Is trouble having difficult conversations in a relationship a bad sign?
October 29, 2016 11:27 PM   Subscribe

I feel like my partner avoids difficult conversations and often pays me lip-service to avoid unpleasant topics. How worrisome is this behavior long term?

I’ve been with my partner for a few years (if it matters I’m a woman, he’s a man) and I’ve realized over the last year that the way he approaches difficult conversations really bothers me. In general we have a very healthy relationship and love each other very much. I think he’s awesome and he thinks the same of me. We’re quite happy.

But, I feel like my partner avoids difficult conversations and often pays me lip-service to avoid unpleasant topics. How worrisome is this behavior long term? For example we needed to make choices about our next few years together as he got a job in a country I’d need a visa to work in. I felt like we'd never have a conversation to plan what we would do if I hadn’t brought it up and in general when there is any difficult conversation like that, I always have to initiate. I’ve brought this observation up to him and he’s admitted that I’m right and has said he’d try to be more mindful of this behavior but I feel like it keeps happening.

Other examples include not being direct with me out the length of a vacation/work trip until a few days beforehand probably because he knew I wouldn’t be happy about the length (there wasn't any getting around my not being pleased to have a significant chunk of my last few weeks with him before switching to LDR mode taken away) but I feel like I would have been less upset if I knew a week or two before hand. Or I’ve caught him glossing over the truth about things that are difficult to talk about and in these cases I’m more just disturbed he can’t be direct with me, not what was lied about. One example is one evening he was clearly deep in a Facebook chat conversation with someone while lounging in bed, it’s fine, we were both minding our own business. I noticed he seemed fidgety and out of the corner of my eye saw the person he was chatting with was his ex. Now I don’t mind them talking and haven’t given him any indication to think that the friendship isn’t ok, so I was taken aback when he lied to me when I asked him what he was up to. I called him out on it later and he apologized and said it just would have been an unconformable conversation, which I agree, but still, I would have preferred that to lying (I don’t really know how to explain that he's not cheating and I never suspected him to be, just believe me).

Basically my question is, how do I bring this up to make this behavior change? Can it be changed? I just wish he were more forthcoming and honest instead of trying to protect my feelings or avoiding uncomfortable truths, not really sure what the motivation is. Is this behavior a bad sign? Will I always have to start big, necessary conversations? Is this even a problem?
posted by aquablue582 to Human Relations (31 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I agree it's something you'll want to sort out, but assuming he's genuine about wanting to make things work, one thing to consider is that what he finds difficult are more superficial features of the conversation. If you change those, it could all be suddenly easier.

Two examples of what I mean:

For as long as I've known her, I've been frustrated because my mom just cannot seem to have any conversations about emotions or even that involve ideas with emotional complexity. I mentioned something about this to my dad once, and he said that he's found that he has to write letters to her. I tried it and found that it really works: while in person she'll clam up if you ask her the most minor emotional question, in writing she's willing to discuss nearly anything, is very fair and reasonable, and full of emotional complexity. So, you might see if you can have these discussions over email or something.

Another idea if the problem is that he finds these conversations too intense or confronting is to have them while you have something else going on. Say, you're both concentrating on dishes or some arts and crafts or a mindless board game or even just driving the car. Something about having something to look at and do other than the other person, while still being able to give them pretty much your full attention, makes these things go way easier in my experience.

So, these are some ideas in the way of solutions. I do agree that it's something reasonable to worry about, but hasn't reached the level of "glaring red alert" or anything until you've tried a lot more things and he seems unable or unwilling to change.
posted by forza at 12:50 AM on October 30, 2016 [31 favorites]

This is a pretty major communication issue, and it may not have reached a breaking point yet but it can definitely be destructive to a relationship. Your partner sounds a lot like my husband, whom I love immensely. But we're in the process of divorcing in large part due to the dynamic a similar lack of communication created, and the resentments that built as a result. By the time we got to therapy, it was too late. Again, it doesn't sound like that's quite where you are. But I think it's worth seriously addressing if you're envisioning a future with this person.

The examples you gave really struck me and I can relate to how you're feeling. You're wanting open dialogue and you're not getting it. He's not wanting to upset you because he doesn't want to deal with any conflict that may arise from that. He's not wanting to have the "uncomfortable conversation" because he's thinking more about his own comfort than yours. It's both avoidant and selfish. I thought for a long time that the lack of communication was about protecting me - I realize now it was more about protecting himself from having to do the hard work and have the hard talks and experience the negative emotions associated with that. I didn't feel protected at all. It was actually a huge disservice to me, and tremendously unfair that I couldn't trust my partner to tell me what he was thinking and feeling which led to anxiety, insecurity, etc.

