Question #117: How is this relationship like ill-fitting pants?

jeans that are also bikini bottoms
These are never the correct pants.

Dear Captain Awkward:

Maybe you can help me untangle my brain?

I’ve been dating a guy for eight months. We live about an hour apart, and made up for irregular facetime with hours-long phone calls. Then bad things happened in each of our lives, and the rainbows and unicorns we’d started with disappeared. The last time we saw each other, we talked: we both feel like we’re often speaking different languages, and we’re both stymied by that.  There’s a kind of life experience gap between us that maybe explains this. He’s an only child from a well-off white family, coping with adult-diagnosed ADHD.  I’m from a biracial middle-class family (half white, half Native American), have a younger sister who has severe disabilities, and am being treated for anxiety and depression.

Sometimes things…get weird.  Like, we had dinner with his dad and his dad’s friend, then we all went to a pro sports game.  Afterwards, when I said the racism of the evening had upset me, he assumed I’d been talking about the crowd at the game – not what his dad and the friend had said at dinner. His openness about his kinks has helped me to identify and enjoy some of my own, but I’ve felt overwhelmed by trying to be GGG. (He’s my first sexual partner; I still haven’t tried PIV sex.)  He feels rejected by my lack of engagement with casual touch (which I’m not used to and have told him I’m trying to change), which he seems to need and feels is “his” language (mine is evidently word based). I am barely recovering my sex drive after a rough summer, and told him that, but he was already hurting.

He usually engages when I start tough conversations, and that’s worth something, but it’s incredibly frustrating to feel like he doesn’t see me, and that I have to explain everything. (I haven’t dated a lot; is that normal?) He says he wants to invest more in me but is afraid to, because it’s hard to get close to me.  He lacks understanding of a lot of privilege-related issues that have been huge factors in my life, and he has mentioned self-loathing where he is aware of this.  One of my friends assures me that I’m not obligated to be his object lesson, but if I stay with him, how can I reconcile these things?

I’m sure I’m missing things about him, too; I don’t want to blame him for something troubling us both. He seems reluctant to volunteer information, so I have to ask. Problems result.  We never agreed to be exclusive (he calls himself poly-friendly, and I’m still trying to figure out where I stand), but I called off sexytimes the last time we were together because I did ask about his seeing other people, and it turned out he has been and didn’t tell me, even though I thought I was clear (months ago) that I needed him to tell me, if only for safer sex reasons. I’m exhausted, trying to recover from my third major illness of the year. I don’t have much fight in me right now. I know I should talk to him about all of this, but I feel paralyzed – I don’t know where to start, or how to get past the hurts on both sides.  It makes me want to run. (Trust, intimacy and control issues – I has them. Also: time to find a new therapist.) I want there to be a way to get back to rainbows and unicorns. If we can get there, I’m willing to try, even if it means being tired for awhile. 

But my brain feels clouded by illness and depression, unable to settle on reality, let alone make healthy decisions. And so I’ve written to you, Captain! 

Accomplished Overthinker

You never really asked a question, so I’m not 100% sure what to tell you, but the whole time I read your email I thought of Commander Logic’s “Bad Boyfriends Are Like Ill-Fitting Pants ” speech.  I will briefly paraphrase it here:

You know how sometimes when you try on pants, they just don’t look good on you?  Or they don’t feel good on you?  They aren’t necessarily bad pants, they are just not quite right for you, and if you buy them you will never really wear them, or when you do you’ll always be pulling them out of your buttcrack or wearing tunics to cover the resulting muffin-top and telling yourself they will fit if you lose or gain 10 pounds, as if there is something wrong with you and not the pants.

Back away from the pants.

The pants are not right for you.

This boyfriend is ill-fitting pants. (Trousers, if you speak the Queen’s English).

That urge you have to run?  That’s not trust and intimacy issues that you need to somehow get over.  Why should you trust someone who has been seeing other people without telling you?  That’s your self-preservation instinct talking.

It shouldn’t be this hard.  Love doesn’t conquer all.

Flee the scene of the pants.

43 thoughts on “Question #117: How is this relationship like ill-fitting pants?

