Baggage Check Live: "This Particular Puppy Situation"

Oct 30, 2018

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior was online to take your comments about her advice column, Baggage Check, and any other questions you might have. These comments may appear in an upcoming column running in Express and online.

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Welcome, all.

I have been looking forward to this hour even more than usual this week, because as our world seems to get uglier, I think human connection-- and helping each other-- becomes more important than ever.

So it is so good to see you here and in the queue.

How are you doing? What is on your mind?

In today's column, we have someone who really wants to be into the guy she's dating. But she's not. Can you force a spark if someone checks all the right boxes? And should you even try?

And in L2, we've got two sisters who put in pretty different levels of effort for birthdays. At what point should you decide to go without acknowledgement from your sibling on yours?

Let's begin.

Last week I decided to foster a cute, surprisingly well-behaved puppy for a local rescue. My bf and I discussed how we would take care of her and he is busy with his teaching job so it would be mostly my responsibility as I am a musician and have the week off. I'm totally fine with that and it was my choice so I don't expect a lot of help. Bf is now constantly grumpy about the puppy being around, changes rooms at night before bed because she snores a little bit (meanwhile I sleep in earplugs every night because of his snoring), is grumpy that the puppy sometimes needs to go out in the middle of the night (which I take care of and try to make it as quiet an affair as possible), and is just generally less enjoyable to be around. The pup is a little disruptive, but I'm the one taking care of her and losing a ton of sleep which is fine! It's short term and I signed up for it! The big issue is he's clearly unhappy that he's been woken up a few nights over the past week when I had to take her out but the irony is, due to our opposite schedules, he wakes me up every single morning, five days a week, all year with the exception of summer and I've always maintained a positive, supportive attitude because what's the point of being a big grump about it all the time? Whenever any sort of change is injected in to our relationship he always turns in to this cranky person, and I always take it so personally like he doesn't like me as much anymore, and that's infinitely more stressful than taking care of an already trained puppy. Do you have any tips or insight to help manage my anxiety about my bf's bad moods? This puppy is going to get adopted soon, but he also did this when we adopted our own dog (and we're not having kids so that will never be a concern), and I just hate worrying so much over this. We had a talk about it a few days ago and I was so exhausted and upset that I cried a lot, and he said he would try to be better, but now we're back to mr. crankypants and me worrying that I ruined our relationship.

Your letter seemed to take an interesting turn.

By the end, the amount of responsibility-- and psychic burden-- that you are taking for his crankiness grew to the point where you are worried that you "ruined the relationship" because you cried and were exhausted about it.


As I see it, he'll either work on these issues or not. Because this isn't just about the puppy-- which maybe one could argue he really wasn't happy with the decision of, or felt steamrolled, and that the sacrifice was too great for him.

You say he's like this with any change.

So, does that mean he will therefore be unwilling to change?

(It's like meta-change-- him needing to change his reactions to change.)

I don't know what "cranky" and "grumpy" looks like, but it doesn't sound like it is collaborative, communicative, open, or insightful. Yes, we all get a burr in our saddle every once in a while, and in a good couplehood, our partners can roll with it, because that's what patience and unconditional love entails.

But once you start talking about how it's totally on you to manage these reactions-- to the point of your having extreme stress-- while he does zero to help not affect you so much-- that's when you lose me.

Talk to him. Express yourself. Be specific. Relay your feelings, and how much this makes you catastrophize and worry. Explain calmly the hypocrisy of his waking you up all year and getting a positive, supportive partner, while you are not entitled to the same for just one week.

Again, the amount that you (and he!) are putting on you-- without much expectation of his changing-- is not fair, and THAT'S the part that I would find worrisome and in danger of "ruining" the relationship.

What is it with adults and birthdays??? Other than wanting a store bought cake (which I happily buy myself), it's no big deal. Especially among adult siblings! Adults really need to get over this birthday obsession. Honestly I'm not sure my brother could pick me out of a line-up, let alone remember my birthday.

First, I am sorry about your brother-- though it doesn't necessarily seem that you are too broken up about it!

I do think the world seems strangely divisible into people for whom birthdays are a Big Thing and those who would rather ignore them. Of course, for all the people in the middle, I do think that a quick "Happy Birthday" from a sibling that you have regular contact with is not exactly asking for the moon.

