Swat Ed is The Phoenix’s biweekly sex education Q&A, back and ready to talk about healthy sex and relationships. We accept all questions and keep them completely anonymous. If you’re looking for medical advice or a diagnosis for that weird thing on your genitals, get in touch with a medical professional! For everything else, email email@example.com. Today’s subject matter is reaching out and communicating needs and desires to one’s partner.
I’ve been feeling worse and worse this semester. I’m not sure why. School is hard, but it’s not like I’m taking classes that are harder than they’ve been in the past. I also feel weird about my relationships, especially with my girlfriend. I feel like I spend so much time doing things from my girlfriend and that she appreciates it but she doesn’t do things for me. I don’t mean sexually I just mean relationship stuff. I’d really like her to do things like post pictures of me on Instagram (not just of us together, I put up photos of just her) and do other things like tell me I look good and maybe write me notes. I feel like our relationship is one-sided right now and I feel upset at her, even though she’s not really doing anything wrong. I’m a guy, if that matters.
This is such a good question, and it comes from a place that we don’t talk about enough. Thank you so much for reaching out. Let’s start by talking about how you want your relationship with your girlfriend to change. We could address it in terms of imbalance (you do things for her that she doesn’t do for you), but I think that a more productive way to look at it is in terms of fulfillment. What you’re currently doing for her makes her happy, or so I’m assuming based on the information provided, and what she’s currently doing for you isn’t making you happy. Couples don’t necessarily need the exact same things from one another, so fulfillment usually doesn’t look like perfect, mirror-image reciprocity. That being said, it sounds like you would appreciate being on the receiving end of some of the thoughtful things that you do for her.
The way that I would bring this up is to begin by touching on something that she’s done for you in the past that resembles the actions that you want to see more of. “I was thinking about the time that you rubbed my shoulders/saved me an extra cookie from Sharples/sent a random I-love-you text. I really loved it when you did that.” Then you can relate it to something specific that would make you happy and reinforce the reasoning behind it. “I would love it if you did more little things like that. I think it’s so adorable when couples in the movies write each other notes or do sappy things like post pictures on Instagram.”
That should be a good starting point as far as small gestures of affection. I think that we should tackle your sense of isolation somewhat separately, because I think the two problems are not really the same issue. Feeling like your relationship is one-sided is something that tends to go pretty deeply, deeper than social media posts. Do you feel as though you can confide in her about your general sense of being isolated and overwhelmed? Do you ever complain to her about a bad day and then feel better just being heard? Do you feel that you can be upset in front of her (sad, frustrated, disappointed, not just angry) and that she will respond with the appropriate empathy and care?
Let’s say you don’t feel comfortable expressing those feelings to her. This means you should talk to her about it. An easy way of starting that conversation is showing her this column or simply articulating exactly what you told me in your note. Our culture has a concept of masculinity that is centered around stoicism and lack of vulnerability. It can be overwhelming for guys especially to consider really opening up emotionally. This framework categorizes being sensitive and emotional as “feminine” and therefore a sign of weakness and emasculation. Due to this, boys frequently don’t learn the same emotional and communicative skills growing up that girls do. If you’re not used to being so frank and open about your emotions, it can feel pretty overwhelming, and your girlfriend’s response should absolutely reflect that. You deserve sensitive consideration of your feelings. Don’t necessarily expect everything to change after a single talk; relationships are an ongoing conversation, and both parties need to consistently verbalize their feelings.
Besides these emotional questions, I’d like to quickly touch on your comment about wanting to hear compliments from your girlfriend. You can absolutely communicate that to her directly. An easy way to frame that: “I know how much you like it when I tell you how amazing you look, especially when you’re wearing an outfit you’re proud of. I’d really love to get compliments like that from you.” Even though you can communicate it directly (and there’s nothing at all wrong with communicating it directly), I’m really sympathetic to the fact that it can feel a little odd or even hurtful having to directly ask your partner to compliment you. So I’ll take this opportunity to remind everyone with important men in their lives that they appreciate compliments and words of affirmation more than you may know.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about your general sense of being down and overwhelmed. If you’re experiencing a lack of interest in things that previously brought you joy or if you’re finding that everything seems more and more like drudgery, you should reach out for some resources. A sense of depression like the one you’re describing isn’t the norm, and you absolutely deserve to feel joy and fulfillment in life. Please consider reaching out to our on-campus mental health services, which you can do with an online form on our school website or at the very least to a trusted friend, family member, parent, or spiritual leader. Best of luck to you.