#559: Does “can’t be in a relationship right now” always mean “…with you”? Spoiler: Yup. Sorry.

Dear sifters of potentially-answerable awkwardness,

I’ve had a lover of the very best kind for the past ~9 months, healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in, and we both had started to talk about, you know… we could see us together for a long time. I feel respected and heard and loved and the sex is incredible.

We both have a history of depression, but in many ways sharing that made it easier for us to relate and be supportive of each other.

7/9ths of this time has been long distance; we started seeing one another just before I finished graduate school and moved from the heartland to a well-paid technical job on the left coast. Lover has a BFA and has struggled with unemployment most of his adult life. We’d talked about him moving here as I am in a position to support him, and would be happy to for him to pursue his art. But fears and feelings of dependency and uselessness are what his depression eats and breathes.

A month ago, I was visiting, and Lover said he doesn’t know who he is right now, and needs to focus on his own mental health and knows that it breaks my heart and breaks his too, but he needs some time for himself, for self care and therapy. I told him if space was the only thing he needed that I could give him right now, I would give that to him, and we both cried ALL the tears. I love him and I want him to be well. He said how much he loves me, too and let’s call it not a break up for now, but a break.

The radio silence we’d agreed on has passed and we’ve talked. He is still not well (a month is not a long time), is maybe possibly in the beginning stages of starting to climb out? But we can’t be together as we were. We also still love each other, very much.

We don’t want to drop out of each other’s lives. We said let’s talk on the phone sometimes, not just fb/instagram, and we both thought about once a week sounded good. (We used to talk every day, usually multiple times.) We talked about how neither of us really is that interested in dating anyone else right now. We said goodnights with “I love you.”

Captain does “can’t be in a relationship right now” always mean “with you”? Can it ever be legit? I don’t want to get over this. I love the boy with sparkles I’ve never had, including in my 5 year marriage in my early 20s. He clearly still loves me. I don’t want to ‘put my life on hold’ but neither do I really want to put a ton of effort into ‘getting over’ him.

-Feeling too many things

Dear Feeling:

“I can’t don’t want to be in a relationship right now with you” can be the ambivalent or uninterested person’s soft rejection, or it can exist alongside all the feelings of connection in the world.

I advocate replacing “can’t” with “don’t want to” because while it’s painful, it’s useful to remind yourself that when someone breaks off a relationship for any reason, they are making a choice. The decision can really be more about timing, logistics, health, etc. than it is about feelings, i.e., the “don’t want to” can have a lot of genuine “can’t” embedded in it, but the choice is the choice. “If circumstances were different, I’d be all about you, but they are what they are, so I’m making this decision that the relationship is not where I want to focus my energies.”

When you fixate on the “can’t” part of it, when you stay focused on the circumstances at the expense of the choice, it keeps you invested in solving the problems in a relationship that someone just told you they don’t want to be in. When you’re in love with someone like you’re in love with this person, the Wishful Thinking Translator is very powerful. “He said he can’t be with me right now because _______” = “If I solve for _______, he will be with me! Let’s roll up our sleeves and fix this motherfucker!”

And the devil of it is, that might actually sorta be true, in your case? Like, if your partner weren’t feeling so depressed and shitty right now, you’d probably actually be rolling along like you used to be. So, there’s a problem, and your loving, delightful, smart intelligent human brain is ready to find the solutions because that’s what our miraculous brains do when someone we love has a problem.

Proposed Solution 1: Fix the depression.

If you figure out how to solve someone else’s depression so that they can finally become the partner you want them to be, DEFINITELY CALL ME ABOUT GUEST POSTING OPPORTUNITIES THX.

Proposed Solution 2: Adapt the relationship into something that is more “workable.”

Like, pulling back daily, constant interaction to once/week. Like calling it a break, not a breakup. Like reaffirming your feelings in spite of the shitty situational stuff, and remaining hopeful. (YOU ARE HERE.)

If this level of contact is enjoyable and sustainable for you, and agreeable to him, then why the hell not wait it out for a while and see if things get any better? You get to decide what you do with your heart and for how long.

One pitfall of this, of course, is that you don’t actually want to talk only once a week. You want a boyfriend, not an occasional pen pal. And the longer you pour yourself into the shape of the world’s most supportive and accommodating girlfriend — oops! supportive friend with absolutely no agenda whatsoever! — the more your own needs are going to disappear inside his immediate & overwhelming ones. “I need a boyfriend who pays a lot of attention to me and is very present, even if it’s from a distance. I want a boyfriend who will make a plan to actually move to where I’m living. But you know, X is very depressed right now, and until he deals with that, this is okay, too…I guess…I mean, I know what it’s like to have depression, and I want to be fair about that.” His needs are more acute right now, but now long before they take over and the relationship runs only on his terms? You have radio silence (that you don’t want) when he needs it, you have occasional contact (less than you want) when he needs that…when are you allowed to have needs again?

Proposed Solution #3: Believe and honor his choice.

The circumstances – mental illness that no one asked for – are shitty and heartbreaking. And I am so, so very sorry.

But your lover’s choice, to pull back from the relationship and focus 100% on his own recovery, is actually pretty legit. I have a lot of side-eye for the “I’m breaking up with you for your own good, you shouldn’t have to be saddled with poor me” breakup, but someone who says “I have energy only for myself right now, sorry” is being brave and honest.

This is why I encourage people who are being broken up with to pull back from sifting through the reasons and look at facts. Reasons matter, of course they do, but the fact is: He ended your romantic relationship. He chose Not You, or, only a Little Bit Of You In Small Manageable Doses On His Terms, For Now.

He could have said “I love you, hang in there with me, we will be together someday I promise, but I need a few months to pull my mental health together and focus on that.

He could have said “I’m moving to where you are, will you take care of me like you offered while I do therapy and get myself together, I would really like you by my side while I work these things out.

My grandparents got married and then my Grandpa went back to the war and they didn’t see each other except occasionally for the next four years, and since he stayed in the service they had many long periods of separation and relocation for the next decade or so. While times and expectations about marriage were different then, they did not actually know for sure that they’d still be in love when they were finally able to reunite. They had no guarantees that they’d be the same people, or they’d still be compatible. They had to re-learn each other, and re-decide to stay and make it work. They were very much in love, it turns out, and they did stay together for the next 60 years, but day to day during their separations the most they ever had to go on was “If we both survive this, I promise to try really hard to still love you” because that’s all anyone has ever had to go on. For a less dramatic example, for some couples, “I got into this neat grad program that means I’ll be moving very far away ” means “let’s break up, that’s too hard” and for others it means “Let’s get hitched before you go so the health insurance will all be cool while we figure out the rest.” 

Saying “I love you” when you hang up the phone, not being interested in dating anyone else, being regretful, missing the other person a lot, liking someone more than you’ve ever liked anyone else, honestly loving someone and really wanting it to work out are all reasons to be sad about the way this is ending. You’re throwing them out there, as signs, as evidence, like we’re proving a geometry theorem, but they aren’t proof. There is no substitute for “I. Choose. You.” 

When you’re in a situation like this, it’s tempting to grab onto the narrative about how “good love just takes work!” and wrap it around you like a big comfy blanket. Work! It’s something you can DO. It’s something you can CONTROL.Work Ethic, meet Feelings! Feelings, roll up your sleeves and meet this Plucky Can-Do Attitude!

Healthy relationships do take work in the sense of figuring out “Where will we live and who will do the dishes there?

I will distract you while we wait for the doctor to call with the news.” “I will be the sociable buffer while we visit your difficult family.”I will clean up the cat barf so you don’t have to look at it or smell it.” “I will work on managing my mental health issues so I can more fully present as your partner.”

This kind of work can be hard and draining as hell, depending on the circumstances (fist-bumps to all the new parents and the caregivers out there!), but if you know for sure that you’re in this thing together and the division of labor feels fair and reciprocal, it’s not bad work.

The bad kind of work is the stuff that romantic dramas are made of. “You are a stalker and literally a vampire, sure, let’s date! Let’s break up and get back together 10,000 times. Love triangle, heeeeeeeyyyyyyyy! OK I will let you bite our terrifying deathbaby out of my womb.” It’s very intense and sexy and words like “destiny” or “meant to be” get thrown around a lot, with massive amounts of energy expended on the question “Should we actually be together? Do I actually want this? Does the other person actually want this?” The higher the stakes, the harder the struggle, the more it proves that the relationship is worth it, in Storyland.

