Is good really the enemy of great in relationships?
March 29, 2013 1:14 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend has talked about us separating, but it seems like he still wants to be with me. I think he's overanalyzing our relationship to death, and I want to talk to him about how relationships take work and we should refocus on what's important to us, but is that true? How would that look, what would we do?

My boyfriend gets bummed out sometimes in the winter, and this December he started talking about moving out but not breaking up. That made some sense to me; he can be fussy about his space, and our one bedroom apartment is a bit cramped for two creative people and their projects. Then at the beginning of February, he said a bunch of stuff: he thought we might have fizzled out, he didn't know what he was doing with his life, he didn't know if he could settle down, and he thought things were too comfortable. He reiterated his plan to move out this summer.

There was a lot of sadness and crying, but within a day or two both of us sort of "woke up" from the long winter and started getting on task again; less tv, a lot more creative projects and plans, sex a couple times a week. He reinvited me to a summer wedding that we had decided in February that I wouldn't go to, and started talking about getting our camping gear together. We still say "I love you," and we've remained physically affectionate.

I feel like this is a relationship that should continue, dangit! I'm fine with him moving out in the summer, as planned, because I think the space could help us. I think we both got a little dependent on the other person, got lazy in our relationship, and stopped moving forward. But how do you work on a relationship like that, when nothing's "bad"? I know you can't argue someone into staying with you, but I think he's just as confused as I am about all this.

Background: We've been together for two years, and for the first year we were pretty much the most amazing thing on earth; madly in love, doing fun things, taking great trips, encouraging each other's creative projects, and generally just being adorable together. Things calmed down a bit last year, but we had some life change stuff happening (I changed jobs, he went back to school, we had to move), and things weren't bad, just more mellow.

He's a detail oriented person, and although that's usually a plus, it can sometimes turn into anxiety/panic things, and I feel like that's happening now, which is why I want to straighten out my own thinking on how relationships work.
posted by brisquette to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure what you're asking but it sounds like you're becoming something of a boomerang for your boyfriend to toss away and retrieve as his moods/anxieties change.
posted by headnsouth at 1:18 PM on March 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

If he wants to break up, then there's nothing you can do about it.

He may still like you, like to fuck you and basically enjoy having you around to tend to him, but the rubber will meet the road when he moves out. Either he'll call you for dates, or he won't.

I would sit down with him and ask the hard questions. "You told me that you want to break up and move out, yet we're having sex, doing things together and pretty much still continuing our relationship. I'm getting the impression that you don't want to break up, am I right?"

He may be shame-faced when he admits that he's taking advantage, or that he's going with it so that there's no drama before he moves out.

I suspect that he doesn't see a future with you, but he's hanging in there until he leaves. Or, he may actually believe that you're okay with being friends with benefits until he gets a new SO.

You can roll with this, or not as you please, personally, I wouldn't, because if you're not my lover anymore, you're not anything to me and you need to take your shit n'git.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:21 PM on March 29, 2013 [14 favorites]

He sounds like he doesn't want to make a decision about you or your relationship. And it sounds like you want to let him take his time in making his decision, or let him go back and forth, perhaps because you don't want to "pressure" him? Moving out without breaking up is just putting off making a decision. I don't think putting off the decision makes it more likely that he will make the decision you want him to make. I think it is in your long-term best interest to not allow him to drag this out, even if that results in the end of the relationship.
posted by Asparagus at 1:28 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm gonna take a different tack here; I do believe in people trying to work out problems. So yes, to answer your initial question, yes, it is true that couples do need to work things out.

But - that is only if both parties want to work, and there is an identifiable problem to work on. It sounds like things aren't so much a problem with the relationship proper, or whether there's a problem with him. And I get the sense that the problem is his; it sounds kind of like he's in some kind of "I don't know what I want to do with my life" meta-crisis.

Ruthless Bunny is right that you should clarify exactly what's going on here, and if he does indeed want to work things out, maybe suggesting therapy - for you both, or for him. He may balk at that ("therapy? What the fuck, you think I'm crazy?") but if you couch it in a more temporary, short-term thing ("no, hon, this isn't like a psych thing you just seem to have a lot on your mind and maybe talking to someone impartial can help you sort it out") he may go for it.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:36 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that you should definitely figure out what the plan is. If he's moving out does that mean you will continue your relationship? Does that mean a breakup? If he wants more space, has finding a larger apartment ever come up?

Personally if after my boyfriend and I moved in together, if he ever would have talked about moving out before trying to make a plan for us - for example a larger apartment - I would find it kind of odd and would feel that being apart was more important to him than the relationship.

