Sisyphus, that tortured soul from Greek mythology (and the inspiration for Dante’s fourth circle of hell), was doomed for eternity to endlessly roll a boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down just before he reached the summit. It is a strong metaphor of herculean effort, searing pain, and intolerable frustration, followed by defeat playing out in an endless loop. Over the years I have associated this image with the lives of many people that I have encountered as an attorney and Mediator.

Relationships which have their roots in addiction, abuse, deceit, or dysfunction are stones such as Sisyphus was partnered with. These are relationships where one person appears to assert a superhuman effort to push for the preservation of the relationship, enduring physical and emotional pain, frustration, and finally failure. If it ended there, then the comparison to the struggles of Sisyphus would fail. However, like Sisyphus there are some souls who immediately return to that “stone” (or another like it) to renew the effort, pain, disappointment and defeat. Why? No doubt hundreds of books have been written on the subject by researchers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. Jerry Springer has made a fortune show-placing the lives of folks caught up in this revolving door. I am an attorney, not a social scientist. However, attorneys are usually keen observers of human interaction. We represent people who are caught up in dysfunctional relationships.

Any experienced family lawyer can tell of storied divorces which played out to conclusion only to have the client return to the office a few years later with the same problems, just a different spouse… sometimes even the same spouse! We scratch our heads, shrug our shoulders and go forward to represent the client to the best of our abilities.

At the end of a divorce proceeding I usually offered a straightforward piece of advice to my client, “Please, do not become engaged in a committed relationship for at least two years.” Occasionally a client would ask “why”, but more often there would be a polite smile and no other acknowledgement of my remark.

I believe that we develop habits of interpersonal interaction and communication. Some of these habits are formed by our experiences as children observing our parents’ relationship. A child raised in a household with spousal violence faces the likelihood of growing up to either be an abuser or a victim of abuse. Some habits of interaction are impressed upon the inexperienced and malleable by the object of their affection. Witness the case of a naïve teen who runs away with a man of ill intention, or one who blindly follows a cult leader. One who is raised in a household burdened by dysfunction has a greater likelihood of becoming an adult member of just such a household. Of course, some of these habits are formed merely as the fallout from a long decomposing relationship.

Why fall victim to the repetition of such misery? Familiarity, no matter how painful, may still be more comfortable than that which is unfamiliar. If a person has learned only one dance step, then that person will naturally tend to dance with the people who dance the same step. Selecting a dance partner who dances to a different beat is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and threatens to make one look inept or foolish. Learning a new dance takes time, effort, and courage.

Many clients have said “I’m done with marriage forever” but missed the point that they were not done with relationships. I think that real change takes two years, but not two years sitting on one’s hands. This kind of change requires a good support system, counselling, and at the very least “new playmates and a new playground”. It also takes the acceptance that there are things that cannot be changed (the other person), it takes courage to change the things that one can change (oneself), and wisdom to know the difference.

Like Sisyphus, we may make our own hell in this world by trying to change the other person, confusing relationship with endurance. Had Sisyphus taken a 2 year break he might have found the insight to leave that stone for someone else to bear. Of course, that would have been Dante Alighieri’s loss.

Peace Everyone. Pete

(Posted May 28, 2015, amended February 13, 2018)

2 thoughts on “The Bonds of Toxic Love

  1. I have pondered this cycle as it relates to addiction, mental illness and the enabler, not just in male/female relationships. But it is true, also, as you note, that we in the domestic law field see it all too often, sadly perpetuating from one generation to the next. Thanks, Peter, for thoughts to ponder. It is with courage and sadness that one finally finds the strength to say, “No more!”

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