We're already well into 2022 so reflecting on the past year feels a bit dated. However, 2021 was a humungous year for many of us and I'm no exception.
2021 was the year I broke one of my most unhealthy relationship patterns.
It was painful but liberating.
The thing about breaking old patterns is that even when we know we're about to follow a new and right path it can still break us apart and feel sad.
My previous relationship pattern went something like this…
Meet a guy
Get swept away by his charm and good looks
Listen to him tell stories about his past partner(s) and feel a bit unsure about his integrity
Apply the Benefit of Doubt and stay in the game
Begin to notice discrepancies between his words and actions
Ask direct questions (feel really pleased with myself for being more bold than I have before)
Accept his responses even when they include information about violence (his) and high levels of criticism of his ex … and/or
Notice how he objectifies/leers at women and how my opinion of him disintegrates
Apply Benefit of Doubt and question myself instead
I'm doing my best to showcase that despite describing the alleged discrepancies of men I've been attracted to, any problems in these relationships were aided and abetted by my over-willingness to apply a Benefit of Doubt principle.
In other words, I was a champion at stepping over Red Flags.
I'll try and explain…
Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is considered a righteous and accommodating trait. Without it, we might jump on everything our partner, family members or colleagues say, and come across as untrusting and/or highly critical.
And maybe we are. Hyper-criticism is a real problem.
But so is going against our values and not having the wherewithal to speak to that. Not knowing how to ask questions without believing I already knew the answer, or wasn't willing to hear an answer that would make me need to take action (like move on and face my loneliness), wasn't man-of-the-moment's problem. It was mine.
Even if I was doing those things unintentionally or without any awareness.
Human behaviour is so nuanced and applying black-or-white principles is risky at best. The dilemma, therefore, is how do we know when and where to draw the line.
Where is it them, and where is it us?
I realised last year that despite considering myself pretty self-aware, when it comes to romantic interactions I have been operating within a very naive framework.
My naïveté was what got blown wide open last year.
I was already privy to the notion that men can be violent. I've had relationships with two men who I knew had been violent with previous partners. One even had a criminal record.
I also already know that people, including men that I've been involved with, have the propensity to withhold information and/or outright lie to me.
My naïveté was not about the fact that men sometimes lie and can be violent. My awakening was realising that the way I was applying Benefit of Doubt was a problem.
For the longest time, I thought I was being kind and compassionate by applying the Benefit of Doubt.
The reality however was that I was ignoring what I felt to be true. Namely when I felt I was being lied to because I struggled to question it.
In the instance of being told a man had been violent with a previous partner I thought I was different and was therefore untouchable. I didn't need to question it, he'd just been honest by telling me, right? So he must be a good guy, yes?
Just for the record, the guy with the criminal record was violent towards me. But that's a story for another time.
The narrative of this blog is that there is a difference between giving the Benefit of Doubt and pole vaulting over Red Flags.
In my case, I was far too willing to ignore my better judgement.
And why would I do that?
Because I was lonely and naive.
And, I unconsciously felt it was my job to not shame the men I interacted with. Even if they were lying. Or violent.
You might think I would feel shame exposing such naïveté. But the realisation that I could choose inner harmony over putting others first was one of the most profoundly humbling and simultaneously empowering messages I've ever learnt.
Recognising that I was so willing to lead with the charm and good looks narrative, and lacked the awareness to question any red flags I saw, makes admitting my own flaws easy. Because awareness trumps everything in my books.
Calling ourselves out helps us integrate.
If we hide our insecurities, flaws or shame we are unconsciously cultivating it. Once we admit our truth, including the embarrassing and 'shameful' parts, we are on the path to freedom.
Too often we point the finger at 'the other' and criticise them for doing or saying the wrong thing. We accuse people of hurting us and we stay locked in a game of cat and mouse (often switching sides).
We blame them for not telling us the whole truth (while we are often lying to ourselves…).
