Reader Alex T. sent me this excerpt from a post at www.verysmartbrothas.com about breakups. I like it.
All of the blogs, books, podcasts, Nightline specials, panels, interviews, features, shows, oral histories, news stories, and web series devoted to this topic have the same underlying theme: Helping people get into and stay in relationships.
This is understandable. Being in a healthy and happy romantic relationship is something desired by most people—mankind’s existence is somewhat dependent on it and shit—so it makes sense that we’d devote a ton of resources to help make that happen.
But, maybe we’re going at it backwards. Maybe all this talk about relationships has helped to cultivate a condition where people eschew all common sense to achieve this elusive goal. Maybe instead of putting the focus on getting people into relationships, we should be more concerned with getting people out of them. Maybe instead of thinking of a break up as the worst thing that can happen to a person, we should start to recognize the beauty in them.
Yes, the beauty. The beauty in recognizing that certain fundamental incompatibilities are never going to change. The beauty in being willing to free yourself from some contrived commitment to get a return on an investment that you know will never be recovered. The beauty in not having to make excuses to yourself and everyone else when asked why you stay if you’re so unhappy. The beauty in enjoying singledom and not allowing external factors to pressure you into doing something you’re just not ready to do yet. The beauty in the hundreds of thousands of people back on the open market after freeing themselves from non-starter relationships; people who may actually be perfectly compatible with someone who’s currently single, but will never know as long as they stay in shitty situations. The beauty of taking time “off” to legitimately work on yourself. The beauty in saying “No” and continuing to say “No” until you’re completely ready to say “Yes.” The beauty in shifting our focus from getting people into relationships to convincing them to leave and stay out of shitty ones. – Damon Young, aka, The Champ.
Breaking up is hard to do, and can be really fraught and sad when you’re in the middle of one. But not even close to all relationships should last “until death do us part” (even if you once wore your fanciest clothes and promised that very hard in front of everyone you know). In this spirit, here is today’s question.
Dear Captain Awkward:
I have a question about relationships, specifically how you should decide when to call it quits when you don’t trust your own judgment.
A bit of background, I’ve suffered on and off with depression and anxiety for the last few years. This was undoubtedly aggravated by my relationship with my ex (a Darth Vader boyfriend if ever there was one). Thanks in part to reading this site and partly to my recently-improved mental state I ended that relationship at the start of this year. I don’t regret it, but with distance comes increased awareness of how messed up the whole thing was and that brings to me to my current problem.
About a month after I became single I started seeing a new guy. He asked me out, we went on a few dates, fun was had and after a while we started referring to each other as “boyfriend and girlfriend”. On the surface everything looks fine but I’m not happy. I’m very insecure and I really cannot read him at all. The whole relationship has been marred by my paranoia that he is losing interest. I am pretty sure this is not actually the case (he initiates dates etc) but I also think his idea of a relationship and mine don’t really match up. We see each other a few times a week and have sex maybe once a week. I really like him and want to spend time with him whenever I can but if I suggest spending more time together he is often busy and I feel disproportionally rejected. It doesn’t help that my depression is acting up and I often feel very sad and lonely. Initially I thought I would feel more secure with time and that I should just relax and let things take their own course but this isn’t working.
I know the person I should be talking too about all this is him, but I am pretty much convinced that that conversation can only end in break-up. I suspect if he wanted to see more of me he would and feeling like being clingy or demanding will only make me more paranoid. Thus I have reached the stage where simply breaking up with him feels less scary than trying to fix things. My jerkbrain however, sees losing this lovely guy as my punishment for being so messed up. I am worried my fear of getting hurt is making me create this whole situation. How do you know when you’re self-sabotaging and, more importantly, how do you stop?
Tired of feeling sad
There is a lot to unpick here.
A Giant List of Thoughts & Questions I Had About Your Question That May Or May Not Contain Actual Advice
1) Are you treating your depression/anxiety stuff? Do you have a good support system in place for dealing with that? If you have a counselor, that person can be a good sounding board for your relationship anxieties and help give you perspective when it’s not sure if it’s you or the jerkbrain talking. If you are having a resurgence of bad brain times, my first recommendation is that you reach out and put mental health support in place for yourself.
2) You say that when your boyfriend does stuff without you, you feel extremely lonely and rejected. This is a pretty big “eeek!” thing, so I am glad you recognize it as disproportionate. Sometimes when I don’t trust my own perceptions can’t tell if I’m reacting or overreacting, I imagine the roles reversed. Would I expect the other person to be upset if I did the same thing to them?
Your boyfriend: “Can you come over tonight after work?”
You: “Aw man, I’d love to, but my friends are getting together for dinner. I’ll still see you Saturday, though!”
Your boyfriend: TEN THOUSAND SADS! I AM REJECTED!
Your sad lonely feelings? Totally real and legit, and it’s pretty pointless to argue with them. However, you are correct that framing of this as Couple Time = GOOD and Boyfriend Doing Other Stuff = REJECTION! is problematic and will not go over well.
