"Why do you think people treat you like this? Why do you think men can bulldoze over your feelings when you know what's happening isn't okay with you?" my therapist asked me during one of our sessions. I gave some bogus answer, accepting no responsibility for my current situation whatsoever.
"But, I don’t know..." I continued, "What do you think?"
"Well..." she started
Typically when I ask Liz what she thinks I'm getting ready for an answer I don't actually want to hear. I'm thinking oh shit.
"I think it's because you allow people to cross your boundaries. Every time you give in on a boundary you send a message that it's okay for the person to act that way. You're inviting them to do it again."
And there it was; one of the biggest, hardest and most expensive lessons I learned from my divorce: we teach people how to treat us.
You don't like the way someone is treating you? Chances are it's a little bit your fault. Maybe not the first time, but the second, third, fourth… Maybe your coworker keeps dropping their workload on you, and you’re frustrated but you quietly continue to do their work. Maybe you want the guy you’re hooking up with to take you more seriously, yet you allow him to come and go as he pleases, whenever it’s convenient for him.
I found myself in a vicious little cycle in my engagement and my marriage. I would come to the table with a problem, something that was bothering me or was unacceptable to me (something that quite frankly I would not have tolerated in a dating relationship, but they were things I found out after getting engaged, that I now felt "stuck" with. You’re never stuck by the way, only if you choose to be). I would start off firm, standing my ground. And after some time of getting nowhere, having my feelings invalidated, not wanting to deal with any more confrontation, and giving in to my people-pleasing tendencies - I would back down. I'd leave the conversation feeling hurt and frustrated, but the message I sent was clear: I'm overreacting, continue with X behavior that bothers me, and even though I’ve mustered up the courage to bring it up, I’ll eventually give in...so nevermind me.
I don't want to put my ex on blast, so here's a very minor example (by the way, loss of trust doesn't just happen with grand examples like infidelity. It can be small, repeated times of feeling like your partner doesn't respect your needs). My ex worked for his family's business, and that meant working 8am-noon on Saturdays. Their busy season was March - September. Obviously, this limited our ability to travel. There were times I asked Cam to take a half day off work for things that were important to me: traveling to Wisconsin to spend the weekend with my family and watch me compete in my bikini competition, traveling to Dallas for my great uncle's 90th bday surprise and family reunion, traveling to Michigan for a wedding of a family friend in which my entire family would be there. I would start the conversation off by saying “Hey, these things are important to me. It's weird that you wouldn't want to be there. I trained 5 months for this. You're my husband, you're supposed to be my biggest supporter. It's weird to go to a family reunion or a wedding without my husband. It's a half day. A day and a half at most. We never get to see my family.”
"People in my family just understand you don't schedule things during the busy season"
“But you work for your parents. Shouldn't there be some understanding for these types of things?”
"I work in retail. Saturdays are a busy day for us. You just wouldn't understand because you don't work in retail."
“But it's important to me. It's a competition I just spent 5 months training for/a family reunion with 70 of my relatives attending/a wedding my family really wants to see us at/fill-in-the-blank.”
Eventually I'd get tired. Tired of feeling like I was overreacting. Tired of feeling like I was making life so fucking hard all the time. Eventually I'd back down, say I understood, even though I really didn't. I'd leave the conversation thinking "You better go to work and explain to your dad how important this is to me," but what I said was actually saying was "Oh well, it's okay then."
When I asked for the divorce, Cam said he was blindsided. Yet suddenly he was able to take time off work whenever it was important to me. Suddenly he was willing to work on changing a, b, and c behaviors that bothered me. During one of our sessions Cam shared that he felt completely blindsided and that he hadn't thought these things were that big of a deal to me. Our therapist asked him, “So you weren't aware there were things you were doing that were upsetting her?”
“Well, yeah, I was.” he admits.
“And how did you know that?”
“Well, she would bring stuff up and she’d cry about it.” he responded.
“So if your wife is so upset she is crying, how are you saying you didn’t know it bothered her that much?”
“I don’t know, I just always thought she’d get over it.”
See, Cam left every conversation thinking I’d get over it. I left every conversation thinking “Cam fucked up again. My husband let me down again. My needs go unmet again.”
Here's your second free lesson: There's a time and place for every emotion, even anger. It's okay to be angry sometimes to get a point across, to set a boundary, to stand up for something you believe in. But there's a difference between being firm and assertive in times of necessity, and operating out of anger and resentment all the time. We can't afford to stay resentful. Life is too short. With each time I backed down on what was important to me, I gave Cam the impression that everything was fine. Meanwhile I was adding another point to the scoreboard of the ways my husband wasn’t cutting it. You know how they say “love holds no record of wrong doings”? Yeah. I wasn’t very good at that. Anger kept getting added to the fire, and I bottled up resentment even tighter. I was operating out of anger basically 24/7. It was toxic, and kills hope for any relationship. I was so full of anger and so full of contempt and resentment for my husband, his last ditch efforts when everything was on the line were just too little too late.
I share in the responsibility for that. We teach people how to treat us. If we continue backing down, we continue to have our needs go unmet, and we continue to feel like a victim. Some people go their whole lives feeling like a victim. But you can change that. If you come to the table with a firm boundary and that boundary continues to be crossed, stand up and be firm about why that boundary is not okay to cross. If it keeps happening, detach. I'm not saying don't ever compromise in a relationship, but there's a difference between healthy compromise and unmet needs. So I'll say it again - if you can't come to a place of healthy compromise, you need to detach. If someone doesn't respect your boundaries once or twice, they likely never will - and at some point you need to take ownership of the way you allow people to treat you. This can be so hard for women. Standing up for what you believe in isn’t always feminine. It’s not cute, it’s not sexy. It can make you come off as bitchy, too assertive, too aggressive, whatever. So many women back down because that’s what a good wife might do. It’s deeper than my situation on an individual level. It’s a systemic, societal problem with the way women are treated and the roles imposed on them in a relationship. But that doesn’t make it right. So detach. Take care of yourself. And eventually, forgive. It's a lot easier than carrying around the weight of all that anger.