It's not a zero-sum game, guys.
February 26, 2011 9:48 AM   Subscribe

My partner is very liberal and effusive with compliments. I am generally much more reticent. When I realize that he has said the same things to others that he has to me, I can't help but feel like those compliments are now devalued, and that his esteem of me can't possibly be as high as he says it is.

My partner is a writer, and to some extent I think this tendency of his is just a natural inclination to play with words. I am often very insecure (it's something I'm working on in therapy) and his unprompted comments that he finds me good-hearted, that he's blown away by my unconditional support, that he's so glad I'm on his side, that I'm the best thing that's ever happened to him, etc. have been incredibly effective at quelling my inner anxiety demon.

However, he shares enough with me that I see him making similar comments to other people, and then I feel...cheapened, I suppose. I'm not used to being nearly as open about complimenting other people, nor am I used to receiving compliments in general, so I'm a little possessive of them.

I know that his opinions of other people does not change his opinion of me, and he has 100% good intentions in every case, but how can I actually believe this?
posted by Be cool, sodapop to Human Relations (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you not feel that your partner only compliments people who share certain characteristics with you?

That would be the optimistic way of looking at this. Why are you looking for a half empty glass?
posted by hal_c_on at 9:55 AM on February 26, 2011

Well you nailed it already ("I am often very insecure (it's something I'm working on in therapy)"). You can only believe from him what you already believe about yourself independently. It's like a hard limit. Keep working on yourself and good things will happen.
posted by facetious at 9:57 AM on February 26, 2011

If you want to know what a man is, look at his actions. Trust those. He's into you, isn't he? That's what's important.
posted by smorange at 9:58 AM on February 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

Is he telling other people that they're the best thing that has ever happened to him? Because that's the only compliment in your list that would ever become more less true the more he used it.

Him telling someone else they are good-hearted does not make you less so - it's not some kind of competition that you're trying to win. Accept his complements with grace and recognize the fact that he prefers to share his accolades more than you does not make them any less valid. Think about what's going on in your head when you speak with people - I'm guessing that you (hopefully) think positive things about people just as much as he does - he's just more inclined to share those thoughts.

Compliments are not something to be possessed. They are something to be enjoyed, basked in, and occasionally taken with a grain of thought. They in no way change who you are other than to help increase your confidence, thereby perhaps making you more you.

Bring it up in therapy - to me this is clearly your thing and not his - unless he is actually telling everyone that they're the best thing that's ever happened to him there's no reason to doubt his sincerity.
posted by scrute at 10:01 AM on February 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

less true, not more less true. Sorry.
posted by scrute at 10:02 AM on February 26, 2011

I'm not monogamous and I'm actually quite careful with compliments for this reason. Not everyone can be the MOST compassionate or sweetest or whatever. And, in fact, I think that compliments that rely a bit on saying that one person is better than other people are not great in the long run because they set up a (very) subtle comparison.

HOWEVER, you must realize that you and someone else can both be good-hearted. You and someone else can both be supportive. That means that your boyfriend is good at picking out friends (believe me, you don't want to date someone who hates all their friends), generally positive, and friendly.

If the "you're the best X" compliments bother you, say something. I think that's valid. Everything else, well, tamp down the competitiveness.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:21 AM on February 26, 2011

smorange: "If you want to know what a man is, look at his actions. Trust those. He's into you, isn't he? That's what's important"

I have found that in all my relationships, personal, business, family, actions speak louder than words. Talk is cheap. Some are better at it than others and I do not question the sincerity of your partner's words, but his actions speak volumes more than what he says. Further to what the above poster wrote, people vote with their feet and pocketbook. He is with you (feet) not someone else. I guess he could take it one step further and ask you to marry him if he wants to back up those words and also commit financially, but I have such a dearth of information about your particular situation to make that suggestion baseless.
posted by AugustWest at 10:25 AM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's not a zero-sum game, guys.

...pretty much sums up the answers you've gotten so far, and you used it as the title of your question, so you already understand this. But you need to take it heart.

Also, I agree with above comment about "the best thing that's ever happened to him" is the only one you should potentially worry about, and it's one you could easily bring up with him in a non-confrontational, non-accusatory way: Just ask him, "Sweetie, can you tell me what was going through your head when you said this to X? Because your compliments are so meaningful to me, and it would help me to know if you meant something different when you said this to me."
posted by torticat at 11:13 AM on February 26, 2011

I know this might not be helpful, but I feel compelled to pipe in...

Writers and other creative professionals can be a different breed. Do you believe your BF is into you? Does he treat you well? Are there actions or gestures that feel "off" and are contributing to this worry you are having??

If your guy is sincere towards you in word and deed, then everyone's advice above is correct.

If your guy's actions also give you pause... Then there may actually be something to worry about here. For me it happened twice that I was dating seriously and the men (once successful writer, once a successful photographer) said stuff that I started sensing was, well, just stuff they said. These were both men who cultivated a lovey-dovey atmosphere with me, but the relationships didn't last. I was a prop in their fantasy of what a relationship was. Both relationships eventually failed. Now that I am super happily married, I occasionally think back on the atmosphere those two created with me and how similar it is to what I have now, except what I have with my husband has a foundation underneath and the complementary words won't fall flat when real relationship issues and needs arise.
posted by jbenben at 11:45 AM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I compliment people a lot, so maybe my take on this can help you.

Basically, I think that the world has enough (too much) rough stuff in it to bring people down. So I decided that if I notice something positive about a person--how they're dressed, how they handled a situation, whatever--I may as well give them the honest compliment.

Call me Pollyanna (go ahead, I can take it) but I believe each of us has an impact on the world, most strongly with the people close to us but also radiating out to the world at large, and I'd rather that my impact on the world be positive than negative.

