I'm a direct communicator, my girlfriend isn't, how do we bridge this?
January 23, 2017 10:21 PM   Subscribe

Open, honest, compassionate, and direct communication is something I value and something I've cultivated. My new-ish partner, by her own admission, is not great at this. Help me muddle through.

This is a 6 month old male-female relationship, we're both in our early thirties.

When we first met, she told me that she's bad at verbalising her feelings and at processing conflict. This is exacerbated by periodic mild depression, and a history of emotionally abusive partners that left her suspicious and guarded around men. She asked for patience, I really liked (and still like!) her and was happy to oblige and try to be helpful. Outside of some dabbling with Grinberg, she isn't interested in therapy.

Girlfriend tends to surface things that are even a little difficult in a sideways, teasing way. A recent illustrative episode lead me to finally write this question: she wanted me to come over when she knew I was really busy. Had she told me she missed me or really wanted my company, I would've been touched and tried to put my work aside. Instead, she complained about how bored she was, winkingly told me that she's much more interesting than my work, and so on. This wasn't the first time this exact thing happened. In the past, when I finally offered to drop what I was doing and come over, she would insist that I only do it if I'm really free - I had to ease her conscience and convince her that it was practically my idea and not hers. When I've simply told her that I couldn't get free, she insisted that she was only teasing and not actually suggesting anything, and that I was taking her too seriously. This time, I didn't want to turn down a "non-request" yet again, so the hinting and teasing conversation continued for some time, as I was trying to gently exit the conversation and getting increasingly annoyed by it.

This pattern appears in other contexts. When I'm late, she doesn't express displeasure and allow me to apologise and try to make it up to her, but instead brings it up in multiple small ways throughout the evening, yet insists it's nothing when I try to apologise for it directly. She's also teasingly brought up serious things - my insistence on having my way, imbalances in our relationship. Or at least, they sounded serious, and I wanted to hear her out and work on it, but she'd lightheartedly drop these things into conversation and then insist they're nothing, leaving me alarmed and confused.

I've sat down with her and basically told her everything I've written here, and asked her to work on our communication. That conversation itself was much more difficult than I anticipated, with me doing most of the talking, and her looking like she wanted to disappear, even though I was doing my best to be encouraging, non-judgmental and to give her space. She told me that my ability to talk confidently and eloquently about emotions made her feel like an incompetent child next to me, that she's normally too mortified by such conversations to express herself well, and that she would try hard to improve - though I'm not seeing any changes.

I feel like I'm trapped between a rock and a hard place. We clearly need better communication if the relationship is to survive, but whenever I try to have a "serious conversation", she makes me feel like I'm torturing her, and she never initiates such conversations herself. My romantic life has typically involved introspective and open people with whom "serious conversations" were routine - so I really have nothing in my experience to help me deal with this. And the sideways teasing makes it that much harder to "just muddle through." What can I do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
She needs to take this on herself and do the work she says she'll do. Therapy is the standard place to learn those skills. I think the most you should do is be a safe place as she puts into practice what she's learning elsewhere.
posted by ramenopres at 10:30 PM on January 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

Find a different girlfriend. Nothing you've said suggests that this one is going to suddenly turn into the direct communicator you're looking for. Unless you plan on acquiring a taste for passive aggression (which is what her "teasing" is), it's time to get in the old NOPEcopter and fly away.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:32 PM on January 23, 2017 [20 favorites]

It sounds like your girlfriend wants to talk about her feelings but is trying to do it "lightly." In other words, when she jokes or backpedals it's a small gesture toward telling the truth. But if you like this girl (and you sound annoyed but like you do), let me try and explain why someone might do this. Some people explain their emotions through joking - so they might not be passive aggressive, but rather trying to take your temperature. If this is the case, TRY not to take it personally. She may be waiting to see if you're going to joke back or the atmosphere is warm enough, so to speak, to make a clear and articulate statement.

The first case of her refusing to admit she wanted to see you sounds to me like insecurity and back pedalling. The others, IDK. Maybe passive aggression (?), but maybe just a fairly unserious communication style. Some people get SCARED when others demand SERIOUS TALKS. It's not because they don't like you, but because they are not used to communicating.

Just a take on this.
posted by benadryl at 10:41 PM on January 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

She told me that my ability to talk confidently and eloquently about emotions made her feel like an incompetent child next to me, that she's normally too mortified by such conversations to express herself well, and that she would try hard to improve - though I'm not seeing any changes.

