Can this (common law) marriage be saved?
October 26, 2015 6:46 AM   Subscribe

My partner (32, male) and I (31, female) have been having the worst year of our lives. We've been together for six years, but the last year has been one horrible thing after another. Our relationship is suffering and it's become difficult for us to spend time together without conflict. My partner has just about given up because he feels like all we do is fight. I think that our relationship is worth saving but I'm not sure what more we can do. How can we right what seems like a sinking ship?

My mom passed away last winter, but I barely had any time to grieve since my dad was diagnosed with dementia and needed full-time care. Meanwhile, I was diagnosed with vestibulodynia and am no longer able to have sex without pain. My partner has also had a difficult year, between being unemployed for over a year, having chronic pain, trying to support me through multiple crises, and us not being able to have sex.

Besides the issues I mentioned above, we've also been struggling with a less than ideal housing situation (landlord issues, plus we just discovered we have rats living in the ceiling), conflict about where to live and work in the future (he hates our town and wants to move to his hometown, but we need to stay here for now because of my dad), how to best handle the situation with my dad (which is extremely complicated, but basically my partner doesn't agree with a lot that my family and I have been doing), and more.

When we're having a good day, we're best friends and have a blast hanging out together. But lately there haven't been too many good days, and a lot of the time things are tense and unhappy. It's tricky to discuss most things in depth without it turning into a fight at this point. Our fights are upsetting and emotional for both of us. We try to fight fair (no yelling or verbal attacks) but it feels like nothing is ever resolved and the same topics keep coming up.

We also run into conflict because I'm a problem-solver and he's more of a problem-avoider. I want to talk things over to find a solution, but he feels like all I can talk about are the problems and is exhausted by it. To be honest, between work, caring for my dad, dealing with my mom's estate, chores, medical appointments, and trying to spend time with him, I don't have a whole lot to talk about other than the problems! I recognize that this must be frustrating and stressful for him but I'm at a loss for how to improve things.

I've been working to fix as many problems as I can (getting treatment for the vestibulodynia, attending a grief support group, hiring care aides for my dad, trying to set up fun dates for us) but I'm still completely overwhelmed and stressed out a lot of the time. It really affects our interactions since my partner isn't in a great place either. I know that he is also stressed out, and feels powerless (unsuccessful job search, unable to help with my problems) and neglected (lack of intimacy, lack of free time on my part). Additionally, I feel like he is probably depressed. He's refused any kind of anti-depressant (he self-medicates with marijuana) or counselling for himself. We did have two couples counselling appointments this past summer, but he felt that it wasn't helpful. Despite all these issues, I hoped that we'd make it through ok because of our love and support for each other.

Yesterday, he told me that he was "defeated" and couldn't talk to me about any of our problems anymore. He said that if we couldn't talk without fighting, then we shouldn't talk at all. Only if it was about neutral things like cute animal videos. We haven't really talked for two days now. I don't understand how we can possibly resolve this situation without talking about things! But he was very clear that he couldn't talk (which he saw as automatically being a fight) about them anymore. He seemed very sad but resolved.

When I asked him whether this meant he wanted to break up, he said that we couldn't break up because it would be "too complicated" since we just extended our lease. This is hugely upsetting to me because it seems like he has checked out of the relationship. I don't want to break up, but I don't want to be in a relationship where we're only together because of a lease.

Is there any way to fix this situation? All of our problems aren't ones that can be resolved quickly, so there's no real bright future peeking around the corner. But it seems so unfair that our previously wonderful relationship has been destroyed by things mostly outside of our control. Before this year we were talking about marriage. I just don't understand how so many things have gone wrong in our lives.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
That sounds like a tough situation. But there's only so much you can do on your end to save a relationship. Your partner has to want to fix things too, and it doesn't sound like he does right now.

I was in a relationship for far too long even after it reached the point you describe. Leaving it was one of the best things I have done for myself.
posted by cabingirl at 6:57 AM on October 26, 2015 [10 favorites]

I would start making plans for breaking up. It may be that he's trying to force you into a state of stasis for a while, which is of course impossible (I couldn't even live with a roommate who wouldn't talk to me except about "neutral topics like cat videos," that's ridiculous), so whether you have to break it off or this will spur him to actually look at your relationship as something to be saved, something has to happen.

