Monday, April 7, 2014

How Your Dating Conflicts Are Sometimes Mirrors from Your "Distant" Past


Photo credit: click from morguefile.com

The issue of communication in a relationship is often tricky. Each person has their own style and needs, which sometimes conflict. However, sometimes the conflicts are about something deeper than just basic differences, such as in this post from a yoga practitioner who's blog I've been reading for awhile now:

I've been unhappy with the lack of communication I had with the bf. We barely interacted besides funny cat pictures he occasionally sent me, so last week I decided to tell him that either we see each other more often, or he calls more often, or I wouldn't see him this weekend.

Worst. strategy. ever. He got furious, started listing everything that I have ever done wrong, how I stress him out, and now it's zero communication.

I realized we probably already interact more than he's comfortable with, which is ridiculously little by any normal standards (we might as well be in a long-distance relationship even though we live in the same city). I started browsing through a thousand articles about men and why they stonewall women and how to get them to communicate more and stuff. I already tried to mentally prepare myself for the worst case scenario - our break up, but it was still very painful.

Now, this situation doesn't sound terribly promising in my view. She's thinking that he's at his limit in terms of contact, and yet in between seeing each other, they're only sharing cat pics? Seriously, not good, no matter how you slice it. However, there are some details missing that might make an assessment easier. Such as how often they see each other, and also how long they've been dating. So, let's move on.

The most interesting piece to me is in this additional paragraph:

My dad also has a style of rarely talking or discussing things, but it suited my mom because she likes to have complete control over the family and he lets her shove him. She treats him like a small child: she tells him when he needs to put on more clothes; she decided that he should retire early and we should move to North America; she signed me up for all sorts of extracurricular activities without ever discussing with me or even informing me beforehand and made him drive me to these classes while I was young. He put up with all this and never complained much.

Over the years, I've noticed how I have attracted dates and partners that reflect traits of my parents. Sometimes, this is a positive thing, such as finding someone who has my mother's general optimism about life. Other times, though, it's been a major source of conflict, like in the situation above. The unresolved difficulties you had/have with a parent can be mirrored in the person you're dating, giving you yet another chance to face and resolve things, or get tripped up by them.

How we communicate and connect with each other are often driven by old patterns from our formative years. It takes a lot of deliberate focus and effort to overturn such patterns, and to operate from your own ground, as opposed to that which allowed you to handle your childhood years.

My own pattern of heavy self criticism around mistakes, given to me by both of my parents to some degree, needed to be shaken out of me over and over again. In terms of dating, I was prone to finding other perfectionists who triggered my sense of internalized shame around screwing up, even in the most minor of circumstances. It really wasn't until a few years ago, when I dated someone who's streak was so strong that after a month or so of going back and forth between fighting with her and going along with whatever to not upset her, I realized this was old, old stuff. That I would never be "good enough" for her because she didn't think she was good enough herself. All the controlling, endless analyzing of any situation that didn't go well, or how she wanted it to - all of that was just a variation of what I was prone to doing.

Needless to say, that relationship didn't last much longer, but ever since then, I've found it easier to identify the "not good enough" narrative and let it go.

How about you? Have you seen these kinds of issues in your relationships?



25 comments:

  1. Ugh, what wouldn't I give to attract partners that reflect traits of my parents. My parents had an amazing marriage, my dad was a great husband, there was a lot of understanding and communication and support between them. I've tried three times so far. Each time, I'm sure that ok this time I have succeeded in picking a guy who will be to me what my dad was to my mom. And each time, it turns out to be almost the opposite. It might be because, with each partner, I see a few traits that my dad had, and totally disregard their other traits that might be the opposite of what my dad had. As a result, each time, I run into a whole new and bewildering set of issues, hangups and idiosyncrasies in a guy, that I have never seen before and have no idea how to deal with them, or even recognize them for what they are before it's too late.

