Am I repeating unhealthy relationship patterns? How do I stop?
July 1, 2021 8:20 AM   Subscribe

I got divorced right before the pandemic. I developed feelings for and entered into a queerplatonic partnership with the person that I formed a COVID-pod with during the pandemic. This partnership seems to be on the verge of ending, and looking back, I think it may have fallen into several relationship patterns that were also present in my marriage. Help me figure out 1. am I repeating unhealthy relationship patterns? and 2. how do I stop? (more inside)

Ex- husband: didn't want to do anything that I was interested in, so we ended up only doing what he wanted, watching what he was interested in, etc. He would regularly make plans to do things that I wanted to do with me, and then cancel when the time came to actually do them, always for some reason. He was too tired, too stressed, something came up at work, etc. I ended up feeling like I was too much and wanted too much from him. We also grew apart as time went on, until we didn't really have anything to talk about anymore. I stayed in that relationship for a decade (19-29) before realizing that I was worth more than that and leaving. When I left, he told me that he hadn't loved me or been attracted to me for a long time, and that he hadn't told me because he hadn't wanted to hurt me. This relationship fucked me up in a lot of ways, and for good reason. It was toxic.

Queer-platonic partner: Seemed promising at first, because we have so much in common. Could talk video games and writing all day long on a good day. We game together. We D&D together. We give each other feedback on writing. She's asexual so a sexual relationship was a no-go, and she's not very romantic, but we were clearly closer than just friends and really enjoyed spending time with each other. I'd done the poly thing in the past, and so was open to getting sexual needs met elsewhere. We landed on calling each other partners after a lot of discussion. We supported each other through the pandemic and through several mental health issues during the pandemic.

However, she's more of an introvert than I am. During the pandemic I always wanted to hang out more with her than she did with me because I lived entirely alone and and she lived with her parents. We compromised on how much we would hang out together, and made it through until vaccination. I always felt that I was asking too much of her during the pandemic, and tried to be super sensitive to her need for alone time. Which she wasn't always good at asking for, and I'd find out only after hanging out with her that she'd been pushing herself to hang out with me and really hadn't had the energy for that. So I ended up self-rejecting from hanging out with her a lot. I was really looking forward to vaccination because I figured when I could hang out with other people and get my socialization elsewhere, things would get smoother in our relationship, and I'd be putting less stress on her.

Unfortunately, things haven't really gotten better in our relationship, though my mental health is better. I've started hanging out with other people, and dating, all while checking in with her to see how she's doing, if she's comfortable with this. I am finally getting the socialization I want and need to be happy, so I've been able to lean on her less for that need. Unfortunately, it seems that me hanging out with other people is also affecting her mental health poorly. She has told me that she feels left behind and left out because she doesn't have the energy to hang out with other people like I do, and that I've been taking up all of her social energy so she feels isolated. The compromise we came up with is that we would hang out twice a week instead of three times a week, and instead of hanging out with other people one of those days, we'd hang out with other people both days, so she wouldn't feel as isolated, just until she could get some energy back, and then we'd work on getting some alone time back on the calendar.

It's been three weeks of this, with no sign of change. In fact, she seems more tired than before, isn't telling me what's going on, and just yesterday told me that she still feels left behind and tired and like I'm taking up most of her social time. Meanwhile, I feel lonely and sad and miss her because we aren't spending any time together that isn't with other people, and there's no sign of when this will change.

I don't want to take up most of her social time and energy; I don't want her to feel isolated because of me. That's not fair to her. I also don't want to be constantly waiting for her to have time to spend with me and feeling shitty for wanting to spend time with her; that's not fair to me. If things don't improve in... a couple weeks? Honestly? I think I'll have a talk with her about needing time off/to end the partnership part of the relationship because I can't handle constantly feeling like I'm making her unhappy no matter what I do.

Given that things with my current partner are LOADS better than where they were with my ex-husband, there's still a worrying through-line of me wanting more out of a relationship than the other person is willing to give, and doing a lot of work to make the relationship work while the other person distances themselves from me. I recognize that this is likely something like (or is exactly) me having an anxious attachment style and the person I'm attracted to being avoidant; or just me being ready for an actual honest-to-god relationship with an equal partner awhile the people I'm attaching to aren't.

But... how do I stop doing this? How do I stop attaching to the wrong people? How do I stop being attracted to the wrong people? How do I work on this apparent preference for people who aren't available for what I want in a relationship? And how do I spot this avoidance, this un-ready-ness in new people I might date before I get in deep in a relationship?

I am in therapy and actively working on this in therapy. Just want more feedback and advice, maybe even anecdotes about how people have overcome this.
posted by bridgebury to Human Relations (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, I wouldn't self-criticize too much about any relationship formed out of "they were the only person in my COVID pod." EVERYBODY was dealing with weird availability patterns.