This is a very unfortunate stern-tutor/scared-student dynamic in a relationship between adults. In my view, if you want her to be open and honest with you about her feelings - not to adopt your precise conversational style but to let you know how she feels in a way that's easy for you to read and doesn't impose an undue burden on you - your relationship needs to be a context of trust, warmth, ease and absence of judgment for her. Talking to you with complete authenticity needs to be easy and natural, and probably requires a bit more time than you have given it so far. The end result may not necessarily look like the kind of deep serious conversation your previous relationship partners have been good at. It may mean that she can make a joking reference to how she feels that you can easily read, and respond to as if she had used an "I feel" statement. Or it may mean that, if you don't get her joking reference, she will be more direct because she trusts you. Or it may mean she goes off to therapy and learns to use "I feel" statements and brings that back into the relationship.

But the idea that she will learn to use "I feel" statements from you, in a context where you are critically monitoring all her efforts in that direction for "improvement", is a recipe for a mess. I know you say you are being non-judgmental, but it sounds like she has nevertheless received the message that she is not good enough - childish and lacking your sophisticated vocabulary for feelings - and the impression that you are closely monitoring her performance of articulating-emotions to see if she "improves". If that's the system, in her mind, she is never going to feel that ease and trust which allows her to tell the truth about what she feels and needs. Instead, you will have - or now have - have a situation where these conversations are an important locus for judgment, anxiety, and shame in your relationship. That's not going to make them a way of advancing intimacy, quite the reverse.
posted by Aravis76 at 10:43 PM on January 23, 2017 [54 favorites]

Sounds like she doesn't feel it's safe to express her real emotions and views, probably because she's not had a great experience when she's tried to be direct with exes in the past. Or maybe she never learned how.

It's up to her to learn to assert herself more effectively, yes, but (if you want) I think if she knew that it was really ok with you (safe) to express disagreement, upset, annoyance, hold you to your word, have expectations, that it wouldn't mean you'd shout at her or break up with her. If you realistically can provide that reassurance, I think it might help to tell her that (and probably remind her now and then, because it's not easy to reprogram that). Tell her it's ok to be clear and to say what you mean, you're not going anywhere because of one negatively valenced conversation (if it's respectful).

If that seems tiresome or you think you wouldn't be able to provide that kind of support, it is probably better to let her go.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:49 PM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

This was/is me. I'm also bad at verbalising my feelings and processing conflict. I have depression and I'm at the tail end (I hope) of fully moving past an intense, toxic friendship that affected how I interact with other people. I do not attend therapy for logistical reasons, but I'm doing what I can with self-guided CBT. And that's the thing, though: I realized this was my problem, that this was something I wanted to change so I could strengthen my own relationship, and I took steps to get better.

This isn't a call for bootstraps however--because personally I'd be in therapy if I could--but a testament to the fact that working on communication takes effort and trust. It can be terrifying to express yourself or ask for something directly. You have to trust that the other person won't hurt you for it. In this, I agree with ramenopres' comment entirely.

The "non-requests" are testing the waters for a safe atmosphere while still protecting herself. If you say you can't make it to her house that night then she can brush it off, and it doesn't feel entirely like a rejection; if you say yes, that you'll go over, then she might've gotten what she was hoping for but ultimately she's not learning how to ask for what she wants. Asking for things is a skill that needs practice, especially once it's been put into doubt from abusive relationships. Testing the waters, on the other hand, is a tactic that expends more energy on both sides than is useful or healthy for communication. And unless she comes to this revelation by herself, she's going to need to hear it from someone else (preferably a therapist, considering previous efforts at frank conversation).

This is tough, I'm sorry, and I guarantee this is something she would change if she [felt like she] could. Please try to get her to consider therapy again. You're only both going to get frustrated with the other/this relationship if nothing changes.
posted by lesser weasel at 11:23 PM on January 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

Do you like her enough to stop being so judgmental about everything she does/says?

Because, honestly, some of this sounds like flirting.

my insistence on having my way, imbalances in our relationship. Or at least, they sounded serious, and I wanted to hear her out and work on it, but she'd lightheartedly drop these things into conversation and then insist they're nothing, leaving me alarmed and confused.

I don't understand why you can't still work on these things regardless of whether they're "a big deal" or not.

TBH, a lot of this sounds very judgmental like you've got her under actions under a microscope - the more you do that, the less direct she will actually be with you.
posted by heyjude at 11:50 PM on January 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

I've been her. It's difficult to recover from, but so so nice once you do. I'm lucky that I was already verbose, but needed to learn how to advocate for myself, then learn how to do it again, once I was conditioned to think my parter didn't care about my needs (ugh).

