#274: How do I ask for more support from my emotionally distant girlfriend?

Pinocchio swimming away from a giant whale.
“Swim faster, Pinocchio! The whale is having emotional needs at us again!”

Dear Captain Awkward,

My girlfriend and I are both in our early 20’s and have been going out long-distance for several months. Neither of us are very experienced at dating and this is the longest relationship either of us have been in. It’s also the first serious relationship she’s been in with a woman. We were friends for about a year before we started going out, so we knew each other pretty well by the time things got romantic. It’s been good so far, except for one problem that keeps rearing its head: she feels smothered easily, is emotionally distant, and has trouble giving affection to a romantic partner. I’m an extremely affectionate person, and get kind of insecure if someone acts aloof, which I think is understandable? It feels like a contant tug-o-war between our needs. I try very hard to be respectful of her need for space, but it’s difficult sometimes, because she almost never reciprocates affection. She’s noticeably (as in, it’s something my friends have commented on) more affectionate with her friends than with me. So I sometimes end up feeling like just a friend–and not even a close one at that–instead of her girlfriend. Whenever I try to bring it up with her, she starts getting freaked out and feels cornered. So I end up apologizing and backing down and not asking anything of her, and telling her I’ll try to be less needy, that none of it is her fault, it’s all mine.

Another factor is that I have low self-esteem and suffer from severe depression and I’m currently in the process of getting it under control. It sort of sucks when I need some support and she isn’t there to offer any because she gets scared if I lean on her too often. Because of this, she isn’t part of my main support network anymore. She also doesn’t confide in me, because she’s an extremely closed-off and private person who prefers to deal with her problems on her own. I try not to take it personally, because she doesn’t confide in anyone except her mother, but it still hurts.

I love her a lot, and even though she has trouble expressing it, she has told me she loves me too. The fact that she’s still with me and hasn’t gone running for the hills despite her commitment issues is proof of that. With past boyfriends, she always broke up as soon as things got a little rough, and I’m the first person she’s cared enough about to stay with through conflicts.

I guess my main concerns are: Is it possible for us to find a happy balance between affection and space? And how do I bring up this topic and without scaring her and/or backpedaling and saying “never mind, it’s okay, don’t worry about it”?

Alone in the City

Dear Alone in the City:

I want to say this as gently as I can: This might be one of those cases where two people who love each other just cannot create a happy relationship together.

For starters, I suspect that the geographic distance between you is helpful for her (it protects her from feeling smothered and allows her to pick and choose when she is active in your relationship) and anxiety-inducing for you (she’s always at a remove). This may be her longest relationship yet, and the first one where she doesn’t completely bail at the first sign of trouble, and I can see her presenting that to you as evidence of how special you are to her – “I’m not very good at this, but I’m slightly better at this with you!” I think you’re both clinging to the second half of that sentence and ignoring the part where she’s just not very good at it.

I don’t know why people with low self-esteem are so drawn toward people who are distant and closed off, but it happens over and over and over. Maybe despite how unsatisfying it is something about it feels familiar and right to you because it’s what you think you deserve: Chasing another person’s affection and attention and abasing yourself with the cycle of  “apologizing and backing down and not asking anything of her, and telling her I’ll try to be less needy, that none of it is her fault, it’s all mine.” And while she fears being pinned down and smothered, something must feel good to her about knowing that if she runs the other person will chase.

The blue fairy waves her wand over Pinocchio.
Alas, Captain Awkward does not have a magic wand or a “Be okay!'” spell.

So, I want to say that you are not clingy, or needy, or silly for having needs for affection and affirmation and attention within a romantic relationship. Those needs aren’t an embarrassing outgrowth of your low-self esteem or depression or whatever messy emotional issues you may have going on, that’s just basic shit that people need from each other. Actually, let me take that one step further: We of course should not make our partners responsible for meeting all of our emotional needs – it’s not someone’s else’s job to make you happy. But inside a healthy relationship, being able to show affection, pay attention, and demonstrate “you are amazing and important to me” is a pleasure, not some task or burden.

If I could wave a magic wand right now I would not use it to make your girlfriend treat you better. I would use the magic to make you feel like you never have to apologize for needing affection and support ever again. I am not magic, sadly, but I want you to think about this: Any conversation you have with your girlfriend where you apologize for these needs and promise you’ll try not to have them anymore is you hurting yourself and making yourself smaller to stay inside the relationship. I think it’s a fucked up dynamic. And I think that someone who is really capable of loving you would not accept those apologies or let you do that to yourself.

