Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Ask Polly: How Do I Make My Boyfriend Listen?

Dear Polly,

I want to know how I can make my boyfriend a better listener.

It has happened several times that when I want to talk about something serious (the future, exes, fears, hopes, etc.) my boyfriend often gets distracted. It's not like he means to hurt me—I think it's just his nature, and possibly mild ADD—but it does hurt me.

I'm 24 and he will be 30 next year. We both see each other as potential life partners. But how can I be with someone who gets distracted by a squirrel when I'm telling him about my father's funeral?

That's the other thing: I have some serious things to tell him. My father was murdered when I was 14. It's a story I haven't shared with many people, but if this is the right guy (and by all other accounts, he is) then I want him to know.

My fear is that he will hurt me by not listening correctly. Basically, that he won't listen well, or that he will be scared off, or will avoid the subject or get distracted or whatever. It has happened many times before and even though I've told him this hurts me, not much has changed.

Sometimes I feel like the mom when a serious subject gets brought up: If he gets distracted, I admonish him. Usually I say: Look, right now I just don't care about buttering my bread roll/wiping crumbs out of my shirt/that castle that we're about to pass because I'm in the middle of telling you something very important. Or I just say, never mind, you're not listening. I'll tell you some other time. He instantly apologizes and promises to change but then the same thing happens again and again. Recently I've felt like he's trying so hard to listen that he's almost playing a role.

Sometimes I even feel like I'm dragging him down when I keep trying to tell him these dark stories from my past. He's a very positive, happy-go-lucky guy who comes from a balanced family. I'm a pretty strong, driven and balanced person as well (despise all the fucked up stories) but I need to talk and be heard, damn it. I think that a lot of the time he gets scared of these topics and makes distractions. But I can feel that he cares and wants to support me—just doesn't know how.

So Polly: am I crazy for trying to change my boyfriend? Are you going to tell me to get a therapist? I realize I will want to get one some day, but I also want to figure out a way to share myself fully with the person I love without getting mad at him every time.

Van Gogh's Girlfriend

Dear VGG,

I should warn you, this is one of those subjects that lights up every dark corner of my brain, causing me to spin out in a million directions. The hope of getting some small slice of concrete advice from whatever follows here is admittedly very dim, but I will try my best to bring it home. I WILL BRING THIS HOME.

Here we go. Most humans need a good listener in their lives. People want to be heard. Not distractedly half-heard and then interrupted, but heard. The desire to be heard is easily observed in small children, who magically turn into house-destructing demons the second you get on the phone, play Candy Crush, flip through a fucking magazine, etc. Kids who aren't heard are like dogs who don't get enough exercise. They will fucking shred the carpet to bits, if you let them.

In contrast, when you devote your full attention to a kid, and he or she suddenly realizes that you are really, truly paying attention, he/she will turn into a bouncy ball of entertaining brilliance. Which is amazing, unless it's not your kid and/or you dislike kids in general, in which case it's a fucking pain in the ass and you have to learn to ignore kids better.

Anyway. Same goes for human beings, right? But women, generally speaking (I KNOW YES I'M GENERALIZING I DO THAT), need a GREAT listener. We need to be heard, big time, or we droop and grow wilty.

And then there are smart women with lots to say who are also very sensitive and weird and analytical and incredibly talkative, who ALSO listen very closely. These women are often labeled "a little too intense." We think way too much, and slice and dice everything under the sun like a Ginsu knife that's been sharpened one too many times and is now capable of cutting a watermelon in half like it's made of crepe paper.

And while it's true that no one REALLY needs a knife that sharp, there we are, the sharpest fucking knives in the motherfucking drawer. I'm not saying we're geniuses, ok? We're just sharp sharp sharp and we want to cut and cut and cut until there's nothing left to cut. We do shut up sometimes. Sometimes we're downright quiet, and you can't get us to talk even if you try. But every now and then, we want to bring up tough, tangled, difficult situations and memories and experiences, and we want to slice and dice that shit up and shine a light on this or that and dig deeper and wonder and ponder and maybe even cry some tears over some dusty old loss or some injury or even something bad that happened to someone else.

If this is a suitable description of you, VGG, and of you, reader, then you need to know something (in case you don't already know it): YOU NEED A CHAMPION LISTENER IN YOUR LIFE.

Women (and ok, men, too) who have big digressive minds and lots of stories, who know how to entertain but also do need to be heard and understood very badly? We need champion listeners. We just do. And listen, a lot of us really do deserve champion listeners, too. Because we ourselves are champion listeners. We're the ones who people call when they're going through a tough breakup or divorce. We're the ones who people lean on when they're depressed or sick or injured or bereft. This makes the phone our enemies, honestly, because once we're on the phone we could be on there for fucking EVER. We also have to be careful around email.

But when the shit truly hits the fan for someone? WE ARE THERE. We are there, and you can also depend on us to avoid making it ALL ABOUT US. We're sensitive, so we try to behave appropriately. It took some work to learn this skill, but we learned it.

And if the people we count on, who are very close to us, don't listen to us? We get weird. Sometimes half-assed listening makes us talk even more. Sometimes we start blaming people for OTHER, totally unrelated shit, because not being heard freaks us out. Sometimes we mope. Sometimes we start weeping over nothing, day after day. When we're not heard, the world is off-kilter. A window is ajar and cold wind is pouring in. Our balance is off. We feel sick. We feel wronged. We feel and feel and feel and we have a lot to fucking say about it.

