Years ago, my boyfriend and I moved into our first apartment together. I was unpacking dishes in the kitchen and whimpering from sciatica pain that made my left leg feel like a chainsaw was ripping it in half, when he called out, “Why don’t you come in here and take a break?” I dropped the empty foam dish sleeve I was holding and gratefully wandered to the living-room couch. After lying in the fetal position and thumbing through Twitter for 20 minutes, I looked up and saw he was sweeping. I asked if there was anything I could do to help — he said no, I should take it easy.
I was surprised. As he took a Magic Eraser to the walls, I thought, Is he always going to be this nice? It couldn’t be true. Why would a person discourage another person from helping to unpack (and clean!) the apartment they shared? I’d never done such a thing, and I’m not sure I ever would.
With nothing better to do, I picked a fight with him for knowing that my leg was hurting and recommending that I take a break. I said it made me angry that I had to watch him bounce from one task to the next. He brushed it off and said he wasn’t doing that much, wasn’t working that hard, was only doing what he wanted to do. I said it was too early in our living together for me to feel like a bad roommate and a bad person compared with him.
Time went on, and when our friends had babies, my boyfriend sent gifts and warm wishes written on delicate cards. He made conversation with our elderly landlord about her daughter who lived across the country. He showed up to birthdays and parties with homemade pies; one time he smuggled a chocolate-raspberry tart in a Fairway tote bag into the bar where our friend Marie was celebrating her birthday, because the bar didn’t allow outside food. I loved that he did all these things, but I also couldn’t imagine doing any of them myself. If I tried really hard, maybe I could talk to our landlord for 45 seconds. But baking? On top of everything else it involves, I knew you had to wait for the ingredients to reach a nebulous “room temperature” before you could even start. How ridiculous!
And then one morning, it hit me. If I accepted that he was the “good person” in our relationship — that I was less inclined to care for others in ways that seemed to come so easily to him — what did that make me?
It was as lovely to have such an admirable person in my life as it was confusing. Did I really do so little for others? Why did someone selfless want to be with me, an apparently selfish person? Had I tricked him? Did he know who I really was? I spiraled, as I often do, but this one took me deeper.
I asked him all of these questions, and even though he said he didn’t want to date anyone else, I needed a lot of reassurance that this was how he really felt. There were times when the anxiety I had at night was still there the next morning; I would lie in bed, waiting until he woke up so I could ask him if he was sure he didn’t want to leave me.
I tried to be the partner I thought he should have, someone equally gregarious and nurturing. But it was hard to be that person all the time. When we argued, that persona disappeared and I was my usual self — stubborn and vociferous. When we made up, the shame over my behavior lasted for hours, sometimes days.
Eventually, I went to a cognitive behavioral therapist because my psychiatrist said, “You really need to go to a cognitive behavioral therapist.” During my first session with this very nice man on the Upper West Side (who, it turned out, had treated my father on and off for decades), I revealed what was going on as clearly as I could — that no matter what my boyfriend said or did, I couldn’t believe he loved me, because he was a good person and I was not.
“Why don’t you believe him when he tells you he wants to be with you?” he asked.
“Because it doesn’t make sense. He’s nice and goes out of his way for other people, and I am not nice. I don’t always care about other people.”
“Okay. Do you care about him? And do you find ways to show it?”
“I would do anything to make him happy. He’s my best friend.”
The doctor was blunt. “It’s okay if he’s a better person than you are,” he said. “But unless he’s given you a reason to believe he’s lying about wanting to be with you, you should trust him. You should trust that he’s capable of making his own decision to get to know you and like you.”
He turned to face his computer and started typing. For the remainder of the session, I told him the worries I had about my relationship, and he typed out what I should tell myself to feel better and to calm my need for reassurance. When our time was up, he printed out what he’d written and handed it to me.
“We are going to reduce your need for relief from him until it doesn’t exist,” he said. “If you feel like you really need it, you can ask for it. But our goal is to get you to trust what he says and to trust that you don’t need him to tell you what you already know.”
I took the train home to Brooklyn, reading the printout the whole time. I felt lucky to have it, as if I had written to an advice columnist who’d chosen to answer my letter over hundreds of thousands of others. The next day, though, I found myself having anxiety about my own anxiety. Am I too crazy? I thought. I knew I had a choice. I could ask my boyfriend if I was too nuts for words (and him), or I could just … not.
I looked again at the printout. It said, “A useful principle may be never to repeat yourself. So, once you’ve asked the question, just live with the answer you get. If you can follow this policy, it will help you to become less dependent on reassurance and ultimately less anxious (it will start to make you feel that it isn’t needed).”
If I could ask him this particular question only once, I should probably save it for when I felt really unsure of the answer. I decided not to do anything.
After a few months of seeing this doctor, I had several pages of personalized ways to overpower repetitive and negative thinking. I carried them with me everywhere I went until they ripped at the folds and the sections fell apart.
When my course of therapy was over, I knew it was one of the best things I’d ever done. Did it cure me? Yes and no. CBT didn’t cure me of my problematic thoughts or behaviors; it did, however, give me tools to help me deal with them. So while I still have repetitive worries about my relationship (which has been a marriage for almost two years now), I know how to talk myself through the unhelpful or irrational concerns I might have about it on any given day. I still break the “never repeat yourself” rule, but I’m working on it in my downtime, which just means when I’m not passionately worrying about something that is definitely going to turn out okay.
It’s true that simply not asking for permission to be in my own relationship has helped me to feel worthy of it. And it doesn’t hurt anymore to acknowledge that my husband is a better person than I am. His goodness is not a flaw in my character. He is allowed to be the way he is, and I am allowed to be the way I am. Our differences are not signs of incompatibility or signals that our marriage will fail. I believe they make us fit each other. I make sure to let him know that I appreciate everything he does to take care of me, and he enjoys his efforts being appreciated.
My husband is the good person, and I’m happy to be the person who is good for him.