Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Survivors and the Challenge of Relationships

“To me the better friend is the one who will honestly address our weaknesses as well as our strengths. For they are the ones who really help us to grow. Not the back patters.” 

Being a survivor of abuse presents many challenges in life, one of which is to be in relationships with others; and then to be in HEALTHY relationships is a tremendous challenge.  We have no healthy role models from our childhood; we have no healthy skills from which to draw.  We were not given any clue as children what relationships really were.  We existed, we survived, and these were the only skills we knew.

The greater part of my life has been one of being an appeaser and a fixer.  As an appeaser, I spent my life basically flying under the radar.  Avoiding anything that looked threatening, and that includes ANY kind of conflict.  It’s really hard to be in a healthy relationship and be completely avoidant of conflict.  There aren’t any two human beings in this world who are going to agree completely on everything that comes up in life.  And in order to steer clear of trouble, many abuse survivors will always defer to the other person; it’s what we learned as a skill for our own survival.  If it didn’t completely keep us safe, it made things much less severe for us.
As a fixer, I learned early on to develop problem solving skills.  Any way in which I could come up with a solution to any foreseen conflict, I would set myself to it. Stay ahead of the storm, find a solution, avoid a disaster, avoid impending doom.  Because we all know shit flows downhill.  And I was at the bottom of that hill.  It was in my best interest to at least try to make sure the shit didn’t happen to begin with.

I took those unhealthy relationship skills learned in childhood into my adult life.  And although these skills made me a great friend to have around, it also set me up for repetitive patterns of being abused.  I spent an enormous amount of emotional energy trying to be compliant and trying to solve everyone’s problems.  I was a collector of strays, troubled people, some of them harmless, some of them not so harmless.  I never saw the difference until it was too late.  And regardless of whether they were the harmless type or not, they still sapped me of all energy and left me with nothing inside.  They were happy with the relationship, I became deeply depressed.  And once the depression set in, my pattern then was to withdraw and leave the relationship, get the hell out of Dodge.  This was a pattern I repeated over and over again.  And the real kicker in all this is that I sought this stuff out, because it was what I knew, it was where I was ultimately comfortable.

I am now for the first time in my life, at the age of 48, trying to learn healthy relationship skills.  TRYING being the operative word.  I have not even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to having a clue what I am doing, or better said, I don’t know how to put into operation the things I know in my head.  All I know is that I am trying really hard and not always doing what I know.  The difference this time in the way this feels is that I have hope for once that eventually I am going to find my way.  I am going to learn how to do this. I'm not going in blind anymore. I have the understanding of boundaries now, although I'm still not very good at staying within them.  But I’m getting better, and that is a huge improvement over not knowing anything about them to even try.  I can move forward as long as I know I am moving in the right direction.

I have a friend in my life right now who is very important to me, someone for whom I care deeply, and at the same time, the friendship is a huge challenge, I think for both of us really.  We are both survivors, both having lived our lives with the same unhealthy patterns, the same appeaser/fixer patterns that leave us depleted and eventually withdrawn, and though the way they manifest for each of us is a little different, the patterns are the same.  We are finding ourselves in a kind of dance in this relationship, a dance in which neither of us is all too familiar with the steps and we have definitely been bruising each other up pretty good.  But there is a different feeling to this.  Because for the first time I am aware of all these things, these deficits that I need to overcome; these unhealthy patterns that I fall back into.  And I am trying to find my way through it, trying to find a healthy balance in being a supportive friend, and yet maintain those unfamiliar but necessary boundaries.

It has been one of the most growth inspiring relationships I have ever had outside of therapy.  I have actually been catapulted into growth, I’ve learned more about myself through this friendship in such a short period of time than by any other means so far in my journey outside of the therapy room.  I've been forced to see the way in which I behave, that's not always pretty.  I've been forced to acknowledge that I am clingy and needy and can be smothering.  I have been forced to acknowledge that I don’t always communicate well within a relationship, I can be avoidant still of difficult conversations.  I've been forced to examine my motivations for things I do and say.  These are hard things to face in oneself.  But the only way to grow is to do just that and to work on bettering myself.  I need to grow through it.  This friendship has given me this wonderful opportunity for doing this.  Sometimes in life, you really do get what you need.   Relationships are  tools set to sharpening each other, if we have a mind to let them. 

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