Once upon a time, there were two youngsters, a boy and a girl. Their families hated each other. But the boy snuck into a party hosted by the girl’s family because he was kind of a dick. The girl sees the boy, and angels sing so sweetly to her lady-parts that she instantly falls in love with him. Just like that. And so he sneaks into her garden and they decide to get married the next freaking day, because, you know, that’s totally practical, especially when your parents want to murder each other. Jump ahead a few days. Their families find out about the marriage and throw a shit-fit. Mercutio dies. The girl is so upset that she drinks a potion that will put her to sleep for two days. But, unfortunately, the young couple hasn’t learned the ins and outs of good marital communication yet, and the young girl totally forgets to mention something about it to her new husband. The young man therefore mistakes his new wife’s self-induced coma for suicide. He then totally loses his marbles and he commits suicide, thinking he’s going to be with her in the afterlife or some shit. But then she wakes up from her two-day coma, only to learn that her new husband has committed suicide, so she has the exact same idea and kills herself too. The end.
Romeo and Juliet is synonymous with “romance” in our culture today. It is seen as the love story in English-speaking culture, an emotional ideal to live up to. Yet when you really get down to what happens in the story, these kids are absolutely out of their fucking minds. And they just killed themselves to prove it!
It’s suspected by many scholars that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet not to celebrate romance, but rather to satirize it, to show how absolutely nutty it was. He didn’t mean for the play to be a glorification of love. In fact, he meant it to be the opposite: a big flashing neon sign blinking KEEP OUT, with police tape around it saying DO NOT CROSS.
For most of human history, romantic love was not celebrated as it is now. In fact, up until the mid-nineteenth century or so, love was seen as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous psychological impediment to the more important things in life—you know, like farming well and/or marrying a guy with a lot of sheep. Young people were often forcibly steered clear of their romantic passions in favor of practical economic marriages that would yield stability for both them and their families.
But today, we all get brain boners for this kind of batshit crazy love. It dominates our culture. And the more dramatic, the better. Whether it’s Ben Affleck working to destroy an asteroid to save the earth for the girl he loves, or Mel Gibson murdering hundreds of Englishmen and fantasizing about his raped and murdered wife while being tortured to death, or that Elven chick giving up her immortality to be with Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, or stupid romantic comedies where Jimmy Fallon forgoes his Red Sox playoff tickets because Drew Barrymore has, like, needs or something.
If this sort of romantic love were cocaine, then as a culture we’d all be like Tony Montana in Scarface: burying our faces in a fucking mountain of it, screaming, “Say hello to my lee-tle friend!”
The problem is that we’re finding out that romantic love is kind of like cocaine. Like, frighteningly similar to cocaine. Like, stimulates the exact same parts of your brain as cocaine. Like, gets you high and makes you feel good for a while but also creates as many problems as it solves, as does cocaine.
Most elements of romantic love that we pursue—the dramatic and dizzyingly emotional displays of affection, the topsy-turvy ups and downs—aren’t healthy, genuine displays of love. In fact, they’re often just another form of entitlement playing out through people’s relationships.
I know: that makes me sound like such a downer. Seriously, what kind of guy shits on romantic love? But hear me out.
The truth is, there are healthy forms of love and unhealthy forms of love. Unhealthy love is based on two people trying to escape their problems through their emotions for each other—in other words, they’re using each other as an escape. Healthy love is based on two people acknowledging and addressing their own problems with each other’s support.
The difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship comes down to two things: 1) how well each person in the relationship accepts responsibility, and 2) the willingness of each person to both reject and be rejected by their partner.
Anywhere there is an unhealthy or toxic relationship, there will be a poor and porous sense of responsibility on both sides, and there will be an inability to give and/or receive rejection. Wherever there is a healthy and loving relationship, there will be clear boundaries between the two people and their values, and there will be an open avenue of giving and receiving rejection when necessary.
By “boundaries” I mean the delineation between two people’s responsibilities for their own problems. People in a healthy relationship with strong boundaries will take responsibility for their own values and problems and not take responsibility for their partner’s values and problems. People in a toxic relationship with poor or no boundaries will regularly avoid responsibility for their own problems and/or take responsibility for their partner’s problems.
What do poor boundaries look like? Here are some examples:
“You can’t go out with your friends without me. You know how jealous I get. You have to stay home with me.”
“My coworkers are idiots; they always make me late to meetings because I have to tell them how to do their jobs.”
“I can’t believe you made me feel so stupid in front of my own sister. Never disagree with me in front of her again!”
“I’d love to take that job in Milwaukee, but my mother would never forgive me for moving so far away.”
“I can date you, but can you not tell my friend Cindy? She gets really insecure when I have a boyfriend and she doesn’t.”
In each scenario, the person is either taking responsibility for problems/emotions that are not theirs, or demanding that someone else take responsibility for their problems/emotions.
In general, entitled people fall into one of two traps in their relationships. Either they expect other people to take responsibility for their problems: “I wanted a nice relaxing weekend at home. You should have known that and canceled your plans.” Or they take on too much responsibility for other people’s problems: “She just lost her job again, but it’s probably my fault because I wasn’t as supportive of her as I could have been. I’m going to help her rewrite her résumé tomorrow.”
