Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. Submit your anonymous questions here. This week, Nicole Georges responds to a sad situation: how to deal effectively with a partner’s low self-esteem.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I am currently in a relationship with my childhood sweetheart. She is a rape survivor and we have been together for over seven years now (since we graduated from high school). But lately, I’m getting tired of her really low self-esteem and how it’s preventing her from: 1. Getting a job, 2. Getting back into university, and 3. Doing just about anything that would bring food to the table.
I know her lack of confidence is a lasting effect of the trauma she was subjected to since she was a kid. But we are now 23 and as much as I love her, I’m starting to fear that she’s going to rely on me forever. Don’t get me wrong; she is not lazy. She takes care of the house, is a fantastic cook, and is a wonderful homemaker. I feel like a horrible partner for feeling and thinking like this, but I can’t help it; I’m Asian and right after I graduate from law school, I’m going to have to provide for mom, dad, my aunts who are spinsters, my grandad, and my grandma. As you can see, I already have a long list of mouths to feed and I can’t and have no intention of shirking from my responsibility to my dear family.
I want her to earn some money too, to have a career and realize her self worth. But she throws a fit and I only end up making her feel all the more miserable when I encourage her to go job hunting or to resume her studies. Every time she gets rejected from a job interview, she gets all the more depressed. She also gets rejected because she finds it difficult to answer questions about her past—again, here, the trauma pops up when she’s asked about previous job experiences as the many instances of rape and abuse were perpetrated by her coworkers. Moreover, as a child she was raised by abusive people who CONDITIONED her into thinking that she was worthless.
I am desperate to know how to properly pep talk her. I have no intention of leaving her and intend to marry this lovely lady as soon as they legalize same sex marriages here.
P.S. We have tried crisis intervention and it doesn’t work.
I’m so sorry this is your situation. It sounds heartbreaking to watch your childhood sweetheart go through all of this. I feel for both of you.
With that said, you get to decide what your life looks like.
I don’t mean to be harsh, but if you honestly think there is a magical pep talk you can give someone to grant them self-esteem, healing, and a can-do attitude, you are fooling yourself. *But I think you know that.
You do not get to decide when your girlfriend gets a job or is prepared to heal her own life. Only she can decide that. Give your girlfriend the dignity of finding her own way in this world.
You goading her into it may seem supporting to you in this moment, but it is actually disempowering. She gets to decide when she is ready to take steps towards healing. That might look different for her than for you, and it may be on a timetable that you don’t understand.
You have no idea what it feels like to be her, and what it will take to make her feel better than she currently does. I can see that you sympathize as much as you possibly can, but still, she is a separate person.
BUT! What if she is never ready? Or, what if she is not ready for another five years? Good question! This is where your own prerogative comes in. The only thing you can change in this situation is yourself.
A Pop Quiz from Doctor Georges:
Yes or No: Can you romantically love your girlfriend exactly as she is today?
I’ll let you factor in the sweet memories of your past. Honoring those memories and the sweetness that brought you together is what helps people get through the dry periods and discomfort in long term relationships. You are allowed to factor that in, but you are not allowed to factor in her potential. If she has not expressed any interest in working towards a career, or to take steps to attend school, then those options do not factor into reality for your sweetheart right now.
With your answer from above in-hand, here are your options:
A) Financially Support Your Girlfriend.
Not to wax on about straight-land, but sometimes in straight-land people financially support each other, and there is such a thing as a “housewife,” and that person’s work at home is (in theory) valued and not resented. If you truly want to marry her, could this be you? Could you accept her as she is today and adjust your own life, and your own thinking, to that? Could it be something sweet that you do for her, and something that brings you joy or gives you a new, self-chosen role in the relationship?
B) Do Not Financially Support This Person.
If you do not want to financially support this person, that is your right. You need to make that clear, and follow it with some sort of action. Here is an example: “I can’t cover all of the bills for our home. It is too stressful for me. I need you to contribute in X way. If that can’t happen, I can’t stay.”
That’s all. It is taking responsibility for your own feelings and your own desires, and turning those feelings into action. She might have a feeling. That might make you have a feeling. The facts of the situation remain the same.
Once, I was reading the Courage to Heal partner workbook. It is a book for partners of survivors.
In this book, it said that your partner may never want to have sex again, and that is okay. It also said that you are allowed to decide whether or not that is okay for you, and choose to stay or go.
It had never occurred to me that you were allowed to make this decision—that you were allowed to leave someone who was broken.
But you are and you can. If you stay in a situation that is uncomfortable for you, or that you resent, and you try to force your partner into being a different person in a different emotional place than they are, it can cause more harm than good. For everyone.
Good luck. I wish the very best to you and your dear girlfriend.