Do I break up with my (much older) boyfriend?
May 31, 2009 5:21 PM   Subscribe

Dead ex, fifteen year age difference, with jazzy tunes in the background.. help? (aka- do I dump my boyfriend?)

I really appreciate some input on this. I need a perspective that is outside of the relationship.
Since last January I have been dating a guy on again and off again. I am 22 and he is 37. He is not a conventional 37 year old by any means - he is a (locally) well-known Jazz musician by trade, very flaky, and disorganized. He works odd jobs to make money but the driving force in his life is music. He is a loner by nature... he has a few friends, through music, but in his spare time he either hangs out alone or with me. The age difference hasn't been a huge problem because I, being 22, work odd jobs and am a bit loopy myself.
he came with a lot of baggage... his best friend and ex of eight years died unexpectedly a bit less than a year before we met and started dating. She was actually seriously dating someone else the entire time they were together.

We weren't friends first. We met, hit it off, hooked up, and kept up the routine. This is my first relationship and I really love him. He is my best friend and we have a blast together. (also the sex is great). It's wonderful to be so comfortable with someone. I think a lot of my euphoria may have to do with being in love with the relationship itself, as it's the first time I have experienced this.

Here's the problem (*dun dun dun*): One of the first few times we talked, he said that he felt "emotionally numb" after his friend died; as though he didn't feel like he would be able to have a connection like that again with someone. He said he didn't think he could date anyone for awhile, but after awhile we got together anyway. And now, over a year later, I feel like he is emotionally closed off. I was reading some poems of his in his journal (with his permission) and came across a letter he wrote to her. He was so passionate in his words, and he has never been that way with me, not to that extent ever. With me it's more playful, superficial and silly.

We also have different expectations of the time we spend together. Right now we have been spending more time together, after an off phase, and we see each other about two or three times a week. I would love to see him every other day, and at least talk to him once a day. He could go days without seeing me or talking to me (note - he saw his ex once a week at most, once every few weeks normally). He is incredibly sweet and happy to see me when we do get together, but I feel like I'm not a big part of his life.

The combination of these two things, plus all the baggage ("i'm not as independent/artistic/cool as his ex) make me really insecure. We talk about this, and I often express that I'm sad and want to see him more. And if not, I want more affirmation that I am important to him. He says that he is busy and that he just isn't up for being social, or wants to relax alone. This is the reason we (always me) decide to stop hanging out, because I am unhappy with the amount of time we spend together and I'm left wanting more. He says that he realizes the positive impact it has on me when he is open and assertive of our relationship (by calling me when he's sick, saying "I love you" bringing me flowers), but that sometimes it just feels "wrong" to be this way. (The time we spend together is always, always positive. Us expressing our appreciation for each other, being smiley, etc.. And, he never gets annoyed when I tell him I want to see him more, or when I do call him more. He just is sad that I am not always happy, and he always comes to see me in those moments.)

But we always wind up hanging out again and I have tried to cut off contact, but we always touch base after a week or so, get together, and have an awesome time. I don't know what to do. Am I a crazy punch-drunk 22 year old who needs to wake up and realize he's not going to come around? That's what my friends say but I just keep going back and they get mad. But I don't complain to them, and I keep this relationship pretty private.

We are on the upswing and I know the cycle is going to repeat itself unless I do something. To be honest, I want to know: is there even a CHANCE that he will change? and if not - and this is the main question - how do I cut this out?

(and yes, I've been casually dating other people but I just don't feel the same way about any of them).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There is something skeezy about a 37-year-old dude dating a 22-year-old woman, as pointed out by XKCD's Standard Creepiness Rule- somehow even more so when it's the 22-year-old's first relationship.
Find someone your own age who can find the time to treat you like you deserve.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:32 PM on May 31, 2009 [5 favorites]

Am I a crazy punch-drunk 22 year old who needs to wake up and realize he's not going to come around?

Yes. I'm sorry, but yes. Your boyfriend's age has nothing to do with this situation, except that it does reinforce my suspicion that he's a perpetual 22 year-old himself who will probably not miraculously grow up and learn to participate whole-heartedly in a real relationship. Part of being 22 means that you will date silly flakes who are self-aware enough to feel guilty for not treating you right, but too self-involved to really meet your needs. Luckily, these relationships present you with an opportunity to grow up and realize that you do deserve far better than what your really fun, sweet, and remarkably selfish boyfriend is offering you. Kindly and gently break up with him by telling him everything you've told us, and this time don't let him meander back into your life.
posted by zoomorphic at 5:33 PM on May 31, 2009 [3 favorites]

I dunno -- maybe this is me approaching my 30th birthday talking or something, but this doesn't press my DTMFA trigger like askmes usually do.

