I’m struggling to find good ways to respond to my boyfriend when he tells me what I should or need to be doing. I’m in therapy to recover and get to a place where I think that I’m good enough & love and trust myself again (after years growing up having that constantly undermined), and therapy has been going very well.
I believe that my boyfriend (of almost 2.5 years) wants to help me succeed, be better, and do what we both know I’m capable of. The way he goes about it though, is damaging my self-esteem and is a constant source of “you’re not good enough” for me.
He wants me to exercise more, eat healthier, help out more with the cleaning, and take better care of myself. All good things. But the way he goes about it is “you need to exercise today”. If I tell him I already did, he tells me that walking doesn’t count, that it needs to be more strenuous exercise. He’ll get mad if he thinks that I’m not exercising often enough, or if I stop doing as many “good things” like eating veggies and working out, while he’s out of town. He never lashes out with his anger, he just doesn’t talk much when he’s mad. He says that he still loves me even if I don’t do these things (but it doesn’t feel that way to me).
We’ve never reached a good resolution about this, and it keeps coming up. I’ve asked him to stop trying to get me to change, that you can’t change other people, but he refuses to accept that, to the point that he says it’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. We both are very logic- and reason-focused people, but he’s come to the conclusion that, “if she just does these things, I won’t have to deal with her being depressed.”
It makes me feel like nothing I do will ever be good enough, that he will always focus on what I’m not doing instead of what I am trying to do. He says I need to do more, try harder, and not let myself be comfortable. Everything I do in therapy has been trying to build confidence, motivation, and self-respect from within and stop relying exclusively on it externally, and then I go home and grapple with someone telling me that I need to do these things to be better.
Is there a chance he will realize that the moods are part of the package, and something I’m trying to work on gradually, not all at once? How can I respond when he gets mad at me for not being good enough?
Terrible at Advice Column Nicknames
What does your therapist say about the way your boyfriend tries to continually act as your self-appointed monitor/life coach? Does your therapist think that this is normal and helpful behavior? If you haven’t dug into relationship issues all that much in therapy, here is a script for bringing that up with your counseling pro: “I feel like we do a lot of work in my sessions on building confidence and motivation, but when I get home my boyfriend harps on me to do better and be better, for example (give examples). When he talks to me like that, it starts to cancel out all my confidence. Also, it annoys the crap out of me. Can you help me strategize ways to respond?” This is an ongoing issue, and you have an ongoing resource at your disposal to work on it.
My next question is maybe an obvious one, but what would happen if you didn’t have a self-appointed expert on you and what you should be doing jump down your throat about all of your life choices or give you the silent treatment in your life at all? Depression is a mix of the chemical/biological and the situational, while you’re working to treat the illness and silence the mean scripts from your Jerkbrain, you might find great improvements in your life if you freed yourself from a constant external source of criticism. It sounds like you live together, and that breaking up isn’t a logistically or financially simple matter as well as being emotionally scary and taxing. I’m also sure you have some great things in common and that you have fun together sometimes and that the relationship works some of the time, or you wouldn’t have stayed this long. But everything you say about this dude tells me that he’s more in love with Potential You than he is with Actual, Right Here You. Excessively monitoring and correcting a partner (with the silent treatment, no less!) is toxic and controlling, and this:
“I’ve asked him to stop trying to get me to change, that you can’t change other people, but he refuses to accept that, to the point that he says it’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard.”
“It makes me feel like nothing I do will ever be good enough, that he will always focus on what I’m not doing instead of what I am trying to do. He says I need to do more, try harder, and not let myself be comfortable.“
–are more Red Flags. You are healing, why shouldn’t your home and your relationship be a place you can feel comfortable? Why can’t you choose your own challenges and adventures? You can’t change other people, and any coaching or motivating has to be accomplished with the full participation and consent of the coached. Coaches and therapists and teachers also operate with professional distance and ethics that don’t mix with romance. Even if he were good at this coaching thing (spoiler: he’s not), he shouldn’t be your coach. Maybe the simplest (and best, to be completely honest with you about how I’m feeling about this dude) answer is: You don’t make each other happy anymore, and you’d both be happier if you ended it and found someone more compatible. You’ll be happier and lighter without the constant criticism and monitoring, and he’ll be happier with someone who has the qualities he wants in his new, improved partner (or he’ll find a willing victim for Coach Body Police: Infinity Annoying Steps To the New You!)
