'Am I Abusive?'

Don't begin a new life by telling someone else's old stories about who you are.

Hibiscus with Plumeria (1939) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Polly,

I’ve made the decision to divorce my husband, so my question is not about that. It’s about the story we tell ourselves about why it’s ending, and how I see myself on my way out.

For five years, we’ve been trying so hard to get our relationship right, and it has just not worked. In the language of attachment styles, I lean avoidant and he leans anxious, so our dance is well-known in the therapy community.

My primary complaint is that my husband just doesn’t accept and affirm who I am. Some examples: The way I dress bothers him (I have been happily phoning it in since the pandemic), and though I dress nicely when we go out together, so as not to embarrass him, that doesn’t seem enough for him: he wants me to want to dress better, even when I’m sitting at home, for my own sake. I’ve never liked the cold weather, but he keeps trying to get me to go skiing with him, and even though I’ve told him again and again that I don’t really enjoy myself on the slopes, he is endlessly disappointed when I decline his invitations. He feels lied to because I used to like going out when we lived in the city but have become a homebody since moving to the country. I just never feel like I’m enough for him.

On top of that, I feel like I am constantly having to apologize for some thing or other that I did to hurt him. Two salient, repeated examples: not firmly and directly spelling out my boundaries and requests, and getting emotionally reactive during conflict (usually resulting in some form of withdrawal). He has gone so far as to label this behavior as abusive--specifically, manipulation, gaslighting, and stonewalling. I can own up to this accusation to an extent, and to that extent, I have committed to doing better, even though we are separating, because I know it’s not good for anybody. But he wants me to own up to being an abusive person, an abuser. It is not enough for him that I admit to having done abusive things and am actively working toward doing better. He wants me to call myself an abuser, and I refuse to do that. (It’s worth mentioning here that he has physically and verbally abused me, owned up to his abuse, and resolved to change it. It’s been rocky, but he deserves credit for his damn good effort.)

For what it’s worth, I think this points to a significant incompatibility between us: I believe that everyone is basically good, and we all make mistakes and are capable of learning and doing better. He believes that people suck, and the only thing standing in the way of making ourselves better is the willingness to open our eyes to our own shittiness, and then work really fucking hard to overcome our base nature.

Polly, I know I am codependent, and I am leaving this relationship to salvage my self-worth and embrace myself just as I am, instead of contorting myself to fit my husband’s expectations, as I’ve done for the entirety of our relationship. I’ve been reading a lot of your columns lately and I am starting to believe that I’m not only OK just as I am, but I am fucking lovable, and awesomely weird, and if I decide to get back into a relationship with anyone, they sure as shit better see that in me. I want to be seen, heard, loved, accepted, and affirmed as I am (which sometimes includes emotional distance)...but I also want to be open to feedback about my behavior, and treat my partner well. But where is the area between “here I am in all my glory” (see: How to Stop Trying to Be Better and pretty much all of your advice on self-acceptance) and “put up and shut up” (see the boyfriend in My Boyfriend Refuses to Change)? How do I love and accept myself for all my flaws and quirks AND still try to treat others better?

With gratitude,

Soon-To-Be-Ex-Wife

Dear STBEW,

You’re the one being gaslit. Your ex urges you to firmly spell out your boundaries, but when you do so (‘I don’t enjoy skiing,’ ‘I don’t feel like going out,’ ‘I’d rather dress comfortably when I’m at home’), he doesn’t respect your preferences at all. He begs you to engage, you tell him the truth, and then he tells you that what you want isn’t just inconvenient to him, it’s unfair. In his story, you didn’t just change your preferences after you moved to the country. You lied to him about how much you like going out. You tricked him into thinking you liked skiing. You should want to dress better around the house for your own sake. The moral of his story is that everything you do for yourself is selfish. In his mind, his activities and tastes are *objectively* good for you. Your refusal to adopt his entire way of life is a manifestation of your rigid, abusive nature.

In your ex’s head, people are inherently bad and nature itself is hostile. I’m sure you’re not the only person he paints as abusive just for asserting their preferences. Everyone seems selfish and shitty to him because he moves through the world anxiously trying to make other people conform to his needs, and most people withdraw. Why? Because most people are smarter than they seem, and they can sense when someone isn’t capable of making space for who they are. He pushes people’s boundaries and they back away, and then he calls them shitty and abusive instead of examining the insecurities and anxieties that cause him to act out so much. He needs to be right about everything. He doesn’t welcome what the day brings him. Instead, he tries to change every white rose into a red rose, tries to turn a gray sky blue, tries to bend the laws of time and space just to suit his needs.

He’s the selfish one in this picture. You’re not abusive or an abuser. You withdrew because you sensed he would never be satisfied. You stopped directly telling him your truest desires and asserting firm boundaries because he never respected them when you did. Every little bit of information you offered about yourself was used against you in his twisted court of law, so you stopped giving him information. You stopped wanting to spend time with him. You disappeared into the woodwork instead.

I’m not even convinced that you’re avoidant. You’re just self-protective. You stopped wanting to talk to him or go places with him because he could never meet you in the middle. He didn’t invite you to ski and say, “Let’s do a short hike then you can go get a massage while I ski,” or “Just drive up there with me and read your books by the fire.” You had to go skiing and you had to look nice doing it or you were letting yourself down. Doing what he wanted was objectively the right thing to do, according to him. All input you tried to give on what you preferred was treated as pure recalcitrance on your part.

