The middle ground will come, I know it will, but right now we're on such high ground I'm dizzy
September 7, 2010 9:03 AM   Subscribe

RelationshipFilter: being patient when your partner is trying to figure things out that we're discovering in couples' therapy.

so my last question was this. which i just updated.

basically, my bf has discovered that, yeah, he really doesn't know himself at all, has no idea what he wants to do in his life, doesn't know how to take off the mask and just "be". (he's 35, i'm 31, together 5 years, living together 2.)

he is starting therapy but the first available isn't until Sept 23.

i know it will be a few session before he even starts to get into things, having been through therapy myself a few times over the years.

i'm trying so hard to be patient, but i'm finding it so hard to be around him. he is trying so hard to be a better boyfriend and to do the things i've asked him all these years. he's been telling me i look nice randomly, telling me he misses me when i'm gone, being more communicative via email or text message, deciding that all board games are not created equal and maybe yeah, my idea to play games instead of watch tv all the time would be fun. (we went on a game buying spree and it is indeed fun.)

but i'm finding myself having trouble coping. it all feels so fake because he's still playing a "role" only now that role is "good boyfriend". i do not mean to sound heartless, but there's just this desperation to his actions that make them ring so hollow. he tries to touch or hug or kiss EVERY time we pass in the house. EVERY time. i am not kidding. i know he's trying to be more affectionate than he used to be (which was not at all) so he's learning and he'll find a middle ground eventually.

i'm trying to be helpful because he asked me to say when he does stuff that i like or don't like. i am not criticizing everything and i do tell him when he does wonderful little things ("thank you, this means a lot, this is what we were talking about in therapy"). i'm also trying to be very careful so i'm sure he feels that too. (the one day he kept following me around the kitchen while i was trying to cook a bunch of food and prepare for dinner guests and he kept trying to snuggle and kiss me and finally i was like, ok, i understand that you are trying to be affectionate but it's kinda driving me nuts right now. and he said, in all seriousness, oh right, you're trying to do stuff, i'm sorry. i would normally have just said "here chop this please" but he was getting ready for a run so he was supposedly on his way out the door for an hour.)

it's just driving me nuts. because it went from zero to overkill and i know, i KNOW, it's just because he's new at this "good boyfriend" thing. anything i do gets noticed or commented on now, he is hypervigilant to make sure i know he's paying attention to what i do.

please, please, help me be patient. i feel like i'm kicking a puppy when i don't want to hold his hand ALL THE TIME or when i want to sit alone and read or when i just need some time where he isn't watching me like a hawk so he comment/laugh/be concerned about what i do.

it's a different kind of nuts. i have my own therapist. i see her next saturday and i'm on her cancellation list if anything opens up. our next couples' appt isn't for two weeks yet.

i know it will even out, i know it will. i have to believe that. please understand i'm not trying to be heartless, but it really has just done a 180 and it's just way way too much for me to handle. i don't want to hurt him so i try to be as gentle as i can and to respond positively to what he does and to try to draw some boundaries that we never really had. but this is all so hard. so very hard. and i don't expect miracles or him to change overnight, he needs time to figure it out.

i just want some help on how I can be patient without freaking out. i know people will say "well, he's doing what you wanted" but if you saw it, you'd understand. i really hope i got across what i'm trying to say.
posted by inmyhead to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
He's gonna try too hard at first until it becomes second nature to him and then it will seem more natural. He's working hard to be good, and he's doing it because he cares about you and your relationship. Try to remember those two things when it gets hard: That he cares deeply for you, and that the weird feeling of this will not last long.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:21 AM on September 7, 2010 [7 favorites]

FAMOUS MONSTER: i know. i guess i just needed to hear someone else say it back in a way that doesn't sound crazy.

any tips on how to gently dissuade when it's just overwhelming? we seriously went from zero nonsexual affection to him wanting to be attached at the hip, neck, and ankle. which is great, but it's just seriously overwhelming.
posted by inmyhead at 9:25 AM on September 7, 2010

as a boyfriend recently on the hook for not being "a good boyfriend", and as one who's trying his hardest even though a lot of the "boyfriend" stuff annoys me, its best, i feel to be straight up with him:

"Dear, i know your trying hard and I appreciate that, but just be yourself. If you care for me, dont be afraid to show it, but dont feel like you have to, because then its hollow"

and on your end, appreciate when he DOES show genuine affection. You can have a dog who's affectionate 24/7, or a cat, who's affectionate on it's own terms. I like cats, and i don't begrudge them for being their usual distant catly selves.