So, no, I don't reserve compliments to just my husband, kids, friends. I give them to coworkers, store clerks, people on the street. All of them sincere, and I don't think at all that because I'm generous with compliments that it means my appreciation of my loved ones is any less meaningful.

Maybe that's your SO's approach to life too?
posted by Sublimity at 12:31 PM on February 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Other than you (and possibly his mother), is there any one person who your boyfriend would pay all of those compliments to?

I mean, I know lots of generous people, and lots of kind people, and lots of smart people, and lots of funny people, and even a decent number of people who understand me pretty well, on and on and on. But then a lot of the generous people are impatient or unreliable. A lot of the funny people are stingy or rude. A lot of the people who understand me are dull or too-serious. There's only one person in my life who's got all those good qualities going for her at once, in just the right combination — and lucky me, it's my girlfriend.

Maybe your boyfriend feels the same way about you.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:49 PM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree that you're right not to trust flattery. However, unless there's something specific that you're not sharing with us (e.g. he said to another woman "you're the one and only love of my life!" in front of you), I don't really understand why you don't trust your partner.

It's really quite shocking how much the average person goes around feeling deprived. We extend ourselves and make huge efforts just to get through each day, and the most acknowledgement we usually get is "needs salt". If you send a gift, you usually don't get a mention, let alone a mumbled "thank you" in passing, and the culture at large is pretty scornful of anyone who's shallow enough to hope for that.

So if you have a partner who fully appreciates the good qualities that you and others bring into his life, and you see that as a bad thing, maybe you're just a product of our culture. Why not try his culture?
posted by tel3path at 1:24 PM on February 26, 2011

It makes sense to me that you would feel like his compliments get devalued when he compliments other people - I think it's mostly rational, especially if he's saying something like, "You're so good-hearted and unconditionally supportive, that's why you're the best thing that ever happened to me." This means he loves you on condition that you have certain qualities, which naturally creates anxiety about whether you really have those qualities, or maybe there's someone who is even more good-hearted and supportive? What then? What if you're in a black mood one day and aren't feeling good-hearted? How will he feel about you then?

I think the main problem is that when he initially compliments you, you take that as an expression of love. But then he compliments other people, it stops feeling that way. This is also rational, because loving someone doesn't just mean you feel positively towards them. It means they are everything to you, the ultimate. So there's a disjoint here, between love which says "You, Be cool, sodapop, are everything to me!" and "I love (just about) everything! You, Be cool, sodapop, are one of things I love!"

Those are totally different statements. The latter isn't even really love, it's like saying "I love pancakes! They're amazing!" That doesn't mean it's not sincere - he really does think you have positive qualities and appreciates them - and it doesn't mean he doesn't love you, it's just that those compliments do not express it. It kind of sounds like you have two different concerns - "Am I a good person, valued by people in general?" and "Am I loved by this one particular person?" Maybe they are interrelated in the sense that you feel you need to be a good person in general in order to be loved by any one particular person. But they also work against each other - the more someone tells you how many good qualities you have among all the other things in the world, the more you become simply one of those things, instead of someone's whole world.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:44 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm with Sublimity. I'm a depressive bastard with horrible self-esteem, and one day I realized how much I like it when random people say nice things to me-- both people I know complimenting deeper aspects of my personality, and random strangers complimenting superficial things like my outfits and my hair. So I decided that I would start complimenting people when I saw something to compliment. I like to imagine that it starts a spiral of pleasantness and mood-lifting, which may in some way counteract the spirals of unhappiness that go around society so often when people are jerks to each other. But that REALLY doesn't mean that the compliments I give my husband are any less sincere and significant. When I tell him I love his hair, it does not negate the fact that I really liked that girl on the street's hair, if in a very different way. And he is very kind to me, and very supportive of me. And that is in no way diminished when a close friend drags me out to a concert when I am feeling down and gives me a pep-talk. I'm still going to thank the friend, though. Because she deserves it, for being awesome. And my husband deserves the same, also for being awesome.

But I love my husband more, and in a lot more ways, than I love my friend, awesome though she is. I just feel blessed to have more than one person around that I *can* really care about.

Everyone who does something wonderful, or is wonderful just for who they are, deserves recognition. That includes all of your gentleman friend's friends as well as you. If he's a successful writer, that almost certainly means that he has developed professional connections with people who have done him favors, hooked him up with opportunities and the like. And one can either be cynical and awful about that kind of connection, and basically be a smarmy jerk, or view it as a genuine kindness, and be genuinely kind in return. I think you should be happy that your fellow is one of the latter sorts. Complimenting others really isn't the same as denigrating you. It's an indication of a generous spirit, and the ability to see positive things in life. And the more of that one's partner possesses, the better.

Will it help if I tell you that you sound quite intelligent and self-aware in your question? Because that's a compliment. And it's one I think you deserve. Perhaps this will assist in some small way with you getting used to them. ;) (I'm terrible at accepting compliments too, by the way. I'm much better at giving them than getting them.)
posted by Because at 10:03 PM on February 27, 2011

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, everyone. I really appreciated reading all of your takes on the situation. I think a lot of you are right in that I need to learn to appreciate that my boyfriend is simply someone who sees goodness in many things, rather than try to hoard his affection for myself. I never said I wasn't selfish :)

AlsoMike, you bring up a really interesting point about decoupling the compliment from his love, I definitely hadn't thought about it from that angle before. I'm lucky in that I feel like I can trust in his stalwart love for me, though, so this is definitely an issue on my side.

Unfortunately, health care being what it is, I only see my therapist every 2-3 weeks, so our progress on something as deep-seated as self-esteem has been rather slow. I'll be bringing this up with her at our next session. Again, thank you for your help everyone.
posted by Be cool, sodapop at 7:44 PM on February 28, 2011

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