That’s manipulation, gaslighting, and stonewalling to the trillionth power. What’s hilarious is that even now — EVEN NOW! IT’S OVER! YOU’RE DIVORCING! — he wants you to adopt his story about the marriage: You were the reason the marriage failed. You were an abuser. You tricked me into thinking you were someone else because you’re a shitty person. You’re not a separate, distinct person with your own desires (that I’m curious about and enquire about regularly and encourage when they appear!). You’re a bad person who refuses to do the things you should do to be happy. You stubbornly prefer misery to happiness!

That’s the kicker for me. I mean, holy shit. Imagine being so insecure that you need other people to climb into your head and pretend it’s reality. That’s where real abuse comes from. I’m not saying he’s necessarily abusive, but those are the conditions where abuse happens: when someone needs to dominate you until all of your own preferences die off. Your ex foists his worldview on everyone else and then calls them shitty when they resist it. He lacks empathy. He doesn’t know how to honor desires that conflict with his own.

A good marriage consists of two people honoring each other’s separate desires, even when it’s inconvenient to them. You have to compromise a lot for the greater good. But that’s why it’s so important to trust that your spouse respects you and wants you to feel good. When you stop trusting that, it’s very hard not to withdraw. You stop feeling safe and cared for. When you state a desire, you’re painted as selfish. Why say anything at all? When you simply exist (i.e. sitting on the couch in your soft pants), you’re painted as selfish. Why even be in the same room with someone who’s telling that story?

His bad stories sank in, too. Because now you’re worried that you’re just a rigid person, like the boyfriend in My Boyfriend Refuses to Change. You’ve been so gaslit for so long that you think wearing soft pants around the house makes you an asshole on par with the dude who won’t drive to his girlfriend’s house for any reason and criticizes her for singing in the shower.

The fact that you’re even asking a question about how to balance your own needs against the needs of others tells me that it’s not a big problem for you. Remember what that stubborn boyfriend said in that letter? He doesn’t love people the way others do. He’s not that invested. That sounds more like your ex-husband, who believes that everyone is shitty by nature. So don’t overthink what might be wrong with you. Focus, instead, on why you put up with someone who told you an utterly distorted story about who you are. Reflect on how hard you worked to please your husband in the early days of your marriage, possibly without noticing that he lacked curiosity about who you are and what you want the most. You didn’t notice that he wanted a sidekick, not a real partner.

You’re going to need to learn to trust your instincts more moving forward. That’s going to feel selfish to you at first. But once you start paying attention to how you feel and remembering that you’re not a bad person and love doesn’t have to feel oppressive, you’ll be able to follow your intuition more.

Trusting your instincts means noticing when things feel off. For example: An ex-boyfriend of mine showed me how to pick up his dog’s shit on our third date. I thought we were just walking the dog together, no big deal. He had the poop bags. I was coming along for the ride. But when his dog took a dump, he stopped and said, “Let me show you how to do this since you’ll probably have to do it at some point. You put your hand into the bag and pick it up that way, see?”

It was a minor thing, but I remember getting this sick feeling like What role am I auditioning for, here? If I’d paid attention to that feeling, I would’ve noticed that every step of the way, I was being primed to fit neatly into his life as a helpmate without needs or preferences. And sure enough, as the months went by, whenever I expressed my preferences, he would tell me why they were absurd or stubborn or wrong. He would urge me to express my feelings directly, then berate me for how I felt.

One afternoon, he told me that it bothered him that I didn’t believe in anything. I told him that I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the little manifestations of divinity that you collect over the course of a day, and over the course of a life. Those things add up: Little birds sitting on branches, singing in the dappled morning sun. Cool summer breezes that smell like honeysuckle and cut grass. Those small things make life rich and exciting, but you have to remember to breathe them in and feel them inside your cells. When you slow down and notice things, every day brings you new gifts, new delights. Every moment is a work of art.  

I felt like I was being pretty eloquent and heartfelt, and he would embrace that. Instead he had this disgusted look on his face. “Well, I believe that LIFE IS SUFFERING,” he said, “We’re being tested. We’re here to endure hell until we can move onto something better.”

Can you believe it? I was taking the risk of vulnerably describing to him what I loved the most and cared about the most, and he still wanted me to know that I was wrong and everything was pure shit. Was that guy ever going to learn a thing for me? Was he curious about me at all? Fuck no! He literally wanted me to pick up his shit. The end.

I had never dated anyone as rigid or disrespectful before and I haven’t since. When I was with him, I stopped trusting myself. I tried to move into his head and mimic the sounds he made. I just wanted to make it work somehow, and I thought that if I worked hard enough, I could make it better. I was massively insecure in a brand new way when I emerged from that relationship. I was worried that I was selfish and unfair because that’s what he told me I was.

But that’s not what anyone else said. That’s how it’ll be for you, too. You’ll discover that you’re less avoidant than you thought. When you’re in the company of someone who’s actually curious about you, you might open up and trust that person in a way you never trusted your ex-husband.

In the meantime, shake off your insecure ex’s warped characterizations of you and tune into your feelings more. Trust your instincts. You’re too hard on yourself. You don’t have to work so hard to please people. You don’t have to become someone new to win love. Don’t try to be less selfish next time. Stand up for who you are. Stand up for your own peculiar ways of welcoming the gifts and delights of this day.

Everything is about to get easier. When you look back on your marriage, you’ll marvel at how impossible everything felt back then. You’ll feel so grateful it’s over. Don’t define yourself by who you became inside a dark box. Define yourself by who you’re becoming now, as you bask in the light. This sunshine becomes you.

Polly


Thanks for reading! Today, remember to stand up for what you love the most, and applaud those you love the most when they stand up for their unique desires. Send your letters to askpolly at protonmail.com. Ask Polly publishes twice a week for subscribers, so