Mood swings in my relationship
August 2, 2018 5:15 PM   Subscribe

For six months I was happy and blissful at home, at peace with my private life. Suddenly I’m irritable, Type A (... -ish) and don’t feel like I have enough personal space.

Some background:
- Boyfriend and I have been dating for about eight years, living together for five.
- He does more housework than me (I am starting to do more than I used to but I’m a slob). He cooks and does most of the routine dishes and laundry. My contribution is more on the order of paying for certain chores to be outsourced and doing the periodic weekend-long mega declutter.
- I have a long commute (an hour fifteen each way). I make more money but he is doing well also and we both have moderate-stress, professional-ish careers (as in solidly middle class, but not doctors or fancy lawyers). I am less bothered by commuting than most people (I take a company commuter bus, low stress) but it’s a lot of context switching.
- I have been on various meds for anxiety and depression but this issue does not line up with going on/off any medications and seems to transcend them.

So the main problem statement is this. We moved to the West Coast a year ago and both started new jobs. It was a stressful time financially and I tended to work long hours in my zeal to catch up as a career late bloomer. I was probably gone about 12 hours a day and sometimes worked more when I got home. We did not expect to do much together in the evenings (he had a brief two-job stint so we both worked a lot) but on weekends we explored the city and dined out, etc. We had a lot to talk about.

About six months in, he quit the second job and I started scaling my work hours back as I was feeling relatively centered. I was probably feeling a little burnout, and we started doing more drinking and TV watching during the week. We ate dinner together every night and tended to sit at the table talking for a long time. I started coming home earlier so we could spend time together.

Lately I have realized that I went too far to the opposite extreme and the weeknight libertinism was catching up with me. After talking to the boyfriend, I realized I was assuming he craved more time together when actually he was chafing a bit and wanted alone time. I also realized that while it was good to scale my work hours back, I wasn’t really doing anything enriching with my free time. I felt blocked; there are skills I need for my career that I should spend time developing outside of work hours, especially if I ever want to freelance, etc. I also have hobbies and would like to start exercising. But while it felt “acceptable” to be never at home or always working because of my job, I have a harder time just hanging out by myself at home to do personal work. It feels “mean.”

And the weird thing is, it seems like my boyfriend is running hot and cold. When I was making more (too much?) time for us, he wanted space. He brought it up in a reasonable fashion and my feelings weren’t hurt as I realized I was acting quite clingy after the move. However, once I started dedicating myself to my own stuff— working out, making solo travel plans, etc.— he became quite clingy! And while I was always the reclusive homebody who wanted to lie around watching movies, now I spend more time in social scenarios, around strangers, etc. while he works, comes home, repeat, with no obvious initiative to meet new people or get out of the house. He occasionally gets work day coffee with work friends and we just had a friend from college stop by, but he doesn’t seem to be on the hunt for a non-work hours social life. (I don’t really mind either way but I always thought he wanted to be more social and I was holding him back.) Neither of have historically been super outgoing, but he’s more conscientious about friendships, has less social anxiety, and is more likely to have his “own” friends that don’t hang out with us as a couple. (Mostly because he is more tolerant of diverse personalities than me!)

So I feel (non-malicious) mixed signals for him. I feel a constant underlying guilt about taking time for myself, so without positive feedback from him, I am less and less likely to stick to my self-improvement plans. (Not his fault, but a dynamic I notice.) I am sort of a nurturer (not an astrology believer but a consummate Cancer nonetheless) and before switching careers would have been happy to spend every evening with my family. Or, in the absence of a family, watching old Star Trek episodes while smoking a joint and goofing off with my boyfriend or best friend. Now I want to spend evenings... reading, studying, going to exercise classes, getting drinks with folks, working on understanding new areas of my field, etc.

Along with this guilt and dissonance comes the reality that I am really bad at keeping boundaries when in close quarters with another person. When I lived with my parents I was a basket case. When I had roommates in college I was a recluse. Now even with my own boyfriend, I have a hard time staying focused on work knowing someone is in the house. I was recently talking to my boyfriend’s mother (of all people) who mentioned she likes to take a bath when no one is home because it’s just not the same when someone else is in the house. Exactly! A major complicating thing is that we live in a glorified studio apartment. Our city is stupid expensive and an apartment with... rooms cost more than we really wanted to pay. Also, we’re in a lease for another ten months or so. We’ve pretty much always lived in small apartments since neither of us is in a nesting phase. But now I’m tweaking because I want to sit and do solitary activities uninterrupted and also do things like listen to podcasts while doing boring stuff. Meanwhile I feel (probably unfairly) that he wants to chat every five minutes

As this uncertainty about our “lifestyle,” quality time, etc. stretches on I find myself more and more impatient and irritable. I want to be alone a lot. I want to do the crossword uninterrupted. I want focus in the morning while getting ready for work. About 30-40% of the time when my boyfriend is talking to me I’m trying to modulate my reactions because I’m internally going “ok ok shhhh,” even though it’s not like he’s suddenly a boring or obnoxious person. I mean, a few months ago we were talking for hours every night over a glass of wine.

