(I’M SORRY THIS IS SO LONG I’M SO BAD AT TL;DR’ing)
I’ve (she/her, 26) been with my partner “T” (he/him, 29) for close to a year and a half. The first year of our relationship was almost completely smooth sailing and we were both pretty sure we’d found The One. We used to joke that the “honeymoon phase” hadn’t ended for us yet.
Around a year in, we started to hit a rough patch related to our relationship being non-monogamous (but that’s not what I plan to talk about in this email). We started going to couples therapy. I was satisfied with that solution and felt good and hopeful about being able to solve the bumps we’d been going through.
Somewhere around then, T and I happened to be on a day trip to visit old friends of his several states away in VA – where he used to live before moving to NYC (where we both live now). While on this trip to VA, a friend of T’s basically begged him to move back there and take his old job back. I suggested that we move to VA. He often speaks of that job quite favorably and only moved to NYC to achieve a personal goal for himself. I have been unhappy in NYC for a while now and am VERY ready to leave. Despite the bumps in the road, I was confident we were on a good path to get through them. Moving several states away with T felt exciting and like a comfortable leap for us to take. We already spend 5-6 nights a week together here and its basically as if we already live together. He agreed and over the next month or so we began to seriously put our moving plans in motion. We found an apartment in VA and signed a lease for June 3, 2020.
Jump forward about 3 months and we are now quarantined together for going on 4 weeks now thanks to COVID-19. Things have been…..bleak. Both T and I are newly out of jobs. We both have pre-existing mental health issues and are now…..both incredibly depressed. I am struggling big time with the fact that T now seems to have no capacity (/interest?) for affection, romance, etc to me. We’ve been fighting a fair amount (which in the first year of our relationship was quite uncommon). When we aren’t fighting we’re usually sitting on opposite sides of the couch or lying in bed next to each other doing separate activities. We aren’t having sex, we are barely even cuddling. I have to ask him for hugs, kisses, sex (which gets turned down), ANYTHING and I’m starting to get insanely resentful. I don’t remember the last time he did something nice or thoughtful for me “just because.” I’m at the point where I’m doubting my feelings for him and starting to doubt the impending move too. I should note that I’m also quarantined at his apartment (I have my own apartment but my roommate has COVID – its not safe for me to go there or bounce back and forth between both places) and there are no signs of the quarantine being lifted so it seems that I can look forward to another month or 2 here, receiving the same treatment. I am miserable.
I have told T that I need more verbal and physical affection from him. He has been receptive to me voicing my needs but also told me that his mental state is focused on keeping himself afloat and not feeling suicidal so he has very little bandwidth for me. He also says “I’m just not really good at the type of romance you’re asking for.” (I asked him if we could do one nice thing for each other per day and if we could tell each other something we appreciate about each other each night before bed.) While I understand his struggles with mental health, this sucks. I am a person who needs affection and romance from my partner and sometimes I want to not be the one initiating it. I’m happy to model that affection and romance I’d like to receive….for a while. After a while of it not being reciprocated I start to get resentful, sulky, and stop wanting to put the effort in myself.
No idea if I can take 2 more months of this. I don’t even know if I want to move with him now. I feel incredibly emotionally neglected. I’ve asked for what I wanted and haven’t gotten it. I know I need to be sensitive to his mental state during an unprecedented and incredibly stressful time, but I also need to feel like my partner loves and appreciates me. What conversation should I be having with T about all this? Should I still be trying to save the relationship and have my needs for affection met.. or should I be ending it and cancelling the move? Do I need to adjust my expectations and be more sensitive to him?
Please help me
Miserable in Quarantine
Hello Miserable In Quarantine:
You are not alone.
A lot of people are discovering that sexual chemistry alone does not make a good roommate and vice versa and severely questioning their pair-bonds. Not everyone is like Ben Wyatt and Leslie Knope (“I love you and I like you”) and the limits of affection and compatibility are going to be tested. Minor annoyances are now Problems, Plural. So if it helps to know that it’s not just you, it’s not just you.
