Dear Captain Awkward:
My partner has told me that he is afraid that he’s boring and that he has an irrational fear that my ‘self-improvement’ means I will leave him for somebody “more exciting”.
A few years ago I was feeling really down, and during that period I decided to really work on myself by changing my lifestyle. I took up a sport, started eating better and got involved in my community. Now I can hardly imagine life before – the improvement in my life and moods has been significant.
It is now to the point where he’s jealous if I have too engaging a conversation with one of his friends, and has insisted that he comes along to anything I do that runs the risk of me so much as talking to men who aren’t related to me. I find this behaviour anywhere from irritating to suffocating.
I am not sure where this fear of his has come from, I don’t think I’m just ignoring my boyfriend and getting annoyed when he wants to spend time with me. I think the problem is that he has low self-esteem and that this feeling of low self-worth has turned into a fear that I’ll leave. In the past he has said he likes me because I ‘make [his] boring life interesting’, which I find extremely concerning. To me it sounds a lot like ‘I am making you responsible for making my life interesting’. Perhaps that is a harsh assessment, but I am frustrated that he has enough free time to latch on to my plans, but apparently not enough to go find something to do by himself.
He is a great guy when he’s not being gnawed on by the hounds of insecurity, but I cannot carry on like this – I don’t have a problem with telling him where I’m going or who I’m with, but sometimes I just want to do things without having to justify why I want to be alone. I am at a loss – what can I do? I’ve suggested therapy and a hobby, but he doesn’t seem to understand that his attempts at keeping me close are pushing me away.
Pushed not pulled
Dear Pushed Not Pulled:
There is a way, short of instantly blowing up the relationship, that you can test whether your partner is in fact a great guy and whether this has the potential to change. Next time you are making plans, shape the discussion like this.
You: “Hey, Partner, I’m going to hobby tomorrow night, so I’m not free then. But can we have dinner Monday? Howabout 7:00 pm?”
Partner: “Can I come?” or whatever his usual schtick is.
You: “No, I want to go alone. I’ll see you Monday.”
No elaboration, no apology, no reassurance, no negotiation. Just state the facts of how you plan to use your time, without inviting him, and tell him when you will see him next.
Partner: SEPARATION ANXIETY CYCLE: ENGAGE
You: Do not engage with any accusations he makes, like, “You just want to break up with me” or “You just want to go hang out with your REAL INTERESTING MUCH BETTER boyfriend” or “You are tired of me,” “I knew this would happen,” etc. Arguing the merits just sucks you into engaging with this on his terms. What matters is that you want to go by yourself and that you don’t want to negotiate about it. Keep sight of that, and try something like this to respond:
1)Validate the feelings themselves, don’t deny them or their severity. “That must feel absolutely awful, and I am sorry you are having these feelings.”
2) Show that you take the feelings absolutely seriously. “Monday I think we should try to make an appointment for you to see someone about this. I’ve got some names/numbers and we’ll work on it then, ok?”
3) Then set the boundary. “I love you, but I am not up for going through this cycle with you today. I am going to go home now, I will text you tomorrow, and I will see you Monday.”
Then leave. Leave the conversation, leave the building. Detach. Disengage. Go to the movies. Turn off your phone. Try not to respond to anything until your planned contact. If you absolutely must respond to something try a script like “Partner, I know the feelings you are having are very scary, but your behavior toward me is not reasonable. I want you to take these feelings you are experiencing absolutely seriously, so please please call (hotline*, therapist, friend) and talk it through with someone who can really help you.” Repeat it like a robot.
Listen, nobody likes being referred to a helpline instead of getting their sweet, sweet attention from you. Chances are he will treat it like a patronizing, insulting request and make you try to feel horribly guilty about it. Watch especially for the “why should I talk to some stranger when I can just talk to my girlfriend” fallacy. WTF are you supposed to do? Chain your life to his irrational fears? You can not be his 24-7 carer, and you cannot treat this problem. He is making your life smaller with his unreasonable demands.
Text him when you said you would. Ignore him otherwise.
Go to the thing by yourself.
See him Monday.
“No,” is a complete sentence.
Can you do it?
Will he let you? Will he show up at the thing even though you asked him not to? Will he call you 10,000 times? Will he harm himself in some way and blame it on you? Do you have this sinking feeling as you read all of this, knowing that “There’s no way that will work…” or “I can’t…“?
Can your relationship survive you saying “No?”
If he can comfort himself and recognize that these are his problems to deal with, and if he can actively seek and participate in getting help, and most importantly, if he can stop his controlling and jealous behavior toward you, maybe you’ve got something. If you can’t say “no” to him without dread and consequences, then this is already dead. I’m sorry.
Clingor The Clingarian’s controlling behavior likely springs from a wellspring of deep, actual pain and fear of abandonment. Lots of abusive and controlling men have real emotional and psychological problems that could use the help of a compassionate professional somewhere along the way. The problem is that instead of getting help, they take the misogyny cure and decide the solution for their sad feelings can be found by closely monitoring the woman in their life and making sure she never leaves or does anything that threatens their fragile sense of well-being. Their emotional problems/sad life history becomes a way for them to beat themselves up and receive comfort from her (You’ll probably leave me because I’m so boring) and guilt her into staying (But what will poor fragile me do without you?).
The constant “I’m afraid you’ll break up with me/You’ll probably break up with me” gambit is particularly hard to take. Someone acting like he is acting deserves to be dumped, not because he’s “boring” or because you’ll find someone more “interesting” but because he is suffocating you with his jealousy and need to be by your side at all times. He’s typecasting you in the present as the heartless mean woman who will break his heart by leaving someday, which manipulates you into the position of having to reassure him that you aren’t that person. Every time you have to do this dance, a piece of the love and trust between you breaks off and crumbles.
As sure as I am that his anxiety is real, I am also sure that this is not your problem to solve for him. He’s already crossed over into manipulating and controlling you and while he may cross back out of doing that at some point in the future after getting some help, this relationship is already compromised and I don’t think you should stick around to see if that happens. Fortunately you are seeing his behavior for what it is (annoying, suffocating) and not asking us what you did to your poor boyfriend to make him so sad, but the longer you stay the more precarious that self-preservation instinct becomes. There is no amount of You-ness, no amount of You-compliance, no amount of keeping his eyes ever on you that can ever fill the abyss inside of him. You’re not going to break up with him because you meet someone more generically interesting, you’re going to break up with him the day you snap and say “YOU’RE NOT MY DOG, DUDE, QUIT FOLLOWING ME.”
I feel like a cheesy breakup salesman here when I say, that day can be today!
Script: “Hey, boyfriend, I am breaking up with you. Not for someone ‘more interesting,’ as you keep accusing me, but because your clingy behavior is making me so unhappy. I hope you will get some help, and I hope you will find a way to like yourself, but I can’t like you enough for both of us, and I’m done. To make this a truly clean break, I think we should go no contact for at least a few months while we heal, so I’d ask you to not contact me until I reach out to you.”
I realize there might be some logistical and emotional things to work out before you deliver that news. I also think there is some logistical planning that goes into the delivery itself. It needs to go down in a place you can easily leave, you should have already smuggled everything you care about out of his place and have all of his stuff ready to give back to him (this guy will bug you forever for that sock that fell down behind your couch because it’s a way to get you to talk to him and for him to feel aggrieved), you should have a friend or family member on standby to pick you up, you should not stay at your place that night or for the next few nights for when he drops by, and you’re gonna need to filter his email messages to a special folder that bypasses your inbox, mute/hide and possibly even block him on social media, and probably not look at your phone for a couple of days as the threats (including maybe suicide threats) roll in. And you’re going to have to emotionally prepare yourself to answer zero communications from him going forward, no matter how much he begs. Also, make sure you each have your own transport to and from the breakup site. Especially do not get into a car with him after you break up with him.
Does that sound harsh and extreme? He’s already displaying stalker tendencies and you haven’t left him yet. The most dangerous time in relationship with a controlling man is when the woman decides to leave. It’s often when emotional manipulation first turns into physical violence. I hope with all my heart that I am wrong, and I hope with all my heart that he won’t do anything to you, but I think you need to be prepared and make sure that you can be safe and cared for and not open to the constant stream of harassment and demands for emotional caretaking that leaving him is likely to unleash.
If you haven’t read it, I recommend the book Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Abusive And Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. In one chapters he writes brief profiles of types of abusers he’s seen. Your dude sounds like he has elements of “Mr. Sensitive” about him. I’ve excerpted that passage here, and bolded some parts I think are interesting.
Mr. Sensitive appears to be the diametric opposite of the Drill Sergeant. He is soft-spoken, gentle, and supportive—when he isn’t being abusive. He loves the language of feelings, openly sharing his insecurities, his fears, and his emotional injuries. He hugs other men. He may speak out about the absurdity of war or the need for men to get in touch with their feminine side. Perhaps he attends a men’s group or goes on men’s retreats. Often he has participated extensively in therapy or twelve-step programs, or reads all the big self-help books, so he speaks the language of popular psychology and introspection. His vocabulary is sprinkled with jargon like developing closeness, working out our issues, and facing up to hard things about myself.He presents himself to women as an ally in the struggle against sex-role limitations. To some women, he seems like a dream come true.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing obvious yet. But this is exactly the problem: Mr. Sensitive wraps himself in one of the most persuasive covers a man can have. If you start to feel chronically mistreated by him, you are likely to assume that something is wrong with you, and if you complain about him to other people, they may think you must be spoiled: You have the New Age man, what more do you want?
The following dynamics are typical of a relationship with Mr. Sensitive and may help explain your feeling that something has gone awry:
1. You seem to be hurting his feelings constantly, though you aren’t sure why, and he expects your attention to be focused endlessly on his emotional injuries. If you are in a bad mood one day and say something unfair or insensitive, it won’t be enough for you to give him a sincere apology and accept responsibility. He’ll go on and on about it, expecting you to grovel as if you had treated him with profound cruelty. (Notice the twist here: This is just what an abuser accuses his partner of doing to him, when all she is really looking for is a heartfelt I’m sorry.)
2. When your feelings are hurt, on the other hand, he will insist on brushing over it quickly. He may give you a stream of pop-psychology language (Just let the feelings go through you, don’t hold on to them so much, or It’s all in the attitude you take toward life, or No one can hurt you unless you let them) to substitute for genuine support for your feelings, especially if you are upset about something he did. None of these philosophies applies when you upset him, however.
3. With the passing of time, he increasingly casts the blame on to you for anything he is dissatisfied with in his own life; your burden of guilt keeps growing.
4. He starts to exhibit a mean side that no one else ever sees and may even become threatening or intimidating.
Mr. Sensitive has the potential to turn physically frightening, as any style of abuser can, no matter how much he may preach nonviolence. After an aggressive incident, he will speak of his actions as anger rather than as abuse, as though there were no difference between the two. He blames his assaultive behavior on you or on his emotional issues, saying that his feelings were so deeply wounded that he had no other choice…
…This gentle man style of abuser tends to be highly self-centered and demanding of emotional catering. He may not be the man who has a fit because dinner is late but rather erupts because of some way his partner failed to sacrifice her own needs or interests to keep him content. He plays up how fragile he is to divert attention from the swath of destruction he leaves behind him.
The central attitudes driving Mr. Sensitive are:
• I’m against the macho men, so I couldn’t be abusive.
• As long as I use a lot of psychobabble, no one is going to believe that I am mistreating you.
• I can control you by analyzing how your mind and emotions work, and what your issues are from childhood.
• I can get inside your head whether you want me there or not.
• Nothing in the world is more important than my feelings.
• Women should be grateful to me for not being like those other men.
Is that description completely off-base? I hope so, for your sake, but I think y’all are teetering on the edge of something terrible. He is using his sad feelings to control, bind, and manipulate you. He won’t necessarily cross over into being violent or abusive, but he’s flirting with that the way you are most certainly not flirting with every dude who crosses your path. I hope he gets the help he needs someday, but forgive me for hoping that he does all of that far away from you.
Comments are closed as of 3/29.
*In the USA, try Nami.org at 1-800-950-6264, in the UK try Anxiety UK at 08444 775 774 or NoPanic.org at 0844 967 4848. I found these by searching for “separation anxiety” and “helpline,” so apply as necessary for your location.
180 thoughts on “#683: My boyfriend insists on coming along everywhere I go and constantly worries that I’ll leave him. (Spoiler: You probably will.)”
I just want to mention that you’re not wrong in finding his statement that you make his boring life interesting completely troubling and weird. He’s acting like you’re some kind of manic pixie dream girl. It’s not your job to be interesting and bring something out in him.
Your life only has to be interesting to YOU. And in the same line of thinking, if he wants to have an interesting life, HE needs to be doing things he finds interesting. If he feels like you’re providing something he can’t provide for himself, why WOULDN’T he have terrible self-confidence? It sounds awful to feel like you can’t be happy/entertained without someone else. Yeesh.
Note: this is 110% not your fault. He needs to get counseling or find a productive outlet to be the type of person that he wants to be, rather than just dating that type of person.
I want to second this. The lives of two people in a relationship can be complementary or intertwined, but you can’t live for someone else (in either sense; you cannot live your life for him, and you cannot live his life for him).
Something my grandmother once said, paraphrased: “There are no bored people, only boring people.” Or, as restated by my father: “If you’re uninteresting, it probably means you lack interests.” People are interesting when they invest themselves in something, whether it be writing, reading, juggling, philosophy, political theory, becoming an electrician, making/flying kites, church, or anything else. People who do nothing with their time and energy tend to be boring. He thinks you find him uninteresting for good reason; because he finds his own life uninteresting.
I had occasion to learn from that advice because I was boring. I lacked interests, and it made my life feel empty, and my significant other suffered as a result because I was jealous of the fact that she was a happier person than I and more engaged in her life. It got unhealthy fast, and the only thing that helped was when I remembered the advice and realized I was my own problem. But I was rapidly becoming her problem, too. We talked more often, but I had less to say. Every interaction we had demanded more of her energy, and it hit a point where our relationship took a lot more from her than from me, which is not good. That kind of situation tends to get worse, because the “bored” person can enter a spiral of unpleasantness, in which they go to growing lengths to keep from confronting the reasons for (or just the fact of) their unhappiness. You can’t stop that. No one can make someone see clearly when they are invested in NOT doing so.
I say this to get at the following fact: an unhealthy relationship is, by its nature, unhealthy FOR ALL PARTICIPANTS, not just one. If a symbiotic relationship between equals starts to devolve into parasitism, it is not healthy for either person. One partner cannot acquire a healthy mindset by taking it from the other; they can only destroy it. That’s not to say that anyone who has issues should be dumped immediately; rather, I mean to say that people have to solve their own issues for themselves. Help can be valuable, but when one person treats the other as being the answer to their problems, it only lessens them both. The act of self-deception required prevents the less-healthy partner from making any genuine gains, and usually allows their real problems to get worse in the meantime. Once you start down that road, it is a difficult cycle to break, and it’s very hard to break the cycle without breaking the relationship as well. I didn’t manage it, so I don’t know if it’s really possible, but I won’t assume either way. At the end of the day, though, if someone thinks they’re broken and you’re the “missing piece” they need, they have to treat you as lesser than themselves to make that work, whether they recognize that fact consciously or not. I hate to say it, but I doubt this relationship can be salvaged.
“One partner cannot acquire a healthy mindset by taking it from the other; they can only destroy it”
This a thousand times.
This is such a good response. My job involves some domestic-violence-related work, and this letter set off all kinds of alarms in my head.
As with other things, the fact that he may very well have serious anxiety issues doesn’t mean he can’t also be abusive, and doesn’t absolve him if he makes abusive choices. He deserves help, but the writer deserves safety. Hopefully they can both get what they need.
(For that matter, hopefully we’re both entirely wrong and there’s no abuse concern at all–but please be careful, letter writer.)
It set off all kinds of alarms in me as well, because that’s exactly the way my Abusive Stalker Ex started out. he was charming, considerate, in touch with his feelings – and it was always me who had to reassure him whenever he felt hard done by. He was also a narcissist, so it was always someone else’s fault and never his own – but somehow it was always my responsibility to comfort him and apologise, even if it was one of his workmates who’d upset him. He would also take slight at the smallest provocation.
