My boyfriend of four years broke up with me last week, and I am a mess. I’m shocked because the reason he gave doesn’t make sense.
Some background: We met four years ago and dated long distance for over a year, then he got a job and moved to my city. When he arrived, I discovered that he was totally broke and a huge financial trainwreck (I had NO idea and was pissed that he hid it from me). I had some reservations about us living together right away, but then we had no choice because he didn’t have money to get his own place. So right away it was tense. He had been living in a sort of frat-house situation before, never cooking or cleaning or having “adult” responsibilities beyond his job. I was hard on him about all this stuff and in retrospect should have been nicer, but I felt like it was an emergency. In the meantime, I did a lot of the heavy lifting financially and domestically and felt a little taken advantage of and used. But within a year or so, he had found his footing, learned to clean and cook, started paying his bills on time, and even built up a little buffer in his savings account. We moved into a modest apartment and got a puppy. Finally, we were on equal footing, we had built a little family, and I was thrilled. He seemed happy with the changes in himself, too, and commented frequently that this was the best thing that ever happened to him.
But then fast forward to this fall. We got invited on a spontaneous trip to Iceland with friends over New Year’s, and I sort of strong-armed him into booking it. That wasn’t unusual for us; he always needed some convincing that he should spend money on luxuries and hadn’t really traveled much. In the past he always had a great time on trips I pushed for, and told me later it was totally worth it. But this time it was a mistake. The flights were cheap but nonrefundable, and the trip looked to be much pricier than I expected based on serious miscalculations on my part. I assumed my friends would get an Airbnb together (they didn’t want to), and we couldn’t afford any of the hotels because it was New Year’s and they were charging a bajillion dollars, so we had to book a hostel. I also assumed that we’d be able to rent a car and explore on our own, but soon it became obvious that Iceland roads are really dangerous at that time of year and the only way to do any activities is with a guide or professional driver. Hugely expensive and a big surprise. I was kind of panicking but trying to figure out how to pull it off, but he was really mad about the costs. None of this seemed like a BIG deal, just a live-and-learn kind of thing.
But then it became a BIG deal to him. He started bringing it up constantly, how we were spending too much money and burning too much vacation time and it was affecting our Christmas plans and we never should have booked it, like he’d said from the beginning. At first I was defensive, but then I apologized sincerely, and offered as many options as I could think of, short of not going at all (remember, flights were nonrefundable). I offered to cover some of the costs out of my savings account, I offered for him not to go if he really didn’t want to, I promised that this would be the last trip we took for a while. None of this was good enough. He brought it up at EVERY opportunity, for three months straight. If something in the apartment broke and needed to be fixed, he’d say something like “Well, we could hire someone to come, but YOU WANTED TO GO TO ICELAND.” If I mentioned we needed to sit down and settle up monthly bills, he’d make a snarky comment like “Well, we’d have more money but YOU WANTED TO GO TO ICELAND.” If I mentioned any future plans — from going out to dinner next week to moving to a bigger apartment a few years from now, or if I talked about having a baby — it always somehow came back to Iceland. It got to a point where I started getting mad about him bringing it up all the time. I had fucked up, for sure, but I had apologized, and at the end of the day it was only a few hundred dollars each that we were talking about. And we had a cool trip planned!
It made me REALLY embarrassed as my friends started picking up on how pissed he was and were asking me over and over if the trip was going to be okay, or if we’d be fighting the whole time. They were spending a lot of money, too, and his horrible mood was affecting everyone. It seemed totally unfair. I felt like, “You owe me one, you need to forgive me for ONE mistake since I stepped up and saved us from financial ruin many times but I got over it.” And it frustrated me that he wasn’t coming up with any solutions of his own. But the fights kept coming, with more and more frequency and greater and greater rage from him. Then, three weeks before we were supposed to leave for Iceland, he broke down and told me he couldn’t be with me anymore. I asked why and every single reason he gave tied back to the Iceland trip. For him, it had become a huge metaphor.
Almost immediately after he broke up with me, he started calling really upset — saying he regrets getting so mad and that we couldn’t properly communicate, and he wants to try to work on things. But he IS sticking to his guns with the metaphor shit, like “This is an example of how you bulldoze me into doing things even when I say I can’t” or “This is an example of you always getting your way” or “This is an example of how all our plans are things YOU came up with and not things I want to do.” But I don’t always get my way. I definitely push him into trying new things, but it isn’t out of selfishness.
