Trapped in a nice house

I've told him I want out because of our constant power struggles, but he keeps persuading me to stay.

By Cary Tennis
Published February 12, 2004 1:05AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I have been dating a man for about two and a half years and living with him for most of that time. He is kind and caring, most of the time, and totally devoted to my children. He's just finishing up school at 34 (he lost his job in the post-Sept. 11 tech fallout) and doing really well. We own a nice house in a decent neighborhood. Things seem to be fine and dandy.

However, we fight and disagree over almost everything. I get sensitive and defensive; he refuses to admit when he's wrong. It's like a constant power struggle. We were taking a trip last month and as we were leaving, we began fighting. He was putting me down, calling me names, and I was firing back in kind. Before long, I'm crying, the kids are crying, he's shouting and angry. Then he just gets up and leaves because he refuses to discuss anything with me when he perceives me as being "unpleasant."

I am sick of being treated this way. I have told him that I want out time and time again, and he always persuades me to stay. At this point, I am looking for a new place and told him so, but he countered with "But I love you. And I'd miss you if you moved out. Please don't go." I don't know what to do. Yes, I realize that he would miss me, and I would miss him, too. But why can't he be nice to me when I'm not trying to leave him? Arrrgh.

I need some space, time to myself to figure out what I need to get from life and relationships. What can I do to make him see that even though we love each other, it's not necessarily good for us to remain together?

Trapped in Oblivion

Dear Trapped,

First of all, you don't need his permission to leave. He may not want you to leave, but that can't be the deciding factor. The deciding factor has to be what's best for you and your kids. It sounds like your decision-making method up till now has been to talk to him about leaving and hope that he'll see why it's necessary for you to leave, and then you'll feel free to go. I don't think that's the way to go about it. It's clear what his position is; if you predicate your leaving on having him finally come around to seeing why it's a good thing, it will never happen. Ideally, you should make that decision on your own, away from him, in consultation with a rational advisor who knows your boyfriend and who has your and your kids' best interests at heart.

But hold on: Before you make such a big decision, examine the other aspects of your relationship.

For instance, it sounds like your fighting is more like unsupervised squabbling than it is a struggle over deep, intractable divisions. In the course of these upsetting exchanges, you're both having emotional reactions you can't control. But it doesn't sound like you're fundamentally incompatible; you just squabble a lot and behave badly. Behavior can be learned and changed. Basic attitudes and aspirations are much harder to adjust. So perhaps you are quite compatible but don't know how to behave -- that is, you need to learn some new interpersonal skills. If you basically agree about such things as how to raise the children and how and where to live, I would suggest that you call in a counselor who can help you spot the places where you're going off, the particular words and issues that are triggering your fights, and see if you can't learn some tricks to minimize the bickering.

For instance, for starters, he shouldn't be calling you names. Calling names is bad behavior. If he wants you to stay, he'll have to stop doing that. Likewise, you may need to learn to recognize both specific situations and lifelong patterns that are contributing to conflict. In general, it sounds like you're a little overloaded already, and your expectations for peace and tranquility may be a little out of line with reality. Moving in with your boyfriend of a few months and buying a house together while you've got kids all in less than three years is quite stressful. To pretend otherwise is naive. There are going to be conflicts. Your capacity for making stuff happen may have outpaced your capacity for handling life afterward. So you've got all this stuff going -- the kids, the house, the boyfriend -- but you're not really able to bring harmony to it all. Perhaps you've been a little reckless in your impulsive love of life. Now you have to settle down and manage all this. It may take a change of focus and expectation, a little behavioral discipline.

I know it's not as much fun managing things as it is making them happen. But you've got your hands full already. So one factor in favor of not moving out is that you don't want to be creating yet more stress, worry and uncertainty -- especially not for your kids. If moving out genuinely serves them and you, then maybe that's the way to go. But if at all possible, I would favor finding ways to handle things as they are, build on what you've already got, learn to manage conflict, and work toward greater stability for the kids rather than bringing more upheaval into their early lives.

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Cary Tennis

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