‘My Boyfriend Isn’t Interested in Helping Me Out’

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Dear Polly,

I am not particularly interested in marriage. For me (and just for me, I realize people vary widely on this), marriage makes the most sense for couples who want to have kids, and that’s something I am certain I don’t want. So, while my dude and I have been dating for nearly five years, conversations about commitment haven’t come up a lot. I suppose I thought that he, like me, was interested in the long-term relationship part without some of the formal arrangements (wedding, kids) most people do.

He moved in with me about two years ago, which was sort of the beginning of our trouble. I had purchased a home only to be laid off a year later. That transition ended up being great for my emotional well-being — I’m a freelance graphic designer and I love it, but I don’t make anything like the kind of money I was making before. I’ve come to depend on his half of the mortgage to make the payments on time. I’m still self-sufficient — I’ve never asked him for money, though he’s certainly heard me complain/worry about my finances. He has a job that pays well, and over the past year and a half, I’ve gone through periods of resenting him for not offering to help when, for example, my health insurance went up by several hundred dollars a month. It’s nothing I would ever want him to feel obligated to do, but it feels like something where, if the shoe were on the other foot, I would want to help him.

But I didn’t say anything about it because I was afraid it would sound like I was asking him for money, or I expected him to support me. I figured he was just a very independent person with that stuff. A few months ago, his sister was going through a rough time and he co-signed a lease so she could move out of her situation (she has terrible credit) and threw himself into helping her pack and move and get set up in the new place. To be clear, I think this is a fantastic trait in a person. I WANT to be with someone who shows up selflessly for his family like that. But it also made clear one painful reality: He doesn’t see me as his family.

He claims that this isn’t the case, but it’s not borne out by any evidence. When he talks about problems within his family, he refers to them as “our” problems; there’s a sense of shared responsibility. And while I think his family sometimes asks too much from him (he’s often the rescuer/problem solver/adult in the room), I appreciate that he’s always willing to jump in and help.

So the other day I asked him what he would do if he were a millionaire and I wanted to do something that didn’t make much money. Would he be willing to support me if it wouldn’t hurt him in any significant financial way? Or is the principle of financial independence more important to him than, say, me working on a creative project I really care about?

You can probably guess just by virtue of the fact that I’m writing you. He would not. “Because of the principle of it.” He said if I got really sick or something and needed him to cover my expenses for a while, he would, but seemed to admit it grudgingly.

I have no idea what to think about this. My gut tells me that it’s just fucked up — that I’ve been with someone for five years who doesn’t think of me as family, and doesn’t want to. My brain doesn’t understand what the problem is: I’m not the type to ask to borrow money — possibly to a fault — and I’ve never, EVER, pictured myself being financially dependent on a significant other. I don’t want to be in that position and would do almost anything to avoid it.

Still, knowing that he wouldn’t help hurts. If our (hypothetical) roles were reversed and I was the millionaire, I would have so much fun helping my family and friends with what they needed. It wouldn’t be a question. So now I have to decide what to do about the fact that I would do something for him that he wouldn’t do for me.

As someone who has read many letters along these lines, perhaps you will not be surprised that this isn’t just about money. I feel like he goes out of his way to keep me at arm’s length. He seems apathetic about our relationship unless I’m angry at him about something and then he either tries to say whatever he needs to in order to make me less mad, or he storms off by himself and we don’t talk about it for the rest of the night. We’re currently in couple’s therapy and trying to work through this, but that’s only because I bugged the shit out of him. He hates going. In short, I think he would be perfectly happy pretending all of this is fine and avoiding conflict or serious discussion for the rest of our lives.

That said, it’s not the first time I’ve felt like a partner (or friend or family member) didn’t “love me enough.” I know this has, at least in part, to do with the way I grew up and I have just started seeing a therapist on my own to figure out how much of this is my shit and how much is our relationship’s shit. I’m worried that if I break up with him, I’ll find out that he wasn’t the problem, I was always the problem and will have ended a relationship with, truly, one of the best people I’ve ever known over my b.s.

