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'I Can't Tell Him What I Want or He'll Leave!'
Becoming a robot without flaws or desires isn't worth it.
Morning Sky (1916) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I’m 37 and met an incredible man on Hinge. We had an attraction but quickly developed an amazing friendship and remained mostly in the friend zone for about a year. We had sex from time to time but always resolved to never do it again because we loved our friendship so much that we were scared that turning it into a relationship would kill it (admittedly, it was mostly that he was scared and I just went along with it). We even exchange I love yous.
In the past year, I have gotten to know him very well — his ambitions, his desires, traumas, exes, everything.
About a month ago, I couldn’t take the inconsistencies in our friendship anymore. We kept crossing lines. We felt mostly like a couple.
I decided to tell him I wanted more and I didn’t want to stay friends. He was very apprehensive and said pretty seriously he was scared to be in a relationship but he also didn’t want to lose me. After a painful week of letting him think, he came back and said he wanted to give it a try but that it would take time and he didn’t want to be “beholden” to anything. I accepted because I love him for who he is and our compatibilities outweighed his trepidations.
We’re about a month into our new relationship and it hasn’t been easy. He is absolutely making efforts but I need more and I’m so terrified to ask because I am scared it will make him leave. That he will resort to saying “See, I told you this was a bad idea.”
I want and need us to feel more like a relationship. He never tells me I’m beautiful and I need it so bad my insides hurt. I dress to the nines for a night out, waiting for his reaction, and he says nothing. I wait for him to ask to see me. I wait for him to make plans. I wait for him to make the first move to kiss me. To be affectionate. I get nothing.
I feel like I’m doing all the work.
How do I ask for these things? How do I express my needs without feeling so scared he’ll leave? I hate this perpetual anxious feeling.
I have a lot of advice for you that you definitely don’t want, but I’m going to start by answering your actual question: How do you ask for what you want in this relationship?
So here’s my extremely practical advice: When you’re both in a good mood, when you’re calm and not anxious, ask for something small: “It would be nice if you could tell me when you notice that I look nice.” Let him take that in. Give him easy roadmaps to gestures you’d like to see. Encourage him to express himself, to tell you the truth about how he’s doing on any given day. Demonstrate that you’re someone who wants to honor who he really is instead of asking him to be different. (Sounds like you’re already doing this for the most part!)
And when he gets something right, praise him for it. Make him understand that what you want is just a small shift in semantics and behaviors. If you want it to stick, try to be forgiving. Don’t set your expectations too high. Live in the moment. Enjoy what you have.
With this approach, you can probably squeeze a year of fun out of this situation. And if you could keep this behavior up indefinitely, you might (Might! Not likely, but not 100% impossible!) slowly lure this motherfucker into staying with you for the long haul.
But ask yourself: HOW WILL THAT FEEL? Will it feel like success to censor yourself and micromanage your reactions and keep a lid on all so-called negative emotions indefinitely? Will it feel good to ask for very little and repeatedly accept it when he says he can’t give you exactly what you want? I understand that you love him for who he is, flaws and all. But does he love you for who you are? Over time, will it feel great to be loved for how supportive and how beautiful you are, and not be loved for your whole self — your secrets, your fears, your low moments, your neediness, your daydreams, your anxieties, your strongest desires?
Even if you’re fine with only being loved for your smoothest, most generous, most perfect people-pleasing sex kitten self, can you keep playing that part indefinitely? I know some women who’ve tried this and it works with the avoidant men they desire the most for a while. But the second they let down their guard, or express a strong need, or show the full force of their personality, it stops working. And the message they receive when it stops working is this: You have to be perfect in order to be loved. When you aren’t a glossy sexy robot, when you’re just a person, I’m not as interested.
That kind of situation is bad for your heart and your soul. It exacts a price. It erodes your confidence. It feeds you the illusion that you have to be someone other than who you are just to be loved. I DON’T RECOMMEND IT.
Now, I’m not saying this man you love requires a sex robot and doesn’t care about you at all. He’s just a person who struggles with intimacy and expectations. A common problem! What I am saying is that he doesn’t want *all of you* enough to work really hard to impress you and seduce you and keep you. What I’m saying is that he doesn’t want to show up and give this relationship his all. And you don’t sound like the sort of person who wants to work very very hard to seem more calm and more devoid of needs than you really are, just to keep someone in your life — no matter how special that person happens to be.
So you can take my practical advice, but all you’re really winning is a boyfriend who doesn’t want to be obligated to behave in any particular way but expects you to behave in a very particular way: calm, upbeat, accepting, communicative, patient, and just generally okay with showing up for whatever he has to offer on any given day and accepting when he’s got nothing for you at all.
In my experience, this type of arrangement only works for humans who have the inner peace of the Dalai Lama and the confidence of Rhianna. In other words, this is a great relationship for an overachiever who doesn’t necessarily want anyone to see their whole, complicated self. It can also work in situations where the avoidant party in question is *fully committed* to sticking around and knows they’ve found the right person. So even though they don’t love feeling obligated, and they say so often, they’re also very clear about how precious and important and irreplaceable their partner is, and they will go to great lengths not to lose that person. They understand their own weaknesses and they’re working on them, in other words. And typically, they’ve been in several long-term relationships and they know that if they continue to back away from real intimacy, they’re going to end up alone OR end up with someone who’s also avoidant, and they know they don’t really want that.