While you sort out how you feel about continuing in the relationship, my suggested script for when your boyfriend starts telling you what to do or expressing his disappointment in you is “I don’t like it when you act like my Life Coach, please stop telling me what I should eat/do/how I should exercise,” and/or “From now on, I don’t want you to tell me how to change or ‘improve’ myself, at all.” Be blunt and say the things that are on the tip of your tongue: No. Stop. Don’t.
The first few times you resist his “help”, I think he is going to release the Logick Kraken, who will logically and patiently recount all of the ways that you could be better if you only tried harder. The Logick Kraken might make a lot of sense to you, at first. It sings a familiar refrain, and it so neatly echoes what your Jerkbrain sounds like or sounded like before you started getting treatment for your depression. I think your depression might be getting better, and I think one of the indicators is that you are not automatically agreeing with your boyfriend’s list of “shoulds” for your life. He says, “You should exercise.” A year ago, that would have maybe resulted in you shuffling your feet and cycling through guilt about how yes, you should probably exercise but you just can’t. But now, today, you have already exercised. You already did the self-caring thing that you needed to do for yourself, and your instinct isn’t to agree with your boyfriend about what you should do, it’s to stand up for yourself about what’s true. He is not the boss of you, and something in you has woken up to that. That looks like progress to me.
A complicating factor is that there was probably a time when it was comforting to you for your boyfriend to be in that caretaker role and to have him believe so strongly in your power to change, back there during the worst of it. I’ve been on both sides of the “Have you eaten a food today? Do you think you might try that?“-level of caretaking from and for a partner, and it sucks to be in either role when you don’t know if or when things will get better. For a relationship to survive a crisis like that, you have to like the person (not just love them) and respect the person (not just love them). When things are at their worst, do you still make each other laugh, do you still turn to each other and see each other as someone with much to offer, do you still treat each other with affection and find pleasure in each other’s company? Do you believe and trust that the struggling person is doing the best they can within their limitations, and treat them as the expert on their own life? Do you still respect each other’s autonomy and understand that help is there to be offered and accepted but can’t be forced? When things improve, can the caretaker let go and not calcify your roles into The Helper and The One Who Needs Help? Someone struggling is not an automatic invitation to step in and run their lives for them.
Changing roles is hard even for people with the best hearts and intentions and experiencing some friction around that isn’t really a surprise, so if you have trust and like and respect, you *might* look past and/or forgive the Logick Kraken the first time or two it comes out to play. Set the boundary with your boyfriend, let him say whatever he’s going to say, and try not to internalize any of it. If what he says pisses you off, take it as a good sign that your self-respect and self-preservation instincts are waking up and working. Then, repeat what you want him to do and make the boundary plain:
“I hear you, but I want to be clear: I don’t want you to do that anymore.”
“Please stop correcting me and advising me.”
“I appreciate all the help and support you’ve given me, but I actually need to navigate this on my own.”
“I don’t like it when you tell me what to do.”
“The Silent Treatment is really not cool.”
“You’re not the boss of how I eat or exercise, and I think it’s going to be healthier going forward if you stop monitoring that stuff and if I stop reporting it to you as if you are my nutritionist or trainer.”*
“I don’t need you to change me or to be right about this, I just need you to love me and trust me to do the right thing for myself.”
“I realize I was in bad shape for a while, but as I try to get better, I’d like it if you would stop monitoring all these things about me and just found a way to enjoy my company.”
“You may be right about that, but I’d still like to handle this on my own without your input.”
