Self-Absorbed Boyfriend
May 31, 2015 3:16 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend and I have been together 3 years, and we’ve recently reached that awful are-we-breaking-up-or-are-we-fighting-for-this moment. The main issue, as far as I see it, is that he is self-absorbed, which causes me to feel disappointed and disconnected from the relationship.

In a lot of ways, our relationship is very healthy. As odd as it may sound, one of the strongest points of the relationship is how good we are at fighting. We’re both really respectful of each other, and we’re also both pretty open and in touch with our emotions. We travel well together, enjoy similar culture and activities, and make each other laugh. He's very helpful with tasks around the house and stuff like that.

But I’ve been consistently ambivalent about him in other ways. For me, the biggest issue is that he’s fairly self-absorbed. I think this stems from insecurity, more than anything else—he’s not an arrogant asshole— but it manifests in ways that are difficult for me. We spend a lot of time talking about him, his dreams, his fears, his relationships, his job, the minutia of his day. His insecurity means he has a massive appetite for reassurance. I’m a little bit sturdier, emotionally speaking; it’s also easy for me to slide into the caregiver/reassurer/cheerleader role. But increasingly, I feel as though my needs aren’t getting met… and it’s making me wary of making further commitments to this guy.

A couple examples:
I’ve been working on a huge creative/work project for over a year. At dinner a month or so ago, I started to talk about some of my worries about it. He said that my worries reminded him of when he’d been involved in a similar project a few years ago… and suddenly the conversation was re-routed to be all about him & his own creative fears and insecurities. I told him I was frustrated that he’d redirected the conversation to be about him, he got mad and shut down, and we left the restaurant silently. He later apologized.

A few weeks later, I finished the project. He sent me a proud congratulations email, but when I went over to his place that afternoon, he launched into his normal minute recounting of his day at work. I kept waiting for the conversation to shift back around to My Big Day, but it never did. And here’s where I’m part of the problem: Instead of elbowing him out of the way and saying something like “Hey! Can we talk about me now please?” I just sat there and got sad and resentful. A few days later I did finally say that I wished we’d made space to linger on my accomplishment for a while — it would’ve been nice to have gone out to dinner and had that be the main subject of conversation. He apologized and took me out to dinner the next week.

I recently went out of town to visit my friend who got diagnosed with cancer; attend my first boyfriend’s wedding; and visit my 96-year-old grandfather, possibly for the last time. When I returned, he was preoccupied with some of his own friend drama. He didn’t ask any questions about the wedding or my sick friend (though he did ask how my grandfather was doing).

As I mentioned, we’re pretty good at talking about the relationship… so we’ve talked about this frustration I feel. He thinks that it’s just a communication issue — if I can tell him “I want to talk about my work now” or “I want to talk about my dying friend now,” he’ll gladly do so. He also (correctly) points out that I’m not the most forthcoming person in the world… whereas he’ll gladly launch into an account of his day without prompting, I need a bit more prompting. He thinks the relationship is really good, and that I don’t realize how good it is. (He’s 8 years older than me, and thus has more relationship experience.) I believe that he really truly loves me, and will do everything he can to make me feel more supported in the relationship.

However… I worry that, while he is a very kind person, he just IS more self-absorbed, and so I’ll always feel some sort of lack or disappointment. I worry that he’s half-right— the relationship is really good… for him! Because he gets lots of patient attention and listening from me, while I have this persistent feeling of not truly being seen/heard, because his Self is so big that it gets in the way. I’m not the only one who’s had this issue with him; other friends have complained to him about the fact that he talks about himself all the time, and he’s even lost a friendship or two because of it.

I guess I feel at a crossroads. This seems like such an ephemeral, selfish reason to end a relationship that is, on the whole, pretty good. I'm also 33, and I want to have kids. My 2 other serious relationships have ended after 3 years, and I wonder if the problem is me-- if I'm expecting too much, and I should just hunker down and gratefully accept what he has to give, while trying to be more clear and explicit about my needs. But I'm persistently haunted by the feeling that this just isn't enough.

I'd love to hear from anyone who either broke up with or stayed with a partner who was somewhat self-absorbed. Was it worth it? How have you worked through (or failed to work through) the issue? Do other good qualities outweigh this bad one?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (43 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Your concerns are valid. It's not you.

Now that you're clear about the nature of your dis-ease what happens if you continue to raise the issue when it's bothering you? Is he the sort who can learn something new or will he become increasingly testy and defensive? Will that behavior alienate him (from you)?

I believe the answers to these questions may be germane to whether the relationship is, in balance a good long-term investment. IOW: whether it's healthy and rewarding.
posted by cleroy at 3:48 PM on May 31, 2015

I wonder if the problem is me-- if I'm expecting too much, and I should just hunker down and gratefully accept what he has to give, while trying to be more clear and explicit about my needs. But I'm persistently haunted by the feeling that this just isn't enough.

This makes me so sad! You are more than a supporting character in your partner's movie. Your desire to have him recognize that is perfectly legitimate.

