Looking for perspective on long term relationship potential
March 5, 2023 11:17 AM   Subscribe

If you have a successful long-term relationship, does mine sound like it has potential? Are there any red flags that I'm blinded to?

During the pandemic my therapist at the time told me to read this book "Attached" about attachment styles. And it actually really did change my view about what a successful relationship is. One thing that stuck with me is that you need a secure base in order to build a relationship. If there's not a foundation of security and trust, the rest doesn't really matter.

Someone who is loyal, caring, willing to work through changes together, understanding, compassionate, is made up of the stuff needed to sustain a relationship, whereas someone who may be very impressive, ambitious, sophisticated and accomplished may provoke a lot of attraction and desire, but if they do not have the emotional makeup to be loyal, supportive, caring, just, then trying to have a relationship with them is like trying to make a fish ride a bicycle.

So with that in mind I changed my perspective on dating and am now in a relationship with someone very caring, compassionate, understanding, patient, nurturing, supportive, loyal, flexible and committed. We have been together for about a year and a half and are thinking of moving in together.

There are some things about this relationship, though, that are not typical and I'm looking for some perspectives on whether these are red flags for a long term relationship or not.

- We don't have sex very often. For the first few months, we did, but now it's come down to about twice a month at most. Part of this is, for me, that I'm used to men being really forward/dominant when it comes to sex and my current man isn't, and I don't really know what I want aside from that. When we do have sex, it's intimate, fun and light hearted, but not sexually satisfying in a bone-tingling way. Is that a problem?

- I feel that he loves me more than I love him. He definitely makes me happy with his effusive affection and completely generous displays of love. I do love him back but not with as much intensity. It's more like I deeply appreciate having his support and affection and commitment and knowing that it's there. It makes me feel secure, optimistic and wholesome and hopeful for the future, and I don't want to lose that. I almost feel overwhelmed and suffocated by his love at times, but he's aware of this and very open to feedback.

- This one I've for the most part come to terms with, but I'd still like some perspective. My current man had a life threatening illness in early adulthood and for that reason is far behind his peers in terms of career development (he's still completing his B.A.). He also has a physical disability resulting from that illness which means he probably will not work full time once he is finished his degree. His parents have set him up financially so that neither of these are a problem money-wise, and I also have a good job and am financially independent so money is not causing any issues for us. I am just wondering if , over time, the disparity between so-called achievement or accomplishment between us, will cause any sort of resentment or dissatisfaction.

So given this, do these downsides seem like big issues that may break the relationship, or things that can be worked through? Mainly, this man makes me feel happy, secure, and stable, and because I feel like that with him, I've not been able to let him go despite any of my doubts. We are thinking of moving in together this year and I am looking to assuage my doubts. thanks
posted by winterportage to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You sound happy, and yet a little anxious. Are your doubts because there are times where the relationship makes you unhappy, or because there are things about the relationship that don't fit what you feel a long-term relationship "should" look like? Are you unhappy about the lack of spine-tingling sex, or just wondering if it's weird that you don't have that? Do you long for someone you could love more intensely, or do you just feel that you should? Does the idea of having a partner with a very different career path bother you, or do you just think partners are supposed to be at the same career level?

Either way is fine, but the answer will come in figuring that out. My 10+ year relationship looks a lot like this, but that's because the lack of sex or career success isn't important to me and doesn't affect my happiness. It may be different for you. If it is, these could be very good reasons to decide that this isn't the long-term relationship for you. But if you feel a lot of these anxieties are externally imposed based on what you think a relationship should look like, I would spend time thinking about what makes you happy and what your relationship makes you feel day-to-day outside the context of what a "normal" relationship looks like.

The one that gives me most pause is feeling you don't love him as much as he loves you--I think it'll be most important there to figure out if this is because you don't love him as a partner (though you might still as a friend), or if he simply feels and/or expresses his love more intensely. Do those expressions of love generally make you feel good, or do they make you feel anxious and guilty? Given your mention of attachment theory being useful to you, it's probably also useful to explore with your therapist if deep expressions of love make you uncomfortable for attachment reasons.

But also, you don't need a reason to decide this isn't right for you. If this feels wrong to you, and you don't want to be with this person going forward, you don't need any explanation for why. It might also be helpful to think through how you would feel both short and long term if you didn't have this person in your life. That may give you more insight into what you want as well.
posted by brook horse at 11:34 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]

it's intimate, fun and light hearted, but not sexually satisfying in a bone-tingling way. Is that a problem?

