How do I rebuild trust in my relationship and meet my partner's needs?
August 21, 2016 3:54 PM   Subscribe

I wasn't honest with my partner for several months about my feelings for her. She told me weeks ago that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with me. I did not feel the same way, and to avoid hurting her feelings I didn't tell her. When I did tell her two days ago, instead of being happy, she felt I betrayed her trust. It really hurt her to learn that I was hiding my feelings. She says she can't be sure I won't continue to hide my feelings from her. How do I rebuild her trust?

Apologies in advance for the length. The text above is basically my TLDR, continue reading if you want (a lot!) of detail.

Biographical info

I'm 26 year old man, working as a freelance designer. She's a 24 year old woman, about to enter a doctorate program in September. We've been dating for 8 months. We met online. At the time we lived in different cities. In April I moved three hours away to be with her for the summer. And just last week I moved with her to the city where she's going to school this fall, on the other side of the country.

This is my first relationship, technically. I think I've been doing really well, even though I don't have much experience. I'm very introverted, sensitive, and I have difficulty making new friends. There are a lot of reasons why this is the first relationship I've been in. I was brought up in a deeply religious household, and I was also home schooled. So, I did not receive the same sort of socialization most children get. Although I can maintain the appearance of being an outgoing person, I have fairly serious social anxiety. I'm also sorta choosy when it comes to my relationships. I've gone on dates with people for years, but never met anyone who I felt was right for me. While I have nothing against promiscuous relationships, I never felt comfortable hooking up.

She's an extremely intelligent, loving person. She grew up in a conservative, religious household as well. We both studied art and design on college; she double-majored in design and psychology. We share political perspectives that are left of center--she's a left-liberal intersectional feminist, I'm a communist. She started dating later than most people too, around 21. I haven't really talked to her about her previous relationships, but I have picked up a little information here and there. She has told me she carries an insecurity from her past partners that she will always love her partners more than they love her. She's been broken up with more than once because her partners told her they had no romantic feelings for her. She has told me that I'm the first person she was ever able to tell that she loved.

Balance

She has a very particular relationship philosophy. She emphasizes "equality" in all aspects of the relationship. She does little everyday things like paying for her own meals, opening doors for me, etc.

One of our recurring relationship issues is the "balance" of equality, the give-and-take of the relationship. She is very attentive to how much she's "giving" to me: how often she shares her food with me, how frequently she cooks meals for me, how many times she's planned activities for us versus how often times I have planned for us. She's very focused on gestures of affection: symbolic gifts, long letters, and thoughtful actions, and wants me to reciprocate in the same manner.

This focus on equality is a very liberal way of understanding healthy relationships. I don't mean that to sound like it's not a valuable way of creating relationships. It's my understanding that she approaches romantic relationships in this way to protect herself from being used by her partner. For her, the emphasis on equality and reciprocity between us is to keep our relationship from descending into a patriarchal arrangement where she does most of the caring and I just glide along, using her love. However, this idea of equality is basically a metaphor which comes from capitalist economics, where a market-exchange ethos is used as the guiding ideal for the relationship. Two individuals entering into a consensual relationship based on mutual interests. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, essentially.

Let me be clear, I think this sort of politicization of our relationship is good! I absolutely do not want to reproduce patriarchal social relations in my romantic life. One of the reasons I'm with her is because we share that desire. But I am uncomfortable with the way she practices her politics in our relationship. It seems very transactional and inflexible; her approach is unable to fully incorporate the unique needs we have as individuals with different experiences and the qualitatively different ways people show love to one another.

I have talked about this before with her, stressing the inflexibility of her relationship philosophy. She understands my perspective, but hasn't changed hers (and I haven't asked her to). I believe equality and reciprocity are good starting points, but that we must go beyond both to reach a full understanding each other's experiences, and therefore know each other's unique abilities and needs.

The problem

Ok, that's more than enough background information. So, repeatedly over the course of our relationship--I'd say every three weeks or so--we will run into a rough spot. The triggering events are all different, but fundamentally they all relate the same issue. She feels like I'm taking more than she's giving, and believes this is because I care about her less than she cares about me.

It's eerie sometimes how good she is at anticipating my needs. However, I have trouble knowing what she needs without her stopping to tell me clearly and directly. We have talked about this disconnect, and she has given me things I can do regularly which will make her feel cared for--and they're mostly things she does for me. They're all gestures of affection like sending letters and planning fun activities. Ordering vegetarian dishes so she can try my food, texting her first, surprising her with thoughtful gifts. I have listened to these requests, and changed accordingly. I'm more than happy to, I want to show my love to her.