  1. This is excellent advice, but also, WHAT. ARE. THOSE. PANTS. I can’t even.

    LW, you say that you haven’t dated a lot, and this is a sucky situation, but you actually have all kinds of things going for you:

    – you are good with opening conversations, even with people who are less than forthcoming
    – you are clear about what you are and aren’t comfortable with, with sex and intimacy and physicality. This is super important!
    – you want to fix problems. All the shit you lay out here is very real, and how it feels for you is the most important thing.

    However, I’m with the Captain. These pants are not working for you.

    1. Yes, the letter writer is doing a great job realizing “No, I don’t like that” and bringing up issues and trying to fix them! And then she is framing that as issues she needs to “get over” or “work around” instead of a sign to DTMFA and focus on her own life for a while.

  2. Also, to the LW, I kind of feel like this is maybe the textbook situation for “I want to date other people” or “we need a break”. Since you’ve said you’re not sure what is “normal” for you w/r/t dating, AND you aren’t sure if you want to/are able to invest in giving the relationship what it needs. It seems to me like you do need a break, and possibly to see other people. Maybe you just need reassurance that breaking it off isn’t “wrong” – it’s not. If it isn’t working it isn’t working. Relationships are hard enough.
    Just my 2 cents! Good luck!

  3. I may be showing my ignorance here, but I get the impression (despite her thoughtfulness) the LW is pretty young. Nearly all generalisations about young people are condescending crap intended to make the generalisers feel better about themselves, but I’d make an exception for this one: when I was young, eight months seemed a much longer time. All the talk of investing more and trying again and feeling tired… hon

  4. Bother, hit “publish” too soon. Stupid little iPhone keyboard.

    Message continues: honestly, LW, if it’s not making you happy after 8 months, forget about second chances and give someone else a first chance instead. I wish you all the best.

  5. I don’t even want to know what you had to do to the internet to find that photo. Those pants are an abomination.

    To me the biggest deal breaker of all in that letter was the fact that he saw other people without your knowledge when you asked for otherwise. Openness and honesty can trump issues. What he did didn’t sound (based on the information you provided) open or honest.

    1. I believe the Google Image Search Terms were “horrible pants” or “bad pants.”

      There was a lot to choose from – it was pretty much these vs. Zubaz.

  6. I think that this should also be added to the classic blunders (right after going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line): Working at a relationship.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong. Relationships (with anyone) aren’t all gumdrops and candy canes. However. It should feel like work the way that gardening feels like work to a gardener, or the way that writing feels like work to a writer. There should be effort expended, but the pleasure received should more than exceed the effort put in.

    Unlike math or learning to play a sport, relationships don’t necessarily follow the formula of more work in = better results out. Which means it’s frustrating, because all our lives we’ve been told that you get to Carnegie Hall by practice, practice, practice. I mean, you can get better at certain *skills* that benefit a relationship, like speaking your mind or listening to a partner, etc., but that doesn’t mean that the relationship itself gets better with more and more effort that feels like work. Frankly, IMO, the more a relationship feels like a chore, the more likely it is that the relationship should be ended, not tended like a thistle in a tulip patch.

    Addendum, because you seem really young, LW:

    In any LTR, the giving won’t be exactly equal at all times–people have their ups and downs, so that means that sometimes your partner will have lost a job and need more support, while other times, you’ll be going through something and need more support. But in the end, each partner shouldn’t feel like all of their effort is going to waste or being unreciprocated or needs to be constantly explained for the other person to appreciate it.

    As a culture, we make a virtue out of relationship martyrdom, especially for women. But it just feels wrong to me to sacrifice so much time and effort in an endeavor (The Relationship) if it isn’t paying off *for you*.