One of my dearest friends used to be this way. He's a big talker, very warm and gregarious, but also a stand-up comic who is used to monologue-ing. One day, I said to him, "hey friend, we just spent an hour talking on the phone and you didn't once ask me how I am or how my day was." And he was horrified. For him, it was a come-to-Jesus moment about his own self-absorption. He still has those tendencies, but made a very sincere effort to change. Every time we talk, he asks me how I am or what's gong on with me, and - here's the really important part - sincerely interests himself in the answer.

It sounds like you have had this conversation with your partner, but it hasn't actually hit him where he lives. My friend was 20 when we had this conversation. It sounds like your partner is older, and maybe unwilling to put in this work. But you don't have to settle for being with someone who is only marginally interested in you.
posted by prewar lemonade at 3:51 PM on May 31, 2015 [19 favorites]

He thinks the relationship is really good, and that I don’t realize how good it is.

Seriously, just for this, you should absolutely bail. What a horrible, tone-deaf, jackass thing for a person to say when their loved one is raising real, serious concerns! Blech.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 3:53 PM on May 31, 2015 [62 favorites]

I had a boyfriend once who talked about his job incessantly. Didn't help that he really didn't have any of the good relationship skills your partner possesses. Eventually I felt like a tiny satellite orbiting the Sun - it was really a diminishing experience for me. I tried talking to him about it... nothing worked. I ended the relationship after a couple of months. You have a tougher decision to make because you've been with him longer and he has other attractive qualities to recommend him.

You're pretty young... at 33 you have several more good years to think about having kids. No need to go into a marriage with someone who's acceptable in some ways but some of whose behavior really troubles you ESPECIALLY if kids will be involved. I'm a product of a marriage like that and I wouldn't recommend the experience.

To make sure you've used all available options, it's probably worth trying "I want to talk about X" now and see if that works and if you're satisfied with the outcome. Couples therapy maybe as well... and he has to realize that you're pretty serious about walking if he doesn't change his tune.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:57 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

He thinks the relationship is really good, and that I don’t realize how good it is. (He’s 8 years older than me)

WOW is that condescending.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:03 PM on May 31, 2015 [29 favorites]

Do you ever talk about your day or what ever it is without waiting to be asked? Not trying to sound snarky, I'm just curious. Do you direct conversation back to you when he diverts it. It sounds like your bf's conversational style is to just launch into it, where as you are waiting for a conversational green lght to start your side of it. I'm not saying he isn't being a bit "tone deaf" here to what is going on, just that you say he's fine/happy when you say OK I want to talk about my day, so why aren't you doing that? Again not trying to victim blaming, but some people don't pick up subtle conversational cues, and just need a big old sign held up, even with the best intentions at heart.

Or he's an insensitive dick.
posted by wwax at 4:08 PM on May 31, 2015 [10 favorites]

How long would it take him to ask you about ANYTHING about you if you didn't volunteer the information? I mean, seriously. I've been in these kinds of relationships and all you end up with is resentment. You shouldn't have to - a person who loves you should be interested in you! That's kind of ground level stuff. How can he care about you if he doesn't pay attention or know anything about you? Do you want to be a partner or an audience? When it's happened to me eventually I just felt used, and I realized I'd rather be alone than always giving support without getting any myself.

And I just have to add. "Gratefully accept" ??? NO. You deserve someone who is interested in you, or hell, anything past the end of their own nose. Everyone does. Go with your feeling. You can't make a person care, or be interested. You can teach them habits and conversational etiquette, but you can't make him care about the things that are important to you.
posted by lemniskate at 4:09 PM on May 31, 2015 [9 favorites]

He can learn this skill.

Never fear! It's not too late. He has to want to, though. You gotta kinda make him understand how he effects Other People Around Him (TM)
posted by jbenben at 4:16 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I actually don't think it matters whether he is self-absorbed or you are uncommunicative or you are too sensitive or he is not sensitive enough or whatever. It doesn't matter whether one of you is right and the other is wrong, or whether you're both wrong, or whether neither of you is wrong. You're unhappy. And that means that one of three things has to happen:

1) You find a way to stop being unhappy with the way things are.

2) You work together to fix the issue.

3) You break up.

It sounds like you've already tried 1, and it's not working for you yet. Before you skip to 3, how about trying 2? Ask him if, in light of the fact that he has identified an issue that the two of you have communicating, he'd be willing to go to counseling with you to identify ways of communicating that will be more productive and satisfying for both of you. If he's not willing, that tells you something. And whether he's willing or not, you might consider talking to someone on your own, without him, about your goals for the future and how your relationship with him fits into them.

