How do you handle discussing relationship concerns compassionately?
January 26, 2017 3:04 PM   Subscribe

I already messed up. My boyfriend at the time confided in me that he had a porn addiction. When I initiated a conversation later to express my concerns, I really screwed it up. The relationship lasted about 4 more months but is now over and we are not getting back together. I'm not looking for advice regarding porn addiction specifically, but more how to handle expressing concerns about relationship issues in a compassionate, sympathetic way. I think I'm processing the breakup ok except that I still feel terrible about this incident. Possibly irrelevant snowflake details below.

We had been together about 7 months and things were going fairly well, if slowly. One night he confided in me that he had an ongoing porn addiction. Initially, I didn't know what to say, but hugged him and told him it was fine.

After a few weeks had passed though, it kept nagging at me. I don't have a problem with porn, but the fact that he called it an addiction worried me, especially given the fact that we'd been having some problems with physical intimacy. I decided I needed to discuss it further and asked if he would be willing to do that.

I don't have much relationship experience and I'm shy too so I was super nervous going into the conversation (almost throwing-up nervous!). My goal was to find out what "addiction" meant to him and so I started out just asking what he meant by "porn addiction". At some point I asked about the intimacy problems too. I don't remember it all too clearly because I was so nervous, but the outcome was that I was not assured and he felt humiliated and like I had no sympathy for his feelings after he had chosen to be vulnerable with me.

I apologized profusely when I realized how it had made him feel but he said he didn't think I have the communication / relationship skills necessary for a relationship and it went downhill from there.

I feel absolutely terrible about how I handled this and would like to learn from it if I can. I think learning to manage my anxiety in these types of situations is key and would like any advice on that and/or what exactly I might have said to address my concerns but in a way that made him still feel safe being open with me. Please advise, thanks!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Without knowing exactly what was said (it sounds like you worded things carefully), this guy sounds like a whiny baby and you did great!

My husband and I had a "come to Jesus" talk after about 8 months where we discussed our differences, our similarities and whether we really had what it takes to make it as a couple. The difference being we were both were willing to be honest and accept honesty.

These conversations are never easy. But two adults can have them. Without laying guilt trips, oh you made me feel bad for not 100% validating me. Like this guy did.

You did great!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:12 PM on January 26, 2017 [32 favorites]


I am mostly confused as to what part of your actions you feel was uncompassionate. It sounds like this guy is a raging douchebag, rather than that anything was wrong with you.
posted by corb at 3:14 PM on January 26, 2017 [50 favorites]


Oh and anxiety makes you contort yourself. If only I was (better/different), then other person would (whatever).

It's just not true.

It's OK to be anxious around these kinds of conversations. That's not the reason why it went sour.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:15 PM on January 26, 2017 [15 favorites]


Initially, I didn't know what to say, but hugged him and told him it was fine.
After a few weeks had passed though, it kept nagging at me.


I'm not a relationship expert, but after you hugged him and told him it was fine, he probably felt a huge WHOOSH of relief, maybe a "I confessed to Anon that I have a problem and she's supporting me and I got this, this is going to be okay."

And then a few weeks later you came back with the, "wait...what?" and now what he thought was okay is now not and all of those bad feelings of anxiety and guilt came back and hit him like a freight train out of nowhere.

And certainly, of course you are entitled to know the details of his addiction...does it cost a lot of money, is this affecting his physical intimacy with you, are there direct/indirect victims of the porn, etc. But it probably would have been more merciful to address them when he confessed and was ready to talk about it, OR to say "I'm a bit floored by this, let's revisit in a few weeks" than to let him think this Big Discussion was over with, and then bring it back.
posted by kimberussell at 3:17 PM on January 26, 2017 [13 favorites]


I see nothing in your question to suggest that you did anything wrong or that your skills are lacking. Sounds to me like you did fine, he just was too touchy to handle talking about it at all.

