Look Out For These “Red Flag” Phrases

I’d never do anything to hurt you.

This is naive at best and a manipulative distraction at worst. In any meaningful relationship, the occasional hurt is unavoidable.  Toes are carelessly stepped on, harsh words erupt before they’re caught and actions are misconstrued to have an alternate meaning. Hurt happens. And it’s what happens after that matters. Instead of a promise to “never hurt,” look for somebody who will be willing to learn from the unintentional injury and try to do better going forward.

In the more malevolent case, this phrase is used as a numbing balm that conceals the sharpness of the knife pressed into your back. It claims that your best interest is at heart, when the reality is that your heart is being shredded without your knowledge.

 

You deserve better.

When somebody makes this claim, listen. It may be that they have been far-from-honest with you and they are admitting that you don’t deserve that betrayal of trust. Alternately, they may possess a low sense of self and they feel that they are not worthy of you. Although not malicious, this is also a warning sign because an insecure person will bring unhealthy needs and patterns into a relationship.

Ideally, a relationship inspires both people to be at their best because they want their partner to have the best.

 

You’re my everything.

Talk about a whole lot of pressure. If you’re someone’s everything, they are looking to you to meet ALL of their needs. And not only is this stressful, it’s also impossible.

It’s healthy and natural to be the most important thing in each other’s lives.  But those lives should also be filled with other friends, interests and supports.

 

Your happiness is more important than my own.

Sounds good, right? But think it through. First off, this would require a perfect reciprocity to pull it off, both partners neglecting their own well-being in exchange for cultivating their partner’s happiness. Furthermore, nobody else has the power to make you happy or unhappy. That has always been – and will always be – an inside job.

Ideally, each person takes full responsibility for their own happiness and understands that by attending to your own well-being, you’re in turn nurturing the other person as you present your best self and refrain from making impossible demands that they make you okay. You want your partner to be happy and you strive to support that, but you also recognize the limitations of you can provide.

 

You made me…

Just no. You cannot make somebody do/feel/think anything. You are responsible for your words and actions. The other person is responsible for their reactions. It is up to them to communicate clearly and instate boundaries if needed. Then, the ball is back in your court to respond to that information.

This phrase is a favorite one of abusers, as they manipulate their partners into believing that it is all their fault. Even in milder cases, these words are an indication that the person shirks responsibility for themselves and is more likely to point fingers than make changes.

 

I can’t survive without you.

Again with the pressure. This is commonly used to tether a person to a toxic relationship. It’s hard to leave when you’re told that your leaving could have dire consequences for the person that you (presumably) care about.

But that burden is not your to carry. If you need to leave, you need to leave. Your responsibility is do so in the kindest, clearest and cleanest way possible. What happens from there is not on you.

 

You’re my soulmate.

This one sure sounds romantic. But there’s a dark side to it. If you’re placed on the pedestal stamped with the title “soulmate,” you do not have permission to be anything less than perfect. A successful relationship of any duration requires a growth mindset that accepts that perfection is an illusion and sees mistakes as opportunities to learn.

 

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The Unintended Consequences of Overreacting

One of the characteristics of a good marriage is that it is a safe space for both parties. Ideally, it becomes the sanctuary where you can take off your armor and feel comfortable wearing only your thin and vulnerable skin. It’s the place where you don’t have to pretend, where you can say what you feel and be loved for who you are. It’s where the tough conversations happen and wild emotions are tamed in the interest of the team.

I failed my first husband in this regard.

I went into that marriage scared. Scared of losing him. Scared of being alone. Scared of being unlovable. Scared of the consequences of adult decisions. And scared to face my own fear.

And the result of all this fear was that I didn’t create a space where he could feel safe expressing his own doubts, his own worries, his own fears. I unintentionally communicated the message that he wasn’t able to be open with me because I was too afraid to sit with the uncomfortable feelings it would stir up in me. I went into the marriage feeling abandoned – by my dad and by my friends who had died way too young – and my ex quietly assumed the role of reassuring me that I wouldn’t feel left again.