So anyway, basically I’m looking for advice on how to navigate this new and somewhat obscure dynamic with my partner (living together without smothering) and also in general from people who identify with this but have found some peace with their home life. I think I tend to oscillate between two states— totally Garfield-like contentment and leisure and hyper-Apollonian self-improvement. (They are not really that extreme or separate but my personality changes between them... either I’m agreeable and nurturing or I’m a bit exacting and no-nonsense. I had an ex who would be a real dick to me whenever I was acting “driven,” so that’s probably causing me some shame, but also maybe I am a bit of a dick myself when I’m feeling goal-oriented.) I assume there are many people who have integrated these parts of their personality, but, well... not me. Can I? How?

(To be clear, I like my boyfriend. He is handsome, chill, we share things in common while also challenging each other, and I think he would be a good husband/Dad some day. I’m just like trying to live in the adult human world without giving up and joining a convent.)
posted by stoneandstar to Human Relations (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I know you've brought this up subtly in various ways and at various times but have you ever been super direct and had a sit-down where you said exactly what you're feeling and observing and needing? I can't say if you two are compatible long-term or not but I can say that you guys need to work on your communication right now. I wish he had brought this up but it sounds like you both have mixed feelings and are afraid to be direct. I think the conversation will go better than you expect: you could even just read the post to him and take it from there. If it doesn't, then that's a sign and good information to know, too.
posted by smorgasbord at 5:25 PM on August 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

You say: "For six months I was happy and blissful at home, at peace with my private life. Suddenly I’m irritable, Type A (... -ish) and don’t feel like I have enough personal space."

I reviewed your posting history and see that things haven't been so happy and blissful as you described here. With all due respect, your previous concerns are valid and current frustration also understandable. I know we only hear your side of things but you absolutely have my blessing to break up if it's not working for you anymore and you're so unhappy. You can certainly stay in and keep working on it but he's going to need to do that, too. Is he willing?
posted by smorgasbord at 5:47 PM on August 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

I think you should institute a schedule where you both have regular solo time in your small, shared apartment, as well as enjoying planned dates together.

(Also, six months ago, "we started doing more drinking" -- if that greater consumption has become your regular habit, the alcohol could be interacting with any anxiety or depression medications you take.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:47 PM on August 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

There’s a lot of self discovery going on here, along with what sounds like a sustained period of personal growth. It’s hard to suggest any one strategy because it may not apply tomorrow.

So instead I have to fall back on the old AskMe standby: find a therapist. You obviously have a lot of conflicting wants and needs to sort through and a therapist will help a lot with that.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:52 PM on August 2, 2018

I'm going to follow smorgasbord in referencing the earlier post (and please feel free to disregard if this doesn't resonate with you). It seemed like, at that time, you were feeling (extremely understandably) untrusting of him and, specifically, not relying on him actually responding to your needs and not withdrawing and avoiding and minimizing.

I can't help but notice here, you focus almost entirely on your analysis of yourself - the things you (extremely understandably) want differently in your life and in your relationship, and then a meta-layer of analysis on whether you are oscillating between two states in some kind of pattern. In other words, you don't write about planning to take the risk of asking him to behave differently (as smorgasbord also suggests) so much as advice for how you can contort yourself better given this apparent fixed reality of his unreliable and distant behavior.

I totally get it, by the way. I've dated people like him. I've BEEN a version of him (I was much, much more avoidant and unreliable when I was younger.) I think there's a way that this kind of unreliability and distance and avoidance can really, really, really get under your skin, in a way that makes you want so badly something more from someone, something different from your current relationship, but the only thing you can think to do is really contort yourself and try to become something they will be more responsive to. (I'm not 100% sure this is what's happening for you, but it's what's resonating with me from what you wrote.)

