Relationship column: By showing attention and affection, am I being smothering?
September 1, 2013
Dear Neil: I am 40 years old and in a relationship with a man that makes me feel inadequate. He complains about what I cook, talks through shows that I like and never seems to be happy. He is 41, has four kids by three different women, he lives with me, his car is in the shop, he doesn't have any savings and he complains a lot. I told him that he could use my car to visit his kids (14 and 16), but he acts like he is trying to keep me a secret from his ex.
He says I show him too much attention and affection and that I'm smothering him. Can you help?
Feeling Rejected in the Navy
Dear Neil: I am a 33-year-old male and have been seeing this woman for six months. I am a romantic at heart. I buy her flowers and small gifts — tokens to show I'm thinking of her. I open doors for her, leave notes on her car and compliment her appearance.
But she does not return the same enthusiasm. When I mention things that bother me, she gets very defensive and shuts down. She admits having a hard time accepting someone being close to her. It frightens her, and she tends to pull away physically and emotionally. Ninety percent of the time we get along famously. We share a lot of the same interests and make each other laugh. But she won't talk about anything regarding us or our future together.
Will she eventually open up to me and become closer, or will she always be emotionally detached and unavailable?
Don't Know Where I Stand
Dear Rejected and Don't Know: There is a name for what both of you are describing: it is called "unrequited love," which is another way of saying that the warmth, attention and affection you are giving is not equal to what you are receiving. This feels awful, and especially if it goes on for any length of time.
You are being "smothering" only if someone doesn't want to receive closeness, connection and affection from you. Otherwise you are doing exactly what most of us do in a relationship, which is to attempt to further the warmth and closeness between the two of you.
To state the obvious, you want someone who wants you, and you don't want someone who doesn't want you, no matter how many things seem special about the other person. And it sure doesn't sound like either of these people want you.
For the woman who wrote the first letter, if a 41-year-old man complains a lot, has no money, is trying to hide that he's with you, is unhappy with himself, his life and with you — and tells you he is feeling smothered by you — then he is clearly saying he is isn't interested in a closer, more affectionate or more committed relationship with you at this time. So back away. For the man who wrote the second letter, the woman you describe sure appears to have issues with allowing herself to be emotionally involved, and she is keeping you at arms length intentionally.
What both of you are doing obviously isn't working, so try doing something different. I'm going to offer you two choices: First, you could ask the question "What would you need in order to take down your wall, let me in and permit yourself to be closer to me?"
If that question is taken to heart, then it could lead to a very healthy conversation about where your relationship is and where it's going.
But if that question goes nowhere, then you could try saying something more radical: "You are not offering me what I need from this relationship. I need affection, connection, someone who will communicate with me, not be a grouch, not blow me off and who will offer romantic effort, initiative and hope. Would you prefer to end our relationship, because I'm not happy this way?"
If you are bold enough to do this, then you'll know very quickly where you stand and what the other person's feelings and intentions are toward you.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 21st year of publication and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website, http://www.heartrelationships.com. He is not able to respond individually to queries.