How can I stop abusing my girlfriends?

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 28 2010 7:10 AM

Abuser Seeks a Way Out

I'm an emotional bully to all my girlfriends. How can I change?

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Dear Prudence,
I am in my early 20s and was recently dumped by my long-term girlfriend. This shocked me because of how in love with me this girl seemed to be and because of the revelations it brought about. Even though 90 percent of our relationship seemed blissfully happy, the remaining 10 percent was miserable because I was extremely verbally abusive to her and gradually restricted her social world because of my jealousy. I insisted she avoid contact with guys she had slept with (and I promised to do the same with my previous partners); I used her romantic past to make her feel awful when she wanted to spend time with friends at places where her past flings would be; I held the fact that she'd had casual sexual partners against her. At the time, I thought I was a good guy who simply held his girlfriend to the same standards he imposed on himself. I did the same thing in my previous relationship. Now it's painfully obvious what a monster I was. I've pored over self-help books and tried to make sure I do not revert to being this horrible person, but I always do. Now I am in a fresh relationship with a girl—we've fallen quickly for each other—and I'm keeping quiet about my discomfort that she's friends with guys she has slept with. But I know something will eventually slip through the cracks. I'm sure a therapist would help, but I'm an in-debt college student and can't afford it. Is there anything I can do to avoid ending up the monster that I seem destined to become?

—Scared

Dear Scared,
The 90 percent blissfully happy relationship actually meant nothing, because what really mattered was the 10 percent of psychologically abusive assaults. Good for your girlfriend for walking away, shocking you despite, as you say, "how in love with me this girl seemed to be." I hope you can hear in that characterization of your relationship how even now you view her purpose in life was to confirm your lovableness and absorb your rage. It's a positive sign that you see the maliciousness of your behavior, recognize that you aren't in control of yourself, and accept that you need to change. But declaring yourself a monster paradoxically allows you to make your problem so big, so "destined," that you can't be held responsible—after all, fairy-tale monsters were just made that way. The first thing I suggest you do is come clean to your current girlfriend about your problem, and the fact that you are already feeling the worm of unease about her past sexual partners. I hope she leaves, but if she doesn't, then the next thing you have to do is slow the relationship way down. You've read a bunch of self-help books, but I recommend The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists. I don't know whether you have narcissistic personality disorder, but the book's portrait might resonate with you of abusers who rush into relationships, then once the other person is hooked, slowly reveal their fury and manipulation. You need to be particularly aware as you choose girlfriends whether you select partners who are psychologically damaged from growing up with abuse and so find what you dish out sadly familiar. Most of the self-help literature is about helping the abused to escape and heal, but Breaking the Cycle of Abuse is also aimed at the abuser who wants to stop. You say you can't afford therapy, but you can't afford not to get help. Since you are a college student, your counseling office should have free services. Avail yourself of them. And if the therapist seems ineffectual (be aware that making you feel uncomfortable as your patterns get addressed may be good therapy), ask to switch to someone who is knowledgeable about abusers and personality disorders.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My mother recently passed away, and I was named sole beneficiary of a $20,000 life-insurance policy she'd taken out without anyone's knowledge. She also left a letter, explaining that while she and Dad had helped my brother "Ted" financially throughout the years, they had done very little for me. She said she hoped the insurance money would make it up to me and my family. Ted immediately started hollering about how unfair this was and said I was obligated to give him half. His reasons? He's broke and my family "doesn't need" the money. Ted thinks he can work at a menial job, have his wife stay home, and still live a middle-class lifestyle. He's blown money he doesn't have buying into get-rich-quick schemes, and when anyone suggests he get a second job, he gets huffy. My husband and I also work blue-collar jobs, but we live within our means. I'm proud that I never asked Mom and Dad for anything once I left home, and $20,000 would make life for my family much nicer. I've thought about giving Ted a token amount, $1,000 or $2,000, but I don't want him thinking he can get money out of me anytime he wants. Do I owe my brother a share of the insurance?

—Don't Know What To Do

Dear Don't Know,
It's not unusual for the hardworking, self-sufficient children to get punished in a way for their success if the parents end up lavishing excess amounts of attention and money on their foundering offspring. Your parents were understandably guilty about how their largesse to your brother was unfair to you. How thoughtful of your mother to take out this insurance policy so that she could feel that after she was gone, she did right by you. The other thoughtful part of her actions is that this bequest did not take anything away from what she might have left Ted. Enjoy this windfall without guilt. If out of a sense of sisterly compassion you want to make a generous, not token, gift of $1,000 or $2,000, then go ahead. Don't expect Ted to be grateful, and don't let him harangue you into parting with more.