Now that the pandemic is over, you're interested in dating and going out, and she's not. More options, more chances that you'll find someone more compatible.
posted by kingdead at 8:43 AM on July 1, 2021 [7 favorites]

I don't know how you can stop attaching to the wrong kind of person for you, but you can escape them sooner - and you are already doing much better at this given with your current partner than with your ex-husband

I suspect it would help for you to (1) notice when you are wishful thinking that if you put yourself into a smaller box then things will work and (2) act on that insight, probably to cut your losses and leave the relationship rather than trying to prolong it - or maybe having the difficult conversation about it that may lead to a breakup.

But I think it's harder to know from first impressions how a relationship with someone will pan out, but when you're in a new-ish relationship easier to identify that it's not what you want or need. Then you just need the courage to say that there are more fish in the sea.
posted by plonkee at 8:51 AM on July 1, 2021 [6 favorites]

Having made some of this mistake in my own relationships: It's not your place to have to keep your partner from feeling "left behind". If you want to go out and do things, and your partner doesn't, and sitting at home with your partner isn't fulfilling your needs, it's not your job to entertain them at the expense of your own mental health.

We are each responsible for our own happiness. When your partner lays that shit on you, you're sacrificing things for your partner. We all do that sometimes, I'm not saying ditch them at the first sign, but do not let this become a pattern.
posted by straw at 8:54 AM on July 1, 2021 [23 favorites]

How can your partner feel “left behind” but also be feeling like you are taking up all of her social time? That seems like the central conflict here, but it doesn’t really make sense to me.

It really sounds like you could benefit from a period of being truly single and unattached for a while. It’s hard to know what you really want out of a relationship if you go straight from a divorce into what sounds like a somewhat delicate and fraught platonic partnership. It sounds like you live in a place where COVID restrictions are loosening up and you are able to get out there, socialize, and rekindle other friendships, and I really encourage you to focus on that instead of this one person who doesn’t seem willing or able to give you want you need.
posted by cakelite at 9:03 AM on July 1, 2021 [24 favorites]

Another vote for 'this is more about her than you'. She can't say she wants to see you less, and then complain that she's not seeing enough of you and feels left out. Or rather, she can, but in that case she needs to find a partner who'll also spend time in their own home alone while she's home alone, so it just turns out you're mutually incompatible outwith lockdown, nobody's fault, no sinister patterns.

I don't think two relationships counts as a pattern, especially when the second one was forged amid Covid. Give yourself a few more tries until you start spotting patterns for yourself. After all, everyone's relationships end for some kind of incompatibility, until they find the one that sticks. Or, as cakelite suggests, take some time to yourself and work on your friendships so you can work out which of your emotional and social needs can be met by friends, and which you really want to be met by a partner, before you go looking for that partner.
posted by penguin pie at 9:47 AM on July 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Like others here, I honestly don't think you've done anything wrong given that this relationship was forged during COVID, when it was literally impossible to learn what people are like "normally." Now, post-vaccination, you're finally able to learn what your dynamic with this woman is like under relatively normal conditions, and unfortunately you're learning that it's pretty dysfunctional. I'd have an honest conversation with her (if you haven't already) to see if she's surprised by her level of social fatigue (i.e. is part of the problem that it's taking her awhile to adjust to post-lockdown life?) or if this is fairly on par for how she was pre-COVID. If the latter, I'd end things sooner than later.

As for this concern:

there's still a worrying through-line of me wanting more out of a relationship than the other person is willing to give

I want to encourage you to give yourself a bit of a break - it sounds this this is the first relationship you've had since a 10-year marriage that basically spanned your entire adult life. The fact that the first relationship after that didn't last years doesn't strike me as a sign you have a problem - that seems pretty normal. The reason dating can be exhausting is it's hard to find someone you've got chemistry with (platonic or romantic) and also want the same things from a relationship. It sorta seems like your question boils down to "How do I avoid ever having to break up?" and that's just not possible. Like plonkee said, you can only work on ending things sooner, and it sounds like you have - it's presumably only been a month or two since you got vaccinated, so I'd say you're doing great!
posted by coffeecat at 10:12 AM on July 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

If you think this IS to do with you being anxious and seeking out those who are avoidant, then you may want to read Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and perhaps explore The Personal Development School on YouTube.

If you are repeating a pattern, it may be worth exploring where it first came from and why. Those describe themselves as 'wanting more from relationships' isn't because they're asking too much, it's often because they have chronically unmet needs.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:21 AM on July 1, 2021

I would not draw any patterns on only two relationships, esp. if one of them was formed during COVID times due to stress and cohabitation reasons.

