I’ve been thinking about the quality of my relationships lately and have come to the conclusion that they need some work. Actually, I don’t have many relationships. This realization left me feeling angry and sad. While I was thinking about what the root of the problem was, pertaining to my lack of relationships, I’ve finally decided that contempt, pride and hyper critical judgements were the foundation of most of my old relationships. From romantic to friendships to familial, most shared contempt as being their foundational element.
What sparked this for me was a dream I had recently. In the dream I was at work, which shifted to a bus stop, as is apt to happen in dreams. I was sitting next to a friend of mine, actually I believe he was my only friend, when I turned to my right and my ex was suddenly sitting next to me. We cried together, for what we shared in the past and when I looked up, there was a throng of people between us. I asked if they were going home. They looked confused as if they knew what to say, but didn’t want to reveal it to me. Then they vanished.
I knew in my dream what my old partner wanted to say, but was to proud to admit their feelings of vulnerability. I understand that this is only a dream. And most likely my subconscious processing some old emotions. But this interaction played out a thousand times in our relationship and in our daily interactions. Both of us too proud to show our true emotions to one another for fear of being vulnerable with one another.
As to where I learned to hide my vulnerabilities from those closest to me, this was the type of relationship that I had modeled for me by my family when I was a child. The same was also the case with my ex. We were just too proud to be open with our emotions in one another’s presence. And this type of holding back, from my experience, breeds contempt.
Contempt Ends Relationships
My family members are experts in this way of being in relationship. I especially was adept at using contempt to cover over my vulnerability and to distance myself emotionally from those closest to me. But to be fair, we were so mean to one another, that it felt crazy to want to get close to anybody else. Especially after the damage we had already caused. Why would we want to go back for more of the same?
The result? We lived isolated lives with few, if any, friends we could rely on for emotional support. We had been so emotionally damaged by one another, that we were unable and unwilling to connect. Or to even know what a healthy relationship looked like. In this climate, it is nearly impossible for a relationship to grow. In fact, our family is just now starting to reconnect after decades of our fields being left fallow. And that’s only after doing a tremendous amount of work on ourselves.
So the next question I asked myself was, if we are looking to be loved by our family and friends, why are we so mean to one another? I believe that most of us are looking to feel a sense of belonging to something larger than just ourselves. Usually that type of belonging comes from our immediate family. So if we want to feel loved by each other, then why are we pushing each other away? For me, I think it has to do with survival.
Surviving Our Closest Relationships
What I remember growing up, more than any other type of connection was, a hyper critical environment. No matter what I was doing, it was never good enough and there was always some cutting remark to be made at my expense. How did I respond to this? By raising the standard so high, that nobody would be able to achieve it. Especially those judging me.
This was how I learned to put distance between me and those who were looking to hurt me. This was my way of surviving in a loveless, hostile environment. My reasoning being, if you couldn’t meet my standard, I could look down on you with contempt. That way I could feel superior than those I was judging, while keeping my distance. However, this did not work.
What happened in reaction to what I was doing was more of the same. They would in turn raised the bar even higher than I had. And I in turn would raise it again. All the while all of us looking down on each other with contempt. This was a viscous cycle that continued until someone would have the strength to break free and change the course of our trajectory.
As I’ve said above, this isn’t easy. When I decided I no longer wanted to live a life where I was cutting people out, I realized I had already cut almost everybody out of my life. This is where it got tough. To look back at all the relationships I had and look for what was salvageable. And there was a lot of wreckage.
As a testament to how I was living, there are many people who, to this day, refuse to talk to me. These include almost everybody I would have considered my close friends and romantic partners. But I take solace in knowing that the relationships weren’t 100% my responsibility and there for not completely my fault.
Taking Your Half
This is something my father says often when talking about blame in relationships. Take your half. Half the blame, half the resentment, half the contempt… Whatever negative feelings you’re experiencing, know that it isn’t entirely your fault.
I came to this realization a little late in the game. The realization I came to recently was, that every loving relationship that I had with somebody close, that had ended in some big way, the number one take away for me was, it was my fault. I was so used to being abandoned by those closest to me, that I just began to think that it was me who was worth leaving. This however is not the case.
The more I thought about the disintegration and breakdown of my major relationships, the more I recognized that there was a pattern in the people who were doing the breaking up. Sure, I played my part, but the other halves in my relationships were unwilling to take responsibility for their part in our breakdown.
