Should I Stay in a Relationship that I Helped Ruin?
September 14, 2012 5:43 PM   Subscribe

I deeply hurt my partner emotionally. I was insecure and stupid. She was there for me when I wasn't for her. Now, I've gotten all my confidence back, and she's not present in the relationship. I truly love her and want her. Should we continue?

My partner and I have been together for almost two years (in November). We had an awesome beginning, as many couples do. We saw each other all the time, talked about everything, longed for one another when the other was away--we got along splendidly. At our core, I think we're very compatible. This is my first serious relationship (and really, first relationship ever).

A little after moving in together, which was about four months into our relationship, we fought at a pretty constant rate. It wasn't everyday, but constant enough to be annoying and potentially detrimental to our relationship. The arguments were mainly about the past, and it was mainly me that was having issues with her past. She is the type of person to bring her past into many of her stories. From my perspective, those kinds of actions are confusing and hurtful because I never really knew why she needed to talk about stuff that happened before me, and even years and years ago before me. I felt very unloved by her stories. It got to me so bad that I ended up lashing out at her, or making hurtful comments.

I have since done a lot of work on myself and saw the error of my ways. Now I'm quite confident with very little insecurity. Unfortunately, that constant heavy cloud above us lasted about a year, and maybe a couple of months. She's incredibly hurt by me, and rightly so. Throughout our year of fighting, she kept telling me that she loved me and the past didn't mean anything. She stuck by my side and was a great partner. I didn't always take her for granted during that time, but sometimes I did. I admittedly was selfish in my confusion.

Now here we are, and I'm over my "stuff"; but she's stuck in our past. There are days when she's not really present. She gets home tired from work and then watches TV for the rest of the night. We used to really connect, especially during sex. She's since stopped having sex with me for at least the last couple of months. (Sex is one of the ways that I feel loved. If you've read The 5 Love Languages, my "languages" are words of affirmation and touch.) She tells me she doesn't feel safe, and what happened has changed her view of me.

After all the work I did, I've realized she is the most important aspect in my life. All of the material things will fade in time, but my love for her will endure. I haven't stopped loving her, and I feel so stupid for what I've done. I know that I've also hurt myself in the process of fighting.

She's been very up and down. I think she may still truly love me, but seems confused. We were going to move apart next month, for a break with the intention of staying together, and were making plans to do so. But she told me last month that she wanted to get a bigger place with me and so we've been looking at houses and condos to rent together. Some days we have a lot of fun, and I feel we're incredibly connected. Just last week she told me our relationship was getting better. But last night we had a talk about our relationship, and she's down about it again and said she "can't make any promises." I inquired about what she meant by that, but she wouldn't elaborate.

At this point, I'm trying my hardest to rectify my wrongs. I know we can't erase the past, but I plan to stick around and "show" her that I am a great person and potentially great partner. Sometimes, though, I get discouraged and think maybe she won't come back around. Have I ruined it altogether? Should we bow out gracefully? I hate that I hurt her.

What do you think? Have you had an experience like this?
posted by sunogenous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Are you talking to each other about this? And is there a reason why counseling (as a couple, and/or individually) is not an option?
posted by rtha at 6:03 PM on September 14, 2012

Response by poster: Whenever we do talk about the relationship, she gets frustrated because the issue is not getting resolved. She is the type of person to need resolution, which I understand; but sometimes, things just are as they are.

And we have been going to counseling, but stopped recently due to financial constraints. However, I opted to stop going to counseling to apply what I've learned in theory - to take action on what I've learned. Taking action was the best thing I did. It helped me move from thinking too much about things to actually getting things done, i.e. getting myself together.

Also, when we do go to counseling, I feel it stirs so much inside her that she shuts down after our session...
posted by sunogenous at 6:11 PM on September 14, 2012

I have not had a situation exactly like this, but I've been in weird relationship places before.

First off, how are you showing her that you're over this and in a more confident place that makes you more willing to accept her for who she is, including her past?

Secondly, how have you been getting over this? Carefuly cognitive recalibration on your own? Therapy? Talking with others? Is the way you're doing it now going to be enough to maintain your newfound confidence, even if things get really bad again? While I think this seems like a great opportunity to recommend couples' counseling, you may also find individual counseling and/or therapy helpful to get at the root of why you respond so strongly to be 'left out' by her storytelling about her past.

