Another “can relationship be saved” question. I'm at a loss, internet.
December 9, 2018 12:01 AM   Subscribe

We love each other, and we see a future together. But my needs aren't being met, baggage and neuroses are clashing, and I don't know what to do, or when or whether to cut losses. The usual. Snowflakes inside.

The setup: Heterosexual couple in our mid 30s. Together for close to 3 years. We’re both looking to settle down, probably start a family. If this doesn’t work, we can’t drag it out forever, and should get out of each other’s way.

The good: We love each other. A lot. We have a lot of fun together, running around town, traveling, watching movies, yakking. When it comes to getting shit done, we’re a smooth, effective, low-drama team. Our sex life started ok-ish and has only been getting better with time, now it’s damn good. I feel that gf is smart, devoted, reliable, fun, and sexy and beautiful. I tell her this all the time and she glows. She’s hyper-competent at all things that come her way. I feel like I’m in good hands with her. She’s a near-professional level cook and loves to feed me, and she’s a doctor who is very good with bodies - getting them to feel good, and getting the kinks out of them. She enthusiastically teaches me these things and I'm grateful. I’m a mild to moderate insomniac, and in bed with gf, I sleep like a baby - and that's weirdly poignant to me. I can imagine myself growing old with her. And If I put myself in her shoes, I think she would say that I am kind and attentive and entertaining, that I make her feel seen and accepted and safe, and that I challenge her intellectually, in a good way.

This section is shorter than the others, but that doesn't mean that the bad outweighs the good. This list means the world to me.

The bad: I often feel emotionally neglected, and second-place. Just like me, all her close friends get fed, massaged, and logistically supported. I’m missing any kind of token of love that’s particular to me: no spontaneous “I love you” or “I miss you” or “I’m thinking of you”, no little gifts, no songs or articles or pictures or videos, no “let’s do X I thought you’d like it,” no “hey you’re hot” or “I love how you’re funny/smart/whatever” or “nice shirt!”. If I say such things, she will sometimes kinda reciprocate, but she won't say them on her own. At the same time she is often gently/coyly critical - of my fashion choices, appearance, amateurishness of my amateur carpentry projects, etc. She comes from a much higher socioeconomic position than me, and sometimes, despite myself, it feels like she thinks she's above me, or that I should be grateful to have her at all. She’s sometimes suddenly emotionally cold, with no context of conflict or anything - she barely greets me, doesn’t reciprocate kind words or touch, talks to me like I could be anybody, asks no questions - this can last for hours or days.

We come from different worlds, intellectually and professionally. I’m in tech, like the art world, and indie/avant-garde culture. She’s in medicine and likes pop culture and Earthy things. She openly thinks tech and the corporate world where I work are mostly evil, and my cultural interests pretentious and far from her reality. I find everything interesting, so I’ve enthusiastically developed a serious amateur interest in medicine and food through her tutelage. This lets her career and interests have a big life in our relationship, we talk about them endlessly. I’m resentful that “my things” get comparatively little play. I’m currently going through a major career transition, and I haven’t been able to share nearly as much of that with her as I’d like, from any angle, because she hasn’t learned enough of the basics. When I do talk, she tries to zero in on some small point and provide a quick and tidy solution so we can move on, or she’ll just look bored and change the subject.

She has a caustic view of men - I understand it, but I don't feel like I deserve to be in those crosshairs: She’s quick to read gender/power-dynamics into many situations, and those are the angles she’s interested in (among women as well as men, but always gender-driven). When she first met my circle of friends, those dynamics were the first thing she wanted to talk about - I was shocked by both the cynicism and what I saw as a rush to judgment. She’s made it clear that it’s hard for her to trust men, that when it comes to demonstrating decency, the burden of proof is on the man. My integrity has been questioned in ways I find very hurtful - for example when she asked if I would make a move on a much-younger junior colleague I was mentoring, and I said that I would never go there for obvious reasons, she rolled her eyes and told me that I wasn’t fooling anybody. She’s implied that my need for more attention or love is the product of a fragile male ego, and she’s cast what I see as garden-variety low-grade moodiness/dickishness, which I’m more than ready to own and apologise for, as dangerous male behavior.

The dilemma: I’ve developed my own theory as to what’s happening, and it’s a grim picture:
Gf has some dark things in her past. She grew up with a benevolent but often-absent father and a controlling cold mother. From childhood on she was a tightly-wound perfectionist, and her teenage years were plagued by depression and eating disorders. Her 20s were spent in the dance world, where she absorbed a lot of trauma - destructive messages about her body and femininity, sadistic choreographers, sexually aggressive directors. In her telling, the handful of long term relationships she had were with emotionally distant, sometimes narcissistic, sometimes abusive (emotionally, once physically) men, and I’m her first break from that pattern. To this day she has bouts of severe depression (all day in bed, eating bananas and not showering) for a couple of weeks per year, and a few months of mild dysthymia.

I tend to be a caretaker personality, and I automatically take great interest in people’s wellbeing, sometimes to the detriment of my own. In my social circle, I’m seen as the good listener and the person people go to to vent or get a new perspective. Also, since a young age, I’ve been friends with many women and I think I’ve had by-default feminist leanings before I knew the word. I think, because of these things, and a conscious desire to break her old patterns, gf pursued me. I was what she wanted on paper. I think she eventually fell in love with me, though sometimes I wonder if she ever did. From my end, I adopted a nasty care-takery pose, and it took me a good six months to see how problematic that was, to stop treating her with kid gloves and start asserting my own needs - which is when our sex life got good and our problems started.