But, even though I improve in the areas where she makes her requests, she has a multitude of other needs which I fail to meet. This is because she can't predict the need herself, or in the moment she isn't able to ask me for something because she feels uncomfortable. She expects me to sense her needs and step in without her asking for my help directly. To her, this is a sign of conscientiousness--if I have her on my mind, and truly care about her, I would be able to care for these needs which she isn't able to express to me in the moment, whatever the reason.

She collects these opportunities I miss and every three weeks or so, brings them to me. Usually, she'll get really quiet and push me away, making me bother her until she tells me what's on her mind. Then she'll talk about the balance of giving and taking between us and name all the times in the last few weeks I failed to take into account her needs. I will listen, apologize, and tell her I will try to do better. After these conversations I usually write down the needs which she tells me I've missed, in order to understand her better and perhaps arrive at a place where I can anticipate the ways in which I can support her. I believe I have been doing better. But I am still unable to predict what she wants me to do much of the time.

This finally brings me to the incident that is causing us a lot of emotional pain, and could be the beginning of the end of our relationship. This Friday, I said some stuff which caused her to totally lose trust in me. We had another tough talk during which she expressed that she still feels an imbalance and that she still feels like she's giving too much. She told me I was just more self-centered than her, and that she can't go on feeling like she's caring more for me than I'm caring for her. I proposed, for the first time, that we come up with a plan, a communication system of mutually agreed upon guidelines--a sort of relationship machinery--which, once set in motion, could rectify the feelings of imbalance. I think she liked that idea. She admitted it was unfair of her to expect me to divine her needs, and said that, because of past experiences with bad partners, she has learned to hide them. She said I have to coax her needs out of her. I do not like this, but I believed that, with the right system of communication, I could come to recognize what she wants even if it takes a little prying.

As we neared the end of our talk, I told her that she was the love of my life. This is something she told me a couple months ago. It really was an incredible moment when she told me. The meaning of that statement is of such a huge magnitude. I had spent my life looking for someone I could be with forever, and here was my girlfriend, telling me she wanted just that. However, twoish months ago, I still had some doubts about our relationship. Because this is essentially my first romantic relationship, I have had trouble interpreting and trusting my feelings. I was also concerned that she didn't believe I loved her as much as she loved me. I felt confident that I loved her, but worried that I wasn't feeling the Real Thing, and also that this person might not be right for me because we seemed to be running difficult times very often.

So, when she first told me I was the love of her life, I did not reciprocate. I just told her how much that meant to me and how happy I was to be with her. I felt like eventually I would reach that place where I could tell her she was the love of my life, so I held off telling her. I finally felt ready Friday night, so when we were embracing after our talk I told her that she was the love of my life. This would have been fine by itself, I think, but then I went on to say that I was happy to finally be able to tell her that I wanted to be with her forever. She was shocked to learn I still had doubts as recently as a couple weeks ago. What I thought would be a happy moment quickly devolved. Essentially, she thought we had always been in the same place, that we both wanted to be together forever, and hearing that I really wasn't sure of that until quite recently really hurt her. She told me I was dishonest for hiding my feelings from her.

I think she's right. It was wrong of me to hide my feelings. But I didn't realize I made a mistake until I saw her reaction. I thought she would be happy that we're in the same place, regardless of how I felt in the past. I now realize we should have been walking that journey together. I let her assume what she wanted while I worked things out on my own. That was dishonest.

We've spent most of this weekend apart. She told me she needs her space to feel hurt. She called me yesterday, Saturday night, to talk. She had texted me earlier in the day to tell me she forgives me for my mistake, but over the phone she told me that, actually, she decided she couldn't forgive me. She also said she didn't see a way to fix what I had done to our relationship. I had taken advantage of her trust, and there was no way I could make it up to her. She told me she didn't want to see me for a while. She said she had given too much to me already and if I wanted to be with her in the future, she would have to withhold her care, and the burden of fixing the imbalance would be on me. I felt really desperate hearing all this.

This Sunday morning I asked her to talk about the future of our relationship. I wanted to talk more about what she had said to me the previous night, as well as make some suggestions for how we can repair our relationship--how we can rectify the imbalance and rebuild trust. She did not want to expand on what she had said the previous night, and listened to my suggestions quietly. I believe I probably met with her too soon. She wasn't ready to hear what I had to say. After an hour or so, she told me she wanted me to leave and said she didn't want me to ask her any more questions. I left, and then a half an hour or so later she called me to tell me she was angry with me for not respecting her boundaries. I understand where she was coming from, apologized for asking her to meet so soon, and asked her how I could best respect her boundaries. She asked that we spend some time apart while she figures things out. She doesn't want me to talk to her or meet with her, but the occasional text message update is fine. She's not breaking up with me, but doesn't want me to be around. This is where we're at today.

What do I do?

