Tag Archives: relationships

Lessons in letting people go

I’ve always been a people pleaser. I’ve always cared what other people thought of me, and whether they thought I was good enough. Demands (implicit or explicit) to give more, do more, be more useful, ask for less, make less fuss and so forth, have tended to impact on me. I’ve spent much of my life trying to be good enough for other people. As a consequence, I’ve spent more time than was a good idea in the company of people for whom I could never be good enough.

One of the things I’ve done this year is to ask at every turn, what’s in it for me? I’ve found it massively helpful as an approach. On a number of occasions now, I’ve identified situations where there really was nothing in it for me, but I was being asked to give rather a lot. I’ve learned to say no to that, and to walk away.

In the past, I would have felt guilty about not being good enough for someone. No matter how preposterous the situation, or how impossible the hoops I was being asked/told to jump through. Failing to do what other people wanted of me would leave me depressed, anxious, guilt ridden and trying to cut bits off myself so as to better fit through the endless hoops. It’s taken me a long time to learn that some people can’t be pleased. It’s usually the most demanding people who are the hardest to actually make happy.

Alongside this I’ve learned that I can have people in my life who just like me being around. People who don’t need me to do anything in particular for them. People who enjoy me being happy. It makes a lot of difference. Unsurprisingly, the more time I spend with people who accept me as I am, the happier and more relaxed I am.

The people who want me to be things I am not, have, with hindsight, wanted some weird and incompatible things. They’ve wanted things on their terms that should never be entirely one sided. They’ve wanted all the consequences of being unconditionally loved, while being free to act like they have no obligations. Conditional love is never enough for some people. The idea of reciprocal love, care, affection and support offends them. They’ve wanted the devotion that gets the work done, and the freedom to pretend that the devotion does not exist. They’ve wanted absolute care and attention while making it clear that it must never be apparent that I’m making an effort, so that they don’t feel awkward or pressured by it. And so on. Some games are not winnable.

I have learned this year that I do not have to feel guilty about the people I am unable to please. If I’m not good enough for them, they should let go and move on. It’s no good standing around telling me how rubbish I am, or how problematic, and expecting me to fix everything. Also, I’ve never yet got into one of these where it seemed possible to really fix anything or ever be good enough. The people who treat me as though I am the villain in their life story while at the same time asking for saintly levels of tolerance, forgiveness and indulgence, are people I don’t need. Onwards!


Who dictates the shape of love?

“Ye’ll have to accept that part of being loved means ye’ll have to accept that folks have concerns about ye as well. And have the right to does so. Ye cannot jes’ want the parts of this arrangement that ye likes…” (From Dance into the Wyrd, by Nils Visser)

It’s a quote that jumped out when I read it and that has stayed with me because it nails so many things. I’ve been round this one repeatedly and seen it play out in all kinds of situations. People who want some part of the love and care on offer, but want to say exactly what form that takes, and reject the bits that don’t work for them. In my experience, the care and concern of other people is often rejected. It also seems common that resenting people who care for you for wanting some of your time and attention is normal, too.

There’s often a gender aspect to this – what I mostly see is male rejection of female concern. Female concern is labelled smothering and restrictive, it is treated as an imposition, and intrusion, a limitation on the freedom the man feels entitled to. The man in question will usually want emotional labour when he wants it, sex, food, and other domestic benefits – if it’s that kind of relationship – but not to have to say when he will be back…

Of course we all need the freedom to decide what shapes we want our relationships to take. No one is obliged to do anything because someone has said ‘I love you’. However, if you are willing to take what you see as the benefits of someone else’s love, while demanding they don’t do the bits you find awkward, that stands some scrutiny.

It is easy to use apparent concern as a form of manipulation. However, simply wanting to know that someone is ok is not an emotionally manipulative activity. It’s a need to ease real anxiety. On the other hand, shaming someone for their concern is horrible. Wanting some time from a person who benefits from your love is not unreasonable, otherwise you just end up feeling used. If they take your work, your money, your support and disappear off once they’ve got it, it doesn’t look much like love returned. In a parent/child relationship, you may decide that’s just how it goes. In a sexual partnership, it may be part of casting one partner as the parent and the other as carefree and without responsibility. Again, there tends to be a gender bias here.