And if the people around us DO listen to us? If we get really lucky and we find a champion fucking listener out there in the world? Flowers bloom. The sun shines in, bright and strong. Birds sing happy little birdy songs. And—THIS IS IMPORTANT—we really don't ask for much more than that. That's the paradox of the digressive talky needy woman (or man). Give us a champion listener, here and there, and we're good. Warm, dry, comfortable, happy. We will shut up and get 'er done and take care of people and cook big meals and bring joy to the world.

Now, some big talky talkers in the world don't look for a champion listener. They just write constantly. They write giant award-winning novels. Donna Tartt, are you listening? Probably not. Genius writer ladies with perfect, shiny bob haircuts and dark turns of mind don't have time to listen, do they? They take care of fucking business and stay aloof and fabulous. God, how we love and envy the motherfuckers.

But for people like you and me? We have to write things down, non-genius things mostly, AND we have to go out into the world and find good listeners to lean on.

Here's what happens when we find ok listeners and so-so listeners and pretty good listeners and even good listeners, who maybe don't want to have really in-depth conversations very often: Trouble. Here's what happens when we talk to people who SAY they like talking about their feelings but in practice, actually fucking hate it and will turn on us like a pit bull if we try to make them do it: Things get ugly. Here's what happens when we start sleeping with someone who really doesn't want to talk to us all that much, and sure as FUCK doesn't want to hear us go on and on and on about something, even when we think we're actually sort of uncovering important, smart shit along the way: We feel like shit. Things don't work out. They might work out for a while, but eventually, things fall apart.

I had a boyfriend once who became distracted any time we were about to have a conversation. The music wasn't quite right. It was time to make a second drink. The lighting was wrong. It was time to check something online. It was time to make a phone call. I spent LOTS of time sitting with a drink in my hand, watching him do anything in the world but talk to me. We'd even go out to a nice restaurant, and he'd get distracted by the waiter or the conversation at the next table. He always had a very clear reason for not listening, and when I pushed him to try harder, I was being massively insensitive. And when I did manage to get his attention OR I just pushed onward and delivered a monologue about something big and sweeping, that I thought was actually kind of heartfelt and inspired? He would get angry at me.

He may have been a champion listener for anyone else. I don't know. But he did NOT WANT TO LISTEN TO ME TALK. He wanted me to shut up. It's incredible how long it took me to wise up and figure that out.

The moral here is that even when you're in love with someone and you feel reasonably good around them, if there are little signs that they don't really want you to talk, and you know that you really NEED TO TALK? Then you're pretty fucked.

I'm not saying that you, specifically, VGG, are fucked OR that your relationship needs to end right this minute. But you and all of the other sharp knives out there who want to fucking cut and slice and dice need to know something: You aren't just being compulsive and nuts, with all that fucking analysis and talk. People will make you think that you are a lunatic, thanks to the fact that they don't have a taste for such heaviness and they are, in fact, AFRAID OF IT.

SHARP KNIVES NEED TO KNOW THAT WANTING TO BE HEARD ISN'T A CRIME. If you want to truly be heard—and you're not that relaxed about spending time with people who don't like intensity or depth or long conversations about big important things—that doesn't make you a pain in the fucking ass. That makes you a sharp fucking knife.

So my advice to most sharp knives is hold out for a champion listener. Like fairies or unicorns or dogs with great personalities, you have to BELIEVE in their existence for them to appear to you. If you slog through life dating one crappy listener after another, and you just assume that this is just one of the many ways women (and some men) are punished, brutally and repeatedly, for being made of sugar and spice and piss and vinegar, then you'll have to simply endure being half-ignored and feeling like a weirdo with way too many ideas and feelings to ever express a small fraction of them. But I would strongly recommend taking a different path. I would strongly recommend BELIEVING that champion listeners exist, BELIEVING that you, as a champion listener, deserve to find one of them. One that looks nice.

You, VGG, don't want to break up with your boyfriend. You want me to tell you how to train him to be a better listener. This isn't a skill I seem to possess. You could try to get him into couples' therapy with you, sure. I have occasionally said to past boyfriends, "I need an hour of your time. Then we can do whatever—watch a basketball game, go to a party, I don't care. But right now I need to feel like I have your full attention. And I need to do this every now and then, or I start to feel really fucking shitty."

BUT HONESTLY? Then we'd sit and talk and he'd focus really hard (just like you described, like an actor on a stage who's pretending to be a sensitive listener) and then after exactly one hour he'd be all "FUCK LET ME OUT OF THIS PRISON!" But I'd STILL feel a little off and we'd go have dinner and he'd talk about light stuff and never return to the subject we discussed earlier and really, I'd still feel hungry for talk, for heavy lifting, for getting to the heart of things. I would ALWAYS HOPE that we could get right down to the fucking nitty gritty, but I'd always feel dissatisfied. Because when your dude doesn't WANT to get down to brass tacks, when he'll do anything to avoid doing just that, you're basically never going to feel like your thirst is quenched.

Eventually, you become someone who talks too much. Because, when you never, ever have someone's full attention, that's what ends up happening.

