Social anxiety is marring my relationship
June 23, 2011 6:45 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend is charismatic and socially adept. I am not. Should I flee?

My SO and I are both 35 and have been together for four years. Things between the two of us are good—we have some problems but for the most part it’s a warm, considerate relationship. The problem I have is that we are at vastly different levels of social ability.

My boyfriend is a warm, caring, empathetic person who is genuinely funny and charismatic in a humble, unselfconscious way. He can talk to anyone and make them feel comfortable. To a person, the friends and family I’ve introduced him to have *loved* him. Loved him, in fact, in a way that makes me vaguely suspicious that they’re surprised I was able to land him. (As one aunt exclaimed after meeting him, “Well, he’s not backwards at all!”)

Meanwhile, my most enduring concept of myself is that I’m a social idiot. In school, I was that kid that even the other nerds made fun of. I did make a few friends in college, and in the ensuing years I’ve managed to cobble together a professional persona that gets me through the day but is very, very bland. When it comes to freeform socializing, though, I can just forget it. I’m slow to process conversation and I have a tendency to forget what I’m talking about in the middle of saying it. I’m anxious to the point of blushing and shaking, even around people I’ve known for years. I have a hard time maintaining eye contact with my own parents! I’ve seen no fewer that 20 therapists about my social anxiety, beginning in college and continuing to the present day. I suppose they’ve helped some, but the fact remains that I’m probably never going to be totally comfortable in my own skin when I’m with other people.

So, the situation is what I imagine the situation might be when people with vastly different IQs try to date. I simply can’t keep up with my SO. We have no “couple friends” or anyone outside of the relationship besides his family that we routinely hang out with . He’s tried to arrange lunch or dinner with friends of his, but without fail I sit in mute, smiling terror until asked a direct question, when I bark a humorless response. These things tend to not have repeat performances. I don’t have friends anymore outside of the relationship. My college friends all either moved away, or I realized that they frankly weren’t terribly nice to me (that whole victim vibe thing). And making friends is very difficult for me, even more so now that everyone’s all grown up with families and whatnot.

And his family, oh, his family. He comes from a large, tight-knit family that is quite a bit more sophisticated than my own. They place a great emphasis on being social and proper, particularly his mother, who is an outspoken social butterfly-type. He loves his family deeply and there are typically gatherings every couple of weeks. I find these events excruciating. I feel so out of place and awkward, and this has not changed a bit in the four years I’ve known him. The icing on the cake is a family tradition they have of spending a week every summer gathered together and socializing at a location several states away. I spend the weeks leading up to this event just absolutely dreading it. My SO assures me that his family likes me, but I sense that his mother, in particular, is irritated with my tentativeness. I think the rest of his family doesn’t particularly know what to make of me.

Should I run? Am I holding my boyfriend back from finding someone with whom he can have a great relationship and at the same time have a social life? Am I making myself sick with anxiety for the sake of a relationship that might not actually be worth it? Like I’ve said, other than this issue I think the relationship is good. We have tried to talk it over and he assures me it’s not a problem, although he doesn’t like that I’m silent with others because it seems like I’m not enjoying myself. (I do pay attention to conversation, nodding and chuckling along with what people say—I just don’t contribute anything.) If I weren’t dating him I would be perfectly happy to be totally friendless. I like being alone, and if there’s no one around to see how friendless I am, what does it matter? As it is, I’m frankly a little embarrassed that someone is here to witness my social shortcomings.

Thank you for reading my ridiculous rant. If have a thought to share, or have been in a similar situation, on either side of the fence, I’d be interested in hearing about it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Should I run? Am I holding my boyfriend back from finding someone with whom he can have a great relationship and at the same time have a social life?

he assures me it’s not a problem

Why would you make a decision that's his to make? He loves you, treats you well, respects you - all that stuff? Please don't try to "save" another adult when they give no indication they need or want saving.

