Dear Captain Awkward,
I need a second opinion. I’m at my wits end as to how to address something that has become a large problem with my boyfriend. My friends are no, help; I’ve gotten lucky, landed a good, caring boy, how could I have problems, lalalala-I-can’t-hear-you. I’m glad they approve of him, since I mostly trust their judgement, but… help?
Lately, I have been feeling really neglected by my boyfriend. (By lately, I mean since he stood me up a month ago; I went out with friends instead and it was fine…but he still stood me up.) This meant that if we talked, I initiated the conversation. If I went to his house, or he to mine, I planned it. Once we got there, if we watched tv/made food/fooled around, it was because I suggested it. If we were fooling around, I undressed him, and he had to be directed to return the favor. If we went out, I invited him somewhere, and he begrudgingly joined.
This is not an exhaustive list, just things I pointed out specifically to him as “Hey, look, I’ve been putting in all the effort. Your turn to contribute” I sat him down, told him that I was feeling neglected and why. He agreed that he’s been shitty, and to try and change that. My solution was that for the next little while, it would be his turn. I was not going to initiate contact or plan anything; if he wants to see or talk to me, he’ll do so, if not, it won’t happen. That way, when we’re together, I can know that it’s because he wants to be there, not because I was pestering him.
But that’s not really working. He’ll invite me over, and then not know what to do. He’ll text me, and the conversation stops because things like “how’s your day/how are you/what’s up?” don’t occur to him. He claims that he knows I’m upset with him, which makes him think that I don’t want to talk to him, so he doesn’t initiate contact.
I don’t want to throw away over a year together over an off month, but I don’t know how to address this more directly. How can I say that I need more attention, I need you to do x, y, or z for me, without still being the one that’s pushing/planning things? I told him that he needed to invite me over sometimes, so he did, that I needed him to ask after how I was when conversing with me, so he did. But that’s micromanaging, not an expression of interest from my partner.
It’s a new problem, so I know this can work, but I’m starting to give up. Any words of wisdom?
Dear Small Things:
You did the right thing by speaking up and asking directly for what you needed from your relationship. It was smart to pull back and then see what happened.
Then you found out what we sometimes find out when we do that: The other person either isn’t capable of giving us what we need. Or, they don’t want to.
“Please initiate plans with me.”
The silence is your answer. It means: Can’t or Doesn’t Want To.
One thing you could do that sometimes works when a relationship has come to an impasse is to ask him what his most positive and optimistic vision of the relationship is like. In a perfect world, how would things work between you too?
And then hang back a bit. Does that vision sound good to you? Is he committed to making it happen?
I think from what you’ve told me that he will struggle articulating this and that it will probably be kind of boring or some version of “What we have now, only without you being so mad all the time.” And then when it’s time to do the stuff he won’t do it. But you can ask.
Here, in my opinion, are your choices:
- Continue running a relationship academy for this vaguely boy-shaped person that your friends think you are “lucky” to have and keep being unsatisfied.
- Break up with him, free yourself from the constant feelings of frustration and rejection. Eventually find someone who is a good, active, attentive, demonstrative partner.
Boyfriends aren’t accessories. “Congratulations, you’ve unlocked the Boyfriend Achievement on your way to First World Female Adulthood!” They’re not golems to be molded or blank slates to be written on until they are civilized and shaped into a perfect partner. There’s this Hollywood & Glossy Magazine narrative we have that privileges having a (heterosexual) relationship over being alone (no matter the quality of the relationship) and that puts it on the woman to do the emotional work of keeping the relationship together by having the big serious talks and speaking up about feelings and stuff. And I use the word “work” on purpose. We hear that “relationships take work” and what they mean is “women’s work” – the work of reading magazine quizzes and carrying the emotional water and looking pretty all the time and finding ways to “drive him wild” in bed and cooking new recipes and making excuses. “You tricked him into ‘commitment’, now don’t let him get away!”
I hear this in your friends’ “At least you have a boyfriend” (barf) responses to talking about these problems and I hear it when you say “I don’t want to throw away over a year together over an off month” and “It’s a new problem, so I know this can work.” Yes, it’s a new problem. Because something changed about his feelings or your needs.
I’m not going to say that relationships never take work, especially as we age and take on things like parenting, taking care of elderly relatives, and merging money. It takes work to merge a household and to run things smoothly. We hit bad patches. We hit times when our careers really take off (meaning we have no time) or when they flounder and we have to struggle. It takes effort to stay connected and not lose sight of each other in the midst of all the…work. But occasionally calling your sexy girlfriend and asking how her day was and planning a fun date together and participating fully in your sex life shouldn’t feel like work. If it does, something is off. And it’s a sign that you shouldn’t move into the stages of the relationship that actually take actual work.
Something is off here.
Oh, wait, let me get this out there. The classic response is to say that since these are very recent changes to wonder if something is going on with him – send him to a therapist, try to really get to the root of what’s going on – because we like having diagnoses and explaining why things are happening. It makes us feel smart, and it gives us an excuse.
Sure, ok. That’s a compassionate answer. But it comes back to Can’t vs. Doesn’t Want To. Does it really matter why this is going on? Or does it matter how he treats you? Is it your job to Sherlock Holmes out the reasons and then hold his hand while they’re resolved?
