Dr. Jekyl And Ms. Hyde: How Do I Stop Myself From Becoming Bitter-Critical-Bitch-Girlfriend?
I consider myself a fairly laid-back person, and I have an overall very healthy relationship with my boyfriend of about 2 years. HOWEVER. About six months ago we started bickering a lot, and now the bickering has turned into little arguments. We always make up afterwards, but they just keep coming.
Part of this might be because we live together in a little space– we’ve lived together before under other circumstances, and were fine, and the arguments started basically when we moved. But this is a familiar feeling from past relationships– of falling into arguments that are either about the same things over and over, or triggered by the same situations. I can feel myself shifting into this same argument-driven frame of mind, in which I become hyper-sensitive to the smallest hint of something upsetting, and no amount of my own will nor his charming, cajoling, or pleas for level-headed discussion will pull me out of it. These arguments would be a warning sign if they were about anything significant, but the fact is, they’re over things like chewing noises.
Now, I know this is a problem that affects a lot of women because I see and hear them doing this all the time on the street (picking fights, or being moody). But IS THERE A WAY OUT. I really care about this guy and want to make it work for as long as we can manage it. I want to kill this impulse to fight before it gets to the point when I’m no longer myself within this relationship; as I said, I like to think of myself as a fairly laid-back and level-headed person (see above), and would like to extricate myself from the track to being that girlfriend: the impossible, humor-less, bitter girlfriend, who seems to disdain just about everything about her significant other, and everything they do together.
Sweetheart going Sour
I think this is the hardest question I’ve ever received, and I have to admit that I’m not in the best state to answer it — I’d give anything to have a problem like this, to have a relationship with someone I loved, something worth saving. But I recognize that being with someone you’re in love with can be just as difficult as not being with him or her, that the fear of loss can be just as terrible as the sense that you’ve already blown it. And I’ve experienced the souring you’re talking about firsthand, and the distress that accompanies it, and you sound so sincere and so loving, and, I don’t know, something about your letter just shot straight to the middle of my heart, even though I haven’t had that specific feeling in a long time.
So I asked for a lot of help, and I got a lot of different answers. My best friend and her boyfriend, who have a very functional relationship, suggested finding ways to solve the small problems, and learning to see them as small disputes rather than symptoms of something bigger. They pointed out that everyone fights with the people they live with, and urged you not to take it too seriously. On the other hand, my ex-boyfriend thinks that all small disputes have larger causes and that you should dig until you find them — but then, he’s the kind of guy that doesn’t let stuff like that go, and I suspect that if you dig long enough you’ll find something seething inside anyone, even in the best relationships. In other words, I don’t think the issues he’s discovered in past relationships and the squabbling on the surface were necessarily causally related — or even if they were, they might not be in your case. It sounds like you’ve already explored that possibility. And for what it’s worth, some random guy at the coffee shop thinks it’s all about sex, and that you each need to discover a new fetish and everything will work out.
I think you’re right that the space has to do with it, and his chewing noises also probably have to do with it, and sex might even have to do with it, and there are things you can do about each of those realities. You can find a way to accept his small habits, or a funny, loving way to ask him to stop; and you can find a really great coffee shop, or a best friend’s apartment, to hang out in when you’re in a bad mood and miss each other a little, so that things are nicer when you get back; you can buy a polyurethane swing or a subscription to Butt.
But there’s a bigger problem here, too, and one that’s not specific to you two. At some point in a relationship you just start to feel like you’re not on the same side any more. You start to side with other people when they criticize your partner. You start to feel restless around each other, even bored. You stop wearing earrings when you go out to dinner, you stop being excited for your partner to come home, you don’t notice any more when you’re wearing each other’s clothes — you’re too close. You remember when you couldn’t imagine anyone fighting with this wonderful person, but you don’t remember what it felt like. You get in these funks where everything rubs you the wrong way and you want to be anywhere but home. You mention girlfriends you’ve seen sniping at their boyfriends, but men develop the same problems, as do same-sex couples — there seems to be something universal about it.
