A while back I wrote an article called “The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship.” It immediately went viral and has now been viewed over 250,000 times, but don’t click to read it now—just bookmark it for later. Because what I’m about to share with you is much more important and will change everything you know about dysfunctional relationships—and I mean everything—in an instant.
Here’s the truth you already know: relationships can be the absolute best or absolute worst things that ever happen to you. You’ve probably been through at least one of each, and one that’s gone from one extreme to the other. They’re like the little girl in the Longfellow poem: when they’re good, they’re good indeed, and when they’re bad, they’re horrid. Our first reaction when things get horrid is perfectly predictable: we blame our partner for the problems. 100%. Because we’re “innocent.” And because we’re “victims.” Functional couples learn to move past blame and self-victimization, to work on their issues in a cooperative context, and to change the ineffective, destructive way they communicate—a shift that has as much or more impact on happiness than the way partners act towards each other. Dysfunctional couples do the opposite. They invest heavily in the narrative of blame, sinking countless hours of fighting into it and endless floods of tears, as blaming the other becomes the narrative of the relationship. Any challenge to that fiction, any truth that would absolve the blamed partner to some degree and make the blaming partner even minimally accountable challenges the entire premise on which the relationship is based and therefore cannot be tolerated or accepted. In some cases, both partners continue bickering and blaming all the way to the grave.
We know that two people making opposite arguments can’t both be right, but they can both be wrong. And they—meaning you—are both wrong. Because all accountability and responsibility for addressing and changing the dysfunction in your relationships rests entirely with you. That’s right. It’s all on your head. I’m not saying your partner doesn’t drive you crazy, set off your triggers, and contribute to your own personal hell on earth. And I’m not saying you’re ever responsible for another person abusing you. I am saying that blaming your partner and investing your energy in trying to get that person to change will never, ever, make things better. For any hope of happiness, you need to stop deluding yourself and face the lies that are keeping you stuck in a relationship that doesn’t serve you. Once you bring these lies into the light, you will see how changing your attitude, your actions, and your outlook constitutes the one and only chance you have to make things better or get yourself out of the mess and move on.
Here are the five lies we tell ourselves when we’re stuck in a dysfunctional relationship.
1. I’m in control. This is the lie we tell ourselves that starts the dysfunctional cycle, because it’s based on a dangerous and unsupportable relationship dynamic—assuming responsibility for managing your partner’s emotions. I’m not talking about showing your partner how much you care or doing sensible or sweet things to foster harmony and affection. I’m talking about walking on eggshells and dancing on broken glass, watching your every move and editing your every word to prevent or forestall conflict. That’s not control. It’s letting fear control you. If your partner tends to be volatile, and you’re keeping the peace with techniques, tricks, and tactics such as withholding information, sugar-coating, or simply suppressing your real feelings, while burning inside with shame, resentment, and the need to be vindicated, you’re not being proactive—or helpful. You’re placing your partner in the driver’s seat, while sniping from the back, and everything you’re doing is a reaction to the real or perceived threat of a fight. This reactive stance limits your range of behavioral options and confines you to a cramped box of your own making. You don’t control a situation—or a relationship—by withdrawing from it. You can only control it, or share control, if you’re present. Ironically, your efforts to avoid conflict by staying in the box often end up setting off the bombs instead of defusing them, as your discontent and unmet needs leak out in the form of passive-aggressive goading. The only way to take control is to stand up for yourself and express your true feelings. Your partner may not like the real you, but you can never be happy in a relationship if you don’t like yourself because you can’t be real.
2. My coping mechanisms are healthy. Really. There was a thing I did whenever my ex-wife was really getting to me, whenever I felt sick about what I was experiencing or my anger approached the level of a core meltdown. I would place my hand behind my back so she couldn’t see it and clench my fist repeatedly, digging my nails into my flesh, as if I was trying to smash some small creature that I’d trapped inside my palm. I thought this reaction—this nervous tic—was normal, a release valve I used to let off steam and avoid the dangerous heat of conflict. But it was my body calling bullshit on my mind’s delusional fantasy of my superhuman tolerance for emotional pain. I would also try to use mind over matter, saying to myself, “I can’t take this anymore. But I can. And I will.” The ultimate exercise in wishful thinking. Some of us blink. Some of us shudder. Some of us inhale sharply. Some of us start backing away and saying I’m sorry. And some of us reopen old wounds in the hope that causing our partner pain will get our partner to stop hurting us. That may work in a boxing ring, but a relationship is not a contest that the victor wins with a knockout blow. Any stifling of your true feelings to protect your partner’s feelings or preserve a tenuous peace is ultimately unhealthy, not only because it causes you to suffer intense emotional damage, but also because it’s unsustainable, as that damage is cumulative and builds to the point where the only way you can recover is to leave.