We belittle people and campaign against them (the more people we can get to agree with our side of the story, the more righteous we feel which props up our side of the 'truth').
On and on we go.
It's just too easy to make our problems about how others are treating us.
When we're able to fully see how our behaviour has not only added to the problem but is the only issue we ever need to work on, we eradicate blame and are left sitting in a pigsty full of our own BS.
Which, I realise might not sound like fun – and isn't – but awakening to the Truth has its own texture, and when we wake up to it, something inside us changes.
It feels good.
Yes, it comes with a side salad of cringe and a buffet of I-can't-believe-I-did-that, but the truth, even when it's thinly coated in shame, is far easier to swallow than believing other people's incapacity to be honest with us is their fault and that they are the only thing standing in the way of our happiness.
Bam-bam. Not true.
Landing in a Greater Truth is paradoxical.
On the one hand, we realise it was Us and not Them. On the other hand we begin to see it was Us and Them.
It still takes two to tango.
What I came to see in 2021 was that rather than my relationship problems being due to the men I was choosing, I am now able to witness that I was choosing men that I didn't respect.
Different ball game all together.
I was choosing men I didn't really trust.
I was choosing men who I knew could be abusive and violent.
I was choosing men who criticised me and others – a lot.
I was choosing men who liked to party even after I had long discarded that as a favoured pastime.
I was choosing men who were choosing other women as well as me, even though I value fidelity.
I was choosing men who didn't choose me back.
In other words, I chose to ignore my inability to choose me and instead deflected all my self-rage onto the other (in this case, men) and wondered why I felt so fleeced?
[Insert forehead slap here…]
It's a bit like eating junk food every day, expecting to feel happy and healthy, then wondering why you feel lethargic and miserable all the time.
Easy to say, not so easy to do. Why? Because patterns are patterns, even when you can see how they ultimately undermine your wellbeing.
Some of our patterns have been ingrained in us since infancy. Others are cultural or familial. But we all know that thinking them away doesn't work. We need to feel the pain before we breakthrough to a powerful insight.
For example, it's taken me 50 years to conclude that I've been lying to myself in relationships, partly because society teaches women to do this.
On a Grand Scale.
As women (and not just women), we are taught and modelled that it is our job to Be Polite. Over time we've reorganised this to mean Being Kind.
But politeness and kindness are not the same thing.
Even though, in a social context, politeness is often misperceived as kindness. Voicing what is socially acceptable while swallowing one's true feelings is commonly considered kind and polite.
But masking or denying what we feel is not kind to oneself. And anything that rejects our truth cannot be called kindness even if it makes other people feel a little less uncomfortable in the moment.
In the world of Peace Studies this is called Negative Peace.
Negative Peace is where we pretend everything's fine just to 'keep the peace'. I saw this a lot around the family dinner table when I was a child.
We daren't say what we really think or feel because we'll be seen as a troublemaker and might be outcast as a result.
We choose instead to sit in stony silence glaring at our plates and abiding by the non-verbal rule that keeping quiet is best.
Unfortunately, this form of invisible violence ranges from small misdemeanours in families right up to corporate greed and child abuse.
We stay silent and sanitise our true feelings because that's what we've been 'told' is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this form of social acceptability can make it almost impossible to know what the actual truth is.
We've learned to question ourselves rather than our social conditioning (see above for examples).
We've been taught to overlook certain behaviours and turn the other cheek.
Don't mention Uncle Tom's alcoholism … we don't want to embarrass him.
Actually, we don't want to embarrass ourselves. And we are allergic to feeling uncomfortable. Not to mention we have never been taught how to deal with difficult situations that enable us to maintain integrity on all sides.
That's called Transformational Peace.
But this isn't about Peace Studies, I'm simply using these examples to provide language for something that goes on in our lives on a daily basis.
We begin to see how much we lie to ourselves and don't even realise.
Until we do.