For myself, I have decided that I’m not doing this again. Anyone who treats my care like an imposition, does not get second helpings. Anyone who wants my emotional labour on tap, or any other forms of service from me is not going to get away with acting as though they have the right to have the whole relationship purely on their terms.

Danger signs in human relationships

How do you tell when a relationship has crossed a line and become genuinely toxic rather than merely uncomfortable or challenging? When you’re in the thick of things, especially if it’s impacting on you emotionally, it can be hard to make good decisions about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. To further complicate things, a deliberately abusive person will try to persuade you of their world view in order to keep abusing you, and that can make things incredibly confusing.

Here are some things I think it’s fairly easy to spot even in emotive situations. These are danger signs. The amount of them and the context will of course matter, and people in crisis can flail about in horrible ways and still deserve our sympathy, but on the whole if it looks like this, be very careful.

Double standards – rules for you that do not apply to them, and/or entitlements they have that you are not allowed.

They can only be right and you can only be wrong unless you totally agree with them and do everything on their terms.

Not being allowed to express any kind of pain or discomfort. If you are punished, verbally or physically for expressing pain or discomfort, this is a very dangerous situation. Leave it carefully – leaving is when abusers are at their most dangerous.

De-personing you – not allowing you to think, or feel anything that isn’t agreeable to them. Refusing to hear you if you express something that doesn’t suit them. Rubbishing your opinion. Minimising your distress by telling you that you are over reacting, making a fuss, that it’s drama and attention seeking. Being very quick to dismiss you. Decent people tend to be slower to complain that other people are doing drama.

Attributing things to you that are of their making – ‘you made me angry’ and ‘you made me hit you’ are classic examples of this, but it can be more subtle. For women, the effect our bodies have on male bodies is something we are routinely blamed for and made responsible for. There’s a limit to how responsible you can be for the effect you have on other people, and this stuff is definitely on the other side of the line. Also, the same people will not take any responsibility at all for the impact they have on you, even when we’re talking bruises. They will treat these things as comparable – their anger and your bruise. Either you’ll find that if you can be heard, everything they feel is then blamed on you using that as the justification. Or, if you can’t be responsible for how they feel about you, they can’t be responsible for anything either. It’s twisted and difficult to sort through. Watch out for un-nuanced, binary thinking in which one thing is taken to mean another.

Changing the story. Now, we all change stories as our understanding of a situation shifts over time. It becomes a danger sign when the changes are rapid, illogical, contradictory, if you are clearly being lied to, and then lied to in a different way to cover the first lie, and when you are expected to go along with the ‘truth’ that the other person has at any given moment and they get angry if you can’t keep up or make sense of things. This is a mind game, and a form of gaslighting. If they treat you like you are crazy for not being able to make sense of their shifting story, it is definitely gaslighting.

This is by no means a definitive list, but I think it’s a useful place to start.

This Fragile Life – a review

This is an incredibly emotionally intense novel. It’s contemporary, set in the real world and is not fantastical in any way. It’s a book that explores the human heart and psyche with a mix of razor sharp insight and compassion.

Martha, after five rounds of failed IVF treatment is coming to terms with the idea that she is never going to have children. Martha is a successful business woman with a classy flat and a nice husband and from the outside she looks like she has it all. High School friend Alex didn’t get (or want) the snazzy college place or the high powered job – she works in a cafe part time and teaches art to disadvantaged kids. She has no money, no healthcare, and a tiny home. Alex is pregnant, and Alex does not think she has what it takes to be a decent mum. And so how could she refuse Martha’s suggestion that she give her baby to her friend?

Nothing, it turns out, is that simple. This is a tough story, and while avoiding spoilers, I will say that it made me cry, a lot.

There are lots of themes here. Poverty and privilege. What makes a good parent. What giving birth looks like when you’re dealing with private health care and have no insurance. What success means and what good relationships require. No one in this story is how they first seem. Some of them act terribly, or think really awful things. As you find out more about who they are and where they come from, many of those things make more sense. This is a story about how wounding is passed down through families and how hard it is to break out of family patterns of behaviour. It’s a story that makes clear that we do all have the power to choose and that none of us are obliged to keep repeating the things in our histories.

