An old friend was grumbling to me over some chardonnay about how men suck. Yet another of her relationships was in tatters, and she was depressed and distressed. What was wrong with everybody? Why were all men so toxic? Why didn’t anybody love her?
When You Are the Common Denominator
The difficult truth in this situation was that that it wasn’t every guy. It wasn’t about my friend Madison overcoming a string of toxic relationships. It was about Madison. This wasn’t easy to point out. I didn’t point it out the last time, or the time before, but this time I did. I said, “This is hard to say, but the common denominator here is you.”
I love Madison, but she is very demanding with men, and very jealous. Basically polyamory is for her but not for her lovers, but that isn’t the arrangement they consensually come to first. She wants a lot of attention. She drinks too much too often, but says she can’t help it when she’s dating idiots that drive her to it.
Madison hasn’t texted or called me since I told her how I felt.
I get it—facing ourselves can be really tough. The responsibility of having to change is heavy. It’s much easier to blame others. If it’s their fault, we don’t have to do any work.
The problem is then that we keep suffering, keep repeating the patterns, keep losing out on the possibilities of love and life and sex.
It doesn’t help that every magazine article or podcast is all about “surviving narcissistic abuse” or “how to dump toxic lovers.” These affirm our biases that we can empower ourselves by blaming others. And in many cases, yes, our mother was toxic, our ex-husband or wife was abusive. But we don’t ever get a lot of social support for accountability, for acknowledging that we might be the one who is toxic.
How to Deal when YOU are the Problem
Search your soul.
Asking the questions, am I toxic?” or “what did I do wrong?” is more easily answered with, “Nothing! They are messed up! They have problems!”
But what if you can answer the question a little more honestly in the privacy of your own mind and really take inventory?
Meet yourself halfway.
Maybe your primary partner really is lying, cheating, and stealing, and causing your hair to fall out. Let’s say you are right about that much.
Even if that is definitely the case, surely you have some hand in the game and the blame. What can you do differently? What have you done wrong?
Try to acknowledge your own sins even if they seem small by comparison. Even a saint is only human after all. Since you can’t change another person, your only hope is changing yourself, so why not start there?
By practicing the idea of taking partial responsibility—it takes two to tango and all that—we can all get more comfortable being honest about our shortcomings. And this can be helpful in all of our relationships.
Ask a trusted friend for the truth.
Many friends will automatically side with you because they don’t want to get into hot water. But maybe you have a mentor or an elder or a wise old aunt or an Imam or a best friend who is a Buddhist monk. Something.
If you know someone who is compassionate but painfully honest, perhaps they are the best place to start the discussion, a safe space to let yourself begin the work and start getting honest with yourself.
Ask your partners what they think.
Don’t threaten your partners, but ask them. They may be very relieved that you are ready to do some soul searching. Don’t accuse them. Don’t say, “Are you accusing me of being jealous?” Instead, say, “I know lots of people in love struggle with jealousy, but I’m thinking for me that it’s more volatile and consuming.”
You might not have to ask them to know. You already know if you are lying, cheating, or stealing. Other bad habits are harder to unravel. But talking it out with the people involved is often the best, hell, maybe the only, way forward.
Look at the patterns.
This is true for everyone, including nice people and sweet people and people who get along well most of the time. Whatever it is, wherever our weaknesses or faults are, they repeat themselves.
If you keep ending up in the same place, stop blaming all the people you’ve been in relationships with, and look at the common denominator: you.
Growing and evolving means saying you’re sorry, not because someone asked or because your face was rubbed in it, but because you want to acknowledge that you hurt someone. They don’t have to forgive you, but they might. It doesn’t matter, though—what matters is that you are moving towards change and want to apologize for what you did wrong.
Seek appropriate help.
Get professional psychological help to change and recover from truly dark problems. For example, if your drinking makes you creepy and mean, start going to meetings and sign up for some programs. If you are re-enacting child abuse, find a therapist to help you work through it without taking it out on your partners. If rage is hard to control, there are support groups where other men share and support each other to reign in their anger. There are religious supports and clinical supports—something for every conceivable issue. Do something.
Ask for support from friends and family.
Don’t go it alone. No friend will say “Gee, Jim finally realizes he has a gambling problem. Think I’ll bail now that he’s doing something about it.” Your friends and family already know you’re imperfect, and the close ones probably already know your specific problem!
The honesty and work you are putting into improving your relationships will benefit all of your relationships, not just your romantic ones, and you need your friends right now to help you stay the straight and narrow. Take a break from friends who want to enable your bad behavior. They may be blind or have their own problems, and you need to focus on change.
Have YOU been the problem? Please share how you handled your situation.