Twice-divorced, Thomas Fiffer digs into his past—without dissing his exes—to distill wisdom for everyone on dysfunctional relationships.
I had a sucky first marriage. And a crappy second one, too. Some of it was about my partners. But a lot of it was about me. And all of it was because of me, meaning because of my choices—not just the partners I chose to be with, but how I chose to behave in my relationships, how I chose to respond, what I chose to believe (or deny, or delude myself into believing), the story I chose to fabricate for the world, and the courses of action I pursued—courses that may have been in my self-interest but surely weren’t in my best interest—along with my inability to distinguish between the two. That was a long sentence, but I was married for a total of 18 years, so I have a lot to say.
I’m also going to hold my tongue. This post is not an indictment of my ex-wives. It’s about taking responsibility for my own contributions, and helping other men and women who have been in, are stuck in, or are trying to exit similar situations get a handle on what’s happening and take appropriate action, as well as preventing others who have yet to experience the exquisite torture of a dysfunctional relationship from unnecessary suffering. So here are the seven things I wish I’d known before my two crazy marriages.
1. My emotional resources are not infinite. As we get older, we acknowledge we aren’t going to live forever, but it often takes a lot longer to admit we can’t love certain people forever—that we can’t soothe every ruffled feather (real or imaginary), absorb every intentional or unintentional blow, tolerate the poison of every toxic outburst, and navigate the floodwaters of constant negativity without our own reserves of love, goodwill, emotional energy, and sanity running dangerously dry. I thought I could do it all, especially given my secure, love-filled childhood, my seemingly endless patience, my people-pleasing skills, and my superior intelligence, which I didn’t realize was sorely lacking in its emotional quotient. High SAT scores and an Ivy League degree don’t prepare you to deal with dysfunction—your own or someone else’s. Compulsive givers always think we can give just a little bit more … until we realize we can’t. And then, we feel like a failure, and we try to keep giving—from emptiness. Giving from emptiness creates that horrible hollowed-out feeling and embodies the phrase, “he’s just a shell of his former self.” Focus on those words—former self. Because when you reach the end of your emotional rope, the self has been lost, abandoned in the fruitless quest to please another, and that loss has happened in the same way Hemingway describes bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises: “Gradually, then suddenly.”
2. Damage to the psyche is cumulative. This is the devastating corollary to number 1. We feel hurt; we get over it. We feel hurt; we get over it. Early on, the hurt seems bearable with sufficient pauses between injuries, our recovery fast enough, and the possibility that it will stop real. We think we can take it (I did), and we convince ourselves that pain will make us a stronger, better person. But as time passes, our damaged areas, tenderized by relentless assaults, become weeping open wounds that never heal completely. Damage to the psyche is not like a cut or a bruise, or even a broken bone, which can heal satisfactorily with few or no after-effects. Damage to the psyche has a half-life, and the stronger the damage, the longer it remains. Hurt a person at the core, cut him or her to the quick, and every new attack not only aggravates the old wound but precludes it from closing up, knitting together, and sealing over with healthy new skin. And damage to the psyche is also silent. This is why people in dysfunctional relationships reach a tipping point that often surprises both partners. In the movies, you see actors get riddled with bullets but keep on walking as if nothing has happened, then finally fall. You can only walk wounded for so long.
3. Broken people have to want to heal themselves. I was born with a gift for helping hurt people feel better, but I put too much stock in my own power. Healing and being healthy is a choice, and as partners of hurt people, we can only facilitate, not enact their healing. You can’t make people take care of themselves, or address their psychological and emotional issues, especially if they don’t admit they have any. Even a diagnosis doesn’t always set the scene for treatment or a cure. Broken people who devote their energy to breaking others so they can feel better about their brokenness have a lot invested in the lie that there’s nothing wrong with them—and that it’s all you. Their whole philosophy and world view are at stake, and dissing the diagnoser is much more appealing—and requires less effort—than dealing with the disease. They also find it preferable to use you as their happy drug, while blaming your inadequacies—some of which are real—for their misery. When you care about someone who’s broken, it’s excruciatingly painful and may even break something inside of you to realize that no matter how much love you pour on their wounds, and no matter how often you suture, you can’t heal them, that you can only surrender that healing to their own motivation, modern medicine, and God.
