How Do I Know?
February 22, 2010 2:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I know if a relationship is right for me, if I have nothing to compare it to? What signs can I look for? How much arguing/fighting in a relationship is “normal”? How much do we need to have in common?

These are the questions I am looking to answer. Here is some background info:

I’ve been seeing my girlfriend 5 years as of January –we started going out in high school and are both currently attending college at nearby schools. Not only is this my first serious relationship, it’s pretty much the only one I’ve ever had. The relationship is far from perfect - we often fight over stupid things. Often I worry that we don’t have enough in common or that maybe we don’t quite want the same things out of life. I feel like she over-reacts and is too emotional a lot of the time, whereas I’m the opposite and have a hard time handling her strong emotions. She wants kids at some point. I don’t currently think I will ever want children, but I understand I may change my mind when I get older.

There’s these issues, but we have lots of fun times too. When we don’t get caught up in some stupid fight over nothing, we seem to have a good time together.

My problem is I have nothing to compare this relationship to. I have no idea if we have something “special” going (we have managed to stay together this long), or if we’re not overly compatible (and are together just because it was easier to not breakup). I have no understanding of what a good level of compatibility is or what it should feel like or how much fighting is normal.

I’m starting to worry about this increasingly, because:

-I feel like I have a lot of unintentional commitment to the relationship at this point (she’s surprisingly close with my family for example, it gets harder to break it off as time goes on, things like that). Plus her being so emotional and me not I doubt my ability to even manage to end it if I wanted to.

-We’re both nearing the end of our undergrad degrees. She wants to pursue a graduate degree (it makes sense to do so in her field). I want to move across the country to an area that is both good for finding a job in my industry and ideal for my hobbies/interests. Staying together at that junction will likely take some compromise or sacrifice for one or both of us.

-She’ll have quite a bit of debt when she’s done school and I won’t. Not really her fault per se. It sounds horrible and materialistic, but I resent that I’ll probably end up (directly or indirectly) paying for a chunk of this debt if we stay together in the future

I want to discuss this with her, but these kinds of conversations usually stress her out and end up with her in tears.

This is getting a bit rambling, but it feels good to type it out since I usually keep all this to myself. I’ll try to summarize:

I don’t know whether to stay with my girlfriend of 5 years with whom I have a not-ideal but not all-together bad relationship because I’ve had no other relationships and I don’t understand how this one “ranks”. I feel we may have some different life goals and don’t want to inadvertently make a commitment, but also don’t want to end it on a whim after such a long time. I especially don’t want to end it and later find out that even the best relationships contain these problems and compromises.
posted by Diplodocus to Human Relations (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Your situation sounds similar in some ways to my own. Go see a counselor with her. Open communication is absolutely vital and if it's not happening one-on-one you need a neutral third party to encourage and facilitate it. Avoiding tough conversation never solved anything, and both you and your girlfriend need to be willing to talk. Willingness from just one of you isn't enough.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 2:39 PM on February 22, 2010

I'm not sure that any of us can tell you if your relationship is "good enough" for you, if that's what you're asking. All long-term relationships contain problems and compromises, to answer that question that is squared-up for us. Ask yourself if you're happier with the relationship than without it, and go from there. Comparing this relationship to the relationships of others has very limited utility, though open lines of communication are perhaps the most important aspect of any good one.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:40 PM on February 22, 2010

Every relationship has problems and compromises. You're right that having had other relationships might help you figure out which problems and compromises are appropriate, but it really comes down to how you feel in this particular relationship, not where the current relationship sits on the relationship yardstick.

and don’t want to inadvertently make a commitment

You've been dating for five years. You've already made a commitment.
posted by sallybrown at 2:41 PM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

My two cents:

You don't have the benefit of a parallel universe where you didn't get into a committed relationship without having a backdrop of prior relationship experience for comparison. This (amongst other reasons) is why many people would say marrying too young is problematic. Noone can tell you where your relationship stands on some sort of relative scale of relationships because even if such comparisons were appropriate (they may not be), they would only be meaningful in the context of your own subjective opinion, feelings and degree of happiness you may derive.