On top of that, I actually CAN’T afford my mortgage without him paying half my house is a one-bedroom (thus too small for a roommate I’m not literally sleeping in the same bed as), plus I’m a 35-year-old graphic-design nerd who doesn’t drink or do drugs and is generally uncool. And I’m dating a guy who gets me and loves me and is kind to me. I worry that if we break up, I won’t find that again and I’ll regret ending things over a stupid hypothetical that probably won’t ever happen.

What should I do, Polly? I’ve been going around and around about this for months, and I’m tired and scared and sad. Please help.

Sincerely,

Not a Millionaire

Dear NAM,

Even though you feel like you’re at an impasse, you and your boyfriend match in many ways. You’re both incredibly afraid of honest, open communication, direct statements of need and desire, messiness, compromise, and collaboration. You both prefer to feel independent, in control, and safe from the uncertainties and unknowns of the world.

You left a full-time job so you could work from home, in a one-bedroom house that you purchased by yourself. You’ve flourished in your new life as a freelance graphic artist, in part because life is more relaxing when you don’t have to deal with other people’s personalities all day long. You’re a self-proclaimed nerd who likes to get stuff done in isolation. Let me be clear in case that sounds stigmatizing at all: Even though I’m an extrovert in many ways, I’m also a lot like you. I love to work hard on my own, without interruptions. I didn’t really enjoy work, in fact, until I had the solitude to enjoy it.

When it comes to finances, you’ve never wanted to feel dependent on anyone else. So when your health-insurance costs increased and things got tough, you didn’t ask for help. Instead, you presented this hypothetical scenario to your boyfriend: If you were a millionaire, would you share with me? The answer devastated you: He wouldn’t.

It’s understandable that you’d ask. But it’s also telling that THIS is how you’re choosing to talk about something that has already been getting under your skin for a long time. You wanted to have a clean, controlled, abstract conversation about something that’s very messy and emotional. You chose to discuss a hypothetical rather than address reality.

In other words, your boyfriend is keeping you at arm’s length, and you’re keeping him at arm’s length, too. You’ve both wanted to make sure that there was no confusion around boundaries, no unexpected disturbances in The Force. And even though you might believe that no one has really loved you enough, you should examine whether or not you’ve given your love as freely as you think you have. Because I’m guessing that you don’t like to be needed.

This is something I’ve been looking at in myself a lot lately. Whenever I feel a little neglected, which is a knee-jerk reaction of mine when I’m down, I try to ask myself what kind of relationship I’ve established with the person in question. Even when I’m thinking, I would never act the way she’s acting! I would want to show up and be generous!, it’s not hard to see why a lot of people would experience me as remote or rejecting, based on the way I operate from day to day. I need a lot of time alone. I don’t check in with people that often.

So even though I might occasionally feel like I want more from someone, I don’t consistently give as much as I could. I’m not saying that should change, but at the very least, my historical bad attitude about other people’s lack of generosity needs to change, because I’m not that present or that available or that consistent myself.

I’m mentioning this not because I think your boyfriend is perfect and you’re to blame for things, but because I think you have to look closely at the relationship you used to want versus the relationship you want right now. My sense is that your needs and desires are changing as you get older. But if you want more from your boyfriend, you’re going to have to stick your neck out, make yourself vulnerable, and dare to state, directly, that you want more. Considering what I know about you, that’s not going to be that easy for you to do — which is why you have to recognize your reticence and your distaste for confrontation going into it.

You also have to recognize that your boyfriend’s rigid boundaries make a certain kind of sense. He has utterly porous boundaries with his family, to the point where he feels obligated to “rescue” his sister and take on her financial obligations. My guess is that he’s a very black-and-white person who doesn’t like to feel out of control, so he tends to either give way too much or nothing at all. When someone in his family needs something, he steps in and fixes it. He doesn’t sit down with them first and have a complicated, involved conversation about what should happen next. Instead, he just ACTS. He SAVES. He FIXES. He doesn’t feel like he has the option to do otherwise. He doesn’t feel comfortable ASKING FOR EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTS.

