Today’s article is in response to a question from a reader (via Ask Melissa!) about how to decide if this relationship is ultimately going to work out, especially if you feel like he isn’t ready for a relationship. In my response, I provide guidance on how to approach this question, key indicators for long-term relationship happiness and success, and point out a destructive red flag that is found to be highly predictive of divorce.
I started dating a guy two years ago, he had recently separated (barely a couple months). He liked me a year before that. We dated for four months but then he started dealing with telling the kids, his wife’s anger, getting his stuff out of his home, financial arrangements and all those issues divorcing people have to go through, so he told me that he needed time and space to solve everything on his own and hoped that we could date again when everything was better and he had his issues solved.
Months went by and we would chat sometimes or run in to each other, and ended up together having a great time. Like eight months later we were in a race together and ended up spending the weekend together. After that I texted him saying I was hoping we could date again sometime in the future, but that I felt he still needed more partying and more time and more dating before he was ready, he said he would like that in the future when everything was better.
We ran into each other like seven months later. We both were still dating somebody else but neither of was happy in our other relationship so we started seeing each other again, spent New year’s together with friends and decided to end our other relationships, and started renting a weekend house together in January this year.
By now he is divorced. He is seven years younger with two kids. I have never been married and no kids (didn’t want that route in my life). I met the kids now because of the house and we fell in love with each other! We started spending those weekends together and had a lot of fun with them, but during the week I always gave him a lot of space (he is still into a post-divorce partying phase).
We went to a skiing trip and he did not telling his kids. I knew they did not know and agreed with his reasons not to tell them and a couple months later the daughter was looking at my phone pics and I totally forgot about them not knowing and started to show her a video and then remembered that he had not told them.
She got very mad at her dad and her dad got very mad at me… Did not talk to me or answer my apology texts or emails for a week. I decided to give him time to cool down and understand that I was so sorry and did not mean to hurt him or the girl. It was a huge mistake on my part and I cried for weeks!
A month or five weeks later he went to the weekend house and I was there, we hugged for ten minutes and started talking like nothing happened. Then I asked him to talk about the problem, he said he was too angry to talk to me and his daughter was pissed at him for weeks. I could finally tell him how sorry I was in person, we hugged, I cried, and he said he finally understood I had no bad intention and that because he cared so much for me he was deeply hurt. I cried even more.
After that we did not talk for another month, and then our birthdays came (We have the same birthday) and I had my party and then went over to his and we ended up together having a great time.
He said he cared for me but there were things he did not like. I said I still hoped we have a chance to be together and the opportunity to share our lives. A friend of his told me that same day: “He cared a lot for you, his kids adore you but you need to be smart and give him another year or so to settle down”.
Since then we started to communicate again more often but we have not seen each other. I tried to see him this week but he could not get out of a meeting, he said next week. I told him I missed talking and he said he did too, that he always enjoys our conversations.
I don t care about marriage or having kids, never had. But with him I feel good, laugh, enjoy his kids and his life and felt that I could have him as a Life companion.
I don’t feel he is ready to settle down again, yet. Where do I stand in his life right now? What he did not like about me, I don’t know yet but I know there are always things we both won’t like and that feelings change so I am willing to know and see if I can improve those things and work on those issues.
What can I do? I have always given him space, never pushed, and tried to be by his side and help him with his kids without living my own Life. I work, I race triathlons, have a bunch of friends and have a Life that’s full of stuff.
Thanks so much for reaching out. I feel your concern. I know it can be really frustrating when it feels like he’s not ready for a relationship and you really want your relationship to work out.
When we talk about wanting a relationship to work out, we’re really thinking about:
Are we going to be happy together long-term?
Are we both going to get our needs met?
Being In Love is Not Enough
Falling in love plays an important role in emotional bonding, but long-term happiness in a relationship depends on these key things:
His and Your Relationship Readiness
How available is he physically and emotionally for a relationship?
If he is dealing with a lot of unresolved issues from his previous marriage or really struggling with the new parenting arrangement after the divorce, he might not be emotionally available right now to really nurture your relationship.
The same goes for your own relationship readiness.
Are there areas of your own life and personal growth that need attention, nurturing or resolution?
Needs and relationship requirements Being Met
Are your needs and relationship requirements being met in your relationship? Are his?
Everyone has their own unique set of relationship requirements and needs—what you require in a relationship in order for it to work for you.
If one requirement is missing, the relationship will likely fail because it’s not going to work for you.
And if your needs are going unmet, you’ll ultimately be unhappy in the relationship.
How aligned are you both in your life visions, needs, and relationship requirements?
Each person in a relationship has their own vision for what makes for a fulfilling life and relationship, and each person has their own set of needs and relationship requirements.
Your visions, needs, and relationship requirements don’t need to perfectly match each other.
But there should be enough alignment in that you’re both willing to support each others life vision and can meet each others needs and relationship requirements.
Chemistry and attraction have a place in drawing us together.
But we shouldn’t make our relationship decisions on only chemistry or attraction alone.
For example, we might be highly attracted to someone, they might turn us on in every way, but if our needs and relationship requirements go unmet, the relationship will not last.
(or it will last if you stay together despite your needs going unmet, but you’ll be unhappy in it).
Mutual Commitment to Problem-Solving Issues in the Relationship
If there are issues in your relationship, it’s important to remember that it takes at least two people to have a relationship.
You might have done all the inner work necessary to be a successful single and you might have done a lot of work to gain relationship skills.
But if your partner is unwilling to do the inner work on his end and if he is unwilling to work with you toward a solution to these issues, it’s like trying to win the World Series when you’re playing by yourself.
You’re only going to have a chance of winning if you work as a team.