My opinion is that high-conflict situations are compelling to read about and watch, but draining to live, and that “this totally sucks!”/”ok just work at it harder” is a damaging, toxic message when people try to translate it from stories to life. In fact, I am working on a theory that goes like this:

The more times someone mentions “destiny”, “soulmate”, “it was meant to be,” “I felt like it was fate”, “I just know in my heart that we are meant to be together” “I think that if we just worked at it…” in either a TV show or a letter, the more likely I will find myself throwing metaphorical popcorn and yelling “you know you could just break up, right?” in the direction of the cat. When it’s working, it doesn’t need to be “meant to be;” it just works.

My other opinion that there is no amount of work that you can do to preserve a relationship if the other person isn’t on the same page. Logistics can be worked out. Brainweasels can be managed. Hard times can be lived through. But “I want to sail in this boat with you, wherever it takes us” is not negotiable. You’ve got to choose each other, and if both people aren’t fully doing that, all the work (and all the love/pantsfeelings/hopes/wishes/sense of connection/signs/green flags) in the world won’t fix it.

You say in the opening of your letter that this is by far the healthiest relationship you’ve ever been in. Let’s add some words onto the end of that sentence, like we did with “…with you”:

This is the healthiest relationship you’ve ever been in so far.

Either this relationship is going to get healthier because your partner works on his stuff, feels better, and makes a strong, clear, unequivocal move back in your direction, or you are going to meet someone else who will have all the great stuff this person does + some other great stuff that you don’t even know about + that person will fully choose you as hard as you choose them. 

I know it is not what you want to hear, but my honest suggestion is that you either decide together that you want to make a go of it, or you make a cleaner, longer break (3-6 months, no contact) before you do any more work or try anything resembling being friends. This limbo is not healing him and it’s not serving you.

94 thoughts on “#559: Does “can’t be in a relationship right now” always mean “…with you”? Spoiler: Yup. Sorry.

  1. LW, this is great advice. I know how great it can feel to be in a relationship that is better than the one before, but when CA says:

    “When it’s working, it doesn’t need to be “meant to be;” it just works.”

    she is really speaking truth. I’ve been with my partner for 17 years, and yeah, our relationship has taken “work.” But I have this theory that people hear “relationships take work” and they don’t picture the right thing, exactly. Relationships require a lot of communication and negotiation to figure out how you’ll navigate taking care of a dying parent, or someone’s mental illness, or someone’s graduate school and career ambitions. That’s the kind of work we mean when we say that. Figuring out if and when you will actually be together, letting someone walk all over your needs, putting off indefinitely your plans for your life or your life together…..that’s not the “good” kind of work we mean. Best wishes, LW. I know this can’t be easy to hear.

    1. I want to draw squiggly lines around this comment in different colored hi-liters.

      Relationships are work because the logistics of coordinating the needs, wants, and responsibilities of one person with those of another person is an actual job that you can be paid to do in an office setting.

      It’s not fireworks and rainbows forever, the spark does fade, but there should be a level of contentment and security, a quiet joy underneath all the daily stresses in sharing a life together.

      How does it feel when you are alone together not doing anything, when there is nothing else distracting you from each other?
      Warm? Comfortable? Lonely? Scary?
      Does it feel good to think of feeling that way for the next year? The next five years?

      Because when it comes down to it, that feeling you create between the two of you IS the relationship. And if it’s not a positive one for both of you, no matter how well your life goals match, or how beautiful things were two years ago, or how well your families get along, the relationship is broken.

        1. It’s why even though I chose a career, I will go to the mat for stay-at home parents.
          They usually do the lion’s share of that work in a relationship.

  2. Wow did I ever need this post right now. I ended my relationship with the guy I was talking marriage with last week, because even though everything else was going great (or if not great, then could be worked through), he really wants biological children and I really don’t. The last week has comprised of a lot of self doubt and my mother crying and wailing ‘BUT YOU’RE SO PERFECT FOR EACH OTHER!’ and even though I’ve had friends supporting the decision, it’s good to have another reminder that at the end of the day we both felt more passionately about choosing our future children than choosing each other.

    I really and truly feel your pain, LW. It sucks to end a relationship that seems like it’s perfect in every other way because of one Big Thing. I hope the two of you can either work it out or that you can make a clean, healthy break before it turns ugly.

    1. Ah, I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. And I’m sorry that your mother couldn’t be more supportive of your decision. I think it’s really amazing to be so honest with yourself and your partner, and to make a hard decision that is fair and honest for both of you.

    2. I dated someone I would be married to today if things had been different. They were a wonderful parent to their kids, but very direct about not wanting to have any with me.
      It hurts, and I’m sorry that you’re going through this.

  3. Oh my god, when I read the title I thought it was the exact thing I’m going through right now. But I misinterpreted. Was wondering if anyone, maybe even the big man himself, could help me with my problem.

    I really like this girl at school. Talk to her every day at school plus go to the gym with her a lot. I think she’s amazing, funny, beautiful: everything. And I get the impression she likes me in some way: she finds me funny and seems to actually enjoy hanging out.

    A few weeks ago I asked her out but she said she couldn’t “right now” because she had too much going on in her life at that point, but that she did like me.

    Thing is: she actually did have a lot of family stuff going on at the time, which is fixed now. But she hasn’t mentioned the asking out at all.

    I feel a little friend zoned sometimes. Although mostly I just worry that she doesn’t really like me that much and just used the fact she had stuff going on in her life that I knew about as reason not to go out, and I worry that if I ask her out again that it would actually have a bad effect on the friendship.

    Really don’t know what to do. Ask her out again? Do people think that the first time she was just using an excuse or maybe she does actually like me and just wants me to ask her out?

    I know this was unrelated to the original post other than my misreading of the title, probably rude on my part, but I’m in such a bind right now and it feels like it’s eating me from the inside. Please someone help.

    1. Dear Charlie:

      “maybe even the big man himself,”

      Captain Awkward is a woman, not a man, though I am big!

      First things first. Please stop describing whatever is happening as being friend-zoned. It’s gross. If you don’t understand why I say that, do some reading on your own because we’re not hijacking this thread to explain it. But trust me: It’s not cool.

      Secondly, This old post covers the “right now” vs. “with you” dynamic pretty well.

      Sometimes “not right now” means “not right now,” as in, later. For example, my now-boyfriend wrote to me on a dating site when I was too sick/busy to plan. But I liked him, so when I stopped being sick/busy, I wrote back and asked him out on an actual date.

      If this girl really likes you and wants to go out sometime, she can tell you. You’re not hard to track down. She knows where you are. If she is too hung up on “the boy asks the girl, not the other way around” traditions to actually speak up, that’s her issue and her loss, and you deserve someone who can get over that stuff and go after what they want. You were brave and put yourself out there. My opinion is that your wooing work here is done unless she comes to you.

      Do you want to be her friend, just her friend, on those terms? It’s okay if the answer is “no” or “not right now, it’s too weird.” If not, take a break from hanging out with her so much until you know that you can be cool and not just searching her every word & expression for the answer that you want.

      1. Ha! I legit read “big man” and was like… god? I don’t think God’s gonna answer your question in an advice blog comment section, but ya never know.

        Also, +1 on asking the girl out one more time, really clearly. Like, say “I would like to go on a date with you. I’m thinking (thing) at (time)” and then don’t be a jerk if she says no.

        1. My brain went from “big man” to “grandfather” and just could not make sense of the sentence. I skipped it and read the rest, haha

        2. Same here! I was a bit confused — seemed overly dramatic that maybe not even God could answer the question. I am glad CA knew what it meant!

      2. I’d like to reiterate the point above on “too busy/sick”-ness. After the first date with my current partner, I was scheduled for surgery and had to be a bit sketchy about next-date planning for a while. But the minute I was feeling well enough to go on a second date, second date planning commenced.

        Say it with me: People who like you will act like they like you.

        You did a brave thing by using your words and asking someone out, it’s never easy to risk rejection that way. Now that you’ve said out loud “I like you, I want to date you”, you have done all you can. If she wants to date you, she will let you know; if she doesn’t want to date you, nothing you do will change that.

      3. I also took ‘big man’ to mean god!

        For what it’s worth, and to add a glimmer of hope to people – I chased a guy during his A levels. He told me no, he had to focus on exams, and if I would please leave him alone, he’d see about it afterwards.

        I took this as a no. After all, at our school, after exams students dont come in again til results day. I was pretty heartbroken and told myself to get over him.

        After exams, he phoned. He wondered if I fancied dinner and a film? He seemed almost proud to say ‘I told you we would see about this after my exams *and I meant it*.’ Wow.

        We were together for almost 4 years, and engaged, before things drifted apart.