I really love her and would like to see our relationship succeed. I remain optimistic about our future. I know most/all couples go through hard times like these. We're still learning how to be with one another. She is not optimistic. Over the phone today, she told me that she felt like she couldn't be with me because she's given too much, and also that she can't trust that I won't mislead her about my feelings again. She doesn't think I can change. We haven't officially broken up yet, but I fear that during this time apart she will come to view that as her best option.

Does all this read like the growing pains of a new relationship? Is this issue of balance something couples struggle with often? How would I fix it? Does our relationship seem healthy, despite the difficulties I've described? I don't know how to save the relationship. She has to work with me to save it, and right now she's telling me that she is not able to give anything to me. I will give her time to figure things out. In the meantime, I'd like to reflect on our relationship and come up with a way to make things work. I think I can. Is my optimism misplaced?

I know this post is very long and perhaps self-indulgent, so thank you for reading.
posted by Sheila Nagig to Human Relations (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
You sound like you've been honest and conscientious. She sounds like she's anxious to a fault within this relationship and winds up trying to overdetermine and overcontrol things. You are nice to try to make that work but it sounds to me (and I see myself as more her in this relationship than you, I have been there) that you guys may want different things. Specifically, I don't agree with her statement that you need to figure out what she needs. A partner shouldn't be a puzzle palace and they should take responsibility for talking about what they want and need. At the same time, BOTH partners wants and needs are important. I'm seeing a lot of you doing things her way because she's got a lot of feelings about how things should be (again, I empathize with her, but I'm talking to you) and maybe you are just in love and want to make it work.

But that thing where you bared your heart to her and told her how optimistic you were feeling about your future together? Stepping on your hear at that moment was a red flag to me. I mean I get that she felt like she had a sudden understanding about a thing she hadn't understood before. But, to my read, in the light of what you just told her that should ultimately be a good thing you guys have together even if there were bumps to get there.

You're supposed to "pry stuff out of her" and yet she's not supposed to likewise have the same responsibility to you? I mean I think it's better if both people are a little less scorekeepy but I also understand the role of balance in a relationship particularly for anxious people.

She sounds like someone who is always going to feel this sort of imbalance because that feeling exists within her, it's not a thing that can be calmed by a partner who just finally "gives enough". Again, I have been this person, am this person, I have a great relationship with a partner who has the right amount of calm for me but also doesn't put up with me being all "I do all the work around here!!" and I've done a lot of work on myself (therapy, various stress relievers) to meet him in a better place. Thinking you're doing all the work can be a symptom not grounded in reality. Obviously we only have your word here but it doesn't sound to me like you guys are on the same path. Eight months in shouldn't be this much work.
posted by jessamyn at 4:07 PM on August 21, 2016 [36 favorites]


And, sorry I didn't speak to your main point. This relationship can work, but she needs to take more ownership and responsibility for her own feelings AS feelings and not just things that you are responsible for. Some gentle loving pushing back on some of her "You need to do this in JUST THIS WAY" sorts of things may help her adjust so that you're both getting your needs met better.
posted by jessamyn at 4:09 PM on August 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


You sound a lot like my ex husband. She sounds like she has some things in common with my past (younger) self.

In my case, the big betrayal was that he did not tell me he wasn't sure he wanted to marry me, so I thought we had an agreement to marry at a time when I gave up a scholarship. So finding out he wasn't ready to marry me after giving up the scholarship was extremely upsetting to me because he basically let me throw away my future because I thought I had a future with him.

We did marry, so it did work out, and we were together more than 2 decades and I don't regret it. The divorce was amicable.

But I am really not hearing that your "betrayal" was anything on the order of keeping quitet in a way that has her making really big, irreversible decisions that make no sense if you fail to marry her. In fact, you have been seriously rearranging your life for her:

In April I moved three hours away to be with her for the summer. And just last week I moved with her to the city where she's going to school this fall, on the other side of the country.

I was all kinds of drama because I was molested and raped as a child. I was open about that with him from the start. In fact, he knew that before we were an item as we had been good friends and I was quite open about that with all my friends.

(Unless I missed something, which is possible:) The background you have given does not explain why she is so very much drama. I will suggest that there is a very good chance she has a dark secret. She may not even remember being abused, but her behavior makes no real sense without some kind of trauma or other cause somewhere in her past.

I very much benefited from the forbearance, support and kindness of the quiet, shy, socially awkward man I married and bore two children with. But I also supported his dream career and did many other things to enhance his life in ways he very much recognized and appreciated.

I think you are being jerked around by someone who doesn't know how to have a healthy relationship. For a long time, I did fight with my husband "about every three weeks or so." It was called PMS. Even so, I fought with him about stuff that was going wrong, not stuff I was keeping a book on so I could be petty and vindictive.