A therapist who's paid to listen closely to you will help, but he/she won't solve this problem entirely for you. Nope. People will say "Why are you trying to make your boyfriend your therapist, VGG?" and "Why don't you turn to your female friends for a good talking session?" But no. Sharp knives can have therapists and lots of amazing friends who listen, but if their partner refuses to listen, and they know they want a partner who understands them (or at least tries to) and listens closely (at least some of the time)? Then therapy and friends don't magically make it all great. The partner who's a bad listener can fuck things up.

As a partner, a champion listener is irreplaceable. My husband doesn't have to work that hard, either. I just need to know that he wants to show up when I have important stuff to hash out. If I weren't married to a great listener, I know I would be vaguely dissatisfied and pissy and I'd be hell to live with.

Not everyone is a sharp knife, which is probably a good thing. I have destroyed many a relationship over this issue. But now? I bask in gratitude. A huge piece of my happiness comes from aligning myself with someone who loves talking and likes heavy subjects but also has an edge and doesn't talk about chakras, ever.

In my experience, it is excruciatingly difficult to try to get someone who doesn't like heaviness to try to grapple with heavy shit. And look, I've known THERAPISTS who didn't like heavy shit and didn't REALLY like to listen. What people say about what they want and what they actually SHOW YOU that they want are often at odds. You don't have to feel crazy just because you're noticing a gap there.

Sharp knives need a lot. It's OK to need a lot. When you need a lot and you ask for a lot, knowing that you can give it back? You get a lot.

You want a life that is full, VGG. You don't want to feel lonely. You don't want to feel ignored. You should try to speak from the heart, to tell him how much you need. Don't be ashamed. You want to tell someone what you have inside, and you want to know that they're paying attention. You don't JUST want them to hear you. YOU WANT THEM TO FEEL YOU.

And to all the other sharp knives out there: If someone tells you that you make it ALL ABOUT YOU all the time, that you're into drama, and really, you're just trying to connect, to get to the truth, to share yourself, to hear someone else, to feel them, to let them in? If you know that you listen and you're a good partner or a good friend, and you know when to shut up, and someone STILL says this to you, despite ample evidence that it's simply not true? Don't try harder with that person. When you're trying to make deep connections in a world that is flinchy and dismissive of deep connections, sometimes you open your heart, and instead of getting love in return, someone will say you're being a troublemaker.

They just don't get it. They aren't for you. Walk away. You have worlds inside you—swirling, colorful, mournful, generous, soaring, hopeful, searing, heartbreaking worlds. You cannot offer just a tiny slice of you. You cannot hold back the flood. You want to share those worlds. You are way too big, too complicated, too glorious and infinitely sad and unspeakably divine. You have to share all of it. Find someone worthy of all of it. Find someone who wants ALL OF IT.


Are you incapable of listening? Write to Polly today and wait forever for her to write back.

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Jesslee Cuizon.

49 Comments / Post A Comment

wheelborrow (#270,465)

This reply was immensely therapeutic; I am a young man and feel that this describes me incredibly well. I want to talk and share! That's okay!

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

Thanks, LW and Polly. I am a sharp knife too. I am lucky to have some great listeners in my life who are not afraid of the hard stuff. But I also recently broke up with a friend who was a bad listener. Perhaps this is just this person, but I also find that people who are bad at listening to heavy stuff are also bad at sharing heavy stuff. You share. They don't. They might nod along, like they want to listen, but their advice remains a really narcissistic version of "well, this is how I do things, and I'm great, so just do that." You ask for their experiences or stories about hard stuff, but they can't. They can only talk about their success. In my case, my "bad listener" friend used this is a tool to remain the "powerful" one. They knew everything about me, but remained in the realm of doling out general advice without actually sharing their own life. They loved to criticize other people, and never talk about their own mistakes or struggles or fears. No vulnerabilities. All power. All frustration from my end. Indeed, during the friendship break up conversation, they used information I had shared about my therapy sessions against me– to gaslight me and call me crazy that I was upset with them. Anyway, I'm not sure if I have anything to add to this conversation, other than a couple follow up questions for the LW to ask about her boyfriend: does he not want to talk about heavy stuff because he's trying to maintain distance, or trying to maintain power? In the first instance, he could simply have some fears of intimacy. In the second instance, I think its a little more dangerous.

Reddy Tuxpin (#4,811)

@garlicmustardweed I don't agree with this. While I'm sure you are correct in your assessment of your former friend, I don't think that every good listener is also a good sharer. Lots of people are more than willing to talk or share every single little thing about themselves but have no interest in others. So it makes sense that there are also people who are excellent listeners but terrible sharers.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@Reddy Tuxpin excellent point. the skills don't necessarily go hand in hand, and I know plenty of people who are good listeners/bad sharers and don't piss me off. And lots of bad listeners/oversharers too. I'm just so bitter about ex-friend I needed to vent!

NoReally (#217,942)

Thing is, listening = understanding, or at least trying to. And there are people who can love other people without needing to understand them. But there are people cannot feel loved by someone they perceive as not interested in even trying to understand them.

24459864@twitter (#277,268)

@NoReally you have quite literally just described my life and relationship at the moment. Meh, this sucks.

