She Said, He Said: I want it to work out but he won’t change
Dear Lori and Jeff:
My boyfriend and I have been together for almost three years and I love him more than I've loved anyone else. He's smart, fun and always there for me. The problem is I'm comfortable with my emotions but he's closed off and won't really let me in. I want him realize how lucky he is to have me in his life and open up to me, but I really don't think he'll change. I'm 34 and thinking about marriage. I'm just not sure I could spend the rest of my life with someone who is so emotionally unavailable. I've asked him to see a counselor, but he says there's no reason to. How can I get him to let me in?
Lori and Jeff: There are a multitude of views for any given situation, and we need to narrow down the problem a little more before creating a vision for your relationship's future. It's important to understand that we all have emotions, but each individual's way of expressing and managing those feelings is as unique as their fingerprint. Your way of navigating emotions includes processing with another, but your partner may need something very different. With that said, we're curious about how his divergence from your norm came to be seen as a problematic. Are you left feeling vulnerable because you're sharing your emotions and he's not? Do you feel like he's withholding something from you by not being emotionally expressive? Or is your worry based on seeing him deal with his feelings in an unhealthy way (substance use, outbursts, isolation)?
If his unmanaged emotions are creating toxicity in the relationship, you may have valid concerns. This is particularly true if he is unwilling to explore getting help. If this is where the relationship currently stands, you'll need to do a deep dive and find out why you're still hanging on.
Jeff: Alternately, if he's willing and able to support your emotions, and has a healthy process for managing his own, we need to look at your expectations. He has a right to draw a line in the sand and not be pressured into becoming a verbal-emotional processor. The solution then is not to manipulate him into giving you what you want, but for you to get clear on whether you can accept him as he is. We've worked with numerous couples who shared similar challenges. One common theme is that the qualities that initially attracted partners to each other are often two sides of the same coin. Were you drawn to your partner for his steadiness or even-temperament? His rational or analytical strengths? Perhaps it was his ability to get things done. Many individuals with these strengths tend to be less expressive emotionally. They acknowledge their feelings and manage them, but utilize logic and intellect as their life compass.
Lori: This is one area where opposites often attract. Individuals more in tune to emotion tend to appreciate the groundedness of the rational individual, while the rational individuals are drawn to the passion of those emotionally in tune. The balance can work beautifully, so long as each partner is willing to have full acceptance of the other's strengths and limitations. Understand that asking for an emotionally expressive partner is an invitation to the full spectrum. Do you really want your partner to be more emotional? Are you ready for the highs and lows, the fears, sadness or anger? More importantly, would you want to give away the emotional space you hold in the relationship and focus on supporting his needs, or be willing to double the (dare I say) drama that us emotionally driven individuals ride on a regular basis?
Lori and Jeff: Ultimately, the only wrong way to move forward is continuing to focus on him needing to change. You'll have to decide if this is the person you want to be with, acknowledging all of his strengths, and recognizing that a more emotionally sensitive partner will likely come up short in many other ways compared to your current guy. We encourage clients to create a list of non-negotiable qualities they need to find in a partner. If emotionally expressive doesn't make your top 5, don't let it be a deal-breaker. Lastly, you say you want him to let you in. What if he already has?