        So, sometimes it isnt just a brush off. BUT – very important – dont let yourself believe anything that hasnt been said. If you take it at face value, or just assume it is an excuse, and either way, expect nothing, then just maybe youll be surprised. (And maybe youll have moved on already!) But you cant change or force anything, and I have learnt from bitter experience, thankfully all in the past, that being clingy or demanding will only drive them away, not remind them to honour their ‘promise’.

        OP, give this guy space. And be kind to yourself with distracting things. If you think youre losing faith, reread the Captain’s words and remember that it is good objective advice.

        If it ever does work out, that is a nice surprise. But, sorry to say, you need to make plans assuming that it wont happen. Remember the good times, and then look to the future.

    2. The Captain is a woman. 🙂

      I reckon you can ask her out one more time, in a low pressure type of way “hey, would you like to go on a date with me on Friday? #Cool Thing is on and I think it would be fun, but no worries if not. ”

      Then if she says no again, leave it up to her to get back to you if she wants to.

      1. Kate, that’s very smart.

        Charlie, if you want, ask her out:

        -ONE more time.
        -To a SPECIFIC event at a defined time and place. “Do you want to go out sometime” = sometime is not a time.
        -Making clear that it is a DATE.

        If she says no – it doesn’t fit with her schedule, she’s busy, things are still too weird, etc. – say “Ok, let me know if that changes” and then do not bring it up ever again unless she does.

        People who like you will act like they like you, and it will make it easy to make plans.

      2. Agreed on the “one more time, to a specific event” advice. Fun story: my mother turned my father down the first time he asked her on a date, because she was too busy with school and homework at the time to go out with him. He asked her out again later, and she said yes, and they have been married for almost 40 years and have me and my brother as well. 😉

        So, sometimes a first-time rejection because someone is swamped really is just because they’re swamped. But if she says no a second time, take that for what it is (rejection, however much it sucks), and let the topic drop. If you need to take a break from her company entirely because it’s too hard to pretend to be okay with being “just friends”, then that’s okay too. The point here is to respect both her feelings and your feelings.

    3. Seconding/thirding on “Friendzone” as a term.

      Don’t ask her out again. When a close friend gives you an ambiguous response to a clear statement of romantic or sexual interest, it’s meant as a no. If she wanted to date you she would have said yes at the time, or else said something before now, since her stuff has cleared up and now she knows you’re interested.

      I’ve been on both sides of this situation, and I know how heartbreaking it is to fall in love with a close friend and just not be someone they want to be with, but don’t make it her problem. Take the soft rejection and be grateful you still have a friendship with someone so awesome.

      Here’s a truth about ladies: we like people who are funny and fun to hang out with and want to go to the gym with us. That doesn’t mean we want to make out with them, it just means we like them as human beings with shared interests.

      1. Also, we don’t forget that our friends asked us out that one time. She knows how you feel.

    4. Welcome, Charlie! I hope you stick around. There are a lot of new ideas flying through the air and sadly the answers to some of your questions might hurt, but it’s pretty well worth it to give them a try.

    5. As other commenters have said, asking her out one more time, using your words about wanting this to be a date, for the purposes of maybe having a romance, is a reasonable and possibly fruitful option.

      At the minimim, it should give you clarity, because there are really four possible outcomes:

      1) She says yes: yay! You are goin to have a date! Maybe a romance!

      2) She says no and also doesn’t express a desire or make an effort to be your friend: You are not friends and that’s maybe a bit sad! But also a thing that happens.


      She says that she doesn’t like you romantically, but she does like you and wants to be your friend: you have a choice to make: YOU, not her.
      She’s made her preference clear already.

      3) She says she would like to be your friend, but a) you feel like that would leave you feeling sad because you wanted more, or b) you don’t feel like, with romance ruled out, you two have enough in common to make good friends, or c) you see signs that she didn’t mean “let’s be people who platonically do stuff together regularly” so much as “you seem like a stand-up guy who I find admirable though not to my taste; I wish to remain on civil, though distant, terms.

      You politely decline to be friends, while remaining friendly, or at least let her make the effort for awhile. You are probably not friends.

      4) She wants to be friends; you want to be friends. It turns out you both like dark fantasy, euchre, and hiking.

      You are friends. YAY!

      Note that none of these involve you being “put” in ANY zone. You have choices. You always have choices, and she always has choices. You don’t get to choose to have more than she wants, and she doesn’t get to choose to have more than you want.

      And just to be painfully clear, if you feel like you’re “forced” to be her friend because That is the only way you get to hang around her so that you get the chance to convince her to date you that you are entitled to before she can reasonably and fairly say no to you?

      Stop that. Stop that right now. She doesn’t owe you anything but the basic respect of one human to another, and she never ever will.

      1. Just to quickly add that ‘not being friends’, doesn’t have to mean publicly stating such, cold-shouldering anyone, or getting all your other friends to take sides against your former friend. That was the norm when I was at school, although YMMV. As we’ve agreed no one has to be friends with anyone else, it doesn’t have to be a big deal if you decide it’s better for you not to be this girl’s friend. Just a quiet withdrawal from her company will be fine. Doesn’t mean you have to ignore her or be rude. Make efforts to use the time you would have spent with her around other people instead. Be nice to her in passing and in groups, just as you would with other acquaintances. It’s a useful skill to learn if you haven’t had to do it before.

  4. oh god I really REALLY needed to read this as well. It’s breaking my heart at the same time as giving me some dignity in stepping away from a relationship just like this! I really appreciate the distinction about different kinds of work that ethyl highlights. I wanted the first kind of work and what i have been recieving and taking is the second kind. Thanks so muchfor this post. Strange wonderful heartbreaking timing.

    1. Another good way to tell if it’s the good or bad kind of work is: when it’s really unbalanced, like if one person is doing all the waiting, “being cool,” reaching out, and compromising, then it’s probably the bad kind of work.

      Heartbreak and doing the right thing are often happening at the same time (in my world right now it’s a toxic friendship, for e.g.). I wish so hard that once you’ve decided to step away from bad relationships that you could just stop feeling things for the other person.

  5. One thing I think is relevant to this: our culture has some strong ideas on This is How Relationships are. A lot of them have to do with bundling – one person is your life partner and your romantic partner and your sexual partner and your emotional support, no one else is any of these things. So we’re primed to look at a relationship with the idea of ‘can we be all these things, at least eventually’, and ‘no’ means dropping all of them, with a break or a break up.

    For some people, this is exactly what works for them. This framework fits the way relationships work for them, and so it’s helpful and guiding.

    But, for some people, it doesn’t work. So instead, the framework gives them all these ‘shoulds’ and unquestioned ideas about things that have to go together that get in the way of figuring out what they actually want and what could actually work.

    So, I think it can sometimes be helpful to try to consciously start back at the foundations/beginning. Try to unpack the bundle and see if it really is a bundle for you. Try to look past the shoulds and the ‘X and Y have to come together because that’s just how things are’ and look at things like what do you actually want/need? What are things that actually work for you? Are there multiple options that could?

    And, maybe the bundle way is the way that works for you. Or it’s the way that works for your partner. Then, you know, and ‘if we can’t have X, then there’s not point in trying to have Y’ is something you know is true for your relationship and you can make decisions accordingly.

    But, maybe it isn’t, and maybe there’s something at the intersection of your wants/needs/what-works and his that doesn’t look like a standard bundle, but is something that can be good for both of you *right now* instead of ‘maybe if I wait and try’.

    (Note: this is not meant to be at all ideological or propaganda for relationship anarchy or whatever or anything like that. Just, when you’re trying to make a decision, it can be helpful to see all your options, cultural narratives have a habit of obscuring options so that you never even think of them, and being aware of that is something that’s really helped me in my own relationships so I wanted to put it out there).

    1. I wish people talked about this more. This bundling problem is why I don’t relationship very often. I’m always falling in love with people that I’m not sexually compatible with, so I tend to have a bunch of very close friends and then hookups. I’m open to the hookups becoming relationships, but 9/10 of them I don’t fall in love with.

  6. Hi Charlie!

    I’m not the Captain (she’s a lady, by the way!), but I actually think the letter and her answer is really relevant to your question. The Captain’s written a lot before that when somebody says, “I just don’t want to be in a relationship right now,” or “I can’t right now,” or something like that, they are saying “I just don’t want to be in a relationship right now [with you]” — they’re choosing to say no, not yes. That really seems to be true no matter what the back story is.

    In your case, it must be really hard to spend time with a girl you like, who seems to like you, who said she couldn’t ‘right now’. There are actually a lot of similarities to this letter — the person writing in is spending time talking to Lover, they care about each other, and the LW is being told “I have too much going on in my life right now.” In LW’s case it’s mental health stuff, and in your friend’s case it’s family stuff, but see how there’s a lot in the situation that’s the same?