She says she loves me and wants the relationship to work, and I try to believe her. I understand that she's often battling with anxiety and depression. I understand where she's coming from. But when I’ve tried to tell her about unmet needs, she shoots them down by asking for examples, and then either saying that I misunderstood her in that instance, that my own insecurities made me demand more than was reasonable, or that my previous girlfriends had more in common with me and gave me unreasonable expectations. Or she accuses me of wanting her to be a different person.

I’ve spent a few years in therapy, and it seriously helped me get past my own cold and aggressive parents and chaotic upbringing. I believe in it and the insight and habits it gave me. She’s never had any form of counselling - she recognises that she has a past to overcome, but says she’s both too private and independent for counselling, and believes her tools are sufficient to see her through on her own. She thinks our problems are between us and rooted in bad communication, and are not caused by her issues, and all we need to stay together is her fix-it-all toolkit of fierce devotion, radical honesty, and willingness to announce hurt feelings in real time. Frankly, I think these tools are insufficient and too generic. Also, I just can’t believe that her trauma, bad prior relationships, depression, and views of men are not behind at least some of the problems in our relationship. She’s rejected couples and individual counselling, and I feel weird pushing the issue, but if what we’re currently doing is not working then I feel like it’s either a counselling-based ultimatum, or calling it quits.

Is there some option or angle I’m not seeing? I want to make this work, but the trajectory is clearly in the wrong direction.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I recognise a lot in this situation, and you have my sympathy because it's going to be hard to feel confident about what to do either way. It sounds like you love each other a lot, and from reading this I think it also sounds like it's a relationship that's absolutely worth working on.

I can understand how her attitudes towards men have developed and I think you have to be very understanding of those (I would probably agree that most male 'dickish' behaviour does stem from the social training men specifically have received for millennia, and is dangerous in all sorts of ways), but at the same time, if she really is anti-counselling, she needs to show you that she is actively working on some of the imbalances in your relationship outside of those formal structures. I think her willingness to do that will be a reliable indicator of her commitment to your relationship. Some patience will be required on both sides, but it sounds like at the core of it you actually have a really great thing going together. Loads of luck x
posted by churlishmeg at 1:20 AM on December 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


I mean, there are ways in which I am actually more sympathetic to your girlfriend's position than you are (the biggest one is that I think your 'caretaker personality' is more problematic than you seem to think it is).

As it stands, the underlying problem is that for your gf your relationship is not one of equals but rather one where you are the junior partner. I think you're right to see yourself as "second-place." And while I think it's going to be tough to change your girlfriend's attitude, I think it's not impossible, especially if you make it clear that you are willing to leave her over this.
posted by crazy with stars at 1:24 AM on December 9, 2018 [7 favorites]


She’s never had any form of counselling - she recognises that she has a past to overcome, but says she’s both too private and independent for counselling, and believes her tools are sufficient to see her through on her own. She thinks our problems are between us and rooted in bad communication, and are not caused by her issues, and all we need to stay together is her fix-it-all toolkit of fierce devotion, radical honesty, and willingness to announce hurt feelings in real time.

Of everything you mentioned, this is the part that gave me the most pause. It sounds like she secretly thinks every problem in the relationship stems from you, and that is not good. I often don't have much patience for men feeling hard done by in relationships, but from what you've described, unless you're leaving a lot out, I think she is not acknowledging her own issues, and that is not a great sign.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:40 AM on December 9, 2018 [25 favorites]


It sounds like you both have a good thing going on paper, and that the crux of the matter is that she makes you feel unspecial — I've been on both ends of that dynamic, and neither one is good. It is not impossible to shift this, but only on the condition that the imbalance is acknowledged in the first place.

You say that you're a smooth, effective, low-drama team when it comes to getting shit done, so you've got good practice there. Making sure that the team members are OK is also shit that needs to get done. If she's not ready, willing, or able to go there, I would cut clean before resentment and bitterness — on either side — build up so much that they taint everything that was once good. But if both of you are willing to make it a top priority to shore up the foundations of your relationship and stabilize it, it definitely still has a chance. Best of luck.
posted by pendrift at 2:04 AM on December 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


I think, because of these things, and a conscious desire to break her old patterns, gf pursued me. I was what she wanted on paper. I think she eventually fell in love with me, though sometimes I wonder if she ever did.


I think you should break up. You're mid-30s and want to start a family. She's a doctor. These feelings you're having of her not in love with you or complimenting you enough may get exacerbated when kids get in the picture. She may not have the time or emotional resources to give you the attention you need.

I personally think the best thing may be to move on. For both your sakes. Find someone more compatible and that you feel as an equal in the partnership.
posted by lunastellasol at 2:26 AM on December 9, 2018 [11 favorites]


Life is too short to coax someone into loving you and respecting you as an equal.
posted by tapir-whorf at 3:42 AM on December 9, 2018 [23 favorites]


I want to make this work
Unless she wants to make it work along with you, it won't, and it doesn't sound like she wants to acknowledge her role in what you describe. Time to move on.
posted by Crystal Fox at 4:08 AM on December 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


I feel like it’s either a counselling-based ultimatum, or calling it quits.

I think this is a good approach. That was my thought even before I re-read the question and spotted this.

