How to stay when it hurts like I'm already gone
September 17, 2012 10:29 AM   Subscribe

How do you stay in a relationship when you know there's a very good chance it might end soon? [Siberian winter's worth of snowflakes inside.]

(People invovled are both 30. Sorry for the length and the pronoun game. Summary at bottom.)

Together 1.5yrs, essentially living together for about a year. Things got pretty serious pretty quickly, and I was happy in a easy, calm, deep way that I had never experienced before. Despite our closeness, the relationship had always been a little different in that there were always other people (roommates, close friends & family, etc) around. Very recently, the situation changed such that it's more just the 2 of us, and I was excited to see how we'd get on as a "regular" couple.

Suddenly one day, my partner tells me they're not sure what they want in the future, with regard to career or family. They're not even sure they see ME in their long-term future. I guess my partner had been getting questions about whether I would move in "for real" (I currently still have my own condo) and this got them thinking. Their only other serious relationship got dragged out in a bad way because they kept flip-flopping on whether they wanted to be with the ex, and not wanting to repeat that, they wanted to talk to me about how they were feeling, even though our relationship is (in their eyes) much better than that previous one.

This was heartbreaking -- I had NO IDEA they were feeling this way. They said when we first started dating, they thought we would get married, because ours was the best relationship they had ever experienced. But as time passed, that wasn't the default assumption any more. I asked if they had to imagine it -- right now -- did they see me in their future? More towards yes, no, or completely unknown? They said it was more towards "no", but that it wasn't like they couldn't imagine a future with me at all. They love me, consider me their best friend, and don't want to lose me, but they just don't know if they love me in that "forever" way. No, there wasn't anything specific about me (i.e., that I could work on) that made them feel this way, and no, they didn't want to break up.

I was really hurt, because I truly thought that we had what it took to go the distance, and was so damn self-assured that my partner felt the same way. I considered just breaking up with them right then, because while that would hurt like a motherfucker, I'd get over it eventually (I hope?) and not drag out the pain. BUT. I do love them, and they are wonderful to me. They're sweet and thoughtful and patient and affectionate. They're whip-smart and funny. The sex is great, we have fun together, and when we have our rare fights, we fight fairly.

They asked me to stay, because it seems stupid to give up if there's a good chance things could work out. After deliberating, I decided to stay and try, because this is by far the best relationship I had ever been in, and if I just leave now, I'll always wonder whether we would have made it if I had just been patient. And that's not a "what-if" that I can live with. My partner seemed really relieved and happy with my decision, and said they would try to make it work too.

In the meantime, I'm all over the place. There are times when I hurt like we already broke up, even though we're still together. I want badly for this to work out, even though I know that if their heart ends up not in this, then they are in fact not right for me. Half of me is devoted to trying my best to make this work, while the other half keeps "hedging my bets" -- coming up with reasons why we might not actually be compatible (which feels like post-hoc justification, because they didn't seem like "problems" until my partner dropped this bomb on me), not talking about us as a couple in front of friends and new acquaintances (because we may very well not be a couple much longer), etc.

Am I being stupid? Nuts? Has anyone gone through this kind of thing and actually had it work out? How do I keep being normal and loving with the doubt of "they kind of can't see me in their future" hanging over me? How do I "work" at this when there's nothing concrete to actually work on? (Ex, it's not like they said I lost my temper too much, and so I should go to anger management therapy or something.)

- Partner tells me they might not really see me in their future.
- But they want us to keep dating and try, because they're not sure they don't see me in their future, and our relationship is otherwise very good.
- I have decided to stay because I love them and because wondering "what-if" is not acceptable to me.
- Have you been through something like this? How do I make it through the next months and stay sane?
- How do I balance my desire to "give it my all" (what's the point, otherwise?) with my inclination to pull back (out of an attempt to minimize suffering if we do break up)?
- What are things I (or we) can do to maximize our chance of success?

Thanks in advance, metafilter.

* In fact, I didn't want to officially move in, because I wanted to see how it would be when it was just the 2 of us, and I wanted to clarify where they thought the relationship was headed before making that kind of choice. Which is exactly what they did, actually. I should be careful what I ask for.
posted by Sockmaster to Human Relations (41 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Your partner is being a weenie and making you do the heavy emotional-lifting here. I've been in a similar situation. I broke things off because life is too short to spend on someone who just wasn't invested in the relationship. He was also making me feel bad with weenie-noises about not sure about the future. Breaking things off made him stop taking me for granted, and he started treating me very well as a friend. Win for me, win for him. I still feel really great about that breakup, to be honest with you.

Reader, I married him.
posted by stowaway at 10:39 AM on September 17, 2012 [26 favorites]

Best answer: Much of the answer to this question depends, I think, on what you want in your future. Is it a goal of yours to be married or otherwise permanently partnered, or are you okay with leaving the question open? If you want to be married (and it sounds like you do), what sort of timescale are you comfortable with? Whether or not you want biological children will obviously come into this, if you're around 30, especially if you're female.