SeeNoJars (#270,470)

Polly, everything you write resonates with me. I seriously carry around a printout of my favorite parts of "How Do I Find True Love and Stop Dating Stupid Men?" in my coat pocket- just to remind myself that tepid can fuck off.

I just started seeing a guy who is not tepid and seems super great so far. I have a tough family history and I've told him some MyPast 101 stuff and so far so good. He didn't freak or interrupt too much. I guess my difficulty is that I'm excited/nervous to find out whether he's a good listener or not and that makes me want to TELL HIM EVERYTHING and see how he reacts. I'm working on being as natural as possible but not holding back. Oh dating. You're tough.

thegirlieshow (#253,364)

Ooh, let's all share which Polly columns we carry around printouts of. Mine is "These Tortured Intellectual Boys Are Torturing Me."

ragazza (#241,456)

@thegirlieshow Other people do this too? Mine is "My Life Is a Beige Pointless Landscape."

ginnyluu (#270,486)

@thegirlieshow Had to create an account to chime in! The Polly column currently crinkled up in my messenger bag is "I Can't Stop Procrastinating!" Bland title, hidden gem.

Quintenberg (#270,502)

@thegirlieshow I have all of her columns pertinent bits stored in my electronic journal. I feel so much better knowing other people do this too. Sigh.

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@thegirlieshow "I Feel Better About All My Exes And I Can't Get Over It"

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@paddlepickle Er, Bitter. I mean, I feel Better because of Polly. But you get the idea.

@ginnyluu Umm where might i find the one about procrastinating? I seem to blind and can't find it. I'm umm… asking for a friend ;)

Knitty Witty (#246,339)

AH yes! I totally *JUST* figured this out, like, a few months ago, when Polly's column about the tepid men made me go "Waiiiiit a sec…" (Specifically this line: "They don't happen to love you, is all. They don't think you're a math genius or a historian, and they're gonna call bullshit. They think that when you talk, you're wasting their time a little.")

I, too, am a sharp knife. I was in a relationship for 2 years with this dude who gave me this exact feeling–that any time I had some ideas I tried to share, he was humoring me, he was rolling his eyes inside. That he saw it as something he could *stand* to do because I'd probably go down on him later if I thought we'd had some good talks (I wasn't fooled, but he wasn't wrong that he could scrape by by pretending). He wasn't a bad guy! The reason it lasted as long as it did was because he was in fact a really sweet, thoughtful, gentle, funny dude whom I often had a lot of fun with, who made and gave the most thoughtful gifts, who gave great hugs and kisses, could tell when I was sad and asked me about it (…but then instantly regretted he had). When we were keeping conversation light, or to stuff he cared about, things were great. But gosh, I felt awful, and resentful, and part of the reason it lasted so long was that–no joke–I loved his family so much, I was worried they'd hate me if I ended things.

I realized that he wasn't even seeing the parts of me I thought were the best–that I'm quick, that I have lots of ideas that come out when I'm going on and on and on about something, that I AM A GOOD LISTENER (he never really needed a good listener. He was into keeping shit light! Or at least, he never shared his heavier stuff with me), that sometimes when I'm going on and on about something kind of heavy I'll suddenly spot some irony that is so hilarious I can't help but laugh. My good friends see this about me. They seek me out for it. But you should also be able to show this to your partner, because that person should bring out the sides of yourself you love best, instead of making you feel like they're a little bored by you.

I met someone else (nothing happened with this person until after I ended things with my ex, but the desires were strong. As it turned out, this again was not a dude who could handle a sharp knife, and that ended in a disastrously funny way, but I won't get into that), and I told this ex of mine, "Hey, I really think we should break up. I think we aren't really in love with each other? I think we're both really comfortable here but I think you aren't in love with me, I think you have a crush on that coworker you always talk about, and I think I'm starting to resent you, and I think I've met someone else, too, which may not work out [spoiler: it didn't!], but it means I'm not fulfilled here."

He was sad but, perhaps unsurprisingly, totally relieved! We see each other about once a month now and as a friend, he is GREAT at listening, at making me feel heard. And he's realizing i do the same for him, which he never capitalized on while we were dating. (My life is also a lot better now, in general, so we probably talk about less heavy stuff.)

LW, Polly's advice is perfect. You like to talk! Sometimes about serious stuff, sometimes about really interesting stuff, probably. Your boyfriend's ill-timed distractions are perhaps consciously accidental, but also may be indicative that he's just not that into All The Talking. It's possible to be compatible in a ton of other ways, but not having your partner really hear you, and WANT to really hear you, sucks, even if you have that outlet elsewhere in your life. I think people just need that for an intimate partnership. Good luck!

Blousey Brown (#192,869)

LW, I'm so sorry you haven't felt comfortable sharing this huge part of your life with your boyfriend for fear he won't give you the attention and care you deserve. What an awful, shaky feeling, as if the grief itself weren't hard enough.

I truly think good listening is non-negotiable. It might even be everything.

PolarSamovar (#263,661)

LW, the thing you're describing is *how your BF is.* There is nothing on God's green earth you can do to make him be different. He's 30, for goodness sake. He is a guy who doesn't want to listen to your heavy stuff, and he never will be. He might be lovely in all other respects, but either he's not the guy for you, or you will need to go into an LTR with him knowing that this thing you want, you will never get from him. You could get it from someone else; the rules of monogamy don't state that you absolutely need to get your feelings of heardness from your partner.