    As hard as it is, the facts on the ground are that you asked her out, and she said no. She doesn’t want to go out with you, for whatever reason. Maybe she really does like you and is just ridiculously busy! But she still said no. I’ve been in this position, and it’s so, so, so hard! It feels like it’s right there, and just needs a little nudge to come true! But unfortunately, when a person says no and doesn’t follow up with a clear “I want to be with you when xyz changes” (like, “Please ask me again in a month when I’ve finished dealing with Family Thing,”) then it does mean “I don’t want to be in a relationship with you.”

    I’m an internet stranger and not even the writer of this blog, but I’d advise not asking her out again. I’m sorry, I know that hurts.

    1. WHOOPS meant to respond to Charlie and also didn’t refresh before reading. I’m sorry, Captain and company!

      1. I always ask myself “if I were in his or her position and someone did what I am thinking about doing” (asking me out again after I said no) “how would I feel?” And the answer is usually “Self, I would feel irritated and disrespected, because we had this conversation and this person heard my No as Try Again Later. If I meant Try Again Later, I would have said that.”

        A month or two ago, a boy asked me out and I said no. A few weeks later, I reconsidered. I did not wait for him to magically divine my change of heart, nor did I indicate this by the waving of flags or an intricate dance involving sunlight and pollen. Instead, I contacted him and told him I had changed my mind and was interested in going out. He happily accepted. (It didn’t work out, but I am pleased with how it did go, because we were respectful of one another and I was appropriately assertive and so it is a net win for Team Novel.)

        Conversely, in October I went for coffee with a boy who was very persistent. I enjoyed his company but was uninterested in taking it further. He texted me repeatedly after I said I wasn’t interested, culminating in a text where he threatened to come to my home and “Say Anything” me to make me invite him up to my apartment (stand in front of my building making a fuss). He has contacted me twice since October, both times pushing me to accept another date with him. After the last one, I had to block him.

        I think it’s easy to think that we’re going to be something other than Boy #2 when we persistently ask someone out, because we’re going to do it in some way that magically will be persuasive and charming and effect the desired outcome. But in reality, the likelihood of being Boy #2 is very high.

        1. Like that awful, awful storyline on House where they decided that It’s Tuesday, The Day I Remind You That I Like You In Case You Forgot was cute. Noooooooooooooooooo.

          1. So I’m going to assume that, in the name of authenticity, after a few Tuesdays the object of this campaign of terror had a huge meltdown at the stress of having this happen, possibly culminating in a panic attack on a crowded bus? Because…that’s what happened to me.

          2. Or (even though they’re one of my favorite TV couples ever), the way Andy pursued April during the 3rd season of Parks and Recreation. It was so unnecessary, too, because throughout season 2 they had the perfect steady growth of feelings between the two once Andy finally let go of Ann, and then they ruined it with the finale and the first few episodes of season 3, which were weird and stalky (and encouraged by other characters).

        2. Ughhhhhh. Especially annoying because the boom box romantic gesture didn’t even work in the damn movie.

  7. Long time lurker, first time poster. Sorry if me writing a novel about my problems isn’t appropriate. But this post is so timely for me that I feel like I can’t not respond, since I feel like I’m mired in such a similar position. The Dude and I have been doing low-key friendship (like, coffee once a week) for a couple of months, after he was like, “I like you so much, you are exactly the kind of person I see myself with long-term, but I just…can’t right now, due to External Things,” and “I know I can’t ask for this, but my ideal outcome would be, I take care of Things which have a specific end date, and then we get back together.”

    The friend-ness went okay, better than I would have expected, honestly. We just had a feelings check-in over the weekend, which I was so proud of myself for initiating (using my words is not something I’m naturally inclined towards…thanks to the Captain for giving me tips on how to do that), and everything seemed to be fine: he still wanted to be dating after Things clear up, we talked about how hard it was for both of us, but that we liked each other and wanted to make it work after Things, the end. Yesterday, I texted him to say that I had time to hang out this week, which I hadn’t thought I would because work is crazy.

    Annnnd I haven’t heard back from him, which is unusual. And THEN last night someone posted a picture on Facebook of him looking cozy with another lady. I would normally poke him with an “Are you alive, if you still want to get coffee you need to tell me now because I have a lot of crap to do this week,” if it weren’t for the danged picture of him and the other lady. I just…am sad about this, and confused. I don’t know what to do, other than taking care of myself and continuing with my life. I feel like I’m potentially reading too much into the picture (it’s not like they were making out) (also, these are the reasons I think seriously about deleting Facebook!) but then…just. I don’t know how much I can put myself out there. It’s all frustrating. So, OP, I don’t have anything constructive to add to the Captain’s advice, but know you’re not alone, and that this is all so, so hard. I’m sending you so many Internet-stranger hugs and positive thoughts.

    1. You don’t know that he’s seeing another lady – people turn up in pictures looking cozy for all sorts of reasons. There are photos of me looking cozy with total strangers I met that morning.

      But – it does sound very very hard to be in limbo like that. Perhaps he’s genuinely still mired in “External Things”, there are many reasons someone might not reply to an email. I suppose you need to decide if you’re OK waiting for the end of those things to find out if he’s really into you or just really bad at saying no.

      All I know is that always trying to read someone like tea leaves because their actions and words don’t match up is a really awful place to be. 😦

      1. I’ve learned the hard way to trust the actions when they don’t match up to the words, even when it hurts.

        But I’m sorry for this situation as well as LW’s. It’s so hard. Jedi hugs to both of you.

    2. Is is possible that some of his External Things involve other ladies? And would that change your view of this waiting period? Also – does he usually control when you meet up and are in contact, or is it more or less equal?

      Personally (after some painful learning experiences), I think waiting for Things to be sorted out is just fine, but putting my emotional life in limbo for someone else doesn’t work for me. Neither does being in regular and close contact as friends when I want something more. If there is a risk that your support as a friend is giving him enough of what he wants to prolong the current situation, is it in your interest to continue meeting him?

      1. “Personally (after some painful learning experiences), I think waiting for Things to be sorted out is just fine, but putting my emotional life in limbo for someone else doesn’t work for me.”

        Yeah… the thing is, people are not video games you can just save and quit whenever you get confused. When one person locks the screen, life still spins on for the other, and they’re just left wondering where you are. And I get the instinct to do this — sometimes things get hard and confusing, and you don’t know what to do, so you try not to think about/deal with the issue or the person attached to it — but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful.

        So yeah, I totally agree. Life goes on, no matter who hasn’t figured out how they feel or what they want yet. Sometimes you just have to let the window close.

        (Note: this is not necessarily advice for the OP of this thread. I’m really just musing, here.)

      2. “If there is a risk that your support as a friend is giving him enough of what he wants to prolong the current situation, is it in your interest to continue meeting him?”

        Argh I hate revelations that come after they are useful. Beans.

        I had always thought that if you are care about someone, then you are obligated to be as . . . friendly as they want you to be, even if you want more or less, because if you prioritize what you want over what they want, then you don’t really care about them and you’re a bad person anyway, rightright?

        I wish I’d had the strength of character to cut ex-friend P. out of my life completely when I said I was going to — he was all sad and stuff because even though he didn’t want to be close to me or give me any emotional support, he had the Sadfeels when I wasn’t spending my energy to entertain him. And I, in my infinite stupidity, thought that surely once I explained that what I wanted was closeness, he would let me drop if that wasn’t what he wanted too. . . Ugh. UGH.

    3. I wouldn’t assume he’s seeing someone else romantically/sexually. I would assume that he’s making time for people and events that he enjoys, and I would note that seeing me doesn’t qualify.

      Then I’d think about whether that’s what I wanted, and I’d probably recognize that we’d broken up.

      Jedi hugs

    4. Thank you all so much for the kind replies and wise words. I did end up sending him a poke-y “Did you get my text” text and he replied in 5 seconds with a variation on “OMG sorry crazy day, missed the notification,” so I guess there’s that. Our schedules don’t line up but we might see each other over the weekend (unlikely, because I don’t think I’ll have time due to All The Deadlines).

      I know I have a lot more thinking to do about this. It’s just really hard. The thing is, in a lot of ways his actions do line up with the “I care about you, I want this to work,” perspective–he makes time to see me in the first place, which is not easy with his grad program (he sometimes sleeps in the lab 3-4 nights a week). If he was a complete flake, frequently uncommunicative, if I felt like I was the only one trying, or if I was bending myself in noodles to be the Coolest Chillest I Love Being Your Backup Plan Girl, I would have been over this months ago because that is just not my scene. Been there, done that, never again.

