There’s a moment in any relationship that I dread. I can feel it there on the horizon, like a itch just under my skin. At first, any relationship is great because we’re meeting one another, getting to know each other, finding our points of connection and commonality, and there’s such a joy in that. It’s that amazing shivery rush of, “I’m not alone out there,” and, “Wow! You get me!” But that only lasts until things become real. That only lasts until we discover that we’re more different than we thought. Or that moment when I make a mistake and hurt the other person. or that moment where the other person says a thoughtless thing.
It’s the moment where it breaks, the moment where we discover a fatal flaw in one another…the moment the relationship must be renegotiated.
And honestly, I dread both sides of it. I dread being the one to let my partner down just as much as I dread the moment where I discover some flaw in my partner. I fear disappointing them, and I fear learning my partner’s flaws because once I know, I have to decide if the relationship can continue.
This process applies to more than just romantic relationships; it happens with friendships, business partnerships…it happens with leaders and teachers and coworkers and students. It happens within Pagan groups and communities. However, it might be simplest to explain this in a romantic relationship dynamic. And to be transparent, I’ve got this on the brain because my boyfriend and I have been together for over half a year, and as our intimacy deepens, we’ve started using the word “partner” for one another. We’ve started talking about me moving in with him and his wife and kids.
I’m petrified I’ll let him down and he’ll realize that I wasn’t at all the person he thought I was. I’m petrified I’ll discover he’s not the person I think he is.
Toxic Red Flags
I’ve been through some difficult relationships. I’ve invested deeply in romantic partners, in working relationships, and with people within the Pagan community. And, having been through a few varieties of abusive relationships…and finding myself engaged in a codependent pattern…I try to catch the red flags as fast as I can. When I find someone I click with, whether as a lover or as a friend or colleague, the longer I’m connected to them and things are good, the more my sense of dread grows. What if they have one of the crucial flaws? What if I have to end the relationship so I don’t get sucked into the cycle again?
I’ve been with men who had tempers. I did the codependent dance of making excuses, of trying to keep bad things from happening around them so that they wouldn’t get upset and blow their cork, particularly around our friends or family. I’ve been with men who were know-it-alls, who so irritated people that our friends didn’t want to hang out. And admittedly, I’m sensitive to that one since I’m a recovering know-it-all myself. I’ve also worked hard to not be the stubborn visionary who crosses the line into being an egotistical jerk…and I try to avoid being in relationships with those types of people because it never ends well. I’ve been in relationships with and worked with people who had the painful dynamic of really low self esteem leading to arrogance and a temper.
I’ve already written a fair amount about my ex fiance and our abusive dynamic; I resisted his gaslighting for a long time, but even I fell prey to it. And I’ve been around a host of people (whether partners, friends, coworkers, or members of the Pagan community) who are overdramatic, volatile, and toxic.
As I’ve worked through issues of my own personal growth work over the past years, I’ve continued to make the commitment of removing toxic people from my life and holding firmer boundaries.
Investment and Challenges with Intimacy
I realize, these days I’m always trying to hurry up in any potential relationship and figure out what’s wrong with someone before I invest too much in them. You might call this a challenge with developing intimacy; it’s hard to trust people and open up because I know that eventually we’ll disappoint one another and I’d rather get it over with.
The abusive relationships of my past make me wary. I kept putting up with those negative behaviors over and over and they just kept getting worse. Part of why I tried to keep making it work was pretty simple; I have my own issues with my self esteem, with being rejected, and (like a lot of people) I am terrified, deep down, of being alone. Of not having anyone to love me. I’ve often made the sacrifice to be with someone–someone who at least got me, understood me–even if things weren’t perfect. Even if, in fact, things were terrible.
Similarly, I’ve been in bad community relationships where I tried working with other Pagan leaders. When we were just acquaintances, everything was great and we got along. When we actually engaged in the deeper intimacy of working with one another, our flaws came to the fore (stubbornness overlapping into being a jerk is a key one) and we not only weren’t able to complete the project together, but we’re now enemies.
For that matter, I’ve dated Pagan men who started out as friends, and once we went through the relationship and breakup phase, now we’re not friends, and in fact, there’s tension, if not anger.
I admit it; I’m afraid to work with Pagans because I fear that our flaws will rise to the surface and we’ll end up in conflict, we’ll end up enemies. I’ve seen so many conflicts that tore a community apart (Pagan or otherwise) that happened when people tried working together, and I’ve experienced it first hand.
I’m afraid to date Pagans for the same reason; it’s three degrees of separation, and even good breakups have consequences.
The Dark Mirror and Self Awareness
I’m pretty aware of a number of my own flaws. Some of them are negotiable in specific contexts, but some I don’t see changing much. In my current romantic relationship, I realize I’ve been trying to give my partner highlights of all my key flaws. See, I know what previous partners have complained about. I know where the tensions have been in my past relationships. Even in the abusive relationship with my ex fiance, I have a pretty good sense of where his behavior was the issue, and where my own flaws contributed to things. (No, I’m not victim-blaming myself and saying I caused the abuse; I’m saying, a relationship is a relationship and there is always friction from all parties in the relationship.)
