wanting to want me ain't the real thing
March 29, 2016 3:09 PM   Subscribe

Help me define and communicate my own needs with my sporadically emotionally unavailable new girlfriend.

We went on our first date through okcupid four months ago and have been exclusive for three. We're both ladies. She's smart, loyal, sarcastic, extremely hard-working, and drop dead gorgeous. I am head over heels for her. She hasn't been in a relationship for three years. Her last long-term partner cheated on her, and while I know almost nothing about their relationship, I know she was devastated.

She travels for a demanding job, so is out of town most of the time. She's also independent, and needs alone time to feel healthy. Coupled with her punishing work schedule, this leaves little time to carve out time and emotional space for someone else, and is a reason (and excuse, she says) why she hasn't dated these last few years. I share her need to be alone, so I understand that and support her taking care of herself in a way that's healthy for her.

She is struggling to commit to our new relationship. She likes me and I know and feel that. She's a great listener and remembers really small things I say to her. She's thoughtful and kind. She invited me to travel with her (and paid for everything) to meet her family. She tells me I'm beautiful. However, often times she just feels totally unavailable. She's been very open about communicating her feelings and struggles to me. She says half the time she feels connected to me and the other half she feels numb and nothing at all. She says she doesn't want to feel so closed off. She says she wants to be dating someone, but is unsure how to make it work both practically in regards to her schedule, and emotionally. She told me last night she's going to start therapy, which YAY I'm really happy for her and I hope it's productive work for her. I also know to listen to someone when they speak, and I know she's warning me she might not stick around.

I have met a ton of her friends and they are absolutely thrilled she's dating someone. They like me a lot, too. Watching her around them is a double-edged sword: her attention and love towards them is this huge beam of sun. I know it's early for her to give me her energy like that, but it reinforces how cold she is to me sometimes. Many times when I'm around her she's really quiet and distracted and won't touch me. I shut down a little, because no matter what I chat about she doesn't really respond. Sometimes when we're in a group of her friends she'll totally ignore me.

I consider myself extremely capable of holding and supporting other people's emotional needs. I like listening and offering cheerleading or advice and consider myself unselfish when she talks to me about her worries in our relationship.

However, on MY end, I feel I'm on a roller coaster that I have no control over. I like her, and I want to treat her well and give her space to be healthy. However, I don't want to be a doormat, and let her drag me around while she figures out if she wants to date me or not. I'm terrified of her breaking my heart. I have already told her I won't wait for her emotional commitment forever. Sometimes I think she's this beautiful deer I've come across, and I'm trying to be as still as possible before it darts back into the woods. Then I realize that's a terrible way to frame a relationship!!

I can struggle with giving credence to and vocalizing my needs, and I'm not even sure what I'd ask of her. Be warmer to me? Hug me tighter? Say more intimate things to me? I'm at a total loss of what to do. I don't want to break up with her now, but I have no idea what to do to make this easier and healthier on myself. I've really been struggling with the insecurity and vulnerability of it all. Any advice for communicating with her in a way that's fair to both our needs? Or, and I hope not, does this just sound like a total non-starter?
posted by missmary6 to Human Relations (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like she's a wonderful person who is not ready to be in a relationship. You don't need to feel shut out half the time. Your resentment will likely only grow. This lady needs to grow before she can be the type of person you deserve to be with. And so, yes it's a total nonstarter. Your partner is somewhere else out there!
posted by Kalmya at 3:13 PM on March 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

I am head over heels for her.

This often comes out in an obvious way that can feel really needy and demanding to the person who is the object of desire. You are over the moon for them and you want that reciprocated -- which is understandable -- but it can feel smothering.

I tend to be very giving. I had no trouble doting on my first child who needed a LOT from me. I had a much harder time giving space to my introverted second child. I learned to give him his space and we get along well because of it, but it really did not come naturally to me.

She may be giving off a cold vibe because she is hurt and vulnerable and it may not feel fair to her to make it your problem to fix her pain from a previous relationship or she may not know how to ask for what she wants or she may not even know what she needs. Love -- real love -- often involves paying the debts from a prior relationship. If you really want her, you will need to find a way to make her feel safe and comfortable enough to come to you.

I don't know how that would happen, but that would be the solution. Maybe that is more than you can give currently. But that would be the way forward, in my opinion, as an Internet stranger who has never met her and all that.
posted by Michele in California at 3:19 PM on March 29, 2016 [9 favorites]

I hope you can forgive her for trying and not being ready to date. The first or second time she made you feel shut down (it's only been a few months, that should not happen so early on) you could have broken up with her and wished her well.

