I really just need a walkthrough.
June 4, 2014 5:24 AM   Subscribe

I am really terrible at 1) figuring out what the hell I want, and 2) communicating it. I've started dating a guy and this problem is magnifying my relationship anxieties by a thousand, and it's starting to make me super stressed. Please tell me what I'm doing wrong here!

We've been seeing each other nearly two months. We get along amazingly well and I would really like to continue seeing this guy if I could just get a handle on this issue.

Here's a sample situation:
- We study in the afternoon and go out for dinner, then go back to my place. We don't really have the evening together because he has to drop his friend back home (both from the suburbs living with parents) but says he'll try to come back if he can (on my request that he stay the night), though it'll be quite late. After he leaves I'm of two minds: I want him to come back, but at the same time, I really *should* use the rest of the night to study. So I busy myself and try and forget about it. When he messages me at 11pm saying he won't be able to make it, I can't shake how disappointed I am. So I suggest he stay over the next night instead and he agrees.
- We study separately the next day and I sort of just... assume he's going to be here around dinner time (I guess because that's what we did yesterday). So when he messages me with a 'hey what's up!' text around 6 and says he's going to be studying for another few hours, I feel annoyed and disappointed. Especially when he doesn't rock up until 10-11, and then I can't enjoy myself because this is mostly my fault somehow but I have no idea how to articulate what it is that I wanted him to do in the first place.

It just feels like we aren't spending any quality time together or like I'm a last-minute option, and this has happened a few times so I don't like it's turning out to be a pattern for the relationship so far. On the other hand, it *is* right in the middle of exam period and even outside of exams, we're both busy people. He's introduced me to his friends and family and they know me as his girlfriend, but I think I've been holding back a bit on that label because this inability to communicate keeps coming up for me and putting a damper on my feelings for him. Otherwise when it's good, it's really good.

I'm a pretty anxious person in general. I know this comes down to me assuming things and not communicating enough (just typing out that situation was cringeworthy). I think I just need some really concrete and specific advice on how to set boundaries here, and how to approach this and him in a way that will make me happier. Kind of a nebulous question but any help is appreciated. (FWIW, I'm female, we're both in our 20s, and yes I'm currently in therapy.)
posted by sockitysock to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have a big need to know what the rest of my day is going to look like, and if I don’t have firm plans, I sort of make them up in my head. And then if they don’t go as I expected I’m disappointed.

Would it help if you made firm instead of casual plans? Say to him, “I really want to see you but also really need to plan my day; can we plan specific dates at specific times?”
posted by metasarah at 5:41 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Reduce the number of days you see him. I think people fall into patterns where they take each other for granted the more times they see one another. If you're just part of his day, he's going to do all his stuff and then get to you. If getting together with you is a special occasion (and a limited one at that), he'll probably put more effort in.
posted by xingcat at 6:05 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

A phrase my wife and I use regularly is, "So, what do you want this day to look like?" We both answer the question, loosely describing what we hope to get done, the limits of what we might be up for, etc. and thereby negotiate an agreement of some sort that gives shape to the day and sets agreed-upon expectations. Boundaries don't really come into it unless one of us completely drops the ball on some explicit agreement.
posted by jon1270 at 6:13 AM on June 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

Make concrete plans! I had the same problem early on in my relationship with making assumptions about how things were going to play out, especially regarding dinner plans and staying overnight. I'd get hella ticked off sitting around waiting for them and getting hungry and pissed off or tired and pissed off because I wasn't sure when they'd show, hadn't made it clear what I expected, and didn't want to be hyper anxious and clingy, texting all the time to check what they were doing. We even lived in the same damn building (dorms) for our first year together and this was still happening! I think it's quite an easy trap to fall into when you're still a bit tentative with communicating with each other.