Also know that sometimes relationships happen in waves, which is normal. Just because there is a lul in activity or lovey-dovey behavior doesn't mean there is anything "wrong" or "bad" as you put it. Some weeks my husband and I have the most amazing love. Other weeks we just run through our day to day life. Both are just part of a relationship. (For reference we have been together nearly 3.5 years and married for nearly a year.)

I also agree that you should get it figured out before just hanging out in relationship limbo. That doesn't mean you have to have any huge "make a decision right this second" discussion about it either.

Try writing down your feelings before talking to him. That will give you a good itinerary of what to talk about with him and keep the conversation calm.
posted by Crystalinne at 1:39 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You say "things aren't bad". Maybe not to you. But your boyfriend tried to break up with you, said he didn't want to settle down. That was just a few weeks ago. To me, that's bad. It gives me the impression he's not that into you.

And then he's talking about moving out this summer. You think it's because you guys need a little distance to be your best creative selves or whatever. From what you've said about him, I'm suspecting he's trying to put distance between you guys because... he's not that into you. And he doesn't want to settle down. Like a drawn out breakup where you're still getting used for the companionship, maybe until he finds someone else.

I don't know any of this for sure, but I wouldn't call yours a relationship with no problems.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:40 PM on March 29, 2013 [9 favorites]

If you truly believe that having physical separate spaces would improve your relationship, you should move out ASAP. I would also ask him for a commitment to the relationship in order for it to continue, be this some sort of couple's counseling, or some individual therapy if you really think this is a result of his anxiety/panic.
Actually, I would plan to move out now in any case, since this living with this I love you/I'm leaving business for the next few months would crush me. Not being a "bad" relationship is not enough reason to stay.
posted by florencetnoa at 1:43 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're in a tough spot. I've been on both sides of this kind of insecurity, so I know how awful it can be to be in your shoes. I've also been the anxious one in the relationship, so I'll speak from that position about what helped me. What's helped has been a kind of pragmatic and concerned interest in solving the problem while staying fairly detached from my worried feelings and not getting sucked in too deep into the "omg, we're wrong for each other" panic.

I've been with my current partner for many years now, and I've had those feelings with him. If I were to start feeling the way your bf is, my partner's first reaction would be practical, like "huh, you want to go hiking more together? okay, yeah, let's do that." But we've also gotten to the point where, as I spiral up to "omg, maybe the fact that we're not hiking means we have different values and are wrong for each other," he can gently poke me. Maybe he'll say, "I know, we're just awful for each other, that's why we've stayed together for all these years," or maybe he'll jokingly refer to whatever I was last in an anxiety spiral about, like, "maybe we're wrong for each other and also, maybe we left the stove on! Do you think we did?" For that to work, first we had to get to the point where I learned to trust him to let me know that I was worrying about nothing in other areas, and gradually, I've come to trust him when he hints that maybe I'm worrying about nothing when I worry about some deep incompatibility in our relationship. But, returning to my first point, that's also been the result of us trying to address anything that did have merit in my worry, e.g., that we're not going hiking when that's something we both love.

tl;dr Keep doing what you're doing. Hold to your confidence that this is a relationship that should continue, while addressing the actual issues (like space for your own projects). See what you can do across the board to help him gain self-awareness about his own patterns of anxiety.

But also, if this starts to make you go crazy, just let him go. That's what I had to do when I was in your shoes. I had to say "look, I can't live with this uncertainty, so if you're not sure you want to be together, let's break up." At a certain point, that's an option you could consider.
posted by salvia at 1:53 PM on March 29, 2013 [12 favorites]

I don't think your boyfriend wants to have to work for your relationship. You're not going to get anywhere with discussions about how relationships take work. He wants to work on himself, not your relationship. I noticed that everything he's said about moving out is couched in terms of how it will benefit him, and not the relationship, while you're assuming it's in service of improving the relationship. Has he actually said anything about wanting to work on the relationship, other than that he doesn't want to break up? I think you should take back control of your life and move out, instead of letting him decide when that happens. You'll find out how into you he is after that.
posted by rhythm and booze at 2:48 PM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

1. End it
2. Take a few months to regroup and improve yourself
3. Find somebody who blows your mind. You deserve it. This guy sounds like a drag.
posted by 0110 at 2:50 PM on March 29, 2013

It sounds like you had a conversation where you agreed to end the relationship in the near future, agree to be friends/friends with benefits in the meantime, keep up social appearances to avoid other people's questions, and have absolutely no commitment or responsibility for meeting the other person's needs. Now that he has been honest with you, and your response was SO positive, he has no anxiety about the relationship and appears relaxed and loving (what isn't to love about an ex-girlfriend who is still so accommodating and such a good girl?) - if you start asserting your needs, or he meets someone else, he knows he can bail without a guilty conscience since both of you have already agreed the relationship is over. It sounds like you are misinterpreting his future faker actions since you broke up in the hope you will get back together (or never really broke up and that conversation never happened). Two years in is a good time to decide if a relationship is a long term commitment material and he has decided it isn't.
posted by saucysault at 4:07 PM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ooof. Thanks for the tough love, guys.