You didn’t ask me to pronounce doom, you asked for scripts for talking with her about this, and (un)fortunately I have some insight into what it’s like to be the person who shut the door and hid from a depressed partner who needed more than I felt like I could give.

I think that when you ask for “more” – support, affection, etc. from your girlfriend, she panics. It might be that she’s already giving all she can and just doesn’t have more to give. If she’s stressed out with other commitments she might go to the place of thinking about her to-do list and wondering where this magic “more” is going to come from, and the conversation will start to become about her busy busy to-do list and time instead of being about your needs. On a more primal and less logistical level, it might be panic that she has no idea how to do “more” or give “more.” She translates “more” as “and now you will swallow my entire soul, and that probably still won’t be enough for you, because secretly my soul is tiny and shriveled and really bad at this…Oh god…RUN!”  Your depression may play a part here, if she’s perceiving it like as “She is so sad and I can’t fix it, so I’m letting her down and obviously can’t give her what she needs so maybe it’s better not to even try?”

Also, you’ve set up this structure where you’re the needy one and she’s the one in charge of how or whether those needs get met. She’s in charge and panicking about it, because the probability is (fairly new at dating, bad at sticking around in relationships) that she has no idea what the hell she’s doing and maybe she thinks you are expecting her to know how to solve things.

Whatever’s going on, one good way to address any or all of these fears is to get more specific about what it is you need and to translate everything as much as possible into concrete actions.**

“I need more attention from you.” = “Could we text/Skype/talk on the phone for 5 minutes every day?

“I need more physical affection from you.” = “I love it so much when we’re out and you hold my hand or put your arm around me and make me feel like I’m your girlfriend. Can we do more of that?

“I need more emotional support from you.” = “I know sometimes my depression can seem overwhelming. When I’m sad, I don’t need you to fix it or listen endlessly to all my problems – I’ve got friends and therapy for that. I just need you to give me a hug or tell me that you love me or send me a funny link or tell me about your day – just something that makes me feel connected to you.

If you can break your needs into small, concrete things that she can do and then show appreciation when she makes an effort to do them, you may get better results than you have been. It may allay her fears that the relationship will swallow her when she sees how simple and doable it is to give you what you need, and you’ll feel less needy when you’re getting regular pellets of affection.  Maybe you’ll get really lucky and be able to teach each other how you can be together and the whole thing will stop feeling like work.

But if she balks at this and complains about feeling hemmed in by rules and structure, I feel comfortable saying that someone who can’t talk to you for 5 minutes/day without a big grudging guiltfest or having all of her avoidance issues triggered can’t be your girlfriend. Soulmates aren’t real and you don’t have one, but I’m certain there is someone out there for you who has done some more work on their own issues (the way you are awesomely working on yours) who will not make who you are together feel like work.

You deserve every happiness without apology.

**This is also how you direct actors – don’t tell them how to feel, give them concrete stuff they can DO.

44 thoughts on “#274: How do I ask for more support from my emotionally distant girlfriend?

  1. You deserve every happiness without apology.

    *blinks back tears* That’s kind of amazing. I think I need to write it on my mirror so I can see it every day.

  2. I naturally go there because this happened to me – as the LW’s girlfriend abused? If so, it would be INCREDIBLY hard for her to give you the emotional support that you need, not because she doesn’t want to, but because it can be triggering to do so. Feeling like you must need the emotional (and physical) needs of your partner or she’ll go away is awful. It can lead to a lot of guilt and “have-to” feelings that conversely make it even harder to provide emotional support and physical closeness. If the LW’sG only confides in her mother, that’s pretty upsetting and continues to make me wonder about abuse/fucked up childhoods.

    I am the product of an abusive childhood and I find it hard to manage physical intimacy – but also, I find it hard to confide in a person when my relationship with them might be strained because I could just be handing them ammunition to use against me in upcoming arguments, so the more strained things get, the more I turn from the people I love. It’s taken me YEARS to be able to speak my feelings to my partner without running screaming (I still find it incredibly hard). Plus, my partner is very physically affectionate, which I find incredibly difficult to manage – we actually use safe words to differentiate between when I don’t want him to hug me and when I really can’t handle him hugging me, which has done well to help me desensitize myself and enjoy more hugging. But this took a while to develop, and we’re in our late 30s.