And so when his own crisis hit, when he began to feel less-than and unworthy and scared, he didn’t feel like he could turn to me. Instead, he turned inward. He tried to drown his shame in drink, he covered his fears with lies and the whole time, he kept me feeling safe. Secure.

I never told him he couldn’t talk to me. I never belittled him or questioned his feelings.I never lied, never raised my voice and never responded with contempt.

I thought I was doing my part to create a safe space for him.

But I wasn’t.

I didn’t give him the freedom to say the hard things without facing the entire brunt of my emotional burden. It must have felt like opening the car door only to fear being flattened by an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. Safer to simply keep the door closed.

I thought I was a good wife because I tried my best to lift him up.

But I wasn’t.

I didn’t understand that, rather than focus on him, I could do more good by focusing on me. By addressing my fears and my reactions, I had the power to help shape the very nature of our marriage, to make it a safer place for both of us to be open and vulnerable and to remove the burden of my emotional well-being from his shoulders.

I thought that I was doing the right thing by ignoring my fears of loss.

But I wasn’t.

Shoving those feelings aside didn’t mean that they were not there. Instead, they became a quiet hum, the perpetual background noise that would rise to a scream anytime it was provoked.

In all the lessons from the end of my marriage, perhaps one of the most important has been learning how to be okay with the idea of loss. To be okay staying with the uncomfortable feelings without erupting into a panic. To be okay hearing the hard words without internalizing them or catastrophizing them. And to make every effort to be calm even when my now-husband is expressing things I would rather not hear.

Because part of making marriage a safe space is to create an environment where each person can feel permitted to speak without excessive consequence. And that ultimately comes down to taking care of your own emotional wounds and narratives.

I still struggle sometimes with not overreacting. But like with anything, practice makes better. And life seems to give plenty of opportunities to keep learning.

 

A quick note here on responsibility – I am not excusing my ex husband’s decisions. What he did was oh-so-very-wrong in every way. I did not make him cheat, lie and turn to addiction. His choices and actions are his responsibility. My role is to look at what I could control, how I contributed to the environment that allowed his actions to occur, and address those things. I can’t change the past, but I can learn from it and keep trying to do and be better.

 

 

Three Lies We All Tell Ourselves

“I Would Never Do That”

“If you were in a survival situation, you would not only eat meat, you would crave it,” declared my husband in a conversation about choices made in life-or-death circumstances.

Intellectually, I knew he was right. The body’s drive for survival easily overrides any normal aversion I have towards animal flesh. Yet even though I know my instincts would temper my usual loathing for meat, I still struggle with the idea of willingly eating something that I view with disgust. But of course, I’m trying to imagine survival when both my stomach and pantry are full.

Just because we have trouble imagining something, does not mean that it cannot happen.

From a safe distance, it’s easy to judge. To think in terms of absolutes, always and nevers. It’s easier to declare something is impossible than to take the uncomfortable mental road of contemplating precursors that may lead to you doing the seemingly impossible.

So what’s the problem with these black-and-white declarations?

When we think in terms of absolutes, we both judge others and leave ourselves vulnerable to sliding into bad decisions.

Consider the common proclamation of, “I could never cheat on my spouse.” It’s an easy statement to make and an agreeable position to believe in.

Yet in taking that headstrong stance, you inevitably judge others that commit adultery. You view them as somehow weak or lacking in character. You take the moral high ground and shove them into a cesspool occupied by those who fail to live up to your standards. Instead of listening to and learning from the mistakes that led to their downfall, you judge their choices while insisting that you could not make the same miscalculations regardless of the circumstances.

I am by no means defending those who have chosen to be unfaithful. I find the behavior reprehensible and unbelievably damaging to everybody in its path. Yet I also see it as part of human fallibility. Not inevitable, but not entirely avoidable on a societal level.