You say you've seen therapists - have you been on meds, or has it all been talk therapy only?
posted by rtha at 6:49 PM on June 23, 2011 [12 favorites]

I have to confess that when I read these questions from people claiming to be socially maladroit, I wonder what's in it for them? This great guy is crazy about you, why do you need to flagellate yourself on this forum or anywhere else?
While you can't control blushing, can't you step up your game just a bit? Have you never encountered someone more ill-at-ease than yourself and sought to ease their way? Are you really this much of an mis-fit or is it the identity that you've clung to all these years? How did you attract this guy, if you're always in the corner, shaking and freaking out?
Fake it til you make it. His mother will cope. He likes you the way you are.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:55 PM on June 23, 2011 [10 favorites]

You know social interaction, for some of us, is a skill that has to be learned through repetition and learning. Maybe focus on it as if it were a task at work that you were given. As for whether or not you should run, I don't think so. If he loves you, and the fact that you've been together for 4 years would at least suggest that.

Personally, I am very aware when someone is not having fun and so if I were at a party where my wife was not having fun, it would upset me and I would do everything I could to turn that around (which would never happen because she loves people and parties- I do not).

This is sort of one of those "fake it till you make it" situations. It isn't harmful to fake being socially engaged and present. This isn't necessarily a bad time to really work on being sociable. For me, personally, it's tough. I HATE parties. I really don't like people and really don't care to hear about what's going on with them or their kids, or whatever. But it's important for my wife and so I fake it till it's fun (which mostly it isn't, but if she's happy, then I'm happy).

I don't think this is a meds thing, or even a therapy thing, but more of learning how to be the best you in a social situation thing.
posted by TheBones at 6:58 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can see how the main problem would be whether he's okay with your lack of social ability. Clearly he is, so I would try to feel better about it.

I know it's hard, but maybe this is a good balance. He can relax with you (doesn't have to be "on" all the time), and he can also help you make friends.

I'm seconding therapy or exercise or something. You know how to carry on a four-year relationship with someone who is very socially adept. Maybe you don't have a deficiency. Maybe the problem is all in your head.
posted by CorduroyCorset at 6:59 PM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Learn from him. Learn charm and social ease, and most of all, learn that you are lovable. This great guy loves you for a reason, so accept that you're lovable. His sophisticated family and social-butterfly Mom may intimidate you, but may not be very nice, and he may value you for your sincerity and kindness. You can learn to deal with shyness and insecurity. A therapist who specializes in social phobias is a good place to start. The guy sounds like a keeper; appreciate him, and let him love you.
posted by theora55 at 7:04 PM on June 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've never quite had the fear you've had however I wonder if forcing yourself to endure some of these events and trying to copy others behaviours might help you learn how to behave in these settings. I used to be so afraid of public speaking I tried to drop out of my masters program rather than giving a presentation (... I didn't show up on that day and called the secretary and literally tried to drop out until they convinced me to stay). I ended up applying to a community college to teach a class and actually forced myself (shaking and stuttering) to get over the fear. I've also spent the last several years studying how others word things and how people at this level communicate (I come from a very working class background and found in university it was like an entirely different language). I wonder if you could watch others and force yourself to overcome some fears. Maybe joining a group without your partner, something that interests you. Then you'd have something in common by default to talk about with these new people. Maybe volunteering or something.

But I agree with the first poster... well the first part of it. Don't make the decision for him. If he didn't like it he would have ended it so he obviously loves you how you are :)
posted by DorothySmith at 7:04 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems like your problem is anxiety, not inability. When your anxiety is so bad that you're thinking about ditching a long-term relationship with a great person just to avoid socializing, you really need professional assistance ASAP.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:33 PM on June 23, 2011 [36 favorites]

For some reason I read the intro line as "My boyfriend is NOT charismatic and socially adept. I am. Should I flee?" I don't know what's wrong with me. I guess that goes to show that, if you have a problem with someone, you can remove yourself from the situation. If you think you have a problem, and the person closest to you does not think it's a problem, why do you think you should remove yourself from this relationship?

Anyway. I'm also wondering how you met him and how you've managed to stay in this relationship for four years. I mean, you must be doing something right! So give yourself credit for that.

You say: my most enduring concept of myself is that I’m a social idiot.
You need to change this self-concept. To do this (just thinking off the top of my head here): Redo the messages in your head. "I am a pleasant person to be around. I am capable of engaging with people, asking them questions about themselves, and talking about myself without fear." Repeat 1000x a day. (You probably repeat your current messages more, and on a more subconscious level.)

