[I’m writing from a straight lady’s perspective, but most of the things that make a relationship suck can come from men or women.]
Hubby and I had a little rough patch recently. We’re both stressed and tired and started nipping at each other. But we never stopped talking, and we managed to tough it out. After about a week we found our way back to baseline, a little stronger for the struggle.
This is still a new experience for me. At the beginning of our relationship I had to fight back terror that every little imperfection was the beginning of the end! It’s funny how moving on makes you think back on things, and I got to comparing what works with this relationship that didn’t in past ones.
More than just enjoying my partner’s company, I have discovered there are lots of other uses for the time and mental space I was wasting trying to connect with someone who just wasn’t returning the favor. Daily life is easier because I’m not constantly fighting to keep my mood up.
So to help you focus and reach your goals, I put together a list to help gauge if your partner is just annoying or maybe you could put your energy somewhere more productive.
1) Lack of Respect For goodness’ sake, be with someone who has some respect for you! (If you choose to be with anyone. If you’re rocking the single life, more power to you!) The occasional bad joke or misunderstanding is the human condition, but a regular pattern of disregarding things you do and say is a big flashing sign that he doesn’t take you seriously.
I have met some women who are committed to someone who is wrong for them because they don’t believe anything better is possible. Maybe their significant other isn’t even a bad person, things just aren’t working but they are settling for good enough. Or they’re settling for someone they know, even if they don’t like them very much.
“Don’t settle” sounds like romantic garbage, but hear me out. You don’t need to be getting beaten to be justified in leaving.
2) He’s overly critical but, somehow, you always end up feeling bad for him. Generalized criticism is no fun. It’s difficult sometimes to see that, no, he’s not just stressed from work. He’s not just depressed. It’s been a long time since he made time to spend together, and maybe when you do manage to drag him somewhere fun he just ruins it with his bad attitude. Maybe you need to stop eating the bullshit he’s shoveling and really look at how he is.
People are great at painting ourselves as the victim, and bad boyfriends often have a tragic backstory that keeps you feeling sorry for him when you should be looking out for yourself. And we are good at considering other people’s feelings. He’s only shitty to me because his mom never wanted him. He’s just worried about making enough money and that’s why he criticizes my shopping habits. He’ll feel better later and come with us next time.
We rationalize because it’s easier than admitting that maybe we’re throwing good money after bad. Maybe he’s shitty to you because he’s not considering your feelings. Because his tragic backstory entitles him to put himself first, he went without for so long, you know. So don’t try to assert your needs or remind him that he’s supposed to care about you, that’s a guilt trip he doesn’t need right now.
3) When is your turn? The time never seems to come. There’s always something to stress about and somehow it always reminds him of his mom or his ex or that one Bad Thing that happened that one time. It’s never your turn. I will never forget the day I had to accept that, even if we stayed together (because I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, I am stubborn!) my ex and I were never going to have the relationship that I wished for.
We were walking around the neighborhood, enjoying a nice Spring day and discussing how things were going in our respective endeavors. I was telling him how I was struggling with dealing with my mom on a regular basis, that I was proud of the progress she and I had made but sometimes old patterns still dominated. I was feeling discouraged. His family drove him crazy too and there was no reason for him not to have a pretty good idea how I was feeling. But he sighed and said, “See, this is my problem – We can’t both have issues!”
Say what?? What exactly do you think this is? I do not exist to be your live-in therapist! I’m pretty sure that, yes, we can both have issues and most people do. It’s normal to want to lean on him sometimes. I had felt this inequality in our relationship before but this was the first time he had stated it so succinctly. Apparently it was never going to be my turn.
4) Does he reach for the launch codes? Mutually assured destruction is not a relationship goal. My ex never hit me. He never even threatened me or used his considerable size against me. It was all psychological. He would pick a fight, say some stuff to get me riled up and then walk away because he couldn’t talk to me when I was “like that.”
This went over my head for years, I couldn’t figure out why we always ended up arguing when I had only approached him to say hello, ask him how his day was. Once I figured it out and watched it happen, it was probably the beginning of the end for me.
He held the relationship hostage, jumping straight to the nuclear option as soon as disagreements arose – “Fine, gimme the keys and go stay with your mother!” Over and over I refused to leave when he said I should, I wasn’t going to throw away 5, 6, 7 years over some stupid argument.
When I finally did leave, the relief was unexpectedly intense. Every time I had gotten fed up he would sense it and back off, suddenly want to be friends again. We had yo-yo’ed several times and I had to keep reminding myself that this time he was really gone for good. I knew it hadn’t been great but I surprised myself when I jumped in fear at the familiar-looking stranger in the grocery store.
Like the proverbial frog in the pan, I hadn’t realized just how hot it had become in my little pool. He said and did things that made me feel disgusting and incompetent. And I guess on some level I believe I am or I wouldn’t have let it go on so long. I still fight with feelings of inferiority that, to be fair, he didn’t give me but reinforced for way too long. You can’t heal your childhood trauma if you’re reliving it every day.
I’d also pretty much convinced myself that the kind of relationship I wished for, the kind where my partner and I would be friends above all else, was a figment of my imagination. A product of my Disney complex. That man doesn’t exist, so I might as well make the best of this.
And when I met back up with my now-husband I put him through the wringer. He did the same, his ex makes mine look like Mr. Rogers. We both understood that the other had some well-earned trust issues. You don’t start a relationship in your 30s without plenty of baggage to unpack. We started with the understanding that, yes, we both have it.
He appreciates the things I do! My affection has an effect! My words are (usually, nobody’s perfect) listened to! My feelings matter!
It’s just damn weird.
Past the three year mark and the honeymoon period is long over. Sometimes we still lament spending all those years with people who treated us so badly. We compared notes and it turns out that, after losing touch in high school, we narrowly missed each other several times. But we always end up just happy to have each other now. Better late than never!
I tell my little story to illustrate that settling is a bad idea. Every day spent with the wrong person is a day you could be spending with the right one. Or just working on yourself. These experiences taught me what some forms of psychological abuse look like in the flesh, I did a lot of reading and slowly figured out what was going on. I felt trapped because I had a child (not his child, that would be too simple. I’ll tell that story sometime. It’s a fun one!)
I couldn’t accept the idea of working long hours to pay for daycare and hardly seeing my son. I figured that at least I got to stay home and be a decent parent. Because my ex was making pretty good money. He’s the kind of guy who likes to tinker and innovate and will probably be on the cover of Wired someday. We may not have been happy but we would have been comfortable.
My son was getting a good education and got to participate in enrichment activities like swimming lessons and t-ball. Which went a long way to make up for the guy he knew as Dad not coming with us to anything and treating me like a nuisance. I didn’t know how unhappy I was until I experienced something better.
Sometimes I wish I’d had the guts to be on my own. I enjoy my alone time but it’s easy to get too much. I get anxious and weird. I need someone to interact with whether I like it or not. And some people are brave in ways I am not. Being truly alone is a great fear of mine. One that I suppose I will have to face someday but I’m safe from that for a while yet!
We just can’t let our fear totally rule our lives. If you relate to the story of my woeful ex, reconsider your relationship. You’re never going to grow if you are stuck throwing your energy into a black hole.