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Affection, Gift Returns, and Professors on Facebook

I’m 30 and live with my boyfriend of four years. We have sex a couple times a week and occasionally he will tolerate a few minutes of cuddling, but otherwise we touch minimally. This seems like a trivial thing to whine about, but I really miss making out. I think physical contact is an important way to feel bonded with somebody. I might be fine with the companionship dynamic if we were perhaps in our 60s, but at this point it mostly serves to make me feel lonely and subtly rejected (I try to kiss him on occasion, but he generally grimaces and turns away). We’ve discussed this multiple times and my boyfriend grasps that it’s an issue for me, he just “isn’t a touchy guy.” He is also not verbally affectionate, so he mainly shows his love through tasks such as taking out the garbage, picking me up if I’m caught on my bike in the rain, etc.

Am I a fool for thinking of this as a semi-dealbreaker? Should I just be grateful for the otherwise cozy domestic setup that I have? I admire the fact that he isn’t hokey or sappy, but I still want to feel loved. Do a majority of long-term relationships end up being physically cold? Is it silly to dream of sustained physical affection with one person?

Contemplating breaking up with somebody is terrifying, lest you be wrong and regret it. Thanks for any insight you can offer!

Physical affection tends to fade with the age of both the participants and of the relationship. It’s not universal, but it is common, so I was getting ready to say something about negotiating mutually appropriate amounts of physicality, until I read the sentence about contemplating breaking up with someone being terrifying.

If your lover grimaces when you try to kiss him, that isn’t subtle rejection, and it isn’t about his being “not touchy,” and if the thing that is keeping you from taking on the problem is terror, then you have a different problem from the one you described. So instead, let me take a little detour. 

No matter how liberal-minded we get, we still tend to be conservative about sex and housing. And when there’s one person with whom you share both exclusive sex and long-term housing, well, a relationship like that takes on deep practical significance, independent of its solidity as a relationship.

Which means that the normal course of romantic relationships, which mostly don’t last, gets caught up in the practical aversion to dislocation. And in that situation, it’s easy to start mistaking domesticity for commitment.

I report all this with some rue. My (short, disastrous) first marriage commenced because we were living together and too afraid to admit we were drifting apart. It is also no accident that I met my current wife 15 years ago, during a period when I was dating a few different women, while sleeping with none of them (because if I’d started sleeping with even one of them, even casually, well, that’s where my focus would have gone).

So, by the power vested in me to tell you how to run your life after reading a three-paragraph description of one facet, I’m going to guess that your different approaches to romantic contact are more symptom than cause of your distress. You need to have one of those talks with your man (and from your description it sounds like he’ll react like a deer in headlights), but you also need to be ready for that talk to start around physical contact but quickly become an About Us talk.

Because maybe he doesn’t kiss you because he doesn’t know how much it means to you. But from your letter, it sounds like a manifestation of something deeper and more broken.

Which sounds awful, I know. But if you’re dealing with a “semi-dealbreaker” (semi?) and one of the big obstacles to dealing with it is your terror around one possible outcome, then the alternative is to continue to live as you currently are. Which is presumably not what you want, or you wouldn’t have written.

2. I have always admired and trusted your advice in the past so I thought I’d write to you about this delicate quandary. My boyfriend of two and a half years gave me a very generous and lovely Christmas gift, but I just really hate it. It’s an article of clothing, and one that is not only not my style, but just so impractical that I could never see myself wearing it even if I were to compromise my sartorial taste. My instinct is to just suck it up and keep the gift, and wear it whenever I can to show my appreciation. The caveat is that the gift was clearly very expensive. I make a very small salary (much less than my boyfriend), and I just started a new job with a very fancy dress code. Were I to exchange this one article, I’m sure I could get multiple items of clothing that would be very helpful for me to wear in my new formal office environment. So, to keep this one pricey thing that I don’t need and don’t like seems silly.

BUT I already told him I loved it. I know, I know, I should have been honest at first and saved myself the agonizing, but on Christmas morning, sitting with him, I wasn’t thinking about how pretty or ugly the clothing was, I was just thinking about how much I loved him and how happy I was to be spending Christmas with him, and how lucky I was to have such a sweet, thoughtful boyfriend. It’s also just in my nature to put on a good face and be polite in all situations.

I don’t know what to do! I really don’t want to hurt his feelings, but I really hate this gift. Most people I’ve asked have said I should just find a nice way to be honest with him, and that he’ll understand. But I’m kind of wondering whether it’s worth it to hurt his feelings over something material (read: not that important in the long run).

Can I return the gift? If so, how? (I already tried it on in front of him so he knows it fits.)