(TW: abuse) When we first met, I was slowly putting myself back together after a disastrous relationship break-up that threw me into a nervous breakdown. After A(r)SE and I moved in together, I started putting myself back together again. He helped me get a job as a station assistant on London Underground – he was already an SA and had been for a few years. He went for driver training and became a train operator – whilst in that time I got promoted up to line controller (thankfully not on the same line). He couldn’t handle me being more successful, or the fact I was a strong, self-determined woman; that was when the abuse began in earnest. At first he was just controlling. Then there was the attempts at gaslighting. Then the emotional abuse, with put-downs and almost-compliments designed to undermine my self-confidence. He threatened to self-harm. When he knew I had a dead-early shift the next day and would have to be up at 3am, he would burst in at 11pm and insist on sex. That eventually crossed the line into rape, and then the physical abuse started. A slap on the arm turned into a punch, then into full-own assaults with screaming and shouting – and it was always my fault. He threatened to kill my cat.
The second time, I called my ex-husband. He came and picked me and all my stuff up whilst A(r)SE was out at work; he came back to find me, my cat and all my stuff gone. I moved into the granny annexe built onto the back of the house my ex, his wife and our two kids had inherited from his mother (thankfully my ex and I were on incredibly good terms and he was my best friend).
A(r)SE couldn’t handle that I’d left him. He would call my phone at 2am nightly. I told him to stop calling. He threatened suicide. I changed my phone number, and told my manager who in turn told A(r)SE’s manager because they weren’t going to take the risk of a suicidal driver in charge of a hundred tons of fast-moving train and a couple thousand passengers. He showed up at my workplace; my manager called his manager and he was pulled up on a disciplinary.
He kept quiet for a while, but every couple of years he’d try to make contact again. There were excuses; I should have been more understanding, he’d had a poor upbringing, I was the only one who truly knew him and I should have realised how much he needed me. he needed closure and it was my responsibility to give it. Why had I left? Didn’t I realise just how much damage I’d done to him by disappearing like that? He had a yeast infection and it had made his thinking wonky but he was better now and we HAD to talk! (Yes, really – he tried to blame thrush.) It was my fault, my fault, my fault.
I finally went to the police last year when it started again and he started making YouTube videos talking about me and getting friends to leave comments on my own videos after I blocked him on every single social media platform he was on (and changed my user name on all the ones he wasn’t). At that point he’d been doing this for over ten years. (We were only together for 3 years.) The police gave him a formal caution and informed him they were placing him under a restraining order; he is not to come anywhere within 200m of me, he is to stay away from my area of London, he is not to attempt to contact me, my partner or any of my children either in person or by phone, email or any social media. One more word from him and it’ll be arrest and jail.
LW, I should have walked long before. I should not have put up with his stalking me for ten years. I should not have put up with any of the abuse. I should have left far sooner. The warning signs were there all along; he was clingy, always needing reassurance, his feelings were always more important than mine and he knew all the psychobabble. LW, please don’t make the same mistake I did. Leave now before things turn nasty – because believe me, they WILL. I wish I’d gotten out sooner.
Oh, so much support and understanding for you.
It’s weirdly disturbing how different every experience like this can be, yet the common threads are still there.
Thanks. I think in many ways it’s made me a much stronger person, and a more empathic one – before I met A(r)SE, I’m sorry to say I was one of those people who couldn’t fathom why someone would stay with an abuser and would insist that the first time someone hit me I’d walk out. And then I found myself in an abusive relationship and realised it’s never that simple. If I hadn’t had a good, well-paying job, it would have been even harder, likewise if we’d had kids. (I can’t use normal hormonal BC and he kept having little “accidents” with condoms; he never knew I always went to a pharmacist the next day for the morning after pill. Even at the start I knew I would never want to bear a child of his.) When people tell someone to DTMF and leave an abusive partner they live with, I now now from personal experience that it’s not that easy. I was very fortunate that thanks to the generosity of my ex and his wife I had somewhere I could stay whilst I got back on my feet again. Not everyone has that.
Yikes. What a piece of work. I’m sorry you had to go through that.
My abuser was a Ms. Sensitive. I put up with it for five years of increasing misery… because I’d made the mistake of promising toward the beginning (when it was nowhere near obvious that this woman was bad news) that I’d never leave her and felt bound by my word, and because I wanted to be the one who loved her enough to convince her to get the help she needed to change. (See: bad upbringing, trust issues, etc.)
Hadn’t had a lot of training by then about how abusers work, so I didn’t recognize patterns. It was more difficult because she *was* a woman, and we were at least nominally poly, and while neither of those fooled me into thinking abuse wasn’t possible (I knew that much, at least), it did mean some of the details of the dynamic were a little different. Enough for me to go, “This can’t be a real abuser because…”
Because she didn’t get jealous, or try to restrict my movements (she just controlled me every moment I was around her, from dictating how I was required to phrase a request to turn on the air conditioner to abandoning me at a gas station at midnight in a city I didn’t know – without my suitcase, my phone or the medicines without which I can’t function! – because I argued that we should ask directions after getting increasingly lost for more than 45 minutes.
She was absolutely OK with getting couples counseling when I demanded it. I thought that was a sign that she was honestly trying to get better, too. I didn’t realize that abusers often use couples counseling as a stage on which to perform, enlisting well-meaning counselors in their efforts to keep their partner under their thumb. We had a pretty good counselor, but it still worked almost perfectly, and kept me feeling like, “We’ve been making so much progress in therapy till this incident; I’m sure it will stop happening soon,” for five years.
All of this was verbal/emotional/situational control. She was terrifying, but never got physically violent… she had other ways of making me afraid for my life. Like getting out of the car and walking away, in the middle of traffic, when she’d been the one behind the wheel. She always said, when she was in one of her apologetic phases, that physical violence was a line she’d never cross. I didn’t think that helped a whole lot, since she was already making things very dangerous for me quite effectively without it. But I did trust the claim, because we’d been together for five years already! If she’d been going to get violent, wouldn’t it have already manifested by then?
Then things exploded, in one of the trivial fights which masked a real issue that I hadn’t yet learned to recognize as my having challenged her control. I backed down in a hurry… said we could do it all her way, as usual; groveled a lot, as usual. But it didn’t help. I was beaten and smothered and very nearly killed. When she finally decided to get off me (she was bigger than me by seven inches of height and more than 100 pounds), she moved away to the other side of the room and said coldly, “I suppose you’re going to call the police now?”
I hadn’t known *what* I was going to do; I still had stars dancing in front of my eyes from the suffocation. But that made me know my own mind. I said, “Yes,” very calmly, and went and did. I don’t know why she didn’t stop me – maybe she was just too surprised. She left instead; took the car and drove away. The cops picked her up still in the neighborhood, when they got there.
LW, I am sorry; and maybe you haven’t got an abusive guy, just a suffocatingly needy and controlling one. But even if that’s all it ever is, you deserve not to be controlled. And you cannot fill his need, because nobody can. You deserve not to have to try.
So I’d certainly make plans which keep you safe *in case* he surprises you by turning violent the way my partner did me. And I’d get out of the relationship even if all the scary stuff I and others are saying are just projections out of our own pasts, because a relationship doesn’t *need* to be violent to be controlling and demanding and annoying as fuck. And those things, you already KNOW he is… from your own experience.
I hope you take the possibility of abuse seriously, but I wanted to make sure you *didn’t* inadvertently pick up the message as, “We, from our distance, as certain that this relationship is abusive. Therefore, and solely because of that, we are recommending that you leave.” Because that’s a good recipe for thinking, “Well they’re simply wrong, so their advice isn’t relevant to me.”
We’re not *just* saying we hope you choose to leave because he sounds like a stalker and possibly a potentially violent one. We’re also saying it because you sound terribly unhappy from the ways he is already behaving, and you do not need to have that sort of behavior in your life.
Ignore if you don’t want to go into this, but: how did you rescue yourself from the situation where she abandoned you at a gas station in an unfamiliar city without your meds? You mentioned something about it once, and I was concerned/curious, but I’ve lost track of that thread and don’t know if you ever talked about it again.
We’re not *just* saying we hope you choose to leave because he sounds like a stalker and possibly a potentially violent one. We’re also saying it because you sound terribly unhappy from the ways he is already behaving, and you do not need to have that sort of behavior in your life.
Quoted for ever-lovin’ truth. Your letter reads like “We could be so happy if my partner were willing to change everything about the way he interacts with me,” and that’s just not going to happen.
I’m sorry, it’s a terrible story and it sucks you had to go through that.
But…neuro-thrush?!!! LOL whut? He blamed his behaviour on a *yeast infection*??? :-O
Yep – he did! I got this huge long rambling email about 4 years after I’d walked out, going on about how a candida infection upsets the balance of the whole body, with a load of pseudo-medical babble thrown in that he’d no doubt cobbled together from sites like naturalnews, finishing with this very dodgy explanation that the yeast infection screwed up his neurochemistry so what happened wasn’t REALLY his fault so I ought to forgive him and give him a second chance. I had a good long laugh at it, printed out a copy to add to my growing folder of evidence (because I had the feeling eventually he might cross the line and I might need to go to the police) then saved the email to a folder and ignored it. I never responded to any of his emails and was completely no contact; after the 2am “suicidal” phone call I’d emailed him to say we had nothing more to say to each other and he must never attempt to contact me ever again. He kept sending me emails and I never answered any of them, only kept a record. I have to say though, that was the most ludicrous excuse he ever came up with.
This worried me, too. I used to have a neighbor who was cheerful, positive, and friendly. I didn’t know her very well, but we talked a couple of times, and once she told me about an ex who wouldn’t let her make eye contact with other men. Eye contact!
I don’t know for sure, but I think the boyfriend she had might have had similar tendencies. She told him to leave. He shot and killed her, shot her friend, and shot himself. She was such a nice person, and now she’s gone. Horrible.
When you break up with him, it might be better to do it in a public place.
i agree with everyone that your letter sends off all sorts of red flags, but even if that weren’t the case, you’re not happy. you say he’s great when he’s not feeling insecure, but how often does that happen anymore? it would be great if you could somehow convince him to get help, but you’ve tried that, and he doesn’t want to.
you deserve to be happy, and it doesn’t sound like that is going to happen with him.
EXCELLENT POINT. He doesn’t have to be objectively awful for you to GTFO.
Yes, this. The bar for a healthy relationship is not “but he’d never hit me.” Even if the status quo doesn’t devolve into violence (and I think the Captain is right to fear that it might), you’re not happy in this relationship. You don’t need any other reason to nope on out of it.
YES! My sister just told me that her husband, who’s seriously controlling and emotionally abusive, told her the other night, “You know I’d never hit you, right?” He went on about it for a while, and the other highlight of the conversation was “[Ex-wife] crossed me lots of times, and I never laid a hand on her.”
To her credit, my sister knew that this is seriously bad news. She described it to me like, “Um, Well I wasn’t worried he’d hit me before, but NOW I am!” And, “‘Crossed’?!” Did he really use the word ‘CROSSED’ to describe an argument with [ex-wife?!]” I’m really glad she didn’t try to justify that or explain it away – she seems to be hitting some kind of point-of-no-return where she can’t be fooled by his reassurances that his bad behavior is just her being crazy and seeing bad intentions that aren’t there – but I’m irked because she had some doubts about whether she’d even tell me about this, knowing how I’d respond.
Anyway, we decided collectively that “I’ll never hit you” is like a car salesman assuring you that “This car has WHEELS!” (Did I get that analogy from Captain Awkward? Because I couldn’t remember where I pulled it from.) Like, wheels is the fucking minimum, dude. You get no points for that, but the fact that you’re calling attention to it like it makes you some sort of saint is deeply concerning. DO NOT BUY THAT CAR. EVEN IF IT DOES HAVE WHEELS. THEY WILL PROBABLY FALL OFF.
Yup. I’m sure there are circumstances where non-abusive partners can offer reassurances that they’re not violent and not have it be a giant red flag snapping in the wind. Like if their partners are abuse survivors who are triggered by something, “hey, you’re safe here; I’m not that guy” could conceivably not be a weird thing to say.
But “I don’t hit women, even when they cross me?” Seriously? What do they want for that stunning show of basic decency, a cookie?
Seriously if you’re at the point where there needs to be verbal reassurance that violence isn’t a possibility, it’s a possibility. I’ve never had to tell anyone I know that I’d never hit them.
This can apply to all kinds of situations, too – during the dissolution of one of my relationships, my now-ex felt the need to throw in, “Well, I never cheated on you or anything!”
For the record, I believe him, but the way he threw it in there during a Things Are Over conversation made me feel like adding another item to the list of reasons to go. That straw he was grabbing at wasn’t about me, of course. He was desperately trying to convince himself that his having hurt me didn’t mean he was a bad person and my reasons for leaving were irrational.
For the record, him cheating on me probably would have been easier to take than many other things on that aforementioned list. In your car analogy, this was like the salesman saying, “It’s got wheels!” when the brakes don’t work, there’s no engine, and it’s on fire.
This is seriously good advice. So good I snorted at the end of it… “DO NOT BUY THAT CAR. EVEN IF IT DOES HAVE WHEELS. THEY WILL PROBABLY FALL OFF.” It would be hilarious if it weren’t true.
My ex did that. Brought it up for no reason really early on, told me about an ex of his who’d made him so angry he punched a wall, and so I could rest assured he’d never hit me no matter how angry I made him, if he ever got violent it would be against an inanimate object. I was really inexperienced & felt uneasy, but didn’t realize how out of line that was. And he never was abusive like that — he was a colossal ass in other ways, but not that one. What message was he trying to send me? “I’ve never hit a girlfriend, but I’ve thought about it”? “If I do haul off and sock you it will be your fault”? We had a terrible relationship, why didn’t he make good on the threat & start punching walls? I have a lot to think about this morning.
In the book Captain Awkward mentioned, “Why Does He Do That”, the technique of reassuring that I wouldn’t do X horrifying thing is revealed as a veiled threat. You weren’t worried about this, but I want you to worry about it, but think it’s coming from you and me. It’s a threat, make no mistake. A gaslighted threat.
Be suitably scared.
In my relationship, non-violent but seriously emotionally/psychologically abusive, he would say that “he would never hit a woman” a lot, and that if he ever made me lose contact with my family he would leave me (while doing everything possible to make me lose contact with friends and family), and endlessly postulate scenarios that would end up in him leaving me, and make veiled vague threats if I stepped over his rules of my acceptable behavior (none of which applied to him).
I was not allowed to meet his brother/SIL/nephews or any of his friends, go to his sports games (he let me drive him to a race once); once he let me drive him to an indoor sports court but I had to keep my back to the court the whole time (!) or there would be serious consequences (huge red flag, right?). We had no social network, and any time away from him was guilt-inducing, but if he came to any event he dissected and criticized everyone for weeks (my family, friends, coworker). I checked the “are you in an abusive or controlling relationship” lists online way too often, but he was smart enough to gaslight so it looked like he was doing the opposite.
We also – and this threw me off – laughed together and had fun and shared common interests. 6 years of half fun together, and half anxiety through the roof because of “my issues”.
Life is so much better now.
Oh jeez. I had all of that, once. Except it wasn’t “I will never hit a woman,” it was “I don’t believe in hitting girls, but I do believe in hitting back.” (Out of nowhere, of course.) So it was Random Gaslighting Threat+ Extra Actual Threat, all rolled into one.
“What an obituary. When I go down into the ground at last, as God is my judge, I pray my best-beloved may have better to say of me than ‘He didn’t hit me.’ “–Lois McMaster Bujold
My absolute first reaction to this. I was married to a Tien for six years. I had to move 1200 miles away without leaving a forwarding address to get him to leave me alone.
Bujold is my favorite author, and that dynamic between Ekaterin and her 1st husband helped me in my own subtly-not-right relationship. Kudos for the quote.
That was actually when I realised my marriage was OVER, when I found myself thinking “but at least he doesn’t hit me”. Really, if that’s all that’s left in a relationship you’ve dug through the bottom of the barrel and started on a grave.
