Dating can be a tricky business, especially if have been hurt in the past. In a world where everyone is investing so much time and energy into manufacturing an image, how do you sift through the fakers and find someone genuine? How can you be sure that this person who seems interesting, makes you laugh and makes your heart beat a little faster, is in fact the real deal?
Let’s take a look at an entirely fictional scenario: Celeste has been dating Aaron for a couple of months now, and is starting to really enjoy their time together. He’s funny, and spontaneous, and she always has a blast when she’s with him. But Aaron has one annoying quality; he is never on time. Initially Celeste laughed it off; it was just ‘Aaron’, but after a while she started to resent it. It wasn’t fun sitting in a restaurant by herself waiting for him, and it felt disrespectful. One night Celeste decides to bring it up, and wonders how he’ll react. Will Aaron:
A). Refuse the talk about it?
B). Get into an argument with her, and try to shift the blame?
C). Get all remorseful and depressed, and spend the rest of the night moping about it?
D). Apologise profusely and promise never to do it again… but his behavior doesn’t change?
E). Apologises and commits to being on time next week, and follows through?
If Celeste is smart, she’ll pay attention to Aaron’s reaction and consider what it means for their relationship. Being chronically late is not a deal breaker for Celeste: but how Aaron responds when she raises it with him, could be. Each of the above five responses corresponds with a characteristic way of responding to a grievance raised by someone, and can be a helpful way to discern character. Let’s take them one by one:
Blockers: If I ignore the problem, it’ll go away.
Sometimes blockers just pretend they didn’t hear you. Sometimes they’ll leave the room or change the subject. Sometimes you’ll get a curt ‘I don’t want to talk about it’. Regardless of the method the message is clear; blockers refuse to engage in conversation. Blockers are infuriating to be in a relationship with, because when there is no dialogue, there is very little chance of being able resolve issues in your relationship.
Lawyers: I’m right, you’re wrong, and here are all the reasons why.
In contrast to blockers, lawyers will take the conversation by the throat and refuse to let go until they ‘win’. They treat every confrontation as a personal attack, and will take you to court every time, acting as defence attorney, prosecutor, and judge all rolled into one. The problem with lawyers is that effectively what they are doing is distracting you from the central issue. Just like blockers, they don’t want to address the problem. They might use a variety of strategies to do this, blaming, justifying and minimising, but the outcome is always the same, deflecting the focus away from what they did.
Victims: I’m a horrible person, I need reassurance and comfort
If you have previously been in relationships with blockers and lawyers, initially it can been a relief to date a victim. At least they apologise! But then, somehow the conversation drifts from the issue at hand, to being about the victim’s feelings. Even though there is lot of talking, soul-searching and re-commitments of love, nothing ever gets resolved. Victims avoid addressing the problem by making the issue about them, and their feelings. They can make you feel bad for even bringing it up because they get so distraught. The problem with victims is that they are exhausting; you are constantly having to reassure them, comfort them and encourage them, and even after doing all that, nothing actually changes.
Manipulators: I know how to act and what to say to get you off my back
The trickiest and most dangerous of these types is the manipulator. They know how to play the game and they play with finesse. The will apologise, and promise you that they will never, ever do it again. You feel validated, respected, and hopeful. But when the behaviour continues, you are faced with a painful dichotomy; their words and the actions contradict each other. They will tell you that they care about you, respect you, and would never do anything to harm you, but their actions tell a very different story. You may start questioning yourself, or justify their behaviour and make excuses for them because you desperately want to believe that what say to you is true. Manipulators are dangerous, and because of their ability to know exactly how to avoid changing their behaviour you are at increased risk of abuse.
So we have examined the various ways in which Aaron could act that should ring alarm bells for Celeste. The above are all different expressions of basic disrespect and lack of personal responsibility. But what if Aaron was a decent, good guy, who has just had problem time management? How would a respectful, responsible and trustworthy person respond to Claire?
1). He would engage in the conversation. He would listen to her and respond appropriately.
2). He would respect her point of view. He wouldn’t try to minimise, justify or blame.
3). He wouldn’t derail the conversation by getting caught up in guilt or shame. He would stay on topic.
4). He would apologise and commit to doing better next time. He wouldn’t make over the top promises (I’ll never be late again), but will make evident efforts to try and do better, such as setting an alarm on his phone.
5). Most importantly, he would follow through on his commitment to do better. None of the previous steps mean anything if he can’t get this one right. This one is the deal breaker. He may slip up from time to time, (we all do!), but overall Celeste should be able to see an improvement in his punctuality and consideration for her time.
In a relationship, you have the right to be heard and have your feelings respected. You have the right to be able to bring a grievance to your partner and trust and they will listen to you and engage in the conversation. That doesn’t mean you have the right to dictate their every move, but you do have the right to respect that there will be respectful dialogue about any concerns you have, and that if they agree that they need to change, will honour that commitment. You should feel confident enough in your relationship to be able to address anything with them; whether it is something as trivial as lateness, or if it is something more serious such as a drinking problem or a mental health issue. Relationships aren’t designed to be static; they require growth, refinement, and change to flourish. A relationship where one or both of you is resistant to change, and engage in behaviours such as blocking, minimizing, blaming, justifying, manipulating or deflecting is a relationship that can soon become unhealthy, unsafe, and have little hope for improvement. Observing a character pattern where you partner is able to respond to the need to change and follow through, is a relationship with hope. And all relationships need a little hope.