I do think couples counseling could help. Whether the issues are between you guys and caused by bad communication, as she thinks, or on her end,* as you think, it would help. (* If you cared about her depression just because of the impacts of the depression, like "I can't deal with someone dropping out and just watching TV for days on end" then I'd say that individual counseling just for her would be enough. But since you care about how her background affects how she treats you, then I think couples therapy is better, because individual counseling offers no guarantee that this would ever get addressed, since it's not a problem that's on her radar screen.)

Ultimata get a bad rep, and they're not to be overused or used as a manipulative tool just to get random concessions. But if you legitimately feel like the relationship isn't working to the point that you're ready to break up if this doesn't happen, then I think it's fair. I'd be careful about how you bring it up, because for some people, learning that you're ready to break up otherwise could be such a shock that it disrupts their trust in the relationship. So I wouldn't lead with that. I'd lead with feeling frustrated that your attempts to solve things on your own aren't working and work your way toward that point. If she says no, then you'll need to either be ready to break up, or another option could be to put the burden on her, like "prove we can do this without a therapist," ideally with a commitment to try a professional if you're still feeling unheard in a month or so.

Finding a counselor takes trial and error. The time I did it, we went to three bad people before we got to a good one. (I do know a very good counselor in the SF Bay Area, if that's where you live. You mention tech.) But I'd be sure to set those expectations so that she doesn't reject the idea completely if the first one is a dud.

Good luck.
posted by salvia at 4:39 AM on December 9, 2018 [11 favorites]


It seems pretty clear that she's not going to change. So you'll need to decide whether the good is worth the bad to you. You might be able to draw specific boundaries... like insisting that when it comes to anti-male sentiments, she is allowed to call you out on things you actually do, but not stereotypes that have nothing to do with you individually. But she's not going to develop more interest in your interests, stop having mental health issues that mean she intermittently doesn't engage with you, etc.

If you decide to stay, you might be able to reframe the care she gives other people in a positive or at least neutral way, so it doesn't bother you as much. I'm polyamorous so this is more natural to me, so YMMV. The way I see it is that (1) one of the things I like about my partners is their connection to their community (which I also benefit from) and their deep relationships, so I consider being good to other people a lovely part of them; and (2) their relationships with other people do not negatively affect me or mean that I am less important to them, just as the attention my mother gives my brother doesn't mean she doesn't love me. This might not work for your brain, and if you need someone more specifically focused on you, that may mean you need to move on... you don't want to ask her to give up her friendships, after all.
posted by metasarah at 4:52 AM on December 9, 2018 [4 favorites]


This leapt out at me:

But when I’ve tried to tell her about unmet needs, she shoots them down by asking for examples, and then either saying that I misunderstood her in that instance, that my own insecurities made me demand more than was reasonable, or that my previous girlfriends had more in common with me and gave me unreasonable expectations. Or she accuses me of wanting her to be a different person.

This dynamic--of demanding examples, followed by making excuses and equivocating, is so common in relationships. I mean, yeah, sometimes a person needs examples so they can know what to stop or start doing. But ideally, what would happen when one person brings up unmet needs is the other person would think,"Okay, just because I think X is unimportant, X matters to my partner, so X matters to me. Therefore, I will try to provide X."

Or the person might be upfront about the fact that they can't give you X. (Also an absolutely valid response!) Which . . . is basically what she's doing, only not in such a straightforward manner?

So, I think you have to decide whether or not you can live without the things you want. Because you can't make her give them to you.

I feel for you. I begged for what I needed for years from someone I loved very much, and made it very clear toward the end that his refusal to give me those things meant the relationship was at its end. And then I finally had to leave because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life that way.
posted by tiger tiger at 4:52 AM on December 9, 2018 [27 favorites]


What jumps out at me from here is that this woman is a doctor of medicine and thinks that she's too private and independent for therapy. I guess that she doesn't hold mental health in parity of esteem with the rest of health, then?

If someone had a broken leg or cancer or diabetes and didn't want to go to the doctor she would think that was wrong, yes? The same would go for mental health. If she isn't going to get treatment for her trauma it is going to be much harder for her to heal from it.

Maybe this is an argument you can use around encouraging her to get individual counselling and for you both to get couples counselling.

The argument about her being too private and independent is an understandable one, but it could very well be that she is wanting to keep full realisation of her trauma private from herself, IE avoiding having to face it consciously. It's a serious concern for many that during the course of trauma therapy that they can break down and lose function. Function might be how she sees and values herself and she might not be able to face that changing. It's so deeply understandable, and she has to make the choice to face healing and that risk. And if she faces that hard choice it will be so much the better for your support. But if she isn't ready to face that choice, you don't have to wait indefinitely until she is ready.
posted by Mistress at 5:10 AM on December 9, 2018 [7 favorites]


Couples therapy gets recommended a lot here — sometimes when it's not especially likely to help.* But I think your situation is an especially good one for couples therapy if you can convince your girlfriend to go, because it's entirely possible that a large portion of the problem is down to different communication styles. Nobody's cheating on anyone, nobody's neglecting anyone — it's a "When you do X, I feel Y"/"Well, when you do Z, I feel W" problem, and maybe also a "I worry you're in denial about Q"/"I worry you're overreacting about Q" problem. That's the sort of thing couples therapy can actually make a real difference with.

I'm sort of staying agnostic here about whether your theory is right. I agree that if it is right, and if your girlfriend isn't willing to get help with her shit, then the relationship isn't likely to work out.