Thirdly, it sounds like you need to sit down and have a very honest and painful talk with her. Own up to what you did, own up to why what she did hurt you, own up to what you are doing to fix it on your end and what you need from her to be more included in the future, and ask her to think carefully about what that means for the relationship. You might want to say you don't need an answer right away, but that you need her to think hard about whether she's willing to meet you halfway on making this right by doing her part to try and trust you in little ways again and reconnect in the relationship.

Aaaand last, it sounds like this has been a big ole slog for you guys and I applaud you both for hanging in there. If you can work this out, I think it could bode well for your ability to get through future relationship problems-- together. Is there any way you can reward yourselves for working hard on this (even if it's not successful in the end) by doing something out-of-the-ordinary? I'm thinking take a weekend away, try a new and crazy activity (skydiving! rock climbing! having a camp-out in a library for 24 hours! Whatever is going to get both of you outside your usual comfort zones), or even, if you can't do anything else, just dress up and have a really, really nice dinner. Something that's quality time together and will help you break out of old habits even for a minute, and remember why you're still together and all the great things you love about each other. Good luck.
posted by WidgetAlley at 6:14 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

So, just to clarify, the relationship timeline you're describing is:
1. 4 months of limerance
2. Move in together, one year of fighting "at a pretty constant rate" (mostly your fault)
3. You see the error of your ways, 8 months (?) of her feeling ambivalent and checked-out in turn.

If that's accurate, then fully ~85% of your time together (and 100% of your time living together) has been spent in some sort of oppositional dynamic. This isn't about whether you should get her to forgive you for being a jerk for a day or two during a stressful time at work. Distance and/or conflict is your standard dynamic with this person, seemingly, and if your girlfriend has stuck around for nearly two years of it at this point, then I've got to think there's something she's getting out of it, as well.

It's your call whether you want to try to fix this with therapy, but I wouldn't kid yourself that it'll be a simple matter of showing that you're a good guy/gal and getting your girlfriend to forgive you. If these patterns are as well-established as you say, then turning this into a sunny peaceful relationship would mean a total revamp on both sides, not a minor tweak.
posted by Bardolph at 6:18 PM on September 14, 2012 [20 favorites]

This is a tough situation, I dunno, it struck a chord in me. Have you considered having a really open conversation about what you're feeling with her? What happens? I think if you can't pull something like this off without getting into an argument or her retreating to the TV, then maybe it's time to break up as amicably as possible. That would be the healthy thing to do. It's hard for people to think clearly in co-habitation. Four months is awfully quick to move in together.

It's a really bad place when someone wants to move into a bigger place with you but doesn't want to make any promises. Especially if you take "moving into a bigger place" to mean "things are going well." Moving into a nicer place with things being in the shitter makes no sense to you. That may be a preliminary indication that your partner wants bigger things in life, but is not sure if she wants them with you.

It is incredibly immature to fault someone for bringing up the past, for taking that personally. But I understand. I think it's a phase that some people have to go through. Are you guys the same age?

The only comment I can make is that throughout everything it is clear that you seek a lot of affirmation from this other person. This is not particularly healthy. Of course, you see this when you argue with her, this is obvious to you now. But I mean, you need to be careful that your above-stated thoughts like "it has become clear that she is the most important thing in my life" and "my love will endure" are not the rants of a person falling into severe codependency. If these feelings must be returned by your partner in a timely manner, then it's possible you're being insincere.

If the flip-side of your enduring love is anger and resentment, nobody is going to find that attractive. I don't really know how people forgive and forget this kind of stuff in the context of a modern-day relationship. Covering it up with unsolicited "good" actions doesn't quite work. Perhaps a really heart-felt, fully explained apology is in order.
posted by phaedon at 6:24 PM on September 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

Judging from your previous question this state of hating on her because she had sex with other men and women before she met you sounds like it would be pretty devastating to her.

I've been in her shoes and yours and in both cases found it hurtful and miserable.

What helped me in both cases was moving the fuck on.

1. Leaving my 'first' behind so that I could sleep with some other people and get some perspective and stop being so insanely judgmental. It's the worst I've ever treated a partner... I think a lot of young lovers or virgins can sympathize.

2. Leaving that judgmental virgin who wouldn't stop harping about people I fucked before her.

In both cases I felt so relieved and foolish. And really I was being foolish about exactly the same thing: Dating someone who had a fundamentally different value of sex than me.
posted by French Fry at 6:34 PM on September 14, 2012 [21 favorites]

By my count, you've only been working on your confidence and non-fighty behavior for about 6 months, which isn't much time. It's certainly not enough time to be declaring you've completely changed and are all better now, if only she could see.