I suggest you tell her that you will only stay if she will go to couple's counseling with you. If she won't, you need to get out of there and go home or move elsewhere. You are arranging your life around her and she doesn't even appreciate it. She just lords it over you that you aren't loving enough and that is basically bullshit.

So unless you find out very soon that she was horribly abused AND she has a come to Jesus moment and will go to counseling with you and really work on this, I suggest you protect yourself. This basically sounds like an emotionally abusive relationship in which you are the victim. That isn't okay, no matter how much she thinks she "gives." Which, honestly, I am not seeing evidence of that in your description. You moved to where she is, not the other way around.
posted by Michele in California at 4:25 PM on August 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


Break up. In general, the longer the question, the more you need to just break up.

Here's what it boils down to: you are in a relationship with a person who tallies, who actually counts how many times she does X versus you do Y, someone who actually keeps score (and is withholding for few weeks then throws it back in your face like so much passive-aggressive nonsense).

This is not a recipe for success. Unless you can get HER to change (spoiler alert -- you can't), this relationship WILL.NOT.CHANGE.

She will tally, she will have unstated desires you're supposed to mind-read, and you will NEVER make her happy.

Trust your gut. You're not happy. Just break up.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:27 PM on August 21, 2016 [47 favorites]


I don't get how you were "dishonest" anywhere in this. She told you you were the love of her life, you said nice things back, but since you weren't thinking the same you didn't say it back to her. Now, two months later, you are feeling the same thing and you said it to her. It's nonsensical to believe that you would both be at exactly the same point in the relationship, and you should both be celebrating the fact that you've both got to the same significant point within a couple of months of each other. I don't see anywhere in your story where you misled her into thinking something that wasn't true.

In the early stages of a relationship, if one person declares where they are there is no automatic requirement on the other party to respond by clarifying exactly where they are and aren't on the same matter. Waiting a while, as you did, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

What you describe about the last weekend seems like a whole bucketload of drama over a relatively small misreading of the situation on her part, and would be a big negative if it were me. But then saying "if I wanted to be with her in the future, she would have to withhold her care, and the burden of fixing the imbalance would be on me" is not a tenable way to build a relationship.

It sounds to me as if you're doing your best to be flexible, work out what she wants from you, and attempt to modify your behaviour to make her happier (whether or not you fail here and there). It doesn't sound from what you've said as if she's doing anything like this. More it appears that she's making mountains of drama out of molehills. My concern would be what the response would be when something really significant happens to either/both of you.

Imbalance in feelings/care will happen in any relationship from time to time. Ideally it should fluctuate between the two rather than always being one-sided. "Every three weeks or so" she brings you a list of your failings? That's a pretty serious downer on a relationship of less than a year. Are you sure you want it to carry on like that? I suspect that whatever you do it won't change -- only the subject matter will.
posted by tillsbury at 4:33 PM on August 21, 2016 [17 favorites]


I really don't mean for this to sound harsh, but it seems like you two have always had compatibility issues (her needing you to anticipate her needs, etc.), and based on her reaction to the love of my life reveal, I get the sense that she was (consciously or not) looking for an out, saw one, and let this kinda minor thing implode the relationship.

It's nice that you guys are still in contact, but you can't be in a relationship with someone who doesn't want to be in it.
posted by Drosera at 4:51 PM on August 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think you probably know, deep down, that some of the stuff she is doing -- insisting you order vegetarian dishes (you are presumably not vegetarian?) so that she can try your food-- is controlling and a bit unhealthy.

Please finalize the break up and find a partner who cares as much about your happiness as you seem to care about hers.
posted by loquacious crouton at 4:56 PM on August 21, 2016 [14 favorites]


Ugh, you’ve been set up to be the eternal guilty party in this relationship. Basically, she has a running tally of your sins, and she is the one who gets to define what constitutes a sin in your relationship.

My opinion is that you are in a relationship that is verging on being emotionally abusive. There is a lot of SJ language obscuring this fact, but once you eliminate all that you find someone who has elevated themselves as the ‘owner’ of this relationship with you a perpetual debtor.

To your questions:

1. Does all this read like the growing pains of a new relationship?

No, this is not what a new relationship should be like. This kind of stuff can crop up in all relationship, usually further down the line, though – when it comes in this early, and on the heels of fairly big moves you made for her, you can chalk it up to basic incompatibility. Unlike in most relationships I know, though, the bookkeeping quality and the constant theorizing of your relationship gives this situation a slightly surreal feel.

2. Is this issue of balance something couples struggle with often?

I don’t know many relationships in which the issue of balance doesn’t rear its head. A lot of the time it is, indeed, an issue of one partner - frequently the man in a hetero relationship - choosing the easy road for himself/ herself to the detriment of the other (more often than not the woman in xy rels). I'm adding in the gender qualifiers because this is an issue that is frequently debated re. patriarchy (not least on Matafilter. for example search for the emotional labour thread) and she may be using thinking/ language derived from those discussions.

