Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I’ve never believed I had a lot of choices in my life. As a child with three older siblings, I ended up with a lot of hand-me-downs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is difficult to develop a strong sense of your own likes and dislikes when most of what you own has been chosen by someone else. My first car was a Ford Maverick that had been wrecked by both my older sisters. I was really glad to get that car but it wouldn’t have been my first choice. My second car was chosen by my father – a Mercury Marquis that resembled nothing so much as a battleship – it was even the right color. When I was thirteen, I was invited to join a college-level math-and-science class that met on weekends, but my parents decided not to let me attend. I wasn't allowed to participate in sports or to join clubs that met outside school hours. And of course, sexual assault takes all your choices away. Some of these things may seem small, but as I aged without being allowed to form opinions or make decisions of my own, the ability to even know my own needs and wants gradually faded away.

I left home and got married when I was nineteen years old, and I transferred the decision-making power from my parents to my husband without so much as the blink of an eye. He didn’t always like it, but we both took it for granted that our marriage would be that way. I had never seen any other behavior modeled in any relationship. His approval was so important to me that I negated my own sense of self in order to become what he wanted, at least at first. Later on things changed between us and I became more autonomous, but neither of us really knew how to exist with each other once I was no longer agreeable to everything he did and wanted. It made for some deeply stressful times. Ultimately our marriage dissolved.

When we divorced, I promised myself that I would never again give away the power of decision. I would have the power to make my own choices. Sure, I would always give due consideration to what was best for my kids and the other important people in my life, but my own needs would also be a huge part of the equation. After all, only I can live my life. I was going to be kind and fair, but firm; I was going to make sure that my needs and ideas were an equal part of any relationship I entered. 

I went into the first relationship after my marriage with a very healthy set of boundaries only to have them torn down and destroyed by my abusive partner. Because I had always lived my life without choices, I had no defense against his controlling behavior. I believed him when he told me that it was selfish of me to want to know where we stood, to want him to talk to me before changing our plans, to want to know that he was going to be faithful. I had no clue about how to get my needs met, or even that it was okay to have needs. He trampled my rights and left my self-esteem shattered. The first time he hit me, I was so concerned about what would happen to him if I reported his abuse that I decided not to tell anyone. I was so numb and so convinced that I deserved the treatment he had given me that for months after that relationship ended, I had no boundaries or limits at all. I could ask for nothing. I could pursue no rights of my own; I had no concept of what that would even look like.

So here I am, more than a year later, and I am in a relationship that is mostly positive. The man I’m currently with is a good man; kind, loving, and intelligent. There are a lot of good things in the relationship, but - as with any coupling - there are also some negatives. For the past fifteen months, I’ve sold out my needs and behaviors to match what I felt he wanted. I’ve laid aside any notion of who I am so I can be the person he wants me to be. He has never asked for this – I did it so unobtrusively that neither of us had any idea what was going on. A recent incident opened my eyes to how completely I had subverted myself to him, and when he failed to reciprocate in even a small way by placing me first when I really needed him to, I realized that I had allowed and even encouraged him to ignore my needs and boundaries and to discount my feelings. I don't know how to start over in this relationship and be the person I am, instead of the one he wants me to be.

So, how do I stop doing this? How do I throw away a lifetime of training and behavior? How do I become the strong person I am determined to be? I am sick at the thought that I’ve done it again – why don’t I just get “WELCOME” tattooed on my forehead and be done with it? I’ve made myself into the most accommodating of doormats; go ahead, wipe your feet, I don’t mind. Maybe I stop by just stopping. Maybe it really is just a choice – one I’ve never been allowed to make before. Christians are encouraged to meet the needs of others before meeting their own, and women are often forced to do so. But I don’t believe that God wants me to be miserable, worried, and hurt. I don't believe that God intends for me to put myself dead last and to treat myself as if I don't matter. After all, it was God who told us "love your neighbor as you love yourself" - this assumes, of course, that you love yourself. I have never really loved myself or treated myself with compassion. Maybe it really is as easy as saying, “This time, I choose me.”

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