Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m in a long term relationship (7 years now) that started in my last year of high school, and has been my only romantic relationship. As you may imagine, it’s been…interesting. He’s a great person, with many admirable qualities, whom I still like a lot as a person and enjoy spending time with.
So, there’s a big conflict in our relationship that we haven’t been able to sort once and for all, despite talking about them a bunch of times:
He is really opinionated about my appearance (clothes, hair, weight). He feels that he has a right to comment on it, and gets really passive-aggressive when I don’t give him the opportunity to voice his opinions (ie. I dye my hair and he goes into a snit for days about how he doesn’t like it, and can’t talk about it because I don’t want to hear his opinion on it and oh the angst). It’s gotten to the point where getting a fucking hair cut is fraught because I prefer my hair short and he likes long hair. And it really all comes down to the fact that he’s not as attracted to girls with short hair/dyed hair/wearing goth make-up/ overweight/ insert here. Or he feels I’d look better in skirts/longer hair/ contacts/ more “normal” makeup, etc.
It feels really controlling to me. And I absolutely hate feeling controlled. I think part of the problem is I am generally really laissez-fair about my appearance in general. My general philosophy is I do/wear things because they make me happy or because they’re comfortable. For example I like short hair both because I think it looks best on me, and it’s easy to take care of. My exceptions to this rule are work, work events, and occasions such as other people’s weddings, graduations and funerals. He is very conservative in his own dress, and grew up in a super-conservative family. He doesn’t believe in leaving the house without careful grooming. He has a very hard time coming to terms with the fact that there is not a “universal rule of how to dress right”, and holds to some pretty hetero-normative ideas about how people of each gender should look.
When we’ve talked about this issue (on a number of separate occasions, initiated by me after some passive-aggressiveness on his part), he’s told me that the reason this is such a big deal to him is he sometimes feels embarrassed to be seen with me and he feels like I don’t care if I am attractive to him. And I really don’t know what to do with that information. My general rule for social situations is “if you’re judging me for my clothes you’re not a person whose opinion I care about”, but that’s kind of hard to transfer to someone else. I’ve asked for some concrete things that would help him feel like I care that he is “attracted’ to me, but he basically says “that’s not the point, you should be paying attention to what I like and doing it without me telling you”, which I kind of interpret as “read my mind”. There are a lot of things that I’m not willing to compromise on; my hair, makeup, high heels, skirts (in case you haven’t guessed I am really not into “feminine” things and they make me feel really uncomfortable). And I really chafe at the idea that it’s my “job” to be attractive to him.
The imbalance is exacerbated by the fact that I decided a long time ago that other people’s appearances were none of my business, and I try really hard not to offer unsolicited advice/pressure/opinions, unless they’re compliments. I have never tried to have an influence on my bf’s wardrobe or presentation, and I don’t really care what he wears. Ok, that’s not true: I think his taste in clothes is dorky and conservative to the point of being unflattering. But I have never said as much nor given any indication that that is my opinion. Frankly it doesn’t matter to me what he wears because (and this sounds really clichéd) but I’m not with him for his looks.
Oh, did I mention that he’s also got some charming fat-phobia going? I am not, by any definition of the word, overweight, but I’m about 10 lbs heavier than I was when we started dating. I also used to exercise pretty obsessively (3-4 hrs a day) and watch what I ate obsessively, which is something I am glad to have left behind me. I currently run 2-3 times a week and train at martial arts 2-3 times a week, but he is…really obnoxious about tracking how much I exercise. I feel like I have to constantly “prove” that I am exercising “enough”, and he constantly likes to give me advice and tips about my exercise routines and food. Which is funny because he spent 4 long years doing no exercise whatsoever while I was racking up 4 hrs a day in the gym and I never hassled him about it, and I have a very solid grounding in basic nutrition while he eats….frozen ready-made foods and steak. He is terrified that I am going to gain weight and become fat and he won’t be attracted to me anymore. And he made a point of bringing up this fear when I was struggling with depression, in a very toxic work environment, and had absolutely no motivation to do anything but sleep and go to work. Which really helped me feel better about myself, as I’m sure you can imagine.
