Help me calibrate my relationship radar
January 29, 2020 12:32 AM   Subscribe

I think I may have been treated badly in a recent relationship, but I don't trust my intuition. Tell me whether I'm right to think so.

It's beginning to dawn on me that a recent relationship of mine was incredibly unhealthy, and my insecurity and deteriorating mental health while I was in it wasn't my fault so much as a natural response to being treated really badly. However, I no longer trust any of my intuitions in this regard because I put up with that treatment for so long. So I was wondering if I could get a sense from the hivemind about which (if any) of the following behaviours are legitimately shitty and one shouldn't put up with, vs the kinds of things that you should accommodate in at least some circumstances.

1. They broke up with me to work on a previous relationship. That in itself isn't shitty, right? I mean it sucks, but it's totally a legitimate thing to do if that's where your heart is.

2. When they broke up with me we tried at first to still be friends (I know, gag) and then when we failed to be able to adhere to those boundaries we both independently realised we needed to go no contact. But after agreeing to that they broke the no contact rule multiple times to do things like: (a) tell me they needed me in a way that they did not need the other person (which I think is true, but still, if they believed it then they should have dumped them to be with me); (b) tell me how much they missed and loved me; (c) ask me for advice regarding their relationship with the other person. And then when I'd reciprocate and respond they'd tell me I'd gone over their boundaries because they "had no self-control around me" and that we had to go no contact because me being in their life made them cheat on the other person. Note: they broke the no contact more often than I did but I still did too, especially after the first few times (they instigated first and after that I’d say it was 75/25 or so them/me in frequency). So neither of us were angels here, and maybe that doesn’t give me the right to be upset at this?

3. They told me I was the only person who could stop them from self-harming or being an alcoholic. In many ways this was true (for various complicated reasons) but it meant that I felt I couldn't stay away lest they slice themselves up or drink too much. I don't think this was their fault -- they were wrestling with some legitimate mental illness -- but it was still a terrible and unfair burden for me to deal with, right? Especially while we were simultaneously trying to go no contact? It felt like it put me in a no-win situation and I did not feel I could stay away when they’d contact me lest they hurt themselves.

4. When they originally broke up with me they said they didn't think their relationship with the other person would work out, but that they had to "give it an honest try" and that they hoped that if it didn't, that I would still be there. I said I couldn't hang around and wait for them and they said they understood. But then after, while we were ostensibly "no contact", they kept referring to our boundaries on communication as a temporary thing lasting "for the time being" and expressing hope that we would be able to interact more freely soon (as if it weren’t entirely their choice to pursue the relationship with the other person, and as if they couldn’t stop the no contact at any point by breaking up with them). That's kind of shitty to keep saying, right, knowing that it would keep me living in hope and make it harder to move on?

5. When I told them that it felt terrible being treated as the second-place backup person they expressed bafflement that I would see it that way and suggested that I was wrong to feel hurt by it because they loved us both. Is that as gaslighty as I think it is? I mean, I was the second-place backup person, and whether they loved me or not doesn’t change that, right?

6. They expressed puzzlement that I'd feel hurt that they rejected me. They insisted they hadn't rejected me since the no contact boundaries were "something we both agreed on." But… I only agreed on them as the best of bad options after they rejected me in the first place. That's still a rejection, right? And it's not ridiculous to feel hurt by that?

7. They wrote about our relationship in an (anonymous) blog post in which they mischaracterised it in a few really hurtful ways. They included snippets of their BDSM-y fantasies edited to make me look cruel and written in a way that implied they had really happened as opposed to being fantasies. They said that they had only been with me because I was “the best of bad options." They implied that I fetishised them. It's fair to feel hurt by those things, right, even though they didn't attach my name to the post?

8. They'd tell me they were scared of "my power over them" and that "they could not say no to me." They would then use this as an excuse for routinely going back on things they'd previously agreed to, saying they'd only said yes since they didn't feel they could say no rather than because they actually agreed. (Note: I was never abusive, physically or emotionally, and they explicitly said that their inability to say no was because of their own bad tendencies and history rather than anything I was doing wrong). That's fucked up, right? It meant that I felt I could never stand up for my own feelings and needs because of the fear that they'd agree to something that they didn't want to agree to, and then blame me later for “making” them do so.

