Alone again ... naturally ...
(And remember to chat at 1 p.m.)
Q: Hi Meredith, I have been reading your column for a few months now, and, as I am wondering if any of your other readers experience this problem, thought I would write in and get your opinion.
I am very much in love with my boyfriend of almost a year and a half. We see each other a few times a week and usually have a good time, but sometimes when we've been hanging out a lot he begins to withdraw from me, to shut down emotionally.
I read in a book last year that many -- in fact, practically all --guys do this sometimes, and that they usually emerge from their "alone time" ready to be social and receptive to the world around them once again. (No need to name the book; if you've read it, you know which one I'm talking about.) He seemed to think that he was the only weirdo who needed to "get away" from people on occasion, so I think he thought that there was something wrong with him.
The problem is, a couple of months ago I started a new job that is actually more compatible with his work hours. Last year I was working evenings and only got to see him on weekends or the occasional very late evening. Now I'm working days and have a lot more evenings free (though will still work many), and I don't know what to do about the fact that I want to spend far more time with him than he wants to spend with me.
We've discussed it once or twice, and he doesn't know why he needs to be alone sometimes, he only knows that he does and he says that I shouldn't take it personally. He feels guilty about his need to be alone and I think he thinks it hurts me more than it actually does. I do understand his need to be alone, know that I shouldn't take it personally and generally don't, but I really do spend a great deal of time alone or with other friends wishing I could be with him.
I should add that although we are both 30, this is only his third relationship and it is my first. I am highly invested in this relationship, want to help him (or in any case, want him to help himself), and want us both to stop feeling guilty (he because he needs to be alone and me because I need to be with him). We recently spent a week together on vacation and at his brother's wedding, during which time he was actually very present (no withdrawing), and we had a terrific time. When he is emotionally present he is a wonderful person. When he retreats into his cave he is still a wonderful person, but confused and confusing.
I have managed to draw him out of his cave in a couple of situations when I finally voiced my feelings about it, but I don't like behaving in a way that seems manipulative even if I'm not actually being manipulative (or at least am not trying to be).
The questions I have are as follows: do other men do this too? If so, do they know why? Do you, Meredith, know why? Do any of you have any advice about what I can do to help the situation? Are there any clever compromises that can be worked out here? What can I do, short of exercising and making plans with other friends and family (which I do anyway), to not feel so lonely when he is not being emotionally responsive?
Because I was single for so long, I learned how to keep myself occupied, but also because I was single for so long, I threw myself into this relationship with my whole self and now can't seem to remember how I used to enjoy myself when I was single. I also want to know: if, when he's alone, what he does is watch TV or play computer games, then why is that different from his doing the exact same thing when I'm around?
– Dating a (Nice) Caveman, Winchester
A: DANC, here's my confession: I am a cavewoman. I am actually sitting in my cave right now. I am wearing my cave uniform (elastic pants) and eating my cave food (bag of Skittles).
This isn’t a man thing. I need my cave time whether I’m in a romantic relationship or not. I consider myself a very social person. When I leave my cave, I’m excited to see other people. But without my cave time, I get moody and weird. I can’t say why my cave environment would change if another person was around, even if that person remained silent, but it would.
We cave people don’t mean to offend those who love us. We just need to clear our heads.
I don’t know what your cave man does in his cave. From what you’ve said, he’s not depressed or antisocial – he’s just in need of space.
You ask about compromises. Here’s what I think:
He can compromise by softening his behavior during his emotional withdrawals. As a cave person, I can tell you that it’s possible -- it just takes practice. He should also be more empathetic about the fact that you’re basically arranging your social schedule around his cave time. He could -- and should -- go out of his way to make sure you’re not stuck trying to anticipate his moods. This shouldn’t be a guessing game for you.
You can compromise by giving up on an answer. You may never understand why he needs alone time. Some people like constant companionship, some don’t.
My guess is that your need to understand his cave time reflects a concern that his need for space will prevent him from ever being able to live with you at some point. If that’s what this is about – if you fear that his cave time means he’ll never be able to offer more than the status quo – you should let him know. That's actually a very valid fear -- and it will make more sense to him than your inability to accept his alone time. If he hasn't considered that issue on his own, he should.
I can’t read his mind, but I can tell you that we cave people do want love. We like attention and crave companionship. We just want you out of our faces sometimes so we can eat our Skittles in peace. If we’re being selfish about our needs -- if you fear we’ll never be able to share our lives with you -- just tell us. It's our duty to be honest and to explain ourselves as best we can.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to watch television by myself.