I’d say, though, that in your case this in not entirely relevant (not at this point in this particular relationship as described in your OP), given the very not-OK way in which your partner keeps score, and because she arrogates the right to be the only one to determine what constitutes valid giving, effort, needs, and communication strategies in your relationship.

3. How would I fix it?

I think the only way to fix this in a way that does not lead to an out-and-out abusive relationship is by you talking about the relationship expectations you both have in a way that allows your (actual) needs, feelings and desires to exist in the relationship (rather than the ones she has decided you have/ should have). It is possible that such conversations may reveal the two of you are incompatible, but that is not a conclusion you should avoid by becoming completely subsumed to her worldview and needs.

This will sound beside the point, but I think the best thing to do in your situation is to get some therapy for yourself rather than rush to fix things with your partner. I’m saying this because it feels utterly bizarre to me that she came to you with this score-keeping approach where she seems to be the only one to decide what goes into the ‘give’ and what into the ‘take’ column of the relationship ledger, and you apparently agreed with no push-back.

4. Does our relationship seem healthy, despite the difficulties I've described?

No, not at all.

5. Is my optimism misplaced?

I believe it is. It seems to me that you have blinded yourself to just how dysfunctional this relationship was even before this new drama.

It’s not that I don’t feel for your girlfriend. Having had my fair share of heartbreak and seen many of my friends go through same, I can tell you that I have often felt completely anxious and bitter about rels. With my friends, we’ve often joked about doing exactly what your gf is doing – keep a ledger. But joking about stuff like this is one thing, and implementing it in your relationship is another. Being a victim of past abuse does not justify becoming a perpetrator, and while anxiety is understandable, it should never be used as a cudgel.

Look out for yourself here.
posted by miorita at 5:11 PM on August 21, 2016 [23 favorites]


it doesn't sound exactly healthy or pleasant to me to be keeping such exacting tallies about what each person is contributing to a new relationship. every relationship has little inequities, but hopefully they go both ways and it all comes out in the wash. one person cooks more, the other plans outings more, or whatever, but the key is a generosity of spirit--you're not ticking off boxes about who has done what, you are just enjoying the meeting of two souls and all that jazz.

she is right that you won't change--you should tell her that. you are who you are and you're doing your best but you can't become psychic. she'll have to help you help her by using her words to explain what she wants/needs.

she won't change either and scorekeepers are exhauuustingggg and she will probably always be one. are you OK with that?

it just sounds so exhausting. it shouldn't be so hard! there are ladies out there with good politics who are keen to keep capitalist/patriarchal dynamics out of their personal relationships who are NOT score keepers and who would love to date you.
posted by iahtl at 5:17 PM on August 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Best answer: Out of curiosity, OP, do you see yourself as doing any emotional labor in this relationship? Do you know what that is?

I think that to someone who isn't aware of or skilled at emotional labor (which may be true for someone who was poorly socialized as a child/teen and has zero relationship experience), the notion of "noticing and responding appropriately to your partner's emotional state" might come across like "read your partner's mind".

If that's actually what she's requested, it's no more outlandish a request than it would be for her to expect you to do other labor, independently, in your lives together--like, notice that bills need to be paid and pay them, or notice that the dishes need to be washed and wash them. Just saying.
posted by Sublimity at 5:24 PM on August 21, 2016 [11 favorites]



Let me be clear, I think this sort of politicization of our relationship is good! I absolutely do not want to reproduce patriarchal social relations in my romantic life. One of the reasons I'm with her is because we share that desire. But I am uncomfortable with the way she practices her politics in our relationship.


What you wrote here isn't at all clear to me. You think someone who's trying to find an easy partnership where the participants look out for each other is politicizing? But you're ok with that? But you're actually not ok with it. If that's the case then why do you want to bring this relationship back from the dead? It seems pretty clear she's ended the relationship and you don't seem too happy with her. Even just reading this question I can't tell if you love her like a partner or like a bratty chihuahua. I bet living this is no fun for her.

I don't see bringing up instances where she didn't feel supported as score keeping but that's just me. Maybe as a dude you don't realize how hard it is to find the kind of relationship she's looking for. Let her go find it.
posted by bleep at 5:47 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


From what you've told us, I can't see how you were dishonest or misleading or what you need to be forgiven for. You didn't deceive her, and you are not responsible for the assumptions she chose to make.

