My ex-husband had an uncanny ability to diminish me. I say uncanny because I don’t think it was exactly intentional, but it was incredibly effective. I spent much of my marriage feeling like I was his project to fix rather than his wife to love.
Before we were even married, I noticed that his list of grievances about me were far more varied and numerous than mine about him. Whether it was the kind of frozen TV dinner I bought or the clothes I wore or my persistent optimism, I was, it seemed, in dire need of constant supervision and correction. Lucky for me, I’d found a man willing to tackle the job.
Any objections I voiced to his constant feedback were met with claims that I was defensive, or insinuations that I couldn’t handle the truth, or (my personal favorite) the insistence that if I “really loved” him, I’d want to make him happy. We had many arguments around the fact that I was so imperfect. He insisted that I should follow his example, because on the occasions when I expressed dissatisfaction with him, he willingly and humbly tried to work on my concerns. I had to acknowledge that he was good at responding to my concerns, but it took me almost 10 years to realize that it’s much easier to respond that way when you’re not under near-constant attack. Nobody likes to be criticized — it doesn’t feel good — but it’s especially hard to take when it’s so unyielding and frequent. One of the saddest moments in my crumbling marriage was when my husband acknowledged to me that most of the things he’d first admired about me had been eroded over the years under the weight of his constant criticism. I’m not sure which of us was more stricken by his admission; me, realizing that I really had lost the best parts of myself in my marriage, or him, realizing that he’d been a primary cause of that.
Since my divorce, I have dated many different kinds of men in many different stages of their lives. Most men I have encountered have been refreshingly independent and unconcerned with “correcting” my idiosyncracies, but a few have surprised me with the ease with which they assume the role of benevolent mentor and begin offering “helpful” advice and direction (that nearly always starts something like, “You know what you should do?” or “You really ought to….” or even “You really need to….”) Sometimes that kind of controlling nature is obvious — as in the case of the man who came over to cook me dinner and proceeded to literally rearrange my kitchen — but other times it’s more insidious — like when a date asked me in a pointed way if I was really doing all I could with my graduate degree, after I’d just told him how much I loved my job.
I know from experience that there is definitely a place in a secure and loving and intimate relationship for promoting your partner’s personal growth and well-being, and that sometimes we all need a little push in the right direction. But how that “push” is delivered and the context of the relationship are incredibly important. One of the things that I love about being single is that I meet such a variety of people and they see me and experience me in their own special ways. Hearing their impressions or criticisms, when they are gently delivered, is an amazing gift and has dramatically accelerated my sense of personal growth. It isn’t always easy, but I’m working on distinguishing comments that are truly well-intended and not self-interested from those that manipulative and/or belittling. It’s easy and natural to assume a defensive posture as soon as someone levels an unfavorable assessment at you, but it’s clearly not the best response. Even if the comment isn’t delivered with good and genuine intentions, I am learning that it might still have merit. In those cases, I still let the individual know that it wasn’t appreciated, but I also file away the possibility that he might just be right, even if he is an ass.
The thing is that I don’t want to be anyone’s project. But I also don’t want to make anyone mine. I have no more right than anyone else to decide that someone needs “fixing.” If I realize that someone in my life is flawed in a way that is not acceptable or comfortable to me, I feel that I have two choices: I can accept them as they are, or I can retreat partly or completely from the relationship. My experience with my husband has made me seriously averse to approaching any person in my life as a project that would benefit from my oversight of management.
I wish I could say that this means that I just happily embrace people for who they are, without reservation, but I’m not nearly that good a person. Of course I get frustrated, or annoyed, or disappointed by people in my life. Those are natural aspects of human relationships. But I’ve been working hard on understanding how and when to deliver criticism, and I am learning to distinguish between those frustrations and annoyances and disappointments that are result of something the person has done to me, and those that are simply a reflection of who they are as a person. In other words, am I the only person in their life getting this treatment, or is this who they are with everyone? If the answer is that I’ve been singled out, then I try to open a dialogue with the person and address my feelings. If the answer is that this is just who they are, then I am back to my two choices: accept or retreat.
The exception to this, I think, is when I know that a friend is conscious of and working on some aspect of their nature with which they are not happy. In that case, when I see that aspect surface in our interactions, I will try to point it out, even though I know that it is a part of who they are, rather than directed at me. Each of us is a work-in-progress, and supporting a friend or partner’s personal growth is an important part of being present in any relationship. So, even though those conversations might be uncomfortable, I am going to try. But I’m also going to do my damnedest not to make them feel that they are flawed and in need of fixing. Because nobody wants to be a to-do list item.