But I also wonder if you could view couples therapy as a way of exploring whether the theory is right. It could be that you're right, she realizes you're right, and having the therapy process sort of demystified helps her feel okay about trying it individually. It could be you're right but she continues to refuse to deal with it, which sucks but gives you a chance to leave feeling like you gave it a fair shot. It could be that the outcome surprises you and it's "just" a communication issue. It could be it's some of both, and you can learn to speak her language better in exchange for her learning to work on her shit.

*The reason couples therapy often doesn't work is that people don't try it until the relationship is already doomed, or until they've already mistreated each other unforgivably badly. Your "good" paragraph makes it sound like parts of your relationship are really solid. That means that if you try couples therapy now, you'll have higher than average odds of benefiting from it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:11 AM on December 9, 2018 [13 favorites]


Basically all of this seems like untreated depression/mental illness. Or she doesn’t love you, or both. If she had insight, okay, but she doesn’t, so you’re pretty much done here.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:15 AM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


Also, the socioeconomic stuff is irritating (been there) but if you felt loved you’d laugh about it together. She’d tease you about being a roughneck and you’d tease her about being bougie and you’d end up exchanging “I love you”s.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:18 AM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


If I say such things, she will sometimes kinda reciprocate, but she won't say them on her own.
she is often gently/coyly critical
it feels like she thinks she's above me, or that I should be grateful to have her at all.
She’s sometimes suddenly emotionally cold
She openly thinks tech and the corporate world where I work are mostly evil, and my cultural interests pretentious and far from her reality.
When I do talk, she tries to zero in on some small point and provide a quick and tidy solution so we can move on, or she’ll just look bored and change the subject.
I was shocked by both the cynicism and what I saw as a rush to judgment.
My integrity has been questioned in ways I find very hurtful
She’s implied that my need for more attention or love is the product of a fragile male ego
I think she eventually fell in love with me, though sometimes I wonder if she ever did.
But when I’ve tried to tell her about unmet needs, she shoots them down
but says she’s both too private and independent for counselling
She thinks our problems are between us and... are not caused by her issues


When people tell you who they are, believe them. You deserve better than being belittled and demeaned. GTFO.

A passing thought... I wonder if people's reactions would be different if the genders were reversed.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 6:35 AM on December 9, 2018 [15 favorites]


Relationships are a dance and both partners contribute to the experience.

When one or both people don't understand that, it's a sure route to failure.

It sounds like she's not particularly open to self-examination and thinking about how she's contributing to the dance. That's bad news. You can't make her do that, unfortunately; she needs to come to it herself. Sorry.

Your post is thoughtful and self-reflective, and that's great, but I do think you'd probably do well to spend some time working on why it is that you can be in relationship with someone who treats you with such coldness, disinterest, and it seems outright contempt--and still think that treatment is consistent with love. People who are caretakers, who are other-focused, often struggle to become sufficiently self-focused--to attain the balance of self-advocacy and other-directedness that is necessary for a healthy relationship.

You talk about a relationship shift where you started to stand up for yourself, and your sex life got better but then "our problems started". I'm not sure if this relationship is salvageable if she won't constructively engage, but something to bear in mind is that conflict is inevitable in relationship. No two people are the same and there will inevitably be a process of seeing things differently, misunderstandings, working things out. "Conflict" doesn't have to mean "problems", if you and your partner are mature and grounded and understand that as adult you two together are just going to have to work things out. The key seems to be to acknowledge what is hurtful to you, and to treat it as important, while also realizing that it's your own sensitivity and not necessarily a fault or failing on your partner's part. To share the vulnerable parts, not the destructive patterns that shield it, so that you can receive compassion in return. And, crucially, to offer compassion in return when your partner's vulnerabilities get activated. Easy to describe, so hard to do in practice. Relationship *always* surfaces the tough stuff and the art of it is to get better at navigating it. The red flag is when one or both of you is not trying to get better at navigating it.

Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 7:13 AM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


Is there some option or angle I’m not seeing?

Yes. As someone who is a domestic violence survivor, but has been through about ten years of the therapy you would like your partner to go through, absolutely yes.

She’s implied that my need for more attention or love is the product of a fragile male ego, and she’s cast what I see as garden-variety low-grade moodiness/dickishness, which I’m more than ready to own and apologise for, as dangerous male behavior.-

So the thing is: you are right that some of her perception of men comes from having been in abusive relationships, but the thing you are wrong in is - you're thinking that her perception is wrong , and that - may not exactly be the case.

You are jealous of her close friends because she loves them and supports them, and it makes you not feel special. That is really worth picking out. I know you've said you've spent a few years in therapy - why not go back? It may also pick out how your own family of origin issues are affecting how you view the relationship. It's super, super common that men who were raised by cold, aggressive parents have a need to be kind of flamboyantly loved in ways they never received from their parents and in a way that is visibly Just For Them.

And a thing I think you are also missing is that 'low-grade moodishness/dickishness' is absolutely something that can be dangerous in men. It is, on a root level, the willingness to let your partner bear the brunt of your emotions, even if they are harmful. I am sure you would never hit or hurt your partner - but the thing is, the men who do also started at that level. The warning sign your partner is seeing is a real warning sign, and it is telling her that you could go towards dangerousness. That's a problem that does come from her history of abuse - but the way to mitigate that is to try to lessen it yourself. Moodishness/dickishness isn't just a 'personality quirk', it's a sign of still having some things you haven't worked out yet.

I also wonder if some of your conflict is because you aren't really arguing about what should happen in /your/ relationship, you're arguing about Who Is Right About Things.

