Did I fuck up? How shall I do it differently next time?
August 12, 2013 3:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the post break-up re-evaluation phase ('bargaining' phase in the grieving process?). I veer between feeling I tried my best while also holding onto ways I could have done things differently while dealing with our core problem to feeling that I fucked up majorly and just lost a potentially fantastic life-partner. While par for course this state of affairs is I believe, this is really eating me and I would be grateful for some perspective.

My partner and I met a year and a half ago and three days later she flew to another part of the world. Very intense in the beginning, we perhaps committed too soon - distance forces commitment in some ways, to justify the costs of travel and relocation. Anyway, she became ambivalent very soon into the relationship - as soon as conflicts developed. She visited me 3 times in the past year, spending a total of 6 months in my country while she wrote up her Master's thesis alongside work. I on my part visited her twice during university breaks (I teach) and was looking at post-doc options in her country while also thinking about partnership visas (we are women).

Our relationship was not an easy one. About 5 months into it, we began having huge conflicts- sometimes once a week, at other times twice. I was usually the one 'aggrieved', who needed more of 'us' while she wanted more of herself. A key area of conflict was how many people we wanted in our lives in our leisure time - she wanted a whole lot more. Dominant, a great conversationalist, she enjoyed attention and admiration and the exchange and bonhomie of social gatherings. While I enjoyed a bit of that, I was far more happier being just with her. Especially when on holiday or when she's just come back or is about to go away for months. For instance, during our last holiday somewhere, every dinner and most breakfasts and lunch was had with someone or another group or people - which I mostly didn't mind. But when on the last evening when most people had left and I thought, finally an evening to ourselves and when she befriended another group, I 'behaved badly'- I got upset and 'spoilt our evening'. There was competition and since she was a better conversationalist than me and thought me one with her or in competition with her, I was often unable to inch in. But we were working on this and me on myself in therapy ('why do I feel invisibilized when silent?' :))

This difference for me was still bearable, I also appreciated the social side to me she brought out, the new people we met, the engagement with things outside of myself that was required to be able to contribute to conversations; I honestly felt I grew through this difference. But there was another area of conflict I believe undid us - my jealousy and her flirting. This flirting was only acknowledged in the last month of our relationship where she admitted that she might relate to femme types differently from butch types (she is only attracted to/love femmes). I have been in therapy for the past year almost for this, where I took on the mantle of 'jealous, insecure person' who moreover imagines things. Post her admission and her move from 'I'd like to believe my partner has eyes only for myself' to 'what's wrong with flirting?' I have come to believe that flirting does happen. A kind of connection she sustains with specific people in our social circles, a silent intensity in them when they are physically close, mild physical contact, close physical dancing, her jealousy (and slight hostility) for their hook-ups (she observes them through a party/on facebook) or their girlfriends, facebook stalking, calling affectionate animal-names, sexual jokes that bring into focus their bodies. I want to add that I believed she will never cheat on me. But she needs that attention, the same that I like lavishing on her.

A woman who I allowed to torture me to insanity almost was met through a dating site; even when I understood that she wanted to expand her queer circle in my city, it still made me nervous. I dealt with that badly, I wanted to stop seeing her (she agreed to not meeting her alone) because I found their connection unbearable but when that was not an option I often became obnoxious and hostile - usually at the end of the party and about specific things that happened. All of these escalated into conflict. I got into individual analysis and she and I into couples therapy. But change is slow, difficult, I keep forgetting lessons that seemed easy on the couch. I saw a flirtatious facebook exchange on a photo she had uploaded of this woman and send my partner amongst the most vulgar texts I have ever. The day before she left my country, at another party, she and her cosied up on the couch and was in intense conversation and I left the party. I regret how I handled these times.

I was also jealous of ex fuck buddies. She went away for a week to work with one of them (who I'd previously suffered through an evening some part of which they were flirting in a corner) and I ignored her for that week. This too I regret because that work was the basis of her business visa which allowed her easy entry into my country; it was the extra day she wanted to spend with her during the weekend that tipped me. But still I regret it though I remember the helplessness I felt then.