I wish my own SO would allow me to be "myself" instead of forcing me to be "on" all the time to make her feel better about herself, but we're trying to find a medium and the key to that is to let the other person be themselves.
posted by bobby_newmark at 9:25 AM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

thanks bobby_newark, that's some good phrasing. i think that will help.

i really just want him to be himself, and that's just gonna take some time while he sorts that out and figure out what "himself" is.
posted by inmyhead at 9:28 AM on September 7, 2010

Judging from my own experience, this will indeed even out over time. Right now, he's over-practicing his good boyfriend behavior in the initial rush of a) enthusiasm that he finally "gets it" and/or b) worry that he came close to losing you.

Eventually that big surge of motivation will wind down, he'll start to feel more secure again and inevitably he'll start to slack off a bit. At that point, however, hopefully all the initial over-practicing will have ingrained the new behavior patterns permanently but at a more relaxed level.

In my husband's case it took about six months before he started to relax and slack off a little.

Maybe until then you could schedule some out of the house time for yourself when all the attention gets to be too much? An afternoon reading and drinking coffee at Borders can be remarkably restorative.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:28 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, he's playing a role. He's doing what he thinks he's supposed to be doing, and he doesn't yet have a very nuanced idea of what he's supposed to be doing. Two things to keep in mind:

1. Fake it 'til you make it applies here. He's learning new behaviour that will eventually become new habits, and that takes time. But it's good time, because he's also learning that when he compliments you, when he notices things, when he's affectionate, that you respond well, that the relationship improves, that it makes you happy, and over time he'll be genuinely seeking those results, and he'll know how to achieve them reflexively.

2. It's okay to say "I'm very happy with the increased attention and affection you're showing. I understand that it's an effort for you, and I really appreciate that. The next level is not doing it constantly, but learning when it's better and worse to do it." Think up a way to tell him that it's overkill, that compliments him on the improvement he's shown and presents balance as the next goal to achieve. Perhaps present it as "sometimes I really respond well to spontaneous affection, and sometimes I don't--can you see why, and how that can guide you in choosing to do it or not do it?"

That's all really stilted and therapist-speak, but I think you get my point--communicate to him that it's not just him offering affection and attention, it's a back-and-forth between the two of you that sets a certain pattern in your relationship of interacting with each other. The affection itself isn't the point, it's how it makes the both of you feel that's the point.
posted by fatbird at 9:32 AM on September 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

I guess the bigger issue is that you don't know who you're dating.

It has to be disconcerting to date someone who is so very changeable. No wonder you're uncomfortable.

I find that sometimes it's easy to get really tangled up in the right way to say things when you feel like a relationship is fragile. But if you're honestly going to work on this long-term, you can't walk on eggshells. Not only is it miserable, but you won't be able to keep it up forever. Just say "okay, okay, enough kisses, I gotta cook" with a smile. He has to have the self-esteem to be able to hear "no" without it being the perfect no, and that takes practice.

You have to know that you can ask for what you want, and that he will be willing and able to give it to you. It seems like that hasn't happened for you for a while, so I can see why you're gunshy, but it's something you need for a relationship to be satisfying.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:47 AM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

fatbird: thank you for the stilted therapist-speak. it makes total sense.

Serene Empress Dork: i do have time out of the house with some volunteering. i think the long weekend just turned everything into crazytime.

thanks to everyone for sharing and being supportive.

it's making me feel better to know i'm not alone in feeling this way and that it will get better.
posted by inmyhead at 9:48 AM on September 7, 2010

the young rope-rider: totally. hit the nail on the head. i really don't know who he is. i even said that in a couples' session: i've been with you for five years and i still don't feel like i really know you or that you feel comfortable enough with me to be yourself. the self-esteem stuff will be hard.
posted by inmyhead at 9:51 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I feel your pain. It's really tough to wait out a bad situation, even when it's getting better -- if "better" isn't authentic. It's really, truly important that he's trying, otherwise why stay? However, you're going to have to decide if trying is sufficient, until/unless he internalizes that behavior and it becomes authentic and honest.

What I would suggest is, watch for progress. He's started doing all these things you wanted, and he's doing them consistently -- that's progress from before. However, in a month or two, if he's still doing those things but you still feel you cannot trust their authenticity...well, that's a lack of progress. If things are stalled and you can't catalyze change, perhaps it's time to go, but as long as progress is being made, there's hope.
posted by davejay at 9:58 AM on September 7, 2010

I agree with
He's gonna try too hard at first until it becomes second nature to him and then it will seem more natural. He's working hard to be good, and he's doing it because he cares about you and your relationship. Try to remember those two things when it gets hard: That he cares deeply for you, and that the weird feeling of this will not last long.
1. Fake it 'til you make it applies here.
but i'm finding myself having trouble coping. it all feels so fake because he's still playing a "role" only now that role is "good boyfriend".

