My boyfriend doesn't know how to comfort me
March 16, 2021 4:40 AM   Subscribe

He's sweet, kind and caring in usual life. But if I'm upset about something (like a sick kitten, or now, a terminally ill uncle) he just doesn't know what to say and it makes me feel way worse and even ashamed of being upset, like he is tired of supporting me. I have noticed feeling this way in other relationships, so perhaps this is a me problem?

Sometimes he's great and cuddles me and is generally very sweet - and he is fantastic practically - but if I'm upset, and especially if I cry, he just kind of freezes and there's silence or very awkward hugs, or he starts coming up with solutions (that are often completely off the mark, which then annoys me, which he can probably pick up on). Sometimes he even comes across as annoyed / wishing I would snap out of it, which obviously makes it worse when I just need some validation and interest in the issue.

He also said said that he doesn't like talking about his emotions, and that I do (which I have heard as criticism even if it's not) and he doesn't know what to do when I'm upset.

Any tips on what to do here? I'm starting to feel like I can't be myself, and I know he is feeling criticised and like he can't put a foot right when I try and tell him what I need. This isn't the first time this has happened in a relationship either, so I don't think dumping him is the answer. I know he loves me and cares about me. I just really need words in a way that I'm not sure he has the capacity to give. How can we overcome this?
posted by flimflamflop to Human Relations (38 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This is classic "love language" stuff (a million resources and charts online). You can certainly show him one of these and explain where you are and what you need, and maybe he will "get it."

HOWEVER, I think you also have a part to play. You know he isn't going to say exactly what you want in the way that you want it (because he's supposedly a human being and not a mind reader). So what do you do?

IF he is coming to you with genuine care and concern, please try framing his efforts as "he's doing his best, let me take from it what helps me, the sweet galoot, I know he means well." If you take his efforts and toss them back as "not good enough, wrong, totally missing the point" then he is unlikely to keep offering them at all.
posted by nkknkk at 4:47 AM on March 16, 2021 [11 favorites]

Step 1: make sure that you know and can clearly articulate what feels comforting to you. It sounds like now is not the best time for this sort of introspection (I am sorry to hear about your uncle; that sounds difficult and stressful!), but I suspect that your difficulty articulating to yourself why his responses make you feel more upset may be tied to a difficulty articulating what does bring you comfort?

Step 2: in a non-stressful moment, tell him/have a conversation about this.

One thing that might help is to think about friends who are good at making you feel supported and comforted. First, check in with them if you haven't texted or called or Zoomed recently, and get some support for the immediate situation! But then ask them what they do when you are upset. That may help give you some explanations or tips that you can then bring to your boyfriend that may help him learn how to better meet your support/comfort needs.
posted by eviemath at 4:53 AM on March 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

People aren't mind readers and different people need different things. For instance, if someone gets really cuddly on me when I'm upset, I'm gonna freak out.

During a neutral time, tell your boyfriend what you need when you are down, how YOU like and need to be comforted. Do the love languages quiz together. Talk about it. Explain the difference between venting and asking for problem solving help.

Then if he can't figure out how to give you the kind of support you need, that you have specifically told him you need, you'll know it's him and his unwillingness to support you. (Note: not inability. Unwillingness.) And in that event you should dump him and fast. But to start: tell him with words what you need and want. Give him an opportunity to deliver it.
posted by phunniemee at 4:53 AM on March 16, 2021 [17 favorites]

From my experience most men don't even know how to articulate how THEY feel - they're so used to having women process their emotions for them that they're clueless when it comes to their own, and ESPECIALLY when it comes to the mysterious inner workings of someone else's mind! woosh! It's a symptom (in my opinion) of being entirely self-centered, and no amount of "love language" bartering is going to be able to translate being emotionally unintelligent into something that you can *feel*.

I say: he is, like many, unskilled in emotional labour (because he's never had to do it) and is just going to go through life letting others do the emotional work around him. I don't see it changing becuase for him to *see* how you feel, he will have to be coaxed into *wanting* to due to his poorly-programmed self-absorption.

This is only speculation. Based on my experience. But it's no coincidence that even the worst of my girlfriends were more emotionally intelligent and skillful at comforting than the best of the men I've been with. ymmv.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 4:55 AM on March 16, 2021 [45 favorites]

My husband and I have gotten into the habit of asking "cuddle, talk, or space?" (the last is newer and may be somewhat pandemic related) when the other person is struggling with anything. It's a habit that has probably saved us a lot of grief. If the answer is 'talk' then the next step is "sympathy or advice?"