Hello Dr. Bonior: My partner "Carl" died early this year. We were together for 33 years, married for 4, adopted two children. He was 15 years older than me and died suddenly. We had a great life together, passion in the beginning, lots of laughs, great teamwork as parents, good companions. I miss him but I think I have been doing okay with this. I joined a bereavement group for widows/widowers at my local hospital. I have enjoyed our meetings (if that's the right word) even though I am the only gay member. But I have noticed one thing and wanted to get your input on it. The group breaks down into people who met their spouses when young and had long marriages and those who met their spouses after a divorce or (rarer) a previous widowhood. Most everyone was close in age to their spouses. The term "soul mate" is used a lot. I am sympathetic but I've come to feel that my life with Carl was different. Our lives seem to have "intersected" when we met, then ran parallel for a long while and now his path has ended and mine is going off in a different direction. Carl was the more dominant personality in some ways, and we largely lived as he liked. Now I feel as if I'm living on the set of a play that's concluded and I need and want to make changes. I've been hesitant to express this openly as so many in the group seem, understandably, to be eager now to continue the paths they were on with their spouses, or to hold onto what they had. I realize that everyone grieves in individual ways and at different rates, but I wondered if asking myself "Am I okay if I seem to be moving on at a faster clip?" is a reasonable thing to do at this point? Thank you.

You can definitely ask yourself that.

But if you're already ready for an answer, you need not bother. I'll raise my hand here and give it to you.

You are okay.

In fact, it sounds like your outlook is particularly functional, and even beautiful-- even if it doesn't look like the next person's. And that's alright.

There is no right way to grieve, there is no objective yardstick, there is no perfect timeline or "right" perspective. You are choosing to honor Carl in your own way, and by giving yourself some room to explore what life looks like without him-- even in some positive-change type of ways-- you are honoring yourself.

So, if you continue to enjoy the meetings, continue going. And keep an open heart and an open mind and respect for what other people's processes look like (it goes without saying that just because your grieving process includes reevaluating your life and making some changes that will help you move forward individually, that also doesn't mean that you should imply to others that that will work for them as well.)

No one needs to be ashamed of their own process. If everyone's was exactly the same, then there'd be no benefit (or need) for support groups in the first place!

My heart goes out to you about your loss.

The idea that birthdays are Such A Big Thing that everyone around you needs to bow to your wishes for that day strikes me as being something you should outgrow by the age of, say, nine.

I do think a lot of people share your sentiments!

But again, I don't think we should conflate wanting a "Happy Birthday" text from one's sibling with wanting everyone to bow down to one's birthday commands.

(Off to check if my family has started making headway on those spaceship rental plans for my big day.....)

My parents were happily married for 55 years. My mother died 3 years ago. My 79 year old father has been living with 78 his girlfriend for 16 months. They live about 3 hour plane ride away so I don’t see them everyday. The father whom I adore chose a rude, know it all woman who is trying to always impress us and control my father along with my 5 adult siblings. My father would like us to all be great friends. In general my siblings and I have very nice lives. We are all adults in our late 40’s and early 50’s. The girlfriend has 3 of her own adult children who live about 5 hours plane ride away from her. After my father discussed with her how we do not appreciate or want her advice and opinions on how to run our lives; her claim is she never met it that way or she was helping us. The rudeness from her hasn’t stopped. I want to put my foot down and say she is not welcome in my house. I know this hurts my father. Some of my siblings feel we should just ignore her “advice” while others agree with me. Or when she is rude or full of advice do I have the right to say something- “I don’t need your opinion or advice.”? I don’t want to say “Thank you for your opinion but that’s not what I am going to do.” Because if I say “Thank you” will her opinions are welcome & continue to be given? Am I evil for not wanting to say it politely? How should I and my siblings handle the unwelcome advice or opinions?

Look, if wanting to protect yourself from her rudeness makes you "evil," then the entire world has gone topsy-turvy!

A couple of points stick out here. The first is that your father-- unlike many people I hear about in these situations-- actually sounds like he wants to help the situation, rather than just blindly assuming everyone will be BFFs (even though that's his ultimate hope.) The fact that he discussed this with her speaks very highly to his willingness to try to improve things, which is very positive and shouldn't be squandered.

