Q. Is it normal for my boyfriend of more than a year to avoid public displays of affection? He rarely kisses me or holds my hand when we’re in public. He pulls away if I reach for him in public. I know he cares about me because he’s kind and loving in other situations, and in private we’re very affectionate and playful with each other.
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We work together and our jobs place us both in the public eye. He says he doesn’t want people to see us being affectionate because we’re public figures. I’ve tried telling him it bothers me when he pretends I’m not his girlfriend in public, but that hasn’t worked. Should I put up with it?
A. Given that the two of you work together, the situation is not as simple as you suggest. Your boyfriend is being prudent. The issue you hint at, but don’t bring up fully, is that if you don’t behave professionally in public, your jobs could be at risk.
There are many workplaces where office romance is frowned upon, especially if one person reports to the other or outranks the other. If you are in the public eye, there is a professional decorum you must maintain. Furthermore, if you broke up, you would be subject to all sorts of gossip.
Your boyfriend could also fear accusations of sexual harassment, even if you are happy in the relationship. If he has enemies at work, they could use information about his affectionate behavior against him.
Become familiar with your workplace’s policy on office romance. It’s a tricky area. This is too bad, because work is a natural place to meet people. It should be OK and even encouraged. But that’s not the current reality. If there is any policy about being involved with a colleague, being affectionate in public might put your jobs on the line — in which case, your boyfriend has a point in avoiding the risk.
But suppose you two didn’t work together. In that case, your question should be: What is his reason for hiding the relationship?
Sometimes people wish to keep a relationship concealed because they don’t want to appear taken. It’s possible your boyfriend wants his female fans to continue to be interested in him. Or he could want to keep his options open. He might be ashamed of being with you.
He might have some social anxiety that presents in the form of disliking the disclosure of any personal information, including information about his romantic life. Some people are just less comfortable with public displays of affection than others. Some might feel bad about being insensitive to others — for example, being lovey-dovey in front of a friend whose relationship just ended.
But if your boyfriend really doesn’t want people to know about you — which could also include other signs, like failing to introduce you to his family and friends — I suggest you get out of this relationship sooner rather than later. Anyone who isn’t proud to be with you won’t be a good long-term partner.
Ideally, both partners are on the same page about exhibiting affection. (After all, if you also didn’t want to show affection in public, this wouldn’t be a problem.) Or they can find a way to successfully negotiate their differences.
Physical affection should feel like a natural extension of the relationship. If your boyfriend can’t give you something simple, like holding hands on the way to dinner, that isn’t a great sign. I would wonder if it indicates there isn’t an easy flow of affection between you.
(I am not talking about being all puppy-lovey and slobbering over each other. Some people like being exhibitionists and having others watch them be sexual, which is a separate issue.)
Look at this in a larger context. Does this lack of physical affection foretell bigger, more divisive issues? Do you have other complaints about your relationship, or is this the only problem? Can you live with it? Can you negotiate this and meet somewhere that works for both of you? Is your relationship so strong otherwise that it ceases to matter? Can you concede on this point and be OK with doing so?
In your case, as long as you work together, these questions might be moot, because your jobs could be at stake. But if and when the job issue ceases to be relevant, look at the other reasons why your boyfriend acts less than affectionate to decide whether this issue is significant or not.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: When it comes to public displays of affection, a hands-off policy might be perfectly valid, or it might indicate further issues. You need to find out the reasons for your partner’s resistance.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.
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