BUT since you asked, I just came across this book today, maybe you'd find it useful.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:17 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


So it happens that I am right in the midst of SS 275: The Myths of Sex & Porn Addiction with Dr. David Ley which had a lot of good things to say about our cultural notions of addiction.

I'm with St. Peepsburg: He didn't have the communication skills to have the conversation with you, either. It takes two people to have a conversation, and the fact that you were "almost throwing up nervous" suggests that he wasn't making it easy.

My big takeaway from my experiences, and I'd guess I have several decades and the cultural advantage of being male on you, is that believing I'm worthy of the relationships I want enough that I'm okay with exposing that to my partners and potential partners is a big freakin' deal. Nervous about exposing myself means that I'm afraid of rejection, which means that I don't believe that they're going to accept the real me. So things that build up my sense of self, that let me not be nervous so that I can be open and there to listen, are what I'm seeking out.
posted by straw at 3:21 PM on January 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


On reading your post I notice that you say that you were not 'assured,' and frankly, that could have just as well been something that he was not able to give to you, as it could have been something you were not able to gain from him. In other words, he may have simply not passed the test of being able to reassure you that this was an okay, valid, or otherwise acceptable thing: and perhaps that just speaks truth to your bearings in the relationship, that you were unable to accept that. That's okay.

I'm not actually hearing any internal red flags coming up for you, when you tell us about this - mostly, just that he thought you weren't able to support him as well as he liked - and I'm feeling that it might be easy to internalize around that statement if it led ultimately to your break-up. I think he was likely looking to you for answers, frankly; I put the burden on him, regarding that.
posted by a good beginning at 3:27 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


???

"I have a porn addiction" (like any sentence that starts with "I have a" and ends with "addiction") is not something you can confide in your partner without expecting to have a conversation about how it might affect your relationship. Also like any conversation that starts with "I have a * addiction," you can't really expect a conversation about your porn addiction to be 100% easy and comfortable, you know? Apart from anything else, if he describes it as an addiction it means that he himself is not comfortable with his use of porn, so any conversation he could have about it would bring up some of his feelings of discomfort.

Some people are just not good at coping with their feelings of discomfort. Their response to feeling discomfort is to try to find a reason why it's the other person's fault that they feel that way. (A.k.a. "You don't have the communication skills necessary for a relationship." What a douchey thing to say! He's not happy in his relationship with you, so he concludes that you're not able to have a relationship with anybody? That tells you all you need to know.)

One good tip about talking to people about subjects that make them uncomfortable is to not barrage them with a bunch of questions, because that sometimes ends up sounding accusatory. Instead, just let them talk. But somehow I doubt he would have done that however you had approached the topic, unless it was "you poor baby, how can I heal your suffering through blind devotion," which I do not recommend.

And this isn't about you being too nervous. Honestly, I have no idea how one could even go about messing up this kind of conversation by being too nervous. If you had been more confident, he probably would have accused you of making him uncomfortable by being too forceful.
posted by ostro at 3:30 PM on January 26, 2017 [34 favorites]


At some point I asked about the intimacy problems too. I don't remember it all too clearly because I was so nervous, but the outcome was that I was not assured and he felt humiliated

The problem here is not that you humiliated him. It's that he feels humiliated when forced to acknowledge that he's not functioning well sexually. The "...and now I don't want to have a relationship with you" actually means that he doesn't want to deal with his sexual dysfunction. The "...because your communication skills are whatever" is his way of making this your fault, when in fact it is his fault for being unable to deal with his dick not behaving.

This is one of those rare situations where really and seriously: it's not you, it's him.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:36 PM on January 26, 2017 [60 favorites]


Bringing up his disclosure some time down the road in the way you did WAS PERFECTLY FINE. Agreed it's ridiculous he expected to bring up his problem and then just let it lie there out in the open, yet undiscussed. Just. No.

"My goal was to find out what "addiction" meant to him and so I started out just asking what he meant by "porn addiction". At some point I asked about the intimacy problems too."

This was also perfectly fine of you on all counts.

"...he felt humiliated and like I had no sympathy for his feelings after he had chosen to be vulnerable with me."

