i want to thank you so much for your website and lovely community and i hope this message finds you well. i’m having a hard time sorting through some relationship stuff and i’m hoping for some clarity.
i’m dating a very sweet and loving man who is still dealing every day with mental health issues due to early childhood trauma. these include ptsd, anxiety, depression (he is now in therapy for this) and nightmares. in his youth, he worked through his feelings of shame about what transpired in violent ways but that seems to be a thing of the past.
our courtship was fairly quick and we fell deeply in love, spending lots of our time together. in retrospect i should have been firmer about my need for a life and friendships outside of our relationship (especially at my age mid 20’s) but it all happened so fast. to be clear he does have friends/interests of his own but he is of the belief that our relationship is THE MOST important one in his life. he would be happy to rarely if ever spend time with anyone without/or other than me. in his words “i am the only thing that makes him happy” and “he welcomed dying before me but now wants to live as long as possible”. he constantly tells me i’m too good for him and is very insecure in our relationship. my friendships are deep and important to me and my feeling is that a romantic relationship should be something that adds to but is not the source of one’s happiness.
i was single for a long time before we met and had a very full life & was close with my family. they are thankfully still present but i spend much less time with them than i’d like because he doesn’t like last minute changes to our plans (even if those plans were netflix and pizza). i told him recently this needs to change and he agreed to work on it. because i’m the only thing that prevents him from having nightmares the idea of my being away causes him immense anxiety. sometimes i worry that he uses his trauma to manipulate me (his episodes early on often coincided with times i’d made plans with friends). we are also an interracial couple so that adds to a dynamic where anytime i express upset about his behavior or try to set a gentle boundary i am talked over, mansplained and/or the conversation is derailed due to the level of distress he’s displayed.
some of this is my fault as i’m not always good about expressing my feelings honestly and i want to hold space and be there for him. i tried to change parts of myself to make him more comfortable as he is an admittedly jealous person. i’m now doing my own work to come back to the vibrant, carefree woman i was when we met but it’s really difficult sometimes. i don’t know what to do or if the above is enough reason to leave or if i should keep showing up for myself, set clearer boundaries and love him through this.
any advice would be so appreciated,
trying not to be a pacifier
Thanks for the kind words!
I read your letter and I keep thinking of the person who “isn’t allowed” to be away from their job for a single day from a few months ago. They can’t even think about what they want to do next because they are always “on call.” In the short term, can you get yourself a week or even a long weekend or a few nights away from him, just to be with friends and family or hang out by yourself with your own thoughts, without being tethered to your phone to constantly soothe and “check in”?
Whatever good things this guy brings to your life (and I’m sure there must be good things here), when you’re with him:
- You don’t see your friends and family as much as you’d like to.
- You don’t feel like the vibrant, social person with many interests and connections that you were when you met him.
- When you bring him your concerns, he talks over you and centers his needs above your own. Your requests for more space and autonomy are always canceled out by how much he has suffered or is suffering.
- You feel manipulated and controlled by him.
Maybe someday this guy could be a great boyfriend, for you, or for someone. And that’s the temptation and the tragedy of the situation: You can see how very, very, very good it could be. You waited and looked for so long to find someone who would be right for you. You can have compassion for him and hold space for his feelings and believe in him and do what you can to try to get him there.
But, it’s a trap. He’s not doing the same for you. It’s good that he’s going to therapy, but he’s got to get to the realization that the things that he has suffered do not obligate you to abdicate your own needs, and then he’s got to act on that realization. He’s got to listen to you and not talk over you when you express those needs. He’s got to give you the space and breathing room that you need to live the life you want to live. He’s got to figure out how to self-soothe and get through a night without your company (the way he somehow managed to do for all the years before he met you) and without making any nightmares or anxious feelings your fault, or yours to fix somehow.
Because you need to see your friends and family and keep those relationships close and fulfilling.This is a reasonable thing to want and expect from your life.
You need social connections and relationships that are not about him. This is also a completely reasonable thing to want and expect.
You need to sometimes be able to change plans you have together. Totes reasonable!
You need to spend as many nights as you want to by yourself, without worrying about him or being a captive to his jealousy or anxieties. 100% reasonable.
You need your needs to be equal within your romantic relationship. More specifically, you need a partner who puts as much thought and emotional labor and effort into making sure you get what you need as you do into his needs. Completely reasonable.
You need a partner who doesn’t talk over you or mansplain your needs away when they are in conflict with his needs. Absolutely reasonable.
I don’t think you have that guy here, or that he’s going to become that guy for you anytime soon, and I’m so very sorry. He keeps making your reasonable needs into unreasonable things that he wants you to change about yourself to keep him happy. He puts a lot of friction up when you try to spend time away from him or talk to him about it. Even if that friction is borne out of genuine distress on his part, it’s not okay for him to put these constraints on your comings and goings and to make you do all the work of being his reason to live.
You could try some baby steps, like, planning more time with your friends and family, spending more nights separately, and shutting down the mansplaining as soon as it starts – “I’m sorry you are feeling upset, but I need this time with my friends/family/alone. I’m not doing this to hurt you, but it’s also not a negotiation, so, I’m going to hang up/leave now.” And then, importantly, physically remove yourself from the conversation to enforce the boundary, or, even better, tell him the information when you’re already separate from him, in a text: “Forgot to tell you yesterday, I can’t hang tonight – gonna go see a movie with my folks. I’ll call you tomorrow, love you!”
Can you do that safely? Is your first instinct to say, “Oh wait, I can’t do that, he’ll just text me 100 times and I won’t be able to focus on anything.” Or, “Oh wait, I can’t do that, he’ll be so hurt/sad, I’ll have to cut the evening short and go take care of him.” Does the whole prospect of a night alone seem “not worth it” because his reaction will be too much to deal with it’s “easier” to just give in and do what he wants? Those “Oh, I can’t, it’s not worth the trouble” reactions in yourself are giant red flags to watch for, because it means he’s trained you to anticipate his displeasure and “correct” your behavior in advance to avoid outbursts.
If (when?) you do decide to leave him permanently, I think it is worth talking to a trained domestic violence counselor about a safety plan beforehand. You said he is sweet and kind and that is great, just, humor me here and talk to someone who will believe you immediately, who will hold the conversation in confidence, and who will help you figure out the safest and clearest way to break the news and take care of yourself.
I’m so sorry. I know you love him. I wish I had a better forecast for this being a relationship that would make you feel free, happy, trusted, and supported someday.