Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard my share of advice on how to deal with a significant other’s parents. As I’ve developed my relationship with Jake’s family, however, it’s becoming a laughable observation that none of that advice ever suggested that I might actually end up…getting along with them.
Thank God for that. I believe most people who know me would agree that not getting along with my own family has been quite enough on its own.
I wouldn’t say I’m a people-pleaser, because there are plenty of people I don’t give a flying pig’s ass about pleasing, but I’ve come upon the understanding over the last year that I have a complex when dealing with older women, especially motherly figures.
I had a very challenging time growing up with my mom for many reasons, a principle one which still affects me today being the way she’s always shown affection. Over the years, I’ve noticed countlessly how she’ll bestow gushing amounts of affection to friends and family who have her respect and approval, while withholding or retracting it from those who disappoint or disagree with her. Sometimes she’d turn on someone for no other reason than that she was in a bad mood. Because of this—and because she irrevocably ruled the roost—every member of my immediate family could tell you about how we’d always rally between ourselves, doing everything in our power to win back her affections to avoid further emotional punishment. Unknowingly, what mom was doing was training us to live codependently with her. If she was unhappy, we were all somehow unable to be happy ourselves, I assume because we’d been conditioned to believe that her unhappiness was our fault, and wouldn’t be fixed until we changed for her. It was like living in a box, always bending over backwards for another person; and yet, when she was happy, life was good for us, because we had won the affections of the person who dictated what our lives would be filled with, and worth. Her favor bestowed upon us was our hope for a happy upbringing and a prosperous future.
I feel sick describing how we worshipped her, all the while only doing it for our own well-being, not because we thought she deserved it. (In the same way, I often wonder how many Christians would still worship God if they weren’t getting eternal salvation out of it? But that’s a topic for another time.)
I grew out of my mom a while back. Once I realized that my value as a person lies in my identity with Christ and not in how well I can please my mom—or anyone, for that matter—I understood the reckless, cyclical hamster-wheel I’d been running on for so long. I also branched out in spite of everything and finally discovered that my mom’s love is not the only kind out there in the Big Scary World. I’ve found there is a host of hearts who love me, unconditionally, regardless of what I believe or say or do.
It’s one thing to say it and even know it…but guys, old habits die hard. Having been so heavily conditioned during some of the most critical developmental years of my young life to live codependently, I still catch myself subconsciously doing it all the time.
And just so that you totally understand how severely I say this, let me explain what my codependency complex looks like.
I spend a lot of time reading other women’s body language, attitudes, tones of voice, trains of conversation, and anything that is not being verbally communicated. I’m naturally a detail-oriented person, and I read in-between the lines like anybody else, but the amount of time I spend thinking about exactly what a woman means by what she says to me or thinks of me is ridiculous in comparison to the amount of afterthought I give to any conversations I have with men, ladies my age, or children in my life.
And I mean anal. If a women is not very obviously, unrealistically thrilled with me, then I immediately assume that she doesn’t like me, has been hurt, or is for whatever reason angry with me. I’ll wrack my memory for anything I could’ve said or done to have hurt her, and then I’ll obsess over how to fix these generally self-fabricated problems. Even when my mind comes up empty, I’ll still feel adamant that something is wrong, and that I am surely responsible. When I am not trying to make things right with her, I’m also simultaneously trying to convince myself that she must hate me, but that it’s okay, because I can live with hate. I have before. Keep in mind that all of this most often will happen to me when triggered by a sentence in which the woman who is the object of my attention says anything to me without an overwhelming sense of positivity.
The women who are the victims of my codependent whims are all role-figures like my bible study leader, my therapist, my clients and bosses, and especially my boyfriend’s mom. I have found that once I “imprint” on them, I’ll silently push my hunger for maternal affection onto their shoulders, despite its outspoken unhealthiness. I have no excuses, and it is by no means their responsibility to be personally nurturing and motherly just because they’ve had kids and are 10+ years older than me. At the same time, however, my mom is just as inappropriate for this responsibility exactly because of her codependent-tendencies which pushed me from her and toward other women in the first place.
