‘Should I Leave My Amazing But Incredibly Frustrating Relationship?’

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Dear Polly,

I never know when to stay or go. But for the first time in my life I feel a deep connection in a real relationship, and I hope you can shed some light on some healthy parameters for me.

I am 30 and in the second relationship of my life, the first and only following a “starter marriage” that ended a few years ago. I love this man deeply and dearly, but damn if he doesn’t hurt me all the time.

Not physically — but certainly emotionally. My life feels bogged down by criticism, by discontent from him. I never feel good enough, I can’t even seem to breathe or speak correctly. And, of course, it’s all my fault. I’m just hypersensitive at best, and manipulative/damaged/a bitch/a drama queen/immature/blame-shifting at worst.

I am more critical of myself than anyone, and spend a ton of time in my own head, so I know unequivocally that I can be a consummate fuck-up, and that I definitely contribute to our issues quite a bit in ways both conscious and unconscious (and yes, I have a therapist who is helping me work on this). I see so much of myself in every one of your readers. But, still, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the bulk of our fights, our Groundhog Day replays of issues, and the hostility in this comes from him. We have moments of profound connection and joy, where I think we’ve made a breakthrough, only for him to switch right back to a short fuse and impatience and old habits the very next day — heartbreakingly, often after a fantastic day or outing.

He can’t see any of this. I don’t know what trauma could have caused this for him, but his brain is so, so deeply wired to avoid fault that he is incapable of even seeing the things I am talking about — he is literally blind to them. So naturally, in his mind, any problems or complaints or issues that arise are truly all me, and he means no conscious damage by it. I sometimes feel like the only way to make this work is to live in a world where the sky is red — where I let him believe that I am the only one with issues, and that everything truly is my fault. Honestly, I kind of don’t mind that — at least it means maybe I can fix it. But things always spiral out of control again no matter what I do. For God’s sake, he tells me I am a drama queen for limping when I have a broken toe. I tell him I left my coffee on the train in a self-deprecating, annoyed-but-laughing-it-off kind of way, and he comes unglued at me for “just trying to make him feel bad” and for always having a problem or making things a big deal. He often lashes out severely even when blame wasn’t on anyone’s mind — apparently, even blinking or having a headache or feeling giddy about the sunshine is emotional terrorism to him.

I don’t need to be told that this relationship is unhealthy, if not emotionally abusive — I know it because I’ve experienced it. I thought I was beyond it, but I guess I was wrong. And I feel frustrated that I even need to ask this, but I just don’t have any truly healthy relationships in my life to model the answer — but how do you know whether to stay or go, when you know he is not vindictive or pathological, just profoundly messed up in similar ways you are?

I was trained when I was young to think of everything as black and white — people are good or bad, they love you or they hate you (and often at the flip of a dime). So I feel like the answer should be simple: You leave if you don’t feel accepted, if you feel like you are being made to feel guilty and crazy and unlovable, and that you do not love yourself and deserve whatever misery you feel if you stay. But it doesn’t feel simple or obvious at all to me. Ending it seems right, but it just doesn’t feel right. And since we are both fucked up and at fault, it seems even less cut and dry.

He has agreed to couple’s therapy, but nothing ever materializes. I know he loves me — I believe him in that completely. But he does not accept me, and I feel like his emotional punching bag. Are deep love and high highs ever enough to make a stressful relationship worth staying in and fixing, even at the risk of never having acceptance or flexibility from the other person?

Where Is the Goddamn Line Here

Dear WITGLH,

The answer is no. Feeling stressed and rejected and never knowing what will set your boyfriend off next isn’t remotely worth it. I understand feeling confused and ambivalent about leaving when you still love him. I’m so sorry because I know how bad that feels. But your boyfriend experiences your emotions — and your experiences, and all of your words and your insights and your challenges — as a manipulation. Breaking your toe is just a way of sucking up his attention. Making a joke about leaving your coffee on the train is just a way of making him feel guilty. Every time you interrupt his carefully calibrated world, it’s like you’re setting his house on fire for no reason.