But this isn't going to get better. I'm sorry.

sophiah (#13,210)

I'm a sharp knife, and I'm lucky to have a partner who is mostly willing to listen, and I also make it work by having a variety of sharp knife friends (mainly online) to talk to too. I don't make my husband do all the heavy lifting, but I'd be lost if he wasn't willing to do most of it.

However, I have a sharp knife mother who's burned through every friend and every romantic partner (largely because she keeps picking cold, unemotional and unavailable men), and now I'm basically it. She lives alone and is disabled and so our phone calls become these marathon things, and some of what she Needs Me to Hear is disturbing stuff about her screwed up childhood or relationships, and some of it is long boring stories about her cats, and I just don't know how to lighten the load. I have a younger sister I keep telling her to talk to more, partly because I'm worn out and partly because in a delicious piece of irony my sister is always complaining Mom never tells her anything, but I just can't seem to shake being that person for her. And the more I put her off, the more desperately she Needs to Talk and it all falls on — me.

I don't really know what the solution to this is, since I can't really say "sorry you burned out all your friends and keep picking shitty boyfriends, Mom," but at least now I have a framework for thinking about this, I guess.

sophiah (#13,210)

@sophiah I just got off the phone from getting her grocery list. The conversation devolved into a discussion of why my father cheated on her so much, why her father doesn't respect her, and why my husband is so great. My point, you see it.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@sophiah Hi Sophiah, I learned a very simply statement from my therapist about my mom, who was complaining too much to me about my dad and her parents and (well, everything). It was too much for me to handle. Gently remind your mother that you and her are *not* peers, and there ought to be some boundaries in what you feel comfortable listening to. I'd just make it clear that some topics of conversation need to be circled with a big red marker as "inappropriate for child to hear/help you deal with" and this certainly includes romantic relationships, or whatever else is bumming you out. Uuhhhhh, boring conversations about grocery lists I also relate to, although thats not necessarily an issue of boundary transgression. . .

sophiah (#13,210)

@garlicmustardweed thanks, would you believe I spent 5 years in therapy mostly talking about my mom? Therapy helped stop me from moving home and trying to save her from her toxic relationship/hoarder house/everything else she complained, but setting boundaries is still so tough, especially now that I've, sigh, moved back home. She's been oversharing her personal life with me since I was 8 or so (when she went into Freudian analysis after the divorce), so it's been 25 long years of wearily fending her off. I actually tried to end this last conversation when it got inappropriate, and she kept saying "just let me finish! I just need to get this out!" which is why it was so hilarious it happened instantly after making this comment.

amockingbird (#2,015)

@sophiah I think, from my experience with similar parents, this is less "sharp knife" and more "codependent as fuck." Boundaries are very good, but as your mom has never had them or respected yours, it's going to be hard to institute them now. But try. When you tell her you are not the right person to talk to about something and she keeps going, shut her down. Tell her you need to stop the conversation and then do it, say goodbye and hang up. It's hard, it's messy, and she's not going to be happy about it, but your well-being is worth it. I'm having to learn to do it, I moved back home, too. Two doors down from my parents. My dad had to talk to me every day when I lived halfway across the country, now he comes over. I pick my battles, currently I'm fighting "I get to choose where I go to grad school because it's my life and my loan debt," over, "I'd really prefer you not come over every night at 10 when I'm trying to wind down to go to sleep." I'll get to it, eventually. You'll know which battles to attack first, but that first time you shut her down and hang up? It's pretty damn amazing.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

@sophiah can't be your mom's pseudo therapist. Keep it light and let her cultivate her own supports or not. Needing to divulge every bit of your life experience unto your friends is extremely draining to listener, it may explain the lack of friends but therapist get paid for just that. Now when she goes on and on, what happens to yor needs, your stories, your lufe experiences? As your telling her you gotta go (cause you will have to show her how to respect your boundaries) maybe you can guide her in the direction of a good therapist.

sophiah (#13,210)

@BeenThereDoneThat Oh, she's done therapy (and has half a master's in psych herself). Her last therapist fired her for mentioning suicidal thoughts and then not answering her phone, and she hasn't gone back since. Before she was disabled, she was a psychiatric nurse, and a psychiatrist friend just writes her scripts for anti-anxiety meds now.

@amockingbird I try to pick my battles on boundaries, but literally everything is just her trying to force this, yes, codependent relationship, and hanging up on her just led to many long calls about our communication and relationship. It's frankly less time-consuming at this point to just let her have her way, if we're going to have any relationship at all (I have an infant and a chronic illness and I just don't have the energy to fight!)

lizziebell (#17,526)

@sophiah I feel as if I could have written what you wrote here, word for word (oh, except the part about having an infant). I just re-started therapy to figure out how to deal with my mother (who is, apparently, your mother too) and I was wondering if there is some way for you and me to get in touch and chat about this off-site. I could use a champion listener on this topic, and maybe you could too. Not sure how to convey contact info to you without conveying it to the whole world though, (and possibly you just think I'm crazy for reaching out like this. Ugh.)

sophiah (#13,210)

@lizziebell fortunately I have been anon on the internet for many years and have a pseud email account I don't mind giving out! Drop me a line at skepticgirl (at) yahoo with your contact info and I'll get back to you from my real account, because yes, I have found talking to someone with a difficult mother is very helpful.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@sophiah Good luck to you sophiah! And all the other commenters on this thread with mothers who don't understand boundaries. . .keep fighting the good fight and remembering that your needs and desires are just as valid as your mothers.

sophiah (#13,210)

@garlicmustardweed thank you so much, I really appreciate hearing that.

