As I approach my 42nd birthday in a couple of weeks, I realize that I have been living a lie about relationships for most of those years. No, it isn’t the lie that I need anyone to feel fulfilled. In fact, I’m no longer convinced that IS a lie, actually. Hear me out, please.
Before I dive head-first into this topic, a quick disclaimer: I wrote about codependency in a previous column which, without a careful reading of that column, may seem to the casual reader like I am about to contradict what I said there. However, I was careful to point out in that piece that I am not an advocate of necessarily ending relationships just to cure codependency. My contention was that an ADDICTION to particular relationships is unhealthy, not the relationships themselves. Got it? Ok. Let’s get cracking.
I have been shamed for many years for feeling like I need someone in my life in order to feel complete. Most of this shaming, by the way, has come from counselors and “relationship professionals” (including ministers) who believe that we should only need ourselves and/or God to feel complete. That made so much sense to me for so long that I began preaching that message myself, but I have to tell you that it dawned on me recently that I was missing something in that narrative that I couldn’t quite identify.
Yes, we should learn to love ourselves and accept ourselves and forgive ourselves for the mistakes we have made. I won’t argue that point, but I will argue that we should not do all of that to the complete exclusion of others. After really thinking through this, I don’t believe that only needing yourself and God is even Biblical.
The Bible records that Adam was the only human on earth at the point of Genesis 2:18. No other human had ever existed, so Adam presumably wasn’t even aware that he had need of someone else to share his life with. God saw the need, however, and decided to address it. If you accept the Biblical account of creation, then you have to assume that God created man to be a relational creature. If you accept that God created us to be relational creatures, how does it then follow that we should NEVER need someone else to make us feel complete? How can we be complete without the full realization of God’s design for our lives — for our very existence?
Point number one of this column is that I will never be shamed or ASHAMED again for desiring relationships with other human beings. For feeling fulfilled with good ones and unfulfilled by bad ones.
I am miserable at this point in my life, and that’s something I refuse to lie about or gloss over or outright hide anymore, ok? I am NOT miserable, however, because I’ve sought relationships with people when I should have been only finding myself and living one-on-one with God and no one else. I am miserable because my need for relationships was so overwhelming that it crowded out my better judgment about WHICH relationships to accept.
Simply put, God created me with a need for relationships and that is not something I can merely train myself to ignore or shame myself out of seeking because Pop Psychology says I shouldn’t. What I must do, however, is recognize that this need can drag me into some really bad decisions (and most certainly has). Our inner hungers need to be fed, but in a healthy way — not from the scraps that someone decides to toss our way just to amuse themselves.
As I fully recognize that I need others in my life — and to be accepted in their lives as well — I need to lay a few ground rules for myself that hopefully will change the way I go about this and make for a more fulfilling second half of my existence.
- Set boundaries to protect myself. ME TIME is important too, and I have lost sight of that along the way. If I ever want to be a good friend and be able to accept good friendship from others, I really do have to have a pretty good grip on myself and my life.
- Be available for others in a truly GIVING way. It is so easy to seek out friendships that only meet our needs. I must recognize the ways in which I can enhance the lives of others and not be afraid to invest in them.
- Refuse to accept less than I am giving. I must stop accepting people who only take and have little or no regard for returning the friendship they have received from me. No more one-way streets. No more being used and discarded.
Point number two: I believe it is important to relate to others and allow them to relate to you, and I don’t believe it’s wrong to expect any relationship to be a two-way street.
Don’t allow anyone to dictate all the terms of your relationship with them. You will only experience a relational deficit that defeats the purpose of inner harmony. It is okay to expect friendship to be reciprocal, and it is okay to do something about it if it isn’t.
Bottom line? I need people in my life. I need to be in theirs. What I do NOT need is anyone who is willing to accept all I have to offer, yet marginalize me and then shame me for being disappointed in them.
I need relationships. What I don’t need is dictatorships.
I met an impressive man once under a cloudy sky in New Orleans. He was humble, quiet, and unassuming, yet he was followed by a throng of people who attended to his every need. His intelligent eyes examined every person in his path as he walked the trail of post-Katrina destruction.
After his tour, he stopped at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station to thank the military service members who were mobilized to help bring some sense of order to the fear and confusion gripping that city. A veteran himself, he displayed a swelling heart of pride and admiration for all of the uniformed personnel he came in contact with. His eyes moistened as he listened to the story of a young airman who, in the midst of escaping the ravaging floodwaters in her neighborhood, had to tie her dead mother to a corner of her house so she could return after the waters receded to claim her body. He hugged her before turning to the next person.