    1. Rinna2412: YESSSSSSSS
      Capt. A: YESSSS (also: EEK PANTS)

      I spent six years of my life with someone my entire gut was telling me “no no no” – but I thought, “well, all relationships need work, and he has X problem which no one else will have the patience to help him through, and I care about him and he cares about me and…” six years wasted on a guy who couldn’t be bothered to figure out why he had been impotent his whole life. Yes: six years with an impotent guy, which can make you feel like the least PIV-able girl on the planet.
      I thought I read it here, but the metaphor of relationship as car is a good one. Cars need maintenance, and sometimes they need an acute, emergent repair, but generally your “work on” your car doesn’t cost more time or money than the benefits it brings you. You buy an old beater where you have to add oil every three days, and push it if you are starting downhill, and it’s always in the shop and you don’t even trust it to drive 60 miles at a stretch – that’s too much work.
      This guy? His engine falls out all the time and it’s not your responsibility to patch it up. Those jeans totally make your ass look sad and lonely.
      Time to move on. It will hurt like a bandaid getting ripped off, but you might find someone better who is also closer, and not racist too!
      Chin up! It gets better.

    2. Wild applause for your soapbox. At a certain point there is no amount of “work” that women can do on a relationship. 8 months in it shouldn’t be this much “work.”

    3. And the other ugly part of relationship martyrdom on the part of the woman in a heterosexual relationship is that you are supposed to resent your partner all the time because you are a martyr and he doesn’t respect you and you have to put UP with him UGH.

      This is always annoying to me in social-bonding situations with other ladies in a straight couple, because my male partner is not like that at all! And I am not a freaking martyr- when something pisses me off, I say so, and we talk about it.

  7. Sometimes I feel like that person who is always saying BUT THE PRIVILEGE ASPECT and people are like SHUT UP IT IS JUST PIE

    But seriously, I see a lot of that here. As in, he is white so he gets to decide what is and isn’t racist (or doesn’t understand about racism yet because it hasn’t been directed at, like, HIM PERSONALLY), and he is a guy so he gets to decide what is normal in this relationship (the poly aspect, the touchy aspect, the BDSM aspect) whereas you are weird and freaky if you aren’t comfortable with non-monogamy or not ready to cross all of your boundaries of kink (or maybe you have different ones! Not everyone’s kink is the same, and that is ok, I promise!) yet or maybe you’re not a touchy feely person.

    Let me tell you, on the touchy feely thing? *I* had a relationship once where *I* felt like a freak because I, like, wanted to cuddle and hold hands and stuff, and my straight male partner was not a touchy feely person so we’d have these conversations where he’d be like, “I know you want cuddling but I’m not like that,” and I’d be all, “I’m sorry I’m like that! I am trying so hard to change!”

    And I also had a partner who was totally uncomfortable with the graphic rape fantasies his partner before me had wanted him to enact on her.

    So basically, you are navigating a LOT. And it sounds like you are doing a good job of it all, which is where it comes to my good friend the cost-benefit analysis. Hey, you could stick around and educate him about his racist behaviors and those of his family. You could educate him about his sexist behaviors, too. If you feel like he is worth it to you, and you want to invest in those words and those feelings, then go for it. And maybe you’ll both feel better on the other side.

    Or maybe you don’t want to deal with it. Maybe you want to find someone who already knows without being told how to treat you.

    This is not to say that he is a bad person, but it sounds like he has to learn. It is really up to you whether you want to be the person who teaches him, or not.

    1. Yeah I was pretty much going to go straight for this aspect, too. The whole “when I said ‘poly-friendly’ it actually meant I’m going to date around without informing you, PSYCH” thing is very troubling. It sounds like Overthinker is doing a great job at asserting her own sexual needs and boundaries, for sure, but her boyfriend’s dishonesty on this is a bad sign and let’s face it, a straight up STD risk about which she was not told. This guy has some serious nerve to be pressing her on having PIV sex with him in that context. It isn’t a case of Overthinker just needing to be more trusting and sex-positive, her bf has violated her trust in tangible ways!

      Then there’s the whole racial dynamics issue which oh God, LIBERAL SANCTIMONY WARNING, but I can’t not address this. Overthinker: you sound really aware and thoughtful about the stage your boyfriend is at when it comes to his thinking on racial issues, and about the dynamic this occasionally creates between you. You’ve already seen how his privilege allows him to breeze right through situations that are profoundly uncomfortable for you. If his response toward your discomfort is to focus on how the reality you experience causes him to feel self-loathing… ummmm… I sort of question whether he is ready to engage with your experiences in good faith and in a way that doesn’t center his own whiteness. Do you want to deal with that? This may sound like social justice claptrap, but coming from a white person in a relationship with a black biracial person, when I read about your boyfriend’s behavior I kind of wanted to sit him down and give him a talking to.