9. They habitually avoided me or ghosted me after having agreed to do something rather than tell me they'd had a change of heart or a change of plans. If I'd do anything other than pretend I hadn't noticed, they'd tell me how much it distressed them to upset me and plead with me to tell them that I wasn’t mad and it was okay. As a result I never felt I could have a productive discussion about how we could stop this pattern (or any other issue for that matter), because every discussion inevitably became about their feelings of upset rather than the issue.

... I'm sure there are other things but I think that's enough. I'm aware that I should be in therapy. I am! Lots of it! We’re talking about all of this! I would just appreciate objective opinions from more people than just my therapist because I think if there is resounding agreement about this I will better be able to internalise it. I keep wanting to make excuses and convince myself it wasn’t bad, and I want to give myself all the ammunition I can to stop doing so if it genuinely was that bad. I am also aware that this not-actually-no-contact thing was horrible and stupid. We are now actually out of contact and I'm doing my best to get over this person; labelling shitty behaviour as shitty is part of how I'm trying to do so.

Also: to be entirely fair to this person, I genuinely do think they were doing their best and were not intending to hurt me. They have been diagnosed with a raft of mental illnesses, including complex PTSD, severe anxiety, and major depression, and I would not be surprised if they also had BPD. They’ve tried to commit suicide before and have abuse in their past. So I don’t blame them for most of this and I don’t think they’re a bad person at all, just someone in a great deal of pain. Still… that doesn’t mean their behaviour wasn’t shitty, does it? And it doesn’t mean I should have put up with it?

So, I need the sanity check. What do you think? Which of these things are things that no healthy relationship should have, vs which are maybe not great but acceptable since nothing is perfect, vs which might be okay given extenuating circumstances like mental illness?
posted by Babbling Blatherskite to Human Relations (17 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: poster's request -- cortex

Best answer: You are so spot on with your analysis that I'm having a hard time finding anything to add (this basically never happens, heh...)

But if anything, you're being too kind in your interpretation of their motives and acts. Yes, all the examples you listed are manipulative and designed to keep you unbalanced enough to hang around and endure the mistreatment. Yes, all of it is a massive double bind that says "go away, you are the worst, and also don't leave me". Yes, this is deeply unhealthy for both of you. Also, yes, perhaps not all of it is intentional and they probably believe they are a victim and therefore cannot possibly have been cruel.

Untreated mental illness can be a reason but never an excuse for cruelty. Why is there nothing about them bending over backwards to get help so they can stop treating you badly?

Yes, therapy for you.

But also: just...their well being is not on you anymore. I absolve you of any responsibility. If they harm themselves, that's on them. You can be a good person and still stop caring.

You must be so tired?

Here's your oxygen mask, put it on and concentrate on finding the way back to yourself.

Do nice things for yourself. Show yourself the care you deserve. Surround yourself with people who love you, hugs, good food, productive work and sleep. Refuse to even think about how they're doing. They have wasted enough of your time and emotions.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:09 AM on January 29, 2020 [23 favorites]

Best answer: All of these sound at the very least emotionally manipulative if not abusive. Well, except your first point. I agree, it sucks but it’s a legit reason to break up with someone. But everything else: ugh I’m so sorry they put you through this and I’m happy to hear you’re in therapy to work through it and get back to a healthy mental state. They are varying degrees of “ew” to “oh that’s bad” to “classic emotional abuse”.

