Hello Dr NerdLove!
I have an issue of, I guess, becoming less of a nerd. Let me explain: I (31f) have been married to my partner (35m) a few years now. When we started dating 7 years ago, we shared a lot of traits. Our best year together was when we lived abroad, worked in the same company so that our ”together-time” was during the lunch break, so then after work both of us played games for the rest of the day, separately or together.
Something changed after we bought an apartment though. Because it was ”my own nest”, I wanted to become more organized. I started pursuing more hobbies and dreamed of travel. You can see where this is going. I feel we have grown apart and there is nothing to talk about anymore. I guess my question is… how do I know when to break up? Or am I just being selfish?
There are a few things that make it difficult. On the one hand, he is the type to always be loyal and not let me go. I tried breaking up once and he just scoffed it off. Our day-to-day life together is good to ok. But I’ve started to feel better when I’m alone or with friends. He is also bad at communicating or being vulnerable; in important discussions he will become anxious and mix words up, and take multiple minutes to form words. He’s not very self-reflective either. I feel stuck. If I knew he’d get better at communicating it would be different. I’ve also thought of having a family in the future, but with him? I don’t know.
On occasion, I’ll hear from folks whose relationship early on was founded on loving a lot of the same things. Of course, over time, people grow, people change and their interests change… but when their tastes in pop culture or hobbies or games start to diverge, they begin worry that this says something bad about their relationship.
But while shared interests and commonalities are part of what bring us together, they’re not what keep us together. Or at least, not exclusively. In fact, relationships can often be strengthened by partners having different interests, different social circles, even separate vacations. Part of what sparks that passion and desire for togetherness in the beginning of a relationship is novelty and mystery… things that are difficult to keep in a long-term relationship, particularly when you both live together. Having separate lives, where you both are able to do your own thing on occasion, can have a huge benefit to your relationship. Not only does it keep the spark alive by helping maintain that feeling of “can’t see enough of you, there’s always something new to discover,” it also means that you have less pressure to love all the same things… or to worry about what it means if and when you start to have interests your partner doesn’t share and vice versa.
However, I don’t think becoming less of a nerd is your issue here, NL. The problem seems to be about communication and feeling connected to one another. If you’re always together, then it’s very easy to start feeling smothered or to want time to yourself. Having space of your own can be vitally important in a relationship, especially during the COVID pandemic. Being able to feel like you have a life that isn’t defined by what your husband wants or enjoys is important, just as it is for him. There’s no reason, for example, that you couldn’t travel with friends, even if your husband would rather stay and keep the homefires burning.
Similarly, there’s the lack of communication and vulnerability. I have to wonder if whether the issue is that he isn’t bad at communicating and more that his way of communicating is frustrating you. Sometimes there can be a disconnect when our partners don’t necessarily have the same communication style that we do. Some people get heated and vehement, even when they aren’t actually upset or angry. Others get flustered and tongue-tied when they’re dealing with strong emotions and react badly when they feel like their partner’s being overly aggressive. That doesn’t mean that either of them are bad communicators, just that their style of communication is in conflict.
You say that he starts to get anxious, mix up words and needs to take time to collect his thoughts. That leads to an obvious question: have you been giving him that time? If you’re having important discussions, especially about things that are vital to you or to him, then it can be important to factor his communication style into the discussion. If someone, for example, tears up when they feel strong emotions, that doesn’t mean that their partner can’t get upset at them or have those tough conversations. It just means that both parties have to take that into consideration as part of the discussion.
All of this is part of why when I tell people to have an Awkward Conversation, that they should carve out time specifically for it and to take turns while the other listens without interrupting. Amongst other things, this gives everybody the opportunity to focus their thoughts without feeling like they need to reply right away. Knowing you won’t be interrupted takes a little of the anxiety out of trying to express yourself and makes it easier to be clear and ensure that you’re understood. And, of course, easing that anxiety means that people who get flustered are better able to keep their cool and not rush into a response.
