How did you act when your relationship was entering an unknown period?
September 19, 2012 1:54 PM   Subscribe

How did you act when your relationship was entering an unknown period?

My SO and I have been together a little over four years and have lived together for two (I'm 29 and she's 23.) Generally, our relationship has been issue free, extremely positive and I know she loves me wholeheartedly. We fit into each others families. We are generally very kind to one another and have a great deal of respect for one another. We moved in together and found the relationship got better as time went on, until recently.

I don't know where to place my issues, but I think two things have happened:

1) A dear friend passed away at 28 about a month and a half ago, and the grief from that has left me with a number of questions;

2) Our close friends are getting engaged, having children, etc. and there is increasing pressure to go down that road in the near future.

My relationship history is spotty: a lot of short-term flings, relationships that were end-to-end with the next one. I haven't been "single" in nearly 10 years. The four years of our relationship have been the longest, by far, I've been with one person and generally speaking, I have felt satisfied.

There are a number of problems I see, though, and I think the trigger of "you need to live, because you never know when you're going to die" feelings have led me to a feeling like we're incompatible for the following reasons:

1) She wants kids in five years...and increasingly, I think I do not. I know I would make a great, dependable father, but I am not sure I want to bring children into the world they'll be inheriting. Furthermore, I look at the lives of child-free adults and see more of myself there than in parented ones. We have compromised at the idea of one kid, but even that to me seems like I would not be true to myself.

2) I am not thoroughly convinced I am monogamous to the core. In my relationship, I have not had any outside play, but emotionally I have connected a number of times with other women in ways that I would describe as quasi-romantic. My partner is very strictly monogamous and would not be open to any form of open relationship, whereas I have for a long time been open to casual partners. I love the emotional connection more than the physical one.

3) I want to travel and am very career-oriented. As such, I am occasionally going to get a job offer in New York, Toronto, etc. I don't want to turn these down. My partner is not terribly interested in moving around that much and in particular does not want to live in a big city.

So I understand that right now, what's happening is I am realizing there are big incongruencies. We've talked lightly about these, not as immediate problems, but as things that need to be dealt with someday. I am feeling increasingly like someday is here. The death of my friend made that painfully clear.

Here's the thing: she will be absolutely devastated to see this relationship end. I am not ready to end it yet, but I am having these major concerns and I know that bringing them up will bring her whole world down for a time. I am increasingly (the last week and a half) distant because I feel like a fraud having these thoughts and acting like I am not. I feel like my best strategy is to form my thoughts clearly, understand my own wants, and express those when I know for sure what they are. That might be two months from now.

For those of you who, successfully or not, navigated these waters: how open and honest were you about how you were feeling? How did you deal with interacting with your partner while you were still together? I am not 100% sure that I want this period to end in the end of our relationship, but we live together and see each others for hours at a time. I still care about and respect can I best ensure her immediate expectations are met until I better understand what I want from here on out?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Here's the thing: she will be absolutely devastated to see this relationship end. I am not ready to end it yet, but I am having these major concerns and I know that bringing them up will bring her whole world down for a time.

She'll be more devastated if you keep tabling this, and burning up her most fertile years while she could be searching for a partner with more compatible life goals. It's time to have a very open talk.
posted by availablelight at 2:00 PM on September 19, 2012 [46 favorites]

It would be so much worse to not talk about this with her and string her along thinking everything is okay than to address these issues even if it means breaking up.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 2:03 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Major life happenings like death of a friend or family member can oftentimes be a triggering event for a lot of people in their late 20s. In your late 20s, it's like you're suddenly looking down the road of your life and realizing that it's not forever and maybe your life right now isn't best aligned to get you to where you would like to be. I think this is natural and a healthy part of personal growth.

From the sounds of this, it seems like she's ready to plant roots and you're not ready to stop moving right now. That is also a perfectly normal and healthy thing to realize in your late 20s.

Of course you don't want to hurt your girlfriend and of course seeing anyone who you love deeply and have loved for 4 years be devastated.

However, it sounds like you're realizing what you stand for and your feelings on major life things - like kids and openness of relationships and such. Usually once these thoughts start percolating it's impossible to shut them off, unfortunately.