I would have a serious conversation with your partner about how he/she sees his/her future - does he/she definitely want to get married (to someone, not necessarily you), have children, and on what sort of timescale, etc. I would then ask him/her what would give him/her clarity and certainty about taking these steps with someone, to try to find out whether the doubts stem from you in particular, or from cold feet in general, or from some combination of the two. With this information in mind, if these are things that you want, I'd make explicit to your partner the importance of permanency for you, and how both of you attaining clarity about this is very important to you, and urge them to do their best to seek this clarity. I'd give the relationship a certain amount of time longer (six months, or however long you feel comfortable with waiting, pre-specified in your own mind). If there is no more clarity at that point, and clarity is so important to you as to be a deal-breaker, I personally would cut the ropes.
posted by UniversityNomad at 10:40 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I should add, to be less glib -- if we had never gotten back together, it still would have been the right break up. Good enough for now is not good if it's preventing you from creating the life you want.
posted by stowaway at 10:41 AM on September 17, 2012 [16 favorites]

I should add that in my opinion, if you want marriage and children, that might motivate you to push for clarity sooner rather than later; but there's no reason to let the ambiguity be permanent if you're unhappy with it, regardless of whether you want marriage and children. There's no need for you to accept being held hostage for years by your partner's uncertainty, or to accept being treated like you're on some sort of permanent audition for their ultimate commitment. This can really poison power dynamics. I'd come up with some sort of firm time-scale in your own mind that you're happy with, about how much more time to give your partner for them to try to come to some clarity about your future, together or separately - not to force an ultimatum, but simply to establish your own emotional boundaries and reassert to yourself your own goals and desires independent of your indecisive partner. I think that having established this with yourself, you'll feel more agency and less vulnerability giving the relationship your all for the next few months as your partner deliberates.
posted by UniversityNomad at 10:49 AM on September 17, 2012 [8 favorites]

Ugh. I have to agree. This guy is being an asshole.

Look, even if you need to stay in the short-term so you can be emotionally stable, you have to commit to being your own champion and your own best friend. You need to put a little glass box around you that disables this guy from fucking with you emotionally. Because a lot of guys loooove drama (especially when it surrounds their self-concept) and this "I don't know if I want to marry you but let's play house" crap is something so many women end up taking seriously and putting up with that it's almost funny (in a grotesque/absurd way).

You have to take this opportunity to like yourself more than him. You have to have to have to do that or else you are going to feel like shit later and it won't be good for you. And you're probably not feeling a lot of respect for him right now, which you can use to your advantage. After all, you were hoping that the guy in the adult body was an actual adult.

Laugh with your friends and love yourself and your friends. This dude might grow out of it, but he doesn't sound like much of a prize.
posted by discopolo at 10:51 AM on September 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: First: The pronoun game would make an answer of this length irritating to write, so I flipped a coin and will answer as if your partner is male. But please note that, if I'm wrong about that, it doesn't change the answer.

Am I being stupid? Nuts?

No. Your behavior is completely normal given the circumstances. I'm not in this relationship and love has not worked its neurochemical ensnarement on me as far as your partner, so it's easy for an outsider to be dispassionate about this and wonder why you can't do the same, but no - you are neither being stupid or nuts. But read on.

Has anyone gone through this kind of thing and actually had it work out?

In pretty much 100% of the situations I've seen which are similar to the one you're describing - and there have been a lot of them, honestly, both in my experience and the experience of others I know - things did not work out. I tend to think that this is either because the initial admission is such a blow to the relationship (though I don't really think this is the most likely culprit) or that the person who says they're not feeling it anymore is just basically laying the groundwork for an exit. They tend to insist they're not - as yours has done - but it always seems to work out that way.

Now, this is a big site with a huge userbase so the chances are good that exceptions will come along. Consider their experiences and advice carefully - the same as you'd do with mine.

How do I keep being normal and loving with the doubt of "they kind of can't see me in their future" hanging over me?

You're asking how to live as if he hasn't dropped a huge bomb when, in fact, he has dropped a huge bomb. What you're aiming to do is to be superhuman so as to lessen the chances of him leaving you. This is neither possible nor advisable. It's understandable that you're feeling this way but in the long run it's not the question you should be asking.

How do I "work" at this when there's nothing concrete to actually work on? (Ex, it's not like they said I lost my temper too much, and so I should go to anger management therapy or something.)

The deal here is that you're in panic mode, much like someone who's just been dumped, and you're scrambling to figure out what you could have done differently or in this case what you might still do differently. But consider this:

I have decided to stay because I love them and because wondering "what-if" is not acceptable to me.

Right now you're on the hook and you're hurting. That should be a matter of considerable concern to him, if he loves you and respects you. He should be working on this, really hard. Talking to a shrink or doing whatever self-reflection or whatever. The fact that he's taking a wait-and-see approach is worrisome and the fact that you're going along with it is also worrisome.

See, the thing is, while you're still in them, every relationship is the best one you've ever been in - after all, it's devoid of whatever broke up your previous ones. So far. It sounds like you're preparing to sacrifice your emotional well-being and treat yourself without respect on the off chance that maybe he'll decide to throw you a bone and be with you. How long ago did he drop this particular bomb? And you're already freaking the hell out, you're already on an emotional rollercoaster, you're already on a very painful hook. Do you think that's going to change? It isn't. Uncertainty is agony in situations like this.

