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How to resolve rational/emotional conflict over temporary LDR?
September 12, 2012 6:50 PM   Subscribe

My serious partner and I are not going to see each other for about two months, and its causing intense depression for me. Is this period of long distance in my serious relationship an opportunity to work on improving myself and fixing the mental health issues it triggers? Or is the difficulty I'm having a sign that I'm not cut out for this kind of relationship? Help me think this through and make the right decisions!

Here are the details:

My boyfriend and I have been dating for two years. I am in my mid-twenties, he is in his early thirties. We are both musicians and both have moved about once a year for most of our adult life. Our lifestyle is alternative enough that marriage and having a family are not active concerns for us at all.

We've lived together for about a year and a half of our relationship. During this time, we've had our struggles and most of them were because of cohabitation: we both do creative work for most of the day, everyday and neither of us work regular jobs, so living together meant that we were literally in each other's presence all day, everyday. We get along extremely well, but this close proximity started eating away at our individual pursuits, especially in the form of our large-scale creative projects. We both started feeling very restless and depressed, confused about how we could be so in love and be so compatible but still feel a constant undercurrent of resentment that would manifest in bad moods and occasional fights. Luckily, we've figured all of this out and are consciously making sure that we both get the space we need to do the things we need to do.

Boyfriend has about 3 full-length records waiting to be produced that he's kept on the back burner since we started dating that he is now turning his attention towards. He has found an absolutely perfect living situation that is cheap, flexible and also involves access to recording/production resources that he otherwise would not have. I have taken a job for the fall semester that I have always wanted and am enjoying it immensely. It pays well, but it is only part-time so I have a lot of free time still. I also have a recording project that I've been putting off for about a year that I'd like to complete. Our individual living situations for the next 3 months place us about 12 hours of driving apart. After the semester is over, we have plans to live in the same city again and maybe live together if all of his work is complete. We'll visit each other in late October.


When I am feeling relaxed and secure, I feel good about what we are doing. I am happy that our relationship is built of respect for each other's needs and I am proud of what we are doing individually. There is some quote by Rainer Maria Rilke that suggests the ultimate goal of marriage is to become the protector of each other's solitude (sorry for butchering that quote, can't find my book at the moment). I find this sentiment to be so beautiful and inspiring that it makes me shed a tear! In other words, I like this situation. Rationally.

Here's the problem:

No amount of rational Rilke-reading can keep me from becoming a sobbing mess about 2 or 3 times a week. I am not good at being alone. I'm having deep, deep trouble with this separation and I can't think my way out of it. When I feel upset, it doesn't even come from anywhere in particular - it starts as a physical feeling in my chest and I spend the next half an hour trying *everything* to keep it away, but eventually I break down in tears for anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple hours of on and off crying. Even when I'm not acutely upset, I'm having a lot of trouble focusing. I had to drop an online class I was taking and have barely touched my music gear. I go on trips to visit friends every weekend to try to keep myself busy.

What is confusing and distressing to me is that when I am depressed and upset, I feel like I can't handle this situation for another minute. I often feel like I should bail on the relationship because I am not strong enough to endure the separation and it is distracting me from my own goals. I KNOW these are extreme negative thoughts, but the pain I'm feeling is real and the thoughts do sort of make sense on a rational level: if I'm suffering so much, I should change something I can control to make me suffer less. I don't feel particularly nervous that my boyfriend is going to leave me, I don't worry AT ALL that he going to cheat on me. There isn't anything in our relationship that I can blame this on. He texts me throughout the day and we talk on the phone every couple of days, which is fine with me.

I realize I'm anxious and depressed. I wasn't like this before my boyfriend left (he's been gone two weeks), but I have been like this on other occasions when he's gone on trips for more than 4-5 days, so its not a huge surprise. I have contacted a therapist, but it looks like I won't be able to talk to anyone for a couple of weeks. I feel like all of my energy is going towards keeping myself on an even keel. I'm dissatisfied with what I'm accomplishing right now. I feel so confused.

---Am I going to feel better, or am I a person who just can't be alone for extended periods of time? If its the latter, do I do my best to take life day by day until we get back together, or do I bail on this relationship so that I don't waste three months of my life getting nothing done?

---If things are going to get better, how do I deal with these urges to give up that I'm having now? I already rationally support this situation, but the feelings I have are so intense that I can't think my way out of them. Should I contact my G.P. and try to get a script for Xanax or something?