I think the answer lies in the idea of “sides.” Reductive as the image sounds, it still rings true for a reason. Back when you weren’t on opposite sides, who were you fighting against? What was on the other side? At first, I rejected my instinct to answer, “everything,” like an angsty teenager, but now I think it’s true; I think the answer is everything — you were fighting the world that didn’t get you, the anonymity of modern life, the lack of understanding and lack of empathy that characterizes most of our encounters in the course of a day — and you were fighting the world that didn’t appreciate the person you love, that made him (or her) doubt himself, that alienated and frightened him. Not in a diminutive way, but in a loving one. It’s a philosophical fight as well as an emotional one. You’re united in the struggle not to be alone, the struggle to understand each other and make each other feel understood, to show the best side of yourself to someone who’ll appreciate it, and to appreciate each other in a way nobody else ever has.
After you actually do understand each other, though, and after you get as close as you can be — after you live together and know everything about each other’s days and lives and bodies — you start to feel the need to be more than what the other person sees you as. You start to feel that you’re being defined by your relationship, not recognized within it; and that’s the difference between constriction and liberation. Suddenly you’re so close that the things the other person does acquire an exaggerated weight with respect to your sense of self: Is the person I chose to spend the rest of my life with really willing to spend four dollars on Starbucks coffee? Does he have to wear that sweater? What do you mean you’re not going to vote? — you see? anything he does that you wouldn’t do yourself becomes a source of discontent, because it reflects on you. You’ve extended the bubble of your life and your home to include him, and that means sacrificing a certain amount of control over those things, which eventually involves giving up control over the way you see yourself — and that’s hard.
When we’re alone, we get to form a picture of who we each are that we don’t expect other people to see in full; and the opposite is true as well — we can choose the extent to which we allow other people’s opinions of us to enter our own definitions of ourselves. Fundamentally, we can take or leave most of the people we know. But when you’re in a real relationship, that’s no longer true of your partner. When you’re that close to someone, the way he sees you comes to define who you are in a way that isn’t optional any more. It just happens, because you love him and you live with him. And if you don’t think he sees you the way you want to be seen, or don’t think he appreciates you in some way that matters to you — your commitment to music, your aesthetic taste, your idealism, your sane relationships with your insane family, anything — you can come to feel like you want that power back. You want to distinguish yourself by pointing out the things he doesn’t understand about you. You voice the criticisms in your head — all of them, no matter how small. You find your partner insufferable, even though you can’t think of anyone you like better; you’re nicer to strangers than to the person you love most. Why? Because he’s in your head, and they’re not. What he thinks of you matters, and it’s not fully under your control. What he thinks of the world matters. His standards matter. His taste in shoes matters — whether he thinks shoes matter at all somehow matters. It’s like you’re sharing a skull and fighting for space.
I think you have to find a way get back to feeling that you’re on the same side. You have to get back to feeling that you need to appreciate this person with all your might, with all your heart and all your intelligence, because nobody else really does — because nobody else is capable of loving him the way you do. And you have to separate yourselves in order to do that. Because otherwise your relationship is going to run into a rut, or just run out — maybe not imminently, but it’ll happen eventually. I’ve seen it happen to other couples; I’ve gone through it myself; you’ve seen it, too.
I’m not talking about a false separation. I think it’s easy to get the feeling that if you let yourself, you could just be subsumed into someone else, but the truth is that you’ll always be your own person. My dad likes to tell an anecdote about a professor of his at architecture school who made all of his students copy the sculptures of great artists — and revealed afterwards that the point of the project wasn’t to learn the old masters’ techniques and idiosyncrasies, but to learn their own. Although you may feel swallowed by your house and your relationship, if you think about it, you’ll recognize that you see and experience those things differently than him, and that you contribute to them as much as he does.
The functional long-lasting relationships that I know of (surprisingly few in number) involve that balance: a willingness to disagree, maintenance of separate perspectives, seperate dreams and ideals, seperate life-projects, so that each can inspire the other without restricting him or her. That’s not to say you can’t relate and collaborate and very much share a world; but you do so as separate characters, in a kind of symbiosis, rather than as indistinct conjoined creatures.
I suspect that if you can backtrack and accept that you and your boyfriend are always going to be separate people, no matter how long you live together, and that you’ll never do things quite the same way or agree about certain issues, you’ll be able to appreciate again how much you have in common instead of worrying about how much you don’t. I don’t have solid evidence. It’s just a theory. But it’s the best one I have. Please let me know how it goes. I wish you both the best.
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