I have been more than friends with a lovely man for well over a year now, yet he still hasn’t made our relationship public, called me his girlfriend or told me that he loves me. We are a couple in everything but name, but in front of our friends he won’t show me any affection. He is a naturally very shy and private person, and things have developed so much between us over the past year or so that I feel I shouldn’t complain. I know he cares about me a lot, but he was completely heartbroken by his previous girlfriend, who was also his only serious relationship before we got together. I’m scared, though, that he doesn’t love me – and surely after all this time he’d know if he did? It’s not that he does love me and can’t say it: we talked about it a little bit recently and he seems very confused about what love is. He says he feels differently about me to how he did about his previous girlfriend (who he was crazy about), but he says that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure: I know he loved her, and while I don’t want him to be all obsessive about me like that, I don’t want to hang on waiting forever for him to fall in love with me. He often says that it’s either me or no one, which doesn’t make me feel great (being a girl, I naturally take everything the wrong way). How long am I meant to wait for him, and how do I know if it’s time to move on? PS I am 26 and he is 28.
This letter first appeared in the Observer.
I’ll go back to the beginning in a minute, but there is one shocking stand-out line in this letter and it is bracketed in order, apparently, to hide it. ‘Being a girl, I naturally take everything the wrong way.’ It sounds as though you have been brought up to believe that your thoughts and feelings are invalid, that your feelings should be automatically discredited on the basis of your gender. From that standpoint it is hardly surprising that you have no idea what to think or feel about your boyfriend’s lack of commitment.
The most glaring thing in this letter is that you say what you want this man to feel about you and how you’d like him to express it. You do not say what you feel about him or how you express that. You are passive but you want him to be active. Perhaps what you related to in him, however, was his passivity since you apparently share it.
You are asking, as many people do, what the rules are. You are so unable to trust yourself, to decide anything on the basis of how you feel that you are asking how one ought to behave. How long should you wait? When is it time to move on and what are the signs? Of course, part of you may be aware that there are no rules and this is perhaps very frightening to you. Your lover (I assume you are having sex with this person) is not obeying the rules you have on your wall chart – declare love within a year of a relationship and go public. You are wondering, therefore, if it is you who are not obeying certain unknown rules that perhaps a newspaper columnist will know.
The essential problem, however, is that you are unable to want or need anything, to think or feel anything as regards this man without feeling guilty and invalidated. You seem to have very little sense of autonomy. So, back to the beginning.
The first line is an accusation. Here are some things this man has not done and that you want him to do. ‘He still hasn’t’ as though you have waited long enough for this unreasonable behaviour of his to stop. But this is very passive, no? Have you told him you love him, called him your boyfriend and made the relationship public? Have you told him you’d like him to do these things? You say ‘I feel I shouldn’t complain’ and yet you are complaining. Just not to him. I would also question the word complain. This has a tinge of misogyny about it just like your bracketed comment. If you ask for something then you are somehow whining and unreasonable (and female?). Was this your experience at home with your family, I wonder?
You sound baffled by his behaviour at the same time as excusing it. So, his reasons for reticence are, apparently, that he’s shy and heartbroken, confused about love. As far as I can make out he is being fairly clear – he’s confused and has been hurt. You seem to suspect that more is going on than he’s prepared to tell you. So, instead of looking at yourself and what you are and are not willing to put up with in a relationship, you are scrutinising him and waiting for him to change.
Textbook error. The only person who might change is you. Or, at least, that’s the only thing you have any control over or insight into. We cannot know what he’s thinking apart from taking what he says at face value. If there are hidden thoughts then no newspaper columnist is going to reveal them to you. But what are your hidden thoughts? It seems you feel that he should be in control of the situation because he is a man. His thoughts and feelings are to be taken seriously, considered and analysed. Yours are merely to be dismissed.
From what you say it sounds as though you are very hurt by your boyfriend’s lack of demonstrative love and very jealous of the way he felt or feels about his ex-girlfriend. You want things from him that he is not prepared to give and you wonder whether the fault lies with you. You seem extremely unconfident and extremely reliant on this man for your self-esteem, as though he might bestow it on you with his love or keep it from you in withholding his love. You entire value seems to rest with him.
I imagine this isn’t the first time you’ve felt worthless and deprived of something you want but can’t ask for, or feel you may be wrong even for wanting. My suspicion is that one or both of your parents neglected you in a faintly benign way – they seemed nice enough but weren’t properly interested in you or engaged with you, such that you felt perhaps it was your fault or that perhaps they were engaged and you were misinterpreting it. I also strongly suspect you have a brother with whom at least one of them (probably dad) was engaged.
Neither I nor anybody else has any clue what your boyfriend will do in the future (and he probably doesn’t know either). What he won’t do is change into someone else. Do you want him like this or not? That’s the question.
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