3) So, when your boyfriend goes off to do other stuff, how do you pass that time?
If that feels like a really unfortunate and mean question, because you are lonely and depressed and don’t really have the energy to do stuff and aren’t I picking on you by asking, I think we’ve identified a significant part of the problem. More importantly, we’ve identified a place where effort spent will do some lasting good. You can’t really sad someone into hanging out with you more. If you don’t feel like “enough”, me writing you the perfect script that convinces him to be around you 24/7/365 won’t ever be enough. If you’ve got stuff going on, my suggestion is: Awesome. Do that stuff. If you don’t, and that disconnection and feeling of too much time on your hands is contributing to your loneliness, then I suggest that you make a list of stuff you can do when you have the night to yourself. Such as:
- Call or Skype an old friend and catch up.
- Go to the movies.
- Go to the library.
- Sew all stray buttons onto shirts & coats what lost them.
- Find a meetup, social or cultural event and go to it. Theater season subscription? Free night at the museum? Board games night at the pub?
- Does Boyfriend have a standing commitment on a certain night of the week? Sounds like a really good night for you to find a volunteer gig or take a class.
Whenever you feel yourself start to get in a bad headspace about him being gone, add something to the list, or better yet, do something from the list. In the beginning it might feel silly, but over time it will take on its own momentum and be a reminder that you have lots of options about how you spend your time. You are enough.
4) Does your boyfriend know about your depression and anxiety?
Because, ok. It sounds like you got together during an upswing, and that you didn’t necessarily dig too far into deeper topics before you decided to be boyfriend/girlfriend, and there is this feeling I get from your letter that you feel like have to hide this part of yourself from him or risk appearing “clingy.” This is a trap, which means that your relationship can only exist if you pretend that you are okay when you aren’t okay. So of course you can’t feel secure. And you’re spending a lot of energy being okay when he’s around, and then collapsing when he’s gone. So of course you feel emotionally exhausted. Performing is hard.
And there’s a paradox here, because yeah, I just got done saying that you can’t sad your way into someone’s heart. And you can’t. And you shouldn’t try. “When you are here, I am okay, and when you are not here, I am not okay” is not actually a romantic sentiment and is too much for one person to carry. That’s pretty much how my cat feels about me, to the point where if I go to the bathroom and shut the door, the entire time I see tiny paws come under the door. JENNYFUR? ATTENSHUN? FOODZ? WARMS? It sounds cute, but I think she thinks her name is “Catgetoff” or “Catnotnow” or “Catgoaway”, as we have vastly different attachment styles.
I also feel like you guys got together without having talks about how you wanted the relationship to work. You’re both playing what you see as Good Boyfriend and Good Girlfriend roles, with a side of Is This Normal? Seems Like It Is! and as long as everyone’s having fun it works because you are both kind and lovely people and you both know the script. But when it doesn’t work (and if it’s not working because you are sad and anxious all the time, it’s not working) you don’t have that knowledge of each other, intimacy, and trust to fall back on to figure out another way.You didn’t break those words “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” down and figure out what they really mean. The good news is even if you kind of accidented into a way of being together, you get to renegotiate how things go. You get to make it up, to change your mind, to decide what you want and ask your partner for it. That doesn’t mean you are ruining everything.
A brief paradox review:
a) You have a ton of your own shit to work on right now, I think. And if being in a relationship is adding more unhappiness and anxiety to your life, breaking up might give you some clarity and redirect your energy in some positive ways.
b) However, you don’t have to perfect yourself – to magically become un-depressed, non-anxious, and manufacture a life where you feel totally and 100% secure at all times – before you deserve love.
c) Your jerkbrain could be totally over-exaggerating your emotional responses to innocuous stuff and making you paranoid.
d) Controlling for the jerkbrain, you may be correct that the two of you have separate and incompatible relationship styles and this thing is not viable over the long term. Your brain is actually being really smart and protecting you from making yourself vulnerable to someone who isn’t worth it.
e) It’s possible that you will tell him what’s really up with you and he will decide that it’s too much for him to handle. That would be very hurtful and sad. But that is his right to decide, and it is important information about whether he would be a good person to have on your side when you try to deal with hard things.
f) It’s possible that you will tell him what’s really up with you and he will decide, “Ok. I love you, so let’s deal with it.”
Only you can navigate this list and decide or find out what is true and right for you.
In your letter there is a lot of guilt there is this overwhelming sense that this nice boyfriend (in contrast to your last partner) is something you can deserve or stop deserving. You say that losing him would be a “punishment for being so messed up.” This is your jerkbrain talking, the one that sees “Boyfriend went to play tennis today instead of brunch with me” as “He will probably leave me.”
Being single isn’t a punishment for not being a good or together enough person. I know entire industries are devoted to convincing all of us that this is true so that we’ll buy stuff, but it’s just not true.
