Today is my 42nd birthday. I don’t think anyone knows this about me but 42 has been a big secret milestone in my head ever since I was about 13 years old… Three decades ago. That sounds weird to say out loud.
Why 42? Apart for it being the answer to the question about life, the universe and everything? Well, you see, that was the age at which I remember my father re-marrying. I remember distinctly, she was 21, he was 42, and I promised myself then and there at the tender age of 13 that I would go a different path to my father somehow. I wasn’t really sure how, but one of my goals was “marry someone more than half your age”.
You see, I’ve always quite similar to my father. In fact, when I was a child I used to think that he could read my thoughts. I would play a game where I would think of a word and see if he would say that same word later on. The words matched up enough that I decided to stop playing that game.
Looking at my father’s trajectory in life, the decisions he made and the situation he was in at 42, I promised myself I would do whatever I could do be different to him, to choose a different path.
That’s not to say that I think my father was a bad person. More the contrary: he was a very helping and giving person. He was the kind of person who would run towards danger. On many an occasion I saw him run towards where someone was screaming, or put himself in harms way to help others. He was always giving: giving, giving, giving. He developed strong Christian values and he tried hard to hold himself to those throughout his life.
So what was it about Dad that I wanted to avoid? Well when I was younger I wanted to avoid the kinds of relationship mistakes I saw him making. He got himself involved with very troubled people. Jumped in to look after them. The most dramatic of which was marrying someone half his age who happened to need a lot of support. I guess part of me felt like the imbalance of power was a “Bad Thing”. By taking on a partner who needed a lot of support, it was kind of like taking on another child. He controlled most aspects of her life for reasons he felt were for her own good.
As I got older, I started to sympathise more. He got into his relationship to help people after all. I got into relationships to help people too and I realised how being a helper can actually be really bad for me. For many years I pitied my father for the mistakes he had made and the people who had taken advantage of his sweet and giving nature. I promised myself I wouldn’t be anyone else’s crutch. I wouldn’t light myself on fire to keep the world warm…. but I did, of course I did, I am my father’s son after all.
I can point to past relationships where I found myself in that position. In fact, when I was 26, my second boyfriend turned out to be quite troubled. I had to make a decision: do I stick with this person for the rest of my life and be their live-in crutch or let them go? Learning the lesson from my father I let him go.. and I am glad to say he landed on his feet, stronger than ever (it took years though). Dad chose not to let go, and he effectively looked after someone 24/7 for over 25 years. I felt sorry for him. But I don’t feel sorry for the brother and sister that I am blessed with as a result.
More recently, though, I have learnt that “victim” and “rescuer” are two roles in a game played by many people all the time. You could point to the “victim” and blame them, or the “persecutor” who hurt the victim, or you could indeed blame the “rescuer” themselves. You can read more about it in the Karpman Drama Triangle.
Take this song “drive” for instance:
In this song, the singer is singing to someone who needs help, someone who can’t look after themselves. The singer is saying “who’s gonna drive you home?” the implication is that the person they are singing to (a) needs help of some sort, needs to be rescued and (b) cannot drive / rescue themselves.
I used to think of this song as a rather caring and sweet love song. Of a lover who just cares so much for their partner who they just can’t get through to. Someone stubborn who just won’t accept help, who keeps getting into difficult situations again and again, and needs to be helped, needs to be rescued.
But I suggest to you a different reading.
What if this was entirely one-sided. What if the singer (the rescuer) is trying to help this person who doesn’t want or need to be helped? What if this person is, in fact, perfectly capable of driving themselves and if the singer would just leave them alone, they would be OK?
You see, it takes two to play a game. If “victims” draw people in to help fic their problems, then “rescuers” impose themselves upon others to fix those problems.
You see, it’s all about boundaries.
And this is the lesson I have learnt from my father, this is the thing I am now hoping I get right over the next period of my life. I hope I have learnt to see and understand someone who is suffering, to have empathy and compassion for them but to resist the urge to step in and fix things. Not because doing so puts me in harms way (because it does) but because by stepping in and interfering with someone else’s life is overstepping a boundary and taking some of their agency away from them. Rescuing is not always helping and some people need to learn to drive for themselves.
Enter Tim. Tim is unlike most of my past partners in that he is a helper like me. Like me and my father he has also found himself in relationships where he’s “helping” more than he should. Tim and I have been together for a little over a year now and it’s been interesting to see how his “helper” behaviours line up with mine. I am optimistic that meeting my big dorky boyfriend Tim is in part my secret to finding a path different from my father’s.
We’re both helpers, neither of us need help, and both of us say “sorry” more than we should. I have a good feeling about this and I am very happy.
He also lets me drive whenever I want to, which lets be honest is all of the time.