On choosing the people in your life

You recently advised on a father’s limitations. Does this advice extend to romantic partners?


No. Romantic parters are not members of your family of origin, so my advice changes dramatically depending on the circumstances.

If by romantic partner, you just mean a typical boyfriend/girlfriend type exclusive relationship (long or short-term), then my advice would be to immediately get the fuck out. Do not stay in a dysfunctional romantic relationship that is causing you serious emotional damage. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but in the end, getting out will always have been the smart move.

If by romantic partner, you mean a spouse, then my advice would be to probably still get the fuck out, but before you go through the stress and cost of getting a divorce, try at least a few months of couples counseling to see if there’s any hope that your partner is capable of change. A marriage is worth improving unless you know for sure it’s hopeless. Basically, go the extra mile with professional help to see if you can become functional before getting the fuck out. (This advice only applies to emotional damage. If you’re the victim of domestic violence, skip the couples counseling and immediately get the fuck out.)

If by romantic partner, you mean anyone — boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or one-night-stand — with whom you share any offspring, then the question suddenly shifts: What is in the best interests of your child? That’s all that matters. Yes, your mental and physical well-being are also important, but your child’s is more important. If your romantic relationship is causing you serious emotional damage, it’s also likely causing your child damage too, so it still may be wise to get the fuck out. Thing is, you will always be tied to your child’s other parent, so no matter what happens, things become much more complicated. There will be negotiations and arrangements, all of which should be centered around what’s best for your child.

When it comes to relationships that are causing you serious emotional damage, this advice also applies to friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. You can’t pick your family-of-origin, but you can pick your families-of-choice. You’re stuck with your parents, siblings, and children for life, but that’s it. Even if you ultimately decide to cut them off, they are still the only people for whom you have to accept limitations. Everyone else you can choose, so choose wisely, never give up your power to choose, and don’t stick around if you’ve made a bad choice.


14 thoughts on “On choosing the people in your life

    • The Coquette says:

      You don’t owe him an explanation, but generally speaking, you should meet people at the same level of respect they’re giving you. If you’re soon-to-be former friend is a dick, feel free to just ghost him. If he’s a decent guy who you just don’t want in your life anymore, and you think he kinda deserves an explanation, then do the right thing. (And by “right thing,” I don’t mean hurt him. Try to make it as painless as possible.)

      • Taylor says:

        Half-dick-half-decent-chimera. But I know /I/ would want an explanation so… that’s that. Uggh.

        Thank you. Looking forward to reading your book!

  1. Q says:

    What about extended family–aunts, uncles, cousins? Can I avoid/cut all contact, even though they’re my mom’s siblings and my mom’s siblings’ children? Wouldn’t it embarrass/reflect poorly on her, as if she never taught me respect?

    • Sel says:

      You don’t owe those people your presence in their lives, and they are not entitled to have their presence in yours. If you dislike them, if they are toxic, if you think about family gatherings and get a knot of anxiety in your stomach, then by all means, stop seeing them. Your mom will be angry, but that’s her problem.

      We get a lot of cultural messages that family is the be all and end all. But horrible people can be siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents too. It doesn’t mean they’re not horrible.

      In my experience, the people who fight the hardest against others establishing healthy boundaries are either a) the abusers themselves or b) people who have resigned themselves to the abuse and want you to do the same. Your mother probably doesn’t want you to cut out her shitty sister and sister’s kids because when you do, you demonstrate that she could have done it herself years ago, and hasn’t.

    • Jennifer says:

      Probably depends on the situation. Honestly, the relatives in my state really don’t give a fuck about me and my mom. Dad’s side just stopped talking to us years ago and mostly that’s no loss given the more passive-aggressive ones and their behavior, but my mom still desperately wants to be close with her sister and sister’s family and they….politely tolerate us a few times a year. Which is better than shit/the other side of the family, but I hate watching my mom get upset year after year wanting more than she can get. I would probably be fine without talking to them again (if they don’t like me, then fine, I’ll be gone), but she’s not okay with giving up hope and she’ll never stop trying, and that would….complicate our relationship in painful ways, so I put up with their behavior.

    • Light37 says:

      Short answer- yes.

      Longer answer- when the stress from being around them or thinking about being around them exceeds any pleasure you might derive from their company, walking away is the healthy thing to do. And if they’re toxic anyway, do you really care that they think ill of you?

  2. Sharon says:

    You said that the best interests of the child are all that matters, and I also believe that to be true even if it means staying in a difficult relationship. But I have to ask – because I ask myself this question too; do you ever think you’ll want to have children? Parenting is a selfless task, and a lot of people are very egotistical. I want kids but I’m not sure if I’m willing to spend the rest of my life never being able to put myself first. If I have kids they will be all that matters but do you think that is a bad way to think about it and raise kids?

    • Jules says:

      I think the whole “you’ll never be able to put yourself first if you have kids” thing is an unhealthy way of looking at things. Just because you become a parent, that doesn’t mean you stop being a human being with needs of their own. I guess it’s a matter of knowing that there are situations in which your kids will come first (as in CT’s post, the part about staying civil with the partner you had kids with) and situations in which you will need to put the proverbial oxygen mask yourself before you can help someone else with theirs.

      Taking care of yourself when you’re a parent isn’t a selfish thing to do. It is in the best interest of a child to have parents that have their own shit together.

      • Strangely Rational says:

        I agree.

        I got to see the effect of self-sacrifice on my mother when she stayed in an unfulfilling relationship with my emotionally distant father for two decades for “the sake of the kids.” By the end, she was so emotionally damaged that she couldn’t take another second, and everything blew up. It got really ugly, with almost all of our family and social circle – and I’m sorry to say us kids as well – blaming her for not holding the family together.

        Once I discovered the truth as an adult, I was horrified and carry a heavy burden of guilt.

        My big problem with the idea of putting kids first is that there’s a tendency to assume that not breaking up is better for them by default. I don’t think that’s true. My sisters and I were also affected heavily by our dad’s emotional distance and by the constant tension between him and my mother. We would have been better off if they’d divorced sooner.

        I swore I’d never do the same. So when things went that way with my first husband, I left. Because we were still able to be civil and arrange an equal visitation schedule, the kids had no apparent ill effects. If anything, they were happier because they weren’t living in a house with daily fighting. (When we told our 6-year-old daughter, her first question was, “Does this mean there won’t be any more fights?”)

        It’s worked out just fine, and I’ve come to realize that what’s most important to a kid is having parents who are civil and respectful to each other and have a common goal in doing the best for the kid. Sometimes that’s best accomplished by not living together.

        • Jules says:

          Oh shit, that poor kid. Glad to know things are going well. Absolutely agree on how staying together for the kids is sometimes worse than divorce. Man, I WISH my parents had divorced. Instead, my sibling and I had to grow up watching them hate each other. There’s constant bickering and they’ve gotten more obvious about their dislike for one another over the years.

          My sibling and I are grown-ups now, so I don’t understand why on earth these people are still together. My theory is that some people like being miserable. My mother has borderline, so I might be on to something. I had to move back in with them because of work and life situations, but I can’t wait to save enough money to rent an apartment again. All this negative shit is bad for your health when exposed to for longer periods of time.

  3. Lynn says:

    You’re stuck with your parents, siblings, and children for life

    You’re really not, though. You’re often stuck with them for pieces of your life, and minors almost always are and therefore must tread carefully to preserve their own interests, but beyond that? If the relationship is abusive, then it’s time to think about what you really owe them. Odds are it’s not as much as society would have you think.

    • The Coquette says:

      You’re still stuck with them for life. Even after a cutoff, they still play a psychic role. That’s what makes family members unique.

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