Dear Therapist: My Boyfriend Loves Me, but He’s Not Affectionate Enough

I’m tired of feeling like I’m putting more effort into our relationship than he is.

An illustration of a woman hugging the silhouette of her boyfriend
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

I'm in a loving, long-distance relationship with my boyfriend. We’ve been together for three years, and long-distance for one. We’re both graduate students, and, for the most part, I think we have a healthy, caring, and respectful relationship. But over the three years we’ve been together, the same issue has come up consistently: I am an expressive and emotional person who loves affection and attention, and while he will tell me he loves me freely, he is a reserved person who is just not wired to be very demonstrative.

I do my best to be understanding of this and I pay attention to the little things—he’s the most reliable person I know, and takes care of me in many quiet ways. But sometimes that doesn’t feel like enough, and I become resentful because it feels like I am putting more effort into our relationship than he is, even though I appreciate that he is trying.

We’ve moved past this issue a number of times, and each time we make some progress, but the fight continues to recur. I want to be a good partner to him, and set reasonable expectations given the human being he is, but I also don’t want to live my life always wishing my partner was just a little more romantic.

Recently, I’ve also been dealing with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression and have been reaching out to him for support. He’s worried, and tells me he wants to help but doesn’t know how. It does mean a lot to know he wants to help, but I want him to figure out how best to support me—both because I would love if he were more solicitous and because it would reduce his stress as a partner to someone in need.

How do we address this issue in a positive, active way? Do you have specific advice you could give him on being a supportive partner to somebody in an emotional crisis?

Madison, Wis.

Dear Anonymous,

I’m sorry that you’re struggling with this aspect of your relationship and feeling like you don’t have enough support as you go through a difficult time. Yes, there’s a positive and active way to address this issue, but it starts not with advice I can give your boyfriend, but with advice to you, helping you develop a clearer understanding of why you’re feeling so dissatisfied.

One thing I tell many couples when they first come in for therapy is that the more one person believes that his or her partner should be different, the less initiative he or she will take to change things. Most people come in making a case for why the other person needs to improve. Spoiler: That never helps.

So let’s look at the problem you are facing and your response to it. The problem is that you don’t think that your boyfriend demonstrates his love for you in a way that you imagine would feel more satisfying. Your response is to try to get him to perform certain behaviors that conform to your ideas about romance; in doing so, you set up him up for failure and yourself up for disappointment. Even though you’ve been through several rounds of this, you continue to focus on changing him, and that leaves you feeling more lonely, depressed, and anxious.

Of course you want your boyfriend’s love and support, but what I think you can’t see right now is that he’s giving you both: He’s checking in on you, sharing his concern, and asking you what he can do to help. Beyond that, there’s not much he can do, no matter how strong his love for you, because we can’t create inner peace for the people we love the most (something that’s true not just for our partners, but also largely for our children). Your boyfriend doesn’t have the answers to your emotional struggles—nor is he the answer to them. He can be there for you, but he can’t fix your insides for you.

It will be hard for you to know how much of your dissatisfaction is about this relationship, specifically, until you understand more about your loneliness, depression, and anxiety. It might be helpful for you to sort through some of these feelings with a therapist, so that you shift the dynamic in the relationship from one in which you often find your boyfriend wanting (a futile cycle) to one in which you start to get curious about what love, and by extension romance, means to you. Does it mean that your partner intuits what your needs are even though you yourself aren’t clear on that? Does it mean that his way of giving and receiving love looks exactly like yours, and that if you love someone, you can control the way that person loves you back? Does it mean that your desires take precedence over his? And what does love look like from the perspective of the person you’re dating?

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.