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Questions and Answers written by our guest Thomas Fiffer:
Tom, tell us a little about your background and how you came to write about topics such as dysfunctional relationships and abuse.
A lot of people wonder if I have a background in psychology or work as a therapist. I’ve done some work as a life coach, but the answer to that question is no. I’m a writer, and I’ve lived through my share of dysfunctional relationships. I know the intense pain they can cause–and the desperation people feel when they believe they can’t escape them. So I use my writing skills to help people recognize, address, and–if they choose–resolve dysfunctional relationships by deciding to pursue healing for the relationship or simply for themselves. My experience and the way I write about it seems to resonate with people, in a way that is more visceral and intense than a lot of the more clinically-driven self-help books.
So how do you define a dysfunctional relationship?
The simple answer is a dysfunctional relationship is a relationship that doesn’t work. Since I see relationships primarily as vehicles for people to get their needs met, I consider a dysfunctional relationship one in which either or both partners’ needs for intimacy (both emotional and physical), healthy companionship, and trust are not being met, and damage (emotional or physical) is occurring to one or both partners. Dysfunctional relationships are often high-conflict, but not always. Silence and emotional withholding can be just as devastating–if not more–than constant fighting.
Aren’t all relationships dysfunctional to some degree?
Yes, because no one is perfect, and there are always going to be times when the relationship isn’t working–or isn’t working well enough–for one or both partners. But dysfunctional relationships have signature patterns, some of which I identified in an article for The Good Men Project called “The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship.” These are: tedium, blame, guilt, tension, uncertainty, frustration, and hopelessness. If you would use several or all of these words to describe your relationship most of the time, it’s probably dysfunctional.
You mentioned that your article was published on The Good Men Project. Tell us a little bit about them.
The Good Men Project is an online magazine having a conversation about the changing roles of men in the 21st century. Interestingly, no one else is having that conversation–not in as broad-based a way as The Good Men Project is. We publish 35 posts a day by both men and women on topics ranging from sex and relationships to ethics and values, to dads and families, to advice. There are also sections on sports, entertainment, health, the environment, and other topics. All the posts touch on men’s issues, men’s perspective, men’s evolution in some way. And we have an engaged community of over half a million followers on Facebook
and over 3 million unique visitors per month. So it’s more than an online magazine. It’s more like a movement and a forum for people–men and women–concerned about the changing roles of men.
Do you write anywhere else?
I’ve had some of my Good Men Project articles republished on YourTango, Ravishly, and Maria Shriver’s site. I’ve also written some print magazine articles on non-relationship topics, and one on what it means to be a good man for California Masons. I also have two books out–“Why It Can’t Work: Detaching From Dysfunctional Relationships to Make Room for True Love,” and “What Is Love: A Guide for the Perplexed to Matters of the Heart.” Both are collections of some of my most popular articles from The Good Men Project, and you can find them on Amazon.
I wrote that article specifically for abuse survivors, because not enough people realize that when the abuse ends and the survivor exits the abusive relationship, the healing process is both lengthy and challenging. Also, the unspoken secrets are basically realizations that survivors come to at points along their healing journey–in effect secrets they’ve been keeping from themselves–so I wanted both to validate those realizations and help others gain a better understanding of what survivors go through as they try to return to so-called normal life.
So what are some of the unspoken secrets?
The first is that you have to stop living in denial. When you’re in an abusive or highly dysfunctional relationship, you survive by pretending it isn’t so bad or the abuse isn’t happening. Letting go of that denial–which while you’re in the relationship serves as a highly successful coping mechanism–can be hard. One of the quotes from the article that resonates strongly for a lot of people is: “It requires completely rewriting your self-concept to include your victimization without allowing yourself to become a victim.” That may sound a bit like voodoo, but what I’m trying to say is that you have to acknowledge that you were mistreated or abused without taking on the posture and helplessness mentality of a victim. The second form of rewriting you have to do is even harder. You have to walk away–and stay away–from something you believed was love. The idea that you love your partner and that your partner loves you–even though you’ve been treated–or have treated each other–horrendously is part of the glue that holds these relationships together. But it wasn’t love–certainly not healthy love. It may have been passionate. It may have been hot. But at the bottom line, it was unhealthy and destructive interaction. And you have to conquer the intense desire to go back to it. You also have to forgive yourself for allowing yourself to be hurt and start loving yourself again. You can read more about those in the article. The last unspoken secret is that you will have to deal with lots of well-meaning, insensitive, self-righteous people who have tons of advice but have no idea what you went through and no idea what you need. I put that in to validate a critical aspect of the survivor’s post-abuse experience.
So, do you have any advice for people on how to stay out of dysfunctional relationships and proactively avoid potentially abusive situations?
A: I wrote an article called “5 Signs It Isn’t Love, Even Though They Say ‘I Love You
‘” that partially addresses that question. I would add to that a simple suggestion: envision what you believe a healthy, mutually supportive relationship with a loving partner looks like. Is it fraught with constant arguing? Do you feel inadequate or less than when you’re around your lover? Do you have to battle to be heard and become either a take-no-prisoners negotiator or a doormat to get your needs met? Or is it a relationship in which you experience, for the most part, peace and harmony, where you feel good and happy about going home instead of anxious and filled with dread? The other thing I would say is, take a serious look at your own emotional health. A lot of people who exhibit symptoms of what’s commonly called codependency end up in relationships with pathological narcissists. My friend Ross Rosenberg
has written a lot about that, and he has a helpful book called “The Human Magnet Syndrome
.” Remember that it takes two to tango, and if you end up in a dysfunctional relationship, you’re either causing the dysfunction or in some way enabling it. That’s not to say that being hurt or abused is ever your fault. It’s not. But getting into a healthy relationship demands that we examine our own baggage and our own potentially dysfunctional behavior patterns and work to address them before trying to develop an intimate, trust-based relationship with someone else.
Thomas G. Fiffer, Senior Editor, Ethics, at The Good Men Project, is a graduate of Yale University and holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a professional writer, speaker, and storyteller with a focus on diagnosing and healing dysfunctional relationships.
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