Only you can decide what's best for you, but if I were in your situation, I'd set some boundaries and be firm about them, and I'd tell him we need to take a break until he has this sorted out. If he can't be mature enough to admit that his behavior here is unfair to you - and do something about it - then you need to be your own advocate and start preparing to move on.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:55 AM on September 17, 2012 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Consider asking your partner the following:

What did you hope to gain by telling me you're not sure you see me in your future?

I can't actually think what would be a good response. They're either grooming you for a breakup, or renegotiating the terms of your relationship so that when someone else comes along, s/he can jump ship and feel good about him/herself for "being honest."

But maybe there is some other good reason -- it's a fair question to ask.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:58 AM on September 17, 2012 [33 favorites]

Their only other serious relationship got dragged out in a bad way because they kept flip-flopping on whether they wanted to be with the ex, and not wanting to repeat that, they wanted to talk to me about how they were feeling, even though our relationship is (in their eyes) much better than that previous one.

So it's a repeating pattern for them and decided to ask you if it's OK to put you on a hook rather than figure out WTF is up.

They asked me to stay, because it seems stupid to give up if there's a good chance things could work out.

Do not fall for the Sunk-Cost Fallacy. That time is already spent, the only question is how you spend your future.

My partner seemed really relieved and happy with my decision, and said they would try to make it work too.

Yeah, I bet they were "relieved and happy!" This person just took an axe to a previously-strong relationship and asked you to help patch up the tree, to which you agreed.

Don't sell your condo. This person half broke-up with you by essentially saying that well, they might bug out at any second, but if you (you) work hard that might not happen for a while.
posted by rhizome at 11:00 AM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Hm, I think this is something thatI would expect given that your relationship was emotionally fast-tracked but physically kind of stagnant; it kind of sounds like as you are really getting to know each other now the feelings are changing.

I do think it's a pretty lame (understatement) move to tell someone you are leaning towards "no, not in my future" but you want to keep dating until you figure it out. I think it's okay to love and care deeply for someone and not know if it's forever, but there's something about the vocalization of that in the face of your certainty that bothered me.

The flipside is that I did date someone long term that I knew was not my "forever" but there was never any question of that, and we were both on board with seeing where it went. This is not your situation, but it's also not your question (whether to do this). I think that the only way you'd emotionally survive this is if you could emotionally pull back to feeling comfortable not knowing what lies ahead (i.e. boundaries) and could simultanenously feel that your partner is also giving it their all. Sorry, but I don't know how/if that works.
posted by sm1tten at 11:01 AM on September 17, 2012

I agree with vitabellosi. There's a false "honesty" to this kind of admission. I think he just wants someone around till he meets someone better. I'd either move out and suggest a break or fully break up with him altogether.
posted by violetk at 11:02 AM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

If your partner had said "Look, I definitely don't want to be with you forever, but I really enjoy our friendship, and the sex together, and I want to keep being with you until one or both of us find somebody we see a long-term future with" then that would be an honest and gutsy move with a lot of integrity.

Instead, your "partner" just thought that, and wants to let you delude yourself into thinking you have a chance of building something long term until he finds somebody better and can "trade up." Even better, his waffling lets him tell himself that he was "honest" with you, so you have no right to be mad at him when he breaks up with you. It's a supremely dishonest way for him to maintain the illusion of being a decent human being. (I'm not sure why, but generally people like to lie to themselves this way.)

If I were you, I would tell him that he's welcome to "figure himself out" for as long as it takes, but in light of his suggestion, you're opening the relationship up - and then start dating other people right away. Then simply kick him to the curb once you find somebody better. Turnabout is fair play: he's totally going to do the same to you anyway, but you'll get more emotional satisfaction if you beat him to the punch.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:11 AM on September 17, 2012 [15 favorites]

Sorry for the length and the pronoun game.

Never apologize for not specifying your, or a partner's, gender in relationship questions. Not specifying is a really good way to filter out the "women are from Venus, men are from Mars" static.

To your actual question, I think that this is about your comfort zone, ultimately. You have to decide whether you're comfortable enjoying the relationship on its own terms, or if you feel like you'd be better served by ending things and looking for someone who, like you, wants a longer-term commitment.