To answer some of your questions:

how do I bring this up to make this behavior change?
-I think showing him this post would be a good way to start. It sounds like he's paying you more lip-service when he says "you're right, I'll try to be more mindful." He's avoiding conflict with that statement, says the pacifying thing and nothing changes. I would ask him what HE feels. Does HE think this is a problem? What does conflict feel like for him? What does he fear will happen if you have these hard conversations? Does he understand the impact this could have on your relationship and is that enough motivation for him to work on it?

Can it be changed?
-If he thinks it's a problem and wants to work on it, then it absolutely can improve. It sounds like you'd be supportive of that. But you can't fix it for him. He has to truly want to make this change.

Is this behavior a bad sign? Will I always have to start big, necessary conversations? Is this even a problem?
-We're all flawed. We all have behaviors or feelings or attitudes or habits that can negatively impact our partnerships. You either recognize those things in yourself and want to fix them, or you don't. You can continue to function in this way for a long time (many people do) and if you do, you will be the one who has to initiate these kinds of conversations with him. And it sounds like that is already a problem for you.
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 2:03 AM on October 30, 2016 [21 favorites]

I don't find it by itself problematic that a partner tries to avoid difficult conversations. (It may not work for you, but that's a different story.)

Being willing to lie in order to avoid difficult conversations strikes me as a different thing altogether. That does strike me as a red flag. Not an impossible thing to fix, necessarily, but it speaks to a more casual comfort with lying than I would really like in a partner.
posted by frumiousb at 4:27 AM on October 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

Yeah, I think it's a bad sign. It's possible for someone to learn better communication habits, but in order to do that, that person has to actually work on it, and it doesn't sound like your boyfriend actually wants to do that.

Also, just speaking from personal experience: moving to a foreign country in order to be with someone you love is hard and the first year is the hardest. Jumping through bureaucratic hoops and dealing with the uncertainty of waiting for a visa is hard. Trying to learn your way around a new city while you're also trying to learn a new language and adjust to new customs is hard. Trying to build a social circle from scratch and find a job when you're dealing with a language divide and some of your old skills and certifications don't apply anymore is hard. Figuring out how to stay in touch with old friends in radically different time zones is hard. Figuring out random logistical things is hard: I came home and burst into tears once because I'd spent all afternoon trying to find a hammer because there weren't any neighborhood hardware stores and I couldn't figure out where else to look.

It's all doable of course, but it's not easy. One of the things that got me through the first year was knowing that my now-husband was a deeply dependable, trustworthy person and also one of the most patient listeners I've ever met. He doesn't get angry or defensive in difficult conversations, so I knew we could work out a solution to any problem we were confronted with. When my first visa got denied and I felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails to reasonable, not-crazy-screaming-sobbing personhood, that was the thing that helped me hold on.

I guess the shorter answer here would be: I would think twice about moving to another country to be with someone who doesn't know how to communicate honestly with you yet.
posted by colfax at 4:28 AM on October 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

Lying to avoid conflict would be a dealbreaker for me. It's selfish, immature, and suggests that he sees you as a problem to work around rather than a true partner. If he doesn't consider it a problem to lie to you about small things, he probably won't see it as a problem to lie about big things... like cheating, financial difficulties, etc.
posted by metasarah at 5:25 AM on October 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

It's not on YOU to make this behavior change. It's on HIM.

I can tell you that I ended my engagement over this exact issue. My ex justified the same avoidance as chivalry.

He's not doing this to avoid hurting your delicate, hothouse-flower feelings, he's doing it because he's putting his own sense of comfort first in the relationship. He doesn't want his dreamy, alternate universe of happy clouds to be interrupted by reality, which is bad enough in and of itself. But to say his avoidance and lying is being done because he cares SO MUCH about you is complete bullshit.

So no, this is not okay and is a HUGE red flag. There is no Team Us in his thinking-- just Team Him.

If he will accept that this is a problem for YOU and your relationship, your best bet is going to be couple's therapy.

