You Need Help: Should My Relationship Really Be This Hard?

Q:

Dear Autostraddle,

My partner and I have been together for about 9 years. We’ve built our lives together, and I can’t imagine what my world would look like without them in it. However, I’ve been really struggling with the way they approach conflict. More often than not, they really dig in. They sometimes say cruel or dismissive things, like that the conflict is proof that I never loved them. This ends up happening at least once a week.

I also want to clarify that these fights won’t necessarily be over something big (for example, last week, we had a fight over the fact that I forgot to put the toothpaste back in the bathroom after using it, which messed up their evening routine). That can make it hard for me to guess when I’m doing something that’ll upset them. This gets even more tricky because we’re both neurodivergent and have strong triggers from past abusive relationships (both romantic and familial), and all of this manifests in ways that cause more friction.

I’ve had many conversations with them about it. I’ve tried to change how I engage with them during those conflicts. I’ve also tried removing myself from the situation when it happens to give us both space. None of it works. Potentially, therapy would help, but neither of us can afford it with our current jobs.

I’m not trying to deflect blame. I know there are ways I don’t react well to conflict myself and that I’ve had my fair share of fuck-ups. But I don’t feel like it should be this hard all the time.

I’d really appreciate any advice.

A:

Oh, friend. No, it is not supposed to be this hard.

Everyone gets up on the wrong side of the bed occasionally. Most people accidentally snap at a partner every once in a while. We’ve all said something we regret during the heat of an argument, once or twice. But weekly, sustained arguments over things like forgetting to put back the tube of toothpaste? Fights you can’t predict in which you find yourself defending basic facts, such as the fact that you love your partner? That’s not okay. It’s not okay regardless of the trauma in your partner’s past. It’s not okay even if you’ve “had your share of fuck-ups.” Everyone fucks up. But your partner is enacting a sustained pattern of harmful behavior. You don’t deserve it, and it needs to stop.

Loving someone who asks you to prove your love, or who takes innocuous actions as proof of some sort of slight against them, is such a destabilizing spot to be in. It’s destabilizing not only because your partner has connected the dots between two points that don’t have anything to do with one other (say, toothpaste and love), but also precisely because you do love your partner, and you want them to know it! When small actions lead to big accusations, it’s really natural to work as hard as you can to avoid causing any of those arguments. But irritants and triggers can’t always be avoided, and they definitely can’t be guessed at. Moving through the space of your relationship as carefully as you are is unsustainable. And I want to be very clear: whatever your partner is going through in the moments where things like toothpaste trigger larger conflicts, you did not cause it. Inadvertently setting off a trigger is not the same as deliberately causing harm.

It’s not surprising that even though you’ve tried to come at these conflicts from various angles (processing, distancing, etc.), it’s not working. I noticed that while you mention a lot of work that you’re doing to try to avoid these patterns, I haven’t heard about any work that your partner is doing, or how they communicate in between arguments. Does this pattern seem to work for them? Are they taking any steps to break it? If there’s hope for your relationship to continue, they’ll need to do some real work. You can support them in it, but you can’t do it for them. You can’t fix it alone.

I’m sorry that couples therapy is out of reach for you at the moment. For now, I’m wondering if you’d like to practice setting a hard boundary with your partner, and maybe work out a couple of scripts for how to disengage. These boundaries would involve refusing to follow your partner down the garden path of cruel or dismissive accusations. For example, with the toothpaste: “I’m sorry I forgot to put the toothpaste back. I know why it’s important to you. I won’t engage in further conversation about it right now. If you continue, I will leave this space.” I know you’ve made attempts to interrupt the pattern before, but I really want to emphasize that you need not even reassure them that you love them. That’s simply off-topic. (If they’re able to have a clear and helpful conversation about the toothpaste, what it’s triggering, and your systems for shared spaces, without making accusations or false connections, that’s great! But if not, that’s something you’ll need to do much later, when they’ve cooled off.)

Another aspect I’m wondering about is what it looks like when you assert your needs. Often when we find ourselves having to do a lot of defense, our own needs fly right out the window. It can be hard to remember even what they were because our partner’s needs are taking up so much space. I hope you can think about your own needs and goals and what a relationship might look like if there was equal space for you. Was there a time in this relationship when that was the dynamic? Do you think there’s any possibility of there being equal space again?

Nine years is such a long time to build a life together, and I really want to honor what you and your partner have had. If there was a time when there was trust between you, when you felt like you and your partner were on the same side, a time before you felt you had to walk on eggshells, maybe that will be possible again! I do think that it will only be possible if your partner is willing to put in real work on identifying and interrupting these patterns within themselves. If you can’t have some really honest conversations about what a sustainable future might look like together, it might be time to start taking some concrete steps towards breaking up.

Wishing you the very best of luck. 💙


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Darcy

Darcy, a.k.a. Queer Girl, is your number one fan. She's a fat feminist from California who doodles hearts in the corners of her Gay Agenda. They're living through a pandemic, they're on Twitter, and they think you should drink more water! She also wants to make you laugh.

Darcy has written 333 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. “Inadvertently setting off a trigger is not the same as deliberately causing harm.”

    Damn. This is something I’ve been trying to work through myself but haven’t seen it put so succinctly. In the Leftist communities I was part of in my 20s, these things were often conflated and I’m still trying to process it. Really appreciate seeing this stated so clearly.