I know what I consistently screw up with people. In a romantic relationship, there’s almost always a moment where my partner realizes that I’m never going to be as emotionally attentive as they want. Or I’m never going to be as extroverted as they want; I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had a partner angry with me because I don’t want to leave the house to go on a date/activity, or that the activity I was ok with wasn’t “adventurous” enough.The kicker is that I’m always going to prioritize my creative work over my partner. Not all the time, but certainly in the long haul. In a longer-term relationship, that always gets wearying, but let’s face it; writing books and painting is a pretty solitary pursuit. It takes huge chunks of uninterrupted time.
And let’s not forget depression and anxiety. While I have done a lot to manage this, and I’m doing pretty well, I still have bad days. Some are predictable and make sense; if I’ve been traveling and teaching workshops for a week, I’m going to need a few days to recover from that. It makes sense that I’d be tired and burned out and need to sleep a lot and not need to do anything involving human contact with the outside world. There are other times where I have really bad, dark days. Usually for me it manifests as exhaustion and lack of motivation, but if you’re expecting me to go out on a date, or even leave my room on a day like that, it’s not going to happen. There are days where I want to weep at the thought of picking up the phone and making a phone call to deal with normal life issues…and that’s anxiety manifesting. Anxiety doesn’t have to make rational sense, it just is what it is.
But I’m very, very aware that most people don’t want to be with someone who is depressed. Heck, it’s hard for me to even feel happiness, to feel joy, most of the time. I’ve blogged in more depth about my personal work around seeking joy.
Will It End?
My partner kind of chuckles when I try to tell him all the stuff that’s wrong with me. He seems to think it’s cute. “I’m not scared yet,” he says. And maybe some of this is all much more doable because he’s married and he already has a relationship with his wife, and with his kids. He’s not expecting me to focus all my time and attention on him. He doesn’t expect me to be monogamous either, though I barely have time for a somewhat part-time relationship (ie, his and my relationship) given my focus and drive on my creative work. He’s busy, I’m busy, and that offers me the space to focus on my work…though I admit, when I don’t see him at least once a week I’m a little miserable. In many ways, it surprises me that I even have feelings like that; I haven’t experienced being in love very often at all.
I do still struggle with the open relationship thing, since it wasn’t what I was necessarily looking for. And I’m dealing with the reality that people in non-monogamous relationships face persecution and challenges just as people in minority religions do. You may have to lie about it to your family. Not everyone in the relationship has access to health care provided to a legal spouse, or other benefits that you can assume in a legal marriage. There’s a lot of stuff that I can assume about a monogamous relationship that I can’t about an open one. In short, it’s a lot to take in, a lot to switch gears on.
And yet, it seems to resolve a fair number of my fears, since the core breaking point of most of my past relationships is that I couldn’t give enough of myself to my partners. With my current partner, that doesn’t cause much strain. He doesn’t expect me to be something I’m not, and he’s not looking to me to fulfill all his relationship needs.
So far I haven’t found any red flags with him either. Not big ones, anyways. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Part of me keeps trying to pull back. “It’ll end eventually,” that part says. “Then you’ll be alone again, but by then you’ll be in your forties and it’ll be worse trying to find someone to connect to.” There’s the other, quieter part of me that says, “This is real love. And it looks different than in your past. You don’t have to make excuses for this guy like you have in the past, and he accepts you for who you are. This could work.”
Honestly? Both of those parts scare me, but I haven’t given up.
When Does it Break?
In relationships–personal and professional–I think it’s important to be aware that the honeymoon doesn’t last. It’s important to recognize the red flags that might be buried in that happy rush of oxytocin and dopamine before we get sucked into the spiral of a bad dynamic. We have to be willing to remove toxic people from our lives, and part of that is recognizing when someone is truly toxic.
Sure, there are some relationships that can be negotiated with appropriate boundaries and work, but there are some that just can’t be “fixed.” For that matter, there are some people I’ve realized aren’t bad people, it’s just a horrible idea for us to work on a Pagan community project together because we’ll butt heads.
And within this process, it’s important to be aware of our flaws and behaviors within relationships. Only by being aware of these can we adapt. Sometimes that means mitigating our flaws, shifting our behavior…and in other cases, it’s choosing to instead work with people who aren’t bothered by our behavior.
I try to stand on the knife’s edge of looking for red flags early on in a relationship…but without sabotaging the relationship and withdrawing from it before there’s even cause. Not an easy process at all, but I hold out hope. I’m still an optimist, I suppose, even after all the betrayals of my past. I’m daring to hope that this can work not just because I’ve found someone I’m really compatible with, but because I’ve done a heck of a lot of personal work to be a better person in relationships. But that’s why I keep at this process of spiritual seeking. It’s not easy, and the process–itself–can trigger my anxiety and depression.
But I believe I’m a better person for having gone through the dark nights and for facing my shadows, which is why I keep at it.