Left untreated, stuff like this does not get better and the lying becomes more frequent. I would see if he's amenable to getting this sorted out.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:26 AM on October 30, 2016 [15 favorites]

Is trouble having difficult conversations in a relationship a bad sign?

Yes, it is. A relationship is not built on your ability to weather the easy shit; it is built on your ability to have conversations about and successfully resolve the difficult shit.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:43 AM on October 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

Avoidance is something that can be worked through (emphasis on work), but your examples of his behavior make this seem like more of an issue of dishonesty. Lies of omission are still lies. You can't meaningfully trust someone who treats you this way. This seems like enough of a pattern that uprooting your life for this guy strikes me as something you'd regret. I've dated a guy like this--down to lying about booking a trip--and breaking up with him freed up so much mental energy.
posted by lemonadeheretic at 6:13 AM on October 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

My husband does this too, to an extent. It doesn't help that i dont like conflict either. We both can easily tell when the other is feeling off or mulling something over, and its a little bit of a dance to get difficult stuff out on the table.

from what i've gathered, my hub is also hella reluctant to bring up something he knows i won't want to hear, because he reads my sadness/anger/dissapointment as a bad thing. so i've just had to talk straight like, "hun, i might not be showing my best face right now, but thank you for telling me that. now i need a mini nreak to go be grumpy and i'll be back in a few. but i love you very much." and we go do just that. and it works for us.

it might help to point out to your SO that conflict is not really a bad thing per se. things can be said frankly, and with kindness, and still be tough to do, but it shows what is important to you, and where you stand. and you learn. i also always try to frame stuff like its us vs. a problem, instead of making it me vs. you. i do think that communication is the toughest things to get right, but also the most rewarding.
posted by speakeasy at 6:15 AM on October 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Basically my question is, how do I bring this up to make this behavior change?

Since you've already raised it with him to no discernable effect, it sounds like he needs to hear that there are negative consequences to this behavior continuing, like declining trust in your relationship. I assume that you've told him not only that it's a problem, but how it makes you feel? If you haven't really gotten into your feelings, maybe that would help get the point across.

Can it be changed?

Yes, but he has to want to do it, and may benefit from talking to a counselor to help identify tools and strategies to change it. Couples counseling might be appropriate, too.

Is this behavior a bad sign?

I wouldn't like it, and it would make me particularly uneasy going into a LDR or international move since those put a lot of stress on the best relationships.

Will I always have to start big, necessary changes conversations? Is this even a problem?

Since he hasn't changed his behavior yet, it seems safe to assume the pattern will continue. And if it's a problem for you, it's a problem. Don't invalidate your feelings - it's perfectly reasonable not want to be saddled with the emotional labor of always having to be the one to start difficult conversations.
posted by EvaDestruction at 6:29 AM on October 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

My big, broke-my-heart ex was this kind of conflict-avoidant. He also was the one who broke up with me because he had complaints about me that he just plain didn't tell me about, because he was afraid of any kind of conflict and what I might say or do, so he just stewed and let them fester until he was all "welp, I'm out" without talking to me and giving me a chance to fix things.

In hindsight, though, it hit me that a big reason why he may have dodged conflict was because his ex-wife turned super-combative in the last few years they were married and he was super gun-shy. And he hadn't faced that.

What I"m saying is - it's a bad trait of his, but there may be a reason he has this trait, and it may be fixable.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:04 AM on October 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

The lying is a different, and much worse, thing than the avoidance.

Avoidance is a thing you actually need to have a little bit of for a successful marriage -- I'm talking about the ability to pick your battles, and bite back unnecessary criticism, stuff like that. Too much becomes a big problem, as others in this thread have noted. But it's probably something that can be worked on. Therapists have tools they can teach you to make awkward communication easier.

The lying, though, yeah, that's a red flag. Huge. I don't know how you'd go about approaching this one except to come back to it and put your cards on the table and let him know it's totally unacceptable and that he must never do it again because even small lies make you unable to trust him on a fundamental level.

And yes, as your life together progresses you will have much bigger, more awkward problems that need to be talked through, and it is really dreadful to have to be the only one to carry that burden every time. And these behaviors only get worse as the stakes get higher. (And if you haven't resolved the truthfulness issue, there's no way to work through them because you can't trust what's being said anyway.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:43 AM on October 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

"In hindsight, though, it hit me that a big reason why he may have dodged conflict was because his ex-wife turned super-combative in the last few years they were married and he was super gun-shy. And he hadn't faced that."

