Chapter OneThe Compulsion for Completion
It is only when we no longer compulsively need someone that we can have a real relationship with them. Anthony Storr
In the autumn of 1992, we did something unusual. We offered a course at Seattle Pacific University that promised to openly and honestly answer questions about family, friends, dating, and sex. In short, its purpose was to teach the basics of good relationships.
Colleges around the world offer instruction on nearly every conceivable topic, but try to find a course on how to have good relationships and you'll look for a long time. We wanted to change that. As a psychologist (Les) and a marriage and family therapist (Leslie) teaching on a university campus, we had our hands on stacks of relationship research showing that, with a little help, most of us can make our poor relationships better and our good relationships great. And that's exactly what we wanted to teach students to do.
The course was to be an informal group with voluntary attendance; any student could be present or drop out at any time if he or she so desired. We called the class "Relationships."
Our determination to start such a class was met with no resistance from the powers that be, as long as it was taught free of salary and on our own time without load credit. Of course, a few eyebrows were raised by those who considered relationships neither a scholarly subject nor a serious part of a university curriculum. We were amused in the ensuing weeks by a few odd looks from some colleagues. One professor in discussing our plans called the course "Irrelevant!" Others asked mockingly if the class had a lab requirement.
Nevertheless, the course was offered that autumn, and students enrolled. After the first day of registration, we received a call from the registrar's office informing us that our classroom, big enough for twenty- five students, had been moved to an auditorium, where we were forced to close enrollment at 225 students. We've been teaching the course, the largest on our campus, ever since.
Since that first autumn, we have lectured on campuses and in churches across the country, teaching the basics of good relationships. And we always begin with the same sentence: If you try to find intimacy with another person before achieving a sense of identity on your own, all your relationships become an attempt to complete yourself.
This single sentence holds the key to finding genuine fulfillment for every relationship. If you do not grasp its message, the best you can hope for is a false and fleeting sense of emotional closeness, the kind that comes from a series of temporary attachments. Once the truth of this sentence is understood and internalized, however, you'll discover the abiding comfort of belonging-to family, friends, the love of your life, and ultimately God. A solid sense of who you are provides the foundation you need to forge friendships that last and to find your soul mate.
Let's be honest. Many of us at some time in our lives have felt as though something is missing. All of us have struggled with loneliness. We've all felt detached, unaccepted, separated from the group we'd like to be part of. And when we find ourselves in this empty space, we typically search outside ourselves-often compulsively-for something or someone to fill it. We shop, we drink, we eat, we do anything and everything to distract ourselves from the pain of feeling alone. Most of all, we tell ourselves, If I find the right person, my life will be complete. Too bad it's not that simple. If it were, we'd have friends that never failed us and marriages that never fractured. The truth is, the cause of our emptiness is not a case of missing persons in our lives, but a case of incompletion in our soul.
In order to build healthy relationships, you must be well on your way to becoming whole or complete. You must be establishing wholeness, a sense of self-worth, and a healthy self-concept. And this chapter will help you cultivate it.
You can think of this chapter (and the exercises in the workbook) as your guide to exploring the secret contained in the single sentence: If you try to find intimacy with another person before achieving a sense of identity on your own, all your relationships become an attempt to complete yourself. This chapter will guard you against the deadly lies that sabotage potentially good relationships, and it will show you the ins and outs of achieving a healthy sense of identity or self-worth. The journey begins, however, with a look at our innate hunt for wholeness.
THE QUEST FOR WHOLENESS
Stephanie, a student in her mid-twenties, came to our office to talk about her current relationship, the third in a series that had each lasted almost a year. This one was with Dan, an older, confident college grad. She was nearly trembling with happiness as she spoke about their relationship.
"I'm so in love with Dan," she told us. "Last weekend he gave me this adorable little teddy bear to celebrate our ten months of dating." She went on to describe his good qualities. "He's amazing; I just hope ..." Stephanie's chin started to quiver and before she could finish her sentence, she was crying. I (Leslie) handed her a box of tissues and asked her what was wrong. She wiped the tears from her eyes and blurted out that she was terrified of doing something wrong and "ruining it."
