Relationship question... Sensitive versus Wishy-Washy


There’s this obscure ethereal line that seems to exist in relationships - specifically with how a guy will treat his girlfriend/significant other.

Many women I’ve spoken to express dissatisfaction at how their men don’t pay enough attention, don’t care about things that are important to the woman and, a biggie, it seems… they don’t pay attention or listen. Or that the man is too controlling or bossy.

On the other side of the fence, you have the women who feel their guy is “too wishy-washy” (as a female friend has put it to me) and is actually too sensitive, doesn’t seem to take control enough and so forth.

It seems that in my relationships I lean a bit to the “wishy washy” side and, try as I might, I cannot understand where that “line” is so I make sure not to cross over from being sensitive enough and attentive enough to being too wishy washy.

For reference, since this is for my own self-improvement (well, hopefully :-), I am by nature not the macho type. I’m not wimpy either. I tend to be empathetic and sincere and I understand and accept and genuinely try to do my part in a relationship to make it work… as well as all that goes with it: attentiveness, communication (biiiiggie there)… all the things that women say are important to them. However, at some point I seem to be crossing a line.

So I’m curious… from a woman’s perspective - and men are welcome to answer this as well if they have any insights to provide…

What are ways that you appreciate and respect a man in your life to treat you or act around you, etc? At what extent do you think a guy would become too “wishy-washy” for you and, if you could, please provide some pointers on how to be “strong enough but sensitive enough” in a relationship?

I can’t be the ass-hole type. I can’t even act it. It’s just not in my makeup. So that’s out of the question, but I have a feeling there’s a large chasm of difference to work within there :-).

I hope I’ve expressed what I’m looking for clearly enough here…

Thanks in advance!

(All this applies equally to both sexes–I am using “guy” here since that’s the perspective hte OP is intersted in.)

A sensitive guy knows what he wants and how important particular things are to him but also recognizes what other people want and how important those things are to them, and so is in a position to negotiate compromises that leave BOTH people, overall, getting all the things they really want out of a relationship.

A sensitive guy recognizes what really matters to his partner, even if he doesn’t understand it. He also recognizes what’s important to him, and makes it clear that he needs it.

A wishy-washy guy either doesn’t know what he wants so he puts all the decisoin making pressure on the other person or he does know what he wants but is unclear about it, so after he fails to get it he is miserable and it shows. This either burdens the other person with too much responsbility for the whole relationship, or makes them feel guilty later when they realize the other person is miserable.

An asshole knows what he wants, and always goes after it without paying any attention to the other person’s needs.

Very well put, Manda Jo…you cleared it up for me as well!

Manda Jo has a nice way of looking at it.

However, there is no objective line between sensitive and wishy-washy, just as there’s no objective line between assertive and macho jerk.

You have to be who you are. Some people will think you’re a wuss, and others will think you’re an obnoxious beast, and that’s true no matter who you are. You can’t waste time worrying about it, or else you’ll never stop second-guessing yourself.

As another guy who, I think, has been in the same situation, let me chime in here.

“Sensitive/good listener” turns into “wishy-washy” over time because listening to your partner’s problems does not solve them all by itself. If you spend tons of energy trying to accomodate your partner and nothing else, then what Manda JO said becomes true. You put all the pressure on your SO, and things get stagnant. The relationship gets messed up because you’re no longer an equal partner in it. Make sense?

Hello all…

Thanks for the replies… And I think I “get the gist” of it, though the thing is, I don’t know where it applies… or rather, how to apply it. Let me give an example of where I think it might be a good example of “assertive” versus “wishy-washy”, or I’ll just say “wimpy”.

First is, say your SO is really into something, so much that they have little time nor patience for much else - including you - at times. Now if any of you had read one of my other threads, about a relationship I was in (as it’s now over, as I expected it would be), the "obsession’ was my girlfriend always playing a particular online game. I’ve learned that in past relationships she was told by her boyfriend that if she didn’t get off the game at times, the guy was going to rip the hard-drive out of the computer. I, on the other hand, would completely expect to be told where to go if I threatened like that; that it would be an infringement on their space and a show of disrespect. Now, again I don’t know if that’s a good example… but does my take on it make me more “wimpy”, or would a woman (and yes I know everyone’s different, I mean in general) have preferred the more assertive, taking-control approach of the other person? Does threatening to rip a hard-drive out of their PC show some sense of “control” or “taking command” that women prefer in their man? This is what I need to learn. How much latitude do you give someone… how much “space” is too much, ya know? At what point is it justified to step in and say “okay, enough…”

I feel ridiculous asking these questions, honestly, because I know it’s something that just seems to come naturally to many people. It just doesn’t to me. I always fear I’d be stepping on toes and acting insensitively by doing that.