It sounds to me like she has trust issues and has been taught that her wants and needs aren't worth much.

You deserve a partner who is forthright, communicative and trusting, so this kind of mismatch in communication styles is worthy of being a deal breaker.

I agree that her wanting to improve is crucial, and therapy is a great way to go about it.

That said, if you are willing to help her with training wheels, there are some options. Work with her to come up with code words/phrases that explicitly signal a safe space for her to be honest. Make clear rules that the safe space will not result in whatever large thing she is afraid of (you being mad or leaving or neglecting her, whatever (but it will be helpful if you can get her to identify, specifically, what she is afraid of)). The coded safe space is a two-way thing. You can invoke it to get her to cut to the point, and she can invoke it to bring up an issue she's afraid to address. But no matter what both parties have to enter in good faith.

Even as a parter who likes her a lot, helping her work through this is not your job. It's okay to hold out for a relationship that doesn't have large communication issues. But at the same time, try not to condescend to her, or resent the energy spent on this project.

Also, if you do commit to working through it, make sure you're really getting the depth of intimacy you need from the relationship. You may be able to patch the day to day struggles, but it may not give you a deeper connection.
posted by itesser at 12:24 AM on January 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

I’m like you OP, and I’ve dated a guy like your GF. Just reading this question sets my teeth on edge. It was so aggravating because it got to a point where I hadn’t the slightest clue about what’s going on with him – are you upset or not? (“No I’m not, really!”) Do you want me to go to that party with you? Or not? (“No, it’s out of your way!” but later sulked when I didn’t) – this kind of communication “style” is a dealbreaker for me. So my first advice would be to let this one go.

But if you like her enough, you got to meet her in the middle. You can’t strong-arm her into communicating like you do and have deep serious talks about Relationship Stuff. Stop doing most of the talking and let her talk, no matter how little she says, and listen. She said she would try hard to improve, let her do it at her own pace while you maintain an open and honest ear. Hopefully, she’d come to trust you enough and be comfortable enough with you to open up more about her feelings.

Ultimately though, this is not your responsibility. It’s perfectly reasonable to throw in the towel due to incompatible communication styles.
posted by milque at 2:28 AM on January 24, 2017 [8 favorites]

It sounds like she's scared to ask for what she wants, and scared of criticism and conflict. It's compounded by the cultural assumptions that indirectness is "flirty" and that guys like "cool girls" who magically are exactly in line with them and have no needs. This can be gotten over, but it's a long process and there's not much you can do to force it. She has to learn this for herself, and it takes a lot of time in a relationship that she considers safe. I've been like this, and probably still am to some extent, but I've grown past it.

One thing that helps is to gently ask her what she wants when you think she's hinting at something. Like:

Her: I bet I'm more interesting than your work etc etc ;)
You: Would you like me to come over?
Her: (Hedge hedge flirt wink etc etc)
You: (perhaps some kind of reassuring smiley emoji) So do you want to just chat or are you asking me to come over?
Her: (probably something resembling an answer)
You: Okay, I'm sorry I'm really busy tonight but let's figure out something soon. Thanks for telling me what you want - I like it when you're direct.

Stuff like that. If she's dancing at something, ask her the question you think she's dancing around, and express appreciation when she gives you a clear answer. She'll feel more encouraged when you recognize the progress she's making.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:58 AM on January 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

Meet her where she is. You say you recognize where this sideways teasing approach is leading and you say you have direct communication skills. So put those superpowers to work. Since you can give voice to the unsaid things and she can't, why don't you just bring them to the surface yourself? (Also, be on time.)
Her: [teasingly] "I'm more fun than your work."
You: [recognizing what she wants] "I want to come see you too, but I can't until I'm finished this project. How about a late dinner when I'm done here?"
Her: [defensively] "I didn't mean I wanted you to come over."
You: "I did! I miss you!"

Her: [indirectly complaining about lateness]
You: [recognizing that she feels unimportant to you] "I'm sorry I was late, I will leave earlier next time & won't take the Beltway."
Her: [defensively] "I wasn't complaining about you being late."
You: "I should be on time though. You are important to me."
Etc. If you have mad communication skillz then you can do this. If you can't do this, then perhaps you are not as skilled as you think you are. None of us are perfect; all of us can listen a little bit more closely to each other.
posted by headnsouth at 6:50 AM on January 24, 2017 [37 favorites]

You have different communication styles, you prefer your own because most people do, it's only natural, and you've sat her down and lectured her until she believes that yours is superior instead of merely different and that she and only she needs to "work on" herself to bring herself up to code, not both of you.

