If this blog were a child it would be a five-year-old today, and I would buy it Star Wars action figures and a bake it a chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting in my mom’s old Mickey Mouse-shaped pans. Happy New Year/Blogaversary, Awkward People! Here is a poem that I think is about forgiving yourself:
Attende Domine (Thomas Lynch)
To lie in the tub on New Year’s morning
awash in bath oil and resolution
observing the Feast of the Circumcision
is to seek the water’s absolution,
according to the law that juxtaposes
Cleanliness and Godliness. I suppose
it is time to examine my conscience,
to make a clean breast of it and amends
to such as those I might have offended.
Attende Domine et miserere! Lord
I’ve sinned with my eye and did not pluck it out,
and with my hand and yet my hand remains
blessing myself against your righteousness.
I’ve sinned with my mouth and loved the sound it made.
I took an honest-to-goodness vacation (I saw family and friends and met a camel and read Goblin Emperor, finally) instead of writing intense 2015 recaps or 2016 pronouncements, so, let’s just dive back in to what we do here.
Today’s question is about when a past toxic relationship bleeds into the present. How do you know what’s reasonable to ask for? And how do you correct someone or set a boundary with a new partner without constantly calling back to the old one?
My partner, Darryl, is a great guy. Cute, smart, loving, works out a bunch, generally pretty considerate. We’ve been dating for two years now, and we’ve got an apartment. The problem is that the person I was dating before Darryl, Kris, is not so great. I dated him for three and a half years, and he was pretty firmly in the “well at least I didn’t HIT you” category of Darth Ex. Kris did things like use my ED to try and push me mentally off balance (buy me food, say I had to eat it since he bought it for me and my eating patterns are off, then used that as proof that I wasn’t mentally strong enough to make it on my own, sort of thing) and hypercriticize every little thing I did (you shot the guy that was close to you in the video game first, what is even wrong with you?) I thought I had recovered pretty well mentally, and that’s generally what I’ve been telling Darryl. Darryl’s never met Kris, but he’s heard stories about him from friends and family, and I gave him a vague idea of what had been going on, so he kind of knows the extent of it but not the specifics.
I’ve been getting a bit less stable recently, however, and I’ve been sort of regressing. Darryl has responded to that with moving in and being more caring. However, a lot of his behaviors have been similar to Kris’s lead-ins to gross situations. “LW, you haven’t eaten today, I’m making dinner” automatically gets my guard up. (Especially since Darryl’s diet is a lot more heavy and calorie-rich than I usually like, and he generally picks what we eat, so I end up with this giant plate of meat.) Sometimes I’m gaming on my own to blow off steam and he sort of leans over and makes a comment about how I’d be a lot better if I was strafing more. That sort of thing- stuff that on its own is entirely innocuous and caring and loving, but my jerkbrain makes the connection and sets me off.
I need scripts or something. I’ve tried to think of ways to present it in a way that’s not comparing him to Kris, but I’m kind of worried because he pretty much thinks of Kris as the scum of the earth. How do I say “stop doing this normal loving couple stuff because I have Brain Problems?”
-No Really, It’s Not You, It’s Me
Good or bad or in-between, relationships teach you what you do and don’t want your relationships to be like. Dysfunctional relationships teach you those things even harder. You survive and are left with a tangle of lessons & preferences & NOPE reactions, such as:
- Things your awful ex did that felt really good & How will you learn to enjoy that stuff again and make new associations? (A lot of people write to me about this category of things, especially regarding sexy stuff, like how can what the evil ex did feel so good? How can we reclaim the good feelings while shedding the bad associations? How can we trust the goodness in a new relationship when we also trusted the good parts of the bad one?)
- Things your awful ex did that felt really bad, like controlling behaviors & How can you make sure those things don’t happen again? It sounds like you’ve done part of the work by selecting a much kinder & better dude, but it’s left you with a category called: Things that would be annoying or Not For You no matter who did them.
When you are in the process of untangling all of the old relationship baggage, it’s hard sometimes to know what is reasonable to ask for and to give yourself permission to ask for things or set boundaries. You also sense (correctly) that delivering course corrections with the added context of the ickiness of your old relationship is not quite the right thing to do and it won’t land the way you want it to. I see this pattern of rooting the dynamics of current conflicts too deeply in backstory a lot – I see it in myself & my own history, I see it in Letter Writers here who include details about childhood or past relationship dynamics to explain the current, adult ones, I see it in friends, and it is SO COMMON and SO HUMAN and SO NATURAL and yet it doesn’t quite work as a way to resolve current conversations and I have a hypothesis as to why.
As we said, your relationship history informs your preferences of what you will and won’t put up with. For another example, there is a (bad) cultural narrative that victims of certain kinds of abuse are less able to be objective when they spot red flags in other situations, when in fact their experience makes them more likely to spot manipulation and coercive behaviors. Right now, practically, I think your history and how it applies to your current situation is more about about internal processing/reasoning than it is about helping you convince people about what you want them to do.
When you told Darryl about all the icky stuff Kris did, you were mentally comparing Darryl to Kris, like, I am going to tell you these stories so that you know never to behave like that toward me. This (again, very common, very natural) telling of cautionary tales only works to a point, because Darryl didn’t and doesn’t see himself as someone with the potential to behave like Kris. When he heard those stories, he put himself in your shoes, not the shoes of the villain of the tales. In some cases the “My ex/mean parent/bad friend did this thing that hurt me/bugged me…” isn’t enough on its own and It needs the sentence finished with “…so please don’t do that thing. I have a very strong NOPE reaction to it.”
