Ask Polly: Should I Tell Him What I Want?

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Photo: Wayne Lynch/Getty Images

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Polly,

I've been dating a very good man for the last six months. He's kind and brilliant and funny, and fairly communicative, truly honest, and loyal, we have all the right life goals in common and he generally shows the fuck up (in both the literal and metaphysical senses). I really like him. I may even love him. We connect in a way that is deep and real and I think a lot about how I want to spend the rest of my life debating and laughing with him, and him only. 

But (and there's always a "but" here, isn't there?), when I think long and hard about what we have, I can't help but notice a certain disconnect. He wants to see me, but rarely asks for plans and lets me make them, always. He's really short on the compliments. I'm a frequent gift-giver, but rarely get anything in return. He's not super-generous in bed. Here's the thing: I rarely doubt that he's in this for the long haul, or that I'm important to him, or that he's attracted to me, but I think all the small doubts I have stem from the absence of some of these things I'm not getting in this relationship. In short, I can't help but feel as if we just show our love in different ways, and I guess I'm writing to ask how worried about this I should be?

Discussing this disconnect feels sort of iffy, how good is a compliment if you have to fish for it? I could try harder to appreciate the ways he does show his love and try to get myself to value those ways more (he seems to value time spent together quite highly). Both options, though, feel as if they're forcing an issue. Maybe he's just a bit selfish? Maybe I'm just too demanding? Probably it's a little bit of both! Bottom line, if he doesn't show his love in the way I believe I may want love to be shown, are we doomed?

Wanting This to Work

Dear WTTW,

Yes. He's probably a little selfish. You're probably a little demanding. He's probably a little bottled-up. You're probably a little explosive. He's probably a little uncertain. You're probably a little bit of a bulldozer — that is, you are once you stop treading lightly and smiling along and taking whatever you're given, like a nice girl. This is how we all are: flawed, very flawed.

The best way to deal with the fact that you are flawed and your partner is flawed — the best way to cope with a world populated by flawed human beings — is to ask for exactly what you want.

Ask. For. Exactly. What. You. Want.

If you open your mouth right now, and tell him exactly what you want in a regular, mundane but still matter-of-fact, unapologetic way, you might not freak out and cry and yell later. So do it. Tell him what you want.

Tell him what love looks like to you. Not what a man will do for you, but what two people do for each other when they care. Go into detail about your ideals, your vision. Explain that you are not that fired up about a half-assed tumble into a halfhearted almost-there relationship that might linger on, half-dead, for decades. Paint a picture in which giving yourself fully and passionately to someone else is glorious and special — because it is, damn it. But tell him now, before your smile curdles into a grimace. Tell him now, before you grit your teeth whenever he says "What's up?" instead of "Hey! So glad you called!" or "Damn, you look good today" or "I missed you." Tell him now, before you're pretty sure you'll never have another orgasm. Tell him now, before you're certain that he is in fact WAY TOO selfish.

Because keeping your mouth shut and smiling along is not a favor to you or to him. It's been six months. Maybe in the first month, playing it a little cool made sense. But now you are wasting your time and his. You aren't showing up. You might as well send a pleasant diplomat or agent to spend time with him in your stead. "Hello, I will be representing the interests of Miss Ladyfriend, smiling along and sidestepping arguments and quietly pretending I'm maybe having orgasms, while she airs her strong opinions and scarfs down chili-cheese fries with her closest friends ELSEWHERE. Because if she expresses herself without a soft-spoken, diplomatic interloper in the mix? THINGS MIGHT START TO FEEL SORT OF IFFY."

Sort of iffy. Who doesn't live in fear of that?

Here's my advice to you and to all of the ladies out there, carefully biding their time and sidestepping sticky subjects and putting their tempers on ice: Unless you want to be biting your tongue and bleaching your teeth for the rest of your goddamn life, unless you want to be choosing your words carefully, mincing and prancing and flinching and cringing, pussyfooting and cooing and soft-shoeing and boo-hooing your way through your balance of days on earth? I suggest you get used to feeling sort of iffy.

Because feeling sort of iffy is de rigueur when you're sticking your neck out and negotiating a satisfying relationship and a satisfying life in general. Do you know how it feels to live out loud, to state what you want (early and clearly and often), to request the generous/dexterous sexual manipulations that you so richly deserve, to stride down the street like a confident adult woman and to be motherfucking en fuego around the clock? IT FEELS SORT OF IFFY.

