Why “My Girl/Boyfriend Won’t Let Me” is Problematic

In many relationships, two things tend to happen: 1) you will change over the course of the relationship, and 2) you will find that you need to respect the opinion of your partner. This is just the nature of life in partnerships, and I am not going to argue that either of these things are a bad thing. Really, they don’t have to be. Change can very well be a good thing, it can be a sign of growth and development, while respect is absolutely necessary in creating a happy and harmonious social environment.

But that being said, I do have a growing pet peeve when it comes to relationships that involves both of these things.

These pet peeves show up most often in the form of little comments, things like: “I wish I could change my hair, but my boyfriend won’t let me”, or “I can’t go out tonight, my boyfriend won’t let me”, or “I don’t really hang out with that person anymore, my boyfriend doesn’t like them”. These sorts of comments usually earn from me one of two responses, either “dump him” or “he’s your boyfriend, not your father”, but to be honest, these comments trouble me a bit more than I tend to let on. Not because I think of it as a sign that the relationship is abusive or that either party in this relationship are inherently bad people or anything like that, but it does reflect an attitude that I find somewhat troubling: this idea that one partner in a relationship can and should control the other.

And although I focused primarily on women in the given examples, this can happen to men as well. And I’m sure that this happens in many different ways, taking several different forms depending on who is involved, but the way that we tend to think about most often, stereotypically speaking, is an intentional attempt from the female partner to ‘change him’ – to make him spend less time playing Dungeons and Dragons with his buddies and more time being suave and cool or whatever it is that she intends for him to do now. I can’t personally speak to how accurate this stereotype is, but I’m sure it does happen. I think we’ve all heard the tropes that when it comes to women, they ‘like a project’, they want a ‘fixer-upper’.

And, personally, I take issue with this idea for two reasons: 1) maybe he liked playing Dungeons and Dragons with his buddies. Maybe that made him happy, and yes, you also make him happy, but differently. You aren’t his entire source of joy in this life, and you aren’t making him a better man by taking the other sources away from him. And 2) chances are, you entered into this relationship knowing who he was; shouldn’t you love him for who he is? I mean, yes, we are all flawed, and he might have some habits and hobbies that are kind of annoying, but asking him to stop doing something that he enjoys is entirely different from asking him to pick up his dirty socks off the floor; one matters to him and the other doesn’t. You don’t have to join him in the hobby; you don’t have to understand it; you just need to respect that it matters to him.

But let’s get back to the little comments that I’ve heard women make about what their boyfriends will and will not let them do. Because while these two examples are similar, both of them getting back to this issue of control, they are also very different. The latter example that I gave about one partner intentionally changing the way that the other lives is very overt, and it does require a bit of consent on the changed partner’s part – how rational and well-informed that consent may be is another matter, as they might be agreeing to go along with everything just because they’re so in love at the moment, but nonetheless, consent must be given to make this very obvious, blatant change. The first example is much more subtle.

The first example is limiting what the other partner can and can’t do in small ways, ways that can easily be ignored or brushed off at first, but that build up over time – making them ask for permission instead of an opinion.

And don’t get me wrong, it is perfectly fine to consult with your partner about making plans or changing your style or hanging out with a specific person. You can ask them if they had any plans, what their opinion is, etc., but at the end of the day, the decision should always be yours. This is your life, your body, your friends – you have the ultimate say in what happens with all of it. And if your partner is actually getting outright angry with you because you have respectfully made plans with someone else or because you got a haircut, then that is a totally separate problem and it isn’t fair to you.

The reason why this is such a pet peeve of mine is because, in relationships, the issue of control seems to come up often, but I am personally of the belief that neither party should be in control of the other. Too often, we romanticize this idea that every couple is two halves of a whole that is only completed when they’re together, but this isn’t true. Every single couple in this world is made up of two completed, totally whole individuals who are just trying to make all their quirks and weirdness mesh well together, and both parties in the relationship should be treated as though they are both whole, both capable of making decisions for themselves.

You do not need your partner to make decisions for you. You should not let them make the decisions for your own life. Because you are a partnership; you need to work together. You need to respect one another, and part of that respect comes from respecting who they are as a person and the fact that they are fully capable of taking care of themselves. And while you’re together, you very well might change, but your partner should not be the one in control of that change.

Change and Destruction

I have had plenty of reasons for the goddess Kali to come to mind lately.

If you are not familiar with her, Kali is a Hindu goddess, frequently representing change. If you look up images of her, you might think of her as a malevolent figure, because she does strike a very gruesome image. In a Christian theology, she’d definitely be interpreted as a demon, between her necklace of severed human heads, her skirt made of severed human arms, and the man’s head that she holds in one hand, catching the blood that drips from his neck in a bowl that she holds in another hand. Not only that, but Kali holds many weapons, and she is depicted as standing on top of the Hindu god Shiva. To the casual observer, one who does not know a whole lot about Kali or what she represents, she might appear to be terrifying – and in some ways, she is. But she is not a malevolent figure in Hindu mythology. In fact, she is quite the opposite.

As I said, Kali represents change, and the thing about change is that it is never easy. Kali comes into your life and destroys everything that needs to be destroyed, and it might be painful. It might be hard to bear. But Kali only does it because it needs to be done, and afterwards, she creates something new, something that you might not immediately recognize to be better, but that is in the long run. Maybe it’s better because it allows you the chance to learn. Maybe without it, you would never have grown the way you need to, never would have developed the strength and the resilience that you didn’t realize you were capable of. Maybe it simply is better, but it will take some time for you to realize that. Or maybe you realize that it is better right away. Either way, it is something that needs to happen. It is change, and the only thing that we can guarantee in this life is that things will change.

This representation of difficult change is not unique to the Hindu theology. The phoenix, for example, must burn itself to ash in order to be reborn into a new life. Only by dying can it become something new, something with a whole future ahead of itself.

Change is difficult. Change can be crushing, heartbreaking, destructive even. Sometimes we will wish that things could just stay as they were, but they simply can’t. Life progresses, whether we want it to or not, and sometimes all we can do is have faith that Kali will serve us well – or at least that we will be reborn like the phoenix. And we are not entirely powerless in this either. As much as change is hard, we can make it that much easier by learning to accept it. We can mourn for the things we have lost, but at the same time we can take our steps in letting them go, in moving forward. If we hold on to the past, then it will constantly drag us back, but if we allow it to slip away the way that it wants to, then we can start moving forward. We can guide our future into place. We can force this change to serve us for the better, and the first step in doing this is by accepting that all things must change. Once we do that, once we stop resisting, then we can fight alongside Kali to put the things we need in place before us.