How to handle the breakup of a long term relationship?
April 22, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with / move on from a long term relationship when your partner suddenly loses passion in said relationship?

I have been dating this wonderful girl for over two years. We were so happy and in love, and I had an unwavering confidence in our relationship. We both talked about spending the rest of our lives together. No talk about marriage, but just about being together. Traveling the world, seeing things together, accomplishing things together... We genuinely just wanted to be with each other, and our relationship had this wonderful passion that I can’t even describe.

We moved in together last fall when she started grad school. I’m finishing my undergrad degree (at the same university). Things were great that first fall semester. This past semester her enthusiasm for our relationship has dramatically declined.. First her sex drive disappeared, and slowly the affection she once showed (hugs, kisses, etc) has slowly gone away as well. She is terribly busy with school (so am I), and we have not spent a ton of time together this semester, but for the first 6 months or so of our relationship we dated long distance so we are accustomed to time apart.

I began to suspect that she might have been cheating on me with one of her classmates. She would regularly spend hours on end working on projects with him. I had a frank on honest conversation with her about my concerns (and the state of our relationship as well) after I had found out that she was out with him when she told earlier that she had gone to study. She assured me that she wasn’t cheating, but has yet to give me a satisfactory answer about why she is so distant. She has told me that her birth control pills and the stress she is under have affected her sex drive. I believe her when she says that she wasn’t cheating, but the reasons for the decline in our relationship seem a little shallow to me.

I can tell she genuinely feels terrible about hurting me. I know that she loves me, on some level, but I feel that her lack of passion signals that she may not want to be with permanently. At this point, it appears that we will be breaking up unless she has some turnaround and rediscovers her passion for me. I love her immensely, but I would readily separate myself from her if that is what made her the happiest. I am fully prepared for a life without her, but I am not prepared for how I will ever be able to handle a serious relationship again.

I really need perspectives on how others have handled similar situations. I am in my early twenties, and this is my first long term relationship. I’m afraid that if this relationship dies out, I’ll never be able to carry on a long term relationship again without fearing that any day the passion could just disappear.

So, knowing all that backstory (sorry), I would really appreciate perspectives from people who have ever been in my girlfriends shoes. Is this the end of us? Can a relationship be saved from this state? Also, if it does end how can I ever trust in another long term relationship again?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Also, if it does end how can I ever trust in another long term relationship again?

Do you want to feel those magical, wonderful "I'm in a great relationship" feelings again? If the answer is yes, then you'll choose to trust again.

If the answer is no, you have long, boring and lonely life ahead of you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:57 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

She assured me that she wasn’t cheating, but has yet to give me a satisfactory answer about why she is so distant.

You know, I would trust her on the birth control stuff. I would just trust her until she says anything differently. You haven't been rejected. So I wouldn't worry. You sound like you're feeling really lonely. And she sounds like she's extremely stressed. The passion will be back once school is over and things are more settled. And your girlfriend is not every woman. Most women would kill to have a committed and caring partner, and be good to you for it. So don't worry.
posted by anniecat at 12:01 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not saying that there isn't other stuff going on, but:

She has told me that her birth control pills and the stress she is under have affected her sex drive. I believe her when she says that she wasn’t cheating, but the reasons for the decline in our relationship seem a little shallow to me.

Stress and birth control pills are not a shallow reasons to not want to have sex as much. I mean, either acting alone can do the trick. Did she get on hormonal birth control when you moved in? Because epressed libidos are a really, really common side effect for a lot of women on hormonal birth control I've seen it happen to a lot of women, and I've had it happen to me. It's pretty awful because you just. don't. want. to. And at least for me, the guilt/resentment about not wanting to have sex bleeds into other things, such that I don't want to do anything that remidns me of sex, like cuddling

Also, I note that you talk about how the first semester was great for your relationship, but you don't mention whether it was great for her. Did she do academically as well as she was used to doing? Did she have to work much harder to get the same results? How much time did you guys spend together before you moved in -- was it an hours and hours every day sort of thing, or was it a few passionate encounters a week? How have the two of you been handling day-to-day living? What are your living arrangements like? How are chores split? What are the academic work loads?

