Wednesday, August 1, 2012


You know that quote from Tolstoy that goes, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.”? With all due respect to Lev, I disagree.  In fact, I think there are more commonalities between unhappy families than among happy ones. Moreover, the premise that happy families are similar implies that there is only one (or a few) ways to be happy, but many ways to be unhappy.  That’s a tightrope I refuse to walk. That’s a set-up for didactic tyranny. I have had too many apples from THAT barrel, indeed to the point of sickness. See? All that moral haranguing DOESN’T lead to happiness. I win.

Anyway, one of the things that goes awry in a relationship with a Not-So-Nice is the obliteration of boundaries. Recently, I have had the experience of recognizing that my boundary-setting ability is thoroughly fucked. When boundaries are not maintained—indeed because of it—the ability to assert agency is compromised. The Nice Gal becomes like a person with a phantom limb: unable to use it, yet with the sensation of it flopping around, in pain, and unresponsive to her ministrations. 

Common to these relationships is the expectation of the NSN that our Nice Gal is there to service him. I’ve expounded on this before, but one of the things that makes a Nice Gal, well, nice, is her emotional wealth and generosity. But a NSN isn’t satisfied with a balanced exchange of resources (time, attention, affection, money), in fact, he cannot give equally to a Nice Gal because he doesn’t have the internal resources.

That’s sad.

It’s also entirely within his control to rectify. So: pity party’s over.  Rather than sit with himself and learn to develop those internal resources that would allow him to engage in the mutual exchange that is real love, he becomes a parasite on someone who has much to give. It satisfies him, for a period of time. But because the NSN is basically a vortex of need, even our Gal won’t be able to satisfy him for long. And here’s where it gets scary. Here’s where the abuse and the cheating start.

No longer satisfied with what she offers of herself, the NSN demands more. He will justify his demands by telling her she is deficient. He will persuade her that what she has, and is willing to give, is (1) bad and (2) insufficient. To the first point, he will undermine her confidence in her appearance, sexual skills, intelligence and probably her sanity. Hee Haw gave me etiquette books (yes, books, plural) for my 19th birthday. Because I was so gauche, you see. I had embarrassed him beyond repair by how I held my fork at his graduation party. To the second aspect he took to calling me “Deuce.” This was an appropriate nickname, he reasoned, because I was so selfish that everyone else (by his definition that included one person: him) was a second thought for me. By the end of our engagement I was like one of those testing hamsters. One cry of “Deuce” from him and I jumped to do his bidding.

By simultaneously telling her that what she has to give isn’t good enough, and that she is stingy with her love and attention, a NSN can then demand things of a Nice Gal that she would otherwise never consider. At first it’s subtle. Maybe she does all the travelling in a long distance relationship (his time being more valuable because of his work), or maybe he asks her to take over doing his laundry (this also unfailingly opens a door to further criticize her…among other ridiculous demands I was told that I had to mark each of his socks with a unique letter--A, B, C and so on--and the designation “L” or “R”, and always match them up so that he could wear not only the same pair together, but also the same sock on each foot at every wearing). But those acts soon cease to satisfy and so he’ll want more. More control, to the point of not permitting her anything private. His need to own her connection to other people will result in a joint email address and telephone eavesdropping (he will keep a separate, private email, naturally).  His need to control their image as a couple will cause him to dictate what car she drives, and perhaps what she wears. He will control their finances (poorly). His need to control her body will mean she is not allowed to say “no” to sex. He will read her most personal thoughts in her journal. He will spy on her, even in her most private moments, such as in the bathroom. And with each such act her boundaries are damaged until they are destroyed. She’s no longer there as anything other than a conduit for his latest need. If this operated as a closed system it might continue indefinitely (and does, for too many couples). But then there’s the cheating.

See, I really, really don’t like these NSN’s, but I do have compassion for their predicament. NOTHING satisfies them. That’s why they cheat. But in cheating, they open up the system to review from an outside perspective. I don’t care how downtrodden a Nice Gal is, if you cheat on her, she will need to reach out to someone other than her partner. And that’s when it all starts to come out. For some Nice Gals (like me) the cheating is the “out” they need to get away from a person they had grown to hate, but to whom they were loyal. For some it is the first time a third party has become privy to the insanity of the relationship dynamic.

But often the Gal goes back. Why? Well, there are many reasons. First, no woman likes to end a marriage. Our culture treats divorced women like either victims or cougars, and our Nice Gal is neither. She’s still strong, and she’s still quite innocent (much more than you would believe).  Also, she loves him, and believes his apologies, or believes he will change. Third, she has spent so much energy, invested everything of herself into the relationship that she doesn’t want to have had it all be a waste. (Aside: It is a waste. Sorry.) Fourth, she may have trouble accepting what is in front of her face. That everything was a lie: what she believed about him, herself, and life and fairness. Finally, she may be terrified. She has been undermined and threatened for so long that incurring his rage is paralyzing. She fears he will hurt her, kill her. If he could get that angry about how she loaded the dishwasher what will he do to her if she leaves him?!?!!?!

And then there’s the change of tactics on his part. Having been caught, he becomes sweet and solicitous. He gives all the things she wanted before, listening to her, caring about her feelings, complimenting her on all the things he has heretofore criticized…consequently she believes they could have that dream/lie!

So she’s scared to leave and finally getting what she hoped for from him. Why go?

Because all he’s doing is surviving. He’s trying to get his source of “feel good” back, and she is it! He will do almost anything during this phase. Almost? What won’t he do? He won’t do anything to compromise his image or control. He won’t relinquish control of the family finances. He won’t move to where she wants to live. He won’t avoid his paramour at work. His Nice Gal is a crucial component in his life, but the components of his life make up a lie. They tell a story that he wants the world to believe about him. And if he is going to lose his Nice Gal, he has to shore up those other components.

And I would really like to say that the NSN has no idea that he does this, but evidence points to the contrary. Indeed, as we watched the movie "Sleeping With the Enemy" Hee Haw turned to me and said, "That's how you see me, isn't it?" To which I aswered, "Yes, but you're not that bad" and then comforted him as he pouted. He knows, he just also knows how to get away with it.

If our Gal makes it out (and the odds are stacked firmly against her) she has a lot of pain ahead of her. Lacking boundaries, she is ripe for exploitation. In learning to re-establish boundaries, she will use concertina wire when a simple fence (with a gate) would suffice. Relearning what is normal will take longer than she ever thought. She needs her family and her friends. And she needs to try, fail and also see that her mistakes, even the biggest mistake of all (him) doesn’t sully her. That she is not somehow “bad” because of her mistakes. As CS Lewis said, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

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