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starve in it

January 5, 2013

For at least the last two months, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Captain Awkward’s advice. Some of the posts in her archives, I’ve read multiple times. It’s grand to feel vindicated about wrongs done to me, but I’m determined to face wrongs I’ve done to others. And there have been a lot.

Part of the reason I write so much about my family of origin—even though I’m not in contact with most of them—is because I want to gain insights now, so that I’m less likely to repeat my mistakes at someone else’s expense.

But just because I now realize that things I took for granted in the past aren’t the things I should have done, doesn’t mean I know why. That’s what I really love about Captain Awkward: she explains why.

Two days ago, I was reading yet another Q&A that seemed strangely familiar. Captain Awkward’s advice began with something like, “Good news! Relationships are not transitive!” My only previous exposure to the word ‘transitive’ was in a diagram I ran across that showed a pattern of dominance between 3 individuals, where they sort of ‘trade off’ being in charge—but I can never remember if the pattern was ‘transitive dominance’ or ‘intransitive dominance’. Which means whenever I run across the term, I’m confused.

MW11 [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition], my new go-to dictionary, has a second definition that seems relevant here:

2. Being or relating to a relation with the property that if the relation holds between a first element and a second and between the second element and a third, it holds between the first and third elements.

In the context of relationships not being transitive, I took that definition to mean, if Person A has a relationship with Person B, and Person A has a relationship with Person C, then Persons B and C are not obligated to be in relationship to each other. But if Persons B and C do have a relationship, it does not have to resemble their relationships with Person A.

If that’s true, it’s kind of marvelous. Every time I read it, my brain hurts, though, because this is decidedly not how relationships work in my family of origin. (And I don’t think it describes how relationships work in Spouse’s family of origin either.)

I keep finding myself in situations where my relationship with Person X is somehow subordinate? Entangled? with the relationships that both I myself and Person X have with Person Z. With the result that, if Person Z wants to, they can completely change the nature of, or even destroy, my relationship(s) with other people that are not Person Z.

If relationships are not-transitive, this shouldn’t be possible.

When I stopped talking to my mother (and father) 7 years ago, I thought I was freeing myself up to change the nature of my relationships with everyone else. I thought I had cut the Gordian knot. Instead, almost everyone else stopped talking to me. When I reach out to them, they mostly don’t answer. And even when they do answer, what they say usually in no way refers to what I had said. So any ‘conversation’ we have alternates apparent non sequiturs.

I’ve tried all sorts of things to get these few surviving relationships on a different footing. So far, none of them have worked.

One person even told me directly that they stayed in contact with me as a favor to my mother. Ever since then, I wonder if that is why I hear from the others too. Especially since each of the others I hear from has, at least occasionally, included messages from my mother with their own correspondence, even though I never respond to those messages.

I’m chilled by the thought that perhaps everyone I’m related to perceives me—not as an individual in my own right but—as a wayward pet of my mother’s. Or maybe runaway slave is a better metaphor. Because a pet could have preferences of their own, and I don’t think people (necessarily) expect the personality of pets to resemble the personalities of their owners. But owners don’t care about the personality of the slave, because it’s never allowed to be on display anyway. All anyone sees is what fits the owner’s preferences. And to my mother, there’s never been an Emancipation Proclamation.

I’ve always wondered how different branches of my family of origin relate internally. That is, each unit of aunt, uncle, and cousins—are their individual relationships also mediated by my mother? Surely not, except I can’t really rule it out.

As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, my mother’s primary relationship is with her sister, not my father. My aunt would sometimes deign to mediate between my mother and me, and that invariably improved my outcome. When I was a kid—hell, up until fairly recently—I thought that was because (1) my aunt really loved me, and (2) my aunt was my godmother, so she was looking out for me, and possibly (3) my aunt thought she and I were similar in some unspecified way. I honestly truly thought, up until just a few months ago, that my aunt and I had a really special relationship. Until one day, I was thinking about the relationship a different aunt had with some of my cousins, and it occurred to me to compare the specifics of aunt 1-niece 1 to aunt 2-niece 2. With creeping horror, I realized that my aunt never sought out my company. Unlike my cousin(s) with the other aunt(s), in fact, no aunt (or uncle) ever spent any time with me, except for family gatherings, or visits. No one ever took me out to lunch, for instance. No one sought me out to ask me about school, or my friends, or anything really. There were years and years of visits with my aunt. When my mother was around, my aunt always seemed so happy to see me, that I never noticed that, when my mother wasn’t around, my aunt avoided me. And when she couldn’t avoid me, she was always irritated or annoyed. My most distinct memories of her, it turns out, are being yelled at, or being scolded. And wondering what I did wrong.

When I went to live with her (and her family) in 1985, I thought it was going to be the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in our relationship. I was getting to know her better,  and she me. We were going to appreciate each other, unconnected from my mother’s influence.

