DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve got a communication situation that I’m hoping you can give me some advice on. I’m poly, happily married and have been dating my boyfriend for three months. My boyfriend is sweet, smart, cute and we have a lot of fun together. I feel comfortable and safe when I’m with him (which does not happen with people often for me). As a part of being together, he’s also been really beneficial to me by naturally being someone who seeks variety in activities - he’s introduced me to indoor rock climbing, wants to try trapeze, etc. I have a tendency to settle in a rut so being with him challenges me to go out and try new things and step outside of the comfort zone I’ve built around myself. I very much appreciate that about him (and have told him so).
Thing is, he doesn’t seem to have much emotional intelligence, in the way of having self-awareness of what he says and does and how it impacts people. I understand that it comes from a place of being clueless rather than being intentionally mean - I have a lifetime of dealing with a dad and sister the exact same way. I also know, though, from that life experience that my being an emotion centered person can sometimes cause hurt feelings on my end during interactions and my strategy so far in dealing with this type of personality has been either to try to calmly call them on mistakes or let stuff go.
I’m naturally a word person (written page better than spoken) and my boyfriend can often say things or use words that leave me confused or going “WTH?” For example, upon introducing me to his dad and stepmom, he told them that he had “acquired” a girlfriend. His dad questioned him on using “acquired” and mentioned that I was a person, not a piece of furniture that my boyfriend bought. I said I agreed. His response was that he figured it was understood what he meant.
I heard through the friend grapevine that his last relationship ended largely because of his lack of awareness of the impact of what he was saying, though I don’t know any details. I see his lack of emotional intelligence also manifesting in a lack of stepping up to responsibility in his house, leaving his roommates to take up the slack, and in how he can be very impulsive and not think of the bigger picture outside of himself. This week he has been very busy and so communication has been sporadic and initiated by me (we mainly talk via text and apps). At one point I said that that I missed talking with him. I also said that I understood he was busy, and looked forward to seeing him later this week. His response? “Thanks!” I get that he might not have understood that I was hoping for some positive words reciprocated (my roommate calls him Captain Clueless) and that instant messaging as a communication device is flawed, but it left me feeling sad. He doesn’t often say nice things to me; I think the biggest compliment he’s paid me so far was when I mentioned to him that he was important to me, he said “You are the person I’m currently the most comfortable with”. Though, so far he’s done what he said he would do and has been consistent in his actions, so that has to count more, right?
The thing is, when things like this happen it triggers the insecurities I have around being wanted and my mind takes the bad and runs with it- I question whether he cares, if I’m just convenient, if he’s starting to find me boring, etc . I’ve gotten better about reeling my mind back in but until I do and can counter myself with reality (that I can’t control anything, that he’ll either want to be with me or not and I’ll find out either way), I’m miserable. I do, however, realize that it’s my own crap and that it’s mine to deal with. I go to therapy, and over three years but most actively in the past year and a half I have been working on myself and confronting inner demons. Through poly dating I have encountered people who ghosted on me, played with my emotions, and used me as a life-sized sex toy (same stuff you get in the non-poly dating world, as well, I know). Dealing with each situation has been a painful but necessary lesson and I’ve grown as a result. I realize that the work I’m doing is a life-long process, but it still sucks.
I’m hesitant to say anything and ask for reassurance because I don’t want to come off as needy; I also don’t want to be asking for what he can’t give since that doesn’t seem fair. I also don’t want every conversation we have to include how he’s said something wrong. However, I’m questioning whether I chose the wrong person for a relationship, and if I matter to him. I’d greatly appreciate any insight you had as to how I can communicate with him better about what I need and any insight into how we can communicate better in general. I apologize for this being so long and thank you for your time.
Work in Progress
DEAR WORK IN PROGRESS: There’re more questions in here than I think you realize, WiP.
