Episodes We Love: Love In Doubt

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How many times have you heard this: "I love him, we're great together, but..."?

There's always room for doubt, even in the happiest of relationships. So this week, the Sugars take on some of those doubts in rapid-fire fashion.

This episode was originally published on January 5th, 2017.

Dear Sugars,

I’ve been dating a wonderful man for just over a year. We’ve been officially a couple for just about 6 months. We have so much fun when we’re together, and he shows me that he cares in so many ways – sneaking quietly into bed so he doesn’t wake me, inviting me to his family holidays, lots of kisses and snuggles when we’re together, and “I miss you”s when we are apart. We spend all of our free time together, and we’ve decided to move in together in a few months.

We talk about everything. He shares his ambitions, his insecurities, and whenever we have a disagreement, we talk it out. He is more open about his feelings than anyone I have ever dated. He’s told me that I’m the person he feels closest to. But there is one thing he hasn’t shared – his love. While I feel it from him, he hasn’t uttered those three little words to me — “I love you.”

Each time our relationship has moved to the next level, I have been the proactive one, so on this front, I have held back. I am waiting for him to tell me he loves me before I say it. I’d like to know he loves me before we take the next step of sharing a home together, but I don’t feel comfortable asking, “Do you love me?”

If he said yes, I would feel like I had forced it – like he said it because he knew it’s what I wanted to hear.  So Sugars, what do I do? Can I get him to express his love in words without disbelieving it? How long is too long to wait to hear “I love you”?


I Love Him

Cheryl Strayed: I Love Him, welcome to a long-term relationship. There’s the way that you want the other person to be or behave, and then there’s the way that they are. You need to negotiate these things. To me, it sounds like your boyfriend loves you, and you love him. He just assigns a very different value to those three words. Maybe, for whatever reason, ‘I love you’ is just not a thing that he has said to people in his life.

Steve Almond: That’s such an important point. I come from a family that did not say “I love you,” and I had to train myself to say it to people. When others say it, I feel uncomfortable. It’s as if there’s been a sudden intrusion of intense direct emotion that makes me feel frozen. Now, I can say it because I know that it’s shorthand, I Love Him, for all the things your boyfriend does for you. I imagine that if you explain to him that it’s personally meaningful, even if it makes him feel a little uncomfortable, you’ll find out what his relationship to that phrase is and whether it’s something you should be unsettled by.

Cheryl: The two options I see are either, go ahead and say “I love you,” and you’ll just have to let go of this archaic, sexist notion that he be the person who says it first. Or, you say, “I need to talk to you about something. I love you, and I am perplexed that you haven’t said you love me. I’ve been waiting for you to say it, and I don’t know why it’s important to me that you say it first, but it is.” Maybe your view on this is rooted in the feeling that you are the proactive one and the one who compels emotional growth in your relationship at each juncture. That’s something really important for you two to unpack, and I think this “I love you” conversation could be a great portal into that deeper relationship.

Dear Sugars,

I've been with my girlfriend for about a year now, and I've never felt such a strong connection to someone. She and I have more in common than I've ever shared with a partner, and our relationship has progressed very quickly. The only problem is, when we first met, I didn't feel as much of a physical attraction to her as I thought I should, but I decided that my attraction to her on all other levels was deep enough to overcome that. I thought that our physical chemistry would grow in time, but, unfortunately, it hasn't. I feel terrible and shallow for even writing this down, and I can't imagine how I could ever explain this to her without hurting her deeply. I've even felt some of my male friends imply (or say outright) that they thought I could "do better." My question for you is: Am I doing the right thing in pursuing a relationship with this wonderful person and ignoring what I perceive to be totally invented standards of beauty? Or is physical chemistry the first and most important part of a real relationship?


Struggling with Standards

Cheryl: Struggling with Standards, I think that you are up against two things that you have conflated into one. There is your physical attraction to your girlfriend and the physical and sexual chemistry you have with her, and then there’s the invented standards of beauty. Those are two different things. The person that you are attracted to and have chemistry with is not necessarily someone who fits into standards and conventions of beauty. So the first thing to think about is, do you have a  powerful physical bond with this woman, or are you hung up? Is the thing that’s inhibiting you from having this bond the idea of what women “should” look like? And if that’s the case, the great news about that is that it can be revised. You can say, screw the standards. I love sleeping with her, I love this relationship.

