Dear Bartender and Priestess,
My sister (who is 27) and her boyfriend (25) have been together for a little over six years now. They enjoy the same things, share a lot of the same views, and enjoy each other’s company. They have one major issue, though, that threatens their relationship. To sum him up, he is a chauvinist, and his attitude has caused an emotional block between them.
When they argue, and I mean really argue, it’s because of his inability to show affection in public and in private and his inability to even try to understand her feelings. He says her “woman emotions” are caused by her “woman brain”. I am not making those words up. He feels that when she comes to him about things that upset her about their relationship, he doesn’t have to acknowledge it or sympathize with her because she is a woman. Women are born to be over-emotional about little things, so he shrugs off her problems and chalks them up to the “woman brain”. They recently had a two-hour argument about how he has a man brain and she has a woman brain and how they are both “made to only care about what their brains tell them to care about”. She has mentioned going to therapy; he won’t entertain the idea even for a second.
When my sister got involved with him six years ago, she made the classic mistake and thought that he would change with time. Now they live together and are seriously considering buying a house together. My sister has, generally, chosen to ignore how she felt about his unresponsiveness to her feelings. But now that they are looking to do something huge, she’s thinking about their relationship more and more. She is envisioning their future in a more realistic way and asking herself: Am I ok with him not treating me as an equal? Am I ok with his lack of affection? Can I see myself marrying him regardless of all these issues we have? Her answer as of late is no. No I can’t. No I’m not ok with these feelings.
On the other hand, she thinks of how many wonderful times they’ve had together. She knows that aside from these issues, he truly does love her. He’s done things for her that he wouldn’t consider doing for anyone else. He goes out of his way to do things that he thinks will make her happy. They’ve been through a lot over their six-plus years together. She loves him just as much. In his mind, their relationship is rock solid. In her mind, he needs to take her feelings more seriously and better try to understand and try work through their issues instead of dismiss them.
At this point she feels like she’s ready to tap out of this relationship. She’s tried and failed so many times to try to get him to understand her point of view. She is afraid that his “always right” mentality is too deeply ingrained in him, and that change isn’t possible. She worries that if she leaves him, he will be alone because no one else will put up with him. She is scared to think of how her leaving will affect him emotionally. She’s been crying herself to sleep wondering what else she can do to salvage this relationship.
Dear Worried and your Sister,
B & P: What’s the first rule of Relationship Club? Don’t do anything permanent with a partner if you think you’re ready to tap out.
What’s the second rule of Relationship Club? Don’t do anything permanent with a partner if you think you’re ready to tap out.
No houses, no babies, no joint checking accounts. Got it? Please, tell me you’ve got it. Tell me your sister gets it. If she’s thinking about leaving, then having to extricate herself from a 30-year mortgage isn’t going to make anything easier.
B: There’s so much to talk about here. What I want to start with is: What your sister is responsible for, vs. what she is not responsible for.
What she is responsible for: Being true to herself and to her heart. Making sure her needs are met. Creating a home that is a safe haven.
What she is not responsible for: Whether or not her boyfriend will find anyone to put up with him if she leaves. This sounds like she’s trying to talk herself into staying.
P: Good one, Terri. Here’s the deal. In some ways the important question has been asked and answered. As is so often the case, we ask the first part of the question. And we don’t admit even to ourselves that there was a second part to the question. When the young woman asked her boyfriend, in the face of his hurtful denigration of her feelings, if he would see a counselor with her, there was an attached phrase that she had in her heart: if you want this relationship to survive. She may have been afraid to admit that’s what she were saying (she may not have known it was lurking below the surface), but it was there. He knew what the repercussions of saying no were, as well. So she’s asked, and he’s answered, the question she wasn’t quite willing to say out loud.
Does he want to be in relationship with her? With all of her, with all those lovely messy emotions that make her a joy and a delight (and ok, sure, since none of us is perfect, probably occasionally irritation) to be around? He has said he wants only a part of her. After this investment of time, it’s hard to hear. And they know each other so well; they grew up together. But let’s be clear… This will not be about her breaking up with him. He has already said he doesn’t want to be in relationship with her. Because she has emotions. This is a very important thing to remember.
B: Regarding the idea of a “woman brain”, I will say this: women are taught, early on, to be nurturers and caregivers, so it doesn’t surprise me that as your sister projects into her life she would also project into his, and worries about him as a result. This is the only allowance I will make. Caring about him is one thing. Making his asocial personal habits her own problem is entirely another.
Mostly, talk of a “woman brain” gives me an eye twitch. It’s dismissive. It’s hurtful. And as you’ve rightly pointed out, it puts up barriers in a relationship, where there ought to be free flowing communication.
P: Now it may be that this guy really doesn’t have relationship skills. There are people who don’t. And I’m very sorry for him. And I hope that there is a wonderful woman who has no expectations whatsoever from the man with whom she is in relationship. Sadly, there seem to be many women totally willing to accept whatever can be given — or who have the same way of relating.
Sister, if you stay with this man, you are going to have children together. (Let’s just skip the fact that you’d have a wedding he’d be totally uninterested in.) What would it feel like to have a young son look at you and dismiss you with “oh, that’s just Mom’s woman’s brain talking…” That’s not what you want to hear from your children, nor is it a model to be celebrated in raising a male child.
And what happens when your blindingly bright and happy little girl gets shrunken into a shadow of herself because her father (and her brother) disrespects not only the mother but also the baby girl? You owe your future children a bigger chance than this.
