Reader question #51: I’m insecure about my girlfriend’s feelings for me.

Hello Captain!

I have been reading your blog and loving your smart, thoughtful advice.  I was wondering if you could give me some help with my problem.

This may be a bit of a ‘my diamond shoes pinch’ problem but I’d appreciate your advice because I’m tying myself up in knots.  I am in a poly relationship.  I have a kind, wonderful husband and a girlfriend who I adore.  She is smart, she is an amazing activist, she is an unstoppable bundle of awesome.  However, there are some problems which lead to a whole tangled mess.

My feelings for her are much deeper than her feelings for me.  I am basically in love with her but for her, it is a good friendship with great sex, not love.  It was painful to accept and I still have pangs of jealousy at times but the good things are so very good that I have no regrets.  I try not to ask for more than she is willing to give and to give her space.  I don’t normally lean on her for emotional support, although when I’ve needed to, she’s been there for me.

The second problem is that she’s not great at communicating and I get quite insecure.  Actually talking about the fact that I feel insecure has never really helped, it just leads to miserable, awkward conversations that don’t actually reassure me.  So instead, I find myself clutching at scraps – text messages she sends me, the way she laughs at my jokes and sounds pleased to hear from me, hearing nice things she’s said about me and our relationship from other people.

Unfortunately, when she’s busy or out of contact for a few weeks, I begin to find it harder to convince myself that she cares about me.  I start to panic that the silence means she’s got bored and it will be over.  The conviction that it’s over grows steadily until I abruptly lose my grip on reality and find myself crying my eyes out, utterly heartbroken.  When I finally get in touch with her, there’s always a good reason for her absence that she hadn’t told me about (see problem 2) and I feel like a crazy woman for getting so worked up.  

This cycle happens regularly but only got to the point of explosion about five times in a four year relationship.  I don’t think I’m causing drama to get her attention – I generally manage to keep my insecurity under wraps.  But it’s a cycle that makes me tired and miserable and I don’t know how to stop feeling this insecure.

Your sincerely,
My Diamond Shoes Rub Just A Little

Dear Diamond Shoes,

Thanks for the nice words.  Yours in an interesting question because I think it both does and doesn’t matter that your relationship is a polyamorous one.

It doesn’t matter in that the cycle of insecurity you describe is true of any relationship where one person has stronger feelings.  It’s the kind of thing that makes Maggie Estep the Official Poet of Captain Awkward Dot Com.

When you’re obsessed with someone and in that headspace, it doesn’t help to say “I’m insecure and worried you don’t like me back as much as I like you.”  That’s guaranteed to make a skittish person withdraw further.  At lunch with the great Commander Logic the other day, she said something very wise about how to ask for what you need in relationships.  You can’t say to someone “Make me feel more loved!” but you can say “Hey, when I see you at the end of a work day, could you just give me a big giant hug for a few minutes? ”  You can ask your partner for what you need, but it will help you if you can break it down into a concrete action. Now if you ask and the partner gives and you’re still feeling anxious, that’s on  you to do whatever self-care and anxiety management you can.  Getting good sleep, good food, spending time with friends, throwing yourself into work, bone the daylights out of your husband – whatever you can do to distract yourself from these obsessive thoughts (that she didn’t create and that are not her fault).

On the other hand, it does maybe matter that it’s a poly relationship.  Now I know that poly relationships are real and the love and connection inside them is real.  If you haven’t already read this really nice post about that over on The Pervocracy, check it out.  But your girlfriend is not in love with you. And it sounds like things are working for her the way they are. She can do her thing, work, travel, have good sex, and not get in too deep because you have a husband and she knows that it has limits and she can get a lot of what she needs without having to give her whole heart to it. After four years, she’s not going to be more in love with you than she is now, and she’s not going to put more time into wooing you than she does now, but gosh, she likes you enough to keep showing up and having awesome sex and an awesome friendship despite periodic…explosions.  That sounds like something pretty real to me.

It may just not be what you’re looking for from love.  And maybe what you’re looking for from love isn’t possible with her.  Maybe there is a level of attention and connection that you need that this woman is never going to give you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still need it and deserve it.

The way to feel less anxious is a combination of working on your own anxiety and finding a way to make your requests to your partner specific and concrete.

The way to get the love you want is…?  A big open question.

19 thoughts on “Reader question #51: I’m insecure about my girlfriend’s feelings for me.

  1. A really thoughtful reply, my Captain, and one that has some inspiration in it. The words about making someone love you are particularly important. But how do you break it down? If you say “bring me flowers” and they do, it isn’t about thinking of you spontaneously out of love, it’s about doing what you say.

    1. The person you love isn’t a mind reader, though, so how do they KNOW you want flowers unless you say to hir “I would like you to bring me flowers.”