Years later, my aunt told me she’d been clinically depressed, and that’s why I rarely saw her then, why she slept all the time. But when I did see her, she was always annoyed with me. So I stopped seeking her out. There was this one day we spent together, sort of, but even that was not quite enjoyable. She worked for a high school in some capacity I’ve forgotten. The high school had some special event coming up, and they needed to send out hundreds of invitations. She unilaterally decided that my lovely handwriting and interest in calligraphy should be put to good use. She didn’t ask me; she told me. She made me come to school with her that day, and manually address hundreds of envelopes. Oh, and they were all supposed to be consistently good.

If I have to do a long project of any sort—especially something tedious that I don’t want to do—experimenting with various approaches is the only way I can stand it. But I wasn’t supposed to do that. Just because.

I made the mistake of asking how much I was going to get paid. Because my father frequently hired me to do things, and he was scrupulous about paying me. And I was looking forward to earning some money. But I would’ve been thrilled to receive something like a nice lunch, just the two of us, or some kind of thoughtful token gift.

Instead I got a lecture on how much of a bother it was to have me live with them. I was so expensive, and I wasn’t even paying rent, and why was I so selfish that I wouldn’t help out, doing this tiny little favor?

That’s not really how I would characterize an entire day in an unfamiliar place, with people I’ve never met before who have social expectations for me that I can’t figure out, where the only person I know is angry with me. I can’t take breaks when I want. I have to spend not just hours sitting, but hours working on a project I have no say in, doing something that I normally love to do and do for love but, here, it’s a job. Except that I’m not getting paid for it. And every time I think about the conversation where I found out that my skills are good enough to obligate me to do this for my aunt, but not good enough to get paid for doing so, I want to cry. But that will just make this day even worse, so I’m trying to not do that.

That right there is the most vivid, most detailed memory I have of time spent with my aunt. She wasn’t proud of me, or my skills. She didn’t enjoy my company. She found me a nuisance, and an unwelcome burden. But at least I could ‘pay for my keep’ this one day.


Supposedly, according to my mother, my aunt really loved me when I was baby. How convenient. And yet, if it’s true, I wish I could remember it.

But realistically, it’s probably not true. My mother only sees what she wants to see. Maybe no one still alive (in my family of origin) has ever loved me. Maybe they prefer having my mother mediate between the ‘relationships’ I have with them, because that way they don’t have to deal with me one-on-one.

My relationship with my mother’s mother was direct. I don’t recall the two of us even talking about my mother; there were so many other things more interesting and relevant. I have all sorts of happy and pleasant memories of her, time we spent together. She did take me out to lunch, and I took her out. We did crossword puzzles together; we played Scrabble. We sat and talked, drinking Lipton tea with lemon juice and honey. We both liked to read.

If it wasn’t for her, I would despair that maybe I’m incapable of sustaining a healthy relationship with a relative. But now that she’s dead, maybe it is true.

There is one person left, that I have a relationship with. I am inordinately fond of this person, in some ways I could describe, and others I couldn’t. I have happy memories of us together! I’m always happy to hear from them! But I don’t feel like I know their adult self well at all. And nothing I’ve tried to change that has made any difference.

They read my blog, but as far as I know, they don’t blog, photograph, or make other art. They don’t like writing. I’m guessing they don’t read much. I think they watch TV, but we don’t. I don’t know what they like to do for fun. I don’t know their favorite food, or favorite color. Like me, they have lived in a bunch of different places; I’ve asked which one(s) they liked best, but they didn’t answer. I’m actually curious: if they could be an animal, which one would it be? What would their dream job be? What would they do with $1 million? What’s their favorite movie? Who’s their favorite celebrity crush? I was going to send them a questionnaire, because I love seeing how other people think, what matters to them.

I’ve already spent time thinking how to make the questions interactive in interesting and unexpected ways. Could I do something addressing each of the 8 senses the Eides talked about? How about multiple choice, with visual aids? Could I do something 3-D? Wouldn’t it be cool, all the stuff I could learn about this person that I love? That’s when the balloon deflates.

I’ve tried stuff like this before. People don’t respond. And every time that happens, I wonder if our relationship has just ended. Because my sending my parents a letter to say I’m ending our relationship was an anomaly. In my family of origin, people don’t talk about stuff like that. Although now that I think about it, people in my family of origin don’t actually end relationships; they hang on until death, even if neither person is happy, at all. I’m different. I don’t mind burning bridges, especially if that frees up emotional energy I can use for other, more congenial, things.

Hmmm. If no one but me ever ends relationships, then every new relationship, or every relationship where one person is trying to change or upgrade things, would require emotional energy to come from an ever-diminishing pot. It’s a zero sum game.

I wonder how they apportion energy to individual relationships. Does everyone get an equal share? Or does one person, like my mother, hog the lion’s share, and everyone else divvies up what remains?

These days, I have so much emotional energy available, I hardly know what to do with it. I have learned that INFPs tend to have one person who is a repository for most of their energies, an emotional anchor. When that relationship is healthy and happy, everything else in their lives works well. Sometimes that dynamic plays out slightly differently, such that I get crushes on a succession of people, usually my friends. Basically, I tend to need someone to idealize. Sometimes it’s been my boss, or coworker. Pleasing this person is extra enjoyable. The downside, of course, is that when this person isn’t pleased with me, my life is disproportionately affected.

