Why Do We “Take It”? (or: It Takes Two to Tango)

The Why of Things Series: Part II

“Asking questions is the first step toward change.” (Kubbra Sait)

INTRODUCTORY WARNING

This may be the most “serious” post you’ll ever read on my blog. You’ve been warned!

Also, if you feel the above title makes it sound like only a special kind of person (not necessarily in a good way) would “take” life with the Caveman (i.e. settle for it and insist on making it work), I’m afraid the following will do little to disabuse you of the notion. However, bear in mind that I’ve been living with an extreme Caveman (i.e. the epitome of the self-centered “lazy husband” with a penchant for Heineken) for over two decades, so I may be a bit biased—and a bit special.

Regardless, what follows (call it a transparent, kamikaze-like self-assessment) is based on three premises:

1) A relationship and a partnership are not the same thing. If you’re unsure of the difference (like apparently I’ve been most of my life), I recommend Googling “relationship vs. partnership” and read some of the many articles on the subject (like this one, for example).

2) The Caveman is not a true partner. Would a true partner deliberately remove himself from all the “unfun” stuff in your common life, making you responsible for most/all of the housework, parenting tasks, and more? I contend that he wouldn’t. So at best, the Caveman is an “I’m-here-for-the-free-ride” life companion (i.e. a half partner). At worst, as a former marriage therapist once charmingly put it: a parasitic roommate.

3) Only a somewhat emotionally unhealthy person would not realize the above until after years of common life and stay put, still hoping things will change.

Note to readers: At this point, you may be wondering “If that’s how you feel, why do you stick around?” Well, that’s precisely what I’m trying to answer for myself and all the people who find themselves in the same boat! Although I’m still working on figuring things out, I’ve done a considerable amount of reading (and thinking) over the past few months, and I’ve reached a preliminary conclusion—one that I’ll generalize to most Caveman’s partners and ask you to read with an open, introspective mind.

In my quest for answers, three works have been particularly helpful to me, and I’ll borrow heavily from them in this post:

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We’ve spent a great deal of time talking about the Caveman and “analyzing” him, so it’s only fair that we analyze ourselves—if for no other reason because there are always two sides to a coin, but also because you can’t create solutions without understanding the problem(s) in the first place.

And I don’t know about you, but solutions are precisely what I’m looking for at the moment! Clearly, what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working, and I’m at that point of my life/relationship where I either find a solution, or I find the exit door. Decades of life with the Caveman will do that to you…

In fact, it’s precisely what got me on this path in the first place: The fact that I’ve spent more than HALF of my life insisting on making it work with someone who’s nature, culture and upbringing simply doesn’t make him considerate enough to share the responsibility of housework, parenting and family decision making with me. Sure, my Caveman doesn’t look too good in that picture, but I hardly look any better! And neither do any of the people I know who are in the same situation!

The real question we should all ask ourselves is: WHY? Why have we allowed the dynamic we’re stuck in to take hold? Why did we enter it in the first place? Why do we insist on making it work? Why do we keep hoping things will change—only to try harder when they don’t? Why do we keep doing more?

Unfortunately, there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to those questions. However, there are some commonalities in our stories, relationships, thoughts, deeds and behaviors that allow us formulate the beginning of an answer—or rather, the beginning of many answers.

Below is MY list of answers, ranked from “What I’ve been telling myself for years” to “What’s more likely going on based on modern psychology beliefs”.

It took a lot of reading, some of therapy (conventional and not), and a crapload of introspection to come to that list, and let me tell you that the process is not for the faint of heart! However, if you’re at that point of your life where you’re also looking for answers—and you’re ready to hear them—I invite you to read through my list, wonder if any of it could apply to you (hint: the answer is yes) and start working on your own list.

But before that, a little something worth mentioning:

It’s not my case, but if your birth culture, religion and/or upbringing has taught you that your role is to serve your spouse and handle household and parenting duties all by yourself, you will need to put that at the very top of your list and get over the idea before looking at any other possible reasons for “taking it”. Notwithstanding, based on what I’ve witnessed around me, culture, religion and/or upbringing (when part of the story) are never the full story. So take note of it, but don’t stop there. KEEP DIGGING!

Now, without further ado… This is why I think I “take” life with the Caveman (i.e. settle for it and insist on making it work):

1. LOVE WITH A BIG “L”

Love for my husband has been the #1 point at the very top of my list for over two decades! However, I’ve started to suspect that it may be one of the least valid reasons for settling for life with the extreme Caveman.