    OTOH, my parents, while being amazing at being partners, weren't as good at being parents. I didn't get enough attention but they were super controlling at the same time; nothing I did was ever good enough; we didn't have a good enough connection and enough communication going, etc. While I haven't done any serious work and analysis on myself, I do know that I am a people pleaser, have a hard time saying no, have a hard time getting close to someone emotionally etc as a result of growing up with my parents. And yea these are the mistakes I make in every single relationship - for example, I bend over backwards to make my partner happy and don't even stop to ask myself whether I am truly happy or not, and what it would take for them to make me happy, before it's too late. Last relationship, I nearly ran myself into the ground literally; I could've done great damage to my health if I'd stayed; all the while thinking that I was happy and in love and my only problem was that I wasn't doing enough to keep my boyfriend happy too.

    So that's the problem I've seen in my relationships. I guess I'm trying to be my parents' kid with every partner that I have. And that's not good, because my parents and I did not have a good connection when I was a kid.

    As for the woman you quote, hmmm I don't know, good riddance maybe? Somehow a bf who only communicates via cat pictures, then flies off the handle when asked about it, and completely withdraws all communication (omg no more cat pictures?) doesn't sound like a great companion.

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  2. In the 1990's I went through a few years avidly reading relationship 'self help' books. Looking for patterns - particularly in the dynamics of one's family of origin - was an idea often expressed. There seemed to be a consensus that we create relationship dynamics that are familiar to us - even if they unhappy ones. One book (sorry don't remember title or author) suggested we recreate these situations in the hopes that this time we will "win".

    I thought my father a very authoritarian kind of man when I was growing up. I found him hard to relate to. He wasn't mean, but he wasn't overly warm to me either. When I was a kid, I was drawn to TV dad's - like Fred MacMurray from "My Three Sons" among others.

    In my first serious relationship/partnership in my early 20's, I didn't choose someone like my father, but I came to see later that I was obnoxiously controlling in that relationship. In a way I was like my dad as I saw him when I was an adolescent, only I think I might have been worse. Sigh.

    In my second partnership (29 + a couple years) I vowed I wouldn't be like that again. I told my then bf "I don't want to be the banker in this relationship!" Yet...I still was many times over the 3 yrs we were together.

    I've had 2 more live together partnerships since then and I became more laid back in each one. Experience, age both I suppose contributed, but I KNOW I still have the "My way is the right way" deal going on in my head. :P And if I were to live with another lover in the future...I'd really have to pay attention to that and temper it.

    Nathan, I'm not sure who the blogger in your example is emulating. Or where she is drawing her parallels. It sounds like her mom was the "driver" in her marriage and her dad was okay being the "passenger". This woman's bf doesn't seem being comfortable being either driver or passenger. And neither does she from the snippet you shared here. I dunno...maybe I'm missing something, but I'm pretty much seeing two people keeping a dating situation going out of inertia - not for underlying psychological reasons.

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  3. Goldie: "I didn't get enough attention but they were super controlling at the same time; nothing I did was ever good enough; we didn't have a good enough connection and enough communication going, etc. While I haven't done any serious work and analysis on myself, I do know that I am a people pleaser, have a hard time saying no, have a hard time getting close to someone emotionally etc as a result of growing up with my parents. And yea these are the mistakes I make in every single relationship - for example, I bend over backwards to make my partner happy and don't even stop to ask myself whether I am truly happy or not, and what it would take for them to make me happy, before it's too late."

    I used to have fairly strong people pleasing tendencies that stemmed from the period after my parent's divorce, when both of them in different ways put me in positions where I couldn't say no. Things like relaying information from one to the other because they couldn't handle talking to each other. Or having to take on a heavy load of supporting, emotionally and also with household tasks and caring for my younger sister. Even though I've done a lot of work to break this, and have great adult relationships with both parents, a small part of the pleaser guy still comes up from time to time. But what I've found is that if I'm usually able to say what I'm thinking/feeling, or what I need in a given situation now. What helps is not rushing to blame someone, or yourself, for what's happening. But to be open to examining the situation with the other person if needed, and make changes if needed.

