“It’s not the pretending, but the pretending that we are not pretending that hurts us.” — Sheldon Kopp, psychoanalyst and author
Most of us at least intellectually understand that real love is different from exploitive caring. Caring for someone because of what they do for us is not the same as caring for someone because of who they are. However such clarity soon fades when we become emotionally vulnerable in relationships. Often then, the mind cannot see what the heart already knows. Inevitably heartbreak happens in exploitative relations. Often what hurts us the most is not having our hearts broken but knowing that we didn’t see it coming and we participated in our own demise.
I always wanted to have guys friends. After all my marriage was good. I had a successful job as a major headhunter. My wife and I had terrifi c kids. Life was good except for my guy friends. So I inadvertently met this rather brash he-man named Joel at the gym. I was impressed with his fi tness and big mouth. I always had a thing for brash men. I saw them as strong, unlike the dad who abandoned me when I was two. Although Joel worked a menial job at his church he packed a wallop when it came to caring for people and telling funny stories. He kept all of us laughing at the gym. He looked up to me as being a big success at my work, something he really lacked. So I told my wife that although we were a bit of an odd couple we might actually be friends. She got to know Joel on her own and liked him. For about six months Joel and I got to be apparent good friends at the gym. I really looked forward to seeing him and giving him as much trash talk as I could muster. He could dish it out as well as take it. We also got into talking about spirituality and our views of life. We went out to lunch a few times but it was always at places he wanted to eat. I often gave him some tips about finding a good job and he lectured me about being a better person. We were always on each other’s cases. I invited Joel and his wife to our 25th wedding anniversary at a fancy restaurant and he was thrilled to come. Eventually, all of the sudden Joel stopped showing up at the gym. I was confused and missed him. I wondered if he had gotten sick. When I eventually got him on the phone he said that he had just gotten this prestigious job and didn’t have time to get together. He went on to say that he didn’t think we could be friends as I wasn’t his type of person. I was stunned and confused. We had no disagreements when all of the sudden he dropped me like a hot potato. When I talked to my wife about this situation she mentioned the word “shadenfreude,” the malicious joy of living through the pain of others. I surmise that Joel got a kick out of knocking me down to size after he originally idealized me for being such a success. When he got his own success he didn’t need me any more. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and realized that all along I had been used and not truly cared for. I was more of a symbol for Joel and not a real person he wanted to be close to. This loss broke my heart. But it’s how I painfully learned the difference between being used and being loved.
I am certainly not the only person who has been used in relationships. It happens all the time. The main problem with being used is not that we eventually get hurt but that we never see it coming and have perhaps played into the deception to some extent. We may fault ourselves for being so gullible when the jig is up. We may hesitate to take future risks in relationships for fear that we will be deceived again. Some of us with repeated experiences with being used may fatalistically anticipate that getting used is the only way we may have a chance at relationships. Some of us may go so far as to minimize the hurt of being used and just see it as a way of life, wondering what the big deal is. Some of us become mere objects and not people in relationships. We lose our identity. Some of us have our very lives physically endangered when we are merely used. Well, let me tell you, being used is a big deal. None of us deserves that and there are ways of being truly cared for in relationships, whether you currently believe that or not. To actually be in an authentic relationship we have to have, as the Serenity prayer says, “the wisdom and courage to know the difference” and the determination to be in one.
Being used versus being loved
The following signals may help us distinguish real from inauthentic caring. Often some of these signals don’t appear until a year after being in a relationship. They are:
- being idealized for possessing some one special quality versus being seen as a whole person with talents and limitations
- avoidance of confl ict and disagreements versus regular constructive problem-solving together
- being valued for serving a purpose versus being valued for your own sake even when you serve no purpose
- one-sided versus two-sided talking Snapshots of Serenity E-mail your Snaps of Serenity to email@example.com and receive a free one yearsubscription to The Phoenix! and mutuality
- one person does it all versus two people pitching in and sharing responsibilities
- having our feelings be important only when there is agreement versus both people’s feelings being important even in disagreement
- pretense and fantasy at being close versus experiencing how actions speak louder than words in actual caring
- one person initiates contact versus both parties initiating with each other
- feeling that you are easily replaceable versus you are really unique to the other person
- superficial caring versus repeated shared emotional experiences of caring
Social context for getting used
Sadly, our culture sets us up to be in exploitative relationships. In the business world being useful is valued way more than being ourselves. Business people say, “It’s who you know that counts.” Although some lip service is paid to fraternizing with customers, ultimately the goal of social interaction is about serving a purpose and not just relating for its own sake. Most of this thinking is understood in the work world and is often appropriate. Unfortunately, when social relationships get blurred with business contacts trouble can happen. Seeing people as useful can carry into our personal lives and be terribly hurtful. Seeing our life partners only as vehicles to our success can shortchange them and us in love. Seeing our children as mere objects to our success as parents can leave them emotionally deprived and insecure. Lets’ face it. The best times in love are when we are not useful and our children are not successful. These are the times that really count. When so much of America is run like a business the very essence of love and its authenticity is lost in our relationships. The business model makes love greatly suffer.
Also, we live in an expendable world. When our new technical device doesn’t suit our needs we throw it away and get a new one. We may get a new one just to be current. When we apply this philosophy to human relationships we don’t see the value of working through hard times with a loved one as an essential healing part of relational commitment and life satisfaction. We may start having affairs with people or things to replace what is truly missing in our relationships. The disposability of human love has never been greater in our disposable society.
Finally, we live in a culture where things ought to be done for us, as if we are entitled to it. This passive way of looking for happiness outside ourselves robs us of the most important part of human love: sacrificing for others while caring for ourselves. Real love is not about what others do for us; it’s about what we do for others while respecting ourselves. Be forewarned. When we exploit others they wind up exploiting us. When we truly love others we may not be loved in return but we always love ourselves more deeply.
Why are we so blind and allow ourselves to be hurt?
Some of us have a habit of getting used one relationship after another. It’s like we are drawn to make the wrong choices and don’t learn from our experiences. Each time we may decide to do it differently; but it’s the same each time, if not worse. Do we just have some fatal attraction to being harmed or are we just unlucky? Neither is true. I believe that we are drawn in life to people who have the most to teach us about ourselves at a deep unconscious level.
What my friend in the above example eventually told me is that he was drawn to the charismatic man at the gym because he was unwittingly trying to win the love of his absent father. If he could get a charming strong man to show him special attention then he would not have to feel so unworthy. Eventually he came to terms with the deep wound inside himself that could not be healed by having relationships with exploiters. In fact it was by not allowing himself to be exploited in friendships that allowed him to feel more worthy of love. He had learned from his experience and needed no more exploiters in his life.
Some of us are blind to others who hurt us because we are blind to ourselves and how we have been hurt deeply in our past life experiences. Once we fully grieve these experiences we have clear vision.
Getting love right
Many of us continue to be exploited in love and friendships because we are not yet ready to receive authentic love. For growth, it’s best if you can work with a trusted helper or good Al-anon support group to help you keep your eyes wide open to others who may harm you and to those parts in yourself that may feel you deserve that harm. It’s through this repair in those relationships that authentic love happens. Doing so may take a long time (but not nearly as long as not doing so), more time than you would have wished for to begin with. But it is always worth the effort as you slowly and inexorably begin to make better relationship choices. it’s though authentic friends and supports that real love happens. There are no shortcuts to such help. A real person, hopefully one who tells you what you don’t want to hear is worth his or her weight in gold, far more than all the wealth of fake friends. Let us have the courage to meet him or her.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.