Yes, very important! You absolutely don’t need to _justify_ not wanting to be with someone. It’s your life and you get to choose! And you don’t need ANY reason, besides that it’s what you really want.
Oh, LW, I have had my own version of the Limpet. I didn’t inject excitement into their otherwise boring life, but I “was the only person” they could talk to about childhood traumas/fears/illness, someone who “understood” their struggle with mental illness and their “safe person” to talk to about questioning their gender and sexuality. We were not in a romantic relationship; we had engaged in some activities in the sexytimes department, after which I said I didn’t want to be in a relationship with them. And it took me a year and a half after that to get them out of my life.
They followed me around, copied much of what I did in my life (clothing styles, cooking) and acted hurt when I wouldn’t share everything with them, invited themself along to events I hadn’t invited them to, burst into tears when I suggested they might consider therapy, and I finally wrote them a letter telling them to get the hell out of my life. It’s more or less been successful (they are inextricably a part of my life in some other ways – shared hobby, same work environment), but it was long and painful, and I wish I’d ripped the bandaid off.
I tortured myself for a long time trying to figure out why I felt so wronged…it wasn’t Abuse, was it? It couldn’t be – that was something Bad People did, and this person was just…really sad, right? I couldn’t fault someone for having Feelings at me, right? Feelings are Okay! But reading the description above of Mr. Sensitive chilled my blood.
I think the Captain is spot on with her advice on testing the waters. I wish you a whole lot of luck and love, and, I really hope you stop feeling gaslighted soon.
Currently walking that They Are Having Feelings and Feelings Are Okay//This Person is Hurting Me Emotionally with their Feelings line myself. It sucks so much because you try to be generous and forgiving for so long that by the time you realise you don’t have anything left to pour into the black hole they have become addicted to you in a way and it is that much harder to extricate.
Holy crap, I just left this relationship a few months ago and everything the great captain says is spot on. Towards the end it was a constant stream of “You’re going to leave me” and expecting me to cater to his self-loathing feelings while never getting any support in return and it was miserable.
LW, if/when you do decide to leave this relationship, please follow the advice to block all immediate contact from him. I never thought my ex would be capable of this but after an initial cordial period between the two of us the drunken suicidal texts started rolling in. The only thing that kept me from completely losing my shit (in a combination of fear and anger) was having a great friend who could reiterate for me that it was ok to feel afraid for him but this was completely manipulative nonsense and reminding me constantly this wasn’t my fault.
Best of luck to you!
I would like you to imagine what it would be like to meet your friends out somewhere without having to explain where you are going, what you will be doing, who you will be with, or how long you will be gone. Never mind accusations, never mind FEELINGSBOMBs, just going somewhere without being expected by another person to account for your every intricate movement during social times. How does that feel? Does it feel like you have people in your life who trust you? Does it feel like you are a person who makes good decisions and knows what is right for you? Does it feel like an inherent right to be able to freely focus on your own needs sometimes? How else does it feel?
Those are examples of the kind of empowered sense of personal emotional wellbeing that your boyfriend seems to be trying to wreck in you. Honestly, I am not sure it matters so much why he is doing what he is doing, because he’s really the only one who can figure that out (generally with help of trained and accredited professional problem-helper), if he so chooses. What matters is the result of his behavior. The current result, to my read, is that he has you wondering how you can fix his insecurity-fueled behavior to make him stop doing it. That’s like the gateway drug of emotional manipulation, right there. Right now he’s got you wondering how to make him stop a thing that only he can stop. If he can hook you into taking on this behavior of his as your problem to solve, I guaran-freaking-tee it will only get more intense from there. Good news! You know his behavior isn’t your fault, you know that you’re right to have your own interests and needs, and you wrote in to CA, so I suspect you are about to get those things you know are true validated out the wazoo!
I am curious, though. What is it about him that makes him such a great guy when he’s not behaving like your ankles are where he lives now? What qualities does he have which (somewhat) mitigate his whoops-forgot-the-dryer-sheet-with-the-fleece-blankets levels of clinginess?
My husband had a milder version of this behavior while we were dating; it’s the awful kind of funny that they’re so afraid of you leaving that they make you want to leave. LW, there is nothing you can do that will convince him you love him.
What worked for us was my sending an email (instead of having a fraught face-to-face conversation) that unapologetically stated what I wouldn’t tolerate anymore if our relationship was going to continue. I cried and felt like a terrible person after sending it, but his response was “this isn’t as bad as I thought it’d be.” The realization that his anxiety had lied about him being The Worst Boyfriend Ever and having an achievable list of changes gave him the push he needed to start fixing the things in both our relationship and his life in general that made him unhappy.
This deserves all the flashing bold font: LW, THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO THAT WILL CONVINCE HIM YOU LOVE HIM.
Because his insecurity is coming from inside his own head.
There is nothing you can do that will fix his irrational fears, his unhealthy need to silence his insecurities by *controlling you*. By definition, they are not rational and unhealthy. Even if he does not turn out to be a creepy dangerous stalker, you know what he is, and will be, in the best-case scenario? A COMPLETE FUCKING PAIN IN THE ASS.
Maybe he will get better someday, LW. Fixing him is not your job.
Something Anya’s response brings up: this kind of highly-anxious and insecure behaviour isn’t healthy, and it doesn’t make the person experiencing it happy. It isn’t about you sacrificing your happiness for your partner’s (note: still not something you should ever have to do), it’s sacrificing your happiness for NO GAIN. Your being suffocated in this relationship isn’t doing him any favours.
I’d like to underline this.
I like this appoach (and it’s awesome it worked for you!) But I’m always cautious lest the “here is a list of achivable items and changes I need you to work on” turns into the “I have become the sole manager of the emotional aspects of this relationship” reciprocity is key, both parties need to be invested in changing the dynamic of the relationship.
I often wish for follow-ups from the letter-writers: I want to know if they used the advice, and what happened, and how things turned out after that. This one makes me really, really, REALLY wish for a follow-up. I find I’m feeling like I would like to know she is safe.
God, that would drive me crazy. It’s a shame he doesn’t see the good and positive changes you describe having made to your life and take that as a model for what he could do to make himself less boring and more interesting.
I couldn’t tell if the LW and her boyfriend live together or not, and if they do, the extrication, should that be what LW decides to do, can be much more difficult. Arkadyrose’s account covers a good way to do that.
LW, You sound awesome and you deserve so much better. Good luck.
” copyeditor addendum: this sentence, “make you try to feel horribly guilty about it” might work better as “try to make you feel horribly guilty about it.”
I was also wondering about this. Is LW getting the Spanish Inquisition every time she tries to leave her own home? Is the boyfriend literally following her out the door when she goes to social events?
Living together makes it more difficult to set boundaries, but not impossible. Instead of “I’ll see you Monday”, you can try texts like “Hey, I’m going out with some work friends this evening, I’ll probably be home late, so see you in the morning probably! Love you! xo” Then phone on silent for the rest of evening. If you have dozens of anxious texts and missed calls, that is a bad bad sign.
If you’re leaving to go to wherever from your home while he’s there,: “Hey, I’m going to be at Hobby for most of the afternoon, but I’ll be back by 7pm, so start thinking about what you want to do for dinner this evening. Have a great day, see you later!”
You are possibly at the stage where you’re tense and defensive every time you want to do anything by yourself, because you know it’s going to devolve into another feelingschat. I’d use another one of the Captain’s techniques, which is reset the relationship every time the subject comes up. When you inform him that you’re going somewhere or doing something by yourself, keep your tone light and cheerful, as though it’s the most normal thing in the world that you’re spending an afternoon with people who aren’t him (because it is normal. It is totally and completely normal). If you want to help mitigate his anxiety, you can pepper in affectionate reassurances (love you!) and set a concrete times for when you expect to hang out with him again. (See you at dinner! breakfast! church! knitting club!) If he starts on the guilt trip, revert to the Captain’s script:
“I’m so sorry you feel that way, but Hobby is very necessary me-time and I’m not willing to compromise on that. We can talk about this more later, but I have to get going now.”
Again, his reaction is going to tell you a lot about whether he’s just currently stuck in a bit of an insecure rut at the moment or if he’s being deliberately manipulative. Good luck!
I would actually change it to: “I’m so sorry you feel that way, but Hobby is very necessary me-time and I’m not willing to compromise on that. Its not up for discussion. I have to get going now.”
Otherwise you run the very real risk of having a really harrowing feelings chat AFTER every time you go out which can make that Me Time very very stressful.
This is probably true. I was thinking about it in terms of acknowledging that his feelings are real and worthy of discussion, but you’re right, following up every solo activity with a long feelingschat is not a good idea.
And if they do live together, the first few times of setting boundaries and leaving are probably going to result in ‘staying up until you get home so we can talk about how much you hurt me’ behaviour, and in no way does LW want to encourage that.
I like this phrasing a little better than immediately including in the idea that partner needs to get professional help. I think that piece is better saved for the longer discussion, if there is one. Throwing around statements about how someone needs to see a psychiatrist can also be a hallmark of gaslighting, in my experience. If it’s a serious concern, and sometimes it is, it should be expressed seriously, not used to deflect potential criticism back onto the other person.
Fabulous answer, and I just wanted to echo the book recommendation — that book saved my life and let me get out of an abusive relationship in mostly one piece. I found my abuser was a mix of several archetypes, and the book was really clear that they don’t have to fit a mold to hurt you — they just have to be hurting you. That book also gave me the words to finally articulate a lot of the pain and fear and frustration, a lot of the cycles and things he’d do and my eyes were wide as I went WAIT OTHER PEOPLE DO THIS, and it told me flat-out that physical intimidation was the threshold to physical abuse and if you are afraid, you are afraid for a reason.
It took me several months to be able to actually say what was going on was abuse. It’s taken longer to start to trust my gut again, myself again, because I was so deep in the “but everything is great and I looooove you we’re just both miserable ALL THE TIME and it’s your fault because you just aren’t trying as hard as I am!” vortex, it took a while to climb out and get my perspectives un-skewed. This was all with the help of a therapist and the amazing folks at the FOCA board.
I am awesome now. I’m healing and happy and free and smiling. Yes, there’s stuff still going on with mutual friends, or who has what piece of tech, but I do not regret leaving even the tiniest amount. When I first did I kept fretting I’d done the wrong thing, made a mistake… but couldn’t argue with the fact that I was shaking in fear for the first week where I bolted, even though he did not pursue me and followed my no-contact rules.
So. No matter what, you are going to be okay. More importantly, if and when you’re able to qualify some of your partner’s actions as abusive, PEOPLE WILL BELIEVE YOU. I was terrified that no one (even on Team Me) would believe me because they knew my abuser, or strangers like strange doctors etc just wouldn’t believe me because I couldn’t possibly be right.
People will believe you. People will be there for you. We’re here for you. No matter what you decide.
You deserve to be happy, your feelings and desire to not be attached at the hip matter, and you are absolutely allowed to be your own person even when you are dating (or more!) someone. None of that goes away. You matter.
I hope you’re right that people will believe her and be there for her. It isn’t always the case. I lost most of my friends and my own father and stepmother when I broke up with my abuser, because either they didn’t believe me or they didn’t much care if I was being abused… their other priorities, which depended on my not having left this person, were more important to them.
That is awful and I am so sorry.
I’m so sorry that happened to you! Regarding LW though, she can come here. We will believe her!
I’m so sorry you went through that. Hugs across the internet.
That book rocked my world too. It outlined all the stuff that baffled me and made me miserable. It created a dichotomy of my ex that continues to this day – 1) the awesome wonderful person who I adored and who loved me and was on my side, but with a cloud of confusion and weirdness and guilt and misery all around; and 2) the abuser who deliberately hurt me and manipulated me and pushed my guilt and anxiety buttons, so I wouldn’t leave and he didn’t have to do any hard stuff in our marriage, with no confusion and every baffling thing logically laid out.
I had read so many books, and this one book got it all, and cleared so much up.
This entry hit ridiculously close to home for myself. A little over a year ago I left a man who was definitely a “Mr. Sensitive”. I spent the next week at a friends house, just in case. I would like to add, that if you are scared that he will actually harm you, even in a public space, that a video call on Skype, is a wonderfully safe way to end an abusive relationship.
So, LW, I wish you luck, please do not get suckered into staying. Don’t prolong your misery; and perhaps with any luck, after some sulking, your leaving will be the catalyst to his seeking help. (Didn’t work for mine, but here’s to hoping)
Also: LW, don’t let him guilt you into a video Skype call if you can’t face it or you think he’ll be abusive and react badly. You do not “owe” it to him to finish things in the way he dictates. An email is fine; if he says you can’t finish it that way and the least you can do is Skype, don’t respond. He may well try to get you to agree to Skype or a phone call; don’t concede or allow yourself to be drawn into bargaining, because that’s just another way he can exert control over you. Make the break up be on your terms – if you actually WANT to do it on Skype, all well and good – but if you prefer to stick to something like an email or letter, that’s your right. Send the letter or email, make sure you tell him not to contact you – and then IGNORE ANY RESPONSE. He will likely use any hint of an opening to keep you talking and in contact – i.e. playing the game HIS way. You don’t have to play his game however.
“I can’t like you enough for both of us” is an excellent, excellent reason to leave a relationship. It’s also a case where breaking up is hard to do and not likely to leave you as besties-who-used-to-date-one-time.
So far everyone is voting for dumping, including me, and I would be skeptical in your case (if I hadn’t already been through this and come out the other side.) I recommend applying the Sheelzebub Principle: https://captainawkward.com/2014/05/23/573-574-575-and-576-applying-the-sheelzebub-principle/
Best of luck to you, LW, and stay safe.
I had a brief but shitty relationship, nearly ten years ago now, with someone who had a milder form of this. He wouldn’t try to go everywhere with me, but when we were together I heard a LOT of “everyone leaves me” and “you’ll get tired of me just like everyone else” type statements. The fact that people in his life were always disappointing and hurting him was a HUGE part of his personal narrative – he had a play he’d been writing that he let me read a draft of, and it was all about how people in the main character’s life failed him and treated him poorly over and over again. Equal parts sweet (at the time) and unsettling was how the play ended with the mc meeting a new guy who was sweet, with the implication that this was me – finally there was someone who wouldn’t betray him! (I’m sure this was re-written once our relationship ended and I proved to be Just Like The Rest of Them.)
But that meant that when I would have doubts about the relationship, or he became more sexually coercive, I felt like I had to be “better” than everyone else who’d left him or treated him badly. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t like them, so when we were together I made myself smaller to support him better. When I was starting to think “maybe I should end this” he had a night where he was worried about being “abandoned” again and I had talk him through how I wouldn’t leave him like other people had, all the while feeling a pit in my stomach because the relationship wasn’t making me happy and I was being pressured for sex pretty much every time we got together.
When I DID break up with him, he flat-out said I was leaving like “everyone else” and sent me a long, rambly email several weeks later about how he’d been sick since then and it was my fault, etc. I know he did have some mental health issues that compounded his worries, but it doesn’t change the fact that his words and actions were manipulative. In fact, looking through that Mr. Sensitive list, there’s a lot that lines up with his behavior. It was a fairly short relationship (maybe four months), but I’m guessing a lot of those signs would have become clearer with time.
LW, I think the Captain’s script here is a good way to see whether or not he’s willing to change his behavior. If you do end the relationship, he may very likely blame you for hurting his poor fee-fees just like he always knew you would. But you’ll be free of that behavior! And it sounds like the rest of your life is pretty rad right now. 🙂
Ohhhh yes. I got suckered early in the relationship into promising explicitly that I would “be the one who’d never leave her,” and then spent five very bad years living up to my promise through increasing abuse. Ultimately, I never actually *did* leave her. I called the police when she nearly murdered me, and they instituted a three-year no contact order which effectively ended the relationship without either of us technically doing it.
But for the years between, I heard a lot of, “Of course you’ll leave me. You SHOULD leave me. I’m broken and horrible and I don’t deserve to live,” which of course only resulted in my staying and trying to persuade her she was wrong about both herself and me. Also, “Why should I trust you? Nobody else in my life has ever been trustworthy.”
