I've learned all the wrong ways to go about making a relationship work
Tell Me About It: I am afraid that maybe I can’t make a relationship work
‘Everyone else seems less bothered by just how bad relationships have been in the family . . . I seem to be always the one trying to make the peace.’ Photograph: Getty
My parents separated when I was five, just after my youngest brother was born. My mum discovered Dad was having an affair just after she gave birth to my brother. Over the years we have learned to adapt to the life this threw up for us; Mum has been paralysed with anxiety for as long as I can remember and Dad continued to have a series of short-term relationships throughout my childhood.
I thought I had coped with it all and Mum and Dad seemed to be getting on a bit better, making things somewhat easier for me and my younger brother. He has no experience of Mum and Dad living together but I remember it vividly even though I was only five and how crazy Mum went when she discovered his affair. My brother has recently been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and, as I learn about the disorder, I think both my mother and father have got some traits I have been reading about.
I am at college and my brother is due to sit the Leaving Cert. I have often wondered why everyone else seemed less bothered by how bad relationships have been in the family and why I seemed to be always the one trying to make the peace. I am now afraid that maybe I can’t make a relationship work and have learned all the wrong ways to go about it.
I know I am very fearful of being left, even by friends; this makes me always want to please people. Sometimes I think if I could get away from home I could see the wood from the trees but there is no money for that.
It seems that your family is dealing with several issues – separation, betrayal, anxiety, Autism spectrum disorder and, for you, fear of upsetting people. This is a lot of history and baggage for someone so young, but we all come with families and histories, and it seems that you now can see these issues clearly and self-awareness is a great place to start.
Separation is now common but it comes with consequences for everybody and for you it seems that you are afraid of being rejected or abandoned and so you try to hold on to people as you know what it is like to be left. This is a natural response but one that you have to tackle as it can mean that you do not stand up for yourself and perhaps are over-compensating with friends and close people. Learning how to trust and lean on people will be something that will challenge you, but these characteristics form the basis of relationships.
The fear of being “needy” is one that most people want to avoid but creating dependency in a relationship is the path to success. You will find this difficult as your experience tells you that relationships end and people can be hurt and traumatised in the process – this is the risk that faces you.
Choosing people who you admire is a good basis for friendship and you should slowly challenge yourself by speaking honestly and saying no when the occasion demands.
I wonder if you are suggesting that the possible Asperger traits in your parents might let them off the hook in some way? Would this offer you a way of being more compassionate about their separation and your dad’s continuous affairs when you were younger? It might well be true that your family struggles with communication and social connection but you still have the right to challenge and demand peace and calm in your life.
You are not the family counsellor and yet you may have slipped into this role
You say you are the person who is the negotiator and while this is a great skill to have in life, it might mean that the weight of the family’s wellness falls on you. As you cannot get a break away from home in order to process things, it might be a good idea for you to attend student counselling at your college so you can take time out of your life to discuss and get a perspective on your family and your own ambitions for relationships.
With the Leaving Cert about to start for your brother, it is important that stress and anxiety are kept to a minimum and perhaps your parents could be encouraged to take more responsibility here. Could you ask a relative or close family friend to advise and guide your parents? You are not the family counsellor and yet you may have slipped into this role and, as long as you continue to fulfil this position, nothing will change.
Be the college student that you are, seek a confidential space for yourself to go through all the family issues, and then begin to create the life and relationships that you need for yourself.