Let me sidestep that issue though, and focus on some facts that you point out: a) you and your girlfriend have potentially different goals with respect to children, b) you face the likelihood of a long-term long-distance relationship, c) you resent the notion of commingling finances, d) it doesn't sound like you've talked to her much about (a-c), or at least you failed to include where those conversations took you. These are to me, MAJOR red flags in ANY serious relationship on an absolute scale. If you can't come to a satisfactory compromise about these or even have frank, meaningful conversations about them, you may be in big trouble. TALK TO HER about this.
posted by drpynchon at 2:45 PM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Of course even the best relationships contain arguments and compromises, that's what it's all about. Honestly, after having married my highschool sweetheart and going through a divorce, then trying to date again, I tell you that a) I'm happy with my decision to leave him, we had serious issues but b) the grass ain't greener, there isn't going to be some uber-perfect person just waiting out there for you... the older I get, the less adaptable people seem to be, too.

Be a grown-up now, evaluate things rationally. Evaluate your relationship with her on a pros and cons basis, give them appropriate weighting emotionally, and add it up to determine if you should just take a break. You don't want to revisit all these issues when there's kids involved years down the road. You HAVE to talk to her, and it won't be easy. This won't be short either. But this is preventing a worse train wreck of emotions later, I assure you.
posted by lizbunny at 2:46 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your biggest problem is really bad communication skills. It sounds like you guys were super inexperienced communicators when you started dating (of course, since you were teenagers), and you just have stayed locked into really useless and counterproductive communication patterns since then.

I think if you BOTH work on your communication (with a therapist, with self help books, with a pastor, whatever helps) then either your relationship will improve, or *you* will be able to manage to break it off with her without feeling trapped.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:46 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Long term relationships all have one of two things in common: apathy or a commitment to making it work. You seem to be guilty of the former and lacking in the latter. Genuinely, at the age of 22 you should not already be settling, which it sounds like you are.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:46 PM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Kids and money will get you every time. Regardless of where you end up here, you really need to be on the same page, not resentful, and not counting on eventually having a change of heart. My husband opted to not have kids around age 17, and he's holding steady 21 years later. Some things may not change for you.

Also, inertia sucks. If you're coasting, you probably either need to put in serious work to stop coasting and keep the relationship alive, or you need to stop having the relationship.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:52 PM on February 22, 2010

"but I resent that I’ll probably end up (directly or indirectly) paying for a chunk of this debt if we stay together in the future."

This. Also..

"I want to discuss this with her, but these kinds of conversations usually stress her out and end up with her in tears."


OK. If you don't love her enough to think of this as "our debt" than you and she are at two VERY different places in your life/relationship.

It's OK. You are both very young. People change a lot through these years.

This is probably not the person for you as you both move into this next phase of life, and you should move on. BUT YOU SHOULD NOT MAKE IT ABOUT HER SCHOOL DEBT. She cries because telling her your feelings on this subject is a hurtful way for you to underline that you don't care about her on the same level she cares about you.

Is your family the type to pressure you to work it out with her? Or will they accept your decision and support you?

You're beating yourself up over something that can't be fixed. You are on two different life trajectories. You should be thankful for what has been and move forward with your lives once you graduate. Or now.

If you try to fit your round-self-life into her square-peg-life, or vice versa, you will both screw each other up.

PS - Good luck moving across the country and becoming truly independent. WooHoo!
posted by jbenben at 2:58 PM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

You say nothing about being in love. I'm guessing that you're not, because if you were I don't think you'd be talking about "ranking" this relationship or wondering if indeed you have something special going. I disagree heartily with the advice to approach this pragmatically with an eye toward compromise and communication skills. You don't have children and you don't own property together. If you don't fervently desire to be with her then move on. There is nothing inherently desirable about making every relationship "work."
posted by Wordwoman at 3:03 PM on February 22, 2010 [9 favorites]

Chiming back in with a "why didn't I think of that?" for what jbenben and Wordwoman said. You didn't mention love. If you don't really love the girl, why keep spinning your wheels?

When things are going great for you, who do you want to celebrate with? Her, or someone else?
When you're hurting, who do you turn to for comfort and emotional strength? Again, her, or someone else?

Granted, not all relationships are the same... but I tend to think the answer should be "her" for both questions, if you're really in love. If other names spring to mind instead, you should rethink this "forever" thing.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:14 PM on February 22, 2010

I want to discuss this with her, but these kinds of conversations usually stress her out and end up with her in tears.

