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How to deal with "I can't be in a relationship right now"?
October 31, 2009 1:34 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with "I can't be in a relationship right now"?

I've been seeing a girl for a few months now and we've been getting really close and I've begun feeling very excited about us and attached. Until..I get the whole "I can't be in a relationship right now, can we just slow down?" talk and I'm having a hard time with it.

Now I should say I believe her and right now we're living a few hours apart. She has a lot to deal with and I wanted to see if we could slow things down, but the second this happened it felt like it just killed all the intimacy and fun from what we had [trips canceled, visit to my city no longer staying with me] and I feel like I should just move on.

So my question, Is it cold to just move on and cut off contact as as if this is a break up? Any mefites here have any experience in a similar situation? I've been feeling like a jerk for cutting her out because she does say she would like to try for something real in the future and that she needs to figure some things out in her life. And to be clear, the only reason I'm doing it is because I'm pretty heartbroken and I don't want to sit around waiting for someone to change their mind about how they feel about me. thanks!
posted by mattsweaters to Human Relations (33 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
"I can't be in a relationship right now" = breakup. You're interested in continuing a romantic relationship with her, she doesn't want to be in one with you, and there's nothing cold about telling her honestly that "just friends" isn't going to work (though it would be unkind to just stop returning her calls without explanation.) If she's ready later, she can contact you.
posted by contraption at 1:41 PM on October 31, 2009 [11 favorites]


Some people here might tell you that this is her nice way of breaking up with you gently. And that could be true. But quite often, this statement "I can't be in a relationship right now" can be literally true, due to other, stressful things going on in her life. If you'd met each other a year from now, say, things might be completely different.

But if someone is really, strongly attracted to you, then those other things will suddenly become less important, and he/she will work his/her way around them to be with you. He/she might even say to him/herself, darn, I have all these stressful things going on, but I just can't stop thinking about him/her!

Unfortunately, her feelings for you don't seem to be strong enough for her to do that. To spare yourself the further aggravation of wondering "does she or doesn't she" and driving yourself crazy, I'd just completely cut yourself off. If she changes her mind, she knows where to find you. Sorry. (Have been in your shoes before. It's horrible.)
posted by Melismata at 1:46 PM on October 31, 2009 [10 favorites]


Take it at face value: she can't be in a relationship, and doesn't know when she can. I think you are being smart and self-aware when you recognize that you "don't want to sit around waiting for someone to change their mind about how they feel about me." You can move on respectfully, with good wishes for her and your own best interests at heart. If she reaches a point in time down the road at which she would like to resume a relationship, she can contact you. Until then: goodbye.

Note that this implies two crucial things: 1) "IF she reaches that point" means that this is not guaranteed, which can make you feel sad, and 2) "if SHE reaches that point" means it is not in your control, which can make you feel helpless. These are both uncomfortable feelings that you may have to sit with for awhile. It's a tough spot to be in, but it's good to be wary of continuing down a path that seems likely to be fraught with drama and difficulty from the get-go.
posted by scody at 1:46 PM on October 31, 2009 [5 favorites]


But if someone is really, strongly attracted to you, then those other things will suddenly become less important, and he/she will work his/her way around them to be with you.

Sorry, I missed this on preview. I have to say that I don't know about this. I've learned -- a couple of times to my profound heartbreak -- that timing really is a major part of successful relationships. I am positive that if my boyfriend and I had met a couple of years earlier, for example, the particular and very significant stresses in my life (and possibly his as well) would have made our relationship unworkable, even though I am also positive we would have been just as attracted to each other in 2002 or 2003 as we were in 2005. There are good starts to relationships, and bad starts to relationships, and these are frequently predicated on whether or not both parties are in good or bad places in their lives.
posted by scody at 1:52 PM on October 31, 2009 [9 favorites]


Whether she is being honest and you can take her at face value or if she's trying to let you down gently doesn't really matter. What matters is that this new information about her and the way she sees your relationship, you've decided that you would rather put energy elsewhere. That's is a completely ok thing to do. You're allowed to move on if that's what you feel you should do.

If she had went to another extreme like asking you to move in with her or marry her and you weren't comfortable with that you probably would have been able to say "No, I don't want that" with less angst, but that's just the opposite side of the coin.
posted by Kimberly at 2:06 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd say move on. When someone uses indeterminate statements like "sometime in the future" or "I need to figure some things out in my life", that says a lot about where their head is at. Some people have a hard time committing to a relationship when they perceive their own life as being chaotic or unresolved in some way. If you wait around for all her stars to align then you could be waiting for quite some time.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 2:11 PM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


I always see things like that as a breakup. scody might be right about the timing and everything, but the bottom line is she doesn't want to be with you, so unfortunately that's it. Tell her "just friends" won't work and wish her well and goodbye.