Events in this story bring out the best and worst in people. It’s a tale that demonstrates our capacity to grow and change, that we can all decide to be better than we were and that we may all have qualities we won’t know about until tested. Do we pull apart under stress, or prop each other up?

If you’re feeling fragile, this may not be a book for you – but it may also be cathartic. It’s well written, and it has a great deal to offer.



Shapes of relationships

Some of our relationships are necessarily structured. When there’s a professional shape to a relationship, all kinds of rules and requirements are in place and this is good and necessary. Professional relationships create obligations, responsibilities and power imbalances that need managing. Some family relationships have some of the same issues. Even so, there are choices to be made about how we shape such involvement – how much power over? How many arbitrary rules? How much service? How much expectation?

As Druids, we may often take on informally the kinds of roles that can be held professionally. Priest, teacher, counsellor, life coach… If we stray too far from what’s professional, we can end up abusing power and mistreating people. If we over-invest in our semi-professional status we can end up arrogant, self important and doing ourselves no favours whatsoever. As in most things, there’s a fine balancing act to achieve. Unlike professionals, we aren’t automatically keyed into a system that has support networks, resources, information and reliable paychecks, and it’s worth thinking about how that impacts on our relationships, too.

We tell each other a lot of stories about relationships – in fact friendship and romance are often central to our stories. In all kinds of ways – including adverts and laws – we tell each other about the shapes we think those relationships could and should have. Over time, that changes. It used to be much more acceptable for a man to beat his wife. We used to see marriage as a well defined relationship with a definite power imbalance in it. We seem willing now to explore less authoritarian approaches to parenting while at the same time being far more controlling of our children’s time and activities.

It’s easy to default to a standard relationship shape, an off the peg, one size fits all, it was good enough for some other person so it’s good enough for me kind of approach. This can have us replaying dysfunctional family stories, acting out what we’ve seen on the telly, aspiring to advert-family lifestyles that could never suit us and all sorts of other self-defeating things.

We have a notion that friendship means people of the same gender and about the same age, but life, and communities are much richer when there’s inter-generational contact. There are no stories about the natural friendship patterns for queer and genderfluid people. We tend to move towards people of similar class and educational background, but again that’s really narrowing. Some of us need big networks of friends, some of us need to deeply invest in just a few people. Some of us need a mix of that. There are no right answers here, but there can be wrong ones. If you end up doing what you think you should do, not what’s right for you, then you suffocate yourself.

Every relationship should be unique, because it is a meeting of two people. Each relationship may be framed by a context, or multiple contexts. We may give each other roles even when they don’t formally exist. It takes a certain amount of deliberation to refuse standard-issue relationship shapes and let something find its own form. It takes a certain amount of confidence as well, to do something with a relationship that is not what others might expect. People can be unpleasantly judgemental about having their expectations denied. Coming out can be a case in point for denying your family’s expectations.

It may seem easier to have all our interactions neatly arranged and tidily categorised. It may be simpler that way. There are no doubt some people whose natures mean that tidiness and simplicity are in fact the best choices. But not for all of us. Not for all relationships. Putting down the assumptions and seeing what happens can let magic in.

Negotiated relationships

(trigger warnings, some domestic abuse content)

One of the big problems, as I see it, with straight, vanilla type relationships is that people assume a lot. If you think you are normal, and that your partner is normal, it is easy to assume you want the same things. This results in at best a lack of communication, it can lead to frustration, boredom and at the worst end, people doing things to each other that weren’t welcome or wanted. My impression is that people whose sexual education was watching porn can have some odd assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ as well.

People who come from a kink and/or polyamoury background tend to know that what they want might well not be what anyone else wants. I think it’s also true for LGBT folk – who don’t start out thinking they are the default setting, or assuming that the people they encounter will want the same things. Straight people can be surprised when other people turn out not to be straight.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what straight monogamy looks like. These stories tend to focus on the establishment of the relationship and then it all gets vague about how you keep it going. Negotiation isn’t a feature. Our culture has stories of power over, or commercial bargaining, but not much at all about relationship negotiation.