Which brings me back to my personal awakening and how the social shame of admitting we are naive is strangely disproportionate to the damage it causes.
One of the reasons I continued my pattern of dysfunctional behaviour in relationships was because somewhere in me I believed it was better to be a victim than it was to be naive.
You may have examples that countervail this narrative, and you wouldn't be wrong for that. This is simply my story and my version of varying truths.
But one thing I know – that I learned on a visceral and DNA level last year – is that my unwillingness and incapacity to see my own behaviour was preventing me from living a wholehearted truth.
Ironically, what I had learned and not been able to question, was how the nuances of relationship always involve two parties. And that my role is learn how to speak my truth.
If ever one actor in the partnership is criticising or abusing the other, it is not a blessed union, even if we 'keep the peace'. But it is also not a one-sided issue.
Blaming 'the other' without questioning ourselves is basically a witch hunt.
We must be willing to admit that somewhere in the mire of our judgement lurks a deeper truth. And if we're able to find that, we can set ourselves, and the relationship free.
And it might involve us being just as guilty as 'the other' (gasp!) albeit in different ways.
Meeting and addressing the point of true tension doesn't necessarily mean the relationship won't work. It just means that until we're able to perceive ourselves in all our shame and glory (and learn how to voice that without shaming the other), we cannot possibly expect our relationships to be honest and worthy.
It just won't work.
Witnessing ourselves in truth is the only thing that can set us free. Because from there, we are working with something solid. Until then, we are balancing our chances on a toothpick of stability.
The awakening therefore is likely to be painful and somewhat embarrassing. It may trigger some shame. But we have to be willing to receive this information and allow it to be there.
Otherwise we will revert to old habits that never serve.
We'll continue to shut down (because we can't handle what we're feeling) and project our shit and shame onto others.
The truths I learned about myself last year were painful and priceless.
I couldn't have reached this new understanding without the catalyst of a guy who helped me see all this. Being in relationship with yet another Emotionally Unavailable man was a chaotic gift which I am thankful for.
Despite the relationship being micro in duration, it was huge for me. And, I claim full credit for my own insight. (Previously I would have passed that 'win' over to him).
People do not cross our paths to screw us over. Relationships do not fail because one party is an asshole and the other is doing all the right things.
Every morsel of every moment is a gift if we are willing to see it. And not to see it for the sake of it. That's called Toxic Positivity and don't even get me started on that one…
The gifts arrive when we've peeled away the stories that lock us into socialised behaviours that we previously never questioned.
Life begins to flow when we're willing to remain open and feel the pain of What Is.
Life is an oxymoron.
It is pain and it is joy. It is shame and it is insight. For every 'negative' there is a 'positive'.
Neither one can exist without the other.
Our freedom therefore is directly related to our willingness to see the truth, even when it hurts.
Elizabeth Gilbert once said "Liberation is never one-sided". What that means is that if one party is not feeling whole and right in a relationship and they choose to leave, then it must also be better for the other party, even if they thought things were going well.
Wherever there is discord on one side, there cannot, by definition, be harmony on the other. Life works in union, not dissonance. If the soil isn't rich, the tree cannot grow to its fullest capacity.
We are no different.
What I learned last year is this: That I am always a co-creator in my experiences, without exception. And if I ever find myself questioning or castigating another's behaviour as wrong, dishonest, or bad. then I am fooling myself.
Yes, they might be those things, but I am also in the equation.
Maybe my input is naivety, or ignorance, or an unwillingness to see myself as I really am i.e. flawed in ways that make me feel ashamed. Whatever it is, we are often just as guilty as we are accusing others of being. (There are exceptions but I'm talking about everyday life).
2021 was a motherfucker of a ride for many of us, and I only hope you've been able to find new parts of yourself through the adversity that have made you feel more whole and loveable as a result of enduring hard or painful times.
I don't know about you, but I'm committing to making 2022 a year of Truth.
Anyone want to join me?