DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This is unusual, because after reading all your blog posts about toxic relationships and such I’d like your insight on my previous toxic relationship. The twist : I think I was the toxic one.
I was in a relationship with a girl for 3 years. She was madly in love with me in the beginning and would do almost anything to please me (mistake #1). I was less into her at that stage but I figured hey what the hell she’s cool to hang with and the sex is great so why not. There were things about her I didn’t like and what I didn’t like I fixed by giving her my advice and of course she changed those things, because of mistake #1.
Her family didn’t mesh well with me mostly because some of them would treat her badly. I didn’t keep away from them out of fear or jealousy. I kept her away because they would degrade her in their drunkenness in front of 30 other people and I couldn’t handle that. So I started to keep her away from them.
The same applied to her friends. I kept her from the ones I judged as irresponsible drunks, and when she wanted to hang out with the mature ones who had normal lives and wanted to take her to coffee I said “Go and enjoy yourself” and didn’t go with her so as to give her some space.
I did always use the “Then we should break up” when arguments go heated and she told me that I was the only person who made her so upset and angry that she would start throwing things around. I think my being calm when she was losing it made her even more angry.
Eventually it ended and now she wants nothing to do with me. I miss her dearly and recognize that I’m not in a good place to make an informed decision about whether it was in fact a good relationship with bad parts that I’d like to fix or if it was terrible.
I want to know whether I should blame myself. Was she just not the right type of woman for me? Do I have to be with someone who has mature friends and a loving family? Did I ruin her life and leave her with more bitterness than I could ever make up for? Finally, is there a way to move on without always feeling like I should go back and try to make amends?
I did contact her to try and just set up a normal coffee meeting where we could chat about normal things, because I figured “talk is cheap” and saying “I see where I went wrong” was less useful than showing it but she refused and I could hear the bitterness in her voice so I accepted the no and said goodbye.
DEAR BLAMING HIMSELF: Let me sum this one up in advance, because I’m pretty sure you know what I’m already about to say:
Holy hopping sheep-s&&t YES you were being the toxic one.
Ok, with that out of the way, let’s break this down a little, shall we? This is going to be harsh but, honestly, I’m not sure you quite get the magnitude of what happened here.
Let’s start with mistake #1. The mistake WASN’T that your girlfriend was madly in love with you and would do anything to please you, it’s the way you took advantage of it. “There were things about her I didn’t like, and what I didn’t like I fixed by giving her my advice and of course she changed those things.”
Um… do I need to point out how incredibly goddamn creepy and manipulative that sounds? Because that sounds unbelievably creepy and manipulative. People are not repair projects. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean that you get to customize someone to fit your specifications. Nobody – not Brad Pitt, not Drake, not Taylor Swift, not Nicki Minaj, nobody – gets 100% of what they want in a relationship. You get 60%, 70%, even 80% and you round up to 100% because that percentage is so damn awesome that you’re willing to accept the rest as the price of entry. If you’re not willing to accept those imperfections and flaws, then you break up and find someone whose flaws and imperfections you can accept. You don’t try to mold them into the perfect person as though they don’t have a will or personality of their own.
See, it’d be one thing if, say, she’d come to you and said “You know what, I’m not happy with X part of my life, would you help me fix this?” That’s part of being a supportive partner. It’d be equally understandable if it was a case of maintaining your boundaries and saying “I don’t appreciate it when you treat me like X”. However, unless you miswrote things, that isn’t what you were doing. You were telling her “I don’t like X part of your life and if you loved me, you’d fix it.” And seeing as you weren’t staging an intervention for her alcoholism or substance abuse or something equally destructive, then holy crap does that start to border on emotional abuse.
And I don’t use that term lightly, because of what you say next:
“Her family didn’t mesh well with me mostly because some of them would treat her badly. I didn’t keep away from them out of fear or jealousy. I kept her away because they would degrade her in their drunkenness in front of 30 other people and I couldn’t handle that. So I started to keep her away from them.”
Which you then follow up with:
“I kept her from the ones I judged as irresponsible drunks, and when she wanted to hang out with the mature ones who had normal lives and wanted to take her to coffee I said ‘Go and enjoy yourself’ and didn’t go with her so as to give her some space.”