You are right to be concerned if you are 33 and want biological kids and are in a relationship with a person you have trouble communicating with even without the stress of a newborn. But none of that is a reason to swallow your feelings and pretend everything's okay, especially not if the plan is to bring a helpless third party into the situation. Counseling can help with all of this, both in figuring out how the two of you can communicate more productively, and how you can be happier in the future, with or without him.
posted by decathecting at 4:25 PM on May 31, 2015 [13 favorites]

Your situation is an excellent example of a recurring dynamic where couples therapy can help. Go into it with specific objectives, a limited time period and the goal of learning new communications skills. Give it, say, three months and then reassess. If you're not making any progress, then move on.
posted by carmicha at 4:28 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

People like to feel that other people know they exist, generally speaking. Your partner displays this by having you listen to him, where you seem to want people to ask you questions about yourself. Both are fine, but people also often think that other people think the same way that they do. He might actually be really interested in you, but just not be showing it in a way that makes you feel like he is (I've no idea if this is the case, just throwing out some ideas).

My mom behaves in the same way your partner does. She does the "this is an experience I also have had" thing, which I find quite annoying. I don't want to hear about her experiences, I want to talk about my own. But that's how she forms a bond - by showing the other person that she's listening and by showing that she and the other person are similar. Trouble is, it has the opposite effect with me and I feel really invalidated. It's not that she doesn't care, it's that she shows how she cares in a way that's not compatible with me feeling cared for. That said, when I've just carried on talking over my mom, she has sometimes started paying attention to what I'm saying. It seems really rude to do, but you have to push your way to the front of the queue sometimes.

I think you might benefit from being a little more forthcoming about what is going on here. Take hold of the conversational reins a little more, and say that you'd like him to think of three questions to ask you about [thing], or whatever him showing an interest looks like to you. Ask for what you want. Don't sit and seethe, that won't help at all. If he does want you to feel loved and supported, then the least he can do is hear you out. Whether or not he changes after that is up to him, but you can't complain that he isn't changing if you're not telling him what's wrong.

Him being 8 years older does not make him the Final Arbiter of what a good relationship is! Yikes. He can't be seeing your side of the relationship at all if he's making out everything is wonderful.
posted by Solomon at 4:32 PM on May 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

He's 41 years old: how he is now is how he will always be --- what you see is what you will always get from him. And after three years together, the relationship is well past the 'honeymoon' period, and it isn't likely to change either.

Yes he's very self absorbed; no the problem isn't you. I'm sorry, but his behavior isn't going to change.
posted by easily confused at 4:55 PM on May 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

What Solomon said-- I also grew up in an environment where active listening meant you counter-shared your own experiences when someone was talking to you about their issues. In my world this means 1) I'm really listening. 2) I'm thinking about it. 3) I'm trying to offer you something from my own life which relates. I find it reassuring when people react this way to me, and I used to be offended when people just were quiet or made listening noises since I read that as them not really paying attention.

I was really taken aback to discover that people find my patterns offensive or silencing, and I've worked hard on being aware of it, but it seems like some kind of basic difference in listening which is possibly related to what you learn as a child?

Which is not to say your partner isn't insensitive, but just that this is not by itself an indication that he is self-centered.

As above, I would suggest couples counseling would be a good solution for this kind of dynamic. It may be as simple to fix as making you both aware of your natural conversation tendencies and adapting it to the other person.
posted by frumiousb at 5:14 PM on May 31, 2015 [19 favorites]

I know you said you've talked about it, but have you addressed it in the moment?

My relationship dynamic was a lot like yours - I always waited for people (including my husband) to ask or prompt me to talk about myself, and my husband had a tendency to reply with something about himself when I did, and I immediately turned my attention to his concerns, and felt disappointed.

You know when it got better? When I started calling him on it in the moment. I would literally say "Okay, I hear you, but I need this to be about me right now". And he was fine with that because he didn't realize he was doing it.

Is it perfect? No. I would love to have a partner who didn't need this reminder, but he needs it less than he used to. And I've realized that I have a real habit of building scripts in my head of how I want a conversation to go, and get disappointed when they don't. But other people can't see the scripts, so how can they know? You're not going to get what you need unless you ask for it.

And if you try that, and he still doesn't listen? Well then maybe it's time to move on.
posted by scrute at 5:26 PM on May 31, 2015 [22 favorites]

if I can tell him “I want to talk about my work now” or “I want to talk about my dying friend now,” he’ll gladly do so.

Well, sure, he can sit and listen to you if you want him to. But does he really care? That's the difference. Being interested in your partner isn't a favor you do for them so they feel better. You either are or you aren't.
posted by ctmf at 5:30 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]

That happens to me sometimes with my husband, but then again, he listens to me a lot, so when he starts telling me stories, I kind of fluff it off as a trade-off to the times when he listens to me. One thing I have started doing is really taking in and listening to him about stories in his life and asking about them. I have another outlet, that is, an email list of only women, so I can put things out there to my girlfriends. I count my husband as my best friend, and I do genuinely like listening to his stories, and it's sort of natural for someone to pick up on something and tell a story that it reminded them of.