Next time you try a on a new relationship, I want you to put yourself first. The right relationship will "fit" well for at least the first year or two.

You can work on holding a space for your own needs and speaking up for yourself in therapy.
posted by jbenben at 3:20 PM on March 29, 2016 [7 favorites]

Ugh, I hate dating situations like this and have been in them a few times. The magic words for me became, "Hey, I really like you, I really like us, and I'd love for us to be capital E exclusive. You've told me you're on the fence about that and I want to be cool with you figuring things out but ultimately the waiting and the stringing along makes me feel really lousy. I'm thinking it would be best to go our separate ways at this point, yeah?"

Most of the time the other person was like, "Yeah, you're right. I'm really sorry." One person was like, "Wait! No, I'm ready, I've been an idiot, let's do this." (Though really, he wasn't, but that's another story.) YMMV.

IMO, it's not your job to melt the ice left over from her prior relationship. It's not your job to do all the emotional labor because she's busy or emotionally unavailable for any reason whatsoever. She's been honest that she's probably not going to stick around. Now it's time for you to be honest with yourself -- do you really want to endure the heartsickness that comes with being strung along for ages and ages while somebody figures out what they want without much concern for you and your needs? You don't deserve that. You deserve so much better.

Happy, healthy, functional relationships don't look like this, love. :( I'm really sorry.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:52 PM on March 29, 2016 [21 favorites]

I think that the fact she is in therapy is a great sign. You are with her for a reason, learning to express yourself takes time and practice, and doing it with her is just as effective as with anyone else. Also becoming whole, with or without anyone is the "goal" so I think you should chill and work on yourself while staying in this and giving her time and space (and you too). It creates uncertainty when she does her withdrawal stuff and she has been honest with you, great! I know it might feel like waiting, but its doing the work on yourself which sure, may create feelings of impatience, anxiety, impulsiveness etc. and reveals your own fears to you so you can learn to soothe that and know you are ok but that's the growing part. Hoping someone will make you happy leads to more unhappiness. Can I be happy without anyone ? is the most secure space and you can still be in this with her and do that work as well. Until that part in you is dealt with its just groundhogs day so why not do this with someone youare very attracted to and learn balance?
posted by RelaxingOne at 4:09 PM on March 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

So, I recently got out of a relationship with someone who has a demanding job. We never settled into a relationship, not the least because her work demands her full attention twice a year for at least a couple of months at a time. These demands always come at the same time every year, and those times just happen to coincide with each of our birthdays. Seems like a little thing, but after a couple years I was increasingly frustrated by this state of affairs, and it was never going to change because Career Reasons.

That's fine, I don't blame her, but there was no way either of us was going to be 100% satisfied. Your partner's struggle may include tension between liking you and wanting you to be happy, vs. job committment. Note that "her punishing schedule" likely means you will always have to be the one to compromise on your schedule and plans. Together-time being subject to outside forces is essentially the model of long-distance relationships, and if her job is truly punishing then you might also find your shared activities being more Netflix-oriented because she just wants to decompress. (I'm projecting)

Her last long-term partner cheated on her, and while I know almost nothing about their relationship, I know she was devastated.

Coincidentally, this is familiar too, and it is now a red flag to me if a potential partner can't talk about previous relationships matter-of-factly. History is a part of life and I don't want to date someone who omits this from the relationship.
posted by rhizome at 4:10 PM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

You sound really limerent and I think that linked page might be a useful read. I've found it possible on occasion to enjoy limerence, enjoy the brief time where my life crosses path with the person in question, and to move on once the mood passes. You can be honest with her about this, too -- that you don't see her as being in a space where she's able to invest in an intimate relationship, but you think she's cool and you enjoy spending time with her -- except for when she's being cold to you; then she's welcome to go home. But for now, you're cool with her companionship, and some fun in the sack, and no great expectations.
posted by kmennie at 4:22 PM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I will add that it takes something like 15 to 20 hours per week to develop and maintain an intimate relationship. If the demanding job etc do not allow for having that kind of time together, this may not come together, no matter how much both of you want it. I have ended a relationship in part for that reason. If they just cannot show up, then real intimacy simply will never happen, no matter how good it feels.

