With every new relationship one fights the inner battle of “be yourself” against the opposing impulse to please a partner. For over thinkers, a meta-battle also wages behind that; the question of which side is more true to the situation? E.g., are these my true feelings, or have I convinced myself of something in an effort to please?
Chronic people-pleasers deal with this phenomenon, and I’m sorry to have counted myself among their number in the past. Recently, a longtime friend said these words to me over dinner: “I’m glad [prev. relationship] ended. It seemed as though you’d lost something of yourself, but I’m happy to see you’re yourself again.” My friend had thought for years & easily recognized what I had only just then begun to consider: I had said yes to everything that was Him and pushed strongly for precious little of what was Me.
Knowing this, whenever I’m dating again I am conscious about maintaining my identity against all influences, perhaps to a point now where I’m getting paranoid and questioning every detail. “Am I actually interested in this? Would I actually try this? Do I care? Am I being honest with all parties, including myself?”
The paranoia might seem extreme, but I think it’s a natural backlash from people-pleasing, a behavior of mine that was so rampant with [prev. partner] that I can barely stomach to think about all the ways in which it manifested. I could not possibly archive all my people-pleasing sins I committed with him, but a simple and quick example to paint a picture for you would be music. He always played his music. He’d sometimes offer for me to play mine in the car, but I honestly preferred silence to hearing negative comments and/or sensing the lip curling that went on during mine. I am very empathetic, and so if I perceive any disapproval, I get anxious and just want to escape the situation in the easiest way. So, I went nearly four out of our six years together never playing music I liked. I held keeping him pleased above most of my own desires, and he was more than happy to accept my deference to his whims on this topic.
After a while though, as my friend alluded, identity degrades under such pseudo nonconsensual weight, and our lack of connection (him being so boldly outward with his identity and me slowly retreating inward with mine) morphed into permanent boredom and loss of communication. There was nothing to discuss–our relationship was us both enjoying his identity and hobbies. There was no I, only he or us. And I allowed it; often encouraged it or was its architect.
So, eventually I dissipated into space: fantasizing about made up characters, writing fan fiction, creating tumblrs, binge television, watching porn…. anything unreal was a thousand times more interesting. And, again due to his natural selfishness, he accepted that and kept to himself and devoted all of his time to his own hobbies during that era, only to be alarmed and disappointed at how I “didn’t talk to him anymore”. Talking requires two parties, of course, but selfish people don’t think this way. We didn’t talk; ergo, that meant I was ignoring him. Simple. He surely doesn’t remember all the times I asked him questions in the car or at the table to a resounding silence as he scrolled through his phone not hearing me. Oh, how I hated his phone the first few years. I fantasized about lighting it on fire, hitting it with a hammer, beating it to a battery acid pulp, throwing it under bridges…. You name a violent thought, and I can cite you a phone-related violent fantasy I’ve had. Eventually, though, and perhaps in defense of my sanity, I gave in and stared at my own phone in return.
I don’t want to imply poor things of [prev. partner] as a person, because–as I’ve written before–the crux of our issues was our incompatibility; he was a naturally selfish person, and I was an emotionally subordinate pleaser. That has Bad News written all over it, but I was too emotionally invested to ever rationalize a breakup. He’s not a bad kind of selfish, per se. Rather, he is the kind of selfish that requires a particular kind of partner–one that is not, for example, an amiable doormat, but instead someone who will openly and proudly challenge him and bullhorn him back with her own demands and her own gas lighting; someone to act as a mirror and who can lead him to self-evaluation. I was not capable of this. My stalwart silence and bending to his whims were not capable of this. A selfish person thinks “she’s not talking to me, so I am on my phone.” An empath thinks, “he’s on his phone, so I won’t talk to him.” There’s no end to that cycle of silence.
The challenge with romance is staying true to every important aspect of my identity while simultaneously being open to exploring someone else’s. This is a dance I will need to dance with eyes wide open going forward.
Which…. brings me back to my original impetus for this post. I am not afraid of trying new things that are important to someone else; I’m afraid of not liking them. While I’m dancing in the empty space that comes beforehand, I can relish the idea that maybe I’ll like it. There’s an excitement in the possibility of it all. But, I know that in protecting my identity’s validity I won’t hide my reactions, which means that once I try things that are important to a man and hate them, it’s over. He’ll be gone. And that makes me very melancholy.
In my quest for perfect compatibility, how many potential partners will I drive away? What’s a red flag and what’s a red herring to a paranoid, ex people-pleaser?