We were unforgiving and intolerant of each other due to the thousand tiny cuts we endured, which breed contempt for one another. So when it came down to whether we were able to forgive each other, the answer was a resounding no. Or at least that’s what it seems like from my perspective. Because it was never my intention to leave any of these relationships. I was the one being left.
Forgiveness & Mending the Pain
Forgiveness is something that I am recently coming to understand as a virtue. Historically, forgiveness has not been something that I’ve ever practiced. I would hold people to their actions and misdeeds and use it against them to apply pain or make someone feel guilty. I did this because it was what was modeled for me, but also because, it’s all I knew.
All of my friends, family and partners had a zero tolerance policy when it came to making mistakes. We were expected to be more than human in our relationships. I think this has to do with how high we were setting the standards, in order to feel superior to those trying to get close to us. This left no margin for error and anything short of perfection was unacceptable.
This was most prevalent in my family growing up, but it also translated to my romantic relationships as well. In one relationship, something had happened to wake me from my emotional cocoon. From the numbness I was living under for two decades. While I was waking to these new emotions, I had no idea what was happening. For scope, imagine being 32 years old and feeling accepted and understood for the first time since you were 8 years old, after experiencing a life’s time worth of traumatic events.
Putting Forgiveness into Practice
I was terrified. Realizing I was living life in a state of numbness and waking into the full spectrum of my emotional world was overwhelming. This is where I had began to make some bad decisions. But when it came down to making a choice, when I confronted my then partner with what was happening to me and what she wanted to do, she chose to leave. Like everybody else before her. She chose to avoid confronting the real work that needed to be done. Later I would try to run to Maine to start a blueberry farm for her, but that’s another story all together.
And it’s important to note that this isn’t a soapbox for me to hop on some high moral ground. I made my share of mistakes, that’s for certain. And I’m not trying to say that my ex didn’t have a difficult decision to make. But when it came to practicing forgiveness, something she would say we needed to do often, she was unwilling to.
And again, I know that this isn’t easy work. It’s one thing to look back on what we have done and criticize ourselves for not doing the right thing with the luxury of time and perspective. But when we’re caught in the moment and the emotions are so big that we can’t see our way out of them, it’s not so easy to see things rationally. So how do we get to a place where we can practice forgiveness? Even if it’s been something we’ve been avoiding for a very long time? Practice.
Practice, Practice, Practice
I know what’s true for me, is that contempt came easy because it was what I practiced. Everyday, while I was interacting in my relationships, I was practicing distancing myself from others by feeling contempt for them. So the antidote to that? Practice forgiveness.
For me, I started by getting in touch with the people that I had lost contact with. This was no easy task. And I should say that I didn’t go into the reconnection with an air of needing to forgive the other. That in itself can be arrogant. My main intention was to open up to the other. To let them know that, as a friend of mine used to say, “I’m here, I care.” And also because we were friends once. I genuinely want my friends to be happy and successful.
Though my intentions are good, they weren’t always met with warm regards. One person that hurt me particularly badly responded with, “blow it out your ass.” Something I can laugh about now, but it still doesn’t stop me from worrying about them from time to time. Which brings me to another facet of practicing forgiveness, humility.
This wasn’t so easy for me to practice. I was over the top with my machismo attitude and posturing. I wanted to be seen as in charge and beyond reproach. This goes hand in hand with me setting the bar too high to be questioned about my own actions. This was also my way of distancing myself from others. But it did little in the way of making me a strong individual.
My past self would hold on to the smallest insults. Blowing them way out of proportion and find ways to retaliate to make the other person feel small. But this made me aggressive and petty. Also unable to truly withstand the little blows that life dealt me.
What practicing humility means for me is, sitting inside of the discomfort of somebody else’s hurtful comments without reacting emotionally. It’s here that I’m able to release these emotions and let them pass without looking for some way to bolster my hurt ego. From this calm place, it is easier to find forgiveness.
So my friends, here is where I leave you. If you’re like me and have more than a few relationships in critical condition, know that it’s not too late. You can still work to reconnect and salvage some of those friendships. You won’t save them all, but that’s okay too. Take what you can from the experience and know that there are more likeminded people out there to meet still. Good luck, peace & thanks for reading.