Why do people stay in bad relationships? I dive into myself, and into some songs, to look for possible answers.
Bad relationships is a spectrum, not a black or white thing. They can abusive marriages, empty marriages, unhealthy workplaces, or even something as mundane as my continued following of the University of Miami football program. I remember better times.
There is something about comfortableness, something about the fear of the unknown, something about being seen.
Rob Thomas helps with this one. Anybody know how I can get in touch with him? Anyway…
Welcome back to the podcast! Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.
Let’s unmask mental illness!
Rob Thomas did it again. I really need to talk to him about that. Anybody know how I can get in touch with him? I like his solo work and his album, “The Great Unknown,” has been something I have been playing a lot recently.
Certain lyrics just come out and grab me. If they have the right music behind them, it creates a theme in my mind, a starting point for me to wander down my own paths. Some of Rob’s songs have created guard rails and direction signs on those paths.
With other conversations I have been having, and things I have been thinking about, that’s been happening again. A song and the lyrics create the structure to an answer to a very basic question: why do we stay in bad relationships?
The relationships can be with people or things. “Bad relationships” is a spectrum, not a black or white thing. It can be an extreme, like staying in an abusive relationship, or it can be a not so abusive relationship, like why I still follow the University of Miami football program.
We have choices. But Rob gives me a hint at the answer in, “Absence of Affection.”
In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and call it love.
Before getting into the episode, the important stuff: I just want to remind everybody that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional with an –ist at the end of their title. I am just a guy who has been there.
If you are in crisis, or know somebody who is, I implore you to reach out to a professional. In the United States, there is now a national hotline you can call or text. 988.
I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I implore you to reach out to a professional. Dialing or texting 988 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.
Now, let’s get into the episode.
It’s the absence of affection that drew me to many places that I shouldn’t have gone throughout my life. It was absence of affection that kept me in places and situations I should not have stayed.
I’ve heard the horror stories. The physical and mental abuse. I don’t have any of them. I did brush up against one a long time ago, but it was only a faint brush. No, my people, places and situations were more mild, more mundane. They were unhealthy all the same. Places I should not have stayed. So why did I?
Rob hints at the answer in his song, “In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and call it love.”
The Great Unknown is the album title and that points at the answer as well. I got comfortable in the known, set up house and set up shop. I settled in and bought myself a nice, comfy chair and set up my coffee maker. It got to the point where I would not even look out the windows into the great unknown.
The unknown can be a scary place. It so much safer to stay in the known, so much easier, comfortable. I can fully understand and appreciate why a person will stay in a relationship where they are being beaten and abused.
I know the other side as well, the frustration and anger with a friend or loved one who stays there. I know my friends and family know the frustration. But I have also learned that the known can be such a powerful force to hold a person in place.
Someone pointed out to me that I very rarely talk about my marriage in these podcasts. I guess that it is time to do it. I will not bash her or the marriage, or even the institution of marriage. It was just a situation where I should not have stayed in, simple as that. I stayed and I own that.
I still feel the pull towards something like that, as I sit in my home at night, alone, there is the pull to be together with somebody. There is the pull to be a part of something. It is about the absence of affection. It is about the illusion of the absence of affection, but I’ll be getting into that later.
To my friends and family: stop it! Seriously. Stop it.
With my ex-wife or others, they hate it when I sound apologetic for people they perceive treated me badly. They can get pretty vicious about it. That alone can circle back into the “illusion” of the “the illusion of the absence of affection.”
But just stop it. She was not a bad person; she was just the way she was and I was the way I was. I accepted it and I own it. The ending of our marriage was one of the most amicable splits that I have ever had. Hell, it was more friendly than when I asked my business partner for a divorce about the same time. He stopped talking to me. Tracy and I, after a few days, still slept in the same bed for months while we tried to sell the house.
But our marriage ended long before I asked her for a divorce. Years before. We both knew it. It wasn’t healthy for either of us. Why did she stay in it? Why did I stay in it? It was probably something that should never have been. I’m not going to go back that far though. I think I already covered it in other episodes, about the red flags that I saw and ignored, the orange cones I drove through until I ended up in a ditch.
But I remember specifically driving over railroad tracks. We’re in the car going to the last and final home that we would eventually buy, after looking at about 80-90 of them. I remember the pressures inside of my head. Maybe it was the railroad tracks on Route 1 going to Chadds Ford that shook the thoughts loose and made them rise up to the top of my head.
