What To Do When Your Partner Is Socially Awkward Or Less-Naturally Social
This site is primarily for socially awkward people who want to work on their own issues. I realize though that some of its readers are here for information and advice on someone in their lives who has social difficulties. I'm happy to try to help with that as well.
One of these situations is when you're dating or married to someone who's socially awkward, or not as naturally sociable as you are. Sometimes this is a more minor issue, but it can get to a point where it's quite distressing and you wonder if the relationship will last.
To back up a bit, having a socially awkward partner, and having a less-sociable one are actually two distinct issues. The first is more of an objective problem, while second is really an incompatibility in personality style and preferences. There's enough overlap in the two that I'll still address them in the same article. The content will lean a bit more towards situations where one person in the couple truly has some social weaknesses.
I'll start this in-depth piece by outlining the kinds of social problems your husband or wife, or boyfriend or girlfriend might have, and the many factors that can influence how it will all play out. Next I'll give some suggestions about what you can do about it. One theme that will keep coming up is that this is often as much a couple issue as it is a social skills one.
If your partner is awkward, is there hope of things improving?
Before I really get started, I'll quickly address this question. If your partner has social difficulties you may be fairly upset about the impact it's having on your relationship, and be wondering how realistic it is to expect things to improve. It depends on several factors, but in general people have the potential to overcome their social difficulties. If they work at it they can build up their communication skills or become less shy and insecure. They may never reach 10/10 on the charisma scale, but most can get up to the level of an average, well-functioning individual. Similarly, if there are some communication or problem solving weaknesses in your relationship that are getting in the way of your addressing one partner's interpersonal weaknesses, that's also something that can be improved.
Defining the problem
When you partner has social issues that bother you there are actually two intertwined problems you need to resolve. There's the social issues themselves, and then the fact that you have a difference or incompatibility in your relationship that you'll need to navigate and resolve. Between those two main obstacles there are a variety of factors that make the situation unique for each couple. Think about all these variables and form a clear sense of what the issue looks like in your particular relationship.
Your partner's social issue(s)
If more than one of these applies to your partner, they may overlap or interact with each other.
- Your partner is less-social than you are - There's nothing wrong with having a less-sociable personality style, so if this is a problem it's due to a mismatch in preferences. Examples: One partner doesn't like to go out very often; One partner doesn't like big parties with lots of mingling and always gets tired and wants to leave early; One partner doesn't have many friends, or much of a social life, and seems totally fine with that.
- Your partner is socially awkward around other people. Maybe they make too many strange or inappropriate comments when you have company over. They could have trouble reading non-verbal cues and talk for too long about subjects their conversation partner obviously isn't interested in. They could generally have an off-putting demeanor, perhaps by having odd or guarded body language.
- Your partner is really shy, inhibited and nervous around others. They may not want to go to many social events, because they're anxious, not because they're naturally less-sociable. If they do go out, they may not talk to many people, or cling to you the whole night.
- Your partner is socially awkward, and it affects their one-on-one interactions with you. They could be too blunt and insensitive, or unaware of your emotional needs, or untalkative and difficult to have a substantial, intimate conversation with. Of course, these kinds of communication problems are something many couples struggle with, even if one member isn't particularly clumsy in social situations.
- Your partner's social problems prevent them from meeting their obligations to the relationship or your family. They may be underemployed or not be able to hold down a job. They could be too anxious or awkward to attend a parent-teacher meeting at your child's school. They might not always be the best parents because they don't have a knack for communicating with your kids.
Another factor is whether your partner has an actual mental health or developmental condition that's known to affect the learning or application of social skills, such as Social Anxiety Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, or Adult ADHD. I'll talk a bit more about this at the end of the article.
Where you feel the problem lies
If you took five couples where one member has a social issue, their partners may all differ on how exactly they see it as problem. More than one of the below probably applies:
- If your partner is shy or awkward, you can see how much they're struggling, and want to help them.
- Your partner's behavior is having a direct negative effect on you (e.g., you feel bad about yourself and the relationship when your wife says something unintentionally hurtful to you).
- You can see your partner having a negative effect on other people (e.g., your husband is too curt and critical with your children, or he frequently engages people in angry debates).
- Your partner's behavior or preferences are having a negative impact on your own social life (e.g., they never want to leave the house, they don't get along with your friends, they expect you to focus all your attention on them whenever you're out together, they don't have many friends themselves so that's one less way you can meet other people.)
