Your New Year’s resolutions regarding health and fitness may have waned, but it is still the season to invest in promises and hope for your relationship. If you are involved with a partner who has repeatedly harmed you, whether through addiction, disrespecting you, cheating or being outright abusive, much of the relationship advice you will hear during this romantic holiday will actually make your relationship worse. Let’s take a look at the commonly accepted wisdom that you want to avoid if you want your relationship to have a chance at becoming one worth saving:
*”Both partners have equal responsibility for making the relationship work.”
Well, no. The person who has behaved destructively has a much greater responsibility, and the relationship can’t become a healthy one unless he’s prepared to take that on.
*”Each relationship partner has to focus on evaluating his or her own faults, and stay out of judging the other person’s.”
Not at all–the person who has lived with the destructive behavior needs a break from stewing about her own faults, which her partner has most likely already harped on for years. Moreover, she will probably have to be calling her partner on his issues, because he has already shown that he won’t face them unless he is repeatedly confronted.
*”Issues from the past need to be left in the past.”
Wrong again. Don’t forget the wise saying “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat its mistakes.” Healing can’t happen unless we address the past.
*”Don’t shame your partner about what he has done–you’ll just make him feel bad about himself and so much of what he’s done comes from his shame.”
We don’t want to continue the centuries-long mistake of encouraging women to be silent. We want to see men who are tearing lives apart challenged clearly and directly about what they are doing. The kind of toxic shame they many destructive people already feel does need to be healed, yet it does not excuse them from their responsibility. Toxic shame is fundamentally different from the appropriate sense of conscience a person ought to feel for creating such harm.
Once one partner becomes chronically cruel or demeaning to the other, once a power imbalance is established in a relationship, once profound lies start to be told, the regular rules for dealing with predictable, healthy relationship conflict have to be tossed out the window and a whole new plan put in place.
If your partner is destructive and has admitted that he has a serious problem and is agreeing to take steps to turn himself around, then remember these guidelines for going forward:
The Past Matters.
Don’t accept the following statements:
“We’re putting the past behind us,”
“None of what happened matters anymore,”
“We’re making a fresh start.”
We borrow the caution from AA, “Don’t forget where you came from.” While it is true that you don’t want to live in the past, you also want to avoid getting too distant from it. When destructive people forget what they have done, it increases the chances that they will harm you again. Therefore, you and your partner will have to do a kind of balancing act. On the one hand, you can’t be endlessly rehashing the past as if it were the present. On the other hand, during these early periods of change, you have to keep the past beside you, give it a kind of presence in the room at all times. It is important to name what his behaviors were like, and what the harmful impact of his actions were on you and your children. This is sobering and helpful for the truly recovering destructive partner, and may be deeply relieving for you. You will know when you don’t need to hear it and talk about it any longer. You will also know whether your partner truly is changing, by whether or not he accepts this phase of the work willingly.
Another part of the past that matters significantly is the facts. Often the opposite is argued–that in a relationship, it only matters what each person feels about what took place, and that you each have your “own reality”. I’m not sure how wise this thinking is for any relationship, but it is most definitely misguided when it is applied to a relationship where one partner has caused great harm. The blurring of the facts allows the hurtful partner to escape accountability for his actions, minimize the impact those actions have had, and avoid learning the necessary lessons.
If you and your partner cannot reach at least a reasonably close agreement as to what took place during critical events in the history of your relationship, you cannot safely trust him to not to repeat those kinds of behaviors in the future. Therefore, one of the rules for saving the savable relationship is that if your partner can’t get to a clearer memory of his actions, he needs to at least be prepared to wholeheartedly take your word for it regarding how he behaved, and stop saying (or implying) that you are making things up or exaggerating them.
If you are reading this and thinking, “No way! He’ll NEVER do that!” than you can avoid Valentine’s Day’s mistaken hopes. He’s not really changing at all unless these first few rules for going forward are something you can both live by.