Youser Manual, Part Two
I got unfriended a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t very nice. Yet it was very necessary. And I swear I’m not sitting here snacking on sour grapes when I tell you this: I am relieved. A little sad. A lot baffled. But nonetheless relieved.
Unfriend. What a hostile sounding word. Everybody knows what it means in the context of social media—to remove someone from your list of “friends” on Facebook. But fortunately, that can happen without you even knowing it, and you may not have been actual friends to begin with. In real life however, when you are “unfriended” you usually know it. And it hurts to be “removed.” To be dismissed. To be rejected. (Abandonment issues, anyone?)
I have been removed, dismissed and rejected before. And I have, myself, been the remover, the dimisser, the rejecter. Sometimes the end slowly evolves; other times, it’s like a you’ve stepped on a landmine. Whoa! What just happened? Is that my leg over there?
When I think back to truly disastrous relationship explosions from my youth, my twenties, they are mostly of the romantic variety—and I’m not hyperbolizing when I use the word “disastrous.” I wrote about three of them in my first book in a chapter called “Twig,” and they involved, among other things: car chases, restraining orders, and brief homelessness on the cobbled streets of London.
This type of relationship drama gets all kind of press. All kinds of art and music. All kinds of sympathy.
But what kind of attention does a broken friendship garner? Perhaps because platonic relationships are generally not expected to be monogamous, the loss of one friend, among many, seems less impactful.
But love is love.
Or ego is ego.
Or maybe a bit of both.
Last month I wrote a story that was the first in a series of three essays based on a business article I read about a guy named Jay Desai. (Click here to read Part One if you missed it.) Desai is the young CEO of start-up company, Patient Ping, and was struggling to provide guidance and predictability for his employees. He was often frustrated to see potentially great teams stall or fall apart because of misunderstandings on how to best work with each other.
According to the article (click here to read it), Desai decided to write a user guide, “similar to the kind that’d accompany a rice cooker or bassinet—but this one deconstructed how he operated optimally, when he might malfunction, and how others could use him to their greatest success.”
I loved this idea, and the thought occurred to me to adapt Desai’s business model to my personal life. What if I, myself, came with a user manual? What if you did? What would your “Youser Manual” say about you and how you function in relationship with others?
I began to ponder the three considerations mentioned in the article:
- How do I operate optimally?
- When might I malfunction?
- And how can others use me to their greatest success?
Last month’s story was fun—I got to identify circumstances and qualities that make it easy for me to be at my best in relationships—to “operate optimally.” This involved reminiscing about some of the best times in my life—times I have spent enjoying my BFFs. And it was very enlightening. My “best” relationships all had three things in common. (You can see what they are by clicking here.)
This second part is a little darker. The reminiscing here is not fun. It necessitates pondering the who-what-when-where-and-why of relationships that have crashed and burned, and my part in the disaster.
These are the prompts I left you with last month:
- Thinking back on two or three relationships that ended poorly (at least one recent and one a long time ago), what did they have in common?
- Did the relationships end in a fiery crash or fizzle out like a damp sparkler?
- Are you glad or sad that you are no longer involved in these liaisons?
- Did your involvement in these relationships cause you to behave out of alignment with your own core values?
- Now that it’s over, can you identify your role in the “break-up”?
(If you want to play along, grab a pen and jot down your responses before I bias you with mine.)
For so many reasons, it can be very hard to let yourself consider “your part” in a painful breakup—be it romantic, professional or platonic—especially when the wounds are still raw. First of all, it often just seems easier to stay angry, because there is so much more energy in rage than in plain old sadness. (There is also a great deal more destruction.) Second, when people are challenged to acknowledge their part, however big or small, it feels like they are being nudged onto a slippery slope that might lead to their own indictment. And third, sometimes the betrayal is so abrupt or bizarre-seeming, that they really don’t know what their part is. Not yet.
I have found myself in all three situations. And in all three, I could, sooner or later, identify my part. And that is a very good thing. I am the only person on the planet whose behavior and attitudes I have control over. I often joke that it’s so hard to get grown-ups to behave. Damned near impossible, actually. But there is one grownup I can reasonably expect better behavior from. But first I have to identify what this grownup is being challenged to learn.