I think it's interesting that you mention your parents and not being able to maintain eye contact with them. Why is that? Are you afraid of them? Why? I wonder if that's something to explore in therapy, with therapist number 21? :D

Lunch or dinner with his friends: you sit in mute, smiling terror. What are you afraid of? Not being liked? Sounding stupid? Being made fun of, just like what happened in school?

Should you run? What good would that do? Don't try to make decisions about what people like and want in their lives. You're not doing them a favour but just insulting them. "I'm going to bow out of your life because I suck at xyz. Yeah, you made a bad choice." Yeah right! Have you thought about asking your bf how he does it? Sharing tips? Practicing scenarios with him? Asking him about his friends before you meet them so you can them questions when you meet them? If you haven't thought about doing this, I think it goes back to your self-concept. If you think of yourself as socially inept, then other ways of being are never going to come into your head.
posted by foxjacket at 7:38 PM on June 23, 2011

I’ve seen no fewer that 20 therapists about my social anxiety

But have you ever tried medication? Also, have you ever tried just plain old getting drunk?

I have a hard time maintaining eye contact with my own parents!
FWIW, sometimes I do too -- and a lot of the time it's that my parents are being awkward themselves! Could part of this be that your parents are kind of awkward people?

I’m slow to process conversation and I have a tendency to forget what I’m talking about in the middle of saying it.

This totally sounds like how people get when they are just way out of practice socializing, not some weirdness of your individual brain or anything like that. You'll hear guys in solitary confinement say things like this a lot - that they just feel like they've forgotten how to interact with people and hold conversations and have to re-learn it.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:39 PM on June 23, 2011

Wait, I'm rethinking this. I'm with Ideefixe - (great name, btw) - is this idea of being socially inept such a fixed idea (see what I did there? :D ) in your head that you actually don't want to change it, and that it's easier just to flee, or think about doing so? Your question is "Should I do my SO a favour and just leave him because I suck at socializing" - not about how to improve your skills. Are you interested at all in exploring and dealing with your fears? Despite the excruciating discomfort you experience, sometimes it's easier to not change because it's familiar. Just be honest with yourself. People have given you suggestions on how you might learn to improve your social skills (including myself), but now I notice that's not what you asked for. Maybe you're in a lot of pain that you may not know about: made fun of in school, parents, college friends who weren't kind. Maybe this is what you're afraid of exploring?
posted by foxjacket at 7:40 PM on June 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Your problem is you are going into social situations telling yourself, over and over again, "oh god I am so bad in social situations, literally the worst at it ever". Stop doing that. Interacting with people is easy as pie. Hang off the boyfriend if you need to, let him do the talking, and just pipe up from time to time with a "yeah, it was the best!" or "totally sad :(" or whatever, obviously depending on the context of the discussion, and you'll find that what you are doing is learning to be social and pretty soon you won't need him to do it.
posted by tumid dahlia at 7:40 PM on June 23, 2011

Your boyfriend really probably doesn't mind at all. The best thing about socially charming and charismatic people is that they really DON'T get flustered by other people's social inability - that's how they manage to carry the conversation anyway, ease awkwardness etc. It's not hard for them. You are not making him uncomfortable.

Your problem is really whether YOU mind. And clearly you do. But would leaving the relationship help in any practical sense? I don't think so. It doesn't sound like you would necessarily have a bunch more friends or any easier time socially if you weren't with your boyfriend. If anything, his charming presence at joint social events should make it easier for people to continue to socialise with you. And the networks he maintains (friendly, professional or familial) are ones you could tap into in times of need even if you aren't comfortable with them on a day to day basis.

I doubt people find your social discomfort anywhere near as troubling as you worry they do. I know people whose partners are quiet to the point where they never talk at parties or dinners, who have trouble holding up a one-on-one conversation, and who blush and stammer when you do try to talk to them. Of course I spend less time talking with them or trying to meet with them than I do with other acquaintances, but mainly because I don't want to make them uncomfortable. It doesn't bother ME personally or negatively affect my opinion of them or their partners.
posted by lollusc at 7:41 PM on June 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Also, upon re-reading, sorry my response was so short that I wasn't clear. I think that for whatever reason you are getting the wrong kind of therapy, or you need medication, or there is some kind of undiagnosed disorder besides "just" social anxiety (not to say social anxiety is a picnic, but that there might be something else there).

