O, the basic trap of enmeshment and co-dependency; when we think we’re responsible for someone’s happiness, for doing what they want. Both men and women willingly give up their lives to serve others. Of course, overt and covert (sneaky, manipulative, narcissistic, critical, controlling) bullies try any way they can to get us to shoulder that burden. Sometimes they just want to be catered to but often they actually believe that they’re entitled to our serving them. Both men and women can be demanding.
Tom’s ex had jerked him around for years before Tom finally couldn’t take any more and divorced her. Even though he got custody of their son, his ex continued to try to make Tom do what she wanted. She called him when she needed home chores and repairs, car repairs and computer fixes. She wanted him to change the visitation times to suit her whims or convenience. She wanted him not to find anyone else to be interested in. Of course, she wanted money from him.
Why do we take on the responsibility to serve others? Tom had all the usual reasons:
- He had made marriage vows. It was important to honor his pledges, to never go back on his word.
- He was raised to adjust and accommodate to what other people wanted. Some of his old rules, values and beliefs were that he shouldn’t push what he wanted, that nice people tried to make others happy before they made themselves happy and that he shouldn’t be selfish.
- One way she’d previously controlled him was by vindictive retaliation; she’d harass and abuse them relentlessly. He was afraid that if he disagreed or upset her, she’d blow up like she’d always done and attack him and his son verbally, physically or legally. He didn’t want to make it harder on his son, even though he was now 16.
- The other way she controlled him was through blame, shame and guilt. If he didn’t do what she wanted, her feelings would be hurt and it’d be his fault. He couldn’t stand to make her cry by asserting himself over matters he thought “trivial”. He convinced himself that it was easier to give in; then he’d waste less time defending himself from her emotional outbursts.
- He didn’t think he should ever say anything bad about her to his son. He thought that boys need to love their mothers. Even though his son was a teenager and didn’t want to see his mother, Tom felt he should force them together.
- He looked for the path of least resistance. He still hoped that if he was nice and forgave her, if he appeased or gave in to her, she’d reciprocate and give in to him graciously next time. Why fight when he could simply do what she wanted? He’d learned that she’d never give up, never forgive or forget.
Intellectually, Tom realized that none of his approaches had ever worked with her. She’d never relent or reciprocate in return for his appeasement, begging, bribery or reasonableness. He knew she was a negative, critical, controlling boundary pusher who kept trying for more once she got something she wanted.
But emotionally, he still looked for the easy way. It was as if the fight over the divorce had used all his strength, courage and determination.
Underneath all the psychoanalysis, he still felt responsible for making her happy. She’d once been his wife. She was the mother of his son. He was an enmeshed, co-dependent caretaker.
Children are often the reason people finally act. Eventually, Tom realized that if he gave in to her desires he and his son would never be able to live lives of their own. Also, he’d be giving into his cowardice and a false sense of responsibility. If he gave in to her narcissism and self-indulgence, he’d be exposing is son to a lousy mom. He’d be setting a terrible example for his son. His son came first.
Finally, he realized that she was not the center of his world or his son’s. We’re all responsible for anything a court requires, like alimony, child support and insurance. But she was responsible for her own happiness. He and his son were responsible for theirs.
People divorce to go their separate ways as much or as little as they want, but they are no longer responsible for and intimate with each other. Tom can wish her well but it has to be from a distance and he has to be not responsible for her. He has to protect himself and his son from her clutches.
He realized that he’d trained her to think that she would eventually get her way if she forced him angrily or manipulated him through blame, shame and guilt. Now he’d have to train her differently – and legally.
- Elderly parents – even though they were bullying, abusive, demanding, harassing and crazy; even though they brutalized you sexually, verbally and physically all your life, now they say you owe them or they plead poverty or helplessness.
- Adult children – they may be incompetent or crazy; they may be lazy, greedy or narcissistic, but now they want to be dependent and they want you to support and cater to them in any way they want.
- Extended family – they know better than you do about what’s right and they’re totally demanding and/or totally needy. They say, “You wouldn’t want to disrupt family unity and cohesion by being difficult and uncaring, would you?”
- Toxic friends and co-workers – they need you to help or rescue them, to make their lives work for them.
- Clients – many mental health professionals, body workers and healers feel responsible for curing their clients.
Nora Ephron (“Silkwood,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “You’ve Got Mail”) said that as she got older she decided she needed a list of people and things she simply was not going to think about any more. In many ways it’s the opposite of a bucket list and just as important. She started by putting a lot of celebrities in her “Ignore Bucket.”
In order to have the physical, mental and emotional space we need to make the life we want, in order to stop bullies and our self-bullying, we also need an “I’m not responsible for” list. As a start, Tom put his wife on his list.
Who and what are on your list?