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Dealbreaker: He Doesn't Give Compliments

He was a numbers guy, and he approached relationships with the same dispassionate logic he would any other equation.

In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.

The first time we had a conversation outside the confines of our student newspaper office, I told him I wanted to figure him out.

“You’re a tough nut to crack,” I said. “I like that. It feels like a challenge.”

If I have a type (I later learned that I definitely have a type), he embodied it perfectly: reserved but not shy, just playing his cards close to the vest. He seemed perplexed by my incessant questions about his life and would never give more information than was required. When I asked where he grew up, he said he had lived in the same house for almost his entire life, leaving out the fact that his mother had recently sold his childhood home after his parents’ traumatic divorce and he was planning to help her move out a couple of weeks later. When I confessed a head-over-heels crush the next semester, my nerves causing me to talk way too much and way too fast, he calmly responded he was interested in me as well. He used no more than 10 words.

For the first several months, I treated him like a reporting project. Every revelation about what he was actually thinking or feeling felt like a hard-earned victory. He was more of a challenge than I thought. He was a numbers guy, and he approached relationships with the same dispassionate logic he would any other equation. Over time, I needed to ask fewer and fewer questions to get at the heart of the matter, but he still rarely volunteered anything. Including his feelings about me.

I can count on one hand the number of times he told me I looked beautiful, or even “nice.” Most of them were a direct result of me baiting him. “You look so handsome,” I’d say when he put on his best-fitting slacks and my favorite pink button-down in advance of a dinner date. “I feel so outclassed!”

“No, no,” he’d say. “You look nice too.”

It wasn’t just the shallow stuff. Journalists crave positive feedback as validation that the hours we’ve spent covering mind-numbing school board meetings or staring at blank Word documents have been worth it. As he became the most important person in my life, he became the one whose approval I most craved. But he almost never read my work. Usually, that made perfect sense: For years, I covered education policy, local governments, and big-money philanthropists—hardly scintillating material for people who didn’t have kids, live in the suburbs, or have a vested interest in who was donating money to whom.

But even when my newspaper ran a huge feature story I’d worked on for weeks, even when I wrote long pieces about life in Baghdad when I was stationed there covering the war, he rarely read my articles unless I asked him to. Once, when I told him over a crappy satellite phone connection that I was upset he hadn’t read an A1 centerpiece I wrote about Iraq’s emerging black market for real estate, he said he didn’t understand the complaint. “Why do I need to read the story?” he asked genuinely. “You told me all about it last time we talked.”

It’s not that the lack of compliments made me doubt his feelings for me. He gave the best hugs, ones that communicated how much he meant it. He called me loving pet names and gave thoughtful gifts. We could talk about any subject for hours on end, and after the first year or so he even began trusting me enough to reveal more than what was on the surface. I was in love with him, and for most of the time we were together, I didn’t have any serious doubts that he was in love with me.

Yet his reticence turned me into someone I didn’t want to be—an insecure woman who fishes for compliments. I pouted when he didn’t remark on something I wanted him to notice, and then I felt badly about myself for being that girl. I bought items of clothing I didn’t like that much because I thought he would like them, then shoved them to the back of the drawer when he didn’t comment. Rather than adjusting to his ways over time, I became more frustrated with my inability to elicit approval. We’d have stupid arguments over why he never said “I love you” first—if I knew he loved me, what was the point of him saying it all the time?

The dynamic made it difficult to see when the relationship started going south. Was he acting weird, or was I being paranoid again? Were we having less sex because we weren’t attracted to each other anymore, or because my insecurities had built up to the point of impossibility? Honestly, I still don’t know.

In the end, we couldn’t agree on how to split up, either. He called things off, then immediately flew away for an extended stay with his family to avoid talking about it further (he had secretly booked the ticket three days earlier). When he returned, he had no qualms about continuing to live together while he scouted new apartments, because it was more convenient that way. I had begun to mentally prepare myself for the breakup, but I fought the cool, detached way he executed it. When it came time to divide our things, he produced a spreadsheet.

Part of me still feels like I was in the wrong, like it’s needy and narcissistic to demand compliments from your partner when he’s communicating love and affection the best way he knows how. But when you make a living stringing words together for maximum impact, you tend to be committed to the idea that words matter. I wanted to be told as well as shown that I was smart and desirable and maybe even beautiful. It turns out that for me, love can’t be left unspoken.

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