I'm not clear if you're still in therapy or if you've seen a psychiatrist about this or been open to medication, so I apologize if I'm rehashing things you've already been through.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:51 PM on June 23, 2011

I read your question to be one motivated by fear, as though you've got this cycle going through your head:

"I don't want to hang out with other people, it's stressful and I always feel like I suck when in others' company. But bf wants to hang out and I love him, so I'll hang out. Except OMG now I'm hanging out because he wanted to, and I'm being a total idiot, and these people are silently judging me, and bf says it's okay but he can't really mean that, he's probably secretly upset with or disappointed in me; which sucks, this is just the way I am, I couldn't bear it if he judged me for this; I don't want to be judged, I'm sick of being judged, I just want to be left alone; I should leave him, it would be so much easier if I were alone, should I leave him then?, should I leave him so I don't have to constantly worry that he's lying about not caring, that even if he's telling the truth now one day he will care and start judging me for it?"

...Which, you know, is dysfunctional but (obviously, to me at least) totally understandable.

You say this is just "the way you are," but that idea smacks of a level of self-acceptance that the rest of your question doesn't reflect. After all, the reason you have a hard time believing him when he says it doesn't bother him is because, in some part of you, you think it should bother him. You're not happy with the way you are. You don't think highly of yourself. So, you're naturally suspicious that a great guy like him might be speaking the total truth when he says that this aspect of you that you loathe really isn't a big deal to him. I think by pondering a break-up with him, what you're actually doing is trying to spare yourself the greater pain of being judged/dumped by the man you love (who, by his actions and words, isn't even considering it).

This low self-image you've got thus seems to be poisoning your relationship by making you unable to enjoy or trust it fully.

Social anxiety sucks. I had a pretty acute, extended bout of it, a while back. It was so frustrating to be reduced instantaneously -- even with friends whom I'd known forever and adored -- to a stammering, red-faced freak. (Or so I felt.) I wondered what the hell was wrong with me. I felt...soiled. A great doctor told me, "Hey, sometimes wires get crossed in your brain. Go easy on yourself." He also mentioned that he knew *extroverts* who had developed social anxiety.

That really brought me comfort. It allowed me to separate the Social Anxiety, as a sort of random phenomenon (like rainclouds! or hail!) generated by the misfiring of a few temporarily confused neurons, from my larger understanding of myself -- my actual self -- as a person.

Once I made that separation, my recovery periods after a bout of anxiety got much, much shorter. No longer did five minutes' stammering and blushing lead to 48-72 hours of bitter self-castigation. Instead, when it was over, it was over; I shrugged and moved on and tried again when in company, and my attempts grew more and more successful because *I believed I could do better* and that the anxiety had nothing to do with my innate nature or "true" potential as a person and social creature.

All this to say -- who you are has nothing to do with your anxiety problem. Your anxiety is a problem to be addressed, not part of your core identity. Your boyfriend loves you for who you are. If you leave him, you will be leaving him for your problem -- to protect it, to allow yourself to continue to avoid addressing it -- as surely as if you'd left him for another man. Let me hasten to add that that's a completely valid option. If you're not ready to look for new ways to address your anxiety, then maybe you can't live comfortably in a relationship that involves both it and him. No judgments here on my part -- seriously, this shit is tough to get a handle on. But if you do leave, don't tell yourself you're leaving for his sake. He sounds like a guy who'd rather be with you than without.
posted by artemisia at 8:21 PM on June 23, 2011 [18 favorites]

I used to be you years ago.

You can learn to be comfortable even if you never learn to be the life of the party.

I do recommend you talk to a doc about medication. I'm thinking you wouldn't even need it long, just long enough to get over the hump of the problem. Right now you are in some kind of endless loop, and you need something to break the cycle.

ps don't break up with the guy, he sounds awesome.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:35 PM on June 23, 2011

I'm in a (disintegrating) marriage that has very strong parallels to the dynamic you're describing. I'm the outgoing sociable one and my husband is the one who has very few friends and would prefer to forego most types of socializing.