That's what occurred to me right away: did he grow up in a family with or have a relationship with someone who got super explodey whenever he tried to have a conversation? I grew up like that--my parents went/go from 0-100 KABOOM almost immediately on almost any subject, and I sure as hell don't want to have A Conversation with anyone now about anything because in my mind I know we're gonna immediately have a horrific fight.

I'm not saying it's okay, mind you, but WHY he's behaving like this sounds like a big factor to me here. Like I can see his logic behind "she's going to be unhappy about this trip and make sure I know she's unhappy no matter when I tell her, and I can't make the situation any better. Why suffer through her being unhappy and making sure I know she's unhappy for three weeks + the trip (but I'm gone then) rather than a few days + the trip?"
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:29 AM on October 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I appreciate the folks who are trying to give your guy the benefit of the doubt about why he may be acting this way, OP. But you know what? Even if there is a backstory, it's a reason, but not an excuse.

My ex husband had a very similar pattern of conflict avoidance and lip service. I concur completely with the people here who have also been there and attest that it's manifestation of deep selfishness. If there were one thing in my entire life I would go back and redo, it would be for my younger self to not talk herself into thinking that he'll learn to be present and emotionally supportive when things get hard because he loves me.

OP, you cannot get him to grow up and mature in this way. Your pressure on him will only be seen increasingly as something painful to avoid and eventually you will be the thing he avoids.

Don't sign on for a lifetime of this. Don't settle for lip service and lies. You know it's a problem. Don't accept it. Cut your losses and move on.
posted by Sublimity at 10:24 AM on October 30, 2016 [17 favorites]

I think it's definitely something that can be worked on. Many, many people avoid or postpone having difficult conversations.

One thing that may affect this avoidance is how you react to these kind of conversations. If you react in what he views as a negative way when a difficult conversation comes up, that may increase his desire to avoid them.

There might be a better chance of working through it if you both work on it as a communication issue between the two of you (e.g. you prefer knowing things sooner rather than later) instead of approaching it as his problem to fix.
posted by mulcahy at 10:34 AM on October 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

You know what? This sucks and you don't deserve this kind of treatment.

Let this dude move to the other country and don't go with him. It's sad, but perhaps if he had prioritized making room for you in his life, even if it meant a temporarily difficult conversation, he could have preserved the relationship.

Why do you want to be with someone where you can never trust what's going on for fear of what might secretly be about to happen or going on behind the scenes? Why do you want to be with someone who isn't willing to solve problems together?

I'd maybe give him one last chance where you confront him about all of this and see if it's something he's willing to work on, *if* it's not something you've talked about before. But honestly, don't expect much. Ugh.
posted by Sara C. at 10:36 AM on October 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also why I left my ex-fiancee. He called it keeping the peace, I called it lying to me. Basically he was lazy and thought he could get away with it. He couldn't.
posted by fshgrl at 11:32 AM on October 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

In his life pre-you, it's likely that "we need to talk" always preceded Something Very Bad. Therefore he learned and internalized strong avoidance of anything remotely resembling that type of conversation. It's impossible to overcome that fear without facing it- namely, having (and surviving intact) deep conversations that are about Real Important Things and Feelings. No relationship will last if those conversations never occur. So if the relationship is valued, the issue must be faced.

As in any other interpersonal issue, what matters most is what the other person does once you have clearly expressed the negative impact of what he/she causes when engaging in this behavior. "When you avoid conversations/lie by omission/etc., it makes me feel ____________."

At that point, he is on notice. It stops being about the behavior, and starts being about his treatment of you. Commitment to another person requires attention be paid to statements like that. "When you leave your dishes in the sink, it makes me feel like a paid servant for whom you have zero regard." At that point, the dishes are irrelevant. What matters is, you feel devalued, ignored etc.

Try framing it like that, maybe? Make him understand how much it matters to you that he respect your feelings by paying attention to the behavior. In that, he's honoring his commitment to you and prioritizing the well-being of the relationship over himself.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 12:06 PM on October 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Went back and reread the question and am practically breaking out in hives, the dynamic is so familiar to me.

OP, I encourage you to reread what Sara C just wrote. It probably stings a lot, but it's important. If your guy really wanted you to go with him to the other country, he would have acted to make that happen. If he's smart/capable/effective enough to get an assignment abroad, he's perfectly capable of conveying information to you and getting paperwork in order. You know this. He doesn't do it. It really hurts to look at that, but it's the fact.