But even though I can’t imagine ever committing adultery, I will not claim that I could never do it. From my current perspective, it is as unfathomable to me as choosing to eat meat. Yet, I cannot claim that a change in situation would not lead to a change in perspective.

If I believed that I could never stray, I would be more likely to slide into infidelity, unaware and unwilling to recognize warning signs and precursors.

So rather than say that, “I would never,” I find it more honest to say, “I never want to” and then make sure that my choices align with that intention.

“I Can’t Help the Way I Feel”

I shake my head every time I read about the every-increasing trigger warnings added to college syllabi and work presentations. On the one hand, I do think it is considerate to prepare somebody ahead of time for something that they may find difficult (I’m thinking of NPR’s habit of a brief warning for parents before broadcasting a story with language or content that may be inappropriate for children). On the other hand, the expectation of trigger warnings sends the message to the triggered that the responsibility for their well-being and mental comfort lies with others.

And that’s where I disagree.

We all have a right to our emotional reactions. We have a right to feel the way we feel and to respond to external stimulus as we choose. But we don’t have a right to demand that other people act in a certain way in order to regulate our emotions.

That’s an inside job.

If somebody does or says something that upsets you, you ultimately have two choices: learn to adjust your response or decide to avoid the person.

And that’s not easy.

It’s something I face on an ongoing basis with my fear of abandonment. There are so many innocuous things that my husband can do or say that can trigger this fear in me. My first instinct is always to shift that responsibility on him, to request that he refrain from the words or actions that make me respond in this way. I want to declare that my reactions are a direct response to his actions and that my fear is an inevitable response.

But that’s not true and that’s not fair.

Because I can help the way I feel.

Not easily and not all at once.

But the only way that I’ll learn to temper my fear of abandonment is by addressing it, not by asking others to protect me from it.

“I’m Right; You’re Wrong”

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen Covey

Most of us enter into discussions and encounters with the assumption that we are right and we require substantial evidence and persuasion in order to change our minds. We lead with the belief that our perspective is the correct one, our moral code is the superior one and our understanding is the penultimate one.

It’s a limiting view as confirmation bias simply feeds the perspective that we carry rather than challenging us to see something new.

When you enter a conversation with the conviction that you are right, your energy is expended on defending your position. Rather than listen, you grow defensive. Rather than question, you attack alternative viewpoints. Rather than engage in conversation, you end up participating in a debate, complete with scoring.

I know I have a tendency to feel threatened when my views are criticized. My inclination is to respond defensively, enumerating the reasons that my thoughts are right. I can easily interpret an attack on my beliefs as an attack on me.

And maybe you are right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the other person is wrong. Perhaps they have a different perspective born of different experiences. Maybe they are just at a different point of understanding and they need more time to gain clarity.

And maybe you are wrong. And by allowing the acceptance of that, you can begin to see another perspective.

Because after all, we are all human. Imperfect and messy.

No matter what we tell ourselves.

Virtual Reality

He noticed her as soon as her entered. An older woman, well dressed, standing at the counter watching the gemologist examine a rather large stone under magnification.

As my husband completed his transaction, paying for the new battery and taking possession of his watch, he couldn’t help but overhear the exchange between the woman and the expert.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to tell you. The stone isn’t real.”

“The bastard!, she exclaimed,”The other one wasn’t real either.”

Through the remaining conversation, my husband was able to glean that the woman had recently been divorced and the jewelry was awarded to her in the proceedings with an assumption as to its value. Only now she was learning that part (or maybe even all) of what she thought she had to her name was worthless. And a lie.

Perhaps she was spoiled, and looking for more than her substantial settlement, but my husband read her as more panicky than pampered.

When Brock recounted this story to me, my first thought was to the duration of the deception. Did her ex husband gift her that jewelry twenty years ago with false stones in place from the beginning? Or, as I was afraid my ex may have done, were the real stones replaced at some point with lookalikes so that the husband could surreptitiously withdraw from the marital funds?