I'll project a little bit, since you asked. Yeah, I think the difference will catch up to you both in the end. If he's the one who's more outward-facing and more willing to take risks and so forth, he's going to end up carrying most of the weight of engaging with the rest of the world and the two of you will never be a real team. Quick: of the two of you, who's going to be the one who talks to the mortgage broker when you buy a house? the new neighbors when you settle into a new neighborhood? the elementary school teachers and parent community when you have kids? who's going to negotiate with the salesperson when you buy a new car, or engage with the electrician when your place needs repair? On and on and on.

You're well within your rights to keep yourself so closed off, but if left to your own devices as you are now you're going to live a pretty small life. Your involvement with him almost certainly broadens your horizons and eases your way (are you explicitly grateful to him about the ways that this is true?) though it also forces you to confront your limits, which is where the discomfort arises that drives this post.

It is always easier to stay the same than to change. I am with foxjacket and artimisia and think that you're looking for a passive-aggressive out to the situation rather than facing your limitations head-on and really changing. Do you really want your life to be shaped by clinging to your weaknesses instead of building your strengths?
posted by Sublimity at 11:03 PM on June 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Nthing everyone who says the enduring self-image of being a 'social idiot' may be the problem. Social anxiety can be overcome, and this Reddit AMA from someone with social anxiety who conquered it. maybe inspirational. All the best!
posted by roshni at 11:15 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm socially adroit and outgoing. My husband is not. My family-of-origin loves to entertain and throws elaborate bashes that, while informal, are the talk of their social circle for weeks. His. . . doesn't. My family of origin even has a tradition of spending a week every summer gathering together and socializing at a location several states away, with the added twist that this is every descendant of a pair of ancestors from a hundred years ago, so there are a couple hundred people out to seventh cousins.

He is the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me, and I have a deep and abiding affection for his introverted, asocial ways. He usually vanishes about 30-45 minutes into one of my parents' parties to go read a book in the basement, or else occupies himself herding our children. Or he'll find one person he really gets along with and get into a really deep, convoluted conversation in the corner. My parents are really understanding of his need to take my family in small doses, like the salt on the rim of a margarita glass, and I leap to his defense quickly if other people need a dose of empathy.

I am so glad to be partnered with him, not despite his asocialness, but because of it. And yes, I'm always the one who deals with the mortgage broker, always the one who calls for pizza, always the one who goes to PTA meetings. That's OK. He does so, so, SOOOOO much other shit that hate or am bad at or both. We have very complementary strengths.

Sure, this can be a dealkiller. But I tell you straight up, it does not have to be.

(He flies back from the family gatherings a week before I do, btw. It's the only way it can be borne.)
posted by KathrynT at 11:16 PM on June 23, 2011 [13 favorites]

I have this problem as well except I am drawn like a magnet to extroverted charismatic people - and whenever I am around them I regress to my shy, SA self. I definitely feel inadequate and that they're only pretending to like me (how could they like someone like me?).

Given that I have taught myself to not be SA around *everyone* all the time (including my parents) I have to keep trying with those charismatic extroverts I like so much. I know that I can do it, even though it's hard, I just have to keep trying.

Don't give up.
posted by mleigh at 12:07 AM on June 24, 2011

Good lord, are you me? I had this relationship, down to the family gatherings several states away, sophisticated/annoyed matriarch and mute unsmiling terror at every dinner. It got a little better than over time, but ultimately socializing with him was painful. Painful because in some ways, I was jealous of his ability...and painful because I was never really myself when we socialized together. I really wish I had been. I wish I hadn't made myself so miserable and just said what I thought. I wish I had focused on making myself comfortable, instead of worrying about what other people would think. I wish that I'd done that...because that's what I've been doing since we broke up, and it has worked. I've been myself-- my awkward, silly, dorky self, and the world hasn't ended. We probably still would have broken up, but at least I wouldn't have spent those three years being completely miserable at all social events.

