Unconventional Wisdom: He Gives Me No Affection

Hara Estroff Marano offers advice on tangles with step-moms, serial cheaters, warring parents, and more.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on March 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

He Gives Me No Affection

I am 25, and my boyfriend (24) isn't giving me the affection I need. I sometimes wonder if I'm exaggerating the problem. I was a middle child and my parents didn't have the time to deal with me, as they did with my two brothers. My boyfriend says he doesn't know what I want from him. I say "communication, understanding, attention." He doesn't get it.

Communication is important, but your boyfriend has a point. He is genuinely perplexed and he's telling you so very straightforwardly; he doesn't know exactly what to do to communicate affection to you. Saying you need communication is like saying you need fun: It will be hit or miss until you can specify exactly what kinds of things mean fun (or affection) to you. After all, one man's amusement park is another person's torture chamber. But even before you and your boyfriend learn how to communicate about needs, remember that dating is by definition a period of experimentation. Not every dating relationship is worth salvaging, and not everyone who dates is committed to working out problems. Affection is a legitimate need, and people do differ in their level of comfort in giving and getting affection emotionally and physically. It may be that you two are mismatched on that need.

Devoting brain cells to figuring out where your need for affection came from is less important than making your need for affection work for you in a relationship—this or any other one. Part of the dating experiment is to learn what your own needs are and how to communicate them successfully—asking for what you want in a way that will help you get it. The trick is to identify which behaviors of his communicate affection to you and to ask for more of that. So, you might say something like, "I like spending time with you and I especially like when you pay attention to me when we are in a group, or hold my hand when we are walking down the street, or kiss me in public, or send me e-mails from work"—whatever he does that you like. If you do your share of communicating, perhaps your boyfriend will find it easier to give you what you need. If not, then it's time to move on.

A Stepson and His Biomom

Why does my 17-year-old stepson continually give his biological mom another try at a relationship? For years he was never her priority. Before she filed for divorce, when the boy was 8, she had multiple affairs, stole money from her husband's business, continually lied to her son, was verbally and physically abusive to him, and even blamed him for all her problems. That evening, two years ago, my stepson cut his forearm in an act of self-mutilation. After almost a year of having nothing to do with his Biomom, he recently resumed a relationship with her, despite discovering that she spent money set aside for his college education. What makes a child want to give a parent another try, even though that parent repeatedly lies and disappoints?

You may be a far nicer person than your stepson's mother, and I certainly hope so, but don't take his interest in her as a rejection of you. It has nothing to do with you. If you are truly concerned with your stepson's state of mind, then you need to widen your perspective and see the situation from his point of view. As your husband's current wife, you are in some ways a rival to his mother; you can't help but see her in a negative light. A child needs to see a parent in the most positive light possible, even if you have to help cushion the blows—just because you know better. Your stepson is coming of age and will likely grow to accept the painful truth about the kind of person his mother is. But you can't shove it down his throat.

Every child wants—needs—to feel loved by both parents; that is the way a human being comes to know that he is lovable, worthy of inhaling and exhaling, of walking the face of the Earth. It's no surprise that an incident of rejection—being blamed for his mother's problems—is followed by cutting. Self-mutilation is what people do when they cannot express in words the emotional pain they feel.

Focus less on your bafflement than on your stepson's pain. Find the part of yourself that is capable of empathy. For as long as he lives, your stepson will probably pursue his mother's acceptance; he may not even be able to accept anyone else's love until then. Your job as partner to your husband is to encourage the boy to have as normal a relationship as possible with BioMom. You can commiserate with him about how painful it must be to reach out to her and get hurt in return. You can express your sorrow that his mother is mired too deep in her own problems to give him what he needs. You can also let him know that his mother probably loves him but doesn't know how to show it (probably because she didn't get it as a child) and that when she lashes out at him, she is doing so not because he is a bad person but because she can't cope well with life.

Seduced by My Doctor

While I was divorcing my abusive husband, I was under the care of a doctor who presented himself as single. We developed a platonic relationship. Later I discovered he was married, but continued seeing him. He lifted the weight off my shoulders. Once my divorce was final, we began a sexual relationship, which at first was difficult, as my husband had been my first sexual partner, and the only one for 14 years. Eventually I discovered the doctor was having yet another relationship. I was shocked. I thought we just happened to find each other. Why am I not angry or revolted by his behavior?

Your shock meter is obviously set to the wrong frequency. The doctor was violating professional ethics by starting a personal relationship with you after you became a patient. That should have sent up a bright red flag about his character. Some cheaters particularly like the cheating. It supplies most of the thrills; they are always scanning for possibilities. That sounds like Doc. Others get drawn into an affair without actually setting out to do so. People may be open to the attention of others for a variety of reasons. Many who have affairs, maybe most, meet a person who excites them or flatters them or distracts them or helps them grow, and they get caught up in the affair even against their own moral codes.

You walked into a serial cheater's trap because you delegated your safety to someone else, putting Doc in an even greater position of power than doctors normally have over their patients. Handing men power over your state of mind seems to be an M.O. with which you are all too comfortable. Ultimately each of us is responsible for our own happiness. You need to explore why you rush to suspend your own powers of critical judgment and cede responsibility for your own well-being. Maybe it's a pattern you saw in the home you grew up in. The problem is, a big power imbalance tends to invite abuse of some kind. You also make the mistake of thinking that everyone is like you. They're not. On good days, that's what makes life interesting.

The Living-Room War

My parents fight all the time. They have no respect for each other, they shout and insult each other—it's hell every day, stealing my peace of mind and turning me into an angry person. I sometimes feel I behave like my mom and treat my boyfriend the way she treats my dad, trashing him. I know the best solution is to move out, but that's not possible right now as I'm paying for college.

It is definitely difficult to live in a battle zone without being affected by the hostilities. We absorb the patterns of our parents in the air we breathe. Without our knowledge or consent, the constant exposure to negative ways of reacting instills them in us. They become the default mode of our own behavior, so you find yourself treating your boyfriend the way your mother treats your father, when you don't even mean to. The constant fighting also furnishes constant disappointment and acts as a constant irritant, which you cannot wholly escape right now. But there are things you can, and must, do.

If you can do only one thing, find a small routine all your own that calms you. Preferably it will involve something active, to help dissipate some of the nervous energy. Is there a 15-minute or half-hour walk you can take to a pleasant place? A quiet meditation in a nearby park or on the roof of your house? Carry out this little routine regularly, and especially whenever your living situation feels overwhelming. It will not only depressurize you but interrupt the emotional chain reaction that makes you angry. It puts you in control of your own emotions.

You might also try talking to your parents, together or separately, and telling them how much their fighting affects you. They really may lose sight of this in the heat of battle and need reminding. Ask them to make the effort not to fight when you are in the house. You're not asking them to stop fighting all the time, just when you're around.

Send your questions to askhara@psychologytoday.com