From my perspective, someone who won't listen AND/OR won't share is someone who doesn't completely trust you. A person that won't listen doesn't trust you to have boundaries, or know when to stop, or not go emotionally off the rails while talking about emotional topics. That person possibly doesn't have good boundaries him/herself either, so taking on even a little of your stuff can feel terrifying. And a person who won't share about problems they face or feelings they're having doesn't trust you enough to show you any part of their unvarnished self.

You can have a relationship with someone who doesn't really trust you, but it's probably not going to be a close relationship. And if you are yourself a trusting person, the relationship is going to feel pretty stale/cold/numb to you. Maybe you can find out if that person is even capable of trusting other people – really there are some people who are so scarred they don't trust anyone at all. And if they are, you can find out how to foster trust in you. But if they aren't trusting or open with anyone, you might as well be trying to date someone with whom you do not share a common language – it's possible, but mostly unpleasant and with plenty of misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

twinkiecowboy (#235,093)

Great column as usual. LW, I think your dude is just really uncomfortable with feelings. If you think about it, this is really an intimacy issue. By interrupting you every time you start talking about something difficult, he's not letting you be vulnerable and intimate with each other. Maybe address it from that perspective? It's hard to be truly close to someone who can't just be quiet and listen when you're telling them about someone who was important to you who passed away. Like someone said above, he doesn't have to relate to all of your experiences, but he should want to understand them.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

I love this, Sharp Knife here. I just wished I knew this in my 20's. What a waste trying to make my boyfriends really listen and share. That sums up 17 years of two long term relationships, btw therapy was of little use. I finally met someone who was very open but he was so busy sharing his life experiences all. the. time.

oldflame (#235,977)

I'm going to put "sharp knife" on my resume. It's frankly boring for me to go into a relationship where the other person doesn't really want to talk about Deep Things. Yes, let's go see a movie and talk about the cool explosions, but then I want to talk about how I relate to that character's relationship with their mother! And I want you to tell me which character you relate to and why! Share with me! Sigh. And yes, I have met therapists who were totally unprepared for my sharpness. Flinchy therapists are the worst.

Squirrel Bait (#260,369)

I am going to give you a slightly different perspective based on my experience, and you can decide whether this applies to your situation or not. You mention ADD at the beginning of your letter, and I am wondering whether that was a flippant comment or an actual issue your boyfriend might face. I am a classic Sharp Knife: engaging and funny but also sometimes an intense over-analyzer/hasher-outer (it's part of my charm, but also maybe an acquired taste, like smelly cheese). My girlfriend has moderate ADD that was only diagnosed in adulthood, but she had found the combination of medication and lifestyle changes that work for her by the time I met her three years ago (when I was 26 and she was 34). Her ADD is the inattentive type, which means that she tends to zone out and daydream and be a little disorganized. It's a much less obvious form of ADD than the typical mental image of 10-year-old boys running amok in a classroom, but it is no less debilitating. I can see a huge difference in her ability to focus when she’s on her medication compared to when she forgets to take it. Unmanaged, it would be difficult for her to perform well at her job and to take care of the daily bullshit of life (sorting the mail, making it to appointments on time, etc.)

Your line about your boyfriend trying so hard that it's almost like he's playing a role broke my heart a little bit because I have seen that face. The "I want to listen because I love you but you have no idea how hard this is for me right now" face. And somebody who wasn’t genuinely interested in you and didn't think your thoughts were important wouldn't try that hard, right? If he secretly thought you were just a buzzkill, his eyes would either be rolling or glazing over. My girlfriend is the sweetest, most caring person I have ever met and she loves me like crazy, but there are times when I can tell that it would be nearly impossible for her to focus on an intense conversation, regardless of how much she wants to. This is doubly true when she’s also trying to do something else at the same time like look at the internet or drive past an interesting landscape.

Her diagnosis makes it easy for me to see that her inattention is due to a chronic medical condition and not at all about me or our relationship. But if we didn’t know about her ADD, my feelings would be hurt all. the. time. (Instead it has become a source of gentle in-jokes between us, like the time I was trying to explain some complicated thing about my boss while we were outside and she interrupted me to say "I love how chipmunks run with their little tails up like that.") I have come to realize that me asking her to pay attention to something heavy when she is unmedicated and unexercised is sort of like if she were depressed and I asked her to smile because her frown was bumming me out. She could fake a happy expression, but she wouldn't be able to actually feel it. Usually if I need her undivided attention, I will literally say, "I want to talk about Feelings," and then we will retire to a quiet room where we can cuddle and talk and everything is great. But without the diagnosis and the aid of medication, I don’t think it would be possible for us to navigate this issue. Knowing that she has ADD also gives her the ability to see that her inattention is not a personal failing but instead just something that requires a particular set of coping strategies. (Having ADD also means that she notices things other people miss and that she has really creative, fun ideas that probably wouldn't occur to neurotypical people, so it certainly isn’t all bad.)