He's making you responsible for his uncomfortable feelings about the bad thing he is doing. This is his problem, not yours. Plus it is effecting you, so really, he's just out of line.

"I apologized profusely when I realized how it had made him feel..."

You should not never no nope not apologized. No. He's embarrassed because he has a porn addiction that's effecting sexual intimacy in his romantic relationship. He should talk to a therapist about his problem, not count on his girlfriend to shoulder the consequences of his actions by continually processing and accepting truncated intimacy. Again, those are his consequences to mitigate, not yours.

"...he said he didn't think I have the communication / relationship skills necessary for a relationship and it went downhill from there."

He's an asshole with problems. He's mad you won't go along with how his shitty problems effected you. Good riddance.
posted by jbenben at 3:47 PM on January 26, 2017 [20 favorites]


I apologized profusely when I realized how it had made him feel but he said he didn't think I have the communication / relationship skills necessary for a relationship and it went downhill from there.

He is all fucked up and blaming you. He hoped you would be too "shy" to actually call him on his shit. The only thing you did "wrong" was not being an abject doormat. Count your lucky stars he is gone.

If you are super shy and have anxiety, it can help to schedule the talk and/or to bring it up over email initially. A la "I would like to discuss Thing. What would be a good time for you to do that with me?"

It takes two to make a relationship work. Both people need to actively cooperate. When that happens, your nervousness or whatever is not show stopper.

It only takes one to completely torpedo it because they don't really want to do what is necessary to make a relationship work. Learn to not take it too personally that the world has a lot of messed up people in it.
posted by Michele in California at 3:47 PM on January 26, 2017 [7 favorites]


You did fine. I had a boyfriend once who, every time I brought up a concern - no matter how compassionate I was (and believe me I am over empathetic so this was not hard) would get super defensive. This would quickly devolve into him yelling at me and then me saying "we can't discuss this right now because you are too angry" and then him getting super offended that I wouldn't just let him rage and curse at me.

Nope. He was an asshole with communication problems and it was easier for him to pin the communication problems on me. What he really meant by "communication problems" was "You're trying to talk to me about an issue and I don't want to do that, ever." Sound familiar?

You're better off. It hurts and I'm sorry you're going through it but you did nothing wrong by trying to talk about this with him. That's what mature couples do.

Take care.
posted by sockermom at 3:53 PM on January 26, 2017 [17 favorites]


When someone states they were unfaithful "because I was drunk," the next thing out of their mouth should be how, specifically, they plan to avoid being that drunk ever again.

Similarly, when someone says "I have a porn addiction," then as soon as they realize it is affecting their relationship, their first action needs to be to reassure their partner that it will be dealt with, to outline how, and to follow through. Not to expect their partner to just "deal with it."

It's fine if they don't want to take action on their porn addiction. They are choosing between porn and you. It's sad that they would rather live in fantasy sex land than have a real relationship, but if that's where they are, at least you are free to move on.

You handled that perfectly fine except for second-guessing yourself after the breakup.
posted by kindall at 4:08 PM on January 26, 2017 [14 favorites]


Eh, the one thing I could think of is did you discuss the intimacy issues before bringing it up in the context of a discussion about his porn addiction? Was it an existing problem you were working on and you tied the two together or did you use the addiction discussion as an opportunity to bring up other issues?

I mean, if I told my partner I had some issues with depression, I would be pretty unhappy if he responded, after getting clarification, with "By the way, you're sometimes not fun to be around, you know, do you think it's related?" Related these things may be, bringing them up separately to start might be kinder, because they are problems even if only one is occurring. There's no need to bundle them. And they might not always be related. Me being not fun to be around could be unrelated to depression- I could just not like the stuff he likes to go out and do.
posted by pearshaped at 4:11 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Your level of nervousness and anxiety over the conversation itself is something you could find creative solutions to in the future. Difficult conversations are difficult to have, and draw on experience and skillsets that you might not have or have yet.

