The dilemma I’m 27 and have been in a relationship for 18 months. My boyfriend and I met four months after I left my abusive ex-partner, who I’d met after the death of my father. My boyfriend is kind, funny, has a zest for life, loves to include me and never shies away from talking about the future. He moved in six months ago. We went through a rough patch – I made life particularly difficult by avoiding spending time at home and picking fights. We are finally stable. However, I feel desperately sad and disconnected, even though I feel I ought to be relieved. I struggle to deal with my free time and though I see friends I feel restless in their company. Unless the flat is spotless, I can’t relax. In the back of my mind, a malicious voice is telling me that my boyfriend’s affection is tantamount to pity. I fear I’ll lose this lovely man to my demons. But I’m afraid that my trauma has led me to seek out a “Band-Aid relationship” that I cannot relate to. The thought of leaving fills me with dread, but I feel myself retreating further.
Mariella replies You need help, but probably not from me. Experiencing the trauma of abuse isn’t something you can simply “move on from”, especially when it occurs at such a vulnerable time following the loss of the primary male figure in your life. It’s an emotionally combustible combination and can prompt patterns of behaviour that you don’t want dictating the course of your future. You don’t mention having sought professional help, but I urge you to do so as an imperative and constructive way to avoid sinking further into depression and negative thinking. Your letter indicates that you are suffering from both – and that you don’t think you deserve the relationship you’re in, an entirely different question to whether or not it’s the right one for you!
No union, no matter how happy it might be to start with, is guaranteed to survive the trials and tribulations of our long lives. It may not seem immediately apparent in your vulnerable state but given the choice, far better a Band-Aid than living on a knife-edge. What you have now sounds like what you might need but whether or not you are able to enjoy it is another matter. It’s easy to tumble into a relationship abyss where the rush of adrenalin that comes from drama becomes an expectation and later an addiction. Perhaps as a side effect of our species’ allegedly superior intelligence we find it easy to adapt and even seek out the unacceptable when we are deluded into believing that’s our lot.
I’m really glad you wrote because it’s a sign that you’re not yet resigned to your fate or completely in thrall to the destructive voices invading your psyche. You suspect that what your brain is signalling to you isn’t a realistic appraisal of your situation. It’s all the more reason to go and see someone to help you block out those seductive voices and direct you from that dysfunctional path.
We can at times appear to be hard-wired into adapting to the unacceptable, but a relationship is only of value if it offers equal levels of support and kindness to both parties. Your description of a Band-Aid relationship is an interesting one since it suggests a wound that’s been patched over but left to fester, whereas what your partner seems to be offering is to remain by your side as you struggle towards a hopefully happy conclusion. Accepting a degree of untidiness, or following through to discover why that particular element of control matters so much are both worthwhile ambitions.
Perhaps even more importantly you need to come to terms with the death of your father and the impact it may be having on your subsequent relationships. In the face of that emotional absence it’s a natural response to try to substitute one man for another with each new candidate proving unsatisfactory for the task and the unrealistic expectations that come with it. May I recommend you turn to women, or at least friends rather than lovers, for your emotional support until you’ve properly worked out what it is you are looking for? Friendship is far less demanding and often far more generous in terms of unconditional support than any romantic liaison. When you are raw and vulnerable, or in times of trouble, rather than depositing all your expectations on to one ill-equipped lover it is far better to spread the load among friends and family. Nobody, no matter how strong their devotion or good their intentions, can ever carry us all the way to our graves. Self-reliance is an essential life skill, which is why it’s so desperately important to learn to know and like yourself and not look to others to complete you.
You’ve gone through a painful time and need to come to terms with the loss of one important relationship and the thankful demise of a deeply destructive one. It’s only when you’ve taken on board the lessons learned from both experiences that you’ll be ready to make a rational choice about what you want.
My advice is to tread water, seek out an appropriate counsellor and stop asking yourself the big questions. At certain times in all our lives taking our hands off the wheel can be the best way to find the road we should be on.