If you love me, you have to love my friends
Another clue to whether or not your past relationship was with Mr. Right or Mr. Wrong comes in the form of a very particular sensation—that of a wall dissolving around you. Sometimes the dissolution of a couple feels like an end to isolation. It’s as if the merger of you and your partner somehow made a barrier around you that kept other souls at a distance.
Then that wall is gone and you find yourself calling people that you haven’t kept up with: your mother, your brother, your friends. You don’t feel cut off from them anymore; you’re able to pick up the thread where it was dropped.
The story you have to tell them is no longer out of tune. Somehow when you were with your partner, you couldn’t report freely about your life to the people who matter most to you. Conversations became superficial, degenerated into small talk. You could only tell them part of the truth, and that wasn’t enough to strike sparks across a distance. Maybe you weren’t telling yourself the whole truth, so it was hard to talk to people with whom you are naturally honest.
Again, this resurgence is a message about the relationship that ended. It is telling you that your ex was a bad match for you. In his presence, your connections with others tended to wilt.
The decline may have been fairly mild, as in the previous example where connections were still there but they felt more tenuous; or it could have been a precipitous drop. That happened if your partner actively opposed your outside relationships, or put up roadblocks to them. He may have done this by playing any of several roles:
The Loyalty Enforcer. Your partner treated you as if you were being unfaithful to him, when you tried to spend time alone with other people. This possessiveness masquerading as suspicion is a sticky snare. It is very easy to start feeling guilty about innocent behavior when your partner doesn’t trust you, and then you may start to act guilty and you are really trapped. The real impetus behind this treatment is more likely that your partner wasn’t confident that what he had to offer you was enough, and he worried that by bonding with others you would realize his shortcomings.
The Non-participant. When you asked your partner to go with you to occasions that would naturally demand a couple, he begged off if certain people were involved. Which discouraged you enough that you didn’t go either. Or you went alone and then he resented that, so you didn’t go the next time. After a while,you didn’t see very much of the people he was resistant to. Without declaring himself openly, just by reluctance and foot-dragging he managed to limit your social sphere to the parts that he was comfortable with.
This can be a very insidious form of selection. It’s as if your partner is driving past various nightclubs that are your social life, and is deciding which of them the two of you shall not patronize. Wouldn’t it be unfortunate if his insecurity made him avoid the ones which are most colorful, challenging, and otherwise valuable?
The Critic. A more direct approach is to critique your friends. Your partner cleverly analyzed their faults and shortcomings, so that now you had to either abandon them or refute him. This could have been a sincere thing, caused by his misperceiving them. He thought friend A was obnoxious when what she was, was irreverent. He thought friend B was snotty when what she was, was smart. He thought friend C was boring when what she was, was shy (around him). Or he found one of your friends to be an evil schemer, and he taught you that your affection had been naïve, when the truth was your friend had been looking out for you.
If your partner was sincere, then at least he had the defense of honesty; but one has to question whether he was the right guy for you. If he wasn’t sincere and was really just manipulating you out of possessiveness or paranoia, that is an even better ground for finding him unworthy. So when someone becomes the arbiter of your friends, that’s a huge red flag—and will be in future.
The Thief of Hearts. You may have run across an even more extreme and somewhat bizarre way of undermining your existing relationships—competing for your friends.
Martin was one of these collectors of souls. He saw people as a sort of commodity, and his goal was to have more in his portfolio than others did. Online, he was obsessed with recruiting “friends” to his myspace list, and he constantly checked others’ lists to make sure they had fewer than he did. His approach to the real world was not different.
After he’d been dating Nancy for a while, Martin began to make private forays into her large, vibrant circle of friends. He would go on his own to visit couples she knew, hang out with them for an evening and pour on the charm. Nancy would sometimes hear from them that he had been around, and would feel just a little strange about it. And Martin would mention to her that he had been talking to so-and-so, in a kind of boastful way, as if she should know he was out-doing her. Then she started noticing that some of her friends weren’t as warm to her as they had been—they seemed a little awkward. The tipping point came when Martin started trying to take Nancy’s place in her own family of origin. That got quashed fast, from both sides.
After she and Martin broke up, his bonds with her circle crumbled, and as she got close to those people again, the truth emerged. Martin had been making alliances with them, as if he was an enemy nation conspiring against Nancy. He had been subtly bad-mouthing her to her own friends, to try to reduce her stock of people while increasing his.
If, in examining your own past relationship, you find that any of these maneuvers were afoot, you have had a major insight into what went wrong. A partner who reacted that way to your friendships was not the right partner for you. Although this kind of negative campaign can be subtle at the time, it often becomes blatantly clear after the breakup, when your friendships return to form. And it’s easier to detect the next time around.
In the following story I will look at a couple who in fact had the goods in this area. But at one point there was a misstep that caused serious hurt, and it will take us to the very positive core of the matter.
the sacred link: why Ellen cried
Ron and Ellen were a fortyish couple living in Bloomington, Indiana, and nicely embarked on what shaped up to be a long and rich relationship. It was their first Christmas together and they were visiting Ellen’s parents in Willow Grove near Philadelphia. Ron was a bit over-whelmed by the onslaught of Ellen’s tribe: the parents, three siblings, their little kids, and assorted friends old and young dropping in every day.
