Dysfunctional Dance Has A Well-Worn Groove

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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?

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

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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13 Responses to Dysfunctional Dance Has A Well-Worn Groove

  1. DivaCarla DivaCarla says:

    Maria, I love your writing all the time. I’ve held back because you were just expressing, not asking advice, and I don’t have advice, though I do have a story. After the boss from heaven retired, I found myself working for the boss from hell (who was psychotic and did have it in for me — I am not paranoid). I endured working under this person, in this job that was not really my purpose, for 3 years, taking drugs (antidepressants) to make sure I got to work rather than driving my car into a tree. I finished the third year on medical leave, thanks to my psychiatrist. Finally I found the courage to quit. Within six weeks the boss from hell was fired from the job. I got the message. The Universe was trying to get me out of there, or get me to change my life, whatever it took to wake me up. If this is a goddess wink for anyone reading, then my work is done ;o)

    Judith, thank your for that story again. It’s been a while, and I am just about to turn down that same street again. Whew! I’ll take another route instead.

  2. carecare7 says:

    {{{{{{{Maria}}}}}}} <——that's a cyber hug if you want it.

    As one of the Pluto in Virgo generation, I know what you mean. Virgo is a workaholic, the sign of attained adulthood (Aries – Leo being babyhood, childhood, teen years). I have noticed the Pluto in Virgo generation folks work and work and work and their health is an issue and they just keep on keeping on. We don't know HOW to be slackers. And, typical of Virgo, we see our own faults more than we see others'. Also typical of Virgo, we tend to take responsibility and difficulties very seriously, practically, and personally. We so want to make things right in the world.

    I have been saying forever that our culture is crazy; we teach people in a broken and crazy cultural system "coping skills" when the truth is, the whole system is sick. It is the system that needs fixing, not us that needs coping.

    I don't have answers for your situation but please know this, you remind me of my hag sisters (a collection of extraordinary women who have been with each other through thick and thin for almost 20 years). You are an amazing human being and I feel fortunate to have been able to read what you write with such eloquence, honesty, vulnerability, and relevance.

    If you ever just want someone to vent to, please feel free to contact me at carecare7atmendotcom.

    Take care and be well.

  3. Judith Gayle Judith Gayle says:

    Not tiresome, kiddo, just amazingly candid and thoughtful and unafraid to show your vulnerability, which allows others to be the same and that’s real, honest-to-God/ess “service.” Those who come here to share their thoughts with you trust that they’ve found a safe place to do so, and that’s big, kiddo. Your ability to share your truth-of-the-moment provides us all a place FOR empathy, for experimentation and … yep, even … frankness. ‘Cuz we’re cookin’ something here, ya know? We’re stretching ourselves.

    And your poetry can’t possibly be worthless or useless — it’s an outpouring of your soul. If you have a need to share it, do some of that here: we are an apt and appreciative audience, but do know that it IS Worthy with a capital W simply because it is your creative expression. In truth, we writers always write for our self first, even if we have a burning passion to share the creation. Satisfy yourself, that’s where the healing is.

    As to bitching on the internets, I’ve spent a decade doing so and been pointed back at myself numerous times. It’s humbling. That’s the risk and, ultimately, blessing because it directs us back to Source, to center, to our self — to mature past our last thought, to refine our next expression, to grow. To accept ourselves as a work “in progress.”

    Everybody who posted here today has some experience with what you’re going through — wrestling a situation we can’t get our arms around, can’t seem to take down — because we all go through it in the human family. From my Mother’s Day piece some might remember from last year, here’s a snip (from a poster I had framed) that shows the process.

    There’s A Hole In My Sidewalk
    Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

    by Portia Nelson


    I walk down the street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I fall in.
    I am lost … I am helpless.
    It isn’t my fault.
    It takes forever to find a way out.


    I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I pretend I don’t see it.
    I fall in again.
    I can’t believe I am in this same place.
    But it isn’t my fault.
    It still takes a long time to get out.


    I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I see it is there.
    I still fall in … it’s a habit … but,
    my eyes are open,
    I know where I am.
    It is my fault.
    I get out immediately.


    I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I walk around it.


    I walk down another street.

    No worries, dearheart — your worth is not in question, your posts continue to inspire and your experiences inform … ‘cuz, you know, we’re all rowing the same boat. Works in progress, and glad for the company!

    (That Dorothy girl was a Gale, but she had a little dog and so do I, so I avoid Kansas.)