There are a couple things that strike me as a little odd; you say that he scoffed off your breaking up with him. What exactly does that mean? Did he just not accept the break up and you went along with it? Or was it that because he didn’t immediately end things, you had time to think about things and realized that maybe you didn’t want to break up? The way you phrase it as a complication is confusing; it’s a little hard to tell whether you mean that this is a good thing, or you’re worried that he’ll be able to somehow veto your decision to divorce him.
Now it does need to be said that it sounds like you’ve already decided that you’re ready to end things and you’re just looking for the reason to pull the trigger. If that’s the case… well, again, there’s not really anything else to be said. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have no-fault divorce laws, which means that you don’t really need a casus belli; you just need to decide that you’re ready to not be married any more. And honestly, if you’re just asking for permission to do what you already want to do, then hey, permission granted. It doesn’t really sound like it’s warranted yet from what you say, but I’m also not the marriage police. If you want out, then the kindest thing to do would be to end things, as quickly and cleanly as possible. It’s better for the both of you; you don’t feel trapped in a marriage you want out of and he’s no longer married to someone who doesn’t want to be with him any more. Ending it quickly means that he doesn’t have to wonder what happened as your dissatisfaction curdles to into contempt, which will end up hurting even more than a speedy end to the marriage.
But if you aren’t standing there with your hand hovering over the relationship eject button… consider talking to a couple’s counselor. Having a third party help mediate some of your issues can make it easier for you both to hear and understand each other, as well as bridge the communication gap the two of you seem to have. And if it does turn out that no, you really are ready to leave, a counselor can also help you negotiate the end of your relationship and make it as painless as possible.
I recently learned from my girlfriend that she has been feeling especially lonely recently. She does not feel that I have been very interested in her life. While I do greet her every day when she gets home from work and ask about her day, she has told me it only feels like I am asking superficial questions and then I start talking about my day.
I do know that I am the kind of person who waits to talk more than he just listens.
What can I do to make sure I’m not just having a shallow conversation or trying to pivot the conversation to things in my day?
One Sided Conversation
The answer here’s kinda obvious, OSC. You say that you’re the sort of person who waits to talk, rather than listen… so start listening. Part of what makes somebody a great conversationalist is to pay attention to the other person, instead of just waiting for the chance to talk about your stuff. The easiest way to accomplish this is to be an active listener and focus on what she has to say. Rather than taking the surface answer and assuming that was that, make a point of involving yourself in the conversation. First: acknowledge and respond to what she’s saying. If she’s telling you something her coworker did, don’t just say “huh”, say “wow, that’s crazy/cool/unusual (or whatever would be appropriate)…” something to indicate that you’re actually paying attention, rather than just waiting for the tone of her voice to say that she was done.
Next, you want to find a way to go deeper. Maybe you had a similar experience; at that point you can say “I’ve had a co-worker that did X too; in fact, they were kind of famous for it.” By doing this, you’re showing that you understand what she was saying instead of latching onto keywords; you’re essentially restating in ways that allow you to commiserate or relate to her experience.
But rather than use this as your pivot to talk about your day, take this opportunity to go deeper. You might ask “what lead up to that?” or “So what happened next?” or “What did you do about it?” Or there might be something you don’t understand or context that you’re missing; this is the point to ask questions to get a broader picture about what happened. Or you might ask for her for more details about a specific thing that she did that day. Or what she thought about X coworker or Y meeting. Or some other aspect of her day, her interests or her goals. There are almost always things that you can use as a springboard to more questions about her, if you just pay attention.
And to be perfectly honest, OSC, showing interest in what your girlfriend gets up to or does is kind of an important part of a relationship. Relationships are supposed to be partnerships, not just the One-Sided Conversation show, with your girlfriend as the live studio audience. She’s got a lot going on; it’s worth investing some of your time and attention to learn more about it, rather than expecting her to only be focused on whatever you’ve done that day.
