Dear Therapist: My Boyfriend Is Sending Me Mixed Signals

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Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My boyfriend and I have been together for nearly two years now. It’s overall a wonderful relationship that brings us both so much happiness. We’re very well suited for each other—similar interests, similar outlooks, but with enough differences to ensure that we’re still our own individuals. It is by far the happiest and healthiest relationship I’ve ever had.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I moved into his apartment, and a few weeks ago we made this a permanent living situation. However, this latter step was not without its issues. My roommates all decided that they were moving out, so the decision not to renew my lease was actually not mine. When I brought up living together officially, my boyfriend immediately went on the defensive and asked for time to think about it.  

I explained that I would be happy to find my own place if he was not comfortable with me moving in officially, but let him know that I needed to make a decision fairly quickly due to having only a month to pack, find a place to live, and move in the midst of the pandemic. He asked for a week to think about it, and I was exceptionally stressed all week while he carried on more or less as normal. When we sat down to discuss this, he explained that living together permanently was not something he had previously thought about and he just wasn’t sure.

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I was surprised and upset that after five months of living together during exceptionally stressful circumstances, including both of us working from home, the idea of making it permanent had not occurred to him. Eventually, after another few days, he realized that he did want to live together, and we do now, but the way the conversation went was not what I was expecting, and it has really tarnished my excitement about living together formally.

I now am incredibly worried that he’s not on the same page as me about moving our relationship forward. I would like to speak with him about his timelines for marriage and children—I’m nearly 31, and feel that if he isn’t on the same page as I am regarding these big issues, I will need to reassess my feelings about the relationship. But given how he reacted to the idea of living together, I just have no idea how to bring these issues up. I don’t want to be pushy, but my biological clock is a real issue, and he knows that I desperately want children (and I know that he is fairly sure he does). I don’t want to feel like I am waiting for him to come to these decisions and for everything to happen on his timeline. I want for us to make important decisions about our lives and relationship together.

Is that too much to ask? How can I bring up these important topics without putting him on the defensive? I just feel so stuck, and I have no idea what to do.

Alice
London


Dear Alice,

It sounds like you’re doing a lot of guessing about what your boyfriend might be feeling, and at the same time, you’re afraid to share your true feelings with him.

The pandemic and your roommate situation prompted a conversation that was stressful for both of you, but it has showed you a door that will lead you to a deeper intimacy and better communication skills. Now, instead of making assumptions about the state of your relationship, you can have the kinds of conversations that would have been helpful all along. You just need to open that door.

So let’s go back to how things were pre-pandemic. You say that this is the best relationship you’ve ever had, and because you’re so happy, you’ve made three assumptions: first, that you and your boyfriend are compatible for the long term; second, that your boyfriend is as happy as you are; and third, that being happy in this relationship means the same thing to him that it does to you.

The thing about assumptions, of course, is that they might not be accurate. In terms of compatibility, you may seem well suited in the day-to-day, but I don’t know if you have enough information to make an assessment about your long-term compatibility. For instance, you say that you “desperately” want children, and that your boyfriend is “fairly sure” that he does. “Fairly sure” is very different from desperately wanting, and at almost two years into a relationship in your early 30s, this seems like a big life issue not to have discussed more fully. It’s of course possible that you have the same ideas about future children, but it’s also possible that you’re not as compatible as you think you are. You won’t know until you talk about this openly.

The same goes for your mutual happiness in the relationship. I wonder how your boyfriend has expressed his happiness to you. Do you know what makes him happy in the relationship, and if there’s anything that he’s unhappy about, is there an open line of communication for him to share that with you? Sometimes I see couples where one person is so invested in the happiness of the relationship that the other person feels as if there’s a tacit agreement not to bring up anything that might be problematic, because the person invested in the relationship’s happiness won’t be open to hearing it, or will try to talk the person out of those feelings (“But how can you say that? We have so much fun together!”), or will distort the issue (turning “Sometimes I just want some space after work” into “So you’re saying you don’t like spending time with me?”).

Even if your boyfriend is perfectly happy in this relationship, you might have different ideas about what that implies. For you, a happy relationship leads to marriage and children, but for him, a happy relationship might mean keeping things as they are.

All of which is to say: The reason you’re on edge is that despite his agreement to live together, the conversation you had wasn’t complete—and now’s the time to continue the discussion. You’re afraid of being “pushy,” but would you want to marry somebody you’re afraid to talk to? If your boyfriend is in fact the right partner for you, he should be the person you feel most able to share your fears and concerns with—and vice versa.

This means that just as you’ll want him to understand more about your inner world—how confused you were by his ambivalence about moving in together, how this triggered concern as to whether you have the same ideas about where this relationship is headed and on what timeline—you’ll need to make space for his. For example, do you know what was going on for him that week of mulling things over, and what left him unable to make a decision even after having that week to consider things? Did he “realize” he wanted to live together after telling you he was still unsure because you communicated that there would be negative consequences if he didn’t (you gave him an ultimatum that you live together or break up; you communicated your anger and hurt feelings by being less affectionate or generally unpleasant to be around)? Or did he come to this realization on his own? If so—and this is most important—why?

Right now you’ve both swept his hesitation under the rug, but if he has concerns, it’s important to understand their nature. You say he hadn’t considered living together, but it might also be that he had considered it and wasn’t sure how he felt about it. There’s a difference, too, between his wondering whether he’s ready to move in with somebody in general, and his wondering whether he knows that he does want to move in with somebody but isn’t sure that this person is you.

You asked how you can bring this up “without putting him on the defensive,” and the answer is: It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you bring this up, because his response will provide you with valuable information. If he stonewalls, you can ask what he’s afraid to tell you and let him know that you want him to be honest, even if his truth isn’t the answer that you’re hoping for. Remember that you’re not trying to make him comfortable—you’re trying to have an adult conversation about who you are to each other and what you both want in your lives. And that alone is the best possible preparation for the future you want to create, a marriage in which you’re able to talk about the hard things with transparency and grace.


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.