There's a lot that you haven't mentioned, and it makes me think there is a lot more going on in the story than just one partner suddenly changing her mind.
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:06 PM on April 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

A couple things:

1. Problems are normal

It sounds like your relationship was really close to perfect initially, with no problems, and then once the problems showed up the relationship went down the tubes. So it's understandable that you would have a feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling as if the relationship could end at any time when difficulty shows up.

But ideally, in a relationship, you'll have good times, and you'll have problems, you'll work through the problems, and then you'll have good times again. I think if you have that experience, rather than this perfect one day, dead the next type of thing, you'll feel more stable. But that requires . . .

2. Being communicative about/honest about/working through problems

I don't know if this is a problem caused by your gf only, or if both of you contributed to it. But as your question was written, it sounds like your girlfriend was not all that communicative or honest about the troubles in your relationship. Birth control pills could explain the lack of a sex drive, but they don't explain lack of hugging or desire to lie to you.

And that's only the first step. Even if she were honest, the two of you would have to take concrete steps to work to solve the problems. It sounds like even the smallest attempt was not made to do that.

If you dated a person who was communicative and honest, and did display effort to work through problems, I think you would feel a LOT more secure that when problems cropped up, the whole relationship wouldn't just die.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:08 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stuff like this happens in LTRs. When the passion is gone, if deep-seated affection remains, or both partners are at least determined to make things work no matter what and do whatever it takes, then the relationship can blossom again. The important thing to keep in mind is that this isn't your problem, or her problem, but both of your problem. See my earlier comment for one way to see this issue.
posted by sid at 12:14 PM on April 22, 2010

She has told me that her birth control pills and the stress she is under have affected her sex drive. I believe her when she says that she wasn’t cheating, but the reasons for the decline in our relationship seem a little shallow to me.

To be a little flip: you've never been on birth control pills, have you?

To be less flip: hormonal birth control can have significant side effects for women; mood changes, depression, and decline in sex drive are some of the most common. They are real, and they have physiological components. They do not make her "shallow," and unless you would like to be seen as rather shallow yourself, I would gently suggest you educate yourself on this score.
posted by scody at 12:15 PM on April 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Also, it seems from your comment that her reasons for not being passionate seem shallow. You think this way because you are young and self-centered (no offense intended, I am young and self-centered too). You think the reasons should be about YOU, but she is telling you very clearly that the reasons she is 'withdrawing' are probably more about her. The best thing you can do is listen to her and try to alleviate some of those reasons - take on more of her household chores, create more unscheduled stress-free time in your lives, go back to condoms so she can go off the BC, etc.

Really this is both of your problem! She has to be part of the solution or the 'fixes' will be impossible to sustain.
posted by sid at 12:18 PM on April 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I’m afraid that if this relationship dies out, I’ll never be able to carry on a long term relationship again without fearing that any day the passion could just disappear.

In the right relationship, when the passion is gone, you will still want to be around them because they're great people.

Or so the legend goes.
posted by anti social order at 12:23 PM on April 22, 2010

I can offer nothing of value but I was a bit bothered by your statement that "at some level she loves me." Well, yea. At some level I love my ex- wife too.
posted by Postroad at 12:24 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Grad school can be really nightmarish. (It's also stimulating and stressful and wonderful...but the workload can be a real nightmare.) In many fields it's also insanely competitive, which adds a whole 'nother layer of stress on top.

joyceanmachine makes very valid points about hormonal birth control. There are tons of side effects, and for some people, loss of libido is one of them. That coupled with high stress...well you've got a recipe for no-nookie.

