Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Inexpressive partner: My live-in boyfriend of eight years seems unable—or unwilling—to express love. He utters a kind word from time to time but generally shuts down when I try to talk about feelings and fails to hug me or express happiness when he sees me, even after a week away. He rarely holds my hand or says that he’s proud of me. He is very dedicated to his IT career and works from home, and sometimes I feel that the lack of human contact is having a negative impact on his demeanor. Sometimes I feel that machines might be the most important thing in his life, and that if I ever left home forever, he wouldn’t even notice. I suspect he might find me emotionally immature, because he seems to struggle to offer support when I feel anxious, can’t deal with family conflict, and is super happy when I control everyday life (shopping, dinner, holidays, decisions) basically like a mom.
I was raised to be very independent and to take control, but at this point I’m tired of pulling the whole relationship and need a man that I can rely on and tell me: “I’ve got you.” On the other side, economically he is very driven and has his life under control (house, car, insurance, savings, entrepreneurship). Otherwise he is a loyal, respectful, uncomplicated, creative, generous partner, a kind and intelligent person with whom I have spent many incredible travels and experiences. This is conflicting because I don’t know if I should count my blessings and stop whining, or let go of an otherwise amazing man. But I really feel that a partner naturally would want to hug you, look you in the eyes, or even be in the same room, don’t you think?
A: Let’s make one thing super clear: It is not “whining” to ask your partner for emotional support, or to feel upset when you don’t get it. The relationship you just described is not one where things are mostly sunny with one or two clouds on the horizon. You suspect he cares about computers more than you, don’t think he would notice if you moved out tomorrow, treats you like a cross between his mother and an administrative assistant, doesn’t express happiness when he sees you after a week away, rarely touches you, and doesn’t listen to you when you tell him these things bother you. This sounds like a nightmare! The fact that he always remembers to pay his car insurance on time or keep money in the bank doesn’t even begin to make up for those things. As a matter of fact, it makes it worse, because it just highlights how low on the list of his priorities you are. You two might have taken a few great trips together, but I cannot imagine how much goodwill he’d have to have built up over the past eight years for any of this to be even close to OK.
I don’t mean to completely dump on your partner, either—plenty of people aren’t super physically affectionate or demonstrative, and that in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. But he knows these things are important to you and has put zero effort in trying to meet you halfway. I’m not saying he’s necessarily a horrible guy, but he is not at all the guy for you. You two are not compatible, and I don’t want you to let another eight years slip by while your heart quietly breaks as you wait for your boyfriend to look away from his monitor and notice you and your desires. Get out of there! Find a therapist. Spend some time figuring out how you can stop devaluing your own needs in a relationship and start really asking for what you want.