Relationships can be good and fulfilling things — no doubt about it. They can bring joy, help and mutual comfort to all involved.
However, there is a problem. People are people.
Sometimes they’re just fine people.
Sometimes they’re rescuers.
Sometimes they’re users.
I’m aiming this article mostly at the rescuer. You know who you are. People have said things like, “Yeah, Mary? She takes in stray dogs from time to time.” Your sofa often has someone sleeping on it. You’ve carted people around to look for jobs. You might even have the number to the local women’s shelter memorized.
Now none of this is bad.
None of it is bad. I’m all in favor of being helpful, being charitable and helping people who are in trouble – if you’re maintaining proper boundaries.
The problem comes when you mix it with a romantic relationship. This is not poly specific, mind, but boy oh boy, when you find that elusive hot bi babe, you can get real blind real fast to a lot of stuff. If you are that single hot bi babe, you can make a racket out of it if you want to. So can anyone else, mind. People do the most astonishing things when they’re in love, and the feeling of falling in love is cause for a lot of people to ignore sane boundaries.
So, what are the warning signs you’re being used?
• Habitually working all day and coming home to a messy house when your partner does not have another job.
Obviously there are times when someone Just Can’t Get to the Housework. Kids break arms, cars break down, toddlers can get into things you thought were out of reach and strew them across the house in seconds… Stuff Just Happens. I’m talking about the norm.
I’m not saying that if you’re a breadwinner you have a right to expect a house that would pass a white glove inspection, including the person having picked up the trail of clutter you leave throughout the house, h’ors d’oeuvres and a martini waiting and the smell of a gourmet meal wafting through the house. In fact if you get it, you’re being bloody well spoiled rotten and I hope like hell it’s not you that is doing the using. What I am saying is that you have a right to expect that there be no more dirty laundry in the house than the laundry baskets can contain, a few dinners a week have been cooked, some shopping done, and a basic level of cleanliness maintained.
Now honestly, do I think that the stay at home person is automatically a user? Fuck no! I was a housewife for nearly 11 years. I was a full-time employee with a housewife at home for somewhere around four years. I would love a housewife at home even now. My personal choice would be that if I were in a household where the was a full-time homemaker at home that there would be a fairly clear job description and the person would get a stipend (each member of the household having his own personal money is also a strong preference!) Keeps things clear and there wouldn’t be any feelings of “loss of rights” or “say” in what goes on in the household.
So no, housewife is not equivalent to user. What I am saying is that if someone is not working (home businesses count as work), if he’s spending all day playing on his X-Box and there are pizza boxes everywhere, maybe you want to look into whether or not there’s a problem.
• Much of your financial resources going into fixing emergencies for the person
Now financial emergencies do happen. That’s okay. It’s okay to help out, too. But there’s a limit. If the person is consistently in financial turmoil and is not clearly doing something about it, that should be a big ole red flag, as is a lack of control about the difference between wants and necessities. If you have a partner who gets his car repossessed, but immediately upon having that happen, cuts his cards, goes into debt counseling and gets a second job, you’re more likely to have someone on your hands who really is trying to take responsibility for his life.
• Inequitable agreements
The partner wants veto power over your relationships but will not tolerate the reverse. If you’re getting a lot of “special exceptions” to the “official agreement” pay attention to those exceptions, because that’s the reality of what you’re agreeing to, no matter what the official version is! It is my strong opinion if your partner is not okay with you having a life outside of the relationship that you’re in trouble. I’ll even go so far as to say it’s time to look for other signs of abuse.
• Grand plans for the future
If you’re being assured that if you just support this person until he gets his business off the ground…
Now, again, people do start businesses that don’t work out sometimes, and it might be that nothing is amiss. If this person is not working more than 8 hours a day trying to build the business, you’re being taken for a ride. If you’re being begged to continue supporting a business that is losing money for more than five years, you are really being taken for a ride. If they’re working longer hours than you do and you see evidence that they are seriously studying how to market their ideas, you’re more likely to be okay.
If the person has already had a failed business or two, or seems enamored of get-rich-quick schemes, run.
If the person has a reasonable expertise in the subject, presents you with a contract about how profits will be shared, has gotten an accountant and all that, you’re on less shaky ground. Entrepreneurs are pretty self-motivated people and it is not actually difficult to tell the difference. The serious entrepreneur will treat work time as work time. The best ones tend to set boundaries around “work” and “home” life. You won’t find them screwing around with video games during designated “work” time.
Oh, and never invest in a restaurant. (So says a friend of mine who has been a cook for 20 years).