I wonder if this whole thing is really a sticking point for the whole issue of “we are different people, with different backgrounds and different value and that’s scary” and he just wants some symbolic sign of commitment out of me. He’s said before that he wants to be with me for the rest of his life, and frankly that scares the crap out of me. I’ve always taken the “it works until it doesn’t” approach to this relationship, and I think that’s a reasonably logical approach.
Our relationship has a lot of the “teacher-student” dynamic, which I feel is reinforced by his strong adherence to traditional gender roles. He is never happier than when he is “teaching” me something new, be it a game or an idea. Which can be good and bad at the same time: I’m not particularly adventurous, so I do learn a lot of new things. The trouble is that it’s really frustrating too, because conversations easily turn into “lectures”, even when I know more about a subject than he does, and I feel that he doesn’t give me a lot of credit for stuff I really do know about like it’s my job already. I’m really not good at explaining ideas either, which is something I need to work on, but it really isn’t my first move for conversation.
I feel like he’s definitely someone I want as my best friend but I’m not sure I want him as my partner anymore. I really think he could be a really good partner if he dropped the criticism of my appearance and was a little more informed about feminism/ less invested in traditional gender roles but I am really sick of dealing with this bullshit and having conversations that go around and around in circles. I would love to have someone who responded enthusiastically to experimentation with my appearance, and looks and self (I’ve recently become curious about passing as/dressing more as a boy), but I would settle for adopting a “none-of-my-business” attitude.
So…yeah. Any advice on this epic would be appreciated.
Frustrated and fed up.
Ps. Every time we talk about this, he whips out the “I’m allowed to have my own opinion you know! We don’t have to agree on everything!” which I just…what.
Dear Frustrated and Fed Up:
When are you dumping this massively insecure controlling mansplainer who clearly doesn’t get you or even like you all that much?
I want to know so we can throw a party.
These are what are known as “irreconcilable differences.” If this guy liked you and understood you and was attracted to you, he would not try to make the problem of his FUTUREBONER the center of your lives as he tracks your eating and exercise. “I’m afraid I won’t be attracted to you anymore if you don’t do what I say,” is the purest, grossest kind of manipulation and straight-up MISOGYNY.
If you need a quick breakup review, here you go:
“Partner, I am breaking up with you. My feelings have really changed and I don’t want us to be in a relationship anymore.”
He’ll ask why. You don’t have to give him any reasons (even after 7 years, I swear), but if you want to you can say “I am really tired of the way you comment on my appearance and I’ve decided I’m just done with that forever. Your obsession with appearance makes me not attracted to you anymore, and I agree with you: we should both be with people who are attracted to us just the way we are.”
Please have the phrase “This isn’t a negotiation. We are not ‘breaking up’, we are ‘broken up’ – we were as soon as I decided it and told you” at the ready. See also “As you’ve talked more and more about wanting a permanent future with me, it’s made me realize that is not what I want and it was time to speak up honestly about it.” And please have a trusted friend or family member at the ready to call or come pick you up – this dude is not going to go quietly. Rehearse the talk ahead of time if you need to to get your courage up.
I know you think of him as your best friend and want to continue the friendship, but please, please, I beg you, give yourself a long, long, long break from having any contact with him. This guy is not your friend. I’m trying to be gentle, but oh my god, your letter made me hate his fucking guts as my shoulders went up around my ears. He is not your friend. I predict that if you try to do the nice thing and stay friends, he will use every second of future contact to badger you and pressure you to get back into a relationship.
You sound awesome, healthy, and level-headed. You would have to be to survive so much of this bullshit with your sense of self intact. When you say that the thought of spending the rest of your life with him “scares the crap out of you” (that prospect scares the crap out of me, too), it’s clear that you already know what to do, so I view this post less as advice than as moral support.
You will be so happy when you’re free of him, I swear. I SWEAR. I swear that there will be other dudes who don’t wear dorky conservative clothing and who don’t have dorky conservative views about how you should be constantly thinking about how to please them. They will be attracted to you exactly as you are, and it will be amazing.
I’m serious about the party. Tell me when you’ve sent him packing, and I will make a post full of fun music and pictures of cake.
Commenters, please feel free to recommend cool songs & movies we can link to to send the Letter Writer on her way to awesome singleness. Let’s get this party started.