How to adjust my negative expectation of relationships
August 13, 2014 3:19 PM   Subscribe

I grew up witnessing my parents' verbally abusive marriage. They are combative and insulting toward each other. Also, my mom has always blamed her marriage and kids for her stalled career and other unhappiness in her life. When I think of having a relationship, I automatically feel like it will drag me down and make my life worse. I've come to understand over the years that others actually think of a relationship as a safety net and source of comfort. I want to think of them that way too. How can I adjust my mentality?

I am a woman in my 30s. My parents have been married for nearly 40 years. Their marriage has been verbally abusive the whole time. They are quick to criticize, assign blame, and lash out at each other.

I realized that I have negative expectations of relationships:

1. I assume my SO will make my career worse. My mom has lamented for decades how she was forced to give up the career she wanted, because my dad needed to control her and keep her down, and because raising kids took too much time. She is bitterly resentful over it. I've found myself thinking things like "I'll first get my career to point X, so that even if I get into a relationship and my career stagnates after that, at least it'll keep coasting at level X."

2. I expect the relationship to be adversarial instead of collaborative. If something good happens to me or my SO, I expect the other person to feel envious. If one person screws up, I expect the other person to roll their eyes and make a mean joke, instead of be supportive. I've trained myself over a decade to not behave this way, but I still expect the other person to behave this way toward me.

3. Related to how I don't expect relationships to be a source of comfort, I end up seeing them mostly as an avenue for superficial benefits. I end up prioritizing things that are good "on paper" such as looks, career success, or romantic gestures, because I assume the more fulfilling stuff (deep trust and mutual understanding) is not going to happen anyway.

One repercussion of these negative expectations is that I end up putting up with bad relationships that conform to these expectations. I've dated people for years who were superficially great but who were unsupportive during tough times, or were constantly causing drama. I just assumed that was par for the course. Those relationships also reinforced my negative expectations, in a self-fulfilling manner.

Another repercussion is that when I think of dating, I feel a sense of dread. I feel an instinctive fear that a relationship will make me less successful, more depressed, and more defensive.

I've been witnessing healthy marriages amongst friends over time, and it has been very slowly changing my perception, over the past 4-5 years. I would like to speed up the mental shift. Every day I still catch myself expecting bad things, like "A friend would comfort you if you're crying, but a spouse will think you're needy and less attractive". Or "if you make sacrifices for a friend, they'll appreciate it forever, but a spouse will lose respect and think of you as a chump". When I catch myself thinking this, I'll mentally question if this is true, and sometimes over the course of 10 minutes, I can logically convince myself that not all relationships must be negative in that way.

I've also tried watching movies with good marriages, and that has helped too, but also slowly. I'm afraid that if I continue at my current speed, I'll be 80 before I embrace relationships positively.

What suggestions do you have for shifting my mentality to view relationships as a positive source of comfort, instead of my negative expectations? Thank you!
posted by vienna to Human Relations (16 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've been witnessing healthy marriages amongst friends over time, and it has been very slowly changing my perception, over the past 4-5 years.

That made a huge difference for me. I think once you realize there is such a thing as a good relationship, the other important thing to do is to realize that you never have to get into a shitty relationship! I came at this from kind of a different place from you - rather than expecting that a relationship would ruin my life I just figured I'd be single forever because being in a relationship was terrible. And I *was* single for a long time, and I got really happy being single, and I was only interested in being in a relationship that was better than being single. And now I'm in a relationship that I hope and believe is going to be long-term good.
posted by mskyle at 3:31 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you want more positive examples, the relationship between Burt and Virginia on the show Raising Hope was really great!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 3:34 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Every day I still catch myself expecting bad things, like "A friend would comfort you if you're crying, but a spouse will think you're needy and less attractive". Or "if you make sacrifices for a friend, they'll appreciate it forever, but a spouse will lose respect and think of you as a chump". When I catch myself thinking this, I'll mentally question if this is true, and sometimes over the course of 10 minutes, I can logically convince myself that not all relationships must be negative in that way.