Monday’s blanket “Dump Him” post wasn’t necessarily for you, Letter Writer, but it was for everyone writing me letter in the past few weeks about partners who are mean, dismissive, cheating, gaslighting, or avoidant/absent. Do you honestly have time and energy right now for the vague confusing person who won’t text you back for days and when they do they answer every question with “maybe…” or “idk…” while you stare at the ellipses and want to scream “What? MAYBE WHAT. Finish. Your. Sentences.”
See also: Shitty exes rolling up expecting the Letter Writer to be their Pandemic Mommy, Maid, and on-call Therapist, and an array of partners who otherwise were either deliberately or obliviously – yet obviously – making pandemic life harder whether it’s by ignoring social distancing protocols to “just have a few beers with a couple friends,”or treating the Letter Writers’ working from home time as “Totally Interruptible Optional Time You Should Probably Be Paying Attention To Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, An Adult Man.”
Not everyone rises to the occasion of history, comrades, so if you wrote me a letter this week with phrases like “I’m starting to wonder if I might not be better off by myself,” or “I can deal with quarantine and the horrors of the news cycle okay, actually, but the thing that’s stressing me out the most is my romantic partner, who refuses to ______.” Or “I was already having doubts about us and this has only confirmed them…”and especially if those letters contained ANYTHING resembling “But what am I doing wrong?” or “Do you know some ways I could maybe work harder on this to fix it”—-!!!!—–
My answer is pretty much, probably listen to the voice that’s telling you that you’d be happier or better off alone, I think that voice loves you wayyyyyyyyyy more than the shitty partner who (ripped from my Inbox) never cleans anything, never pays a bill, never fixes a meal, can give 10,000 airtight lengthy reasons for why saying “I love you” is Just Not His Thing instead of throwing a heart emoji-bone in among the ellipses now and again, and yet even as we speak is farting into your favorite pillow, using your precious TP and NOT replacing the roll, and hogging your bandwidth to send dick pics to every woman he’s ever met in the hopes that someone else will let him become their problem for a while. Consider that maybe it’s time to set him free to live by his wits on somebody else’s Grandma’s heirloom afghan, if not immediately, then as soon as it’s safe to reasonably do so?
But what do we do about the partnerships where people are trying their best and it’s still really fucking hard? My dear Letter Writer, you’re not weird or terrible for wanting tokens of affection, desire, and appreciation. Nor is T. by definition a terrible partner if a mental health crisis and global pandemic is temporarily killing his boners for life in general. The Sheelzebub Principle* still applies: If your needs aren’t getting met, maybe it’s time to end things or set a limit on how much longer you want to stay or how much more (time, effort, money) you want to invest. At 26, you are old enough to know your own mind and commit to a long-term relationship, but from 46 I feel safe* saying that this is probably not your only chance at love.
*Safe = assuming everybody survives this, which…
(There’s so much in that ellipsis, right? So…much. I’m sorry. I hate this.)
Given the ellipsis-filling stress of a global pandemic and an economic crash that is probably going to make us start numbering our Great Depressions the way we do with World Wars, I am also interested in thinking through what is realistic and kind right now – to both you and T. – given extraordinary pressures, on top of existing mental health crises, given the demands of sharing a small space for the time being, and given the stress all of us are under because we can’t define what “temporary” is or “when will things get better” in any meaningful way.
Maybe you can’t get everything you need from T., maybe you won’t stay together and move to Virginia like you planned, but maybe it can be better than it is now while you’re both stuck in the same space. If I can help you get there, I’ll have done my work.
To that end, what happens if you stop working on the romantic part of the relationship with T. for now? Since you are signed up to keep yourselves and each other alive, together, under the same roof for a few months…how are you doing that.
For real, here is my hierarchy of important things in writing the rest of this post:
- You & T. = alive!
- You & T. = alive, well, and basically kind and good to each other during a difficult time.
- You & T. = alive, well, and at least nobody is making it worse.
> (x100 more blank lines, I think you get it )
- You & T. = Rekindling your sexual connection and still being in love during this difficult time and beyond.
- You & T. = Still in love, still totally into each other sexually, and moving to Virginia as planned in June.
I’m not you, I’m not cooped up in the apartment of constant fighting and existential dread and needing to be loved, and my brain literally can’t imagine June as a thing that will come like it does every year or plan that far ahead right now, so if these are not your priorities, you are the boss of you. I just want to be clear about where I’m coming from so you can decide if any of this is useful to you.