I promise you that if she were to post some frustrated question she would get a cascade of replies sympathizing with her for having a humorless dictatorial boyfriend who issues pronouncements from the throne and treats gentle and playful communication like a disorder. It wouldn't be fair at all, but it would be as fair as calling her a passive-aggressive tease.

You picked a woman who will take criticism and eat it up like candy, so if you love being told she's wrong and you're right, you'll stay with her and keep picking at her, because from what you say she'll take it meekly till the end. But you don't sound that bad, so you could break up with her for her sake or stay with her but let her be. Those are two good choices.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:56 AM on January 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is a decent reason to break up, IMO. You're both entitled to your own styles and you're both entitled to a bit of compromise, and you're both entitled to call it off if it doesn't work.

If you want to continue the relationship: be wary of setting up a doctor-patient relationship here, where you have all the answers thus can judge her progress and prescribe her specific behaviors. That's not fair. That's not a loving relationship. She's an adult--and you're not perfect, either--and that dynamic where you are the master and she is the student can easily become controlling and unhealthy. Which is what she is used to.

I have to disagree that your style of communication is always objectively better; maybe it'll help you to see it as simply different. Direct communicators can sometimes come across as harsh, stubborn, uncooperative, judgmental, for example, and that can be scary and hard to deal with, and it's not always appropriate.

I suggest a spirit of empathy and compromise. There are social consequences for women who communicate directly; multiply that by a million for women in abusive relationships. Hopefully you can see why she would hint around rather than come out and ask something (especially of a direct communicator, who she rightly fears may just quash her request.) Saying what she really wants can result in mockery, rejection, abuse.

You can only work on you. Can you work on understanding the spirit of what she is saying rather than picking on her wording? I really don't see it as a stretch for a person or normal social intelligence to conclude she wants to hang out if she says she's more interesting than your work, for example; why insist on specific wording in order for her to be heard? That is strict and probably the very kind of judgmental reaction she fears. Can you work on being a safe person for her to express herself around?
posted by kapers at 7:07 AM on January 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Do you feel like you've become pretty good at picking up her complaints? Could you try operating her way for a bit, like headnsouth's proposals. Or perhaps lean a bit more into the teasing feel "I'd be late to my own funeral," etc. That may help her feel more comfortable overall. And it may be something you come to appreciate. At least for small things. When you're late for the hundredth time a direct apology feels a bit meaningless. Teasing you over it makes it an adorable flaw she is used to.

If her history involves a lot of very negative push back on directly communicating her requests, then 6 months isn't a long time. And when you sat down for the serious talk, did you ask her what she needed for a safe space, or just did what you thought she'd need? Because if she didn't actually feel comfortable and safe, then you're not making it easy for her to learn a different communication technique.

If she doesn't know, perhaps a list of different suggestions could help. Ask her thoughts on different modes. Would she communicate better through writing, or reading your thoughts (my mom and siblings do this with their SOs)? Could she handle a conversation better if you guys very carefully kept the topic on one thing. In this case, making her feel more safe, full stop. Not, more safe so you can be happier about how you guys communicate. Just more safe. Would stages help: you bring up a topic, then she can mull it over for 24 hours and respond.

It may be that ultimately you need someone direct and she needs someone more adept at indirect communication. That's perfectly reasonable on both your parts. But if you're mostly having a good time, still you each learning a bit more of the others techniques could be useful for future interactions at work, etc.
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:15 AM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

> We clearly need better communication if the relationship is to survive, but whenever I try to have a "serious conversation", she makes me feel like I'm torturing her

We often feel hurt, anxious, depressed, irritated, (tortured), etc. when we're not able to use our gifts in a given situation. It may be that her gifts are in a completely different area from yours, for example maybe she's more of a broadly emotive person than a deeply emotive person--perhaps her gifts are in the area of e.g. bringing others joy from moment to moment, and maybe so much so that she has taught herself to repress her own deeper emotions as part of that.

I can highly recommend the book "Just Your Type" by Tieger. It goes into each partner's respective gifts and communications preferences and provides specific tips for every kind of relationship.

In close relationships, we are often drawn to people who possess gifts that are different from our own. Our psyche will tend to identify in others attributes which it sees as important for us to develop. This will always cause some friction (see aforementioned notes on gifts), but in the opposite case, the magnification of only our own gifts would lead to some painful blind spots. As a team, two people with differing gifts can tackle a wider variety of problems with a higher chance of success.