So, I would wonder-- is he willing to speak up in the moment as well?

Have you given him examples of what you find most difficult? What does he do when she's doing it?

In terms of what you have the "right" to say, absolutely-- you need not say "thank you" for stuff you don't want. But you do need to be respectful, not just for ethical human reasons but also because you are more likely to get positive results that way.

So, practice a mantra-- and alert your father that you are going to be using it, and that if he really wants there to be a chance of peaceful coexistence among all parties, it would help if he would serve as backup, and see your mantra for what it is-- an attempt for you to get space from behavior that is bothersome.

So, the wording of the mantra. Any chatters have any ideas? I'm thinking "Oh, I wasn't looking for advice....[polite subject shift.]" Or "Yup, I hear that you feel that way."

(It seems like the classic "I'll take that into consideration" may feel to you even like too much, or some sort of positive reinforcement for her meddling.)

And I'm sorry for the loss of your mother. I imagine that makes this woman being in your father's life particularly hard to take.


I was impressed with Dr. B's advice on this issue. The LW sounds isolated from her bio family, dad and brothers, and is very saddened by this. It almost sounds like a precursor to mourning the father's eventual demise, with a desire to not have her loss compounded by guilt over what she "might have done." Perhaps having a few sessions with a therapist will help her sort through her past hurt and fear of guilt going forward.

Thank you.

I agree that it is quite likely that the road will likely be tougher from here in terms of the father's decline, and the more that OP can gain clarity on this issue, the better they'll be able to weather it.

It's not my birthday unless my sisters call and sing a really silly version of the birthday song. Cake and presents optional.

This is sweet!

Just wanted to say how much I love and look forward to Ben's illustrations on your column each Tuesday. And no, I'm not his Mom. Just someone who thinks all of us could use an "Attaboy" now and again.

Yes!! I'm obviously a huge Ben fan as well. Kudos, my friend!

(Ben, you have your very own Mary in Tucson!)

Advice columnists, shrinks, and particularly advice columnist/shrinks often advise therapy. Once you get past the process of finding one and figuring out how to pay for it, how do you know when therapy is "working," and when it's not?

Oh, how I hate those advice columnist/shrinks!

Seriously, it really does depend on your goals. Sometimes, symptom relief is at the forefront-- you are barely getting out of bed, you are engaging in self-destructive habits, you are having panic attacks, you are having hopeless and depressed thoughts, etc. Other times, you are looking for increased insight into understanding yourself-- which usually has some tangible tie-ins into making decisions about life transitions, making better goals, structuring your days better, getting more out of relationships, finding a better sense of purpose, etc.

So, here's a basic question for you. What would you be hoping to get out of therapy?

And how can that goal be operationalized? Made somewhat tangible? Of course, it's not like every single week there is going to be some "Aha moment" that spikes your well-being 50 points on some chart. But in general, there should be movement toward what you are wanting to see.

Chatters, how have you known that therapy is working-- or not?


You say that he gets grumpy about every change and you're trying to mitigate that and I agree that you need to have an open discussion and think seriously about this emotional labor that you are taking on in the relationship . But I think you should also seriously consider how these changes come about. From your letter, you say "I decided" and then talk about how unhappy your boyfriend is with the puppy. How did the decision happen? Did you talk about it and negotiate everything beforehand? Did you show up puppy in hand when it was too late to back out gracefully? Did he demur and say "yes" to avoid conflict when what he meant was "no"? Did you decide and then steamroller any no's that he put forward about not wanting the puppy by saying it wouldn't impact him? Your phrasing raised red flags with me that this was something you decided he would accommodate. If my boyfriend bought a huge armchair I hated and put it in the middle of the living room, sure, I could choose not to sit on it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't impact my home...

It's a great point. Thanks.

I did try to acknowledge that a little bit with This Particular Puppy Situation (a great name for a band!) but I felt like it was unlikely that this was a key issue in every single time he gets grumpy.

It's worth asking, about, though-- you could be right.