  4. mariapadhila says:

    Oh, I know I’ve become tiresome as can be! And tired as well–not as creative as usual. I did burn myself out a little more than usual last month, writing a poem a month for national poetry month. Sacrificed sleep and exercise. Had very little left.
    I just come from a culture that says to never give up, to play hurt, that if you’re sick or disrespected, you just keep on going. So I hate to give up on anything.
    I’ve also been traumatized, I think, by living through so many rounds of layoffs through my career. As companies I worked for were bought and sold for shareholder and C-level profits, each market action was accompanied by a purge. I always kept my jobs, because I could do a variety of things for cheap. I watched much more talented and experienced people lose their jobs, for no reason. It’s surreal–and dysfunctional.
    I also have the hardest time with the whole concept of “self-esteem.” We’re supposed to have this rock-hard center that proclaims our worth–yet nearly everything in our world is hellbent on telling us how worthless we are. To proclaim my “worth” in a world marketplace like this one strikes me as delusional–I have to laugh. My “solution” is in my poetry, which is worthless, useless, unread and ignored, a relentlessly foolish pursuit, and one that laughs at itself and its own desire to be otherwise.
    Ms. Gayle ( i often think of Dorothy when i see your name–don’t remember how she spelled it, but another great puller back of curtains ;), I hope that frankness doesn’t undo me. I guess I wouldn’t be the first or last to face consequences for bitchin to the internets. My consolation is that it sparks these conversations–and that people might find some empathy there. The feeling of being alone in a bad relationship of any kind is the worst, I think, and at least this might alleviate that.

  5. Bette Loreen says:

    I agree, Lizzy, that losing an awful job (or, for that matter, relationship) can indeed be the best of things, however frightening the prospect or the tough sledding that may follow. Putting up with being treated badly in either a personal or a professional situation does indeed seem to be rooted in festering self-esteem issues that may have very, very deep roots. Some schools of thought suggest we end up there in order to uncover & address those issues. That has applied a lot in my life/recovery work.

    In my most recent experience, I’d have sworn up & down as I was getting into that ill-advised relationship that I was impervious to crazymaking, that I was seeing clearly, etc etc. – in fact, there was clearly a hole in my soul that made me vulnerable, & I could see in retrospect all the many red flags I had ignored – & this was at the age of fifty!

    As you noted, Judith, the unhappiness spills from personal to professional or vice versa, toxifies everything, & grinds down whatever self-esteem we’re trying to hang onto. It strains (& sometimes destroys) our friendships, which only leaves us more isolated in our misery.

    Maria, I too hope you’ll find a better professional situation soon, where your energy & honesty & astounding writing capability will be appropriately appreciated & compensated.

  6. Judith Gayle Judith Gayle says:

    Oh goody, Maria, you’ve opened up a topic I’ve wanted to address with you for quite awhile, as your unhappiness with your job has been very apparent. I think this forum may be productive for you. I truly hope so. I can only add to what others have written.

    One of the larger series of “mistakes” in my life was staying too long in jobs in which I was miserable, and always because I needed the paycheck. It wasn’t just toxic in my work-day, it was toxic to my life and those around me. That’s a specific kind of misery that becomes full-fledged resentment, which I find MUCH harder to deal with than outright anger or rage. It makes you tired, it ruins your health and it colors your relationships. And then, when circumstance cut me loose, I found a way to get through the interim to another job — since I don’t remember those periods “in between,” they could not have been the horror-story I projected them to be.

    Speaking as a former Scout and Scout-leader, just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you want to make it your life’s work; nor is being the can-do, always-there, don’t-consider-my-wants-or-needs person necessary to make a living. This realization comes with one’s growing confidence in not just that of which you’re capable, but a real assessment of what you’re willing to “give” — the energy you’re willing to exchange — in pursuit of money.

    I found that working temp jobs gave me an education on this issue; those that validated my talent and skill became permanent jobs, or made new job descriptions to suit my skills, while those that wanted to ‘use me up’ sensitized me to that unexplored bit within me that not only allowed it to happen, but encouraged it for ego-satisfaction. It takes risk to change the old template, of course, but once you’ve done it — once or twice or more — you get that it really is about what YOU’RE magnetizing, and when you find yourself there “once more,” you QUICKLY recognize that old signature energy, and know to put it behind you pronto.