Do some more soul-searching. Your girlfriend is 23, she's young and young enough to change her mind and chase her dreams (even if those are to just settle down with a family). It sounds like you're at a crossroads and realizing that your dreams don't match up. The two decisions before you are to stay with her and compromise your own dreams or to leave her and take the path unknown. Only you can make the decision about what is best for YOU.

FWIW, when I was in your shoes years ago, I took the path unknown. Sure, it's scary not knowing what's going to happen, but now I think the scarier option would be staying with someone who wanted something I didn't. I have zero regrets and in fact, life is pretty fucking awesome.

Good luck.
posted by floweredfish at 2:08 PM on September 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Your reasoning is sound and mature. You should make sure the way you handle your next steps is as well. If you don't see a way for you to be together in the long run, rip that band-aid off. If there's a kind way to end a relationship, that's it.
posted by renderthis at 2:09 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The period of time when you are grieving for a friend (and dealing with the mortality issues this brings up) is not, I think, the ideal time to make drastic decisions about your life that you may regret.

Get some counseling to help you figure out which of these feelings are "you at the core" and which are "you freaking out because you just realized you could die tomorrow."
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:10 PM on September 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

She's 23. She's going to be devastated yes, but then she's going to find someone who has compatible life goals. One of the early lessons is really simple and really painful: love is not enough.

I'm so sorry.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:12 PM on September 19, 2012 [24 favorites]

You can't have a future together, at least not a happy one, if you want different things out of life. Great people can want different things. You need to talk about each of your issues together, maybe with a counselor, to see how you might compromise or not. Some compromises can't be made, only decisions that leave someone unhappy. Sometimes life goals are incompatible.

But you are also probably still suffering from grief, which can cloud your thinking. You don't have to have all the answers right away but you do need to put your cards on the table. Perhaps discuss everything and agree to revisit the issues in six months or a year. Grief is not a good curtain through which to view your life.
posted by shoesietart at 2:16 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am increasingly (the last week and a half) distant because I feel like a fraud having these thoughts and acting like I am not. I feel like my best strategy is to form my thoughts clearly, understand my own wants, and express those when I know for sure what they are. That might be two months from now.

So you're going to mull this over for two months while you continue to act distant and weird and you think she won't notice? This is going to ruin your relationship anyway. Take a week to think on it if you need to, but you need to have a talk soon. Two months is not soon and she'll only suspect you of cheating or worse if you act strange and don't let on.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:23 PM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree - you need to talk to her, and probably end the relationship, sooner rather than later.

While I did end a relationship in the past due to dissatisfaction (restlessness) and incompatibility of values/goals, it was with someone who did not have clearly defined goals, nor did he express emotion very readily. For that reason, the breakup was not as difficult as yours might be.

It sounds like these issues are big enough to break you up further down the line - fast forward 5 years and you've had your one kid, you've been tied to one woman, and you've never moved out of your small town. If you feel stifled and like you've compromised your life away, and decide to leave her, there's going to be way more fall out in that situation.

One tricky thing is that if you let on that you're thinking of breaking up with her now over these things, she may feel obligated to compromise, herself, in order to keep you.

So my advice (based on past experience) is: make up your own mind (it seems like you mostly have). Then be honest, clear and very firm. Do not allow any grey area. Be very kind but give her room to negotiate - this will make things more painful for her, and for you.

Find a place to stay and move out. But give her time to find her own arrangements before she suddenly has to pay more rent. Give her space and do not initiate contact. Let her know that if she needs to talk to you, or has questions, you're there. Otherwise, don't contact her.

There is nothing wrong with wanting something different - people change! Good luck!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 2:26 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's the thing: she will be absolutely devastated to see this relationship end.

Here's the thing: she will be absolutely devastated to see this relationship end one month (or one year, or five years) from now once she realizes that it should have ended today. You guys have incompatible life goals. The relationship needs to end. Better now than later.

And here's another thing: she's 23 and has been in this relationship her entire adult life. It's just human to be devastated when something that significant ends. I had a similar relationship (4 years, all through college (dude was my age, though)), and when it ended, I was devastated. For, like, 5 hours. And then I realized, wait, we were really not compatible at all and also he was kind of a twat (not saying you're a twat, of course), and I'm totally going to find someone who's a better fit for me than that dude.