- Your partner's behavior embarrasses you., e.g., when they say weird things to people at parties, or you dislike the idea that your boyfriend never talks to anyone when you're out with him.)
- You have social issues yourself, which are triggered by your partner's actions (e.g., you worry too much about what other people think; You have a hard time talking to people yourself, but because your partner is even more awkward, you feel you have to take up all the slack.)
- Your partner upsets you because they somehow violate your ideas of how people 'should' be socially (e.g., you have a value that everyone should be polite and talk about safe, neutral topics at all times).
- You have a certain image of the type of partner you want to have, or the type of couple you want to be a part of, and your partner flies in the face of that (e.g., always imagined yourself having a really outgoing, mainstream boyfriend).
Even if some of your views aren't the most noble sounding, such as you're embarrassed by your spouse, it's still important to acknowledge them to yourself. You're allowed to feel what you feel. It's not like you have to tell them every last thing you're thinking about. Down the road you may decide to try to adjust your attitudes, but for now you've at least got to be aware of what's really motivating you.
Your broader view of the problem
- Do you see their social issues as a significant problem, or just a small quibble - something that would be nice if it was different, but you could live with if it wasn't?
- Do you think their social awkwardness causes genuine problems for you, them, and other people, or is it more of a mild irritation or inconvenience?
- Do you think your partner is making objective social mistakes, or is it more that they just have their own style, which sometimes clashes with a more-typical way of doing things?
- Do you think this issue is worth potentially rocking the boat over? Is it something you can let slide, or do you absolutely have to address it, even if it stirs up some conflict?
- Did your partner always have these social difficulties, or is it a more recent development? If they've always been like this, how long has the issue bothered you? If it's only started to bug you recently, why do you think that is?
- Do you think you're pretty level-headed and easygoing about determining whether something is a problem, or are you a bit critical and hard to please?
- No one is perfect. What do you think is an acceptable level of awkwardness or social differences in a partner? What won't you compromise on? What standards of social behavior do you think you can you reasonably expect from someone you're involved with?
- What will you do if they don't change enough, or if they don't think they have an issue?
Your partner's perception of the problem
You might not know this information at the moment, but it should come up at some point. Even when you don't know everything going on in your partner's head, the points below will still influence the situation.
- Do they feel they're socially awkward? Assuming they have legitimate weaknesses, are they totally aware of them, only somewhat, or seemingly oblivious? Sometimes the people with the weakest interpersonal skills don't have the knowledge or self-awareness to accurately judge where they stand.
- How would they describe the situation to someone else? Does it line up with how you see it?
- If they know they sometimes rub people the wrong way socially, do they see it as an issue they need to work on, or more of a problem that lies in others (e.g., "They just don't get my sense of humor.")
- If they feel they have a problem, how motivated are they to change? Even if their issues makes their lives harder, do they care enough to do something about it?
Their openness to your take on things
- If you were to tell them about their social weaknesses, would they be open to what you have to say? Would they be too hurt to consider where you're coming from? Would they be dismissive? Do they value your opinion, or have they long ago written you off as a nitpicker?
- Is your partner open to feedback and constructive criticism, or do they tend to get defensive or wounded in the face of it?
The state of the relationship
- How healthy is the relationship otherwise? Are things mostly strong, or are they rocky in a lot of other ways, and your partner's problems in the social arena are one of many things you resent them for?
- How good are you two about handling differences and disagreements? Can you use good communication skills to resolve things in a productive way, or do you tend to get sidetracked into pointless arguments?
- How invested are you in the relationship? Are you married to your partner? Do you have kids? Or have you been dating this person for four months, and besides their social problems, there are other things about them that you're not so sure about? Do you have values where you try to work through any issues that arise in your relationships, or are you more the type to leave at the first sign of trouble and cut your losses?
What you can do
Once you've gotten a sense of what the issue is, you can try to address it. However, in many cases you only have so much influence over how things go down. If your partner needs to make changes to their social skills, that large task is something they have to do for themselves. You can just hopefully help guide them in a direction that works for you.
This is something you can do throughout the entire process. If one person in a couple has a condition, it's only natural the other partner is going to have unanswered questions and worries about it. You can do a lot to clear up your uncertainties by educating yourself on the issue. You can also get a better sense of where they're coming from, and what things are like from their end.