Now if, on the other hand, it is a chemistry issue rather than a beauty standards issue, I think that you’re right to ask this question. If you don’t have a basic, real attraction to your romantic partner, I think that you need to rethink the relationship and maybe break up or become friends. I will say, if you decide to end this relationship, I really don’t think that you should say to your girlfriend that it’s because she’s not physically attractive enough for you. That’s a subjective opinion, and it’s one that will hurt her for a long time and probably affect her for many relationships.

Steve: The pattern in my life has been, when I get involved with somebody, as I find out more about who they are and all the hidden beautiful things within them, they become more attractive to me. What’s unsettling here is that, for whatever reason, after a year, she hasn’t become more attractive to  you. Being steeped in this youth and beauty-worshipping culture mixes up our internal lives. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could separate out how much is chemistry and how much is an external standard? The problem is, we’ve internalized these things, and they become false sacred texts inside us. That is something you should question yourself about. At the bottom of it, you cannot fake chemistry. A year isn’t a short amount of time to figure out whether the underlying chemistry is there. But if it’s not, it’s not. Don’t waste her time or yours trying to fake it, because that’s its own kind of humiliation.

Dear Sugars,

I recently met a great guy I’ll call 'Richard' on a dating app, and we've been seeing each other pretty regularly for about a month. Recently, he shared with me that he would like our relationship to become exclusive and for us to be boyfriend and girlfriend. I've been single for about four years (I'm 30), and I would very much like to be in a committed relationship. I told him that I wanted the same things, but that I'm still in the process of getting to know and understand him, and I needed more time.

Since then, we've both shared with each other about our past relationships, and he revealed to me that when he was in college and in law school, he cheated on every girlfriend that he ever had. He says that he has not acted this way for about seven years, and he has since had other girlfriends to whom he was faithful. When he told me this, I tried to remain open and non-judgemental. I asked him how he was able to rationalize this behavior to himself, and he said, “To be honest, I just turned that part of my brain off.” He emphasized that he was much younger then and he was “sowing his wild oats,” and that he wouldn't cheat on me now because that simply isn't what he wants. He wants someone to spend time with and be in a committed relationship with.

He is a very matter-of-fact type and doesn't mince words, so I take him at his word that he doesn't have any plans to resume his cheating ways. However, there are a couple of things that concern me about this:

One thing is that he didn't express much regret or self-reflection. It seemed as though he was saying his bad behavior suited his desires back then, but they don't now, and so he has cut out those behaviors. But what I want is a man who has values and principles that guide him through life - not someone who picks and chooses when doing the right thing suits him.

The second thing is that some of his friends who he hangs out with continue to cheat on their girlfriends or spouses. While he acknowledges that their behavior is scummy, it's odd to me that he can be friends with people like that. I know this might sound super self-righteous, but I can honestly say that the people I surround myself with are good people who do not cheat on their significant others.

Am I judging him too harshly for cheating all those years back? Should I be giving him credit for being forthcoming about it? Or is it obvious that he doesn't have a strong moral compass? I so would like for this relationship to work, but I'm not willing to commit to someone I don't deem trustworthy. Sugars, what should I do?


Too Judgy, Or Not Judgy Enough?

Steve: TJONJE, it sounds like what’s unsettling you is that this guy doesn’t have an adequate capacity to self-reflect and tell you, “Not only did I do these things, but I know they’re wrong because they were hurtful to the people I was with.” You believe his declaration, but there’s something untrustworthy about how he’s saying it. It’s like when you say to somebody, “I’m sorry that upset you,” as opposed to, “I’m sorry that I said something that was clearly hurtful to you.” It feels like he disassociates a little bit. I think you need to have a talk about this before it goes any further and say, “I know we talked about this and I know you think the issue’s over, but it’s not for me.”

Cheryl: I think you’re being too judgy, TJONJE. I don’t mean to say that you don’t have some valid concerns. It seems to me that the most important concern is Richard’s sense of regret. I would want to know if he has really thought about the consequences of his actions. But I think that that’s implicit in the fact that he’s told you about these things, and that he has spent the past seven years not cheating on girlfriends. You ask if he’s trustworthy, but maybe you should think about, what does trustworthy mean to you? Does it mean, never having made a mistake? Or does it mean, telling you the truth about his life? If it’s the latter, you’ve got that. This man has admitted his past mistakes, even though he knows you feel judgmental about them. Would you rather that he doesn’t tell you those things?  I’m not saying it’s okay to deceive and lie and cheat. I am saying that a lot of people make mistakes within this realm of life, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re immoral.  The guy I would be so much more afraid of is the guy you met on the dating app on the age of 30 who claims to have an absolutely pure background. Lower those judgments. Open your mind and heart. Have some real discussions, and make yourself vulnerable.

