep it together you are fighting the Tao. If you fight about making a commitment, making a greater commitment under pressure is asking for trouble. If people were to let go and not try so hard to be in a relationship they run the risk of not being in a relationship for a longer periods of time, but they are more likely to be available when the right person comes along rather than pursuing every prospective partner, changing colors like a chameleon, attempting to make it work, (pushing the river) becoming frustrated and cynical. Chasing after a relationship with another rather than pursuing a relationship with oneself, this only makes you less interesting because you don’t bring much to the relationship. If you have a solid relationship with yourself, like your own company, you will be a lot more selective about who you pair up with and able to tolerate the anxiety of getting to know another person slowly so that you not only know yourself, but hopefully will avoid making the mistakes I have mentioned.
“What is well planted cannot be uprooted.” (Tzu, Ch. 54)
Avoiding a relationship with oneself and being constantly on the hunt for a partner says something about not being whole, seeking wholeness outside of yourself. If you don’t like being alone with you how can you expect someone else to? There is such a fear of being alone and the perception that there is something wrong with you if you are not in a relationship that causes fools to rush in so they can prove to the world and themselves, “see I am lovable, because I am in a relationship.”
“Those who flow as life flows know
They need no other force:
They feel no wear, they feel no tear,
They need no mending, no repair. ”
(Tzu, Ch. 15)
The wisdom of “you must love yourself first before you can truly love another or have another love you” may sound like a cliché’ but I find a great deal of truth in it. Healthy relationships mean spending time together and time alone and trusting enough to spend time apart. Often in the beginning of a relationship people choose tone and words carefully, yet after they are in a committed relationship and the mask has fallen away, often feelings are expressed without regard to the words or tone that can make a huge difference in the way in which the words are received. Therapists see the need for good communication skills, teaching couples the difference between taking responsibility for one’s own feelings or making the partner responsible. There is a huge difference between blaming, “You made me angry . . . “ and taking responsibility and information, “I feel angry when you . . .” Sharing information and feelings about matters gives the other more understanding of your thought process.
Years into a relationship we often take the other for granted. Men are shocked when after years of marriage the woman up and leaves. She has been telling him what she needs and had he been listening and taking her seriously he could have prevented the breakup. Then suddenly he tries to get her back by romancing her. But often it is too little, too late. If your partner suggests couples therapy, do not hesitate. It is much better to go sooner and be proactive than trying to repair a broken relationship. Married therapists will go see another therapist at the first sign of a problem, “a marriage tune-up.” Once problems are ignored and the fighting and anger begin, it soon spirals out of control. Then the hurt and damage to the relationship is now a mountain rather than a bump in the road. Often by the time most couples seek therapy it is already too late. Therapists will find out that the couple does not spend any time on their relationship, quality time alone with just the two of them. They often by that time have no relationship. It is as though before a commitment people tend to be overly flexible and later on become inflexible.
I often hear, “He never . . .” or “She always . . .”, one of the quickest ways to doom a relationship. Eliminate never and always from your vocabulary. I will often say “oh really he never expressed his feelings? Then you knew that before you married him.” What was meant to show me how awful the partner is shows me just how much denial she has been in since the very beginning. It gives the partner no credit for any attempts to ever talk about his feelings. And it is hope banishing if he has any idea of trying to change. As therapists we create a space for change, hold the hope even when the client feels hopeless. I assume that the individual is capable and has tried in the past, but either didn’t know how, or felt discouraged when he tried. A much more hopeful and less judgmental attitude would be to say, “I would really like to know more about what he feels.” It sounds more like an invitation to share, rather than a judgment about his total lack of communication about his feelings. If he has tried and his efforts have gone unnoticed, evidenced by the fact that she believes that he never talks about his feelings, it is likely to be so discouraging he will give up.
