'I'm Tired of Hearing About His Feelings!'
Don't be a guilty villain who can't speak up. Intimacy depends on admitting what you want, even when it's illogical or embarrassing.
Still Life with One Fruit (1975) by Helen Lundeberg
I've come to realize that I'm the embodiment of one of the villainous archetypes that you help your readers to either manage or escape from. Every LW lamenting that their partner doesn't listen to them properly or make enough room for them... That's me! My new partner opens his mouth and I smile and nod and 'uh huh' but I'm replaying Silence of the Lambs in my head, frame for frame, word for word. (What? It's a solid movie.) Every time Hannibal Lector says, 'toughened your nipples, didn't it?' I laugh out loud and then my partner knows how carefully I've been listening and how much I appreciate his wry wit.
I want to talk about compassion fatigue.
I was married to a sharp person. OH SO SHARP. Don't get me wrong. Knife-people are awesome! They're creative and smart and always, always funny. I don't want to put the knife-people in the dishwasher and get them all rusty and dull. As a quiet, steady dinner roll person, I love a shiny blade.
Here's my problem. I want to be a CHAMPION LISTENER for my new sharp knife. But I find the bottomless pit of his need exhausting. Maybe it's not even a bottomless pit, maybe it's a perfectly normal pit of need and I'm being triggered.
See, I'm one of your baddies right out of central casting!
I tried to be a very good dinner roll for my ex husband and hollowed out all the soft bits of my Pillsbury interior to make room for him. I made myself a veritable bread bowl for his tomato-anxiety soup. But there was just too much soup and it poured out over the edge and ran down the kitchen counter and after 20 years my golden brown crust dissolved into a glutenous sludge. And my sharp knife's needs weren't met and he was very, very angry that his bread bowl melted.
Okay maybe my ex wasn't a sharp knife. I don't want to do a disservice to all the real, sparkly sharp knives out there. He was more of a box cutter. A shiny, silver cutty bit in an ergonomic handle that if you don't shut correctly, will fucking sever your thumb. And maybe I'm not such a dinner roll. Maybe I'm a Milk Dud. Sweet on the outside, poison on the inside. #simpsons
Enough metaphors. I'm starting to confuse myself.
So clearly I'm an avoidant and a LIAR. The merest whiff of need from my new partner and I'm seething on the inside with my lying, placid listening mask firmly in place. I can't be anyone's 24/7 anxiety dumpster ever again, but that's not what this new guy is asking for. He's just a big, big talker who wants emotional intimacy. It's not that big of a deal.
How do I not fuck this up with my new partner who deserves my authentic attention?
Dear Dinner Roll,
We’re all villains and we have to make peace with that or we’ll never stop acting out.
One small example: You named yourself Milk Dud but I changed it to Dinner Roll because that image of the bread bowl getting soggy was so good and I know it’s going to be lodged in my head forever.
But girl. Girl. Girlgirlgirlgirlgirl. You are so not a Dinner Roll. You’re a sparkly sharp knife in a big puffy Dinner Roll costume, like one of those Sumo Wrestler costumes made of memory foam. Avoidants are secretly anxious. The anxious are secretly avoidant. Insecure attachment comes in a million different flavors and we’re all wearing costumes made of memory foam.
When we strip off our puffy marshmallow costumes, our sharp edges glint and sparkle and we’re worried that we’ll cut each other, because our raw selves are ruled by fear and shame. But they’re also ruled by boredom, dissatisfaction, longing, restlessness, rapaciousness, desire. We are fault-finding apes who need to make brutal jokes about ourselves just to survive.
And also because it’s fun.
This morning, my husband and I got into an argument about pants. I said he looked great in his pants. He said he loves those pants. I said get another pair and wear those pants every day. He said they’re work pants. I said okay, boomer. I know that’s dismissive and ageist, but who in the year of our lord 2023 makes strict distinctions between work and play pants? Put on your big-boy pants and get with the fucking times, dummy!
No one was mad, we were just being ourselves, toying around with and pinpointing this area of intense disagreement between us. I like to be right, particularly when I AM RIGHT. He also likes to be right. So many of our troubles have boiled down to this shared trait. We are two Jack Russells when it comes to rightness. (Imagine my suffering, too, as the one who is ALWAYS ACTUALLY RIGHT, having to pretend that he is sort of right when he’s wrong so often.) (Yes that’s a joke.)
Anyway, our conversation ended with me saying “You dress for me. So dress up that candy real nice for the bitch that owns you.”
We both laughed at this and then got on with the day. Efficient!
