Letter Writers, no one is topping “Dear Sugar” on this topic. Read that and you’re probably good. But just in case, your letters and some answers are below.
Dear Captain Awkward:
I’m 29 and female, and have been in a relationship with the same guy since college. We now live together. He wants to marry me. I have no objections to him as a person, like spending time with him, and have many interests in common. 90% of the people I talk to socially I have met through him.
I’ve found, as I’ve lived with him, that I really do not enjoy living with him. A large part of this is due to the house he owns, which is tiny and cluttered and dark and damp, and whose appliances (oven, shower, washer) are constantly breaking. He doesn’t have the money to move; I have even less money than he does.
I also have very little interest in sex (this may be due to depression, which is an issue I’m getting therapy for), and although he has been good about this, I’m beginning to be a bit creeped out by the fact that he keeps pointing out to me, unsolicited, how he doesn’t want to push me into having sex before I’m ready. Uh…Great? (A similar thing that’s also starting to scare me is that although I’ve told him I don’t want or particularly like children when it’s come up, he keeps telling me I would make an AWESOME parent. A lot. Unsolicited.)
The last time I tried to bring up the above problems and explain to him that I didn’t want to be married to him, didn’t want to live with him, and had no interest in either sex or children, he begged me to “work this out”. I agreed, and am now super angry with myself for not sticking with my guns.
…What do I do? I do genuinely enjoy doing Friend Things with him, I just don’t want to be his wife or his live-in…whatever. I also don’t want to be talked into sticking around any longer.
Possible Awful Bitch
Dear Possibly Awful:
If you hate living with someone and you aren’t in love with them anymore it’s time to break up. “Having no objections to them as a person” is not enough to bet the rest of your life on. So here’s what you do:
First, figure out where else you want to live/could live and you put together the net of resources and relationships that it would take for you to live there. Whether that’s a security deposit and rent & moving expenses for a new place of your own or crashing with family or friends temporarily I will leave up to you. Money is tight, inertia is a powerful thing, and I’m not going to tell you that moving is easy or that it won’t take time and effort, but storage units exist, couches exist, house-sitting jobs exist, hostels exist, people looking for roommates exist. You don’t have to find the perfect “forever home” right now – think in terms of something that will suffice for 1-3 months and get you out of where you are now. Work on this plan with your therapist and your friends.
When you have a plan in place, you inform your partner that you have broken up with him. This is a unilateral decision that you have already made, not a negotiation. He doesn’t have to accept it for it to be true. One script is: “Partner, I am so sorry, my feelings have changed and I am not in love with you anymore. Our romantic relationship is over.” You may end up repeating it over and over again. You may end up putting the words in a letter so that you can get some distance while he processes everything. The kindest thing you can do is to take the “fault” for the breakup entirely on yourself and make it about your subjective feelings. Now is not the time to give exhaustive reasons, illuminate his flaws, or try to use logic to convince him that breaking up is the right thing for both of you. There is no reason you could give that he would want to hear. The reasons are “I am not happy with you,” “I know that I do not want to marry you,” and “This is the right decision for me.” If you can, even if you are still technically living there and haven’t packed your things yet, arrange to stay with a friend at least for a few days after you deliver the news.
Maybe you can be friends eventually. That would be nice! But don’t worry about that right now, worry about making it as clean a break as you possibly can and reestablishing your life where you can think and breathe. Breaking up is messy and moving sucks, but a few months from now you are going to feel so relieved and free. Wanting to leave an unhappy relationship doesn’t make you a bitch of any stripe, it makes you an ethical human being who knows her own heart and mind.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I married my best friend 13 years go, but if he and I met today, he’d be the person I’d watch The Walking Dead with, but not necessarily Twin Peaks with—and he wouldn’t really be my best friend. He is a great hanging out friend, but he doesn’t fulfill the deep soul connection I need to be in love. My husband and I have a four year old together. He is a great father/genuinely a good person. But I am fairly certain I’m having an emotional affair with one of my best friends/collaborators.
