I live with my partner of several years. I love her very much. We share a lot of hobbies, including a theater club. My partner is *exceptionally good* at theater – a result of a decade of passion – and most of our friends are theater people. But recently I’ve been discovering that her passion – one of her defining qualities – has been making her relationships within this community harder.
People have been talking to me for about a year now about her long-standing habit of being incredibly bossy, having incredibly high standards for herself and resenting it when other people don’t live up to them, and making it hard to enjoy this activity at all when she’s there with them. One person we’re close to, he worked with her on a performance a few years ago, before I even met her, and he told me that after that performance, he decided never to work with her again because she made the experience unbearable. As I’ve asked around, others (who she respects deeply) have agreed with me that her behavior is fun-killing all around. People I love are no longer participating in events with us because she lacks empathy when dealing with people in a theater context.
Granted, she’s incredibly empathetic – she’s a teacher by trade – but she feels that when she leaves the classroom, she doesn’t want to have to make so much effort just to, I guess, have friends that value her outside of her intellect. Now she has lupus and is in pain a lot of the time, so most of our friends have sympathy for that. But this seems bigger than just being in chronic pain. (Or is it?)
I have told her what her friends think of her (well most of it), and have pointed out that most of our friends think her behavior is hurtful, undermining, and steamroll-y. She responds that I need to stop caring about what other people think about her. She’s defensive and tells me to ignore what other people think.
She’s also bossy about other things in our shared life together. Others have interpreted this as abusive, and one person was shocked to see her apparently bark orders at me. (Granted she was in immense pain at the time.)
I regularly check in with myself – I’m a past victim of abuse – but it doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t feel like abuse. There’s no emotional put-downs, no manipulation, no threats. We’re highly effective communicators except for this issue. There’s raw anger and frustration, and defensiveness, but missiles are never directed at me as a person. She just underrates the amount of pain she causes others in pursuit of our hobby.
One or two friends have wanted to stage an intervention. These plans never panned out. I’m not sure whether or not to force the issue. She is in therapy, but I think a couple’s counseling session or two surrounding this would be helpful. I’m not entirely sure what could be done other than me saying ‘You hurt me because you make people feel bad when they’re around us by raising your voice, arguing about the finer points of staging or scriptwriting, and being condescending’ and her being like ‘Well, I’m sorry, but that’s who I am.’
Dear Bossed At:
I have some questions and suggestions for you that might clarify things and improve the overall situation for you, the person who wrote to me.
#1 Couple’s counseling: Sounds great. Do it. Maybe do some Just You counseling, too.
#2 “Well I’m sorry, that’s just who I am” is not an appropriate response when people you purport to care about say “You’re hurting me and destroying our creative outlet and social life with your bad behavior.” Saying that is like wearing a giant flashing sign over your head that says “HI! I AM A GIGANTIC JERK!”
#3 If, when Partner barks mean things at you, do you feel comfortable saying – either in the moment or later, in private – “Hey, that was pretty mean and I don’t like it?”
If your first automatic response is to look for reasons it would be a bad idea to say something like that, reasons like, “But it’s not really her fault that she’s mean, because of reasons, like pain” or “but I don’t mind it much” or (BEES! WARNING! BEES!) “But if I said something like that it would just cause a bigger fight, so it’s not worth it to bring it up,” then consider that your friends are onto something. “There’s good in him, I’ve felt it.”
#4: If your Partner “bosses” you, do you ever just say “No, I’m going to do it my way?”
What happens if you do? At home? At the theater?
#5: If you do ask her to treat you better, do things change for the better?
#6 What would happen if you did the next play or event alone, with your theater friends, but without your partner?
Does that feel like a really scary question?
Do you (even secretly) think you’d have way more fun doing theater if you could take some time off from managing her and other people’s relationships with her?
Do you feel like that’s an option that you could bring up with her? Like, your partner would almost certainly feel left out, but how do you think she would treat you in the aftermath of asking her that question? Are you “allowed” to do theater only if you do it as a package deal?
Do you feel like you can say “You are killing everyone’s fun, and it is making me sad when people won’t work with us, when really you are the problem. Something needs to change here?”
I think these are questions to explore in joint counseling sessions.
#7 Do the people who have a problem with her ever tell her directly, or do they run all their critiques through you? I suspect it is the second thing, and that this is a major source of the overall dysfunction. They are managing the Missing Stair in their group by routing all of their communications through you, the Nice One. What happens if you short-circuit that?
Friend: “Your partner was really condescending in rehearsal today.”
You: “Have you told her what you think?”
Friend: “No, seriously…. complain complain complain complain.”
You: “Huh. Well, you should tell her what you just told me.”
Friend: “If we could just get her to ________.”
You: “Great point – you should tell her that.”
And then you DON’T pass whatever it is on to her. If it’s important enough to them, they can raise it with her directly. If they don’t, this is the one area I agree with her: Try to ignore it until or unless they tell her directly. It’s extra shitty of them to put you in the position of Asshole Whisperer, ESPECIALLY when they are concerned that you are an ongoing victim of abuse at her hands. You actually have the power to take yourself out of this role of interpreting other people to your partner and her back to them.
It sucks that your partner is in pain. It sucks that she is feeling drained by a very people-centric job and having difficulty budgeting her energies sufficiently to pursue a beloved hobby. These things are sad, and hard, and true.
But there are some other things that are also true:
- If you want people to stick around in your life and work with you creatively, it helps to be a minimum amount of nice to them. You don’t get to just “passion” or “intellect” your way out of the bargain.
- Advocating fiercely for a creative point of view while being respectful to your fellow artists is a skill. If you want to do anything in film or theater, get this skill. You will never be so talented that you don’t need this skill.
- If I were running your theater group, and this were an ongoing situation, I wouldn’t “stage an intervention at this point,” I would kick your partner out. Me: “Be nice or leave.” Her: “But…pain! And my draining day job! And how smart and passionate I am!” Me: “I truly hope you learn to balance it all. But when you are here, be nice or leave. Nobody has time for how mean you are, and right now you are ruining this experience for other people. You have choices about how you behave, so make the choice to be nicer to people.”
#8 (h/t Sheelzebub) If everything stayed just like it is now (“This is just how I am!”), would you stay in this relationship for another year?
Another 5 years?
You are the best judge of whether this relationship is working, but I want to remind you that someone’s behavior doesn’t have to meet the official and objective standard of abuse™ to slowly drain the life out of you. You sound unhappy. You sound like you are losing something you love to do because of another person’s i
nability unwillingness to play nice with others. You sound pissed off. You sound exhausted. You sound like you have good reasons to be all of these things, and the reasons all lead back to one specific person in your life who doesn’t sound “empathetic.” At all. I hope counseling gets you some better treatment and peace of mind, whatever happens in the long run.