I stood on the platform in front of a three-tiered candelabra. I was 23 years old. It was my wedding rehearsal and like many weddings of that time, part of the ceremony was a unity candle. “When you come down the aisle tomorrow and up on the platform,” said the coordinator, “you will take the candle on the right and Matt will take the candle on the left, and together, you will light the unity candle. Make sure you blow out your candle once the center one is lit.” 

What? Do you mean just because I’m getting married I’m going to be extinguished? It bothered me. And it bothered me a lot. Did I cease to exist because I was getting married? I get the intended symbolism of a unity candle. Two become one. However…

I think there was a kernel of truth in my panic. The inherent core of abuse is the cancellation of one person for the domination of another. My experience of narcissistic abuse from my family of origin went so far as to communicate “you don’t deserve to exist.” Decades before I ever began to deal with family dysfunction, somewhere deep inside, I knew it was wrong to blow out my candle. And I didn’t. I still smile when I think of those three candles burning brightly together on the altar.

This is the third in a blog series on relationships, specifically friendship. How do survivors of long-term, early childhood trauma form healthy bonds? You start by not blowing out your candle. 

Trauma creates extremes. Either we are enmeshed with another person, constantly driven to people-pleasing and conflict avoidance or we become dominators ourselves and cancel out others to feed our own needs. 

I stopped to chat with a neighbor yesterday while walking my dog. She sat on the front porch surrounded by a small fence that kept her very bossy border collie from making a Scooby snack out of my chihuahua. My leash kept Tiny safe and the neighbor’s fence kept “Penny” from doing something we would all regret. We enjoyed a boundary. And because of it, we were able to enjoy a nice chat. My neighbor preserved her space. I preserved mine. I didn’t go busting through her fence and Penny did not go sailing over toward Tiny. We kept our “candles” separate—yet lit.

That is how to be a friend. The confidence in knowing where you end and another begins. The right to have your own voice, your own space, your own opinion. In essence—the right to exist as a separate person. If you can cultivate that, your presence in the world will be a gift to everyone you meet. You will indeed defy trauma and embrace…joy.

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