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.
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.