Sep 25 • 12M

Why I Try to "Fix" My Lovers

And how I simultaneously destabilize them in the process.

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Atoosa Rubenstein
When your life gets bat sh*t crazy, I can help. The podcast of the Atoosa Unedited newsletters!
1993. My boyfriend at Columbia once ran from 96th Street to 116th Street…on the subway tracks. And that was a night he didn’t get arrested for fighting…or throwing a trash can at a cop or…🤪

Most people enter a relationship hoping it’ll last forever.

And then…there’s me.

It’s not that I’m hoping for a breakup. It’s just that…well…my work (and my passion, honestly) is to learn about life, and you don’t learn too much about life when you’re just holding hands and going out for brunch. So, it’s not that I’m looking to make problems. I just act like myself with zero filter…and I’m ready with a notepad when things go awry.

Bestie David said this one thing this past Spring that has truly been vexing me: “Why do you keep choosing guys that are such projects?” Do your friends ever drop one-liners like that and your face is twitching because you know they’re right, but you have absolutely nothing smart to say in your own defense?

Yeah.

I admit it, I’m a fixer.

Obviously, I know intellectually it’s not right to try to fix someone. That’s Co-dependence 101. But Pro-bono Life Coach is a natural modus operandi for me. I see someone with eczema, I have a diet for them. My friend drinks too much coffee, may I suggest Ceremonial Cacao? Anxiety? Meditation! Frustrated at work? Here’s what you’re doing wrong and how we can get you on track. Works great when you’re a magazine editor. But my husband used it call it my lectures. “Let me know when your lecture is over.” And the last guy would say, “Can you be my girlfriend, not my life coach today?” So even though I knew it wasn’t helpful, the pull was deeply embedded in my psyche. So, I sat and sat (and sat!) with this “project” quality of my last two relationships until I dug deep enough within my own layers to grab the root of my toxic impulse to fix.

And wait for it…the roots lie in my childhood. Big surprise. 😜

Like let’s say you grew up with parents that were totally into….I don’t know…King Arthur’s Court. And so, you had a replica of Excalibur in the stone as the centerpiece of your dining table. Like a big honkin’ rock with a sword that your dad would pull out dramatically before dinner every night after exclaiming, “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone, is right wise King born of all England.” In his best King Arthur voice, obv.

Let’s say this is how dinner went every night for your whole life. You wouldn’t know any different, right? Plenty of families never really have their foundational architecture examined by another until the kids are partnered up and bring those partners home. And in many cases, we’re so influenced by our families (and their distinct forms of trauma) that the people we bring home usually reflect our foundations anyway so it’s kind of unlikely that you would bring home someone that would be like What. In. Holy. Hell. Is. Your. Father. Doing. More likely he would be like, Omg, Your dad is so fun!

This is a long way of saying, I finally realized something that has never been reflected back to me as unusual because I was partnered with someone for 26 years who also accepted this as normal.

I’ve told you about a mother who used tranquilizers to stabilize herself in my childhood. A mother who would literally stop talking to me for days on end at the slightest infraction. A mother who, when told by an adult me that I had been sexually abused for years as a child, literally couldn’t accept this information as truth. Even when my perpetrator told her it was true. She still doubted it’s veracity.

That all frustrated me, of course. But I didn’t see it as odd. I just saw it as a long pattern of annoying behavior from my mother. I mean, whose mother isn’t annoying at times?

But then something happened recently that made me shift my perspective.

You know I’m going through a divorce. You also know (and maybe you don’t) but I’m a fairly namaste person. Outside of my children, the number one focus in my life is mindfulness and learning about Buddhism. If you see me walking down the street in Manhattan with Air pods in my ears there is a 20 percent chance I’m listening to this playlist and an 80 percent chance I’m listening to a Joseph Goldstein Buddhism talk. Ugh – Joseph Goldstein. My number one man. The teacher at whose feet I could sit for the rest of my life. Truly. He is my Grateful Dead.

Anywayzzzz…

My point is, I try to be super chill during the various stages of the divorce but recently there was a situation where I felt very upset and did what many people do when they feel powerless: I went to my mother. Now, I admit, this is not usually my first impulse because of our history which also speaks to how badly I was feeling. But I guess I’m an optimist. I tried to make it really clear what I needed from her. I broke shit down in small bite-sized pieces: You weren’t able to protect me as a child and we can move on from that because it was a long time ago. But you have an opportunity to protect me today. He listens to you. Tell him to stop this. She was like, “Yes! Absolutely! You are one hundred percent right. I will take care of this IMMEDIATELY.”

