Learning to communicate again
February 11, 2018 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Communication in my last relationship was.... tough. Expressing my wants and needs and boundaries always led to conflict, where he always tried to make me feel at fault. Now I'm in a new relationship, and I can't bring myself to speak up.

I know what I really need is to see a therapist, because all the online advice in the world can't fix this for me, and I'm on that! I have a therapist. I'm going to call her tomorrow. With that said, it seems to help to get advice from other people as well.

SO, basically, I'm realizing that my last relationship was very manipulative. I've asked questions about him before. Some examples: he confided in his ex about our sex life, in which he described it as "bad sex", and she told him that "bad sex equals a bad relationship" (FWIW I was assaulted and I have anxiety around sex and he knew all of this and knew I was working on it). Yes, he told me all this. I called him on it and told him I was uncomfortable with him talking to her about it and he went off about how he just doesn't have many friends and he's lonely and she's just a FRIEND now; he doesn't see her as his ex and he should be allowed to confide in his friends. He struggles with depression and I really wanted him to go to therapy and possibly readjust his meds because it WASN'T under control. He would always say that it's HIS problem and I don't need to worry about it. If I told him that his problem still affects me because it affected his behavior he would say that was MY problem because I have anxiety. While simultaneously expecting me to provide emotional support if he neeed it.

I had sinus surgery, which he managed to forget about. A week later I had a complication that resulted in me sptting up large volumes of blood, soon before I had to drive to the next city over from us and take a test in my online anatomy class. Fun times! He got upset with me because he wanted to go out drinking that night and I told him I wasn't up to it. He went off about how he had stayed in all week and he was sick of staying in and he had no one to go out with. He refused to pick anything to watch on TV because he was so disappointed. I told him I felt like he was guilt-tripping me for a medical problem and he told me he should be allowed to express his feelings etc etc.

Basically, any time we had a conflict like these, he would eventually stonewall. He would sit on the couch, staring past me, not saying anything because "it hurt too much". But if I told him how much this behavior bothered him I was stigmatizing him because he had depression.

So that was a fun relationship. We broke up, obviously, and I'm still dealing with some anger and other residual issues from it. Now I'm seeing someone new, and I just.... can't communicate like I used to. I go to express some want or need or just bring up something new and I cannot get the words out. The other night, for example, he was sleeping next to me, right in the middle of the bed, with his arm on my back. I wanted him to move over a bit and move his arm because I have trouble falling asleep while cuddling. I KNOW he would have been fine with it. But I couldn't say it. Instead I waited until he fell asleep, moved his arm, and dealt with not having enough space.

I want to talk about sex and exclusivity and stuff, since we haven't agreed to be exclusive yet. And I just.... can't bring myself to bring it up. I feel like I'm doing something wrong. I feel like I'll be hurting his feelings or causing conflict or whatever. It doesn't help that he himself doesn't seem to be a very forward communicator. He's great in other ways, don't get me wrong! He has been nothing but pleasant. He never makes me feel bad for expressing some small need, like telling him I don't want to watch more TV or I want to stay out longer with my friends or whatever. But I still find myself paralyzed somehow when I go to talk to him about certain things. I've always been a good communicator. This is completely unlike me.

I feel like the twisting and guilting and manipulation just fucked with my head and it's really coming out now that I'm seeing someone else. But I also feel like I should be over it more. We broke up last April. I know there's no easy answer here. I know therapy is a must. But what else can I do? If you've ever been in a similar situation, how did you work through it?
posted by Amy93 to Human Relations (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A good partner is (almost) as much in it for you as you are in it for yourself. If you don't want to watch TV anymore and you share this with your partner, they should be capable of weighing their own interest in continuing to watch TV with your interest in not watching. And remember - maybe he doesn't actually want to watch TV either! Or maybe he is indifferent. Or maybe he is slightly interested in continuing to watch TV and then the two or you briefly discuss it and someone compromises. But you both don't know his feeling toward the current activity, so acting on an assumption isn't a good idea. Same thing with checking in with your partner about if they are currently having a good time at a party or whatever - without the information, you can't act as a team.