    The hard thing about being a people pleaser is that you can attract some pretty messed up folks into your life. Because they can detect that you'll be open to giving them what they need, even if they trample over you in the process. I had a friend during my college and grad school days who constantly talked over me (and other friends), sometimes became verbally abusive when I (or others) disagreed with him, and generally disregarded how people felt about his actions. For a long time, I put up with a lot of nonsense, and some dangerous behavior, including being a passenger in his car far too many times while he was drunk driving. But eventually, I started to see through the people pleaser piece, started calling him out on his stuff, and our friendship quickly deteriorated.

    Anyway, I think that breaking through the people pleaser inside could be a big key to opening the door for a much better match to arrive. Because you'll be standing in your power, instead of giving it away. Which will repel the guys who are looking for someone to constantly give, give, give - while offering little in return.

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    1. "Anyway, I think that breaking through the people pleaser inside could be a big key to opening the door for a much better match to arrive. Because you'll be standing in your power, instead of giving it away. Which will repel the guys who are looking for someone to constantly give, give, give - while offering little in return. "

      Wow. I think you're right. Now how do I break through them... lol

      And wow, I'm sorry about what you had to go through during your parents' divorce. I hope I made it easier on my kids than that; at least I tried hard. I initiated the divorce for their benefit as much as mine; I just got to the point where I didn't believe we were a healthy household, or one safe for the kids, anymore, mainly due to my x's and his friends' drinking problems. I did stay on good terms with my ex and encouraged the kids to spend time with him and give him their support. Then again, my kids were already teenagers when we split up. They still tell me the divorce affected them, though.

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    2. "And wow, I'm sorry about what you had to go through during your parents' divorce." Thanks. Yeah, it wasn't easy. They both had a lot of issues to face, and being the oldest child, I took the brunt of it sometimes. They're on good terms now, and really, even though it was hard, I'm glad they didn't stay together "for the children" or whatever.

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  4. Selena: "Nathan, I'm not sure who the blogger in your example is emulating. Or where she is drawing her parallels. It sounds like her mom was the "driver" in her marriage and her dad was okay being the "passenger". This woman's bf doesn't seem being comfortable being either driver or passenger. And neither does she from the snippet you shared here." I actually agree with you. I wasn't sure that their relationship fit the pattern I wrote about. Her conclusions led me to take up the topic. She zeroed in on his lack of communication, and connected that with her father, and then explored her parent's relationship for a couple of paragraphs (I only included one of them). I was interested in the topic, but didn't feel like she'd given us enough info about the bf to really make any serious conclusions. Other than that their connection sounds pretty poor.

    "
    In my first serious relationship/partnership in my early 20's, I didn't choose someone like my father, but I came to see later that I was obnoxiously controlling in that relationship. In a way I was like my dad as I saw him when I was an adolescent, only I think I might have been worse. Sigh.

    In my second partnership (29 + a couple years) I vowed I wouldn't be like that again. I told my then bf "I don't want to be the banker in this relationship!" Yet...I still was many times over the 3 yrs we were together."

    It's funny. I've been on both sides of this in recent years. A couple of years before the short term relationship I spoke about above, I was in a several month relationship where because she'd only been in the US a few years, and a whole host of other reasons, I was the banker. My current relationship is more balanced. I'd like to think that those experiences helped some. But perhaps it's also the case that if you find someone who's a good match, you're less like to give into extremes.

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    1. Rookie question for you both - what do you mean by being the banker in a relationship?

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    2. In board games like Monopoly and Life, someone is designated as the "banker". In some of my co-habitating relationships this translated to me being the one who managed our finances and controlled what/how we spent. It was annoying at times when I would have to tell my partner "no" to something he wanted because it wasn't in our budget/didn't need it, etc.