At the moment, I find myself fairly motherless. I suppose some might consider it a tragedy, and in a perfect world it ought to be righted, but once a person has been forced to become independent, I’ve found that it’s very hard to move backwards again. Once free to one’s own opinions and discretion, it’s very difficult and sometimes stifling to retreat under another person’s authority. Besides, what I should’ve learned from my mom I’ve already figured out now, and what I still don’t know about life isn’t anything good ol’ Google can’t tell me.
I could write a dozen or more stories about how my complex has made for some awkward situations strained with paranoia and tension. There have been battles between my desire for maternal affection and a simultaneous, conflicted, desperate fight for independence. Times when I wanted attention, but not advice. And then times when I really needed advice but got absolutely nothing useful out of anyone I respected.
The most important mother-daughter relationship I’m involved in right now is the one between myself and my boyfriend’s mom. Jake and I have been together for nearly two years now, and people from both of our circles have begun to realize that neither one of us is going anywhere. He and I, we’re solid. To his family, in the beginning stages of our relationship, nobody batted an eye when I came off as shy and introverted, and more of a challenge to get to know, probably because they didn’t think I’d stick around. Jake and I have never dated anyone else, and it’s a rare thing to stick with the only person you’ve ever dated, which makes sense, when you think about it. When you date people, you’re trying to get to know people while simultaneously getting to know your Type of person. What you like, what you don’t prefer, what turns you on and what’s a Deal Breaker. These are incredibly important things to know of yourself and of the people you’re involved with, and anyone who passes all of those tests even before you knew they were requirements is a real homerun.
So I get that his family didn’t have much faith that I’d stick around. But I did. And then, all of a sudden, at his family gatherings, me keeping to myself around family and family-friends was no longer acceptable because they took it to mean I wasn’t interested in them.
Honestly, yeah, when I heard about these things, my feelings were hurt. But then I asked a few really real questions that made me get over myself. Like, was his family making a general statement against introverts? No. Were they attacking me and asking me to leave Jake? No. Were they being healthy, loving people, making sure that Jake was invested in somebody who wasn’t a narcissistic bitch who was totally uninterested in his family? …Yeah, actually. And that’s how it should be. Just because I was raised in a family who doesn’t give a shit about anything normal but gets super paranoid and nosy about the pettiest, most ridiculous details doesn’t mean that I can expect or demand that from everyone else. I shouldn’t want to anyway.
Once I grew up a bit about those things, I began to open up to who I believe are my future family. I make it a point to get out of my comfort zone and invest in the people who will either make or break my welcome should I end up marrying Jake, and—to my delight—I’ve already begun to feel like they are my family.
In many ways, God has used Jake’s presence in my life to heal my past, or at the very least help me understand why it’s all going to be worth it eventually. Having come from a dysfunctional family, it’s been such a relief to be able to watch Jake’s family interact with one another—not to mention me!—and to learn from them how a real, healthy family is supposed to be. They invest in one another, and they love. They don’t put their feelings as openly on the table as my family does, but they’re a hell of a lot more polite, and they think the best of others rather than the worst. It’s made me want to grow up and have my own family so I can be like them, which is a complete miracle considering I used to swear to myself that I would never have kids in an attempt not to fuck them over by accidentally being a shitty parent.
Even after opening up, navigating family is still complex. I used to think I got people. I thought I had ‘em figured out and could get along with anyone if I talked to them for a few minutes. That is, until last summer, when I went to Costa Rica with a friend and her family for two weeks, and within a day found myself a miserable, sleep-deprived wretch, who was desperate to go home because I couldn’t figure out how to fit in with their family-dynamics since—surprise!—every family is different. That was the two weeks in my life that changed the way I viewed people. You wouldn’t believe how complex they are! Tropes and stereotypes seriously, epically fail to match authentic character-development.