Anyway, best of luck, I hope things can work out for the two of you.
posted by circular at 8:56 AM on January 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have been your girlfriend. It took me a while, perhaps 6 months to a year of dating my boyfriend to get out of the habit of doing this. I think it's a little harsh to say you're telling her how to communicate. I don't communicate my issues the same way my boyfriend does, but I do it without being passive aggressive now. I'm very glad he told me. Hopefully you can work through it together. Just try and make it really clear you're not trying to shame her and you really like her and you're serious about the relationship. But this does happen to people and it can get figured.
posted by shesbenevolent at 9:12 AM on January 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think people in this thread are being seriously harsh on you, OP. I don't get any "giving her the message she's not good enough" or "being judgmental" or what have you. On the contrary, it sounds like you're trying pretty hard to discuss what's bothering you and to accommodate her communication style. For what it's worth, I would have lasted exactly three seconds with a partner like this. This sort of communication -- indirect or passive aggressive or whatever you want to call it -- drives me completely bugfuck and I don't think you're a mean person for being impatient with it.

From the tenor of your post, I get the feeling that you're not exactly head over heels for this woman, and that you're trying really hard because you feel as though this is a silly reason to break up a relationship if the sex is good or you enjoy the same things or you have fun together or what have you. It isn't a silly reason. I agree with those who have said that it's probably time to move on. You want a partner who's open and introspective and with whom you can have serious conversations; there's nothing even slightly wrong with that, and it doesn't make you some sort of judgmental, overbearing bully. Move on so you can find that person.
posted by holborne at 9:32 AM on January 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

While I believe relationship dynamic is at play here, I don't feel her communication style is necessarily just a benign difference in personality. There is a difference between people who are not really very direct communicators or very good at it-- and people who cannot communicate effectively to the point that they eschew all conflict and if they're asked a question about their feelings, they will insist the opposite, and hide/lie about their feelings until they are blue in the face. These are not healthy reactions, and even if she does meet someone like her, the same issues will likely manifest in the relationships she continues to have in future, with anyone.

You mention she is uninterested in therapy. Do you know why? I get the feeling she feels going to therapy would be a negative reflection of her self worth, and so she's terrified of that in the same reason she is bad at processing conflict. Conflict is a part of life, and therapy will help her with coping tools when conflict inevitably arises; especially if she has depression. It's not an effective 'communication style' to want to dodge conflict forever. In the meantime, do you have a therapist? It may benefit you to get some therapy, as it may help you look at things differently and change your reactions.

An ex of mine was like this, where the mere idea of conflict, to him, meant the relationship was failing-- or that he was failing. Meanwhile, 'transgressions' would get waved away constantly, but internally he'd score keep. Then I'd get stabbed with them when I least expected; things he insisted on not being a problem at the time. Any amount of gentle coaxing to get his true feelings out, or attempt to be honest would either be met with outright hostility or defensiveness on his part. Eventually we'd make it to the root of the problem, but in the end him saying one honest statement was a battle. It was draining for both of us; it felt like an ordeal. (As a comparison, with my now partner, when we have serious conversations along the same lines, even arguments, we feel more connected, closer and calmer than ever when these are discussed/resolved, and we often remark as such.) It may just be that my ex and I were unsuited in our communication styles, but I know for a fact he had very similar issues both with his exes and with his next girlfriend, so there's that.

The problem is that serious conversations are part and parcel of every single loving relationship and conflict avoidance is a no-go if you want to have a successful and happy partnership. Learning to communicate effectively with others is part of learning how to adult. People who don't spell out what they mean, may have been conditioned to do so, and doesn't mean that their way of communication is 'wrong' necessarily. But being coy, being indirect-- this may seem harsh-- but speaking for myself, it's a form of manipulation. This may not necessarily be her fault, mind-- My mother is like this, and a lot of women are taught to be indirect because society. In my mother's case it's very very ingrained in her, and she never shook it. But it is detrimental, and it is somewhat manipulative. And after 60 years, its to the point where its frustrating having a conversation with her because you're second guessing every intention behind the simple things she says, and you can never take her at her word. And that's definitely impacted me and my family my entire life. My future MIL is also very similar. As I said, its an unfortunate product of the way women tend to be conditioned to express themselves: Despite the fact my Dad was pretty direct and taught me to be an open communicator I'm not immune to doing it myself. So absolutely you should have some empathy for her and understand why she may be the way she is.