He liked them pretty well and was especially partial to Ellen’s mom and to one of her brothers, but he was a bit shy and preferred to take his time in getting to know people. He could only take so much exposure to a noisy, churning group before he either felt invisible or felt he was getting the third degree. Ellen’s family were especially daunting because they specialized in a rapid-fire, rapier wit, and at the first major sit-down dinner Ron felt like he was ducking under sniper fire. Their perfect ease with each others’ humor made him feel like an outsider.
Nevertheless Ron really liked Ellen, and wanted to become comfortable with her family, because she was very close to them and she seemed so proud to present him. So he tried, really tried to engage and to find the right compromise between coming on too strong and not coming on at all. He reminded himself that the trick is to listen, and that it wasn’t about him, and he did okay.
But by the day after Christmas, Ron had just about exhausted his store of energy and patience. He wanted to be back in Bloomington in a house with two people in it. He was a bit testy at bedtime as they crawled into the lumpy twin beds in what had once been the kids’ room, and when Ellen reminded him that the next morning she wanted him to go with her to have breakfast with someone named Maria, he just grunted and buried his face in the pillow. Ellen had told him about a lot of friends, and he didn’t really remember which one this was—they were a blur in his mind.
So morning came and Ron found Ellen shaking his shoulder. He had had a restless night but had finally reached an uneasy détente with the bed and was sunk in the kind of sleep that wants three or four more hours. “Last call for the shower,” Ellen said in a voice whose playfulness was a tad brittle.
Through bleary eyes Ron saw that she was already washed and dried and putting a nice blouse on over a black bra. Somehow the sight of her looking so fetching made him more irritated.
He said, “Look, you go. I am exhausted.”
“But I want you to meet Maria.”
“I’ll meet her another time.” He rolled over facing the wall and hoped for the sound of an exit. What he heard was silence, then sniffing.
He twisted and found his beautiful woman crying, looking at him with anger and hurt in her big brown eyes; but he just didn’t get it and he turned away again.
“I don’t appreciate this,” she said, and she left.
Later that day Ellen returned, her eyes bright and her cheeks ruddy from the winter day, and she told Ron all about her breakfast with Maria and it dawned on Ron that of all the people Ellen had told him about, this was the one he would most like to have met. Maria was a dear friend with whom Ellen had once worked, a talented person who shared some major interests with Ron (including his obsession with the civil war), and according to Ellen, Maria had the best eyes on the planet, deep and knowing and generous.
Ron had had a useless morning, had never gotten back to sleep, and had arisen to an empty house where he couldn’t seem to muster any breakfast—so he had lost out on every count.
In spite of this little setback, Ellen and Ron made a go of their relationship, and he became very close with her family, once he got over being intimidated. Ellen often teased him about that lazy morning when he failed to meet the marvelous Maria. Meanwhile Ron’s friends in Bloomington took to Ellen in a big way, and he found more sap coursing through his own social tree than had been true for a long time. He had been in danger of becoming a hermit before he met Ellen, and a hermit wasn’t the real him.
Then, three years after that first Christmas, Ron met Maria when she came to Bloomington to visit. She was even more illustrious than he had been led to believe. She interviewed him in a bold way that made him feel revealed and honored, and then, to Ellen’s delight, he did the same back. The three of them cooked and they talked and they played scrabble and they laughed and cried and didn’t get to bed till the wee hours.
And after she was gone Ron and Ellen talked, and they figured out why Ellen had cried on that December morning. This is what they worked out:
Part of the sacred bond between two people is that each one trusts the other to know them well enough to know which people they need to meet and might really like. The desire to share one’s most valued friends with one’s mate is itself a form of trust, a belief in the mate’s worthiness. It was that trust that Ron had violated (or failed to muster) the morning he didn’t get up with Ellen to go have break-fast with Maria. And that’s why Ellen cried: he was showing lack of faith in her knowledge of him, and lack of gratitude for her wanting to give him a valued gift.
Putting it another way: we take the measure of our partners when we expose them to the people we cherish. They test us and we test them when they meet our loved ones. Ellen cried because Ron was ducking the true test. And the true opportunity.
A new couple calls on faith.
Look back at the relationship that ended. Take careful stock of how it affected your most valued connections with other people. When those special tests (or opportunities) arose, what happened? If your findings are negative, you have learned an important lesson about what went wrong.
And what to look for next time. To paraphrase the poet, no per-son is an island. We are each partially constituted by our bonds with the family members and friends we love most. If a man really wants to know you, he wants to know the people you love.
So look for these signs. A good partner will be a shrewd observer of your interactions with your friends. He will be highly entertained by watching your antics with them, and will revel in the knowledge of you that can be gained that way. A good partner will enrich your best relationships.
In a healthy couple, your circle of friends won’t contract; it will expand.
We’ve taken a look at two kinds of upswing that can signal, after a relationship is over, that you were with the wrong person. I’ve called that situation Scenario A: where you and your partner were basically incompatible. It’s time now to take a more comprehensive look at incompatibility, and the false and true lessons it holds.