    Confiding my deepest thoughts and feelings to the person who means the most to me is extremely scary and I don’t see it as something he is automatically supposed to get from me simply because he’s my bf. That’s what the internet’s for. 😛 Oh, I do tell him – eventually – but by then I’ve had time to parse my thoughts and feelings and put them into understandable words. I need that space to remember that he’s not going to belittle me or hurt me for having a thought or feeling that is at all personal or related to my identity.

    I feel for you, LW, and I feel for this construct of her I have in my head. I also have to wonder what kind of emotional support you give her, and how you ask for emotional or physical intimacy. Is it possible that you ask in any way that might make her feel pressured to give those things to you or lose you as a GF? Are there any guilt trips involved? I can’t tell – you write very little about HOW you ask.

    Last, you aren’t required to date her. She’s not required to give you physical affection – even hand-holding. If you can’t deal with that, LW, or if you need more emotional support than she can provide, do look elsewhere. I dated a lot of people when I was your age who were great people, but who were not what I really needed – and I wasn’t what they were looking for, too. It could be that she really doesn’t want to be in ANY relationship right now, but is afraid of losing you as a friend if she says anything. It could be that you both have too many problems to make the relationship viable at this time. Or not. What’s this relationship worth to you?

    1. Thanks for this perspective! I agree that the LW’s girlfriend probably has really good reasons for feeling and reacting the way she does. Her buttons and triggers were installed somehow.

      And thanks especially for your last point. If the LW has a problem prioritizing her own needs, a reminder that “it’s probably not girlfriend’s fault she can’t meet your needs, try to be more understanding” is unhelpful and just perpetuates the cycle of abasement & apology. Sometimes everyone is great and it’s no one’s fault – it just doesn’t work, and that’s ok.

    2. Sarah G,

      I know this doesn’t necessarily have much bearing on the current conversation but I appreciated your comment. I’ve never seen anyone else describe such similar issues to mine in regards to relationships (I’m also a product of child abuse) and although it’s all a weight, it’s also so plain good to know that someone else has some happiness. I can’t hardly stand affection without constant reaffirmation of consent and but don’t know anyone who would be able to handle that kind of relationship.(I’m just in college though and I’m not sure my demographic is yet quite able to deal with such a commitment). It’s lonely to have all those contrary feelings of wanting intimacy and a person, but something awful just jerks me right back with a churning belly and yearning to run.

      1. Well, it’s good to know there are others out there who understand – at least a little.

        As for demographics … I met my bf when I was 23-24 or so, so it is possible that you will be able to find someone who can handle sharing a car with you on a bumpy road, to be metaphorical and all (I jus woke up). I’ve also been through about 6 years of therapy. Do you have a therapist? They can be very useful – at a very minimum, it’s nice to have someone to talk to who you can trust, who will tell it to you straight, and who isn’t your friend – so you don’t have to spare her feelings or worry about gossip.

    3. I love this comment, because it’s one of the few that describes more or less how I tend to function, which in turn helps me feel not alone.  (I mean, I know better, but still.)

  3. Letter Writer, you say that your relationship has been going well so far except for this — where the “this” is that your girlfriend refuses to be as affectionate with you as she is with her friends, where she isn’t part of your support network because she doesn’t like when you lean on her, and where she has trouble expressing that she loves you.

    Please take a minute to think about those things that you’re missing. I think it’s easy when you haven’t had a lot of relationships to think that if you like the person and they like you, then everything that’s a problem in the relationship is just an “except for this” moment that you should find a way to fix or deal with. But if you take another look at the list of things you wish were different in your relationship, I think you’ll see that it’s a pretty big list of “except for this”s that you need in a relationship and aren’t getting from this one. Those are 100% valid things to want from your partner.

    You can try to get from here to where you want to be in your current relationship, and if you decide to do that I think the Captain’s script for asking for specific actions you need is a good approach. But if you decide to go that route, please keep at the front of your mind that not all relationships — even where you love each other — are right for the people in them, and that a good relationship shouldn’t result in you apologizing for your reasonable needs. This woman is not the only one out there that you can love, and even if breaking up would be painful now it is likely to be way less painful than a constant, ongoing struggle of negotiating for bits of affection and support.

    1. Well stated, Esti! I spent a number of years in “except for this” waiting for “this” to get resolved so the relationship could really actually start existing. Except that was what the relationship was, henceforth and always.
      LW wrote “Because of this, she isn’t part of my main support network anymore. She also doesn’t confide in me…” which, for me anyway, is Critical Mission Failure. I date for companionship but also for my partner to be a large part of my main support network, in other words, my PARTNER. Not confiding in you isn’t getting you on Team Her any faster than she’s jumping to be on Team You. And while we all want different things from relationships, I think the point of ANY relationship, romantic or otherwise, is a player on Team Us. I hope that the Captain’s magic can help you guys work through it, but it might be best for both of you to find someone with whom you have a better balance of Team spirit.