      More broadly, it's when one person in the couple is the main decision maker. It can sometimes feel like a parent/child dynamic rather than an equal partners dynamic. When I told a previous partner I didn't want to be the banker in our relationship, I was essentially saying I didn't want to be the "parent". I'd been so controlling in my first relationship, I didn't want to do that again.

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  5. Yes, the curious thing about this situation is that the woman understands this man is at his limit in terms of contact, she is mentally preparing herself for a breakup, yet she gives him an ultimatum and seems surprised by his negative reaction to it: "Worst. Strategy. Ever." Gee, ya think?

    She cites his lack in communication skills, but I think her own might benefit with some work. People tend to react negatively to ultimatums because they sense - often correctly - that the person issuing one is doing so to manipulate them. Why not just have a calm discussion along the lines of: "Bob, I find I need more attention and contact than you seem to be comfortable giving. Do you think that's something you would be willing to change?" If the answer was "No" then she could breakup right there without throwing an ultimatum.

    I agree with you that these two people just don't sound like a good match. I think the blogger recognizes this but is looking for reasons/justifications to breakup without looking like the "bad guy" for doing so. Reminds of the "Austin" letter from EMK's blog.

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  6. Agreed. Ultimatums are almost always a failed strategy that brings up even more problems or drama.

    She wrote in her latest post that that she apologized for the ultimatum and that they're still together. So, part of her anyway wants to stick it out. For how long, who knows.

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  7. Years ago I realized an ultimatum goes both ways. You aren't just issuing one to the other person, you are issuing it to yourself as well. If you say " This needs to change or I'm gonna walk", then you should be prepared to actually walk. If you aren't, you are really just making an empty threat and trying to manipulate the other person. Once I understood this principle I rarely made ultimatums. A last ditch effort really. If you get to the point of issuing an ultimatum are you really expecting change to come from it?

    I'm a bit surprised to her the woman is sticking with this guy. Did he give her any indication that he was willing to give her more attention?

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  8. "Did he give her any indication that he was willing to give her more attention?" I have no idea. She just mentioned it in an otherwise unrelated post.

    "This needs to change or I'm gonna walk", then you should be prepared to actually walk. If you aren't, you are really just making an empty threat and trying to manipulate the other person. " This is a good way to put it. I'd bet the majority of the time, people are just running empty threats, hoping the other person will cave in some way or another. I honestly can't remember the last time I issued an ultimatum in a relationship. It's possible I did so during my first long term relationship college/post college days. But otherwise, it's just not something I'm given to do. In fact, I can't recall any of my partners really operating that way either.

    I'd imagine that occasionally an ultimatum works out for a couple. But overall, I think you're right that it's basically done from a place of wishful thinking about changes, and probably acts a power substitute in situations where people feel that nothing else will get results.

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  9. Full disclosure, I told my husband something to that effect. But I meant it. I was pretty much already looking at apartments at that time, and only a serious effort on his end could've stopped me.

    Then again, I've been on the receiving end of something different. In my last relationship, nine months in, he suddenly said he was leaving but wanted to stay friends, keep doing things together etc. Then the next day, he sends me an email "I left because I wasn't feeling loved because you hadn't been doing a, b, c..." I had no idea. I would've preferred an ultimatum. Actually I would've preferred ANY kind of feedback to "I'm leaving you because you failed to discern that I was unhappy, read my mind to figure out what was making me unhappy, and change that".

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  10. I wonder why he just didn't send you the email FIRST before telling you he was leaving? And this is the guy who broke up with you two years later and wouldn't tell you why? See a pattern here?

    Seems to me this fellow might employ avoidance as part of his communication style.

    "Actually I would've preferred ANY kind of feedback to "I'm leaving you because you failed to discern that I was unhappy, read my mind to figure out what was making me unhappy, and change that".

    Amen.

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    1. Yup, same guy.

      " See a pattern here?"