That situation helped me understand something important about myself—I try to manipulate people into liking me by becoming who I think they’d like me to be. It’s been a subconscious act I’ve put on for years, but like a great chef suddenly without all of his recipe books, in Costa Rica, I found myself desperately lost amidst the overwhelming variety of situations I encountered that were raw and out of my control. I didn’t know who to be, and I got dealt the short end of the stick for being the wrong person more than once.
(You’d think I’d have learned by the age of 20 from all of the American slogans that it’s best to “just be yourself!” but here I am, still making stupid mistakes.)
I’ve recently become aware that I portray myself to each of Jake’s immediately family members with a different personality, insincerely putting on whatever hat I figure they’d like best in an effort to seem more acceptable.
I have the most extensive relationship with Jake’s mom, perhaps because she’s a girl, but definitely also because Jake is close with her, and because of my own mommy-issues. The great thing about her is how talkative she is. When I was competing in forensics during high school, I learned all about how you can make a great impression on somebody by revealing charming tidbits of information about yourself and asking lots of questions to seem interested. Whenever I have conversations with her, I notice myself tending to ask questions so that she’ll keep talking. Then, after we’ve spent a substantial amount of time together with her talking and me agreeing with everything she says, I come away hoping she feels liked by me and the attention I’ve given her gives her an even greater reason to like me in return.
Damn, it’s so much more shallow and bitchy when it’s written out like that than I always thought it was in my head…
Jake’s dad is a little different. He is very sarcastic, and he enjoys teasing people. I have extensive experience in all things sarcasm, namely because I’ve been close with many highly-intellectual, sarcastic people whose company required compatible wit. It’s a learned skill, but it really comes in handy when your boyfriend’s dad says something sarcastic and your response makes him comfortable by letting him know you speak his language. Unfortunately, Jake’s dad often teases Jake, and I’ve found myself willing to jump in and throw Jake publically under the bus in an effort to be further placed in the good graces of his dad. (It’s messed up, I know, since the whole point of me being involved in Jake’s family is because I love Jake.)
Jake’s oldest brother is sarcastic too, which made personality hats much simpler to wear because I could compartmentalize them based on gender—up until I met his middle brother, who isn’t sarcastic at all. That really threw a wrench in my gears when I met him, because I greeted him particularly with sarcasm and it really shut him off. I had to reassess how to treat him and redeem myself, (a real project, because he’s more reserved than his dad and other brother). Eventually I learned he’s a lot more like Jake.
Jake’s brothers’ girlfriends are both pretty easy. It’s clear that all of the men in his family have good taste in women, because they’re all very kind, positive, and outgoing in really fun ways. It’s easy to like them, and as long as I’m open-minded, talkative and cheerful, I get along with them just fine. They’re also in the same boat as me, joining the family from the outside, which is a comfort.
When I write all of this, I am not putting it out there as a suggestion on how to get along with your boyfriend’s family. The way I often act around his family is messed up, manipulative, and superficial. I feel like an emotional chameleon around them, always adapting myself to be who I think they’d want me to be. It says a lot about how inadequate I consider myself to be, as well as how desperate I am to be liked.
And yet while I am disgusted with myself, I still feel moments of proud triumph as I score another homerun toward being “loved” by these people—as a charade character, mixed, perhaps, with paper-thin shreds of authenticity. How fucked up am I that even while I know I’m being a tool, I still admire myself for how well I do it?
From a human as well as practical point of view, I honestly believe emotional adapting is a very useful skill, especially in unhealthy family environments such as the one I grew up in. But it can also aid in the development of pathological tendencies and loss of a sense of self. As of now, I’ve gotten so used to individually catering to each of Jake’s family members that when I do try to be true to myself, it feels false. I’ve just about conned myself into being dishonest! How strange that the wrong things feel the most right, and the right things have lost any moral dimension to me. In terms of personal loyalty to the person that God made me, when I’m not sugar-coating anything even to myself, there is no longer any rightness in it.
