Situational Dysfunction

Many people in dysfunctional relationships know something is wrong, but they can't put their finger on it. Thomas Fiffer identifies the subconscious signs we consciously ignore.

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are untenable, and no matter what we throw into the mix, we can't seem to make things better. This occurs when our abilities are not matched to the task (you would not expect a poet to pen the design for a suspension bridge, or an engineer to construct the perfect sonnet) or when a relationship (such as a job or a marriage) becomes truly dysfunctional. It is easy to know if we are the poet or the engineer that our skills (innate or learned) are not appropriate for the task at hand. In these cases, we can make a conscious, rational decision to let someone else do the work. But it is much harder to know when our authentic selves are being poorly served, ignored, or worse, attacked, stifled, and damaged by a dysfunctional and ultimately destructive relationship. And the difficulty lies in the fact that most of what is happening is on the subconscious level. So what are the signs, and how do we exit these relationships with aplomb or, better yet, not enter into them in the first place?

Having been through a dysfunctional marriage that lasted nearly fifteen years, I can offer some insight. My expertise aside, I invite my readers (the millions of you who live for my next post), to offer comments on this topic.

First and foremost, we experience a feeling of discomfort, a nagging sense that things are not as they should be. Given that many of us probably feel this a lot of the time, it is difficult to attach the feeling to its root cause. Often in dysfunctional relationships we find ourselves doing things that we are not comfortable doing, such as covering for another person's inability to function or hiding--from ourselves as well as others--what is truly happening. What makes this even more difficult for us to understand what is happening is that the discomfort becomes pervasive, constant, expected, and therefore starts to move from the conscious foreground of our experience to the subconscious background. (If you recognize any Jungian strains here, please give credit to my guru, M.) In addition, because we don't particularly like discomfort, we tend to push it down to the subconscious level and refuse (this is denial) to experience it consciously. We bury it, thinking we have contained it like nuclear waste, but the container inevitably leaks, and the toxins leach into our systems, damaging us in subtle and not so subtle ways. To get a handle on what we are experiencing, we need to acknowledge and actually (yes, it hurts) feel the discomfort, and then release and explore our feelings about the discomfort. This begins with "I am experiencing discomfort," followed by "I don't like discomfort," followed by "I would prefer to be more comfortable"(i.e., happier), followed by "Now what am I going to do about this situation?" These steps oversimplify the process, but you get the idea.

The second thing we feel when embedded (or trapped) in a dysfunctional relationship is a profound sense of loss. This happens most frequently when we observe other people who, at least to outward appearance, are not stuck in the same type of hole we are. We see people who look as if they are having fun and seem to be able to run their lives and enjoy a healthy mix of social and recreational activities. In contrast, if you are not in a dysfunctional relationship, you will quickly recognize those people who rarely smile and seem to carry what I like to call the "weight of the world on their shoulders." It is important to separate the "grass is always greener" feeling that we all experience from time to time when viewing others from the "my life isn't what it should be feeling" that comes over us when viewing others. The first is more outwardly focused--I want what they have. The second is more inwardly focused--I want something better for myself. The loss we feel may seem, on the surface, to be a loss of freedom (if, as most are, the dysfunctional relationship is restrictive), a loss of opportunity, or a loss of potential. We often measure the loss in terms of time wasted or enjoyable activities we have had to forego. But the loss is much deeper, and again, it is not until we acknowledge and explore our feelings about the loss (instead of stifling or burying them) that we realize we are experiencing a loss of authentic self, and a diminishment of the power we possess--and can use to great benefit - when we allow our authentic selves to be free.

Note that I wrote, "when we allow our authentic selves to be free." There is a huge tendency to blame the loss on the dysfunctional partner. And it is true that dysfunctional partners are frequently cruel and abusive in a variety of ways. But it is crucial (and I cannot emphasize this enough) to take responsibility for your own situation, and without blaming yourself for having gotten into it (more on that and the concept of self-forgiveness in another post), understand in no uncertain terms that your partner is not responsible for your plight and that only you can make a change for the better. All efforts to change your partner will inevitably fail, unless of course, these serve as a catalyst for your partner to change him or herself. The best thing you can do, and the only thing you can do, is change yourself and hope that your partner will change along with you. This is how you exit the dysfunctional relationship with aplomb.

I was riding the train one day, and a young girl (whom I later learned was a freshman at a prestigious Ivy League university) sat down next to me. She was quite forward and wasted no time starting a conversation. Eventually she turned to the topic of her boyfriend, who was a year behind her in school, and how he had started dating another girl when she (my seatmate) went off to college. She and the boyfriend were still, she claimed, best friends, and she was working on accepting the idea that she would be one of two women in his dating life. She said something like, "If he would only decide that he really wants to be with me, I would be so happy." And I said to her, "WHY ARE YOU GIVING HIM THE POWER TO DECIDE?" I asked her what she wanted and told her that if he couldn't give her what she wanted, she should go find it somewhere else. She was astonished. The message here, as it relates to what I have written above, is that we must never give others the power to determine our happiness.

Originally published on Tom Aplomb.


If you or someone you know is in a dysfunctional relationship, my book can help. Why It Can't Work: Detaching From Dysfunctional Relationships to Make Room for True Love, is available on Amazon.