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What do your relationships say about you?

It was midnight and I was shaking in fear, sitting at the wheel of my car in a pitch dark alleyway,  waiting for Nancy. Two hours ago she had told me she would be back in five minutes. I was eighteen years old, had only been driving for a few months, and way out of my league that night. I thought a hundred times about driving away, but did not want to abandon this person whom I considered a friend. When Nancy finally returned to the car, she could hardly keep her blood-shot eyes open, and she refused to speak a single word to me the entire time while I drove her to her house. I was too naive to realize that she was under the influence of a strong substance. Why did I put up with her? This girl treated me like her personal servant, had me skip my classes and my job to drive her around, “borrowed” money from me that I badly needed myself and never paid me back, and was now putting me in dangerous situations. Yet, I remained loyal to her for quite a long time.

Welcome to this week’s newsletter in which we will look at our patterns of behavior in relationships. 

In my last newsletter I argued that you can achieve fulfillment through understanding yourself and your core needs and wants. I provided some techniques for checking in with your thoughts and feelings, especially the intense ones, and looking for clues as to what is truly important to you. Today I am going to teach you how to look at your own patterns of behavior in different relationships to ascertain what your needs are. When I use the word ‘relationship,’ I am not only talking about romance, but also any other form of relationship, be it with your parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, etc. Every single interaction you have in these relationships can teach you much about yourself and what is important to you.

Humans are social creatures. Early studies of human behavior show that babies who received adequate love and attention from their caretakers thrived and were healthy. On the other hand, babies who were neglected did not do well and had a whole slew of mental and physical problems. Our social environment continues to affect our well being for our entire life span, and we need to keep it healthy.

From the earliest stages of our childhood, we developed behaviors which allowed us to function and survive within our families. Although we are not aware of it, we have carried those same behavior patterns with us throughout our lives. For example, when you were sad as a baby and you cried, your caretakers may have dealt with you in a variety of different ways. If your parents were the type who held you when you wept and let you cry it out, then you are more likely to feel comfortable with crying as an adult. On the other hand if your parents tried to distract you to stop you from crying, then you may have a habit of distracting yourself anytime you feel sad. If your parents got upset every time you cried and looked around for someone or something to blame for your distress, then you probably have the tendency to blame an external force every time you’re upset. You are not even aware of all of these nuances of behavior, but they affect how you live and interact with others.

My childhood was spent in a very large extended family, where I received lots of love from the relatives, even if at times I did not get the individual attention I may have needed. Having a loving disposition and a craving for close relationships, I made friends to whom I was intensely loyal. Throughout my life, although I was not consciously aware of it, I kept the pattern of developing deep friendships in which I am fiercely loyal. This pattern made me quite vulnerable to being taken advantage of by people such as Nancy.

It is impossible to live a life of fulfilment and power if you are surrounded by people who treat you poorly or take advantage of you. Make it a habit to closely examine all of your relationships, and especially look at how you behave in them. The focus of this exercise should be on you, not the other person. For example, if you come to the conclusion that “my mother in law is such a crazy witch,” then you did the exercise wrong. In contrast, if you realize that “I seem to cower every time my mother in law looks at me because I really want her to love me but I don’t think she does,” then you are getting close to some useful information.

I made this exact mistake with Nancy. Even though I knew she was mistreating me, I was looking at her and not myself. She had me convinced that she was forced to live with her cruel and abusive brother, and that she was helpless and needed me to take care of her. Because I was looking at her, and feeling sorry for her, I did not consider what this was doing to me. I had just been living in the United States for two years, had left everyone I loved back in Iran, and was desperate for a close friend. At some level, it must have felt good to think that I was important in her life and that I was helping her.

How do you start examining your behavior patterns in relationships? The answer is, start small and go slow. Here are some tips to follow while learning to become conscious of your behavior patterns:

  • Please oh please do NOT start with your parents! Regardless of who you are, your relationship with your parents is the most complex one you have ever had. They have been in – or been absent from – your life from the very beginning, and have influenced you in ways that will take decades to tease out. Leave the examination of these relationships for when you are an expert, and even then, tread lightly.
  • Start with someone with whom you do not have a lot of baggage. Maybe a teacher, a coworker, or a casual friend. Slowly work your way up to close friendship, your romantic partner, and then your siblings and parents.
  • The set of questions below will specifically tell you a lot about your fears and insecurities:
    • Anytime you lie to someone, pay close attention. Ask yourself why you lied. Are you trying to impress them? Do you think you are not impressive enough as you are? Are you afraid that you are going to lose them/their friendship/their respect/their liking you? If so, why? What bad things do you think would happen to you if you told them the truth? 
    • Do you do things for them that you don’t want to do? Why? What do you think would happen if you said no? What’s so bad about that?
    • Do you find yourself behaving differently around them? If yes, why? Are you giving up your authentic self? How come? What part of you are you trying to hide?
  • What behaviors do they exhibit that really, truly gets on your nerves? What do you really detest in them? These ‘triggers’ are really important because they ironically may be mirroring to us something in ourselves that we don’t like to see or admit to, so we see it in the other person and hate them for it.
  • What do you love about them? What draws you to them? We usually find it hard to explain why we are drawn to certain people. Don’t settle for not knowing. Explore these questions. Do you like that they listen to you? Do they validate you? Are they funny, sexy, smart? Do they have characteristics that you wish you had? Understanding what draws you to others helps you understand yourself. Also, if you are drawn to negative characteristics, such as someone who is distant, or emotionally unavailable, or plays mental games with you, then you really need to examine why you seek out people who are not good for you.
  • Above all, you must ask yourself this question: Is this relationship good for me? If the answer is yes, then put your energy into maintaining the goodness of it. If the answer is no, then you must work on understanding why you continue it, and either end the relationship, or work on improving it.

Nancy became more and more demanding. Money and jewelry started disappearing from my home and my wallet any time she was around. I failed some of my classes because I was so busy taking care of her. In return, she started talking behind my back and alienating me from my other friends. 

Finally, another good friend of mine pulled me aside and talked some sense into me. He worked with me on asking myself if the friendship with Nancy was good for me, and why I was willing to allow her to continue to take advantage of me. As hard as it was for me to end that toxic friendship, I cut all contact with her. The freedom I experienced was profound. 

Throughout my life, I have learned that true friendships are based on mutual love and respect. I walk away from friendships that are not mutual. Otherwise, I am still a fiercely loyal friend, mother, and wife. My loved ones now deserve all the love and care they receive from me.

My relationship with my husband Craig is the most important one in my life.

As always, I would love to hear from you if you try any of these exercises. In my next newsletter, I will talk about what to do with all the information you have learned about yourself through examining your thoughts, feelings, and relationships.

Sayeh Beheshti, M.D.