Success stories from or about people in a relationship with someone who appears to struggle with loneliness, anxiety and introversion?
July 23, 2009 6:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some success stories from or about people in a relationship with someone who appears to struggle with loneliness, anxiety and introversion. Can it be done?

The intro: I've been in a relationship for some time with a man whom I believe I love, and who I believe loves me. However, I’m about to set off on something of a long trip (nine months), and am concerned that this may be a make-it-or-break-it-point (prior separations haven’t gone so well).

The pros of our relationship: He’s brilliant and funny. When we have good banter, it glows; and I feel that we have each other’s confidence. He is fair-minded and overwhelmingly just: I’ve often been as delighted by his innate sense of what’s right as I have by his wit and wisdom. He’s handsome, he’s savvy, he’s ferociously disciplined. He’s a good man.

The rough patches: Of course, there’s the usual stress of any relationship – but what I refer to here is something more – something different. He rarely touches me (unless I reach out to him first), and appears anxious a great deal of the time. I take on faith that he’s attracted to me, but…it’s mostly on faith at this point. Generally (and in past relationships) I feel fairly good about my appearance and attractiveness - but lately, that seems to crumble with him. He seems delighted, really thrilled when I touch him or reach out to him – but increasingly, it feels one-sided, and I feel more and more distant as a result. I often resent the “expectation” that I should be the one to reach out – resentment that is neither warranted nor helpful. You can see, here, the makings of an unfortunate cycle.

Calling Grandma: He sometimes shows real trouble with a few kinds of basic “human interactions.” Speaking about everyday topics is fine for him, but speaking about anything close to his heart can render him silence for four to five minutes at a time as he clearly struggles to have something to say (usually this will end in “I don’t know.”) Making a routine phone call to a family member, for example - where there’s no reason to expect that anything bad will come of it - can bring him to tears. On the whole, it seems like the “tap” is closed most of the time, and occasionally, when it opens, it is a torrential flow.

Self-consciousness?: In rare moments, he’ll let on what sound like fears of being criticized or rejected - and I think he sees himself as being very lonely. I’ve seen him endure what I’m reluctant to label “panic attacks” on numerous occasions – which by his description appear to be brought on by something akin to an extreme form of self-consciousness. Indeed, he seems tremendously self-conscious much of the time, to the point of being self-involved. I mean this with all candor and no recrimination – and I swear, I don’t take it personally anymore - but I no longer expect or hope for him to ask me about my feelings, thoughts or reactions, particularly within the context of the relationship.

A caveat: Having been in several relationships, I'm positive this isn't just a classic gender breakdown (and I do acknowledge that gender can and probably does play a role). And I freely acknowledge that I have all the foibles you can imagine – I am more often than not proud, willful and hot-tempered (to name a few). My pride, particularly, has led me to be stung by his words and actions at times when my energies would have been much better spent mending fences. If this were about blame, I'd have more than my fair share. But, I promise, what I describe here isn’t at all about blame – it’s about a real concern that there’s no way to make this work in the long-term.

The wrap-up: I want very much to make him happy, but I worry that not only can I not make him happy, I can’t make myself happy in this relationship either. In a nutshell: he shows great restraint with me, and me, I push him. I worry that my behavior makes him feel like he’s under attack, and I know that his hands-off approach (both literally and figuratively) makes me feel desperately lonely.

Dear reader: Have you been in a relationship with someone who sounds a bit like this - or do you know someone who has? How do you make it work? I'm willing to put in the effort - but I need help. And at some level - petty as this may sound - I suppose that I need to know I'm not the only one out there.
posted by ninotchka to Human Relations (23 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I have not been in such a relationship, but if you're feeling stretched now while you're with him, I can't imagine it getting better with distance. Maybe look at the distance to work on improving verbal/internets communication? Might be less threatening for him. Good luck.
posted by ShadePlant at 7:04 PM on July 23, 2009

