There were a few ongoing themes in the bad relationship I was in last year, things I never thought I would normally get caught out by beforehand. I discovered the hard way just how much I missed warning signs when I didn’t want to hear them, and it took me a surprising amount of time to catch up and realise what was going on.
One of those problems was the idea that I was not a complete person, and that this person I was dating was seeking an ‘other half’. I thought I had nipped that idea in the bud by being very clear early on in the relationship that I was looking for a fellow independent person, and expressing the concept that I don’t actually need anyone to complete me because I am complete as I am. I still do and have always felt very strongly about this, and at the time felt very proud of myself for expressing this concept.
But communicating that concept and being heard are two very different things, and because I wanted to hear that my ex had understood this concept and was okay with it (since a lack of that would be an automatic deal-breaker and I didn’t actually want to leave the relationship at that point), I listened to his words when he said that he understood and agreed with supporting that goal, and I ignored all the warning signs that said that he didn’t.
It feels incredibly important to acknowledge that mistake there, because I always thought I was smarter than to believe something just because I wanted to believe it. My spiritual journey from Christian to Agnostic is marked by that value. But this relationship taught me that avoiding that pitfall is not about being smart. It’s about being vigilant, and never thinking of yourself as being above a mistake.
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Over time – very gradually from my point of view but faster from the perspectives of people watching this from the outside –the picture of what I wanted from the relationship was eclipsed by a reality that exhausted me. By the time I ended the relationship, I’d lost my independence to a strict full-time-hours requirement to be by his side in order to stop him from being miserable. I struggled to maintain the scraps of my previously busy and active life under the pressures of the relationship while he attempted to make me his entire life. He hung around me every second that I didn’t have the heart to actively throw him out of the house, and sought to wait on me hand-and-foot, constantly describing his presence and his actions as seeking to “fill in my gaps”.
The very idea that I had gaps to fill was just so dissonant to me that I didn’t really recognise it for what it was for ages. It was a deliberately vague idea, covering everything from the keys or other essentials I forgot when I left the house that he could remind me about, to the spaces around me at friend’s parties that he assumed he’d be welcome at, to details in memories that I didn’t recall, where I had to accept his perception of events as truth even if his recollection was skewed by his own bias; these gaps fluctuated to represent anything and everything that my ex wanted to do in my life without having to ask for my permission, they were the perceived spaces in my head and life that he thought contained enough room for an entire person to move in and redecorate. He did so with enthusiastic adoration, and when I still liked him I thought he was doing me a lot of kindnesses, when in reality, he was cutting me off from some very essential parts of myself.
Given how clear I thought I’d been about my desires, how much I tried to be easy to understand, I really struggled to comprehend that just wasn’t enough, that I still might not be heard despite myself; however unintentionally, it felt like he had superimposed this imaginary idea of the woman he wanted me to be over the top of me. I even accused him of doing this, and he denied it every time, all the while pouring his energy into doing things for me that made me deeply unhappy.
This included things like cooking food for me constantly, something I felt I had to be grateful for, even though it felt like the diet was clashing with my body’s needs and I felt constantly fatigued and plagued with minor bowel problems, and it made me feel helpless, like I couldn’t do anything for myself. I frequently asked for him to stop cooking and filling my fridge and pantry with food I didn’t want to eat or let go to waste, and sometimes the conversations felt like they were getting somewhere and like he understood – right up until a week later when he went straight back to doing exactly what it was that he wanted to do. The same thing happened with the flood of gifts he kept giving me. They were mostly clothes he wanted to see me wear, and they weren’t always bad clothes, but I didn’t feel comfortable with it. Partly because some of it felt like he was objectifying me in a way that I hadn’t volunteered for, partly because clothes are an expression of identity to me and so it felt like he was trying to control mine and turn me into someone that I wasn’t. I tried explaining why it made me feel uncomfortable and that I wasn’t dating him for material things, that it wasn’t what I wanted, but he always tried to argue or rationalise me out of my discomfort so that he could keep gifting things to me.
It feels like a spoiled thing to complain about, and I understand why those requests didn’t necessarily make sense to him. How could all these necessary domestic chores that he did, that society heaped praise on him for, ever be bad or make someone unhappy? Why would he hold back from helping with tasks that I frequently struggled with due to depression, or hold back from showering me with gifts? He loved me, and wanted to bring me joy and ease my struggles, and perhaps for someone else, it would have.