He settled into an outdoor picnic area for lunch with some of the personnel there, but seating was limited. The rest of us had to stand back a distance and try to capture this event with low-resolution cell phone cameras that were standard fare in 2005. As he ate, he laughed heartily at a comment made by one soldier sitting across from him, patted the shoulder of another sitting next to him, and seemed genuinely interested in the conversation going on around him.
As he got up to leave, I noticed a cordoned-off path leading from the picnic tables to a building. I assumed this would be the path of egress for this gentleman, so I walked over to one side of it and waited to see if he would come by. He rose from his table, collected his trash, and took it to a bin himself. I remember being surprised he didn’t have someone take it for him, and I was struck again at the humility that seemed out of place for a man of his stature.
I guessed he would quickly pass by and on to the next thing on his undoubtedly tight schedule, so I readied my cell phone in the hopes of catching a picture of him passing by. By this time others had joined me and I was sort of pressed against the tight rope outlining his path. He didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry though, as he slowly made his way up the walkway, pausing to shake hands along the way. He wasn’t running for office, so this was not the typical sprint-paced grip-and-grin.
As he made his way toward my position, I tensed in the hopes that I would be favored with a handshake as well. He stopped a few feet from me to shake another hand, and as he turned to walk again, he stopped in front of me. His eyes regarded me for a second and I was frozen in place. He flashed me a grin that had served him well throughout life, extended his hand, and said, “George Bush. The older one. Thank you for your service, son.” I managed to stammer out a “thank you, Mr. President…” as he turned to walk away. Mine was the last hand he shook in that place.
I have always lived by one governing principle in regard to other people: I am never as impressed with anyone as they are with themselves. What I saw that day was a former U.S. president touring a ravaged city and loving on the people who suffered, as well as those who were there to help. I was not impressed that day with the office he once held. I was deeply impressed with the man that he is.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.
We might as well talk about forgiveness today. Why? Glad you asked! If there is one thing I have learned in 41 years, it is that we all have a duffel bag of life issues that we like to drag around. We’re born, and from that point forward we just start adding stuff to it. Pain, bitterness, distrust, jealousy, anxiety and fear all fester and bloat in that bag until it is so heavy that it is all that defines our struggle as we try to move through life.
Yes, people hurt us. This is because they are people and, for some reason, we are all prone to do that and have that done to us. Humanity does not come with an organic ability to not do that, unfortunately. We are not necessarily born with righteousness, compassion, empathy, sympathy, and altruism preprogrammed into our hearts and minds. These are learned characteristics and developing and using them are a choice we all have to make.
For many of us, pain and bitterness are well-earned. Being hurt, in many cases, is not a choice—it is just something that is done to us and we are left to figure out how to process it and what to do about it. What if I told you, though, that there is a way to overcome what the world does to us…what people do to us, and still be an inspiration to others?
It starts with a shift in worldview. I know firsthand how easy it is to become completely wrapped up in my pain, and when I do my worldview gets so narrow that essentially all I can see is myself. I don’t see that others are hurting worse. I don’t see the need in others around me. I tend to lose focus of the things I am responsible for and I start dropping balls that people depend on me to carry. As a father, husband, and professional, I cannot afford to do that. Oh, sure. I can feel sorry for myself for a little while, but what I cannot afford to do is marinate in that pain to the point that the only scent coming off of me is what has happened to me. I have found that I heal faster when I focus more on the needs of others. That doesn’t mean that I ignore my problems. It simply means that I refuse to be defined by them.
It is also important to have perspective on the person or people that have caused me pain. Did they do so intentionally? If so, is it because of some issue in their life that I can help them with? Or maybe they are just hurtful people and will never realize—or care—what they have done. Does harboring bitterness and resentment toward them make me feel better, or does it simply prolong the agony of what I am feeling? The reality is that even if you are angry or bitter toward someone who has legitimately hurt you, chances are they will never realize it, or if they do, they won’t care. I once heard a wise quote about this: “Clinging to bitterness toward someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Think about that.
It does take time to process pain that is caused by other people. I have found that confiding in a trustworthy friend is helpful. I have even sought counseling from people who are trained at that sort of thing in cases where I knew that simply chatting about my issues was not going to help in the long term. Healing does not come overnight, but it does come if one can commit to the process. Nothing helps healing, though, like good old fashioned forgiveness.
