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I’m a late-twenties woman needing relationship advice. Three years in, my boyfriend and I need to commit or break up (I want a monogamous marriage someday), and I don’t have a clear sense of what I want.
I feel like all relationship advice falls into two camps. In the first, I’ve heard smart friends and family say that successful relationships are rooted in mutual respect, honesty, communication, and shared values. This camp emphasizes partnering with someone who is supportive, loyal, and respectful. The other camp argues that your partner needs to be someone who lights you up, who inspires you, who you can’t imagine being without.
I understand that, ideally, a relationship succeeds in both areas – being crazy about someone and also sharing a mutually supportive partnership – but I have yet to find that magic combination. In my early 20s, I was in a relationship where I was madly in love with someone who was not a good partner to me. Ending this relationship was devastating, but it was also the only choice. I’ve talked friends through similar break ups, and I understand that “being in love” is simply not enough by itself.
My question is about the opposite situation. Coming off that rollercoaster break up, I met my current boyfriend, and could immediately tell he was more emotionally stable and respectful than my ex. We started dating even though I didn’t feel much “spark.” My boyfriend is handsome, smart, generous, emotionally available, and works an excellent job. He is also a great, supportive partner. By most standards I’ve hit the jackpot, yet I feel unsure. I hear my friends talk about their partners with giddy joy; I don’t think I feel that way about my boyfriend. Our relationship has a range of problems, from mismatched libidos to different senses of humor, ideas about healthy living, and consumption. In my best past relationship, an ex-boyfriend inspired me daily to be a kinder, braver person, and I don’t feel that way now. I don’t feel a magical sense of being “completed.” I know that long-term relationships don’t run on heady infatuation, and I do care deeply about him. If I end this relationship, I also fear ending up in another intoxicating but destructive relationship like I was in before. Am I too picky, chasing an unattainable fantasy of love that can’t exist? Should I work on appreciating everything I do have and accept that I might never be head-over-heels? Or should I end this good-but-not-perfect relationship to find a partner with whom I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life? To complicate everything, we recently started long-distance.
Thank you so much for any advice or thoughts –
Sad and Confused
Dear Sad & Confused:
Once upon a time, somebody brought me a mix cd of nothing but The Dresden Dolls and They Might Be Giants on a first internet date. I threw it in a dumpster on my way home; I dislike those bands and the “gift” felt like a pompous and premature play at shaping my tastes from someone I did not intend to see again. Some of you are sighing because now you know that your perfect partner is out there somewhere and maybe now you’ll never meet. Some of you think I owed it at least a listen or are pissed that I didn’t recycle. The simple-but-not-easy answer to “what will make me happy in romantic love?” is that it is going to be different for everyone.
Sometimes, sadly, we are not great predictors of what that will be — we rely too long on “magic” & “chemistry” at the expense of consideration or compatibility, we settle too long for “stability” at the expense of deep connection, we over-estimate the importance of sexual compatibility and excitement and forget that people’s health and desires change over time, or else we underestimate how “mismatched libidos” and a constant cycle of pressure and rejection can slowly grind people down over the course of a lifetime. Committing to spend your life with someone means committing to riding out a a series of changes that you can’t predict. Holding out forever in the hopes of perfection can be really fucking lonely.
Anxiety around this set of choices is normal, and there are some hurtful and conflicting received beliefs in our cultural metanarrative of how romantic love works that make this all even more anxiety-producing. The list of statements below aren’t all exactly relationship fallacies, because they are so common/the cultural narrative is so strong/they are party of *every* story in some way/we use them to measure ourselves and each other so often/everyone can find enough anecdata to justify hanging in there or beating themselves up for not hanging in there. The list:
- There is one true person who is the right match for every stage of your adult life and if you work hard enough at it (or detach yourself from looking for it enough to let serendipity take over, I can’t remember which) it is definitely possible to find that one person.
- Romantic love is the most important kind of love.
- If you struggle with finding love, you are broken somehow.
- If you actively seek out love, you are desperate (and probably broken somehow).
- If you don’t actively seek out love, or you miss your youthful window to figure out dating, your whole life will pass you by because there is such a thing as ‘too late.’ G’day, Miss Havisham!
- If a particular relationship ends, it was a failure.
- If you choose the wrong person to marry, there is no way to move on from that mistake. You are doomed to be unhappy!
- Being part of a couple, even if it isn’t quite working for one or both people, is better than being alone.
- People who want more sex than their partners do are selfish; that is a trivial reason to break up with an otherwise great person.
- People who don’t want as much a sex as their partners do are selfish; they should just go along with what their partners want for the sake of harmony.
- You’ll know you’re with your “true love” because the best sex happens wordlessly and seamlessly from the very first time you do it. Talking or adjusting anything would just slow down the magic!
- You’ll know your true love because all issues – work, sex, money, children, family, dreams, and life goals – will effortlessly resolve into the perfect shape without having to do much talking about it.