It sounds like you are accustomed to being proactive, so maybe this feels like less of a speed bump in the relationship department than it really is. But it is a big one. And I encourage you to stop for a minute and really think about it from this angle, from the angle of why you're willing to take on all the effort. Dare I even say, emotional labor. Why, when you are expecting that he will live up to your high standards and he does not, that you carry on anyway. Are you giving short shrift to your hard feelings, and maybe diverting yourself by buckling down and getting stuff done? Like the practicalities of moving overseas?

You don't have to do it all. If you want a partner who will contribute equally, practice that, and don't accept someone who doesn't live up to that. You can give him room to act, or not act. If he doesn't act, and doesn't show you by his words and deeds that he honors you, values you, wants you to be with him, you can decide that he doesn't give you what you need, and hold out for someone who does.

Don't settle. You deserve better.
posted by Sublimity at 12:28 PM on October 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

Try counseling or other steps to work it out, but take care of yourself. I dated someone like this and dealt with him shutting down and forced conversations he didn't want to have, then weathered his temper tantrums when he got uncomfortable.

I dumped after five years because, it turned out, he had a five-year-old I didn't know about. That, too, was an uncomfortable conversation he didn't want to have.
posted by runningwithscissors at 1:13 PM on October 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

You know, I personally would find it difficult to impossible to marry someone who couldn't have difficult conversations, but I think what you've really got going on here is a guy who's trying to weasel his way out of your relationship without having a conversation about it. Chatting with his ex? Moving internationally without talking about how you're going to move with him? Taking a solo vacation for a big chunk of the last time you're in the same place for a while? These are not the signs of a guy who is planning for you to move with him and eventually get married. These are the signs of a guy hoping once you have physical distance the relationship will wither on the vine. So I think he's been avoiding these conversations because you're really not going to like it if he shares his true feelings.
posted by MsMolly at 1:46 PM on October 30, 2016 [16 favorites]

^ agreed.

Are you sure he wants to stay together? Kinda seems like he's laying the groundwork for a slow breakup. Or that he's at least ambivalent. Didn't bring up the visa thing, lied about chatting with ex, lied about dates of vacation until the last minute..... just doesn't sound like he's got long-term future with you on his mind.
posted by Neekee at 1:52 PM on October 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

And before reading the longer explanation, I had planned on answering, "I was like that? Because my family sucks at having difficult conversations." And, as others have pointed out, that might very well be the case.

But the deliberately lying about the vacation/work travel dates to you? That screams red flag. Seems condescending. Condescension and contempt tend to get worse in relationships (from what I've seen). So is the bitterness and resentment that go with it.

Take care of yourself.
posted by Neekee at 1:59 PM on October 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been this type of conflict avoidant in a lot of relationships. It usually comes from a deep seated childhood insecurity: The sense that I'm never good enough, so I have to be perfect, or at least appear perfect in order to keep the relationship I'm in.

Sometimes, however, I'm not that kind of conflict avoidant. What it takes to break me out of that is a lot of deliberate and dedicated effort on the part of both people. On my part, I have to make a deliberate effort to be honest and straightforward about everything. I have to constantly remind myself and my partner that that's what I'm doing. On my partner's part, they have to work really hard at making it safe for me to be that kind of honest. And work hard to separate conflict from the feeling of being judged. They have to be encouraging of that kind of honesty, and reassure me that it's the right choice even when that kind of honest results in pain.

In other words my partner have to constantly reassure me that it's better to be honest, even when it hurts them, and they have to make me believe it. I need to constantly hear that I am accepted and loved, even when I am not perfect. I have to constantly tell my partner that I'm going to be honest, even when it hurts them, and use that as a sort of safety disclaimer. I have tell someone in advance that I'm not going to be perfect, so that I can feel accepted when I fall.

When things blow up, and they often do, both people have to take immediate action to minimize the damage, and I have to see that that's what's going on. It's a very difficult dance, because when my partner is hurt, they have to be able to both express that hurt, and at the same time reassure me that the universe isn't ending. That's a lot to ask. It's asking someone who is angry with me to be able to put aside enough of their anger to be able to take care of me and reassure me at the same time as they're angry with me. But it's also the only way I can keep that line of communication open.