A relationship without communication isn't really a relationship at all, in the same sense that you may have a mother, but if you don't communicate with her openly and honestly about things that you're thinking and feeling, you don't have much of a relationship with your mother.

At this point in time you are realizing that what you have may not be what you want, and noticing that you're about to hit a tipping point where ending the relationship will be much, much harder if you decide it's not what you want at a later date. In short, it's the perfect time to be having this open, honest communication with her about your feelings -- and you make it sound as if she doesn't want to participate. That isn't fair to you, not at all.

So attempt to communicate, again and often, with the help of a counselor if you can't get traction yourself -- and don't make any further commitments until you've succeeded in this arena. If she challenges you because you won't commit further, you can challenge her to communicate with you more effectively so that you can feel comfortable making further commitment. It has to come from both sides.

Good luck.
posted by davejay at 3:17 PM on February 22, 2010

Oh, one more thing, and this is pretty key: you may think that breaking up with her (and possibly upsetting her AND your family in the process) makes you a bad guy. It doesn't; she and your family (and you!) can mourn the loss of the relationship without demonizing you, assuming they're normal, reasonable people.

If you want a fully committed, supportive and passionate relationship, both people have to be on board and getting their needs served. You're not (on board or getting your needs served), so this is a fantastic time to address that head-on, regardless of the consequences to the relationship (consider: may break up, but may also become the relationship you need to be in, which you don't have now.)

Finally: make absolutely sure you are careful about birth control, to a ridiculous degree, during this phase of your relationship. Odds are very, very good that your significant other is a wonderful person who wants nothing but good things for you (as I'm sure you do for her), and she wouldn't dare get pregnant intentionally in order to "save" the relationship, but accidents do happen, and during such an emotional time (with such high stakes) it's more likely you two will become lax or careless in this area and inadvertently bring a child into the relationship you're trying to work through.
posted by davejay at 3:21 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was assuming that "love" came into this question without saying; could be that the OP overlooked it because it was so obvious. If not: RED FLAG.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:25 PM on February 22, 2010

Wow I could have been your gf circa 2001. I dated the same guy from age 14-22. I know that feeling that you're in too deep to get out. You're enmeshed in each others' lives and families and it seems like you don't remember another way. I've been there! I guess the first thing that comes to mind is, do you repeatedly wish you had a good excuse to break up with her? Do you wish you could break up with her but you don't think she could handle it? Would you rather be alone sometimes than be involved in all the petty squabbles?

A few suggestions. Don't get engaged, for goodness sake. You think you're in deep now? After the initial warm fuzzies wear off, that feeling will magnify 100x. Take a break from each other. You may well realize you're relieved to be free of that weight. Realize that no matter what, she will be ok. I was in her position and it tore me all to pieces when he and I broke up, but today, many years after the breakup, I'm thankful things ended. I realize now we were horrible for each other, but it took years to understand that.

MefiMail me if you want. I've been in your gf's shoes and I understand it well.
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:25 PM on February 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your thoughtful advice so far. Many of you are right to call me out on “coasting” through the relationship and being apathetic about it. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but this is true. You’re all also right about the communication. I’m not usually much of a communicator in general, especially emotionally – and the fact that she tends to take difficult conversations pretty harshly just makes it worse. Not trying to make excuses, I understand this is bad.

Right now I feel like there’s two parts of my brain competing. One part tells me somewhat objectively that we want different things in life and that I should move on. Meanwhile the other part feels sick even considering just suddenly leaving someone who has been kind and loving towards me for so long. To answer the question ‘do I love her?’ – I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I definitely do. Other times, not so much.

I guess at this point I just need to try and have this talk with her, even though I’m frankly very scared to have it (which is why I’ve put it off).

I’ll appreciate any further advice. Some of it is very stirring to read because it points out things that I didn’t want to admit to myself, but that are very true.