That said; there are times in every relationship where the sex isn't the wild, fuck on the counter-top passion that is the beginning of any relationship. If all you wanted out of the relationship was physical, then sure...move on. But if you were in the relationship for something more than that, you bonded on a deeper intellectual or emotional plane...then I think you may be being hasty and jumping the gun.
posted by dejah420 at 12:28 PM on April 22, 2010

I personally feel like the physical aspects of a relationship are just as important as the mental ones, so I don't think your concern is unjustified. The biggest thing you should not do is guilt her - accidentally or otherwise - into having sex with you. Like joyceanmachine said that can lead to a serious drop in signs of physical affection. As alluded to by others, one thing you may want to consider is alternate forms of contraception that don't affect her hormonal balance.

It can be hard when it seems like your partner has no interest in a specific aspect of yourself, but this seems to be a product of the environment rather than the chemistry you have between each other. Don't let that screw it up.
posted by scrutiny at 12:53 PM on April 22, 2010

I can tell she genuinely feels terrible about hurting me

This is not enough. If she felt bad enough she would alter her behavior to stop doing things you have already asserted hurt you.
posted by citywolf at 1:04 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

She's a grad student. They are like this. Busy, distracted, consumed by their work. She'll be done one day. Are you unselfish enough to wait?
posted by Carol Anne at 1:08 PM on April 22, 2010

Anonymous OP, people are calling you shallow, self-obsessed, too young... but I think they're skipping past the part where you said, "the affection she once showed (hugs, kisses, etc) has slowly gone away as well."

If, as you suggest, all affection has gone away, you aren't being shallow at all. A low sex drive is one thing - but that has nothing to do with cessation of normal, everyday physical expressions of affection. That takes a drop in affection (or some other serious psychological factor).

If it's really about the sex, wait until break, and see if things improve. Be supportive in the meantime.

If it's about your love interest acting as though you're little more than a roommate (her words aside; I mean actually behaving like a girlfriend, with or without the sex)... time to move on. In that case, something has changed, and it's not grad school, nor pharmaceuticals.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:43 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was (am) in your girlfriend's shoes. It's fucking sad. I don't understand why I've lost all interest and passion and love for the person I was with for five years. I've become the sort of man that I never thought I'd never be.

I'm terrified of how much hurt I've caused someone I loved and yet another part of me knows its fairer to leave her to pick up the pieces and move on with her life now. She's probably in the same mindset as you.

The only thing I can say, is that it's a tough lesson learned. In order to not let history repeat itself:

(1) Be honest and upfront right from the start. Explain your doubts. Keep grounded. Don't let one person build castles in the sky without informing them that you're not quite in that place yet.

(2) If you love someone, commit to them and the relationship. Don't have a laissez-faire attitude to the relationship and pretend "everything's OK".

(3) COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE. Have the fucking tough conversations that reveal the deep inner truths of your hopes, fears and doubts about the other person. Have the depth.

(4) Support each other, enquire about their day, listen carefully.

(5) Compare the directions you are heading in. Do you want kids? Do you want family? When? How many? Ask the tough questions.

(6) Accept there's no guarantee that things will work out. But if you both truly want, and are prepared to fight for, it - it will.

(7) GROWL YOUR NEEDS. Make them heard. Don't just accept things you're not happy with. Explain why.

That's it. The terrible tragedy for me is, that even if I'd followed all this, there's no guarantee that the end wouldn't have turned out exactly the same.
posted by spaceandtime30 at 1:56 PM on April 22, 2010 [9 favorites]

From my experiences in mathematics grad school, and I've heard similar things from people in other disciplines.

The first year of graduate school is brutal. You really do need to study for hours on end with your classmates. It's incredibly more challenging than undergrad, and you have to work all the time. And at the end of the year, there are really scary qualifying exams which you must pass.

If you've grown apart, then you've grown apart, but you should not dismiss so lightly the fact that your girlfriend is probably under a lot of stress (which you are adding to by accusing her of cheating...). For myself, being under stress makes me not want to be touchy-feely at all.

Unless it turns out she really is cheating, I don't see why this has anything to do with trust in long term relationships.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:59 PM on April 22, 2010

Don't underestimate the changes that can be wrought by birth control pills. They can completely kill even the most active libido. And if affection and sex have been generally linked in your relationship (as they are in many-- once a couple starts having regular sex, it's easy to fall into a pattern where all private physical intimacy leads to sex), this may be why she's avoiding other displays of affection. She may be afraid that if she cuddles with you on the couch, kisses you and hugs you, you'll want sex, and she may be completely freaked out about the fact that she doesn't, and therefore, whether consciously or not, avoiding that cuddling.

