When people sabotage their relationships, usually they know what they’re doing on some level, but they are so caught up in the intensity of their immediate emotions that reality is indistinguishable from the story line in their head. Relationship sabotage intrudes like an old ghost, haunting and feeding off fear and it comes in many costumes. Although relationships can die of something more insidious, such as neglect, suspicion of unfaithfulness is a common form of relationship sabotage.
Evie grew up in an alcoholic family. Her father was always drunk and her mother was so depressed that she wasn’t able to function as a mother. In childhood, she had to fend for herself, living in a state of vigilance and readiness to engage her survival skills. Even as a toddler, her brain was shaping itself through her experiences of fear. As she grew up, her brain knew how to respond to stimulus with what is now known as a “fear response.” She was chronically anxious and tended to see everything through her lens of suspicion. She managed her anxiety by attempting to control her environment, which extended to relationships. The mental map she had for relationships looked like a very bumpy mountain road that disappeared in and out of tunnels. When there was a tunnel, Evie behaved as if the road ended rather than coming back out of the tunnel and she frantically slammed the brakes on, certain of disaster.
A part of her wanted to create something opposite to her experience of love and family as she knew it. In her imagination, she could be the kind of mother she longed to have as a child ” one who would take her shopping, make dinner for the family and be present at school functions. Her mother was always too tired to take her places and too depressed to make dinner and play with her. Sometimes, her mother would cuddle up with her on her bed, but she would cry and tell Evie she didn’t know what to do and Evie would comfort her, feeling very important that her mother depended on her for comfort. The message she internalized was that she did not deserve to be put first and that it was more important to take care of her mother.
And she imagined that she would find a man who could be like the father and husband she’d longed for. She knew very well how to be afraid of her father and to assume he would not be available to her, so even though it was painful to live that way, she knew nothing different. She knew very well how to long for love, but she knew nothing about the experience of having it. Because she was attuned to that experience of love with a man, she often found men who were unavailable in some way. Brad was available in the sense that he was steady, responsible and did not drink, but he was overwhelmed by Evie’s emotionality and tended to shut down, which confirmed her suspicion that he was going to leave her.
Brad’s story of growing up was entirely different. In his family, there was no alcoholism; but there was no demonstration of love between his parents. The conversation rarely went into any depth and expressions of love came in the form of hard work and commitment to responsibility. Brad was caring and expressed his love in the best way he could which was to work hard and be responsible, but it never seemed to be enough. When Brad was home from work later than expected or decided to do something by himself, she demanded to know who he’d seen and why he was late. She wanted to search his wallet for receipts and look in his drawers for evidence that he’d been unfaithful. She would question him endlessly, almost as if she wanted him to admit that he truly didn’t love her and that he was going to choose someone else. That way, she could fulfill her belief that she was unworthy that no man could possibly love her.
Evie was unaware that she was enacting her old, well embedded story of survival by predicting every possible outcome so she could prepare herself for the inevitable pain of loss. Once her panic was engaged, she couldn’t stop herself. A part of her wanted to believe and to be free of this terrible storm that overtook her, but she felt helpless to stop it. Brad felt confused, angry and worn out. Ultimately, he began to distance himself because he couldn’t say or do anything to convince her he was faithful. Brad’s challenge was to explore and name his feelings and then to share them with her instead of shutting down. Brad and Evie had both sought for and found what was missing for each of them in their growing up years. For Evie, she’d found a man was steady and responsible; for Brad, he had found a woman who was emotional and expressive. Neither knew what to do with those attributes.
Evie had to reach a point where she was exhausted by her constant anxiety in order to surrender. She had to face her fear and stop making Brad responsible for something that he didn’t create. Surrendering was frightening, because it meant accepting the reality that in life and love, anything can happen and that control is an illusion; a trap that we fall into believing it is the way to find security. If Brad wanted to cheat on her, she would be powerless to stop him. Evie had to learn to trust her ability to walk through pain rather avoiding it by demanding that Brad continue to prove himself trustworthy. She didn’t realize that she was empowering her fear by allowing it to dictate her behavior, and choosing to accept responsibility for her behavior allowed her to explore how to change it.
Kimball Pier is a practicing therapist, substance abuse counselor and divorce mediator. She has an M.S. in marriage and family therapy and advanced divorce mediation certification. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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