Would it help to consider your friends as people who are also in relationships? I'm not specifically suggesting you should be aiming to have a relationship with someone who is already a friend, but it sounds as though you have friends who are caring and supportive people. As a thought exercise it could be useful to imagine how they might respond to a given situation - someone who would comfort or appreciate the sacrifice of a friend would also very likely respond similarly to a partner/spouse.

Romantic relationships can be a bit more complex - for example if you lose your job a friend can sympathize without the distraction of worrying about how the two of you will pay the bills - but when they are good are fundamentally caring relationships built on mutual love and trust.
posted by *becca* at 3:41 PM on August 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

You grew up as a witness to an abusive marriage. And, your parents did nothing to shield you from that trauma. Now, not surprisingly, you have very distorted ideas about relationships. You should be commended for recognizing that emotional programming in yourself and wanting to change it, but it's not something that you can easily do on your own. In addition to observing good examples, I think that you'd benefit very much from therapy to resolve a lot of the trauma that's still affecting you.
posted by quince at 3:46 PM on August 13, 2014

Realizing that the local norm is not universally normal is a huge step.

This is a short overview of what marriage researcher/therapist John Gottman has identified as "the seven components of healthy relationships." The related blog or Gottman's books might provide different ways to think about relationships as well.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:46 PM on August 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think one of the fastest ways to reprogram your thinking is to come up with maybe 5 or 6 points, few enough that you can memorize them, and just make an agreement with yourself to attempt to use them as POV for a month, as an experiment. Maybe come up with 5 examples of healthy relationships: Spouses support each other. Healthy partners respect each others' interests even if they don't understand them. Couples share goals. Keep it short and simple. Look for examples of those points in the world around you.

But if you are a practical person, maybe you should come at this from an economic perspective: that kind of relationship is no longer practical because most relationships require two income streams most if not all of the time. Holding your partner back would literally reduce your income. Forcing your wife to stay home with the kids is more like hoping like hell she can afford to stay home for 3 months/wishing you could all move to Norway.

At some point you have to decide, as a adult with the ability to view the world and analyze the information you receive there, that abusive relationships are not good relationships and that you need to find some faith that most people are not in abusive relationships. It does take practice, but in a month you can start to change your perspective if you practice, just like you would practice learning a new language. Which is what you're trying to do.

There are lots of books about being an adult child of an abusive marriage. I don't know which ones are best, but it's probably an hour's work on the internet to determine what's working for people and you can try that one first.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:47 PM on August 13, 2014

How close and supportive are your friendships? If you can experience the feelings of being supported by your friends, you could then bridge that experience to your dating life.

So if you let your guard down with friends, think of your friends as people who love you unconditionally, and talk to them when times are tough. You can then imagine those similar feelings in a relationship. This feeling of friendship is what I will feel with my partner. (Plus a little extra...What's that saying? "Love is friendship caught on fire.")

Are you presently dating someone or single? Even with just dating around you can experiment with feeling supported. When you're chatting with the guy you're on a date with, say "oh man I had such a tiring day today. My boss was really demanding." (Clearly you are sharing something light and fairly unemotional; don't dump out anything that belongs with a therapist!) the guy should say "oh crappy! Yeah my boss does that too" or "yikes! How about a funny movie this weekend to cheer you up?" or something similarly supportive. (If he's negative or laughs at you, forget him!) Then take a moment and view the whole interaction and really let it sink in that not all people are your parents.

I guess what I'm suggesting is a kind of gentle exposure therapy. I personally find experiencing stuff directly is a very powerful way to change my emotional interpretation of things. Play act it out a few times and then it becomes a habit.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:17 PM on August 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

The following are my own reflections on this topic, filtered through the experience of my own happy marriage. That probably makes my reply less generalized and more prescriptive, but what I suggest below is based on my own observations and reflections. I apologize if I seem presumptive, especially since I'm just random person on the internet who doesn't know you, but this is what has worked for me. It is the truth as I know it.