“I know you want to help, but I would like to set a boundary around advice-giving. Please don’t give me advice unless I ask you directly.”
And hey, when you want to use him as a sounding board for something, maybe this reminder will help:
“Asking advice or needing help with one thing isn’t an invitation for advice about everything. Let’s stay on topic.”
These are pretty direct statements. A person who fundamentally likes and respects you is going to hear them and back way off. That person is going to be psyched by evidence that you are capable and willing to chart your own course, and think, “Hey, my partner must be feeling better, since they have their shit under control. This is awesome!” They are going to find your assertiveness attractive and pleasing and be relieved that maybe they can stop worrying about you. They may backslide occasionally, especially when you have moments when you struggle, but when you say “Hey, I got this,” they are going to immediately apologize and back off.
A person who is invested in their role as the Helper and in your role as Lumpy Clay Who Must Be Sculpted is going to try to convince you that setting boundaries here is not in your best interest. You’re going to hear things like “that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” You’re going to hear back all the times you’ve expressed vulnerability or dissatisfaction with your life as “proof” that you can’t possibly make decisions about anything. That person is more invested in control and in being right than in respecting you.
You know your boyfriend and your own situation better than we do, so I trust you to figure out who and what you are dealing with and take steps to care for yourself.
I think there are some other strategies you can follow that will improve things for you. First, I starred (*) the script about diet and exercise above, because I think you should just stop reporting any of this to him and should in fact treat it as highly weird that he wants to know. This probably represents a big change in your ongoing habit of communication, so take it easy on yourself as you attempt it (but attempt it).
“Did you exercise today?”“Yep, it was great!” “What did you do?”“Why are you asking me? I thought we were going to back off on this thing where you are my trainer.”
“What did you eat when I was out of town?” “Don’t really have a list, but it was delicious. Did you eat at any cool restaurants on your trip?” “Hey, I just want to make sure you are eating your vegetables.” “I’m actually the boss of that, and I don’t want to run my food intake by you anymore, thanks.” “That means ‘no vegetables,’ I guess. I’m so disappointed in you.” “That means I don’t want to run my food intake by you any more.”
To be absolutely clear, you should not have to justify any of this, and you are not the one making it weird by setting boundaries here. However, if it helps you have the conversation, invoke your therapist. “My therapist suggested that I start taking more autonomy over my choices around this, and to stop looking to you for input about every little thing. I appreciate that you care about me, but I’m good, so let’s change the topic.”
Second, I think that anything you can do to reach out to people who are Not Your Boyfriend is going to help. If you haven’t seen your friends in a while, call them/message them and schedule a hangout. If you were kind of hiding from them because you were depressed and have shame about how long it’s been, let it go. “Friend, I miss you and I’d love to see your face. Want to have breakfast next Saturday/Catch up by Skype or phone soon?” Since it sounds like your family might not be supportive, avoid them for now, and avoid all people who tend to make you feel small or sap your energy or who have the same bossy/halping tendencies as your boyfriend. You need people who are delighted by you and people who see you as competent and great.
If your social group feels patch and thin, take steps to meet new people. Hell, take steps to meet some new people anyway. Try Meetup.com, a class, finding an exercise buddy who is at your level and who likes to do the same stuff you like, volunteering. Try to find something low key that has a predictable, repeatable structure so you see some of the same people every time and can form connections naturally over time. There are people out there who will see you for how bright and funny and reasonable and cool you are.
Third, I think some disaster preparedness is good self-care for you. If you broke up and had to move out of your shared place, where would you go? Can you sock some money away for a rainy day? Can you talk with your therapist about what options are there for you and work with them to make a plan? Wanting to stay in your relationship is one thing, needing to stay in a relationship that actively undermines your sense of self because of housing or economics or fear of the unknown is another. Even if you end up staying, you’ll be on much better footing if you know you’re not bound there by circumstance.
All the love and respect in the world, dear “Terrible.” I think you are going to be just fine and that you know what is best for you.