Don’t get me wrong… I do believe in love, and I do love my husband. However, as time goes by, I realize that romantic notions filled with words such as “fate”, “destiny” and “forever after” may be have been doing me a disservice. At least, that’s the conclusion I reached after asking myself one simple question not too long ago: “Why do I love my husband? NOW, at this very moment.”

In case you’re wondering, the answer (as of the date of this post) is: “I’m not sure. Worse, I’m no longer sure I ever knew… specifically, that is.” And that’s what it comes down to for many of us. When you reach that point where you no longer know why you love your partner, it’s either because:

1) Your partner has changed so much that you no longer recognize him;

2) You have changed so much that you’re no longer able to see in him what you once did; or

3) You “made him up” in the first place.

Either way (I’m still working on figuring that part out), love” is not equivalent to “partnership”, and it certainly doesn’t make groceries magically appear in your fridge, cook, clean your house, wash the dishes, pick up the kids from school on early-release days, take care of things (and you) when you’re sick, or repair leaky toilets.

So no offense, love, but I’m just going to shove you to the back of my mind for now because so far, you have gotten me nowhere but in trouble. A gay sweetheart, an abusive boyfriend, a suicidal flame, a “soulemate-y” fling with dreams of Buddhist monkhood, and an extreme Caveman. I mean, seriously!? And I should listen to you becauuuuuse?

Cat and fish in love with each other. Doomed relationship (?)
Doomed Relationship (?)

2. I’VE COME TOO FAR TO GIVE UP

Number two on my list, but possibly my favorite—mostly because of how LUDICROUS it sounds retrospectively (I remember telling myself the exact same thing at the five-year mark, the ten-year mark, etc.)

Any sane person would have realized by now that no matter how long she sticks around or how much effort she puts into it, things won’t change unless there’s a clear intention ON BOTH SIDES to change them. Instead (and I would rather not stop to think about what it says about my level of sanity), I’ve been hanging on that ridiculously thin thread of hope that the “next solution” is going work, and that my Caveman will miraculously transform into Mr. Clean—or at least someone who doesn’t threaten me with divorce each time I remind him to take the recycling out!

What I’ve failed to consider is that there’s one major truth against me and my brilliant plans to improve my Caveman and our relationship: PEOPLE DON’T CHANGE UNLESS THEY WANT TO. FOR THEMSELVES. Now that I got that clear, time to work on a new plan! (I know it sounds pathetic but this time, I’ve done my homework. More about that in the weeks/months to come.)

So to summarize: “I’ve come too far to give up” is not a valid reason for “taking it”. Not if the road ahead is going to look like the road behind—or worse.

The Never-Ending Endurance Race of Life with the Caveman: a non-stop race with an endless series of finish lines.
The Never-Ending Endurance Race of Life with the Caveman

3. GUILT

Okay… this one is particularly messed up; even I know that! My Caveman doesn’t hesitate to leave me home to fend for myself after a major surgery to go to a party, but I worry he’ll go hungry if I don’t cook!? Pleaaaase, shoot me now!

I understand what motivates the feeling (more about that in the last two points of this list), and yet, I can’t sweep it under the carpet where it will remain out of sight—not to mention, out of my head.

Not to cut myself any slack, but my Caveman’s claiming that I’m responsible for everything that goes wrong in his life or that he can’t do right is really not helping…

Everything that goes wrong in the Caveman's life is his partner's fault. "I miss my appointment because you didn't me". "I don;t know how to write checks because you've always done it". "I don;t know where the towels go because you didn't show me". "I'm assisted because you made me".

4. THE COMFORT OF THE KNOWN

Let’s be honest: You can’t spend half of your life with someone and not feel comfortable in the familiar web that you’ve weaved around your relationship—even when you’re painfully aware that the web in question has holes that could let an obese water buffalo through!

Life follows a routine of sort—you don’t necessarily always like it, but it’s here to fall back onto when things get crazy. You know your partner in and out, the good and the bad. He knows what you shave, tweeze, bleach, and squeeze into spandex shapewear. All of that is comforting. However, it’s a mirage! The more you settle for the comfort of the known, the less you question it, and the less you explore other possibilities—whether it is reforming your relationship or leaving it behind.