I would build on what *becca* said by adding that a significant component of a successful marriage is a very wide spectrum of compatibility between you and your mate. You want to marry someone who will love you and appreciate you for being yourself. Period. If someone loves you for being exactly who you are, they aren't going to spend a lot of energy trying to make you into someone different, because you are already the person they wanted to marry. *Who* you are and *how* you carry yourself day-to-day aren't going to be things you fight over, because those are integral aspects of you, and they married **all of you,** not just the parts they liked best. Similarly, you aren't going to spend a lot of time criticizing them for being a slob, say, because you considered their personal hygiene (or the way they chew their food, or snore, or crack their knuckles when they're nervous, etc.) as part of their overall package, and as part of your decision to be their husband or wife you've given them a pass on those things. That's love, and that's what it means to really marry someone: You have to be down for the whole enchilada. "In sickness and health, for better or worse, etc." aren't just words, they're a lifetime contract you're signing your name to. It's a whole lot easier to do that if you really and truly like the person you're marrying.

Mrs. Mosk and I just celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary last week (woot!), and those have been 21 exceptionally happy, mutually supportive years. What makes our marriage work is fairly simple: I respect my wife for who she is, and I enjoy her company. And she respects me for who I am, and enjoys my company. Over the course of our marriage we've each changed careers, we've had kids, we've experienced scary major health issues, etc. We've made difficult decisions -- mostly good choices, but some bad ones, too -- and we still love each other tremendously. Sharing these events and making important decisions together has made us closer. We trust each other completely. I know that she has my back, and she knows that I have hers. We don't fight, and we don't bicker. We help each other. We care about each other. We don't hold grudges against each other. We are honest with each other. I'm not saying that it's always easy, but I will say that it's rarely difficult. We're far from perfect people, but we do seem to be perfect suited for each other, which is really what you want in a marriage.

My parting advice: Set high standards for yourself and any potential partner, especially with regards to how you they treat them and how they treat you and others. Because how you treat them and how they treat you (and the other people in your lie that you love) is absolutely critical. Don't tolerate bullshit behavior, and have a clear idea in your mind about what that phrase means to you. In the end it's your happiness that's at stake here, so you need to know what you need to be happy. Don't settle for less than that. Good luck!
posted by mosk at 5:32 PM on August 13, 2014 [13 favorites]

First of all recognise that good relationships take work. You must take time to check in with each other, find out what the other person is thinking and feeling, and most importantly, be there for each other. A good relationship is a partnership in which each person takes an equal amount of the work (to make the partnership good) and the benefits are reaped by both parties.

Secondly, you don't have to give up a career to raise children. The women who have gone before you fought to make this possible, and if your career is important to you, you can do both. It's not easy, and it means your partner has to be on board *as an equal partner* in childcare, housework, leisure time and life in general. Each of your needs are equally important, and the needs of your family as a unit are most important of all.

Thirdly, make a commitment to yourself and to your partner and future children that you will manage your anger differently. Learn how to do so - there are plenty of resources on the internet or look for anger management classes in your area.

You don't say if you are currently partnered or not, but if you are I recommend therapy to explore how you can work together as a partnership and as a family unit (as long as you are both open and honest with yourselves, each other and the therapist). The key here is to recognise the synergistic nature of any good relationship while maintaining your self and your individuality.

Otherwise, if you are not currently in a partnership, look only for people who share these values and recognise that you have needs, desires and wishes that are equally deserving of fulfillment - anyone who asks you to subsume yourself or your life dreams, such as your career, is not worth wasting your time on.

Good luck! Your parents gave you bad role models, but you have taken the first step by recognising their relationship wasn't healthy and seeking resources to help you to manage your relationships differently. You are well on your way to healthier relationships by acknowledging this and asking this question. Well done you!
posted by goo at 6:42 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I realize this may sound simplistic, but I have dated and been married to two types of men:

1. Those who view you as a paper doll, whereby you are interchangeable with other women, but they are very smooth, move fast, and convince you that you are the one;

2. Those who view you as a person, whereby you are a friend who they can talk to, spend time with and love.

#1 will spend the first few dates, perhaps up to 3 months, convincing you that he is #2. After that, he will begin to show his true colors. You will start to feel uncomfortable, question yourself, and talk to many people about how to fix him. When you find yourself thinking, "If only I did this..." then it is time to dump him and move on.

