“You are right, and I hate that you’re right, but you are, and I don’t know what to do with that.”
I think or say this more often that I would like to. Usually it’s when I’m talking to my husband, and it always underscores to me that while I have done a lot of work on myself the past few years, I have a long way still to go.
I try to be patient with myself, but it’s hard. As I’ve said before, working on reshaping emotional and behavioral responses takes so long and the short-term gains are so modest that when you’re in the moment working on it looks nearly identical to not working on it and coasting by, expecting people to manage your emotions and pick up after you. It’s hard enough to be patient with MYSELF and I have to live with myself, I have no choice of quitting being me – I don’t know how I expect him to be patient with me. I continue to be impressed that he doesn’t leave and that he trusts that I do the work. I can clearly see it’s not an easy gig, and any of you who are able to support an abused partner in this way, you’re superheroes to me.
When I find myself thinking, “You are right, and I hate that you’re right, but you are, and I don’t know what to do with that,” that’s when I sit up and take notice. The feeling that precedes it is a kind of crazed defensiveness where what they’ve said to you hurts badly, but you know they’re on to something. I’m happy these days that I’ve gotten to the point where my initial reaction isn’t necessarily to go into denial, project it back on them, lawyer my way out of the conflict by pointing out mild inconsistencies in what they’re saying, blame-shift, or lash out – not saying I’m not guilty of some of these even now. I’m sure I repeat offend. But overall, I try to register this feeling and pay attention to it and admit to myself and to them that they might be on to something.
The first time I actually said these words (or something like it) aloud to my husband, he laughed. “People don’t say things like that,” he remarked. “I love you so much for this.” And it’s so helpful and validating to find that despite the fact I make plenty of missteps and has some bad behavior along the way that he appreciates that I have a deep level of self-awareness and can be honest and brave about it when I realize I’m wrong about something. Truly, I would rather be wrong than believing a reassuring, ego-boosting lie. I would rather be happily partnered than right. He is also quick to compromise when he understands my views, and I’m so grateful for this desire to collaborate. Again, these are superpowers, and if you can do these things, then you are amazing.
The latest time I felt this way, I had a bit of a breakthrough in understanding how I get to feel like I love my husband more than he loves me. It was funny. I was doing a bit of bad acting in that I was seeking validation in a way where I thought I was being direct but felt very invasive and critical to my husband and he told me I shouldn’t be looking to other people for validation – which is a big thing that Americans especially say culturally but isn’t strictly true because we’re social animals and social comparison is both a natural impulse and an important yardstick for ambiguous situations – I caught myself before I lectured him on that and got into an intense cycle of social psychological lawyering and got quiet and thought “Something tells me he’s onto something here, he’s right, and I hate that he’s right, but he’s onto something, and I’m uncomfortable with it and don’t know exactly what to do with this.” I thought about it a while and remembered that I also know that the NATURE of the social comparison is important.
The next day, I started to disassemble my thought processes on the drive in to work. And it all clicked. I had developed profoundly maladaptive coping strategies to feelings of insecurity re: romantic relationship partners. The first I’ve discussed before. When threatened in poly situations in the past, I would detach from that person emotionally and shift the emotional attachment on somebody else I was seeing, someone at the time I perceived as a “safer” object of affection. It was like a game of musical chairs and incredibly effective but not mature or terribly healthy. I’d check out when it got hard, essentially.
The second was news to me though. I realized that when I’d start to feel insecure and checking out was not an option (i.e., when I’ve been in monogamous relationships as well as recently since I realized I do the checking out thing and I’m trying not to do that) that what I would do instead when feeling insecure and worrying that I’m not loved:
- Thrum up intense romantic feelings for the partner in question by repeatedly ruminating on them in an intense fashion, listening to romantic music, and fostering a kind of pseudo-obsession in which my feelings would get very intense.
- Approach them and note that they were still behaving in whatever normal way they were behaving, noting that my heightened feelings had no effect on their behavior. This would oddly make me feel insecure even though it’s not reasonable at all to assume that emotions I’m feeling would have any transfer over to them – we are DIFFERENT PEOPLE (a shocker) and I can’t transfer my emotions telepathically.
- Begin to seek validation from them explicitly. In the past, I would do unfair testing, ask loaded questions, fish for compliments, etc. This was profoundly unfair, and I’m striving not to do that anymore, although I’ll occasionally catch myself either in the act or about to do it. Now, I instead have been forthright. A recent example: “I’m feeling unspecial. Are there things that are special about me that make you value me?” I try to be okay with a yes or no or whatever response is given, rather than needing them to spontaneously spew eloquence and specificity regarding the validation question. Unfortunately though, it still sometimes can feel like being put on the spot and like a trap or some kind of compliment fishing expedition. But baby steps, yeah?
As you can see, I’ve been aware of step #3 in this process for some time as I’ve made some slight improvements to it. The really amazing thing about the other morning is I became aware of steps #1 and #2 – those were automatic and I was unaware I was doing them or why. It occurred to me on that drive in to work that the best approach when I was feeling insecure was to leave my emotions the hell alone and instead observe and listen to my husband and pay attention to the things he was actually doing and saying.
What I found when I left well enough alone in this recent example was that my husband spontaneously told me how much he loved me and rolled over in bed and snuggled me with incredible warmth. In the morning, I awoke to find that he’d fixed my Keurig machine that’s been acting up. He has also been making a concerted effort to be more verbal with validation and to do it more often since I tend to default to being a words of affirmation person in the The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts classification of relationship styles. The caring and validation were there – I only had to stop freaking out for 2 seconds and see it.
I checked in with him with all this and shared what I had learned about myself. And the remarkable thing – what really blows me away?
There was no “I told you so,” no lording, no keeping score.
His immediate response was to tell me how much better I’ve been doing and to remind me of the progress and effort that have been involved. Let me tell you, that’s not easy to do when dealing with someone who can be so utterly obnoxious as I can be when I get into a loop.
There’s something else they don’t tell you about dating an abused person – we’ve already established that you must be a badass. Relationships are hard enough, having one with an abused person is a rough gig with the difficulty set on maximum. Only superheroes need apply.
However, it’s not only that you have to be a superhero with patience and persistence and a genuine desire to understand that mere mortals are foolhardy to attempt… it’s that you become a superhero who is able to create another superhero.
I talked to my husband about this essay before I wrote it, asked him if there was an upside to the increased difficulty of dating an abused person who was trying to do better, if he felt like it was worth it. I told him it wasn’t to put him on the spot, just that I really would have no way of knowing this:
“Yes,” he replied. “It is gratifying. As much as we get mutually triggered sometimes, it’s wonderful to watch you heal and grow.”
“I don’t know how anybody deals with it without falling out of love with the person, trudging through a mess that other people made, taxing your reserves of persistence and faith,” I wrote before.
I guess now I have my answer.