I Want My Boyfriend to Show Me More Support and Affection

I Want My Boyfriend to Be More Emotionally Supportive
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It’s generally not my style to link to other  advice columnists, but my friend, Lori Gottlieb, author of the new book,“Maybe You Should Talk to Someone”  does such an incredible job that it feels like a dereliction of duty to keep her to myself.

In this post from her Ask a Therapist column in The Atlantic, Gottlieb takes a question from a woman who has a three-year relationship with a man who is not as emotionally supportive and affectionate as she’d like. A snippet:

“Recently, I’ve also been dealing with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression and have been reaching out to him for support. He’s worried, and tells me he wants to help but doesn’t know how. It does mean a lot to know he wants to help, but I want him to figure out how best to support me–both because I would love if he were more solicitous and because it would reduce his stress as a partner to someone in need.

How do we address this issue in a positive, active way? Do you have specific advice you could give him on being a supportive partner to somebody in an emotional crisis?”

Here are some of the highlights of Gottlieb’s response:

One thing I tell many couples when they first come in for therapy is that the more one person believes that his or her partner should be different, the less initiative he or she will take to change things. Most people come in making a case for why the other person needs to improve. Spoiler: That never helps…

Of course, you want your boyfriend’s love and support, but what I think you can’t see right now is that he’s giving you both: He’s checking in on you, sharing his concern, and asking you what he can do to help. Beyond that, there’s not much he can do, no matter how strong his love for you, because we can’t create inner peace for the people we love the most (something that’s true not just for our partners, but also largely for our children). Your boyfriend doesn’t have the answers to your emotional struggles–nor  is  he the answer to them. He can be there for you, but he can’t fix your insides for you…

It takes a tremendous amount of effort to try to become a person you’re not, which is essentially what you’re asking of him. If I asked him what it was like to be your boyfriend, I’ll bet he’d reply with some version of, “I love her deeply, but I can’t seem to please her. Even when I do, a day or week later, she’ll be disappointed with me again.”  

As I’ve said for ten years in this space: you can’t have a relationship dependent upon someone changing for you. Accept him despite his flaws, and if you can’t, then leave him to find someone you can accept. This doesn’t mean your boyfriend couldn’t stand to improve. It just means you are not his life coach and he is not your project.

You can’t have a relationship dependent upon someone changing for you.

The #1 thing people need in a partner is someone who accepts them, in full. And if you find you’re always looking for someone cuter, smarter or richer, perhaps you should reconsider what you value most. It should be someone who accepts you, in full. Without it, you’ll never be as happy as you deserve to be.

Your thoughts, below, are appreciated.

 

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Comments:

  1. 1
    Jeremy

    Wow.  This post is a whole can of worms for me.  I largely agree with Lori’s reply, and I see this problem all the time when people with different personalities and love languages get together.  A woman oriented to the emotional abstract gets together with a man oriented to the cooperative concrete.  He likes her emotional receptivity, she likes his practical reliability.  But as the relationship matures, emotional communication problems arise.  He focuses on what he can do, the details, the little things, to show his love.  She focuses on the emotions, the meaning, the sweeping spirit to show hers.  And as we show our love, so do we hope to receive it.  She wants his words and quality time as her love language, wants his love and emotional support as his love content.  He offers acts of service as his love language, the things he does for her each day as his love content.  She perceives no meaning in it, tells him to change, but he relapses – it’s who he is, after all.  You will not teach a guardian-type to prioritize the emotional abstract.  They can’t do it long-term, and will resent you both for trying to change them and for not appreciating the myriad things they do for you each day.

     

    If you are in love with being in love, if you chase meaning and emotion and are unable to accept other forms of love as meaningful, you need a man who organically offers those things.  Not a man you have to teach/convince.  Of course, there will be trade-offs for making that choice.  Such a man will be less reliable, less of a rock to anchor your emotional storms.  He will also be in love with being in love, and if he falls out of love with you he will be far more likely to walk away, far less likely to try to work things out as he seeks his own meaning and authenticity.  Trade-offs.

