Relationships are hard. At least they are for me. Some might argue that they are hard because I think they are hard—a self-fulfilling prophecy—but since the expression is somewhat of a cliché, I think it’s safe to assume that many people feel this way. But are they hard for everyone the same?
I recently ended yet another relationship. Not to sound like a total curmudgeon but after two decades of dating, this shit is getting old. In the last eight years, I haven’t dated a single guy who was right for me. But why? If I am arguably the highest authority on me, how can I be so utterly terrible at choosing a suitable partner for myself? I think I might be able to effectively answer that if I had an entire book to respond, but since I don’t, I will focus on one common thread: differences in communication.
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, blah blah blah—I can’t talk to men. After spending 20 years and countless dollars in therapy and 10 years and countless hours in 12-step work, what I have gotten for my time, money and effort is a language that truly articulates my feelings. Unfortunately, when it comes to dating, this language has proven to be like speaking Cantonese in the Republic of Congo. When I am struggling within a relationship and trying to talk to my partner, I find that what I get back is confirmation that they have absolutely no idea what I am talking about.
I am not saying the men I date are stupid. I am also not saying that I am the President of the United States of Communication. I have a lot to learn about subtlety, establishing boundaries rather than talking about establishing boundaries, confronting issues rather than letting them fester and not taking someone’s character flaws personally. But the real issue is that either I don’t seem to know how to express myself in ways that the men I have dated can hear —or they don’t particularly care.
Both = not good.
My most recent relationship, the one I just ended, was the most promising one I have had in many years. He was a good guy: earnest, supportive and I believe he truly loved me. But in the end I severed ties in an email, something I didn’t feel great about but also felt was necessary. In the eight months we dated, we broke up five times. Why? Because we couldn’t stay broken up. Something would happen and I would express my distress, try to explain to him what I needed, and he would tell me that he would change. But that is always the wrong answer. People rarely change unless they want to change. A more hopeful response would have been an acknowledgment of my needs and a commitment to try and meet them. I am sure this was an undetectable difference in terminology to him, but it’s a world of difference in his understanding of what my needs are to me.
In my experience, when someone tells you they will change, it means that they will try to conform to what they think you want them to be and that is a recipe for failure and resentment. But an acknowledgment of your needs and a commitment to try and meet them is about listening and compromising—what I understand to be the essence of a successful relationship and something I have never had. But is that because I am an ineffective communicator or is it because the kind of men I choose to date just don’t speak my language?
So when it struck me for the fifth time in eight months that the guy I was dating was not the guy for me, I knew there was nothing more to discuss. We had tried that already—many, many times—and all that came out of it was him arguing about my grievances point by point. We needed to skip the formalities and get into the results. So I sent him a very clear email: I need to end this. There is nothing to discuss. Please don’t contact me. I am not trying to hurt you; I am trying to free you. We need to move on.
My 12-step program friends felt this was a clear and kind email, simple yet leaving nothing to be misunderstood. This is the school I now come from. It’s taken me years to learn the value of simplicity and understand that setting boundaries is loving both to myself and the other person. Given our history, talking to him in person or on the phone was merely a formality that would have allowed him to ask me for reasons I wanted to leave and given him the space to argue them. Since I had already given him that luxury in previous break-ups, I now knew that the only thing this led to was exhaustion and confusion. In short, it had not been effective.
My non-program friends felt that breaking up in an email was cold and my to-the-point language was harsh. They felt I “owed” him more of an explanation. And there was a time I would have agreed with them and their conflicting feedback would have tortured my untreated codependency. But I am grateful now to finally understand that I don’t owe anything. The only thing I owe is honesty to myself and that is what I gave: my honest needs and my honest feelings in a way that couldn’t be read into or ignored. And while I knew the email would hurt, it really wasn’t my intention; the pain was just a shitty byproduct of what I felt was the best course of action, much like the pain of ripping off a bandage. But in this I also gave him a gift: the gift of anger. It’s a hell of a lot easier to move on from a relationship when you think the other person acted like an asshole. And I can live with that.
So here I am, single again and wondering if things are ever going to be different. So much has changed for the better in my years of sobriety, but this is the one area that seems to stay exactly the same. I would be foolish to not see that the common denominator here is me, whether it’s the crazy language I speak or the pattern of men I choose. I can’t help but wonder what am I going to do differently next time.