#570: Stuff you ask your partner vs. stuff you tell your partner

Dear Captain Awkward,

My relationship with my boyfriend is seriously beginning to interfere with my academic pursuits. I met my boyfriend about a semester ago though some mutual friends of ours, and by all accounts, it has been a truly amazing experience. He is handsome, smart, supportive, and despite a slow start to the relationship we have amazing chemistry; he’s even into geek culture. Honestly, this is the happiest I’ve ever been in a relationship, and I can’t wait to see what our future together is like.

For the past few months things have been all sunshine and rainbows, but then I began to notice a problem: during the time we have been together, the quality of my academic efforts has declined. Not drastically, mind you, but as a student who used to get A’s on her college projects, I’m now getting B’s. Theoretically, My boyfriend and I should not have such incredibly different workloads, seeing as we have similar majors (Comp. Sci. and Engineering) but while he’s already been accepted as a transfer to the four-year college of his choice, i’m still vying for a spot at mine, which essentially means that while he’s taking low stakes pre reqs for the classes he’ll be taking next year, I have to strive to take classes that make my transcript look as shiny and appealing to admissions officers as possible.

How do I explain to him, in a way that doesn’t sound like a preamble to a breakup, that I need more time on my own for my studies? Furthermore, how can I implement this lifestyle change so that he still feels loved and cared for?

“Boyfriend, I need to put more focus on my schoolwork, so going forward, x blocks of time are for us to hang out and y blocks of time are for me to study.  I won’t be answering texts or making social plans during those blocks of time until I feel caught up on my projects and my grades are where I want them to be. I wanted to let you know so that we could plan around it. Cool, thanks.”

A good boyfriend goes “sure, ok!” and then enjoys the time you spend together and leaves you alone during your study time. And then you give him your full attention during your scheduled date time and all is well.

A bad boyfriend gets all whiny and sulky and manufactures reasons to intrude on your study time and claims that your studying makes him feel “unloved.” I’ve met many versions of That Guy, the one who always wants to have big relationship talks late at night before you have an exam or when you’re in the middle of a complicated project. The one who stands in your doorway and says “I’m bored!” when you’ve blocked out the afternoon to study. That Guy must be stopped.

I’m guessing/hoping that you have a good boyfriend! So, this isn’t stuff you need to ask permission for. This is stuff where you tell the other person how it’s going to be and then do that thing. This also isn’t something he’s necessarily causing. It’s on you to get your priorities in order, make a schedule and routine, and stick to it. He can help that effort or hinder that effort, but it’s not on him to initiate the discussion. Don’t beat either yourself or him up too much; it’s very common to get caught up in New Relationship Energy at the beginning of a romance and let the laundry pile up and the homework get half-assed. Needing to readjust or renegotiate schedule stuff is normal and healthy, and he’s probably got his own laundry to do/friends to see/homework to do. You’re smart to notice the dynamic and readjust! Hopefully your future with this guy will continue to be great, and hopefully your own scholastic and professional future will be great as well. Love doesn’t have to come at the expense of work, and college is a great time to figure that out.




53 thoughts on “#570: Stuff you ask your partner vs. stuff you tell your partner

  1. I made my boyfriend promise that if he wants to break up and it’s close to finals, wait until after finals. He said he could do that 🙂

  2. > How do I explain to him, in a way that doesn’t sound like a preamble to a breakup

    When saying potentially alarming things, I’ve found it helpful to spend a few minutes before saying them getting a really clear picture in *my* head of the relationship continuing happily on afterward. If it’s clear to me that there is No Cause For Concern, I think it’s more likely to come across when I’m saying the things that there is No Cause For Concern.

    > how can I implement this lifestyle change so that he still feels loved and cared for?

    If your relationship has heretofore been of the “we run into each other on campus spontaneously and spend the afternoon/evening/night/etc. together” sort, maybe append something like “It’s really important to me that we still see each other when I don’t have time blocked out for school stuff”, and propose one or more specific plans to do so.

    Congratulations on knowing and prioritizing what’s important to you, and good luck!

  3. My boyfriend and I are both doing PhD courses, and we’ve made a rule: if we need time to work on our respective theses, we ask the other person. And yes, we’ re not happy at being apart, but instead of meeting up we text each other encouragement (which I like because if I’m in the middle of a sentence, I can wait to read and answer a text). It works because we respect each other’s need to work, and that we have different schedules and deadlines. LW, if your boyfriend is a good one, he’ll give you what you need.