Another option is to write your thoughts down. Not every conversation has to be real time face to face. Next time you need to have a serious relationship discussion, try writing your concerns down on paper. It will give you the time to say exactly what you want to say, and phrase it exactly how you want to phrase it. You could say to your boyfriend, "I would like to discuss what you said about your porn addiction further, would that be ok?" And then, "I collected my thoughts on paper. We can talk about them now if you'd like or if you want time to think about them, that's okay, too." From there a face to face conversation can evolve.

There are ways for people who are bad at conversations to have them productively. Writing things down is just one way--but it's a way that gives both parties space and time to digest everything before speaking. Even if I'm going to have a difficult conversation with someone in person I like to write it down ahead of time, just to collect my thoughts.

In this particular situation, like others have said, I don't see anything you did wrong here, and even if you had approached it differently it may not have gone better in this particular case. You can't control other people's reactions to your words, you can only be honest and kind and do the best you can.
posted by phunniemee at 4:14 PM on January 26, 2017 [6 favorites]


You relay virtually nothing about the conversations that actually transpired between the two of you. There is no way for us to know if he's a "whiny baby" or a "douchebag" or if you "did fine". Feeling great anxiety or conscientiousness does not preclude saying things that are "wrong". We can't answer this question except to give completely general advice about " how to handle expressing concerns about relationship issues in a compassionate, sympathetic way".
posted by Blitz at 4:47 PM on January 26, 2017 [14 favorites]


The other person's negative reaction to your words does not mean you did not express yourself compassionately, and likewise, their calm reaction does not mean you handled it well.

Without knowing what you said and how you said it, it's impossible to tell if you did in fact handle it well or not.
posted by ananci at 5:35 PM on January 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


If he said what he said, and there were intimacy issues too, I'm amazed you didn't just walk out the door. At least you eventually got there. I don't believe this has anything to do with your communication/relationship skills, except regarding your own anxiety. No doubt others on here will be able to help with recommendations for that, and then you won't be "throwing-up nervous" in future when you want to find out about some big issue that your future partner has.
posted by tillsbury at 5:53 PM on January 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


When someone discloses like that, you have the right to respectfully ask questions. Your feelings matter in the relationship, too. You sound like you were doing your best to stay open-minded and supportive. I think he was pretty naive to think you wouldn't want to talk about it at least once more, since all you did was hug.
posted by Pearl928 at 6:38 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


When someone discloses something like that it's also fine to just leave, by the way. It's avoidable, it's gross, it's incredibly demoralizing in a romantic relationship, and it's not really something that you ought to be beating yourself up for not being delicate enough about.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:32 PM on January 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


You did just fine. The defensiveness on his part is typical of addictive tendencies, especially if there are elements of shame involved. While that might elicit some sympathy, it's not reasonable to expect that you wouldn't want any more discussion on the matter. Also, if he did something that was potentially harmful to your relationship, he should be willing to have as many conversations with you that you are interested in having, without being defensive. This doesn't mean that we all couldn't learn how to be more sympathetic with people who are going through difficult personal issues, with an ear towards not shaming. But he confessed it because he felt like he was participating in actions that were not fair to your relationship. There was a lot of freedom involved in his decisions, and he may be using the word "addiction," in part, to blur your notion of his responsibility. Or, he may legitimately feel totally helpless in this regard, which also warrants more information so that you can make informed decisions.

Also, you, on the receiving end, are not simply his confessor who gives him a few Hail Marys and sends him on his way after he tells the truth. You are the one who has been experiencing lack of intimacy (very typical when excessive porn use is involved), and are still wanting to connect intimately with someone still not wanting to be transparent. The part that hurts most is generally not the indiscretion, as much as it is secrecy and not being truthful. If you are feeling a little bit edgy about that, it's normal, and it isn't worse than the thing he was confessing in the first place, that's for sure, so he should chill. The one who is not ready to be in a relationship, most likely, is the one who confesses to primarily make themselves feel better, not the one who isn't a perfect human automaton when it comes to emotional reactions. (But again, you still did great.) By the way, it's also okay to not be okay with secretive porn use, even if you feel sex positive in general. Those two things are not directly correlated.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:31 PM on January 26, 2017 [5 favorites]


Pretty early in our relationship, my husband was dealing with a drinking problem. I knew it, and sometimes I was in denial, but there were times when talking about it wasn't really optional. We had to address the thing. The best way I (and with help from Al-Anon) figured I had a leg to stand on was to discuss it from the perspective of how it affected me.

