Loving - or not - her on-again, off-again boyfriend

Question: I've been dating "Z" off and on for 21/2 years. He is 39 and never had a serious relationship before. I'm 33 and have been in love once and had one other long-term relationship that ended in a healthy way.

Z and I love each other, but he has a hard time communicating his feelings for me and making tangible plans for our future. He does give me a hard time most of the time and has broken up with me multiple times for no clear reason, which has been difficult for me, needless to say.

We recently spent six months apart due to his saying he was "sorry" he was "not the one for me."

We came back together a few months ago and were thrilled to realize our mutual love. But a recent snag has brought up this gnawing question: If I love him, shouldn't I accept him for who he is and love him unconditionally? Or should I keep trying to get him to communicate with me in a way I need, since we are still learning how the other wants and needs to be loved?

Answer: That's actually several gnawing questions.

The first part alone is two: (1) Shouldn't I accept him? And (2) Shouldn't I love him unconditionally?

The answer to the first is an easy, solid, unqualified yes. Accept him. If taking what you see as what you get from people isn't the key to happiness, it's at least a big step toward eliminating needless frustration. And/or eliminating multiyear off-and-on relationships with people who give you "a hard time most of the time."

The second question is different. Once you accept someone as-is, it is not automatic that you then love this person unconditionally. You accept, then you see whether there's love. Accepting that someone is who he is and isn't going to change could be just the truth you need to realize you don't in fact love him. Or like him much.

So to recap: See Z for who he is instead of who you keep wanting him to be, then ask yourself whether you love this real version of Z enough to stay with him as-is.

Then we get to the third gnawing question: Should you keep trying to articulate your unmet needs in hopes of getting them met or get off the hamster wheel?

Let the evidence tell you. In response to your spelling out your needs, has Z made any lasting adjustments to meet them?

Forget what you think you deserve, what couples "should" do for each other, what Z has done for a few weeks to humor you then gradually stopped doing, what is or isn't a lot to ask of someone. Just look at what this 39-year-old (i.e., fully realized) person has demonstrated in these 21/2 (i.e., plenty informative) years, with special consideration for what he has done consistently and recently.

Is this how you want to live?


Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.