I see this often in couples. One partner “can’t believe” that the other feels a certain way: How dare you not feel the way I do about this! (Meaning: Don’t you love me?) Or one partner “can’t understand” why her spouse loves his mother, even though she finds his mother unlikable: Choose me! (As if by loving both, he’s choosing one and not the other.) Similarly: “My friend and I had a falling out, so you can’t be friends with her husband anymore.” (Subtext: You’re either with me, or against me.) Often there’s manipulation involved—guilt, threats (“If you don’t do this, I’ll….”), acting aloof or snippy, withholding sex, escalating the conversation into a huge fight. All of this is intended to block a partner’s bids for differentiation—if the response is unpleasant enough, many people will just give in to keep the peace.
But that “peace” comes at a cost. You say that you “can keep doing this forever,” but I’m not so sure. We all want to have agency over our hearts and minds and it’s very hard to live peacefully with someone who tries to take that agency away. It’s also very lonely—how can you be close with a partner who shuts down your true thoughts or feelings? Over time, relationships like this either break apart or partners retreat into their respective silos—the opposite of what your partner craves.
The response you describe giving is a beautifully differentiated one: He can end friendships with whomever he wants; you can continue friendships with whomever you want. You don’t get to choose each other’s friends, opinions, or feelings.
But that also means that you can’t force him to feel the way you want him to feel. Only he can come to feel that you “have his back,” and my guess is that getting there is an important part of his therapy. Yes, change takes time, but consider his progress. Maybe a year ago he wouldn’t even “grudgingly accept” your choice to keep your friends. Hopefully, with hard work, he’ll become more and more accepting of your thoughts and feelings—which is to say, more accepting of who you actually are and not who he wants you to be.
Meanwhile, now that your partner knows where you stand, there’s no need to repeatedly justify your position. Whatever he sends your way—guilt, drama—you don’t have to accept delivery. Simply say, just once, “I love you, and we’re going to have to agree to disagree here.” If he can’t move on, tell him that you’re going to the gym, or to get some work done, and that you’ll catch up with him later. He may not like this at first, but in the long run, you’re giving him a gift—the modeling of a healthy relationship—that he didn’t get growing up. The more you can show—rather than attempt to tell—him what it looks like to be a separate person who’s also a loving and committed partner, the faster he’ll learn to differentiate, too.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.