Would be for me, but maybe not for you! A good friend of mine recently came out as ace to me, said he and his cohabitating partner are both much happier since they basically gave up sex.

Anyway, only you can decide this, and if you don't have enough experience to say for sure how important a deep sexual connection is to you, then maybe you need to go more slowly until you figure that out for yourself. Also: talk to the guy about this. Could be he's trying too hard to not be pushy, and would welcome a go-ahead signal from you if you gave it. Sexual connection can be built up over time too, it's not always magic amazing sparks right from the start. But you have to both be enthusiastic, open, and honest about moving forward to make it better for both of you.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:37 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]

Based on what you wrote, I wouldn't marry the guy or make a long term commitment today but I think there is enough there that it is worth investing more time to see if it can evolve into something really good and sustaining.

About initiating sex,
- Challenge your inner assumptions about the other person initiating. Can you play with enjoying being more assertive - let your own sexuality shine through and enjoy getting him turned on? You don't mention your own gender but if you identify as female or were raised female, there are a lot of cultural messages about men taking the lead that can get pretty deeply embedded in your sense of how sex is supposed to be and what is supposed to turn you on. It can be fun to let your inner sex vixen show up and feel the power and control of being the one to intimate.
- Another option might be to schedule sex so no one has to initiate and you and your partner have time to get your mind around what is going to happen and let the anticipation turn you on.
- For most people, it is really hard and vulnerable to talk about sex with your partner. Try focusing on things you would like to try with each other and sharing what went well and what you might want to do differently or skip next time. No blame or criticism, you are partners trying to figure out how to make things even better. Make an effort to listen to what your partner wants, help them feel your investment in his happiness as well as your need and desire for him to do things differently.
- and while you are talking, be curious about his sexuality - what are his desires, does his disability impact his sex life etc
- Try to be really open-minded about what constitutes sex. For example, are there ways that he can turn you on and help you come (either directly or by enhancing your masturbation) that don't require him to have a hard cock that could (maybe) be really sexy and satisfying for both of you.
posted by metahawk at 11:56 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

On the surface, my now long term relationship, had several red flags. What got us through a bit of a rocky start was.

- Willingness to talk about the hard stuff.
- Getting an assist from a therapist to help us get better about communication.
- Each of us trying something new, sharing each others' enthusiasms.

It strikes me that all of your flags have to do with imbalances you're feeling and experiencing. I think the imbalances between the first two issues you raise would be most concerning to me. If there are imbalances between sexual desire the person who wants more sex feels unsatisfied/undesirable and the person who wants less sex feels pressured/not enough. Imbalances between expressions of love is leaving you feeling overwhelmed and he certainly deserves more than "deep appreciation." Moving in together means taking on shared financial responsibilities, so you need to be extra clear about these.

I strongly recommend working with a couples counselor on all these things.
posted by brookeb at 12:56 PM on March 5

In order:

1. Whether or not sex 1-2 times a month is a problem is completely up to you to decide. One thing to consider is that 1.5 years is still a somewhat new relationship (I say this as someone in a ~6.5y relationship) - which is to say, if this is his libido now, it's very possible in another couple of years his desired frequency will be even lower. Also, based on my/friends' experience, while frequency of sex can initially increase after moving in together, eventually living together makes it harder to build up a sense of excitement/anticipation. This isn't to say I think you should 100% break up, but if you feel the frequency of sex is a problem now, at 1.5 years in and still living apart, I would assume that there is a good chance it will get worse once you move in together and more time passes - I would not move in with someone unless you feel good about your sex life with them. Like others, I wonder how much you've talked about this with him, how often do you initiate/how does he respond if you do, etc. And whether you're open to him assisting you in masturbation.

2. This doesn't seem like a problem to me, and I think in any long relationship people's level of happiness/desire in a relationship are bound to fluctuate a bit, and it's unlikely one person will always be more into the relationship than the other - you'll likely take turns.