This does not sound like a healthy relationship. People in healthy relationships don't expect their partner to be able to read their mind (She expects me to sense her needs and step in without her asking for my help directly, She said I have to coax her needs out of her). People in healthy relationships don't make assumptions about their partner's feelings and then accuse their partner of dishonesty when it turns out their assumptions were wrong. People in healthy relationships realize that each person has their own needs and desires and don't expect the things they do for each other to tally up to the exact penny. People in healthy relationships don't fight every three weeks. Most of all, when the relationship is difficult, people in healthy relationships share the labor of trying to make things better. You're obviously a very caring, empathetic person and it sounds to me like you are doing all of that labor and she is doing none.

Some of the things your girlfriend says sound like projection: she says she's given you too much, but you're the one who has moved across the country for her! That counts for a whole lot of surprise gifts in my book. To be honest, it sounds like neither of you is very mature in relationship terms (which isn't surprising since you're in your mid-twenties, of course). It's clear that as a sensitive person in their first relationship, you have a lot of emotion invested in this, but it doesn't seem like your needs are being met or are likely to be in the future. It's encouraging that you write this: She has to work with me to save it, and right now she's telling me that she is not able to give anything to me. That's exactly right: it's on both of you to make this work. For you the questions are, what are your needs in this relationship? Is it one in which you can be happy and grow as a person? And if so, is it worth the recurrent rough patches? Even if you answer yes, though, it won't work if she sticks to her position that you're the only one who needs to change, so if I were you, I would break up with her, move back home (if you still can and want to), chalk it up to life experience and look for someone you're more compatible with.
posted by zeri at 5:47 PM on August 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Mod note: Couple of comments deleted. As always on AskMe, please keep OP followups brief - thanks.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:31 PM on August 21, 2016


Hey OP, I just read your long response before it got deleted and I notice you did a lot of explaining and justifying her behaviors. I'm not going to rebut those justifications one by one, but I encourage you to flip the script and "justify" your own behaviors and needs within the relationship. It might give you a more balanced perspective.

For instance, she'd like it if you would order vegetarian dishes so she could try your food. I'm guessing that your thinking of her probable desire to share food and ordering accordingly makes her feel cared for. That's reasonable, of course. BUT! That also means that she would like you to not order the food you'd most like to experience so that she can have a taste...but it's your meal! Why does her desire to try your food trump your desire to have the dinner you want. She gets to have the dinner she wants. It's pretty selfish of her to request that you also have the dinner she wants. I'd be pretty pissed if someone effectively accused me of not caring enough for them by ordering the food that I wanted to eat rather than the food they wanted me to order. WTF. A more reasonable request would have been that it made her feel cared for when you suggested a shared vegetarian appetizer without having to be reminded.

Anyway, I encourage you to try and notice how you feel when she makes these requests of you. I would feel pretty manipulated if someone did a bunch of things for me that I hadn't asked for and then guilted me for not doing enough in return.

And yeah, therapy for you to help you parse out your own needs and desires. You seem wholly focused on hers to the detriment of your own. That's unsustainable at best.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 7:38 PM on August 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


I believe equality and reciprocity are good starting points, but that we must go beyond both to reach a full understanding each other's experiences, and therefore know each other's unique abilities and needs.

. . .

It's eerie sometimes how good she is at anticipating my needs. However, I have trouble knowing what she needs without her stopping to tell me clearly and directly.
We have talked about this disconnect, and she has given me things I can do regularly which will make her feel cared for--and they're mostly things she does for me. They're all gestures of affection like sending letters and planning fun activities. Ordering vegetarian dishes so she can try my food, texting her first, surprising her with thoughtful gifts. I have listened to these requests, and changed accordingly. I'm more than happy to, I want to show my love to her.

But, even though I improve in the areas where she makes her requests, she has a multitude of other needs which I fail to meet.


Yeah, I went back and re-read the OP, and it really hits my emotional-labor-o-meter.

Why do you think she has this remarkable quality of being able to anticipate your needs? (Ever seen the movie Gosford Park? Helen Mirren's remarks at the very end may be illuminating.) Why do you think you don't have the same capability? In the first sentence I quote you say you want to understand--but have you actually tried to do that? Or are you just going through the motions and thinking that's enough?

The parts of your post that I quoted above resonate very strongly with cluelessness and neglect of emotional labor. This is much akin to how men can be clueless and neglectful of domestic labor--but mistakenly think that they are pulling their weight when they say, "If she told me what to do I'd do it." You are in the "she told me what to do and I did it" phase of grokking emotional labor. That's not the same as being a fully capable, independent, proactive adult. I think you're having a breakup that has remarkable parallels to this one although there may be no dishes involved at all.
posted by Sublimity at 7:41 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Hey Sublimity: Yup! I do know what emotional labor is. We both take our social justice politics seriously. I can see what you're saying, though I will disagree that my breakup resembles the article you posted and make some clarifications.

