Internal Relationship Struggle in the Face of Healthy Change
May 16, 2011 1:14 PM   Subscribe

I am going through a period of significant change at the moment where I am trying to address some long-standing problems in my life, and I think I am on the right track and making some real progress. My one big dilemma is related to my relationship. I actually credit a lot of my progress to my boyfriend and his unshakable support and the undercurrent of what I think is calmness in our house. BUT, I am finding myself kind of shrinking from him, and if I am being honest, feeling a sort of (shameful) disgust towards him.

I know that normally this would clearly spell doom, but since I am going through so many changes I just don't know what thoughts/feelings to trust, and which to discount for the time being. It certainly doesn't feel fair to him to sit around feeling disgusted. But I also know he wouldn't want me to end things unless I felt truly sure about my motivations.

As for the history of these feelings, they have surfaced on and off throughout our relationship, where I feel very close to him for a time, and then a kind of visceral disgust. Then I feel close to him again, and so on. So the feelings aren't brand new, but they feel even harder to deal with as I get healthier (and I am no closer to deciphering whether they are the result of relatively healthy or unhealthy thought processes.) The thing is, this is also the 'healthiest' relationship I have ever had, as far as a sense of calmness and saneness and unswerving support. I just don't think that I give all of those things back, and I am also suspecting that maybe those things aren't necessarily enough for me. But being so unhealthy for so long, I don't know if that is true. But they certainly seem like crucial characteristics, and somewhat rare ones it seems.

I know that no one can answer this kind of fundamental question for another person, but what are some things I can keep in mind to help sort out my 'real' from my potentially-distorted feelings about him? Has anyone else not known what to do about a relationship while undergoing new approaches to long-standing problems, and found any helpful approaches to the issue?

One of my biggest fears is feeling like I am changing too much to stay together, and then taking action to end the relationship only to find that my previous progress was all based on the nature of this supportive relationship (and then watching as all my progress dissolves before my eyes, and a relatively-healthy partnership is needlessly destroyed.) However, I certainly don't want to be selfish and feed on someone's support if I am not truly being an intimate, 100% certain partner.

I have huge issues with guilt and a paralyzing sense of responsibility for everyone/everything and rigor mortis in the face of considering breaking up with people, but I also don't want to be hasty and wrapped up in the mentality of trying to fix every single problem in my life at once, but I also don't want to take advantage of this kind, giving guy. I wish I could just see my desires clearly, rather than through the lens of my distorted ways! But this is what I have to work with right now, so I ask: what are some ideas to help navigate through these tricky waters of relationships in the face of change, in the most fair and sane way?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You appear to be in a relationship with a loving, caring and supportive person. Based on the information you've provided here (combined with my own anecdotal experiences in similar contexts), this urge to get away from him is probably a manifestation of self-destructive tendencies bubbling up to the surface.

Your partner can make up their own mind about whether or not you're taking advantage of them or being treated fairly. It's not your place to be responsible for them in that way.
posted by DWRoelands at 1:23 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

a. how old are you? The younger you are (eg under 30 vs over 30) the more it's likely that normal life changes and personal growth would cause you to grow apart from a partner. I.e., if you're younger, it's more likely this is a thing where you should break up, wish each other the best, and find partners that fit you better.

b. how long have you been with him? The shorter the time, again, the more likely that you should just appreciate what you've had and break up now.

c. are you in therapy now? If not, get into therapy.

d. have your problems in the past been caused by disgust at yourself, or perfectionism? If so, consider that you might be turning that unhealthy attitude on your partner for some reason. Either way, feeling disgust at normal human flaws is a sign that you're not having a balanced view.

Are you maybe falling into "not respecting any club that would have me as a member"? Like, if you think you're bad, then he must be really contemptible to stick with you? That's obviously a bad attitude to have.

If you just don't want to be with him anymore, or don't feel attracted, that's one thing (it's fine and you should break up). But feeling "disgust" seems like it's another thing altogether. What's the source of the disgust? Is it particular habits that bother you? (It's normal to have a few things that bug you about a partner, so don't expect that every relationship has zero flaws.) Or is it generalized? If it's generalized that seems like an indication that it's something to work on or bring up in therapy.

It's harder to find a good kind partner, as you get older. If you're older, the cost of breaking up will be greater. If you're young, heck, break up. You're not required to stay with someone just because they're good and kind -- especially if you're being a bad partner to them, you're not doing them any favors by hanging on.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:32 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

The good news/bad news is that no one ever has any objective idea whether the relationship they're in is healthy. You can only make the best decision you can as to whether the good outweighs the bad.

Unless there is some clear reason to leave him, I would say stay with him unless and until something happens to make it clear that you should leave. Your reasons for considering leaving seem to revolve around:

- negative, perhaps fleeting, feelings that you yourself don't seem to trust.
- a fear that you aren't being fair to him by staying, if eventually you think you might leave him.
- a feeling that you're changing so much that you're not the same person who entered the relationship.

