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.
33 thoughts on “#189: My girlfriend moved here to live with me and now I feel trapped.”
I was you, 4 year long distance relationship all gone to crap when we moved in together. We both survived the breakup, and I survived the multi-state move home after it went bad. There were some mental issues involved as well, but 8 years on we’re both better people living better lives now.
Sometimes moving in is the only way to figure out that it just isn’t going to work. It brings existing problems to a head and reveals new problems that you didn’t know about. If you stick it out, you’ll probably end up like the woman in the previous divorce question; still unhappy but having upped the stakes to marriage. If it’s not right, you’re only making the pain worse on both of you by waiting.
As for harming herself, that might happen, but you might find out the relief of the relationship being over will help you both. I’m sure you’re not the only one feeling stress and anxiety. I’m not saying you’ll get gratitude, but once the initial sharp pain has passed it might be a relief. Either way, the Captain’s right. What she does isn’t your fault. It sucks, it all sucks, but it’ll be ok one day.
I also did this about 9 years ago. Hardest conversation I’ve ever had, but even more I imagined him turning up back at home, explaining to all our old friends, looking for a new job…
But it had to be done and I can’t imagine if I’d dragged out the relationship any longer.
This is really good advice. I don’t really have anything to add, but I want to say that I love how often the Captain’s response to “I’m unhappy in this relationship what should I do?” is “Get out of it.” Any relationship (friendship, romantic, whatever) should make the people in it feel happy, not miserable, and I think people often feel some misplaced loyalty to the relationship because it used to make them happy. We should be loyal to our current selves, not our past.
We should be loyal to our current selves, not our past.
Thiiiis. So much this. It’s a hard thing to learn, but a good thing. Acknowledge the past, deal with it, cherish it, everything else, but if the present is different, that’s not always a bad thing. Accept it and do what you need to.
“We should be loyal to our current selves, not our past.” plus “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.” = YESSSSSS. Oh, where was this simple genius 8 years ago?
I stayed and worked because we had stayed and worked so hard, SO HARD, so far, that it HAD to come out at the end. Maybe Hollywood or American work ethic taught us this, that if we just try and want it enough, it will happen. But sometimes it doesn’t. As I just said to a friend today, if you’re not feeling it for someone, it’s crueler to “protect their feelings” (and how infantilizing!) than to end it and let you both find a better match elsewhere.
Sorry for the suck. You’re not a liar or a manipulative asshole, even if she calls you that. You couldn’t know until you were living together how it would be. You didn’t malevolently plan this elaborate trick to ruin her life. You had the best of intentions – love! Togetherness! Forgive her, forgive yourself, and jedi hugs to everyone.
This was an easy one!
There are a lot of things you learn in your first serious relationship, but I think one of the most important lessons comes with your first break-up. Break-ups are so rotten, and people aren’t at their best, and it takes a few years and a few break-ups to learn what degree of “not at your best” is reasonable, and what is totally unacceptable bullshit. If you can deal with this break-up in a way that shows respect, you will be helping to set a high bar for both of you. Break-ups are painful, but they shouldn’t be disrespectful, boundary-killing nightmares, and learning how to keep them decent will take practice and conscious effort, and it will be super worth it.
The Captain’s idea about offering to help her out with getting her on her feet is a good one; you are backing up with actions the words that say, “I care about you and want you to be safe and happy, even if that is not with me.” And you are letting her know that in her future, she doesn’t have to accept as a partner somebody who she couldn’t reasonably see giving her help, respect, and kindness during a break-up. We should all be with people that we know would be decent to us if we broke up. That’s one of my dating standards these days (after dating a few people I knew would be shitty at a break-up, and lo and behold, they were shitty at most things that required hard emotions). If I start dating somebody who tells me a story of how they were huge assholes during their last break-up (“so then I threw her DVDs in the pool,” is a story I heard once), I know this is somebody who’s going to be a huge asshole to me when I piss them off, ’cause they think that’s a fair way to act when you’re upset. This is your chance to set the standard for you and her, that break-ups can be emotionally awful without being an abusive free-for-all.
Not that you shouldn’t try to make it a decent break-up for yourself as well, but sometimes it’s hard to be reasonably selfish when you know you’re going to hurt another person, so it might help to think that you’re doing this nicely and respectfully as a gift for her. I mean, you could probably reasonably say that you wish her nothing but the best, right? So give her nothing but the best break-up possible.
I love this. “How can I have the best possible breakup and be the most caring and respectful”? is a good question.
