3 min

Toothbrush symbology

Does calm make you nervous?

Dear Dr Ren,
In the grand scheme, this may not seem like a big problem, but it drives me crazy and I can’t figure out how to solve it. I hope you can help.

I’m in my mid-30s and have been dating a woman for almost three years now. She has a job that requires her to travel a lot, to the extent that she keeps a small apartment but hardly goes there. She doesn’t even have a houseplant because she’s not there often enough to water one!

“Lorna” arranges her schedule to stay with me whenever possible. Our times together are great. We are comfortable, romantic, sexually well suited and share common interests.

The problem? Even after three years, Lorna won’t leave so much as a toothbrush at my place. When she leaves, there is not a trace of her here other than my photographs of the two of us together. I’ve offered her a drawer in my dresser, but she says she’s accustomed to living out of her suitcase.

This makes me feel like she’s always got one foot out the door, and I’ve told her so. She dismisses this as my own insecurity. Still, every time she leaves, I realize that she could easily just never come back.

Is Lorna right that she proves her commitment by showing up? Am I right in wanting some tangible proof of her presence? How can I get her to understand how important this is to me?


Dear Insecure(?),
If you drew a picture of a couple, would it contain two people enclosed within a house? What would Lorna’s look like? No doubt very different. And if you described how you felt about each other, would it sound similar or different again?

My point is that you would be wise to be concerned about the right things. Lorna tells you she shows you her allegiance by showing up — and, indeed, she has continued to do so for three years. She arrives bringing comfort, romance, good sex and common interests. Viewed this way, her toothbrush in your dresser seems rather unimportant, doesn’t it?

Nevertheless, you have asked your gf to accommodate a small request: “Leave a few things here to demonstrate that you belong,” and she refuses. Why do you suppose such a trifle would be denied? What does this gesture represent to each of you? Have you had this conversation?

Is your fear that, if she could leave you, she would leave you? Likely a drawer full of clothing wouldn’t prevent that. Do you fear that she denies your existence or position as her lover/gf/partner? Do you wonder if she has a grrl in every port?

If your response to these questions is no, then let’s examine the significance of the toothbrush in realistic terms.

Lorna really does live her life from a suitcase. You told me she doesn’t even keep plants. Things are not important to her; in fact, they may annoy her, weigh her down and impede her progress.

She may view your desire for her to keep things at your place as accumulation. A professional traveller, I suspect, must resist this. She may really not understand why you equate “baggage” with commitment.

To you, on the other hand, that toothbrush symbolizes stability and continuity. Why is the symbol so important to you? You are not pining for a full-time partner, or even a change in your relationship. It’s the symbol you long for.

Your long-time girlfriend might understand better if you explain it in those terms. Perhaps you could exchange rings, or another less traditionally “loaded” piece of jewellery (easy to transport). Perhaps you could ask her to consider your need for a physical reminder of her presence in your life and let her surprise you with something tangible.

Careful: you might end up with a puppy!

It may be important for you to learn how Lorna leaves. Does she give notice, or does she simply vanish? Are your fears grounded in history or fantasy? Do you choose people who leave without saying goodbye, or has this toothbrush issue taken on a life of its own? How does Lorna feel about leavings? These are the issues that underlie the toothbrush symbol.

What is your own history with crisis? From what you tell me, you and Lorna have a joyful, easy time toge-ther, yet you are so annoyed by this small act of what may be simple independence that you write for help. Are you more comfortable when things are shaking a bit? Does calm make you nervous?

Children who grow up in frantic, chaotic homes learn that “normal” equals frenzied. Quiet and stillness signal that something is due to happen. En garde!

Is Lorna an unfamiliar safe haven you’ve yet to get used to? Are you picking a fight to feel “normal”?

Create an environment in which you and Lorna can be honest and intimate. Ask her what you mean to her and then listen — really listen — to her response.

That may provide all the toothbrushes you’ll ever need.