Breaking the chains that bind us

by Debbie Leach

To use Robert Ennis’ phrase, in most of my closest personal relationships I have “Goofed Gloriously.” My exaggerated mistakes with relationships, in conjunction with my spiritual practice, have enabled me to see certain major habits that trapped me within a cycle of self-destruction. A prominent habit has been to engage in what is commonly known as victim syndrome. My “Joan of Arc” martyr performance was perfected in every way, so that I could blame anyone else other than myself for whatever buffeted me in the winds of life. Thus my Achilles heel was relationships. I was accomplished in any other way, but in relationships, I sucked.

I had this crazy idea that in order to be in relationship, you first write “walk here” on your back and then prostrate yourself in front of your partner’s feet, in the hope that he or she would find you satisfactory and accept you. It has taken me many years to realize that this is not the case, that self-love must precede giving in to the desires of others.

The most recent example is the split with my partner of a little less than two years. I’ve undergone the normal grieving process that comes with loss. My partner and I had all the plans and dreams that go along with the hopes of relationship. I have to say that I still love my partner and that will never change, but I have had the opportunity to place my attention on many of the attachments that grew between us.

The relationship started pure but attachments grew like old ivy you just can’t kill. We both had our own attachments to recreate, our own repeats of what we had created in other relationships for ourselves. Like ivy, the attachments mould tightly to fit whatever they cling to, eventually suffocating and killing their hosts. The only way to stop them killing something beautiful like a relationship is to cut them off one by one.

The attachments had first to be observed, then appreciated, and those needy parts that created them had to be loved. This is harder than can be imagined because we perceive these desires as “real” yet they come from our childhood conditioning and are not true needs, but are rather destructive forces inside us that set out to “protect” us from the world and keep us in the place of safe misery that we're used to occupying. They can be easily recognised because they take us to a low energy point, making us feel sad, unhappy, angry, apathetic, unworthy and even suicidal. Their trademarks are duty, loyalty, guilt, coercion, propitiation, “should,” “must,” “ought,” and “the right thing to do” etc. You may say “oh, that's easy to spot,” but it isn't, just as inside the eye of the hurricane, all seems calm. Our android would rather we didn’t see things that keep us chained to our conditioning, so it keeps us busy thinking, doing, reacting etc.

My childhood experiences led me to seek rejection and pity, and throughout my adult life I skillfully created circumstances where I was guaranteed to be rejected or “dumped” and then receive the opium of pity. These rejections were painful and unsatisfying, so to avoid rejection, I created another category of relationship in which to establish the dynamic of victim and pity, the unfulfilling relationship. Here I selected someone with whom I shared surface commonalities but someone with whom I was more fundamentally incompatible. The pattern was for my partner to become dependent upon and needy of me, looking up to me to be the great benefactor and provider of all. Simultaneously I opened myself to bullying with the weapons of helplessness, guilt, coercion, responsibility, loyalty and duty. While this could never provide a fully satisfying life, I thought that this pattern could prevent the victim pain of “being dumped.” Instead, I ended up trapped in my “pity” for my partner, while he was trapped by his expectation of me providing everything.

I remained in my “unfulfilling relationship” with my husband Phil for 17 years. We had two wonderful children, but I now recognize that the dynamics for destruction were in place from the start of the relationship. Once the euphoria of infatuation was over, there remained the desperate neediness of our attachments to one another and a distance that we constantly tried to cement over, either by being apart, or by distracting ourselves with a myriad of activities. Phil and I had turned bullying and victimization using coercion, low self-esteem and lack of communication into a rare work of art. Although we shared some very beautiful moments together, such as the birth of our children and their achievements in life, the seeds of destruction were always there. For me, it was the perfect “sacrifice and pity” scenario, with everyone saying “poor Debbie, married to a b****** like Phil,” but I was a co-creator of those dynamics. Inside our relationship, Phil was the spoilt little boy who got attention by being naughty and not being capable of doing anything for himself, while I viewed myself as his protector and provider. When I told him I wanted a third child, he said “Why do you want a third child when you have me?” He promptly went off to get a vasectomy just in case.