But that didn’t work so well when a lot of my sense of self-worth arose from my agency, from the accomplishment of tasks that make me feel like I am a normal and capable person capable of achieving things. When you can’t achieve the greater tasks in life that are holding you back, and suddenly someone won’t even let you achieve the small things, that can affect you in deeply negative ways. It didn’t matter that sometimes I failed at the things I tried to do. It only mattered to me that I got to try. But it was as though he saw my failures as an excuse to never let me try in the first place. I felt disempowered, frequently denied the basic right to choose things in my day-to-day life. I felt smothered.
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I think he perceived being with me as an intensely positive experience. For myself, I remember him being miserable all the time. When I acted true to myself – taking the alone time I needed, maintaining relationships separate to him, refusing to let him do things for me – he was upset, often on a weekly basis, and whenever he was upset, we fought. Compromising my actions and desires made him happy, but made me miserable. When I tried to talk maturely to him about what I felt were unfair expectations or uneven exchanges, his misery dominated the conversation and overshadowed mine. Simultaneously though it did not exist and would not be acknowledged, because he was just so happy with me that there was no way I could be making him that miserable, and if I was, he “trusted” me to just “stop” doing whatever it was that hurt him. This meant mostly that my concerns felt unaddressed, I felt like I was being unfair whenever I opened up the conversation, and every time he seemed sad I would try to amend my behaviour to avoid that even if it meant making me miserable because that was the only avenue of conflict resolution I felt like I had. It felt like I was working a full-time job just keeping him happy, and it impacted the entire rest of my life, but trying to acknowledge all the problems in this situation and all the misery inherent in the relationship would cause him to panic and shut down the conversation out of fear that the only resolution for those clashes was to break up.
I took on that fear of his as my own for a while. It’s inevitable when you care about someone that you would do that, but in this case it definitely ran contrary to the idea that we were strengthening each other and “filling in each other’s gaps”. I never helped him overcome the fear of breakups, whether by showing loyalty or by trying to talk him through it and help him realise that it wouldn’t be the end of the world, and the latter option just made me feel like I was trying to counsel someone who never wanted to be counselled, and that was unfair on both of us. It didn’t strengthen us. It weakened me. For myself, I am not afraid of breaking up with anyone. I would rather be alone than be with anyone and be miserable about it, but I forgot this inner truth and sabotaged my own mental health and my life trying to protect someone from their own fears.
Having to be reminded of this the hard way has made me feel more distant from others. I am reluctant to take on other people’s anxieties and misery. I have been missing points in conversations with loved ones in which I could be supportive, because I was busy trying to avoid this. I failed to live up to myself, failed to keep my boundaries and my independence and my happiness safe, and I know that I am now afraid of making the same mistakes all over again. I am afraid of connecting to people who might ask me to compromise on myself and make me deeply unhappy in the process. I am afraid of being seen as incomplete by people looking to take advantage of the ‘gaps’ of mine they think that they can fill, and this may make it hard to be vulnerable and weak in front of others and allow them to have influence over my life. I am afraid of all of these fears causing me to shut down from current and future relationships and become unlikable.
But I didn’t come out of this whole experience only weaker and more fearful for it. In trying to make a broken relationship work I practised hard at communication and at admitting that I might be wrong without internalising that to undermine my self-worth; I have become better at separating myself and my needs from the needs of others. In my personal life, I can know my own heart and desires and advocate for them better than anyone else on the planet, so long as I work hard to give myself the authority and the tools to do so – and forgive myself and lean on others for support when I can’t.
Easier said than done, but vigilance, determination and resilience will help me in this, far better than just being ‘smart’ will. Thinking I was too smart to need to learn these lessons the hard way paved the way to me making mistakes. Perhaps it goes without saying for many people, but having grown up as the academically-oriented “golden child” of my family, I’d definitely internalised the idea that my value came from smartness and getting things right the first time around, and that’s taken me years to deconstruct. I applied those values to others, too, complaining of the mistakes they made that I thought I was above. This hubris didn’t make me better in any way. It just made me rude and vulnerable.
It is possible that I am wrong about some of this, putting the puzzle pieces into the wrong conclusions, I have my own bias and I will likely be unfair in my assessment of the failings of that relationship in order to fit the narrative that will make me happiest moving on. There is some discomfort in that idea. I don’t want to destabilise what fragile self-belief and trust that I have by admitting to that. But being capable of confronting my own discomfort will help me overcome it. I am capable of seeing my own weaknesses, and I will be able to strengthen myself and become more whole in the process. People can assist this journey and give me tools to empower me but no one can do it for me, especially not without my permission. Anyone who tries to place themselves in my life like that against my wishes in the future won’t find me grateful. They’ll find me ready to fight.