For example - my partner is somewhat similar to you - he has kind of an enormous need for flamboyant things of love. When we first got together, it was really hard, because he presented these things as 'that's what you should do normally, you should know that you should do those things', which I reacted really badly to. But now, he communicates really clearly about needs but also aligns it to what's actually going on. "Will you do this thing? I know it's totally unreasonable, but it would make me feel really loved." And the acknowledgement that this is an unusual request allows me to just think of it as 'is this a thing I can do for my partner or not' rather than 'Am I a Bad Girlfriend/Wife for not doing it?'
posted by corb at 7:19 AM on December 9, 2018 [41 favorites]


You seem like two people who need different things in life. Your needs are valid. So are hers. Whether or not you are compatible could be more clear over time. You can absolutely find someone new who will make you happy.
posted by tooloudinhere at 8:00 AM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


John Gottman has done a *lot* of research on relationship killers and relationship success indicators. It sounds like she may be contemptuous of you. Look hard to see if that's the case, as it is a killer. It can be overcome, but only if she chooses, so couples therapy with somebody skilled. And there could be other stuff going on that you aren't able to see clearly. Lots of links in my profile, though I haven't verified them in a while.
posted by theora55 at 8:44 AM on December 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


She thinks our problems are between us and rooted in bad communication, and are not caused by her issues

I’m not sure if you mispoke, or if you really feel that she is the identified patient in your relationship and that things would be so much better if she just was the person you want vs the person she is. It is rare that a relationship issue would be one-sided without the other person contributing in some way to the dynamic. I sense a little contempt for some of her ideas (observing gender power imbalances and calling you out when she sees you acting thoughtlessly within your social conditioning).

Although couple’s counselling can be great, when it is presented as “you need to do counselling to make you be the person I want you to be” it comes across as controlling - she may be getting a whiff of that from your request. (Caretaking is actually a form of control, as I am sure you are aware). Perhaps reframing it as you need help in creating the great relationship you both deserve. Ask her to choose the therapist as well. You have had a lot of therapy, which comes across in your language and how you frame your question, but you have weaponised it by diagnosing her and labeling her experiences. I wish more therapists addressed this as it is super, super common, but really destructive for relationships. Asking someone with no therapy experience to doing joint therapy with someone with no therapy is automatically putting the no-therapy person in a one-down position from the start (...back to those power imbalances she is aware of) and you and the therapist need to be sensitive to that and openly talk about it right away and how it will be addressed. Personally, I am very partial to social workers for couple’s counselling (their modality recognizes power imbalances in relationships) but with her higher education I would expect a very well-educated overtly feminist professional to be the best match. (Pm if you want a specific suggestion of someone who does Skype over a few sessions).

It sounds like you really love each other and can definately have a long, fulfilling relationship. You have so many, wonderful positives, plus neither of you are actively trying to hurt the other; I wish you luck and love on your journey together.
posted by saucysault at 9:04 AM on December 9, 2018 [8 favorites]


I feel like it’s either a counselling-based ultimatum, or calling it quits.


Yep. You two have a lot going for you, and it's time to ask her if she values it enough to do some work to hang onto it, or not. Listen to what she says and accept the answer. If she's not interested, then it's time to move on. You are obviously a kind, thoughtful, intelligent person who cares for her and if she doesn't see that as important, then it's time to find someone who wants what you have to give.

Either way, I'd suggest that you would benefit from exploring your own side of this with your own therapist. She sounds like she has some issues, sure, but any relationship is a dynamic and both sides contribute. Identifying her issues as the only problematic ones is not going to help you, either in this relationship, or in anything that might follow.

Like one of the posters above, I also wonder if all of this would seem clearer, both to you and to those of us who are giving you advice, if your genders were reversed. This dynamic--even down to the doctor part--has played out in many questions, here and on other advice fora, over the years.
posted by rpfields at 9:15 AM on December 9, 2018


The part where you get into gender issues is a little concerning to me. There's what corb said about the "low-grade moodishness/dickishness" thing, which I absolutely agree with. Further when you say, "I don't feel like I deserve to be in those crosshairs"-- I don't know how meaningful that imagery is intended to be, but to me it suggests a habit some people have of writing off their own bad behavior as minor or garden variety, while describing feeling attacked by their partner-- sometimes more specifically, describing gender issues as being weaponized by their partner in some way. Do have have a tendency to ignore concerns your partner has expressed in this area and/or turn them around on her? This seems possibly significant to me because a lot of the friction between you reads to me like it's about power imbalance of one sort or another. You may be underestimating the power she feels you have just by being male.
posted by BibiRose at 9:36 AM on December 9, 2018 [16 favorites]


To engage in self-reflection you need to feel safe enough. To be vulnerable you need to feel safe enough.

This is not the only issue in your relationship, but it does not sound like she feels safe enough. Whether she will ever feel safe enough with you, or on a time scale that makes sense to you, is not clear, but I do think that for a relationship to work both partners need to be able to engage in self-reflection and need to be able to endure the vulnerability required to share the fruits of that self-reflection.

I agree that many of the things you describe would, for me, be dealbreakers. (I, uh, do not date doctors anymore for Reasons, many of them having to do with contemptuousness! Obviously Not All Doctors, but the field seems to encourage it, so.) But I think you also need to pay attention to what other posters have said about your dismissiveness with regards to your own flaws. It might be that these flaws might not be as big of a deal if you were in a relationship with someone who didn’t have a long history of abuse with men, but, uh, that’s not the relationship you’re in. And you knew that. And, frankly, a lot of women have histories of abuse or assault at the hands of men, especially by the time you’ve hit your mid-thirties. Like...most of them. Pretty much the vast majority. That’s something you should learn to navigate generally.

