“At this unique distance from isolation it becomes still more difficult to find words at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind.” -Philip Larkin
“Are you tired of being with me?”
“Are you bored with me?”
“Are you annoyed at me?”
“Are you about to dump me?”
“Are you no longer attracted to me?”
“Are you okay with me?”
“Do you still love me?”
“Do you really love me?”
We all know those anxious feelings that would prompt us to ask questions like these, and we know the hope we harbor, the hope that their answers will reassure us and restore intimacy when we suspect it’s fading.
We also know how hard it can be to try to answer such questions honestly and reassuringly.
These questions are natural and understandable. In love, shouldn’t we have the freedom to express ourselves honestly and directly? If we’re worried about whether our partner is drifting away, why not ask simple questions to find out?
Still, on the receiving end, such questions don’t feel simple. They’re often leading questions one couldn’t possibly answer any way but the right way without unleashing a wrath. “No, I don’t still love you,” or even “I love you but less enthusiastically than I did yesterday or will tomorrow” are not answers we can afford to share unless our bags are already packed. These questions are not necessarily meant to coerce. Still, to calm the asker’s anxiety, they’ll come out biased toward inviting the reassuring answer.
Yes, these questions are true expressions of our anxiety, but they’re also blunt instruments. Love isn’t as simple as an on/off switch. In close relationships, we go through all sorts of feelings. We owe our partner honest answers to their earnest questions, but when the questions are framed over-simplistically, we don’t know how to be both honest and reassuring.
Men often think that women are more likely to ask these questions, and there may be something to that hunch. I’ve wondered if a woman’s propensity to ask such questions is part of the backstory behind men’s reputation for being simple, silent, evasive, unemotional and unwilling to process much. Faced with such questions, silence may be the best we can come up with, or perhaps just a simple reassurance like, “Of course I love you dear, and now I’m going down to my man cave.”
I grew up in the heart of the encounter group era and bought fully into the half-truth that the truth will always set us free and that good men processed honestly and infinitely. I’ve often been more of a process queen than my partners and have been plenty prone to ask those questions when I want reassurance. In partnership I tend to ask, “Are you okay?” or “Are you okay with me?” at least daily, though in the past few years I’ve come to see these questions as hurting more than they help.
Partnership requires honesty but also a little insensitivity to the ups and down inevitable at such close range for such long durations. When I ask such questions I’m cultivating an emphasis on detailed processing. I’m contributing to the romantic fantasy that in partnership we can take our every preference seriously and that with unlimited capacity for processing, we can tailor perfect heavenly comfort and satisfaction. Every time I ask, “Are you okay with me?” I lead not just toward my reassurance, but toward my partner probing her dissatisfactions, inviting ever more processing. And though processing is necessary at times, too much processing cuts into our productivity and becomes a cost of relationship; sometimes an overwhelming cost that increases the chance of a breakup.
And so I’m learning little by little to ask these questions less and to be more comfortable with the incomplete answers my partner will be able to afford me before heading off to her woman cave. Here are a few simple tips I try to keep in mind:
- Keep up appearances: To smooth the partnership’s valleys, get good at giving sincerely reassuring answers whether you mean them or not.
- Relax your standards: Don’t subscribe to the romantic notion that love means never having to hear your partner yawn.
- You ask, you pay: If I’m going to ask those tricky trick questions and not be fully satisfied with the answers I get, that’s my problem, not my partner’s.
- The question behind the awkward questions: I’m really asking “Am I safe here?” Reframing them as crude probes for immediate reassurance expresses my indulgence in a self-servingly simplistic interpretation of love.
- Patience: Sure, I want immediate reassurance. My partner can humor me with a reassuring answer, but that doesn’t mean I’m safe. Time will tell whether I am.
- Have faith in your partner’s mouth: Cultivate trust in your partner’s capacity to broach issues when he or she is ready.
- Your yearning questions may deter your partner’s forthrightness: Impatient leading questions only reduces your partner’s willingness to broach issues, sometimes until its too late and his or her bags are already packed.
- Do your best, then surrender: If your partner is going to leave you, there’s not a lot you can do about it. We should love our partners enough that if they decide they’re better off without us, we let them go.
- The consolation of thoroughness: If they go, hope to take comfort from confidence that you tried your best in the relationship.
- The consolation of a dormant plan B: Love means devotion, but so as not to become oppressive, devotion in delicate balance with a sense that if it ends, you’ll be okay. If we have confidence in our ability to find a way to thrive without our partner, we’re less tempted to coerce an affirming answer out of them.