Being proactive and saying, "If this is it, here's how we get out of the lease, here's what I'm planning on doing for living arrangements, here's when I want us to be out of here," may just get him going in some direction. Staying still won't work.
posted by xingcat at 7:09 AM on October 26, 2015 [21 favorites]

You've both had such a rough time, I'm so sorry. I think it'd be hard for a many couples to cope with all that. It's also hard to get out of the kinds of bad communicative habits you've both picked up in dealing with each other, and to overcome a history of conflict, and the accumulation of bad memories, especially if things have gotten at all nasty. The only way for that to really happen is for both people to be 100% committed to fixing things. Not only do you have important competing priorities, but he's checked out. I think you have to prepare yourself for letting go of this. Better if you can do that sooner than later, imo.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:42 AM on October 26, 2015

(he hates our town and wants to move to his hometown, but we need to stay here for now because of my dad)

I would let him move, and see what happens from there.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:52 AM on October 26, 2015 [13 favorites]

It can't be saved if you're the only one doing the saving. If he won't even talk to you about your problems anymore, then it's time to move on.

Listen. The guy isn't getting treatment for his depression, he's not supportive of couples counseling, he won't even talk to you anymore. It's over.

Focus on your own self-care and get out of there. He's wrong that you "can't" break up. You absolutely can and, from what you shared, probably should.

Anecdata: I was once in a relationship where the other person checked out emotionally but did not want to break up because breaking the lease would have been "complicated".. oh, and also because they were cheating on me (without my knowledge) and it was far easier for them to just ride out the lease while entrapping me in a horrible relationship. Even before I knew I was being cheated on, I realized the relationship was over, so I left. Yes, it was complicated, but it was easily the best decision I've made in the last decade.

Bottom line: Leave him.
posted by Gray Skies at 7:56 AM on October 26, 2015 [18 favorites]

One problem with the problem-avoider type is that he may simply allow things to get as awful as possible, to force your hand in ending the relationship. I know; I've done it, and the memories still make me cringe. It's lousy behavior, but he may not even realize what his own end-game is. He'll just let your relationship degrade until you have to take decisive action. You do the heavy lifting of making a decision, and he avoids confronting the problem or being the bad guy.

I can't recommend what you do one way or another, but seeing this pattern and understanding that your partner is letting the relationship die may help you recognize when/if you're both showing signs of being ready to move on.
posted by itstheclamsname at 8:03 AM on October 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've been the person who's been overwhelmed with talking about problems, so I'll add that perspective. In my situation, I had gotten to the point where I dreaded interacting with my partner because it felt so negative and 'unsafe.' The only way I could get through is to designate some conversations as problem-free zones and use those time to allow positive interactions to grow.

It was hard for my partner at first; the problems were all that he could think about. But the thing was that we weren't having useful conversations. We couldn't solve the problems by talking, there were no decisions to be made, and there was only so much verbal support I could offer. It felt like a form of ruminating, and to me, it didn't feel healthy for either of us. There were other ways that we could try to feel close to each other and make space for ourselves and our relationship.

The caveat is that there were times when we did talk about the problems. I didn't cut off communication on the topic completely - we just negotiated boundaries. I don't think it's fair to shut down conversation on important parts of your life, especially if there are decisions to be made or your need support. And even if he is overwhelmed by talk, he can still support you by doing things like tracking appointments, making sure that the house is taken care of, contributing towards caregiving, etc.

Eventually, my situation improved and I hope that yours does too, whatever you decide to do.
posted by oryelle at 8:17 AM on October 26, 2015 [16 favorites]

I think it's very hard to save a relationship when the other party isn't interested in saving it. So if he hasn't been working this past year, have you been financially supporting the both of you? AND doing all the work with your parents, etc.? What does he do all day?

This doesn't sound like there is anything in this relationship for you. He isn't able or willing to be supportive. He's actively resisting even speaking to you. Normally people would suggest couples counselling and therapy, but there doesn't seem to be a point to any of that. I think in your head you're taking on the blame for this because of your medical condition, but I don't think this is your fault at all. It seems that he's basically told you that you'd be broken up if things weren't "complicated" — and how much of that is because he wouldn't have any way of supporting himself? — so I think you should listen to him and cut the cord.
posted by clone boulevard at 8:20 AM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Relationships are a team effort and he has explicitly told you that he is not going to pull his weight. Send him back to his hometown and concentrate on yourself.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:20 AM on October 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

you are having an awful time. have you considered some kind of trial separation or similar? it would give you both a break from each other and let you focus on your own problems without rubbing each other the wrong way.

to be honest, i doubt it will work, but it seems like something that won't make things worse and gives him some space to decide to participate again.

i'm sorry. having an uncooperative partner is frustrating and depressing.
posted by andrewcooke at 8:42 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

That does sound like a horrible year. It sounds as if your partner may really need to take a break to recover. I don't see anything wrong with that, and I don't think it necessarily spells the end of the relationship.