      Perhaps zie will say “Why? You already know I love you.”

      And the proper response is “Yes, but I like to be reminded.”

      Because love is not a solid, set in stone state. You have to say “I love you” and “It makes me feel happy in my pants when I watch you chop an onion” and “You look amazing in those glasses” and so on.

      Sometimes, I ask my love to tell me that I’m pretty. “You already KNOW I think you’re pretty.” “Yes, and the cats already know about fish. Are you going to stop giving them fish?” “Touché. You are VERY pretty.”

      1. I’m with Sid on this one. Spontaneity (to my mind) doesn’t demonstrate love: _responding_ does. _Showing up_ does.

        Maybe this is a matter of my being a middle-aged lady, but it is WAY more romantic and loving to me that when I collapse into a heap, my love will say “What can I go get you? Medicine? Ice cream? Spicy soup?”

        He doesn’t go get what he thinks I should have: he gets what I want.

        1. Agreed. Asking someone what they want so you can get that specific thing is, to me, a far greater indication that you care. I also don’t like it when the onus is on the other person to ‘get it right’ because that makes the entire interaction about them not effing up rather than you getting what you need right then.

    2. How I look at it? If I say, “I know you’re not a flower person, but to me it would really say ‘I love you’ if you brought me flowers on my birthday,” and they DO bring me flowers?

      Well…you don’t get much more loved than that. To know that this person knows you, listens to you, cares about you, thought about you, and does what you asked them to do to say ‘I love you’ rather than what they would naturally do to say ‘I love you,’ that’s huge to me.

      It’s not magic, it’s not Disney fantasy, but for me that bit of doing whatever your partner needs you do to in order to hear what you want to tell them (within reason) is so much more love than insisting on whatever I thought of on the spur of the moment and ignoring what they really want from me.

  2. i have a sort-of answer to Lesley’s question – and it’s from m 7-year relationship with the guy who didn’t know how to show love or affection, aside from sexually [or “saving” someone]

    it took a long time – but, eventually, it got thru [and should be easier with people who have some knowledge of it, unlike my guy]

    you say “i’d like more romance. there are lots of things that are romance. you can compliment me more – you can bring me flowers [and i specificed that “weeds” not only count, but in my opinion anyway, count MORE for the effort to find and pick them] – you can start me collecting weird lighters.
    the only two rules to “romance” here are that A) it’s something you do to let me know you THINK ABOUT ME when i’m not around, and B) that you actually DO think about me when i’m not around
    and that is what i’d like, in the way of romance.”

    and… after many repitions and mis-steps [i heard the same list of “compliments” in the same order DAILY for 6 months. the first time it was cute. the third time it was annoying. then it was just insulting – but he got in the habit and said it *couldn’t* be insulting, that’s what i asked for! and… yeah, nothing’s perfect. that’s my warning about it]

    it’s entirely possible, if she’s been around this long, that she thinks you KNOW she loves you [in the way she loves you – most miscommunications of this type really fall down to the above – the other person isn’t performing the acts that *YOU* believe a person who loved you would do – so you think they don’t love you, when it might just be that they’re doing it differently]
    or it might be as both you and Le Capitan believe, and that she doesn’t love you in that specific way.

    there are 2 schools of thought on what to do in a situation where you’re in a relationship with a person you love but who doesn’t love you.
    the first is “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” – just go with it, and accept that the other doesn’t love you but you love THEM and if you want anything from them, you have to do it their way.

    and then there’s the I Deserve to Love as I Love – i.e. stop being with this person and find someone who will love you BACK.

    before you make a decision [and not making a decision *IS* a decision] i’d try to find out if maybe she does have deeper feelings. but that’s just me – i’m not necessarily saying you SHOULD, you’re the one on the ground, so to speak.

    have you talked to your husband about it? being a sort of 3rd party who is at least a partial witness, he may have seen/heard things you haven’t.

    1. Awesome comment, as usual.

      I think what we are all talking about in the comments is that balance between asking the person for what you need – describing to them what your version of “Being Loved” looks like and asking them to step into that to the extent that they can, and giving them the opportunity to describe their own paradise to you and maybe if you’re lucky you build that together – and NOT wanting to create an environment where one person is DOING LOVE WRONG and needs to be constantly reminded and corrected. It’s a delicate balance, right? There’s a lot of trust and hopefulness and optimism that goes into it, and also a lot of managing one’s own expectations, because real adult love takes so many shapes and so often departs from the scripts of what we thought we’d have.

      I’ll fully admit that I don’t know how to do it. There’s something to be said for modeling the behavior that you want other people to use around you, like, love other people the way you want to be loved and hope they pick up on it, and give them a lot of positive feedback when they do something right? And the managing of expectations is sometimes about making sure you see and really value what they are doing rather than focus on what they are not doing? But I don’t know how to do it.

