Will He Ever Open Up and Let Me In?

January 7, 2013

Hey guys, it’s my first time here. I’ve been dating my boyfriend for 9 months now and am a little unsure of whether to continue the relationship. I would really appreciate your opinion (sorry in advance, it’s a bit long!).

We met about 9 months ago at a bar, he was the perfect gentleman and we ended up taking a taxi together after the bar closed – first to my place and then he went to his (at the other end of town). Nothing happened that night but the day after he called me and asked me out. We went on 4 dates before he so much as kissed me and another 3 before we slept together (honestly, I was getting a bit impatient!).

He made the effort early on to introduce me to his friends and family and was very interested in getting to know the people close to me. We’ve pretty much spent every night together since March and a few months ago he bought a flat and asked me to move in with him – mainly because it’s cheaper and handier but he also said that we’d be able to spend more time together. I said yes and moved in a month ago.

In general everything is going great. Although he works a lot he always sets aside time for us to do something together, is very interested in me and my life and the sex is great. He’s very respectful towards me, and towards women in general, and everyone who knows him speaks extremely well of him. He has a large group of very good friends and is close to his family.

Sounds pretty perfect, right? The problem is I’m worried he’s too much of an alpha and to closed off emotionally for the relationship to work long term.

He’s 27 (I’m 26), very good looking and works in a high profile job. He’s been single for the past 5 years but before that he was in two steady relationships of about one and a half years each. He won’t discuss how many women he’s slept with (and doesn’t want to know my number either) but says his number isn’t unusually high and from what he’s said he seems to have spent more time dating than hooking up with random women.

When he was a teenager his father cheated on his mother and is now married to the woman he cheated with. His parents’ relationship is extremely bad (they literally don’t talk and his father wasn’t even allowed to attend graduations and birthdays). The divorce was very ugly and went on for a couple of years. During that time my boyfriend pretty much raised his siblings. He is very fatherly towards them and is extremely self reliant and independent.

Now to the problems:

Firstly, I’d been waiting for him to tell me he loves me for a while and a couple of weeks ago I gave up and said it first and he said it back. We had a discussion about it and he told me he’d never said it to a girl before and I told him it was very important to me to hear it on a regular basis.

Since then he hasn’t said it again (and neither have I). When I mentioned this he said recently he’d been feeling pressure to say it and that when he feels pressured he tends to back off and not do things. I understand this because I’m the exact same way but I feel that this shouldn’t apply if you really love someone.

The second issue is regarding marriage. Recently I asked him if he wanted to get married at some point and he said he didn’t think so. It has never been something he’s wanted although he doesn’t rule out that he will at some point. He’s not against serious relationships though and wants children.

I find this all a bit confusing since his actions imply that he is in love with me and he’s said he can see a future with me. I’m extremely in love with him but I don’t want to get stuck in a dead end relationship with someone that will never commit.

My guess is that his parents divorce has a lot to do with this and I’m hoping that given time he will open up to me more. But then again I’m worried I’m wasting my time on someone who will never give me what I need emotionally. 

Any opinions/advice would be greatly appreciated!


Dear Elise,

I confess I almost didn’t post your letter because this is not a case where I feel confident in advising you to take one specific plan of action. However, I empathize very much with your dilemma, and I hate to see two people who care deeply for one another come apart if there’s a strong desire to be together. I am happy to share my thoughts and then open this up for the group to discuss in the Comment thread.

First, there are a great many things that sound wonderful about your guy. In fact, he pretty nearly meets the description of that elusive creature known as the benevolent, good-hearted alpha. Let’s take an objective look at the list of female attraction cues, and how he stacks up in your eyes:

ECONOMIC CAPACITY: Works hard, owns his own home.

SOCIAL STATUS: Cleared this hurdle in first meeting, as you left with him and shared a cab.

AGE: Peak attractiveness.

AMBITION AND INDUSTRIOUSNESS: Apparent both in career, and in taking responsibility for siblings.

DEPENDABILITY AND STABILITY: Provided this to his siblings during contentious divorce. Clearly reliable in his behavior towards you.

INTELLIGENCE: Demonstrated by his focus and achievement thus far.

COMPATIBILITY: Obviously highly compatible in most ways.

SIZE AND STRENGTH: Meets your criteria.

GOOD HEALTH (LOOKS): Meets your criteria.

LOVE AND COMMITMENT: ??? Essential, and dependent on the male’s ability to express and demonstrate these.

Obviously, out of all the female attraction cues as described by David Buss in The Evolution of Desire, you have only one concern. That your boyfriend either will not feel the kind of love and commitment you want, or that even if he does feel them, he will be unable to express those feelings in the way that you need to experience them. Buss:

Given the tremendous costs women incur because of sex, pregnancy and childbirth, it is reasonable for them to require commitment from a man in return.  Resources can be directly observed, but commitment cannot be.  Gauging it requires looking for cues that signal the likelihood of fidelity in channeling resources.  Love is one of the most important cues to commitment.

Requiring love, sincerity and kindness is a way of securing a commitment of resources commensurate with the value of the resource that women give up to men.

It is natural and appropriate for you to expect that the man you love with commitment to demonstrate and express his emotional commitment to you regularly in return.  Lacking that assurance makes you feel justifiably insecure, as you wonder about his long-term commitment to the relationship. 

Next, let’s look at his emotional reticence. It sounds like he has been able and willing to demonstrate affection from the start – it’s commitment he struggles with. Given his family background, and his sharing his history so openly with you, it’s clear that his parents’ divorce was a pivotal experience during his formative years. He became the man of the house, substitute father to his siblings, undoubtedly a source of support for his mother, all while dealing with his own grief and anger over his father’s abandonment. I agree with you that this is the main issue in his attitude towards commitment.

