My boyfriend and I have been together for two years. I’m an American and he is originally from Portugal, so English isn’t his first language. I met him a week after he came to America and we have been together ever since. I have always struggled with communicating with him, not so much because of a language barrier, but because I think he’s so passive or submissive in life, nothing is ever an issue to him. When we “fight” it’s always because of something that annoys me, and it’s never a discussion with him when we talk about it. It’s me venting about why I’m mad or annoyed and him saying sorry and that he understands. Our “fights” are usually just me talking at him, and him saying things that he thinks I want to hear. I want to have a discussion about things, not just have everything be one-sided. Most of the time when I’m telling him why I’m annoyed, It also seems to me that he’s not comprehending anything that I’m saying. I just don’t know what to do or how to get him to open up about his feelings. (From the USA)

Thanks for writing to us here at Psych Central. One of the things that may be happening is there may have been a shift in your needs and role within the relationship. I’d encourage you to think about what attracted you to him, what role you are played in the early days of your relationship, and how these features and factors have shifted over the past two years.

Questions to ask yourself are: What was the initial attraction beyond the physical? Was it the fact you could help him? Was his passivity or lack of forcefulness attractive because of what you needed or wanted at the time? His core personality was likely very similar to what it is now. If your relationship is like most, usually we are drawn to someone whose characteristics are corrections from past relationships and experiences. Someone in a volatile relationship will (consciously or unconsciously) seek out a new partner that is passive or meek. Of course, I can’t know if this is true in your instance, but it is worth asking what it was that you were drawn to in him and why it changed.

The things that stand out are his passivity and submissiveness, telling you what you want to hear, the discussion being one-sided, him not comprehending what you say, and you not knowing what to do to get him to open up to his feelings.

To carry on my example someone choosing a passive person because their last relationship had been too volatile will initially feel they have hit the jackpot because the new person is exactly opposite of the person they were with, but the opposite dynamic may cause a similar reaction. If previous relationships were with aggressive volatile people you may have found they tell you what you want to hear, the discussion is one-sided, they may not have comprehended what you say, and you may not known what to do to get him to open up to his feelings. It would be a common thing for someone to choose the opposite trait they think was the problem. If aggressiveness and volatility were seen as the causes of all the problems then choosing passivity and submissiveness would look like a correction.

As an example, a woman I am familiar with was married to a man who was very poor and unmotivated. All of their discussions revolved around money and it was as though money was the central issue in their life. She felt like she wasn’t seen or validated by her husband because all he could think about was their financial situation. It clouded his ability to be able to see his wife clearly in a loving relationship. She eventually divorced him and fell in love with a man who had substantial means and his own business. The problem was the same. Although now the issue was about accumulation, management, and frugality, she didn’t feel she was seen or validated by her husband because all he could do is think about his financial situation. Although the situation was 180 degrees different, her feeling remained the same.

While it is impossible for me to know what your circumstances and these are just principles and ideas, this approach can be useful in understanding how an initial attraction could change in this way.

As you ponder these questions you may want to have some individual therapy to help sort them through, or a couple’s therapist for both of you who is bilingual and, ideally, bicultural. The find help tab at the top of the page can help you find someone in your area.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral