He's Terrible with Feelings

Q: I am a single mom (age 48) and in a committed two-year relationship that just went from "totally awesome" to "let's get married or move in together" to "let's start rebuilding this relationship." My boyfriend gets defensive and sometimes angry with me whenever I ask him why one moment he's loving and the next he seems unemotional. Sometimes when I cry, he won't even try to comfort me. He tells me that I'm destroying the relationship whenever I confront him. He's 51 and I believe he's going through menopause but is in denial. I know I am and have sought help. I was a verbally abused child, I sought help, but I still have issues arise every time my feelings are not validated. He yelled at me the one time I tried to tell him about my abusive childhood and said "I don't care. You should try to be more positive and not let the past affect the present." He told my 9-year-old son that the reason he gets angry is because his mother used to hit him every time he cried. Could this be the reason that he finds it hard to validate or reassure? I'm at a loss and, yes, I'm ready to walk away from this relationship if there is no hope. -- Denise

Dr. Susan: What sort of hope were you looking for, Denise? Your man isn't going to change into a whole other breed of man, the kind who is nurturing and sensitive to your feelings. His traditional "he-man" ways are comfortable for him. You can judge by how quickly he gets his buttons pushed when you ask for something he doesn't know how to give. You both had painful childhoods. You recognize the harm yours did to you, whereas your boyfriend seems content to keep on reacting the same old way that was beaten into him.

Let me reassure you of a couple of things. One is that your relationship trajectory has been normal. It starts out unbelievably great, and then within two years both partners are disillusioned by reality. Those who are committed then try to figure out how to make it work in spite of the differences that have turned up. The second is that even without your boyfriend becoming the sensitive and reassuring man you crave, he can learn to validate your feelings more than he does now. Meanwhile, you can learn to understand him better and perhaps even to need his validation a little less regularly.

I suggest you read Deborah Tannen's bestselling book, You Just Don't Understand. Before you throw in the towel, ask him to please read the part explaining why some people (i.e., you) need to feel they are understood if they are to feel loved -- and that means sharing feelings. For your part, don't waste your time talking about your childhood with him. Focus instead on what you need right now from him, and when he gives it, even the teensiest bit, let him know how great it makes you feel about him. If he persists in reacting with anger instead of willingness to understand you, there may indeed be no hope.

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