      Anyway now that that paragraph is over – It totally isn’t Overthinker’s job to educate, as you already explained. And I do think that this kind of stuff is important for her to consider. No one issue would make or break a relationship, but all of them together may indeed add up to Bad Pants.

  8. Oh, and my partner with the previous partner with the incompatible kink? He was very VERY excited by tickling. I have boundaries issues with tickling, because I was always very ticklish and it was used to control me/done without my consent for a long long time. So I don’t like tickling. But I like to dominate men! So there you are: three kinky people who are totally incompatible with each other. 🙂

  9. @LW, there is some very good advice here. I just want to compliment you. You have done a wonderful job at thinking this through, at looking at your relationship honestly and figuring out what is good for you: what you need and what you want and communicating it. These are very hard things to do. We lady types are raised to be amenable and meet other people’s needs; it can be very easy just to go along with what other people want even if you end up “mostly content but with a niggling dissatisfied feeling” or worse yet, exhausted, resentful, and wishing you hadn’t lost some many years trying to “fix” someone or meeting someone else’s expectations when it just wasn’t your thing.

    @tehInterWebs: My kink vocabulary appears lacking. What is GGG?

      1. PIV-sex= Penis In Vagina sex (ie, you can have a lot of sex that does NOT involve a penis going into a vagina).

        GGG = is a Dan Savage-ism meaning Good, Giving, and Game to try stuff out, and is generally a desirable thing for a sexual partner to be.

  10. Just to elaborate briefly on the pants analogy.

    Accomplished Overthinker? He is not necessarily as bad as the pants pictured above, which are HORRIFYING. Maybe he would be good pants on someone with a different shaped butt. Or who looks better in green. He may be excellent pants for someone! But that doesn’t make him good pants for you. Just because they’re your size, on sale, in fashion (harem pants, I am looking at YOU), or any other pant purchasing justifications doesn’t mean they look good on or fit you comfortably. But the pants aren’t BAD. YOU are not bad. You are you, and the pants are just pants, and together there is not music and angels and magically perky butt (random DKNY jeans from Nordstrom Rack? Now I am looking lasciviously at YOU. I fucking love those pants, and I’m serious about the angels and music.).

    Life is too short to just get by without music and angels and fabulous fit. Do not tolerate ill-fitting pants. Dump those pants and they will find the right owner, and you will find pants of joy.

    1. LW here! Commander Logic, your pants analogy is SUPERB. Captain Awkward, that analogy – and being reminded that I should trust my gut – was exactly what I needed to hear, even if I couldn’t formulate a coherent question for you. It cut through all of the anxiety crap, all of the self-doubt: I know *exactly* what it means to see pants on the rack that look perfect, and are just not right when I’ve tried them on. So, many thanks to you both.

      And thanks everyone who left comments, too. Except for the pants posted by Zweisatz – that was…I don’t know what that was.

      Ending this is going to suck, especially now that I feel more confident that he’s not as good at communicating or respecting my boundaries as I thought, but it will be better for both of us.

      Pants of joy!

      1. It’s a hard lesson that things don’t have to get objectively awful for them to just be not right for you. Good luck with everything.

  11. I can’t even figure OUT those bad pants. Matching thong? Built-in thong? Tied AND zipped? What? So confused. Plus the length that need stilettos so you don’t catch your toes in the frayed seam and kill yourself on some escalator or marble staircase.

    I mean, those are unsocialized pants that don’t shower and like rape jokes and scat porn. Eeek.

    As for LW, this just seems prone to end badly, work or not. Of course there were once rainbows and unicorns. The word for it is limerance, and you can have perfectly good limerance with someone who, once you get to know him better (plus his racist family and polysecretive ways), you don’t have any fun even emailing.

    Starting again is terrifying, I know. But you seem like a brave and honest woman. Please try.

