Early 20s + breakup + COVID = crisis
August 1, 2020 12:53 AM   Subscribe

I feel like I've really lost the plot of my own life right now, and I don't have many people to talk to about it. Maybe I could get some input and perspective from mefites?

A year ago I finished undergrad and took a funded offer to do a grad program in my field. The institution I’m at now has no name recognition and is not prestigious, and the location is pretty terrible, but the program is widely considered one of the best in my field, and its placement (into the next graduate degree I’d need) is really strong.

Until recently, I felt like this past year was actually going super well for me. I was living in a new place, meeting new people interested in the same things, exploring the big city near-ish to me (hint: 3rd most populous in the US), learning a ton, and moving my career forward.

A couple of months ago I broke up with my long-term partner. We were together for several years and were planning to get married. They changed their mind about leaving their home city to move someplace together after I graduate, and I wasn’t willing to basically be long-distance indefinitely. There were also mismatches on things like sex, long-term location, and whether to have kids, so it probably makes the most sense to split now and try to find someone better suited to me.

But I'm struggling with the vertigo of losing what I thought was a very solid part of my life, and getting worried about finding someone else. I'm a guy who's kind of gawky, kind of femme, and devoid of muscle, and my partner was super chill about all of those things, but I know they're all turn-offs for many straight women. My partner was also a huge part of my social life, and without them I’m realizing I only have a few close friends with whom I click and connect deeply, and all of them live elsewhere. So I went from feeling like I actually had a really buzzing social life to feeling like a total loser with no connections.

I feel like all of a sudden I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going - I don’t understand my place in life or my trajectory anymore. I’m living in a boring, empty suburb I hate to do this graduate degree at a school where the program is really good but there’s no, like, name-recognition capital I can transfer outside of my dying field. I deferred my travel goals to avoid debt and feel so much envy for my friends who have already gotten to be in interesting, cool places. My cohort is anti-social to an extreme, and I’ve had no success making occasional-chatting friends into close, intimate friends. I feel desolately lonely and want to meet people in the big city but I have no idea where to even start (I’ve tried the apps, but with minimal success so far), and obviously the current situation is putting a damper on the general practice of meeting strangers in-person. I worry that I might have just wasted a chunk of my early 20s. I’m sort of steeling myself to just get through this year, knowing that I’ll have to do a ton of hustling, endure living in a place I don’t like, and do it all basically without close friendships to sustain me.

I know that it isn’t really mefi’s job to solve this kind of problem. (I need to get back into therapy, but I haven't been in yet because my location has been kind of tenuous all summer.) But I guess I just figure that this kind of problem has to be pretty common for people in their mid-20s, and with what’s going on now maybe/probably there are others going through the same thing. So maybe… could people with some perspective on this sort of thing can help me out with some reassurances, suggestions for reframing, hard truths, or whatever else? Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Just to reframe this for you a little, there are many, many people who would be interested in a unmuscled, slightly femme guy who was self-aware, career-focussed, in grad school, with close ties to a few friends (but also likes a buzzing social life), open to therapy, likes exploring, willing to be vulnerable and ask for help, wants to travel but is also financially responsible and I'm sure there's lots more outside of what you wrote.

Everything sucks right now, for all sorts of reasons, but hang in there because I think you'll come out of all this alright.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:23 AM on August 1 [79 favorites]

I'm 28, and undergrad and graduate school were some of the worst years of my life. I was suicidal in undergrad, but graduate school was somehow even more difficult because I didn't click with my cohort or most of the faculty, was working full-time, and had a two hour long commute each way. I didn't have a life outside of school, work, commuting, and sleeping. But it's temporary. It never feels that way, but at some point you either leave or they give you an expensive piece of paper, and then you're free.

AskMe helped me a lot during those difficult years. I'm grateful to the people who kept me going every time I see their names here. They don't know it's me they helped. I was anonymous too.

I didn't travel either. I was working (sometimes multiple jobs) or in school (or both). I don't have any debt. Many of the traveling folks are either rich (can't compete with that) or have six figures of debt, or credit card payments, or something. It's valuable to come out of school without debt, and then have the ability to hopefully jump into a career. People who've been backpacking across Europe don't necessary have that. You have plenty of time to do it after school. You'll be able to come up for air.

It's also doubly hard to get out or meet people due to COVID, right now. Don't be hard on yourself.

Does your school have a counseling service you could reach out to in the meantime?

