Do you empathize with or invalidate the pain of your partner struggling with body issues?
Recently I had the opportunity to help two amazing humans talk through a sticky spot in their relationship
— one that I know countless other couples have dealt with.
The very short version of the issue was that the woman was dealing with beauty and body issues that led her to feel like she “needed” to do things like wear makeup and straighten her hair every day… and her male partner saw both these behaviors, and the thoughts/feelings of insecurity, as completely illogical, silly, and pointless.
They were both frustrated that this argument had become a common refrain in their relationship, because despite a solid foundation of love and communication, neither of them was getting what they wanted or needed. They felt stuck.
When I asked the woman what she wanted from her male partner, she immediately responded that she just wanted support, empathy, and understanding. His response was dismissive and disparaging, she said. He seemed to blame her, almost even be mad at her for stupidly caring about “stuff that doesn’t matter,” as if confidence was simply a matter of willpower and logic.
My heart broke for her, because I know better than most that body image issues cannot be overcome with willpower or logic… and I also know that having a partner who invalidates and dismisses our pain, no matter the reason, makes us feel deeply, excruciatingly lonely.
When we turn to our partner and say “I’m wounded, look, it hurts,” there can truly be nothing so painful (and intimacy-destroying) as to hear in return “that wound is stupid, and also your own fault.”
On the other hand, when I asked the man what he wanted from her, he made it clear that he just wants her to accept, embrace, and love herself as she is. He looked at his girlfriend and saw someone amazing, smoking hot, badass, and extremely attractive.
He loved her natural curls and her natural face, and he just wanted her to love them too, to feel comfortable and confident in her own skin.
His response to her insecurities might have looked like anger at her, but it stemmed from anger on her behalf, from outrage that the diet culture and unrealistic beauty ideals could have so much power over someone as intelligent, feminist, and awesome as his girlfriend.
We had to talk about a few things to clear this up, starting with the fact that by rejecting and shaming her for her insecurities, he was creating the exact same kind of judgmental environment for her as someone who rejected and shamed his partner for her body.
This one is a tough pill for many good guys to swallow, but you don’t get extra points for rejecting part of your girlfriend’s truth just because it’s a different part than what some archetypal douchebag might reject. Rejection is rejection, and when we reject things about our partner, we puncture holes in the bubble of intimacy and trust we’re trying to build and maintain.
There’s no two ways around this– intimacy thrives and blooms under acceptance and non-judgment, and it struggles and asphyxiates under judgment and rejection.
We also had to talk about the fact that body image issues and insecurities are not the results of illogical thoughts, unintelligence, or weakness. Disordered eating, compulsive body checking, and relying on certain beauty and body behaviours/rituals to feel accepted, worthy, and “safe” in the world are all actually completely normal, natural, and logical responses to living in a sexist, fatphobic culture that treats women as though their worth is based on their appearance.
It might not make sense to someone who grew up in a boy-body, but honestly, it doesn’t have to.
Just like how penis size insecurity will never make complete sense to me (who fucking cares?? be logical! most women don’t cum from penetration anyway!), beauty and body image issues and insecurities might never make sense to the male partners of women dealing with them. And that’s ok, as long as we’re all on the same page about the fact that just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s illogical, stupid, fake, a sign of weakness, or her fault.
To that end, I’ve decided to put together a few tips for couples struggling with this.
For the partner struggling with body insecurities:
1. Show your partner this article.
2. Keep doing active work (therapy, coaching, self-education, self-inquiry, etc.) to heal your insecurities around beauty, body, and worthiness… both because you deserve to feel secure, worthy, and confident in your own skin, and because your partner needs to know you’re doing everything you can to tackle this.