His drinking/porn/gambling/whatever addiction is his business until it begins to affect you. If someone else's behavior affects you negatively, you are 100% reasonable in discussing it and requesting change. It doesn't mean you're not being compassionate--to the contrary, it means you're taking care of yourself and asserting what you know you need in order to feel safe in a relationship. If you can't express those needs, the relationship is dead anyway.

You were not wrong. And there may well be residual anxiety, and more fresh anxiety the next time this type of thing comes up with someone else you're dating. The discomfort is fine and normal, and not something to brush away. Just acknowledge it and press on. You're worth it.
posted by witchen at 10:38 PM on January 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


You relay virtually nothing about the conversations that actually transpired between the two of you. There is no way for us to know if he's a "whiny baby" or a "douchebag" or if you "did fine".

This.

I'd guess I have several decades and the cultural advantage of being male on you

I'm not sure if it matters, but I don't see where the OP identified their gender.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:29 PM on January 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


I think it's good and loving of you to want to be compassionate toward your partner, when he has a struggle and feels bad. I think it speaks well of you that, though you were upset during the conversation where you raised your concerns, you tried to be compassionate. That's a very important relationship skill.

I think it's equally important to know that *you* deserve compassion, when you have a struggle and feel bad. And you were having a struggle and feeling bad. He didn't respond with compassion when he was upset. Instead, he was critical and cutting.

I don't think it's helpful or productive to call him names about it. More important, I think, is to suggest that you examine why you were willing to accept the validity of his critical response, rather than respond with a sure sense that the way he treated you was not the way you want to be treated in a loving, healthy relationship, when you are upset and struggling.

Please understand that I'm not trying to blame the victim here. Just that I recognize what you're doing and ask you to shift your perspective. I have plenty of experience with holding myself to a super-high standard of how I treat others, and being so understanding and compassionate about the struggles they're going through that I wind up accepting poor treatment. It took a very long time, but I finally learned: yes, I should hold myself to high standards in how I treat people, but I should also be as compassionate toward myself as I am to other people. That means not accepting poor treatment. The MeFi concept of "poop milkshake" has been really helpful to me here: even if there is a lot of wonderful stuff in that concoction (person), if there's even a small amount of something absolutely unacceptable in the mix, I still don't want it.

It's a hard situation and you're smart to try to understand it better. Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 4:09 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


Obviously without all the details it's tough to know whether you were insensitive or just percieved yourself that way because of his reaction.

It's worth remembering that if he is massively embarrassed or sensitive about this issue, just the mere fact that you want to talk about it could trigger him to want to close down.

The act of revealing it to you means he had lost control over whether/when it is brought up so he may have had a degree of anxiety about that. He then says the lack of compatibility (i.e. your lack of relationship/communication skill) is the reason for it not working....can you see how from the outside it might seem slightly excessive to end a happy relationship because of one uncomfortable discussion?

I would say it's always great to strive to be more compassionate, but also I think it's important to try not to attribute someone else's severe reaction as the sole indicator your success or failure to be supportive.
posted by TheGarden at 5:24 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


if he did something that was potentially harmful to your relationship, he should be willing to have as many conversations with you that you are interested in having, without being defensive

If someone else's behavior affects you negatively, you are 100% reasonable in discussing it and requesting change. It doesn't mean you're not being compassionate--to the contrary, it means you're taking care of yourself and asserting what you know you need in order to feel safe in a relationship. If you can't express those needs, the relationship is dead anyway.