I was not jealous so much of her ex-girlfriends; I'm friends with my own exes. One was a part of her social circle in her country and I was happy to see her every week. Was not jealous except for a twinge when while on holiday with me, she send that ex a wistful text recalling their search for a field of rhododendrons on their trip somewhere. I was not jealous of the other either-she lived in another country. Except for that time when I came across pictures of her lifting her up at her birthday party or the one where she was hugging her from behind, face next to hers. The same evening where we had a huge fight because she could not send one reply to my asking how her birthday evening was going (we talked for an hour that morning was her explanation). She told me the next day that she was heartbroken and drunk that her ex was hooking up with someone else and she expects some more understanding. I was hurt not so much by all of that but that she could not send me one text to reassure me when she was partying with an ex. This happened one more time 6 months later, I became angry and hostile on skype, and that was when she broke up with me seriously for the first time. She had previously broken up with me about 4 times over 4 months, each of those breaks lasting exactly a day - days when initially my worlds would fall apart.

After our second major break-up, we decided to give it yet another shot. I went to her country. Unlike other times, I urged her to take some responsibility for what was happening to us, to get therapy for what happens to her in conflicts (she really loses it, becomes completely unreasonable, sarcastic, belligerent), how love ends for her during conflicts, her deep ambivalence about us (her previous 7 year relationship was similarly riven by ambivalence until the very end), her continuing jealousy and feelings for a couple of her most recent exes (she stiffens with hate when talking about one in particular - the one I'm not very jealous of ;-)). But she is completely unable to see this, at best she chalks it to incompatibility and thinks she's been choosing the wrong partners the last three times and otherwise that I'm an insecure, jealous, controlling, asocial misanthrope. On my part, I believe I changed, from being hostile and blaming to taking responsibility for my jealousy. But I still did try to talk to her about it, to get reassurance I suppose; being careful to choose the right time to talk about it, etc.. Which too she'd experience as control and would literally...explode. So mostly it was a lonely battle and honestly it was exhausting; I really came close to my absolute limit- and I did catastrophize about twice when I expressed that I feel I cannot do it. She threatened (which is funny) to break up each time we fought. And then would come back to a place where she was talking about children- which made me nervous. Both the idea of children in such instability and the sweep of her ambivalence.

I've only focused on our problems. There are things that held us together. When times are good, they are fantastic. We share a deep intimacy, I'm mostly happy with the mutual sharing that we do of our lives (long distance sucks). She can be super supportive and caring. Our domestic life is almost without conflict, our attitudes to money match, we both want children. We are both socially conscious and with love of adventure and travel. While she does not respect me for my insecurities and jealousy and occasional social anxiety, she does in other ways. I believe this is what bring us together each time we split and what makes me think I've fucked up.

I came back exhausted and a little depressed and unsure but within a week grew the conviction that even if she doesn't change one bit I can still do it. I drew strength from having survived those two months, felt a palpable sense of trust - in my own love and in hers. Felt a release from jealousy. And then she broke up with me, completely ambivalent to the end.

That's our sad story. My question:

I know that jealousy and insecurity are not absolute, that it depends on culture, and most importantly, on the terms of the relationship. Having said that, there are secure and insecure people too, given certain norms. In this case, the prevalent norms in the globalized (read 'westernized') urban, liberal middle class across the world. She and I both have experience with open relationships. She is completely closed to it while I honestly believe that with work, I can reach there (funnily enough, she is amongst the most jealous partners I have had, though she does not really acknowledge it, nor does she give me grief for it I suppose) I was relatively non-jealous in one such relationship in fact.

My question is two fold. One, how justified was my jealousy given this background? Two, how could I have done this relationship differently? How do I escape the 'controlling' tag while at the same time believe that relationships mean compromise and negotiation? What's 'controlling'? If I imagine words she used to describe me floating in a tag cloud, this would be the boldest and the blackest.
posted by drummergirl80 to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You could've done this relationship differently by getting out sooner.

