Saturday, January 19, 2019

WEEKEND COLUMN: Black hole relationships

"Whether we give away too much or too little of ourselves, our vitality dwindles." ~Sue Patton Thoele

 Cindy La Ferle

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Special note: Last week, my friend Tina reminded me of a favorite author, Sue Patton Thoele, whose work we've both enjoyed in the past. One of Thoele's memorable essays, in fact, was the inspiration for a Sunday column I wrote a while ago, part of which is excerpted here from Writing Home ....  

Black Hole Relationships 
When persistence doesn't pay off    

A full-time mother of three once told me she looked forward all year to summer break and hated to see it end. Was she nuts? Did she really enjoy refereeing troops of rowdy kids in her basement and making dozens of grape jelly sandwiches on short order?

“I love summer because I get a reprieve from the back-stabbing at school events and Mothers’ League meetings,” the young mom insisted. “And I don’t have to deal with the WWDLM.”  

The WWDLM…?  

“WWDLM is an acronym for the 'Woman Who Doesn’t Like Me' at my kids’ school,” she explained.

Even if you’ve never been a homeroom mom, you know exactly what she meant. You’ve got your own social nemesis.

The woman who doesn’t like you might be the cranky neighbor who criticizes your new landscaping or the paint color you chose for the front door.  She might be the toxic relative who snubs you at family barbecues. Or maybe she’s the co-worker who can’t bring herself to pay a compliment on your new blazer or congratulate you on a hard-won promotion. 

No matter what you say or do, you’ll never win these people over. Even when you’re as sweet as key lime pie, they’ll refuse to sit at the table of your friendship.   

Sue Patton Thoele calls them “the black holes” in our personal universe. Thoele is the author of A Woman’s Book of Soul: Meditations for Courage, Independence & Spirit (Conari Press), a collection of short inspirational essays. It’s the sort of book you’ll want to keep on your nightstand, to dip into whenever you need a dose of comfort or validation.  

In one of the essays, Theole recalls an awkward time when she wasn’t hitting it off with two women in her own social circle. 

“The energy I put out to these women was merely absorbed as if it had disappeared into a black hole and none came back to me,” she writes. As a psychotherapist, Thoele understood that we all tend to project our unconscious feelings onto other people. She knew that the qualities we dislike in others are often the same ones we dislike in ourselves. But then reality dawned: The cold-shouldered women in her circle were lousy candidates for her friendship.

“The energy I put out to these women was merely absorbed as if it had disappeared into a black hole and none came back to me.” ~Sue Patton Thoele

“If we’re saddled with the belief that everyone needs to like us in order for us to be acceptable -- or that we should be able to be friends with anyone -- we cause ourselves a lot of pain,” she says. “We’re simply ‘energetic misses’ with some people.”  

Like Thoele, I’ve tried to figure out why some relationships fly while others can’t seem to get off the ground. In the past, I’ve struggled to understand why an unwarranted case of envy -- or a petty misunderstanding -- can boil over until it scalds what might have developed into a mutually supportive alliance. Then again, I've been lucky enough to find a few of those rare friends who fit so comfortably in my life that they feel more like family.  

Most men I know rarely waste time wondering why some people don’t like them. They shake hands and move on. Women, however, tend to lose sleep devising ways to appease or impress folks who needn’t count so much. We work hard to avoid conflict and maintain the status quo, often at our own expense.  

Time and experience teach us that healthy relationships are reciprocal -- a graceful dance of give-and-take. Friendship, after all, should be a pleasure, not a power struggle.

As Thoele suggests: If you find yourself feeling snubbed or taken for granted, or if you're always throwing parties but not getting invited back, you’ve probably stumbled into “Black Hole Territory.” It’s best to trust your intuition and either loosen your grip on the relationship or bow out.

Even if you're the nicest person in town, not everyone you meet will be a good match for friendship. Not everyone will uphold your political beliefs or religious convictions -- or share your interest in books, sports, movies, fine restaurants, or fashion. You're bound to meet people who dislike you, your kids, and even your carrot cake recipe. As long as you remain civil, you’re entitled to reciprocate the feeling.  – Cindy La Ferle

Parts of this essay appear in slightly different form in my book, Writing Home. For more information, click here.

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