Also: “Do you wish you could break up with her but you don't think she could handle it?
When we’re fighting, yes I do feel like this, although it disappears during our good times. She has somewhat low self-esteem and the thought of actually having to break it off terrifies me in a way that is hard to put into words. CwgrlUp, I may take you up on that offer to talk via MefiMail, since you seem to have her perspective.
posted by Diplodocus at 3:33 PM on February 22, 2010

i read somewhere that you can fight day and night but as long as you're on the same page about how to handle it, you're fine.

eg two people that are the 'confront problem immediately with shouting and hurtful words' will fair better than a couple where one is 'ignore it till it comes to a head' and the other is 'state my position weakly then be passive aggressive till i get my way'.
posted by nihlton at 3:37 PM on February 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

The bottom line is that your relationship should make you happy. You don't sound very happy in this relationship.

>I want to discuss this with her, but these kinds of conversations usually stress her out and end up with her in tears.

This line concerns me a lot. It sounds like in the five years you've been together you two haven't developed any real skill set for resolving conflict. What happens once you guys are on your own? What happens when there is a fundamental disagreement and you need to reach some sort of mutual compromise? Talking one's partner down from the ledge gets old very quickly, and it really skews the dynamic for resolving conflicts. Life is filled with decisions, and the decisions get more complex as you get older. Do you want to be in a relationship with someone who can't discuss an emotionally-laden issue without losing their shit?

If this is someone you love and with whom you can see yourself spending the rest of your life, I think you would both benefit from couples counseling. Conflict resolution is a skill, and it's a skill that both partners need to practice together. Some of us learned these lessons the hard way, by weathering rocky relationships that eventually fell apart, and then analyzing WHY those relationships fell apart, and what/how/and with who we would do things differently the next time. You guys haven't done that, but it also sounds like you (as a couple) haven't acquired the skills to sort out your differences in a calm and effective way. You should really work on that if you see this relationship continuing, and if you don't see this relationship continuing, you should work on that in your next relationship.

A strong relationship doesn't require handstands and cartwheels to maintain: you each get to be yourselves, you like each other for who you are, you share common goals, and when a conflict comes up, you work together to resolve it until you are both satisfied with its resolution. Some people want that but don't have the necessary skills, which is where counseling comes in. Some people don't want to compromise, ever; don't be in a long term relationship with someone like that, as it will only make you frustrated and heartsick. You've been with your GF for five years, so presumably at this point you can tell if she wants the relationship to keep on growing or if she wants to maintain the status quo. If it's the former, I would find a counselor and get to work, and if it's the latter, I would prepare yourself to move on.
posted by mosk at 3:38 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hoooh boy.

Meanwhile the other part feels sick even considering just suddenly leaving someone who has been kind and loving towards me for so long. To answer the question ‘do I love her?’ – I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I definitely do. Other times, not so much.

1. That's called "guilt," not love. While trying to look at this, set aside the whole "BUT I'LL FEEL TERRIBLE" thing.

2. I have totally been in this relationship, but an older person version of it. I felt bad! IT felt bad! I didn't want to break up, because I felt badder about that! But...

I have no understanding of what a good level of compatibility is or what it should feel like or how much fighting is normal.

It was the fighting that did me in. I'm not a fighter! And there was sooo much fighting. Now I'm in a relationship that has no fighting at all. I didn't know that was possible, because I was used to fighting. So how much fighting is "normal" has to do with your own tolerance for fighting. Some people, they maybe even like it? I like "zero to almost none" myself and now I'm extremely happy. (That's not to say there aren't words in every relationship like "Hey, you're wrong" or "Hey that hurt my feelings when..." or "Dude! Pay attention to me!" or even sharp words exchanged or moments of tension. We're, you know, actual people after all.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 4:05 PM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

When her car is in the driveway when you get home, are you psyched or slightly bummed out?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:15 PM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Fire away. I'd be glad to help.
posted by CwgrlUp at 4:22 PM on February 22, 2010

I'd be cautious about this particular relationship, just because it is your first and it has gone on so long. Specifically, I'd be cautious about defaulting to that relationship because you're already in it; later in life, you might come to regret not enjoying some freedom while you're still young, and also to resent your partner for keeping you from doing so, and vice-versa.

Do you prefer the relationship over being single? That's really all there is to it, I think. The solution is fairly simple: I've advised friends in your position to take a break from their relationships, be it for a month or a year, if only to have something to compare their current lifestyle to. And, like, it's not a DTMFA situation; remember, your girlfriend is in the same position you are, and may well have similar misgivings about the situation. You could still be very close friends, reveling in your newfound singlehood together.