Likewise, you would rather go into debt trying to pay your own expensive health-insurance bills than have a brief conversation with your boyfriend in which you could run the risk of implying that you want him to support you in some small way. You say that you would hate to be financially dependent on a significant other and you “would do almost anything to avoid it.” You don’t feel comfortable ASKING FOR EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT.

Historically, you have both wanted to stay in control at all costs. You haven’t wanted to wade into difficulties and see what happens next. You’ve established clear, strong boundaries, even when those boundaries start to feel rigid and prevent you from feeling connected, loved, adored, understood, respected.

So now you’re furious over a hypothetical. And he’s drawing a line in the sand using a hypothetical. This picture is all about fear and control.

But that’s not how real-life relationships work. In fact, the more you try to exert control and avoid the things you fear, the more frightening and out of control your relationship starts to feel. When two people refuse to expose themselves, tell the truth, admit to irrational desires, and humbly ask for exactly what they want, their relationship often devolves into chaos and distrust. Both partners try to stay safe, yet both partners only feel more afraid and avoidant and confused.

When you live with someone for a long time and you love them a lot, crazy shit comes up that tests both of you. It’s not possible to keep things clean and controlled in a real-world relationship. Both partners want things, very naturally, that are not logical. Both humans become extremely inconvenient and taxing to each other from time to time.

Humans are strange. We want things that are embarrassing. We want things that we don’t feel like we deserve, sometimes. We want them in spite of all logical reasons we can come up with NOT to want them. Accepting that fact and forgiving it in yourself and others is an important part of building love and trust and a satisfying life with someone else.

And nothing is more divine than giving something to someone you love that’s slightly illogical or almost unjustified. Nothing is more divine than asking for what you want and getting it, even though you’re probably not remotely worthy of it. Nothing is better than feeling free to say, out loud, I NEED A WEEK OFF FROM DISHES or I WOULD LOVE A BACKRUB EVEN THOUGH I HAVEN’T GIVEN YOU ONE IN A WHILE AND THAT’S STUPID AND I’M STUPID BUT I WANT ONE ANYWAY or CAN YOU SIT HERE FOR A MINUTE WHILE I COMPLAIN ABOUT MY JOB IN THE MOST TEDIOUS MANNER IMAGINABLE?

Right now my husband is golfing. I don’t like golf and I don’t even like the idea of golfing, in principle. There was a very scrappy public golf course right next to my house growing up. The guys who golfed there were not rich guys. But they still wore pastel-colored golf shirts and they sometimes acted pissy when we kids harmlessly stood near the gigantic swath of grass designed for their dumb leisure activity, usually because they assumed we’d stolen their balls (a common male paranoia!), so I quite logically concluded that golf was stupid and golfers were assholes.

Now imagine that you asked me 15 years ago, “Hey, if your future husband regularly took the day off from work and left dishes in the sink and neglected multiple pesky tasks around the house just so he could put on an ugly shirt and swing a golf club for a few hours among other white men in ugly shirts, how would you feel about that?” I would probably tell you that just based on principle, I would never marry such a man.

But my husband needs what he needs. He likes the ugly shirts, even after I inform him solemnly that they are hideous and bad. He has a very good golf swing, and when I go golfing with him (I do like to drive the cart!), other golfers often admire his amazing swing and admire the way he puts that stupid-ass ball down exactly where he intends it to go. Typically I don’t care where the fucking ball goes, I’m just driving the cart and eating Salsa Verde Doritos and bad hot dogs and icy cold cans of Coke and also a Snickers bar, a four-course golfing meal, all the while driving erratically. I like to eat the worst things as a reward for being there, listening to him prattle on about nine-irons and five-irons and wind and sand and slanting grass and who gives a shit?