- If some big issue isn’t working between two people, they should keep working on it, possibly forever. Anything less is a total failure.
- The greater the compromises you make or the harder you have to work or fight to maintain a love relationship, the more true or real that love is.
- People change; you’ve got to be able to roll with that.
- It’s not a good idea to bet your life on the hope that another person will change.
- Good relationships, like sharks, “must keep swimming forward or else they’ll die.”
- Ending a relationship needs an airtight reason, otherwise you might as well just keep going.
- Bringing up marriage before the exact “surprise!” moment that the other person is 100% ready will totally kill the love.
- You can love someone into being a better person. If your partner is an addict, or has massive untreated mental or emotional problems*, or had a hard upbringing or some other issue, when they hurt you it isn’t *really* their fault; your love and loyalty can show them the way. In fact, that is your job,* as a friend or a lover.
There are more, of course, depending on where and when and how you grew up and what stories the people around you told or lived about love. True/false/neither/both, the ideas about relationships on this list drive people’s fears and choices. Every day an unhappy person writes to ask me, “Am I good enough? Am I doing this right? Is this love good enough for me?” and uses something on this list to measure themselves. I myself have no checklist for you. Just the signposts in your letter. Speaking of which, this sentence says a lot to me:
“By most standards I’ve hit the jackpot, yet I feel unsure.”
Also the title of your question, which I reproduced here, and the fact that you sign yourself “Sad & Confused” and not “Excited but Unsure” or somesuch.
Whose standards? Where is the pressure to “commit or break up forever” coming from? Something in particular your partner asked or said? An undefinable impatience to get onto the next stage (of something)? You want a monogamous marriage and children someday. What does your partner want? If his answer is “Not that, not ever,” then, well, you have your answer.
You are making “pro & con” lists, and the pros add up on paper, and you can’t put your finger on what the con list even would be, but you know that it’s there, lurking like an iceberg under the surface of the water. Your letter shows examples of cognitive fallacies like black & white thinking (dependability vs. MAGIC, staying a little bit stuck where you are vs. diving into a super-unhealthy relationship like ones you’ve had in the past) and also the idea that you *must* find some kind of concrete “con” or “magic” feeling in order to make a decision.
You are writing like a woman in the year before she breaks things up with a good man, when she feels guilty about even thinking about it and hasn’t decided to do it yet but she has started looking around for a good reason to leave and for a place to go next.
You also write: “In my best past relationship, an ex-boyfriend inspired me daily to be a kinder, braver person, and I don’t feel that way now.”
Aha! This is the meat of it, my friend.
You want to change and be changed. You want to be a better version of yourself, and you want love to help change you. A million crushes and affairs start this way, where someone sexy shows you a glimpse of the person you wish you could be and suddenly the dormant parts of you come out of hibernation. As an adult, whether or not you are partnered or single, when you’re in a rut of “fine, I guess,” it’s hard to accept that no owl has been dispatched from Hogwarts with your calling in its claws and (probably)(hopefully) no sexy stranger is going to sexy-kidnap you in a Three Days of the Condor or “Come with me if you want to live” kind of way. It’s so unfair. Where’s your Roman Holiday where you get to try on another self? When will it be your chance to run away and join the circus or find your destiny?
The answer is: Now. Soon. Anytime.
Your midlife crisis is upon you, right on schedule. Open the door and say, Welcome.
What do you want to do with your life? When you imagine the things you want to do and be, do you imagine your boyfriend there with you? Or have you started collecting photos of spinsterish garrets and tiny houses, where he and his stuff will not fit? What do you serve? What’s That Thing, the subject that you can talk endlessly about, the thing that lights you up? What is your boyfriend’s That Thing? Is he interested and excited by your excitement when you talk about That Thing? Are you excited about his Thing? Are your That Things compatible, will you both get to serve and follow and chase both in a life spent together?
Since you are long distance right now, it seems like a good time for you to think through all of this and to give yourself permission to stop working at figuring out the relationship for a while. If you’re not ready to break up quite yet, then don’t, but give yourself permission to be a bit perfunctory about romance for little while as you focus on setting up your new life in a new place (or he sets up his). In his absence, start arranging your days and evenings and meals and weekends exactly how you’d like them, and when intrusive thoughts about the future and what you’ll do about that come in, tell yourself “que sera sera, can’t worry about that right now, today I’m gonna swim one more lap than I did yesterday/conjugate 2 more verbs/go to an event and talk to at least 2 people I don’t know/apply for that great new job/scholarship/grant/write 5 pages of my novel/learn a 4th chord/join a choir/buy a journal and write in it/learn that dance step/sword-fighting move/roll a new D&D character/dive into this work project/have quiet time doing absolutely nothing.” Start friend-dating your friends again, not as couples or a social group, but one-on-one for walks and breakfasts. Let yourself be surrounded by other kinds of love besides romantic love. Go to plays and movies and concerts your boyfriend wouldn’t necessarily like. Say yes to social invitations. Don’t cheat with charismatic assholes. If other men express interest in you, and you’re not interested in them, try saying “Thanks, but I’m pretty happy on my own right now” instead of defaulting to “I have a boyfriend” as the reason.
