Six questions for my boyfriend

I think I love him but when I started to say so, I kind of trailed off

Published January 19, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

Rain is coming. The sky is turning silver-gray and pressing down upon the sea.

Four days of brilliant sunshine and chilly, star-loud nights above Tomales Bay. Then this: Slept 12 hours, awakened sluggish and thick, craving eggs and sausage.

Tuesday someone interviewed me about the advice columnist known as Sugar, whom I admire and who has been writing her brilliant and affecting column anonymously but the Rumpus but will reveal her identity on Valentines Day. I was coming down off nitrous from the dentist and hadn't eaten and was still half-high from the Tomales sky and some questions the person asked me I could not answer because I do not know the public mind and some things only Sugar could answer. But I talked about how writing this column is an exhilarating chance to pioneer a new and literate approach to an overlooked and moribund popular form, and I surmised that Sugar might feel the same way, though you'd really have to ask her, now wouldn't you?

The reporter and I met in the Hotel Rex, which is where the Portuguese Artists Colony will be moving after our show at FivePoints Arthouse this Sunday the 22nd.

Dear Cary,

How can I tell if 1) my über-rational boyfriend is in love with me?

I've been in a relationship for nine months with a man I think I should love -- but I can't tell if he loves me or not. In fact, we have never said those words to one another. I tried saying it once, but it felt wrong, to the point where I couldn't complete my sentence. "I still haven't told you that I ...," I said, and it sort of trailed off.

At this stage of my life, it seems to me that this knowledge is very important. I am nearing 30, and I'd like to have a baby within the next six years. That means I'd have to start trying to have a child in at least three or four years, meaning that I ought to get married within the next two or three years, so I'd better not waste my time on a relationship that isn't going to develop properly.

There are many reasons why I want to love him. On paper, and from a purely biological point of view, I consider him quite attractive. He has a tall, strong frame with a pretty face, and he smells great. He's a brilliant scientist, a great cook, and has good taste in books. From a practical, long-term-relationship point of view, he is financially well-off, cleans up after himself, exercises constantly, and works hard but not too hard. Also, he's generous (donates lots of money to good causes), cares about the welfare of animals and the environment, and is completely trustworthy and honest. His only real flaws are introversion and mild OCD-ism, but I actually am quite familiar with and respect these qualities.

So here's the thing -- he never expresses affection verbally, and only expresses a minimal level of physical affection outside having sex. He never praises me or tells me I'm attractive. He also doesn't like casual forms of physical affection, like putting his arm around me or kissing me (even in private). On the other hand, he expresses affection by spending a lot of time with me, communicating frequently, and being very helpful with small things. Aside from whether he loves me or not, I constantly debate whether 2) I can deal with the lack of physical/verbal affection, which genuinely depresses me from time to time. I do think he has made some concessions and become more affectionate overall, but I don't think his set point will change very much.

At one point, I got really upset about all of this. I told him that even if he had feelings for me, I wouldn't know unless he expressed them in ways that I could objectively feel and understand. I also said that affection was something that was very important to me in relationships. He responded by saying that he did have feelings for me, but thought that it felt fake to express them constantly. He also seemed to think that demonstrations of affection weren't that important to him. What was important, he said, was that he enjoyed spending time together with the person. The conversation ended with him saying that he "liked [me] and liked spending time with [me]." Those seemed like very difficult words for him to say.

Now, as background, he seems to be someone who is very picky about relationships. From what I can tell, this is his longest relationship; he's never had one that lasted more than a couple of months, and he is older than me. He was in his mid-20s when he had his first kiss. He says he never stays in a relationship that he isn't happy in, so I can only deduce that he is happy, considering that he hasn't broken up with me yet. There are a few other factors that are probably significant, including that he took me to his hometown and that we've met each other's parents multiple times.

In considering all of this, I'm haunted by a couple of previous relationships. One example is my boyfriend prior to this one, who was always physically affectionate to the point of being embarrassing but ultimately insisted, after over a year together, that he wasn't in love with me and couldn't love me. The second example is my first boyfriend, who waited an entire year to tell me he loved me, so I knew he really meant it; I also knew that he was willing to marry me. At the same time, he was very passive and I felt like I was doing all the work, so I broke up with him.

And of course, underlying the usual issues of love and affection, I want to know -- 3) will he stand by me? If I get fat or lose a limb, 4) would he abandon me? If a large, toothy animal pounced on us, 5) would he run away, or would he give it a whack? If I do something dumb or we get in a fight, 6) would he forgive me? I know these are big questions, but how do I figure out the answers given the limited timeframe I have?

Sleeplessly Speculating in San Francisco

Dear Sleeplessly Speculating,

I wonder what would happen if he married you: Would he remain loyal because he had made a vow, or would he find a way to think himself out of it once the emotional demands became too overwhelming?

My guess is that if you were to marry him he would be loyal, so he would stand by you; he would be  courageous, so he would fight for you; but a terrible fight, were you to have one, might scar him to the core. He might not rise from it. He seems emotionally fragile but morally strong. So where it is possible to make a good choice, he would make one, but if blindsided he might collapse in cognitive meltdown, unable to process your pure animal rage.

He says he never stays in a relationship he isn't happy in. His longest previous relationship was two months. What would stop him from leaving you if he became unhappy? Moral commitment? I wonder. And what would happen if, despite his unhappiness, once married, he stayed on principle? Would he retreat rather than grow?

For you, it seems that in marrying him you would be trading physical affection and kind words for healthy kids and social success. Do you have it in you to do that? Could you survive it? You would be starving a part of yourself. Even if you believed that you could make the sacrifice, that part of you that is being starved might struggle to get what it needs by other means -- sabotaging the relationship, driving you to seek affection outside the marriage, slowly poisoning your love for him.

Since you are contemplating making a marriage that you know in advance will not give you certain things that you need to be happy, can you get what you need outside the marriage? No one relationship meets all of anyone's needs. But meeting certain needs outside the marriage is problematic -- our understanding being that meeting those needs is precisely what the marriage is for. Like sex. If you're not getting sex in your marriage, you're sort of stuck. Affection is a close second, but if you have an affectionate and loving family, perhaps you can get some of it there.

Here is another question: Do you need affection in general, or do you need it from him specifically? If you need that affection from him specifically, in order to know that he loves you, then you will be requiring him to change, and you have already noted that he is unlikely to change very much.

You do love him, sort of, don't you? But is there something about him that would make you stay with him even if his tall frame cracked and he were crumpled like a grocery receipt?

It must be said that no future is ever how we imagine it to be, so we live in an uncertain yet unyielding present, asking by the second, Where am I? Am I where I belong? Am I being true to the spirit of me that dwells behind my breastbone, behind my navel, between my eyes and in my skull, in my hands that decide where they want to go before I give them permission, in my feet that walk me where I don't know I'm going? Is it safe to cross here? Is he who he says he is and can I trust him?

Then we dive in.

By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coupling Since You Asked