DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So, first things first: my partner (38NB, they/them) and I (28F) both have histories of abusive relationships. Their most recent partner before they met me was physically, sexually, and emotionally violent towards them; I had gotten out of a sexually predatory and abusive relationship with a much older man. We both understand that the trauma we’ve undergone shapes us, but does not define us. We’re working through it.
My problem is that I’m scared that I was simply the first partner in a long time to show them kindness and compassion, and that because of that they’ve spent the last five and a half years in a relationship in which, on some fundamental level, they do not want to be. This is in large part because I have a lot of flaws as a partner.
We live together and have done for nearly five years, but it was a case of me moving into their flat straight from my parents’ house rather than us picking a place together. I am long-term unemployed and contribute to household expenses as much as I am able but they’re still the primary breadwinner and I feel like I am leeching off them. I have triggers relating to showers (which I would rather not go into) that make personal hygiene difficult for me. I clean and help out and cook and the like, but I’ve had to learn how over the time we’ve lived together. I have serious depression and anxiety, for which I am receiving treatment and medication, but they had to poke and prod me into getting any treatment at all. I constantly feel like I have nothing to offer but being a considerate and caring partner – something that should be the default for any relationship, though the both of us are keenly aware that it is very much not.
Both of us drink heavily, something which lockdown has made worse, but they’re getting through a litre of gin every couple of days. They’re much more outgoing than I am and not being able to see their friends has hit them very hard indeed. When they’ve been drunk on the sofa, they’ve talked about how they didn’t see themselves ending up like this. Illness took their dreams of being a dancer in the West End, and now they’re pushing forty in a provincial fishing village that makes Toshi Station look like the height of urbane cosmopolitanism. And they look so sad when they say it. And then the next day, it’s like a switch has been flipped and it’s all smiles, and when I try to bring it up they brush it aside as me being paranoid. Which, to be entirely fair, is one of the symptoms of my anxiety disorder.
I love my partner, I really have to stress that. I love them with all my heart. I’m just terrified that I’m not worth loving back as much, and I can’t help but wonder whether or not I’m making my partner as happy as they make me. I struggle to tell what’s my paranoia and what’s a genuine issue that I should talk about with them. They’re a really awesome person and I just… worry that I’m nothing more than the first person to be a good partner, and that having had such an unbelievably fucking shitty partner for five years makes me look way better than I actually am.
We’ve been together, like I said, for five and a half years. I’ve been really happy. The happiest I can ever remember being. And I wonder if I’m the only one in the relationship who feels like that.
Or if it’s all in my head.
Thank you for reading,
Relevant Black Sabbath Song
DEAR RELEVANT BLACK SABBATH SONG: Well let’s get this out of the way first, RBSS: yes, your partner is settling for you. But you are also settling for them. This doesn’t mean that they’re choosing you because you’re the closest warm body that said yes, or only person they could end up in a relationship with. It means that everybody looks at their list of what they want in a partner and realizes that no one person can provide ALL the things they want. Everybody goes into a relationship saying “Ok, I’m willing to give up on X, Y or Z because what I do get from this person is worth it”. And that goes for you too; nobody gets 100% of what they want in a relationship, but they get enough that they’re happy with the exchange.
Problems only arise when somebody prioritizes “having a relationship” over “a relationship with a person I want to actually date” — they’re just trying to fill a whole marked “relationship”, rather than choosing that person specifically.
Now with that said, let’s talk about the specifics of your situation. First and foremost, I think you’re drastically undervaluing offering someone kindness and compassion and what that can mean to someone… especially someone who was in a horrifically abusive relationship. Being somebody that they can trust, somebody who is safe and reliable and lets them feel secure is no small thing. The sense of being able to let your guard down and let somebody in without having to tense up or be afraid of how they’ll treat you is huge. That’s not “well anyone could provide this” or something cheap or meaningless. It’s very, very important and I suspect it was at the top of your partner’s “must have” list. So stop talking yourself down on that level.
Similarly: you have your flaws. Ok… and? Everyone does. Maybe it means that you wouldn’t be compatible with some people. But you’re not dating those people, you’re dating your partner. Similarly, you have depression and anxiety and your partner has been poking and prodding you to get into therapy. Here’s the thing: they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t care. People, on the whole, don’t try to push folks they don’t like into getting help. And hey, if it helps you process things, look at this as your partner saying “here’s something you can do: taking care of yourself will make our relationship better.”
You’re also seeing this relationship on a transactional basis and worrying that things aren’t perfectly balanced. But perfect balance is for Thanos… all the rest of us deal with things being a little unequal on one side or the other. But not only is that not inherently a bad thing, successful relationships balance those aspects out in other ways. You aren’t the primary breadwinner, but there are other ways you contribute, both to the household and to the relationship. They can be anything from housework to being the emotional port that provides them safety from the storm.
And then there’s the part about “I didn’t think my life would end up like this”. First of all, a thing you need to keep in mind is that alcohol is a depressant in the literal and emotional sense of the word. As I’ve said before: we’re bad at understanding why we feel the way we do. Our brains don’t just feel emotions, they interpret the input they’re getting from the body and backfill the reasons for it after the fact. As a result, getting drunk can make you feel lower than you actually are because it’s depressing your nervous system. It can even drag up feelings that you’d resolved because it removes filters and hinders your judgement. So, just as getting drunk impairs a person’s ability to consent, because they may be agreeing to something they don’t actually want to do, your partner’s discussing how their life isn’t the way they expected doesn’t mean that they don’t like the way things are now. It just means that there’re things that they wish could’ve been different. And hey, we all have that. Show me somebody who doesn’t look at aspects of their life that they wish could’ve gone differently and I’ll show you a fictional character. But life not going in the direction you expected doesn’t mean that they can’t be — or aren’t — happy now.
Shit, 90% of Christmas movies are people discovering their lives aren’t going the way they expected and realizing that this is OK.
(The rest are about terrorists invading Nakatomi Plaza or crime waves in Gotham.)
The biggest problem you have isn’t that your partner is “settling” for you. It’s that you aren’t recognizing that what you’re giving them is actually very goddamn valuable indeed. Safety, security, care and love are huge. Are you perfect? No. Neither is anyone else. Are you The Perfect Partner? No… but neither are they. Are there things you could possibly do to make things balance out a bit more? Probably, and you can talk with your partner about ways that you could do this. But that’s not the same as “being a bad partner” or “being the first person to be nice to them”. The important question to ask is are they happy? And are you happy?
And then it’s your responsibility to listen and take yes for an answer. Because the thing that’s worse than “settling” for somebody? That’s being told you’re settling, when you really aren’t. It’s telling your partner that you love them and being called a liar for saying that. Yes, there are things you can work on; everyone has those. And it may well be worth doing so, when you can differentiate actual areas of improvement from your anxiety dripping poison in your ear.
But most importantly: you need to recognize your worth and value and how important the things you contribute actually are. Being kind, caring and supportive isn’t just baseline, it’s important and it’s clearly something your partner lacked, desperately needs and that you provide. Don’t diminish that. And don’t steal misery from the future; enjoy what you have now.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org