Probably the main reason for that is that you seem to have really strong feelings toward this guy, and it's silly to pull the dumping trigger needlessly. Especially since it seems like what's going on here is 90% baggage, if he's behaving toward you dramatically differently from the way he behaved toward the ex. So perhaps making it clear to him that he's on the way out unless he deals with that baggage, e.g., with counseling?
posted by paultopia at 5:38 PM on May 31, 2009

One of the first few times we talked, he said that he felt "emotionally numb" after his friend died; as though he didn't feel like he would be able to have a connection like that again with someone.

When someone tells you something about themselves, believe them.

is there even a CHANCE that he will change?

No. People can change, but if he was going to as a result of his relationship with you, he would have already done so.

It seems like you have a choice - you can continue this relationship, knowing that you aren't going to get what you really want out of it, or you can end it. How do you cut this out? You may have to stop contacting him to really end the cycle. Only you can decide whether having him in your life is worth dealing with not having him in your life the way you want.
posted by jeoc at 5:39 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, this is getting lengthier than I meant it to... it sounds familiar, though.

Your narrative of him and the time you spend together sounds like the relationship is fundamentally imbalanced. He: Is closed off emotionally from you, content with a superficial and silly time, on his schedule.
You: want more from him, emotionally and time-wise. You hinge a lot of your happiness on him, it sounds like.

But it also sounds like, even though you really enjoy the time you spend together, it's completely skewed- he's the one setting the limits, and the emotional tone. He's not going to change, because I don't see him WANTING to change, or to address the things that make him "emotionally closed off."
That being said.... he's a friend with benefits. If you're okay with that, and okay with keeping on his terms (I sense you're not, thus the ask)... then carry on.
Not okay with going on his terms?

Break up with him. Completely. Don't talk to him or see him for a while. Keep yourself busy with friends, work, activities and things that are good for you. Cry. Listen to the blues. Write anguished poetry in your journal. Mope and curse at romantic comedies. Work up a sweat in the gym. Yes, it will suck HARD to be without him, but you will get through it.

Get over this guy.... and DO NOT contact him as a friend AT ALL until you have found someone else, who is smart, funny, silly, makes you feel good AND lavishes you with love and affection and passionate letters and emotional openness. (And thus, fantastic sex) You deserve all of these things. Right now, hon, you sound like you're convincing yourself to be happy with crumbs, on Mr. Older-But-Not-Wiser's terms. And living in the shadow of his dead ex to boot.

Don't use his baggage as an excuse- Everybody's got baggage. His is a little more melodramatic than some... and until he examines it, on his own, willingly, his baggage, and his attempts at relationships, are just gonna keep circling the baggage claim of life, festering and getting dusty.
posted by SaharaRose at 5:45 PM on May 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

You might read this thread about 'after the lets-be-friends talk' because I sense a similar thread.

You want the relationship to be a particular way. You've told him (and asked him?) and he is unwilling and possibly unable by nature to give you what you want.

I'm going to give you the same advice I gave the other fellow - when someone tells you something about themselves - BELIEVE THEM.

Reading over what you've written:
He is a loner by nature

One of the first few times we talked, he said that he felt "emotionally numb" after his friend died; as though he didn't feel like he would be able to have a connection like that again with someone. He said he didn't think he could date anyone for awhile, but after awhile we got together anyway. And now, over a year later, I feel like he is emotionally closed off.

He says that he is busy and that he just isn't up for being social, or wants to relax alone.

He says that he realizes the positive impact it has on me when he is open and assertive of our relationship (by calling me when he's sick, saying "I love you" bringing me flowers), but that sometimes it just feels "wrong" to be this way.
He may well still be grieving from the loss of this ex - his comments about it feeling 'wrong' to be affectionate suggest that. He seems comfortable with how often he sees you, and although he expresses regret that you're hurt, he hasn't moved to change that.

So, you should proceed on the basis that he will continue to operate as he has - according to everything he's told you and how he's behaved, he is not willing or able to change. I'm assuming you've flat out told him that the relationship isn't working for you as is, and his response hasn't been any lasting change.

The only way to cut this out - stop seeing him. Stop hanging out. Tell him it's nothing personal, but it's clear he's not in the same place.

There may be, at some unconscious level, some little part of you that's thinking maybe I could be the one to break him out of his shell/heal his broken heart/make him love me if I was cool enough.

