Carolyn Hax is away. In her absence, we are offering readers’ favorites from her archive.
DEAR CAROLYN: I’ve never written in before because I’ve always thought myself very self-aware … until now. I emerged from an abusive relationship about two years ago, and have dated some since, but nothing with any real potential.
I recently met someone I’m crazy about, though I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons. He mentally challenges me and pushes me to understand the choices that I’ve made in relationships, which has made me reflect a lot on those questions. But he also seems to push my buttons and test my limits, and all together this has made me trust myself less and become wary of what his intentions are. How do I find the line between thought-provoking and manipulative? How do I know if I’m scared because I’m opening up to someone again vs. being drawn into another emotionally abusive relationship?
DEAR L.: “Drawn into” is just the right choice of words. You like this guy, or you wouldn’t have started dating him in the first place – and so you’re reluctant to criticize his way of showing he cares.
Most of us do this, to some extent; you smile and nod through the boring story because you … what’s a good rationalization here … appreciate that s/he wants to share with you! And otherwise s/he’s so good for you. There you go.
But then you’re 10 years into boring stories, no rationalization is powerful enough to counteract the boredom, and you’re desperately looking for exactly what you had 10 years ago and threw away – a relatively painless way out.
People get drawn into all kinds of bad relationships, not just abusive ones. It’s just difficult to stay focused on our own happiness when we’re also trying not to hurt somebody’s feelings. It takes a particular kind of strength to look into the eyes of your hopeful companion and say: “Nah.”
So please note the way you framed your question. You’re focused almost entirely on figuring him out, and waiting for an answer before you decide how you feel. You want to “find the line” – in other words, you want some objective, dispassionate standard that tells you whether to stay or go.
There is no such thing, nor should there be; there may be common threads in what people feel, think and experience, but looking solely to those devalues what you are feeling. There are already more than enough people living the wrong lives because they thought they “should” like X, do Y, or draw some arbitrary line at Z.
So please stop trying to figure out the guy, and just listen to what your doubts, your fears and even your “crazy”-ness are telling you.
One way to be objective about a person without discounting your feelings – the exact combination that can be so elusive – is to think of someone not as a person, but as a place.
Specifically: Can you imagine this man as your home? Is he a soft couch and slippers, or cold floors and a treadmill? Is a place that “challenges” and “pushes” the kind of place where you can let your guard down at the end of a difficult day? Is this where you most want to be?
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