When I (Dr. Townsend) guide people through a process of examining a previous difficult relationship, the one question I have found most helpful is this: What was the “payoff” in your choice? In other words, what good things did you think you’d get when you began a relationship with that person?
We wind up with difficult people for a reason—there was something we valued, wanted, or hoped for. And because the need was strong, we may not have paid attention to something unacceptable in that person’s character. We either minimized or denied some sign, some reality, some warning light that all was not well. And the character problem ended up being a bigger deal than we thought.
When smart people accept unacceptable relationships, they tend to see traits and abilities in others that they think will make life better for them. We see positive aspects of a person’s psyche that we are drawn to or feel we need. A longing for them dulls an awareness of that person’s darker side.
Here are a few examples. For some period of time in the relationship, the person had the following:
- Warmth: She was gentle and nurturing with me
- Affirmation: He saw the good in me
- Safety: He did not condemn or judge me
- Structure: She was organized and got things done
- Humor: She helped lighten the burdens and cheered me up
- A great family: His relatives were much healthier than mine
- Drive: She was focused and knew where she was going
- Initiative: She took risks and was brave in making decisions
- Competency: He was talented, and I needed his talent in my organization
- People skills: He handled people better than I did, so I depended on him
- Intelligence: She was smart, and I needed smarts in my department
In the toughest cases, the trait is simply that “he liked me.” That is, sometimes people feel so alone and desperate that they are grateful just for someone to be pursuing them, no matter what that person’s character may be.
We have an ability to spin the truth when it comes to our relationships. When we want something so badly that we ignore reality. Love is not blind, but desire can be. Here are some examples of how we spin the truth:
- You allowed him to control you because you were weak and afraid.
- You ignored detachment and disconnection because she was a nice person.
- You minimized irresponsibility because she had a great personality and charm.
- You put up with his tendency to divide people on the team because he was a good strategist.
- You didn’t pay attention to childishness because she was needy, and you felt protective.
- You let him into your life because you were compliant and guilt-based, and he was free and a rebel.
Do you see how the problem occurs? It is an insidious process. It tends to occur slowly over time. The good aspects are generally apparent and right out there. The bad ones don’t come out until later, when the euphoria wears off and the honeymoon is over. We are simply not aware of the repercussions while we are in the middle of the relationship. Instead, we are focused on solving problems, improving things, questioning our own judgment, and trying to be positive about it all. It’s not until later, after we have some distance, that we can gain clarity and perspective on the true dynamics of what went on.
Here are a few questions to help you review your relationships and gain some helpful insights:
- What drew me to this person?
- What led me to think this person had what I needed?
- When did I first notice a significant problem in the relationship?
- How did I minimize the problem in order to get the good from the person?
- What was the result of minimizing the problem?
The information you gather here will help you avoid these issues in future relationships. This doesn’t mean that the other person has some plan or agenda to hook you in. This occurs sometimes, but certainly not always. In most cases, difficult people are responding to their own issues but remain unaware of them or the impact they have on others. I say this to prevent you from feeling like you were sucked into a trap. Most of the time, both parties are in a dysfunctional dance, and neither one knows what’s going on. The difference now is that you can choose to stop dancing so that your future will be better than your past!