A while back, my therapist asked, “Do you think Heather will love you, regardless of whether you’re actively contributing to the relationship?”. I told him I wasn’t sure, cause I was still trying to understand the concept of unconditional love. As a child, my parents told me they wouldn’t love me if I wasn’t a good boy, and a good boy would do exactly what they wanted. The affection they doled out was directly related to how well I did in school, or how much I impressed other parents. They used it as a tool to control me, and this dynamic has influenced my understanding of relationships to the point that it feels like I constantly need to be making efforts in them (or they’ll decay).
So my therapist instead posed the question, “Do you think Heather will love you, no matter what?”. My first reaction was one of confusion; I heard the same question as before. When I realized it had completely different implications — would Heather still love me if I was an axe murderer; if I was racist; if I burned the house down; if I didn’t love her back — it dawned on me that I was projecting this monumental requirement on myself to be constantly making efforts towards the relationship. It wasn’t an expectation Heather was bringing, but my own; one I projected on her due to my childhood trauma.
To realize that I was doing this in such a specific and significant manner was a shock. My mind inadvertently made bounds in logic, and every time Heather said, “I’ll always love you”, I would hear, “I’ll always love you, as long as…“1
Psychological projection isn’t terribly uncommon (it’s only natural to assume others are like us), nor is it necessarily an issue in itself. But I discovered how much of a problem it can be when I became involved with a person who did it significantly enough that it altered the course of our relationship. She had enormous emotional barriers, and that insecurity manifested itself by interpreting any tension between us as a sign that things wouldn’t work out. It was impossible for me to check in with her and gauge how she was feeling about anything when the simple act of asking a question had huge implications in her head.
Just thanking her for acknowledging a truth would cause her to lash out at me, cause she thought I was rubbing a fault or mistake in her face. I had to give up on communicating with her when she was constantly hearing something far removed from what I was saying, when she perceived every situation to be so different from the truth as a way of avoiding intimacy or responsibility2.
I’ve since tried to be more conscious of the bias I bring to each situation, something that’s particularly important when I want to be sure someone knows how I feel (and vice versa). One of the ways I try to break out of the habit of projection is by including Heather in my showers. Showers tend to be my time: a space where I have a chance to treat myself well. I used to choose not to have Heather in there with me, cause I felt a constant pressure to be entertaining her or interacting with her in some way. It wasn’t an atmosphere that felt relaxing to me. But then I realized that expectation was something I was projecting on to her. She’s perfectly happy when we’re going about our own routines, or just standing there with me, music filling the air and speaking with our eyes. It’s not easy for me let my guard down around someone, and every time I have to step out of my comfort zone and remind myself that she’s not standing there growing unhappy.
Fortunately, Heather is perfectly fine with letting me take my time in this process. She doesn’t judge me or grow impatient with the fact that I occasionally need my space. She’s happy to give me time alone, cause she knows it’s not a reflection on her or the state of our relationship. But I realize that I’m the one losing out, the same way my ex lost out on a healthy relationship cause she couldn’t manage her issues, not cause there was any real conflict, incompatibility, or problem. I’m the one who doesn’t have the company of a gorgeous girl in the shower with me when I can’t manage mine.
And that drives me to do better. To remove my biases as best as possible, so I can be a good listener and understand what people are truly saying instead of what I’m hearing. So I don’t lose opportunities cause of my insecurities. So my past no longer holds me back from reaching my potential.
- It blows my mind to know that Heather’s love for me isn’t conditional, that she loves me deeper that I’m even able to understand at the moment. [↩]
- When asking, “Do you want to break up?”, she heard, “I want to break up with you”. When telling her, “You hurt me”, she heard, “I don’t love you enough to accept you”. [↩]