I suspect she was super social and enjoyed large groups of people because it allowed her to spend less one-on-one time with you and she was sad to see exes moving on because it meant the end of a fantasy scenario she wished had happened and regretted losing.

Imagine a relationship in which you feel cherished and loved and wanted the majority of the time, and it comes easy. You would rarely be jealous, and when you were, it would be sweet.

You were trying to fit the round peg of your relationship into the square peg of love. Of course you looked controlling -- you were really trying to jam it in there!

It was a mismatch, not because of your jealousy - you were jealous because it was a mismatch and you weren't feeling cherished.

Is my guess.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:51 AM on August 12, 2013 [11 favorites]

Additionally, and a little more directly:

You were justified in feeling jealous - but only for a short amount of time. You felt jealous because you weren't feeling cherished. That's a sign to get out. You want your jealousy to be a sign that she should cherish you more, but she already doesn't cherish you. So she uses the jealousy as a sign that she should get out. It's a bit of a trick on her part, because she's saying "stop being jealous and let me go back to not cherishing you, it's the only way this relationship will survive." You deserve better.

If she cherished you, she would've said "oh my gosh, honey, I'm so sorry! Let me cherish you!" And you could've stopped being jealous right away.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:59 AM on August 12, 2013 [18 favorites]

I completely agree with vitabellosi, and would only add that your first mistake was jumping into a committed relationship (let alone a long-distance one) three days after meeting her, rationalizing it by saying that distance forces commitment in some ways, to justify the costs of travel and relocation. You weren't forced. It was a choice, understandable but not very likely to work out well. Chance are, those first three days were intense *because* she was about to leave.
posted by jon1270 at 4:01 AM on August 12, 2013

Couple of thoughts:

1) You and she don't sound like a great match. Maybe on some rational points (money, children, etc.), but in terms of your temperament, you sound very different. Opposites may attract, but similarity is (often) the foundation that facilitates long-term relationships.

This is especially relevant to the jealousy point. You seem to be looking for the answer either you were or were not valid in having your feelings of jealousy, which then it seems you have extended to being controlling.

In some couples, open flirtation is the norm. Chances are they are both flirty people, and see flirtation as an acceptable form of interaction with other people. In other couples, open flirtation is not appreciated, for it is a sign of sexual interest outside the relationship. There doesn't seem to be a steadfast answer – one being right, and the other being wrong – rather you need to find your match. And there are also cross-matches. Some partners do not flirt themselves, but are titillated by watching their partners flirt. To each their own.

Point being, there is no absolute answer here, rather it's relative. The relative answer is quite obvious. Her flirty drove you crazy, and you reacted by trying to get her to stop. Back to the "opposites attract" point, you may have been deeply attracted to that flirting initially. Not to the flirting itself, but the social openness. Yet once the enamour with that faded, you started to see it as a threat... which leads to the second point.

2) I veer between feeling I tried my best while also holding onto ways I could have done things differently while dealing with our core problem to feeling that I fucked up majorly and just lost a potentially fantastic life-partner.

This may sound harsher than intended, but I wonder if you liked who you were with her? You sound similar in some ways, and very different in others. Whilst that may have been interesting in the beginning, it is obvious that the differences started to eat away at you. That process doesn't sound fun, thus why do you miss it (rather than thinking "not a great match, time to move on")?

Did you like how you felt when you were with her? That she made your life fuller and more exciting? That she challenged you to grow as a person? That you did different things with her than you'd done before?

It's a bit unbalanced, because on one hand, you're talking about big sweeping concepts (love of your life, children) as the similarities and points you really likes. But then, the day-to-day stuff (socialising, going to parties, interacting) seem like that became a bit tenuous and difficult. Thus, did you like the idea of her, more than the actual experience?

