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Dating Maze #250 - Something Is Off

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

He's tied up with graduate school and her emotional needs aren't being met. Conflict!

Dear Rosie and Sherry,

I've been dating a woman for four months and am very confused. There are some things which I really like that make me want to say, "I want to marry you." She does do many beautiful things which I really admire, like being very generous with her time in helping other people.

But at other times I have concerns which bother me greatly. And I don't know if these concerns are real or fake, deal-breakers or manageable.

Since the beginning of dating I didn't feel like she was expressing her thoughts adequately. Whenever I would probe into an issue, she would respond, "Can't you tell by how I act? I feel like my actions mean so much more than saying things."

On our dates, if I don't actively initiate a conversation, she'll be quiet and have not much to say. So on a recent date, I blatantly did not talk to see if she would, and all she said was, "You don't talk enough." And here I was trying to get her to realize she didn't talk enough!

I am constantly tired, live on coffee and textbooks, and don't eat well.

Our conversations have been more tense lately. The issue causing this is that I have an enormously heavy load of graduate school studies. I am constantly tired, live on coffee and textbooks, go to sleep late, wake up early, don't exercise, and don't eat well.

We've always talked a lot on the phone (like an hour every day) and I used to enjoy those conversations. But now I am always time constrained. So on a recent call -- when we hadn't spoken for three days -- I was very pressured and wanted to get off the phone after 15 minutes. She took it as a very big insult. I tried to explain and apologize, but she just wouldn't give in. It took me over an hour to convince her that I didn't mean to insult her.

It's nice that she likes me so much that she always wants to talk, but I don't know how to handle this. I suggested to her the idea of talking less on the phone, but she got insulted again and said she didn't feel like my first priority. I explained to her why I needed some space to get my life balanced, and also explained to her that it wasn't meant to hurt her but that it's best for our relationship. She said, "Maybe it's best for you but not for me!"

I told her that she needs to take into account another person because that's what a relationship is. I feel like I'm in a hard spot in terms of her ability to compromise. I know that marriage is about compromise, and a person can't say "we'll each give 50%," rather each person has to say "I'll give 100%." But I still need to know she will try to compromise. She just seems so non-understanding or supportive. And she's so hard to please.

Also, she shows a lot of immaturity; sometimes talks very cutesy and childish and it bothers me. Sometimes I think that it's annoying me only because I'm tired and cranky because I have a big test the next day.

On the other hand, she has amazing goals and I'm attracted to her, and we usually have fun together. So I say to myself: You'll never find a woman with so much good, and you're making yourself crazy over-analyzing everything she does, and being so critical of her personality.

People have told me that I am prone to analyze and over-think. They say that I should just let myself feel. What do you think?

Sometimes I feel that I want to marry her, and we'll get through it. However, the immaturity and lack of understanding is really bugging me. And I think that maybe being physically attracted to her is clouding my judgment.

I have this nagging feeling that something is off. I feel like these things are legitimate concerns and I'm asking for trouble by going forward. At this point I'm not even sure if I want to deal with this anymore. But I don't want to give up on something that has potential to be right. I'm so confused that I don't trust my own judgment anymore. Help!


Dear Zach,

Given that your original letter was 5,000 words long -- the longest we've ever received (we edited it down to 700 words for publication) -- we would say that yes, you do tend to over-analyze things. That trait can often get in the way of a developing relationship. During the course of a day, a week, or a month, two people -- dating or married -- can say or do the wrong thing... or the right thing. Over-analyzing makes everyone frustrated and can interfere with the quality of a relationship. Our partners do annoy us from time to time, but we have to be able to accept the whole of our relationship, with our partner's flaws, and say, "Okay, there are things about this person and the way we relate that aren't perfect. They may or may not improve, but as a whole I am happy with our relationship."

You've told us many things that show that you and the woman you are dating are on the right track in many areas. You admire things about her, often enjoy spending time together, and are attracted to her.

You can't let this fester and just hope it will work out.

But something is really bothering you. Before we discuss what that is, we'd like to be clear that this absolutely has to be addressed. It isn't something you can let fester and think that if you decide to get married it will work itself out. You have to be able to come to terms with it before you decide whether this is the right woman for you to marry.

Sometimes, the issue that bothers a person is something they can often overlook or accept, like a particular personality trait. It is something that you yourself have to come to terms with. If you cannot do it within a couple of months, you probably will not be able to do so.

Other times, the issue is something the two people can work together to resolve, like communication issues. Sometimes, they will need help to guide them through a resolution or to develop the skills that need strengthening. We recommend that couples begin to get the help to work on these issues early, before they decide upon engagement.

We want to make an important distinction here. The outside help we are talking about cannot be used to create a relationship. It is only to help build existing skills or help resolve an impasse. In other words, there are certain qualities two people need to develop to have a viable relationship: compatible values and goals, mutual respect, the belief the other is a good person who will make a good spouse, and emotional and physical attraction.