      Jedi hugs!

    2. The entire relationship sounds like a ‘except this’ moment. I was the person in a relationship who couldn’t give enough physically for my partner or provide the level of attachment he wanted from me. There were other things that made me end it, but we were both really frustrated by the end. Don’t make her wait to dump you when she has a freak out moment about how she just can’t give you what you want in a partner. There are partners out there who love to show physical affection and have closeness in a relationship. You need to do yourself and your current partner a favor and find someone who is intimate with you in ways that make you feel validated. This partner isn’t doing that.

  4. Yes. I found myself reading the Captain’s response and wanting to highlight everything and say “This. And This! And THIS.”

    For a very long time, I was with someone who I would make reasonable requests of and he would either make excuses or put it off or whatever. It wasn’t until after we broke up and I started dating someone who would respond and take me seriously when I asked for something that I realized that this was something that I not only wanted but deserved to have in every relationship. (I’m not saying he never says no; but there’s a way of saying no in a way that respects and acknowledges someone’s need rather than dismissing it or postponing indefinitely.)

    The short version: LW, you deserve to be in a relationship with someone who takes your needs seriously and responds in a respectful way.

    Of course, this relationship may be that, and the issue may be that she just doesn’t know how to respond to vague requests or something else along those lines (so try making specific requests like the Cap’n says!). But if she is dismissing your emotions, or making you feel like there is something wrong with what you are feeling, that is a red flag. You have the right to feel the way you feel!

  5. “And while she fears being pinned down and smothered, something must feel good to her about knowing that if she runs the other person will chase.”

    This is very true. I’m the distant person in my marriage and my husband is the affectionate one. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I pushed him away and sulked while really, really wanting him to chase me. It’s a massive ego boost, and way easier than actually figuring out what I need, and then saying it. I’m getting better at it – sort of – but it’s a long process.

    The advice about saying specifically what you want is great. I don’t know what to do with an apparently needy person, but “I’m feeling lonely – can we play World of Warcraft together tonight?” is easy to handle and usually pretty fun.

    Another thing that drove a major wedge between my husband and I recently is how I deal with someone who is sulky/upset. I grew up in a dysfunctional family of introverts, in which the appropriate response to someone being grumpy was to stay the hell out of their way, while simultaneously feeling responsible for their bad mood and trying to arrange the world to not irritate them. (This is part of the chasing thing I was talking about earlier.) With much therapy, that’s given way to ‘ignore the grumpy person and go have fun’. No chasing, no extra pets for being in a bad mood. So when my husband started becoming more and more grumpy recently, I avoided him pretty hard core. Hard to do in a tiny apartment with no privacy! You’ve probably already guessed, he was feeling hurt because I was apparently not interested in him. We got into a fantastic self-reinforcing spiral. As soon as he said what was going on, I beat my head on my desk a few times (He’s an extrovert! I really should have figured this out years ago!) and then happily spent every spare moment of the next two weeks loving him up.

    It’s possible that your girlfriend has some of the same scripts installed. She may interpret negative emotions as ‘leave me the hell alone’, while in your world negative emotions mean ‘pay attention to me’. Of course there’s often a great layer of conflicting ‘but don’t leave me!’ and ‘but don’t smother me!’ in there as well, which is a major brainfuck for everyone involved. I don’t have any great suggestions for dealing with it other than communication, communication, communication. Learning to identify and express your own needs is damn hard. (For me at least, this was 95% of what I did in therapy. You don’t need to have a mental illness to benefit from extra guidance and practice here.) The Captain and everyone else is right, apologizing for having needs isn’t healthy and isn’t a good dynamic for either of you. Best wishes. 🙂

    1. You know, I’d say it’s kinda natural to avoid someone who’s acting grumpy. So I don’t see why you should have to metaphorically beat your head against the desk for not figuring out sooner what he could easily have articulated sooner.

      I just feel like maybe you’re wearing the hair shirt on this one because you\’re the one in therapy and ergo the broken one, so here is a recent situation where you did something wrong by not meeting someone’s needs, etc., when you seemed perfectly amenable to meeting those needs, once you knew what they were.

      Is it because of the old him-chasey, you-avoidy past dynamic that now means he doesn’t have to use his words and it’s your fault for not figuring his needs out?