You can do some reading to get an overall background on the situation. I think this site is a detailed resource on the social struggles people can go through, and how they can think about them. Everyone is different, so going through general information may not give you insight into every little thing your partner does or is going through, but it should help. If your husband has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, you can go through some books, websites, or videos that describe the symptoms, and what it's like to live with the communication difficulties it causes. You could also find firsthand accounts by people who have it themselves. If your partner is shy, you could check out books and sites on that. If they identify as an introvert, there are plenty of sources that describe what it's like to live in a world that's geared more towards more extroverted values.
The second important way you can educate yourself and clear up any misunderstandings is to talk to your partner and hear things from their perspective. This can be a conversation that brings you closer together as a couple. Ask them what things are like for them, and then listen in an open, non-judgmental way. Often we unthinkingly make assumptions about why other people act the way they do, and can be surprised when we learn what's really going through their heads. For example, you may think someone talks too much because they're selfish and attention starved, but they really do it because they get nervous and feel they have to fill every empty second.
Ask yourself if there are any aspects of the issue you can address entirely on your own
See if there are any facets of the situation you can get handled by yourself. After all, you can't totally control your partner, but you can choose how you respond to them. First, ask yourself if there any parts of your partner's behavior you might be able to accept by changing your attitude towards them. Some examples:
- You accept that because your spouse has a less-social personality that they're never going to be the party animal you sometimes wish they were.
- You realize you worry too much about how other people may judge you for your spouse's interests, and that you need to accept that it's fine if he wants to talk to people about them.
- You realize you're a bit too critical of other people, and one symptom of this is expecting your partner to be perfect in social situations.
- After some introspection you realize you're actually fine with your spouse's quirks, but up until now you've been unconsciously acting on values you picked up from your parents about how people 'should' act.
Next, is there anything you can do on your own to adapt to your partner's social style? For example:
- If you resent your shy, homebody boyfriend because you can't meet anyone through him, is it possible you just need to get better at finding new friends on your own, instead of expecting to form your social life around people he introduces you too?
- If your wife is sometimes awkward at parties, is there a way you can respectfully and politely notify other people about her in advance, and tell them the best way to act around her? (e.g., "If she's been talking to you about something for a while and you're losing interest, she won't get offended if you interrupt and change the topic. She doesn't realize when she's doing it, and actually appreciates it when people stop her and point it out."
Of course, you won't be able to accept or adapt to everything about your mate. For that you'll first need to...
Talk to your partner about the issue(s)
Some of you have already done this step. However, it's just as likely you've kept your feelings close to your chest, or you've only expressed them through the odd little comment. Having a more open or straightforward discussion can be easier said than done. We all naturally want to avoid potentially tense or awkward conversations. We don't want to hurt their feelings. We try to tell ourselves our concerns aren't that big a deal and not worth rocking the boat over. If something bugs you enough though, you've got to get it out there sooner or later.
Here are some thoughts on how to make this conversation go as well as possible:
- You'll need to have figured out what issues are serious enough to bring up, where exactly you feel the problem lies, and what changes you'd like to see.
- Be prepared for the conversation to spin off in any number of directions. They might quickly agree with you, and you'll walk away thinking, "Wow, that was easy." They may not believe they have a problem, get touchy, and want to change the subject. They may reply with an opinion or perspective that causes you to totally reevaluate your own views.
- As I mentioned earlier, how well things go will be influenced by the overall state of the relationship, and how strong your communication and conflict resolution skills are. This article doesn't have room to cover the topic in detail, but there are tons of resources about how improve your communication as a couple, and fight fair when you have disagreements. Overall you want to do basic things like:
- Be straightforward and talk in terms of how their issues make you feel, and how you want the best for them, rather than coming off as attacking them with lots of "You always..." "You never..." statements.
- Be polite and respectful.
- Accept that if it's a touchy issue for them, there may be no way you can phrase your concerns in a way that doesn't upset them. Some issues are important enough that you have to risk this anyway.
- When they respond, genuinely try to hear their perspective, and not insist your view is the only correct one. For example, they may feel their behavior is just a legitimate variation in how people act, and not a flaw. Or they could describe what it's like to be in their shoes, and how changing for them isn't as simple as just wishing it were so.
- Be willing to come to a compromise.
- Be open to hearing some complaints of their own (e.g., "Well you always try to push me to be someone I'm not"), and try not to get defensive.
