I feel like a disappointment to my boyfriend of seven months. I'm 28; he's 35 and Mr. Smart. He is a Brit and was a top student at Cambridge. He says everyone expected him to become Prime Minister, but he decided to buck their expectations and become a portrait painter. Although he earns a good living, I believe he considers himself a failure compared with the wealthy Brits commissioning his paintings. He says I'd be "more attractive" to him if I wrote for a media blog, as it would help his filmmaking career aspirations. Well, I quit my unsatisfying graphic design job, and I am halfway through getting my master's in psychology and have no time or desire to blog. He'll tell me I'm talented/beautiful/smart but add a dig like "It's surprising you aren't more accomplished by now" and say stuff like "You're not very attractive when you're anxious." When I tell him this is hurtful, he apologizes and says he just wants to help me better myself. I want to be the strong, confident woman he says is most attractive. I felt that way when we were first dating, but perhaps my insecurity took over. How do I toughen up and develop a thicker skin? — Eroded
Love is patient, love is kind, love is surprised you aren't more accomplished and thinks you're kinda uggo when you're anxious.
And OK, love isn't Prime Minister, just some hired brush, but maybe love could paint a couple extra chins on The Duke of Oldemoneyham or Lady Footlocker instead of taking all that bitterness and self-loathing out on you.
Apparently, the next best thing to running a country is finding a girlfriend, appointing yourself her sadistic guidance counselor, and running her spirit down till she feels like a chalk outline of the woman she used to be. (All the better to prime her to further your career at the expense of her own.) This isn't love; it's insidious emotional abuse — a man doing everything to undermine his girlfriend's confidence, only to turn around and remind her that confidence is sexy.
A younger woman who's unsure of herself who pairs up with an older, accomplished man is most prone to get into this sick compliment-dig-apology loop you're in. You idealized this guy and the relationship to the point where you've become desperate for his approval so you can crawl back up from where he's put you down. If you had a stronger self and a realistic view of him, you'd see his putdowns for what they are — stealth abuse passed off as loving criticism: "Here, let me help you out of a little more of your self-worth."
Instead of wondering how you might grow body armor, ask yourself those basic questions so many forget to keep asking: Does this person make me happy? Is my life better with him? You can go back to being that strong, confident woman you once were — once you no longer have an emotional predator for a boyfriend.
After you ditch him, take some time to ponder my favorite definition of love, by sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein: "Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own." A guy who loves you Heinlein-style will "help you better yourself," but by cheering you on for having the guts to change careers and by telling you you're beautiful and sexy — without following up by whispering a bunch of sweet "you're nothings" in your ear.
How important is it that personal style and sensibilities match in a relationship? I'm 24 and having trouble agreeing to a first date with a man if he texts or e-mails me an emoticon. I majored in literature, love language, and see the emoticon as the epitome of intellectual laziness and bad expression of self. — :(
"O Romeo, Romeo ... eeuw, Romeo ... you're wearing dad jeans and a T-shirt with a wolf on it, and not in an ironic way." As a younger woman, you're more likely to dump guys over little things, like style crimes. But after a few years of dating, and a few rounds with some Slick Ricks, minor sensibility mismatches should pale in comparison with serial cheating and undeclared STDs. (You can steer a guy into cooler shirts. It's harder to get a guy to throw on some ethics.)
That said, as a lit hound, you aren't "shallow" in looking critically at a guy's emoticon use, just unwise in cutting him off before the first date because of it — assuming the rest of his e-mail doesn't reveal scorching illiteracy and poor self-expression. Maybe this is his one area of intellectual laziness. We all have some — for example, the intellectually lazy assumption that somebody's intellectually lazy just because he sometimes "winks" with punctuation marks.
Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or firstname.lastname@example.org (advicegoddess.com). Alkon is the author of I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle To Beat Some Manners Into Impolite Society.