In a series of articles, I have been analyzing the breakup of Deidre and Mac—a couple who hit a major crisis on the brink of their wedding. The challenges they face are not unique. In fact, their pairing exemplifies the complicated nature of all relationships and the opportunities love presents for spiritual and psychological growth.
Yesterday, I explained that a person’s unsatisfactory love life usually mirrors a dysfunctional childhood. In Deidre’s case, her mother’s emotional volatility conditioned her to be over-giving and “perfect” (i.e., needless) in relationships. Today, we’ll explore how Mac’s childhood trauma created issues that have plagued his adult relationships.
Although Deidre had been loath to verbalize it, she noticed that once they decided to marry, Mac’s personality changed. He went from kind and generous to irritable, cagey and distant. He balked at any bid for closeness or affection—refusing to cook her dinner, buy her a birthday present, or answer her calls while at work. The more she needed him, the less he wanted to give. When she tried to discuss her feelings, he called her “over-emotional” and “needy.”
Mac refused to attend to any of Deidre’s needs and Deidre failed to hold him accountable. As he gave less, she gave more. She planned trips, baked cupcakes, and sent him silly cards, thinking this would bring the old Mac back. But, despite her efforts, Mac grew more and more distant.
A look at Mac’s personal history showed he displayed many “love avoidant” traits. For example, he:
• Had a history of casual hook-ups with very few long-term relationships;
• Spent many years partying and self-medicating with alcohol;
• Dated a series of women he knew would never be “relationship material;” and
• Focused on his career to the exclusion of almost everything else.
It was easy for Deidre to overlook these red flags, as Mac was initially charming and attentive. His friends told her that they had never seen Mac so crazy about a woman. Deidre’s funny, vivacious spirit drew out the best in him. Plus, because she naturally defaulted to being “needless,” he didn’t feel smothered (as he had in previous relationships). In many ways, their romance was the pairing of perfectly matched dysfunctions – she was used to chasing affection and he was used to running from it.
Mac’s childhood provided key insight to his behavior. His father was a distant, philandering workaholic who abandoned his family when Mac was 7. Mac’s mother would often rant against Mac’s father and the “tramp” with whom he ran off. Mac was overwhelmed by his mother’s tears and rage, but had no choice but to listen. Eventually, his parents divorced. As Mac started junior high school, his father was killed in an automobile accident. He never reconciled his relationship with his father.
Like many men who grow up with distant or absent fathers, Mac internalized the blame over his father’s disappearance and his parent’s subsequent divorce. The fact his father abandoned him so readily told Mac that he was not lovable and did not deserve love. Without his father’s presence, he also had no role model for how to attend to a woman’s needs in a healthy romantic relationship. On top of this, he feared being drained and overwhelmed by feminine emotion, as he had been by his mother’s ranting about his father. Intimacy made him feel inadequate, vulnerable and unworthy, which is why he often poured himself into work-- a subject over which he had complete mastery.
Relationships are mirrors. Deidre and Mac had both been abandoned by their fathers and overwhelmed by their mothers. Both felt unworthy of love, but while Deidre over-gave in order to earn it, Mac ran from it because he didn’t feel as if he deserved it. It was now time for each to work on developing a more “secure” relationship style. Should they choose to work, their love could inspire them to heal childhood wounds to better serve themselves, their partner and the relationship. The good news is that neither is relegated to a lifetime of failure.
I offered Deidre some perspective that applies to every person in a loving relationship:
1. Every relationship hits a crisis. Stop seeking perfection. Instead, calibrate your expectations to be in line with reality. Celebrate progress and continual improvement.
2. Make self-care #1. Your physical and emotional safety (and that of your children) should be your first priority. If you need help, ask friends and family for support. Many crises take time to resolve. It may be a long and bumpy road before things get better, making it all the more important that you prioritize your mental and physical health every day.
3. Resist the urge to “fix.” It’s painful to see your loved one in pain or struggling. But, resist solving your partner’s problems, which enables the dysfunction to continue. Get out of your partner’s way. Get on with your own life. When you’re no longer around to fight up against, your loved one will be forced to face their own demons.
4. De-dramatize the breakup. Do not accuse, blame or badmouth. While Deidre was understandably angry that Mac ended the relationship by text, Mac did his best given his emotional limitations. Even though his Nike’s were laced on adult-sized feet, it was actually the frightened child in Mac that was doing the running. Once you understand that everyone is doing their best, you remain open to opportunities for forgiveness, healing and positive re-engagement.
5. Work on your own healing. You cannot force your partner to change, but you can work to become more “conscious.” A key to this process is understanding your childhood and how it may impact your choices and behaviors. Instead of acting out of fear or habit, you will learn to make decisions from a healthier, “adult” emotional state. Make no mistake, the process of becoming “conscious” is painful and slow-going. But, it’s also integral to having an inspired life and relationship.
In the next article, we’ll explore a prescription for change should Deidre and Mac seek to repair the damage to their relationship.