I left counseling this week feeling challenged and changed in a fundamental way, which is to say I did a complete 180 compared to my first session (spent sobbing into a box of tissues while recounting the last four years of my tumultuous relationship). At the end of that first session, my counselor said, “Get angry! Stop blaming yourself! You have every right to feel the way you do and until you understand what prevents you from expressing that anger, you’ll be stuck in a place characterized by complacency and victimization.” When I left that first session, I felt deflated and beaten up. It didn’t make me feel better. It actually made me feel worse.
One of my main goals in counseling is to understand and change my behavior so I don’t carry those mistakes into future relationships. Knowing this, my counselor gave me a few books to read and asked me to highlight passages that stuck out to me, especially where I recognized my own behavior patterns. Books in hand, I did exactly as she asked. I devoured every word.
The book that struck me the most was about training animals, called Don’t Shoot the Dog. It had nothing to do with relationships per se but the underlying theory of training animals to respond in specific ways has implications for human behavior (after all, we are animals too). The basic idea is that without understanding and knowing how behavior is shaped, you can’t actually change the way an animal responds.
There is one chapter in particular where I saw my relationship from beginning to end and which provided a possible explanation for all the “why” questions I so often ask. In this chapter, the author talks about the powerful effect of using invariable schedules to train animals. The premise is that the rarer and more unpredictable the reinforcer (or reward), the harder the animal works for it and the more likely you’ll get the desired response. Basically, if you never know exactly when you’ll get your reward, you’ll do exactly as the trainer wants every single time just in the hopes of getting it. I practically highlighted this whole chapter, making lots of side comments in the margins. All of a sudden, I realized I was the dog in my relationship and had unknowingly been conditioned to respond to one reinforcer in particular: affection.
Here’s how it played out:
- A charming, fun, sexy guy and I have really great moments. There is lots of love and affection. I’m in my happy place.
- Something happens. I get upset. I voice being upset and the blame is projected on to me. Affection is withheld.
- I accept blame. I apologize in an attempt to smooth things over. Affection is given and I feel loved again.
- Over time, those moments of love and affection become increasingly rare and more unpredictable (probably because other problems start to creep up and I keep getting upset). But I know he has it in him somewhere because I’ve seen it.
- The rarer and more unpredictable those moments, the more I pursue or work to make them happen. I want to be loved after all!
- The more I pursue, the more he emotionally distances himself.
- I do whatever I can to feel love and affection again. Nothing seems to be working so I leave.
- Affection magically appears either to get me to stay or to get me to come back (if withholding hasn’t gotten me to come back on my own). For a few days it’s all rainbows and unicorns.
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
- For nearly four years.
I understand now this is what emotional abuse looks like. I couldn’t see it before because all I wanted was to be loved. I see it clearly now and it is fucking scary. My desire to be loved in return was used against me as a form of manipulation and control. I cannot convey how much recognizing this ignites a fire deep within me but for the first time in years, I actually feel the shackles to this person give way. I see the pattern. I see my part in it. And now I have the freedom to quietly walk away from it all. I can stop obsessing and start expressing the anger I have felt for years (justifiably) instead of bottling it up inside.
This is the heavy shit I’m working through. After my life was turned upside down in June, I couldn’t get angry at all. I was just sad. But coming to this particular realization about my own behavior (all on my own) has only fueled my desire to learn more, to understand, and to change. When I talked about this with my counselor she reminded me that the way other people behave with us has something to do with the way we behave with them. She pointed out that I can’t change who he is or the cruel way in which he treated me at the end, but I can look at it as an opportunity to learn, to change, to grow more fully into my own self.