I noticed you said you need validation in those moments - you may want to think about what language is validating to you, too.

It is an awkward habit to start but once you get used to it, it's actually really comforting, for me anyway, because you have a way into a closer moment at hard times that is ritualized.

It is important to note that we probably have a 75-80% hit rate too. My husband is an introvert and he also has a slow switch between tasks, so if I kind of flit in and ask for immediate reassurance, he can have an issue. But over time I know he does want to be there, it's just like if you interrupt me in the middle of writing or a workout - you may not get the best of me for a few minutes.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:27 AM on March 16, 2021 [85 favorites]

It might be worth asking yourself whether you want to be the one to teach your partner how to comfort you. Personally, I'd find it infuriating to have to instruct someone in how to slowly switch to caring about what you're feeling. Would you feel okay about instructing them in a set of tick-boxes to reach how to connect with you? That's one more nice-guy ticky-box list I have no use for. It's performative.

Consider by comparison those distant girlfriends who just reach out because they haven't heard from you in awhile. If we continue to make our standards for caring so low, what's the point?
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:44 AM on March 16, 2021 [10 favorites]

Agreeing with telling him how you want to be comforted because some of us like hugs, some like cookies, some like to be left alone. Also, I don't know how old you are, but comforting is also a skill that often improves with age and practice. If I think about how I acted at the first funeral I attended as an adult compared how I am now, I am scads better.

So what I'm saying is that if you are in your early 20s and this is one of your first adult relationships, it's a lot more of a workable issue than if you are both in your 40s.
posted by kimberussell at 5:46 AM on March 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Personally, I'd find it infuriating to have to instruct someone in how to slowly switch to caring about what you're feeling.

Well I can only speak for my relationship and myself but I wanted to point out that we all come from different family backgrounds and while it's possible there's a lack of caring, it's also possible that it's just a need for coming together to form a routine.

I say that because in my family of origin, tears and upset mostly brought anger from one adult, withdrawal from the other, and I learned at a young age not to reach out at all and just withdraw. I'm female, but that is also how I treated my female friends - gave them space. It took me a while to learn both how to comfort and how to be comforted. It wasn't a lack of base empathy, but a whole lot of really terrible feelings/baggage.

I agree if you're talking about someone over 40 this would be a much harder path.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:49 AM on March 16, 2021 [34 favorites]

Response by poster: He is 42! Haha. But, he has only had one or two shortish relationships (one a year and a half) and they ended more than a decade ago. I know it's a red flag in itself, but they did really hurt him (both cheated on him), and he has been super focused on work (he is a workaholic - it got a lot better when he met me). So, he knows he is definitely behind on the 'how to do a relationship' front, and he is open to and actively learning quite quickly - both from my feedback but also his own research. It's not ideal, but after dating so many flavours of not quite right, I don't think it's the worst thing in the world.
posted by flimflamflop at 5:52 AM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Regarding the "he comes up with solutions" part. As someone who tends to be a problem solver myself - what's helped me a lot is to remember to ask if the upset person wants me to try and 'solve' the thing that's making them upset, or just wants me to be there for them. This doesn't really cover what it means to be there for you (that's personal to how you two work), but it's a relatively easy thing for him to do.
posted by true at 6:03 AM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think I have an interesting perspective to offer, because I was in your boyfriend's place once. At the end of my junior year of college, my girlfriend's mother was diagnosed with cancer and died a few months later. By that point, we'd been dating for over a year and were talking about marriage and stuff. But she understandably had a really hard time, and I just wasn't in a place where I could offer much comfort, and we ended up splitting up. I was pretty devastated, because I really saw it as a relationship that would last, but she was absolutely right. Looking back, I'm pretty ashamed of how little I did for her. Like, her mom died. That's objectively a hard thing to deal with. I could have done more. But I learned a valuable lesson, and I think my subsequent relationships have been better for it.

