#1384: “Was I stating a boundary, or was I abusing?”

Dear Captain,  

I’m a 33-year-old cis lesbian recently out of relationship with another cis woman (age 42).

 Despite a lovely start, our relationship was riddled with arguments. Many of these issues probably could have been resolved, but the arguments themselves were toxic. She would say she wanted to hear when I disagreed with her but I learned early that stating my opinion was gas to a fire. I started to try to de-escalate. I would apologize when it was merited (meaning … when there was real identifiable hurt; I would not apologize for not liking or wanting something); I would clarify and explain when she would get facts wrong (this happened often; and we all do this a little but in her case, it was significant enough that I could easily check our text/email history and it would show she was blatantly incorrect and arguing off those inaccuracies). A few of these arguments actually happened over text, and I have been able to look over them. I see now that even after multiple apologies, she would continue to insult me, overgeneralize, attempt to put me in my place, talk down to me, and criticize. This pattern was also reflected in our in-person arguments. 

Towards the end, in these moments, hurt because it seemed more important to her to “win” against me, than work with me, I would say to her: “this isn’t working”. I only said this in moments of genuine and utter late-argument frustration. Her response to my saying this was to tell me I was being abusive and cruel by holding dissolution of our relationship over her head. I’m not going to play the saint here: I did want those words to sting a little. But I never meant them as, nor treated them as, finalities. They were just honest to me: our arguments were not working for us. All they were (for me) was pain. 

The relationship is over now. We haven’t spoken in months and I doubt we ever will. It ended after she picked a fight with me about where we should go to dinner and then continued to escalate, and I walked away. There are about a million things I want to ask you, none of which will fix this broken situation, but the main thing I hope for your insight on is this:  

Was saying what I said abusive? Was there some better way to handle these fights? I can’t fix what went down, but if I can do better in the future, I want to. I don’t want to screw with a partner’s sense of security unless I really mean to leave, and I feel like I massively screwed up in reacting the way I did.  

Thank you,

Pondering Better Strategies While Sitting With Extreme Emotional Pain

Dear Pondering,

I won’t leave you hanging: From what you described here, it does not seem like you were abusing anybody.

When you told your ex  partner “this isn’t working” during an argument, what were you trying to communicate? Stuff like: “I don’t like this,” “I’m uncomfortable right now,” “This way of discussing our problems isn’t working for me.” “I am so uncomfortable and unhappy that ending our relationship is on the table if this continues.”

Does that sound about right?

What, if anything, did you want her to do? Was it something along the lines of “Stop arguing”? “Stop doubling down and escalating arguments?” “Notice how upset I am and change tactics to something gentler?”

Threatening to break up *can* be a tactic of coercive control, and I think that if you have a partner who constantly threatens to break up whenever they don’t get their way it’s not a great sign and you might want to take them up on that sooner rather than later. (Honestly, nobody has to be abusing anybody for this to be true! If there’s so much conflict that one or both of you are always on the verge of ending the relationship, set yourself/everyone free to find someone more compatible.)

When abusive people threaten to break up when they don’t get their way, it’s part of an ongoing pattern of control, where the abusive partner threatens to abandon their target at the same time they try to make it impossible for the target to ever leave the abuser. The rest of the pattern includes everything from verbal abuse (“I see now that even after multiple apologies, she would continue to insult me, overgeneralize, attempt to put me in my place, talk down to me, and criticize”), sexual abuse, reproductive coercion, financial abuse, isolating the target from friends and family, and other ways of making you as off-balance and dependent on the abuser as possible.

Abuser logic sounds like If you don’t do what I want,* I’ll leave you, and what will you do then? Nobody’s ever going to care about someone as [pathetic/frigid/stupid/ugly/insert your own insult here] as you. I’m all you’ve got.” Abusers are forever raising the stakes until the only answer to “Babe, do you want oatmeal for breakfast?” is “If you really loved me, you would already know what I want, I can’t believe you are disrespecting me with these trifling morning grains, no wonder you’re failing at literally everything in your life, I’m outta here! Oh, btw I drained our bank account so don’t even think about going anywhere yourself unless you wanna be homeless.” *Note: What the abuser wants is almost always something that the partner would not otherwise give freely, something that is not in the target’s best interests to comply with, something that the abuser does not feel the target should be allowed to discuss or mull over or set boundaries about. It’s extremely common for abusive and controlling people to act like you having any needs of your own or boundaries whatsoever means that you’re abusing them.

Reacting honestly when you are very upset? Truthfully indicating that a certain style of arguing is a potential deal-breaker for you, a couple of times? You’re the only one who can say for sure, but that doesn’t sound like a pattern of coercion to me, especially when you were dealing with someone who asked you for honesty and then punished you whenever you gave it to her.

For me, splitting hairs between “Threatening to break up is always abuse!” and “Indicating that breaking up is an option in response to unacceptable behavior,” is much like the difference between “Silence is an answer” or “Hey, I need to put this discussion on hold for a minute” and The Silent Treatment.