My comment on first relationship is you two have a communication problem from very early on. You two are not really married in the sense, merely cohabitating and having sex (sometimes). IMHO, he enjoys controlling you and was using "I didn't want to hurt you" excuse to justify his actions (and to hurt you one last time), but then I am not a psychologist / psychiatrist.

As for the second relationship, it feels more like co-dependency, even though you two are not really meshing that well, but whatever's available during COVID times. Now that you're trying to break that co-dependency, you're running into some resistance / inertia issues.

I don't see a pattern.
posted by kschang at 11:22 AM on July 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, this sounds stressful. I agree with others, though, that you seem to be thinking about this clearly and sensibly.

I don't buy the trope that you need some time to be single after the end of relationships. It's not great to feel you *must* be in a relationship, but especially after the pandemic, enforcing some kind of silly singlehood on principle when you want to date doesn't sound healthy.

You are worried you are attaching the wrong people. Dating is how we find the right people. I wonder, though, how early you are compromising, and maybe those are the red flags you need to consider. I don't know how this might have gone in your marriage, but in this relationship, you are focusing on her introversion and lack of interest in doing things with you socially. But it sounds to me like you compromised in a big way earlier than that:

She's asexual so a sexual relationship was a no-go, and she's not very romantic, but we were clearly closer than just friends and really enjoyed spending time with each other. I'd done the poly thing in the past, and so was open to getting sexual needs met elsewhere.

So, it's fine to be asexual, or in a relationship with an asexual person, and it's fine to be poly. But is that what you want? Do you want to be poly and in a relationship with an asexual person? Or did you make this compromise early on to be in a relationship with your partner?

I don't mean this to be critical. During the pandemic, it was very hard to connect with people, and you connected with her, and that means a lot. But, in the big picture, it seems like you want a relationship that includes sex. Instead of ending that relationship, you leaned into it by deciding you would get some needs met elsewhere. This strikes me as the early compromise where maybe you were giving up what you want to make a relationship work when maybe that wasn't the best match (and again, pandemic means this is okay! I am mentioning all this to help point out something you might have missed.

I think the best way to find a partner who wants to have sex with you and do things with you is by dating people who want to have sex with you and do things with you. Not that dating in a new relationship is always the same as the patterns in long term relationships, but if you connect with people online or through doing more stay-at-home activities (which made sense during the pandemic because we had few other options!), then it's likely that you all will continue to do those things together.

I do think it would be good to end the partnership part of your relationship with your partner. That might mean ending the relationship completely, but that's up to you and her to work through. I also wonder, if when you end that partnership, you might find yourself wanting more from your current partner, because it sounds like you all met and started dating as poly folks. If that's what you want, that's great, but if it's not, it might be time to think about moving forward and looking for a monogamous partnership with that includes sex and doing activities together.

Terry Real is a therapist who talks about relationship patterns and "the stories we tell ourselves" (and I strongly recommend the linked audiobook). The story you tell yourself is that you are too needy in relationships, that you want more than the other person will give. Sometimes in situations like that, we end up finding partners who confirm that narration, because it's feels comfortable and right early on.

I think it's time to shift that story you tell yourself. Tell yourself you are a good partner and lover, and you want to be in a relationship with someone who values physical and emotional intimacy with you, and who wants to spend time doing things with you. Those are totally reasonable things to want in a relationship. Tell yourself this story of who you are, and that should make it easier to end relationships sooner that aren't giving you those things. This sometimes mean we don't get to spend time with people who are lovely and wonderful. But if you want something longer term and more committed, and that's not what they are available for or interested in, it's going to be easier to end in when those disparities become clear, rather than after you are both much more invested in terms of time and emotion.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:46 PM on July 1, 2021 [16 favorites]

I'm so glad you got out of your bad relationship and have moved on to something with someone better. However, it sounds like you two aren't compatible long-term. Someone can be better than before and right for awhile but ultimately not an ideal match. I see you two becoming more and more unhappy, and I'm seeing you do the emotional labor and trying to manage her. I'm sure she's trying her best too. There's something to be said about ending something earlier rather than later. Returning to a close friendship is an option, too!

Instead of seeing this as a sign or symbol of the past and what it could mean, I'd try to focus on what you want right now. Could you pretend for a minute that you never had your previous relationship? How would you judge this one? Is it meeting your needs? Are you happy? What do you want?
posted by smorgasbord at 9:17 PM on July 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

me wanting more out of a relationship than the other person is willing to give, and doing a lot of work to make the relationship work while the other person distances themselves from me

I'm glad you noticed this, because it's what I was going to point out. In my experience, the early part of a relationship is the easiest it's ever going to be. If you find yourself doing a lot of work in a relationship that's newer than say 6 months, it's time to bail. This won't necessarily stop you from repeating bad patterns, but it will stop those bad patterns from taking up so much time, and make it less likely that a bad relationship will get its emotional hooks in you.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:55 AM on July 7, 2021

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