I'm not telling you to break up with this guy, but I'm also not telling you to not break up with him. It's a lesson he needs to learn, and I was lucky it happened when I was young. I like what everyone else is saying about having a conversation with him, but I'm also saying that you should probably prepare for what comes after that conversation. If you tell him what you need and he still doesn't provide it, you need to look out for yourself.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:36 AM on March 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

In addition to all the other good responses: You say he freezes when you cry. Is it possible that he has experienced some sort of trauma in the past around people having intense emotions around him? Perhaps a conversation is in order about how it feels to both of you when you are upset. This could either give you the information the two of you need to work as a team to figure this out OR inform you that he isn't capable or doesn't care enough to be with you when you need it.
posted by mcduff at 6:57 AM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think you know what's best in your relationship, but the age does concern me because comforting and supporting people is not exclusive to romantic relationships - it's something we all can work on in a lot of ways. Granted, it is different with a romantic/life partner, but not that different - just something to keep an eye on. I think there's hope, but I would definitely make it clear that this is essential to a committed long-term relationships.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:24 AM on March 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

My number one biggest regret, when I look back at the arc of the relationship with my now ex husband, was to not recognize his inability to comfort me as the immense red flag it was.

The way it played out in my marriage is that whenever I or we were in a tough situation, he would check out. If it was not something that he could evade, like big difficult life challenges that as a married couple we really needed to address as a team, he was resentful toward me that I kept bringing it up. (Note that handling difficult situations all by myself because he wouldn't engage them only led to him regarding me as controlling.) It was bad. Of course on his part it all derived from fucked up family dynamics where the adults refused to even mention big, obvious, flamingly horrible dysfunctions.

It takes two to tango. I have come to realize that I had developed an exceedingly high tolerance to being unsupported in times of crisis because there were a lot of things in my family of origin where I had to survive being left to cope on my own. My own growth is recognizing the many circumstances where I (adaptively, functionally) cope in situations where people, in healthier and supportive relationships, would step in and support me. My own growth is asking for help and not investing in relationships where there is not mutual support.

When we were getting married, I thought that he loved me enough that he'd eventually come around. I was wrong.

I would run the fuck away from this guy and never look back.
posted by Sublimity at 7:26 AM on March 16, 2021 [34 favorites]

This is definitely a common man deficiency. It actually could be worse. My otherwise loving husband used to get mad at me when I was upset, sick or in pain. Supposedly because he was frustrated he couldn't do anything about it, but more like he didn't want to deal with unpleasant emotions coming from a woman. I had to talk to him about it repeatedly and be profusive in my gratitude for any kind thing he did do when I was in distress and he got better at it but I 100% agree it's bullshit that you have to fucking "train" grown men.
posted by Jess the Mess at 7:39 AM on March 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to say he has never, ever implied he thinks I would cheat on him, and is generally very trusting.

When he is upset he tries not to 'burden' me with it and generally disappears into a mancave until he's feeling better. So I think he assumes I want the same, and as @warriorqueen suggests it's not coming from not caring but simply processing things differently.

He will bend over backwards and expend considerable energy on the practical helping front when things go wrong, so I do suspect it's a love languages thing.

I am annoyed that this is such a common thing with men - I've had many boyfriends and most of them have been a bit like this. But then I can also be quite overwhelming and needy when I'm feeling bad (even to the point where I can overwhelm friends), and I don't think it's a copout to say I could work on my self-soothing abilities also. I think he may generally be feeling a little overloaded by me in general....

On the other hand, I know it's okay for me to have emotions. And, I do talk through them with a therapist.

It's been great to know this isnt just me, and to hear that some couples do navigate this well. I'll try some of these techniques and see how we go!
posted by flimflamflop at 8:05 AM on March 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Please re-read the answers to your first question about this guy. You deserve better.
posted by cartoonella at 8:17 AM on March 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'd like to push back on the train of thought that because he doesn't respond correctly for you, he doesn't care about how you're feeling. Everyone's needs in times of emotional stress are different and it is normal to have to learn what another person needs. Men are as different and as individual as women. They grow up with different expectations and different scripts but they're not a hulking unemotional checked-out monolith.

I'm not saying he gets extra credit for caring even if he can't ACT on it remotely helpfully, but deciding on his feelings for him is pretty guaranteed to poison the well.

(I may be feeling defensive because I am the type to shut down in times of high emotion but it doesn't mean I'm not feeling serious grief or pain or sympathy. It's just a shitty coping mechanism I learned in a chaotic childhood.)

Agreed though, if y'alls emotional styles aren't in sync this relationship is going to need more communication and more effort than maybe either of you ideally wants. Sometimes the good parts make it more than worthwhile, sometimes not. Life gets harder, not easier, and it's ok to decide that you don't want your relationship to be a constant project to be managed.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:22 AM on March 16, 2021 [10 favorites]

If he's willing to do some work, this is called "emotional intelligence". There are books, and he can do his own research to pick one to start with.

