On unhealthy relationships

Clarisse Thorn: How my life wasn’t always Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land.

“Here is the strange part, for me, in remembering him: I don’t think he consciously wanted me to hurt myself like that. If he had been deliberately abusive, if he had really wanted to tear me apart, if he’d been physically abusive […] Maybe then I would never have gotten involved? Maybe then I would have walked away sooner? But maybe not.”

“Can I teach other people to set boundaries in situations like that? I don’t know. The feminist ideas and gender analysis I was exposed to as a kid didn’t prevent that experience (although, again, maybe those things would have helped if the situation had been more obvious: if he’d been physically abusive, for example, or more overtly controlling).”

I recommend the above article particularly for those with little experience with relationships. There’s a lot about this text and situation that seems familiar to me: in my first relationship, I too should have been better at setting my borders and policing them. And when my partner didn’t properly respect my borders, it wasn’t out of malice either: I have no doubt that she really did love me, but rather just didn’t realize what she was doing, or just couldn’t help being needy when she did.

It was exactly that which made it so hard for me to say no when I should have: had the relationship been openly abusive, I would have realized it pretty quickly, but when I was already in the relationship and my partner needed me and clearly cared about me, how could I have said no? (At least I would have left it had it been openly abusive from the start. It didn’t seem dysfunctional at first, either.) And even if the requests seemed unreasonable, wasn’t it reasonable that I who was better off compromised on what I wanted? And if it was impossible to even raise the issues of what I experienced as unfair without her pretty much breaking down and starting to hate herself, and me being forced to patch her back together without us ever really getting to the point of talking about those issues… then sometimes, that resentment had few other places to go than to turn inward, and I might wonder whether I was the one who should have tried harder.

Some people will know or guess who I’m talking about, so let me emphasize again that I don’t blame her, nor bear her any ill will. Again, I’m sure that she really did care about me, but was just undergoing a really hard time, and was in a really bad shape. She’s better now. We’ve talked about it, she’s sorry about it, and I’ve forgiven her. (I also let her read this text beforehand and made sure that she was okay with me posting it.) And she did teach me to be far more sensitive about my borders, and I think that I’ve done a much better job of setting my limits since then. It’s rare, but sometimes that which doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

Would I have done things any differently if I had read this article beforehand? As the author of the article says, when asking herself whether she would have acted differently in case her lover would have been more abusive – maybe not. I was a lonely teenager, being really in love for the first time in his life, after having had experienced many unrequited crushes before. It’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that I would have regardless just tried to do everything to make the relationship work, just as I did back then. But maybe this will help someone else instead.

Of course, none of this is to say that people should dump their partners if the partner is having a difficult time, or that you shouldn’t ever compromise on your desires if you’re clearly better off than your partner is. That’s what makes these issues so hard – there are no clear lines of what to do when. But at least make sure that you really are helping because you genuinely want to help… not because you’re being guilted into it.

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