Q: My partner has dropped the ball in the past, not getting me a little something for my birthday or Valentine’s Day. We have talked about how I have felt let down, and he gets very defensive with all these excuses, but on my birthday last November he didn’t drop the ball. He wrote in his card, “I know I have dropped the ball in the past,” but going forward he will make it up to me. I think, “Great, he gets it.”
Last week I had a huge fibroid removed and needed to stay overnight in the hospital. This surgery was a few years coming. He took the day off work and was there when I went in and when I woke up. I am so grateful for this. Friends and family have been so great and supportive.
A few days after the surgery I had the lingering feeling of disappointment. I know my partner was there, but he didn’t get me flowers or a card or something to symbolize his love. (I did get flowers from my family and a friend.) Not one rose or card or anything little just to show, “Happy recovery, I love you.”
I did confront him. I was very gentle with him, but he got very angry and very defensive. He said that he lost money and spent gas being there for me, money is tight, is it not enough that he was there, nothing is ever good enough for me, I’m acting like a child, etc.
I was very hurt and crying. I said that we have been dating for so long, I gave you hints, you had time (even though he thinks he didn’t), and this is about me right now, not about him. He clearly knows I would love something like this. I expect it. But also what about what he said about not dropping the ball in the future? I feel like he did.
He probably thought he wasn’t dropping the ball this time around. Reading your description of how he treated you during your hospital stay, it sounds like he was really thoughtful and caring, and showed you a lot of love. The problem is, he didn’t show it in the way you’d prefer. That’s not entirely his fault.
There’s a huge, vast difference between not trying, and not knowing. In this case, it sounds like your partner was really, really trying. From his perspective, he was doing a whole lot to show you he loves you! The fact that he didn’t know that flowers would best communicate that love is a separate issue. This is really about a miscommunication.
You used the word “expect” up there, and that’s a pretty important word for me. It’s fine and dandy to hope for something or to want something, but if you’re going to expect something, you need to communicate that expectation, and to make it clear. It’s like me saying to my son, “Now, what do you say?” without ever having taught him the word, “Please.” It’s like going into a test where the teacher hasn’t told you what material is being tested. Except it’s not a test; it’s fun and happy and good! Maybe it’s more like asking someone to come to a party, but not telling them where or when it is.
You mention that you guys have talked about how to handle holidays. But it sounds like during those conversations, whether because you didn’t make it clear or because he misunderstood, it wasn’t conveyed that presents make you feel loved. Even better, as the date of your hospital stay approached, you could’ve said, “I would love some flowers after my surgery.” Point blank, straight forward. If it’s important to you, it’s important enough to say outright. When it comes to expectations, hints are not enough.
You’re probably thinking, “But it doesn’t count if I have to ask for them,” or “He should just think of it on his own.” And I understand that feeling, really I do. But he did think of things to do for you. He skipped a day of work! He sat at your side the entire time! He’s being thoughtful in all his own ways. So, if there’s a specific thing you need that he’s missing, just tell him.
And then, hopefully, a wonderful thing happens. And the next time you’re in the hospital (for nothing serious, knock on wood), perhaps he’ll think to buy you flowers all by himself, because last time he learned that that’s what communicates love to you. Maybe the first few times he does it, it feels a little weird and forced because you think,”Ugh, he’s just doing it because I asked him to.” But don’t! Listening and responding to your needs is the definition of thoughtful and loving. (Right?)
On top of just telling him what you need to feel loved, start opening yourself up to the way he expresses care. Taking a day off of work might be a really big deal for him. Be really generous in your interpretation of his communication. Broadening your definition of love to include the little things he already does naturally will make it easier to appreciate that other stuff he’s doing “just because you asked.”
Of course, there’s one quick little thing before you get rolling on all of that expressing love, and it involves communication, too. Specifically, how he communicated his frustration to you was not okay. Being called a “child” would significantly cross a line for me (then again, I’m not big on name-calling within my relationship). He was frustrated and maybe even hurt that you weren’t recognizing or accepting how he cared for you. But the way he addressed that wasn’t productive, and I’d need to address that before moving on.
Do not lose heart, Anonymous. If I had to, I’d bet that every single relationship goes through this exact struggle in one form or another. It’s hard to learn how to express love to someone—especially someone who might hear, feel, and show love altogether differently. It’s a matter of clearly expressing what makes you feel loved, but also graciously learning how your partner is already loving you. It requires fighting against that socially imposed fear that by saying what we need, we’re “that girl” who’s high maintenance and demanding. And, it requires giving our partners the benefit of the doubt.
So, have a general conversation about how important tangible little tokens are to you. Then, be prepared to be more explicit in telling him your needs in the future, while also learning how he’s already naturally communicating his love for you. Give him all the right answers, and then respond generously, because expressing care should be more of a party than a test.
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