Thursday, May 17, 2018

His Girlfriend Is a Shrew

What’s love got to do with it? Not very much in this case. A woman has written to Ask Polly to ask what she can do about her emotionally overbearing character. In truth, it’s a stretch to say that she has any real character at all. She loves her boyfriend and her boyfriend loves her. They love each other deeply. And yet, she has been behaving like a shrew.

The coupple met in college and had been dating for six months before he had to decide where to go for graduate school. Since they were living in New York, she wanted him to stay in New York… with her. But, he chose to go to a school in upstate New York—presumably Cornell— over a city school—presumably Columbia.

She was insulted, offended and outraged that he was not doing what she told him to do. So she has been punishing him by harassing and browbeating him over his decision. She did move up to Cornell for a time and did not like it, so she moved back to New York. One suspects that she did it to show that she was right. She continued to beat him up, to beat him down, to shower him with contempt.

Dare we ask whether the Cornell program was better or worse than the Columbia program? At the least, Ithaca is less expensive than New York City… thus providing a better quality of life for a graduate student presumably on a stipend.

In fact, the answer is simple. Polly is too nice to say it, but the woman is a shrew and a harridan. The man ought to ask himself why he is staying with her. It speaks ill of his character that he has stuck around and absorbed the torrent of abuse the she is visiting on him.

In our #MeToo epoch we see abuse as a one-way street, something that men inflict on women. And we see male abuse in graphic sexual terms. In the current case the women in question is an abuser. She is a nightmare. She abuses him emotionally and verbally. It is an ugly picture… one that her boyfriend should exit immediately.

She was complaining before and she is complaining now. If she has developed the habit of complaining she will keep doing it. Complainers complain. It’s what they do. It’s what they know how to do. If she gets her way on geography she will find something else to complain about. Trust me.

Just in case you think that I am making this up, here are some pieces of the letter:

My boyfriend and I met in New York and fell in love. At the time we met, he was planning an eventual move upstate to start a PhD program.

We’d been together for about six months when I asked him to apply to a Ph.D. in our city instead. I loved our life in New York and wasn’t sure I would be able to make a happy life upstate for five years, or be long distance, especially for so long. He applied, and was accepted, but then came speculation about whether the two Ph.D. options were equally good (both Ivy League, for what that’s worth). He became hesitant.

I took the decision process incredibly hard, feeling like my worth was being weighed, like the possibility of daily life with me was just a small variable in the equation of his ideal next five years. But he’s moved around a lot in his life, has friends and family he’s often traveled to see and worked to keep up with, and he didn’t think it was a big deal to move or be long distance.

She did not ask. She told him what to do. And she cannot tolerate his exercising his own rational judgment. Obviously, she could have followed him, but I suspect that it's against her religion. 

As Polly notes, the woman has a problem. Polly recommends therapy, but I suspect that this woman has already done plenty of it.

The letter continues:

He chose upstate and I was devastated, though I’ve come to understand how much miscommunication got us to that point.

That was two years ago. We’ve always argued a lot, but this is something we can’t seem to get over. We still fight about it. I tried moving there, didn’t like it, moved back to New York, found distance hard. We’ve broken up and gotten back together, and the idea of breaking up has resurfaced again recently after several bad fights. He’s not overly enjoying the Ph.D. anyway, has become depressed, and is considering leaving to come back to New York, but can’t for another six months to a year, for various academic reasons. Meanwhile, we fight too much because we’re both unhappy, and he gets more depressed, and I get more irritable.

Yet when I visit him there or he visits me here, we’re happy together. We’ve shared wonderful things in our three years, we love each other, we don’t want to break up.

But we don’t like our lives right now. I can’t stand feeling torn between places. I want a life and a home together. He worries, fairly, that even if he comes back I won’t ever forgive him for the years he was away. He feels I’m stuck in the past, in an idea of what could have been if he’d stayed. I keep taking out my sadness and fear on him by lashing out angrily, which he takes extremely hard. We both feel guilty. The fighting takes a huge toll.

With the strain of everything and with his remote location, we no longer see each other’s families often, our shared life in New York is eroding, and it feels more and more like we lead separate lives.

I thought by now, a few years in, we’d be living together, spending holidays together, know each other’s families well. I know I’m deeply loved, and I deeply love him. He travels every few weeks to see me, is in touch by text throughout the day; we write letters. But for a while now I haven’t had what I expected from a life with a partner, and I’m trying to understand if that should matter.

It was not about miscommunication. It was about her bad character and her foul temperament.

She continues:

He works and works to make this up to me, to show he cares, but nothing is enough, and that seems wrong and destructive on my part. This simply isn’t what I want from a relationship and he has his own sense of not having what he wants either. We are tempted to think it’s circumstantial and temporary — but we got ourselves into these circumstances and I worry the effects of these years aren’t ever going to go away for us.

My question is whether a point comes when far too much has happened to ever expect to get over an old hurt and thrive together. Should we end this simply because it’s too hard right now — and stop trying to devise a future that better suits us?