“What the hell are you doing? You are going to look at a house that you cannot afford, in an area where the taxes are insane, for a “turnkey” house that may be turnkey for her but is not for you. You don’t need to buy a new house. You need to get a divorce.”
But I looked at my lovely, beautiful wife, smiling, thoughts of vows I had spoken about forever and for better or for worse, smothered the thoughts, and went and bought the house.
Friends and family: stop it. Just stop it. I know. But aye, the co-dependency was in full swing, there was the illusion of the absence of affection beyond in the great unknown, and I was comfortable.
“Okay,” I said to her before we signed the final papers, “we really can’t afford the house. To be able to afford it, we need to live house poor for at least a few years while we catch up on our bills. Then, we’ll be okay.”
Then, we bought the house, poured tons of money into the turnkey home, and went on a few very expensive vacations.
The pressures began to build. The patch I had put on the emptiness inside of me began to tatter and fray. Everything began forcing me to look out into the great unknown from my nice comfy chair. The depression began to build and pull me further into the emptiness.
I didn’t know what the hell to do so I grabbed on to the known and comfortable. The terror of falling into that vast emptiness made me grab onto any lifeline that I could find.
We all know the story of the guy hanging on the crumbling cliff face, so he grabs at a tuft of grass or a slight branch that would never support his weight for long. But he grabs anyway. I grabbed. Then, I fell into the emptiness.
What I did not see at the time were the strong heavy ropes, the ladders and slings, hell, the hammocks and life vests that were all around me with the rescue helicopters circling overhead.
I fell deeper into the depression, into an unhealthy marriage, and an unhealthy business partnership.
A soundtrack entered the emptiness. No, not Rob Thomas, though his older album, his first solo work, Something to Be, was somewhere in the background.
This is where irony really comes into play. It truly breaks my heart, but my daughter does not speak to me. He birthday just passed. I was around for quite a few of them and she was my daughter, and I was her father. For one of my birthdays, or maybe Christmas, she bought me tickets to see a band that I had started listening to. The X Ambassadors.
As I have mentioned in past episodes, I hate being that kid with the mix tape. The scene from the movie, Almost Famous, where Kate gives her brother the album and says, “listen to the words,” makes me squirm.
But it is what it is.
I went to the concert with my wife, with the tickets my daughter had bought me, and the X Ambassadors slammed into my mind. They shattered the illusion of being comfortable. They made me look at my beautiful wife, with the soundtrack and theme of their concert enveloping me, and I knew the marriage was over and I had to ask her for a divorce.
It would still take a couple years.
Aye, I had made vows. I had built a life. Things were not terrible. There was no abuse, no cheating that I know of, and there were not even any arguments. That was part of the problem. There should have been a lot of arguments. But there was…nothing. I conditioned myself to be comfortable with that.
In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and call it love.
I would still mouth the words, peck her on the cheek before I left for work, kiss her when I got home with her shying away from me because I stank of cigarette smoke, but did I still mean them? Yes, I did.
And that was a part of the problem. I got the feeling that she didn’t. I got the feeling that I was beyond invisible, that I was an annoyance.
Then, the depression really started to hammer me, and it hammered my thoughts and feelings into those weird shapes that only have one end.
What the hell was I sticking around for? We had gone to counseling a few times and that was pointless. Neither of us were going to change into the person we had hoped for when we got married and were just drifting further and further apart. I tell people that it might have been easier if there had been abuse, cheating or throw down fights. But it just…was.
In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and make ourselves comfortable there. I became invisible, even to myself. I did not exist. Other people existed in my place. The masks I wore, the costumes, became my identity. I was a husband, father, son-in-law, brother-in-law, business partner, son, uncle, brother, cousin and a few other things. I wasn’t Chris anymore. It all took effort and exhausted me. With no Chris, no identity, there was nothing to recharge my batteries or refill the tank.
By not being seen, I was disappearing.
Is that one of the reasons why people stay in unhealthy relationships? There is the great unknown and, even if there is something awful going on, at least you are being seen? At least there is the tuft of grass.
But then there was the X Ambassadors with their song Renegade. They were not yelling at me or screaming at me, even though the concert was pretty loud. It was just a simple statement. Let go.
I finally did.
My wife made it easier. I was struggling, battling the depression and the exhaustion. My identities were becoming heavier and heavier. I started to do something about it. I set things in motion to sell my business. I knew it was going to be hard, though. A tough year. I kept grasping at new tufts of grass as the ones I was hanging by pulled free.
I found a buyer for my half of the business I had built, the baby I had cared for and grown that had so much potential and so many possibilities. I told my business partner I was divorcing him. He stopped talking to me. I had to tighten my belt.
