Whatever the opposite of the word gregarious is — which I am having a hard time thinking of at this moment — that’s what my oldest brother was when we were growing up. He was dull and anti-social, but being the oldest and my father’s namesake, my parents would generally give him the spotlight at the dinner table as he tried to relate an anecdote from his day. I’m telling you, it was painful. The guy had no sense of comic timing and no command of language, so it might’ve looked to an outsider like a mangled game of charades. My parents there trying charitably and desperately to help him pull details out of, what was for the most part, a banal and uninteresting story to begin with.
I had a middle brother, too. His way of dealing with this strange inequity was to commit the most outrageous and senseless acts of destruction and mayhem in our household. If there was broken glass, expensive furniture inexplicably pillaged or some family drama where the neighbors called the police, he was generally the architect. At the time, I resented him deeply for all of the unwanted attention he brought to the house, but so many years later, I now understand his motives and have a certain empathy. It was a common reaction. If your parents are giving all of their positive reinforcement to one child, the natural thing to do is go for all the negative reinforcement that’s left.
Being the youngest and possessing no glaring behavioral or academic issues, my parents saw me as a sort of respite in their parenting responsibilities. They kind of had the attitude that they struck gold the last time around the maternity ward and thought, “Thank God! That one seems to be okay.” I had no choice but to be very self-reliant as I was growing up and that self-reliance, in addition to the natural narcissism of young adulthood, made me self-centered.
My earliest romantic relationships were always disastrous. Courtship for me was generally the act of jumping through whatever emotional hoops were needed to win love. To most unsuspecting young women, I appeared sensitive and emotionally intelligent because I knew exactly how to appear that way. These relationships always crashed and burned in a matter of months when I lost the incentive and the energy to act as though anything was as important to me as having my needs met.
This seemed to go on all through my twenties and thirties and the various lengths of my relationships were in direct correlation to how much my partner was willing to stand for. My longest relationship lasted for eight years because we were also “running partners” with substance abuse issues who relied on each other in a wholly different way. That relationship could’ve given any Sociology or Psychology PhD candidate plenty to work with.
One of the more interesting aspects of my relationship “style” was the confusion I always had when my selfishness was pointed out to me at various times. I would understand the person’s point of view, but I never saw things from their perspective before it was explained to me. I was just doing what I needed to do to survive. It was what I had always done and always knew to do.
There’d always be that rhetorical question, “Do you ever think about anyone but yourself?” and the honest answer would probably have been, “No. Never.” There was no malice involved in my behavior. It was programmed in me from childhood and it would inevitably take a lot more than good intentions to rewire the circuit board.
It took several years of sobriety and therapy to understand the time bombs that I brought with me into every romantic relationship I began, and that was a good thing. I forgave myself for being who I was because I understood that many of my traits were less about poor choices I was cognitively making and more about survival skills I needed as I was growing up. What it also did was to help me stop being so judgmental about the character flaws in others. With time, I stopped being so angry about every perceived slight I experienced and more curious about why these things happened. Was the girl who cheated on me just doing what she knew to do to survive? What about my ex-girlfriend who used to stalk me when I broke up with her? Is this something she learned along the way?
Of course, I am not suggesting that we give everybody a pass. None of my affairs ever crossed the line into physical abuse on either side, but you can rest assure when there are substances and/or alcohol involved, emotional abuse is never too far away — and that’s just as damaging.
Regardless, there are times when I hate that I am single and much of the time I convince myself that my work schedule, my kids and my various creative projects are what is getting in the way of that changing any time soon; but for all I know, there could be a little more to it than that. Perhaps I am in a growth process right now. Maybe I’m in the existential penalty box until I can come out and learn to play well with others. Maybe there will be a next chapter for me where I will look another person in the eye and ask them how they are doing and honestly care about their response. Not because of the rewards I might obtain from caring, but because I really want to know about the welfare of that person.
It’s a thought.