I remember the moment a decade ago when a big chunk of education fell in my lap. It was at a workshop on strengthening relationships, during which facilitator Reid Mihalko looked around the room at dozens of therapists, life coaches, and sexual healers, asking for a show of hands. “How many of you are in long-term, satisfying relationships?” Scores of mouths fell open as six hands went up. “And you’re all healers! Why do you suppose that is?” Before we had a chance to answer, Reid jumped back in: “Because you keep falling in love with your clients, making your clients your partners. What you need to be doing instead is to let your clients be your clients and find partners who are already complete.”
In the stunned silence that followed, I totally understood. Healers are people who are attracted to people who need healing. “Step right up! I have just the elixir for you!” We love to help people, heal people, and change them in a thousand little ways to “make them happy.” They sign on because they want to be helped, healed, changed, and happy. We sign on because we love to be needed, have our magic validated, and get our egos stroked. Each depends on the other—one to have a person to help, the other to have a person who will help. Soon, “depending on” becomes “dependen-cy”—co-dependency because both are equally needy.
Co-dependence becomes more destructive over time due to the bomb embedded in the underlying contract. One agrees to give good advice so the other will get better. The other agrees to follow the advice and get better as soon as possible. But neither ever occurs. They can’t, because if they did and the wounded person actually changed, the reason for the relationship would cease to exist. The bomb would go off and the relationship would be over. Co-dependent married people are pros at resisting help, sabotaging change, and avoiding all forms of growing up strictly in order to preserve their relationships, remaining forever comfortable in their ongoing misery.
The alternative, as Reid pointed out, is finding people who are already complete, adding: “But only after you first complete yourself.” What does that mean?
We’ve all heard the gooey expression “You complete me,” as if one person contributes a torso—the other, head, arms, and legs. Do we really want to be completed by others, relying on them to do the dirty work, the heavy lifting, the big-picture thinking, and all the taking care of? Avoid enough of those and one’s basic life competency slowly diminishes. The desire to be completed by somebody else should be viewed as a red flag, indicating that something in us needs major adjusting. We should do our adjusting and not waste time. Each of us is responsible for shouldering a hundred percent of building our own foundations, doing our jobs, paying our bills, developing our personalities, and shedding bad habits in preparation for the future. Takin’ Care of Business is what it means to be an adult.
Once we start taking care of our own business, we find ourselves drawn to others who do the same. When two adults meet, co-dependency is nowhere to be found. In its place, magic begins to percolate.
When you got married, did you and your partner each carry a candle to the altar where together you lit a single “unity” candle and then blew out your own? The notion of extinguishing one’s identity at the moment of marriage is an archaic conceit that fosters co-dependence rather than independence. If there’s any benefit to marriage at all, it’s the pledge each partner makes to be a pure gift in the life of the other, void of expectations, cheerleading the other’s ongoing efforts to complete and satisfy him or herself.
We often hear it said that you have to work hard to have a good relationship. We assume that means you have to work hard on the relationship. Nonsense! The hard work that has to be done in relationships is the ongoing work we do on ourselves—growing our hearts, confronting our fears, nurturing our intelligence, increasing our experience. Relationships aren’t about carrying fifty percent of the load; they’re about each person carrying one hundred percent of the load. They’re not about compromise but rather about both parties finding ways to have more.
When I first met my partner, Debbie, I was still awash in healing, rescuing, fixing, and making happy. On an early date I remember saying: “I don’t know how we can possibly have a relationship because you don’t need anything. And I sure don’t need anything. I’m good with the laundry, I have my own dishwasher, and my kids already have a mom.” Within seconds, we were laughing at the absurdity of basing a relationship on neediness. It was Debbie who said, “I wonder what it’d be like to be in a relationship just to have fun.” All these years later, we’re still having fun. We joke about never helping each other and marvel at how every act of kindness, in lieu of expectations, is received as a gift.
Relationships aren’t hard. They’re easy, fun, joyful, and life-affirming, but only when both partners are grownups. Remember that, the next time you search for someone to complete you, or feel it’s your responsibility to make someone happy, or decide to heal, fix, or change someone else. The person needing fixing just might be you.