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Boyfriend says hurtful things

Dear Carolyn: I'm not sure if I'm being overly sensitive and/or nitpicky here: My boyfriend of seven months occasionally says hurtful things to me such as "You're not attractive when you're anxious" and "You just aren't very (bleep)able sometimes" (sorry for the language). I'm in great shape and don't dress like a total shlub either.

I don't believe he sets out to hurt my feelings. But I've told him that his bluntness is harsh and that I'm a sensitive person, and he agreed to soften his tone and reassured me he didn't mean to hurt me. Recently he told me I have all "court cards" -- I just don't play them right; I don't let him chase me enough (seven months in?). I feel like I disappoint him a lot. That I'm not sexy or charming enough sometimes, and not emotionally cool enough, either.

He compliments me frequently as well, telling me I'm talented/beautiful/smart, but he often follows such compliments with a comment like, "It's surprising that you're not more accomplished than you are," which leaves me feeling like a disappointment once again. He'll apologize if I bring it up, but then I feel silly and insecure for reacting the way I do (which sometimes includes tears). How to toughen up and develop a thicker skin? I want to be the strong, confident woman he says is the most attractive kind of woman.

-- Bad at cards

A: How sexy/charming/

accomplished/confident/strong/

emotionally cool/talented/beautiful/

smart/(bleep)able is he? Don't ask him this, ask yourself why it isn't your first thought when he puts you down.

Why? Because the only card you appear to have played badly is the "take care of yourself" card. You're just being yourself. If that self is a mix of talent, some self-doubt, beauty, smarts, anxiety flare-ups, forthrightness in love, sensitivity, accomplishments and failures, then so be it; they're all you, and you sound complete, human, fine.

If you disagree, then, by all means, try to identify things you can realistically improve, in your own opinion and for your own sake. If he's not fine with the way you are? Then, by all means, let him go find the ah, what is it the "strong, confident woman he says is the most attractive kind."

The real issue is that he's using your insecurities to control you. People are unique, but abuse is boilerplate: Seduce someone with charm, introduce doubt with repeated I-just-want-the-best-for-you criticism, keep the person from leaving by offering well-timed apologies and praise, repeat. He may really believe he's helping you achieve his stated ideal, and that you both want that, but you're actually satisfying his need as-is, by begging for his scraps.

From here, your flaws look like the usual stuff, the kind people struggle with personally, and accept/embrace/forgive in each other -- and eventually in themselves -- daily, in millions of ways.

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