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Times Change But Old Attitudes Don't - 6/2/2008

Ryan met Helen shortly after his divorce.  His first wife had left him for his best friend and, as you might expect, he was totally devastated by the double loss.   He thought, if you love someone who hurts you, shame on them.  But, if you love two people who betray you, possibly, you’re the one who’s at fault.  That opinion was strongly supported by his childhood, consisting of a workaholic father who was uncommunicative and undemonstrative, and a sickly mother who died when  Ryan was in his teens.  

Clinically, those factors contributed to  Ryan’s total lack of a sense of self-worth and emotionally reinforced his belief that, “Something must be wrong with me if mother abandoned me, father didn’t interact with me, my wife left me and my best friend betrayed me.”  Logically, he could readily see the erroneous nature of his conclusions but, emotionally, they became truths which not only stayed with him, but caused him to find fault with anyone he loved.  The purpose being to emotionally cripple his lover, making her incapable of leaving him.  

It’s no wonder, then, that Ryan rushed into a committed relationship with Helen, a woman whose sense of self-worth was already impaired.  In his father’s and step-mother’s eyes, “rushed” was an understatement.  They thought it was far too fast.  It wasn’t that they disliked Helen.  She was in the same medical school program as Ryan, was a better student than he and, in many ways, aided him academically.

Despite her academic excellence, Helen was a  socially and emotionally inadequate feeling person.  She doubted her femininity and lacked confidence with regard to heterosexual relationships.  This, too, was understandable.  During her youth, she was the “bright” daughter.   Her older sister, Tricia,  was the “pretty one.”    These roles were repeatedly reinforced throughout their childhood.  On birthdays and holidays, Tricia was given clothes and makeup.  Helen received books.  Those messages strongly affected their later development, contributed to each daughter’s sense of where her strengths lay and steered them in two separate directions.  But, emotionally, they were similar.  They felt empty inside and shared the feeling that, in order to receive love, they had to exaggerate and reinforce behaviors that fit their early designated role.  Thus, Tricia directed her efforts toward fashion, modeling and merchandising, while  Helen sought academic recognition.  She constantly searched for new intellectual challenges, but never viewed any of her successes as sufficient to meet the expectations of parents she perceived as only loving her for what she accomplished, as opposed to who she was.  Nor should it come as a surprise that  Helen later unconsciously sought out and married Ryan, a highly critical man who couldn’t fully accept her.   

They were a perfect neurotic fit.  He was bright, good looking and sociable, but emotionally needy, desperately desirous of attention and drawn to her care taking behavior.  She, in contrast, was familiar with feeling unloved and was, therefore, drawn to his criticisms.  In a squirrely way, their relationship made sense.  

I am constantly amazed that, when we know all the pieces, we eventually discover that most   relationships and life events don’t happen haphazardly.  Each of us, by virtue of our DNA, personalities developed early in life and our environments are destined to demonstrate predictable patterns of emotions and follow unique paths in life.  For example, when Ryan and Helen’s parents first met, their attitudes and behaviors were no surprise.  Ryan’s parents felt, “What’s the rush?  He doesn’t have to marry again so quickly.  He needs to grow up and get out on his own first.”  Conversely, Helen’s parents interacted with Ryan as though he were already their son-in-law.  They were enamored with him because of his stellar history; National Merit Scholar, soccer player and president of his college fraternity.   Their behavior was predictable.  In spite of the fact that Helen was their “smart” daughter,  who could easily have a successful career and achieve great success on her own, her parents, true to form, viewed her as a female who needed to be married and play the role of a housewife.

If you’re similar to most people, you’re probably unaware of your behavioral patterns and  blind to the factors that determine why you choose the paths you follow, or demonstrate particular behaviors and attitudes.  The blindness interferes with your ability to live life successfully, because living successfully  requires that you understand yourself.  You need to be able to separate or create sufficient distance from your world so that you can clearly see the people and events that affected and determined who you are, how you act, how you feel and what you say.  Granted, Ryan will continue to need reassurance that someone will be there for him.  Helen will always need to have someone reassure her that she’s loved for who she is.  Ryan’s parents will still feel that he should have shopped more and Helen’s will still perceive Ryan as wonderful, because he’s a physician.  You see, old attitudes don’t necessarily change, but life is understandable if you look at it with insight and objectivity.  Doing so can provide an awareness that will help you to see and avoid the pitfalls that may lie ahead. Ryan’s awareness of his fears of abandonment can aid him to be less critical and undermining of Helen. Helen needs to see that she can achieve her intellectual goals and still be valued for herself.  Ryan’s parents have to learn that their son is an adult who is fully capable of choosing a very acceptable wife on his own.  Helen’s parents need to learn to value people for who they are, as opposed to what they do.  

All of these lessons can be learned if you are aware of how you came to be who you are.  You see, what happens in life isn’t an accident.  As you grow older, your behavior may mature, but your feelings remain the same.  The rule of thumb is, you must become emotionally aware of your past in order to ensure that where you go in the future is not determined by where you come from, but by where you want to go.

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