In my experience, negotiating clearly is a good idea in any relationship – professional, romantic, sexual, platonic… whatever you’ve got, it pays to talk about it and not to assume you know what the other person thinks or feels.

The thing is that in practice, most of the straight and monogamous people I’ve encountered along the way have not all thought, felt and wanted the same things, even while plenty of them seemed very confident that they were just normal and like everyone else.

One of the great relationship myths is that we should magically know what our significant other person thinks and feels. Most of us don’t. If we don’t say to each other what we think and feel and then get cross with each other for not knowing – that way lies only misery.

Most of us do not fit neatly together. What we think and feel, what we want and desire does not always align neatly. If we deal with this through power, the one with most power forcing their choices on the one with least power, that way lies misery and abuse. If we take a commercial approach – I will do this if you will do that – we find ourselves in situations where people repeatedly do something they don’t want to do. There’s usually a power aspect. I will buy you the winter coat you need if you will consent to be tied up and beaten, is not in fact a fair exchange, or a consenting situation, but this kind of thing happens a lot. It is a way of abusing someone while convincing the victim that they have consented and have no recourse.

Negotiation means finding the answers everyone can be okay with, only doing the things everyone wants to do. It means taking the risk of finding that there isn’t room for what you want. It requires the vulnerability of being honest without taking control to push your wants onto others. It means care, respect, an open heart, a willing ear, the desire to understand and co-operate with the other person. It means wanting an outcome that does not hurt or diminish anyone else. Even if you try that and can’t do it very well at first, the outcomes are far better than any other approach.

Relationship stories and questions of self

For most of my life, relationships of all shapes have been difficult for me. It started at fourteen with the boyfriend who found me too serious, and that refrain has carried on through friendships and love affairs alike. Too intense. Too much. Too difficult. From teenage onwards I had the keen sense that most of my interactions with people would depend on my ability to fake it. If I failed to be comfortable and convenient to them, there would be no one. I developed a story that I am no good at relationships.

There have been people ready to play this story out with me at regular intervals. I doubt they will ever cease to show up and expect me to be exactly what they want, when they want it, and to turn it off like a tap when that’s not convenient. They want the work I can do because I care passionately about things. They want the raw creativity and sometimes they want the ego boost of being the focus of my intensity, but they want to be in control, un-obliged and easy about not bothering with me when it does not suit them.

So, I learned to hide. I learned to mask intense attachments and passionately falling in love with people. I learned to mask hunger for specific company, and wild delight in being around others. I learned not to say things like I miss you, I love you, I wish I could have more time with you. Every so often I’d take a risk on someone and let them see something a bit more authentic, and nine times out of ten they would turn out to prefer the carefully faked me. The one in ten folk have been precious beyond all words, and are not, it turns out, afraid to be that valuable.

What makes it tricky is that there are people who play at being serious, intense, wholehearted and authentic. They wear it as a costume, because they like how it looks on them. They often enjoy drama, which I don’t. It’s all too easy to get drama and intensity muddled up. But, after the arm flapping and the big words, there’s nothing to back it up, and they move on to their next little game.

I’ve found along the way that other intense, deeply feeling, passionate people don’t do this. They aren’t quick to self announce, often having been through the grinder themselves. They don’t want drama. I discover that my longstanding story is wrong. I can do relationships, but only interact well with certain kinds of people. Give me people who feel keenly and think deeply, and good things will tend to follow. I can’t deal with superficial folk, drama queens, or the ones who are there for cheap kicks and inclined to move on when they’ve taken what they wanted. People who feel threatened by the idea of love, who are panicked by the suggestion of being needed, and who can’t bear to let anything mean too much.

When you think no one can accept you as you are, it is easy to get locked into trying to appease people who are never going to be ok with you. It’s not a good way to live, it sucks the joy and colour out of life. If you are a passionate, wholehearted, intensely feeling sort of creature, then only people of the same ilk can and will answer the yearnings of your soul.