Dear Sugars,

While traveling for six months, I met a guy. When we met, my heart melted and I instantly developed a hardcore crush on him. He's a tall, dark, handsome, motorcycle-riding musician with a nice accent. We had a great fling. I became emotionally attached to him, but since we were only in the same place for a month and there is no long-term potential for the relationship, I did my best to keep it light and emotion-free.

We have been messaging, sending pictures and sexting ever since I left, and I have been fantasizing about meeting up with him again in some foreign place. And now, the opportunity has arisen for that to actually happen. He will be housesitting in Sicily for a few months and working on his music. I am waitressing stateside as I wait for graduate school to start. He hasn't actually asked me to join him, but I think he might say yes if I propose the idea.

Here is my question: Do I go and spend a few fun-filled weeks with him even though it will leave me broke, jobless, and possibly heartbroken? Or do I continue down my logical, responsible path and be grateful for the fun we had? Steve said that crushes leave you crushed, and I know how painfully true that is. But Cheryl says to put yourself in the way of beauty - and what's more beautiful than a hot boy on a Sicilian beach??

I would be deeply grateful for your perspective, and maybe even your blessing?



Cheryl: I have only one thing to say, and that is, there is nothing more beautiful than a hot boy on a Sicilian Beach. Wanderluster, go. Don’t look back, just go. Have fun. You said you signed up for this, you’re going to be broke, you’re going to possibly be heartbroken. As long as you know those things, go. Absolutely. This is fun. This is the moment of your life to do these things. Go to that beach, go to that boy, have a blast and lick your wounds later.

Steve: The only caveat I would add is, try to do a little bit of a self-inventory.

Cheryl: Ugh! Do the inventory later, with the hot memories of this fabulous guy on a beach in Italy. What inventory could possibly be taken in this situation?

Steve: But what if she goes over there and he’s recording music, and he’s got another woman on the side, and she’s not really the person he’s going to spend time with?

Cheryl: Steve, we are gathered here today to celebrate this thing called life, in the great words of our beloved, recently departed Prince. This is what life is.  What if she shows up and he’s screwing the neighbor? So be it! This is the beauty of life.

Steve: That’s the beauty of life? I show up in Sicily to have this ecstatic experience and he’s screwing the neighbor?

Cheryl: Well, she’s going to ask him! She says, I think he’s going to say yes. Of course if he says, “No don’t come,” don’t go. But if he says yes? Go! She’s saying she likes him more than she probably should. But she’s also saying, this moment isn’t about protecting my heart. This moment is about leaping into the fire.

Steve: I agree with you. But she has to make sure that she’s going to be staying with him and that he is going to spend time with her so that she doesn’t spend $4,000 and a significant outlay of her heart and then wind up in a situation where she gets the rug pulled out from under her.

Cheryl: If she were saying, “I’m madly in love and I’m not sure if it’s reciprocal,” I would say, stay home and invest in yourself. But that’s not what she’s saying.

Steve: She wants to run into the burning building. I get you.

Cheryl: Get into that Corvette, baby, and ride to Italy.

Dear Sugars,

I am writing you because I am not the person or lover that I want to be.

I am a 29-year-old man in love with an amazing woman, S, who is 28. We met a year ago while casually dating. I have been a serial monogamist for most of my adult life, which included a six-year relationship. I wasn’t looking for love when I met S. But from the very first date, I was completely taken with her. She is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Everything about our relationship is wonderful. We support each other, we have shared interests, the sex is amazing, and we’re moving in together.

Despite this, I have not been able to dampen my desire to sleep with other women. This desire manifests itself only when S is not around, which wouldn't be an issue, except that she travels regularly for work. A couple of times, I have initiated contact with other women in order to hook up, but I haven’t followed through because I don't want to cheat on S. I'm excited by the idea of sleeping with other women and being desired. While I haven't had physical contact with another woman while I've been with S, I believe I have cheated on a psychological level.

S has been cheated on in the past, and I don’t want to cause her that pain again. We are so good for each other, and I don't know why I would be jeopardizing our relationship by these desires.

Sugars, do you have any insight on why I have become this person?