If you do want to save this relationship, you may want to talk to her about looking into other birth control options. Switching to an IUD made a world of difference for me. Do it soon, though, because the longer this goes on, the more your relationship will be damaged by the distance between you.

Do understand though, that sometimes the passion does just disappear, and it doesn't mean there's no hope for future relationships. Your first long-term relationship probably (statistically speaking) won't be your last, and that's not a bad thing. You learn something from every relationship, and you get better at relationships as you learn, meaning (ideally), that your relationships just get better and better.
posted by dizziest at 3:50 PM on April 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't think it would be selfish to break up with her, if you think things won't change. But it's too soon for that.

Tell her you miss her -- the conversations, the hugs and kisses, the sex. Ask if she can set some time aside, even if it's just once a week, so you two can have a date, which could be just a sandwich and some eye contact. :-)

If you two try that, and you start to feel connected again, that would be the time to ask if she'd be willing to switch to a different contraceptive. Don't let anyone tell you it's none of your business! Of course pill/no pill is her choice, but sex is important to you, not just for physical pleasure but for emotional intimacy as well. Talking about a possible switch away from BCP is part of trying to find solutions.

Stick with the facts and your feelings: you feel lonely, you miss her, she's busy, she's stressed. "She's withdrawing from me" is your interpretation, as is, "She may be cheating." Drop the theories, and when you find yourself ruminating on whther your faith in love will be destroyed, think about something else. It's not going to happen.

Talk with her about what you love about her, and about what you want. Ask if she'd like you to do something differently. See if she'll ally with you to bring back some closeness.

But you know, if you don't have the motivation to team up with her to make things better, that's a pretty good reason to break it off. You don't owe it to her to stay and feel sad and alone.
posted by wryly at 3:52 PM on April 22, 2010

Your instinct is telling you her feelings have changed; unfortunately I think you are right. Those are pretty clear signals. But she just can't bring herself to break up with you. (maybe she doesn't want to deal with finding a new place?). Give it some time, don't pressure her at all, and try to emotionally back off (I know, easier said than done)... Maybe she will come back around, but probably not.
posted by jockc at 4:00 PM on April 22, 2010

Speaking as a grad student and as a female whose sex drive has been killed by birth control pills, I agree that those are both potentially valid explanations. However, it doesn't sound to me like you're completely paranoid in wondering if she's had an affair -- perhaps only emotional? -- with a classmate. It also sounds like you care enough about this relationship to not give up lightly.

There are some good suggestions above regarding actively trying to rekindle your emotional intimacy with her. If she has quals coming up, it could be well worth hanging on to see how she feels/behaves afterwards. And how about this: if you aren't having sex anyway and the BC makes her feel bad, why don't you suggest that she take a break from it?
posted by ecsh at 5:20 PM on April 22, 2010

There exist many varieties of birth control pills. (And a few non-pill hormonal methods too). It's worth mentioning to her doctor that these pills are causing loss of libido, and that she would like to try another type.
posted by nat at 9:10 PM on April 22, 2010

"when she started grad school"

I remember reading about a study that found that the average grad student is under even more stress than someone whose spouse just died. So it could be stress and stress-induced depression. I would focus on trying to help her reduce her stress levels for a while and see if that helps.

Speaking as a grad student, near the end of spring semester (i.e., right now) is the absolute worst time of the year. I would wait and see how your relationship is doing by August (hopefully she gets some downtime this summer?) before giving up on it.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:13 PM on April 22, 2010

I had to reply again because I feel like a lot of these answers aren't fair to you.

Female libido/pressure to have sex is a topic that is sensitive for a LOT of women (myself included), so while I think a lot of the posters upthread made good points about that aspect of your situation ... I think the fact that you came off as being dismissive of your girlfriend's reasons for not wanting sex caused people to focus on that issue to the exclusion of everything else.