3. If money is not an issue here, I doubt it? Usually level of "ambition" can be a point of tension if say, one person has a goal (having two kids, retiring early, etc.) and that would only be possible if the other person made an equal amount of money as they did. You say his parents have set him up financially, but have they set him up enough to afford kids (if you want them)? To own a house in a location you both want to live? To travel, go out to eat, or whatever other indulgences you expect? If so, then I don't see any reason for tension - but if not, then you need to accept that being with him is worth giving up some of your goals/habits. Differences in economic lifestyle can get magnified when you move in together, so I'd definitely talk annual budget before you do so.
posted by coffeecat at 12:58 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

This sounds a lot like my marriage. We’ve been together for 13 years and I’ve never been happier. Before him, my relationships lasted two years max. I was drawn to charismatic, unpredictable, passionate men whose chaos was first compelling, then frustrating, then eventually the downfall of the relationship.

After my last relationship like that I got into therapy and figured out why I was making those choices. I chose my husband specifically because he is stable, reliable, emotionally intelligent, and always there for me. He is also disabled and we don’t have much sex. (We do have an open relationship, though, so my sexual needs are met.)

Choosing my husband was the best decision I’ve ever made. My life is stable and deeply fulfilling in large part because he has taught me what a healthy relationship can be. We never had major fireworks, but (to strain a metaphor) we have a steady warm fire burning in the hearth, and that has turned out to be so much better for me. YMMV, of course - but I wanted to say that peace and mutual support are invaluable. Sparks fade.
posted by southern_sky at 1:08 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]

I'm reading a lot into this which might not be there at all. But I kind of get the sense that you might be subconsciously feeling like you're "settling" for someone who is very different from the sort of person you went for in the past. He sounds great, but for both of your sakes you need to 100% feel that he's great FOR YOU before continuing to escalate your relationship. Maybe you consciously decided to start dating different people because you recognize it's healthier for you, but need more time for it to sink in that it's what you really want.
posted by metasarah at 1:45 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]

Do you want to have kids?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 1:58 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

On the sex front, it doesn't really sound like y'all are doing anything but letting nature take its course, and that largely is not compatible with modern life. Before you move in together, initiate Date Night, and it should be explicitly stated that DN is intended to be conducive and make space for intimate activity, but that could be the actual deed or a long important talk or looking at the stars and talking about your dreams. But at least keep it sex-feasible: date night/day is a bad time for 17-mile hikes or heavy drinking or staying out until 2am.

Life is long and bodies are complicated and you are never guaranteed decades of unimpeded prioritized sexual adventures (which, indeed, is not the craving or highest priority of every person), but an open line of communication about it is very different than two people hoping it'll magically happen and maybe feeling hurt or scared or inferior about it.

But it also sounds like overall the two of you operate at different emotional intensities, and that's FINE and you should be careful about trying to compare it on paper like a running tally. What actually matters is how everybody feels about it. If he's just higher-volume than you, and he knows that, and it brings him joy to be that way and he also feels you are receiving it with what is an appropriate amount of joy for you as a more reserved person, that's perfect. If what you give him in expression and feedback and appreciation is satisfying for both of you, again recognizing you're just not operating on as spread-out a scale as he is, it's all good. You have to talk about it to be sure though.

But honestly, some of the tightest relationships I've known have been between one loud person and one quiet person, and they both knew exactly where they stood with each other, it's just that people on the outside sometimes didn't entirely get it until something happened that the quiet person's protective/dedicated/world-moving side became obvious.

I think people treat moving in together as a half-measure or experiment, but very few people can end the experiment without ending the relationship, so I think you should consider that option as a Very Serious Commitment and maybe do some pre-engagement or pre-marriage-type counseling together just to run through the list of red flags and see what comes up, and maybe onboard some more communication skills and just good habits to take forward. Now is a good time to do some soul-searching and some tire-kicking until you feel more certain that you both understand and feel good about the relationship you're in now and in agreement in what the one you want to build looks like.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:41 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]

What you're describing would work very well for me as a relationship and in fact sounds quite a bit like my relationship of 20-odd years. It works great for me. But it wouldn't work for a lot of people, and it's fine if it doesn't work for you! I would not recommend moving in together while you're still feeling as doubtful about the relationship as it sounds like you are. I think you should be on steadier ground first, and that probably both individual and couples therapy are in order to get you there, if you're not doing those things already.
posted by Stacey at 4:07 PM on March 5

There are some things about this relationship, though, that are not typical
As long as you mean "not typical for me" that's cool. It's can definitely be disorienting to be in a good relationship that's very different from your prior experiences. But if you're comparing your relationship to some perceived norm, please don't do that to yourself. A successful relationship is what works for the people in it.

