I was a really happy-go-lucky kid. Naturally. But as I grew older, I learned to lean more into this feeling. I took on a willingness to compromise. Didn’t need to get much of what I wanted.
This was because I had a few very particular people who also lived in my household. And they were always holding everything up. Making group decisions difficult.
I abstained from every vote. And I took what I could get. When my parents ordered a sub sandwich for me with raw onions on it, which I abhorred, I quietly picked them off. Didn’t say a word.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t wanted to eat subs anyway. Or that I’d been given a kind I didn’t really like, onions aside. I ate my food. Thanked my parents for the meal.
I longed to spend more time with my father. But I always felt like I was bothering him. So I tried my best to limit the amount of times I approached him. I’d watch him go off with my brother to run errands and do “boy stuff” together (fixing things, playing hockey, what have you) and feel my stomach sink, knowing I’d never be part of their special club.
I’d learned early on that asking to be included only meant getting yelled at. And the best I could do to be a good kid was to blend into the background.
I Went to Couples Therapy Alone
When I found myself going through a divorce at 30, I got therapy. These sessions had initially been something I’d intended for my partner to go with me together because we knew we were having problems, and when I asked, he’d agreed to go to couples therapy… sometime. After 6 months of being told it wasn’t “sometime” yet, I literally showed him the door to the reception desk where we could make an appointment, and he literally refused to walk through it.
At that point, I didn’t have a lot of options. So I saw the therapist alone.
I was doing so much work — emotionally, financially, and domestically — and it wasn’t going anywhere. And instead of meeting me to pick up some of it, my now ex-husband seemed to be doing less and less. All the while copping a mean and nasty attitude, telling me that I was fundamentally unlovable. That I had become a bitch. That it was my fault that the marriage wasn’t working out.
I had started out soft (everyone around me said too soft), and I responded to his accusations by becoming even softer, gentler. I doubled and tripled up on the kid gloves. And he responded by becoming even nastier.
I was sitting there at 30, working full-time, broke (as a husband who didn’t work also frivolously spent any money I made that he could his hands on), married to someone who called me names. And I was married to someone who certainly hadn’t really made me happy, truly happy, in a long time.
I Wanted Answers. If I Was the Problem, I Wanted to Know
“Look,” I told him, “if I’m doing something wrong, if this is all my fault, I want a professional who can help me do better. Because I’m not sure how I fix this.”
I think I knew even then that he was likely causing quite a bit of problems in our relationship himself (every close friend and relative who saw our relationship at the time advised me that he was bad to me and that I deserved better treatment). But I also knew that he didn’t see it that way. So I felt like I could reason with him that I could use help. Solutions. Ways for me to do things differently.
Because honestly… if I was the problem, I wanted to fix it anyway. I was miserable. Whatever we were doing wasn’t working for me.
And he agreed to go to therapy — but apparently only in theory. Because he refused to go when we were together, actually there, and I wanted to make the appointment. I think he hoped I wouldn’t follow through (which is curious to me, because whatever else could be troubling about me, I was very reliable and generally followed through on what I said I would do).
So I attended those sessions alone, asking for answers. Things I could do to improve the situation.
And through the sessions: I got my answers. I could improve the situation by divorcing him.
Once I Left Him, Things Didn’t Get Immediately Better
Things did get a lot better over time. But not right away. Because once I left him, my life didn’t get immediately better. Not all better anyway.
And instead, I was confronted with new stress, issues I hadn’t dealt with ever before. I had to learn to think a completely different way than I was used to. I had to start thinking of what I wanted rather than what would be as little of a hassle as possible. That was what I was used to doing, trying to not be a bother rather than giving much thought to what would make me happy.
I remember the early days in therapy. How hard it was to even think of what I wanted. My brain wasn’t calibrated to that setting.
I’m sure the nature of my former marriage didn’t help. But if I’m taking an honest look back, I don’t think my ex-husband started that in me.
It was instead ultimately the product of my childhood, a childhood in which I tried to cause other people as little hassle as possible. When I tried to be easy to please. Have very few needs.
Where I built my entire self-worth around the concept that I didn’t need or even want much.
So actively desiring things… well, it seemed a dangerous path.
But it’s one I walked down anyway, feeling terrified the entire time.
They Did Get Better Though
And with time and practice, I did eventually learn to hear that little voice inside of me. The one that tells you what you really want. I still don’t typically tend towards selfishness. I find even now that I consistently consider how my decisions will affect other people. And I give extra thought to considering how what I do affects people I love.
But my voice is in there, too, somewhere now. And that has made all the difference.
This post is part of a recurring feature called Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser. To see the full series, please click this link.