First, decide what you need to do that day: say x hours of study time, alone. Then what you want to do: e.g. spend time with boyf in the evening. Then decide whether it would be smart to stay over, or cook together, or go out to eat or whatever. If you base your planning on what you want and need and communicate that to him, then you know you've got yourself and your needs covered, and have clearly said what you would like to happen. The rest is up to him. When you know you are clear in your needs and communication, you can start to see if that was the only problem, or if he IS treating you as a last-minute option and not putting enough in to the relationship. If he keeps on not turning up once you've made plans, or being unwilling to pin himself down, that's a whole separate issue, and one you should de-tangle from your own anxiety/wishy-washyness to attain clarity about.
posted by mymbleth at 6:29 AM on June 4, 2014

I suggest you both focus on school for the time being and spend less time together. Make plans for the day of the exam or the day/weekend after. This way you will have something to look forward to, it will be the quality time that you crave and it won't impact your grades negatively.
Seriously, I understand that it's great to be around him as much as possible, but the time you "waste" with worrying and he "wastes" with driving back and forth could be used more efficiently.

For the time after the exams: Tell him you'd prefer to have dates where you go out, do something, explore your city (on a student's budget of course). And that it makes you feel better if you can make at least rough plans for the day.

So when he messages me with a 'hey what's up!' text around 6 and says he's going to be studying for another few hours, I feel annoyed and disappointed.

He actually has his priorities right, OP. It's crunch time school-wise. Good luck for your exam(s)!
posted by travelwithcats at 6:29 AM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

The problem seems to be that he is making the plans and he is the one deciding what your day is going to look like, and you wait by the phone and go along with whatever he decides.

I would suggest that on some occasions you make plans of your own and let him fit into that.
posted by tel3path at 6:35 AM on June 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you have that much studying to do, I think the solution is to pick one day a week for date night so that you both always know what the plan is, and then spend the rest of your time actually studying instead of fussing.

But you are being incredibly passive and it is only making your anxiety worse. You will live a happier life if you participate in your life instead of blowing around like a plastic bag in the wind waiting for someone else to decide the direction. If you have an expectation, state it. If you want a plan, initiate the planning. Bag-in-wind is not going to protect you from a bit of pain and disappointment in your life, so you might as well run the risk of not getting what you want (which is already happening all the time because you won't ask for it) in order to actually get what you want sometimes.

The reason he's making all the plans is that you won't. He clearly has responsibilities to other people and something serious to study for, and eventually someone has to make a decision. You seem to want him to prove his devotion to you by psychically divining your wants/needs/schedule, but ESP isn't real and so is never going to happen.

And be practical. It's absurd to ask someone to make a late-night round-trip home and back to spend the night. Is that a test of some sort?
posted by Lyn Never at 6:54 AM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Others have given good advice re: the guy.

FWIW he's not doing anything 'wrong,' he's just going with the flow.

To combat the anxiety, say 'no' one night and then white-knuckle the fear that comes with it. Just sit on it. I'll bet he'll just go "ok" and leave you be and then show up the next day happy to see you, like it was not big deal (because it wasn't). You'll see that the fear is larger than the thing itself, if you know what I mean.

For figuring out what you want, pay attention to that little feeling inside that goes "no. don't want to move" and then explore it and give it a voice. You know the feeling I'm talking about. It's a bit of resistance. Speak that feeling, & see what happens.

Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:13 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a new relationship and it's only been two months. It's okay if you don't spend every night together, if he has other interests besides you. I feel like you are acting like you've been together for years, have a set routine.

You need to do your own thing too. Don't study less because you're waiting around for him. And if he's available it's okay to say I'm studying now let's meet up later. Don't lose yourself in the relationship.

And if you want something from him, tell him. But don't be passive aggressive about it, or try to test him. And be realistic. It doesn't mean he doesn't care because it's 11 and he needs to sleep. Or if you don't see each other as much during exams. Or if he spends some time with a friend.

