Substitute People: A Guide in Healthy Relationships

JAN / FEB 2017: BY CHARITY BISHOP

The world is full of lonely people who “play the supporting role” in relationships, who are the second friend you call (instead of the first), or who seem overlooked in the grand scheme of life. It’s hard to be that person. Every mortal desires an understanding with other people, to be wanted, even to meet, as Anne Shirley so famously put it, “a truly kindred spirit.”

Despite our fast-paced society, with many potential relationships at our fingertips, many people are lonely and unfulfilled in their relationships; sometimes they’re completely alone, because no one has “found” them (or they’ve “found” no one), or they’re in a relationship because it’s always been there but they really aren’t connected to that person in the way they want to be (they “settle” because it’s easier and less scary than starting over or being alone), or they’re in a relationship because it’s good, fulfills them, and teaches them selflessness and ability to put another person first.

I read an interesting book lately, where it said everyone starts out as purely selfish – our first non-selfish interaction as an infant is the realization we can make someone laugh. That gives us pleasure, so we continue to contort our face or make gas noises until the laughter stops. That teaches us to think about someone other than ourselves for a second; it advances in our child years, when one day we decide to let Johanna play with our toy, instead of snatching it away and screaming. As we grow older, we learn to give more of ourselves in our social interactions, and find fulfillment from it.

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Deep down, though, we want people to be around us because they want to be there, not out of obligation nor because there’s “no one better” to hang out with; we don’t want to be, as the insatiable, delightful “manic pixie dream girl” Claire Coburn says in Elizabethtown, “the substitute people.” She says she’s used to it; people consider her a friend for as long as they need whatever she has to offer, then walk away and forget she existed – they put her off, for other, “better” things. Over the course of the story, she and Will realize that they want to be with one another; he chooses her, making her no longer the “substitute person.” Claire is one of the most wonderful (in my opinion, anyway) fictional heroines of all time – an upbeat, confident, extroverted, fun girl, but who doesn’t take any crap. “So you failed,” she tells him to his face when he’s moping, “get over it. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and make people wonder why you’re still smiling!” She gives him five minutes to mope, then tells him to grow up.

One of my friends recently confided that the state of modern relationships burden his soul, because it goes against our eternal purpose as human beings, of building lifelong relationships — of committing to remain in contact with someone else, forgiving their flaws or mistakes (instead of using them as excuses to abandon ship), learning to interact with people who believe, think, and see the world dramatically different from us (this is called maturity), and being a positive force in their life, while letting them do the same for us. He said the idea that “this is fun while it lasts” isn’t good enough; it establishes right at the start of the relationship that, “This is temporary…” That’s the problem Claire had with her friends – and her flaw, in that she accepted it, because she wanted someone to hang out with, even if they let her down.

What do you do when faced with the realization you are a substitute person, or using someone else as one? You decide what you want – if you’re going to make them a genuine, lasting part of your life like they deserve – or walk away altogether, because you’re really just using them as a temporary “fix” – or in your own case, if you’re worth waiting for enough to be alone for awhile.

There are many reasons we stick with the “sidekicks” of life; out of pity (they don’t have many other friends), as a personal project (I’ll help them improve their quality of life, resolve that problem, get a better attitude), because they’re just there (it’s too much work to find someone else), or habit (well, we’ve been friends forever, so…?), but here’s the thing: if any of those reasons are your motive for staying in the relationship, they deserve better than you.

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Relationships are only good when:

Both parties see one another as equals, not a mentor / student relationship.

Both parties improve as individuals, because they are involved with one another.

Both parties put the other person’s needs, feelings, and welfare ahead of their own.

Both parties feel responsible enough to be honest about their true feelings.

The biggest misstep in relationships is a lack of communication. Relationships, like anything else in life, are give and take; each party enters into it with certain things they want out of it, but often can be too intimidated, feel like it’s too selfish, or be too shy to tell the other person their expectations. Until they’re able to be up front and honest, they’ll run into communication problems.

What do you want? Communication? Ideas? Laughter? A shoulder to cry on? Financial stability? Sex? Emotional intimacy? Someone to read your writing? A shopping buddy? A brainstorming partner?

What do they want from you? Is it something you’re willing to provide?

People are not mind-readers. Don’t expect them to be. Tell them what you want. Find out what they want. Learn what they believe constitutes friendship, or love. Don’t stay with them just because they’re there; stay with them because you want to be there, because you’ve picked them over everyone else on the entire planet. Isn’t that an amazing feeling? That someone picked you when they could pick anyone else? They chose you, you chose them, neither one of you is a substitute person… and that’s how it should be.

If they forget you, neglect you, abuse you, ignore you, mistreat you, insult you… in short, take you for granted and give you nothing in return? Walk away. Better to be alone until the right friend comes along than to be a substitute person.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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3 Replies to “Substitute People: A Guide in Healthy Relationships”

  1. Oh man, I was really looking forward to this article, ever since you mentioned you were working on it!

    Though I know you took the term “substitute people” from the film, I think it perfectly describes a situation that’s all too common. (And why has the term not been globally popularized in multiple languages yet?)

    I think sadly, nearly everyone winds up being someone’s substitute person at one point in their lives. What’s sad is when people realize they are a substitute person to many people in their lives. What’s even more horrible is the thought that some people seem to consider substitute relationships as normal, or acceptable. “We got married because we were comfortable together, but then I met this guy who made me feel so alive!” or “Yes, I always said he was like a son to me, I really did plan to promote him, but the new employee is so brilliant!” People are tossed aside because a new person entered the picture, who seemed to have more to offer. It’s one thing for people to grow apart, a sad but natural part of life, it’s another to view humans as replaceable. Because ultimately—in doing so you’re toying with people’s feelings, and devaluing human life—including your own.

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    1. I think it’s sad to settle; if you’re settling, the person you’re with deserves more — in that case, it might be better to lack a friend or significant other, while seeking a relationship that fulfills both of you more, than to risk being in a platonic, comfortable relationship and then break their heart when the ‘right’ person comes along.

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