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Ms. Opinionated: How Do I Deal With My Partner's Low Self-Esteem?

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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. 

Respectfully yours,
Professional Pauline


Dear Pauline, 

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. 

Multiple Choice
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.  

xoxo

Nicole

Do you have a question for advice columnists Andi ZeislerSydette Harry, or Nicole GeorgesSend it in! All questions will remain anonymous. Read previous installments of our feminist advice column

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Comments

12 comments have been made. Post a comment.

"I'm Asian and right after I

"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..."

You say you can't "feed another mouth", but would the money that she brings in help you feed your extended family? If so, perhaps you need to sit down with your girlfriend and go over your finances together. Make it clear to her what you are obligated to provide to your family and how that will affect your life together.

Unpaid (house)work

Much to be desired in the response. He doesn't mention his own contributions to domestic labour. I'd be inclined to emphasise how much his girlfriend is enabling his success in his own life/studies/work through her unpaid work cleaning, cooking and homemaking. If he paid her to do these tasks, it would be considered a job, and he might not be able to afford it. If he ended the relationship, he'd soon discover the extensive time, energy and money it actually takes. He is seriously taking her existing work for granted.

On a related note, I'm concerned that he feels obligated to support his family, but somehow doesn't consider his girlfriend "family". That's telling.

Finally, he can encourage her to seek medical support and therapy. It's difficult to recover from trauma without professional help. Again, it's her choice to pursue this option, but it doesn't even seem to be on the radar!

Check your pronouns

The letter-writer signs "Professional Pauline," not to mention having mentioned wanting to marry "as soon as they legalize same sex marriages here."

not sure I agree

Professional Pauline doesn't seem to take her girlfriend's existing work entirely for granted; she mentions how much she appreciates her girlfriend's cooking and housework. The response also includes a suggestion that Pauline might choose to accept her girlfriend's decision not to work outside the home as a role within the relationship. I think it's acceptable for one person to choose not to support another, though it may not be sustainable in a relationship if one party doesn't wish to work.

In the last line, Pauline mentions that her girlfriend has tried counseling, to no avail.

As an Asian-American, I fully

As an Asian-American, I fully understand what Pauline means when she said she had to take care of her 'mom, dad, etc.". This does not nean she considers her girlfriend as a stranger to her 'clan'. Its just that she's ANOTHER familym when we marry or get into relationships, we consider it as forming another family. This is difficult to comprehend perhaps for societies such as yours were 'bloodlines' aren't an issue.

Did you read the letter? It was heartbreakingly honest and she even admits to feeling horrible for asking for help since she realizes her girlfriend's worth. The problem, as I see it, is rather a financial one. Pauline is clearly having problems with her budget. Your advicr of 'paying her for her housework' is just ridiculous and ignorant of this colored woman's problems

Don't Pass Judgment

I agree with you on your last comment. How can Pauline pay her girlfriend when she's struggling to care for her family? However I do think that the responses from Nicole were fair, balanced, and realistic. They refrained from swaying too much on one side or perspective, instead it gave Pauline a range of practical options. By the way, extended families are are actually becoming the new norm for many American families of all races (just look it up on the internet if you don't believe it). Furthermore cultural differences are highly varied, so there have always been some groups who have been caretakers of extended kin, irrespective of their financial situation. Please express your opinions without insulting others and also stop assuming that there is an us and them. When you say WE it gets a little odd as I think it's fairly safe to assume that not all Asians share certain values about family. And even those who do don't always do such a good job of caring for someone else-abuse often exists in various family structures. I empathize with Pauline, but I wonder why she expects her girlfriend to work and not the other members of her family (Although I do acknowledge that there may be cultural barriers such as not speaking English or not having proper work documentation due to status, but what will happen if for some reason Pauline CANNOT work or passes away, what will her family do then?) I just feel like there has to be a much better way to resolve Pauline`s financial issues, and I don't think that her caring for everyone herself is going to be it. Even if she somehow manages to do this it would still require her to earn a ton of money. And if she doesn't make a lot-not all lawyers do- she looking at a lifetime of stress. Overall this is a really complex issue, but perhaps it would be best for Pauline to strive for solutions that allow her family to support themselves and not rely so much on her. 

I wasn't talking about

I wasn't talking about Nicole's advice, I was talking to the commentor. In case you didn't notice, this message was a reply to a comment. Moreover, I wasn't insulting anyone. As a woman of color myself, I felt it was incumbent upon me to explain the importance of blood ties to the comment above me when she said "she doesn't consider the girlfriend a part of her family". Please reread the comment I replied to and then REREAD MY REPLY in order to actually understand what I was talking about.

Finally, I'm sorry, but as a colored woman myself, I will say that there is cultural differences between Asian familial values and western values are HUGE. Judging by Pauline's letter "I have to take care of mom, grandpa, grandma, and even the spinster aunts" t's safe to say she follows the traditional asian model of filial virtue.

Im sorry, but you have no right to speak on my behalf, as a colored woman, about three being no US and THEM. I don't know what cultural background you belong to, but I will say that from my point of view, and from the point of view of many other Asian Americans (AND I SPEAK AS ONE, BTW. And from my personal experiences as well as those of others in my community) there IS AN us and them. When you're 'yellow' and people think you speak horrible english or ask where you REALLY COME FROM, it becomes clear to you that there is an "US and THEM". Or when you find if difficult to land a job in an office because you're surname is Kho or Wong or CRUZ, THERE IS AN US OR THEM. Finally, when people around you keep wondering why you have to take care of aunts and uncles who live CITIES away from you, or other relatives back in China or Vietnam or Thailand, it's obvious that NOT EVERYONE understands your situation.