But you shouldn't be required to mind-read her true intentions all the time. That you have to in itself is problematic for both of you. (What if you read her intentions wrong? What if you take her at her word and it's wrong? Scenarios where yes really means no set up a multitude of lose-lose scenarios for both of you in future). But it's not your job to be her therapist, nor to 'fix' her. It's not your job to guess her feelings. She has to meet you half way. Perhaps that means she hides her true feelings less, perhaps it means you encourage her more-- the mere fact she managed to confess to you that she feels like a child when it comes to expressing emotions is progress-- don't forget that. From what you describe it sounds like that must have been super hard for her. Don't forget what's easy for you must be 100x more difficult for her. It's going to be really really tough for her to change, and it won't happen over night. So please encourage her as best you can, and try not to make her feel 'wrong' for finding it difficult to be direct. You say you're trying hard not to be judgmental. Good, keep doing that. She's promised to try her best and that's all you can ask for. Give her time, and as much encouragement as she needs.

And this is a tip that works in my relationship but I'm not sure if it'll work for you. My SO is prone to hiding his feelings occasionally. Occasionally he will be disappointed by something-- for example, on a recent trip to Japan, he bought a meal he thought was one thing, but it was something else instead. He was super disappointed and I could tell. When I asked him if he was okay, and wanted to get something else to eat that he'd enjoy more, he kept insisting he was fine and it wasn't a problem and didn't want to go any where else, but it was obvious he wasn't fine and he was disappointed and it was impacting his mood. He doesn't do this too often but he does do this, (and I'm not immune to it either). I don't like it when he does it, because I feel he sacrifices his own feelings to 'spare' my mood, and would rather just know what was up, even if the reason is 'silly' to him. So we worked out a code phrase. We call it 'being real' -- there's a difference between being direct and being real. So if one of us gets into this cycle where we're saying we're 'fine' the other of us will say something along the lines of, 'Hey honey. Can we be real right now? What are you honestly feeling?' That's our cue to be truthful to each other, even about something stupid or embarrassing, and even if we can't articulate it properly. There's no judgment, no shame. It's our excuse to be vulnerable with each other. The thing is, feelings are weird and hard and sometimes we all feel like little children who can't properly articulate why they are sad right now, or embarrassed because they like you so much they can't tell you just how much they want to see you tonight because the small voice inside them is scared you'll say no to coming over-- and that they know they shouldn't be sad you're busy-- but they are sad about it and they can't tell you because being sad about that is stupid, and they feel guilty about feeling feelings and telling you so. For some people, this is insanely difficult to both conceptualize and articulate.

It's baby steps. This doesn't mean she becomes like you, but at the very least, when it comes to your relationship, she needs to say what she means and means what she says, especially if you do guess her true intentions (are you sure you're not mad?) etc. Especially if she is the kind of person to let wounds fester. You may not have faced it yet, but It may well be that these things come out later, and much more vitriolic because she held onto them and they didn't get resolved in the moment.

She may be unable to do this, and you need to be prepared for that. Is it a deal-breaker for you? For right now, she's promised to do better. Take her at her word. If in a month, things haven't moved forward at all, and your unhappiness is increasing, then you perhaps are just not suited for each other, and its time to move on to someone more on your wavelength.

I hope this helps somewhat.
posted by Dimes at 9:51 AM on January 24, 2017 [18 favorites]

Hi OP, I just wanted to come back and clarify that my criticism of the dynamic you have here is not at all a criticism of you. I'm not saying it's your fault that (according to you) your girlfriend feels like she has to live up to some kind of standard of grown-up behaviour and that you are monitoring her. It may be her own issues that are leading her to think of it this way. My point is only that the dynamic itself is unhealthy, it won't solve the problem you have but will likely exacerbate it, and therefore you should either step out of the mentor role or step out of the relationship. Finding yourself in the mentor role doesn't make you a bad person or a bully - it's often a role that people get thrust into by others' expectations - but it's still a depressing and unproductive role to be in with your partner.
posted by Aravis76 at 10:09 AM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

To me, it sounds like she's 'playing games'. That would be a deal-breaker for me. I want to be able to believe my partner if he/she says they're ok, or if they don't want anything for their birthday. I don't want everything in life to be a test of whether I know them well enough to guess what they want, despite what they say. That is exhausting.

To combat this, I would just take her at her word. Tell her that you are listening to what she tells you, and that you are not reading her mind anymore. Let the cards fall where they may.
posted by hydra77 at 11:06 AM on January 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

Ultimately, if you know what she's trying to communicate you're not actually at a huge disadvantage. Respond as if she's communicating directly because now you know the code. If she claims she isn't trying to communicate, say something like "huh, okay, well I'm sorry to hear that you're bored." And then change the subject or end the conversation or just ignore the hints.

