This originally appeared on The Daily Life. Republished here with permission.
Dear Young Woman with the Shitty Boyfriend,
Thank you for letting me share your table at Jellystone last week. We made quite a trio; a cliche of writers tapping away at their silver laptops on a corner bench while the wind whipped outside. Because I’m nosy, I spent most of my time watching you both instead of working. And look, there’s no easy way to put this, so I’m just going to say it straight out.
Your boyfriend is a total clown. Frankly, you have very nice hair and I think you deserve better.
My suspicions about him first arose shortly after I sat down. Despite the fact that you both appeared to be writing essays (a fact later confirmed when he took it upon himself to tell you exactly what was wrong with yours), he spent a significant amount of time bopping along to the cafe’s music system while simultaneously pretending to type. I say “pretending” because I refuse to believe that anyone can seriously focus on writing (an academic essay no less) while shaking their head to the Jackson 5 and grunt-humming under their breath.
As I sat watching him from the corner of my eye, I recalled one of my favorite quotes from Alec Sulkin: “I don’t live. I picture other people watching me live, and then I pose.”
The thing is, everyone’s been out with obnoxious jerks. It’s part of the glorious tableaux of romantic experience—we put up with dating assholes so that later on we can dine out on the tales of all the things they did that defy human understanding. I’ve gotten huge mileage out of the guy who turned to me with an admiring look and said “Well done” when I told him I’d be paying for my own meal on a first (and last) date. And I’m sure somewhere out there, a guy is entertaining whole swathes of people with the story of how I lectured him on abortion rights before the main course had arrived. We make mistakes, and we date mistakes. And we survive.
But I didn’t like how your boyfriend undermined your intelligence when you asked him for his opinion on your essay. I didn’t like that he suggested it carried all the sophisticated analysis of a 15-year-old’s paper, and that he would never make that mistake. I did like that you corrected him when he then tried to lay claim to always receiving High Distinctions, but I didn’t like how it led him to turn on you in a huff and decide to give you the silent treatment.
Being subjected to the silent treatment, that cold withdrawal of acknowledgement, because you’ve stood up for yourself and asserted your right to be treated with respect—even in disagreement—is a bad sign in a relationship. Eventually, you’ll find that you twist and conform and tread lightly just to avoid being punished for having a different opinion and being unafraid to share it.
Do not give your time, energy, and love to someone who’s intent on making you feel like you might not be as smart as them. Because one day, you might start to believe it. And that would be a terrible shame.
We have to make our own mistakes, I know that. In the end, it won’t matter much what I say and I’m certainly not trying to make you or anyone else feel like you might need help to understand these things. I know that you’re fine on your own.
But I’m writing this mainly because of what happened when your boyfriend went to the toilet. I took the opportunity of his absence to tell you to trust your instincts when it comes to your brain and your writing; to let you know that there was at least one person present who might also see those gaslights that occasionally flicker in the room that houses your relationship. And rather than telling me to get lost or to mind my own business (which would be your right), you seemed relieved and thankful—as if maybe you needed to hear it, because you weren’t quite sure if that troubled grey cloud hanging over your head was real or all in your head.
We women aren’t really taught to trust our instincts. Instead, we’re taught to be polite. To bend and fold in the face of opposition. We are expected to maintain the illusion of feminine compliance, lest we deal with the consequences of defying it. I know what it feels like to sit there quietly as someone lists all of my faults, and to not know to what extent I am “allowed” to disagree or retaliate. Thankfully, I haven’t done any of these things for some years now. And while it doesn’t always make me happy, it never makes me feel trapped.
It is possible to reverse Sulkin’s humorous slant; to change what it means for women everywhere instructed to minimize themselves in order to accommodate the energy theft of pompous lovers or tourists through their lives. If we take the idea of how women are supposed to perform and pose for the world and flip it on its head, we can find freedom in rejecting it.
I don’t pose. I imagine other people watching me pose…and then I live.
Clementine Ford is a columnist for The Daily Life. You can follow her on Twitter here.