Even better, though, there are therapists. For him to work this out with.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:02 AM on March 16, 2021 [7 favorites]

It’s one thing to feel overwhelmed and to need to take a break in situations of high emotion. Legendary relationship researcher John Gottman points out that men tend to get “flooded” more than women and has some good techniques for couples to maneuver healthily in those situations.

It’s another thing entirely to be completely unable to be present and kind when the other person is in distress. Or worse, to be actively unkind.

Sticking with a relationship where the other person is unable to be present and kind when you are in distress means signing on for being abandoned every time you’re at your most vulnerable. Sticking with a relationship where the other person treats you unkindly when you are in distress means signing on for being kicked when you are down.
posted by Sublimity at 9:02 AM on March 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

I remember your first question about this guy. He’s chronically unable to treat you like a full person. It sounds like he’s emotionally weak and takes it out on you. Because you seem to have issues with self-worth, it’s a bad (but common) combination. I’d leave or tell him the bar has been set much higher and it’s time for him to figure it out (actually, just leaving is for the best).
posted by stoneandstar at 9:34 AM on March 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Personally, I'd find it infuriating to have to instruct someone in how to slowly switch to caring about what you're feeling

This isn't a good take.

He does seem to care about what she's feeling. Sometimes he just doesn't know what to do or doesn't do the "right things". That's not a lack of caring - that's a lack of knowledge.

Sometimes people want a hug.

Sometimes people want a distraction.

Sometimes people want to be alone while they process stuff.

Sometimes people want solutions.

I'm not wild about "he is feeling criticised and like he can't put a foot right when I try and tell him what I need". He shouldn't feel sensitive about this and the fact that he does might be a problem, but there is nothing wrong or red-flaggy about telling someone (preferably when you are both feeling happy) what you need to feel comforted. You need to know what you need and he needs to be willing and able to supply it.

It doesn't matter if he doesn't talk much about his feelings. He's not you. You are you. If you just need him to shut up and listen while he fetches you a cup of tea/glass of wine/box of chocolates then that's what you need.

If he still is unable or unwilling to do this, that's a problem.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:06 AM on March 16, 2021 [7 favorites]

As others have mentioned, offering the kind of support you need is a skill that it seems like your boyfriend hasn’t developed very much. There’s other options besides you teaching him this skill though. You might request that he does research about active listening and/or takes a class in peer support.
posted by overglow at 10:12 AM on March 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Ok, re-reading your earlier question: this guy is some of my past boyfriends who have a relationship with a version of you in their head (including running scenarios into the future) and/or make assumptions about you based on gender or based on the not-quite-you they are dating in their head. One symptom of this is the boyfriend getting overwhelmed or not reacting well to my distress or expressions of needs because he is confused or is assuming there is some other subtext that isn't actually present. If this relationship is to have a future, he needs to stop that, and start seeing you as and treating you as the individual you are.
posted by eviemath at 10:25 AM on March 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

Both things can be true, that you need to work on self-soothing and also he sucks. You can work on the first and work on practicing putting into words what you need (because I DO think it’s unreasonable to expect someone to read your mind, everyone wants different things). I can also tell you from lived experience that asking for what you need specifically does not mean you’ll get it, and that’s a whole other problem.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:42 AM on March 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

What eviemath said!

When you are upset about a sick kitten or terminally ill relative, that is not about him nor is it about how your feelings (about things that are not him) make him feel. To have a genuine partnership, he needs to learn how to stop centering his feelings. This is not something you can manifest, he has to want to learn and take the steps on his own.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:52 AM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

To me, having meshing love languages around emotional comfort is non-negotiable.

There will be lots of hard shitty times in life (deaths, illnesses, accidents, job losses, family dramz, money problems, etc) and those moments become massively more difficult when one's partner is not a comforting presence.

I'd rather be single and have a tragedy than have one in a partnership that doesn't give me comfort! At least when you're single your friends will fully step up. But when you're in a partnership, others will rightfully expect that your partner is carrying the main load of comforting you... so if they're not, you end up feeling REALLY alone.

You can find lots of things outside the relationship - fascinating conversation, aligned hobbies, social fun, even sex if you negotiate it - but to me, being your primary source of emotional comfort is what relationships are FOR.