I've been in a relationship like this and wasn't able to make it work...I was tired of being seen, at least in part, as a therapist, or as a source of "strokes" for bolstering his self esteem while I got very little support or affirmation in return....much like you, the relationship became entirely about his anxieties, his issues, his needs, etc. This: I no longer expect or hope for him to ask me about my feelings, thoughts or reactions, particularly within the context of the relationship can be a dealbreaker for many of us in your situation. I only regret not walking away sooner...which I didn't because he was smart, funny, attractive, I had compassion/empathy for his issues, etc.
posted by availablelight at 7:07 PM on July 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you are hoping to help him improve and then you will feel better about the relationship. What if he doesn't improve, what if he actually gets worse? There is give and take in any relationship - what is he giving you again?
posted by saucysault at 7:20 PM on July 23, 2009

Do you have any sense that he wants to change anything? If he's has no plans to change the way he is, and you are unhappy with the way he is, I don't see how this will work.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:24 PM on July 23, 2009

Response by poster: He's definitely said he feels like something's "off," and that he wishes he could fix it. Just today he talked about how he feels like there's something in his head that makes his perception of the world skewed. He's even done research into finding out what, if any, social "types" he might fit, and found research on something called avoidant personality disorder that he says could be a hit. I'm hesitant to jump on that bandwagon or reinforce his research too much, because I don't want him to feel like I think something's bad or wrong about him, but it gave me great comfort to know that, at least, he seems to think something's "up" too.
posted by ninotchka at 7:28 PM on July 23, 2009

Best answer: This may be obvious, but have you discussed this with him specifically? Does he know it makes you feel terribly lonely when he doesn't physically touch you? Does he know that you want him to initiate things and do things (compliment you? be physically affectionate?) that will restore some of your self-esteem? What happens if you say "I'd like it if you touched me more often"? You could even--I don't want to make this sound like training a pet, but--pick a time you'd like him to be more affectionate and start asking, without your touching him at all, if he could scratch your back or massage your hands, and keep making those requests until he gets it that those little touches make you feel loved and happy.

I'm sort of like your boyfriend. Not as extereme, but introverted and sometimes not good about intuiting what my partner wants. If he tells me something, though, like he doesn't like it when I do X, or he feels loved when I do Y, then I make a mental note to do (or not) whatever he's talking about. It's not wrong to be introverted or to lack intuition about a partner's needs or feelings, but it's definitely wrong to hear your partner say "I need [something] from you" and respond with actions that say "I'm staying in this relationship, but no, I won't give you that thing you need."

The issues relating to interacting with other people or talking about his feelings might need a lot of work and time to sort out. But making sure that he tries to make you feel as loved and cared for as you make him feel? That should happen right away.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:47 PM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been like him and got better. How old is he? It won't happen quickly. He needs a good therapist but he won't trust them and might outsmart them too.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:09 PM on July 23, 2009

Ask him for what you want in plain and uncharged language. It is very helpful.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:37 PM on July 23, 2009

Yes, I've been in that relationship. It was pretty much as you described before we got married. Things did not improve.

Whether it's avoidant personality disorder, as your partner is self-diagnosing, or Asperger's syndrome, which my ex suffers from (and he does suffer), or something else, the behaviors you describe make me think you might find some insight and support here.

Hindsight being what it is, I now recognize the red flags I didn't see when we were "courting" (it was primarily an epistolary courtship, but even so I should have paid heed....) You see those red flags now, so you're ahead of the game.
posted by headnsouth at 8:45 PM on July 23, 2009

It sounds like you hope that with your help, he will change. He might, but you also have to consider the strong possibility that he won't. Would you still want to be with him?
posted by walla at 8:51 PM on July 23, 2009

It sounds like you're doing wonderfully, and he's a little emotionally blocked. Maybe you could sit down and have a conversation with him before your separation, recommending that he find help for this problem. Self-diagnosing based on research is always a little dangerous, because there's no way to really be familiar enough with diagnostic criteria from independent research, or to be objective enough to make your own diagnosis and be confident that you have hit the centre of the target. So the time you're away might be time he can spend working on finding more comfort with his own emotional life. As restrained as he seems to you, he might be really working to open up to you more than anything he's ever tried before. He knows he has an issue here. Maybe you should agree to spend this time apart, both working on yourselves (even if for you that means having adventures and fun), and agree to meet and talk again on your return. Things might have changed a lot by then.
posted by Miko at 9:09 PM on July 23, 2009

I feel like a lot of what you wrote could describe me. I deal with a great deal of social anxiety and introversion so you're basically writing from the perspective of my boyfriend here. What works for us is constant communication. Like you described in the rough patches section, sometimes I'm unaware of issues my boyfriend might have because I get so wrapped up in my own anxieties. Have you told your boyfriend that you want to be touched more? Or about the other issues you mentioned? You have to tell him clearly and let him know how badly it makes you feel.