I come from a long line of story tellers and some of us are good listeners and some of us aren't. I am both, because I love hearing stories. Yet I do get peeved when someone isn't listening to mine. However, I realize that my husband isn't always the best outlet for my stories, hence the girly email list that I belong to. Or other family members; I'll talk to my daughter or my son, or my brother or sister-in-law, depending. My husband isn't a car guy, so I can talk about car stories to my male relatives, my husband isn't a shopping guy, so I can talk to my daughter and girlfriends about those things, etc. My husband is, however, a well read person who knows a lot about classical music and ballet and things of the mind, and he is awesome to talk to about that stuff. He doesn't drown me in his interests that he knows I wouldn't like, and I don't drown him in mine that I know he doesn't like. However, we meet in the middle.

There was a thing online I saw.. a relationship mandala. It's basically two circles, and you are each a circle and if you overlap them a bit, you get a great relationship. Too far apart, bad. Too close, and you're on top of each other. You want to keep the circles close enough to form an ellipse in the center and still have your own interests and friends on the edges.

I figure it's give and take, and those times when we are out to dinner and my husband lights up and starts talking are like gifts to me, because we rarely have that face-to-face time, and I love seeing his face light up and all that goes with it. But yes, you have to communicate and tell him what you want, and if he's a good guy, he'll do it for you. Just don't blame him off the bat, give him a chance to make it up to you (massage is always good) and go forward from there.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:37 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

It might be selfish to break up with someone because you're not happy, but being "selfish" is the whole point of being in a relationship. Meaning, you should be getting what you want out of the relationship. Both people should. Not just the guy. You can do better, and I think you know that. He has lost friends over being so self-centered! Why on earth would you think it's just you? Your self-esteem is getting worn down by this nonsense. You seem like a bright, capable, reasonable person with a kind disposition and a good head on your shoulders. You can do better!

I personally feel that as someone with a generous personality, you should aim for someone who also tends to be a bit over generous. It's the recipe for a happy partnership.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:04 PM on May 31, 2015 [11 favorites]

To make my point about selfishness more clear: a relationship isn't a charity. He's not some kind of needy case. He's not an international NGO. This isn't Relationship Without Borders. You both need to be getting what you need out of this relationship, and if it's "selfish" to want to do more than give and give and give, then go on and be selfish.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:07 PM on May 31, 2015 [15 favorites]

I know this is going to sound bitter, because it still kind of is; it hasn't been that long.

It's hard. I would dread walking in the door after work because I knew there would be at least an hour of trials & tribulations of his day (he worked part time) before (if) he ever got around to asking about my day. Sometimes before I even took off my coat. By the time that happened (if it did) I no longer had the energy to talk about my day at all. I listened because he was troubled, because I loved him, because it's what you do. Then I started to get resentful. And then bored. It gets boring, especially when your own contributions or troubles go unnoticed, unremarked upon. So you hang in there and listen. Until the resentment starts to color all the other aspects of your marriage and/or you explode (inwardly) and (in my case) ask for a divorce. (I lasted 7 years.)

(there was a lot of couples' counseling in between, but it was often about him, his complaints about his life, or complaints about me not understanding, so "we" tried).

Unless you can find a way to magically make him care, but "we" never found the magic words to make that happen.
posted by WesterbergHigh at 6:59 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is not self-absorption, this is a lack of self-containment. And a 41-year old is not going to discover a talent for the stiff upper lip.
posted by MattD at 7:07 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure you're the right people for a relationship. There are types who would be more proactively attentive to soliciting their counterpart's contributions to the conversational bargain, and there are types who would be more proactive in asserting their own contributions to the conversational bargain. It seems to me that you need the former and he needs the latter. It doesn't make either of you bad people or bad conversationalists, but you're likely to feel stepped on by his conversational domination and he is likely to feel frustrated that you don't take the floor or let him know that you want to talk about you.
posted by slkinsey at 7:15 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

He thinks the relationship is really good, and that I don’t realize how good it is. (He’s 8 years older than me)

This an irreparable narcissistic personality problem. Some people grow out of it, if they're like that in like... their 20s. Past that? Nah.

I feel pretty comfortable saying this guy is an asshole and you should break up with him just from that sample. That is like, a frantically waving red flag of just having a really bullshit attitude about his partnership(or lack thereof) with you.
posted by emptythought at 7:32 PM on May 31, 2015 [9 favorites]

You don't need to justify your decision to break up with him, if that's what you feel like doing. It might be an ephemeral reason, but it's your call, and staying together for some calculated reason when your gut tells you "no" is not going to make you happy. Let's just get that out of the way.

That said, it doesn't really seem like this guy is being disrespectful or abusive, just that his habits are getting on your nerves. I feel you're being a bit harsh toward your boyfriend. By saying he's self-absorbed, you're making it a moral failing on his part, when it is very likely just a matter of incompetence.

My reading of this is that your boyfriend just isn't adept at social skills and so he doesn't pick up on the signals that a person just wants to talk and have someone listen, or identify that someone is upset but not forthcoming about it and needs to be coerced out of their shell. Such people can come across as cold and uncaring. That would especially make sense if this has happened with his other friends.