But you can’t navigate that with your current partner if she’s not able to engage in the necessary introspection. It could be that your baggage is not compatible. That might not be anyone’s fault.
posted by schadenfrau at 9:53 AM on December 9, 2018 [6 favorites]


Also, since a young age, I’ve been friends with many women and I think I’ve had by-default feminist leanings before I knew the word.

The dilemma: I’ve developed my own theory as to what’s happening, and it’s a grim picture:
Gf has some dark things in her past.


you have developed a private theory that the reason her own feminist positions are extreme enough to hurt your feelings is that a lot of men abused her into it. this doesn't square with your above impression of yourself. if you can't see why, you are not in a position to analyze anyone else.

you have to be able to disagree with her politics while respecting her adult agency. you can do that. in fact, you have to do that. you have to also be able to tell her that sometimes she's right but she's cruel about it. if you can't tolerate the fact of her specific opinions on gender without coming up with an exculpatory psychological origin story for them that puts them outside her conscious control, you do not respect her.

you don't have to respect her opinions to respect her. and if you do, you still don't have to agree with them. maybe they're wrong. but when functioning intelligent thoughtful adult women with a trauma history are wrong about politics, it is not because they have been traumatized into it. and refusing to play the "all men (except MY boyfriend and his friends, who would never)" game is a sign of integrity and perception. stereotyping with a self-deluding special boyfriend exemption is worse than stereotyping alone.

and she’s cast what I see as garden-variety low-grade moodiness/dickishness, which I’m more than ready to own and apologise for, as dangerous male behavior.


and without specifics, this can only be read as a difference of opinion in which she is as likely to be correct as you are.

finally, talking about things you want as "asserting your needs" is not something everyone will automatically find acceptable. I don't know if this is your own way of thinking of it or if therapy influenced your language. but the distance between "I need this from you" and "you have to do this" is very short. want what you want and ask for what you want, but as long as you're talking about owning things, own that.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:10 AM on December 9, 2018 [11 favorites]


If you decide to go to counseling together, something to keep in mind - her emotional distance and her distrust of men aren't necessarily maladaptive, and they wouldn't be dealbreakers for some partners. They may be wrong for you, but they're not objectively wrong.
posted by toastedcheese at 10:35 AM on December 9, 2018 [7 favorites]


for example when she asked if I would make a move on a much-younger junior colleague I was mentoring, and I said that I would never go there for obvious reasons, she rolled her eyes and told me that I wasn’t fooling anybody

This really jumped out at me. Either she does not feel secure in this relationship, or she actively enjoys cruelty -- neither of those options sound like the basis for a lasting and mutually beneficial life-partnership.
posted by basalganglia at 11:16 AM on December 9, 2018 [5 favorites]


I do think that some of what is going on *is* communication problems that can be greatly helped with couples counseling. I don't know what it will take to get her to participate. She does sound wounded. Lots of us start out wounded, it sounds like you did, too.

I got some of the benefits of counseling "on the cheap" decades ago as a young married person, because I bought a John Bradshaw book. (Either "Healing the Shame that Binds You" or "Creating Love", I think.) I read the book out loud to my husband in the car (consensualy) and we discussed things from our childhoods and our parent's marriages that it brought to mind.

It does sound like your partner is attracted to cruel men. As someone who once had "daddy issues" and was attracted to distant or unobtainable men, this makes a lot of sense to me.

If she has past trauma in her relationships with harsh guys, it doesn't surprise me that what you consider minor grumpiness on your part could make the hair on her neck bristle.

I understand that you want to feel cherished, or even adored, and you aren't getting it. But it's possible to have a good, satisfying relationship without each being everything to each other. I think it could be feasible for you to get your tech-related or career-related discussion needs met by a friend.

It sounds like she was defensive when you brought up your feelings about being unloved or slighted. If she can only tell you when she's upset, but can't listen when you are upset, then you guys don't have effective, two-way communication. It is very natural to be defensive, but we can learn to lower our guards, or apologize later, or something.

If she starts expressing love after you prompt her, will it feel authentic and satisfying, or will gnawing doubts remain? Good luck.
posted by puddledork at 11:43 AM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


It sounds like she’s a great person (hyper-competent, loving with her friends, etc.) but that she’s not a great partner for you because you’re not getting your *emotional* needs met. Do you know if you’re a great partner for her, other than "I think she would say that I am kind and attentive and entertaining, that I make her feel seen and accepted and safe, and that I challenge her intellectually, in a good way” which has a tinge of doubt in it? (Because you said “I think she would say…” Not “she has to said to me she loves being with me because xyz.")

I’m getting the impression of low-grade contempt from her for you. She treats you like all her other friends (do you guys have emotional intimacy? Do you feel emotionally close to her?), i.e. you’re not super special to her; she low key criticizes you; you feel like she thinks she’s above you, that you should be grateful that she’s with you. She looks down on your work and interests; she doesn’t appreciate the things that you’re passionate about. Partners don’t have to have everything in common, but at least be supportive that you’re into x and share in the joy that x brings you, right?