The change came ten years after this incident, when I began Tayu practice. I felt pushed to the edge, and using my practice, I said “no” to something Phil desired. The sense of fear of possible rejection inside me was so great that my mouth dried up, my stomach clenched, my heart pounded and popped out of my chest and I couldn't get the words out properly. I ordinarily acquiesced to everything he wanted – eventually – and I shall never forget the look of pain and disapproval on his face when I said no. I have to say that it was almost too much to bear and I almost gave in. He tried twice again afterwards and each time I almost capitulated. I knew my refusal would cause unspoken tension between us and my act was never forgotten. I left the marriage eight months after that.

When I left, I expected to receive pity from others, as well as internal guilt, as if I had done something wrong. Instead, everyone said “What took you so long to wake up?” I felt released and elated because the pity I expected was not forthcoming. Although I couldn’t really “see” Phil properly at that time, I did see the wisdom of the Universe through these other people who loved me so dearly. It was very hard to change my habits and I was tempted to go back on several occasions, especially when pressure was put on me. Phil was very charming and persuasive; he knew all the buttons to press in me including some buttons I didn’t know I had. He even went to the point of having a tattoo done on his arm (he detests tattoos) to make me feel guilty about leaving. I did feel guilty, especially when I saw him looking so angry, lonely, bereft, thin, drawn, inert and unable to move out of the depth he had sunk to. He was waiting for me to come back and was unwilling to change. He couldn’t let himself understand that I had changed and I didn’t want to play that “blame game” anymore. He was so stubborn and fixed that it took him a year and a half to accept that I wasn't coming back, even though I made it plain to him from the start.

He still tries to make me feel guilty in one way or another every time I see him, and the children are often the weapons. Initially when I left, they treated me like a piece of dirt. My daughter was sullen and dismissive of me. She reached a low point when she showed me her poems outlining just how much she hated me. Because of my practice, I was able to listen to her pain, without becoming attached to it. That gave her the space to express how she felt and enabled her to communicate with me as she had never done before in her life. My son treated me with contempt and wouldn’t speak to me for a while. But I’m learning to bear it and deal with it better each time. As I do so, as I become more resistant to their demands, their respect for me grows and my relationship with them improves, but my work in this area continues.

For over a year I felt bad about what “I had done” to Phil. But through my practice, I recognize that our relationship was a co-creation. His unwillingness to get on with his life is his responsibility and choice, not mine. The hardest thing I had to do was to stand aside and refuse to help him when he asked for help, watching him sink deeper and deeper into the abyss of self-pity, despair and desperation of his own making. Through my practice, I resisted the temptation to “help” him as I knew it would only make him more dependent, and re-create those old co-dependencies again. I tenuously held onto my sense of self-worth and refused to sacrifice myself to his neediness.

But this story does have a happy ending. Because I was firm in my conviction eventually he came around to realize that, although I love him, I wasn’t going to go back into our former relationship, and therefore we could not be man and wife anymore. He has now been able to move on and has a steady job for the first time in his life. It was hard for me to resist the temptation to “help” him, but I did it and now, through this, I realize that no one can help anyone else, we can only help ourselves. I can see I used to devise to have someone else to blame for my unhappiness. My mechanical conditioning required me to recreate the security of the known painful childhood memory I held so tightly onto. Part of me wanted to continue to give and receive the pity I fed on for attention as a child. Yet, this pattern only brought me more pity and more misery as I progressively sunk deeper and deeper into that destructive pattern of behaviour.

The only way out is truth and honesty. With truth and honesty to oneself, you can recognize your own destructive patterns and see where they take you – often into the depths of self-hate, destruction and despair. To break free from the attachments requires constant attention and vigilance. Simply stated, if it makes you feel bad inside, then it’s wrong, and if it makes you feel good, then it’s right.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “We forge the chains that bind us” but I venture to add that “breaking them again is our liberation and our salvation.”