I always thought that in order for me to feel like a relationship could work, the other person had to have dealt with anxiety and depression. They needed to have some sort of childhood issue. They needed to be juuust fucked up enough to roll with my fucked-upness. What most people would consider red flags were at the top of my checklist. I was, however, coming at it all wrong.
Let’s take my ex, Sam*, for example. I’ve used him many times as my barometer for what not to do in a relationship — you may recognize him as the partner whose therapist I played. On our first date, we shared pretty much everything with each other. I talked about my parents’ divorce and how it has since affected me into adulthood. He told me that while his parents aren’t divorced, they perhaps should be, and their relationship affects him in similar ways. We seemed to agree that we were better off than “regular people,” who hadn’t been through this shit, that we were better equipped to handle life. I couldn’t believe I’d met someone who was so similar to me (in this way and many others) and also seemed to align on the effed-up childhood front.
“People like commonality because it’s familiar,” says Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW, founder of Manhattan Wellness Associates. “It’s comfortable. It leads us to think that things will be easier. Will they necessarily? Absolutely not.”
I definitely thought a relationship with Sam would be easier, stronger, and better than one with someone who had a peachy childhood, all because we shared similar experiences which had contributed to our current mental health struggles. We were going to glide through our relationship and support each other through the hard times in life. But, with him by my side, those hard times actually turned out to be harder.
“The assumption that because someone went through something similar, the values, experiences, and feelings surrounding it are the same, [is] not necessarily true,” says Silvershein. “In reality, you both had [an issue with a parent]. While that is somewhat of a commonality, you’ve experienced it differently.”
We did indeed. I didn’t understand his current relationship with one of his parents after what they had put him through. He didn’t understand why I felt that way. I ended up sharing things I didn’t always want to share in an effort to connect with him on what he was going through.
“We project our traumas and experiences onto another person when they may not be experiencing them,” says Silvershein. Let’s say someone lost their mom and their partner lost their dad — one would assume they would come together on this topic. But when one person has processed their loss and the other hasn’t or one wants to talk about it and the other one doesn’t, that’s hardly the case. If you own those differences, you’ll actually be better off. “When you assume everyone feels the way you feel about something, it leads to a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding,” Silvershein adds. That holds true whether both of your parents are divorced or still together, you both love or hate your jobs, or you deal equally with financial troubles.
Since breaking up with my ex, I’ve become a lot more open to dating people without my issues, struggles, trauma, and hardships. That’s positive, because it allows room to share, learn, and inform each other about our individual experiences, says Silvershein.
I’m not currently taking boyfriend applications, but next time I am, I won’t throw someone’s in the garbage just because they had a picture-perfect childhood. In fact, I’ll put them right at the top of the pile.