I feel smothered by messages. My partner says she misses me, but it’s only been four hours! | Dating

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I’ve recently re-entered into a relationship with my ex-partner. It seems to be good when we’re around each other – but the moment we’re apart there becomes issues (which is most of the week because we live apart). The problems stem from me not replying quickly to messages – even when I’m out with friends or at work – and me not expressing my love for her as often as she’d like in messages.

I decided to write in today because I last saw her four hours ago, after I left work to help her buy a car, and she’s saying she misses me, but it’s only been four hours and I’ve found myself having to lie and say I miss her too when I don’t. It’s only been four hours!

I want this relationship to work but I’m feeling smothered by both the messages and the expectation to reply. Am I being unreasonable?

Eleanor says: Are you being unreasonable? Almost certainly not. The trouble is not much follows from this fact. In relationships we can easily think that if we’re being reasonable, the person disagreeing with us must not be – so hey presto, they’re the one who should change. On this assumption we litigate disputes with loved ones as though they’re zero-sum in the rationality game – as though any reasonableness on her part implies unreasonableness on yours and the other way around.

But relationships aren’t zero-sum games, and if we approach them in this way we risk making it very difficult for there to be two full, separate people within them. After all, it’s the very fact that we have different expectations and preferences that makes us distinct people who can bring something to each other. The more we converge on exactly the same set of traits, the more we’re simply in a relationship with ourselves. We should want there to be ways our partners differ from us. By tacitly assuming there’s only one way to be reasonable, we risk making those differences feel as if they have to be conflicts – like they have to be adjudicated, and only one can triumph.

You don’t want to be shackled to your phone, and she doesn’t want to go without reassurance and affection. You want time apart in which you don’t feel ‘on call’, and she wants reminders of how you feel. I think the task is to find a way for all these wishes to be treated as reasonable – to reduce the sense that someone has to win.

Perhaps it’s about finding ways to reassure her or be affectionate in anticipation of time apart. If what she wants is a reminder of your feelings, and what you want is not to feel on standby, you could try to meet her emotional wishes in advance. Leave a sweet note at her place, or send a can’t-wait-to-see-you-again text as you leave. Give her something she can hold on to when you’re apart so that when she wants affection she doesn’t need to extract it in real time. This is different from simply hoping that she will change her mind.

Or perhaps you could slowly diffuse the expectation to reply. By putting your phone away or on do not disturb you can prove to both of you that nothing bad happens when you don’t answer right away. This might help your feeling of guilt or expectation, and her feeling that time apart is threatening or negative.

The key is that these proposals have to feel like good news. It has to feel like a relief to imagine you could both get what you want. If instead it feels faintly disappointing, like you each secretly hoped the other would shed their preferences and come to have yours instead, then that’s a bigger problem. We have to have relationships with actual people, as they actually are – not as we wish they would be if they were a bit more like us.


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