The most important thing though is if your boyfriend wants to improve. He should try therapy if he hasn't. I'm not in therapy now, but it was really helpful for me in the past. But you both have to recognize that it can be an agonizingly frustrating process. I know that my near panic attacks over simple tasks and irrational worries put an unfair burden on my boyfriend, and that ends up making me feel so much worse. But we both know that after four years I have gotten astronomically better about handling my anxieties and about general communication skills, so we recognize it's hard work but at the same time the rewards are definitely worth the effort. I dunno, our relationship might sound like a lot work, but honestly it's the healthiest one in our social circle, so I feel like we're doing something right.
posted by Shesthefastest at 9:12 PM on July 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

An ex and I both have some of the traits of your boyfriend. I still regret that we didn't read the book everyone recommends about love languages (by Gary Chapman, I think). It may not fix the "off" feeling your partner has, but it could alleviate some of the effects his feelings have on your relationship, and it may also provide a reason for him to seek further help.
posted by pitseleh at 9:19 PM on July 23, 2009

Best answer: I am married to an introverted man who has some trouble expressing emotion and does not reach out to me in a physical sense as much as I reach out to him.

We have a wonderful sex life but he isn't overly physically affectionate out of the bedroom. There are plenty of times when he will hug me, smack my butt, etc., but these kinds of things are less frequent than I would like, or what I would consider "normal". I have my own issues that may prevent him from showing affection more frequently. Sometimes I am moody and rebuff.

Over the years he has loosened up quite a bit. When we first started dating 16 years ago he was more uptight. He was more rigid and very shy. He was very sweet but didn't know how to relax. Like your partner, he is a stand-up guy. He is extremely intelligent, ethical, and doesn't have a petty bone in his body.

I know that he loves me, our children, and his parents and extended family but he doesn't express it at-length. He does tell me and our children that he loves us. He shows his affection in other ways than verbalizing it. He wrestles, hugs, kisses, and plays with the kids and spends a lot of time with them. He talks with them a lot about a wide variety of subjects and life in general. He has an easier time showing affection to the kids and the dog than he does with showing me. He doesn't really call his parents that much. He doesn't show a lot of emotion around them for that matter. He only discusses politics or sports with his father. There is no talk of emotions or even a "how are you doing?" He doesn't really think of inviting them over, I do that. Although he cares very much about world affairs and He's very reserved. When he's upset he's very quiet and internalizes. I've seen him cry two or three times.

This is so cliche but I'll say it anyway: Change is hard and people don't really change. I've been waiting for my spouse to change for 16 years. He has changed a bit for the better but he's the same person he always was. He'll never be gregarious, he'll never be as conscientious as I think he should be, an he'll always be a reserved introvert. These are facts. I accept him and love him for who he is. There were many times, stressful times, when his behavior has upset me greatly. I went through a period of mourning for the person he was never going to be. I've talked my sister's head off about his nutty ways and have talked to two therapists about it. I spent a lot of time being very unhappy. I was unhappy because I naively expected him to be somebody he wasn't. I also put a lot of pressure on him, and myself. I had my own insecurities and things were not as bad as I made them out to be.

He doesn't have many close friends. He does not reach out to people and invite them for dinner or parties. He is a bit of a loner. Our two kids and I are his world. These days he can almost pass for normal (I say that in jest) but he loves being alone and still struggles a bit in social situations. He tends to befriend people that aren't intimidating or don't have a lot going for them, and it's rare that he will befriend anyone. When we socialize it is with "my" friends or at kid functions and kid sporting events. If I wanted to throw a birthday party for him that would be difficult because the guest list would consist of his parents and mine.

