Many of us have had relationships that didn’t serve us.
Maybe you and your partner weren’t compatible. Maybe you enjoyed the present together but you wanted different things in the long term. Maybe they were a jerk, plain and simple. Or maybe you were the jerk.
It can be hard to see that a relationship isn’t working when you’re in the middle of it. Especially when they love you. Especially when you love them. It is surprisingly easy to turn a blind eye to your unhappiness if you’re motivated not to see it.
Even when you don’t suit each other, the inertia of a long-term relationship can make it impossible to notice that you’re living against your nature. That’s why no relationship should be an island—we need the support and perspective of the people who love us outside of our romantic and sexual connections. Sometimes our friends and family can detect what we aren’t able to, for better or for worse.
Then again, who among us enjoys being told what we don’t want to hear? The last thing we want is an unsolicited opinion about our partners, or about the deeply personal choices we’ve made in our lives. It’s human nature to get defensive when someone gives us unwanted advice, even when we know that person has our best interests at heart.
At our worst we double down on our choices when we feel criticized, isolating ourselves further from that person and retreating into the relationship in question. This is why it can be so hard to reach someone who is in an abusive relationship. The wrong form of help can do more harm than good.
You’ve made it this far, so I’m going to give you my unsolicited advice. Get an emergency contact person for your relationships. Deputize someone to tell you the unvarnished truth if they think you are dating the wrong person.
Pick that person carefully. They should be someone who knows you well and who you have no reason to distrust: a sibling, or a lifelong friend. Try to avoid someone critical or judgmental who may not speak to you in a way that you can hear. Likewise, maybe don’t choose a peacekeeper or your friend who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. You don’t want an optimist or a pessimist, a cynic or a romantic. You want a realist who knows the real you, whom you cannot fool or avoid.
Do you have someone in mind? Good. Now ask them to be your official relationship emergency contact. Talk to them about what you’d like them to look for: Are you seeing someone now who you aren’t sure about? Is there a pattern that you’re trying to break? Do you have a tell when you are unhappy but you don’t want anyone to know? Let them know what to look for. Give them the lay of the land.
Yes, this is vulnerable. Yes, this will feel awkward and kind of pathetic. But it’s a downpayment on your wellbeing, and if they love you, they will see it as an honor.
You are also giving them something valuable: permission to tell you the truth, without worrying that their words are unwelcome or hurtful. Just as many of us have been in the wrong relationship, we’ve also seen loved ones in the wrong relationships and not known what to do. Most of us mind our own business unless we think they are in danger, assuming we don’t know the situation as well as they do. And then when the relationship ends, we say, well… I did wonder…
Your official relationship emergency contact person doesn’t have to wonder. You can tell them exactly what to look for and how to talk to you about their concerns, should any arise. You can even tell them how to talk to you. Do you want an email that you can process alone? Do you want a big hug and the unvarnished truth over ice cream? Do you want them to say something once and then drop it, or check in on you again after time passes? Set up the communication parameters you want.
If this all feels silly, I agree! It always feels silly to prepare for a disaster. It feels silly to buy bottles of water and extra batteries. But when the power goes out, you’ll be glad you did.
Your unhappiness is an emergency. Take the time to make a rescue plan with someone who loves you.
This essay originally appeared on my Patreon, where I write exclusive essays about intimacy and relationships each month. To join my Patreon community and help make my writing possible, click here.