So now we have decided that he’s getting his own apartment close by, and we’re going to try to find a way forward while giving each other space. Sometimes I feel really comforted by that. It feels mature, and I know that he really does love me and wants it to work. But I also am so confused why he’s still digging in his heels and saying this is a metaphor. My mom tells me that I need to see Iceland as a pretext, that the breakup wasn’t really about Iceland. But the thing is, it was! Every fight was about Iceland in some way. And I am so, so confused about it. In the context of how much we’d been through, this was peanuts. And if this doesn’t make sense to me, then we really have no hope and should just move on. I will surely piss him off again and he’s going to assign some random decision I make to be a Metaphor for Everything and the Biggest Deal-Breaker in the World.
I read one time that the human brain is so hardwired to look for patterns in things that nonsense is actually an impossible thing for us to accept. The brain just works it over and over again, looking for logic when no logic can be found. I feel that way now. Not a single friend of ours understands his behavior. I really love him and I’m driving myself crazy trying to figure out why this happened.
Iceland Iceland Iceland
Dear Iceland Iceland Iceland,
As long as we’re talking about Iceland, we’re going to have to talk about Björk, that fantastical creature from Iceland who recently got dumped by her husband and wrote a whole album about it. On the first track, “Stonemilker,” she sings:
All that matters is
Who is open-chested
And who has coagulated
Who can share and
Who has shot down the chances.
Being open-chested is everything. When you’re open-chested, you say things like “I wanted us to have an amazing trip, but I made big mistakes in planning it, and I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Let’s start from here.”
Being open-chested can also sound like this: “I’m sorry I got so angry about Iceland. I want to try again. But … ”
This is where our ears pick up. But what?
“But ICELAND. Iceland stands for our doomed future together! You always steamroll over me! You never listen! You’re selfish! You always act like you’re doing things for me, but you’re not, you’re only doing them for YOU! You don’t care about my needs at all, you’re just trying to get what YOU want and you don’t care what I have to say about it, you don’t listen! This is all YOUR fault!”
So, who has shot down your chances? Your ex has. He resents you because he doesn’t know how to express his true needs and desires the way you do. He doesn’t ask for what he wants. He watches things go badly, shakes his head from the sidelines, and blames you for it. He’s not an adult yet.
This guy needs a therapist. If Iceland is a metaphor, it’s a metaphor for something much deeper than just you and him. This isn’t about planning a trip; this is about the way he was treated as a kid. Maybe he was coddled but disrespected. Maybe people pretended to listen to his needs but did whatever they wanted instead. Whatever it is, he still feels angry and powerless and he’s projecting that onto you.
I have empathy for that. It took me years to crawl out of that space. But beware: Some people never do. Instead of learning how to become open-chested, instead of embracing vulnerability as the cure to their inflexible, defensive, anxious, blaming postures (Björk’s album title: Vulnicura), some people retreat, get defensive and anxious, and blame others for everything that’s wrong in their lives.
They’re trying. But they’re too anxious to make space for anyone else. When they try to listen, they make faces like you’re force-feeding them something disgusting. They have low self-esteem, so they feel bullied all the time, even in the most mundane circumstances. In less-intimate relationships, they seem to function well, but with partners and close friends, they return to the same perceived offenses again and again. You can say, “Yes, but we hashed this out already.” Or “Yes, but that wasn’t really the fulcrum point of everything bad that’s happened since then.” Or even “YES, THAT WAS THE WORST.” Acknowledgment, patience, lots of room, affection, consistency, a million apologies: If there’s no self-reflection and vulnerability in the mix, it doesn’t help.
The people I know who are like this sound exactly like your boyfriend: “But Iceland!” they say, 20 years after Iceland. You are supposed to drop everything when you hear the word Iceland. Iceland proves that you’re bad, you’re selfish, and you’re actively oppressing them just by existing.
I know that sounds harsh, but the stakes are high for you: You love him, but you’re stuck on this Iceland thing, too, because it doesn’t make sense. It’s smart to recognize that. It’s smart to stop and say: ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS? It’s smart to notice that he thinks you still need to be punished for Iceland. It’s smart to recognize that you will always answer to Iceland if you decide to stick around. “We can get back together, slowly,” he says, “on my terms, carefully, but I get to be wishy-washy, I get to get angry, I get to back away, I get to blame you, BECAUSE ICELAND. Iceland means that everything is on my terms now. Iceland keeps me safe from you.”
That’s not growth. Let him grow alone instead. Let him learn to be open-chested without you.