      1. [we’ve been having HUGE internet issues – sorry i’m late! on the other hand, happy post-rapture! :)]

        i think modeling CAN be a good way – so long as the other person understands THAT you’re modeling.
        positive feedback is a useful but tricky thing, but generally helpful in that at least the other person now knows you like X, even if not precisely why.

        managing expectations is HARD – because on some level, we ALL think “didn’t you watch “The Breakfast Club!” or something similar. we always assume that the other person has the same set of experiences [and thus expectations] that we do.

        i *STILL* fall into it, on a regular basis.

        i think it comes down to the most basic of communication – those things that “aren’t supposed to be needed if you love someone”. we forget that love =/= telepathy.

        and when we forget, we DO end up with that “person DOING love wrong”. even when – ESPECIALLY when – they AREN’T doing it wrong, just DIFFERENT.

        i don’t know – i still mess up. my first instinct is to always do what i would want done for me – and so is my boyfriend’s. it’s taken us SEVEN YEARS to learn that, for instance, me offering to get him meds or soup or whatever when he’s sick isn’t “me trying to control him”, and him avoiding me when i’m sick isn’t “him trying to avoid me because he hates me now” – we’re both doing what WE want done FOR us… and now i don’t bug him when he’s sick, and he gets me soup when i’m sick
        [that only applies when i’m sick. not general day-to-day issues. but your advice has been REALLY helpful for me on that, so…]

        but it was the expectations i was specifically commenting on – i’ve learned that it’s possible for there to a person with whom i share NUMEROUS hobbies, past-times and absolute LOVES [for Pete’s sake, we MET and a gaming convention!] who has a COMPLETELY different understanding of “romantic”. i wouldn’t have believed it, before. so you discuss what your expectations are, what hir expectations are, and you find a set of things you can both do.

        in theory, that means that there’s never a chance for one or the other to “DO LOVE WRONG” because the map has been created off all participants needs.
        if that makes sense at all – it’s 5am…

  3. There are definitely different types of relationships, and it’s not a bad thing. It was kiiiind of like this with my ex-bf. I did love him a lot, but he wasn’t a person I could have a full-time relationship with or anything.

    Also, since the “disappearing for weeks” thing bothers you (it’d bother me too, no matter who it was) — have you asked her to text you or send you and email when she’s going to be gone for a while?

  4. Having been on both sides of that particular situation, I can honestly say they both kinda suck. It would be lovely if things just fell into place beautifully and everyone was on the same page every time, but it doesn’t happen that way often enough. And when you’re the one saying ‘um, I really REALLY like you and we have an awesome connection and I like to hold on to that and make it work, but I’m not in love with you and will probably never be’ it can suck even more. Because here’s this lovely person who you do care for and connect with, and it would be so great if you could just make them that much happier, and you just can’t do it.
    So it’s up to them, then, to make the decision. When I was on the receiving end of this, I called it off after a year and a half. Now that I’m the one not ‘in love’ enough, I’m waiting to hear whether that is acceptable. And you know what? I’m really hoping it is because I may not be in love with this person, but I think they’re awesome and I want them in my life. I wish they could feel the same way I do so we wouldn’t have to go through this crappy bit, but ultimately, I think I’d rather they were in it knowing what they were getting (and not getting) than simply holding it together till I changed my mind of they had had enough.

    1. I think we’re working on a thesis that one of the world’s sexiest questions is “What do you want?”

        1. Oh god, one of my horrors when I used to do the Internet Dating was someone who described themselves as skilled in bed. That just means you have some weird unsexy “system” and I don’t want to let you near any of my parts.

          1. The worst one I’ve heard from a man is “I make love like a woman.” I’m often tempted to ask which one.

      1. I’m sorry, I know this is serious and spot-on when it comes to sexiness, but all I can think of is that this means Vorlons must be terrible lovers.

        …I’ll go back under my rock now.

  5. Thank you for your reply! The advice about asking for specific concrete things for reassurance is spot on, as is the comment about my anxiety not being her creation or her fault.

    I’ve been re-evaluating my view of our relationship. I think the problem is not the difference in intensity of feeling, but that I use that as a proof I don’t deserve reassurance and attention. When I’m anxious, I picture our relationship with me as the Golden Retriever of Love that she occasionally throws a stick for and I get terrified that she will decide it’s all too much effort and we’ll break up.

    That image isn’t reality and it’s vastly unfair to her – she does care about me, she does demonstrate her affection in all sorts of ways, I just find ways to discount them when I’m feeling paranoid.

    I’m going to work on asking for more reassurance (in concrete ways) instead of trying to take up as little time as possible.

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