Now I could slow down and reassure everyone that we share a lighthearted language of mutual insults and mutual demeaning comments, we each pretend we’re in charge when neither of us is, the word bitch is bad but it also rolls off the tongue when you’ve heard it all your life, I’m reclaiming the word for my own purposes, bending it to my will like my shiny candy spouse, etc. etc. But the bottom line is that harshness is funny to us and being assholes together is one way we take off our squishy memory foam costumes and have fun.
I couldn’t completely discern the context of your tough nipples comment, but I think you’re saying that even after placating your first spouse for decades, you still try to keep your Dinner Roll costume zipped up tight and stay NICE so that your inner villain doesn’t show. Either way, here’s my advice:
You’ve got to take off your costume eventually. And once you do, although you will seem less nice at first, you will become much nicer in a genuine way. You’ll be nicer to yourself and him, because you’ll be doing the hard work of accepting your core sparkly knife self and all of the puffy costumes in your closet, too, which are necessary in order to survive various sociocultural microclimates.
I love categories so much, but when I spend too much time separating everyone into different piles, what I land on is this: We all want more love than we realize or pretend we do. We all crave comfort and understanding, and we all want deeper connections and passion and fun and excitement and security. AND: We all have sharp edges that can cut each other. I would even argue that we all have amazing, brilliant minds that enjoy slicing and dicing, once they feel free to do so, once we can recognize how smart we are, once we’re confident enough in our own skin to let loose with the freaky thoughts banging around in our brains.
We’re all brilliant and needy and wretched and soft. And we all need each other.
That said, we each have preferences. Now, you might be surprised by this, but I definitely have compassion fatigue at times, in spite of my line of work. There are days when I absolutely cannot check my Ask Polly email because I have no extra space for other people’s problems. There are also days when my husband wants to sift through his feelings and I want him to run four miles first, because most of the time he just feels physically bad and then reaches back into the past for an old story about himself as a result. I’ve seen it so many times and it’s almost always true. And I do the same thing, so I know.
There are days when he still has to say, “I know this is the same old shit but give me a few minutes to tease it out without interrupting.” And there are days when I still have to say, “I know I feel shitty because I haven’t moved all day and I slept badly, but I want to complain for at least a half hour. Can you handle it?” There are even days, maybe two to three times per year, where I give an impromptu lecture to my family called Current Conditions Are Unacceptable. It’s not awesome for them, but I’ve come a long way, honestly. My lecture used to be called Someone Here Is Letting Me Down and before that it was called One of You Is To Blame For This Mood and before that it was called You Always Fuck Everything Up.
Hilariously enough, my You Always Fuck Everything Up lecture series dates back to my early marriage, when there were no kids who understood language around yet, thankfully. And why did I hold forth on this topic?
Because my fundamental belief about myself was I ALWAYS FUCK EVERYTHING UP.
Compassion fatigue is a byproduct of keeping your costume on for too long. You’re sweating inside that puffy marshmallow memory foam hell while the real you mutters about how your man needs to toughen up his goddamn nipples and grow a pair and put on his big boy pants. If you allowed yourself a little time and space to feel your own feelings, you wouldn’t be so harsh about his.
Now you’re saying No, you don’t get it, I’m not needy like he is. But you are needy. Here’s what you need: To tell the truth about who you are. To accept the way you are. To love that person. This includes saying these words out loud:
“I am not that good at listening to other people’s feelings a lot of the time. I don’t listen to my own emotions that often, so it’s very hard to listen to the emotions of others. And while we could sit here and slice up THE RIGHT WAY TO BE, the truth is that there is no ONE right way to be. Right now I have major limits, just like you do in different areas. And all we can do is tell each other, very clearly, exactly what we want, while forgiving ourselves for being such hapless little fucks.”
Everyone needs different things. Obviously you can choose to suck it up and pretend that you’re listening closely forever while underneath your soft Dinner Roll exterior you’re raging. Lots of couples live that way, and eventually they just start sleeping with someone else because they’ve been taking secret notes for years on what a tireless nag or needy loser their partner is. Acting kind while privately deciding someone sucks and is the cause of all of your problems (ahem and your shame) is not unusual. Ask a divorce lawyer.
But also? Some people DO IN FACT SUCK. But again, they’re often the ones who hate themselves but refuse to face it. So their partners might ask them to face their self-hatred for a long, long time and then their partners might say, “You know what? You have work to do that you seem determined not to do, and that’s fine but I’m out.”
Is that person who calls it quits in the relationship ALSO AVOIDING THEIR OWN WORK? Often they are!
No one is ever done with the work of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Maybe if I were the Dalai Lama I would never tell my husband he’s candy that I own, even in jest. Like you, I’m going to need my mean jokes. They’re like woobies from my childhood, nostalgic artifacts of the much harsher terrain I had to survive as a kid.
