It was nearly 12 years ago. I had come back to see a psychologist with whom I’d been in therapy before. I had just ended a romantic relationship in a very confusing way — and I needed to understand why.
I laid out the facts for the psychologist about what had just happened. I explained my confusion. Why had I ended the relationship — but then wanted her back after she finally gave up and walked away from me? Was I crazy or what?
She listened for most of that hour and then gave me a little bit of feedback and asked a few follow-up questions. At one point, she said — as though it was the most obvious thing in the world — that this woman with whom I’d been in love had come from a dysfunctional and troubled past, but hadn’t dealt with it.
I didn’t think I’d said anything that would lead to that conclusion, so I expressed surprise.
“Oh, I don’t know what her issue is yet,” she said, “but she wouldn’t have been attracted to you — and you couldn’t have been attracted to her — if she didn’t have issues just as serious as yours. People are attracted to others who are about as emotionally healthy as they are, whether they know it or not.”
This was a shock to me at the time, but it seems obvious now that I’ve spent more than a decade thinking about it.
Even though we’re often oblivious to the emotional damage that we’ve sustained — or maybe even in complete denial — something in us unconsciously recognizes someone who understands something similar.
I’ve found that a woman who doesn’t have some kind of dysfunction or emotional issues in her past (or present) isn’t going to understand me. What’s more, a woman who doesn’t have some sort of issues doesn’t seem interesting to me. Even if her issues are hidden — and she thinks nobody knows where to find them, maybe even herself — something in me feels something familiar in her.
I’ll be honest. A woman who has had a perfect life and has a perfect family and has no emotional issues bores me to death. It doesn’t matter how attractive she is. Is doesn’t matter how smart or interesting she is. I’m not interested if there’s not “something wrong with her,” either now or in the past.
That’s what the psychologist meant. It seemed obvious to her on the day she explained it to me. After thinking about it for all this time, it seems obvious to me, too.
I’m thinking about this tonight because of some psychology videos I watched on YouTube today about narcissism. I’m not sure what led me to them. I was down last night and woke up depressed today. I was feeling frustrated — once again — with some things about myself which I attribute to having been raised by a narcissist.
As I watched a few videos about a specific type of narcissism — covert narcissism, which I suspect was my father’s type — I listened to an Australian psychologist describe what it was like for the children of a narcissist.
Without knowing quite why, I felt a knot in my stomach. My entire gut tensed up. I knew all this applied to me and it made me feel physically ill. And in my feeling of emotional panic, I knew who I needed to share this with — and that left me thinking about why I felt that way.
I wasn’t looking for anyone to solve anything. I wasn’t needing someone to fix anything about me. I just needed for someone to listen to what I felt — and then to love me anyway.
The woman I instinctively needed to share this with wasn’t really good at dealing with this sort of thing. Honestly, she was scared to talk about it. She said she didn’t understand the reasons entirely, but I think the entire subject poked at something inside her that she preferred not to examine. As long as she tried to avoid my feelings, she could avoid her own — about something undefined — at the same time.
But that made me want her more. It pointed to where her emotional land mines were buried. Even if she was scared of looking at them, I knew the time would come. I didn’t know the details about her hurt, but I knew it was there — and I knew that we shared more emotional pain than she could admit.
There was a time — when I was more foolish and certainly had less emotional understanding — when psychological or emotional issues in a woman were enough to scare me away. It turned out that this had been what I’d done with the woman almost 12 years ago. She had some serious hidden issues — which later came out in scary ways after we split — that made me want to run.
I know better now.
I understand that I will always live with the damage that was done to me in my distant past. It doesn’t have to mess up my life today. I can live a normal life. But it’s not something to deny. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s just part of what made me who I am.
And I also understand that any woman I fall in love with is going to have some sort of emotional issues — either past or present — whether she’s dealt with them or not. If she hasn’t been through that, I’m not going to be attracted to her — and nothing about me will ever attract her.
We seem to go through some unconscious matching with someone who’s about as emotionally healthy — or has the potential to be — as we are. We probably don’t understand that. But we might as well accept it.
For those of us who know we have emotional baggage to deal with — or that we’ll never be able to entirely leave behind — it’s actually safer and healthier to match up with someone who can “get it” when it comes to our issues or past issues.
Here’s what I understand now. If you fall in love with someone who has scary issues, just hang on tightly when things get scary. As long as both people are willing to work on things to be emotionally healthier — individually and together — you can completely trust that person. The only danger is if you’re with someone who’s in denial — and refuses to deal with whatever he or she feels.
I sometimes look at couples who both come from reasonably healthy families and who don’t ever have to deal with any of this — and I feel some envy. But then I realize that’s silly. If I hadn’t gone through the things that hurt me, I wouldn’t be who I am today — and I like the person I’ve become.
If my future wife hadn’t gone through her own problems, she wouldn’t want me. I wouldn’t want her. I ought to be grateful for what I’ve gone through, because that dysfunctional experience is a lot of what will make me right for this woman.
I’m not sure exactly what’s led me to this ruminating this weekend. It’s uncomfortable. It’s lonely. It still feels messy at times, even after all these years.
But I’m grateful to understand that whoever is right for me will one day be able to be there for me — and will allow me to be there for her. The truth is that she and I will need each other.
In truth, we’ve always needed one another — even on days such as today, when I don’t know how to find her.