None of them fall under “oh he may have been suffering from mental illness so that’s excusable”. That is grossly unfair to the plenty of other people who have mental illnesses and do not do this. It exacerbates prejudices against mental illness. He is responsible for his actions and responsible for treating himself so he does not treat others this way.
posted by like_neon at 1:11 AM on January 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

Their behaviour was shitty, whatever their reason or excuse. Not only should you not have to put up with it, you should not be in any contact with this person again. You’re getting nothing out of it and are repeatedly being drawn back into their drama, which makes it impossible to move on. Go no contact and try to breathe again.
posted by Jubey at 1:41 AM on January 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all, I'm assuming you have fully removed yourself from this person's influence. If you haven't, I strongly recommend you do. If it helps, try not to consider them as an "emotionally toxic person", which is very rejecty and also very reductive, and can feel bad if you are a compassionate person who loves/loved them. I try to see someone like this as a person with a contagious disease that you just can't be around. When someone has the flu, you assume they'll come through it, that all that's happened is that they were human and are now ill, but you don't want to get too close, because you too are human and you too will get ill.

I'm so sorry. It sucks so much to come through such a difficult time. You are doing all the things right and processing in order to heal. It's a journey. Maybe I can offer a few things I've learned from going through similar disappointing situations:

1.) You are never wrong to be upset, and never ridiculous to feel your feelings. It IS in fact gaslighting to be told your feelings are wrong or that you shouldn't have them. Your feelings can't be wrong. They also aren't fact, but the first way to separate your feelings from facts is to validate them. That is one of the most important things about relationships. You need people in your life with whom you can share your feelings, and who can validate your right to them and help you see a path forward - what assumptions you're making that might change the way you feel, what actions you can take that might improve how you feel, what changes you can ask for from other people that might make you feel better.

It is easy, in fact probably normal, to deny yourself your emotions when the most important person in your life is denying them too. So let yourself off of the hook for this. But also commit to practicing getting better at this.

2.) It does sound like there is a lot of reluctance on both of your parts to put responsibility where it belongs for some of the negative outcomes. THIS IS TOTALLY HUMAN but it is a lesson to learn - and something even the Dalai Lama probably has to practice. Sometimes you hold too much of it and your ex puts it all on you. Sometimes you want to put it all on them, I'm guessing, from some of your post.

When you say "my insecurity and deteriorating mental health... wasn't my fault so much as a natural response to being treated really badly" -- this is a KEY statement you could consider examining in therapy. These are not mutually exclusive things. They can BOTH be true! Being treated poorly in a relationship is nearly certain to trigger us and put us into unhealthy mindsets. Your ex is responsible for the behaviors that were hurtful to you. But we also have to take responsibility for the things we accept from people and what we accept from them. You are trying to find this balance right now, which is wonderful! But I do have a little bit of bad news: it's not objective science, what you should tolerate and what you should draw boundaries around. What is important is that you move ahead with a better system to figure it out. Binary thinking here leads to suffering (ask me how I know how).

Sometimes the only way to know that you shouldnt tolerate a behavior is to try it and find out you can't. Sometimes certain behaviors you actually should tolerate are so frightening to you it's not safe for you to try. You need to move ahead with trust in yourself and as much self awareness and self love as you can. This means allowing yourself your feelings and never questioning them, which means practicing separating your feelings WHICH ARE YOURS AND YOU ARE ENTITLED TO THEM GODDAMNIT from the reality - which is easy to distort when you are denying your emotions.

3.) It is so good that you are willing to have compassion for your ex. It does sound like your relationship was unhealthy and it sounds like they are a very confused person with a lot of pain and they are not managing it and are therefore not a healthy person to share your life with. The more you can think of it that way in the future, and less like you were wronged, the better. Paradoxically, the path to getting to this compassionate place of kindness is to BE MAD. BE ANGRY. Because you, too, are a person with needs who were not met, and you were mistreated. You will be more generous when you are seated in your own power. The compassion will come. You are clearly a kind and compassionate person who wants to do better by yourself and others. It will happen. Put yourself at the center of this story completely. If you feel you were wronged, let it be so. You can trust yourself. I trust you and I'm a stranger on the internet.
posted by pazazygeek at 2:07 AM on January 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone. Just wanted to add, in case it matters, that they are actively working on their mental health. They've been in therapy for several years (and believe it or not have improved a lot in that time) and are genuinely working really hard there. As far as I can tell, their therapist is pretty good; it's just that their issues are really extensive and go really deep.

