Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Case of the Nagging Girlfriend

I don’t want to go all Captain Obvious on you, but the woman who writes to therapist Lori Gottlieb  has failed to provide us with the relevant information about her long distance relationship. She sees her problem in terms of an emotional disconnect… and the fact that her boyfriend is insufficiently emotional-- i.e., he’s not a girl-- and fails to see her own responsibility.

Gottlieb skillfully turns the question back on the letter writer; considering how rare it is that a therapist will call out a woman on her constant whining, it merits our praise.

In the most obvious sense, this woman and her boyfriend are separated. We know that she is in Madison, WI. We do not know where he is. We do not know how the separation was negotiated, whether one wanted it and the other did not. We do not know when and where they ever see each other. And we do not know whether either one of them has been tempted to stray. After all, to be even more obvious, they are not married. They have not made a formal commitment. Thus, they are free to explore. Is there any sense that the one or the other is doing so? Considering how much of a whiner the woman is, considering how much she nags her boyfriend, you might be thinking that he would be justified in looking around for other opportunities. It’s very easy to cheat when you are separated by a great distance.

OK, it’s not that easy. One member of the couple can pick up an emotional disconnect, even over Skype. One member of the couple can sense the importance of a third person by the way his or her beloved talks.

About these relevant questions, the Anonymous letter writer has nothing to say. This tells us that she is avoiding basic issues. It tells us that she is escaping into an emotional soup in order ignore the reality of her situation.

Anyway, Anonymous writes:

I'm in a loving, long-distance relationship with my boyfriend. We’ve been together for three years, and long-distance for one. We’re both graduate students, and, for the most part, I think we have a healthy, caring, and respectful relationship. But over the three years we’ve been together, the same issue has come up consistently: I am an expressive and emotional person who loves affection and attention, and while he will tell me he loves me freely, he is a reserved person who is just not wired to be very demonstrative.

I do my best to be understanding of this and I pay attention to the little things—he’s the most reliable person I know, and takes care of me in many quiet ways. But sometimes that doesn’t feel like enough, and I become resentful because it feels like I am putting more effort into our relationship than he is, even though I appreciate that he is trying.
We’ve moved past this issue a number of times, and each time we make some progress, but the fight continues to recur. I want to be a good partner to him, and set reasonable expectations given the human being he is, but I also don’t want to live my life always wishing my partner was just a little more romantic.

Recently, I’ve also been dealing with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression and have been reaching out to him for support. He’s worried, and tells me he wants to help but doesn’t know how. It does mean a lot to know he wants to help, but I want him to figure out how best to support me—both because I would love if he were more solicitous and because it would reduce his stress as a partner to someone in need.

How do we address this issue in a positive, active way? Do you have specific advice you could give him on being a supportive partner to somebody in an emotional crisis?

In the most literal sense he is not there for her. But, of course, she is not there for him. They are separated by a great distance. Again, we do not know whose idea this was, but this couple cannot really synchronize their everyday lives and cannot develop couples routines. Many couples have overcome such obstacles, but it is more difficult to do so when they have no formal commitment.

Happily, Gottlieb picks up on the absurd remark in the last sentence. Anonymous is asking a therapist to offer advice... for the boyfriend. Not for herself. 

Anyway, Gottlieb calls her out, for her unrealistic expectations and for the way her anxiety is pushing her to try to remake her boyfriend, to make him into something that he is not. Again, Anonymous is missing the point. It’s not about who he is, but about where he is. Gottlieb is too tactful to say so, but Anonymous wants her boyfriend to be more like a girl.

Gottlieb tells her that she is the problem and that she is the one needing advice:

The problem is that you don’t think that your boyfriend demonstrates his love for you in a way that you imagine would feel more satisfying. Your response is to try to get him to perform certain behaviors that conform to your ideas about romance; in doing so, you set up him up for failure and yourself up for disappointment. Even though you’ve been through several rounds of this, you continue to focus on changing him, and that leaves you feeling more lonely, depressed, and anxious.

