I have a question I would like you to answer. I seriously doubt you’ll ever find it on an SAT test, or hear it on Jeopardy, but I believe it is sufficiently important that you give some serious thought to it. The question is “What’s a relationship?”
Before you answer, let me try to help you. I canvassed several members of my family, who gave the following answers. “A feeling you have for more than one person.” “A special bond between two persons.” And, lastly, “An interaction between people.” To further aid you, let me say that all of their responses were essentially correct, but none were right.
If you’re still in the dark regarding the answer I’m searching for, don’t for a moment feel upset or intellectually challenged. I’ve asked countless numbers of patients the same question and have never gotten what I believe to be the right answer. In part, because I usually ask the question in a time frame and context almost designed to elicit failure. My purpose, however, isn’t to test individuals, but to cause them to think outside the box.
What I wanted was for them to realize that not all relationships are positive in nature. There are good ones and bad ones. Second, not all relationships involve people who love one another. Third, and of most importance, you can have relationships with people who don’t necessarily want a relationship with you. Thus, it becomes apparent that it doesn’t take two people to have a relationship. It only takes one.
Now that I’ve made this point, I’d like to explain why it’s so important. Although it may never have been expressed in words, most of you were taught, early in life, that relationships are a two-way street. Remember the expression, “It takes two to tango”? The expression may be accurate when applied to the dance, but it isn’t when you refer to your feelings for another person. I can’t begin to tell you the degree to which this concept affects how you interact with others. Understanding that you alone can have a relationship with someone, no matter their desires, can not only help you in the dating game but also in a marital relationships, particularly during conflictive times when those you love might act hurtfully or claim they don’t love you in return. Because of that, I’d like you to memorize the following statement. IT IS NEITHER EMBARRASSING NOR DEMEANING TO LOVE SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T LOVE YOU IN RETURN. I promise that, if you believe and act on the basis of this concept, it will be invaluable to you in every one of your present or future relationships.
Most of you can recall, as a child, having strong feelings for someone of the opposite sex and being teased by friends for having those feelings. You may further recall how you tried desperately to determine, through his/her friends, how he/she felt about you. It’s a scenario almost everyone has lived through from the time you had your first crush on someone. If you’re like me, you were probably reluctant to reveal your feelings unless or until she admitted to caring equally for you. The reason; it’s painful to feel rejected, because you put yourself out on a limb in an emotionally vulnerable position. Similarly, as a young child, you probably remember getting angry at a parent who rejected or deprived you of love. Later, as a parent yourself, you may even recall getting in touch with feelings of hurt, or even anger toward your own child, if he/she ignored you or said he hated you, or was too attentive to your spouse or a caretaker. You probably attributed those feelings to insecurity or jealousy but, down deep, your reactions and feelings stemmed from the message you learned too well in childhood, i.e., it’s a sin to love someone who doesn’t reciprocate that love, because “it takes two to tango.”
Let me not mince words. That statement is nonsense. To believe it is to give up your right to your own feelings, to put others in charge of your emotions, and to sell yourself short. Don’t ever let that happen. It’s tantamount to emotional suicide, because you wind up denying and/or killing your own feelings. NOTE: I’m not advocating that you stalk someone who isn’t interested in you. However, I certainly am saying that you have the right to have a one-way relationship with anyone you choose. Moreover, I’d have you perceive this right as a strength, or a source of power, not as a weakness or embarrassment. It follows, then, that if you are attracted to someone, you have an obligation to yourself, to openly state or demonstrate those feelings to your friends, to the world, or even the person himself. In contrast, I cannot begin to count the number of individuals I’ve seen in therapy who have become suicidal, because they were rejected by a lover or a spouse who claimed they no longer loved them, or had asked for a divorce. Once again, their feelings stemmed from the notion that to care for, love, or need someone who doesn’t reciprocate those feelings is somehow an indication of your subordinated position, emotionally, and your lack of worth as a human being. However, instead of responding in that manner, I’d have you be able to say, “I see you as very attractive. I love you. I feel positively toward you. And I still want our relationship. If there are things I’ve done to hurt you, I’d like to change. I’d like to know about it, because I don’t want it to happen again, with you or with anyone else.” If they agree to reconcile, if they hear you, you both win, at least up to that point. Whether or not it ever again becomes a close, lasting relationship or just a friendship remains to be seen. But, for the moment, it’s promising and you can take pride in having had the courage to own, express and follow through on your own feelings. I understand that many of you may perceive taking this position as crazy, stupid or a form of subjugation. But I see it as a case of you being strong enough to be vulnerable, act in accordance with your own desires and take control of your behavior and your reactions. I’d have you take pride in those facts.
Conversely, let’s hypothesize that the other individual is adamant about leaving. What have you lost? Your pride? If you start out with the notion that your feelings are genuine, valuable and worthy of expression, and that no one is obligated to reciprocate, but they would be foolish not to, you’re way ahead of the game. You haven’t lost your pride, you’ve reinforced it. If, however, you’re lacking in self confidence, insecure, and paradoxically feel that everyone you’re attracted to or love is required to love you back, you’re in deep emotional trouble and you probably have lost any sense of pride you wish you had. That’s when it’s time to consider what you base your pride on and why you endow others with the power to determine your worthiness, i.e., if they respond positively, you’re okay and if they don’t, you’re lacking. In my opinion, something seems very wrong with that orientation. To me, it says you need to seriously readjust your sense of self worth so that, instead of dealing with others from the outside in, you are able to interact with them from the inside out.
As I noted earlier, these principals apply equally to any type of loving relationship - with parents, family, high school crushes, college romances and marriage. They are of most particular importance during times of trouble, conflict, or difficulty. For example, picture a time when you’ve been significantly hurt, or felt emotionally wounded, and your knee-jerk reaction was to shout, hit, or exclaim clearly and loudly that you hate your partner and want to end the relationship. In contrast, take the same situation where your response is, “I love you for the person I’ve always felt and believed you to be. Only your recent actions, your behaviors and your statements have been unbecoming to you, painful to me and strongly undermine my opinion of you. You see, I hurt because I love you. Because I care. But I cannot live with or accept this kind of behavior. I know you must be hurting for you to act that way, but unless you explain it, I don’t know how to be there for you.” Now, choose which of those roles you would prefer to play. Which would most demonstrate your inner strength, your honest ownership of your own feelings, and provide you with the greatest opportunity for feeling good about yourself? Also, which would most enhance the possibility of reconciliation? Hands down, your choice has to be the second one. At the same time, you might ask yourself, “Am I capable of responding that way when, at the moment, I really do hate my partner?”
My answer to you is, you have a right to hate him/her. No one wants to be hurt, or has the right to hurt others. But, at the same time, there is no doubt that you are capable of the second, positive type of response, but only, when and if you accept and believe that a relationship can be a one-way street and that loving someone isn’t a weakness, it is a strength. Therefore, I’d have you make your goal to be strong and to feel positive about yourself in every relationship you enter.