LW, this isn’t exactly your situation, but as the person who has moved a very long way for a relationship that ended up not working out, I can say it’s a bad idea for you to let feelings of guilt or responsibility for your girlfriend keep you from doing what is right for you.
I was in a long-distance relationship across the Atlantic Ocean. I ended up moving, we got married, and had a worthwhile marriage but ultimately it wasn’t right for us, and we divorced after seven years. Here are my feelings on your situation, as influenced by my own experience:
1. I’m glad I moved. I don’t see it as a failed experiment; I see it as life taking me in a direction I would otherwise never have gone.
2. I am a grown-up who made the decision to move, and only I am responsible for that decision. I may have been young when I made the choice, but I knew what I was doing and it would be condescending for anyone to suggest otherwise.
3. I never used the fact that I moved away from my family and everything/everyone I’d ever known against my spouse. I owned my decision. If your girlfriend has deliberately acted in any way that contributes toward your feeling this guilt, she was being an asshole.
4. You are not the only person in your girlfriend’s life. By now, she has friends, university colleagues, acquaintances, co-workers and the rest of it. She might decide to stay where you’ve both been living because she has a life there now, or she might move back to her place of origin because it’s more familiar. Either way, that is her choice.
5. If you are miserable in the relationship, chances are so is she. You are doing her no favours by continuing on ‘for her sake’. In fact, that’s kind of condescending.
Oh, I did the same move across the ocean! We didn’t marry, but did break up after two years living together. You basically took the words right out of my mouth. If the relationship isn’t working out, LW, you have got to end it. There is no obligation to stick with a bad situation just because you used to want to live with her.
“If your girlfriend has deliberately acted in any way that contributes toward your feeling this guilt, she was being an asshole.”
THIS. I hope she isn’t doing that, LW!
I just wanted to say to the Letter Writer that I found this description quite moving. I think you’re doing a very good job of laying out for yourself the sad facts of what’s making you unhappy in this relationship, and that’s commendable. So often, when something that seemed very right has started to go very wrong, it’s hard to figure out exactly what feels so off, and I think that can make it hard to know when to move on. You and your girlfriend are both going through a hard time right now, and it sounds like, sadly, your relationship is making it harder, not easier. That isn’t right. As the Captain says, it doesn’t have to be this hard. You — and she — will be ok if you break up.
The Captain’s advice is great, LW. Not one single thing in your letter made me think “they should try to make it work”. To me, the number one priority in the Cap’s response is *treat your depression*. Untreated depression can make things like break-ups way harder for both parties with communication and such.
As a long-distance relationship veteran myself, I think that it’s easy to explain away everything that’s wrong with the relationship with the comforting illusion that it’s caused by the stress of being apart. Because being apart is so hard. But this can mask the fact the relationship has issues that aren’t just about being apart. Or that it can develop a whole new set of issues when you’re together. So I guess I’m trying to say, don’t feel too bad that you can’t make it work even after 4 years. I hope you both move on to happier things.
If you are getting a ‘stream of verbal abuse’ from anyone, that’s your cue to leave. Even more so if the verbal abuse happened more than once.
Take the advice here about HOW to leave but there’s no reason to agonize any more about WHETHER to leave. Abuse is a dealbreaker.
CA’s advice is spot-on here. I’ve had several experiences with this situation, and I can tell you from personal experience that – as hard as it may seem at the time – the best thing to do is to leave, and the sooner the better. Neither of you are happy – her behavior that you’ve described here is not the behavior of a happy person.
Let me give you two perspectives on this:
1) I dated a man for ~1.5 years. We got along really well, never fought, and were always really respectful of one another. But almost immediately after I moved in with him, we realized it wasn’t going to work (I’m as progressive as you can get, he sat me down and made me watch Glenn Beck with him. I had mistakenly taken his silence during political discussions as agreement; he is always very quiet and rarely expresses strong opinions). We split it off quickly and I moved back out, with his help. Now, several years later, we’re friends (though we still avoid politics!).
2) My current partner was in his last relationship for 11 years. By his own admission (backed up by several of his friends who knew him then), he felt miserable and trapped for at least 9 of those years. His ex has a personality disorder, and was emotionally abusive to him. But his sense of guilt, sense of responsibility for her happiness, and his own depression and apathy kept him in the relationship long past when he should have left. He finally got up the nerve to leave – and, like CA has recommended, was really helpful and generous during the breakup, giving her money, their car, and etc. – and they’re now both much happier.