While I don't expect anyone else to think my birthday is "a big thing," I certainly don't think a phone call from a sibling is too much to ask for. As adults we don't have the built-in milestones we did as kids - finishing a grade, getting a driver's license, graduating from high school, plus daily life can be a grind. Sending a friend a card for her birthday or calling my sister or my niece on hers is a thoughtfgul way to communicate that I care about that person -- I am glad they were born and are a part of my life. The original poster absolutely did not come across as expecting people to bow down to her! There is nothing wrong with wanting some human connection.

Well said!

The perfect is the enemy of the acceptable. Stop sending birthday gifts! Sister is overwhelmed by having to shop for a gift for you, buy it, wrap it, and ship it (I'm assuming, since the word "send" was used) all in time for your birthday. Yet anything less, like a card or a postcard, seems too paltry, so ironically she does nothing.

Have a conversation to the effect of "We're grownups now and don't really need birthday presents. Let's limit it to cards from now on, or even just a phone call on the day." With less pressure to live up to your standards, she might be more able to acknowledge your birthday.

It's a good point. It could be that Sister just has learned helplessness because she expects that to fully do the acknowledgment "right," she has to reciprocate exactly what her sister does for her own birthday.

So perhaps OP stopping the gifts (tricky to do, though, without seeming vindictive) could help the process along.

Love "The perfect is the enemy of the acceptable." It's a close cousin to "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly" which helped me in many a dark dissertation hour!

True, but the aggrieved sister seems to be trying to guilt the non-reciprocating sister by continuing to send birthday gifts. How often has that worked, for anything?

It's a good point-- reflected above as well.

I can imagine OP/LW saying, though, that she is just the gift-giving type and feels weird not sending her sister a birthday gift and wants to do it for her own reasons, that it is not about reciprocity.

Of course, that may be met with various levels of eyebrow-raising.

My siblings remembering my b-day doesn't matter to me. But it turns out it matters a lot to my sister - which I learned when her husband called me one year to yell at me for forgetting. Now I make sure to acknowledge it every year because it matters to her. That act has actually made us closer. But I wonder if we don't have enough info from OP. Is this a pattern with Sis, OP wanting to be closer than Sis does? Or is this more like a difference in love languages - Sis is generally great but just doesn't get up off the couch for birthdays?

Great questions!

I too was wondering what their relationship was like the other 364 days of the year.

My mother and I actually had to strike a deal; I was free to ignore her advice as long as listened to her politely when she gave it.

Ooh-- interesting!

Glad it worked for you both!

No, but when it's obvious you're not going to get it, asking an advice columnist how you can make someone do something they're not willing to do should just net you the standard "you can't make anyone do anything. You can only control your own actions and reactions."

It's true. I'd argue, though, that although she can't make her sister do anything, depending on what kind of discussion she's tried about it, she might still have a chance of catching some flies with honey.

I think you just know. If I'm going because I'm anxious or depressed or stressed and I feel less anxious or depressed or stressed and/or have learned tools to manage these conditions, it's working. If I'm going because I'm having trouble communicating with my SO and we are communicating better, it's working. If I'm just feeling better overall and enjoy my sessions, it's working. You wil know.

A vote for "You'll know it when you see it," like the oft-quoted official definition of pornography.

Thank you!

I am someone who deeply enjoys celebrating birthdays--my own, those of loved ones or even strangers if I happen to hear it in conversation. Not in a "bow to me" kind of way, but I think they're a great opportunity to tell people you're happy they're alive. I turned 40 this year, and more than wanting any gifts, I really just wanted to have all of my friends in the same place for a few hours because they're a great group of people. In my case, and this might ring true for others--I also haven't gotten married or had kids or purchased a house, so I haven't gathered people for any of those celebrations. The same is true for a lot of my friends. So I am more than happy to celebrate the day they came into this crazy world.


I do think it's an important point-- there are so many "official" milestones that not everyone goes through-- graduations, marriage, kids, homeownership. And if someone has had plenty of these, they may not realize how hard it is to have not had any.

Sometimes milestones just feel good to have.

I don't understand these people. I'm turning 40 soon, and I mostly just hope everyone forgets about it entirely!


It's true that the "big" birthdays often do bring the urge to flee and hide behind a coat rack.