And some of them (especially her parents) honestly *hadn’t* been trustworthy, but I’ve always suspected that a lot of the others, whose stories I only knew from my partner herself, had actually been just fine, and were really behaving pretty reasonably in their own self-protection. Certainly I know that’s true for the one ex of hers I know well.
I’m very very glad you’re safely away from this person!
This sounds so much like my experience. I tried so hard to stick it out. Mostly he was just emotionally draining rather than outright harmful, and did a good line in keeping me available and interested without any commitment (broke up with me but said maybe at some point we might get back together) until I started seeing someone new and his behaviour got increasingly unreasonable, resulting in an ultimatum which I rejected (stop seeing the new guy or stop having him in my life). Incidentally I’m now married to the new guy. 🙂
Dang. That sounds like my ex-husband. He told me that he had been a bit of a pathological liar when he was younger, but that he had turned that around. Unfortunately (read: understandably), his family still thought of him as a liar, and that was very offensive and hurtful to him, because he had changed! He was a different person now, and why couldn’t they see that?! (Maybe because he had been a liar at eighteen or nineteen, and he was now all of twenty-one?) The upshot for me was that he needed me never, ever to doubt anything he said. I needed to show my support for him by accepting all his words as Absolutely True. Also? He asked me *specifically* not to mention his stories or assertions about himself to his family, because talking to them about certain things would just upset them. I was way too young to see the elaborate rules and the demand that I indefinitely suspend my judgment for the red flags the were. He was not abusive, but he was a gigantic, soul-sucking Man Baby. When I finally ended it, he said I was “abandoning” him. I was like, you are a grown-ass man. I should never have had anything to do with him.
Okay, so I just read a bit farther down and saw a discussion of people who have anxiety and a fear of abandonment. I just want to stress that this is fundamentally different from what was going on with my ex-husband. From him, it was intended as a guilt trip. He was trying to make me his feelings nanny. He would never have worried that he wasn’t handling his abandonment issues appropriately; for him, my feeling guilty and responsible for his emotional security was a feature, not a bug. I just want to make it clear that I’m not scoffing at people with anxiety issues who are trying to handle them in the context of adult relationships. I’m scoffing at giant babies who whine and snivel to be spoonfed attention and have their emotional diapers changed.
Gosh, that sounds bitter. Six years of tending an emotional infant will do that. At least real infants grow up.
My boyfriend has a (diagnosed) anxiety disorder and ridiculously low self-esteem. In his lower moods, he’s said that he doesn’t feel worthy of me and is surprised that I want to be with him. When our work schedules keep us apart, which they often do, he can be very physically clingy and need a lot of reassurance while I’m there.
And he also
–recognizes that his mental health is *his problem*. He sees a therapist regularly, and he can tell the difference between emotional support, which I am happy to give, and therapy.
–has never once told me he’s afraid I’m going to leave him, because I have told him that I’m in this for the long term and he believes me and trusts me.
–tells me when he needs extra assurance from me– hugs, a phone call, a quiet evening in– and is as available as he can be to give me what I need, too.
LW, your boyfriend can’t help the anxiety he’s feeling, and while he may eventually be able to learn not to focus it on you and the specter of your leaving, right now he may not be able to help that either.
He can absolutely help how he expresses that anxiety. He can choose to trust you, or to act like he trusts you, even if his jerkbrain is screaming at him not to. And he can absolutely choose to find some help that isn’t you. Until he’s willing to work on his own problems and meet you halfway, you can’t do anything for him. Leave.
Could we hear more about how to handle anxiety and fear of abandonment the right way? I have those and desperately don’t want to be the OP’s boyfriend, but it’s hard to know exactly where the line is. Especially when your partner isn’t quite getting the concept of “anxiety disorder” and keeps thinking if they reassure you enough it will work.
i would suggest it’s best to be honest? tell your partner that they don’t need to reassure you, that this is your issue and you will work through it in time/with therapy. reassure them that it’s not their fault, and that you trust them. that’s what i do, anyway.
I don’t have a particular fear of abandonment so I’m not sure how helpful this advice is but I do have anxiety so here goes anyway.
I came to an agreement with my partner that if I asked him if he loved me/wanted to be with me/some other variation of that he would answer in the affirmative without any hemming or hawing over what does love mean or how no one can promise to be with someone forever. I was asking a question that rationally I already knew the answer to so a quick yes was preferable to a long discussion that would just make me more anxious. My anxiety would ratchet up til I needed to ask the question but a short answer helped me deal with it and move on quickly.
It might also help to make a mental list of small things your partner does on a regular basis for you, particularly things they don’t need to do. My partner is quick to offer tea whenever I am stressed (he is very British) and sometimes I am able to calm my anxiety by remembering that and some of the other things he does regularly that show that he cares about me without needing to involve him directly.
Your partner might never fully ‘get’ it but seeing a therapist can help give you the vocabulary to explain as well as helping you work on the underlying problem.
Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. And I mean, I get why the hemming and hawing happens–it feels like such a *fraught* question–but “yes, I love you, do you want me to start another pot of coffee?” is so so so much better (for me, YMMV) than a Deep and Serious discussion of what is love, really, and why are my emotional issues so weird.
Tabitha, I also have a diagnosed anxiety disorder and have had those same feelings and needs. From a very sympathetic point, I wonder if you might reconsider the agreement that you can demand reassurances from him at will, in the format you like best. That can be really caustic to your relationship in the long run, and it’s outsourcing something you should be in charge of.
One way I’ve managed that need in my own life is I wrote a list of statements in my phone for when I feel anxious. It has statements like “X loves me. X desires me. X finds me pretty and is turned on by me. X thinks I’m smart and respects my opinions…” I read that list over and over when in the maw of that heart-racing 3 am anxiety attack, and my logical brain that knows the absolute truth of those statements is finally able to triumph over the anxiety hamster brain.
Also, chamomile tea and Rescue Remedy pastilles; possibly medications. Because our anxiety is our own responsibility, not our partners’.
Eh, on the other hand, if the whole thing is just a short ritual, like two people calling to each other on a wooded trail to make sure they’re both still there when rationally they know that neither of them is going to wander off, it has its place.
My husband has a quirk I’ve never heard of anywhere else. I can tell he’s getting sick–sometimes before he realizes it–because he will look like he’s about to cry and begin apologizing for being a bad husband (i.e., not being able to produce large amounts of money and time by snapping his fingers). I tell him I love him and he is an excellent husband (because he is), then fetch the thermometer. As soon as he realizes that he is actually physically ill, he begins to climb out of the pit.
Superbien, you are, of course, absolutely right. However, I’m not sure it’s always a bad thing to outsource some things – who can say for another person what the things are that you “should be taking care of” yourself?
My partner and I both suffer from anxiety and are both working on quieting those brainweasels. One way we do this is by asking reassurance from the other person, and for me personally it’s been a huge step forwards to realize that this is ok – sometimes it’s absolutely fine to rely on another person, as long as it’s not your only way of dealing with anxiety.
And I realize that I used the word “should”, which is usually a sign I’m applying a rule to myself and others. Sorry bout that – not my place to dictate your life. Perhaps more like ‘consider whether this is healthy and working for you, for some people it might not be, but might work in your situation’.
You make a valid point and I should probably clarify that this is something I’ve talked to him about and that he is ok with. He gets to set boundaries around how he deals with my anxiety (and he has) and I respect those and try not to overstep them even when my anxiety is really bad. I do a decent job of managing this particular anxiety on my own usually but sometimes a quick reminder that it is just anxiety is helpful to me and he doesn’t mind doing that for me. Other people may find that this doesn’t work for them or their partner.
It has also occasionally helped as a way of gauging my general anxiety levels. If he notices that I’m asking more frequently he tells me so and asks if there is something in particular that is making me anxious. Like I say, it works for us and it may be something worth trying for someone else but ultimately everyone has to find what’s best for their relationship themselves.
I used to be something like the LW’s boyfriend and my partner used to be the partner who didn’t quite get the concept of anxiety disorder. The thing that the Captain’s advice doesn’t cover in this post (which is fine) is that sometimes people who are anxious want just to talk about our feelings (which we know we are responsible for) with our partners, and aren’t trying to manipulate our partners into never going out without us.
Anyway my partner and I sorted it out by (1) my going on antidepressants and (2) our getting relationship counseling in which (3) we learned the techniques of being a container for the other’s feelings and active listening. And we also (4) talked a lot about the difference between “I feel this and I want to talk about it, because I want to be able to turn to my partner for emotional support sometimes” and “I am having anxiety/abandonment feelings, and therefore you can’t do what I’m having feelings about.”
Once we got the concepts down, it helped a lot to frame the conversation before starting it, and to have guidelines about how to bring up potentially anxiety provoking issues.
Firecat, that’s a wonderfully nuanced and responsible approach. These issues are hard, and that sounds like you’re doing good things.
This is a hard question to answer because it depends on your personality and particular anxieties, and the type of relationship you have with your partner, and what they’re like. I think the one thing that is always true is that it’s helpful to explain to your partner that you have anxiety about abandonment and you’re working on resolving it but it sometimes may manifest in ways that affect them. Do this when you are calm and feeling secure, *not* while feeling anxious about the relationship. Do it at a time that is convenient for them, probably pre-arranged, and gives them time to process and ask questions. Try to explain the nature of your worries, make it very clear they are your issue and nothing (a) that they did wrong and (b) that they could possibly fix. Explain your plan (counselling, art therapy, establishing a bigger support network of friends, etc.) and suggest ways that your partner can support you that are reasonable for both of you. My partner has similar anxieties, and we have a code word that she uses to signal to me that she’s in the midst of one of those spirals – usually what’ll happen is I’ll ask, “what’s wrong? You seem upset?” and she’ll sigh and reply “WOODCHUCKS!” Humour makes it easier for her to feel comfortable naming the problem. It means I know not to read too much into what she’s saying, and not to worry I have done something wrong. I know what she needs from me (a hug, an “I love you, I hope you feel better soon lovely!” and maybe some tea, and some space to unwind) and she doesn’t have to worry she’s alarmed me or ruined anything.
Heh, “woodchucks”. My codeword for the same thing is “gremlins”.
We use ‘brainweasels’.
Brilliant. I wish past self could have known about this website, and made better choices across a whole range. (On the other hand, I’ve grown a ton, and doing things the wrong way helps find the right way.) Woodchucks/gremlins/brainweasels are a great shorthand!
Having seen just how many beside myself have commented to say “Oh that happened to me too” (and also several who’ve said “Eeep, I was a r/Ms/Mx Sensitive but I got better”), I just want to offer Jedi hugs to everyone who’s been there. And I’m glad we all came out of it and are here to help LW. CA Army, we all rock. 🙂
Get therapy for yourself. Be proactive, with the knowledge that this is your problem to handle. It’s not your partner’s job to automatically know what to do. A therapist or counselor can help you figure out how to have that conversation with your partner.
Others posted great responses, but I just wanted to chime in with some specific mindfulness techniques. These come from a combination of CBT, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, mindfulness-based relapse prevention, and just plain meditation instruction. Thich Nhat Hanh has a great book on dealing with fear that helped me a LOT in learning to manage my anxiety.
– Pay attention to the physical sensation as you’re experiencing anxiety. Is there a tightness? Anywhere in the body that has a LOT of sensation – or a total absence? Do you feel warm or cold? What happens if you “breathe into” that part of the body? (It’s a little hard to explain if you don’t know the term, but you can probably find a guided “body scan” meditation – it’s about getting grounded in the breath, then directing your awareness to a particular part of the body and noticing sensations in that part as you breathe in and out.)
– Ask yourself, what am I afraid of? What am I thinking? If you’re like me, you might have a cycle of “I don’t know why I feel this way…” and hiding just behind that, “I shouldn’t feel this way…” and more. If you can, try journaling.
– Ask yourself, what action does this anxiety drive me to? Seeking reassurance? Picking a fight? Withdrawing? Then ask, What results do I get with that habitual response? And then, Are those the results I want? And then, Is there something else I could do instead? I strongly recommend trying this in a few different intro/interpersonal modes – I am totally incapable of being honest with myself if I’m answering these for someone else (whether in group therapy, with a close friend, via anonymous chat, or with a trusted therapist), and am getting a little more honest with myself in written format (if I can convince myself that no one else will read it). Your mileage almost certainly will vary.
– Be patient with yourself. You can take responsibility for your own anxiety AND share your experience of that anxiety with a loved one, but it’s going to take some time to develop new communication patterns in any relationship, just like any other habit. Taking notes helps, even if they’re just outlines/highlights! (Just remember to put dates on things!)
Oh and: not all anxiety stems from a real threat, but also, not all anxiety stems from a disordered mind (even in those of us with diagnosed anxiety disorders). You DO have the capacity to trust yourself, to test your judgments against your experience, and the more you cultivate that capacity (with documentation, fact-checking, and so on), the better equipped you’ll be to respond with flexibility and strength when challenges come along.
This is an excellent summary.
I think (and this is coming from someone who both has social anxiety and has been in relationships with people who’d rather smother me than risk me leaving) that one of the most important things you can do is figure out concrete, specific things that you need from your partner in terms of reassurance, and to articulate them. But to articulate *needs*, not jerkbrain fears. “I feel really lonely and unloveable, can we spend tonight just hanging out with each other and watching silly Youtube videos?” is something concrete. “I’m afraid you’re going to leave me” isn’t, because you’re not actually asking for what you need–you’re just throwing your fear out there and hoping they come up with something that helps. And for me at least, it’s so, so tempting to do that because, in a weird way, it actually feels less vulnerable than specifically articulating my needs. Maybe this is just because I’ve been in emotionally abusive relationships before, so it might not apply to your situation, but I always feel like if I articulate what I need and how I feel, I’m giving my partner the tools to hurt me.
I’m fortunate to have a spouse who doesn’t use those tools against me, and I think him having a framework for how my brain works when I’m in the throes of anxiety is very helpful for both of us.
“I always feel like if I articulate what I need and how I feel, I’m giving my partner the tools to hurt me.”
This. I remember very clearly handing my new partner an emotional weapon, to see what they did with it. They used it to build me up, again and again, and I finally was able to relax and see them as emotional tools and not weapons.
YMMV, obviously, but something my partner and I have worked out is a code word. If we doubt something, we can ask “potato?” (because it’s really, really hard to break a potato. You can mash it, or cut it, but you can’t really BREAK it…) and if the other person responds “potato” then the agreement is that I know Partner Absolutely Means whatever he just said. It’s just a quick thing, and it gets some weird looks sometimes, but it helps a LOT in a relationship where we both have anxiety and one of us has some pretty severe abandonment issues. We had a huge FeelingsTalk when we worked out the code, but afterwards it was much simpler.
Yes, what Anonymous Worrier said. I saw a lot of myself in some of those descriptions (the parts about being unable to trust, everybody leaves me, I’m broken, I need reassurance but I don’t believe it anyway, and so on) but so far I have managed to avoid (I hope!) the controlling and stalkerish behaviours.
Right now I am choosing to stay single because I don’t know how to deal with a relationship in a reasonably healthy and functional way. That’s working ok for me for now, but it isn’t teaching me to handle those fears if I ever do try a relationship in the future.
(Complicating things, I’m pretty sure I have some degree of anxiety–the descriptions fit and the coping strategies seem to be helping, anyway, but I discovered this after my last relationship ended–and my first long term relationship was an emotionally abusive one, which massively ramped up the feelings of being inadequate and unwanted.)
LW, first off, kudos for the self-improvement drive and the happiness it bought you. Your boyfriend might not like it, but the fact that you like it and feel happy is what matters. You deserve someone who will be equally happy to see your joy and the fulfillment your life brings you. Maybe, with help, it can be this guy. Maybe it will be someone else. Either way, you shouldn’t settle for less.
LW, let me ask you a question: when you think about the possibility of breaking up with him, how do you feel? Sad but relieved, perhaps? All breakups are hard, but when I read your letter it seems to me that part of you already feels that this person, beloved though he might be, is no longer someone you adore and respect and admire and look forward to seeing. A loving relationship adds to one’s life, makes it richer and more rewarding. He has become someone who actively tries to limit the quality of your life so that he can compete for your attention.