There's so much we'd need to know about you to know whether, if we were your in-person friends, we'd think one or the other of those seemed like the better choice for you. Maybe reaching out to your in-person friends for help would help you find a place of serenity with whatever choice you make.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:18 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Assuming we take your partner at her word, I think you made the right choice staying with her from now. She seems a little leery getting close with someone again after her last long=term relationship. I don't see what she said as a false honesty type of thing. Is the only way to be in a relationship is if you decide you want to be together forever? No. And I did not get that she has ruled it out, just that right now she is not sure. If nothing else has changed, I would stick around for a while. The only reason I would leave her now is if you feel the urge or need to commit to a life long partner now for some reason. You don't mention kids, but if you are the kind of guy who wants kids and does not want to wait until you are older, then you should reconsider. You can always call the question by asking her to marry you.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:19 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

But in any case, don't sell your condo. This is a terrible time to sell condos and taking a financial bath on this in order to show your commitment to someone who hasn't agreed to show their commitment to you would be heedless at best.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:19 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

So, in summary, you requested (quite fairly) information on his (or her) level of commitment as a perquisite to agreeing to move in with him. He advised he has no commitment. Keep dating to scratch your "what if" itch, but know that rarely RARELY does a man who says he's not sure if he sees you in his future come around to seeing you in his future. Also, please, for your own emotional and financial well being, do not get any more deeply entangled with him (no baby making, no combining finances or joint investments, no moving in) until he changes his mind and is ready to make a commitment to you. Likely he will just keep using you for sex and companionship until someone comes along he would prefer as a long term partner and then you'll be quickly cast aside.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 11:20 AM on September 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, does your partner second guess themselves a lot? I have been - sort of - your partner. In a very good relationship in which I was extremely happy and which I did not want to end, but second-guessing myself all over the place. ("is love even possible?" "what does it mean to be 'serious' about someone anyway?" Et patati et patata.) I am a chronic bet-hedger and second-guesser, so it is totally possible for me to be in this headspace. I believe I even shared these thoughts with my partner. Anyway, we're still together, now on a "permanent unless one of us becomes an ax murderer or a hedge fund manager" basis.

If your partner does a lot of second-guessing in other areas of life and if your partner is coming off of a lot of self-doubt generating personal stuff, then perhaps give this another chance. But don't change yourself - it's still a pretty lousy move to pull and your partner doesn't deserve to have you dancing around just because they aren't getting it together.

If this isn't part of a general pattern, though, I'd walk. It's extremely cruel to say something like what your partner said. If your partner isn't aware that this is a cruel way to play it, then your partner is emotionally immature and really, not that great of a life prospect. What's going to happen if you're sick? If there are big life changes? Someone who thinks it's okay to wrongfoot you this way is not ready to deal with that stuff.

In fact, how is your partner on the maturity scale? Are they someone who you feel confident could weather a job/health/family crisis with you? Are they responsible with work and money? How do they get along with their friends?

Some of us are still kind of immature at 30 (I sure was) and that's okay - but that doesn't mean that we're good picks for more serious people.
posted by Frowner at 11:21 AM on September 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

Can you dial things back until you can sort out whether you want to try and make it work with a guy who admits that he's been wishy-washy in the past, too? I don't know if you've rented out your place, but it might be a place where you're free of the (as I see it) impending bullshit.
posted by SillyShepherd at 11:26 AM on September 17, 2012

Suddenly one day, my partner tells me they're not sure what they want in the future, with regard to career or family. They're not even sure they see ME in their long-term future. I guess my partner had been getting questions about whether I would move in "for real" (I currently still have my own condo) and this got them thinking.

So, someone else made your partner think this way? As in, "hey, Sockmaster isn't right for you because s/he has a condo still! You should really reconsider a future with Sockmaster." What? They have no mind of their own? The friends or family who questioned you owning a condo made him change his feelings about you all of a sudden? Again: what?

Their only other serious relationship got dragged out in a bad way because they kept flip-flopping on whether they wanted to be with the ex, and not wanting to repeat that, they wanted to talk to me about how they were feeling, even though our relationship is (in their eyes) much better than that previous one.

So now they're doing the same thing with you. Flip flopping. And repeating.

Yes, I have been in a similar situation. Things were grand. Then all of a sudden they weren't. And this person can't even tell you what would make them feel more secure in moving forward. I hope it's not giving up your condo. And paying half their rent in the process.

Move back to your condo and stop living with this person. In fact, tell them you want a break for a month. Maybe see a therapist for a couple of sessions so you can bounce things off of someone neutral and work out what you need in a long term partner. At the very least, it sounds like, "Sockmaster...." :::sigh::: "I just don't think I see you in my future." :::pause::: Whereas a lot of people might take this as a sign to get ticked off and leave, this person is stringing you along with mind games.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 11:26 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

The main thing you can do is to work on yourself. You can't change your partner, but you can make dang sure that you love yourself and the rest of your life, because it's awesome - with or without partner. So sign up for a class or set yourself a new fitness goal or make a game night with your friends, and Enjoy them.

Some would say that this is a ploy, retreating from the relationship to see if the partner starts seeking you out. Don't make this a ploy. If, in fact, your partner wants to seek you out and repair the damage they've done, great! But this is all about having a Great Time (and good self confidence), whether or not your partner ever figures out their issues.
posted by ldthomps at 11:37 AM on September 17, 2012

I was you about 6 years ago. Turns out my partner had met someone else but that somone else was currently unavailable so she kept me hanging on. I didnt know that at the time, but i moved on anyway because i was ready for a committment and she just wasnt sure. Within a year, i met my current wife. I am so happy that i ended things with ex when i did. Oh, and she is now with that someone else, so i guess it worked out all the way around.
posted by orangemacky at 11:50 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the thoughtful answers so far, please keep them coming.