We're all inherently narcissistic creatures, but we learn how to turn it off in certain situations, to varying degrees of success. There is nothing especially narcissistic or self-absorbed about bringing a conversation topic back to be about yourself, that's precisely how we relate to one another, though we give it the nice-sounding name "empathy." The problem with your boyfriend's behavior is that it's rude, a violation of the invisible social rules governing our conduct, not that it's morally flawed. But maybe he can't perceive these social rules, or he can't respond to them for some reason.

I think your best bet here is to consistently communicate to him when he's being rude, but try not to make it a wrist-slapping correction to avoid negative reinforcement.
posted by deathpanels at 8:10 PM on May 31, 2015

I think it's worth it to give him one more shot at fixing this. He says it's a communication issue, but it's really not. You've communicated what unmet needs you have; the next step is to figure out concrete strategies that you both employ so that need can get met. Imagine if your unmet need were instead that you expected him to do the dishes every evening. If his response is "I'd be happy to do that, just remind me each night after dinner" that's not a communication issue, is it? It's a failure to actively participate in solving a relationship problem that your partner has brought to you.

So I think you need to have another sit-down where you can brainstorm ideas for both of you to put into practice. Some of that may involve you changing the way you speak up during conversation when you feel like it's being monopolized or you're being interrupted or the topic has shifted away from what you wanted to talk about. But it can't just be you telling him to stop doing that thing that he agreed to stop doing. He also needs to involve his commitment to concrete practices, such as spending X minutes when you come together after the work day talking about how YOUR day was, coming up with semi-canned responses/questions that he can use to keep the conversational focus on you, and seeking a better feeling of rapport in your conversations.

FWIW, I've been married for 10 years now in a relationship with a very similar dynamic--I tend to be naturally a bit quiet, contemplative, stoic, and have a hard time asking for what I want, and my partner is absolutely kind and well-intentioned but self-absorbed, with not super great conversational skills and struggles a bit with things you might call rapport, emotional intimacy, and empathy. What you want from the relationship is absolutely not ephemeral or selfish. We still struggle with it and are still working on it. One thing that helps me is to remind myself that (at least in our case) it's a matter of (poor) skills and (bad) habits and not a sign that he doesn't care about me.
posted by drlith at 8:17 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

It sounds like y'all communicate differently. He thinks you should both say stuff to share. You think you should listen and ask questions. I think this is just stylistic and if you both work to compromise it could work. He needs to ask more questions about you, and you need to just share more about yourself.

Maybe he's actually super self-absorbed, or maybe you're not compatible. I don't know, I'm not there. But I think that if you want an explanation where no one is a bad guy and you have hope to fix things, that is it.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:20 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

My guy is like this sometimes, and at those times, it is lonely and it sucks.

One thing that I do to mitigate, which maybe could be useful to you, is to focus the conversation more on me, I say "hey what do you think about this" - like instead of just remarking "the most annoying thing happened," I might say "hey tell me if you think this was an ok thing for my manager to do?" or "what do you think my best choice is here?" - this tends to prompt him to think about my situation for longer than if I just offer it as an anecdote.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:05 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read the whole "you don't see how good this relationship is" differently - or at least I could see it read differently - like he sees it as good, and maybe is hurting that you don't so is making a comment like that. It still doesn't make it ok or rational for him to say something like that, but if he's happy after three years I can see it more as a pleading statement for you to take another look.

That said I think this might not be the right situation for you, and think this bit from internet fraud detective squad, station number nine is really smart:

I personally feel that as someone with a generous personality, you should aim for someone who also tends to be a bit over generous. It's the recipe for a happy partnership.

If you're willing to give so much to someone and aren't getting it back, that can be hard to see yet so much more painful in the long run.
posted by sweetkid at 9:34 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

This sounds very similar to a relationship I had. The last straw for me was when I came back from a month of taking care of my dying father, and my then-SO was so absorbed in a legal case he would be testifying in that he barely acknowledged what I had just gone through. I called him on it and he gave some BS excuses about what he was going through in his own life. Problem is there was *always* an excuse, and never a good time for him to look at things through my eyes. I had enough of being an unpaid therapist.

I hope for your sake you aren't still with this guy when you go through some huge trauma like the death of a parent. Yes, you could work on being more your next relationship!
posted by mysterious_stranger at 10:06 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'd love to hear from anyone who either broke up with or stayed with a partner who was somewhat self-absorbed. Was it worth it? How have you worked through (or failed to work through) the issue? Do other good qualities outweigh this bad one?

You just described my best friend exactly. I love him and think he is wonderful but he needs pulling up regularly.

My friend will be self absorbed forever. He can change and has made some major changes in the last few years but the only changes that stick are ones that gel with his identity and gets him the attention/praise he craves (but denies/is unaware of wanting or needing). He is an excellent dad, again, this is something he gets praised for, by other people, not his wife. You know, he laps it up at birthday parties and in the playground when other women say shit like they wish their husband was more like him. Not surprisingly, he was the stay at home dad when the kids were little. Took himself to mothers group where he was the only guy, that kind of attention seeking, centre of attention BS. And he is surrounded by women. He is a kindy teacher. He has dozens of female friends on FB that his wife doesnt even know. He cultivates attention & praise getting situations.