I LIKE WHAT I LIKE. And that’s okay. That’s the heart of what I’m trying to tell you. Two human beings who love each other deeply and forgive themselves and each other for being human have a way of making space for each other’s weird preferences, desires, and limits. Doing the work of learning to say to each other I LIKE WHAT I LIKE is what makes any romantic relationship function on a higher level. It’s not easy and it takes a long time. It’s the work of saying, “I know I am aggravating but this is where I am at the moment.” or “I am trying to give more but I need to admit I feel impatient right now, and it’s embarrassing to me that I do.” It’s the work of noticing how ashamed you are, and how deeply you believe you don’t have rights or preferences, instead you should just DO BETTER and BE BETTER. It’s the work of resisting the easy, pat answer of “I’m just an asshole” or “I’m just a piece of shit,” which keeps you stuck giving too much to make up for what you see as your essential evil nature.
So many married people are guilty villains who give too much and resent the other person for it. It takes A LOT of work to move a person out of that position, too. Our whole culture is dominated by guilty villains. It’s what makes us all so unethical and confused and anxious and depressed.
Instead, I recommend doing the very hard work of admitting that while you might be the sharpest, scariest knife around, you’re only that way because YOUR ESSENTIAL NATURE IS INTOLERABLY SOFT AND SWEET.
Awwww. So now we’ve got a Dinner Roll made of memory foam with a sparkly knife inside and inside the knife is… a sweet little bunny rabbit! That sounds absurd, but that is how the work works. Everything is so simple and we’re all the same – sweet bunnies! – and yet, nothing is simple and we’re all very different and we all want and crave different things.
Stating what you need out loud is divine. You are honoring your divinity when you tell the truth. You are also making more room for other people to strip off their costumes and tell the truth. You are also saying to the world PEOPLE SHOULD SIMPLY BE ABLE TO LIVE THE WAY THEY WANT TO, AS LONG AS THEY’RE NOT HURTING ANYONE ELSE IN THE PROCESS.
The start of not hurting people lies in telling the truth. When other people hate the truth, even though you slowed down and you were sweet and you were careful and you were EMBARRASSED of the truth, and you said so? Those are the people who are too weak to tolerate. The only REAL weakness in this world lives inside people who swap out their own needs and desires with the values of our broken culture, and then forge those values into a blunt weapon and hit you with it whenever you say words out loud about who you really are. Their shame made them disown themselves, and now they want you to do the same. Sorry, dummies. As we used to say back in the 90s, homie don’t play that shit.
Be who you are. I can tell you right now, you’re much sweeter than you realize. If you don’t want to dig for that bunny rabbit, don’t dig. But look for hints of that sweet little rabbit buddy in those moments when you’re forgiving yourself for being a nasty impatient fuck who wants the whole world to toughen up and stop whining about how they pooped in their diapers again.
You can keep your sense of humor. You can keep your bad attitude. You can laugh at fucked up things sometimes. You can even write the words “homie don’t play that shit” even though you know it’s cringe and you’re cringe but you miss that nostalgic phrase - so multipurpose! - like it’s your little rabbit buddy BFF. You’re also allowed to be impatient with self-discovery and softness and vulnerability. But if you want to be happy and feel your love for yourself, for this world, for other people, you have to slow down and open up and notice more. You have to widen your heart and listen to how often your shame blocks you from joy.
The path to joy winds through a land of sweet little bunny rabbits, and it’s scary as hell, like Watership Down-level scary. But that’s how you learn to be a person with needs. That’s how you learn that you deserve to want what you want, and you deserve to say what you want out loud. The more you understand that, at a deep level, the more generous and patient and happy you become. So speak up.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! Turn off the internet and be who you are. Love is everywhere, man. It is it is it is it *really* is.
You know, it took me more than fifty years to understand that I could NEVER have a truly intimate relationship with a romantic partner until I gave myself permission to stop Being A Good Person.
Because women are conditioned to be so infinitely kind, patient, tolerant, clean, forgiving and understanding that we completely lose sight of our actual personalities.
I sincerely believed that I had to be the perfect patient receptacle of whatever bullshit any random man threw my way, and eventually, when I was perfect ENOUGH, my needs would get met.
It's only after setting boundaries which include my ACTUAL NEEDS that I can start discerning what my responsibilities to others entail. And when those needs go consistently unmet, my responsibilities are very, very few.
My partner and I have a rule that we bring up Big Emotions when they’re at a 4 (on a scale of 1-10). It helps a lot, because we don’t get all the petty little things constantly coming up BUT ALSO we catch them before they get bad. AND “we need to talk” doesn’t activate the “Oh no they’re pissed at me and this is going to be a huge fight and we’re going to break up” defensive response that would normally come from that phrase. It’s made it soooo much easier to be open and listen, and also makes it easier for my avoidant self to actually air my own grievances instead of holding them in until I feel like the best option is to just run away.