- If you bring up what's bothering you and they seem dismissive of your concerns, or don't think there's a problem, don't let them off the hook (note that their wanting some time to think about what you've said, rather than launching into a discussion right away doesn't necessarily mean they don't care). While they're allowed to have their opinion, if you're not happy with the status quo you've got to make that clear to them. If they continue to blow you off, at least you'll have more clarity about where the situation stands, and you can make future decisions accordingly.
To talk about compromising a little more, this is especially something you'll need to do if your partner just has a different social style than you. There's no preference towards socializing that's better or worse than another, so you're not really in a spot to insist they change to meet your standards. However, if you're both able to compromise you may be able to work something out that's a lot more mutually satisfying than what you've been doing to date.
For example, if a woman likes going to bustling parties, and would love her boyfriend to come with her, they might agree that it's only reasonable for him to accompany her to at least some events, and to make an effort to be chatty while he's there. However, in return she'll acknowledge how draining he finds it, and she'll be okay with him ducking out after 2-3 hours with a reasonable excuse. She'll then be able to stay as long as she wants, and he'll pick her up later if she doesn't have another way to get home. Also, he'll be given a few days each week where he can chill at home and do his own thing.
Help and support them
I've already talked about accepting, adapting, and compromising, now what about when one partner has legitimate issues they need to work on? What if they admit they want to do something about their stifling shyness, or shaky conversation abilities? Social skills are something people mainly have to work on by themselves, so the first thing you can do is just be supportive as they do that. Cheer on their little victories and milestones. Be there to listen if they need to vent after a frustrating experience. Show through your actions that you still love them despite the fact that they're not socially perfect.
It's also possible they may ask for your help. You need to tread carefully here. While you may want to help, and think you have a clear idea of what they need to do, you've got to realize that it can create a lot of tension if a Teacher/Student or Parent/Child dynamic is introduced into your relationship. They come with an inherent power imbalance. Your partner may not appreciate being thrown into a role where they feel they have to perform to your standards, and you get to evaluate and critique them. They may not be able to deal with the idea that you disapprove of some aspect of them and are constantly on the lookout for it. If your relationship is strong on the whole, and they're open to being taught by you, you can consider it, but err on the side of caution and let them approach you first.
If your partner is open to you helping them there are a few things you can do:
- You can help educate them
- You can give them feedback and advice on how they come across
- You can help them practice
- You can assist them while they socialize in the moment.
Assisting with their education may be as simple as recommending a book or website. If you're up for it, and feel qualified for the task, you could also explain aspects of socializing to them. For example, if thinking of things to say comes easily to you, you could tell them how you manage to keep your conversations going.
An example of giving feedback, which also involves some teaching, may be, "At the party last night, when your co-worker asked you how your art lessons were, they just wanted to hear a quick summary. They weren't expecting you to talk to them for ten minutes about what last week's class covered." A second example could be, "When you're with your good friends it's fine to make a bunch of crass jokes and quote all your favorite movies, but around my family you need to be more prim and proper and polite."
Of course you want to deliver any feedback in a warm, supportive way, and not come across like some impatient Little League coach who's waiting to pounce on their every mistake. If you're out with them, often it works better to just enjoy the event, and debrief about what could have been done differently later on. They'll feel under less scrutiny and pressure that way, and you won't be disrupting their vibe by pulling them aside every half hour.
Practice could involve role plays, where you, say, act as their boss who gives vague instructions, and your partner could rehearse ways to respectfully ask for more clarification. Or you could just have a conversation on a walk, but they focus on being a good listener rather than doing most of the talking like they default to.
You can directly assist your partner by helping them get into conversations, or by taking up the slack if they seem to have run out of things to say. If they're feeling shy, and again, if they're open to it, you can gently encourage them to take more risks. One more thing some couples have said is helpful, and this somewhat contradicts what I said above about saving the feedback/critique for later, is to come up with signals one partner can send the other if they're making a mistake, such as a quick "You're dominating the conversation. Let the other person talk!!!" gesture.
Counseling is always an option, for them, yourself, or both of you
As I talk about in another article, I don't think there's anything wrong with seeing a counselor. The piece I just linked to is about how someone could see a therapist for help with their own social issues, but the basic ideas also apply to the non-awkward partner, or a couple making an appointment.
There are clear benefits for the awkward partner seeing someone. They can get support and guidance while addressing their issues. They may be more open to working with a neutral professional. If you're both wondering whether they meet the diagnosis for a condition like ADHD or Asperger's Syndrome, your partner can be properly assessed to clear that question up. If it turns out a diagnosis does apply to them, they can then get further direction. It's necessary to mention that counseling isn't something you just send another person to so the therapist will "fix" them for you. The person attending has to be motivated to change for themselves. Or they may choose to change in a way that doesn't fit what you think is best.
