The Consequences of Consequence Free Devotion

“My partner is extremely jealous. He cheats on me. He locks his phone but insists I keep mine unlocked and that he’s allowed to check it whenever he likes. I can’t be friends on facebook with any men who aren’t related to me, I can never talk to any of my exes, and he is very secretive about wherever he goes all the time with other women.”

Fifty people immediately respond:

“This is abusive.”

“Run.”

“Get out of this.”

“One million red flags here, you should reconsider your relationship with this person.”

And the OP is dumbfounded.

“I came here to get support. I don’t understand why everyone is telling me to leave. I will never leave him no matter what. I love him. So, what can I do?”

That’s when I tap out.

I used to be that person. The “I’ll never leave him no matter what,” person. That wasn’t even in a traditionally abusive situation. That was with a person with severe substance abuse and mental disorders who loved me very much, and trusted me implicitly.

But I was miserable. His illnesses were physically crowding me out of my own space. Our sex life was a distant memory. He became a recluse that would never leave the house, leaving me to fend for myself at holidays and family gatherings, and when he would come out? He was high, incoherent, and an embarrassment I felt I had to make apologies for.

I would complain to my friends and coworkers about the mess in the house, about his uncontrollable shopping habit, about his lack of sexual interest and they would suggest to me that I consider leaving.

I’ll never leave him.

He was terrified that I would. So many times, he’d break down sobbing and inconsolable, convinced that I would wake up one day and realize he was a failure and that I could do better (his words, not mine) and that I would leave him.

Which, of course, solidified my resolve to stay.

He never changed. He was never going to change.

My leaving wouldn’t have caused him to change.

My leaving would only have (potentially) improved my own quality of life, though I would certainly have felt guilty and miserable doing it.

The truth is, as I’m writing this I can remember being her. I can remember being that one who would never leave, and I know at the very depths of my soul that I absolutely never would have. Not that version of me, anyway. He passed away, and that’s the only reason I was able to get out. I was forced out.

I didn’t love myself enough to set boundaries. I loved him so much there were no consequences if he harmed me, even in the non-traditional ways that people tend to imagine harm.

There was no magic advice that could be given that would have changed my mind. There’s nothing I’m going to ever be able to write to anybody that is going to convince them that if they are willing to accept all manner of bad behavior from their partners without any consequences to their partners, their partners are unlikely to have any motivation to change. Ever.

Why should they?

You’ll never leave them no matter what.

So, that’s where I have to tap out. That’s where I have to shut down my empathy matrix, because…believe me. I can empathize. But I can’t help. I can’t be supportive of staying in a fucked up situation, and I can’t offer the “cure” for your partner’s toxic behavior.

You won’t like anything else I have to say, and it will only strengthen your resolve to stay in a bad situation indefinitely.

I wouldn’t wish my way out on anybody.

Cold Water

I like warm water.

One of my favorite feelings in the world is to be submerged in or have very warm water cascading down my skin.

He knows this. I noticed that he knew this a few weeks ago during a shower together. The memory of what it was he did is fuzzy now, I just remember realizing that he’d figured out how much I like it.

The trouble with dating this sadist is that when he learns I really like something, he has gained a new tool with which he can torment me.

And when I say “trouble,” it’s with a smile.

So, yesterday morning, we were heading over to shower and I hesitated to step in, realizing it’d not yet been on long enough to be hot.

He checked the temperature with his hand and I asked, “It’s not hot yet, is it?”

His sadist face came on.

“Get in.”

I stammered and resisted. He grabbed hold of my wrist and pulled me toward the shower door. I watched as he pushed the handle away from “hot” to “cold” and held me there.

There’s this moment where I’m faced with something I don’t want to do and the option to not do it is taken away from me. I recall, as a child, standing at the edge of the diving board when I was still dry and I knew the pool would be cold. I feared the initial shock of the cold water. Yet, I knew after a few minutes acclimate I would to the temperature and it would be a welcome contrast to the hot summer day.

Eventually, I convinced myself that all I had to do was jump. Once I was in the air, the decision to land in the water was out of my hands. I found that the lack of control mid-air made me feel less anxious about what I’d face when I hit the water.

It’s that same moment, when my brain switches from “I don’t want to go in the cold shower,” to “He’s going to make me go in the cold shower,” that brings up a similar sense of tranquility.

And then he pushed me in.