I obviously can't internet-diagnose your boyfriend based on your short description of his behavior, but I think this might be something for you to consider. ADD gets a lot of unnecessary flak for being Not A Real Thing, but it definitely is a real condition. I would encourage you to talk about this with your boyfriend and consider getting a screening. It is possible that he just isn’t a very good listener, but it’s also possible that there is something else going on. And if he does have ADD, getting treatment could improve other areas of his life too.

Faintly Macabre (#235,741)

This is brilliant, Polly. I am a sharp knife, daughter of another one. My parents have a strong marriage (there's hope, LW!), but the most regular fight I heard growing up was about my father not listening to my mother. (Though this included day-to-day things as well–he can be spacey.) He's still not perfect, but he at least tries harder and will usually apologize and try again when called out on it.

I've gone through a few friend breakups (mostly with men, now that I think of it) over this same thing. I will listen to you analyze and worry all day, but once I trust you, sometimes I need a sounding board for my problems, too. And if you shoot down every attempt at my asking you how your life is going, sometimes I will stubbornly keep trying until you yell at me for talking too much. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that some people who were oh so happy to discuss all their problems and fears with me didn't have the time/patience for those discussions once they had to do the listening. (For instance, I spent a whole school year listening to my friend's family problems. When my dad got cancer, he ghosted, and when I called him out on it, he got angry and said he didn't have time for my problems.) I'm still working on Polly's advice at the end about walking away. Luckily, I have a mom and sister who are just like me and have found some priceless friends who are just as good at listening to and analyzing my problems as I am theirs. I just try not to lean on them excessively when I'm going through rough times.

NA (#235,216)

Heather, you have an enormous heart and a solid head on your shoulders. I live for these columns. Thank you.

Althaea (#270,643)

I really needed to hear this today. So, so perfectly on point. "What people say about what they want and what they actually SHOW YOU that they want are often at odds. You don't have to feel crazy just because you're noticing a gap there."

This explains my entire last relationship – he SAID he wanted to be supportive and listen, he just couldn't seem to actually do it. So, like the original questioner's boyfriend, he just tried to act like he was listening, as hard as possible. So disorienting to pour your heart out to someone who acts like he's listening, tells you he really wants to hear it, then changes the subject as soon as freaking possible. As in "wow, your neurologist wants you to have another MRI to check for MS, that's … ooh look, they have sweet potato fries here."

SaraTonin (#268,671)

I briefly dated someone like this and it was extremely frustrating. I felt exhausted at the end of the day. I can understand tuning out if you are blabbing on and on and on about frivolous details, but seriously, squirrel > father's funeral? SQUIRREL???. My opinion: people that can't let you finish a sentence are extremely self involved and will not change. You've already wasted too much time begging him to pay attention to you. Find someone else, obviously. But you already knew that.

look-asquirrel (#270,896)

I really wanted to read this article, but then got bored by the 5th paragraph of Polly describing how sharp of a knife she is.

Lightenup (#270,230)

The reason the advisor's ex-boyfriend wanted to stop talking is, as is evident, she has too much to say about so many subjects she knows so little about; the gender stereotypes that come from this woman as you will see as you read more is astounding and the 'girl power' revolutionary idea's that follow are simply insulting the reasoning of sexism only being applicable when women are at the end of it is simply preposterous in-fact I would argue quite the opposite people are so cautious of being 'sexist' towards women however calling men thoughtless and saying women are strong yet sensitive unlike men is in itself hugely offensive. This is an ignorant woman preaching to the stupid (no offence to anyone who's reading this and didn't believe her crap) about things she is herself to shallow to understand past her own narrow minded ideologies, which the portrays in many of her pieces with inexplicably terrible language and un-necessary swearing. Peace!

Molly88 (#272,528)

@Lightenup Oh, Honey …

Kitk (#271,008)

I have ADD.
And I WANT to listen. I really, really do. I want to know what's going on, because I'm interested and I care and I want to understand and help sort it out and I want to make you feel like I'm there for you.

But sometimes, listening is like trying to ride a bike, except you have no idea how to ride a bike. You go for a bit, then fall off. Then get back on and go again, then shake, then fall off. I WILL keep getting back on because I WANT TO RIDE THE DAMN BIKE, but it's just not something that I am very proficient at.

I constantly get distracted by statues and squirrels and sex and hats and what I ate three days ago and the concept of linear time and the lunch specials on the sign up ahead and this show I saw last night on HBO, and I WILL just bring it up in the middle of a deep and serious heart-to-heart.

I will say something like 'I'm sorry to hear that, but maybe you need to give yourself a deadline. If they want it to happen, they're going to make it happen. You can't sit around waiting, because you'll miss other opportunities and if they're taking THAT long, do you really want to be tied to such a flakey – oooh, look! That man has a tattoo of a panda on his arm! I'm hungry, want to get chinese?'

Once I get reminded of the issue at hand,I apologize and we go back to the important subject. Because I WANT to talk about it, because I REALLY, REALLY care. People who know me know they can tell me anything, any sort of problem or worry, and I will want to know about it and talk about it with them.