Ghosting: If you and I met in real life, we hung out a few times, and then you stopped responding to my messages and blocked me on social media, I might be hurt and confused, and appreciate a heads’ up, but the overall message isn’t confusing: If you were interested in talking to me more, you would. You’re not, so you aren’t. The silence is information. It says, “Go away and leave me alone.”

Space: f you and I were close friends, and we got in a heated argument, and one of us said, “Hey, this is getting out of hand, I think I need to take a break, eat a snack, and organize my thoughts a bit better, can I call you this weekend?” or “Ouch! That really hurt my feelings, and I need some space to calm down and think before we talk about this more. Can we regroup in a couple of days/weeks?” that wouldn’t be confusing, either. The intervening silence has both a purpose and a shape. It says, “Go away and leave me alone…for now. We both know why we’re upset, this isn’t forever, and our goal is to come back and work it out.” [You asked for some advice for the future, so here’s where I’ll say that in future arguments with a much more reasonable person, you might try out some “can we stop for now and come back with cooler heads” scripts when you’re feeling overwhelmed, but I also suspect very much that you DID try this a whole bunch and your ex steamrolled right over you because what she wanted had nothing to do with actually fixing things and everything to do with making the most of every opportunity to tear you down. Oh, while I’m thinking of it, retconning facts even in the face of textual evidence as well as starting or escalating big arguments right before bed that last late into the night and keep you from sleeping is a form of controlling behavior, so when you’re ready to date again, watch out for anyone who does that.]

 The Silent Treatment: In situations where a person in a close, ongoing relationship refuses to talk to you until some condition is met? They very much do not want you to go away and leave them alone. They want to “put you in your place” by making you stay close, play guessing games about what you did wrong (“If you don’t know why I’m mad, I’m certainly not going to tell you”), audition ways to appease them, accept that everything is your fault, and basically beg them to talk to you again. The Silent Treatment is all about punishment, power, and control. People who use it don’t want space for themselves to calm down and regroup, and they certainly don’t want you to have that space and grace! No, they want you to feel wrong and bad, become obsessed with them, and be so consumed with the fear and pain of losing their love that in future the mere prospect of them being mildly upset will be enough to make you give them anything they want. Which, if what they wanted was the same as what’s good for you, they wouldn’t need fear, obligation, or guilt to extract it. (Which is why my blanket advice is: When a mean person dramatically refuses to talk to you, stop trying to fix it, stop engaging altogether, and enjoy the silence while it lasts!)

Lovely Letter Writer, you didn’t write to me about The Silent Treatment, but I use it as an example here because it isn’t a one-off reaction in the heat of the moment or clumsier-than-intended attempt at boundary-setting. It’s something that completely doesn’t work unless there is an overall pattern of coercion and control.

Rather than abusing your ex, it seems to me that you got at least mildly DARVO-ed, which stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim And Offender. Your partner verbally attacked, criticized, and belittled you over text and in person, taking every opportunity to escalate conflict, and making arguments last long into the night. The times she succeeded in goading (and exhausting) you into responding, she used your authentic reaction to frame you as the aggressor. This too is abuser logic, the kind that makes the targets second-guess everything they know about themselves, the kind that comes out as “Well, I’m no saint either” and “We both said and did some regrettable things” and “My partner is so wonderful, except for all the times they are incredibly mean to me and look for literally any excuse to pick a fight,” and other equivocations.

In closing, I think you said “This isn’t working for me” from time to time because it was not, in fact, working for you. You tried apologizing, de-escalating, redirecting, fact-checking, and eventually you hit a wall where, if this continues, you were prepared to leave. It continued. So you left. Even if you subtract all question of abuse on either side, “I don’t like how much and how we argue” and “I feel like this dynamic/this relationship isn’t working for me” are valid reactions, valid things to communicate, and extremely good reasons to end a relationship if nothing changes. The part of you that said that stuff out loud from time to time wasn’t your inner abuser, it was your inner protector, your friendly neighborhood Rageasaurus reminding you that you deserve so much better than a relationship where only one partner is ever allowed to be angry.

P.S. Before I leave everyone, I want to mention Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In The Dream House (buy link)(review link)to anyone who is looking for reading on intimate partner violence in same sex relationships. It’s not light reading (she writes horror and constructs the book like a horror novel or dark fairy tale), but it is honest, true, compelling reading. In addition, there aren’t many support resources that don’t frame abusive relationships solely in terms of man-abuses-woman, but if you happen to need one of those, LoveIsRespect.org fits the bill.

P.P.S. I wrote a long update about medical stuff over at Patreon, but the tl;dr is that a) I still feel like hot garbage for multiple #Reasons, my body is even less of a wonderland than usual, and spoons are at an all-time low b) My faulty uterus and its unwelcome passengers are finally getting removed on October 24th, so maybe I will feel less garbage in our lifetime.

I know my creative output here and over at Patreon has not been consistent or spectacular, so I hate to ask, but I’m going to tap the Pledge Drive sign anyway to help my little household defray the incoming deluge of medical bills and give me a chance to actually rest, recover, and (fingers crossed!) finish cranking out this book. If you both can and want to, you can sign up to be a monthly patron or use PayPal, Cash.me, and (new!) Ko-Fi. I’m so grateful to all of you for your kindness and generosity and for sticking with me.