#2 May have some flaws, but will always apologize if he screws up, and values your happiness above all else. Does not put you down for wanting to study the life cycle of beetles in dung, in fact, encourages you. Will come to Thanksgiving at your parents' house and take you out for Tom and Jerry's afterward, and say things like, "well, they raised you, didn't they?"

Part of recognizing these types is how you feel about yourself. I may have dated a guy like #1 because I needed that at the time and then I realized, whoops! I don't want that in my life.

And later on, I say, well, I am a Goddess, and I deserve more than that. Not that I think I am a real goddess, but I have some really great effing qualities as a woman, and as a person. And would a goddess put up with someone criticizing her like that? No!

And in return, I recognize my partner as a great person, and try to support him, and listen to him about his fears and dreams in life. I nourish him with my words, and my hobby, which is cooking (but you can always buy dinner for someone, guys love it when a woman takes them to a French restaurant), and saying how wonderful he is, etc.

It goes in ebbs and flows, the giving and the taking in a relationship, but there is always an underlying current of love and respect and friendship. So I would advise you to find someone who you can be friends with first. Someone who sees the you beyond the superficial. We all go through our bad boy period, and you can only blame it on your parents for so long. After a while, it comes down to not putting up with #1 and seeking out #2 and cultivating that relationship. Nice guys really do finish last.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:57 PM on August 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

Recognizing that there are other options in relationship dynamics is the first step to shifting your view. Beyond that, it's continued reinforcement, which is sounds like you're doing. If you're worried about your own relationships becoming like your parents, can you talk to some friends one-on-one about what you're experiencing in your relationship, and how your friend's relationship goes as a comparison?

How do you feel about ending bad relationships? You say you're afraid of getting into a bad relationship, but you can only know so much about how a person will interact with you and support you in your trying times (and how you support them in their times of need) until you're actually in those tense situations. If in doubt, you can get some outside confirmation that your current relationship is not helping you and not healthy, then end it. But you won't find good relationships by avoiding them all.

I feel for you when you describe seeing your parents as negative role models and internalizing their relationship, because that can also change how you react to others. My parents' relationship isn't verbally abusive, but it's not what I'd call healthy. I'm not very good at discussing uncomfortable or difficult topics, often opting to let things continue until I get really annoyed and I lash out in some stupid passive-aggressive way, making everything worse than if I dealt with the issue early on. Fair or not, I credit my parents for some of that, but I'm trying to learn from other people, including my wife, and overcome this habit. In summary, are there habits you've picked up from your parents that play out in your relationships?

If you can be bold in a relationship that you feel is starting off strong, you can lay out your family history, and how that's shaped your expectations for relationships, but how you'd like to change that. If your SO is understanding, they can try to help you overcome that by being more overtly the opposite of your parents, and encouraging you to do the same. My wife and I sometimes jokingly call each-other our parents' names when we're behaving like the worst examples of our parents, but it works for us because we understand this as short-hand for "cut it out, you're doing that thing again."
posted by filthy light thief at 9:06 PM on August 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm working through some of these issues. I just finished How to be an Adult in Relationships which is often recommended here on the green. It has a lot of advice on the characteristics of healthy conflict vs. drama/abuse, and adult expectations vs. childish expectations, as well as insight about how to come to terms with the ways your emotional needs weren't met in childhood.

One thing I'm realizing right now is the importance of holding myself to a high standard in the way I relate to people. This has enabled me to disengage and/or de-escalate a couple of key conflicts in recent months instead of trying to "win" them and thereby avoid bonding myself to the other person through negative codependency. In the aftermath of those conversations, though, it feels good to know that you took the high road, that you can't be gaslighted into thinking you overreacted, that you can look your boss in the eye if the conversation was with a coworker and tell him you handled your end of things professionally.

