Help: “My boyfriend can be so mean”

Dear Sarah,

I’ve been in a relationship with this guy for a couple of years now and he’s very much in love with me and wants to be with me forever…or so he says..

However, I can’t help but feel like he’s emotionally manipulating me. He has a way of saying really awful things to me and then later on twisting his words to make it seem as though I “just misunderstood.” Whenever I have an issue with anything he does, he always finds a way to turn things around to make me feel like I’m the one who did something wrong. He’s constantly pushing me away just to see if I’ll fight back—and if I don’t, he gets even more nasty with me.

I feel like I can’t tell him anything I’m feeling without the fear of being made to feel even worse about myself. And yet, I can’t seem to bring myself to leave. Anytime he pushes me away I fight back and in the end he always tells me that I’m the love of his life and he’d be lost without me.

I’m scared and hurt and have no idea what I’m doing anymore. I don’t like feeling this way but I can’t stop loving him. It’s really wearing me down. Please help.

—Exhausted in Australia

Dear Exhausted,

Let’s get something straight right away: You can stop loving him, if you have to. You really can. If you determine he’s chronically hurting you and making you feel terrible and he won’t change, you will need to break up with him and you will eventually move on and be grateful you didn’t spend a single extra minute having your self-esteem bashed away. Because you are the most important person in this situation and protecting yourself is the most important goal.

However, since you are still torn and confused, and you say he loves you and you love him, let’s try to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least in this safe and virtual space. Have you calmly and directly told him that you don’t feel like he’s taking responsibility for his hurtful behavior? The best case scenario is that he’s someone who is frightened—a person who was deeply hurt in some way and hasn’t healed, but (and here’s the key) wants to; the worst is that he has a mean and angry streak and is taking it out on you and is not ready to change. It sounds like you are at a breaking point and need to sit him down at a quiet moment (i.e. when you feel strong and you aren’t already in an argument) and say, “There is a serious issue we really need to discuss.. . .” If you haven’t told a girlfriend or a family member about this ugly dynamic, now is the time. Have them on back up so, if necessary, you can just stand up, walk out and move on with your life and eventually find someone who makes you feel genuinely safe and comforted.

Chances are, when you have the “big talk,” he’ll lash out at you in some way and try to confuse you. But, stay calm and repeat back to him exactly how he’s twisting your words. In fact, there is a couples therapy technique that might be helpful if he seems open and genuinely wants to improve your communication and relationship. There are examples of it here and here.

You can also ask him if he’s willing to talk to a counselor.

If he absolutely won’t budge or listen to your concerns, there is no room to grow and you’ll need to face that. He can tell you he loves you and can’t live without you a million times, but that’s meaningless if he doesn’t act that way. I’m sorry you are going through this, it sounds terribly painful and mind bending. No matter what, you deserve a partner who makes you feel good about yourself. Always remember that.

Love, Sarah

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