I went to Tracy. A final tuft of grass. The slimmest of branches. I didn’t want to. I was already invisible. It would mean becoming visible again, vulnerable. But hadn’t I been there for her when she quit her job and switched careers? Didn’t I offer to pay all the bills while she rebuilt something? So, I asked.
“It’s going to be a tough year. Very little money. I’m going to need your help with my share of bills.” I didn’t add that the 50/50 split of the bills had been absurd for years.
She looked at me, saw me, and quickly replied. “Why should I help a failing business?”
Then, she went on vacation. Two of them. I went and wiped out my 401k.
I not only let go, but I also configured myself for maximum velocity towards the bottom. Straight as an arrow, arms tucked to my side, eyes wide with the wind ripping tears from my face. I was not only headed towards the bottom, but I also welcomed it. Wanted it to hit faster and harder.
The X Ambassadors would create the soundtrack, or theme, of the descent. A descent into the void, into darkness and depression. I didn’t care. A lot of their songs became interwoven in the darkness. They released many singles and I just kept adding them to my playlist. Many of them meant something to me.
If “Renegades” was the opening song to the soundtrack of my fall, then their song “Hold Me Down” was the closing theme.
It was on their second full album. After I asked for a divorce, I started taking vacations because I didn’t give a shit about money or anything else anymore. I was in Chicago to see them again, alone this time. There is a story about the entire experience in my book that should be out in a month or so. Disconnected: An Odyssey Through Covid America.
“Hold Me Down” is a song about a guy who sees someone. The person is invisible, but he sees her, and he’ll be there for her to help hold her down, help keep her from flying apart. I had been that guy for a long time, holding everybody else down. Now, I was that person who needed holding down. I was standing alone in the middle of a crowd of people, listening to the band that had crafted the soundtrack to my descent, my crisis.
Tears welled up inside of me. I crushed them out and had another drink. After the song was over, I was able to get back to enjoying the show.
It was not only the X Ambassadors that were telling me to let go, but it was also friends and family. They were all relived when I asked Tracy for a divorce, but, like I said, that took time. In between the concert and the actual asking, I started looking around me at their relationships, at my friendships that I had built over a lifetime. I even began looking at my daughter’s relationship with her new boyfriend that she would eventually move in with and then marry.
I began seeing something that was so very different than what I had with Tracy. I saw friendships and connections. I saw healthy boundaries. I saw balanced relationships. What really struck me was the friendships that I had ignored since marrying Tracy, that I began exploring again. I was welcomed back.
That is when it really hit me. My life partner was not my friend. Maybe we began that way, or maybe it was just that first flush of the relationship and getting to know each other. But after that first flush, after the usual acceptance of everything that is overshadowed by that first flush, the honeymoon period, I realized there was no sustainability.
I knew it. I saw it. But I was so damn comfortable. It was nice and safe going home to somebody every night. There were also the other unhealthy situations in my life that compounded the problem and forced me into a very tightly, focused world. I was a co-dependent and a workaholic. It gave me a tunnel vision to see, and only see, a very beautiful and lovely wife, who was accomplished and extraordinary.
Were we ever truly friends?
I don’t think so. Looking back, I began asking very simple questions of myself and others: “why is water wet?” What is friendship? What is love? What is balance and mutually beneficial relationships? What are healthy boundaries?
But it was so damn safe and comfortable, and there was the age thing. I had built a life. My relationship with my business partner and my wife spanned my 30’s and 40’s.
I had started my life over a few times. As I talk about, it was easy when I was young but grew harder as I got older. Now, I was looking at the end of my 40’s, with 50 around the corner. I was also looking at an exhaustion that seeped deep inside of my core, into everything that I had and was. There was nothing left, nothing to pour into a rebuilding or reshaping.
So, I let go, not with the intent to fly, but with every intent of hitting bottom. I welcomed it, welcomed a passing into the next world, into the end of exhaustion. Yes, the plan was to commit suicide after one last adventure.
There was nobody to hold me down. That was okay now. It would be okay until there was nothing left to hold down for.
I had the best time of my life. That free fall was glorious. Rob Thomas, the X Ambassadors, and a hundred other artists created a playlist for me as I reveled in the open road and freedom, at the absence of masks and identities.
And that is about when all of you people that love and care about me, my friends and family, really began to piss me off. Even chance, wonderful encounters began to intrude and piss me off. Justine, this fantastic lady I met when I first got separated, really annoyed the living hell out of me.