I don't know if that makes any difference, but I did want to clarify that just in case.

I do love them a lot, which is part of what makes this so hard. They were very kind to me at some critical parts of my life, and have made a positive difference to me in so many ways. But that can all be true and many aspects of their behaviour to me can still have been shitty and unhealthy, right?
posted by Babbling Blatherskite at 2:20 AM on January 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry but this person is simply short of a sensitive bone in their body. They seem to be very new to relationships and knowing what consideration and respect are. The same might be true of all of us at one time or another but if there was any humility in them they would realize they have you hanging by a string and are willing to bounce at their command like a. Yo yo and ultimately that is not the person you want them to see you as, nor will you feel good about yourself when it's all over. When they have figured out they want you instead of the ex it will be a constant source of insecurity dividing you and if they decide you deserve freedom from manipulative statements like you are the only reason they don't harm themselves well you will always feel some kind of guilt when they leave. You cant win with this person in your life no matter how much you want their affection they are not emotionally stable enough for anyone. The sooner you realize this the better you can be.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 2:43 AM on January 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 3. They told me I was the only person who could stop them from self-harming or being an alcoholic. In many ways this was true (for various complicated reasons) [...]

Noooooo no no no no , this is what gets people into codependent situations. There is nothing you can do to control his alcoholism or self-harming. You are NOT responsible for what he does or doesn't do. At all. Even if he insists that you are in some way or another, you are not. Read up on codependency and see if anything resonates with you.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 4:37 AM on January 29, 2020 [21 favorites]

Best answer: It's so good you're getting support from a therapist, and so good you're fully no contact.

These are all shitty. The first one seems in the realm of "... shitty and also understandable." The rest would be intolerable. They're unhealthy, red flags, shades of abusive or heading toward it. All of them.

It doesn't matter that they're working on it. "The way of being in the world that means you get access to me" is graded on proficiency, not progress. It's like the illness metaphor above. They may be getting treatment, but if their illness will hurt you, then you need to stay away.

I'm noticing the amount of "yeah, but..." explanations you're giving. They give context but they don't change the other facts you listed. I want to lift up the part of your voice that says "it hurts." It HURTS! That's enough reason to move away.

The fact of how you acted sub-optimally doesn't give anybody else a free pass on their own behavior.

You don't have to condemn them to think this way. If anything, hope for their healing (from a far distance). The term I like is compassionate witness.
posted by ramenopres at 5:00 AM on January 29, 2020 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Pretty much all "bad people" are people who are just in a lot of pain. It's okay to acknowledge that they behaved badly, and doing so doesn't mean you're throwing them away.

It sounds like they're in a one-person drama they're directing and starring in, in which other people are acting as supporting cast and/or props ("I can't say no to you" only works like they describe it in bad melodramas, and turns you from a person with valid hopes and desires into a plot device.). It sounds like you were right to quit the show--not just to preserve your own heart, but because nourishing this dysfunctional and unkind behavior is ultimately not helpful to them as well.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 5:36 AM on January 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A lot of your points resonated with my personal experience of a particular relationship.

All I can say is, some people are not good for one another. You are not the person that can help them and they certainly do not sound like a person who can be a positive influence in your life. Well done for cutting contact, you've done the right thing. Yes, it hurts, very much, for a time, but we need to break those ties of dependency in order to fully extricate ourselves.

These push-pull, hot-cold relationships are emotional torture, so you're going to need to be extra kind to yourself while you heal. I highly recommend staying no contact for good, as the type of person you have described is likely to go through life without ever completely addressing their issues. As ramenopres wrote, wish them well from a distance but don't risk enmeshing yourself in their unhealthy relationship patterns once more. The biggest risk of this will come as you start to feel better.

Tonglen meditation practice was helpful for me, along with daily Yoga with Adriene on Youtube. Anything you can do to get out of your head (rumination) and into your body. Deep breaths.

Spend time with gentle people that leave you feeling warm and secure. Remember, you are convalescing.

