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posted: 8/25/2014 1:01 AM

A commitment can't be held together by threats

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Q. I read your piece (www.bit.ly/ControllyGF) about the girlfriend who forbids her boyfriend to talk to other girls. I agree this seems like abusive, controlling behavior.

However, I wonder where the line is between being controlling, and being a victim. For instance, what if the boyfriend was a big flirt, or a serial cheater, and was, in fact, having sex with several women. Suppose she asked him to stop hanging out with other women and he refused, telling her she couldn't control who his friends were. Then she would have to say, "If you don't stop seeing other women, I will break up with you." In this context, this is proactive, not controlling, right?

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I ask because I have tolerated a lot of bad behavior over the years because I have been told what I see isn't real ("I didn't put that there, it must have been someone else") and that if I don't do something his way, I am not being considerate of his feelings (e.g., if I don't feed the dog promptly at 7).

If, in fact, what I see is NOT real, or if I blithely ignore the dog's whining and don't feed him until 8 while I watch "Mad Men" reruns, then I am wrong. But if what I see IS real, and feeding the dog 15 minutes late is no big deal, then I'm right. How do you know?

Anonymous

A. So if you are "wrong" here, then you're supposed to stay on his terms, your happiness notwithstanding? Why? If you don't like how your boyfriend treats you, in your gut by your standards and no one else's, then break up. Leaving is suspiciously absent from the choices you present.

To use your example, you can insist your boyfriend flirts and he can insist he doesn't, but who's right is irrelevant. You decide whether you want to date him, as-is, and all that entails, then accordingly either break up or accept him as-is.

What you don't do is try to change each other. If he's a serial cheater, you don't ban other women, you leave. A commitment held together only by threats and restrictions isn't one at all.

You're asking how you know, and of course sometimes you can't. You can't know what others truly think. You can't know everything they do.

But you can know yourself. You can know when you don't feel appreciated, comfortable, safe, respected. You can know that you don't owe anyone your love or companionship or compliance, certainly not if those markers of acceptance aren't there.

So it's not about who's right in the great dog-feeding war. It's: Do you want to stay with someone who harps on dog-feeding times? Hypothetically, let's say you're in the wrong: Why does he keep trying to change you when it clearly hasn't worked?

And when feeding a dog at 7:15 versus 7 gets labeled a crime against someone's feelings, it's time to learn what gaslighting is. It's from 1944's "Gaslight," about a wife tricked into doubting herself on such basic things that she just defers to her controlling husband.

You've apparently spent years in relationships where you're not allowed to be right about anything. That's control, the forest you're missing in the futile debates over trees and that's where "proactive" means the door.

• Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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