And I think there's a lot more that needs to be addressed.

I think that sacrifice of one's own needs is sometimes appropriate. Sometimes for the other person, if it's worth it to you; sometimes for a greater goal that you both share.

But I think it is only appropriate if both people are making their best good faith effort to meet each other's needs and make each other happy. Not a situation where one person is sacrificing and the other isn't trying and is just satisfied with the status quo. The other person may be limited in what they can actually *do*, but they can always make their best effort. And you can decide for yourself if their best effort is enough for you to continue in the relationship. And if it's not, that is okay.

I am a law student and many of my close friends are grad students of all kinds, so I know firsthand what the stress is like, and it is very real. But I have seen the entire gamut of grad student relationships. Grad students can and do have good relationships. Grad students can and should be aware of their partner being unhappy with aspects of the relationship and try to do what they can to solve that. I don't think the problems in your relationship should be accepted just because she is in grad school. I don't think you should just keep your head down and stick things out the way they are unless she at least *attempts* to do what she can. Your needs are just as important as hers in this relationship.

But I don't think the way to go about fixing this is to present her with a list of demands.

I think this starts with a lot of honest communication. I think you need to tell her how you feel (using a lot of "when you __, I __" statements when you can) and what your needs are, and, just as importantly, find out what she feels, and what her needs are. I would ask her if she felt I met her needs. If not, I'd ask her if we could brainstorm ideas for ways that I could meet them. I would ask her if she'd be willing to brainstorm ideas with me about how we could meet my needs.

If she's willing to do this, I think the relationship is not dead yet, if you still want to continue.

The big issues for you seem to be lack of sex, lack of affection, how you feel like she's generally pulling apart from you, her having more interest in spending time with her classmate than you, and her lying to you.

Here is how I would talk about this:

1. Sex

You have already had this discussion, and it seems like she was straightforward about what the issue was -stress and the pill. Great. The first solution seems obvious here, and has been mentioned upthread, so I don't think you need to rehash the conversation with her. I think the next step here is to just ask if she'd be willing to stop taking the pill. And to ask her if there are ways that her stress could be reduced. It's important, as people said upthread, to not come off as pushing and pressuring for sex. Not because your needs are not important- they are important. It's because pushing and pressuring will have the opposite effect that you want. So when you talk about reducing her stress don't frame it as "let's reduce your stress so you'll want more sex" Just leave off the last 5 words. Probably best to have it as a totally separate discussion at a separate time from the pill conversation.

2. Lack of affection

I don't know if you do this. But ... if she shows you affection, do you try to parlay it into sex? Or just push it a bit further along sexually? Like, if she hugs you, do you grab her butt? If you're kissing, do you grab her chest or let your hands wander?

I think someone said this upthread, but she might have stopped being affectionate for feeling that it'll lead to sexual touching. So if you think you might do this, you might try giving her a peck on the forehead and walking away and utterly nonsexual things like that. Not forever, just a bit of time to see if she gets more comfortable with basic affection again.

If not, then I think it's time for the discussion. I would probably start with "Girlfriend, when I try to hug you and you turn away, I feel ___. What are you feeling in those situations?"

I would start the conversations about how you feel she's pulling apart from you mentally/emotionalyl, and her desire to spend a lot of her time with the other guy, in a similar way.

When you discuss her lying to you ... it's kind of tricky. It's hard to get someone to honestly discuss their own lying. I *personally* would say something like "Girlfriend, I still love you. And I think you must have had your reasons. Could you tell me, when you lied to me about X, why you felt you had to? (listen) Is there a way we could avoid that issue in the future?"

Disclaimer: I think your girlfriend lying to you was shitty and wrong, so I don't suggest that because I sympathize with her reasons, whatever they are, or with lying in general. Or that I think you should sympathize with it and be accepting of it. It's just that people are more open about bad things they've done if the environment is not judgmental.

