‘Do I Even Deserve to Be in a Relationship?’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

With all the recent news about manipulative partners, I’ve been feeling particularly sore. In every relationship, I’ve felt pressured to conform to my partner’s spoken and unspoken standards. I honestly think this is because I was dating people who didn’t like me very much! 

But in return, I also held them to standards both spoken and unspoken, and went above and beyond in a way I could see being called “love bombing.” For me, it felt like penance for being the problem in the relationship. I’ve done so many things I regret and feel shame and guilt over to the point that it makes me nauseous. 

For example, I would bring up feeling insecure and jealous about partners’ friends, not in an effort to control them, but to seek comfort. They ended up changing their behavior anyway in a way that made it clear I was at fault for bringing it up. When I was 15, I scratched someone I was dating in a moment of anger and they bled. I’m in therapy, but I keep seeing people say that therapy only makes an abuser more effective, and I worry that’s what I am. 

I have certainly been a victim of abuse myself, so I’m afraid I will never know what the healthy thing to do is. I’ve hurt people, regardless of my intentions. I feel like perceiving myself as inherently bad isn’t going to make my relationships any better, but I don’t know how to forgive myself. Papi, do I even deserve to move on?

Guilty Party

Hey there, GP!

There’s a lot to get into here, so I guess I’ll start with what it means to be a bad person.

Perhaps this is intuitable information, but most people don’t like to entertain the idea that they have caused harm. It makes them sad or anxious. After all, it’s a frightening prospect. What is a “bad person,” if not someone who hurts people? And I don’t know many people who want to be a bad person.

But, of course, this instinct to eschew self-reflection is precisely what keeps people from modifying their behavior. I understand the fear. Bear with me as I try to explain myself. I’m not sure if it’s a trend or if this has always been the case, but there’s a popular notion that behavior stems from a place of innate, absolute identity. People, when situated in this ideological framework, can’t really change. They are who they are. Bad people are bad people. Every good thing a bad person does is part of their meticulous façade, and every bad thing they do exposes them for who they truly are.

Behavior can only confirm what was always true. A person’s actions can only expose them, never change them. Either they were deceiving us all along with their performed goodness, or they were showing their true colors. This goes the other way, too, à la “the halo effect.” A perfect, squishy cinnamon bun of a person can’t possibly do wrong, because we like them. I mean, just look at them! And so on. It’s all a bit Calvinist.

This might be starting to sound like a rant about “cancel culture” or something, GP. I apologize. But what I mean to say here is that, most people (all people, really) have the capacity to do harm. Most people, in life, will do harm. They will cause pain, and pain is something that wants to travel. It wants to perpetuate itself. It’s less common, though not unheard of, to see someone inflicting harm on another person out of sheer sadism. Far more frequent, as I mentioned in last week’s column about trauma, is a person inflicting harm because they themselves are living in hurt, in fear, or in self-loathing.

Uncomfortable as it is to accept, we are all, each of us, victims and villains in this world. That doesn’t mean we are equivalent in individual deeds, but it does mean that things are a bit more complicated than figuring out who’s good and who’s bad as if there are two teams and we are each assigned a jersey for one or the other. It means that, if we have resolved to do right by each other, then we will have to be brave enough to confront ourselves and the ways we perpetuate cycles of harm.

I know there are people out there who say people don’t really change. To be completely honest with you, GP, sometimes I wonder about it myself. But for me, I have to believe that people can be better. That there is something about the human spirit that allows us to transcend our circumstances and evolve. Even my work as a humble advice columnist, you see, would all be for naught if the reality were that people are incapable of deep, meaningful change.

Am I right? Am I wrong? I guess I don’t know, but it’s my belief. Perhaps it’s something akin to faith.

You’ve been candid with me about your past, and for that, I thank you. To me, it shows you are reflecting on your actions and that you have a willingness to find ways to avoid repeating them. To weigh in myself, it sounds like you have a habit of acting out of rash emotion when you feel insecure, and then trying to make up for it with effusive sweetness. I think this speaks to a difficulty with regulating your emotions and with having necessary conversations where you either admit fault or are open with where your anxieties are coming from.

I don’t think therapy is just a tool for manipulators. Therapy is, after all, a broad term encompassing a spectrum of practices, techniques, and approaches to treatment. It’s all about getting the right therapy, one that works for you. Having struggled with managing my emotions as well, I would recommend looking into dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which focuses on providing skills that help you navigate intense emotions and negotiating social relationships.

I’m rooting for you on your journey, GP! Try to remember that guilt and self-flagellation don’t accomplish much. As for what you “deserve,” well, that’s above my pay grade. Some cultures come up with entire pantheons of gods in order to delegate the question to them. But I do think, I do believe, that if we want to be better, and if we’re willing to try, then, yes. You and I can change.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published August 8, 2023.

Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘Do I Even Deserve to Be in a Relationship?’