My man has a special way of making me feel ordinary

Am I wrong to want him to make me feel like one in a million?

Published March 27, 2007 10:50AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

You've touched upon the nature of artistic temperaments and egos run amok directly and indirectly a number of times. I have a question generally tied in with that tender subject, but I'm wondering more particularly about it as it pertains to relationships. To be succinct, before I really get into it, should being made to feel special by your partner be a relationship requirement?

You see, I'm with a man who is in many respects wonderful. He's bright, ambitious and successful. He's been kind and trustworthy. We share interests. His laugh makes me happy. However, at times, he just doesn't make me feel special. In fact, he makes me feel very ordinary. While one can shrug off the sting of the indifference of the world at large, it hurts to be made to feel ordinary by your partner, by the person who has supposedly chosen you as the one he wants to be with ahead of all others. I don't think it's deliberate on his part: It's not aggressive, he doesn't ignore my calls or deny me affection, and on the rare occasion when he's angry or slightly unkind, he doesn't demonstrate subtle or insidious cruelty.

Is it wrong of me to feel entitled to feeling special around people who are special to me? Not that I think I should be told I'm remarkable all the time, but I'm just wanting that kind of quiet, steady glow of esteem that certain people can sometimes give you.

I'm worried that I'm simply a narcissist and should be grateful for having found this wonderful man. It's complicated by the fact that I've always been told I'm pretty remarkable in most facets of my life by most people. The occasional stranger stops me in the streets to tell me I'm beautiful. I've been very successful both academically and in an esoteric and competitive field. Frankly, he's the only man I've ever been with who hasn't fawned over me a little bit from time to time. I miss that! It keeps the energy in a relationship up, and I always return the sentiments in kind.

I don't think I'm just an emotional sponge, but I'm also at the beginning of those generations who grew up being told how wonderful they were and who had their self-esteem nurtured at every turn. Perhaps my capacity for enduring relationships has been stifled by self-absorption and instead of looking for real love I'm just looking for the emotional equivalent of a skinny mirror.

So, what do you think? I love this man; he says and acts as if he loves me but I'm afraid something vital is missing; I just don't know if I should pursue a lifetime of feeling ordinary. Even worse, what if my presentiment is accurate and I'm really not all that special to him? If so, it's unfair to make him conjure up something that is not there. That's actually a number of questions, but please answer! I'm at a loss and don't want to prejudice anyone in my life against him in case we do go for the lifetime commitment; the time is at hand for those decisions.

Ordinary or Special?

Dear Ordinary,

You are wondering if being made to feel special by your partner should be a relationship requirement. I would say that, for you, it is already a requirement. You have certain reservations about feeling that way, but that's the way you feel. So let us take your needs at face value and see what your options are. We can get into some more esoteric stuff in a moment and no doubt we will.

But first: Does he know what you need? You could tell him outright, you know. You could tell him that you need to feel special, that you need him to do something very special for you so that you will feel loved. How far do you go with that? Do you tell him the exact words he must say, in Italian, in the correct accent and with the appropriate gestures, in the appropriate clothes, in the appropriate candlelight of the appropriate restaurant, with the right band playing the right song at just the right moment? Maybe you do. It's not so crazy. He needs to know what you need.

You may feel, however, that to give him detailed instructions defeats the purpose -- that what you want is the expression of some spontaneous awe and adoration that springs from within. That's a tough one. It's possible that he may feel such a thing but is too cautious to express it. He may be aware that for some women unbridled adoration kindles suspicion of instability or obsession. It can be difficult for a man to know how far to go in expressing his unbridled adoration of a beautiful woman. It may be a question of timing. And it may be a question of precise calibration.

But if he knows what you need, it cannot be so hard for him to come up with it -- if he's really into you, that is. Our culture, structured as it is to facilitate certain rituals of heterosexual seduction and betrothal descended from courtly love traditions, provides roses, diamonds and fancy restaurants at retail rates. Limousines and car services abound, as do string trios and quartets who will play Mozart or Manilow on demand. Even if a man is not romantic at heart, he can ask his friends or a professional. People will gladly advise him on the rituals of romance.

To make such gestures raises questions of taste, appropriateness and sincerity, however. So let us broaden the discussion and allow a little of the esoteric. Let us talk about joy, and the extravagant gesture in a larger sense. Let us suppose that the underlying problem is that the man you love does not seem to have a fire in his eyes or sufficient capacity for joy. You say that men stop you on the street to tell you how beautiful you are. What an extravagant and joyful act! You do not characterize this as harassment but as admiration. So perhaps there is something of the joyful romantic that is missing, something of the visionary of love.

Perhaps you are concerned that he is the kind of man who does not understand why a woman would walk as far down the beach as she can go, picking up starfish as she walks, piling them in her hands until she has a pile of starfish three feet high and is trying to balance them as she walks all the way back to where the man sits in a deck chair, reading; and that when she gets back with the three feet of starfish piled in her hands he does not recognize the irreplaceable moment that has crystallized in the air before his eyes and says something dull and dismissive. His beautiful, young and beguiling girlfriend stands in front of him on the beach, silhouetted by the setting sun, with a pile of starfish in her hands, and he says something so clueless and thick-headed as to cause the whole thing to come crashing down.

Part of what you are looking for, aside from simple personal adoration, is the romantic spirit, correct? A sense of the moment, no? Think of it: On certain days when you walk down the street men stop and tell you how lovely you are. How incredible is that! And also, may I add: How fleeting! If he wants to be with you, shouldn't he recognize that the extraordinary beauty he is with has certain requirements, and that she will not be here like this forever, that what you have is priceless and fleeting? And shouldn't he be at least a little in awe of you? And shouldn't he attempt in some way to memorialize this?

Maybe he styles himself a realist. Maybe also, consider this: A component of your regard for him may arise from his very act of withholding. That is, among all the fawning men who apparently have been falling over you throughout your years of pulchritude, this one man may have distinguished himself precisely by being less easily impressed. That may be something you admire in him, having found it so easily in the past to sway men with your beauty.

But still you want an occasional dose. Anybody would.

So I suggest you consider telling him frankly what is on your mind.

A couple of other things interest me -- if you will indulge. You wonder whether your desires mean you are a narcissist. I imagine not. In my experience, the one thing truly narcissistic people don't do is ask you if you think they're narcissistic! Am I wrong here? It's just my observation.

The other thing that interests me is that you say, "I'm also at the beginning of those generations who grew up being told how wonderful they were and who had their self-esteem nurtured at every turn." You fear you were raised to have unrealistic expectations.

This interests me because I have heard people from time to time complain of a generation that has been given everything and thus has unrealistically high expectations, but I have generally suspected it was nothing but the age-old resentment of one generation by the one preceding it. And I have not closely observed child-rearing practices over the last two decades. Maybe readers will have a quiet, well-reasoned thought or two on this.

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