I looked up “forgiveness” in my favorite dictionary (the Internet) and this is the definition I found: “Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense and lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.”
Intentional and voluntary. How do you forgive someone? According to that definition, you have to actually decide to. It doesn’t say that the offender asks for it; it says you have to be intentional about giving it. However, that comes after the hard part, which is the next thing in that definition: changing feelings and attitude regarding the offense. Once that is accomplished and the decision is made, you haven’t just set the offender free; you have set yourself free from the burden of what was done and you have released yourself from a lifetime of dragging that thing around in your duffel bag.
Truly forgiving someone is quite possibly the hardest thing we will ever do—especially if the offense was life-changing and destructive. I have had to do my fair share of pain processing over the course of my life, but until now I have not ever truly forgiven anyone. I am ready to do that now, because I realize this: I have hurt people too and if I ever hope to be forgiven, I must be willing to do the same.
“Your love is yours to give, not mine to demand.”—Anonymous
Human relationships are a tricky — and sometimes dangerous — thing. What we know about them at any point is the result of a journey that started with the earliest relationships of our lives: the ones with our parents.
We all have a life story about growing up in our families: some of us with one parent, some with two, some with more than two. Some grew up with none of the parents that were responsible for their very existence, but we all have had relationships of some sort to this point in our lives.
For me, it has become so easy to develop expectations in relationships after a 41-year résumé of dealing with others in various capacities. The question, though, is whether expectation is fair to the other person and, if so, to what extent? I suppose the answer for me lies in those earliest examples in my life.
I didn’t have a mother for the first nearly eight years of my life. The one I was assigned to at birth exited stage-left very early and our family was reduced to me and my dad. Being an only child in a single-parent household where I was definitely not the only thing my father had to worry about was admittedly a lonely experience. I didn’t know this until later, but not having a female perspective and motherly guidance in the difficulties of the first eight years of my life left a gaping hole in my emotional development that has plagued me ever since.
In later years, I came to realize that I developed expectations in relationships that were designed to fill that hole left by a parent who wasn’t there. I passed on those expectations to unsuspecting visitors who dared orbit around my soul. I was not aware of it at the time, but I now know that that was a hole that could not be filled by anyone else.
Demanding constant attention, companionship, presence and communication took their toll on many people in my life. Friendships were lost, other relationships became total-loss collisions, and even some family sought distance when I was at my worst. Something had to change.
I was at my lowest in 1999 when I finally realized that I did not possess the ability to heal myself. A friend who still loved me not-so-gently suggested I seek counseling for some lingering scar tissue that crippled my soul. I resisted at first, but I came to realize that he was the last remaining ally I had at that point in my life and that my biggest fear of being completely isolated was about to come true if I didn’t do something radical.
The quote above came out of a process of realizing that no one on this earth can make any of us whole. The demands we place on other people to fill the emptiness left in our lives by others do not translate to fulfilling relationships.
In the motion picture “Jerry Maguire,” Tom Cruise famously said to Renee Zellwegger, “You complete me!” This apparently came after a process of realizing that he really did need her in order to feel like he was a worthy human being. This concept makes for a great Hollywood moment, but I submit that it is preposterous and unsustainable in real life.
Think of it like a math problem: relationships are not addition; they are multiplication — 1×1=1, right? But, 0.5×0.5=0.25. When you multiply fractions the resulting answer is actually smaller than the individual parts. In relationships, anyone who shows up as a fraction of an emotionally whole human being and expects someone else to make them whole will only discover that this is impossible.
Quite simply, one-half of a human being, whether they encounter another fractional one or a whole person, can still never be whole. A truly successful relationship must be the product of two whole, stable, adjusted people coming together, not to complete each other, but to complement each other.
I won’t lie; being a whole person just might take a whole lot of work. A ton of soul searching. Baring your soul to a trustworthy person whose role in your life is to help you heal, repent, whatever it takes for you to make it to that place. Just remember, though, that the actual work of healing and becoming whole is yours and yours alone no matter who may be there to support and advise you.
If you are not whole and you are expecting someone else to be what you need, please realize that is likely never going to happen — especially if they are not whole either. Seek the help you need, do the work, and remember: the love and acceptance of others is theirs to give, not yours to demand.