Remember, when you have these conversations with your girlfriend, you don't have to like anything she says. You don't have to like any of the solutions she offers, if any, and you don't have to agree to them.

But the first outcome of this you want, before anything else, before working out a solution to the problem, is to find out what the problem *is.* To find out what exactly is going on in her mind. It's easier to do that when you don't lead with criticisms and judgments, even when they are utterly legitimate.

And remember -- I've mainly talked about the issues that you want to solve, but it's just as important to find out what issues she's having, whether or not she wants to solve them, and what her ideas for solving them are.

These conversations should not be like pulling teeth. She should be an active, open, forthcoming participant. If she is, it's a sign you guys can fix things. If not, I really do think you're right that it's time to start moving on. I think not trying anymore is usually a sign that someone is already done and is just biding their time for whatever reason, and there's not much you can do to get someone back once they've decided they're done and have moved on emotionally.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:34 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was once in about the same situation as that girl and it was already over, we just hadn't admitted it to each other yet.

You can drag it out a bit, which might make it a little less painful, or meet and talk about a friendly breakup and move on faster.

It wasn't the other guys I was hanging out with, it wasn't the pill, it wasn't college, it wasn't anyone's fault - we just weren't right for each other. We are great friends today, more than a decade later, both happily married to others.
posted by meepmeow at 3:38 PM on April 23, 2010

I could have been your gf a year and a half ago. same exact stuff - been in the relationship for almost 6 years, engaged, even, and my passion level just waned and waned over the last year that i was exactly what she is now.

the truth is, i loved him, but was not in love with him. didn't want to be with him or spend the rest of my life with him, but i couldn't bear to hurt him like that because he was my security blanket and i was being very selfish. i felt the same that you do, that he would never find anyone else and i would ruin his life. after finally ending it (it was a process, i told him, he wanted to try counseling, i caved to counseling, finally broke it off.), i met my husband and we lived happily ever after. He, while devastated at first, quite soon found someone new and now they live together and are quite in love.

as odd as it sounds, it is irrelevant whether she's cheating or not. women can still love their current SO's and cheat. but if all passion is gone on her end, it seems to me that she wants to leave you but doesn't know how. no amount of fidelity or otherwise can fix that.

i know this isn't what you want to hear, but i know how much happier my ex is now and i can only wish that for you, whoever you are.
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 6:39 PM on April 23, 2010

recently (due to current breakup, YMMV) I've been trying to understand what causes the passion. I think it's important to be different people with unique interests and tastes, to argue and argue well, and spend time with each other. If both of you want to fix things, this book might have some ideas.

I don't have a good answer yet for when it's best to try to fix the relationship or to move on. Blindly trusting my feelings seems like a stupid way to make this decision.
posted by sninctown at 8:04 AM on April 24, 2010

There have, unfortunately, been periods (of up to a year) where this happened in my relationship with my husband.

The cause? Stress and depression. The cause of those? Variously, university, medical problems, past history and birth control.

It wasn't that I didn't love him. I was just so affected by issues having absolutely nothing to do with our relationship that I had negative libido to the point where I couldn't even stand to touch him in any way, shape or form.

That, frankly, sucked. From both sides. Married to someone, and you can't even give them a hug and a kiss on the cheek? What sort of frigid bitch was I? So ran the internal monologue, which made me more stressed and depressed and guilty and awful-feeling, which did not help at all.

I was a very stressed person, is what I was. And one on medications that basically killed any sort of sexual feeling except revulsion.

I loved (and love) my husband deeply, madly, and passionately. Always have. When I'm mentally and physically healthy enough, I find him attractive and sexy, and I'm affectionate and loving and jump him on a fairly regular basis.

It is possible that she does want to break up with you. It's also possible that she doesn't want to break up with you, that the passion's still there, it's just buried under so much other life crap that it can't get out, can't be seen, and day-to-day, is pretty much absent. If she says it's there, but can't express it, I'd trust her.
posted by ysabet at 7:22 AM on April 26, 2010

« Older Should I Transfer?   |   Does my personal theology allow me to be an active... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.