All of the things that you mentioned can be things that people work out just fine, or things that are not fine at all. And it's completely reasonable for you to take some more time to figure whether/how to work through them before moving in. You don't need to be on the escalator to have a healthy, satisfying relationship. I would say, if you're hesitant, respect that and spend some serious time with the things that give you pause before you moving in with someone.
posted by EvaDestruction at 5:03 PM on March 5

I made the mistake of escalating too quickly — of moving in — with a man who was kind and secure but who didn’t make my heart pitter patter, when I already wasn’t excited about our sex life. I wouldn’t say I settled. I wasn’t conscious of the trade-offs. It was my first truly stable relationship with a man who really wanted and knew how to be in a relationship. Those were all great things, but they weren’t enough.

I know now that moving in together is the bigger relationship step than getting married. Once you live together, it’s very hard to break up, because your lives are so intertwined. When you live apart, it’s emotionally wrought, but logistically, you can end your relationship and have your own place because you never gave up your own place. This is super different.

I moved in with my partner because we were spending lots of time together and it made logistical and economic sense. I’m not saying you should know if you want to marry (if you believe in such a thing) before you move in together. But you should regard this as just as serious escalation, not just a logistical decision.

Moving in together is a huge escalation. If you aren’t sure about this relationship, you don’t need to end it, but you should wait before escalating.

Also, on the cusp of 50, I also prioritize sex and our sexual connection more than I did earlier. It’s okay if you don’t. But if it’s important to know that it’s okay if you do.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:08 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

I would not move in before being at least 90% I would be interested in marrying this person. Moving in together IS effectively marriage, albeit not legally, but as bluedaisy says, it's the bigger transition.

Like you, I had a looooong string of interest in unsuitable men before writing a list of criteria I wanted in a man and ranking all my prior interests. Most of them weren't so hot after all, turns out. BUT I still highly valued things like sexual compatibility, similar ambitions levels and feeling 'into them.' It's just I realized I needed those things in a secure framework, which I found with my now-husband. My inclination after reading would be to let this one go -- if it's not a yes, it's a no -- and keep looking, knowing that you have better picking skills and have a good shot at finding that diamond in the rough if you keep dating and know what you're looking for.
posted by randomquestion at 7:33 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]

Have you been the anxious one in anxious-avoidant relationships in the past? If so, dating someone who is not avoidant and maybe a little anxious can be very uncomfortable.

If you’re used to having to work for love and affection and attention, having it right there, always available, can feel weird as hell.

Also the answers to this depend a lot on how old you are. What I want and need in a relationship in my 40s is very different from what I wanted and needed in my 20s.
posted by missjenny at 7:34 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]

Also, I want to emphasize again that you've set this up as a choice between letting him go ("I've not been able to let him go despite any of my doubts") and moving in together ("We are thinking of moving in together this year"), but unless he's told you otherwise, you don't have to do either right now.

You can decide to keep dating and living separately and taking your time. I promise that you will know more in six months and much more in a year. This is still a relatively new relationship, and there's no reason to move in together before you're ready, which really is a significant life upheaval and relationship escalation.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:11 AM on March 6 [3 favorites]

I took a peek through your Ask history and given your last question about him it seems that very little has changed, right? This guy sounds great! But he can check all the boxes of what qualities you think a secure partner should have and still not be the right partner for you. You expressed a lot of external and internal pressure to stay in the relationship despite your misgivings last year, so I'm wondering if the vague anxiety that you're feeling is the strain from working overtime to suppress the voice inside you that's trying to scream that it's time to go.

I'd like to adjust your perception of attachment theory - the key to a healthy and happy relationship isn't finding a secure partner, it's about doing the work on your own attachment issues so that you become more secure. I also think qualities like ambition and being accomplished can be found in secure individuals as well. If he still has no interest in working or hobbies/passions he wants to pursue after he graduates then I don't think you have to justify finding that quality to be a dealbreaker in a partner.

If this guy is truly "willing to work through changes together, understanding, compassionate, is made up of the stuff needed to sustain a relationship" - then have a conversation with him! Put who loves who more aside and talk about your concerns about your sex life and mismatch on life goals. Someone who is securely attached will be able to hear you out and work together on finding solutions.

But in case you need to hear it - wanting to leave is enough.
posted by fox problems at 6:28 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]

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