Practicing this with little things like watching TV is a good idea in preparing for a bigger conversation like being exclusive. Right now you have some feelings about that. You don't know what he thinks. Maybe you have some clues (like maybe he mentioned something at some point), but you really don't know. You need that information to make decisions about your own actions.

Moreover, on both sides, it sucks to have to be a mindreader and it sucks reading minds. It is not only time consuming and inefficient to do this, but also it is not unlikely that we are wrong when we are trying to read someone else's mind.

As people spend more time in a relationship, they get better at reading the signals. My partner knows that I get really emotionally exhausted at parties or that sometimes I forget to eat when I'm in a writing groove. He purposefully keeps an eye on me in such situations and is proactive in checking in with me or reminding me to eat. And it is GREAT to have another human on the planet that cares about you as much as you care about yourself and wants to take care of you. But it takes time to get there.
posted by k8t at 1:52 PM on February 11, 2018

My wonderful husband came up with the brilliant idea of roleplaying talking about difficult things a few times when it wasn't "real," which made it a LOT easier for me to start communicating. Like, just (with him knowing what's going on of course) pretend like you want him to do something (maybe even something trivial) and ask him very seriously to do it.

But I think probably the place to start is just to say to him, "I feel like I'm having trouble with telling you things sometimes, or asking you for things, sometimes even little things. I don't think it has anything to do with you, I think it has to do with some bad habits I developed in a past relationship. Can we talk about talking about things? I just need to know that it's okay for me to bring things up." I mean, that's tough because it requires that you talk to him about something potentially sensitive. But the meta-conversation can sometimes make the conversation easier.

You'll get there. You'll eventually begin to trust that he's not going to do something hurtful and manipulative when you need to ask for something. I used to do exactly the same kind of thing you describe -- not even want to say to my now-husband that I needed him to scoot over or that I needed more of the blankets. Now I poke him in the ribs or just pull the blanket away from him. :-D
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 2:34 PM on February 11, 2018 [7 favorites]

Would it work to write it down (especially to initially bring up the topic of talking about things), and have him read it while you're there, basically instead of saying the thing aloud?
posted by eviemath at 4:59 PM on February 11, 2018

I really like that you asked this question because I am finding myself refreshingly in a similar situation (after a several-year drought even!).

IMO you need to pony up and do some serious re-parenting of your inner child. You don't need a therapist to realize that some of your core inner child feelings were scared and wounded by your previous experiences in intimate relationships (obviously!).

When you're with new-guy, don't just be a passive victim to these thoughts, feelings and/or sensations -- actually mentally speak back to them. When the feeling comes up, ask yourself what it is you need and want, and then focus on your inner-adult aspect to envision the mature responses you want to be capable of. Be patient with yourself.

IME it's so tempting to make the new relationship a replacement parental figure (it's not fair at all when you're coming into it pre-damaged). However, it's also not healthy if a new partner is becoming responsible for doing too much emotional heavy lifting too fast, right away. Right now you have an awesome opportunity in which your primary job is to focus on how to be a lovely adult woman in a mature relationship (understanding internally what that sounds and looks like, in spite of previous data). Give yourself permission to recognize and celebrate your successes. If this relationship takes, eventually he'll share in those successes too.

It doesn't help that he himself doesn't seem to be a very forward communicator

Just watch that in this case, you're not giving mixed signals that are both discouraging and encouraging this next intimacy-level conversation. I'm finding for myself, I really have to watch that I'm catching my new guy's cues for reassurance, without shutting down on him or closing him out (the way I was trained in the past to, even with myself). My inner child has finally smartened up enough to realize that if I don't catch the moments when his inner child is reaching out to me, we're both going to miss out. In all fairness, we both need to see from that we're not going to make each other responsible for the other's unresolved parenting issues. YMMV.

P.S. if you have the savvy in you to navigate the challenges of your last relationship, I'm quite confident that you've got this. You're basically becoming the master manipulator of... yourself (instead of letting anyone external be in charge anymore). Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 6:10 PM on February 11, 2018

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