Actions have consequences. In scientific terms, this is cause and effect. Effects aren’t evil. They don’t have intent. They just are. There are natural consequences to everything. Some are easy to understand. Touch a hot pot, burn your hand. Combine bleach and ammonia, create a noxious gas cloud that could kill you. Throw a ball for the neighbor’s dog, gain a friend for life. Pinch your younger brother, draw the wrath of your mother. Even if he started it.
Sometimes the consequences aren’t what one anticipates. This usually occurs with people. My cousin was often quite mean to me when we would visit. He was only two years older but would act like there was a ten year gap between us. One day he was teasing me, calling me a baby. And then he dropped the gauntlet. There was no way I could complete a “highly” complicated Star Wars Rebel Fighter out of LEGO. I was just a girl. And a baby at that. Really, my friend? You’re going to challenge me to a task that married two of my greatest loves at the time – LEGO and Star Wars? You bet I handed him his ass. I was expecting my cousin to act the way my brother would whenever I bested him: to pout, call me names, and break apart the Lego creation. Instead my cousin looked at my Rebel Fighter with respect and invited me to play with all of his Star Wars Lego sets. We remain friendly to this day.
Sometimes consequences are confusing. They don’t seem to fit the situation, or the consequence comes in two parts that appear to negate each other. I remember one day I stood up to my brother’s bully. Sure, I got punished for punching the girl’s face, but I was also rewarded with praise for standing against those who wished to do harm. The message I learned? Hand someone their ass but don’t get caught doing it. The intended message? I’m fairly certain my parents meant for me to learn that standing against injustice is good, but there are ways to do so that do not involve violence.
I have a friend who loves her boyfriend so much she would do anything for him. She wants to take care of him to the point I start to feel smothered on his behalf. He is very independent and hasn’t had the best luck with girlfriends in the past. It’s not that he isn’t willing to share his life with my friend. He is very open and kind. But he doesn’t want her to take care of him. On a rare occasion where he and I went out for coffee without my friend, he told me his perfect relationship was with someone who wanted to be with him, not someone who wanted to be needed. In his mind, need was a slippery slope to inequity and losing one’s self. Wouldn’t it be better, he argued, to be with someone who doesn’t need you, who chooses to be with you because they love you. They want you. Out of all the people in the world they choose you.
I thought about this as it applies to action and consequences, trying to map out the logic of how this young man felt. There are far more potential consequences when dealing with people. Unlike the science experiments we had in high school, people can be unpredictable and the consequences may not be what we expect, therefore it is almost impossible to create a logic tree that includes all potential outcomes. But I had to give it a try. I wanted to understand.
So I asked him, that if a woman has a strong desire to take care of her boyfriend/spouse and is motivated by a need to be needed, what might be some possible consequences of this action. Together we came up with three:
- She could develop a codependent relationship with the boyfriend and be set up to play the role of caregiver throughout the life of their relationship, which could lead to resentment and inequity on both sides
- He could push her away or end the relationship because he doesn’t want to be the object of need for another
- By doing for him or taking care of him, she could be denying them both opportunities to grow into their human potential
These are by no means the only consequences that could be experienced, but they were the ones that were foremost on this young man’s mind. So why these consequences in this situation? He looked up at me and told me that his mother took care of his father. She anticipated all his needs and desire. Her life was about him. She often said she was nothing without him. And his dad? He once shared with his son that he felt smothered at home, which was why he often had “business trips” out-of-town. He didn’t want to be his wife’s sole focus. He wanted her to have a life that was rich and rounded. He wanted the same for himself. He felt trapped.
So this young man watched and learned and went to therapy to start to figure out what a healthy relationship looked like, because his parents’ relationship seemed to be one of the many opposites of healthy. One of his conclusions was that he didn’t want to be needed and he didn’t want to need. He recognized this as an extreme view and acknowledged that over the lifetime of a relationship there is give and take. But he didn’t want the foundation to because of need. It had to be choice.
My friend wants to take care of her boyfriend because that is the model she learned. You show someone you love them by taking care of them. She didn’t realize her family of origin had some serious codependency and caretaking issues. She didn’t know how dangerous these things could be to one’s health and wellbeing. The good news is that she is open to discussion and willing to see another point of view. She is willing to learn. This may lead her to therapy where she can begin to learn examples of a healthy adult relationship and gain the language and skills she may need to build her own.
Her new actions will have new and fascinating consequences. This is the process of growing toward our better selves. Beliefs lead to choices. Choices lead to behaviors and actions. Actions lead to consequences (or results) that lead back to beliefs and choices. I wish these two the best as they walk their relational journey together.
Human relationships are so messy sometimes. At the end of the day, we have to do the best we can with what we know and be willing to learn and grow. Sometimes growing means saying good-bye to beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve us. Sometimes it means learning that what we think is healthy is actually maladaptive behavior that is hurting instead of helping. Sometimes it means there will be pain in the process. Ultimately it means we become closer to that better version of ourselves we are striving to be.