If you were going through some big problems would he do the same for you or even notice?
Sorry to be the Cassandra of Doomed Love…again…but I think you can do better than “grudging compliance.”
Dear Captain Awkward:
I (29, f) met my husband (“Dave”, 29) ten years ago and we married 3.5 years ago. We agreed I’d support us almost entirely while he figured out his future career (he was a low-paid artist). For religious reasons he refused to live together first. We disagreed but I thought I knew him well enough for it to be OK. We’d had a lot of sex and spent plenty of time together.
Dave unexpectedly inherited almost €33,000 right after our honeymoon. We agreed he’d buy a car to get to more clients, and save the rest for things like a house, course fees if he retrained, etc. I kept supporting us. I asked whether it was in a savings account, and he said yes. I trusted him.
I’d always known Dave was a bit eccentric, he was fine to date, but living with him turned out to be hard work. We were renting a one-room bedsit/studio. I couldn’t pay for a better place on my salary, and it made me miserable.
His hygiene was worse than I realised. I found he hoarded – no joke in a bedsit. He was obsessed with cleaning certain things. He also ate a lot of junk food and gained about 40lbs. I argued with him about it for ages, and realised he probably had OCD and definitely needed some kind of therapy. I asked him to see a doctor, but he kept refusing. Dave was also very lonely (he moved to be with me) and he realised he was depressed and tried to tell me in the first few months, but I was stressed by the changes that came with him moving in and I pushed him away. I feel extremely guilty about that.
I started a part-time degree so I could get a better job. After six months Dave told me he was tired of me studying all the time, and pressured me not to study at home so much. I went out more to study, he complained he never saw me. The arguing and stress made me decide to give up the course, and I kick myself for letting it happen.
The next couple of years were messy, but eventually Dave started a course to change careers to something more profitable and that he would like. I got a different job, we moved to a bigger flat, and he went to therapy for OCD.
Things seemed to be better.
Eventually in April this year Dave wanted to talk to me about money. At length he told me that he’d spent every penny of his inherited €33,000 not just on his car, therapy and his course, but on … stuff. Like collectibles, charity donations, presents for his family, day trips for himself, rounds of drinks, a fuckton of Starbucks. He’d been borrowing from his very generous parents as well.
He said he had depression and being splashy with money made him feel better about himself. Dave explained about his childhood, bereavements, brutal bullying at school, and being lonely. I tried to be sympathetic, but it was a massive punch in the gut. I had this idea
of Dave as eccentric, but honest and responsible. My whole image of him was destroyed. I know I’m overreacting, but my sister and best friend both got into trouble (baliffs, court) with credit cards. I am so angry he nearly did that to us. I feel like an idiot for working to pay our bills for several years while he was out drinking lattes all day. He wasn’t deliberately using me… but that’s how it feels.
He’s going to start therapy soon and he’s already on SSRIs. I’m doing my best to be supportive and kind. He knows how angry I was, and why. I feel like maybe given enough time, I’ll let it go. But I don’t know if I should stay married to him.
His diagnostician thinks he might have Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s hard getting an adult diagnosis, but it seems probable as he has the classic symptoms. Whatever the deal is, Dave has no common sense and is pretty passive, both regular Aspergers traits. I often have to stop him doing dangerous or inappropriate things. I feel like I took over from his parents when we got married and i dont relate to him on a proper adult level enough.
The thing is that since I found out about the money, I don’t feel the same. I don’t want to hug him, or hold hands, or have sex. I look at him like he’s a friend, but the desire’s not there. Our sex life’s always been passable to okay for me – I’ve had FAR better sex, but those guys weren’t ‘relationship’ material, so I settled for Dave. Now when he tries to initiate sex, I get an overwhelming “No” feeling. I still have a very high libido… just not for Dave. I’ve told him. He did not say much and seems resigned to it.
I know that all of this would be nothing if I still loved him. But I don’t think I do. It feels like someone pulled out a plug, and all the love drained away, and all that’s left are the bare problems and mistakes.
It’s been nearly three months since Dave told me. I went through anger and depression, and now I’m kind of level again. Could my feelings return to what they were? I’m so tempted to divorce. We have few assets and no kids. We have enough problems for three people and the thought of always having to look after him is frightening.
I feel tlike I’ve been taken advantage of for years. I want to say, no more. I’m out of patience. Should I even try? I feel evil for considering separating while he’s this low.
Dear Lucky #310:
Yes. Leave now. Get out now. Take the lie about the money as the precious, precious gift that it is: An obvious, good-enough reason to get out and get out forever.
Step 1: Call a therapist for yourself. Go to therapy.
Step 2: Call a lawyer. Begin separating assets.
Step 3: Call a friend with an extra room or a couch you can sleep on. Pack a suitcase and go there.
Step 4: Make some kind of final statement to Dave, like “I am sorry you are going through all of this, but I cannot be married to you anymore.”
Step 5: Communicate with him only through your lawyer.