One hard, hard lesson that many people (including myself) have to learn through bitter experience is that you can't save anyone. You can't heal anyone. You can only support them in changing when they want to change.

I'm sorry, but he's told you very clearly what he can give. If it's not enough, then you need to break the cycle.
posted by canine epigram at 5:46 PM on May 31, 2009 [4 favorites]

This is a classic example of not having "the talk" early on in a relationship. It'll keep on this course until you do sit down and talk about your relationship, it's boundaries, and what it means.
Age differences aren't really that big of deal, as you get older you'll realize this.
posted by P.o.B. at 5:52 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is my first relationship and I really love him.

You're dating a much older man who's last girlfriend of eight years died about about a little less than 12 months before ya'll starting dating. You're in over your head and he doesn't want anyone in his head right now. So let it go and move on to someone more your speed. Do it soon, before you grow to hate him. You two have different needs and the longer you try to work it out, the more tension will be added to the relationship.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:11 PM on May 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

He might change. But you might change too, in the long run. I am in a situation that was very similar to yours in the beginning. 17 year age difference, and he is also a musician by trade, very flaky, and disorganized. We met when he was only a few months out of bad break-up... bad in that he had loved his ex very much, but they had reached an impasse over marriage and children. The first six months we dated were very similar to what you described. When were together, everything was great. But I felt there was an emotional distance sometimes as well as gaps in communication, and I knew that he was still not over his ex.

At one point, I had decided to break up with him, but it was during the holidays, and I decided to put it off until January. But then suddenly, something clicked. He was just more there. Things still moved slowly (it was almost a year before I met his closest friends, and two years before I met his parents), but they did move. Five years later we've weathered both being layed off, the death of his parents, and my dalliance with cancer. We're moving in together next month, and talking about marriage.

However, when I met him, I was 31... and this was far from my first relationship. So even if your guy does come around, and gives you what you need in a relationship now, it's likely that your needs and outlook on life may change. At 37, he's fairly locked in as far as personality and lifestyle. But at 22... a lot can change. So think about how much you really want to invest in something that in a few years, might not be what you want.
posted by kimdog at 6:12 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you want to just have a fun, easygoing thing for now, stay with him. If you want something more involved from him, you probably aren't going to get it, so you may want to end the relationship.
posted by ishotjr at 6:24 PM on May 31, 2009

This is a fling, not a keeper.

I don't think he is intending to use you but practically speaking, this is what is happening. And when he finally does get his mess together, more than likely he will be the one to break it off and find someone fresh-albeit with totally warm memories of you, to be sure.

If you are looking for something permanent, this is not it, and ten years from now you will be glad of the fact.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:26 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have dated this guy. He's not going to change, mostly because what he has now is working for him. He has a woman he can see when he wants, sleep with when he wants, not make a commitment to, and not have to feel uncomfortably emotionally vulnerable with. He will always be able to find women who will give him this. If you're not happy with that, this is not the relationship for you.
posted by decathecting at 7:04 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

He won't change. Also, he's poor, without any upward mobility. It might not be important to you now, but it's going to be important to you when you want to have children, etc. Don't invest in this guy. He seems nice, but his "artistic" problems (sadness over an ex that wasn't interested in him anymore and apparently she's his muse or ideal or whatever) are going to get in the way and make you feel bad about yourself.

So, get over him, don't sleep with him, and find someone new. He sounds like a pain in the ass and he's poor. Dump him.
posted by anniecat at 8:07 PM on May 31, 2009

Wait, scratch what I said about the ex. It didn't click until I posted that they'd been together for eight years. Still, he should quit blabbing about how he misses her to you and go to a therapist. He still sounds like a ridiculous manchild. Get rid of him and wait for the next guy to come along.
posted by anniecat at 8:11 PM on May 31, 2009

He is feeding off your insecurity. He calls the shots. He takes you out and plays with you when it's convenient for him. Other people can offer you great sex, reliability, and stability. This guy sounds like just another dickhead masquerading as a sensitive artist.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:17 PM on May 31, 2009 [4 favorites]

This "keep getting back together" thing is really typical for a first relationship. You can keep choosing to go around on the merry-go-round as many times as you like, but once you realize it's a cycle, it becomes easier to get off.

Will he change? Ask him. "You said you feel numb. I want something that is real. Something committed and open. Is this going to turn into that?"