I had a plan! It was a good plan! I was finally free of the unhealthy relationships. The exhaustion was not replaced by anything like hope, but the contact and interactions I had with people began to point towards other things beyond “The End.” They started to point towards the next chapter. They started to point towards things I could learn, things that could help me establish boundaries and healthy relationships.
They started to point towards the wider field. They started to point towards what was wrong about the line from the Rob Thomas song. “In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and call it love.”
That’s about when Sara entered my life. She taught me the idea of being intimate with myself and caused me to look without tunnel vision towards the bottom, and to open my damn eyes to the wider field, the wider world.
I’m gloriously free falling, reveling in it, and then I see a net below me. Not the rocky bottom I wanted.
You may have seen it at the beginning of the podcast. I know it now but did not know it then.
The tunnel vision and the depression caused me to see only one thing while making me miss the wider truth. There was never, ever, an absence of affection. There was never, ever, a time where I was not seen, when I was invisible. There was never, ever, a lack of options.
Now that I think about it, as I type this, it is like the old joke.
Floodwaters came and a man was trapped inside of his house. A boat came by, to rescue the man, and the man replied, “I’m staying. God will save me.”
The flood waters continued to rise, and another boat came by. The man replied, “I’m staying. God will save me.”
The flood waters rose even more, and the man climbed onto the roof of his house. A helicopter came by. The man called out, “I’m fine. God will save me.”
The flood waters continued to rise, the man was swept away, and he drowned. He appeared before God and prostrated himself.
“God,” he said, “I do not understand. I am a good and pious man. I lived a good life in your service. Why didn’t you save me?”
God replied, “I sent you two boats and helicopter. What else did you want Me to do?”
Yes, God speaks with a Philly accent.
But that is what I missed, and what I think a lot of people miss. I was holding onto the tufts of grass and the slimmest branches. They pull free and I grab onto another. Did I mention there is another X Ambassadors song about Indiana Jones?
The depression, and all of my other issues, created this tunnel vision. I wanted to be seen and loved by this one person. I needed this one person to complete me and validate me. So, I held on, exhausting myself reaching for tufts of grass and the slimmest of branches.
What I failed to notice were the helicopters circling. It is so damn hard to see them at times. I needed help to open my damn eyes. Friends, family, loved ones and acquaintances were all there, probably facepalming. There are support groups and associations just like the one I created.
Probably the biggest thing in the air, dangling a nice comfy hammock with a cup of coffee in a holder, was the Goodyear Blimp. It was being piloted by me, with a cup of coffee and a cigarette hanging out my mouth, shaking my head and facepalming. Probably saying my favorite Scottish expression.
The blimp was all lit up. Sparkling, blinking colors with the word “SELF” rolling across it.
There was never any reason to fall.
I forgot. I couldn’t see.
But I guess that is sadly the way of things. It is so much like addiction. You need to hit rock bottom. Some of us need to find the cellars beneath the bottom. I’ve been there as well, waiting, my heart breaking, for a loved one to find that bottom.
It’s a scary proposition. I know what the bottom means. You need to let them hit it, and the impact means one of two things. Either they will start getting the help they need, or they will die. The death, though, can be a lingering thing.
When I was stranded in Mexico, I received a phone call. It was from a young lady I had met and had not spoken to in a couple years. I was surprised she still had my phone number. I didn’t have hers anymore.
She was in tears. It turned out that she had gotten married, and the guy had become physically, mentally and emotionally abusive. She told me of her terror, her broken nose and broken arm. She needed help. Just a little money, enough to get her home, away from him.
I couldn’t help. I didn’t have anything. I would have sent her a bus ticket if I did. I was down to nothing myself, was begging myself. The only thing I could do was tell her, beg her, to go to a shelter. I had no idea where she was, but I knew that help, a helicopter, a rope ladder, was only a phone call away. She hung up on me.
I hope she found something and did not return to her husband.
Why do we stay in unhealthy relationships? There are a lot of reasons. As I said many times, we can justify anything. It’s usually bullshit.
For me, it was a lack of a sense of self, and a fear of the great unknown. It was all of my issues and insecurities creating tunnel vision. It was a lack of view of the field and the net of people that surround me and care for me. It was the depression, the anxiety disorder, the PTSD, the co-dependency.
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
It was forgetting the people that had my back. It was not thinking I was worthy for people to have my back. It was a lack of aloha.
With that, the episode is a wrap.
Be kind to yourself. Be merciful to yourself. If you are struggling, stop squinting your eyes, open them, and see the net of relationships all around you. Start there.