Entitled people adopt these strategies in their relationships, as with everything, to help avoid accepting responsibility for their own problems. As a result, their relationships are fragile and fake, products of avoiding inner pain rather than embracing a genuine appreciation and adoration of their partner.
This goes not just for romantic relationships, by the way, but also for family relationships and friendships. An overbearing mother may take responsibility for every problem in her children’s lives. Her own entitlement then encourages an entitlement in her children, as they grow up to believe other people should always be responsible for their problems.
(This is why the problems in your romantic relationships always eerily resemble the problems in your parents’ relationship.)
When you have murky areas of responsibility for your emotions and actions—areas where it’s unclear who is responsible for what, whose fault is what, why you’re doing what you’re doing—you never develop strong values for yourself. Your only value becomes making your partner happy. Or your only value becomes your partner making you happy.
This is self-defeating, of course. And relationships characterized by such murkiness usually go down like the Hindenburg, with all the drama and fireworks.
People can’t solve your problems for you. And they shouldn’t try, because that won’t make you happy. You can’t solve other people’s problems for them either, because that likewise won’t make them happy. The mark of an unhealthy relationship is two people who try to solve each other’s problems in order to feel good about themselves. Rather, a healthy relationship is when two people solve their own problems in order to feel good about each other.
The setting of proper boundaries doesn’t mean you can’t help or support your partner or be helped and supported yourself. You both should support each other. But only because you choose to support and be supported. Not because you feel obligated or entitled.
Entitled people who blame others for their own emotions and actions do so because they believe that if they constantly paint themselves as victims, eventually someone will come along and save them, and they will receive the love they’ve always wanted.
Entitled people who take the blame for other people’s emotions and actions do so because they believe that if they “fix” their partner and save him or her, they will receive the love and appreciation they’ve always wanted.
These are the yin and yang of any toxic relationship: the victim and the saver, the person who starts fires because it makes her feel important and the person who puts out fires because it makes him feel important.
These two types of people are drawn strongly to one another, and they usually end up together. Their pathologies match one another perfectly. Often they’ve grown up with parents who each exhibit one of these traits as well. So their model for a “happy” relationship is one based on entitlement and poor boundaries.
Sadly, they both fail in meeting the other’s actual needs. In fact, their pattern of overblaming and overaccepting blame perpetuates the entitlement and shitty self-worth that have been keeping them from getting their emotional needs met in the first place. The victim creates more and more problems to solve—not because additional real problems exist, but because it gets her the attention and affection she craves. The saver solves and solves—not because she actually cares about the problems, but because she believes she must fix others’ problems in order to deserve attention and affection for herself. In both cases, the intentions are selfish and conditional and therefore self-sabotaging, and genuine love is rarely experienced.
The victim, if he really loved the saver, would say, “Look, this is my problem; you don’t have to fix it for me. Just support me while I fix it myself.” That would actually be a demonstration of love: taking responsibility for your own problems and not holding your partner responsible for them.
If the saver really wanted to save the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems; deal with this yourself.” And in a sick way, that would actually be a demonstration of love: helping someone solve their own problems.
Instead, victims and savers both use each other to achieve emotional highs. It’s like an addiction they fulfill in one another. Ironically, when presented with emotionally healthy people to date, they usually feel bored or lack “chemistry” with them. They pass on emotionally healthy, secure individuals because the secure partner’s solid boundaries don’t feel “exciting” enough to stimulate the constant highs necessary in the entitled person.
For victims, the hardest thing to do in the world is to hold themselves accountable for their problems. They’ve spent their whole life believing that others are responsible for their fate. That first step of taking responsibility for themselves is often terrifying.
For savers, the hardest thing to do in the world is to stop taking responsibility for other people’s problems. They’ve spent their whole life feeling valued and loved only when they’re saving somebody else—so letting go of this need is terrifying to them as well.
If you make a sacrifice for someone you care about, it needs to be because you want to, not because you feel obligated or because you fear the consequences of not doing so. If your partner is going to make a sacrifice for you, it needs to because he or she genuinely wants to, not because you’ve manipulated the sacrifice through anger or guilt. Acts of love are valid only if they’re performed without conditions or expectations.
It can be difficult for people to recognize the difference between doing something out of obligation and doing it voluntarily. So here’s a litmus test: ask yourself, “If I refused, how would the relationship change?” Similarly, ask, “If my partner refused something I wanted, how would the relationship change?”
If the answer is that a refusal would cause a blowout of drama and broken china plates, then that’s a bad sign for your relationship. It suggests that your relationship is conditional—based on superficial benefits received from one another, rather than on unconditional acceptance of each other (along with each other’s problems).
People with strong boundaries are not afraid of a temper tantrum, an argument, or getting hurt. People with weak boundaries are terrified of those things and will constantly mold their own behavior to fit the highs and lows of their relational emotional roller coaster.
People with strong boundaries understand that it’s unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100 percent and fulfill every need the other has. People with strong boundaries understand that they may hurt someone’s feelings sometimes, but ultimately they can’t determine how other people feel. People with strong boundaries understand that a healthy relationship is not about controlling one another’s emotions, but rather about each partner supporting the other in their individual growth and in solving their own problems.
It’s not about giving a fuck about everything your partner gives a fuck about; it’s about giving a fuck about your partner regardless of the fucks he or she gives. That’s unconditional love, baby.