      We only have a month to go before his External Things are over, and for various reasons I’m unlikely to be back on the actively-dating scene before then. So I guess it’s not that much longer. I just feel like I’ll be furious with myself if he does end up bailing (see: Chillest Most Accommodating Girl, never again)…but at the same time, I feel like it’s foolish for me to bail now, absent a real reason (him saying, “You know that conversation we had where I said I still wanted to be with you after Things, I take that back”; him going radio silent; him saying, “Actually I’ve realized that I like the lady from Facebook better”; me getting a job in Oklahoma; me tripping into a plaid-wearing bearded gentleman with strong forearms who is ready to be in a relationship right now; me realizing, no, this is totally unsustainable for my mental/emotional health, call me in a month; etc.)

      I feel like all of this is so justify-y. All of my life experiences up to this point have indicated, like all of you have said, “This will not work.” I don’t know if I’m delusional and sticking my head in the sand, or if there really is a chance that we’ll work it out. Time will tell, I guess.

      1. Only you can know if you want to keep waiting or not, but I just wanted to say that “I’m sick of this” is a good enough reason. So if you feel like you can’t stand the current situation anymore, you’re allowed to end it. It sounds like a tough situation, I’m sending you good thoughts : )

        1. “I’m sick of this” is a good enough reason……

          It IS, isn’t it?! Thanks for the reminder 🙂 This past week has been kinda rough….

          I think I might get that tattooed on me. Alongside “people who like you will act like they like you.”

      2. Yeah that’s rough!
        But on the other hand, I had a thing with someone who said something like “I’m not ready for a relationship, but I want to keep hanging out” where hanging out escalated pretty quickly into sexytimes. And it was hard and not-good-kinds-of-work, and I was disappointed and hurt when they ended it really abruptly and said they wanted to be friends but evidence points to actually not wanting to be friends at all…but I don’t regret it.
        So I want to put super-emphasis on “only you get to decide if it’s worth it” – it is not wrong to choose to hang in there. That is your choice, and it sounds like you’re going into it with a lot of self-awareness. Could really sucky things still happen? Yes. You know that. You are taking that into your feelings calculus, and taking a risk. That is your risk to take and you’re not stupid for taking that risk if it doesn’t turn out to be rainbows.

      3. I’m thinking you should give it a deadline. Not breaking things off for a month when you’d anyway not have started something else is reasonable. Hanging on indefinitely because his needs are always more important than yours is not.

      4. A month is not a very long time to wait. At the end of the month if things don’t proceed full steam ahead and there’s a new excuse, that would probably be a great time to bail and go looking for that rather appealing bearded dude you describe.

        Blergh – I’m so sorry you’re stuck in this circumstance. It sucks so badly to be uncertain like this.

      5. Just to offer another viewpoint here: how is this making you feel *right now*? Could you live in this state indefinitely?

        Because it sounds to me like the condition you’re in is (a) pinging your Spidey-senses that something isn’t right, and (b) stressing you out a whole heck of a lot while (c) you are put in the position of being So Cool and Chill toward this guy so you can support him at… what cost to him? What exactly is he giving back to you?

        Firstly, (b) and (c) 100% constitute a “real reason” to bail. Your comments sound stressed and sad. You are a person! with feelings! you are allowed to bail on being stressed and sad. Your needs matter and are an important and valid reason to toss this situation if you so choose.

        Secondly… I’ve been through a lot of situations where I ignored my Spidey-senses tingling about a romantic partner’s behavior, both mine and my friends’. And in every single case, it turned out that my Spidey-senses were right on the money. I’m not saying this guy is dating some other girl (though you might want to think about what it means to you if he is, and whether that has a believable end date), but I *am* saying that you are Sensing Danger. Maybe it was weird that he didn’t text you back, that his excuse was vague, that he’s putting you in the position of chasing and worrying. Whatever it is that you’re sensing, I really encourage you to trust your instincts and take steps to protect yourself. Ask yourself this: would you have written in if this situation were on the up and up?

        I’m so sorry that you’re in a tough spot, and I hope some of this is useful to you.

      6. if “things” is candidacy/qualifying exams for a doctoral program (guess based on sleeping in the lab/”specific end date” comments), I will attest that 6-8 weeks of that time period is totally insane.

        1. Yeah, very much in that vein. When he was like, “I can’t date you because for the next four months I can only have one major relationship: SCHOOL,” I was obviously wtf/meh/u joking right, but seeing what he’s gone through this semester I understand it more.

          Also, I am so touched that people have continued to respond. I’m in a much calmer and more stable place right now–time is always good, obvs. I’ve also had a conference Friday + major deadlines for my own research this coming week, so I’ve had stuff to mostly keep my mind off this particular hamster wheel. I’m not initiating contact until I’m through this week, because I Just Can’t Even; we’ll see what happens after that. I know (this is super cheesy, bear with me) that even if things don’t go the way that I hope they will/explode in my face, I’m strong enough to deal with the aftermath, and I have the support of great people, both in online communities like this and in real life, to help support me through it. So THANKS GUYS. Your concern for this recently-delurked person who does not feel even remotely qualified to contribute advice/thoughts of my own has been a serious source of comfort through this week.

      7. So my response is late, and I hope everything is working out for you. I will say, one thing that bothers me about this situation is that he has all of the control re: whether you’re in a relationship or not. You’re in touch at least once a week and he makes time to see you, but somehow he can’t call that a relationship? Why can’t you still have a commitment to each other, even if you’re both super busy? We all know people who have made distance and stressful situations work. That’s what would bother me if I were in this situation.

        But I’m not, and only you can decide what you’re okay with. Just thought I’d articulate some things that bugged me about it since you seemed to be having some negative feelings but were unsure why. Maybe it just comes down to communicating with this dude about how this period has made you feel, and you can go from there. I hope so.

  8. Fantastic post Captain! LW, I’m wishing you the best.
    This: “If you figure out how to solve someone else’s depression so that they can finally become the partner you want them to be, DEFINITELY CALL ME ABOUT GUEST POSTING OPPORTUNITIES THX.” Forget calling Captain Awkward, call the Nobel Prize Committee!

  9. Oh, LW. I’ve been through so many of the “I need to be alone so I can work on myself” breakups. They’re so tough because they’re sticky and often so full of “I still love you” and always, I find, with at least the implication that maybe when the ex-lover has sorted their shit out they’d still be interested in getting back together. In one case I had a partner who just said “I need a break from sex”, which became a break from making time for me, which became a break from touching at all when we did see each other, until I said “This isn’t just a break anymore, is it?” And even when she admitted that no, it wasn’t, it still came with a lot of I-love-you-and-the-future-is-vast-so-who-knows?

    I made it a rule for myself after the first of these breakups that no matter how much “maybe we can be together later!” comes with my “not for now”, it’s up to the person who broke it off to reach out if they want it back. I want to support them through whatever journey they’re on, but I’m not going to wait around for them to want me back. I might date other people or I might stay single for a while, but I’ll consider us broken up.

    Apart from needing to look after my own needs, if my ex has a sense that I’m supporting them so they can get better so they can be my partner again, that’s a lot of uncomfortable pressure to put on them. And even with “we are broken up and will probably stay broken up” firmly in my mind, my ex can often still interpret any sort of emotional reaching out from me as “Bluegirl is pushing me to get back together with her”.

    I could bang on about this topic for pages, but that’s the essence of what many, many of these breakups have taught me. The message that someone would still want to be with you if they didn’t have this personal problem to resolve is sincerely meant and can be so comforting. Take the spirit of kindness and love that it’s meant in. Don’t put too much faith in the “maybe”.

  10. Hey Captain, I just wanted to say thank you for everything you (and the commetariat) do here. It really is amazing and this post is no exception.

    I have a truly excellent therapist, but to be honest, your writing gives me a bigger sense of Everything Will Be Okay (and here’s how you get there) than he does most days. Ahaha.

  11. I agree with this post very much. I have been on the other side of this situation, in a way.

    I was in a relationship where I wanted it to work, very badly and my then partner was an awesome person, but in continuing to try, try, try I focused more on working then on seeing us. It was like throwing sand into a bottomless pit, no matter how hard or fast I shoveled, I was only distracting myself from asking the question of why I wanted to fill the hole in the first place.

    It turns out that sheer effort will not act like a TARDIS and turn back time to a period the sand desert was a river we sailed through together. More effort will not bring back the time where you had that fluttery feeling. It won’t bring back the ocean.

    There is a difference between sailing around objects, through storms, patching leaks and wondering what happened to all the water.