A real relationship requires a substantial and ongoing time commitment. There is no clear cut off point between doesn't really want it bad enough and simply can't. There is a lot of grey zone where, if people feel sufficiently motivated, they make sacrifices elsewhere or whatever. So relationship questions are always hard because there is always a certain amount of room for doubt as to whether they are genuinely just busy (or whatever the seeming barrier is) or making up excuses.

But, this is a thing that can be measured: How many hours a week do you see her? And if the number is substantially below 15 and this is consistent, then you don't have an intimate relationship and never will. She's just a hook up.

At some point, it doesn't actually matter WHY she isn't sufficiently available. Whether it is an actual problem or a mere excuse, the relationship cannot become an intimate relationship if the two of you are not putting in sufficient hours. And I think that is a totally valid reason to dump someone: "Hey, I want a real relationship and you just don't have the time. Thanks but no thanks."
posted by Michele in California at 4:24 PM on March 29, 2016 [8 favorites]

At first glance, I want to say cut her loose, but is there no reason you can't make friends with her crowd while she's out of town and have/develop your own social network? Given that you're her gf and she knows about it and approves? Would this be okay with her? And give you the warmth you need while she's away? That's up to you. Just a suggestion.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:38 PM on March 29, 2016

One thing that stood out about your post was how very many times you used the word 'she', and how rarely you used the word 'I'. As a dating couple, I think those should be so much more equal. There is something really missing here.
posted by Vaike at 6:27 PM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your girlfriend is likely holding back because she's just not sure of you yet, even though she really likes you. My husband was like that for the first few months we were dating, and a close friend was similarly reserved with a guy she dated last year.

When I was dating my now-husband, I figured out that he really appreciates acts of service and that makes him feel like I truly love and care about him... so, slowly but surely I won him over by doing whatever I could to help him out and be kind. Helping with renos, being there to help out his family when he's out of town, baking him cookies, rescuing him from a broken-down car several hours away... things like that eventually made him feel secure enough to love me back. He never outright said so, but I definitely noticed positive change in his feelings towards me with each one.

My friend and I talked a lot throughout her relationship with this one guy. She was admittedly not ready to be vulnerable with him or prepared to make room for him in her very busy life, and she wanted him to show her he really loved her before she'd feel secure enough to freely love him back. She wanted declarations of love and romantic acts, but he never quite went that far, which was later revealed to be because she was being so reserved and not giving him enough encouragement back.

Could it be this girl is waiting for something that makes her feel loved enough to feel secure about risking being vulnerable with you? The five love languages - words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, physical touch - do you know what she responds to best? It may be she's looking for something more, or different, in one of these areas. Talk to her about it, and/or test it out.

If you want to have a relationship with her and think she may just need time and further encouragement, then keep trying to find ways to connect with her and show her you care, as far as you're comfortable. Give it another month or two, and if you don't figure it out or make any progress, well...
posted by lizbunny at 7:07 PM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the other comments are completely unreasonable. I say this as someone starting a relationship after three years of not dating, and someone with a busy self-imposed work schedule.

You're dating exclusively. She's introduced you to all of her friends. She's invited and paid for you to travel to meet her family(!!!). She tells you something deeply personal - that she's going into therapy. It seems like she's continuously honest with you.

Those, to me, are the largest indicators that she cares about you. And they're pretty huge, especially considering that it's only been four months. I don't understand how you think she's "figuring out if she wants to date me or not". Someone who's "figuring out if they want to date" doesn't pay for you to travel to meet their family.

Not everyone has the same way of expressing affection. Some people are more explicit. Other people are slower to warm up, or do it through language, or gifts, or physical intimacy. I'd look at the concept of love languages, if you haven't already.

Most importantly, I'd examine where your anxiety is coming from. Issuing some sort of ultimatum is not the way to go. It seems like you require explicit verbal declarations of security and commitment, while she's slowly warming up to the idea of dating someone.

I'd ask her about her other desires. How does she feel about displaying affection when she's around her friends with you? What's her love language? What makes her feel comforted and safe? How does she like communicating, and how do you like to be communicated to?
posted by suedehead at 7:45 PM on March 29, 2016 [14 favorites]

I have met a ton of her friends and they are absolutely thrilled she's dating someone. They like me a lot, too. Watching her around them is a double-edged sword: her attention and love towards them is this huge beam of sun. I know it's early for her to give me her energy like that, but it reinforces how cold she is to me sometimes. Many times when I'm around her she's really quiet and distracted and won't touch me. I shut down a little, because no matter what I chat about she doesn't really respond. Sometimes when we're in a group of her friends she'll totally ignore me. ...