Let’s start with the obvious: trying to understand what’s going on in your boyfriend’s head when he says these things. Some people who tend to use the wrong words – such as “acquiring” a girlfriend – simply don’t have much in the way of a working vocabulary. They recognize words that kinda fit but they don’t necessarily get the context. It’s a little like trying to communicate in a foreign language; you know what you’re trying to get across, but occasionally you’ll end up using a word that’s hilariously (or uncomfortably) inappropriate. Getting corrected on this – especially by family – can be a little embarrassing. It could be that he’s the sort of person who’s brain runs faster than his mouth and by the time he’s said something, he’s run off to an entirely different train of thought and the rest of him has to play catch-up. Or it could be that he’s just really self-involved and doesn’t worry too much about little things like “how the way he communicates makes his girlfriend feel”.
(It’s also possible that he falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, but without an actual doctor’s diagnosis, it’s a little irresponsible to speculate).
The way that you describe his behavior makes me suspect that he’s the sort of person who’s off in his own little world and is rapidly running out of oxygen. He knows and appreciates the people around him (to an extent) but he’s so caught up in his own head that anything that doesn’t affect him directly and immediately, it tends to go in one ear and out the other. He tends to ignore things like, y’know, basic responsibilities around the house because something else popped up and sucked up all the available bandwidth in his brain.
(Speaking for myself, I’m especially prone to being distracted, which can lead to forgetting things like replying to emails, remembering appointments and paying bills. This is why I have redundant systems of truly annoying reminders on just about every electronic device I own to keep me on track.)
To the outside observer, it can seem like a callous disregard for others, but it’s frequently a case of Hanlon’s Razor: never assume malice when ignorance is equally as likely. It becomes a case of out of sight, out of mind; he may mean to do something right up until something else catches his attention.
Now that being said: understanding him doesn’t excuse him. Just because he’s focused on whatever inner world he has going doesn’t mean he gets a pass. The problem is he’s being a selfish prick; he’s drifting through life without being giving too much concern about anything outside of his immediate attention span. You’re worried about asking him for what he can’t give, but it’s a question of “can’t” or “won’t“. Right now it seems like he’s been allowed to float through with other people more or less enabling him in his clueless self-absorption. When his roommates are willing to take up the slack as he ignores his share of responsibilities around the house then why the hell would he shape up?
Now the next question is: how do you handle this? Well, to start with: you’re a word person, s o use your words. I understand not wanting to come across as needy, but there’s being needy and then there’s asking for some basic consideration and care from someone who supposedly cares about you. You’ve got some insecurities and you want reassurances. That’s not a bad thing! It’d be one thing if you were expecting one (or two or more) people to carry all of your emotional baggage for you, but that’s not what you’re looking for. You’re simply asking for him to, y’know, communicate with you a little. That’s a reasonable ask.
So explain to him how you’re feeling. If you’re better with the written word than in person or over the phone, then write it all down in an email. Let him know that you’ve got some concerns about how things are going and you want to make him aware of what’s going on and how it’s making you feel. Focus on the way things affect you rather than “there is a right way and a wrong way to do this”. Explain about occasionally you have these insecurities and certain behaviors can cause them to flare up and you’d appreciate his help and reassurances when it happens. Treat this less as a “here’s what you’re doing wrong” missive and more about “how do we fix this“. Then tell him over IM that you’re sending him this email and you want him to let you know when he’s read it.
(Incidentally, I know it’s your boyfriend who’s triggering these insecurities in you, but I hope you’re confiding in your husband as well and he’s helping provide you with emotional support and reassurance.)
How he responds to this will answer the remaining question of “is he the wrong person for a relationship”. Focus less on his words and more on his behavior. Anyone can say they’re sorry; is he making a good-faith effort to repair things, or is he doing the bare-minimum until something catches his attention and he forgets? Is he being on his best behavior until he figures he’s in the clear, or is he legitimately trying to better?
It’s ok if he’s doing things imperfectly, but he’s making a genuine effort to improve; you’re not going to correct behavior, especially long-held behavioral habits, in a day or a week. But if every conversation is about how he’s said something wrong (or isn’t saying anything at all), that’s may well be a sign that he’s not trying. It’s one thing if he struggles to improve. It’s another if his behavior suggests that he doesn’t care.
And if he doesn’t… well, then you’ve got your answer: no, he’s not the right person for this relationship.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)