Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Is My Relationship Toxic?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I just watched your video on toxic relationships, and I’m a bit torn. I think I’m in a somewhat special kind of toxic relationship that sort of falls into a bit of a grey area with regard to the scenarios you went through in your video. Let me try to explain what I mean by that: I am in a long-term committed relationship (married 12 years, together 14). From the start, there have been some issues between us. They may appear like a variety of different things, but to my mind they all come down to a fundamental problem with communication.

For as long as I’ve known her, though I’ve only recognized the pattern over time, my wife has been unable to express her desires. This ranges from very small things, like if and when to go see a movie, to obviously giant topics like sex. By default, she’ll be vague and non-committal to the point that I end up having to make almost every decision in our relationship, big or small. And, quite frequently, I find out only quite a ways down the line (sometimes days, sometimes weeks or even months later) that I apparently made the “wrong” decision, made her do something she didn’t really want to do or in a way she didn’t want to do it, and that she’s been upset with me for that ever since. And, in the rare case that she does actually tell me what she wants to do, it’s clearly such a big deal to her (not necessarily the thing itself, but just voicing it) that it’s virtually impossible for me in that situation to tell her if I don’t want to do that thing exactly the way she wants to do it without her then getting upset over that. Conversely, she assumes that she can read my mind, always knows what I “really want” (without talking to me about it or, in some cases, flat-out ignoring some actual thing I said when I expressed a desire of my own), and regularly just tries to quietly adapt to that.

I have told her many, many times that I hate both of those dynamics. That I want or, rather, really need her to find ways of routinely expressing her wishes and desires, and to actually hear me when I express mine. That, without this as a baseline, we both essentially never really get what we want, because it’s impossible to ever find any sort of consensus or at least compromise unless we first have a mutual understanding of what our respective needs and wants actually are in any given situation. For one thing, our sex life has gradually come to a point of being virtually non-existent, which I would say is mainly the result of her getting bored, which is not really surprising if she never really gets what she wants, because I never really know what that is. But that’s really only one aspect of it.

The reason your video on toxic relationships triggered this letter is that I feel that, the way you describe some of the warning signs, we could both be seen as being “toxic” in this context to some extent. For instance, I’m frequently the one who’s in a way trying to force “reasonable” discussions about her/our wants and needs. That’s because I genuinely want to know what it is she wants because I worry that she never gets it and I know for sure (from conflicts after the fact) that that does understandably make her unhappy. But if you look at our relationship from the outside, without knowing much about this dynamic, and quite likely also from her perspective, I’m pretty sure that I’m the one who looks like he’s dominating (I always get what I want or at least what she thinks I want, after all), and the one who’s more openly frustrated with the situation, whereas she appears like the person constantly giving and giving in. But I honestly feel myself that her behavior is also toxic in the way that she effectively forces me into a position that I don’t want to be in by flat-out refusing to openly and honestly talk to me, and also by frequently making assumptions about what I want based on some imagined persona she’s created of me that I’m sure is at least in part informed by a good degree of resentment that stems from me unwittingly but inevitably “ignoring” her wishes all the time.

I’ve tried things like flat-out refusing to make a decision for the both of us in some situations or, more positively and proactively, suggesting new routines where everyone has “their day” to plan out without any input from the other person. And we’ve actually even tried couples’ therapy a few times, centered mainly on this issue (and some of the things that arise from it). But none of it has really helped. And, for a while now, I’ve been pretty much at my wits end and honestly just very exhausted. And, as you may have read between the lines of the previous paragraph, I’m also pretty unhappy that I may be coming off to other people (and, in a way, even to her) as the jerk here, as the guy who always decides everything and doesn’t give a s

t about her feelings. And that also genuinely bugs me. Not so much because of outward appearances, but because that really isn’t the person I want to be and actually, to my mind, not the person that I am. And that leaves me feeling pretty helpless and unhappy myself.

Boom! There you have it. Any advice, Doc?

Poison Tester

DEAR POISON TESTER: I’m not gonna lie, PT: I’m kind of at a loss over how you and your wife have managed to last 14 years together, when this has been a part of your relationship that entire time. I can’t decide whether it’s a testimony to your commitment to one another or if the two of you are in a weird mutual hostage situation and neither of you can figure out a way to end the standoff.

I don’t think what you have is a toxic relationship, certainly not in the way we usually think of them. What I think you have is a deeply dysfunctional relationship where everyone is miserable and nobody seems to be willing to take any steps to fix things. Your dynamic is as perfect a recipe for resentment and bitterness as any I’ve ever seen; frankly, I’m somewhat amazed that you two don’t spend half your day fighting over all the things you both did wrong.

The issue here seems to be that your wife seems to expect that you should be able to read her mind the way that she can “read” yours. This is, unfortunately, not an uncommon issue in a lot of relationships. Many times people — men and women both —  assume that if their partner truly loved or understood them, that they would just instinctively or automatically know what it is that they want or need. They treat it as the yardstick by which they measure their partner’s devotion… and they inevitably get upset when their partner, quite understandably, fails to measure up. Frankly the idea that words are unnecessary and that someone should know you so well and intimately that they can anticipate everything you might want or need without your having to say anything is corrosive to a relationship. The unwillingness to communicate one’s wants is a great way to leave everyone unhappy. One common example of this is when one person will agree to something, hoping that their partner will intuit that they actually don’t want it and hope that they’ll choose not to follow through. Or, as in your case, one partner will make their decisions based on the version of the person in their head… which may not bear any resemblance to reality.

But not only is this a horrible way to actually get your needs met, but it’s deeply unfair to the person that is trying to live up to these impossible standards. It’s utterly unreasonable to get upset at someone for not reading your mind and divining exactly what you want and how you wanted it. You have  set them up for a Kobiyashi Maru situation, where there is no win condition and the only question is just how are you going to fail.

Even if it’s an issue of where she can’t express herself, rather than won’t, it’s still an absolute s

tshow of a way to try to make a relationship work. And frankly, it doesn’t sound like this relationship has been working for quite some time. It would be one thing if it seemed like your wife were making any efforts towards resolving things, but it seems to me like she either doesn’t see this as a problem or as something that she can (or will) do anything about. And that’s not good; that makes it impossible for you two to resolve these issues. More than just couples therapy, your wife needs to talk to a therapist or counselor on her own. If this really is an issue of being unable to advocate for her own interests or needs, then she needs to dig into why this is the case and work towards undoing it.

Frankly, PT, I think if you’re going to be making all the decisions anyway, then you need to decide that her seeing a therapist is going to be a condition for continuing to be in this marriage at all. Because right now, this dynamic is turning your marriage into a Death By A Thousand Cuts and it’s going to destroy your soul as well as any love or respect you have for one another. This has been going on for fourteen years — FOURTEEN YEARS! — and it ain’t changing. So unless you want to deal with this for ANOTHER fourteen years or longer, then you need to draw a line: either she starts to work on this issue… or you get a divorce. The current status quo is only going to drive the two of you further and further apart, and in that case, it’d be kinder to you both to end things now instead of letting it drag out to its inevitable conclusion.

Good luck.

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