      1. You do have a valid point. He’s learning to use his words too. I was reporting only my half of this particular exchange, there isn’t an overall dynamic where I’m the broken one. (Thank heavens!)

        1. Thanks and I’m glad that’s not the case! I was worried I was overstepping and being a nosy internet person!

          1. Not overstepping, at least in my book. Someone reading my description could have gotten the wrong idea that I thought it was my fault for not figuring out what his grumpy moods meant. At the time I was mostly just relieved that the fix was so easy!

  6. Hey Captain,
    I don’t have any useful advice for the letter writer but I thought this post: http://www.thedirtynormal.com/2010/06/21/attachment-styles-a-primer/ by Emily N covers pretty much what happens when a ‘clingy’* person and a ‘distant’* person get together – yay chasing! Her video at the bottom explains it really well.

    *Not to mean either of these terms in a judgy way, but as a description of how people attach to one another.

    1. This is the most useful link ever, thank you so much. Especially when you think about the different styles being relative along a spectrum rather than absolute descriptors of type – to some people, depending on their own style, I’m relatively the clingy one, but to others, I’m the distant one.

      1. You’re welcome. 🙂

        And yes, it’s definitley a spectrum of behaviours. I’m more clingy, I think, but I’ve dated some people who threw massive sulks when they didn’t get enough attention from me, where they were definitely more clingy than I usually am! Eeep!

  7. The “small, concrete requests” works in many types of relationships. It’s a very clear and pretty easy way to ask for something, and then the person being asked has a manageable task they can feel good about accomplishing. It’s a strategy for effective communication across the board.

    Also, LW, it’s great that you’re so accommodating to your girlfriend’s needs, but please don’t lose sight of your own. It’s impossible to keep giving and never take. It’s untenable. I think your girlfriend will definitely make the effort, but that might not be enough to make this thing work. It really, really, really sucks when you meet someone amazing and you’re just not getting what you need out of the relationship. My first serious relationship went the same way, and it stinks and isn’t fair but you can’t keep going, knowing that somewhere out there someone else is better able to fulfill your needs (and somewhere there might someone better able to fill your girlfriend’s need, too).

    1. I also think it helps when both people in a relationship make the effort communicate clearly with one another. Communication is up to BOTH of us, meeting our needs is up to BOTH of us, facing a problem is up to BOTH of us (or maybe ONE of us with the other in a support role). One person can’t sacrifice enough or try hard enough to make love work. True love is a team effort.

  8. Two things: 1) I’m wondering what you ARE getting from this relationship, because mostly your letter is about what you’re not getting — which is pretty much all the things I would say relationships are about.

    2) I’m also wondering whether gender identity has anything to do with this… of course, people absolutely can have these issues without some underlying cause. But if the GF’s only in her early twenties and this is her first serious relationship with a woman (but she’s had “past boyfriends”), maybe she’s not entirely comfortable with her sexual identity? As in, she is attracted to you and wants to be with you but has baggage that makes her feel not ok with that, inhibiting her ability to express affection toward you because you’re of the “incorrect” gender for her to be feeling that way toward, according to how she was raised? Absolutely impossible to say from this distance… but something to consider.

  9. First time commenter, so I hope I don’t step on any toes.

    I’m sorry, LW, that has to be really frustrating. Having been in the girlfriend’s position (Is your girlfriend me several months ago?), I always felt guilty when I couldn’t give the emotional support and physical affection.

    Like the Captain said, it doesn’t have to work out and that’s okay. It’s not necessarily anyone’s “fault” or mean that either of you were good enough people, because it sounds like both of you have a lot on your individual shoulders.

    In addition to completely seconding Sarah G., I hope it’s alright if I offer something that’s worked for my girlfriend and I. Some background, first: I am not a touch-y person, I get panicked if there’s too much of it, so while I could be affectionate with people I trusted (friends and boyfriends), I had boyfriends who asked for much more touching than I could handle. A couple of them were the I-want-to-hold-hands-with-you-all-the-time-because-Iove-you sort, and I got too much contact and started to withdraw and run away. Same with expressions of affection. It wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t my fault; we just had different levels of expression and we didn’t know how to use our words to express that.