From the article:

If his wife thought and felt like him, he’d be right to defend himself. Unfortunately, most guys don’t know that she’s NOT fighting about the glass. She’s fighting for acknowledgment, respect, validation, and his love.


Yep, I know this. I'm not that poorly socialized :). I know she wants signs of my affection, to feel loved, to feel cared for, to feel like she can trust me. As I wrote, I absolutely want to show her my love by fulfilling her needs and I never question the events which trigger the hard conversations about those needs (events like "leaving the glass by the sink"). I am not the clueless lug who can't understand why his nagging, irrational wife won't shut up about a damn dishes. I do feel clueless often, but I believe it's because I'm learning.

She and I both understand what emotional labor is, and how it's common for men to, as I wrote above, glide along without caring about their partner's need to be cared for, loved and supported. In fact, this is her reasoning for being very attentive to the balance of care in our relationship. We both have committed not to reproduce those patriarchal social relations in our romantic relationship. You will have to take me at my word, I guess.
posted by Sheila Nagig at 8:21 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


We share political perspectives that are left of center--she's a left-liberal intersectional feminist, I'm a communist.
...
This focus on equality is a very liberal way of understanding healthy relationships. I don't mean that to sound like it's not a valuable way of creating relationships. It's my understanding that she approaches romantic relationships in this way to protect herself from being used by her partner. For her, the emphasis on equality and reciprocity between us is to keep our relationship from descending into a patriarchal arrangement where she does most of the caring and I just glide along, using her love. However, this idea of equality is basically a metaphor which comes from capitalist economics, where a market-exchange ethos is used as the guiding ideal for the relationship. Two individuals entering into a consensual relationship based on mutual interests. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, essentially.


As one (intersectional feminist anarcha-) communist to another, I strongly recommend that you read some Silvia Federici about Wages Against Housework. Your analysis of the political context here seems to be missing some nuance and, well, context.

Two other things I noticed:
* Neither of you seem to be making "bids for connection" here. That's not a good sign.
* Romantic relationships don't follow vastly different rules for human social interaction than other caring interpersonal relationships. Have you had any reasonably close friends ever (even if few in number)? Then you've had relationships. Most of the social skills components are transferable. This means two things: (1) be wary of anyone who tries the "well, I have relationship experience and you don't so you should listen to me" shtick to get you to conform to a relationship style that doesn't work for you; (2) be wary of using inexperience as an excuse for acting poorly within a romantic relationship.
posted by eviemath at 8:21 PM on August 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: Thank Eviemath. I hope it's ok to answer your questions. Perhaps I am missing some nuance. I have read and love Federici! I understand the analyses which came out of the Wages for Housework movement and believe social reproduction theory to be an immensely powerful tool for understanding how capitalism works.

I do have a few friends whom I love dearly. I have never used my inexperience as an excuse to act poorly, that would be incredibly manipulative. As I wrote in my comment to Sublimity, sometimes I'm not sure how to be a good partner, I feel clueless, and I believe that may stem from inexperience.
posted by Sheila Nagig at 8:35 PM on August 21, 2016


How does your debating style with internet strangers compare or contrast with how you respond to your (ex)partner in arguments?
posted by eviemath at 8:57 PM on August 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Hey OP, so I disagree with almost everyone in this thread. I actually think she's right and you're wrong. I mean, overall she's got a valid point and overall she's right about you- everyone is right that she has made mistakes in her style of communicating, in things like the vegetarian food thing, whatever. No one is perfect and right all the time, so yes she has flaws. But overall, I think her point is totally valid and I hate that no one (with a few exceptions) really thinks it is.

You're 26 and she's 24, that is quite young. Just based on your ages you should probably just admit you're not ready for marriage and break up. Young women tend to get more serious about marriage easier than men do, IMHE. Especially if they have a bad family of origin. That's actually their prerogative and is not "wrong" considering many men want to marry women younger or even much younger than them.

I actually don't think it's irrelevant that she's had more relationship experience than you. With more experience, you will learn quicker and quicker to cut the bullshit and the reationship if necessary at the first sign rather than the hundredth. Everyone's first relationship involves a learning curve and even just by her being your first you're getting a "service" from her in this way.

Your tone is really "I'm trying to be fair but I think I'm already being fair and I really resent her." Like you've got this "what more do you want, woman" resentment underneath. Could be I'm reading into it. I also got a very "I will logic my way through this even though she is clearly irrational. Step x y and z equals reationship formula." I don't know, maybe I'm crazy. But I got that tone.

Look lifetime relationships require infinite patience and communication, they just do. What's "fair" as in so much of life, doesn't really matter. If you have kids, she'll be giving birth one day. You'll be stressed and exhausted. One of you will have bad health eventually. Little kids are sooooooo hard to raise. Etc. I hope I'm making sense here. Like, this small stuff right now is no where near the level of unfair bullshit you have to go through and be willing to go through for the long hall of life, dude.