But hey, once you start paying active attention, you may find that there’s more going on that you’d want to know more about. Learning more about your partner is always a good thing. But if you’re stuck on treating conversations like an opera singer warming up (“me me me me”), you’re going to find yourself single again… and sooner than you’d like.
Hey Dr. NerdLove,
I have a Relationship Win for you. I’m a little sheepish in saying — though not too sheepish, obviously— that my 2020 was actually one of, if not the best year of my life.
About a year ago I drafted a letter to you, I don’t remember if I actually sent it or not, but ultimately it didn’t matter. The letter basically amounted to me being frustrated with the fact that I was a virgin at a “late age” in college, and that the cohort for the program I’m in was small, and it was hard to get into relationships with people outside of it because they weren’t on the same fucked up schooling schedule. I felt like a known quantity, and given that no one in my program had shown interest in those first two years, and there was no one I even really felt like pursuing in the first place, I felt like it was an omen for the next three (I’m in a five year program). Cue pandemic, and my hopes dropped even further.
Luckily, though, I had the opportunity to do a internship for this past fall semester for an liberal arts program where around 27 college students (all around my age) live in a small community up in the mountains on the west coast (I know it sounds like a cult, but it is a college accredited program, kind of like a domestic semester abroad). Because it was so isolated, we had the chance a a group to self-quarantine for 2 weeks and then had the ability to interact as normal, safely. What a fucking luxury. So for four months I was living a better-than-normal life up in the mountains.
Aside from the fun activities (cooking fun dinners with my cabin-mates every day, backpacking, going to the ocean) and beautiful landscape that I got to live in every day, the people were also AWESOME. They were thoughtful and kind, and so refreshing compared to the relative malaise I experienced with my program’s cohort. I guess it was some sort of self-selection, but for whatever reason they were pretty uniformly interesting and considerate people. Wow.
Anyways, on to the “relationship win.” Among these folks were multiple girls who I could see myself being in some sort of relationship with, which is, for me, somewhat of a rarity. After some drama where I was blindsided by another girl in my friend group getting with the girl I was into, who I thought was into me—the jury is still out on whether that was untrue—and getting sad for a sec, I dusted myself off and found some mutual attraction with another lovely person.
It turned out that she had been into me from the very beginning and thought that I was a very experienced “player” because of my charisma and ease around pretty girls, and she wanted a piece. Allegedly I was “one of the most charismatic guys [she’d] ever met..” Mind fucking blown. I’d always been worried that all I would be able to do in life would be to leverage my charm and other good qualities to get in some kind of a relationship in spite of my body. As potentially problematic as it may sound, it felt very good to be a little objectified when most of my life I had been a sexual non-entity because of my weight etc.. The joys of being a piece of ass. I will say that I helped myself out in that respect by getting into probably the best shape I’d ever been in during the summer: running at least a 5k every day will do wonders. I looked—and felt—good.
Ultimately she ended up also being into me for reasons other than my body, and she was very cool about my total inexperience (my being the fabled “kissless virgin”, as it were). I was pretty touch-starved so it was a pretty vital step for me to get comfortable with being intimate—oxytocin is so real!—if not strictly sexual, as there were no real private places to do it out there. She was/is really kind to me, and a good friend. And also pretty much single-handedly destroyed the doubts and what-ifs that were gnawing at my brain and threatening to make depression my permanent state of mind. There was nothing about our relationship or the ways in which she was attracted to me that could make my brain go “yeah, but ___”. She’s gorgeous, interesting, passionate, and kind, and wanted me in all the ways I wanted to be wanted. Feels like everything is possible.
I’d call that a win.
New Found Glory
As far as how your blog helped me, it was really, really good advice to think about “how you make people feel” rather than “what you have” or how “qualified” you are. I think that was key in how I presented myself to this new group of people. Cheers and stay safe.
Thanks so much for sharing your relationship win, NFG! Glad to hear how much this experience helped you!
How about you, readers? Have you had a recent relationship win to share? Send your success stories to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header “relationship wins”; maybe you’ll see your success story in a future column.