If this guy can't deliver that - and from both questions you've asked about him, it looks like he can't - then he may be a great guy but he is probably not the ideal match for you. This isn't a peripheral aspect of coupledom that one should overlook, in my opinion; it's THE WHOLE POINT.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:38 AM on March 16, 2021 [24 favorites]

My husband is the same way. I have learned over time I just have to tell him what I need. A couple years ago when my dad was dying, I told my husband what I would need him to say when my dad died. When people in our lives have died previously, my husband has said cliche things like, "Everyone has to go sometime." and I knew it would hurt to hear that when my dad died. So, I told my husband I wanted to hear, "I'm sorry. This must be so hard. I love you." And that is exactly what he said and in that moment I didn't care that it was a script. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

There are times I wish he just knew without me having to tell him, but I've learned a lot more of that is because of the family system I grew up in and that what I really need isn't for him to be able to just know what I need. I need for him to respond when I ask. And he does.
posted by shesbookish at 11:42 AM on March 16, 2021 [18 favorites]

In my experience, when two people can't find a common ground on when and how someone wants comfort, they aren't compatible. Not married, and not even as friends. At least not close friends. Trying to mesh different coping styles can create a tremendous cycle of resentment. When one person's way of dealing with problems is to withdraw and suffer in stoic silence, and is put off by efforts to engage them through talking and comforting, while the other person wants to talk and be comforted and is treated as a nuisance for not just enduring it, yeah, to me that screams "incompatible." Having been in a relationship with this dynamic, I can tell you that it created such a distance that when we went our separate ways neither one of us was sorry. You know this person best. But perhaps think on the possibility that there may be someone out there who can comfort you when and how you want that to be.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 11:54 AM on March 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

Even after re-reading your previous question, I agree with those suggesting this is a solvable problem, and think some of these responses are projecting a bit (the OP never said her boyfriend was unkind to her).

My boyfriend also normally dives straight into "problem-solving" mode when I am in distress. I have (mostly) learned to recognize this as caring, and he has learned to stop and listen when I respond with "please, what I need now is for you to listen/hug me/etc. not solve this."

Like others have stated, what matters is not whether your boyfriend can read your mind, but whether when you provide him with clear requests (i.e. please no problem-solving now), can he listen and respond?

Finally: Sometimes he even comes across as annoyed / wishing I would snap out of it, which obviously makes it worse when I just need some validation and interest in the issue.

Are you able to tell him this in the moment? Obviously you know best here, but it sounds like you're interpreting his frustration at himself for not knowing how to help you, as annoyance at you. If in those moments you said "Hey, you seem frustrated right now - is that because I'm upset, or because you're not sure how to help me?" and he responded with "Oh sorry, I'm just frustrated with myself, not you at all, of course you've done nothing" would that be comforting?
posted by coffeecat at 11:57 AM on March 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

It sounds like he has an avoidant attachment style. People who typically have avoidant attachment styles didn't get their emotional needs met in childhood. They become their own little islands with a high value on independence.

This is probably triggering some anxious attachment within you. You're afraid that you are ignoring him or bothering him. You reach out for reassurance, this triggers his avoidant or dismissive attachment, and it becomes a feedback loop.

His behavior in this situation has more to do with his own childhood trauma than anything in regards to you! Please know that.

It's unlikely that he will change without a lot of hard work and therapy to heal that childhood trauma. What you can do, however, is know that your emotions and needs ARE valid and worthy of attention. Don't ever let him invalidate your feelings.

Meanwhile, work on building your own community of supportive and encouraging relationships if you're interested in remaining with him. It also might be worth considering if this is something you can live with long-term as well, if he decides to forgo therapy. Best of luck, OP.
posted by Ostara at 12:55 PM on March 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

Ohhh. I remember this guy too. Pretty sure you’re not ever going to get what you need from him. I mean, yeah, lots of men are emotionally useless in the way you describe here, but not all of them are gaslighting assholes the way you describe there. God, I sound so harsh, but it’s the voice of experience. You are pounding sand down a rathole.
posted by HotToddy at 2:06 PM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Right, the problem isn’t necessarily that he’s not doing it correctly right off the bat, it’s that he has little interest in being vulnerable with you. Being vulnerable can mean sharing, or it can mean listening and feeling with someone else. It can also mean admitting when you were wrong, or when you did something with less than noble intentions. (The Brene Brown stuff has never really clicked with me, but that may be a good starting place for thinking about what you need that you’re not getting.)

Nobody is perfectly vulnerable 100% of the time, nor should they be. But it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being willing. Seeing the other person as who they are and not getting so spooked by them that you constantly pull away. You’re never going to feel loved by someone who instinctively recoils from you.