How can you win if a key player is unwilling to put in the effort or doesn’t believe it’s possible?
So I would encourage you to take a close look at all this indicators to help you determine if this relationship has long-term potential for you.
What If He Doesn’t Feel Ready for a Relationship?
If he doesn’t feel ready for a relationship, he’s going to have a very hard time meeting your needs.
But you mentioned in your question that he said that “there were somethings that he did not like.”
So that doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t ready, it just means that there are some things in the relationship that are not working for him.
But if he has a lot of unresolved issues from the divorce and his kids are having a really hard time, he might not be ready because those unresolved issues might interfere with him being available for the relationship that you really want.
In any case, it’s important to have an open and honest conversation with him to find out what are those “things that he did not like.”
Of course, however, he has to be forthcoming with what those issues are for him.
If he doesn’t communicate the issue that he’s having, it doesn’t give you the opportunity to know what needs of his aren’t being met, nor the opportunity to work together to negotiate how they could be met.
A Highly Destructive Red Flag
There was one thing you mentioned that was a huge issue for both of you, and that was the incident when you accidentally showed the ski vacation photos to his daughter.
I can understand that he was upset that that happened if he didn’t want his daughter to know about your vacation together.
I don’t know the exact details of the incident, but not talking to you for a week and still being angry with you even after two months seems like excessive “punishment” for the “crime.”
Refusing to talk with you and ignoring your texts and emails, is what relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D calls stonewalling.
Gottman defines stonewalling as “when a listener withdraws from an interaction” by getting quiet or shutting down.
And being angry with you for more than two months, just seems like a really long time to hold a grudge, which makes me wonder whether he might have issues with resolving anger, or learning to manage his emotions in a healthy way might be an area of growth for him.
I bring this up because stonewalling is highly destructive to relationships:
Partners emotionally or physically withdraw (stonewall) because they’re psychologically or physiologically overwhelmed, said Mary Spease, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples therapy in La Jolla, Calif.
They “are typically trying to avoid conflict or escape from conflict; they’re trying to calm themselves down during a stressful situation,” Nickerson said.
For instance, they may refuse to discuss certain topics or feelings, struggling to tolerate the discomfort. They may turn away, stop making eye contact, cross their arms or leave the room because they feel hurt, angry or frustrated, Spease said.
She described stonewalling as “an uncomfortable and hurtful silence.”
Stonewalling is a complex issue. People shut down for myriad reasons. People who have experienced trauma may disconnect from themselves and thereby disconnect from the relationship, said Heather Gaedt, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Palm Desert, Calif., who specializes in couples (particularly with those with eating disorder and addiction issues). Partners might shut down because they’re keeping secrets or feel resentment if it’s a topic they’ve talked about over and over.
Not surprisingly, stonewalling is damaging to relationships. “The person who chooses to stonewall is no longer participating in self-reflection and subsequently personal growth,” Spease said. Rather than contributing to the well-being of the relationship, they impede it from moving forward, she said.
According to Nickerson, “The recipient of stonewalling feels ignored, misunderstood, invalidated, and just plain hurt.” Many people tell her “they feel so unimportant that they don’t even deserve a response.”
In fact, she said, stonewalling is so destructive Gottman found it to be highly predictive of divorce.
(Shared from psychcentral.com. View the full article here: Stonewalling in Couples: When You or Your Partner Shuts Down)
Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. wrote some really helpful ways you approach this issue if your partner stonewalls:
Recognize It’s Not About You
This is the way your partner has learned to manage their emotions, Gaedt said. In the same way, if you shut down, it isn’t your partner’s fault, she said. Trying to get your partner to open up (i.e., trying to fix or change them) only leads to resentment on both sides.
“To believe that you have the power to make your partner behave in a particular manner if you simply express something the ‘right way’ is dangerous,” Spease said. It often leads to people taking on more responsibility than is theirs in the relationship, she said. This often leaves you “feeling angry or not good enough when they choose to shut down despite your loving approach.”
Talk to your partner about the best way to communicate with them when they’re shutting down, Gaedt said. (You can talk about this in the same conversation as above.) In other words, what’s a helpful way for you to talk to them when they’re starting to withdraw from the conversation?
Detach and Set Boundaries
“When you recognize that your partner is stonewalling, you can choose to lovingly detach and not enable or perpetuate an unhealthy dynamic,” Spease said.
When you keep trying to get your partner to engage with you when they don’t want to, you communicate that you’ll tolerate this kind of behavior, and there’s no motivation on their part to change (when you’re doing it for them), she said.
“[D]etaching and setting a clear boundary sends the message that although they have a right to behave as they please, they cannot do so while in connection with you. By removing yourself from the situation, your partner is left with no one to focus on (or blame) but themselves.”
Gaedt shared these examples of boundaries: leaving the house and doing something for yourself; asking your partner to leave because you have a hard time being around them; or telling them you want to attend therapy as a couple in order to stay in the relationship.
(Shared from psychcentral.com. View the full article here: Stonewalling in Couples: When You or Your Partner Shuts Down)
Where to Go from Here
Take an inventory of what the relationship issues are.
Which issues are within your control and which are not within your control?
Decide if, when or how, you might problem-solve those issues. And for how long?
It is ultimately up to you to decide how long you want to try and problem-solve the issues and what your criteria would be for staying in the relationship.
I encourage you to keep your highest vision in mind when making relationship decisions.
What do you envision as the ideal relationship for you?
What do you envision as the most fulfilling life path for you?
And does this relationship support that vision?
I know these things take a lot of time and thought to consider, but I hope this helps provide some guidance!
Please feel free to reach out if you need any other support.
All the best,
Have a burning relationship question? Send me your question here.