Besides, the comfort of the known isn’t any more valid than “love” or “how long you’ve hanged on” as a reason for sticking around. If it were, you would still be living with your parents, you never would have left your first job, and you would spend all your vacations in the same spot year after year!

I know that. Yet, it’s still #4 on my list. Sigh. But honestly… Who wants to go back to plucking her mustache behind a triple-bolted bathroom door pretending she’s an avid flosser?

Leg shaving before the comfort of the know: The Caveman's partner is shaving her legs in a locked bathroom, pretending she's fixing her hair.
Leg Shaving Before “The Comfort of the Known”

5. A [MISPLACED] SENSE OF DUTY AND RESPONSIBILITY

As much as I try not to pay attention to the little voice in my head (and sometimes, the loud voices of the people around me) that tell me “you owe him”, “you made a commitment”, “you owe it to your children to make it work”, “you haven’t tried hard enough”, it’s everything I hear!

Honestly, I blame my upbringing. Like many women of my generation, I was literally taught (by my parents, my teachers, my culture, society as a whole) to put others first, to ignore my own needs, to always finish what I start, to find ways to make things work—patching and fixing instead of throwing away.

I’ve gained good appliance-repair skills in the process (you have no idea how many times I’ve fixed our last fridge before finally deciding it was time to say goodbye!), but very few life skills that equipped me to deal with an extreme Caveman or turn our relationship around.

Despite being conscious of it, that sense of duty to make things work and responsibility toward others is a large part of what keeps me put. I feel I owe it to my Caveman for sticking around during the years I was sick (and still sticking around despite the leftover medical issues I have). I feel I owe it to my children to allow them to grow in a two-parent family. I feel I owe it to the Universe to keep trying.

It’s actually easily explained when you have some training in psychology: I simply have the most annoying habit of consistently putting myself last, and that is the real issue (which we’ll come to).

Two Caveman's partners at an intersection: "After you". "No; you first." "I couldn't." "Please, I insist."
Caveman’s Partners at an Intersection

6. IT’S NOT THAT BAD

Not to make excuses for myself, but that’s one excuse that all Caveman’s partners (and apparently, most battered spouses, which really makes you think) have in common. As Robin Norwood mentions in the preface of her book Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change:

“[Thinking that their problem is less serious and distressing that others’] is typical of most of my clients. Each believes that her problem is “not that bad”, even as she relates with compassion to the plight of other women who, in her opinion, have “real troubles”. It is one of the ironies of life that we women can respond with such sympathy and understanding to the pain in one another’s life while remaining so blinded to (and by) the pain in our own.”

The few friends I have who are in healthy-ish partnerships tell me that I’m in a borderline abusive relationship. However, I keep telling myself that because I’m not being beaten, cheated on (that I know of), or verbally abused*, then it’s not that bad.

*Other than the occasional “What do you want now?” or “Can’t you see I’m resting?” or “You can’t see me doing nothing for two minutes, can you?” or “I don’t know where you find so much stuff to wash” or “Feeding your kids is your job”, or “You know Friday is my night out. It’s not my problem if you’re tired.” etc. Okay, so maybe I am being verbally abused…

It's not that bad: The Caveman's partner asks the Caveman to vacuum. The Caveman's answer: "Don;t you realize what you're asking? I won;t vacuum just because you ask me! I won;t be controlled!"

And here goes the “it’s-not-that-bad” excuse! Down the drain along with half of my reasons for “taking it”.

6. FEARS AND UNHEALTHY MOTIVATIONS

When it comes to settling for a “half partnership”, fears and unhealthy motivations go hand in hand. Christine Arylo, author of Choosing ME before WE: Every Woman’s Guide to Life and Love, summarizes it this way:

When we settle [for less than what we want or should have] we don’t choose “ME”; we choose “LACK”. We let our fears and the “shoulds” drive us to bad choices. […] We’re determined to make it work and settle for too little because our goal of being with a man becomes way more important than keeping a promise to our self.”

Fears are pretty clear-cut: We’re afraid of loneliness. We worry that we won’t manage to put a roof on our children’s heads with one salary. We fear that no one else will ever love us. Deep down, we’re scared that our Caveman is right and that we’re actually a horrible shrew. Etc.

