I see why you feel like you’re putting more effort into the relationship than he is, but I’m not sure that your boyfriend would agree. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to try to become a person you’re not, which is essentially what you’re asking of him. If I asked him what it was like to be your boyfriend, I’ll bet he’d reply with some version of, “I love her deeply, but I can’t seem to please her. Even when I do, a day or week later, she’ll be disappointed with me again.” From his perspective (and yours as well), he’s putting a lot into your relationship—his free expressions of love, his commitment and reliability, his quiet ways of taking care of you, his attempts to offer support for your struggles—but instead of letting any of that fill you up, it drains right out, as if his love were going into a colander rather than a bowl.
You might also consider: It’s hard to be romantic on command. It’s hard to be demonstrative when you’re walking on eggshells, wondering every time if your efforts will be met with approval or criticism. It’s hard to love someone who can’t always take it in. In these ways, he’s expending a tremendous amount of energy. And despite how hard that is, he’s still choosing to be with you because he sees something wonderful in you. Some might call that romantic.
Just as therapists will suggest to couples, “Before you say that you don’t feel heard, it will help to consider how well you listen,” I would suggest that before you say that you don’t feel loved in the way you want, it will help you to consider how well you’re loving your boyfriend in the way he wants. Are you showing appreciation not just for what he does for you, but for who he is? Do you communicate your delight in him in ways that matter to him and not in ways that you prefer affection to be shown? Nobody enjoys being with a partner who’s thinking, You’d be perfect for me, if only you …
You might also think back to earlier relationships and whether you’ve felt a similar sense of dissatisfaction with your previous partners. Maybe these boyfriends, too, couldn’t seem to satisfy your ideas of romance. Or maybe they were sufficiently demonstrative and romantic, but left you feeling disappointed in other key ways. If there’s a pattern, it’s worth paying attention to. Or perhaps this is your first serious relationship, and you have certain ideas about love and romance—partly from the culture, partly from whatever you experienced or witnessed in your family growing up—that have left you with a void you aren’t aware of but that you expect a partner to fill.
At this point, you have a wonderful opportunity—to learn more about this void. You may find that by exploring this, you’ll see your boyfriend through a different lens, or you may ultimately decide that you two aren’t indeed compatible. But whatever you learn about yourself in this process will help you to feel less depressed, anxious, and lonely—both independently and with any partner you choose.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.