    One other thing — gently — that I have experienced: when someone is miserable and complaining but doesn’t seem able to make the necessary adjustments others are suggesting to them, it eventually limits the conversation and taxes the other persons patience. I have a friend that constantly whines about being taken advantage of (she is!) but refuses to change her behaviors to set up necessary boundaries with people. From MY Scout “fix it” point of view, if she isn’t going to value my advice, what more can I say to her? Our relationship comes to a temporary halt every couple of years because, with me (alone, apparently) she feels I have violated her boundaries by telling her she has to change if SHE WANTS change. It might be a helpful experiment to do a 180 with your peeps, put yourself in their place and get a sense of what they’re seeing and feeling.

    One of the things I admire about you, kiddo, is your ability to trust the whole freaking world with what you’re thinking and feeling. You’re extraordinary on any number of levels, and I’m sure there are all kinds of employers out there that would count themselves fortunate to have you on their payroll. I hope some of the comments here are helpful to you because I just plain don’t want you to be unhappy any more.

    Big love and hugs your way, Maria.

  7. Lizzy Lizzy says:

    Sorry, September 2013…

  8. Lizzy Lizzy says:

    Just want to add that I did desperately try to get out of that lousy job, in spring/summer 2012 I applied for several jobs, one of which involved a really tough exam. The exam was a disaster and they wrote to tell me that I didn’t have the experience for the job – these same people called me up in September 2014 to offer me a job with training, and this is where I am now. What I learnt from this experience was never give up, keep sowing those seeds, ‘cos you never know what can happen.

  9. Lizzy Lizzy says:

    Maria, from my own, personal experience, it really is a question of the inside reflected on the outside – where we carry all the crap of our childhood and our parents’ stuff and as adults we live this out in our work and relationships. I was stuck in a lousy job for years, which reached a peak of awfulness before I lost it, I was appallingly exploited and underpaid, but could see no way out as I live in a country where this is the norm, and I needed to pay the rent. But, as often happens, losing it was the best thing that could have happened to me – as I was forced to come out of my trough of despair by creating a daily meditation of all the things that were good about me and in my life. The other thing I did was to write in a little notebook a few lines about the fact that I wanted a job that used my skills, was decently paid and where i was appreciated. I wrote this a couple of years ago (several times!) and gave up hope. I only remembered this the other day – and realized that I now have the job I asked for. It’s not ideal, of course, and the contracts are precarious – but I am treated very well and paid decently. I think that once I started to really tackle the deep and painful issue of self-esteem – my life started to change for the better. so yes, I do think we have to change – but only because we have to start loving ourselves more and realizing that we really can be treated with respect and love by others, and that anythng that is less than that will actually leave our lives, as happened to me. ((()))

  10. Bette Loreen says:

    Thanks for the lyrics, Eric. Great old song, & one that surely does apply in many untenable situations. Yes. Get yourself free indeed, & yes, it can take a while. It’s hard to evolve a Plan B when Plan A’s got you run ragged & run down, but it becomes a matter of survival.

  11. Eric Francis Eric Francis says:


    You Just slip out the back, Jack
    Make a new plan, Stan
    You don’t need to be coy, Roy
    Just get yourself free
    Hop on the bus, Gus
    You don’t need to discuss much
    Just drop off the key, Lee
    And get yourself free

  12. Lolly K says:

    Realizing that the only way out of a dysfunctional relationship is to turn the corn quickly and run like hell can take quite a while for some folks. Some people never get to that point.

  13. Bette Loreen says:

    Well & clearly said! I am no longer in a workplace, & was blessed during my working years with jobs & colleagues I truly enjoyed, & only the occasional boss person who could turn into a shrew or other difficult lifeform.

    Where I have experienced the impossible-to-resolve-make-better-etc. (ad nauseum) was in personal relationship. The words “…the crazy changes right along with you..” jumped out at me like neon! When one has tried EVERYTHING for years (& the crazy changess…), one becomes so damned weary of it all. Almost five years out, I’m still re-collecting myself. The absence of crazymaking in my life still often feels like a luxury, one I cherish & protect. My boundaries against it are firm, & NOBODY gets to bring it in.

    I’ve known people in both personal & professional situations resembling your description, & what eventually seems to arrive will be either leaving (which can be problematic with both job & partner, depending upon circumstances) or a dismal resignation in which all enthusiasm is put aside (because it doesn’t mean anything anyway, given the dysfunction) & only what must be done gets done, & no more. That doesn’t feel good either.

    I want to see a world where we have better choices.

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