I've never understood what people who "can't be in a relationship" are doing dating in the first place.
posted by JanetLand at 2:16 PM on October 31, 2009 [5 favorites]


Is it cold to just move on and cut off contact as as if this is a break up?

It's very sweet of you to worry about whether your response to her lack of interest in you will be perceived as "cold."
posted by bingo at 2:26 PM on October 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


It depends. Do you love her? How much? Do you really, really want to be with her?

If so, the first thing you need to do is note this maxim of Stendhal's from his treatise on love:
You forget that in love possession is nothing, only enjoyment matters.
There are therefore several options open to you at this stage, and which one you should follow depends wholly on her temperament. You say that "she has a lot to deal with right now," and you aren't specific on what that means, so I'll try to cover all the bases.

The first thing to remember is that "I can't be in a relationship right now" is a shorthand phrase that doesn't really mean anything on its own. "A relationship" is an ambiguous term which means whatever a person wants it to mean. Does "a relationship" mean "having sex?" Does it mean "committed to a long-term cohabitation?" Does it mean "spending time together?" Who knows? There are two possibilities: either (a) she's perplexed as to her emotions at the moment, and she's worried that she might do something she'll regret, so she's avoiding that danger by putting up a generic barrier without really worrying too much about what that barrier means; or (b) she is entirely certain of what she means by the vague declaration "I can't be in a relationship right now," the vagueness is a calculated attempt to 'let you down easy' (people often make this foolish mistake) and she's really thinking in the back of her mind 'I don't really want to have to deal with this; I only want to be quit of it and move on."

Now, if it's (a) – if she doesn't really know what she meant by it and only really said it because she was worried about repeating past mistakes – then your option is clearly to wait and stay close. If she was moved to "slow things down" by fear or anxiety, then what you want to do is assuage her fears and calm her anxieties. Don't pressure her by mentioning commitment or by taking too much initiative just yet; only keep her aware of you, and show her by quiet action that you can be relied upon and that you're not going anywhere. If her only reason for holding back and withdrawing from you was fear about not being able to trust you or to trust herself, then giving her some weeks to see that you're not going anywhere and that she can trust herself when she's around you will dissipate that fear, and after a month or two you can again propose that you two can have "a relationship."

However, if the situation is (b), and she's really just using "I can't be in a relationship right now" as shorthand for "that's it, fella, we're over," then you're in a more difficult spot which calls for more drastic measures. Your only hope is to convince her that she's acting rashly and that she really does want to be in a relationship with you right now. This can be done most efficiently by making her jealous or by making her at least desire more time with you than she has. Generally the point is that what you want is to make sure of two things: first, you want to be in front of her as often as possible to ensure that you are on her mind; and second, you want to be entirely unavailable to her, so that she feels the absence keenly and remembers what she's lost.

The fact that you're living a few hours apart presents some difficulties, but they're not entirely insurmountable; only find some pastimes which require you to be in her area a lot, and if you have any friends who live near her then arrange as often as possible that you see her in social contexts where you two are not alone. Talk to her as little as politeness allows, but don't be cruel; you just want her to see you at your best without being able to talk to you. You also don't want to burn any bridges – you want her to be clear on the fact that she's going to have to step forward if she wants to be with you, but you also want to make it obvious that you aren't seeking revenge against her or trying to get back at her for some perceived slight.

How far should you go? – That depends wholly on how hard-minded she is, how stubborn her spirit is. If she's a particularly stubborn person, and if you can feel that she's really just trying to arrange a situation where she doesn't have to spend time with you, then you may be even more drastic and try to arouse her jealousy directly. Date someone else. Be seen by her with that person often. Invite her to go to dinner with you and your new girlfriend, and say "you don't want there to be any hard feelings."

Love is tough. If you really love someone, sometimes you have to do some tough things to convince them to be with you. Of course, again, your first consideration should be whether you actually love her. If it was really a passing affection which you'll get over soon enough, none of this would really be worth it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:47 PM on October 31, 2009 [6 favorites]


Yeah, good call. I'd gently explain your position to her, then move on.