But here’s the twist, and the moral of the story: he’s now so wounded from this prior relationship that – despite the fact that he and I have been dating for 2.5 years and are absolutely wonderful together, virtually never fight, and make one another happy – he’s terrified to live with me, which is starting to cause a major rift in our relationship. He’s been seeing a therapist, but 9 years of feeling depressed and trapped really does a number on you.
So please, for both your sakes – and the sakes of your future partners – leave soon, work with a therapist to heal, and approach your next relationship with an open heart and mind. There are wonderful people out there who will treat you so much better. It doesn’t have to be this hard!
…but 9 years of feeling depressed and trapped really does a number on you.
Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
Only it took me a lot longer than 2 years to realize that the relationship was really wrong for me. By that time, we were married, had a house and 2 kids. It took even longer to realize that no amount of effort on my part would change things.
It has left me awfully gun-shy about any kind of romantic relationship — the minute I start to get interested in someone, or they seem to be getting interested in me, I become convinced that I’m going to get into the same sort of relationship as I got into with my ex, because that’s what Fate (or my subconscious) has in store for me.
Love does not have to be as hard as the history you’re describing here.
I think this is an important thing to internalise, because I think that on a general societal level there’s a lot of assumption floating around that love needs to survive some kind of trial by fire to be valid. (My own personal theory, backed up by precisely no data and only anecdotal evidence.) My best friend stayed in a horribly abusive relationship for five years because she was convinced that as long as she still loved him she had some kind of obligation to stay. My cynical brain wonders if this is not somehow to do with all the Great Love Stories For The Ages that we are often surrounded with; the deepest, truest and purest love always pulls through any obstacle, no matter what it is. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a great love story which just involves two people meeting and falling in love and celebrates the joy and simplicity of that. There need to be complications, because otherwise how do you know it’s real?
The thing is that love is allowed to be uncomplicated. Yes, there will always be good and bad patches in your lives, and the closer you get to someone the more those good and bad patches will affect them as well, and if your life is going badly that can put a strain on any relationship. But there’s a difference between “I’ve just been fired and my cat’s really sick and so I will lean on my partner, who has nothing to do with any of this really but is the person who I love and trust to be there fore me” and the situation the LW describes here, which seems to be “I love this person, but our relationship is making me unhappy; also, all of this other stuff”. There is a difference between a relationship having problems and a relationship being a problem.
“…because I think that on a general societal level there’s a lot of assumption floating around that love needs to survive some kind of trial by fire to be valid.”
God, does everybody do this? It’s not just me?
I have this allergic reaction to certain phrases now. As soon as I hear “but” pop in front of “I love him/her,” I know that relationship is fucked.
I hear you. My love is uncomplicated and for the first year or so I thought that meant it was doooooooooooomed. It’s not that we haven’t had obstacles, it’s just that we’ve been able to overcome them as Team Us. Doesn’t make for a good movie though.
“There is a difference between a relationship having problems and a relationship being a problem.”
This! A perfect summary of how to approach relationships.
I think love is not complicated, life is. In my theory of what I want, love is a good thing that helps you deal with the complications more often than it adds to them.
Not that that is an easy lesson to learn.
Sounds like the LW has decided on leaving and just needs to get past the guilt and do it like an adult. Great advice all around. LW, this will SUCK. Get treatment for your depression, but a therapist is a great thing to have, period, but especially during a breakup.
It’s fascinating to compare this letter with #183. Both were written by people who believed their partners’ emotional problems were complicating the relationship. Yet this letter writer manages to be respectful and compassionate while expressing his frustration, whereas the other guy…well, there’s already a pretty long comment thread over there about the other guy.
I was in a long-distance relationship with my partner for two years, until I moved across the country to be with him (and because the West Coast is the best coast, as far as I’m concerned). During those two years we both went through a whole lot of stress, including his father’s death. Yeah, distance is hard, but being apart shouldn’t hurt your relationship. Instead, your relationship should sustain you through the times when you’re apart.
LW, you’re not being a dick for not wanting to put up with verbal abuse or to not want to walk on eggshells any more. I think it’s best you end it for your own mental health. Please take care of yourself, and listen to the Captain’s advice because it is, as usual, excellent.
Honestly? I tend to think that love should be kind of boring (and in my ideal relationship, with fun and dirty sexytimes thrown in). I want the kind of love where you can look at each other over your cornflakes/bagels/eggs/vegan muffins/whatever in the morning and know that the day will be a nice, ordinary, typical, “boring” day. I want the kind of love where you may hit–and work through TOGETHER–rough patches but the rough patches don’t become your relationship. I want the kind of love where day-to-day life with each other is easy. Life itself may be hard, but life with your partner should be good. It should not be work, it should not be a long hard slog, it should not be this excruciating task of tying yourself into knots to “work on” the relationship.