Stop living in the future and in the problem of “should I be with this person maybe forever” and live in the present of “my life is pretty fucking great is it not.”
Possible outcomes: 1) You and your boyfriend are going to drift apart and your breakup a few months from now will be sad but feel inevitable 2) You and your boyfriend are going to reconnect with each other after an absence and it will be wonderful and solid 3) You are going to be happier overall and better able to make decisions from a place of strength.
I live with the love of my life, my Gentleman Caller. We are coming out of a pretty fucking hard year. Illness kept him from working for many months, meaning that I’ve been cobbling together jobs to keep us afloat and we both have been chafing ungracefully at the roles of “caretaker” and “caretakee” and the unfairness of brain chemistry and the fragility of connective tissue and the injustice of adjunct professordom and news headlines and WINTER (which seems to be coming on schedule at the usual time AGAIN, how unfair is THAT?) and the thousand slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that flesh is heir to. I don’t know if I feel “magical” or “completed” or “inspired to be a better version of myself” when I’m with him, or vice versa, and it’s hard to think about when we’ve been fighting so hard for “normal.” I do know that I am truly seen. My aspirations and dreams are supported and honored, my flaws go into soft-focus (or are gently mocked). I don’t need to be completed, because I am judged to be complete. I know that when I come home at the end of the day and one of us says, “I am so happy to see you” that it is meant from the heart and our smiles when we say it are like this. We are kind to each other and patient with each other. Our arguments actually hash out our bullshit and then blow over. We like each other. We are never bored. Mumble mumble sexy stuff A+++(+++++++++). There was probably a time, three and a half years ago, that “is it ok to love this person/is this person right for me?” was the question on our minds, but I don’t remember what it was like except for going back and reading old journal entries where I wrote down mainly poems and pop songs like a goober.
In past relationships, even good past relationships with very good people (even ones that started with poetry and pop songs), the problem of “should we be together or not” was always present, even 5 years in, even when living together, even when meeting families, even on romantic vacations, even when all check boxes I could think of were checked. There were always secret pro-and-con lists, and agonized talks with friends about what I should do, insistence on my own room and annoyance at being interrupted in it, guilt-ridden diary entries wondering what was wrong with me for not loving enough or if I was even capable of it, collected pictures of fantasy apartments that held floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and only slept one, filling out applications to work on the other side of the world in secret, making movie after movie about women who would chew their own legs off to be free. Marriage could only be talked about in jokes if it was talked about at all, and a partner mentioning it in a serious way could make me silently panic and equivocate for weeks. I sounded like you in your letter, “Is this all there is? Is everyone else ecstatically happy or are they faking it? Oh god I think I might be faking it.”
With the Gentleman Caller, that problem doesn’t hang over me. We fit. He’s my person and I am his. Deciding to get married was not only happy, but relaxing, like “that’s all settled now, yay!” There no particular urgency, as we’re saving up for some flavor of party, but if we had to knock it out this week for some logistical or financial reason it would be just as happy a decision. We don’t have perfect lives, but the questions that occupy us are not that question (all praise to OKCupid, trial and error, and sheer dumb luck). I don’t know how to help you find that fit, but as someone who left more than one “almost but not quite” relationship, I can tell you:
- The people I loved and left are happier for it. Intern Paul got married this year to a wonderful woman, every time I talk to him and every picture I see him in he is so goddamned happy and lucky and great. My last serious ex before him also married someone who is completely fucking great. I still get to have these beloved people as friends in my life, without that awful question hanging over us, and I could not be happier for them or more proud of them.
- Sometimes I picked wrong. Deeply dysfunctional people. Charismatic assholes. Over time, my “picker” got better and I did not repeat old mistakes. Yours will, too.
- Even if I hadn’t found The Gentleman Caller I would be okay and happy. I was always very sad after breakups and had a hard a time making a decision and fully letting go as the most conflicted Letter Writer, but once the deed was done, soon relief and comfort in my own skin and freedom from that awful disloyal question of “should we be together” would flood in. My little room of my own would look like this and my face would look like this and that would be enough.
I can’t tell you what to do but I can tell you those things and leave you with a question:
Imagine your boyfriend says, “It turns out that this long-distance thing sucks and I don’t want to be without you for a single day. Let’s get married, and I will come join you (or you come join me – idk your life). Let’s fucking do this! Yeah!”
How do you feel? Do you do it? Or is that the question that helps you finally say, “You’re wonderful, but I don’t want to”?