Saying no to unconditional love

Unconditional love can often be held up as the ultimate that love can be, and can do. Some people become obsessed with trying to find the partner who will love them unconditionally. For me it’s been about the feeling that I *should* love others unconditionally and feeling guilty because all too often, I don’t. A new kind of clarity has occurred to me in the last week or so: In matters of love, the conditions are really important. Knowing what they are and why you need them honoured is vital. Understanding other people’s conditions and whether you find them acceptable is also essential.

There are things my marriage is conditional upon. That I feel safe, that my body, my feelings, my wants and desires are honoured. They don’t have to be met all the time, but they do have to be respected. My marriage is conditional on my partner being a decent human being, and if he woke up one morning and decided he wanted to take up deliberate cruelty as a hobby, I would not stay with him. That I cannot imagine him doing this, definitely helps!

I’m perfectly happy to accept similar conditions from other people. If someone has issues – practical or personal, one of the conditions of friendship may be that I am able to accommodate those issues. I may not be able to see them very often. I may need to cope with their illness, or be accepting of their circumstances.

I’ve had other conditions raised in relationships of all kinds of shapes. That they must never be told they cause unhappiness because it is unbearable. That they must always be right. That I must do as I am told. That my feelings are irrelevant, or that I am to submit to their understanding of what it is that I need. They are not obliged to flex or change to accommodate me, I must do all the changing required to make it work. And on, and on. These are observations of relationships that I have walked away from, because these are not conditions I can work with.

I’m very wary of double standards, and of people who have every justification for their actions and no scope to hear when it doesn’t work. I’m also increasingly wary of people who run forward proffering unconditional love, because I have noticed that the people who are keen to say that they love you more than anyone else ever could, often aren’t right about that anyway.

We need conditions on relationships. We need it to be acceptable to walk away from a person who does not uphold the basic standards of behaviour we need. If someone changes, or reveals their true face, or stops bothering, no one should feel obliged to stay and keep pouring love over them. Sometimes the act of walking away is the wake up call the other person needs to get their life in better order.

Boundless, limitless, endless unconditional language is very New Agey. “Everything is love” (even incest and murder?). Claiming everything you do is love can also be an easy way of shutting out any suggestion that what you do isn’t working for someone else. And really, there’s not much to be gained from dealing with the person who yells “everything I do is love” in your face whilst standing on your toes and stealing from your wallet. Conditions are a good thing, and we need them.

Being an object

Working through the most recent bout of depression, I’ve faced up to the way in which I tend to treat myself as an object. I see my time, energy, even my body all too often as something that exists to be of use to other people. I’ve never bought into self as object of desire or beauty – I just never had that sort of face – but plenty of people do go that way. No one does this by themselves.

We are creatures living in societies that require us to be co-operative and to act in ways that other members find acceptable. In theory this should be a good thing, and should enable to us to get along and survive. However, all too often what happens is we are competing with each other for rewards from those who control the resources. The more economically oppressed we are, the more we have to compete with each other for the resources. Never mind that we have the technology and energy to feed, clothe and shelter the world. In such a climate, how useful you can be is a very relevant issue.

It is interesting to look around and see who in your family and your social circles is allowed to be inconvenient, and who isn’t. Whose illness is treated seriously, and whose is written off as making a fuss? Who is allowed to express dislike and discomfort, and who isn’t? Who feels able to speak up and who feels obliged to stoically take it?

I think for many of us this is about how we are taught to behave as children. Some girls get to be precious little princesses and some don’t. Some boys get to be princely tyrants, and some do not. Some children are rewarded with attention and care if they act out, some if they express distress. Some get what they want for having a temper tantrum, and some will be left with bruises if they dare to express discomfort. And so we learn whether our opinions matter or not. We learn whether there is room in our lives for wanting things that are not useful to other people, not convenient, or whether we are the most important person in our little world and entitled to bawl if things don’t go our way. Those patterns, once set, are really hard to break.

