More than an article, I want this to work as an exercise for whoever needs it. My goal by the end of this is to help you understand a little more about what makes you unhappy in your romantic relationships and why the behavior that causes that exists in the first place. Understand, though, that I’m only a “naïve twenty-year-old,” as a close friend once called me, and that if you decide I’m nothing but full of cow dung, that is a valid point, too.
Now, let’s get started.
Take a moment to think about your last five romantic partners. What are their names? How did you meet them? What activities did the two of you share in your relationship? Just gather a general idea about each one and then write it all down.
I came up with this idea when talking to a friend of mine, who we shall call Jack, about his past dating experiences. Jack is in his early thirties and claims that every relationship he finds himself in always ends the same way. Each example I give will be based on Jack’s slightly modified responses, only for anonymity purposes.
Jack met his last five partners all through online dating. Keep in mind that online dating is not just limited to Tinder or Match.com. Generally, after seeing these people a few times and getting a sense of familiarity with each other, he would take them on trips and pay for all of their expenses. He was comfortable—financially speaking—and thus decided that he could use this to his advantage. So, activities to him included but were not limited to, traveling to new cities, going to music festivals, and shopping with and for his partner. He made sure his friends never knew about or met any of them. This meant everything they did, they did by themselves.
Now that we know how these relationships came to be, let’s explore what brought them to an end. Ask yourself how long each of these relationships lasted for. Who decided it was time to end them? What story did you tell yourself about why it ended? What story did your partner tell?
For Jack, every time, something would happen after four or five months. None of the relationships were very serious. Almost always, it was his partner that decided to end the relationship. However, the story he told himself was that he had decided to cut off ties. The reason for this was that his partners grew tired of his controlling and possessive behaviors and started acting distant, occasionally doing things out of spite that they knew would upset him. In their own way, they tried sending out signals to him that they were ready to move on.
Unable to accept that it hadn’t been him who’d made the decision, Jack would cut off communication with them and never see them again. This way, he felt he’d been in the driver’s seat. But his partners would tell you a very different narrative, as mentioned above.
By now, you should have written down something for each of your past five partners about the beginning and end of the relationship. But what about the relationship itself? I find that in order to understand why a relationship didn’t work, you have to objectively remember your behaviors during the conflicts you shared. What was something you and your partner were never really able to overcome? What was something your partner did often that upset you or made you feel uncomfortable? How did you react when confronted with those emotions? How did your partner react?
The financial gap between Jack and his partners was something he never got over. He always found people that were barely making ends meet. But because he was financially successful, he could take care of and often pamper them with gifts and such. Money was something that made him feel powerful and because his partner had only enough of it, he viewed them as weaker individuals, thus not allowing himself to accept the possibility of ever giving up control.
Because money wasn’t one of their strengths, every partner always tried to find other forms of control. They knew they couldn’t outmatch his wallet so they looked elsewhere. The way they did this was by playing with his emotions and creating doubt in the relationship.
Let’s say both of them agreed to go to a festival together. Their plan was to drive up together and stay in a hotel together. But when Jack was all ready to go, his partner would suddenly change the plan, stating that a delay now meant they wouldn’t be driving up together. Instead, his partner would be driving up with a friend whom Jack hadn’t met, and together, the three of them could enjoy the trip Jack had planned for only the both of them.
Jack had now lost control of the plan. He felt used because he was now financing a third person’s expenses as well. He felt stressed because if he decided he wouldn’t allow this change of plan, his partner might cut off communication with him for hours, sometimes days. But more than any of that, he was upset and annoyed that someone had taken control away from him. He was in uncharted territory.
When faced with a loss of control Jack resorted to one of his most toxic habits: shopping. He shopped for clothes, accessories, and anything he felt was aesthetically pleasing. Money wasn’t an issue, control was. And how could he regain a sense of control in his life? The same way all human beings do: by buying new things. It’s why advertising is so effective. It exploits your insecurities and creates a false idea in your head that purchases will bring you joy. Don’t let me get in over my head, though.
I remember Jack telling me this as though it wasn’t a major problem in his life. “I love shopping,” he laughed. “I don’t need or use 90% of the stuff I buy, but it’s like a little addiction I have. Besides, it’s just money.”
What he failed to understand was that he didn’t actually “love” shopping. He’d tricked himself into thinking that he did, because it fed the control freak in him.
But saying the words out loud helped him more than anything I could’ve said or done to make him understand. After all, you can’t change people. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, he looked at me like I was a genius. He was shocked he’d never made the connection before.
Knowing that shopping was his reaction to uncomfortable emotions, Jack was now in a position to put two and two together. He got to the root cause of his destructive habits in relationships as well as the one in his most toxic addiction. Shopping was only an addiction because of the way he handled his emotions when losing control, so it was the control aspect that he needed to address in order to uproot the weed and plant some new thought seeds.
Jack’s example may seem a little extreme. It might sound like something that only exists to help demonstrate this example, and it could be hard to relate to. Your problems might not seem as clear or as easy to figure out. Jack’s problems are real. He just never took the time to sit down and go through them objectively, which in this case meant sharing them with me (an objective listener).
What we all need to understand is this: If we keep going through relationship after relationship, always hitting the same insurmountable wall, we are the common denominator in the equation.