Oct. 12 2011 12:00 AM

Prince Harming & semicolon cleansing

Q: I feel like a disappointment to my boyfriend of
seven months. I’m 28; he’s 35 and Mr. Smart. He is a Brit and was a top
student at Cambridge. He says everyone expected him to become Prime
Minister, but he decided to buck their expectations and become a
portrait painter. Although he earns a good living, I believe he
considers himself a failure compared with the wealthy Brits
commissioning his paintings. He says I’d be “more attractive” to him if
I wrote for a media blog, as it would help his filmmaking career
aspirations. Well, I quit my unsatisfying graphic design job, and I am
halfway through getting my master’s in psychology and have no time or
desire to blog. He’ll tell me I’m talented/beautiful/smart but add a
dig like “It’s surprising you aren’t more accomplished by now” and say
stuff like “You’re not very attractive when you’re anxious.” When I
tell him this is hurtful, he apologizes and says he just wants to help
me better myself. I want to be the strong, confident woman he says is
most attractive. I felt that way when we were first dating, but perhaps
my insecurity took over. How do I toughen up and develop a thicker skin?


A: Love is patient, love is kind, love is
surprised you aren’t more accomplished and thinks you’re kinda uggo
when you’re anxious. And okay, love isn’t Prime Minister, just some
hired brush, but maybe love could paint a couple extra chins on The
Duke of Oldemoneyham or Lady Footlocker instead of taking all that
bitterness and self-loathing out on you. 

Apparently, the next best thing to running a country is
finding a girlfriend, appointing yourself her sadistic guidance
counselor, and running her spirit down till she feels like a chalk
outline of the woman she used to be. (All the better to prime her to
further your career at the expense of her own.) This isn’t love; it’s
insidious emotional abuse — a man doing everything to undermine his girlfriend’s confidence, only to turn around and remind her that confidence is sexy. 

A younger woman who’s unsure of herself who pairs up with
an older, accomplished man is most prone to get into this sick
compliment-dig-apology loop you’re in. You idealized this guy and the
relationship to the point where you’ve become desperate for his
approval so you can crawl back up from where he’s put you down. If you
had a stronger self and a realistic view of him, you’d see his putdowns
for what they are — stealth abuse passed off as loving criticism: “Here, let me help you out of a little more of your self-worth.” 

Instead of wondering how you might grow body armor, ask
yourself those basic questions so many in relationships forget to keep
asking: Does this person make me happy? Is my life better because I’m
with him? You can go back to being that strong, confident woman you
once were — once you no longer have an
emotional predator for a boyfriend. After you ditch him, take some time
to ponder my favorite definition of love, by sci-fi writer Robert
Heinlein: “Love is the condition in which the happiness of another
person is essential to your own.” A guy who loves you Heinlein-style
will “help you better yourself,” but by cheering you on for having the
guts to change careers and by telling you you’re beautiful and sexy — without following up by whispering a bunch of sweet “you’re nothings” in your ear.

Q: How important is it that personal style and
sensibilities match in a relationship? I’m 24 and having trouble
agreeing to a first date with a man if he texts or emails me an
emoticon. I majored in literature, love language, and see the emoticon
as the epitome of intellectual laziness and bad expression of self. 

— :(  

A: O Romeo, Romeo…eeuw, Romeo…you’re wearing dad jeans and a T-shirt with a wolf on it, and not in an ironic way.” As a younger woman, you’re more likely to dump guys over little things, like style crimes. But after a few years of dating, and a few rounds with some Slick
Ricks, minor sensibility mismatches should pale in comparison with
serial cheating and undeclared STDs. (You can steer a guy into cooler
shirts. It’s harder to get a guy to throw on some ethics.) That said,
as a lit hound, you aren’t “shallow” in looking critically at a guy’s
emoticon use, just unwise in cutting him off before the first date because of it —
assuming the rest of his email doesn’t reveal scorching illiteracy and
poor self-expression. Maybe this is his one area of intellectual
laziness. We all have some — for example, the intellectually lazy assumption that somebody’s intellectually lazy just because he sometimes “winks” with punctuation marks.