Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“Am I Too Selfish to Ever Have a Relationship?”

I’ve recently come back from a vacation with my girlfriend, Louise. I’ve never gone away with a woman before so it was a new experience for me. I’m 47 and have always struggled with intimate relationships. She’s 44 but was married briefly in her 20s. We’ve been dating for nearly six months, seeing each twice a week and talking on the phone most other days. We haven’t met each other’s friends or family.

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.)

***************

Follow along on Facebook, and Instagram.

If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​dearwendy.com.

22 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Moe P September 11, 2017, 9:49 am

    I read this letter a few times. My impression is that the struggles your girlfriend is having is not about the sand, the water, breathing heavily when you missed your connection. It is, as Wendy pointed out, a bigger, more general issue about what she feels is a lack of emotional connection. Maybe she chose these smaller examples as ways to try to explain it. This certainly seems like the kind of letter that makes me want to hear from your girlfriend. I get a strange sense her take on the entire thing would be quite different.

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  • avatar

    Brise September 11, 2017, 9:52 am

    That was a good letter with a lot of self-reflection and a good answer. This work on yourself could be great for you. But I doubt this specific relationship can get on again. At some point, one has to accept the other the way he is. But yes, work on your anxieties and your ambivalences, this can open new insights in relationships. Do it for yourself.

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    • avatar

      Janelle September 11, 2017, 10:45 am

      I agree. LW you really seem to have a grasp. I can agree that I would feel a good amount how Louise feels. I also am currently dating someone who does the huffy puffy when he is annoyed by something and it can ruin an entire day if he keeps it up. Drives me up the wall. BUT big BUT you are open to making some changes.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy September 11, 2017, 10:53 am

      I agree that the focus should not be on this specific relationship, which, in all likelihood has run its course (at least in the romantic sense); but I do think the LW has a chance at a fulfilling relationship in the future if he dedicates himself now to addressing the issues his girlfriend tactfully and carefully pointed out.

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  • avatar

    Deigh September 11, 2017, 10:44 am

    As a 47 year old in a serious relationship for the first time due to some major health ailments, some of this sounds familiar. I agree with Wendy that a counselor could probably help you with a lot of this but some of the little things are also just habit. For example, my boyfriend and I had a lot of discussions about me checking in more. I was used to my routine where I didn’t have to let anyone know that I’d made it to work in the snow or I didn’t call to check in on someone when they were sick. It was an adjustment for me to learn these patterns which I probably had when I was younger and lived with my family but I didn’t anymore after living alone for so long.

    What worked for us was to come up with a list of expectations. I kept it on my phone and I used the reminders on my calendar to help me out. It’s been three years and now I do these things automatically but I think going that long without a serious partner, I just forgot what “common courtesies” are expected. For example, we have a “Wine and Charity Knitting” group once a month until midnight. I never thought to call and let him know I was home ok. In fact, I thought it would be rude because it was so late. But he would worry if he didn’t hear that I was home safe after driving that late at night so I put a reminder on my phone to call when I got home.

    Again, I do think counseling will help. Some of the issues you describe are different than the common courtesy type. But at least with those, you can use technology to help you regain the skills that you lost or maybe never had. It can be done and you’ve taken the first step by asking for help.

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  • avatar

    wobster109 September 11, 2017, 10:55 am

    Hey LW, I’m seeing a lot of this in your letter: “Louise said she was unhappy about X, but X makes sense because of Y reason.” Or this: “Louise was unhappy about Z, but Z isn’t true.”

    I think you’re missing the forest for the trees here. What she’s saying is that she didn’t have fun. Even if you’re right about the urine in the pool, does that automatically mean the vacation was fun for Louise? If you went back and tested the water and found urine, and she said “yes, you’re right”, she still won’t remember the vacation being fun.

    Don’t focus so much on whether you’re right or whether your reasons are right. Women will go out with you if they enjoy hanging out with you. And if you’re frequently worrying about germs, acting “brooding”, not talking much, and not wanting to do activities with her, well, it may be just how you are, and it’s not “bad” or “wrong”, and it’s not a character or moral failing, but it also means she won’t enjoy spending time with you. Being right doesn’t automatically make you fun to be around.

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    • avatar

      Nadine September 11, 2017, 4:54 pm

      I agree with this comment. And to reassure the LW, its my experience that a lot of men (ok people, but this is my anecdata, so men) see ‘right’ as ‘inarguable’. You may be logically correct in your mind. But it is still fair for your partner to object to your actions or words. I see the same thing about people who dont ‘technically’ cheat – if it hurts your partner, why not stop it, even if you dont think you are doing anything wrong?