I want to be OK with these next three months so bad, and my rational-brain is. My rational-brain is thrilled, actually. But I'm worried about myself. I don't know how to evaluate this situation! Give me your experiences and advice.
posted by supernaturelle to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not a doctor but when I've run into these uncontrollable, immense emotional interruptions, Xanax has been a godsend. Especially because you only intend to need Xanax and/or have the cause for a short time.

For long term, the therapist sounds like an extremely good plan for exploring why you are so upset will probably help a lot. Like, the deep down reason you get so upset about something that rationally doesn't seem so upsetting to you.

I got this upset when I thought my 6-yr. old thesis was a complete failure because of a small math error I had made (really, I had caused serious damage with a multiplication error). Most of the time I knew I would figure out a solution, but some evenings alone I would just completely fall apart. Taking the Xanax at that time for when I thought I would die of shame and dread pulled me through those awful crying jags so I could count on myself not to spontaneously break down at work and could at least talk to my thesis advisor and figure a way out.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:57 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like a problem you need to fix in yourself, and not a sign that you should end the relationship. You said this has happened whenever he left for more than 4-5 days in the past: a healthy person should definitely be able to cope with a week apart from their partner. If you 'can't be alone', then what is your plan to avoid that? Instantly find another relationship that involves constant contact? Do you always have to be in a relationship? That would be very unhealthy.

What have you been like when you were single in the past? (If you've never been single for a significant time, then that's another red flag.)

So yes, agreed with Tandem Affinity: GP to get something to keep you going in the short term, therapist to figure out how to solve the underlying issue.
posted by jacalata at 7:10 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, Xanax can definitely help. I use it to deal with anxiety, and I find that in times of crisis (i.e., those moments when I feel like I just can't take another second of being in a situation), it can help me feel normal enough to separate actually reasonable thoughts from the mental tape loop of freakout.

Other than that, I think you need a routine of your own for the next few months. You've grown so used to having your partner around that you and he probably shared very similar schedules. When I'm on my own, I try to build more of my own ritual and routine into my day: tea and oatmeal in the morning, exercise in the afternoon, glass of wine at night. It helps me feel like not everything is falling away into total howling chaos all the time.

This line from your post really stood out to me: I KNOW these are extreme negative thoughts, but the pain I'm feeling is real and the thoughts do sort of make sense on a rational level: if I'm suffering so much, I should change something I can control to make me suffer less.

Man, do I know the temptation of "I should change something I can control to make me suffer less." It feels like a rational thought! It seems so reasonable! But I have learned (painfully) that this is anxiety brain talking. You change something and you get this nice shot in the arm, but it doesn't last, and soon you're jonesing for another hit. I found this article pretty helpful on that front.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 7:15 PM on September 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


You talk about visiting friends. Do you have any friends in the city where you live? If so, hang out with them. If not, this is the perfect time to make some!
posted by lalala1234 at 7:19 PM on September 12, 2012


Change yourself, not the relationship. Quit the anxiety, not the relationship.

You know the usual drill we recommend here: Feeling Good by David Burns, talking with friends and finding a "sponsor"/accountability partner (in other words, someone who you'll call when you want to break up with your sweetie, and who will remind you that that's the anxiety talking), therapy. You're talking about semesters, so maybe you're in college or grad school and you can get therapy as part of your school's student health services?
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:26 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not saying whatsoever that you should get married, but the symbolic power of the ceremony and the wearing of rings has a lot of aspects to it that might be helpful to you in this situation. So yes, it is not normal to be a sobbing mess upon short separation from your loved one, and you should definitely talk to a GP and try therapy if it's accessible to you, to try to get to the root of the matter. But perhaps also, you and the boyfriend could exchange objects of some sort? When you're building up your new routine, that object could help remind you, multiple times a day, that this person's presence in your life is still there, even if they aren't physically there. A locket? A watch? An inscribed pocket notebook? Something that you will naturally wear or use during the day, not just when you're actively missing him.
posted by Mizu at 7:28 PM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


My SO and I spend 2-4 months per year apart due to work. We've been together 3.5 years, cohabitating (and dealing with work travel) for about 2. It sucked a lot at first. It sucks less now because I make a point to throw myself into my work, exercise like crazy, reach out to and reconnect with all those friends I don't see enough when I'm wrapped up in relationship-land, and talk/phone my SO frequently.

Also, I like to be involved in an awesome new (to me) TV series, because the lonely feelings tend to get bad when I find myself facing down a quiet night at home, and this is a very helpful way to quickly distract myself if I don't feel like otherwise interacting in the world.

