It’s Not Your Fault
October 25th, 2011
No matter where I roam
I will find my way back home
Van Morrison, “Full Force Gail”
Jill had just broken up with her fiancée John. After five years together, just three months before they were due to tie the knot, John began an affair with a younger woman.
John started to confess smaller things to Jill, apparently hoping she would leave him before she discovered the truth. He slowly revealed that he had been lying from the start: about his drinking, about his going out at night, about his continued friendship with old flames… When she finally told him to make a choice, he said, “I’ll have to think about it.” It was over.
Jill came to see me. Why hadn’t she noticed any of this? Why did it not even occur to her to suspect it? And why, when it was all over, did she still care what he thought of her?
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, it’s probably happened to you more than once. Here’s the reason for the pattern and how to get past it.
Jill and I looked back on her relationship through the lens of Nonviolent Communication, or NVC. I pulled out a list of what NVC calls “needs.” Needs are our values, our desires, the reasons why we do anything. To survive, we need food, water, shelter, etc. To thrive, we need love, companionship, independence, self-expression, and many other things.
A comprehensive list of human needs includes everything we could possibly want out of a relationship. Two needs that stood out for Jill as being unmet in this one were consideration and clarity. For her, there wasn’t enough mutuality in the relationship: there wasn’t enough fairness. Nor was there enough honesty. She wanted the truth from her partner and she wasn’t getting it.
Simple enough. As hurt as Jill felt about her loss, it seems like this kind of thing happens every day. Guy cheats on girl and lies about it. What else is new? And why does it happen so often?
Jill said that above all, she felt rejected. I pointed out that “rejected” is a story, not a feeling, and she explained that she was sad that he didn’t seem to give much importance to the relationship, i.e., to her. In other words, her need to be valued, to matter, was not being met. She really wanted him to care.
Jill told me all the things John had done, and this was just what she knew about. If all that was true, you’d think anyone would simply conclude that John was a jerk, a schmuck, an asshole, or just plain wrong. Let’s assume he was.
It’s not exactly NVC to judge and label people like this, but the point is that there was a clear difference in how Jill and John viewed the relationship. We like to say, “they were not in agreement.”
We can assume that all these needs that Jill told me were essential to her in a relationship were not being met in this one. For example, John clearly lied to her quite a bit. If that was so clear, why was she still looking for clarity and consideration from him?
The answer’s quite simple. We look for comfort, safety, and reassurance from the people we are used to looking for it from. According to Peter Levine, a pioneer in the study of trauma, humans have a strong tendency to look to others for help, starting with our parents. This can make healing from traumatic experiences very easy because we know innately to seek assistance.
However, when the person we turn to for help is the very source of our hurt, healing can be very difficult.1 And when you’re ending an abusive relationship, this is almost always the case! Jill’s previous relationship was a ten-year marriage that was both emotionally and physically abusive from the start. Why do so many of us choose and stick with abusive people? Why, despite piles of self-help books, does it keep on happening?
It’s common knowledge that our intimate relationships frequently reflect our very first: with our parents. It’s not surprising, then, that Jill’s experience reminds me of Eckhart Tolle’s advice on dealing with mom and dad. Tolle addresses the common complaint,“my parents should approve of what I do. They should understand me and accept me for who I am.” His response:
Really? Why should they? The fact is they don’t because they can’t.
If your folks can’t accept you, it’s probably because they’re not mature enough. For more about that, see Tolle’s A New Earth. For why so many grown men remain immature in their adult relationships, see The REAL Center’s course description for “I am Not Your Mother.” It’s far more important, however, to look at yourself. Tolle continues the exchange…
But I can’t feel happy and comfortable with who I am unless I have their approval and understanding.
Really? What difference does their approval or disapproval truly make to who you are? All such unexamined assumptions cause a great deal of negative emotion, much unnecessary unhappiness.
Jill is having trouble letting go of John because of one “unexamined assumption”: she sees him as a child sees her parents. A child does not easily reject a parent because she can’t easily deal with their rejection. Do you really need honesty and consideration from your boyfriend or fiancée? No; you can always dump him. It’s much harder to dump our parents.
While deeply unconscious, the assumptions behind abusive relationships like Jill’s are quite straightforward. Uncovered, they look like this:
If my partner and I disagree on something, then it must be my fault. It must be me that’s wrong. Why? Because I can’t afford for him to be wrong. My partner is my parent now. If he doesn’t love/approve of/value me because we disagree, he will reject me. And if he leaves me, I will die. Why? Because he, not me, is the source of my wellbeing. I am dependent on him for my survival. Better to be wrong than to die.2
This is a rather difficult predicament, and yet many of us are stuck here for most if not all of our lives. This works out well for oppresive governments and exploitive corporations. With that kind of obedience, advertising becomes just issuing orders.
Like Jill is learning, sooner or later each of us needs to grow up. Growing up means realizing that your parents aren’t perfect — that no one is perfectly honest and caring. This is “the real world,” and it’s especially true in our culture. We live in a violent, manipulative society, and it’s been this way for thousands of years.
Fortunately, there have been exceptions. Our brutal civilization is itself the exception, not the rule. Both Neolithic and so-called “primitive” peoples model much healthier relationships.3
What we also have to learn, however, is that life itself is not perfect — not if you expect the world to be safe. The fact is that even outside of the city, there are predators and there are prey. No one is at the top of the food chain, for everywhere there is disease and death.