My heart ached for the woman. Not only does it hurt terribly to discover you’ve been living in a virtual reality, it is disorienting beyond belief once those goggles come off and you have to decide what is real. And what is illusion.

The mystery of the woman and the ring mirror the one question about my first marriage that still haunts me – did I marry a false man or did I marry a real man who was replaced at some point with a counterfeit? 

That’s one mystery that will never be solved. All I know is what he was at the end was certainly no diamond, despite how he acted.

And when I went to sell my ring at the conclusion of the divorce, my stone was still real. I guess he wasn’t clever enough to squeeze that stone for cash. Thank goodness for small blessings:)

Character Assassination

I didn’t like reading how many of you relate to being gaslighted. It’s one of those areas that I know for me is still tender. There is much un-probed because it hurts too much to counter often-good memories with the knowledge of the duplicity and lies. And I finally realized that the daunting task of separating the strands of truth from the pot of lies is pointless. Even though I now know otherwise, I have chosen to find comfort in the fact that it was real enough to me at the time and that’s all that matters.

But that only works with the personal gaslighting, the stories told to me to keep me placid and distracted.

It doesn’t work with the external assault. The character assassination that carried nefarious seeds far and wide. That requires a different approach.

 

For much of our time in Atlanta, my then-husband and I were estranged from his parents by his choice. Over the years, we had many families “adopt” us for holidays and get-togethers, but one always stood out. The husband-wife owners of my husband’s company welcomed us into their family. We were at Christmas and birthdays. We knew the kids and the grandkids. We knew them as friends as well as employers. I loved the time with them and always appreciated the inclusion.

A few months before he left, my then-husband took a job with another company. It made the relationship with the family a little strange but we still kept in touch.

In the immediate aftermath of his abandonment, I did not think of them. Until a few days in when I found a note from the wife on my mailbox with instructions to call.

I picked up the phone expecting to hear shock and horror – the emotions expressed by everyone else I knew when they tried to digest the news. Instead, I got a more distant and guarded message. Condolences mixed with a dash of “well, what did you expect?”

I was shocked. Almost speechless. I asked what she meant. And heard about stories that my then-husband told at work. Tales of my cheating exploits, complete with a vivid story of walking in on me in his office with a man. Claims of staying late at work to avoid me and my wrath. He painted a picture of a horrible wife, a victimized husband and a marriage in peril.

This from the man that kissed me tenderly every night.

This from the man who knew where I was at all times because I was rarely anywhere but work, school or home.

This from the man that couldn’t keep his hands off me and bemoaned when work kept him away.

For years, I thought this family was my family.

But they never even knew me.

Because my monthly or so visits could never compete with his daily fictions.

I was too confused and surprised on the phone that day to try to defend myself. I simply hung up after muttering something in response to her request to keep her in the loop and ask for help if I needed it.

I never did call her back.

And I never will.

 

There are so many tears that come from this. I’m horrified that he was intentionally darkening my character for years. It’s hard not to wonder for how long. I’m embarrassed that people thought I was unfaithful and shrewish. And I’m sad that I lost these friends and others, as I chose to simply cut off those he had access to rather than to try to vindicate myself against his stories. Although I was tempted to send them a copy of his mugshot:)

He was telling them stories to cover his tracks. He was creating a fiction in his mind to defend his actions, both past and future. Perhaps he was desperate to see himself as the good guy so that he could temper any guilt. I’ll never know.

Much like I chose to walk away and cut my losses from the financial deception, I made the decision to leave those friendships behind. Some damage is too great to repair.

 

So, what’s the lesson in all this?

I know I first started to trust Brock when he actually encouraged me to have time around his friends without him there. It made me realize how my ex carefully negotiated my encounters with his friends.

I know I’ve had to let go of the concern of what people may believe about me and focus on what I know about me.

I know that realizing how my ex lived one way with me and another with others helped me realize that he was not the man I loved.

And I know that I’ve made many, many new friends who know me. The real me.

And that in the end, the only character he assassinated was his own.