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How I Found a Good Partner, Why He's Good for Me, and What I Learned Along the Way

I was forty-years-old when I married for the first time two summers ago. This long-awaited event was the result of many years of discharge, goal-setting, and a long, challenging search. It was a major victory against chronic distresses that had dogged me all my life. I've been asked many times to share the story and what I learned-it seems to inspire others and to contain some lessons.

FROZEN NEEDS, DIFFICULT RELATIONSHIPS

It seems to me that most of us search for someone who looks like s/he can fulfill unmet needs we had early on in our lives. Until we get the chance to sufficiently discharge these frozen needs, we are unlikely to have very good judgment about the relationships we choose. We may play out the distresses of our early years, hoping the other person can figure out how to counsel us. Many relationships turn out to be a struggle in the present between each person's old frozen needs. Relationships can become confusing and painful until we get a chance to discharge more.

For me, this search for someone to fill my frozen needs resulted in a patterned attachment to particular situations or to a particular "type." No one or nothing else looked attractive. To give up the attachment felt horrible-something I had devoted my entire life to was at an end, and it felt like this was equivalent to death. Only when adherence to the pattern was broken and my actual behavior changed could I fully discharge whatever hurts lay at the root of the attachment. Only then could I begin to feel any different. I believe it is possible to feel attracted to the incredibly wide variety of human beings in existence. As the patterned attachments drop away, we can choose more re-emergent situations and people to have close in our lives.

I had my own particular struggles. As a woman, my mom was a great model, a feminist who emphasized her daughters' power in the wide world over the traditional female roles in the home and family. Mom had been unsatisfied with the limited role society insisted on for her, and although she had four children, she would not give up being active in the world. It was taken for granted that I'd be politically active and take risks in traditionally male fields. I was proud to be among the women who broke barriers, who lived unusual lives.

Yet I was deeply, desperately lonely. Our childhoods had left me and my sisters and brother wary of intimate relationships outside the circle of siblings. As a young child I had been left on my own while my parents waged (and won) a battle to save my older sister's life. I decided that my life was about making the world right for others and gave up expecting that anyone would be committed to me. As an adult, my frozen needs drove me into one destructive relationship after another. Each lasted for several years, since I had great difficulty letting go of anyone who would pay attention to me-even after the relationship had long since proven unworkable.

Although I started Co-Counseling in my early twenties, recordings of deep distrust made it difficult to really use the process for many years. Still, discharging gave me enough relief from the misery I felt to keep me at it. However, by my mid-thirties I had succeeded in becoming very, very confused as a result of my efforts to "hang in there" in unworkable relationships.

BREAKING THE ADDICTION

The last of my destructive relationships ended when I was thirty-four. During most of the four years of that relationship I had felt willing to sacrifice anything-including my identity, my opinions, and determining how my day went-to make sure my partner would not leave. Following that breakup it became clear that if I was ever to have a relationship that was re-emergent for me, I would have to rigidly avoid certain kinds of involvements (in particular, triangles) that had been problematic for me over and over again.

This proved difficult. Time and again I found myself on the verge of a relationship with someone who was already involved with someone else. It seemed that the only men who were interesting to me were in committed relationships. As I turned away from the prospect of a sexual relationship with each of these men, it felt like I was killing myself, denying myself this kind of closeness with them. It took discharge and discipline, but like conquering any addiction, it was worth it. This became clearer as the months and years went by and I began to enjoy men who were unattached.

DISCHARGING FROZEN NEEDS

I felt terribly confused about relationships. The feelings of confusion were persistent and made me feel discouraged about being able to move forward in this area. But I found it was still worth it to keep discharging, even when I felt confused or discouraged. The confusions and discouragements discharged, too, as I worked on the frozen needs. Discharging on frozen needs and early sexual memories may go better when it's systematic, but I did get somewhere, even if it wasn't systematic.

Through my thirties, I discharged hard on the frozen needs that had set me up for the destructive relationships. Not that I knew what I was doing-I simply found myself endlessly crying, mourning losses that seemed to be in the present. Slowly I made my way to remembering the traumatic moments of early childhood abandonment and systematically pursued discharging them. Driven by discouragement about my previous relationships, I pursued discharging early sexual memories-always with copious discharge on chronic isolation and the expectation of abandonment. My recordings made it hard for me to imagine or want anything for myself, and a recording of a pre-natal foreboding made the idea of pregnancy repulsive to me, further limiting my ability to think about a relationship and family. Even though confusion dogged me, I pressed on in this area because I didn't know what else to do. I struggled to understand the difference between "hanging" frozen needs on someone (trying to get them to fill the old needs) and finding someone whose presence in my life could act as a contradiction to the distress.