I have to hold up my end too. I have to always feel like I'm taking risks that I'm not comfortable with. It doesn't seem like a lot of work to someone who is used to being more open, but to me, it's walking a knife's edge all the time. It's a constant, low grade emotional drain. And when things blow up, I have to keep myself exposed, and take those hits to my self esteem, and be willing to learn and improve, instead of withdrawing to protect myself. That's a lot to ask of me. So it needs to be acknowledged and appreciated, just as I have to acknowledge and appreciate the emotional labor of my partner.

I have to see that we're both trying to keep things together when I fail. We have to both work and practice to make the inevitable conflict that results of that kind of honesty feel safe for me. And we both have to work together to communicate that my occasional failure to be open isn't the end of the world, it's simply something to work on and improve.

I see a lot of posts above about him being on notice, or some sort of equivalent of DTMFA. I don't necessarily agree. To me, that smacks of expecting only one person to do all of the work to change (either him because he has to change or lose you, or you because you have already made every possible effort and should now just move on). Opening up a relationship to honestly like this requires the deliberate effort of both parties, and deliberate effort of the right kind. Right now, I've seen that you've put in a lot of effort, but it's not energy directed in the right place. He may or may not have put in a lot of effort (it's hard to tell), but if he has, it hasn't been in a place you've been able to see.

If you want this to work, you can't create the necessary effort with threats and ultimatums. You have to be partners. You have to make a conscious effort to create a safe space for him, and he has to make a conscious effort to fill that space. You both have to make a conscious effort to appreciate the effort of the other. I don't know if you can both do all that. It might be that one or both of you are just not built for that. If that's so, then it's perfectly ok to say "I'm just not built that way" and move on. If you are, or you think you might be capable of that, then give it a try. Maybe what works for me will work for him. Maybe it won't. Can't say.

So It's up to you to decide what you want to do. The cost of making this relationship work is probably pretty high. Only you can decide if it's worth it.
posted by yeolcoatl at 3:23 PM on October 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

Final thought: if he's anything like me, putting him on notice is probably only going to make things worse. That's just more pressure to be/appear perfect.
posted by yeolcoatl at 3:33 PM on October 30, 2016

To clarify- perhaps "on notice" may not have been the best choice of words. I used "on notice" in my comment to mean, "You have expressed a need or a problem to him, and from there, an expectation that he will acknowledge it/respond to it." It's step one toward a dialogue about something important. It doesn't mean an ultimatum or a mandate or anything that one-sided.

"On notice" to me is the equivalent of "you have been made aware of [thing], and in the context of our relationship (whatever it may be), a response of equal consequence is expected so we can discuss it." In the case of spouses/partners, the level of response may vary but it's never OK to ignore or dismiss out of hand. Especially something this significant.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:50 PM on October 30, 2016

My current partner had issues with lying when we first started dating. I was willing to mentor him. Stupid little stuff like omitting who he ran into at a party (why do I care who he sees?), or big lies said in grief (like when he got news that a family friend was dying of cancer, but told me the person was already dead).

I addressed it very quickly. Turned out his whole family is a bunch of gaslighters who constantly punish each other for talking straight, showing affection or expressing real feels. My date struggles with high anxiety, and when he gets wound up these irrational fears wash over him. He was scared I would leave him if he told the truth! Even about ridiculously silly things! He expected to be punished for every infraction. Caught between rocks — crazy guilty about lying, but equally afraid to tell a harsh reality.

I made it clear that of the two alternatives, dishonesty was far worse than hard truths. That I would always rather know — no matter how difficult or what the cost. I said that knowing *might* change my opinion of him (probably not), but lying *definitely* would. I had him practice telling me hard things. We had regular "confessions" til the lesson stuck.

Together we build a new foundation. He learned it was possible to collaborate during hard conversations without getting angry. We could solve problems together! Because he trusted me and felt safe, he stopped lying, worked on his anxiety and made an effort to head critical issues off at the front. As he matured, I steered him less and less. I'd say now, after two years together, we initiate hard talks 50-50 and he tells me a lie once every six months. (1x/month at the start.) The lies grew more minor over time and now only occur during high stress moments. My date is very quick to confess, apologize and offer penance. "Oh geez I don't know why I said that, I'm so sorry. What actually happened is... [ ]. Back massage?"