Please be honest and end the relationship today. It is, really and truly, the kindest thing you can do for her. The situation sucks, and I'm sorry. But you'll both be OK.
posted by phunniemee at 2:27 PM on September 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

The children thing is very important. There's no given that you have to marry/procreate just because all your friends are - I have friends who are marrying, others who aren't bothered, and some who are single but know they want kids - but if it's something she really wants and you know you are not going to give it to her, you need to face the possibility that you will either break up over it at some stage or suffer a lot of discussion and possibly resentment. It's not a compromise like choosing a film to watch, it's something that will take over your life and tie you together for at least eighteen years.
posted by mippy at 2:29 PM on September 19, 2012

I am not thoroughly convinced I am monogamous to the core.

"Monogamous" describes relationships, not intrinsic personal qualities. You don't need to be convinced, and your core has nothing to do with it. Monogamy is a choice you make, not a quailty you have.

Do you want to be monogamous with her? That is the thing about which your are not thoroughly convinced.
posted by General Tonic at 2:30 PM on September 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

how open and honest were you about how you were feeling?

Nothing good has ever happened when I've decided to "hold off" on talking about something significant - like, my feelings might be changing - with the person that change will affect the most. Ditto when it's my partner who hasn't talked to me out of a feeling of not wanting to hurt me.

This may or may not spell the end of the relationship, but if you respect your partner, you have to talk with her so she gets a chance to have a say in this as well. You might not feel like ending it right now; give her the respect of letting her make her own decisions about this, too.
posted by rtha at 2:40 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry to hear about the recent death of your friend. I'm sure it's been very difficult for you to deal with. While that's probably a contributing factor to all your feelings that are currently coming to a head...I think it's unlikely that it's the cause of those feelings. The feelings have probably always been there, and the death of your friend has just brought them to the surface. On the one hand you're in a tough situation because it seems like you have a good relationship. But on the other hand you both have extremely different long term goals and ideas for the future. As others have said, if she wants kids and you don''s tough to see this relationship going anywhere. Further, I think the bigger hurdle here is the fact that you seem to really want an "open" relationship. At this point I think you either need to bring this relationship to an end, or at the very least have a big open conversation about all the things that are going through your head and the two of you will need to decide if compromise is possible or impossible. Yes, she'll be very hurt, but your honesty is best for both of you.
posted by ljs30 at 2:45 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a parent, "one child" is not a compromise, it is a decision to become a parent. If you don't want to be a parent, you should not make the decision to be one, and you should not promise to be one. Having children you regret is really the worst possible outcome for everyone involved.
posted by KathrynT at 3:07 PM on September 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

Equally true:

You will devastate her.

She is an adult and she will survive that devastation and it is not your responsibility, or even your right, to try to "shield" her from that truth when you're just delaying it.

You've basically said that you're in a situation such that you know, for a fact, that your lives are incompatible. This will lead to the end of your relationship. Today? Next month? A year from now? But much sooner than "the end of your life."

The best thing you can do, both for yourself and for her, is to be open and honest and end it sooner, so that she can be devastated and begin the recovery process. And so that you can be honest.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:10 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

She will be torn up, and about 2 months later, a billion times better off. I'm in the same situation. My SO dumped me, and I really was not ready nor expectant of it. I was down in the dumps for a while. Then I started to see things that I really didn't like about relationship (we were incompatible in similar ways, and she was just hoping I'd come to her point of view) and things that I wanted for myself. I started to go over those things.

By tabling the issues and hoping for the best, you're doing the worst thing you could do to your GF and yourself. Like others have said, rip the band-aid off. I think that it would be admirable to try to reconcile your incompatibilities, but I really don't see it happening. You'd probably also need a dose of "single" to really figure out what you do want.

First things first, have a real conversation about where you want to go in life and where your GF wants to go. It'll be tough, but it's just putting off an inevitable conversation.
posted by neveroddoreven at 3:26 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I think the best thing you could do would be to end it, and commit to being single for one year. It's amazing how that will change your perspective on relationships and what you are looking for in a long-term partner.
posted by mannequito at 3:29 PM on September 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you know what you want, but because it is different from what your girlfriend wants, you are afraid to commit to these experiences you want to have (or, in the case of children, not have).