I think that instead of framing this at something to fix within yourself, you might focus on two areas: (1) what types of behaviors is my partner displaying, how does it affect me, and what specifically can I ask him to do differently -- knowing full well he might not rise to the task and it might be super painful, but at least lucidly identifying those. (2) without shaming yourself or making yourself small, what do YOU want from a healthy, well-adjusted life? Totally forgetting about the relationship for a minute. What does it take to really sustain that work to make this a reality, and in general to foster a kinder and warmer and more peaceful as you say relationship with yourself and with those quiet moments?

nthing that therapy is a great place to figure some of those things out -- perhaps even the absolute best place. Good luck on this part of your journey.
posted by elephantsvanish at 6:05 PM on August 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Just wanted to say that I understand the desire to look at past relationship posts, and I don’t think things are totally perfect or anything, but over the last year I have had to ID a lot of patterns in my own behavior (anger, escalating too quickly, not making space for change, etc.) that have surfaced in all my long-term relationships. So no, I don’t think bf is a master of communication or anything but up until quite recently I was quite clingy and naggy myself, so I’m not inclined to blame him for desires I have just recently started to cultivate and understand.

I have a decent amount of XP at breaking up with long term partners when things just aren’t right, so please grant me that whether or not I stay with my boyfriend forever, these are issues I need to work through regardless. It’s exactly the idea that my life is not perfect therefore I must break off ties with everyone around me (family, boyfriend, etc.) that I’m trying to confront in myself. I have a tendency to freak out and feel suffocated by my long term relationships (romantic and not) when I’m unhappy with myself or even just feeling ambitious and that’s the dynamic I’m trying to navigate here.

It’s very possible I end up with someone else romantically but I think it’s less fundamental to the actual issue here. Therapy is a totally reasonable suggestion, as is communicating more directly.
posted by stoneandstar at 6:18 PM on August 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

I just wanted to pop in to say that your feelings are incredibly valid. There is an infamous statement in my inner circle of friends made by my oldest BFF that speaks to this need for solitude that many women have: "All any adult woman wants is just to be alone in her own home."

I feel this, I need this, there are definitely times when I feel the need to ask my partner if she can just give me some me-time, space, whatever, because for a lot of people, and definitely for me, there is a difficult-to-describe difference in doing things at home by yourself and trying to do the same things when another person is there -- even a person that you adore and want to spend time with. Sometimes my partner is talking and I am honestly thinking "SHHHH."

I think that it's good for grown adults with a lot of diverse responsibilities to have alone time at home at least once a week. I have been known to make my partner go work out instead of me so I can bask in my solitude (am currently thinking of other ways to get what I need without feeling like I have to skip a workout to get it!) I think that for many people, alone time is something that we need, that is positive for us, that helps us reconfigure our senses and reset for whatever's next. If I go a long period of time without quiet and sitting just with myself, I get irritable, stressed out, everything annoys me, and I just want everyone in the world to stop. talking.

I don't even know that I would consider anything about this pathological - you seem to just be in a period where being alone is important to you. I think you can talk to your boyfriend and speak to that need of yours without being "mean." Sometimes I feel "mean" when I ask my partner to give me that time, but I also remind myself that 1) it IS NOT MEAN to express your needs, and 2) my partner doesn't even see it as mean. It is okay to ask for what you need! It is ALWAYS okay to ask for what you need! I don't think there is necessarily anything "wrong" with what you're experiencing - also, relationships ebb and flow and aren't always the same from month to month, or even day to day. This week my partner and I basically just sat quietly and ate dinner and went to bed each night because we're tired and we haven't done a lot of talking. There's nothing wrong between us - we're just in a quieter phase.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 6:25 PM on August 2, 2018 [11 favorites]

Maybe just find ways to navigate space?

I love my wife but there are times where shit needs getting done on my own time in my own space and same for her and that leads to us making space for a while, which leads to feeling longing and missing the hell out of each other so we make more time for each other until one of us is all “gag me I need space argggh” and we make the space and the dance continues.

Sounds like the long tail of love to me.
posted by nikaspark at 6:40 PM on August 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

And the weird thing is, it seems like my boyfriend is running hot and cold. When I was making more (too much?) time for us, he wanted space. He brought it up in a reasonable fashion and my feelings weren’t hurt as I realized I was acting quite clingy after the move. However, once I started dedicating myself to my own stuff— working out, making solo travel plans, etc.— he became quite clingy!

not weird, absolutely classic. it's not that he needs space, it's that he wants to be the one who needs space. finding a hard-won hour of time alone without hurting the feelings of your clingy girlfriend who loves you and needs you so badly but just doesn't understand you're an independent guy = the best. you're free, but in demand.

having to go out and entertain yourself because your cool successful girlfriend still loves you when it comes time to think about you but has to carve out time to indulge your need for her company because she has so many other great things to be doing and only so many hours in the day = wait no that's somehow not at all what you meant, where did the power go.

it's classic, gender-neutral in its pure form, and doesn't have be a fatal dynamic. the test is if he is self-aware about it and able to feel a little embarrassed and not be mad or huffy about it. wanting space/alone time is easy to solve if that's all he wants. but wanting to be the patient nurturing one who's needed more, who's imposed upon and clung to but doesn't mind the sacrifice, that has to be let go of. I wouldn't blame him for having this reaction but I would expect him to just let go of it and get over it, force himself to be honest and fair and pleased about your increased independence.

edit: this is all much too definite so I guess add a prefatory "maybe" to all these declarations. this is just the sense I get is all.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:05 PM on August 2, 2018 [23 favorites]

You guys definitely both need time _alone_ to just _be_ without another person around. I've been there. It can make a huge difference.