    So, when I entered into my latest relationship, my first one ever with a girl, one who happened to be an admitted cuddler and schmoopy romantic, I was kind of worried about that. But! We decided to use our words. “I wish I could do more for you,” or “I wish I could be there with you” have been good ways for me to express that I care and want to help without panicking or feeling like I’m creating a false promise. I say things like “Hey, you know that I love you even if I can’t always say it/I’m horrible about saying it, right?” when I’m having better days, and she knows what I mean when I have to reply with her “I love you!”s with “You too.” The last time we met up, we were both in pretty cuddly modes, but I think the same thing applies. Either saying “I cannot do kisses right now” (We’re both kinda messed up sometimes, but that’s okay) or, in case of cuddles, being able to squeeze her hand or give her a hug before moving away a little has worked for us as a message of “I really like this and I love you, but I’ve reached my limits for being able to handle touching right now.”

    Maybe something like that would help if (and only if!) you want to keep trying with this relationship? Using the script of specific things you need and making sure she knows she can use it too? That might help her not feel so trapped and help you be more aware of what she is giving. (I’m awful at this one, because my girlfriend has SO MUCH MORE capacity for love than I do, but she knows that I love her all that I can and give her all that I can give, which means less panicking from both of us).

    That said, you should be your first priority in your relationship, no matter how much of your cup of tea your girlfriend is. If you aren’t getting the support you need to be happy(ier. Actually, forget that, be content! Or satisfied! Or having as many victories as you need or can handle each day!) and as healthy as you can be, then your relationship won’t be adding to your life, just making you anxious and uncertain (probably, I don’t have the Sight, and it’s not like that’s 100% either).

    I hope that long, rambling comment helps some, and that you take care of yourself. Because you deserve every good thing and the things that are the best for you. Good luck, LW, and let me know if I can send good thoughts your way.

    1. I quibble with your idea that your gf has more capacity for love than you do. I wonder if she simply has more ability to express love externally than you do.

      1. Well, maybe more just that she has more capacity for the “socially-taken-for-granted-weak-in-the-knees” type of love. I’ve never felt that – nothing wrong with the “I like being around you, I feel content and at ease with you and myself” sort of love, I’ve just had and seen lots of problems where there is a lot of the “You make my world spin!” type of love and the other person cannot understand why there is no world-spinning or how there can be love without world-spinning and breathlessness. If that makes sense?

  10. The Captain asked: “I don’t know why people with low self-esteem are so drawn toward people who are distant and closed off, but it happens over and over and over.”

    A possible answer:

    It’s been said that people are attracted to people who confirm their own opinion of themselves.
    It’s called self-verification theory. Meaning, if you have low-self esteem, you pay more attention to those who share your unfavourable view of yourself. I did not look up the research on this to see how much support it has, but it seems to make sense for at least some people.


    As the LW works on her self-esteem, she may develop less tolerance for a distant partner.

  11. I am a person similar to this girlfriend, one with huge personal bubbles that get larger, not smaller, when I’m in a romantic relationship. It’s lead to at least one nasty self-destruct between myself (ciswoman) and a girlfriend, and to a very amicable parting with the following boyfriend.

    I can’t cuddle. Holding hands is sweaty. Making out is boring. None of these were a reflection of my attraction to the other person and none of them stem from any past trauma. They are just traits of who I am.

  12. LW, it sounds like you are not getting what you need from your GF and that she simply does not want to (or is not capable) of giving it to you. I don’t think there’s any specific way you can ask. I think it is a matter of incompatibility.

    You are not being unreasonable in what you want. You are not happy with this situation after only a few months in. Can you live with this–and be genuinely happy–after a year of it? Two years? Ten years?

  13. “she almost never reciprocates affection”

    This is a very sad sentence, and a huge red flag. LW, you deserve to be with someone who can’t get enough of you. Someone who can’t wait to see you & can’t wait to talk to you. Some people feel smothered when their partner is all over them constantly, but it sounds like the opposite is the case here. You’re already living in different towns, which means she already spends the vast majority of her day not with you, and not talking to you. It’s tough to make a long distance relationship work even when both partners show affection regularly — but in this case, it sounds like in addition to almost never seeing her, you get very little from her. You deserve so much more.

    I know it’s so hard to love someone who isn’t reciprocating. It can be absolute torture. And when that person clearly has issues, it’s tempting to think, “She just isn’t showing me affection because of her issues. But I know she really cares for me even though she never shows it, so I’ll be understanding and great about it, and one day she’ll give me what I need…”

    But that never works — and in the meantime, you’re in an unhealthy relationship that makes you feel ashamed for wanting love.

    Honestly, it sounds like this relationship is not meant to be. It could be that your girlfriend has issues that prevent her from being intimate with anyone — or it could be that she just isn’t in love with you. For you, though, it doesn’t really matter which one it is. The bottom line is that you’re not getting what you need from this person.

