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This article was originally published on www.tonyendelman.com. Versions have also appeared on Elephant Journal and Medium.com.
My ex-girlfriend is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Her body is a work of art, perfectly toned and golden tan with a smattering of graceful tattoos and a tiny, steel rod through each nipple. Her eyes are big and brown, accentuated by long, fluttering lashes. Her smile can level you. It’s one of those smiles that makes you smile just because you caught a glimpse of it.
She loves animals, so much so that watching her care for a newborn puppy can melt even the coldest of hearts. When she laughs, it’s as if the world slows to a pause, and all of its chaos seems petty and inconsequential. She’s a kind soul, always concerned about the needs of others. She’d often surprise me with gifts – small tokens of her affection – like a batch of freshly baked muffins, or a bottle of my favorite cologne, or some Peace Lilies for my hideously drab apartment.
She’s the kind of woman who, upon first meeting, makes you wonder how a creature so magnificent came to exist.
On our first date, we slept together, after an adventurous, alcohol-fueled romp through the city. On our second date, she proclaimed herself my girlfriend. On our third date, she told me she loved me.
During the course of our relationship, she was fired from four different jobs, had her car repossessed, got arrested for stealing beauty supplies, dropped out of Pharmacy school, and started stripping to make extra cash. I watched her experiment with a variety of medications, which may or may not have caused her abrupt and violent mood swings. In a matter of seconds, she could go from gentle, loving girlfriend to vicious, fire-breathing devil-woman. She’d give me the silent treatment for days on end. She was always late. She regularly lost her purse. And she drank like Bukowski during his Black Sparrow years. But what the hell did I care? The sex was incredible. And, she bought me a really cool welcome mat.
See, I believe that one of the keys to a generally happy life is learning from your fuck-ups. Touch a hot stove when you’re a whippersnapper and, odds are, you’ll never scorch your hand again. Pick the wrong major in college and, hopefully, a few semesters of failing grades and punishing boredom will prompt you to switch gears. Get a little too shitfaced at the office Christmas party and, the next time around, maybe you’ll think twice about knocking back that seventh Jaeger bomb.
There is, however, one fuck-up from which a good lot of us never seem to learn. One fuck-up that even highly discerning men and women tend to repeat, over and over…and over again. One fuck-up so common that it’s the sole subject of countless books, blogs, videos, workshops, and seminars. And, sadly, it’s a fuck-up that can drain your energy, damage your spirit, and drive you absolutely batshit.
This evil step-mother of all fuck-ups is getting into a serious relationship with the wrong person.
IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT THAT YOU CHOOSE THE WRONG PARTNERS
Choosing an ill-fitting partner is a good way to turn your whole goddamn world upside down – especially if you move in together, get married, and have children. This is doubly true if the partner you’ve chosen is a bit off their rocker. But, if you keep making bad relationship choices, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have bad judgment. More than likely, there are some invisible forces that keep steering you in the wrong direction.
Somewhere along the line, we all developed some pretty basic thoughts about ourselves and the world around us. Psychologists call these core beliefs. Some of your core beliefs are undoubtedly helpful. Others may be problematic, particularly in romantic relationships. Either way, uncovering your core beliefs can require a certain amount of self-examination.
Let’s say, for example, that when you were a teenager, your father was seldom home and your mother liked to drown her sorrows in cheap vodka. As a result, you had to fend for yourself. Thankfully, your longtime, next-door neighbors were hip to your parents’ dysfunction and welcomed you over for dinner most nights. They insisted that you consider yourself part of the family. Still, you felt uncomfortable, like you had to earn your place at the table. So, you began pitching in – washing the dishes and dust-busting the floors and emptying the trash – to an almost excessive degree.
In college, you were the roommate who bought all the booze and let everyone smoke your weed. In the workplace, you repeatedly take on more than you can handle, while your colleagues loiter around the coffee maker. And, in relationships, your efforts never seem to pan out. Almost every person you date issues the same fundamental complaint: that you act like a doormat and it’s a big, genital-shriveling turn-off.
It’s not your fault that you behave this way. You understandably developed the belief that you’re undeserving of love. For fuck sake, your own parents didn’t give you the time of day, so why would anyone else? No wonder you think that you have to win people over by being of service to them.
As for me, I was largely ignored by the opposite sex until far later in life than I care to admit. I spent my formative years convinced that I was deeply unattractive. At some point, I discovered that I could gain the attention of women if I offered a friendly ear and, perhaps, a solution to their problems. Of course, this almost never landed me a romantic partner. But, when it did, I was all in, no matter how many problems she had. In fact, the bigger the trainwreck the better. If she needs me, I thought, there’s no way she’ll break up with me.
There’s actually a name for my behavior. It’s called White Knight Syndrome, and it applies to men and women who seek out damaged partners. For a whole host of reasons, white knights have a compulsive need to rescue. Rarely, though, does it lead to a fairy-tale ending. I was the classic white knight, forever chasing the damsel-in-distress. That is, until I started to uncover – and challenge – some of my core beliefs.
Get brutally honest with yourself and you might find that your core beliefs are why you repeatedly ignore your intuition, overlook glaring red flags, compromise your values, tolerate bad behavior, and choose partners with whom you’re incompatible. That’s the (not so) funny thing about core beliefs. They tend to lead us right into the arms of those we should avoid.
There’s good news, though. Once you identify your core beliefs, you don’t have to abide by them. Ever again. Sure, your mind may start driving you into a shitstorm; but, you have the ability to hit the brakes. Then, you can turn the fuck around and head toward calmer horizons.