Sensitive: Taking the time to learn what is important to/needed by your partner, figuring out what is important to you/what you need, communicating those needs clearly and working with your partner to find a compromise so both your and your partner’s needs get met most of the time. Taking care of your partner while also expecting them to take care of you in a give and take relationship.

Wishy-washy: Either never figuring out what you want/need, or ignoring it to focus exclusively on your partners wants. Not setting boundaries or clearly communicating your needs. Functioning as a caretaker rather than functioning within a partnership/relationship.

You need to stop worrying so much about what’s “justified”. Threatening to rip a hard drive out of somebody’s computer would never ocurr to me in a million years, but I’m me, that guy is that guy, and you are you.

A great Zen master once said “To study the self is to forget the self.” Try to stop being so self-conscious, and you’ll act in a way that’s appropriate for you. It won’t please every woman in the world, but you shouldn’t be trying to do that anyway.

Bravo Mandy JO. Very well said.

Also note that for any given guy with any given behavior set, some women will think he’s too wishy-washy and others will think he’s too insensitive.

The trick for teh OP is to find somebody whose dividing line (or happy medium really) is near your own behavior points.

There’s no right answer here. Even an asshole in Mandy JO’s terms will be just the ticket for some women. The farther off average the guy is (in either direction) , the harder it’ll be to find matching women, but rest assured they’re out there.

I’ve learned that in past relationships she was told by her boyfriend that if she didn’t get off the game at times, the guy was going to rip the hard-drive out of the computer. I, on the other hand, would completely expect to be told where to go if I threatened like that; that it would be an infringement on their space and a show of disrespect.


To be wimpy would be not letting her know how her behavior made you feel. Just sitting by, waiting for her to notice your unhappiness and change on her own volition without any prodding, being passive and…well, wimpy.

A sensitive person would recognize that she likes playing the games and would be willing to strike for a compromise. Not an ultimatum, as what was shown by her ex. But a mutual agreement for an arrangement that gives both parties what they want.

A wimp would be too afraid to broach the topic and would endure the situation without trying to work for something better. They’d sacrifice their wants and needs instead of putting in the energy for a compromise.

lupine73, asking these questions is a little wishy-washy. :wink: cuauhtemoc is giving you some good advice here- forget this “justified” stuff. You’re second-guessing yourself into oblivion.

There’s no point in asking something like “would a woman … have preferred the more assertive, taking-control approach of the other person?” We don’t know the girl, you do. If you’re big on communicating, don’t look for the best tactic, just tell her how you’re feeling about it and what you’d like to happen, and go from there. Work something out.

My lover has what might kindly be put as an obsessive personality. He always has a project on, and at various points in that project, he has no time for anything else. He is trying to get to the point that he doesn’t make himself insane with these things (he’s coming off a bad time in his life, and hasn’t relearned a sense of balance), but at the moment, the most efficient way of getting him to stop being a freak is for him to get the projects done.

I deal with this by a combination of things: I point out to him that his absentee partnerism causes me some distress, and that I miss him; I also try to help him out with his projects when I can, because my help can make it get done a lot faster so I get couple time again, and also when I’m doing stuff with him it bothers me less, even if that stuff is ‘holding this board so he can cut it to length’.

For that reason of some level of doing-stuff-with, I kind of wish he played Warcraft, but I understand that his acknowledgement of his obsessive personality tendencies includes ‘so not going there, it would eat my brain’.

In general, people vary.

What sort of contact and involvement do you want to have with your partner? Is what you get acceptable to you or do you need to negotiate for more? If it continues to be not enough, are you willing to say ‘Okay, I get what I need even if it’s not as good as I’d prefer’ or ‘I’m not having what I need to run this relationship’, as appropriate? Do you communicate about those things?

With those tools, you can probably either build a successful compromise with most non-insane partners or come to a reasonable conclusion that the relationship won’t work. (I have no recommendations for coming to successful compromises with crazy people.)

Or he finds someone who’s wants and needs are compatible with his own instead of trying to make himself into something he’s not to please someone else.

No, then he’s not an asshole anymore, he’s a sensitive guy becuase he’s paying attention to the fact that some people have wants and needs that are compatable to his own, and his paying attention to whether a given person is compatable instead of just assuming it.

And i think we all have wants that are, at best, weak preferences, and anyone who won’t even compromise on weak prederences–everything has to be the way they like it–is well on their way to being an asshole. Unless they are content to be alone virtually all of the time.