I'm extrapolating a bit here, but what I'm hearing is that the problem initially stemmed from discomfort you felt when she talked about her past. Now, once again, you are trying to get her to set aside the past as if it doesn't matter, because you've changed, because everything is okay now. But the past does matter.

You're not hanging onto this because it's a great relationship that brings you both deep happiness and security. You're hanging onto it because you feel guilty, and you don't want to have failed. These are terrible reasons to keep this entanglement on life support. Pull the plug. Move on to better things -- they really are out there.
posted by jon1270 at 6:34 PM on September 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

It sounds like, this was the kind of hurt that made her stop loving you. That doesn't mean she's stopped loving you entirely, or that she'll never get back to loving you fully -- but she might not. She might or might not get there. Which means, unfortunately, that this relationship might or might not be worth fighting for, and you have no way to know and the hive mind can't tell you.

There's just no way to know.

But, I think, if you guys aren't going to couples counseling and you and she can't even talk about this stuff, I'm not optimistic. You need to be patient, but she also needs to be able to communicate and try. I suspect it's over.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:14 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sometimes you can't really fix things within a relationship. Sometimes you need to go away (physically and mentally) and then come back and see how things are from there. And sometimes you go away and you can't go back and you take what you've learnt from that relationship and you use it somewhere else (like, don't do that again; treat person like this next time).

I would sit down and talk to her about what she really wants to do right now. Not in the future, right now.
posted by heyjude at 7:17 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Shaming people about their sexual past makes them associate you with feeling bad about sex.

The Five Love Languages is descriptive, not prescriptive. Yes, you would like to have sex, but she's most likely still feeling shamed and angry by your past behaviors. That doesn't change overnight.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:25 PM on September 14, 2012 [13 favorites]

It takes time to work through damage done to trust. Simple as that. And harping on about how you don't feel loved because she won't fuck you is not going to help when the damage to that trust was done because you couldn't accept her stories from the past. It's like a perfect storm.

Ask her what she needs. There may be no pat resolution to this but learning to trust your partner again is hard work and it gets undone a little each time they do something that pokes at the sore point. Asking her to trust you, have sex with you, tell you she loves you, when you have used those things to hurt her is reopening the wound a little each time.

All the work you did doesn't seem to have helped her trust you again. I couldn't bear to be intimate with someone who had used my sex life against me - I imagine she's probably feeling similarly and I am not sure how one would get over that. She learnt, through that year, that she cannot trust you. Now she needs to overcome that. You can talk all about what you've learnt but that was the lesson you taught her.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:51 PM on September 14, 2012 [10 favorites]

She doesn't feel safe?! That sounds truly ominous.

Some things in life, I feel, are just unforgivable. I'm not sure what exactly you did during that time period where you lashed out at her and made hurtful comments, but my impression is that what you did was extremely harsh, and that those words you said in anger are burned into her mind. Now that she knows you are the kind of person who can say those kinds of things to a woman you "love", she doesn't feel safe around you.

I have doubts over whether you should continue to try to fix a relationship that has been so badly traumatized. It sounds like there is a big part of you that just feels guilty because you know you were an ass, and so you are trying to stay with her and make up for it. I think you should make up for it by being a better boyfriend to your next girlfriend with these lessons under your belt.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:21 PM on September 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

She laid herself open with you about her sex life, you used it to attack her with and now youre upset that she won't open herself up again about sex to have it with you? Why would she, you've turned sex into something terrible that she's done or should feel ashamed about. I don't know where you can go from there, maybe counselling, but ask yourself why you want to be with someone when your actions show you don't love or respect her much at all.
posted by Jubey at 8:22 PM on September 14, 2012 [15 favorites]

Now here we are, and I'm over my "stuff"...

Just last week she told me our relationship was getting better. But last night we had a talk about our relationship, and she's down about it again

It sounds like there's more going on than you are aware of.
posted by salvia at 8:56 PM on September 14, 2012

Either that or J. Wilson is right, or both.
posted by salvia at 8:57 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whenever we do talk about the relationship, she gets frustrated because the issue is not getting resolved.