Still...

I still don't think it`s appropriate to assume that all Asians share or possess these values. And as I stated in my response not all families do a great job of caring for other family members irrespective of what values they ascribe to. As a black woman I can certainly say that I come from a long generation of women and men who care for extended kin. I also value all of the individuals in my family and already engage in various forms of caregiving. Also who are you referring to when you say Western- white, black, Latinos. If you are specifically referring to white folks then state that and be clear that this is who your comment is meant for. At any rate I too have experienced a TON of discrimination in this country, but I have experienced it on a number of different levels. At times my sexuality/sexual orientation, skin color, gender, and class background have all influenced people to assume that I am simply not good enough. On the one hand, I have experienced more discrimination from whites, but I have also had some issues with other people of color as well. I guess that puts me in a position where I no longer see things from a binary US and THEM perspective, but that`s just me. I also volunteer in a rural area where some of the white folks there care for various members of their family, so when you say that bloodlines are not an issue for people in Western cultures I get a little irked, but in the end I digress. I am in no way trying to diminish your perspective or experience. I can actually relate to much of what you've expressed. I apologize if I offended you in some way, but in some ways I can definitely see where you're coming from.

But...

I agree with you on your last comment. How can Pauline pay her girlfriend when she's struggling to care for her family? However I do think that the responses from Nicole were fair, balanced, and realistic. She refrained from swaying too much on one side or perspective, instead she gave Pauline a range of practical options. By the way, extended families are actually becoming the new norm for many American families of all races (just look it up on the internet if you don't believe it). Furthermore cultural values regarding family are highly varied, so there have ALWAYS been some groups who have been caretakers of extended kin, irrespective of their financial situation. Please express your opinions without insulting others and also stop assuming that there is an us and them. When you say WE it seems as if you are implying (or assuming) that all Asians share these values (and other racial groups don't) and I think it's fairly safe to assume that not all Asians share certain values about family. And even those who do don't always do such a good job of caring for someone else-abuse often exists in various family structures. I empathize with Pauline, but I wonder why she expects her girlfriend to work and not the other members of her family (Although I do acknowledge that there may be cultural barriers such as not speaking English or not having proper work documentation due to status, but what will happen if for some reason Pauline CANNOT work or passes away, what will her family do then?) I just feel like there has to be a much better way to resolve Pauline`s financial issues, and I don't think that her caring for everyone herself is going to be it. Even if she somehow manages to do this it would still require her to earn a ton of money. And if she doesn't make a lot-not all lawyers do- she`s looking at a lifetime of stress. Overall this is a really complex issue, but perhaps it would be best for Pauline to strive for solutions that allow her family to support themselves and not rely entirely on her. 

Advice gone wrong

I am afraid, I differ with you on this advice.
There are those who get abused but struggle thru life to get a better life. There are those who ponder on what happened to them and use it to become useless/ act useless. There are both kinds of people. Yes she went thru a traumatic experience. But when will she get out of it. Why should she expect the writer of the problem to support her financially and emotionally. Strength comes from being independent both financially and psychologically. She is trying to be on cruches( the writer) her whole life because its easy.

I have seen folks being supportive for having a traumatic experience. But people fail to realize that being overly supportive causes the victims to think they are victims , they are entitled to have support and in short too lazy to go out and deal with real life. The person in the letter has an experience with the second kind.

I think its time for the writer to start maintaining the distance and coax his little victim to fly. He may even lose her in the process, may be she will not be ok with the person he is when she becomes independent. Atleast he will be able to give her a choice at better life and also have choice for a better life for himself. A person with sympathy for self cannot be a good partner in life and cannot be a good parent.

Thanks

Get an agreement

Feeling for the letter writer and the gf. Basically writer does have to decide whether to agree to long term (she has already done short term) supporting of gf or not, as Nicole concluded, but an agreement has to be made between breadwinner and gf that both sign so they can hold each other to it. If breadwinner says she will support through thick and thin and gf will cook and clean, that is the agreement. If gf agrees to bring in income that is the agreement. GF cannot agree to bring in income then get a cute little, no pressure, gift store job that she really enjoys but it pays minimum wage so she doesn't have money to contribute to expenses or to take breadwinner to Dairy Queen for once for a change. If it sounds like I have seen it that is because I have. The relationship continues with that level of non-adherence to the original agreement but only with meds for the breadwinner. It infuriates me but hey I am only an observer.

Once when I was in gf's shoes I wanted out of the pressure, got cheap housing on my own and somehow paid rent with a part time dishwashing job at a local restaurant that came with unlimited free chips and guacamole while working. Not sure that is possible any more.

Message for Breadwinner

After a couple decades, about a year ago, I emailed the gf's perfect job in her field in a very desirable location job opening to the first couple. GF came up with ridiculous, untrue reasons for not pursuing the job, such as she heard that the employer is corrupt. The employer is anything but corrupt. She obviously didn't do a bit of research. She isn't in incest recovery crisis any more, not that she ever was. Her last real job ended badly and she simply refuses to even check out another.

Can you live without gf? I ask because once I was out I didn't go back which was my choice, not breadwinner's. While in crisis mode it was that much of a relief to get out from under any pressure.