These statements are gold.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:48 AM on January 27, 2017 [5 favorites]


If the relationship was worth holding on to, he would not have accused you of having some communication skills deficit, then jumped ship. Mature adults accept apologies and work together to solve problems. Without knowing what you said, it's hard to say how you should have approached it better, but I think that judging your approach by his behavior may be the wrong way of measuring your ability to discuss tough issues.

I have brought things up imperfectly and clumsily before. Good partners either ignore the package the message comes in and deal with the substance of the issue or get annoyed at my approach but accept my apology when I realize I could have handled it better. Bad partners storm off in a huff and don't want to work it out. I think you had one of the bad partners, or he was going to jump ship for some other reason and this seemed like a good way out.

One thing I would look at is the extreme nervousness. When I've not felt comfortable bringing things up, it's usually been that the relationship was not one I was at home in. If that's true for you, that nervousness can signal a relationship that's not working. If it always happens, it may be worthwhile to work on your self-esteem or whatever is making you feel like you can't talk to a partner about something.
posted by *s at 7:15 AM on January 27, 2017 [5 favorites]


If someone says they have an addiction, the compassionate response is not, "that's ok". Because addiction is a problem, right? The compassionate response might be to say, "I'm sorry, have you sought help for that?" or "I'm glad you told me, I still love you, is there something I can do to help?".

But, like you, I'm an anxious person, and I wouldn't have known what to say immediately, either. And it sounds like you tried to approach the follow-up conversation compassionately, but it's hard for us to tell.

As with most anxiety, I'm going to say that talk therapy helped me to better do things like this. Hard relationship conversations are still hard, and sometimes I have to write things down like people mentioned above. But therapy gave me a much better sense for whether I was relating healthily with others (and helped on so many other anxiety-fronts, too!).
posted by ldthomps at 9:56 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you tried to be understanding and non-judgemental, and you did the best that you can do. But without knowing the details of the conversation it is difficult to tell.

If the person has shared that they have a porn addiction and you are having intimacy issues, you should be able to ask questions and have an honest conversation. It sounds like you tried to do everything the right way, but this man isn't ready to face his own issues and feels embarrassed. When he told you that you don't have the communication skills, it sounds like he is projecting. HE is the one who isn't ready to communicate.

When talking to someone about your relationship concerns in the future, a great tip is to avoid making YOU statements. Instead of saying "YOU did x, y, z", make "I" statements

"I feel that" etc.

This way you avoid sounding accusatory.

When talking to men, tell them how something makes you feel, then invite them to give their opinion on the matter.
posted by datingandotherstories at 7:34 AM on January 29, 2017


The relationship is over and the focus of his self-diagnosed additction is a powder keg. So I want to set those both to the side and get to the heart of your question: How can I be more empathetic?

Well, take a look at the trajectory here. You said you were "fine" with something he chose to confess, and later decided that you were not fine with it. That almost certainly put him on the defensive, which lead to hurt feelings that he expected you to soothe. Once forgiveness is given, it can't be revoked. Although you probably don't think that is what happened, I can almost guarantee this is how he perceieved it. Perception, not reality, matters a great deal here. "I'm sorry that I hurt you feelings/made you feel judged." will go a long way to fixing the damage. If you want to know what his expectations were, ask him. After you have this information, you can explain why you told him it was OK, but then asked all those questions. You told us that it was because you were worried for him. That is a great answer.

Will this make you better at relationshiping? Nope. You get better at that through the process not the principles, by learning from your mistakes. You and your ex- are both human, so this will not be your first and it won't be your last. You need to have compassion for yourself before you have it for others (or you may end up a doormat), so know this: you don't have to have this conversation. If you have hurt feelings, that is very normal. He broke things off with a judgment about your communication skills, and it looks like you came here because you take him at his word. Even if he was right, that was the old you. You gain relationship experience by having relationships, and not all experiences within a relationship are positive. Learn from this and you'll do fine.
posted by Mr. Fig at 12:48 PM on January 29, 2017


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