  4. I like to think I’m a good girlfriend; I’m not clingy and I have a lot of respect and support for people needing space to work on things other than me that are important to them. I’m definitely not someone who undermines my partner’s interests outside of me. (ask me about supporting partners in putting their children first in their lives)

    And yet, I don’t think my response to this would be a simple “sure, ok!”. I would want to talk over what our new schedule would be (including my needs as well as partner’s to the extent this is feasible), and I would want to know how long my partner envisioned this less-time-together going on (is this an emergency measure or a first try at a new reality for our relationship), and I would need some reassurance, because this kind of backing off can be simply a need to spend more time studying but is more likely to be a prelude to breaking up. That reassurance could initially be verbal and then would happen through my partner living up to his part of the agreement.

    I’m not talking about needing constant affirmation or anything, but it’s not unreasonable to be concerned about a sudden and unilateral relationship change, at least during a transition period. It’s not unreasonable to be uncertain at first. Giving partner space to succeed is part of being a good boyfriend or girlfriend, but you don’t have to adjust to sudden new relationship rules instantly or perfectly. Good enough is good enough.

    (My bias in this is a history of dating distancers who don’t respect or appreciate that I want a real connection with my partner, not a connection only when it’s convenient for them. Other people may have a bias coming from dating people who undermine them by making their own emotional state the only thing that counts in the relationship, as the Captain describes)

    1. All this sounds completely fair!

      But at the end of the day, even if the boyfriend didn’t like the new schedule, or felt sad, or whatever, the Letter Writer would need to study. And I think there are certain things, like “I am at university and I need to focus on university more” that aren’t really all that negotiable. The “how” we schedule time, the “how often” we schedule time, the how do we stay connected to each other is all negotiable stuff, as you outline beautifully here. The “whether” to schedule time differently is really, really not and I don’t want the LW to go into this conversation with even a shred of asking permission to take care of their own needs.

      1. How frustrating that I didn’t write clearly enough. Yes, of course a student has to study, like someone working has to work and a person who does something else important to them has to make time for that. Someone who insists that their emotional needs are such that you don’t get to do those things is acting like a narcissist or an emotional leech. I thought I said that, but apparently I didn’t.

  5. You may also find (and could add to the great script CA provides) that intentionally scheduling time together makes for BETTER time together. Because among other things if you’ve already got a good chunk of work done before you hang out, you won’t have a niggling sense that you should be studying, which can really start to overshadow everything else. Says the person whose social life took a long-term dive during grad school.

    1. As well as making for better study time! Setting a time to put down the books, and having another person who can hold you accountable for it, can be really good for increasing focus and cutting down on procrastination.

    2. This definitely was the case for me. My boyfriend and I had set dates every week while I was in law school and it meant that (a) I had enough time to do all my work and knew when that time was and (b) I knew when I was seeing him and didn’t have to feel like I was neglecting school to do it, so we could have fun without anxiety. Scheduling was the way to go.

    3. +a gazillion. One of the things I really had to learn during the course of my PhD was how to set aside time where I WOULD NOT do uni work at all, no way, no matter how little I’d gotten done before then. I’m still not always that good at it (and it definitely always works better if another person is involved somehow!), but saying things like “Sundays are no maths days” is really the only way to prevent myself from having a nagging guilty voice of guilt going “…you should be working on your thesis right now…” 24/7.

  6. Definitely agree with the Captain’s “WHETHER your change your schedule to make time for your school needs is not up for negotiation, but HOW that change happens and what the new arrangement looks like can be worked out between the two of you.”

    Some thoughts on the “how” part of that:

    I’ve been on the other side of this, where I have all the time, and he doesn’t, and I’m pretty sensitive to “is this really a slow fade” worry. For me, what helps a lot is specificity and dependability.

    So if I get a lot of “I can’t see you tonight, I’m too busy, we’ll do something some other time,” I’m going to be pretty worried, but if I get “I can’t see you tonight, can we do next Thursday?” Or even, “I can’t see you this week, can we talk next Monday and make plans?” And then follow through.

    Also, depending on your study needs, I have enjoyed having study evenings, that are actually *studying* and not “studying.” Even if his focus isn’t on me–I can do my own thing while he does his thing–it feels good that he wants to have proximity even if we can’t focus on each other. If physical proximity isn’t an option for school work, maybe there are other ways to keep in contact in little ways so you feel connected even when spending less time together? Like a text message in the mornings, or something?