It is okay to let go. Please, please take care of yourself.
This is the kind of love I now have for the first time in my life.
It’s the most incredible thing in the world, really. It’s not that there aren’t things that aren’t challenges or rough spots, but the relationship hasn’t become that. It’s like… even through his transition to male and my re-evaluation of myself as a lesbian and my grandmother dying and his old job causing the occasional panic attack–it’s easy.
Because we are able to hold each others’ hands through those things, help each other up, find the things that make each other laugh, accept that we come from different backgrounds and families and places of privilege and mental health—we watch Sherlock, we paint, we go out for drinks and pass notes on our morning commute and read poetry to each other and make omelets for lunch on Sundays. We don’t constantly rehash what disagreements we have, we don’t “work on” our relationship until there’s nothing left to work on.
Letter Writer, you can find this too. And when you do, let me tell you–you’ll know. It’s such a fucking relief, to be in this kind of love.
Second everything everyone else has said, but also:
I think the Captain’s advice about making a part of your help with break-up be financial is an excellent one, but you need to think hard about how / where / and with what reason you give it.
Looked at without emotional baggage, this fund is just basically what you owe her. No, you didn’t hold a gun to her head to get her to move, you don’t need to feel bad about her decision to move to be with you, but the odds are that she is now going to be in a financially worse-off place than she would be if she’d never moved. And you aren’t. So making yourself just a bit financially worse-off for a little while in order to improve her situation that little bit, is just basic karma – an act of good balance.
But in my experience, a recent ex handing over money is one of those things that can come with huge emotional baggage. Huge. To the extent that if done wrongly, she might reject the money or she might be left feeling really rotten about herself for taking it. So don’t rush into this. It can be hard to give gracefully, especially in an awkward situation. Rehearse it a bit, either with your therapist or with a trustworthy friend who knows both of you. If she’s got a close and trustworthy friend she’s staying with after she moves out, you might be able to enlist the friend to help with making sure you can give her the money.
Don’t hand someone an envelope of cash in the middle of dumping them, for sure.
One way to handle it is if she brings up money anxiety?
There’s two stages to the breakup. One is “I want to break up with you.” The other is “Since you live here, we have to work out some logistics.” The second one comes after the first one, yes? A few days, at least.
I dunno — I live with my boyfriend, and if we broke up, I would be all “logistics, now.” I’m lucky enough to have friends in the area I could stay with, so we wouldn’t have to work out moving yet, but if I didn’t? I would want to have motel money so I didn’t have to sleep on the couch, and then start figuring things out the very next day. Because you know what sucks? Sleeping on your own couch because your room/bed/home isn’t *yours* anymore.
So what I’m hearing is “let the dumpee guide when and how logistics come up” – don’t dump someone and then be like “so, where you are sleeping tonight?”
Yeah, that sounds about right. But it’s a good idea to think about, so when the dumpee is like “so, where am I sleeping tonight?” you’re not caught completely flat-footed.
Anyways. Best of luck to the LW, because this is an awkward situation
This is probably totally obvious to most people, but it wasn’t to me at the time, so I would make one point of clarification here: only if you’re talking about a relationship involving two responsible, respectful people. I left my abuser more times than I can count, but he never had the money/friends/resources to be able to move out right away. So he’d guilt me into letting him stay on the couch until he could get enough money together, because How Could I Kick Someone I Claimed To Love Out Onto The Street? Then he’d use that time to manipulate me every which way until I ended up taking him back, often out of pure exhaustion. So, if you’re dating an abuser, throw out this script and instead get yourself or your ex out now, to heck with niceties.
Or LW could be the one who sleeps on the couch. (Which has the added advantage of helping bring the logistics conversation up fast, while at the same time indicating “You’ll want to be going, but it’s up to you when”.)
Oh – my last boyfriend made a promise and a plan when we first started going out that if we ever broke up, he would help me. My boyfriend before him I had stayed with for two years longer than I wanted to because of money concerns (too long to put but short version: couldn’t manage it) and he didn’t want me to stay with him ONLY because I couldn’t afford to leave him.
He was wrong for me, but a good person to make that promise. When we broke up, he gave me seed money (needed bed, apartment deposit, dishes, microwave) and his old TV.
Be THAT ex boyfriend if you can; or very very gentle if you can’t.
My general feeling on relationships is that if you have to ask the question “Is it time we broke up?”, the reality is you already know the answer. You’re only asking for “advice” to validate it.
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