Self-preservation is our most basic human instinct. Even babies who touch a hot burner know to yank their hands away when they feel pain. Ouch. Move on.
So why is it that so many of us stick with relationships that are nothing short of torture?
They say love is blind, but sometimes it seems to make us downright comatose.
That’s what I was thinking as I read Paula Barbieri’s recent book about her relationship with O.J. Simpson, “The Other Woman: My Years With O.J. Simpson. A Story of Love, Trust and Betrayal” (Little, Brown, $23.95).
According to Barbieri, while they were dating, O.J. cheated on her, lied to her and was given to angry outbursts. She’d broken up with him just before the murders - the same day, in fact - yet she got sucked back into his life while he was in jail.
She lost work, sleep and weight in the process. All for a guy she’d just dumped. And it wasn’t the first time she’d dumped him only to let herself be sweet-talked back.
“I suppose love is a drug,” Barbieri said during a recent visit to Miami. “Misguided love is a big, big lesson in this.”
I wanted to stand up and say: “What is WRONG with you?” But I couldn’t. Because I was thinking: “A few years ago, could that have been me?”
I’ve made the mistake, more than once, of letting love trick me into waiting for a man to change. Neglect and disinterest? Those were sure ways to hook me. And if I did walk away, I always allowed myself to be snared back by a few kind words or gestures.
Now, it’s hard for me to believe that was me. But it was.
At least, I know I’m not alone.
Josephine Hart, a 43-year-old Miami seamstress, learned how hard it is to walk away 10 years ago. Her partner was sweetness and perfection most of the time - the rest of the time, he was physically abusive. They’d been together only two weeks when he threw a medical book at her, hitting her in the stomach so hard she couldn’t breathe for 15 or 20 seconds.
Yet, she stayed with him, and even married him. The marriage lasted four years.
“This guy had everything a woman could want from a man,” she says. “He was loving, he was caring, he was very active in the house, a handyman. He would bring you roses, champagne and wine. I was too naive at the time to know that it was a fantasy.”
The only time she could let go of that fantasy was at night. In her dreams, she says, she saw him as he really was. “That was what my dream was telling me: ‘Be aware of this person, or there will be trouble.”’
Bonita, a 40-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Fla., business administrator, says she lost her self-esteem, her friends and her livelihood in a bad relationship she couldn’t walk away from. Bonita, a lesbian, was with her partner for 13 years. The partner started seeing other people, though, staying out late and treating her badly. She also began sabotaging Bonita’s career as a designer.
“We always try to romanticize a situation,” Bonita says. “‘Tomorrow, it’ll be better. Tomorrow, they’ll change. Tomorrow, they’ll see I’m a wonderful person and come to their senses.’
“All I knew was that I had a very strong sense of relationship. My parents had been together for almost 47 years. My father loved my mother to the point where the day began and ended with her. That’s the relationship I always saw, and that’s the kind of relationship I thought I should have. You’re there for them, you support them. Whatever they want, you provide. It got to the point where I lost my sense of self. I got isolated. Your friends are saying, ‘You can do better. Why are you with this person?’ “
She finally left, soured on relationships completely - until she met a woman who treated her with genuine kindness.
It’s inevitable to occasionally end up with a dud, relationship experts say. But you need to worry if it seems to happen again and again. That probably means you need to take a breather from dating, since inappropriate partners can spot you a mile away. You might even need the help of a therapist or a support group.
Rick Overman, a Jungian psychotherapist in Fort Lauderdale, says someone is more prone to what he calls love addiction when a parent didn’t provide a proper mirror for the child to feel self-actualized, or if the child grew up having to take care of the parent.
The feeling is: “‘If I can take care of them, no matter how much they don’t give me, I will be seen,”’ says Overman. “This is why you end up always looking for the bad boy or the woman who doesn’t treat you well in some way. There’s a secret symmetry with the person you’re in the relationship with; in some ways, they’re going to reflect your own inner wound.”
I vowed to break my own pattern, and worked hard at it. Then, because I’d changed, I attracted a much more nurturing partner. But, first, you have to open your eyes and see what’s right in front of you.