Lessons from Keith #7. The Relationship Potluck

Mustard Potato Salad:
When I was younger, I always had a knack for inviting trouble to myself. Drama. Gossip. Meanness.
Until I was in my mid-thirties, it seemed that in every relationship I had, even if it started right, it always took a turn and eventually turned toxic.
Like most people probably would, I assumed that this was always the fault of my friend. Often, it’s only when you’re looking backward that you notice your own trends. And even then, it’s still hard to be completely honest with yourself about it and take the responsibility that is yours.
When I first started getting counseling from Keith, my original cause was Brian’s alcoholism. This was overtaking our lives, and I literally feared that he would die.
The secondary reason I decided to get help was that, once again, a relationship that had begun healthy had now gone awry, and I was being walked all over. Or so it seemed to me anyway.
I anticipated that he would give me a bunch of lines to practice.
“Please don’t do this.”
“When you say that, I feel like ____.”
You know. Typical “beginner boundaries” sort of things.
We did practice little lines. He said it would help to have pre-loaded answers ready to go. I’d spent so much of my life unable to stand up for myself, that sometimes, I sincerely didn’t know how to think on my feet when “situations” arose.
The lines helped, but they didn’t actually fix the problem. They were more like damage control. The lines helped me fix problems after they happened, but I was hoping for an answer that would help me avoid the problems altogether.
We didn’t get to the real heart of the matter for a few months.
“Heather, do you think your friend is trying to hurt you?”
“Well, no. I honestly don’t. But it’s such basic relationship stuff that it seems nearly impossible that I should have to spell it out for her.”
“Yes, but if these things happen and you continue your friendship as though nothing has gone wrong, how will she ever know that your experience of the relationship has begun to shift?”
He was right, ya know. The most powerful way to influence another person’s behavior toward you – whether it’s good behavior or bad – is to simply tell them. They only know what they know. If we don’t tell them, we can only fault ourselves when the pain continues.
Sometimes we tell them in words. “Please stop doing this ____.”
Other times we tell them in facial expressions.
And, other times, it is simply done by creating space. If the space prompts communication and the opportunity to express your “ouch”, then that relationship might have a fighting chance. But if the space turns into more space, you were probably metamorphizing out of that compatibility anyway.
“Heather, when I was young, my family went to an annual church potluck. It was a time when everyone brought their best dish and shared it with everyone else. The unspoken expectation was that we should all sample everything from one another. Of course, this wasn’t really real, but I felt that way about it. I felt that if I didn’t take some of Mrs. Johnson’s apple pie – even though I already had a serving of Mrs. Jones’ pie – she might be offended.
“I remember that there were often more than one offering of potato salad. And I do love a good potato salad. So, dutifully, I would take small bits of each kind. I noticed right away that I greatly disliked Judy’s potato salad because she made it with mustard and mustard kind of makes my stomach hurt. In short, I guess you could say that I didn’t like what she was bringing to the table. But because I didn’t know yet that one of the best ways to help others know what I *do* like is to tell them what I *don’t* like, I just kept scooping Judy’s potato salad onto my plate year after year.
“So, whose fault is it that my stomach kept hurting after eating her potato salad? Mine or hers?”
“I guess it was yours.”
“Yes, it was. And I had to discover that at some point. I learned that if I just kept scooping things onto my plate that made me sick, it was indeed my fault when I was feeling bad.
“You aren’t a child anymore. You no longer have a parent or a teacher who will intercede for you when relationship trouble comes your way. It is now *your* job to evaluate what your friends bring to the table and decide if you like it and want to continue to take heaping scoops of it onto your plate or if, perhaps, what they bring to the table actually makes you sick and in order to not feel unwell, it’s you that needs to cease partaking.”
About two years later after Keith told me the story of the Relationship Potluck, I found myself yet again in another relationship that started out great but was starting to turn toxic.
We’d been friends since our early teens. She was a great source of help and inspiration for me for my divorce. She was kind and generous and willing to listen. She had good advice.
But as I began to change, it was as though our relationship – a relationship that had very certain rules about who was the victim and who was the rescuer – couldn’t handle the strain of my new growth.
For years, she’d helped me think because I was truly not able to think for myself. But now that I was learning to do that, it only took a few months for my autonomy to cause enough discord that she revolted.
Looking back, I can see it plainly, though it was anything but plain at the time. In fact, it was wild and crazy and mystifying. Why would my friend who has watched me suffer and suffer and suffer suddenly turn on me now that I’m beginning to find such staggering relief?
Our very relationship was formed during the many years of my life that I was unwell. That I was sick. I needed constant assistance and guidance. I needed the heavy-lifting sort of support.
And for mostly all the right reasons, some people are drawn to those needs. They are caretakers. They see pain and confusion and rush in to save. This act of saving and being a part of a controlled rescue is their very lifeblood.
But when the victim ceases being one, it can easily turn these sorts of arrangements inside out. Without knowing, both parties can suddenly be incompatible. There is room for change, of course, but if you don’t know what’s happening and all you are experiencing is a sudden realization that there is some mustard in the potato salad and this mustard is making you sick, it can feel like betrayal and malice. Like jealousy and hatred.
For years, she and I tried to work it out. Even though I believe we had both become tired of what each other was bringing to the table in this post-metamorphosis relationship, it was as though memories of “how it used to be” were enough to keep us at work trying to find it again.
So, we would have coffee, or meet for dinner, or visit each other in our homes. And every time, there it was again. Mustard! Yuck!
At that time that this relationship was hitting the fan, my metamorphosis was still in its very early stages, and it took me years further to fully grasp the way the Mustard Potato Salad Potluck integrated with what was going on. But eventually it did click with me. I was able to see that the pain I would find myself in when I engaged with this particular friend was due to the fact that I’d already discovered that what she brought to the table was no longer compatible with me. With my tastes. But because I was afraid of offending her, I kept scooping it on. Just like Keith used to eat Miss Judy’s mustard potato salad.
It’s ok to tell someone that you don’t like mustard in your potato salad. That you don’t like what they bring to the table.
In fact, I’d say that this ability is probably a huge determining factor to the longevity of any relationship. I mean, we all change. We all grow or shrink from time to time. So every relationship will feel these pressures tugging at its seams from time to time. Communication is the elastic that keeps the fabric of the relationship from finally giving way and tearing straight down the middle.
But if the person has been made aware that their actions are causing you pain, and they just refuse to change. Or they say, “This is just my personality.” Then it might be time for you to take a clue and move along.
Always try to fix the problem. After all, friendships are so important. The good ones only come along so many times in your whole life. They’re worth fighting for. They’re worth communicating for.
But if the efforts have been made with no fruit, move on to the next bowl on the table and stop scooping the stuff onto your plate.
Life is short. Don’t just let yourself be harmed over and over by anyone.
And be intentional about filling your plate with the things you love. The things that nourish you. I find that when I am good about keeping my plate filled with people who treat me as I feel I ought to be treated, I am less likely to fall prey to those old kinds of arrangements where I was in relationships that sorta made me sick.

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