Many people (MANY PEOPLE!) do not like ladies who speak up and ask for what they want. Many men and also many women do not like them. As a result of this, it will feel sort of iffy to say what you think, to say what you want, to say what you need. But here's the funny thing: It will ALSO feel sort of iffy NOT to say what you want. It will feel sort of iffy to play along. See how little he gives you in bed? See how you try to help cover up the fact that you're not getting what you want, breathing all heavy like it's all good? Sort of iffy, isn't it? See how he interrupts you sometimes and you let it slide? See how he's kind of listening but he kind of isn't? See how he's nice and honest but he also seems a little harsh and uncaring, too, in the little pauses in between? Feels sort of iffy, doesn't it? See how he's not trying hard enough? See how he might see you as a long-term safe bet, but that also sometimes feels like a hedge, almost? See how maybe he's just fine with things but he's not falling all over himself?

See how easy you are to love? See how relaxing you make it? It's all so easy, so easy that maybe he'll never have to TRY HARD or MAKE A PLAN AHEAD OF TIME or PURCHASE A THOUGHTFUL GIFT or KISS YOU UNEXPECTEDLY or GET A LITTLE GIDDY AROUND YOU? 

But hey, why risk it, right? Why not just try harder to appreciate the ways he does show his love?

I used to do this a lot. Once, I was at an obvious crossroads with guy who really never broke out of his rigidly defined comfort zone, no matter how much I wanted him to. I rarely asked for what I wanted, and even when I did, he would give me reasons why I shouldn't have it. Because I wasn't that comfortable asking for what I wanted, I figured he was right. And yet — AND YET — when it came to what he wanted, fuck, I had explicit instructions on everything. This guy was a walking HOW TO SERVE ME manual, but it was never a two-way street.

I bring this up because it's possible, when you fear feeling SORT OF IFFY and you take that feeling too seriously, to slowly grow into a person who doesn't even remember what she wants, let alone how to ask for it. Case in point: Do you know what I decided once I realized I was at that crossroads? I decided that I wasn't being appreciative enough. I WAS THE ONE WHO NEEDED TO TRY HARDER. So I bought all of these postcards, and I sent one of them to my boyfriend every day, with something I appreciated about him written on it. This was going to bring a spirit of generosity to our relationship: me doing more, all by myself!

Whenever you start telling yourself that you can change everything in a relationship ALL BY YOURSELF, beware. That's magical thinking. And the sad truth is that not only do most people not appreciate such laborious efforts to shift the tide long after the dynamic of the relationship has been established, but also, generosity doesn't always inspire more generosity. I mean, it does if you've established yourselves as two equals, both of whom are flawed and demanding and needy in particular ways. Generosity is the absolute glue in those cases. But once you ask for too little and get too little and pretend that you're perfect and everything is great, it is INCREDIBLY difficult to backpedal and demand a change.

Try doing this at work, after you work too hard for too little for too long. Not possible. Try asserting yourself with a friend who has always taken you for granted. Possible, but not easy.

Obviously, you don't have to ask everyone in your life for what you want at all times. I serve my kids a lot. I serve my mother. I try to serve my editors. They are busy humans! They need cheer and happy acquiescence a lot of the time. I can deliver these things, from the comfort of my own far-less-stressful home office.

But when something comes up, when I have a problem or I really need something, I am going to ask for what I want. Sometimes I'm a little conflicted about it. Sometimes it feels a little iffy. But I know I need to do it anyway, because if I don't, I will slowly but surely lose my faith and I'll feel misunderstood and I'll misperceive the other person as selfish and I will get ANGRY.

Never expect people to read your mind, and never blame them when they fail to read your mind. Grown adults don't read minds. They ask for what they want instead. Even if the whole world is passive-aggressive and believes in mind-reading, fuck it. That's not how the world should work. Brave people need to model direct communication. There's no reason it should feel threatening. There's no reason blame should be involved. It should be okay to say, "I want this, can you give it to me?" And sometimes, people will say no. THAT'S okay, TOO. It's a conversation.

When you ask for what you want without sounding worried and conflicted about it, it's not a turn-off. It might even sound romantic and inspired and exciting to him. And once you state your desires, there's no way to file you under "EASY, FOR NOW, DECIDE LATER." He has to actively express himself and make some plans. He'll need to put in some effort. And actually, putting in effort is what makes a man giddy sometimes.

Many men like women who say what they want without apology. They don't always know that they like this. Sometimes they don't like it until they see it done with flair, done with style, done without second-guessing, done with confidence, done with bluster. When a man is interested in you and you say HERE'S WHAT I WANT, he sometimes gets MORE interested. He feels comfortable, because now he knows he doesn't have to be a mind-reader just to make you happy.

Or, he fucks right off, freeing up your time for a man who will be exquisitely turned on by you, rough edges, weird desires, dark places and all.

So embrace that SORT OF IFFY feeling. Embrace it and commit to it and ASK. Ask and keep asking. Ask him to ask for what he wants, too.

Tell him you are asking for what you want because you believe in love. You are a true believer. Tell him you're maybe a little demanding and selfish and he's maybe a little demanding and selfish and you're both definitely flawed people, but there is nothing more beautiful than two flawed people, giving each other everything, and loving each other in spite of everything.

Polly

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