by Dr. Margaret Paul for Elephant Journal
If there was one thing you could do to heal your relationships, would you do it?
I’m the kind of person who loves to understand the deeper reasons behind behavior, and I’ve spent most of my life learning about what creates loving or unloving relationships. In the 43 years I’ve been counseling couples, I’ve discovered that there really is one major cause of relationship problems—one issue that if you address and heal, changes everything.
The one cause: self-abandonment.
When you abandon yourself emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, relationally and/or organizationally, you automatically make your partner responsible for you. Once you make another person responsible for your feelings of self-worth and well being, then you attempt to manipulate that person into loving you, approving of you and giving you what you want. The controlling behavior that results from self-abandonment creates huge relationship problems.
Let’s look at the various forms of self-abandonment and how they result in relationship conflict and power struggles, or in distance and disconnection.
When we were growing up, many of us experienced much loneliness, heartache, heartbreak and helplessness. These are very big feelings, and unless we had loving parents or caregivers who helped us through these feelings—rather than being the cause of them—we had to find strategies to avoid them.
We learned four major ways of avoiding these core painful feelings of life, and these four ways now create our feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame and anger, as well as relationship problems.
1. We judge ourselves rather than accept ourselves.
Did you learn to judge yourself as a way to try to get yourself to do things “right” so that others would like you? Self-judgment creates much anxiety, depression, guilt, shame and emptiness, and can lead to many addictions in order to avoid these feelings. Self-judgment also leads to needing others’ approval to feel worthy, and your resulting controlling behaviors to gain others’ approval can lead to many relationship problems.
2. We ignore our feelings by staying up in our head rather than being present in our body.
When you have not learned how to manage your feelings, you want to avoid them. Do you find yourself focused in your head rather than in your body, more or less unaware of your feelings?
We emotionally connect with each other from our hearts and souls, not from our heads. When you stay in your head as a way to avoid responsibility for your feelings, you cannot emotionally connect with your partner.
3. We turn to various addictions to numb the anxiety, depression, emptiness, guilt, shame and anger that develops when we judge ourselves and ignore our feelings.
Addictive behavior, such too much alcohol, drugs, food, TV, gambling, overspending, work, sex and so on, can create much conflict and distance in relationships.
4. We make our partner or others responsible for our feelings.
When we emotionally abandon ourselves, we then believe it is someone else’s job to make us feel loved and worthy. Do you try to control your partner with anger, blame, criticism, compliance, resistance or withdrawal to get him or her to give you what you are not giving to yourself? How does your partner respond to this controlling behavior?
Many relationships fall into a dysfunctional system, such as one person getting angry and the other withdrawing or resisting, or both getting angry or both withdrawing. In some systems, one is angry and the other is compliant, which seems to work until the compliant partner becomes resentful. In all of these systems, each person is emotionally abandoning themselves, which is the root cause of the dysfunctional relationship.
If you refuse to take care of yourself financially, instead expecting your partner to take financial responsibility for you, this can create problems. This is not a problem if your partner agrees to take financial responsibility for you and you fully accept how he or she handles this responsibility. But if you choose to be financially irresponsible, such as overspending, or you try to control how your partner earns or manages the money, much conflict can occur over your financial self-abandonment.
If you refuse to take responsibility for your own time and space, and instead are consistently late and/or a clutterer, and your partner is an on-time and/or a neat person, this can create huge power struggles and resentment in your relationship.
If you refuse to take care of yourself physically by eating badly and not exercising, possibly causing yourself severe health problems, your partner may feel resentful by having to take care of you. Your physical self-abandonment not only has negative consequences for you regarding your health and well being, it also has unwanted consequences for your partner, which can lead to conflict and power struggles.
If you refuse to speak up for yourself in your relationship, and instead become complacent or resistant, you are eroding the love in the relationship. When you abandon yourself to another through compliance or resistance, you create a lack of trust that leads to conflict, disconnection and resentment.
When you make your partner your source of love rather than learning to turn to a spiritual source for your dependable source of love, you place a very unfair burden on your partner. When your intent in the relationship is to get love rather than to share love, then you will unfairly lean on your partner for attention, approval, time or sex. When you do not take responsibility for learning how to connect with a spiritual source of your own for sustenance, your neediness can create relationship problems.
Spiritual self-abandonment is related to emotional self-abandonment, in that you cannot commit to 100% responsibility for yourself without a strong connection with a spiritual source of love and wisdom.
Learn to love yourself rather than abandon yourself.
Learning to love yourself is the key to a loving relationship. When you learn to connect with a personal source of spiritual guidance and access the love and wisdom that is always within you, you learn to fill yourself up with love. While self-abandonment creates an inner emptiness that relies on others to fill you, self-love creates an inner fullness. Self-love fills your heart and soul with overflowing love so that, rather than always trying to get love, you can now share your love with your partner.