(In all honesty, though, I'd move away if I were you.)
posted by Sys Rq at 4:33 PM on February 22, 2010

Fighting, by itself, doesn't really mean anything, everyone has disagreements, some people air them loudly, some people stew for years in silence. I like fighting it out and so does my wife -- which basically ensures we resolve all our conflicts pretty quickly. We often crack into laughter and smiles mid-argument. C'est la vie, right? Doesn't work for everyone (or even all the time). There's no normal.

Things that (I think) matter: 1) love 2) whether or not you can live with each other at the end of the day. The rest is pretty unimportant in the long run. You and her have to figure out what matters, really.

Specifically though, I think you're putting the cart before the horse here to a degree. Maybe your relationship is healthy and happy, maybe it isn't. But 1) you can't figure it out on your own 2) maybe you should take this a day at a time and not try to figure out what's going to happen months from now in advance (and again, without discussing things with her).
posted by wrok at 4:39 PM on February 22, 2010

Communication is really a must. You need to have similar goals about your future on things that matter. For example, if you never change your mind about not wanting children and she keeps wanting children her whole live, she will resent you for never having the opportunity (and then it will be too late for her). You need to talk about this.

It can be hard to talk when you have already established your behavior with her during these last five years. You need to reset the relationship so the both of you can talk freely about your feelings or else either you will never be happy or your relationship will end. If you truly care about being with this woman, you need to try to express your thoughts and feelings.

If you think you are just in this relationship because you do not have the guts to break up with her or because your family likes her, then you will also be unhappy. You need to think about it and if you seriously think the relationship will not work, you need to have a talk with her and break up with her. You are not doing her, your family, or yourself any favors by staying in an unfulfilling relationship.
posted by 1awesomeguy at 5:03 PM on February 22, 2010

You know, all relationships have compromises and problems. But if the default state of your relationship is you wondering if you should get out of it, then get out of it.

And I hate to say this, but not wanting to hurt her is not a good reason not to, well, break up with her. I was in a similar situation and dated a guy through high school and into college. He broke my fucking heart and it was horrendous. It took me an entire year to not cry all the way though the state of Connecticut whenever I took the train home. I couldn't breathe and I couldn't figure out how to get out of bed in the morning, either. It seriously fucked up a year of my academic transcript.

But not only was it the right thing to do, it was par for the course. Of the five girls in my dorm suite, three of us entered college with long-term boyfriends. None of us left with the same long term boyfriends. I would guess that the percentage of people who go to university and end up with the person they dated in highschool is vastly less than 1%.

You know the song "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do?" It is. But that is not a good reason not to do it if, ultimately, that's what you want. Because frankly, marriage is harder. Kids are harder. Owning a house is, often, harder. Divorce is harder. Spilt custody is harder.

If this person isn't genuinely, actively where you want to be in 10 years, breaking up beats harder.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:18 PM on February 22, 2010

I feel like you're looking for permission to leave and other people have given good answers, but I'll add my one extra thought:

In my observation/experience, couples who marry/long-term-commit before the age of 30 tend to grow up together; those who don't tend to grow apart. After the age of 30, people are more set in their ways, and they know very quickly if they can merge their lives successfully or not. I think this is why divorces/break-ups among couples who got together fairly young are often more wrenching, and why it's harder to decide when it's time to get out -- you've been growing alongside each other, there isn't a clear moment, and you're losing a part of someone you grew with. That's hard. It seems to happen faster, and often less messily, if you met older.

So I guess the question I want to contribute is, are you growing together or growing apart?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:06 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

> My problem is I have nothing to compare this relationship to.

Compare your relationship against other people's relationships, specifically ones that you admire.

Better yet, don't compare it; decide if the life you have together now is what you want for the rest of your life. People don't change much really, so do you want what you've got? It doesn't sound like it.
posted by anadem at 10:03 PM on February 22, 2010

People do change throughout their twenties. After that, not so much. Don't quote me, though, I'm not a personality psychologist.

She wants kids at some point. I don’t currently think I will ever want children, but I understand I may change my mind when I get older.

Oh, who cares, you can just suck it up and have kids you're not sure you want in order to save a relationship that you frequently consider ending.

Listen to what you're really saying and not what you think you should be saying.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:11 PM on February 22, 2010

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