Step 6: Keep going to therapy. Figure out what made the idea of “fixing Dave” so attractive to you. Forgive yourself for those years. Start imagining the life you could lead if you didn’t have to take care of someone to that extent and could focus on your own needs.
Step 7: Several years from now, begin to date again. If you meet someone with a giant array of problems, don’t get more involved with that person.
Let me sneak a Blanket Statement Monday in here (this is for everyone):
If you start dating someone and the first time they take you home you discover that there is a Hoard…maybe…just leave? Even if you like them. Even they seem like a good person and blah blah blah cognitive difficulties blah blah. LEAVE THE HOARD. IT IS OK TO LEAVE THE HOARD. It is ok to dump someone just because they are a hoarder. “I’m sorry, I do really like you, but I can’t get involved with a hoarder and I can’t spend time in your house. Sorry this didn’t work out.” The early stages of dating are for figuring out whether you want to get more involved in each other’s lives. People who hoard obviously have some serious issues going on and need a lot of compassion and professional help. They may have many, fine, awesome qualities (they’d have to or you wouldn’t have gone home with them). That compassion doesn’t have to come in the form of you moving yourself and your Sympathetic Vagina into the hoard with them!
For hoard you could easily substitute a current drinking problem, drug problem, gambling problem, a history of abusing romantic partners problem, a colorful arrest record, a chronic mental illness that is not being treated, really bad financial management skills. Any problem that is not being actively addressed and that makes you go “Oh shit, do I really want to be involved with someone that has that much crap going on?” is fair game. Wait, did I say it had to be severe and horrible? No. Dealbreakers take many forms. “Does stuff that annoys me.” “Not good in bed.” “Has stupid political opinions.” “Mama’s boy.” “I don’t like his smell.” “Inattentive.” It’s okay to be picky. You don’t have to be fair about where you bestow your heart and your time and attention.
We are all flawed creatures. We all have problems. No one is perfect. I too was taught that I was supposed to forgive everyone in advance, just like Jesus. But some people are kind of really undateable until they start dealing with their own shit in an adult way that has hope of getting resolved, and I don’t have to be their personal Jesus. Nor do you. I have depression. Guess what? I have broken up with or not gotten further involved with people because they have untreated depression. I know that scares the shit out of a lot of people reading this, like, is she telling my partner to break up with me or that I am unlovable because I have problems? Well, if you aren’t dealing with your problems, and your problems are actively making life unhappy for you and your partner, and they feel like they can’t or don’t want to deal, then, yeah, maybe. People get to leave you if being with you is making them unhappy and they don’t have to exhaust every possibility before coming to that decision. And you could also make the choice to leave them for any reason at any time. Love is and should be a choice.
I don’t know what makes us double down with people like Dave. I don’t know what makes Sadness and Eternal Childhood and Addiction Issues or Chronic Fucked-upness into this magnetic pull for us. We don’t want to be the asshole who leaves someone for stuff that technically isn’t their fault? We want to feel needed? We want someone who will never leave us? We see the potential that is there and make a bet on it instead of dealing with what is? We feel like no one will ever love our fucked-up selves so we have to take it where we can find it? We like fixing stuff and feeling like the more together one in the relationship? We swallow the “All Relationships Take Work” narrative and decide somewhere that the more work something is the more worthwhile it is and roll up our sleeves? What fallacy is it that holds being totally-and-completely-non-judgmental as thing to aspire to?
You can reject someone as a romantic partner for any reason at any time, so I want to say: It’s okay to decide that someone has Too Many Problems and that you don’t want to take those on as your own. Use your judgment. Go ahead and judge. It’s not a moral failure on your part, ok? “You are Too Sad to be my boyfriend, sorry.”
Letter Writer, somewhere inside you there is a tape playing the words “But he needs me!” over and over again. That tape tells you that by being self-sacrificing and trying to help Dave reach his full potential – by PARENTING YOUR HUSBAND – you are a good person and that’s how you prove you are a good person.
It is time to stop that tape player. Use any means necessary. You are 29. That is not old. You have time to go back and finish that course if you want to. You have time to find a partner who will not strangle your dreams and make you smaller in order to stay with him.
Those instincts that are telling you to leave now are your SURVIVAL instincts. The guilt about “but maybe I should stay and help him through this latest problem” is Dave’s Latest Mix Tape playing in your mind.
Hopefully he will get all the help he needs. Hopefully his parents will step in. There is no rule that says that you have to stick around for that process. Haven’t you sunk enough of your precious beautiful life into this guy? Maybe Future Dave is a lot better. But Past Dave and Present Dave are terrible husbands. Go with that and not a dream of a better future that will justify all the shit you’ve been through. Please.
I see you two years from now in a clean, quiet place working at a job you love, supporting yourself, making new friends, meeting new people, feeling free and light as air. Please believe that your life and your relationships don’t have to be this hard.
Please make some phone calls today and start getting the hell out of that nightmare of a marriage. Expect Dave to do everything he can to keep you around up to and including threatening suicide if you go. Work with your therapist to actively plan for that threat, in fact. When the manipulation starts, when the guilt-tape starts, put your hands over your ears and keep running.
Therapist. Lawyer. Friend-with-couch. Therapist. Freedom.