So ask him if he can do dinner tomorrow night. Don't wait for him to initiate. Don't assume you will because you did in the past. Let him know you do better with concrete plans, but also be willing to compromise. He might just not be the type or at a stage in his life where he wants to plan out every interaction. It may be a dealbreaker for you but at least you two would be on the same page if you just let him know.
posted by Aranquis at 7:14 AM on June 4, 2014

So, if you're like me (and this sounds really familiar) it might be that part of the reason you don't articulate what you want is because if you articulate it and then you don't get it, you know you didn't get what you want, whereas if you're just vague about what you want, you can't *really* be disappointed (except, of course, you totally are).

Ask him to do something. If he says he's going to stay over, suggest a time he could come over instead of assuming, or at least ask him what time he thinks he'll be able to come over. Being vague about you want is an easy pattern to fall into. Ask for what you want. It doesn't have to be THE THING YOU WANT, it can just be a thing you want.

Also this isn't necessarily easy, I'm way older than you (I suspect) and I still have trouble with this.
posted by mskyle at 7:21 AM on June 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is pretty easily solved because it's exam time, so studying is your first priority. That's also a common goal between you two. So first, figure out how much you need to study each day, when and where. Can you study together for some of that time? Then, you can schedule meal times together as well, in between study periods. Friday and/or Saturday nights can be for sleepovers. This kind of solves your first scenario.

Second scenario – next time you feel yourself "sort of assuming", check in with yourself. What do you want? Do you want to have dinner with him? If so, tell him. If not, you have several communication options opened at that point. You can call him about something else. Or call him later. Whatever. It's up to you.

It's ok to have wants and needs. It's ok to state them. It's ok if the person can't meet them 100%, all the time. I think the most important thing is feeling that you've been heard.
posted by foxjacket at 7:28 AM on June 4, 2014

Making specific plans, and letting each other know in a timely manner if or when those plans have to change is totally normal. Even the most non-anxious people in the world often (maybe usually) find it necessary to sort out exactly what they're doing ahead of time in order to maintain a romantic relationship along with work, school, hobbies, platonic friendships, exercise, my-brain-is-turned-off-watching-TV-time, and reading MetaFilter.

The situation as you've described it sounds a lot like my relationships in college and my early 20's, except everyone lived within 5-15 minutes walking/driving time, and we all tended to regularly hang out at the same events/bars/shows anyway, and none of us had serious jobs so we didn't care if we showed up hungover with two hours of sleep. And in that situation, the casual "We'll get together sometime tonight, oops, maybe not, see you tomorrow sometime, like 10, 11 pm" was workable. Even then, though, it wasn't unusual if one or both of us occasionally said, "Hey, it's crunch time, I'm super busy, we'll go out Friday night but don't expect a lot of contact 'til then."

Once I was past my early 20's, though, it became totally standard to need to make more specific plans, and the whole thing of wandering over to someone's apartment late at night if I got around to it became a much rarer occurrence.

how to approach this and him in a way that will make me happier.

I think you should just put it rather plainly (in a phone or in-person conversation, by the way, NOT by texting) - "Hey, look, we're both really busy, with exams and everything else and distance from each other, and I think it would help if we started making more concrete plans about when we see each other and when we don't."

And then both of you have to participate in making plans - in your case, for example, don't assume that he'll come by around dinnertime; call him or text him around 3-4 and ask if that's what he'll do. Then he can take a look at what he's got to do and let you know if he'll make it at six or won't be able to come by until later. Then you can get on with your studying without the nagging uncertainty of when or if he'll show up. On his end, if he says he'll be by around 9, it's on him to either do that or let you know that he can't well before 9 o'clock.

(If it turns out he can't or won't get on board with a more set schedule, that's a consideration for a different AskMe question . . . .)

And it's a new relationship, so of course you want to spend a bunch of time together, but the whole coming by late at night thing clearly isn't working, especially if he's leaving and then trying to make it back. I can't say if you're "testing" him or not, but at the very least it's wishful thinking on both your parts, and you should probably cut that way down or stop entirely. Again, it's entirely normal for busy adults to set time constraints on when or if you'll get together - "If you can't make it here by [X] pm, it's cool, but I have to get my sleep, so that'll just be it for the day, and I'll see you later in the week."
posted by soundguy99 at 7:36 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tell him: My next week is cray-cray. I'm actually going to have to schedule it. I can see you for dinner at 7:00 on Tuesday, or later in the evening, around 9-ish on Friday. What works for you?

