Linda: Trisha was a kind-hearted, optimistic, caring, and sensitive person. She always saw the best in others, regardless of their flaws, that in her mind sometimes caused them to act disrespectfully. She was optimistic, sensitive, and generous. She had a gift for seeing the beauty and potential that lies within everyone and felt naturally drawn to helping that potential manifest. Trisha’s mom had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when she was eight, and Trisha had been assigned the job of caregiver to her mother. Not surprisingly, there was a downside to having such a responsible job at such a tender age: She didn’t see herself as having the job of caregiver, she saw herself as being a caregiver. She was so completely identified with her role, that she saw it as her identity.
Consequently in most of her relationships, she found herself replaying the role of helper, and focused so much on their needs and her perceived obligation to fulfill them, that she often neglected her own. Trisha found herself attracted to men who recognized her tendency to care-take others. Some of these men did more than receive her care, but took advantage of Trish and actively exploited her generosity to the point where she became physically, emotionally, sexually, and even financially exhausted.
“No matter how much I give, it seems like it’s never enough for Vince. I keep thinking that at some point it will be, but that point never comes. I love him and I believe that he loves me too, but the relationship feels very one-sided and I wonder whether it’s ever going to change.”
When Trisha met Vince, she fell hard for him. She described him as “charming”, an accurate description, since he had charmed her into thinking that he was the perfect man for her and that theirs would be a perfect marriage. They married three months after meeting and things were, in Trisha’s words, “wonderful but not for very long”. Vince had quickly recognized Trisha’s unspoken desire to be taken care of herself. Having lived for so long on the giving side of the care-giving equation, she was hungry to finally be on the receiving end for once in her life. At first, Vince went to extra special lengths to give Trish the attention that he sensed she longed for and Trisha went “down for the count”. He bought her gifts, and swept her off her feet by surprising her with weekend getaways and romantic evenings.
“I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, like ‘this is too good to be true’”. As it turned out, it was. The relationship settled into the old pattern of Trish being an over-giver, and Vince became a full-time receiver. The spell and Vince’s charm that had fueled it was gone. Despite Trisha’s efforts to bring about a more equal playing field proved to be futile. Three months after the wedding Trisha found herself paying for nearly all of the household expenses as well as the non-essentials that Vince claimed he needed. When Vince got laid off from his job, he spent his days relaxing at home or off to parts unknown, “Vince told me that he was actively looking for another job, but I didn’t see evidence that he was really trying.”
There were other indicators that their marriage was in trouble. Vince played fast and loose with the truth. When Trisha confronted him with his dishonesty, he stonewalled her attempts to address them. He insisted on getting his own way whenever they didn’t see things eye to eye. Vince presented himself as a victim, refusing to ever take any responsibility for their breakdowns. From his point of view, it was always Trisha’s fault when things didn’t go well.
What particularly concerned Trisha was that even when Vince was caught in his lies, he continued to insist that he was the wronged party and didn’t have remorse or guilt. “It was”, Trisha told us, “as though he didn’t have a conscience. That was when I stopped giving Vince the benefit of the doubt and realized that it wasn’t all me. I had known that there were people who didn’t have a conscience, but they were sick criminals, sociopaths, and I didn’t want to accept the possibility that I had married one.”
Undeterred by her realization about Vince, Trisha became committed to doing everything within her power to heal him to emotional health so that he could finally become the loving person that she knew he was deep down inside. She became convinced that “if I loved Vince well enough, I could love him into emotional health” I thought that I could love him better than anyone else ever had, and that that would be enough to transform his life and our relationship. Boy was I wrong!”
After six years of indulging Vince, Trisha was depressed, drained, had trouble sleeping, headaches and suffering from low self-esteem. She finally reached out for professional help. In her therapy, Trisha got honest with her therapist about how depleted she felt from her lopsided relationship. She spoke about the endlessness of his needs for attention, sex, and money and their shared belief that it was her responsibility to fulfill them. She let herself feel the hurt, anger, loneliness, disappointment and sadness that she hadn’t allowed herself to experience over the years.
Trisha eventually realized that “It wasn‘t just my love and compassion for Vince that kept me trying. It was my need to validate my belief that my love was strong and that I was more than just a ‘good person’, but a person who was worthy of the kind of devotion that I had been giving to others. I thought that I had to earn my self-worth through selfless service and that then it would finally come back to me. It seems kind of crazy now, but I was looking for others to give me a kind of love that I couldn’t give to myself”.
In time, Trisha’s therapy supported her to challenge her negative thinking and to replace those thoughts with healthier ones. She realized that her so-called “marriage” wasn’t even a marriage; it was an arrangement, and a bad deal for her. As she became more honest with herself, her low self-esteem began to rise and she began to believe that she deserved a better life than the one she was living with Vince. Ultimately, she filed for divorce, freeing herself from someone who she came to see as an emotional vampire. Within a month of moving out of their home, Vince had attracted a new lover to exploit.
Although the disintegration of her marriage was extremely painful for Trisha, it ultimately proved to be a redemptive experience. No longer feeling obligated to fulfill Vince’s interminable desires, she found herself with available time and energy to pursue enjoyable activities. Her self-esteem took a great leap upward and “for the first time in years, I am sleeping really well at night. I have time for my relationships with my friends whom I had neglected when I was married. I’m so grateful that they never gave up on me and have been there for me when the nightmare finally ended. But most importantly, I’m glad that I was there for me. I’m never going to leave me again!”