Q: My boyfriend of three months seems wonderful. He is attentive and tries hard to please me, even in small ways (like always making sure I get tea I like when we’re out). Soon after we started dating, a relative of mine died, and he made a real effort to check in on my well-being. He’s always excited to see me; we kiss a lot right at the door. However, he never compliments me. He did it sparingly early on, telling me I had beautiful eyes, for example, but it’s been a while. He also seems uncomfortable being complimented. I called him handsome, and he mumbled something about it being dark. I guess I could fish for compliments, but I’m not so much looking to be complimented as I am trying to make sure I’m not being blind to some red flag.
A: Movies reveal a lot about men’s and women’s differing expectations for how men will communicate. Chick flicks are pretty much wall-to-wall chatter, down to that final scene where the male lead gets the girl — after giving a big Oprah-worthy speech about what an idiot he was not to love her from the start. In male-targeted action pix, the guy also gets the girl. All he has to do is grunt, glare, and incinerate 55 giant slimy things from outer space.
That said, the notion that men are mute lunks while women go around yapping like Yorkshire terriers, a claim made by self-help authors including UCSF neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine (in various editions of “The Female Brain”) just isn’t supported by the research. In “50 Myths Of Popular Psychology,” Scott O. Lilienfeld and his co-authors note that when psychologist Dr. Janet Hyde crunched the data from 73 controlled studies, she found only a tiny overall difference in male and female talkativeness. And when psychologist Dr. Matthias Mehl and his colleagues gave 396 college students portable audio recorders to walk around with, they found that both men and women spoke about 16,000 words a day.
Where men and women do seem to differ is in emotional expression. There’s a lack of conclusive research in this area, but it’s clear that men have feelings — deep feelings. They just don’t always communicate them in a slew of words. Many seem to walk the talk — showing their feelings instead of speaking them. And frankly, shows of affection are probably a better reflection of a man’s sincerity. Any Mr. Smooth can read Man Cosmo (Maxim, Details, etc.) and rattle off 3, 8, and 9 from “10 sweet nothings that’ll have her clothes on your bedroom floor in 10 seconds or less!”
Since you say you don’t really neeeeed compliments, you could just decide to accept that there are two kinds of adoring boyfriends — those who compare their girlfriend’s hair to a golden meadow and those who stay up into the wee hours getting it out of her clogged drain. The thing is, research by Dr. Sara B. Algoe and others suggests that when romantic partners articulate appreciation for each other — in their thoughts and by telling their partner — both the appreciated partner and the partner doing the appreciating feel more bonded and satisfied with the relationship. It seems reflecting regularly on what you’re grateful for — how your partner thinks, how Hottie McBody they look in that sweater — helps keep you aware of what you have, making you less likely to treat your partner like an old pair of shoes you keep forgetting to put out on the curb.
Your boyfriend may be uncomfortable getting compliments or just those he feels he hasn’t earned. (He exists handsome simply because he came out of the birth canal instead of making like Waco, holing up in the womb and refusing to leave.) But everybody likes to feel appreciated. Instead of remarking on his looks, tell him how he’s made life easier for you through some sweet thing he’s done, or admire how he’s solved some problem. And don’t just compliment him in words; stroke his arm or give him one of those movie kisses where all the kitchenware goes flying.
To encourage him to be more verbally expressive, sweetly tease him about how he hates to be complimented, and then tell him that it makes girls happy to hear they look pretty. Explain that this doesn’t take much — just noticing stuff he likes about you and letting you know (like when he told you you have beautiful eyes). Be appreciative for whatever effort he makes, and don’t start expecting miracles. In other words, be mindful of the limitations of the typical heterosexual male, who, for example, is unlikely to ever notice your hair is different unless you get it all shaved off and the stubble dyed electric blue — or it happens to be on fire.— here — 7-8 p.m. PT, 10-11 p.m. ET, or download the podcast at the link. Call-in during the show: 347-326-9761 (NYC area code)