    I still struggle with articulating what the difference is, but I can feel it when it happens. I think there is a whole cargo load of issues and dynamics to unpack when it comes to what the work of love really is. Even defining work and love gets tricky in the multitude of possible contexts. I don’t even know what thread to pull to unravel it into separate parts.

    1. Oh dear lord, thank you. That is such an excellent analogy.

      I have a now-multiple-years-ago breakup (sigh) that I’ve given up on being able to understand or articulate the exact reasons for, but “wondering what happened to all the water” is the best terse summary I can imagine, and “sheer effort will not act like a TARDIS and turn back time to a period the sand desert was a river we sailed through together” – yes, that, exactly.

  12. Ohhhhh my gosh. I’m a longtime lurker here, first time commenter. And this advice was so, so relevant to me. And, gahhhhh it’s making me feel so much better! Even though this stuff is hard to hear, you know?
    About six months ago I broke up for good with a guy who I still feel like I love more than anyone else I’ve ever loved and ever met. I’m only 23 but I’ve been feeling majorly jaded and cynical about relationships and love after all the gutwrenching stuff I went through with him over the past year.
    It’s nice to realize all over again that we’re not “meant to be” if he made a choice to forgo being with me. Even though he had reasons, and they seemed like legitimate ones, it still was a choice and it’s valid and I need to respect it.
    That thing you said about, when it’s working, it doesn’t need to be “meant to be”, it just WORKS, that…struck a powerful chord with me.
    I have needs too, dammit, and I deserve to heal and move toward a place where I can allow myself to be with someone who can actually fulfill those needs. Someone who wants to be with me just as much as I want to be with them.
    I love this post. I needed this.
    Thank you.

  13. I see a thing here, in both the question and the advice, that makes me really uncomfortable.

    LW, you talk about this relationship being your healthiest and best ever, and the good Captain says, well maybe it is _so far_ — but I would say, maybe don’t set your relationships up in ranked order of best to worst, with the idea that there is an upward trend over time? Relationships are not stocks. You do not accrue green flag points for successfully acquiring a series of positive relationship that you can later sell for relationship credits to buy a sufficiently awesome boyfriend with. You get practice, sure, but it’s absolutely not an inevitable trend. You are allowed to get into the wrong relationship and maybe fuck up and maybe get reamed over a bed of emotional nails as many times as you actually do those things.

    I say this not for the sake of whatever assortment of exes you may have — because at this point, and from this side of the ocean, who gives a fuck about them? I say this because I don’t want you to look at your future relationships as being responsible to not fail you as those before have failed you (and I’m sorry, LW: it is not his fault, but your lover has. failed. you. and you do not have to forgive — ever — even if it is not his fault.) I say this because I don’t want you to judge yourself for not choosing the one who did not ultimately choose you.

    I don’t want you to think that because you have learned this lesson that your needs are so important even if they are directly in conflict with someone else’s — I don’t want you to think that you will never learn it again, that you are not allowed to relearn that What I Want is Important and Valid again and again, in the context of jobs and children and family and other lovers, just because you learned it once and you’ve come so far since then so how could this same problem be rearing its stupid head again?

    People are different. I have not been in so many relationships, but what there were failed spectacularly in their own unique, horrible ways, because those people brought out different ways in which I was broken. Some of these things are structural problems and I am 100% sure that any relationship when I was 18 would have failed horribly and left me scarred. [If you have arms made of knives and you are all HERE LET ME HUG YOU WITH MY KNIFE ARMS and then the other person runs because holy shit EMBRACE OF POINTY DEATH and you hug yourself and get stabbed, there wasn’t really an option that was going to work except massive structural reconstruction.] Your next relationship will not necessarily be “better” than this relationship. It will be its own completely separate thing and it will fly or fail based on things that have nothing to do with this relationship but moreover do not necessarily have anything to do with how mature and awesome and emotionally competent you are.

    I feel like this is something of a mutilated extension on the “sunk costs” idea — I’ve come so far and worked so hard through all these places and people where I wasn’t happy, and if I still can’t have a good and healthy relationship that lasts doesn’t that mean I wasted all that time I spent walking here? So you hold on and hold on because you can’t bear to believe that not just the pain you went with this person but the pain you went through with all the people you were with before — the pain you have chalked up to “learning to relationship” and “getting better at managing my mental health” and “working out how to be a human being” — that all that was pointless because this, too, is not going to work out.

    And so — and so — remember that the point to all this is not external to you. The point is not the relationship. The point is YOU, and you are never a failed or finished project. The relationship is always an extra thing that is laid on top; it is not a marker or an assessment of how far you’ve come or how self-actualized you are. YOU are the measure of how far you’ve come.

    So when you pull away from this guy — and maybe this is shit advice, but no matter how much you love him I recommend treating him like he’s dead for at least A YEAR — you think, not on what you miss about him, but on what parts of yourself he made you see in the light of love. What part of yourself was he pulling into the sunshine to admire? I think that love can make us into the best versions of ourselves, but each of our loves pulls a different beautiful construction of things from us. And you are not going to be the same person you were with ex-love again, but you can remember what he loved about you and use that as a reminder to cherish those qualities in yourself.

    That discovered beauty is something you can take to either solitude or a new relationship or wherever you are going, and it does not depend on grading how well you did this time around.

    1. That should be, “I don’t want you to blame yourself for choosing the one who did not choose you. It doesn’t invalidate this relationship or what it meant to you.”

  14. I think another thing that Romantic Dramas stop one from realising is that lots of things in life have to line up to allow a relationship to work. Having all the chemistry and personal compatibilities is just one part of the puzzle. We’re led to believe that if the connection is strong enough, any other incompatibilities like work, health, location, views on children, you name it, magically resolve themselves.

    The love of my life would have had to give up his career for me. He really believed he could do it, but when it came to it he couldn’t take the final step. Both of us had to learn the hard way that these things don’t just disappear.

  15. Ah LW, many Jedi hugs to you!

    The Captain has given you some very good advise, and I wish I’d had it a few years back. I had an intesne awesome connection with a guy, who after a few months said he wasn’t ready for a relationship (only a F buddy) and broke it off with me. Then about two weeks later he came back, said it was a mistake and he wanted to be with me as a proper relationship.

    We went through rough patches and I fell for the fallacy that Good Relationships Take Work, so battled through. For the 4 years I felt like my needs weren’t met, and if his needs weren’t met it was my fault. Then he went away camping for a weekend and said he’d met someone else, broke up with me and a week later was with the new girl.

    So went he said ‘I was wrong, I want a relationship with you’ he meant ‘I was wrong, I don’t want to be single so please be with me until I find someone else I like more’.

    It was all rather pants (That is UK pants btw), and crushed me (We’d been talking about marrage/kids the month before). However, a few months later I bounced back, did some online dating (Using excellent advice from the Captain) and found a new chappy.

    Being with new chappy has made me realise how much I was comprimising on my needs and how when you’re both on the same page things take work, but it is’t bad work. Eg my ex worked shifts and I hated it, but my cureent chaps works shifts and it’s caused no issues. The difference is that with current chappy we work to make the time when we do see each other special (Sometimes special is a fancy meal, other times watching netfilx in a blanket fort). With the ex it was always me making the effort to make it special, then when he never reciprocated I stopped it.

    I’m not in contact with him, and I can only hope he is as happy as I am now, but looking back neither of us were happy when were together.

    So I must concurr and echo the sentiment of:
    ‘This is the healthiest relationship you’ve ever been in so far.’

  16. Dear LW:

    Wow! You’ve shown tremendous good sense so far, also kindness and love.

    The Captain’s analysis is so right that we should staple it to our brains so as not to forget it.

    Let me add this: you have been mostly long distance, you aren’t sharing your lives. How would you feel if this were your sister’s or best friend’s situation?

    I think you’re broken up, I believe that’s what I’d say to my dear friends. But I’m am internet stranger. To you I say, your decency has been rewarded by a man saying you’re not the most important thing to him.

    Please listen to him, and recognize that the pattern of your lives together will be you setting aside your needs for him.

    Jedi hugs

  17. Oh, I like this so much. Sometimes the short snappy one-liners “Can’t means won’t” needs to be revisited in depth.

    This advice is like hearing that song you used to love, but now when you think of it, it has a catchy tune but is otherwise kind of bland and flat. Then you hear it again with all its rich nuance and harmony.

    This is what it means and this is why. Thank you, Captain

  18. Oh God, I could have written this letter about 4 years ago. I am going to tell you my story, because I am four years out of the relationship and I tried to follow, Captains proposed solutions one and two..and I can tell you how they turned out for me.