    1. “For me, what helps a lot is specificity and dependability.” & “it feels good that he wants to have proximity even if we can’t focus on each other.”

      IMO, these are also really good general tips for maintaining friendships when you are strapped for time too.

    2. this is great “how” advice, and I’d just add that LW, you will be just fine saying these things without it sounding like a breakup! Your letter says you’re super happy and excited about this relationship, so I imagine your “I need study time” conversation and your “can’t wait to see you Thursday” texts are going to convey that excitement no matter how careful you are in choosing your words.

      And this is entirely speculation, but if you’re getting to the point of realizing you need more alone time to study, he might be getting to a similar point, realizing he hasn’t hung out with a non-mutual friend or had a weekend video game marathon in a long time. Whether or not that’s the case, a good partner won’t just be moping around missing you while you’re not together, but he may well be trying to work out “how to spend lots of time with awesome new partner without neglecting other life stuff” and will be glad you brought up the subject.

    3. “it feels good that he wants to have proximity even if we can’t focus on each other”

      This is one of the most important things. When the boyfriend and I need time to work on the thesis, we both know we’d prefer to be with each other having fun together. Knowing your partner wants to be with you is the key to dealing with not being able to do it

  7. You could view this as a great opportunity to see what kind of boyfriend you’ve really got. If he is all like, “That is totally cool. You need to focus on maximizing your educational opportunities, just like I have.”, then you know you’ve got a good one! If he is all whiny, sulky, “Aren’t I more important to you than homework?”, then you know you’ve got a dud.

  8. I like the Captain’s emphasis that you shouldn’t beat either yourself or your boyfriend up too much. My first impulse is that you should be really, really clear in the way that you frame this that it has *nothing to do with your boyfriend.* Whether bf was in the picture or not, you would need to study more right at this moment. I think if you approach this as, “This is something I need to do reach the standard of grades I need,” and stay away from saying anything to the effect of, “This is a problem that YOU, BF, are causing,” (which is neither true nor helpful) it will more likely to give the positive impression you seek.

  9. Oh, and this does remind me of a funny story, apropos to the “don’t beat each other up over this” idea.

    PhysioWife and I had been dating for probably four months, and had only had a few sleepovers. One night I stayed over at her place, and when we woke up together in her little tiny twin bed, she looked over at me and said, “What are you doing here!?!?” So I quickly got dressed and scrammed!

    This was about twenty years ago, and we still laugh regularly about this story today.

  10. Dear LW:

    I’m hearing a hint of you thinking maybe you should break up.

    I have no opinion on that in general, but in a few specific cases I do have an opinion:

    – If your fellow thinks that you should be available on demand as his schedule permits, surface that, and discuss.
    – If your fellow typically doesn’t consult with you about plans or activities, surface and discuss.
    – If the future you imagine for yourselves has a lot of you trying to guess what he’ll tolerate, think, think a lot.
    – If you want common words for a common problem – yay! the Captain gave you those.
    – If you’re afraid romance and school never mix, don’t be. They do. (But they mix best if you’re considerate of each other)

    In short, what I thought I read was anxiety around whether your boyfriend can accept you setting any boundaries and a sneaking worry that romance and school don’t mix.

    If it’s the first, you and your fellow may have some other issues. If it’s the second, perhaps you could explore – even with a therapist – why you feel this way.

    Good luck with school and boyfriend

    1. I didn’t get the sense from the letter that there was anything about Boyfriend specifically to suggest that he’d react negatively to the change. Setting boundaries where previously they had been tacit is hard! Even with the most wonderful and understanding person in the world!

      And there is no way LW can address this with Boyfriend that doesn’t result in Boyfriend hearing “I need to see less of you” because that is, in fact, what LW intends to say, so I can see why they aren’t sure how he’ll take it (also, the main fear doesn’t seem to be that Boyfriend will get pissed, but rather that he’ll think it’s a breakup when it is not a breakup, and that LW will lose a relationship that makes them happy for no good reason).

      I mean, I agree with the first two and last two points there, but I think the third goes somewhat beyond the question asked.