Once you figure that out, it will (hopefully) do two things:
- Remind you that you have a right to not want or not like certain stuff, no matter who is doing it. For example, it sounds to me like you don’t like to hear advice when you are playing video games, ever, from anyone, and that is 100% normal and cool. I like people to teach me new skills and 100% hate having someone “optimize” me when I am trying to figure something out for myself. Call it a visceral reaction to how I was raised, call it a personal quirk, call it what you like, but “Hey, you could be doing that slightly better!” when I’m in the middle of a task is immediately going to put my shoulders around my ears AND make me perform WORSE at whatever it is no matter who says it and what the task is. It’s an instant confidence-underminer, no matter how it was intended!
Accepting this might mean taking Darryl off his pedestal, relative to Kris, and I think that’s a very good thing. Darryl sounds like a good person who loves you, but he’s still gonna do things that annoy you sometimes. He’s not perfect, and that’s okay. He doesn’t just have to hit “Better than Kris” as a metric for being your partner, he needs to be right for you and the relationship needs to be working for you, present tense. You will annoy him sometimes, too, and figuring out that people can annoy each other without it being a huge fight/crisis/possible relationship-ender is huge progress after a toxic relationship. Plus, small, solvable problems are good problems!
2. Allow you to state needs and have constructive conflict that is rooted more in the present than in the past. You could say “Darryl, the thing you are doing with (advising me about video games, making a big show of cooking me a hearty meal) is reminding me of Kris and is bringing up all sorts of icky associations for me. Please don’t do that anymore.” It would be true, and it would not be wrong of you to say it. But I’d like to suggest slightly different scripts that carries less of Kris’s baggage:
- “Darryl, please don’t talk over my shoulder when I play video games. Thanks.“
- “Stop advising me when I play, it’s annoying.”
- “I don’t really like meat – can you make a hearty veggie side if you’re cooking for both of us?“
That’s all you have to say. And the good news is that saying this stuff and acting as if your needs are perfectly reasonable is one way that that you test for jerks. A cool dude will stop doing the thing. Maybe he’ll need an occasional reminder, but he’ll mostly stop. A not-cool dude will explain to you why he just meant to be helpful and jeez, you’re sensitive and then keep doing it even more.
This kind of communication and conflict resolution is one of the things that journaling and/or good therapy can help you do better, by a) giving you a reality check & reminder that your needs are reasonable b) giving you a private space to process all the “stuff” around an issue at length so that you can be clearer and more direct when you express yourself to others and c) help you practice scripts and communication and develop more control in how you express and filter communications. We’re all informed by our pasts and carry them with us, some more visibly than others, but as adults, it is exhausting for everyone if every conflict must take a conversational detour through childhood or psychology or relationship history and extensive justifications therein before it can be expressed. To use a not-related-to-this-specific-Letter example, which is better?
Request A: “Coworker (Who Started Working Here Last Week), can you wear headphones if you are going to listen to talk radio at work? Thank you!”
Request B: “Coworker (Who Started Working Here Last Week), I’ve noticed that you love to listen to talk radio, but it’s something my abusive family member really loved to do and this particular station is triggering awful memories of him. Ever since I was a child this station made me feel sick to my stomach because it meant that something terrible was going to happen to me later. I hate to have to ask you to do this, but it would mean so much to me if you would wear headphones.”
In my opinion, Request B can be true and there is no shame in it, but Request A is the information that the Coworker needs to know and the level of info that is appropriate at work. Being able to switch between B and A when appropriate and being able to state your need without over-justifying it or apologizing for it can make you feel more in control, which I think is an important step in healing from a rocky past. Your history of abuse doesn’t leave you, but over time maybe it doesn’t have to dominate your inner landscape or your interactions with others. To bring it back to you, Letter Writer, as you find a way to speak to Darryl about your needs that is not about Kris, you’ll get further and further away from Kris and more about expressing who YOU are and what YOU want, and that can’t help but be a good thing.
I’ve left the eating/making dinner stuff until last. I’m not qualified to dig into disordered eating or ED-recovery stuff, so I’m not gonna go too far with this, but:
- It is making you feel ooky to have a partner take on a role of “let’s get calories into you!” and that’s totally understandable.
- It sounds like Darryl does most of the food shopping and cooking right now, so without stated preferences from you, his preferences about what to eat/how to cook are gonna take precedence. That’s not necessarily an abusive/dysfunctional dynamic, and the whole question of “what do we eat when we live together & how does that all work” is a question everyone has to deal with when they set up house together. Think about how you could talk about that in a positive, constructive, “Let’s make a plan for how this can work better, babe, by including foods I like at every meal!” way vs. a “I know you just cooked for me but I don’t want to eat THAT” way.
- It sounds like you could so some work around a) telling Darryl what you like eating b) making a plan to have stuff you want to eat/can eat in the house c) putting some of that in “requires zero effort/handy snack form.” That way, in the moment, you can say “Thanks, just worry about yourself, I’m gonna eat a (effortless thing I like) for dinner” instead of “YOU ARE BEING JUST LIKE KRIS.” You are allowed to not like meat or not want heavy meals at the end of the day!
- Does that sound hard/impossible right now? Since you say you’re “regressing” around food, and “You haven’t eaten all day? Let me feed you” is a thing that is happening in your house, it sounds like a check-in with whatever eating disorder recovery pros or team or online space or support group you have available is in order in the New Year. I hope that’s a feasible thing for you to access.
I hope some of this helps. Here’s me, wishing you every good thing.