      Sure you dont have to walk on sand that you dont like the feel of. But… she wanted to go for a walk, and that included sand. You are not just saying ‘i hate sand, its coarse and gets everywhere’, you are saying “I dont want to go for a walk with you’.

      Love Wendy’s response, very thoughtful and I agree there are somethings to examine here. Just thought I’d add my 2 cents.

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  • Skyblossom

    Skyblossom September 11, 2017, 12:40 pm

    It sounds like a beach vacation isn’t the right type of vacation for you. Louise had ideas/expectations about how a beach vacation should be and you ended up not fitting in with her ideas. Did it occur to you that people walk on the beach at a beach? What did you think the two of you would be doing during your stay? I personally find it boring to lay out in the sun and never do anything like that. I would want to wander the area to see it. If there was a local town I would wander all over it. I would walk on the beach in the morning and evening but skip it when it was hot and sunny because I burn easily and hate being out in the heat. I’d skip the pool entirely. Not because people pee in it but just because I would be bored with it. If I went on a trip with Louise, just as friends, we wouldn’t match up and we wouldn’t have fun because we wouldn’t want to do the same things. I think that some of your issues were because the two of you weren’t a good match for a beach vacation. You need to know yourself enough to know what you would like to do for a vacation and then discuss with the other person your ideas so that you don’t end up on a mismatched vacation. There was probably no way the two of you were going to have a good vacation together at a beach.

    As for the rest of it. If Louise wanted help with her luggage she could have asked. You don’t read minds. Asking if she needed help is nice but also asking when you need help is also nice.

    Expecting you to pay more than you feel you can afford for meals is selfish. Louise can spring for expensive meals too if that is what she wants.

    After six months of dating Louise should have known whether you smile or laugh. She didn’t need to go to the beach to figure that one out.

    Talking is sort of the same. She should know whether the two of you talk in the way she wants. I’m not saying that talking either more or less is better just that she should have known after six months whether you met her need for conversation. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to her when you didn’t talk as much as she wanted while on vacation.

    I would personally find the cutting the napkin in half and cleaning the table a bit weird but I also wouldn’t mind if I liked the person. Everyone is going to have some quirks and you have to decide whether the quirks bug you enough that they get in the way of the relationship. I work with a number of women who seem to compulsively wipe surfaces and it doesn’t stop us from being friends.

    You do sound like you have some sensory issues and maybe some OCD. If I was you I’d work on those for my own comfort but not to try to change yourself into a different person to please Louise. In the end you need a partner who likes you as you are and who doesn’t have a long list of changes you need to make to be okay to them. Louise is probably a very nice woman but not a good match for you. Maybe you need an introvert who would be more hands off than hands on when it comes to physical touch. Someone who is more quiet and reserved. Someone with a sense of humor closer to your own.

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    • avatar

      Ange September 11, 2017, 6:09 pm

      If it was just Louise who had issues with OP I’d be more inclined to agree she was being out of line with some of her complaints but he’s basically run off every woman he’s dated his entire life. If being yourself results in a negative outcome 100% of the time it’s time to re-evaluate who you are and what you’re putting out there.

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  • thatswhat-she

    Meg September 11, 2017, 1:59 pm

    Wendy’s reply was great, and I do think that working with a counselor might be helpful for you as you learn to navigate potential future relationships. In addition to places where you might become a bit more flexible, a counselor might also help you see that others may just approach or see things differently than you do- and that’s ok! Finding the right match is partly about being compatible and being able to meet one another’s needs- but a big part is also about being able to communicate and understand those needs, even when they differ. So I think working with a counselor is less about changing your behavior as much as it is about learning to see another person’s perspective and see it as valid- even if your own perspective doesn’t change.

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  • avatar

    MissMB September 11, 2017, 2:13 pm

    I’m struck by a number of things you said in your letter because it correlates to something going on my life. I’m probably going to say this rudely (for which I do not mean to) but have you ever been tested for, or thought you might be, on the autism spectrum? Many of things you describe and many of the details that other commentators responded to (not seeing the forest through the trees for example) are spot on descriptions of individuals with autism. Not to mention you are of the age that unless you were mute or of the very classic Rain Man style of autism you would have easily been missed in a diagnosis. I am 36 and female. I do believe I am on the spectrum as well and am in the process of trying to get an official diagnosis. And because of this I have done a lot of reading about autism in general. I have learned a great deal including the fact that I am still me just now I have a better grasp of what is going on with my brain. By learning about it I have really begun to grasp some tools to help me in social situations that I did not have before. Maybwith a little introspection you might come up with an answer that helps you.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy September 11, 2017, 6:33 pm

      Yes, this is what I was meant when I suggested he read up on high functioning autism and see if it resonates with him. Those with milder forms of autism would have mostly slipped through the cracks 25+ years ago because there wasn’t much understood about the spectrum at that point and only people — usually children — with more extreme autism were being noticed and diagnosed. I imagine there are lots of 35+-yea-old adults out there who are on the spectrum and don’t know it and never received the support as children that would have helped longterm with their social impairment. Knowing the little bit about autism that I do — I have a close family member who was recently diagnosed – I would imagine that learning as an adult that you are on the spectrum might be surprising but also might feel like finding a missing puzzle piece. (Not that this is the case for the LW. But… it possible. And it’s worth at least considering).