What I would expect is for a sensitive guy to let me know that he wanted more time with me–pretty bluntly, though not with threats-and then, if I didn’t respond to that, understand that that meant that I was who I was and that I wasn’t willing to give him what he needed so he should leave. Of course, I would have dumped him myself when it was clear he valued time with me way more than I valued time with him, 'cause I am a sensitive girl, but that’s neither hear nor there.

What a wishy-washy guy would have done is just sat there and hurt, and occasionally try and clue her in to his hurting, in hopes that guilt or obligation would motivate her to spend more time with him.

You can’t change what you want or what your partner wants. All you can do is both be honest about how much different stuff matters to you, and be able to negotiate. And if there is no possible compromise, you need to break up. And it doesn’t matter if it is “justified” or not (listen to the wise cuauhtemoc), relationships are totally about wanting to be with the other person, not fairness.

Let me give you an example–the eternal “what to eat” problem.

OK, here is the situation:

Boy really wants to eat Chinese, would be ok with seafood, could eat Indian if he had to, and had BBQ at lunch and really doesn’t want that.

Girl would chose Indian first, likes chinese, likes seafood, and would settle for BBQ.

Two sensitive people would have a conversation and end up at Chinese, because it’s the only really strong preference in the bunch. Next time this comes up, the girls’ preference would carry a bit more weight, though if the boy again had a strong preference and the girl had none, they might still end up where he wants to go.

If they are both not sensitive, they will end up at BBQ. I don’t know how this happens, but it does.

If one is but the other isn’t, they will talk a LONG TIME and end up somewhere neither really likes and neither really hates, and afterwards, both will feel ill-used–like they gave in.

I wrote this a ridiculously long time ago, but it’s still about my favorite post ever, so if you don’t mind the vanity, I am going to link to an old, old thread of mine. It’s some general advice on relationships:

Manda JO’s Rules for a Happy Signifigant Relationship

I’ve thought of that post from time to time over the last four years, and I think it’s as brilliant now as I ever did. Thank you, Manda JO.

Here’s what I find most guys who are seen as “too wishy-washy” or “too needy” need to do:

  1. Sit back and ask questions. Don’t bore her with a monologue. Ask her about herself and her family and her dog and whatnot, and if she’s cool, she’ll ask you questions, too. Two-way street. Hot.

  2. Don’t suffocate. Don’t offer to drive her all over the city all the time. Don’t wheedle to get her to come over every night. Take it easy. Find time to be with your friends, and make a date with her one or two times a week (or more depending on how serious you are).

  3. Be sensitive to her needs, yes. Listen to her, yes. Cry if you’re really super sad, sure. We don’t mind. But don’t kowtow. Don’t be afraid to state your feelings on the matter. You’re both equally important in the relationship, and things are just so much hotter when you’re two individuals as well as a unit.

lupine, I think you’re getting two separate issues mixed together here. Sensitive is one thing; assertive is another. A person can be sensitive and still be perfectly assertive; a person can also be non-sensitive and be wishy-washy.

I think the ideal you (and all of us) should strive for is to be sensitive enough to other people that you don’t ignore their feelings, wants, and needs, but assertive enough that you don’t let anyone else walk over you or ignore your feelings, wants, and needs. Aggressive (or asshole) behaviour goes further than protecting your own toes; it means stepping on someone else’s.

And that relationship post was brilliant, Manda. I just emailed it to my husband (not that he needs a tune-up or anything - just for him to read and appreciate.)

Make a decision. Stick with it. If you’re jealous of that stupid video game tell her and make no apologies for it.

Try not to worry so much if your being fair enough or sensitive enoungh. Both of these things are good and all but damn bro’ we ARE men. All we’re REALLY expected to do is try to be sensitive, blah, blah, blah. We by no means have to have it down to a science.

And oh yeah, I know you said you’re not the macho type but if you could do little things like: Say you and your gal are in the car YOU have to (hard) brake suddenly to avoid a collision, stick your arm out as if your going to save her from going through the windshield. Or if you have to stop by the convieniece store in a shity nieghborhood; tell your gal to stay in the car with the doors locked cuz “This is a bad part of town”.

Granted most women will think you’re a little goofy for doing stuff like this but at the same time they eat this shit up with a spoon.

Yeah, women are easy. :smiley:

No, we are not. Any intelligent women can tell the difference between real protectiveness, and faux-macho bullshit. And I’m not crazy about the genuine protectiveness if it is excessive. If you are going to feed me anything with a spoon, it damn well better be ice cream!

The first three sentences of your post are more like it. I agree that the OP should tell his girlfriend, quite clearly, that he would prefer that she spend more time interacting with him, and less time on the game, if that is what he really wants/needs. No need to go all Neanderthal and threaten to destroy her electonics, like the ex-boyfriend. He’s an ex for a reason.