     

    Oh, and one other thing – one thing that rang very false to me:  The boyfriend who says “I want to help but I don’t know how”……This is a bullshit response.  It’s one thing when a partner tries different things to help, none work, and then says, “I’ve tried all I can, but can’t seem to help you.”  It’s very different when he says, “I’ve tried nothing and I’m all out of ideas.”  If the latter is the case, it’s not that he doesn’t know how to help, it’s that he doesn’t want to try, doesn’t want to do anything beyond what you force him to do by asking directly, and he hopes you won’t ask.  Perhaps he’s frustrated with you, perhaps resentful, perhaps he’s as tired of your attitude as you are of his.  That statement is a bad sign, an ominous omen for the future of your relationship IMHO.  The question for the OP is whether she herself will take the corrective action to remedy the situation, as Lori suggested.

  2. 2
    S.

    This one is tricky.  I agree that the letter writer to Lori needs to take on her own mental health and fix her own insides.  That said, she should feel supported as she does that.  Her boyfriend is supporting her in his way, but not in a way that feels like support to her.  This may change as she seeks other help and relies on him less for support.  But it may not.

    Does this means she needs another boyfriend?  Maybe another one won’t even give as much as this one does?  It’s hard to know.  I guess that’s why people go it alone.  It’s better than being disappointed.  When reading her letter at the site, she wants more affection and they’ve argued about it in the past.  She needs to either get her affection elsewhere and/or let the issue go with him.

    I’m working through this a bit, the push-pull between saying, ‘Screw alla y’all, I’ll take care of myself” and really seeing and feeling when a person is really giving their best even when that’s not all that I need.

    Sometimes it is a matter of me meeting my own needs on my own.  Not sure if this blog is really about that.  But I do think there is something to said for handling your business on your own for a while.  Once that’s healed a bit and no longer so acute, one may be able to really feel the support from others however it’s given.

    But it’s tricky.  I also find myself cherishing my time and space with other women.  Friends, family, etc.  I love men, I really do, but sometimes there’s nothing like the nurture and caring other women.  Emotionally sometimes (not all times) they just get it and there is some ease in that.  At least for me.

    And I don’t know about this part:

    From his perspective (and yours as well), he’s putting a lot into your relationship—his free expressions of love, his commitment and reliability, his quiet ways of taking care of you, his attempts to offer support for your struggles—but instead of letting any of that fill you up, it drains right out, as if his love were going into a colander rather than a bowl.

    You might also consider: It’s hard to be romantic on command. It’s hard to be demonstrative when you’re walking on eggshells, wondering every time if your efforts will be met with approval or criticism. It’s hard to love someone who can’t always take it in. In these ways, he’s expending a tremendous amount of energy. And despite how hard that is, he’s still choosing to be with you because he sees something wonderful in you. Some might call that romantic.

    Some might.  But honestly? I don’t need therapy at this time and I’m not feeling the way her man shows love. (Not because it’s not romantic but because I love hugs, kisses, and affection.)  It’s simply not what I would want so sometimes it’s just not the right match.

  3. 3
    Robyn

    What does the letter writer need from her boyfriend, as in specific actions that he could take to help her?
    If she cannot articulate specifically what she needs him to do, then I don’t know how she can expect him to magically “figure it out” by himself.

    Is this one of those “I love you, but I cannot read your mind” situations?

  4. 4
    Melody

    Sometimes we women are so confusing, needy, and / or full of expectations that men truly don’t know how to help or make things better. It’s ok to show or tell him how. It’s your own fault if you expect him to read your mind. Men aren’t hairy women.

  5. 5
    MilkyMae

    When you want something from a partner of three years and you don’t want say it, then you don’t really what the partner to change. Sometimes individuals and couples go to relationship counselors to end relationships not to save them.   One person doesn’t want the other to change, they really want affirmation that they are making the right decision to end the relationship . Some view it as face saving formality.  She wants him to “figure out” so no matter what he does, she can still claim he is lacking. Sad but people can act really bad at the end of relationships. 

  6. 6
    S.

    From the original article:

    We’ve moved past this issue a number of times, and each time we make some progress, but the fight continues to recur. I want to be a good partner to him, and set reasonable expectations given the human being he is, but I also don’t want to live my life always wishing my partner was just a little more romantic.

    If they’ve been through this many times and there has been some progress, then some communication has occurred.  It’s rare to make progress with another person who has no clue what’s wrong. It’s possible to do that, but unlikely.

    Do you have specific advice you could give him on being a supportive partner to somebody in an emotional crisis?