4. Emotional cruelty is never acceptable or excusable—ever. People—and especially intimate partners—get angry. Mostly, we get angry because we care. But there’s a huge difference between anger and cruelty. Anger is about expressing your own feelings of hurt, frustration, and indignation, with the goal of getting better treatment. Cruelty is about inflicting hurt on someone else, causing that person to feel pain. Cruel words hurt, but it’s the lies we tell ourselves to excuse those words that hurt the most. “He didn’t mean it.” “She overreacted.” “It was the heat of the moment.” “She has a temper.” And the worst, “I deserved it.” No pain, no gain may apply in exercise, but certain kinds of emotional pain don’t lead to growth or offer any benefit. On the contrary, this pain shrinks us and causes us to withdraw into ourselves. We begin to believe that our punishment is merited, that our partner “has a right to be angry,” and that we don’t deserve love. When we accept emotional cruelty, we redefine love as allowing another to violate our boundaries, instead of a willing, conscious choice to open our heart to a respectful person who deserves to inhabit our sacred space. Emotional cruelty is infidelity that occurs within the relationship.
5. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. It’s really that simple. Let your instincts be your guide. When something’s wrong you feel unsettled. Nervous. Nauseated. You tremble and twitch. Your health starts to falter. If it feels forced, you’re forcing it, even if that’s uncomfortable to admit. In a blog post a while back, I described what I called “Situational Dysfunction.”
… a feeling of discomfort, a nagging sense that things are not as they should be. Given that many of us probably feel this a lot of the time, it is difficult to attach the feeling to its root cause. Often in dysfunctional relationships we find ourselves doing things that we are not comfortable doing, such as covering for another person’s inability to function or hiding—from ourselves as well as others—what is truly happening. What makes this even more difficult for us to understand what is happening is that the discomfort becomes pervasive, constant, and expected, and therefore starts to move from the conscious foreground of our experience to the subconscious background.
When discomfort becomes embedded in your everyday life, as it did in mine, it starts to feel … normal. And your understanding of normal becomes reversed. When you accept a dysfunctional relationship, you tolerate continual assaults on the self, and as the self weakens you become less able to trust yourself, less able to assert your needs, embrace your values, and be who you are.
6. Never sacrifice yourself for the sake of the relationship. For this piece of wisdom, I credit my therapist, because I had it wrong. I thought you put the relationship first and kept sacrificing. He helped me learn to put myself first, and that the health of the relationship depends on that choice. When we sacrifice ourselves, we begin to feel resentment, which is the root of martyrdom and self-justification for treating a partner as badly as he or she treats us. If your partner truly loves you, there should be no objection to your protecting, preserving, and defending your self from harm, and from preventing your self from being sacrificed at the feet of another. Recently, Maya Angelou appeared on “Super Soul Sunday” and offered similar guidance in response to Oprah’s asking what was the best advice she’d ever given.
There’s a place in you that you must keep inviolate. You must keep it pristine, clean, so that nobody has a right to curse you or treat you badly. Nobody, no mother, father, no wife or husband—nobody. Because that may be the place you go to when you meet God. You have to have a place that you say, “Stop it. Back up. You must not. No. Absolutely.” Say no. When it’s no, say so.
If you cede the place she is talking about to another, if you allow someone to trample on your sacred ground, you experience a soul-withering combination of loss, bitterness, and regret that renders you unable to be a full partner or even to function as a fully actuated person in the world. Don’t do it. Please don’t.
7. Making emotionally healthy choices the hardest thing we do. It seems like it should be easy. We try to eat right, exercise, avoid unhealthy habits like smoking or drinking too much. We take all sorts of precautions to protect our physical and financial security. But when it comes to allowing emotionally unhealthy people into our lives, we have an enormous blind spot. There are two reasons. First, unhealthy people meet deep psychological needs. They provide us instant gratification—the intense love and admiration we’ve dreamed of. They offer constant validation—until we cross them. They present a shiny surface of love and brightness and potential—while engaging in machinations, indoctrination, procrastination, and endless explanation as to why it’s all our fault that things aren’t working. They’d be better if we only loved them more. And we have a tendency to believe them, especially if we lack confidence or have low self-esteem. Choosing self-interest over best interest, we rationalize getting all the good stuff as a worthwhile tradeoff for occasional pain and intermittent abuse, mixed with equal parts of degradation and disrespect. We treat these things as anomalies and fail to see the pattern. The second reason we end up with unhealthy partners is our failure to acknowledge our own unhealthiness, to see that in choosing someone who harms us, we choose to harm ourselves. Unfortunately, there’s no Surgeon General’s warning on people, no label that says, “This potential partner is hazardous to your health.” But if you take the advice I’ve given here to heart, you might just spare yourself a lot of heartache.