After 15 years of marriage, much arguing, counselling, talking etc, conversations still get turned into What-About-Me? All. The. Time. Often he expresses sympathy/empathy/support for his wife in public (like on fb) but I think it's to get the praise for being a sensitive caring husband. It's quite different in person, at home.

Think about what your guy is like and what kind of attention he gets his highs from. Are those things you can cope with in your relationship long term?

Even though I adore my best friend, I could never have a relationship with him, mostly because of how I am rather than because he is bad. He is a great guy but he is who he is. Maybe a different personality would fit better, someone who emotionally needs to feed the needy. That doesn't sound like you but I can see how you could love your guy. These kinds of guys, they're often charming and smart and fun.

My friend is not your guy so this is just my experience and I hope it helps.
posted by stellathon at 10:23 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had a father who was your boyfriend in extreme (and hence, I myself needed hard long years to unlearn this kind of behaviour).
The key is good and consistent communication about your feelings (as well as teaching him how to communicate about his feelings, instead of throwing up walls of self-centred talk, and getting "sad and resentful" when you point them out to you. Sad and resentful smacks of "not having worked through his own things properly" to me).

[I would have to double-check with my girlfriend but] I think it can be done...that is, if you think it worth your energy for this particular person.
...or at least: it might be doable as far as what he does is a mannerism to cover his would-be built-in insecurities. A person's character and core you never can change to suit your expectations and needs, of course.
posted by Namlit at 11:44 PM on May 31, 2015

+1 that this is a dynamic where couples therapy could really help
posted by salvia at 12:05 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

He thinks the relationship is really good, and that I don’t realize how good it is

If he's not prepared to put in any effort over something relatively small, how do you suppose it will be when you're asking something more of him, like doing his share the of the house/kid work?

hunker down and gratefully accept what he has to give

A strategy which might be manageable when you're dating but which would surely not work when you start talking about kids. Can you visualise having kids with this person? Can you imagine how he would be around them? Would you be happy with that?
posted by emilyw at 2:10 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

From a member who would like to remain anonymous:
I'm with someone like this. It is indescribably frustrating and embarrassing. And if your partner is anything like mine, he's lost way more than one or two friendships because of this...he's missed out on who knows how many cool friendships because he's been too self-absorbed to realize that he should shut his damn mouth for a moment and listen to the person sitting across from him.

We're working through the issue, and I think we've had success because we're on opposite ends of the spectrum: he's a talk-talk-talker and I'm a listen, listen, listener. I'm able to see how his overtalking can negatively impact his relationships...our relationship...his own personal progress. And, likewise, I've seen that his impulse to fight for his voice can be almost heroic at times, and I wish I could be more like that myself.

It can be a pretty hard pill to swallow to admit that you've been behaving a bit of an ass to a lot of people for a large portion of your life. It's not something we want to believe or admit about ourselves. And it takes a pretty big person, (and a lot of time), to accept this type of feedback and move through it to a new way of being.

Here's how we're working on it.

1. It would be easy for me to focus on this negative aspect of him, and blame it for all sorts of things in the relationship. Recently I realized I'd been behaving really shitty (and had been partly justifying my shitty behavior by telling myself, “yeah, well, he doesn't LISTEN, so it's kind of his fault I'm acting like this.”) I started correcting my shitty behavior and it immediately had positive consequences on him+me™. The efforts we both make toward improving ourselves and listening to/accepting feedback, reinforces itself. When I make an effort, he is grateful and the gratitude compels him to give back with effort from himself. Likewise, when I see that he's heard my concerns and is making and genuine effort to absorb the feedback and make adjustments, I'm grateful and want to do the same in turn.

2. A lot of our discussions that have yielded positive progress have actually not been when we're talking about it as A Bad Issue of His that He Needs to Fix. Instead, it comes up kind of sideways, like when we're talking about how we can be more effective at achieving our goals. For example, lets say that we're meeting a new person who has access to something we want. Its in our best interest to be good listeners, we want this person to like us and to see our value. We talk through the scenario, making the listening behavior a sort of tactical plan. In this case, he's not compelled to listen because of his Flaw That He Needs to Fix, but because he sees the benefits of listening and how they relate to his larger goals. As he practices listening, he discovers for himself benefits of hearing others, aside from just propelling him closer to his goal.

3. Sometimes he talks over people because he has VERY IMPORTANT IDEAS/KNOWLEDGE ABOUT TOPIC-XYZ. We've talked about how if one's hope is to open people's minds to new ideas, unsolicited lecturing is not a particularly effective way of achieving that. Perhaps it's more clever to get the other person talking about the subject by asking them questions (oh, I've heard something about TOPIC-XYZ, do you know anything about it?). That way you can assess their knowledge and openness to the topic and hopefully find some common ground (or at least not waste energy on someone who is totally closed).