I don’t think this is completely abnormal, either. I believe that most people pull the Emotional Chameleon when in a new place and with new people when push comes to shove. We all change at least a little to be favored by people that we revere, despite that the people we change into are what’s really accepted rather than who we actually are. Ironic, isn’t it, that we should wish for acceptance of self so much that we’re actually willing to abandon who we are and evolve into other people’s highest values just for the admiration? We talk so much about being accepted, but I’m calling bullshit on it. I think what most people are conveniently, innocently calling acceptance is really just an easy time. We don’t want our feelings to be hurt, we don’t want to be physically bullied, and we want companionship, and those are all important—even necessary,—but ought we really be willing to lay down who we truly are in exchange for these conveniences? If we really valued acceptance of self, we’d hold onto it much longer and tighter than people usually do in these circumstances, don’t you think?
On the other hand, life is there to mold us into the people we’ve always been “destined” to become, and it most often does this through people and experiences. Situations and conversations have the power to immediately change us in powerful ways. I used to be afraid of change. When I was in high school, I held the highest admiration for my speech coach, who for all intents and purposes could’ve been God. Without her even knowing, she practically was, because I bowed and kissed her shadow like a flunky for three years. I loved her and hungered for her attention and approval; she was another woman who I pushed my codependent agenda onto. She warned everyone in the speech club each year that she was planning to retire at some point soon, and I knew it was a very real possibility that I might not finish high school before she retired and I’d need to find a new speech club. In the beginning years in her club, I remember vehemently ignoring that reality because I couldn’t handle the changes it would bring. I would need a new coach. I wouldn’t have her as my surrogate mommy anymore. I would be left to seek her esteemed approval only from afar. Looking back, I understand how pathetic my regrets were, but I will always remember how forlornly afraid I was of the change to come.
She ended up retiring the beginning of senior year, and I was bumped to a new club with new coaches and new peers. Change was surrounding me, but at that age, I’d wised up a bit. I had prepared enough for the change that I was ready to embrace it by the time it was there; I was happy, even, that it was so. I realize now that even during my fear of the changes to come, I was already in the midst of changes within myself. These kinds of changes–I’d argue–are as necessary for the proper development of a person as they are to the beautifying of one’s soul.
Damn, but humans are incredibly ironic. We get attached to ideas, rather than actual people and events, each of which have been personally defined by our subjective imaginations, within which contradictions coexist just as realistically as our arbitrary fears and convictions do. In many ways, I feel that people handicap themselves by the amount of time they spend worrying and fearing unchangeable or inevitable circumstances. It has been said that the only thing to be afraid of is fear itself, and I think it is powerfully true; it’s only one of many ironies that humans regularly entertain.
We’re afraid of things, most of which will hurt us less than the anxiety we endlessly huff and puff over in an effort to cushion our fear’s effects. We change in an attempt to attain sameness. We alter who we are as people to get acceptance for who we end up no longer being.
All the while, we trick most people—often ourselves, amazingly—into believing our claimed values and innocent well-meaning. We victimize ourselves non-stop, but boy do we clean up well. We have a conveniently matched audience of critics, who often are so busy criticizing themselves that they don’t even notice the flaws we spend our entire lives weeping over and wishing away. We give ourselves grace in the same areas that we leave no wiggle room for others, all the while convincing ourselves that we’re much harder on ourselves than we would ever be on others, because poor us, we’re far worse than anyone else ever.
We’re wizards at living this fundamentally narcissist second-life. We do it so furtively that we’ve even convinced ourselves the act isn’t legitimate, or even doesn’t exist!
How deeply horrible we all are, as people. In the midst of such a realization I hope to pay attention to my hypocrisies in an honest effort to become a more openly sincere person. God knows how wicked and desperate we are as people, yet He loves us anyway, and gives us the grace and wisdom to know ourselves and–rather than attempt to change–be changed by Him. God, I turn my heart toward you, hoping that you’ll turn it back toward the people in my life who deserve a better version of me.