It also bears mentioning that many of us recreate our earliest relationship experiences in adulthood. In other words, we do what our parents did. And, for what it’s worth, this is backed by a heap of psychological research.
In one fascinating study, Harvard University tracked the lives of several hundred men over a period of nearly 80 years. It’s the longest study ever done on happiness and well-being. Researchers started their analysis in 1938 when the men were teenagers, and followed up, year after year, until the men were in their 80s. They found that no matter their socioeconomic status, the men with happier parents had far healthier relationships with their own partners.
In another study, Michal Einav, clinical psychologist and head of the MA program in educational psychology at Peres Academic Center in Tel Aviv, examined how the quality of parents’ relationships can impact the expectations children have about their own future relationships. Her research, which was published in The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, shows that children learn how to navigate relationships by observing their parents (or caregivers). As Einav noted: “Children construct a scheme for intimate relationships based on their parents’ relationship, as they experienced and understood it.”
Numerous other studies have shown that our parents’ behavior shapes our own behavior, as well as our relationship attachment styles. Mothers who are insecure in relationships tend to have daughters who are also insecure in relationships. Emotionally avoidant fathers tend to have emotionally avoidant sons. Children from abusive homes tend to be manipulative in relationships. Parents who get divorced tend to have children who are cynical about marriage. And parents who cheat tend to have children who are likely to cheat themselves.
It’s not your fault that you have trouble navigating relationships. Your parents may have given you a crumpled up old roadmap covered in ketchup stains. Luckily, you don’t have to take the route your parents did. It might make you uncomfortable, but you can consciously decide to go another way.
Still, no matter how much you divert from your parents’ roadmap, how diligent you become in challenging your core beliefs, how adept you become at spotting red flags, and how clear you become on your values, there’s another obstacle with which you need to contend. It’s a doozy, and it’s an inevitable part of any romantic relationship. Believe it or not, I’m referring to the honeymoon phase.
Most research defines the honeymoon phase as the first 12-18 months after you start dating someone new. You know, when you’re ridiculously excited and your stomach has butterflies and you’re pretty sure they’re “the one” and you can’t stop thinking about them and you wish you could be with them every second and you can’t keep your hands off them and the sex is fucking mind-blowing and everything they do just seems so goddamn adorable. Yeah, that. It’s a particularly exhilarating time, which is why we forget that it’s also a particularly dangerous time.
People often make big, life-altering decisions during the honeymoon phase, and then suffer the consequences.
You might think he’s your soulmate when he’s actually a lying narcissist from hell. You might think she’s a goddess when she’s actually an emotional basket case. You might be dreaming of your life together when, in reality, you’re picking out wallpaper patterns with a wacko.
You might be taking the next step with someone who couldn’t possibly be more wrong for you. But, it feels right. Right now. And there’s a reason.
Scientists have found that, during the honeymoon phase, you are literally in an altered state of mind. Your dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine levels increase. Your hormones go completely haywire. Your cortisol skyrockets. You release oxytocin and vasopressin. Not to mention that your ventromedial prefontal cortex – the part of your brain that judges yourself and others – deactivates. In other words, you don’t perceive your partner for who they truly are. During the honeymoon phase, you’re basically an idiot.
It’s not your fault that you choose the wrong partners. You’re merely a victim of your own googly-eyed infatuation. This is why you need a relationship posse. Infatuation can blind you. You need people who are willing to smack the shit out of you and make you see clearly again.
GATHER YOUR RELATIONSHIP POSSE
Back in the day, a town’s conservator of peace (usually the sheriff) would summon a posse comitatus – or a group of citizens – to deal with an emergency and protect the land. The term posse comitatus, which was shortened to posse in the 17th century, translates roughly to “force of companions.” Look up posse in the dictionary, and you’ll find the first definition as “a group of people who have come together for the same purpose.”
Whether you’re dating someone or not, if you have a tendency to choose the wrong partners, it might be time to summon a force of companions. Call your most trusted friends and family members – those who truly have your best interest at heart – and ask them to be in your relationship posse. Their purpose: to be honest with you about your romantic partners from here on out. No exceptions.
Having a relationship posse to tell you the truth is a good way to expose the lies you tell yourself, especially during the honeymoon phase. That she’s not flaky, she’s just a free spirit. That he’s not a drunk, he’s just going through a rough time. That she’s not unstable, she’s just passionate. That he’s not abusive, he’s just protective. That the good times are really good and the bad times aren’t that bad. If these are the kinds of rationalizations you make, gather your posse and find out what they think.
Maybe the people in your posse haven’t met your partner. Introduce them. Maybe the people in your posse don’t make the best relationship choices either. That’s okay. Offer to be in their posse. Maybe the people in your posse seem reluctant to give it to you straight. Remember their purpose and dig for the truth.
The people in your posse might tell you things you don’t want to hear. Tough shit. They’re things you need to hear.
It’s not your fault that you choose the wrong partners. But, if you want the right partner, it’s up to you to challenge your beliefs and work toward shifting your mindset. A relationship posse can help. Gather your posse and listen to what they have to say. They might just save you from a big-time fuck-up. Otherwise, it could be years before you’re able to look back and realize that you were picking out wallpaper patterns with a wacko.
Tony Endelman is an author, blogger, entrepreneur, certified transformational life coach, certified No More Mr. Nice Guy Coach and the founder of The Integrated Man Cave.