4. For my dude, this self-absorbed overtalking is definitely related to self-esteem. When he's around someone cool, potential friend material, he can go into conversation-dominating mode out of nervousness, like some desperate attempt to validate himself. I'm cool! I'm a great story teller! Didn't I make an excellent observation about this issue?! I need to be the center of attention...if the focus leaves me it could mean that actually I'm not interesting, I'm a loser, NOOO I NEED TO KEEEP TALKING. It's quite painful to witness. We're both working to become more self-aware of the things that cause us to panic – stopping the boulder at the top of the hill so to speak.

Anyway, I feel. your. pain. I'd say most people with this quality would be absolutely undateable for me and if you decided that it's a dealbreaker for you with this guy, I would not blame you for a second. But I also think that it's workable if you both want it to work. I don't expect that one day my dude will be completely free of this quality, but I can totally envision the day where it doesn't negatively impact his life in such a way that it does today. In fact, I can envision the day where the quality has actually evolved into something that yields a net positive for him, and us. But for now, it's back to work.
posted by taz at 5:04 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think some people above are conflating two issues: how people respond to their partner's "shares" (i.e., do they listen quietly or share their own experience) and whether people notice and ask about their parter's life. The former is fixable with work--people can learn to actively listen or share their own similar experiences, and tensions can be mitigated by the recognition that both communication styles can be genuine expressions of care.

I think the other issue is much more problematic. What you notice and pay attention to is connected to what you care about. If someone *consistently* doesn't notice or think to ask you about important experiences in your life, it is difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that these experiences (and therefore you) just aren't that important to them; they don't care. That is not something that you can negotiate or communicate or therapy away.

Can you live with a partner who doesn't care about significant parts of your life? If not, I think you should break up.
posted by girl flaneur at 8:56 AM on June 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've had a couple friends who were like this. They were of the opinion that "if you want to share your thoughts, you should share your thoughts." They just didn't place any particular value on being asked to do so. Their default assumption tended to be that if someone isn't saying anything, it's because they just don't feel like it right then (and if they change their mind later, then they'll speak up at that time).

It sounds like you very much value the act of asking. (I do too. It gives me the warm and fuzzies, and I find it to be a direct expression of intimacy and love and care, but not everyone places that meaning on it.)

I know you said you've talked about your frustration with him, but it sounds like he still thinks it's you talking that's important, whereas for you it's about him asking. If so, maybe try telling him point-blank "I want you to actively ask about my day, because when you ask me how I am, I feel loved." I know that having to ask for something that you want to be a natural part of your conversations feels a bit stilted, but the hope is that if he does care, this would become natural over time.
posted by danceswithlight at 2:36 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

On the one hand: I am kind of like your boyfriend. I don't think I'm necessarily self-absorbed (or more so than the average person, anyway), but I do often step back from a conversation to find that I have been talking about myself for the entire time and haven't really let the other person have a chance to speak. Like him, I am pretty forthcoming, not particularly private, and I'm also a high-energy person when I'm in a social setting where I feel comfortable (this might actually be a good sign because it could mean he is very comfortable around you). And if I was told I was doing this, I would totally realize earlier and stop! I think, especially since he's already said he's open to it, a little bit of "hey, I'd really just like to talk about my own day right now" and "I'd really like to vent and right now what I need from you is just listening". That might be a little rude with someone you're not close to, but this is your partner we're talking about. I think it will be most helpful if you do it in the moment and point out each instance of the behavior, rather than having a separate conversation about the overall pattern of behavior.

On the other hand: I'm going to agree with showbiz_liz. When he says things like this he sounds like a jerk: He thinks the relationship is really good, and that I don’t realize how good it is. (He’s 8 years older than me, and thus has more relationship experience.) Do you really want to date someone who thinks that, because he is older and more experienced than you, his own interpretations of situations are more valid than yours? That he can tell you how you are supposed to feel? I mean, maybe you do really want this, but I would be mighty uncomfortable with it. I will also say from experience that this is not a given just because your partner is older than you.
posted by capricorn at 2:46 PM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

"He thinks the relationship is really good, and that I don’t realize how good it is."

Isn't this another way of saying that you don't deserve anything better?
posted by macinchik at 4:10 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Whether people notice and ask about their parter's life.

This. I happen to be poly and my current primary partner became my primary partner because he asked me questions and he listened to the answers. Not that people need to ask me questions, I'm a chatterbox. But I wasn't that much of a chatterbox with my ex because 6 months into the relationship with the ex, I realised that he didn't care about me or my life. He cared about being likeable and he liked me and he enjoyed seeing me but he had no curiosity about my life, my friends, or how I spent the time when I wasn't with him.

I had decided to break up with my ex before I met the new guy. The new guy just reminded me how it feels to be with someone who is genuinely interested in your life. It feels great. Loving and caring and, also, comfortable and familiar because that's how it's supposed to be, IMHO. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 4:59 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think this is a behaviour that can change with persistence. You have to stand up for yourself consistently, be a bit more demanding of the spotlight. And you have to consistently catch him in the act of interrupting you and diverting the conversation to himself - stop him, point it out and resume what you were saying.