• Requests for support through higher education
If you’ve got someone with whom you’ve already negotiated a deal where their job is to run the home, they’re supporting themselves through providing a service. That’s okay. It’s if they’re not doing an agreed upon deal, or are not paying rent in some other way, then it becomes an issue. Get this agreement in writing if you make it. Verbal agreements are more subject to interpretation and points of view involving what really constitutes self-support vary widely. Be very careful to be clear. If you’re subsidizing the education through a loan or a co-sign of a loan, make triply sure you’re outlining exactly what this is going to entail and what you expect to get out of it. Get in writing. I don’t care how in love you are and what a model of “trust” your relationship is.
• Requests for personal loans
One of the things I sometimes see on some online forums these days is a paypal button and a sob story about how the person cannot afford to go to Pennsic or Burning Man or some other entertainment. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that. Sorry. If you’re getting a lot of requests like this, especially for entertainment, take good look. Now, if you’re going somewhere, want your partner to come along and can well afford to bring him along, that’s all good. Benevolent is fine. It’s how you’re treated if you say you cannot afford it that is the key. Temper tantrums and shrieks involving the word “unfair” are often a big tip-off in a lot of things.
• Personal emergencies of a non-financial nature consistently interfering with your personal plans
Emergencies happen. That’s okay. But if you’re dealing with anxiety attacks, emotional meltdowns, relationship issues (and anxiety-related medical issues), or the like consistently when you have other plans, you need to examine what’s going on. This is more being used emotionally rather than financially, but being used is being used.
If these issues crop up so that you are discouraged from getting enough sleep, this line creeps from use to abuse. Beware the partner whose favorite time for discussion is at 2 am when you have to get up for work in the morning — especially if he can make up for the lost sleep or has a considerably lower need for sleep than you do! Sleep deprivation is a useful brain washing tool.
When consistent claims of needing overly special treatment because of childhood issues interferes with your life, you need to take a look. In this, I don’t mean little things like, “Please don’t tap me from behind,” or “Please do not touch me to wake me,” or “Please call me when you’re going to be more than ½ hour late”. I mean things like, “I have abandonment issues, so I need you to make sure I am never left alone in the house,” or “I can’t learn to drive because I was in a car accident, so you need to drive me everywhere.” If it doesn’t interfere with your life and you feel the requests are reasonable, that’s one thing. But, watch for little requests here and there gradually adding up to more and more requests for special treatment that start to look like demands (the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie syndrome again). Especially watch for temper tantrums and accusations of being insensitive if you cannot meet these demands.
If the person objects to you having a life outside of the relationship, you’re in serious trouble. I know I’ve already said this, but it’s a big ole honkin’ sign of Bad News.
• Substance abuse
I am not for once second saying you cannot stick by someone who has a substance abuse problem. I am saying if it is interfering with the person’s life and she’s not getting help, evaluate the situation. You’ve heard of enabling, I know. Are you enabling?
• Bad credit, bankruptcies, etc.
Again, I don’t think it’s okay to throw out the relationship because someone made mistakes, but it’s important to make sure you keep an eye out. Any one thing isn’t the big deal that several items on this list or a pattern is.
• A history of broken relationships
This is not only romantic relationships. How many friends does the person have? Do they still see them? If not, why not? Sure, you can find out you’ve been in a few toxic friendships — we’ve all made dumb choices. But keep an eye out.
• A really dramatic hard luck story
Yeah, problems happen. A LOT. Life can SUCK sometimes, and we’ve all made stupid choices. Watch. What is the person DOING about it?
I hate to add this, but tales of abuse (If used to excuse outrageously bad behavior ONLY!!!!) falls into this category, too. It ain’t that horrid things don’t happen to people. They do. What are they doing about it? Are they in therapy? Are they working to overcome that? If so, you can deal better. If they’re insisting you make up for their hard luck, run.
• A string of broken educational pursuits/difficulty keeping a job consistently/inconsistency in sticking to things
I keep coming across things that I’ve done! No high horse here. Check it out and watch carefully. The person might be all right to be involved with. Might be looking for a sucker.
• Anything that smacks of abuse
Abuse is not just physical. Sleep deprivation, belittling, being demanded to give up personal goals, having one’s appearance consistently attacked, attempts at social isolation, finding yourself walking on eggshells to keep from activating your partner’s temper, feeling like you have to give in to keep the peace at the expense of your own interests, gaslighting… That’s all signs of abuse.
I know it seems so contrary to the whole principle of love and trust to even think about these issues. However, the simple fact of the matter is that people are people and you’re looking at a big range of behavior. It all boils down to boundaries. What are you okay with? What are you not okay with? This is important. Figure it out before it becomes an issue.