I will urge you to think this relationship over. How do you envision life will be one, five, ten years down the road with this person? He may be a wonderful person but he may not be an easy person to live with. There is a good chance that your resentment will grow. My husband has told me that I looked beautiful once, on our wedding day. I'll ask him if he thinks I'm pretty, is he attracted to me, yada, yada and he is always very sincere and assures me that he finds me pretty, sexy, etc. . I know that he finds me attractive but does not give many compliments unsolicited. There has been many tears shed over this fact. Can you live without compliments and verbal appreciation? Do you want to? I have told my husband a million times that I need compliments. I need this and I need that. He is receptive and he truly wants to make me happy but he still doesn't give me these compliments. It doesn't come naturally.

How is he socially? Does he have close friends? Do you like to entertain and go out on the town? Do you have a lot of friends? Do you have friends that are coupled? Would you like to get together with them with your boyfriend? How will he do? He doesn't need to be Mr. Charming but will he want to engage in life with you? Does he like being around people at least some of the time? Does he want to travel and learn new things? Is he interested in life and people?

My husband is at times so insular that I have adopted some of his behaviors over the years to cause less friction. I was mildly depressed for a while. I don't blame him but I was so tired of being disappointed that his enthusiasm didn't match mine that I kind of gave up. I've since wised up and do things on my own and do not depend on him for my entertainment. I accept him for who he is. Don't get me wrong he will socialize and go out and travel, and most of the time enjoys himself, but it's almost always my idea.

Will you always be the one that takes the initiative? If his behavior continued unchanged for the next several years would you be happy? It is not your responsibility to make him happy. You can't do that and I wouldn't attempt to try. You will only drive yourself crazy.

It sounds like his anxiety overwhelms him and certainly limits him from expressing his appreciation for you. If he truly has a personality disorder this is a big issue and will most likely need a lot of work (professional help) and time to overcome. There is a very good chance that he will never "improve".

If he is young life may loosen him up a bit. He may get out of his head. Repeatedly exposing himself to social situations and forcing himself to get out there and enjoy will likely allow him to be less burdened by self-consciousness and anxiety. Watching you interact normally and deal with things in a healthy way may inspire him little by little to do the same.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 9:38 PM on July 23, 2009 [9 favorites]

Your SO sounds somewhat like me - I can offer you a few pointers, but keep in mind that while he might change, chances are he'll never be the type to wear his heart on his sleeve. If you need someone that will be physically close and emotionally sensitive... well... I'm sorry to have to say this, but you should probably look elsewhere.

A few things to keep in mind:

- He has a hard time picking up on what you want. You need to tell him. As in, "I like it when you hold me." or "Give me a hug."

- At times he probably wants to touch you, but is too afraid that you'll reject him (again, hard time picking up on what you want). So, he picks the safe option and does nothing. You need to be a bit more accommodating for a little while: cuddle with him even when you don't really feel up to it. He'll eventually learn that it's okay even if you reject him every so often.

- He might not have strong opinions on a lot of things. If he's anything like me, he views the world logically and with muted emotion. I'm betting he's generally pretty apathetic, and doesn't realize why other people seem to have a problem with this. If you're trying to get his point of view on something, try stating yours first - that might get him to open up.

- Sometimes, you just need to force him into social situations. He may resent it for a short while, but it will make every subsequent encounter a bit easier.

And just one final thing:
I want very much to make him happy
He is happy. Very happy, probably. It's you that isn't happy - and while your SO probably will try his hardest to make you happy, he'll probably not succeed without much time or much therapy. So it really depends on you: can you be in a relationship with someone that may not be able to satisfy all your emotional needs?
posted by wsp at 9:38 PM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Registered just for this comment.

OP, I have some traits similar to those you describe your man having-- anxiety, self-consciousness, loneliness, difficulty initiating affectionate touch, even the painful silences on the phone with family members. I'm 33, male, and about 3 years ago I ended a long-term relationship with a woman who is still my closest friend. While it was largely a mutual decision, she wanted out because she felt I wasn't working hard enough to change these traits, despite my continually expressed wishes to change.