What would it be like to just take a few weeks and stop discussing all the problems? It seems as if an emotional rest (mental vacation) might be good for both of you.

Honestly? After a year like that, if I had to come home to discuss problems, I would just not be capable of it and I might very well correlate seeing my partner with the overwhelm of having to discuss problems. Not the softest place to land.

Giving yourselves a break might be all it takes to get back to yourselves.
posted by Vaike at 9:10 AM on October 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

he said that we couldn't break up because it would be "too complicated" since we just extended our lease

That's heartbreaking. Make it complicated for him. Dump him. Sounds like he wants you to do it first.
posted by theraflu at 9:19 AM on October 26, 2015 [12 favorites]

I think it might help you to take a step back and try to figure out how much talking constantly about these problems is contributing to solving them.

We also run into conflict because I'm a problem-solver and he's more of a problem-avoider. I want to talk things over to find a solution, but he feels like all I can talk about are the problems and is exhausted by it.

It's possible from his perspective that you are a "Problem-discussion-er," rather than necessarily a "Problem-solver." From my (generalized) experience, it drives some guys batty to talk about problems when there's not necessarily an action-oriented solution. It sounds from a lot of your problems that there are not a lot of things you can DO to accelerate the disappearance of these problems, especially with your dad. And, of the things that you can do, a lot of them seem to rely on your making decisions about things that don't necessarily need his input.

A suggestion: over the next week or so, come up with a list of CONCRETE, ACTIONABLE items that either of you could perform to move some of these problems to a solution, e.g. "Send e-mail to landlord about rat problem." "Get quote from exterminator" "Interview home health aide for Dad." Put the list up on the fridge. Tell him that you came up with this list to move forward solutions to some of the problems. You need his help with any of these things, and in exchange ---- you won't talk about the problems. You might not even end up talking about much of anything when you're home together, but you won't talk about the problems for now.

Give him an opportunity to help you with actions. If he refuses to help you at all, then tell him he can move back to his hometown because your relationship has become unfulfilling and not-useful for the both of you. Then put an ad out for a roommate.
posted by permiechickie at 9:23 AM on October 26, 2015 [21 favorites]

This might be saveable if both of you were all-in on saving it. Since he's shot down the two most obvious avenues of attack for this (couples therapy, or actively dealing with the issues together in some other way), I would say that it would be saveable if he were offering up some alternative that he would be willing to commit to. Say, you agree to not talking about these issues for a few weeks, and he agrees to making a more active effort to take some stuff off your plate since it sounds like you are the one in the most crisis right now. Maybe he can take some chores off your hands, maybe he can commit to making the plans for date nights so all you have to do is show up and be present. Some show of willingness to engage in a way that he's responsible for, that you don't have to manage for him.

It doesn't sound like you're getting that from him, and honestly, you can't save a relationship alone. You can keep it alive for a while, maybe, possibly at great cost to yourself at a time when you don't have much to give.

In your shoes I would maybe give it a couple more days for some of the tension to subside and then say some version of what I've said here, and give him a chance to think about it and offer some alternative that's not "staying together in the least involved way possible for the sake of not dealing with breaking a lease."

If he doesn't come up with anything, then I think you should walk, and chalk it up to unfortunately being one of those relationships that are great in decent or good times, but don't quite hold up under the weight of the bad ones.
posted by Stacey at 9:31 AM on October 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

Your question is can this be saved? I think the answer is maybe. But, probably not right away with all these external stresses. So, you need to decide whether your committed enough to it to keep riding out the unhappy and discomfort until your partner is ready to re-engage or you conclude he never will. You've said you are a fixer, and this doesn't sound like something you'll be able to fix right now. So, think about what might make it a little better, or whether you are ready to move on.

Our disposition sometimes is for action, but sometimes it is okay to wait and see what develops. While this has been a horrible year, it sounds like you are not in a situation where waiting a little longer to act will cause new or undo harm. So, you might consider it.
posted by meinvt at 9:47 AM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

he said that we couldn't break up because it would be "too complicated" since we just extended our lease.

Speaking as someone who has been married for almost ten years, not all of them great, I have to admit to feeling like this on more than one occasion. Sometimes the only thing that has kept me from jumping in the car and leaving forever were practical, legal things like the mortgage, finding a lawyer, etc. Maybe this makes me not the right person to be doling out marriage advice, I don't know, but I do know that being married is hard work sometimes and I don't always feel like putting in the effort.