I don't want to be a doormat, and let her drag me around while she figures out if she wants to date me or not. I'm terrified of her breaking my heart. ...

Sometimes I think she's this beautiful deer I've come across, and I'm trying to be as still as possible before it darts back into the woods

It hasn't been that long, so I wouldn't read too much into this or necessarily do much about it yet. But I've felt that way early on before, like I didn't know what I could possibly do to keep the person around or make them trust me, and in some cases it never really got better, because it was never about me, but about them. So if it persists, let her know how this makes you feel. Let her know that you don't want to feel jealous of her friends just because she pours out sunshine toward them while you feel like you're in the weeds. Let her know that you need love and affection too, and that you expect emotional support to be part of what she provides in the relationship. You don't have to do this right away—I probably wouldn't yet—but keep that in mind. It seems like she's able and willing to be forthright with you, so if you ultimately need to have this conversation, it sounds like she might be receptive to it down the road.
posted by limeonaire at 8:18 PM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mmm, I felt this way when I first got into my current relationship. I was thoughtful and kind. I cleaned his place for him when he couldn't, when I went to the store I'd remember the stuff he liked and buy them, I'd make sure to cook the nights I knew he was coming in late. I was sweet and affectionate and caring. In many ways I was the best relationship he'd ever had in terms of caring and thoughtfulness and affection.

Yet I wasn't 'all there' all the time.

For me, I was having an internal struggle, and I communicated this to my significant other. Sometimes I looked at him and I was so hotly in love it was crazy, and sometimes I sat there and everything was wrong and I didn't know what I wanted any more and I was sad and confused.

It was a few things: I didn't feel truly in love with him yet, he was different from my usual 'type', I was coming out of a previous relationship and I was emotionally still recovering thanks to that. I had seen my future with this other person, and this future had been shattered, and I almost had cognitive dissonance because of it-- part of my mind still saw this future, yet I also knew it was over. It was difficult to let go, and yet here I was entering into a relationship with someone else. Lastly, my previous relationship had been an emotional rollercoaster, culminating in heartbreak. It never felt 'good' nor 'healthy' but I was mistaking all the drama for 'love' and 'passion'. Recognizing a more healthy love without constant angst took me a while because I was so used to this damaged version of love. I had a lot to unpack and process and throw away, which was difficult. And of course, part of me was so scared to give my heart to someone else, given it had been extremely thoroughly trampled and the marks were still fresh. I remember worrying if I was sure I could trust him in future, if he'd leave me for someone else 'younger and prettier and thinner and his age,' just like the other guy. It weighed on the back of my mind and clouded my judgment sometimes.

And lastly, and most importantly, it was depression.

The reasons were various, but I was extremely highly depressed at the time. This was the 'off' button in me-- the intense numbness that you describe that permeated my being, and it had nothing to do with him. I wasn't aware it was depression back then, but I was aware of these cycles of nothingness, where my love almost felt like it had completely disappeared, where I felt cold, almost mean, as if my feelings shut off. I hated those moments but I felt so powerless to them. I used to worry if it was just me, or if it was indicative of something else-- was I numb to him because I didn't want this relationship deep down? Or was it the numbness itself that was making me question my relationship?

It was the latter for me-- it was the depression causing the numbness, and the numbness went away with time and help.

But at the time? I didn't know which of those it was and I couldn't tell him when he asked.

I'd wager that her coldness with you is probably deep-seated depression. It's SO promising she's going to therapy; because this is the best thing to see if you guys have hope and a future and if things will improve for you.

In my opinion, all you can do is express what you want from her, what your needs and wants are are, and see if it improves. Do you want more cuddles? More physical affection? You really need to figure it out. I'd say you want to feel secure in her love, and these episodes she has prevents that. And I'd say you don't want her to have these moments, at all, of course. In the meantime, while she's dealing with it, perhaps you can try to compromise. When she goes cold, maybe she can assuage your feelings more. For me, it was as simple as saying, "I'm having one of those moments where I'm not feeling it right now, but I know I care for you, it's not your fault, and I know it'll pass soon." And that was enough reassurance.

And then impose a time limit on trying to fix these issues, to see if things get better. It can be a month, or two. Our time limit was six months (starting from when we were together,) and we'd been together about two months already at the time. So we were going to give it another four months to see if I still felt that way, to see if things improved for me, and if things felt off still, we were going to break up and move on.