  14. LW, I’m not sure I have anything to offer as far as advice. Maybe perspective? Or maybe I can be the bad example? This dynamic right here is the issue that has killed my marriage.

    Trying to make a long story very short… Within about 3-4 years’ time, our family was hit with a series of crises. Everything that could go wrong, did. Financial crises, separation due to work, vehicles breaking down, kids having crises in school, deaths in the family (3), of friends (1) and of beloved cats (3). I felt as though I spent those years putting out one fire after another, keeping everything afloat because someone had to and I was on the line. By the end of this, I was drained. I had no more fixing in me. I didn’t want to touch or be touched, I just wanted to be left alone. My husband was also drained and grieving, and he wanted nothing more than to cling to someone and be loved on. You can see the problem.

    We tried.

    The more he asked me to tell him what I needed or wanted, the more I felt pushed to be the one to fix things and make it all better so he could have the physical affection he felt entitled to. The more I tried to tell him I was not in a place where I could be open to touching, even casual affectionate touching, the more he felt rejected, despised, pushed away.

    It simmered, it boiled over (several times), ugly things were said and regretted, we promised to do better by each other and couldn’t bridge the gap.

    Eventually we realized, “This cannot be fixed.” No matter how much affection I gave him, he was primed to feel rejected and hurt if I ever pulled away, even once. No matter how much he tried to be patient and understanding, I was never going to trust that there wasn’t anger and hurt building beneath the surface, ready to explode when I least expected it. He felt cut off and abandoned; I felt like I’d forever be on shaky ground. We each understood where the other was coming from, but we could not give what the other needed most.

    He moved out two weeks ago.

    Sometimes, even with the best of intent and a whole lot of love and caring, things just don’t work out. I hope they do for you and your girlfriend, or that if they don’t, your relationship can mellow into friendship. You’re not wrong for having needs or emotions, she’s not wrong for needing space – you just may not be able to find a middle ground. I hope you do.

    I think CA and others have given you great advice and scripts to work from. My only additional suggestion, if you two can spend some time in the same place, would be to talk to a couple’s counselor. Sometimes, a neutral outsider can see patterns or suggest minor changes that will make a huge difference. (I just looked at your last paragraph. A counselor or therapist might be an answer to “how do I bring this up?” Have you talked about this with the therapist you have now? They might have some suggestions, too.)

    Good luck, LW. I hope things work out.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I think you’ve very cleverly identified the pattern of (rejection/clinging) that self perpetuates and makes boundary-setting and getting needs met more difficult over time.

      I hope better days are ahead. At very least maybe you can live without the constant feeling that you’re disappointing someone.

  15. Having been in a relationship where I was progressively expected to subsume more and more of my own needs because my partner was incapable/unwilling to pull her weight in the relationship, I so very much feel where you’re coming from, LW. The Captain’s idea of making concrete requests (including a concrete timeframe!) is a very good one, but be prepared that if you make some specific requests and your girlfriend agrees to them, you may then have to 1) revisit the issue if those requests are not actually met once agreed upon and 2) (and this is the hard part) cut your losses and admit this relationship just isn’t working if the requests (and by extension, your needs) aren’t being met. You are not bad or weak for having needs. You are not. You don’t need to apologize for them. Your girlfriend has the right to say “I’m sorry, I can’t do that” if you ask for something, but you have the right (and owe it to yourself) to say “I’m sorry, then I can’t be with you.”

    Number two is ESPECIALLY important, because if your girlfriend is anything like my ex (and it sounds like she is to a large degree), you’ll get caught in a cycle where you come to an agreement about what she can do to help meet your needs and then she won’t hold up her end of the agreement and then when you get upset, you’re the broken one or you’re freaking out over nothing or you’re smothering her, etc. etc.

    I really, really hope you can work things out if that’s what you want, LW, but I think you would do yourself a world of good to continue to gather Team You as your support network and maybe start to get zen about the idea of this relationship not working out. It doesn’t mean it won’t, but sometimes letting go a little bit in your own mind can help you navigate this kind of messy stuff.

