“Business is easy, but people are hard.” I’ve heard this quote several times over the last 3 years and it always resonates with me. The change business is tough, not because people don’t want to be better, but we have trouble confronting all the emotions that come with change. One of the most simple and fundamental things that I have come to learn about cultivating healthy relationships is the fact that it all starts with me. I have to acknowledge my shortcomings and be willing to actively work on them. It’s a simple idea but one of the many challenges to implementing this idea is the complexity of our own personal histories.
I graduated college in 2005 from The University of Houston. I was 23 years old. I had never been in a serious relationship. At that point in my life, I had been on maybe 5-7 dates with different young women but nothing ever took off. All that changed when I met a young woman at a mutual friends birthday party. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call her Karen. Karen was smart, funny, sassy, and attractive. I was hooked! We hit it off immediately and before long we were in a committed relationship.
I’d felt so lonely for so many years. I am an introvert by nature and being the object of so much teasing growing up certainly didn’t help my social development. College was truly the first time that I ever had friends. Real friends. It was the first time I was included in group activities like going out to eat with a group of friends or going to watch a movie with a group of friends. There were aspects of it that I really struggled with. For instance, agreeable disagreement. Debate was tough for me. In my family, we yell when we disagree. Then, we don’t talk to each other for a while. Then, we just move on. That’s oversimplified for the sake of time, but it’s accurate in many ways.
Think about this: You’ve spent your whole life isolating yourself from your peers because you don’t feel welcome around them and you come from a family that struggles with communication. The only way you perceive criticism is as ‘attack’. So what happens when you are 18 and you have friends for the first time? Friendly teasing begins to happen. Criticism happens. It’s not malicious. It’s a normal part of human relationships. But you don’t know that because you’ve never really experienced it in a healthy way. What happens? I’ll tell you what happens! A lot of me having angry outbursts is what happens. A lot of me apologizing is what happens. A lot of me knowing something is wrong but having no clue what to do about it, is what happens. Because, at 18 years old, after having endured so much ridicule growing up, I’m not taking it anymore. If I think you’re picking on me or trying to bully me, I’m going to let you pass until I can’t take it anymore, and then, explode. It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or, Bruce Banner and The Incredible Hulk.
This post isn’t about college, it’s about my first romantic relationship. However, I wanted to give you more context of what I had already been wrestling with, ahead of meeting Karen. Aside from being socially underdeveloped, there were also the coping mechanisms that I utilized to help me get through the bullying and focus on being a good student. I’ll be 36 years old in about a month and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve realized that the primary construct that I formed in my head as a kid was that of ‘Me against The World’. It was easier to see my peers as an opposing force that I had to beat. With that, I had to learn to be hard and callous emotionally. No time for feelings. Not useless feelings. No time for being sad. No time for being sympathetic to others. No time for gentleness. The only feelings I was familiar with were anger and fear. Anger over what was happening to me and the fear of those who perpetuated it. It was a form of ‘fight or flight’. As a kid I couldn’t run from the situation, so my choice was to fight in the way I knew how. If I become a successful student, if I lose weight, if I defy odds and become athletic, if I make a bunch of money, if I defeat my enemy… That’s what fight-mode looked like for me.
When Karen and I started dating, I began to experience emotions I had never encountered. I felt like I should be sensitive, kind, patient, understanding, and dare I say it, loving. If I had to sum it up, for the first time I was realizing what it’s like to hold someone else’s heart in my hands. To have to really consider another person in everything that you say and do. Also, my ‘Me vs The World’ mentality was predicated on the idea that everyone was against me, and not, for me. The challenge with being in a romantic relationship with Karen was the fact that she was totally for me. She loved me and affirmed me. I can’t fully express to you how confusing and disorienting this was for me. When she would compliment me, there were times I could accept it and other times where I literally hated it. Her love for me undermined the place where I had always drawn my strength. It was like Delilah cutting Samson’s hair in the bible story. She was taking my strength. I couldn’t maintain my callousness and my hard-heartedness if I had to be sensitive to her. The same outbursts that I had in college became more intense around Karen. What was really rough about it was the fact that I would be so sweet and such a gentleman at times. Opening doors. Paying for everything. Holding her and complimenting her. Listening. But then I would go complete 180 with how I would talk to her and disagreement was the worst. When we were good it was awesome, but I would have an outburst and say something incredibly hurtful to push her away and then beg her to come back. The Yo-Yo effect. She tried until she couldn’t anymore.
I broke up with her twice, in the first 4 months of our relationship. Somehow she managed to take me back. I asked her to marry me at around the 8 month mark. She said yes but when I look back, I realize I had already done too much damage. She forgave so much but I don’t think she ever recovered from that first 4 months. We ended in an explosive conversation over the phone…
To love and to be sensitive was to be weak in my mind. I had achieved so much in my life at that time by shutting off my emotions and putting my head down and grinding! Obviously, losing a 100 lbs was tough. I hated school for many reasons growing up. Teasing was one thing, but I was a slow reader and a slow writer and nothing ever clicked in class. I had to go home and grind! That work ethic got me healthy, it got me a partial scholarship to college, it got me a degree with honors in electrical engineering, and it got me job offers from two fortune 500 companies upon graduation. It was easier to sabotage the relationship that might take away the drive that had helped me see so much success in life. However, it destroyed something I wanted for so long; to be in a relationship with a woman I loved. I couldn’t separate the goodness of work ethic from the broken places that it came from. This caused me to destroy something that I wanted so badly.
At the time, no one ever encouraged me to spend some time synthesizing and meditating upon how my childhood had affected me. I thought when I left high school I could also leave behind all the psychological trauma that I had endured. I had lost the weight and I was leaving Birmingham, Alabama. Everything would be good. I hadn’t investigated and processed all the difficulty. I was numb to it at that point. You couldn’t tell me something was wrong. I was wrong. I had every right to be angry but responding to people out of anger led to my hurting people that I would tell you I cared about… We have to love others enough to work on ourselves.
When I deal with kids going off to college, one of the things I encourage them to do is to think about how their upbringing has shaped their behavior and, do they want to carry that behavior forward. I ask them (and I ask you) to be brave enough, and, be humble enough, to take a critical look at themselves… yourselves… ourselves.
People, know that whatever I challenge you to do, I am in the process just like you are.
I Love You and I pray for nothing but the best for You!