You don't get trapped in text conversations, you fail to end them. "Hey, I can tell that you miss me and that's sweet and I miss you too but I have to go." Or "Hey hon, miss you too but I'm super busy---what's up?"
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:09 PM on January 24, 2017

Oh and if she sort of does the "only if you're really busy" thing just ignore it and change the subject. "eg See you soon!" Make a decision about what you'll do and then ignore her random anxiety-meanderings about it. Don't make the intensity of her preferences what makes your decision happen, that's making her responsible for what you're doing and that's going to feed her anxiety. She wants you to decide for yourself so just decide and then do it.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:14 PM on January 24, 2017

When I'm late, she doesn't express displeasure and allow me to apologise and try to make it up to her, but instead brings it up in multiple small ways throughout the evening, yet insists it's nothing when I try to apologise for it directly. She's also teasingly brought up serious things - my insistence on having my way, imbalances in our relationship. Or at least, they sounded serious, and I wanted to hear her out and work on it, but she'd lightheartedly drop these things into conversation and then insist they're nothing, leaving me alarmed and confused.

I can't tell she's actually mad and making passive aggressive digs and then calling them "jokes", or if she's just trying to address this stuff in a lighthearted (but not aggressive) way. I'm assuming the latter.

For little things, you don't have to be more serious than she is. Consider responding lightheartedly as well, saying something like "I know, I was like a million hours late! You probably starved to death! Capital punishment is justified sometimes!" or I don't know, something cooler than that. Tease her back a little bit and see what happens. And, you know, just stop being late. If you're late enough that this is a pattern, cut it the hell out.

For big things, you can just work on them yourself, but I hear what you're saying about her teasing not giving you enough information. Maybe she's teasing, maybe she's really upset, maybe she digs these behaviors and is trying to get you to do more of them, you don't really know what she means and need more info from her. Maybe try responding by asking her questions in a lighthearted way.

Ultimately, I think your seriousness tends to give her anxiety, so if you can be lighthearted about these things too you'll probably get a lot more information out of her without scaring her.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:22 PM on January 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

OP, I just wanted to say that I feel exhausted just from reading all of these suggestions to twist yourself into a pretzel to accommodate her preferred mode of communication/anxieties/whatever. By all means give all of that a shot if you feel the relationship really has long-term potential. But you have my permission to let her go and find somebody with a more compatible communication style, work commitments or timekeeping preferences or all of the above. It is exhausting to operate in anything other than your preferred mode most of the time. And by the sound of it that is what it would take to get her comfortable.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:40 PM on January 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

She told me that my ability to talk confidently and eloquently about emotions made her feel like an incompetent child next to me, that she's normally too mortified by such conversations to express herself well, and that she would try hard to improve - though I'm not seeing any changes.

WELL - this seems like an embarrassingly frank thing to say to a partner of 6 months.

It does sound like communication is direct and honest in this area.

BUT as Aravis76 pointed out, the awkward thing is that now all your honest/direct communication is about her faults.

That's a hard cycle to break. I recommend headnsouth's script if you want to give it a shot.
posted by benadryl at 1:06 PM on January 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

She's sounds very passive aggressive. That's something she needs to own and work through independently. The best I can offer would be to get in the habit of saying, "Whatcha asking for, babe? Be direct!" every time she gets into that wink wink mode. If she persists, I'd really think hard about this one unless she agrees to go to therapy. It's a pernicious personality trait, and it sounds like the baggage she's carrying around has made her believe that it's appealing (because in the past perhaps it was, to men other than you).
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:17 PM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ugh, on second thought, never mind. I think what I just suggested could come off as seriously patronizing given the dynamics your girlfriend is viewing your relationship through. Input rescinded.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:21 PM on January 24, 2017

…but she'd lightheartedly drop these things into conversation and then insist they're nothing, leaving me alarmed and confused.

Regardless of whatever sympathy one might have for her and her difficult past, this doesn't sound like an honest or healthy way of communicating and it's clearly not healthy for you. Each to their own, but I avoid dealing with people who do this. It's hard enough understanding people when they communicate clearly. This sort of thing could drive a person batty if they can't work out a way of dealing with it.

If you are determined to try to deal with it, I would suggest something like the following:

Try to address the issue the first time your partner brings it up in an open and non-threatening way. You may need to adjust your own ideas as to what constitutes open and non-threatening in this context. Assess and address that honestly; it may be difficult. You may have to confront things in yourself that you don't like.