This is pretty much the definition of gaslighting, but I understand why you’re confused. Gaslighting sounds so INTENTIONAL. Even though, yes, your relationship is unhealthy and also qualifies as emotionally abusive, the abuse almost feels like a puzzle to solve. Because there he is, a nice-enough guy with good intentions who is roughly as dysfunctional as you are. You match. Won’t you run into the same or worse conflicts with anyone who has the same volume of troubles and issues that you have? If his intentions are good, shouldn’t you stick it out and figure out a way forward together? If he’s basically a good human being, why can’t you make it work? Can’t you fix this?

The answer is no. You can’t fix this, because no matter how “good” you are, no matter how much you joke or make light of anything, no matter how strong or brave or quiet or relaxed or easy you are, he encounters you as a threat. Even when you are standing naked before him, he sees an evil villainess armed to the teeth. You ask him for your love and he encounters it as bullying. You’re vulnerable and sad and he thinks you’re fucking with him, or tricking him. Every emotion you express is emotional terrorism. Instead of admitting that he’s afraid of your emotions and it’s a problem, he’s sticking with the same story: You need to change. You are hysterical. You are falling apart. You need to grow up. You need to relax. You need to stop it.

So now you’re probably doing what you did as a kid, trying to gain control of a situation that’s out of your control. This is how you’ve always coped. Instead of simply walking away, you try to fix things. This isn’t even about loving him anymore. You write, “I thought I was beyond it.” In other words, in the past, you’ve successfully turned off your feelings so his unfair reactions couldn’t touch you. You try to echo what he says (“The sky is red”) in order to fix it. You try to fix yourself. You don’t feel like you deserve to leave him unless you can make yourself perfect and good first. Then you’ll know it isn’t all your fault, like he always says it is. But you are NOT perfect and good yet, and you never will be because no one is. But in your mind, being flawed means you should have to stay and take more punishment. That’s your black-and-white thinking in play. He is the same as you: flawed, with good intentions, so it’s unfair to leave.

Listen to me: He’s not the same as you. You’re willing to take some blame and admit some faults, and he can’t do that. THAT IS A GIGANTIC FUCKING DIFFERENCE. And you don’t experience his everyday complaints as huge pointless interruptions to his otherwise-peaceful day. And you don’t think he’s exaggerating or faking it when he breaks an arm or gets sick. And you try things his way, but he won’t try things your way. Your way is absurd. Your ideas are wrong. Your emotions are an act. Just when he thinks things are fine, you start fucking with his good life again, just by trying to be better, just by trying to make things work.

You may be roughly the same amount of fucked up, but his flavor of fucked up needs to live in a sterile bubble without invading emotions and thoughts and ideas and experiences, and your flavor of fucked up tries like crazy to adapt to his weird bubble when really, you should be ESCAPING HIS MOTHERFUCKING BUBBLE FOREVER AND NEVER LOOKING BACK.

Your flavor of fucked up wants to fix something that’s unfixable.

I dated a guy who was a lot like your boyfriend. He had good intentions and was a nice person, and our relationship was emotionally abusive and shitty. I spent two years trying very, very hard to do better, because I knew that I was screwed up, too, and it seemed like we were the same amount of screwed up. I was wrong.

It is VERY easy to feel like an intensely unstable, fucked-up person when your partner greets your expressions of emotion as outright acts of terrorism and never, ever, admits fault. But because his descriptions of what made me crazy were convincing, I kept trying to improve, stay calm, be more honest and vulnerable. One day, instead of getting angry at him for something he said, I slowed down and explained what I was feeling, including some vulnerable confessions that were very difficult to make. This was something he’d said I should do: I should stop getting angry and try to be vulnerable instead. I was a very good student! I cried a little, described the roots of what I was feeling! It felt good! I felt like I had moved through some tough emotional terrain instead of lazily projecting my shit onto him.

When I stopped talking, he looked disgusted. Then he said, “What started this? How did this happen? I just want to know so I don’t have to do this again.” By “this” he presumably meant “this part where I listen to you talking the way I ASKED YOU TO TALK.” At the time, it felt like such a betrayal. TAKE OFF THOSE SHIN GUARDS SO I CAN BUST IN YOUR KNEES WITH THIS TIRE IRON.

I forgive him, and I wish him the best now. I just wish I had cared enough about my own feelings back then to protect myself from someone who was constantly infuriated with me. He didn’t listen closely. He wasn’t kind to me. He seemed reasonable, but NOTHING he did, in relation to me, felt reasonable. His constant fear and need for control and outrage over tiny things left me jumpy and angry and incredibly needy.