Maybe try each of you having an activity, outside the apartment, twice a week. So that could be one evening plus one weekend day period where you're there alone, and a separate evening plus weekend day period where he's there alone.

Just try it. It could lead to fun adventures too.
posted by amtho at 7:47 PM on August 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes, can you arrange that each of you will spend one evening a week (or weekend afternoon) out of the house doing something else, to give each other space?

Additionally, since you live in a big city, is there a university library nearby you could get privileges at where you could go in the evenings/on weekends to study and work on projects? Not all of them do, but many will allow outsiders to buy an access card of some kind. You wouldn't even need borrowing privileges.

Otherwise...I mean, I recognize that there's a personal dynamic at play here as well, but some people are just not meant to be living on top of other people in a studio. Maybe you should prioritize finding a one-bedroom when your lease expires. A closed door can work wonders.
posted by praemunire at 8:01 PM on August 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

But now I’m tweaking because I want to sit and do solitary activities uninterrupted and also do things like listen to podcasts while doing boring stuff.

Privacy to do whatever is so important if you’re the kind of person it is important to and it sounds like you are. Even a gesture can help emotionally even if it doesn’t feel like “real” privacy. Can you do something like put up a screen around a corner or hang a curtain or move a piece of furniture to just outline a discrete space in the apartment that either of you (or just one!) can go in without any questions and be left alone as long as you’re in there? My wife for instance has a corner with her computer and drawing table condoning off an area that is Just Hers full of Her Stuff and I don’t (or try not to) bug her when she’s in there, I don’t really clean or throw anything out in there, etc. You could also go in a space like that while he is asleep if you stay up later for an extra level of sorta-privacy. I often stay up about an hour or so after my wife goes to bed to just do whatever and my mental health is in part dependent on having that time and my wife respects it to an agreed-upon extent.
posted by griphus at 8:23 PM on August 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Given the lack of home-alone time or the proverbial room of her own - and that going out about town still means being around people, even if there’s no direct interaction - the best way I found to emulate solitude is to be in nature. If you can get to a park or forest or beach, walk around, sit under the dappled light of a tree or sling up a hammock, you could see if that helps you.
posted by meijusa at 12:54 AM on August 3, 2018

Your personal space needs are totally valid and you can and should ask for what you want. What you can't do (at least not often) is suddenly decide that you want alone time right now and so your partner needs to get out of your hair. So a couple of good things to do are to regularly schedule in some alone time, and to try to do some self-monitoring so that you're aware when an itch for it is starting to build up. "Hey, I'm kind of jonesing for some uninterrupted time to work on stuff, could you plan an evening out with friends in the next week or so?" is totally reasonable. Maybe also adjust sleep/wake times so you get a bit of quiet in the morning or evenings.

If you have money to throw at this problem, let me toss out another suggestion that may or may not work for you: a hotel for one or the other of you, once in a while. Two or three times a year, either my partner or I will decide that we really need a good solid chunk of alone time, and we talk it over and one or the other of us depending on individual needs goes and spends an overnight or a weekend in a local hotel. Everyone gets alone time! One of us gets alone time in their own space, and the other has to pack a bag but gets to enjoy the luxuries of room service and housecleaning and a lack of distractions so they can work on projects! Everyone wins and it's great. A friend of mine calls it "the most civilized thing she's ever heard of a couple doing," which makes me laugh, but she's not wrong. We're coming up on 19 years together and one of the primary reasons it works is that we have a healthy respect for each other's needs to remain individuals, with separate hobbies and friends and time to nurture those things. (Also because moving in together was contingent on us each having a space of our own. We'd murder each other if we lived in a studio together! You are to be complimented for not having murdered each other already. When/if you can get more space, it might do wonders for your state of mind.)
posted by Stacey at 6:31 AM on August 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

Here to add a vote to the "get out of the house on a specified day" technique!

When my SO and I moved in together, this was virtually a contractual obligation. If I don't have a day a week to myself I go a bit stir crazy. It's totally ok to make this A Thing You Both Do, and it doesn't have to signify the breakdown of your relationship if you want to spend a bit less time in the same space.
posted by greenish at 5:43 AM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

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