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
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.