My guess, based on the fact that his closest relationship was an ex- dating someone else (someone not emotionally available to him), and based on the fact that he's not grieving openly with you, is that he doesn't really want an emotionally close relationship, and that this is just the latest manifestation.
posted by salvia at 8:26 PM on May 31, 2009

Yeah, fundamental power imbalance here. He doesn't want this anywhere near as badly as you do. It suits him for the time being. It doesn't sound as though he has much passion for this - he has even tried to say so by calling himself "numb." Whatever the reason, he doesn't feel it.

You're wise to notice it. In your position and at your age, many people would assume the problem was within themselves. It's not. He sounds like a Peter Pan type, and probably won't change because this is his chosen life. I'm sure he enjoys having you in it, but he also will be all right without it.

It does sound like you want more - like, a mutually rewarding relationship in which you feel valued and appreciated, and have a better amount of access to your SO, and agree upon how much communication you would like to have and how much time you spend together, and make plans for the future. That probably won't be happening with this guy. So I agree with others who say: if you can handle taking this as relationship experience, enjoying the companionship and the sex, and not setting your hopes any higher, then of course it would be fine to stay in this and take it as it comes. But if you feel unsatisfied often, or frustrated with what's missing, or feel a hint that something more is out there -- well, it is. You have a lot of living ahead of you, and your relationships can be a lot more mutually rewarding than this. So I guess the question for you is what you need and want right now - which is most valuable to you, the relationship experience you are getting with this guy now, which gives you some of what you want and the nice feelings you have when you are together - or the possibilities that might lie beyond this guy, who is a bit stuck.
posted by Miko at 8:28 PM on May 31, 2009

Am I a crazy punch-drunk 22 year old who needs to wake up and realize he's not going to come around?

I'm sorry to say that I'm going to join in with the rest of the people who've answered your question and say yes. As Miko said, "he's doesn't want this nearly as badly as you do" and I think that's exactly right. There's a lot of water under the bridge between 22 and 37 and some of the damage is permanent. If it's not what you want right's not going to be. I don't doubt that he cares for you, but it's not a big part of his life, and it's not likely to ever be. I'm not being ageist here, but your early twenties are a time for BIG romances - one of which might become your life love. Please don't waste your time chasing after damaged goods, which this guy definitely is. You're too young to settle - please don't.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:23 PM on May 31, 2009

He might be a magnificently interesting, smart, funny, sexy, artistic, attractive guy.
He might also be stimulating, intriguing and challenging.
He might be 100% more interesting than any guy you've ever met.
But he is emotionally unavailable to you and the price you will pay for staying with him is way too high because you each have different expectations of what you need from each other.
(Believe me, I am well-qualified to answer this.) The answer to your question unfortunately is no, he will not change.
Not being with him is definitely the harder way but short term pain for you is going to improve your life in ways you can't imagine. He is probably not intentionally hurting you but this relationship is hurting you and will continue to chip away at your self-worth. Asking painful questions like this one at age 22 is awesome. Good luck.
posted by lois1950 at 9:30 PM on May 31, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think this could work.

In the spirit of "you can't change others, you can only change yourself," here's what I think is going on, and what you can do if you want it to work. It will take one conversation with him, and two changes on your part:

- He's romanticizing a dead person, and you are competing with a dead person.
When people die, we sometimes forget the more negative things about them. In this case, he's remembering a terrific person -- and maybe she was, but she was also cheating on him for the entire 8 years they were together? So, not really that terrific. You are absorbing this, and trying to compete with her memory... a memory of his that has changed to an angelic one after her death.

To do: Tell him you've been trying to compete with the dead woman, and that you feel like you are coming up short. Ask him to talk less with you about the dead woman's perfection. Then, stop trying to compete. When you find yourself making comparisons, remind yourself that she'd dead, was never perfect in real life, and that he's idealized her memory. You are wonderful in your own way, and these are two different relationships. He can love her memory, and still love you very much.

- You two have needs when it comes to time alone versus time together.
He's a loner, and always has been. Even in his "perfect" relationship with the dead woman. You feel like it is a reflection on you, and that it's a measure of your relationship.

To do: Tell him that you feel like, when he doesn't want to spend time with you, that means he doesn't like you. If you find that you are playing it up a little to gain his immediate attention (such as, you tell him you miss him soooo much that you cry, and so he rushes over), stop that nonsense game. Start reminding yourself that this is just one part of his personality, and take the good with the bad. Find other ways to have that need met, by picking up additional activities and friends.
posted by Houstonian at 3:19 AM on June 1, 2009

I'm not being ageist here, but your early twenties are a time for BIG romances - one of which might become your life love. Please don't waste your time chasing after damaged goods, which this guy definitely is. You're too young to settle - please don't.