This is additional evidence that you may be missing something -- not hearing something she's trying to say, not being open to changing something else that is bothering her...?
posted by salvia at 9:03 PM on September 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your description reminds me of my own behavior in the past, and the sooner you grow out of that repertoire the better; so I'm going to be a little blunt. Apologies.

Now here we are, and I'm over my "stuff"; but she's stuck in our past.

This reads as: you want to distance yourself from the year you spent insulting her for having fucked other people, and be forgiven, so she will start fucking you again; but she is not going along with your demand for forgiveness. That's not a failing of hers; you don't get to control other people that way.

She's not going to fuck you in response to an expectation from you, and therefore potentially never again, at all. Accept that before you say or do anything else.

All of the material things will fade in time, but my love for her will endure

This reads as hopeless romanticism. Not only is it not true, it shouldn't be true. Don't follow people around "loving" them if they don't reciprocate. If she's done with you, let her go. Love should flow both ways.

At this point, I'm trying my hardest to rectify my wrongs...
I plan to stick around and "show" her that I am a great person ...
Have I ruined it altogether? Should we bow out gracefully? I hate that I hurt her.

This reads as narcissism. You really, really want to be a good person. Forget it. You did shitty stuff like the rest of humanity sometimes does. Own it and stop redirecting your thoughts to how you're really a great person; pay attention to what, if anything, she wants from the relationship. Is she into it at all? You describe someone who's totally tuned out. Figure out if so -- if the relationship is already over and just turned into roommates based on inertia -- or if there's some way of you being that she's actually still interested in.

If not, don't make a shrine to your failure. Just own it as a lesson learned and move on: don't be so judgmental with future partners. Many of us have some inexperienced trainwreck-relationships in our pasts, that we had to walk away from at some point. You'll live.
posted by ead at 10:36 PM on September 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

There really is only one person who can tell you if you should stick around, and that's your partner. Have you told her everything you wrote here? Because it feels like it might be a good first step.

Have you discussed maybe moving apart anyway, even though she said she wanted to live with you? She might need the time and space to decide what she really needs without your constant presence. It is very difficult to make good calls about bad relationships when you're constantly emerged in one - and that goes for both of you. (You think you'll love her forever and ever now, but you haven't ever been with anyone else and you haven't even tried living without her since you moved in together.) If you find you miss each other and still want to be each other's partners even when you're not in a daily routine of being together anyway, that's also a better answer to your question than anyone can give here.

To me, the iffiest thing about all this is that you've already fallen into the trap of convenience - you've been together for almost two years and you're living together and it's so much easier to simply stay with the person you're with than to realize you need to move on. You sound like you're staying because you want to prove to her what a good partner you are - and because you've never loved anyone the way you love her, but that really doesn't mean that you couldn't love someone else, or start a much healthier relationship elsewhere. And she might be staying with you because you've made her feel like such a terrible person that she can't leave you because then she would be even more despicable, or because you're the best partner she's had and she doesn't want to lose you even after you've hurt her, but it's taking a lot of time and effort to get over that hurt - again, the only one who really knows is her.
posted by harujion at 11:31 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

One thing you learn through experience and time, some actions can not be forgiven. Not how you want them to be. She'll never view you the way she did before your bad actions. Maybe she can get to a point where she moves past that and sees both you now and then, and reconciles it for herself.

After 8 months, however, I wouldn't bet on that horse.

For me, personally, when I have lost all interest in sex for several months the relationship is already over. Talk to her about it, open up the choice of ending it and see where she stands on the issue. Even if you don't like the answer, it's time to move forward from where you are now.
posted by Dynex at 11:50 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

However, I opted to stop going to counseling to apply what I've learned in theory - to take action on what I've learned. Taking action was the best thing I did.

But after taking action you didn't get the result you wanted; going back into therapy - especially as a couple, would help you break through the communication gap you are experiencing.

Also, when we do go to counseling, I feel it stirs so much inside her that she shuts down after our session...

I get the feeling you have spent a lot of time in this relationship either arguing or discussing your relationship. From the statement above it sounds like soon after the sessions you expected her to talk to you about the relationship. What you assume is her shutting down may be the quiet time she needs to reflect and process. Do you fear what she may be thinking and feeling? Are you so busy trying to fill her with words about what you want her to think and feel so that she never gets to decide what her truth is?