I'm working very hard on it now, having spent the past two years in weekly individual therapy and reading everything I can find that might help me understand my issues better-- both their possible causes and ways to improve my functioning. And I am undoubtedly improving, though I'm often frustrated by how slowly. I believe improvement is slow because anxiety, loneliness, and self-consciousness are self-perpetuating patterns of experiencing the world. They isolate one from the kind of healing and nourishing social experiences that can create new patterns of thinking and behaving. And in order to jump out of this self-perpetuating rut, it's necessary to have enough repeated, consistently positive experiences (in particular, experiences of giving and receiving affection) that they create a new mental pathway that can eventually compete with and then overcome the old way of experiencing. This takes a long time, and my hope is that once I reach a critical mass of positive experiences, that is, experiences of successfully giving and receiving affection, I will be able to both initiate and receive with more ease. (I can't recommend highly enough A General Theory of Love for a wonderful explanation of this idea.)

This is getting long, but I want to say a bit more about my issues with affectionate touch. I've been lucky in the last few years to become friends with several women who always seem genuinely happy to see me, and who usually greet me with a warm hug. They are all married or otherwise attached, which makes it very platonic and non-threatening for me. I absolutely relish these moments and return their hugs with enthusiasm, but I've rarely attempted to reach out to them first, though I often long to. I've been so frightened of doing it at the wrong time or in the wrong way-- that it will seem creepy or that I'll linger just a bit too long. One particular such woman, the younger sister of a good friend, and toward whom I feel like big brother, positively lights up when she sees me, and without fail greets me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek (she does this with many people, in fact), and once out of the blue told me that she loved me. It took over a year of her being consistently affectionate like this before I felt safe enough to say those words in return, and now we take turns saying it to each other on occasion. And it feels so good to finally be able to say it, knowing that she is happy to hear it from me. Inspired by her example, I eventually began greeting another good friend with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and now that friend clearly looks forward to it and always makes sure to kiss me back.

You say your man seems delighted, even thrilled when you reach out to him, and I consider that an incredibly positive sign! His reluctance to touch you first may be for somewhat different reasons than mine, since you're romantically attached, but I can't help but wonder if he doesn't desperately long to reach out to you and is simply terrified to try. I agree with Miko that this time apart could be a great opportunity for him to work on some of the things he wishes he could fix. I myself am strongly considering a switch to group therapy, because I think it can provide the sort of positive feedback from other people that an anxious, self-conscious person otherwise has difficulty finding. Good luck to you both!
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 12:38 AM on July 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

Part of your question was "How do you make it work?" which I can't address. I was in a fairly similar relationship though, team anxiety. In a fit of destructiveness I offered a breakup and it was received cautiously but well. I think had you asked both parties months before we would have both said the relationship was good-pretty good (at least I think).

The key here is that I was on my way down. I tried to improve only in brief bursts followed by steeper drop-offs. She put a ton of effort into the relationship, but ultimately, I think I took advantage of it by relaxing my commitment to try to resolve these issues (after all, despite my flaws, I was in this great relationship!).

In summary; Is the overall trend in his behavior better? Or is it worse? Because we broke up 6 years ago and I'm only now trying to take my first (real) steps towards addressing this and I believe she has now been married for a while.
posted by syntheticfaith at 4:45 AM on July 24, 2009

I think I was this guy at one time, or shared some of his traits of physical reservedness and emotional reticence. A few years ago, I was with a gal who needed more physical and emotional attention than I was giving her. She said I was too distant and independent and she talked about The 5 Love Languages book that I scoffed at as pseudo-psychology. But I see the validity of it now. Instead of expressing my affection in her terms (giving her personal attention; spending quality time with her), I was doing it in other ways (with acts of kindness) that to her did not resonate as much as if I had communicated it to her in her language.

While we ended up breaking it off for several reasons, I learned from that relationship, and I think, today if we dated or I met someone with her relationship needs, I would be much more suited to them. In reminiscence, I remembered and enjoyed her physical affectionateness and I started being that way myself to the point that a girl I subsequently dated once said that she loves how much I touch her. People can learn.
posted by That takes balls. at 6:44 AM on July 24, 2009

Best answer: He's even done research into finding out what, if any, social "types" he might fit, and found research on something called avoidant personality disorder that he says could be a hit.