But when we have to share the course with another ugly-shirt-wearing pair (yuck!) and talk to them (terrible!), I do appreciate how they eventually warm up to my husband’s incredibly magical swing and his excellence as a golfer (when he isn’t sucking, which does happen on and off, otherwise he would’ve left me to join the tour years ago). I appreciate their appreciation of his skills, since I don’t give a fuck myself and can’t even tell where the tiny cursed ball landed in the first place.

I love my stupid husband, is the point. Principle and control and abstracts have nothing to do with it. He loves golf, so I love golf a tiny bit. I love the very short green grass a lot. I love a bad hot dog. I love my dumb handsome husband swinging his stupid overpriced clubs in the sunshine.

I’m not saying your partner deserves such blind adoration, not at all. The idea that he GOES OUT OF HIS WAY to keep you at arm’s length seems unfair. And also this: “He seems apathetic about our relationship unless I’m angry at him about something and then he either tries to say whatever he needs to in order to make me less mad, or he storms off by himself and we don’t talk about it for the rest of the night.” He sounds very rigid and distant and controlling.

But I do think there is a slight chance that he’s a good person who just needs to open up and recognize that he tends to give all or nothing and act on principle and maintain control at the expense of feeling his way through life and staying flexible. This sounds familiar to me. I have family members like this! As a result, I know that good people can also be extreme control freaks. Right or wrong, he is afraid of putting you in the same category as his family. He might KNOW right now that he will never, ever, see you as a part of his family, and if that’s the case, he should tell you. But he is also the kind of person who might SAY such a thing and then regret it. He’s someone who probably says stuff he regrets a lot, because he’s not that good at feeling his feelings. He thinks “What is logical here?” and then strings together words that have nothing whatsoever to do with how he feels in his heart.

Staying with your boyfriend probably won’t be that easy even if he does concede that he should be more flexible and more supportive. Rigid people are a rough ride. I guess I do wonder if you haven’t grown out of this relationship. Because it seems to me that, even though the two of you match right now, you might’ve been someone who was much more fluid and sensitive and needy in the past, and you grew into someone who exerted more and more control over her life and her circumstances in order to factor out scary, chaotic shit and dysfunctional people and unknowns. That process is natural. But now you’re asking yourself what you really want, how you really want to live, and whether or not this relationship is enough for you. You want more generosity and affection now. That is a real and pure need, and you should take it seriously.

If your boyfriend can face himself and you can face yourself, it could work. He might come to recognize how much he struggles with control and voicing his truest feelings and come to see how those things stand in the way of his most generous urges and his happiness. But if he keeps you at arm’s length over and over and never seems remotely inclined to change that, I would ask yourself if you can really stay with someone who doesn’t match how big and bright and shiny you’re becoming, now that you finally feel safe enough to be open to the world. (That’s the funny thing about working from home. For some of us, it brings just enough security and peace that we can finally go out and face the world again instead of retreating.)

I wouldn’t worry about the risk of not finding someone better or not being able to afford your house anymore. You’ll meet new people who excite you, trust me, and you can take on more work or take a side gig and get through this. Notice that you’re in the habit of defining what you don’t want instead of examining what you want with all of your heart. It’s time to follow your heart instead of living inside of your fear.

But the biggest question right now is: Are you ready to ask for exactly what you want? Are you ready to hear your boyfriend ask for exactly what HE wants? That doesn’t mean you have to give it, mind you. Giving or not giving is not the main point of this exercise. The main point is for you both to wade into the muck together. Once you do that, once you get messy together and it’s embarrassing and you’re ashamed of the things you both want and need and hope for in spite of yourselves, that’s when the real relationship begins.

Embracing what you want is always a little dirty and gross, but it’s also satisfying, like eating Salsa Verde Doritos in the bright sunshine. This is your life. You can do whatever you want. What do you want the most? Say it out loud. It will surprise you how brave and happy and unafraid you feel when you do that.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘My Boyfriend Isn’t Interested in Helping Me Out’