DEAR CAROLYN: I grew up in a family where I was taught to say “I’m sorry” after having a fight with someone, and to identify the part of the fight where I did wrong. I learned to believe that there is almost always something BOTH sides could apologize for — and that I should generally apologize proactively to help ease the way.
I’m now dating a wonderful man — but he does not seem to have the same ethos. After we fight, I apologize and he doesn’t apologize back; if anything, he seems to indicate the ways in which he thinks the fight was my fault.
It makes me feel a bit trampled, and I find myself wanting to get defensive in ways I never have before. I tried raising this briefly with him, but the conversation didn’t go very far. Where do I go from here, and how do I avoid feeling trampled?
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— Too trampled
DEAR TOO TRAMPLED: Interesting signature — “too trampled” — as if there’s a degree of trampling that’s OK.
I’m going to go all first-person on you here, and I get that it’s annoying, but it’s easier this way.
In my teens and 20s, I shared this man’s “ethos” toward arguments and apologies. I found ways to be right as if my life depended on it. The life of my ego certainly did. Anyway, I share this ugly bit of my history because what I’m about to say about him is going to sound unsympathetic when it is anything but:
“Where do I go from here,” you ask? The exit. Stop seeing him unless your next conversation with him on this topic — which I urge you to start and stick with before you go — opens his eyes to the fact that the need to be right all the time is fatal to intimacy, and therefore to relationships worth counting on for more than a casual cup of coffee.
That’s because his being right all the time means you have to be wrong. We can stop right there: It’s just hard, arguably impossible, to find contentment with someone who makes sure your views and feelings are never validated. Maybe it merely frustrates you now, but over time it will either break you or send you to lawyers.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s not stop there: His having to be right all the time also means he’s comfortable with finding fault in you to feel better about himself. It means he’s not comfortable with, or capable of, or ready for, the vulnerability that comes with recognizing when he’s wrong. It means he lacks the emotional strength to subordinate himself to you on a point-by-point basis, as a logical element of treating someone as his equal.
Without these, there is a hard limit to the intimacy he can offer, because we can’t be fully honest with anyone without being fully honest with ourselves about our flaws. Without that there’s always a piece being held back, the piece preserving the image of infallibility.
I should say, illusion, of course. We’re all wrong — some of us more than others, but all of us within a general range I’ll call “a lot.” And it is a keystone of maturity to be able to say not just the facile, “Everyone makes mistakes,” but a humble, “I made X mistake.” As in, “I was a real jerk when I assumed (blank) about you” or “I never looked at it that way before, thanks for calling me on it” or “I admit, I was only thinking of myself when I did (blank) — I didn’t consider your feelings.”
Unless and until he does this with you, he is not ready to be anyone’s intimate partner. I hope it’s just a matter of his youth and/or inexperience, for his sake especially, because, yes, being with Mr./Ms. Always Right is lonely — but it barely grazes the loneliness of being like that.
And I hope that, when someone who obviously cares about him — i.e., you — expresses heartfelt, general concern for his refusal to admit fault and its cost to you personally, and supports this concern gently with specific examples, he will be ready to internalize this important message and grow from it.
You have to be ready for him not to be, though. And, therefore, you need to be ready to recognize that feeling “trampled” is the sensation you get when respect isn’t flowing both ways — and when it’s therefore time to go.
DEAR CAROLYN: My brother and I are dividing up my mother’s estate. My sister-in-law thinks all the gifts they have given my mother all these years are theirs to take back. Is this right?
— Younger Brother
DEAR YOUNGER BROTHER: “Right” in a legal sense is a matter for an estate attorney, but I’m game to weigh in on “right” in a logical sense: Who better to claim these things than the ones who purchased them in the first place?
I’m sorry about your mom.