    I was 42 and fell more deeply in love with D than I had ever been with anyone in my life before (and arguably since) before I had met D, I had fallen in love, married, divorced, fallen in love a couple of more times, but with D it was different. it felt like fate, all the stars aligned, we were perfect together..perfect for two years, We saw one another at weekends, and spoke for at least an hour every day. We never ran out of things to talk about, we both had excellent conflict resolution skills, my daughter loved him, he was kind, smart, funny, caring, affectionate, protective…I thought that this was finally what I was waiting for.

    His mother died-she was old and sick, but it triggered a very serious depression. neither of us realised what was happening at first. Until he completely out of the blue ended the relationship…I was devastated beyond belief..(and I had had my heart mangled in the past…this was the worst)

    Proposed Solution 1-fix the depression, I immediately swung into this, read everything I could about depression, spoke to people about it, mainstream and every woowoo charlatan going, etc etc.., persuaded him to go to the doc, he got meds, he got CBT..nothing really worked..along came proposed solution 2

    Proposed Solution 2: Adapt the relationship into something that is more “workable.” – it was evident that there was going to be no quick fix…that this wasn’t just a misunderstanding that we could clear up. so I said something along the lines of
    ‘let’s just put considerations of a relationship aside for a while, and focus on getting you better’…which really meant, I will wait, and hope and be responsive to you, never call you, but always take your calls, send you long really positive emails and always always wait with the door open, for you to walk back inside..

    how did that affect me…or potentially you, should you find yourself doing the same.

    In some ways it was the best training in mindfulness practice that you could ever imagine. Because every single day I replayed everything in my mind, wondering if I could change things, planning what to do next, trying to figure out how to fix him, fix me, become the person he wanted, while he was healing…I drove myself nuts..and had to start to learn mindfulness, because it was driving me crazy..I had to learn how to turn my thoughts away from obsessing about him…

    I did this for nine months…nine months in which I could have grieved, opened the doors for someone else to come in, moved on…I learned mindfulness, but my heart broke each and every day…wondering how I could have done, could do, something different.

    After all we were meant to be together..and relationships take work, and you have to hang in there…right??

    after nine months, he (fortunately) got in touch to say that he didn’t want an relationship with anyone again. So I had my heart broken again..but it was a kind thing he did…shattering my hopes. My hopes were killing me..

    and now, well now four years on, I am in my first decent relationship since. There isn’t the same sense of ‘destiny manifesting’, but I love him and he loves me…

    But four years is a heck of a long time to get over someone…it took so long, because even after the nine months, we were still in contact…I was still trying to fix him, still fantasising about him showing up on my doorstep, free of depression and wanting to start again.

    The other night I was watching Stella on BBC, and there was a part where she got all lip quivery when she was talking to a friend about how she suspected that her relationship was going wrong…I realised watching that, that now, in my relationship with B..I feel safe. I don’t have any more of those awful lip quivery conversations with my close friends..

    You deserve the same.

    I really wish I had read the Captains advice four years ago, I would have accepted what he said and walked away…and everytime i started to hope or started to try and fix things, I would have crushed those hopes and those desires…

    the price I had to pay was too high. I suspect that for you it may be the same.

    1. “I don’t have any more of those awful lip quivery conversations with my close friends.”

      That is such a good feeling, isn’t it?

      -Lip Quiver-Free since 2012

  19. Another reader here who really needed to hear that right now. I am three months out of what was an exceptionally healthy, loving, and super-fun relationship. From age 19 my life had been tied up with trying to escape an abusive relationship, so the level of care and connection with my recent Sweetheart-Ex took me totally by surprise. We both fell pretty hard pretty quick, and had an amazing time that lasted one and a half years… but then crunch time came with visas, and he had to decide if he wanted to live on a different continent from his family, and we both had to decide if we wanted to get married/engaged and form a new family (I have two kids). Needless to say, it didn’t happen, and Sweetheart-Ex went back to far far away continent. Cue talking daily on IM and Skpe, and lots of ‘I love you’ and “I miss you’ type stuff. Part of me is like a child stamping its foot, raging about how it is all so unfair, and that if visas were easier, or if we had more money to travel between countries, or whatever, that it would have all worked out. And, sure, those things played a big part in it all, but realistically, the only deciding factor was that it just was not something he wanted to choose. I know that I really needed to drum that into my head and move on, but memories and nostalgia are pretty potent traps. But I am beginning to look forward to a Lip-Quiver Free future 🙂

    1. As someone who did move continents for my better half (and miss my family loads), it is a really hard thing to do and a constant choice. I think it can be hard not to dwell into “if circumstances were different, everything would be perfect” without falling back on “this is what circumstances are – he’s made a choice within these circumstances.”

  20. Dear Captain Awkward and Awkward Army,

    I got married less than two weeks ago to a wonderful man who first turned me on to this site. My life is pretty darn good these day.

    Even though I’m in a good place right now, I can’t help but wish you had been there when I was dealing with my own Darth Vaders, friend breakups and I-Can’t-Be-in-a-Relationship-right-now scenarios. This advice would have made for much classier behaviour on my part. Dignity would have been nice.

    It may be too late for me, but I’m planning to raise my kids on these tenets. They need to hear the real deal about relationships from me – not from Disney or Julia Roberts.

    Keep up the good work!

  21. I just want to take a moment to say how thankful I am to have found this website. I’m experiencing my first breakup right now (or, well, the emotional aftermath thereof, since technically the actual breakup is already over), and although the situation was very complicated and painful for a while there, it could have been a lot worse. It would have been worse if I hadn’t learned to use my words and tell him how I felt. It would have been worse if I hadn’t known to accept it when I could not be friends with him after the first time we broke up. It would have been worse if I hadn’t been strong and smart enough to take care of me by taking time apart from him. It would have been worse if, during the past two-and-a-half months when we actually had a relationship, I hadn’t been outspoken about what I wanted. There are a dozen very hard conversations I would never have known how to have with him if it hadn’t been for Captain Awkward and the Army, that ultimately made my life better. You have given me the vocabulary to define my experiences and have shared with me the wisdom to know what must be done, which in turn gave me the strength to do it. Now we’re finally over for good, and I find myself equipped with a dozen necessary tools to handle it that I didn’t have before.

    So I know you get worn out, Cap’n, and that this can’t be an easy task to be taking on for free, but I just want you to know that what you’re doing here? It’s working. You’re helping. You’re making the world, or at least my world, a better place.

    1. What a wonderful and wonderfully put comment! Seconded, CA and the awkward army. I am in awe of what you do here, and the positive space you have managed to create in this here internet. Where the YouTube commentors dwell. No small feat.

  22. Like most of the other lurkers here, this one came at exactly the right time for me, or rather, about a week too late, but hopefully just in time to pick up some pride and move on.

    I think at times regular readers (myself absolutely included) can get a bit high-horsey and I-know-the-right-script!-y on issues where we’ve learnt from the great CA and life what the awkward answer is. But this is one of those posts where so many people go ‘OMG that’s me. Dang.’

    This is why is love CA so much – coz just when I think I’m up with the play and awkwarding fantastically through life, I learn something new about myself and find myself on the other side of the coin from where I thought I was.

    Time to go track down the dignity that I gave to an ‘I DON’T WANT TO be with YOU ‘.

  23. LW, I feel your pain. Long distance particularly makes this harder when there’s a slow steady pulling away. My hearts goes out to you.

    And as you say, a month is really not very long as a period of zero contact. Especially for someone who is dealing with mental health issues and is already feeling overwhelmed, a month is probably not long enough to even get started in terms of finding a doctor, finding a therapist, and getting past those initial sessions where not a great deal seems like it’s useful. It’s probably not long enough for most psychoactive meds to ramp up to full effect, even if he hit the jackpot first time in terms of the right chemical and the right dose. (Most people don’t.)

    I can’t help but wonder if a month felt to him like a difficult deadline to be anxious about, or another obligation or commitment he couldn’t face, or another way he’d end up disappointing himself and/or you. That’s not to blame you, but a month’s break is so little break that I don’t see how it could succeed in any of its goals.

    I too really needed to hear the Captain’s advice at this time. I wasn’t in exactly the same situation as the LW but enough was in common that most of the advice resonated powerfully

    I was miserable and she was miserable and our respective attachment styles were the worst possible combination and our misery was increasingly intruding on the rest of our lives… but we kept trying probably months longer than we should have.

