One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, Pretty Woman, is at the end when Edward climbs up the terrace and says, “So what happens after he climbs up and rescues her?” Vivian replies, “She rescues him right back.”
We think it’s so romantic. So brave. So heroic.
This idea of rescuing one another and saving each other, completing each other- it’s gorgeous…in theory.
We see it everywhere. It’s become so ingrained into the fabric of relationships that we have trained ourselves to believe that’s what defines romance and true love.
There’s a natural and healthy desire built into each of us to find a partner. Even those of us who feel whole on our own long to find another person to share our lives with in some capacity. Maybe it doesn’t mean marriage, and maybe it doesn’t fit the mold of what societal norms say we should do with ourselves and our relationships; but to some degree, we are all searching for that same thing.
We want to feel safe. Secure. Loved. Held. Comforted. Seen. Validated.
Some of us seek that out in healthy ways. Some of us don’t.
Some of us seek others to provide those things for us because we lack them within ourselves. Others of us search for people to whom we feel we can provide those missing pieces. And some of us, maybe most of us, have some version of both.
In my first marriage, I wanted him to rescue me. I wanted him to be my Edward and climb the terrace. He found me in my sickness at a time I was incapable of rescuing myself. I was a disaster. I wanted him to fix me. To save me.
He didn’t really try; but even if he had, he wouldn’t have been successful because in real life, things don’t work that way.
In my second marriage, I wanted to rescue him. I was still lost myself; but I thought that maybe if I could save him, he’d save me back. I thought that maybe if I poured what was left of my brokenness into him, it would circle through us and he’d heal me too. We’d heal each other.
I tried—but I wasn’t successful because in real life, things don’t work that way.
In real life, this savior complex destroys people. It eats away at the fiber of relationships and kills them before they even take their first deep breath.
I spent many years of my life in search of someone else to save me. To make me feel worthy. To complete me and fix me. I wanted someone to fight for me and prove to me that I was enough because I couldn’t hold onto that truth for myself.
When that failed, it confirmed my lack of value. It validated my fears that I was inadequate. Unlovable. Not worth it. It shattered what was left of my thin veil of dignity and propelled me into my next quest to fix what was broken, even if it was the brokenness of someone else.
I was relentless in my pursuit. I found my ex-husband at the bottom of a dark pit—a pit I didn’t realize I too was in. My savior complex allowed me to believe that we were lead together divinely and that it was my job to rescue this broken man.
I poured all my energy into saving him.
I fixed my eyes on his potential and unabashedly tried to drag him to the surface. I still wanted to be rescued, but I knew he wasn’t capable; so instead I tried to rescue him in hopes he’d eventually return the favor once I got him strong enough.
It felt heroic at times. It felt brave and noble. It felt selfless. It felt like true, unconditional love.
Even as I drown in my own mess, I worked to clean up his. I sacrificed myself for the sake of him.
Isn’t that romantic? Isn’t that what unconditional love does? Isn’t that what God wants me to do?
It’s not romantic. It’s not Godly. It’s sick. And it created even more sickness.
When I separated from my husband I began to see the truth of what I’d been doing. I began to accept that what I’d convinced myself to be true love was nothing more than a mirage.
I began to see my savior complex. I watched us both fall from grace and when we hit the bottom, the sound of the shatter shook me awake.
I had to accept that although I had failed to save this man, and he in turn failed to save me, the real failure was ever believing that would work. The true failure was not in our divorce, or even our messy marriage. The failure was in me trying to plug our respective holes with each other.
The downfall was in trying to find my value inside the untapped value of someone else. My mistake was not just in “loving the wrong people,” but rather in not loving myself.
We are not here to rescue each other. We are not created to complete each other. We are not meant to fix each other.
We can help each other. Love each other. Encourage each other. Challenge each other. Push each other. Support each other.
We can walk beside one another along the journey toward fulfillment.
But when we start thinking we are the journey to fulfillment or that we are the vessel through which someone else can be complete, we have missed it. When we start taking on responsibility that isn’t ours and striving to make other people fit into the mold we’ve created for them, we make messes.
We hurt each other.
The savior complex makes us think we are in control. That we are powerful in a way not meant for human souls. We then take on both the successes and failures of those we love, as well as our own, and we wear those accolades and defeats like badges of honor, or even marks of regret.
People are not ours to save.
We are responsible for our own hearts. We are responsible for recognizing and stepping into our own worth. We are responsible for understanding our own value and living our lives in such a way that honors that value. We are responsible for extending grace and love and allowing space for others to be responsible for their own stuff.
We are NOT responsible for anyone else’s stuff.
No man has ever fixed my brokenness. I have never fixed another man’s brokenness. And I no longer desire a relationship that has any element of that need.
We have to climb the terrace of our own souls, offer our hearts up to the heavens, and be complete in that exchange.
When we no longer feel the need to be rescued or to rescue anyone else, that’s where we will find true safety and wholeness. That’s where we will find everything we need because it will be within us.
Photo: Wayne Stadler/Flickr
This essay originally appeared on Three Boys and a Mom