I wonder if I can alter this dynamic, so I am less vulnerable. Because most of the most-enduring anchoring relationships ended badly. And before they ended, I was grievously hurt by them.

During 1985 I sought to remove the anchor from the threatening person. I know I tried to switch it over to someone ‘back home’ I used to know, but he wasn’t interested. I wonder now if I also tried to switch it over to my aunt. Because a 28-year-old memory shouldn’t be as painful as the one I recounted earlier still is. I get rejected by people all the time, and every single instance doesn’t incapacitate me. But when I look at where the clusters of pain are, they seem to be people I idealized. People I thought I had a ‘special relationship’ with. If the ‘special’ part of ‘special relationship’ signifies that this person is my emotional anchor, and therefore, is tangled up in my very conception of myself . . . that would explain a lot. In a bad way.

Can I interrupt this pattern? Can I switch my emotional anchor over to myself? Can I idealize myself similarly to how I have idealized others? Maybe I should develop that questionnaire, with colors and 3-d and any crazy-fabulous thing I can think of . . . and give it to myself! Write love letters to myself. Learn how to pamper myself. Take myself seriously.

This is boundaries, from a totally different direction.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2013 15:26

    Your nuclear family, your extended family, friends of your family… Society and scripture pressure people into keeping these people in their lives out of some sense of “honor”… even when personal history indicates there was no “honor” to begin with. Sometimes the cleanest path to contentment and a fulfilled life where one can contribute to society, live with honor, and find lasting contentment is simply to say good-bye, and mean it, and walk away. Because relationships ARE transient (and if someone is saying otherwise, they don’t understand the first thing about relationships) and the people from your past, and their extended circle, will always and invariably see you through a certain lens. Sometimes the best and wisest thing, then, is to walk away; find new people who see through a clearer lens. The alternative is to waste precious Years in anger and frustration, trying to figure out people who are very unlikely to change. The key is to figure out who you are, who you want to be, and decide what kind of behavior you expect from others, and then surround yourself with people who fit the bill. The world opens up once you do this.

    • January 5, 2013 16:39

      I agree. But I’m apparently not very likable, and I’m an introvert, so it’s been difficult to find people who want to be with me. When I’m feeling lonely, I think about times I was miserable, but alone less.

      Is it too much to ask that someone (besides Spouse) might be happy to see me, when I walk in the door? Apparently, it is, if I mean people I see more often than once every 5 years.

  2. JLY permalink
    January 5, 2013 20:32

    “Can I switch my emotional anchor over to myself? Can I idealize myself similarly to how I have idealized others?”

    This is something I have also been working on this past year: 1) to be Self Centered, that is, *centered within* myself – looking out at the world and people through my own eyes – as opposed to *focused on* myself – watching myself as from the outside, a floating point rather than an anchor; 2) to “be the change I want to see”, or, to build for myself rather than seeking from or in others.

    Part, or possibly an outflow, of these resolutions has been feeling freer of the trauma of my family of origin … Which means being able to take them or leave them as one individual to another, and/or to act out a compassionate obligation without being personally/psychologically/integrally compromised.

    • JLY permalink
      January 5, 2013 20:43

      Context: my dad would at various intervals emotionally abuse and reject or abandon me – especially if he was pissed off at my mom, or something, or my stepmom was. So I wasn’t Me, but an offshoot of my mom. Then later, when I was on the outs or had refused to engage with him, his relatives didn’t contact me – because I was an offshoot of my father, and if the link twixt him and me broke … After some years, this changed, via much emotional upheaval and they all feel bad about it … I should tell my shrink to bill them … But no, because I’m beyond that now. And my maternal relatives “loved and cared for” me because I am my mother’s daughter, but not really because they knew me As Me – at all. I was different from them and they didn’t want to know. And I had to protect myself, so I played chameleon and laid low.
      All these things we do to protect our selves as young tender shoots and buds … we have to unlearn them when we are big trees.
      I have a nephew by marriage now and several friendship nieces and nephews (as true family to me as any blood tie; truer!) and I hope to get to know them as they persons they are becoming and love them for themselves. New people I am lucky to know.

      I love the concept of children as “honoured guests” of their families. I repeat that phrase to myself sometimes even about my cats. 😉

      • January 5, 2013 21:22

        Our pasts sound like they overlap a lot. :-/

        “All these things we do to protect our selves as young tender shoots and buds … we have to unlearn them when we are big trees.”

        I love how you expressed that!

        I have 2 nieces and 1 niece-by-marriage, but I don’t have relationships with any of them. Spouse thinks it’s weird that I’ve spent 20 years looking for kids to have relationships with (with no success), but I so envy people who have connections with other generations like that.

    • January 5, 2013 21:24

      I’m working on that too (maybe that’s obvious). It’s trickier than it seems like it should be, but there are times when it’s joyous, so there’s that. Luckily I like learning!

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