Shall we continue?
“Control What You Can Control,” Part 1: Do Less Work
What you can’t control: T. His feelings, his desires, his mental health, his behaviors, whether or not he’ll demonstrate affection or be up for sex. Some people react to the possibility of impending death like the wanton figures in old engravings, where Death is just another fun guest at the orgy, and if you are one of those people, I SALUTE YOU. Gather your rosebuds.
Not everybody works like that. Especially when depression is involved. T. is telling you what he needs: A little space. To not feel pressured to perform (sexually, romantically, etc.) while he is barely holding his shit together in the face of suicidal depression. He is saying in many ways, “I’m sorry, but I cannot bring The Romance right now.”
That can be incompatible with what you want and need right now (to see him put in some visible effort, to feel desired and wanted, to connect sexually, to join you in “well, everything sucks, but at least we have each other and can enthusiastically have each other!”), and that can all be an indicator that moving states together and a long-term future is not in the cards, etc. I don’t know!
But he is telling you the truth about what he can do right now. For best results, my instincts say: Believe what he tells you when he says he Just Can’t right now. Then, remove pressure. On yourself. On T. On The Relationship to be what saves you and on both of you to be what saves The Relationship.
Stop setting him up to fail and stop setting yourself up to resent him.
You write: “After a while of it not being reciprocated I start to get resentful, sulky, and stop wanting to put the effort in myself.”
I know it sucks, but stop! Stop putting in the effort.
Stop initiating sex when you know it will probably make you sad ad feel rejected and T. will experience it as pressure and the fear of disappointing you, again.
Stop planning romantic “Date Nights” at home, if that’s a thing you’re doing. It will just piss you off when he can’t or won’t reciprocate or participate in it as fully as you hoped.
Stop suggesting little daily appreciation rituals like the ones they suggest in couples’ counseling and old-school women’s magazines. I don’t think you were doing anything wrong by trying them out, they would have been quite nice if they had worked! But it will just piss you off when he can’t or won’t reciprocate.
When someone doesn’t want to have sex with you and you put friction around that by sulking or picking fights or shutting them out in response, you make it harder to say no, and that’s not cool. The fights relieve tension and probably feel like, “at least T’s paying attention to me” or “at least this means we’re working on it” on a certain level, but, stop. It’s not getting you what you need, and every time you fight you both risk saying something really mean and damaging.
If T’s the one picking fights, stop the fights in their tracks if you can. “I don’t want to fight with you, so I’m going into the other room, let’s talk about it again in the morning.” Disengage, don’t try to hunt down every scrap of emotional involvement right now. It’s not making you happier, it’s not making you work better together or individually, so stop.
Is this holding back and disengaging unsustainable for a long-term pair bond? Yes. Probably. Yes. Is “talking it all out” and “finding a way to keep the romance alive” feasible and realistic specifically in the next month or so? Your letter is emphatically not making that case.
“Control What You Can Control,” Part 2: Take Care Of You
Since you’re not working at T., time to work at you.
What do you need in terms of a daily structure, loving social connections with friends and family near and far, getting enough sleep, finding a way to move your body, finding ways to occupy yourself (including sexually) that don’t revolve around or depend on T.?
Need to get up early and do some stretches in the living room, for example, or have some time to write in a journal before you start your day together? Then do it – don’t try to make it a group activity or coax him to do it together or sell him on the idea that it will feel good or be fun. Take daily a shower, for you. Put on clean clothes that make you feel good, for you. Pick the right bedtime and time to get up for you. Eat regular meals that you like, for you. If T. weren’t here, would you need this? Then do it.
Who is someone in your life who always brightens and lightens your spirits and who is always delighted to hear from you? Call them. Today. Make a list of people you love and call one of them every day. T. is not the only love in the world.
You’ve got an open/non-monogamous relationship of sorts, yes? Who is a sexyfriend past or present who is capable of having scorching hot phone sex/cybering/sexting/whatever “the kids” call it these days? See also: Toys, erotica, pr0n, you are the master of your domain and the captain of your soul. For best results, don’t do this At T. – no mentionitis, no hinting, no hoping he’ll be jealous or turned on and want to join in (he probably won’t, and my strong recommendation remains: Stop setting T. up to fail and setting yourself up to resent him), so keep it quiet and private and just yours right now.
