When I was a kid I remember seeing the movie Jerry Maguire. There is a famous scene in the movie in which Jerry Maguire tells Dorothy Boyd that she completes him. That scene was all the rage back then and couples everywhere were saying it to each other in coffee shops and bars. Even I thought it was a beautiful sentiment. But now that I’m older and smarter, I have a new name for it: codependency.
I didn’t know anything about codependency before going a therapy group called Onsite. And even after I heard it defined, I didn’t realize I struggled with it myself, but I did. And it cost me relationship after relationship.
Codependency happens when too much of your sense of validation or security comes from somebody else. Now that I know what it is, I can spot it pretty easily. If somebody obsesses over whether another person likes them or returns an e-mail or whatever, it’s a symptom of codependency, though a mild one. Stalking would be a scarier version of the same tendency.
I’ve a close friend who is a love addict. He goes from girl to girl ruining relationships by smothering them. What he doesn’t realize is that no amount of love any of those girls returns is going to heal the hole in his heart.
At Onsite, our group therapist created a terrific visual example of what a healthy relationship looks like. She put three pillows on the floor and asked a couple of us to stand on the pillows. She told us to leave the middle pillow open. She pointed at my pillow and said, “Don, that’s your pillow, that’s your life. The only person who gets to step on that pillow is you. Nobody else. That’s your territory, your soul.” Then she pointed at my friend’s pillow and told her that was her pillow, that she owned it and it was her soul. Then, the therapist said, the middle pillow symbolized the relationship.
She said that both of us could step into the middle pillow any time we wanted because we’d agreed to be in a relationship. However, she said, at no point is it appro- priate to step on the other person’s pillow. What goes on in the other person’s soul is none of your business. All you’re responsible for is your soul, nobody else’s. Regarding the middle pillow, the question to ask is, “What do I want in a relationship?” If the pillow you two step on together works, that’s great. If not, move on or simply explain what you’d like life to feel like in the middle pillow and see if the other person wants that kind of relationship too. But never, she said, ever try to change each other. Know who you are and know what you want in a relationship, and give people the freedom to be themselves.
I wish I’d have heard that in my twenties. I can’t tell you how many girls’ pillows I’ve stomped on trying to get them to change. And the sleepless nights I’ve spent wondering what they were thinking or how much they liked me or whether I was a good enough man for them. A complete waste of time.
At one point, while working with our group therapist, I mentioned that if I did such and such a thing the girl I was seeing might think, blah blah blah. She stopped the session and asked me why I spent so much time wondering what other people were thinking.
“That’s going to drive you crazy, Don,” she said. “Just ask yourself if you’re happy and what you want in a relationship and that’s it. What’s going on in other people’s minds is none of your business.”
Suddenly I felt like a Peeping Tom of the soul, going through the neighborhood looking in the windows of people’s souls wondering what they were doing in there. And just like that, a habit I’d developed decades before felt creepy.
In a way, that’s the difference between my relationship with Betsy and my relationships with all the other girls. Because I know which pillow is mine and which pillow is hers, I hold Betsy loosely. If she wants to leave she can go. I’m responsible for my own health and happiness, and I’m responsible to ask what I want in a relationship and to try to make the middle pillow comfortable and safe for her, but that’s it. Of course we will stand and make promises to each other at our wedding but even then, even with a spouse, I’ve come to believe a person’s love for you can’t grow unless you hold that person loosely.
And that feels good. Unlike every other girl I’ve dated, I’ve never wondered where Betsy was or who she was with. I’ve never looked at her phone, and I’ve never looked at her Facebook page. Her life is her life and mine is mine and what we have together is a relationship. And it’s great.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me: I love Betsy more than any woman I’ve ever met and I believe I always will. But this is a healthy love, not the needy love I’ve experienced in the past. Before, I’d try to control whoever I loved so she couldn’t get away. Much of it was passive control, but it was there all the same. I used fear and guilt and shame to close my fingers around my girlfriend’s heart, and without exception I killed whatever love could have grown.
I now know there were two dominant influences that caused me to clench my fist. The first was the fact I was trying to use women to heal old wounds, and the second was the false assumption I could be made complete by any of these women in the first place.
From Scary Close by Donald Miller. Excerpted with permission from the publisher.
Donald Miller is the founder of Storyline, which helps people plan their lives using elements of story. He is the author of multiple New York Times best-sellers and is the founder of a nonprofit that helps provide mentors for children.