I wrote a post entitled AFFECTIVE DEPRIVATION DISORDER AND ALEXITHYMIA IN MARRIAGE in 2014. I wrote it from a place of profound emotional and psychic pain, but there was also a thread of hope woven into that post because I thought I had found an answer. Alexithymia. Maybe there was an explanation for my then husband’s behaviors and relational style. Affective Deprivation Disorder. Maybe there was a name for how I felt. A label, if you will, for the twisting of my reality and life. I didn’t exactly feel comforted, but I did feel validated and less alone. I didn’t expect so many people, however, to respond. I didn’t realize just how many people intimately and experientially understood the contents of what I had written. That post is still the most widely read and cited post on this blog. I’ve been contacted privately by people from all over the world, men and women, asking for answers. I’ve been emailed anonymously by people who just needed to tell their stories. I’ve received hate mail. And then there are the comments. Well, you can read those. The mélange of pain, despair, hope and the desire to repair what is broken is present.
It has been almost six years since I wrote that post, and I’ve learned some things since then.
I was contacted by only one person who felt they had alexithymia, and they themselves wanted to know what they could do to bridge the gap. He went to a therapist and is still actively involved in a healing process. I’ve gotten to know him, and he is a thoroughly sincere person with genuine desire to be in authentic relationship. Every other person who contacted me felt they were in crisis due to partnering with someone who was, at that least, emotionally unavailable and neglectful or, at the worst, abusive. On the whole, the trend that I’ve observed is that it was one person out of a partnership who was doing the bulk of the emotional work and who was also absorbing the inequities in the relationship.
There is a name for this. Emotional exploitation. What is emotional exploitation? Essentially, it is using another person or persons (for example, spouse and children) from whom one extracts emotional nurturing while returning only a tiny portion of that same love, support, and listening. (source) Many of the emails and comments I’ve read over the years have painted a picture of emotional exploitation. That was a very real dynamic in my former marriage. One I could never change.
So, let me be real. What could I change? Could I change anything about my ex-husband? No. Only he could change himself. We cannot change people, but we can influence people. Was I successful in any way at influencing him? Yes and no. I’ll explain.
When I asked him to be more present with me and the kids, I influenced him. He became more avoidant. When I asked him to help me do yard work, I influenced him. He became more childish and feigned incompetence to get out of helping me. When I asked him to watch a movie with me, I influenced him. He mocked my movie choices because he knew that would embarrass me, thusly, causing me to let him pick the movie instead. When I asked him to stop drinking, I influenced him. He got angry, blamed me for his anxiety, and drank more. When I asked him for sex, I influenced him. He ignored me for months and turned our bedroom into his home office. Did I have influence? In a way. Did I change him? No. In the end, it became an overtly abusive relationship where it did not matter what I did. Every move I made was met with psychological or physical warfare.
Allow me to be clear. You cannot change anyone. You could transform yourself into the most perfect version of who you think you need to be to please your loved one, and I guarantee that it will not change that person. You could delete every part of yourself that you’ve been told is flawed or somehow innately wrong in order to please your beloved, and it will still not change this person. I know this because I tried. You will only end up a mess. A despairing, hollowed out, confused, hurting mess.
You cannot change another person.
Tattoo that on your brain. It is not your job to change someone else. Isn’t that a relief? It might not feel like a relief. If you like to be in control, then it is maddening. If you, like me, grew up believing that if you did everything right, then a Happily Ever After would be yours, reality turns out to be a shock. Here is the heartbreaking truth of it all. You can promise to love someone–and truly love them–until the day you die, and there is no guarantee that they will do the same even if they made the same promise, too. I never really understood that until domestic violence entered my former marriage. I never really understood that love was not enough. I naively believed that love conquered all. It doesn’t. Why? Why isn’t love enough?
Let me rephrase that. Love for one person isn’t enough. Often when we hear people say that love will conquer all, we see one heroic person preparing to embark on an ill-fated journey wherein a great sacrifice will be made all in the name of love. That’s a terrible template for relationships, but that describes the dating history of a lot of people I know. We are not supposed to live in one-sided, emotionally exploitative, psychologically besieged relationships marked by great and terrible drama. We are supposed to allow for the possibility that we will receive the same love and nurturing from our partners that we give and cultivate that on a daily basis. It is called mutuality or reciprocity, and that is what was missing from my former marriage. That is what is missing from all the comments and emails I’ve read. Reciprocity. Furthermore, we want to choose partners and friends who also cultivate reciprocity so that greater trust and intimacy are built over time thereby lessening the possibility of all kinds of exploitation and shame allowing for vulnerability within our relationships which ultimately allows for feelings of belonging, safety, and acceptance. In all the comments and emails I’ve received never was there mention of present feelings of safety, belonging, or vulnerability. I certainly never experienced that in my former marriage.
Well, what is to be done? I’ll be frank. I ended my marriage less than a year after I wrote that post. Yeah, I was married for almost twenty years, and I ended it. There is no reward for languishing in a dark pool of suffering, wasting away, pouring yourself out, giving your best away to someone who really doesn’t care or lacks the capacity to care. Either way, you cannot make someone else care for you in a way that is meaningful to you or meets your needs, but you can make your own choices. So, for the first time in my life, I stopped thinking about what would meet everyone else’s needs and started thinking about what would meet mine.
Was it easy? No. As hard as I imagined it would be, I ended up wishing that it were that easy. The first two years after it ended were the worst, and it wasn’t because I missed him. It was because there were years of pain to process, and I didn’t expect it. I have never experienced anything quite like it. Would I do it again? Absolutely. As time goes on, I feel less and less vulnerable and more capable.
So, what would I like to say to anyone who reads that post and sees themselves in it? Well, I want to say that your happiness, well-being, and needs are just as important as your partner’s. If you are thinking that you can save your partner or change them by doing something more than you already have, then I would encourage you to pause for a moment. Please remember that I wrote that post. I was once in the same place. I, too, was trying to solve the problem of my relationship–the problem that was my partner. In the end, I needed to save myself. I was the one who was drowning because, in reality, it did not matter whether my ex-husband would not change or could not change. The manifestation of either of those realities was the same, and I could no longer exist in that reality and be okay. And since I could not change him, I had to change. That might sound like a scary proposition, but authentic change happens slowly.
Start where you are. Take one step at a time. Be intentional. Begin to value yourself as much as you value your partner. See where it takes you.
Just don’t give up.