Updated: Feb 17, 2022
*My use of the word 'attachment' is not to be confused with the psychological model of Adult Attachment Theory; instead it's used to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy connections in relationships.
Of all the lessons I have learned in my life, I consider the following to be paramount:
In order to know where you're going, you have to know where you've been. For change to occur, you must be willing to seek the truth.
Life will give you unlimited opportunities to battle your demons. It's up to you to embrace that struggle.
The former deals with honesty; the ability to see yourself for who you truly are, what you do, how you treat people, and the impact that has on your life and the lives of those around you. The latter is the simple fact that your issues will continue to manifest in different forms until you decide to do something about them...the who's and where's and when's are interchangeable. My issue was attachment. And I couldn't see it.
It's actually quite easy to see if you're prone to negative attachment in relationships: If you're jealous, insecure, or constantly fighting, you're in an attached relationship. I was all of the above.
By my count, I had been in 7 'serious' relationships between my freshman year in high school in 1993 and my return from Hawaii in June 2012, when I stopped drinking. Some of the girls were the same age as me, some were older, and some were younger. Some were strong personalities, while others were more passive. Some were big partiers, while others hardly drank. Different personalities at different times in different situations. Nothing in common, and yet looking back, the relationships were frighteningly similar. The issues were the same. Those issues were the same simply because those issues were my own.
The underlying theme in every relationship I entered into was attachment. Not love; I was simply incapable of loving anyone. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying I didn't care about them; I did. I just did not have the capacity to love them. You can't love someone while you hate yourself.
It's easy to accept someone's good qualities. That's not love. We all do that with almost everyone every day. Love is the ability to look past a person's shortcomings, seeing them for who they truly are, and accepting them completely. Attachment initially disguises itself as love, but its true colors eventually show. Scrape beneath the surface and you'll find manipulation, control, and self-hate. All put in a pretty package, with a nice bow, titled 'relationship.'
Being that I did not have any self-esteem of my own, I searched for it from others...so I was always in relationships. I jumped from one to another like rungs on monkey bars. During what you would call the 'courtship' phase, I was great. Sweet, funny, entertaining...confident and secure...everything a girl could ask for. As soon as it moved into the commitment phase, I slowly decompensated. My confidence would gradually be replaced with jealousy. My secure demeanor would morph into a litany of questions and accusations. Every time I did this, I would show a little more vulnerability, which would make me more insecure...and would lead me to do it again, only worse. It truly is a downward spiral in the sense that it's cyclical...once it has started, it's almost impossible to stop.
Attachment is not about love; it's about subjugation. I set up a list of rules and guidelines that 'if you love me' you'll do for me. The abusive mechanism present in most attached relationships is about control...results be damned. The list was never-ending, becoming more manipulative as time progressed. "How was work" became "Who's that guy you work with & why do you talk to him so much?" "I like when you call me right after class" became "Why didn't I hear from you sooner??" It was all a test. If she passed one test, it didn't matter; there was always another one. The only thing that mattered is if she failed. I expected failure. I expected betrayal. Abandonment. I had experienced all of those things as a child, and I entered into every relationship subconsciously expecting the same thing, and through my actions those fears manifested. I was not looking for affirmations to my greatness; I was looking for any reason to believe the people I was with were doing me wrong. Why they didn't love me. I created impossible scenarios for them to navigate through knowing they could not possibly succeed. And when they failed, I was proven right.
Since I hated myself, I would project that hate onto the person closest to me. If I thought I was a jerk, then she was a jerk. If I thought I was an asshole, she was an asshole. If she failed a 'test' & that 'made' me feel like a worthless piece of shit, then that's what I would make her feel like in return. This was my cycle of attachment. I'd keep people around to help me reaffirm my own hatred of myself. Reminders of what trash I was.
Truth is irrelevant when you're in a state of delusion. You believe your lies, they believe your lies...it all becomes quite dreamlike after a while. That's why a period of time after one removes themselves from relationships like these, they're like "What the fuck was I doing?" You were falling down a rabbit hole of self-deception. Living either your or someone else's nightmare. There is no foundation of reality to speak of. That was left behind long ago, and replaced with the projected hallucinations of someone's infantile brain. And awareness is the only means of escape.