This exercise, the contemplation involved in writing my User Manual, has helped me do that. It has been so disturbingly enlightening that this is actually the second story I’ve written about it. With the first one (not published), it seems I was still indulging that energetic anger—indignation, actually—and until that ran its course, I couldn’t find my humility. But after discharging all that victim crap in the form of about 7,000 words, I think I’m onto something good—and affirming.
So, here’s the question again: What makes me malfunction—truly break down and consequently break up in relationships?
I was surprised to find that my little pet peeves—like messiness or lateness or funky grammar—had almost no bearing on this question. I will never break up with you if you forget to put your fork in the dishwasher, are 10 minutes late for lunch, or if your texts don’t discriminate between there, their, and they’re. These issues, it could be argued, are as much my problem as yours.
No, the things I have identified—the “deal-breakers”—all have something big in common. They all mess with my deepest held values.
I know what my values are. They don’t change much over time—though, sadly, my adherence to them does. And though I’m loath to admit it when it’s happening, I usually sense misalignment sooner than later.
And I ignore it.
This “cognitive dissonance” or disparity between what I truly believe and what I talk myself into, is stressful.
And I ignore it.
I get loving advice from dear friends and counselors.
And I ignore it.
Until the dissonance becomes unbearable.
And finally, it hits me. Yes, dear friends and counselors, you are right: I am really lousy at setting boundaries with people. And lest you, dear reader, interpret this confession as some kind of humble brag—Oh, I’m just so open-hearted and kind and accepting—let me tell you, it isn’t.
As any therapist would tell you if she thought you’d listen (I didn’t), the inability or refusal to set healthy boundaries with others is not only self-sabotaging, it is self-ish. And it reflects, not kindness and compassion, but alas, insecurity—and a need to feed my ego at the expense of my own values. If I can just make you like me (“You” being every human on the planet) then I must be doing everything right. I must be a “good” person.
But my deeper value system, in many ways, is probably a lot like yours. I value, among other things, kindness and truth and communication in relationships. I don’t know anyone who says, “I just want to find a really cruel partner.” Or, “I’m really enjoying my relationship with the pathological liar you introduced me to.” Or, “You know, it’s really great when my friend gives me the silent treatment and acts like I don’t exist.”
No, we all hate those qualities, and yet we all find ourselves on the receiving end of them at times. If our boundaries are healthy, we back away right away. If not—Hold my beer, watch this—we swan dive into troubled waters—or worse, the shallow end of a concrete pool.
I am a master at what I call “sand-lining” when it comes to relationships. I take my stick and draw shallow lines right at the edge of the Gulf that are completely vulnerable to even a slight shift in tides or winds or the footprints of others.
I’ve got to find a sharper stick, y’all. Or better yet, a less porous canvas.
So, back to the question: When might I malfunction in a relationship?
I malfunction when people are mean. Well, duh. Don’t we all? How does this warrant its own bullet point?
Actually this one warrants a whole damn essay (it’s in the works) because “meanness” can be very insidious. This subtler, yet just as damaging, brand of meanness goes by a bunch of different names—microaggression, crazy-making, and the one most of us are familiar with, passive aggression.
This is where my “sand-lining” gets elevated to a fine art. I have been known to indulge so much covert nastiness that by the time the snarky comments morph into overt insults, I find myself oddly relieved. Like an emotionally abused woman secretly wishing he would go ahead and hit her, I keepdrawing sand lines until I get punched in the head.
This type of assault is not limited to duplicitous or sarcastic remarks. No, behaviors like stonewalling (giving you the silent treatment), deliberate button pushing (inappropriately bringing up touchy issues), victimhood (exaggerated or imagined personal health or personal issues), and even chronic lateness or unreliability—can all be signs that you have a crazy-maker in your life, and you’re about to get beaned.
I got beaned a couple of weeks ago. Ouch.
And thanks. It took obvious malintent—in writing (a text, no less!)—for me to close that door. Actually, I slammed it.
(Your turn: How good are you at recognizing and responding appropriately to passive aggressive behaviors? Are you about to get punched in the head?)