Just to clarify, in case it matters: Neither of us had talked to each other about moving in officially because we both (separately and perhaps unbeknowst to each other) did not want to do that. This discussion didn't stem from my asking about that. But my partner's friends (and my own) have been asking (out of curiousity, not in a WTF kind of way) whether we would move in together now that roommates, etc. are out of the picture. These questions prompted Partner to talk to me about their doubts. (Or Partner used them as a handy lead-in into the conversation, who knows.)

And no, DEFINITELY not getting rid of my place or making babies (!) or financial entanglements. There is some comfort in knowing that if I had to chose to, I could leave, like, tomorrow with minimal complications (logistically, anyway).
posted by Sockmaster at 11:52 AM on September 17, 2012

Best answer: Your partner may be a weenie, or he may be just trying to be honest. Doesn't matter, he's tellling you that he can't make a definite commitment to a "future with you in it."

If you break it off, it will hurt. If he breaks it off it will hurt. Neither way answers the question of how it might have worked out if only you (both) had tried harder. If you need a partner who will commit to a long-term relationship, it seems like you must go elsewhere to find one. Maybe he's just not be sure, and needs to think it over. The key idea here is that he needs to think over this commitment. Give him the space to do that.

Don't try to get him to make decisions in your best interest. That's not his job. Maybe tell him that you want to reassess the relationship. Move out and stay out for a while. You might agree to meet again in, say a few weeks, to talk things over. Don't clutter up this experiment with nightly phone calls--go do stuff that you want to do as a newly-single person.

Not all loving relationships come with all the bells and whistles. It might be that you two have already discovered the bounds of your partnership, and they don't quite match up. If you think for yourself right now, you can come away with fond memories. I promise you, your heart will stop bleeding sooner or later.

I can't stress strongly enough that you shouldn't try to characterize his attitude in any way that reflects on you. You cannot change yourself to make him want you. You don't shape his needs. He sees what he sees. You may feel lousy about not being the perfect match for him, but remember that he's not the perfect match for you--it goes both ways.

I've done this both ways: been on the short end of the relationship. I hung on for a while, but it eventually fell apart. Lots of pain, and I could have started to recover sooner if I'd faced it. On the long end, I broke up with someone who didn't want to. I weenied around for a while, trying to let her down easy, and learned that kindness and honesty work better hand in hand--dragging it out was just bad. On the other end, I hung in there with my present spouse through some hard times. We've been together 25 years and counting.
posted by mule98J at 11:59 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your partner has already broken up with you but doesn't have the wherewithal to take ownership of their actions.
This is a toxic, spineless way to end a relationship. It's created an extremely unhealthy environment for you, and it ultimately absolves your partner for any guilt they felt about wanting out in the first place.
The situation is harmful because every one of your attempts to preserve the relationship is predestined to fail; the result of those efforts is often long-lasting emotional damage. There are a lot more what ifs in store when your partner finally decamps in spite of your exhaustive efforts.
Every breakup is painful. Swallow your dose now. When the pain is over with, and it will end, you'll feel that much more empowered because you refused to be treated like a doormat.
Also, do the usual six months to life no contact with your ex-partner. Any contact will make it that much harder to get over this person.
Get this over with and get on with your life.
posted by Pudhoho at 11:59 AM on September 17, 2012 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Don't shut your "reasons why we might not actually be compatible" out. They are popping into your head for a reason and are worth some attention. The rug got pulled out from under you a little bit, don't resist your attempts to get real with yourself. It's honest evaluation time. Use it to your benefit; it will either help make you two stronger or help you make a decision to leave.
posted by Katine at 12:01 PM on September 17, 2012

I think that if your committed partner is unwilling or unable to tell you if they see you as part of their future after 1.5 years together, it is time to listen to what this person is telling you--this relationship is not tenable. I think it would be wise to disengage and start planning to move on on your own.
posted by anonnymoose at 12:44 PM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Based on what you said, this does not seem to be the type of person for anyone to build their life around.

I have found that particular checkbox to be something most people forget about. Someone can be loving, your best friend, share mental telepathy, be the cat's meow, be devoid of typical red flags...but all of that doesn't necessarily mean they are someone you can build your life around.

Some relationships be-bop along for a decade without one party actually putting down roots. That's because for them it is not really a ten year relationship. It is a four month relationship repeated thirty times. Big difference!
posted by 99percentfake at 1:01 PM on September 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

It's ok for you to withdraw from the relationship for a while. He wants you to stay because though he's not sure about YOU, he doesn't want to give up the benefits of being in a relationship. Though it's hard, I don't think you should give in to that.