So how did I get to awareness? First, I got sober. It's not a coincidence that many relationships such as the ones I've described revolve around excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs. It's the same self-hate mechanism manifesting in different ways. So I needed to remove the means by which I created and or exacerbated pre-existing conditions. Next, I began seeing a therapist. I had about 18 months of intensive therapy 2-3 times a week. I don't think I could have come to the realizations I have without therapy, and I don't think I would have gotten therapy if not for my sobriety. Both equally important, but the sobriety was the first step. So those two steps brought me to these two realizations:
IT'S ALL MY FAULT
'You made me say that' or 'you make me act like this' is a bunch of garbage. It's a cop out. Everything that happened was my fault. Every single thing. No one was responsible for my actions other than myself, extenuating circumstances be damned. Maybe mean things were said; it's still my job to control myself. Maybe antagonistic things were done; so what. My job is to take complete and total responsibility for my reactions to things I find to be upsetting. If I'm in a situation, either short or long-term, that I find distressing, then it is up to me to remove myself. If I don't, that's not on you...that's on me. The only thing I have control over is what I do. If I allow someone else to control that, then I have nothing. If I need you to change, that's my issue, not yours. It's a fundamental shift in perspective, but it's the fundamental truth.
HONESTY IS HARD
When I first got sober, I had 6 weeks of nightmares about things I had done and said to people I cared about. Every night. I literally woke up drenched in sweat for weeks on end after reliving some crazy shit I had done in the past. I'd wake up, wipe myself dry, put a towel down, and try to go back to sleep. Some of these dreams weren't entirely catastrophic; it could have been something as simple as a disagreement from 10 years ago. Point is, I relived everything. The hardest dreams to wake up from weren't the most traumatic though; the hardest were the one's where an old girlfriend would be telling me that I was forgiven, and everything was okay. I would wake up feeling happy for the first time in god knows, only to have the realization that it was just a dream. That was the hardest of all.
That is just a tiny, tiny piece of the reality I had to face to get to where I am today. Not to mention the hundreds of hours of therapy, or the thousands of hours of self-reflection. Learning how to be alone with my thoughts and not wanting to crawl out of my skin. Talking to ex's who I'm lucky enough to still have in my life, and having them describe, in both general and specific terms, what it was like to date me. Reading emails from ex's I don't talk to anymore, that describe things I said and did in humiliatingly specific details, making 8 years ago seem like yesterday. It's by far the hardest thing I've ever been through in my life, and I've been through some shit let me tell you.
There's a quote from Yogananda in Autobiography of a Yogi that describes people who walk away from their truth:
"They departed, choosing life's countless humiliations before any humility."
That describes most of my life, and I'm sure others as well. I chose humiliation for nearly 20 years instead of choosing to be honest about who I really was and how I truly felt about myself. It took all that time to choose humility. The only way that happened is with raw self-awareness. Idealistically simple, Herculean in effort, and life changing in nature. If you want it, then you'll do it. There is only you. Learn who you are. Accept what you have done. Forgive yourself, and forgive others. We're all doing the best we can.
In the end, once all the bullshit is out of the way, the answer is really quite simple: If you can't be alone with your thoughts, you can't be in a relationship. If you hate you, you will hate them too. If your dynamic is one of constant strife, there is an issue you're choosing not to see. If you're consistently disappointed in how someone is treating you, then leave. If you're not leaving, there is a bigger problem at hand. If someone is always letting you down, then be with someone who doesn't. If you're staying, that's a red flag. If you're honest with yourself, then you'll see a pattern. You'll see the string that ties all of your relationships together. Relationships aren't about control, or wanting someone to change for you. Relationships are about acceptance. I accept you for you. You accept me for me. We both try to help each other grow as people, not mold each other into what we want. We are human beings, not lumps of clay. We all have struggles and fears and sadness and insecurities. Our job is to help make it easier, not harder. If acceptance isn't possible, then you simply give that person a big hug, and just walk away. It may feel like the end of the world, but I promise, it's not.
"We're all just walking each other home." -Ram Dass