Do you actually want to try to fix the relationship, or do you want to move on? Our society is full of nonsense messages that “relationships take mighty struggle and sacrifice” and “you don’t just give up on a relationship because you’re very unhappy!” which are mostly perpetuated by people trying to normalize their crap relationships. I was once married to a man who had the same insecurity complex. The same sentences came word for word out of my ex’s mouth. For a very long time I reassured him that I loved him and he just couldn’t see how wonderful he was, but I could and always would. I worked so hard to make him feel secure and loved. I tried to love him so much that he’d love himself. It didn’t work. It CAN’T work. There’s no such thing as a love transplant.
Eventually I was exhausted of being his emotional iron lung. He got insecure any time I left the house to see friends or do anything I was excited about, so I cut back on my social life and felt guilty every time I left the house. And slowly I just started to resent him. To feel annoyed. To silently agree with him that he wasn’t worth my time. I realized that the thing he wanted from me–for me to stay with him all the time and not do anything exciting that’d make him jealous–was making *me* boring and unhappy, just like him. It was very hard to leave him, because I loved him, and was so sorry to see his pain, and wanted very much for him to be happy. But being with me didn’t make him happy! It just made me less happy.
The Captain’s advice is excellent. Evaluate what you really want, and then make a plan. Maybe he can recognize that what he’s doing to you is wrong, and get help. Maybe he’ll just make this all about how he was right and you’re leaving him for greener pastures. If that’s the case, he’s lost to you. Get support from friends or family or whatever else is needed. Make sure you have a place to stay, people to call, money for a few unstable months. Tell people what you’re going to be doing, and use your knowledge of him to analyze what trouble he’s likely to cause, if any, and have contingency plans. Your situation may be complex – e.g. do you live together? I lived with my ex and it made things very complicated because he was crap and things like finding an apartment, setting up bank accounts, etc–I had to do it all for him. All the way he guilted me. But I did it, and although he went through a very rough patch after our breakup, and he still hates me for “betraying him when he needed me most,” he’s now much happier and stronger and I am at peace with my choices 100%
No matter what: do not settle for someone who sees your happiness as a relationship problem.
When really, being very unhappy is a fucking excellent reason to end a relationship.
No matter what: do not settle for someone who sees your happiness as a relationship problem.
Trying to decide whether this looks better on a T-shirt or a throw pillow. Or possibly giant neon lights in Times Square. SO MUCH THIS.
“No matter what: do not settle for someone who sees your happiness as a relationship problem.”
I wish someone had told me THAT when I was 19.
LW, I am worried about the fact that this behaviour started (escalated?) after you started making positive changes in your life. Everything else in this letter could be attributed to your boyfriend being stuck in an insecurity rut, but the fact that all this resentment and jealousy bubbled to the surface after you started taking control of your own well-being? That’s deeply troubling. You know who really doesn’t like it when a partner starts taking care of themselves, gaining self-confidence and widening their social circles? Abusers.
Please ask yourself – did your boyfriend seem happier in the relationship when you were “feeling really down”?
You deserve a boyfriend who wants you to be best and happiest version of yourself – which, judging from your letter, sounds like someone who is confident and independent, with a buzzing social life. If your boyfriend can’t want that for you, then there is a fundamental conflict of interest in your relationship.
> You know who really doesn’t like it when a partner starts taking care of themselves, gaining self-confidence and widening their social circles? Abusers.
I have a friend who became really anxious when his GF went on anti-depressants. What if the relationship was based on her depression, what if she didn’t need him anymore, etc… He brought these up in the context of “I am having my own mental health issues”, and she reassured him. Once. And that was it. That is how non-abusers handle that fear.
Dude. This is a really good point. I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, there are relationships among the letters on this site that describe friends/family who preferred old roles where they were the “put together” one and LW was the “mess” that leaned on them for support, and Did Not React Well to LW taking control of their own life and leaning less on Supportive Savvy Friend, even to the point of contemplating gasp* that “Supportive Savvy Friend does not necessarily know what’s best for me!”
I don’t know why I never made that connection before, but yeah – that Friend Who Wants You To Lean On Them Exclusively has a lot in common with the abusive partner who wants you isolated and sad. I’ve had both, but somehow framed each situation in a way that did not highlight this commonality. I’m really glad you brought this up – it puts a lot in perspective for me. Thanks.
What would happen if next time you hear “you’ll leave me because I’m boring” your response is “Yes. THIS IS BORING. Bye!”?
I have been the person in your boyfriend’s position and the best thing my partner did (for theirself, for me, for our relationship, in that order of importance) was look after their own boundaries and trust me to learn to deal with my feelings instead of expecting them to do it for me. We didn’t break up, but I had to do a LOT of work to get right with myself (including seeing a therapist and 100% owning it as my responsibility to deal with). If I had been unable or unwilling to do this, my partner would have been completely right in walking away.
To add, initially my partner did try to just reassure me. It would sink in in the moment and I would feel better, but as soon as we were apart again, the anxiety came back and I would need more reassurance (and I would feel more guilty about that and more anxious and then need even MORE reassurance). And the longer it went on, the more elaborate my anxiety became and soon the only time I felt okay was when my partner was actively reassuring me, and even then I would think things like, “But they’re only saying that because I told them I’m anxious. If they really loved me, I wouldn’t even need to ask–they would just know.” I was effectively coming to believe that I needed a partner who would be a 24/7 mind-reading need fulfillment machine, which is impossible and destructive and toxic and absolutely an immediate precursor to being straight-up abusive.
Fortunately there was still a part of my brain that knew this was completely dysfunctional and my partner realized that too and pulled back. That kicked off a month-long depression cycle which was horrible, but I think of it as addiction and withdrawal. Just because it felt awful to come down off of something doesn’t mean that something wasn’t hurting me in the long run. What finally kicked me out of that cycle was having the realization that my partner felt guilty about how depressed and anxious I was, and I knew that wasn’t fair because they were just taking care of themselves. That was the time when I knew that I either needed to take care of myself or seriously hurt someone I loved and lose them forever in the process.
LW, I’m so sorry. This sounds really difficult and frustrating. I had a similar boyfriend in high school, although a lot of his insecurities came from thinking I was going to/already did sleep with someone else. Apparently almost every girl he dated before me had cheated on him, so at the time I thought his concerns were reasonable, but looking back I know it was just a way to control me.
Things got really difficult when I finished at my all-girls’ high school and started at a coed university. I think he saw that I was making a lot of new friends (many of whom were boys!!) and having a lot of fun that didn’t involve him, so he got more insecure and more clingy, which ended up pushing me away. Also, I saw a lot more happy couples, and realized that being in a relationship with someone didn’t have to mean being miserable as often as I was, so I ended it. Things never got violent, but in many ways I think I’m just lucky that they didn’t. If I’d stayed with him into adulthood, they very well might have.
Like your boyfriend, LW, my ex had a lot of good qualities. It’s possible that he never would have turned violent, but his insecurities made him possessive and controlling, and that made me unhappy. I couldn’t change how he felt and I couldn’t change how he acted, but I could change the fact that I was in a relationship with him, so I did. I hope he has found happiness, but I don’t feel responsible for it anymore.
I’m definitely a carrier of Is Someone Too Boring For This Relationship syndrome, which is in the family of People Have Objective Worth And You Must Date People With The Same Score As You diseases. But boringness is not objective– it’s about chemistry more than anything, especially when you’re down to the nuts and bolts of spending every day with a person. It’s not about if someone’s Good Enough To Be Worth Dating, it’s about if someone suits you.
Sounds like this person doesn’t suit you anymore. May you find someone who doesn’t view your relationship as a competition or a transaction.
First CA comment ever.
by the time I finished reading this post my mouth was completely dry and my heart was pounding and I was literally on the verge of an anxiety episode because it reminded me so forcibly of my ex. Definitely no where extreme as some of the other horrible things commenters have experienced but I just wanted to come on in and say I hope you be safe LW and get out of there as soon as possible. The Captains advice may seem extreme toward the end but I really agree with the advice of all those safe spaces and back up plans and escape routes. It will be hard and horrible and awkward to end things with this guy (and if I’m reading him right based on your letter the aftermath won’t be pretty either) but it will literally be the best thing you could do for yourself.
Like the captain I’m really hoping I’m projecting my bad experience on a more innocent situation but just know that you can always do what’s best for you. Even if he’s not “that bad” you can still leave if this partnership is not right for you.
Sometimes I look back on my time with my ex and it literally feels like I’m watching another person’s awful nightmare, but that’s infinitely better than continuing to live them, trust me.
Eeesh, LW, I hope you find a resolution to this that ends with you feeling safe and secure. I had a weird relationship with a dude much like this when I was younger- we weren’t dating but he acted as though we were? Which was confusing because I was in fact in a very lovely relationship with someone else… anyway. He spent a lot of time doing the “everyone Always Leaves” and “You will Do Me Wrong like everyone else” dances, and I stuck it out because I Was Not Like Those Horrid People, one of whom was an old bully of mine who had objectively done pretty awful things to this guy.
(content warning: abuse and various icky things about sex)
The relationship dragged on for a horrendously long time, after he had started threatening me, cutting me and himself in front of me, physically abusing me in other ways, and attempting to have a sexual relationship with me that I emphatically did not want. I didn’t tell anyone what was happening, not even my Lovely Partner, because I knew that everyone would say “you should maybe stop hanging around that guy” and I couldn’t do that, because I was not Those Horrid People who left him!
The relationship ended after a quite nasty incident that involved the police, and I spent that night on a friend’s couch because Dudebro knew where I lived with my parents and that thought was so terrifying that I couldn’t go home.
It can be really, really hard to get away from the They Done Me Wrong But You Won’t, Right? leech, because it feels like you are doing everything they have always accused everyone else of doing, and so you KNOW that this is the way you can hurt them the most. And, at least in my case, it makes you feel like a monster. Just, the lowest of the low. It’s been nearly six years since Dudebro and I parted ways, and I still have the nagging doubt hagfish stuck to the side of my brain, burrowing in. It is really hard not to be pissed at myself about it, particularly because I had Example of Very Healthy Relationship happening at the EXACT SAME TIME as all of this crap.
Please tell someone you love and trust about this aspect of your relationship with your boyfriend before you do anything to move forward, just so that they have a sort of heads-up and can help you watch for the Waves of Guilt, if you are like me and might experience those. Having people helping you to ride those waves out can be super helpful in avoiding the going back dance. It is a sucky dance.
I’m so sorry that happened to you.
It happened to me, too.
Think about how hard it is for our legal system to take a woman seriously, the things you have to prove, the things that have to happen to other people, too. My “friend” gets out of prison in 2025 at the earliest.
TL;DR: Not Being One of Those Horrible People Who Leave can put you in a very weird, vulnerable position. Do not let that hagfish eat any part of you; you protected yourself, and you are right to shun the company of anyone who tries to make you feel bad for doing so. (Yes, I know that you know, but sometimes it helps to have strangers on the Internet tell you that you did the right thing.)
And yes. P.S. about once every three weeks or so, I rehearse the speech I’m going to give him if he comes to me when his sentence is finished, and I still feel like a terrible, hurtful, monstrous person for not giving him a chance when he forgave me for Ruining His Life by turning that evidence in— and I’m pretty sure he will “forgive” me, and I’m pretty sure he thinks that I ruined his life by turning in that evidence. It is my personal opinion that he ruined several people’s lives by creating that evidence and that he would have continued to harm if he was not stopped by the legal system. I have a right to my life, to control access to my body, to control my privacy, and I do not have the right to endanger any of those things for people around me. If I “protected” his feelings the way he wanted them protected, all these things would go away— again.
But some part of me feels like I’m premeditating kicking a puppy with malice aforethought. I’m sure in a rom com, he’d be a hero.
It does help to have someone tell me I did the right thing, because even though I know I did, my emotions don’t always know.
My Dudebro didn’t go to prison, which I’m grateful for in some ways because going through the trauma of having to talk to the police again about what was going on might have broken me. He did get expelled, and I am pretty sure he thinks I ruined his life. Sometimes I think I ruined his life, too. But I know he actually ruined it himself.
Every time I hear about some mass violence in the news I always get this pit in my stomach and think it’s him. I don’t know if that will ever go away.
Also I am very, very sorry that this happened to you too. And you did the right thing too, and I hope you never have to give that speech.
Quick question for the Captain: did the LW clearly state a gender someplace where we can’t see it?
Please keep in mind: I can see real names and often photos.
Right, I know you get info that doesn’t appear here, which is why I asked. I also know from personal experience that it’s really, really easy to be misgendered based on name + photo, which is why I asked whether the LW had stated a gender.
Fair enough, your point is made.
Er. I wasn’t trying to make a point, so I’m not sure what point you think I’ve made? I just wanted to check before commenting. I appear to have offended, and I apologize. Stepping back now.
LW’s gender really is pretty much irrelevent – you can get Ms Sensitives (there’s one referred to above, below my first comment) and you can get Mx Sensitives as well as Mr Sensitives – and the people on the receiving end can also be of any gender (or none). This kind of behaviour really is genderless. This behaviour can happen in both het and non-het relationships. I wouldn’t focus on LW’s gender; it really has very little bearing on LW’s situation. (Plus I believe the good Captain has a rule about not asking for potentially-identifying information that could out someone.)
It’s irrelevant to the advice but relevant to the way the advice is phrased. I know that if I wrote in to an advice columnist and the advice I got back from that person and the commenters was full of “she should”, I would have a hard time with that, because I’m not a “she”. The misgendering would make it difficult for me to push through and get to the useful parts of the advice. I know Jennifer’s generally thoughtful and awesome on gender stuff, so I figured there was no harm in asking whether the LW had provided gender info before I made a comment that might inadvertently use the wrong pronouns or other gendered language.
I take your point; I was focused so much on how alarm bells were ringing over the LW’s situation that it didn’t register on me the gendered language in the Captain’s reply. Being nonbinary myself I do take your point however. Being not entirely out in all situations (trying to explain “nonbinary” to well-meaning but somewhat small-“c”-conservative middle class people in church is… so not going to happen) I’m kind of used to being misgendered but I fully accept that how I react is not how others would react and for a great many people I know it would be A Very Big Deal. I went back and reread the Captain’s reply more carefully and I see what you mean.
Captain- I think that Why Does He Do That? is a great book that could be really helpful to the LW. I was also pretty disturbed by the way it dismissed the very concept of female-on-male abuse. That not only undermines straight male victims, but any victim of abuse that doesn’t rest on physical or at least financial dominance. If you agree, would you consider posting a caveat with the recommendation, the same way you do for Gift Of Fear?
I’m not sure what you are looking for in a caveat. Do you have an alternate text recommendation, or language you would like to see? Can you tell me what you’d like to read when that book is mentioned?
Bancroft’s book is specifically about men who abuse women partly due to good old fashioned misognyny.
The expectations that women will constantly cater to and serve and comfort men’s feelings comes out of misognyny.
Women can abuse, and not all abuse & control is borne out of misognyny, and a lot of the dynamics Bancroft (and good old Gavin de Becker) describe extrapolate to all kinds of abusers and abusive situations, but I’m not sure that stripping the name “misogyny” away from these discussions when it applies in the name of gender equality and inclusiveness is the answer.
What I say when I talk about the book is “This is useful in general and in particular it’s really insightful when it comes to the role of privilege and entitlement that drives abuse. I was disappointed that it said it was impossible for a woman to abuse a man.”
My problem isn’t that Bancroft’s book is about misogyny-driven abuse, it’s that he denies there’s any other kind. Actually he doesn’t, he acknowledges that that women can abuse (other women) and men can be abused (by other men), and that smaller, poorer people can abuse bigger, richer people if they have sufficient other privileges (citizenship, disability status, language, race, etc), and *still* says that it is impossible for a woman to abuse a man.