Besides, Gottlieb continues, the boyfriend seems to be a good boyfriend, as boyfriends go. He might not be quite as emotionally labile as Anonymous would like, but he has done nothing wrong…  yet.

Of course you want your boyfriend’s love and support, but what I think you can’t see right now is that he’s giving you both: He’s checking in on you, sharing his concern, and asking you what he can do to help. Beyond that, there’s not much he can do, no matter how strong his love for you, because we can’t create inner peace for the people we love the most (something that’s true not just for our partners, but also largely for our children). Your boyfriend doesn’t have the answers to your emotional struggles—nor is he the answer to them. He can be there for you, but he can’t fix your insides for you.

She continues, astutely:

It takes a tremendous amount of effort to try to become a person you’re not, which is essentially what you’re asking of him.

We are grateful that Gottlieb does not use the shopworn expression “control issues” but clearly, the woman’s imperious demands and her effort to make him into something he’s not… these have put him into a bind. If he does what she wants, she will lose respect for him. If he doesn’t, she will continue to complain… and thus drive him away.

It’s hard to be romantic on command. It’s hard to be demonstrative when you’re walking on eggshells, wondering every time if your efforts will be met with approval or criticism. It’s hard to love someone who can’t always take it in. In these ways, he’s expending a tremendous amount of energy. And despite how hard that is, he’s still choosing to be with you because he sees something wonderful in you. Some might call that romantic.

Gottlieb’s advice: stop complaining, stop trying to make him over… or you will surely lose him. That is, if you already haven’t.


whitney said...

What kind of person writes to an advice columnist? I assume they're all mentally unbalanced or the letters are fake. You're the expert I guess so what do you think?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

From time to time you read a letter that feels like an obvious fake. And yet, the people who write probably also read a lot of advice columns... and thus, have gotten the lingo down. I expect that the letters are also edited... for what it's worth. I don't really think that they are mentally unbalanced, but that they appear so because they are following the advice laid out by advice columnists. I cannot measure the influence columnists have, but at least Lori Gottlieb talks sense. Ask Polly does not. And of course, Miss Manners is consistently excellent... as was Emily Yoffe when she was writing for Slate.

Portlandmermaid said...

This all is so one way. Does she even consider that she has traits that irritate her boyfriend? Maybe he thinks she can be exhausting to be around but accepts her anyway. He must or she would complain that he's insensitive.

Anonymous said...

This may come across as a cynical response.

Warning sign #1: "I think we have a healthy, caring, and respectful relationship"

The use of these buzzwords shows that she subscribes to pop culture for her thoughts. She is saying she is in conformance with a published code of some kind.

Warning sign #2; "I am an expressive and emotional person who loves affection and attention ... he is a reserved person who is just not wired to be very demonstrative."

This is a common mismatch. But for some reason popular culture teaches that the non-demonstrative person is the morally inferior. She appears to be relying on this. (By the way, other cultures do not expect men to be demonstrative. It is therefore not among the absolute virtues.)

Warning sign #3: "I’ve also been dealing with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression." These are also pop cultural-approved buzzwords, and except of course for people with clinical levels of these conditions, elevate distressing but otherwise normal feelings to a level that demands, and gets, unquestioned sympathy from others. She is blackmailing him with them. Further evidence for this is her request that he figure out for himself what to do.

Well, we're all human and prone to make demands of those we are intimate with. Pop culture just makes that easier. But she would be better off shedding all this for a simpler approach: Good or bad aside, is he a good match for me? Then go no further in analysis. Avoid making judgements that will one way or the other fester into future "issues".

Christopher B said...

Anon, your second point is why I think we've seen an explosion of people 'on the spectrum', as they say, in recent years. We've deemed both dramatically emotive and subtle nonverbal communication to be the norm, and anyone who finds those beyond their ability (or tolerance) is considered defective.

Anonymous said...

Christopher B:

Amen to that. I will reiterate that this is not the case in some foreign cultures, where men and women are allowed to act as inclined by nature, rather than being compelled by a restrictive ideal, thus warping relations between men and women.

Portlandmermaid: Pretty good point. (from a fellow Portlander)