Make it known you're not willing to put up with ambivalence, and you're not going to reward it by staying with him. Go stay at your own place for a few weeks, go back to scheduling dates together, and in the meantime invest more quality time with your family and friends. Let him have a taste of what it's like to not have you there, and let him have time on his own to reflect on things. Make him put out the effort to see you. Keep the discussion open, draw deadlines as appropriate. And then he'll be able to decide whether he's happier with you or on his own, and you'll be set up to handle the decision either way. It could take a few days, or a few weeks, or longer.
posted by lizbunny at 1:17 PM on September 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

I could see a partner telling you this sort of things after just a few months together, but after 1.5 years? 1.5 years together is often the make or break point for many couples. I think your partner is leaning towards the "break" side, but doesn't want to end things because it's easier not to end things.

You seem to be leaning towards delaying the inevitable pain and I can understand that. You also seem to know the pain is inevitable. Being in your place, I'm not sure which decision I would make. My non-emotionally involved mind tells me that leaving your partner and never looking back is the best option if you want something long term with someone who is going to be crazy for you.
posted by parakeetdog at 2:11 PM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When someone says "I'm not gonna commit because I have no idea if I'll still feel this way about you in N amount of time," what I hear is "This relationship is only worthwhile to me if it keeps being lots of fun and not much work."

And with that attitude, shit is just not gonna work out between the two of you. Sooner or later, there will be a rough spell -- a few weeks or months of Less Fun and More Work -- and this particular Someone is gonna bail out.

The right attitude for a long-term relationship goes like this: "Of COURSE I'm not gonna feel exactly this same way about you in N amount of time. Shit changes. So what? I'm still willing to stick with it through some moderately rough patches, because I'm betting it will be worth it in the end."

He doesn't need to promise he'll ALWAYS be with you. But he needs to show SOME willingness to put up with tough shit for the sake of the relationship. I mean, look at it this way. If you move in and things go south, it'll take you, what, a month at most to find your own place and move out? And you might be out a month's rent on account of losing your security deposit? So when he expresses doubts about moving in, what he's saying is "For you, I wouldn't even put up with a month of discomfort, or risk paying an extra month's rent." I think it's reasonable to ask for more commitment than THAT.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:18 PM on September 17, 2012 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, does your partner second guess themselves a lot? I have been - sort of - your partner. In a very good relationship in which I was extremely happy and which I did not want to end, but second-guessing myself all over the place. ("is love even possible?" "what does it mean to be 'serious' about someone anyway?" Et patati et patata.)

This can be a thing. I sometimes get squirrely about marriage being all about FOREVER...because my parents had the WORST relationship in the world. Like, a nuclear-bad marriage of trauma and despair. So...I always like to drop, into casual conversation (on marriage in general), about how divorce is an option. But that is more, like, an intellectual exercise that allows me to assuage my anxieties that I, too, might find myself trapped for 25 years in the Worst Marriage Known to Man. If you actually asked me how I feel about my partner, the answer is, "100% committed." But I can see how my stance might be a bit confusing, especially if you never asked the clarifying question.

So...if your SO has a pattern of hesitation, it might be anxiety.
But, um, it seems you did ask your SO about how they feel about you, specifically, and the answer wasn't good. Which isn't good...

I would have a serious conversation with your partner about how he/she sees his/her future - does he/she definitely want to get married (to someone, not necessarily you),

You could do this. In my perspective, though, an answer of, "I would love to get married one day, but I am not sure where you fit into this" is not a good one, whereas, "I want to be with you forever, but I dunno how I feel about marriage" is more promising. People can be in committed partnerships, without marriage, for their entire lives. But knowing that someone wants to get married, but maybe not to you, is a much bigger problem.

I asked if they had to imagine it -- right now -- did they see me in their future? More towards yes, no, or completely unknown? They said it was more towards "no", but that it wasn't like they couldn't imagine a future with me at all.

Eek. I'm sorry. This...this is what makes me think your relationship is done, or close to it.

I mean, if your SO had said something along the lines of, "I dunno what the future will hold! It's hard to think about the long-term! Marriage is such a big deal...I don't think I'm anywhere near there! But I KNOW that I love you, and want to be with you for the long-term," I would just figure that they were hoping to move ahead slowly, or didn't want to rush into a decision prematurely, or was just getting a little wiggly about the marriage talk, but was not wiggly not about your relationship. Which at 1.5 years isn't the end (though the same might not be said at year 3, or year 5).

But, um, they do not see you in their future. This does not bode well.
posted by vivid postcard at 3:13 PM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think taking some space is a good idea. Ask yourself: what if this relationship is in exactly the same place a year from now? How would you feel? Would that be okay? From your question it seems the answer is "no" but only you can answer for sure. I guess what I'm saying is I don't see this person making up her/his mind quickly.
posted by tuesdayschild at 3:33 PM on September 17, 2012

Am I being stupid?

Nope; you actually sound a little too smart. Heh. Not always a good thing.

I hear a lot of "I don't know," but I don't hear anyone actually hitting the brakes. Sometimes people just find themselves in a place where they can't visualize the future so easily. My first thought: good on her for being honest. I wouldn't bail yet.

What should you do? I'd chill and enjoy the relationship for as long as it lasts. You don't have deadlines for marriage/kids, so what's your rush?