I used the years alone well: I changed my work, went to graduate school and finished a master's degree, referenced and built my RC Community, solved some long-standing health problems, and greatly expanded my influence in my community. I applied the considerable love I had to give to the community around me. Except for my glaring singleness, I was truly my activist mother's daughter.

During this time I attempted to date, but until I reached a certain threshold with discharging the frozen needs, the experience continued to confuse me and make me feel ashamed. So periods of venturing into the world of intimate relationships would be followed by periods of withdrawal. As I reached thirty-five and on every birthday following, recordings of inadequacy for being unmarried and childless would torture me. I could rail against the sexism that made me feel less female, against the vindictive backlash that was set up to humiliate so many women my age who had chosen to lead unusual lives. But I also knew there was a limit to how far I could extend my influence in the world without deep closeness at the center of my life. While many other women struggled to take back the world, my task was to take back intimacy.

RAISING THE LEVEL OF CONTRADICTION

I believe the first step in systematically tackling finding a relationship is to set up contradictions to frozen needs and chronic distress everywhere in one's life. This may mean getting very close to others and discharging whatever that brings up. It helped me to set up relationships with counselors where I could safely work on "attractions" to them and on getting closer to each other. It also helped to build many close relationships outside of Co-Counseling and to bring people very close into the daily details of my life. Bringing others so close into my life has made me feel some awful feelings, but this is one way to make sure the distresses keep becoming available for discharge-and it's generally a useful thing in one's life anyway.

With nudges from counselors, I set out to raise the level of closeness and intimacy in my life. The point was to set up contradictions to my frozen needs and chronic distress everywhere in my life that I could imagine. I set up several counseling relationships with men I cared for and felt "attracted" to and who were thinking clearly enough that I could discharge directly on getting closer to them. I built myself a community, creating many friendships and getting as close as I could in each of them. When my cousin ended her marriage and returned to town with her three-year-old son, I became one of her chief supports. I spent night after night on the phone with her when I wasn't physically with her. To help her to get out of the house (and eventually so that she could take an RC class), I spent evenings playing with and getting close to her son. After several months of this, she and her son went to visit relatives for a week, and I found myself desperately lonely. I realized that supporting her was giving me some of the closeness I needed.

SETTING UP PARTNERSHIPS TO TACKLE THE DISTRESS

I found that setting up mutual support was a powerful tool for moving out of the distress. It was especially helpful for me to be close to someone who remembered the days when my distress was laid in and who understood how it may have affected me. Such a person (a long-time friend, a sibling, or other relative) could help me think about the distress and how to set up accurate contradictions to it, and help me "read" present-time situations with an understanding of the distresses clouding my thinking. Also, it seems to me that if there were several people who were tackling similar distresses, it could be helpful to start a discharge group or support group, or even a non-RC team whose members check in on each other's progress.

Eventually my cousin and her son, my cousin's brother and his child, and I moved into a house together. We realized that living together would give us the opportunity to come up against all our early recordings about intimacy, and that together we now had the chance to move forward. This partnership proved extremely valuable. During the time we lived together, all three of us adults found partners (although one relationship has ended). Living with my cousin's son, now six, also gave me the opportunity to discharge much of the distress of my childhood that made me think of parenting with revulsion.

Over the years, my second sister had been a great ally in figuring out what happened to our sibling group and how to heal. The early years hadn't hit her quite as hard as they had me. She had been trying to figure out relationships since she left home at eighteen. During the years I was alone, she built a good relationship with a man whom she married the year I was thirty-eight. As the first of my sibling group to find a permanent partner, she broke an emotional log-jam. If she could break out of her difficulties, logic dictated that it had to be possible for me, too.

SETTING GOALS

No matter what the difficulties, it made sense to assume that logically, there was no reason I could not completely re-emerge from them. It helped to set short- and medium-term goals, so I could break down my longer-term project into smaller, achievable steps.

Five months after my sister's wedding, I visited with her and her husband. The relationship still looked good. It was almost New Year's and almost my (thirty-ninth) birthday, a time when I have always set new goals for myself. It had to be possible for me to find a good partner; I decided then that I was going to do it. This meant setting concrete goals and arranging my life so as to make an all-out assault on any patterns that came up along the way. For several years already, I had passed up increased work responsibilities with the idea of keeping time and attention for this particular struggle. I had also rid myself of some health problems that used to eat up any extra energy I had after work and my RC commitments. If I could accomplish so much in every other area of my life, it had to be true that nothing could stop me in this area either. I resolved to find at least one someone who was good for me by the time I turned forty.