Give T. the same privacy to make phone calls to his favorite people. Go into another room, wear headphones, resist the urge to eavesdrop.
What can you do to take care of your own mental health? [Some possibilities here]. Will a daily meditation app solve your relationship? Probably not. Will it possibly make you feel slightly better? Might as well try. If it sucks, you don’t have to keep doing it.
Is it time to start or revisit keeping a journal? Your needs and thoughts and feelings have to go somewhere, T.’s capacity – like grocery delivery windows – is at max capacity, so, where can you put them?
Did you file for all the unemployment and financial assistance you are able? Are you doing everything you can to take care of yourself around money?
If you don’t go to Virginia after all, where do you want to go & what do you want to do instead? Start thinking about it, both logistically and emotionally. (I can’t advise you legally about breaking interstate leases during a pandemic and when your employment situation drastically changed but this is a searchable question. My ethical stance is You Eating > Sorry, Landlord Someplace You’ve Never Actually Lived).
When your roommate’s quarantine weeks are up, do you want to go back to your place? Or to family or somewhere else? Start thinking about it. What would you need to make that happen?
Get what privacy you can within what you have and do some thinking. Thinking through your options doesn’t mean you’ve committed to breaking up or staying, it means taking care of yourself the best you can with what you have and being prepared for whatever happens.
“Control What You Can Control,” Part 3: The Laundry Doesn’t Care About Feelings And That’s Good, Actually
What does “being a good & kind roommate/friend in a difficult situation for the next few months” look like to you? What does it look like to T.?
Figuring that out and showing up for each other about the supposed “small” stuff of sharing a living space is its own form of love. Maybe that’s the kind of love you and T. can manage right now, so that’s what you do.
Probably it looks like shared planning to get your material needs met. How are you getting groceries, prescription meds, how are you budgeting money, who is handling talking to landlords & utilities, what kind of mutual aid is possible with your neighbors?
What needs to happen to set your living space up for peaceful coexistence, whose chores are what & when do they get done, whose turn is it to cook today and who does the dishes, who is putting on a mask and taking a load of laundry downstairs or making a makeshift clothesline for the balcony or the shower, who is hauling recycling to the chute, who is disinfecting the mail or cleaning the toilet?
If the answers to every single one of these questions is “I, the Letter Writer am the only person who does that” I think we have an answer to the problem, but if T. is doing his best to be a team with you about the activities of daily living, it’s time to put your heads together to make a boring-ass unromantic chore chart. You’re both depressed, so keep it simple – maybe try to each tackle one thing every day, not everything all at once.
If you’re both already doing a good job at this and working together well on the unromantic boring stuff, that is actually great, and it bodes INCREDIBLY WELL for things getting better in the relationship once you’re not trapped in each other’s faces 24-7.
If T. is too depressed for “let’s clean, together!,” put on your favorite cleaning music and tackle your part of your list yourself. Sometimes the momentum of you taking care of business is enough to jolt the other person into taking action, sometimes it’s not, either way you’re taking care of what you can control. You’ll be happiest if T. joins you, you’ll be happier-than-you-currently-are if the house is cleaner than it was when you started, and you’ll be even more sad and mad if nothing gets done because you’re on a spite strike.
“Control What You Can Control,” Part 4: Breaks And Boundaries
How can you give each other some space and privacy – difficult in a small NYC living space – but worth the effort?
Reading your letter, I think you both need times of the day where the other person is fundamentally Not Home. One of you gets the living room to watch your stories for a while, uninterrupted, while the other does a deep-clean of the kitchen or takes a nap in the bedroom or a long bath. Then you switch. Build a schedule for this like you do for everything else.
Revert a bit to Formal/Company Manners:
- Say please and thank you. Say it so much. “Thank you for taking out the trash. Thank you for getting the mail. Thank you for remembering to get the snacks I like when you made a masked commando run to the bodega.” (This stuff always mattered, it matters even more in difficult circumstances.)