It's a two-part answer. 1) The therapist gave me a strategy to use when dealing with situation X. 2) The next time I was in situation X, I had the gumption to try it. Whether the strategy worked or not was almost incidental.

Well, call me a glutton, but I do hope the strategies work. Or at least if they don't, that you keep trying!

I hear you, though-- I think this is a very important component of therapeutic progress. Applying your gains to real-world situations in your daily life. Thanks.

...I started to hear the therapist (who did a lot of intake/listening the first 2 or 3 sessions) connecting the dots on my life and the lightbulbs started going off in my head with a resounding "YES! That's IT!" to what he said. My gut check told me that the therapist was unwinding the giant ball of emotional string that had followed me around throughout my '20s. A few years after I'd finished therapy, I learned he was dying of cancer in his '50s. Thank goodness, I was able to write him a letter, thanking him for all that he'd done to make my life so much happier. It's an intimate relationship that gets formed. It's like telling your troubles to a smart, calm best friend who totally "gets" it and can help you change.

This is really a lovely tribute. Thank you for writing it.

I am so glad that this man was able to be in your life in the way that he was.

It really is a profound privilege, getting to be let in in this way. And therapists don't take it lightly!

This doesn't sound like a good situation for anyone involved.

Yes, not exactly the ideal communication strategy-- though it did seem to get the job done eventually!

Really? this is what you are signing up for, for the rest of your life? Why? You have already said this is not the first time he has gotten cranky about a change. Life is about change, some expected, some not. His being cranky shows a level of immaturity that you have bought into (your responsibility to fix things). You deserve better. Time to start evaluating your options, and putting up with this for the foreseeable future should not be one. This is 'only' a boyfriend, you should take better care of yourself.

Not an unreasonable perspective! Thanks.

A relative of mine was convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography and has served his prison sentence. My extended family has for many years gathered for holiday dinners, and the host is demanding that anyone who wants to attend with children signs the release required for the child pornographer to be around their child. Supposedly parents should just be keeping an eye on their children. I have decided to stay away from the whole event, but I find myself incredibly angry at the adults involved. How can I maintain a relationship with people whom I believe are willfully endangering their children?

By understanding that you cannot assume that they are "willfully endangering their children."

Look, I one hundred percent understand your concerns, and would 100 percent co-sign on your choice to not attend.

But, you are also making a lot of assumptions about the parents who do choose to attend. Let's say they have a child who will 100 percent be in their sight the entire time. Let's say they're choosing to stop by just for two hours. Let's say they are stopping by so that they can have a conversation with this relative and say their peace about what they will or will not do going forward.

There are any number of potential "pause" buttons to keep you from assuming anything about whether they are truly endangering their children or not.

I mean, everything is a spectrum, right? The more you can view this in a larger, nuanced context, the less it becomes a lightswitch-flip of "My type of people" versus "Those people." Raising children is a daily (hourly?) calculation of what "endangering" actually means. And all of us do it to some extent. Relying too much on prepackaged, processed food? Using a neighbor's booster seat in a pinch that doesn't really fit your kid? Letting your child climb a tree? Having painkillers in the medicine cabinet when you have an adventurous teenager? Not asking a playdate's parent about whether there is a gun in the house? Letting your child swim in the ocean?

It's a spectrum. And though you feel strongly about this one particular issue (and again, understandably so), the best way to maintain a relationship with people who've made choices you disagree with is to start by acknowledging how gray everything is. Stand your ground, for sure, but be willing to be open to the fact that in any of these issues, it's not a "100 percent versus 0 percent danger" situation.

We used to have three women here who insisted that all birthdays HAD to be a big f***ing deal. Everyone had to crowd into a small room and sing Happy Birthday then have cake. I came close to having full out panic attacks. When I requested that for my birthday the cake simply be put out in the break room and people could simply tell me Happy B-day as they saw me I was told I was so wrong, not a team player etc. Evidently their way was the only correct way and their solution was to then totally ignore my b-day. Which was just fine by me. I just wish there was more understanding that different people celebrate different ways.

Oh, boy.

That sounds awful! Taking a clueless and insensitive stance when no stance is even "needed" in the first place-- good grief.