I started therapy in January with the intention of trying to process my feelings for my friend and to try to figure out a way to channel that energy back to my husband. A couple times a year for the last four years, I have tried talking to my husband about the emotional/physical neglect. I have tried stating what my needs are so he doesn’t have to read my mind. I have tried leading by example with small romantic gestures: more physical flirting/affection; playing 2 player board games once a week, in addition to hosting board game parties, and video gaming (gaming is super important to him). I’ve tried grand romantic gestures: elaborate love letters; artwork made specifically for him; a surprise anniversary party with an actual rock star. Instead of Xmas gifts, I ask for a love letter. But nothing ever lasts, and nothing is ever reciprocated, and his Xmas love letters literally hurt my feelings so much that I told him last year I just wanted gifts (and yes, he knows the conventions of love letters–15 years ago they were lovely). I’m always the one initiating sex, but I only have a 10% success rate, and unless I initiate we don’t have sex–and we can’t seem to “schedule” sex, either (since Dan Savage suggests this). My husband says when he brings home dinner that’s his way of demonstrating love. I told him that that’s not enough for me, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask for either physical or emotional intimacy that isn’t only pizza or Chipotle based.
I have asked my husband to go to couples therapy with me, but he doesn’t want to go. He keeps saying when we move after he graduates grad school, things will get better. This is magical thinking and so I called him on it. He doesn’t agree because, when we were first married, we had a similar situation where he was neglecting me (emotionally/physically). But as soon as we moved, it was literally like magic: we started having sex, we repaired our deep soul connection.
The problem is: we haven’t had that soulful connection in years, and, now, I don’t feel in love with him anymore.
My friend/creative partner and I have recently mutually acknowledged that we don’t know what we are to each other and we’re okay leaving it undefined and just continue to being giving to each other (we are collaborators on a number of projects, but we also make stuff for each other, too: I write him stories, he sings me songs—yes, my husband knows). We’re more than friends, but we also don’t want to be in a romantic relationship with each other because we want to be able to stay in each other’s lives.
So my question is this: since it’s unrealistic to get all of your needs met by one person, is it okay to get your deep, soul-level connections met by your friends and not by your life partner? What constitutes an emotional affair? Is it still an emotional affair if my husband is fine with all the stuff my creative partner and I make together and for each other? It feels like it’s an emotional affair because if my husband ever made me choose between staying with him and cutting my friend out of my life, I wouldn’t choose my husband. But, my husband is such a good person that he’d never even ask that question. It also doesn’t feel like an emotional affair because I wouldn’t be leaving my husband for my friend, if I leave I’d be due to a four year erosion of intimacy (with no desire to jump into a relationship just because I’m single).
But, perhaps most importantly: how do you leave what is functionally a “good” relationship? My mom has been divorced twice, but my father was physically abusive, and my step-father was a compulsive liar/pedophile. Those seem like reasons to leave. My husband is not abusive at all, and he’s a good father. But I’m not in love with him anymore. I’ve told him several times over the last two years that I felt like I was falling out of love with him, but not even that has been enough for him to try to make more of an effort. He just keeps saying: wait until we move.
I’m sorry this is more than 450 words—but I’m traveling for work soon and I’m going to be gone for over a month and I won’t be able to continue therapy while I’m gone, and these aren’t questions I’ve been able to find in the archives.
Literary love triangles are a shibboleth to me for characters who deeply are in a muddle. Love interests become shorthand for the question “what kind of life do I want and what path do I want to be on?” Team Peeta or Team Gale? Team Joanna, tbh. Team Edward or Team Jacob? Team KILL IT WITH FIRE. Team Cecil Vyse or Team George Emerson? Team go to Greece with the Miss Alans and then rent a flat in London and sleep with George when it suits you. Team Luthe or Team Tor? For once an author didn’t make her heroine choose and I could cry with relief. The question for me isn’t “what even is an emotional affair and are you having one” or “how do we compare and contrast these dudes in planning your future,” the question is “You’re done with your marriage, so what do you want and who will you be when you stop pouring all of your energy into fixing it? What will you make and who will you become when your emotional and mental bandwidth isn’t overwhelmed with this dilemma?”