    1. I enjoyed your pant rant. I had to look up limerence (from Wikipedia):

      “Limerence is a term coined c. 1977 by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov to describe an involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated.”

      Related to the Buddhist concept of “attachment” perhaps.

      Goodnight, and don’t let the bad pants bite!

  12. So I’m the only one in the universe who doesn’t hate those jeans. I mean, not for me now, but if I were twenty and looking for a perfect clubbing outfit, I would sure as hell consider those jeans. Me right now, I might mock the 20 year old wearing them, but I’d also admire her moxie.

  13. Okay, aside from everything else — IF SOMEONE DOES NOT TELL YOU THEY ARE SEEING SOMEONE ELSE RUN AWAY. That is *not* cool. If you are in a freaking relationship, it should not be a secret if anyone else is the picture.

    Seriously seriously seriously NOT COOL.

    /polyamorous lady always discloses, even when she’s just going on a coffee date

    1. This. He shouldn’t be dodging the question of his important with things like “ummm poly-friendly?”, he should be stating facts. “I’m seeing other people. This many. They’ve all had tests. I’m getting tested tomorrow.”

      Actually, he seems to be dodging a lot.

      “Self-loathing”? Dodging the fact that he’s not listening to you or working to change any problems by telling you stuff makes him feel bad so he doesn’t think about it.

      “Touching is my language”? Dodging that he is actually making you feel uncomfortable and unsafe by trying to make you focus on his wants and needs first.

      “He says he wants to invest more in me but is afraid to, because it’s hard to get close to me”? Dodging the fact that he doesn’t know anything about you or your needs, dodging the fact that he has to work harder to understand you instead of just assuming you’ll go along with whatever, and dodging the fact that he’s not being very attentive or supportive when you need him to be (I feel like if getting closer was a real issue, he’d be more interested in asking more questions and being more open and willing to support you when you enforce boundaries like “I don’t like casual touching” or “Please try to understand that saying X makes me uncomfortable”, or alternatively he’d actually come forward with his own idea how to solve it and ask for your input).


      1. Can’t think of a single word here I don’t agree with.

        One of my biggest single pet peeves is when a guy does something douchey or boundary-crossing or insensitive within a relationship and then makes the aftermath about his own self-loathing, so then you’re in the position of comforting HIM – “No, you’re not a bad person! I’m sure you meant well!”


        1. I know this thread is ancient, but I just wanted to pipe up to say THIS THIS THIS, SUPER RED FLAG RUN AWAY.

          I had a previous partner – someone I dated for almost two years – who would do this, especially around this related to sex. I completely lost my ability to say no to anything sexual with him, PARTICULARLY kinky things (but also just plain-‘ol-missionary-PIV that I was too drunk or tired to enjoy) because the cost of saying no was spending the next six hours comforting him, assuring him that I didn’t think he was a bad person or a pervert, and that no really, it was okay if our sex drives didn’t line up perfectly.

          In my mind, it was better to have 20 minutes of uncomfortable sex then spend hours reassuring him. So I stopped saying no. It took months post-breakup for me to even admit to myself how not-okay it was.

  14. Greetings, Captain and commentariat crew! I wanted to let y’all know how my story developed. About a week after writing in, we had the sad, painful conversation that resulted in our breakup. Definitely the right choice.

    It turns out that it was much more than just my confrontation with limerence in my first post-PhD relationship and being tired from his (apparently unconscious/probably privilege-linked) emotional manipulation: something was wrong. A couple of weeks ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. There’s a good chance that it’s been brewing for years, but got kicked into high gear by the virus I had last summer.

    I’m finally getting the treatment I need to combat the awfulness I felt, including the brain fog and increased anxiety/depression that pushed me to write in! With really, truly awesome support from my friends and family (and doctors! and boss!), I am starting to get a handle on my health. My life is full of love, and the breakup and diagnostic process have reinforced that knowledge – and the knowledge that I know how to recognize it, and can trust myself to know which pants are (or are not) pants of joy.

    Thank you all for your comments! I might respond to a few individually later, when I have more energy, but you all gave me a lot to think about, and a much-needed confidence boost.

Comments are closed.