Dear Captain Awkward,
I’ve been in a relationship for over four years now, initially long-distance but much closer for the past year and a half. We went from long-distance to living together in my mother’s house, and then, when she went to university in another city, living apart on the weekdays and back together on the weekend. This is the first proper relationship either of us have been in, and a lot has happened in the four years we’ve been together. We’ve broken up twice before, both times initiated by her, although they were apparently facilitated by her mother, who was becoming more and more mentally ill towards the end of her life. Her mother died in 2009, while my girlfriend was living with her uncle. Obviously this was a terrible time for her, but I did my best to support her through it.
Then, in 2010, she moved in with me, roughly 300 miles away from her nearest family. Living together was an intense experience, going from seeing each other once or twice every few months to being together almost all the time, particularly over the summer. This was the period during which things started going wrong. We started off relatively well, falling into the routine of living together, but the arguments started to multiply. It was rarely anything significant, usually just a petty issue that got blown out of proportion by one or both of us. This tension between us (well, I can’t speak for her, but I certainly felt as though I was walking on eggshells) was becoming unbearable, but was thankfully alleviated by her moving out to attend university. A bit of space did us the world of good, giving each of us some breathing space to get settled again.
However, the arguments and problems haven’t gone away. She tends to get very agitated or upset by small things (though she’s tough enough to withstand much worse things), and she often lashes out in frustration at me, simply because I’m the one who’s there. When she does get so worked up, I’ve got to spend a considerable amount of time placating her, and taking the stream of verbal abuse that accompanies one of these episodes. That said, I suffer from bouts of depression, and a generally defeatist attitude, and so most of the time I would rather just shut up and suffer in silence rather than make any effort to communicate if I’m having a problem, whether it’s a problem in my own life or a problem with her behaviour. I’ve been trying to seek help with my depression, but so far I’ve not made any real steps.
My main problem is that I’m unhappy. I care a lot about her, but I’m getting really fed up with feeling like a babysitter when she has a (it makes me feel like a dick to say it this way) temper tantrum. I don’t feel that we have anything much in common, whether activities or interests. But I don’t feel that I have the option of breaking up for any reason, because:
1. I asked her to moved so far away from her family, and since her mother’s death, I feel more and more like I’m the closest family she has left.
2. It’s been such a long time, with so much talk of how the future will be, I feel as though wanting to end things will make me a colossal liar and basically a manipulative asshole.
3. Given her mother’s history, her own behaviour, and certain yelled statements from previous arguments, I’m genuinely frightened that she’ll hurt herself if I do.
I don’t feel like I can deal with the problems I’m having with myself while still maintaining this relationship, and honestly it’s making me feel even more worthless as I consistently fail at it. So I’m stuck in a situation I don’t want to be in, with no-one in my life that I can turn to to talk about any of this, particularly with how guilty I feel about feeling this way.
Thanks for your time,
Tired And Depressed
Dear Tired and Depressed,
I guess I’m the blogger of breaking up this week. Thoughts:
1. This is your first romantic relationship, but it’s not your last one.
Whatever, blah blah plenty of people marry their first loves and are happy blah blah, and if you have a story about that I’m very happy for you. Statistically, though? That’s not most people’s story, and I’m glad we live in the time we do where that is a good thing.
What I’m seeing in a lot of these “should we break up?” letters is a horrible anxiety that THIS WAS YOUR ONE SHOT AT LOVE and if you lose this person you will never find that again. I don’t know where this comes from. I’m not immune to it in the aftermath of a breakup, and I know I said some “well, that was pretty much my shot at this” things in the back half of 2011 but sitting here in 2012 I can see that it was just the Jerkbrain, creating big fallacies like a big jerk because that’s what jerkbrains do.
You can love someone very much. You can have special pants-feelings about them. And they can still not be the right person for you to have a happy life with. Love does not have to be as hard as the history you’re describing here. The next relationship (or the one after that, or 5 years from now) will be better, because that person will have all the things you like about your current partner, plus some new neat things that you didn’t even know you wanted, and she will not do the stuff you hate.
2. Now that you are together in the same place, you are unhappy.
You could view this is a failure, like, did we go through the last four years of long distance and expensive trips and phone calls and breaking up and making up if we were going to end up in the same house sniping at each other and hating life? NO WE HAVE TO MAKE IT WORK NO MATTER WHAT.
Letter writer, meet the concept of Sunk Cost.
Basically, the amount of effort you’ve put into the relationship in the past does not count if you are deeply unhappy in the present. Your girlfriend moving in isn’t failure, it’s information: ”We don’t work together.” It’s pretty irrefutable information, right? “I am less happy since you started living here.” I know you feel guilty about asking her to move there, but you didn’t hold a gun to her head (did you?) and she is an adult who can make her own decisions. If she hadn’t moved there you would never have gotten this confirmation. You guys had to find out how things worked when you were in the same place at the same time without the drama of separation. You had past experience when being in close quarters was bad but her going away to school and giving you “space” improved things, so think of it this way: You’ve run the experiment twice, and your results were the same both times. Her gone = happier you.
3. If you break up with her, and she hurts herself, that is not your fault.
You can’t stay with someone out of fear or guilt.
So here’s what I suggest. Line up some therapy for yourself this week and start treating your own depression. Talk to your therapist about specifically this issue, build out some strategies, acknowledge your fears, put in some “worst case scenario” safeguards.
Recommend that your girlfriend talk to someone also – there’s something making you afraid she’ll harm herself, so do what you can to put a support system in place.
Do some work on logistics and put aside some money. Keep in mind that if you break up with her you are making her homeless in the short-term (DO NOT FEEL GUILTY THAT IS NOT A REASON TO STAY TOGETHER) so if it’s possible without straining yourself the kind thing is to save up some $$ to ease that transition for her. That money might be her “ticket back home” fund, or it might be the “subletting a place that is elsewhere for a month while she makes a new plan” fund, or the “sorry you sold all your furniture when you moved here, will this help you get set up?” fund.
And when you’re ready, have a conversation that goes like this:
“Girlfriend, this is very hard because I love you a lot and think of you as family, but I am unhappy with how things are now that you are living here, and I need to end this relationship.”
There’s a lot of stuff about how not to be a dick when you break up with someone here on the site, but I’ll run you through the basics again.
1. Make it about you and your feelings. You are unhappy. You want to break up. You don’t want to work it out. You don’t want to try anymore. Your subjective desire to break up is enough reason to break up.
2. No need to rehash her behaviors, assign blame, or find logical/objective “reasons” for your feelings. It’s not productive once you’ve made the decision to break up. You’re sorry, but you’re leaving. Reciting things she’s done wrong or you don’t like about her also has the sickening effect of making her offer to change those things. If your decision is made, it’s not kind to put her through that.
3. Honor the sad. Don’t look for a bright side. Avoid language like “this is the best thing for both of us” - it may in fact be the best for both of you, but hearing those words from someone who is dumping you is patronizing as hell. Stick with the “I know it’s sad, but this what I have to do for me” script.
I’m sorry, it’s always sad when you have to end a relationship with someone you love, but you are doing the right thing by paying attention to own your unhappiness and your history.