It’s not just that this hurts men, it’s that it’s that it undermines women who are experiencing atypical abuse. He clearly knows that kind of abuse exists because he talks about it in exactly the passage you quote. Saying men can’t be abused by women reinforces the idea that a stay at home dad can’t abuse a breadwinner wife, a couch potato man can’t abuse a martial arts champion woman, or a BDSM-sense submissive man can’t abuse his dominant.
I flatly disagree with your recollected reading of this. What Bancroft does say is that many of the men he meets in his practice falsely claim to be abused by their girlfriends or wives, but digging deeper he finds the opposite is true, so he treats it as a red flag when coming from someone who has been mandated to be in his program. I know you are trying to come from a good place, but I am not interested in having this discussion with you further today.
Thank you, Captain.
-With much appreciation from a woman whose (male) Darth Ex did EXACTLY this until I believed it.
I’ve still got about a third of Bancroft’s book to finish, but I too noticed very clearly that he claims that women do not abuse men, period. I agree that this seriously undermines the influence of the book (which is, in my opinion, an excellent and hugely important book, and I don’t know of any other book like it to recommend instead).
I would not, for instance, be able to recommend it to a man being abused by a woman without worrying that it would make him even less able to name what was happening. I wish Bancroft would write a new edition with the women-don’t-abuse-men narrative removed.
Is he really dismissing it outright, though? Honest question, because it’s been a while since I’ve read it and I don’t have it near me right now to look it up. I thought I remembered him saying something to the extent of “Many of the cases described here can happen the same with the genders reversed/in same-sex relationships, but because of the statistic majority of violence against women committed by men and my personal experience with that I’m going to always have my examples have a male abuser.”, but I could be mistaken here.
> Is he really dismissing it outright, though?
My recollection is that he did. He said women can’t abuse, and if a man accuses a woman of abuse he’s an abuser himself. He *also* said that same-sex abuse can happen, but he would use male-on-female examples because they’re the most common and what he has the most experience with, which I didn’t object to.
What’s extra frustrating for me is his point that it’s easy for an abused person to make themselves look like the victim in public (because they have more cope) was so insightful and so important, and I hate that it got intertwined with something that takes away men’s ability to stop and heal themselves from abuse.
Damnit, that should be “women can’t abuse men.” He does acknowledge same sex abuse.
I think part of his point was also “prejudice vs. racism:” abuse isn’t any less severe when it’s committed by a woman against a man, but women face all kinds of mundane pressure to give in to coercion, harassment, violence, and dismissal. Our society abuses women, and Bancroft prioritizes his analysis of that context.
I do wish he would write about abuse in other kinds of intimate relationships – partly because he’s really, really good at it – but I appreciate his interest in this broader picture, and I am glad that he pulls back beyond dynamics within a relationship. I like that he takes this so seriously, as it were.
He has also worked directly with abused women, and he seems very frustrated with the way women are treated by law enforcement and the courts. I think he connects that very directly with the misogyny he also sees in abusive relationships.
Also, doesn’t he treat abusive men in group therapy? My recollection is that he was focusing on the man-woman/abuser-abusee dynamic because male abusers were the ones he had the most direct experience of and insight into.
I am one of the biggest promoters this book and recommend it to anyone in an abusive situation.
I give everyone I recommend it to the warning that it says that only guys can really be abusers. My personal belief, based on research, is that female-perpetrated abuse is often not recognized by the court systems… Which is the system from which Lundy Bancroft was getting most of his referrals, so he got an unconscious gender bias. I see it as a big gap in an otherwise amazing book. Feedback from a guy friend was that the dynamics in this book are exactly applicable to his female abuser, and he was able to extract the good parts and ignore the bad. It’s a bummer though.
More or less, yes, he does dismiss it. “Myth #14” of Chapter 2 is about this:
“There certainly are some women who treat their male partners badly, berating them, calling them names, attempting to control them. The negative impact on these men’s lives can be considerable. But do we see men whose self-esteem is gradually destroyed through this process? […] The reason we don’t generally see these men is simple: They’re rare.
“I don’t question how embarassing it would be for a man to come forward and admti that a woman is abusing him. But don’t underestimate how humiliated a woman feels when she reveals abuse; women crave dignity just as much as men do. If shame stopped people from coming forward, no one would tell. … If there were millions of cowed, trembling men out there, the police would be finding them.”
“Men can be abused by other men, however, and women can be abused by women, sometimes through means that include physical intimidation of violence.”
The language is hedged such that he isn’t completely denying the possibility of a man being abused by women, but he clearly thinks it’s vanishingly rare and much more likely to be a case of the real abuser claiming to be the victim.
I definitely believe he could have seen this in his groups, but… yeah…
Statistics say he is right.
4 out of 5 victims of intimate partner violence in the USA are female. The overwhelming majority of IPV perpetrators are men. Most of the men who are victims of IPV are abused not by women, but by other men.
So in fact, women abusing their male intimate partners IS rare, in terms of IPV statistics.
It’s just that violence isn’t the only form of abuse (as unfortunately we all know), and anecdotally I know of men who are or have been abused by women, who should not be invisible in Bancroft’s book.
If Bancroft instead just said his data are about male abusers of women, and that a common strategy of these abusers is to claim it is their victims are are in fact the abusers, but that his evidence cannot address how commonly women do actually abuse men, it would be more useful.
It concerns me that you are limiting abuse to violence. I was in a deeply abusive relationship that scared and scarred me, but it never once turned physical.
Women can absolutely create an emotionally and psychologically abusive situation for a male partner (or other gendered partner, but Bancroft specifically exempts non-hetero relationships from the “women aren’t abusers, that’s a ploy abusive men use” rule).
I had a guy friend in this situation and it was uncomfortable recommending a book that specifically dismissed his situation as unlikely and suspect, and which implied that he was actually the abuser.
I gave him a big caveat, and he said the book was hugely helpful and applicable, and helped him get out of that situation.
I still strongly recommend this book, I just wish it didn’t have that big downside.
I had insecure clingy tendencies like the LW’s boyfriend when I was much younger, although substantially milder. The thing that got me to snap out of it and embark on the course of therapy that changed my life was a very awesome girlfriend at the time who straight up said to me, “Your suffocating behavior has taken all the pleasure out of our relationship, and we can no longer be together. I strongly suggest that you seek therapeutic assistance. Goodbye.” She gave me a hug, said, “Good luck”, and was gone. If she had stayed with me to “help” me “work through” my issues, I would have had no incentive to do the hard work I needed to do to get right with myself. Also, based on my experience, I am convinced that being in a relationship makes it impossible to come to grips with the features of one’s inner world that lead to that kind of insecurity driven terror of abandonment and consequent suffocating behavior. You have to actually let yourself be abandoned and work through the resulting feelings by yourself if you ever want to heal.
I say all of this not to imply that it is in any way the responsibility of the LW to make decisions on the basis of what is best for her boyfriend. Rather, it’s to provide some context that might make it easier for her to choose what is best for herself, which (as everyone else had been saying) is clearly to leave.
I had a boyfriend like this at the end of high school/beginning of college. I spent two and a half years reassuring him that I wasn’t “too good for him,” that I wasn’t going to leave him, until I couldn’t take it anymore and did leave him.
I want to list a couple other things he did that aren’t in the letter or in the “Mr. Sensitive” description in case they resonate with LW’s or other commenters’ experience:
– constantly talked about how he would love me FOREVER even though I would leave him eventually
– when I spent just a tiny bit of effort doing my hair to go to a party with him and his friends, he said suspiciously, “Who are you trying to impress?”
– when I started making plans to study abroad for a semester, he said he would do whatever it took to go with me. I knew he’d never be able to afford that, so I silently gave up on the idea of studying abroad (luckily I broke up with him shortly afterward, so I did get to go)
– talked about how he would kill himself if I left (couched as a declaration of love and how I meant so much to him rather than as a threat, but it was really a threat)
– made up lies about being bullied, abused, etc., so that I would feel sorry for him and stay with him to avoid becoming one of the bulliers, abusers, etc.
– if I had a problem, he would lie and make up a scenario about how he had the same problem but worse (e.g., I struggled with depression and started taking antidepressants at the time, so he made up a story about how he’d gotten a bipolar diagnosis and started taking lithium)
– if he ever made a tiny mistake (e.g., losing something small that belonged to me), I would just want a simple apology and then to be done with it, but he would make it into a huge ordeal about how he was worthless and ruined everything, and then I would have to comfort and reassure him
– when I went home after seeing him, I had to call him when I got there, and if I forgot, he would give me a huge guilt trip about how he thought I had died in a car crash and make up lies about how he had checked news reports and called hospitals, etc.
I don’t know if that really qualifies as abuse, but it definitely qualified as a bad relationship. I loved him a lot, and I really identify with the LW saying that “He is a great guy when he’s not being gnawed on by the hounds of insecurity,” but breaking up with him was the best decision I ever made, and I only wish I’d done it sooner.
Pretty sure that absoutely qualifies as abuse
“1. You seem to be hurting his feelings constantly, though you aren’t sure why, and he expects your attention to be focused endlessly on his emotional injuries. If you are in a bad mood one day and say something unfair or insensitive, it won’t be enough for you to give him a sincere apology and accept responsibility. He’ll go on and on about it, expecting you to grovel as if you had treated him with profound cruelty. (Notice the twist here: This is just what an abuser accuses his partner of doing to him, when all she is really looking for is a heartfelt I’m sorry.)”
Every time I read one of these posts it’s like being punched in the stomach.
Oh, THIS is what my dad’s been doing to me for 35 yrs. I was wondering why it always felt bad, but I was CLEARLY the one in the wrong because my dad loves me so much.
He does love me. It’s still abusive.
Jedi hugs if you want them, ChildOfMedia. It’s horrifying to realize that someone close to you can be so twisted up that the only way they can express affection is by hurting you. I hope you are in a safe place where you can work through your relationship with your dad and decide what steps you need to take — always keeping safety in the front of your mind.
This is a big part of why I don’t miss my mom.
Oh gross. Thank you for reminding me how far I’ve come. As someone who used to be a (less intense) Mr Sensitive myself, and couldn’t figure out why I kept driving partners away, I can absolutely attest to what people are saying about this guy being responsible for figuring out what’s wrong and fixing it. It took me a long time to figure out why the way I was behaving was unfair to people like LW.
LW, keep your head up and don’t let this dude guilt you into staying inside a co-dependent bubble. You’re expanding your comfort zone and he’s trying to keep you locked inside _his_. Spead your wings, and if Clingor won’t let you take off … well, you know the acronym.
LW… It must hurt to read what I’m sure looks like a sea of “Nope” from strangers talking about a relationship you care about. I’m trying to nurse my sister through a damaging, abusive relationship and she feels a lot of guilt that she’s representing the situation wrong to me and so I have a skewed perspective of what’s really going on. Sometimes she won’t talk to me about something that’s happened because she’s in an “I can make this work” space and does not want to hear me remind her that her husband’s behavior is abusive. I hope you’re taking care of yourself, taking a break from these responses when you need to, digesting it, thinking critically about it, and basically treating yourself with kindness and giving yourself what you need. It can be so draining and distressing.
The first time my therapist suggested that I didn’t “have” to say “I love you” back to my husband every time he said it (usually every 15 minutes or so, while staring at me from across the room in a way that I knew meant that he was saying it because he needed to hear it back RIGHT NOW and with just the RIGHT kind of smile and kind eyes, and if I didn’t deliver, I was in for an hours-long discussion about our relationship in which I soothed all his anxieties and nurtured him back to emotional health), I panicked. I didn’t want to hear it. It’s weird to describe, but I felt like she was pulling a structural support out of the house of cards I’d been building and maintaining out of sheer dogged determination that the warning signs were not there, that the good still outweighed the bad, etc. Hell, years after I left him I *still* sometimes feel like it was all my fault – I emasculated him, I somehow created in him the insecurities that he needed me to fix.
The fact is, I probably did not behave very well. And you probably aren’t perfect either. I say this because I find *that* is the thing that can cause us to stay in a bad situation – the sense that if we fix the stuff we’re doing wrong, we can make it better. We expect abuse to look like a manipulative monster controlling an innocent victim just trying to survive and hold on to her sanity, so if we don’t fit that “victim” narrative to a T, our self-doubt can keep us in a bad situation. The fact is, I *did* manipulate my husband sometimes, especially when the relationship started going south. I tried to control him too. We built that badness between us, and sometimes it was built on reactions to each other’s bullshit. If you are reading these responses and thinking, “I should have mentioned [thing I do/have done which contributes to the situation; then they might be saying something different]… the fact is, probably not. I mean, the details would change, but the near unanimous “nope” would remain the same. Because he DOES have good qualities, and you DO have shitty things about you. And he’s STILL controlling you. He’s still “making your life small.” All these things can be true at the same time. So I hope you don’t use whatever imperfect stuff you might have done as a reason to tie yourself to a relationship you might be outgrowing.
My heart is aching for you. So wise and true. Beautifully explained why manipulation and guilt are so interrelated.
And the thing is, when you start feeling that, “but I was a bad person too…” feeling, the answer is NOT “so I must stay in this relationship to expiate my sin, I do not deserve to be single and happy”; the answer is “so I should leave, because this relationship makes me not nice and I should find a relationship where it’s easy to be nice.”
I mean, there are times in very long term or committed relationships where the two of you can find a way of working back to being nice to each other again. But it does have to be both, and there has to have been an overwhelming amount of Good and just a little Bad.
Oh man LW, setting aside all the eurghhh stuff Jennifer covered…
The “I’m boring so you’ll leave me” thing was EXACTLY my ex (yup). I’m just gonna say — yeah, my ex did end up “boring” me because he wasn’t interested in trying anything new or doing anything other than his go-to activities. And that was totally his prerogative, he didn’t need to do jack shit if he didn’t want — but it did mean we didn’t really mesh as a couple after all.
A mismatch doesn’t mean he’s a terrible person or even really that he’s boring. It just might mean he’s not a great match for you anymore. That never feels great, for sure. You just really don’t need to feel bad about growing in different ways, having different priorities, whatever. You don’t have to stay squished in that box he wants you in. A partner should be supportive and facilitate your desire to change and grow, not stifle you.
I just want to make a few points that are less about abuse. Abuse and the potential for it are important, because you need to keep yourself safe. I’m really glad that’s been well covered, but it’s been so well covered, I don’t feel a need to add to it. I want to emphasize what a few have said about it not needing to be abuse to be a serious problem.
I believe that a good relationship is one where the partners can work through problems together. Every relationship will run into problems sooner or later, unless it’s very short, so the ability to resolve problems is a hugely important trait for a happy relationship. A problem is something that is an issue for either you or your partner or both of you. If it’s making either of you unhappy, it’s a problem. A resolution is something you’re both okay with that leads to you no longer being unhappy about it or acknowledging that it sucks, but it’s something you’re okay living with. The latter is more for problems that simply can’t be fixed, such as I’m chronically ill and this causes problems, but failing medical science improvements, we have to accept the it just sucks option. However, we can work on ways we cope with it to be best for both of us, such as thinking about work schedules that better accommodate doctor’s visits or living someplace that better suits my pickier health needs. The key thing though is that both of us have to be satisfied with the solutions we come up with. If we couldn’t do that, then things would get worse and worse as we couldn’t resolve things and it wouldn’t be a very functional relationship. Maybe we’d just be a bad fit. If living somewhere that didn’t work with my health needs were hugely important to my partner, then that wouldn’t make him a bad person, but it would make us a bad match. It would be a problem in our relationship.
Right now you have two obvious problems in your relationship. Your partner is irrationally anxious and having trouble trusting you. You feel smothered. These are both big problems. You don’t have a solution until you are happy and not feeling smothered and he is happy working on his anxiety and has regained trust for you. Personally, I view trust as all fundamental to a relationship. We all have doubts and insecurities at times, but I think treating a partner as if you trust them is a basic component of respect, and when it is lost, there isn’t much to salvage. But some people might believe in working through that. If you want to work through it, I’d definitely set a time limit and if it isn’t fixed within that time limit, then leave. It doesn’t matter whether you are acting as if you don’t trust your partner or your partner is acting as if they don’t trust you, because either is a big flag of a problem in the relationship.