IMPORTANT: I saw the lying as symptomatic of deeper issues so I was able to stay even keeled and bide my time while we worked it out. I didn't get mad when I caught a lie, I got strategic. I knew my partner well enough to know he wasn't being malicious or sneaky. When I told my side, my date listened carefully, expressed regret and worked with me to make changes. I FORGAVE him. Lying is a habit like anything else. Change is a long game, you have to track frequency and severity of occurrence over time. Immediate extinction is VERY unlikely, even with genuine desire to change. Is that amount of emotional labor worth it? Only you can say.
posted by fritillary at 9:10 PM on October 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

I'm a bit like your SO - I can get uncomfortable with confrontation, perhaps in part because my parents rarely had confrontations. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a household where her father would verbally explode, her mom may even shout back, but after that blast, things generally calmed down, and no one was harmed in the long-term.

Unfortunately, I also lie to my wife. I justify my lies as ways to smooth over small things that would cause strife, because I'm a wimp and a fool (like when I pay a bill after telling my wife that I've already paid it). Mind you, I haven't lied about talking with an ex, which compounds issues.

I recognize my failures here, and I am striving to improve, both in handling uncomfortable discussions, and in being honest and handling the results instead of trying to hide something with lies. I've come a long way with addressing uncomfortable topics, and we've had some arguments and tough talks, but now I'm more comfortable talking about what were tough topics. We won't become like her parents because neither of us are much of shouters, but we're not like my parents, who try to let things work themselves out or something.

I was going to say he should get another chance to change his course, but on re-reading your full question, it sounds like this is an ongoing topic. You could talk to him, list your concerns and why you'd prefer him to be frank and forthright instead of placating and worse, lying. You could even write it up, so you can get everything out without interruption or justification. Or if you've done something like this before, you could decide that you've tried enough and if he doesn't carry it from there, he won't.

Sadly, this is more work for you, but if he doesn't see his actions as being a problem, he won't change them on his own. And like fritillary mentioned, only you can decide if this work is worth it, and when enough is enough.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:17 AM on October 31, 2016

He's not doing the emotional labor required to maintain a relationship. You may need to sort out if that's because he's (1) lazy, (2) unpracticed/unskilled, and/or (3) looking for a way out.

If it's not the third, you will have to decide if it's worth the effort of teaching him how to grownup--and it's better to decide in advance what your "not worth it anymore" criteria are. It is possible that he "just needs a chance," but he's had the same amount of time to grow up as you have (I'm assuming he's not 10+ years younger than you); you are not morally obligated to put up with someone who lies to you and dodges away from conversations that have a big impact on your life until he maybe decides to take up half the work of managing a relationship.

OTOH, maybe these are small problems that can be changed if you make it clear to him that it's important to you. The key details to watch for: If you say, "this is important to me; please [do/do not do X]," and he replies with "X isn't important; you shouldn't care about it and I shouldn't have to change," that's a huge red flag. The question of whether X is "actually important" is irrelevant -- the issue is whether he's willing to make small but real changes in his life to make you more happy and comfortable.

You can build a successful relationship, even a successful marriage, without that, but it's much better to know that in advance.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 6:58 PM on October 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you may be feigning naivety and giving him way too much leeway and credit to protect yourself. Blatant lies about speaking with an ex whilst in bed with you, being squirrely about future plans.. it seems like there's a pattern of both you being insecure and prodding him for reassurance, and his refusal to be completely present and invested in the relationship. He doesn't sound like he's all in, and you shouldn't settle for that. He's not the one if he won't even talk to you about future plans. When someone wants to be with you, they make it very clear, there is no ambiguity, unless we're talking about arrested development types, in which case run for the hills. Everyone deserves someone who is all in. I think you're settling for being his cushion before his big departure. I'd take a drastic approach if it were me. I'd tell myself, 'The only thing you can do now that you'll feel good about/respect yourself for later is to dump him abruptly. Your reason being that he can't satisfy you, and he isn't making you happy.' There will be one of three outcomes: He'll either chase after you to regain his pride but then fall right back into his noncommittal state, because he doesn't care; or he'll let you leave because he was planning on having to do the dumping himself before his departure; or he'll change and begin trying harder because he wants you in his life. You can never force or manipulate or talk someone into having deeper feelings for you than they have, there isn't a potion for that. I would dump him abruptly and limit your contact to a few brief conversations and see what he does. If you can keep your cool and show him that you won't settle, he may just realize that you're worth shaping up for. If not, and if he was planning on dumping you, you got there first and maintained your dignity.
posted by Avosunspin at 10:59 PM on October 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

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