B: There are three components to a healthy relationship. There’s Partner 1, and Partner 2. And there’s a separate entity that is the relationship, which needs to be its own thing and should be a harmonious blend of Partners 1 and 2. This is also important to remember, because it means that each partner is a whole, distinct, functioning individual that exists independently of his or her relationship; what they are not is subsumed by it. If they start to diminish or lose themselves inside the relationship, it goes out of whack. Your sister can’t point out the lack of harmony any more plainly than by saying, “I think we need counseling”. By not “entertaining the idea” of counseling—or more plainly, by not responding when she asks for help—your sister’s boyfriend changes the dynamic of the “relationship” entity. By disregarding her request for harmony, by choosing his own status quo over her needs, he effectively makes the relationship all about him. That can happen on occasion; we are selfish creatures and can’t always respond nobly to every request put upon us. But always? Every time? And for something this big? So that she lives in a home where the votes are, basically, always, two against one? No. That’s not a partnership. That’s having a roommate with benefits. We’ve come a long way from the idea that “he doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t hit you” are parameters by which to judge a relationship. That doesn’t mean indifference is acceptable.
When your sister’s boyfriend says her feelings come from her “woman brain”, it’s…well, it’s probably technically true, as she is a woman, and she has a brain, and she’s using it to analyze her world and determine what is acceptable and what is lacking. It’s lazy, at best. It’s manipulative, in that it’s a statement engineered to make her think her concerns aren’t real but rather, childish ones generated from her gooey, emotional girly-center. As I am working on limited information I will refrain from saying that it’s emotionally abusive. But it’s uncomfortably close, in that it’s belittling. Would you remain friends with someone who belittles you? Why give someone who does that access to your heart?
(P: And body. Why let him in your body?)
B: Amen, Ann. As all evidence has pointed in this direction for the past six years, we can reasonably assume that the idea that he will change is little more than a fantasy. Imagine yourself with him in five years, or ten. Or twenty. Imagine the children Ann talked about before. Would you be willing to handle his dismissiveness if you had a problem regarding one of your children? Are you willing to carry all the emotional weight of the relationship alone? Because he’s not participating in it and he’s made it clear he’s not interested in learning how to do so. Her choices are: stay, and accept the status quo, and develop more fulfilling emotional relationships elsewhere. Stay, and continue to beat her head against the brick wall. Or go, and find someone new.
P: We all have this hazy, fluffy idea about “Love” and what it means to be in relationship. But real love is neither hazy nor fluffy, and requires work and communication between the participants. Even when we’re with our soul-mates—should there be such a thing, and that’s another question—we’re not just loving the other, we’re learning about the ways in which we are capable of loving. Your sister and this guy learned a lot together. She may have learned all she can learn from him. That’s not a horrible thing, that’s just a thing. Your sister deserves to be loved for who she is, by her partner. She also deserved to love herself, because right now she’s shoving herself into an awfully tiny box. And the current beau should be loved for who he is… since he’s not willing to change. She can love him for who he is — but she can’t have an intimate relationship with him, because he’s not interested in or capable of having one with her. She may think she’ll crush him if she leaves him. And I know it’s scary to be on one’s own. It takes a while to learn the joys of singledom. But she’s doing him no favors by living with him out of pity and fear. That’s soul crushing for both of them and not worthy of her gifts. She needs to honor herself. She needs to be honest, with herself and with him. She needs to keep growing. Twenty-seven is way too early for her to stop her growth process.
B: Your sister and her boyfriend have both grown up within the parameters of this relationship (it look like it started when they were 21 and 19, respectively). It can be exceedingly difficult to learn (or un-learn) behaviors when they’re mostly all you’ve known in your adult life. Difficult, maybe. But not impossible. And learning requires the desire to change and the willingness to listen, neither of which has been demonstrated by your sister’s boyfriend. I understand not wanting to start over, not wanting to “waste” six years, but that idea of wasted time is just an imaginary construct. Consider it a six-year-long educational process into how she does and does not want to be treated by a life partner. Since change is unlikely and the only reaction your sister can govern is her own, then she needs to start asking herself if she’s really ready to make big life decisions with this guy. Will she be more, “it’s OK, I have my friends and my life”, or will she be gritting her teeth internally and saying, “So…this is my life now. I can do this.” If she looks into her future and sees Option B, then she might want to consider an exit strategy.
P: The notion that you’ve wasted time here is silly. Our twenties are when we practice relationship. We try things on. We try things out. They fit. Or even after years of trying, they don’t. At a certain point in your life, you no longer want to wear the jeans that you have to lie on the bed to zip up. The relationships of our young adulthood are a lot like that. They’ve both learned a lot. They’ve loved each other as best they were able. That’s not nothing! But that’s not necessarily enough to build a life on. She now knows she knows how to love people. She even knows how to love people who are difficult to love. But no one needs to embrace an empty future and yoke very different lives together forever. Life’s about keeping growing and keeping going. He’s already told her he doesn’t want to be in THIS relationship with her. She has to hear that that’s what he said. Will he deny it? You betcha! Why take responsibility for his life when there’s her silly “woman’s brain” at work? Terri and I will probably both need to get new enamel for our teeth about that one. I think she needs to thank him for their time together and for all they’ve shared and let him know that she’s accepted his decree that he doesn’t want a future with her.
B & P: And for God’s sake, don’t buy that house!
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