Peggy came into her session looking distraught. “There must be a screw loose in my head or I’m just not that bright when it comes to men. You would think that I would learn, but no matter how hard I try to select carefully, I end up with guys who want someone to take charge of their lives. You know, a mother. I don’t want to be a mother, at least with my lover. I don’t want to be with someone who needs to be told what to do.”
Peggy was a bright, attractive young woman who worked as a manager for a high tech company. She presented as self-confident and competent. But beneath her facade of determination and self-reliance was a foundation that was littered with conflicts and contradictions. Her early history had left her with deep psychic scars, which she denied, avoided and repressed.
Peggy was the oldest child of a schizophrenic mother and absent father. For periods of time in her youth, Peggy’s mom was stable with the help of medication and the support of social services. At other times, when she was hospitalized, Peggy and her brother would go live at their aunt’s house. But even in her highest level of functioning, Peggy’s mom was never capable of being an adequate parent. Peggy grew up without the feeling of safety or nurturing that a parent should provide.
It is not surprising that Peggy grew up to be precociously independent. By the time she was 7 years old she was doing the family marketing and managing the monthly bills. She also became her mother’s little nurse, making sure that she took her medications in a timely fashion. Almost single-handedly she raised her brother who was five years younger.
To her enormous credit, Peggy made her way through school as an honor student and received a scholarship to college. Throughout college and after, she continued to support her mother and brother emotionally and financially.
Out of necessity, Peggy had developed extraordinary survival skills. She had learned how to navigate in the world and how to succeed, despite having the handicap of having raised herself. The price that she paid was never having the opportunity for introspection or the luxury to reflect on who she is or what she wanted.
I said, “Peggy, it’s no surprise that guys who want to be taken care of are attracted to you. The question is why are you attracted to them?”
“It beats me. When I meet them they seem solid enough. Before I know it I am rewriting their resume and paying half of their rent. I have done my share of taking care of people. It’s my turn. I want someone to take care of me.”
Peggy’s work in treatment was to get a better understanding of her own foundation. She needed to recognize how her early childhood experiences had a formative effect on her. She needed to spend time with her anger about her upbringing as well as the joy and the love. Peggy needed to understand that growing up in her family had a price as well as a payoff.
In adult relationships, Peggy usually found herself being in control. She reluctantly admitted that there was something familiar and comfortable about that position. But to her credit, she wanted something more than having another person to take care of, even if it was familiar. She sought a connection that was based on mutuality and interdependence. She wanted to break her pattern and escape her comfort zone. She wanted real love.
Jerry Duberstein, Ph.D. is the co-author with Mary Ellen Goggin, JD of the book Relationship Transformation: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too-A Practical Guide for Couples Who Want To Be Free and Connected. Jerry and Mary Ellen offer counseling, couples coaching via telephone or Skype, and private couples weekend retreats in the quaint seaside town of Portsmouth, NH and the historic city of Boston.