I was already in love with Amy, so her sudden outburst surprised me.
We were in Washington, D.C., for a film festival and I was happy to have Amy come with me. We arrived Friday evening just in time for the first screenings of the festival. My film wasn’t showing until Saturday, so our schedule was flexible.
I had printed maps — this was in the days before ubiquitous and reliable GPS on the phone — but when we got to a street near the Pentagon, something about the street had changed. Or maybe the directions were wrong. I followed the directions as written, but they quickly brought us in a loop right back to where we had been.
I thought it was funny. It didn’t seem like a big deal. It just seemed like a minor problem to solve. But she exploded.
“Why would you not have a better map than this?!” she shrieked with anger. “I would have had backup maps! This shouldn’t happen!”
I was stunned. It wasn’t a big deal. All I had to do was look at the map that had led me astray and get my bearings from something surrounding us and then we’d be fine. I actually handed her my iPhone — the very first model, so the data connection was really slow with maps — but she had never used a smartphone and was too agitated to try to help. She just fumed and ranted.
In the middle of figuring out what was going on, a friend called from home to ask how it was going. I couldn’t tell her what was really going on, but she heard the rant.
“Is Amy crazy?” my friend said. “What I’m hearing doesn’t sound normal.”
We made it to the venue on time and made it through the festival. On the drive back on Sunday, though, I told her something had to change. I told her that what we had experienced wasn’t healthy. If I was going to have a relationship with her, we needed to figure out what was going on. To her credit, she admitted she had a problem. She promised to start therapy as soon as she could.
I was relieved. I knew from my own experience that good therapy can change a lot of things and can help us to deal with the dysfunctional parts of ourselves that we can’t change. (I know my own patterns well enough now that I can typically stop myself before I head down a path I will regret.)
Even though you will never know Amy — and she hasn’t been part of my life for years — it’s only fair for me to point out that the outburst I saw was Amy at her worst. She was normally a brilliant and beautiful woman who was completely competent and polished. At her best, she was amazing. I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that her outburst was typical. In fact, it was shocking only because it was so unexpected.
For about six or eight months, Amy went through therapy. Especially toward the end — during the time while we were trying to decide what to do about our future — she was constantly writing to me about the progress she was making. I was happy, but what I experienced from her the rest of the time didn’t feel like progress. And that had a great deal to do with us not staying together, because I didn’t see the changes she said were happening. That alarmed me.
Shortly after that, we broke up. I loved Amy, but there was something seriously wrong which wasn’t getting fixed.
A psychologist told me the following year — while I was trying to deal with my remaining feelings and confusion from the relationship — that the patterns I described to her sounded like something called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This is a personality disorder which is in the same cluster of disorders as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
After I spent a lot of time reading about BPD, a lot more things about Amy made sense. Not all of the characteristics of BPD were true for her, but enough fit to make me feel certain that had been the issue. Discovering this didn’t make me grateful to get away from her. Instead, it relieved me to understand what had been going on — and it made me wish I had know this when I had been with her.
Even though Amy and I split up, we ended up talking for awhile a few years later. In one email, she confessed that she had lied about all the progress she claimed to be making with her therapist. She had been certain I would leave her if she didn’t tell me she was making progress, though. She seemed to think that lying to me was her best hope.
She ended up having far more serious problems after we split up. She tried medication. She tried all sorts of things. I don’t know what happened after that, because we haven’t spoken in years. I just know that she lied to me about making progress — because she thought that would make me stay with her.
Most people who have heard my story about Amy think I’m lucky that I didn’t end up with her. Of course, they say, you wouldn’t have wanted to be with a woman who had that kind of disorder.
But I look at things differently. One of life’s certainties is that we are all flawed. Almost all of us are dysfunctional to one degree or another. I certainly am. We might be able to dress up nicely and present a great face to the world, but there is a part of each of us which is broken in some terrible way, whether we admit or not. Whether we even know it or not.
I used to think it was Amy’s dysfunction — which I believe was BPD — which kept us apart, but I don’t see it that way now. It was really her unwillingness to tell me the truth which made it impossible for me to choose her at the time.
If I had known what was really going on — even if I hadn’t had a label for it yet — I think I would have held onto her and helped her find the solution. If she had said, “I don’t understand this and I need your help figuring out what the problem is,” I would have stayed with her — and I think we would have found a way to make her healthy enough for us to be happy together.
But since she faked her emotional growth, she walled that part of herself off from me. She didn’t trust me to help and to love her anyway. Ultimately, it was that disconnection that made me unwilling to believe she was going to become healthy enough for us to be happy together.
The biggest impression the whole thing made on me was to teach me that I have to be honest about everything that’s going on with me, even the things I’m ashamed of and want to change. And I need to encourage a woman to trust me enough to do the same.
We’re taught — sometimes explicitly but almost always implicitly — to hide our faults and flaws, especially from the one we love. If they see those terrible parts of us, they might leave us, so we have to keep hiding.
But we can’t have a healthy relationship like that. The truth is inevitably going to come out. We’re going to show ourselves at our worst — as Amy did and as you have probably done — and we’re going to lose what we want the most.
The only way around this is for imperfect people to be honest with each other — and with themselves — about their fears and flaws. If two people love each other, this shared vulnerability will lead to stronger bonding and to real growth together.
The alternative is to pretend to actually be the mask you wear — and that emotional dishonesty will build walls between you. That kind of a relationship probably won’t last. And if it does, it will be two strangers staying together for the sake of shared children or social connections or something equally dysfunctional and unhealthy.
I’m not scared of a dysfunctional woman, at least if she’s honest with me about what’s going on. If I fall in love with someone who’s flawed and dysfunctional, I’ll just assume it’s pretty normal. It’s not healthy and acceptable for her to just make excuses for herself and refuse to work on the issues, but as long as she’s willing to work on it, I am, too.
I’ll share my strengths and failures with her. I’ll expect her to share her strengths and failures with me. As long as a woman is honest with me and is willing to keep working on both of us, I’m going to hold on and give her all the support she needs.
I suspect that’s the only way for flawed and dysfunctional people to be healthy and happy together.