I need my joyfriend to stop and think about my feelings, but they won’t. Why?

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Dear Bear,

My joyfriend is smart and interesting and funny and great and also sometimes when they see something they want they just go barreling forward toward it and start acting like a jerk if I ask for pause or process or consideration. Some of the things impact me in significant ways like job changes that will mean a real change of income or a new weirdo restrictive diet they want us both to be on because that’s a way I can be supporting. It’s not just minor stuff like someone changing their hair or whatever.

Some of these things I have a lot of concerns about supporting either because I don’t think they’re good in general or they’re not good for me and I… try to say that? But it doesn’t work. I just get a lot of loops of how this is what they want and its like there’s no break in the loop for me to go “okay but it’s not what I want.”

I guess this is two questions. One is about how to get my boo-person to listen when the thing they want to do is going to have effects on me I really don’t want. And the other is how these decisions should be made if there’s no compromise. Like, they change jobs or they don’t but if they do their pay goes way down and I have to really reorganize my finances to make room for that which I don’t want to for good reasons. So what do I do about it all, Bear?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

First of all, A+ for your use of “joyfriend.” It’s my favorite non-binary-love-person word and I am so glad to see it spreading.

Second, I have seen this thing you describe in your joyfriend happen often in people who had toxic or restrictive childhoods. When I think about my own parenting, a value I try hard to enact is to facilitate things for my children that will be valuable or validating for them even when they are exhausting or expensive for the adults. I can’t always, of course, afford it in terms of time or money or adult energy, and sometimes circumstances make a thing impossible (I am sorry, there is not a space in the dance class or the cookery camp or whatever that you wanted). But even when that happens, we still talk it through so the kids can understand that it’s not that we don’t want them to have the thing or don’t think they should have the thing, just that we cannot actualize the thing right now. Sometimes in the moment there are Big Feelings about this but in the fullness of time it usually shakes out all right, and when a kid returns repeatedly to a specific desire that can be a cue for us that it’s time for a re-org in the family priorities and allocation of resources (you can only go to the dance class if we stop doing this other optional thing that conflicts, or whatever).

However, that’s not the case in all families (hello, understatement). A thing that sometimes happens for children whose parents for whatever reasons are more barriers than bridges for their children is that they learn how to get what they need by going for it full gangbusters. So sometimes, that person develops a childhood/young adult coping skill of super forcefully/single-mindedly working for something in order to overcome the barriers created by their Family of Origin (FOO). And then as an adult, when there’s no barrier but there are now other relevant people in the situation, they find they have not learned the part about stopping to take other people’s temperature about a thing because everything they learned as kids/teens was “other people’s temperature will always be glacial and disapproving so when you identify something you really want to move toward you need to take up your spiky poles and PUSH.” And like many of us who developed coping skills to survive toxic childhoods, those skills stop serving us – and maybe even are harmful – as adults BUT it can be very very hard to let go of them because our lizard brains are like, “wait, that’s how I survived. I definitely need that.”

Now: a certain bullheadedness that can be hard to work with and sometimes needs to be managed around can sometimes also be a valuable personal trait, Brave Correspondent. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing in a person, but I do think your joyfriend may need some assistance, possibly from a professional, in learning how to deploy it responsibly. I also think right now you are on the horns of that bullheadedness and don’t have much traction and that makes everything exponentially harder.

How to manage this? I think sometimes, there’s a lot of value in just naming a thing. Can you say “Hi. I am not your [toxic parent], I am your partner, and I want to figure this out together so if you could please stop just pushing off me toward the thing you want because you are also kicking me every time you do it that would be great,”? Can you make lists of pros and cons (for BOTH of you) together? Can you do a cost/benefit analysis? Because another thing is that people who never were/felt like part of a family system where the total net wellness of all members is paramount is that they have no idea how to calculate the cost or benefit to an entire relationship system.

(also, when you say “Hi. I am not your [toxic parent], I am your partner,” you will need to remember to please say it in a very gentle way. If they’re already feeling activated – as noticed by the fact that they’re displaying their childhood coping-skill behaviors – being fond and mild in your reminder will help it to be heard.)

Sometimes I make choices as a partner, parent or friend that disadvantage me personally but create a net gain in my family system. To have a concrete example, sometimes I take my kids to go do something for an overnight or a weekend so my husband can make progress on his work. I am giving up some sleep and adding a lot of driving time and usually a mild to moderate amount of aggravation in the form of herding my particular (constantly exuberant and energetic) cats in and out of various places. And, my husband gets work time and the kids get to have a fun outing or a visit with people they like. So overall, I will make it happen because 3/4 of my family system gets good things out of it, and that net gain to the system is more of a benefit than my personal sleep-grogginess is a loss. And in similar but reverse situations, I benefit from my husband’s efforts.