Maybe include a statement like "i'm glad you're doing what you need to do for your life, and I wish you the best with it," before or after you explain that what you need to do for yourself is to treat this basically as a breakup.
posted by salvia at 2:47 PM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


The thing to remember is "I can't be in a relationship right now" can't possibly be true, anyway. Anyone can be in a relationship at any time. The fact that she said "I can't" indicates that she's afraid of admitting her personal responsibility for her own feelings; she's shifting the blame onto some unnamed cause instead of admitting that "I don't want to be in a relationship right now." And since she's afraid of admitting to herself that it's her feelings which are leading her to say such things, you can bet that she's also worried that her feelings will change.
posted by koeselitz at 2:53 PM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was in a similar situation coming from the female perspective of it. I didn't use those words, but it pretty much came down to us being too different from each other and that right there will make a person not want to be in a relationship. As a matter of fact, I've lost all interest in relationships since then (late summer) and don't pursue dating at all anymore.

I'm under the impression that won't change either. He was a really good guy and treated me well, but we just had such different tastes and ideas that it wasn't coming together like a relationship should.

You haven't mentioned any of the specifics, but there's something there between the two of you that makes it a less than desirable relationship. I'd say, it's just not the one, and if you still want a relationship, I hope you find the right person for you.
posted by VC Drake at 3:03 PM on October 31, 2009


This stuff needs to be cut off. The danger is slipping into a situation where you are hurting and she is around. I would not be "friends" but I would be friendly. That means no long phone calls or any hanging out. Taking it slow scares me and sounds like a lead-on. Find someone who is ready for a relationship.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:49 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I cant be in a relationship right now" really just means "I can't be in a relationship with you," because you're in the only relationship she's in "right now."

Move on. I can't wholly tell you of the heartbreak and subsequent bitterness you will feel if she moves on and finds somebody else, while you patiently and lovingly wait for her. She has broken up with you, or rather nipped your relationship in the bud.



But goodness, do I wish I was wrong. The songs of unrequited love are beautiful, and there is little that is sweeter and more life-affirming than being vindicated in your undying devotion. The romantic / poet / literature-major in me wants you to pursue her, and to prevail.
posted by jabberjaw at 3:50 PM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have been her, and used those words, and I meant exactly that. My life was in a place where I knew I couldn't successfully manage a new relationship (recent ex, not completely extricated from the situation, new job, new city, and it would have been long distance) and I cared about him too much to go through the motions when I knew I couldn't do it justice. Let her know that she can contact you if she changes her mind or her situation changes and move on. If she contacts you and you're available, great. If she doesn't, or if she does and you're in a new great relationship and say no, so be it. It's got to be her call right now.

I hesitate to mention this, because I really don't think you should sit around waiting for her, but sometimes you even get lucky. I did get to the point where I wanted to give things a try and he was available. I am positive that if I had pushed the relationship when I first met him, it would have ended up being short-lived and would have hurt both of us. As it is, we've been married for almost a year.

But please, don't wait around for her to change her mind - she might not.
posted by scrute at 4:14 PM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


I did this to a guy once. I'd just gotten out of a long-term relationship and really wasn't wanting to be tied down again just yet. I gave him the whole "maybe in the future" speech too. I was sending mixed signals by still calling and dropping by and maybe-ing the situation to death. I realized that this poor guy really liked me and I was just leading him on.

I had a decision to make - pursue a relationship or cut him out of my life completely. So I decided to give this wonderful man a chance and four years later, we're still together and very happy. There is hope, but there also needs to be communication there.

So no, it's not cold to cut off contact. Mr. Future didn't do that to me, but he would have been well within his rights to do so. Good luck.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:21 PM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


You'll regret it if you moon around after her, telling yourself that you're just a nice guy trying to be a "friend". She let you down easy so be grateful and move on...and as melismata says, "spare yourself the further aggravation".
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:29 PM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


I agree that this usually means that they don't want to be in a relationship with you. Each and every time I've dealt with this, the object of my affections would move on to someone they could have a relationship with while I continued to say to myself, "In due time..."

My advice would be to move on and start working on yourself. Forget about dating for a little bit and get comfortable with just being. It's usually around the time that you're quite content with yourself and your life that someone comes around who will want to be in a relationship with you. Whether that'll be this girl or someone else, no one can say. But I feel that if she really wanted to be with you, nothing could stop her. Sorry...
posted by arishaun at 4:52 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


It doesn't matter whether she really believes she can't be in a relationship right now (and I don't think that's necessarily bullshit in all cases--getting over a bad divorce or breakup, grieving the death of a close friend or family member, taking care of a small child and finding that takes all her energy, preparing to enter a celibate religious order--those and many other situations do, for some people, make them want to choose to avoid romantic relationships), or whether she just doesn't want to be in a relationship with you.