Should people really have to spell out ahead of time and clearly every single need of theirs every time? A lot of people would like to think so, because it puts the burden of communication on the other person. Although people harp on communication and they're not wrong, I actually think it is totally normal for people to anticipate needs ahead of time, unspoken, in the way she wants. She's also not wrong. Like if you have a four year old and that four year old is cranky, they're not going to give you a dissertation on how to make them stop crying dude. You just freaking figure it out. Same deal.

There's a saying, relationships are not 50/50%. They're 100/100%. Meaning each of you has to go above and beyond. Both of you give more than your all. You'll both feel it's unfair and you're giving more, doesn't matter. Giving more than 50% for both of you all the time is the way to get through alllllllll the myriad shit life throws at you.

If you can't do that, you're done.
posted by stockpuppet at 9:10 PM on August 21, 2016 [13 favorites]


You guys are not compatible. And I suspect this very long post (I confess I didn't reall all of it) reads like a letter to yourself about why you need to break up with her.

Well, do that. Break up!
posted by Kwadeng at 11:48 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


You did nothing wrong. You did not conceal your true feelings or lie about them; you just did not return her big feelings at the exact same moment. That's pretty much par for the course! Expecting the two of you to be "walking that journey together" is bullcrap: most of the time, that doesn't happen and there's no such rule.

Also, expecting you to order something that SHE wants to eat, in case she wants to taste it? That's bullcrap too. You should get to eat the meal you want to eat. That's why it's your meal.

All of this sounds like way too much work. None of this sounds like you're having fun. Relationships require work, yes, but it should not feel like a drag and there should also be fun. You're twisting yourself into a pretzel here and you already know you'll never be good enough to suit her needs.

Please stay broken up. There's someone out there that you'll just click with, and it'll feel easy and right. It'll also be quite doable to make things feel fair and even to both of you. If you both feel that you're giving too much, you're doing it wrong.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:55 AM on August 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


Best answer: Yeah, I'm with stockpuppet here, and the OP's response to me pretty much affirms it.

I never question the events which trigger the hard conversations about those needs (events like "leaving the glass by the sink").

I totally believe this, that you never question it. There are a few different ways to parse that, though. There's "not questioning" In the sense of "not challenging"--not objecting to her assertion. But there's also "not questioning" in the sense of "not seeking deeper understanding", and that's where you think you're doing OK but you're really not.
posted by Sublimity at 4:17 AM on August 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Mod note: Moderator here. Just quickly, Sheila Nagig, Ask Metafilter isn't meant to be a discussion site, it's purely a question and answer site wherein you ask your question, get various answers, some of which are hopefully useful to you, and some of which will not be. If you need more in-depth back and forth, you might try a discussion board, but here it's basically ask your question and then maybe clarify if there is something unclear in the original post, or if critical information is needed for people to answer. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:01 AM on August 22, 2016


Does all this read like the growing pains of a new relationship?

Nope. This reads like a nightmare of walking on eggshells around landmines.

Loving someone isn't supposed to feel this bad.

This misery could drag on for years.

Don't do it.

Sorry pal.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:11 AM on August 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


Best answer: I think people here are being awfully hard on both you AND your partner. She has every right to demand equivalent emotional labor. She may have ideas about reciprocity/fears about imbalance that are too rigid to allow for her to appreciate your efforts. This is understandable--I would bet dollars to donuts that her experience has taught her if she gives an inch, dudes will take a mile.

You sound as though you are very consciously trying to get the hang of emotional labor but are frustrated because your efforts keep failing in ways you can't predict. This is also understandable! We aren't saints or robots; when we are doing our best and constantly failing, we become frustrated.

There's a thing where sometimes two good people aren't good together. You are in that thing. It's not because either of you is weird or lazy or wrong or anything; it's just that you're not enough alike, in some critical ways. Her needs are not obvious to you because they're not even a little bit shared. Your natural logic won't ever come around to doing the things she wants on its own. It'll only come around to it with explanations and reminders and then it's going to run the risk of misinterpreting or otherwise failing to address them.

There is someone out there whose needs resonate enough with you that intuiting them will not be impossible, and meeting them will feel joyful. Imagine that! Someone who just makes sense to you! There is someone out there who will be able to intuit and meet her needs with ease, without undue digging and contortion of preferences. Someone to whom she makes natural, intuitive sense!

That's really the essence of compatibility imho. Not liking the same social justice texts or bands, just fully grokking what the other person is ABOUT.

Go forth and break up and find these other people.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:08 AM on August 22, 2016 [14 favorites]


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