As for admiring and trusting our advice, you know there’s more than one of us, right? And that we don’t all agree? So, as a Hairpin PSA, remember the Married Dude Brand Promise: “Imperfect Advice from Strangers.” And look, here’s some now!

A lot of advice-givers assume honesty is the best policy. Not me! I understand the need to say “Oh, thank you, it’s lovely!” to a loved one who has produced a less-than-perfect gift. I mean, everybody wants speaking your mind to be a universally great idea, but it’s not. We all need some cushions, especially at home.

Gifts that are both expensive and returnable function a little bit like tokens of love and a little bit like money, and we generally like to keep those things separate, so, like a lot of these things, context matters. Did he get you a see-through blouse that cost $1200, or an ugly jacket that cost $225?

If it’s the former, where the garment sends a message about you don’t want to send, then you have to talk about it, because his choice in clothes says something about his vision of you, and the cash outlay is out of balance with the realities of your (partly) shared finances. It can be one of those “You know honey, I was thinking…” talks, as a way of signalling “I’ve changed my mind about something that matters to both of us.”

But if he got you a little houndstooth-check number in tangerine and puce because he thought you’d like it, for an amount reasonable for his salary but not yours, then I don’t think the conversion to cash is worth the hurt feelings.

If this is you, then you have two very different problems. First, how do you dress at a workplace that expects Lord & Taylor but pays American Apparel? (Which: the fuck? But the horror of American employment is a whole nother conversation.) You had this problem before you got his gift, and I don’t think the gift changes it — it confuses the cash and emotional value of a gift too thoroughly, at too high a price.

And your second problem is How do you not hurt either your taste or his feelings? To which the answer is: Tragic accident. Wear it a time or two if you can stand it, and then find a face-saving way to dispose of it. I can think of any number of ways to do this, from arranging to rip it or spill something on it, or losing it someplace. (Nota bene: This will vary depending on the garment. “Oh sweetie, I left my jacket on the train!” is different than “Oh sweetie, I left my skirt on the train!”)

The other thing you don’t say is “How common is this behavior?” Because if this is one sweet but uncharacteristic gesture, a white lie could work fine, but if this is just the most recent example of him overspending and mis-choosing, then it’s back to Option A, talking about it.

But even if you end up with Option A, remember that it’s a gift, not a gift-card; the cash value of the garment matters less than what it says about you and him that he gave it to you.

3. Here’s the situation. I have a former professor that has drunkenly Facebook chatted me late at night twice in the past week. Fine. Except he’s married and has kids. These Facebook chats haven’t been inappropriate. (Except for maybe a couple of jokes about porn? which weren’t sexual in nature despite the subject matter.) Regardless of the fact that these conversations have been brief and PG-rated, I don’t think this dude’s wife would be thrilled if she found out he was Facebook chatting 21-year-olds while under the influence past the midnight hour. This is a guy who no longer teaches at my school who I also worked with in a professional setting in the real world, so the ethics of that whole student slash teacher who grades said student boundary thing isn’t really the issue.

The first time he drunk FB chatted me it was amusing. The second time it made me think ‘this is going to become a habit,’ and I’m not really comfortable with that. This is a man who I respect, admire, and consider a mentor. Right now I feel like he’s teetering on the edge of losing my respect if these drunken messages escalate to anything more than light-hearted chit-chat. I really really do not want to lose my respect for him. As a married dude what do you think of this guys behavior and what should I do about it? Is it my responsibility to say “Yo Teach! Check yourself” before he says something he’ll regret? Do I ignore him the next time he contacts me late at night? Do I post a link to this column as my status and hope he reads it? Or am I making too big a deal of this and it’s really nothing to worry about?

Help me out! I want to stay as far away from home wrecking land as possible!

He’s flirting, and flirting is the art of signaling sexual interest while maintaining plausible deniability. The more aggressive the flirting, the harder the flirter is signaling interest, and drunk FB chatting after midnight is straying into proto-crypto-booty call territory.

And you are not making too big a deal out of it. You’ve already answered the only question that matters — has it crossed a point where you don’t like it? If you feel like he’s hitting on you (and, pro tip, men who joke about porn to women are fishing) and you don’t like it, that is the only threshold that needs to be crossed for you to take it seriously.

It’s not your responsibility to spare the missus any upset; your only job is to get him to stop the behavior you don’t like. I’d just stop answering his late night chat requests, while (if he was a mentor and remains useful to you) continuing to talk to him sober and during the business day. And if that doesn’t work, then cut him off.


Previously: Selective Empathy and “An Outlet for Maternal Feelings.”

A Married Dude is one of several rotating married dudes. Do you have a question for A Married Dude?

Photo via Flickr/boynton


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