I malfunction when people lie to me. Duh, again. Another no-brainer. Except again, my line gets eroded by my need to deny this evidence that a friend doesn’t trust me enough to be fully herself with me. So I waffle. Surely this little white lie, this lie of omission, this exaggeration can’t matter that much. After all, maybe the lie itself has nothing at all to do with me.
Except that it has everything to do with me no matter what it’s about, for the very reason I tried to deny that it mattered: Trust. Most of us don’t feel the need to lie, omit, or exaggerate anything with those we trust. When was the last time you lied to your dog? Ha.
That said, there is some truth to my previous statement that the lie itself has nothing to do with me. People lie for so many reasons—some sinister, some just sad—but a common denominator I see, particularly among women, is shame. Our truth doesn’t seem “good enough” so we fabricate a “better one.” There is no better one. Truth is the best we’ve got. Just ask Jesus. Ha!
(Your turn: How much subtle duplicity do you tolerate in your relationships and why?)
I malfunction when people shut me out. With this one I hear the shrieking of my inner child. It seems that this deal-breaker hearkens back to childhood—early adolescence. My mom went through a period of severe depression about the time I hit puberty, and I’ve never gotten over that feeling all kids have in these situations—It’s my fault. She has left me, never to return and it’s all my fault. I still see her, curved in around herself in the corner of the couch at the house on Dolphin Street, staring blankly at the sliding doors.
I have a very strong reaction—some would argue, an irrational reaction—to being stonewalled. Nobody likes to be ignored or dismissed, I know. But I find it so intolerable, that I would have to say that it is the biggest predictor of catastrophic crash and burn for me in relationships.
You can say something mean to me, but because of my tendency to “sand-line,” if we talk about it, I might get over it. Likewise, you can hide the truth from me, but if we talk, I will try so very hard to understand why in the hopes of reestablishing some kind of trust. But if there is conflict and you refuse to discuss it, I will…
Chase after you? Hound you with texts and phone calls? Make a voodoo doll in your likeness and stick it with thumbtacks until you speak to me?
Nuh-uh. No. If you refuse to talk to me, I will let you. I will quietly close my door and step away.
And, for me, talking is not in any way synonymous with texting. In my opinion, texting is a chicken-shit way of communicating anything emotionally charged. It is cowardly and disrespectful. If I can hold my phone in my hands to text, I can lift it 15 inches to my face to speak. Or better yet, I can get in my car and go to you.
(Your turn: What, if anything, causes you to “close your door and step away?”)
Oh, that last question is just so gut-wrenching for many of us. It’s not like we haven’t had any experience with “stepping away.” I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been on the giving or receiving end of a break-up. If ties were never severed with boyfriends that came before Ted, this little house would be pretty crowded. We accept that romantic liaisons don’t have to be forever. Why are we so resistant to friendships running their course?
I read a very corny Facebook meme, and before I could scoff, the truth of it hit me:
People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a life-time.
It’s okay to be okay with that, to allow yourself to see what was good about it, even if it’s over. It doesn’t matter whether it fizzled out for lack of attention or exploded in a fiery holocaust. There was something good about it. You were in it for that something good. What was it? Now, whisper thank you, and move on—to this…
The last part, the really fun part, of this series. Question three:
How can I be the best friend possible to those beloveds who are currently in season? Or in Desai’s words: How can others use me to their greatest success?
Grab a pen and consider these prompts:
- Bring to mind a relationship you are currently enjoying—one that is undeniably “in season.” (Is this a hard question, or do several friends come immediately to mind? If it’s the latter, repeat this exercise for each of them.)
- If you had to list quickly five words to describe this person in the context of your friendship, what would they be? (Don’t overthink this.)
- Imagine this person, at this moment, doing this exercise too.
- Would you make the cut for them?
- If so, what five words do you think they would use to describe you in regard to this relationship you share?
Hmmm. This is gonna be interesting.
Join me next month for my thoughts on these questions and more. Part Three of this Youser Manual series will be published on Sharladawn.com on June 6th. You can sign up here to follow this blog if you’re enjoying these stories. You will receive one email notification the first Wednesday of every month. Just one. My website has no outside advertising or annoying pop-ups.
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