And for what it's worth, my partner is pretty gawky and doesn't have big muscles. But I love him, and he's a catch. You'll get through this. Take care of yourself.
posted by marfa, texas at 1:28 AM on August 1 [10 favorites]

So you’re highly educated, soon to be highly employable, financially responsible, love to travel, explore and meet people and are courageous enough to move to a new place and start again? Trust me, you’ll do juuuust fiiiiine. You’re a lot of people’s flavour. You’re going to look back at this in ten year’s time and laugh. I know covid sucks but your life is being set up to weather everything going on now, you just have to trust in your plan.
posted by Jubey at 1:35 AM on August 1 [19 favorites]

When I was in a similar stage in my life I felt similarly unmoored and unsure of where I was going or how I would get there. I used to tear up on the subway picturing myself being asked at parties about what I do and having no answer. I felt no confidence that I would find a partner, a career, or stability in my life, and I felt like I had no real home or place in the world. So I extend to you my complete and total sympathy and warm hand-squeeze.

It's easy to say from the outside that you'll wake up one day (as I did) and realize that you have found rooted stability, family, community, sustaining work, and all of the things that feel so uncertain now. But I don't thinks others (or even you) can reassure you out of this. And I always felt very invalidated by reassurance. I remember going to a Leonard Cohen concert and feeling so grateful to him for dedicating a song to those who find love--and to those who never will.

What I suggest you focus on is not so much convincing yourself that you're wrong to feel anxious or that your future is bright (not that it isn't--it sounds very much like it is--but you can't fool yourself into thinking you can predict what will happen when you know better). I would suggest instead working on accepting that right now, you're in the dark, and it's an uncomfortable place to be. One day, you will be in the light, and able to look back on the path you took, and your journey will seem inevitable. For now, don't try to jump ten steps ahead. However you get to wherever you're going, you will be doing it in company with yourself. Can you try to develop trust, appreciation, and love for yourself? Can you be a generous and kind companion to yourself during this very difficult time? Can you redirect your attention to the things about yourself that you like and admire? Can you think about the things you do that make you feel safe and cared for? (When I was going through it, I would literally force myself to thank myself for trivial shit like remembering to buy toilet paper--it helped).

Perhaps your partner made you feel safe, and now that feeling is gone. I believe you can provide that to yourself, but it takes active practice. Many times a day, give yourself care and kindness. Be gentle and nurturing. The more you can trust that you are there for you, and that you are loved by you, the less I think you will feel under threat. That definitely includes not telling yourself that you're unattractive (you know that's not rational, tastes wildly diverge anyway) or telling yourself that you're making bad choices or are bad at socializing, or any other stick you're beating yourself with. Is that the kind of stuff you would say to a close friend who came to you in tears? If you suddenly encountered an eight year old version of yourself with tears in his eyes who felt 100% of what you're feeling now, what would you do and say? Can you imagine that very vividly? Can you treat yourself now as you would treat your younger self? Can you be as patient with yourself as you would be with him? Aren't his feelings entirely reasonable?

Not sure I articulated that well. You are in many ways in the middle of a raging storm. Be patient and you will ride it out. Sending you my absolute best.
posted by prefpara at 2:26 AM on August 1 [17 favorites]

FWIW, many years ago I was in a very similar situation as yours - was in grad school, broke up with my college girlfriend of 3 years - felt devastated and alone. The next year I met my future wife and we've been together for almost 30 years. I know it's a terrible time but things will turn around They always do.
posted by captainscared at 3:30 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]

I don’t understand my place in life or my trajectory anymore.

Funny...my back pocket advice is: “life does not have a ballistic trajectory”.

Our early twenties are so chock-a-block with education/careers/lifestyle choices that it's hard not to feel like every nudge of the cannon barrel will have some far off consequence. Please trust this: few people at your age have the tools to even begin imagining where they'll be in 10 years (and wouldn't it be kind of sad if life was that generally predictable?)

Also, the current situation is messing with everybody’s heads, so big hugs and hang in there.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:29 AM on August 1 [5 favorites]

I'm a guy who's kind of gawky, kind of femme, and devoid of muscle, and my partner was super chill about all of those things, but I know they're all turn-offs for many straight women.

You’d be surprised at how many straight women would consider this a turn-on.

I worry that I might have just wasted a chunk of my early 20s

Living life is not a waste. You’d do well to shed this idea that everything in life is preparation for some ultimate career or relationship goal. And by being in the graduate program you want to be in, you’re already miles ahead of a lot of your 20-something peers.

You are so young and have so much ahead of you!
posted by vanitas at 8:40 AM on August 1 [11 favorites]

I'm a guy who's kind of gawky, kind of femme, and devoid of muscle, and my partner was super chill about all of those things, but I know they're all turn-offs for many straight women.