      I do now... I am a slow learner.

      Yes he is super conflict avoidant. He thinks everything should flow naturally, and if it doesn't, then, well, time to leave! There are many lessons for me to be learned from our two years together.

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  11. "Yes he is super conflict avoidant. He thinks everything should flow naturally, and if it doesn't, then, well, time to leave!" This was me. At age 23. With my first long term girlfriend. I "left" 7 times before it finally was over. Endless back and forth because I couldn't figure out how to say what I was feeling or speak to what I needed. She wasn't much better, but we were both young. I can't imagine being like that now, living like that now.

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    1. I still don't know what he needed the second time, he wouldn't say. *He* still doesn't know what he needed. (Though in retrospect, we're both better off for going our own separate ways.) And he's far from being 23. And I wasn't much better, either. I was about to drop dead from exhaustion and didn't even realize it myself, let alone had enough self-awareness to sit him down and say, Listen, this relationship is physically wearing me out, is there anything we can do to help this? Except I wouldn't have left, I would've kept going till I dropped. I do remember telling him something like "I have unusually low energy lately and I don't know why, I should probably see a doctor".

      I really need to figure out how to get from the 23-year-old-you level (which is where my ex and I both were) to the current-you level :)

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  12. "I really need to figure out how to get from the 23-year-old-you level (which is where my ex and I both were) to the current-you level :)"

    Although it's always helpful to check yourself and keep being open to growing, one thing you might want to be on the lookout for while on dates is the general level of generosity a guy is showing. Generosity here isn't really about spending money or buying gifts, but more about how giving someone's personality is. Does he listen well? Does he offer emotional support readily when that seems like an appropriate response? Does he seem to share easily?

    Or the flip side. How do you feel at the end of your dates with Guy X? Do you feel drained at all in a not so great way?

    Part of the challenge is learning to look beyond the surface level connections + any chemistry present early on, to see what else is going on.

    I remember one woman I went on a two dates with maybe 3 years ago or so. There was some attraction. We had some things in common. We were able to sustain long conversations about a wide range of topics, which was also a plus. And yet, after both dates I felt off. After sitting with the positives, I started to see some other things. Like she was pretty negative about a lot of things. And also that she'd spent a good half an hour on both dates ripping into people in her life (an ex-boyfriend, her "difficult neighbor," a boss). Lots of victim stuff, which even if it were true, wouldn't be something I'd focus on while getting to know someone. I felt like I'd spent a lot of time listening to stories about her being wronged, and then was set up to do the supportive bf role - except we'd just met.

    Even though I liked her well enough otherwise, I just couldn't overlook this because it was so glaring on both dates. Seriously, she invites me over to her place after dinner on the second date and we're barely in the door and she launches into a sob story about how her upstairs neighbor wouldn't share the shoveling and how they'd been fighting and the landlord wasn't any help. Or something along those lines.

    Bleh. I just couldn't shake these stories that kept coming up. She wanted to be seen as "the good person wronged," as if she just being herself without all that wasn't enough. We made out fairly heavy later that night, but it felt off. I kept thinking "Do I really want to get more intimate with her?" Needless to say, I didn't see her again.

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    1. "Does he listen well? Does he offer emotional support readily when that seems like an appropriate response? Does he seem to share easily?

      Or the flip side. How do you feel at the end of your dates with Guy X? Do you feel drained at all in a not so great way?"

      Sigh, my ex was highly intelligent. Probably the most intelligent person I've met, which believe me is saying a lot. So he knew how to *pretend* to do all those things on the first few dates. He listened, he gave the right responses in all the right places, he even talked about himself. And of course he was nice to everyone else, because he's a nice guy (TM)

      I do remember feeling drained though - not drained but overdosed on syrup... he was just too damn sweet. Too nice, too sensitive, too romantic, too much of everything. I'd get in my car after a date and listen to Sublime all the way home just to get that sweetness out of my system.