Reflective listening - paraphrasing what the person is saying so they know you understand - can be helpful for this. Asking the person what they'd like you to do can also be helpful but might be intimidating for her. You have to assess and adjust as required really and it takes practice.

Ask non-confrontative questions, be understanding, demonstrate that you care about her and want to understand and address what she's saying. If she says it's nothing then let it go with genuine compassion and care, and let her know you're happy to deal with it anytime. If she brings it up again you could repeat that once or twice perhaps, but at some point before you start feeling frustrated, you might have to start saying that you feel confused that she keeps bringing it up if she doesn't want to talk about it. Again, you will have to do this in a way that's not too difficult for her to handle and it may not be easy, or even possible, to find that way.

She told me that my ability to talk confidently and eloquently about emotions made her feel like an incompetent child next to me, that she's normally too mortified by such conversations to express herself well…

There is a huge imbalance here that you may not be able to do much about apart from ensuring you are unfailingly kind, understanding and not patronising toward her. If you are genuinely and truly respectful in your dealings and she feels this way, there really isn't a lot you can do to change the situation. You may have to let this relationship go. I think that's what I would do.

It sounds like a tough situation. I am sorry you're in it, but it may help to remember that there are always opportunities in adversity and you may well learn more about yourself and how you relate to people through this if you're honest and brave.
posted by mewsic at 10:33 PM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

So in the past I've displayed similar behaviours to your girlfriend. To a degree I occassionally still have moments of slipping back into it, so maybe my comments might help, maybe not.

If you've been repeatedly mocked, ignored and/or received anger when expressing your opinion it has the power to cripple your ability to communicate well. Abusive people leave their mark.

To this day I can have issues communicating verbally when there is a perceived threat, this means I can have a tendency to bottle up things in order to avoid talking about them. Whilst I don't and never have dropped comments passive aggressively like your girlfriend (no judgement) I can get aggitated and anxious if there is something that needs to be dealt with. So for me, it turned out the best way to have a regular and healthy outlet was to do a journal that I send to my partner. I do one every day - sometimes there is little to say, other times there is a lot of things that I need get out. It's been really beneficial to me in getting used to expressing concerns or just explaining my thoughts and feelings. It has directly led to me feeling more confident in talking face to face and I tend not to shrink into myself when we talk now. It is worth mentioning; my partner consistently responds with love and consideration regardless of the content of these journals. And I appreciate this massively - there is no rejection of any kind even when I have hard things to tell him. I believe the reason they are helpful is it is cathartic getting it all out without the immediate stress of being shut down, shouted at, hurt, ignored or risking being gas lit. And I understand you aren't the people who hurt her, but I always feel this kind of thing is often more like a learned instinct than a rational behaviour.

I don't know your girlfriend's background, but journals have been very helpful for me. My partner is on Mefi and can probably give you more advice on his attitudes and actions regarding this.

I will point out - it's important that she want to improve, your thoughts and feelings are equally important and you should certainly look at how to draw boundaries around the passive aggressive comments should you feel they are causing harm.

It is so tough being involved with someone that has baggage such as this and I am sure that she, like me wishes she could change herself to react in a more healthy way.

Good luck. :)
posted by TheGarden at 4:04 AM on January 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sounds like a classic case of Ask Culture [you] vs. Guess Culture [her]. The relevant quote:
If you're a Guess Culture person [her]... then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you're likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you're an Ask Culture person [you], Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.
posted by clawsoon at 11:28 AM on January 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Therapy is for her well-being, not to change her into someone you would have an easier time communicating with. You are different. You can celebrate those differences, tolerate them, or use them as a basis to understand why this relationship is not for you. Good communication is a cornerstone of heatlhy and loving relationships. But, really, she is communicating with you. Your quibble is with how she communicates. That most likely is not going to change, so please consider the three options I presented.
posted by Mr. Fig at 12:34 PM on January 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Wow, no. Your girlfriend clearly doesn't want to communicate in a direct way that is emotionally honest and upfront with what she needs, and wants you to be able to interpret her passive aggressiveness and hints properly as a show of love. The real question is, do you want to always be giving your love in this way to be seen in that way? Is she willing to change her ways to be closer to yours? Would you even want to engage in a little bit with how she communicates?

The point of communication is so that people can have a shared story in relationships and build together an understanding of eachother's care and love for eachother. In my own experience, you need communication styles that are reliably consistent, so that each person is consistently understanding eachother. If neither of you are willing to change, it is okay for a seperation.
posted by yueliang at 11:42 PM on January 25, 2017

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