Bad Partner

Steve: Bad Partner, I think that your cold feet are taking the form of hot loins. The fact that you have escalated this relationship by moving in together has consciously or unconsciously triggered a kind of panic, and it is taking the form of doing the one thing that is guaranteed to break her heart and send her in the other direction.

Cheryl: I agree, and I want to address the biological answer to this question. The reason that you desire other women, Bad Partner, is that it’s biologically natural, especially at this point in your life. You’re a 29-year-old man. Many of us value being in monogamous partnerships, but physically, that doesn’t shut off our desire for other people. The way that most people make monogamy work is they do what you’ve done so far — they see desire and they don’t act on it. I think that you get better at doing that over time. You’re not a bad partner because you sometimes think about having sex with other people. You’re a bad partner if you act on it and lie to yourself and your partner. You haven’t done that. But there are red flags when you say that you’ve initiated contact with other women to hook up. So you are at least thinking about acting against your better judgment, and then you stop yourself from doing it. I think that this might be something worth exploring in a deeper way, either with a therapist or with S, really openly. The way to get rid of stuff that’s rooted in shame is to bring it into the light and explore some of the reasons that you’re at odds with yourself.

Steve: Most men and women feel that when they start to move towards a happy, successful relationship, there’s a kind of panic because what’s happening psychologically and biologically is you’re essentially saying, “I’m going to be just with this one person from now on.” And the idea of sleeping with other women and being desired by other women is now forbidden.

Cheryl: I will say, I am not a polyamorous person myself, but another solution is to open the relationship up. Talk honestly with S and decide the terms, and maybe those terms will include having other lovers. That is another path.

Dear Sugars,

I have found the most incredible woman. She's smart, beautiful, warm, caring, and my friends and family think she's fantastic. We haven't been dating all that long, so I’m not going to rush into anything — it's too soon. But we see eye-to-eye on everything, we’ve had some pretty significant talks — things like where we'd like to live, views on life, money, work, relationships, sex, etc. Big conversations. All the major items on our respective checklists are sorted. We match up splendidly, and I cherish our time together.

Here's the issue: I'm divorced. I broke up with my ex four years ago, and I've learned a lot since then about myself, about relationships and especially about life.  At 35, I've finally had healthy relationships, and I've found forgiveness for my ex. I feel ready to be married again. But the question that lurks at the back of my mind is, "How do I really know?" Divorce was the worst thing I've ever experienced, even though I'm the one who initiated it. There's no way I want to do that again. I rushed into marriage the first time, I see now. But when it comes to doing it again, I don't want to wait forever.

My girlfriend and I have plans to take a trip to Europe later this year.  I see that as the perfect time to ask her to marry me. At that point, we won't have been together a year yet, but it'll be getting close. Is that long enough? Why am I worried about if it's seen as long enough? Am I worried that others think I'm rushing into it again? My best friend is the only one I've told that I could see myself marrying her. He can be brutal when it comes to analyzing relationships, and he's been right about every one I've been in — including my former wife. He didn't flinch when I told him I thought she was it. He said he'd be happy to see it.

Lend me your insight, Sugars.


Help Me Be Ready

Cheryl: Help Me Be Ready, when people ask us a question, it often arises because they’re asking themselves. You are feeling doubt about doing this. I say, trust that. I don’t think you need to wait terribly much longer, but a European vacation is not the only cool place you can propose. Why not give it a few more months to quell the doubt that you seem to have? That’s my advice to you. And then do it. You know what’s in your heart. You know that marriage is never a guarantee. You know that you could get married again and divorced, as much as you don’t want to do that. And you need to enter into it embracing that sense of doubt and uncertainty.

Steve: Help Me Be Ready, you said you’ve had talks, the big conversations, about life and money and work and relationships and sex — everything. And I say, but not about marriage and divorce and children. Have you had those discussions and told your partner, “I really feel good about this, but I also have been bitten, so I’m twice shy”? Have you thought about the events that led to your divorce and whether there are similarities or distinct differences in how you’ve conducted yourself in this relationship? If you have doubt, it’s not coming from nowhere.  You need to have big conversations with this woman that you love so much.

Cheryl: You asked, “How do you really know?” What I’ve come to understand in my own life is, you can know what’s true in a moment or an era in your life and also know that those truths will change over time. Listen to the doubt that compelled you to write to us. That doesn’t mean that you won’t marry this woman someday. It just means, listen to those doubts. We wish you all kinds of love and luck in this relationship.


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