      I'd say your date made it easy for you. (And, you dodged a bullet!) I've had that happen a couple of times. Like the guy that told me he never got out of the house, because he was too shy; didn't have any friends, because again he was too shy to get out and meet people (bear in mind the guy is 50 - a bit too old to be so painfully shy...); he'd get into relationships, and meet his gf's friends, then lose them once a relationship was over. He was probably the best-looking man I've ever been out with, we had some common interests, and even so I had no problem saying no to a second date. I wish all of them were that open about their shortcomings, though. It is normal for all of us to put our best foot forward during dates and the initial stages of a relationship, and some of us are better at it than others.

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  13. Yeah, it's not always easy to find the "dirt" early on so to speak. People are often hiding behind the "good date" mask, doing and saying the seemingly right things, which makes it even more important to pay attention to those more subtle cues. Like that over-sweetness feeling you had with the ex. Or the general drained feeling. I think one of the negatives about popularity of online dating and similar options is that it has given many folks an arena to "learn the game." Which is different from becoming a quality, mature date. A lot of NiceGuy types in the past would have had much more difficulty getting enough dates to practice their "game" on. I know because I was one of them. Cue new post :)

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  14. Yay new post! :)

    You are right, listening to one's feelings post-date is good practice to becoming more in tune with one's feelings in general (something I am NOT). In my ex's case, I registered the feeling early on, but blew it off, because I'd been taught all my life not to trust my feelings, and logically, the guy was doing all the right things. After a few dates, I got used to his way of doing things and the feeling went away. It came back early on in the relationship though. Each time I'd come to his place and say hello, he'd give me the weirdest, creepiest smile and say "Hiiiiiiiii!!!". Used to creep the hell outta me. But again, I told myself that what I was feeling was wrong, he's a nice guy, he's doing everything right... and maybe he *was* doing everything right - just not right for me. Hmmm... I think I'm on to something. Got to listen to my feelings more. How about that :)

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  15. I just found this blog now.. interesting analyses about my relationship. If you want to know the backstory, this is my first relationship and I'm in my mid-30s (sigh...). I'm also in a foreign country with very few friends. I did mean it when I give the ultimatum; I had mentally prepared myself for the whole week and I thought I was ready to break up. It may be obvious to Selena but it was really surprising to me, not the part where he got angry, but the strong emotional pain I felt when the break up was imminent.

    So the relationship probably won't work out in the long run, but I realized I was going to lose my best friend. Given my age and given I seem to have shitty relationship skills, I was foreseeing that my life would suck for the rest of my stay in the country (my job contract is coming to an end in a few months). And yes while I complain about the bf's poor communication skills, mine practically matches his. So I feel it's good "practice" for me. Even if I screw up, I already know it's not supposed to work anyways. Plus I was really surprised that when I apologized, he mentioned he had a strong reaction because he was also caught in surprise, because he had actually thought the relationship was going really well.

    Anyways, two messed up people learning as much as they can from each other. I don't feel like it's time wasted. We always have fun when we do get to hang out with each other. I think in my current state even if I meet a good life partner candidate, I would screw up horribly anyways.

    I like the driver/passenger analysis. Selena is right that neither of us want to be the one calling the shots, but we also aren't very agreeable people. The fact that we're so similar (in a bad way I guess) is exactly what has kept us together for so long.

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  16. Hi Yyogini,

    Thank you for stopping by and offering a bit more background here. It makes sense to me that you'd hang with it, even if it just ends up being mostly "practice." Knowing that you're leaving probably makes it easier to do so, I can imagine. It's also challenging to pull the plug when you're in another country with few other close connections.

    At least you have the awareness that your communication and other relationship skills need work. Maybe he is aware of his weaknesses as well. I see a lot of folks commenting on dating blogs that don't seem to even have the awareness that they are part of the problem. Sometimes a big part of it.

    So, whatever happens, just keep paying attention.



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