It Takes Two to Tango
May 6, 2020 – Renton, Washington
How did I end up in this messy relationship? It was easy to blame Brent—he was controlling, manipulative, lacking in empathy. But, despite all the warning signs, I stayed. I wanted to fix him, save him from the streets, get him back on his feet. I’m a rebel by nature and, the more I was lectured by friends, the more determined I was to stay, to prove he was a kind and decent person.
I had a role in this, and I needed to acknowledge it. Brent had singled me out that night in Renton for a reason. Some of my own issues had left me vulnerable. My self-esteem, which was never strong to begin with, had been crushed even further by a ten year relationship with a man who provided no physical nurturing. When Brent found me I was wandering aimlessly, hoping my ex would return to the person he was before the breakdown. When I met him, my life suddenly had a purpose. If I could rescue Brent from the streets and heal him, maybe we could form a meaningful relationship.
I have always been high on empathy and overly sensitive. Nobody should have to suffer like that, I thought, as I followed Brent’s life on the streets. Being empathetic allowed me to see my own faults and Brent took advantage of that, using my weaknesses against me and causing me to question myself. It was the perfect setup.
It has always been hard for me to set personal boundaries—I’m overly concerned about the opinions of others, leaving myself open to being taken advantage of. Brent was the opposite. He had a high sense of entitlement that blinded him to the feelings of others. When we first got to Arizona, he contacted his cousin, hoping to repair a falling-out they’d had years earlier. Brent rarely asked for my advice, but that day he did.
“I called and asked my cousin if he could give us some gas money and now he won’t talk to me. Not sure why that would piss him off. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. What do you think?”
What did I think? Brent was trying to reconnect with his cousin and the first thing he did was ask him for money? To me it was common sense his cousin would be offended, but not to Brent. I toned down my reply.
“Well, maybe not such a great idea,” I replied. Empathy wasn’t something you could teach.
Throughout our twelve-month journey, I kept a blog. Brent had never read it—I’m sure he was terrified how he’d be portrayed, though he needn’t have worried. My blog was overwhelmingly positive, maybe too positive in retrospect. If Brent had kept a blog, it would have been the polar opposite. Instead of the fun-filled journey I portrayed, his writing would have emphasized the trials and hardships. We would be the homeless couple, struggling to survive in a hostile world, a world where everyone was out to get us.
As I continued to research NPD and its after-effects, I understood more clearly that Ed had been right. There were lessons I needed to learn from my relationship with Brent. I had to:
- Let go of trying to please everyone. It wasn’t possible, and it only added stress to my life.
- Let go of caring what others thought about me.
- Let go of caring about people who didn’t deserve my empathy. I had tried to fix Brent and my friend Lily, but in the end they needed to fix themselves.
- Let go of my need to be perfect.
- Let go of thinking I wasn’t good enough.
- Let go of trying to make others happy. I needed to make myself happy first. If I could succeed in doing that, I would stop attracting people who needed fixing.
There was one more thing I needed to let go of. Throughout my life, I had blamed many of my issues on my dad. I was convinced it was his negativity and criticism that had caused my insecurities. Maybe he suffered from NPD as well, I thought, but I’d never know and in the end it didn’t matter. But was I remembering things clearly? Maybe he wasn’t as bad as I’d made him out to be. Maybe my childhood memories had been tainted by emotion, exaggerated. Determined to find out, I took a trip through time.
When my mom passed away in 1980, I found an old packet of letters in her bedroom closet. They were written by my dad just after they met. He was attending university in Edmonton, Alberta and she was working to support her family in Calgary. Though I’d skimmed through the letters at the time, I had never read them in detail. That day in spring 2019, I sat down and went through them, hoping to put things in perspective.
This excerpt came from my dad’s letter (February 1947). My dad is referring to the sport of bowling, which my mom enjoyed:
You mention that I might like it if I could do it well. I might like playing tiddly-winks if I were an expert at it, but I don’t think so. There just isn’t enough to the game to keep me interested…To my mind, it is a game which requires an absolute minimum of intelligence, and can be easily mastered even by a serious mental defective who can experience some sort of elation at watching a bunch of pins get knocked down and set up again.
This was the dad I remembered, condescending and critical towards all of us, especially my mom. She had dropped out of high school to support her family and my dad never let her forget that she wasn’t well-educated.
As I continued to read, I saw that he consistently de-valued her opinions. My mom had gone to a play and raved about it to my dad (February 1947). His response?:
I am sure they can’t have acted their parts as well as you lead me to believe.
When she complained about his heavy drinking, he justified it below (March 1947):
You also seem to have been annoyed over the fact that I got the ‘flu, and attribute it to my heavy and repeated indulgence in drunkenness, which you insinuate, is undermining my health. First of all, let me assure you that medically speaking, drunkenness or heavy drinking has no effect on the health. In spite of Temperance Propaganda, even acute alcoholics seldom suffer any permanent injury to their physical health, and even heavy drinking does not lead to colds, influenza, etc. Oddly enough, often the contrary is true.
My dad had created his own, tightly restricted world, one that I constantly rebelled against. But it was useless to argue. Everything I said was dismissed as “nonsense”, and I’d end up in my room, crying hysterically (I was emotional back then too).
One of the worst instances of his controlling and critical nature (and his lack of empathy) can be found in this passage (March 1947):
By the sound of the letter, you are getting very fat again. You were plump when I was down in February. I hope it hasn’t got any worse… I don’t like fat girls at all. I think they are disgusting…As long as you haven’t got any fatter than you were at February, but if so I will have to start doing something about it again.
He liked to control what my mom wore (April 1947):
I would like to see your new slacks meet up to certain specifications. They should be full in the leg, not tight, like your last pair, and they should fit snugly round the hips & waist. They should not be too high in the waist, otherwise they will sag in the seat like the last pair.
I thought Brent was controlling and critical, but if these letters are any indication, my dad was worse. Was it any wonder that self-esteem problems had haunted me throughout my life? But I couldn’t continue to use my dad’s behavior as a crutch. If I wanted to get past my issues, I’d have to stop blaming him and work on fixing myself. He may have been the cause of my problems, but in the end I was the only one who could solve them.
It was time to forgive my dad. Though I knew little about his upbringing, I’m sure there were reasons behind his behavior. He may not have been capable of truly loving me, but he did the best he could. Reading those letters eased my guilt about leaving Brent as well. I had done the best I could to help him succeed, but the rest was up to him. He needed to stop blaming all his failures on others and so did I.