I'm hoping that salvia and EmpressCallipygos have the advice I need, but I'm becoming more open to the possibility that it's more like treehorn+bunny and Asparagus situation.

Rhythm and booze, you make a very very good point. it's hard to think that the dude I adore would be stringing me along in any sort of heartless/careless way, but it makes more sense to think of how he's prioritizing himself.
posted by brisquette at 4:26 PM on March 29, 2013

Then at the beginning of February, he said a bunch of stuff: he thought we might have fizzled out, he didn't know what he was doing with his life, he didn't know if he could settle down, and he thought things were too comfortable. He reiterated his plan to move out this summer.
But... dd he say that any of that stuff had changed or that he was interested in working on it? Because if he didn't, you're in a slow-motion break-up, regardless of what's happening now, and you can't really convince him to work on it if he's already decided it's a done deal. You need to know where you stand right now and going forward with this guy and you need to ask him before summer arrives.
posted by sm1tten at 4:31 PM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes, relationships take work, but not all *that* much work. It's work that you should want to do. Each person should be working toward being the best version of themselves they can. If that version is not compatible with the other person in the relationship, then the relationship isn't on solid ground. If the "work" of a relationship means squashing things we like about ourselves, then we've really got troubles.

Example: I know a couple of couples where, from the outside looking in, it might look like the wives are incredible nags, trying to keep their men from having fun. But the reality is that the men are somewhat undisciplined and want the nagging. They know that they would devolve into slobs if they didn't have a partner motivating them to be better people. There is no resentment, rather they value their partners ability to keep them on track.

I guess the question you have to answer is whether you are in a low spot in the dynamics of a normal relationship, or on a downward spiral. Talking about the future will probably make things clearer for you.
posted by gjc at 5:23 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think once someone starts sounding the breakup alarm, they want out. Some people are just better at leaving right away than others.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:24 PM on March 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

You need to interpret what he's saying. What he's saying is,"I don't like you."

Start to accept that. Don't cling to a relationship. And figure out why you're clinging to someone who doesn't respect you or like you.
posted by discopolo at 7:43 PM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow there are a lot of uncharitable interpretations of your boyfriend's actions going on here.

It does seem like he has hit some kind of crisis point, not helped by the long winter, or living in a cramped chaotic apartment. He's at a crossroads of sort - continue on the current path that will further entrench his life in your relationship, or do a sort of reversal to an earlier time when you two were dating, but he had his own place. He may be honestly torn, and that's why youre getting mixed signals such as 'i want my own place' and 'lets go camping this summer.'

As for you, you say you are agreeable to him moving out, and that it could be a good thing. You believe the relationship is worth preserving. And you acknowledged some previous laziness on your own part, so you're more aware now of what to look out for. I don't know, I read this as a mostly positive situation. I don't see why you can't separate residences as planned and see how it goes?

If it turns out that he really was/is unhappy, or has fallen out of love or whatever, and you two end up breaking up, at least it won't be a surprise, and you will already be living apart.
posted by see_change at 9:53 AM on March 30, 2013

Why don't you stop living together first, and then see whether both of you want to sustain the relationship? Because that would remove a complication that may be clouding things.
posted by glasseyes at 12:07 AM on March 31, 2013

Update: We had the talk Sunday night: He initiated it, and said he wanted to still be in a relationship with me and was sorry about February's freakout. We're going to talk to our landlord about finding a bigger place, and he feels like he's figured out some better sadtimes management skills (more ways to keep active in the winter and developing a space of his own that he can hang out in when things get stressful).

We also resolved to make more times to hang out and talk about stuff like Goals and Feelings and The Future and Life in between the cool stuff we do. Then we planned our meals for the next week and went grocery shopping.

It wasn't an "ohmigawd I want to be with you forreverrrr" talk, but neither of us are really at that place. There's a kernel inside me still totally scarred from the earlier rejection and following confusion, so I'm gonna keep an eye on my own emotional health as things progress. I'm also 30 and trying to figure out what I Really Want From Life, so there's still some stuff to figure out here, but at least things generally make sense again.

Thanks for the answers, everyone. I really appreciate it.
posted by brisquette at 12:33 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Hey brisquette, just a heads up from someone who's been VERY MUCH in your boyfriends shoes -- sometimes relationships cause anxiety-prone people to flip the fuck out and do weird things like want to break up or run away or have these weird undefined needs for "space." It doesn't necessarily mean they don't like you or don't love you or don't want to be with you -- sometimes, it just means they're terrified, but can't really pinpoint that exact emotion. Good luck!
posted by good day merlock at 1:22 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

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