Dear Carolyn: I am currently dating a great guy — we get along well, have fun and care about each other a lot. We’ve been together four months.
At various points, mistakes I’ve made in my past have come up, and they really bother him. For example, I told him I drove drunk once, and tried a non-addictive drug. Both events took place a long time ago; I do not condone drunk driving and have never done it since, and don’t do any drugs or abuse substances at all today.
He continues to bring these instances up, however, as “hurdles” in thinking about my character and our relationship. He asks probing questions about the details, acts very cold and mean to me, and I walk away feeling horrible about myself.
Do past mistakes make my character permanently flawed? Do I need to think about these mistakes more than I do? How can I respond to his anger?
I feel like there are so many things I will never be able to share with him because he would judge me so severely. I also worry that I’m not good enough for him, and I don’t know what to do about it. — C.
Break up with him immediately.
That’s what you do about someone who shames you to the point that you withhold the truth about yourself and doubt your own worth — but who, hmmmm, doesn’t break up with you, despite judging you “severely.” And shouldn’t he, if you’re so so horrible?
I’m not even going to bother parsing your mistakes; they’d matter now only if they came from a place of cruelty (they didn’t); you didn’t know they were bad (you do); if you still did them (you don’t); or if there were a pattern (there isn’t).
This does matter: Instead of parsing his mistakes, or wondering why yours are the only ones being discussed, or telling him where he can shove his “hurdles,” you’re scrambling to secure his elusive approval.
He is controlling you, expertly. Just note how you are now deferring to his judgment and character, which he has persuaded you is superior to yours, and twisting yourself like a human knitting project just to prove you’re worthy of him. He is perfect, apparently? Or were his mistakes just not as bad as yours? As predictive of moral decay? As threatening to his sense of entitlement?
This also matters: When he got upset about your past, you didn’t square your shoulders and say, “Huh. Apparently you’re perfect?” Or, “I’m not proud I did these things, but I own them, and they helped make me who I am.” Or even, “I’m actually grateful you’re harping on this, because it says more about your character than my mistakes say about mine.”
Meanwhile, he’s not seeing your distress and offering reassurances, or, “Hey, it’s okay, we’re all human”-type expressions of humility and empathy. He’s squeezing harder.
What that creates is an unhappy — reread your letter if you think I’m exaggerating — and potentially dangerous power imbalance between you. At a mere four months, you’re not even asking whether he’s good for you, you’re so preoccupied by the effort to be good enough for him.
Do you see this? More important, do you see the precedent this sets? And the vulnerable position this puts you in?
Here’s what you wrote: “There are so many things I will never be able to share with him because he would judge me so severely.” And what you’re really saying: “I get punished for being myself.”
Here’s what you wrote: “He asks probing questions . . . [and] acts very cold and mean to me, and I walk away feeling horrible about myself.” What you’re really saying: “He thinks he has the right to tear me down, and I’m granting it.”
Here’s what you wrote: “I tried a non-addictive drug” (my emphasis). And what you’re really saying: “I will backpedal on, minimize, mitigate, and buffer my mistakes retroactively because I value his approval above truth or dignity.” Did you also assure him that when you drove drunk, it was only at 20 mph?
I realize I’m not being gentle here, but this isn’t a please-think-about-this situation. It’s a you’re-headed-for-a-very-bad-place situation. I’ve read too many letters from people, men and women both, who have walked on eggshells to please a punitive or volatile mate, without asking themselves, “Why am I doing this?!” Most wind up staring at the hard road out of an emotionally abusive relationship, often a marriage, too often with kids.
When this guy is “cold and mean” to your kid, what then?
A relationship is healthy when you get to be your complete self and enjoy mutual respect, acceptance and motivation to please.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Head to Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence.” Your “great” guy’s in Chapter 10.