It's great that you talk about your issues and argue well. But voicing your concerns and then letting things slide back to how they were is not going to change anything. He's not even aware he's doing it, and you're getting mad at him for not remembering, but not choosing to stand up for yourself when it happens.

Honestly, there's jerks who think "i'm important and you're not", "I don't actually care what you think/feel" and then there's the kind of guy who means well but needs to be educated in meeting the emotional needs of a woman. So talk with him about this, and figure out which one he is. If he is open to working with you along the lines suggested above, good. Wait and see if there's progress over the next few months.
posted by lizbunny at 5:16 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, there are definitely instances of it working because my mum used to do this with my dad all the time. (Not sure she still does as they're both retired now.) She'd come home and start going into heaps of detail about her work and everything, he rarely seemed to say much. I used to wonder how he could put up with it. But they've been together for over 50 years and love each other very much. Of course, it may be that he just doesn't much care about talking about his stuff and prefers to listen.

I've actually stopped being friends with people for how self-absorbed they are - never asking about anything in my life, etc. Often this has been people I've not been very close to, and I'm sure some of them thought I was making them do all the conversational heavy lifting by never offering anything, so they had to keep blathering about themselves. I think both points of view might be correct!

At the same time, I'm aware that in conversation with people I'm comfortable with, I am the type of person who engages by offering similar or related anecdotes in support of something someone is telling me. Conversational metaphors, if you will. I also try to make sure that I don't always do this, and can just shut up and listen sometimes without offering anything that might wind up derailing the conversation to be All About Me. The people I'm closest to tend to respond well to this, but I'm aware that not everyone takes it well if they are telling a story about their baby's latest developmental progress and I chime in with, "hey, that's just like when my kitten does xyz".

I guess the key thing is a bit of sensitivity to other people's communication styles. Your partner seems to be aware that you two communicate differently, which is good - nothing worse than someone who's oblivious. As others have said, if he is open to working on it so that you feel more comfortable, that's a good starting point and bodes well for the future. But if he's not, or uses "you can't tell how good this relationship is" as a way to shut you down rather than a reassurance, I would say it's time to look elsewhere. It's a sign that he cares more about the relationship existing than he cares about you.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:00 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Try to become more like him and see where that goes and how he feels about it.

For example, the next time he talks about something, interrupt him to offer your recollection of a similar situation that happened in your past.
posted by Kwadeng at 3:43 AM on June 2, 2015

I dated a guy like this- very self-absorbed. And I agree with others that it had to do with some kind of self-esteem/ validation need. Oh, he would ask me about my day, but then would zone out because it didn't affect him so he really didn't care.

Deep down I know he was a good guy with a good heart, but I could never get passed feeling less important to him. I brought up my issues over and over again- how I never felt like a priority. At the end, I really resented him because I never felt supported or really cared about. I painfully walked away because I realized he was never going to change (we're in our 30s). Even after we've broken up, he'll reach out occasionally, but it's only to talk about himself. He's never once asked how I'm doing.

Good luck OP.
posted by Lillypad331 at 5:15 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've sat on answering this for a while, not least because I had a gut reaction (when I read your ages) that you are dating my ex.

I'm sure you aren't. At the same time, I'm also sure I dated a man who fits this description. I really did try to discuss it, to pursue strategies to improve our communication.

Since I'm married to someone else now (and gloriously freaking happy), you might also gather that temporary mindfulness on his part never translated to lasting change. This wasn't for lack of him trying, I'm sure. But he was in his mid-thirties when we started dating. Undoing over three decades of behavior is usually very difficult, if not impossible -- particularly when the person who needs to work on it hardest doesn't actually perceive the problem without being prompted to do so.

What it comes down to, I think, is this: we're all compatible with a certain kind of person. When you find someone with whom you're compatible, their natural, unthinking style makes you feel validated and loved. When you're involved with someone who constantly leaves you feeling unheard or unsettled or edgy or neglected, chances are you're not the best match. It's really as simple as that -- no matter that you both share a passion for X culture, or Y hobby, or Z career.

It sounds like you've been hitting on a major incompatibility for a while now. Your SO no doubt has many wonderful qualities, but if he doesn't by nature behave in a way that generally makes you feel loved and cared for, you're missing the biggies. You're missing what you deserve.

You could find someone who, by nature, communicates with you in a way that makes you feel recognized and valued pretty much all the time. (I speak from experience.) If that idea excites you, you should pursue it. And if you ever find yourself thinking that you'd feel happier alone -- you should definitely break it off ASAP. That very revelation was what drove me to break up with my then-SO. Had I not done that, I would never have found the man I married -- who, in three and a half years now, has never once made me doubt that I am the most interesting woman on the planet to him.
posted by artemisia at 7:52 PM on June 4, 2015 [7 favorites]

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