I guess basically my point is: this isn’t fixed until you are happy.
There’s no acceptable fix that leaves you generally miserable. If a relationship is making either person in it miserable, then it’s not a good relationship. If you can’t get to a point where your relationship is not a cause of unhappiness for either of you, then I believe you should break up. I don’t think people need to be happy to have good relationships (depressed people can do so), but I do think the relationship has to not be causing significant unhappiness for either person. It sounds like you’re fairly happy with yourself and your life (which is great – congrats on all of the work you put into it), but your relationship is dragging you down. So, this problem isn’t solved until your relationship isn’t dragging you down. If there’s no way to find a resolution that also is pleasing to your partner, then this isn’t a viable relationship. So, the big question is can your partner find a way to be content and reasonably happy with behaviors that don’t drag you down. Whether or not he might turn abusive, I don’t see a way for this relationship to be good unless he can. Lots of people aren’t abusive, but still are bad fits for each other. And “not abusive” is not the standard by which relationships should be judged good.
Last paragraph very true. There’s a big difference between being unhappy and in a relationship, and being unhappy because of a relationship. The first can work, the second can’t, not unless things change drastically.
LW, I have so much sympathy for your situation right now. It’s such a stressful, frustrating & scary thing to deal with. Being made to feel responsible for a partner’s emotional well being, self-esteem, entire quality of life… that is a huge amount of pressure. I think all the advice is great, but I want to pass on something that was told to me, in a not dissimilar situation.
It was about the difference between trying everything & trying enough. I was told, & this was vital for me to hear, that it’s OK if you don’t try absolutely everything to help your partner. You can get to a point where you honestly feel you have tried enough & that’s OK. In fact, it’s impossible to try everything, but you have already done a lot, suggesting therapy, hobbies etc. You could keep suggesting therapy for months or years, explaining again & again why this behaviour is hurting you, expending more & more energy trying to get him to acknowledge & understand. But you have already done this, it’s not a problem of trying to find a different way of saying it to get him to finally understand, or suggesting the exact right hobby, the exact right form of support [therapy, helpline etc.]
A lot of scripts & narratives we hear about relationships are framed around “if you love someone, you must do absolutely everything to save the relationship.” Or “if he is a good person/a good partner [in some ways/at some times] you owe it to him to do everything possible to help him.” This is why it was helpful & powerful for me to be told no, it’s OK if you’re at the point where you’ve tried ENOUGH. You can love someone, you can recognise that they have a lot of great qualities & still say, I’ve done enough to try to save this relationship.
“This is Stinkor, from He-Man. What would the action figure for Clingor look like?”
Clearly the Troubled Partner Action Figure you’re looking for is POWER LORD. POWER LORD has the face of a man, but also a space monster! Nobody knows when POWER LORD will turn, twist and change! You are helpless before the unpredictable nature of POWER LORD.
There’s a thing people sometimes do that I think of as the Tarkin manoeuvre. “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
Your bf, LW, is employing the Tarkin manoeuvre and you are about to slide right past his fingers (I hope, anyway, because I stayed for this kind of thing and it made me miserable and destroyed all the positive feelings I had in my relationship). He’s anxious about the idea of you leaving, so he’s become needy, controlling, intrusive, and whiny, basically ensuring that you are going to leave. People who are anxious about you leaving them often ask you to make promises early in the relationship about not leaving them, or bargains about how splitting up stuff will go if you do leave, etc etc etc. If this is you, please don’t feel bound by any of that. Make decisions based on what’s best for you and what makes you happy, not based on some promise or agreement you were suckered into making before you realized what you’d gotten into. 🙂
Hi LW. I’m LW #270 and I see a whole lot of my nightmare ex in your descriptions of your boyfriend. People have already told you to leave. I have some advice for if you stay.
It’s okay to stay. You love him, and you don’t want to leave, or you can’t leave right now, or it’s not so bad as the people of CA think it is. Take a minute if you can to sit with the suffocation feeling that made you sign your letter. Take a minute and sit with it even if it’s not as bad as we think it is. Just take a minute now or the next time you feel suffocated and try to remember how it feels in your body and your brain. And then, if you want to, stay.
Please don’t forget that feeling. Sometimes, if we feel like we’re being suffocated but we don’t want to get away from the person who’s making us feel suffocated, we try to train ourselves to get by on less air. We take smaller breaths. We get used to it. We start to think it was always like this.
So remember the feeling that made you send this letter, the suffocated feeling. Maybe he’ll stop and you won’t need it, but please don’t forget what it’s like to want to breathe, to need to breathe. Remember how that feels and if you keep feeling it, maybe then you should leave. It’s up to you.
I signed my letter Sleepy. I should have signed it Tired, but by that point I was rapidly losing track of what it feels like to have energy.
“Sometimes, if we feel like we’re being suffocated but we don’t want to get away from the person who’s making us feel suffocated, we try to train ourselves to get by on less air. We take smaller breaths. We get used to it. We start to think it was always like this.”
times one million. You can’t even imagine the crushing weight of guilt, relief, and bewilderment you might feel when you get far enough away from this to take your first breath again. It’s difficult to come to terms with the aftermath of feeling this way. I hope you come through everything okay in the end. ♡ I think I will.
LW, it sounds like this partner is a drain on you. I had a similar experience with a woman who used to worry that she was too boring and that I would leave her… and I did. Because every facet of our relationship became about me propping her up and reassuring her and complimenting her. And that wasn’t a good relationship for me to be in, because I wasn’t able to share any of my stuff. There was no sharing of support, the emotional interactions just went one way. That wasn’t the relationship I wanted.
And there were lots of conversations and promises about things changing – if you go that route with your partner, it might be a good idea to go in with some deadlines and some milestones; what do you want to change? How do you want it to change? What are signs that things have changed? What will happen if the change doesn’t stick? Have that stuff in your head and refer back to it over time.
Hey LW – I haven’t had a chance to go through all the comments yet, so probably someone has already mentioned this. But this guy has explicitly said he feels threatened by your self improvement, by the more confident, happy and healthy you. Really think about that. He is more comfortable with you being smaller, sadder, less confident, less together, less successful – less able to leave him.
That’s both disgusting and terrifying. It is a very short step from that thought to him sabotaging you and trying to shrink you back down to size. It’s very easy for this to happen without you really understanding what’s going on, because he can just put all this friction in the way of you doing and being stuff he doesn’t like. This is already happening with him insisting on coming along to monitor your behaviour. Have you ever thought it would be easier to just not go out? I wouldn’t blame you if you had (I am speaking from personal experience here).
If nothing else, there’s nothing quite so specifically crushing as having someone meet your good news about a cool thing you’re doing with dismay. Having someone else project their fears and jealousies onto you like that causes psychological injury regardless of what else happens. You want to please the people you love, and if they are specifically displeased by your successes that’s a completely mind-twisting place to be. You want to be able to trust your loved ones as a place to share joy.
You deserve a boyfriend who cheers your victories and is pleased by your good news. One who doesn’t shrink you down into a box marked “woman so pathetic she can’t possibly leave me”.
“If nothing else, there’s nothing quite so specifically crushing as having someone meet your good news about a cool thing you’re doing with dismay.”
Don’t want to derail, but thanks for saying this. I hear a lot about envy from the less-lucky person’s point of view and how tough it is; talking about it from the other point of view seems jerky–I don’t expect any good reactions to complaining about how my good fortune hurting others makes me feel, so I shut the hell up. But it *is* mind-twisting to feel *guilty* about something good that you did, and not to be able to stop feeling guilty because you can see that someone else is experiencing actual pain over it.
My situation just involves friends, so it was not that bad, and all there’s been to do about it was get over it and not talk about it and accept that we can’t be close in certain ways, so that’s that… but still, I feel grateful for hearing it expressed by someone else in a way that gets at how it actually feels.
I lost a friend when I went back to university to finish my BA. If I’d been looking out for myself better, I’d have left my husband when I started grad school. It is absolutely horrible to have to enact a weird performance of apology every time someone you know remembers that you are doing something you love, something that gives you pleasure, which also happens to make them feel inadequate. (My husband also specifically prevented me from going to the gym, stopped me seeing my friends, and forced me to take part in his hobbies until he was done with them, at which point I was supposed to be done with them too, so with him it was kind of an all-encompassing problem.)
But yeah, people who aren’t happy for you when you are doing something that makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else–even if they themselves don’t like that thing!–are a giant drag.
I went through something very similar, but with a best friend and not an SO, so there are definitely different things at stake and different considerations. He still exhibited ALL of the behavior in this post, particularly refusing to get a social life and hobbies of his own because he didn’t feel he could do it without me (He burned a lot of bridges and I ended up being his only friend.) and getting all insecure and anxious whenever I’d do things without him. In addition he also would frequently buy me unsolicited gifts as a weird kind of friendship insurance whenever he felt particularly inadequate. It was always super obvious and unnerving.
We managed to resolve this issue and two years later we continue to have no problems aside from maybe a few seconds of visible discomfort on his part that he now deals with entirely on his own.
It was a very long and difficult process. LW, I don’t know what level of commitment the two of you are at or what measures you’d be willing to take but here’s what it took for us to shake this problem.
He and I would have talks on the matter frequently that while they didn’t exactly go nowhere, often they’d simply send him on a weeks long kick of being conspicuously and annoyingly eager to please me and not piss me off because to him at that time, me voicing a concern meant our friendship was on the bubble. (Which meant LOTS AND LOTS of “Am I bothering you?” texts, the irony of which was lost on him.)
Then I explained to him that I didn’t appreciate being typecast as an evil, conniving, emotional sadist who wanted nothing more than to find ANY reason to humiliatingly expel him from my life, and this was becoming a severe drain on my energy, patience and comfort in our friendship. I suggested we take a break from contacting each other for three months.
He basically sat and waited alone like he was in time out for three months instead of taking any measures to improve his self esteem or social life. After that, things were exactly as they had been before.
So I proposed a break for six months.
At this time he also started therapy. He started getting something of a social life together. After that six month period, his anxiety slowly and gradually lessened from Slightly-Less-Bothersome to Present-but-No-Big-Deal, to Barely Noticeable over the course of the following year.
Total time battling this: A year and 9 months.
So, while resolving this can be done, it’s also a matter of how invested you are in this relationship, what you’re willing to do, and probably most importantly your confidence in your boyfriend’s willingness and ability to learn to cope with his feelings on his own and not be emotionally dependent on you. He needs to realize that you and the partner in his head who looks like you and would leave him for a fart sandwich if you simply had the chance are not the same person and you can’t be held responsible for what Imaginary Partner does. (And so might you if you’ve been making up for what you haven’t done and accommodating his anxieties just to shake the typecast.)
It’s totally up to you what you want to do. Just know that this is likely to be far from a simple fix.
“I suggested we take a break from contacting each other for three months.
He basically sat and waited alone like he was in time out for three months instead of taking any measures to improve his self esteem or social life. After that, things were exactly as they had been before.
So I proposed a break for six months.”
BOOM! This is an excellent illustration of the kind of thing I was talking about upthread. People who are intolerably clingy because of abandonment issues won’t deal productively with those issues until forced to by being broken up with, and these kinds of issues are almost never amenable to any form of “working on them together” within a relationship. People with this sort of problem need to work on it alone, because a major aspect of their healing is to learn to genuinely feel and accept their feelings of abandonment. Doing this in the context of a relationship doesn’t work because it is impossible not to use the relationship to blunt those feelings instead of feel and accept them.
People with his sort of issues, WILL find a way to attempt to extract reassurance from you (and the attempts can get pretty darn creative lemme tell ya) as long as you make yourself available in any way. Simply resolving to spend “more time apart” as in “a day or two at a time to our respective selves” probably won’t do the job when it’s at the point where they have no life outside the relationship. They’ll just live for the days when you are available to them and to hell with all the other days.
While what we did worked for us, not being in a romantic relationship definitely worked in our favor. I can’t really see most romantic relationships surviving the degree of separation that’s necessary for change. I’m still not saying it can’t be done but not everybody has time for that.
“He needs to realize that you and the partner in his head who looks like you and would leave him for a fart sandwich if you simply had the chance are not the same person and you can’t be held responsible for what Imaginary Partner does.”
In the book “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” the titular Mr. Strange realizes that he’s been doing this to his wife, Arabella. In their case, it’s more about him expecting her to speak harshly and unkindly to him, but it’s so widely applicable that my partner and I refer to doing this as “Arabella-ing” each other. Identifying it, and having a light-hearted way to refer to it, has been a great help to both of us.
Ah, this letter and so many of the comments are why the phrase “oh, you’re too good for me” gives me a full body shudder of horror instead of finding it romantic. (see also “I don’t deserve you” and really just about any permutation of this).
Ugh, I also dated a Clingor.
I remember one extremely cold winter evening when I got lost looking for my bus stop. It took me about 40 minutes to find the right one. He kept calling my phone but I didn’t know it because I had it in my bag. I wasn’t going to talk on the phone anyway because I had forgotten my gloves and my hands were freezing. When I got on the right bus and finally spoke to him, he accused me of cheating. I’m sorry to say I didn’t dump him right then, but I’m happy to say that relationship has been over for years and I will never accept that kind of behavior again.
What is it about the Clingors of the world who assume that any period of non-contact, however small, is a window for cheating? I used to have to text pictures of myself arriving to the grocery store to prove that I hadn’t tripped onto a dick on my way there.
But what about the men AT the grocery store?!
And when those men get enough political power, they become the Taliban
This reminds me of a ghastly ex who gave me massive “you are a horrible, uncaring gf and don’t put enough effort into this relationship” grief when… MY TRAIN WAS LATE. I even texted him from the train to say sorry, we were held up and they weren’t letting us know how long the delay would be. But that was not good enough. I had made us late for a concert through my selfish behaviour and this required epic grovelling.
He was SUCH a nobjockey.
I married a guy who, on the surface, shares some similarities with your boyfriend, LW. When Mr. Sullie and I got together (almost 4 years ago) he delivered a warning – he had dated a lot of women who had experienced life-changing epiphanies about 6 months into the relationship, and left him. One realized she was actually a lesbian. One left to pursue her dream of painting in the UK. One discovered her love of modeling and moved to The Big City. Etc. And so, he said, he was insecure about our relationship and he might occasionally need reassurances of his place in my life.
I was pretty confused by all this at first (men having Feelings? whut) but over time, one part of his warning came true – I did have a life changing epiphany! Several of them, in fact. I realized I’m a trans agender person, not a cis woman (surprise number one) and I’m asexual (surprise number two). But through all this, Mr. Sullie read with me, learned with me, and grew with me. He did need a lot of reassurance at first. He wanted to know if I still wanted to be with him. I think he assumed now that I had all this new knowledge about myself, I would need to flee to San Francisco to be with My People or something.
The differences here? Mr. Sullie was always good about asking for what he needed, and was specific about it. “Hey I’m feeling kind of lonely, can I have some cuddles?” “I’ve been missing you a lot lately, want to go for a drive?” “Will you pet my hair while I eat these mashed potatoes?” He also put in a lot of work into developing his own life after we moved in together to avoid the couple-blob-merge that sometimes happens. And, most importantly, he can take “no” for an answer. Sometimes I just want to go drink tea by myself, and sometimes that means I can’t pet his hair until later. And that is OK.
I’m really worried for you, LW. It’s ok to be anxious in a relationship, and it’s ok to ask for reassurance. It’s not ok to hijack your partner’s life in search of that reassurance.
Hey, CA! I’m a longtime fan of your blog, and I’m here with an important question for you about this post and others you’ve made. And before I ask it, I want to let you know that I really love your blog so much. It’s really hard for me to say something critical when the overwhelming feeling I have about you is so firmly “Yay, I am so happy that this person exists!” And I wouldn’t bother, except that there are a lot of really good, kind, sensitive people in my life who, when they read this post or other stuff like it, here or elsewhere, are really, really hurt and sad. And the reason why they are hurt and saddened by posts like this one is because they are dudes, and very often it seems like when you and other feminists talk about misogyny and abusive behaviour, we speak in gendered language such that all abusers and misogynists are assumed to be men, and all victims are asssumed to be women. And my dude friends are really lovely sweet kind considerate people who — I am not kidding you about this — actually make every effort they can think of to be kind and to treat people well and to dismantle the gross patriarchy and to fight sexism wherever they find it. And they are seriously crushed when it feels like women don’t trust them no matter what they do. This is not a trivial or small hurt to the people I’m speaking of; this is not dudebros whining about not getting laid enough. This is the people I love crying to me about how they can’t connect with half of the human race because half the human race has written them off already as monsters. This is a major source of sadness in their lives.