I understand that it is a painful thing for a partner to hear, and if this is just not acceptable to you, I totally get that.

In those situations, when I feel like there's nowhere I can go, I try to improve myself because I am the only thing I can control. My hope is always that my relationship will improve as a result OR that once I've done what I can, I will be able to see clearly that I should move on. So far it's always been the former.

People handle bad things differently. Good luck.
posted by lyssabee at 9:58 AM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Hey OP, just wanted to let you know I have vestibulodynia too. Feel free to message me if you'd like to hear about treatments that have helped me or just to commiserate. Best of luck with everything.
posted by fozzie_bear at 11:56 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Try your boyfriend's avoidance method for awhile. Unless there is something concrete and constructive resulting from each reference of the problems, make no mention of them.

It is possible that some of your problems are better off accepted and not rehashed. For example he wants to move and you don't. You both know it. Now you don't need to talk about it until something changes and there is new data about the situation, such as him finding a job offer in his home town, or him finding a job in your current area.

At that point there will be something to talk about, like is it possible for your father to receive care in your boyfriend's home town, or does the job in your area pay enough to be worth taking, or does being employed take away yourboyfriend's desire to move.

It is completely okay to not talk for awhile if you are both sandbagged by how much has gone on in your lives and how difficult it has been. Chances are you have already done all the useful talking and all the intimacy building that you can on the subject of your problems and are now only venting. It sounds like your boyfriend feels that the talking has reached a point long past problem solving, and into ruminating.

This is not to say that you should stop trying to solve your problems, but it's probably time to find someone else to talk to them about, like your cousin, or your best friend, rather than your partner or even a personal counselor, not a couple's counselor. He's given his perspective. Do you think there is anything else he has not told you? Probably not. If he has any idea how to get rats out of the ceiling he has probably mentioned it.

There is a good chance however, that your partner is right, and you both need to take a week or two off from being worried about things. The fact that your boyfriend doesn't want to break up on the grounds that it would be too complicated is a good sign. It means that he basically wants to stay and he is putting obstacles in the way of you both giving up on each other.

Remember that as a couple you do not have to agree on everything, and it is often good when you disagree on things. Neither should both of you be everything to the other person all the time. It is better for both of you if don't share everything all the time.

I'd suggest that you look for other ways to restore intimacy, that don't involve words. If you both come up with some ways to show intimacy and loving for each other it could build the relationship where talking has lately been tearing it down. Focusing on your problems with a view to problem solving is also focusing on problems not on positive things. It's really better to focus on positive things more than half the time. It's much more psychologically healthy.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:06 PM on October 26, 2015 [9 favorites]

First of all, I'm very sorry for the loss of your mother and for the change in your father's health.

We also run into conflict because I'm a problem-solver and he's more of a problem-avoider. I want to talk things over to find a solution, but he feels like all I can talk about are the problems and is exhausted by it. To be honest, between work, caring for my dad, dealing with my mom's estate, chores, medical appointments, and trying to spend time with him, I don't have a whole lot to talk about other than the problems! I recognize that this must be frustrating and stressful for him but I'm at a loss for how to improve things.

Pick a topic. Any topic. He's expressed a need to you - he needs a break from problem-talk. Changing the subject would be a show of love for him.

I don't think it's helpful for you to label yourself as a problem-solver (good!) him as a problem-avoider (bad!) because he doesn't want to talk about your problems all the time. Relationships thrive on give-and-take. As said above, someone could see you as a problem-dweller and him as a problem-balancer. Sorry to be harsh, but reading your question, it's clear that you see yourself as handling things and living life to the best of your ability, while dismissing his way of doing things.

If you are going to get married, this will not be the only period of personal crisis in your lives that you face. If the way he handles a crisis grates on you, this relationship isn't going to last. If you really can't give him the benefit of the doubt when he expresses his needs to you, this relationship is over. That doesn't mean it's anyone's fault. It's just not going to work out in the long run.
posted by Pearl928 at 2:35 PM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

At least you aren't married- that would make disentangling yourself financially much harder. And you might have to pay spousal support.

It's entirely possible I'm being too uncharitable to your partner but it sounds like you support him, and your dad, and do most housekeeping while he does relatively little. Is he still actively looking for work? Or just banking everything on this fantasy of moving?

