For a variety of reasons that I cannot get into, I feel compelled to write this post. I’m going to use gendered pronouns but the situations can apply to anyone; my own experience is with a woman, so “she” will be used in the example.
Sacrifice is one of those great moral virtues that have been upheld in all societies since the beginning of human experience; the fact is that we are all interdependent, and interdependence cannot work unless we are willing to come to another’s aid. And there are times where giving to another means less for ourselves, and yet when the need is so great, when we cannot turn away, the cost to ourselves can be enormous.
A good example is child rearing. Having and raising children is such an incredible cost in so many areas of our lives, if it were not such a powerful, instinctive drive, few of us would ever entertain the idea.
Caring for an ill spouse or an aging parent are other examples where the needs of the loved one usually supersedes our own; it can be a hellishly difficult experience with enormous personal consequences, but we usually know it’s the right thing to do.
Where I sometimes see a problem –and have experienced it myself- is when people are willing to sacrifice who they are for another. If I choose to take care of a partner dying a slow death of cancer, the experience might be very, very difficult and require me to put aside my needs for a long time. But because I choose it based on love for another it is a gift fully given; I am not betraying myself by being selfless, and will likely even grow through the experience.
But selflessness based on love or concern for another, is very different than denying one’s identity for another, and it is the latter situation I want to address. When I was in another relationship a number of years ago, my presence brought up a great deal of attachment anxiety for my partner: the closer I got to her, the greater her inner fear, and the harder she pushed me away. The judgments, criticism and suspicion were continuous. Many of her accusations and statements about me were deeply painful, and yet I knew it was the fear motivating her, and so I struggled to be patient and understanding.
But the hurt from the attacks were so powerful that gradually, imperceptibly, I began hiding from her – and from myself. As the months passed, I drifted further from who I was, struggling to become what she wanted, in order to be accepted (and to limit the pain). Of course the more I did this the more she moved the goalposts, because the problem wasn’t who I was, but that I kept getting closer.
The more I sacrificed, the more she hated me for calling her bluff. And the more I sacrificed, the more I hated her for not accepting who I was. And that’s the rub: even if you do arrive at an uneasy stalemate (unlikely), you will resent her. How can you not resent someone who has told you time and again that she does not accept you for who you are?
Sooner or later you will get weary of the charade. You will lose the strength to maintain the mask and start acting out. The pressure from the self to manifest becomes so strong that you will trip yourself up, over and again. When we live a lie, sooner or later truth will betray us. And the irony is that often we will lose ourselves to the point where we actually become the other’s worst fear; we become what they are afraid we are. My partner was terrified that I would betray her and tried to control even where my eyes went, what I looked at in public. For me to glance at another woman when I was with her, was betrayal in her mind.
Of course I eventually did betray her, even though that it isn’t my nature or represent my values. There was so much hurt and so much anger and I had so fully lost myself, I suppose I was capable of anything by the time it all fell apart.
It’s a pointless game. A partner’s inability to accept you is an excuse. Of course there are those who are incompatible, and sometimes the chemistry isn’t there, but when the two of you profess love but there are major conflicts around one or the other not accepting the other person, you know there is something much larger at work.
You cannot love someone you don’t accept, full stop. The words “I love you, but…” Actually mean: “I cannot love you.” If she says, “I love you but you have to…” it means she is keeping you away. Deep down, she hopes those words act as a wall, and in fact they should; any time love is conditional on a certain change in the other means there is no love at all, and so why are you still there?
How to know if this is the case? Meet her demand and see if that fixes things. I guarantee it won’t; it will just be the start of other demands. Or is the demand all encompassing, involving a change of behaviour, values, and goals? In other words, does she want someone who isn’t you?
There are times when we can be so in desire for someone that we are willing to sacrifice everything, including ourselves. But that’s a deadly kind of sacrifice. There are times when we have an authentic, deep need for another to do what we want, but those are rare, and never should they be the price of love or a relationship.
We are all deeply flawed. We all can stand to become better human beings, and the greatest gift our partners can give us is to be a mirror. But a loving mirror goes something like: “I don’t like what you did, but I still love you nonetheless.” And there may be times where the lover must say: “if you persist in this I will have to leave for my own well-being. I love you, but if you must continue, I can’t stay.”
No judgment, just a declaration of facts. You can choose to carry on this way and this will happen, even though I will still love you. There is no demanding that the other change or become different.
Too often I hear people complain about their partners. Sometimes this is just ordinary blowing off steam, but at times it’s mere judgement, and reflects a lack of acceptance for the other person. That’s horrible stuff, and sooner or later we are all guilty of it. But when I see people turn themselves into shadows trying to gain the love of another person, it’s truly heartbreaking.
The tragedy is that those of us in this situation are usually so engaged that we are doomed to figure it out for ourselves. I know that nobody could have stopped me those years ago; I had to learn for myself that no matter what I did I wouldn’t be enough, and I would lose everything trying.
Maybe we can’t stop others from sacrificing their identities, but we sure can listen to ourselves when we criticise and demand those we love be or do something different. Even if we succeed, ultimately we will lose.
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