Wednesday, April 14, 2010

HOW TO BREAK UNHEALTHY ATTACHMENTS TO PEOPLE

OESTERHOUDT ON RELATIONSHIPS

People often approach me for relationship advice. I don't like to flatter myself, but I'm good at it. I know a thing or two about human beings and their capacity to live with each other. I have credentials. I have been in a committed relationship for eleven years and I have endured every emotional, physical and sanity-damaging challenge you can possibly imagine. Along the way, I have coped with jealousy, envy, longing, lust, passion, disappointment, infidelity, vanity, heartache, reconciliation, misunderstanding, rage, sleeplessness, abuse, frustration, ecstasy, contentment, simple joy, tension and anxiety. I have even weathered trying health troubles at my partner's side, like unforeseeable life-changing accidents and mental illness.

When it comes to living with another person, I've been around the block. I'm not a boy anymore. I'm a man. That's not a boast. That's a fact.

In many cases, people ask me whether they should transform pleasant acquaintances into lasting relationships. Others ask me how to overcome consumptive attachments they develop to people, then the terrible disappointment that flows when their love interests do not reciprocate their devotion.

These are related situations. They arise frequently. When a person tries to force a relationship onto another level, a power struggle ensues. One person wants something the other might not. This leads to a disparity in desire, as well as wishful thinking and blind faith that the other person is acting in accordance with your fantasies. In short, it is emotionally dangerous. When you start expecting another person to act the way you imagine they will, you are setting yourself up for heartbreak or worse.

I did this in my first love. I became very close friends with someone when I was just a teenager. I loved our time together. We had a very special friendship and I felt respected whenever we met. Eventually, my feelings grew stronger. I wanted a romantic relationship. I started believing that he did, too. He really didn't. I wanted him to love me the same way I loved him. I turned it over in my mind all the time; it kept me up at night. I wanted to talk to him all the time, but I didn't want it to seem that I was the only one making the phone calls. So I would wait around for days at a time wishing that he would call me; and of course he didn't. When he finally did call, my heart would race and I would stumble on my words. I felt that I was speaking to my savior; he had all the power over me. It was just pathetic. I was slavishly dedicated to him even though he never gave me the reciprocation I craved.

It took me several years to break my attachment to this person. I wasted so much psychic energy on an illusion. I will never do it again.

Now I see clearly what I did wrong. I created a whole mental patchwork of fantasies about my friend. Those fantasies overwhelmed my mind. I expected my friend to act in accordance with them. It was unrealistic, of course, but when you're craving a person's love, you do not think reasonably. My mistake was this: I fell in love with a subjective fantasy image, not a real person. And when the real person did not act according to the fantasy script in my mind, I felt crushed. I expected too much; and I learned that people are basically inscrutable: They rarely act the way you really want them to.

My youthful attachment to my friend was unhealthy for another reason: It led me into slavishness. I hung on his every word. I followed his every action with total devotion. I delivered my fate into his hands. Whatever he did, I followed. I gave him all the power because I wanted him to give me what I wanted. I wanted him to love me so much that I sacrificed my own dignity and spirit to win his affections. I stumbled on my words when I was around him because he was my mental master. I wanted too much. That made me slavish.

I did not break my attachment to this person until I stopped wanting what he had to offer. And that is the lesson: If you have an unhealthy attachment to a person and they are not showing you the love you want, you must convince yourself that they have nothing you want. Once you do that, you will stop obsessing about them. You will regain your peace of mind and dignity. You will reorder your desires and think clearly again. True, it is hard to do. But you will thank yourself if you can pull it off.

Let us try to understand how this works. We develop unhealthy attachments to people when we WANT something they have. "Want" is the most important word in our mental lives. It expresses our truest desires. It honestly discloses who we are. No one controls what we want; our personality dictates it. We are never so happy as when we get what we want because it satisfies our deepest, most personal yearnings.

Problems arise when we want something that only another person can give. In this case, we cannot easily address our wants because we cannot directly slake them. And because the other person has what we want, we make concessions in order to entice him to give us what we crave. We indulge him far more than we should. We bow, scrape, flatter and stumble on our words. We make our love interest our master; he has power over us because he has the discretion whether to grant us what we want. That is unhealthy. It leads us into despair because we willingly enslave ourselves to his will. Disappointment and frustration become our dominant emotions. We never get what we want. And we are crestfallen every time our love interest does not act the way we expect--which is much more often than we'd like.

But there is a way to overcome this cycle. To break the attachment, you must engage your reason. You must take control over your own desire again. You must convince yourself that the other person has nothing you want. If you can do that, the other person loses his authority over you. He becomes indifferent to you. You get to say what you want, not him. You can pursue your own desire again without a fickle middleman. That is freedom in the purest sense.

I know it is difficult to do this when you are caught in an unhealthy attachment. It is hard to engage your reason when you are contorted with unrequited desire. But it is worth the effort. It helps to have a distraction that breaks your incessant attention to your love interest. In my case, I met someone else who took my mind off my obsession. It helped me turn my mind away from its destructive focus on unattainable affection. Within a few weeks, I felt free again. It was wonderful.

If you ever find yourself with an unhealthy attachment to another person, think about why you feel the way you do: You want what the other person has. You put your happiness in his hands. You heap unrealistic expectations on the other person and you disappoint yourself every time he acts some other way. You give him total power over the way you feel. Conceptually, it is easy to understand. To break the attachment, you must simply stop wanting what he has to offer. Once you control your own wants again, no one will ever tyrannize you with frustration and disappointment. And life feels much better when you're not frustrated.

4 comments:

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MaxThrust said...

Great article! I liked your point "...you have an unhealthy attachment to a person and they are not showing you the love you want, you must convince yourself that they have nothing you want."

I have a corollary to that to stop thinking about some person which seems desirable. I see the instinctual nature which people generally use each other for leverage. I found if I deeply see the exploitive, truly agape-free nature of her actions, I can let it go. Most people love as a means, not an end.

I like to think about desires in an intimate relationship as drugs. Some men have drugs of approval, validation, status, conquest, domination, possession, etc. The partner is only useful if they give us our drug of choice, usually something we got addicted to as children via our parents.

To close, a line from Anthony DeMello: You're not in love with anyone. You're in love with your prejudiced and hopeful idea of that person.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Matt, that closing line is one of the things that inspired me to write this article. I remember you mentioned it to me a while back, and it completely summarized my ideas about this subject.

And I fully agree that most people love as a means, not an end. I wonder whether both genders commit that emotional atrocity equally?

Kellie said...

Excellent post. Thanks for the perspective.