It's not a harsh criticism, I think it happens to a lot of people. But whenever one feels "it would have worked if (I or they) would have been different... if I would have done x, if they would have not done y... but I only did x because they did y. And they did y because I did z. So if I hadn't done z, it wouldn't have led to me doing x. And I only do z because my parents used to do a. And they only did a because their parents did b. So if their parents hadn't done b, I wouldn't have done x and everything would be fine. A bit tenuous in terms of reasoning, yeah? And also a sign that you are not dealing with what is rather you are dealing with a different perception...

3) The oscillating feelings are often the result of backward thinking and logic. You seem to sometimes think that if you had acted differently, it would have worked out. I would say that if it was working out, you would have acted differently. In controlling behaviours, there is often insecurity behind it. Rather than responding to what it, it can take the form of trying to effect and shape what is not. Rather than owning the fact that you did not like her flirting, and seeing that as a deal-breaker, making your own choice to walk away, you tried to get her to stop flirting.

See the difference? You cannot control another person, you can only make the decision to accept their behaviour or not. And that is the same on the other side. The fact you told her the flirting bothered you, and she continued it, means that it was a deal-breaker for her to stop. Probably because she doesn't see it as threatening, rather that's how she knows how to socialise. That can often be the case. What is so blatantly obvious to you, can be relatively pedestrian to another person. Rather than accepting that, it sounds like you began trying to modify the situation. Which is the backward thinking mentioned.

To close that point (and these thoughts), there is lots of learning here, but maybe in a different way than what you are looking for. You learned about yourself, and how you are with a person with her qualities. You can either change yourself – become more flirty and open, for example – or you can choose a partner who is less flirty.

Maybe the hardest part is in the reckoning, thinking you could have done something different. Well, you could have. You could have been or become a different person! Barring that, you guys just don't sound very compatible. And it's not your fault or her fault. There's no blame here. It could have easily gone the other way, and it didn't.

This may play into deeper perfectionist tendencies that you have, which could be interesting to look at because it may well replicate in other parts of your life.
posted by nickrussell at 4:13 AM on August 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm not sure if jealousy is what I'd call it.

Do I think you're justified in the flirting bothering you? Yes.

Do I think you're justified in wanting someone to spend time with 'just you' - yes.

Do I think some of the things you described sound very unusual in cultural 'norms' - yes.

It sound far, far, far more like 'incompatible' to me.
posted by Ashlyth at 4:18 AM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm not seeing anything really bad on either of your parts here, just a really poor couple fit. Some of the things you described would be fine in my relationship, others not. A lot would be ok if the relationship was otherwise strong but distressing in an unstable, long-distance set-up.

The bottom line is that this break up sounds like a good idea for both of you. If you are not usually jealous or controlling but felt the need to be with her, while she felt the need to push back and rebel, then that speaks volumes. You were not compatible. Be kind to yourself, take some no contact time and watch out for this pattern of interaction in future.
posted by Dorothia at 4:32 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know how much she just didn't give a crap about you or how much she did, but just interacts differently with the world. It could go either way, from where I'm sitting.

But the problem here wasn't your jealousy or controlling nature. The problem was that you were in a relationship with a girl who wasn't equally invested in the relationship and with whom you weren't compatible.

You couldn't have done this relationship differently -- not in a way that would have changed the outcome and made it a good relationship. You could have walked sooner shown more backbone and not been so willing to run over during conflict; but that would have led to you walking sooner, I think.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:04 AM on August 12, 2013

She was not the love of your life. It went on a LOT longer than it should have because it was an LDR. The problem is that relationships really only move forward when you're together. But when you're apart, you fill in the distance with fantasy and projection.

You think that you had an 18-month relationship because it unfolded during that time, when in fact, you had perhaps a three month relationship in real life.

The things that attracted you to her were also the things that you couldn't stand about her.

Next time you know, you need more balance between "us time" and "friends time."

That's all.

Stop beating yourself up about it. It's done and over.

