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When an Emotionally Repressed Asian Guy Breaks Up with You

I posted something two years ago about dating an emotionally repressed Asian guy and recently received two correspondences regarding the comment. Here’s an email from a young woman:

"My boyfriend is Korean-American, born to immigrant parents and raised in New Jersey in a heavily Korean area. All of his friends from home are Korean. We met in college and were friends for about a year before we started dating. Since the beginning of the relationship I knew that he was always reluctant to share his feelings, but I know that he has them deep inside him and that they are just shown in different ways. I accepted early on that he has different love languages than me. Everything in our relationship was going well for about a year, but towards the one year mark he started to say no to many activities I wanted to do, or outings I wanted to go on, saying that he was busy with school or projects or just tired. I thought we were just going through a busy time and that he would soon be more free to spend time with me doing things. I was still seeing him every day and sleeping at his apartment almost every night.”

Principle #1: Pay attention to what’s not being said. Knowing this guy's feelings are shown in different ways is a mature insight. However, she observes, at the one year mark, that he started to become distant and made excuses about not wanting to spend time together. Those were important non-verbal and/or indirect clues that were missed. She assumed he was too busy but now recognizes that wasn't the case. When someone is less verbally expressive about his/her emotions, it requires greater sensitivity and patience to read non-verbal and indirect cues.

"At our one and a half year mark, he unexpectedly broke up with me with almost no explanation. He said that he doesn't know what his feelings for me are and that he can't gauge them since he's never been in a relationship before. And he said that he feels like he just fell out of love with me. I was devastated and shocked. A few days after the breakup we had a long conversation and I asked him a lot of questions. I found out that he felt restricted in the relationship because he felt like he always had to bring me everywhere with him, and he felt obligated to call me every night to come and sleep over because he thought I needed that attention from him. I don't know where this came from since I was just following along with him inviting me everywhere and asking me to come over. If he had just told me he wanted to be separate on some days I would have been fine! But he didn't share it with me and it was actually making him miserable and feeling restricted."

Principle #2: Periodically pull back. There’s a chapter in the seminal Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus that’s really helpful to understand about men. It’s this idea that men in romantic relationships act like rubber bands. We don’t want a linear progression of intimacy. We need moments/hours/days where we can pull away, have some space to be stretched, and then we’ll bounce back to the relationship with greater passion and commitment. When I’m gone on business/ministry trips, I miss my wife incredibly and I love the anticipation of coming home to her. It helps me not take her for granted and the space is helpful. It’s this emotional distance that restores a sense of self and allows a chance to think and reflect about the relationship. I’m curious what would have happened if she’d turned down some of his requests to spend the night. Perhaps it would have given him some freedom to make fewer requests or feel less duty-bound to the relationship, knowing that she wasn’t as needy. And it doesn’t have to be an intentional retreat from a partner, it’s more about giving someone permission and encouragement to pull away temporarily. 

"I also found out that there are some certain things that he doesn't like about my personality/behavior since I am more emotional and outward about my feelings. I asked him why he didn't tell me so that I could learn, change, and grow so as not to make him uncomfortable and he said that he wanted to see if I would just fix it organically, and he felt like if he told me and then I changed that I would be compromising who I am. This is crazy to me! You are supposed to grow and change in relationships."

Yeah, this is really dumb and selfish on his part. It is crazy. I would coach him that no one can read his mind and he’s treating her as if she has no agency. He needs to trust her ability to discern whether his expectations are helpful and be willing to talk through how to deal with them. This was a great opportunity to build intimacy and he repeatedly turned it down, likely out of fear.

At one point in the conversation he seemed to get really stressed out with me and said that he doesn't like having to point out the things that he doesn't like and he doesn't like having to say what is on his mind because it's things that will hurt me or make me upset. I am so surprised at this because I have never gotten upset at him for telling me what he needs/wants, and I have never invalidated his feelings. I actually used to regularly check up with him once a month during the first year of our relationship to ask how he was feeling and how things are going for him, but I stopped because I thought I didn't need to do it anymore and that he had gotten more comfortable sharing things with me but I guess not... Nonetheless, I saw that he was getting frustrated during this long conversation and I just said "Okay" and led the conversation to a close.”

Principle #3: Talk less and check in often. She states she stopped "checking in" with him because things were getting more comfortable and he had gotten more comfortable sharing things with her. It sounds like she may have gotten more comfortable herself but that was not reciprocated. Again, that's a missed signal worth further reflection. One principle I’ve realized about introverts and those less emotionally expressive is that as you get to know them better, they talk more not less. If you’re highly verbal and/or extroverted and occupy an increasing amount of the word space, it’s not a good sign. I have loved ones who express emotions very differently from me. I've learned that I need to be much more observant of when a loved one repeats something, when they're reluctant in certain situations or when they're physically distant or vague about something. This is valuable information that I need to stop talking and gently tease out what’s going on. That's the key. I'm highly verbal and tend to be overpowering and pushy. Therefore, I need to give the other person time and space to express how they're feeling and sometimes that means I need to guess because they may not always have the words. I can't force those words nor can I expect it them to express their emotions verbally the same way I do.

Again, I'm not denying this guy is emotionally repressed, I just think it's more helpful to accept ways in which a person can change and ways in which he might not. If he's emotionally repressed, he can work on being more aware of his feelings. And yet if his personality is more physically expressive and indirect (which it sounds like and is certainly part of Asian culture) then that's something you need to learn to accept and even cherish as different from yourself.

"I want to tell him how I feel, and tell him that he is showing strong signs of emotional repression and I think that is the true cause of our breakup. He has really hurt me, I feel so upset thinking that half the time I slept in bed next to him he didn't even want me there. And I can't help but feel that if we just had a little bit more communication between us (on his part) then we wouldn't be breaking up. I want to tell him that if talks to someone and gets better at expressing these things then he will feel better about the relationship and be more comfortable. Do you have any idea how I can approach this?”

Principle #4: Own up to ways you’ve made it difficult to express emotion. She wants an admission that he's emotionally repressed but won't get that easily because it’s really hard for anyone to accept a negative label from an ex immediately after a break-up. And even if he did, I’m not sure he would be equipped to know how to change. I think it's more important to acknowledge, confess, and make amends for anything she did to contribute to making the environment unsafe or difficult for him to share. That would go a long way in helping him feel safe and also for anyone she dates in the future who has similar tendencies.

Lastly, I believe this guy is operating from a worldview strongly dictated by fear. No amount of communication training can overcome a paralyzing fear of intimacy and vulnerability. That’s where the gospel is so crucial in relationships because we receive the security and worth to let others see us as we are - because their opinion is secondary to how our heavenly Father feels about us. It appears he isn’t willing to let anyone know how he really feels and has trouble giving himself permission to feel anything. This young woman is better off without him.


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