I hope you can read up a little online on avoidant personality disorder - there are many problems with self-diagnosis, but reading about it will tell you a lot about what he relates to, what he feels he is going through. I speak as someone who once wondered if I had the same thing.

His problems didn't come from nowhere. I think he probably has a view of people as cruel and prone to turning on him - not in a paranoid way, but in a "people have been shitty to me in the past, so why won't they be again?" kind of way. He lives his life trying to protect himself, from rejection, humiliation and mistreatment by other people - but by over-protecting himself, he loses out on many of the good things that come with opening up to others.

And that kind of thing, you're not born with. Do you know if he had a difficult childhood? Were there people - perhaps family - who were very cruel to him? You tell us he is brilliant, funny, witty, handsome and savvy. And yet, he's utterly, utterly terrified of people. There is a reason for that. (You say a phonecall to his grandmother can bring him to tears - it doesn't sound like just anxiety to me. He sounds to me like he has a lot of hurt stored up.)

If he's doing research and looking online, he's trying to change. I would highly recommend the perennially-recommended-in-Askme Feeling Good and Intimate Connections - I think they would be very helpful to him. (They were to me, even if I didn't agree with everything in Intimate Connections.)

It is amazing, given his level of anxiety, that he's let you into his life. It would probably be much easier - much safer - for him to not be with you, because he wouldn't have to feel that fear every day. It says something about how he feels about you.

He likely clams up because he feels if he tells you the wrong thing, does the wrong thing, he'll lose you. It may seem crazy, but really pretty much everyone has those fears - people like him just have them on overdrive. (I could get into the science of it, about early brain wiring, particularly in childhood, that bypasses the logical parts of your brain...)

But you know, some of the good qualities you see in him may well have come about from his problems. He may be fair-minded and overwhelming just at least partly because he knows so well how it hurts, and doesn't ever want to inflict it on others. He may have wisdom because all that introversion encourages him to be thoughtful. His hypersensitivity can be channelled towards being very empathic and caring for others (when he learns to feel safe and not have to be so preoccupied with being on guard to protect himself all the time).

I can't tell you whether it would work out for you - but I can tell you that it is untrue that people don't change. People do change. I changed. He can too, and he seems to be trying to. More than that, he's trying to reach out to you, communicate with you, opening himself up to you - whatever the validity of such a self-diagnosis, something like avoidant personality disorder is not something you easily share with anyone - it took trust on his part, but also faith, that you would not reject him for it. He's taking a chance with you. And for him, that is what he needs to practise doing, over and over - rewiring his brain to take chances, take risks, knowing that whatever happens, he'll be strong enough to be okay. If he can find the right kind of therapy (CBT or something related would be a great point to start), that would be really helpful for him. Some anxiety medication may be helpful also (though it wasn't for me, but it varies from person to person.) While you of course have to take care of yourself in the relationship, I do hope that if you do love him, you don't give up on him yet. Like you said, he is a good man, with so many of the qualities you love.

Tell him the things you've told us. If he's anything like I imagine, you making yourself vulnerable - by letting him know that you love him, that you want him to reach out to you and feels hurt when he doesn't - that you need things from him too - will help him be vulnerable with you too. (Tell him what you need from him, and try not to expect him to guess or just know - that's good advice for all relationships - don't get into that cycle where you withdraw because you think he doesn't care, and he sees you withdraw and thinks you don't care and pulls back further...) He wants the same intimacy that you want - his brain is just wired such that it feels to him more dangerous than it is. (and really, even "normal" people know that fear of intimacy and rejection well - we all do.) I think he can change that part of himself, and be a really good, loving boyfriend to you. Feel free to MeMail me, if you or he has more questions I can help with - I wish you and him all the best.
posted by catchingsignals at 8:18 AM on July 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Have you been in a relationship with someone who sounds a bit like this - or do you know someone who has?

Speaking from experience -- because this is the internet, where no one is ever alone in any experience, and yours is actually quite common -- from his side:

I don't want him to feel like I think something's bad or wrong about him...

That can be framed differently, but he pretty much thinks so too, doesn't he? There's no need to go at it explictly as "Well, you're broken, let's fix you up!" But there has to be some notion of an existing problem. It can be as low-judgment for him as "I'm here, I want to be there."

