I’ll love you forever (just don’t disappoint me)

I found a great guy. No doubt in these early months we are making a big effort to delight each other in every way, and it’s truly amazing how sweet love can be when you do that. We do all sorts of fun things together. We check in every day. We buy things and make things for each other. We can’t get enough of each other in bed. So how do we keep this joyful wheel of reciprocity turning when we are no longer falling in love, just in love?

It’s inevitable that we will let one another down in some way. But my man believes that what could push us apart would not be an offense but a reluctance to acknowledge how we feel, allowing hurt to fester and cause resentment. It’s amazing to hear a man talk about his feelings.

Sound familiar?

The following pattern has repeated a couple of times in my life, and I am anxious to avoid it this time around. I’m a heterosexual woman in her 40s, but ignoring age and sexual orientation for the moment, raise your hand if this scenario sounds familiar to you. My new partner and I are enchanted with each other. We both feel sexy, valued, adored. After the initial fever cools, my partner’s hunger for emotional intimacy seems to be sated. I feel disappointed because I want that closeness more than ever, and wish that he reciprocated those wants. I wonder why it is he’s with me if he doesn’t want to know me deeply. I feel hurt, and my glowing magnetism fades, the very thing that made him attracted to me in the first place. I become more critical, showing my man less of the admiration he craves.

My man doesn’t want to disappoint me, but he doesn’t accept criticism easily either. If I get irritated with him, he will likely withdraw, causing more emotional disconnect. To close the distance between us I will move towards him but in a way he perceives as irritating or aggressive, causing him to shut down further. All of this is, by the way, extremely not sexy, causing eyes to wander, and boots to follow.

Go forth, brave men, into the Land of Emotional Intimacy

Even if my former husband wasn’t polyamorous, our marriage might have fallen apart eventually for the reasons above. Not to lay all the blame on men for failed relationships, but it seems like women in general are less and less willing to accommodate men’s unwillingness to engage with them emotionally. This is good news, because if the concept of empathy flourishes as it is meant to, it could save the world. But as we can see from a broader cultural perspective, women have to have the bravery to own their truth.

Let me get you a beer

A friend of mine who is a therapist says one thing she sees repeatedly is men’s reluctance to take responsibility for their part in relationship difficulties. “Men struggle with apology when a woman feels disappointed,” she says. “They defend themselves rather than own their role. Women friends are more likely to express their feelings, listen to one another, and apologize to each other. A man is less likely to express emotional distress, and will instead be direct with his bro, like ‘You screwed up.’ And his friend will often say, ‘You’re right, I’m a jerk, let me get you a beer.’ In romantic relationships, women, generally, want to discuss their feelings and their partner’s feelings. You have to be a conscious man to want to engage with a woman’s feelings.”

I would advise the restless to think twice before kicking an emotionally stuck man to the curb. I reckon it is unlikely that there are millions of men out there whose model for love is their parents’ happy, mutually supportive marriage. Meaning that anyone who dates men but is unwilling to tolerate one who is maybe not such a great communicator and less-than in touch with his emotions is facing the likelihood of life without a romantic partner.

My advice? People respond better to positive reinforcement than to admonishment. Acknowledge your man’s efforts. Praise him for what he does well. Be the best example of the change you want to see. And keep that joyful wheel of reciprocity turning!

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