When you feel on edge all of the time, you have to go. It’s terrible for your health, for your self-esteem, for your worldview. Neither one of us deserved that kind of a life. I never should’ve dated someone I had so much contempt for. But here’s what kept me stuck: LOGIC. We were two messed-up people with good intentions! We were committed to each other! “We can fix this!” I said over and over. But love should never be that hard. When you trust each other, when you can each admit fault, when you forgive each other completely after a fight, it’s a million times easier. It doesn’t matter how “good” anyone is or how much damage anyone has. All that matters is that two people know how to learn and grow and be humbled together.

You have to believe and feel in your heart that you deserve to be loved humbly and completely. It’s a feeling, not a thought. You have to feel your way there. For someone who isn’t used to that feeling, it will take suspending your disbelief as you say these words: “I am flawed, but I am already enough. I deserve kindness and respect. I always have.”

Your thoughts, which tell you that you don’t deserve shit, have a bad habit of punishing you. That’s why logic will lead you back to an empty well. This probably started at a very young age. Your fantasy of how things should be led to more punishment. “These are my parents,” you thought. “Surely they were built to love me unconditionally.” “This is my boyfriend,” you think. “He is a nice guy. Surely he was built to welcome my love and soothe my sadness and understand when I’m just joking around!” Logic tells you that if it’s not working, SOMETHING MUST BE WRONG WITH YOU. You should try harder. You should do better.

Your letter is a work of logic. “This makes no sense,” you tell me. “Where do I draw the line?” you ask. “We are both fucked up,” you say. “Is it okay to be loved but never accepted?” you ask. You want to find some loophole so you don’t have to leave. But you’ll never feel strong or relaxed if you’re never accepted. You will dedicate your energy to pleasing him, but he will never be pleased.

What are you hiding from? Why do you need this full-time distraction in your life? What aren’t you doing? I’ll bet you’re holding a lot of other good things at bay — deciding on a worthwhile career that brings you joy, making friends who do accept you and support you even when you’re feeling broken, establishing clear boundaries in other relationships that are challenging, trusting yourself in a vacuum, understanding your truest feelings and desires. This bad puzzle of a man is blocking you from feeling your way toward a life that is full and gorgeous.

A full, gorgeous life could never accommodate this man. There is no room for him there. If you are big, he feels small. If you are alive, he feels dead. If you are feeling wild and free and full of possibility, he is angry and afraid and wants you to stop it. There’s no reason to ask why he’s like this. Something about control. Something about self-esteem. Who gives a fuck? All you need to know is that if you stay, you’ll be hiding in a dark cave.

It’s time to leave. How do you know? Because you feel terrible almost every day, even though nothing is wrong in your life. Even amazing days can turn to shit with him. Imagine how shitty things would be if you were facing real hardship! The good news is that you’re likely to feel more emancipated than you expect, once you fully commit to walking out the door. And you’ll probably look back on this as one of the hardest times in your life. Your next relationship might just feel easy, compared to this one. You’ve been in boot camp without knowing it. You’re a lot stronger now.

It’s time to stop settling for men who can’t show up and love you as you are right now. Forgive him and release him. Don’t explain yourself to him. Don’t try to prove that he’s the crazy, bad one and you are the good one. You have nothing to prove. And once you decide that you’re not going to waste a second of your time on a man who doesn’t accept you for who you are, you never have to explain yourself or prove your worth again. It’s like walking through a door into a new world, where all of the things that hurt you and made you crazy are gone.

The sky is not red. The fact that you’d claim that the sky is red just to fix things is a clue to how absurdly off-track you’ve wandered. Unpack that. You would rather live a lie and be invisible and be loved than have no love in your life. Maybe you even equate being invisible and living in an upside-down world with being loved. You want to move out of your life and into someone else’s. You are hiding from your own feelings. You’re hiding from yourself.

It’s time to stop hiding and face the truth. The sky is blue. Walk outside and look up at the sky, and remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect and good to be loved. Let every blue sky serve as a reminder: You are enough. You deserve love already, just the way you are.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘Should I Leave My Amazing But Frustrating Relationship?’