Unhealthy motivations are little more insidious—as in “less straightforward, but not any less harmful”. Here are a few examples of unhealthy motivations, many of which I’ve been guilty of telling myself:

  • It’s just a bad phase; things will get better/he’ll change once [fill the blank]
  • Some of what I want is better than nothing
  • The relationship I want doesn’t exist
  • Better the devil you know than the one you don’t
  • Better the stress of doing it all now than the stress of doing it all as a divorced parent
  • Being in a “half partnership” is better than being alone
  • There are plenty of people in my situation who don’t complain
  • If get more spiritual/religious, I’ll gain acceptance of my situation

Rings a bell? Well, now you have a name for it: Unhealthy motivations!

Unhealthy motivations and excuses not to leave the Caveman: He's under a lot of stress. Things will get better... It's not his fault; he was raised this way... He doesn't understand what he's doing wrong...

7. CO-DEPENDENCY

I have a confession to make: For the longest time, I didn’t understand co-dependency, erroneously thinking that the term applies to situations much worse than life with the Caveman (even the extreme Caveman). Now that I understand the concept better, I see things quite differently…

The idea behind co-dependency is that some experiences in your childhood and early life* have left emotional holes in you, and that you unconsciously picked a partner who fills those emotional holes. The same applies to your partner, creating a “you-plug-my-holes-I-plug-your-holes” (in a PG way) kind of relationship.

Grossly generalizing, in a co-dependent relationship, one partner “overfunctions” while the other “underfunctions”. The person who “overfunctions” (i.e. the co-dependent) needs to feel needed. As a result, he/she will unconsciously pick as a partner someone who needs help (i.e. the dependent). For example, a smart, career-driven woman might end with a chronically unemployed partner she’ll try to motivate and “save/fix”.

I won’t go into details on the off chance that my parents/in-laws (whom I don’t blame, because God knows they had their own issues to deal with at the time) might come across this blog at some point, but in a nutshell: My emotional holes have made me an overzealous helper/giver while my Caveman’s emotional holes have made him an extreme user/taker. And the two of us fit together like two pieces of a perfectly dysfunctional puzzle!

Two deformed pieces of puzzles fitting together perfectly: the dysfunctional puzzle of the co-dependent relationship. "Hey! We fit just right! "I know... What's the chance of that!? Dumb luck, I guess..."
The Dysfunctional Puzzle of the Co-Dependent Realationship

The question is: Are we condemned to our co-dependent relationship, or can we rise above our giver/taker roles and become for each other what we need to be (i.e. interdependent partners who support each other emotionally, but function separately)?

To be continued, I’m afraid…

*Note to readers: Many things can leave emotional holes in a person: Abuse, abandonment, death, alcoholism, conditional love, extreme control, lack of emotional support, lack of approval, extreme criticism, lack of attention/neglect, conflict environment, lack of security, personality disorders or mental illnesses (in your parents), extreme spoiling, etc. It’s important to note that not too many people reach adulthood “whole”, but that the size of the emotional holes left in you (which is not necessarily related to the severity of your experiences, but to how those experiences made you feel) matters. For more information on the subject of co-dependency, read Deprogramming Codependent Beliefs by Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT.

8. LACK OF SELF-WORTH

In many languages (including my own birth language, French), self-worth is traditionally assimilated to self-esteem—which might explain why I didn’t put my finger on it until way too late! Yet, they’re two different things, and you can perfectly have one and not the other.

Dr. Christina Hibbert, Clinical Psychologist and self-book author, explains it this way:

“Self-esteem is what we think and feel and believe about ourselves. Self-worth is recognizing “I am greater than all of those things”. It is a deep knowing that I am of value, that I am lovable, necessary to this life, and of incomprehensible worth. It is possible to feel “high self-esteem” (or in other words, to think I’m good at something), yet still NOT feel convinced that I am lovable and worthy.”

Having self-worth means loving and respecting yourself in the sense of finding your “self” worthy of love and respect. It’s about knowing your values and not accepting less. It’s about NOT looking for external validation of your worth. Applied to your love life, it’s about genuinely believing that you deserve unconditional love simply for being you; that you don’t have to do things for your partner (or anyone else, for that matter) to deserve his love, acceptance, and respect.

Lacking self-worth means lacking all that. Feeling (unconsciously) that you have to do things for people to deserve their love, acceptance, and respect. Looking for validation outside of yourself. Believing (unconsciously) that you must earn love, and that you’re lucky enough that someone loves you at all (so why risk your luck insisting that he contribute to housework or stay home with you on Friday night, right?) Believing (unconsciously) that you must earn the right to be happy—and to some extent, that you’re not worthy of a true partner.