I feel like there was a Seinfeld episode about this....

I wasn't looking forward to turning 40. Like another writer today, I didn't have a husband, kid or anything I thought I was "supposed" to have at that milestone age. Then I thought about Mozart, Anne Frank, Martin Luther King and other people who didn't even get the chance to turn 40. I decided to invite 40 friends to dinner (on me) at a sweet local restaurant and thank THEM for the gifts of love and support they'd always given me. I wasn't bitter, I was grateful. And whether that mindset shift was the tipping point or not, within a year, I'd met the man who'd become my husband and he brought a child into the picture who needed the Mom I'd always wanted to be.


What a happy outcome. Even just the party-- that would have been a happy outcome in and of itself.

Love this. Thanks.

I don't mean this to be political, which sounds impossible, but hear me out. I feel like every day holds some big news that comes out of nowhere about life-impacting events. Yes, I understand there are ongoing issues and crises--always--throughout the world, but our current president seems to throw something out for discussion every day--forget that nuclear arms treaty, the Fed is horrible, people from country X are horrible, "winning" the supreme court appointment offsets any horrible treatment, trans people? nope, now my neighbor's kid is not allowed to be who he wants; ehhh, we sell those people arms so whatever about the reporter, etc. etc. Good lord, can we just have a day without some big bombshell (no pun)? I feel like I cannot get away from a mentally ill person. I am not saying this very well, and I do understand there are a lot of readers who support these decisions. But with the fricken high stakes decisions and drama. ENOUGH! sigh.....

I hear you.

And you wrote this even before today's birthright-citizenship declaration, which has thrown a lot more angst to the fire.

I think there are two basic spheres of coping-- one is, of course, self-care. Doing what you can to nourish yourself in the meantime. Get good sleep. Spend time with people you love. Set limits on your exposure to the vitriol when your anxiety reaches a point of rumination and spiraling. Keep your creative interests well-fed. Get time outdoors and exercise. Give back when you can. Keep the big picture in mind, and your values and what you see as your purpose on this planet, close to your heart.

And Part 2 could potentially overlap with a lot of that-- take action where and when you can. Feeling empowered not only reduces the stress response and makes you feel more in control, but it-- of course-- can help effect change. It brings hope. It can help bridge the gap between the daily drudgery and the feeling of being a small cog in the wheel versus putting your values and your sense of purpose to action.

You are not alone in this!

Thanks for all of your wonderful feedback so far. I didn't word the puppy situation very well- I was trying to be succinct! We're both dog lovers and rescued our current dog last year- after our previous dog died in a tragic accident -that we both wanted, and in that instance he didn't handle the change very well but now loves our dog more than anything in the world and it warms my heart to see them together. With this foster puppy, it was something I had been interested in doing for a while, and we almost fostered a different one a month ago but it didn't work out. It wasn't a unilateral decision- we had discussions about fostering and expectations for at least a week leading up to each puppy with him being enthusiastic about the prospect, while being clear that due to his long hours that he would help when he could, but couldn't help 50%. But now that she's here, it's different and causing a strain.

Thank you for this fuller picture.

This is the context I had originally imagined, but it's helpful for us all to get the real details.

Nope, not the best way to handle it. But I appreciated that he was telling me something important, he's usually a really quiet guy so this was clearly a big deal to him. I stayed calm, he calmed down and apologized for the yelling, and everything worked out for the best. Yay communication!

Communication for the win!

There should be more love songs written about good communication.

Was the supervisor one of these three? Because if not, the supervisor needs to put a stop to this coercion. My workplace was large and the tradition was that there was one "cake day" per month, during which -- at lunchtime only, not all day! all those who had birthdays were recognized. Cut cake, sing happy birthday, chat a bit, go back to your desk, and work.

I just hope Milton was able to get a piece of cake!

Yup, I agree-- if this was coming down from a supervisor, it's a pretty dysfunctional setup.


My partner has abandonment issues and is controlling. It is frequently tough to deal with, and I don't feel she loves me. I also can't tell where I stand. Does she actually care for me? How do I help her and our relationship?

Well, I of course can't tell you how she really feels about you, and whether if you put in the sacrifices to endure her issues, it will pay off.

