“I spent nearly 3 years teaching my partner to be the perfect man. Here’s why I’ll never be a ‘rehab girlfriend’ again”
“I don’t believe loving someone is ever a waste,” says writer and cartoonist Lily O’Farrell, 28, “but when I finally got out of my first big relationship just before I turned 26, I felt like my batteries were completely empty.”
Two and a half years earlier, O’Farrell met her former boyfriend and they hit it off. “He was into politics and had a degree from a really good university,” she says. “I was impressed that he could talk about big topics so intelligently. But as time went on, I realised there were other things he was lacking. He didn’t know how to wash his face, for example. I had to ask him to wipe the toilet seat after he’d been to the toilet. He didn’t know how to make a meal as simple as scrambled eggs on toast. And more than that, it was clear he didn’t know how to communicate his emotions.”
This, O’Farrell explains, was the beginning of her almost three-year stint as a ‘rehab girlfriend’. A term that’s bubbled up on TikTok, often used in the same breath as ‘foster girlfriend’, it explains the phenomenon in which women put time and energy into teaching their partner everything they know about navigating adulthood and healthy relationships, only for them to dip out and woo someone else with their newly learned skills. Whether it’s being responsible for improving their partner’s emotional intelligence and communication style or teaching them how to complete domestic tasks, it’s women who tend to bear the brunt of this particular kind of relationship labour. And it’s understandably galling when someone else gets to enjoy the results.
It’s a dynamic I’ve noticed in the relationships of people close to me, such as the friend who used to book all of her boyfriend’s doctor’s appointments for him. Or the friend who helped her partner write a job application and coached him through the interview process, only for him to break up with her a few weeks after landing the job because he wanted to focus on his new career. And then there’s the friend who, upon ending her rehab girlfriend relationship, received a call from her ex-boyfriend’s mum begging her to stay with her son, explaining that he wouldn’t be able to take care of himself without her.
In the past, O’Farrell noticed (and worried about) this in friends’ relationships, too, but she explains that practising what you preach doesn’t always work out. “I put a hell of a lot of energy into him, teaching him how to do everything from basic tasks to practising empathy. I even diminished my success to make him feel more comfortable,” says O’Farrell. “If something went well at work for me, he’d often say he wished he was as successful as me, and that would turn what was supposed to be my moment into yet another way I was supposed to be nurturing him.”
I shrunk myself to help him grow
While, of course, no one should be on a mission to ‘change’ their partner, relationships do sometimes lead to both parties being ‘improved’ by the other person, and that can be positive. “Teaching happens in all relationships,” says Joanna Harrison, couple therapist and author of Five Arguments All Couples (Need To) Have. “But problems arise when this feels imbalanced, and it tends to be, in straight relationships, the woman who is often doing the domestic or emotional teaching. This feeling of one-sidedness is where tensions can arise because it’s likely that one person will feel resentful.”
O’Farrell explains that it was remembering the examples of long-term relationships with a similar dynamic she’d seen growing up that prompted her to end her relationship. “I started to fear for my future,” she explains. “I looked at an older generation of rehab wives feeling resentful towards their partners for having to take on so much extra domestic and emotional labour. I saw that path in front of me and thought: I’m not going to get as far in life if I stay in [this relationship].”
For O’Farrell, the overriding feeling when she ended things was relief. “I realised I was shrinking myself to help him grow, and I hadn’t been putting that energy into myself or giving myself the same kind of improvement makeovers. I was spending so much time holding this man’s hand through life, and I knew I wasn’t getting the same back from him. I’m already capable of the things I was teaching him. It was a good feeling to know that my future was no longer raising a man who was five years older than me.”
The ‘good boyfriend’ feels like a rare unicorn
There’s a narrative, which O’Farrell admits she’s fallen into in the past, that women need to experience these kinds of relationships in order to learn from, and avoid, them. That being someone’s rehab girlfriend is simply a rite of passage we need to go through to find a relationship that is healthier and more fulfilling. What feels worrying, though, is that many of these relationships happen in our 20s (when many of us are “experiencing early serious relationships that are a step up from casual dating”, says Harrison) – a period already fraught with anxieties about ‘wasting time’. As a result, many former-rehab girlfriends seem to mourn the chunk of their time (and themselves) lost due to this experience.
Harrison notes that being a rehab girlfriend is a much more common experience than being a rehab boyfriend, and that is significant. It’s a theme O’Farrell has been reflecting on; whether it’s absorbed via osmosis through literature and romcom plots or disseminated through the ways boys and girls are raised (“We love our boys and we raise our girls,” as the Michelle Obama quote goes), women are required to be ‘good’ girlfriends, whereas there seems to be a strange kind of exceptionalism around a ‘good’ boyfriend – like a rare unicorn that only appears every fourth full moon.
As for how to break free from this age-old cycle of rehab-ing, Harrison explains that it can be a difficult dynamic to face up to. “It’s a kind of relationship that rescuer types can often lean towards because it satisfies their need to nurture something,” she says. “Maybe it speaks to something they’re longing for or it might be because they struggle to communicate their own needs, but if this is your pattern, it’s good to be aware of it; becoming more in touch with your own needs can be really helpful. Being open about the work you both feel you’re putting in is key: it’s only when both realise how much the other is contributing that things can start to become more balanced.”
With her experience as a rehab girlfriend in the forefront of her mind, O’Farrell is approaching her relationships differently, now. “I’m consciously trying to stop myself from entering into another relationship like that and trying to direct those caring instincts towards my friends and family instead until I know it’ll be equally reciprocated in a relationship,” she explains. “When I’m dating, I go into it with a huge amount of independence. My ethos is: I’m doing life, and you can come along if you want, but my path isn’t changing.”