Because the net/net of either of those situations is that she doesn't want to be in a relationship with you right now. So detach with compassion and look for people who want to be in a relationship with you right now.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:13 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seconding arishaun's second paragraph. A relevant personal story: After being in your position twice in pretty quick succession, I finally managed to convince myself of the truth (of my situation, at least): Someone telling me they weren't ready for a relationship was a method of dodging the talk we'd have to have if she told me she just didn't want to be with me. "The friend zone" may be fodder for romantic comedy hilarity, but it's a very real place, and just about the crappiest and most self-esteem-destroying place for anyone to be. So I took off by myself for a while, avoided romantic and pseudo-romantic entanglements, and spent a lot of time alone and thinking. After a few months of this I met an absolutely wonderful woman who, to my shock, actually pursued me. That was six years ago, and now we live together.

The upshot here is that spending some time by myself did a couple of things for me: It helped to clear my head of some pretty distracting nonsense, it helped to relieve the kinds of social pressures that kept me from being more confident, and overall it helped me to be more comfortable in my own skin -- rather than constantly trying to solve the unsolvable problem of why she didn't like me. And it helped me to recognize quality when it came along, in the form of my girlfriend. Because I kept beating myself up over my inability to get Unattainable Woman X to like me, I wound up thinking a lot less of myself, and so when someone else actually did like me, I tended to think there was something wrong with that person (to this day I'm convinced I missed out on some quality sex because of this mindset). And had I not taken some serious me-time before meeting my girlfriend, I probably would have rejected her out of hand, because would never have joined any club that would accept someone like me as a member. The best advice I can give you is to forget this woman, and let her know that simply being friends is not acceptable to you. There's nothing wrong with that, and don't let anyone tell you there is. Make a clean break, focus on your own needs, and maybe you guys can be friends again in a few years.

Chasing an unattainable woman is like trying to solve a problem with no answer; it's like trying to change a tire with an eggbeater. And if you focus too much on trying to use that eggbeater to change the tire, it's easy to overlook the tire iron that might be sitting right next to you.
posted by hifiparasol at 5:22 PM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


*by "unattainable woman" I simply mean someone who doesn't want to be with you; I'm not intending any weird sexist comments about there being women out there who are simply untouchable by mortal men, so sorry if it came off that way.
posted by hifiparasol at 5:25 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you don't cut her off, then there's about an 80% chance that you'll still be hanging around when she meets someone who rings her bell and suddenly finds that she's just dying to be in a relationship. (Oh, and he'll be a musician who treats her like crap.) I promise you, heartbroken now is nothing compared to the way you'll feel then.
posted by nicwolff at 6:03 PM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is the standard answer to this question.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:20 PM on October 31, 2009


..er, the second half of the cartoon, that is.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:22 PM on October 31, 2009


I'm not intending any weird sexist comments about there being women out there who are simply untouchable by mortal men

We call those ladies "stone dykes" in my neck of the woods.

Which brings up another totally non-bullshit reason for "I can't be in a relationship right now"--someone who's questioning their sexual orientation often chooses to get their head firmly set about it before moving ahead with relationships.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:05 PM on October 31, 2009


koeselitz: The thing to remember is "I can't be in a relationship right now" can't possibly be true, anyway.

Sidhedevil: I don't think that's necessarily bullshit in all cases--getting over a bad divorce or breakup, grieving the death of a close friend or family member, taking care of a small child and finding that takes all her energy, preparing to enter a celibate religious order--those and many other situations do, for some people, make them want to choose to avoid romantic relationships... another totally non-bullshit reason for "I can't be in a relationship right now"--someone who's questioning their sexual orientation often chooses to get their head firmly set about it before moving ahead with relationships.

All true, although I think those are more situations where someone shouldn't be in a relationship (not situations where they can't.) I should clarify: I'm not saying you should just ignore whatever she says. But the fact of the matter is that someone who feels like they shouldn't be in a relationship because of X says "I don't think I should be in a relationship because of X." Maybe that's what she said in this case, but I have a feeling the poster would've mentioned it; and when people say "I can't be in a relationship right now" and can't or won't give a concrete reason, they're often saying so out of an impulse or out of a momentary uncomfortable-ness with a situation; many, many people have been wrong before about whether they're ready for a relationship. All I mean to say to mattsweaters is that he should probably stick around until he figures out which it is.
posted by koeselitz at 7:19 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


koeselitz, I think you're really kind of splitting hairs over some presumed, necessary difference in saying "I can't be in a relationship now because of [stressful situation X]" and "I shouldn't be in a relationship right now because of [stressful situation X]." Most people are not going to use one over the other to connote some sly semantic difference.
posted by scody at 8:06 PM on October 31, 2009


[sorry, this part got cut off]

Maybe that's what she said in this case, but I have a feeling the poster would've mentioned it; and when people say "I can't be in a relationship right now" and can't or won't give a concrete reason, they're often saying so out of an impulse or out of a momentary uncomfortable-ness with a situation;

