Unfortunately, we missed the connecting flight on our vacation and had to each pay several hundred dollars to book another flight to leave the next day. That meant we missed the first night at our resort. We both were angry and frustrated, but she thinks I went on about it for the first four days. I can’t remember if I did although I may have mentioned it once or twice. According to her, I was breathing deeply and exhaling often after this incident. She found this irritating and selfish. I wasn’t even aware I was doing this, but I am an anxious person by nature.
The other night we had a chat on the phone and she revealed she wasn’t entirely happy with how things went. It was a polite and civil conversation. It wasn’t in an “I think you’re an idiot” kind of way.
-She couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to use the pool at the resort. I explained to her that people urinate in the pool and don’t shower before jumping. No thanks.
-She couldn’t understand why I was hesitant to walk along the sand. I explained to her that I hate sand getting on my feet unless I go for a swim. (I did end up going go for a walk along the sand.)
-She said I never held her hand, never hugged her, and wasn’t affectionate enough. That is true. I’m not very romantic. But I did place my hand on her back many times and on her shoulder.
-She said I never smile and never laugh. I’m an introvert. I’m a brooding sort of guy, but I can have a laugh and smile.
-She said we didn’t talk a lot during the holiday and she thought we would become closer. I dispute this. We went to dinner several times and we did talk. Does she mean future plans? Then the answer is no.
-She said that I never asked her if she needed help with her luggage. From memory, I did ask her, but she said she was fine. Maybe she can’t remember this. Admittedly, I can be thoughtless at times.
-She questioned why I cut my napkin in half during dinner and wiped the table in front of me. Who does that sort of thing she asked. What is wrong with doing that anyway? Why is she nit-picking?
In general, she thinks I’m a tight-ass. That’s somewhat true. I am careful with my money, but I have to be. I have paid for meals at restaurants, but she likes fancy restaurants and they’re expensive. I like routine whereas she’s more spontaneous and wants someone who can make plans out of the blue. We’ve decided to stay as friends for now, and she wants me to think about what she said. She told me she cares about me, and I care about her too.
I do want a relationship and I’m looking for friendship and companionship, but clearly this isn’t enough for her. I’m not sure I can be the man she wants me to be. I would love to be that man, but I’m not confident and I don’t feel I have enough relationship experience. It feels like a big mountain to climb. I like this woman, but is it possible I may not be into her enough?? Am I too closed-off, selfish, and unromantic? Am I just a lazy coward?
This has been happening for the last twenty years and it’s the same old pattern. I date a woman for three to six months, anxiety sets in, relationship ends, and anxiety dissipates. I’m sick of it.
I’m even beginning to question myself as to whether I truly want a relationship and whether, perhaps, I secretly want to remain on my own and avoid the challenges that relationships bring. Can you help? — Sick of the Pattern
I think the best help I can give you is to encourage you to work through these big questions with the professional guidance of a good counselor. Clearly, you WANT a relationship, you acknowledge that there are challenges standing in your way, you acknowledge a twenty-year pattern in which YOU are the common denominator and in which being in a relationship seems to cause anxiety for you. You talk about being an anxious person by nature. You describe behavior that sounds almost OCD-like (the disdain for public pools, not wanting to get sand on your feet, tearing a napkin in half and wiping the table). I’m certainly not in a position to make any diagnosis, but I can tell you that there are ways to modify your behavior as well as treat the potential cause of the behavior, and a good therapist will teach you those ways.
I’m glad you and Louise plan to remain friends because I think she’s already proven to be a good person to you. Taking the time to compassionately tell you some of the issues she has and the ways she felt hurt or disappointed on your vacation gives you a chance to address those issues. It’s true that you may not ever be the man Louise needs and wants — and not being a match is much different than not “being enough”; I hope that you can see and appreciate that — and you can’t change your personality or who you are. But you can hear what Louise is saying, you can examine your life and your personal history and see where there is truth in what she’s pointed out and how the truth has affected your ability to make and maintain relationships, and you can decide to do something about it. What you can do is seek the help of a well-trained therapist (I would look for someone who specializes in anxiety disorders).
I also sense, from your description of Louise’s issues, that she is frustrated by a lack of emotional connection from you. Complaining about your not talking with her, not showing physical affection, not treating her to a “fancy” meal, or helping with luggage could all be code for: “You don’t show me that you care about me.” You yourself say that you can be selfish and thoughtless. Another word for showing that you care for someone and are thinking about her and her needs is empathy. And it may be that you have an inherent struggle in showing empathy. You might want to research high functioning autism, which only became recognized as a disorder in the 90s, and see if the list of possible symptoms — which includes a need for routine, sensory issues (like not liking the sensation of sand on your feet, for example), and struggle with showing empathy and maintaining relationships — resonates with you. This could be something else worth addressing with a therapist.
I don’t think you want to avoid the challenges a relationship brings. That’s not what I get from your letter at all. What I hear from you is that you very much DO want a relationship, that you’re tired of the pattern of anxiety in your early relationships, and that you want to figure out how to be a better partner to women who may be a match for you so that they don’t take off after three-six months with you. I promise that there are ways you can do that. But, yes, I think you’re right that it’s a big mountain to climb. At 47, your behavior is likely going to be pretty set in place. It will take work to modify it. It will take a lot of self-examining — likely in ways that may feel uncomfortable and maybe even painful — to address potential underlying causes of your behavior. It make take some trial and error in finding a therapist who’s a match for you and a treatment plan that works. But I feel strongly that the potential gains will be well worth it.
Imagine having self-confidence. Imagine recognizing social cues and knowing how to react to them and feeling confident that your reaction is socially appropriate. Imagine feeling that you are enough. You can learn to show your empathy in a way that is more clearly perceived by others. You can learn to bend a little and meet the needs of others in a way that may occasionally compromise your comfort but never your values or your intent. In short, you can learn to be a better partner and a better friend. You are not a lost cause. And you do not have to spend the next 47 years feeling lonely and selfish and like a coward who is too scared of relationships to ever have one. There’s a future for you in which you can be happy and in love and enjoy the companionship of another. You have to decide whether you’re willing to put in the work to have that and whether it’s worth the effort. (For what it’s worth: I think it is, and I think you can.)
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.