In our adult social circles and relationships we will stay with what’s familiar, all too often. If we’re used to being co-operative little bees, we’ll get on with fitting in. If we’re lord of the manor, we won’t accept friends who expect us to play fairly. These patterns are so deeply ingrained, from so early a view that they shape our world view, and our understanding of who we are in the world. Our families, schools, peers and teachers help us build those realities when we are too small to know we are doing it, or what the consequences might be.

I learned to be quiet, to try hard, by busy and productive, accept what I was given with as much grace as I could muster, and not make a fuss when I wanted something different. I learned that I had a low pain threshold, so expressions of pain were trivial. As an adult I’ve been adept at finding people who would take that and exploit it, because oddly enough I feel safer being someone’s useful object than I do trying to stand on my own. Feeling useful is a form of comfort and security, and it’s that which keeps me in places where I work to mental and bodily exhaustion.

That I can see it might make it possible to change something. How do I get to feel safe without feeling necessarily that I am useful and convenient? That may take some figuring out. And as an aside, how do we get rid of all the little lords and princesses bawling for more sweeties, who get themselves into positions of power?

Of heroes and dragons

We know the imagery. The hero (of any gender) turns up with a bloody great weapon and slaughters the evil beast, and saves the day. There is much rejoicing. From our earliest fairytales onwards we are taught how good it is to put down the bad guys, and that a hero is someone who destroys monsters. In real life, it doesn’t always work out so well.

“I feel so proud of myself for standing up to you.” “I’ve been wanting to say this to you for a long time now.” Two different scenes. Two different furious, self-righteous women who have just taken down a dragon. The dragon in question is evil. It makes awful demands. Its words can be inferred as being critical. It is not happy with how things are and it said so. It is such a selfish dragon! It was long overdue taking down a peg or two, and they pause to take pride in a job well done. They are triumphant. The dragon is crushed.

The dragon in question is not actually dead, but slinks back to its cave and cries, and feels dreadful. It picks over everything it has said and done, testing its perceptions against the accusations and wondering if it really is that awful, and if it really did need taking down. It looks at its dragon face in the mirror and wonders what is so innately wrong with it and why it is so hateful. What has shocked it most is the sense of how pleased the dragon-fighters are. They are so certain that they have done a good thing, bravely taking down its monster self.

Sometimes it pays to try and look at a story from another angle. How much do you have to hate a person, or feel jealous of them in the first place to enjoy crushing someone else’s spirit? Where are we in relationships when landing a punishing blow on our designated dragon feels like such a win and a source of pride? Where are we in our humanity when seeing someone else crawl off, wounded and confused, feels like a victory? How can that possibly be a win?

We don’t have stories about negotiation. No one says ‘maybe if we stopped cutting down the dragon’s forest and replacing the deer herds with our cattle the dragon wouldn’t bother us.’ None of the fairy stories of old tend to suggest that the dragon may have had feelings and needs too. When we take other people and turn them into dragons so that we can righteously fight them off, we forget that they are people too, and that there were other feelings and needs in the mix. The dragons want things that are not convenient, not comfortable or welcome. Does that make them monsters to be fought? If your dragon is trying to kill you then yes, you fight it off. If what your dragon said was ‘I could really do with some help tidying up’ or ‘I wish you felt you could be honest with me’ then putting on the armour and preparing to do battle is not the best response.

All too easily, we turn into monsters those who are merely guilty of being inconvenient, or not doing enough to feed our egos.

I’ve been the dragon. I’ve watched people glow with pride when they’ve wounded me. I’ve seen people delight in taking me down a peg or two. Or feeling proud of putting me on the floor, because they stood up for themselves, and this is automatically a good thing, in their minds. I’ve crawled back to my cave enough times to try and work out where I went wrong, and years on, the scars from the dragon-hunters remain, and the more recent ones still bleed sometimes. And yet there are other people for whom I am no kind of monster at all.

I try not to stay in spaces where I am cast as the villain and set up as the bitch to be taken down, the ice queen, the monster. I don’t want that role in anyone else’s life. I don’t want to provide anyone with something to test their metal on, I don’t want people trying to prove things by cutting me down to size. It took me until this winter to realise that maybe I do not deserve to be someone else’s dragon, and that maybe the problem in all of this is not actually me.