And if you’re “causing” that recoil by something other that your own cruelty, yelling, or violence— if you’re “causing” it by being “too much,” feeling too much, being “too” sensitive— it’s probably not the right relationship for you. Not without a looooot of work and investment that is maybe better spent looking elsewhere, if the relationship is young.

Based on the last question, he projects his own failures and inadequacy on you. Everyone does this to some extent, but if they don’t snap out of it, after a little time, when you’ve stood your ground? And things like this keep happening... ? He’s not emotionally available. You can try to force it but it’s painful, takes forever, and it eventually gets boring.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:10 PM on March 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Sometimes he even comes across as annoyed / wishing I would snap out of it, which obviously makes it worse when I just need some validation and interest in the issue.

In my book that's unkind.

Went back and read the prior question.

Please, please do not have children with this man.

If you are an anxious person, believe me when I tell you that pregnancy and birth and the postpartum period and, hell, the rest of your natural life is going to give you more fodder for your anxiety than you can possibly even imagine in your wildest imaginings. If this guy's response to you being stressed out and upset is to check out or to get annoyed at you.... Great gods, is this ever a bad idea.
posted by Sublimity at 2:29 PM on March 16, 2021 [7 favorites]

As a guy, it took me a while to realize when women complain, they often do NOT need a solution, but more of a sympathetic shoulder to cry on (not literally). I can go into cliches are men are not supposed to show emotions (patriarchy and harmful male archetypes? bah) but it had to do with how he was raised, and how to treat women (respectfully on a pedestal?)

But we're just guessing. You need to COMMUNICATE with him, tell him HOW YOU FEEL by his actions, and ask him why, and let him tell you how HE feels by your actions, and ask you why you act the way you are... Yes, it'd be awkward, but it can significantly advance your relationship (or break it...)
posted by kschang at 11:09 PM on March 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

This doesn’t sound like a love language issue to me at all, this is about emotional intelligence, and emotional labour.

Agree that this is a common problem for men due to patriarchal ideas about masculinity- feelings are seen as weak, feminine and illogical, and men aren’t trained to be responsible for other people’s happiness. Women are allowed to be emotional (to a point), and we are also trained to be incredibly sensitive and responsive to other people’s feelings. There was a great thread on metafilter about the gendered nature of emotional labour a few years ago (here) , which I found life changing in how I thought about these issues and my expectations in relationships. Might be worth a look.

Men going into solutions mode when comfort is required is almost a cliché, and you should be able to find a lot of practical advice on this.

But it sounds like he could really benefit from therapy. He’s been single for 10+ years and knows he’s behind on how to have a relationship, and has told you he doesn’t like talking about feelings. Would he be open to that, or would he dismiss the idea? It sounds like you are working on yourself (in therapy) and working on your relationship (in here). That’s great, but he also needs to step up and meet you halfway if this is going to work.
posted by Dwardles at 12:15 AM on March 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am a woman who does the problem solving mistake thing in the face of upset loved ones sometimes. What has really helped me in the past like... seven years? Has been to reframe this impulse. The problem I need to solve isn’t the root problem of someone’s distress. Instead, I “solve” the “problem” of how they are feeling in the moment. So like, making tea, offering tissues, verbalizing their emotions like “you must feel so sad, I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time right now, this sounds really difficult...”. I also do stuff like quick anxiety triage, checking their physical state and getting them somewhere comfortable, helping with breathing exercises. It all goes massively better than trying to drill down into the root of the issue in a moment of crisis, and satisfies my problem solving urges. Maybe you can explain this idea to your boyfriend in a moment of calm, and give examples of concrete actions he can take (even better if it’s stuff he’s done unintentionally well in the past.)
posted by Mizu at 1:50 AM on March 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

I just really need words in a way that I'm not sure he has the capacity to give.

Yes this does seem to point to incompatible relationship styles. He probably is going to drop the ball in this way and it may or may not be a deal breaker for you.

Your question made me think of Agatha Christie, of all people. In her biography, she says her marriage broke up because her husband couldn't cope with the her grief when her mother died. First he went on vacation and then he had an affair. Eventually she was the one to kick him out, it sounds like. He had just failed too hard for her.

When serious stress points come up, do you think your partner will fail to come through for you? You can't be sure; he may surprise you. And seemingly strong relationships do break up over catastrophes. But if I were you, I would probably be looking for someone who didn't seem like such a mismatch on this level.
posted by BibiRose at 5:15 AM on March 18, 2021

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