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  • avatar

    kriskros September 11, 2017, 2:37 pm

    What a great, compassionate response Wendy! I agree with everything you said and encourage the letter writer to do a bit of research. He may be interested in Social Thinking (check out Michelle Garcia Winner) to see if that resonates with him as well. In addition to a counselor, social thinking can be addressed by speech therapists that specialize in pragmatics and/or social cognition. There is so much that can be done therapeutically to help those with social thinking differences and I really hope that this letter writer finds someone qualified to help. Best of luck letter writer!

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  • avatar

    Ashley September 11, 2017, 6:54 pm

    This reminds me of that Frasier episode where he goes to Belize with Patricia clarkson. While checking out the therapist and counselors may be worthwhile for all aspects of your life, a lot of what you mention I feel would be a non-issue for the right person for you. i think there is a distinct possibility Louise realizes she wasn’t that into you, based on just a feeling, but needed to really justify to herself why She couldn’t see you anymore. A lot of your issues seem like small potatoes.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy September 11, 2017, 7:02 pm

      But he says this has been a pattern for 20 years. I wouldn’t call the inability to hold a relationship for longer than a few months after 20 years of trying (and wanting to) “small potatoes.” I know that’s not what you meant, but you’re talking about the small picture (a vacation gone wrong with Louise/ Louise’s list of issues with the LW) and I’m urging the LW to look at the big picture which is 20 years of fizzled relationships that don’t make it past a few months. Something is going on with the LW. I, personally, think it’s more than just whom he’s choosing to date, but even if it is JUST that, well, then if at 47, he hasn’t better figured out who is a good match for him, then that is an issue itself which is, again, hardly small potatoes when it’s standing in the way of him having the fulfilling relationship he seems to want.

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  • avatar

    Rick September 11, 2017, 7:52 pm

    Hi Wendy,
    The LW here. Thanks for you prompt advice.
    I don’t believe i’m autistic. I can tell when someone is sarcastic or serious. I don’t need to eat the same type of food on a certain day or drive the same route to work. When i said i like routine, it’s more like for example, I prefer to go on a Saturday night than a Friday night or i prefer to go on a date on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. My social skills are good too and i can easily have a conversation. I’m 70% introverted and i can be, at times extroverted. I don’t think i’m autistic. But I am super fussy and OCDish. Shouldn’t a partner accept those things if they really like you?

    Putting all those things aside, is there any hope for myself and Louise if i can control my anxiety and compromise more? It can’t be all bad if it lasted for 6 months?

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    • avatar

      Anonymousse September 11, 2017, 11:11 pm

      Why would you go on vacation to a beach, if you don’t like sand?

      A person isn’t going to like you if they can’t do fun things with you, like, walk on the beach, eat a fancy meal because you are on a vacation, swim in a chlorinated pool, or have spontaneous sex or adventures, etc.

      Sure, there may be the perfect woman out there who has similar quirks as you, but the likelihood that she’ll want fancy meals on vacation, a walk on the beach during a beach vacation is high.

      Live a little. Have fun. Plan a surprise or do something you may not love, but that you know your partner appreciates.

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    • Miel

      Miel September 11, 2017, 11:34 pm

      Hi LW,

      A partner doesn’t have to accept anything just because they really like you. Being in a relationship if first and foremost about compatibility.

      -Do you enjoy doing the same things as your partner? In your example, it seemed like Louise and you had very different expectations on what activities you would enjoy doing during your vacation. (Pool, beach walk, etc)

      -Do you show your partner that you care in a way that makes them feel cared for? Do they show you love in a way that makes you feel cared for? In your example it seems like Louise associates services (carrying luggage), special moments spent together (like the vacation, dinners, walk on the beach), good conversations (like talking at the restaurant, laughing and smiling), and physical touch (holding hands, hugs) as four different ways that she feels that you care for her. If you don’t show her that you care about her by doing small services for her, spending special moments with her, having interesting, light-hearted, passionate conversations with her, nor showing her that you care through physical touch, then how do you show her that you care? Does she feel like you care when you do those things?