Not surprisingly, lack of self-worth goes hand in hand with co-dependency, as they both have the same root: A dysfunctional, unhealthy family environment during your childhood and formative years.

Although “dysfunctional” and “unhealthy” are big, scary words—words that many people associate with extreme situations and hardship—it’s virtually the norm as very few families are considered 100% “functional” or “healthy”. In other words: We all come with baggage, and that include our parents, their parents before that, and their grandparents before that.

To put it simply: An unhealthy family environment is one in which your emotional needs as a child were not met.

There are countless ways in which that can happen—so many that thousands of books have been written on the subject! However, the important thing to realize is that even if you don’t come from a family where abuse, alcoholism, addiction or mental disease prevailed, there are subtler ways in which your family might have provided unhealthy environment for you to grow up in. In her book Women Who Love Too Much: When you keep wishing and hoping he’ll change, Robin Norwood gives the following examples:

  • An absent father, or a father who disliked/distrusted women
  • A mother who was jealous of you, showing you off in public but “competing” with you in private
  • Constant arguing and tension, or extended periods of silence between your parents
  • Extreme rigidity about money, religion, work, use of time, display of affection, sex, television, housework, sports, politics, etc.
  • Rigidity of parental roles (e.g. parents who kept treating you like a small child regardless of your age)
  • Lack of individual attention and care because you were part of a large sibling group

From personal experience, I know that an environment where love is conditional and a child must do something (e.g. get good grades, keep her parents’ secrets, obey the rules, etc.) to “deserve” it, or an environment where criticism (vs. honest praise and encouragement) is the norm, and a child must strive to “earn” positive feedback (but never actually gets any), will lead to self-worth issues. Guaranteed.

From what I gather, the level of family “unhealthiness” is not necessarily what determines the “issues” you end up with as an adult. Rather, it’s your level of resilience, how your experiences made you feel, and the protection mechanisms you put in place to shield yourself from them and gain a feeling of control over your circumstances—mechanisms that are still in place today and translate into perfectionism, “overfunctioning”, extreme helping, etc.

Regardless of the causes and mechanisms of action, for those of us who recognize ourselves in the description and just happen to have a Caveman as a partner, there is a need to acknowledge that IT’S NO COINCIDENCE.

Robin Norwood may be onto something when she writes that women who love too much are addicted to the familiarity of the unrewarding relationship, and that “our every attempts at changing him, helping him […] are a manifestation of our disease”.

Caveman's partners anonymous meeting. Five partners tell their stories: "My father drank". "My father left us". "Nothing was ever good for my parents". "My mother was a narcissist".
Caveman’s Partners Anonymous Meeting

That being said, I’m not letting the Caveman off the hook so easily! I’m willing to take 50% of the responsibility in the matter of my taking on too much, but the other 50% (for failing to get involved in household/parenting tasks and being self-centered and grumpy) are his to acknowledge and work on.

The question is: Where do we go from here, and just how the heck do we get there?

The Caveman's partner (on the path to change) is approaching the Caveman (who doesn't know what's about to hit him) about their relationship.
So… Where Do We Go From Here?

AFTERWORD

You may not recognize yourself in the picture of the somewhat emotionally unhealthy woman I’ve painted above. If that’s the case, you may be exceptionally lucky—or young (one typically doesn’t hit the introspection stage until later in life). Or you may be like I was for many years: blind, living in a world of self-made illusions, and unwilling to face up to reality.

Regardless, if you’re not content or you don’t feel rewarded as “doer of it all”, you owe it to yourself to figure out why—before attempting to fix things at home.

What has changed since the time you were satisfied with your lot? How exactly do you feel now? How might you have contributed to the situation you find yourself in? Do you take more than 50% of the blame for it? (Hint: You shouldn’t!)

If you’d like to do more reading on the subject, give Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change a chance. Conversely, if you don’t feel like digging into it right now, simply ponder one last thought:

“If we want a life better than the cookie-cutter version that has left women unhappy for decades, we must be willing to strip away the illusions we’ve built and take responsibility for the circumstances we create. […] Love yourself enough to find clarity about what is real and essential to you.” Source

Until next time.

Elle

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