You're going to be just fine, just be pickier in the future and think about what YOU want out of a relationship, because you count too.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:41 AM on August 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I had a relationship and breakup very much like this once, and at the time I beat myself up emotionally for jealousy and controllingness, and I beat him up verbally for being a selfish ass unwilling to compromise, and everything was drama and pain and awfulness and Heartbreak Forever.

And now it is many, many years later and looking back on it, what I really see is two people who were just not compatible, but loved each other very much. And both of whom said and did sometimes stupid, sometimes hurtful things trying to make the love outweigh the incompatibility. I wasn't wrong to be jealous, you're not wrong to be jealous - but he also wasn't wrong for flirting and your ex-partner isn't necessarily wrong either for wanting to flirt. You're not wrong or overly controlling for wanting to have some compromise about that behavior that's hurting you, but she's not wrong for not wanting to give it up if it gives her some validation and fun and confidence that's important to her.

I wish I could go back and hug both Young Me and Young Him, and tell them that it's okay to let go and move on, with all the love in the world, instead of hurting each other over and over again trying to make something work that just isn't going to without one or the other giving up more than anyone should be asked to give up. And now I wish I could hug you and tell you that, too.

Please be gentle with yourself while you're hurting like this, and know that it doesn't have to be like this. I eventually met someone who is much more like myself in his wants around social interaction, relationships with exes, flirting, etc, and this stuff is a non-issue. (So we squabble about whose turn it is to take the trash out instead and why can't he remember to take his damn medication without me reminding him. There's always gonna be something.) I wish that for you too - peace, love, healing, and eventually someone with whom your big fights will be about who left the milk out on the counter overnight.
posted by Stacey at 6:12 AM on August 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

You didn't fuck it up, you two just weren't compatible with each other. Next time, pursue someone that won't make you resentful and jealous.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:07 AM on August 12, 2013

When times are good, they are fantastic. We share a deep intimacy, I'm mostly happy with the mutual sharing that we do of our lives (long distance sucks). She can be super supportive and caring. Our domestic life is almost without conflict, our attitudes to money match, we both want children. We are both socially conscious and with love of adventure and travel.

This is easy to get. You could have this with 7 out of the next 10 people who walk by. Not driving each other insane is the hard part, that's a much more rare fit.

There's a thread running through your long backstory about how if only she'd see things your way, do things your way, compromise exactly the way you want, everything would be fine. Well, yeah, of course it would, but you don't get to dictate how other people think and feel. That's what's incompatible. When you're with someone you mesh with, you don't have to send them to therapy to be able to get along with you (therapy is for getting along with yourself). One of you needed to change dramatically in order to come to a consensus. That's not how it works.

You have to accept people as they are, not as you think they could be if you could only make them change enough. If how they are doesn't work for you, you leave.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:56 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I hate to oversimplify, but she didn't compromise at all in response to your clearly stated wishes. You didn't fuck up; she did. I think you're well rid of her. If you'd written here 6 months in, most people would have said to DTMFA.
posted by 3491again at 8:18 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh honey. I had this relationship last year (with a man, but still). Right down to the part where you talk yourself into accepting the relationship on its shitty, insufficient terms...and then get dumped for your troubles.

The thing is, in truth? 90% of my relationship was in my own mind. I did all the thinking and bargaining and strategizing and "trying to understand my boyfriend." He just had sex with me when we were in the same town, talked to me every night online/on the phone, painted a picture of our future together, talked about our potential children. And as soon as he hung up the phone with me, he was out flirting and having sex and talking up a future with every woman he met.

There was nothing I could have done. He liked me fine, and liked spending time with me, and did not necessarily want to stop. But, he did not in any way cherish me as a person, certainly did not love me, will not miss me, and honestly I doubt he has even thought of me once since we split up.

It sounds like maybe your ex is the same. It's not that she doesn't enjoy your company, it's just that she wants things on her terms and no others, and her terms are no good for you. She does not love you enough to accept your terms, or possibly she is incapable of your terms, love or no love. That hurts, and that sucks.