You have fun and enjoy the relationship when you are experiencing it, maybe all the relationship talk is damaging it. Personally, I would go back into couple's counseling with the very firm boundary (articulated out loud) that there will be no relationship talk outside of the sessions. And meanwhile focus on living the relationship (which includes letting her decompress in front of the TV after a tiring day at work). You seem to struggle with her not devoting 100% of her energy and attention on you - that sounds like your insecurity driving your emotions. You have to trust her. Being "present" in a relationship does not mean constant attention paid to the partner. I agree that all the slut-shaming you subjected her to is what has probably made sex unattractive to her; she is damned if she has sex, she is damned if she doesn't have sex - with you judging what sex she has is acceptable. It is early for LBD but you seem to want a pretty enmeshed relationship so that may be a factor as well.

I wonder too if you are staying because she was your first lover and you have a romantic notion that your first will be your last. It is a really strong cultural narrative; there is no point living an idealised "tru luv 4eva" if you are both unhappy and impeding each other's growth. Maybe you dont want to admit to yourself that you want out of the relationship?

Sorry, but everyone's hetronormative assumptions are really bugging me, the last question by the OP identified herself as a lesbian
posted by saucysault at 2:11 AM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

She doesn't feel safe?! That sounds truly ominous.

Yeah, this jumped out at me as well. Whoa.

My past made me. It's a big part of the package. If my SO wasn't cool with my life decisions pre-them and made me feel like shit about it, I would never be able to feel comfortable truly being myself around them or being comfortable sexually with them. And that probably wouldn't go away no matter how much they claimed to be "over it."

You two have been in turmoil for the bulk of your relationship. What exactly is worth saving?
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:12 AM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

My past made me. It's a big part of the package.

Yes, exactly. I think it's perfectly normal to wish you could have known your partner when, or wish that the terrible thing hadn't happened to them, or that they had been in a better place and hadn't made crappy choices or whatever. But everything she did and everyone she knew back in the day went into making the person you fell in love with. Unless what you fell in love with was the *idea* of her, and not her herself - which, again, is not uncommon. But it's not very healthy either.

A bunch of years ago I was in a long-distance relationship with someone; she was great, and I loved her. And we were terrible for each other at that point - what we mostly did was fuck or fight. The distance certainly played a role, but we were also just in different places in our lives. I thought afterwards that we should have had a lovely fling rather than a full-blown relationship.
posted by rtha at 10:49 AM on September 15, 2012

I'm not exactly buying your narrative here.

Originally, you fought because you didn't like realizing she had her own life, her own history. Her stories made you not feel loved.

Now, you claim, you're completely over that. You're not going to pick fights any more. But you just want her to focus on you, be more present, and start having sex with you again. The lack of that makes you not feel loved.

So, I don't think that your issues are all in the past. You still seem to have an insecurity around "feeling loved." And you still seem to think the solution is for her to behave a certain way.
posted by salvia at 11:58 AM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for your answers. It was good to see all perspectives from those not so optimistic, and also from those who were.

I think, at this point, we're both a little insecure in the relationship because it's not as stable as it could be. I don't want her to behave a certain way. I can see how it could be taken that way. I also can see how it may seem like I'm sticking around because I feel guilty. However, I don't believe this is true. As much a hopeless romantic as I am, I do genuinely care for and love her. My words can seem extreme, I guess. I want her to express who she is and what she needs. I want to give room for that, for her to heal. I have given her my heart-felt apology, which is why I posted here because I wanted more insight from other people's experiences.

I know her past has made her who she is. I had to come to terms with a lot and realize a great many things. I have loved others (even one male), just not with sex involved. I had to accept myself, as well, during this process. I never thought of my past as a past at all. I felt my non-sexual life before her meant nothing because I didn't conform to the sexual "norm" of today's culture. I do believe some of her stories lacked proper boundaries and were disrespectful to me (like when she talked about ex-lovers when we first had sex, and then after sex on our first anniversary), but I could have handled it better and much more constructively. Honestly, I think this experience needed to happen on some level, regardless of the outcome of our relationship. I needed that reflection in this relationship. I'm sure some of you know what I'm talking about.

Many of you are right. I know we're incredibly happy actually living in the relationship as opposed to talking about it. So I think that's what I'm going to try to do, and stop trying to fix things and thinking about things. This is the first relationship for either of us where we felt connected on all levels - intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. So I think there is value here. Some days are still really good. Today she snuggled me before she went to work and kissed me really sweetly. I saw love. I just need to give her time. And on my end, all I can do is be genuine.
posted by sunogenous at 12:36 PM on September 15, 2012

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