This, in particular is not good: "She’s sometimes suddenly emotionally cold, with no context of conflict or anything - she barely greets me, doesn’t reciprocate kind words or touch, talks to me like I could be anybody, asks no questions - this can last for hours or days." So she’s freezing you out, and that’s really no way to treat someone. How has she responded when you brought this up with her?

Where she thinks that you would hit on your mentee, she thinks that poorly of you? She thinks you’re an instigator of a #metoo situation waiting to happen? Then why is she with you?

On your low-grade moodiness/dickishness - I mean, do more than being ready to own and apologize for it. Just don’t do it? Does her freezing you out happen after you’ve demonstrated some of this behaviour?

On your dilemma: it’s a theory, and who knows if you’re right. That’s not the point. I don’t think it’d be a good idea to relay this theory to her, to act as if you know what the deal is with her. I’m sure she’s got her own theories about you and herself too. I think you have to be honest with her and say, hey, this relationship has a lot of great things, but this is not what’s working for me. She could respond with dismissiveness (as she has already done) and you have to decide what’s acceptable for yourself. She says she wants the relationship to work, so what’s not working for her? Ask her. Also ask her what she’s willing to do to make it work, does she think it’s all on you? Really listen to what she says is not working for her. What she says should make you think, “Yeah, I can improve there and I *want* to be a better person in that regard. That makes sense to me.” If what she says doesn’t make sense for you and it feels like you *really* can’t do it (like bending over backwards to try to prove you won’t hit on your mentee etc.), then maybe it’s time to call it quits.

Both of you should approach strengthening your relationship together - it’s not that you have to do all the changing, or that she has to do all the changing. Both of you have to listen to each other and feel like you’re in it together. Do you know what her needs/wants are? Ask her and really listen.

She recognizes that she has a past to overcome, but she’s not doing anything about it? That’s not good either. But, everyone has to deal with their issues when they’re ready and willing. It's not up to you decide the best way for her to deal with them either. Both of you don't agree on how to work on the relationship so I'm not sure how that can be resolved. If she doesn’t want to do counselling at all, go to therapy yourself to figure out how you can move forward with the current situation (i.e. either stay with her and keep working at it in a one-sided way, figure out if breaking up is the best path, etc.). I hope you'll let us know how it goes, but don't feel obligated or anything.
posted by foxjacket at 12:43 PM on December 9, 2018 [6 favorites]


For starters, I thought this was very well-written. Specifically, I appreciated this context: “This section is shorter than the others, but that doesn't mean that the bad outweighs the good. This list means the world to me.” I don’t mean to sound like a freelance English teacher - rather, this illustrates to me that this is something you have thought about a lot, which gives me hope for your relationship.

I can offer some specific insights but overall, I think it’s possible that you are looking for The One when there is no The One. Everyone in a long term relationship is rounding up Mr 0.65 or Ms. 0.74 to 1.0. No one can meet all of one person’s needs. So you need to ask yourself, if she’s Ms. 0.81 and you split up, will you be happy if the next person you go out with is Ms. 0.68? Because the things you’re describing tiny seem like relationship extinction level annoyances. I’m not living your life and don’t know how this feels on a day to day basis, but that’s my impression.

A lot of couples come from different worlds and different socioeconomic classes. My husband works in tech and honestly I have s hard time understanding some of the things he deals with in his work life. When you said she zeroes in on details and tries to offer solutions, that sounded like something I do. My husband does it too. We want to help our partners. Sometimes it’s helpful to say, I’m not looking for a solution, can I just talk through something that happened at work? And offer her that option too. Practice phrases that indicate you’re listening but not trying to fix something and maybe she’ll start using them too (“that sounds frustrating,” “I’m sorry to hear that,” etc).

I do feel concerned by your girlfriend’s depression and anxiety. I suffer from both but it doesn’t paralyze me. She sounds like a cool person and she shouldn’t have to deal with that. I’m also concerned that in developing your narrative of the relationship, you’ve kind of written its epitaph. Everyone has baggage, especially by the time you’re in your 30s. Of course it affects her and you (yes, you have your own baggage that is affecting your relationship too).

I can’t tell you whether this stuff is worth breaking up over. I do wonder if the upheaval you’re experiencing career-wise is leading you to reevaluate other aspects of your life, or if your unhappiness with your career is morphing into unhappiness with your relationship. Just some food for thought. Good luck.
posted by kat518 at 1:50 PM on December 9, 2018 [8 favorites]


She’s never had any form of counselling - she recognises that she has a past to overcome, but says she’s both too private and independent for counselling, and believes her tools are sufficient to see her through on her own.

I had lots of different ideas and thoughts reading your question, but this seems to me to get at the heart of the issue: this would feel to me like she’s not willing to work on the relationship. Your unmet needs are your fault and problem, it might seem like.

Do you feel like she has both feet in with your relationship? Because you deserve to be with someone who is both feet in. If she’s not willing to pursue counseling or suggest other ways to work on your relationship, then she might not be a good long term partner for you. I’m sorry.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:12 PM on December 9, 2018


I am a woman, gay, feminist and an ex man-hater. I went to therapy to specifically work on my animosity towards men. It was profoundly insightful and set me up for a much more rich and rewarding social circle.

I chose a male therapist as part of this process. I wanted to face it head on. He had me identify the men in my life who I liked and admired, and define what it was about them that made them "good" in my mind. I had a really troubled, mentally ill Dad who was violent and had PTSD from Vietnam. So, he taught me to fear and hate men. Luckily, I had wonderful brothers. We were each other's friends and defenders as kids. Not that we didn't fight, punch the shit out of each other, tattle tale, etc, but, when the shit hit the fan, we had each other's backs. My therapist helped me to understand that my view of men was poisoning my ability to draw terrific men into my life.