If a couple needs help reaching these basics qualities, then there is a problem with the very foundation of their relationship -- and in all likelihood no amount of help will enable them resolve the problem.

However, a couple who seems to have the basics but has issues with communication skills, etc., outside help can be very beneficial. It is true that there are a number of couples who get married even though they have these communication issues and then try to address them after they are married. But in our experience it is much better to get help and start out on the right foot, rather than engage in what could be years of struggling before those skills are better developed (and some never really develop well).

You need to improve your communication styles.

Why are we saying all of this? Because it seems to us that most of the issues you have described center around the theme of communication. Yes, you over-analyze things, and that causes you to be overly concerned about this woman's imperfections. But the real issue is that the two of you need help with your communication styles. It will help you understand each other better, not jump to conclusions about each other, and not get upset that the other person doesn't understand you.

For example, she may need a little help opening up about her thoughts. Her natural communication style may be indirect, a style that many women have (read John Gray's Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus to understand it more), so that even if she doesn't say something directly she assumes you've figured it out. This leads to a lot of confusion on your part because you respond to a more direct communication style. Help with your styles of communication could enable you to understand each other better and stop trying to read messages that the other person didn't intend.

How should you talk to this young woman about the fact you would like to work with her on communication? One way may be to personalize it, by telling her that you like and admire her and want to be able to plan a future with her -- but realize that you need to improve your own communication style and would like her help with that.

It also seems that she has a hard time seeing another person's perspective. This is a skill that sometimes takes a little time and maturity to learn. She could benefit from the advice of someone who is more experienced in life.

Study Load

Now let's get to the issue of your overwhelming study load. The two of you need to strike a balance between your need to study and your needs as a couple. For example, it seems to us that you are holding back on explaining to her about how difficult it is for you to keep your life in balance, and you resent her for not understanding your studying needs.

It's also clear that you need some help ordering your life. No time to eat or exercise?! How do expect to succeed in anything -- school, relationships, spirituality -- if you are not taking care of your basic needs? On top of that, as it now stands you don't have enough time and mental energy to devote to developing a relationship with this woman. Even if you were to improve your communication skills, your chaotic personal life has to be straightened out before you can even begin to consider marrying her. You will have to have a clear head and a balanced perspective to deal with important issues like living and financial arrangements.

As much as the two of you like each other, both of you have to understand the crippling time constraints you are currently under, and work together to determine how much time you can devote to each other. You can talk about the areas that you need to address, how you are going about it, and how she can be helpful -- e.g. striking a balance between your study needs and your needs for telephone time and time together as a couple.

It could be that you're not conveying your ideas to her in a way that tells her, "I hear you. I know my having to study so much is hard for you. It's hard for me, too." It could be that in this context you need a little help being emotionally supportive to her.

But you really do need to pull yourself together. There are a few concrete steps you could take to help in this regard: Can you get help with meal planning? Can you squeeze in exercise three days a week at school?

You need to get your life under control.

It is hard for a lot of people to multi-task like this, but you should seek some help in how to optimally go to school, study, have a personal life, and get enough sleep. You will feel a lot more in control of your life, and will have more emotional energy to devote to your relationship. And that is our number one recommendation: Enlist the help of a parent, a friend, or even a professional time organizer to help you get your everyday life back into control.

Our number two recommendation is that you and this young woman get some help with your communication skills. It sounds like there are many good qualities in your relationship, and improving the way you communicate with each other can help you eliminate a lot of the misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and confusion each of you feels from time to time.

Our third recommendation is that you learn to not over-analyze things so much.

Toward the Future

You are right that this courtship cannot continue the way it is going. Currently, both of you want different things from each other and from your lives in the short term -- even though your long terms goals seem to be compatible. You may benefit from a third party who can help you balance your competing needs and wants: your need to have more depth to your discussions, her need to be with you, your need to devote the right amount of time to school, etc. That third party can be someone you know who's good at helping people sort through and order their priorities, or someone who has been trained in this area, such as a certified life coach.

This mediation may turn out to be the best thing for your relationship's success. Or it may highlight the fact that even though the two of you have a lot going for you, the serious problem with short-term goals and expectations means that the relationship isn't right for you at this point in your lives.

It could very well be that she isn't ready for a relationship in which the man in her life is so heavily involved in school that he cannot put the time and emotional energy into the relationship that she feels she needs. Some people are better equipped emotionally than others to do this. Certainly, you must have heard of other courtships that had difficulties because one or both people were in medical school, law school, dental school, or had an internship that left them with limited time for a personal life. And yet, there are other couples who manage, because their temperaments are better suited to independence, or because the time they spend together is sufficient to fill each other's emotional needs.

We hope that you can find a person to help you, so that within the next couple of weeks you can gain the clarity to figure out where you want to go with your relationship.

Rosie & Sherry

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