      1. I may have been unclear: my intention was to list some situations where I believe thought, discussion, and even break-ups are warranted, I don’t know the details of what the LW imagines for her future. If it involves interpreting hints, and walking on egg-shells, not accomplishing her accomplishments, then it’s scary to me,

  11. Bad boyfriends or girlfriends are “crazymakers”??

    “Crazymakers are those personalities that create storm centers. They are often charismatic, frequently charming, highly inventive, and powerfully persuasive. And, for the creative person in their vicinity, they are enormously destructive. You know the type: charismatic but out of control, long on problems and short on solutions. Crazymakers are the kind of people who can take over your whole life. …. Crazymakers like drama. If they can swing it, they are the star. Everyone around them functions as supporting cast, picking up their cues, their entrances and exits, from the crazymaker’s (crazy) whims. Some of the most profoundly

    Cameron, Julia (2002-03-04). The Artist’s Way (Kindle Locations 1147-1155). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

    My sister is an artist, she gave me THE ARTIST’S WAY and when I came across crazymakers it was a WOW moment.

    1. Wow. This seems like a really unhelpful comment, as nothing in the letter suggests the LW or the boyfriend are creating drama in any way.

      1. I wondered if it was actually a bot comment, since it seems so unconnected to the post?

  12. I used to date That Dude who whined when I wasn’t available from 5-10pm every night and all day on weekends. I started doing my homework between 11PM and 3AM and then he cried because I slept late and wasn’t around in the mornings. Every time I had a deadline or a big paper, he *knew* I wanted to be left alone, so he got whinier and clingier and would initiate long talks and have Lots Of Feelings. At one point I was sitting in the study lounge singing a bedtime song* over the phone so he would go to bed and I could write my damn paper.
    *to a 20 year old adult and not a toddler.
    LW, I am almost positive your boyfriend is not That Dude on this scale, however, if you realize you’re structuring your life very carefully around him because otherwise he will have Lots Of Feelings and/or you catch yourself wishing he’d leave you alone for a little while so you could work but knowing you can’t say anything about it or he’d cling on harder, be aware that he is entering lizard territory and following that way only leads to madness.

    1. Woooow! That is a special breed of needy. I’m so sorry that you went through that. I agree that LW may be fearing this conversation’s potential to reveal New Boyfriend as Clingy McPainintheass. But really, if that’s who he is, it’s best to find out now rather than later. If he’s going to have meltdown over “I need to study during X, but I really want to see you so let’s set aside Y for us.” there’s really no way to make him secure, ever. Even if you spend every waking moment of your life devoted to him (scary), he’s eventually going to find something to be jealous of be it real or imagined.

      So let’s all hope that LW is just being nervous about the delicate new relationship and that New Boyfriend is a reasonable person. Let’s hope that he understands that school is important and also people just need some of their own space regardless of the reason.

    2. I dealt with this same breed of dude during my last three semesters’ worth of finals in undergrad. Whining before finals week because I had to study, whining during finals week because I was busy, and whining immediately afterwards because I was exhausted. (Oh, and my final finals week was followed by Senior Week, which was basically a bunch of partying and enjoying time with our friends before we all moved on, and he begrudged THAT, too, throwing some weird loop of “you’re sad that Good Friend is leaving but you’re not happy that I’ll still be here?” at me.)
      The Captain’s advice is highly solid. If your boyfriend starts pulling any of the crap Sleepy refers to, or I refer to, or claims that his studies take full precedence over yours, seriously reconsider things, LW.

      1. Just wait til you meet the guy who’s pissed off because you have to go to work like a normal adult. “But I never get to see you!” Well, you wouldn’t see me if my house were foreclosed on either, so deal with it.

        He is also the guy who wants to have Deep Emotional Conversations until 2 AM the night before you have to get up at 7 to get to an important meeting which you’re presenting at, and who sulks when you insist on going to bed. He’s not a fun guy.

    3. it’s not that I didn’t know there was more than one of Those Guys, but dammit, there’s more than one of Those Guys?!

      when we lived together I was supposed to get up every 15 minutes and go over and cuddle him, no matter what else I was doing. And it had to be “spontaneous”.

        1. Yep. Look, everyone’s needy at some point. I was the needy girlfriend at certain points in that relationship. But I knew I was being ridiculous and insecure; my ex thought he was entitled to everything he asked for. But yeah. That neediness is assumed to be a female trait just…doesn’t mesh with the reality I’ve lived.

          1. Exactly – the trope is that if the woman (in a conventional hetero relationship) wants more attention, she’s needy. If the man wants more attention, she’s being frigid and should pay more attention to his needs. So you see, needyness is a female trait.