RESEARCH

I decided that in order to find someone whose presence in my life would be re-emergent, I had to learn which qualities in a person could function as living contradictions to my chronic distresses. This was not just a matter of listing superficial qualities that would be nice to find in someone. Rather, I tried to pinpoint several key attitudes or attributes which, when I had been exposed to them in the past, had enhanced my life in ways that contradicted my chronic distresses. I reviewed past relationships for what was re-emergent in them. I arranged to meet many, many people and evaluate what was and was not re-emergent for me in the personalities that presented themselves.

While I was open to all avenues, it hadn't worked to rely on friends to introduce me to men. People were too busy to help me create social experiences on as regular a basis as I needed in order to move forward quickly. So I read the personals ads in the local alternative press and the regional Jewish paper and began responding to every one that looked interesting. This was expensive (advertising is free; the services make their money from phone responses), but if I was going to make an all-out effort, this had to be seen as an investment. More than anything, this was a process of research. I would talk for an hour or two with each of the men who called me back. Certainly in each case I hoped I would find "the one," but the daily process was more like: "I like this quality about this person. I don't want anything to do with that distress." It was fascinating. I met one man who clearly was not right for me, but there was one thing about him that stuck with me-he was completely unpretentious. I noticed that this quality was important to me, especially when compared to other contacts where the pretense was painfully obvious. I did not want to live on a daily basis with that particular distress.

THE REAL LIST: CONTRACICTING THE DISTRESSES

Thus I began to construct a list. My sister's story was again instructive. Before she met her husband, Jñ, she had spent several years in a relationship with a man, Kñ, who matched all her more superficial requirements. Kñ was in the same field as she, had similar political perspectives as she, even loved to dance which was her greatest passion in life. Yet something never worked in their relationship, and they were endlessly pained about it. They broke up again and again, only to get back together because they were such good friends and they were both lonely. For my sister, what Kñ lacked was an ability to play and be silly with her, and silly playfulness had been the ongoing, most dependable contradiction to her distresses which had kept her afloat all her life. She had always felt judged in their day-to-day interactions, and after years they still couldn't figure out how to change this. When Jñ came onto the scene, a lot became clear. Jñ wasn't even in a similar line of work, his understanding of her work was limited (although he respected it), his values and political perspectives were completely independent and not in line with her assumptions. But he knew how to play with her. Jñ's play provided her with the day-to-day contradiction she needed.

I realized that there was the list I have kept of desirable qualities which would be nice to have-a superficial list of qualities such as line of work, political affiliations, appearance. Then there is a "real list": those qualities in the presence of which my life will flourish. As I met one man after another, I began to compile this "real list," beginning with "complete lack of pretense." I thought back to my previous relationships and searched for the qualities that had been good for me to be around, that had made a difference in the quality of my life. I also figured out which items belonged on the superficial list-nice if I can get it, but not what will make up a relationship that will allow me to flourish. In the past, I had made some bad decisions to get involved on the basis of these qualities. "Entertaining" and "obviously bright" went back to the superficial list, but "home-centered," "unpretentious," "able to get close," "quietly communicative" and "able to be good to people on a daily basis" became the basis of a short REAL list of qualities that could act as contradictions to my chronic distresses.

DEVELOPING JUDGMENT

I felt I couldn't trust my thinking in this area, especially since my distresses had guided me into destructive relationships in the past, and I wasn't able to discharge quickly enough to stay clear in every situation that presented itself. But I found that as I discharged, I could trust my thinking more and more. Exposing myself to situations that might have been confusing in the past, and practicing paying attention to my own thinking instead of the patterned recordings that came up in such situations, was enormously freeing. Even if I continued to make mistakes, I could re-decide to think my way through situations and move ahead. I wasn't able to get this practice at (and therefore, confidence in) thinking and trusting my own judgment until I set up many opportunities to try it out.

As I pursued meeting many men, my sessions continued to focus on discharging frozen needs and chronic feelings of rejection that could drive me unthinkingly into the wrong relationship. Certainly I made mistakes. I was not in complete control of my distresses. I was still vulnerable to pursuing the affections of anyone who would pay attention to me. But I was getting enough discharge to be able to make decisions about each person before my mistakes became irreversible. It was an exciting and powerful time. I had no other information about the men I was meeting than what I received through my own perceptions. Anything, good or bad, could happen. I had to trust my own judgment and assume I could get out of any truly wrong situation. I learned to make decisions quickly, decide if I wanted a particular person in my life or not, and move ahead. These were important lessons for me as a female, especially given my history of bad decisions and the distrust I had developed in my own judgment.

After several months, I wrote my own ad and placed it in the local weekly. I thought strategically about which paper to place it in according to the kind of man I was looking for. Even more important, I wrote the ad as a screening device. Several years earlier I had placed an ad which I now recognized as an attempt to get a session. The content of that ad had been, more or less, "I really am attractive, really I am." More than forty men had responded in the space of one week, and I'd been overwhelmed by the numbers and restimulated by the heavy sexual distresses in the responses. The new ad honestly stated who I am, using phrases that I knew would turn away heavy pretense or men intimidated by strong and powerful women ("unusual breadth of life experience, progressive working-class values"). I listed hoped-for qualities: "quiet and communicative, creative, and having a penchant for pillow fights or stargazing," while stating a willingness to be surprised.