I don't know about the first one, but as to the second and third - these are problems everyone deals with, and in and of themselves they aren't reasons for leaving.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:44 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing that might help is to have a discussion with your boyfriend and let him know
1. you are going through a time of significant change (which I would assume he already knows) and that your emotions can be really chaotic.
2. You really appreciate his presence and support in your life but as part of this chaos sometimes you feel close and sometimes distant and sometimes both and other times you just have no idea what you feel.
3. You worry that you may be hard to be with during this time and worry that the relationship might not be good for him. So, it would really help you if you can count on him to be honest about his needs so that you can feel confident in taking him at his word -if he says it is OK, he means it. If it is not OK, he will let you know.

If he tells you that he is OK with things being the way they are (at least for now), try to believe him. (Of course, you still have the right to not be OK with the relationship but that is a different conversation.) Otherwise, this is an invitation to find out how he really feels about what is going on between you.
posted by metahawk at 2:46 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am not a big fan of AA by a long stretch, but I've done my time in its partner, AlAnon. One of the suggestions that's stuck with me is that when you're getting sober, you try not to make other huge changes in your life for six months or so. That specifically includes relationships.

I've found that to be something useful in other areas of my life - when I'm changing big things about myself, or my partner is, sometimes everything else feels called into question and I get really scared or upset. In particular, my partner seems to go through massive personality changes every few years, and as I'm not a big fan of change, I don't always react well. But I always fall back in love with him all over again if I wait it out and try to be supportive throughout whatever he's going through.

Which is *not* to say that you should not leave. Especially since I can't imagine ever feeling "visceral disgust" toward my partner, and that sounds like something more than just growing pains. But it is to say that you've got a lot going on right now, and that might be coloring the way you look at your relationship. Maybe it's worth taking a step back, and a few deep breaths, talking to your partner about the changes you and your relationship are going through, and seeing how you feel in a few weeks or a few months.
posted by Stacey at 3:16 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's possible for your partner to be a really great person, but just not really great for you anymore...

Would you say you've felt disgust for your SO during times you've been screwing up and depressed, or during times you've been motivated and thinking clearly? Maybe if you can pinpoint the when/how of that emotion, you can answer this question for yourself.
posted by jbenben at 5:45 PM on May 16, 2011

This sort of flip-flopping about how you feel about someone, how close you want them to get, etc., is normal for someone with attachment issues. If most of your past relationships unhealthy, then you probably do have attachment issues.

Therapy and/or read self-help books about attachment issues in adults.

Meanwhile, I wouldn't make any drastic changes in your relationship until you've been stable a while longer and worked out *why* you occasionally feel repulsed by him -- if it's not something specific to him and is just because you're scared of getting so close, then you'll have to work through this problem with someone eventually. Might as well be with him!
posted by Jacqueline at 10:12 PM on May 16, 2011

Hmm. To put this as gently as possible: How severe is your "disgust" at your SO? Is it to the point of fear, intense anger, and the feeling that he is "evil" and "worthless"? If so, and this is a pattern in all your relationships, were you abused or neglected as a child? If so, you may be experienceing something called "splitting" that is associated with borderline issues. And, if so, you have some work ahead of you, but should not be daunted by the task.

I hope that did not sound harsh. I just wanted to rule out the possibility.
posted by Shane at 6:19 AM on May 17, 2011

Reading between the lines, it sounds like you may have a pattern of focusing on your relationships rather than yourself (perhaps for very good reasons from your past). But in times when you're doing a lot of personal growth, thinking that you have to troubleshoot the relationship as a primary order of business can be a distraction from the internal work you're doing, work which will make all of your relationships more successful. So I'd allow yourself to not worry about your feelings toward your bf and take a break from your "paralyzing sense of responsibility for everyone/everything," especially regarding him now.

All this is because you speak of his "calmness and saneness and unswerving support." To me a huge test of a relationship is whether your life gets better or worse. If his support is fortifying, then no need to change right now. Let your gratitude and respect for that be what you give back. I agree that relationships need more than calmness, so at some point, certain things in how you two relate may need to evolve, but those changes may turn out to be relatively easy once you're clear which are your issues and which are external issues in the relationship (a clarity you can't really rush into or force).

You might talk to him about your process and goals, like metahawk recommends. That could reduce the sense of alienation. But keep your expectations on his participation low; he is not a therapist and may have a limited capacity to understand or help in these deeper issues you're untangling. If you are really troubled about this and have the money, you could get a dialogue about it going via couple's counseling. But I also think it would be fine to save that step until a little later in the game.

Fundamentally, my hypothesis is that your concerns here are another symptom of your guilt and focusing on others / relationships instead of yourself, and that you'll get the most benefit* by allowing yourself to take a break from that, focus on your own work, and then return to them later -- when you're ready to ask questions about the relationship from a place of confidently asking for the things that you want from a relationship, rather than from a place of putting relationship health and your duty to others before your duty to your own well-being.

* Re: "most benefit," setting aside your relationship focus for a bit may keep the focus on what you want to change about yourself rather than giving you the easy out of blaming your partner for discomfort you may experience, particularly as you go through these changes. Good luck with all your good work!
posted by salvia at 9:54 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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