He's even done research into finding out what, if any, social "types" he might fit...

As he looks around, he'll find pieces of himself reflected in this diagnosis and that. One or two "disorders" or "personality types" or whatever might seem to match most of what he sees in himself. Then he'll have a label for himself. Fine.

But in the end, he has whatever set of behaviors and thought patterns he has, labeling the exact combination is not terribly important, and they can all be improved by similar methods. Anxiety, depression, introversion, and a thousand more-specific variants are all different sides of the same coin 20- 1000-sided die.

The beautiful thing is that they can all change for the better. More specifically, he can change them. "... at least, he seems to think something's 'up' too." He's aware of problems and wants to fix them. That's step one.

The bad news is that the change takes a long time. Know this now. I have had many of the same traits as your boyfriend. I still do now, but less so. And still, it's been, oh, six or seven years that I've been aware of and consciously trying to change things.

Short-term, you will see little to no change. Short-term is maybe on the order of months to a year. At best, he will surprise you every now and then with a little thing that you might have thought beyond him before. Depending on your temperament, you could become very easily frustrated. "You know you [x], you know you should [y], but you don't! What more is there? Why is this so hard?" He probably won't have an answer. He doesn't know. It doesn't make sense to him either.

How do you make it work? I'm willing to put in the effort - but I need help.

Again, he can change these things, you can't. You can support him. Encourage. Help. But not too much. What? Again, you may become very easily frustrated: too much help can be seen as nagging or elicit a defensive response. Yup, makes no sense.

Can it be done?


1 Given enough2 time and patience, it can be done3.
2 Seemingly infinite, at times.
3 To a less-than-complete degree, with a less-than-100% chance of success.

This thread is full of good ideas. None is a panacea. None will cause instant changes. I can add one more to the list: Exercise. If he doesn't get much vigorous exercise now, then it's likely that anything that gets his heart pumping faster for a while will put him in a better mental state. For a while. At least for me, I've found that it provides an instant mood boost, and it decreases the anxiety and other maladies for hours after.

So you have tools to work with. Some to use yourself and some to try to hand to him.

However, I’m about to set off on something of a long trip (nine months)...

Everything above is about the long-term. This trip is short-term. As others have said (so many others, at so many times), communication. Start now. Develop some strategies. Create some new habits. Check this thread and others for ideas. Pick some that sound like the best fit for your relationship. Maybe pick one that sounds crazy, just for the heck of it. Build what you can now, because when you're gone, communication is about all you'll have.

... and am concerned that this may be a make-it-or-break-it-point (prior separations haven’t gone so well).

It might well be. If so, keep this in mind. Breakups can be very positive. If someone is stuck in a rut, a shock to the system might be what it takes to break them out of it. If a relationship is dragging along, it's far too easy to say "it's good enough, and maybe it will get better." Only upon breaking up might one see that it wasn't good enough, it wasn't getting any better, and something really needs to change for the next one.

Also, it has been after each of my past few breakups (all amicable) that I've been able to take a more detached view of things and see problems, both their causes and their effects, more clearly.
posted by whatnotever at 8:58 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

If his anxiety is not other people in social situations and their judgements, but his behavior in social situations and his thoughts in them, it may be a different game. If he is feeling dissociative, not trusting his agency in his actions, then it may be a serious condition that can get worse and in need of psyciatric care. It is very difficult to explain dissociative moods for people who haven't experienced them. I had a friend who felt this way, was worried about if he can stay as himself in close relationship. Two weeks after he got married he killed his wife and himself.
posted by Free word order! at 6:30 PM on July 24, 2009

If you really care about him, you might try voicing these issues and suggesting taking a break. I've been in his shoes not too long ago and had a relationship fall apart partially because of my own introversion and hangups, and it instilled in me a burning need to overcome those issues in my life. It's not the most painless method, but seeing how much it costs to be afraid all the time can work wonders.
posted by Zorz at 12:21 AM on July 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all for all of your help. He and I have been hashing it out using input from many of your comments, and I'm hesitantly hopeful!
posted by ninotchka at 12:24 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

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