Unconventional Wisdom: Lopsided Love

My girlfriend of four months is 21, beautiful, intelligent, and independent, but she makes me, at 28, feel insecure at times. She often seems indifferent. I'm the opposite: I let her know that I care. I often give her compliments and affection, but she seldom returns either and I often feel starved for them. I'm sure she wouldn't involve me with her family if she didn't plan on things lasting. And then she'll say things like, "I don't like to sleep alone," when what I need to hear is, "I like it when you stay with me." She has said she is attracted to me because I remind her of her father, and our relationship also echoes that of my parents, in which my dad always seems the more affectionate one. She has had sex partners in the past, but no extended relationships. I, on the other hand, have finally recovered my confidence after a live-in relationship ended two years ago.

Image: Hara Estroff Marano
HARA ESTROFF MARANO askhara@psychologytoday.com
Sad to say, relationships that feel one-sided from the start tend not to improve with time. The emotional drought you feel can stir not merely insecurity, which you're already displaying, but a sense of frank isolation. As it is, you're relying on external cues—being introduced to her family—for signs of your girlfriend's inner state. Differences in style can energize a relationship, and often fuel the attraction, but on a matter as basic as affection, they can tear at the heart of a couple. Your needs are not counting for much in this relationship.

A relationship can be deeply unfulfilling yet still feel deceptively comfortable and "right" because, at least on the surface, it echoes the marriage that has surrounded you all your life. But the comfort is a product of familiarity, not a mark of functionality. By the same token, your girlfriend may feel at home in the relationship because you remind her of her father; typically, such situations encourage people to project onto others a whole range of qualities that will one day prove to be missing in action. Familiarity can keep a couple trapped in a relationship long after its expiration date.

Although a seven-year age difference is not necessarily huge, it is functionally larger at younger ages, so that the experience gap between a 21-year-old and a 28-year-old is much greater than the one between a 31-year-old and a 38-year-old. You need to expand your social experience, as does your girlfriend. Comfort in a relationship is crucial, but it should be a reflection of inner compatibility, not family resemblance.

 

 

A Shrink on the Brink

I am a psychotherapist, 44, who can help others but not myself. I have been in a relationship for six months with a man, 56, who is physically affectionate—we even got a puppy together and others think we are the storybook couple—but it stops at the bedroom. We are together on weekends. He says that he doesn't feel the passion he wants to have with me. He had an emotionally/verbally abusive childhood and marriage and is used to fighting for love. I'm the unconditionally loving woman he says he has always wanted. He states that his intensity level is "nowhere near" mine. I'll do anything to bring passion into the relationship. Despite continual rejection and abuse from his ex, he always felt sexual about her. I know I ask a lot of questions of him, but that is because the mixed messages he sends ignite my insecurities.

States of deprivation do not necessarily lead people to know what they need or prepare them to enjoy it, a corollary to the rule about being careful what you wish for. The world is filled with people who are more comfortable being treated poorly than being treated well and who may even play a role in eliciting the treatment they get. Forget about eliminating whatever ambivalence Perfect Man might feel about love. He's giving you some pretty clear messages that you seem not to be heeding. It would be wise to take at face value his statement that your intensity, as you call it, puts pressure on him and is turning him off. So in a real sense, bringing passion into the relationship likely requires you to do nothing, rather than something. Constantly working on a solution to a problem is not always the best way to solve it. Further, you're giving your beau what you feel he needs, which bears no necessary relation to what he actually needs.

Your intensity meter seems to be stuck on one setting; you can fix it by developing more sensitivity to others and dialing down your intensity accordingly. You describe a behavioral repertoire that is essentially a vicious cycle—demanding passion, not getting enough to be sure of your partner's feelings for you, displaying more insecurity, asking more questions that elicit mixed messages, seeking more reassurance. Bombarding anyone with questions, especially ones that arise out of insecurity, is a burden and, usually, a turnoff. Confidence, by contrast, is typically a very powerful aphrodisiac.

What would happen if you made yourself a bit less available and sat out a weekend? It just might shift the dynamic in a way that makes him more the pursuer...and intensifies his interest. Instead of defending your intensity as a fixed feature of your personality, recognize it as a trait over which you can exercise some control. Intensity has a way of wearing others out. You need to deploy it more strategically.

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?