So the question I need to ask you today is: do you think you could possibly have written this post in a way that’s less gender-essentialist? There are lots of women abusers who fit into the patterns of abusive behaviour you’re describing here…and there are lots of men who are victims of this stuff, too…and there are lots of people in relationships like this who don’t identify with the pronouns and identities you’re talking about here. By talking only about situations where men are abusers and where women are victims, you’re excluding lots and lots of abusive relationships — relationships between women, relationships between men, and relationships between people who don’t fit neatly into those categories.
The English language is an absolute bear for this, I know. It might feel challenging and awkward at first to figure out how to write a post like this one (on which you have clearly already spent so much time and energy, and it shows) in a way that makes no assumptions about the genders of the victim and abuser, but it’s a thing that gets so much easier with practice, if you’re willing to give it a go and stick with it through the first few attempts until it feels more natural.
I love your blog so much, by the way! You have so many smart thoughts and I know that your heart is in the right place about this. One of the main reasons why I want to share my suggestions with you is so that everyone can profit from your wise, wise thinking. Please don’t stop being so awesome. :-*
I take your point and I will think about your comments in the future. I appreciate the kind way that it was delivered.
However sometimes the problem is men abusing and harassing women and treating them like emotional nannies or possessions, and misogyny, and the ways women are socialized to take care of men’s feelings and put up with certain behavior, and the ways that nonviolent behavior exists on a continuum of violent behavior that is largely male violence toward women. This continuum is systematically condoned and reinforced by the wider culture, and I’m not going to stop talking about that because sometimes dudes don’t like reading about that. If you don’t want to send your male friends to my blog for that reason, I am ok with that. I am not going to change all gender pronouns to neutral ones to create a fiction that feels better for them, for example, or stop recommending resources that deal with male partner violence.
P.S. I have also written about the reverse of this situation.
Maybe it helps to remember that CA deals with specific situations and individuals and not general sociology. I mean, if this post was an essay on the subject of partner violence, it would be a very bad, incomplete essay. But it’s an answer to a very specific and detailed question from an individual person, and Cap states elsewhere that she knew the gender of the people involved. LW (this LW or any of them) aren’t avatars for feminist issues, they are individuals, and the answers are going to naturally reflect that, I think. A personal answer to a personal question needs a different approach than a general essay about a subject.
And…. sorry, this is going to keep bugging me. “Half the human race has written them off already as monsters?” I hesitate to say this, I don’t know the details and maybe this is just comment section shorthand for something far more complex, but as it stands, WOW.
Maybe the fact that they are so nervous and anguished about this is becoming a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Because it sounds like that’s an idea that might make them nervous around women, whom they think regard them as monsters. That’s a little misogynist, in actual fact, so there you go.
Is it possible this is a step in their continued understanding of the problem of sexism and all the related -isms? I’m not trying to be condescending with talk about “just a phase” but I have noticed, in my personal life, that when privileged people who are compassionate and smart and want to do good become aware of these things, there is always a period of time where they have to get used to the idea that the world is a lot less fair and nice than they had probably thought. It’s a huge adjustment in thinking that doesn’t usually happen in one leap and it always seems to include a bit of anguish about what their role and identity is in this “new” world they’ve just been made aware of. From where I’m standing it’s normal and necessary, as long as it doesn’t last and they move on from it. Because the place you describe is dangerous to get stuck in. If I seriously thought that over half the human race hated me by default, I would never stop crying either. But I don’t. I’ve got a female meatsuit that I have to wear every day and I’m not as down about men as your friends seem to be about women. Again, the way it’s presented here, that’s actually a little misogynist and heavily taps into the toxic “angry man-hating feminist” stereotype.
I’m making assumptions at 200mph here, I don’t know the details, but that really stuck out to me, in a bad sort of way. Your friends sound like wonderful people, so I hope for their sake and yours that they can find an equilibrium between being aware of sexism and not letting it eat them up from the inside. It’s a bad thing.
Hello, and sorry if it’s not my place to comment about this, but I have a thought to share:
“This is the people I love crying to me about how they can’t connect with half of the human race because half the human race has written them off already as monsters.”
Sorry, but I think this is seriously incorrect. Reasons why I think so:
1.- Feminism is not widespread enough yet for half the human race to be even aware that sexism affects them negatively.
2.- “because half the human race has already written them off as monsters”; so it’s the fault of women that your loved ones can’t connect with them, I take it? Have you considered they may be unable to connect with half the human race because they don’t see this half as human beings?
3.- It rattles me that you preach non-gendered answers and yet include such a gendered world view in your comment. Maybe your loved ones could act as human beings to other human beings. Those human beings would appreciate being respected as human beings instead of walking vaginas and maybe would then, in turn, treat your loved ones as actual human beings instead of as walking jerks. And if they decided not to, that would their prerrogative and your loved ones would be better off far away from them anyway.
In my experience, people worth meeting are aware of their prejudices and open to overcoming them. Also in my experience, men acting sexist towards women are far more common than women acting sexist towards men. I think it’s necessary to call people out on sexist behaviour whenever it happens. It just happens that lots and lots and lots of men need to be called out consistently on their sexist behaviour towards women.
I’m sure you mean well, but this absolutely reeks of #notallmen.
Plus, the Cap is writing this in response to a specific letter. In that letter the LW is female and the issue is her male partner. Hence the pronouns in the response.
This whole scenario is super disturbing to me. As was pointed out, dudes genuinely believing–or adopting as a rhetorical stance–that all women think all men are “monsters” and complaining about this supposed fact to women is grossly misogynistic. This is for a number of reasons: (1) It’s based on “feminists are man-hating harridans”. (2) It’s a derailment from the undeniable fact that the vast majority of relationship abuse is dudes abusing women. (3) It’s offloading onto women dudes’ responsibility to deal with their own feelings of discomfort at the realization that we live in patriarchal misogynist societies.
I find it almost impossible to believe that dudes so utterly oblivious to their own misogyny that they literally cry about this kind of nonsense and consider it a major source of sadness in their lives could possibly be genuinely “dismantling patriarchy” and “fighting sexism wherever they find it”.
And honestly, this comment did not come across to me as being delivered in a “kind way”. It came across as patronizing and condescending.
Right? You really can’t go about “dismantling the patriarchy” before you’ve done some serious mental deep cleaning. Trying to contribute to systemic change before you learn to confront your own ingrained biases and tendencies is putting the cart before the horse. Before you go changing the world, first you do the hard internal work. Then you can start leading by example.
It’s seriously gotten to the point where if I read the phrase “my boyfriend is so feminist” in advice columns I mentally add “no he ain’t.” It just kind of never bears out. I’m not saying feminist men and allies don’t exist. I’m saying that there’s more dudes who talk the talk than there are who walk the walk. I can think of half a dozen prolific male allies/feminists from the top of my head who seriously have this feminism thing down, and none of them ever claim that “half the world hates them.”
+1 to that. The Shakesville piece “The Terrible Bargain we have Regretfully Struck” is basically my answer to every instance of sad men complaining about how sad it is to be a Good Man in a world where Mean Women are failing to feminism with adequate precision or care for their sensitivities. If it makes you sad that women proceed with suspicion or generalization, the Good Men will aim that frustration at the dudes around because it’s sure as hell a rational response on the part of women and, in the case of domestic abuse/stalking it’s backed by empirical facts. Asking women to pretend reality isn’t true because it’s upsetting is profoundly unhelpful and an unfeminist time and energy suck.
My husband is one of those men who deeply understand how sexism and other forms of bigotry are messing up the world (and the lives of people he cares deeply about) and does feel that very acutely from time to time. But the difference is that he NEVER translates those sad and frustrated feelings into frustration at the women pointing it out, it doesn’t lead to generalizing about women and/or feminists and he certainly doesn’t ask strangers (let alone strange women) to cater to those feelings.
It’s always worth saying that it’s fine to feel the things you feel. If men feel sad and frustrated about sexism, well, good, that’s how it’s supposed to feel when you learn something horrifying about the world. Feel like that is a first step to being an amazing ally. Nobody can help what they feel. What you do, however, makes all the difference. That’s why I expressed the genuine hope that soukups friends (as described, I don’t know them) can take those uncomfortable feelings, work through them and come out the other end with a better, more helpful and stronger attitude. They’re aware of the problem and they’re willing to help, so my fingers are crossed.
It’s not up to the oppressed to take care of the feelings of their oppressors.
“This is the people I love crying to me about how they can’t connect with half of the human race because half the human race has written them off already as monsters.”
In my experience, this is the way sensitive, well-intentioned men feel AFTER they have started to learn about misogyny/rape culture/women’s survival skills and take it seriously, but BEFORE they actually start sympathizing with women/stop seeing us as Other.
It’s an important stage in becoming a real ally to women, but it’s important to know you’re not there yet. Standard advice applies: consume a lot of media by women, pursue friendships with women in which you listen more than you talk, get in practice at mentally reframing Gender Stress situations from the woman’s point of view.
Yeah. It’s still framing the issue as basically a problem affecting men. Their feels are apparently more important than women’s well-being. Do men get past this stage? TOTALLY. But it doesn’t happen if you coddle their (very real!) distress at this stage and assure them #notallmen. It only happens when they realize #yesallwomen.
I think what you may be describing is: Men who are caring and well-intentioned feel grief when they discover the reality that many women are traumatized by oppression and gendered violence, and this trauma is such that women may not trust (or have difficulty trusting, or be slow to trust) these men’s care and good intentions.
This grief makes sense. It is healthy and appropriate. ALL of us who are working against patriarchy are grieving.
At the risk of creating a false hierarchy of pain (I mean, grief is grief), I have the impulse to remind your friends that I and other women are likewise grieving that there is some level of disconnection with this huge section of the human race, *and* I have to deal with the fact that this disconnection for me is based on well-founded fear for my life and my human dignity.
The “vent outward” guideline applies here. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407
Male feminists can help each other work through their grief about feeling disconnected from women, as an alternative to asking women to make men feel more comfortable with the conversation about oppression.
+1. I’m writing this comment with the assumption that you, soukup, are a lady-identified person; forgive me if I’m misreading. I understand that dudes might need to express grief and be emotionally supported in the difficult, never-ending journey of confronting their privilege and relearning how to respond to and interact with lady-identified people. I get it. I really do. I’m on my own journey in terms of race, class, ability, and everything else where I’m on the easy side of the privilege binary. It’s hard. Full stop. But. Asking a lady-identified person to provide that emotional support is entirely missing the point, and in fact is the opposite of what they should be doing. When dude-identified people ask women to support and accommodate them in their journeys, they are making feminism all about them. “Oppressed people talking about the realities of oppressed people face is really painful for me” gets all the shade. When you’re on the easy side and you want to help, your job is to 1) lighten others’ burden where you can and 2) not add to anyone’s burden. These dude-identified friends of yours–whether they consciously intended to or not–have recruited you as their champion, and here you are sallying forth on their behalf to fight other women about the way they talk about oppression and abuse of women by men. I know that it can be hard for men to talk about this stuff with other men, but talking about this stuff openly and honestly WITH OTHER MEN is part of ally work. It also kind of sounds like these friends of yours aren’t crying about feminism, but rather about Imaginary Feminism:
Also, I don’t know you or anything, but the way you’re coming at this topic reminds me of how I used to come at this topic. Some of the links at this page might be of interest to you:
TL;DR: Allies handle their own business. Dudes’ emotions about feminism are their own to manage.
Well, both of my relationships (I’m poly) sometimes say that they’re not sure why I like them, they think they’re not as cool as me, etc. I guess they have problem with their self esteem, one of them has clinical depression, etc.
I: “you’re one of the most coolest persons I know”
girlfriend: “Thanks. Though I don’t know why you think that.”
Thing is, they never use it against me and they’re well aware that it’s “their problem”. They don’t use it to get me to “prove” something or whatever. Sometimes it seems less than ideal when they answer a compliment with “I don’t think so, but thanks”, but yes, nobody’s perfect (and as someone with not-always-best-self-esteem, I can understand that feeling).
They never bring my in a situation where I have to prove I’ stay with them, or whatever.
TL;DR: You can have anxiety issues and not be an ass about it.
Something that helped me through my upbringing-caused self-worth issues was to consciously change my automatic response to praise: Not “I’m not that cool/I don’t know why you think so/I suck because [something else entirely]”, but “I’m so glad you think so!”
For me–and this doesn’t necessarily mean it will have the same effect on others–changing from an “I don’t deserve your praise” mindset to one that said “I value your opinion and so I believe that you think this about me and I am happy to hear it”, even though at first I didn’t actually feel that way, made room in my head for me to say “If someone who knows me well and whose opinion is generally in line with my own feelings on things says I am cool, probably I actually am”. And in time, often I could say “thank you! I think you’re awesome too!” if the occasion called for it. And sometimes “Yeah, I am pretty awesome! Thank you!”
i see people asking “why do they do that” and thought i’d mention that according to the book, they’re actually not irrational. they know that you didn’t cheat in the 15 minutes since you last talked and they know that telling you they would never hit you is scary. they want to scare you, and they want to put you on the defensive and make you justify yourself. mostly, they want to control you.
A lot of the LW’s letter reminded me highly of my college boyfriend, who acted that way all the time near the end. (He displayed negative behavior in the beginning, too, but in a different way.) He got angry when I hung out “too much” with friends who were about to move. He got angry when I had dinner with my parents after work. He was annoyed that I had friends other than him, but made excuse after excuse for why he couldn’t make friends himself. He said he wanted to get to know my friends, but generally spent most of his time around them sitting in a corner acting hostile asking when we could leave/go to bed. He actually sent me a text saying “from now on I am going to go with you to everything like normal couples do.” That same day I found out he had been snooping through my e-mail, and called it off. So I really liked this advice, especially the part about making sure you have somewhere else to go after ending things: when I finally broke up with that dude, he sent me several texts asking whether I would be sleeping in my own apartment or at my parents’ house that night. Because he wanted to come over, wherever, and convince me not to leave him. But I wasn’t at either place; while I did stop by my parents’ house after work briefly to grab some extra clothes I had stored there (since I didn’t want to go to my place, where there would be no one else around if he decided to invade, and I had work again in the morning), I stayed at a friend’s house that night. (I didn’t tell him which friend, but I looked out the window frequently to see if his car was driving past.) Then I also had a friend-guard when he came by the next day to get his stuff. But we forgot about one small item…and then, per the prediction here, he spent the next week sending text messages about how I needed to bring it to his house. (That was not going to happen.) I sent it through the mail, from work.
I remember feeling a giant weight lift from me afterwards, when I realized that I did not have to account for my activities to him anymore, ever again.
As an aside…some of this advice, not the parts about abuse but the parts about dealing with a clingy anxious person who knows all the psychobabble and who wants to make their problems your problem…that will probably serve me very well in my current life.
Great answer, CA. LW, I am so hoping you find a solution and soon. This letter and the responses brought back so many memories.
If I had read an answer like the one CA gave you back in 1985 I would not have spent a decade of my life involved with a manipulative and brilliant, uber-sensitive narcissist, trying over and over to fix him and make him okay. Everything was always my fault. FWIW, he later ended up in prison for statutory rape. I did get away from him eventually and I have a wonderful life now. But OMG, so many years of misery, and for no good reason at all. Like another commenter, it did make me incredibly sympathetic to people who can’t get away from their abusers. I’ll never be judgmental about that situation again.
Fingers crossed for you.
This sounds familiar, and I am hoping that you are a person I used to know and that your ex-husband is in prison and you are free and happy.
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