            Blegh. Excuse me while I go hang out with my lovely friends who don’t buy into that.

          2. Yeah I mean the reality is that neediness isn’t gendered, but in the cultural mythology it’s a female trait.
            just the fact that ‘overly attached girlfriend’ became a meme when it was gender flipped based on a Justin Beiber song about an overly attached (slightly stalkery) boyfriend is an astonishing example of this.

      1. Holy crap. I am very well aware that there’s way more than one of Those Guys, but this is the first time I’ve seen someone else detail the “spontaneous” thing. I got that too, about everything from cuddling to going out to dinner to sex, that I had to provide him with regular instances of all these things but I had to make him believe it just came out of the blue because planning anything would be a buzzkill. Time and distance from him allowed me to realize that this (impossible) directive actually meant “I want to be able to maintain plausible deniability that I am coercing you into meeting my demands.” UGH. I’m so sorry that you had to deal with this. I’m sorry that ANYONE has to deal with this.

        1. Yup. Darth Ex was one of these guys, too.

          I had to call him when I got home from work (and such hell to pay if it wasn’t timely!) and I had to BE AROUND even if he wasn’t interacting with me and regularly but spontaneously (so he’d KNOW it was SINCERE!) supply him with affection and sex and conversation and whatever the hell else. EW.

          1. Ughughugh the demand to just be around while a dude ignores you is the worst and a large part of why I have developed a fairly strong aversive reaction to the idea of Being Someone’s Girlfriend. I’ve spent far too much time at dude’s houses, being hung onto like a teddy bear while the dude plays video games or talks to his friends or whatever, but God forbid I want to go home and be actually alone!

  13. For a script dealing with the “how to change schedules”: I like the word “sustainable.” “[Person], what we’ve been doing has been awesome, but it’s affecting the rest of my life. I need us to find a schedule that we can sustain over time. A schedule that works in the long term, not just the short term.”

    To me the word helps capture “These changes are not a breakup — they are to PREVENT a breakup, which is where we’d be if we kept to a schedule I can’t sustain.”

    1. YES this.

      Four months is a really new relationship! This guy might not be for the long haul… or he might. You are getting ready to move to four-year schools, and after that, advanced programs and/or jobs, in industries that are often characterized by periods of extremely demanding schedules. The next five years of your life are one long series of big, stressful, demanding changes. A good partner can be absolutely the best, most precious thing that could happen to you during that time. A good partner to a person in an educational/professional pressure cooker: gets the hell out of your hair when you need solitude to work. Brings you takeout when you’re too swamped to go find food. Knows how (and when, and when not) to work in companionable silence in the same space. Sends you encouraging words in ways that allow you to control how you distribute your attention (see, above: text messages! Also, cute greeting cards!). Respects that rest is as important as work. Knows when – and when not – to offer a rejuvenating distraction. This is not a comprehensive list. And NONE OF THIS happens by magic; over time, you learn each other’s workflow habits and temperaments and begin to be able to anticipate these things, but that’s built in a foundation of good communication. You’ve GOT to establish that mutual respect early.

      Right now, his life has a little more flex than yours does, but there will be times when that reverses. Remind him of that, and of your willingness to also give what you’re asking for. This might be a good time to have a low-stakes, general, starter conversation about The Future. There’s nothing that says “this is not a breakup conversation” like “let’s talk about our needs and how we can be good for each other and how this is going to work in a sustainable way going forward from here.”

      And as several people have said, pay close attention to how he reacts to all this – both in what he says and what he does. Red flags – and green ones! – appear under stress. This is an opportunity to learn a lot about how compatible the two of you really are.

  14. I definitely agree with everything the Captain said. I would add that clear communication on the schedule is key, especially if you need to change something (like you need to cancel a date because it’s taking longer than you thought to write a paper.)

    My bf has a schedule that is significantly less flexible than mine–his work hours are rigid, he has a couple of semi-regular after work appointments, and he has random obligations generated by his elderly father and teenaged daughter. Sometimes our plans need to change, and while it can be disappointing, our dinner plans are never going to be as pressing as “my 78-year old father needs to go to the hospital.” It’s just not. So, I have let him know that I don’t have a problem being flexible, but I need to know what is going on if our plans are changing. Call. If you can’t call, text–even if the text is open ended like “Dad @ hospital. Will call when I can.”