This breakup is going to be awful, for both of you. But, like everyone else has said, it's going to be awful no matter when you do it. It is far, far better to end a relationship when you see that you are no longer compatible than waiting to see if something in you, or the relationship, changes, or trying to compromise your goals.

Speaking from personal experience, I put an entire year's worth of effort trying to fix a relationship that was sinking due to differences in life goals. I was in your position. It wasn't fair to me, it wasn't fair to my then live-in boyfriend to expect either of us to change the big picture we had for our lives. I don't regret anything in that relationship except the year I stuck around, hoping one of us would change our minds.
posted by peacrow at 3:57 PM on September 19, 2012

Please, please, please end it. I'm 23, and my plans to have children aren't set in stone, but by the time I'm 29 they will be (and if they're not, I'll have to make some quick decisions). If you're not interested now and you drag it out, you're not giving her a lot of time to find a new partner who is. Having one child will change your life completely, it's not a compromise.

Honestly, as a 23-year-old woman, I would be ultimately very grateful if my partner told me now that he wasn't interested in children, because even though I'm young I can already feel the clock beginning to tick. It's just started ticking, but I realize that RIGHT NOW I have to start making significant life choices that will affect my ability to raise children in the next decade. I would want time to find a new partner and get comfortable before deciding to have children, rather than dragging out a long-term relationship where I was going to be pushing and pushing all the time to get what "we" supposedly wanted. She would be much happier with someone who's actively committed to the entire package of monogamy/childrearing.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:58 PM on September 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Christ, rip off the band aid. Break up with her as it is clear that you don't see a future with her. Stop wasting her time. Stop deluding yourself.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:50 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I want to say that though my initial answer was terse, I actually don't want to minimise the devastation. I broke up with my long-term boyfriend at around her age. I was genuinely heartbroken, like vomiting, can't-breathe, hide under the covers and ruin my life devastated. I did nothing but cry for three months solid. Driving past particular places, or through particular places (like the entire state of Connecticut) still caused relentless weeping a year later.

Then I met someone else and was all loved up all over again 18 months after that breakup. I had a zillion experiences and three more long term relationships before I got married at 32. None of those breakups were as horrendous as that first one. But I still regret none of it - none of the relationships, the breakups, the tears, none of it. There was always something good later, even if it didn't feel that way. And honestly, if you look around you, you'll realise that most of us come out through all of that okay. So will she, whether she bounces back in a month or in two years.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:55 PM on September 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Speaking with the voice of regret and hindsight, end it sooner than later. I waited 19 years too long to make the right decision. It is so much kinder to end it rather than dragging things out.
posted by jennstra at 5:56 PM on September 19, 2012

Tell her -- she deserves to be informed. But I think people are catastrophizing a bit with the whole "Stop holding her down so she can immediately go get with someone who wants babies!!!" thing. I find AskMe to often be weirdly essentialistic about the babies / no babies concern. I think for a lot of people there's a preference on the issue, but it's not a North Star for their life.

You should never -- never -- count on someone's opinion to change, but in the real world, it does. Your own OP speaks to the power random events can have to get people thinking in a different direction. Maybe you'll suddenly want kids; maybe she'll suddenly abhor the idea. Maybe (most likely) you'll continue to differ in opinion, and one of you will have to "lose". I'm not sure this is disastrous. It's a sacrifice for someone, and that can be worth it or not-- only you and she can judge that.

I'd broach the subject as "FYI, I really really think I don't want kids. Just so you know" rather than "I don't want kids; OH GOD RUN FOR THE DOOR NOW WHILE YOUR WOMB STILL HAS SOME WARM EGGIES". There is definitely a large set of people, maybe including the two of you, who are result-oriented in their relationships, but personally (and maybe for you as well), I wouldn't automatically write off a really strong four-year relationship solely based on this difference in opinion.
posted by threeants at 6:28 PM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

And I totally disagree with "end it for her". That is paternalism defined. You need to do your duty of being utterly honest and vocal about your thoughts on the baby question, without giving her a false sense of hope for changing your mind. But she's an adult and can choose her dang self whether or not the issue's a dealbreaker.
posted by threeants at 6:33 PM on September 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think it's better to start talking about these issues before you are 100% sure about wanting to break up. Otherwise it will hit her from out of the blue, and she will think it's a new issue and that she can maybe change your mind, when actually you've been thinking about it for ages and have already come to terms with things. It's better to work through things together and BOTH come to terms with the fact that the relationship is over at the same time as each other.
posted by lollusc at 6:42 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