Lastly, a few words about blame. Someone on here once said something that I felt was particularly wise. I can't find it at the moment, but the gist was: "Sometimes the people that fuck you up the most are the ones that try to be nice." My ex strung me along for a year or more because he "didn't want to hurt me" even though he was covertly starting a relationship with someone else. In his extraordinarily unhealthy way, he thought he was doing right by me. I can see how this stemmed from the experiences he had in a very traumatic childhood and feel compassion for that, but I'm also allowed not to want to see or speak to him again.
posted by doornoise at 5:46 AM on January 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

At my most generous, I might tolerate a single one of these nine things in a personal relationship, if after talking about it I felt my partner understood why they are unkind behaviours and promised not to repeat it. I absolutely would not tolerate the whole lot.

None of this is remotely decent behavior. You are not obliged to tolerate unkindness because of someone else's mental un-wellness, or because they are suffering. After all, everyone suffers, and a lot of people manage to be decent or excellent nonetheless.
posted by larkery at 6:13 AM on January 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

But that can all be true and many aspects of their behaviour to me can still have been shitty and unhealthy, right?

You said in your question that you don't trust your intuition anymore. Your intuition sounds excellent.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:19 AM on January 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I got to #2 before I was like "Yes this person treated you terribly" and then every additional point made it worse. It is kind of you to have compassion for their struggles, but it's also GREAT that you're putting yourself first! Their pain is real and their behavior is not about you, and that may be useful to know, but it doesn't mean you need to stick around to be treated this way. I know you know this, just chiming in for validation - this internet stranger is proud of you!
posted by sunset in snow country at 7:25 AM on January 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Quick note, OP has used "they" in the question so let's avoid adding gender assumptions in. Thanks.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:26 AM on January 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Your radar is very good and I hope seeing the other responses here helps you continue to be kind to yourself and not feel like second-guessing your own (very good) intuition around this relationship. I’ve been in a very similar situation and a lot of this sounded very familiar. We’ve been broken up for over five years and I have so much more compassion for myself because they really jerked me around and gaslighted me into feeling like I was just a boundary pushing, needy wreck. Turns out in the context of healthier relationships that doesn’t describe me at all, and I bet it doesn’t describe you, either!

The most charitable thing I can say is that when you’re dealing with people who have poor boundaries and do manipulative stuff like this person does, it can be hard to maintain a strong boundaries and healthy habits on your end. While technically that means both of you have things to work on, it doesn’t mean that your behavior would have happened with anyone else. It doesn't mean you’re equally to blame. You are already being far more introspective than this person and I bet you will grow a lot after this, whereas it sounds like they’re going to be stuck in these unhealthy patterns for awhile.

Prioritize that growth and do the best you can to cut this person out of your life entirely. I deeply understand how ridiculously simplified that statement is when it comes to someone you care and love, and who has entwined you into a very codependent relationship. But speaking from the other side of it — you can do it, and every single day it will be easier.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 2:14 PM on January 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone. I am picking as best answers the ones that told me things that I think I need the most to remember but I've appreciated each and every one of these and am doing my best to take them to heart.
posted by Babbling Blatherskite at 10:10 PM on January 29, 2020

Response by poster: I suppose I want to add a few more thoughts, more for myself than anything because I know I'll keep returning to this to reread it.

1. Their behaviour was indeed shitty and I should trust my intuition and feelings rather than spending so much time discounting them. (Thank you everyone for this validation!)

2. I really need to understand in myself why I accepted this treatment and why I did some of the things I did that I'm not proud of. Because in many ways I didn't act ideally either. Some of that was because it really did turn me into a paranoid, insecure, deeply unhappy person; some of it was due to other factors; but regardless, I'm not totally blameless for the dynamic we fell into, and I need to understand what's at root of my end of things.

3. I'll probably always love them, but you can love someone incredibly deeply and still not be healthy for each other. It's okay to be really sad about this. That doesn't mean I should try to deal with the sadness by holding out hope that one day it will be different. It probably won't, and I need to face that.
posted by Babbling Blatherskite at 1:30 AM on January 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

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