The funny thing is...I was drawn to him for a reason. I love extroverts and I want to be more like them. Like you, I'd talked myself out of even wanting to socialize with other people, because I had no idea how to draw them to me or relax enough to enjoy myself around them. I learned a lot from being around him. Now that we've broken up, I've really come out of my shell because I missed all the social interaction I got with him. I've thrown big parties (terrifying to plan, but always turn out better than you think), hit on people (took a little alcohol), struck up random conversations with strangers (surprisingly easy), learned how to smile and be friendly. I'm getting better at putting other people at ease. I've made friends. I still get tired and mute (sorry meetup folks) if I've overbooked myself. Occasionally, I long to be alone. But most of the time? Most of the time I am happy that I made the effort to connect to this part of myself. Do you also secretly want to be an extrovert? Is that why you're so defensive about having no friends? It is hard and scary and I am not going to pretend that everything is all better or that I'm the life of the party now, but it is miles better than being terrified all the time. Best of all, you have someone who will be supportive about your hang ups by your side. He can help you calm down when you think you've offended someone (you likely haven't) and psych you up for a gathering you've talked yourself out of wanting to go to. Get him on your side if you can--let his natural lack of anxiety lead you.

I don't know you, and I don't know your guy. I imagine he's good to you, and you're good to him, since you've been together 4 years. I imagine you're both pretty committed and are loving, and respectful to each other. I imagine that it doesn't bother him that you don't talk much. So I guess my advice is--if all that holds true--don't run. Work on liking yourself and accepting yourself and making yourself comfortable. You might find that when you like yourself more, you'll be more willing to open up around other people. And you might find that it will go well, and you'll have a new friend. And if it doesn't, or it turns out that you don't really like people after all? So what? You'll still have conquered that worry about yourself and your relationship.

It really isn't a big deal that you don't have many friends, or that you're awkward. Who cares? He doesn't. You shouldn't. You're you, and you are awesome.
posted by millions of peaches at 2:04 AM on June 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

I sit in mute, smiling terror until asked a direct question, when I bark a humorless response.

This is a really funny sentence. You might get some benefit out of going with your sense of humor and finding some of this amusing (in addition to the meds, and fake it till you make it and other good advice you're getting here.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:33 AM on June 24, 2011 [8 favorites]

My boyfriend wife is charismatic and socially adept. I am not. We've been married almost 28 years.

She can strike up a conversation with almost anyone, anywhere. I, on the other hand, need time to "warm up" before I can do that. I will admit that I'm better now than I was when we first met, however. Still, there are times when I feel awkward and uncomfortable because she's dragged me into something I would normally approach with great caution.

But I've survived. You can, too. I believe that "opposites attract" is just a cliche, but I can't imagine what our relationship would be like if we were both outgoing or both shy and awkward. Enjoy what you are and what he is. Who knows, some of it might rub off, just like it has for me.
posted by tommasz at 5:58 AM on June 24, 2011

I don’t have friends anymore outside of the relationship. My college friends all either moved away, or I realized that they frankly weren’t terribly nice to me (that whole victim vibe thing). And making friends is very difficult for me, even more so now that everyone’s all grown up with families and whatnot.

This is your problem. Your boyfriend is not your problem. Running away from your boyfriend will not fix this problem. It will make this problem worse.

I don't know what the cure for your social anxiety is, but I can promise that isolating yourself and hiding from people is not it.
posted by ook at 6:01 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know loads of very happy couples where one member of the couple is vastly more socially adept than the other. Clearly this is a thing that can be worked out. I don't see what either of you would gain by you breaking up with this guy.
posted by mskyle at 6:10 AM on June 24, 2011

My twin sister and I are like this. I can walk up to damn near anybody and start a conversation - I have very little social anxiety as far as that goes. My sister, on the other hand, is very shy on first meeting people.

But here's the thing. I sort of fizzle out a little after the social niceties are out of the way. The danger of striking up a conversation with strangers is that they won't always have anything in common with you. What then? Here is where my twin comes into her own. She picks up the conversation where I leave it off - think of it as a relay race and I just passed her the baton. We have made many joint friends over the years doing things this way.

My advice is to talk to your SO about this. You guys need to team up better. You yourself need to identify your strengths (and NO, it is NOT permissible to say you don't have any), and work it so you can play to those strengths in your social interactions. See if your SO will help out by starting the relay race, then passing you the baton.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 6:23 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a situation that I heard none other than David Duchovny talk about when he was once asked to describe the relationship between Mulder and Scully. (I know that sounds like a ridiculous tangent; go with it a second.)