"I've done it before," Stephanie confessed. "I get in a relationship, things go pretty well for a while, and then I do something to mess it up."
"Like what?" Les prodded. "What might you do that would make Dan leave?"
Stephanie, still sniffling, confessed her fears of being stupid, irresponsible, lazy, or just about any other undesirable trait she could think of. She told us that she always feels better about herself when she's dating a guy. "It's like I'm somehow more complete," she said.
Les looked at me with knowing eyes. It was obvious. We'd heard this same story with different names and faces many times before. Stephanie was riddled with insecurity and desperately afraid of losing her boyfriend because, for the time being, he was what was giving her a sense of self. By being attached to Dan, Stephanie felt more whole.
"I'd do anything for Dan," Stephanie volunteered.
"Maybe that's the problem," Les boldly replied.
Stephanie looked surprised, but at the same time, inquisitive. The rest of our session was spent holding up a figurative mirror to help Stephanie see what she was doing. Like an anxious child dreading a parent's departure, she was trying desperately to avoid a slip-up that would cause her boyfriend to leave. With Dan and all the rest, Stephanie was more concerned about pleasing her partner than she was about building a relationship. Why? Because, like everyone else lacking a solid sense of personal wholeness, she was looking to another person to complete her identity. No wonder she was terrified of a breakup.
The human quest for completion can be overwhelmingly powerful, yet it generally doesn't operate at the conscious level. It does its work below the surface and drives us into believing some of the most lethal of all relationship lies.
Exercise 1: Your Relational Readiness
Socrates was right. Every once in a while it's good to take a deep breath, undergo evaluation, and "know thyself." We all need objective feedback now and then. And when it comes to assessing what we bring to our own relationships, most of us need all the help we can get. This first exercise in the Relationships Workbook is a self-test that will help you identify your own compulsion for completion.
LIES THAT SABOTAGE OUR RELATIONSHIPS
The pioneering sociologist George Herbert Mead was known for saying, "The self can only exist in relationship to other selves." In other words, having a relationship, being a member of a community, helps us discover who we are. We couldn't agree more. But while relationships are the path to discovering the self, they do not guarantee the development of a complete self. That's the rub. If we have not achieved a solid sense of who we are on our own, we are destined to believe one of two subtle lies guaranteed to sabotage all our relationships: (1) I need this person to be complete, and (2) If this person needs me, I'll be complete.
I Need This Person to Be Complete
By attaching ourselves to another, according to this first lie, we become instantly whole. Complete. All our needs are met. Case closed. The enticement is too much for the needy to resist. Who can pass up a short-cut, as it were, to personal growth? No wonder so many drink its poison.
Rebecca sure did. In her late twenties, she was a study in misery. She'd dated Tom a few times in college, but nothing serious ever developed. A few years later, a job brought Tom back to Seattle, where he and Rebecca attended the same church and began to pal around. "We're more than friends," is the way she described it. "You could say we're dating, but the sparks aren't really flying, at least for Tom." She talked about how Tom was focused more on his career in marketing than his relationships. In fact, he was now considering a move to Kansas City to enroll in a training program that would make him more attractive to potential employers. That's what brought Rebecca to our office.
After four months of quasi-dating in Seattle, Rebecca was considering a move to Kansas City to be with Tom. "My job is nothing to brag about," she told us, "and I have an aunt in KC who said I could stay in her spare room for a while."
I (Les) thought I might be misunderstanding and asked for some clarification: "You're going to move halfway across the country to be near a guy that has made no commitment to your relationship?"
"I know! Isn't it crazy?" Rebecca said with nervous excitement. "But Tom and I were made for each other; he just doesn't know it yet. It probably doesn't make much sense, but it's something I've got to do. I mean, something could really develop between us."
I winced inside, knowing how much she longed for a relationship and how potentially painful such a decision could be. We explored other options for a few minutes, but she wasn't interested. She didn't want advice. Rebecca was headed to Kansas City-following her relocated knight in shining armor-and there was no talking her out of it.