Exactly. You are only young once. I have dated much older (emotionally unavailable) men when I was younger and I regret every minute of it. There is something very telling about these relationships. I didn't have enough love for myself or confidence to date men that really wanted me. I wasn't seeking out supportive, "normal" relationships (platonic and romantic) with people my own age. Don't be one of these dumb women that hold out hope that this old guy is going to change.

I think it's very important, and fun, to hang with people your own age. (Do you bring your 22-year-old friends around when you're with him? Does he know your friends? Would you feel comfortable introducing him to your parents?)

Stop wasting your time with this guy who can't give you what you want. Every minute you spend with this guy, who could honestly take you or leave you, you could be with friends and lovers your own age who you can build lasting relationships with. Don't hang around for several more years with this dude and lose this precious time.

A lot of 37-year-old guys would probably physically love the idea of having a 22-year-old woman to have sex with on a regular basis. Most of them can't because they're in a relationship, usually married with children, and your average 22-year-old women wouldn't give them the time of day. Not to be crass, but it sounds like he's using you for your body and likes that idea that this is your first relationship. He's stringing you along and he's probably a creep.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 5:44 AM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

You have been romanticising him, because he is a stereotype of an artist who is easy to romanticise. It sounds like he has qualities you admire and want, and you want reflected in you, and thats what you don't want to leave.

The warnings for me are that 1: your friends don't like him and 2: you keep this relationship private. If you can't have him fit seamlessly into the other parts of your life, parts you need equally strongly and would miss if you didn't have, get rid. There are people who will be that for you - people you can date who will also become friends with your friends.

There is a phase that people often go through in their teens/20s where they mistake a bit older/weirder for more mature/adult. It sounds like you are growing out of him. Don't beat yourself up for that.

"i'm not as independent/artistic/cool as his ex) make me really insecure"

You can be as independent/artistic/cool as his ex when you are 37. Probably more so, because if you didn't know her then that is just a picture you've built up and got from him, and he is romanticising her too.

Be alone for a while after this. Until you feel secure and happy and artistic and cool and all the things you want to be. You can't absorb these things from anyone else, you will discover them by yourself. It just might take a while longer.
posted by iamnotateenagegirl at 9:38 AM on June 1, 2009

There doesn't have to be anything wrong with him or you for this relationship to be more trouble than it's worth. Don't regret the fun you had, just look at what your actual interactions are currently doing to your psyche. If it's bumming you out all the time, quit. If you're willing to put up with the negatives to be with him, continue. But I seriously doubt it's going to magically become the intimate everyday affair that you're fantasizing about anytime soon.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:00 AM on June 1, 2009

He will never love you the way that you love him.

He will never love you the way that you love him.

He will never love you the way that you love him.

He will never love you the way that you love him.

You can play around with the statement above ad infinitum, but the basic truth remains.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:23 AM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

It sounds like continuing this relationship will lower your self-esteem in the long run, given the way the relationship dynamics are playing out: the different expectations re spending time together which seem to be making you feel like you're being needy and not wanted as much as you'd really prefer, the baggage that he's foisting on you... etc.
It's worrying that you're putting his ex on a pedestal; I suspect you keep on comparing yourself to her because you love him (but of course he still kinda loves her, and has a beautiful romanticised picture of her in his head) - and so when he talks about her with his attachment to her (or the idea of her) very apparent, describing her in all sorts of good ways etc, then you wind up wishing you could make him as happy as she made him, or being that person that he loved and filling that kind of space for him, since he seems to still want her, and since he's still carrying that baggage without having fully recovered from it all. Your relationship doesn't seem balanced - it sounds like you feel for him more than he does for you, and even though you mentally understand that he is "emotionally numb" and less available than you'd like him to be and have been trying to proceed with the relationship anyway, you haven't emotionally reconciled yourself to that understanding because your heart really does want more than what he's giving you and hearts are tricky things.

I know of some relationships that started out like this and improved, and some that just got worse. What exactly do you hope he will change? His schedule? His preferences re spending time together? His affection for you (vs his longing/nostalgia for his ex)? ...Even if he does change, it will take time. And you deserve better.
(Also, the unbalanced dynamics of this relationship seem to be taking their toll on you, and - especially since this is your first relationship - it's not a good idea to go into your future relationships with sad baggage (e.g. insecurity, comparing yourself to ex-es, feeling like your SO won't always be there for you, etc) from this relationship.)

To cut it out... cut off contact with him, and get your friends to hold you accountable (and keep you from contacting him or getting back together with him). Maybe you need to start confiding more in your friends.
posted by aielen at 11:45 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

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