Then you have firm plans and he knows that you're not waiting around, hoping he'll show up and make life worth living, because that would be silly, right?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:07 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

but says he'll try to come back if he can … When he messages me at 11pm saying he won't be able to make it, I can't shake how disappointed I am.

If he isn't able to commit firmly to getting together, then tell him you can't get together that day, because you want to either commit to studying, or expect to be with him. Tell him, "I'm so into you, I spend the whole night wondering whether you're coming or not and it distracts me from studying! If I know for sure that you are coming, or not, it will take away a lot of stress. If you aren't sure if you can make it tonight, let's just plan to get together tomorrow at 11 o'clock."

We study separately the next day and I sort of just... assume he's going to be here around dinner time (I guess because that's what we did yesterday).

See script above. Don't make plans except for specific times. If he says, "Let's get together tonight," say, "Okay, how about 9 o'clock?" If he is reluctant to commit to a time, remind him, "It would help me plan my studying and stay focused if you can just tell me what time you will be here." Stress to him that you're willing to be flexible about the particular time, but that you will feel much better when you have a specific time.

You can preface this with a Big Talk about how you need him to make firmer plans and follow through to feel secure and happy, or you can just practice being specific a few times and see how it works out.

He may step up and adjust quite naturally do this. Or he might make firm plans, and then bail on them anyway. Or he might get mad, and want to keep doing things all loosey-goosey, because it suited him. It depends on his personality. If things aren't going well, you might need to have the Big Talk about what you want/need from him to feel cared for and respected, and how he feels about this, and you can talk about ways that both of you can compromise to make this work.
posted by BrashTech at 9:47 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it kinda sounds like you don't have much else on your schedule besides studying and seeing your boyfriend. It's very easy to wrap yourself up into this routine without realising it, especially when you're prone to anxiety and maybe haven't had much relationship experience.

I know a lot of people (myself included) who did this. I would spend the day studying (fulfilling my 'work' obligations for the day) and then spend the evening with my boyfriend (fulfilling my social needs for the day). Very quickly, those two things took up all of my time, and I convinced myself that was all I needed and wanted. I didn't realise that I had started to isolate myself and that I'd stopped doing a lot of things I used to do for personal enjoyment. I thought I was fulfilled when I clearly wasn't.

While study is important, it's more important to have balance in your life. Keep up hobbies, read books for fun, go out and do whatever recreational activities you're into. And make sure you maintain your friendships. That is super important. Reach out to acquaintances or reconnect with old friends - just think of something fun to do, pick a time and place, and ask them to join you. It seems hard at first but once you do it a couple of times you'll realise that people are usually down to hang out, they're just not organised enough to make plans. You can be the initiator here!

Also, don't let your boyfriend dictate how your night is going to go. Decide that day if you're going to spend the night with him or study by yourself. Don't try and do both every night. That's not really giving you quality study time or quality relationship time. Set a chunk of time for one thing and stick to it. Then you're less likely to be ruminating over what you should/could/would have been doing instead.

Like other people suggested, have at least one night a week where you don't see him. Go see your friends, or go and do something you enjoy without him. That way when you are together, it's more likely to be quality time because you both know that your relationship is just one aspect of your rich, varied, fulfilling life.
posted by sweetshine at 10:05 AM on June 4, 2014

Personally, I sometimes feel like I do this thing, especially early in relationships, where I try to be "cool" a lot. Like, oh, you're ditching me after we had plans? No big deal, I can go with the flow. Oh, we were supposed to stay home and cook dinner and watch a movie but now you want to go out drinking? Sure, I can do that, I'm flexible.

But I'm actually SUPER not like that? So I end up feeling a the way you sound here a lot. I find it works better if you just actually say what you're feeling more. You don't necessarily have to be more decisive, but when you feel disappointed, you should say so.. because your boyfriend probably genuinely has no idea he's doing anything wrong right now.