Why the boyfriend is working to make this up to her, I do not know. Apparently, she has laid a guilt trip on him and has made him believe that it’s all his fault. Hopefully he will wake up and see the light before it is too late.

As for Polly, as soon as she stops saying that the woman should deal with her self-esteem issues, she gets to the point. The letter writer is seriously mistreating her boyfriend. It’s a character issue:

If every time your boyfriend tries to figure out what’s best for him, you treat him like he’s behaving selfishly and scarring you irreparably, you’re going to face a rocky road ahead. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t treat your needs and desires as if they’re selfish, the way that you do with him. He respected your choice to stay in NYC. He supported your choice to move upstate and respected your choice to leave because you hated it there. Unless you’re sidestepping more of his offenses in your letter, he’s been good to you in ways that you aren’t good to him.

I know it hurts to hear that, but I have to say it because I want you to admit how ashamed you feel about how blaming and angry you’ve been toward him. You’re ashamed of what a bickering mess the two of you are together. You don’t want to be this broken. But this is reality. You ARE living in the past.

True enough… and Polly is right that this woman should or does feel ashamed of her appalling behavior. Another good point.

Next, Polly recommends that this woman take a good dose of humility. Again, a very good point. I was worried that she was going to prescribe empathy:

And now you have to humble yourself, by facing the specter of a life that will never come close to perfect. Feel that in your bones. Take a minute, and breathe it in. It’s time for you to learn to treasure this disappointing, fucked-up, lopsided day and milk it for all it’s worth, in spite of its flaws.

She should humble herself because she is behaving like an arrogant shrew. Of course, Polly is being tactful here… and surely that is a good rhetorical approach.

You have to be more generous with him, Distant. That will sound like self-abnegation at first, but listen: Your generosity with him needs to spring from a new generosity with yourself. Even though you’re laying out this story about how he screwed up, it’s also crystal clear that you’re too hard on yourself. 

Prescribing generosity is also good. About whether “Distant” is being too hard on herself, it’s a close call. She does recognize how much her own bad behavior has caused this mess. But she is not sufficiently ashamed of herself. Beyond the humility, she ought to try generosity. I think that if she is generous toward the boyfriend, she would feel better about herself… and not the other way around.

I do not believe that we should blame it all on Distant’s childhood, as Polly does, but it is better to deflect blame away from the boyfriend:

You’re telling yourself that if he had never moved upstate, you would never have become this blaming, angry woman. That’s not accurate. Your tendency to blame and get angry was born years before he moved away. People were probably inconsistent with you as a kid. Maybe you felt disappointed and hurt a lot. You wanted unconditional love and stability and you didn’t get that. You want to fix that now. But you won’t fix it if you keep seeing your life through such a black-and-white, rigid, regretful lens.

What else could have done this beyond being mistreated as a child? Perhaps she is like so many young women and has taken a few too many courses in advanced feminism. Perhaps she suffered through feminist therapy. She might have suffered ideological indoctrination in colleges that do not teach much of anything beyond the lessons in how not to conduct a relationship. I don’t know anything about the woman’s childhood, but blaming it on her parents is probably not the best course. It gets her back into her mind… where she has been living too much and too long.

Instead of belaboring the problems, Polly recommends that the couple try to find solutions. Another excellent recommendation. I would mention that most therapy involves belaboring problems. It’s one reason that I suspect that this woman has been influenced, either by therapy or by the therapy culture.

Instead of getting on the phone and making every conversation about what he’s doing wrong and how his decision will never stop hurting you, you need to start solving some of your problems together. Pitch some solutions: Let’s visit your family this weekend, even if you have to do some work while we’re there. Let’s figure out a way to have a date over Skype once a week. Let’s stop blaming ourselves and each other for living a life that’s less than perfect, and create something beautiful and flawed out of these fucked up raw materials we’ve been given. Let’s get creative. Let’s be brave and dare to love each other in spite of huge flaws, in spite of great difficulties, in spite of trying circumstances.

I agree wholeheartedly on this point, though I suspect that it’s easier said than done. When you have constructed a relationship around constant recriminations and soul searching you are not easily going to shift into problem solving mode.We still wish the unhappy couple the best.


Anonymous said...

The boyfriend may prefer a masochistic relationship with a shrew. Otherwise he would have been gone a long time ago. There is one of these men in my family...

ga6 said...

As an old man not current on such things I have to ask: How are these two nitwits paying for this foolishness?

Sam L. said...

Polly is reasonable. (Will wonders never cease?)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is a CS Lewis comment about a character, I believe in The Great Divorce, who has grumbled for so long that she is no longer a person grumbling, but a grumble, going on endlessly of its own accord. He was not attempting to be funny in that book - she is at the gates of heaven but refusing to go in, because no one will attend to her complaint in the way that she desires.

Lewis knew very few observant Jews in England, yet some of his stories have the air of an Hasidic rabbi.