I emboldened the word “immediately” because I want you to understand that she really met me in my moment of need and distress. This gave me immense comfort. The way one’s mother should, right? She asked him to come over so they can have the conversation in person.

I am very heartened.

He comes immediately even though he is out of town.

Yes. This is excellent. Just excellent.

A week later, when I suggest to him that even my mother agrees that his actions are unkind, he says that is not at all the message he got from her when he met with her.

Tire screech.

Huh?

I call my mom and tell her what he said. Her hysterical response?  “But I didn’t even mention your name!!!!”

Ummmm….what?

WTF did you even talk to him about then, for goodness sakes????

I will spare you the rest of the details because she went deep into all her own unresolved traumas from childhood and adulthood which have absolutely nothing to do with what we were talking about that day. And yet…they had everything to do with it, right? Her response made zero sense.

In that moment, I realized this woman despite her best and highest intention, will literally never be able to protect me. She will never be able to show up for me. She is consumed by her own emotional baggage that has yet to be unpacked and processed.

And in that moment, almost every man I’ve ever been in a relationship with flashed into my head.

Every.

Single.

One.

Suffered from some level of untreated mental or emotional instability.

And I’ve spent the lion share of my energy trying to fix them, make them happy, more highly functional in every part of their lives.

The little Atoosa within me has been trying to save my mother by projecting her onto my lovers so I could fix them and finally get my mother to protect me…to show up for me. Only to keep being betrayed and banished over and over again, by proxy. It’s like Groundhog Day with different avatars of my in-most-ways-lovely but also mentally unwell mother.

I hit a much deeper layer of understanding after this most recent incident. I gave her a paint by numbers plan for how she can protect me. She failed. To understand she CAN’T show up for me is very different than she WON’T show up for me. And to realize that as a 50-year-old woman, I’m still looking for my mommy or a man in my life to keep me safe speaks to my own level of emotional immaturity that I need to recognize and remediate. My immaturity is attracting immaturity.

Note to self: Focus on my own journey instead of trying to curate someone else’s. And when I’m in fix-it mode, it’s a sign that I don’t feel safe. That’ll be my cue to focus on helping myself feel safe instead of trying to turn my partner into a bastion of strength and security. And by the way, I may want to pick more stable and mature guys. I only needed to experience like 5 train wrecks to finally understand those tracks are faulty.

And here’s what else your pal Atoosa brought to the table that was utterly unhelpful.

Because of my unmet need to have my mother show up for me, I would create false fires: These fake breakups that I wasn’t conscious at the time were fake, but I realize now were totally cooked up drama intended to get my beloved to show up for me in the way my mother never did. I remember in the aftermath of one of these fake break ups, the Bear said with the most stricken face I’d seen, “I never would have thought you would leave me like that.” Our relationship never recovered from that very episode. I was creating instability for men who were already self-medicating with weed or workaholism to create a sense of stability and calm for themselves. I need to forgive myself for that. Forgive myself for being so unconscious. For making vulnerable men feel even more tender and ungrounded because of my own vulnerability and ungroundedness that long predated our relationships.

Right now I’m sitting with healthy shame, to be honest. But part of my work, I suppose, is to sit in these hard feelings so, I hope, I will do better in the future. This is the “knowing better” part Maya Angelou talked about with the “doing better” to follow, I hope.

Oh…and I’m just realizing something that happened recently that speaks to how deep this goes in my psyche. As Kanye was having his most recent public breakdown, I was texting an acquaintance in the music industry daily: How can you make this stop? Can you contact him and help him? I was being totally serious. It was so difficult for me to sit on the sidelines of Kanye’s emotional instability. My friend said something I didn’t fully hear then because I was so deeply triggered. But now it’s kind of blowing my mind. He said, “Tell me who you saved from themselves.”

Fuck.

Well.

I can answer that now.

Nobody.

I have tried to save every single man I’ve been in a relationship with.

But I have saved all of no one.

But now, I can try….once and for all, to save myself.

And then, maybe then, holding hands and going to brunch with my beloved will be enough.

TBD…TBD.

xo, atoosa

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Soundtrack of my 🤍🖤❤️:

Next week I’ll update you on how my Man-fast has been going. Have I cheated? Have I abstained? You’ll read it here first. Spoiler alert: I miss having sex. 😵‍💫