I would suggest telling him you want to take a break and live separately. Figure out what you can do about the lease, and let him move and try to find work in his town. Then you will have space to breathe and take care of YOU. You have been taking care of everyone else long enough. It's no wonder you're exhausted.
posted by quincunx at 2:57 PM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

"I don't understand how we can possibly resolve this situation without talking about things! "

Easy: because you've talked about your problems probably a lot, and there's no solving the major problems right now. You can't not be a caregiver for your dad. You're trying to work on the painful vadge but who knows how long that will be to make better. You can't just up and move. He can't find a job for shit. He can't afford to leave if he wants to. I don't think I'd want to keep talking about problems that can't be fixed or solved any time soon or far either if I were him. If the only way to still enjoy each other is to talk about cat videos instead of everything that sucks, maybe that's not a bad idea to try for awhile. As someone else pointed out, work on what can be changed and table the issues that can't be unless circumstances change.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:17 PM on October 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Pearl928 and jenfullmoon have good points.

It can be very frustrating to listen to someone vent negatively, constantly, about problems that have no immediate solution, that have been discussed to death.

You repeatedly refer to your partner trying to support you, and seem to take it as a given that your partner is meant to support you ("trying to support me through multiple crises", "unable to help with my problems") - but humans are finite, and it sounds like he is absolutely drained trying to support you and your problems, and has his own problems as well.

How have you been supporting him? How have you been trying to help him with his chronic pain? How have you been trying to help him find a job? Most importantly, how have you been focusing on him and your relationship with him, in a positive way? It sounds like he is stressed by his own problems, and stressed by your problems, and stressed by your venting (you refer to it as "discussing problems", but to him it probably feels a lot more like you venting endlessly to him, expecting him to listen and bear your venting even though it is wearing him out). If you think he's depressed, your behavior and expectations that he bear your constant negativity really isn't helping his depression and may be contributing to it.

"To be honest, between work, caring for my dad, dealing with my mom's estate, chores, medical appointments, and trying to spend time with him, I don't have a whole lot to talk about other than the problems! I recognize that this must be frustrating and stressful for him but I'm at a loss for how to improve things."

He's told you how you can improve things: "Yesterday, he told me that he was "defeated" and couldn't talk to me about any of our problems anymore. He said that if we couldn't talk without fighting, then we shouldn't talk at all. Only if it was about neutral things like cute animal videos. " You can improve things by making an effort to keep a positive attitude when interacting with him. If you can't be positive, at least be neutral (like he's suggested). You can improve things by making an effort to refrain from talking about your problems - at least for some time each day. If you want to vent to someone, try to find other people (friends, family) to vent. If you want to discuss your problems, try to discuss them with others. If you have to vent/discuss with your partner, set aside maybe 1 hour to do this. Then after that 1 hour is up - make the effort to stop talking about your problems, and move on to neutral/positive topics. I know you're going through a rough time, but so is he, and this relationship isn't all about you, and your family, and your problems.

It sounds cliche but if you can't change your circumstances (or maybe you can?), you can at least change your attitude. You talk about trying to spend time with him, and trying to set up fun dates. But it sounds like the most basic and crucial thing you have to do, that you seem to have neglected, is to work on your general attitude and demeanor towards him. There's no point in spending time with him if the time spent together just devolves into "discussing problems" (which to him probably comes across as a wearying session in which you keep trying to talk about negative things that stress and depress him, even though he's told you repeatedly that this burdens and stresses him tremendously). There's no point in trying to set up a fun date when your demeanor during the date makes it clear that you have many other worrying things on your mind that you would like to talk about.

Yes, you are going through a really tough time, and you are facing many problems. But if you value your relationship with your partner, you should not expect him to perform infinite emotional labor for you. And if he does his best to bear your emotional weight - to support you - then it is helpful to be verbally appreciative and affirming. You mention that he feels powerless in part because he can't help with your problems. But, he has been trying to help by listening to you. If you tell him that - something like "Thank you so much for listening and trying to discuss with me. It makes me feel so much better after talking with you, and I'm glad I have you by my side" - I think it might make him feel a little less powerless, and also show him that there is a concrete point/outcome to the discussion/venting.

I apologize if this may have sounded somewhat blunt/harsh. I really hope you can both work things out! He has demonstrated his commitment by trying to be supportive as you weather your family's problems and your health problems - even staying and committing to a lease in a town he hates. Hopefully you can see the positive side of things, and support him as well. It sounds like a positive attitude in this situation would help immensely.
posted by aielen at 1:27 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

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