Good news, though, is that once I split definitively from my ex, I learned: I am not actually controlling, unstable, or delusional. I no longer spend every night glued to a computer, getting stabbed in the heart, metaphorically, when he posts pictures with other girls or flirts endlessly on twitter. With him out of my life, I'm actually kind of happy. For the first time in many, many years.

Your ex is not a bad person, just a bad partner for you. You're not a crazy person, just a person who cannot be balanced and calm when you're relating to her. The complete break will hurt for a while, and then you will find you are healthier and freer than you have been in some time.
posted by like_a_friend at 8:30 AM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

I agree with all the people saying you didn't fuck up. I think she fucked up more than you did, if anything, but I also think you just aren't compatible.

Stop beating yourself up; you did just fine.
posted by Salamander at 8:46 AM on August 12, 2013

I agree. You did nothing wrong -- it just wasn't a good fit.
posted by ravioli at 9:14 AM on August 12, 2013

Response by poster: I just have to say thank you for every single message here and reply to some. This key difference between us where she needs validation from many (sexual and nonsexual) where as I need from few or only her (sexual) or else seek it not through people is erased here, where I'm deriving strength from things that many of you say. Let me admit that a facebook announcement of her break-up and the flurry of responses to it is what partly prompted me to make a post here (though for months I have scoured posts on introversion-extroversion, insecurity, jealousy, flirting, etc here)

I have little doubt that she loved me. She suffered too, and her ambivalence was disturbing for her as well. She was also someone with integrity- though I feel she has difficulty looking at herself and lies to herself. So it's not that she does not care but what I think is a real inability to help herself or take some responsibility for what was happening to her or our relationship. And that I realize now was not as simple as changing her behaviour around flirting or socializing -and I agree with someone who said that that may be key to her sense of self. I feel that if she showed that I was priority I would not keep demanding more and more (the bottomless pit of insecurity); this was her fear. I perhaps could have been more and more open (I think, I don't know, I guess I'll never know now). But a deep fear in her is that she is spineless and a walk-over who puts others needs above her own. And yes she did say, that my 'grievances' made me a difficult person to love and cherish.

I think I agree with people that we are incompatible. Somebody asked why I wanted to keep at it since things seemed so difficult. I think it was hope that things will get better, that I can change and become more secure (around jealousy). Also, a fundamental belief that compromise or change does not always equal self-erosion but can offer possibilities for growth (around socializing). I suppose I can see the self as pliant while at the same time expecting not to be torn apart at the seams like I was.

I wish I didn't so quickly embrace that I was insecure and jealous and needed to change. I was always unsure about this but didn't emphasize enough that part of me that could see it could be incompatibility or that went beyond expecting her to change her behaviour and instead offer support in other ways. My analyst was complicit in this (poor thing,she says she is fallible too) but she said she could see a deep desire in me to preserve the relationship and try my best and seeing as how my partner wasn't going to to do anything to help the scenario, she thought she could help me help myself. Fair enough.

Someone asked what our relationship histories were like. I have a history of choosing emotionally unavailable people (in my teens and early to mid twenties at least) though it has gotten better and better. With her I thought I was making the biggest break from that tendency. My friends say I keep choosing people who cannot give me what I want (long distance presents its own unavailability; somebody here noted this). While I've not been jealous, not having enough 'us' time has often been an issue. She has a history of being with jealous insecure people or relationships that die of people drifting apart; she says the intensity of the relationship has to be carried by her partner or that they drift.

I think we both could do more self-work. At this point in time, our respective demons clash too furiously and too painfully perhaps.
posted by drummergirl80 at 10:23 AM on August 12, 2013

My friends say I keep choosing people who cannot give me what I want

If this is the case, then you need to start with yourself. The only thing different people have in common is you. Start with yourself, and you may be amazed at what happens from there...
posted by nickrussell at 1:44 PM on August 12, 2013

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