And love is something you can try to be worthy of, but it’s not something that you can achieve or truly deserve. It’s given freely or not at all.
It seems like there are some conversations to be had with your boyfriend.
The easier conversation is one about the day-to-day mechanics of your relationship. It starts like this:
“Hey, I really like you and how this is going. Do you think we could find a way to spend one more night/week together? That would really make me happy.”
“Since we’re talking, is there anything we could do that would make things work better for you? Sometimes when things are really good it’s tempting not to mess with them too much, but I’d like us to be able to check in from time to time and not just assume.”
There’s always the strategy of asking for the best-case scenario. “How are things working? Good? Cool. In a perfect world where everything is going the way you want it, how would this work?”
The more vulnerable but really important conversation is “Hey, not sure if you knew this, but I have some issues with anxiety and depression that are flaring up right now. This is what it looks and feels like. This is what you can do to help. This is what I am going to do about it for myself.”
The best advice I can give you is to separate these into two distinct conversations. Conversation #1 is about how your relationship should work and what you want and need. You would need to have it if you were 100% mentally ok and not having any of the paranoid or anxious feelings you are having right now. “How much time should we spend together and how should that work so everyone is happy” is a thing that every couple has to negotiate and you are not messed up or weird for wanting to have it. Keep your expectations and what you ask for reasonable. If you’re seeing each other a couple of times every week, one more day or night probably isn’t unreasonable. “When you make other plans I feel sad and lonely, so, you need to be around more” risks being extremely unreasonable. Not because your feelings aren’t real, but because if he gave into them it would have the effect of isolating him socially and cutting him off from parts of his life he enjoys. He would feel resentful and manipulated, and your overall sadness would not be fixed because it’s not his TO fix.
Conversation #2 is about trusting him and letting him into who you are. It’s possible to have mental health issues and still be in a good, healthy, solid relationship. I have depression. My boyfriend is bipolar. We have the usual collection of Late Capitalism stressors and “oh shit we’re about to turn 40 and haven’t fully figured out money/artistic expression/whether to make small people” existential crises. Being in a good relationship doesn’t magically solve the rest of everything, but I know it’s a good relationship partly because when I’m struggling or feeling sad I can say so and I don’t get ridiculed or abandoned. The way we found out that we had that kind of relationship was to share some vulnerable stuff about our histories and see how the other person reacted. We both reacted in a non-scary, non-dismissive way and worked hard to make the other person feel safe and like they could be honest. Which made us safe to share a little more, and a little more, until we really got to know each other. To quote an old “How do I feelings?” post:
By saying it out loud*, you do take a risk. You risk that people will laugh at you, or not be on board. You risk that this person right in front of you will not be on Team You while you go after the things you want. You risk pain and disappointment.
By NOT saying it loud, you also risk never, ever getting what you want. Not because some evil nemesis put their evil boot down on your neck and stood in your way, but because you stayed silent, the people around you never knew what you wanted, and you never gave them a chance to actually be on your side or walk away from your side. And then time happened. Your silence + time + fear came in and stole your dreams from you, and then it was too late.
Every good thing that ever happens to us because someone said “Yes, let’s try it.” There is no love without courage, so be of good courage. Take your faults and walk into Camazotz. Take your passion and make it happen. Say “I really care about you and want you to stay in my life” to your boyfriend, and see what happens.
If this guy is lovely and you think you can trust him, be brave. Put it out there. If you don’t think you can, and you think it just isn’t right, it’s okay to break up. Regrets, schmegrets. There’s no law that you have to drill down and try everything to save your relationship – I’m not in this for some idea of The Relationship, I’m in this for YOU. And I can tell you that breaking up is not the worst thing in the world, not by a long shot. You ended your last relationship. You coped, and ultimately you were better off. If this thing has to end, the same good qualities that drew this lovely person to your orbit would still be in you. It’s not a failure. It’s not a punishment. It’s not a statement of your destiny. It’s not a manifestation of who you are. It’s flawed, wonderful You and flawed, wonderful Someone Else not quite matching up and one or both of you deciding to take your chances elsewhere. When I see my friends who are deeply and happily in love with their partners, I’m glad that they didn’t stay with 2-partners-ago. I’m really glad I didn’t stay with 2-partners-ago. I’m glad my happily single friends didn’t stay with last partner, or 2-partners-ago. Some people find True Amazing Love the first time around, and I’m glad for them! But as the song goes:
“No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again“
In the comments, everyone is welcome, but I’d particularly like to hear from:
1. People in mostly happy relationships where at least one partner has anxiety. How do you guys deal with the ups and downs? How do you guys sort out whether a relationship issue is the anxiety talking?
2. People who ended relationships with perfectly good people for reasons of “Meh, it just wasn’t working out.” This isn’t the thread for stories of abuse, assault, gross behavior & extreme incompatibility. We have many of those threads! We rock those threads! What I am looking for is “Nobody mistreated anyone, but this is how I knew that it was not what I wanted.”