    This all said I’m not sure what’s she’s asking.  If this were her actual therapist, it’s not wrong to want to get ideas.  My opinion, though, is that he has already heard her and has done what he can.  Besides, does she really want a partner she has to tell, “when I’m upset from work, please hug me” or ” when I’m really down, please take my hand and suggest a walk”?   Maybe it’s reasonable to be that specific, but it’s been three years.  If he doesn’t know that she needs affection sometimes and what type of affection to give in all their conversations, progress, and years together I think this may be as good as it gets for them.  She can stay or leave, but I don’t think her boyfriend will become more naturally affectionate.  If she wants to continue to walk him through that each time she can, but then as Lori says that’s kind of a downer for both of them.

  7. 7
    Jeremy

    That’s just it, S., I agree. If she needs a man who will hug her when she feels down, and if he doesn’t know to do this after 3 years, he will never know to do this. Or, at least, will never do it organically, which is what matters.

    If a woman wants a man to buy her flowers, the flowers aren’t what she wants. She wants the motivation and the self-directed action. If all she wanted was flowers, she could buy her own. If she has to tell him to buy the flowers, he’s just following instructions. He isn’t offering organic action/motivation. The motivation is the love content, the action itself is just the language. Language bereft of content is just babble.

    Some people can give a partner love in their language, with their content, even though their own languages/contents differ. But these are rarer people IME. Most can only organically offer what they themselves want. Their own languages, their own content – at least in the long-term. If that’s the case here, the OP needs to decide whether she’s happy enough with the relationship as it is or whether to seek out someone whose ways of expressing love are more similar to hers.

  8. 8
    Emily, to

    After reading Gottlieb’s article, this guy sounds like a good boyfriend. If this woman is depressed and experiencing anxiety, she needs to address those issues on her own.  He can’t fix that, and when he says he wants to help but doesn’t know what to do, he’s being honest. There’ s nothing he can do.

  9. 9
    S.

    @ Emily, to

    I take it as a guy who doesn’t show affection.  She’s not specific about what that means, but if he’s tried and there is only minimal progress he’s not a good boyfriend for her.

    No hugs = not a good boyfriend for me, either.  She didn’t mention hugs, but that’s what I think of with simple affection.  (Might be the graphic.) Also this: he’s a reserved person who is just not wired to be very demonstrative. She still needs to address her own issues on her own but her boyfriend not giving affection is a separate issue in my mind.  He can’t fix it, but she doesn’t have to stay unless she can live with the fact that he’ll never fix it.

    There’s not much either of them can do with this relationship.  She might be able to accept him as is, it’s just a tough time in her life to make that compromise.

  10. 10
    Emily, to

    S.,
    “No hugs = not a good boyfriend for me, either. She didn’t mention hugs, but that’s what I think of with simple affection.”
    That’s possible. I had a friend once tell me her husband never touched her unless he wanted sex. I think a lot of women like non-sex-related touching. And if this woman has been very specific about what she needs — given very specific instructions about what she needs — and he still can’t do it, then, yes, I agree, this is a big issue. Maybe being demonstrative is too much against his natural personality.

    But on another note, I’ve suffered with depression on and off for years, and I used to think people had failed me because they weren’t doing enough. But I’ve come to realize there was nothing they could do, and dumping that responsibility on someone isn’t reasonable. (Plus, to be honest, it becomes a bit of a drag. You’re always “that person” who needs help. And after a bit of time, who wants to be expected to offer help day in and day out?)

  11. 11
    S.

    @Emily, to

    The point is, you got past depression.  Fortunately, for you it wasn’t a permanent thing. I think of it as an illness, like any other illness. It needs to be managed.  Some can recover and for some it’s chronic.  Who wants to hear about someone’s heart condition, or diabetes, or dialysis all the time?  Sure, it’s a drag.  But sometimes people fall ill.  And they need more care. Now, I did say in my very first comment that the LW can find others to provide that, it is all too much to put on one person.  But your significant other shouldn’t by their very personality somehow have you feel worse about your illness whatever it is.  No, he’s not the oncologist (or for her, her therapist) but in my opinion he should hold her hair back when she pukes after treatment.