The very Earth is what Jungians call “The Terrible Mother.” She eats her own children. The very Life that gives birth to us also kills us, sooner or later.
When we depend on others too much, what we really have to learn is that there is nothing out there to depend on. Nothing is safe because in life, nothing stays the same. Nothing lasts forever.
That perfection we want, that safety, is not in our parents. It’s not in our partners or even in ourselves. It’s not anywhere in the world. The only thing that never changes is what has never lived.
This esoteric, “spiritual” point is actually quite practical. Without it, fear runs our lives, as we search for security where it cannot be found. Advaita Vedanta, the predominant theoretical branch of Hinduism, is about discovering the one thing we can rely on. Advaita’s advice of is this: if you’re worried about losing something, find out what you really need. If you’re worried about dying, find out who you really are.
The answers to these questions can’t be found in ideas. All this explanation I’m offering doesn’t help if you just try to convince yourself of it in your head. That’s not where you make decisions; it’s not where the root of unhealthy relationships resides.
Your mind is the place to distract yourself from reality. Usually we go into our heads to hide from the truth. And that’s how the problem starts in the first place.
The pattern of seeing loved ones as parents and giving your power over to them is not just a set of beliefs. Breaking that pattern, then, is not as simple as making the unconscious conscious. Unhealthy “beliefs” like this are lodged in a feeling, in a reflex in your body. They are the hardware in your computer, not just the software.
We stay in unhealthy relationships to avoid difficult feelings. Probably the deepest unconscious decision we make is, “I never want to feel that feeling again.” Usually what we don’t want to feel is the feeling of rejection.
As we’ve seen, the fear of rejection is the fear of death. To a child, rejection means death. Picture a baby animal left alone in the wild. No wonder the fear feels so painful!
The important thing is that this instinctual dread is a physical pain. If you burn yourself badly, it’s your physiology that says, “I never want to feel that again.” That decision gets “burned” into your nervous system, into your circuitry, which is why we jerk our hand back without even thinking about it. In other words, you have a “gut” reaction, which is why we usually feel fear in our gut. Do you?
The point I’m making — and the only value it has — is to convince you that paying attention to your feelings, to your physical sensations, is important. Until you go into the pain, you really haven’t gone anywhere. Everything else, including trying to figure him or yourself out, is a distraction. It’s just stalling.
What healing is, then, is this: it’s the ability to feel your feelings without running away from them. As you heal, you find out that you can lose your parents, your partner, or whatever else you think you depend on, and you won’t die.
In fact, even if you die, you won’t die. There’s no point in trying to explain or convince you of this. You have to experience it for yourself. And you can, without dying. It’s called meditation.
Meditation is both an emotional healing technique and a spiritual practice. The two are not just related; they are one in the same. Meditation is not ultimately about quieting the mind; it’s about hearing the body. It’s about coming back to your senses. That’s where the answers are, where the only security is. The secret of life is not in some esoteric realization. It’s in simply being able to really live.
Meditation does not have to look like sitting still. It does not have to look like not thinking. You don’t have to drop everything and start meditating. You don’t have to dive right into your pain. In fact, to go too abruptly into your tender parts can be violent and damaging. We are like turtles. You don’t tear off your own shell “for your own good.”
Our knee-jerk reaction to a perceived threat is called conditioning. It’s there for good reason. It’s there to keep you from harm. Fire is dangerous. Predators, especially human ones nowadays, are dangerous. So it’s OK for the body to protect itself. Like a turtle, it’s good to have a shell.
If you don’t approach yourself gently, with acceptance, you will probably just develop more defenses from more unbearable pain because now you can’t even trust yourself. We all do this, however. We are all born with a tendency to want to “fix” ourselves: to say, “it must be my fault.” It’s called shame, and both Peter Levine and John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame that Binds You, actually says it’s healthy.
Believe it or not, shame is not as dysfunctional as it sounds. All social animals experience it. It’s just the emotional/physical part of learning important things. Ideally, it means little more than deciding, “oh, the world works this way, not in the way I thought, so I need to adjust my thinking.” That’s just learning. That’s exactly what science is. There’s no blame, no shame in that, not in the negative sense.
But we take learning too far; we take it too personally. As Tolle explains, there’s a difference between “something is wrong with my thinking” and “something is wrong with me.” It’s the same as the difference between being careful with fire and avoiding it altogether. Is love so dangerous that you will always get burned?
You can do this. Take a tip from Jill: get help. Get help from someone who will see you through your pain so you can see yourself on the other side. Someone who knows it’s ok to have a hard time in relationships: that they are usually the most challenging, painful, and rewarding experiences we can go through.
Meditation, i.e., paying attention to your body, will bring you up against some of the scariest things you’ve ever faced, all of them in yourself. But there are people who have done it, and they can help you do it too. The best help I’ve found so far is called Somatic Experiencing.
You can love again. There will always be love for you because love is what you’re made of. It’s what everything you go through is actually bringing you to. It’s a fire that never goes out, that never takes away what you really need. It only burns what covers it so you can see who you really are: your warmth and brilliance, shining for all to see. You will never have anything but love.
and what is our own we cannot lose.
A.E., Candle of Vision
1Levine and Kline, Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes (DVD).
2see Chapter 30, ‘Foes to Friends: Working with the Obstacles to Healing,’ in Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal (2022).
3“Interpretations of the accumulated evidence available from prehistory suggest that relative nonviolence and peace prevailed for most of human prehistory” (Gregor, The Natural History of Peace).