Yeah, well, one or more of those things are going to be turn ons for a lot of straight women, too.

This is one of the ways the patriarchy & toxic masculinity are bad for men, too - there's a lot of messaging from a lot of directions that we all gotta be built like Chris Hemsworth as Thor and swaggering cocksure jackholes in order to "count" as men and be acceptable to women. That's not actually true.

My partner was also a huge part of my social life, and without them I’m realizing I only have a few close friends with whom I click and connect deeply, and all of them live elsewhere.

1) For future reference, this is a very common and very unfair aspect of hetero relationships that you should work on in your next one(s) - it's the woman who does all or most of the emotional and practical labor in maintaining friendships and social connections, and the guy is just kind of along for the ride. You should definitely work on developing & maintaining your own separate friendships outside of a relationship and take on some of the work in creating and growing common friendships once you're in a relationship.

2) Right now, when we're all communicating via text and email and Zoom and TikTok and whatever anyway even if we live in the same city, seems the perfect time to rekindle and strengthen friendships with people in distant places. Reach out to them, see how they're doing.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:50 AM on August 1 [6 favorites]

Oh wow, I could have written this question about 15 years ago (minus the pandemic, of course). Grad school in a program that's good for my field but doesn't carry much weight otherwise? Check. Living in a crappy suburb a 40-minute train ride away from a major city? Check. Broke up with college girlfriend that I thought I was going to marry? You better believe that's a check.

It definitely feels shitty, and I won't pretend that it doesn't. I had felt like I had the relationship area of my life all squared away, and I wasn't going to have to worry about it any more. How lucky, to want to marry the first person I seriously dated! It's scary to suddenly lose that security. But I'm happily married now, and I would never, ever, trade my current relationship for the one I had in grad school. This will all feel less dire with some distance - your early 20s are there to be wasted.

I'm also going to advise you not to sleep with any of the other grad students in your program, but you're probably going to anyway.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:43 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]

Pema Chodron's book When Things Fall Apart is great reading for breakups. Here's one of its key points:

what I thought was a very solid part of my life

Gently: you were wrong then. Like almost everyone, you were blind to the unpredictability of the future. Anyone can die at any time. Pandemics hit. The narratives we tell ourselves lull us to sleep.

all of a sudden I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going - I don’t understand my place in life or my trajectory anymore

Now you are awake to the uncertainty of reality. It is painful in certain ways, perhaps. But maybe you can take some comfort in knowing that you're right that this present moment is all you can be certain of and being present in it for what it is.

The book explains all of this much more clearly -- I recommend it.
posted by slidell at 11:25 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]

you're going to get through this - it's a rotten time to have just gone through a breakup, but think of it like you've exchanged the unhappiness you're experiencing this year for a lifetime of misery - marrying the wrong person would have caused so, so much more pain, spread out over a much longer time. Your slowed down social life gives you the time to focus on yourself (what do I really want in a relationship? how do I identify these qualities in a potential partner?) and your studies.

I'm a guy who's kind of gawky, kind of femme, and devoid of muscle

there are lots of women who are exactly into this, you'll be fine.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:45 PM on August 1

I was in a similar boat 8-ish years ago. In my early 20s, a semester before I finished my masters, with a thesis to write. Long-term boyfriend and I broke up. Before we broke up, I thought I was done - I had found the person I was going to marry, and I didn't need to worry about all that dating stuff.

I was devastated. I don't think I ate anything for a week. I mourned the loss of the life that I thought I had, the future that I had imagined for us. Having a thesis to write proved to be a worthy distraction, and one that I threw myself into. I managed to drag myself over the finish line, I graduated, I started working full-time.

The next five-ish years were huge personal growth years for me. I took up new hobbies, found a new community, I dated. Were there times that I longed to be in a relationship? To not have to run the online dating gamut? For sure. But I also discovered who I was, and what I wanted. I found my identify (and that wasn't defined by the relationship I was in). I learnt how to truly be happy alone.

Then, a couple of years ago, out of the blue (on holiday, in a foreign country that I don't speak the language of, through one of the hobbies I took up in the interim) - I met my current partner, who is amazing. That ex-boyfriend, the one I thought I was going to marry? He, and the relationship I had with him, doesn't even compare to the one I have now. They're not even on the same chart. At the time, I would have found this completely impossible to believe. But I believe it now.

Long story short: yes, this sucks. A lot. Not to mention everything that's going on in the world right now. But you will make it through. Focus on what you can learn, and how you can grow from this experience.
posted by goodnight at 6:01 PM on August 1 [3 favorites]

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