Some of us need to get more structure into our lives in order to preserve our sanity and the sanity of people close to us, while others need to find more spontaneity and let go of some rules for the same reason. It depends upon where you are along the spectrum to start with. Here are two case studies to illustrate what I mean.
Zara was chaotic in her relationships. She was unable to feel secure with a partner, and her romantic relationships all ended at an early stage. She began to wonder how she was contributing to her continuing single status. At the suggestion of a friend, she began to keep a journal, and from the observations she made she began to recognise a pattern in all of her romantic relationships. It went like this:
- She would choose someone who was good-looking and/or charismatic.
- She would go to bed with him at the earliest opportunity.
- After sex, she would feel that she was "in love" with him.
- She would behave in a "needy" way and ring him up too often.
- When he would eventually contact her, she'd tell him off for not doing so earlier.
- The relationship would die, usually after a couple of months.
- She would be heartbroken.
This was the hole, the habit, the pattern — whatever you want to call it — that Zara was in.
Reading through her diary made her come to a decision: when the next man came along, she would (a) not go to bed with him before they had established a relationship, and (b) she would not act in a "needy" way, even when she felt needy.
After a while Zara met a man at evening classes who seemed interested in becoming her friend. She did not assume they would become romantic, but they liked spending time together and met up for a drink once or twice a week. This went on for six months. Then they went on holiday together as friends but came back as lovers.Zara felt the neediness rise up in her. She wanted to know what he was doing and where he was every second of the day: Was he thinking about her? But instead of acting on this urge, she exorcised it, to some extent, merely by writing it all down in her private diary. This resolve not to "smother" the man concerned, or blame him for her own emotional response, appears to have been a good guideline because their relationship continued to deepen, they married, and now, decades later, they are still happily together.
So, although I am wary of rules for relationships, I have to admit that in Zara's example, they did allow her to steer her life onto a better course. Using self-observation, you may discover chaotic patterns in your relationship cycle and decide to implement a rule like Zara did, using it as a temporary splint until a more permanent, flexible middle way is found.
Sam, on the other hand, needed more flexibility in his life. He had created rules for himself such as Never talk about the weather and Never ask the generic question "How are you?" Sam deemed such ordinary "grooming" questions meaningless and wrote off anyone who used them. His rules made him difficult to get on with, and as a result, he lived a lonely existence and had little contact with the outside world. He gained some comfort in thinking of himself as superior to the rest of the population, but feeling superior is no substitute for companionship and the positive difference friends make in a life. Sam became lonely and depressed. When the depression became unbearable, he went to see his doctor, who referred him to a counsellor, Simon.
After he had learned to trust Simon, which took a year of weekly sessions (neural pathways take time to alter), Sam was able to become aware of how he had established his own particular rule book and how many of his rules were out of date. They had come into being because his early relationship with his parents had been traumatising, and his parents had been rigid themselves. Rules had made him feel safer in an environment that didn't feel safe.
Supported by Simon, Sam experimented with change and practised suspending his judgements, which allowed him more contact with other people. He has not embarked upon a romantic relationship, nor has he become a party animal, but he has let a few other people into his life and is no longer as lonely, rigid, and depressed.
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Both Zara and Sam still experience the feelings that trigger chaotic behaviour in Zara's case and rigid behaviour in Sam's, but they have learned to recognise these feelings as triggers for the behaviour that was holding them back in life and to take a different course of action. In the beginning, it felt uncomfortable to go against their lifelong habits. But, by practising the new behaviour, it became more natural with time.
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Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and a writer. Her latest book is How to Stay Sane.
Books mentioned in this post
Philippa Perry is the author of How to Stay Sane (School of Life)