3. I love my partner. I’m sorry, but you don’t. I know you don’t believe me, because this is a tough pill to swallow. Almost as tough as #4 below. And it says something unflattering about you. But sacrificing your principles, your dreams of happiness, your self-respect, your dignity, your soul magic for another person—that isn’t love. It’s masochistic need-fulfillment—the need being yours to prove that your love can mend and heal a broken person, that your endless patience and tolerance and understanding can miraculously engender those same qualities in another, and that your superior reserves of warmth, compassion, and generosity can never be depleted. Chances are, your partner may be the type who demands proofs of love from you. “If you loved me, you would …” But you’re the one chasing the holy grail, indulging in the futile quest for proof that your love is enough to save someone, to make a shattered person whole again, to shape and polish a diamond to its highest purpose of shining light instead of acknowledging its ability to slice through bone. True love looks to confirm your own vulnerability, humility, and flawed humanity through supportive interaction with another, while what I’ll call ego love appeals to your pride and looks to confirm your superior emotional stability and the power of your healing gifts.
4. My partner loves me. Bite it. Bite this bullet now and get over the idea that your dysfunctional dance partner loves you. If you’re suffering abuse, it’s surely not love and you should leave immediately. If it’s not abuse but you’re constantly miserable and eternally hopeful, you need to get real and stop using this lie as your crutch to limp through the horrid. Your partner may be capable of loving you, may even hold great love for you in the heart, but that love is blocked and absent from the day to day expression, and it doesn’t inform the actions that influence the flow and feel of the time you spend together. Your interactions are not love actions but survival actions, as both of you struggle to stay alive, the way vampires fly through the night in search of fresh blood. Your partner may love the feeling of your capitulation, of his teeth sinking deep into your neck, or your subsuming yourself to her demands and mood swings. But your partner doesn’t love you—only what you provide, and only as long as you provide it. I love the buzz I get after having a few drinks, but I can’t love the booze itself. If it stopped getting me buzzed, I’d abandon it. Your partner loves the payoff of controlling you, and you take your cut in self-righteousness and resentment. The bottom line is when you love someone, you take accountability. You carefully examine your own contribution. And you don’t mistake companionship, security, affection, sex, or the twisted intimacy of hand-to-hand combat for the commitment, courage, and covenant of true love.
5. It’s a relationship. This is the mother of all lies that is built on all the others. It’s definitely not a relationship. In Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parents, Alan Rappoport, Ph.D. wrote:
All of us are narcissistic, and co-narcissistic, to varying degrees. When our self-esteem varies in relation to how others think and feel about us, we are experiencing a narcissistic vulnerability. When we feel guilty or anxious because we fear that we are not meeting someone else’s needs or expectations, we are being co-narcissistic. These ordinary experiences are problematic the more they interfere with our ability to be successful and enjoy our lives ….
One of the critical aspects of the interpersonal situation when one person is either narcissistic or co-narcissistic is that it is not, in an important sense, a relationship. I define a relationship as an interpersonal in which each person is able to consider and act on his or her own needs, experience, and point of view, as well as being able to consider and respond to the experience of the other person. Both people are important to each person. In a narcissistic encounter, there is, psychologically, only one person present. The co-narcissist disappears for both people, and only the narcissistic person’s experience is important ….
The key … for most people who suffer from the narcissistic/co-narcissistic dilemma, [is] to experience a relationship in which neither person has to sacrifice himself for the other, and each can appreciate what the other has to offer.
If you’re satisfying your partner’s needs at the expense of your own, or vice versa, it’s not a relationship of equals. And a relationship of equals is the only type of soil in which supportive, nurturing love—the kind of love a couple can grow into forever—can flourish The choice is yours. You can keep lying to yourself … Or you can reap the benefits of facing the truth.
A collection of Thomas G. Fiffer’s articles for The Good Men Project on dysfunctional relationships is available on Amazon in his book, Why It Can’t Work: Detaching From Dysfunctional Relationships to Make Room for True Love.