When I started counseling, I had no idea how many stories of relationships-in-progress I would hear. After all, I only knew one story intimately—my own. And that’s not much to go by.
But after the first 100 rounds of hearing “I met this really great guy” you start to notice what sounds hopeful. And you get a particular alertness for warning signs in an emerging relationship. You know there are certain markers where you are fighting the urge to yell, run.
Before you were born, Flannery O’Connor, the south’s most esteemed novelist (and an unashamed Christian), wrote a famous story called, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”
If it was hard to find one in Flannery’s day—we can say with conviction that it’s even harder to find a good man now, for reasons that are over-determined and a subject for another time.
Maybe it is indeed harder to find them—but good men are out there. And they are waiting to meet you. You whom they cannot possibly find as long as you are entangled with one of those guys who’s just (eventually) going to make you miserable.
It’s more crucial than ever that you know what the genuine deal-breakers in a relationship are. When should you run for the exits? What’s the clear evidence in court that there is a Problem here? (And no, his ability to quote a Bible verse or two does not get him a pass).
If this man is consistently doing the kind of stuff I’m writing about here, your goal is to get out of the relationship before you’ve sunk so doggone much personal equity you think you absolutely must Buy This House.
Here are four things that make a therapist’s knees knock. And it should break you out in a cold sweat, too.
At the end of the day, his conversation is mostly monologue about this favorite subject…him. I’m not talking about the socially anxious guy who just rattles on about his love of Nascar. Or the man who honestly doesn’t know yet what to ask a woman about herself or her life. I mean the sort of narcissism that can’t get over his own specialness because he really does think he has the most interesting thing to say. Always.
What does this guy ask you about your life, your thoughts, your experience? How is he doing the work of getting to know you?
It’s always fascinated me that the Biblical expression for sex is “to know.” As in, Adam knew Eve and she conceived a son. It has always been a sin to just “lie with a woman.” God requires a man to go outside himself in order to get to know a woman—really know her—before he enters her body as her husband. It’s that spelled out.
So solipsism is never a good sign. In the long run, you won’t be happy with any man ifyou can’t honestly say, “I feel like this man really knows me.”
He Can’t Own a Flaw. I know that sounds crazy. Who doesn’t have a flaw? How can you live on this planet without your insecurities—and your sin—showing up, especially in close relationships?
This is the stuff of humility.
One of the biggest surprises for me in twenty years of listening to people is to realize that there are folks who, as the therapist’s saying goes, “cannot tolerate the feeling of being seen as flawed.”
The fear of rejection is so great that they cannot own their stuff. Not in the rain. Not on the train, as Dr. Seuss said. It’s pretty miserable to be in any close relationship where only one party can be “the bad one.” This is not a contract you want to sign.
Instead, look for a guy who is intact enough that he can own where he falls short. This is my fault. Oh, what beautiful words! To make a relationship work over time, you both have to be able to tolerate the humility of being “the bad one.”
Maybe just not on the same day.
There’s a Toxic Loop. A man may never hit you physically, but if he insists on looping most problems back on you—you’ll eventually feel pretty beaten up inside.
Some people call this gas-lighting, that dark skill of being able to convince another person that up is down. Perhaps he racked up a huge credit card debt—but you should never have wanted to eat out. He is chronically late, but somehow you always expect too much.
You could say that the toxic loop is an extension of not being able to be wrong. But it’s a little more pointed. The blame has to land on someone else’s doorstep—usually yours.
He has no bigger mission in life than…you. I think this is particularly tricky. You want to feel important to a man—but not that important. You don’t really want to be the sun in his universe.
John Eldredge, in his Wild at Heart book on men, said better than has been said that women don’t really desire to be the subject of a man’s adventure. Rather, a woman wants to join a man on the adventure he’s on.
It needs to feel like you are joining a man on a mission that’s larger than himself, where the two of you can be partners. Love gets larger as it’s shared with others.
You remember that Adam was given a mission before he was given a mate. That order is hard to improve upon. Proverbs insists that a good man opens his mouth for those who can’t speak and he defends the rights of poor and needy. In other words, he has grown to the point where he sees the purpose of his life in terms that are larger than himself. Which means that his purpose is larger than you.
So…these are some of the Really Big Things a therapist listens for when a woman talks about a man she thinks she loves. When any of these markers are recurrent—and entrenched—there’s good reason to break into a cold sweat.
Maybe you could say there’s good reason to move on.
In my next blog I want to write about what keeps a woman stuck in a bad relationship too long—and how she gets out with her heartl in one piece.
Because a crucial word in any woman’s vocabulary is this: next. Who’s next?