- Knock on closed doors and wait for the answer before entering.
- Bathroom Time = Alone Time. Now more than ever.
- Wear headphones. A lot. Headphones mean “I Am Concentrating On Not You at the moment, and you have permission to concentrate on Not Me.” Tread headphones like a closed door, and be intentional about when you put them on and when you take them off.
- Ask each other if it’s a good time to talk and wait for the answer. For best results, let “Not right now, maybe later?” be an answer. If you’re the one saying no, follow the fuck up later and don’t leave the other person hanging.
By giving each other scheduled blocks of space and the illusion of more solo time, maybe you can make the time you spend together more intentional and hopefully more enjoyable.
Find fun where you can. I said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t think you should go all out planning romantic Date Nights right now, it will just make you mad if T. isn’t enthusiastic and doesn’t reciprocate, and I think removing pressure and doing less work on that side of things is probably the way to go. But like, there had to be some non-sexual things you enjoyed doing together, yes? And if you can’t think of anything you enjoy in common, or if he’s too depressed and checked out to participate in that, then pick something fun you would like and do it. “I’m going to watch the Fleabag-play on April 10 at X time, if you want to watch it with me.” He can join you or not, he knows where you’ll be.
“Control What You Can Control,” Part 5: Potpourri?
Everything that didn’t fit in a logical place is here, like on Jeopardy!
- Can you agree to a regular check-in structure, like, “Sunday nights, we open some wine and figure out the most basic chores/money/plans for getting through the next week together, make all our budgets and lists, and then we watch something that requires ZERO thought.”
- Can you agree to a regular check-in structure about big questions, like, everyone is going to walk on eggshells if every toilet paper run becomes a deep discussion of feelings, so when can you talk about feelings, is it time for #FeelingsFridays with the understanding that you won’t ambush each other with “So where is our relationship going” talks at other times of the week? Pretend you still have couples’ counseling (or hell, see if your old counselor does Telemedicine) and designate a certain time for this.
- Putting structures around these talks won’t mean that you never fight or things never get messy, people don’t work that way. What it does, hopefully, is give you a structure to snap back to when things do get messy, and free you of the thing that’s happening now where every moment of every day could turn into “LET’S TALK ABOUT OUR RELATIONSHIP” time.
- What’s the plan if one or both of you gets sick. Safety protocols. Emergency contact stuff. “In the event of my death…” stuff. You have to talk about it.
- What’s the plan for the Virginia move, including contingency plans like “what if it’s just one of us” or “when do we have to be absolutely committed or make the final decision to abort” and “Let’s take it week by week for now.”
Re-examine all shoulds and assumptions. All of them. “But we’re a couple, we shouldn’t have to ______.” Maybe that was true before, but maybe you do have to _______ right now.
Let’s go back to sex, touching, physical and emotional intimacy through the lens of re-examining assumptions. Even if T.’s not up for sex, you’d probably benefit a ton from being hugged, touched, snuggled, spooned, etc. way more right now even if it doesn’t lead to sex.
That’s probably true of T., as well, but the question of “Is this sexual? Is this going to be sex? Are we trying to make sex happen?” lingering behind every touch is going to add pressure, which is a thing we’re trying to remove. The more you chase, the more he shrinks away, the more rejected you feel, the more he shrinks away.
So what happens if you make an agreement that if you want to have sex, you’ll ask with words for now, and if nobody says the words, nobody should assume that physical affection is heading for sex. Anybody can do the asking, “no” is always a safe and okay answer, 1 ask/1 no = end of story.
“But that’s not how we operated in the past,” I can hear you saying. “But that kills the mood, we used to be able to just get going from a snuggle or a kiss,” I can hear you saying. “The mood” has a default setting of “dead” at this time, so maybe physical touch needs to be ways to convey affection and closeness without being a vector of shame, pressure, and disappointment.
I wish you and T. all good things. Stay alive, stay kind to each other, get on the same team about the things you can control, stay alive.
*For new readers: Longtime commenter Sheelzebub asks: If you knew that nothing that was bothering you about a relationship would fundamentally change, how much longer would you stay committed to and invested in this person? Another year? 5? 10? Forever?