What can you do to maximize your success? Don't hang the whole relationship on a single conversation/idea, especially one in which she's not saying you're over, she's saying she can't tell the future. Chill for now. You're happy together. Sometimes people need a little time to process a new idea, such as that of a longterm relationship that doesn't involve signatures and making babies to solidify stuff. Hell, maybe she can't see herself with you in ten years because she never gets that lucky. Do you know exactly what her reasoning is? Does she? Time.

Have I ever been through that? No, I freak and bail; it's why I'm single! Stay. Relax. You already have a lot in common — neither of you can see into the future.
posted by heyho at 3:58 PM on September 17, 2012

Your girlfriend [or whatever] couldn't or can't get over her ex and, more importantly, she told you she doesn't think she sees you in the future. However, she will not rule out the possibility and doesn't want to break up right now. And this is a year and a half into your relationship!

You need to break up. That's how you stay sane. Your girlfriend is being and treating you shitty.

I've seen this movie and it does not end well for you.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:06 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So I stayed in a relationship with a guy who didn't know if he wanted to marry me. He didn't want to break up and got more upset thinking about a break-up than I did; but on the other hand he described himself as feeling very scared by the idea of making a permanent decision. There are special-snowflake reasons why he felt that way, partly to do with his previous relationship history being pretty painful.

It was a long, slow haul -- nearly seven years all told -- but we are engaged now, and we're happy and I'm very glad I didn't leave. But that wasn't easy, and I really, really understand how much it can hurt to be more sure about someone than they are sure about you.

Here's what I did that helped:

I frequently checked in with myself to verify that I still wanted to be in this relationship with this individual even if that meant I was missing out on someone else possibly awesome who might be out there and who might be more ready to make a decision.

I mentally gave myself permission to leave if I ever felt that things had become too unfair to me. I owned the decision to stay. It wasn't something he was doing to me; it was something I was choosing, and I was allowed to put my own rules and boundaries on it. Except during dark 4 AM sorts of moments, I largely avoided feeling or expressing any resentment towards him "putting me in" this situation.

I told him specific concrete things that he could do (e.g., introducing me to various people I knew he cared about, incorporating me into other aspects of his life) that would make me feel like we were making progress towards a resolution, even if we weren't all the way ready to get married yet.

I was honest with him about how his uncertainty made me feel; his ambivalent feelings and my response to them were both our problem, not just my problem.

I genuinely did not care about babyclock things. YMMV here, but having kids is not a big goal for me. If it had been, I probably would have looked at the situation and said to myself that I didn't know whether there was going to be change in time, and left.

Here are the things that I had to make an active effort to avoid/stop:

Reading self-help books about how to catch and keep a man, or basically anything in the media that was going to try to define our relationship in terms of standard templates and patterns. It was really easy to ask myself, "hey, am I this pathetic woman??" And that wasn't helpful at all.

Thinking that there was something that I could change about me that would change the way he felt -- whether that was my appearance or any aspect of my behavior.

Dwelling on the problem obsessively if I was in a bad mood or a hormonally unhappy time.

Discussing the issue at all, ever, with people whose views were likely to be overly prescriptive (e.g. my parents).

Here's what he did that helped:

He listened to me talk about this when I needed to, and he did his best to articulate what he was feeling at each point, and to explain the things in the background of his life that made this hard for him.

He was an incredibly excellent partner in every other respect: supporting me through some very difficult and chaotic family and career changes, making lots of time for me, being patient and sympathetic, recognizing when I needed to vent.

He made consistent forward progress in incorporating me in his life. It wasn't at the speed I hoped for, but the changes were always forward movement.

He made it clear that he deeply loved and valued me, that I was essential in his life now, that he wasn't looking for anyone else, that I wasn't a placeholder until something better happened.


Now. All that said, I have to say I wouldn't advise you to stay in this. Several of the things you mention, such as your partner's decreasing rather than increasing certainty and the fact that this issue came as a huge surprise to you, don't match up with my situation: I walked into the relationship knowing that there were serious issues and that they would affect how we interacted, because he warned me about his past when we started dating. And he never told me that he couldn't see me in his future or that he definitely did not want to get married; only that that choice scared him at that time.

Basically, I would only ever advise someone to walk this road if they are really, really really sure about the other person themselves (as in, would be willing to marry them at any time that person was ready); if the lines of communication are clearly open; and if you both know what it is that you're working on. Because there's a lot about it that's hard and painful, and there's no guarantee that there's going to be a happy outcome.
posted by shattersock at 11:00 PM on September 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

When I got "I'm not sure I see a future together," but the person was willing to stick around and waffle about it, it turned out that they were testing out the viability of a relationship with someone else and (seemingly) were willing to keep me on the hook until they were sure that would work out. Not saying that's necessarily the case here, but be cautious and look out for yourself.
posted by scandalamity at 5:24 AM on September 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, near-unanimous answers, huh. I highlighted the ones that made me think especially, or that resonated for whatever reason. Thank you. (And vivid postcard articulated exactly the thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head.)