But if a person has not been the recipient of this kind of system-benefit (or learned its thinking) as a young person, it can be challenging to understand how relationship systems function beyond “if I don’t work for my own benefit, no one else will.” So it can be (reasonably, rightfully) hard for them to take this into account before blazing forward, and you may need to do some very gentle transparency work with a paper and pencil so they can see where you are taking their needs and benefit into account when you make choices, which may help them to understand where they could be doing the same.

Also this observation, Brave Correspondent: sometimes, a person who has not been properly encouraged or enabled (in the good way) as a child and still feels that sense of stuckness or restriction will partner with a person who is inclined toward love by acts of service – especially someone who has rarely felt like their way of loving people by facilitating for them is appreciated. Both parties find this novel situation – hey, my person is doing nice things to help me! and hey, my person appreciates the help I offer a WHOLE LOT – fundamentally emotionally pleasing, and that is all very fine and great. The caveat is: it can become a pattern that one person is regularly looking for help/support and the other is always providing it. So part of my encouragement that you be tender here is related to the idea that when this situation was in balance it served you both well, and that balance can be restored with the addition of some rigorous intentionality.

As to compromise: for sure, sometimes things are hard to reconcile or compromise about because there’s no real compromise position. You can’t have part of a baby or move part of the way to a far-off location for a work opportunity or similar. One person is going to get their way in these situations, and the other isn’t. The key here, in my mind is to even it out over time. It can be tempting to see each negotiation as a separate instance, and a person who grew up accustomed to being constantly thwarted will definitely go full throttle in every point of decision. Here, too, some recap of history and naming of past decision points might be helpful (today’s theme: name the thing!). You can’t always do strict turn taking, but I will say that I think it’s very fine to be open about wanting compensation – if your joyfriend is going to start eating only raw food and wants you to do this with them, what would make that worthwhile to you? Is there something you want? Something related, like a monthly steak dinner or for them to commit to cooking (or preparing, or whatever one does) the new food regime for the first while until you get used to it? Or something unrelated, like wanting them to learn to pay the household bills so you can take a break from it? What do you want? A trip to Paris? Breakfast in bed with a foot rub every Sunday morning? Carte blanche to buy new yarn without judgment or apology? Make a list, and keep it in your pocket.

(Do you maybe have a tiny bit of trouble identifying and acknowledging things you want? Just in case that might possibly be true, or if everything you can think of to want seems really small, let me encourage you to start small if that’s what you’ve got. Tend the spark of joy or fun, it will start to take hold. You can learn to want more things!)

(Another useful thing about this is that it helps a person with Big Doing-It Energy to feel like there’s not a secret punishment coming for daring to have what they want, which can be another sucktastic by-product of a toxic childhood – no one will help you, and then when you achieve something anyhow you’re perceived as being “too [whatever] for your own good,” and the corresponding smackdown is delivered. Ugh.)

Ultimately, Brave Correspondent, a successful relationship is always going to be a series of agreements. Breaking of agreements is a way relationships end, and so is trying to coerce them, so maybe this is the time for a relationship summit. My sense from your letter is that you seem otherwise hopeful and happy about this relationship, so: can you block out time – like a whole day and into the evening – for a pencils-out, phones-away, this-may-require-graph-paper conversation about what you both need/want/hope for and how to slice and dice the available time, energy, feelings, and so on to get as close to that (for both of you!) as possible? They may do the thing where they start pushing past your discussion about your needs and have to be gently reminded that you are not their parents and your needs aren’t arbitrary and that they chose you to be in this relationship with, and you may need to be reminded that while it feels great to give someone you love what they want, or help them get it, it’s only a short term hit unless you have a sustainable plan for how it benefits both of you.

I know it seems like a lot, Brave Correspondent. But also remember all the times that your joyfriend’s single-mindedness has benefited you, possibly up to and maybe including getting you to notice that they liked you. To be determined and ready to take action and go after things is, actually, an excellent personal quality, and especially we need it in our queer peers. I think with a little time and explication, and maybe a little more “I will do this if you will do that” horse-trading, you can get to a place where things feel less like they’re happening to you and more like you’re getting what you need – very much including consideration and respect, which all of us need and deserve,

love and courage,

Bear

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