I received ten responses in a three-week period, and about another ten when I ran the ad again a couple of months later. This number was manageable. And now I began to meet men who I thought were gem-like human beings. They might or might not be right for me, but they were in the ballpark.

CONTINUING TO DISCHARGE AND TO THINK STRATEGICALLY

It was helpful to use Co-Counselors' attention to discharge on mistakes or disappointments, and then move on. I cleaned up lots of distress along the way, but the point was not to allow the distress to stop me from what I had set out to do.

Over time, I could size up each situation more quickly and more fully. I learned that I didn't need to spend weeks or months or years getting to know someone well enough to know if he would provide a re-emergent influence in my life. In each situation, I could take the opportunity to evaluate what I had done well and what I hadn't yet figured out how to do. I could then apply what I'd learned in the next situation.

One man who answered my ad got very close very quickly, got very scared, and disappeared. I had to figure out how far I was going to go to pursue him and had to discharge hard for weeks while giving up. Another had a delightful mind which kept us both entertained for weeks. We had several lovely adventures together but eventually we stopped calling each other. On my part, it was because I couldn't figure out how and where to crack through the surface to some real connection and closeness. A third was a total mensch, a real grown-up, a man with similar life experiences and values to my own, but who carried a certain sadness that I couldn't easily cheer up. We liked each other very, very much. When he told me he was getting seriously involved with someone else, we agreed that we were not a match for each other, and I went home and got some help discharging long and hard about rejection. Just before I met Dñ, the man I eventually married, I made a big blooper mistake with a man named Tñ. I knew that my judgment during the five hours we had spent on the phone was completely off! And yet I felt I needed to give him a chance, so I spent the evening with him, got hooked by his sexual distress, and spent the night with him! By the time I left in the morning I was sure I wanted nothing to do with him as a potential partner. It was a mistake, and I felt some shame. But I could discharge the shame, and the mistake was not irrevocable. More discharging and more re-evaluation.

When I met Dñ, I knew quickly that this was a mensch. I spent the next week telling my cousin, "I liked him." For our second date, I decided to find a way, other than talk, to test the possibilities for closeness. I invited Dñ to bring his guitar to my house so we could sing together. Although our repertoires covered slightly different territory, we negotiated easily which songs to sing and sang well together. By the end of the evening, any physical awkwardness was gone, and I knew we could be friends. Applying what I had learned before, prior to our third date I spent a session thinking about ways I could find out whether Dñ was ready to get really close. I knew that just before our date he would be doing something pretty restimulating for him, so I decided to offer him room to talk about it. I was also coming down with a flu and decided rather than cancel our date, I'd let him see me a little vulnerable. All of this worked well. Dñ had a sweet "session" in which he revealed a lot of his history to me, I shared some of my own struggles, and we had a pillow fight and ended up cuddling. When my cousin and her son walked in, they all took to each other quite naturally. Things speeded up quickly after that, as we assessed each other's good judgment and moved closer and closer to each other.

WHAT MAKES A RELATIONSHIP "WORKABLE"?

In the past I had often spoken of a relationship as "workable" or "unworkable." I thought I knew what I meant, but I believe I didn't really have an adequate definition for this concept. I will now offer the following: a "workable" relationship is one where we can recognize distress as distress (and not reality), where we have slack for each other's distresses as they are now, and where we are oftenñbut not alwaysñfairly easily able to contradict each other's chronic distresses.

Dñ and I were both ready to be close to someone, and we each yearned to pour love out to someone. But both of us needed an indication that the other did not carry patterns that would clobber us, a sign that we could give to each other without drawing the same old restimulations down on ourselves. As the weeks wore on, I knew this was a "workable" relationship.

Dñ believes it's our common goals, a common language, and common values that make our relationship workableñthings I have put on the "superficial" list. It's true that our relationship is partially based on some common goals that draw us towards our future together, and these are helpful, but they are not the core of what "works" for me. Our values are roughly the same and grow closer as we live together, but I did not consider them to be so close when I first got to know him. Instead, there is something about his presence that contradicts my early distresses: he is here, solid as a rock, and not leaving. His complete commitment to me is a given. Those who know me have seen the differenceñI am deeply relaxed and secure in a way that no one has seen me before. I do something similar for him, though I can only articulate it by acknowledging that he cries with me as he has never had a chance to do in his life.

Jennifer Helbraun Abramson
Berkeley, California, USA


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00