Have you ever seen a scenario like this? It's not unusual. When people buy into the myth that another person will meet all their needs, they will do almost anything-quit their job, change their appearance, have sex, get pregnant, or travel to the ends of the earth-just to be with them. People who believe another person will complete them by meeting all their needs become human chameleons. Remember Zelig from the Woody Allen movie of the same name? He became who everyone around him wanted him to be. He was externally defined, looking to others to tell him who he was. People who believe this lie do the same thing. The problem is that chasing after another person to have a relationship that makes you feel better about yourself spells certain disaster. And Rebecca's situation was no exception.
Six months after her move, Rebecca showed up again at our office door. "Hey! I thought you were in Kansas City," Leslie exclaimed.
"Not anymore," said Rebecca. "Things didn't work out so well." For the next thirty minutes Rebecca told us how after only a few weeks, Tom began dating another woman he met in his training program, and they were close to getting engaged. She said she was doing all right, but since she had "lost" Tom, she was lowering her expectations and "settling" for guys she would have never considered previously. Before leaving our office that day, Rebecca spent at least thirty minutes tearing Tom apart.
Too many people attach themselves to another person to obtain approval, affirmation, purpose, safety, and of course, identity. And when the inevitable disappointment happens, they complain bitterly that this person failed them.
The truth is, self-worth does not come from the mere existence or presence of someone in your life. When you come to a relationship lacking personal self-worth, all you can offer is neediness. And even if you do win the heart of another, you'll still, over time, come up empty. That's the poison of this lie. Expecting another person-whether it be a friend, a dating partner, or your husband or wife-to provide you with your life is unrealistic and actually unfair. It isn't anyone else's job to give you an identity or make you whole. People in your life are meant to share it, not be it.
If This Person Needs Me, I'll Be Complete
The second relationship lie is just as lethal as the first, but more cruel. The person living this lie appears to be less desperate. They aren't contorting themselves to win the approval of another. Instead, they are seeking someone simply to win. Operating out of the same vacuum of personal identity and self-worth, they want a relationship with someone-anyone-who will build up their weak ego. They aren't interested in commitment, only conquest. And the more conquests, the better.
For believers of this lie, a person becomes an object to acquire, like a shiny prize with bragging rights. What they feel about the person they are dating doesn't matter as much as what they feel about themselves when they are with their date. Their attitude demonstrates hedonism at its height. And it shows little respect for others.
We recently attended a play at the Seattle Repertory Theater to see Rex Harrison reprise his famous role in the classic musical, My Fair Lady. The play begins with Professor Henry Higgins standing on a London street. Next to him is his old friend Colonel Pickering, and they're looking at the third character, Liza, a flower girl, a street urchin. The two men talk back and forth and make a gentleman's wager to see if Professor Higgins can turn the flower girl into a princess. Higgins spends long hours teaching Liza proper English and proper mannerisms. The test of his teaching comes on the night of a large social event. Liza, in a fancy gown, is presented as a princess-and people believe it.
At home later that night, Professor Higgins is out of the room and Liza is sitting with Colonel Pickering. She's reflecting on what's happened in her life. "I've finally figured out the difference between a flower girl and a princess," she says. "It's the way people treat you. And 'enry 'iggins treats me like a flower girl. For him, I'll always be a flower girl."
The people buying into this second lie-"If this person needs me, I'll be complete"-are like Professor Higgins. For them, a person is just another project, an accomplishment to put on their relationship resume. They don't have to respect the person; just being needed by the person is enough to make them feel better about themselves, at least for the moment.
And if you're thinking the believers of this lie are simply shopping around for a person to care for, they're not. What they really care about is the dream of having others care for them. It's just that they don't realize that in trying to make their dream come true, they have to make huge compromises. Let's face it, when your goal is to be needed, you're not going to attract the healthiest of people. Any generic boyfriend or girlfriend will do.
At twenty-seven years of age, Rick, a meticulous dresser with a healthy physique and an easy smile, had dated more women than he could count. He was active in two different singles groups at local churches, and his reputation as a "lady's man" was wearing thin. By the time I (Les) met him, he was exploring the idea of "settling down."
The setting was a picnic table at a retreat where Leslie and I were the speakers. Rick was telling me about Tina, his most recent catch. "I don't know what to do," he said. "She's nice and everything, but she's not-oh, I don't know."