Because I don't think being a good listener is about sitting there patiently and politely while a person tells you things. I think it's about considering the things they're saying, and trying to understand. But, to stay completely on topic, I just…can't. Meds help, but I can't re-wire my brain. Because I WANT to understand.

And if I explain all that to somebody and they STILL don't understand, then maybe they need to re-evaluate their own listening skills. That took me a long time to learn.

I've been told by some people that I'm a terrible listener, and others have told me that I'm the best listener they've ever met. I think what it boils down to is this: if you want understanding, empathy and analysis/help, I'm your gal. If you want an polite audience whom you can deliver a speech to? I stink at that.

When people say they want someone to 'listen', it can mean so many things.

misspiggy (#250,319)

@Kitk Thank you for this, it's interesting. People (particularly sharp knives) are told that if someone changes the subject they are bored or distressed by the conversation, and you should stop immediately. Even if someone's eye direction changes, that's them wishing you would shut up already. So I do.

I do wish all those people would just have the guts to say, 'Look, I really don't want to talk about this right now', and then the rest of us could get on with our meandering, exciting conversations, because we'd know the other one actually wants to be there.

JXRodriguez (#269,513)

Listening is a lot more difficult than talking.

pyrrhic (#3,065)

ok but what if a sharp knife would like to become a pair of chopsticks or a glib little bottle opener

magicjohnson (#271,228)

After not realizing that I had been a Sharp Knife for several years, but sensing it more and more these days– coming out of a broken engagement and some business troubles– Im glad to finally see this post. thanks Polly!!

btw, I just stopped a friendship with someone because it felt like they were becoming the "radio deejay" friend, half listening half not. Then reading through all the comments makes me wonder if it was really half MY fault for rambling all the time about my problems (?) Whatever it was, I stopped the bleeding and moved on. Now I dont have the friend there to talk about all my problems with. Which has pushed me to try and quiet my Knife, turn on a filter or do something differently, as I interact with my other friends and new faces I meet. So as not to keep going through the same thing again with others…

With the filtering, though, it does seem like I'm also losing some authenticity/spontaneity, but I'll take growing up and managing my communication better over "authentic loose cannon."

Back in college, a shrink told me something to the effect of: be careful of keeping the door to your heart (and mind) open too wide. It should not be an open gate to everyone, all the time. Of course we should try to keep an open mind, but not an open door to the inner workings of our heart and emotions, 24/7. Finding that balance, like a swinging gate…

tepidmotherfucker (#280,240)

Everything the LW describes here, though, is consistent with this scenario: her boyfriend has the ability and willingness to be a good listener, and she only brings up weighty topics when he is executing a tricky merge on the freeway, say, or preparing his tax return, or trying to get out the door on time.

An example from my own experience: maybe a quarter of the time, it's a bad time to talk to me, because I'm paying close attention to something else. Another quarter is a really GOOD time to talk, because I am not especially focused on anything else. The rest is somewhere in the middle. I have had girlfriends who only ever tried to initiate lengthy conversations when I was paying close attention to something else. This pattern was so consistent that it couldn't have been accidental. Eventually they gave up, with a wave of the hand and a slightly contemptuous 'pfft', and forever after told themselves I was a 'bad listener'. This happens all the time in relationships all over the world, I'm quite sure.

Walsh Bob@facebook (#275,804)

Thank you Dr. Charles for your love spell has huge powers! I cant believe what's happening to me! It's been only 2 days since you did that spell to get my ex back and my ex boyfriend is already after me. Since the last two day-end he phoned at least 5 times. I believe he seems to realize his mistakes. It's absolutely happening as you said!! Thank you Your work is helping me so much… Without you I would feel so lonely and miserable…

Could reLly do with some advice my bf is my world if he broke up with me i dunno wht i would do he is nit sure how serious we are abot being together he dropped me off at my bus stop one day said hes going home instead went clubbing has been acring funny since saturday no kisses etc i said il meet u monday i havent brought anyfood so im just gnna go out :( i said tuesday cas im going on holiday n need my speaker back i dunno about tuesday as myt be going out :( last message he put i dont think we get on as much as before i really cant loose him i love him :( x i dunno wht else to say been crying all day when i gt home had a agrument with parents bf dident reply till late in moring i dont think im up to meeting your parents,n he takes so long to reply like an hour i dunno wht to do :'(

After being in relationship with him for nine years, he broke up with me, I did everything possible to bring him back but all was in vain, I wanted him back so much because of the love I have for him, I begged him with everything, I made promises but he refused. I explained my problem to someone online and she suggested that I should rather contact a spell caster that could help me cast a spell to bring him back but I am the type that never believed in spell, I had no choice than to try it, I mailed the spell caster, and he told me there was no problem that everything will be okay before three days, that my ex will return to me before three days, he cast the spell and surprisingly in the second day, it was around 4pm. My ex called me, I was so surprised, I answered the call and all he said was that he was so sorry for everything that happened, that he wanted me to return to him, that he loves me so much. I was so happy and went to him, that was how we started living together happily again. Since then, I have made promise that anybody I know that have a relationship problem, I would be of help to such person by referring him or her to the only real and powerful spell caster who helped me with my own problem and who is different from all the fake ones out there. Anybody could need the help of the spell caster, his email is ("spirituallove@hotmail. com") you can email him if you need his assistance in your relationship or anything.

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