In my last relationship, my ex-gf made several significant assumptions about what I did or didn't want that were entirely wrong - but she never realized it, because she never directly asked. Even if you're absolutely correct about what your GF wants, you seem to be neglecting the possibility that some of these things could well be negotiable (assuming that you're willing to offer some compromise in exchange). Just a thought - it can't hurt to express your needs and see if sbe has any flexibility there. If not, then at least she won't be too hurt when you break up because she'll understand that there are incompatibilities (rather than this coming completely out of the blue).
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:15 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I did say "end it," but what I mean in real time is that a proper way of ending it would be to bring up these issues, no negotiation. If she sincerely feels the same way (has already been thinking the same things) and can get on board, then maybe you could (cautiously) move forward, but fudging in the middle when you're pretty certain you don't want kids is just going to cause pain. Be gentle, but be upfront and honest, and if she wants to try to change or renegotiate with you, it might be best to call things off for both your sakes. (Not paternalism to step away from a relationship you think is ill-fated.)
posted by stoneandstar at 8:15 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's obvious you're dealing with some major, potentially deal-breaking incompatibilities. I first wanted to say kudos for recognizing that, because a lot of people don't until it's too late.

I think threeants has the best advice so far about how to handle this, although there's a lot of good advice in this thread.

If I were you, I'd sit down and say, "Darling, maybe you've noticed that I've been acting differently since Friend died. It's affected me pretty deeply and has got me thinking about a lot of things, especially about what I want in life."

"The more that I think about it, the more I realize I don't want children. And I really want a life of travel and adventure and big city living. I know we've talked about this in the past, but I wanted to check in with you on your feelings now." And take the discussion from there. Be firm in what you want (and like Serene Empress Dork said, maybe take a little time after grieving to be sure these things are what you want) and be understanding and respectful of what she wants. It's clear from your question that you want her to be happy and with a partner that shares her goals and preferences. Let that attitude inform the tone.

Notice that I didn't mention the issue of an open relationship. Honestly, if that were the only issue I would encourage you to be totally upfront and discuss it in the manner above. However, I think if I were on the receiving end of this conversation I would immediately latch on to the open relationship part and be even more emotional and devastated than I might otherwise be. It could also be perceived as a kind of coercion: "Well, if you don't change your mind about what I want, I'll just start seeing other people." That's obviously not how you intend it, but my 23-year old self might have interpreted it that way.

That probably has a lot to do with my own baggage and self-esteem issues, but I think if you include the open relationship idea in with the others there's a chance that the discussion will be even more dramatic and muddled than it might otherwise have been. If you have the conversation about kids and adventure and find out that you're closer on those things than you thought, I think then it would be a good idea to bring up your interest in exploring other relationships before moving too far down the path to commitment.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 8:49 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please don't just hang around and keep this to yourself until you've come to a decision. She deserves to know what's really going on in your mind and to be able to make a decision of her own based on that... maybe she's ok with hanging around while you waffle and figure things out, and maybe she's not. She deserves to be playing with all the same cards you are.

If you are really holding back out of concern for her and not just concern over losing her or rocking the boat in the mean time, consider that it may come out at some point that you were thinking about this for a while. I was told during the end of a very longterm relationship that he hadn't really loved me or wanted to stay with me for about four or five years before he eventually cheated on me and left. Besides the fact that I wasted my 20's (a lot of fertile years, if you want to think of it like that) with this person, I'm left a little scarred by the giant mindfuck of finding out that some of the basic assumptions of my life were essentially lies. That has made it very difficult to trust in subsequent relationships. Yes, it would have been intensely painful if he'd left when he first started feeling that way, but I don't think that would have caused the same kind of lasting damage.
posted by scandalamity at 2:07 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be very kind but give her room to negotiate - this will make things more painful for her, and for you.

Sorry! That should say DON'T give her room to negotiate! Don't.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 7:54 AM on September 20, 2012

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