The Perils of Talking Over Your Relationship Issues With Other People

a TV weatherman standing in front of a forecast map
Image by globochem3x1minus1 / CC BY

I published an essay here recently that compared a rough spot in an otherwise happy relationship to a freak cold day in a warm climate:

I’ve had a lot of long-term relationships. Some of them were rocky, some were much more even keel.

Nevertheless, all of them had conflict every once in a while. The best fits, the okay fits, the horrendously poor fits. All of them had conflict.

You deal with other human beings, you occasionally have conflict. It’s the price of engaging with others, take it or leave it.

But it wasn’t always the same level of conflict. The best fits were ones in which rough spots were more like the freak cold day and less like the ongoing cold season that stretched for months.

We fought or had to work through some issues, but it wasn’t our baseline. Most of the time things were sunny, and I had a reasonable expectation that once the cold front cleared, things would return to a warmer norm.

Conversely, a relationship that is perpetually rough is a lot like living in a colder, harsher climate. It’s nothing like tolerating an occasional freakish cold day. It’s darker, more depressing. You have to accept it. Resign yourself to it.

Or you move.

It’s Tougher to Understand the Difference When You’re on the Outside Looking In

Anyway, it’s occurred to me lately that the difference between a freak cold day and a cold season — and the difference between a good relationship with the occasional rough spot and a bad relationship fit overall — are tougher to understand when someone’s on the outside looking in.

When I Was in a Bad Fit Relationship, I Was Too Ashamed/Stressed to Confide in Friends About It

If I look back on all the times I’ve had either a relationship rough spot or a rough relationship fit, I can see that sometimes I talked to people outside of my relationship about it, and other times I didn’t.

Typically, the times that I opened up to other people about my frustrations were the times when I was just going through rough spots. When it was a bad relationship fit, I can see, looking back, that I spoke to no one about it. That I wrote about it instead in my private journals.

There was a certain element of embarrassment, I think, that prevented me from reaching out to friends for support. In those situations, I hadn’t left the relationship yet and was attempting to work on it but wasn’t meeting with much success. And the particular manner in which I failed to reach my partner made me feel small — both for not being able to reach them and also for continuing to try.

I told myself that a better person, someone with their shit more together, would have either managed to repair the relationship or to leave by now.

But me, I’d found the perfect nexus of ineffective yet too much of a coward to leave.

So when the time came for me to end the relationship, it was often well past due, yet to my friends seemed to come out of nowhere. Since they’d seen no conflict at all before the relationship ended.

Only my partner and I would ever know how bad it had been, how much both of us had suffered in private, a level of suffering that made our parting not only make sense but seem inevitable.

Friends I Confided In Were Unforgiving of Partners and Exaggerated the Size of the Problems

Looking back on the times that I did reach out to friends about issues, something else became clear: While there may have been rough spots, the fit was still good. I didn’t feel used or abused by the partners in question. We were just having normal conflicts.

But a funny thing would often happen as I confided in people, regardless of who the person in question was: They would start acting like the situation was more serious than I knew it to be.

They would respond to me not as though I was having a relationship rough spot but that I was having problems with relationship fit.

Everything I said would be amplified, exaggerated. And I’m not sure why.

Perhaps it’s because they know me to be a person who doesn’t like to complain (true), they were adding extra Undercomplaining Tax on top of everything I was saying.

Whatever the case, it was inappropriate.

And nearly every time I confided in a friend about relationship problems I was having, I’d come to regret it later, as they would still perceive overblown doom and gloom long after the conflict had been sorted through. They’d do this even when I’d make a point to explain that things were better or to share positive highlights.

They seemed unable to forgive my partners long after I’d forgiven them, even when I gave them what was to my thinking every reason to.

Most Friends Remembers the Time They Came to Visit You While a Freak Cold Front Was in the Area

It’s something to keep in mind. A friend will never be standing in the reality of your relationship. Even if they care for you, they’ll be standing outside of it. They won’t feel the incredible warmth of mostly sunny days. You can tell them all about them, but for a lot of people — especially ones who really care about you — they’ll fixate instead on the one afternoon there was a tornado in your zip code, even if it didn’t come anywhere near your house.

Or they’ll note the one time they came to visit you, and a cold front swung by, and it was 40-something degrees in a “warm” place.

*

That said, I do strive to be the kind of friend who trusts my friends to know the difference between a freak cold day and a cold season.

If you tell me the weather is generally nice there, I will believe you. I won’t keep after you, telling you that you’d better pack a sweater, that I think you’re deluding yourself about the climate.

When you tell me about the sunny days you’re now having, I won’t respond with, “Well, that’ll change,” or “I think it’s been colder there than you’re admitting to yourself.”

Because not only is it rude, it’s arrogant.

So I’ll trust you when you tell me this is just a freak cold front. And I’ll help to keep you warm until it passes.

But if you decide to move out because the cold is getting to you, I’ll understand.

*

Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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