Help! Am I abusive?

In Advice Column, Epic Relationships by Louisa Leontiades

Dear Louloria,

I read your response to Mr RealistNotOptimist with interest and foreboding. I am in an open relationship with my partner. I suffer hugely from anxiety, and although I try to take full responsibility for it, I fear that my initial – uncontrollable – reactions of fear and anxiety impact my partner’s decisions on how or even whether to move forward in his other relationships. It’s not that he ‘rescues me’ exactly but he certainly takes into account my potential responses and to tell you the truth, he knows I would be happier if he didn’t date at all. 

After several years of us trying, he finally chose not to date, but has several very close relationships with women which although not sexual are probably more intimate than would be acceptable regular ol’ monogamy. I have manage to accept and even embrace them, despite my anxiety. But usually I deny that they are as close as they are as I can’t really handle them if I start thinking about them too much. Are my reactions an attempt at controlling him (given that they have ultimately made him choose not to date)? I don’t want to believe that I am abusive. But if I am, I want to know and what the hell can I do about it?

– Ms. ScaredOfBeingAbusive

Dear Ms. SOBA,

Wow. Kudos to you, first of all, in being willing to face the fact that your behaviour might be abusive. Abuse is such a loaded word but something that exists on a spectrum, given that we live in a world where people try to manipulate others into a desired outcome all the time. All the time.

You have my compassion and support, I know how difficult it is to live with anxiety. It sounds like you are have not asked him to stop which would be directly transferring the responsibility for your emotions to him, but that he has chosen to stop – and you cannot take responsibility for his actions either. You therefore have some control over your instinctive reactions, which is already a good step and you don’t sound like you are abusive (which is about trying to control). I can’t get into your head to be sure, but usually those who abuse have a hard time admitting it because others are to blame for their emotions – and as you say, you take full responsibility. I therefore suggest you don’t start worrying about whether or not you are abusive since the last thing you need is another source of anxiety.

Even so, sometimes when people love us, the compassion they feel for our ‘sorry’ state, prompts them to take actions to care for us which might not be the best way forward for either of you because eventually one or both of you will start to resent the perceived ‘control’ that binds the two of you. What is the best way out?

Therapy. Communication. Mindfulness (and more). All of which will help you develop healthy behaviours and coping mechanisms in response to anxiety. Once you have those healthy mechanisms, you may want to consider gradual exposure to your fears (but only once you have those coping mechanisms in place).

Finally, anxiety requires a great deal of self-compassion. Anxiety, even though it feels hideous, is usually temporary – during these times please take care of yourself. Unfortunately, even though your partner is limiting his actions which might currently trigger the anxiety, anxiety is like a Hydra – cut off one head and two grow back. What I mean is that you must try and fight this; anxiety does not stop just because the ‘current’ trigger is not pulled. It will continue to find ways to express itself until it becomes triggered by the tiniest – and most innocent of – actions. I will consult my network and ask them to comment on this post to provide sources of healing for you. Please don’t try and fight this alone.

[Edit: A contact suggested you check out www.loveisrespect.org and look at some of the actual signs of abuse, especially the “Is this abuse” page (www.loveisrespect.org/is-this-abuse) and the “Relationship spectrum” quiz (www.loveisrespect.org/dating-basics/relationship-spectrum).

Resources offered by community:

Robert McGarey – Counselling: Self-esteem, Relationships, Assertiveness

Kathy Labriola – Counselling:  Open Relationships]

Good Luck,

Louisa