So the usual impulse for someone in a dysfunctional system, the usual impulse for a Girl Scout like me at least, is to try to fix it. Solve it. Make it better. But it’s really difficult! Why is it so difficult?
You’re a person who’s used to taking responsibility, owning up to your own contribution, so you put your mind and your creativity to it. You try all kinds of solutions. You’re up all night, unable to sleep, trying out different solution scenarios, and sometimes you think you’ve found one. There’s nothing like it, when you get that sudden rush of “now I’ve got it!” when you think you’ve found a way to solve it all. “I’ll just say this!” you think. Or “I’ll just do that!”
And then you try it out in the morning light, and you get nowhere.
Or sometimes you get a little bit somewhere. Things really seem to get better for a while. You’re pretty proud of how you managed to heal this dysfunctional situation, this imbalanced relationship. And then it slips. And it slips a little more. And before you know it, it’s all rolling downhill on you again.
You spend a lot of time talking to your friends and lovers about it, too. You bounce all kinds of strategies and solutions off them. You get ideas, you hear about their experiences, and you consider trying their tack out for yourself. You try a few of their ideas, and you hope.
And then everything falls right back into place. The same kinds of unfairness, or insensitivity, or lack of kindness or care, or exploitation start up all over again. You get gaslighted, again, into believing it’s not happening. You get told — not only by the other person in the relationship, but by your loved ones — that you need to look deeper at your own behavior. You get told to do something about your stress. You get told to check your attitude. To try Jesus. Or Buddha. Or yoga.
Because it’s you. It’s something that you’re doing wrong. After all, none of us can change the other person. We can only change ourselves, right?
And next time you talk to your friends, and your lovers, and your dog, they start getting impatient, and start telling you to try this, try that, and how about trying to stop complaining about it if you’re not going to do anything about it.
But you are doing something about it. You’re spending every minute doing somethings and other things and something elses about it. And none of the somethings work.
So you change yourself, over and over again, in big ways and small, and the crazy changes right along with you. It’s relative — you move two steps to the right to try to change the well-worn groove you’ve developed, and the dysfunctional situation moves right along with you. You’re in the same places all over again, just two steps to the right. Or the left. Or on one leg. Or with your hands in the air. Simon Says — and you do it.
I’ve been doing what Simon Says for 13 years now at my place of employment, but this dynamic could just as easily describe a relationship, and it does — more than a few. And I’m sorry about that.
Issac’s been hearing about it for a long time. Just tonight, though, I totally fell apart. On the street, on my cell phone — which I never allow myself to do — I shouted and wailed. He started yelling at me. I told him to stop yelling at me. He said, “You’ve been yelling at me for the past 10 minutes.” I said: “I wasn’t yelling at you. I’m not mad at you. I was screaming in pain. I was screaming to be heard over all the noise.”
And this is what I was screaming: “Nobody understands that I have tried everything. I have done every kind of change I can think of. And it never changes. It’s a crap situation, and it’s never going to change. It will always be a crap situation, and I didn’t make it that way, and I can’t change it, no matter what I do. It’s not my fault this is happening.”
And I had another one of those revelations that feel oh-so-good — except that this one, I think, is for real and for good. As a reporter, I knew to ask, “Who benefits?” I ask that from every situation. My mistake is in thinking that the person on the other side of the dysfunction benefits from me — from my efforts, from my talent, from my support, from my love, depending on what kind of relationship it is. But what’s really happening is that they benefit from the dysfunction itself.
Because chances are they could have a lot of those other things, if they just asked nicely and gave a little something in return. Because I’m a Girl Scout. Because I try to give back. Because I try to give more; because it doesn’t even feel like giving when you have a balanced relationship. It just feels like living.
But in dysfunctionland, it’s exhausting. You give and give, and the other side gives a wonderful appearance of giving. They tell you things like: “I really worry about how stressed you’re getting. Maybe if you worked out more and ate better, you’d feel better.” They say things like: “You do such a wonderful job with the baby. He’s going to get used to that and he’s not going to want to go to day care when you have to go back to work!” They tell you things like, on Friday at 6 p.m., “I really want you to be able to relax and enjoy the beautiful weather this weekend, so just have this ready for me on Monday morning.”
Yeah, those are kind of obvious. But a Girl Scout like me thinks, wow, they really care. And then about a week later, I’m making dinner or something and I suddenly want to sit down on the floor and cry. Because, stupid. Just. So. Stupid.
There must have been something I could have done differently to avoid that. Let me think. Let me call my friend. Let me ask my lover. Let me read a book. Let me meditate. Let me ask the gods. Why is it so damn hard to budge a dysfunctional relationship?
Because the other side benefits from keeping it dysfunctional. They’re making a deliberate effort to keep it unbalanced, maybe an effort almost as strenuous as the one you’re making to fix it. It’s an investment of time for a steady return, like milking a cow or doing weight reps.
It’s almost a given that most work relationships today would be dysfunctional, except to the Girl Scouts, who think there must be a way to do something decently and get paid what it’s worth. Trouble is, nothing’s worth what it’s really worth — finance guys make millions and day care workers caring for infants make little, and in my world, it would be the other way around.
I hope we’re not in the place where it’s a given that love relationships would be dysfunctional. And I hope you’re not in a place where you’re trying and trying, but things just never seem to change. I hope you’ll stop thinking that you must change, must deny yourself, must put up with it. I hope you don’t feel like you can’t just leave. Because that’s one place where in love, you’re somewhat freer than in commerce. Use that freedom, and grant it to your heart, please.
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