Want to know why I’m singling these out? Because isolating someone from their friends and family is one of the key hallmarks of an abusive relationship. Dude, I’m sorry if her family were a bunch of drunk a
holes, but it’s not your place to take it upon yourself to decide things for her! You can advise. You can give your opinion. You can tell her that you don’t like how her family treats her. You can suggest that it might be healthier for her to not spend time with family members who’re going to treat her like s
t and encourage her to stand up for herself and her boundaries. But “keeping her away from them” is not your call.
The same goes for isolating her from her friends, because her friends don’t meet your approval. I’m sorry you don’t like her friends. Too goddamn bad. You don’t get to tell someone who they are and aren’t allowed to hang out with.
Using isolation, controlling who she sees, what she does, who she talks to and gets to spend time with are hallmarks of an abusive relationship; it’s the sign of someone controlling and dominating their partner to keep them under their thumb.
The fact that you were doing this out of supposed “concern” for her well being instead of jealousy doesn’t make it better or any less coercive.
Then there’s this:
“I did always use the ‘Then we should break up’ when arguments go heated and she told me that I was the only person who made her so upset and angry that she would start throwing things around.”
These are more tactics of abusers, one that some even call “Dread Game” — weaponizing the fear of losing the relationship as a means of control. Constantly holding the state of the relationship over her head is not a way of handling an argument in a relationship, it’s a way of controlling someone. That’s not a relationship, that’s someone trying to train someone into never complaining. No, her throwing things isn’t the best way of handling things either but Jesus f
king Christ, I’m not entirely surprised that it would escalate to this level.
“I think my being calm when she was losing it made her even more angry.”
Or maybe it’s because you were constantly threatening to break up with her instead of trying to resolve the argument.
Here’s a free hint: arguments are about engagement. Standing there and acting like the stern, disapproving parent isn’t how you resolve things even if you’re 100% in the right. All that’s going to do is piss people off even more.
And oh look, she refuses to have anything to do with you? GOOD.
It’s a damn shame that you miss her, but I find it hard to believe you can’t tell whether it was a flawed-but-fixable relationship or just terrible.
Because, SPOILER ALTERT: it was terrible. And while she may have had her flaws, there is literally nothing in this telling me that this was a case of “picking the wrong partner.”
Well… at least not for you. For her, it very much was.
Should you feel terrible? YES.
Should you be dating someone with a mature and loving family? My dude, if you think that was the problem with your relationship, you really missed the point.
Did you ruin her life? That I can’t say, but you were DEFINITELY an abusive, controlling piece of s
t to her.
Now as for your question about going back and trying to make amends?
Here’s the thing about making amends: it’s only useful if trying to make amends won’t cause even more harm… and that’s exactly what trying to contact her again will do. I simply don’t believe that your desire to make amends is about actually helping her heal so much as an attempt to salve your conscience and convince yourself that you’re not the bad guy here.
No, if you want to move on, you need to change.
The good news is that you’re at least starting to question your behavior. That’s how change starts… but that’s not where it ends. Where it ends is after you’ve gotten help to recognize not just how your behavior was abusive but why and how to start taking responsibility for it. And that’s not going to be a quick and easy transformation.
Here’s what you need to do: you need to call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE and talk with some of the counselors there. They’re there to listen, to help and to make recommendations as to how and brainstorm with you to find possible courses of action. But you need to be completely honest; giving excuses or rationalizations is only going to make any progress take longer.
Here are signs – adapted from author Lundy Bancroft – that you’re making progress:
Admitting fully to what you have done
Stopping excuses and blaming
Accepting responsibility and recognizing that abuse is a choice
Identifying patterns of controlling behavior used
Identifying the attitudes that drive abuse
Accepting that overcoming abusiveness is a decades-long process and not declaring yourself “cured”
Not demanding credit for improvements you’ve made
Not treating improvements as vouchers to be spent on occasional acts of abuse (ex. “I haven’t done anything like this in a long time, so it’s not a big deal)
Developing respectful, kind, supportive behaviors
Changing how you respond to their partner’s (or former partner’s) anger and grievances
Changing how you act in heated conflicts
Accepting the consequences of actions (including not feeling sorry for yourself about the consequences, and not blaming your partner or children for them)
You’re admitting that you’ve made mistakes. That’s a strong first step. Now you need to take the next one and get help. It’s going to take time – a lot of time. It’s going to take work. But you can do better.
It’s time to BE better.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)