Q: I have been divorced for almost five years. I was married for 20. My ex-husband was emotionally abusive. The first relationship I was in after my divorce was two years and ended because of alcohol abuse. Now, I have this fear I will end up in a disastrous relationship again. How does one move through these types of situations successfully? — Kimothi A., Nairobi, Kenya
Dear Kimothi, Getting sucked into bad relationships involves two tendencies that are intimately connected. The first is the tendency to overlook warning signs. People aren’t closed books or secret codes. They give off signals.
They behave in indicative ways. If you don’t ignore the warning signs, it’s not that hard to see who is going to be abusive, controlling, self-centered, uncaring, dominant, cruel or severely addicted. I am not saying the men you meet are going to present themselves with total candor and honesty. Of course they aren’t; no one does. We show the best sides of ourselves in social situations, particularly when we want to win someone over. The second tendency is to miss the signals that tell you who is a good match for you. Missing the red flags seems easy enough.
You want to see the best in others. You think, quite rightly, that suspicion and distrust aren’t good things to bring to a new relationship. But overlooking the good in others is just as destructive. Because most people carry images around in their heads of „the right one,” they dismiss others, based on that image. Think of the men you have rejected as boring, not good-looking enough, not rich or smart enough and so on when, in fact, their only fault was not living up to an artificial image.
This is compounded by society’s addiction to external qualities being the most important. Dozens of beautiful, successful, charming singles have appeared on television shows that are supposed to find perfect mates for a bachelor and bachelorette. How many happy marriages have resulted? One or two at most, and even those have yet to stand the test of time. The critical issue, then, is how to overcome both tendencies? You want to spot the warning signs in advance, but also the hidden virtues.
The ability to do these things comes naturally, but we block it in various ways. You’ve mentioned a big blockage: fear based on past failures and hurt. As Mark Twain once noted, a cat that has sat on a hot stove won’t sit on any stove afterward, whether it is hot or not. Which is to say, you can’t trust your old wounds.
You must learn to be open and new as opportunities arise. You must learn to look past the ingrained image that keeps you from seeing other people as they actually are, which is always a mixture of good and bad. Much of this comes down to ambivalence. When you can see the good and bad in someone else, how do you react? If you are mature, you accept what is good and tolerate what is bad, but only so far. Being ambivalent isn’t the same as perfect romance. It’s a state of tolerance. Having reached that state, something new emerges. No longer blinded by a fantasy of perfect love, you find you are less critical; you don’t judge others as much; you have less fear and distrust. At that point, you will be able to do the most important thing: You will know what you need and how to get it.
Most people are confused about what they actually need, and therefore they seek it in the wrong places. I would suggest you need safety, security, reassurance, love and nurturing, in that order. We can’t discount the wounding relationships in your past. At a more advanced stage, when you feel safe and secure, you might look for love, compassion and wisdom as first priorities.
Having identified your needs, look at a prospective mate realistically, as someone who can fulfill your needs. Go on dates, relate for a while and test the other person’s capacities. I know how easy it is to feel you can’t place demands. You focus your energies on pleasing another.
You self-consciously worry about being young enough, pretty enough and good enough. But that is how bad relationships explode in your face. Having focused on your shortcomings, you failed to test if the other person actually met your needs. Once you turn your attention around, you can begin to be realistic about who this other person is and what he has to give.
I think that’s the most important step, and I hope I have given you enough clues about what to look for in the future so it isn’t simply a repetition of the past. Love, James Mungai