See, I didn't know if I saw my future with him. I wasn't sure why I was blowing hot and cold; I didn't know if it would change any time soon. Part of me was incapable of being warm in those depressive periods; they were brutal and all encompassing. I can't describe it adequately, but it was as if all the love in me had drained out of my heart. And yes, absolutely, part of me was subconsciously warning him I didn't know if I could stick around, that I was trying to soften the blow, and that may be what happens to you. It's important you're cognizant of that going forward. It's important you're not too scared of that, eventuality, either, because being scared of it can paralyze your present. But what was I to do? I had to tell him my feelings and struggles, because that's what was happening inside me, and I didn't want to pretend to feel fine. All I could do is tell him my insecurities, and let him decide for himself if it was a dealbreaker for him. And it may well be a dealbreaker for you; you may not be able to deal with this feeling of uncertainty for your future. And you know what? That's ok.

In my case, my boyfriend decided to stick it out, and he decided I was worth the risk of possible breakup and ultimately it paid off for us. With help I pulled out of my stupor and came out the other side stronger and more in love with him than ever. The longer I went, the more in love I became. I was already improving about a month later. At the six month mark, these periods of numbness were gone and I was in a much better mental place. Two years later, things are still great.

I mean, I still get moments of depression (it's a process) and it makes me shut off occasionally, but it's not like it was, it's not a coldness. We also know those funks are temporary, and they're not because of him, or us. It's important you realize that, by the way-- that her coldness is not a reflection on you, and it's nothing you're doing wrong or not doing-- it's not your fault. It's her, it's all within her; her issue.

You say you're good at being her emotional cheerleader, and I think my fiance is very much the same; but sometimes with that, comes a self-imposed (sometimes subconscious) feeling of responsibility for other people's emotional state. Be wary of doing that. You're not responsible for her feelings. It's not your job to fix her, and her moments of emotional unavailability are not because of you. It's important, I think, to get help for your anxiety; the lack of security, and the imbalance in the relationship is making you really anxious that the other shoe will drop soon and she'll leave. This feeling of uncertainty, is really hurting you. That sucks, and you need to decide if it's too much for you to endure and if you need to walk away. But if you're not going to walk away, you need to get a handle on your insecurity because it's damaging. Yes, there's totally a possibility things won't work out, that her hot and coldness will not go away, and you will need to break up. Is that worth it to you? Is she? Sometimes people break up, and it's life and it sucks but it happens. Sometimes the chance at a good relationship is worth it, though, but only you can decide whether that's the case for you.

Best of luck and take care.
posted by Dimes at 2:57 AM on March 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

So it's totally normal that you're head over heels and really into her four months into the relationship. The problem is that she simply doesn't feel the same way you do. Her being emotionally unavailable isn't about you - it's about her and her baggage. It's important that you understand that

You ask how you can express your needs, but I think you know that she can't give you what you want and need right now. Expressing your needs to her at this point would mean breaking up with her, or letting her know that the relationship isn't working for you and that you want things to change. Dimes really hit several nails on the head -- if you do decide to stay with her, you're going to have to make some decisions about how much emotional neglect you can deal with -- and for how long. I think setting a deadline makes sense.. it's also a way of setting a boundary. You give her a certain amount of time to see how things go, and then you really move on without her, or forward with her. Right now, you're kind of being wishy washy -- you've warned her that you won't stick around forever while she's in limbo, but you haven't set a firm boundary about how long you will give her. You say you're terrified of her breaking your heart -- but isn't she already doing that? How much longer are you willing to have your heart broken while she decides whether to stay or go?

I think you have to be really honest with yourself. If you can't imagine sticking around for another 6 months, don't commit to 6 months. Can you handle 3? That's where I think your work is -- figuring out the boundaries that you can live with. If you're really hurting too much, then you might just want to break up and find someone else who is emotionally available and ready for a relationship.

Lastly: In the first few months, you both should be really excited to be together.. if I noticed a new partner was more enthusiastic about being around their friends than being with me, I'd be very turned off and upset. That's not normal and it's a huge red flag. You want someone who "matches" your enthusiasm and energy in the early stages especially. If she's lukewarm about you during the honeymoon stage, then I think it's a pretty strong sign you should let her go.
posted by Gray Skies at 9:42 AM on March 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

I like your deer metaphor, so pretty and apt. :)
posted by poilkj at 12:40 PM on March 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

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