      Another way to understand if you and your partner are compatible is to understand how you deal with moments of crisis. I always say “it’s easy to be happy together when everything goes well, it’s harder to be happy together when everything else falls apart.” When you missed your corresponding flight, did Louise’s presence made you feel less anxious, more relaxed, and like everything was going to work out, or did her presence made you feel more anxious, and like you had to deal with one more thing on top of this tickets/missed flight business?

      I know I’m compatible with my partner, because every situation is made better by his presence. If I burn the dinner and he’s there? I feel better than if I had burned the dinner and he wasn’t there. If I miss my flight and he missed his with me? I feel better than if I had flown all by myself and missed my flight. If I go on a vacation and the weather is bad, the pool is dirty and the food is mediocre, well I’m still happier with him by my side than if I was there on vacation with anybody else in the world.

      Is that how Louise make you feel? Is your anxiety easier to control when she’s around, or are you just hoping to control your anxiety and hide it from her as a way to keep her around?

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy September 12, 2017, 7:47 am

      I think you need to work on managing your anxiety for your own good. I don’t know if there’s hope for you and Louise. You two may simply not be a match. The vacation may have highlighted and confirmed ways that you aren’t a match — things she’d already noticed but hoped wouldn’t be as much of an issue as they are. Even if there is hope for you two to work it out, it’s not going to happen immediately or without you seeking some professional help. I really do suspect there’s something going on with you — a missing piece of the puzzle — that, with a proper diagnosis and/or treatment would lessen your symptoms and make them more manageable. Even run-of-the-mill anxiety can be treated (and don’t just mean medication).

      As for autism: it is a wide spectrum with symptoms ranging greatly in terms of severity and effects. It’s not really “I need to eat the same type of food on a certain day” (although, sure, someone with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] could be like that). There’s a good chance you, indeed, are NOT autistic (about 1 in 50 boys are diagnosed on the spectrum these days, so it’s not super rare but also not extremely prevalent either; males are four times more likely to be diagnosed than females), but I want to clear the misconception that ASD has to appear severe in order to exist. It’s often very subtle and easy to miss (and misdiagnose). I say this for others reading this who may recognize these tell-tale signs in themselves or their loved ones (especially their kids): obsessive interest in one topic or specific item; Strong reactions to textures, smells, sounds, sights, or other stimuli that others might not even notice, such as a flickering light; delay in motor skills; lack of or delay in social skills; trouble with give-and-take conversations (dominating a conversation by talking about one’s self or one’s current obsessive interest); weak eye contact; discomfort to full-on rage with changes in routine or expectations not being met; often highly intelligent.

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    • avatar

      alafair September 12, 2017, 8:46 am

      Just a note – my daughter is high functioning autistic. She can have a conversation when the subject interests her, and is sometimes very outgoing. However, schedule is important to her, as are textures. Dont make an assumption about diagnosis based on the outdated views of autism. (Completely non verbal, no social interaction etc), Just see a therapist with an open mind and be prepared to learn about yourself.

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    • avatar

      dinoceros September 12, 2017, 8:59 am

      The things you listed aren’t required characteristics of people with autism. I didn’t initially post because I had nothing else to add that others hadn’t already said. To me, what struck me was the way you listed out all the things she said you did, but were not able to see why she would find the entire package of all of them together on this vacation to be annoying. Logically, sure, you could say that putting your hand on someone’s back “counts” toward some sort of PDA quota that makes it unnecessary for someone to want to hold hands. But that’s not how people usually respond. It’s not an equivalency. Is that something you understand? Because I think one of the reasons people are suggesting autism or something else is that most people would understand why it’s not about listing out how many times you touched someone to prove that their need is unfounded. The napkin, sand, and pool things are pretty uptight, and the fact that you have so many of those and that you’re pretty wrapped up in keeping those habits at the expense of a relationship make them seem more serious than just quirks.

      You don’t have to believe anybody. We don’t know you in person, and we’re not doctors. But I think it’s worth seeing someone and looking into it. Because if it turns out everyone’s wrong, then so what. But if there is’ something deeper, you finding out about it could pave the way for future relationships to go a lot better.

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  • avatar

    Bittergaymark September 11, 2017, 8:06 pm

    If you are not autistic — and I believe you… then you do seem to have OCD or something. This makes you rather stressful to vacation with. Sadly, that translates into be stressful to have a relationship with.
    .
    It’s interesting that a few here think your behaviour / issues here is small potatoes. To me, they would be a deal breaker… I’d work on them a bit. The sand thing, pool thing, and table thing would ALL give me REAL pause if a significant other rolled those out at me on vacation.

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