A 26-year-old reader recently contacted me through my website with questions about red flags. With her permission, a condensed version of our exchange is shared below:
Dear Dr. Meinecke:
I recognize that you likely receive a lot of reader mail, so thank you in advance for your time and response. I'm enjoying your book, and I have one question about red flags to which I cannot find an answer: What if both my partner AND I exhibit red-flag behavior?
In my situation, my partner exhibits 4 out of 6 red flags, and I exhibit 1. I am stuck in the thinking (and he often argues the same) that I have no right to end the relationship based on his red-flag behavior if I myself exhibit dysfunctional behavior. My stance is that so long as I recognize and take responsibility for changing my own dysfunctional behavior (in my case, controlling), I have the right to seek a relationship with a partner free of (or also in the process of clearing) red flags.
I'm concerned about which 4 out of 6 red flags apply to your partner. You mentioned controlling behavior on your part, which is often the case for partners of substance abusers and batterers. If he abuses substances, Al-Anon can be a great support for you. If he is a batterer, my advice is always to separate - for your protection.
Re: his argument (and your reported agreement with the idea) that you can't expect him to change and shouldn't consider ending the relationship, until you are free of red flags yourself:
First, do not believe that you must wait for your partner to grant you freedom to leave a relationship. You must claim and exercise the freedom every adult has to make their lives safe and healthy.
Second, the key to being a self-responsible partner is realizing that you cannot change your partner - only yourself. From my perspective, your partner is overtly justifying NOT changing his behavior and also indirectly telling you that he has no intention of changing.
The self-responsible approach is to work on eliminating your controlling behavior and/or taking responsibility to rescue yourself from a "great mistake." Would you consider psychotherapy? You may feel that he needs it more, but you can only improve you.
Dear Dr. Meinecke,
Thank you so much for your response.
These are the red flags I see in my partner.
1) Substance abuse - Although he uses in very small quantities a few times per week, he has failed employment drug tests, stolen, and lied about and concealed money that his mom had given us (his "income") for food all in order to buy marijuana. He becomes very angry when I speak against this behavior and asserts that marijuana helps him and that his dependence is not nearly as bad as my reliance on prescribed anti-seizure/neuropathic pain medication.
2) Mental cruelty - He often makes mean comments about my choice of previous sexual partners and tries to make me feel ashamed and dirty for such. He often uses this information as blackmail, threatening to reveal these embarrassing things to my family should I try to leave him or kick him out.
3) Battery - He has not hit me, but especially over the past month, his anger has escalated to lunging at me and restraining me by the wrists, threats to "punch [me] in the f-ing head," and pushing me in the shoulder and putting his hands on my throat.
4) Inappropriate venting of anger - This one is obvious by the above. He gets in very dark moods and seems to purposely try to bring me down by aggressively confronting me and accusing me of not loving him, of being selfish, telling me that my mother is a bitch who doesn't care about me, etc., etc.
5) Under-responsibility - This is the big one. For three years, I have provided 95% of the income for us and am now filing brankruptcy because of my own naivete in this matter. When I plead for him to work and contribute financially, he belittles my work (full-time secretary), saying that I don't even really "work" and that he works more in one day as a wait server than I do in a month as a secretary. He says that he "works" simply by putting up with me on a daily basis. He has hundreds of dollars in outstanding speeding tickets and a suspended license. He ran a red light recently and totaled my car. He's enrolled in community college with the intent of getting a financial aid check next week, quitting his classes, and making off with the money.
6) Controlling/jealousy - He checks on me frequently and gets suspicious and angry when I get off work late or take longer running errands. He tries to make me feel guilty for wanting to make new friends ( I have no girlfriends) by saying that he should be all I need.
Wow, I just realized that I put him down for all 6. Although I feel so worn down by this relationship, I know I am not perfect and worry that I am overly focusing on all the bad. He has many wonderful qualities, too. He's affectionate, fun, a great cook, passionate, etc., and does temporarily try to do better. But he ultimately reverts to old behavior.
Despite your guy's positive behaviors, his manipulation and abuse of you (physically, psychologically, and financially) are seriously concerning. If you were my client, I would encourage you to consider what you are telling yourself that convinces you to tolerate his mistreatment of you.
Any outsider can see the dangers associated with keeping this man in your life. His behavior could be drug-related but, from the sound of it, he could have a mental disorder as well. I urge you to seek out a psychologist or social worker in your area soon.
Dear Dr. Meinecke,
In a nutshell, I'm telling myself that I'm unloveable, that no healthy person would want to be with me. Next step, finding a local psychologist. Thanks again.
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