One of the most prevalent problems I see is expressing anger when the original feeling is something else. Feeling hurt should be expressed as “I felt hurt when you said . . .” Not only is it the truth, it is a lot easier to respond to and address than anger. Most likely it is a defense mechanism learned early on to protect one from the vulnerable feelings like hurt. Some people are not aware of the true feelings the habit is so ingrained. How can anyone communicate and get their needs met if they cannot identify and express feelings other than anger? I have heard men say women are so emotional, yet they respond to every uncomfortable feeling with anger and don’t think that anger is an emotion. Men are actually just as emotional as women, they just have more cultural conditioning to conquer before they can recognize that they have feelings besides anger. Trying to control the other, or get your needs met through anger and criticism is not only ineffective, but also damages the relationship. The Tao, “A good soldier is never aggressive; A good fighter is never angry.” (Tzu, Ch. 68) It also reminds of an Elvis Costello song that goes, “Two little Hitlers fight it out until, one little Hitler does the other one’s will.”
We thoughtlessly unconsciously react in relationships is one reason relationship difficulties spiral out of control. It is far better to take a time-out when the discussion gets too emotional so that we can regain objectivity and focus on solutions rather than blaming and in the heat of anger saying things that will be regretted later. Sometimes in an out of control argument partners have broken possessions of the other, items that might be very personally meaningful to them. How is this supposed to get you what you want or need in a relationship? People seem to think one person wins and the other loses. The truth is they both lose. Even if they do go on to repair the relationship and stay together sometimes the hurt and the damage done in this out of control fighting lingers, smoldering, and one day years later when you think it long forgotten, in an unconscious moment anger slips out, and not only has it not been forgotten, you find the resentment has built. It never helps to put the other down and say or do things that cause hurt. The old golden rule is the best foundation on which to help us have any skill in relationships. If your partner had something to tell you that might hurt your feelings how would you like to be told? Think about this first before speaking.
If people would know themselves and be authentic in interacting with prospective partners rather than trying so hard to impress the other, many bad relationships would never even begin. If we do what is truly best for us, it will also be best for those around us. No matter how much a partner tries to convince us that the reason they are so angry is because they love us so much, you are doing the partner no favors by giving in and staying in the relationship when you are miserable. To break off a relationship because it is not good for you is not only good for you but for your partner as well. He or she will forced to re-evaluate their beliefs and habits in relationships. The Tao, “Truly, one may gain by losing; And one may lose by gaining.” (Tzu, Ch. 42 )
Sometimes an individual will come to therapy depressed over the breakup of a relationship, but stop therapy immediately when they start a new relationship, because the depression has lifted. It is normal to be depressed over the breakup of a relationship. Getting re-involved before working through the last one to a point where you can be once again happy alone is once again the wrong reason to be in a relationship, the neediness puts too much reliance on the partner to “make them happy,” thus the rebound relationship, an escape from, not a resolution of the feelings of depression nor the reasons the relationship broke up. Under the circumstances this is the best time to be in therapy, to become conscious about what went wrong in the last relationship, and learn new relationship skills while beginning to get to know someone. The Tao says, “He who feels punctured, must once have been a bubble.” (Huston, p. 291)
If authenticity were the rule rather than the exception like water running downstream seeking its own level, we would automatically pair up with the best match. As long as people continue to try so hard they make the mistakes I have observed, continue to seek fulfillment and completion through another rather that seeking it within. One who seeks fulfillment and completion within is a far better partner. They want the relationship because they love the other for who they truly are and not because they need a relationship to feel whole, complete, loved or fulfilled. They see the other clearly and not project what they want to see in order to justify their need.
Learn to love and accept your self and you will learn to love and accept others.
Sage advice from the Tao.....
“The highest form of goodness is like water.
Water knows how to benefit all things without striving with them.
It stays in places loathed by all men.
Therefore, it comes near the Tao.
In choosing your dwelling, know how to keep to the ground.
In cultivating your mind, know how to dive in the hidden deeps.
In dealing with others, know how to be gentle and kind.
In speaking, know how to keep your words.
In governing, know how to maintain order.
In transacting business, know how to be efficient.
In making a move, know how to choose the right moment.
If you do not strive with others,
You will be free from blame.” (Tzu, Ch. 8)
Tzu, Lao (1990) Tao Teh Ching. Boston & London: Shambhala.
Smith, Huston ( 1986) The Religions of Man. New York: Harper and Row Publishers
Gibran, Kahlil (1923) The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
unknown author, Letting Go
Costello, Elvis (1990) Two Little Hitlers.