If you’ve followed me or read my writing before, you’ve heard me talk about an important relationship in my life — my romantic relationship with B. We’ve been together almost four years, and since graduating to “girlfriend” status (more on that language choice later) in late 2017 I’ve been even more vocal about the two of us in my writing and much more free about posting pictures of us on social media. I’ve been showing off. I’m quite proud of my relationship with B, from the stellar sex to the deep, connective processing conversations, to the intimacy that exists on levels beyond what I ever dreamed possible. It’s so good! And, like all relationships, ours has struggles, challenges, complications and frustrations.
I’ve spent my whole life giving and giving until I had literally nothing left to give, and then I kept giving because I thought that was what I had to do to be valuable to people. To keep them in my life. To keep them from hurting me. But I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t work that way. You cannot give in the hopes that you can buy yourself protection from harm with generosity. Giving must happen freely, without attachment to outcomes, or not at all. If you give with an agenda, it’s manipulative.
I didn’t mean to be manipulative. My low self-worth made it seem logical. But it led to resentment, frustration, feeling empty and hollow and, at times, feeling suicidal. “How can I give this much and still be struggling? How can I give this much and have people still keep taking and not giving back? That’s not how this is supposed to work!” The story in my head was if I stopped giving so much of myself, if I stopped over-performing emotional labor for people I care about, then they would abandon me. They’d find someone else to do those things for them and leave me behind.
I was reading Lane Moore’s fantastic book, “How to Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t,” and I came upon a passage that hit me like a gut punch:
“ … we lower our expectations because, again, we want to be chosen. And in that way, without our even knowing it, it becomes a contest for who can withstand the most. We know trying to change someone won’t work, so we’ve created a work-around for this, which is supporting our partners while they treat us like shit, and being so so patient while they hopefully magically become better people. Which is totally different from trying to change someone! It is! Because obviously trying to change someone is so stupid, haha, for sure. And we’re not doing that! We’re just providing the emotional labor and the tools and the insight and a place for their pain and rage to go, holding anything they need like an unpaid therapist, so they can magically change on their own. Please. It’s the same thing.”
Fuck. It is the same thing. And it’s not just in romantic relationships. I have martyred myself in friendships, too, giving far more than I was comfortable with, obliterating my own boundaries, hoping that the friendship wouldn’t end as so many of my past friendships have, with people not liking me anymore and taking all of our mutual friends with them. There has been more than one “We hate Ashley” club in my life.
I flash back to seven to 14-year-old me, who so badly wanted to have friends and sleepovers and “normal kid” things, but ended up getting bullied because no one understood why I was so into taking care of my friends in very maternal and not remotely age-appropriate ways. Why I was always trying to suck up to teachers and other authority figures. Why I studied so hard to the detriment of my social life. Because I was trying to earn love and protection, dammit! The overwhelming message I received growing up in my family of origin is that you’re only as valuable as your accomplishments and what you give to others. And if you get in trouble with an authority figure or someone is upset with you, you’re definitely unlovable.
How did this impact my romantic relationships? Profoundly, is the short answer. I realized that’s what I was doing with B for a lot of the time we’ve been together. I thought maybe if I just gave more, loved him more, kept swallowing the things I wanted in the short term, acted as a good enough girlfriend, that I’d earn the things I wanted with him by inspiring him to want them, too. And that is a deeply fucked up way to love someone. Don’t get me wrong, he had his problems and patterns, too. But that’s not my story to tell.
What I can tell you is that a week ago, I sat down with B and (after taking a deep hit of a CBD-rich joint), I told him that I can’t be his girlfriend right now. That title doesn’t fit what we’re doing and what he’s available for. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love him — I love him deeply. It doesn’t mean that we’re not together — we still definitely are, thanks to the magic of non-monogamy and the flexibility to recalibrate relationships without ending them. But I have to stop over-giving in my relationships, and that starts with my relationship with B.
It’s a new chapter for both of us, and it’s going to take time to adjust to the new normal. There will be bumps and misunderstandings. And I am committed to sharing my process with all of you. Because I think we need to see more examples of people grappling with their patterns and behaviors in relationships, rather than just continually perpetuating this FOMO Instagram culture of “look how perfect my life is.” My life is not perfect, but I’m going to commit a lot of energy to undoing my toxic patterns. I hope you’re down to take the ride with me.