Duchovny said he knew a couple, and the husband was a kind of oddball and socially awkward; the wife, though, was lovely and gracious and socially adept. The people who met them, though, didn't feel sorry for her wondering what she was doing with someone like him; they instead looked at how happy she seemed to be with him, and figured, "well, if she's happy with him, there's obviously good in him somewhere, so we'll cut him some slack for her sake." (Duchovny's point was that Scully did that for Mulder.)

I'd wager that this is similar to what your SO's family is thinking at the absolute worst -- they see how happy he is with you, they love him and want him to be happy, and so that's that. Or, hey, maybe they really like you too. You say that you think his mother is "irritated with your tentativeness," but maybe she's just trying to figure out how to make YOU feel more comfortable because she wants so badly for you TO feel comfortable, because they really, really like you too.

As to your family's reaction -- you say that they all responded positively, but you say that you got a sense of "they can't believe I was able to get someone like him." Maybe they responded so positively because, "oh, yay! She's always deserved someone fantastic, and this guy's even more fantastic than we dared hope!"

At the end of the day -- your family loves you and wants you to be happy. His family loves him and wants him to be happy. He is happy with you, and people can tell that he is, and that makes a big difference in how people perceive you ("he's really happy with her? Well, good."). Stick with him.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:27 AM on June 24, 2011

I simply can’t keep up with my SO.

Maybe you should look at the fact that he's so socially adept as a great gift; try to sit back and relax and let him lead. (I know it's hard to try to relax, but...)

Maybe a better analogy than two people with vastly different IQs is a relationship where one person loves to cook and is great at it, and one person is happy to wash dishes and hates to cook. Very sympatico.

It may be nice for your boyfriend that he doesn't have to compete in social situations with his girlfriend. When he's being all charming, you can appreciate it, like you would appreciate it if he made a great meal for you. He's winning people over, and this benefits both of you.

Thinking about it in this way might take a lot of CBT-like practice, but it's a different way of seeing your situation.

Also: my shrink says we tend to couple with people who help us develop the underdeveloped aspects of his personality. When you're with him in these situations, instead of focusing on how bad you are at talking to people, watch and observe him like you're watching a TV show, and see what he's doing; analyse it. And appreciate it. I bet you can be incredibly charming, too. You just have to find your own way about it, that's comfortable for you.
posted by Clotilde at 7:43 AM on June 24, 2011

I don't tend to be a relationship conspiracy theorist but ... it seems like, for some reason, you're trying to sabotage this relationship. Nothing in your question suggests that your boyfriend thinks this is a big problem -- it seems to be all about your own insecurities, but you're projecting the problem onto him (and the relationship), distorting what is your own (common) psychological problem into something that dramatically makes it all about how you are unfit for relationships, dragging your boyfriend down, etc -- and casting yourself as the tragically flawed one, and your boyfriend as the perfect one. What is the evidence for all of that?

I know you said you've done therapy, but you need to try again -- this time, taking ownership of your problems instead of dramatizing them. I think CBT is crucial for you. Because I can tell you, your issues are not going to change in other relationships. You either address them now, or later.

And you know what else? It's perfectly possible that this isn't the right relationship for you, but not because you're so awful and he's so great. That kind of thinking is a copout, blocking you from figuring out what you really want. Maybe you'd be happier and more secure with someone who was more of an introvert homebody, more of a team of 2, instead of so extroverted. But you won't figure this out if you keep on distorting the facts.
posted by yarly at 7:47 AM on June 24, 2011

TheBones: You know social interaction, for some of us, is a skill that has to be learned through repetition and learning.

This. This was me. My now-ex boyfriend was just like yours. Unlike yours, he was constantly on my case to be nicer, to make an effort, etc. So one day (and to be brutally honest, I was doing it for the job I'd just gotten and not for him), I sat down and decided I was going to study what he did and mimic him in my own way, and read a few books about networking, etc.