Counseling can also be a big help to the non-awkward partner. You can talk to someone about the frustrations you're experiencing on your end. You can get some of your questions answered. You can learn more effective ways to be supportive. If you have social issues yourself, you can tackle those. Third, it could be useful to see a therapist as a couple. After all, what you're really dealing with here is a relational problem. A counselor can help you resolve it, and strengthen your relationship in other ways.
Seeing a counselor is one way to go. There's also the group therapy route. This is also something that you or your partner could access, or which you could do together. There are treatment and support groups for Asperger's Syndrome and Social Anxiety Disorder, as well as general social skills training classes. There are support groups for partners of individuals with various conditions. There are also therapy groups for couples.
Strengthen the relationship overall
Your partner's social difficulties may be a lot harder to tolerate if the relationship as a whole isn't in the best shape. They may even become a stand in for all the other resentments you have towards them. If you can improve your entire relationship, you may find you also feel less pressure from the communication skills issue. This article is long enough as it is without me trying to also provide a summary of every way a couple could try to strengthen their bond. Luckily, there are a ton of good resources on the topic. Couple's counseling might help as well.
Helpful attitudes when trying to help your awkward partner
As you implement the suggestions above, these attitudes can make things go more smoothly:
Don't see the issue as entirely their problem
If you're one half of a couple, and your partner has an issue, there are three ways you can look at it. Neither is entirely correct, just a different perspective on the situation. First, you can view the issue as being an objective flaw within the other person - It's their problem in other words. Secondly, you can go the opposite direction and see the issue as mainly being about you having a subjective dislike for an aspect of them. It's your problem, because if you felt differently about that part of their behavior there wouldn't be any conflict. It's also possible that your own behavior isn't perfect, and you're not handling the issue in the ideal way. Finally, you can see things as a problem within the couple as a whole. There's a mismatch between one person's behavior and the other partner's expectations.
I mention this because taking on a different perspective can help you approach the situation in a more productive manner. Sometimes when one person has an identifiable issue their partner will think of them as the flawed or broken one, and themselves as a long-suffering victim or martyr. Seeing the situation as being more of an issue in the larger relationship can curb blaming or resentful feelings on your part. Even if they have an official diagnosis, that doesn't put the problem entirely at their feet. It's not that they simply have a diagnosis, but that the diagnosis is disrupting the dynamic between the two of you.
Be patient, and don't expect instant results
Even if your partner begins diligently working on their issues, you've got to have realistic expectations for how fast progress will come. It takes time for people to change socially. They need to slowly improve their skills and confidence. It's not a matter of them learning what they've been doing wrong and magically being able to adjust how they act. If they have an issue like Asperger's, ADHD, or Social Anxiety Disorder, you've got to be sensitive to the fact that things are harder for them still.
One trap you can fall into is to become an armchair social coach. It's always easier to sit on the sidelines and know what someone else should do. It's harder to be the one who actually has to do it. Another pitfall is to feel that if someone isn't changing quickly it's a sign that they don't care enough about you to put in the effort, or that they're even dragging their feet to spite you. Again, change is hard.
The diagnosis issue
As I mentioned earlier, there are several mental health or developmental issues that can lead to social problems. Some examples are Social Anxiety Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, and Adult ADHD. You may be wondering whether your partner does meet the criteria for one of them. Maybe their behavior seems to match up eerily well with a list of symptoms you read online. It's possible they have the condition, but it's important to let a mental health professional make that call. You don't want to make any amateur diagnoses. You especially don't want to start treating or thinking of someone as if they have a diagnosis when one actually hasn't been properly given. Many people will show some features of a diagnosable condition, but that doesn't mean they fully fit it.
If a diagnosis has been made it can cause a variety of reactions. For some people it brings a sense of clarity and relief. It's not that their partner is weird and insensitive, they're just wired to process social information differently. There can be more negative responses. Someone who was already feeling discouraged about their partner's behavior may now see the situation as hopeless - "They have Asperger's. There's too much standing in the way of them changing. I don't know if I should even bother anymore." The diagnosis may also raise a bunch of worrying questions; "So does that mean it's literally impossible for them to learn to communicate better?" As I wrote earlier, none of these issues erase all hope, and it's important to educate yourself to clear up any concerns you have.