The water was warm.

This is what I love about a sweetheart sadist. He knows I love warm water. He also knows I love it when he pushes me toward the things I resist (plus, he loves the pushing). Yesterday morning, he found a way to give me both.

Learning to love without solutions: further insights from a recovering codependent

Many years ago, I had a friend, Brian, who went through therapy and was able to accept that he had codependent tendencies. With his therapist, he began to set boundaries, and by talking about it with his friends, he kept cementing the new value-set in his brain.

Problem was, Brian turned into a bit of a cold-hearted prick in the process. Having to keep reinforcing those boundaries made them stronger and stronger until he went in the complete opposite direction and stopped caring for anybody, ever.

By then, I had been made aware of my own codependent tendencies through my own therapy sessions. What I hadn’t done yet was accept them as a problem. I thought it was still possible to be healthily codependent, and didn’t want to change. I certainly didn’t want to turn into what Brian was turning into.

It’s not easy, you know? For me, rules are comfortable. Black and white. Yes and No. Stop and Go. But reality? It was easy for me to say, for example, “I will never again date someone who suffers from depression.”

And yet….

I have. More than once, since Tony.

It’s a boundary I tried to set because I knew where my personal boundaries are weakest. I want to help people. I’m a problem solver. And depression isn’t a problem that can be “solved,” it’s more like a condition that gets “managed.” I’ve learned a lot over the past few years on where and when to set that boundary and now have allowed myself to get close to people with depression again without falling back into my default responses anymore.

I care for them, and when I start to feel responsible for their feelings, I know it’s time to take a step back and remember that it’s not my job to “fix” anything. My job is to be a good person who cares. That is all.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s easy to stay on either side of that line – codependent or cold and distant, but to locate the healthy boundary and camp out there is sometimes more challenging.

Based on the definition I’ve seen on “empaths,” I’d say I’m probably somewhere on that spectrum, though I’m not woo-woo enough to say so with much certainty. I feel people’s feelings like they’re my own. It’s great when they’re happy, and it’s distressing when they’re sad.

There are going to be times when I have to step away and turn up the emotional A/C. I might go silent for a little while, or not ask things like “how are you?” It’s not that I don’t want to know, it’s that I’m feeling a little bit vulnerable myself and think if the answer is “I’m not well,” it’s going to turn into one of those things where I’m going to absorb those feelings and try to “solve” them.

I got to the point for a while where I got into the habit of never asking “how are you?” It put some of my friends off. They thought I didn’t care. I do care, but….

My old pattern was something like this:

Phi: How are you?
Friend: Eh. Not so great.
Phi: What’s wrong?
Friend: (explains the problem)
Phi: (tries to solve it)
Friend: (pivots and turns the problem into a different problem)
Phi: (tries to solve it)
Friend: (pivots again and turns the problem into a different problem)
Phi: (starts to get frustrated because it feels like this person just wants to be upset)
Friend: (feels even worse because phi is now frustrated with them and they feel worthless)

In order to break that pattern, I stopped asking “how are you?” for a while. A long while. And I fell out of practice of reminding people that I really do care about how they are. I drew the imaginary line from “I’m not doing great” to “please give me advice on how to solve it.” Today, I try to only offer advice when it’s explicitly asked for, but sometimes that old behavior comes out. I frequently have to remind myself that someone admitting that they’re not feeling great is not an automatic request for advice.

You’d think that would be a really basic concept to comprehend, but for me it wasn’t. And it’s still something I struggle with from time to time.

But, just like it’s not my responsibility to solve other people’s problems, it is not other people’s responsibility to mitigate their feelings around me. I have to learn to shield myself and focus on healthy reactions to everyday situations.

I want people to trust that I care for them and understand why I can’t let myself feel responsible for their happiness, and I want those same people not to feel responsible for mine. I’ve worked hard to overcome some of those patterns, and I’m strong enough (and honest enough) to recognize when I need to take a step back.

It’s usually when my reaction to someone else’s distress falls along the lines of “how did I fail? or “what did I do wrong?” or “How can I fix it?” that I know it’s time to reset the tent back a little further from the line.

There are many people in my life, past and present, that struggle with varying levels of anxiety and depression. This isn’t about any one of them in particular. It’s about me. It’s about recognizing that I can care, and I can be present without losing myself in the process.

I don’t have to go all Brian on them.