It takes work to look at your own role in the patterns you're talking about, and effort to commit to a path that breaks you out of them. But when you experience things that push those old buttons, you can learn to choose your response, to treat those thoughts as information instead of commandments or reality, and communicate what you need in a way that's respectful.

And if you are holding yourself to a high standard and your partner rolls his eyes, you can recognize that as toxic behavior, and know that you're not contributing to that dynamic, or apologize and regroup.

Here are some links on stonewalling and crazymaking, which I think may describe a big chunk of the bad patterns you are talking about: 1 2 3
posted by alphanerd at 9:55 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I note that your examples are "a friend would do this, but a spouse would do that." That is a false dichotomy ; your spouse should be a friend. Spouses are a sub-set of friends; they are not entities who exist outside on some distant plane. This seems pretty key to re-framing how you think about relationships.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:17 AM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can also work on the other side of the coin by practicing being supportive. Whenever your friend or date shows a softer side, or a vulnerability, you might be tempted to give a snarky reply because that's your parent's habit. Instead, say "aww!" followed by a few words of encouragement.

This may be a lot harder than it sounds the first few times. You may feel disgusted, or afraid, or uncomfortable and vulnerable yourself. The words might feel foreign and phoney coming out of your mouth. That's ok! You're just learning a new skill.

As you learn to be kind and supportive of friends and dates, it will feel more natural to be supported by them. I think working on both sides of the coin (being supportive/giving support) will help speed this change along. Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:01 AM on August 14, 2014

I was trying to think of how I've learned about the day-to-day details of other couples' relationships, and I think the best "vantage point" is actually taking a multi-day vacation together. If you go traveling for several days with a couple, they are bound to face a couple minor misunderstandings along the way, so you can see how they negotiate that. They're also bound to have to compromise, communicate plans, and make decisions. I don't think I've ever taken an extended trip with anybody and NOT had a chance to see the inner workings of a relationship as the people involved handle what life throws at them. It might be healthy to see couples hit a little snarl - grumpy mornings, disagreement over plans, miscommunication about meeting time, etc., - and resolve it peacefully and move on without anybody the worse for the wear. Couples OFTEN have a couple minutes or even a few hours (at times) of being grumpy and stand-off-ish as everybody works through their feelings, but in a good relationship blow-ups are rare.

Just as another piece of information, I can tell you that my husband has been watching our baby all summer (he's a teacher, so he has summers off) so I can work on my PhD thesis. He has never complained, even once, and he often encourages me. Between the two of us, yes, raising a baby is a lot of work, but neither of us is suffering from a career breakdown because we are HONESTLY sharing the work. (He just got a good job offer a couple days ago, too! I've been taking late afternoons to watch the baby while he interviews and applies to things and works on a side job.)

My husband has never been anything other than rock-solid supportive when good things happen to me, and he has unfailingly comforted me when I'm hurt. Every time for 15 years since the day we met. Every. Time. If I screw up, he never makes a big deal of it. I never make a big deal of it when he screws up, because I know he'd never do it on purpose and we're a TEAM. Even when I broke the side mirror off the car, or when he bleached all the laundry. I'm not kidding. He has NEVER failed to be kind and supportive. I hope he would say the same of me; it's what I aspire to.

There is such a thing as real, true love out there.
posted by Cygnet at 1:28 PM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think my parents were quite as bad as yours but I definitely get where you're coming from.

For me, it took the last fella I dated to kind of guide me in the right direction. I would see him as trying to undermine me all the time (when he wasn't) and he would have to constantly remind me that we were a team, that we support and help each other, etc. After a while (like, 6 months to a year), it started to sink in.

He was sort of an asshole in other ways, so I don't totally agree with Marie Mon Dieu's assessment of #1 vs #2. On the other hand, I think even by dating people who turn out to be terrible, they sometimes teach you bits of useful stuff along the way.
posted by internet of pillows at 7:07 PM on August 14, 2014

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