I don’t think I’ve just described your situation. I don’t think you’re about to become insanely confident and serene and he’s about to become fully committed. This situation makes you anxious because YOU’RE A REGULAR HUMAN BEING with needs and desires that deserve to be a addressed.
Grown adults who care a lot about deep connections understand that real intimacy includes bumps in the road. You’ve made it clear that you want a partner who loves all of the dimensions of you as much as you love and appreciate your partner. When it comes to this man, you’re a connoisseur. You know exactly what you love about him, and you say so. You’re modeling how you want him to behave.
But so far, he’s not biting. He’s stubbornly insisting that he can only give so much. When he doesn’t tell you you’re beautiful, that’s not you not looking beautiful. That’s him not surrendering to his love and attraction for you — assuming he does love you and is very attracted to you. But it almost doesn’t matter how he feels, as long as he’s not surrendering himself to those feelings, does it?
What he’s telling you consistently is that it’s his intention to do anything but surrender to a relationship. So what he’s asking from you, ultimately, is a friends with benefits situation. He says he’s willing to try to have a relationship, but what is a relationship? It’s two people telling each other who they really are and what they really need. He doesn’t want that. What he wants is to keep sleeping together and to keep being good friends and to keep having your support and adoration, all without being backed into conversations about expectations, monogamy, long-term plans, or anything else that most people discuss when they’re very involved and very in love.
Now, because you do know him very well and you obviously trust him, I guess I’d say that if he could articulate exactly what he wants and doesn’t want, that would be a first step towards… something. But somehow I feel like he’d spell it out if he could, and part of his issue is that he doesn’t know what he wants. He knows what he doesn’t want, though!
He has every right to live the way he wants to live. But you need to think long and hard about how taxing and anxiety-inducing it’s going to be to keep him interested. And honestly, if he’s going to feel his feelings and fall in love, that’s going to include him feeling like he *wants* to work really hard to keep you. It’s not like lowering your expectations of him does anything beyond making him increasingly comfortable with spending time with you, enjoying the sex and the conversations, and taking your admiration and affection for granted in general.
There are ways to manipulate a guy like this into falling in love with you: You’re always busy, you’re dating other people, you’re not fawning over him anymore. But I don’t believe in manipulation (See also: The Rules) because all you’ve won yourself in the end is the same dude who gets distant the second you show up emotionally, the same dude who defined you, from the very start, as someone he CAN’T QUITE FALL COMPLETELY IN LOVE WITH. Whether that label is a manifestation of his fears or a real assessment of how he feels about you in particular, it really doesn’t matter. Labels like that tend to stick. But more importantly, even if you won him, what would you be winning? A person who doesn’t care enough to make a serious effort, a person who isn’t prioritizing love the same way you are.
Will he care once he meets someone new who insists that he work very hard for them? Sometimes that happens. People do all kinds of unpredictable things! They grow slowly or quickly. In my experience, though, people who are unsure and a little remote and inexpressive tend to stay that way for decades. They put off relationships, they avoid marriage, or they get married and then divorce quickly.
But you you could also argue that wanting someone else’s love and adoration more than anything else in your life is another way of not knowing how to love yourself. So that’s your work right now. Your assignment right now is to back up and think carefully about what *you* really want, beyond this man. I want you to reflect on the kind of woman that would make this guy drop everything and work very hard to win her love. Because the danger of this type of guy is that you give him everything, put up with anything, control yourself to the point where you’re much more robot-like, and what happens?
That woman you just imagined walks up and he drops everything to date her, which means dropping you.
I’m not trying to insert needless fears into your head here. I’m telling you that your best bet with this guy and every guy and more importantly, with yourself, is to be that woman instead. Be that woman who refuses to devote herself to ambivalent men. Be that woman who makes a religion out of things that last instead. Be that woman who understands her own qualities and lovable quirks and charming flaws and deepest desires well enough that she enjoys her own company, every single day.
That kind of joy isn’t about getting attention or glory or affection from others. It’s not about rising above who you really are. It’s about savoring your own sensations and experiences and refining your beliefs and learning to move through the world with a little conviction and swagger. It’s about improving your physical and emotional posture. It’s about creating what you want to see in the world. It’s about honoring the temple you create and KNOWING THAT WORSHIPPERS WILL ARRIVE, SOONER OR LATER.
It's about trusting that when you’re good to yourself, when you honor yourself, when you follow your own weird whims and build a life from that joy, you naturally attract devoted friends and lovers. It’s about knowing that as long as you’re honoring your own beliefs and principles, you don’t have to waste your energy trying to look perfect or sound just right. You don’t have to waste your life imitating robots. You relish exactly who you already are, out in the open, with ebullient, unapologetic GLEE.
You feel beautiful, in other words. You don’t need other people’s words anymore. You don’t need to coax someone into giving you more. People give you their all because YOU give yourself your best already.
So that’s my real advice. Stop giving this man your best. Give it to yourself instead. Don’t settle for lukewarm acquiescence. Hold out for exuberance and devotion. Be his friend again and watch how he acts with other women. Watch how he starts out hot, then backs away. Watch how he crumbles under pressure. Watch how he keeps himself safe.
He doesn’t love love the way you do, at least not right now. Let him do this half-assed dance with someone else. Be that woman who doesn’t compromise. Be that woman who likes to see some effort or she doesn’t slow down at all. Be that woman who’s busy building something bigger, brighter, and better. What do you want to build? What do you believe in? What do you love? Put your energy and devotion into that, and love will follow.
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