My partner IS one of those super-analytical, bet-counting people. They're mature when it comes to work/money, but IMO pretty immature when it comes to general life stuff. (Not like I have it all figured out -- far from it -- but it is what it is.) That, combined with their relative lack of relationship experience, made it easy to chalk this up to "they're just being overly careful", or "they don't know how a long-term relationship waxes and wanes", or "they're freaking about being a grown-up and what that really means".

FWIW, I had asked them why they told me what they did, and what it was they expected me to do about this. Their answer was that they didn't know, and just wanted to talk to me about their feelings. They admitted that it was an absurd position to put me in, and I know they do feel very badly for having done that.

I really don't think there's anyone else involved, but I also thought they were very enthusiastic about me, so who knows. But questions like: "would you be willing to marry them at any time that person was ready", or "is this the type of person for anyone to build their life around", or "are they someone who you feel confident could weather a job/health/family crisis with you?" ... well, to cop a sentiment: I don't know, but I'm leaning towards no. (This realization, btw, completely sucks.)

As for me, my career-life is currently in upheaval and full of uncertainty, which makes it all the more tempting to stick with this for now, accept whatever support and comfort it still offers, and see how it shakes out when the other parts of my life settle down. Then again it's not like I've been exactly productive with all this going on. And I don't believe in taking "breaks", so.... bleck, either way, there's going to be one very serious talk in our near future.
posted by Sockmaster at 10:52 AM on September 18, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks again, everyone, for your thoughtful advice. Felt like I should update:

We broke up. I ended up pressing the issue, asking my partner why they had told me what they did. They said it wasn't that they were laying the groundwork for an exit, nor were they just keeping me around for companionship/sex until something better came along. They said some stuff that led me to think they have a lot of internal issues to work out that I wasn't aware of, and eventually said they think they just wanted to be single.

(It turns out their ex spewed months of horrible and vicious emotional abuse at them after their on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again relationship, and my partner felt really guilty about the whole situation. So I guess maybe they're ... overly sensitive to doing the same thing again.)

It hurt like a bitch. They said they loved me, that this was the best relationship they had ever had, that it made them a better person. I know they were probably feeling as awful as I was during the breakup. But that doesn't change anything -- they're still messed up / undecided, and I'm still not willing/able to stick it out knowing what I know. So it's over. It's amicable (enough), but it's over.

We agreed to 6 months no contact. I'm trying my hardest not to hope that this will all somehow work out in the end, but this hurts like nothing else I can remember. [/emo]
posted by Sockmaster at 10:28 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I know this is old, but I popped over here after seeing your comment on another thread. Your story has a lot of striking similarities to what I recently went though (we broke up in July). Really, kudos on breaking up, though. I mean, I know it's awful, isn't it? But I think it's not as bad in the long run as dragging out a situation with a lot of uncertainty and doubt.
posted by Asparagus at 10:28 AM on October 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, Asparagus. Overall, it does get better with each passing day, but it's still hard. I keep trying to change my thinking from "Maybe I should have been more ok with their uncertainty and waited it out" to "It is completely normal and good to NOT be ok with dating someone who is feeling that unsure about things after 1.5 years". Just keep on keeping on, I guess.
posted by Sockmaster at 10:31 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Maybe I should have been more ok with their uncertainty and waited it out"

This is purely you victimizing yourself.
posted by rhizome at 11:49 AM on October 21, 2012

There’s a perverse solace found in knowing others are going through the same thing.

My story…we dated for 1.5 years, and it was fantastic and deeply fulfilling. And then it imploded. He took me home for Thanksgiving, and although the trip itself was great, it raised questions for both of us. After many soul-searching talks we realized our timelines were off. By a landslide.

I won’t bore you with the details of why I thought we were meant to be, because I’m even annoyed with my broken record-sounding self. But suffice it to say that for the first time in my life I was all in.

He on the other hand couldn’t see being married in the next 5+ years, maybe. Biological clock aside, I didn’t want to wait 5 years in hopes that he would be on the same page. He was my best friend and I was excited about moving our relationship to the next level, or at least knowing we were headed in that direction.

I proposed to let the relationship run its course and resigned myself to waiting a year. It didn’t make it a month before it died last week.

He wavered. We cried. I said that wanting to be with me shouldn’t look so tortured. He finally acknowledged, for himself as well as for me, that “I want to be married and have kids someday…” came with “…but I don’t see that happening with you.”

There’s nowhere to go from there. We knew what was in his heart. And I can genuinely say that in that moment his happiness was more important to me than mine. So I let go.

After all was said and done I couldn’t wrap my brain around how wrong my gut was. But then, maybe I was overlooking incompatibility issues. And possibly he’s the stronger, kinder person, because I wouldn’t have been able to pull the trigger.

So to address the question of how to stay when it hurts like you’re already gone? To me, the answer is, you don’t. You can’t. That’s attempting to summon superhuman strength.

Because in those 4 weeks of purgatory, every fun outing, every laugh, every intimacy was eclipsed by the realization that it might be our last, and worse yet, that he might ultimately choose to do those things with someone else someday. And that was no way to live. The connection was broken.

I trust it gets better with time. Thanks, Sockmaster, for leading the charge.
posted by cleanslate at 3:04 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

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