Last night, I was browsing through my copy of Dr. Christiane Northrup's book, The Wisdom of Menopause. Now, just for the record, I'm not in "it" quite yet, but I've been having perimenopausal symptoms for about 7-8 years now, so having Dr. Northrup's books around as reference sources comes in pretty handy (get 'em if you don't already have 'em).
While looking for some advice on hot flashes, I got some unexpected insights into what is behind my past dating patterns (hence the title of this post!) Being someone who generally overanalyzes everything anyway, it's always surprising when I realize something new about myself after years of already having "worked on it". This iceberg goes a lot deeper than I thought.
One of my dating patterns has been choosing unavailable men. I've been interested in men who were in relationships and therefore not available. I've been involved with men who couldn't commit. I've been involved with men who let me get only "just so close, but no closer" at least on an emotional level (the most emotionally unavailable ones still want to have sex every chance they get). Even my closest friend has been able to spot this pattern a mile off.
And my other pattern has been choosing men where I end up being the "strong one" in the relationship... men who have some critical deficit in character, integrity, or inner strength where I end up feeling I cannot lean on them, even a little bit, because they'll let me down. They seem strong enough on the surface (not just physically) but over time issues always seem to surface. They act confident, but then I find out it really IS an act. They support my career success... until their own career is in trouble and then the 'cave-man' appears. Strong, independent women often attract men who want the woman to take care of things. In my case I wasn't worried about having a hot meal on the table (I don't cook) or doing their laundry (let 'em get the skid marks out of their own damn shorts). But my strength and independence often ended up feeling more like a liability than an asset in my romantic relationships, for one reason or another.
Now, having "done the work" on myself for years, I've been well aware of these patterns for a long time, and to give myself a little credit, I have to say that over time, the men I've loved have gotten less unavailable and less weak. With each new man, I've done a better job of "picking 'em". In fact, so much so that it wasn't until after the last breakup that I noticed that even THAT guy -- my longest-term and most serious relationship to date -- was still part of my "patterns".
It may sound as if I'm laying blame on the men I've dated, but not so. Behaviour patterns are never the other guy's fault, they are our own issues that we need to look at and deal with in order to change them and get better results in the future. There's no getting around it: the one thing all my past relationships had in common was ME.
So, this brings me to the two big insights I got after browsing the menopause expert's book:
(1) Dr. Northrup wrote about how she grew up with an emotionally unavailable mother and spent her life trying to be "good enough" to get her mother's approval, a pattern she carried with her into her marriage. In effect, she "married" her mother by marrying a guy who was emotionally unavailable and with whom she could not share her wants and needs.
I used to lay the responsibility for my attracting emotionally unavailable men on the fact that my father was both physically and emotionally absent from my life after age 10, when my parents divorced. I thought my "abandonment issues" were the sole root cause of my insecurities in romantic relationships.
After reading about Northrup's experience, I suddenly became aware that, in a way, I had not one but TWO "unavailable" parents. My mother did a great job of being physically present in my life (still is - I'm living at her house right now while I save up money to move to Paris) and taking care of two daughters on her own with no financial support from my absentee dad... but emotionally, Mom and I are light years apart in how we see things, how we deal with things and often, how we relate to each other. For as long as I can recall, I was labeled the "overemotional one" in my family, and it took years of therapy before I was able to get beyond that label and realized that maybe I wasn't the one with the emotional "problem"; maybe I was simply born into a family that was so emotionally stunted that my willingness to display emotion just hit a nerve with my mother and sister (who is also very unemotional). My mom and sister, in fact, seem to have 2 emotional speeds: happy and angry. If they're not happy, then they are irritable, annoyed, or displaying hostility. Underneath the anger might be fear or sadness or any number of other emotions, but more often than not, what comes out is some form of anger... something I was extremely sensitive to and still am, although I've learned to "fight back" within the family if I have to.
Although my story is different from Northrup's, I too feel that I have expended unbelievable amounts of time and energy trying to measure up to some unattainable standard in my mother's eyes. I've never felt good enough. I've never felt I had her unconditional approval even while I know I've always had her love. Again, I'm not blaming my mother - she is who she is and has done the best she could - but the fact remains that emotionally, I had needs from my parents that simply never got filled... and never will.
My big insight is that I never understood that in chasing unavailable men, I was on some level playing out the same dynamic that I have done with my mother for most of my 44 years. When I've been in love, I've also been mirroring that pattern of seeking approval and validation from people who just couldn't give that to me, not in the way that I wanted. My task, now that I understand this, is to stop needing approval and validation from other people in general, not only in my romantic relationships, and to put my own good opinion ahead of the opinion of others. And to not take it personally if someone I'm close to doesn't support what I'm doing, because deep down I know their lack of ability to support me is about THEIR issues, not mine.
(2) The other major "a-ha!" moment was this thing about having developed into a strong woman who didn't "need" anything from anyone. Dr. Northrup described how, as a result of her not feeling she could rely on her family for emotional support (in her family, you weren't supposed to show your emotions or have emotional needs), she grew into someone who learned that it wasn't OK for her to ask for help or support from others. In becoming the "go-to girl", she ended up taking care of everyone else's needs but ignoring her own, and rarely would she ask for help from others as she didn't seem to think she had a right to ask for it or expect it.
Boy, does that describe me to a "T"! I am very happy and able to be supportive of other people -- which certainly explains my attracting to becoming a personal coach and why I am someone that other people will tell their deepest troubles to (even complete strangers). But whenver I need to let go and let someone else help me, it's about the most uncomfortable thing I can think of. "Vulnerable" is not an adjective I want to apply to myself. I've gotten better at it over the years but it's still really hard for me to believe that others will want to take time out for ME... or that if I do need them, they won't let me down.
This is a big catch-22 in relationships. I like my independence and like knowing I can take care of myself. I don't like to impose on others and don't like to rely on others for things if it's something I think I can do for myself. And many men like being with women like that - it takes the pressure off of them to have to "take care of" some clinging vine girlfriend. But I also find it difficult to strike a healthy balance in my relationships with men (and sometimes with my women friends, too) because after a while, I get exhausted by doing so much for myself and by being afraid to have any expectations that others will be there for me if I do need them. I get tired of being "the strong one" (as I see it), then I get resentful, and the next thing you know, the relationship is in trouble. "The Strong, Capable One With All The Answers" is the mask or facade I have created so that people won't see the "real" me underneath... the person who is sometimes scared, sometimes a screw-up, and sometimes just doesn't have the answers.
So, now that I've had this "light bulb moment", what do I DO with all that new-found wisdom? Well, awareness certainly helps one avoid repeating the old behaviours, but it's no guarantee, either. I think growth is a life-long process and with every step we take, we have an opportunity to fit another piece of the puzzle into place. I'll be reflecting on this some more, but what comes to mind right now is that I am going to have to get comfortable with being a little more vulnerable (there's that dirty word again) if I'm going to make space for love to come into my life again.
Because when you go into relationships expecting that (a) someone will leave you, (b) you're not good enough and you have to prove yourself, or (c) you can't trust someone else to be there for you... what kind of relationship are you going to get? Apparently, the kind I've BEEN getting my entire dating life, relationships that don't completely work for me and that never seem to "stick"... and why I need to start doing things a bit differently in the future. I think it's high time for me to change my patterns, once and for all.
So, it's time to "do the work" -- again. There are reasons I'm over 40 and still single... it's no accident. Today I have a little more insight into why that is, and some clues as to what I can do about it.
Not a bad bonus to get while trying to eliminate hot flashes, don't you think?