My college boyfriend hurt me, and I didn’t confront him about it.
I broke up with him but was never truthful about why. I told him that I wanted to focus on school and I wasn’t interested in a long-distance relationship with him, but really, he violated me in a way that was irreparable. The relationship was over, and he didn’t totally understand why, but he eventually left.
I wasn’t ready to tell him how I felt about what he did. We briefly spoke about the incident afterward, but he showed no signs of remorse or that anything out of the ordinary had happened. When I broke up with him, I didn’t know how to tell him about my experience and I wasn’t sure I could handle just any response.
I wanted him to acknowledge the fact that he hurt me. I wanted him to admit he did something wrong. I wanted him to validate my pain and apologize for what he did. I wanted him to feel regret and beg me for forgiveness.
The likelihood of me getting such a response was slim. And my healing shouldn’t depend on him apologizing or acknowledging his wrongdoing.
My therapist’s advice
I spent a lot of time with my therapist. I told her all the things I wanted to tell him but didn’t know how to. She gave me the advice that has stuck with me to this day:
“If you confront him in search of a specific response, you aren’t ready to confront him.”
She told me I would be ready to confront him when it didn’t matter what he said back.
I was fragile; I could control what I said, but I couldn’t control how he reacted and there was no denying that his response was going to affect me deeply, whatever it was.
She told me the point shouldn’t be to get an apology because his response was out of my control, and he shouldn’t have the power to tear me down or build me back up.
If I was ever going to tell him how I felt, it should be to honor my experience and my feelings; not for him to understand, not for him to feel remorse or apologize, for me.
There are an infinite amount of ways a person can respond to confrontation.
They can become defensive. They can initiate a counter-attack. They can become emotional and self-deprecating. They can say nothing at all.
If confronting him about what happened that day and receiving a careless or hateful response in return would unravel all the progress and healing I’d achieved so far, it wasn’t time and it wasn’t a productive part of my process.
The day eventually came.
He reached out to me on a new number to wish me happy holidays.
I knew the time was now or never.
One of the reasons I hadn’t reached out to him in the first place was because I wouldn’t be able to handle my approach being rejected before it even began. I didn’t want to be silenced.
When he was the one to reach out to me, the door was wide open and all I had to do was reply.
I was ready. I was doing it for my feelings, not for his or his validation. I wrote out my response, careful to use “I” statements and focus on my own reality and my experience, not on his actions.
Regardless of what he did, the only thing I can speak to with no argument or opposition was my own experience, and in speaking my truth, I was honoring that.
He could say, “I didn’t do that,” “that wasn’t my intention,” “I wasn’t thinking that,” but no one could take my reality away from me, independent of whether they believe me or not.
I had reached a point where it didn’t matter if he believed me or not. My experience was real to me, and his response couldn’t change that.
His reply wasn’t hateful, but it wasn’t extraordinary either.
He apologized, not for what he did but for how I felt and for my perception of how everything went down. He never took responsibility for his actions, and it didn’t matter.
I didn’t reply, and I didn’t need to.
I’ve carried this philosophy into other areas of my life, the good and the bad, and it’s been a strong foundation for my emotional wellbeing and stability.
It’s not something I’m perfect at, but it’s something I always try to keep in mind. I’m human, after all.
When my boyfriend and I have an argument, I try not to approach him with my feelings until my purpose becomes honoring and expressing myself rather than seeking understanding or an apology. As I said, this kind of consideration isn’t my default.
I’m impulsive with my emotions, and I like to express myself in the moment. But as I’ve become more aware of my emotions and my intentions, I’ve been able to have more meaningful conversations about my feelings and a healthier relationship with self-expression and independence.
This isn’t to say that partners shouldn’t attempt to understand your feelings or apologize when they are in the wrong. It also doesn’t mean that any response is acceptable.
My therapist’s advice simply means that your wellbeing doesn’t depend on what the other person says because we can’t depend on anyone responding in a certain way, regardless of how we approach them.
Sometimes people respond to confrontation in inappropriate ways. (And sometimes we don’t confront people in appropriate ways either.)
I’m not a robot. Negative responses are still upsetting to me. I still have feelings and I can still hurt.
But I no longer depend on certain responses. I don’t question my feelings and my reality because they weren’t validated by someone else. And I don’t question my worth or compromise my wellbeing if I don’t get the reaction I wanted.
How to confront people like a pro
Entering a conversation without requirements or expectations for responses is a healthier way to approach conflict in a few ways:
Confrontation is often approached more respectfully because emotions are no longer directed outward but inward. When I confront someone about my feelings without seeking a response, the confrontation becomes less of an attack on what they did wrong and more about how I feel and what I experienced.
The path for validation, reconciliation, and healing doesn’t depend on the other person but on yourself, putting more power in your hands and reduces dependence on others.
Resolution is more attainable when the conversation isn’t approached as an attack but as a reflection on personal experiences and feelings.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine the implications of the response you receive. If I receive a hateful, inconsiderate, or selfish response, that doesn’t mean that my feelings and reality are invalid; it means that the person I’m with is likely not the person I want to be with.
The other benefit of detaching from a specific response is opening yourself up to hearing the other. My boyfriend can be understanding of my feelings and also respond with his own interpretation of a very different reality. If I entered such conversations with the sole purpose of receiving an apology, I would have missed the fruitful conversation of understanding his actions and mine.
This advice goes for positive interactions as well.
In pondering my therapist’s advice, I realized how many of my compliments and verbal affections were selfish.
I wasn’t necessarily saying those things simply as an expression of love and admiration; I would compliment my partners to receive a compliment in return. I would even get annoyed if I would offer a compliment and wouldn’t get adoration back.
Now, I tell my boyfriend I love him not to hear “I love you” in return, but simply because I love him and want him to know. I don’t base my gestures of love and kindness on praise or reciprocation.
Since I’ve learned how to detach myself from responses, I’ve been happier and healthier in my relationships:
My expressions of love have become more genuine. I no longer judge his expressions of love through my own expectations and love languages.
My interpretations and judgments of my partner’s responses have become more objective. If he doesn’t respond the way I would or the way I want him to, I can ask myself why.
“Did he have a different experience? Is he having a perfect day or an awful day? What is he trying to tell me?”
Just like my feelings reflect my reality, his response is a reflection of him, not me.
My confrontations and expressions of my emotions have also become more authentic and calmer.
Detaching myself from responses forces me to take a moment before proceeding in tense situations. And learning to express my feelings to honor myself rather than elicit a certain response helps me articulate my feelings in their truest, most honest form.
If you are going to confront someone about your feelings, consider why.
Is it a form of self-expression or a search for a certain response for you to feel a certain way?
If your wellbeing, validation, or recovery depends on the words or actions of another, there are likely unresolved personal issues with self-esteem or dependence.
Responses are important, don’t get me wrong. The way that a partner responds to your feelings says a lot about who they are as a person and how they deal with conflict.
Nevertheless, when our wellbeing rides on specific responses, we become much more fragile and much less resilient in the face of conflict in all of our relationships.