  15. I think it’s also really important to communicate that you want to spend time with him. I was on the other side of this dilemma for a while, and my bf didn’t really initiate much contact, and I wanted to respect the time he needed for his academics, and we just ended up drifting apart. Maybe for the first while, make sure to initiate texting and meeting up a little more? It’ll be more convenient for your schedule, and it’ll give him a better idea of the kind of time commitment you can make. And it can also be helpful to come up with alternatives to things you say no to. For example, instead of spending an entire evening together during midterm season, you could meet for lunch instead? That way you’re respecting your own time, but still staying in touch.

  16. LW it is 100% cool to make sure you prioritise your studies. And yes, any conversation where you say “I need to see less of you” will feel rejecting! But you can manage this with communication. Obviously tell him you’ve let your studies slip and need to double down and get to work to improve your grades, and that means you can’t see him on X evenings and Y times. Tell him also you really care about him! And then show it by being careful to schedule time to be together.

    As others have said it helps when you cancel something to also give a clear and specific commitment to when you can next talk. If specific periods of intense study (say just before major projects are due) come up, let him know what you’re working on so it’s not just a vague “I’m studying”. And I also encourage frequent short communication – you might not be able to spend the evening together, but you probably have time for a five minute phone call or some texts during breaks. Just that small bit of communication will help you guys still feel connected.

    You can also try studying together – as long as it really is studying and you can have willpower and not distract each other. That way you get to be close, and cuddle during breaks. If you were living together you’d need to be able to do this in any case, so it might be good practice. 🙂

    This is something you can expect him to be able to deal with, that’s reasonable to ask for. If he doesn’t deal with it then look closely at his behaviour. The first major red flag I got from a dodgy ex was that instead of looking after me during exams like I’d done for him previously he flopped around not helping pick up chores and then had a total melt down for no reason the night before my most important exam. The reason of course was that I wasn’t supplying my usual level of attention and was instead demanding more of him, and he couldn’t deal with it. I wish I’d not forgiven him for it and seen it for what it was.

    Anyway, your dude might be a bit sad or freaked out at first, because he might not be sure what’s going on and feel rejected. That’s fine. But if he’s a good boyfriend he’ll get over that and settle into the new routine and respect your new boundaries.

    Good luck with everything!

  17. I wanted to second all the comments suggesting that you make clear that you want to spend time with the boyfriend and you need to do the schoolwork. To me it seems like there is an obvious Big Happy Compliment in this situation: you are so much fun I have been shirking my schoolwork. Make sure he hears that part, as well as knowing there’s a future where hopefully things will be more relaxed.

    1. This made me giggle…
      Now husband was so much fun I ditched uni altogether on my second go-round (an attempt to finish a second degree I started while at uni the first time). Even though he was working full-time, I found working part-time and studying full-time to be taking too much time away from “us” (and I also had no money, which didn’t help).

  18. I’m a person who actually needs space and alone time…except when I’m in the early stages of a relationship. I tend to be clingy clingy clingy for the first two months, then suddenly realize that I’m going crazy from never getting any me time (and that the laundry is piling up and I haven’t touched that hobby I supposedly care about and etc. etc. etc.). So I’ve actually navigated this transition many times.

    Assuming you’re dating someone who’s moderately emotionally healthy, this is a super easy problem. You just say, “Hanging out with you is awesome, but I need a ‘me night’ once in a while to get things done. How about if I get Wednesday and Thursday to myself? We can keep Friday and Saturday for date nights.”

    I have literally never dated anyone who had a problem with this. They sometimes have questions or want to negotiate the specific days, but nobody has ever said, “But why don’t you want to spend EVERY SINGLE DAY with meeeee?” because I think people understand that that isn’t very sustainable. In fact, the questions usually have more to do with my boundaries, like, “Is it OK if we text on a night off, or do you need complete silence to work?”

    I do think that the key lies in proposing a specific plan, both for times you do hang out and times you won’t. Setting aside time TO hang out tells them that you do, in fact, want to be around them; setting aside time to NOT hang out makes sure it actually happens. I once dated a guy who would say, “I’m not getting enough homework done,” but when I asked how he wanted to tackle that he never came up with anything specific, and he didn’t change our hangout schedule on the fly all that much either. I’m still a little concerned that he didn’t end up getting enough work done while we were together, because I don’t remember our habits altering all that much.

    In general, most people are fine with *specific* instructions regarding relationship boundaries, but uncomfortable with vague ones. “I need space” is scary; “I need two nights a week to myself or I will get really edgy and irritable even though I really like you” is not.