You're assuming this woman didn't give a concrete reason to him simply because he didn't give a concrete reason to us. But when the OP says "she has a lot to deal with," it's entirely possible he was just employing a useful shorthand so that the discussion didn't get bogged down in the details of her life and people's anecdotes and opinions as to whether or not her circumstances are sufficiently stressful ("well, when I was in grad school and working two jobs and my dad was dying of cancer, I still managed to start a relationship, so she's full of shit" vs. "yeah, well, I was a basket case, except that it wasn't grad school and it was my mom, so she's totally being truthful"). Just because he doesn't share those details with the hive mind doesn't mean the woman didn't share them with him.

Anyway, I do agree that it's entirely plausible that "I can't be in a relationship right now because I have a lot to deal with" may just be a cop-out, in which case she lacks the self-awareness to be fully honest with herself or mattsweaters. It's also every bit as plausible that it's the god's honest truth, in which case she does have the self-awareness to have been fully honest with herself and mattsweaters. But either way, it doesn't actually change what the healthy course of action is for him to follow.
posted by scody at 8:19 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


(and now I appear to be the one splitting hairs a little bit. sorry! I'm totally not trying to be fighty.)
posted by scody at 8:23 PM on October 31, 2009


(It's all good! I'm not trying to be fighty either, though I know I sound it sometimes. I'm really not the best authority on love, anyway, so – my comments above are just a perspective, quite possibly wrong. Good luck, mattsweaters; hope all goes well.)
posted by koeselitz at 8:50 PM on October 31, 2009


To continue the fun hair-splitting, I think "can't" is a valid descriptor. For me, "can't be in a relationship" could be shorthand for "I can't live up to my own standards for behavior in a relationship right now" or "can't promise to be available, given the emergencies that are going on," or "can't deal with having one more thing to think about right now without my head exploding," which are different from "I'm not interested in being in a relationship with you now or ever."

Having just gone through a minor stressful situation, I've just been noticing how much more difficult it was to do basic relationship maintenance. I was preoccupied, likely to forget plans or want to cancel them at the last minute, unable to mentally set aside my thoughts to truly focus on my friends, certainly unable to track their lives day-in day-out like I normally do ("how was the __ meeting?"). A bunch of my friendships felt totally one-sided for about three weeks, with people remembering to check in with me, and me barely able to return the email due to needing to do logistical tasks related to the external factors, or get as much support and advice as possible in a short timespan from whichever friend would be most able to help with a particular issue. And while most actions were not literally impossible, the fact that half of my brain was focused on the stress made many things harder. Even in "free" time, I found myself preoccupied and making mistakes (e.g., forgetting to call back) despite my best intentions. So, sure, I was still "in" those relationships, but my faculty for carrying out relationship-maintaining activities was materially different from just weeks earlier, without any drop in the esteem I felt for my friends. And this was a minor distraction. Anyone who has gone through extreme grief, depression, or anxiety can tell you that as much as one might will themselves to behave a certain way, the line between "can't" and "won't" does blur.

I wouldn't use the word "shouldn't." If I was feeling the difference between "should do" and "actually want to do," it'd be a completely different situation. "I really think you're great and want to hang out this evening, but I should go home and do some homework," is a pretty high-capacity situation -- I'd have the energy to formulate a spare desire, and the energy to override it with a "should" based on a conscious evaluation of priorities. Under stress, it's more like "Who? I can't even think about her, I'm going to fail this test and get kicked out of school!" It's survival mode with few resources to spare, and a high need to drop anything that's not the top thing being dealt with. It's true that there are implied priorities, but in situations like a sick parent, the choice to prioritize the parent doesn't usually feel optional, and it's pretty natural that anything new, any budding relationship, would not be something so core to someone's identity or their main support network that it would fall off of the list.

posted by salvia at 9:47 PM on October 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think I know what you mean, salvia – "I can't be in a relationship right now" can mean "even though I'd otherwise like to, I need to make the decision not to."
posted by koeselitz at 9:56 PM on October 31, 2009


Thanks everyone for the advice. I've been blown off and have blown people off and this is different. She really is in a hard/weird place in her life..but, it doesn't make it any easier. I'm going to give her space and take some time to fix somethings about myself, which is always a good thing. A couple years ago I probably would have waited and got hurt even more, that's at least a positive of having your heartbroken in the past. I'm not going to say things between us are over forever, I'm not someone who holds a grudge, but I'm also not going to wait around either.

Thanks mefites! this thread really helped when I was weighed down by doubts and the "what ifs"
posted by mattsweaters at 1:22 PM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


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