A quick perusal of the robust research on the long-term effects of parental divorce confirms your suspicion. A comprehensive summary of the research on the long-term effects of parental divorce may be found here. Some key findings that relate to your situation:

1.  Children of divorced parents are more likely than children of always-married parents to have more positive attitudes towards cohabitation and more negative attitudes towards marriage. When they leave home, they are two to three times as likely to cohabit and to do so earlier, especially if their parents divorced during their teenage years (Amato and Booth, 1997).

2. When parents divorce, their children’s attitudes about sexual behavior change. Children’s approval of premarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce rises dramatically, while their endorsement of marriage and childbearing falls (Jeynes, 2001). 

3. The strongest consequences of marital disruption do not appear until offspring confront the challenges of early adulthood, and offspring with divorced parents have more problems forming and maintaining happy and stable intimate relationships (Amato, 2003).

4. Children of divorced parents fear being rejected, and a lack of trust frequently hinders a deepening of their relationship (Johnston and Thomas, 1996).

5. One study showed that individuals whose parents divorced were more likely than individuals whose parents remained married to believe that relationships were beset by infidelity and the absence of trust, and they were also more likely to believe that relationships should be approached with caution. (Weigel, 2007).

6. Adult male children of divorced parents show more ambivalence than men from intact families about becoming involved in a relationship though they invest more money and tangible goods in casual dating relationships (Jacquet and Surra, 2001). 

7. One study reported that persons raised in divorced families have less positive attitudes towards marriage, and more positive attitudes towards divorce. This negative attitude about marriage leads to decreased commitment to romantic relationships, which in turn is related to lower relationship quality. (Cui and Fincham, 2010).

8. Adolescents who have experienced their parents’ divorces and remarriages may feel that marriage is unpredictable and unstable (Risch, Jodl, Eccles, 2004).

9. In her study of children of divorced parents from Marin County, California, Judith Wallerstein found that the children of divorced parents still had persistent anxiety about their chances of a happy marriage a decade after their parents’ divorce. This anxiety interfered with their ability to marry well: Some failed to form satisfying romantic ties, while others rushed impulsively into unhappy marriages (Wallerstein and Blakeslee,1996).

10. The evidence shows that “adult children of divorce who eventually wed are more likely to divorce than are adult children from intact families (Jacquet and Surra, 2001).

That’s all very discouraging, I know, but it does explain his outlook. I’m assuming you wish to marry and have children, not raise them as cohabitors. Indeed, the best reason for marriage is the raising of children. Most cohabitating relationships in the U.S. do not allow this:

What research shows is that cohabitating relationships in the United States tend to be fragile and relatively short in duration: less than half of cohabiting relationships last five or more years.Typically, they last about eighteen months.

Not surprisingly, partners in a cohabitating relationship are more likely to be unfaithful to each other than are married couples…The National Sex Survey (polling 3,500 people) reported that men in cohabitating relationships are 4 times more likely to be unfaithful than husbands and that women in cohabitating relationships are 8 times more likely to cheat than are wives.

In 2002 the CDC found that for married couples the percentage of the relationship ending after 5 years is 20%, for unmarried cohabitators the percentage is 49%. After 10 years the percentage for the relationship to end is 33% for married couples and 62% for unmarried cohabitators.

On the other hand, cohabitation obviously need not preclude eventual marriage. From the State of Our Unions:

Cohabitation is a common and popular form of romantic partnership for young adults today. Slightly more than 44 percent of single men, 20-29, agree with the statement that they would only marry someone if she agreed to live together first. Close to a third of the men in this study say that they have lived with someone in the past or are currently cohabiting with a girlfriend.

These men see living together as a way of avoiding an unhappy marriage and eventual divorce. This view is widely shared among people their age. Sixty-two percent of young adults agree that living with someone before marriage is a good way to avoid eventual divorce, according to last year’s Gallup survey for the National Marriage Project.

What you need to know is whether there is anything you can do to mitigate his fears or whether his attitude about marriage is permanent. Pressuring him now is likely to backfire – he’s already indicated as much. This is a very tough call, but here’s my advice:

You are in love with each other. That is not something to discard lightly. You live together, and his actions demonstrate deep feeling even if he is unable to make himself vulnerable by speaking the words you want to hear right now. I recommend establishing a period of time that you are willing to give this relationship, e.g. six months or a year.

During this time, remove all pressure from him to define what you have and where you’re headed. Do everything in your power to demonstrate your love, faithfulness and loyalty. Just Be. Be a couple in love. His reticence about marriage and commitment is understandable in light of his experiences. I do not know whether he can or wishes to get past it, and I suspect he doesn’t either. I suspect that the only way he can be reassured about relationships is witnessing his own working very, very well. 

Your goal is not to change him, it is to demonstrate your reliability as a life partner. Do not lie about what you want. Don’t pretend you don’t want to marry one day. If at any point he tells you he has made up his mind definitively, take him at his word. If, at the end of the timeframe you’ve set aside, he is no more inclined to consider marriage, you will have to decide if you are willing to stay together on his terms. 

This strategy is high risk and high reward. Leaving him now would result in less heartbreak overall, perhaps, but also preclude the possibility of happiness with the man you love. Your own level of risk aversion is a key consideration. Still, we are most likely to regret not doing something:

About 75 percent of respondents regret not doing something, with the top three slots taken by studying hard enough at school, not taking advantage of an important opportunity, and not spending enough time with friends and family. In contrast, only 25 percent of people regret doing something, such as making a bad career decision, marrying someone they didn’t love, or having a child at the wrong point in their lives.

If you walk away now, you’ll never know. Can you give him, and your relationship, some time?