  19. What might help is approaching it like you’d approach telling a friend, or friend group. I’ve had periods when I had to reeeeally withdraw socially (sometimes for health reasons but usually because of school-related busy-ness), and I just send out a few blanket-statements like “yo, I’ll be effectively away for a bit due to X obligation, love you all!” There’s a big fuss in popular culture about Romantic Partner Above All Other Relationships, so… it might be easier if you took off the pressure of “boyfriend” and thought of him as “good friend who I happen to date”.

    There was a comment on here once (I can’t remember the post, sorry!) about setting a small boundary as a sort of “test” for how much a new person will respect it, and this definitely works. There’s also the possibility that there just isn’t time for a relationship right now– hopefully that’s not the case, but whatever the outcome, it’s good information.

  20. A tangential suggestion about work and time management:

    As someone who’s had to do a LOT of self-disciplining around schoolwork, I’d suggest to the LW that now is a good time to think about other life structures that help or hinder getting work done. I really like the bounded worktimes suggested by commenters above—they’ve done wonders for me. Other things that might be worth thinking about: are you trying to get work done in your boyfriend’s space? If so, do you think a library would be better? (Or vice versa: is it easier to work if he’s nearby?) Do you have a friend who’s in your classes who can work with you, even if it’s non-collaborative work? Are you sleeping at the times that are normal / ideal for you?

    I second the Captain’s comment about New Relationship Energy — the beginning of a relationship can be wonderful and full of things that derail your ordinary life patterns. As you transition into something more stable and long-lasting, you also have the chance to think about the New Normal and to choose intentionally the life patterns that make you happiest. Good luck!

  21. There’s a great adulting post about having difficult conversation with people you care about. Her advice is “Don’t say ‘but’ when you can say ‘and’”. So rather than “I really care about you but I need to spend more time on studies” which does sound a bit like a break-up, go for “I really care about you and I need to spend more time on my studies, how can we make that work?”

  22. Hello LW,

    My two cents here, I hope they might help. My boyfriend and I have had to go through several transition periods where our schedules and energy levels drastically changed. Several examples of the reasons why were: switching from bachelors to masters, being unemployed (having lots of time all of a sudden can be a shocker too), switching to a full time job and, the most recent one, me moving away to another city to do a post-grad. Due to this, we had many different adjustment periods, The first couple of months were often a bit rocky because we would miss each other. I work on my studies nearly 50 hours a week, he works in a consultancy job and is often unavailable too.

    So how did we solve the changing schedules: first of we started sharing a calendar on gmail. It seems very basic, but it really helped us knowing what the other person is up to. Furthermore, we have a yearplanner where we schedule our dates and alone time. It can be that we go without seeing each other for two weeks or more, but it’s nice to always have some nice events to look forward to. This helped in creating a sort of openness with each other, but also understanding of “why” somebody is unavailable.

    Second, we give each other a lot of confirmation throughout the week. Usually in the form of an e-mail, text or phonecall. “Hey I’m working on this thing, thinking about you, good luck today, lots of love.” Something like that.

    It also happens quite often unexpected work shows up in the weekends we can spend together. This used to be the case only with my boyfriend, but now happens more frequently with me. Again our solution is to communicate that as soon as we know. “Hey boyfriend, I am sorry but I need to work a couple of hours this weekend, is it okay if we spend Saturday morning on it?”
    “Maybe Sunday afternoon is more convenient, then I can talk to this person/ join you/ make you lunch/ I have some work to do anyway/ go to my mother”
    The question is mostly a planning question rather than an allowing question, but it does give the other person some space to negotiate.

    So this is how we mostly solve our issues. In the beginning a change can hurt and make you sad, but eventually a new rhythm can be shaped. We just found that keeping each other in the loop really helped us. Oh and either of us asking: “Hey, I miss you. can we please schedule some time together?” is perfectly okay too.

  23. All great comments.

    Remember, when we are left to our own devices to do projects there is nobody there to lord it over us. We are working on the ‘honour system’ that holds in trust that we will complete the work.
    So just start thinking of it in that manner: some transit systems have no turnstiles and assume that you have held up the honour of buying your ticket. If you get asked later down the line to produce your ticket you will get caught. In this situation the train conductor is your university adjudicator and they will check your ‘ticket’ by marking your paper.
    Make the space in your love life to uphold your honour! Any decent lover would want you to honour your commitments. Right?

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