So next time he's like "oh I'm not going to make it back tonight" instead of saying "ok! goodnight!" say

"That's kind of disappointing, I was expecting to spend the night together. Oh well, next time hopefully. Goodnight!"

Next time you expect him over at dinnertime and he's not showing up, or just texts you a "hey what's up?" instead of being so casual, be "Hey you, I thought we had plans to hang out tonight, I would have expected to see you by now! What time are you planning to come here?"

I like structure, and I suspect you might too. I'd be attempting to make plans more firm and time based. Hey, come over at 6. Hey, if you want to come back around 10 after you drop off your friend, I'd like that, will you? If you can't, I'm going to go to bed. Then you can get firm plans with yes and no answers and manage your expectations accordingly. I get very flustered by waiting around for people, so I totally understand you on this.
posted by euphoria066 at 10:10 AM on June 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think this situation is less about "setting boundaries" than about "paying attention to what you want, and asking for it." It's actually kind of a good thing to work on, because at this point at least, changing the situation is 100% within your control.

When did you know you wanted to be together for dinner on night #2? Were you aware, when you realized that that's what you wanted, that you hadn't explicitly communicated that to him? If you did realize that's what you wanted and you hadn't communicated it to him before 6pm, what kept you from doing so -- fear that he'd say no? thinking that if he really loved you he'd have figured it out on his own? something else entirely?

It sounds like there's a disconnect happening somewhere in the process of "Wanting something, Being conscious of wanting something, Expressing what I want." Figuring out where the train is derailing is the first step to figuring out how to fix it. You may need to work on allowing yourself to want things, or you may need to work on being aware of your desires, or you may need to work on overcoming barriers to expressing your desires (or some combination of any or all of those things). If you can try to pinpoint when you were aware of the train derailing, that's a good way to figure out what's causing the derailment. (And I'm thinking that later in the process you were aware of things, the earlier in the process you need to target -- that is, if you didn't even realize you wanted him there for dinner until he said he couldn't be there, then you probably don't need to work on communication as much as you need to work on recognizing and allowing your own desires.)
posted by jaguar at 9:14 PM on June 4, 2014

I just realized -- your phrasing of this as a "boundaries" issue may actually be an indication that you're expecting him to read your mind and are upset because he's not able to do so (that is, some part of you thinks that this is his problem). It is 100% your responsibility to express what you want, and you cannot expect your partner to be psychic. Ignore any pop-psych or pop-culture stories that say that partners should "just know!" what the other one wants. That sort of expectation leads to passive-aggressive bullshit; use this opportunity to learn how to be honest and clear with yourself and your partner.
posted by jaguar at 9:18 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

This question must have gotten under my skin a little bit because I keep thinking about it! I just wanted to add that it's OK to not have a strong preference sometimes, but if you *never* have a strong preference, or you feel like you can't express your preferences, that's a problem.

Like, yesterday, I was reading your question and it made me think, "Is [my boyfriend] staying over tonight? We haven't made solid plans." and I thought I should ask him when I got a chance (we had plans earlier in the evening but hadn't really nailed down what was happening after). And then I never really got around to asking. But I was OK with that because I generally did not have a strong preference either way - it would be nice if he stayed, but if we just hung out in the evening and then he went home I would be OK with that too.

On the other hand, a few weeks ago we were making plans to meet up for brunch, and I suggested a couple of places near me that we hadn't been before, and he suggested a different place, and I agreed to go there even though I wasn't particularly enthusiastic, but then I realized, wait, I totally don't want to go there, I want to go to the first place I suggested, even if there is a line! And so I apologized for agreeing to something I didn't want to do and said I really really wanted to go to the first place. And we did, and it was nice, and hopefully next time I will just remember to ask for what I want up front, but I'll probably do something like that again.

So I guess what I'm saying is it's fine if you don't have strong preferences about something, but if you do have a preference, it's really great to be able to express it.
posted by mskyle at 8:22 AM on June 5, 2014

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