Some time later, I took him to an event for my work, and when we left, he was amazed. "Who are you, and what did you do with my girlfriend?" Socializing with people is definitely a learned skill. As an only child, and one who preferred the company of books and adults at that, I didn't pick up those skills early on. You CAN do this. It's going to be uncomfortable, but watch what he does and take some cues from him.

DON'T break up with him. He sounds lovely and this is fixable, I promise you.
posted by at 7:51 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Suppose you weren't involved with your socially-competent, outgoing, charming boyfriend. Would that make you feel confident, sociable, and chatty? No? Then the problem isn't with your boyfriend or your relationship.

If I weren’t dating him I would be perfectly happy to be totally friendless. I like being alone, and if there’s no one around to see how friendless I am, what does it matter? As it is, I’m frankly a little embarrassed that someone is here to witness my social shortcomings.

Aw, sweetheart. You are getting some bad, false messages from the voices in your head (figure of speech, not meant to imply a psychiatric disorder). And I say that as somebody who is profoundly introverted and comes from a family of people who tend to be, as my mother used to say, "content with our own company", so I'm not saying there's anything wrong with liking to be alone.

If I may suggest some reading, you might buy or check out from the library a copy of the book (Regardless of What You Were Taught to Believe) There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate by American Zen teacher Cheri Huber. Another of her books that might click with you is Be the Person You Want to Find: Relationship and Self-Discovery. I used to experience a lot more social anxiety than I do now (at the fabric store, my husband would have to ask the clerks for things I needed because I couldn't make myself do it) and would definitely have described myself as "shy". These days I'm still introverted and reserved, but generally comfortable in social settings, and I think Cheri's teachings have had a lot to do with my being able to get to this point. In fact, when I get off work today I'm heading off to a party where I don't expect to know a single person, and I anticipate having a decent time.

Your boyfriend sounds, from your description, like a peach, and like he's pretty darn fond of you and likes being with you. Please don't rush to break that off; you may find that he's one of your best sources of support and reassurance.

Very best wishes.
posted by Lexica at 3:51 PM on June 24, 2011

I'm an outgoing, social, assertive girl who has been dating a laidback, shy, nerdy (and incredibly sweet) boy for almost a year. The hardest part was the beginning - introducing my chatty family to him. My mother wouldn't stop asking him questions (her way of keeping the conversation going) and he clearly felt like he was being grilled. My mum interpreted his lack of conversational effort with rudeness and disinterest, which was heartbreaking for me because I knew how nervous he was around her (conversely, his family loved me from the beginning, which put even more pressure on him). But after a few months, he started to feel more at ease with her and would strike up conversations with her, finally showing her the sweet, funny personality that I fell in love with, and now she thinks he's great.

Talking to people you don't know well is hard - and I was extremely shy for a long time too - but be careful of retreating away from social interaction just because it's easier. Asking chatty people questions about themselves is a great way to start, and they'll usually appreciate that you've made the effort to join the conversation, especially if they've gathered that you're not usually a very talkative person.

I used to always give one-word answers when people asked me questions, too. I thought that they were just talking to me out of politeness, so I should quickly answer and let them get on with what they wanted to talk about. Don't do this. As weird and self-indulgent as it might seem, tell them how work is going lately. Tell them what you're working on and what interesting things happened this week - don't wait for them to ask specifically. If they ask what you've been up to, don't just say "not much, you?". Tell them what's been going on. Tell them you've been experimenting with your cooking, or you've taken up this new class, or you've been staying late at work, or you went to see this show the other night. And if you don't think your life is interesting enough to talk about, maybe you need to try doing more interesting things! If you don't think you have anything to talk about, read the news, read blogs, read Metafilter, spend an evening wandering through the depths of Wikipedia... you'll eventually come up with some interesting stuff that you can insert into a conversation somewhere.

Also, if your boyfriend is constantly organising things like lunches and dinners that require full-on conversation, why not ask him to organise something like a board game night? It'll still be social, but since you're playing a game, you'll feel involved in the group instead of being on the outskirts of a conversation all night.

Your boyfriend clearly thinks you're pretty awesome, otherwise you guys wouldn't have stayed together for four years. Don't break it off because of this. It will get better if you work at it.
posted by lovedbymarylane at 2:49 AM on June 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

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