    LW’s job is to get treatment.  But I believe a partner should wholeheartedly support one through it. Some people like to be left alone while ill.  They can’t relax and just be ill around others.  This guy is perfect for someone like that.  But not the LW.  And yes, while ill you are ‘that’ person.  Both have to accept that. She will be battling depression; he will not be demonstrative while she does.  If they can accept one another where there are (I also mentioned she might find that another man might not, we really don’t know), then fine. But if not, I don’t see where they can go from here.

  12. 12
    sylvana

    I don’t know about this one. She told him she needs support. He asked her what he can do.

    It isn’t his fault she cannot communicate her needs. She basically wants him to read her mind. Open your mouth, and say what you need. What is so hard about that? Hug me, hold, me, just be there for me, handle this or that. Go cut an onion and pretend you’re crying with me. Whatever you need at that moment, or for the next while.

    Give the man a clue. ANY clue.

    As for the simple affection. As bad as this sounds, times of emotional distress are not the time to discuss this. And he’s either always been this way (in which case she shouldn’t have stayed with him this long if it bothers her so much), or its a problem that occurred later, and should have been addressed at the time.

    If it’s been addressed, and he simply cannot do it (for whatever reason), then she needs to decide whether she wants to stay in the relationship. Changing him won’t work.

    Overall, this one does seem like a classic case of wanting to change her partner rather than admitting she stayed with one who doesn’t meet her needs.

     

  13. 13
    Amanda

    These days their relationship is long-distance and she is anxious, lonely and depressed. Clearly the distance is aggravating the difference in their personal styles for giving and receiving affection. If the distance can’t be addressed, she needs to make a clinical decision about the suitability of this relationship dynamic for her mental health. If she wants to persist with the relationship, she will have to step up and take more responsibility for herself. Being fluffy about ‘needing him to just know what to do’ is a questionable strategy when your partner is around you most of the time. In this situation it is akin to self-sabotage. Yes, a good partner has the experience and the nous to know how to read you and to remember what behaviours you like and expect. You can be a good partner in return by being clear and fair, and having enough independence to know when to own your own issues. It is very stressful caring for a loved one who is ill. We need to be shrewd when determining what failures are understandable and which ones are unforgivable.

  14. 14
    Emily, to

    S.,

     Fortunately, for you it wasn’t a permanent thing.

    I’ve just had one of the worst years of my life in which I was very depressed, and I am finally climbing out of it.  But I had to do it. No one could do it for me. And, to be honest, I’m sure I wasn’t all that much fun to be around.  I’m not being flippant about it. I think depression is a serious issue and I don’t know how severe the OP’s depression is, but for me, personally, I would think long and hard about getting and/or staying involved with someone who had depression issues. People go through hard times and a partner should be expected to be supportive, but a chronically depressed person who is unhappy for years on end?  That’s something different altogether.

    I think of it as an illness, like any other illness. It needs to be managed.  Some can recover and for some it’s chronic.  Who wants to hear about someone’s heart condition, or diabetes, or dialysis all the time?

    Well, these two are in grad school. They’re probably young. Anything can happen, but most people that young don’t have to deal with a partner’s illness. This should be a time they’re having a lot of fun.

  15. 15
    S.

    @Jeremy #7

    That’s just it, S., I agree. If she needs a man who will hug her when she feels down, and if he doesn’t know to do this after 3 years, he will never know to do this. Or, at least, will never do it organically, which is what matters.

    Thanks for this comment.  I think others were lost in the Great Server Outage in April 2019, but I remember one you made about a woman who never made dinner for her husband and then did once and he complained about how she made it so she never did again.

    I don’t know what you do with folks who don’t do certain things organically.  Yes, you are supposed to praise the heck outta them for even trying.  But even with lotsa praise, it still will never organic for them.   And you keep praising them every time?  Indefinitely for things that you know without blinking?  Huh.

    I’m running into this, not with a relationship because I can’t do that in a relationship.  But a lot with friends.   Do you just drop your friends and make new ones?  I think Evan would say yes.  You either accept someone as they are or you drop them.  I wish it weren’t so binary.  Are there other choices?

    For this OP after three years, sigh. I hope someday we hear back from her.  For me, well, it would be dropping  lot of people.  And I have.  It does leave you with fewer folks but with folks who organically support you without a lot of effort from you or them because that’s who they just naturally are.  Maybe that’s a different stage of life, when immediately you just know what you can live with and what you can’t.  Not necessarily easy, though.

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