    • Yes. I was in a relationship with a fair amount of emotional abuse and one of the things that kept me very stuck and confused was my ex’s marshaling of social justice language to create and reinforce a dynamic where they were constantly being ‘harmed’ (often for toothpaste-level infractions- or not saying the exact right thing, or a ‘look’, or a ‘tone’, or ‘not being sweet enough’, on and on) and because I had caused that harm/triggered them/didn’t deescalate adequately or correctly/etc., I needed to be ‘accountable’ in whatever way they deemed fit. Nobody wants to be harmful! We can all sign onto the idea that it’s possible to hurt someone without meaning to! Turns out, those things can be used to manipulate situations in some pretty insidious ways.

      There was absolutely no way to win in that situation- no walking away, no ending the conversation, and of course no way to do the things I was told would prevent the reactions, because the reactions weren’t actually about me. I feel for the LW more than I can say, and hope they find their way to a place, with or without this partner, where they can just.. be a person, and be okay. Good luck.

  2. When therapy isn’t affordable I highly recommend attending Adult Children of Alcoholic Dsyfunctional Families. 12 step group that helps people sort out their childhood bullshit.

  3. Do you feel like you’re the ONLY one making adjustments or trying these things? Because that might need to be part of how you think about it and talk about it with them. It’s exhausting and unsustainable to do the bulk of the work and changes, and to get minimal from the other side.

    Agree so much about boundaries, especially if you can discuss and agree when things aren’t emotionally heated. A couple good ones to start with are 1) if either of us need to take a break on a discussion, we can ask for a pause with a specific date/time to pick it up again 2) we both can discuss and ask for additional boundaries as needed.

    Then something you’d look for is whether what you’re asking for is being followed, not to keep score but to get a sense whether your needs are being met, too. And if they’re not, then that’s just more information to help you make a decision about your next steps.

    I’ve been going through something similar, and wish I had better or more actionable steps. I’m struggling with keeping the boundaries, assessing if my needs are being met enough, and what, if anything the next steps are. Hope the best for you, whatever it is.

  4. In the question, you state that “None of it works.” My question is – what would it look like for it to “work”? Yes, it “shouldn’t be this hard” – but what would it look like if things were easier? Would your partner fight with you less and have grace for small errors? When they feel triggered, would they confine the focus of the discussion to the thing that triggered them, rather than making broad accusations? Would your partner express care and respect for you, even while explaining how upset they feel? Would your partner be willing to work through a communication self-help book together (of which there are many – Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg is one I like) to try to improve conflict negotiation skills while therapy isn’t an option? Thinking through some of these answers might give you some ideas of specific requests you might make of your partner. And how they respond to these requests is additional information for you about how to move forward. Wishing the best for you. And great answer by Darcy!

  5. In response to the question in the headline, I read a quote that I personally found helpful in the aftermath of a relationship that was never easy. It was something like “relationships take work, but not like digging out a basement using a spoon work.”

  6. My heart broke when I saw this in Slack.

    The only thing I have to add to this is:

    In order to get your needs met, you’ll often have to make those needs plain and ask for them to be met directly.

    In order to ask for what you need, you have to believe you deserve to get your needs met.

    In order to believe you deserve to get your needs met, you have to believe that it’s OK for you to even have needs.

    I am currently learning these lessons, and wonder if they might be lessons you could be working on learning too, letter writer.

    <3

  7. I’ve been here before & can recommend a long list of band-aids (like get them their own damn tube of toothpaste!)for this type of relationship, but that didn’t help me in the long run. My final straw was when my instinct told me I deserved better, coupled with realizing none of my needs were being met. In fact, when I directly asked my then wife at the time to help meet my needs, we discussed in detail. In the end she literally said “I will never be able to do that for you”. So, DONE. It was simple human needs too, nothing wild at all. I even declined marriage counseling, which we too couldn’t afford at the time, because if your partner says no on something like giving hugs when asked, then there are deeper issues. And we owned a home together, had a life together. It sucked to break all of that up, sell the house, start the divorce process, etc. but I couldn’t live like that anymore. She would have coasted forever like that because I was working sooooo hard for her constant approval, while walking on eggshells. She didn’t have to do any work to get her needs met.

    Nine years is a long time, but 20, 30, etc will be a lot longer. You’ll lose time to that instead of learning who you really are & what you need. Choose yourself, love. You deserve better for you!

    • This is a difficult situation especially if this has been going on for nine years. I hope that your partner agrees on working on their anger issues but if they cannot work on their issues and even if there is an explanation for this issues you don’t have to stay because you deserve to be treated respectfully. In the beginning you write that you cannot imagine how your world would look like without them maybe you could start there. I feel like even in a very happy relationship we shouldn’t be together because we cannot imagine life without the other person and therefore need them but because we appreciate them, but this is very difficult and the tendency in society is different.

  8. Nowadays, cheating is a pretty popular way to end relationships. However, it is crucial to be aware of cheating in advance. This website includes a lot of useful tools that can help you identify cheating rapidly. I’ve previously read the website https://signscheating.com/signs-wife-likes-another-man/ , and it was quite helpful. I suggest you go read all the information. You should read everything in great detail because there isn’t a lot of information like this on the Internet.

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