I equated my feelings about men to misogyny. I think the term for women hating men is misandry. I had that. And it's every bit as awful and inappropriate to carry around in the world as any misogyny or racism is. I'm not saying she doesn't have a right to be FURIOUS at certain men, (I am!) but to expect every guy in her life to make up for that is wrong and it's hindering her. I like to put things in different context to make it have an impact, so I think, "If a person was abused, assaulted, beaten, or mistreated by say even 4 or 5 black people, to hate the entire race is still racism." It doesn't matter who it's coming from or who it's aimed at. This is HER ISSUE. She needs to work it out. It's not your job to fix it, and, BTW, you never will if she doesn't do ANY WORK to gain some understanding and insight for herself. Good luck.
posted by generic230 at 2:19 PM on December 9, 2018 [8 favorites]


Does she agree that your relationship is troubled, or is she OK with it?

If she’s OK with it I think you are done. Maybe counseling? But as she’s anti counselling that’s two huge hurdles: bad enough to need fixing, fixing needs a councillor. So probably done. And that sucks. Maybe you two would be a better match in ten years. Maybe not. Waiting is no good though.

If she recognizes there’s ongoing problems, get her to write up the pluses and minuses of your relationship like you did, but without showing her your list first.

Then exchange lists and compare and see what you agree on and how you interpret the difficulties and what might be intractable, and then find out what you both decide to do about it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:39 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


Addendum: my guess is depression and PTSD but if she won’t see a psych that isn’t going to help. I suggest written lists because she’s an analytical thinker and approaching it that way may be the easiest entry point to recognizing specific issues.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:42 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


sigh.. I was going to ask if you could give us more details.. but I see you posted anonymously so I think that's not possible? Instead I'll just add a salt grain - I'm kinda with those moments above where responders felt like it's pretty hard to say without more details/specifics. We just don't know you at all, so invariably in a way you are a partially filled screen and our projections/life experiences are filling in the rest. We may be right, we may be jumping to conclusions. The therapy idea.. hopefully that's a possibility for ya'll. One modality that seems to have a bit of an evidence base is "emotionally focused therapy" for couples, developed by Sue Johnson. If "evidenced based" practice is up your girlfriends alley, perhaps ya'll could look into her books or some interviews with her (there are a few out there, in podcasts, where she talks about her work.)
posted by elgee at 9:20 PM on December 9, 2018


Lots of people seem to think that the best they can hope for from a relationship is to find a perfectly nice person who they get along with, who they will then communicate and compromise with (the 'work') and then finally their relationship will somehow be OK. This is often seen as a mature way of looking at a relationship.

I believe that what people should hold out for is the deep down joy and contentment, and feeling of being home, and feeling of security and oneness that you can get when you are truly in love and living a life with someone in a committed partnership. Then, once you've established that, along the years of a life lived together there will be the need for communication and compromise and there will be disagreements and boredom and maybe sometimes even doubt, but you still have that deep down joy. Does your girlfriend give you that? It doesn't sound like she does.
posted by thereader at 11:03 PM on December 9, 2018 [8 favorites]


I cringed all throughout reading this because this level of pain and conflict is not worth it to me, in a relationship. I can see you trying to justify her treatment of you, but you just... don't have to do that. She is treating you with contempt and that's on her. I am admittedly reading this through my own lens of experience being involved with partners who had significant trauma histories or mental illness. In the end I got tired of the coldness and the criticism and the complete emotional unavailability. It is not your job to be someone's punching bag either.

You do sound a bit codependent, and that can lead to the kind of low-key dickishness you admit to being a problem for you. It sounds like you've worked on that, whereas she is not working on her stuff. Refusing to go to therapy--and believing she has the miraculous insight to fix things on her own--is a red flag.

Just my two cents.
posted by coffeeand at 9:08 AM on December 10, 2018 [4 favorites]


Also I am a feminist and AFAB myself and I don't believe men should accept that kind of casual, catch-all misandry within personal relationships. If she thinks you're "one of those men" she needs to use her words like a grown-up and specify exactly which behaviors are a problem for her.... rather than indicting you on the basis of simply being a man. That's not how adults communicate.
posted by coffeeand at 1:25 PM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]


"...previous girlfriends had more in common with me and gave me unreasonable expectations. Or she accuses me of wanting her to be a different person."

Listen to what she's telling you:

Your basic needs are "unreasonable expectations" as far as she's concerned, and you want "a different person." When you express your needs she responds that she's not who you want.

She thinks what you do for a living is evil. This means she doesn't respect you.

You mentioned class differences. She's not likely to feel she needs to satisfy your needs if she thinks you're low-class or a brute.

She mocked you and said you lied about not feeling compelled to hit on a younger female mentee. She doesn't trust you.

She won't learn about your stuff, so all you have in common is what you know about her stuff. Because your stuff, to her, is not worth the investment of her time.

So the question you need to answer is this: can you be happy with her as she is?

It sounds like the answer, sadly, is no. She doesn't spontaneously meet your needs, she's not demonstrative or supportive in the ways you need, and you've said that she's broken and needs to be fixed. I'd wager she's not getting her needs met either, because I've never met a couple that's only half unhappy, and because she's literally said you want her to be a different person.
posted by goblinbox at 6:38 PM on December 12, 2018 [1 favorite]


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