Some marriages survive four-year unhappy slogs where everything feels like work, but that doesn’t mean that yours has to. Four years is a long time to be unhappy and a long time to live without much hope that things will get better. It’s a long time to keep trying to “correct” your attention away from another person. Applying the Sheelzebub Principle, if things stayed exactly like they are now, how long would you stay? Another year? Another 5? Another 10?
Make your decision, and then make a plan. I recommended that Letter Writer #690 look into getting a new place before climbing into the escape pod and I wanted to unpack that a bit. Having new housing all lined up is not an *absolutely necessary* component of breaking up with someone you live with, as it’s possible for many people to negotiate other living arrangements/help each other find a new place if everyone can act like an adult for a minute/ask the other person to leave YOUR space, etc. I bring it up because for me, personally, knowing that when I leave someone I can LEAVE has brought a great deal of reassurance in emotionally difficult times, and for many people, sadly, it’s a straight up safety issue and it is not possible to stay. For people considering divorce, and parents sharing custody of a child, attorneys are good resources (at least in the U.S.) because sometimes leaving the shared living space changes the legal landscape for you and you should make the most informed choice you possibly can. Whatever your circumstances, I don’t think it’s a bad thought experiment to answer the questions “where do I WANT to go” and “where would I go if I HAD to go.” If what you come up with is “If we broke up we’d cry a lot and then one of us would sleep on the couch and it will basically be fine,” then, great. Do your homework, and make sure you will be taken care of before you take off the other shoe and drop it.
“Husband, I think I am done with the romantic or sexual part of being married to you. I love you dearly, I think you are a great father and friend, and I want very much for us to find a way for us to stay in each other’s lives and be good parents. But I am very unhappy, I don’t see it getting better, and I think my best chance at being happy is to look into a legal separation. I’m going to go stay with (a friend/family) for (a week/a few days) and give you some space to think about it, and when I get back we can talk logistics.”
If you’re done, be done. If you’re not quite sure, and you and he agree, you could start with a trial separation and agree to revisit everything in a certain amount of time. “If grad school is the obstacle, then let’s ride out grad school separately and then see where we are then. Mostly what I want is to give myself permission to stop working at this so hard.” When you are talking about ending a marriage, you might as well put everything on the table and ask for what you really want.
The answer as to why you are leaving, the one you can use with yourself and your friends, is “I was so unhappy, and everything I tried to do to make it better didn’t work, so I decided to stop trying.” As Dear Sugar puts it:
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here To Serve button has been eternally pinned. We’re expected to nurture and give by the very virtue of our femaleness, to consider other people’s feelings and needs before our own. I’m not opposed to those traits. The people I most admire are in fact nurturing and generous and considerate. Certainly, an ethical and evolved life entails a whole lot of doing things one doesn’t particularly want to do and not doing things one very much does, regardless of gender.
But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn’t mean you pack your bags the moment there’s strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that.
Maybe giving yourselves permission to stop trying for a while will help you and your husband reconcile down the road. Maybe he too will thrive when he is free of this question, of this dread. Maybe you both need to rip off the inertia that’s holding you together and to reaffirm being together as a positive choice. Maybe there is a future where you get to have the creative muse/friend who speaks your same love language and the husband-shaped friend who parents your child with you, and maybe neither of them are your best match and both of them are somehow your family. Maybe there is someone else entirely out there for you, someone who will bring that magic and attention and connection and generosity that you need. Maybe there’s just you, in a room of your own, cranking out poems and love letters and love songs for the world and your “Twin Peaks friend” is your kid 10 years from now. I don’t know what will happen, but I can tell that you are exhausted and sad and lonely now, and someone doesn’t have to be an objectively awful jerk for that to be true or for you to honor it.
P.S. The Guardian is on it with this piece on “Platonic Parenting.”