Last also, use the time apart to rationalize a romantic weekend away (or hiding at home) when you guys reunite.
posted by justjess at 7:33 PM on September 12, 2012


You're a musician! Why the heck aren't you tapping into this creatively?????

I say that as a songwriter who has learned that music is a darn fine way to take those negative things and do something productive with them. Some of the work I am the most proud of has been birthed in some of my most emotionally difficult times. So while you are working this out with the aid of the other suggestions here, please do give this a try as well.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:03 PM on September 12, 2012


I can't think of a single thing ending this relationship would do to fix what is happening. How would being single solve your severe anxiety of being alone? You'd still be alone!

I've had serious bouts of anxiety (waiting three weeks for a medical test to show whether I had a horrible incurable disease was not my high point), as I've gotten older I've developed habits and thought patterns to deal with it.

- Exercise, for me at least, is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. If I sit around all day doing nothing physical my anxiety ramps up. I go to the gym 5 days a week, huge difference.

- Talking it out. I've got a few friends and family members that will field an anxiety call and talk me down. Voicing what is causing me to panic takes away it's power. Having someone tell me it'll be ok in a soothing voice brings me back to reality. (I don't recommend using your boyfriend as this person, since this relates to him, but also has nothing to do with him, he may feel resentful.) Did writing this out to metafilter help ease it, or magnify it?

- Therapy. Therapy therapy therapy.

One technique I learned in therapy was to close your eyes, sit still and feel how the anxiety manifests inside your body. Where does it sit? What are your muscles doing? Are they tight, shaking, relaxed? Which muscles? Talk aloud as you describe it. I then slow my breathing and consciously try to change what is physically happening. Our emotional states take cues from our physical state, forcing your body to act calm will have a calming effect on your mind.

If my reactions were as strong and as intense as yours, I would be seeing a pysch for medication. Anxiety is so suffocating, life can be so much better then that.
posted by Dynex at 8:33 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Exercise, exercise, exercise! It cannot be said enough. We humans were built to move when something has made us anxious, be it a bear or a lion. Go work out and then you will be feeling good and like you have worn out the anxiety that when not released can make you feel like a pressure cooker that needs to release it's steam. When I don't work out for a few days I can be quite snappy but afterwards I feel so loose and carefree. It also releases the same brain chemicals that ani-depressants have, so another perk.
posted by eq21 at 8:52 PM on September 12, 2012


No amount of rational Rilke-reading can keep me from becoming a sobbing mess about 2 or 3 times a week. I am not good at being alone. I'm having deep, deep trouble with this separation and I can't think my way out of it. When I feel upset, it doesn't even come from anywhere in particular - it starts as a physical feeling in my chest and I spend the next half an hour trying *everything* to keep it away, but eventually I break down in tears for anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple hours of on and off crying. Even when I'm not acutely upset, I'm having a lot of trouble focusing.

I think you ought to cut yourself some slack. What, exactly, is actually wrong with being a sobbing mass 2-3 times a week? You're human, let yourself grieve the separation.

it starts as a physical feeling in my chest and I spend the next half an hour trying *everything* to keep it away

Most of our pain comes during the "doing everything to keep it away" phase. Your boyfriend will be back. These feelings provide no information as to "what course you should take." They are simply physical reactions to grief--your personal decisions are rational and the answers to them will become evident in time.

Instead of fighting these emotions or looking to them to provide guidance on personal decisions, I simply suggest that you become friends with them. Accept them and experience them, they are the logical outcome of your love for this man.

How to? First, I suggest simple awarness techinques. Sit in a chair for 10-15 minutes a day and pay attention to your breathing. When these thoughts come up, notice them, say "thinking" in your mind and return to following your breath. Be ok with experiencing them, acknowledge them in your mind and move on.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:55 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is not about the separation, this is about your depression and anxiety. See your doctor ASAP, consider meds, see a therapist.
posted by Specklet at 10:17 PM on September 12, 2012


Love hurts. A classic problem with romantic love is that intimacy is risky, and separation involves pain. For those who are especially sensitive, love hurts *more* (and, on the upside, raises one to greater heights of joy). Thus, the more emotionally sensitive the individual, the more they will be wary of romantic love.

One solution is to avoid emotional attachment, or to put a more positive spin on it, to cultivate detachment. It's a valid strategy, but if you want to adopt it, you have to accept that you're not just facing an issue in this relationship, but with attached relationships in toto.