The key is whether she is working on it.

We get a lot of letters about controlling relationships here-- in fact we have half a dozen in the queue, and I'm sorry I just can't answer them all. But the biggest questions I can offer for a situation like yours-- where you don't spell out exactly what's happening-- are how severe the behavior is, and whether she is getting help. There is a big difference between someone with controlling tendencies due to abandonment issues who acknowledges those issues, goes to therapy, and wants to put in the work, versus someone who thinks (as is common with controlling partners) that it's their partner who is wrong for having a problem with them.

I will offer the resources I've written on the subject, and again, I am sorry I can't respond to each one of these letters individually.

20 Signs Your Partner Is Controlling

So Your Partner Is Controlling. Now What?



(In response to last week's chat.) 

I can absolutely say that that it's not them running out of social steam. It's not like day three of our visit and they are like this, this is a day one scenario. On our last visit, his mom asked me a question and I was so surprised that I forgot the name of all my childhood pets and stumbled over my response! I don't mean to slight them by mentioning that they didn't go to college. They are smart, hardworking people. My time in college was when I got to explore so many interests and hobbies that I still have today, and I know my boyfriend did too, that I think of those interests and hobbies and college as at least an easy way for them to learn more about me, but something they don't take advantage of. I'm also not that far removed from college (I'm in my mid twenties) so it's not like I'm way past a time that it would be relevant to ask me about it.

I'm not a born talker, but I really do consider myself social and at ease with people from all different walks of life. And I'm definitely not saying my parents are superior, his parents are nice and generous people despite this conversation impasse, but I feel like I'm crying out to make some sort of emotional or deeper connection with them and there's just nothing there. I want to be close to them because I love their son so much, just as much as I want my parents to be close to my boyfriend because he's so important to me. 

 I think I'm embarrassed by the fact that I seemingly can't connect with them that I don't want to bring it up to him. He tells me all the time how much they love me (not an exaggeration, he says love) and how happy they are we got to visit and I just think then why does it feel like I've been a complete failure when it comes to building a relationship with them. He is at ease when we're at dinner eating silently or riding in the car silently, and silences have never bothered me, but then he also tells me thank you for listening to my mom tell the same stories over and over again. Am I just overthinking this? Am I trying to hard?

I do think you are trying too hard.

And you are thinking of this in terms of being a problem that's about you, when in reality it's about them.

You want an emotional connection with your partner's family. Makes all the sense in the world! But this just might be something that they're not capable of. At least on your terms. It could be that they feel closer to you than virtually anyone, by virtue of their stated love for you and the fact that you are their son's partner. And so it's a matter of viewing this through their lens, not yours.

You seem to make them happy, even if they don't show it in classic ways. But making your partner's family happy is not a small thing. After nearly 14 years of mail about in-laws, do trust me on this.

Bottom line? I think you need to let yourself off the hook.

And I know two members of the Tree of LIfe synagogue. Fortunately, they were not among the casualties, but I'm still grieving the massacre deeply, and its outward rippling effects on our entire region. I can barely get out of bed, have little appetite, and wonder how long I can be this way before it ceases to be a normal reaction. Your professional thoughts?

I am so truly sorry for your heartbreak.

I think when absolutely horrific things like this happen, it can shake us to our very core, and is truly something of a trauma, even if it wasn't experienced firsthand (clinical definitions of trauma be damned.)

This hurt you. You will need time to heal.

Being that it has only been a few days, I say it's far too soon to start worrying about whether it's "normal." That said, it would be a positive thing for you to take extra care of yourself during this time-- which should start to lead to some improvement. The key is to be moving in a good direction-- even if slow-- rather than growing more despondent and isolated.

So, start with little things today to get you going. One foot in front of the other. Reaching out to a loved one. Searching out small beauties. Making a small goal for the day. Finding a way to express your feelings for the better. Coming up with a plan to put some goodness in the world.

You are not alone.

I go through periods (days to weeks) when something will make me a bit anxious and cause a shot of adrenaline, which then feeds itself as a physical reaction. Long after whatever silly thing made me nervous, I'm still getting random shots of adrenaline, because. . . I recently got a random shot of adrenaline? It does not seem healthy to suffer what is essentially an extended period of stress (elevated heart rate, etc.) for no particular reason. Does this have a name? I'd like to do some research of my own before I ask my GP.

