Q: Dear Meredith,
My boyfriend is fun, highly intelligent, honest, witty, and he makes me laugh. He's also ambitious, sexy, and extremely confident.
Someone once said to me, "It seems like the things you don't like about him are also the things that you love about him." That might be true. He works all the time. And I mean ALL the time. I love it because it makes him happy. But sometimes I feel as though he could make more time for me when he does get a second. Sometimes he makes time for family and friends and then fits me in in the time that's left over. He's not great at making plans ahead of time and after over a year and half of being together, I think there's a tendency to take each other's presence for granted. Another double-edged trait is his confidence. Confidence is a very attractive quality. Yet there are times when it comes off as entitlement or narcissism.
But these aren't that "one big thing" that I'm writing to you about. The major problem is that our communication is absolutely terrible. When he is upset about something or needs to talk to me about something he's uncomfortable with, etc., he has no qualms about bringing it up in a nice, calm, direct and respectful way. But whenever I have an issue or feel a certain way about something he's doing, if I bring it up, he immediately becomes reactive, emotional, closed off, defensive and, to be frank, intimidating. It's not in my nature to be nasty, yell, etc. That behavior also accomplishes nothing. I feel as though I bring up things in the same nice manner that he does. But he doesn't validate my feelings. I seem to always end up frustrated, questioning myself and apologizing to him after bringing up something that bothers me, which makes no sense. I think it has really hurt my self-esteem lately as well as my own confidence, and this can only have the ripple effect of hurting our relationship more. If you feel down about yourself, how can someone else feel great about you?
To have lasted this long with such a big and, to me, hurtful, issue may come as a surprise. But I honestly never noticed it until a few months ago. I guess the longer you're with someone, the more issues come up that you'll have to deal with. I simply have no idea how to approach him about it for the aforementioned reasons. How can I talk to him in a way that makes him hear me? Any advice helps!
– Frustrated in Phoenix
A: FIP, I want you to know that you're not inferior to your boyfriend. You mention a loss of self-esteem, and I sense that from your letter. Yeah, your boyfriend is a cool, successful guy with a great life, but you're pretty awesome, too. You're empathetic, flexible, thoughtful, and kind. He's lucky to be with you. Please remember that.
Some people just don't know how to talk about feelings without getting defensive. It might be worth spelling out what you need from him before you tell him what's wrong. As in, "I’ve been feeling bad about a few things. I'm going to tell you what they are, but I'm asking you to just consider what I have to say without defending yourself. I'm not accusing you, I just want to let you know how I feel and figure out if there's anything we can do about it." You can also say something like, "When I tell you I feel bad or insecure, sometimes it just means that I need reassurance and a hug. Sometimes it just means that I need your attention."
I also have to wonder whether these conversations would be healthier in writing. Some people fly off the handle when they're approached about an issue. But with email, there's time to let the feelings sink in. Responses have to be thought out and typed up. Sometimes people write things that they'd never say out loud.
Those are my ideas – giving specific instructions and/or writing it all down. If those ideas don't work, I want you to really think about whether you can continue to deal with this. Yes, the fighting thing is huge, but the other problem -- the time problem -- is also a biggie.
You guys have stuff to work out. If he can't work with you -- with love -- to get past these issues, nothing will get better. You're allowed to ask for more.
Readers? How do you teach a defensive person to have a discussion without getting defensive? What about the time issue? Can these problems be fixed? Anyone dating a confident, defensive fighter? Help.
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Meredith Goldstein is a Boston Globe columnist who follows relationship trends and entertainment. She offers daily advice on Love Letters — and welcomes your comments. Meredith is also the author of "The Singles," a novel about complicated relationships. Follow Meredith at www.meredithgoldstein.netand on Twitter. Love Letters can be found in the print edition of The Boston Globe every Saturday in the G section.