Another approach is to recognize that one must so often take risks to reap rewards. A "safe" life limits risks, but it is also a small and often stagnant life. I know that in my own life, almost all of the best things that I have experienced have involved me risking my reputation or my emotional peace or my financial security. I review these risks and rewards every time I am in a situation where I am afraid to walk some frightening or painful path that could lead me to reach goals I desire.

I second those who have suggested that you accept and "become friends with" feelings of pain at separation, as these are the mirror images of your joy in your relationship.
posted by DrMew at 10:24 PM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


---Am I going to feel better, or am I a person who just can't be alone for extended periods of time?

I imagine that perhaps talking about your feelings (to us, to your friends, and to him) and giving them some attention and compassion, will help them ease up a bit. But you may well be a person who doesn't like to be away from the person you love for extended periods of time, and things may still be a bit up and down.

If its the latter, do I do my best to take life day by day until we get back together, or do I bail on this relationship so that I don't waste three months of my life getting nothing done?

I know how pain has a way of making it seem like you're wrong, or you're doing something wrong, or something absolutely must change. But my guess is that this time could still be useful to you even if you don't get that recording project done.

By befriending your grief, turning toward yourself with compassion, journaling about your feelings, meditating, running, art... you may learn something about where this is all coming from, and you may learn coping strategies that help you. It would be very useful for your life if you could be away from him for more than 4-5 days before you start to feel awful. This is clearly something in your life that needs attention, so perhaps make space to spend time with all of this. I think that would not be "getting nothing done."

You may also want to explore how he feels about this. Have you shared what's going on for you? I can imagine that you don't want to burden him, but I would hope that you can just explain that you're not asking him to DO anything about it and just want to share with him how you're feeling. See if he responds with love and compassion.

It seems like closeness and distance is a real issue that you guys are trying to figure out right now. Now you have some data about yourself, that a three-month break is terrible for you. Could you discuss that after this is over, you'd like to find ways to make time for one another's projects and solitudes without taking months apart?

If he strongly defends the idea of taking three month breaks, or if you explain this non-demandingly but he still accuses you of trying to smother him, well, then ... resolving this may be more complicated, perhaps too complicated. In that case, yes, it's possible that breaking up is the best step. But hopefully he will respond with concern but without feeling like he needs to solve it. And hopefully having that anxious and depressed side of you be seen and known will help you feel more supported and loved as you go through all of this.

--If things are going to get better, how do I deal with these urges to give up that I'm having now? I already rationally support this situation, but the feelings I have are so intense that I can't think my way out of them. Should I contact my G.P. and try to get a script for Xanax or something?

Besides running, journaling, meditation, and channeling this into your art, I think you could use some psychologist support. You might be able to learn why this is particularly intense for you. I don't know why it would take a few weeks to see someone. Just call like six therapists in the phone book and leave this message: "This is [name] at xxx-xxxx. I'm not a client, but I'm in something of a crisis situation. I'm on a break from a long-term relationship and having overwhelming grief and anxiety. I'm looking to meet with someone some time in the next few days. Please give me a call if you might be able to find some time in your schedule. Thank you very much. Again, this is [name] at xxx-xxxx."
posted by salvia at 10:42 PM on September 12, 2012


Let me rephrase part of what I wrote.

Separation is obviously a Big Deal for you. It's your issue to resolve, yes, but life is way better, and relationships are way easier, when (a) your partner's desires are at least a little bit complementary with your own preferences on those Big Deals, and (b) your partner is not triggered by the same issues, so that they can focus on what you're going through and offer love and support when those issues come up, rather than having to focus on the emotions that come up for them. If you want closeness and if not only does he (a) prefer more distance but (b) get overwhelmed by his own emotions here and say things like "you're always trying to smother me!" then that's very hard. Since you guys swung from being together 24-7 to living 12 hours apart for three months, I'm a little suspicious that maybe the closeness thing is a Big Deal for him, too. But that may all also be circumstantial.

When you ask, should I just break up so this pain goes away?, my answer is something like:
- if he can understand that this really doesn't work for you, and if he shows concern and a desire to find solutions that don't freak you out, then this is likely a one-time three month ordeal, so NO
- if he gets all defensive or accusatory no matter how carefully you bring this up, then this long break may recur, and it might be worth making clear that this is a dealbreaker for you and breaking up over it sooner rather than later

Best of luck. This sounds really difficult. You sound like you're trying really hard and doing a great job of acknowledging your emotional reality while trying to balance it with your (Rilke) ideals and your (music project) goals. I think you're going to be fine. Hang in there.
posted by salvia at 11:05 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


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