    I pulled the plug after she proposed a pretty extreme version of the Captain’s Solution #2. I have since been preoccupied with revisiting (mentally; not with her) arguments we had and arguments we didn’t have but I wished we’d had, but this post made me realise that even if I could be satisfied on every single point that still itches me, it wouldn’t matter, because she chose to not be in the relationship I wanted.

    I can’t be happy with someone who wants me only in convenient doses at convenient times if I have convenient feelings and conveniently zero needs, and only on none of my terms and all of hers. That’s all that was on the table after she ended the parts she no longer wanted, and after almost a month of “mostly zero contact” I went to full zero contact. Theoretically she might ever contact me again when she wants a convenient escape from her life, although I now kinda doubt it, but if she does… I choose people who choose me back. She chose to not be in the relationship I wanted, and I have chosen to not be in the relationship she wants.

    Captain, you and your Awkward Army have helped me plenty with this post and the comments so far. Thank you all.

  24. Wow, I’m amazed I got through that post without crying. I appear to have come a long way, and I will credit this blog and its community for helping me get there!

    LW, all the Jedi hugs to you if you want them — I have been in this kind of situation, where the other person was clearly not choosing me/choosing not me/whatever, result’s the same, twice over the past 3 years and IT BITES.

    The first time was the most similar to your situation (distance, strong connection, legit reason). It took me months to realise that there would be neither more closeness nor more distance from that person and if I wanted resolution I would have to get it for myself. The process of putting an end to my feelings (drastic reduction in contact and constant redirecting of my thoughts) was excruciating but it worked and I was better off for it.

    Best of luck to you.

  25. LW you know one scenario? Maybe in a long while, he WILL have sorted his shit out and want a relationship with you. Yup, that actually might be a possibility. But if you keep taking second place to his illness, if you put in the Bad Work, how much can you possibly enjoy it without resentment and the tarnishing of the sparkles?

    If you take this with the Captains advice, let go and work on You, let yourself grieve and heal, maybe you will find a new sparkle. And that will be wonderful. Maybe you will become your own sparkle and not want another one (and that is my favourite way to sparkle).

    Maybe current sparkle will come back to you, and you will realise you would make better friends, and maybe you will be the friends that were once more but now are the best of friends. Maybe you will decide it’s just not time for You to be with current sparkle and that will be another small end, or maybe it will just work, and that sparkle will be new and shiny and healthy again and you will also be new and shiny and you will have something that is New and Shiny instead of old and tarnished.

    I’m not saying you should leave this with the intention of ‘go away, wait and he will come back’. Not at all. I’m just saying that should your sparkle ever decide to return to you, waiting and staying and Bad Work will only make it less. Less likely, less happy, less everything sparkly.

    Letting go hurts, and it’s sad, and it might feel like you are digging out every one of those sparkles that lodged in your heart with a blunt spoon, but setting them free and letting your heart heal are the only way to not let them corrode inside you.

    1. This is so very wise.

      LW, think of letting go as much as you can — not as a thing that has been forced on you — but a thing you are choosing, to keep your heart from rotting in fear and sadness and anger.

  26. It doesn’t have to be The End Forever, LW. Believe him that this is not a thing he wants to do right now, but if both of you want to keep the connection, then keep it.

    An anecdote of hope:

    My roommate met her once and current boyfriend in college, and they clicked big time and started dating. Then his mother slipped off the rails into abusive crazytown and Roommate suffered a series of mental breakdowns related to her own life shit. Neither of them had the emotional energy to spare to support each other, and Boyfriend asked if they could call it off for a while, because he didn’t want to occupy the “boyfriend” slot in her life while being unable to be the boyfriend he wanted to be for her.

    It was awful for her. I met her not long after they let the relationship slide back into friends territory, and she was hurt and angry that he was withdrawing himself from her. But even while she was hurt and angry, she still wanted to be friends with them, and with some very careful boundary maintenance they managed to stay friends (and later on, friends with benefits).

    Over the last ~4 years, she got herself pulled into a better mental place, and he started the short path to getting the hell away from his awful mother. And over that time, they very organically reestablished their relationship, with each of them giving energy as they had it to spare, but without any sense of expectation or obligation to do so, because they very specifically were not dating, were not boyfriend & girlfriend, etc.

    Only, as of earlier this year, they are again. He’s got the mental wherewithal, so does she, and their relationship is incredibly strong for having weathered this and having gotten the slow development over the last four years.

    “I do not want to be in a relationship with you right now” does not always mean “I do not want to be in a relationship with you ever.” But believe your guy that right now is Not The Time. If you both really want this, and you both are looking forward to a future where shit is straightened out and you are pulling a relationship out of it, then there is absolutely hope. It’ll take work, but it can be done.

  27. I keep reading this one. Over. And over. And over. It should be my screensaver. I am going through a similar situation, only with a twist: I’m polyamorous and one of my boyfriends – who has sworn up and down that he’s poly for life – broke up with me because his girlfriend decided she couldn’t handle polyamory. In theory, she can handle the idea of him sleeping with someone as a one off, but not someone who’s his best friend (that would be me). The decision may or may not be a short-term solution for them, he knows this is a knife in the back, he says he loves me and I’m his best friend, but as the captain so clearly points out – those are reasons. They are not the facts.

    Initially I responded by scaling back to just friends hanging out etc. And then about two and half weeks later the reality hit me. (My emotions sometimes take the shortbus.) I don’t like being in limbo. I don’t like having to redefine my relationship of nearly two years to suit the needs of a woman who knew the deal going in. And meanwhile, my needs are not being treated with respect at all — they’re roadkill. So on Friday I picked myself up out of the street and canceled plans with him, saying that the hurt was bubbling up and I just didn’t want to go. Could he do anything? No. Did I want to come over to talk? No, I did not. And not sure that I will for a while. I need some space and distance here, best friend or no. And I need to keep reading Capt. Awkward.

    1. The thing about “she knew the deal going in”, though, is that her needs and wants are allowed to change. She is allowed to decide that she doesn’t want a poly relationship anymore.

      The thing is, though, then Best Friend has to decide if he’s on board with the new deal. But YOU absolutely have the right to decide that you aren’t (as in, you don’t want to be bffs with someone who has broken up with you.) And you totally get to decide you’re not in a place to be best friends because of feels. IT’s so not on you to be chill and cool. Good luck with all of it.

    2. “(My emotions sometimes take the shortbus.)”

      WOAH. No. Not acceptable at ALL.

  28. Captain, I think this is one of the best posts you’ve ever written. The part on “good work” vs. “bad work” is so, so important.

  29. Dear Lovely Awkwardeers,

    I have a related question for you, and sorry if I hijack someone else’s advice. I’ve been seeing someone for about 10 months. Gorgeous, fun, smart, loving, attentive and all the nice things. But for the past 4 or 5 months, he’s been more absent and withdrawn, with me and with his friends. I made him go to the doctor because he was showing other symptoms of depression, and sure enough he has depression and has been prescribed medication. Good. But 3 weeks ago he went back home to another continent, and since then I’ve barely heard a word from him. He ignores my messages, ignores all my facebook activity, but still interacts with other people on facebook. In other words, he’s shut ME out completely. I asked him why he was avoiding me a few days ago, and he said he’d been spending more energies than he has available (he’s been organising a big international conference, which I know has been draining so far, and I’m sure the event itself was exhausting). What bothers me is that he’s decided that a lot of people and various matters should take precedence over me – what little energy he had he has spent on others rather than me. I have not been taking these past few weeks in the best way possible – crying a lot, hating him a lot, wondering if he’s silently broken up with me, wondering if I should silently break up with him. But I have been reading a lot about depression and caring for people with depression, and I’ve realised that I’m actually very emotionally dependent (this is a theme in my relationships), and I’ve made an appointment with a counselor to talk through this realisation. I’ve also been exercising a lot more, seeing more friends… all the things you do after a break up, right? To get yourself back together. The problem (sorry it’s taken me so long to get to it) is that every bout of crying and desperation gives way to a wave of love and hope, and I pick up my phone, just to write that I love him and send positive energy his way… then I put it down without sending it, because what if this is my emotional dependence? What if I’m just trying to cling on? This is what has JUST happened. I really want to send that message… but I’d like a second opinion. Thoughts?

    1. Aw, hell, someone who ignores *specifically you* is making some choices. My recommendation is to send zero messages until he does, and keep awesomeing at your awesome life with friends.

      When and if he comes back, when and if he comes back to you, you can have the “Hey, what’s going on with the whole ignoring me thing? I didn’t like it” talk, but you’ll be on more solid ground.

  30. Sorry I should say that he’s back in two weeks, he’s not left permanently.

  31. Actually, I just calmed down and re-read all the advice given already, and found the answer. Never mind… 🙂

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