Well, I do think a full checkup with your GP should come sooner rather than later, because we'd want to rule out physical things first. Irregular heartbeat, mitral valve prolapse, thyroid issues-- they all can be associated with the symptoms you describe. You also have to think carefully about other medications you're taking, levels of caffeine, nutrient deficiencies, your level of sleep, etc.

That said, what you describe could also fit pretty well into some quasi-panic symptomology. That could respond really well to some psychological interventions, like mindfulness meditation, guided visualization, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation.... there are a lot of video examples out there that you could start to practice and put into your arsenal.

Good luck.

Is there anything tougher than this: "It is frequently tough to deal with, and I don't feel she loves me." This hurts my heart. Thinking warm thoughts for you! Counseling for yourself, you deserve love and comfort in your relationship

Love these warm thoughts.

They are so sorely needed for so many, and one of the many reasons I absolutely adore this chat (and these chatters.)

Thank you.

Yup beautiful peace / piece. I appreciate your sentiment. The issue i have is that he has overtly deeply hurt/traumatized/ impacted children's life. The examples you cite are moments of parenting blindness/not thinking clearly. This situation does rather go beyond that. It affected children's (plural) lives.

Well, for sure. No one is nominating that relative for Uncle of the Year.

But... I'm saying, realistically, if you are a parent of a toddler deciding to stop by a home for a couple of hours and keep your child within reach for the entire time, are you really endangering your particular child?

I do get that this is a very loaded issue-- and it must be very tough and painful for you to know that your relative did this.

There are no easy answers here, though I do think it sounds like you do not want to be alienated from your other family members because of this-- which would only compound the damage.

So that's the framework I'm working from here.

My little brother came up with the perfect solution: on HIS birthday (because it's his birthday and he remembers) he calls everyone. None of us feel bad for not remembering; he did it for us.

I love this!

This reminds me of when I stopped by a longtime close friend's house a while back, at her invitation-- coffee, etc, which we do from time to time-- and it wasn't until I left that I realized that it had been her birthday, and neither of us had said anything about it at all. I felt absolutely horrible. When I called to apologize and fully own my duncehood, she laughed and said "Actually, it was a gift to me that you forgot-- you are always so good about my birthday and I forget YOURS every year! This let me off the hook!"

Hmmm. Gifts can come in the strangest packages sometimes!

Wow, I am really sorry I missed my question live! Thank you for answering. My current communication with my sister consists of short emails with links to articles or videos related to our common interests or her job. I send occasional photos of the kids. She sometimes FaceTimes me, but we don’t talk long. As for the issue of gifts for my kids, I mentioned it in my question because my SHE brings it up almost every time we talk. I tell her not to worry about it because they aren’t expecting anything. I did not tell her that my kids didn’t trust her, I told her they didn’t expect presents. The ones she keeps bringing up and then not following through on. There’s a package she’s been putting together that she’s been promising to send since a birthday in the summer of 2017! Yes, more than a year ago. Because that affects my kids I think that’s fair for me to respond to her. It’s hard not to react when she brings it up yet again, and I can’t understand why she keeps promising something she is unlikely to do. For the chatter who suggested my kids were old enough to give to her, they have. She doesn’t acknowledge any gifts to her until I ask if she got them. I am trying to keep the lines of communication open, and I’m getting used to our new reality but I am sad. I know I can’t change her and I’m sorry she feels judged. I am not perfect, either, as she has frequently reminded me.

Thank you for taking the time to write this. It all makes sense, and it does sound like you are doing the right thing, even on this particularly hard path.

I always think it's so helpful for other chatters to see the fuller context and how it may or may not match their assumptions.

Hang in there.

It's that time again, unfortunately.

Thank you so much for your presence today. I am grateful for it!

We will hope to see you back here next week. In the meantime, I will see you in the comments and on Facebook.

Be well.

In This Chat
Dr. Andrea Bonior
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist and the voice behind Baggage Check since its start in 2005. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and is the author of the Publisher's Weekly best-seller "Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World" and "The Friendship Fix.”
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