  16. As someone who enjoys a high level of affection from both my friends and partner, I sympathize with your feelings of rejection when your affection is not reciprocated or received well. For you, affection is a big part of the way you give and receive love, and I’ve found that this is not true for everyone. Some people show their love by other kinds of actions or words. I think the Captain’s suggestions and advice are spot-on. I’ve had a lot of success with simply asking to give or receive affection with people for whom this does not come naturally. Asking shows that you are respecting their boundaries, and so they feel less threatened. I’ve found that simply saying, “I’d really like to hold your hand right now, is that OK?” or “I’m upset right now. Can I have a hug?” is usually responded to with enthusiasm from people who love me, even if they are not particularly affectionate. I had to learn how to do this–my first inclination would be to grab the other person’s hand or hug them spontaneously, but I’ve found that with people whose level of comfort with affection is less than mine, doing so left me feeling a little unsatisfied because there was always a little bit of guilt for perhaps taking something from them that they were not willing to give (and guilty feelings lead to many apologies!). Asking permission and stating your needs removes that kind of stress from the situation, and you may feel that your level of need for the frequency of these interactions is less because the resulting affection is of higher quality. At least, this was the case for me.

    The flip side of this is–how does your girlfriend show you that she loves you? Can you make a list of the ways that she does? I think that you can navigate a relationship where two people have different levels of need for affection, but navigating one in which one person loves the other more is extremely difficult. Try to look for the other ways that she may be showing you that she cares about you and take a moment to appreciate them. If you still feel the unbalance, it may be time to think about what you are getting out of this relationship and whether or not it is good for you. Leaving someone you love is extremely hard and hurts a lot, but participating in a relationship where you feel unloved is also profoundly painful.

    1. “I had to learn how to do this–my first inclination would be to grab the other person’s hand or hug them spontaneously, but I’ve found that with people whose level of comfort with affection is less than mine, doing so left me feeling a little unsatisfied because there was always a little bit of guilt for perhaps taking something from them that they were not willing to give (and guilty feelings lead to many apologies!).”

      This! I’ve found that most people aren’t used to asking if they can touch or be affectionate, and even when they’re upset, I’ve found it makes it harder for me to show an expression of sympathy or empathy when they’ve had a history of stepping over my boundaries. Asking for affection or if you can give affection could help with getting you getting more affection of the sort that you need and setting the boundaries that might help her to show it.

      And just a general +1 to the whole last paragraph.

    2. This, lots. My girlfriend can be fabulously snuggly, or really need her space. And the only way for me to find out is to ask, using my words.

      I’ve also had to recognize that she and I express affection in different ways, which has involved a fair amount of negotiation, and sometimes reminding myself that she is not me.

  17. I was also the more distant partner in a long-distance relationship, which then became a local relationship, at which point it fell entirely apart. Ultimately, one of the things that was totally incompatable for us was that I place(d) a lot less emphasis on the primacy of a romantic relationship than she did.

    It took us four years to figure this out. At the end, neither of us were getting our needs met—I constantly felt like I was putting more in that I was getting out, and so did she.

    I tell this anecdote because it may be worth having a conversation with her about what you each expect the role of a romantic relationship to be in your and your partner’s life, as a place to begin talking about what actions need to happen to make that a reality. It may be, though, that those visions are incompatible, and that’s OK. You may not be suited for each other, even though you love one another—that’s also OK.

    1. This is a great idea for any relationship that’s not quite working – don’t start complaining about unmet needs right away, ask instead for the other person to lay out their best-case scenario of how they want things to work in a perfect world. Sharing positive visions (and figuring out if they fit together) is way more fun and productive than just focusing on unmet needs.

  18. Very much approving the idea of asking for specific doable things. Right now we’re moving and I am stressed to the max, and when my spouse says, “We need to spend more time together” or “You’re not very affectionate lately” I seriously just want to go somewhere else and leave no forwarding address because I do not need another way to fail right now. When my spouse says, “Let’s watch a show together and cuddle” well, I can do that. It’s pretty much impossible to fail at that.

    1. “I seriously just want to go somewhere else and leave no forwarding address because I do not need another way to fail right now.”


  19. In high school I lost a friendship over a difference like this, and I’ve come to think of it as a dog/cat issue — she was the golden retriever, full of affection and longing for a deeper connection with everyone in her pack; I was the cat, wanting touching and affection in small doses and a high, inaccessible place to hide in when I wasn’t in the mood.

    Neither of us was broken; we just had perfectly legitimate friendship needs that weren’t compatible.

    But because we were young and immature, and there was a lot of love between us, we clung to the friendship so long that my memories of it are very painful, and I’d be willing to bet that hers are, too. I remember being pursued and pursued while I tried to get into my high inaccessible place and *breathe*, and she probably remembers getting a cold shoulder from me again and again.

    LW, for what it’s worth, know that if the relationship isn’t savable, it isn’t necessarily because there’s something wrong with *either* of you.

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