Do you have flaws? Sure. Should you look closely at how aggressively you pursue your own agenda? Yes. Most of us need to look at that, in order to be better partners and friends. But that’s a very common, low-stakes challenge, compared to being defensive and stuck. You wanted to do something nice and you made a few mistakes. You tried to make it better and you apologized. But he kept returning not to the intention, not to the accidents that anyone could make, not to the apologies, but to the fact that YOU ARE TO BLAME, YOU DID THIS TO HIM. If you marry this man right now and he never looks closely at himself and never goes to therapy, you will regret it. Your friends are baffled by him because he is baffling. He has issues he needs to address.
I’m sure he’s a nice person and I know you love him and this hurts. It’s going to take a lot of work and belief in vulnerability and growth for him to express his desires directly and stop making other people responsible for what happens to him. He needs to understand: This is about intimacy. Intimacy scares the fuck out of him, and makes him angry. My guess is that he didn’t feel safe in his most intimate, affectionate relationships as a kid, so you make him feel tremendously unsafe and angry. He keeps saying that Iceland is a metaphor because some part of him is looking for a metaphor, a story that will lead him out of the darkness. And maybe this Iceland metaphor will help him in therapy. But if you wait around for him to grow up, then you’re not honoring your own growth.
Keep in mind, the reason he called you crying right after he broke up with you is the same reason he blames you for things that aren’t your fault: He needs you, but he resents the fact that he needs you. When guys are in this state, they keep sleeping with you, on and off, until they find someone else who will take care of them, someone who gives off the illusion of being “right” in all the ways you were “wrong.” This is how immature, defensive people operate. Don’t get tangled up in that mess. Move forward with your own life instead.
Go to Iceland. That’s your first step. Go without him, and consider deeply what kind of a life you really want. Remember Björk while you’re there. It takes a special kind of bravery to wear a dress that looks like a swan to the Oscars. It takes a special kind of bravery to write a whole album about getting dumped by your husband.
It’s pretty common, actually, for a strong, decisive woman like Björk to wake up one day and discover that her partner secretly resents her power. Even a famous artist like Matthew Barney can resent a strong woman. But seriously, what are you going to do? I guess you could’ve let your ex get a place of his own instead of saving him when he moved to your city. Some guys don’t want to look back on a story like that, even if they say it forced them to grow up. They can’t stand it when you bring it up, either. They need an Iceland to counteract it.
Men don’t always like a woman who upstages them, who is more capable and maybe braver than they are. You can’t understand why they’re so tepid, and then it comes out: They want someone to be a pretty background while they’re the main attraction. Other guys just don’t want to be asked to bring everything they have to the table. They don’t want to share, because sharing and intimacy feel like being manipulated to them. They’re stuck, but they don’t want your help, either.
But let me be clear: Some guys are just plain grateful that you pulled them out of the shit. They love that you’re so capable. They love that you know what the fuck you’re doing.
Some men want you at your absolute best, and some men don’t. I didn’t realize how important that distinction was when I was younger. If you choose a man who resents your power and feels small whenever you feel big, you’re very likely to give up your own power and independence and happiness just to soothe him. You won’t just have a bad relationship, in other words, you’ll also feel insecure in your career, angry with your friends, and unhappy in general. And even when you compromise yourself to prop a man up, he might still feel like you’re robbing him of his independence.
So before you make a lifelong commitment to someone, you need to know if he appreciates you when you’re firing on all pistons. You want someone who’s confident enough to say, “That swan dress is nutballs, for sure. But it looks fantastic on you, and I bet they’ll still be talking about it 15 years from now.”
Whatever happens next, this is your moment to commit to being open-chested. Forward movement is impossible without vulnerability. When you’re vulnerable, you can look at yourself and say, “Sometimes I’m weak. Sometimes I’m anxious, and I make mistakes.” You can look at your partner and say, “Sometimes you’re weak. Sometimes you’re unfair, but I forgive you.” But you can also say, “Sometimes I need you to drop your hard position and be kind to me instead. Sometimes I need you to be the strong one, the one who makes plans, the one who dares to look into the future, who dares to picture the best-case scenario instead of the worst.”
But for some people, every story is the same. There is always an Iceland. And if you want to be truly happy in this imperfect world, you will turn back from every coagulated, blaming, angry path to another Iceland. You will lead with love instead. Each new moment presents a new opportunity to believe in yourself, to believe in your fragile center, to believe in a whole world full of open-chested people who can appreciate what you have to give. You can be capable and smart and opinionated and a little intense and still be loved by someone who is thrilled to know you, with your energy and your great big heart. All that matters is who is open-chested.
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