Having Relational Standards

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Photo used by permission of Mara Rothman @ mararothman.com

I used to have a bevy of friends. Knowing there were people in my life to offset the debilitating loneliness and anxiety that accompanied familial estrangement was a significant source of comfort. The problem was, over time I discovered that these relationships stymied my growth. In some cases, they even caused deliberate harm.

Yet as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosy. I was alone in the world. Although needing others was a natural impulse, what derailed that inclination from its healthy expression was systemic abuse and neglect throughout childhood. It left me insatiable and even worse, devoid of discernment and discrimination.

I struggled with an intimacy disorder that many children who are desperate for connection develop. Descriptive of children who are starving for love and affection and consequently gravitate towards anyone showing an iota of interest, a disinhibited attachment style is a dangerous affliction. No doubt, not knowing or for that matter caring about whether a person can be trusted, is a recipe for victimization.

Vacillating from being fearful and withdrawn to being overly responsive persisted into adolescence and young adulthood and culminated in a hit or miss relational strategy. Relying on this approach did not bode well for me.

Luckily, when I commenced with recovery for complex trauma and process addictions, self-protective, baseline standards of decency ensued.

Unfortunately, raising the bar doesn’t go over well with folks invested in the status quo. Many long term friendships fell away when I eventually took the high ground with addressing problematic concerns.

There was the friend who simply couldn’t fathom why I would need her to inform me when she planned to retreat for prolonged periods of time. Unable to comply with my request, she made it my problem that I took her periodic falling off the grid ‘personally’. Then there were friends who regressed into quasi dissociative fugue states, doing and saying awful things when something or other ignited anger towards me. When I’d attempt to address those episodes responses ranged from derision, to trivializing to complete denial.

Lastly, there were those who required me to be their surrogate therapist. The taxing emotional labor I felt from reading an unsolicited mini novella about a friend’s mental condition, or gritting my teeth as a friend rambled on about their litany of hardships without once asking me about myself, became demoralizing. Addressing this dynamic rarely resulted in mutuality.

As the saying goes, old habits die hard. Of course, I too was guilty of the same interpersonal infractions that later caused me distress. After all, water rises to its own level.

Admittedly, I expected others to bond through suffering and even guide me through the morass of trauma and anguish that plagued me on a daily basis. Undoubtedly, at the inception of many of these friendships I was responsible for co-creating and enabling the dysfunctional values and dynamics that finally registered as toxic. It’s only in hindsight that I see how corrosive this sort of codependent pattern was. At the time, however, it was misconstrued as nurturance. It felt normal.

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The essential elements integral to creating relationships characterized by the volitional practice of loving, is a matter social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm thought extensively about. He emphasized that cultivating meaningful relationships has little to do with the pursuit of a sentimental experience and everything to do with the mechanics involved in mastering the skills of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. Fromm stressed that one needs to evince self-love through the act of cultivating personal character, in order to responsibly love another. Love, according to Fromm is a state of being.

In his classic book The Art of Loving, Fromm wrote, “Love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together; even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves. There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned; this is the fruit by which love is recognized.”

Heeding Fromm’s sage words, it was clear that if I was to mindfully and responsibly love then I had to willingly choose to go it alone. I was challenged to affirm in every fiber of my being that it was better to be alone than settle for a version of love that offered substitutionary fulfillment. However, intellectually knowing that the ability to be alone would paradoxically foster the potential for creating love was not a sufficient catalyst. It took a lifetime of relational traumas and disillusionment to hit bottom and surrender to that task.

Of course, none of us are immune to the degree in which betrayal and humiliation can crush the spirit. Without exception, we have all experienced how relational assaults can morph into self-imposed verdicts, which disconnect us from our worth. Likewise, the pervasiveness of the seemingly more benign forms of relational callousness such as criticism, mockery, arrogance, and thoughtlessness can be just as insidious and damaging as blatant forms of betrayal.

It was only when I reached the apex of disillusionment and my high threshold for pain reached a breaking point, did solitude become a necessary and welcome reprieve. Ironically, it was disillusionment that assisted me with relinquishing stultifying patterns and led me towards fully engaging with the terrifying fear of surviving alone in the world. From that place I was able to face my demons and the harsh truths I spent much of my life trying to deny.

It was only through choosing solitude, could I commit to deepening a connection to the one person who I had to rely on the most in life; myself.

Ultimately, that prolonged and challenging solitary descent into darkness prepared me for mature intimacy. Emerging from those depths with a clearer understanding of myself and what I needed from others in order to safely share my vulnerability and securely attach, emboldened me to seek companionship. So, after a five-year hiatus, thinking I was finally equipped to stick by tenacious boundaries and safe limits, I pursued dating. It wasn’t long before I met my husband.

Not surprisingly our courtship was difficult. Actually, I bolted after our first date. Apparently, although the longing for companionship and human touch compelled me to put myself out there, I still needed to refine my capacity for trust and vulnerability.

Fortunately, I was dealing with a wonderful man, an actual grown-up, who possessed the patience and understanding to accommodate my neurosis and my pace. Through staying a sometimes turbulent course, traveling the world together, working through difficulties, and opening our hearts, I came to know the precious experience of being truly at home with another.

Having realized the profound privilege of giving and receiving love with a life partner, I’ve concluded that the quest for interpersonal equanimity, meaning relationships characterized by safe, stable inclusive balance, is not easy to attain.

Buddhism cites equanimity (upekkha) as one of the four brahmaviharas, or great virtues. This mindset and emotional state was described by the Buddha as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill-will.”

This state of exalted inner stability of which the Buddha refers, allows for a mindful appreciation of realities that depart from one’s own. Hence, equanimity allows for difficulties to be amicably addressed and worked through, as mindful engagement with others is ensured, even when being on the receiving end of reactive hostility. Stepping back from knee-jerk impulsive reactions so that non-violent discourse might possibly proceed is emblematic of equanimity.

Yet achieving relationships that ascribe to equanimity requires the sort of composure and maturity that results from prioritizing humility and compassion. Although this sounds ideal it is not all that common. To the contrary, what is common are volatile, aggressive disputes. In fact, hostile bickering has become a culturally lauded way of communicating.

Nevertheless, throughout my topsy-turvy pursuit of camaraderie I managed to share a deep friendship of equanimity, with a kindred spirit. A loving compassionate soul, Nicky lived by principles of humanity and integrity that offered hope to many. She was the kind of friend who allowed me to be fully authentic, to stand in my power, to grow, and become who I was meant to be. Her courage inspired me. She was one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. When she died from cancer I lost not just a friend, but a sister.

It’s been years since our parting, yet in spite of the obstacles and my cynicism, recalling our bond encourages me to keep believing in the beauty of friendship. Holding on to that view allows me to anticipate that the move to Montreal this year will inspire enriching steadfast friendships reminiscent of what Nicky and I shared.

At the very least, it’s consoling to be in a place where it’s no longer difficult to walk away from that which offers less than what true friendship deserves. That attainment is an invaluable gauge of being able, first and foremost, to live by relational standards that guarantee showing up for myself, and when all is said and done, people who show up for themselves can show up for others who also show up for themselves. That’s the kind of mantra I can gladly live by.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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