We all know someone like this. They’re upset. They’re unhappy. They complain, bellyache and “cry on your shoulder” for an hour, or two, or five…and then go merrily back to their unhappy life leaving you wallowing in their emotional sewage.
I’ve watched this happen to very sweet, caring people I loved going all the way back to the 1980s and it’s hard on them. They care so much and get so upset that all their autoimmunes go crazy…fibro flare-ups, migraines, insomnia.
Helpful (and Possibly Codependent)
Being a loving, caring, helpful, intelligent person (and possibly codependent), it’s natural make to observations and draw conclusions from the continual emotional dumping. It’s easy for you to see the Big Picture so you offer suggestions. Helpful advice. Get upset on their behalf for the simple reason that you love, you care and you want the best possible life for them. Their greater happiness is your sole motivation. You have no agenda, nothing to gain, nothing to lose.
That, my dear, is when it all goes wrong. As Melodie Beattie says, “They rip off their halo and pull out their pitchfork.” Dumping grounds aren’t supposed to have opinions. They’re not supposed to make suggestions. Didn’t you know that!?! Tsk, tsk, tsk.
You’re supposed to listen and support them…regardless of how much they’re causing or allowing or being party to their own frustration and unhappiness. Your role is to be the brainless “Yes Man.” The non-judgmental support group. The old “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Whatever they choose to do, whatever is done to them…they want you to be a grinning bobblehead. A Christmas tiger.
Actually, they wouldn’t be so angry if they didn’t already know how right you are. Consider it validation.
But the unhappy person wasn’t looking for help from you. Oh no! They want to continue in the life they’ve chosen, the life that’s making them unhappy. But in order to continue in that life, they need a way to vent the natural emotions that well up from the inherent unfairness in their chosen situation. A pressure escape valve.
That’s the role you and your very, very soggy shoulder were assigned.
Rules for Dumping Grounds
Think of your local dump or recycling center. The beauty of it is that it never gets upset. You can jettison almost any crap at these places with no repercussions. There are a few rules but they’re never spoken aloud.
- Don’t get upset when your loved one is treated unfairly.
- Don’t get angry at seeing your loved one hurt.
- Don’t bother giving advice. It’ll be instantly rejected anyways.
- Don’t share your 10,000 foot view.
- Don’t share your opinions at all or to quote Gandalf, “In fact, it’s better if you don’t speak at all, Peregrin Took.”
- Keep all the confidences they weren’t supposed to divulge but did tell you.
- Keep all their secrets implicitly, even from your own spouse. (Yes, that is a double standard.)
- Don’t share any memes on social media that might even hint at their situation even if the meme applies to your situation as well. You’ll be surprised how quickly they raise their hand and chew you out, proving just how accurate the meme was.
- Don’t set boundaries on length of phone call.
- Always be available.
- Don’t expect the social nicety of being asked, “How are you today?”.
- Do expect to be covered with emotional “vomit” the moment you pick up the phone. No polite chit-chat. No easing into the subject. No! It’s a deluge from the word “Hello.”
- If you do get a chance to talk, don’t expect to receive any response. You’ll be lucky to get a vague, I’m-not-really-listening “Uh-huh” if you excitedly talk about a new hobby.
- Do expect to be on the phone for hours, sometimes for vast times on speakerphone listening to background clatter while no one is actually speaking. Yes, I think that’s weird too.
There’s a good chance they may simply be addicted to drama. It’s exciting! It’s mentally stimulating! They simply enjoy drama — theirs and other peoples.
Breaking the Rules
But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you break these unspoken rules. In fact, breaking the rules is the only way of discovering they exist at all. It’s like a minefield. In the old days, the way to find mines was to prod about with a pole until they exploded in your face. That’s how the rules above are discovered and it’s brutal.
Let’s say you make the mistake of pointing out that the unhappy person’s partner is not stepping up to the plate and shouldering their fair share of responsibility. Perhaps, like me, you pointed out the Wunnerful, Wunnerful Life they present on their social media bears little resemblance to the life they complain about behind the scenes. My Bullshit Meter was pegged out that day.
The person who “needed” you so much for their emotional well-being…kicks you to the curb before you can say “Jack Robinson.”
They keep all the people who are making them miserable in the first place but jettison you.
No, it doesn’t make any sense but it does have a name: trauma bonding.
Trauma bonding refers to the attachment bond that is created through repeated abusive or traumatic childhood experiences with the caregiver, whereby this relationship pattern becomes internalized as a learned pattern of behavior for attachment.
She goes on to say:
If you were abused as child, you protected your relationship with the parent by preserving the notion of the ‘good parent’, pushing down feelings of anger or hurt towards your parent in order to feel loved or attached. You protected yourself by burying these feelings, and internalizing that there was something wrong with you for upsetting your parent. So, you came to believe that it was all your fault, you are bad, naughty and must make it up to them in order to feel loved and good enough. Well, this template is now how you see yourself in relationships with others.
…you must be ‘good’ to get the love you want. You end up attracting abusive partners, with the wish to be good enough for them, so you get the love and approval you’re looking for.
Although they may have escaped from their childhood abusive home, in their psyche, if they love someone, they will always…
- Hold themselves to the highest standards of idealism, regardless of the personal price they pay
- Live symbolically as if their life is as perfect as Cinderella in the last act (aka “play at happy families.”)
- Embrace sacrifice…of every facet of their life, personal and professional
- Put their dreams on hold
- Be more selfless than their partner
- Be so responsible that their partner doesn’t have to be responsible
- Give til it hurts…then give some more
- Make no demands on their partner
- Give generously of their finances and receive little (always on sale!) in return
High ideals and “being willing to do X, Y and Z” doesn’t make it okay. Willingness doesn’t make it not exploitation.
High ideals are fun at first but it’s a long life and high ideals lose their glitter. They lead to feelings of fatigue, victimhood, resentment, bitterness…and alcoholism.
What’s To Be Done?
As much as it goes against my grain to “give up” on anyone, there are times in life when you must “leave them to Heaven” and this is one of those times. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
Having rejected common sense and spurned the wisdom of learning from other people’s mistakes…and probably kicked you to the curb in the process…this is one of those sad times when you have to step back and let the person you love make the mistakes they are so insistent on making. Even if it causes them untold pain. Financial hardship. Loss of opportunities. Souring of relationships.
They’ve released you to the Universe…so go! Go live your happy life and let them live the life of their choosing. Like the theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show says:
But it’s time you started living
It’s time you let someone else do some giving
Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can have the town, why don’t you take it
You’re gonna make it after all
You’re gonna make it after all
Don’t worry about them. They’ll be fine…as fine as they want to be.