My cousin Brady and his girlfriend Allyson are expecting babies. Twins, to be precise. He’s 26, and she’s 24. They found themselves on the unexpected end of a positive pregnancy test after Allyson became one of those women to defy the birth control odds and become pregnant while taking the Pill. So, they have moved in together and are planning for their family.
But the babies aren’t the problem. It’s the history that predates their conception by many, many years that is. Brady and Allyson’s mutual histories are fraught, but the details are not really relevant. What is relevant (at least to me, at least today) is that Brady is scared to death of losing Allyson and (in his own words) doesn’t understand why she won’t let him love her.
Fortunately today he called the right person to talk about this one.
As Brady began to describe Allyson’s behavior, the things she is says to him, and her overall demeanor, I felt, with a sinking heart, the recognition of an old and powerful foe. Allyson is making demands of him and, when he complies, making more. She is throwing down the gauntlet, and when he refuses to pick it up and submits himself to her will, she is enraged. She constantly tells him that he needs help, that he is messed up, that he needs to work on himself, and when he does, she is not mollified for even a moment. The more he tells her he loves her and wants to be close to her, the more she pulls away and gives him more lists of things he’s doing wrong. Even as she acknowledges that he is trying and doing a good job meeting her demands, she cuts him down and threatens to leave.
He is, understandably, a bit confused.
I’m not. Because I understand Allyson perfectly.
Allyson has abandonment issues. Serious, deeply-rooted, abandonment issues from a personal history guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes. I know, in the core of my being, that Allyson is testing Brady because she is scared to death. And the biggest, worst, most unforgivable thing he has done is to believe himself capable of loving her.
Because, you see, Allyson believes that she is unlovable.
Somewhere in the darkest parts of herself, Allyson does not believe that she is worth loving. Her life history has proved this to her subconscious, and a subconscious stubbornly clings to the defenses it believes will protect us from future wounds. It sees truths where there aren’t any, because it seeks the simplest and most obvious answer to every pain. When people who are supposed to love us by the simple laws of nature do not, then clearly it is because we are unlovable. The laws of nature cannot be wrong, certainly, so it must be us that is lacking, unworthy, flawed in the worst way.
Therefore, it logically follows, the subconscious tells us, that anyone who could possibly love us is horribly flawed themselves. Obviously, there is something terribly wrong with them if they believe that they could love us, that we are worth loving. They must be awful themselves, because no sane, emotionally healthy person could find us worthy of true, unconditional love and acceptance. So it is up to us to figure out what is so wrong with this person and do it before they figure out for themselves how worthless we really are. It is a race to push them away before they discover the truth about us and inevitably leave, disgusted and appalled that they ever considered making a life with us.
Of course, the subconscious does its devil’s work without consulting the conscious part of our brain. That’s the part that really, really, really hopes that this person is true and honest and so wonderful that he has seen something in us that is so perfect and special that we are actually deserving of love after all. We hope against hope that he is right and we are wrong and somehow he will rescue us from our self-imposed exile from love and intimacy.
Because, let’s just acknowledge the obvious here: real intimacy isn’t possible with truth and vulnerability. Innately we know this. It is why, early in relationships, we all share our stories and hear theirs and gauge reactions and are buoyed by every acceptance of every little quirk and shortcoming. We know instinctively that the only way to get close to someone is be vulnerable in that moment and see them accept our vulnerability and whatever weakness it allowed them to see.
Adults with abandonment issues are not always closed off. In fact, I think what confuses the heck out of the people who do love us is that some of us (Allyson and myself included) share a lot of ourselves. We seem open and forthcoming and the types who proverbially wear our hearts on our sleeves. We also tend to be initially very accepting of others’ flaws and emotional baggage. I believe this is because subconsciously we’re hearing their stories and thinking “Hell, that’s nothing. Is that all you’ve got? I’m a freak of nature. I’m unlovable.” People — friends, lovers, spouses even — are sucked in. They, understandably, are comforted by the acceptance we offer and reassured by our own apparent willingness to share. We seem to, as a friend once described me, “incapable of having a superficial relationship with anyone.”
And it’s not an act. I swear on a stack of Bibles that it’s not. Our acceptance and our willingness to share are real and honest and well-intentioned. We do sincerely want to be close to other people. We do sincerely accept their short-comings. We aren’t acting or manipulating. I promise, and if you don’t believe me, read the psychiatric journals and you’ll discover I’m telling you the truth.
But, inevitably, when the person we are getting close to begins to truly care about us, the subconscious sends up the flares and sounds the alarms. What is wrong with this person? And we begin to dissect them, searching frantically for clues as to how they could believe us worth this attention and caring. We are some of the friends, lovers, and family members you have known who seem to self-sabotage Every. Single. Relationship. We can run off a good man faster than you can say “What the hell was wrong with that one?” And we can stay and defend a total loser for decades if we have deemed him as unworthy as us and therefore our perfect fit. We are the women who date the users and players, and the men who pamper and coddle the princesses and manipulators. Our emotional brethren are those who have been beaten and abused; in fact, sometimes we start out as one and end up as the other. Some of us engage in breathtakingly self-destructive behavior in a pathological display of self-hatred.
What makes this insecurity so insidious is that it is deeply buried. I am quite sure that were I to say all of this to Allyson, she would have one of two reactions. She would either a.) be appalled and defensive and tell me that it’s ridiculous because of course she is lovable. She would point to all the people who love her and list her achievements and accomplishments and reassure me sincerely that she values herself.
Alternatively, she would b.) be shocked that I had seen through her myriad of protective layers and discerned her truth. She would dissolve into tears and stammer through an explanation of why she isn’t truly lovable, with her subconscious swimming to the surface to offer into evidence the many reasons for her unlovableness. She would acknowledge that it sounds ridiculous, but explain how and why it is true. She would apologize — for what, precisely, would not be clear — and she would assure me that she doesn’t expect me to understand.
And no amount of love or reassurance or sympathy or empathy on my part would pierce the carefully constructed and defended self-concept created by her subconscious many years ago and supported and reinforced in relationship after relationship that she has likely self-sabotaged.
But the remarkable thing about humans is our capacity to grow beyond our emotional limitations. We have the innate ability to identify and correct wrong mindsets and patterns. It isn’t easy, of course, but it is, in all likelihood, the answer to the greatest existentialist question of all, “Why are we here?”
I don’t know what it would take for Allyson to break down her protective walls, allow Brady in, and accept her own worth in his eyes. It has taken me more than 40 years to understand the problem. It might take me another 40 to fully understand the solution. One thing I do know, however, is that once the truth is out, once you are able to say all of this for the first time to someone you love, the ramparts begin, slowly, to crumble. The moat of fear surrounding your vulnerability starts to fill in with all of the love and warmth and caring that people have poured into your soul for years. And gradually, glacially, that reeking, rotting layer of your self-concept begins to shift.
I have no idea if Brady will have the patience, maturity, and love to stick it out with Allyson as she thrashes and rages and battles with her own sense of self-worth. I can’t say whether his own difficulties and history will interfere with his ability to understand and appreciate her feelings. I do hope, however, that there is some kind of happy ending waiting for these two at the end of the story. Because I love happy endings.
Especially for the unlovable.