The first part of "Fake it till you make it" is faking it. That is, he is faking it, but with good intentions, and you need to figure out how you are going to know when he 'makes it' and how long you are going to wait for that to happen.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 10:01 AM on September 7, 2010

Well, this might not be the most tactful way to put this, but he seems to be constructing his behavior solely to play a role, and that role is "boyfriend who loves you and is paying attention to you, can't you see me paying attention to you? I'm paying attention to you!"

It's another mask, one that seems to pin his identity solely on what you think of him, and I completely don't blame you for being uncomfortable.

I can be like your boyfriend so I'll try to explain in a way that might help you understand what you're dealing with. I could be completely wrong but I think I have it pretty figured out and I have the lot of the same issues that your boyfriend does.

I consider my issue, whatever the cause, to be extreme self-consciousness to the point of narcissism.

Whatever it is, it's all about me. Even if it seems to be about the other person, it's really just about what THEY think of ME. It's not about what I DO, it's about what other people THINK I'm doing. Because what people think of me IS me. That's who I am. This leads to a certain, persistent way of thinking constantly about how I'm perceived and how/what others are thinking about me.

I want him to think that I love him, I should kiss him and look at him like I love him. I want him to think that I'm a hard worker, so I'll tell him how many calls I made. I want her to think I know a lot about that subject, so I'll tell her something about it. Etc.

Obviously everyone does this sometimes. And sure, some of these things originate from a desire to make other people feel good. But it's still all about how I want them to feel. And along the way I lose the ability to actually connect and respond to people as real people, instead of people who I want to do or feel X.

My feeling is that until he realizes that it's not all about how you see him, or about what you think about what he's doing, or how he can make you feel, but also about YOU--what he likes about you, how he responds to you, what you have to say, how you make him's just going to be one mask after another.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:43 AM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Personally (and everyone is different), I wouldn't push back on the affection/attention -- he's trying and I'd be worried about putting him OFF being affectionate again -- I would say, "Sweetie, I love you, but I need some quiet me time to process everything we've been going through too. Go to the library for two hours and don't come back until 6 p.m." or "I'm closing myself in my room to read for two hours and decompress, please don't disturb me."

I tell my husband all the time, "A woman needs to be alone with her house from time to time. Go somewhere." Well, not ALL the time. :) But when I need to decompress, I just tell him straight up to clear out and let me decompress. (Because I need to decompress at HOME, and while he thinks this is a little silly, he humors me and clears out.)

He may need pushback on the affection thing, I don't know, but tell him you need some alone time and see how that works. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:43 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

My wife taught me to say "I love you" a lot more than I normally would. For a while it was a conscious effort to do so. However, I did (and do) love her, so it wasn't inauthentic or fake.

We tend to think of behaviour and inner state as synonymous, so when someone is making an effort to act a certain way, it seems duplicitous. But it's not necessarily, and to think there's a problem with an apparent disagreement between acting and being is to put someone in a double bind where they can't change at all.
posted by fatbird at 11:05 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm going to have to go with the contrarian view here.

I think that he's never going to be comfortable with your impression of what "The Good Boyfriend Thing" is. He's trying, because he doesn't want to lose the relationship. It sounds like he's trying to preserve its benefit to him though, and that's what makes the whole enterprise unnatural. You can kind of see that it's not comfortable for him.

So, it's going to come down to whether you're willing to accept him for who he is (whoever that actually turns out to be), or you're not. In which case, it's likely to be better to let him go.
posted by Citrus at 1:06 PM on September 7, 2010

Let him know that it's okay to be wrong about what you need sometimes, as long as he's trying. Your boyfriend's behavior sounds similar to mine after a Big Issue has been brought to my attention. I'm hypervigilant at first because I'm afraid of letting down the person by doing too little, or not judging the nuances properly. It seems fake because the extreme degree of it is kind of fake -- but if he is really willing to change, you'll see it balance out over time, and you can encourage it by letting him know that his genuine effort means more to you than him getting it right every time. It sounds like he'll be receptive, based on how he responded to you pushing back on the kitchen lovin'. :)
posted by spinto at 12:54 PM on September 8, 2010

thanks spinto, that's pretty much it.

i think that all that combined with me not really knowing who he is just makes me so uncomfortable.

not that i know everything about myself, but at least i have some definite things ABOUT me not just things i do. oh well. i'm feeling extra anxious today so what fun.
posted by inmyhead at 10:48 AM on September 9, 2010

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